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Sunday, December 21, 2008

The perils of 'good-enough' intelligence mis-analysis 

The appalling injustices inflicted on Colin Stagg by the Metropolitan Police and the fantasyland of fraud underpinning the Madoff pyramid scheme have some common underlying factors. Not least the dangers of the ‘satisficing mode’ of investigation, castigated by ex-CIA officer Richards Heuer in his 2004 book ‘The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis’.

Basically he looks at the way that intelligence analysts can be:

fooled into assembling the case that appears most likely rather than challenging the evidence to find out what is actually true … Equipped with vast technical resources, satellite imaging, hugely sophisticated listening devices and computer programmes to winnow the galaxies of data streams, the charge is that the spooks lost an equally powerful tool along the way: an old-fashioned and thoroughly applied inclination towards skeptical testing of all information.
Observer 8 February 2004


The blurb says:

Three fundamental points are at the heart of this presentation about the cognitive challenges intelligence analysts face: The mind is poorly 'wired' to deal effectively with both inherent uncertainty (the natural fog surrounding complex, indeterminate intelligence issues) and induced uncertainty (the man-made fog fabricated by denial and deception operations).Even increased awareness of cognitive and other 'unmotivated' biases, such as the tendency to see information confirming an already-held judgement more vividly than one sees 'disconfirming' information, does little by itself to help analysts deal effectively with uncertainty. Tools and techniques that gear the analyst's mind to apply higher levels of critical thinking can substantially improve analysis on complex issues on which information is incomplete, ambiguous, and often deliberately distorted.

Meanwhile back on the murders aftermath:

On Stagg and the murders actually committed by another, Scotland Yard said it had "no plans for a further review" of its handling of the investigation.

"Homicide investigations have changed significantly since 1992 and we've learnt from these reviews," a spokesman said.
Independent on Sunday 21 December 2008

I suspect a few more reviews might be helpful.

And maybe nearer home – should our own party policy and political analysis procedures take more account of the dangers of self-justifying groupthink?

For some entertaining reading on groupthink disasters (and a good laugh) try Norman Dixon’s book ‘On The Psychology of Military Incompetence’. Note though that some people may find the 'explenations' for the disasters as being due to inadequate potty training for the infant generals even more amusing than the hair raising military events in part one of the book, which include the occasion when a British army lined up with its back to the enemy, and within gunshot range.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Madoff fraud fallout - will it enmesh even more people (including ourselves) 

The Madoff fraud on Wall Street, all 50 thousand million US Dollars of it, may get even worse if the Bayou Fraud precedent works as some people think it does.

Basically Bayou was a pyramid scam that blew up in 2005 with a mere 450 million US Dollars wiped out for ‘investors’. In cleaning up that mess, the precedent established in US law was that people who got out of the pyramid investment before it collapsed (and so made profits) had to pay back their gains. And people who invested in those investors even if the never themselves took a cent directly out of the pyramid trough are also liable, without limit.

This is on top of the massive legal uproar around dealing with just the first visible slice of losses.

As Mark Gimein says in his 16 Dec ‘The Big Money’ column in ‘Slate’:

The Bayou precedent means that the discovery of a huge fraud leads to a whole chain of liabilities that stretches back for years and may hit investors who hadn't dealt with Madoff in a decade. A few folks who think that they've lost everything may, at the end of the process, get back some portion of their money. But many others who thought they'd escaped, or didn't even know they had any link to Madoff, will turn out to have huge losses.
….
The fallout from the Madoff fraud for fund managers like Tremont and Fairfield already reaches into the billions of dollars. But that's not the end of the line. Even if the funds lose all the money that they had invested with Madoff when the fraud is revealed, they could still be on the hook for any money they'd taken out in earlier years. The managers—and the parent companies, such as Oppenheimer Funds, which owns Tremont—are likely to be asked to give back any money they thought they earned for their “success” in earlier years. Meanwhile, any funds that did manage to pull their money quietly out of Bernard Madoff's safe before the scam blew up could see their current and even future investors facing demands to give it back.
And he concludes:

Now that the scam's been revealed, for Madoff, it's the end. But for the grand saga of litigation that will pit Madoff's hapless investors against each other and probably make Charles Dickens' Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce look like days in small-claims court, this is just the beginning.

The Bayou precedent may actually help explain why the regulators were so blind to the situation

On this side of the pond a shiver of apprehension – what is the state of the law on this in the UK? The Royal Bank of Scotland for example has already signalled a preliminary burn of £400 million from its dealings with Madoff– is it (and it new UK taxpayer underpinning) liable to even more calls on its funds? Possibly unlimited.

