Category: GSM

#crimsontide is coming for your mobile bill

This piece from Tom Watson is excellent. I can’t think of more than one other pol who understands mobile networks as well, and the other one knows more about fixed. Perhaps Watson is just well advised, but then picking good advice is a very important skill. On this strength, he’s the second best mobile analyst in the Northern Soul community.

He doesn’t, though, link to the news story that kicked the whole thing off. It’s here, at the FT. Apparently, David Cameron has:

has ordered ministers to improve mobile phone coverage across the countryside after becoming frustrated about the lack of reception in the often core Conservative-voting territories.

Ordered, eh? I thought he believed that free markets work. Presumably the Ministry of Medium Machine Building will be assigned to implement this decisive contribution to socialism. Maybe Cameron will show up at work to provide me with on-site guidance, like the North Koreans do.

The motivation is purely personal:

“We were requested to meet Maria Miller after complaints from David Cameron and Owen Paterson that calls were dropping,” said one. “Apparently this was an issue that grabbed the attention of the cabinet.”

Imagine the crimson tide that must have flowed. It’s also crassly cynical:

Mobile groups were asked to examine the costs of coverage to villages in Shropshire, Dorset and Norfolk – all with almost exclusively Conservative MPs – although work then focused on just using Shropshire as a pilot area.

Cameron’s solution, as Watson and the FT both say, is to impose a national roaming requirement on the networks. So if your phone doesn’t find Vodafone, it picks the next strongest signal, like it does under international roaming. This sounds nice, but it’s not as clever as all that. First of all, it doesn’t help you if there is no coverage from any network.

Between the 5 or 4 UK networks, depending on whether you still count Orange and T-Mobile as independent entities, there are actually only two-and-a-half sets of so-called passive infrastructure like land, towers, power and such. Vodafone and O2 share theirs under Project Cornerstone, T-Mobile and 3UK under Mobile Broadband Network Ltd, and EE’s 4G network is mostly parallel to MBNL, but also includes some original Orange sites outside it. There is also some complexity regarding how deep the sharing goes, but this is beside the point.

As a result of this, you’re less likely to find places where only one operator has coverage. Rather, you’re likely to get a dichotomy between places where both broad alliances are present, and none are.

Secondly, roaming in the mobile world implies compensation between carriers. If this is not regulated, it will be agonisingly expensive, because it’s intrinsically like a cartel. There’s no point unless everyone does it, which means there is no meaningful competition. The EU’s toughest women have spent a decade grinding this back cent by cent in the international domain. Watson notices this, which puts him way beyond most people.

Thirdly, if you can push traffic onto the competition and make a turn on the roaming, you’ll do it, so this gets rid of an incentive to build out more infrastructure. By now you’re probably wondering why we bothered to build four networks. The answer is that it would probably have been a good idea to share, but doing so requires the government to structure the market so that somebody will still bother to build out across the country. Back in the late 80s, infrastructure sharing wasn’t ideologically fashionable to say the least, and the successful example of fixed-line unbundling didn’t exist. It’s also true, though, that nobody then had any idea how this was going to turn out.

So here’s your problem: just throwing the switch on national roaming is rather like having infrastructure sharing, but without a population-coverage requirement, and also rather like unregulated international roaming. But there’s worse!

OK, who do you think will carry the most inbound roaming traffic? Obviously, the network with the most rural coverage. This won’t be the same as the one with the most base stations, because if you have spectrum in the original 900MHz GSM band, or even lower, in the 800MHz ex-TV band when that becomes available or even the 600s when they get auctioned, you automatically get a huge coverage boost from the fundamental principles of radio theory. You pay for this with a capacity/coverage tradeoff, though, so it might not please the countryside that much.

But it will make smaller operators subsidise bigger ones. This is a fundamental reality of a telecoms termination fee regime, where the network originating a call pays the network where it ends up. As a result, termination has monopolistic effects and is always regulated. OFCOM and the Euro-regulators have spent most of the last decade grinding it back. And now, we have a policy initiative that looks a lot like unregulated termination, with the downsides of roaming and of network sharing chucked in.

