Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Mass Hesteria 2: Nowhere to hide

It's looking increasingly likely that the RBS "computer glitch" was actually a common-or-garden human error, as per usual, and specifically a failure of change control. Banks don't tend to use beta software, so it's unlikely the direct cause of this was a problem in a CA-7 patch. The length of time taken to resolve the issue (they've been knife-and-forking it for a week now) also supports the suspicion that the rollback plan failed last Tuesday. I think it safe to assume that they had a rollback plan, but that it was probably compromised by human error. What they clearly did not have was an effective contingency plan for such a failure. This is more surprising, given that their computing system is clearly well-established. All the actions and announcements to date look like they're working it out as they go along, so their crisis management is perhaps not up to snuff either.

A suggestion being made (though with only limited circumstantial evidence as yet), is that the human error occurred in a outsourced team in India. There is no secret that outsourcing increases risk where management mistakes a process requiring tacit knowledge for a commodity that can be contracted out for the lowest price. Given the criticality of the overnight batch jobs that apply the day's transactions to customer accounts, I'd be surprised if RBS did not control this through an inhouse operations team. I'd also be surprised if their change control team wasn't inhouse. It is more likely that the software maintenance team are outsourced, but this in turn implies loose control if a failed software release caused the job schedule to be trashed.

Unless you have a particular fascination with job-scheduling software (I'm really not that sad) then you probably don't think there is much to learn from this fiasco, though there is much incidental schadenfreude to enjoy in the spectacle of RBS chief Stephen Hester admitting he doesn't really know what is going on: "It is like, I don't know, the landing path at Heathrow or something, once you get out of sequences it takes some time to get back into sequence even if the original fault is put right".  Hester turned down his £1m bonus for 2011 earlier this year following outrage that a taxpayer-owned entity should be continuing with such bonuses when the bank was losing money (£2bn in the year) and laying off thousands of staff. I don't fancy his chances of getting a bonus for 2012 now.

As I mentioned at the time, there is no reason to believe that Hester is any more aware of the real risks within the banking group he manages than his predecessor Fred Goodwin. Apparently, risk and control is one of the 5 key performance dimensions used to determine his bonus, which is what you would expect of a bank, though I'm sure it was there in Goodwin's day too. If the "drains up" review he has proposed shows that the contingency plan was inadequate, then he really has nowhere to hide. The really toxic revelation though would be evidence that the "financial results" performance dimension had come into conflict with the risk and control dimension. If the human error was a consequence of outsourcing, and thus UK redundancies, then Hester will be lucky to keep his job.

Friday, 22 June 2012

The great tax dodge

David Cameron's comments on Jimmy Carr are problematic for two reasons, over and above the charge of hypocrisy. First, they focus the issue of tax avoidance on individuals, and specifically rich celebrities. Second, they suggest that tax avoidance is a moral issue. Both are misleading.

We haven't yet got to the point where the use of a tax avoidance scheme is seen as a must-have celebrity accoutrement, but we're not far off it. Having sat in on a pitch a few years ago by someone flogging the latest in a long line of UK film investment schemes (my presence was an oversight), I can vouch that the high-net-worth-individuals who are the target for this tax dodge get a hard-on simply at the thought that they could be "playas".

The humdrum reality is that the most egregious tax dodging (i.e. avoidance and evasion as a percentage of the potential take) is undertaken by big business. This reflects the fact that they have a lot of opportunity, dedicated corporate tax lawyers, and leverage with governments. The significance of the "deals" done by HMRC with the likes of Vodafone and Goldman Sachs was not the suggestion of corruption or leniency but the fact that big business considers its tax payments to be a matter for negotiation. HMRC colludes with this, partly because it lacks the resources to vigorously pursue maximum tax receipts, and is consequently happy to settle for half a loaf. Compare and contrast its diligence in respect of VAT fiddles.

The super-rich are certainly no slouches when it comes to tax dodging, as Philip Green and others have shown, however their unwillingness to pay tax is nothing new. What is relatively new is the wider collapse in tax morale over the last 30 years. Avoidance has spread from an elite to a large swath of the professional middle class, driven in part by privatisation and the growth in self-employment. Outsourcing and casualisation have depressed incomes for the working class. For the middle class, they have allowed incomes to be maintained (and even grown) by translating the reduction in employer costs into reduced tax revenue. Even those nice doctors are at it.

A number of right-wing commentators have already chided Cameron for introducing morality into the discussion. This is partly an ideological distaste for government commenting on private behaviour, but it is also a desire to advance the merits of a flat-tax, which would supposedly reduce the incentive for avoidance. In practice, a flat-tax is a form of avoidance in that it shifts the burden from the wealthy to the poor. It's worth remembering what "avoidance" means. If one group in society avoids tax, rates are simply increased elsewhere to make up the difference. The government still needs to achieve a set level of revenue to pay its bills. If you dodge the bullet, someone else ends up getting shot. This inevitably biases collection towards those taxes that are harder to avoid, such as VAT and excise, which means the tax burden disproportionately falls on the poorest, i.e. those with the least ability to avoid tax or to negotiate rebates with government.

The real reason why morality is not the issue is because tax avoidance is primarily the consequence of the policies of the state, not the behaviour of the individual. Evasion is an issue of public morality because you are breaking a law that encodes society's view on what is good and bad. Avoidance breaks no laws, rather it takes advantage of the system for private benefit. Tax avoidance is therefore a form of privilege. Jimmy Carr cannot have been unaware of that.

