Friday, October 28

Overnight success.

I used to be a Mac fan. Many years ago, they made better machines with a better operating system than the competition. As they became more popular, they started making overpriced crap. And their influence forced Microsoft to up their game in the OS stakes.

I've had a Surface Pro for a couple of years. It is a really really damn nice machine. It's the sort of thing Apple would have made once upon a time but don't any more. They've just launched a new phone and laptop, and, due to the incompatibility of the connectors, you can't charge the phone from the laptop. They've famously got rid of the headphone jack from their phones: they claim that their new connector provides better audio. Their new laptop still has the old headphone jack — i.e., according to their own hype, inferior sound. I think it's fair to say that Steve Jobs wouldn't have stood for this sort of sloppiness.

Meanwhile, Microsoft's new Surface Studio looks amazing. A square aim at Apple's core market, there. And a bloody good aim, too. The Dial is bloody cool. I'd be amazed if half the developers on the planey haven't already started thinking of ways to integrate it into new things. Could be a really interesting gaming controller, for a start, and perfect for music-making software.

The interesting thing about the Surface was the way it was derided as a flop when it first launched. Apple have built so much of their reputation around the business plan of launching a product and selling a bazillion inside a week that the entire tech industry has decided that that's the only way to do things. Microsoft took a completely different approach: launch something quite cool, watch it to see how it does, listen to feedback, tweak, repeat. They were quite open about not caring whether the Surface made a profit in its first couple of years, while tech journalists derided the "flop" and insisted the Surface was a failed project that would have to be abandoned. They didn't care when they had to write down a load of inventory. They didn't abandon the project. Just kept tweaking. And now the Surface is considered a cool and desirable machine, just like a Mac. I find it has wow factor, too: when geeks see me using one, they ask to have a look.

I'm glad Microsoft succeeded in this way — not just because I like my Surface, but because, even if I didn't, I think it's healthy for the industry to be reminded that a successful gadget doesn't have to go from nothing to everywhere overnight. Good things can be built slowly.

Thursday, October 27

More on democracy.

The Guardian (and others, but let's put the boot in where it's most deserved) are breathlessly reporting that they've obtained a leaked recording which shows that Theresa May didn't support Brexit! This is being treated as some sort of scoop for some reason. Don't understand it myself. Yes, she was pro-Remain. It wasn't a secret: she said so publicly at the time. She was on the Remain side in the Referendum. I assume she voted Remain. We all knew it. What's next? Secret footage of Michael Gove saying he thinks schools could be improved?

Let's leave aside the rather obvious facts: that May only stood as leader as a direct result of the Brexit vote; that the whole and only reason the post was vacant was that Cameron was pro-Remain; that the whole point of her candidacy was "I will deliver what the people have voted for"; that, if she hadn't offered that, she couldn't have won; that therefore whether she thinks the people were right to vote the way we did is secondary. Because, even if none of that were true, it still wouldn't actually matter.

This is the great strength of democracy: that it harnesses politicians' desire for power. The whole point of democracy is that you achieve power by doing what the electorate want. In non-democracies, you achieve power by trampling all over the public. As long as they have to persuade voters, it simply does not matter whether a politician bases their policy on a deep-seated conviction or a fervent desire to do good or a cynical unprincipled hunger for power or even a lunatic conspiracy theory — because not enough voters will ever share the same conviction or altruism or conspiracy theory, and certainly not an overwhelming desire to give as much power as possible to that one politician. It doesn't matter what the voters' motives are, either — an idea the Remnants are having real trouble with. In a democracy, motives are pooled and mixed and diluted till they may as well not exist. Which is why it's so rare for democracies to give rise to significant crazed extremist movements.

Maybe Theresa May doesn't want any of what she's currently working for. Maybe she would rather the UK stay in the EU but is willing to bury her own convictions in order to get the top job. Maybe she's a power-hungry narcissist who hates us all. Yet she is still, in order to grab power, having to do what the electorate clearly voted for.

This is a feature, not a bug.


Here's what Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, said on Radio 4 about Heathrow the other day:

One of the things Heathrow have been looking at is doing what many other airports have done around the world, which is to build the runway over the top of the road rather than underneath it.

I have to admit I'm quite surprised that the idea of an underground runway was even being considered. It's probably for the best that they've decided against it.

Thursday, October 13

A song.

As long-time readers — as if I have any — may know, as well as ranting about politics and whining about my lunch, I make music. Well, on the faint off-chance that you're remotely interested, I hereby announce that I'm in a new band, called Mašīna, and we have made this, which is quite good:


An apology.

