Evans is right.

The former MI5 Director-General, Jonathan Evans, has thoughts.

Acknowledging that use of encryption had hampered security agencies’ efforts to access the content of communications between extremists, Evans added: “I’m not personally one of those who thinks we should weaken encryption because I think there is a parallel issue, which is cybersecurity more broadly.

This is a startlingly rare comment for a spook. In general, they talk about encryption in terms of a balance between security and liberty. The trade-off between surveillance and information security is left to a secondary debate within the IT world, which itself tends to be framed as a debate about surveillance versus liberty.

This mirrors the structure of the intelligence agencies. GCHQ owns the previously independent security mission. With its special right of direct access to the prime minister, it’s no surprise that the offensive, collection oriented side of the agency won out over boring information assurance. At the same time, MI5 and the SIS can only envy GCHQ’s special access, as well as being heavy customers for its product and therefore lobbyists for its interests.

Evans, however, argues for a genuinely strategic appreciation of the problem. The terrorists exist and probably will for the rest of our lives. But so does the information security threat. And it is bound to get worse as more and more systems are network-attached – and as old ones are explored. Exploits, as they say, only get better. If the country is going to be full of dodgy Internet of Things devices connected to the national grid, this is potentially much worse than a couple of stabbings with better PR. If it’s possible to influence the elections with a horde of fake Twitter accounts, not so good either.

So there’s not just a trade-off between spying and not spying; there’s a trade-off between threats, which is after all the essence of strategy. The crypto warriors are chasing today’s menace or possibly yesterday’s while undermining our defences against those of tomorrow.

Worry a little bit more about Korea but not that much

It’s time for another 2007 Revival! carrier watch post.

It looks like the forward-based carrier, Reagan, is fully ready. Nimitz is committed to the Middle East. Bush is eight thousand miles away, in UK home waters. Truman, Lincoln, and Vinson are in early phases of training. Eisenhower, Washington, and Stennis are in bits in the dry dock. Roosevelt has done her COMPTUEX work-up. Technically she needs to do the JTFEX with the other ships in the task force, but in a pinch that could happen en route.

The time frame to get to the other side of the Pacific is about two weeks assuming they don’t bother doing anything clever on the way. The US has quite a few airfields in the western Pacific, but North Korea just promised to drop rockets all round the biggest, so you can probably see the value of the carriers here. Conclusion: if Roosevelt, aka the Big Stick and wouldn’t the Donald love that, gets her skates on, it’s time to worry.

The answer probably isn’t more NIBs

This depressing thread of Marie Le Conte’s, and the associated Press Gazette story, are familiar.

In early 2005 I was hired as a staff writer at Mobile Communications International magazine, having impressed at the interview by being able to find typos in a pile of galleys. By early 2007 I was ready to move on. I had my reasons. For a start, they had demoted a colleague of mine who was the website editor so they could hire a guy who was pretending to be an Iraq war photographer over his head. I wasn’t particularly pleased about that, especially after we did one of the regular trips to put together the on-site paper for one of the company’s conferences and found that he’d missed his flight. So that left me and one of the production designers to do the whole thing, until he showed up boasting that he’d persuaded South African Airways to refund him anyway and calling himself “The Editor”.

And there was the moment in April of that year when I was walking down Goodge Street in my lunch break in the rain and I was thinking I could get these resoled…or I can wait until payday [squelch]…fuck this shit I need a new job. The immediate pre-crisis labour market was less fun than people now make out. And there were the NIBs. A surprising percentage of our output by word count consisted of news-in-brief items that were basically all either lifted from the competition or recycled from press releases. This didn’t get me down as much as it might have done, as the mag also contained three substantial features, half a dozen serious news-analysis pieces, and a snarky column. But they were always there, often almost a month old as we were after all a monthly.

So that was why I ended up joining Martin Geddes’ startup, which soon wasn’t his any more, and so on and so forth. (When I told my editor I was leaving, I was offered the editorship of a new title, WiMAX Vision, and aren’t I glad I didn’t hop into that already-awash hookpot of a bad idea.)