The history of tax is obviously political. The choices of what to tax reflect class interests. Up until the 17th century tax was applied arbitrarily and collected haphazardly. Its control by the Crown, and the frequent abuses occasioned by tax-farming (the privatisation of tax collection in return for an up-front fee), were factors in the buildup to the Civil War. The formation of the Inland Revenue in 1665 and the institution of a proper land tax in 1692 were key victories for the Parliamentary/Whig cause.

The increasing use of customs and excise to raise revenue thereafter, as well as more imaginative schemes such as the window tax, marked a reaction by the landed interest to push the tax burden onto the bourgeoisie. The prevalence of smuggling in the 18th century reflected the growth of these revenue streams, while the romantic celebration of smugglers reflected the unpopularity of what was seen as a drag on trade. It also led to that unfortunate business in Boston harbour.

The introduction of income tax during the Napoleonic Wars was essentially an uneasy truce between Whig and Tory. Neither liked it, but the alternative was an increase in tax on either trade or land. In the modern era, the free-trade influence of the EEC/EU and the WTO has led to further reductions in tariffs, while land tax disappeared altogether in 1963. We now predominantly rely on consumption taxes (i.e. VAT and various excise duties) and income tax (including national insurance). The former is regressive and hard to avoid. The latter is usually progressive but relatively easy to avoid, to a degree

Probably the biggest change in our policies on tax however has been development of the offshore tax industry since the 1970s. Though this operates through tax havens such as the Channel Isles and Bermuda, the heart of the operation is London. Successive UK governments have supported and privileged it as part of the Faustian pact with The City. The real hypocrisy of Cameron is not that he isn't criticising Tory-voting Gary Barlow, or even that his own father exploited offshore tax havens, but that he is the Prime Minister of a tax haven himself.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Technology crosses the line

The Ukrainian goal that wasn't awarded is being held up as evidence that UEFA's preferred 5 official solution should be shelved in place of the goal-line technology already favoured by FIFA. How could the extra official miss the fact that the ball had wholly crossed the line? Perhaps he was distracted by John Terry's balletic manoeuvre, fearing/hoping he might do himself an injury.

What this highlights is that the officials, including the one in the middle, aren't certain what is going on most of the time. The pace of the game is so fast that an involuntary blink of the eye, or being 6 inches out of optimum position, can be enough to miss a crucial moment. Even when you see something, the limited time and angle can cause you to misinterpret it. You are never, ever going to be as authoritative as Andy Townsend, which is a sobering thought. (That said, at least you won't make as many mistakes as Clive Tyldesley: "it's all square in the other match, where Sweden lead France by a goal to nil").

What TV viewers often forget, as a player dramatically hurls himself to the ground, is that this does not appear so obviously staged when viewed in real-time and at a distance. It's routine for a live spectator to say "I'd like to see that again on Match of the Day" when a penalty is given or denied. Players emphasise fouls because they fear the officials will otherwise miss them. It's like Kabuki, a form of gestural theatre, where actions must speak louder than words.

The consequence is that referees and their assistants rely on a mixture of hunches and probabilistic logic to make key decisions. In recent years I've occasionally run the line for my son's team. Despite being an experienced (if limited) player and spectator, trying to spot offside even with the sedate pace of half-interested boys on a cold day is a challenge. Mentally flipping a coin is not unknown.

Inevitably, this leads to drawing inferences from a player's prior behaviour during a game, so lots of early diving usually gets its "reward" when a legitimate penalty is denied. It can also lead to subconscious expectations based on reputation, notably with card-magnets like Joey Barton. This in turn can be biased by prejudice, as players are assumed to exhibit national characteristics. Thus in the coming quarter-final clash, England's players will be watched for over-zealous, scything tackles, while Italy will be watched for shirt-tugging and sneaky ankle-taps.

Once goal-line technology is introduced, it's hard to see the line being drawn there. The ability to check on a replay whether a foul was inside or outside the penalty area would be an obvious next step. Ultimately, the demand for better refereeing won't go away until they become robots, perhaps androids modelled on Pierluigi Collina.

As England fans are suddenly getting excited (the "footballing gods are smiling", according to Adrian Chiles), you can expect the next game to be a disaster. I'm going for 1-1 at full-time and Ashley Young to miss the crucial penalty.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The search for meaning

A few weeks ago Google launched its "Knowledge Graph" product on the .com site. For certain search terms you now get a synopsis of curated information, including related topics. It is probably the closest thing yet to a common application of the long-heralded semantic web, leaving aside more specialised tools like Wolfram Alpha.

The result is modest. The underlying ontology is limited to well understood entities such as people and places where relationships are straightforward to define. Search for "Ridley Scott" and you are told that "people also search for" Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender (from Prometheus), but not Harvey Keitel and David Carradine (from The Duellists). In other words, the superficial hive mind familiar from Amazon is at work.

Tim Berners-Lee's vision of machine-readable metadata that would make the Web more intelligent was an important meme that helped fuel the techno-utopianism of the last decade. It also produced a backlash against techno-hubris and a warning that data about data was likely to be of no better quality that the data itself. The semantic web is an elitist ideal. It assumes that a software agent can shield you from the stupidity of the masses and winnow quality from the chaff. The irony is that those sections of the web that most benefit from metadata are the ones that want to provide fine-grained crap, such as shopping, porn and gossip. The big evolution in metadata has been the development of dynamic tagging, the folksonomies of trending hashtags. This is hardly an example of the superior intelligence envisaged, #epicfail.

