Category: protest

Against Save Our Thing

You know Save Our Thing. It happens every other year in every British community. Some sort of public service is moving, or closing, or reorganising, and someone is agin it, and we are all asked to roll out, get fell in, and demand that they Save Our Thing. Some people, reliably, are convinced that if we all Saved Our Thing at once, this would add up to a movement that would topple the government. Depending on the style you wish to adopt, you can say this in terms of “building the movement”, or else talk about “emergent”, “networks”, all that stuff.

But this is wrong. Saving Our Thing, as a political program, is seriously flawed or at least misdirected, and I think that it is especially flawed in the context of the NHS at the moment.

Here’s my first criticism. I don’t know what the optimal distribution of A&E departments in London is, or of sub-post offices in Rutland, and I would have to work very hard to even start identifying what information I would need to start answering the question. Also, I’m not actually very curious about this and it’s the kind of thing I would rather leave to experts. However, I am fairly confident that the answer is not “they should be distributed according to the presence of shouty middle-class people”. Further, I do know that a lot of complicated questions have counter-intuitive answers, and for example, that ambulance crews do actually take patients directly to hospitals with the speciality they need rather than going to the nearest one.

Here’s my second criticism. The Health & Social Care Act is not about hospitals. Neither is the NHS. Consider the Americans, the official providers of Awful Warning on this subject. They do not, I submit, have a shortage of hospitals. What they lack is, well, a national health service. The bureaucracy everyone loves to hate is, to a first approximation, the NHS. The system could work as well, or possibly better, if all the existing buildings were demolished today and replaced. It would still be the NHS. It is a service, not a large quantity of bricks, girders, and precast panels. It is defined by its organisation, its employees, its standard operating procedures, and increasingly, by software, both literally and metaphorically.

It is precisely the software that the Tories and the Liberals have attacked – the boring bureaucratic important stuff, the PCTs and SHAs, which are to be replaced by CCGs and CSOs and the NCB and if you’re canny you’ll want to watch the CSOs…oh, where did she go? The evil genius of the Act is precisely that its targets are invisible and its proposals, incomprehensible.

Save Our Thing campaigns respond only to large blocks of real estate. They remind me of the ecologists’ despair at the public’s obsession with charismatic megafauna and the resulting impossibility of getting their attention about boring and ugly creatures that are actually important to the survival of the whole thing. Control, power, responsibility, quality; none of this is visible. Bricks and mortar; these are.

The Health & Social Care Act is crafted, I suspect deliberately, to clear-fell the rainforest while carefully driving the bulldozer around the pandas. It destroys the ecosystem while keeping the crowd-pleasers alive in the zoo, for the time being. It is entirely possible to get to full privatisation and install credit-card terminals on the wards without closing even one building.

This strategy also speaks to another flaw in Save Our Thing politics. The worst thing that can happen is that they might actually save your thing, at least in the sense that the building is standing and the lights are on, by finding some sort of cynical fudge. The answer to a Save Our Thing campaign is to hush it with a sop. Very often, the campaign leaders will be all too aware that it’s nowhere near good enough, but will find that their followers presume that it’s all over and go home. I distinctly remember all three political parties promising to save our thing in Islington, including the party that was then proposing to cut it, the party that was secretly planning to cut it, and the party, of which I was then a member, that was secretly planning to put the party that was secretly planning to cut it into government.

Of course, how much sop you get is defined by how much pull you have, which is generally a force in favour of bullshit swing-wanker tudor-Tesco fuckery. This, in general, makes for horrible politics – cynical horse-trading over porkbarrel spending, cap-badge tribalism, vacuous centrist clientele-parties. Chris Huhne burning through a traffic light, forever. Some fields of policy act as a preview of this shit; defence is really bad, and the location of EU institutions is fabulously dreadful.

Now, control of public spending and employment is no small thing. In the 2000s, all the bits of the UK with an autonomous regional government managed to have higher real median wage growth than average, and three out of four of them actually saw positive territory. It can be a redistributive force. But I suspect that Save Our Thing politics is actually the opposite. And in the aggregate, it makes for a greater degree of cynicism, rejection of the public sphere, and supports the general tendency to move towards a low-trust society. And it is not going to save the NHS.

I’m afraid that the only way to do that will be to vote Labour, and keep on doing so. It is, in fact, true that you just can’t trust the other mob with the NHS. Meanwhile, how can we bring forward a general election?

