The new Companies House website is unstoppable!

The beta version of Companies House’s website looks like a godsend for Webcheck addicts. Here’s their file on Matthew “BadSpellers Alliance” Elliott, who has apparently been in favour of social mobility, arguably against it, in favour of British membership of the European Union, against it, opposed to identity cards but only after they were already certain to be abolished, and always twirling, twirling upwards towards the cash. Best of all, he’s been a director of the Yes Campaign and the No Campaign. At the same time. Perhaps he should open the Perhaps Institute or the Maybe Centre, and hedge with a profit-making consultancy, I’ll Get Back To You On That Ltd.

The question is surely what the organisations’ funders see in him. Perhaps they think he is some sort of American-style political consultant guru. But there is no evidence that any of this activity has had any impact on the real world at all, other than by keeping him in pies and off the streets for 10 years. It’s the documentary history of a shameless chancer. That said, American political consultants are pretty much the classic case of Peter Drucker’s remark that GURU is a word spelled C-H-A-R-L-A-T-A-N.

Barclays should publish its internal report on the outage this weekend

Here’s the crash report Amazon Web Services issued after the massive outage to their US-EAST region, the first and biggest of the regions, back in 2012. Here’s the one Heroku issued about their outage, caused by the Amazon outage.

On Saturday night, Barclays Bank had a major outage which took out online authorisation for credit and debit cards, online banking, ATMs, and apparently even some BACS transfers. Not only did it fail, it failed in a state where the fallback to offline authorisation didn’t work either, and people were turned away from supermarket checkouts trying to buy baby food. I asked their Twitter bod if they would be publishing a report on how it happened, and what they did about it.

Hear those crickets? But I don’t understand why there should be crickets chirping here. If AWS can do it, entirely voluntarily, and the entire aviation industry (and in the UK, shipping and railways) can do it, and to some extent the pharma industry…why not IT more broadly, and why not finance?

The place, the time, the artefact, the culture

Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command is pretty special. In essence, this is a deep history of a mentalité, a way of thinking and seeing, and it’s a history that spirals outwards from a very specific time and place and a very specific artefact.

The time, the place: Windy Corner, a specific but only roughly defined bit of the North Sea that existed in reality for about 15 minutes from 1815, British summer time, on the 31st of May 1916, and for many more years as an purely spectral object of historical inquiry, after-action operational analysis, and cynical self-justification. That was the name given to the chaos ensuing as the British fleet deployed from column into line and the destroyers, cruisers, and battle cruisers tried to keep out of its way and each other’s, under fire. It’s just south of marker 2 on this chart from Wikipedia.


The artefact would be an Inglefield clip, a gadget for hanging signal flags on their halyards quickly invented in 1895 and still in use today. Again per Wikipedia:


An artefact is an ideology. In this case, the clip embodies the Royal Navy’s doctrine of command of the time. This was implemented in the technology of signalling, like the clip, the flags, and the codebook, and jealously guarded by a powerful career mafia of signals specialists, who both gave the ideology its political punch, and were themselves shaped by it.

The content of this ideology was drawn from a wider culture. It incorporated what is known in German as Befehlstaktik – the idea that leaders set down their detailed, specific instructions in written orders which followers execute without interpretation – and a looser idea of hyper-obedience which Gordon roots in a certain idea of manhood based on a revived ideal of chivalry. He argues that this ideology, so drastically different from the practice of Nelson’s time, succeeded because it permitted the RN to adapt to the Industrial Revolution. The freedom of manoeuvre steam power provided, and the changing mix of trades aboard ship, would be channelled into a tactical doctrine that let commanders manoeuvre as if on a parade ground, by incredibly detailed signalling.

The defenders of the ideology were also very interesting. The book is in part a group biography of key players. Gordon notes that their careers had key elements in common, and that in fact these elements were common across the signalling specialisation. Those were Royal patronage, Masonic networking, neochivalrous culture, and weirdly, association with the Royal Geographical Society. Less weirdly, RUSI also played a big role. Scandals involving the princes serving with the Navy frequently seem to have helped the men involved progress in their careers, not least because a flag lieutenant’s job included acting as a social secretary for the admiral, and quite a bit of celebrity management was all in the day’s work. Also, a ridiculous number of people in real jobs in 1914 had spent most of their sea time in the Royal Yacht.

Before we drift into laughing at quaint Victorians – and if that’s what you want, Gordon can deliver in spades, this book is packed with seriously weird characters and the pen-portrait footnotes can be brilliant – it’s worth pointing out that efficient modernising technocrats didn’t exactly help. The new signal book was itself a product both of the new technology of steam power, and of the new science of comparative linguistics. It was literally designed as a language. Also, there were complicated links between the development of analogue computing fire-control and signalling.