I would like to apologise.

Back when Gayle Newland was sent down, I was quite rude about the jury and the Crown Prosecution Service. The Court of Appeal, in rightly overturning her appalling conviction today, says that I should have been rude about the judge as well. An unforgivable oversight on my part. I'm truly sorry.

Saturday, August 6

The open source resistance.

The open source jihad is America's worst nightmare.
 — Al Qaeda's Inspire magazine

Open source jihad is Al Qaeda's catchy brand name for the attacks currently taking place across Europe and the USA on an almost daily basis. Whilst there are some fundamental differences of opinion between Al Qaeda and ISIS, they are in agreement when it comes to tactics.

The point of open-source warfare is to take the old Al Qaeda's loose command structure of autonomous cells to the next level and have no command structure, or even membership. They put their ideology out there, promulgate information about how to commit attacks cheaply and easily, then leave it to like-minded individuals to put the ideas into practice as and when and however they wish. The advantages of this are obvious, and the traditional disadvantages simply don't apply. Militaries — and traditional terrorist organisations such as the IRA — maintain and enforce centralised command in order to coordinate strategy and to avoid taking ineffective or counterproductive action. That makes sense when the death of the enemy is merely a means to a strategic end. But, when the death of the enemy is an end in itself, and for an organisation that welcomes the deaths even of its own soldiers, there is no such thing as a counterproductive attack. Kill a hundred infidels? Great. Kill one infidel? Still great. Invite massive retaliation? Great: an opportunity for more killing. Get caught? Great: an opportunity to make converts in prison. Get killed? Great: you're going to paradise. For jihadis, there's never a downside.

The lack of command structure, of course, means that the familiar ritual of going through the war criminal du jour's computer looking for evidence of a connection to... well, to a command structure, is ridiculous. After every attack, the police announce that the attacker was yet another "lone wolf" because they couldn't find a copy of his official orders from a superior officer. Every war starts with a leadership intent on fighting the last war, but then they're supposed to adapt to the new paradigm or make way for those who can. It's been fifteen years now, and there's still no sign of that happening.

Take, for instance, the British Government's official advice on what to do when there's a terrorist attack:

RUN to a place of safety. This is a far better option than to surrender or negotiate. If there’s nowhere to go, then…

HIDE. It’s better to hide than to confront. Remember to turn your phone to silent and turn off vibrate. Barricade yourself in if you can. Then finally and only when it is safe to do so…

TELL the police by calling 999.

ABANDON every one of your fellow human beings to their fate. Remember, it's not as if you even know them.

This is not the optimum way to approach this problem.

Now, at this point, the jeering starts. It is not only the advice of our rulers but also the prevailing fashion to assume that we are all incapable of courage. Ben Carson, for instance, faced worldwide mockery when he claimed that he would fight back:

I would not just stand there and let him shoot me. I would say, ‘Hey, guys, everybody attack him. He may shoot me, but he can’t get us all.’

The derision and vitriol were everywhere at the time. Ladd Everitt's comments were typical:

His suggesting that if he had been there, he could have taken the shooter down through the power of Christ or somehow, it’s just unbelievable. You begin to question this man’s mental health, doing this with a smile on his face and thinking it’s acceptable.

So were Wonkette's:

Ben Carson continues his hilarious winning strategy of telling America that the victims of last week’s massacre were a bunch of pussies, because who in their right mind gets shot? That’s so lame. He has either refused to consider that maybe shitting on victims of a massacre isn’t a particularly smart strategy, or maybe he’s decided that there are more rightwing morons who explain in internet comments how they’d take that shooter down than there are people who are appalled at his comments.

Note the assumption of utter helplessness. What Carson actually said was quite clear: that, if a large number of people rush a gunman, some will be shot and probably die, but not all of them, and those who die will save some lives by doing so. Yet Ladd characterises this as "through the power of Christ or somehow", explicitly calling it "insane", and Wonkette refers to "rightwing morons who explain in internet comments how they’d take that shooter down". The idea that it's actually possible is treated as so absurd that it's not even up for discussion: resisting an armed attacker either relies on a delusional belief in magic or is the empty boasting of blowhards. And this is now the prevailing attitude of our culture.

A couple of generations ago, we had the Little Ships. How have we fallen this far?

