Thursday, December 30, 2010

WTF (Serious)

The CIA has launched a taskforce to assess the impact of 250,000 leaked US diplomatic cables. Its name? WikiLeaks Task Force, or WTF for short.

The group will scour the released documents to survey damage caused by the disclosures. One of the most embarrassing revelations was that the US state department had drawn up a list of information it would like on key UN figures – it later emerged the CIA had asked for the information.

"Officially, the panel is called the WikiLeaks Task Force. But at CIA headquarters, it's mainly known by its all-too-apt acronym: WTF," the Washington Post reported.

WTF is more commonly associated with the Facebook and Twitter profiles of teenagers than secret agency committees. Given that its expanded version is usually an expression of extreme disbelief, perhaps the term is apt for the CIA's investigation.

Earlier this month the Guardian revealed that the CIA was responsible for drafting the data "wishlist" that the US state department wanted on UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and other senior members of the organisation. The Washington Post said the panel was being led by the CIA's counterintelligence centre, although it has drawn in two dozen members from departments across the agency.

Although the CIA has featured in some WikiLeaks disclosures, relatively little of its own information has entered the ether, the paper reported. A recently retired former high-ranking CIA official told the Post this was because the agency "has not capitulated to this business of making everything available to outsiders.

"They don't even make everything available to insiders. And by and large the system has worked," he said.

While most of the agency's correspondence is understood to be classified at the same "secret" level as the leaked cables that ended up online, it is understood the CIA uses systems different from those of other government agencies.

Acronyms sometimes suck

Acronyms. Pithy and useful when you get them right, embarrassing and memorable when you fail to spot the pun.

Long before the internet revived the TLA (three-letter acronym), there was MAD, one of the more appropriate constructions, which stood for mutually assured destruction, the doctrine under which everyone dies if nuclear devices were deployed.

Change one letter, and you get BAD, or British Association of Dermatologists – as in: "I'd love a BAD practitioner to look at my skin."

Unfortunately the spoilsports at BAD usually put "the" before the acronym on the association's website, although there are a couple of slips: "To find out how to write BAD clinical guidelines, please click here," being one of them.

Many other good examples are given on the Unfortunate Acronyms website, also known as ASS – Acronyms Sometimes Suck.

Another in the field of medicine is DOH, the website of the Washington state department of health ( Hardly encouraging for those planning a visit, given its connotations with the general incompetence personified by Homer in the Simpsons.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority doesn't shy away from using its abbreviated form.

Almost unbelievably, there is a Breakthrough Urban Ministries operating two homeless shelters in Chicago. Unsurprisingly, the organisation does not use its acronym when promoting its services, preferring to shorten the name to Breakthrough.

The Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme is often described as one of the last attempts at colonisation by the British empire.

The plan was to reduce overpopulation on the Gilbert islands in the South Pacific by moving numbers of people to the neighbouring Phoenix islands.

The outbreak of the second world war hampered the move, and only one of the eight islands is now believed to be inhabited – and the islands are threatened by rising sea levels.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Picture Of The D@y

Friday, December 10, 2010


Wednesday, December 08, 2010

30 Years Today...

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

To Kill The Messenger

'Never waste a good crisis" used to be the catchphrase of the Obama team in the runup to the presidential election. In that spirit, let us see what we can learn from official reactions to the WikiLeaks revelations.

The most obvious lesson is that it represents the first really sustained confrontation between the established order and the culture of the internet. There have been skirmishes before, but this is the real thing.

And as the backlash unfolds – first with deniable attacks on internet service providers hosting WikiLeaks, later with companies like Amazon and eBay and PayPal suddenly "discovering" that their terms and conditions preclude them from offering services to WikiLeaks, and then with the US government attempting to intimidate Columbia students posting updates about WikiLeaks on Facebook – the intolerance of the old order is emerging from the rosy mist in which it has hitherto been obscured. The response has been vicious, co-ordinated and potentially comprehensive, and it contains hard lessons for everyone who cares about democracy and about the future of the net.

There is a delicious irony in the fact that it is now the so-called liberal democracies that are clamouring to shut WikiLeaks down.

Consider, for instance, how the views of the US administration have changed in just a year. On 21 January, secretary of state Hillary Clinton made a landmark speech about internet freedom, in Washington DC, which many people welcomed and most interpreted as a rebuke to China for its alleged cyberattack on Google. "Information has never been so free," declared Clinton. "Even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable."

She went on to relate how, during his visit to China in November 2009, Barack Obama had "defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens to hold their governments accountable, generates new ideas, and encourages creativity." Given what we now know, that Clinton speech reads like a satirical masterpiece.

One thing that might explain the official hysteria about the revelations is the way they expose how political elites in western democracies have been deceiving their electorates.

The leaks make it abundantly clear not just that the US-Anglo-European adventure in Afghanistan is doomed but, more important, that the American, British and other Nato governments privately admit that too.

The problem is that they cannot face their electorates – who also happen to be the taxpayers funding this folly – and tell them this. The leaked dispatches from the US ambassador to Afghanistan provide vivid confirmation that the Karzai regime is as corrupt and incompetent as the South Vietnamese regime in Saigon was when the US was propping it up in the 1970s. And they also make it clear that the US is as much a captive of that regime as it was in Vietnam.

The WikiLeaks revelations expose the extent to which the US and its allies see no real prospect of turning Afghanistan into a viable state, let alone a functioning democracy. They show that there is no light at the end of this tunnel. But the political establishments in Washington, London and Brussels cannot bring themselves to admit this.

Afghanistan is, in that sense, a quagmire in the same way that Vietnam was. The only differences are that the war is now being fought by non-conscripted troops and we are not carpet-bombing civilians.

The attack of WikiLeaks also ought to be a wake-up call for anyone who has rosy fantasies about whose side cloud computing providers are on. These are firms like Google, Flickr, Facebook, Myspace and Amazon which host your blog or store your data on their servers somewhere on the internet, or which enable you to rent "virtual" computers – again located somewhere on the net. The terms and conditions under which they provide both "free" and paid-for services will always give them grounds for dropping your content if they deem it in their interests to do so. The moral is that you should not put your faith in cloud computing – one day it will rain on your parade.

Look at the case of Amazon, which dropped WikiLeaks from its Elastic Compute Cloud the moment the going got rough. It seems that Joe Lieberman, a US senator who suffers from a terminal case of hubris, harassed the company over the matter. Later Lieberman declared grandly that he would be "asking Amazon about the extent of its relationship with WikiLeaks and what it and other web service providers will do in the future to ensure that their services are not used to distribute stolen, classified information". This led the New Yorker's Amy Davidson to ask whether "Lieberman feels that he, or any senator, can call in the company running the New Yorker's printing presses when we are preparing a story that includes leaked classified material, and tell it to stop us".

What WikiLeaks is really exposing is the extent to which the western democratic system has been hollowed out. In the last decade its political elites have been shown to be incompetent (Ireland, the US and UK in not regulating banks); corrupt (all governments in relation to the arms trade); or recklessly militaristic (the US and UK in Iraq). And yet nowhere have they been called to account in any effective way. Instead they have obfuscated, lied or blustered their way through. And when, finally, the veil of secrecy is lifted, their reflex reaction is to kill the messenger.

