Sunday, 27 June 2021

Blackmail is such a dirty word

So farewell then, Matt Hancock. Caught red handed in precisely the same sort of sleaze and corruption in which Boris Johnson and the rest of his cabinet are almost certainly mired just as deeply. The Sun probably has as much dirt on Hancock's cabinet colleagues, but chooses not to release it:

Reportedly, there is a huge safe or vault in The Sun office, full of embarrassing (and in some cases probably incriminating) items on politicians and celebrities which remain (for the time being) unpublished. The Sun vault is also referred to as the "black museum" by Fleet Street hacks, and blackmail may be one of its purposes. Another purpose may be hushing up crimes committed by friends or supporters of Murdoch, including sex crimes later exposed under the police's Operation Yewtree. The retention of so much unpublished material is hard to justify: either these stories are in the public interest and should be published, or they are not and so should not be held in reserve.

Rational Wiki summary of a Byline Times piece.

Apparently there will be a (probably toothless) investigation into who leaked the incriminating material on Hancock. A more interesting investigation, which won't take place, would be into why Hancock was targeted in particular, and equally sleazy colleagues spared.

Three possibilities spring to mind:

  1. Straighforward scapegoating - the government has so far managed to dodge a lot of the blame for the excess deaths and rampant corruption which has characterised their pandemic response but maybe somebody's decided they can't escape all the blame for ever, and Matt Hancock has been set up as the sacrificial example to absolve his boss and colleagues of their share of the blame.
  2. Something more personal - maybe Hancock is felt not to have opened up the economy quickly enough for the Murdoch media and he's being made an example of pour encourager les autres to be even more reckless with public health.*
  3. Something even more personal - something to do with a power struggle within government, involving one of Murdoch's most loyal fifth columnists in goverment, Michael Gove and his creature, Cummings.

Was Hancock thrown to the wolves at random because they just had to lighten the troika somehow, or was he the victim of a targeted character assassination because somebody important wants a change of policy or personnel? The great British public, in whose interest The Sun allegedly publishes such stories, will probably never be allowed to know the truth.


 *If you want a flavour of the Murdoch empire's real feelings about lockdowns and the associated public health measures, here's one of their more unmuzzled outlets, the US Fox News, describing distancing measures in the pandemic as "politicized coronavirus hysteria":

 "The riots have ripped the mask off the mainstream media politicized coronavirus hysteria. When it was politically convenient, the media shamed and attacked people who wanted to reopen their stores or even gather at the beach,” Cornell Law School professor and media critic William A. Jacobson told Fox News. “Now that rioters and looters are gathering in large numbers, the media no longer cares about social distancing, because the media sympathizes with them.”

Brian Flood, Fox News, 1st of June 2020 - no link, because it's divisive garbage, obviously.

Friday, 25 June 2021

The road to autonomous hell

A footnote to my last post about autonomous killer drones; they're not just worrying because they're (possibly) already here. There's also a compelling military logic to keep developing such things:

...when you talk about drone systems, about remotely-piloted systems, these systems are comparatively easy to detect. I mean, it's not that easy if you actually want to build a counter-drone system, but it's still comparatively easy, and that's because of the uplink and the downlink ... the control links that go to the drone and the information links that come back to the pilot. So if you want to fly an unmanned system in a way that's as stealth[y] as possible, you want to cut these links, which means you need to give the system more autonomy.

Dr Ulrike Franke, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, (about 2'30" into this video).

Communication links are a vulnerablity, and the technology exists to get rid of that vulnerability. So the incentive to make killbots autonomous exists.

The only upside, for those of us who don't like the idea of swarms of killing machines perpetrating algorithmic carnage, is that swarms of drones which communicate and coordinate with one another retain this weakness. Maybe the take out is that it's easier to make killbots as solitary assassins than terrifying swarms, at least if the defenders have the capability to detect the swarm's chatter and use countermeasures.

History suggests that, all other things being equal, these sorts of technological constraints, rather than moral debates, tend to guide how militaries use novel ways of waging war. An interesting book review by David Fedman and Cary Karacas highlights this. They're dissecting Malcolm Gladwell's The Bomber Mafia,* a book which suggests that the savage fire bombing of Japanese cities in World War Two was the result of a doctrinal battle being won by brutal area bombing advocate Curtis LeMay over the more restrained advocate of precision bombing, Haywood Hansell.