A report back from the NHS demo

So, I was at today’s NHS demo. Somebody had to be – I was shocked by how many people weren’t there. The streets were full of people who weren’t there. And there was a pretty standard demo pitched up on the pavement outside the Department of Health at Richmond House, 97 Whitehall. Speeches. Depression. Workers’ Liberty tried to sell me a paper. The last time I met that lot, they wanted to explain why the lesson of the Paris Commune was that you needed to be nastier to the Muslims. Anyway.

After a while some people from Occupy London and a couple of other orgs turned up to join in. Not long after this there was some sort of interaction with the police (I heard later that they asked us to leave the pavement), and as a result the demo moved onto the street and formed a block across it. Very quickly, a couple of carriers appeared from the Parliament Square side with TSG cops aboard (one of whom, presumably in charge, was out and about talking to the ordinary bill). After some parley – I don’t know the details – they suddenly moved off towards Parliament Square. I expected them to re-appear behind us, but it didn’t happen. Instead, traffic was diverted at each end of Whitehall.

So we stood and sat there, singing our songs and waving our banners. There was more police coming and going, but no real change. Occupy started to work through their standard occupying procedure of holding a meeting and getting a human microphone going.

About 1530, a police carrier appeared from the direction of Trafalgar Square and delivered a slack dozen TSG men, who formed a line across Whitehall between the levels of Richmond House and Downing Street. The demo, which had been facing towards Westminster, swung around to face them. At this point I was seriously worried that the next move would be a line moving up from Westminster to form a kettle. The police deployment was quite thin and extended, whether because this lot were the first to arrive or because they deliberately wanted to filter people through the line.

At 1536, I tweeted (so probably a little earlier), the demo started moving towards Trafalgar Square, partly pushing forwards and mostly moving around the flanks of the police line. (This is a fair characterisation, I think, as is this.) The police moved back towards Downing Street and then towards the Women’s Monument, and there was some sort of outbreak of shouting on the Downing St side in front of the Cabinet Office, where a lot of people were trying to get by between the police line and the buildings. I passed by on the other side close to Alanbrooke’s statue (my twitter feed says this was 1600). This is the widest point of Whitehall, and the police line now had demonstrators on both sides.

From this point on, the demo moved fairly quickly up Whitehall. Ahead, I saw a police 4×4, possibly a senior officer’s vehicle, parked in the middle of the road, which suddenly moved off with squealing tyres. That sounds dramatic, but in truth the pace was little more than a brisk walk, and nothing violent had happened so far.

Approaching the top of Whitehall, a choke point where the street narrows before entering Trafalgar Square, I looked back and saw that beyond the demo, and the police, and the demonstrators who were on the other side of the police, many more police had arrived. I think I saw between five and eight carriers.

At the top of Whitehall, the demo started to pass into Trafalgar Square. I was one of the first in the retreat at this point. Due to the demo, and to an “event” in the Square, there was very heavy traffic on all the streets around it. As we emerged from Whitehall, the next vehicle to move forwards from the direction of the Strand and Northumberland Avenue was a police van, specifically one of the red Transit minibuses used by Met Diplomatic Protection and anti-terrorist branch units. (Wail Qasim identified them as such at 1606.) It was, for the record, in the traffic jam rather than parked off the street, and everyone was inside with the doors and windows shut.

One of the Occupiers immediately lay down in front of the van, I think to stop it or any traffic blocking the exit from Whitehall. Other demonstrators gathered around it. There was a hiatus as they realised that they had kettled the cops, and the cops realised that something unusual was going on. Then, one of them got out of the vehicle, with his H&K rifle slung, apparently intending to talk to the people. It can only have been at this point that the now-famous photo was taken. Like everyone else, as far as I can make out, my first thought was “Er, armed police?” (as my Twitter feed records at 1604).

Nothing very much happened. I was one carriageway from the van, and I don’t remember that anyone raised their voice between the police or the protestors around their van. However, I presume they radioed for help, as the first TSG unit now caught up in a real hurry, eventually forming a line (very tight and concentrated this time) in front of the van.

People now began to gather on the mini-roundabout facing them, which seemed to me to practically invite the creation of a kettle around it as more and more police were still appearing. As a result, this didn’t last and the demo moved on across the Square and into the Strand. By the level of Charing Cross, I had the impression that the demonstration had melted away, which struck me as a smart move. In fact, according to Twitter, some of us pressed on up Aldwych and encountered quite rough treatment from the police.

So that was my experience. Everyone seems to be furious that armed police were seen on the demo. I’m not sure that they were used, and I wouldn’t want this to detract from getting after, for example, this bloke or this one.