As Simon Jenkins put it recently in the Guardian, "Disclosure is messy and tests moral and legal boundaries. It is often irresponsible and usually embarrassing. But it is all that is left when regulation does nothing, politicians are cowed, lawyers fall silent and audit is polluted. Accountability can only default to disclosure." What we are hearing from the enraged officialdom of our democracies is mostly the petulant screaming of emperors whose clothes have been shredded by the net.

Which brings us back to the larger significance of this controversy. The political elites of western democracies have discovered that the internet can be a thorn not just in the side of authoritarian regimes, but in their sides too. It has been comical watching them and their agencies stomp about the net like maddened, half-blind giants trying to whack a mole. It has been deeply worrying to watch terrified internet companies – with the exception of Twitter, so far – bending to their will.

But politicians now face an agonising dilemma. The old, mole-whacking approach won't work. WikiLeaks does not depend only on web technology. Thousands of copies of those secret cables – and probably of much else besides – are out there, distributed by peer-to-peer technologies like BitTorrent. Our rulers have a choice to make: either they learn to live in a WikiLeakable world, with all that implies in terms of their future behaviour; or they shut down the internet. Over to them.

by John Naughton

White Xmas at Oxbridge

A bleak portrait of racial and social exclusion at Oxford and Cambridge has been shown in official data which shows that more than 20 Oxbridge colleges made no offers to black candidates for undergraduate courses last year and one Oxford college has not admitted a single black student in five years.

The university's admissions data confirms that only one black Briton of Caribbean descent was accepted for undergraduate study at Oxford last year.

Figures revealed in requests made under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act by the Labour MP David Lammy also show that Oxford's social profile is 89% upper- and middle-class, while 87.6% of the Cambridge student body is drawn from the top three socioeconomic groups. The average for British universities is 64.5%, according to the admissions body Ucas.

The FoI data also shows that of more than 1,500 academic and lab staff at Cambridge, none are black. Thirty-four are of British Asian origin.

One Oxford college, Merton, has admitted no black students in five years – and just three in the last decade. Eleven Oxford colleges and 10 Cambridge colleges made no offers to black students for the academic year beginning autumn 2009.

Oxford's breakdown of its latest undergraduate admissions figures, published on its website, shows that just one black Caribbean student was accepted in 2009, out of 35 applications.

A total of 77 students of Indian descent were accepted, out of 466 applications. Six black Caribbean undergraduates were accepted at Cambridge the same year.

In advance of a crucial Commons vote on Thursday, ministers have said universities that want to charge students up to £9,000 a year in fees will face fresh targets on widening access to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. Oxford and Cambridge, which are expected to charge the maximum fee, say they are keen to recruit the brightest students from all backgrounds. Both have programmes to encourage applications from state school students, and those from black and working-class backgrounds.

But the FoI data shows white students were more likely to be successful than black applicants at every Cambridge college except St Catharine's, where black candidates have had a 38% success rate, compared with 30% for white students.

The starkest divide in Cambridge was at Newnham, an all-women's college, where black applicants had a 13% success rate compared with 67% for white students. The data for Oxford tells a similar story: at Jesus college white candidates were three and a half times more successful than black candidates over an 11-year period. Oxford says the figures are too low for the variation between colleges to be statistically significant.

The most selective universities argue that poor attainment at school level narrows the pool from which candidates can be drawn. But black candidates are more likely to apply to elite universities.

In 2009, more than 29,000 white students got three As or better at A-level (excluding general studies) and about 28.4% applied to Oxford; while 452 black students got three As or better, and nearly half applied to Oxford. A spokeswoman for Oxford said: "Black students apply disproportionately for the most oversubscribed subjects, contributing to a lower than average success rate for the group as a whole: 44% of all black applicants apply for Oxford's three most oversubscribed subjects, compared with just 17% of all white applicants. That means nearly half of black applicants are applying for the same three subjects … the three toughest subjects to get places in. Those subjects are economics and management, medicine, and maths.with 7% of white applicants. This goes a very long way towards explaining the group's overall lower success rate."

The FoI figures show large parts of the country never send students to the most prestigious universities. No one from Knowsley, Sandwell and Merthyr Tydfil has got to Cambridge in seven years. In the last five years, pupils from Richmond upon Thames have received almost the same number of offers from Oxford as the whole of Scotland.

Rob Berkeley, director of the Runnymede Trust, a thinktank that promotes racial equality, said: "If we go for this elite system of higher education … we have got to make sure what they are doing is fair. If you look at how many people on both frontbenches are Oxbridge-educated, Oxford and Cambridge are still the major route to positions of influence. If that's the case we shouldn't be restricting these opportunities to people from minority backgrounds."

Black students do not lack aspiration, but the opportunity to get into the most prestigious universities, Berkeley argued. "Of the black Caribbean students getting straight As at A-level, the vast majority apply to Oxbridge.... those who do choose to apply have a much lower success rate [than white applicants]. One in five in comparison with one in three for white students. That doesn't seem to have shifted for the last 15 years." A boom in university participation in recent years has led to a more diverse student body, but black students are concentrated in a handful of institutions. In 2007-08 the University of East London had half as many black students as the entire Russell group of 20 universities, which include Oxford and Cambridge.

Matthew Benjamin, 28, who studied geography at Jesus College, Oxford, said: "I was very aware that I was the only black student in my year at my college. I was never made to feel out of place, but it was certainly something I was conscious of.

"When I arrived and they wanted to do a prospectus, and have some students on the cover, they chose me, and one other Asian guy and another guy from Thailand. It was clear they wanted to project this image of somewhere that was quite diverse. The reality was very different – there were three [minority] ethnic students in a year.

"On open days, some black kids would see me and say 'you're the only black person we've seen here – is it even worth us applying?'"

A spokesman for Cambridge said 15% of students accepted last year were from minority ethnic backgrounds. "Over the five years to 2009 entry black students accounted for 1.5% of admissions to Cambridge, compared with 1.2% of degree applicants nationally who secure AAA at A-level. Colleges make offers to the best and brightest students regardless of their background, and where variations exist this is due to supply of applications and demand by subject."

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Wiki Witch-Hunt

There have been various suggestions as to what to do to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, after a week in which his revelations have severely embarrassed US diplomacy. Tom Flanagan, a former aide to the Canadian prime minister, called for his assassination, and then regretted his glib remark. Mike Huckabee said that those found guilty of leaking the cables should be executed for putting national security at risk. You would expect a future Republican presidential candidate to say that. But a Democrat administration is close behind. A team from the justice department and the Pentagon are exploring whether to charge Mr Assange under the Espionage Act. The US attorney general, Eric Holder, has said this is not sabre-rattling. Are they all about to turn into minions of which Richard Nixon would have been proud?

More insidious than that was the complacent yawn emanating from from sections of the liberal commentariat for which freedom of information is a given. So what's new about the Gulf Arab Sunnis wanting America or Israel to bomb Iran, or Colonel Gaddafi's taste for blonde Ukrainian nurses, or Nicolas Sarkozy being described as mercurial and authoritarian, they sneer. Maybe for them, nothing is new. Would that we all could be so wise. But for large areas of the world which do not have the luxury of being able to criticise their governments, the revelations about the private thoughts of their own leaders are important.

