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The West Yorkshire snack vortex, his personal shopper, NHS computing, and FRES

I’m currently reading Oliver Campion-Awwad, Alexander Hayton, Leila
Smith, and Mark Vuaran of Cambridge Computer Lab’s case study
on the NHS National Programme for IT, an old topic of this fine blog’s. There is so much in common here with Think Defence‘s epic blog series on the disastrous FRES project it’s not even funny.

In this post we’ll look into how, why, and what this has got to do with Eric Pickles.

The Labsters conceptualise the NPfIT disaster as being another case for the growing academic study of IT project failure. Obviously, they would, they’re the Cambridge Computer Lab’s MPhil in Public Policy – wait, that’s an actual degree? wow! They identify various common points from past failures and note that NPfIT had them in spades, despite the fact that a lot of what was known about project failure in 2002 was known from studying NHS IT projects. These were as follows:

Haste – an unrealistic timetable, no time to engage with users, inadequate preliminary work, failure to check progress, failure to test systems

Design – failure to recognise the risks of large IT projects, failure to recognise that the longer the project takes, the more likely it is to be overtaken, sheer ambition, project is too large to manage, confidentiality issues

Culture and skills – a lack of clear leadership, not knowing or constantly changing the aim of the project, not committing necessary funding from the outset, a lack of concern for privacy, no exit plan or alternatives, lack of project management skills, emphasis on price, suppliers depend on lowballing and charge heavily for variations to poorly written specifications

They provide a detailed history of NPfIT, starting off with the original Information for Health strategy in 1997-1998, which actually sounds quite awesome. This strategy foresaw various aims, which boil down to three functional areas – a system for keeping records and running workflows, a management information system for both managers to monitor how well it worked and clinicians to monitor how effective medical practice was, and a Web site to disseminate information about health and to help the public influence NHS policy. The nice thing about this is that the three areas have minimal interfaces, and even those are read-only (the MIS sucks up logs from the first; the Web site uses stats from the MIS).

The even nicer thing about it was that it didn’t require centralisation, indeed, its five principles explicitly required the maintenance of patient confidentiality and local ownership of the system. These were maintained as late as 2000. The even nicer thing still was that it had a sort of Stafford Beer recursive quality; medics would use evidence from it to practice evidence-based medicine, managers would use evidence from it to improve the organisation, and we, the political nation, would use evidence from it to supervise the managers.

How this went wrong, well, it’s basically got Tony Blair’s name on it. Replacing Information for Health with NPfIT was Blair’s idea. It came from Tony Zoffis, as they used to say. Microsoft (and Cisco) pitched him silly and he then imposed it on everyone else. The key meetings were in February and March 2002, exactly the apex of Blair’s self-confidence. The Wanless review, better-known for pointing out that the NHS needed money more than it needed “reforms”, played a role; Wanless thought it needed better IT, and that the central government should hold it to doing it, but he didn’t actually recommend anything like NPfIT. However, the report did serve to sell NPfIT to the Treasury, the only force in British politics that could veto a project backed by the prime minister.

I’ve got more to say about this, but let’s pause for a quote.

Management consultant Thomas Brooks, who was involved in NPfIT under contract for a number of trusts, commented that in the procurement process “the iSoft Lorenzo offering was selected from paper descriptions with minimal demonstrations of prototype software elements”

Compare:

One of the Boxer prototypes in APC configuration would participate in the Trials of Truth, joined by Véhicule Blindé de Combat Infanterie (VBCI) from Nexter (previously Giat Industries) and the General Dynamics Piranha V. It was rumoured that the head of DE&S, Lord Drayson, wanted the VBCI because it would be quickest into service.

Both Boxer and VBCI were rejected by the Army, despite what Lord Drayson wanted. We had a choice of two vehicles that would need minimal development and were already (or about to be very soon) in production, and a PowerPoint design, the PowerPoint of course won the trials. The actual vehicle trialled was not Piranha V but Piranha Evolution, a surrogate for the final design.

It’s uncanny, isn’t it? FRES was a huge unwieldy mess with too many stakeholders, aims that constantly changed, and a deliberate determination to avoid meaningful test or development on the government’s time. There was even an insult for civil servants or officers who dared suggest that the end product might be an armoured vehicle of some sort, rather than, say, a new shade of the colour blue. They were said to be “solutionising” and usually moved on. Concrete thinking was reserved to private contractors only.