However, I think the real reason for this is that the Met usually has a group of armed officers and their vans based at Charing Cross nick, as it’s close to various ministries, the Palace of Westminster, Buckingham Palace, and some embassies that get armed police protection. The van could have either been coming from Charing Cross to start a shift, or perhaps on the way back via Northumberland Avenue. They didn’t seem to be particularly aware something unusual was going on, and they were sitting in a van in a traffic jam rather than being deployed in any tactical fashion. My twitter feed records this view at 1608, as do some others.

technique of generalised mayhem without any particular direction

Over at Stable & Principled, I’ve been blogging about running out of policemen and how the Prime Minister doesn’t seem to have any thoughts at all that weren’t adequate-ish newspaper columns from about 2004. But how did we get to the stage of using up the Met and most of the wider police forces’ reserves of manpower just like that? This isn’t a “What does it all mean?” post, although inevitably we’ll have one of them for you as well. It’s more like a “How does it all work?” post.

In all, 2,347 people have been arrested nationally. This is only a rough lower bound on the numbers of people involved, as obviously not everyone got caught and some of the people arrested are innocent. At an arrest rate of one in 10, that would give a total of 23,000. 51% of the arrests were in London, or to be precise the Met’s area of operations, which gives us the answer to one question at least – the police eventually quelled the riot by outnumbering the rioters, 16,000 cops versus an estimated 11,500 rioters. Obviously if you pick a different arrest rate fudge factor you’ll get a different answer, but then at least we’re using a model of sorts.

It’s certainly interesting, though, that a fairly small crowd was able to exhaust the policing resources of most of the UK. If the 23,000 rioters had shown up in central London to march on Whitehall, even assuming they were willing to be as troublesome and violent as they were elsewhere, I think the Met would have handled it without breaking sweat and certainly without needing to summon the South Wales force as mutual aid. Even the most hayseed British police forces deal with crowds of 23,000 young men reputed to be ready for violence, every weekend, quite commonly several at the same time, without very much happening. They are lower division football matches. And to be frank, a 23,000 strong national demo is disappointing.

So what’s up? One point is dispersion vs. concentration. Demonstrators want to occupy symbolic space and show their organisation by the very fact they could concentrate all these people. Casuals want to duff up the other mob. Therefore, the police problem is to either prevent them from getting to Parliament Square or the match, or else keep them segregated from other people while they are there. The police are on the tactical defensive, but the strategic offensive – if they stick it out they win.

Obviously, the demonstrators (or thugs) can’t counter this by dispersing because that would defeat the point. They have to come to the Bill, and the Bill can then canalise them. Kettling is the ultimate expression of this thinking.

If the police have to look for the crowd, though, this is obviously going to be a much more labour-intensive exercise. You can’t kettle several dozen groups of ten or so people spread over a dozen streets – the idea is absurd. You have to go looking for them. That in turn conditions what the crowd can do – it can’t stage a classic mass demonstration – and favours people who are willing to just randomly destroy stuff that happens to be undefended, while the traditional mass demo favours a show of what you might call subversive respectability. The slow march of the Zulus, if you like.

Another important point was that there was no key identity-group here – it wasn’t aligned with any one ethnic or religious group or geography and wasn’t even totally young, and it didn’t explicitly identify with a class either. Therefore, anyone who felt like it could join in, and did. This obviously helped it go national and also made a traditional (since the 80s) police tactic more difficult. How do you call community leaders to ask everyone to go home if you can’t identify the community? From the other direction, how do you negotiate with authority if you can’t identify a community?

(This is of course the final problem with the Big Society – its only organising principle is that it’s a society and apparently it’s big.)

I wonder if a lot of the violence was driven by the fact anyone could turn up, and therefore the only way to demonstrate that you really were one of the gang rather than a do-gooder or a fink or just some random spectator was to do something obviously illegal.

Also, did this kind of riot drop in between the classic modes of British policing? If someone commits a crime, there’s investigative policing, if it’s the right kind of crime and the right kind of victim. If the Chartists are marching on Westminster, line up on Westminster Bridge with shields and big sticks. And of course there’s community policing if there’s time between the other two for some cups of tea and old ladies, etc.

Investigation was rather irrelevant while it was going on, although of course it’s not any more. And the heavy mob couldn’t draw a shield wall around every shop in London. Neither could they find enough bodies to kettle every group of rioters, or find enough rioters in one place to kettle. It does look like the December 2010 student riots were a tactical learning-experience for a lot of people.

Finally, those BlackBerries. Not much to say here, except that the most important feature involved seems to have been the fact that BBM is multicast. You can message groups rather than only individuals. There are apps that let you emulate this with SMS, although the reply will only go to you.

