Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

… says rich journalist/politician-felon Chris Huhne in the Guardian.

Just in case you haven’t been following this, Andy Coulson masterminded a criminal conspiracy to eavesdrop on private conversations and bribe public officials. His minions basically vandalised a police investigation into the murder of a 13-year-old. Now, his culpability as director of the operation has been difficult to establish in court, so unlike those minions he has been convicted only on a single relatively minor charge. He has been sentenced to just 18 months in prison, of which he will likely only serve one quarter.

But Huhne thinks the fact that the sentence is so short proves that he shouldn’t go to prison at all. He compares current penal practice to “the 1723 Black Act, which introduced 50 new hanging offences, including one for “hiding in a forest while disguised”.” He seems to think that the only proper purpose of prison is to restrain violent criminals. The rest is just playing to the tabloid-aroused bloodlust of the crowd. It’s one thing to lock up the evil people — BBC star pedophile Rolf Harris is his favoured example — but normal upstanding rich people like Coulson (and, by implication, Huhne himself) are much more useful on the outside. Merely being labelled criminals is enough suffering for their tender egos, unlike the hardened chavs who need to be sent to prison for looting a bottle of water, or receiving a single pair of looted underpants from a friend.

It’s depressing to be reminded of how primitive the thinking often is of people at the highest levels of government. Read the rest of this entry »

Ed Miliband eats a bacon sandwich during a visit to New Covent Garden Flower Market in May 2014I commented before about the weird obsession of journalists with photographing Labour leader Ed Miliband eating bacon sandwiches. Here’s another one. It’s genuinely unclear to me whether this is about demonstrating some kind of general average-Brit bona fides — like when American politicians eat deep-fried corn dogs — or whether it’s more specifically about demonstrating that he’s not too Jewish.

La planète des singes

Imagine a French cartoon showing a scene from “‘Batman’ à l’américaine”, showing a portly Batman stuffing his face with a cheeseburger, demonstrating how an American Batman would differ from the normal French Batman that everyone is familiar with.

The most recent (28 July, 2014) issue of The New Yorker has a cartoon, showing two figures trudging along a beach, from which the top of the Eiffel Tower can be seen poking through the sand; the woman holds the reins of a horse, the man has hurled himself to the ground, crying “Non!” The caption is “‘Planet of the Apes’ in French”.

So, I found myself wondering how this is supposed to be understood. Do most people know that Planet of the Apes was originally a novel (in French) by Pierre Boulle (author as well of The Bridge on the River Kwai), and that the Eiffel Tower does play an important role in the end of the novel? Does the author know? Does he expect the readers to know that? It very much affects how you read the cartoon, and what the humour is (which I’m having difficulty discerning). If he knows, then it’s presumably supposed to be some sort of comment on Hollywood appropriation of other countries’ icons. If he doesn’t know, then the joke is supposed to be about how ridiculous it would be for space explorers to be exotic Gauls, rather than normal Americans. Hence my thought above about how a comparably ignorant French cartoonist might “americanise” a normal French character that he doesn’t realise was already American to begin with.

One could spend the whole day and half the night recording the weird infelicities of expression that automatic spell-checking has wrought upon once-proud journalistic enterprises. But some are truly exceptional.

According tq The New Republic, his close associate Joseph Kagan (who was rumoured to be his KGB handler, by those who thought he was a Soviet mole) was a “clothing magnet”.

The New RepublicIt sounds like the kind of excuse a teenager caught shoplifting might use. “I don’t know how it got into my bag, your Honour. I seem to be a clothing magnet.”

The UK government is now all hot on pushing through a “British Bill of Rights”, which bears the same relation to what one ordinarily thinks of as a “Bill of Rights” as “Soviet realism” bears to realism, or “French letters” to letters: The emphasis is definitely on the “British”, rather than on the “Rights”. The goal is to limit rights (by preventing appeals to any authority above the UK parliament), rather than to expand or guarantee them. Anyway, Dominic Grieve, the now suddenly former Attorney General, who was fired along with all other opponents of this approach within the government, referred to it as

legal car crash with a built-in time delay.

