Blog Like It’s 2007

What with all the North Korea excitement, I thought it might be time to check on what the US Navy’s aircraft carriers are up to. This is always a useful way to distinguish “loud media yelling” from “something that might actually happen”. This information is helpfully collated here, but is in no way secret. To appreciate it, it’s worth understanding that the carriers have a very well-defined operating cycle that is linked with all kinds of other industrial and career processes.

Roughly speaking, a carrier is expected to deploy for six months out of every 24 months. Out of that six months, a bit less than a month is spent on passage between the home port and the area of operations. To avoid a gap, this means that the relief has to sail a month ahead of time. About every five years, the ship undergoes a really massive three-year overhaul, known as a RCOH for Refuelling and Complex Overhaul, during which the nuclear reactor is shut down, maintained, and refuelled. Half-way between RCOHs there’s another, six-month drydocking.

This establishes a cycle of readiness states – the ship comes out of dockyard hands, completes sea trials, works up through various levels of training, receives and re-qualifies its air wing, trains as a unit with the air wing (called a COMPTUEX), trains as a unit with the wider task force (called a JTFEX), and finally deploys. Having come back, the ship is available as a reserve for a while before the inexorable timetable demands that major maintenance begins and renders her immobile.

It’s possible to put maintenance off, but this is borrowing from the future – one of the reasons why carrier availability was very low at the time of the 2006-2007 war scares was the massive surge deployment at the end of 2001 and its partial continuation through 2003. It’s also possible to bring it forward, but this is very, very expensive (the RCOH is itself a multi-billion dollar project. The price of admiralty is high) and is subject to critical path restrictions. If, for example, one ship is on the slipway, obviously you can’t put another ship there. More subtly, the short-supply tradespeople employed on one ship can’t get to the next one until they’re done, and expanding the workforce is a long-term project.

On the other side of the book, the USN tries to maintain three major requirements – a carrier in the Middle East, another in the Western Pacific, and a third in Japan, which is permanently based there. As there are ten carriers, this should be possible within a classic one-out-of-three rotation, but it’s quite a bit more complicated than that because of the possibility that the major maintenance periods may fall at the same time.

So what’s up at the moment? Stennis, Truman, Reagan, and Lincoln – i.e. 40% of the force – are all in deep maintenance periods of one kind or another. It’s important to note that Reagan is the carrier based in Japan and is therefore logically the first to respond to any crisis in North-Eastern Asia. Her maintenance phase, or Selective Restricted Availability, was planned for four months from the 10th of January, so the fact she’s still tied to the pier may mean the work is dragging on, or more problems have been discovered during the work. Bush is deployed in the Persian Gulf, with a good three months of her deployment left to run.

Vinson, the one everyone is excited about, has been operating all year in the Western Pacific. Like Bush, she is mid-deployment and due to head for home towards the end of June. She recently headed back to the Western Pacific from a port call in Singapore.

Of the rest, Nimitz is working up the readiness cycle. She recently completed the COMPTUEX, which took the best part of a month. On this basis, assuming no sudden hurry, she is probably going to relieve either Bush or Vinson in June, sailing at the end of May. Roosevelt looks likely to be the next out, as Washington doesn’t have an assigned air wing. Eisenhower is the most recently returned, but that wasn’t very recent, as she arrived in Norfolk on the 30th December. She was at sea during February and March on occasion, providing training for reserve air crew, but as she has been back at the pier since the 24th of March I would think it’s getting time for some leave and some maintenance.

To sum up: out of the three routine tasks for carriers, one is covered by Bush while Vinson is doubling up on two of them. Overall availability is not unusually low, but it is not high either, as there is one carrier immediately available as a reserve while two reliefs will be needed for sailing dates in May. Vinson‘s recall to the Western Pacific may be more of an indicator that Reagan‘s return to availability is delayed than anything else.

Obviously, even one CVN is serious business. But just as in 2006-2007, there is no evidence of a mobilisation to match the talk.

the Airbus supply chain, the press, and leopards

The Daily Telegraph is suddenly worried about the future of the aviation industry post-Brexit. As well it might be.

But I remember distinctly that the source, the Engineering Employers’ Federation, spoke out in this sense during the referendum campaign. So did the individual companies involved, and the trade unions. And the Telegraph thought this was all a lot of evil propaganda from George Osborne, a politician whose career it had been systematically promoting for years.

