Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘law’

The president’s dilemma

In the classic prisoners’ dilemma, two members of a criminal gang have been caught by police. There is enough evidence to convict them of minor crimes, but without testimony from one of them they will receive only a light sentence, say one year in prison. If one of them agrees to cooperate with the investigation, prosecutors will let him out for time served, and be able to send the other to prison for ten years. But if they both cooperate with the investigation, both will go to prison for five years (perhaps because the prosecutors will have their information, but not their testimony). Key to the game is that the players are unable to coordinate their strategy. Clearly the best for both of them would be to keep quiet, but the strategy of cooperating with the investigation is superior, from their private perspective, regardless of what the other player does. So they both talk, and both get heavy sentences.

One weird thing about the story here is that the symmetry really doesn’t make sense. It’s not impossible, but it’s peculiar to imagine prosecutors being so interested in pinning the major crime on someone that they’re willing to let a confederate walk free, but indifferent to who flips on whom. That suggests we consider a less-known hierarchical version of this game, where one player is the powerful boss of a crime syndicate — let’s call him “The President” — and the other one is “The Attorney”, who knows all the details of his crimes, and is sufficiently involved to be criminally liable himself. Let’s call this game “The President’s Dilemma”. (more…)

Natural frequencies and individual propensities

I’ve just been reading Gerd Gigerenzer’s book Reckoning with Risk, about risk communication, mainly a plaidoyer for the use of “natural frequencies” in place of probabilities: Statements in the form “In how many cases out of 100 similar cases of X would you expect Y to happen”. He cites one study forensic psychiatry experts who were presented with a case study, and asked to estimate the likelihood of the individual being violent in the next six months. Half the subjects were asked “What is the probability that this person will commit a violent act in the next six months?” The other half were asked “How many out of 100 women like this patient would commit a violent act in the next six months?” Looking at these questions, it was obvious to me that the latter question would elicit lower estimates. Which is indeed what happened: The average response to the first question was about 0.3; the average response to the second was about 20.

What surprised me was that Gigerenzer seemed perplexed by this consistent difference in one direction (though, obviously, not by the fact that the experts were confused by the probability statement). He suggested that those answering the first question were thinking about the same patient being released multiple times, which didn’t make much sense to me.

What I think is that the experts were thinking of the individual probability as a hidden fact, not a statistical statement. Asked to estimate this unknown probability it seems natural that they would be cautious: thinking it’s somewhere between 10 and 30 percent they would not want to underestimate this individual’s probability, and so would conservatively state the upper end. This is perfectly consistent with them thinking that, averaged over 100 cases they could confidently state that about 20 would commit a violent act.

The past isn’t even past

I was slightly perplexed by this statement by the PM’s spokesman about the defense minister’s misbehaviour:

He did say the prime minister believed her defence secretary was right to say sorry for repeatedly touching the knee of Julia Hartley-Brewer, a journalist, during a dinner. “He has been clear he apologised for something that took place in the past – it is right that he apologised in relation to that incident,” the spokesman said.

He added that the prime minister did not approve of Fallon’s behaviour towards Hartley-Brewer in 2002 but said the case was in the past and would not be taken further.

I’m wondering, what is the role of the repeated phrase “in the past”? There seems to be an attempt to excuse the behaviour, to say it’s not worthy of punishment, because of its pastness. How far would this go? “Your honour, I would like the court to consider that the murder of which my client is accused (and for which he has apologised) took place in the past, and should not be taken further.”

Update: Fallon has resigned. Apparently some of his inappropriate behaviour was not quite so distantly past…

This could have been me…

Ten years ago, still living in Canada, I had to look into the procedures for acquiring the right to work in the UK. As my partner is German, and would be working here as well, I had the right to live and work here under EU law. The procedure looked easier, and it would be free. Instead, I chose to spend hundreds of dollars to get my own UK work permit. Why? Looking at comments on various web forums I got the general impression that the UK authorities were generally hostile toward the EU. It seemed to me that I could have trouble if the laws or circumstances changed, and the UK bureaucrats felt that I had evaded their laws to sneak into the country under colour of foreign laws. I wanted to have my rights registered under UK law.

Here is what could have happened otherwise:

A Spanish woman who has lived in the UK for 15 years has accused the Home Office of treating her family like criminals after her American husband and the father of her three children applied for a permanent residency (PR) card.

In a three-year ordeal, the Home Office threatened to deport the historian Stuart Ross three times, suggested he was lying about his wife’s work as a Spanish language teacher and refused to accept a judge’s verdict in a Belfast court that officials had been wrong to refuse him a PR card when he first applied in 2013.

 

What we’ve come to

I wonder whether any Republican legislators, in a quiet moment alone, is troubled to realise that the path they’ve followed has led them to work to trash the reputation of a highly respected moderate Republican former deputy attorney general and (until very recently) director of the FBI. Does it ring any alarm bells for them? Do they think, this isn’t really what I expected to be doing with my life?

Trump’s cheap shyster responds to the former FBI director

I know that Donald Trump is famously stingy, but I would have thought a man with his history of persistent involvement with the shady side of the law would appreciate the value of competent legal assistance. Instead, he has this guy:

President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer on Wednesday responded to fired FBI Director James Comey’s prepared testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee by saying that Trump felt “completely and totally vindicated.”