The worst of it, though, is the grisly contrast with the utter shambles of Cameron’s Broadband Delivery UK policy, which has so far failed to give a single contract to anyone other than BT and has also failed to deploy any end-user fibre. At the same time, community broadband projects that get public funding aren’t allowed to provide mobile operators with backhaul – i.e. the connectivity from the base station to somewhere civilised.

The market for very high speed leased lines, which is what you need, is officially unregulated even though in 85% of the UK there is a BT monopoly and in the rest, the only competitor is Vodafone, which can’t be expected to help its mobile competitors. You can follow this at BT whistleblower Broken Telephone‘s fine blog – I particularly like the bit where BT got central government money to overbuild a network the Welsh built with Welsh Assembly funds.

There are good things you can do with national roaming. Certain niche MVNO offerings and Machine-to-Machine applications can benefit. This guy used to sell Manx SIM cards to people who worried about per-operator black spots, but I think OFCOM made him stop for some reason. T-Mobile Netherlands used to do the same thing, but in tens of thousands, for machines. But this is niche stuff. Update: Revk points out that under the new EU rules, foreigners would get free roaming while UK residents would pay. I’d forgotten his mob offers you the option of switching to if you’re out of footprint.

Oh, and Tom Watson should be back in the shadow cabinet.

Some economic links

This is quite impressive – a very short blog post that explains the Marxist idea of reification in neoclassical economic terms of equilibrium, game theory, and collective-action problems. I think I now know what it means.

A case for Help to Buy. Most of the work in it is either done by the notion that it’s not all that much money, or by the notion that the housing market is still in an abnormal low-liquidity condition and there is frozen supply that could come onto the market if only there were more trades.

If it’s possible for a smallish intervention to cause a lot more trading, though, it’s possible that this might mostly be on the demand side. Dan Davies would argue that it’s the presence of a price-insensitive actor that moves a market. The government in HTB is such an actor, on the buy side. If there were price-insensitive sellers still out there, they wouldn’t be waiting, by definition. Also, if there is frozen supply out there, that’s another way of saying there’s an overhang of sellers. Which way do they expect it to go?

Here’s a Robert Vienneau post even I understand – there are two versions of the firm in perfect competition. One, the classical version, just says that unusually large profits eventually get competed away. The other goes for the whole rational expectations fat bloke slog over midwicket.

In practice, no.1 is far more useful – back in 2009, when the general roaring growth of the smartphone market was selling tons of BlackBerries, it was a sensible and valid point to say “Well, one of the competitors might eventually just win and take over” or “Someone might launch a really professional mobile Linux and give it away, strapping a rocket to whoever can manufacture cheaply at acceptable quality”. Saying instead that “Everything is in the current price of $RIMM” was completely useless and indeed disastrously misleading.

Junk Charts likes this chart and so do I:


It points up two things for me – the underrated, huge impact of Android that was so unprofitable for its authors at Google, and the point that Apple didn’t just barge into the business in 2007, they kept hitting us again. The chart shows nicely that it was the 3GS that really hurt. Also, “other smartphones” peaking in 2006 – that’s us, that is.

League tables make you thick, even two years later. It does worry me in the light of the Ryanair fuel league.

I want one that just makes calls: no, you don’t

Earlier this year, I had to spend a week or so with a 2004 vintage feature phone. For connoisseurs, it was one of the early 3G models from LG that 3UK launched with. This was an interesting experience.

The first thing that comes to mind about it was that simple wasn’t simple. iPhones are simple; this was not particularly simple. Neither is simple easy to achieve or technologically undemanding.

It wasn’t as if the user interface was not rich and expressive. Here is a list of all the ways I could act on it.

The clamshell had a switch to tell the device if it was open or shut. There were two configurable softkeys below the screen, Nokia style. There was a permanently assigned back button and a permanently assigned cancel button. There was a five-way arrow pad. There were SEND and END keys. There was a standard 12-key numeric pad. There was a rocker volume control, a hardware trigger for the camera, and the camera itself could be turned on a roller relative to the rest of the device.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of this was hardly ever useful, and the software made very poor use of it. There were a lot of badly organised menus, most of which couldn’t be searched or scrolled with, say, the rocker or the rolling cam, which was positioned just below the screen and therefore looked very much part of the GUI workflow.

