Tag: crime and freedom

Democracy and Hacking

The New York Times has published a long analysis of the effects of the hacking of Democratic Party organisations and operatives in the 2016 election campaign.

The article is obviously trying to appear a balanced view, eschewing the “OMG we are at war with Russia” hyperbole and questioning the value of different pieces of evidence. It does slip here and there, for instance jumping from the involvement of “a team linked to the Russian government” (for which there is considerable evidence) to “directed from the Kremlin” without justification.

The evidence that the hackers who penetrated the DNC systems and John Podesta’s email account are linked to the Russian Government is that the same tools were used as have been used in other pro-Russian actions in the past.

*Update 4th Jan 2017: that is a bit vague: infosec regular @pwnallthethings goes into very clear detail in a twitter thread)

One important consideration is the sort of people who do this kind of thing. Being able to hack systems requires some talent, but not any weird Hollywood-esque genius. It also takes a lot of experience, which goes out of date quite quickly. Mostly, the people who have the talent and experience are the people who have done it for fun.

Those people are difficult to recruit into military or intelligence organisations. They tend not to get on well with concepts such as wearing uniforms, turning up on time, or passing drug tests.

It is possible in theory to bypass the enthusiasts and have more professional people learn the techniques. One problem is that becoming skilled requires practice, and that generally means practice on innocent victims. More significantly, the first step in any action is to work through cut-out computers to avoid being traced, and those cut-outs are also hacked computers belonging to random victims. That’s the way casual hackers, spammers and other computer criminals work, and espionage hackers have to use the same techniques. They have to be doing it all the time, to keep a base of operations, and to keep their techniques up to date.

For all these reasons, it makes much more sense for state agencies to stay arms-length from the actual hackers. The agencies will know about the hackers, maybe fund them indirectly, cover for them, and make suggestions, but there won’t be any official chain of command.

So the hackers who got the data from the DNC were probably somewhat associated with the Russian Government (though a comprehensive multi-year deception by another organisation deliberately appearing to be Russian is not completely out of the question).

They may have had explicit (albeit off-the-record) instructions, but that’s not necessary. As the New York Times itself observed, Russia has generally been very alarmed by Hillary Clinton for years. The group would have known to oppose her candidacy without being told.

“It was conventional wisdom… that Mrs. Clinton considered her husband’s efforts to reform Russia in the 1990s an unfinished project, and that she would seek to finish it by encouraging grass-roots efforts that would culminate with regime change.”

Dealing with the product is another matter. It might well have gone to a Russian intelligence agency, either under an agreement with the hackers or ad-hoc from a “concerned citizen”: you would assume they would want to see anything and everything of this kind that they could get. While hacking is best treated as deniable criminal activity, it would be much more valuable to agencies to have close control over the timing and content of releases of data.

So I actually agree with the legacy media that the extraction and publication of Democratic emails was probably a Russian intelligence operation. There is a significant possibility it was not, but was done by some Russians independent of government, and a remote possibility it was someone completely unrelated who has a practice of deliberately leaving false clues implicating Russia.

I’ve often said that the real power of the media is not the events that they report but the context to the events that they imply. Governments spying on each other is completely normal. Governments spying on foreign political movements is completely normal. Governments attempting to influence foreign elections by leaking intelligence is completely normal. Points to Nydwracu for finding this by William Safire:

“The shrewd Khrushchev came away from his personal duel of words with Nixon persuaded that the advocate of capitalism was not just tough-minded but strong-willed; he later said that he did all he could to bring about Nixon’s defeat in his 1960 presidential campaign.”

The major restraint on interference in foreign elections is generally the danger that if the candidate you back loses then you’ve substantially damaged your own relations with the winner. The really newsworthy aspect of all this is that the Russians had such a negative view of Clinton that they thought this wouldn’t make things any worse. It’s been reported that the Duma broke into applause when the election result was announced.

