“Zelensky loves your ass”

There’s a lot of competition for the weirdest moments in the Ukraine bribery-extortion-political meddling affair that underlies the current impeachment hearings, but for me there’s not much that can compete with the testimony of diplomat David Holmes that he overheard hotel-magnate-cum-ambassador Gordon Sondland telling Trump that Zelensky would “do anything you ask for” because Zelensky “loves your ass”.

My first reaction on reading this — I may have understood it differently had I heard it spoken — was that it was most bizarre for a head of state to be commenting (favourably or unfavourably) on the intimate anatomy of the US president. And that Trump didn’t strike me as someone particularly concerned about his toned glutes.

I quickly realised that this is not actually an erotic compliment, but rather an application of the somewhat gangster argot that uses “ass” as a general intensifier. I am reminded of the section of Gravity’s Rainbow titled “On the phrase ‘ass backwards’”, where the literal-minded Berlin drug dealer Säure Bummer asks a group of AmericanS

Why do you speak of certain reversals — machinery connected wrong, for instance, as being “Ass backwards”? I can’t understand that. Ass usually is backwards, right? You ought to be saying “ass forwards,” if backwards is what you mean.

After a typical digression about umlauts and helicopters Seaman Bodine replies

“‘Ass’ is an intensifier, as in ‘mean ass’, ‘stupid ass’ — well, when something is very backwards, by analogy you’d say ‘backwards ass.’”

“But ‘ass backwards’ is ‘backwards ass’ backwards,” Säure objects.

“But gee that doesn’t make it mean forwards.”

I’m still not exactly sure what “he loves your ass” actually means and, in particular, whether it conveys an erotic charge.

Extra precision: Currency edition

I have commented before on the phenomenon where changing units turns an obviously approximate number into a weirdly precise one. Here is a new example, from the Guardian’s disturbing report on the mass slaughter of donkeys for the use of their hides in traditional Chinese medicine:

Since the booming skin trade has driven up donkey prices, owners struggle to replace their animals when they are stolen. The cost of a donkey in Kenya increased from £78 to £156 between 2016-19.

£78 seems like an oddly precise figure for what is surely a very diverse market in animals of varying qualities. Even weirder is that that precise figure precisely doubled in the period under consideration. Then it occurred to me, at current exchange rates £78 is about what you get when you convert the round number of US$100. So I’m going to hazard a guess that the reporter was told that the price had risen from around $100 to around $200, and simply converted it to pounds for the UK market without further comment.

The other Trump-Ukraine transcript

A preview:

President Zelensky: Hello, Mr President. I call to confirm what we agreed at the end of our previous conversation. After you say everyone went home, so it missed being on the official transcript.

The President: Thank you, Mr President. As the interests of world peace are to me second in importance only to the interests of the United States of America, it is most important that our plans be carried out exactly as we agreed.

President Zelensky: Yes, that was what you said to me last time, during that interval when the stenographer said she had urgently to use the -- how did he say? -- little boys' room? My advisors tell me that you are very brave to pursue only what is best for your country, despite the evil distortions of the fake news media.

The President: The understanding of my fellow world leaders is all I can hope for. Now repeat back to me the steps of the plan we agreed.

President Zelensky: Yes, as you know, for political reasons I must emphasize the so-called threat from Russia, but in fact our nation is menaced most severely by the corruption emanating from a gang of American oligarchs who my people have termed "the angry Democrats". We thought these were primarily the family of your former Vice President, but we have discovered that the criminal organization is also being led by Senators Warren and Sanders and, according to a recent poll, by the mayor of one of your smaller cities, whose name I find difficult to pronounce.

The President: Yes, and we're doing what we can.

President Zelensky: I understand. You explained to me that this conspiracy has its tentacles in your "deep state", who are protecting their criminal machinations. That is why we agreed that you would have to make a show of withholding the military aid, that we really do not need anymore.

The President: It is the only way to force them to reveal their corrupt plans, by luring them into an impeachment trial.

President Zelensky: So brave. Have I told you that The Ukrainian Academy of History will be presenting its report on presidential harassment at its next annual meeting? These meetings are usually held in Ukraine, but then they found out about the deals available at a spectacular resort in Miami, called Mar-a-Lago. Have you heard of it? My minister of culture was very skeptical, but when they explained how superior the facilities are to anything we have in Ukraine, we almost could not afford not to move the meeting there. They will be presenting a report confirming that no leader in history has ever been so treated so unfairly as you. Despite the unprecedented strong economy, including record low unemployment for African Americans. If you don't mind my saying so, if your unqualified predecessor had had half so good an economy…

Harrod’s massacre of the innocents

Herod the Great: Ancient Judaean tyrant and department store magnate

From today’s Guardian:

