Archive for July, 2005

I’m late! I’m late! For an Aaronovitch watching date!

July 29, 2005

God how did that happen? So excited about “Cohen Watch” that I took my eye off the ball. Sorry folks. Anyway, here tis.

The words “whistling” and “dark” come inexorably to mind throughout the first half of the column. Whether or not it’s appropriate to be scared of bombs, it’s a very personal thing and unlikely to be helped by statistics. Nobody was ever argued out of their fear and running up reams of statistics just raises the “precisely who are you trying to convince here?” question. But this is the introductory toccata familiar to all Aaro cols.

The meat of the col starts again with “The Grievance”, dealt with admirably by RK last week. The Derridean absence of Iraq is absolutely palpable here; in a week when MI5, Chatham House, the Muslims, the police, the Americans and Tony Blair are all saying “have you heard? the Muslims are angry about Iraq!”, Decent Dave feels obliged to pretend that they’re aggrieved about, well, “stuff”.

Also in the “dogs that don’t bark” category is this sentence:

“And why do sensible journalists fail to distinguish between men like the interesting and intelligent Tariq Ramadan on the one hand, and clerical fascists such as Omar Bakri Mohammad and Abu Qatada on the other? ”

Abu Who? I had to look him up. I would bet dirhams to doughnuts[1] that when this sentence was drafted, it contained a reference to Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is not exactly “interesting and intelligent” on the one hand, not exactly innocent of being a “clerical fascist” on the other, but who withal is not an apologist for terror or an expansionist jihadi like OBM and Qatada. I think that Decent was originally prepared to draw a distinction between pro- and anti-terror Muslim extremists but realised that it might put him on the wrong side with a few of the other Decents and stir up animosity in the Decent camp, so we are left without the benefit of Aaro’s thoughts on the most controversial recent invitee to these shores. Party line, Dave, party line.

(for those of our critics who don’t understand why we bother with “Aaronovitch Watch”, this sort of thing is exactly why. If you’re watching Melanie Philips, say, then you can be pretty sure that everything she has to say is right there on the page, and that all of it is crap. It’s precisely because Aaro is a bit better than that, that he’s worth “watching”. In between the more reasonable and sensible bits are little asides and lacunae which pass by the ordinary paying punter, but which a trained Aaronovologist can recognise as the shimmies and shakes of an emerging party line.)

There is also a clear subtext to the assertion that, to coin a snappy phrase of one of the heroes of the Decent Left “There Is No Such Thing As (Muslim) Community”. Again with the combination of part sound common sense (self-appointed “community leaders” are almost always wankers, whether they’re endorsing murders in Israel or inviting you to sign a petition about planning regs) and part sneaky little pawn moves aimed at advancing an agenda. The implication here is that all those people you see on television saying “Muslims are angry about Iraq” have no real idea, so it’s quite probably not true that Muslims are angry about Iraq.

But one wouldn’t want to be too hard on this col. It’s really not bad (god that “new era of mutual respect” I was blithering about while shellshocked is beginning! Bring on Cohen and the Three Minute Hate!). Dave’s ostensible central theme is that we all, including newspaper pundits, know much less than we think and should pass a self-denying ordinance against drawing conclusions from no facts about situations about which we know fuck-all. Yeah, preach it bro. And Dave’s real central theme, which I would argue is underlying almost all the Times columns, and quite possibly those Guardian cols written after the doctor’s visit which prompted the fat camp article, is summed up well in the fourth paragraph from the end.

“The vulnerability, the fallibility”.

Livejournal moment:
Currently listening to:

“The future’s uncertain, the end is always near” – Roadhouse Blues, The Doors

“Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey; I ache in the places where I used to play” – Tower of Song, Leonard Cohen.

Gonna start making a “Sound of Aaronovitch” compilation album.

[1]Depending on the exchange rate; possibly I mean doughnuts to dirhams.


July 26, 2005

I am in the process of fucking about with the template. This might involve a bold new direction, about which I have not informed the rest of the team. Stay tuned, and please be understanding about any design weirdness.

