Here is a chart illustrating some data. Watch me say the exact opposite

The Adam Smith Institute is trying to make itself right about rail privatisation with this chart:

GBR_rail_passenegers_by_year1

Because it goes up and to the right! And if you forget the whole 14 year bit from 1981 to 1995 where it was going up and to the right, you can claim this is down to railway privatisation in 1996! By 1987, ridership was back to the levels of the late sixties. But surely no-one would engage in such shameless cherry-picking, would they? Yeah, of course they would at the thinktank still rated dead last for transparency. Forget trains, this guy should show us his time machine.

If I had to guess I’d say that it’s no coincidence that the ridership series turns around and starts growing in 1981, as exactly the same thing happened to the population of London at exactly the same time. The lowest population recorded was in the census of 1981. Similarly, the previous peak was the census of 1951, and 1961’s census recorded a significant fall. The peak year for postwar ridership was 1955, i.e. exactly halfway between the two, as if it was actually measuring population growth.

(He does make a feeble effort to disaggregate London from national data, but the data series he uses doesn’t start until 1997/8 so it’s basically irrelevant to this point.)

Interestingly, if you were to extrapolate the trend from the 1980s, in a counterfactual world where Tory Recession 2.0 didn’t happen, it would look spookily similar to the actual, just shifted left by about five years, as if something was bound to happen and was only delayed by the recession (or perhaps the preceding housing bubble). Manchester’s population fell rapidly from 1931, the peak year, to the mid-1970s and levelled off by 1981, before something caused it to fall further (looking at you, ASI), eventually turning around in 1991. Birmingham peaked in 1951, declined, and stabilised around 1981 although again, some sort of event around 1991 seems observable (looking at you, ASI) before it began to grow again. The capital of the North peaked as late as 1971, declined to 1981, and then began growing again. Cardiff had the great bulk of the decline between ’71 and ’81. Glasgow peaked in the late 40s and didn’t turn around until 2001 (and again, ASI…). Bristol peaked in 1971 and bottomed-out in 1981. Belfast peaked in 1951 and declined all the way to 2006 but there were reasons to avoid living there for most of that time, almost 2,600 of them. Edinburgh peaked in the mid-60s, declined, and recovered from…you guessed it, 1981. Clearly, there was some sort of big change regarding suburbs and cities around the time I was born.

The lesson from this chart is surely that we ought to be a bit humble about ascribing consequences to our decisions. There was some conscious policy input to the shrinkage of London in the postwar era via the new towns programme. But there wasn’t a deliberate policy to halt suburbanisation in the 80s (far from it! remember the great car economy?), and weirdly, the drift back to the cities began all over the industrialised world at roughly the same time, rather like the fall in violent crime. Much like the fall in violent crime, nobody really knows why. But it should be absolutely no surprise that railway ridership went up when people flocked back into British cities built mostly around rail transport.

the token person who sits and smiles in the background

There’s something wrong with the Lib Dems isn’t there? I mean, apart from the whole “inflicting David Cameron on the country” thing.

Pearce said that she would remain in the party in a more modest role. “So at the moment, not knowing quite where I fit in the party, I have still decided to remain a Lib Dem because I believe in a lot of the Lib Dem values and policies, so I will stick with them right to the end. But I realise my place is not go for any high positions within the party. I’ll just stay and be the token person who sits and smiles in the background and do my community activism that I always do.”

I think comment is superfluous here. Just read it. The Tories have a horrible record of picking up black people, especially women, and dropping them (I did a case study back in 2010 for Stable & Principled and this story refers, and some of the free school people are going the same way) but I expected a bit better from the Liberals.

But of course there’s Rennard.

making TV programmes to make policy to go on TV with

Here is a horrible piece of work. Tory MP Charlotte Leslie in the Grauniad says stuff.

But Norman Warner is “brave” in a good way, though I disagree with him. Lord Warner, the former Labour health minister, has suggested that if we are to preserve our NHS, we should charge a £10 “membership fee” to help pay for it.

Despite suggesting an answer I cannot agree with, he is responding to the right question – a question so taboo that almost no other politician has had the courage to tackle it. There are other answers apart from his – I for one am loth to jettison the NHS being “free at the point of use” – and we must debate them.

First up, anyone who says no other politician has had the courage to discuss something is usually lying.

Second, Warner is full of shit. Who’s to pay this tenner? How much money would that be? Citizens? Workers? In the UK, or England, or what? If it’s the UK workforce, about 44 million people, that would be about 0.34% of the total UK-wide spend. That’s not going to save anything. Maybe he has some sort of squashy notion of “ownership” or some such, but it’s hard to think of anything the political nation is as attached to as the NHS. Further, we already pay an NHS membership fee: it’s called National Insurance, and you know, Gordon Brown tried putting that up to help the NHS and it worked! It’s even broken out on your pay slip so you can see it.