To adapt a now-classic joke, it’s as if the Institute of Leopards and Faceripping had issued the following warning: Voting for the Leopards Ripping Your Face Off Party may cause your face to be ripped off by leopards! And the Daily Telegraph replies: We’ve had enough of experts’ so-called advice. Vote leopard!

52% duly vote for the leopards. A few months on, the Institute of Leopards is back: We’re observing unusually high incidences of faceripping associated with leopard activity. And the Daily Telegraph is all: Shit! Leopards! Somebody do something!

Design values are values, again

Here’s a good rant against bloat and ad-tracking and everything else Maciej Cieglowski has been warning you about for years. Now, somewhere on Twitter I saw @annehelen asking why it didn’t say anything about the look and feel of the nutter right’s websites. And I also saw this project, where a classic Cranky Old Engineer type swapped media diet with a fairly classic Lib Dem Type.

Hilarity ensued. More to the point, the project was a great example of some principles I keep going on about.

Trying to keep up with the world by only reading the Drudge Report was “a nightmare,” Leija said. Drudge aggregates news stories from multiple sources on the Internet and places them in a list with the same, small headline size. I found it hard over the course of the week to know what the important stories were,” Leija said. “I felt under-informed because all that tiny text creates a sense of not being able to tell what is important. It was depressing in a strange way.”

There are several design choices to discuss here. First of all, there’s the anti-design; this is a bit like Harris+Hoole, the chain of fake independent coffee houses run by Tesco. Throughout its existence, Drudge Report has projected a lo-fi, DIY aesthetic while mostly relying for news on briefings from Republican politicians and their staffers. This reminds me a bit of the biggest category of Chinese trolls here; the ones who seem normal and then turn out to have connections in the Public Security Bureau, who know the real story.

Second, there’s the Angus Steakhouse element. Microsoft Research worked out that there’s a reason spammers are so obvious. I’ve blogged this again and again. They’re trying to put off anyone who’s likely to get wise to them, as early as possible. You can try to spot the suckers, or you can arrange things so you only ever deal with people who have already flagged themselves as suckers. Which strategy would you pick? Spammers do this, and so do notoriously horrible London restaurants. It’s ugly for a reason; if you care that it’s an ugly, dodgy-looking mess, they don’t want you there.

Third, there’s some research about typography suggesting messages that are harder to read remain in the mind longer. On the other hand, more readable messages are more likely to be read and understood. There’s a trade-off between conveying information, and making converts. Interestingly, real typographers do behave a bit like this. Signage is usually modernist sans-serif fonts, body text in books is usually a greeked serif. This blog is the opposite, which may mean I’m a clown, or perhaps that I want you to remember that post of Yorksranter’s…but come back and read it again.

So much for type. What about the other stuff? Our guinea pig listens to the radio:

“I was shocked,” Knuth said. “I had never listened to a radio station like that before. I was shocked to see that it was actually just a series of programs of Rush Limbaugh-type guys. It was wall-to-wall programming of these cranky personalities, who were engaged mainly in complaining.”

After years of listening almost exclusively to public radio, which does not take advertising, Knuth was disturbed by the amount of air time taken up by ads on The Patriot, including one ad he heard repeatedly featuring former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul hawking a food dehydrator.

“I was just constantly frustrated.” Knuth said. “I like to know what happens in the world, and I constantly felt like I didn’t know anything, and also frustrated by the endless sales pitches, which made me annoyed.”

This reminds me of Daniel Kahneman’s work, or more precisely the deliberately crude gloss I wrote here as Kahneman for Thugs. Specifically, Target the Depleted…and Deplete the Targeted. People are easier to convince when they’re tired, ill, or distracted. You can use this to exploit them by picking people like that. It’s possible that audience pre-selection works a bit like this; the Angus Steakhouse model likes people who are too tired and cranky to care.

You can also make them like that by yelling, pouring an undifferentiated stream of irrelevant stories at them, and by filling up the visual field with noisy graphics. Interestingly, one of the best predictors of being banned as a troll is bad English, specifically, your score on standard metrics of readability. This suggests both that trolls are depleted, and that their misspelt yelling imposes cognitive costs on those around them.

