Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for November, 2014

Quotation marks

On the Guardian website front page right now is a headline

Cameron ‘did not bow to Merkel’

I found this wording interesting, for reasons that I’ll mention below, so I wanted to see who said it. But when I moved to the article, those words were nowhere mentioned. What it says is “The foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, has denied that David Cameron “backed off” over plans to cap migration from the EU after Angela Merkel told him she would not tolerate such an incursion into the principle of the free movement of workers.”

So, did Hammond say “bow”, or “backed off”, or something else entirely? When did quotation marks become acceptable for paraphrases? Or have I missed a subtle development in the distinction between single quotes and double quotes?

Screenshot 2014-11-30 10.26.42

I’m slightly intrigued by the issue of national leaders “bowing” to other leaders, which seems to be particularly influential in political cultures dominated by the culture of schoolboy taunts, as are those of the US and the UK — most especially the UK. I recall the scandal early in the Clinton presidency, when the new president was seen to have bowed to the Japanese emperor.

Administration officials scurried to insist that the eager-to-please President had not really done the unthinkable. “It was not a bow-bow, if you know what I mean,” said Ambassador Molly Raiser, the chief of protocol.

Of course, this was an emperor, not a head of state, and the suggestion was not that Clinton was bowing politically to foreign interests, but rather that he was showing too much obeisance to a monarch, not being true to America’s tradition of colonial independence and steadfast republicanism.

Who would have thought that, barely a decade later, a US president would be attacked by the right wing for his supposed “anti-colonial” roots?

Where to hold the negotiations?

The Tories are obsessively trying to find something to complain about with regard to EU migration, so that they can puff up their chests and say, “We’re standing up to those meddlers in Brussels! You don’t need to vote for UKIP.” The Tories will go into the next election with the slogan “We hate foreigners too. (But we’re not crazy about it.)”

Lacking a British equivalent to FOX News their polemics about “benefits tourism” have gained little traction because the phenomenon barely exists. Migrants come to work. So now they have a new strategy. He wants to be able to deny benefits — such as Jobseeker’s allowance — to EU migrants who have been here less than 4 years.

I have no strong opinion about the merits of this proposal, though I tend to oppose it. But how do I know that this is a very serious proposal directed at making the UK’s cooperation with Europe all that much more harmonious, and not merely a cynical electioneering ploy?

The proposal, which would require a rewriting of the EU’s social security rules, and possibly treaties, is to be delivered in an address in the West Midlands

Of course, that’s just where a British leader would present a proposal to rewrite treaties to allies whose concerns and opinions you take very much to heart. Will the negotiations be held entirely inside David Cameron’s skull, or will there be room for wider participation?

What would they do with the data?

The Conservatives and the security services are ramping up the propaganda for the digital panopticon, now particularly pressuring US-based social network companies to give up their quaint ideas of privacy. If you’re not with the snoopers you’re with the terrorists and the paedophiles.

“Terrorists are using the internet to communicate with each other and we must not accept that these communications are beyond the reach of the authorities or the internet companies themselves,” [David Cameron] told MPs after the report was published.

“Their networks are being used to plot murder and mayhem. It is their social responsibility to act on this.”

This refers to the government report on the murder of soldier Lee Rigby by an Islamist extremists Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, that accuses Facebook (not by name — the name of the company was only leaked to the press, for some reason) of failing to inform the security services that they had been carrying on conversations about plans to murder a soldier on Facebook.

Try this out with regard to telephone service: If criminals were found to have plotted a killing on the telephone — not that such things ever happened before there was Facebook — would that be taken to prove that the telecoms are responsible for monitoring the content of every phone call? What about the post? What if they didn’t use electronic media, but fiendishly took advantage of the fact that there is currently no electronic surveillance in everyone’s bedrooms?

Why aren’t the security services who have been downloading all of our communications, including everything on Facebook, supposedly to protect us from terrorism, responsible for detecting the terrorist chats?

Those who see no problem with the collection of vast quantities of private data by various security services, or who see it as a necessary evil, tend to assume that Western democracies can ensure through legal structures that the information is used in the public interest, in the defence of democracy. Others believe this is naïve. There is nothing about Western democracy that nullifies the basic truths of humanity, and how people respond to the temptations of power.

