20 June 2009

Anonymous Blogging

All the discussion I've seen about the unmasking of Night Jack, the award-winning blogger who told us about life in the police, seems to stand on dangerously bad assumptions.

Many, like Hopi Sen, argue on the basis that anonymous blogging is in the public interest. Some, like the always reasonable chris dillow, dispute that claim. All of them scare me.

For what it's worth, I think that anonymous blogging is in the public interest. But that's an awfully flimsy ground on which to build the shocking restriction on freedom which Night Jack's victory would have produced.

The case wasn't about whether Night Jack could blog anonymously — whether he could blog without telling anyone his identity. What was at issue was whether The Times, having found out his identity, would be allowed to tell anybody. The only possible answer to that question is yes, of course. Isn't it enough that this country has the most oppressive libel laws in the world, without putting still more restrictions on what the press is allowed to tell us? Even the Max Moseley case based its verdict in favour of Moseley's privacy on the basis of a breach of his confidence — that the information came from somebody who had a duty to keep it private. Night Jack originally made a similar claim, but dropped it, claiming only that it was in the public interest that we not find out who he was.

I would like to see a right to blog anonymously, but all I would expect that to encompass is to be allowed to publish without having to identify myself, not to prevent anyone who happens to know who I am from telling anybody else. I want to be permitted to have a secret, but not assisted by the power of the law in keeping it a secret — that's my job.

The frightening assumption is that if anonymous blogging is in the public interest, anonymity should be protected with the power of the state, and if it is not, then it should be broken with the power of the state. Everything that is not compulsory is forbidden.

18 June 2009

Fusion power

What we need to solve energy problems, or so I have heard, is a "Manhattan Project" for fusion

In the original Manhattan Project (aka MED for Manhattan Engineer District), vast scientific and engineering resources were employed in developing an atomic bomb. Examples of huge successful government projects are sufficiently rare that it continues to serve as an example that such a thing is in fact possible.

The major research project into fusion is the ITER development, in the news today because estimates of its cost have increased from the original USD6bn to USD16bn. At that level, this one project costs, in inflation-adjusted terms, two-thirds of the total cost of the Manhattan project, which took multiple design approaches in parallel, and included successful production of working devices. Leaders of the Iter project agree that fusion energy production will not happen in
the next 40 years.

The management problems of a programme of this length (and research into tokamaks has been going on since the 1960s) are quite different from those of a one-off war "project" like MED. Nobody expected to spend their entire career in MED, and the top management were senior army officers who would certainly be going onto something very different. Also, the Manhattan Project, because it was part of the effort of fighting a particular war, could have failed. The programme of developing tokamak fusion energy cannot fail. Either it will succeed, or it will carry on for ever. The constraints of war gave the management of the MED the most important capability a manager can have - the ability to shut down something that isn't working. In an unconstrained programme, doing that is both an admission of error and a sacrifice of power, and just doesn't happen without very strong outside pressure.

At least according to the BBC article, the success of tokamak fusion depends on the invention of materials which do not currently exist: something strong enough to hold a vacuum but transparent to neutrons so as not to be vapourised by the activity inside. The real situation is presumably more complicated, but the upshot is that the whole approach of generating power by confining a plasma with magnetic fields to the point where it fuses might never work. If IEC/Whiffleball fusion is possible (which is even more doubtful) then it will be generating power long before ITER produces any useful results.

What the BBC story really represents is various scientist/bureaucrats squabbling over the goodies.

The reason science and bureaucracy don't mix is that getting things wrong and then publicising the fact is the way science advances, but avoiding and, most importantly, never admitting mistakes is the way bureacrats advance.

Working fusion power would be great, but one has to ask what the point is since we already have the science we need to generate electricity more cheaply and with less pollution, and we're not using it. If ITER succeeds, then in fifty years we will be able to build fusion power plants, but will they really be cheaper than building fission plants? What would fifty years of massive research into safer, more efficient fission power give us? It's as if we invented planes, got them working, then stopped using them and threw all our resources into trying to develop teleporters. I'm not saying fission power is the answer to everything. If we were still building plants, that wouldn't mean there was no reason to look for something better, but if we're not using what we've got, what are we looking for?

