The man with the Kalashnikov

Having been on a Thalys to Paris yesterday I took particular interest in the aborted attack the previous day. We hadn’t heard anything about it, but a conductor told us a bullshit story about how the news media got the story all wrong: the attacker was actually being followed by police, the capture was planned, and he didn’t have firearms.

But here’s what I’m wondering. According to the NY Times,

Less than an hour away from Paris, a French passenger got up from his seat to use the toilets at the back of the carriage. Suddenly, in front of him rose a slightly built man. Across the man’s chest, in a sling, was an automatic rifle of the kind favored by jihadists the world over: an AK-47.

The passenger threw himself on the man. The gun went off, once, twice, several times. Glass shattered. A bullet hit a passenger.

The man with the gun kept going down the carriage, holding his AK-47 and a Luger pistol. In a pocket was a sharp blade capable of inflicting grievous harm. He had at least nine cartridges of ammunition, enough for serious carnage.

So, they’re heroes. But if this had happened in the US, would they be the ones in prison? After all, up until the point where they attacked him, he was just another open-carry enthusiast celebrating his constitutional right to keep and bear arms. Once he was attacked, of course, by rowdy foreigners, it is perfectly understandable that he started firing. And even if he did fire a single shot first (the news reports disagree on this point), well, how could they have known that it wasn’t self defence. They should have waited until he’d shot at least two people before infringing on his civil rights.

Maybe that’s why they don’t have trains in Texas… (Actually, that’s not entirely true.)

International queueing theory

Queueing up to board the Eurostar in London recently, I saw these very conspicuous signs engraved in the doors leading to the platforms

On apprend l’art de faire la queue comme les anglais.

Attributed to “Jean-Marc, Paris”. There was also a translation, something like “We are learning the art of queueing up like the English”. Is this intended to shame the French passengers into behaving well in the queue? To flatter the English? To mock them?

Of course, while the English are very proud of their queueing habits, there are greater superlatives imaginable. Historical context is crucial, though. If the French develop their skills further (and if the Germans make more progress in dismantling the European economy), perhaps one day they will be able to say they have learned “the art of queueing up like the Poles (Communist era)”. Or even the Russians. If they get really advanced, they might learn the art of queueing up like Depression-era Americans.

And that’s the pinnacle. Presumably they’ll never have to learn to queue up like these people…

holocaust victims queueing for train

“Soon enough”

This picture of a British army tank having crushed an automobile that strayed into its path in a small German town has gotten quite a lot of attention.

Tank vs car

Here is the comment of the British military spokesperson:

“Our tank crews go through a very rigorous training process,” he said, reportedly adding that three members of personnel inside monitor the road “which is why they were able to stop soon enough”.

Looking at the photograph, I wonder what would have counted as not stopping “soon enough”. One can imagine similar applications of this Zieglerism. “The Titanic had very rigorous iceberg detection procedures, which is why it was able to stop soon enough.” “The Bush administration had very rigorous antiterrorism procedures, which is why they were able to defend the country adequately against Al Qaeda attacks.” (All but one! 7 1/2 years without an attack!)

A tricky judgement call for the advertising agency

So you’re the head of the Adobe account, seeking to convince customers that Photoshop is a professional level software tool accessible to the masses. It’s used for important work by experts! It makes news! So now, the question is, do you seek an endorsement based on this news report (from Der Spiegel)?

Russland macht noch immer Kiew für den Abschuss von Flug MH17 verantwortlich. Doch die Fotos, die ukrainische Luftabwehrsysteme in dem Absturzgebiet zeigen sollen, sind offenbar gefälscht. Laut Experten hat der Kreml mit Photoshop manipuliert.

[Russia still claims that Kiev is responsible for shooting down flight MH17. But the photos that supposedly show Ukrainian air defence systems in the area of the crash are blatantly fake. Experts say the Kremlin manipulated them with Photoshop.]

Security theatre, WWII and today

Computer security researcher Chris Roberts has been banned from United Airlines for the offense of pointing out that the lax security in their onboard wifi systems could endanger the safety of the aircraft. At the same time, they insisted that

We are confident our flight control systems could not be accessed through techniques [Mr Roberts] described.

The only danger to the flight control systems, it turns out, was the researcher who informed them (via Twitter) of the security flaws.

