Really, Leeds?

If this Yorkshire Evening Post piece is at all accurate, Leeds RLFC is in the stone age and deeply irresponsible.

The former Gold Coast Titans rake was knocked out twice in Rhinos’ Boxing Day defeat by Wakefield Trinity Wildcats and did not feature after the 35th minute.

But the hooker insisted there is no long-lasting damage and said he is delighted to have got a first taste of English rugby under his belt.

Falloon had to go off after two minutes and again late in the first half, but was given the all-clear following checks by Rhinos’ medical staff.

“I am all right,” he said. “My head was a little bit funny after the game, but I’ll be okay – it’s only concussion!”

“Only” concussion? No long-lasting damage? We know very well these days that it’s not “only”, it very much does do “long-lasting damage”, and the absolute worst is getting more knocks without recovering fully. Shontayne Hape‘s experience is required reading here.

Other People’s Yachts: Churchill and his Money, or Lack of It

So, over Christmas I’ve been reading David Lough’s No More Champagne: Churchill and his Money. I can’t really recommend this book enough. Financial biography or rather biography by finance is a genre, I think, with quite a bit of potential. Money talks, but it rarely lies.

Lough points out that Churchill’s switchback from the Tories, to the Liberals, and back to the Tories can be situated in terms of his personal finances. Having started out in the party of the landed interest, he switched to the party of the entrepreneur and the professional when he started to earn serious money with his writing. Having finally acquired land, he switched back to the Tories.

I would add that the Tories of 1925 weren’t the same party they were in 1905. British politics was reorganising itself around the central drama of labour and capital, and the Tories were emerging as a general-purpose business lobby. However, they didn’t quite shake off the dukes, and hence you get Churchill’s 1925 budget with its curious combination of a tax policy designed to favour entrepreneurs and hit rentiers, and a return to the gold standard designed to do the opposite. WSC was either a squire trying to be a self-made man, or the other way around, and it’s no surprise his policy ended up being incoherent.

From an even more olympian perspective, No More Champagne is what the breakdown of Piketty’s r>g looks like at the micro-level. Patrimonal capitalism requires both that r>g, so that the standard of living of the rich keeps ahead of the rest, and that r is high enough in real terms that the rich as a group can save enough of their income to replace capital drawn down for unexpected expenses (woodworm in the east wing) and to constitute the capital of any increase in the rich population.

If these constraints are not satisfied, we might expect to see various solutions. One would be to import more capital, classically by marrying an American heiress. Another would be to restrain g by adopting a deflationary macroeconomic policy, for example, by going back on gold. Yet another would be to reach for yield, taking more risks in a bid to increase r, for example by plunging on risky start-up investments. And a final option would be to reduce spending and lead a less extravagant lifestyle, for instance, by opening the big house to the public.

The Churchills, famously, are a case of option a) going badly wrong, as the heiress turned out not to be that well-off. Churchill’s 1925 budget could be read as option b) in action, although he was usually so skint that this was a bit of a remote concept. He resisted d) like he resisted the Germans – this was a guy who decided to drink champagne only five times a week in order to save money. What about c), then?

John Wasik’s Keynes as an Investor points out that JMK was a modern investment manager before his time, using value investing, the equity premium, and concentrated portfolios before these strategies were officially invented. A hypothetical “Churchill as an Investor” paper would basically be excellent advice on how not to manage money.

Churchill’s basic financial problem was that he couldn’t buy. He was actually very sharp on the sell-side of the table, ruthlessly negotiating with publishers, editors, and film-makers to squeeze the last penny out of his copyrights. He rarely sold a piece once, but rather recycled it into a book and the book into a serial and then sold the film rights. He only once turned down an advance, and learned the lesson. He always started prices high. He offered one of his numerous literary agents – he kept several and made them compete – a 15% commission but only on the sum over and above what he was already getting.

On the buy side, though, he bought too much stuff, and paid too much for it.

If it was a share, he would run after tips on high-risk small cap companies – Canadian oil & gas was a favourite, still a notoriously wild market even today. He traded far too often. He made hamfisted attempts to time the market. He levered up and borrowed hugely on margin. He sometimes day-traded the NYSE. He tended to chase his losses, and to bail out of his winners too early. He was a terrible markets groupie who liked to hang out with brokers and convinced himself he knew what he was doing. Having lost a fortune in the crash of 1929, he repeatedly went bargain hunting in US retail and utilities chains, the big speculative stocks of the day, and lost even more until the senior partner of his brokers, Vickers, Da Costa, personally asked him to stop trading. Even that only stopped him for three months.