Funnily enough, the imagined scenario Berners-Lee and his co-authors used to introduce the concept back in 2001 includes not only "semantic web agents" but phones that could control other devices and handheld browsers. In the event, it is these incidental props that have proved more significant, both technically and culturally. Google's Knowledge Graph looks like it has been designed as an app for a smartphone display.

I was reminded of the unpredictability of technology when I saw Prometheus recently and followed it by re-watching Alien and Aliens in strict chronological plot order (I was indulging my inner nerd). The latest film is a prequel, but is not too bothered with the continuity of technology or social mores (only one bad boy is allowed a crafty fag, despite most of the crew in Alien puffing away merrily). It also has a more profound mission objective, the search for the meaning of life, whereas the earlier (that is later) episodes were concerned with extracting minerals or blowing the crap out of the alien brood.

Like most modern SF films the ship is awash with transparent touch displays. The attraction for film-makers is that these provide great shots, with the camera able to look at the actor's pensive face through the display of illegible backward writing. In practice this technology would be pure ostentation and would probably give you a migraine. The one time a transparent 3D display made some sense was when they mapped the internal structure of the alien installation. In Aliens they had 2D plans displayed on a touch-controlled light table. This was pretty funky back in the 80s, though it turned out to be a commercial damp squib when Microsoft finally released their Surface tabletop computer in 2007.

The mining ship in Alien was called Nostromo, a reference to Joseph Conrad's 1904 novel about revolution in a fictional South American state. That centred on a silver mine, whose product leads to corruption and war. The escape shuttle in Alien is called Narcissus, a reference to Conrad's Nigger of the Narcissus, a book about the tension between human sympathy and order (and loyalty to the owner's purpose) on a ship beset by storms. There are some interesting parallels here, though it's also possible that Ridley Scott chose these names simply because he liked Conrad, having previously filmed one of his short stories as The Duellists.

Aliens, directed by James Cameron, kept the references going by naming the main ship the Sulaco, after the fictional town in the novel Nostromo. In Prometheus, the Conradian reference is more oblique. The android David watches David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia while the human crew are in suspended animation. Lean had planned to film Nostromo shortly before his death, and his lead in Lawrence, Peter O'Toole, also starred in a version of Conrad's Lord Jim.

What these subtle and ambiguous references show is that the embodiment of concepts in symbols, and the inter-relationship and harmony of different symbols, is not something that follows obvious and logical rules. I was always sceptical about the semantic web because it seemed to me that transferring the burden of intelligence from the user of data to the data itself was not only unfeasible but undesirable. Meaning is elusive and contingent, a bit like Jonesy the cat.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Government strengthens employer subsidy

That nice man, Ian Duncan-Smith, has announced government plans to withhold working tax credits from low-paid workers who go on strike. He says: "It is totally wrong that the current benefit system compensates workers and tops up their income when they go on strike. This is unfair to taxpayers and creates perverse incentives."

The implication is that the low-paid are encouraged to withdraw their labour because there is no financial downside. "Striking is a choice, and in future benefit claimants will have to pay the price for that choice, as under universal credit, we no longer will." There is, of course, absolutely no evidence that the low-paid are strike-happy. The loss of earnings while on strike will be greater than the top-ups in almost all cases, so the claim that there is an incentive is specious. Industrial action has always been more prevalent among better-paid, skilled workers who tend to be more unionised and less easily replaceable. The low-paid are often the most reluctant to strike as they have little leverage and no financial resilience.

The ideological bent of this announcement is indicated by the use of the terms "incentive" and "choice". IDS's contention that strikers will have to "pay the price for that choice" paints them as rational actors, weighing up the marginal utility of strike action in much the same way that they would weigh up the purchase of a new pair of shoes. This ignores the reality that most strike action is defensive and reactive in nature, prompted by employer initiatives such as cuts in real wages and lay-offs. Workers don't go on strike because they're bored.

Working tax credits exist to top up the wages of the low-paid who would otherwise be in working poverty. They have the effect of being a "perverse incentive" for employers to pay close to the minimum wage for low-skill jobs, as they know the state will make up the difference between that and a living wage. The state is thereby "topping up" the income of the employer every working day. They also perversely insulate employers from the effects of low productivity, which means they effectively undermine capital investment. Falling productivity is offset by falling real wages, which are in turn subsidised by tax credits.

The Tory proposal is not going to lead to mass starvation. The tax credit top-ups are small beer in relative terms and the number of low-paid workers that will be affected (and can afford to strike) is tiny. The significance is the ideological message that underpins this "mean-spirited" gesture. This is part of the wider programme to shift welfare from universal entitlement (a right) to personal eligibility (a reciprocal obligation).

As we saw with the threat of benefit withdrawal for the unemployed who refused unpaid work experience, the approach is inevitably prescriptive: thou shalt and thou shalt not. Your behaviour is the issue, not the lack of jobs or the prevalence of low pay. We already know the Mandatory Work Activity programme doesn't actually work, in terms of getting people into jobs, but this isn't going to cause a rethink. This latest initiative doesn't even bother to claim a desirable outcome for the affected. The ostensible goal is to protect the interests of taxpayers, a body that IDS seems to assume does not include workers on low pay.

The irony is that a party that has traditionally privileged the private over the public has found itself advocating increasing scrutiny of, and interference in, the private lives of the people. Your demand on the public purse will be judged as being worthy or unworthy based on your private behaviour, not on your social circumstances. Withdrawing your labour, which is a private contractual dispute with your employer, will result in a public penalty.