Fedman and Karacas aren't having this over-simplification of history, though. In reality, they write, the dividing line between area and precision bombing had already become blurred over Europe and the path chosen owed more to pragmatism and contingency than to some moral and doctrinal face-off between two Great Men™:

It’s important to recognize that, by the time the COA [Committee of Operations Analysts] issued this report, the AAF [Army Air Force] was already engaged in the radar (or “blind”) bombing of German cities. While Gladwell devotes considerable ink to a frustrated Hansell contending with the challenges of the air war in Europe, he says little about the broader evolution of American bombing tactics. Hobbled by poor weather, the Eighth Air Force had come to accept that precision bombing was not achieving results. The use of radar, by contrast, appeared more efficacious, even if it meant accepting that bombs would fall haphazardly across urban areas. Under the pretext of destroying Germany’s railways, moreover, they had begun to bomb large swathes of entire cities. 

After a character from my favourite sci fi show in many years, The Expanse, kills the mad scientist who's been unleashing all sorts of horrors on the human race, he says "I didn't kill him because he was crazy. I killed him because he was making sense.

If you're building a drone to evade detection and countermeasures it makes sense to make it autonomous, which is a pretty scary perverse incentive.

*Disclosure - I haven't read it and, after that review, I don't feel inclined to.

Sunday, 6 June 2021

Slaughterbot #1

Killer drones hit the headlines recently in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, when Azerbaijani drones seem to have decisively defeated Armenian mechanised forces. The evidence that drones played a decisive role in Azerbaijan's victory seems pretty convincing (although others have denied that this really is an extinction-level event for the charismatic megafauna of the battlefield, as Charlie Stross called tanks).

Whoever's right on the state of play in the drones vs. tanks arms race, in one sense this isn't a paradigm shift. The drones being used in Nagorno-Karabakh weren't autonomous, but remotely controlled by humans. In that sense they're just another incremental step in a process of humans being able to kill other humans ever more remotely. The process had already gone far enough for George Orwell to comment on how far we as a species had anonymised killing through technology eighty years ago:

As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.

They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.

To quote again that old passage from Ecclesiastes, which was a favourite of Orwell's for its simple, resonant language:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. 

Except, maybe there is a new thing under the sun. Remote killing where no human directly identifies a target and an algorithm decides who's friend or foe, who lives and who dies. Concerned AI researchers have been making a noise about this possibility for some time. The recent sci fi short film Slaughterbots highlighted the danger. Slaughterbots is fiction, but according to a UN report cited by Ed Nash, a Slaughterbot-style autonomous drone may have already killed without any human being directly involved in the target selection. Last year.

If you didn't already think 2020 was unsettling enough, this five minute video might change your mind:

Saturday, 5 June 2021

A small miscellany

 Just some random stuff that caught my eye recently:

  • Marion Stokes: the woman who recorded everything. The strangely compelling story of the former librarian and activist who spent 35 years from 1979 filling 40,000 VHS tapes with the daily TV news and current affairs programmes of the day. Madness, but there was method in it (along with a ton of footage not preserved anywhere else, which is now being digitally archived for posterity).
  • While we're on the subject of archives and memory, the lies and broken promises that underpin the UK's current Brexit reality have been so numerous and shameless that it's exhausting to keep track of them all. Which is why the good folk at Yorkshire Bylines have produced The Davis Downside Dossier so you don't have to. 12 more or less inconsequential upsides and 178, often catastrophic, downsides spotted at the time of writing and counting. Named in honour of David Davis's infamous boast that "there will be no downside to Brexit at all, and considerable upsides."
  • Brazil: the title of Terry Gilliam's absurdist dystopia in movieland, also the location and pattern of a real-life dystopia in our world. A depressing piece which argues that Brazil, the country of the (fake) future, with its intractable neo-feudalist inequalities could be the template for all our futures, if the present trajectory of elite capture of the political economy continues. 
  • Bitcoin: a green disaster with, to paraphrase David Davis, no upside and considerable downsides. John Quiggin argues that the time to divest from Bitcoin is now.
  • Favourite pizza topping? Back in the Sixteenth Century, when Pope Pius V was kicking back from the day job of excommunicating England's Good Queen Bess, or instituting the feast of Our Lady of Victory after the successful outcome of the Battle of Lepanto, he probably liked to chill with a rose water and sugar pizza and a Michelangelo fresco, while waiting in vain for Netflix to be invented.

