Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Hallmarks of Al Qaeda

Yahoo News:

Cameron wrote in the News of the World, Britain's biggest selling Sunday newspaper, that the bomb "bears the hallmarks of Al-Qaeda".

In Dubai police said the bomb found there contained the high explosive PETN -- the same substance used by the would-be 2009 Christmas Day "underpants" bomber Farouk Abdulmutallab and 2001 attempted shoe-bomber Richard Reid.

Dubai police chief General Dahi Khalfan told AFP: "This was a parcel bomb and a terrorist act could have occurred," adding that the device could have "exploded" on board the airplane had it not been intercepted in time.

The device consisted of a computer printer whose ink contained explosive material, connected to a mobile phone SIM card and a circuit board, a police statement said.

The statement said it "bears the hallmarks of those used by terrorist organisations like Al-Qaeda."

So, those hallmarks of 'Al Qaeda' in full:

1. Being the kind of thing a terrorist does (e.g. a bomb)

2. Including a standard kind of high-explosive

Monday, 25 October 2010

David Kelly: pathologist's report to the coroner - text version

A transcription of the report at 

[Update, 30 Jul 2013: this link is now dead; the pdf is archived at . Also, 1 OCR error noticed, on p7 in the potentially very important section 'Right lower limb'. 'A any red lesion' corrected to 'A tiny red lesion'.]

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The House of Cards and the Numbers Game: Two Models of Secrecy

'Coventrian', in Aaronovitch Watch comments, describes discovering Denis MacShane's dodgy dealings:
'However, the big mystery is the strange sequence of invoices from The European Policy Institute (EPI), which doesn't seem to have any presence on the Internet other than it was founded by Denis MacShane. The invoices are strangely repetitive, lacking in detail as to what work was done and with all contact details redacted. Why?

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Economic State of Emergency

So Cameron has been using patriotic military rhetoric and continuing the "we're all in this together" theme. (All except the hordes of breed-like-rabbits benefit scum who refuse to take up all those unfilled vacancies, of course).

I am slightly surprised at the crassness of it, but otherwise this is what I expected - below is what I was saying in Crooked Timber comments just before the election. In particular: Under the pretext of an economic state of emergency, there is the prospect of further near-irreversible moves toward the ‘free-market’ paradise that the Conservatives are obviously so keen on – while of course, as ever, being intensely relaxed about people being dirt poor.

Meanwhile, some people seem to view the recent exaggerated outrage at the proposal to remove child benefit from high earners as indicating a failure by Osborne. Not at all.

Jonathan Evans #1: 'A Unicorn forcene Argent armed maned tufted and unguled Or the dexter forehoof enfiling the hasp of a Padlock Azure'

A speech is delivered by the latest head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, to something called the Worshipful Company of Security Professionals, an ersatz guild formed in 1999 complete with newfangled heraldry ('A Unicorn forcene Argent armed maned tufted and unguled Or the dexter forehoof enfiling the hasp of a Padlock Azure...'). I assume this organisation is some kind of strange joke on someone's part.

Quoth Evans:

10. It is interesting to note in this context that in the last ten years what might be called a "zero tolerance” attitude to terrorist risk in Great Britain has become more widespread. While it has always been the case that the authorities have made every effort to prevent terrorist attacks, it used to be accepted as part of everyday life that sometimes the terrorists would get lucky and there would be an attack. In recent years we appear increasingly to have imported from the American media the assumption that terrorism is 100% preventable and any incident that is not prevented is seen as a culpable government failure. This is a nonsensical way to consider terrorist risk and only plays into the hands of the terrorists themselves. Risk can be managed and reduced but it cannot realistically be abolished and if we delude ourselves that it can we are setting ourselves up for a nasty disappointment.

This starts promisingly, rejecting a 'zero tolerance' approach to terrorist risk. I take this phrase to mean aiming to reduce such risk as far as possible, regardless of the costs. This kind of approach is seen in comments of the 'I for one would be only too happy to submit to [insert tyrannical and/or ludicrous measure] if it might prevent even one death at the hands of the evil ones' (but not in a traffic accident, NHS ward, or cardboard village).

Crooked Timber comment overflow: Wikipedia on Conspiracy Theories (via the New York Times)

Comment overflow from Crooked Timber, on this article by Paul Krugman in the New York Times (reproduced at the end):

Krugman quotes from Wikipedia:

A conspiracy theory, says Wikipedia, "attempts to explain the cause of an event as a secret, and often deceptive, plot by a covert alliance."

I think there are problems here - one is the assumption of pragmatic explanatory status (previously discussed), in which the word 'theory' plays a role, since it is capable of suggesting a parallel with paradigmatically explanatory endeavours like scientific theories. (The word often also, or instead, imports a presumption of mere speculation, or of  a lack of adequate evidence. I note with approval that Wiki doesn't include any such evaluative element in its definition.)

Relatedly, the assumption that some reasonably compact and dicrete event must be involved is inaccurate, though as a defender of 'good' conspiracy theories, and strategically an aspiring rehabilitator of the term 'conspiracy theory', I don't mind this too much since those 'conspiracy theories' which are short on determinate and significant events obviously tend to be vague about all sorts of things, as well as defective in other ways - and if they are booted out of the nominal category 'conspiracy theory' so much the better.

Another more substantive problem is the 'covert alliance' bit - secrecy and/or deceptiveness of the plan is one thing (though it can be challenged as inessential to conspiracy both as a matter of definition and as a matter of salience in this context; the same goes, less plausibly and importantly, for the requirement that an 'alliance' be involved). But specifying that the 'alliance' itself must be covert is wrong - especially on a natural reading which places 'covert' at the extreme end of the secretiveness spectrum (the Bilderberg Group provides a good illustration of this spectrum with its progressive relaxation of secrecy, thanks largely to the efforts of 'conspiracy theorists').