L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

01 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Short Fiction for Love not Money

John Scalzi, excellent SF author and proprietor and of the Whatever blog has an interesting post about Short (Science) Fiction. Although he is mostly talking about the F&SF marketplace, it seems to me that much of what he writes is true for other genres of fiction as well. His major point is that short fiction simply does not pay and he quotes some rates and shows that these days it is not possible to survive writing short fiction. In the past however:

The story is that back in late 1938 Heinlein, who could have used a bit of cash, wrote a story to submit to a contest for Thrilling Wonder Stories magazine, the grand prize of which was $50. Heinlein wrote the piece, decided it that too good for Thrilling, and submitted it to Astounding Science Fiction instead, which accepted it in 1939 and paid him $70 -- $20 more than he would have got at Thrilling. The money was so good that Heinlein decided this writing scheme had its advantages and decided to keep at it. Thus was the power of a penny a word -- Astounding's going rate -- in 1939.

As I was reading this again I was curious as to what at penny in 1939 would rate out to here in 2007, so I used the Consumer Price Index Calculator from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis to find out. Turns out that to you'd need fifteen cents in today's money, more or less, to equal the buying power of that 1939 penny. Dropping Heinlein's $70 into the calculator, you find that it was the equivalent of $1,034.89 today. Which is, you know, fairly decent.

Heinlein figured he could sell enough stories at $70 each to keep him and his in the manner to which they were accustomed. Today however that would require selling a 7000 word story at 15c/word (ish) and that is tricky. He notes that when Jim Baen's Universe commissions a story they pay enough. Unfortunately no one, not even Baen, pays that kind of money to a new writer sending in an unsolicitated story. In fact new writers mostly seem to get stuck at a rate under half that or 6c/word meaning that a modern day Heinlein would get $420 for his 7000 word story (if you're lucky you may get 8c/word - giving $560 for a 7000 word story). Now it is true that, especially as eZines become more popular, short fiction tends to bulk up a bit because the cost of additional electrons is negligable whereas the cost of additional pages of printed matter is not, hence novelettes (7500-17500 words) as almost as acceptable as short stories (<7500). But there is a limit and, as JBU's sub guide says, shorter is generally better:

The question of the length of story we'll buy from new or little-known authors is also complicated.There is no preset limit to length, as such -- from any author. If a completely unpublished author were to submit a good enough novel to the magazine, we would consider publishing it.

BUT -- but but but -- the thing is, it's complicated. And the longer a story is, from a newbie, the more tangled up it's likely to get in the complications. There is no hard and definite line, anywhere along the way. Still, you can pretty much take it as a given that the longer a story gets, the lower its chances are to be selected.

It's almost always possible to fit in a good short story by a newbie. (Or anybody, for that matter.) A novelette is more problematic, but still not usually a major problem. Once you get to novella length, the problems start escalating -- and with a novel, even a short one, they're still more extensive.

All that said, it's certainly not impossible to do so. Indeed, if the story is good enough, we'll do whatever we need to in order to fit it in. But, once you get to longer lengths, the story really has to cut the mustard.

In fact to make a $1000 sale at 6c/word you need to sell something that is at the top end of Novella range - a shade under 17000 words - and it is clear that a 17000 word story is not as likely to be bought as a 7000 word one is. In addition you need to sell quite a lot of these stories to make a living. Unfortunately there aren't a lot of places willing to buy them. For SF there is Analog, Asimov's, JBU Magazine of F&SF and maybe a half dozen more that pay 6c/word or better (a good list is here). If you want to survive you are going to have to sell at least two stories a month at this rate (and far more than that if you sell only 5000 word ones) and this simply isn't possible. Even assuming you can write a new saleable 10,000 word story every two weeks and you get paid 8c/word for it (both of which are non-trivial assumptions) you are looking at annual income of $20,000 which is the same as you'd earn on a $10/hour wage working full time. This is not viable so you are only going to write short fiction if you get some other benefit (name recognition, pleasure) out of it.

So why is it no longer possible to make a living out of short fiction? Obviously the reason is that the (e)magazines that buy the stuff don't pay much for it. Why is that? Demand. The readership doesn't seem to be there. Once upon a time these magazines had circulations in the high tens if not hundreds of thousands. These days the market leaders have circulations of more like 20-30,000 and some electronic ones (e.g. JBU) are well under 10,000. Of course as Walt Boyes, JBU Associate Editor, notes as an eZine it can break even on these lower numbers despite paying top rates.

Coincidentally the latest JBU is available today. I 've skimmed it and found the usual three or four interesting stories (out of about 20) but it has to be said that over all I prefer novel length action and I suspect I am far from alone in this. This probably partially explains why the circulation of short story magazines has been shrinking. If even ardent readers find it hard to get worked up then what hope is there for the casual reader, especially one when its hard finding the stuff in the first place.

02 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Why We Don't Like Cops

Boris Johnson may or may not be an effective manager or a good politician but he has a way of stating things that many people agree with. Perhaps I'm in the minority but it seemed to me that tactless or not when he "insulted" scousers he was saying publicly exactly what many Southern English folk think.Today he writes about his bike being nicked and he concludes with three paragraphs that ought to worry anyone who thinks that the working/middle classes automatically support the police and respect the law:

Suppose they were to find a 15-year-old in possession of my Marin Sausalito, or a roomful of Marin Sausalitos. What could the perp expect? A caution? A stiff talking-to? Some unenforceable ASBO? The double-standards are unbearable, because we all know perfectly law-abiding citizens who have allowed their offside front wheel to stray an inch outside the white line of the residents' parking bay and boom!

Their car is towed away by the state, and they can end up paying hundreds of pounds to get it back. But when a thief nicks your bicycle, the state just seems to shrug its shoulders and advise you to get more locks. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could change the odds, and wipe the confident smirk off the faces of these varmints? Isn't it time we investigated the uses of new cheap tracking technology, to fill these thieves with the terror of getting caught? Wouldn't it be fine to hunt down the middlemen - often drug-dealers - who encourage kids to go on their nicking sprees?

It would be a huge advance for civility and decency on the streets, because little crimes lead to greater crimes, and if you can casually smash a railing to steal a bike, then you are well on the way to burglary and worse. Decoy bikes will be part of the answer; but the first step is to recondition society to grasp this elementary fact, that the problem is not caused by bad locks or weak railings. It's caused by thieves, and they need to be deterred.

Thanks to human rights lawyers, ill thought out legislation and bureaucratic empire buiding law enforcement in the UK has seen its priorities shift from stopping thefts to stopping "hate crimes". This is not purely a "New Labour" problem, the rot started under the Tories but it has, it seems to me, got much worse over the last decade and, as one of the commenters says, the average copper on the beat is just as frustrated with the situation as the general public is.

There will, I suspect, come a time when people will start taking the law into their own hands and administering vigilante punshments that contravene about 1001 human rights regulations and which would be frowned upon in Guantanamo. They may well end up having the local police on their side too, not to mention juries if, for some reason, they end up in court. I don't see any other solution because I am positive that no government will dare reintroduce the sorts of punishments that are likely to deter petty thieves and vandals, such as corporal punishment or, in the cases of such minor property theft, requiring the criminal to replace the property stolen.

03 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Friday Olive Tree Blogging

This photo is taken near Fayence in the Var on the way to Mons, but it could be almost anywhere in the back country of the Provence. It is also one from the archives - in fact one take a few minutes before this one from last year.
20070803 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging
It occurs to me that not only is the image common in terms of location, it is also hard to place in terms of season too. So here's challenge to my reader(s): without taking a look at the date of the photo in the flickr page you get when you click to enlarge - try and guess what time of year it was taken.

As always do visit the olive tree blogging archives if you've not seen them.

03 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Typhoon Which?

I love the BBC sometimes. They try and do their best to be good multi-cultis and they do a great job of covering the world news not just British or even, as sometimes seems in other places, making it seem like nothing happens except in Iraq, Israle or the USA: But every now and then they get themselves tangked up. Here is their article about a recent typhoon in Japan.

Typhoon Usagi hits southern Japan

Eighteen people were injured and thousands sought shelter as Typhoon Usagi struck Japan's southern island of Kyushu.

The typhoon made landfall late on Thursday, bringing winds of up to 180 km/h (110mph).

It cut power to thousands of homes and felled trees. Bullet trains from the main island, Honshu, were suspended.

Usagi is moving northwards, but it has weakened and meteorologists have now downgraded it to a tropical storm. ...

Usagi, which means rabbit in Japanese, is the second major storm to hit Japan this season.

Note the continual reference to the name - Usagi - oddly enough, despite the name being Japanese, it isn't what the Japanese call it. If you take a look at this page (screenshot extract below) you see what the Japanese call the typhoon:
Wot no Usagi?
For those who can't read Japanese the first two blue characters are read "Tai Hoo" (i.e. Typhoon) and the next two are read "5 go" which means number 5, and putting it together we have the name of this typhoon: "Typhoon number 5". So in other words the way the Japanese refer to typhoons is by counting them up from 1 for each year/season. No mention of usagi (or any other name such as man-yi which the BBC claims was the title of an earlier one).

Oh and by the way, the Japanese look at the flooding in England and wonder why England is apparently so unprepared. Kyushu regularly gets 200+ mm rainfalls each time a typhoon shows up - maybe half a dozen times a year - and it is far from uncommon to have utterly ridiclous amounts of rain (500 mm or more). I suspect the same applies to the Mineapolis bridge collapse. Japan spends a heck of a lot on infratructure because it gets lots of rain, snow, wind every year as well as earthquakes and occasionally volcanos. A lot of what it spends is pork but it does seem to me that people tolerate it because, as I wrote sometime before, what you get is good quality.

03 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Right-wingers and Capitalists for the Environment

Tim rants away at thr ASI blog on this bit of assinine greenery. And he is right to do so because it is full of the sorts of hair-shirt enviromentalism about "unsustainable lifestyles" that demonstrate that the writer is a fully paid up member of the church of Gaia.

However the real problem that this article demonstrates is that the church of Gaia folks are great on identifying the problems and, as is typical with lefties of all shades and stripes, completely crap at coming up with practical solutions. Here's the writer's "answer" to the problem he identifies: basically 'unsustainable consmption' with my comments below each section:

So, what can we do? Obviously, the first thing we need to do is act, and act fast.

Because there is nothing like action to substitute for thought. Wouldn't it be better to analyse and think first, the act. The military has the 7Ps acronym (Proper Prior Planning Prevents Pisspoor Performance), but, presumably because this fundamentalist Gaian clearly despises the entire military industrial complex he'd rather follow "when in daner or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout."

Every day we wait, another 30,000 children needlessly die; between 100-150 plant and animal species become extinct; 70,000 hectares of rainforest is destroyed and another 150m tonnes of CO2 is released into the atmosphere.

We can stop many of the deaths by DDT. We can stop the destruction of the environment" by forcing the peasants off the land and introducing efficient cash-crop agriculture instead of subsistence and slash and burn. Doing these things would most likely reduce the amount of CO2 emitted thanks to humans

Meanwhile, another $3.0bn (£1.5bn) is spent on arms and weapons of mass destruction.

And this is relevant because? WMDs are almost certainly less destructive of the environment than other forms of weaponry and anyway the amount spent is comparatively trivial. $3B (per day?) is $1T per year. US GDP is $13T, world GDP is around $66T.

We urgently need to think about the more fundamental concept of sustainability and how our lifestyles are threatening not only the environment, but developing countries and global peace and stability.

Right we need to think. So immediate action (see above) is a bad idea. The developed world is actually better for the environment than the developing world. We are reducing pollution, planting more trees etc. The developing world for the most part is polluting more and deforesting.

In my view, we need to embrace this as an opportunity and not see it as a responsibility. Living a more sustainable lifestyle does not have to be a burden, as some people fear.

Might be good to have some details about what you mean and even better if you demonstrated what you mean yourself. According to the piece you work for the "Irish Regional Office" which is in the centre of Brussels opposite the EU, no doubt you will not be flying back to Ireland to visit rels, will be living within cycling distance of the office, geting rid of your car etc.

It could be a liberating and rewarding experience to participate in creating a better world. After all, how good do we really have it at the moment?