Having (like Keynes) called the US recovery, he bungled the execution (unlike Keynes), binning the turkey before it really got started and then jumping back in, just in time for the Fed to take the punch away. This got his Vickers, Da Costa account suspended a second time.

In short, he did every damn thing you are advised against, and lost hilarious amounts of money. After he got rich, he had another crack at those Canadian resources small caps in the 1950s and whadda ya know? He lost another boatload of cash. He didn’t even manage to use his political connections to rip people off by insider-trading – when he was minister of munitions in 1917, you’d think he’d have had better things to do than load up on three smokeless coal startups, all of which went down the plughole quick smart.

In fact, he tried all the ways rich men find to lose money, except yachting and mistresses. He fell in love with houses, and fell out with architects. He got a private pilot’s licence, one of the very first. He spent far too much on clothes, sports, cigars, and booze. He went in for rich guy farming, which gave him another classic, a losing business to feed. It was probably fortunate for us all that he tended to get himself invited aboard other people’s yachts rather than buying one himself, as tht would certainly have led to bankruptcy and disgrace.

And then there was the casino gambling. He regularly lost six-figure sums, and was obsessed enough that on one holiday in the south of France, he stopped the taxi on the way to the station going home to dive into the casino for a final roll of the dice. No shortage of cash ever stopped him, and neither did his wife’s horror at the habit.

Ironically, the only Churchillian investments that ever washed their faces were racehorses. When I saw this coming up the page I felt a surge of horror-fascination. How much would he lose, and in what baroque and terrible way? But actually he managed to make a substantial profit. Perhaps, as a polo-playing and fox-hunting cavalry officer, he actually knew something about horses, which he certainly didn’t about Canadian oil exploration.

Other than horses, the only other time he bought something without losing his shirt was in March, 1941, when he bought back his copyrights from his bankrupt publisher, who in the meantime had sold them to another publisher without actually owning them. That paid off enormously in the long run, and in fact continues to pay off for his heirs out to 2037. But he only went through with it because Brendan Bracken, whose role as unofficial business manager expanded as Churchill’s income did, insisted.

Money also illuminates his inner life. The Black Dog struck in 1937-8, when he was savaged by margin calls in the hundreds of thousands of pounds on his appallingly ill-thought-out share portfolio, pursued by the Inland Revenue, enormously overdrawn at his bank, writing 2000 words a day or more for fear that his publisher would reclaim the long-spent advance on Marlborough: His Life and Times. Of course he was depressed.

That he made it to 1940 without going bankrupt reflects great credit on his financial advisers, notably William Bernau, his bank manager and insurance broker at Cox’s and then Lloyds for two decades until the stress finally caught up with him, Cecil Vickers and WSC’s brother Jack Churchill at Vickers & Da Costa, his Lloyds tax adviser Geoff Mason, and his lawyer Anthony Moir.

Providing Churchill with financial services must have been exhausting, risky, but eventually rewarding – he must have paid enormous amounts of interest over the years, seeing as he was sometimes continuously overdrawn for a decade at a time.

Similarly, Vickers & Da Costa can only have racked up a ton of commissions from all those trades, as well as interest on brokers’ loans, and the Churchill order-flow was so lucrative for their counterparties that surely someone made it worth their while. His long trip to North America in 1928-9 can be read as a long con – at every step of the way, he stayed with stockbrokers or investment bankers, and at every step of the way, he made terrible investments. Bernard Baruch, especially, comes out of this badly, and his stock tips worst of all.

On the other side of the account goes the lost sleep over the question of whether he would ever pay up. His trade creditors had it even tougher, as he tended to treat bills as an alternative source of liquidity. Some went unpaid for five years on the trot. He owed six-figure sums to his tailor, saddler, and wine merchant, although he did make regular payments on account so there was some cash coming in. The longest delinquent account was actually to Grunebaum & Co, cigar importers.

Lloyds eventually cracked on the 18th of June, 1940, as Charles de Gaulle made his momentous broadcast on the BBC, called in the overdraft, and gave Churchill twelve days to find the cash. It’s fair to say their fiduciary commitment to shareholder value was above and beyond. What’s more astonishing is that he found it, almost a million in today’s money. Partly he borrowed from a mate, the co-owner of the Economist Sir Henry Strakosch. He also badgered his publisher to hurry up with a large royalty cheque. As a result, on the 21st, he not only made nice with the bank manager, but also paid dozens of old bills.

One way to look at his finances is as an exercise in cash-flow management of the kind summed up in Adam Kotsko’s classic financial advice for graduate students, the art of being broke. Churchill as a Grad Student isn’t actually that far wrong – we’re talking about someone with no cash and lifestyle expectations way above his income, but who has substantial long-term earnings potential. Like Kotsko, he got by through ruthlessly prioritising those payments that had to be made now, in full, and in cash, and letting the others ride, as well as always maximising the committed but undrawn credit available.