The yawners from Primrose Hill or inside the Beltway forget that when WikiLeaks exposed high-level corruption in Kenya, toxic waste in Africa and all manner of nefarious deeds in the former Soviet bloc, they applauded it. They hailed the whistleblowers as brave democrats. But when the alleged leaker comes from within their own ranks – in this case a 23-year-old US military intelligence analyst, Bradley Manning, who now faces 52 years in prison – then it is a different matter: it is treason, a threat to national security. Close WikiLeaks down, run it off the internet, the cry goes up. All it takes is one call from Joe Lieberman, the chairman of the Senate committee on homeland security, and internet hosting providers buckle at the knees. Yesterday the French joined in. Viewed from China, which has been lectured for censoring the internet, this reaction must seem … very Chinese. Let's face it. In these cold December days, there is nothing more warming than a witch-hunt.

The cables are more than just embarrassing. They reveal the gap that has opened in some parts of the world, like Yemen, between Hillary Clinton's stated aims to fight terrorism and spread democracy around the world, and the means her country uses to do this. In Yemen's case, US air strikes against al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula in December 2009 killed dozens of civilians along with wanted jihadis. The means to the end involves dealing with Yemen's "bizarre and petulant" president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who told General David Petraeus, then head of US Central Command, that he and his ministers would continue to lie to their country that American bombs were theirs. If anything will turn Yemen into a facsimile of the tribal belt in Pakistan, this will. Saleh has warned that his country is on the brink of becoming Somalia.

There are no easy ways of combating an organisation which recruited Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who tried to blow up a Dutch passenger plane over Detroit. But each time Tomahawks are used to swat a fly, they stir up a hornet's nest. Each time the US goes to the aid of a weak state, it somehow manages to weaken it further. And each time it listens to the likes of President Saleh, it gets it wrong. If US diplomats come out of the WikiLeaks saga in good shape, some of the policies they help form do not. And no one should be yawning about that.

The Guardian edito

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Pic Of The Day

Irvin Kershner (RIP)

First Snow Of The Season!

Africa in Black...

A 72-year-old Ghanaian woman has been burned to death on suspicion of being a witch, prompting condemnation from the country's human rights groups.

Ama Hemmah was allegedly tortured into confessing she was a witch, doused in kerosene and set alight. She suffered horrific burns and died the following day.

Belief in witchcraft is relatively common in Ghana but there was widespread revulsion at the killing.

Hemmah, from Tema, was allegedly attacked by a group of five people, one of whom is an evangelical pastor, Ghana's Daily Graphic reported.

Three women and two men have been arrested. They are Nancy Nana Ama Akrofie, 46, photographer Samuel Ghunney, 50, Emelia Opoku, 37, Mary Sagoe, 52, and pastor Samuel Fletcher Sagoe, 55.

The suspects say the death was an accident and deny committing any crime. They claim they were trying to exorcise an evil spirit from the woman by rubbing anointing oil on her but it accidentally caught fire.

Augustine Gyening, assistant police commissioner, told the Daily Graphic that Sagoe saw Hemmah sitting in his sister's bedroom on 20 November and raised an alarm, attracting the attention of people in the neighbourhood.

Gyening added that the suspects claimed Hemmah was a known witch and subjected her to severe torture, compelling her to confess. He said Ghunney then asked Opoku for a gallon of kerosene and with the help of his accomplices poured it over the victim and set her ablaze.

A student nurse, Deborah Pearl Adumoah, came to Hemmah's rescue and sent her to Tema General hospital, but she died within 24 hours from severe burns.

Hemmah's son, Stephen Yeboah, 48, told the Daily Graphic: "Our mother was never a witch and had never suffered any mental disorder throughout her life, apart from exhibiting signs of forgetfulness and other symptoms of old age."

Newspaper pictures showing the woman's injuries have caused anger in Ghana. The incident has been condemned by human rights and women's activists.

Comfort Akosua Edu, of the country's Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice, said: "The commission finds the action of the perpetrators of this atrocious crime as very barbaric and one that greatly dims the nation's human rights record.

"That they came and met her in their room does not in any way warrant branding her as a notorious witch who deserved to be subjected to such an ordeal."

She added: "It is very disheartening that some men of God, whose responsibility it is to help save lives, could orchestrate the killing of innocent souls, all in the name of God."

... And White

An award-winning writer has provoked fierce debate in South Africa after candidly saying that she does not like black people.

Annelie Botes, a leading Afrikaner novelist, said she would invite a white, coloured (mixed race) or an Indian man in for a drink, but would "feel threatened by a black man".

The comments, quoted in South African newspapers, have caused a storm in a country still sensitive about race relations 16 years after the end of apartheid. Botes claims she has received 1,000 supportive emails but there was also widespread condemnation of her views.

The row began when Rapport, an Afrikaans paper, asked her to name people she does not like. Her reply: "Black people." Soon after, she was sacked as a columnist for another newspaper.

Then South Africa's Mail & Guardian contacted the author, whom it says is probably the most popular contemporary female writer in Afrikaans, the language of the descendents of Dutch and other European settler farmers. Botes recently won the Afrikaans category of the K Sello Duiker Memorial Literary award for her novel, Thula-thula, which tackles child abuse and incest.

The 53-year-old stood by her original comments. "I'm scared," she told the paper. "In my daily life there's no one else that I feel threatened by except black people. If a courier comes to my door and he's white, coloured or Indian, I'd have no problem inviting him in for a glass of water. But I would feel threatened by a black man."

She added that two years ago her laptop, containing a manuscript, was stolen while she was asleep and a neighbour was murdered. "You tell me what the face of crime is in South Africa. If you hear the window shatter and confront the perpetrator, who do you expect that crook to be?"

Asked about challenging racial stereotypes, she replied: "I don't have the means to get my head around that of a black man. I can't understand that.

"As a writer, I write what I see, what I experience and put it into context. It isn't my job to be politically correct."

Botes also said she would never appoint a black gardener. She is planning to emigrate to Britain, where her children already live, as soon her husband goes on a pension.

She added: "Here in Port Elizabeth, I wouldn't go to a deserted beach alone. It's simply too dangerous. The English villages where my kids live don't even have streetlights and I would walk there in the middle of the night without fear."Her interview triggered dozens of comments on the Mail & Guardian's website, including one claiming to be one from Botes herself.

The article had chosen to "emphasise the negative", she wrote, and contained "nothing about my anger regarding the government closing down thousands of farm schools in remote areas and thus depriving black children from an education.

"Nothing about how I as scribe of a village church stood up against the white elders because they treated the church cleaner like scum, and how I lost my job because of my persistent view. Nothing about how I admitted that whites committed unthinkable monstrosities against blacks under the old regime. Or about my acknowledgement that the old government were thieves too. Or how we as whites tend to humiliate "incompetent" blacks at cash points. Or about me having no problem sharing my table and toilet with a black person."

But there was criticism from other readers. Fungayi Dzvinyangoma posted: "Someone needs to tell this bigoted woman that there are a lot of black people in England. However, if you get burgled in Britain the face is most likely to be white. She seems to forget the history of South Africa so quickly which could explain why the blacks have to resort to criminality. She benefited from state criminality for decades."

There was support for Botes, however, from a user called George S. "I think the lady should be applauded for her courage in speaking out instead of being vilified. Perhaps she only expresses fears that many whites harbour. Perhaps she generalised this issue but then I say these things work both ways."

Despite Nelson Mandela's efforts at reconciliation, racial tensions in South Africa surfaced earlier this year when white supremacist Eugene Terre'Blanche was hacked to death in his bed, allegedly by black workers on his farm. But the majority of crime victims are poor and black. Last week Brandon Huntley, a South African who argued that whites are targeted by black criminals, lost his refugee status in Canada and now faces a new hearing.