And for this Party an unwelcome legal shadow perhaps over the dirty fallout from the ‘Michael Brown donation’. Is it remotely possible that the ‘Bayou Precedent’ might be shoehorned to apply to that unhappy event?

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This case blows a massive hole in the argument that those involved in investment banking are very clever people whose cleverness is "creating wealth" and who therefore deserve huge salaries and bonuses.

As we can see, these very clever people paid huge amounts for their cleverness had no idea how this money was being made, the idea that they do detailed research and use all sorts of clever knowledge which really is "creating wealth" is nonsense. The research and intelligence they used here was nothing more than "this guy is making 10% returns, so we'll invest in him". Well, come on, we could all do that. I suggest someone whose investment skills involves looking up return rates, putting money there, and nothing else is worth the sort of salary a low level admin type would get - say £30K max.
 
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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Consider a Liberal nation, of a quick and piercing spirit 

Considering that the ‘Wand of Office’ of our party President is a copy of Milton’s Areopagitica, it is slightly sad that we have not as a party made something more of the 400th anniversary of Milton’s birth.
This neglect alas is general across the country. Milton even got left out (as far as I could see) from the “Devil’s Whore” TV quasi-history drama even though the Areopagitica was specifically written to support John Lillburn, a central character in history as in the drama..

Lots of good stuff in all that classical and biblical argument, and burningly relevant today:


Lords and Commons of England, consider what nation it is whereof ye are, and whereof ye are the governors: a nation not slow and dull,but of a quick, ingenious, and piercing spirit, acute to invent,subtle and sinewy to discourse, not beneath the reach of any point the highest that human capacity can soar to......

The adversary again applauds, and waits the hour, when they have branched themselves out, saith he, small enough into parties and partitions, than will be our time. Fool! he sees not the firm root, out of which we all grow, though into branches: nor will beware until he sees our small divided maniples cutting through at every angle of his ill united and unwieldy brigade.


And our War On Terror besieged minds should reflect that things were no less frighteningly urgent in his day. But he was no Daily Mail leader writer:



First when a city shall be as it were besieged and blocked about, her navigable river infested, inroads and incursions round, defiance and battle oft rumoured to be marching up even to her walls, and suburb trenches, that then the people, or the greater part, more than at other times, wholly taken up with the study of highest and most important matters to be reformed, should be disputing, reasoning, reading, inventing, discoursing, even to a rarity and admiration, things not before discoursed or written of…

It is good to see this tradition of Liberty upheld today by Lord Lester in his damning indictment of Labour’s civil liberties record. Here, in our Liberal tradition, is one of the firm roots out of which we all grow. Milton would surely have applauded:

I can not praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.

Lets not be mute and inglorious today when we need to make the spirit of Milton live amongst our own dust and heat.

Areopagitica: Full text part 1 and part 2 here, annotated

Footnote: Bridget Fox points out that Milton wrote paradise Lost in Chalfont St Giles, which happens to be the birthplace of a certain Mr Clegg …

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Good post, but I think Areopagitica was the ‘Wand of Office’ of the old Liberal Party President; in the Liberal Democrats, for the last 21 years, surely it's been Mill's and Taylor's On Liberty?

The LDYS Chairs had a copy passed on of Conrad Russell's An Intelligent Person's Guide to Liberalism, which I assume will carry on in Liberal Youth, but I may be getting just as out of date...!
 
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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Another Nukes initiative - Global Zero 

The Global Zero campaign aims to secure the complete elimination of nuclear weapons from the world through a step-by-step plan. The campaign was launched at a conference in Paris on 8-9 December. I note that one prominent signatory is a certain David Owen, which will raise scorched eyebrows in veterans of the ‘Alliance’ defence policy bunfights preceding the LibDem phoenix.

One hundred international political, military, business, and civic leaders from across political lines launched a new initiative today in Paris to eliminate nuclear weapons globally to combat the threat of proliferation and nuclear terrorism. Called Global Zero, the initiative will combine high-level policy work with global public outreach to achieve a binding agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons through phased and verified reductions.
Each leader has signed a Global Zero declaration calling for a binding, verifiable agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons by a date certain.


With the backing of such people as Zbigniew Brzezinkski , Her Majesty Queen Noor , Muhammad Yunus, and Jimmy Carter this one cannot be dismissed as fringe starry eyed radicals. What should our party do to take this initiative into account in evolving our own defence policy? Which is still something we largely seem to be ignoring

One of the decisions the new Obama administration will have to make is whether to continue with the development of a new generation of Nuclear warheads. Some of the signatories of Global Zero signed an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal back in November 2007.

The 2010 nonproliferation treaty renegotiations are not that far away…

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Freedom discouvers roads that supression cannot find - Cuban events 

Now here’s a find: a blog run by young people in Cuba, and one that gives some real insights into life in that much-mythologised island.