If there is a time delay, then is it really a “car crash”? I’m having trouble picturing how this works, purely automotively. Perhaps this particular colourful expression would be better reserved for something that has more of a sudden and unexpected quality. And perhaps there is some other tired expression that a politician could trot out for a dangerous — perhaps even explosive — situation with a built-in time-delay fuse… Oh, I’m sure it will come to me…

For German self-deconstructing political clichés see here.

All Five Eyes — really, all eyes in the democratic world — are on Australia, watching its ingenious solution to what seemed an insoluble problem: How to conform the needs of modern network surveillance for combatting crime and terrorism, with the demands of democratic governance. In their remarkably forthright way, they have recognised that there are two basic problems:

  1. Espionage agencies have an alarming tendency to involve themselves in illegal activity;
  2. Their activities tend to cause scandals, as citizens grow alarmed by hearing of what they consider to be threats to their privacy.

Their solutions are equally forthright. Rather than trying stopgaps of limiting the information collected, time periods for which it can be stored, purposes to which the information may be applied, and blah blah blah, which are completely arbitrary, and only end up forcing hard-working spies to spend their time thinking up ingenious subterfuges to evade the rules, they have attacked the problem at its roots. According to a recent news report, the Australian government plans to propose legislation under which

  1. ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) will have the power to declare their activities to be “special intelligence operations”, in which intelligence officers receive immunity from liability for actions that would be “otherwise illegal”. Since requiring even the head of their own agency to sign off on unlimited warrants for lawbreaking would be too onerous, approval of ASIO’s deputy director general will suffice.
  2. To avoid scandals, all reporting on special intelligence operations will be banned, punishable by up to five years in prison. (And that’s only if the leaks are inconsequential; disclosing information that would “endanger the health or safety of any person or prejudice the effective conduct of a special intelligence operation” could get you 10 years.) The beauty of the system is that, since no one outside the organisation actually knows which operations are special, journalists — and academics, and pretty much everyone else — will have to stop talking about the security services altogether. And since the security services will have access to all of their electronic records in real time, there’s little risk of people deciding to hold these discussions in private.

Problem solved!

Once  Australians have stopped troubling their pretty little heads about espionage, all that redirected intellectual energy will help the Australian economy to better compete with China.

Numerous commentators recently have used the term “glass cliff” to describe the phenomenon whereby women finally get promoted to the top of an organisation after the all-male leadership has driven it into a crisis, so that the men get to benefit from the trust generated by such a conspicuous change, and also have a good scapegoat for the nearly inevitable failure.

I naturally thought of this when I read today’s reports on David Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle:

As shellshocked former ministers walked the corridors of Westminster on Monday night, there were the first signs of a backlash as the scale of the cull of middle-aged men became clear. “It’s the night of the long knives and that went really well last time,” one Tory said sarcastically, referring to Harold Macmillan’s* desperate attempt to shore up his government in 1962, when he sacked a third of his cabinet.

[...]

Tory sources have made clear that Cameron wants the “old lags” to move on to make way for women and younger men who will be promoted on the second day of the reshuffle on Tuesday. Esther McVey, the employment minister and former breakfast television presenter Truss, Nicky Morgan, the women’s minister, Amber Rudd, the whip, Anna Soubry, the defence minister, Priti Patel and Margot James, members of the No 10 policy board, are all expected to be promoted. This should take Cameron close to his target of ensuring that a third of his ministers are women.

You’d think Cameron had been trying and trying and trying to get women into his cabinet, and now, finally, with less than a year remaining in the parliament, has nearly accomplished the herculean task.

* It’s pretty funny that they explain the origin of this expression without referencing the Nazis. Though, apparently, the deeper origin of the expression is British after all, describing a massacre committed around the year 450 by Saxons against Roman Britons (described here, in German).