As a general rule, BlackBerry Enterprise Server traffic should be hard to do anything to as the server, typically hosted by an organisation for its own purposes, generates its encryption keys when it’s set up. It’s not anything RIM or your operator has to know about. But this is of limited relevance – plenty of people run their own mail servers, but I’ve never heard of anyone who self hosts BlackBerry. The BlackBerry Internet Service, which is hosted by operators, certainly can be monitored by the operator as they own the server. UK operators would be covered by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and might have to hand over logs from the BIS servers.

I don’t know, however, if the BIS machine archives the content of what passes through it (which isn’t required by RIPA anyway). Obviously, the traffic-analysis data of who messages who and when is potentially revealing.

From a network point of view, though, I doubt if snooping on the traffic in transit would be very useful. You’d know that someone was using a BlackBerry, as it would be opening Packet Data Profile connections through the network and querying the BlackBerry network DNS. But as they monitor messaging all the time, that isn’t very useful information. Certainly nothing as useful as the BIS server log.

technique of generalised mayhem without any particular direction

Over at Stable & Principled, I’ve been blogging about running out of policemen and how the Prime Minister doesn’t seem to have any thoughts at all that weren’t adequate-ish newspaper columns from about 2004. But how did we get to the stage of using up the Met and most of the wider police forces’ reserves of manpower just like that? This isn’t a “What does it all mean?” post, although inevitably we’ll have one of them for you as well. It’s more like a “How does it all work?” post.

In all, 2,347 people have been arrested nationally. This is only a rough lower bound on the numbers of people involved, as obviously not everyone got caught and some of the people arrested are innocent. At an arrest rate of one in 10, that would give a total of 23,000. 51% of the arrests were in London, or to be precise the Met’s area of operations, which gives us the answer to one question at least – the police eventually quelled the riot by outnumbering the rioters, 16,000 cops versus an estimated 11,500 rioters. Obviously if you pick a different arrest rate fudge factor you’ll get a different answer, but then at least we’re using a model of sorts.

It’s certainly interesting, though, that a fairly small crowd was able to exhaust the policing resources of most of the UK. If the 23,000 rioters had shown up in central London to march on Whitehall, even assuming they were willing to be as troublesome and violent as they were elsewhere, I think the Met would have handled it without breaking sweat and certainly without needing to summon the South Wales force as mutual aid. Even the most hayseed British police forces deal with crowds of 23,000 young men reputed to be ready for violence, every weekend, quite commonly several at the same time, without very much happening. They are lower division football matches. And to be frank, a 23,000 strong national demo is disappointing.

So what’s up? One point is dispersion vs. concentration. Demonstrators want to occupy symbolic space and show their organisation by the very fact they could concentrate all these people. Casuals want to duff up the other mob. Therefore, the police problem is to either prevent them from getting to Parliament Square or the match, or else keep them segregated from other people while they are there. The police are on the tactical defensive, but the strategic offensive – if they stick it out they win.

Obviously, the demonstrators (or thugs) can’t counter this by dispersing because that would defeat the point. They have to come to the Bill, and the Bill can then canalise them. Kettling is the ultimate expression of this thinking.

If the police have to look for the crowd, though, this is obviously going to be a much more labour-intensive exercise. You can’t kettle several dozen groups of ten or so people spread over a dozen streets – the idea is absurd. You have to go looking for them. That in turn conditions what the crowd can do – it can’t stage a classic mass demonstration – and favours people who are willing to just randomly destroy stuff that happens to be undefended, while the traditional mass demo favours a show of what you might call subversive respectability. The slow march of the Zulus, if you like.

Another important point was that there was no key identity-group here – it wasn’t aligned with any one ethnic or religious group or geography and wasn’t even totally young, and it didn’t explicitly identify with a class either. Therefore, anyone who felt like it could join in, and did. This obviously helped it go national and also made a traditional (since the 80s) police tactic more difficult. How do you call community leaders to ask everyone to go home if you can’t identify the community? From the other direction, how do you negotiate with authority if you can’t identify a community?

(This is of course the final problem with the Big Society – its only organising principle is that it’s a society and apparently it’s big.)

I wonder if a lot of the violence was driven by the fact anyone could turn up, and therefore the only way to demonstrate that you really were one of the gang rather than a do-gooder or a fink or just some random spectator was to do something obviously illegal.

Also, did this kind of riot drop in between the classic modes of British policing? If someone commits a crime, there’s investigative policing, if it’s the right kind of crime and the right kind of victim. If the Chartists are marching on Westminster, line up on Westminster Bridge with shields and big sticks. And of course there’s community policing if there’s time between the other two for some cups of tea and old ladies, etc.