Marga Collings, a manager at Botes's publisher NB, said today: "We believe that all our authors are entitled to their own views.

"In this case, the publisher does not share the author's view."

Botes herself declined to give further interviews. "I regret to say: No further comments," she wrote in an email to the Guardian.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

Pictures Of The Day

Eric Cantona & The Crisis

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Lucy Garatea (RIP)

Otis Redding

World Music - Rupert

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Poem, A Present


It seems we’ve left skin
in each other’s lungs. I should have

looked under your bed skirt
for my wallet, but how

could credit cards compare
to the sneeze after we’ve parted?

Gone and still you make me
reach for a tissue—still my palms

turn circles in the red
breakwater of your heartbeat.

I want to tell you, I have nothing
but respect for your ribcage

now that we both know
it’s not big enough to hold us.

by Michael Meyerhofer

Monday, November 15, 2010

15th Nov - DOIW

Day Of The Imprisoned Writer

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

23 Things About Capitalism (An Index)

I bought this book today, just by chance.

The title wasn´t very attractive at the first glace to be honest, I don´t like much all this lit re conspiracy theories and so. But then, having a look, the content seems to be meaty - and an Uni Prof from Cambridge should know a thing or two about those things.

So have a look at the Index, I think it´s quite significant:

1. There is no such thing as a free market.
2. Companies should not be run in the interest of their owners.
3. Most people in rich countries are paid more than they should be.
4. The washing machine has changed the world more than the internet has.
5. Assume the worst about people and you get the worst.
6. Greater macroeconomics stability has not made the world economy more stable.
7. Free-market policies rarely make poor countries rich.
8. Capital has a nationality.
9. Wed do not live in a post-industrial age.
10. The US does not have the highest living standard in the world.
11. Africa is not destined for underdevelopment.
12. Governments can pick winners.
13. Making rich people richer does not make the rest of us richer.
14. US managers are over-priced.
15. People in poor countries are more entrepreneurial than people in rich countries.
16. We are not smart enough to leave things to the market.
17. More education in itself is not going to make a country richer.
18. What is good for General Motors is not necessarily good for the United States.
19. Despite the fall of communism, we are still living in planned economies.
20. Equality of opportunity may not be fair.
21. Big government makes people more open to change.
22. Financial markets need to become less, not more, efficient.
23. Good economic policy does not require good economists.

Title: 23 Things They Don´t Tell You About Capitalism.
Author: Ha-Joon Chang.
Pages: 286

Books I am Reading Now...

Torture & Black Ops

Friday, November 05, 2010

Pretty Good...

Andy Irons (RIP)

Bye Bye or Buy Buy?

Six months ago I proposed in the Guardian that if Britain was short of money it should cut defence. I did not mean reduce defence, or trim defence. I meant cut it altogether. We are desperately short of money and absolutely no one is threatening to attack us now or in the foreseeable, indeed conceivable, future. Besides, as we have seen this past week, other ways of ensuring security make more pressing claims on us. We just do not need an army, navy or air force. So why are we paying £45bn for them?

I am not a pacifist. I accept the need to fight to protect my home, hearth and nation and, in extremis, to uphold some concept of global civilisation against an all-consuming tyrant. I grew up accepting the danger of a nuclear war exchange as real; I was never a member of CND. Nonetheless, it stands to reason that all public expenditure must justify its claim on the taxpayer, especially one such as defence that is essentially precautionary. Defence is an insurance premium, a massive one. But it cannot merely be asserted as necessary, and left to professionals to fix the premium.

Thirteen years ago, I had my defence epiphany on the lay committee for Labour's first and only strategic defence review in 1997. This was under George Robertson. I vividly remember our first meeting when we were given our terms of reference. Such was the radical mood of those euphoric early Blair days that were told to think the unthinkable and discuss everything, no holds barred.

This lasted about five minutes. It turned out we could not discuss the nuclear deterrent; we could not question the Trident programme and its submarines; we could not discuss the Eurofighter contract; nor could we discuss the need for two or perhaps three new aircraft carriers. I remember the smug look on the faces of service chiefs in the room. Our excluded items had nothing really to do with Britain's defence. They were political. Robertson and his colleagues were under instructions not to give an inch to the Tories on defence procurement, lest they be seen as soft on defence. We could think the unthinkable – but not the thinkable.

Only later did I realise that review laid the groundwork for a decade of indiscipline and budgetary chaos. Nothing was related to strategy, let alone foreign policy. Each service ordered what its favourite supplier made, and then kept redesigning it. Some hapless future government would pay, even if it was no longer needed. I was intrigued this year to see the MoD ask that the cost of Trident be shifted from the defence budget to the Treasury on the grounds that the deterrent had nothing to do with defence. The outcome is what David Cameron has called a car crash of a defence budget.

Anyone who takes taxes from others should be obliged to say why. In the case of most public spending, the answer is easy. It is to buy a school, hospital, road, care home or welfare benefit. In the realm of overall security I am glad money is spent on the police and the intelligence services. I accept the need for some monitoring of borders and airspace and coastline. I also accept the need for some territorial reserve, for instance to assist in civil emergencies and in UN operations.

Some taxes are an insurance against future risk, such as being ill or having a sick relative. But they are usually subject to some actuarial assessment of the risk. Defence spending is insurance of a different order. We make no actuarial calculation of the risk of British citizens dying in a military attack or of British property being destroyed. Yet we are required to part with a premium of £45bn a year to prevent it. Why?

Two weeks ago the coalition government bravely tried to answer this question. It published a list of threats to Britain's security in what I must say is one of the most bizarre documents to emerge from the ectoplasm of the MoD. It was a paranoid's manifesto, a Matrix movie horror. Admittedly, the authors had a tough job. There is no Wehrmacht hovering across the Channel, no Napoleonic Grande Armée massing at Calais and no megaton missile with itchy communist fingers pointing at Britain. So how on earth were they to justify £45bn? They decided, in their tidy way, to group various so-called threats into three tiers of seriousness.

The first tier contains four threats, like a Russian doll. Number one, presumably the greatest, is "attacks on British cyberspace by states and cyber-criminals". The second is international terrorism. The third is a "military crisis" between other states, one that "draws in" Britain. The last is "a major accident or natural hazard that requires a national response," such as coastal flooding or flu.

The second tier of threats comprise "an attack from another state using chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons". Next come "instability, insurgency or civil war overseas," that affect us by somehow "creating an environment that terrorists can exploit to threaten Britain". In other words terrorism again. Next is a big rise in organised crime. Next is "severe disruption to satellite-based information, possibly deliberate from another state". This is a repeat of the cyberspace threat.

Lastly we have the third tier of threats, the least serious. The first is "a large-scale conventional military attack on Britain" by an unspecified other state. The second, somewhat desperately, is terrorism again, the third is crime again. The authors clearly ran out of threats, but had to fill their threat quota. We are also threatened by immigrants and smugglers "trying to cross the UK border". We are "threatened" by an accident at a nuclear site; by a conventional attack on a Nato ally, and by an attack on a British colony. Finally, we face a curious bundle of threats: fuel shortages, price instability, and "a short- to medium-term disruption to international supplies or resources".