He behaved similarly with the Inland Revenue and frequently used his political status to work out on them, although the Revenue countered by threatening embarrassing public hearings. In 1942, within weeks of the vote of no confidence, he was willing to make three hours’ time to meet his tax adviser. He claimed that the money he got from a series of articles wasn’t royalties, but actually a capital sale of the copyright that just happened to be divided up in tranches, not just once but twice. He retired as an author for tax purposes on three separate occasions, and claimed to have written his best or at least most enjoyable book, My Early Life, purely in order to pay a tax bill.

In the end, one important lesson from this book is that perhaps standards of public integrity and financial probity have actually improved.

In 1923, Churchill accepted a £250,000 fee to lobby on behalf of Shell Oil. He used this money to underwrite part of a major bond issue by Daily Mail & General Trust, a newspaper that also published him and an obvious source of political influence, in exchange for a 2% commission. Vickers, Da Costa called in a favour with DM&GT’s merchant bank to hold a chunk of the business back for him, after Churchill had Shell send the cheque to his brother Jack’s home address for secrecy’s sake. Jack, of course, had just made partner at Vickers, Da Costa, no doubt in part because he brought Winston’s account with him from Grenfell’s and it wasn’t yet obvious what a mess he was going to be. Churchill collected on the transaction, went to stay with the Duke of Westminster in Mimizan, and proceeded to lose the lot at the casino in Biarritz.

I doubt you’d get away with that now.

Lancashire Labour PLUMMETS to miniscule 50% GROWTH

I usually like Jim Pickard’s work for the FT, so I was a bit disappointed by this piece. We certainly do need some data journalism on the surge of Labour Party membership, an underreported fact of British politics and one that has been going on for some time. This mobilisation predates Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign – my own CLP started growing dramatically during 2014 and kept going through the election, until the point where my ward has more Labour members than Conservative voters.

But I’m afraid this won’t do. The FT says:

Take Burnley, for example, which Labour seized back from the Lib Dems in May with a narrow majority. There the membership has risen from 319 to just 484 full members. Or the Rhondda, a deprived constituency in the Welsh valleys, where full membership has risen from 355 to 485.

To put it another way, Burnley CLP’s membership has grown by a puny 45% and Rhondda’s by a miniscule 36%.

Sure, it’s not as dramatic as Holborn & St Pancras, which tripled. But your local Tory membership secretary would fuck pigs for 45% more members…whoops, they do that for fun. I’d rather not think what they might do for 45% more members. The “average” Scottish CLP is up 26% – quite a lot less, but nonetheless it’s substantial growth, given how many of the potential pool of members have gone to the SNP.

A tell in the piece, by the way, is that there are no percentages, nor tables, nor charts, nor links to the data set they used. Another tell is that it quotes Simon Danczuk:

“We have probably had about 100 new members on a total of 600,” says Simon Danczuk, MP for Rochdale and a fierce critic of Mr Corbyn. “I wouldn’t say it’s a massive change.”

That’s an increase of 16%, if you believe Danczuk’s suspiciously round numbers. (Also, what does “probably” mean – doesn’t Rochdale CLP count them?) The interesting bit here, though, is that we can compare two very similar Lancashire mill town constituencies, Burnley and Rochdale. It’s a natural experiment. Burnley CLP has grown by 45%, Rochdale by 16%. One of these numbers is big. The other is small. Also, Burnley is much more marginal than Rochdale, with a Labour majority of 3,244 compared to 12,442. One of these numbers is small. The other is big.

Maybe Burnley’s become a hipster ghetto, a Kreuzberg of the north-west since I was last there…or perhaps it’s just that Simon Danczuk is nobody’s idea of an inspiring leader.

Also, there’s this quote from Hugh Pemberton of Bristol University:

Scottish constituencies were already withering. “It was dire in Scotland; it was clear they had a major problem back then,” said Mr Pemberton.

OK, so the collapse in membership in Scotland was predictive of the election disasters and the rise of the SNP. It follows that increasing membership is probably good, especially in places like Burnley. Right? But somehow that’s not the conclusion. Apparently there aren’t any new members in marginal seats, but the only marginal actually quoted is Burnley, and as we have seen, it’s up by 45%.

Call me a cynic, but I wonder if there actually was a link to the data in an earlier version, but it got spiked? After all, there’s this quote:

The FT has collated data from eight Labour seats that are among the richest 50 constituencies in the country, and eight Labour seats in the poorest 50.