NPfIT had a parallel phenomenon, the “outcomes-based specification”. Presumably this originated in some sort of vague awareness of object-oriented programming, but the silliness can be summed up by the fact they set out to draft an outcomes-based specification for a standard data interchange format, which sounds like either a sheet of A4 with “IT SHOULD WORK” on it, or else an elaborate exercise in doing the actual work without admitting to it. It didn’t go anywhere; when things eventually deployed, huge amounts of time were taken up mapping nonstandard field names.

As a result, both projects tended to drift in a cycle between ambition growing without limit, untethered from the ground truth, and stodginess, lacking inspiration because out of touch with the possibilities of the technology.

It seems hard to fault FRES for haste of all things, but I think I would. Reading through TD’s series, one thing which stands out is the combination of haste – there was never time to do it properly – with timelessness – deadlines were never allowed to bite. This is precisely what happened with NPfIT, and come to think of it, every project I’ve been involved with that failed. It’s a special kind of time when frenzy and stasis combine. NPfIT’s schedule was always wildly unrealistic – Department of Health R&D Director Sir John Pattison promised Blair delivery in 2 years, 9 months in a meeting where Pattison recalled nobody seemed to be able to say “no” to Blair – but every time the deadline came up, it was just rolled over.

In both cases, the government tried to outsource its own outsourcing. The only element of NPfIT that worked properly and that was part of The Vision was the network. BT built that and it did the job itself. Everything else was contracted out to a contractor, who then subcontracted, creating a minimum of three layers of abstraction between the customer and the supplier.

Under FRES, the government hired WS Atkins as a “systems house”, whatever one of those is, shoved in between the MOD and the various contractors. The idea was apparently that they would manage the process of managing the development of the system (no solutionising!) and also its procurement.

This is the logical end point of our friend Pickles’ worldview. Pickles claimed back in the 1980s that there was a US town council that met once a year, just to issue contracts to run all its services for the next 12 months. This turns out to have been a fairy tale, but that’s by the by. He tried to implement this in Bradford and failed, but its spirit infused the procurement reforms of the 1990s, all of which were designed on the basis that letting the government get involved in the stuff it bought would be stupid. Instead, the point would be to pick as between brands of biscuits at the supermarket. The really weird thing here, though, is that Pickles procurement differs quite dramatically from the sort of thing neoliberals like to say about stuff you buy in the supermarket. Rather than being an active and informed consumer, the government is expected to use a personal shopper. How well this works…well he did spend £10,000 on snacks.

With regard to NPfIT, this intersected with other political imperatives. The famous LSPs, the super-contracts that didn’t actually match any NHS structure and only existed to make a better size of contract for Accenture or whoever, were also intended to channel a more general management influence from Blair’s office into the NHS. The Gate Zero review of NPfIT said:

There is widespread appreciation that the programme is a change programme first and foremost albeit with significant IT elements

Sir John Pattison said in mid-2002:

there was a need to create a new tier in the procurement process “to ensure not only that technology solutions are available and accredited, but to underpin those implementations with comprehensive change management

But what was the change that needed to be managed? It is surely very telling that the Health Secretary involved was Alan Milburn, memorably described at the time as leading the “Special Republican Guard” of ultra-Blairites, inventor of foundation hospitals and independent sector treatment centres. This was the peak of Blairite confidence; on the privacy front, Milburn had just legislated himself the right to dispose of NHS information as he pleased. (Is it significant that as we now know, GCHQ was growing at a rate of knots?)

Arguably, between him and Tony Zoffis, what was wanted wasn’t a management information system but rather a management imposition system. Rather than a system that would aid in the practice of evidence-based medicine and in public scrutiny, they wanted one that would help generate policy-based evidence to defend the changes it imposed after the fact, and to protect it from public scrutiny. Part of the take-home message here is that even had NPfIT worked, there is an argument that it shouldn’t have.

Meanwhile, FRES was certainly intended to support an army with global capability. However, its eventual consequences are a reconnaissance vehicle that weighs 32 tonnes and can’t cross most of the bridges in the Home Counties. (Hey, it’s no funnier than software you decided to stop buying but that kept coming anyway.) You could make a similar case, but then, if you decided to build a super-heavy armoured behemoth of an army that could crush anything as long as it was within a few miles of the border, you’d get today’s Israeli Defence Forces.