Back at the source, our cranky engineer was still cranky, especially because people on Jezebel are really sweary and aggressive and the NYT is often wrong – tell us about it! – but interestingly he seemed happier about changing radio stations because he found NPR less abrasive. In some sense he was aware of the effort all the shouting consumed on his part. And he chose to undergo a “news blackout”, supposedly for other reasons.

So yes, it’s both a style statement and an element of technique.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

Thinking about Michael Howard’s interview fart over the weekend, I done a twitter and they liked it:

And then I remembered the sheer weirdness of standing in Parliament Square being addressed by Alistair Campbell the other day. I think it’s fair to say I never imagined my life would take that particular turn. But now it makes sense. One of the important political dualities is between the people who represent self-control and the public face, and the people who represent letting it blurt, as Lester Bangs titled. As with all dualities, the advanced student will notice that the point is to use them in combination, whether by presenting radical content as consensus or consensus and conservatism as exciting novelty.

You could call them the Ego Party and the Party of Id, and perhaps the civil service plays the super-ego. After all, are you thinking what I’m thinking? Here’s a party political broadcast on behalf of Michael Howard. Filthy!

Then, as well as perpetrating cod psychoanalysis I’m also doing billiard-ball realism here. Parties are not homogenous. If you realise that one of the major achievements of Thatcherism was the UK becoming a central actor in the European project – ’87, ’92, and all that – it’s perhaps worth remembering that those Normal European Countries people go on about usually have two conservative parties. Very often the divide is based on how Catholics responded to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. One party is founded on the early 20th century social theory and then NATO, the other on the Counter-Reformation and the Occupation.

The UK *gained* two conservative parties during the peak years of its integration in Europe. I don’t really mean UKIP, but rather the continuing fight over whether the Tories would be more like the German CDU or CSU. Would they be a party upholding a Euro-Atlantic multilateral order – the Ego Party – or a basically revisionist movement, the Party of Id? Howard made his choice even while John Major was trying to make the opposite choice stick.

Exactly how those media reports about WhatsApp terrorists happened

So Home Secretary Amber Rudd went on t’telly and continued trying to jawbone some sort of privileged access to WhatsApp messages. In the process she also:

called on “people who understand the technology” and know “the necessary hashtags” to stop extremist material being uploaded to the internet.

Anyway. This was all in aid of Friday’s Parliament Square terrorist attack and the supposed news that attacker Khalid Masood received(or sent – it’s not clear) a message from someone shortly before the crime. OK then. If they can’t defeat WhatsApp encryption, how did they know? Two possibilities offer themselves. Either the other party to the conversation told the police, in which case they already have all the messages that party exchanged with Masood, or else the police managed to access Masood’s phone after the attack, in which case they have all his WhatsApp messages and much, much more besides.

There are numerous ways to get into a seized device; the police could have used the now-famous Cellebrite hardware attack tool, but on the other hand, they might have guessed a password or perhaps there wasn’t even one set. Masood doesn’t sound like someone who had his shit in one sock, to say the least. Perhaps the phone was unlocked for some reason – like capturing video of the attack for publicity purposes – at the time and they grabbed it and downloaded everything quick-smart. Scotland Yard actually staged a fake mugging of a wanted fraudster while he was on a call recently, so I’d consider that option quite likely. Wilder options are available – dust it for fingerprints and 3D print the index finger, then try the fingerprint reader, anyone? Physically shove the guy’s hand onto it? And it’s possible the message showed up after the attack, while the device was in police hands. In short, it’s a general information security principle that anyone who has physical access to your machine can probably get at your data.

Clearly, then, this was just an exercise in pushing a long-standing Home Office want-want while the bodies weren’t too chilly. They didn’t need a backdoor, because they had the information anyway.

But there’s a little more to the story than that. It turns out the police were investigating “media reports” he contacted someone. So where did the media hear this? Again, it’s possible that someone in the Home Office cynically briefed the papers so the minister could then respond to the coverage. It’s also possible that a journalist found out the old-fashioned way – they were all over Masood’s relatives within hours of his name hitting the wires, and it’s their job to find things out. So what was this “media report”?