Friday, 4 June 2021

The bro smirk, the smirk of dominance


In yet more Britain Trump news, Former Guy may be disappearing ever more inexorably into madness and failure but, Cheshire Cat-like, his trademark smirk lingers on, on the faces of the Trump tribute band currently governing the UK. 

Today's pound shop Donald is Grant Shapps, the über-Trumpy get-rich-quick grifter who used to pretend to be a multimillion-dollar web marketer under an assumed name. Here he is hardly even trying to justify reversing the irreversible, or being wildly inconsistent about controlling borders in a pandemic:

Of course, he's not alone. 


From Patel to Johnson the perma-smirk of invulnerability is now as much a part of the Conservative brand as the Tory Power Stance.

 As Ophelia Benson said of the Trump smirk, back in the days of Former Guy's pomp:

It’s the bro smirk, the smirk of dominance.

It would be interesting to see if he's still smirking now that his influence doesn't even extend to being heard on his low-traffic blog (I feel your pain, Donny) and how long the smirk will persist on the lips of the Britain Trump crew who were, presumably, counting on their special relationship with Former Guy to make a success of "Global Britain."

Monday, 31 May 2021

Public to the left of him, AstroTurf to the right, stuck in the middle with Britain Trump


Remember when the USA was being run by that strange orange whackadoodle who used to say crazy shit about injecting yourself with bleach? Remember how that Very Stable Genius saw the world exclusively in relation to himself, and paid this "compliment" to our very own Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson?

"They're saying Britain Trump. They call him Britain Trump. That's a good thing. They like me over there."

The bleach advice aged like milk, but while no literate Brit ever called Johnson "Britain Trump", except to mock the massive satsuma-faced toddler,* the comparison has resonated with people who are far smarter and more thoughtful than Trump himself. For Simon Wren-Lewis, the parallels between the two are tragic rather than comic:

One of the persistent features of Trump’s period as president was his obsession with Fox News. He preferred to get his information from Fox News than internal government briefings. In time Fox News started to understand this, and some of its journalists started directly addressing him in their shows. Why did Trump do this? Because all populists are narcissists who want to be admired their people. Most of the time, Fox News obliged...

...If we believe Cummings, Johnson too is obsessed by the media read by ‘his people’, and in particular his own paper The Telegraph. He looks to them to check he is being admired. So when this and other right wing papers started publishing anti-lockdown nonsense, it got to him. As the Prime Minister who had locked down the economy he was no longer admired by these newspapers. This overrode any ability to understand the reasons why lockdown was necessary (and quick and hard lockdowns particularly), so he became over the summer a lockdown skeptic. 

The parallels between Trump and Johnson are striking but they're not exactly breaking news. What is interesting is where the far right/libertarian pressure that drove Britain Trump to botch the lockdowns is coming from. Because the "anti-lockdown nonsense" Wren-Lewis talks about didn't come from out of nowhere.

As Wren-Lewis points out, a lot of it is being propagated by the right-wing press, presumably reflecting the agenda of its oligarch owners.

But what's behind the Covid denialists who posted photos of empty NHS wards and claimed that the pandemic's a hoax? or the celebrity bobblehead who whinged that he paid the salary of NHS staff, who should be thanking him, rather than the other way round?

Did this furious anti-mask, anti-vaxx, anti-NHS anti-statist intervention arise spontaneously from the grass roots? An earlier post by Simon Wren-Lewis presents evidence that this is probably not the case. Back in 2018, he blogged about where the UK public was at, and it didn't seem to be with the small state libertarian vision of freedom from the big state:

When the public are asked about who should own and run various activities, there is clear support for more rather than less public involvement....

...Note that only about 10% want privatisation of the NHS, which has continued rapidly under this government. A government that reduces ernment spending and taxes, and pushes privatisation of the NHS, seems like a government of the few and not the many.

The post-pandemic outpouring of appreciation for our very statist National Heath Service seems to validate what Simon says.Whatever you think about the claps for carers, or the media focus on Captain Tom's fundraising efforts, appreciation for the institutions we have and the people who work for them seems to be genuine. Applications for nursing courses for autumn 2021 were up nearly a third from the previous year. 

You might still argue that Brits (or at least the English majority in our fracturing Union) are socially conservative, but you'd have a way harder time arguing that they're libertarian small statists.

There's evidence that the "lockdown scepticism" that didn't come directly from the right wing press was largely the result of an AstroTurf campaign funded by people with deep pockets and the same far right-libertarian agenda as the right wing media owners. A by-no-means-exhaustive list of examples includes:

  • UsforThem

UsforThem, a parents' lobbying group, appears to operate as part of a network that disseminates pseudoscience on the pandemic, for instance, around the role of schools in transmission, masks, safety measures, as well as other issues such as PCR tests and COVID-19 death certification...