It is possible that there is so much software in anything important today that all big projects exhibit some of the characteristics of big software projects. Technology changes aims, though, but not as much as aims change technology. I fear that the problem is different. The upshot of both these stories is that the aims of the political settlement under which we live may make these procurements impossible.

ISIS: thinking on a scale set by the land

So, ISIS. Through the open newslist it turned out that a lot of you could put off reading about Jimmy Savile until later if it meant hearing about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and why it seemed at the time to have the beating of the Kurds. Let’s begin with the geography, or rather, the mental geography.

Iraq’s a desert, see? All sand, camels, etc, except for the mountains, great towering snow-capped mountains. In the sand, camels, etc. you’ve got the Arabs who are either Good Guys with Moral Courage or else they’re Bad Guys who are our enemies in a generational struggle against their evil ideology, like Churchill an’ all.

That version didn’t work so well and we found out that some of the Good Guys like to drill holes in their prisoners and some of the Bad Guys are only Bad Guys because they’re scared of the worse element among the Good Guys, and if we could somehow reassure both the Good Guys and the better Bad Guys about this, the better Bad Guys might be able to tell us where the really bad Bad Guys are, and then we might be able to hand the whole Iraq problem to a joint Good Guy/OKish Bad Guy government and go home. That worked better. A bit.

While all this was going on, everyone except the worst of the Bad Guys agreed that the people in the mountains were the absolute best of the Good Guys, tough and scrappy guerrillas who actually practiced democracy and a version of religion less horrible than you might find in Texas, and whose institutions usually worked. Awesome. I refer of course to the Kurds.

Now let’s look at some real geography. Here’s a map I made earlier with NASA’s fine Worldview web site, where you can see it in its natural habitat.

Screenshot from 2014-08-17 15:58:12

What we’re looking at is a standard basemap overlaid with temperature and population density information and night-time illumination, which is a finer-grained proxy for population in some ways but one that also reveals oil fields. Worldview lets you pick by date, so I’ve picked overhead imagery from the night of the 6th of June 2014. Yeah, 70 years to the day, but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s the night ISIS tore into Mosul. And I’ve centred the map over Deir ez-Zour, Syria, which might sound like either the middle of nowhere or else the middle of the world, or at least the Middle Eastern theatre of war.

First point. The people live near the water. Deir is nicely placed on the Euphrates valley, and if you don’t care about the border, from there you can easily campaign along the fine roads secular dictators built with oil money in either direction and you’ll find important things that matter, and possibly also friends. One way takes you to Aleppo and the other, Baghdad.

Second point. The people live near the water and also near the oil. Look how much population there is in Kurdistan and north of the Sinjar range – follow the river valley north from Deir and you’ll find it. Yes, I left the administrative borders off the map deliberately.

Third point. Per Wikipedia, which has a surprisingly detailed operational history in three parts here, here, and here, in the spring of 2014, ISIS was under pressure at both ends of the Euphrates strategic line of operations. Other Syrian rebels were attacking it around Aleppo and as far away as Deir ez-Zour, while the Iraqi government had by the 13th of April retaken Fallujah and the Fallujah Dam. The advantage of operating on interior lines is that you can dash from one front to the other faster than the enemy can; this falls down when the enemy coordinates. Ask a German.

Fourth point. A less scary group might have been beaten like this, but ISIS was equal to it. This situation demanded a strategic manoeuvre that would change the situation dramatically, and they produced one. The raid on Mosul collapsed the Iraqi command structure and opened up two whole new lines of operations, down the Tigris valley and into the populous north. Descriptions of the pursuit south in June concentrate on not so much fighting, but more a succession of what the Americans I mocked earlier would call key-leader engagements, with local security actors swapping sides to become ISIS franchises.

Fifth point. How did they do it? Again per Wikipedia, during March and April, they executed a retreat from Aleppo and the Turkish border to concentrate around Deir ez-Zour and secure their hold there. On the 6th of June, they attack Mosul from, per Wikipedia, the north-west, moving straight to the seat of government, the 2nd Infantry Division HQ, and the police HQ.

Hold it right there; look at the map. There’s a river road that leads a lot of the way there, from Deir towards Sinjar, Syrian Route 715. They didn’t, though, move along Iraqi Highway 7 through Sinjar and Tal Afar and then down 1 into Mosul from the NW, the obvious option, because they didn’t take Tal Afar until August. Even though the force that attacked Mosul has been estimated at 1500 strong, that’s still a column of 180 or so vehicles at 8 to a Toyota.