MCI kept sending me copies of the mag after I left. For a while it continued much the same, but then bad signs began to set in. One of the main feature slots was dropped. The pagination was cut back. The perfect-binding was given up. The news-analysis section was reduced and the word counts trimmed. But all the while, the NIBs kept coming. (As with the mail according to Bukowski, this is the worst thing about them.) So the percentage of the mag devoted to rips and churnalism was rising steadily. This was baffling – if there was anything in MCI you could get for free on the web, old press release stories were just that. That was where we got them, after all.

By the finish it was down to one major feature and not long after that, the waters closed.

Another detail of this story is that all the while there were people two floors up in the building doing roughly the same job for much more money. We occasionally quoted them when we were desperate for copy. They were the analysts, and now I am one. The genuinely interesting point here is that MCI wasn’t giving its content away – the website was subscription only, as was the mag – but it ended up producing something as mediocre as anything available for free, while charging for it.

Work post.

Hijacking the blog for work purposes. I know quite a few readers here develop software or design things in a freelance, startup, or small business context. What is it that telecoms operators/ISPs, both fixed and mobile, aren’t offering you at the moment? What are they selling you that you don’t want? Leave your thoughts in comments – use a pseud if you want but give some idea of context.

Results so far: Moar bandwidth. Direct peering with major CDNs and clouds. Data allowances on a per-account basis (so you can share them among multiple devices). Better IPv6 support. Pro-active outage notification. Better status reporting. Nobody wants any add-on services. Better (native/dualstack) IPv6 again. Lower latency. Lower extra-European roaming rates.

The bureaucratic imperative rules, or maybe just reigns

The point’s been well made, notably by Heidi Alexander MP, that shadow trade secretary Barry Gardiner’s arguments against the EEA are even stronger arguments for just staying in the damn EU already. But I would like to draw attention to another aspect of his piece:

As a transitional phase, a customs union agreement might be thought to have some merit. However, as an end point it is deeply unattractive. It would preclude us from making our own independent trade agreements with our five largest export markets outside the EU (the US, China, Japan, Australia and the Gulf states).

Why is Gardiner going on like this? The simple answer is that he is shadow trade secretary. As such he is structurally, ineluctably in favour of trade secretaries. Whatever confused vision he is offering here, it will certainly involve extensive trade negotiations with various powers. In the event of a Labour government, these negotiations would be the responsibility of Barry Gardiner, and were they successful, their success would redound to his credit. Just as the disgraced Liam Fox is structurally in favour of strange globe-trotting trade schemes, so is his shadow. Maybe this is why the Department for International Trade even exists. The bureaucratic imperative rules.

Or perhaps the bureaucratic imperative only reigns? This FT story has had a lot of play for its description of a thoroughly dysfunctional government, which is well worth reading. But I was interested by this graf:

Some civil servants say Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, should have done more to challenge the secretive and tightly held decision-making structure. “Jeremy Heywood has achieved a lot but he placed the value of getting into the room with the PM above the need to deliver tough messages,” said one senior Whitehall figure. “If the cabinet secretary doesn’t turn and fight, then the rest of the civil service won’t either.”

The point that comes to mind is that David Cameron’s government was the first for a long time to go after the core civil service as an enemy. A key early doors initiative was the whole project of breaking up the role of Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service – remember all the complaining about Gus “GO’D” O’Donnell and briefing that Heywood was a secret socialist? – in order to diminish the power of the top civil service. The new post of Civil Service Chief Executive was created, pretty much deliberately as a rival pole of power, more in the gift of the prime minister. The Cabinet Secretaryship was split up into the No.10 Downing Street Permanent Secretary and the Head of the Service.

This project was a bust. The CEO job – aka “let’s give it to Branson or someone” – never amounted to much. Heywood emerged as the key civil service figure largely because the No.10 permanent secretary by definition had permanent access to the prime minister, and eventually the bureaucratic papacy re-emerged around him. But it’s worth remembering that the top civil service spent the post-2010 period frantically defending the institution itself against the prime minister. The obvious counterpoint is that they do that all the time.