The answer is probably this Daily Hell piece. The paper produces what it says is a screenshot of a WhatsApp client showing the contact “Khalid” as “last seen at 2.37pm”. The text suggests (although it doesn’t say) that the paper knows his phone number. Adding his number as a contact would produce the screenshot, with a “last seen” time determined as per this WhatsApp FAQ page:

Online status means that contact has WhatsApp open in the foreground on their device and is connected to the internet.

This is a valid way to determine if a given phone number is associated with a WhatsApp ID and that ID is operational. After all, you can do it to the home secretary. Nobody, however, thinks that’s evidence she’s taking orders from Buzzfeed. Meanwhile, I recommend this piece from Stephen Bush.

Preview: TYR @ OpenTech 2017

One thing I’ve recently noticed knocking about the industry is what I’m beginning to call the “post-Internet” or maybe the “Afternet”. This is the conjunction of maybe three trends.

The first of these is the way 5G is panning out over in mobile.

To start with, pretty much everything in consumer and most things in enterprise are mobile these days so there’s no excuse for ignoring those boring 3GPP suits. Also, it looks very much as if the first deployments of the 5G New Radio are going to be fixed-wireless, as a replacement for DSL and a substitute for point-to-point microwave or maybe some fibre. So rather than being a “mobile thing”, they’re going to be another access network medium for the general public Internet service.

I’m not going to go into the radio stuff here, fascinating though it is. What interests me is that the 5G builders are increasingly keen on integrating general purpose computing capacity into the network, and importantly, putting it within the radio-access network or at least the mobile core network. So you might host an app inside T-Mobile or Orange Armenia or whoever’s RAN, which would obviously be lovely from a webperf point of view as a way of getting latency down. And, you know, distributed systems design is fun! Latency is a huge deal in 5G; 3GPP wants a round-trip time from the User Equipment (yes, they still call it that) to the carrier’s edge router facing the Internet of 10ms. The important point to bear in mind here is that if this is delivered, the competitive imperative to get the full benefit of it will be powerful. We’ve known for years that in all kinds of applications, latency and its standard deviation have a direct impact on user experience metrics and indeed on business KPIs.

This brings us to the next trend. I recall not so long ago Jamie Zawinski saying on his blog that Instagram was barely on the Internet at all, in any meaningful sense. At the time they didn’t have much of a Web site, so it was almost entirely an app store/smartphone experience. You couldn’t just download or upload stuff from whatever computer you happened to have with you. And you know, if they could host at least an upload accelerator reverse-proxy inside the mobile networks they certainly would. CDN nodes for the pix would also be valuable. Akamai will kinda-sorta do this for you but the actual coverage is pretty thin compared to what it is for fixed eyeball ISPs. Seeing as Google already has an absolutely huge global caching/CDN infrastructure, I’m surprised it’s not an Android API already.

Now for our third trend. If there’s one product that goes out supremely well in the enterprise these days, it’s Layer 2 Ethernet service, as opposed to IP-VPN or whatever T/E carrier grandad’s still using. One of the major applications for this is that some of the providers now have L2 interconnection (called an E-NNI for External Network to Network Interface, if you want people to think you’re a Bellhead for some strange reason) with the big clouds. So you sign up and suddenly MS Office 365 is sooo much snappier. From their point of view, this is really great if you’re a huge US telco or cableco that can get all its enterprise customers and three AWS Regions on-network, but not so good for everyone else. So the smaller operators – and some not-so-small but multinational ones – are trying to sign up as many E-NNI agreements as they can with each other, standardise their internal IT, all in the aim of being able to increase their L2 footprints.

The dark side of this is that in doing so they’re shifting emphasis from the Internet’s Layer 3, multilateral peering interconnection model to a new L2 private peering ecosystem. Personally I’m not sure it can work – one of the underestimated features of the Internet is that its federal nature means it has clear administrative demarcs, and this certainly won’t, as it’s going to be some sort of turtles-all-the-way-down but with VXLANs protocol tunnelling nightmare, which will make debugging it pure hell. A preview of this is the way a lot of the big clouds really struggle to do networking at all well.

The opposition, meanwhile, seems to be companies like Google who run proper IPv6 networks, but increasingly own everything but the last mile and increasingly rely on their own in-house fibre for everything. Google specifically has every reason to obsess about this after that time the NSA tapped all their inter-datacentre WANs and they bought the world’s supply of FASTLANE linerate encryption boxes all in a week.

