104 great minutes

If you’ve got 104 spare minutes, I can’t recommend this highly enough. Eric “Winkle” Brown, legendary test pilot, gives a lecture to the Yeovilton branch of the RAeS.

There are encounters with Winston Churchill, Frank Whittle, Wernher von Braun, Hermann Göring, Hanna Reitsch, and Heinrich Himmler. There are aircraft as wonderful as the Spitfire IX, as awful as the General Aircraft design he flew 19 times, because there were 19 flight-test engineers available at RAE Farnborough and none of them were willing to fly in it a second time, not even Anne Burns, and as weird as the DH.110. There is stage craft – at one point something, obviously a pint glass, is heard to drop to the hangar floor and he asks if someone dropped their “keys” – although sadly the video misses most of his slides.

There are fascinating Anglo-American conflicts, stick-rudder-and-arsehole heroism, and some interesting historical discoveries (why was he trying to land a Mosquito on a carrier in the first place? there was a “Dambusters-like” mission planned for somewhere in Japan). He also mentions some career advice, offered by Ernst Udet: become a fighter pilot and speak German. Well, it worked for him.

He doesn’t, sadly, talk much about his years in post-war West Germany, although he played a major role in refounding the German navy’s air arm and the German aircraft industry. Somebody should get him to speak to school kids who might learn German, before it’s too late. Anyway, the video is here.

#defenduss document alert: action this day

Via Mike Otsuka on Facebook, here is a very important document for the future of USS and for UK pensions more broadly. A group of eminent statisticians, mathematicians, and economists have prepared a detailed critique of the USS valuation methodology, highlighting the points made here, as a letter to the USS Trustee.

They argue that the assumptions used are so tendentious that without them, the fund would actually show a surplus on defensible assumptions. If this seems implausible, it is important to remember that the compounding calculations that underlie this stuff are typically very, very sensitive to the initial values.

This week, the UCU, Universities UK, and the EPF will be holding consultations on the valuation. It is therefore absolutely vital that their attention should be directed at this document. You can get it here. Action is required this day, like the man said. We need a little togetherness…

and we might get what I want.

In which data visualisation solves a practical problem

Remember this post? I never got around to making any more maps, but Duncan Stott’s map of English identity is suddenly relevant.

I had been planning to mock Daniel Davies for being an expert on public opinion and national identity in the Medway Towns because he’d flashed through on the Eurostar quite a lot, and maybe even link this with his long-running sarcasm about Thomas Friedman, but as you can see, he’s got a point. Look at that great big red blob.

So you see the value of Big Data. It can spare you a pointless twitter row.

Progressive as in “progressively reducing benefits for the poorest”

This piece about Catalan #indyref crystallises everything I hate about what I call Euro-nationalism. It’s wonderful that they’re all so engaged:

Kilted men wearing saltire capes and foam fingers on both hands danced in the aisles as “The Red Hot Chilli Pipers” played a bagpipe version of Don’t Stop Believing.

Sorry. That was the other lot. Let’s try that again.

Clara, 20, a university student, is one of nearly fifty thousand volunteers who made Sunday’s vote on Catalan independence possible. I meet her sitting behind a ballot box in a school-turned-polling station in Barcelona, a big smile on her face…

But what is it they actually want to do with independence? Well, stop paying into the Spanish government’s finances. What this means is nicely demonstrated by the following map from here. Blue regions’ per capita GDP is at 90% or more of the EU average. Yellow ones are between 90% and 75%. Red ones are 75% or lower.


So what we’re really saying here is “Stop paying social insurance for people in places like Extremadura, some of the poorest people in Europe. Punkt, ende.” That fundamentally selfish and meanspirited impulse is what unites Clara, the SNP, and UKIP; the Euronationalists have spoken and they said “Want! Me! Me! Me!”

#lazyweb: my notes are trapped in a Kindle.

A technology thing. I am getting increasingly annoyed with the process of getting notes I take on a Kindle back out of the device and into posts on this blog. The problems are numerous, but:

  1. Notes aren’t returned with any context
  2. Notes aren’t available in a sensible format
  3. The web page they show up on is very, very slow to load
  4. There are DRM restrictions about how much you can quote, trampling all over fair use
  5. Notes on documents I upload myself aren’t identified to the document in any way

At the moment, I find it actually more effective to take notes on paper. This is why the Symbian/Android/David Wood post and the one on William Langewiesche’s AF447 piece are dragging. It’s especially annoying that although the way you get ad-hoc documents in is via e-mail, you can’t use the subject line or the message body to give the document a title.

Can anyone recommend apps that address this?

Books: Exploding the Phone

So, I’ve been remiss with the book blogging. Here goes.

Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley is a group biography of the phone phreaks, possibly the original geek culture, exploiting the in-band signalling that phone companies relied on up to the late 70s for fun and if not profit, at least free calls.

I liked this because Lapsley talked to a lot of the people, not just the ones who got famous like John “Cap’n Crunch” Draper and Steve Wozniak, and also to the ones from the other side at the big expensive phone company and the FBI. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in here.

