Category: Uncategorized

Forget letters from 20 MPs. Remember Scotland

Here’s an astonishing piece of journalism from last weekend’s Labour mini-crisis. Daniel Boffy, The Obscurer‘s policy editor tells us:

Even more significantly, this newspaper has learned that 20 Labour frontbenchers have indicated they are “actively considering Ed Miliband’s future”. The information came from a senior Labour MP who last week canvassed the parliamentary Labour party for support for a coup. “There isn’t a letter. But there could be one very quickly,” the Labour MP said.

Boffy was re-using a quote from Nicholas Watt at the Guardian earlier in the week. So much for the Observer being a totally different paper to the Guardian.

But why would anybody care if there was a “letter” or if 20 MPs, not a penny more, not a penny less, signed it? In the Conservative Party, 20 MPs can write to the 1922 Committee chair in order to start the leadership election process. This is, though, something that exists in the Tory charter and nowhere else. The process to elect a Labour leader is as different as it could be and the number 20 is not significant. Neither are MPs as such.

Actually, the number is 15% these days although I think it used to be either 20% or 20. See Nick Barlow’s comment below

The rule book states that the leader is re-elected by the party conference, annually, and that’s it. (Where were these guys at conference, then?) In between times, the only mechanism I can see to initiate a leadership election would be if the National Executive Committee were to call a special conference, with the Conference Arrangements Committee putting the matter on the agenda.

This is a pretty high bar as the plotters would need a majority of both committees as well as among the MPs, the union members, and the activists. When the party is in government, the bar is set higher still, as a simple majority of conference is required on a card vote to have an election at all. Where the Tory charter gives a great deal of power to backbench MPs to overthrow the leader, the Labour one gives them very little and involves the membership early on. In the Tory system, the MP makes the party; in the Labour one, the party or rather the movement makes the MP.

You’d think being familiar with the main political parties’ constitutions, at least as they apply to something as fundamental as sacking the party leader, would be a basic skill for a political journalist. But apparently not. After all, Alan Watkins maintained a reputation as a sage for many years by pointing out that you need a hands-up vote at conference to sack a Labour prime minister, and therefore this week’s ration of Blair/Brown drama was going nowhere. They never learned, though.

Part of the problem, I guess, is that if you’re a national political journo, there is no story that is more exciting or more suited to your contacts book than a party leadership crisis. Because the Tories have more of them, everyone in the business has learned all the drills for a Tory crisis. Are there 20 MPs? Is there a letter? (Note that there are only 24 frontbenchers, so they were either bullshitting or counting has-beens.) You’ll notice that no coverage at all last weekend even mentioned the NEC or any of its members.

In this light it’s unlikely indeed we’ll get any meaningful reporting from Scotland. Scotland? Yes. Look at this chart. I was arguing with various people on Twitter about this, and I pointed out that if you want to argue that the Labour poll lead is collapsing it helps to trim the X-axis so you only get the exciting bit. Trust me – I used to be a Lib Dem, so I know all about dodgy charts. Here’s a plot of poll leads since the 15th September.

Screenshot from 2014-11-16 20:04:53

First point: Wow, there’s a lot of noise in there. Second point: I’ve marked the Labour conference between 21-24 September on the chart – that’s the first grey box. The Tories were the week after. Didn’t we do well? If there’s been a “melting” of the lead, it sure as hell didn’t happen at conference and in fact it happened in mid-October, which leads us to the second grey box. That’s the week Johann Lamont resigned as Labour leader in Scotland.

If you look at the Ipsos-MORI poll (the green triangle on the chart), about 11 per cent of the weighted total sample is Scottish. Therefore, the 39 percentage point uplift in the SNP share of vote they picked up in the November political monitor translates to 4.3 percentage points of national voting intention.

So it’s just a pity it’s practically an official secret that the Tories have given up on English-votes-for-English-laws. Labour said “no deal”; William Hague made a fuss; and Ed Miliband got his way.

representatives from all parties agreed on Wednesday that enhanced devolution should “not be conditional on the conclusion of other political negotiations elsewhere in the UK”.

This is what I predicted would happen. But EVEL as a scare seems to have worked up to a point, by sticking a rocket under what seems to be the SNP’s “whatever it takes to get revenge on Labour” strategy. I do think, though, that Scottish Labour politics at the moment has become very important and nobody seems to care.