There is an argument to be made that the state should never subsidise employment, that it should always allow the labour market to achieve equilibrium, but this means it shouldn't pay working tax credits or similar subsidies under any circumstances, nor should it countenance a minimum wage. The Tories are not proposing this yet, but that leaves them arguing a case that is hypocritical. Employers who pay crap wages will continue to be subsidised, and now their employees are further discouraged from striking over pay. Meanwhile the private behaviour of the unemployed and low-paid will be subject to ever more humiliating inspection.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Unleash the O'Walcott

And so New Ireland continue to prosper, besting the mighty, bearded Swedes (well, Olof Mellberg) with three fine goals from Andy Carroll, The O'Walcott and Danny "boy" Wellbeck. It's like Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf all over again. That Zlatan Ibrahimovic would look just dandy in a wolf-trimmed cloak with a raven on his shoulder, sneering as a scampering Seb Larsson offered up the mead horn.

Given the number of current and former EPL players on the pitch, not to mention the dodgy level of technique of what are two ordinary sides even by their own standards, the game was unsurprisingly one long string of errors: misplaced passes, blind-alley runs, falling over when tackled. But we shouldn't just focus on Ashley Young and James Milner. The defending by both teams was relegation quality.

With the final round of group games starting today, now is a good time to review progress in Rob Baillie's fine online prediction game. Yesterday was particularly good to me as I'd predicted 0-2 for Ukraine-France and 1-3 for Sweden-England, thus netting 16 out of a possible 20 points. I'm currently in 2nd place out of a field of 74, which means this is probably as high as I'll get and the only way now is down. Had it not been for Mellberg's second goal I might have gone top. Naturally I blame John Terry, who looks increasingly poor (seeing the languid Ibrahimovic skin him was hilarious).

My "system" to date is based on three simple principles (in addition to a lot of luck):
  1. I made all my predictions for the group stage games in one go, ahead of the tournament. I suspect some people changed theirs after the first round of games. The old pub-quiz maxim applies here: "go with your first answer".
  2. I (largely) ignored recent form and went with the historical record between the teams. This psychological precedent tends to come to the fore in tournaments. For example, Germany-Holland games are usually decided by a single goal.
  3. I assumed the tired old cliches would hold good, thus the opening game would be a low-scoring draw, England would do enough to make the third game matter (they can still blow it), Italy would dice with death, and Germany would get better by the game.
I have no cunning plan once we get to the knockout stage, as chance and injuries start to affect the outcome more. I may need to sacrifice a chicken and study its entrails. Ideally I'd like to sacrifice John Terry.

Footballistically speaking, Spain, Germany and Russia all look good bets for the last four, but the final shuffling of the pack this coming week could throw up some tricky quarter-finals. Holland still have an outside chance, and France look like they can improve. Assuming they don't self-destruct against Ukraine, England will probably lose to Spain in the first knockout match. Their best hope is for France to drop points against Sweden and for Italy to fail to beat Ireland, which could set up a tie with a beatable Croatia. Bilic & co would certainly be wary of Theo.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Euro crisis deepens

Ireland are now out of the European Championships. Defeat against Spain was always likely, but the margin of 4 goals has surprised some, despite the boys in green shipping 3 against Croatia. In truth, Ireland were always likely to be found out come the tournament. Most of their players are second division in terms of quality, and the better ones are past their best. Richard Dunne against Iniesta is always going to look like an encounter between a bull and a matador, and we know how that usually turns out.

Ireland's record in qualifying is a little misleading. The heroic goalless draw in Moscow is cited as the key game, but in fact it was close victories over Armenia (1-0 and 2-1) that secured the qualifying spot. Not only were the matches generally tight (they only managed an aggregate 5-1 over two games against Andorra), but you need to factor in the state of the pitch, which has often been Ireland's 12th man. The Spanish complained about the Gdansk pitch after their draw with Italy, and while I don't know if any action was taken, the surface looked a lot slicker last night, hence the repeated slips by Irish players. The pitch in Poznan against Croatia also looked decent.

Ireland did well to qualify. The fans knew that and enjoyed the craic while it lasted. Next time they really ought to invest in a sack of moles and smuggle them in under their leprechaun hats. The 2014 World Cup qualifying group looks a shoe-in for Germany, leaving Ireland to struggle with Sweden and Austria for a play-off place. Should they squeak through, they'll be forced to play on a close-mown pitch under the Brazilian sun. About as far from a wet cow field as you can get.

Thoughts now turn to the new Ireland, i.e. England. The word-up is that Andy Carroll is going to lead the attack, though the rumour that he'll be dressed as a crusader carrying a battering ram is probably wide of the mark. Given how poor the Swedish defence looked against the famously slow Shevchencko, I have a feeling that Roy's back-to-basics plan may actually work. The key will be the quality of the crosses. Who knows, Stewart Downing may get his first assist of the season.

On the Arsenal front, it occurred to me watching Germany the other night that Podolski may have been signed as the new Ljungberg. Though he's been quiet so far, he covers a lot of ground and looks to make the diagonal runs into the box that were the trademark of the occasionally red-haired Swede. RvP's ability to pick out a pass in the area is well known, so the German may be earmarked for a wide berth on the left. Now we just need a new Ray Parlour.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Big data means big money

The Draft Communications Data Bill has been greeted as a charter for "online snooping" by its critics, who have in their turn been accused by Theresa May, the Home Secretary, of being "conspiracy theorists", though she didn't specify which theory she had in mind. Perhaps a cross between The Matrix and the Illuminati.

