Training spies in Switzerland

April 28th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

The Aargauer Zeitung reports on foreign spies being trained in Switzerland.

Wavecom advertises its products in the USA as a “COMINT solution” for military intelligence services, telecoms authorities and other government agencies…

I do not learn where the customers come from. Wavecom has, though, put a list of its branches on the internet. Besides countries such as the USA, Germany and France, the company also advertises its business in totalitarian states like Russia, China and Vietnam.

Piranesi, and de Quincey’s architectural pipe-dreams

April 26th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Do you dream of architecture?

Thomas de Quincey did, although he blamed it on dope. The original English Opium Eater, de Quincey found his drug-induced dreams were of elaborate buildings:

In the early stage of my malady the splendours of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural; and I beheld such pomp of cities and palaces as was never yet beheld by the waking eye unless in the clouds.

de Quincey then makes an extraordinary leap, linking his fantasies to the only artwork that adequately described them. Extraordinary, because he hadn’t even seen the pictures in question:

Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by [Piranesi], called his Dreams [actually, Carceri d’Invenzione, “Imaginary Prisons“] and which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever

The sensation which de Quincey imagined in Piranesi was one of “endless growth and self-reproduction”, buildings growing to giddy heights, full of immense machinery and with a menacing air of entrapment.

In describing Piranesi, de Quincey was bang on the money. The Imaginary Prisons are something like a gothic-industrial Escher avant la lettre.

The visions are, as de Quincey suggests, something from an intense dreamscape. Not benign, but not quite nighmarish. There’s even a faint echo of this architectural reverie in the work of Coleridge, de Quincey’s counterpart in drugs as in art appreciation. Kubla Khan, the most famous product of his opium-induced dreams, operates mostly in a mode of pastoral mysticism. But even here there are occasional irruptions of architecture — the pleasure-dome, the walls and towers enclosing its twice five miles of gardens.

What’s more, Coleridge makes explicit something implied by Piranesi and de Quincey. These buildings have not been, could not be, built by humans. Only nature and gods operate on these rules of unstoppable, incomprehensible self-replication. To build the pleasure-dome, Coleridge’s dreamer must transcend humanity, become a god who inspires in others the dread which de Quincey found in Piranesi:

I would build that dome in air, 
That sunny dome! Those caves of ice! 
And all who heard should see them there, 
And all should cry, Beware! Beware! 
His flashing eyes! His floating hair! 
Weave a circle round him thrice, 
And close your eyes with holy dread, 
For he on honey-dew hath fed, 
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Coleridge, de Quincey, Piranesi: all are approaching some kind of architectural analog to the Uncanny Valley. Buildings in themselves are not frightening, nor is nature. But buildings behaving as nature — that is a source of ecstatic, hallucinatory horror.

Piranesi’s work all but transposes Kafka into architectural fantasy. “Imaginary Prisons” are by their nature part Metamorphosis, part Castle. They turn civilisation into cancer — rudderless, irrational, merciless and self-perpetuating. And, as with Kafka, reality echoes fantasy well enough to give it extra propulsion.

Piranesi brought into three dimensions — an animation by Gregoire Dupond.

Aldous Huxley managed to pin down some of that beautiful, bureaucratic horror, in terms that could almost come from a back-to-nature critique of industrial civilisation:

The most disquietingly obvious fact about all these dungeons is the perfect pointlessness which reigns throughout. Their architecture is colossal and magnificent…. on the floor stand great machines incapable of doing anything in particular, and from the arches overhead hang ropes that carry nothing except a sickening suggestion of torture. Some of the Prisons are lighted only by narrow windows. Others are half open to the sky, with hints of yet other vaults and walls in the distance. But even where the enclosure is more or less complete, Piranesi always contrives to give the impression that this colossal pointlessness goes on indefinitely, and is co-extensive with the universe.

Piranesi is now somewhat less striking now than he must have been two hundred years ago. He was working one hundred years before Kafka, two hundred before Escher, developing a style that somehow anticipates not just the artistic but also the economic currents that would come generations after his death. And yet his prisons seem as though they could appear in my dreams, just as easily in the dreams that once touched de Quincey.

Maid in London

April 19th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Maid in London is a blog by a cleaner in a London hotel, about work conditions and her efforts to form a union. It’s excellent, if depressing, reading.