A lot of the hardware controls spent time mapped to various operator-provided, paid-for services, all of which were provided as WAP sites that don’t exist any more. It did do things like taking photos, playing back media, and browsing the web – just none of them very well. And we used to think this stuff was acceptable.

When I finally got rid of it, I was reminded of a story about Doug Engelbart. Struggling to explain the idea of augmentation and the Augment Lab, he hit on the idea of de-augmentation and asked someone to try writing with a pencil tied to a brick and then remove the brick.

GSM Warlord, with actual statistics

Via Trombly x Exum, an interesting paper on mobile telephony and the Iraq war is here. I was impressed by the fact the authors know there are multiple antenna sectors per cell-site, and that they bothered to find out roughly what an emerging market GSM operator’s roll-out process is like. In fact, if you wonder, the paper is actually quite a good high-level brief on how you go about picking the sites for a mobile phone network and some of the operational considerations, in Iraq or anywhere.

But that’s not the point. The authors set out to answer whether GSM helped the insurgents or the counterinsurgents in Iraq. They reasoned that it might help the insurgents by letting them co-ordinate their activities and by letting them set off bombs remotely, and the counterinsurgents mostly by making it easier for civilians to inform on the insurgents. They also took note that it could contribute to economic development, which is presumed to help the government side. (They don’t discuss the impact of either counterinsurgent ELINT spying on GSM traffic, or insurgent spying, probably as it’s very hard to get any information.)

They pulled a hell of a lot of data, helpfully provided by Zain (i.e. ex-Celtel), and concluded after a creditable effort to understand it that there was a small, but formally statistically significant, effect in favour of the counterinsurgent. Importantly, this was strongest in the areas that were classified as mixed Shia/Sunni in 2003, i.e. the battlefield, and during early 2007, i.e. the decisive peak of the battle.

That said, the R^2s aren’t huge (highest is 0.28). There’s also a problem in that they took quite a lot of care to identify antenna sectors that got service for the first time, in order to compare them with ones that already had it and ones that never did. This is scientific, but it does pose the problem that Zain weren’t putting so many BTSs out there in the spring of 2007 in the worst of the civil war, because their people didn’t want to die, and therefore you wonder about the sample size and the representativeness of some data points that are quite crucial.

Actually, you learn a lot here about the history of Zain Iraq’s network; in the months before the fateful mosque attacks of 2006, they were building out like maniacs, true to their reputation back then as Mo Ibrahim’s pioneers covering the most troubled hellholes of Africa. Then, it got bad enough and suddenly that they shut down most investment and stayed that way until the end of 2007. The authors say that “month-to-month variance in violence” didn’t lead to “major design change”, but the point wouldn’t be design change but timing, and they also include a chart that suggests they basically stopped in the worst of the war.

Growth isn’t necessarily stabilising, and I suspect that Zain engineers would tell you that straight off. In a very low-trust society, more resources are quite likely to lead to more conflict. I think it’s a safe assumption that GSM coverage helps people to rat to the government more than it helps them to rat to insurgents, because insurgents need to be in the network of strong personal ties to survive. I’m not completely convinced, though. There were examples of insurgent intelligence exploitation of GSM back then (see the 2005 and 2006 archives) and the weak/strong tie distinction is subjective.

Also, I would like to know what role anti-social networking played; to what extent did better communications, that were mobile, two-way, and also personal, help to spread propaganda, hate-speech, and paranoia? Radio Mille Collines was a broadcast system, but there’s no obvious reason why incitement to genocide can’t be participatory via SMS or (better) voice.

That said, the most responsive measurement of violence was the percentage of IEDs found and cleared, which suggests something was going on.

But one of the most interesting things in the paper is this:

Most importantly, the teams would typically enter into long-term contracts with local community members and organizations to pay for site rental, generator fueling, site security, and training of local engineers to provide these services. Where possible, they would engage with local elites to identify the personnel who could be entrusted with these jobs.