The other thing that isn’t normal is a complete public dump of an organisation’s emails. That’s not normal because it’s a new possibility, one that people generally haven’t begun to get their heads around. I was immediately struck by the immense power of such an attack the first time I saw it, in early 2011. No organisation can survive it: this is an outstanding item that has to be solved. I wouldn’t rule out a new recommended practice to destroy all email after a number of weeks, forcing conversation histories to be boiled down to more sterile and formal documents that are far less potentially damaging if leaked.

It is just about possible for an organisation to be able to adequately secure their corporate data, but that’s both a technical problem and a management problem. However, the first impression you get is of the DNC is one of amateurism. That of course is not a surprise. As I’ve observed before, if you consider political parties to be an important part of the system of government, their lack of funding and resources is amazing, even if American politics is better-funded than British. That the DNC were told they had been hacked and didn’t do anything about it is still shocking. Since 2011, this is something that any organisation sensitive to image should be living in fear of.

This is basically evidence-free speculation, but it seems possible that the Democratic side is deficient in actual organisation builders: the kind of person who will set up systems, make rules, and get a team of people to work together. A combination of fixation on principles rather than practical action, and on diversity and “representativeness” over extraordinary competence meant that the campaign didn’t have the equivalent of a Jared Kushner to move in, set up an effective organisation and get it working.

Or possibly the problem is more one of history: the DNC is not a political campaign set up to achieve a task, but a permanent bureaucracy bogged down by inferior personnel and a history of institutional compromises.  Organisations become inefficient naturally.

Possibly Trump in contrast benefited from his estrangement from the Republican party establishment, since it meant he did not have legacy organisations to leak his secrets and undermine his campaign’s efficiency. He had a Manhattan Project, not an ITER.

The task of building–or rebuilding–an organisation is one that few people are suited to. Slotting into an existing structure is very much easier. Clinton’s supporters particularly are liable to have the attitude that a job is something you are given, rather than something you make. Kushner and Brad Parscale seem to stand out as people who have the capability of making a path rather than following one. As an aside, Obama seems to have had such people also, but Clinton may have lacked them. Peter Thiel described Kushner as “the Chief Operating Officer” of Trump’s campaign. Maybe the real estate business that Trump and Kushner are in, which consists more of separate from-scratch projects than most other businesses, orients them particularly to that style.

The Crime Rates thing

One of the problems reactionaries draw attention to, as an example of the ineffectiveness of the modern state, is the threat of crime.
To this, progressives respond with statistics showing that incidences of crime per capita have been on a general downward trend for the last few centuries. Stephen Pinker recently published a book on this point, and anti-reactionaries are, understandably, making a big deal of it.
There are various measurement difficulties with crime rates, but Pinker isn’t a climate scientist, and so it’s not likely that all the measurement errors are going in the same direction.
Are perceptions of increased danger just wrong, then? They could very plausibly be the product of media sensationalism and heightened expectations. But I have doubts that frequency of crime, particularly frequency of crime per thousand of population, are really the right measure.
After all, fear of crime isn’t a passive, background thing. You don’t sit and worry that you’re going to be mugged before your next birthday. You worry when you walk home from the railway station at night. Fundamentally, you worry when you go out of a highly protected area.
So the intensity of your worry depends on what the risk is of going out of a protected area for a time. If people are doing that much less often than they used to, then it might have got more dangerous to do so, yet incidence of crime will be down.
There are a few reasons why people might be doing dangerous things less often. Many people have cars, which are mobile fortresses with lockable doors. That’s our old friend, advances in technology masking other problems. It might be that some areas that were dangerous are now safe. That would be a genuine improvement, a real diminution of crime and the threat of crime. It might be that some unsafe areas are now so unsafe that people rarely go there at all, which would actually be an increase in the threat of crime, without showing in the statistics. Then there’s the scale question:
Fleet Street in London is still Fleet Street. It’s the same length it was when Pepys walked down it, from Ludgate Circus to Chancery Lane.
If crime rates are the same as they were a hundred years ago, does that mean there should be the same number of crimes on it, or a higher number in proportion to the change of population? Or in proportion to the change of population divided by the change in the total length of road? But should that be all road, or important town-centre type street? Society does not scale linearly.
It would be interesting to see a town that stayed approximately the same size over decades, and look at its crime statistics, to eliminate these difficult scaling factors. But a town that stayed the same size would almost certainly have changed its role, relative to other towns. Not so helpful.
One thing that occurred to me is a football match. A big match is like a temporary town — in population, it’s the size of a small town. Is a football “town” the same size as a hundred years ago, and is it more or less violent?
Oh. The answer is that it’s smaller, because the level of violence had grown so much by the 1980s that the government forced reductions in stadium capacity, along with other measures.
That’s one indication that, isolated from scale effects and technology, violence has become worse.
Of course, history goes on: football stadiums are now less violent than they were in the 1980s, and for all I know less violent than they were in the 1930s, because they have become highly-policed zones.
The simple summary: there is no simple summary. Waving the hand and talking about “more crime” is wrong, at least relative to population. Some areas of life have become less policed, while some have become extremely heavily policed, and much safer. The things we do that expose us to risk of crime have changed, partly due to technology, partly due to bigger towns and cities, and partly due to social changes. If you want to show that some particular activity has become more dangerous today than in the past, concentrate on that — specific evidence is somewhat clearer than aggregate statistics. Moldbug’s “Map of areas a person can walk alone in confidence” is the right general approach (thanks to @lexcorvus for the link).
Update. I still don’t feel that I’m hitting the nail on the head. I feel that crime is something that should be at the edge of society. We have expanded — scaled — society, but we are measuring crime rate relative to the volume, not the size of the edge. A sort of square/cube law error.