Yes indeed it could. So stop being some kind of government paid lobbyist living parasitically off the taxes of the rest of us and start creating things. Perhaps you could head off to Uganda or Zambia and work on saving some of those kids from dying of malaria.

How many people are tired and weary of modern living? The endless cycle of earning and consumption can be exhausting and does not necessarily bring happiness and fulfillment. Can we do things differently, and better?

OK then fuck off back to the bogs of Ireland and buy a croft and a couple of acres. Plant your crops and live like a hippie generating all your electricity via wind and solar, why don't you? I bet you can't actually survive without frequent visits to the supermarket.

If we don't, then we are heading for certain disaster, regardless of whether or not we manage to reduce our emissions.

Alternatively you could start invetsing in the folks who are developing microbes that turn waste biomass into petrol or alcohol or the folks working on better solar cells or... Of course success on these projects would mean that the world would need less oil, which would mean less WMD because the nations who have the oil would go down the pan and stop exporting wars and so on. But no. This is in fact anathema to fundamentalist greens because it means more technology not less. Even though it would actually work it's heresy because we must all wear hair shirts and aplogise for raping Gaia.

05 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Undercover Hack Outed At Defcon

So you're a fearless investigative TV producer and you want to catch government folks in the act of discussing stuff with evil hackers. Obvious plan. Head to Defcon in Las Vegas undercover and get your story using a secret spy camera.

Of course it would help if the evil hackers hadn't been warned in advance so that "Spot the fed" becomes "Spot the undercover reporter". Although seeing as you'd been asked 4 times if you wanted a press badge and you denied needing it (that would be one more time than St Peter denied having anything to do with Jesus), you might have realized the game was up. And if you or your colleagues read tech blogs or actually attended more than a couple of sessions you might even have figured out that the game was up before you were outed:

UPDATE 2: NBC's mole, Michelle Madigan, became the target of predators herself this afternoon when she was outed at DefCon as an undercover reporter and bolted out of the conference hotel with about two dozen reporters with cameras and others chasing after her -- in the manner of an NBC Dateline To Catch a Predator episode.

According to DefCon staff, Madigan had told someone she wanted to out an undercover federal agent at DefCon. That person in turn warned DefCon about Madigan's plans. Federal law enforcement agents from FBI, DoD, United States Postal Inspection Service and other agencies regularly attend DefCon to gather intelligence on the latest techniques of hackers. DefCon holds an annual contest called Spot the Fed, in which attendees out people in the audience they think are undercover federal agents. The contest is good-natured, but the feds who get caught are generally ones who don't mind getting caught.

DefCon staff say that Madigan was asked four times -- two times on the phone and two times at the conference -- if she wanted to obtain press credentials, but she declined.

DefCon staff lured her to a large hall telling her that the Spot the Fed contest was in session and that she could get a picture of an undercover federal agent at the contest. When she sat down, Jeff Moss, DefCon's founder, announced that they were changing the game. Instead of Spot the Fed, they were going to play Spot the Undercover Reporter and then announced, "And there's one in here right now." Madigan, realizing she'd been had, jumped from her seat and bolted out the door with reporters carrying cameras chasing after her through the parking lot and to her car.

06 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

The eBook Experiment

The always excellent C Stross announced last week that his publisher (Orbit) was putting out the Atrocity Archives as a low-priced eBook. It costs £3 (plus £0.59 tax) or approximately €5 or $7 US and is available in two DRM crippled formats: Adobe and MS .lit. I prefer the latter because of the existance of a conversion utility which means that I can choose whether to read using Microsoft's reader or something simple like a web browser. As it happens the blog comments are as fascinating as always with comments by Cory Doctorow and a couple of Orbit books editors. I made a couple of comments down the bottom. I hope Orbit does in fact release a bunch more of these eBooks at this price because it will be interesting to see if they are able to be successful or not.

07 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Taking Pity on Refugees

The BBC has the profiles of 5 men who have been guests of America in the Guantanamo holiday camp. Apparently the UK is now asking that they be allowed to go back to blighty because they all claimed to be "refugees" and begged to be allowed to stay in Britain. You will excuse me if I wonder why anyone cares, and for that matter one wonders what their various wives and childrean are living on (if you guessed someone else's taxes then you are guilty of racism, islamophopia and excessive cynicism, but are probably correct), as all these "refugees" appear to globe trotters who seem to dislike staying in the land that gave the refuge.
  1. Jamil el-Banna, a mechanic, is a Jordanian with refugee status in the UK. He has been detained in Cuba since early 2003 following capture in Gambia in November 2002.
  2. Libyan-born Omar Deghayes was granted refugee status with his family in the 1980s. He grew up in Brighton, was privately educated and studied law at British universities.[...] But he dropped out of university and travelled to Afghanistan, where he married and fathered a son. [...] Mr Deghayes was arrested in Pakistan shortly after the fall of the Taleban and was transferred to Cuba.
  3. Shaker Abdur-Raheem Aamer, originally from Saudi Arabia, had been living in the UK since 1996. He is reported to have travelled to Afghanistan in August 2001 to carry out voluntary charity work.
  4. Binyam Mohammed al Habashi was born in Ethiopia but sought asylum in the UK in 1994 and was given leave to remain. After seven years in the UK he converted to Islam. He travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan and allegedly got firearms and explosives training alongside shoe bomber Richard Reid. He was arrested by Pakistani immigration officials at Karachi airport in April 2002 when intending to return to the UK.
  5. Abdulnour Sameur is an Algerian army deserter who came to Britain in 1999. He was granted refugee status in 2000. He lived in south Harrow, London. He was given leave to remain in the UK but travelled to Afghanistan because he found it hard to live as a good Muslim in Britain.
So having lived in Britian for a while one buggered off to Gambia and four decided they prefered either Afghanistan or Pakistan (or both). Why does the British government want these people back in the UK? If it wants to take pity on asylum seekers then it could try letting in some gurkhas or not being shamed by the Danes and welcoming the various Iraqi intepreters who are being left high and dry as the British pull out of Basra.

09 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Jihad - The Petition

Up at the Edinburgh fringe they are doing the "No no" thing and presenting a show called Jihad - the musical. For those who can't make it to Edinburgh, the Wapping Liar's Comment Central blog posted this video extract which is simply hilarious.

Anyway as might be expected some of the usual suspects are suffering from a sense of humour failure. Although, oddly enough no mention in the news that I see of Muslims who might be enraged and burn the place down. Indeed one wonders why? could it be that the Islamic nutcases have learned from the Danish Cartoons and decided that protesting would be counterproductive? Fortunately some sensitive souls have stepped in instead. The Grauniad explains that

The idea of a light-hearted entertainment about terror being staged so soon after the bomb attack on Glasgow has upset a growing group of protesters.

Although the growing group doesn't actually seem to be very big at all. It's almost as if the Grauniad were shit-stirring, perhaps with a little help from the Daily Mail. Both also report that some saddo petitioned the prime minister asking him to step in and condemn it with this petition:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to condemn the tasteless portrayal of terrorism and its victims in 'Jihad The Musical'. The idea of making light of muslim extremism is extremely offensive, most especially for its victims. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival promotes such 'artistic license' without due consideration for those parties who may be offended by this 'musical.'

I am glad to say that this petition has been very popular. At the time of writing 30 people had signed up including:
Perhaps someone can petition number 10 to censor these names because I'm sure they are insulting.

09 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Seumas Milne Stuck in 2005

In a "comment is free" article today, Seumas Milne seems to demonstrate that he hasn't read any of the news about Iraq over the last couple of months let alone the last few years. I had to check the date on this piece of tosh linked to by Tim, because it seemed so 2005 but no it really is dated "Thursday August 9, 2007". Tim points out a certain weakness of the piece which I'll get to by and by but the whole thing is worth a thorough end-to-end fisking so here is one:

Eventually, the US will have to negotiate its way out

Expectations of an early withdrawal from Iraq are premature. Only broader resistance is likely to break the American grip

The title, that negotiation will lead to the US leaving Iraq is undoubtedly true. The subhead - basically that the Yanks are there for good unless the population rises up en masse and kicks the out - is possibly true in the abstract, but rather less convincing if you look at what is actually happening in Iraq. You see resistance to America seems to be becoming narrower rather than it used to be. When you have former "resistance" groups like the 1920 Revolution Brigade patroling WITH the Yanks it seems to indicate that the chances for "broader resistance" are slim.

Whatever else they might disagree about, Iraqis, Americans and Britons have something crucial in common: large majorities in all three countries oppose the occupation of Iraq by US and British troops and want them brought home.

Large majorities in all three countries (well a large majority in Iraq and a majority inthe US and possibly a majority in the UK) want Iraq to be peaceful and stable. The evidence is widespread that Iraqis at least prefer the US presence to the bitter civil war they foresee if the US withdraws.

Recognition that the war has been a political and human catastrophe is now so settled that politicians are obliged to pay at least lip service to the pervasive mood for withdrawal. Gordon Brown's studiedly suggestive remarks on the White House lawn about plans to move British troops from "combat to overwatch" in Basra, where two more British soldiers have been killed this week, were clearly aimed at anti-war opinion in Britain.

May I translate. The defeatist media has managed to convince everyone that the war was a bad idea and Gordy Broon, being a slimy pol, isn't stupid enough to not try the slopey shoulders trick if it will help him get elected.

Meanwhile, speculation about scenarios for withdrawal is rampant in Washington and Iraq itself. But that doesn't mean it's about to happen - and there's a danger that pressure in the US and Britain to end the occupation could be relaxed in anticipation of a full-scale pullout that is still not seriously on the cards. After all, Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968 on a promise to end the Vietnam war and American troops were still there five years later.

And most of said scenarios talk about civil wars, Iran conquering half the country and so on. Oh and did you read the stories about how even if the US decided to leave tomorrow it would take about a year to do it in an orderly manner?

What is clear is that the US has already suffered a strategic defeat in Iraq. A flagrant act of aggression intended to be a demonstration of untrammelled US imperial power to impose its will on the heart of the oil-producing Arab and Muslim world has instead demonstrated a fatal vulnerability to "asymmetric warfare". It's also true that, as a senior US intelligence officer told the Washington Post this week, "the British have basically been defeated in the south". Far from keeping rival militia from each other's throats, over 80% of violent attacks in the area are directed against British troops.

Now here's a wonderful bit of misdirection. What is a strategic defeat as opposed to a regular one I wonder? Perhaps a strategic defeat is when you win on the ground and then the media and the leftwing politicians decide that you lost anyway? My understanding of a defeat is that you either have to leave or that if you stay you can only travel around etc. at whim of the victor. No one is stopping the US troops from going anywhere in Iraq except their own scruples that think that running over (or bombing) a few babies used as human sheilds is a bad idea. Have the Americans 'demonstrated a 'fatal vulnerability to "asymmetric warfare"'? Well not the way I see it. They may have demonstrated hesitation and a failure to find the right strategy in the past but when even the NY Times says the surge is working militarily then the folks who seem to be losing the "asymmetric warfare" would appear to be those who are fighting America. Now having said all that one part of the country where there has been no 'surge' is, guess what? the British controlled area of the south. So in other words the non-surging British have been defeated while the surging US is being victorious.

But, given the political embarrassment a British pullout would represent for the Bush administration in Washington, it's hard to imagine Brown's government ordering a comprehensive withdrawal any time soon. So British soldiers will have to expect to go on paying Tony Blair's blood price for the much-vaunted special relationship.

Or if you put it another way they will continue to pay for the fact that, as the EU Referendum bloggers explain, the British MoD seems incapable of supplying the forces and equipment needed to do the job properly. Now there is another more subtle question here. If, as Seumas claims, 80% of violent attacks are against British soldiers, then what are the other 20% against? I venture to suggest that this is the sort of behaviour you might expect if you had two or three factions (or more) who hated each other but who realized that if they came out into the open and fought each other then the British would attack them. In other words you'd want to spend as much effort as nevessary to keep the British distracted so that you could get after your real opponents.