Perhaps they went…through the desert, like Bad Guys racing in on their horses to sabre the Good Guys as they sleep. Look at the map again. There are more people and more stuff NW of Mosul than you think. In fact, let’s zoom right in between Tal Afar and Mosul:

There are fields in this desert. Not oil fields, the other kind. Desert is obviously a very relative concept. In case you think I’m falling prey to “big hands, small maps, that’s the way to kill the chaps”, the land ISIS conquered over the summer produces 40 per cent of Iraq’s wheat. We probably shouldn’t think Rommel sweeping across the Sahara but rather, Mao swimming like a fish among the people. And this is what the north-west side of the city itself looks like. Turns out there’s a reason why there’s been a city there ever since there have been cities.

I don’t know about you but an intensive agricultural zone full of Sunni Arabs sounds a great place for ISIS to hide out the night before. OK, so. One of the big innovations of ISIS is just forgetting about the border, bringing the innovations of the Iraq War to Syria and vice versa. But it would be too strong to say that ISIS is just a brand. The movement from Deir to Mosul seems to have been very real, and it means they operate on a scale of 200 miles a bound.

Sixth point. ISIS structure and scale and strategy. Apparently it has seven regional commands, all with their own account on security-optimised Facebook analogue Diaspora:

My mental model of this is that they have a core force which can be projected anywhere in that first map pretty quickly, moving fast on its wheels (usually Ford Rangers rather than the iconic Toyotas) and through its social context, plus a lot of semi-attached local sheikhs. This is weirdly similar to the original FRES concept – a fast, wheeled army that would intervene, change the political situation, and be gone leaving some other lot like the UN or the mafia to hold ground.

Seventh point. The Kurds. The super-good guys! In August, ISIS began a new offensive northwest from Mosul, having presumably recovered the core force from its rush on Baghdad in June. Having said what we’ve said so far, a big part of the point is probably to secure the road, Iraqi 7, that links their Tigris-Kurdistan-Diyala and Euphrates-Syria-Anbar fronts, as well as to deny the harvest to the Iraqi government and to spread pure terror. Another aim would be to deter the Kurds from interfering. It seems to be a standard ISIS move to go straight for leadership targets, see Mosul, and that would be why they threatened Irbil early on.

The initial Kurdish response to ISIS was to move forward and grab Kirkuk (that’s the really, really big blob of light on map 1). You can see why; it’s full of Kurds and oil. But the prestige attaching to this seems to have been a problem, causing the various Kurdish political parties to compete to get as many of their fighters into it as possible. Kurdish priorities also included Syria and their alliance-commitment to help out Maliki. This may not have left much.

Kurdish fighters in early August were often described as a reserve force (for example, here). Since then, per the still-essential Musings on Iraq, there has been a mobilisation across Kurdish parties in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, and a move towards a unified command, which might explain even more than US help why the situation has stabilised.

So, fighting ISIS effectively required abandoning the mental geography of the borders and adopting one based on reality. ISIS has framed its strategy on a scale given by the landscape, not by borders that are basically fictional at the moment. This might not be the most exciting story ever, but there you go.

Career opportunities

LinkedIn’s algo just recommended me this:

The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s Mobile Technology Programme works on a wide range of exciting initiatives – from conducting independent research and developing bespoke mobile apps to forging innovative public-private partnerships and implementing regional projects – all with the aim of utilising mobile technology to support women entrepreneurs in building successful businesses.

We are seeking a highly motivated and dedicated programme director with excellent professional and academic credentials to develop and lead the implementation of the programme’s strategy. Applicants should have a passion for the core issues at the heart of the Foundation and the Mobile Technology Programme – primarily enterprise development, technology, gender and international development.

So LinkedIn thinks I’m a technical project manager and a feminist, with past signing authority up to £1m, but one who is willing to sell their principles and hang out with the Blairs. And then I got this e-mail:

Hi Alexander,

I’m building a team at Lib Dem HQ that will contact voters across the UK. This team will recruit volunteers, develop a voter contact strategy, and support our candidates as they campaign through to polling day on 7th May, 2015.

I know why; in the run-up to the 2010 election there was a call for volunteer developers and I signed up. They never called back. But how long will it take the buggers to accept that I quit?