Roll the tape on.

The question we are all frantically evading is how on Earth we continue to fund an NHS that was devised for a much smaller population, with vastly different expectations, at a time of far more limited and less expensive medical possibilities, and when we died much younger.

A much smaller population? It wasn’t just devised for a much smaller population, it was devised for a much smaller economy, too. Between 1951 and 2008, i.e. pretty close to the first 60 years of the NHS and because I’m being quick, the UK added 9 million people, about 20%. In roughly the same period of time, the UK gross domestic product at 2000 prices more than quadrupled. The population is 20% bigger, but four times as rich. Here’s a chart, per capita, allowing for inflation. What is this drivel?

As always with this sort of stuff, the problem seems ridiculously puny. Apparently too many people go to A&E, when they really ought to see their GP.

Dispatches exposes the unsustainable number of us who go to A&E who simply don’t need to, hindering the genuinely needy from accessing care. There are many reasons – inadequate information and triaging systems, the fact people see A&E as the “safe” option, and that getting a GP appointment can be so tortuous.

And some people miss appointments with their GPs. The monsters.

Patients miss 12m GP appointments every year, at a cost of £160m. An NHS free at the point of use is one thing but can we afford it to be free at the point of “no use”? Could we charge for misuse of the NHS – perhaps £10 for a missed GP appointment?

That would be 0.13% of the UK-wide spend. Perhaps the 12m numberoid is England-only, in which case it’s a whole 0.15%.

But apparently too many people are going to see their GPs, too.

There is a second problem: GP clinics are also clogged up with people who do not need to be there.

The problem is that everyone’s gone soft, and needs a dose of Donner Party conservatism, it seems.

Most of us have never been near the ubiquitous grief and suffering that our war-ravaged grandparents endured. Instead we have been told that we “deserve” things (we are seldom told exactly what we have done to deserve them), so as a generation we generally expect them, and now. Our lifestyle has broadly made us less stoical, less self-sufficient and more demanding than “Generation NHS” – our grandparents.

Really? The people who pretty much by definition were the most committed to the NHS, and who also by definition used the most of its resources?

Anyway, what we need is a good solid nudge to get us back on track.

Perhaps we should be issued with receipts for the cost of our GP or A&E appointment? This will not fill the funding gap, but it may trigger a behavioural change and remind us that the NHS is far from free.

If people were handed scary bills, maybe they might not go to the doctor, or to A&E. This would have done the following patient so much good:

A GP colleague who still practises often tells of how an octogenarian came into his surgery, dressed up for his appointment, with crushing chest pain and began, “I am so sorry to take up your time, doctor”. He was rushed to hospital. The very next patient was a girl in her early 20s, still in pyjamas, who announced she had a sore throat and what was the doctor going to do about it?

You bet. This par may sound over perfect, but there’s a good reason for this. Charlotte Leslie is responding to a TV programme.

Channel 4’s Dispatches tonight tackles one uncomfortable aspect of this challenge head-on.

TV programmes, whether fictional or factual, are films. Films are edited to create a dramatic narrative. Cutting patient 1 into patient 2 makes story. Story is watched. And she ought to know, because it is her own TV show she is spruiking!

So in Dispatches, I put my money where my mouth is and ask some of the questions that doctors are asking but which politicians concerned about elections studiously ignore.

Charlotte Leslie is the Conservative MP for Bristol North West, therefore, a politician. Spare us the shtick with the white coat, already. We could go on; she wants to bill anyone who turns up drunk at A&E, unless they have a drinking problem or are actually ill. That doesn’t sound very workable, and anyway, surely those people can’t cost much because they don’t use any actual treatment, and she even says 50% of A&E patients don’t actually need any treatment.

More importantly, what the fuck is Dispatches, which I can remember doing journalism, up to here? Leslie is an active politician in the run-in to a general election. As such, her party gets its whack of election broadcasts. Nothing more. But here we have a massive, prime-time, hour-long slab of Tory access. And it’s not an isolated incident.

Channel 4 invented “Benefits Street”, and then Iain Duncan Smith cited it as evidence to a parliamentary committee as if it was the real world. Faisal Islam sucks up to Wonga and Create Streets. Now, having created “White” Dee as a sort of poverty starlet, Channel 4 has managed to get her a slot at the Conservative Party conference.

I confidently predict that like everyone who’s done the Tories’ utterly cynical bit of urban slot (see here), she will end up telling the Guardian Society supplement how they let her down in 18 months’ time. Even the Lib Dems do it these days and Jesus Christ, just look at how.