This strategy of establishing close connection to local elites meant that once marketing had identified an area for network expansion, teams were mostly able to move in effectively even in areas with high violence.

So perhaps we’re seeing the emergence of people who can navigate the emerging low-trust society. On the one hand, the interhierarchical leaders of instant tradition, who would later be the key interlocutors with the Americans in the counterinsurgent phase, on the other, the pre-merger Celtel team who were already familiar with working in this kind of environment.

TYR Rewind. So, those logs.

TYR Rewind. I wonder if there was ever an audit of the UK mobile network operators’ lawful intercept logs?

We know that the network of private investigators around the NOTW were able to locate mobile phones, by paying a corrupt copper £500 a dip.

If the copper could do that, they could also listen to the calls or, to be honest, do what they liked. Who was the copper? Was she or he the only one? Do we know how many requests came from them? What measures have been taken to secure the lawful intercept interfaces of UK mobile networks?

Commenting on ARML 2.0

You may remember my brief involvement with AR standardisation (the annotated whiteboards are here). As a result I’m on the mailing list for various things, and the Open Geospatial RFC for the ARML 2.0 spec just dropped. Being on a plane, I got around to reading it. I have comments.

Back in Barca, in order to “simplicate and add lightness”, I wanted to make the point that fieldnaming and typing more important than anglebracket jihad (there was a row about HTML or JSON style), to make sure relative coordinates were a possibility, as I thought they would be really important for industrial applications and I’d just been bitching at Dirk from Layar about this. I’m very pleased to see that relative location made it into the spec.

I also think it’s important to have simultaneous, intermixed display – this fits with the (usually) urban environment these things are used in, and map overlays are a powerful pattern. This brings problems, though.

The ARML spec

I was a strong advocate for markup, but I’m really not sure about this. It’s a bit of a mess of HTML and object oriented concepts. I challenge anyone to try explaining a “trackable” to an intelligent programmer, and recommend you don’t try explaining it to your dad.

Reading through, I jotted various points.

What should the internal context of the browser, equivalent to DOM, be like?

Are we representing the AR content internally as several independent objects (like browser tabs) containing placemarks, or are we representing all the placemarks currently loaded in a common context, or are we keeping them in a store and then lazyloading them into the display?

is the current composed scene several “pages” overlaid, or one metaclass of objects from multiple sources?

“Composed scene” is the AR term-of-art for the subset of all the currently loaded content that’s visible in the current view. This led me to the next point:

HTML thinks of everything as a document

We definitely don’t look at documents, or Web pages, like this. You don’t have multiple tabs overlaid on each other, with elements selectively hidden. HTML is a fundamentally textual medium, AR things just…aren’t. This raises an interesting point.

should different AR things be able to see each other?

OK, what if I wanted to show some object, depending on the presence of another object? Or if I wanted to track an AR object and use that as a reference to place another? I can’t think of any reason why I shouldn’t be able to do that within my own page/application/whatever one of these is called. It might be cool to be able to do things based on the content of other pages, but I can see why having a same-domain policy would be valuable (you don’t want RandomApp smearing dogshit all over FindYourHSBC).

Should objects change state because some sort of conditional was passed to the browser when they were created, or because scripts tell them?

At the moment, you can have an “enabled=” property on an ARML object that determines if it is shown or not. You can also have a script show or hide objects, or even create them ex novo, based on its program logic. I think we ought to decide how much logic should be in the supposedly structural ARML and the browser, and how much in scripting.

What about audio, and, and…

The spec sort-of deals with the possibility that you might want to show things based on sound, or on conditions that aren’t locations in general. But I don’t think it provides a convincing starting point for this.

Probably best not lazyload data

It often suggests that content ought to be pulled over the network as late as possible. But I think this is wrong. We’ve got lots of RAM! We’ve got fast radio air interfaces! But our radio networks like interactions that crank up to linerate, and are then finished. Mobile networks are stressed more by signalling than by traffic, and that’s driven by setup/teardown. Chatty is the enemy. Further, the other big constraint in mobility is battery, and that’s driven by how long the radio is active.