17 June 2009

Iran Elections

Here's what I believe about Iran:

First, I support the concept of national sovereignty. There should be no interference in the internal affairs of Iran that fall short of invading it and declaring it a protectorate. This is not so much a moral principle as a practical one - attempting to change a country's government, with or without local allies, is an act of war.

I don't know whether the election of Ahmedinejad was legitimate. Very possibly it wasn't. Quite possibly it was - our view of the national mood both before and after the vote was skewed by the greater visibility of the Tehran population relative to the rural population.

The rural population is much more conservative than the city population. If we assume for the sake of argument that the vote was counted fairly, then what we are seeing resembles in some respects the situation that arose recently in Thailand. There, Thaksin Shinawatra had the support of the countryside, but was deposed by the capital city.

The difference in that case was that the Bangkok middle classes controlled the armed forces, and were able to take power through them. In Tehran, the questions appear to be whether the government is prepared to put down the revolt violently, and if so, whether the security forces will follow orders to do so.

Ultimately, the conclusion is that a government cannot survive on the support simply of a backward rural population, even if that population constitutes a majority. Note that the Islamic Republic was originally installed by the city population.

Of course, the protesters are not calling for an end to the Islamic Republic, only for the change of government they claim the election should have produced. That means they could win without the country falling into chaos (unlike, for example, the Chinese protesters of 20 years ago). If it becomes accepted that the election was rigged, there could be a very peaceful transition. Even so, if that were to happen, the proof that the Tehran mob can overrule the election result (honest or not) will not go away.

Maybe the more important conclusion to draw is that a truly national election is a very bad thing. The last few US presidential elections have produced great criticism of the "Electoral College" system, but that system is essential for producing an uncontested result. If the election is decided by the total number of votes over the nation, then it becomes too easy to add extra votes in areas where one site dominates. If you only count constituencies, then both sides can closely observe the process in the areas which are close, and in the areas which aren't, it doesn't matter, because the side which has the ability to rig the vote has no reason to. In Iran, suggestions that ballot boxes were stuffed with fake votes in parts of the country are plausible because the side that make the claims are not well-enough represented there to stop it.

The great advantage of democracy is that it gives the government enough legitimacy to stay in power without the massive intrusive social control that modern dictatorships normally require. Doubts over the count undermine that legitimacy, so it is essential that counts are visible enough to be trusted. That is much more important than that the system used is perfectly "fair". I am quite disturbed that, where we have grown to trust the fairness of elections, we are throwing away their verifiability in exchange for better fairness.

13 June 2009

Euro Elections

Great result for UKIP, obviously, but the rejoicing slightly tempered by disgust at two seats going to the Greens (again).

It can't be said that the UKIP vote was a fluke, but though they may keep many of the votes in a general election, those votes won't do them as much good. The drop in turnout from 2004 to 2009 was close to the total UKIP vote. Even supporters of the EU now realise that it doesn't make any difference who sits in the European Parliament. The only thing at stake in a Euro election is the salary and expenses package. This is immensely valuable to a small party, so supporters of small parties are motivated to vote. Also there's a kind of poetry in electing anti-EU MEPs, so UKIP do much better than other small parties.

As an aside, I was amused by the delay in counting the results in order to wait for other member states who voted at the weekend. Pretending that there was a single Europe-wide election simply drew attention to the fact that there wasn't. The BBC's web coverage was particularly annoying, as results in other countries were reported only in terms of the EP "groups" - so for instance if you look at the Ireland results, you're left trying to guess which parties won seats - "Left" got two and "Socialists" got two - what are they (I think its Labour and Sinn Fein, but I don't know which are which). "Liberal" gained three and "UEN" lost four - quite a shakeup there! I suspect that's Fianna Fail changing groups, but if I want to know for sure I have to look somewhere other than the BBC.