A Eurofighter Typhoon

You may note that almost none of the above is a threat. They are crimes and catastrophes or, in the case of being "drawn in" to a foreign conflict, a matter of political choice. Many things on the list may make me feel a bit uncomfortable, but few are remotely to do with the security of the state. They are incoherent and repetitive and rather desperate, like a madman with a sandwich board crying, "They are coming to get you; the end is nigh!"

Yet this list was the basis for last month's strategic defence review with its £45bn price tag. A set of threats that are almost entirely non-military is to be met by submarines carrying nuclear missiles, two new aircraft carriers and dozens of jet fighters.

Let's start with the threat of a nuclear missile landing on Britain. I have seen no analysis of how this might emerge from the existing international order, and certainly no explanation of how nuclear deterrence might apply in any specific case. In the barely conceivable eventuality of Iran or some such hostile state building a bomb, buying a missile capable of reaching Britain and then firing it, the act would be so lunatic as to be beyond any plausible deterrence. You cannot deter a suicidal nation any more than you can a suicidal bomber. Small wonder defence chiefs wanted their nuclear missile reclassified as "political".

As for using this precious weapon to deter a conventional attack, that is surely no less fanciful. Britain's possession of nuclear missiles has had no deterrent value in any of the dozen wars it has fought in half a century. Did we threaten Argentina with it? No. Yet time and again military strategists refer to it as a useful "reserve capability". When a soldier resorts to abstract nouns you know he has lost the argument.

As for the threat of a conventional attack on the British Isles by another state, we can only ask, who? The threat is so negligible as to be insignificant. It is like insuring one's house for billions of pounds against an asteroid attack. Is the attack to come from Russia, or France, or Germany, or Ireland? Defence pundits to whom I put this crucial question look down their noses, as if it were impertinent or undergraduate. They murmur that one can never know. Yet the political preconditions for a conventional attack on Britain are so distant – the review relegates it to tier three – that Britain would have some notice and time to re-arm, as we did with remarkable speed when last so confronted in 1940.

By jumbling together accidents, diseases, natural disasters and crimes as "threats", the government undermines its own plausibility. The defence lobby is trying to hijack the jobs of the police, civil rescue and medical professions. In the case of "price instability", it even wants to hijack the Financial Services Authority. These are not "threats to national security" against which we expect the defence ministry to plan or assemble conventional forces.

The same applies to the threat which the MoD has struggled for decades to make its own, that of international terrorism. The threat review is so keen that it lists it no fewer than three times. It implies a requirement to deploy conventional forces against terrorists, who might be acting as "proxy" for a state. But there is a difference between a state that wants to overpower, conquer and rule us – a ludicrous threat of no serious concern – and one that merely wants to make a nuisance in the hope of achieving some lesser goal, such as getting Britain out of Northern Ireland or making Israel into a pariah.

The latter certainly has applied, but if we were to deploy conventional forces against such a state we might, over the last quarter century, have declared war on Libya, Syria, Iran, the Irish Republic and even the state of Massachusetts. We did not. We treated an act of terror rightly as a methodology, a criminal means, not a political end. As Joseph Conrad said in The Secret Agent, the terrorist was a pest walking the street alone. His is a local and specific form of violence, causing mayhem in the hope of spreading panic and changing a state's behaviour in response to it. Terrorism has no political content unless awarded one by the victim nation.

A computer image of one of the navy's new aircraft carriers

With the IRA and the PLO in the 1970s, the authorities played down the political significance of any outrage. Prisoners were treated as criminals and denied political status. The most limited coverage was given to their demands. Now we do the opposite. We play up the politics. I remember the admirable response to 9/11 by New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. He told New Yorkers on the day of the attack to go about their business as usual, use the park, go to a show, buy a pizza, keep working and, above all, keep spending. The trouble was, 9/11 was so awful an incident as to apparently transform a terrorist outrage into an apparent state of war, and thus admit it within the ambit of conventional defence. Nobody took any notice of what Giuliani said. They did what al-Qaida wanted, which was indulge in mass hysteria. Blair said the rules of the international game had changed – an astonishing accolade to Osama bin Laden. This cannot be unconnected with the fact that a politician's poll rating soars in the aftermath of a terrorist incident. Nothing helped George Bush more than 9/11.

Politicians rush to the cameras, dive into bunkers and warn of threats to civilisation as we know it. Conventional military forces are put on alert. Blair once rushed tanks to Heathrow in a madcap gesture of self-importance. We invaded Afghanistan for harbouring terrorists. We invaded Iraq on the thesis that it might do so. Do we now invade Pakistan and Yemen on the same basis?

Far from being deterred, terrorists and their sponsors clearly derive prestige and political clout when conventional forces are ranged against them. We thereby put them on the pedestal of state threat. By infringing our liberties and curbing our freedoms in their honour we let them win battles. By being publicly scared, as of this week's parcel bombs, we invite them to scare us some more.

Such an approach to defence is not just wasteful but counter-productive. Politicians from Blair to Cameron declare the aim of war in Iraq and Afghanistan is to make the streets of Britain safer. There is not an iota of evidence for this extraordinary claim. Most analysts, including former security chiefs in the House of Lords, say the precise opposite. These wars have made us less safe, by making Britain a prime target for terrorists and breeding homegrown terrorists in schools, colleges and mosques. Watching Gordon Brown in Helmand mouthing nonsense about boys dying for safer streets was painful. He clearly did not believe it.

So what of the other most common cause of Britain going to war, the threat of being "drawn into" someone else's squabble? First, this is not a threat but a political choice. These wars are nowadays called wars of choice. They are always beguiling. What you have, you are induced to deploy, often for the vaguest of purposes, such as "making the world a better place". The navy cites the need to stop pirates in the Indian Ocean and drug-runners in the Caribbean. Blair contributed British forces to six separate conflicts in his time in office, in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and two each in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia. None was in response to a threat to the security of the British state. They were adjuncts to his foreign policy goal of "hugging close" to Washington.

Armies with nothing to do tend to distort the purpose for which they were formed. They become institutionalised. They coalesce into a wide constituency of veterans, territorial and political supporters, above all, equipment suppliers. As with terrorism, so with the government's other listed threats, we should ponder those who leap forward to publicise them. Whenever the BBC calls in a "security expert" to comment on the awfulness of some new threat, we should be told for whom he works. Remember Deep Throat's maxim, follow the money?

Being "drawn in" is the phraseology of the security review. But note the intransitive. Drawn in by whom? In whose interests, or on whose behalf, are we spending billions of pounds killing thousands of people in the Muslim world just now? Shouldn't we also have been "drawn in" to Rwanda, Darfur, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Burma? In each case, man's inhumanity to man has been more gross than in Iraq and Afghanistan. We did nothing.

British troops at Basra in Iraq, 2006

From the earliest enunciation of liberal interventionism, it has been wanting in rigour. In 1999, Blair spoke in Chicago in favour of humanitarian "just" wars, as if they carried with them their own validation. All they carried was a clutter of moral superiority. I do not regard Germans or Japanese or Indians or Brazilians as lacking in moral fibre for not fighting alongside us in Blair's wars. I find nothing peculiarly moral, first in helping the break up of former Yugoslavia, then the break up of Serbia and now the devastation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

We are left with what I call the ontological argument for defences spending. It exists and therefore it is. It is the ultimate security, to which no concept of proportion can apply. We protect ourselves out of instinct. Like spending on health, you just cannot get enough of it.