Payday Lending and the Justice System

The Office of Fair Trading has identified poor practice by payday lenders. It seems they “fail to work out whether people can pay” the loans they make to them, and therefore people unwisely take on loans they cannot pay back.

The theory, presumably, is that even though the customers know they will have to pay substantial fees and interest some weeks in the future, they still sign up, because they think the future problems won’t be as bad as the current problems which are solved by getting the money up front. The OFT is claiming that it is irresponsible to put people in that position.

They may well have a point. Many people do seem to dismiss from consideration adverse consequences that are a long way off: even if they are told that a debt will double in size over six months if they don’t pay it back promptly, they either don’t care, or assume something will come up, or assume they can somehow get away without paying.

But if the Office of Fair Trading takes this view, which I think is a reasonable one, I wonder what they think about the way the criminal justice system works in this country?

Let’s say you feel a taxi-driver has disrespected you in some way. Beating him unconscious might be one way to resolve the situation. However, if you do that, you could be tried and sentenced to some kind of punishment.

Given the OFT’s assessment of the capabilities of Wonga’s clientèle to judge whether they should take on a debt payable in a month or so, how much difference does it make whether you are sentenced for GBH next week or in twelve months’ time?  If the prospect of having to pay £2,000 in a year isn’t putting people off borrowing £250 for a new phone today, is it going to put them off grabbing the same phone off a passer-by?

I found the taxi-driver story because it got slightly more reporting than usual, the culprit being a player on the local football team. I don’t think a new signing to Luton Town is actually a celebrity in any way that would have made his treatment different, but I needed the extra reporting, because when the local press report convictions and sentences, they don’t generally say when the offence was committed. And while the papers do contain a handful of reports of crimes committed, I have not been able to match up any crime reports with any court reports, outside of major crimes like murders. It’s the treatment of the routine minor violent crimes that I am interested in.


March 19, 2013


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My twitter stream tells me that three hundred odd years of a free press are at an end, that blogs like this one are going to be regulated by the government.

It might even be true. The establishment is quite capable of riding a popular wave and then doing something completely unrelated when they actually get around to acting. After the Dunblane massacre, the government banned crossbows. After the World Trade Centre bombing, the government passed a law giving itself the power to seize the assets of Icelandic banks. It is perfectly plausible that the government would respond to the News of the World accessing Milly Dowler’s voicemail by silencing bloggers.

