Severian of Nessus, Amateur Bayesian

by Henry on July 22, 2014

Noah Smith today

Consider Proposition H: “God is watching out for me, and has a special purpose for me and me alone. Therefore, God will not let me die. No matter how dangerous a threat seems, it cannot possibly kill me, because God is looking out for me – and only me – at all times.” Suppose that you believe that there is a nonzero probability that H is true. And suppose you are a Bayesian – you update your beliefs according to Bayes’ Rule. As you survive longer and longer – as more and more threats fail to kill you – your belief about the probability that H is true must increase and increase. It’s just mechanical application of Bayes’ Rule.

Gene Wolfe, The Citadel of the Autarch

Often their chants sounded so clearly that I could make out the words, though they were in no language I had ever heard. Once one actually stood on his saddle like a performer in a riding exhibition, lifting a hand to the sun and extending the other toward the Ascians. Each rider seemed to have a personal spell; and it was easy to see, as I watched their numbers shrink under the bombardment, how such primitive minds come to believe in their charms, for the survivors could not but feel their thaumaturgy had saved them, and the rest could not complain of the failure of theirs.

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Richard Thompson: Acoustic Classics

by Harry on July 22, 2014

Earlier this year CB sent me an email alerting me to the fact that Richard Thompson was going to perform, soon, in Madison, and recommending him to me. In fact I already had tickets—I am a huge Richard Thompson fan, and have seen him live about as often as I have seen Belle’s relative Loudon Wainwright, over the past 35 years. I went with my wife (who doesn’t like him much), and two friends, one of whom is a fan but had never seen him before, and the other of whom had no idea who he was. I hadn’t really thought about the dangers of taking someone who doesn’t know him to see him: what the effect of seeing him live before having heard any of his music would be. His son was the support act—lovely voice, ok songs—so that, in a way, made it worse. Because Thompson was, in fact, the best I have ever seen him: haunting, crisp voice, one acoustic guitar sounding like an orchestra, a perfectly designed set (occasionally the sets are slightly off, when he plays all-request shows, or picks an album name out of a hat, to show that he’s ready with every song he’s ever written—though I suspect that he doesn’t include Henry the Human Fly in the mix, since I don’t think I’ve ever heard him play a song from that, my favourite, album live). Simon Mayo, interviewing him on yesterday’s show (around 1 hr 06 mins), recalled seeing him playing solo, and drinking half a glass of water during a song without any apparent effect on the sound coming from the guitar. Anyway, at a certain point, I saw tears running down our friend’s face, and, at the end, she said “Why didn’t you tell me it was going to be like this?”. Imagine that you’d never heard of Richard Thompson, and the first time you heard 1952 Vincent Black Lightning was live, when he is at the top of his game. You’d weep.

His new album, Acoustic Classics, so-named because, well, it consists of acoustic re-recordings of some of his classics, is out today. It doesn’t have every song you’d want (“Al Bowly” is a particular, post HtHF, favourite of mine that’s missing, and one that he seemed extremely reluctant to play when it was requested at the live show). I think it contains the best versions of “Bright Lights”,”Beeswing” and “Shoot Out the Lights” I’ve heard. Fans won’t want to miss it; and non-fans could do worse than to start with it. But it is no substitute for seeing him live.

And here he is talking to Aggers about playing cricket in LA —plus about his songwriting process, which is very interesting. He turns out to be a Geoffrey Boycott fan (would it surprise anyone to know that I am too?—the batting, not the commentating I hasten to add), so Aggers introduces them at the end of the interview, and Boycott manages to open with an insult.

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Incongruous songs

by Harry on July 21, 2014

I guess that few of our readers have seen The Lego Movie. Luckily, I have, so was very surprised to hear my boy’s cohort singing “Everything is Awesome” at the camp’s late night show. The Lego Movie is about the evils of corporate power—a kind of kid’s version of They Live—and “Everything if Awesome” is the song which all the people are supposed to sing to keep them mindless and satisfied. Not something I’d have chosen for a 7-year-olds’ camp song.