...In June, UsforThem coordinated a pre-action legal letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, obtained by Byline Times under Freedom of Information, threatening the Government with a judicial review if it did not re-open schools without safety measures.

The letter was prepared by the same global multi-billion-dollar law firm, DLA Piper, which has advised the Government on its COVID-19 response. (Nafeez Ahmed, Byline Times).

  • The Oxford COVID-19 Evidence Service, a disinformation hub apparently cooked up by individuals linked to finance, the American right and a network of right wing lobby groups. The Oxford COVID-19 Evidence Service's dubious claims seem to have been thoroughly debunked, but not before undermining pblic trust in public health responses to the pandemic:

The damage to public discourse has been done. Large segments of the population seem to be convinced that the scientific community is fundamentally divided on how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. But this is untrue. (Byline Times).
This has worrying echoes of big tobacco's concerted, and unfounded, attempts to cast doubt on the scientific consensus on the links between smoking and cancer. Doubt is their product.

  • Health Advisory and Recovery Team (HART)

HART was co-founded by Graham Hutchinson, who has coordinated the group prior to and since its inception. He was listed as a member of the group until mid-February.

Hutchinson is an active proponent of COVID-19 pseudoscience and other conspiratorial disinformation. He has claimed that “vaccination is pointless” and implied that vaccines are part of a genocidal global conspiracy: “An urgent message for those wanting a Vaccine Passport. Do you realise your passport will need to be kept up-to-date which means they could at any point, for example, say you needed to have a vaccine a week to do anything? #Cashcow #Control #Genocide.” ...

...Elsewhere, [Hutchinson] tweeted that “99% of the corona bollocks was to get rid of Trump” and praised Donald Trump for being “against climate” and “chasing paediphile [sic] rings”. (again, Byline Times)

  • Then there are wealthy individuals on the libertarian right, like Simon Dolan, the Monaco tax exile who took Matt Hancock and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to court over the restrictions, arguing the Coronavirus regulations were "the most onerous restrictions to personal liberty" and furiously denounces both public health measures and any suggestion that he promotes dangerous conspiracy nonsense (which he self-evidently does). Or the property tycoon Richard Tice, who has raged against people staying away from offices for reasons which have nothing at all to do with the waning profitability of his huge commercial property portfolio, obviously.


Attack of the celebrity bobbleheads.

I could go on, but you get the picture. You've got a public which is broadly OK with the idea of socialised healthcare, and have been broadly amenable to the various measures needed to get the country through the pandemic on one side.** On the others you have a few polemicists in the right wing-media, speaking out on behalf of a largely AstroTurf lockdown backlash being fabricated by a tiny clique within the economic elite, afraid of the inevitable big government element of any serious response.

And in the middle is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, paralysed by indecision, like a donkey between two hay bales.



*© Stuart Maconie.

** There are real people who are very much not OK with lockdown measures, but the objections are, as far as I can see, to do with individual economic circumstances, not the sort of implacable ideological opposal to the principle of lockdowns we've seen from the activists who've been trying to undermine them. If your job is the one that goes, or you're not eligible for furlough, or you're one of the left-behind self-employed who fell through the cracks, of course you're going to be desperate and angry.      

*** .gif credit.    

Saturday, 24 April 2021

Cleopatra's calendar

Cleopatra VII of Egypt is a historical celebrity for a number of reasons, chiefly her fruitful political and romantic entanglement with Julius Caesar, her doomed political and romantic entaglement with Mark Antony, her subsequent suicide by asp and her status as Egypt's last Pharaoh.*

More recently, she's received more recognition as a wily and ruthless player in the Ptolemys' deadly game of thrones, a political figure in her own right, rather than the caracatured exotic über-seductress of powerful men.

All of this stuff's historically interesting, but I'd say that her most lasting legacy isn't necessarily a dramatic life filled with passion and power politics and its retelling down the ages, but something even more ubiquitous; the calendar which most of the world uses today.

So here's the argument. Most of the world today uses the Gregorian solar calendar. The Gregorian calendar was  introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII, as a slightly more accurate upgrade to the earlier Julian calendar.

The Julian calendar is, of course, named after Julius Caesar, who introduced it to Rome in 45 BC, replacing the earlier Roman calendar. 