On the other hand, the cross-party negotiations that produced the agreement yesterday appear to be the usual symbolic battle about nothing at all, this time in the form of a pointless distinction between “statutory” and “non-statutory” regulatory frameworks. Some some of the commentary takes that argument seriously, making me doubt whether the commentators concerned are actually paying attention.

I don’t know. I’m perfectly fine with not knowing. If this new thing really is going to restrict my blogging, I’ll find out soon enough. The only case in which I would need to know now would be if I could actually do something useful about it. It is that illusion that causes all the ignorant flapping speculation about something that will be perfectly obvious within a few months.

In any case I can’t get too worked up because, while I believe that basic freedom of communication is an important freedom which governments should respect if they want the society and economy to function smoothly, I don’t believe in the “political right” of free speech as a way of opposing the government. I don’t believe in any political rights, and if the government tries to shut me up, it is making my own argument for me.

Effectively, my ignorance is doubled. As well as not knowing whether the government is or isn’t going to seriously clamp down on the press and/or blogs, I do not know, in the full context, whether that would be a bad thing or a good thing. I might be fairly sure that, other things being equal, it would be a bad thing, but other things are not equal. The end of press freedom might cause a major reactionary swing, which might hasten the downfall of the democratic regime and the restoration of Royalism, which might be a good thing. It might cause a major liberal swing, which might preserve the democratic regime longer than otherwise, which might cause a better successor regime to replace it than would otherwise be the case, which might be a good thing. Not only can I not judge how likely these outcomes are, I can’t imagine the depth and breadth of knowledge that would make it possible to judge how likely those outcomes are. It’s preposterous for me to sit here and claim to know whether this is good or bad.

Finally, of course, and looking only at the short term effects that it is actually possible to estimate, the government is far too incompetent to actually be able to suppress opposition media. Not only that, Western governments have gone to great lengths to provide mechanisms for dissidents in non-democratic countries to publish electronically without effective control. Either we can use those, or the non-democratic governments themselves will provide a mirror-image in order to show up the incoherence of the West. Imagine the UK trying to lean on China to shut down websites used by British dissidents — they would laugh their arses off.

The real suppression we face is by society refusing employment or otherwise acting informally against those who hold unfashionable opinion. That is the reason I write anonymously. But that exists already, and we are coping with that — I don’t think the law will produce nearly as much oppression as exists already in the form of unwritten liberal blasphemy law.

Hitchens vs Paddick

November 18, 2012


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I happened to find myself with Wednesday evening free (a few weeks ago), so I coughed up ten quid to see Peter Hitchens debate Brian Paddock over the drug laws at St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street.

The subject isn’t one which interests me greatly, but I find Hitchens always worth reading and I work nearby, so I went to see him in action.

The debate centred entirely on cannabis. Hitchens’ thesis, stacked in £17 hardbacks on a table by the door, is that cannabis is much more dangerous than is generally supposed, and is at least comparable in harm to what are recognised as “hard” drugs.

Interestingly, Paddock (a former senior London police officer who has run unsuccessfully for Mayor the last two elections), agreed that cannabis is very dangerous to young people. He implied that the risks of severe psychological damage coming from cannabis use were lower than Hitchens had suggested, but both of them were very reluctant to quantify, both agreeing that accurate statistics of either use of or harm from cannabis are difficult to come by.

Hitchens has a very strong argument on the frequent comparison of drug prohibition with US alcohol prohibition, which is that alcohol prohibition did not ban possession or consumption of alcohol. I confess that that fact had never really registered with me. The argument that flows from that is that if you actually want to stop consumption of alcohol or cannabis, you have to ban it, and mean it, and that current drug policy is repeating the mistake of prohibition.

The weakest point of Hitchens’ argument was not really explored, but he claims, first, that cannabis has been effectively legal for forty years, and, second, that once it has been legal and widespread, it is practically impossible to get rid of it. By that logic, it is already too late.