A serious suggestion.

Perhaps they could have an empty chair? Or what about a serious suggestion? As Chris Brooke was saying in the other place, couldn’t we borrow a Commonwealth judge? In fact we could do better than that. Either Canada or Australia could offer someone who has experience of leading an inquiry like this one. Murray Sinclair? Mick Dodson? Marcia Langton?

Thiel-ing out at Google

Does anyone know what Larry Page means by this?

Even more than technology, he puts this down to policy changes needed to make land more readily available for construction. Rather than exceeding $1m, there’s no reason why the median home in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley, shouldn’t cost $50,000, he says.

stuffing envelopes and getting stuffed

Mark Pack has a very good post up on how the Lib Dems’ distinctive approach to campaigning evolved, and what that meant for the party. Essentially, since the 1980s, the party was reshaped entirely around one particular technique: direct mail.

I didn’t know that the LDs’ identification of target seats isn’t, or isn’t just, based on their psephology or demography, but rather on how many leaflets the local party has dropped relative to their target. More leaflets mean more resources, and specifically, more resources to help you generate more leaflets and deliver them. In a functional sense, the organisation within the party headed by Chris “Wandering Hans” Rennard was a direct mail agency, designing, printing, and delivering bulk leaflets, selecting the targets, and vetting their content.

This essentially, although Pack won’t say as much, hollowed out the party’s incredibly complicated structures for internal democracy and paved the way for the jump into coalition with the Tories. Eventually it took over the press office and the staffers supporting MPs. Nothing that mattered, as far as I can see, was left under the control of the federal executive or the conference or the regional federations or God knows what, and as activists, we sure as hell weren’t consulted or even informed. There were leaflets to get out!

In a wider sense, you get the impression that the real role of the Lib Dems has been to publicise an incredibly cynical version of politics. You set the message and dump the leaflets out. Interestingly, direct mail played a really big role in the growth of movement conservatism in the States through the 1970s, with people like Richard Viguerie.

If you get elected, you say whatever the opposite of the local council says on any issue, but most of all, you turn around correspondence as fast as possible. The role of activists is unpaid direct mail. The role of MPs or councillors is as a sort of service function processing public whining in an expeditious fashion. The role of the party is to get in a position where it can buy electoral reform off another party, in order that it can stay in that position forever.

And if you want to be an MP, you better do whatever it takes to please Lord Rennard, because he’s got all the leaflets. In that sense, Pack’s closing remark is on the money:

electoral politics in Britain has followed where the third party led

China changes government. Exclusive in the Observer.

The Observer is a strange newspaper. Here’s a bit from its business page today:

Disturbed by the lack of similar action in Brussels and in Frankfurt – home of the European Central Bank – investors fear that the eurozone is sliding ever closer to recession. They are also worried about a sharp slowdown in China, following moves by the ruling People’s party to tackle escalating state sector debts.

China is ruled by the People’s Party, rather than the Communist Party of China? How did that happen? Shouldn’t this seismic world-historical event be on the front page?

The worrying bit here is that the Observer‘s shtick is a sort of cold war liberal style. It throws a ton of reporters at international news and takes it very seriously, although it always adopts a very pronounced westernist tone, if that’s a word. It has the good bits of this – lots of foreign coverage – and the bad ones – far too close to our spooks and the diplomats it likes.

The second worrying bit is that the best thing about the paper is usually the business section, which is tightly reported, critical, and readable. Back when it was a whole pull-out broadsheet in its own right, I often thought that I’d happily pay for the business section on its own.

But here we are with the business section of the paper that prides itself on big-letter International news, and it doesn’t know which political party is in charge of China. There must be more stuff in there that’s as wrong as that, just I don’t know what it is.

I expect this sort of shit from opinionators like Andrew “that book was a while ago now” Rawnsley, but I hope for better from the business pages. Here’s Rawnsley.

I’m a tad suspicious of big, round numbers. Complex problems rarely resolve into anything so neat as a figure ending in a zero. The merit of big, round numbers in politics is this. They make people sit up and pay attention…

The Lib Dems’ promise to spend £1bn more than the Conservatives is turned into peanuts and Labour’s pledge of an extra £2.5bn is chump change compared with the £30bn that Mr Stevens says will be necessary if the next government, whoever forms it, wants to avoid a crisis.