The Web is now 20 years old (measured from Mosaic, the first GUI browser) but lawyers are still trying to get their heads around it. The draft bill is an open admission that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) of 2000, which also caused a "snooping" furore, was inadequate. The preamble to the new bill states:

Communications technologies and services are changing fast with more communications taking place on the internet using a wider range of services, including voice over internet, online gaming and instant messaging. Communications data from these technologies is not as accessible as data from older communications systems like ‘fixed line’ telephones. Although some internet data is already stored by communication service providers, other data is neither generated nor obtained because providers have no business need for it.

The bill centres on communications data, which is more properly defined as meta-data. In other words, who called whom when, rather than the content of the conversation. Back in the day, this meant data on calls made between phone numbers. In the case of the Internet, this means IP addresses, URLs, message headers etc. The purpose is to establish relationships - who is consorting with whom. This can provide sufficient justification for a more intrusive investigation, such as a wire-tap or the handing-over of emails, to be sanctioned by a warrant.

A real concern should be whether the pattern of relationships displayed by Internet data means the same as it would in the case of telephone data. In other words, are we simply taking an existing paradigm forward unthinkingly? Phone calls generally do reveal "known associates", but it's less obvious that tweets or blog comments do the same.

A lot of random stuff happens online, largely because you are following a chain of hyperlinks rather than making a single point-to-point connection. Apparently deliberate activity is effectively directed by the content rather than by you, and that's without considering automated pop-ups. This means a huge volume of insignificant noise. While a lot of this can be filtered out, there are likely to be many more false positives compared to telephone data where wrong numbers are the only real issue.

The other side of this is shown by the Google Street View brouhaha, where the commercial desire to record wi-fi hotspots resulted in scanning unencrypted transient data. This is held up by some as evidence that Google may really be evil at heart, or is even used as a roundabout defence of press phone-hacking. The correct reading is that the world is awash in data and most people are unaware that what they think is private is actually public. Boundary issues like this, where companies or governments blunder over the line, will become more common. As ever, cock-up is more prevalent than conspiracy.

The last sentence in the above preamble is interesting. Communication service providers (e.g. ISPs) may have "no business need" for data on who consorts with whom but application service providers (e.g. Facebook) certainly do. This however falls into the realm of content as the relationships have been defined by the user rather than being an inference from communication. The draft bill is assuming that technology will allow the meta-data and content to be separated, though the distinction is increasingly blurred. Is a "like" content or communications data?

The planned data harvesting and analysis infrastructure is expected to cost £1.8bn over 10 years. The obvious concern is the cost, which will undoubtedly prove an underestimate - it's a government IT project, after all. A greater concern should be the assumption that a system can built now in confident anticipation of the service landscape in 2023. The risk is that the cost balloons while the solution fails to keep pace with evolving technology. We end up with an expensive white elephant.

In practice the world of digital communications is too extensive and volatile for any massive surveillance infrastructure to be very effective, despite the claims being made now for "big data". The cheap availability of communication tools and media is so central to the modern economy that this is unlikely to change, and that in turn means there will always be easy ways to circumvent surveillance. In this respect both Theresa May and many of her critics are victims of the same anachronistic delusion, applying the "Orwellian" paradigm to a post-Orwellian world.

Perhaps this is deliberate. Perhaps the real purpose of all this talk of the competing needs of counter-terrorism and privacy is to distract from a project that will transfer billions of pounds of public money to consultancies, systems providers and network operators, at a time when we're meant to be cutting our cloth. Now that's a credible conspiracy theory.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Arshavin: like a new signing

Patrice Evra reckons England have morphed into Chelsea. This is profoundly wrong. England are the new Ireland: disciplined, hard to beat, lacking flair. Meanwhile Ireland appear to have turned into Celtic, struggling in the Europa League on a Thursday night.

Now that the first round of games has finished, the smart money is moving towards Russia. Apart from being a good team, they have the advantage of being in an otherwise weak group. Assuming they go through as winners of Group A, they'll probably face either Holland or Portugal as the runners-up to Germany in Group B. Victory would set them up for a likely semi-final against Spain in Donetsk, which is practically home territory for the Russians.

Italy look good enough to join Spain in escaping Group C, so long as they don't lose to Croatia on Thursday. Group D looks the most unpredictable. A win for any team on Friday is likely to be crucial. In other words, if one of England or France fail to win, then they may well be facing an early return home.

For an Arsenal fan, the performances have been mixed. Szczesny and RvP won't he happy so far, and the young Pole may worry he'll not get another chance this tournament. Arshavin has predictably found his mojo once more while Rosicky has looked dangerous in flashes. The Ox has looked capable of making a difference, while still being callow and positionally suspect at times. Bendtner looks like a Sunderland player.

The predicted racism has been muted so far. Tournament crowds tend to be better-behaved than hardcore fans (i.e. more middle class), so extrapolating from ultras at a league match was always questionable. It should also be borne in mind that the tournament serves up plenty of nation-defining rivalries (I'm watching Poland vs Russia as I write this), so chucking bananas is likely to be seen as a bit infra dig. Let's hope it stays that way. The acid test will come if a black English player scores the goal that puts Ukraine out.

Tomorrow's Holland-Germany game looks like it could be a cracker.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Embarrassing dad

There was a hilarious quote yesterday from Stanley Johnson, the bonkers father of the buffoonish Mayor of London.