Investigation was rather irrelevant while it was going on, although of course it’s not any more. And the heavy mob couldn’t draw a shield wall around every shop in London. Neither could they find enough bodies to kettle every group of rioters, or find enough rioters in one place to kettle. It does look like the December 2010 student riots were a tactical learning-experience for a lot of people.

Finally, those BlackBerries. Not much to say here, except that the most important feature involved seems to have been the fact that BBM is multicast. You can message groups rather than only individuals. There are apps that let you emulate this with SMS, although the reply will only go to you.

As a general rule, BlackBerry Enterprise Server traffic should be hard to do anything to as the server, typically hosted by an organisation for its own purposes, generates its encryption keys when it’s set up. It’s not anything RIM or your operator has to know about. But this is of limited relevance – plenty of people run their own mail servers, but I’ve never heard of anyone who self hosts BlackBerry. The BlackBerry Internet Service, which is hosted by operators, certainly can be monitored by the operator as they own the server. UK operators would be covered by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and might have to hand over logs from the BIS servers.

I don’t know, however, if the BIS machine archives the content of what passes through it (which isn’t required by RIPA anyway). Obviously, the traffic-analysis data of who messages who and when is potentially revealing.

From a network point of view, though, I doubt if snooping on the traffic in transit would be very useful. You’d know that someone was using a BlackBerry, as it would be opening Packet Data Profile connections through the network and querying the BlackBerry network DNS. But as they monitor messaging all the time, that isn’t very useful information. Certainly nothing as useful as the BIS server log.

Who controls Government ad spending?

The Government’s Central Office of Information, essentially its in-house advertising agency, spent £193 million on advertising in the financial year 2009-2010. The year before, it spent £211 million, making it the UK’s single biggest media buying desk.

Is it appropriate for the Government to be spending taxpayers’ money propping up the deeply discredited News of the World and its mates in Rebekah Brooks’ Augean stables? In the light of 10 Downing St’s creepily close relationship with News International – hiring workplace bully Andy Coulson as press spokesman, meeting Rebekah Brooks under MP-constituent privilege to avoid public scrutiny – doesn’t this spending constitute a worryingly inappropriate use of public resources?

I don’t think so. Perhaps you don’t either. Or perhaps you’re cool with it. Either way, perhaps the top management team at the COI should be aware of your opinion. Fortunately, the COI’s top management team is on their website! So I’ve loaded it into a Google spreadsheet for convenient reference.

Obviously, there’s the CEO, Mark Lund. But think like a civil servant. Who’s in control? Mark Cross is in charge of “communications planning for all campaigns” so it looks like he’s a key node. The org chart bears that out – might be nice to get Graham Hooper, director of client service and strategy, too.

Don’t be abusive. They are public servants after all. But do be firm.

Who controls Government ad spending?

The Government’s Central Office of Information, essentially its in-house advertising agency, spent £193 million on advertising in the financial year 2009-2010. The year before, it spent £211 million, making it the UK’s single biggest media buying desk.

Is it appropriate for the Government to be spending taxpayers’ money propping up the deeply discredited News of the World and its mates in Rebekah Brooks’ Augean stables? In the light of 10 Downing St’s creepily close relationship with News International – hiring workplace bully Andy Coulson as press spokesman, meeting Rebekah Brooks under MP-constituent privilege to avoid public scrutiny – doesn’t this spending constitute a worryingly inappropriate use of public resources?

I don’t think so. Perhaps you don’t either. Or perhaps you’re cool with it. Either way, perhaps the top management team at the COI should be aware of your opinion. Fortunately, the COI’s top management team is on their website! So I’ve loaded it into a Google spreadsheet for convenient reference.

Obviously, there’s the CEO, Mark Lund. But think like a civil servant. Who’s in control? Mark Cross is in charge of “communications planning for all campaigns” so it looks like he’s a key node. The org chart bears that out – might be nice to get Graham Hooper, director of client service and strategy, too.

Don’t be abusive. They are public servants after all. But do be firm.

There is no crisis, dammit

From yesterday’s Obscurer, a story:

A senior union source told The Observer that it was clear Alexander had jumped the gun as the Treasury attempted to show it was taking a hard line on the burgeoning pensions bill.

“Danny Alexander has been reined in by the Cabinet Office,” said a union source. “What he did was inflammatory and showed no sense of the seriousness of these issues for people’s lives.”

Did the senior union source really? Probably he said the bit that was directly quoted, but I doubt anyone senior in a union would talk about a burgeoning public-sector pensions bill. Because there is no such thing. No. There is no crisis.