Hence the Afternet – an oligopolistic collection of semi-autonomous clouds overlaying politicians’ demands for censorship and digital protectionism. Will your blog be on it? So, where are we going with this and who should we subject to remorseless public shaming? Well. That’s why I’m going to be speaking at this year’s OpenTech on the subject of 5G and Your Website. You may have noticed there’s a link to “5G Resources” at the top of the blog – there is nothing there at the moment but I promise it will be full of links before the 13th of May.

Universal Credit: the history of an IT project failure

Reading the Institute for Government’s report on Universal Credit, I was struck by two related things. First of all, the project was powered forward by people who didn’t bear any responsibility for its implementation. Whenever it ran into people who needed to care about how it would work, it hit opposition.

Lord Freud’s original skunkworks project within James Purnell’s DWP ran into heavy opposition from the Treasury and No.10 Downing St; the then Chancellor, Alistair Darling, had spent years running the DWP and the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, had spent even longer running a Treasury that intervened more in routine administration than any other. They didn’t think it could possibly work, not least because it required the PAYE systems in the Revenue to provide timely notification of changes in taxpayers’ circumstances to the DWP and they knew the system couldn’t do it. Having been turned down, Freud took his trade elsewhere and hawked his report around the thinktank world until the Tories’ Centre for Social Justice picked up on it.

Over the summer of 2010, it hit heavy traffic again; the Treasury was still suspicious that it could possibly work, and also saw it as expensive. This devolved into a head-on contest between George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith to convince the prime minister, who seems to have backed away from making a decision. At this point, a third party got involved – the Lib Dems, who liked the idea in its gimmicky whiteboard purity and made it part of coalition politics. This is a really important point: one reason why IDS’s scheme survived was because the Lib Dems protected it with their veto. This was especially important because of Danny Alexander’s role on the key public expenditure committee.

This also leaked into the IT implementation. A succession of non-coding directors actually claimed to have created a new software development methodology, “a fusion of agile and waterfall”. It is hugely telling that the actual programmers were in Warrington when they were in the UK at all. They, at least, were well aware that the project was a mess from very early on, and this probably explains why The Register usually knew all about it.

Secondly, although IDS evidently had no idea how it would work or how to make it work, he did grasp an important truth about big IT projects. Donning my Consultancy Hat, I pronounce: all IT projects are business transformation projects! It is rare indeed that an organisation sets out to work in exactly the same way it used to, just with faster computers. Even if that was the declared aim, just observing how the work gets done now tends to change it.

One of the most baffling features of the whole UC disaster is why, after the Government Digital Service intervened in the project, IDS and those around him insisted on continuing work on the original, failed, version of the system at enormous expense when they admitted publicly that they would only bin it once the new one was ready. The IfG report is completely clear that the minister wanted to get something of UC deployed into the Jobcentres because it would change how they worked. Whether the software worked or not, it would still enforce the new rules and the new, punitive attitude to the claimant.

Notably, it would enforce the principle that payment could only be made monthly, after a mandatory seven-day wait, which plus the target processing delay meant that anyone paid weekly would have to wait six weeks for any help in the best-case scenario. Tellingly, nobody in the IfG report is willing to take responsibility for this. The author, Nicholas Timmins, uses this in his foreword as an example of something that was “neither left-wing nor right-wing” (page 8 in the report). He also says, in the body of the text, that it was meant to “accustom the recipients to financial discipline”. (This is page 33 of the report.) How he can believe this and yet believe that it was an ideologically neutral decision baffles me. But then he also says, on page 8:

The simpler it is, the more it will involve forms of rough justice

If that isn’t the remark of someone who loved UC as a beautiful abstract scheme, without a thought for the people who might be on the receiving end of the “rough justice”, and who crucially took no responsibility whatsoever for its implementation, I don’t know what it is.

Anyway, switching target back to people who certainly were responsible for it, it’s clear that somebody thought that just the fact of being paid a monthly salary made you more Protestant, in a word. The implicit churchiness points like a radar beam towards the minister. Traditionally, the welfare state used precisely this distinction between weekly wages and monthly salaries as a class-indicator. So that charmingly old-school once-a-month, 5 minutes before the hour, million-quid query batch run would enforce change in the DWP workforce, and further, in wider society. It was a technical decision heavily loaded with ideological baggage, that would have profound practical consequences.