Honesty is overrated. One of the greatest social transgressions you can make in modern public life is that of hypocrisy. When we discover that someone — especially a politician, but, increasingly, just anyone — has acted contrary to their professed ideals, we do two things: we ridicule them mercilessly, and we reject their advice. The ridicule is fair enough, especially for public figures. But rejecting their advice, not so much. If a man who preaches that men should be faithful to their wives is discovered to have contracted HIV through his profligate use of prostitutes, being faithful to your wife remains a good idea.

The derisive reaction to Ben Carson — and to anyone who makes similar claims or gives similar advice — is based on attacking his hypocrisy. We think it's bluster, boastfulness, a big-headed fantasy of being an action hero that Carson wouldn't live up to in real life, and so, because we assume he wouldn't really step up, we attack not only him for his perceived hypocrisy but also the advice itself. There are several problems with this.

There's the assumption that he — and everyone else — is incapable of bravery. Some people are brave and do amazing things when they unexpectedly have to, often to their own surprise. Why can't Carson be one of them? Why can't any of us?

There's the fact that Carson's advice is in fact correct. We know this. The passengers of United 93 worked it out while the rest of us were still gawping in horror at the World Trade Center. Four men with Stanley knives cannot overpower forty people — if those forty are willing to risk getting stabbed. The same goes for guns: a handful of men with automatic weapons cannot beat a crowd of hundreds — if those hundreds are willing to risk getting shot. These attacks rely on their victims behaving as selfish individuals and trying to avoid getting hurt. Which is why I despair that our government is telling us to behave as selfish individuals and try to avoid getting hurt.

And there's the belief that someone's claims and their actions are independent. Either Carson is a bona-fide action hero and therefore has the right to talk about fighting back, or he isn't and so he should shut up. There's no consideration given to the idea that his claims might influence his future actions, or the actions of others. But of course they do. Talking about our capabilities changes the way we act. We even have a common everyday expression for this: psyching yourself up.

On 9/11, of all the planes flying across the US that day, what are the chances the jihadis would pick the one full of action heroes? Of course they didn't. The passengers of United 93 were ordinary people who realised what they had to do — and who were willing to risk their lives for others.

What are the chances that Abdel Rahim tried to blow up the one flight that day full of people willing to throw themselves on top of a bomb? Of course he didn't. In the aftermath of 9/11, people were thinking about what they'd do in the event of an attack, and so every flight in the world was full of people willing to throw themselves on top of a bomb. They were merely people who realised what they had to do and who were willing to risk their lives for others.

What are the chances that, of all the carriages on all the trains in France, Ayoub El-Khazzani would pick one that contained not only two American servicemen (bad luck, Ayoub) but also a student, a banker, a businessman, a teacher, and an off-duty train driver who were all willing to take on a man armed with an AK and a knife collection? In fact, to pile coincidence upon coincidence, the banker was the first to tackle El-Khazzani because he happened to be going to the toilet just as El-Khazzani emerged from it to start his attack. Again, what are the chances that the bravest man on the train would happen to have a full bladder at exactly that moment? But of course he wasn't. He was simply a man who realised what he had to do and was willing to risk his life for others.

What are the chances that Mohammed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel would choose to drive a truck down a route containing three separate heroes willing to make like Indiana Jones and jump onto a moving truck and fight the driver? But of course Franck, Alexander Migues, and Gwenael Leriche were ordinary people who, like all of us — especially the French — have been thinking about what they'd do in the event of a terrorist attack. They hadn't trained specifically in how to jump onto moving vehicles; I doubt they had much experience of having guns pointed in their faces. And I'm pretty sure there isn't a road in France that doesn't contain such people: people who are ready to do something heroic not because they're superhuman ex-special-forces professional action heroes who've been training for this moment their entire life, but just because they've been thinking about this sort of thing. They've been psyching themselves up. Franck (a man so humble nobody appears to know his surname) describes himself as "un mec normal. Pas un héros, un citoyen": "a normal bloke. Not a hero, a citizen." He's right. But he's also a fucking hero.

There is nothing our professional security services can do to prevent attacks like the one in Nice. Yes, they can — and do — do a lot of work to track and disrupt anyone trying to get hold of illegal weapons or engaging in the necessary organisation and communication to stage a coordinated group attack, but there's nothing anyone can do to stop one man hiring a truck or buying a kitchen knife. The bastards can strike at any time. And, as the old saying goes, when every second counts, the police are just minutes away. The only people who can be guaranteed always to be there when it matters are the targets: us. When the shit hits the fan, do you want to call the police and wait? Or do you want someone to do something right now? If so, perhaps that someone should be you.