For example, AT&T Bell Labs’ effort to deal with the problem was Project Green Star, an instrument that plugged into a switch and correlated the signalling tones it generated internally with what it heard on the wire, logging anything anomalous and taping the first 90 seconds of suspected fraudulent calls. Installed in major network nodes, it did this on a random sampling basis in an effort to quantify the scale of the problem that rapidly broadened into an effort to cue in other forms of investigation. This was important because Green Star was very illegal, representing as it did an industrial-scale invasion of random phone users’ privacy. In many ways, the powers AT&T arrogated to itself in order to stop people making free calls paralleled those the NSA would grab under STELLAR WIND in 2001-2002, as did much of the litigation.

The phreaks understood themselves, under the radicalising influence of the Bell System and the cops’ effort to squash them, as part of the counterculture. I didn’t know, for example, just how much effort Abbie Hoffmann went to in order to spread information about fiddling with the phone system. On the contrary, I was well aware of just how ferociously conventional telco people can be, and some of the photos in here are absolute gold. Everyone on the AT&T side looks like they’re playing a CIA agent and distant father in a New Hollywood movie. I didn’t know, however, that the company was an early target and early triumph for feminist and black campaigners (and Richard Nixon in his flirting-with-basic-income quasi-radical mode). Also, for much of the time under discussion, a huge percentage of the active phreak community were blind.

You can take this too far, though. The Bellheads did have a point when they protested that they were protecting a great public service from irresponsible hackers who would do pretty much anything for the approval of their mates, like tinkering with USAF command-and-control networks in the middle of the Cold War. Also, as time went on, the scene began to attract the wrong crowd, the dangerously risk-loving, the trolls, informants and people who got their kicks pretending to know who the informants were, and the creepy. The guy responsible for getting into the military AUTOVON voice network was also in the habit of using the power to make unbilled phone calls to torment Pacific Bell’s operators, exclusively women. This was actually what triggered the final police crackdown, although the creep himself turned state’s evidence and shipped out in the military.

So there’s a sort of pre-history of the geek here, the scratchings on the cave walls, if it wasn’t for the fact that the medium is completely evanescent. You’ve got all the key tensions – between the defining insistence on the right of users to control technology, and the responsibility of engineers for things like public infrastructure, between the total inclusion that the technology made possible and the attraction it holds for predators, and in the end, between the attraction of community and the temptation of exclusion.

And then there’s the surveillance stuff and the Mafia bookies and the international element. There was a major trial in the UK at the beginning of the 1970s where a group of phreaks was convicted of stealing government electricity, namely the line current used to signal the call, because that was the only law available.

I am also quite pleased that I vaguely know one of the sources listed in the index, Brough Turner. I remember, when Skype brought out their WiFi sign-in product and the S60 client, phoning him up from the Skype stand at MWC on the WiFi. Even in the usual trade show hubbub (and hellish 2.4GHz environment) the SILK-V3 audio quality was superb and Brough was audibly enthusiastic.

That was when Skype was cool, though.

A bad sign

There’s a lot that could be said about this weekend’s political entertainment, but the bit that stays with me is that I fear we’re losing the best thing about Ed Miliband, which was calm, sitzfleisch, and the ability to wait out stupid media bullshit. This really is something you want in a leader, and we had an example of it not so long ago in applying the Gina Ford strategy to his critics.

Rafael Behr described the position as being like the chess concept of zugzwang, where you don’t have any good moves but you’ve got to make one. But one of the ways politics isn’t like chess is that there is no timer. (Knowing him, he probably got the ten-buck word out of something by Martin Amis.) Doing nothing is usually an option, and it’s quite often a good one.

Similarly, filtering out the noise and focusing on the essential is a skill you want in a leader. It’s as good as nailed on that the whole period from here to election day will be nothing but stupid media bullshit pseudo-events; we can’t afford more pilot-induced oscillation.

Pilot-induced oscillations, as defined by MIL-HDBK-1797A,[1] are sustained or uncontrollable oscillations resulting from efforts of the pilot to control the aircraft and occurs when the pilot of an aircraft inadvertently commands an often increasing series of corrections in opposite directions, each an attempt to cover the aircraft’s reaction to the previous input with an overcorrection in the opposite direction. An aircraft in such a condition can appear to be “porpoising” switching between upward and downward directions. As such it is a coupling of the frequency of the pilot’s inputs and the aircraft’s own frequency

Thinking about that, I reckon what the Labour Party could do with is a nice big phase damper to ballast it. Like so.

(Also, did anyone else notice that the Sun literally put Dan Ware on its front page as a cover-mount freebie? They placed his face and the trail for the story in a box over the strapline that also contained a giveaway offer. Perhaps, if you renew your Sky Sports subscription before the end of the month, they’ll send you a free dickhead. Which reminds me that someone on twitter said, very wisely, that the best argument that Emily Thornberry did anything wrong is that she exposed an ordinary civilian to the newspapers, a horrible and exploitative process that ought to be reserved for the professionals.)