“The president is pleased that Mr. Comey has finally publicly confirmed his private reports that the President was not under investigation in any Russia probe,” Marc Kasowitz wrote in a statement. “The president feels completely and totally vindicated.”

Seriously? The FBI director has presented what most people would consider overwhelming evidence of attempted obstruction of justice, attempting to block investigation of his close associates, strikingly similar but even more blatant than the actions for which Richard Nixon was forced to resign. The best his lawyer can come up with is to say that, in the course of the discussions in which he attempted to obstruct justice the president received assurances that he was not, at that point, two months ago, personally a target of investigation. That’s what he calls “totally vindicated”.

I suppose this is what you get when top law firms consider the president too skeezy to associate with.

Donald Trump’s Lawyer and the Monty Hall Shadow

Our distant descendants hunkering in their radiation-proof underwater bunkers will speak of “Donald Trump’s lawyer” proverbially, as an oxymoronic self-flagellating professions, the way we might speak of “Bernie Madoff’s accountant” or “Jeffrey Dahmer’s nutritionist” or “Water-safety officer on the Titanic”. Tom Lehrer spoke on one of his satirical LPs from the 1960s about people following the news with unease, feeling “like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis”. One might similarly say “I feel like Donald Trump’s lawyer”.

Our story to date: When last we saw Sheri Dillon it was a week before Donald Trump’s inauguration, and she spoke beside a table full of binders — none of which were ever seen by the public — which supposedly showed that Trump was taking some unspecified action that would resolve all legal and ethical conflicts arising from his business interests. They were the most prominent unseen-document-political-props since Joseph McCarthy’s infamous “list” of “known communists”. (Or perhaps Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women”.) (more…)

“Getting a bit of extra assistance is never cheating”

If I were a philosophy student with a looming deadline for an essay on casuistry, I know I’d turn to BuyEssay for expert help. The Guardian has reported on government moves to crack down on essay mills, that sell individually crafted essays for students who need “extra help” –anything from a 2-page essay to a PhD dissertation (for just £6750!) The article reprints some of the advertising text that these websites offer to soothe tender consciences.

“Is Buying Essays Online Cheating?” it asks, in bold type. You’d think this would be an easy question, hardly something you could spin a 300-word essay out of. But they start with a counterintuitive answer: “We can assure you it is NOT cheating”. The core of the argument is this:

What is essential when you are in college or university is to focus on scoring high grades and to get ready for your career ahead. In the long run, your success will be all that matters. Trivial things like ordering an essay will seem too distant to even be considered cheating.

Given that high grades are so essential, it seems almost perverse that universities make it so difficult to obtain them. Why do they put all these essays and other hurdles in the way — “unreasonable demands from unrelenting tutors in expecting extensive research in a short time”, as the essay puts it? It’s shitty customer service, that’s what it is.

The only critique I might make is that the essay is a bit generic. I’d worry that when I submitted it for the assignment “Is Buying Essays Online Cheating”, that the marker might notice that someone else bought almost the same essay for the assignment “Is Murder Wrong?” In the long run, your success will be all that matters. Wasn’t this the plot of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors?

Papers, please!, ctd.

Apparently Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the US has been conducting raids targetted enforcement in major US cities.

A DHS official confirmed that while immigration agents were targeting criminals, given the broader range defined by Trump’s executive order, they also were sweeping up noncriminals in the vicinity who were found to be lacking documentation.

For me, this raises again a question that has genuinely puzzled me for a long time: How many Americans typically carry with them documentation that would show their citizenship, or otherwise prove their right to be in the US? A birth certificate would do (unlike in the UK, where the government has been at pains to show that it won’t even recognise the right to citizenship of people of tainted foreign blood, even if they were born in the UK at a time when everyone thought the law automatically granted them citizenship), or a passport, but most people don’t carry these things around every day. Many Americans don’t have passports, and birth certificates may be hard to lay your hands on at short notice. (Besides which, what good does it really do to show a birth certificate if your name is John Smith — or, let us say, José Garcia?)

Who’s on first?

I love Der Spiegel, I consider it one of the best sources for international news, in addition to (of course) news about Germany, and it has to some extent maintained the idiosyncratic playful and sophisticated language style of its founder. I’m not usually wild about its graphics, though, and find it dull and obvious, as well as straining to find a reason to associate an image of naked breasts with any article. 

That said, I find this cover amazing. Obviously I’d feel differently about the image if I felt differently about Donald Trump, but it’s not simply a feeling of gratification at an enemy being publicly insulted. Like the best graphics — like the best scientific plots — this image combines familiar iconography and space to give substance to the horror that so many of us feel, crystalising an idea that was elusive. The Statue of Liberty and the iconography of terrorist self-promotion decapitation videos. Yes. It’s a good thing Germany just eliminated its lèse majesté law…

The association with Daesh puts the “America First” slogan in a different light as well. It’s a slogan that the murderers of the self-proclaimed caliphate could share, in the same spirit as the terrorist narrator of Leonard Cohen’s song, First we take Manhattan, Then we take Berlin.

It’s not even inappropriate, given that Stephen Bannon and his cronies have been fairly open about their intention to use Trump as the point of the spear to destroy liberal democracy in Europe, in favour of white ethnonationalism.

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