I have no idea what I'd do in the event of a terrorist attack. I like to think I'd try to do something that matters, but I'm certainly not boasting here: I'm entirely open to the suggestion that I'd turn and run. I don't know anything about fighting, I'm not particularly strong, and I don't have the comfort of belief in an afterlife. But I do know this: because I aspire to do something that matters, I am more likely to do it than someone who aspires to turn and run. If we all tell ourselves, and each other, that we are able and willing to fight back, then some of us will. Maybe only a small fraction of us, but that's still tens of thousands of people. If we all tell ourselves, and each other, that we're cowards, none of us are going to be surprised.

We civilians did not choose to be soldiers in a war. I would certainly be a lot happier if our enemies would fight by the old-fashioned rules of warfare established by civilised nation-states and we could therefore leave the actual fighting to the professionals, as our government wants us to. But they don't. We have no choice about this: we are targets. But we do have a choice about what kind of targets we are: the kind that runs away or the kind that fights back. The open source jihad should be met by the open source resistance: millions of people with no chain of command or special training, just the willingness to run towards murderers instead of away from them, and give them a damn good kicking.

We should psych ourselves up.

We need to realise what we have to do and be willing to risk our lives for others.

And our leaders need to realise it too, and stop telling us to run and hide.

Wednesday, June 29

How to complain.

Complaint: "Some bad people have done a horrid thing to some nice people who did not deserve it."

Normal human reaction: "Oh, that is terrible. I sympathise. How can I help?"

Complaint: "Some bad people have done a horrid thing to some nice people who did not deserve it AND IT'S ALL YOUR FUCKING FAULT YOU UTTER UTTER CUNT!"

Normal human reaction: "I realise I no longer care about your problems."

Monday, June 27

The democratic mandate.

During this awful campaign, I've had a lot of arguments with people about the EU's lack of democracy. Many people, it turns out, think that "democracy" means nothing more than "some voting happens". Such people even insist that the EU Commission's members are democratically elected, because they're appointed by people who are chosen by people who were appointed by someone who was picked by a subgroup of an organisation that was elected, or something. "See?" they say. "You can vote for someone, therefore democracy!" This is sad and weird.

The weird thing about it is that the Commission themselves don't even make this claim. I've lost track of the number of arguments I've had with people mounting defences of the EU that are contrary to the EU's own claims. Such as that the Commission is the EU's government and is more powerful than the EU Parliament. The Commission claims to be the EU's government; the EU claims that the Commission is its government; the EU's documents and treaties say that the Commission is the government; the EU Parliament recognises that it is subservient to the Commission; the head of the Commission is even called "the President" (bit of a clue there) — and yet a sizeable chunk of the EU's cheerleaders accuse anyone who points this out of spouting crazy Brexit conspiracy theories. Weird.

And it's sad because it turns out that, with a little veneer of voting, you can easily fool intelligent people into believing democracy is happening.

In light of all the recent bickering, here is my new working definition of democracy. You need ask just one simple question: "If you don't like one of your current rulers, who do you vote for in order to get rid of them?" In an actual democracy, the answer to that question is trivial and obvious. If the answer is convoluted, the democracy is fake.

In the UK, if you don't like the Tory Government, you vote Labour. Or maybe Lib Dem. If you don't like your MP, you vote for one of the other candidates. And there are lots of examples of the process actually working: the Tory loss of '97, the Labour loss of 2010, the routing of the Lib Dems last year, the chucking-out of Peter Robinson (a party leader, no less), the ousting of the odious Neil Hamilton by a journalist with no policies other than "I'm not Neil Hamilton"... hell, we even chucked Winston Churchill out in 1945. Talk about democracy.

In the EU, the answer is... er... hang on while I look this up; it's a bit involved. Er.... OK, so, first, the entire Commission can be sacked by a vote of no confidence from the EU Parliament. This is an obvious anti-sacking mechanism: you get rid of every last one of them or none of them, and how likely is it that a majority of the fractious trans-national EU Parliament will ever want to get rid of all of them? And indeed, in practice, the only way this has ever happened is when the Commission turned out to be actual criminals. (Which, incidentally, was nice.) Short of that, all you need to do is to vote for an MEP who will support a vote of no confidence in the Commission. Oh, and to run an EU-wide campaign to get similar MEPs elected in most other member states. Easy!