But where are they? The comparison, like the data set, is missing. In the end, the impression I get is that there are two articles here that have been edited into one.

The first one was an honest effort to quantify the mobilisation of Labour members, probably written by Jim Pickard. It concluded that there has been a surge of membership across the board, which was strongest by far in London, but very substantial in Burnley or the Rhondda and far from negligible in Scotland. The second was a hit piece briefed out to Michael Lindsay by one of the “senior party sources” mentioned or possibly Simon Danczuk himself, aiming to deny that there are any new members.

In theory, you line up thesis and antithesis, and get synthesis. In journalism, you line up thesis and antithesis, and get fired.

Why the floods mean you should support my politics

I imagine we’re going to be in for quite a few of these, so let’s get in quick. As Daniel Davies allegedly wrote:

Many people will use this terrible tragedy as an excuse to put through a political agenda other than my own. This tawdry abuse of human suffering for political gain sickens me to the core of my being. Those people who have different political views from me ought to be ashamed of themselves for thinking of cheap partisan point-scoring at a time like this. In any case, what this tragedy really shows us is that, so far from putting into practice political views other than my own, it is precisely my political agenda which ought to be advanced.

Indeed. With that beautiful thought in our minds, let’s proceed. As well as property, I hope the River Aire will have swept away some illusions. The first illusion is of course that we can just go on treating floods and water as a minor news event to be managed through the technology of public relations, this being one of the great unspoken cross-party dogmas.


It’s like that enormous coal-fired power station was trying to tell us something!
As long as I can remember, there has been endless official concern, reports beyond number, constant chin-stroking, but bugger all action. until it rains a bit. Then politicians appear in high-visibility jackets, as do token numbers of soldiers. Eventually the water ebbs away and so does the media interest. Now, surely, we’ve had a teachable moment: Leeds and Manchester flooded on the same day.

I wouldn’t sign any cheques on that, though.

The second illusion is that the devolution offer to West Yorkshire is at all useful. Very simply, it wouldn’t give Yorkshire the budget or the authority to reinstate the planned Leeds flood defence scheme. If you can’t have different policies to those selected by Whitehall, you don’t have devolution in any meaningful way. The only reason to want it is to set different priorities, and you can’t do this without a substantial capital budget. This has so far been a vague and theoretical issue. It is now as concrete as…concrete. Ask what we might have done differently, and there’s your answer.

As I pointed out here, the current proposals offer the devolution of responsibility without the devolution of power. Don’t kid yourself that we wouldn’t now be seeing the prime minister touring the North with George Osborne, blaming the disaster on one-party Labour councils and their crazy overspending. This leads me to the third illusion.

The third illusion is that the devolution offer is right in terms of geography and of politics. The water didn’t come from Leeds and is not going to end up in Leeds, nor did it come from a Leeds City Region.

Water does not care about trying to cut this or that party’s voters in or out. Instead, it defines the landscape that later defines us, in its own way. Yorkshire’s historical boundaries to the North and South are rivers. To the west, the boundary is roughly the watershed, and to the east it is of course the sea. Within this space, water flows from the moors down through the steep, narrow southern Dales, creating the heads of water that powered early industry and that filled the canals of later industry, through the cities, and down the Ouse across its floodplain, the Vale of York, to the sea. Yorkshire is roughly the River Ouse catchment area, give or take the upper Ribble.

It follows that you can’t solve a Yorkshire-wide problem in Leeds, and indeed that’s why we had a Yorkshire water authority and now have a privatised Yorkshire water company. This really ought to be obvious from that alone.

But, aren’t the Yorkshire-wide proposals rather weak? Perhaps. We have some relevant experience here, though. This was a criticism of the Welsh and Scottish assemblies and of the Greater London Authority when they were created. It was also a criticism of the Northern Irish assembly when it was created. All the devolved authorities have gained in power and authority with time. The mayor of London started out without even having any authority over the Tube, but has progressively taken over more and more power, and has even gained a veto over the commissioner of the Met. None of them has ever handed powers back to the central government.

This is, I think, because they are comprehensible, they cover the essential geography, they are elected, and they started with significant powers.

The mayor of London is mayor, of London, and his area of responsibility matches very well what is commonly called London. You can always niggle about boundaries, which are inevitably imperfect, but there is nothing grossly silly about the GLA’s. Similarly, the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish authorities do what it says on the tin. No city regions there.

These authorities also draw legitimacy from the fact they are elected. In a sense, each election is not just a choice of parties or individuals, it is also a referendum on the institution’s existence. Therefore, with each electoral cycle, the devolved authorities have become stronger, more legitimate, and better established. To get the ball rolling, though, they needed to have a minimum of substance, enough to make a palpable difference. For London, it was enough to give Ken Livingstone the buses and the congestion charge.