Waiting for #defenduss…

So we’re waiting to know if the UCU’s higher education committee has decided to call off the action or not. It’s been a tense couple of weeks – the “EPF” came out with its super-extreme and deeply dodgy plans, the UCU rolled out, the universities threatened a variety of draconian punishments, and then they began to row back. Last Thursday, as the marking boycott went into force, negotiations were formally opened.

The problem is that a lot of people hate the boycott – this isn’t a season when it matters much, and as a result, only a few postgraduate students, often foreigners, are affected. Similarly, only a few academics are affected and have to take the burden of the action.

The UCU Left tendency sounds like it doesn’t want to negotiate in any case, but it’s worth pointing out that there are plenty of grassroots members who are both in favour of negotiations, and who think that a strike would be more effective in supporting the UCU delegation. Quite a few are concerned that they would get docked for some considerable time under the boycott, sapping their ability to support a strike that would come around anyway.

Also, the UCU leadership has been a bit hard to find, right down to the local level. It’s only since last Thursday that a modeller has been available to tell you how much you stand to lose. Legal advice as to the threats from the so-called Taff Vale club of college vice-chancellors was absent until somebody cracked on with their blog.

But that said, the action so far has boycotted them back to the negotiating table, which has got to be good (here’s a good reason.) Song for tonight, though:

If you don’t know which foot to dance on, you might try signing the petition against Bradford University’s boss, Brian Cantor, who has emerged as the most aggressive union-buster among’em. You could also sign the Surrey open letter and maybe even give.

the British origins of #dirtbox

Many IMSI. So catching. Much aeroplane. Such Dirtbox. OK, so the US Department of Justice, or more directly, the FBI is flying around in light aircraft carrying an IMSI catcher in order to spy on the cellular traffic of evildoers and, hey, anybody else in the 37km max diameter of a GSM cell centred on where the aircraft happens to be right now. Thanks to Declan McCullagh we know they have been since at least 2009 because it’s in the manufacturer’s price list.

But, hey, Dirtbox. I have to say I find the story difficult to follow just with the comic contrast of all these terribly serious Americans with lists of questions to ask in the Senate, like so, and the fact every second word is “dirtbox”, and they’re all innocent about it.

“Dirtbox” is a British slang term equivalent to arsehole/asshole dating from the 1990s, now archaic, probably best immortalised in a Viz comic strip featuring Roger Mellie, the Man on the Telly, and celebrity Tony Slattery. The genius of Google Images wasn’t equal to finding it, at least not in the 30 or so seconds I was willing to invest. Another reference is Robbie Williams’ appropriately shitty album Rudebox. So you can see how this would make me laugh.


Right. Probed by the dirtbox equipment. But we’re not just here for cheap laughs, are we. Here’s a blog post of mine from 2012. It is not exactly secret that the British secret services have the use of a small group of Islander light aircraft based at RAF Northolt in London that do precisely this. I remember Internet references to this from people who ought to know as far back as 2004-5.

Rlchard Aldrich’s unofficial history of GCHQ, though, notes that they were involved in an arrest in 2007 and goes on to point out that they have existed since 1999 at the latest. The reference is pages 537 and 538 of the 2010 HarperCollins paperback edition. Aldrich suggests that the technology dates to the campaign against Colombian drug baron Pablo Escobar in the early 1990s. He also describes it as pulling in microwave backhaul links.

Aldrich’s version of the story is all about backhaul, but in my 2012 post I disbelieved that we had that much of it still on the air rather than on fibre. I’ve since learned that 3UK has fibre, increasingly, dark fibre it controls itself, to 90-odd per cent of its base stations, but Vodafone is in the 30s and is therefore heavily reliant on microwave. You would expect an early 90s emerging market network to be about 100% microwave, so perhaps Aldrich’s source was in fact talking about Colombia. But this is beside the point, as IMSI catchers work on the access side not the backhaul.

I would guess that the UK context would be Northern Ireland, which reminds me that although Aldrich describes the aircraft as operated by the RAF, I’ve read elsewhere that they have Army Air Corps tail numbers.

So. Airborne IMSI catchers have been operated by the UK since 1999 at least, possibly earlier, and they are known in the US by a British slang term that dates them to a few years earlier than that.

Still the Omnishambles government

Con trick. £30bn extra cuts. That lower immigration thing is no longer operative. Voting on the European Arrest Warrant or maybe not. They get precisely nothing from their “renegotiation” and then the courts take the whole point away.

Miliband goes to the CBI and the members hiss a journalist for talking leadership crisis. The Libyan recruits in Bassingbourn turn out to be so bad the only good news is that here we keep the rifles locked up, so they can’t set up checkpoints on the roads like they did in Jordan. Even so, the army sends half a battalion of Royal Highland Fusiliers to keep them in line until they can get rid of them.

The government announces a revival of their awful national roaming scheme because of Crimson Dave’s dropped calls, but then they launch the consultation on the next lot of spectrum without a coverage requirement.

Can anyone smell omnishambles?