It is spearheaded by Yoani Sanchez, who seems to be an extraordinary woman indeed. The ethos looks a marvellously liberal one: “Freedom discovers roads that suppression cannot find”. I wouldn’t mind that one as an election slogan for the LibDems! She is so upfront about what she is doing that her profile page includes a picture of her national identity card.

The future of Cuba could be very interesting especially now that the USA will shortly have at least the capacity to make intelligent choices over its relationship with Cubans. This is definitely a resource to watch…

See this post for example about the reluctantly-conceded benefits of the fragments of a free market in foodstuffs… and what still remains extraordinarily absent.

Various of these blog posts are translated, almost in real time into English, and with some selective delays into languages such as Lithuanian (like this one on the longest war – Cuba’s intervention in Angola), German, Bulgarian and Finnish.

On the site is a current press release:

December 6, 2008
Between December 5 and 6 the first exchanges of a knowledge workshop have begun to take place between people who maintain Internet blogs from the Island and others interested in exploring this medium. Conceived from its beginnings as a journey of study with several stages, the encounter was deprived of its inaugural session because agents from the Interior Ministry cited and officially announced to some participants that they would be prohibited from attending the inauguration in the city of Pinar del Río. It is not possible to provide documented evidence of this prohibition because said agents refused to confirm it in writing.
But freedom discovers roads that suppression cannot find. That’s why the workshop participants, faithful to their choice of dialog and the search for viable alternatives, turned to other methods to begin the journey, without having to physically travel from one territory to another.
There have been several initial topics: General notes about a blog, conducted by Yoani Sánchez, which addresses technical questions related to the software appropriate for a blog; The writing of a blog, proposed by Reinaldo Escobar, with a debate on the application of journalistic norms in drafting the new language of cyberspace; and finally, The Ethical Blogger, where Eugenio Leal introduces concepts relative to ethical conduct in this novel way of transmitting ideas and information. The texts of these discussions and others will be posted on a website.
The exchange of experiences took place in an informal atmosphere of respect for different opinions and purposeful debate.
Promoting this experience were the collaborators from the digital magazine
Convivencia and from the Desde Cuba portal , among others.
These first steps constitute an authentic management of knowledge. Among the suggested initiatives is a call for participants in a competition for Cuban blogs, to be launched in 2009. These new variants to the plan of study about Cuban blogs remain open to all interested parties.

Hope there are interested parties other than the Cuban Secret Police to keep a friendly eye on all of this.

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Selfish Interests in Cameron NI initiatives? 

The mating dance of the greater spotted Cameron with the Ulster Unionist Party raises some interesting issues. One of the eternal verities of The Situation in ‘Ulster’ or the ‘Six Counties’ or ‘Northern Ireland’ is that some words have a terrible charge of hidden meanings.

For example the phrase ‘Britain has no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland’ was part of the so-called Downing Street Declaration of 15 December 1993 endorsed by the last Tory Prime Minister, John Major. This implied recognition by the UK of dynamic semi-detachment was vital for the evolution towards the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. For those hostile to the Union it implied the possibility of peaceful evolution to detachment from the Union.

The Irish Times outlines some concerns about Cameron’s declaration of fundamental Unionism and the intention of the UU and Conservatives to fight every Ulster seat as one party.

We must presume that the Conservatives of 2008 have invested sufficient resources into their decision making to navigate the arguments that might arise from perceived contradictions between many interpretations of the Downing Street Declaration spirit and the declaration of ‘integrity within the Union’ in Cameron’s speech.

The Alliance Party (our NI bretheren) say the shrinking UUP dinosaur offers nothing for the Tories and point out the recent electoral deals the UUP have made with the highly sectarian TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice).

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Friday, December 05, 2008

South Africa to cross border into Zimbabwe? 

For what it is worth, South Africa seems to be steeling itself to intervene in Zimbabwe (if this report in the Times of SA of 5 Dec 2008 is to be believed). Whether this proposed ‘humanitarian initiative’ avoids degenerating into a war will probably depend on whether Zimbabwe soldiers who are currently unpaid as the currency collapses even further see a better economic future for themselves in a post-intervention society.*

The flight of cholera victims across the border into SA (Matabeleland South is one of the worse affected areas) makes it impossible (literally) to quarantine the overall problem any more from a SA viewpoint.

Probably it would be better if such an intervention is not seen as being on the urgings of the United States or other extra-Africa powers though.

*On Wednesday 4 Dec 2008 the Zimbabwe dollar lost 60% of its value within minutes of banks re-opening with limits on cash withdrawals raised to Z$100,000,000 per transaction. The rate against the pound collapsed from £3.3 to £1 per Z$10 million.

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