This reminded me of the story Richard Feynman told about cracking safes for a lark at Los Alamos. One time he decided to needle a colonel he was visiting at Oak Ridge, who had just deposited some highly secret documents extra heavy-duty safe, but with the same easy-to-crack lock on it. He’d figured out that when the safe was left open, it was easy to pick up two of the three numbers of the combination by feel.

“The only reason you think they’re safe in there is because civilians call it a ‘safe’.”

The colonel furiously challenged him to open it up. This Feynman accomplished, in two minutes, though he pretended to need much longer, to distract from what an easy trick it was.) After allowing some moments of astonishment, he decided to be responsible:

“Colonel, let me tell you something about these locks: When the door to the safe or the top drawer of the filing cabinet is left open, it’s very easy for someone to get the combination. That’s what I did while you were reading my report, just to demonstrate the danger. You should insist that everybody keep their filing cabinet drawers locked while they’re working, because when they’re open, they’re very, very vulnerable.”

The next time Feynman visited Oak Ridge, everyone was wanting to keep him out of their offices. It seems, the colonel’s response to the danger was to make everyone change their combinations if Feynman had been in or passed through their office, which was a significant nuisance.

That was his solution: I was the danger.[…] Of course, their filing cabinets were still left open while they were working.

Parking violations in a democracy

A throwaway comment by Andrew O’Hehir in Salon, in an article about the fascist overtones of recent police challenges to civilian authority in New York, reminded me of one of the things that has long mystified me about the psychology of automobilism. He writes

We still don’t know where this confrontation between de Blasio and his cops will lead, or how it will be resolved. (So far, the city has been peaceful – and nobody on my block got a parking ticket all week! So it’s win-win.)

In most places I’ve lived, at most times, I tend to think that enforcement of parking regulations is distressingly lax. This surely reflects, in part, my own interests, as someone who doesn’t drive, but who frequently finds sidewalks and cycle lanes blocked by illegally-parked cars. And I particularly resent when the illegally parked endanger my children’s lives by forcing them out into the street. But in most places I’ve lived — including significant periods in the US, UK, Canada, and Germany — the general culture seems to view enforcement of parking regulations as an evil incursion upon human liberty.

It doesn’t seem at all strange that people resent their own fines — that’s core human nature — or even that people would develop a general perspective of ignoring the benefits of parking regulations and communing on the personal nuisance, particularly when the benefits accrue disproportionately to the weaker members of society — the young, the handicapped. What seems strange is that people seem, on the one hand, to consider enforcement of parking and traffic laws illegitimate, on the other hand not to want their elected representatives to do anything about it.

As with so much else, our current Tory government is different in this point. They genuinely seem to want to bring the Wild West to British roads. One of the first things the Tories did after coming to power was to stop funding speed-limit enforcement cameras. A few years ago the government said that widespread lawlessness on the roads proved that the current speed-limit regime lacked democratic legitimacy. Most recently, spheroid Tory caricature Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, was prevented by the Liberal Democrats from pushing through a 15-minute grace period for parking on double-yellow lines, essentially making all local parking restrictions unenforceable.

And now, Pickles has just announced that from this autumn local councils would be banned from using CCTV to enforce parking laws, including “Orwellian spy cars”, because if Winston Smith hadn’t been ticketed for parking too long outside the Ministry of Truth he never would have to go pay his fine in room 101.

Where USS puts its money

UK academics are all aware that the nationwide pension scheme, called the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), believes itself to have a huge budget shortfall, that can only be resolved with major cuts to pensions for future retirees (but no cut at all to current retirees, for some reason). So it was with some interest that I read about the recent crash of the national air traffic control system, caused by persistent underinvestment in critical infrastructure by the public-private company Nats:

Nats became a public-private partnership in 2001 under the last Labour government. It is 42% owned by Airlines Group, whose shareholders include the University Superannuation Scheme, British Airways, Monarch Airlines retirement benefit plan, easyJet, Virgin Atlantic, Deutsche Lufthansa, Thomson Airways and Thomas Cook Airlines.