If you must be chatty, hold open a data connection. Don’t do endless setup/teardowns.
Positive suggestions

Rather than hiding stuff, creating various kinds of basic registration objects, etc, what about this simple point? Registration is a conditional statement. IF we are within LoD range of point(x,y,z) THEN show this. Therefore, all the ARML anchors are conditionals. It doesn’t matter if it’s a WGS84, a range/bearing/elevation, a noise, a camera recognition, a QR, a smell…or importantly a combination of these.

We might want to work with other objects in the app. We might want to work with objects from other apps in the current scene. We are very likely to want to show content on the basis of program logic, though, and of course, even a simple placemark is shown because a conditional statement is evaluated and an event fired. So all an anchor should be is a named conditional. Rather than “trackables” and such, we have anchors which bind an object to an event, covering all kinds of location, audio, etc.

No, this isn’t terribly webby, but then most advanced Web apps aren’t either. Google Maps isn’t much like But the wonderfulness of the www comes from links, view source, REST, openness. There’s no reason we can’t have those! but we don’t need to have hellish app syntax either.

And I think the big meta-question here is “is it an app or a page?”

Whining about Android

This piece on Android Police is painfully true, even though to be honest the screenshots show a huge improvement over the versions I’ve used. But the UX is really the last thing to hate about Android. Well, it was on the first one I had, which was a poorly integrated hacky mess.

No, the worst thing in the Android world is how it treats storage, which is pretty fundamental to an operating system. Typically, a device ships with a relatively small chunk of integrated Flash storage, and a slot for a SD card. I’m fine with this. Expandability is good. And there’s plenty to say for the common Linux pattern of keeping the system and data (or sometimes, the kernel and userland applications) on separate disk partitions.

On the other hand, it was always idiotic to try to force this, and try to stop you keeping applications on the SD card. That’s mostly gone these days. However, just because an app lives on the SD doesn’t mean that it keeps its data there. And you can’t move an app that the vendor, the Open Handset Foundation, or the carrier installed with root privileges. Also, a lot of app developers like to log stuff.

The upshot of this is the storage crunch. Progressively, system apps bloat out until the system starts to throw moan messages about low storage. And now you’re in the tank. The storage menu for “internal storage” shows you apps whose data is stored on the SD card, which doesn’t help. Depending on how you arrive at it, it may be sorted by file size, or it may not. Some of them you can flush, others you can’t. And there is so much crap. (“Win Cash!”, I kid you not, installed as root.)

Not only is there a lot of crap, it’s all logging away. I don’t use any of this stuff, but it still reliably wakes up (due to the idiotic “launch all the apps on startup” anti-pattern) and writes to storage. And a lot of it is useless. “My Downloads Provider” seems to duplicate the function of a default downloads folder in the file system, but still reliably bloats out to 180KB or so. “Contacts Storage” is using 8.5MB of precious internal storage, when the vCard file containing my contacts is 230KB. Inevitably, though, flushing the storage disposed of all the contacts, which implies the implementer actually set out to destroy data if the thing ran out of storage. There has never been an option to move contacts to the SD, which is stupid, as contacts are one thing you’re certain to want to move between devices.

In fact, doing stuff that the file system just does is a major issue. If it’s that worrying that some app might keep songs in /sdcard/songs not /my_songs/ or whatever, just provide a stub API saveSong() that writes to the folder. You don’t need a database and you don’t need logging! It’s a strange thought that it’s a Linux under the bonnet, partly because of the rules-y side and partly because it’s so keen on not just using the damn file system. Further, I suspect that a lot of the logging has a vague “err, we’ll use it for ad targeting” intention behind it.

The “low storage wizard” is hideous in itself. The threshold that triggers it varies between applications; for example, it is much more likely to go off if you’re trying to read SMS messages, and I really suspect that this is some nudge bullshit to manipulate you into taking it seriously. When you delete stuff, you don’t necessarily get the space back, or sometimes you get more, and the free space counter doesn’t agree with the wizard. There is a lot of fuzzy maths – clear 11.4MB of browser cache, gain 500 or so KB of space, drop 8MB of whatever the contacts store keeps, gain 25MB of space. Eh?