But its history is bound up with my third point. Getting the Consultancy Hat back on, it’s a cliché that adapting an IT project built for some purpose or customer to another is usually a false economy. The history of the original UC Real-Time Information system is actually quite fascinating. In the late 2000s, while the James Purnell/David Freud proposal was being shot down by Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, HMRC was in fact working on an IT system intended to deliver real-time PAYE reporting, just what the UC boosters wanted. The only problem was…it didn’t work, and the Revenue eventually scrapped it, leaving the contractor, Vocalink, with a dud project on their hands.

Vocalink’s director of public sector clients, Peter Seymour, was up to the challenge, though. In a fortuitious meeting in a House of Commons boozer, he pitched the project to Philip Hammond MP, then the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury and now of course the Chancellor. Hammond passed him onto to the circle of UC fanatics around the Dynamic Benefits report and IDS. From this point on, they would claim to anyone who asked them that HMRC already had a technical solution that would make UC happen, and act hard-done-by that nobody at HMRC had told them. The possibility that HMRC didn’t want to talk about their turkey of a project, or didn’t want to encourage anyone to revive it, seems to have escaped them.

Vocalink’s history is a little involved, but suffice it to say that it’s the IT operating subsidiary of the organisation that runs the UK’s interbank payments system. This has changed its name a couple of times, but back when it was called APACS for Association for Payments and Clearing Systems, it employed none other than Theresa May, whose first comment on seeing IDS’s white paper was apparently “Two benefits – why not one?” I find it hard to believe this didn’t help in dumping their software zombie on DWP.

Importantly, Vocalink’s project was built in the context of HMRC, where time flows in tax years commencing on Lady Day, divided into calendar months, and aren’t you glad you don’t have to write the corrections for the varying lengths of the months. You’ve guessed it; force-fitting UC into the constraints of Vocalink’s zombie software project baked the six-week delay into it!

But here’s the really interesting bit. Many of the worst aspects of UC actually made their appearance between the climatic off-site meeting in June 2010 when it got the green light, and when the detailed documents appeared in the autumn of that year. The IfG report doesn’t discuss how this happened at all, which makes me think I should read it exoterically and infer that this is important.


So I went to the Royal Academy’s Russia exhibition yesterday, which led to me looking up oligarch/collector Petr Aven on Wikipedia. He’s Mikhail Fridman’s business partner in Alfa Group, which means ironically enough I was looking at paintings belonging to the guy whose employees built a whole fake website to confuse me about their ownership of Russian mobile operator Megafon back in 2006, but failed because I used the magic of traceroute, WHOIS, and the Firefox built-in developer console to unmask their stinking act.

Anyway, Fridman’s entry led me to this North London landmark, this related Yorkshire chemical corporation, one of their original key products, its main application, and via one of the stated alternative applications, to music, magic, its texts, their sources, and Bismarckian-era German Jewish historical scholarship that evidently had unintended consequences.

A bit like looking up Petr Aven on Wikipedia, then.

The design values of today

So I read the Indivisible Guide, which was drafted by a group of ex-Obama staffers as a HOWTO for people interested in protesting Donald Trump. The core idea is that the ‘baggers were very successful as a protest movement and their strategy can be replicated. Basically, don’t bother with shopping lists of nice stuff, do badger elected representatives of any kind to say no to everything, and organise locally to threaten their re-election specifically. It also offers a lot of useful tactical advice. To be honest it’s pretty much the document we needed in the UK in 2010.

And the typography is gorgeous in a way that is redolent of fast-breaking Obama nostalgia. The subheads are even in that Toronto Transit typeface. Compare the deliberately horrible, Angus Steakhouse aesthetic of fake news sources, desperately trying to turn away anyone who is likely to see through them, or the early 2ks revival pink/viridian blinktag hell of your favourite woke blog, parading its deliberate anti-accessibility. Design value, it turns out, are actually values. (Hey, in 2003 this blog had a mousetrail clock and a dancing terrorism alert banana. I should know.)