Because elections happen so rarely, it takes many years for people to learn how to use them. It wasn't until the 1980s or even 90s that tactical voting really got going, and voters are still learning that in EU elections, they can vote for whoever they want. The tactical voting will really make itself felt in the next general election, and any prediction based on "swing" will be completely off, as the measured swing will go to Conservatives or Lib Dems depending on which one is more likely to beat Labour.

Thomas Paine

Nice point here - Thomas Paine was one of those weirdos pushing "democracy" back in the 18th. Sensible people pointed out that that would lead to disasters such as paper money. Paine responded that that could be avoided even in a democracy - and that any legislator voting for it should be executed. Somehow his solution was never put into practice, however, and, in this as in other respects, the gloomy predictions of the anti-democrats were fulfilled.

BNP Failure

The BNP didn't do nearly as well in the Euro elections as I thought they might - there was no sudden tipping into a situation where a large group of supporters realised how large they really are. I suppose with hindsight an election just isn't a mechanism for that to happen - my comparison with the fall of Eastern bloc single-party machines was invalid, because the self-discovery process requires that people openly show their support for the opposition, and, whatever happens to the Labour Party, the wider establishment is still strong enough for that sort of public display to be highly inadvisable.

Of course, it is only a suspicion of mine that such a group really exists, and the outcome is equally well explained by the theory that in fact only a few percent of the electorate supports the BNP's ideals and policies. The larger number of people who, like Peter Hitchens, oppose immigration on the basis of economic and social issues rather than on the basis of race, are still reluctant to associate themselves with the shunned racists.

10 June 2009

Presidential Government

Tony Blair (remember him?) was long accused of a "presidential" style of government. His ministers were completely under his authority, and always replaceable. This may be part of Gordon Brown's problem - he is attempting to govern in Blair's style, and running out of MPs who can complete his cabinet. The problem is that Blair had three things enabling his presidential government, which Brown doesn't have:

1. The authority with the party that came from being a proven election winner
2. People skills
3. Gordon Brown

Number 3 is the punchline, of course; but the Blair regime was a double act from beginning to end. No other minister had the power to overrule the prime minister.

The real point was that the sidelining of the cabinet under Blair was not so much part of the general centralising trend as an aspect of Blair's particular personality and situation.

06 June 2009

Demonstrations in Luton

As a change from analysis, here's a bit of reportage.

This document was distributed in Bury Park, Luton last week (click on it to enlarge to read it, and the full text is below):

It's printed on A5 paper and came through the door. I didn't have to transcribe it as text because googling about I found it in this comment from the "islamic awakening" forum. Only the title is changed. The text below therefore exactly corresponds to the leaflet. I added the bold and italics to match.

The document is not dated, but "the demonstration which we saw on Friday" refers to the 29th May (2009). The background situation is described in this Independent article. I can't add to or validate that account - I always seem to miss the actual aggro, somehow.


In response to a demonstration held in Bury Park on Friday, we would like to inform all Muslims in Luton about some important facts:

The demonstration held against the Royal Anglian Regiment on 10th March 2009 was to forbid the evil of the illegal occupation of Iraq, the murder of innocent Muslims in the name of freedom and democracy by the US and UK regimes and a call for Islamic law i.e. the Shari’ah as a solution for all our problems. This was done in response to Allah (SWT) saying: ‘Let there arise from amongst you a group(s) of Muslims, calling to Islam, enjoining good and forbidding evil, these will have success [Quran 3:104]

The response from the Muslin Ummah world-wide was phenomenal, with praise and happiness for the small group of Muslims who had the fortitude to speak the truth in front of the army of Pharaoh. This demonstration also led to many discussions openly and publicly about the illegal and oppressive war waged by the US and British against Muslims in Iraq.