We can compare the various regional entities – partnerships, assemblies, government offices – which have never lasted. Without comprehensible identity, democratic legitimacy, or significant powers, they have just been afterthoughts.

You might say that a city region solution could progressively take over more territory, in the same way that a Yorkshire-wide one could take on more powers. But there is no precedent for this, and it could as well lose it as gain it. The central government frequently chops up local government boundaries. But as I say, all the other devolved governments have only ever gained more powers, while local governments have as often lost territory as gained it.

And remember:

Please, I ask you as fellow human beings, vote for the political party which I support, and ask your legislators to support policies endorsed by me, as a matter of urgency.

It would be a fitting memorial.


So, #Cosmonauts at the Science Museum. Put it this way: they’ve got Valentina Tereshkova’s ship.


More than that, they’ve got documents of Tsiolkovsky’s, an LK-3 lunar lander, an ejection seat for dogs, Vladimir Dzhanibekov’s strides. And that’s saying something. And the volunteers (I think) are really impressive, hopping out from behind artefacts to press information on you.

I especially liked the way they expressed the sheer length of Russian/Soviet space history back to the 1880s, and its situation in the tumult of Russian culture at the turn of the 20th century. Where everyone else was either getting into Kulturpessimismus or Freudian introspection, they were almost obsessively optimistic.

This played out in various directions – in one way, in search of transcendence through the creation of artistic experiences, in another, in search of political revolution either through assassination or through a vanguard coup, and on the poorly defined frontier between serious science and tinkering, in the effort to leave the planet itself. Anything could be achieved with enough will, and it’s telling that the revolutionaries specifically chose to dump the impersonal economic forces from Marxism in favour of giving history a kick up the arse.

So we have the architect who spent decades in the Soviet Union re-planning his monument to cosmism, the (pretty crazy) philosophy that inspired, among others, Tsiolkovsky. The architect ended up in the gulag in 1948, only two years after Stalin signed the directive bringing the 1930s rocket tinkerers from GIRD back together to start the long-range rocket programme in Kasputin Yar, and not many more years after Korolev himself was released.

And it wasn’t just that a lot of Constructivists and Suprematists produced work that looked space-y; Tsiolkovsky, still around, sketched out treatments for science fiction movies that fed back into the culture. They were getting it from the source. This culture inspired the rocket tinkerers and therefore directly influenced the people who would eventually build the R-7 Semyorka that Tim Peake took to the ISS last week.

Also, fans of high analogue user interfaces will love it.


Why so many Republicans are still running for president

People occasionally wonder why there are still so many Republicans running for president. We can make a simple model of the situation to understand this.

Any candidate who decides to drop out of the race will probably drop out in favour of some other candidate, throwing their support to that candidate. They can expect some kind of reward from that candidate in the event of success. A candidate X will decide to drop out if the expected value of staying in the race falls below the best offer they could get from another candidate.

The value of staying in the race is interesting; it consists of a fairly predictable, risk- or debt-like term which represents their chance of winning based on the current polls, plus an uncertainty or equity-like term which represents the residual value of just being in the race.

While X stays in the race, it’s possible that some other candidate will drop out in X’s favour. It’s also possible that some event will knock out a major candidate and transform the others’ fortunes. This being America, the classic example is a wild-eyed loser sneaking into a Trump rally with a pink AR-15. Public opinion drives the first term, while the other one is basically exogenous, with the important proviso that its value declines as we approach polling day – there is less and less time available for our wild-eyed loser to intervene. This implies that the chance of dropout is asymptotically increasing with elapsed time. It also, interestingly, implies that greater generalised uncertainty – more wild-eyed losers – predicts more candidates, and I think you can actually see this effect in world politics (compare, say, Italian and British political parties).

The potential offer is also interesting. Candidates with less support will be willing to bid higher, because they need additional votes more intensely. We would therefore expect to get the highest offer from the next candidate ahead of us in the race. This would suggest that we’d see a cascade of exits, as the weakest candidates exited first, until only Donald Trump and one non-Donald are left, providing only that non-Donalds all prefer non-Donald candidates to the Donald, and that they can make credible promises of reward.

This last point is where it gets complicated. The offer consists of two components – the reward candidate Y offers candidate X, and the probability that Y will deliver. This itself consists of two components, the probability that Y will be President and therefore in a position to make X Ambassador to the Netherlands or whatever, and the probability that Y will betray X.

It’s possible that social trust is different between the parties, even probable, but this risks letting prejudice cloud our thinking, so let’s assume that political cynicism is evenly distributed for the moment. Therefore, the second component is a constant representing the average level of political deceit.