Update: Yes oh yes! See above “Now Incorporating Cohen Watch”! (in somewhat smaller type as Nick Cohen is not in the greater scheme of things as important as Aaronovitch). I think that this blog has had a salutory effect on Aaro since its foundation, however deprived of the calming effect of Decent Dave’s presence, Nasty Nick’s worst instincts have come out. Hence, “watch”. Don’t worry lads this will not involve you in any more work. I have sorted out an (entirely) anonymous contributor for most of the Cohen bits and will do a few myself. Our empire grows and grows.


July 26, 2005

The D-Squared Digest One Minute MBA Part 2: Managing the Risk of Getting Killed

Latest in an occasional series, applying the knowledge I gleaned from my business school education to various important problems of the day. I realise that these MBA posts wind some people up, but like most of the best stuff they teach you at business school, it�s four parts applied economics to three parts common sense. Special note for people who �hate MBAs� � I don�t actually have an MBA as my actual business school qualification was the London Business School�s Masters in Finance program � quite like an MBA but with more of a focus on financial markets and substantially cheaper. Anyway, onward with the basic MBA principles. This time round, I�m producing some general principles for dealing with a terrorist threat. In particular, the question of shooting people on the streets of London.

The optimal frequency of disasters is not zero. This graceful formulation is due to Prof. Richard Portes, who used to say it about emerging market financial crises. However, it�s a fundamental principle of risk management and one of entirely general application. Most dangers can be absolutely eliminated for all practical purposes, but only at unacceptable cost. This is true whether you�re thinking about �inconveniencing� people in the name of security (note here that the word �inconveniencing� is being used in the current newspaper sense as a portmanteau term for having to put up with having your rucksack searched, and allowing the police to detain you without charge for up to three months) or trying to design a rule of engagement for armed police which will avoid their shooting innocent people. If you�re trying to bring the risk down to zero, then you have almost certainly over-engineered. So you should design the system to leave some positive risk. Risk, by the way, is the risk that something very bad will happen; the fact that ex post something very bad did happen is not good evidence that ex ante the risk tradeoff made was the wrong one, nor is it evidence that the tradeoff needs to be changed going forward. Having said that, acceptance of the statistical inevitability of bad events needs to be tempered with another important principle:

By and large, you get the error rate that you are prepared to tolerate. The most usual case where you get taught this one is in photo developing shops, where the rate of defective prints can differ wildly between superficially identical units. The lesson learned was that, although mistakes are inevitable in any process involving people, the way that you deal with mistakes makes a big difference. If you wave it off as �no biggie�, then you will get more and more mistakes, and when it comes time to do something about it, it will be much harder because your employees have become conditioned to having their error rates accepted. On the other hand, if you make a big fuss about every single mistake and constantly work to understand how it was caused, then firstly, your processes will improve over time, and secondly the simple fact of having to file the report will encourage people to concentrate and make fewer mistakes. This is the basis of six-sigma reliability programs.

Application. It is an entirely salutary thing that the British police force has, as a general principle, an inquiry by an outside Force into every single case of death caused by police officers. On the other hand, it is entirely the opposite of salutary for the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police to stand up at a press conference when his force have killed an innocent man and say �this sort of thing is bound to happen again and again�. While this may be true, factually, it is entirely wrong for the man whose job it is to make sure it doesn�t happen again to say so. When a surgeon chops the wrong leg off, you do not expect the hospital to say �well this is bound to happen and there�s nothing anyone can do about it� and the police should not hold themselves to a lower standard.

It is usually incorrect to believe that you are on the efficient frontier. This is a specifically business-school piece of wisdom, and one of the big points of departure between business school types and economists. Economists almost always think about things in terms of tradeoffs; more X means less Y. This is because economists think of things in terms of abstract idealised production functions with substitutable inputs and outputs. If you�re actually teaching people to manage factories, however, then you are thinking about concrete processes (particularly if it is a concrete factory) which are usually about as far from idealised as you can get. Unless your process is at the absolute bleeding edge of what is possible, tradeoffs are not necessarily the correct way to think about making improvements to it. Furthermore, if you have a complicated and non-optimised production process, it is not at all guaranteed that the tradeoff which the frontier implies is there at all; think about someone trying to get a complicated piece of software written who decides to trade off time against cost by adding more programmers to an already late project.