A recent study by a major UK union found that out of 100 housekeepers they surveyed, 84 said they used painkillers every day before coming to work.

Nipping downstairs to the locker room, I realise why so much of the linen is marked or lacking altogether. There’s one guy on the laundry chute. One guy dealing with what a former Linen Porter told me is about four tons of laundry hurtling down a single metal chute from five floors into a massive pile every day. He wears a dust mask.

There used to be two porters on the job, but now there’s just one. The guy struggling with it all is from Romania. His eyes are spritely behind his white mask. He must be about 21. We smile and say hi to each other.

Unwillingly footloose entrepreneurs

April 18th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Via Daniel Davies, a side-effect of the UK housing crisis I hadn’t thought of: it’s screwing small business startups.

Business loans in the UK have, apparently, tended to be secured by re-mortgaging the founders house. That kluge has worked moderately well — entrepreneurs have typically been white men in the forties, often with professional experience. These are people who, in the past, have been likely to have bought their own house and largely paid down the mortgage.

Not any more. Even the professional classes can no longer afford their own homes, at least in London and the South-East. So there is no equity to secure a business loan. So businesses which require capital just don’t get started…

And if you have a generation of businesspeople who don’t own houses, and who therefore can’t be fit into the historic template of British small business lending, then you’ve got the impetus for a total reinvention of small business finance in the UK. The banks which realise this first will do best, and if the incumbents don’t then entrants will. Arguments of the form “this problem has to be made worse to heighten the contradictions so that real change will come” always sound a bit Leninist, and have a pretty bad track record as either predictions or policy advice. But in this case, all of the contradictions have already been heightened, as the result of other policy choices made which had very little to do with industrial policy at all. Nobody has really given much serious priority to the need to re-engineer business finance in the UK, but we’ve now reached a point at which the old way of doing things is no longer possible.

Reclaiming Pretty

April 12th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

My friend Sasha spent the last month guest-blogging at the F-word. It’s all worth reading (although inconveniently not all linked in one place). I particularly like her defence of using the word pretty:

When I describe someone or something as pretty – particularly when it’s not someone young and female, which is mostly the case – it feels in some way like a fuck you, a reclamation and repurposing of a word that has dogged me and my gender my whole life….
It feels like some small attempt to redress the balance, to reinvent ‘pretty’ as a universally applicable term of approbation, to bring feminisation into aspiration instead of disparagement. I like its slightly offhand, flippant tone, which completely fails to disguise how heartfelt it really is….
I would also rather live in a world where feminisation and aestheticism wasn’t used to reduce or control or belittle, and reclaiming ‘pretty’ is my (inadequate and imperfect) attempt to build that world.

Kompromat as business card

April 10th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Profile of Russian hacker group “Humpty Dumpty”. It starts out looking like an idealistic hacktivist network, the “Anonymous International”.

Shaltai’s stated mission is “to change the world for the better, helping to bring greater freedom and social awareness.”

One of the group’s members even quoted the 2009 film Watchmen, saying, “We don’t do this thing because it’s permitted. We do it because we have to. We do it because we’re compelled. Once a man has seen society’s black underbelly, he can never turn his back on it.”

But in the end, hacktivism turns out to be a publicity-grabbing loss-leader to drum up paid hacking work:

Shaltai Boltai, if Lewis is to be believed, is only a “side project.” The group’s main work is getting hired to dig up information about private and public individuals. The whole company consists of a dozen people.

We’re hired by private individuals and groups within the state, and we never work with anyone tied to the drug trade. But we maintain that we’re an independent team. It’s just that it’s often impossible to tell who our clients are. Sometimes we hand over information to intermediaries, without ever knowing the client.

Do modernist kids dream of bureaucratic fairies?

April 9th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Once upon a time, fairy tales were unspeakably brutal. The Brothers Grimm often take the flak for this, but undeservedly. They didn’t create the aura of homicide and senseless injustice, merely absorbed it from the existing oral traditions. Other European folklore collectors got much the same vibe, as did those from further afield. For much of human history, the stories we told to kids were downright nasty.

Today’s children’s literature is, relatively speaking, all sweetness and light. So what changed?

Perhaps it’s about changing attitudes to childhood. Start off with a Romantic idea of the innocence and grace of children. This one was already well underway in the early eighteenth century, and is in the background of some early criticism of Grimms Tales as corrupting. This strand of ideology turns into the Victorian desire to shelter children from the evils of the wider world — a rare chunk of ideology from that time which has only grown stronger in the intervening years.