Failing that, you can sack an individual Commissioner by... er.... Well, the chain of causality goes like this: you vote for an MP; your MP is on the winning side; your MP's party's leader becomes PM; the PM joins the European Council; the European Council appoints the EU President; and the President can ask a Commissioner to resign, if they would be so kind. Easy!

Anyway, what's interesting about all this is that those same people — the ones who've been telling me how stooooooopid I am for believing that the EU is not democratic — are now supporting Nicola Sturgeon's mendacious claim that Scotland cannot withdraw from the EU without the consent of the Scottish Pairliament. Some campaigners are trying the same trick, even laughablier, with the Northern Irish Assembly.

Look, we told you. Here, yet again, is Tony Benn:

The instrument, I might add, is the Royal Prerogative of treaty making. For the first time since 1649 the Crown makes the laws – advised, I admit, by the Prime Minister.

That's the mechanism whereby we joined this utopia: the Queen's signature, which she places wherever the Prime Minister tells her to. No Act of Parliament required. And that's the mechanism whereby we leave: the Prime Minister wields the power of the Crown by invoking Article 50. Technically, the PM doesn't even need the support of Parliament, though of course any PM trying it just on a whim would be sacked immediately. But a PM with one of the strongest democratic mandates in British history behind him? Yeah, Parliament not required.

And that's Westminster. Scottish Pairliament really really not required.

What's that? It all sounds a bit undemocratic? You think our MPs and MSPs and MLAs should have more say in our governance? What's the point of electing them if they can't control this sort of thing?


Democracy and bastards.

A lot of people are having real trouble understanding this whole democracy thing. Yes, it does involve bastards and racists and wankers and morons voting. And that is a Good Thing. Because it's their country too, so they should have a say. There is only one alternative: first, choose an elite, then have that elite define the group they don't wish to listen to, then ensure that that group have no say — either by outright denying them the vote, or (as the EU did) by designing a system that gives them a vote but ensures that vote has no power. That latter option, seductively tempting though it be, has a huge bloody great downside: it always leads to the disenfranchised group hitting back, hard. Always. And that's what happened this week. You'd think the elitists might learn from experience, but no. History is littered with this error.

I for one am grateful that the hitting back was achieved via a referendum and not a violent insurrection. I'm not confident the same will be the case in all the EU.

Thursday, June 23

The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Donald Trump is awful. Just really staggeringly bad in so so many ways. The sheer enormity of his crapness defies belief.

There are plenty of problems with his personality, his policies, his general Trumpiness — Kevin D Williamson is your go-to man for all that stuff:

Donald Trump is unfit for the office. He is unfit for any office, morally and intellectually. ... Donald Trump is not fit to serve as president. He is not fit to serve on the Meade County board of commissioners. He is not fit to be the mayor of Muleshoe, Texas.

— but we needn't even bother looking at the ins and outs of his profound character flaws. For me, just the face he pulls when someone else is talking is enough. It's as if he's been told that politicians are supposed to look like they're listening respectfully and intelligently while other politicians are talking, didn't quite believe it but his handlers insisted he at least give it a try, so bought an instruction book with illustrations done in crayon by a mule and spent nearly two minutes practising in front of a broken mirror while on drugs. How anyone can vote for a man who pulls that face is beyond me.

Yes, Trump is already a disaster for the Republican Party, a disaster for American Conservatism, a disaster for American politics, and, if elected, he'd be a disaster for America.

But here's the thing. I'm not American.

Some of my friends are, and I sympathise, I really do. But those of us outside the US have got to look at the bigger picture. And I can't help but suspect that Trump might be just what the world needs.

Not because any of his foreign policy "ideas" are any better than the unhinged ramblings of a paranoid crackhead, of course, but because he himself is no better than an unhinged rambling paranoid crackhead.

For better or worse, America is the world's policeman, and bad people have been pushing that policeman around of late. People have been getting the idea that they can fuck the world up and America won't react. In fact, people have come to rely on America not reacting. America has become dangerously predictable.

Now, imagine you're a genocidal bastard who wants to take over the world, or maybe just some of it. Now, imagine Donald Trump has access to nuclear weapons. Would you risk it? Maybe he even proclaimed that he was your staunch ally. But so what? Trump says a lot of things, and there's no evidence he believes any of them. The only thing we can say for sure that he really believes is that he should be in charge because he likes throwing his weight around and showing everyone who's boss.

If I were a genocidal bastard, and Trump were President, I'd keep my head down for a while. Best not risk anything too rash.

Here's to eight years of peace. Ish.