Harrods limits Christmas grotto to £2,000-plus spenders

I think it’s fair to say that there is nothing that makes Jews in the US and UK feel more alien than Christmas, and nothing weirder about Christmas for those not part of that culture than the Santa Claus/Father Christmas complex. As I’ve commented at length before, I have always been genuinely baffled by the custom of persuading children to believe — not just play believe, but genuinely believe — in a mythical figure that no adult believes in. Unlike belief in God, or trustworthy government, which can lead to awkward but also fruitful discussions, this one depends on the children never asking the question. Once they ask the question the jig is up, or the parents need to lie, or create elaborate deceptions that are the stuff of modern legends. This puts children from non-Christian religious traditions in an awkward position, because they have to keep this obvious truth from their fellows, or be accused of undermining the Christian family, which is a heavy burden to place on five-year-olds.

Which brings us to today’s headline.

Amid all this there is nothing odder — unless it’s the workshop literally in the middle of the ocean — than the nexus of Father Christmas to capitalism. On the one hand, there’s the whole racist sweatshop vibe (brilliantly parodied by S J Perelman in his Clifford Odets spoof Waiting for Santy) that’s supposed to paste a gift-economy covering over the cold cash transaction of holiday purchases. On the other hand, there’s the literal use of the Santa Claus figure for in-store sales promotion.

The Knightsbridge department store has been accused of “behaving like the Grinch who stole Christmas” by restricting access to its Father Christmas to customers who have spent at least £2,000 in the 170-year-old shop.

One customer complained that his family’s Christmas tradition “had been ruined by Harrods’ greed”, and that the store

has turned the charitable nature of Father Christmas into a money-making venture.

I think Harrods is playing with fire here. How long until Father Christmas finds out about the grasping nature of his partner and pulls out of this arrangement, which he obviously had entered into in the assumption that an upscale London department store could be counted on to put the interests of ordinary people first?

Really, if wealthy capitalists can’t be trusted anymore to eschew greed and promote the general welfare, who can we turn to? Any ideas? Karl? Friedrich?

Pointing the finger at finger-pointers

Boris Johnson obviously considers himself a master rhetorician. His fascination with striking words and images, combined with his inability to structure a sentence — perhaps out of indiscipline, perhaps attention deficit, perhaps just out of a general mismatch between high education and mediocre intelligence — makes his speeches read like something out of one of William S. Burroughs’s less successful cut-up compositions.

The clash of tone and images can be jarring, as in the quote on the cover of yesterday’s Daily Telegraph:

Given the leanings of the Telegraph, I’m assuming this was intended to flatter Johnson, not to mock him. And yet… Illustrating an accusation of finger-pointing with a photo of the accuser pointing his finger? And that’s before we even get to the hoary Labour is Stalinist accusation. In 2019? Really? So Johnson has to show that it’s not just a tired slogan by bringing some historical detail into it. With foreign words. So they’re persecuting kulaks. British kulaks should tremble! Before the horror of Jeremy Corbyn, who would be just like Stalin: a notorious scold!

16th century lessons on fake news and disinformation

I’ve just been reading an interesting book on the relationship between two 16th-century social-media influencers, Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther (Fatal Discord, by Michael Massing). I was struck by one comment that came up at the Diet of Worms that speaks to our current conundra over propaganda and disinformation.

Luther argued that he could not recant all of his writings, since some stated truths universally acknowledged by Christians. They must point out to him which particular assertions were false, and demonstrate the falsity with citations from genuine authorities, which could only be scriptural.

Determined not to be drawn into a debate, the theologian Johann Eck countered that Luther’s

assertion that some of his books contained teachings that were sound and acceptable to all was specious, for heretical books, going back to the Arians, had been burned, despite containing much that was godly and Catholic. In fact, Eck said, no doctrine is more effective in deceiving than that which mixes a few false teachings with many that are true.

This is a clear formulation of the principle of optimal fakery that I have discussed at length in this essay.

The no quid pro quo party

Hearing Donald Trump and all his lackeys repeating “no quid pro quo” ad nauseam gave me flashbacks to an earlier Republican president:

This was sufficiently prominent to be parodied in Doonesbury:

Rick: Sir, off the record, what’s the deal with Honduras? It really is starting to look like you cut a deal with President Suavo to support the Contras…
Bush: Rick, that’s just a bunch of needless, reckless speculation, so let me help you out, fella…The word of the President of the United States, me, George Bush, is there was no pro quo! Repeat, no… quid…pro…quo! Ergo, no de facto or de jure nolo contendere! Reporters: Quis? Quois?