I threw a question in towards the end, but by that point the questions were being gathered in batches, and neither speaker addressed it. I asked if either of them could explain why, when substances such as tobacco, salt and butter are being more restricted on health grounds year by year, it is even on the agenda that this one product, cannabis, be subject to more relaxed regulation, against the general trend.

There were some right morons in the audience. The first questioner went into a tedious, pointless rehashing of the best-known arguments on the subject, taking almost as long as the seven minutes each speaker was allotted to make their initial case.

 Ultimately, the reason I don’t find the subject so interesting these days is because I rather suspect that a sane and efficient state could ban dangerous drugs effectively, or legalise them, and do better either way than we do. The precise details of how HM Government screws up drug policy just make for another tedious sordid history. Drug prohibition fails because of the astonishing inefficiency of the legal system — a simple arrest, conviction and sentencing for cannabis possession ought to take about one man-hour of police time and maybe three man-hours of lawyers and another three for administrative court staff. I get the impression it is about ten times that level, which makes the whole process unworkable. Alternatively, drugs could be legal if people had to take responsibility for their own welfare, but the toxic state dependency culture turns drugs which can be enjoyed in moderation by people who have serious responsibilities into life-destroying obsessions for those who have nothing else to do. My pet obsession, the infantilising of 15-25-year-olds, makes them  particularly susceptible.

The real problems we see both from the “War on drugs” and from drug abuse flow not primarily from drug policy, but from other failings of the state.

Executions in North Korea

I take this as an encouraging sign

North Korean army minister ‘executed with mortar round’

As a supporter of the principle of absolute monarchy, I do not believe that the problem with North Korea is that it has a hereditary ruler. Indeed, now in the third generation, I would expect to see the benefits of hereditary rule to be starting to show themselves.

So far I have been disappointed. North Korea’s government remains terribly bad. As I have written previously, I attribute this to the fact that, while hereditary, the government does not rest on the principle of hereditary right. Its political formula is built on a form of Marxism, and while the extra stability given to it by its ad-hoc monarchism has served to preserve it well beyond the normal lifespan of Marxist states, it doesn’t confer the full advantages of an explicitly hereditary system.

What I am interested in, when it comes to the guessing-game of looking at the politics of North Korea, is whether the Marxist-politburo “scientific” government or the early-modern Monarchical government has the upper hand. The first is bad, the latter good.

The story that has leaked out of North Korea is that Kim Chol has been executed for unfeelingly carrying on with high living during the mourning period for the late King, Kim Jong-Il, and further, that the young King, Kim Jong-Un, was so outraged that he demanded “no trace be left”. Therefore the unhappy vice-minister was stuck out in a field to be blown up with heavy weaponry.

That is seriously badass — we’re talking Tudor. The vital points are that (a) the offence was against the Royal Line, not the state or the politburo. And (b) the punishment was driven by personal anger, not a scientific principle of government. The Soviet Union was famously practical and humane about executing the deviationists, this is the opposite. Finally, it suggests that, if there is still some kind of internal power struggle going on — perhaps a continuation of some struggle over successsion — those with power are determined to win it absolutely. These three elements all point to better government for North Korea going forward.

Does this mean I want future King William V indulging in such Bond-villan escapades, come the Restoration? In extremis, yes. If senior, trusted members of the administration back the wrong side in a civil war, there is much to be said for going 16th-century on their arses. In peacetime, not so much. A good administration is one where the rule of law can be counted on. Once it is established that the King can rule by personal whim, he has little need to, since he will gain more by running a successful state.

Of course, with North Korea, it is not clear that the best thing would be for the government to improve. If the government failed and collapsed, the natural outcome would be a reunification under the South Korean government, which has an enviable track record over the last half century.