Absence of correlation does not imply absence of causation

By way of Andrew Sullivan we have this attempt by Philip N. Cohen to apply statistics to answer the question: does texting while driving cause accidents? Or rather, he marshals data to ridicule the new book by Matt Richtel on a supposed epidemic of traffic fatalities, particularly among teens, caused by texting while driving. He has some good points about the complexity of the evidence, and a good general point that people like to fixate on some supposed problem with current cars or driving practices, to distract their attention from the fact that automobiles are inherently dangerous, so that the main thing that causes more fatalities is more driving. But then he has this weird scatterplot, that is supposed to be a visual knock-down argument:

We need about two phones per person to eliminate traffic fatalities...
We need about two phones per person to eliminate traffic fatalities…

So, basically no correlation between the number of of phone subscriptions in a state and the number of traffic fatalities. So, what does that prove? Pretty much nothing, I would say. It’s notable that there is really very little variation in the number of mobile phones among the states, and at the lowest level there’s still almost one per person. (Furthermore, I would guess that most of the adults with no mobile phone are poor, and likely don’t have an automobile either.) Once you have one mobile phone, there’s no reason to think that a second one will substantially

Whether X causes Y is a separate question from whether variation in X is linked to variation in Y. You’d like to think that a sociologist like Cohen would know this. A well-known example: No one would doubt that human intelligence is a product of the human brain (most directly). But variations in intelligence are uncorrelated with variations in brain size. (Which doesn’t rule out the possibility that more subtle measurements could find a physical correlate.) This is particularly true with causes that are saturated, as with the one phone per person level.

You might imagine a Cohen-like war-crimes investigator deciding that the victims were not killed by bullets, because we find no correlation between the number of bullets in a gun and the fate of the corresponding victim.

Just to be clear: I’m not claiming that evidence like this could never be relevant. But when you’re clearly in the saturation region, with a covariate that is only loosely connected to the factor in question, it’s obviously just misleading.

King Camerute, holding back the waves

“Prime minister seeks to assert his authority over natural disaster”

Canute: “But it’s not a blank cheque…”

This was a sub-headline in The Guardian. He has pledged unlimited funds to the flood control effort:

My message to the country today is this. Money is no object in this relief effort, whatever money is needed for it will be spent. We will take whatever steps are necessary

However, before he can control the storms, the PM needs to assert his authority over his cabinet, since today the transport secretary said “I don’t think it’s a blank cheque.”

Of course not. Philosopher King Camerute was simply asserting the Buberian I-Thou relationship of the government to money. Money is not an object, it is a subject, and we must respect its concerns. The people whose homes are under water may feel that certain steps are necessary, but the money may have different feelings, and not wish to be instrumentalised in that way.

On-street parking

Matthew Yglesias has given a pithy summary of the case against free on-street parking:

Obviously people who currently get to occupy valuable urban space with their private vehicles would like to keep that privilege. But by the same token, I’d love it for the city government to just give me a free car or stop charging me property tax. That doesn’t mean it would be a good idea. There may be an argument that 30 to 40 parking spaces for cars is a better use for a given piece of land than protected bicycle lanes, but “Waaaah, don’t affect my parking” is not a very persuasive argument. The streets are public spaces and they need to be used for public benefit, not just the benefit of whoever happens to own a car on the block.

This is even more of an issue here in Oxford, where people with private cars get to take up not only the streets, but also substantial portions of the already quite narrow sidewalks. (Yglesias was discussing the debate over installing a new bicycle lane in Washington DC. I’m not sure if it would be quite so contentious here, since — as I discussed here — drivers don’t hesitate to park in bicycle lanes, and so far as I can tell the enforcement is zero. See, for example, the photograph below, of a typical local cycle lane.) [Update 5 Oct, 2013: Not quite zero. I actually saw a car in the cycle lane with a fixed-penalty notice on the windscreen. So there.]

People clearly have ideas about things that by right and nature ought to be free. Perhaps because I don’t drive a car myself, I cannot imagine why parking spaces should be one of them, particularly not residents’ parking. To be sure, residents’ parking is not free here. It’s £50 a car — just enough to create a sense of entitlement among those who have paid for it, not enough to come anywhere close to covering the real costs of providing

It’s not at all clear why people have any more right to 6 square metres of public road to semi-permanently store their automobiles than I have to store my surplus books. I would not be permitted to set out a storage shed by the side of the road. (I suppose I could use an automobile as a storage facility — some people clearly do, at least in Berkeley — but I would at least need a driver’s license and a car that was sufficiently functional to be registered.)

Bicycle lane on Iffley Road
Bicycle lane on Iffley Road