If you are having difficulty imagining what our wise and good protectors in the security services might get up to if they had access to a complete collection of correspondence, maps of contacts, purchasing history for everyone in the country — indeed, for most of the world — consider this historical affair that has recently been in the news: (more…)

The men in the white vans

Should I be surprised that after living in this country for seven years there’s still a lot that I don’t know about the culture? I was genuinely confused by the furorethat led to the drumhead expulsion of Emily Thornberry from the Labour shadow cabinet, following her tweeting this picture.B25NbWHIUAAJxsy.jpg-largeThere was no text, other than a note that this was from Rochester yesterday, where the anti-immigrant UKIP was expected to win a by-election. Yet, everyone seems to agree that publishing this photograph shows elitist contempt for the good people of Rochester. It’s not clear that anyone can explain it to me either. Ed Miliband told the press

Asked what reaction he felt when he saw such an image, Mr Miliband said “respect”. He added: “I thought there was nothing unusual or odd, as her tweet implied, about having England flags in your window. “That’s why I was so angry about it and that’s why I think it’s right that she resigned.”

Now, granted that Ed Miliband is not the most eloquent speaker, or the most coherent thinker, but if his reaction to the image was “respect”, and that “there was nothing unusual or odd”, how did the tweet imply that it was unusual or odd? It reminds me of the joke about the woman who rings the police to complain about the man who regularly walks by her house whistling dirty tunes. (It’s a bit of a “protests too much” response, since it is surely a bit odd to have two very large flags hanging on the house, one of which is completely blocking a window.)

Part of the response seems to follow from the stereotype that hovers around the white van in the driveway, which I had never heard of, but according to Wikipedia the driver is

perceived as selfish, inconsiderate, mostly working class and aggressive. According to this stereotype, the “white van man” is an independent tradesperson, such as a plumber or locksmith, self-employed, or running a small enterprise, for whom driving a commercial vehicle is not the main line of business, as it is for a professional freight-driver.

The origin of “tool” use

I always thought that the word “tool”, used to mean a fool easily manipulated, particularly by advertising or consumer marketing (though more recent usages have veered closer to “unfashionable” for those who don’t believe they follow fashions) was a recent neologism, derived from the 1960s phrase “capitalist tool”. The capitalist tool was the pendant to the “commie symp”, and there’s a nice parallelism in the way “tool” rhymes with “fool” (which rhymes with “pool”) and “symp” is like “simp”.

I just happened across a piece of 1760s political doggerel in Robert Middlekauf’s history of the American Revolution, an attack on Massachusetts state representative James Otis, Jr., called Jemmibullero:

And Jemmy is a silly dog, and Jemmy is a tool,

And Jemmy is a stupid curr, and Jemmy is a fool.

And Jemmy is a madman, and Jemmy is an ass,

And Jemmy has a leaden head and forehead spread with brass.

The value of diagnosis

What is diagnosis worth, if there is no treatment? This is a perennial question in medical ethics. I recall a passage in Roy Porter’s history of medicine, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, referring to the sardonic praise heaped upon the clinic in Vienna (I think it was), where the magisterial diagnoses were always “swiftly confirmed at the autopsy”.

An article in Salon recounts the revelation from autopsy that comedian Robin Williams was suffering from Lewy body dementia at the time of his recent suicide. The article quotes the programming director of the Lewy Body Dementia Association, saying “Though his death is terribly sad, it’s a good opportunity to inform people about this disease and the importance of early diagnosis.” I know this is the sort of thing that someone in her position is required to say, but given that there is no cure, and very little by way of effective treatment, I wonder what “importance of early diagnosis” she is referring to, and what she takes the relevance of this event in particular to be. That early diagnosis allows you to know what’s happening while you’re still fit enough to take your own life?

Association by guilt

Guilt by association — you’re friends with a terrible person so you must also be one — is generally recognised as a pernicious logical fallacy. But what should we call this comment by Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson, explaining why Norwegian trauma surgeon Mads Gilbert has been banned from returning to Gaza after he made critical remarks about the Israeli military activities this past summer? Dr Gilbert, he opined, is

not on the side of decency and peace and he’s got a horrible track record. I wouldn’t be surprised if his acquaintances are among the worst people in the world.

In other words, he’s a terrible person, so I’m sure his friends are too. Is this association by guilt?