One-link post

One for Erik:

Woollard’s writing suggests a more tragic story, where these principles were well understood in the factories of Britain’s industrial heartland, only to be lost in the decades that followed. It seems likely that the principles were preserved or possibly rediscovered by Toyota…

Just because

I have just noticed that if you leave a comment on the New York Review of Books‘s blog and it goes into moderation, they return the following message:

Hold on, this is waiting to be approved by The New York Review of Books.

Put like that, it almost seems an honour.

Jobs through Your Local Budget are 400% of GDP!

Is there anyone who didn’t predict that the Big Society would descend into shameless grantsmanship, chancerism, and possibly illegal party financing? Go read; the list of projects is unimprovable, The Thick of It meets Siobhan Sharpe meets the Alan Partridge pitch scene. Much of the money ended up with Tories or ex-Tories and some of that seems to have been donated back into the Tory campaign funds.

Some of this is pukka taxpayer’s money out of Cabinet Office funds, and the civil servants involved seem to have been put under the gun to hand it out. Accounting responsibility is utterly central to the structure of the civil service, however, seeing as the minister is Francis Maude and the permanent secretary and therefore accounting officer is Bob Kerslake you can probably whistle.

Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, meanwhile, is suing the Henry Jackson Society, the rather late UK branch of organised neo-conservatism, over some event she asked them to put on and went out rattling the tin for. Now there are a lot of unpaid bills, and missing money.

In the States, meanwhile, Krugman notices that top Murdoch executives’ employees look to them for revenge, as if they were gangsters or something. Ahem.

Hoare was furious with him one time when Hoare brought in a story about a famous actress only to find that Coulson, first, refused to publish it; second, took the famous actress on holiday; third, was clearly being rewarded in her bed; fourth, and worst of all, told the famous actress how Hoare had managed to get the story in the first place, with the result that the source was exposed and lost forever.

When Hoare discovered all this, he told Coulson direct and to his face that he was a “complete cunt”. Coulson replied with a line which became a regular catchphrase as he worked his way upwards: “I’ll make it up to you, mate.”

And although Brad DeLong’s Koka-Dancing Good-Time Snake-Handlin’ Thinkotheque offers grants, not one conservative bothered to apply. What links all this?

Well, perhaps, we could have a look at this parliamentary debate and specifically Esther McVey’s contributions.

While Labour was in office, it gradually wore away the financial strength of this country, eroding its savings and savings culture, and then it crashed the economy. Gas bills doubled, council tax doubled and fuel duty went up 12 times. The only things that grew under Labour were debt and overspending.

Apparently there was some huge pool of savings on deposit in 1997 that got spent by government. I remember a £28bn budget deficit. Funny! Also, I thought energy prices were all about the market now.

Let us not get away from how this started under Labour. What each and every one of us does is important. I have heard nothing from Opposition Members about the news that, because of our welfare-to-work programme, 30 million people are in jobs today. We know that under Labour, the number of households with nobody working doubled—[Interruption.]

There are 60-odd million people in the UK.

If one thing came out of the disastrous years that made our country more vulnerable because of the disastrous finances of the Labour Government it was the fact that not only are this Government doing more to get people into work—I will say it again, although I heard no positive sounds from the Labour Benches before: there are 30 million people in work—and that businesses have helped to support people and have taken them on, but that the community has come together to support one another

There are still 60-odd million people in the UK.

In the UK, it is right to say that more people are visiting food banks, as we would expect. [Hon. Members: “ Give way!”] No. Times are tough and we all have to pay back the £1.5 trillion of personal debt, which spiralled under Labour. We are all trying to live within our means, change the gear, and ensure we are paying back all the debt that we saw under Labour.

It is important to look at what is happening around the world. The UK has a population of 63 million and 60,000 people are visiting food banks according to the Trussell Trust. In Germany, however, with a population of 82 million, there are 1.5 million users of food banks. Canada has population of 35 million, and there are 830,000 monthly users of the Trussell Trust.

Who knew that the government was trying to reduce its deficit in order to pay down personal debt? What could that possibly even mean? Also, does the Trussell Trust operate in Canada?

We must put everything in context and look at what happened, whether that is the overspending and not being able to balance the books from 2002, or the financial crash of 2007. [Interruption.] We must look at how much we have done to balance and rebalance the economy, and get it on a stable footing.

Balance it! And then rebalance it! It sounds like something in the circus. You wonder what she actually thinks a chart of the public sector budget looks like over the last few years.

Let us be honest. One thing the Opposition do not understand is that disposable income is different from income. What have we done to support people with disposable income?