However, South Korea’s government has only one way to go, and that’s down. It is not twenty years since the country stepped onto the democratic conveyor belt, and it is not reasonable to expect the quality of governance that the DJP exercised to continue into the future. That doesn’t mean we should expect rapid decline in the quality of life there — One of the major misunderstood patterns of history is that secure autocracy produces peace and prosperity and, enjoying wealth and freedom, the subjects, associating wealth and freedom with the ruling class, expect that as they have the wealth and freedom of the ruling class, they should gain political power as a natural consequence. The autocrat is replaced or shackled, and the momentum of the former peace and prosperity produces a flourishing of improved life that the new regime first unfairly takes credit for, and then gradually proceeds to destroy.

Those who benefit most from their government are least loyal to it.

So, the story coming out of North Korea is consistent with a hereditary ruler cementing his dominance over rival power centres within the régime. That is by no means the only explanation, so any optimism should be very tentative.

Jimmy Savile

There’s a lot of mystified chatter around these days along the lines of, “How did Jimmy Savile get away with it”. There are some fun theories (David Icke is on form there), but the truth is at once boringly prosaic and shocking.
In the 1960s and 70s, being into teenage girls wasn’t a big deal.
It wasn’t exactly respectable, but DJs weren’t respectable anyway. It wasn’t legal, but neither was drink-driving, and everybody in those days did that.
Being into teenage boys was a bit worse, but that’s because homosexuality was not well-regarded. Stories about choirmasters or scoutmasters or latin masters who were a bit too friendly with their charges were common jokes. Not shocking, “alternative” jokes, but boring, mother-in-law, Benny Hill, variety show jokes.
I think messing about with pre-pubescent girls or boys was another matter, but Hugo Rifkind’s story, from Savile’s autobiography, where he keeps a runaway remand school girl home overnight, was not the sort of thing someone with a reputation for being a bit rough and wild anyway would be shy of admitting.
This is another example of those changes in attitude that are so severe and sudden that the culture just blanks out that things were ever different, leaving odd inexplicable anomalies like Jimmy Savile, the friendly childrens’ entertainer and sex-case. 

Social-network threat models

There have been a couple of comments on my peer-to-peer blogging post, both addressing different threat models than I was looking at.

My posts were looking at countermeasures to continue blogging in the event that public web hosting service providers are taken out by IP enforcement action. The aim of such enforcement action is to prevent distribution of copyrighted content: since I don’t actually want to do that I am not trying to evade the enforcement as such, just trying to avoid being collateral damage.  The major challenges are to avoid conventional abuse, and to maintain sufficient availability, capacity and reliability without the resources of a centralised service with a proper data centre.

Sconzey mentioned DIASPORA*.  That is an interesting project, but it is motivated by a different threat model – the threat from the service providers themselves.  Social-networking providers like facebook or google, have, from their position, privileged access to the data people share, and are explicitly founded on the possibilities of profiting from that access. Diaspora aims to free social-networking data from those service providers, whose leverage is based on their ownership of the sophisticated server software and lock-in and network effects.  To use Diaspora effectively, you need a good-quality host.  Blogging software is already widespread – if you have the infrastructure you need to run Diaspora, you can already run wordpress.  The “community pods” that exist for Diaspora could be used for copyright infringement and would be vulnerable to the SOPA-like attacks.

James A. Donald says “we are going to need a fully militarized protocol, since it is going to come under state sponsored attack.” That’s another threat model again. Fundamentally, it should be impossible for open publication: if you publish something, the attacker can receive it. Having received it, he can trace back one step where it came from, and demand to know where they got it from.  If refused, or if the intermediate node is deliberately engineered so messages cannot be traced back further, then the attacker can threaten to shut down or isolate the node provider.

In practice it can be possible to evade that kind of attacker by piggy-backing on something the attacker cannot shut down, because he relies on it himself.  That is a moving target, because what is essential changes over time.

(One could avoid using fixed identifiable locations altogether – e.g. wimax repeaters in vehicles. That’s not going to be cheap or easy).

James seems to be thinking more about private circles, where end-to-end encryption can be used. That’s more tractable technically, but it’s not useful to me. I don’t have a circle of trusted friends to talk about this stuff with: I’m throwing ideas into the ether to see what happens. Any of you guys could be government agents for all I know, so carefully encrypting my communications with you doesn’t achieve anything.

