Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for May, 2014

Porn suits

One of Roald Dahl’s final and most bitter stories (from the late 1980s) tells of a scam engineered by a rare book seller, who picks names out of the obituaries, and then sends a bill to the grieving family that includes expensive items of exotic erotica. The families inevitably pay the bill and avoid asking any embarrassing questions, assuming that the deceased had kept these proclivities well hidden.

I was reminded of this when I saw this article in The New Yorker, about the web site X-art.com, that has become “the biggest filer of copyright-infringement lawsuits” in the US.

Today, they average more than three suits a day, and defendants have included elderly women, a former lieutenant governor, and countless others. “Please be advised that I am ninety years old and have no idea how to download anything,” one defendant wrote in a letter, filed in a Florida court. Nearly every case settles on confidential terms, according to a review of dozens of court records…

It is hard to see why anyone facing such a suit would choose not to settle: hiring a lawyer costs more than settling, and damages are exponentially higher in the event of a loss at trial. Plus, no one wants to be publicly accused of stealing pornography. To avoid embarrassment, many defendants may choose to settle before Malibu Media names them in a complaint.

Weird Ed

Thursday were elections — local council elections and European parliament. The European results are being held back until Sunday, when other countries will be voting, but the local results show what look like solid improvement for Labour, big losses for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and substantial increases for the anti-immigrant UKIP. (Substantial because they held only two council seats before, and now they have over 100.) So the main topics of the news coverage were, of course,

  1. Labour is floundering.
  2. UKIP expected to do very well, perhaps get the most votes, in the European elections.

The best I can understand, the opposition is expected to gain a protest vote against the government currently in power in non-national elections*, so the fact that much of the protest vote was soaked up by UKIP makes them look like losers, because their gains were less than expected (if you ignored UKIP). Except, that reasoning is odd: Labour didn’t do badly in an absolute sense; they didn’t do badly in a prognostic sense — the protest vote is fleeting anyway, and their ability to hold it against a clown parade like UKIP says little about their performance in a general election.

But really, this was just an occasion, however inappropriate, for some anonymous Labour grandees to gripe about Ed Miliband. In particular, The Times quoted one as saying Miliband

looks weird, sounds weird, is weird.

(more…)

Liverpool accent

One of the things most migrants to Britain suffer from — regardless of whether English (of some flavour) is their native language — is a sort of dialect-colourblindness, the inability to recognise regional and class distinctions of accent and dialect. I can now more or less identify “northern” speakers, London working class, urban midlands dialects, and the accent that people refer to as “posh”, as distinct from the fairly neutral accent of BBC announcers, and I already knew the Scottish and Northern Irish accents before I came. I had to learn for my permanent residency “Life in the UK” test that the Liverpool dialect is called Scouse, while the Newcastle speech is Geordie, but I can’t recognise the difference between those and Manchester or Yorkshire speech respectively. And the important thing is, even if you can pick the right one out of a lineup, you don’t have the proper associations with them. Thus, I was completely unaware that northern accents are scorned, and many northerners are defensive about the way they are perceived. I’ve learned to recognise these accents, but the associations that British people bring to them are purely abstract facts to me. Similarly the various lower-class urban (see e.g. Scouse, above) and rural dialects.

All of this is prelude to an extraordinary comment that I came across in reading Mark Lewinsohn’s The Beatles: Tune In, the first volume of a projected 3-volume biography of The Beatles. (more…)

Leopold Bloom’s speculations

I was just reading Ulysses for the first time in more than 20 years (actually, listening to the wonderful reading by Donal Donnelly), and among other things I was struck by the extent of Bloom’s scientific interests and speculations. But one other thing that jumped out at me was Bloom’s fantasy, as he is falling asleep, of schemes to raise money to become a country squire. One of those crazy hypnagogic schemes was similar to the scheme that I described as the reductio ad absurdum of financial technology, spending a large part of a billion dollars to reduce the communication time between New York and Chicago or London by several milliseconds:

A private wireless telegraph which would transmit by dot and dash system the result of a national equine handicap (flat or steeplechase) of I or more miles and furlongs won by an outsider at odds of 50 to 1 at 3 hr 8 m p.m. at Ascot (Greenwich time), the message being received and available for betting purposes in Dublin at 2.59 p.m. (Dunsink time).

Of course Bloom, being a sensible chap, puts this on a level with “A prepared scheme based on a study of the laws of probability to break the bank at Monte Carlo” and a plan to obtain riches by finding a lost dynastical ring “in the gizzard of a comestible fowl”. And winning a million pound prize for squaring the circle. And all of this he values primarily as an aid to sound sleep.

Ironic headlines: Espionage edition

From a recent front page of the Guardian:

MPs condemn oversight of spy agencies

In fact, the article says that some MPs have recently been criticising the laxity of oversight of spy agencies. But even post-Snowden I think most of them are more inclined to condemn the very notion that mere mortals should have the effrontery to meddle with the security services. I mean, it’s not as though they couldn’t have been asking questions before Snowden had to sacrifice all comforts in his life by forcing this into everyone’s face.

Percents are hard

Some really bad science reporting from the BBC. They report on a new study finding the incidence of diagnosed coeliac disease increasing (and decreasing incidence of dermatitis herpetiformis, though this doesn’t rate a mention) in the UK. Diagnoses have gone up from 5.2 to 19.1 per 100,000 in about 20 years, which they attribute to increased awareness. Except, they don’t say what that is 100,000 of. You have to go back to the original article to see that it is person-years, and that they are talking about incidence, and not prevalence (in technical parlance); they use the word “rate”, which is pretty ambiguous, and commonly used — particularly in everyday speech — to refer to prevalence. If you read it casually — and, despite being a borderline expert in the subject, I misread it at first myself —  you might think they mean that 19 in 100,000 of the population of Britain suffers from coeliac; that would be about 12,000 people, hardly enough to explain the condition’s cultural prominence (and prominent placement on the BBC website). In fact, they estimate that about 150,000 have diagnosed CD in the UK.