It is a response not to known threats (such as Russia), nor even to known unknowns (such as a resurgent Russia), but to those famous unknown unknowns. The great ontologist, Donald Rumsfeld, remains the patron saint of defence expenditure.

The argument can take amazing forms. Come now, say the high priests. Just suppose another Hitler rose again, built a new Luftwaffe and U-boats, and bombed London and sank all our coastal trade. We would need a carrier. Suppose Russia falls under the sway of an oligarch with a grudge against Harrods and a business rival in Kensington Palace Gardens. Suppose he decides to nuke them. Supposed 100 suicide bombers block-booked themselves on Eurostar and went to every Premier League match. You would look pretty silly, Jenkins, wouldn't you?

I would look pretty silly, and probably I wouldn't be the only one. But for the time being, I regard such unrealities used to justify massive spending as no less silly. We can only meet realistic threats. We do not build 1,000 NHS hospitals and leave them to await the return of bubonic plague.

Britain as a sovereign state is less "under threat" today than ever in my life, indeed less than ever in its existence. That is to the credit of recent generations of British governments. But this means we do not need a defence that has been successfully rendered obsolete.

The chief threat to me today, if at all, is from crime. Yet we are appalling at combating it. Obsessed with punishment, we neglect crime prevention. To guard me from unreal foreign attack the government spends £45bn, but to guard my home and hearth from crime it spends just £6.4bn, and badly. I am defended against crime, including terrorist attack, not by an army, navy or air force, but by vigilant acquaintances of the criminals, by an alert school and mosque, by the police and by the apparatus of intelligence, espionage and diplomacy.

The truth of the matter is that our defence spending is misdirected and extravagantly out of date. We are re-equipping for Agincourt on the brink of Waterloo. We are laying down long boats for the battle of the Atlantic. We are deploying cold-war weapons against occasional outrages by fanatics with no capacity to cause the state harm.

I sometimes wonder why I see things this way, when so few others do. I am a pragmatist, not a pacifist. But I respect language, and am suspicious of the vapid cliches about national interest, punching our weight, sitting at top tables and being respected. I hate to see terrorism, a miserable perversion, accorded the accolade of grand enemy of the state. I hate to see statesmen whose job is to keep threats out of sight and mind exploiting the politics of fear.

The fault lies partly in the sloppy language used to discuss defence, which loses all ability to convey risk and proportion and slides into sloppy nouns and sloppy thinking. At that point, leaders lose touch with democracy, a serious threat to the security of any state. The only defence against that danger lies not in armies, bombs and guns, but solely in the deployment of meticulous reason.

by Simon Jenkins

A Cup Of Tea?

Monday, November 01, 2010

Sunday, October 31, 2010

...And An Answer

Another day, another completely rubbish science story. We'll get it out the way quickly. Researchers in Harvard and California claim to have found the liberal gene. People with a specific variant of the DRD4 dopamine receptor gene are more "novelty-seeking", apparently. Those of them with a wide variety of friends are therefore more liberal, because they are "more interested in learning about their friends' points of view".

The press release stated: "People with this genetic predisposition who have a greater-than-average number of friends would be exposed to a wider variety of social norms and lifestyles, which might make them more liberal than average."

There's a lot that's revealing about this experiment, although none of it concerns what makes us adopt a political stance. It is, to be fair, not inconceivable that genetic traits influence a person's range of social contacts and that people with a wider range of contacts take a more relativistic view of politics. The trouble is the researchers slip into a commonly-made assumption about liberal social views, which is that they require relativistic thinking - the appreciation of other people's point of view.

Socially, that's a charming trait for someone to have. Politically, it is the first step on the road to moral relativism, one of the grandest mistakes of so-called liberals the world over. In actual fact, liberalism follows from absolute values. Without them, it betrays itself. Moral and cultural relativism have led many of our fellow liberals into appalling positions. It has led anti-war protestors to argue, horrifically, that Middle Eastern countries do not want democracy. It has led us to accept female circumcision in the Third World. It has led us to a strand of multiculturalism which delegates authority to the leaders of communities, without worrying about the individuals in those communities themselves.

Liberalism is not based on relativism. It is based on an absolute value, one which was best expressed by Immanuel Kant but which you can also find in the New Testament: "Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you." In Kant's philosophical language it's more like: Act as if each of your actions was a universal maxim.

This is a rational rule designed to create a moral society. If we implement it in politics, we come to the following idea, which you will be well aware of: everyone should be able to do whatever they like as long as it does not affect the freedom of others. That sentence is the rock upon which liberalism rests. That is the real and coherent political response to Kant's maxim.

There are plenty of debates to be had over it, all of which involve a clash of freedoms. Sexual freedom is not interesting, because no-one else's freedom has been affected. People who object to it are simply wrong. There's no point listening to them. Abortion is more complex. Does the woman's freedom override that of the unborn child? I would suggest it does, on the basis that the child is unborn and that its freedom is therefore of a lesser quality than the woman's. But someone could have a different view and that view would have some credibility on the basis that it addresses relative freedoms.

Even economic issues, which we usually consider distinct from political freedoms, are also about competing freedoms. The higher rate taxpayer loses the freedom to keep all his money so that we can deliver the health care for the less well-off. Health care, because it maintains life, is the precondition for all other freedoms.

The important thing is not that there are disagreements. The important thing is that these are not relative values. They are absolute values which allow people to pursue happiness in whichever way they see fit. Because they acknowledge the variety of human motives and needs, they can sometimes lead to the mistaken conclusion that they are themselves relative.

This has led us to some very dangerous places. It has led to a political culture which allows religious authorities, typically but not exclusively in minority communities, to exercise regressive power over people in that community. When was the last time you heard from a feminist Muslim? They exist, but you'll be lucky to find one on TV. Instead, the microphone is handed to the conservative elder males. They are consulted by government. They are the spokespeople for a community. Worse, our support for faith schools means we serve up future generations to their stigma.

It leads to anti-war activists, whose aims and motivations are sincere and honourable, suddenly arguing that a free political culture is unsuitable for the Middle East.
It leads to western feminists saying it would be 'imperialist' to oppose female circumcision.

Relativism takes us away from the individual, who is the only thing ever worth defending. It takes us to the group, and its own relative values. Within that, there is scope for great tyranny, all done with the political approval of so-called liberals. The only way to ensure freedom for everyone is to reject relativism, and to embrace the all-conquering dominance of absolute liberalism. It is non-negotiable, because it is the only political philosophy that focuses on the freedom of each and every individual, wherever they live, whoever they are.

It's nothing to do with a switch in the brain. It's to do with Kant.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Liberal Gene!

Ever wondered why you have a hankering to drive a Prius and drink lattes? Or why you read the Guardian and scrupulously put it in the recycling? There might be a gene for that – with a little help from your friends.

Researchers at the University of California and Harvard University have identified a specific gene variant that they say predisposes those carrying it to liberal political ideology – with the findings quickly seized on by the US media as uncovering "the liberal gene".

Simply having the gene – a variant of a dopamine receptor known as DRD4, linked to novelty-seeking – is not enough by itself to make someone a liberal, according to the article in the latest issue of the Journal of Politics, published by Cambridge University Press. The study found that adults with the gene were more liberal depending on how wide their circle of friends was while they were growing up.

