“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.

Vice and virtue

From a NY Times article on the crazy low success rates of applicants to prestigious (and even not-so-prestigious) US universities:

Bruce Poch, a former admissions dean at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., said he saw “the opposite of a virtuous cycle at work” in admissions.

The “opposite of a virtuous cycle”. There ought to be a name for that. Maybe, I don’t know, a “vicious cycle”?

(“Virtuous circle” is obviously a back-formation from “vicious circle”. It reminds me of the phrase “random act of kindness”, which seems to have almost superseded the “random act of violence” that it is obviously modelled on. Not that that’s a bad thing…)

Quoting clichés

There’s an interesting article in the NY Times on hackers’ use of remotely controlled devices like thermostats and vending machines to penetrate otherwise well-secured corporate networks. The subject matter is interesting, but I was also interested in the way experts were quoted. In particular, one network security expert

 compared the process of finding the source of a breach to “finding a needle in a haystack.”

I’m sure she really did use those words, but it seems peculiar to be putting a standard phrase like that in quotation marks, which are usually reserved for individual turns of phrase, or for emphasising the particular choice of words. In particular, it’s strange that only the cliché was quoted. It’s as though a national security reporter wrote “An administration source said the decision would have to be made by “the president”. Another source agreed that the decision would be made by “Barack Obama”.” Or “the engineer in charge of developing the product reduced the size of the design team, arguing that “too many cooks spoil the broth”.”

The Guardian got tired of waiting for France to elect a woman president

… so they decided to change the sex of the current one.

Guardian headline mentioning "Françoise Hollande"
Presumably Françoise is the one in the photo

I’m guessing that European Press Award they mention wasn’t for the excellence of their copyediting. I wonder if there’s some subliminally intentional slur in the way the Guardian made the French president a woman, while the NY Times made the German chancellor a man.

“Touched a nerve”

Wall Street Journal reporter Yukari Iwatani Kane has written a book about Apple, Inc. since the death of Steve Jobs. A highly critical book, apparently. In an email to reporters Jobs’s successor Tim Cook has basically called the book bullshit. In response, you might have expected the author to find a more or less deft way to say “No, it’s not bullshit.” Instead, he turns to psychobabble:

For Tim Cook to have such strong feelings about the book, it must have touched a nerve. Even I was surprised by my conclusions, so I understand the sentiment. I’m happy to speak with him or anyone at Apple in public or private. My hope in writing this book was to be thought-provoking and to start a conversation which I’m glad it has.

Not very encouraging. “Touched a nerve” is the sort of thing people say because it sounds good, but when you think about it, it really isn’t. Or rather, it could be good or bad, depending on the fundamental issue to which no response has been given. If the book’s account is accurate, then the fact that it touched a nerve among Apple’s leadership suggests that it’s also important. But if it’s bullshit, then “touching a nerve” means that it’s really offensive bullshit. The same with thought-provoking. If the book provokes interesting and well-grounded thoughts about the nature of modern capitalism, that’s a good thing. On the other hand, if it provokes utterly specious thoughts based on misconceptions, or provokes thoughts about the irresponsibility of modern publishers, that’s probably not a good thing.

It reminds me of an interview I once read with Bob Dylan from the 1970s, where he complained about the people who come up to him after a concert and say “Lotta energy, man!”

Hackers will be hackers

Guardian reporter Luke Harding has published some background material on the reporting for his new book The Snowden Files. Apparently someone in the security services decided to play with his mind while he was reporting on them. Not only did he and other reporters have laptops stolen (including from a locked hotel safe), not only did both the Guardian offices in London and in Washington, as well as the New York home of their US editor in chief suddenly have sections of pavement being dug up and replaced, but when Harding was texting his wife from Rio de Janeiro

“The CIA sent someone to check me out. Their techniques as clumsy as Russians.” She replied: “Really? WTF?” I added: “God knows where they learn their spycraft.” This exchange may have irritated someone. My iPhone flashed and toggled wildly between two screens; the keyboard froze; I couldn’t type.

And then, while writing the book at home in Hertfordshire,

I was writing a chapter on the NSA’s close, and largely hidden, relationship with Silicon Valley. I wrote that Snowden’s revelations had damaged US tech companies and their bottom line. Something odd happened. The paragraph I had just written began to self-delete. The cursor moved rapidly from the left, gobbling text. I watched my words vanish. When I tried to close my OpenOffice file the keyboard began flashing and bleeping.

Over the next few weeks these incidents of remote deletion happened several times. There was no fixed pattern but it tended to occur when I wrote disparagingly of the NSA.

Now, this isn’t the worst abuse of human rights in recorded history. It’s just a prank. But exactly for that reason, it underscores a point I made back at the beginning of l’affaire Snowden: Fear of the techniques the NSA and its confederates have been developing, and in the data they gather, depends not on their being villains with nefarious intentions. It depends on their being careless mortals who have no idea what use their techniques and their data will be put to.