Unlike the transition from Julian to Gregorian, which was a refinement of the same basic calendrical system, the Julian reform was fundamental, substituting a new, solar calendar for the old Roman lunisolar calendar which, by this stage, had some serious issues:

 Around 715BC the twelve month [Roman] calendar was introduced, based on the phases of the Moon. It takes on average 29.5 days between one new moon and the next and so a twelve-month lunar year lasts 354 days but an extra day was added because even numbers were unlucky. The twelve months had between 28 and 31 days in each to make the year last 355 days. February was the shortest month with 28 days and every other year a whole extra month - called Mercedonius which alternated between 22 days and 23 days - was inserted after the 23rd day of February to try to keep the calendar in line with the solar year of approximately 365 days. At the end of Mercedonius the remaining five days of February were taken, so Mercedonius was followed by the 24th of February. But the arithmetic did not quite work - the system gives an average duration for the year of 366.25 days - and the calendar slowly drifted away from the seasons once more. Inserting an extra period to correct the calendar is called an intercalation.

The situation was made worse because the calendar was not a publicly available document. It was guarded by the priests whose job it was to make it work and determine the dates of religious holidays, festivals, and the days when business could and could not be conducted. Through both carelessness and abuse, the intercalations were not made even according to the flawed rules that had been laid down. By the time Gaius Julius Caesar took power in the mid 40s BC the calendar was in a mess and he decided to make a major reform. 

So where does Cleopatra fit in?

Well, back in 48 BC, Caesar, having routed Pompey the Great in battle, had pursued his hard-pressed rival to Egypt. Ptolemy XIII, in a misguided attempt to curry favour with the victorious Caesar, had Pompey assassinated, a gesture which backfired, leading an enraged Caesar to side with Ptolemy's co-ruler and sister, Cleopatra, depose Ptolemy and place his new ally (and lover) on the throne of Egypt.

In 47 BC, Cleopatra bore a son, Caesar probably being the father, while Caesar went off to do more civil war stuff. 

But this wasn't the end of their relationship. In 46 BC, Cleopatra and her little brother (and co-ruler in name only),  Ptolemy XIV, came to Rome and stayed at Caesar's villa. A few things came out of this visit, including Cleopatra entertaining Rome's great and good, Caesar declaring the Egyptian queen a "friend and ally of the Roman people" and a golden statue of Cleopatra being put up in the newly-built Temple of Venus Genetrix.

There was one, more consequential, result of Cleopatra's stay in Rome, according to Pliny the Elder, who identifies the Greco-Egyptian astronomer, Sosigenes of Alexandria, who was presumably part of Cleopatra's retinue, as the guy who actually devised the Julian calendar, proposed by Caesar in 46 BC and introduced in 45 BC. In this context, the radical move from a lunisolar to a solar calendar makes sense, as the Egyptians already used a solar calendar.

So, yeah, you could argue that without Cleopatra, Rome wouldn't have adopted the Julian solar calendar, the direct ancestor of most widely used calendar used in the world today.**

In a world without Cleopatra, the superpower of the ancient world might have refined its calendar along existing lunisolar lines and the modern world's dominant calendar might have had a lot more in common with, for example, the Hebrew calendar.

There are, of course, counter-arguments:

1. We only "know" that Sosigenes devised the calendar from one very short passage (Pliny's Natural History Book 18, 210-212) so it's not certain that Sosigenes really was the calendar guy. Aristarchus of Samos has also been credited as coming up with the Julian calendar, although there's even less direct evidence for this version.

2. If Pliny was right, and it was Sosigenes, then it would be more accurate to call it Sosigenes' calendar, not Cleopatra's, which would give my post title way less name recognition.

3. Name-checking Cleopatra might also make this a version of the questionable "great man" version of history (in this case "great woman", obviously). In a counterfactual world where Cleopatra, or Julius Caesar, or both of them, had never been born, it's likely that Rome would still have dominated Ptolemaic Egypt as a client state before absorbing it completely, so Greco-Egyptian scholarship and the eventual adoption of a calendar based on the Egyptian calendar might have been on the cards anyway.

But it's still at least plausible to think that the world's most widespread calendar might not be preeminent had chance not led to Julius Caesar meeting Cleopatra. And it's about as good an illustration of the Cleopatra's nose theory of history as I can think of.

*Roman pharaohs don't count.

**Not something I'd thought about until I came across a reference to the Egyptian influence on the Julian calendar in this video.