But there is something genuinely new here. We’ve had pols taking their cue from TV. We’ve had pols trying to bully the TV. We’ve had pols apparently convinced that TV is real. Now, for the first time, we have a pol who made their own TV show, who is also convinced that it is real. Channel 4 is hopelessly lost since some time in the second quarter of 2000, but at least it is worth complaining that the Guardian is part of the PR beatup.

Q2 2000, you ask? Yup. Work requires that I know the OFCOM Communications Market Report backwards and forwards.

itsyou

People who watch more TV than I do tell me something interesting happened on C4 then.

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.

Open newslist 7

It’s a little while since we did one of these. Candidates include:

Think Defence has finished their epic series on the disastrous FRES procurement. It has much in common with classic IT project failure, for example, the NHS NPfIT. Also, we wanted to have at Eric Pickles on a related issue and we might yet do it.

A review of Dan “Not that one” Davies’ excellent biography of Jimmy Savile.

Alternatively, I have drafts for several Savile posts, so if you don’t behave I’ll declare a whole Savile Week. Pick from:

  • Savile, the first truly postmodern celebrity?
  • The icon of unpopular populism: Savile and politics
  • The social and economic context: Savile, the postwar era, and showbusiness

Among tried and tested themes, as well as Jimmy Savile, there’s also the Israel/Palestine conflict. We’ve written about Palestinian rocketry, about the role of modern anti-tank guided weapons, so how about something about tunnels, bulldozers, landscape, and again rockets?

This piece about Singapore is interesting, but confused. Scenario-planning isn’t a Big Data methodology and doesn’t require surveillance. Also, Americans shudder with the horror that someone somewhere might get required medical assistance, and get away with it!

On a related theme, an information security expert dabbles in international relations theory and this is the result. As an IR MSc who dabbles in computing, I have opinions! Again, Americans shudder with horror at the thought someone somewhere might get required medical assistance, and get away with it! More importantly, there are real problems with classical realism as a theory and some of them have been answered successfully as long ago as the 1950s. Who knows, maybe they might be interesting for geeks, too?

This might also involve Decentralisation: I Want to Believe. Trying to understand why P2P is so hard.

Iain Duncan Smith, intergenerational transmission, Universal Credit, and the protector of aborigines and his big clock. This one’s deep into Glenn Beck schizophrenia-as-a-methodology territory but I think I might be able to pull it off.

Predictions based on China’s sex-ratio skew are mostly wrong. Further, Tyler Cowan completely forgets a whole and intellectually fruitful branch of economics when it would have been really handy. What gives? Both are case studies of how just a little feminism would have delivered a huge return of wisdom, or at least, much less stupidity. The problem in No.1 is a stupid stereotype of masculinity, in No.2 a stupid stereotype of femininity combined with a weird attitude to sex.

It’s struck me, rereading this, that the Treasury/Downing St duopoly has become akin to that between CCP institutions and Chinese government ones, a parallelism between political, i.e. propagandistic and violent, and technocratic, i.e. making stuff work, structures.

Update: I was hoping the answer to this wouldn’t be “all of the above”. There’s also been a twitter conversation about this, and so far it looks like this:

FRES/Project Failure/Eric Pickles is strongly supported
At least some Savile content is strongly supported

Weaker support for full Savile Week
Weaker support for Singapore/Data

Proposed extra idea: how’s this ISIS lot beating the Kurds?

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?

Watch an actual Hamas rocket launch, with #combatgazebo

So an Indian TV crew managed to film a Hamas rocket team doing their thing.

First of all, wow. That’s the use of the gazebo in urban warfare, right there. More seriously, I reckon the launch site is in dead ground from two or three sides, covered from view by the buildings and trees, unless you were directly overhead. Obviously the fourth side is the direction in which they are going to fire.

Second, the camera pans very fast over the launch site after the gazebo is removed, but you’ll notice that the rocket seems to be camouflaged even after that, right up to the instant of launch. This might be a constraint on range, as the launch is at a low angle (watch the smoke). This frame shows something sticking up under a bush dragged into place as concealment, but it’s steeper than the launch. Whatever it is, it’s about 2m long.

Third, the bloke at 02.39 probably doesn’t have to run very often, and isn’t going hungry in a society under siege either. I think this is a data point for the ideas that production and deployment are closely integrated that Hamas has successfully mobilised Gaza’s craftsmen.

Fourth, the camouflage was worth doing because the set-up was finished by 0630 local time, and the launch is (per TV) at 0750. And clearly, the notion of “launching pads” is silly. Anywhere with an open view to the north and some cover will do.

Fifth, the package editing doesn’t let us know how long the set-up took, but the gazebo – the COMBAT GAZEBO! – was put up overnight.