Everyone knows that “Born in the USA” was used by the Reagan campaign; evidence either of Al Stewart’s thesis that nobody listens to lyrics, or that political operators believe that nobody listens to lyrics (My “Everything is Awesome” story is evidence that nobody even looks at song titles: how could a song with that title and refrain be anything other than satire?). Fair enough, given the similarly odd use of “Jerusalem” by English conservatives, and the fact that”This Land is Your Land” is an entirely kosher song for American public schoolkids. Slightly orthoganally, I just learned the heartwarming story that as soon as Benny and Bjorn learned that Danish People’s Party was using “Mama Mia” as a rally song they sued (and if you really want to feel good about your guilty pleasures, read down the page to see which party Benny made a 70k pound donation to).

Other, incongruous, uses of songs?

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Sunday photoblogging: meerkats

by Chris Bertram on July 20, 2014

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The unravelling of the global financial system

by John Quiggin on July 19, 2014

I have a piece in The National Interest, looking at various recent events including the latest round of the Argentinian debt crisis, in which a New York court ruled in favor of a group of ‘vulture’ investors, led by a New York billionaire, and the agreement of the US Department of Justice and Citibank, involving a financial settlement to avoid a lawsuit over bad mortgage deals and CDOs in the pre-crisis period.

My central observation is that while legal forms are being observed, these are obviously political processes, with outcomes reflecting relative political power rather than any kind of neutral application of the law. So, the international financial system is part of international power politics: it matters a lot that Citibank is a US bank, while BNP Paribas is French and so on. This is very different from the picture of a global, as opposed to international, financial system. Suhc a systemt, independent of, and standing in judgement on, national governments seemed to be emerging in the 1990s, but broke down in the financial crisis, when banks ran to their national governments for support.

As an illustration, I found this ad put out by the ‘vultures’. Try interchanging “US” and “Argentina” throughout and assuming an adverse judgement by an Argentinian court against the US government.

ATFA-Full-Image

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Why “Ann Coulter” would love cricket

by Harry on July 18, 2014

Somehow I saw this rather lame attempt to parody Ann Coulter yesterday. I don’t mind football, I’ve even come to enjoy watching it a bit as a result of my daughter’s enthusiasm, but I do enjoy the odd rant against it, and have always found it funny that Americans assume that because of my accent I have a favorite team and know the offside rule (I don’t have a favorite team, but I do know the offside rule, though my knowing it is rather like my ability to recall the entire cast of the Love Boat, the result of an unhealthy tendency to remember entirely unimportant things that I don’t care about).

So here are “Coulter”’s objections to football (many of which, btw, suggest “she” has never seen a game), with responses providing evidence that the article is, in fact, an attempt by Geoffrey Boycott to popularize cricket among American conservatives:

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Killing people is wrong.

People ought to do their fair share.

Both of these seem like plausible but not exceptionless moral principles. Sometime it is ok to kill people. For example, if you need to kill someone who is attacking you to protect yourself from death or serious injury, then you are permitted to do so. But if you can achieve the goal of protecting yourself without killing your attacker, then you should. The things you do to protect yourself should be necessary and should be proportional to the actual threat. In ordinary life, it is only people like Tony Martin or George Zimmerman (or their apologists) who think that a threat or the mere perception of one gives you licence to simply blow someone away.

Likewise people should do their share to contribute towards the common infrastructure from which we all benefit. Public services, maintaining a legal system, filling in holes in the road, stuff like that. Sometimes there are excuses and justifications for not contributing. Some people have no money, some people are even too young, or old, or sick to do so. But most people should do their bit, though there may be disagreement on exactly what that bit is.