"Britain's population should be 10-15 million people. That would do us splendidly. It's a nonsense that we are confronted with 70 million people. But we have been shunted aside by the rise of liberal correctness. You cannot talk about [population] now without being accused of being anti-feminist or a racist. The government has to start taking immigration seriously. If you look at the rise of Britain's population you see a really serious differential in the fertility of the immigrant as opposed to that of the [indigenous] population."

Britain's population was between 10 and 15 million during the first half of the 19th century. It was around 14 million in 1832. I'm assuming this is the sort of halcyon era Stanley is harking back to. That year saw the Great Reform Act, when the vote was extended to 1 in 6 of adult males (5% of the population). Splendid indeed.

I love the suggestion that the growth of the population from 14 to 62 million now (I'm not sure where he has conjured the figure of 70 from) is the result of political correctness. I'd always thought it had something to do with the birth rate and increased longevity. Given that the dread PC (in the sense Stanley uses it) was only invented in the 1990s, this implies a lot of furious population growth in recent years.

Clearly the loon is banging on about immigration. Given that the population was 50 million in 1950, at the start of the period of large-scale immigration, the lion's share of responsibility for the growth beyond his ideal must be taken by the indigenous. Stanley Johnson is the father of six.

I'd hazard a guess that Stanley is not just keen to see the back of our immigrant communities, but also of most of the working class and pretty much everyone in those areas of the country (i.e. outside of London) whose landscapes he would like to enjoy uninterrupted. That would reduce the headcount to between 10 and 15 million. Lovely.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Keith Vaz droning on

Barack Obama's increasing reliance on the use of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan is raising eyebrows, though it's fair to say that the concern has been relatively muted until recently. Some of this is because there is a cross-party consensus in the US on taking out the bad guys before they become a threat. State-sponsored assassination is, of course, illegal under international law, but clever lawyers (of which Obama is one) are able to sidestep this procedural challenge quite easily.

The political investment in "surgical strike" technology is nothing new. The same claims of effectiveness (we land a knockout blow) and efficiency (without the need for ground troops) have been made since the RAF bombed Iraq in the 1920s (a model that led directly to the Blitz and Dresden, which were somewhat less surgical). Remote killing through precision-bombing and smart missiles has been a growing feature of conflicts since WW2, as boots on the ground have proven ineffective and inefficient in asymmetric conflicts such as Vietnam and Afghanistan. The "clean kill" promise of this technology has sometimes been important in building the justification for conflict, and as the centrepiece of the psychological campaign (e.g. "shock and awe" in Iraq). There are grounds to believe that the apparent low-risk attractions of this strategy are making armed intervention more likely, such as in Libya.

The military-industrial complex has been happy to move from costly contractors in Baghdad to even more costly drones operated out of Nevada, with the market for this technology expected to double over the decade. The claims that drones minimise collateral damage should be treated with scepticism. Not only is it true that all wars are largely a series of murderous accidents, but "intelligence-led" kill-lists are vulnerable to local spotters fingering innocent targets in return for a fat finder's fee. We've added a free market twist to the bureaucratic nightmare of totalitarianism: your name is on the list so you must be guilty.

What we're seeing under Obama may be the evolution of drones from a purely military option to a foreign-policy tool for disciplining recalcitrant countries with whom the US isn't even formally in conflict. Should Pakistan reopen the supply routes to Afghanistan, you can expect drone strikes in Waziristan to drop off.

It seems odd that at such a time Keith Vaz, the Grand Poobah of the Home Affairs Select Committee, is calling for restrictions on "aggressive first-person shooter video games". This follows Anders Breivik's admission that he used Call of Duty as a form of training, which strikes me simply as more evidence that he is a fantasist. Vaz seems less worried about Breivik's obsession with World of Warcraft, perhaps calculating that banning Orcs might be going too far. The case against COD has been reinforced by claims that Mohammed Merah, the self-styled jihadi of Toulouse, was also a heavy user, presumably when he wasn't reading the Koran or watching The Simpsons. Vaz's intervention is typical of the self-publicising nonsense that recently led him to invite Russell Brand to share his wisdom on drugs with the Committee.

The link between Keith Vaz and Barack Obama (not a phrase often employed) concerns desensitisation. Shoot-em-ups do not cause mild-mannered people to turn into murderers, but the method of killing at a remove, mediated by a screen and a joystick, may well make killing easier in real life. Soldiers have to be trained to kill through repetitive drill and the depersonalisation of the enemy because the natural instinct of all of us (bar the small minority of functioning psychopaths) is to shoot in the air or soften the blow. Even the most pacific among us can happily kill countless opponents in COD because we know it isn't real. The question is, how real does it feel for a drone operator?

The ultimate desensitisation occurs when your action is so far removed from its consequences that your intellectual and emotional engagement is limited solely to the dynamics of the action itself. This is one of the fundamental criticisms of the market and the "fiction" of money. Derivatives and futures are extreme examples of this, where the trade is divorced from the notional commodity. I was reminded of this watching Trading Places again recently, where the coup to corner the frozen orange juice market depends on insider information from actual producers. It was barely credible in the 1980s and is amusingly quaint now, like Jamie Lee-Curtis's happy hooker.