Now, the risk-adjusted value of the reward will be higher the more likely Y is to be elected President. The face value of the reward will be higher the less likely Y is to become the candidate. If the gap between the leading non-Donald and the rest is large, the credibility effect will dominate; if it is small, the reward effect will dominate. But in the aggregate, the value of any reward offered will be greater the more likely the Party of X & Y is to win the general election, because the winning candidate is more likely to be in a position to deliver.

(Y could also drop out in their turn, and transfer the promise to X along with their vote to some candidate Z, but we can deal with this by pointing out that such promises are only likely to be weakly transitive, and further by thinking about the party’s chances rather than Y or Z’s.)

Compare the Democrats. Most people expect Hillary Clinton to be the candidate and to win. Not surprisingly, all the other potential candidates skipped, accepting either an implicit or explicit offer of office or support in the knowledge Clinton is likely to be able to deliver on it. (Bernie Sanders chose to run in order to make a point, rather like John McDonnell in 2007 or Jeremy Corbyn this year.)

Upshot: the less likely your party is to win, the more candidates will stay in the race to be the candidate, and more generalised chaos tends to cause more candidates. Paradoxical! Further, if there is differential social trust between parties, the more trustful party will tend to have fewer candidates in their race.

Eurolobster: a technical appendix

Over at the Pol, I’ve been trying to answer the question: how long until robots take Brussels lobbyists’ expense accounts? Software. It’s eating the world, they say. You may already have guessed that this is a reprise of Project Lobster, and you’d be right. The inputs are the European Transparency Register, which lists lobbyists and their clients, the Commissioners’ and staffers’ registers of matters (like so), and the survey I administered to readers here. 157 of you responded, for which I am truly thankful.

I used NetworkX, the network analysis library from the great folks at Los Alamos – is that more or less creepy/cool than CreepyDB, sorry, Gaffer? – and a lot of my own work. Having downloaded the transparency register, made it into a two-way hash table, and scraped all the data from the meetings register, I could create some NetworkX graphs and store them. I then wrote a command-line utility to read out key metrics from them.

The metrics I was particularly interested in are as follows:

Weighted network degree. This is just the count of meetings a given node (commissioner, staffer, lobbyist, or lobby) had, multiplied by any weighting applied to reflect the relative importance of meetings. I used the survey results, normalised as percentages of the average result, to weight the different hierarchical ranks (e.g. commissioner, vice-president, member of cabinet) and functional jobs (e.g. competition, transport). I further divided this weighting by the number of lobbies present at the meeting and applied it on a per-edge (NetworkX terminology for a link) basis.

Shortest-path betweenness centrality. This is defined as the fraction of all the most direct routes through the network, using the edge weightings as distances between nodes, that pass through a given node x. What it tells you is how central Mr X is in the network.

Gatekeepership. This is one I invented, and it’s the ratio of the average weighted network degree of people who met node x to the network-wide average – basically, it’s like Value Over Replacement Player for lobbyists, although I was unaware of VORP at the time. It tells you about the extra influence Mr X gives the people they meet relative to the typical node.

Greedy_Fragile. This is the really creepy one, developed by West Point to optimise drone targeting against terrorist networks. It arose from the insight that killing off the most central individuals tended to cause the network to become radically flatter and more decentralised, and therefore harder to target. Instead it might be better to whack lesser power-centres in the network, so as to render it more centralised and therefore, brittle.

It measures how much more or less centralised you make the whole network, being defined as the change in network-wide average centrality if node x is removed. This is why Al-Qa’ida No.3 is such a notoriously dangerous job. The intuition from it is whether someone tends to be an attractor in their own right, or a pillar of the overall structure.

After a lot of hacking painfully about and remembering how much Python I’d forgotten, I got results. Unfortunately, I’d made a seriously unwise assumption, that commissioners and staffers had unique names. Lobbyists do seem to be de-duplicated, but their targets are not. In fact they’re not even up to date or spelled consistently. This resulted in a race-condition: depending on who got scraped first, either all the DG Trade official Jonathan Hill’s meetings would be credited to the Financial Services Commissioner Jonathan Hill, or vice versa.

For a long sad moment I thought I’d discovered something funny. The less important Hill is massively lobbied because people think he’s the more important one! Then I realised the problem, and set about a completely new implementation. I was by this point back in practice, and it took me a day and a half to program it, re-run everything, repeat the data analysis, and rewrite the piece.

The results? Well, you can read them in the Pol. If you’re a masochist you can download all the code here. But if I was a lobbyist I might be thinking about learning to code. It’s the future. They said.