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…

Even more rockets and wilder speculation

I’m feeling positively blog-happy after getting away with an Israel/Palestine post, so what about another one? This one is also about rockets, just on a different scale.

A lot of strategic concepts have an odd kind of fractal quality, keeping the same form at different scales. We saw how the rocketing was, in a sense, suppressive fire directed at the economy, and the air raids and artillery were counter-battery fire intended to suppress it in its turn. Now, this wasn’t enough to achieve either suppression or destruction. So what now?

Well, if you can’t find the rocket teams accurately enough to shell or bomb them, the next option is to seize the ground they fire from, or to force them to fight for it, just as it would be in a skirmish between two groups of four soldiers. In the Israeli-Palestinian context, this means that the next move is an Israeli ground incursion. Remember that the ground looks like this.

These raids are something of an Israeli speciality, using a mixture of tanks, super-heavy armoured personnel carriers (a specialised vehicle class not seen in other armies), and engineering equipment to undertake attacks into urban areas with relatively low risk while forcing the guerrilla enemy to fight at a disadvantage. Direct fire, armoured protection, and combat engineering are used to avoid using infantry. The spectacular and shocking destruction of the urban fabric that results is meant to have a deterrent effect on society at large, in a sort of horizontal version of airpower theory.

Here’s a Le Figaro newsflash from last week when the Israeli army did a substantial raid in force into Gaza and lost 13 men killed and one missing. I quote the sentence I find important:

Au moins un char de cette unité a été détruit au cours des combats par des missiles de type Sagger. Un commandant de l’unité a pour sa part été blessé lors de cette opération.

This isn’t quite the first time anti-tank guided weapons have been confirmed in Gaza (one, a much fancier AT-14, was fired across the border in October 2010, and later one was launched across the border at a school bus – stay classy, Hamas!)

But as in Lebanon, they seem to have been effective in imposing losses on Israeli ground forces and in constraining the freedom of manoeuvre that they otherwise gain by reshaping the ground with engineering plant and explosives. Although I haven’t got access to the whole text, this Ha’aretz story and the tweet accompanying it seems to say that the raid into Shujaya ran into trouble, specifically a massive ambush with ATGWs, and the Israeli army called in a huge artillery bombardment to cover its disengagement.

The point here is that when the best Palestinian anti-tank weapon was an RPG, they had to get to within 100 metres of a tank to be effective. Ideally, you’d want to creep up on the tank from behind, so we can understand the tactics here as being about controlling the space to the flanks of the advance out to 100 to 500 metres. Drenching the RPG engagement zone with suppressive fire and then bulldozing away buildings that provide cover was the solution.

Now, ATGWs like the Sagger permit engagement from 3km away with a high success rate. This makes the super-heavy APCs and engineering vehicles into big, slow-moving, valuable targets. That’s precisely what happened on the night of July 20, when one of them was destroyed with a whole section of Golani troopers aboard. The area to the flanks of the armoured group that must be cleared to prevent this happening increases dramatically. Because this is happening in a city, this usually means more infantry, and you can probably see where we’re going here.

Let’s pull the camera back from the tactical scale to the strategic scale. The fundamental political offer from Israeli leaders is that with a “tough security stance”, “mowing the grass” periodically, the benefits to individual groups in Israel (e.g settlers, the religious, clients of the defence establishment) that might be lost under a general peace settlement can be retained at an acceptable price, like the occasional Operation Pillar of Defence.

The offer from the peace camp, when it had any power, was that national unifying ideals were at risk from the cost of major wars, and therefore a sacrifice for principle was called for. But if the cost could be kept down, this didn’t sound like such a good deal, especially to people (the religious, ex-Soviet immigrants, Sephardic Jews) who didn’t necessarily recognise themselves in the ideals people like Yitzhak Rabin claimed to represent..well. It’s probably no surprise that this didn’t happen when peace was proposed with the Arab states, and that it did when it was proposed with the Palestinians.

If the costs of periodic short wars get to be more like full mobilisation, this package starts to fall apart. “Protective Edge” is no longer much like “Pillar of Defence” and is heading for “Lebanon 2006″ pretty quickly. I’m not sure where we’ll go here. As I said in the earlier post, you can make a case that the Israel-Lebanon border is quiet because Israel and Hezbollah have reached a degree of mutual deterrence. But as I also said, the same processes also seem to make for greater emotional/political intransigence, and on both sides, the end of positive sources of mobilisation (normality and Western integration for Israel, development for Palestine) implies that negative ones (basically, either intolerant religion or intolerant nationalism for both) become more important.

The question is whether we settle into an awkward, paranoid, intolerant peace or rather a permanent ceasefire, perhaps with the cycle time from coexistence to war getting longer, or whether one side or the other attempts to change the terms of the conflict by a dramatic move of some kind.