Application. Talking about the �tradeoff� between the number of innocent people we kill versus the number of lives we save by killing guilty people, is probably misplaced. Most of what we want to do at present to save innocent people involves gathering better intelligence. And this would make us less likely, not more, to kill innocent people. Conversely, it is not at all obvious, given our current state of information, that encouraging Met officers to be even quicker on the trigger than they already are, would make us any safer at all. Since we are looking for less than a dozen people in a city of seven million, a simple Bayesian calculation suggests that until the state of intelligence reaches some threshold level, a random selection from the pool of suspicious people is more likely to be innocent than guilty (and even if guilty, is more likely than not to not actually have a bomb on him at the time, reducing the potential benefit even more.

Ambiguous instructions infallibly generate errors. This is a lot of the reason why so much �management-speak� is so pedantic and goes so humourously out of its way to state the obvious. (Scott Adams has made a career out of this). When you�re describing a process, you state the obvious so that everyone knows the same obvious (this principle was copied from the military, who are also keen on stating the obvious), and in order to minimise the number of �exceptions� � cases which do not fit into any of the categories covered by rules. When faced with exceptions, particularly under stress conditions, people often either freeze (failing to put the case into any category, leading to inaction when action is needed) or panic (place the case into an inappropriate category, usually leading to excessive action).

Application. The inquiry will make this clear, but it certainly looks as if the Menezes shooting was an �exception� in this sense for both the police officers and Mr de Menezes. A police officer who is unclear about the rules of engagement could quite understandably decide to err on the side of preventing a suicide bomb. A Brazilian electrician living in a quite dangerous part of London could quite understandably decide that running away from armed men was a good idea if he didn�t know that we had a shoot-to-kill policy. And it is very worrying indeed to me that nobody, including anybody briefing the media at the Met, seems to know when it was that this policy was introduced.

Depending on who you listen to, the new-style �shoot to hope to kill to protect� policy was brought in as part of a top-secret operation in early 2002 as part of �Operation Kratos� by Lord Stevens. Or possibly introduced in 2003. Or possibly in ACPO guidance following the second Stanley inquest. There are also suggestions (can�t find on internet but clearly remember from broadcast news) that the armed officers deployed on regular patrol duty after 7/7 were given a whole new set of instructions. It appears that the UK has had at least three shoot-to-kill policies, above and beyond the standard understanding that guns are for shooting and shooting carries a danger of death. In fact we’ve had so many shoot-to-kill policies that it’s rather surprising the news didn’t leak out to Joe Public. I think any inquiry should very certainly be looking closely at whether, somewhere between Lord Stevens� standing orders, the 2003 terrorism changes and the 2004 ACPO note, there is a single coherent and current set of rules of engagement and whether these rules were communicated effectively to the officers on the ground. If they weren�t, then someone at a desk somewhere is guilty of something that looks to me to be not entirely unlike negligent homicide.

In any case, when one is told at a press conference that �we have had a shoot-to-kill on suspicion policy for the last few years�, the correct response is not �oh really? thanks for keeping us in the loop�. The kind of policy that did for Mr de Menezes is not a small change to the general arrangement of things in the UK. It is the sort of thing that ought to happen in the House of Commons; not necessarily through primary legislation, but at the very least the Home Secretary should have made the announcement and allowed for debate. It is just not good enough to have something like this done through secret administrative order; I would say the same about changes to the planning guidelines for supermarkets and this is more important.

Anticipated events do not change the information set. This is one of the cornerstones of efficient markets theory but again, is of much more general application. If you expect something to happen then the fact that it has, in fact, happened, is not new news to you. Since we had all expected that London was going to be bombed, sooner or later, it is clearly wrong to say that �everything has changed� as a result of the bombing. If it is a good idea now to pass laws against �glorifying terrorism� and to allow the police to hold terrorist subjects for three months without charge (it isn�t) then it was a good idea three weeks ago (it wasn�t). This makes it slightly more heartening that we introduced our shoot-to-kill policy a long time ago, on the basis of proper planning, although I suppose that at least if we�d introduced it in a panic this week we would have known that we were doing it.