There is a strange convergence here. Financial dealers have deserted the whites-of-their-eyes trading floors to sit in front of screens on which stylised indicators plot the movements of abstract entities such as shares and derivatives. Meanwhile the desktop warriors in suburban Virginia work through their to-do lists, zapping the fuzzily rendered vehicles and buildings that constitute the manifestations of the known threat. There'll shortly be an app for that.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The German question

George Soros's recent speech in Italy on the Eurozone crisis has produced a number of eye-catching headlines, notably "Three months to save the Euro". Quite a few people have also picked up on his interpretation of the EU's growth as a form of bubble, and as a "phantastic object" in the sense of something highly desirable and yet ultimately unreal. Soros has also provided a colourful and paradoxical warning about where German caution will lead:

So Germany is likely to do what is necessary to preserve the euro – but nothing more. That would result in a eurozone dominated by Germany in which the divergence between the creditor and debtor countries would continue to widen and the periphery would turn into permanently depressed areas in need of constant transfer of payments. That would turn the European Union into something very different from what it was when it was a “fantastic object” that fired peoples imagination. It would be a German empire with the periphery as the hinterland.

This is entertaining stuff, but it should raise a few questions.

In what sense is the EU a "phantastic object"? In Freudian psychoanalysis, an object is a mental representation. It isn't a real thing, but a symbol of that thing. The "phantasy" implies that this representation relates to unconscious desires that stem from early (i.e. childhood) development. In a looser sense, the object is something whose acquisition we believe will satisfy our profound desires, but which will inevitably disappoint because our expectations will always exceed the real thing that the object represents. A crush, in other words.

I think this is suspect because it implies that the EU project, which has historically often been termed a "dream", has here been turned into a hopeless love, an "infatuation" almost. While there may be some ardent Europhiles for whom the word "love" is appropriate, this hardly describes the hard-nosed, pragmatic view of the mass of Europe's peoples. The EU promised peace and prosperity, which were quite realistic desires. They have also been largely fulfilled. The Euro may prove to have been a mistake (at least as designed), and the resolution of the current crisis may have unintended political consequences, but I don't think this relegates the EU as a whole to the realm of the fantastic.

What is meant by a German empire? In the traditional sense, i.e. late 19th century imperialism, we know that what the Kaiser & co sought was a "place in the sun", in other words colonies around the world. Under the Third Reich, the focus for imperial ambition was the East up to the Urals. The rest of Europe was largely ignored by the Germans, other than when it posed a security threat, and came to be treated primarily as a source of first material and then labour. The New Order was more an enthusiasm of the far right in France and Benelux than the Germans themselves. (Mark Mazower's Hitler's Empire provides an excellent history of this).

Clearly, Germany is not about to revive such crude ambitions. Its economy depends on customers in the rest of Europe, not systematic pillage. If by "empire" Soros simply means that Germany will be the dominant nation in Europe, then this has been the case for centuries, even when it was fragmented under the Holy Roman Empire. The immediate post-WW2 period allowed this geopolitical fact to be pushed to the background, and for France to claim equal billing, but since reunification there has been no doubt who the 800-lb gorilla is.

Is the European periphery necessarily a German hinterland? The South of Europe has always been at a disadvantage to the North. For all the benefits that the Mediterranean brings, the coastal lands of the South are too dominated by barren mountains, limiting agriculture and impeding communications. In contrast, the flat alluvial plains of Northern Europe have always been more productive.

Ireland remains an interesting anomaly here. Geographically of the North, yet exhibiting all the features of a Mediterranean economy. It is in fact the most peripheral country in the EU and owed much of its growth since the 80s to parasitical "regulatory arbitrage" (i.e. lower corporation tax to attract foreign companies, particularly US ones, who wanted access to the EU). The UK avoids being peripheral simply because of the dominance of London, another essentially parasitical form. The hinterland starts beyond a line drawn from London, through Paris, Lyon, Bologna, Vienna, Prague and Berlin.

The reality is that the heart of Europe will always be round about Frankfurt. That's a fact of geography rather than a deliberate political choice, just as the heart of Brazil is Sao Paulo rather than Brasilia. The politics of Europe just reflects this material reality. The Eurozone crisis cannot change this, though it may bring that material reality more to the fore. To that extent Soros may be right to suggest that we are losing our fantastical illusions about Europe.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The woman in the iron mask

As a republican I have no time for the dull cypher that sits on the throne, let alone the gobshite who's next in line, but I do take the monarchy itself seriously, rather than patronising it as an eccentric but lovable remnant.

Coverage of the Jubilee has ranged from the predictably sycophantic to grudging but respectful admiration from self-declared anti-monarchists who seem to be betting on the future accession of Charles finally swinging the public mood. If you're a republican you're against monarchy as an institution, not against particular people, so the case should be made more forcefully now. Equally, those monarchists who hope that a generation will be skipped and William and Kate will ascend after the old queen's death seem to think it's a popularity contest, rather than the lottery of heredity, though to be fair that attitude has been around since the Stuarts.

Constitutional monarchy has always been a nonsense, but a necessary fiction once the divine right of kings was forcefully disproved by Charles I's beheading. If the monarch is not a sacred being then there is no justification for a monarch, in the sense of a single person selected by birth or some unique sign. The executive powers of the monarch are a figment and the ceremonial duties demand no competence beyond keeping awake.

Monarchists have of late taken to the "President Blair" defence, the suggestion being that the appointment of a venal political hack risks saddling us with a liability along the lines of Kurt Waldheim or Christian Wulff, but this misses the point that such embarrassments are fleeting and easily resolved. You just sack them. There's no need for a constitutional crisis, let alone a beheading.

The real assumption behind this argument is that if you don't have a monarch you must have a president. In France and the USA the president is an elected politician. The duties of head of state are just tacked on. In Ireland the president is an elected figurehead, devoid of power, so the presidential election is little more than a popularity contest. In Britain we'd probably elect Stephen Fry, not Tony Blair.