Rawnsley ought to be more suspicious of big numbers. The £30bn is over the six years from here to 2020. As far as I know the others are changes to its annual, but recurring, budget. So the Labour offer is 6×2.5bn, about half the Stevens report, not the whole wad, but not “chump change” either. It might be rather more or rather less depending on how Labour and Stevens respectively deal with inflation.

It’s not hard. Is the number in real terms, or cash terms? Is it annual, or over several years? How many years? Is that a total, or an average? What is it as a percentage of the budget? What is it as a percentage of GDP? If it’s a growth rate, is it comparing years or months or what, and which ones?

I would love it if a national newspaper would commit to stating all numbers in money as real terms, annualised, and all numbers in budget proposals as percentages of GDP. Newspapers have style guides for words. They should have them for numbers. And their sub-editors should enforce them.

But if they don’t check if they got the ruling party of China right, what hope is there of that?

Open newslist 8

Things I’d like to include:

Phil Lapsley’s book Exploding the Phone and some observations about telecoms billing records and the police that arise.

David Wood’s book Smartphones and Beyond about how the future was right here and then it…wasn’t. (“right here” includes Macclesfield and Bury St. Edmunds.)

Circling back to Scottish and other devolution. Is full fiscal devolution actually a good idea? Also, reviewing my forecast (that Labour has an effective veto, and therefore it will go down to the wire, but the Tories would be better off agreeing).

Retrieving anything from here. I still have some #Savileweek content in reserve even though I couldn’t hack the whole week.

I could do more about Hack Attack, too.


Update: Oh yes. Response to William Langewiesche’s AF447 piece.

er, spark plug. thingy. germans. ha ha.

Michael Hofmann reviews Martin Amis and it’s a stinker. This is the bit that stuck out for me. It will look pedantic but there’s a lot that can be recovered from this paragraph.

I walked on for another ten minutes; then I turned and looked. The Buna-Werke – the size of a city. Like Magnetigorsk (a city called Sparkplug) in the USSR. It was due to become the largest and most advanced factory in Europe. When the whole operation came on line, said Burckl, it would need more electricity than Berlin.

There might be something to be said about the role of industry and technology in the Holocaust, although plenty has been. There might be something to be said about the fascination, hatred, cooperation, similarities, and differences between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, although plenty has been. There might be something to be said about German imagination of the two vast Fordist industrial superpowers, although quite a bit but maybe not enough has been. And clearly Amis wants to say it.

But he doesn’t want to say it enough to look Magnitogorsk up in Wikipedia and find out that the vast iron and steelworks city the Soviets built with the help of consultants from all over the world, like John Scott and Ernst May, is named for the immense magnetic mountain where the iron ore comes from. That is of course why they built it there. (A magnetic mountain; not a bad title, eh?)

Further, he doesn’t know or doesn’t care that a magneto is not a spark plug. A magneto is a device that produces electricity from rotational motion; a spark plug uses that electricity to light off the fuel-air mixture in the cylinder head. Evidently he only got the idea because if you spell the place correctly, as he didn’t in the final copy, it sort of looks like it might be Magneto City, not Magneticville or even just Magnetite, a good name for a mining town out west (or east). It only looks like that if you don’t care that it’s Russian and that’s a language that isn’t English.

But this is his shtick. Lionel Asbo; hur hur funny name. John Self; hur hur funny name. 21 virgins; hur hur funny the word is a bit like raisins in foreign. Apparently this time out he’s discovered German. It’s what he does, smart as in smart arse, never as in smart bomb. He aims for seriousness, over-pitches because he won’t put in the effort, and pulls out of the pratfall by sniggering at foreigners, broadly defined. He’s the Boris Johnson of literature. Like Johnson, somehow he fits into London in ways it would deny.

Also, it would be remiss not to point out that his chancer/liaison officer antihero of ambiguous and prolific sexuality and stereotypical cultivation sounds remarkably like yer man from Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillants, as does his relationship with his aunt, and indeed with his boss.

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”


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.