And that�s about it. That will be $18,000 please.

Aaro lights a cigarette in No-Man’s Land

July 23, 2005

Oh Aaro. Ohhhhh Aaro. Oh Aaaaaaro Aaaro Aaro. You can’t expect that we’re gonna be merciful about this. More to come.

Update: Actually a rather good and unexceptionable piece (or possibly, I haven’t found the Blair/War angle yet). There is something hilarious about Aaro being sent to a fat farm by Guardian Weekend who were “worried about his health”[1], but to be honest if the guy had a weight problem and decided to do something about it, that’s not really a bad thing and not one that can really be mocked without doing a lot of collateral damage to some fairly harmless and good-natured Americans (I note the appearance of a character called Alfred, however, who “believed every conspiracy theory going” and might have made a few anonymous appearances in subsequent Aaronovitch columns). So what the hey. I do actually believe that Aaronovitch’s weight problem and general midlife issues have a lot to do with his enthusiasm for the “don’t just stand there, Do Something” Blair project and we will return to this theme in future, but the GW article ain’t a bad one and Aaronovitch is probably correct in what he says.

[1]And then when he lost weight, he fucked off to the Times. Tsk, they must have been vexed.
[2]Full disclosure; Bruschetta Boy #1 is 6’1″ tall (same as Aaro) and weighs 210 pounds (two stone less than Aaro, but still a bit too much. It’s all muscle I tell you).


July 21, 2005

I’m not going to try to top the Rioja Kid’s assessment of the last Aaaro[1] col – all I have in my notes is that “The Grievance” isn’t a generalised teenager’s pout, it has a specific Aarabic[2] name which translates as “The War On Islam Being Fought By The Unfaithful” and since Aaronovitch is actually one of the most prominent media voices trying to claim that there is such a war and there ought to be more of it, I for one would appreciate it if he would stop trying to play the old school game of lets-you-and-him-fight.

Anyway, this post is really to put up a link to Melanie Phillips Watch. Trends usually take a couple of years to cross the Atlantic, but I think the “Watcher” craze could take off in the UK. Ms Phillips provides more in the way of unintentional comedy than Aaro so I suspect that MPW will be more popular than us in a short space of time but what the hey. If anyone fancies setting up “Nick Cohen Watch” they can count on a plug here btw, but I would suggest that anyone who does so would need to be a Londoner as Cohen’s really bad material is in his column for the Standard which isn’t on the Web.

[1]No it’s not a misspelling; I’m trying to suggest that he changes his name so that he appears in the Directory of English Pundits ahead of Aaron Aardvark.
[2]Fair enough, that one was a typo. I’ve got Aaro on the brain.

Update: Big up to Aaronovitch Watch Watch too (I told you this trend was spreading like wildfire). In all honesty, Decent Dave is not the worst columnist in the world by a long way. But that’s why he matters; few genuine loonies do. And anyway, he started it. You diss our bruschetta, you’re dissing us.


July 21, 2005

London Pride, part 2

Ahh Noel Coward stiff upper lip blub blub

London Pride dah de dah dum dum something something
London Pride dah de dee dah dee
ummm something something knees up Mother Brown
Stick it in yer family album!

Gosh there really isn’t much strength on the bench for these suicide bombers is there? I suppose that cockups like this are what you have to expect when you’re relying on Yorkshiremen to provide the “brains” of the operation. Truly today we are all from the general area of London. Spare a thought for our expat community too; somehow I doubt that there will be many sympathy shags going today from passing teary-eyed Americans.

He seethes, he fumes

July 20, 2005

While certain people seem to have been pissing themselves with glee since July 7, it has to be said that Dave hasn’t been up in the vanguard. Perhaps he’s got an old tankie’s suspicion of unauthorised enthusiasm.

Instead, he’s been doing a bit of pundit shoplifting. This week’s theme – that the cause of the bombing isn’t in mere events but in a pathological sense of grievance nurtured by Muslims – looks like a straight lift from a Howard Jacobson column in the Independent a few months back. More generally it’s evidence for the proposition that people who can’t handle the facts prefer to take refuge in amateur psychoanalysis, especially when they’re nursing a grievance. And so:

I blame the ideology and the psychology of Grievance — the pleasurable, destructive business of imagining that “they” are being bad to “you”, and of therefore calculating every event on that basis. We call it “nursing” a grudge for a reason. We take this aspect of existence and add to it, almost lovingly.