Perhaps it’s fixed in the next version. But every time the update push happens, I can’t install it; I don’t have any internal storage free.

Now, of course, there are the indie ROMs. As far as I can make out, CyanogenMOD 9 will work but the camera doesn’t and neither does GPS. The much older, but stable 7.2 has fewer bugs but the maintainer probably won’t maintain it any longer. SpeedDroid seems feature-y, but has some horror bugs (“phone crashes and deletes all my contacts and data”, yes, why, Mr. De Havilland, I’ll be delighted to test your new aeroplane). Hmm. Wildchild 2?

(I remember when XDA-Developers was pretty quiet, but was actually full of people developing for the XDA, aka a name one of the British carriers stuck on a HTC Windows Mobile 5 gadget when that was the only half decent non-Symbian smartphone you could get. Yeah, I know, piss off grandad. Maybe I’ll get one of those iPhones…when I’ve finished laughing.)

The reactionary Internet predates ‘t other un

Here’s a post, first of a three-part series, from The Monkey Cage about inequality and power. The point Martin Gilens makes is that where a policy has broadly similar support across US income groups, its chance of being put into effect follows a well-behaved response curve with its approval rating. But a policy on which the classes take sides faces very different chances. Policies supported by the rich are dramatically more likely to be implemented. In fact, there is no correlation between popularity and implementation for policies supported by (eh) the 99%!

Or as Gilens puts it:

These findings suggest that political representation functions reasonably well for the affluent. But the middle-class and the poor are essentially unrepresented (unless they happen to share the preferences of the well-off)

Now, yer man goes off to disaggregate causes and discuss mechanisms. I will hop straight to a conclusion. What this demonstrates is that agenda setting beats decision making power.

Here’s an example of how. With Pussy Riot, iPhones, that Harvard guy who got his Night Flight pickup girlfriend the first mutual fund licence in Russia, etc. The Stiftung:

In truth, Surkov is gone because he couldn’t foresee the rise of the networked nation and social media. Surkov relied on TV to sell a facade of Putin because TV gives narrative control. Comparatively, Putin allowed print media much greater latitude and even quasi-independence. Surkov and rest simply don’t know how to make Putinism work in a peer to peer world.

The post is better than the quote might suggest. But I’d take issue with the idea that the managers of Russian politics are unfamiliar with the Internet. Andrew Wilson’s Virtual Politics is an indispensable book here. In many ways, Surkov and Gleb Pavlovsky (who’s also out on his ear these days) were far ahead of anyone else.

This history is unpalatable, and not just because it’s less rah-rah facebook; it’s also unpalatable because it speaks to the depressing realities of post-Soviet Russia, of how the aspirations for democracy ended up with Putinism, how the Harvard and Thatcher Foundation economists’ ideas were disastrous, and especially, how they still happened even though nobody would vote for them in a fit. If you screw your eyes up right, Russia was a preview of the future.

The key method Pavlovsky’s Fund for Effective Policy introduced was the temnik, basically an interlocking network of e-mail lists which were used to distribute unofficial briefings, kompromat (i.e. smear-material), and selections from the output of helpful bloggers to the editors of mass-market media outlets. Compliance was of course voluntary, but the nature of the beast is that if one TV station has a story, others must respond. Also, there were other means of pressure available.

The Presidential Administration, Surkov’s fief, based in the former Central Committee Secretariat HQ and with much of its staff, could always find ways of making life difficult through the use of administrative resources, and most of all, by arranging advantageous mergers and influencing personnel politics. It was also possible, of course, to encourage supportive trolls to fill up the temnik with abuse and threats.

The key organising form Pavlovsky introduced can, I hope, be guessed from the title of his organisation. It is, of course, the wanktank or fake thinktank. This model was, according to Wilson, expanded to include the creation of whole fake political parties. This served to split the vote, to confuse the issue, to introduce apparently independent policies, and to create the illusion of either debate or consensus, as desired.

The total effect was, in Pavlovsky’s words just before the Ukrainian revolution of 2004, “a communication system that can be switched from peace to war mode at any time”.