They're lying to you

It is not, in fact, burgeoning. It is shrinking. Wilting. It falls year on year for the next forty odd years in the worst case scenario. This is not the work of subversive Bolshevik infiltrators, either, but of the government’s own actuaries.

From today’s Grauniad, here’s Lord “Not the Judge” Hutton himself.

“It’s an uncomfortable truth, but I’m afraid it’s the reality, that the world is changing around us and people are living for much longer, and we have not been paying for those extra years of pensions – the taxpayer has. Strikes won’t make this problem go away, we have to act now. If we don’t act now, it’s our kids who are going to pick up the tab, and it’s not right.”

Well, the problem is going away. Strikes or no strikes.

What bit of this chart don't you get, fucko?

Hutton can’t plead ignorance. It’s in his own report. Iain Duncan Smith commissioned it but he’s not read it either:

He is expected to say: “We’re heading towards an unprecedented burden being placed on the next generation who will have to pay for their parents’ retirement on top of paying for the national debt. It’s not fair. This bill will address the realities of our increasing longevity by sharing the costs between the generations. We will stand by the 2018 and 2020 timetable.”

It’s precedented alright – the precedent is now. It goes down from now on if we do nothing. Doing nothing fixes the problem.

Jesus wept - how many times do I have to say this?

Now, I don’t expect very much from the pundit-wanker types like Patrick “Unseasonably Mild” Wintour or Toby “Toby” Helm. They’re beyond help. But Allegra Stratton is usually worth reading in the Grauniad because she’s a reporter rather than a pundit wanker political editor. However, even she didn’t find it worthwhile to read the report or even just to look at a couple of blogs, or if she did she didn’t think it newsworthy that this whole row is being sold to the public on false pretences, in total and absolute denial of the facts.

In the opinion of the people whose business it is to pay them, public sector pensions will cost less every year from here on in.

Surely, if you’re writing a story about a labour-management dispute over pensions, it’s incumbent on you to say something about the state of the pension scheme involved? It’s as if the Islington Gazette covered Friday night stabbings without mentioning the location, the motive, or even that a knife was used. But national press journalism seems to inject people with some sort of morally fattening and neutralising hormone. And this is the Guardian!

Shall we take it to the bridge? Yeah? Yeah!

There are reasons, of course.

Pensions: the public sector is in denial, from Saturday’s Money supplement. Oddly there isn’t a Poverty supplement.

Ian Naismith, head of pensions market development for Scottish Widows, said although more people were saving adequate amounts towards retirement in the public sector, and the changes will still leave them with reasonable pensions, those in the private sector who are saving towards retirement are contributing a bigger proportion of their earnings — 9.7% compared to 9.3%.

Well, they oughter as they probably don’t get any employer contributions.

Sadly, the Grauniad‘s hack doesn’t mention them at all at any point and you have to rely on one Ken Chu, an NHS sysadmin, who gets randomly voxpopped to raise this issue. But the paper has bigger fish to fry. Scottish Widows’ “head of pensions market development” – yes, really – has to get his sales-driven “research” in the media somehow. No doubt the nice lady from SW will be striding along the beach in next week’s glossy for a sizable payment.

To finish, and repeat:

Public pensions as a percentage of GDP will fall every year for the next forty years.

There is no crisis and everyone in the newspapers is lying to you, personally, quite deliberately.

OpenTech washup, and an amended result

So it was OpenTech weekend. I wasn’t presenting anything (although I’m kicking myself for not having done a talk on Tropo and Phono) but of course I was there. This year’s was, I think, a bit better than last year’s – the schedule filled up late on, and there were a couple of really good workshop sessions. As usual, it was also the drinking conference with a code problem (the bar was full by the end of the first session).

Things to note: everyone loves Google Refine, and I really enjoyed the Refine HOWTO session, which was also the one where the presenter asked if anyone present had ever written a screen-scraper and 60-odd hands reached for the sky. Basically, it lets you slurp up any even vaguely tabular data and identify transformations you need to clean it up – for example, identifying particular items, data formats, or duplicates – and then apply them to the whole thing automatically. You can write your own functions for it in several languages and have the application call them as part of the process. Removing cruft from data is always incredibly time consuming and annoying, so it’s no wonder everyone likes the idea of a sensible way of automating it. There’s been some discussion on the ScraperWiki mailing list about integrating Refine into SW in order to provide a data-scrubbing capability and I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes ahead.