Now let’s assume that this strange condition does indeed arise in the Muslim mind irrespective of actual events here and in the Middle East or South Asia. These Muslims – a bit twitchy aren’t they. It’s best not to draw attention to anything that might heighten their pathological sense of grievance. If you do, then it follows that you share responsibility for anything nasty that follows once the little brown people get all overexcited.

Yes, once again, it’s Iraq, Aaro’s own pet grievance. He just can’t leave it alone. His response to carnage is to search for a way to discredit opponents of his own position on that issue and to imply that they have some indirect responsibility for terrorism. This is the meaning he puts to an atrocity. It’s a means to embarrass those who disagree with him into shutting up.

It simply is not an accident — in psychological terms — that anything that conflicts with the Grievance is discounted, and anything that contributes to it is emphasised.

True, Aaro, true…

The Rioja Kid

All Aaro, all the time

July 15, 2005

In the interests of nerdy Aaronovitch completeness, this from the Press Gazette

News editor Robert Wellman said: “First of all we concentrated on getting our reporting staff in the right place, then we started thinking about our specialist writers and getting them going on various aspects of it all.

“We had about 15 people out and a fair few in the office working on it.

People from other departments helped so we had Suzy Jagger from the business desk who was close to one of the stations and did some good work for us there.

“Once the enormity of the situation was clear experience kicks in and you make sure you have got the right people in the right places. We also made sure that our good writers, such as Matthew Paris, David Aaronovitch and Robert Crampton, were out there in the thick of it.”

Minor factual; Aaro was not actually out in the thick of it, he wrote a piece about how the news drifted out to the suburbs.

While we’re on about it, I found the Google ads selected to appear alongside Action Man’s “Liberal Optimism Can Change The World” column hilarious. Google clearly has Aaro taped.

it’s not exactly “Ooh look! A polevaulter!” but it’s close

action Aaro

July 13, 2005

I think my colleague has dealt more than sufficiently with the main theme of “Action Aaro’s” latest contribution to our general understanding of events. However, I do detect a retreat from the high tide of pro war liberalism where it was axiomatic that what we did in Afghanistan and Iraq was necessary, effective and morally mandated. Now it’s just good because we do things.

I think it unlikely that Dave hasn’t heard here of the proposed partial withdrawal of troops from Iraq by the US, the UK and the Italians, announced shortly after last week’s bombings. Whatever we’re doing in Iraq, we’re going to be doing a good deal less of it come next year. And while it’s still debateable whether what we did inspired the terrorists to do what they did last week, it’s pretty clear that what we’ve done in the name of opposing them hasn’t done anything to stop them doing things. Never mind. In Dave’s world whatever we do we have to keep on doing things, presumably because if we didn’t the only things that would get done would be done by terrorists. It’s a doing things competition, and we will win because we do nicer things, in a spirit of liberal optimism. Oooh, look! A pole vaulter.

– the Rioja Kid


July 13, 2005

Conspiranoia time

A brief service to my mates in the conspiracy-theory community. I’ve noticed that many of you are rather better at picking holes in “The Official Version Of Things” than coming up with plausible alternatives. Hence, if you want to play around with theories about the London bombings, here’s the “Beau Geste”, “Lone Bomber” theory, worked out here, also here and here, here, each with enough participation from me to be on-topic for this blog. As far as I can tell, the only version consistent with the facts (or at least the official version of the facts, scary music) is Matthew Turner’s final variant, which has the King’s Cross bomb being thrown onto a train which the bomber did not himself get on.

What’s lacking here, however, is any particular reason to disbelieve the OVOT. I personally believe that 10lb of explosive per bomber is a crap capital to labour ratio and that suicide bombers with timers doesn’t make much sense, but I have not had much luck convincing others of this and they are probably right. There you go. Another potential lesson to my conspiracy mates is that despite the fact that I have put a lot of effort into this theory, I am letting it go because it is not productive of anything.