As if aiming maximally to compound the confusion, they quote one of the authors saying

“This [increase] is a diagnostic phenomenon, not an incidence phenomenon. It is exactly what we had anticipated.”

In the article they (appropriately) refer to the rate of diagnosis as incidence, but here they say it’s not about “incidence”.

To make matters worse, they continue with this comment:

Previous studies have suggested around 1% of the population would test positive for the condition – but the data from this study suggests only 0.25% are diagnosed.

I think that normally, if you say “only x% are diagnosed” is meant relative to the number of cases; here it would mean 0.25% of the 1%. But, in fact, they mean to compare the 0.25% of the population who are diagnosed with the 1% who actually suffer from the disease.

Failed advertising: Henry’s restaurant at the Hotel Durant

I just spent a week at the Hotel Durant in Berkeley. Around the hallways were prominently displayed advertisements for their in-house restaurant Henry’s. “It’s back,” said the signs. “And better than you remember.” A bit further on the signs boasted of food that was “Fresh, seasonal, and surprisingly delicious.” So, my immediate reaction to all of this is, how close to a gastroenterological vision from Dante (first book) was it before the “extensive remodelling”? Without the “surprisingly” my eyes would just skip over the anodyne advertising copy. As it is, I can’t help but wonder why I should be surprised that they have delicious food, and whether this has anything to do with their protesting too much that the food they now serve is “fresh”.

Obviously, they’re trying to convince survivors of their previous version that it’s worth trying again. Maybe it will work. But those of us who were spared the experience are just left wondering how deep the hole was that they are trying to climb out of.

Update: I mentioned this to an older couple, Berkeley natives, and before I could get very far the following dialogue ensued:

“They’re probably referring to…”

“Oh, now don’t mention that. We’re about to eat.”

“Well, it was quite a while ago.”

The long arm of the gay mafia

I was amused by the intimations that cropped up in reports on Brendan Eich’s dismissal as CEO of Mozilla that he had been (in the words of one comedian) “whacked by the gay mafia”. Now, the “X mafia” is a standard lazy joke, and the more nonviolent the image of the group whose mafia this is supposed to be the better the appeal to those whose livelihood depends on a steady stream of cheap laughs. But my first reaction was that for gay people to be accused of mafia tactics must be a marker of progress — people don’t like the mafia, but they respect its power! Surely the notion that gay people are too powerful would have been a difficult concept to formulate until very recently.

I was wrong, at least as regards the entertainment industry. In Terry Teachout’s fascinating new biography of Duke Ellington, Mercer Ellington is quoted as saying that his father was unconcerned about Billy Strayhorn’s homosexuality.

But Mercer also reports that Ellington believed in the existence of “a Faggot Mafia… He went on to recount how homosexuals hired their own kind whenever they could, and how, when they had achieved executive status, they maneuvred to keep straight guys out of the influential positions.”

The death of irony: Snowden edition

I have commented before on the self-contradictions in the attempts by the US to portray Edward Snowden as a common criminal, while themselves taking an “everybody does it” approach to flouting other countries’ laws, and, indeed, its own Constitution.

Now comes a report in Der Spiegel, on a legal opinion presented by the US to a German parliamentary investigatory committee that is considering inviting testimony from Snowden:

Es sei bereits eine “strafbare Handlung”, so der US-Jurist, wenn der “Haupttäter” (gemeint ist Snowden, Anm. Redaktion) etwa durch deutsche Parlamentarier veranlasst werde, geheime Informationen preiszugeben. Gegebenenfalls könne das als “Diebstahl staatlichen Eigentums” gewertet werden. Je nach Faktenlagen könnten Strafverfolger gar von einer “Verschwörung” (conspiracy) ausgehen.

It would be in itself a “criminal offence”, according to the US lawyer, if the “offender” (meaning Snowden) were induced by, for example, German members of Parliament, to reveal secret information. This could be considered “theft of state property”. Depending on the exact circumstances, it could even be prosecuted as a “conspiracy”.

Are US intelligence services really advocating the principle that acquiring secret information from other governments is a criminal offence, one for which individual legislators or indeed an entire parliamentary committee (and why not the whole German Bundestag, and the government to boot?) could be prosecuted? I think it shows the extent to which the US government is, in the Age of Obama, sees international law as a set of rhetorical tricks for expressing the hopelessness of any resistance to US government interests, rather than any set of rules and principles to which all might be subject.

But maybe they really mean to establish the principle that asking for information is illegal. The only valid way to obtain information is theft or torture.

“He does not miss church”

A modestly interesting article in The Atlantic about the influence of parents on their children’s politics includes a delightfully ambiguous sentence. It quotes a Christian conservative Floridian:

“My son, when he was 16, thought he should be able to decide for himself whether or not he would go to church,” he recalls. “I explained to him that I agreed with him and when he moved out and was self-supporting, he could certainly make that decision for himself. Today as an adult he does not miss church.”

So, does the son attend church or not? From the smug context I presume that, in fact, the son attends church regularly — that is, he “never misses church”. But on my first reading I missed a few cues, and thought that the son never goes to church, and he “does not miss” it.

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