To recap: we have 1) unattributable briefing, through an Internet channel which is 2) semi-permeable to public mobilisation, driven by 3) wumaodang activity, and reinforced by 4) social ostracism and economic pressure on the managers of mass media.

However, I do think the Stiftung has a point. The Pavlovsky/Surkov version of the reactionary Internet works on the principle that the medium is an elite medium rather than a mass one, and that therefore access to it is relatively limited. Opposition that does use it is necessarily a restricted intellectual circle, like so many in Russian history, and may be co-opted into supporting the system (like so often in Russian history) or eliminated when this becomes necessary. As a result, it is useful as a lever to shift the TV stations (CBS during the 2004 elections being a western case study), which move the mass.

Much broader access changes this. Importantly, a major source of broader access was the growth of mobile Internet service. That went together with the proliferation of mobile devices with cameras. Which went together with the user-generated video websites. If you agree with the Stiftung that there was a qualitative political distinction between the newspapers (and the blogs) on one hand, permitted more editorial independence in exchange for a restricted audience, and TV on the other, this ought to be interesting.

Now, the obvious response to this is that arseholes have iPhones too. Virality cuts both ways.

But then, Russia is running a couple of years ahead on this. They’ve already had several run-outs trying to create a reactionary counter-movement. Several brands have been used, burned, and replaced. Many observers noticed that the pro-Putin demonstrators during the protests earlier this year seemed thin on the ground, lacking in enthusiasm, and obviously inauthentic. It was also necessary to use the administrative resources to get them to turn out in the first place – hauling students in to see “youth officials” who looked very much like chekists.

Although they could stage as many pseudo-events as they wanted, they couldn’t guarantee that the political public would see them first through the sympathetic lens of TV rather than through mocking unofficial videos. Another problem is that the fake political parties have a way of taking on a disturbingly real presence, and a fake activist movement is only going to be more like that.

So, where are we going with this? Well, back to the Monkey Cage post. The extreme, caricature example of the power of agenda-setting is that being able to choose in a election between the power candidate, a Communist candidate who doesn’t actually want to win, and a Pavlovsky wanktank is not much of a choice. Choice and decision are context-dependent.

And that said, one strategy from our point of view scrabbling about on the floor is to adjust your preferences and your identity to match those of the people whose interests are served. If enough of you do that, they might even start calling you a lobby or a movement or a Tea Party. On the other hand, they might call you a cargo cult. You can’t usefully pretend to be rich. But in any political system, once you aggregate a substantial number of people whose interests are aligned, you can at least hope for some clientele fan-service.

The Surkov/Pavlovsky package may be breaking down in Russia, but if it is, it may well be because this process of identification ain’t happening. In the West, it worked better. But there’s a flip side to this; the identity itself must change to accomodate the identification. The process cannot be easily controlled. And this may lose as many people as it gains. If the whole thing is a joke and everyone’s just pretending to be special libertarian snowflakes or contented Brezhnevite consumers, why not treat it as such?

3 favourite Nokias

Your 3 favourite Nokia devices. Easy enough – the 2001-looking 6230. The 6230i put in a better camera but let carriers cover it in placky silver gubbins, when it was a piece of classic European product design. The N73, intended as a smartphone but which was at its best as a camera. Mine had the 3UK patch-into-Skype feature, which was cool even if it didn’t work very well. And leading the way, the best thing they ever did, the E71. Not only did it work, it was beautiful at it, and if you were really masochistic it ran Python (including in an interactive interpreter).

Canalising the marshes: tidying up the people

Well, this is interesting, both on the Bo Xilai story and also on the general theme of the state of the art in contemporary authoritarianism. It looks like a major part of the case is about BXL’s electronic surveillance of Chongqing and specifically of top national-level Chinese officials:

One political analyst with senior-level ties, citing information obtained from a colonel he recently dined with, said Mr. Bo had tried to tap the phones of virtually all high-ranking leaders who visited Chongqing in recent years, including Zhou Yongkang, the law-and-order czar who was said to have backed Mr. Bo as his potential successor. “Bo wanted to be extremely clear about what leaders’ attitudes toward him were,” the analyst said.