Or you can take the approach that popular fiction is psychology writ large. Stories, like other forms of play, are about making sense of the world, and particularly learning to deal with its dangers. They may not directly depict the experience of their audience, but some emotional or thematic parallel exists.

The most direct, extreme case is in the games played by children in concentration camps. These might involve imitating guards, or learning deception:

One game of their own devising was modeled after the camp’s daily roll call and was called klepsi-klepsi, a common term for stealing. One playmate was blindfolded; then one of the others would step forward and hit him hard on the face; and then, with blindfold removed, the one who had been hit had to guess, from facial expressions or other evidence, who had hit him. To survive at Auschwitz, one had to be an expert at bluffing — for example, about stealing bread or about knowing of someone’s escape or resistance plans. Klepsi-klepsi may have been practice for that skill.

Grimms’ tales make sense in a world of high infant mortality, frequent violence and untamed nature. With childhood becoming safer, the classic fairy tales seem increasingly alien.

It’s interesting to look in this light at the dystopian trend in modern children’s books, with the Hunger Games trilogy as standard-bearers. The danger here is state and society. Survival comes less from honour and courage than from building alliances and navigating structures of power. All of which, I’d say, is a pretty decent approximation to the state of the world today.

More on Black Mirror

April 4th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Shortly after discovering Black Mirror, I discovered this discussion of it, on a comedy forum. Here are some of their proposed storylines for the next series:

It turns out that internet trolls are just aliens trying to make first contact.

As a direct consequence of this unfortunate cultural misunderstanding, Earth’s connection to the galactic internet is severely throttled during peak times.

Glitter and Huntley roam freely, sexing children in the open, but getting away with it because they’re passing their penises through the re-animated corpse of Jimmy Saville, using him as a “VPN tunnel” and thus escaping prosecution

THE WESTMINSTER BUBBLE

Britain is ruled by a giant bubble at Westminster. When everyone rebels it floats up above the country and fires on the masses with its DeathStar-style laser guns.

An independent analysis of LHC data suggests that the Higgs boson committed a string of sexual assaults in the 1970s, and high-ranking officials at CERN were aware of it.

Save the economy! Stay on the dole!

April 4th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Alex Harowell has an interesting post about the economics of unemployment at AFOE.

In a strong economy, career paths tend to stay within a specialism, developing increasing experience and skill, and hence steadily increasing productivity. Or if somebody switches careers, it’s more a case of reculer pour mieux sauter, taking a temporary setback to end up somewhere more productive.

That doesn’t work in a recession. People who lose their jobs in bad circumstances are more willing to accept a new one, even with much worse pay and prospects.

In the long term, this is often a Bad Thing, both for them and the economy. They get onto a different career path, one coming more from desperation than choice, and will find it hard to switch back:

The unemployed are suddenly driven off their optimal productivity path, and are usually under pressure to take any job that comes along, no matter how suboptimal. Until they get back to where they were before the crisis, on their new paths or on their old ones, the economy will forego the difference between their potential and actual production.

The long-term cost of this depends on how desperate the unemployed are to take just any job that comes along. It’s better for the economy if they stay unemployed for a while before returning to a high-productivity career, rather than getting locked long-term into something less productive.

i.e. it all depends how society treats the unemployed. If you cut benefits, treat the unemployed like shit, and hussle them into whatever job is available (UK), you set the country up for long-term under-productivity:

If the unemployed sit it out and look for something better, you would expect a jobless recovery and then a productivity boom – like the US in the 1990s. If the unemployed take the first job-like position that comes along, you would expect a jobs miracle with terrible productivity growth, flat to falling wages, and a long period of foregone GDP growth. Like the UK in the 2010s. And if your labour market institutions are designed to prevent the information destruction in the first place, with a fallback to Keynesian reflation if that doesn’t cut it? Well, that sounds like Germany in the 2010s.

* lets ignore the fact that people may choose lower-paid (i.e. less productive) work for non-monetary reasons. Everything else works out much the same

A little art: Rob Gonsalves

March 28th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Rob Gonsalves paints beautiful images where one viewpoint merges seamlessly into another. Often the transition is between a natural landscape and some human activity. The ‘human’, though, comes in the form of endless ritualistic repetition, so that there is somethign uncanny about them even in the areas where they are obviously human.