Holes in the Brussels underwear

One felicitous phrase that has long stuck in my mind, and even substantively affected my thinking, came at the end of an essay by Garrison Keillor, on the social value of hypocrisy. He told of a small town that lost multiple upstanding citizens, including the minister, to serial revelations of adultery. “Sinners are more important to a town’s economy than saintly people are, and they are better citizens. A gnawing sense of guilt makes them more willing to serve on committees.” He concludes with a paean to the communities built by

people with enough holes in their underwear to make them careful crossing streets.

I wonder if EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker may be just such a person. The Commission is under pressure to take action against tax avoidance schemes. He is being attacked by some for his role in making tax fraud the driving engine of the Luxembourg economy during his many years as prime minister. His embarrassment has become particularly acute since investigative journalists recently published secret Luxembourg government files on corporate tax affairs. But maybe this makes him just the person to oversee the cleanup. It’s not just the “takes a thief to catch a thief”, knowing-where-the-bodies-are-buried qualification. It’s that he’s sufficiently embarrassed by his past misdeeds to be seeking redemption through honourable work, and he knows that whatever he does will receive an extra measure of scrutiny.

While I’m on the topic, I just want to mention again how irritating I find the disclaimers that always appear in articles on this topic, that “These arrangements… are perfectly legal.” This is wrong for two reasons:
1. Often the laws pertaining to international tax arrangements allow certain transfers to be made for valid business reasons, but not for the purpose of avoiding taxes. Now, they are structured in such a way as to make it impossible to prove that tax avoidance was the purpose, so they can’t be convicted in court, but that’s different from “legal”. As I commented before, it’s like pushing someone off a cliff when no one else is around. No one can prove that it was murder, but that’s different from it being legal.
2. These arrangements are extremely complicated. Their legality depends upon the precise details of how they are structured. This means that only a very careful analysis of the details can determine whether they are indeed legal. What the journalists have found out is that Luxembourg basically rubber-stamped the reports, suggesting that the details have not been authoritatively vetted by anyone. If someone is making good-faith attempts to comply with the law, then it seems fair to treat the result as presumptively valid. If, on the other hand, he is making every effort to evade the intention of the law through technical compliance, then it seems fair to judge only the technical accomplishment of the task, and hammer him for any technical error, even it’s just a misplaced comma.
Live by the technicality, die by the technicality.

Alleged allegations

Do journalists even think about where they’re putting the word “alleged” as an incantation to ward off accusations that they might be making unproven accusations of criminality? Here’s a paragraph from today’s Guardian:

Scotland Yard has launched a criminal investigation into claims a child was killed by a paedophile ring alleged to have high-level connections to the establishment.

The Guardian understands the claim involves the alleged killing of a child during the alleged activities carried out by members of the ring.

There was an alleged killing during alleged activities. Shouldn’t that be “alleged members of the alleged ring”? If it turns out the members didn’t actually carry out any activities, then they wouldn’t really constitute a “ring”, would they? Conversely, if this was a “paedophile ring”, as the first sentence asserts, implicit in that is that there were activities, including paedophile activities, so why are they referred to as “alleged activities”? Perhaps “alleged child”, if it’s not yet clear if this particular crime has any basis in reality.

Journalist investigated to prove perjury exposed

From today’s Guardian:

The BBC pulled a planned exposé of Sun on Sunday journalist Mazher Mahmood, after a last-minute intervention from his lawyers…

I had great difficulty parsing this sentence. On the first go, my grammar module pegged “Sun” as the object of the exposé (but why not “The Sun”?), Sunday as a date — possibly the planned date of broadcast, or when the broadcast was cancelled — and journalist Mazher Mahmood presumably someone involved in the exposé or in announcing the cancellation — but then why did the clause end there? It all could have been made clear if Sun on Sunday had been put in italics.

I am reminded of a section in Steven Pinker’s book Words and Rules (I think he’s the best popular writer on linguistics — alas he tends to embarrass himself when tempted to write on other topics) where he describes “garden path sentences” — sentences that seem ungrammatical because of the way one is first inclined to parse them. The odd thing is that an informational context can make them grammatical, albeit awkward. For example

The horse raced past the barn fell.

Like the horse, the reader stumbles at the end. “Fell” looks like it’s just an excess verb tacked on. But it seems like a perfectly well-formed sentence if it is extended to

The horse raced past the barn fell. The horse walked past the barn proceeded safely.

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