Despite the congressional bluster, a better guide to US intentions was given by the defence secretary, Robert Gates, a couple of months back, when he declared that the US was looking for a "long and enduring presence" in Iraq - reflected in plans to consolidate 14 "enduring bases" across the country. Given the huge US strategic interest in Iraq and the region - and its determination to halt the spread of Iranian influence - that seems unlikely to change in the event of a Democratic presidential victory in 2008. In other words, the price of staying in Iraq will have to rise still further if the US is going to be forced out and Iraq regain its independence.

Well there is another alternative. Consider Iraqi Kurdistan. There are (IIRC) no more than a handful of US militrary folks in Kurdistan because that part of the country is at peace and able to defend itself against invasion or at least infiltration. I don't think there are (m)any evil neocon chickenhawks whou wouldn't like to see the rest of Iraq in the same state. They (and I) think that leaving Iraq, or reducing the troop presence there, before the country is peaceful would be a bad idea for political reasons as well as the humanitarian one that without US troops being there the place seems likely to become even more violent than it is today.

Inside Iraq, that price can only be exacted by increased resistance. More than any other single factor, it has been the war of attrition waged by Iraq's armed resistance - or insurgency as it is usually described in the western media - that has successfully challenged the world's most powerful army and driven the demand for withdrawal to the top of the political agenda in Washington. Two years ago the US vice-president, Dick Cheney, insisted the insurgency was in its "last throes". But while the outside world has increasingly focused on al-Qaida-style atrocities against civilians and sectarian killings, the guerrilla war against the occupation forces has continued to escalate. There are now over 5,000 attacks a month, a more than 20-fold increase on four years ago, and the US and British death toll is rising. Opinion polls show there is majority support for armed resistance across Iraq; in Sunni areas it is overwhelming.

First note that Seumas is clearly advocating more attacks and more deaths of UK and US service personnel. What he is saying here is "if you kill enough soldiers the US will give up and go home, so far you aren't killing enough so get better at it and quickly." I don't know if Seumas is a British citizen but what he's writing here could probably be counted as treason and, if the UK were like, say, Russia, then a journalist who wrote such a thing might find himself committing suicide with extreme prejudice. Beyond that it is worth noting, as Seumas doesn't, that the cost of the war of attrition waged by "Iraq's armed resistance" seems to have mostly fallen on the Iraqis themselves. Figures are relatively hard to find but it seems clear that while the coalition loses perhaps 3 soldiers a day on average the Iraqi civilian population loses perhaps ten times that. It is also worth noting that the western media has hyped the "insurgency" and that if it were honest it would note that the insurgency is remarkably ineffective. Sure the recent EFPs due to "the spread of Iranian influence" have helped increase fatalities but even so hundreds of patrols go on without any attacks and dozens of attacks fail for every success. In other words the "insurgency" would be classed as a dismal failure if it were not hyped by journalists such as S Milne. See this email quoted by Michael Totten:

Having served with an infantry battalion much like the one subjected in the post during a year in Ar Ramadi when Ar Ramadi was at its most conflicted, I can assure you that the violence is not as you might expect. Our unit suffered pretty massive causalities during our year. However, we patrolled every single day of that year. Those patrols lasted many hours. And, typically, even in then “chaotic” Ramadi, most patrols followed the same peaceful format as the one described in Mr. Totten’s post.

Even in the worst places, day-to-day activity is mundane and quiet. When attacks occur, they do so viciously. In my case, these resulted in my unit’s heavy causalities. Nonetheless, I rarely patrolled in fear. I knew that on most days, our patrol would result in an absence of action. Again, this was in a city considered to be one of the most violent of the war. This peculiar dynamic of the situation in Iraq is lost on Big Media.

Also note that military casualties in July FELL, despite the surge and the rise ot over 5,000 attacks a month. It is also worht noting that in Sunni areas opinon, as demonstrated by actions, seems to prefer having the US around compared to either Al Qaeda or a Shia dominated Iraqi government. Sure the Sunni want the Americans to leave. But what Seumas doesn't say is that rather like St Agustine's plea for chastity there is a critical rider "NOT YET"

The mainstream resistance movement has often been dismissed in the US and Britain as politically incoherent, obscurantist or tarred with the brush of al-Qaida (which accounts for a minority of attacks, though perhaps a majority of suicide bombings). That has been made easier as it operated underground, communicating mainly through the internet or occasional statements to the Arabic media. Now that is changing. Last month, I interviewed leaders of three Sunni-based Islamist and nationalist-leaning resistance groups which are joining four others to launch a political front in advance of an expected American withdrawal. The recent cross-party Iraq Commission report cites four of the seven as among the "four or five main groups" the insurgency has now consolidated around. All have signed up to an anti-sectarian, anti-al-Qaida platform, oppose attacks on civilians, and call for negotiated withdrawal and free elections.

Their goals of anti-al-Qaida, not attacking civilians, negotiated withdrawl and free elections appear to coincide neatly with the stated goals of the USA. This may explain why in Anbar, Diyala etc. these groups and the tribes they come from are increasingly cooperating with the US. Something that Seumas seems unable to understand.

The greatest danger to both the resistance and the wider campaign to end the occupation remains the Sunni-Shia split, fostered since the invasion in classic divide-and-rule mode. Throughout the occupation, armed resistance has been concentrated in mainly Sunni Arab areas. Whenever it has spread to the Shia population - as it did in 2004, when Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army fought the Americans - the potentially decisive threat to US control from a genuinely nationwide resistance movement has become clear. Now armed resistance by the Mahdi army has re-emerged, against the British in Basra and the Americans in Baghdad, where the US lieutenant general Raymond Odierno has claimed that most attacks during July were by Shia fighters.

Now we start to mix truth with utter fantasy. It is true that the Sunni-Shia split is the great threat but it is the great threat to Iraq remaining a unified country not to the "resistance". The implication that the coalition fostered the split is 100% opposite to reality. It is clear that it was Al Qaeda, in conjunction with Sunni Ba'athist criminals who did most of the splitting by attacking Shia again and again. Once they'd started they were of course ably assisted by the retaliation from Al Sadr and  the other Shia militas.The statement "armed resistance has been concentrated in mainly Sunni Arab areas" should be telling you something - namely that the Shia were not resisting and not worried about the US. When Al Sadr fought the Americans we saw many Shia, including their supreme Ayatollah, support the US because they hated what Al Sadr and his thugs wanted to impose. Finally if the majority of attacks are now caused by Shia then perhaps that indicates that umm the Americans have substantially defeated the Sunni insurgency and got them on its side.

But while acutely aware of the need to make common cause with Shia groups and the danger of the breakup of the country, the new Sunni-based resistance front refuses to have anything to do with the Mahdi army because of its role in sectarian killings and on-off participation in the floundering US-sponsored government. Meanwhile, the US is seeking to draw some on the margins of the Sunni-based resistance into the orbit of its anti-Iranian, anti-Shia regional alliance.

So the Sunnis won't ally with Al Sadr because he's in the government and he's been killing Sunnis. Let me guess which one of those two reasons has greater resonance. As evidence of the way the Sunnis trust the US more than Al Sadr I repsent Michael Yon's two dispatches about getting food to Baquba from the food store in Sadr City. What Seumas seems not to grasp is that, finally, the Sunni tribes have figured out that the US doesn't attack you if you don't attack them while Al Qaeda and the Shia militias do attack you especially if you don't attack them. And I love the way the Sunnis working with the US are considered "the margins". When a Sunni province like Anbar goes from hundreds of attacks a day to practically zero that's not the effect of a few marginal players changing sides. Finally he calls the alliance anti-Itanian, anti-Shia. I'm not sure about the Anti-shia part but he is right about the Anti-Iranian bit, but then most Iraqis are already anti-Iran anyway, even amongst the Shia.

The history of anti-colonial and anti-occupation resistance campaigns shows that success has almost always depended on broad-based national movements. But the embryonic resistance front has got to be a positive development if it holds together. Not only could the creation of an alliance with a common programme help open up cooperation with Shia anti-occupation forces now, but if there is going to be a stable post-occupation settlement in Iraq, that will have to include all those with genuine support on the ground. Sooner or later, the Americans are going to have to negotiate with these groups.

We're in fantasy land here. There is no broad-based national resistance movement. There never has been and, as far as I can see, never will be. Indeed contrary to Seumas' delusions what there is, increasingly, is a section of the Iraqi population that wants all the militias disarmed, preferably fatally. It is extremely unclear to me whether the militias have support on the ground except through intimidation and I suspect that as the operations against Al Qaeda wind down and operations against the Mahdi army and other Shia militias start up we will see precisely how much support these groups lack once they are put on the defensive. I see no reason why the US should negotiate with criminal militias except at the barrel of a gun and, despite Iranian assistance, it seems like the US has rather more weapons and rather more powerful ones than these gangs.

All in all this piece is a disgrace. Seumas lets his anti-Americanism blind him to the brutal behaviour of those who claim to be fighting for the "liberation" of Iraq and he makes no attempt what so ever to analyse whether these groups will actually be a constructive or destructive force. Going on their actions to date as corrupt warlords in the areas that they control it would logical for a "liberal" democrat like Seumas to oppose them and support the struggling US backed democracy in Iraq - the only one so far in the Arab world and one of very few in the Muslim world as a whole. Indeed, as I said at the top, this piece could have bene written almost unchanged in 2005 and been unremarkable. To write it in 2007 after the surge and related activity has convinced the Sunni tribes in much of Iraq that the US is more their friend than either Al Qaeda or the Shia militias are is astounding. It shows that Seumas can't grasp the idea that there should be any alternative to "resistance" or that the US can occupy any position other than "great satan". Perhaps he should go live in Iran for a while, then he can decide if the US is indeed the greatest evil, or whether, just possibly, the Iranian influence that the US is worried about is actually worse.

10 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Friday Olive Tree Blogging

Today we look at the raw vegetable desire for growth of the olive tree. Whenever an olive root is on or near the surface up come these shoots and, if you don't cut them back they will, in the fullness of time, turn into big olive trees themselves. Indeed you see many circles of younger olive tree shoots surrounding an older trunk (as in this image) and when ants, frost or some other calamity has befallen the main tree this is a common way to regenerate the plant from the root up.
20070810 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging
Of course for those times and places where you don't want any distractions from the main trunk this is a bit of a pain and it is best to cut them down. I may try seeing if I can transplant some of them though because I've read in a book that I own that this is a good way to get a new tree and is is considerably faster than waiting for a seedling to grow up.

As always click on the image to see it enlarged and do take a look through the olive blogging archives if you are a new visitor.

10 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

US leads EU in Bansturbation

To my shock and amazement I read today in the WSJ (via both the Inquirer and the Junkyardblog) that the US is leading the way in banning an activity that no one actually does. As the WSJ explains:

The Humane Society of the United States last year mailed more than 50,000 people an urgent message, underlined and in bold type: "Such horrific cruelty must stop and stop now!"

The cruelty in question was Internet hunting, which the animal-rights group described as the "sick and depraved" sport of shooting live game with a gun controlled remotely over the Web. Responding to the Humane Society's call, 33 states have outlawed Internet hunting since 2005, and a bill to ban it nationally has been introduced in Congress.

But nobody actually hunts animals over the Internet. Although the concept -- first broached publicly by a Texas entrepreneur in 2004 -- is technically feasible, it hasn't caught on. How so many states have nonetheless come to ban the practice is a testament to public alarm over Internet threats and the gilded life of legislation that nobody opposes.

I think I must write to my MEP and demand that the EU ban this horrible practise too. If we don't then evil American hunters will be shooting defenseless European birds from the comfort of their air-conditioned livign rooms. We don't need this, our own hunters are already driving harmless sonbirds to the edge of extinction as it is!

10 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Chinese Bansturbation

And here's something else for our fearless leaders to ban. According to Reuters (via Japundit) the Chinese are banning the slae of food and drink in public lavatories:

BEIJING (Reuters) - Food stalls attached to Beijing's public toilets will be removed in good time for next year's Olympics, state media said Saturday.

Complaints over toilets with poor sanitation and toilet operators turning them into commercial operations led to the ban, which comes into force in October.

"It is not proper to sell soft drinks or snacks right at the toilets," the Beijing News said, citing sources within the Beijing Municipal Administration Commission. [...]

Billboards near toilets will also be banned, Xinhua news agency said.