Here is more of his work

How not to diagram company ownership

March 17th, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

I’ve seen some truly awful infographics of corporate ownership structures. I’ve even occasionally perpetrated them. But this image is a classic of the genre:

Pretty convoluted, huh?

It’s from Muddy Waters, a much-feted research and short-selling firm. They are arguing that French conglomerate Bolloré owns a lot of itself through intermediate companies. We’re looking here at Financière Moncey, an indirect subsidiary of Bolloré, and the point is to show “how complex the relationships actually are” among these structures.

Look a bit more closely, though, and you’ll see that most of the complexity is artificially added. The diagram is just the same structures repeated again and again and again.

Here it is again, with all the repetitions deleted:


Fair play to Muddy Waters for figuring out the ownership structure. That kind of structure is painful to make sense of, and it’s easy to miss the circular ownership.

But they do seem to be deliberately exaggerating the complexity. Presumably the point is to show that things are so complicated that only their analytic genius can make sense of it. It goes with some snarky digs at analysts in the report itself — “BOL has likely been misunderstood because the complexity of its structure makes it infeasible to use Excel to estimate the percentage of circular ownership“. Much as I enjoy their approach, I wish they could make their point without, well, muddying the waters.

Markov Playlists

March 10th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Why is nobody using markov chains to generate music playlists?

Playing music on shuffle is shit, full of jarring transitions, incongruous switches of tempo and topic. I masssively prefer listening to a carefully-mixed playlist, either via spotify or youtube, or an old-fasioned radio station like Radio Paradise.

So why not build a semi-shuffle? Start with one song. Look for all the tracks that get put onto playlists immediately after it. Play one at random. Then repeat the process — follow your second track with a random selection from everything DJs decided to play after it.

This is basically a Markov Chain.

It’s an idea blindingly obvious, relatively simple to implement, and in a domain that must appeal to thousands of CS students. Markov chains are immensely popular for toy projects online, since they generate fun output for very little coding.

But poking around online, I’ve not been able to find anybody using markov chains for playlist generation.

Saved by crab blood

March 3rd, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

Here’s one of the more surreal corners of industrial medicine: crab blood donors. Apparently the best way of detecting some bacterial contamination is to add some crab blood extract to it, and see if it clots. So 250,00 crabs a year are scooped up and part-drained of blood, before being released with just enough blood left that most of them will survive the process.

To make it even odder: crab blood is blue.

[Thanks to Julien for pointing me at this bizarre micro-industry]

Increasing hedge fund bosses’ tax bills

February 27th, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

I’m always pleased when campaigners about tax avoidance manage to find concrete examples of what they want changed. It takes a lot more knowledge and work, but is much more likely to have some impact in legislation.

So it’s great that 38 degrees have zoomed in hedge fund managers claiming their income as capital gains rather than wages. This not only gives them a lower tax rater, but makes it easier for them to claim numerous exemptions. The end result can be tax of just 12.7%.

Last week they released a report on the topic. It’s written by my friend Mike Lewis, and estimates the tax cost of this ‘loophole’ at £700 million per year.

38 degrees’ proposed solution is to explicitly treat payments to private equity employees as salary. That’s probably the right position for them to take — it’s a good change that might plausibly be implemented.

Personally, though, I’d prefer a much more radical change. It’s abhorrent to tax labour so much more highly than capital. This is something that brings out my inner socialist. The low rate of capital gains tax just shows that the system is rigged in favour of capitalists and against workers.

Military forensics with Bellingcat

February 26th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

I’m an immense fan of Eliot Higgins’ work, reporting on conflicts by correlating publicly-available satellite images against youtube videos and social media. It’s stunning just how much you can find out, and how few people are doing so.

This report, also summarized in the Guardian, is a case in point.

They are trying to verify claims of Russian artillery firing over the border into Ukraine, last summer.

They use google maps to look at the craters left by shelling:

From a crater, you can tell roughly which direction the attack came. Doing this when you’re on the ground is fairly straightforward, and many soldiers are trained in “crater analysis”. Doing it from satellite photos is a bit shakier, but with 800+ craters on the photo, you can get some idea.