Several hon. Members rose—

I bet they did. I’m only surprised Esther McVey’s intern hadn’t provided talking points on what the coalition has done for people with disposable income. I imagine it wouldn’t be too difficult. The sting here is that the debate is about food banks and it’s not just the Labour MPs speaking; it’s the Tories. Story after hellish story of humiliation and despair pours in, and McVey responds in much the same way.

It’s a mixture, as above, of unbelievable lightness – the welfare to work programme is responsible for 30 million jobs, half the UK population – and hyper-extreme partisanship – Labour is making it all up, teh debt is really 400% of GDP, and if there are food banks which there aren’t then they’re Labour’s secret foodbanks. On the one hand, the chancer, on the other, the thug. Welcome to the emerging low-trust society, or did I say that before?

Who do we trust? Len McCluskey, Jerry Heywood, and SCIENCE!

It seems to be TYR Service! day, so I followed up on a discussion elsewhere about social trust in the UK by analysing Ipsos MORI’s polling series on trust by profession.

Having fiddled with various ways of filtering the data in an attempt to get a readable line chart, I decided to look at net trust – i.e. trust minus distrust – and concentrate on the change in each series, and to compare the average of the first 10 years (1983-1993) to the last 10 years in order to avoid either chasing outliers or throwing away too much data. Then, I remembered the First Canonical Principle of Data Visualisation: if your chart is not a horizontal, sorted bar chart, it probably should be.

The upshot is a bit of a surprise, although the strong increase in net trust (well over a 2 standard deviation result) for civil servants and trade unions stuck out literally whatever analysis I tried. Viva el blob, indeed. (The spreadsheet is here.)

Screenshot from 2014-07-21 14:24:29

And I really, really wasn’t expecting an increase in average trust, although I’m not sure that’s a sociologically meaningful measurement here, especially as “ordinary people” lost 9.83 percentage points of net trust, a 1.3 standard deviation result. The clergy has taken a real beating, for obvious reasons, while scientists did really well (another surprise). TV did poorly. Nothing whatsoever happened with regard to the police.

Business, which I was asked about, is a difficult one; the result here is that its net trust went up, but by so little (0.39 standard deviations) it might well not have changed at all. However, a lot depends on where you stick the pin in the donkey. The rating for 1983 was very low, -40, no surprise, rose from there to -25 in 1993, declined again and hit -37 in 2002. Not surprisingly, it hit -41 in 2009. Perhaps more surprisingly, it also hit -39 in 2005 and -25 in 2006. It’s now at -23, which could be considered a record high. However, it could also be described as fluctuating around an average of -31 since forever; fitting a linear regression through it gives you an R2 of 0.04, aka nobbut bugger all. Essentially all the change is accounted for by 1983, and as we have seen, it reverses to that level whenever there’s a recession and sometimes just for a laugh.

And if you ask specifically about bankers, well…that said, what have those pollsters been up to?

Spam, and the art of negative marketing

I remember reader Ajay wondering how those godawful “Aberdeen Steak House” things around the West End have a business. I can’t find the discussion now, but I recall I told him that their ideal customer was someone for whom paying over the odds for a really bad dinner was an important part of their night out. That’s how they knew they were having a good time, I speculated.

Now here’s a Microsoft Research paper that explains this more elegantly. It examines why 419 spammers are so obvious and their production values are so crappy. Basically, the problem is false positives – it’s very important to the spammer to target suckers and to avoid wasting effort on non-suckers, and because the pool of potential marks is big relative to the pool of suckers, anything that improves the targeting is a disproportionate boost to the spammer’s payoff.

Even though the cost of sending out spam is minimal, this is only the first step in the process – once a mark responds, the attacker starts to incur costs. Non-suckers who respond will get wise at some point, leaving the attacker with a loss. Because suckers are rare, it’s hard to find a way to predict who might be a sucker. So the optimal strategy is to broadcast as widely as possible, but to tailor the message. The reason why they look like only a real sucker wouldn’t spot them is that they’re specifically designed to be easy to spot, so as to put off the non-suckers. An upshot of this is that the people who get their kicks by stringing 419 spammers along may actually be doing useful work.

I suspect this phenomenon – essentially the opposite of advertising, a sort of negative marketing – is much more common than we may think, and that it explains much else beyond terrible restaurants. Boris Johnson comes to mind, as do quite a few other politicians. In a low-turnout context, it ought to work, especially if you can put off the non-suckers from voting at all.