But the argument that we need a national figurehead of any sort is specious. We already have a single office that formally represents the nation independent of the government, namely the Speaker. While Tories would no doubt be apoplectic at the thought of John Bercow hosting state banquets, it's just a job, and not a demanding one at that, and the fella already seems comfortable wearing outlandish headdress.

When talk turns to the more nebulous concept of the monarch embodying the spirit of the nation, then you know you've moved beyond reason. In the patchwork of nations and identities that make up the UK, there is no single spirit, and certainly not one that is especially represented by a fabulously wealthy OAP. A problem of language is that it makes us assume we have more in common with our fellow monoglots, whereas we actually have more in common with others of a similar socio-economic standing in other countries. An English lawyer in London shares more of a culture with a French lawyer in Paris than she does with a labourer in Dundee.

As globalisation makes a mockery of national identity, and as the dominance of London loosens the ties of the United Kingdom, the popularity of the Queen surely reflects a nostalgia for an imagined past when we really were all in it together. She is a blank canvas on which we project a better vision of ourselves. The monarch does nothing, can do nothing. The mystery at the heart of royalty is a vacuum of sense and purpose. The suggestion that the Prince of Wales is impatient to take over strikes me as dubious. A monarch cannot be opinionated, so there will be no tolerance of his chuntering about architecture or alternative medicine. Once the crown descends, intelligent life is extinguished.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Please turn off all devices

My thoughts turned over the week to email (sorting out the wife's new laptop) and text-messaging (the collected works of Jeremy Hunt). I was also struck by an article discussing the possible impact of the rumoured Facebook phone.

The Leveson enquiry has highlighted the pervasive use of text-messaging in government and lobbying circles, adding to the revelation last year that government advisers were using Gmail to conduct off-the-record conversations. These technologies compromise the democratic process by allowing politicians to side-step freedom of information obligations and bypass civil servants. The obvious lack of impartiality displayed by Jeremy Hunt would not have been seen in a minuted meeting.

There is unintentional humour in this as well. Not just the lack of familiarity with messaging conventions, such as Cameron's LOL fail, but the evidence that few politicians understand the technology and the vulnerabilities it entails. Stupidity aids accountability (you can bet that Jeremy Hunt won't be casually texting congrats to James Murdoch any time soon). There was also something amusing (in a stomach-turning way) in the chummy, arse-licking style of their messages.

The wider social role of a comms technology is not fully appreciated till it has passed its peak. I was reminded of this during the week by a discussion over why the The postman always rings twice (apparently it's when he needs a signature, such as for a telegram, whereas one ring means there's a letter on the mat) and the appearance of Saving Private Ryan (more telegrams) on TV.

It was only with the coming of the cyclops in the corner that cinema's social function was fully appreciated. During the middle of the 20th century, when most homes had too few rooms, cinema took on the role that cafes and pubs had provided in the 19th century: somewhere warm to go, somewhere to feel part of a group, somewhere to escape the tedium of family life. The raising of the legal age of drinking from 14 to 18 in the UK coincides with the spread of cinema in the 1920s.

It's hardly a novel observation that the selfishness that crept into western society in the 60s occured as the TV set became a common fixture. It wasn't just the advertising and the aspiration, but also the atomisation. This turning-in on oneself in the home was balanced by the role TV acquired as social glue, the "did you see?" conversational gambit. This was in turn undermined by the arrival of time-shifting VCRs and the proliferation of channels in the 80s. Perhaps in compensation, real-time event television seemed to become more important, such as key World Cup games and shared horrors such as 9/11.

The coming of email led to premature laments over the lost art of letter-writing (always a minority pastime), but most of the stylistic conventions of the letter were transferred straight to the new medium. Email killed post, not letters. An important new feature of email was cc and bcc, allowing a narrowcast to be opened up to a select distribution, so personal messages became more like memos and written language veered towards the functional and the abbreviated, IMHO. Inadvertent reply-alls were the chief unintended consequence of this, if you exclude spam. Meanwhile, much of the old impetus for discursive letter writing transferred to blogs.

SMS and the smartphone are now the major challenges to classic letter-writing as email and text gradually blend into a single medium delivered via an always-on device. Email on a PC will probably look quaint in 5 years time, like a dialup modem now. The use of a handheld encourages frequent short messages over anything more considered, preferably broadcasts. Both Twitter and Facebook want you to communicate with the widest possible group. With this polarisation between broadcast blogs and broadcast short messages, it looks like email will decline.

Perhaps the thing we'll miss most about email is the discrimination provided by the separation of to, cc and bcc. The problem with the future envisaged by Facebook and others is that the strength of a personalised online space is also a limitation. The provider has an interest in you congregating everyone you know in the one place, so maximising advertising/referral coverage. They don't want you creating multiple spaces to reflect your different interests. You are actively encouraged not to compartmentalise your online life. Also, your own virtual club, where you control the door policy, is nothing if not congenial, but this means you are not exposed to the wider world except insofar as it is mediated by your online friends. You lack the breadth of random stimuli and chance meetings that you get in "meatspace".

Paradoxically, many pubs and cafes now seek to attract custom by providing an environment in which you can create your own private bubble. Wi-fi is probably a good thing for a public space where you don't want to interact with others, such as the Tube, but it looks increasingly counter-productive in pubs. The coincidence of the banning of smoking with the arrival of free wi-fi swapped one anti-social activity for another.