Best Of FOIA

They’ve been whining about the Freedom of Information Act again. Which gave me an idea, as I read this fascinating thread.

Someone has managed to get the Ministry of Defence lessons-learned report on the 2007 incident when the Iranians took a boat’s crew from HMS Cornwall prisoner. That was the one with the iPods, if you weren’t paying attention. I think this may be the most highly classified document released under FOIA yet, as it was marked not just SECRET but UK EYES ONLY, i.e. not to be shown even to the Americans. And now, well, any fool can read it.

It’s been redacted, of course, but even so, it’s full of embarrassing admissions of incompetence and stupidity, and basically says that while the whole chain-of-command in Iraq was trying to put pressure on the Iranians, nobody bothered to tell the Navy, which also didn’t bother to look up what was going on in databases they had access to, partly because intelligence seems to have been a career Siberia, staffed by anyone who happened to be at a loose end. Also, the admiral used the helicopter as his personal taxi until it broke down and therefore wasn’t available to support the boarding party, which suggests seriously odd priorities.

Anyway. Wouldn’t it be awesome to publish a collection of the best FOIA releases, a Freedom of Information Act: The Greatest Hits box set? A bit like those old “2005: Blogged” things, but with less shameless abuse of other people’s copyrights or indeed copylefts. I’d read that, but more to the point, it would be a great campaign device and might even raise some money. Obviously there’s the stash at WhatDoTheyKnow as a source, but crowdsourcing seems the only practical way to do it.

Reopening the #biryaniproject file

It looks like the Biryani Project is back in the news. I’ve created a new blog category for my posts from March-April 2015 on the subject here.

The news is this Huff story, which is driven by the fact Stephen Yaxley-Lennon needs another Stone Island jacket, and therefore he’s got a book out. The key detail is that he now admits that the Quilliam Foundation paid him cash money to quit the EDL, to the tune of £2,000 a month. Quilliam squirms quite a bit, denying that he was an employee or that he was borne on their payroll, but pointedly not denying that he received money.

SYL describes it as a straight-out deal, whereas Quilliam claims he only received cash in exchange for his contribution to some sort of project. Here’s the key quote:

“Tommy [ie SYL’s pseudonym] was remunerated, as an external actor, after invoicing us for costs associated with outreach that he & Dr Usama Hassan did to Muslim communities after Tommy’s departure from the EDL, in an attempt to reconcile Tommy with our Muslim communities.”

SYL describes this “outreach” as follows:

Robinson claims he was on the Quilliam payroll for six months and received about £8,000. During that time, beyond attending the press conference, Robinson got involved in a few “Quilliam-orientated projects”. One was a meeting in Luton between the EDL and a group of Muslims that was “chaos”.

This sounds very much like the Biryani Project effort to deliberately stage first a conflict and then a reconciliation between the EDL and a “group of Muslim lads”, in aid of a local political candidate’s campaign, funded with cash drawn ultimately from the DCLG counter-radicalisation budget. We know the Project did actually go into action once, in Dudley. This seems to be a second case.

The timeline is interesting. SYL quit the EDL in October 2013, immediately before going to jail. Around this time, and for the next 6 months, he was receiving money from Quilliam. Obviously whatever “outreach” he undertook must have happened after he was released. At the same time, future Lib Dem candidate and Quilliam chairman Maajid Nawaz was grant-hunting to keep Quilliam going (after all, you can’t make it rain in the club without plenty of old fivers), and seems to have hawked the capture of SYL and the broader EDL-Islamist reconciliation concept-of-operations around potential funders. Significantly, the FOIA response Political Scrapbook based their story on has been scrubbed from WhatDoTheyKnow on privacy grounds.

Scroll forwards to January, 2014. Baroness Sayeeda Warsi greenlit the £120,000 DCLG grant to Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate and personal friend, Afzal Amin, and his various similarly-named companies. This is the money that would end up being used to fund the Biryani Project.

So, around the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014, we can see that things were changing. One source of cash for Quilliam is drying up. Another one seems to have emerged. At the same time, a new product has emerged, the recycling of SYL in person and the EDL membership in general, plus some still unidentified Islamists, as a force for reconciliation that can also be repurposed as support for Tory, or perhaps Coalition, campaigns in key marginals. Dudley North is exhibit A. Another campaign in Luton is exhibit B – probably Luton South, as Luton North went Labour by a 17.5% majority in 2010 even though the sitting MP, Margaret Moran, quit in disgrace over her expenses, and that actually increased substantially in 2015. The 2010 result in Luton South was a Labour majority of 2,329 or 5.5%.