The effect of radio was ambiguous. Although officers whined about having to listen to signals from London, they were the same people who fervently believed it was literally better to lose the ship and everyone in her than to turn a blind eye to a signal. Also, where the signal book encouraged verbosity in tactical communications, radio encouraged it in administrative and strategic communications. Gordon points out that in some ways the real revolution in radio was the move from radiotelegraphy to voice radio; W/T was closer to e-mail, while voice was immediate.

There was always opposition to the signals culture. In part this was inevitable due to its role as a mafia for career advancement; its members couldn’t help making enemies as they scrabbled up the hierarchy. But in part it was rooted in deep scepticism that the incredibly complicated manoeuvres, lengthy hoists, and huge teams of professional signalmen would ever be practical in war. Gordon brings us George Tryon as a sort of John Boyd figure, who proved it was possible to do better with a vastly simplified but therefore more expressive signals language, and by delegating much more responsibility to ship’s captains and squadron commanders.

This brings us to the fateful accident when Tryon cocked it up and collided with his second-in-command’s ship. The 2iC argued at the inquiry afterwards that his duty was to obey whatever flag was hoist, even if it meant ramming the flagship. It didn’t matter that Tryon had been operating under the standard signal book at the time, not his tactical code. A fairly shameful cover-up – another – was organised, and the ideas went down with the man. The future would be Tryonite, but the RN would have to learn it the hard way.

One reason why the opposition failed was that the establishment was such a diffuse concept. The school of signals in Portsmouth, which gave it the apparatus of a profession, such as exams, credentials, a hallowed home ground, and a leader, was founded quite late in the day. Without it, they benefited from the tyranny of structurelessness – it’s difficult to criticise something that has no official existence.

What is the source for all this mayor stuff?

Thinking about this, does anyone know what or who the patient zero for the idea that “mayors” solve something in British politics might be? I remember it as an early Blairite thing, but thinking about it, the Treasury seems to love it even more than DCLG. That said, it seems to have become part of the political class’s common sense, despite the public’s enormous indifference, so it might not do to ascribe significance to where it ended up.

Jonathan Hopkin, on Twitter, points out that Italy introduced directly elected mayors in 1993, which would be well-timed for the thinktank world (perhaps Demos, or Will Hutton?) to pick up as something fashionably European. I hadn’t thought of this, chiefly because it was always presented as being American in inspiration. Perhaps someone sold it to Tony Blair as being Italian and to Gordon Brown as being American?

I remember it as being associated with John Prescott’s ministry as well as with Tony Zoffis, but lately the Treasury seems to be the key actor.

Consider this an open thread on the issue; I suspect either Chris Brooke or Jamie Kenny might know.


I say bubble? I say bubble. Good piece, but the most interesting paragraph is the following, provided as a health warning on a NYT feature quoted:

(The article’s author, Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, is the wife of Silicon Valley venture investor Marc Andreessen, though Theranos isn’t listed as a portfolio company of Andreessen Horowitz, his venture firm.)

There is no such thing as a “UK national security number”

What are national security numbers? Why would you think TalkTalk would have some? Why would you believe anyone who claims to have them is the real deal, when:

  • The UK doesn’t have a thing called a Social Security Number
  • Nor does it have a thing called a National Security Number
  • It does have a National Insurance Number
  • NINos aren’t used like SSNs – we don’t use them as general purpose identifiers

Clearly someone here thinks the UK has something like a US social security number and uses it in the same way, but vaguely realises it’s not called that, although not enough to ctrl+K and look it up. Or they know they don’t have a trove of TalkTalk users’ NINos, they’re bullshitting, and our “former cybercrime detective” didn’t notice the difference.

Update: Boy, 15, arrested in Ulster.

The menace of correlated hype cycles

In case you wonder, there’s not been much activity around here due to a project over at the Pol. Think Project Lobster, but Eurocratic. Expect an uptick on the blog from now on.

First of all, something that has struck me at work and by following Maciej Ceglowski‘s talks. We all remember the crack from the 2008 financial crisis – when it matters, all correlations go to unity. Let’s apply this to the celebrated Gartner hype cycle. If anyone’s not seen it before, here’s Wikipedia’s CC-BY-SA licensed version of the chart, by user NeedCokeNow.


What interests me is that this is basically OK from wider society’s perspective so long as the hype-cycles are uncorrelated. In 2000, the .com crash wasn’t so bad because most of the wider economy – even the IT sector – didn’t care that much, even though there was substantial correlation between the .coms and the fixed-line telecoms industry. (Mobile was an important source of decorrelation.)