Looking at the Cameron-May years, though, does anyone honestly think the government is getting too much professional advice? OK, right. Also, does anyone begin to think 2016 wasn’t as much of a caesura as it looked? And if Heywood is avoiding conflict with the prime minister, can anyone perhaps see why?

No, Steve Rotheram is not taking over the Brexit talks

While I’m shitting on my own doorstep, what about this post from Paul Cotterill? This is another go-round on his idea of Labour mayors trying to take over the negotiations with the EU so that Liverpool and Manchester (oddly he doesn’t mention London or Sadiq Khan) can stay in the EEA, but it still doesn’t explain how this could possibly work. Wouldn’t that imply a customs border on the M62? How would freedom of movement work with regard to the rest of the country? Wouldn’t we need ID cards or worse?

Also, what standing would they have to do this? What would happen if the UK government disagreed, seeing as it owns all the governmental functions that are involved? Why would the EU delegation bother? This is a silly idea, and if Andrew Lilico or the disgraced Liam Fox offered it, everyone I know would hoot with laughter and start swapping memes about passport control in Standedge Cutting. But I see people taking it seriously.

I just think this is a case of mogging, as in Jacob Rees-Mogg – my argument doesn’t actually hold water, so I’m going to mogg, scatter it with obscure quotes and what MPs apparently think of as “long words”. Note that it’s quite possible to mogg without really intending to do so.

Habermas schmabermas. The idea of city centres staying in the EU doesn’t make sense, you can’t make it make sense, and its place is in the inevitable BBC I Love the 2010s Summer of Brexit episode when that rolls around.

Venezuela: it’s not just for Christmas

As the news fromm Venezuela has become progressively worse – and let’s be clear, it’s still getting worse from this absolutely terrible baseline – there’s been some arguing around the Internet about politicians, like Jeremy Corbyn, who were very supportive of Hugo Chavez’s government there.

My beef here is that someone like Jean-Luc Mélenchon went into this year’s French presidential election offering to quit NATO and replace it with a Bolivarian Alliance between France, Cuba, and Venezuela. Meanwhile, the people most affected are abandoning the cities in favour of subsistence gold panning in a malarial swamp. They don’t need somebody’s geopolitical fantasy; more like emergency humanitarian aid.

I get the impression that JLM wasn’t paying very much attention to the news when he came up with that idea, and evidently not for quite a while. Rather, he was singing his heart out for the lads. The country doesn’t matter, the people even less so, what counts is pissing off the right people. If you weren’t at all interested in actual human Venezuelans, but rather just attracted by the opportunity to romanticise the mythos of Latin American revolution, or to pick a fight, well, this is the kind of output I’d expect.

JLM’s Napoleonic scheme is an extreme example, but I think it’s telling. It’s also one that comes from outside Labour Party politics. It’s not just JC who’s being an idiot about this.

The Godfather, Trump, and Putin

Peter Pomerantsev goes to Mongolia and meets the president, an all-purpose post-Soviet entrepreneur turned politician. Specifically, an all-purpose post-Soviet entrepreneur and martial arts champ who named his company after The Godfather.

This isn’t just eccentric; in Codes of the Underworld, Diego Gambetta has a fascinating chapter on the role movies played in the making of the post-Soviet gangster. Coming out of the Soviet era, people thrown into this baffling future were in search of ways to convince others and themselves of their new roles. The Soviet Union had a criminal subculture of its own, that grew in its camps and prisons, but it wasn’t very useful when you had to deal with people who didn’t move in that world, although it was a useful source of legitimacy with those who did. It was also very local and supremely anti-aspirational. The vision of the mafioso according to Mario Puzo and Scorsese, though, was something they could buy into that everyone recognised, all over the world.

Gambetta points out that the tropes Puzo and Coppola stylised for their own purposes were developed for good reasons – they were ways of doing business in a world without trust – and adopting them was useful both because they were a kind of brand, and because they worked in their own way. The economic need to be recognised as a gangster drove the cultural phenomenon, but the cultural tropes also changed the economic process of production or rather predation.