Tim Ireland’s presentation on the political uses of search-engine optimisation was typically sharp and typically amusing – I especially liked his point that the more specific a search term, the less likely it is to lead the searcher to a big newspaper website. Also, he made the excellent point that mass audiences and target audiences are substitutes for each other, and the ultimate target audience is one person – the MP (or whoever) themselves.

The Sukey workshop was very cool – much discussion about propagating data by SMS in a peer-to-peer topology, on the basis that everyone has a bucket of inclusive SMS messages and this beats paying through the nose for Clickatell or MBlox to send out bulk alerts. They are facing a surprisingly common mobile tech issue, which is that when you go mobile, most of the efficient push-notification technologies you can use on the Internet stop being efficient. If you want to use XMPP or SIP messaging, your problem is that the users’ phones have to maintain an active data connection and/or recreate one as soon after an interruption as possible. Mobile networks analogise an Internet connection to a phone call – the terminal requests a PDP (Packet Data Profile) data call from the network – and as a result, the radio in the phone stays in an active state as long as the “call” is going on, whether any data is being transferred or not.

This is the inverse of the way they handle incoming messages or phone calls – in that situation, the radio goes into a low power standby mode until the network side signals it on a special paging channel. At the moment, there’s no cross-platform way to do this for incoming Internet packets, although there are some device-specific ways of getting around it at a higher level of abstraction. Hence the interest of using SMS (or indeed MMS).

Their other main problem is the integrity of their data – even without deliberate disinformation, there’s plenty of scope for drivel, duplicates, cockups etc to get propagated, and a risk of a feedback loop in which the crap gets pushed out to users, they send it to other people, and it gets sucked up from Twitter or whatever back into the system. This intersects badly with their use cases – it strikes me, and I said as much, that moderation is a task that requires a QWERTY keyboard, a decent-sized monitor, and a shirt-sleeve working environment. You can’t skim-read through piles of comments on a 3″ mobile phone screen in the rain, nor can you edit them on a greasy touchscreen, and you certainly can’t do either while looking out that you don’t get hit over the head by the cops.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of armchair revolutionaries on the web who could actually contribute something by reviewing batches of updates, and once you have reasonably large buckets of good stuff and crap you can use Bayesian filtering to automate part of the process.

Francis Davey’s OneClickOrgs project is coming along nicely – it automates the process of creating an organisation with legal personality and a constitution and what not, and they’re looking at making it able to set up co-ops and other types of organisation.

I didn’t know that OpenStreetMap is available through multiple different tile servers, so you can make use of Mapquest’s CDN to serve out free mapping.

OpenCorporates is trying to make a database of all the world’s companies (they’re already getting on for four million), and the biggest problem they have is working out how to represent inter-company relationships, which have the annoying property that they are a directed graph but not a directed acylic graph – it’s perfectly possible and indeed common for company X to own part of company Y which owns part of company X, perhaps through the intermediary of company Z.

OpenTech’s precursor, Notcon, was heavier on the hardware/electronics side than OT usually is, but this year there were quite a few hardware projects. However, I missed the one that actually included a cat.

What else? LinkedGov is a bit like ScraperWiki but with civil servants and a grant from the Technology Strategy Board. Francis Maude is keen. Kumbaya is an encrypted, P2P online backup application which has the feature that you only have to store data from people you trust. (Oh yes, and apparently nobody did any of this stuff two years ago. Time to hit the big brown bullshit button.)

As always, the day after is a bit of an enthusiasm killer. I’ve spent part of today trying to implement monthly results for my lobby metrics project and it looks like it’s much harder than I was expecting. Basically, NetworkX is fundamentally node-oriented and the dates of meetings are edge properties, so you can’t just subgraph nodes with a given date. This may mean I’ll have to rethink the whole implementation. Bugger.

I’m also increasingly tempted to scrape the competition‘s meetings database into ScraperWiki as there doesn’t seem to be any way of getting at it without the HTML wrapping. Oddly, although they’ve got the Department of Health’s horrible PDFs scraped, they haven’t got the Scottish Office although it’s relatively easy, so it looks like this wouldn’t be a 100% solution. However, their data cleaning has been much more effective – not surprising as I haven’t really been trying. This has some consequences – I’ve only just noticed that I’ve hugely underestimated Oliver Letwin’s gatekeepership, which should be 1.89 rather than 1.05. Along with his network degree of 2.67 (the eight highest) this suggests that he should be a highly desirable target for any lobbying you might want to do.