Now in Britain I don't see this as a problem because the continental idea of some old biddy keeping the loo clean and exorting small change from patrons in return is not common. But over here I can see this being a real winner. In fact it should be banned immediately before the ever resourceful Niçois come up with the idea of selling laxative laced Socca to people who need to relieve themselves. I could imagine the same trick working in other places.

"Oh look isn't that nice Honey, they give you a sweetie. That makes it worth the €1 they want to charge for the loos"

On the other hand I am mystified why billboards are being banned, unless it is because some people prefer to use the billboard to the actual toilet?

10 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

British Jobsworths At Their Best

From the BBC:

Gardener must use warning signs

A pensioner has been told she must stop tending a public flower bed unless she agrees to wear a fluorescent jacket, put up warning signs and use a lookout.

June Turnbull, 79, of Urchfront near Devizes, has nurtured the blooms on the plot for eight years.

But now she is being told to obey health and safety rules after being spotted by a county council official.

Next thing you know all pedestrians will be required to wear a fluorescent jacket and carry a big flag. It gets worse. Not only do you need a bright jacjet and a lookout but you also need a license:

"However, to ensure this type of work is done safely they need to seek permission from us to enable us to check there are no local safety issues, such as underground wires or pipes.

Urchfont Parish Council has recently applied for such a licence and has had a meeting with the county council to discuss questions about the safety conditions attached to it.

"We need to get a licence from the Highways Authority to enable work on this bed to be done, people must wear a fluorescent jacket, have warning signs and have two people working there," Peter Newell, chairman of Urchfont Parish Council, told BBC News.

Anyone recall that Monty Python sketch about Fish Licenses?

11 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Another UK Gov IT Cock up

If you recall, earlier this year there was a big todo about the MTAS databse thingy for junior doctors in the NHS. You may recall it was about as secure as a house with the door open and a doormat saying "ID thieves welcome". Those of us who follow the UK's laughablestellar record in IT procurement - motto "we pay more of your money and you get crap service if you're lucky" - will not be surprised to learn that some very similar errors have shown up elsewhere. One difference: they were first reported to HMG over a year ago. Via the Register there is this description of the problem:

Sanjib Mitra is a man who likes to be responsible and do the right thing. A year ago he discovered, quite by accident, that a little bit of URL tweaking could reveal personal data about people other than himself within a website database. He was completing a complicated application form himself when he was faced with a blank page and a browser back button that did nothing, so he tried changing numerical data at the end of the URL in an effort to salvage some of the information he had spent the previous hour entering. His reward was not time saved and the application retrieved, but rather the applications of pretty much anyone who had ever used the system at any time in the past, and all it took was a different number to be substituted in the URL.

Now this is nothing unusual, poorly designed sites make this kind of security gaff all the time. Of course when it is a commercial site and it is customer data we are talking about then things take on a rather different perspective than the local bowling club membership database being exposed. Unfortunately, the website that Sanjib was logged on to at the time was VFS India, the British High Commission’s commercial partner in India to which it outsources the operation of visa application centers on behalf of the four visa departments in India. Indian citizens wishing to travel to the UK and requiring visas use this service to make their applications online.

Just to refresh your memory this is what the MTAS system allowed before it was fixed in April 2007:

This has affected first year junior doctors - hundreds and hundreds of them. Whose sexual orientation, whose mobile telephone numbers, home addresses, etc have been left wide open for anybody knowing the URL.

Now let us return to our Indian friend and the blog post I quoted above dated May 15 2007:

Given that Sanjib did the right thing, a year ago, and reported the problem to VFS as well as the British High Commission, why am I bothering to write about it now?

Mainly, it has to be said, because after a year that security hole was gaping as wide open as ever. Although I will refrain from posting precise details here, yesterday afternoon I was able to manipulate the data URL simply by changing what appears to be the date on which the application was made along with a sequence number. Doing this, entirely at random, brings up the visa application details of people ranging from someone who applied yesterday through to some who applied a year ago and I have the screenshots to prove it.

Well after a year of being told about the thing privately and ignoring it the FCO and its outsourcers did, sort of, fix the issue by closing the website and an independent inquiry was launched. The investigator's report has now been produced and no punches are pulled. Here are some of the relevant paragraphs:
UKvisas recently obtained an expert assessment of the basic data security provided by the VFS online website. The findings were that the site had many security weaknesses, and that many of these weaknesses were amongst the most understood and documented security concerns in the computing industry. The expert view was that none should be present within a securely designed website.
I note that during the technical investigations, several screenshots provided by VFS highlighted wider security concerns. These screenshots of the management console used to access and configure the firewalls also showed users actively engaged in Skype3 conversations and logged onto webmail4 packages. These entities are considered to have poor security when used in isolation. Using them whilst accessing security device management consoles shows that standard acceptable usage policies are either not in place or not followed.
In addition to these technical assessments, I formed my own view that VFS procedures in relation to passwords for its own data users fell far short of even basic good practice. That view has been confirmed by a recent (June 2007) gap analysis report for VFS in relation to its work in specific visa application centre. VFS staff did not each have a unique user ID and password and there was inadequate advice provided on password confidentiality. Although this issue is not directly related to unauthorised external access to personal data provided to and processed by VFS, I mention it as it demonstrates a very poor level of real understanding of information assurance and data security. There has been, in my view, inadequate protection of data security within VFS itself.
A later report from the hosting company, S, has been examined by IT experts, who consider that the details within the report do not provide all of the information required for a standard vulnerability report, and appear to merely list the state of patching of the server infrastructure. They noted that the report highlighted the existence of a Windows 2003 server that had Service Pack 2 installed, recommending that this equipment should use the earlier Service Pack 1. This was, in the expert’s view, a fundamental mistake that, if implemented, might have resulted in regressing the security of the product because, for example, any new patches or security enhancements delivered through Service Pack 2 would be lost.
My independent IT advisers have provided a helpful and technically detailed report, which I shall, in due course, provide to VFS and UKvisas for their information. From the information available, they noted that authorisation on the website was ineffective for a number of reasons. The application had not, for example, been designed to require authorisation for Mr Mitra to view the information that he accessed accidentally. The application appeared to create, and then allow public access to certain files in publicly viewable directories on the webserver.
My IT advisers also noted that the tester who owed a duty of care to UKvisas was able to view a user’s security question from the database using an SQL injection technique. Structured Query Language (SQL) is a platform independent way of interrogating databases and SQL injection is a well known (in the industry) method that can be used by an attacker to bypass the intended security controls of a website if these security controls are poorly configured.
I note also that VFS were not collecting SQL logs. As part of the normal operation of an SQL database, logs are generated which reflect activity of that database - these are typically configurable, and can include a record of write, modify, deletion of data. The lack of SQL logs means that the probability of being able to detect SQL injection was low. IT experts noted that the log collecting mechanism was of low integrity as logs were left to reside on servers for significant periods of time without specific protection.
I note the expert view that the VFS online system is so poor that it should be completely re-written - one expert described it as an upside down pyramid, where piling more levels of changes and processes on the top only makes it more likely to fall over. I recommend that the VFS online application system should not be re-opened, though I note UKvisas’ has already reached that decision. I also note that VFS has accepted that it is not an IT company and that it needs to outsource its software writing.
I suspect that whatever report has been made into MTAS will come to similar conclusions. The government outsourced the project to the low bidder who was incompetent and the government performed no 3rd party audit or other validation to ensure that the end result was secure. Furthermore, unlike any reputable commercial enterprise, the government and it outsourcers pay little or no attention to security issues that are raised privately. The only way to get their attention is to tell Channel 4 news.

I note all this becase, as TimW noted yesterday, the government issued the initial tenders for the ID card scheme. I can't be arsed to read the verbiage as it will undoubtedly be almost as incomprehensible as the EU "not a constitution honest guv" treaty but although I sincerely hope that whoever implements it will think about security and do it properly I fear that the opposite will occur. I also fear that the first whistleblowers to go public with reports of breaches will find themselves arrested and prosecuted for hacking.

11 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Ethnicity and Fiction

John Scalzi has blogged recently about science fiction and race here and here and in the comments he has received a certain amount of stick for not explicitly showing that he is writing about people who are non-white. I find it a bit odd that some people seem to think racial quotas are good in SF but I'm going to leave that because, like Mr S I'm an English-speaking, white, middle-class, university educated male, and have therefore won first prize in the lottery of life. Hence for some people I am incapable of imagining what it is like to be discrimminated against. [ I'll note that as a visitor and former resident in East Asia I have certainly experienced discrimmination but a) I accept it wasn't that bad and b) so what? ]

Anyway I'm not going to touch that debate any more because I don't see that it matters and instead I'm going to hit on a slightly ralated note. The question asked by John and his comenters is when you don't encounted a descriptive clue to tell you about a fictional character what do you perceive that character to be? One thing I notice is that I tend to give people English accents and get shocked when other versions are possible.

Example - Lois M. Bujold recently read aloud a bit of TSK: Legacy on a radio interview here. Even though a lot of the descriptions are distinctly American (the location is a sort of alternate Ohio) with my mind I still heard English accents. In fact I pictured Fawn speaking with an East Anglian kind of accent and Dag perhaps a slightly posher version of the same. And hence when Lois (who is from Ohio originally) read from an extract I wanted to say HEY THAT'S NOT HOW HE/SHE SPEAKS.

The same by the way goes for TinTin. The first few TinTin books I read (forget which ones) were in English and I naturally assumed that TinTin was an English journalist, Captain Haddock an English sailor etc. It was a major shock when in one of them (and I forget which one) this idea became completely untenable because TinTin drove to Switzerland (or something like that, I forget the precise details). Since Enlgand is an island you can't drive to Switzerland and that forced me to go back and figure out that he's actually Belgian. To be honest I think I got that wrong at first anyway and assumed he was French, but then I doubt I was 10 at the time.

There are plenty of SF books where I really have a hard time hearing the characters speak with an American accent - Honor Harrington for example or the humans in "The Mote in God's Eye" - and that is doubly true for fantasy. That may not be so surprising given that many fantasies are based on some sort of idealized medieval Europe, but it still causes cognitive dissonance when I am forced to hear them speak American...

13 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Townhall Press - Rip Off the Rightie Writers?

The basic rule in publishing is that money flows towards the author. The author writes it, agents and publishers cut deals giving the author an advance and once the advance is earned out the author gets royalties. In other words if a real publisher takes your book authors never need to pay for anything beyond postage to send corrected proofs around. Thus the basic corrolory that those of us who are considering publishers etc. need to understand is - if you have to pay to get published then it's probably either a vanity press or a scam.

Over at Making Light (the blog of Tor editors Theresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden), TNH noted that Townhall press seems to resemble the latter (scam or vanity press) rather than the real publisher because they want aspiring authors to pay $999 or more to be published. They seem to claim that this is a Print on Demand (POD) service but it seems a rather expensive one By contrast Lulu.com, a well-established POD company, there is no fee for the basic service. There are fees if you want help editing, creating covers etc. etc. from Lulu.com but the fees are optional, if you think you can do it yourself then you don't have to pay. At Townhall Press you have to pay a fee and that gives you these services whether you want them or not (and editorial services appear to be an extra priced by word count - for a 100,000 word book you're looking at a $1500 bill).

[Amusing sidenote - $600 saving only on the most expensive package]
And it gets worse. The $999 package doesn't pay any royalties so if you expect any sort of return then you have to pick one of the other two, so your investment is a minimum of $1500. The royalties you get are relatively generous (Generally you’ll receive from $2.00 to $5.00 per book sold to wholesalers, and up to $7.50 per book sold to individuals.) but, working on a probably generous $5 average per book sold, you need to sell 300 to break even on the minimum package. If you get $3 per book then it's 500 and if you went for the more expensive package, added the editing etc. then you're looking at 1000 copies and up.

OK you say, but how hard can it be to sell 300 copies? Well if you read the about section, you learn that:

TownhallPress.com uses revolutionary on-demand book publishing technology, and is powered by the same people who bring you XulonPress.com – the leading on-demand Christian book publisher. We’re financially secure with a stellar reputation.

XulonPress.com has helped more than 3,000 authors and printed more than 1,000,000 books! [...]