"It is the crucial interaction of two factors – the genetic predisposition and the environmental condition of having many friends in adolescence – that is associated with being more liberal," the researchers state. They found that the correlation held true independently of gender, age or ethnic and cultural background.

According to the study: "Ten friends can move a person with two copies of [the gene variant] 7R allele almost halfway from being a conservative to moderate or from being moderate to liberal."

The research, led by James Fowler of the University of California's San Diego campus, suggested that those with the novelty-seeking gene variant would be more interested in learning about their friends' views, exposing them to a wider variety of lifestyles and beliefs and making them more liberal as a result.

"These findings suggest that political affiliation is not based solely on the kind of social environment people experience," said Fowler, a professor of political science and medical genetics best known for his work on social networks with Nicholas Christakis of Harvard, who worked on this study.

The authors, however, say their findings should be "treated cautiously" and that more research is needed before hailing a liberal gene. "The expectation in genetics is that only repeated efforts to replicate associations on independent samples by several research teams will verify initial findings like these," they wrote. "Perhaps the most valuable contribution of this study is not to declare that 'a gene was found' for anything, but rather, to provide the first evidence for a possible gene-environment interaction for political ideology."

By matching genetic data with the friendships and social circles of those surveyed, the researchers could show that people with the variant of the gene were more likely to be liberal as adults if they also had an active social life during their teenage years.

"It is our hope that more scholars will begin to explore the potential interaction of biology and environment," Fowler said.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Picture Of The Day

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Future Of The Internet

THE first internet boom, a decade and a half ago, resembled a religious movement. Omnipresent cyber-gurus, often framed by colourful PowerPoint presentations reminiscent of stained glass, prophesied a digital paradise in which not only would commerce be frictionless and growth exponential, but democracy would be direct and the nation-state would no longer exist. One, John-Perry Barlow, even penned “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”.

Even though all this sounded Utopian when it was preached, it reflected online reality pretty accurately. The internet was a wide-open space, a new frontier. For the first time, anyone could communicate electronically with anyone else—globally and essentially free of charge. Anyone was able to create a website or an online shop, which could be reached from anywhere in the world using a simple piece of software called a browser, without asking anyone else for permission. The control of information, opinion and commerce by governments—or big companies, for that matter—indeed appeared to be a thing of the past. “You have no sovereignty where we gather,” Mr Barlow wrote.

The lofty discourse on “cyberspace” has long changed. Even the term now sounds passé. Today another overused celestial metaphor holds sway: the “cloud” is code for all kinds of digital services generated in warehouses packed with computers, called data centres, and distributed over the internet. Most of the talk, though, concerns more earthly matters: privacy, antitrust, Google’s woes in China, mobile applications, green information technology (IT). Only Apple’s latest iSomethings seem to inspire religious fervour, as they did again this week.

Again, this is a fair reflection of what is happening on the internet. Fifteen years after its first manifestation as a global, unifying network, it has entered its second phase: it appears to be balkanising, torn apart by three separate, but related forces.

First, governments are increasingly reasserting their sovereignty. Recently several countries have demanded that their law-enforcement agencies have access to e-mails sent from BlackBerry smart-phones. This week India, which had threatened to cut off BlackBerry service at the end of August, granted RIM, the device’s maker, an extra two months while authorities consider the firm’s proposal to comply. However, it has also said that it is going after other communication-service providers, notably Google and Skype.

Second, big IT companies are building their own digital territories, where they set the rules and control or limit connections to other parts of the internet. Third, network owners would like to treat different types of traffic differently, in effect creating faster and slower lanes on the internet.

It is still too early to say that the internet has fragmented into “internets”, but there is a danger that it may splinter along geographical and commercial boundaries. (The picture above is a visual representation of the “nationality” of traffic on the internet, created by the University of California’s Co-operative Association for Internet Data Analysis: America is in pink, Britain in dark blue, Italy in pale blue, Sweden in green and unknown countries in white.) Just as it was not preordained that the internet would become one global network where the same rules applied to everyone, everywhere, it is not certain that it will stay that way, says Kevin Werbach, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

To grasp why the internet might unravel, it is necessary to understand how, in the words of Mr Werbach, “it pulled itself together” in the first place. Even today, this seems like something of a miracle. In the physical world, most networks—railways, airlines, telephone systems—are collections of more or less connected islands. Before the internet and the world wide web came along, this balkanised model was also the norm online. For a long time, for instance, AOL and CompuServe would not even exchange e-mails.

Economists point to “network effects” to explain why the internet managed to supplant these proprietary services. Everybody had strong incentives to join: consumers, companies and, most important, the networks themselves (the internet is in fact a “network of networks”). The more the internet grew, the greater the benefits became. And its founding fathers created the basis for this virtuous circle by making it easy for networks to hook up and for individuals to get wired.

Yet economics alone do not explain why the internet rather than a proprietary service prevailed (as Microsoft did in software for personal computers, or PCs). One reason may be that the rapid rise of the internet, originally an obscure academic network funded by America’s Department of Defence, took everyone by surprise. “The internet was able to develop quietly and organically for years before it became widely known,” writes Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard University, in his 2008 book, “The Future of the Internet—And How To Stop It”. In other words, had telecoms firms, for instance, suspected how big it would become, they might have tried earlier to change its rules.

Whatever the cause, the open internet has been a boon for humanity. It has not only allowed companies and other organisations of all sorts to become more efficient, but enabled other forms of production, notably “open source” methods, in which groups of people, often volunteers, all over the world develop products, mostly pieces of software, collectively. Individuals have access to more information than ever, communicate more freely and form groups of like-minded people more easily.

Even more important, the internet is an open platform, rather than one built for a specific service, like the telephone network. Mr Zittrain calls it “generative”: people can tinker with it, creating new services and elbowing existing ones aside. Any young company can build a device or develop an application that connects to the internet, provided it follows certain, mostly technical conventions. In a more closed and controlled environment, an Amazon, a Facebook or a Google would probably never have blossomed as it did.

Forces of fragmentation

However, this very success has given rise to the forces that are now pulling the internet apart. The cracks are most visible along geographical boundaries. The internet is too important for governments to ignore. They are increasingly finding ways to enforce their laws in the digital realm. The most prominent is China’s “great firewall”. The Chinese authorities are using the same technology that companies use to stop employees accessing particular websites and online services. This is why Google at first decided to censor its Chinese search service: there was no other way to be widely accessible in the country.

But China is by no means the only country erecting borders in cyberspace. The Australian government plans to build a firewall to block material showing the sexual abuse of children and other criminal or offensive content. The OpenNet Initiative, an advocacy group, lists more than a dozen countries that block internet content for political, social and security reasons. They do not need especially clever technology: governments go increasingly after dominant online firms because they are easy to get hold of. In April Google published the numbers of requests it had received from official agencies to remove content or provide information about users. Brazil led both counts (see chart 1).

Not every request or barrier has a sinister motive. Australia’s firewall is a case in point, even if it is a clumsy way of enforcing the law. It would be another matter, however, if governments started tinkering with the internet’s address book, the Domain Name System (DNS). This allows the network to look up the computer on which a website lives. If a country started its own DNS, it could better control what people can see. Some fear this is precisely what China and others might do one day.

To confuse matters, the DNS is already splintering for a good reason. It was designed for the Latin alphabet, which was fine when most internet users came from the West. But because more and more netizens live in other parts of the world—China boasts 420m—last October the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the body that oversees the DNS, allowed domain names entirely in other scripts. This makes things easier for people in, say, China, Japan or Russia, but marks another step towards the renationalisation of the internet.

