The Heartlessness of ‘Scotland’s Future’

A flurry of coverage yesterday of the SNP’s “Scotland’s Future” document . . . one thing stood out for me: the sheer, cold hard-headedness of it all. Read more

The First Signs the Scottish Referendum Campaign is Getting Weird

News via the Spectator reaches me of an unlikely speech by the Respect MP George Galloway at a Glasgow town hall meeting entitled ‘Just Say Naw’.

When hard left Scottish MPs representing northern-English towns and David Cameron find themselves on the same side of any argument it’s pause for thought. On a topic as emotional as Scotland’s independence it’s a sign that things in the coming referendum campaign can and will get a little bizarre.

If I understand the points made by Alex Massie then it seems George thinks his message of class warfare would be diminished by the UK splitting into two. I’m not sure I agree: two echo chambers for the Gallowayian style of debate sounds to me like it would add up to more than double the amplification he attains now: kind of like shouting into a coastal blow-hole with a megaphone using AC/DC’s sound system.

Look out for more odd-shaped bedfellows in the coming months especially once the SNP release their white paper on independence. And weirdness on-screen too . . . will Newsnight host a debate with a Yes team of Sean Connery, a hologram of Hugh McDiarmid and whoever happens right now to be claiming to be Robert the Bruce’s descendant? Maybe have Russell Brand on too for good measure. For now though, David Cameron will look on this with a wry smile but come a post-referendum defeat for Unionism then look to see the Galloways of the world turn their ire on the Tories with even more spite than usual as they seek scapegoats for a splt.

 

 

Cablog says bye bye . . . .

A few days ago I discovered that cablog.com.au had ceased blogging. It was run by Sydney cabbie Adrian Neyland and was such a great example of what a blog is all about (niche subject, good writing, informative, entertaining) that I even featured it in as one of the blogs in the BBC News Superpower season. If memory serves Adrian even recorded a lovely POV video for the BBC of him driving through nighttime Sydney all the time narrating the cablog ethos.

neyland

The thing is Adrian’s blog actually stopped nearly a year ago . . . and I never even noticed. What does this tell us about the state of blogging and people who read blogs? As Adrian writes above, putting up posts became a ‘chore’ and I suspect that since blogging’s golden age of around 2003/2004 the novelty for many writers has worn off. Sure some are still going strong, Charles at littlegreenfootballs.com (another BBC superpower feature) only has to sneeze to get over 100 comments and early blog pioneer Glenn Reynolds is keeping it regular despite being swallowed by a conservative publishing house. . . . but Egypt’s Sandmonkey (aka Mahmoud Salem), nominated for best Middle Eastern blog back in ’06 I think, is now down to about 3 posts a year, iraqthemodel.com and the mildly famous Riverbend shut down years ago with the latter flinging out one last last hurrah this year in a very poignant sort of dead cat bounce. . . however, I suspect the real reason I never noticed cablog’s demise was that I just don’t have the time to spend lazily leafing through the web and stopping by anything that takes my fancy . . . might have something to do with the fact that I now spend a lot of my time changing nappies!

 

Ryan Fogle, Wigs & Modern spying

Much talk in the media today about how Ryan Fogle, the captured CIA spy in Russia, was a rank amateur because — amongst other things — he was wearing a daft wig. The whole embarrassing affair seems almost perfectly timed for publication of Jeremy Scahill’s new book “Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield”.

In this hefty and rather dense tome there are two chapters devoted to the strange tale of Raymond Davis, the CIA operative who was captured by Lahore cops a few years ago. He only got out of Pakistan after the US gov paid millions in blood money to the families of the men Davis shot. The first Davis chapter contains some lovely details about what Davis was carrying in his vehicle and that haul included — along with SIM cards, GPS devices ammunition etc —  wigs and masks.

The excellent CIA analyst Bob Baehr on Radio 4 this morning (in a great interview someone has decided should not be on the podcast page) puts a brave face on the fiasco by claiming that wigs, make-up and the like are just there to make any casual onlookers “forget the face”, and even went so far as to suggest that over-sized moustaches are also used quite frequently in this way.

So I think we can conclude that the next time the Us appoints a badly-coiffured secretary to the chief immigration officer of the Department of Tourist Visas for any US embassy anywhere in the world, we can all tap our noses and give a knowing wink.

The cover, if ever there was any, like Mr Fogle’s awful hair, is now well and truly blown.

 

Bitcoin — The New Believers

The British current affairs programme Newsnight on BBC television recently aired a report about the woes of Cyprus. Elderly sun tanned citizens clawed futilely at the barren cash machines while eager reporters goaded them on with microphones. It was a day or so before the island’s banks — or what’s left of them — were due to re-open after a forced closure of more than a week. So far so normal as far as TV reporting of this latest financial crisis goes. However, the film was immediately followed by a segment on Bitcoin with its new-fangled feature “zero external control” aka “no central bank”. The juxtaposition of these two items was clearly intended and a masterpiece of editorial sequencing: here’s the old — look where it’s got us. Behold the new — look ma no government! Any dejected Cypriots watching must have felt the same spirit of open-jawed awe as that young lad at the start of One Hundred Years of Solitude:

“The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.”