You take a crater image like this:

compare it to a model from a US military manual:

and decide that the gun was somewhere off to the north-east.

Do this with all the craters you can find, to give you an overall picture of the direction(s) the fire came from. Then trace the route back on google maps. With luck, you’ll find some trace of the firing positions on the map:

In this case, it turns out that the guns were fired from inside Russia. QED.

Some people have quibbled about the reliability of aerial-only impact analysis. And, looking at (roughly) the same images as Bellingcat, I can’t always see enough marks to agree with their analysis for every crater. The general pattern is compelling, though, as is the match between craters, tracks in the firing areas, and youtube videos. Overall, though, this is a far clearer analysis than anything else out there, either in the media or being reported by NGOs. And they are almost unique in including enough information that, if you want, you can repeat their process step by step and confirm their conclusions

Hunter S Thompson

February 20th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

It’s ten years to the day since Hunter S Thompson obliterated himself in the most American way, with a shotgun to the head.

Whenever I reread his books, I’m struck by how he was so much more than the crazed self-destructive hedonist of myth. He was constantly trying to understand his world, and above all to make sense of America. Even Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is subtitled A savage journey to the heart of the American Dream. It’s a topic he keeps coming round to, especially in his diary of the ’72 presidential campaign which re-elected Nixon.

Above all, there’s a constant sense of dashed optimism, from someone who had seen the birth of a culture he believed in, then watched it be destroyed in infacy by the counter-revolution of a heartless mainstream. Here’s one of many passages where he laments that death:

San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were here and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant….
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened….There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda….You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high—water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Surrealism lectures as podcast

February 12th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

I’ve been enjoying this series of lectures on Surrealism, given by Dawn Ades at Oxford a few years back.

Among other things, it’s nice to have my fondness for surrealism validated by an Important Person. Because whenever I bring it up around Serious Art People, they tend to react with patronising disdain, much as though I’d just said ABBA were my favourite band.

Better, though, is the attention Ades gives to the surrealist journals, I love it when artists try to explain what they are doing, and it sounds like the surrealists did so more thoroughly and with less bullshit than just about any other art movement out there.

Petitions that made me laugh

February 10th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

A couple of petitions that are simultaneously hilarious and serious. First, to make tampons VAT-free by classifying them as essential items:

The Government taxes sanitary products but not crocodile steaks. If you value the functioning of those who menstruate at least as much as you enjoy your crocodile Friday then sign our petition and join our campaign

Then, there are a various petitions trying to prevent a planned Margaret Thatcher museum receiving any public money. It all feels a bit silly since nobody powerful is talking about using public funding to establish the museum. Still, prevention is better than cure, and this petition has the best approach — demanding that the museum have a section devoted to the paedophiles Thatcher worked with. “This will also help the waxwork industry who must by now have a large amount of public figures that they can no longer show

Psychological pricing beyond $9.99

February 8th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

The psychology of pricing goes way further than just setting prices a few cents below a whole number.

Products that are recreational or luxurious benefit from rounded prices: Consumers were more inclined to buy a bottle of champagne when it was priced at $40.00 rather than at $39.72 or $40.28. However, for purchases that are utilitarian—a calculator, in this experiment—participants were more likely to buy at the higher non-rounded price.

Presumably we now associate non-round-number pricing with products competing on price. And that doesn’t mesh well with luxury goods, making them seem less rather than more desirable.

Real estate and shell companies in the New York Times

February 8th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

The New York Times has just turned out a long, worthy article on New York real estate owned through shell companies:

On the 74th floor of the Time Warner Center, Condominium 74B was purchased in 2010 for $15.65 million by a secretive entity called 25CC ST74B L.L.C. It traces to the family of Vitaly Malkin, a former Russian senator and banker who was barred from entering Canada because of suspected connections to organized crime.

Last fall, another shell company bought a condo down the hall for $21.4 million from a Greek businessman named Dimitrios Contominas, who was arrested a year ago as part of a corruption sweep in Greece.

This kind of story tends to leave me a bit confused. Isn’t it already a cliche that luxury New York (and London) real estate gets bought by dodgy businessmen and Russian oligarchs? I’m still glad it gets written, because sometimes the journalists will turn up something actually criminal, and the attention increases the chances of getting real estate sales subject to tighter “know your customer” rules. But I don’t really see why people outside the niche of corruption-tracking should care