Betting on Brexit

A popular approach to defining subjective probabilities is to ask, under what terms would you be willing to bet on this outcome. “I’d be willing to bet” is a common way of expressing confidence. Presumably that’s what Michael Gove is appealing to here:

Gove insisted the UK would still definitely leave on 31 October, saying he had even made a bet with Matt Hancock, the health secretary, that it would happen.

Sounds pretty convincing. Except… It’s another member of the cabinet that is taking the other side of the bet. And not just any other member, but the health secretary, whose preparations are kind of important.

So, we are left with the following options:

  1. The cabinet has no idea what’s going to happen next week. And instead of spending their time earnestly trying to figure it out, they’re gambling on the outcome.
  2. Insiders are entirely confident that Brexit will happen on 31 October, but the health secretary is clueless. And the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lanchester (that is genuinely his cabinet job title), instead of trying to bring him up to speed, is taking advantage of his cluelessness to make some money with a bet whose outcome he has covert information about.
  3. This is just another ridiculous story made up by what are supposed to be responsible public servants.

I suppose he didn’t say what odds he’d given Hancock…

Trump supporters are ignoring the base (rate) — Or, Ich möcht’ so gerne wissen, ob Trumps erpressen

One of the key insights from research on decision-making — from Tversky and Kahneman, Gigerenzer, and others — is the “base rate fallacy”: in judging new evidence people tend to ignore the underlying (prior) likelihood of various outcomes. A famous example, beloved of probability texts and lectures, is the reasonably accurate — 99% chance of a correct result — test for a rare disease (1 in 10,000 in the population). A randomly selected person with a positive test has a 99% chance of not having the disease, since correct positive tests on the 1 in 10,000 infected individuals are far less common than false positive tests on the other 9,999.

This seems to fit into a more general pattern of prioritising new and/or private information over public information that may be more informative, or at least more accessible. Journalists are conspicuously prone to this bias. For instance, as Brexit blogger Richard North has lamented repeatedly, UK journalists would breathlessly hype the latest leaks of government planning documents revealing the extent of adjustments that would be needed for phytosanitary checks at the border, for instance, or aviation, where the same information had been available for a year in official planning documents on the European Commission website. This psychological bias was famously exploited by WWII British intelligence operatives in Operation Mincemeat, where they dropped a corpse stuffed with fake plans for an invasion at Calais into the sea, where they knew it would wind up on the shore in Spain. They knew that the Germans would take the information much more seriously if they thought they had found it covertly. In my own experience of undergraduate admissions at Oxford I have found it striking the extent to which people consider what they have seen in a half-hour interview to be the deep truth about a candidate, outweighing the evidence of examinations and teacher evaluations.

Which brings us to Donald Trump, who has been accused of colluding with foreign governments to defame his political opponents. He has done his collusion both in private and in public. He famously announced in a speech during the 2016 election campaign, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” And just the other day he said “I would think that if [the Ukrainean government] were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens. It’s a very simple answer. They should investigate the Bidens because how does a company that’s newly formed—and all these companies—and by the way, likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine.”

It seems pretty obvious. But no, that’s public information. Trump has dismissed his appeal to Russia as “a joke”, and just yesterday Senator Marco Rubio contended that the fact that the appeal to China was so blatant and public shows that it probably wasn’t “real”, that Trump was “just needling the press knowing that you guys are going to get outraged by it.” The private information is, of course, being kept private, and there seems to be a process by which formerly shocking secrets are moved into the public sphere gradually, so that they slide imperceptibly from being “shocking if true” to “well-known, hence uninteresting”.

I am reminded of the epistemological conundrum posed by the Weimar-era German cabaret song, “Ich möcht’ so gern wissen, ob sich die Fische küssen”:

Ich möcht’ so gerne wissen
Ob sich die Fische küssen –
Unterm Wasser sieht man’s nicht
Na, und überm Wasser tun sie’s nicht!

I would so like to know
if fish sometimes kiss.
Underwater we can’t see it.
And out of the water they never do it.

Election hacking, part 2

Given that the official US government response to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has been essentially nothing, and the unofficial response from Trump and his minions has been to welcome future assistance, I’ve been assuming that 2020 will be open season for any other intelligence agencies with a good cyberwar division to have a go. Why should the Russians have all the fun?

And number one on my list would be the Israeli Mossad. Is this so obvious that no one thinks it worth mentioning, or so wrong-headed that even crazy people don’t think of it? They’re technologically sophisticated, have excellent contacts to the US political establishment, and they have already demonstrated the absence of any compunction at interfering in US internal affairs. They are also highly motivated: Having bet the entire US-Israel relationship on the premise that Trumpism will rule in the US forever, Israel’s security essentially requires the destruction of US democracy. At least, that’s how they’ll rationalise it to themselves.

Something to think about, one week before Israel’s parliamentary election.