It is always enlightening to see how some of the same breathless optimism derived from our newest innovations, the claims that perennial problems are going to be solved at last, were also derived from innovations a century or more old, when they were new. In particular, I was struck by Kevin Birmingham’s account (in his remarkable book on the genesis of James Joyce’s Ulysses) of the early days of Random House, and its Modern Library series:

Both within and beyond universities, people began thinking that certain books illuminated eternal features of the human condition. They didn’t demand expertise — one didn’t need to speak classical Greek or read all of Plato to benefit from The Republic – all they demanded was, as [Professor John] Erskine put it, “a comfortable chair and a good light.” [...]

The Modern Library offered commodified prestige with the illusion of self-reliance. Readers could have the benefits of institutional culture without the institutions. They could rise above the masses by purchasing a dozen inexpensive books.

Replace “good light” by “fast internet connection”, and you have the promise of Coursera. Of course, that jibes well with the feelings that many skeptics have, who wonder why we need new technology to democratise education. As long as you’re lecturing to masses, where personal feedback is logistically impossible, doesn’t it suffice to have a well-stocked library?

Banks and casinos

The title may suggest I’m talking about the gambling proclivities of investment banks, but actually I’m talking about the way the high street banks treat their customers.

Many years ago I got fascinated by the fact that my mother seemed to be able to spend many hours playing blackjack in casinos, and not lose anything. I calculated the expected returns on a blackjack hand played with optimal strategy (but without counting cards). It turned out that the expected returns on a $100 blackjack hand are something like -$0.04. That means that if you play 1000 hands, your chances of coming out ahead are about 49.4%. Ridiculously close. Furthermore, that is the result of all kinds of extra options that are given to the player, like splitting cards, which each allow the player to move the odds ever so slightly in their favour — but obviously, they’ve been precisely calculated to make sure the odds of winning don’t go over 50%, since that’s a tipping point for the casino. But it’s so close to even that she could play 1000 hands at $10 each, and lose only $4 on average, much less than the value of the free meals and other inducements offered by the casinos.

So why do they do it? Why do they give the players all these extra tools, like splitting cards, to shave fractions of a percent off the house advantage? I realised that it’s a matter of giving players enough rope to hang themselves with. Most of these extras are almost never beneficial to the player. Most players will use them incorrectly, thus increasing their losses while simultaneously acquiring a satisfying sense of control over their fate. Read the rest of this entry »

The newspapers are full of the new rules, requiring that electronic devices be powered up at the security checkpoint before entering flights to the US. Apparently, this is in response to information that terrorists may be hiding explosives in smart phones.

Now, I am fully aware of the limitations of the usual common-sense criticisms of anti-terror and anti-crime measures. Most criminals are not masterminds, and the same is true of suicide bombers. But here we’re not talking about a bunch of crackpots with big ideas and a truck full of fertiliser. The whole premise is that a master bomb designer is packaging a bomb powerful enough to bring down a plane into a Samsung smartphone. Surely, with modern miniaturisation, he can also design it to include a reasonable simulacrum of an Android home screen. Maybe he just won’t think of it, but unless the intelligence agencies have some very specific design specs for this device, it seems like they’re targeting a very narrow gap of stupidity: Smart enough to design an ingeniously concealed bomb, not smart enough to make it behave, at least superficially, like a smart phone. (“Why has the email app been removed and replaced by the “Blow Up the Plane” app?”)

(And one more thought: If the phone is designed to explode immediately upon being powered up, then the effect of this measure will just be to kill a few dozen people at the security check, which is probably an improvement, but hardly counts as a solid win for our side.)

I am reminded of my favourite bit of security theatre, from about 2006. Passing through security in Montreal, the man ahead of me had a bag filled with small cans and jars of what looked like Jamaican delicacies. Solid food is permitted on the plane, but liquids are forbidden. But these were in sealed tins, and obviously you couldn’t open them all. So the security agent did what any reasonable person would do: He read the labels to determine the contents and quantity. All the cans and jars were cleared to be taken on the flight.

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