The Mongolian president is especially interesting because his original business was importing movies. In fact, he spent prize money he won as an athlete on a good, Panasonic VHS machine and worked out how to hook it to a Soviet TV and some unspecified speakers (maybe like the Hungarian ones my dad’s still got?). Then he set up as a touring cinema. He mostly showed toons and Jackie Chan, but he obviously also bathed in mafia movies because that’s what he called his business.

We can see a strategy here. He had to physically cart the gear around, and although it was easy to record TV onto video, replicating VHS cassettes without specialist equipment was quite slow. He needed to choose wisely. So he chose either the sugar hit of Disney toons and kung fu, or else great juicy slabs of New Hollywood classicism. Both worked because, well, they’re great at what they do. There’s no room here for low-value bulk; for that you need media abundance. Which brings us to Donald Trump.

As Sarah Kendzior points out, he’s been fascinated with the USSR and Russia since at least 1984 and they with him. Well before the end of the USSR, Trump was invited over to Moscow to pitch a plan to build a hotel – maybe rather like the one the East Germans did in Berlin around the same time? – and the relationship never really ended. Now look at it.

Very unlike the Mongolian president’s filmgoers, or the Solntsev brothers down by the airport motorway, the de-Sovietising elite that discovered Trump had access to American TV. They monitored it, after all. Military leaders like Sergei Akhromeyev noticed Silicon Valley – they called it the scientific-technical revolution – and nobody was going to fall in love with Detroit automakers in the 1980s. Is it too much to suggest that this media filter and its founder effect sold the criminal world on The Godfather, and the future rulers on Trump, as their idea of us?

Three waves of political mobilisation: the SNP, Brexit, and Labour

Matthew Goodwin is probably in hiding from people demanding that he eats a book, but I can’t help but notice that he massively buries the lede in this paper on the elections. In table 1, his multivariate regression for the change in turnout, Model 3, has the following result.

What leaps out at you there? Like…a leopard, about to rip your face off? Well, I’d say it would be the result marked as significant at the p=0.005 level, with a whopping coefficient of -8.13, vastly greater than anything else. The coefficient for age is 0.03. That for % non-white is 0.04, even if it does pass the significance test with a wet sail. Weirdly, Goodwin and Heath don’t discuss it at all. Because Scotland.

To better understand the factors that influenced support for the two main parties, we restrict our analysis to England and Wales, as a rather different set of factors are relevant for understanding electoral competition in Scotland, where the SNP are dominant and divisions over Scottish Independence are more salient

But why would you do that? The data is telling us that a constituency’s being in Scotland was very strongly predictive of lower turnout. No fewer than 21 constituencies changed hands in Scotland, in the context of a parliament where the government majority is 10 even with the DUP. As Faisal Islam was saying earlier today, seven Tory (or DUP) rebels are enough to flip any vote. The SNP lost three times that many. This is a big deal.

So the very high turnouts recorded in Scotland in 2014 and 2015 are reverting towards the mean. The conclusion I draw from this is that the wave of SNP enthusiasm and mobilisation of 2014-2015 is ebbing away. People are looking at their cybernat tweets from last night and reaching for the aspirin. More broadly, there have been three great waves of political enthusiasm in Britain in three years. The SNP had its surge of enthusiasm in 2014-2015. Brexit had its surge in 2016. Labour’s is running at the flood now. Does this mean that they are just surface phenomena that will blow away? I think not.

The SNP lost seats, but the 2014 surge gave them hegemony at Holyrood and a very substantial delegation at Westminster, all of which they still have. The Brexit surge felled the prime minister and a hatful of cabinet ministers and ushered in the great crisis of 2016, and we still have no idea where it will take us. The Labour surge has reduced the Maybot from a killer drone to more of a captive target, and we might not yet have seen its limits – not least because Scotland is no longer ruled out as competitive territory.

I recently learned that my own CLP has gained another 200 members since the general election, in about a month. We entered the 2015 election campaign with just under 600 members. We finished it – remember, this is before Corbyn was a thing – with 900 and flooded the streets to the extent we couldn’t keep from knocking up the same voters three times. Then the second stage of the rocket ignited. At the time of the EU referendum, my ward had more Labour members in standing than it had Conservative voters. By election night 2017 we had 3,300 members and we’ve pushed through 3,500 by now. The average growth rate is of the order of 112 members a month, and we’re running at twice that.