Many media companies have already gone one step further. They use another part of the internet’s address system, the “IP numbers” that identify computers on the network, to block access to content if consumers are not in certain countries. Try viewing a television show on Hulu, a popular American video service, from Europe and it will tell you: “We’re sorry, currently our video library can only be streamed within the United States.” Similarly, Spotify, a popular European music-streaming service, cannot be reached from America.

Yet it is another kind of commercial attempt to carve up the internet that is causing more concern. Devotees of a unified cyberspace are worried that the online world will soon start looking as it did before the internet took over: a collection of more or less connected proprietary islands reminiscent of AOL and CompuServe. One of them could even become as dominant as Microsoft in PC software. “We’re heading into a war for control of the web,” Tim O’Reilly, an internet savant who heads O’Reilly Media, a publishing house, wrote late last year. “And in the end, it’s more than that, it’s a war against the web as an interoperable platform.”

The trend to more closed systems is undeniable. Take Facebook, the web’s biggest social network. The site is a fast-growing, semi-open platform with more than 500m registered users. Its American contingent spends on average more than six hours a month on the site and less than two on Google. Users have identities specific to Facebook and communicate mostly via internal messages. The firm has its own rules, covering, for instance, which third-party applications may run and how personal data are dealt with.

Apple is even more of a world apart. From its iPhone and iPad, people mostly get access to online services not through a conventional browser but via specialised applications available only from the company’s “App Store”. Granted, the store has lots of apps—about 250,000—but Apple nonetheless controls which ones make it onto its platform. It has used that power to keep out products it does not like, including things that can be construed as pornographic or that might interfere with its business, such as an app for Google’s telephone service. Apple’s press conference to show off its new wares on September 1st was streamed live over the internet but could be seen only on its own devices.

Even Google can be seen as a platform unto itself, if a very open one. The world’s biggest search engine now offers dozens of services, from news aggregation to word processing, all of which are tied together and run on a global network of dozens of huge data-centres. Yet Google’s most important service is its online advertising platform, which serves most text-based ads on the web. Being the company’s main source of revenue, critics say, it is hardly a model of openness and transparency.

There is no conspiracy behind the emergence of these platforms. Firms are in business to make money. And such phenomena as social networks and online advertising exhibit strong network effects, meaning that a dominant market leader is likely to emerge. What is more, most users these days are not experts, but average consumers, who want secure, reliable products. To create a good experience on mobile devices, which more and more people will use to get onto the internet, hardware, software and services must be more tightly integrated than on PCs.

Net neutrality, or not?

Discussion of these proprietary platforms is only beginning. A lot of ink, however, has already been spilt on another form of balkanisation: in the plumbing of the internet. Most of this debate, particularly in America, is about “net neutrality”. This is one of the internet’s founding principles: that every packet of data, regardless of its contents, should be treated the same way, and the best effort should always be made to forward it.

Proponents of this principle want it to become law, out of concern that network owners will breach it if they can. Their nightmare is what Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia University, calls “the Tony Soprano vision of networking”, alluding to a television series about a mafia family. If operators were allowed to charge for better service, they could extort protection money from every website. Those not willing to pay for their data to be transmitted quickly would be left to crawl in the slow lane. “Allowing broadband carriers to control what people see and do online would fundamentally undermine the principles that have made the internet such a success,” said Vinton Cerf, one of the network’s founding fathers (who now works for Google), at a hearing in Congress.

Opponents of the enshrining of net neutrality in law—not just self-interested telecoms firms, but also experts like Dave Farber, another internet elder—argue that it would be counterproductive. Outlawing discrimination of any kind could discourage operators from investing to differentiate their networks. And given the rapid growth in file-sharing and video (see chart 2), operators may have good reason to manage data flows, lest other traffic be crowded out.

The issue is not as black and white as it seems. The internet has never been as neutral as some would have it. Network providers do not guarantee a certain quality of service, but merely promise to do their best. That may not matter for personal e-mails, but it does for time-sensitive data such as video. What is more, large internet firms like Amazon and Google have long redirected traffic onto private fast lanes that bypass the public internet to speed up access to their websites.

Whether such preferential treatment becomes more widespread, and even extortionary, will probably depend on the market and how it is regulated. It is telling that net neutrality has become far more politically controversial in America than it has elsewhere. This is a reflection of the relative lack of competition in America’s broadband market. In Europe and Japan, “open access” rules require network operators to lease parts of their networks to other firms on a wholesale basis, thus boosting competition. A study comparing broadband markets, published in 2009 by Harvard University’s Berkman Centre for Internet & Society, found that countries with such rules enjoy faster, cheaper broadband service than America, because the barrier to entry for new entrants is much lower. And if any access provider starts limiting what customers can do, they will defect to another.

America’s operators have long insisted that open-access requirements would destroy their incentive to build fast, new networks: why bother if you will be forced to share it? After intense lobbying, America’s telecoms regulators bought this argument. But the lesson from elsewhere in the industrialised world is that it is not true. The result, however, is that America has a small number of powerful network operators, prompting concern that they will abuse their power unless they are compelled, by a net-neutrality law, to treat all traffic equally. Rather than trying to mandate fairness in this way—net neutrality is very hard to define or enforce—it makes more sense to address the underlying problem: the lack of competition.

It should come as no surprise that the internet is being pulled apart on every level. “While technology can gravely wound governments, it rarely kills them,” Debora Spar, president of Barnard College at Columbia University, wrote several years ago in her book, “Ruling the Waves”. “This was all inevitable,” argues Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired, under the headline “The Web is Dead” in the September issue of the magazine. “A technology is invented, it spreads, a thousand flowers bloom, and then someone finds a way to own it, locking out others.”

Yet predictions are hazardous, particularly in IT. Governments may yet realise that a freer internet is good not just for their economies, but also for their societies. Consumers may decide that it is unwise to entrust all their secrets to a single online firm such as Facebook, and decamp to less insular alternatives, such as Diaspora.

Similarly, more open technology could also still prevail in the mobile industry. Android, Google’s smart-phone platform, which is less closed than Apple’s, is growing rapidly and gained more subscribers in America than the iPhone in the first half of this year. Intel and Nokia, the world’s biggest chipmaker and the biggest manufacturer of telephone handsets, are pushing an even more open platform called MeeGo. And as mobile devices and networks improve, a standards-based browser could become the dominant access software on the wireless internet as well.

Stuck in the slow lane

If, however, the internet continues to go the other way, this would be bad news. Should the network become a collection of proprietary islands accessed by devices controlled remotely by their vendors, the internet would lose much of its “generativity”, warns Harvard’s Mr Zittrain. Innovation would slow down and the next Amazon, Google or Facebook could simply be, well, Amazon, Google or Facebook.

The danger is not that these islands become physically separated, says Andrew Odlyzko, a professor at the University of Minnesota. There is just too much value in universal connectivity, he argues. “The real question is how high the walls between these walled gardens will be.” Still, if the internet loses too much of its universality, cautions Mr Werbach of the Wharton School, it may indeed fall apart, just as world trade can collapse if there is too much protectionism. Theory demonstrates that interconnected networks such as the internet can grow quickly, he explains—but also that they can dissolve quickly. “This looks rather unlikely today, but if it happens, it will be too late to do anything about it.”