I doubt that there was any senior official who thought that tipping off a Guardian reporter to their real-time computer manipulation capabilities would be a brilliant idea. My guess is, some bored hacker assigned to monitor Harding’s computer got cocky, and decided to show off his electronic muscles. (It’s pretty intimidating, though. Presumably it would be child’s play for them to remotely plant child pornography on the hard drive of someone they’re eager to shut down. At least in the old days, the spies needed to break into your home to plant drugs.)

GCHQ and the NSA can’t exist without hiring hackers, but getting hackers to work on your security problems is like the old lady who swallowed the spider to catch the fly. (She’s dead, of course.) I like hackers, by and large. But I like them as scrappy underdogs. The combination of arrogant macho hacker culture with essentially unlimited resources and military organisation is, to put it bluntly, terrifying. And if the leaders of our security services think they can keep the hackers under control, they’re delusional.

Demographic fallacies and classical music

I was just reading an article in Slate with the title “Classical Music in America is Dead”. The argument boils down to two points:

  1. Classical music listeners are a small portion of the population.
  2. Relatively few young people in the audience.

With regard to (1), I thought it interesting that he writes

Just 2.8 percent of albums sold in 2013 were categorized as classical. By comparison, rock took 35 percent; R&B 18 percent; soundtracks 4 percent. Only jazz, at 2.3 percent, is more incidental to the business of American music.

What’s interesting is that, while jazz is certainly a minority taste, and its trajectory in American culture has closely paralleled that of classical music in the 20th century, I don’t think anyone would claim that jazz is dead.

He quotes the critic Richard Sandow, who makes a demographic argument that

And the aging audience is also a shrinking one. The NEA, ever since 1982, has reported a smaller and smaller percentage of American adults going to classical music performances. And, as time goes on, those who do go are increasingly concentrated in the older age groups (so that by now, the only group going as often as it did in the past are those over 65).

Which means that the audience is most definitely shrinking. Younger people aren’t coming into it. In the 1980s, the NEA reported, the percentage of people under 30 in the classical music audience fell in half. And older people also aren’t coming into the classical audience. If they were, we’d see a steady percentage of people in their 40s and 50s going to classical events, but we don’t. That percentage is falling.

Of course, this is vastly overstated. “Younger people” are “coming into it”… in smaller numbers than before. It’s an absurd fallacy (not uncommon, and addressed first (to my knowledge) in theoretical ageing research by Yashin et al. in the 1980s) that you can determine the longitudinal dynamics for individuals by looking at the cross-sectional age distribution.

Consider a model where individuals are recruited into classical music at a constant rate over their lifetimes, ending with 10% of the 80-year-olds. (We’ll leave the older population out of it.) Then about 11% of the adult audience would be under 30. Suppose there were now a change, just so that children under 15 were no longer being recruited into classical music, but after that age they continued to be enter at the same rate as before. Then the fraction of the adult audience under 30 would be halved, to about 5.5%. The number of people in their 40s and 50s going to concerts would decline by about 15%.

I’m not arguing that this is what is going on. A lot of the story is probably the general splintering of the music audience, and the fact that people increasingly prefer to stay home for their entertainment. (This is one reason why I have argued that the classical music establishment’s reliance on enormously expensive orchestras and opera companies is a mistake.) Just that you can’t make inferences about individual trajectories over time without data about individual trajectories.

Lazy headline clichés: Obesity edition

Am I the only one who is briefly bemused when a Guardian homepage headline refers to obesity “leaping” in the developing world, or when the headline on the article tells us

Obesity soars to ‘alarming’ levels in developing countries

I understand the need for colourful imagery in headlines, but it shouldn’t clash. Thinking about obesity leaping and soaring makes my head hurt. We might imagine a headline about a “Healthy increase in measles cases”, or “New NHS rules allow GPs to make a killing”.

The striving after punchy language sometimes makes for weird effects when combined with the English language’s exceptional parts-of-speech ambiguity, as in this BBC headline from the time of the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico:

BP caps shattered oil leak wellhead

At first I thought BP had put some caps on, which proved counterproductive because they shattered the wellhead. I forgot that headline writers like to put everything in the present tense (sounds more exciting that way, I guess), so what I thought was a noun (caps) was actually the verb, describing a success, and what looked like a past-tense verb describing the failed effort was actually a participle, referring to the state of affairs that started the whole story.

Distant relative: A transitive relation?

With regard to Martin Scorcese’s new film “The Wolf of Wall Street”, portraying ancien règime levels of decadence and debauchery in 1990s New York finance, based on the memoir of stockbroker Jordan Belfort, fellow broker and ex-convict Danny Porush commented

The book … is a distant relative of the truth, and the film is a distant relative of the book.

It’s a strange thing to say. I’m guessing he means to say that the film is even farther from the truth than the book is, but it’s perfectly consistent with a claim that the film (unlike the book) is the truth, or that it is closely related to the truth. By analogy, the famous rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is a distant relative of mine. And my brother is a distant relative of Adin Steinsaltz. But I am not distantly related to my brother.