If we forgot about arguing back and forwards about who’s a slug and whatever, if we forgot temporarily about party leaders, we would have to accept that this mobilisation is a massive phenomenon in itself. If you had asked me why I was optimistic, and therefore wrong, about 2015 I would have said “Membership”. If you had asked me why I was pessimistic and therefore wrong about 2017, I would have said “Well, I hoped the mobilisation would do it last time.” And then it…did it. Labour is on the way back to the mountainous mass memberships of the 1940s and 1950s, and well, nobody else seems to be, or even trying to be. British political parties operated into the 2000s on the legacy of the postwar mobilisation – the trades halls and Winston Churchill Houses, the networks of influence, the habits of activism.

I would like to see a real discussion of this phenomenon, which rejects not just the conventional wisdom of post-1979 but that of post-1959. Two-party mass politics and mass activism has been officially passé for fifty years, but heeeere’s Johnny! Sorry. Jerry. And we might start by asking how much of the SNP surge of 2014-2015 will last now the excitement has passed. We might also observe that the Brexit surge has not left much that will endure, with UKIP on 5% in the polls, skint, and unable to scrape a demo together.

NRS social grades are flawed but at least it’s not Facebook

I never knew until very recently that the standard National Readership Survey socio-demographic classifications – ABC1, C2DE etc – deal with pensioners by classifying them all as working-class unless they are rich enough to be considered independently wealthy and therefore bucketed in with the As. (The rival National Statistics classification doesn’t deal with the retired at all.) This is a really important example of the politics of data. Inevitably, in collecting data, one has to make decisions about what you are going to count and how. Once made, though, these become social facts.

I had taken it as read for years – decades – that the Labour Party’s electorate was drifting up the social class scale, that there was a problem getting the working class to vote Labour. This has become a substantial media industry. Here’s the Guardian blithely ignoring the issue. But in fact, much of this supposed effect is actually an epi-phenomenon of the boomers getting old. We classify pensioners – people who by definition have stopped working – as working class. Therefore, if old people are more likely to vote Conservative (they are) and their numbers are increasing (they are), arithmetically the Tory share of vote among the C2DEs must go up.

The following chart, from Ipsos MORI, gets to the point. If you look at the cross-break of age groups by class, you find that the effect pretty much vanishes. Labour won the working class, defined as such, handily, and lost the retired by a distance.

The really disturbing thing here is that after all these years of arguing back and forth about those Very Real Concerns of the White Working Class, I never thought to interrogate this fairly basic point about the data. It would be easy to point out that mainstream pundits didn’t, but then most of them count like the rabbits in Watership Down: one, two, three, four many. But my own incuriosity about the classifications startles me. This pragmatic device of newspaper industry market research seemed as enduring and given as class itself. Given that British people tend to imagine they have a refined and forensic awareness of class, this is really quite worrying.

It’s also fascinating that the infrastructure of facts that supports our understanding of politics is so closely connected with day-to-day operations in newspaper circulation departments, but then how could it be otherwise? One of the most important facts about British politics is that it’s structured by the era of mass literacy. Newspaper readership, even now, is much higher than it is in France or the United States, and the NRS itself was devised back when the Daily Mirror was the most-read paper in the world that wasn’t compulsory.

This gives rise to an interesting question. However flawed the NRS is, it’s relatively open. You can just look up the details. It’s not technically open-source, but it might as well be. If you can find the money to commission a poll, or round up enough volunteers, you are free to replicate its results. Of course I didn’t bother even to look it up, but then democracy is among other things the rule of those who turn up. It may be a flawed contribution to the infrastructure of facts, but it’s a contribution. Can we say this about Facebook or any other Internet advertiser’s metrics, which who knows we might be using in fifty years’ time?

Update: it’s been brought to my attention that the rabbits in Watership Down can count to four. Thanks, twitter pedant.