And who would blame a Cypriot granny for immediately going online to download the software . . . so what if it takes over 13 years to mint just 2 of the things and they could be worth zilch by then anyway? Let’s be honest, if you’ve just watched your government steal up to 60% of your life’s savings in order to make good on its own debts then a virtual currency you barely understand starts to seem like a good deal.

I know better than to try and recap for readers just how Bitcoin works, suffice to say it is a rather elegant piece of cryptography, but if Bitcoin is the answer to our financial woes then I wonder if the question was right?

As I write the cost of one Bitcoin whooshed past $117 dollars and the very fact that I checked and almost simultaneously felt a pang that I was missing out confirms to me the whole thing has that whiff of a bubble about it. People are piling into a scramble scared to be the last. Alas it is human nature to obsess over the now even though we know it harms us; as wealth expert Spencer Sherman commented: “We want instant gratification. People cannot stand short-term fluctuations. It’s like me asking my wife every few minutes how our marriage is doing. I would be divorced by now”. So ask not if you are interested in short or even long-term gains but rather is Bitcoin itself in it for the long-term? We know thanks to mathematics — those lovely laws so much more inviolable than the discredited regulations of the SEC or EU — that decades from now there will only ever exist a maximum of 21 million Bitcoins. So we know the supply, but what does this mean for demand? No way to print money scream the Believers. But wait, aren’t there valid occasions when you need to do that? This week the press is full of praise for Japan’s decision to stuff new money into its system to stop “prices falling” (I thought low prices were a good thing!?). Meanwhile here in the UK the government battles forlornly like a child playing whack-a-mole in the funfair to keep inflation down. Are they both wrong? I’ve no idea but if the answer is only privy to those with advanced economics PhDs then I ask myself do I really want in? Tugging in the other direction however, is the strong urge within me actively willing Bitcoin to succeed. This largely stems from a desire to stick one in the eye of the current financial system which has done so much harm. But even the lamest Craigslist therapist will tell you spiteful banker-bashing and government mistrust is not a healthy motivating force. Right?

Not so according to F. A. Hayek (and I suspect most Cypriots would concur). This nobel prize-winning economist despised the very idea of government-issued cash and predicted the rise of something like Bitcoin way back in the seventies in a paper called “The Denationalisation of Money”:

As soon as one succeeds in freeing oneself of the universally but tacitly accepted creed that a country must be supplied by its government with its own distinctive and exclusive currency, all sorts of interesting questions arise which have never been examined.

In my view it’s the last bit that counts. Has Bitcoin really been examined? Yes, I know it’s open source and a gazillion eyeballs – we assume – have scrutinised the code for glitches and nefarious activities, but what I want to know are the long term effects. Is it vulnerable to manipulation? Can it be hoarded? What do we do when governments want to control or tax it as they inevitably will? What about confidence — could a wealthy Manhattan hedge fund boss short Bitcoin and talk its value down to near zero?

I suspect there is a future for Bitcoin and it will be far more mundane than the horror scenarios I just outlined – as a senior Reddit exec recently said: “new technologies are always over-rated in the short term and under-rated in the long”. Bitcoin’s future is likely to involve more and more people taking a far less cautious approach than me and jumping in feet first. But therein too lies a potential hazard. Anyone who makes their living from open source software will tell you there’s one word they dread: fork. A split development path has happened to a great many OSS projects and usually means a maintenance headache and some mild market confusion. Hayek was cool with this and reckoned competing money suppliers were just as valid and necessary as competing electricity suppliers. So what would it mean for Bitcoin if I got my act together and created another virtual currency: psst, wanna buy some PaulyPennies? Standby for a drop in Bitcoin value. I’d be surprised if angel investors in Silicon Valley weren’t already formulating such plans and in fact the more I think about it the more I reckon I should get going . . . I wonder if the founder of Bitcoin had the same glazed, watery-eyed expression and dreams of a yacht I’m getting right now?

Ah yes, Bitcoin’s founder. Introducing one Satoshi Nakamoto. At least that’s the name on the original white paper along with an e-Mail address but don’t try sending a message; it’s fake, the identity having been dreamed up by the real founders, although tantalisingly, my attempt to reach Mr Nakamoto didn’t bounce — raising the possibility that someone’s reading the mails. At Bitcoin gatherings the name is whispered in hushed tones lest you put a hex on the whole thing. This Keyser Söze-type figure adds a lovely frisson of mystery to Bitcoin which sends the hacktivists wild with lulzlust. To experience this yourself simply register on a Bitcoin forum and post the query: “Hey, I’m new to this game can someone put me in touch with Satoshi?” O my, what larks these Bitcoiners will have with you. However, it’s worth reminding ourselves what happens with Mr Söze at the end of The Usual Suspects (Sort-of-a-spoiler alert!): everything that you thought had gone before in the preceding hour and a half becomes totally irrelevant. When Mr. Nakamoto finally does decide to reveal himself as a 15-year-old script kiddie from Ukraine or — SURPRISE! — a CIA technician who dreamed it all up in his lunch break, we’d better pray that we don’t get a similar denouement. Especially those of us with $86K of Bitcoin in our retirement fund. As a 2012 report by the European Central Bank drily states:

“The fact that the founder of Bitcoin uses a pseudonym does nothing to help promote transparency and credibility in the scheme.”