That’s Zhou Yongkang as in the head of the whole Chinese internal security structure, cops, spooks, and all. Bo’s police chief (and future sort-of defector) Wang Lijun is described as being “a tapping freak”, addicted to the productivity and hence apparent power of electronic intelligence. Not only that, Wang eventually began tapping Bo, who was also tapping the CDIC feds who came down to keep an eye on him.

The practicalities are, as always, interesting.

The architect was Mr. Wang, a nationally decorated crime fighter who had worked under Mr. Bo in the northeast province of Liaoning. Together they installed “a comprehensive package bugging system covering telecommunications to the Internet,” according to the government media official.

One of several noted cybersecurity experts they enlisted was Fang Binxing, president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, who is often called the father of China’s “Great Firewall,” the nation’s vast Internet censorship system.

It’s worth pointing out that the provincial networks belonging to China Mobile, China Telecom etc. are usually organised as companies in their own right, and they often have their own AS numbers, and indeed they often contract for substantial network development projects with Western vendors (Nokia Siemens recently had a big mobile network contract in Sichuan, notably) on their own right.

Anyway, Fang’s involvement is very interesting indeed. He is responsible for the state-of-the-art authoritarian solution to the Internet. This is not just, or even primarily, a question of blacklisting websites or turning off the Internet. The Great Firewall’s detailed design, as the Cambridge Computer Lab found out a while ago, is specifically intended to be a semi-permeable membrane. Rather like Hadrian’s Wall, it is more about the gates through it than the wall itself, and the defences point in both directions.

When a computer within it tries to initiate a TCP connection to one outside that is classified as dodgy, the Firewall sends an RST message back to kill the connection. This permits much higher performance than the DNS-based blacklisting typical of, say, the UAE.

It also means that it’s possible to ignore the RST and look through the firewall by using your own firewall utility (specifically, set something like iptables to drop any RSTs for connections in states other than ESTABLISHED before a suitable time has elapsed). However, it would be a fair guess that any traffic doing this is logged and analysed more deeply.

Further, there is a substantial human infrastructure linking the media/PR/propaganda system, the police system, and the Ministry of the Information Industry. This uses tools such as moderation on big Web forums, direct recruitment, harassment, or persuasion of important influencers, the development of alternative opposition voices, and the use of regime loyalist trolls (the famous wumaodang).

The firewall, like Hadrian’s Wall or the original Great Wall, also has an economic function. This acts as a protectionist subsidy to Chinese Internet start-ups and a tariff barrier to companies outside it. Hence the appearance of some really big companies that basically provide clones of Twitter et al. Because the clones are inside the firewall, they are amenable to management and moderation. 

And none of this detracts from the genuine intention of the people at 31 Jin-rong Street, the China Telecom HQ, to wire up the whole place. Iran’s surprisingly important role providing broadband to Afghanistan and diversionary links to the Gulf reminds us that providing connectivity can be a powerful policy tool and one that you can use at the same time as informational repression.

So, Fang’s achievement is basically a package of technical and human security measures that let whoever is in charge of them command the context Web users experience.

Last autumn, several of the Chinese web startups were subjected to the combined honour and menace of a visit from top securocrats. Tencent, the owner of QQ and the biggest of the lot, got Zhou Yongkang in person. In hindsight, this will have been around the time the CDIC landed in Chongqing.

So, where am I going with this? Clearly, there was serious disquiet that somebody was usurping the right to control the wires. Even more disquieting, the surveillance establishment in Fang’s person seemed to be cooperating with him. And the systems he set up worked just as well for someone increasingly seen as a dangerous rebel as they did for the central government. (In fact, the people who like to complain about Huawei equipment in the West have it the wrong way round. It’s not some sort of secret backdoor they should be worrying about: it’s the official stuff.)

I do wonder, depending on what happens to Fang (he’s still vanished, but his Weibo feed has started updating again), if we might not see a relaxation of the firewall, which the pundits will consider “reform”. In fact it will be no such thing, rather a cranking up of internal chaos to facilitate a crackdown on opposition.