Law, Order and Prisons

This is a truly bizarre article.

The author, Christopher Glazek, makes a lot of good points about the American prison system, in which prisons are run by the inmates. He points out that according to some statistics, the majority of all rapes committed in the US occur in prisions. We have heard elsewhere recently that more black Americans are in prison today than were in slavery in 1860, and that more people are in American prisons than were in the Gulag Archipelago (although, to be fair, that is partly because the latter tended to die).

The solution proposed by Glazek is: to let the prisoners out to commit more crimes. There is no mincing of words; the title of the article is “Raise the Crime Rate”. Not for Glazek any wishful-thinking “prison doesn’t work” rhetoric, his thesis is clearly that it does work, but the price is too high.

Part of the weirdness is that he seems to regard a reduction in crime partly as a bad thing in itself:

Certain breeds of urban dwellers benefit, too. In gentrifying sections of Brooklyn, for example, steep drops in crime, combined with the virtual depopulation of entire city blocks, has underwritten a real estate boom. In neighborhoods like Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, wealthy people with children have reaped the benefits of climbing land values from apartments they never would have bought had it not been for the removal of tens of thousands of locals from adjacent areas.

Er, yes. Reducing crime makes neighbourhoods nicer and encourages people to live in them. That’s more or less the point.

What Glazek never addresses is the question of why the US is unable to keep order inside its own prisons. From an international point of view, this is the obvious question. The UK, as he observes, imprisons fewer of its criminals, but here there is no assumption that prisons are run by the inmates. There is a possibility that here we are just misled, but I don’t think so. There was for a time one exception to the rule, the Maze prison, where Northern Ireland’s terrorists were held, but the management of that prison, with opposing factions kept in separate wings run by their own paramilitary hierarchies, was a major controversy. The terrorists were de facto prisoners of war, though de jure that status was always denied them, and the contrast demonstrates that the situation in the mainland prisons really is different. Compare to this astonishing paper on the Mexican Mafia, which demonstrates that gang prisoners in California have essentially the same status as the paramilitary POWs of the Maze H-Blocks.

There are statistics in the article: the US spends 200bn a year on a system which employs 500,000 correctional officers to supervise 2.3 million prisoners. Is it really not possible to control crime inside the prisons with a ratio of more than one officer to five prisoners?. The abandonment of law and order inside American prisons is a choice, one probably inherited from the country’s frontier days, and one which simply cannot be justified. If violent criminals continue to commit — and suffer — violent crime inside prison, the answer is surely not to move them out to prey on the law-abiding, but to actually enforce order in the one place where it ought to be easiest of all to do. Don’t, as Glazek recommends, put TV cameras all over the country: put TV cameras all over the prison. (That was a progressive idea in 1791). And finally, if you’re going to release prisoners because there are too many, release the ones that don’t commit crimes inside.

A Case for Ispettore Zen

January 20, 2012


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I’ve probably mentioned before that I read a lot of crime novels. My favourites of the modern era are probably the Aurelio Zen series by Michael Dibdin. Zen, a detective of the Polizia di Stato, solves his cases with a blend of staggering luck and an involuntary bloody-mindedness which distracts him from his more important tasks of attempting to understand and navigate the women in his life and the political machinations of the Italian bureaucracy.

I have no idea how realistic Dibdin’s grotesque presentation of the corruption and hidden motivations of Italian life really is, but I have not been able to see the Costa Concordia story in any other context than as an Aurelio Zen mystery. The captain who accidentally fell into a lifeboat and then argued with the coastguard on the phone, the mysterious blonde on the bridge, the cruise line that was blaming their own captain for everything even while the passengers were still being rescued:  all we can be sure of is that nothing is what it seems to be, and nobody is telling the truth. Only Zen can actually get to the truth of it, and even if he does, we probably won’t know, because the official story might be completely different…