On the other hand the demonstration which we saw on Friday in Bury Park led by Abdul Qadir Baksh and those from the ‘Islamic’ centre was clearly calling for the arrest of Muslims, was co-operating with the same police who routinely raid and arrest innocent Muslims and was intended to forbid the call for the Shari’ah and support the law and agenda of the taghout British government. And Allah (SWT) says concerning people like this: The hypocrites, men and women, are from one another, they enjoin (on the people) evil and forbid (people) from the good, and they close their hands [from spending in Allah's Cause]. They have forgotten Allah, so He has forgotten them. Verily, the hypocrites are the Fasiqun (rebellious, disobedient to Allah). [Quran 9:67]

They may feel justified in their stance because of the attack against their centre but when did they ever become angry when the masjids in Baghdad were on fire? When did they ever raise their voices when the masjids in Gaza were being bombed? Even worse when did they ever demonstrate when our brothers and sisters were being tortured, raped, killed and murdered in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Chechnya, etc..? Especially when the Messenger said: “One drop of Muslim blood is worth more to Allah than the Kaba’ah and its whole surroundings.” It is indeed ironic that the very people who have never lifted a finger to defend Muslims being oppressed around the world have only found the courage to condemn Muslims that have the courage to stand for the Ummah. Verily guidance and knowledge is a blessing from Allah (SWT) granted to those He loves.

We call upon Muslims in Luton to remember that our purpose in life is to please Allah (SWT) and not Gordon Brown, to serve Allah (SWT) and not the Saudi regime [supporters of the disbelievers], that we must stand up against those at war with Islam and Muslims and not against practising Muslims.

The Muslims must remain strong and not give in to the whisperings of Shaytaan to sell their religion for some miserly gain in this life. We are in the strange times, where the Prophet(saw) foretold there will be those who stop commanding good and forbidding evil, who in fact enjoin evil and forbid good and who further call the trustworthy liars and the liars trustworthy. This is the time mentioned in the narration of the Prophet when the ruwaybiddah will be ruling (such as the Saudi regime) who are the worst among the people but in charge over their affairs. May Allah (SWT) protect us from the tawagheet and their alliance, as he protected our brothers Musa (as), Essa (as) and the Messenger Muhammad (saw).

Finally we would like to ensure all Muslims and non-Muslims that Insha’Allah we will never stop calling for Islam, until the Deen of Islaam becomes dominant or we die in the struggle for its domination world-wide, as was the struggle and call of the best man who has ever walked the earth, the Messenger Muhammad (saw).

05 June 2009

Peston on Deregulation

Robert Peston, who gets a bad press in some quarters, describes in some detail the "rampant deregulation" which we are told preceded the credit crunch:
As someone who has been a banking journalist at various times since the early 1980s I can speak with weary authority about the many years of intellectual toil invested by an elite financial priesthood of central bankers and regulators in devising complex rules on the capital that banks should hold.

These are known as the Basel Rules. And since the late 1980s, they have been the foundations of how banks operate: they determined how much banks could lend relative to their capital resources.

It's generally a good post, about subordinated debt.

The Chinese Civil War

My blogroll is full of pictures of the unsuccessful attempt twenty years ago to overthrow the Chinese government.

I have seen little discussion, however, of what the result would have been if it had succeeded. We have the example of Russia to show us that even the peaceful overthrow of a one-party state is not any guarantee of decent government. That's of limited use as a guide, however, as the USSR had internally failed before it fell, whereas the Communist Party of China was and is still very much in control.

It is not the case that, because I oppose the ideology of democracy, I think the appearance of democracy in China would have been a bad thing. I still hold the position I took here - governments need to stay in power, and the less destruction they have to cause to do it, the better, and in an advanced economy, democracy is the least destructive way of preventing a change in government. I think some time this century China will need to transition to a western-style civil service-based democracy.

That is jumping the more important question, however, which is whether the collapse of the CPC (as would have occurred if it had been showed to be incapable of controlling its own capital) would result in a western-style democracy. These are notoriously difficult to build, not least because those building them appear to have no understanding of what they actually are. (The most important ingredient, of course, being a united media establishment which tells people what to vote for). The chances of one emerging out of China in 1989 would be practically zero. I don't think there would be much chance today.

My other thoughts on Chinese Democracy are on my other blog