Quite.

In many ways the financial world now is very much as Marquez described: recent and things don’t got names although by golly we’ve tried a few: Eurocrisis, Economic Meltdown, Sub-prime, Sequest-a-geddon, Toxic Debt . . . . all fancy terms for governments and individuals that have basically got more going out than coming in. So while we enter uncharted territory with flailing national and supra-national powers standing idly by grunting before being stung into action by angry hordes, permit me to haul my tired and by now very saggy Marquez metaphor over the finishing line for one last hurrah. It seems that Bitcoin is a neat mirror image of that author’s most famous novel: an impenetrable mix of complicated family ties, dynastic relationships and supernatural forces which everyone unquestionably accepts. I never really got the book but I love to claim I’ve read it and while I may not understand the point Marquez was making I sure remember the climax. The world ends. Everyone dies.

Pirate: What’s in a Word

Usually when celebrities jump onto a cause it’s the A-lister who ends up putting his foot in it so it’s something of a relief to see Harrison Ford sounding platitudes about how getting clean drinking water running in distant “stressed” lands can lead to a lack of Jihadi attacks against the USA — an argument not without merit were it not for the fact that on 9/11 15 guys from one of the richest nations on the planet committed one of the worst ever atrocities on US soil. Still, Ford’s relatively well worn path leaves the field clear for his colleague in this interview, Peter Seligman, boss of Conservation International,  to end up defending piracy in Somalia.

“The fisherman that depended upon that fish . . had no way to feed themselves..but they had boats . . they became pirates”.

Sigh, Seligman repeats the old canard that if only Europeans hadn’t decimated the fish stocks of the coast of eastern Africa then Somali pirates wouldn’t be such a problem. Leaving aside whether it’s true an area the size of western Europe has actually been over-fished or not, isn’t it a tad shocking to find this attitude prevailing from the boss of an organisation that has pledged to “ensure a healthy and productive planet for us all”?

I wonder if the reason we so often hear this tired old saying is because piracy is such an emotive term? It still carries with it the old connotations of an age when half the world was crudely mapped and the other half simply labelled “here be monsters”. The image one has upon hearing the word pirate is a Johnny Depp-style swashbuckling vagabond  fighting the good fight, stealing from the rich and giving (a bit) to the poor.

If you actually break down what your modern-day Somali pirate does for a living into its constituent parts it makes the they’ve-no-fish-so-they-have-no-choice-the-poor-little-blighters argument a whole lot harder to articulate.

Need a reminder? Here we go — in no particular order of brutality:

To paraphrase Angel Eyes in TGTBTU: Not enough for ya?

Having one’s fish stolen is a poor excuse for any of the above crimes on their own let alone for an obscene amalgamation of all of the above. Let’s start calling pirates by their real names.

 

 

Favela No More

It is with a sense of weary resignation that I learn why the ‘Favela’ level has been removed from the online game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. It happened to Salman Rushdie and countless thousands of others so I suppose it was only a matter of time before religious grievance-mongering impacted on me (note to trolls — I am in no way comparing my loss of about 1/8 of my gaming ability to the predicament Salman finds himself in):

I feel I should point out that nobody nowhere has actually put an Islamic religious text in a bathroom.

Nobody nowhere hung an Islamic text above a toilet.

This all happened in a virtual world. It’s not real. It’s a bunch of pixels on my screen. We’re by now used to certain religious groups’ offence reaching extreme levels of reaction to things that happen in reality – critics of Islam in Denmark are still under threat – now they’re restricting what goes on in unreality. It’s not therefore unreasonable to speculate that the next sphere to encroach upon will be what people actually think. As Muhammad Ali put it:

‘You ever dream of beating me you better wake up and apologise’.

That sounds cute as a pre-fight taunt lobbed at the latest schmuck to try and take down the Great one but when some groups start using this as a legal basis for censorship we’ve got serious problems.

A Few Months With Windows 8

Computerworld have an interesting  feature today in which some prominent tech authors voice their opinions on Windows 8. A majority of the 14 quoted say they spend all their time on the desktop and never touch the Metro interface which is what greets you on the standard Win 8 start screen. While reading I suddenly realised I do exactly the same. I’ve never really thought about why I do this . . . can what’s available by default on the start screen really be that bad? I decided to spend an hour revisiting the start screen which comes out of the box and reappraising . . . Read more

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