1 million books, 3,000 authors (presumably one book each) making average sales per author/book of 333. In other words the average author, if he chose the basic $1500 package, might expect a return of about $150 if royalties are $5 per copy. However the average guy isn't going to get this. Book sales follow the long tail (or half-life) model where the big sales are made by the top titles and the tail end sells very little. Assuming an 80:20 rule (80% of the sales come from the top 20%), then 600 authors (20%) will sell 800,000 books leaving the remaining 2400 to account for the 200,000 left. If you run the sums this means that the top 20% sell an average of 1333 books (and therefore make $4000 at a rate of $5 and 2500 at a rate of $3). The next 20% or so more or less break even (at a $5 rate it's an average $150 profit at a $3 rate it's $500 loss). The bottom third sell an average of about one book per author.

In other words unless your book is one of the top 25% or so you will make a loss. And even if you book is one of the top bestsellers you will make a minimal profit.

Now that we've looked at the sums, lets see what the pitch is:

Have you written a manuscript and you're tired of being rejected by the traditional publishing houses? Townhall Press wants to be your book publisher. We can turn your manuscript into a high-quality book and make it available to 25,000 bookstores and on the Internet – all in less than 90 days. Townhall Press is an on-demand book publisher, and a part of Townhall.com – one of the leading self-publishers on the Internet. Send us your manuscript today and within 90 days we'll promote it on Townhall.com and Amazon.com in high-quality paperback or hardcover editions. Start today for as little as $999.

First the hook: "(liberal) traditional publishers reject your work". This may be true but traditional publishers reject most unsolicited manuscripts that arrive in their in-tray and, although it is possible that this is on ideological grounds, there is evidence (e.g. this JBU column) that most rejections are because the manuscript pitched is crap. If the manuscript is good then Regnery Publishing would probably handle it once an agent submitted it.

Now the dazzle with numbers: "make it available to 25,000 bookstores and on the Internet". Make it available does not mean actively market. If you want your book to sell then you the author are going to have to do the marketing and you are not going to be spamming 25,000 bookstores.

And finally the lowball price: "Start today for as little as $999". As noted above for $999 you get no benefit for any sales your book makes. In other words the $999 is a pure vanity publishing deal. You pay $999 and then buy 50 copies to give to your friends (at $11.99 each). Townhall press makes $999+$8*50 = $1400 from you. Not bad business for them. Not quite so good for the author.

In her post TNH, a self confessed member of the liberal publishing establishement says:

I’m torn. On the one hand, Townhall.com just cries out for the kind of dispassionately analytical thrashing the gang at Absolute Write’s Bewares Board is so good at administering to deceptive publishing operations. On the other hand, I really like the idea of Wingnuttia entrusting its cherished manuscripts to a print-on-demand publisher that doesn’t take returns and has no brick-and-mortar distribution deal. For years, I’ve watched hapless, naive authors get mired in deals like that, finding out the hard way that no amount of energetic self-promotion will sell a book if the publisher isn’t helping. There’s nothing different about the deal Townhall’s offering its authors, except I won’t feel bad about it.

In other words the liberal publishing elite would be upset if this deal were offered to people she cared about but she's a tad less concerned about people she dislikes getting ripped off. This is not a conclusion that makes me want to recommend Townhall Press to anyone.

14 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

ID Cards - Insecure in Practice

I've never really bought into the ID card rhetoric; it has always seemed to me that ID cards are a solution looking for a problem. However, despite that, I can see how under some circumstances a single reliable ID document would be of benefit in stopping various sorts of frauds and the like. Still, even if you think that the ID card is great in theory, before you advocate one in practice it may help to think about the difference between an abstract idea and a concrete piece of plastic embedded with various metals, semiconductors etc.

One problem with a having a single document as the standard for all identification is that this document, as I have noted before, becomes something that criminals will want to subvert. For exactly the same reason that DRM is doomed, ID cards  are highly unlikely to be secure. Why you ask?

Well its like this. The problem with DRM is that you have to give the viewers/listeners the equipment to decode the media they wish to experience. Hence, there are lots of readers and lots of samples and it is comparatively easy to prove that you have the decryption right on one example and then apply the same thing to others. The same applies to ID cards.

All ID cards have to have the same encryption, the same personal data, biometrics etc. etc. Its no good if one ID card has First name, date of birth and fingerprint and another one has last name, home address and photo. Likewise its not good if every ID card is encrypted using different keys and so all ID cards will have some shared keys (it may be that the ID card will also have a PIN but as the folks at Light Blue Touchpaper have pointed out PIN's aren't a very good barrier). Finally ID card readers are going to be common.

Put it all together and you have a situation where a criminal will not find it too hard to get ID cards and readers and see how to crack them. What they do next is unclear. It is possible that they will create forged ID cards using methods similar to this one for RFID passports. Or they may just figure that it is easier to get a crooked council worker to use the ID card (or its clone) to access the National Identity Registry (NIR) and either read details or modify them.

And we note that all this assumes that the NIR database and its access methods are built securely something that HMG seem unable to do for some reason as I noted earlier.

Put it all together and we have a system which is destined to be a disaster from day one.

16 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Service Outages

This morning was interesting because when I started work I discovered my phone and internet connections were dead. This was a France Telecom problem. But there was no information about it and no advance warning or anything.

Unfortunately there is only one way to report a France Telecom technical problem, dial 10 13 from a France Telecom phone line.

I'm sure readers can see the Catch 22 situation that follows when you want to tell France Telecom that your phone line is dead...

This has happened before and it usually fixes itself, which was exactly what happened in this case. Of course I'd wasted about half an hour trying and failing to find any neighbours who were not on holiday to see if I could use their phone before I came back and discovered that things had started working again.

So then I get on the internet and discover that Skype is dead:

Due to Peer-to-Peer network issues there are problems with Skype login. This issue is being investigated. We will give new updates when the issue has been resolved.

Fortunately Skype, unlike France Telecom, can be worked around. There are rather a lot of other IM/Chat/VoIP clients to choose from. The only requirement is that you are able to agree with your skype buddies which fallback service to use.

I'm not going to recommend Microsoft for the purpose though, I found the login and sign up via .NET Passport or whatever to be annoyingly confusing and the search for other users to be practically impossible. And then there was the fact that once you'd found someone to chat to you appear to get logged out after half an hour.

But back to Skype. Currently Skype has about €10 of mine in various deposits and I have a large community of Skype contacts. Neither of these is a great barrier to chaned IM/VoIP provider if Skype's service remains down and other service providers ones are OK. Switching from Skype to one of the others is not going to cost much or take long.

Switching from France Telecom is a rather more complex procedure, which no doubt explains why I anticipate Skype to explain what went wrong and I have no expectation what so ever that FT will do anyhting other than charge me.

17 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Friday Olive Tree Blogging

Special Bonsai Edition
20070817 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging
Some friends of mine have a bonsai olive tree, as I discovered when we visited them last week. I'm jealous. Very jealous. Steps will have to be taken this autumn to create my own one.

As always click on the image to enlarge and don't forget to visit the olive tree blogging archives if you're new here.

17 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

ID Cards. Designed for Mission Creep

This post inspired in part by this CNN article.

Basic Requirements

Some basic rules:
  1. An ID card should be a token that is hard to fake, has a unique identifier that can be used to look up a record in a database and has some information (e.g. a picture) that lets those that need to check, verify that the holder is the person they should be.
  2. In order to make ID cards worth protecting they need to be used infrequently. Because the more they are used the easier it becomes for bad guys to subvert the system somewhere because there will be more readers and more groups permitted to access records etc.
  3. Also the more they are used the more casual we become about tolerating abuse of them because we all instinctively understand that having Big Brother tracking us is an invasion of privacy. More to the point governments have historically proven to be really really bad at protecting data (see here and here for examples) so the more records get tied to the ID card the more dangerous it is if there is a leak.

Nowhere does it say you need to have your name printed on the ID card. In fact as a security measure it may be advisable to omit the name because a simple verbal interrogation obtains that information from the genuine holder but not from someone who has nicked it. Nowhere does it say you should not have duplicates.

Nowhere does it say that ID cards should only link to one database. In fact there are benefits from having multiple databases that are not connected so that if hackers break into one they don't get all your data. Furthermore some details (your age for example, or blood type or serious medical conditions) are things that you may be happy to have anyone read. Others (name, address, driving license records) you may find acceptable for low level security/law enforcement personnel to read, and still others you may not want anyone to read unless its some sort of national emergency*

Nowhere does it say that we should not have a PIN or other password to go along with the ID card to permit access to certain records. And tying in with the multiple databases, nowhere does it say that we should have the same PIN for all government departments.

The people identified by the ID card must know when their ID card is being queried so that they can decide whether to permit it or not.

Put it together and you'd have an ID card system where people would show their ID card occasionally, where they would be validated by both a biomentric (picture) and a PIN (so they would KNOW they had shown their card), and where if the ID card were stolen it wouldn't do much good. Of course it is unclear what such a system would be good for which is why

Mission Creep Means Ignore the Above

Unfortunately all the above corrollories assume that the governments who are ramming ID cards down our throats (or up some other oriface if you prefer) are actually interested in creating a secure identity scheme. The first thing to note is that ID cards have been pushed as the solution to 1001 different problems from (illegal) immigration to terrorism to benefit fraud. And just as laws such as the American RICO statutes were intended merely to be used against organized (drug) criminals, it is sure that once an ID card is introduced to "solve" one problem it will then be extended to "solve" other ones.

Charlis Stross writiing in the comments here, makes the point that once you have invoked 'security' then there is almost ne way to reverse the mission creep:

Let's remember that the global security-industrial complex focussed on anti-terrorism turns over roughly US $90Bn per year, and it's grown to that scale in only six and a half years. This is effectively an industry that depends on a single class of customer -- governments -- and so it focusses its marketing tightly on persuading them to buy more produce. It is also an industry that depends on a negative. If no terrorist incidents occur, then it can point to the absence and claim a victory. If terrorist incidents do occur, then obviously the government didn't buy enough Security™ and needs to cough up more money. Value for money is thus not demonstrated by achieving anything measurable, but by conducting ostentatious displays of Security-Mindedness, as exemplified by all the uniformed flunkies making work for each other (and the flying public) at airports.

This is a pathological condition, because it has no well-defined exit state. For any conceivable movie-plot terrorist outrage, a business case can be made (and presented to terrified politicians) for conducting a security initiative to prevent it. Failure to cough up the money will be a career-limiting move if the threat actually materializes, while publicizing its existence without actually doing something to block it makes any such materialization more likely. Thus, failure to fund any random piece of nonsense dreamed up to deter a non-existent threat may turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Hence: terrified politicians.)

The problem is that ID cards don't do a good job of stopping terrorism. If you want to stop people hijacking (or blowing up) airliners then screening baggage and people is the way to go and that doesn't require an ID card. In fact all the ID card does is add a pointless hurdle in the process that occasionally catches out a member of the public who has forgotten or lost his 'picture ID'.

Also was noted after the 7/7 bombings in London, ID cards would have made no difference what so ever to the prevention of the attack. The peope concerned were British citizens living and workign quite legally but just building bombs to kill themselves on the side. When terrorists go to training camps in Pakistan/Afghanista etc. they have to show a passport. Except for the occasional embarrassing goof where political correctness means that a person weaing a burkha doesn't get properly checked, passports are checked on entry and exit, so an ID card is a pointless extra.

The only conceivable way that ID cards can catch terrorists is if we have to show them all the time and all these showings are tracked by some gienormous computer which can extract trends from it. There are however problems with this with the biggest being false positives. Say you have to show your ID every time you get on a train/bus, buy petrol etc. Chances are high that people will have odd journeys where they appear to check in but not out, where they are seen on the train from Bradford to Luton on Monday and Wednesday but no record of a return in between, where they buy petrol in Aberdeen and then in London a few hours later and so on. All of these will turn out to have innocent explanations (private jets, lifts in cars, the swipe machine not working) but trend analysis is going to point them out and someone will have to sift through the millions of these false positives to find the one possible real positive. And probably that real positive won't be a terrorist anyway it will be a drug-runner or other criminal. And the same goes for using ID cards to track financial payments, purchasing dangerous goods and anything else, travel is just a simple example.

The second problem is that the smart terrorists (and yes you can laugh at the way the doctors failed to blow themselves up recently but they were clearly intelligent) will figure out they need two or three IDs. They will be helped in obtaining these by the smart criminals, of which there will be many more, who also have a need for fake IDs to conduct their 'business'. The crooks will subvert the ID card system for their advantage but they'll not be averse to a nice little earner selling fake IDs to others who want them, whether they are husbands with mistresses they need to visit secretly or terrorists determined to blow us all up. And because most of us will know teenagers who want to buy booze, plumbers who want to dodge paying income tax, husbands with mistresses, wives who have secret abortions or people who have gay sex with prostitutes or other misdemenours that ID cards will make harder to hide we'll all ignore the one person who has got the fake ID card that we should have reported because we're going to assume that the bad guy was just one of the usual harmless suspects.

And of course the existence of crooks means that there wil have to be security measures to try and stop ID theft and the creation of false IDs. And we know these security measures are going to have holes in them. And we know that the bad guys are going to explit the holes while the good guys are going to end up trapped in the cogs of all the additional security chacks and verifications that have been added on top of each other in order to stop the bad guys. Which leads us to my Zombie story. And so on.

Charlie's comment omits the empire building desires of bureaucrats. ID cards are loved by bureaucrats both because they give them the illusion of control and because they allow them to build empires with large budgets. And this is why governments keep on buying stupid security systems (ID cards are just one). The bureaucrats love the concepts when the security salesman makes his pitch and the bureaucrat then makes the pitch to the politician. The politician has, at this point, also been lobbied (i.e. wined, dined and possibly blown) by the security company or trade association so he agrees. It isn't his money after all so what does he care about the cost, and for that matter, because he's a VIP he mostly doesn't get to experience the impact it has on regular lives.

[Aside: if you want government to fix airport screening queues simply mandate that all MPs and senior civil servants get to go in the 'special' queue where all searches are performed by a couple of arthritic midgets only, and where asking 'don't you know who I am?' leads to an immediate full body cavity search.]

So ID cards in summary: great for IT salesmen, great for empire building bureaucrats, not bad for politicians. Not actually any good at solving a problem. It is obvious why the world is investing heavily into such technology.

* Yes I know the definition of an emergency is in the eye of the petty tyrant who declares it, but in theory we trust the government not to abuse things.

17 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Skype Sorta Alive

I've made a skype out call! Yippee.

There are rumours that skype has been subject to a (D)DoS attack, although network/code analysis such as these presentations (two PDFs) from recon 2006 seems to indicate that skype may have introduced their own DDoS simply by the way they designed the (propreitary and very secret) skype protocol to talk to the top login servers all the time and to require, at least as I undertsand it, for the login servers to have to do a lot of cryptographic key generation. It also seems to me that a DoS attack ought to be possible by forcing the login servers to calculate these keys and then not move onto the next stage but restart from the beginning. I don't know if there is a DoS attack but it is possible that the DoS attack started it off.

As the Reg points out, traditional telcos are laughing, but I'll be honest I think their laughter is rather nervous because the skype folks are unlikely to repeat whatever error they made here (and if its a DoS attack then if skype can enhance some of the P2P stuff to reduce the load on the login servers then I suspect future attacks will fail miserably. Telcos don't have quite the same luxury to re-engineer their stuff when a vulnerability is found...

17 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Small Scale Biofuel

Via slashdot and Baen's Bar I've come across a company that plans to genetically engineer bacteria to make hydrocarbons from vegetable matter. There are two article as Technology Review (here and here) that describe the business. From the first link:

...the company began speaking more openly about what it has accomplished: it has genetically engineered various bacteria, including E. coli, to custom-produce hydrocarbon chains.

To do this, the company is employing tools from the field of synthetic biology to modify the genetic pathways that bacteria, plants, and animals use to make fatty acids, one of the main ways that organisms store energy. Fatty acids are chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms strung together in a particular arrangement, with a carboxylic acid group made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen attached at one end. Take away the acid, and you're left with a hydrocarbon that can be made into fuel.

"I am very impressed with what they're doing," says James Collins, codirector of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology at Boston University. He calls the company's use of synthetic biology and systems biology to engineer hydrocarbon-producing bacteria "cutting edge."

There is in fact a second company that is working on a similar idea (earlier TR article) and there may be others. Currently these various companies are working on relatively costly food sources but they intend to find cheaper ones to use waste biomass:

LS9's current work uses sugar derived from corn kernels as the food source for the bacteria--the same source used by ethanol-producing yeast. To produce greater volumes of fuel, and to not have energy competing with food, both approaches will need to use cellulosic biomass, such as switchgrass, as the feedstock. Del Cardayre estimates that cellulosic biomass could produce about 2,000 gallons of renewable petroleum per acre.

As I commented at Baen's Bar, the great advantage about the modified E.Coli sort of approach is that it tends to scale down well. As in you can have one running in your back yard in a barrel sort of scale down. Now there is clearly a good deal of work to be done before we're at the final stage but eventually everyone ought to be able to take all the lawn cuttings and leaves and turn them into petrol.

Of course the problem is that you really really want such a system to not function at all at standard temp, pressure and atmostphere because if it does then a spill means a heap of E coli turning all the vegetable matter in the vicinity into oil. this is known as a Bad ThingTM, however it is highly likely that any process will actually be a multistage one with one bacterium doing a first stage breakdown and the second (or third) preducing the petrol or diesel you want at the end.

The catch so far seems to be in the cellulose breakdown part and anyone who can get a bacterium, yeast or other microorganism to take arbitrary cellulose and lignins and turn them into something softer (glucose for preference) in a simple manner is going to get very rich - assuming he isn't murdered by the Saudis or the Iranians first...

The obvious way to do this is to replicate the process that ruminants (cattle etc.) use in some artificial manner, possibly with a mechanical preprocessing stage act as more efficient teeth. The ruminant system would presumably also be a good source of biogas because, as I'm sure we're all aware, cows and other ruminants are a major source of methane. Whether the methane would be used to power the system or storred for some other function would clearly depend on how much is generated but either way the system ought not to generate more than just petrol. The propblem of course is that the ruminant system is a complex collection of protozoa, bacteria so it would be better if a simpler system could be found.

18 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

WF Deedes - RIP

The obituries and tributes are flooding in, and deservedly so. The BBC has a decent one pager, the Torygraph, with which he was associated for almost all of his 76 years as a journalist, is longer and the Torygraph website also has various other comment, tributes etc. Deservedly so. WF Deedes never retired and hence he worked longer than many people live, he inspired Evelyn Waugh (and arguably Private Eye) to write works of genius, he inspired Princess Di to campaign against land mines (and 10 years ago at 84 wrote some of the better stuff about her life and death), he won a medal fighting in the second world war to name just a few of his achievements.

I think, however, the best memorial can be his last published words, the ones that apeared two weeks ago in the Telegraph's Notebook column (I excerpt but this is truly a "read the whole thing":

It is time the world was shaken awake to the infamy of what is going on in Darfur. In terms of man's inhumanity to man, what has been going on there for four years is now comparable to the death camps for which Germany's Nazis were found guilty. That statement may provoke cries of outrage from some: surely the Holocaust stands alone?

Not to me it doesn't, and as a soldier I had to enter one of those camps and went to the trial of its commandant. I have also been to Darfur.

I can make comparisons. I can never get out of my mind the picture of families in Darfur striving to live under the shelter of thorn bushes, the children's fingers clutching wretched little cooking pots to keep the rain out.

Women and children were hunted like wild animals, raped, robbed and left for dead. What has been happening in Darfur is unspeakable; and much of the world has simply shrugged its shoulders. They are an unknown people in a far-off land. What business is it of ours? It is very much our business, because behind this ghastly inhumanity lies the iron will of Islam in Khartoum.

[...] They put the dead in Darfur at 200,000, the displaced at two million. I would place both figures higher than that. And neither figure, whatever it is, can convey the torment those people have suffered while the world stood idly by.

When details of the Holocaust came to light, many - and not all of them Germans - took shelter behind the assertion: "I did not know."

That offers us no escape route from the shame of Darfur. We've known, wrung our hands and done nothing. It's going to take some living down.

And then he lightens the mood:

I must have been about 15 when one August bank holiday afternoon, I was taken by an aunt who lived at Chawton in Hampshire to meet Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. My aunt was friendly with his much younger wife. As a pretty callow youth, I was bowled over by the powerful personality. Baden-Powell was the embodiment of leadership.

We forget that, long before he founded this great movement a century ago, he had won his spurs as a fine soldier. Gazetted to the 13th Hussars in India in 1876, he commanded the 5th Dragoon Guards in India. He held Mafeking in South Africa during its siege of 217 days and ended his military career as a lieutenant general. He retired in 1910 to devote himself to the Boy Scout movement.

Emphatically, he was one of those men who have left a footprint in the sands of time.

It occurs to me that the last sentence applies to its writer as well.

WF 'Bill' Deedes 1913 - 2007. Emphatically, he was one of those men who have left a footprint in the sands of time.

21 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

DRM = Don't Read Mobipocket?

Via teleread and mobilitysite I learn that Mobipocket, purveyor of DRM Crippleware, has a server problem.  This makes their 'secure' mobipocket format so secure that no one can read it. Excellent stuff that. According to a note sent out by fictionwise:

NOTICE: A major problem occurred with the Mobipocket DRM server at about 6:30 PM Eastern Time, Wednesday, August 15. Engineers at Mobipocket.com have informed us that they hope to be back online sometime this week, August 22 or 23. We have switched, where possible, all Secure Mobipocket files purchased during the downtime to an alternative DRM provider, Content Reserve. We have also taken all titles that could not be switched offline in Mobipocket format until the problem is resolved.

And indeed if you go to the Mobipocket website you see this:


Mobipocket.com has been shut down for maintenance, please come back later.

Sorry for the inconvenience.


The Mobipocket Team

One reason why consumers tend to distrust DRM is illustrated clearly here. If I had bought a 'secure' mobipocket book a few weeks ago and wished to redownload it now I would be screwed. And there would be very little I could do about it. Now as I'm not a mobipocket user I have no idea whether they have emailed all their users and told them about the problem but I'm guessing not.

Furthermore this is not some temporary intermittent outage, this is a site that has been down for a WEEK. I hope there is a good excuse for this because being down for a week with a cryptic "oops back soon" doesn't precisely fill me with confidence that I'll ever want to buy a 'secure' ebook from them or their agents.

21 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Let The Iraqi Interpreters In

From Charlie Stross to the readers of the Daily Mail (contrary to comments by Mr Stross) the British public seems to think that we should let the Iraqi Interpreters and others who have worled for us in Basra have asylum in the UK if they wish it. Given that the UK seems happy to allow convicted murderers to remain in the UK once they have finished their sentence, the arguments made about the interpreters are shown to be hypocritical crap. The ZANU Labout government, their whitehall toadies and human rights 'defenders' get worked up about the human rights of scum that preach sedition and dissent here but claim they will be tortured if deported, but they don't care about people who face the ultimate human rights abuse - death - for helping the British government in Iraq.

Des Browne even said that this was the thn end of the wedge and that 20,000 Iraqis might come. That seems unlikely. However it seems likely that the people that did come would make a positive contribution to life in Britain, most will be familair with English, all show a desire to work, and a desire to better themselves, and, more subtly, their presence at British mosques might help moderate the rhetoric there.

And if there isn't room we could always deport Neil Clark to Serbia.

21 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Some Is Not All

There are times when I wonder about the victim-mongers and PC enforcers, the people who claim that certain others have been wronged because someone has published a book or scientific paper that goes against PC orthodoxy. What I wonder about them is how they can fail to grasp the difference between SOME and ALL. A case in point (via Instapundit) is Dr J. Michael Bailey who wrote a book with a controversial claim:

In his book, he argued that some people born male who want to cross genders are driven primarily by an erotic fascination with themselves as women. This idea runs counter to the belief, held by many men who decide to live as women, that they are the victims of a biological mistake — in essence, women trapped in men’s bodies. Dr. Bailey described the alternate theory, which is based on Canadian studies done in the 1980s and 1990s, in part by telling the stories of several transgender women he met through a mutual acquaintance. In the book, he gave them pseudonyms, like “Alma” and “Juanita.”

Note the first sentence "some people". "Some people" does not mean "all people", "most people" and may not even mean "many people". It means a number greater than 2.

Now you may think this is silly but it isn't. Because the same fundamental inability to grok the difference between some and all is why people attacked Larry Summers at Harvard and is why people get worked up with all those IQ studies that show that there are differences between races, sexes etc. etc. Statements like "on average type A is more X than type B" does not mean that all type A people are more X than type B. Indeed some type A people may be less X than all type B

The same issue arises when we get into crime statistics and it absolutely applies to sloppy journalists who report on Muslim attitudes, attitudes to Muslims and for that matter the views of the "Arab street" with regards to America etc.

The statement "Some Muslims are terrorists" is true but the statement "All Muslims are terrorists" is false. However frequently organizations like CAIR (in the USA) or the MCB (in the UK) seem to deliberately conflate the two claiming that people who say the former mean the latter.

Mind you the concept is not completely limited to the chattering classes. It is after all what leads to scares about food and safety. E.g. Some Chinese made toys are dangerous. Some British cows suffer from BSE. Chances are that some in these cases is a vanishly small proportion of the millions actually present, but some is probably enough to cause people to panic and not buy any.

And of course it is why bansturbators get so worked up. Some students can't drink responsibly so we propose banning alcohol for all students. Some people hurt others with knives, guns etc. so therefore all people must be banned from using them. In France it was swimming pools. Some people failed to watch out when their children were playing around the pool so now all pools have to have a fence or motion detector. Fitted at significant expense and making, as far as I can tell, no difference what so ever to accidental drownings in swimming pools. But then that is frequently the case.

Some bans are effective does not mean all bans are effective.

21 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Nothing Happened in Linan on 30 June 2007

Well someone totally unimportant died in some totally uninteresting way and a correction stating this has been posted:

Concerning the essay <Correction on information about the town official Xu Xinyan>, our website makes the following additional clarification:

1. The essay had not been reviewed and approved by the senior leaders and should not have been published.  The contents do not match the truth in any way.  We therefore apologize here to the readers.

2. Xu was just an ordinary worker at the town, and not a Party cadre leader.

3. Xu probably died from a sudden ailment.  At the time, he was in his own private car, and not a government car.  He was the only person present there.  He was fully clothed and not naked.

4. As for the other person, the circumstances are not yet known.  But it was not a female cadre.  That person was not naked either.  That person was just an ordinary worker.  The details are being investigated by the relevant departments.

5. Since the case of Xu is still being investigated by the relevant departments and the Linan newspapers have not published anything, we ask the readers not to make comments and to place their trust in the party organization.

So what do you think could have happened?

Unfortunately the correction was removed and replaced with:

We thank the large number of readers for their interest in Hangzhou Information Net.  According to orders from the superiors, this post has been deleted altogether.  Concerning the matter of the person Xu from Qingliangfeng town, Linan city, Hangzhou province, we ask you not to discuss any further.  The case occurred a while ago.  The Xu incident is just a one-time-only rare phenomenon.  The majority of our party members and cadres are still good people.  So we say the same thing: You must trust the organization and you must trust the Party.  When the investigation is completed, there will be a proper conclusion.  Before that conclusion is reached, we should not be discussing the matter.

Private Eye must have readers in China. If you don't want to know what didn't happen on June 30 concerning the death of person Xu then you probably shouldn't click here.

22 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Artjon 'Tony' Shkurtaj Update

Since I've covered the story of the UNDP whistleblower Artjon I think it is worth giving an update to the story. Via the NY Sun, we learn that:

The U.N.'s top ethics enforcer ruled Friday that a whistleblower has suffered "prima facie" retaliation at the hands of his superiors at the U.N. Development Program, but over the weekend, the UNDP said it would look elsewhere for a more favorable ruling.

The tiff presents a major new challenge for Secretary-General Ban, according to several people involved in the matter. Known for his nonconfrontational manner, Mr. Ban must now decide whether to confront the embattled UNDP and its administrator, Kemal Dervis, or risk erosion of one of last year's only major reform achievements -- the establishment of an ethics office.

In other words the UN bureaucracy doesn't like being held up to ethical standards. Indeed the article goes on to explain:

In his August 17 letter, Mr. Benson told Mr. Shkurtaj that, if his office had jurisdiction over the issue, "In my view, a prima facie case of retaliation would have been established." Similar letters were sent to Mr. Ban as well as to the UNDP administrator, Mr. Dervis, and two other top U.N. officials.

Mr. Benson added in his letters, however, that the UNDP "does not wish to pursue this matter within the parameters" of the General Assembly resolution that established the ethics office last year.

The international development agency's budget is funded independently of the United Nations and is run by its own board of directors, which is one of the arguments it cited in rejecting the jurisdiction of the ethics office.

But the UNDP has not created an ethics mechanism that would serve the same function as Mr. Benson's office to protect whistleblowers. The agency also had not initially objected publicly to Mr. Benson's inquiry into the case, raising the issue of jurisdiction only after the ruling in Mr. Shkurtaj's favor.

Reading between the lines what we have here is a UN agency that was willing to accept any ethical decision that went in its favour but not one that went the other way, as this one did. Hence, once it did go in the wrong direction, the bureaucrats find reasons why it doesn't count. The Inner City Press article is more detailed and more revealing:

From the memo, the full text of which is [at the bottom of the link above], it is important to note the "absence of an applicable protection from retaliation policy within UNDP." Under Kemal Dervis and particularly Associate Administrator Ad Melkert, UNDP has promised a number of reforms, including making internal audits available to Member States, but has delivered on few or none of them. Shkurtaj explains that the UN's Office of Legal Affairs has not endorsed UNDP's purported whistleblower protections, and expresses a total lack of faith in UNDP's "own external review."

UNDP has refused to answer questions. Approached inside UN headquarters by Inner City Press while it was covering -- as the only media present -- the UNDP Executive Board meeting, Dervis said, "I will not answer any of your questions." Melkert, due to his previous claims to be a reformer and that "you ain't seen nothing yet," has been provided with additional opportunities to response this month. A series of ten questions posed to UN's chief spokesman David Morrison as well as Dervis, Melkert and others have not been responded to.

Shkurtaj states that it was Ad Melkert himself who ordered that his contract not be renewed, and that efforts be made to determine his post-UN-employment immigration status and to eject Shkurtaj from the United States. As Shkurtaj puts it, "UNDP continues to act like a rogue UN agency. UNDP first rejected the findings of the UN�s Board of Auditors. UNDP now refuses to cooperate with the UN Ethics Office. It is time -- long overdue -- for there to be consequences and accountability in the most senior ranks of UNDP Management."

There's an interesting point here. It would seem that the UNDP has called some buddies in the US's DHS/ICE and pointed out that Artjon has no right to reside in the US now that his UN contract has not been renewed. While this is undoubtedly true it also, no doubt totally coincidentally, makes it a little tricky for pesky reporters and investigators based in New York to interview Mr Shkurtaj.

Inner City Press' follow up yesterday also makes the point that the UNDP claiming that the UN Ethics Office does not apply to it is rather silly. Unfortunately the official UN response is still nice and weaselly:

Inner City Press:  Just now, at the stakeout, the UN Ambassador, Alejandro Wolff, called 'ludicrous' UNDP's argument that the Ethics Office does not apply to it, and said that he or the US mission thinks that Mr. Ban wants the Ethics Office to have jurisdiction over the whistle-blower's case.  Inevitably, it is a follow-up to you to say that, is the impression that he just stated, is that Mr. Ban's position?

Spokesperson:  At this point, it is a fact that, legally, the Ethics Office has no jurisdiction over UNDP.  As you know, UNDP has its own intergovernmental body, and its own Executive Board.  What I can only say is what I said yesterday, that the Secretary-General encourages a thorough and independent investigation into all matters related to the case, including its whistle-blower aspects.  However, whether it is done by the Ethics Office or by another body is not being raised here.

Although the spokesperson does go on to say:

As you probably know, the UN Board of Auditors is preparing to begin the second phase of an external audit into the operations of the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and UNDP in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as requested by the UN Secretary-General.

UNDP has said that it is proceeding to arrange an additional and complementary external review to take place under the auspices of its Executive Board.  A formal announcement on this review will be made in a few days.  This review would look into issues relating to UNDP's operations in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea not covered in the second phase of the external audit.  And this could include Mr. [Artjon] Skhurtaj's allegations.

Note the COULD in that last sentence. I'm fairly sure that unless the press keep up the pressure that COULD will turn out to lead to "BUT UNFORTUNATELY WE DIDN'T HAVE TIME/RESOURCES..." This is exactly the same as the weaselling regarding Mr Shkurtaj's whistleblower status. As Captain Ed's link to WaPo article on the subject explains, as well as the jurisdiction question the UNDP also claims that its own whsitleblowing protections do not apply to contractors and Mr Shkurtaj was in fact a contractor, albeit one who was working for the UN for 13 years.

It is worth pointing out that in the IT industry the use of long term contractors as a way to dodge social security charges and other employement legislation has been pretty much wiped out by changes in the rules regarding how such contracts are governed. Numerous companies such as Microsoft, IBM and so on have been forced, sometime retrospectively, to count long term contractors (and 13 years definitely counts as long term) as employees. It might be worth figuring out how long Mr Shkurtaj's contracts were and whether they were with the same UN body, because if he has had many years of consecutive contracts with the same UN body then he would certainly count as an employee under most national employment statutes. As a transnational body, the UN may consider itself not to be bound by such petty details but that does rather go back to the original gripe of the UN's lack of accountability.

Now the final question I have is that, given all this bad publicity, why is the UNDP so keen to look like an organization that is out of control? We know that the UN is proposing to investigate the work of the UNDP and other UN agencies in North Korea so why would it seem so desperate to court bad publicity? One obvious reason is that the UNDP thinks that by being obstructive here it can focus attention on N Korea, where all the misbehaviour has already been exposed, and divert attention from other UNDP missions where perhaps similar activities have occured. It may also help to divert attention from people such as Mr Melkert, Britain's Minister for Kleptocrats and other people nominally in charge of the place over the last decade or so. One wonders whether, perhaps, the UNDP was involved in Mercedes Benz exportation? or maybe some of its staffers were involved in all the prstitution and child abuse scandals that UN peacekeepers have been accused of?

Update: Claudia Rossett has written on the subject at NRO and points out that the Minister for Kleptocratswas responsible for much of the growth in UNDP budget over the last decade or so.

22 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

From Rwanda To Darfur

In the "you can't make this stuff up" category I see this BBC news item.

The United Nations is investigating claims that a general set to head its force in Sudan's Darfur region, participated in the Rwandan genocide.

UN spokesman Yves Sorokobi said human rights groups should submit evidence inking Rwandan General Karenzi Karake to any alleged crimes.

The African Union approved General Karake to become the deputy commander of the AU-UN hybrid force in Darfur.

I hope this is, as the Rwandan government claim, an unjustified slur because if not it really makes the AU force a total joke. And talking of jokes headlines like "General Karake Appointment Remains Hanging" would seem just a tad tasteless. That second article has some wonderful understatements:

[A] UK foreign office spokeswoman said that the appointment of force commanders was a job for the UN department of peacekeeping operations. But, apparently, British officials are concerned that if there was any substance to the allegations it could discredit the Darfur mission.


Considering that the UN may foot all the bills of the force, there is no doubt that its reservations will be looked into. In a case where an agreement on the issue is impossible, observers say Gen. Karake, as a senior officer of the force, may find it challenging to reach out to a divided UN system.

23 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Iz It Coz Repubelicanz Kan't Rede?

This story seems to have got a lot of play from a whole list of literate, bibliophile right wingers because the premise is so silly. To recap there was a survey of 1003 Americans with this result:

The AP-Ipsos poll found 22 percent of liberals and moderates said they had not read a book within the past year, compared with 34 percent of conservatives.

Among those who had read at least one book, liberals typically read nine books in the year, with half reading more than that and half less. Conservatives typically read eight, moderates five.

By slightly wider margins, Democrats tended to read more books than Republicans and independents. There were no differences by political party in the percentage of those who said they had not read at least one book.

It should be noted that there is a considerable potential difference between "liberal" and "democrat" or "conservative" and "republican", although the AP summary seems to be confusing the two. I found it interesting to read the survey summary and find on page 4 that 38% were republican, 46% democrat yet 25% called themselves liberal and 36% described themselves as conservative. Anyway that is perhaps by the by.

To go back to the article, the controversy is about the first few paragraphs (I quoted the end of the story first):

"The Karl Roves of the world have built a generation that just wants a couple slogans: 'No, don't raise my taxes, no new taxes,'" Pat Schroeder, president of the American Association of Publishers, said in a recent interview. "It's pretty hard to write a book saying, 'No new taxes, no new taxes, no new taxes' on every page."

Schroeder, who as a Colorado Democrat was once one of Congress' most liberal House members, was responding to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll that found people who consider themselves liberals are more prodigious book readers than conservatives.

She said liberals tend to be policy wonks who "can't say anything in less than paragraphs. We really want the whole picture, want to peel the onion."

The book publishing industry is predominantly liberal, though conservative books by authors like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and pundit Ann Coulter have been best sellers in recent years. Overall, book sales have been flat as publishers seek to woo readers lured away by the Internet, movies and television.

What is interesting is that this comes out just a few days after Toni Weisskopf, head of Baen books, wrote at Baen's Bar:

Other than a huge spike for Harry, sales are down from last year industrywide; Baen goes against the trend and is showing modest increases.--Toni

(My underline)
Now I'm not totally clear if Toni is refering to SF, fiction sales or all sales, but one suspects all sales in that the Harry Potter spike should be what permits overall sales level as reported in the original article. Either way the fact that Baen is growing sales in a declining market indicates that Baen is doing something better than other publishers. One difference between Baen and other publishers is that it is rather more right wing than others - indeed it has authors in its stable (e.g. Tom Kratman to pick a name not at random) who make Ghenghis Khan and Attila the Hun seem like socialists.

Of course there may be other reasons - Baen is the only thriving eBook fiction publisher, the only one to have a free electronic library where you can try before you buy and so on - but it is not impossible that one reason why Baen is growing where others aren't is that it is publishing what people want to read. Or to put it another way there is possibly an untapped demand for books from the right of centre crowd which is being ignored.

23 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Unclear on the Sex in the Federal Bathroom

I just opened, by mistake, one of my spam emails. One offering, I believe, services for men who feel underendowed. However it is hilarious:
From: "Selena U. Munson"
To: "Jeanie J. Queen"
Subject: I just started having sex, and my boyfriend keeps popping out when we do it.

Ladies always whooped at me and even blokes did in the federal bathroom!
Well, now I hee-haw at them, because I took Meg, a dik.
for 4 months and now my peter is badly weightier than national.
take up http://<address>
Its always amusing when I get an email addressed to my feminine side, although hitherto I'd never realized I was known as Jeanie. Unfortunately it all goes horribly wrong because we change sex in the body of the message.

And then there is the "federal bathroom" bit. I mean does the guy not get "whooped at" in state, city or private bathrooms? And what about having "a peter which is badly weightier than national." National what? and why is it badly weightier? and why would I want to buy something that made my "peter" badly weightier in the first place?

Work on your sales pitch you lamé spamer marooons!

24 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Friday Olive Tree Blogging

Olive trees here on the Côte d'Azur rarely seem to thrive away from human beings. They tend to grow in places where humans either live today or used to live before they came to their senses and moved to cities with housing containing mod cons such as running water. Which means that this tree above (almost literally above) Magagnosc is a bit of a puzzler because there is little sign of other olive trees or signs of human habitation.
20070824 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging
As always you can see an enlargement by clicking on the image and don't forget to visit the olive tree blogging archives if you're new here.

24 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Using Data Protection To Muzzle Whistleblowers

This is the sort of trick that I might have expected the UNDP to use in their attempts to silence Artjon Shkurtaj, but in fact its being used by the caring Child Protection jobsworths in the UK. As the Torygraph reported on Monday, social services jobsworths from Calderdale Council in the UK are planning to take away the baby that a pregnant mother is expected to deliver soon. The woman in question and her husband recorded the jobsworths informing her that she was to remain in hospital after the baby was born and that it would be removed for fostering and adoption after about three days.

This recording popped up on YouTube which meant it was jolly embarassing for the jobsworths because it showed just how 'caring' they weren't. The Register now reports that the jobsworths have had the recording removed because

"The Council believes that the YouTube recording breaches the Data Protection Act, since the recording was made without the knowledge or consent of our member of staff," said a statement from Calderdale Council. "We have concerns that, because the case involves court proceedings, it could prejudice child protection and safeguarding outcomes."

Or in other words the world got to hear their little Hitler doing his number and that breached his right to privacy.

The Wapping Liar has more information:

Mrs Brookes’s case is not straightforward. She is partially sighted and has suffered bouts of depression. Two of her children have already been adopted. That does not prove that she is an unfit mother - mistakes can be made - but it does explain the council’s interest. Equally, I am told that she and her husband have never been accused of harming any child. But this dribble of incomplete facts is fundamentally unenlightening. All it does is illustrate the torturous trade-offs that the system has to make, and our inability to judge those trade-offs because it is illegal to read family court papers.

and asks some good questions:

How should we treat someone like Mrs Brookes, who has troubles enough to worry social services but has not apparently yet harmed a child? She is one of a growing group of people who are categorised as capable of “emotional abuse”. You can see why the category exists. Ill-treatment comes in many forms, not just cigarette burns. But in that nebulous phrase lurks the potential for great injustice.

“Emotional abuse” has no strict definition in British law. Yet it now accounts for an astounding 21 per cent of all children registered as needing protection, up from 14 per cent in 1997. Last year 6,700 children were put on the child protection register for emotional abuse, compared with only 2,600 for sexual abuse and 5,100 for physical abuse. Both of the latter two categories have been falling steadily. Meanwhile emotional abuse and “neglect” - which replaced the old notion of “grave concern” in 1989 - have been rising. Both are catch-alls. But emotional abuse is especially vague. It covers children who have not been injured, have not complained, and do not come under “emotional neglect”.

Essentially the social security gestapo and their secretive courts make it impossible for the rest of us to know whether they are behaving responsibly or not. To some extent one sympathises with the concept of confidentiality because obviously it's going to be bad for the child, and innocent parents, to have their sufferings publicised. But the secrecy does make it a little difficult to appeal. As the Torygraph noted a few weeks ago, the secrecy is such that parents aren't even told why their children have been talken away and that makes it very difficult to lodge an appeal.

A blast of sunlight sounds like a good idea, not further secrecy.

24 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

(Non) DRM eBook News

The Mobipocket server is still down with the same message as earlier this week. This I learn in a post at Charlie Stross' blog. A couple of other tidbits coem from there. Firstly this thread (which was a good deal shorter last time I looked) now also has information about how people can crack Mobipocket's DRM (start on page 5 post #62). Secondly and more importantly comment #7 on the Stross blog by the proprietor says (omitting first line):

The answer is to convince the publishers that DRM is a bad idea.

It's not obvious right now, but I think we're much closer than most people realize.

I have reason to believe that a certain large American publisher (who nearly abandoned DRM on ebook sales last year, but were overruled by their parent company) might shortly resume their interrupted experiment. If so, their actions will force executives in other large publishing companies to respond -- unlike Baen, they're a big fish in this pond, and ignoring them will be difficult.

At that point, all it will take is a second major publisher following suit for it to stop being a radical experiment and becomes an alternative business practice, which can be assessed on its profitability, just like any other.

To my mind this means that Mr Stross' main US publisher - Tor - has decided to resume sales through webscriptions "real soon now"

It's going to be truly fascinating if that is right because it means that the war about DRMed books is about to be over, and the DRM vendors just lost. Why do I say so? because I have absolutely no doubt that this move will be successful and we will see the results shared amongst the other publishers.

25 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

Sarko's 100 Days

Just under two years ago when Vile Pin was celebrating hsi first 100 days as French PM I wrote that it looked like worse was to come. Which it was, because shortly afterwards we had the CarBQ riots. Much the same I think applies to Sarko's 100 day anniversay although unlike Vile Pin, Sarko has had a pretty active 100 days.

So what has Sarko done?

Well first he has helped the socialists in their formation of a circular firing squad by appointing some of the more sane and competant ones to his government and thereby ensuring that the socialists kick them out. It is not impossible that future historians will say that Sarko saved French Socialism because he lets all the current crop of losers shoot it out without harming the socialists who may be able to restore the party once the blood has dried.

Secondly Sarko has done a number on foreign policy. He's done a good deal to heal relations with the USA, he's managed to grab the headlines regarding Libya, and he appears to have done rather better than Blair/Brown in protecting French interests in the EU. He has also blatently ignored EU rules that annoy him (e.g. over budget deficits) and, oddly enough, no one from Brussels or Frankfurt seems to be insisting that he toe the line.

Thirdly he has managed to stick his fingers in the Airbus/EADS management pie and has got French control where it matters there too. This is actually very cunning because it ought to help his cause with the more moderate unions. Toulouse, Airbus' HQ, was one of the more socialist leaning areas in the recent elections, by guarranteeing Airbus' future he manages to sidestep the likelihood that these people will ally with future protestors.

Fourthly he has passed some laws regarding strikes in France which seem sure to be tested real soon now, but which would seem to be the start of France moving away from its current toleration of strikes and demonstrations. I believe these laws are popular and that many people can't wait to see them enforced.

Fifthly he has demonstrated, as if we didn't already know it, that he is jolly good friends with a variety of media bosses. Not bad for an 'outsider'!

Sixthly he has shown a 'robust' approach to paedophiles. He hasn't quite proposed stringing them up by their balls but it has come pretty close and seems popular amongst the average Frenchman even if it gives the multiculti elites the vapours.

EURSOC's 100 Day post makes some of these points and also points out that his inclusive cabinet and other related measures may end up harming him if things go titsup.com in the next few months. The problem is that the most likely people to try and upset the applecart are the trades unions and/or the hard left anarchists. Action taken against these people seems more likely to increase his popularity rather than decrease it.

It is not impossible that the far left nutters will find some cause to unite with the immigrant unemployed, in fact one suspects it is quite likely. At first sight this would seem to be bad and lead to 1968 style protests on the streets. The difference, however, is that I think neither the lefties nor the immigrants arouse a great deal of sympathy in the hearts of the rest of France. And that in turn means that an alliance of the two is likely to discredit both. Despite, or perhaps because of, Sarko's control of the media, I believe it will be fairly straighforward for Sarko to gain popular support, or at least acquiescence, for radical actions to suppress riots and end strikes that inconvenience the general public. It is still possible that Sarko will manage to unite too many opponants against him on some cause and thus forfeit majority approval but going on his actions so far I rather doubt it. I also anticipate that it will be a good idea to buy lots of food, water, petrol etc. in the next week or two because if the lefty unions want a showdown then it will occur in September/October.

But it should be noted that all of this comes courtesy of conversation with people in the Alpes Maritimes, the most fervantly Sarko supporting part of France so it is not impossible that elsewhere there is a greater proportion of malcontents.

26 August 2007 Blog Home : All August 2007 Posts : Permalink

New Haven Police Are Very Stupid

So there you are. You receive a report that someone is spilling white powder on the ground near IKEA. What do you do? Well obviously this has to be a terrorist threat. Must be anthrax (or maybe cocaine). Evacuate. Evacuate. Panic. Panic. Then you find some guys in running gear following the marks. Got to be the terrorists! Arrest them. And then charge them with breaching the peace and then as if that were not enough city wants the criminals to pay for their police force's over-reaction. Wonderful.

So far the police in France have always failed to be worried when we do the same thing. I trust that this will continue to be the case this afternoon....

I love this quote from one Jessica Mayorga:

"You see powder connected by arrows and chalk, you never know," she said. "It could be a terrorist, it could be something more serious. We're thankful it wasn't, but there were a lot of resources that went into figuring that out."

More serious than terrorism? really? such as?