From the noisy phase to the quiet phase

Is it meaningful to say that the Egyptian revolution is calming down, or petering out? I ask because a common flaw of the reporting on it has been to treat the basic dynamics of mobilisation as if they were signs of huge political shifts behind the curtain. It’s obviously true that both revolutionaries and reactionaries need to sleep and eat. When the revolutionaries want to, they have no great difficulty in putting over a million people on the streets in Cairo and probably a bit more again elsewhere in Egypt. These are peak efforts. Idiot management-speakers like to talk about maintaining peak performance, but they are idiots: the word peak implies a supreme effort that cannot be maintained continuously. People have to eat and sleep, they have families, they have jobs, although many millions of Egyptians have been taking part in the revolution silently by essentially going on strike. Even revolutionaries have to maintain their barricades, update their blogs, and hold meetings to decide what to do next.

The result of this is that there’s been a sort of media cycle – one day the papers are full of pictures from the latest day of rage, the next it’s all about people grandly speculating on what happens next, and the regime’s spokesmen explaining how they intend to preserve the substance of the regime. Perhaps they talk about that on the other days, but nobody is listening. Or perhaps they believe it, when they wake up and hear that there are only tens of thousands of rebels in Tahrir Square rather than hundreds of thousands. Then, the next callout of the demonstrators resets the clock again.

Today, we seem to be in one of the ebb-tide phases. So it’s a good moment for a bit of speculating. What is important, in these terms, is that the government doesn’t seem to be regaining much ground in between waves of protest. Instead, there seems to be a ratchet in operation – each wave extracts a new concession. Mubarak sacked his government. And appointed a vice president. Then he promised not to stand again. Then talks were opened with the opposition. Then the military accepted to talk directly with the opposition, independently. Then the NDP hierarchy was purged. Then Suleiman renounced becoming president himself. And the regime’s own peak effort – Wednesday’s thug raid – was dramatic and violent at the time, but with hindsight was nowhere near enough in terms of numbers to change anything. Arguably, it wrecked the government’s remaining legitimacy and only demonstrated its lack of mass support.

The fear is that this is no ratchet, but a sort of retreat into the Russian hinterland, a trap. On the other hand, it’s a common pattern in the end of dictatorship, a sort of political Cheyne-Stokes breathing. You may think you are saving the structural realities of power and giving away the forms, but how will those realities stand up without the Emergency Law and the special constitutional amendments and the practice of having political prisoners and the ban on opposition parties and the censorship of the press? After all, there must be a reason, rooted in the structural realities of power, why you wanted them in the first place. If owning hotels was enough to sustain a tyranny, there’d be no need for Central Security or private thugs on camels or sententious TV broadcasts or bulk SMS messages with faked originating numbers.

Revolutions come with years, like New Order remixes used to. Prague ’89. Paris ’68. Probably the most relevant ones now are the Polish ones – Solidarity feat. Jaruzelski ’81 and ’89. The first one was a lot like what everyone fears for Egypt and also quite a lot like the official preferences of our governments. There was violence, but not as much as there could have been, and a safe military dictator won. He, in turn, turned to a religious and conservative pseudo-opposition to give his rule some foundation. The second was more optimistic but less spectacular. In 1989, the end of communism in Poland involved far more negotiating than it did street-fighting, and it involved putting up with Jaruzelski sticking around for the rest of his term as a sop to the powers that be, or rather the powers that were.

Egypt is already some way beyond 1981 – there is something like a round table, and the officially designated military strongman is getting very close to the exit, having disclaimed supreme power for himself. Probably the communists of 1989 thought they were cunningly playing for time. Suleiman has a far more ruthless reputation, though; the big issue is whether he can be trusted or better, constrained from trying to either crush the opposition between here and whenever the election date is set or else to start a civil war like the Algerian generals of 1991.

One argument has been that there would be a fake revolution, leaving the security state in charge, as Jamie Kenny put it. I think this is now out of date. Similarly, although they are now talking to the Muslim Brotherhood, I think my own prediction is also out of date. We’re past the point where a few Brothers in the government would convince anyone. In fact, Jamie and I saw our predictions first validated and then rendered irrelevant within a week.

Looking ahead, it’s worth remembering that 1989 took time to deliver. After the original moment of success, there was a long and uncertain haul of getting rid of specific individual bastards, changing laws, moving editors around the State TV and inspectors around the police force. I think we’re now into this phase. Some people seem to agree, from very different points on the spectrum. Changing the union confederation and the university professors’ club is very much to the point, whether you’re thinking 1989 and maintaining enough forward momentum to protect the revolution or 1917 and the second wave.

Take it easy ya Ahmad. Every revolution in history always has this carnival-like side. The insurrection will come later. #Jan25

I think I’d rather have that man on my side.