But the more they become correlated, the more additional risk accumulates just because of the correlation. Correlation is itself risky, see 2008. We might call it Bacon Meteor risk, in honour of Maciej’s twitter handle, because I like the image of the bacon meteor slamming into the atmosphere, ushering in an impact winter that kills off all the unicorns.

I see the risk accumulating due to the correlation of three Valley subsegments: Advertising, Big Data, and the Internet of Things. These segments all share the lack of an obvious end-user revenue model, a high degree of regulatory, political, and security risk that isn’t currently accounted for, a highly aggressive VC-led finance model that tends to render their finances even more intransparent than releasing them in untagged PDFs on a 9-month cycle, and most importantly, cross-dependency that brings about tight coupling between the hype cycles.

Ads are the catch-all business case, the justification for all this stuff, the classic case of Maciej’s notion of investor storytime or the world’s most targeted ad (here’s a fine example). Online advertising is itself a business in massive crisis – prices are plummeting, volumes soaring in an effort to keep up, the ad networks have become the world’s premier malware vector, and not surprisingly, everyone’s using ad blockers.

In order to process all the data and deliver the ads, you need the armamentarium of the Big Data sector. Therefore, the ad sector is dependent on the big data guys for technology and the big data guys on the ads for revenue. Collecting all this stuff also means collecting security, regulatory, and political risk.

It also seems that there are diminishing returns to ad targeting data. This ought to be obvious, because advertising aspires to create new customers. That’s the point. Perfect targeting would return only those people who are already certain to buy your product. This is useless, rather like Borges’ map the size of the country. As a result, we’re in a red queen’s race; more and more volume, and more and more categories, of data are needed to win each additional clickthrough.

Hence the Internet of Things and the way every startup in this sector also wants to monetise the data. IoT devices create data, which can be fed into the big data sector, and used to target ads. The ads are meant to validate the investors’ valuations and therefore make the next VC round possible, which incidentally these days usually permits key insiders to cash out, like the IPO used to back in the day.

And you know? I wouldn’t mind seeing the whole smug, creepy, not-as-smart-as-it-makes-out mess with its startlingly poor software dry up and blow away. I am seriously disappointed in the Internet; Google Images can’t find me a pile of dead unicorns. The only problem is that correlation risk. If it didn’t exist I’d be wholeheartedly cheering for a classic rich man’s panic that would hit pretty much exclusively people who can afford to lose the money and richly deserve it. But it does.

The transmission mechanism that worries me is, of course, real estate.

Nothing to see here.

The remarkable thing about this is just what Nigel Seed QC was willing to consider normal.

“On the day of her trial there was a large number of reporters at the court,” he said. “I was informed by the police that this was because the defendant, who had been on bail, had let it be known that if the case progressed as far as her having to give evidence she intended to allege that she had provided rent boys to Edward Heath.”

Just another day at the office. And then all his witnesses dropped out.

Seed said three witnesses, all sex workers who allegedly worked for Forde at her brothel in Salisbury, Wiltshire, failed or refused to give evidence at court, leaving him with no choice but to offer no evidence.

The combination of the two facts does not seem to have worried him in the slightest. After all, it wasn’t as if they were people, was it?

Seed said there was no suggestion the men were underage or “anything more than male prostitutes”

This is of course how they get away with it. But the guy’s enormous incuriosity is what gets me. There’s sang froid, and then there’s just sitting there like a sack of spuds.

eternal #savileweek

Everyone now knows who The Tory was. No. Everyone now knows that the idea of The Tory is obsolete, as opposed to an open-ended search for more perpetrators. I think it’s worth flagging up this post that ran in the Daily Beast on the same night the Mirror broke the Ted Heath story.

The first point of note: there are at least three lines of enquiry here. There is an Exaro/BBC story based around the statement from a retired Wiltshire Police officer. There is an Exaro/Daily Mirror story based on statements from a witness. And there is a separate Beastly story, which is neither based on the Wiltshire story, nor on Exaro’s witness, but rather on documentary material. Exaro’s witness “Nick” is, for the absence of doubt, the same person as the Mirror‘s source.

Second point of note. Don Hale, for it is he, is bylined as a co-author on the Beast piece; he has previously said Barbara Castle MP showed him the document. Castle’s papers are mostly in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, except for her diaries which are at Bradford University, but there was apparently some difficulty about getting access to them. According to this Mirror piece from July last year, the famously lost Geoffrey Dickens dossier contained much of the same material as the Castle one.

Third point of note. As the Mirror, Exaro, and the BBC seem to have known the name for some time but to have held onto it for legal or investigative reasons, there was presumably some reason to break it when they did. Does that mean someone got access to the Castle file? Certainly, the Beast piece taken together with the earlier Mirror one lets you have a good guess at the contents. Also, the story is in no way single-sourced.

And then there’s this: