Friday, September 19, 2014

Now Scotland's staying, there's a coup afoot in England

No, you daft bugger, this is not how devolution works.

The English question, long buried, has rushed to the centre of British politics as David Cameron announced that devolution of further powers to Scotland will be dependent on a broader agreement that, in future, English MPs alone will vote on English issues.
The implications of Scottish MPs being excluded from the Commons on an array of issues is not just a constitutional thicket, but also a crude political nightmare for Miliband, the Labour leader, since he is likely to have rely on a phalanx of Scottish MPs to secure an overall majority for much legislation.

From The Guardian.

Devolution for England means that England gets its own parliament, preferably well away from London. Obviously I'd prefer the North, but Exeter is fine by me too. (Assuming Devon doesn't want its own parliament. It's just Cornwall that's pushing for independence, right?)

Cameron's plan, throwing the Scottish MPs out of the UK parliament on "English days" doesn't make an "English" parliament, it's just a form of coup, since almost all Scottish MPs are from the opposition party. I can see why Cameron wants it, but the man's a douche and should be restrained from doing anything involving constitutions.

In future, is someone from the majority English party going to be "English Prime Minister" on English-only days at Westminster and someone else from the majority UK party going to be "UK Prime Minister" on other days, relegating the English Prime Minister to the position of leader of the loyal opposition on those days? What a lot of codswallop.

How can you possibly have the same MPs voting for UK interests on one day and English-only interests the next day while sitting on the same benches in the same building? That's madness. And all of them soaking up exactly the same Murdoch/Square Mile largesse and favor because they are exactly the same people? Nope.

Miliband isn't falling for it, but he's not exactly King Arthur Redux either so I don't hold out much hope.

Devolve powers to an English parliament, and preferably devolve England for tax and policy purposes into Mercia, Northumbria, Wessex, East Anglia, London and Home Counties, and Devon and Cornwall. (I may have missed someone out. Soz.)

If Cameron gets his way, maybe I can get a Scottish passport based on my (presumed) grandfather's domicile when they finally do secede.

Devo Max and the Scottish vote

The referendum is over, and the Scots decided they want to stay with the UK.

I'm glad – I think that Scotland and England (and Wales and Northern Ireland) really are "better together" as the much-maligned campaign slogan says.  The loss of that many smart people and that much land would have crippled the UK. (You can read a million analyses of the loss to NATO for example.)

The good that came out of the campaign is that the Scots have been promised Devo Max. As I've mentioned before, that's great, particularly if the rest of the provinces (read: England outside the Home Counties) are given the same powers. I know Yorkshire and Lancashire would benefit from devolution that allowed them to set income tax rates on a regional basis (among other things) and although I don't know how say, Tyne and Wear or Cornwall think, I'm betting many there feel the same.

The fact is that Westminster  is a sphere unto itself. It governs based on what the City of London (a very small part of Greater London) wants and doesn't  deign to notice what the other 60 million people of the UK want. And the voters in the UK have the choice of the Conservatives, who promise something but I'm not sure what  they speak like the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoon) and Labour, who are Conservatives pretending to care about working people in order to get votes.

Yeah, I was a card-carrying Labour supporter in the eighties. Not so much now.

Looking forward to Devo Max for Yorkshire.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

New Jimmy Page TV interview from 1963

...if you know what I mean.

 Jimmy Page interview dated June 1963, when he was 19.


Jimmy says he's been playing guitar for "four years". I assume he meant professionally, as he previously appeared on TV in 1957, already playing guitar.

This interview comes at the time Jimmy was making big changes in his life (even though he's only 19).  He had stopped touring with perpetual no-hopers Neil Christian and the Crusaders (although he mentions them as his current band in the clip), started making a name for himself playing jam sessions in the big London clubs, worked his first few sessions and was, as he says in the clip, equivocating between becoming an artist and becoming a guitarist.

According to George Case's Magus, Musician, Man, Jimmy contracted glandular fever (mononucleosis) in mid 1962 and became so weakened he had to leave the Crusaders (YouTube autoplay) shortly afterward. (He did participate in studio recordings, with them and the legendary Joe Meek in fall, 1962.) He attended Sutton Art College from 1962 to late 1963 (studying painting) and played jam sessions at the Marquee to keep his hand in, which expanded to sessions at the legendary Eel Pie Island and Crawdaddy.  This led, once again according to George Case, to offers for him to work on studio recordings as a session musician. Tony Meehan and Jet Harris's Diamonds (YouTube autoplay) is the first record he played on to be released, in early 1963.  Mike Leander got him in on some sessions in fall 1963 of which he said, "Before this I thought session work was a closed shop".

"The chronology of these heady days for Jimmy Page and his peers is vague," says George Case.

The interviewer is Royston Ellis, the Beat Poet. Jimmy played at one of his poetry slams around the time of some time before the interview, which apparently takes place in Guernsey. Case says it's unknown whether Jimmy did go on an oft-rumoured trip to Europe at this time, but perhaps being in Guernsey is a hint that he did travel a little.

h/t to Aquamarine who put this video on her Facebook. I would have missed it otherwise. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

President's address on ISIL, 10 September. The Six Sigma analysis

I worked for a big company for more than 20 years.  The company was goal driven, which is to say that every project, and every performance review, included a goal.

Some of the goals were mathematical, and a few were "voice of the customer".  But every project had a numerical goal.

You have 55% of the customer base in this sales territory? Your goal is to have 65%. Next year, we'll try for 70%. 
Your customer approval rating is 87%? It needs to be at or above 91% by next year. 
Your production line has 7 defects per million? Let's get that down to 3 defects per million. 
You met your production schedule 91% of the time? We need that to be 95% of the time, and get even better next year.

It's just weird that Congress – and the president – don't have any goals. They can hand-wave about how they'll improve the economy or – today's topic – "defeat ISIS" but there's rarely any actual metric they can reveal to tell us how they did.

President Obama's speech today was an example of that. 
Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy. 
First, we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists. Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions, so that we’re hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense. Moreover, I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven. 
Second, we will increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground. In June, I deployed several hundred American service members to Iraq to assess how we can best support Iraqi Security Forces. Now that those teams have completed their work – and Iraq has formed a government – we will send an additional 475 service members to Iraq. As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission – we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq. But they are needed to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment. We will also support Iraq’s efforts to stand up National Guard Units to help Sunni communities secure their own freedom from ISIL control. 
Across the border, in Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition. Tonight, I again call on Congress to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters. In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its people; a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all. 
Third, we will continue to draw on our substantial counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIL attacks. Working with our partners, we will redouble our efforts to cut off its funding; improve our intelligence; strengthen our defenses; counter its warped ideology; and stem the flow of foreign fighters into – and out of – the Middle East. And in two weeks, I will chair a meeting of the UN Security Council to further mobilize the international community around this effort. 
Fourth, we will continue providing humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who have been displaced by this terrorist organization. This includes Sunni and Shia Muslims who are at grave risk, as well as tens of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities. We cannot allow these communities to be driven from their ancient homelands.

Transcript of the speech is here.

OK. I know it's your strategy, but the only number in there is 475 service members. The rest is waffle.

  • What does "degrade" mean? How much capacity do they have, and how much needs to disappear before they are "degraded". 
  • What does "destroy ISIL" mean? Wipe out everyone who's fought with them? Stop them using the name? What if some remaining fighters join "New Improved Al Qaeda" in 2016 - are they still ISIL?
  • How many terrorists are "threatening our country" and how many do you need to kill to stop them threatening it?
  • How strong is the (Syrian) "opposition" and how will we know when it has been strengthened enough?
  • How much funding does ISIL get and how much will "redoubling" our efforts cut the funding. How will we know when we've "cut off the funding"? Zero dollars a year? Ten million? They made a buck fifty last year so we should continue to bomb?
  • What are defenses, anyway? Is a trooper in Iraq a defender in any real sense of the word? If we're going to strengthen them, how strong do our defenses need to be? C'mon. Is it 50 billion or 50 million? What are we going to spend? How do we know when we've strengthened them enough?
  • Are we countering the warp of the ideology, or countering the warped ideology? How much countering its warped ideology is enough countering? Is there a way to tell if the ideology is now straight? Or are we saying that we need to get positive Twitter mentions down from 300,000 a month (guess) to less than 200 a month (equally a guess)? Or do we have to neutralize fiery imams? If so, how many are there? How many need to go?
  • How many foreign fighters go to the Middle East in any given time period and how many per year (or month) do we need to reduce it before the "flow is stemmed"?
  • How much international mobilization is needed? What is the definition of "mobilized"? What's the goal? What's the stretch goal?
  • How do you define a "community" and an "ancient homeland" and how many drivings from ancient homelands are acceptable? If ten people leave the US because of fear of ISIS, is that actionable? Or does every single Yazidi have to be at gunpoint before we can allow military action? 

And so on and so forth for the rest of the speech.

We used to say, in meetings as we planned our goals, "What does victory look like?" and "How will I know if I've succeeded?"

There are, believe it or not, regulations against saying you'll drive an (American) rival out of business, but it's certainly fine to state you'll meet their sales force one-one-one and get 1/3 of their business.

If a medium-sized (we were a few billion dollars) company requires all its managers to state outright what they hope to achieve with their project or their year at work, I think we should insist the POTUS do the same before he starts blowing people to bits on the other side of the world.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Fear and West Lothian in England

I don't suppose anyone needs my opinion on the Scottish independence referendum coming up in just over a week, but the subject came up in my (English but living in the US) household due to the sudden pro-independence surge in the polls this week. Here's my opinion:

Hey, Scottish people! Do what you want! (I know you were doing it already and didn't need my permission, but you can have it anyway.)

A digression:

One thing that's really rattling me is to hear (or see) American opinions on it. It sounds like most of us sleep on pillows embroidered with quotes from the Federalist Papers and spend our time recalling the Good Bits of Braveheart, with a bit of Gerry Adams/Sinn Fein propaganda leaflets from the 70's thrown in. Even that would be okay, if Americans got hold of a map and learned the difference between England, Scotland, Britain (and British), Great Britain and the UK (or UKOGBANI).

Here's a rather lame official video that explains it.

When everyone's watched it, perhaps there be a little bit less of things like this:

"Good for plucky Scotland finally getting rid of the British!" ß Scottish people are British.  

"Scotland is now trying to get rid of colonial rule!" ßThe English have not colonized Scotland and they don't "rule" it.  The government in Westminster (London, England) has representatives from Scotland, voted in by Scottish people. Scotland have their own Parliament, which votes on matters that have been "devolved" to the Scottish alone. The last few Prime Ministers were Scottish, or of Scottish descent. There is no equivalent English Parliament which some English people think is a bit rich. (It's called the West Lothian Question, hence the title.)

The colonizing the British Empire has done was partly done by Scottish people. About a third of the British Army that fought in the American Revolution were Scottish.  Lots of Canada is populated by the descendents of Scottish people. One bit of it is called New Scotland.

Back to independence:

The UK government is completely out of step with Scottish values – the Scots prefer a well-run welfare state over the rampant Neo-liberalism of the current government. Devolution did not come quickly enough nor grant enough powers and the Scottish see their cherished society being sacrificed to "austerity" while the English swallow Scotland's North Sea Oil revenue and give it to the 1%. I'm told that much of Scotland is now impoverished.

I know how that feels. I'm from northern England. Not from near the border, but from Yorkshire. The cities I grew up in are equally ill-served by the British government and equally impoverished. Everyone in the UK knows what happened: In 1979 the Thatcher government was elected and proceeded to dismantle the nationalized industries – British Steel, British Rail, and so on – and went on a furious ideology-driven rampage to close down the heavy industries and the coal mines that the north – and Scotland – depended on. The industries were "uneconomical" and "needed modernizing" but the London government did not put one millisecond of thought into what would replace them, how the workforce would be trained to do any new jobs, or for that matter, how to pay for the inevitable welfare payments that would ensue. Perhaps they thought the Invisible Hand of the Market would snap its invisible fingers and new jobs would appear? Well, it didn't. It would be difficult to exaggerate how angry I remain over this. Whole communities saw their men thrown out of paid work over a very short time frame; no new jobs or significant job training ever materialized. No one ever thought being a coal miner or being a steel worker was *fun* but it was steady, paid work.

The Blair government that followed 18 years of Tory wealth transfer from to the working class to the rich Tories were more Thatcherites in the disguise of the "Labour" party, and followed up with ten years of more of the same, plus some foreign wars. And as soon as the UK turfed Blair out, the banker-caused economic meltdown occurred (in 2008), leading the new government to bail out rich bankers, continue to transfer nationalized industries (such as the Royal Mail) to private hands at great profit to the 1%, all the while shrinking the welfare safety net as much as they dare.

The north of England and Scotland are blighted. Almost all the 1% work and live within the environs of the City of London, London, and the Home Counties. (Though they own palaces and vast swathes of hunting estates in Scotland.) But they are the 1% after all. If all of Scotland and northern England is taken out of the equation, that just makes them the 2% or 3%, meaning the other 97% of southerners are part of the blood-sucked, rather than the blood-suckers. It's just that the ruling class like nice things around them, and pay for local services, so the Home Counties have not been slid into the mire in the way the northern, previously industrial, areas have.

The Scottish are rightfully pissed off with 34 years of unending pilfering from the ordinary person in the street in order to line the pockets of the rich, and as a northerner, so am I.

If the Scots do vote for independence, I hope they'll let Yorkshire join them. (Huddersfield can remain an English enclave.)

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Sighting of huge dumbo octopus

The Dumbo Octopus is one of the most popular posts on the blog, so I'm overjoyed to present a follow-up - a huge dumbo octopus.

other sightings:

And here

Review: Dave Eggers' novel The Circle (2013)

Do you remember this famous quote from the Google CEO Eric Schmidt?

Google CEO On Privacy: 'If You Have Something You Don't Want Anyone To Know, Maybe You Shouldn't Be Doing It'

If so you may want to read Dave Eggers' book, The Circle. 

Set in the near future, this book follows the fortunes of Mae, a new employee at The Circle, a thinly disguised version of Google. It treats its employees impeccably, providing all the food, education, sports, entertainment and other amenities on campus so they never have to leave. The Circle wants to accumulate all knowledge – from the web, from emails, from texts and Twitter, from Facebook updates, Instagrams, from biometric bracelets, from universal placement of web enabled cameras, from facial recognition searches in old digitized film, videos and photos, and eventually from always-on cameras carried by increasing numbers of people, who pledge to live their whole life In The Clear (i.e. while being watched by anyone at all times – a choice initially made by canny politicians when they begin to see their colleagues losing their seats for various nefarious activities mysteriously unearthed from their hard-drives and family histories).

After a few false starts, newbie Mae finds that she cannot live without the instant and constant feedback she gets from being connected to her customers and peers all the time. In contrast, one of the founders of The Circle likes his playboy toys. He has a submersible built that can navigate the Marianas Trench, and brings back his finds to keep in gigantic tanks at headquarters. He's particularly fond of watching a brutal Feeding Time ritual for his allegorical shark, which is when we begin to understand the true nature of his company.

The Circle's company values are "Privacy is Theft"; "Sharing is Caring";  and "Secrets are Lies". In droves, the tens of millions of addicted users of The Circle's extremely shiny and time-saving devices, apps and beacons begin to assimilate its company values.

The tension in the book is created by Mae's gradual understanding of the enormity of The Circle's intentions and whether she is in a position to do anything about them. She has developed a rivalry with her original mentor, Annie, which she has to win. She loves her online friends, her new fame as The Circle's Steve Mann-style human video-recorder with millions following her channels, her ability to see everywhere remotely through the proliferating camera network, and above all, she needs the health insurance for her ailing father. Will she wake up and warn the world in time?

This is a long novel with a short, tightly plotted skeleton. The length comes from the inescapable fact that if you have to suggest Total Information Awareness, you have to describe a lot, lot, lot of information about your hapless protagonist, from pulse rates to customer surveys to consumer surveys to customer satisfaction indices to texted friend requests from her horde of followers, and of course her reaction to the requests. Didn't join their LinkedIn network as soon as they asked? Her approval rating is in jeopardy. Didn't retweet their link? Could be a problem. (The book avoids proprietary names like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, but it's clear what type of service is being described.) At one point, the whole onboarding/new employee orientation at a large tech company is told in such detail that it was unsettlingly like having to go through one in real life (again). Also, having to script long conversations where one character convinces another that The Circle's company values are actually universal takes up another few dozen pages. (It reminded me of those old-fashioned polemics-novels, like De Sade's Justine or Voltaire's Candide.) It's an easy read, though, and five hundred pages fly by like a short novel.

When a novelist takes on a theme of society being entirely altered by a technology, he's writing Science Fiction, whether he knows it or not. I think Eggers would probably shudder if this was shelved with SF, since it's billed as a novel about society and "digital utopianism". The flyleaf reviews are very keen to compare it to Brave New World (which I assume is too good to be Science Fiction as well), but it reminded me more of Ira Levin's This Perfect Day. The big difference between The Circle and those two books is that the earlier writers assumed that a population must be drugged, or conditioned, or specially bred, to be docile consumers. In The Circle, the population adopts total surveillance willingly, because the chance to be safe from crime, spot strangers in the neighborhood and vicariously live the life of celebrities who do fun things is worth giving up just a little bit of your own privacy, and then a little bit more, until they all tumble down the Well.  Whether this is believable or not probably depends on the reader; I found that Mae had to be written as a ninny for her motivations to make sense, but on the other hand I do know a lot of people who spend a great deal of time sharing things online and fishing for a 'like'.

As for faults, the book has few. I was glad to see a female protagonist, but got irritated when it became clear she had no agency at all. Things happen to her and she rarely makes things happen to others. She does not even realize for herself there is a less-benevolent side to The Circle – she is coached by a shadowy (male) Phantom of the Opera figure. Picking a female for a passive role is an easy, if not actually sexist, choice. There were only a few proofreading or grammatical errors, which is a wonder in this day and age. But as usual, when a novelist gets into the Science! part of the explanations, things become a bit iffy. Shark metabolisms, even allegorical shark metabolisms, simply can't be that fast. And an allegorical shark may metaphorically eat everything from a 100 lb. Ridley's Sea Turtle to a sea horse, but I found the description a bit silly – sea horses are tiny. [*] Anyway, creatures from the Marianas Trench can't live in open-topped tanks in a building. Just no. And fire alarms do not measure carbon dioxide levels.

In sum, it's a good fast read and if you've ever wondered vaguely about how a surveillance society could come about, it's worth a few quatloos.

[*] Edit to add: After sleeping on it, this is probably like saying, "Eating babies is silly, as it takes more calories to have a baby than you get by eating one." But I still think the whole allegory could have been handled better.


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