And of course Maajid Nawaz himself ran for election in the London three-way supermarginal, Hampstead & Kilburn, where the Tories faced a Labour majority of only 42 and Nawaz faced one of only 841 as third-placed candidate.

It is probably worth pointing out that Warsi was Conservative Party Chairman, in charge of organisation and campaigning, up to 2012 before being replaced by Grant Shapps and given more ministerial responsibility, notably for the counter-extremism program. Interestingly, she has on occasion spoken of the need to address the BNP’s very real concerns back when they were cool.

That time I was nearly burned alive by a machine-learning model and didn’t even notice for 33 years

Remember Red Plenty, Francis Spufford’s historical SF novel about the Soviet Union’s efforts to create a real-time planned economy using computers and the ideas of Oskar Lange and Leonid Kantorovich? Sure you do if you’re on this blog. Well, it turns out that it had a dark and twisted 1980s sequel.

We already knew about Operation RYAN, the Yuri Andropov-inspired maximum effort search for intelligence offering strategic warning of a putative Western preventive war against the Soviet Union, and that it intersected dangerously with the war scare of 1983. We also knew that part of it was something to do with an effort to assess the intelligence take using some sort of computer system, but not in any detail. A lot more documents have just been declassified, and it turns out that the computer element was not just a detail, but absolutely central to RYAN.

At the end of the 1970s the USSR was at the zenith of its power, but the KGB leadership especially were anxious about the state of the economy and about the so-called scientific-technological revolution, the equivalent of the Revolution in Military Affairs concept in the US. As a result, they feared that once the US regained a substantial advantage it would attack. The answer was to develop an automated system to predict when this might happen and what the key indicators were.

Model the whole problem as a system of interconnected linear programming problems. They said. Load up the data. They said. Comrades, let’s optimise. They said.

In all, the RYAN model used some 40,000 data points, most of which were collected by greatly increased KGB and Joint GRU field activity. It generated a numerical score between 0 and 100. Higher was better – above 70 peace was probable, whereas below 60 it was time to worry. The problem was the weighting applied to each of those parameters. Clearly, they had to train the model against some existing data set, and the one they chose was Nazi Germany in the run-up to Operation BARBAROSSA.

Who needs theory? They said. We’ve got the data. They said. A simple matter of programming. They said.

As Sean Gallagher at Ars wisely points out, this is a case of the problem described here, that gave us those amazing computer dream pictures. The neural network that classifies cat photos must by definition contain enough information to make a random collection of pixels catlike, although uncannily not quite right. Similarly, RYAN picked up a lot of unrelated data and invariably made it vaguely Hitler-y.

The score went through 60 as early as 1981. The Soviets responded by going on higher alert and sending more agents to posts in the West to get more data. Meanwhile, in the West, John Lehman’s maritime strategy was being put into effect, causing the US Navy and its allies to operate progressively closer to the Soviet periphery, which only made things worse. In the autumn of 1983, the score may have fallen below 40, around the time Stanislas Petrov did his thing.

At this point, Communist Party local cadres were being called in to be briefed on the coming war and their duty to prepare the population. Tactical nuclear weapons were released to local control and moved about by helicopter. The Soviet military was on a higher state of alert than even during the Cuban missile crisis. Fortunately, at this crucial juncture, Yuri Andropov resolved the situation by dying and therefore denying the Big Algo that crucial parameter: patronage.

So, when I was reading all that SF as a kid, I had actually narrowly escaped being vaporised with nuclear space rockets by an evil computer that had convinced itself I was Hitler! I had no idea!

Less flippantly, one of the major themes in Red Plenty is the tension between Kantorovich’s vision of a decentralised, instantly responsive socialist economy, and the Party’s discretionary power – between communism and the Communists, if you like. The RYAN story flips this on its head. This time, it wasn’t the bureaucrats’ insistence on clinging to power that was the problem. It was the solution. The computer said “War”; only fundamentally political, human discretion could say “Peace”. As Joseph Weizenbaum put it, a computer can decide but it cannot choose.

Another thing from Red Plenty that comes up here is that the same unvarying forces of Soviet politics worked the same way, computers or no computers. In the end, everything was personal, and settled through the backstairs gift-economy of favours and influence. Only the loss of its patron could stop the machine.

Also, another theme in the book is the future role the actors in it will play in the perestroika years. We have the cadre down in Novocherkassk who refuses to get used to violence. We have the cadre and programmer who may be turning into an embarrassing trendy dad, but has been enduringly influenced by the Czech experience of 1968. We have the economist who has learned the lesson that the system will have to change dramatically, even if this gets put off 20 years. When they reach the peak of their careers, something is going to change.

And of course they were arriving there just in time to “sudo killall -9 ryand” before ryand killed us all.