These two things—killing and paying taxes—don’t seem to have much to do with one another. But I think there are some interesting similarities. In both cases there are plausible moral principles but alongside them there are detailed public and legal codes that purport to implement those principles. And in each case there are people or bodies who think (and claim) they have discharged their moral obligations when they have complied with the letter of the codes – that the codes encapsulate all the things that they are morally required to do. What is more, in each case, many of the people who take this attitude to the rules expend a lot of effort trying to affect the content of the rules and attempting to find interpretations of the rules (“loopholes” and similar) that work to their advantage.
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Condemned by history (crosspost)

by John Quiggin on July 17, 2014

After some farcical manoeuvres, the Australian Senate has passed the Abbott governments legislation repealing the carbon price/tax/trading scheme (it’s a bit complicated). I hope and believe that this outcome will be reversed in due course, but those who brought it about will stand condemned by history.

It’s not merely that this is a bad policy, which will impose large and increasing costs (depending on how long it takes us to get back on track) on Australia and the world into the future. Even more damning is the fact that this action is entirely based on conscious lies, embraced or condoned by everyone who has actively supported it.

First, and most obvious, no one (least of all Tony Abbott) believes that the government’s “Direct Action” policy is a superior alternative to the carbon price, one that will deliver emissions reductions more rapidly and at lower costs. It is, as everyone knows, a cynical ploy put forward simply to allow the government to say that it has a policy.

In reality, Abbott and the rest want to do nothing, and the motives for this desire are entirely base. For a minority of the do-nothing group, it is simply a matter of financial self-interest associated with the fossil fuel industry. For the majority, however, it is the pursuit of a tribal and ideological vendetta. Their position is driven by Culture War animosity towards greens, scientists, do-gooders and so on, or by ideological commitment to a conservative/libertarian position that would be undermined by the recognition of a global problem that can only be fixed by changes to existing structures of property rights.

Most of these people would describe themselves as climate “sceptics”. There is no such thing. That is, there is no one, anywhere in the world, who has honestly examined the evidence, without wishful thinking based on ideological or cultural preconceptions, and concluded that mainstream science is wrong. Most “sceptics”, including the majority of supporters of the conservative parties, are simply credulous believers in what their opinion leaders are telling them. Those opinion leaders are engaged, not in an attempt to determine the truth, but in a cultural vendetta against their enemies, or in an ideologically-driven attempt to justify a predetermined do-nothing position1.

This is a sad day, but one that will come back to haunt those who have brought it about.


  1. That covers the vast majority in Australia. There are also some professional deniers who are just in it for the money and some driven by personal pathologies like (for example, the reflexive contrarianism of Richard Lindzen). 

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Uncensored

by Harry on July 16, 2014

Atrocities, uncensored, here. No need to listen beyond the first 50 seconds.

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Le Père Goriot

by John Holbo on July 16, 2014

My recent caricature researchs got me in the mood for more of Daumier’s Paris. I listened to an audiobook version of Honoré de Balzac’s most famous novel. Good, but I’m not exactly rushing out to read the rest of the series. I understand that “la comédie humaine” is not a promise of lots of laughs, but I was expecting more laughs. I had been expecting a prose Daumier. Instead Balzac is a mix of cynical realism and gothic or sentimental melodrama. (I am sure I am not the first to notice this!) [click to continue…]

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Democracy is Bad for Business

by Henry on July 16, 2014

A story that has gotten weirdly little play in the US (I can’t speak for the UK press or the press in other countries) is the pushback by the ‘Big Four’ accountancy firms against the democracy movement in Hong Kong. On July 1, over 100,000 people marched in protest against Chinese plans to curtail democracy in Hong Kong. But the Big Four had not only made it clear that they didn’t like the protests – they had threatened that business would pull out of Hong Kong if the protests continued.

The big four global accounting companies have taken out press advertisements in Hong Kong stating they are “opposed” to the territory’s democracy movement, warning that their multinational clients may quit the city if activists carry out threats to disrupt business with street protests. In an unusual joint statement published in three Chinese-language newspapers on Friday, the Hong Kong entities of EY, KPMG, Deloitte and PwC said the Occupy Central movement, which is calling for electoral reform in the former British colony, posed a threat to the territory’s rule of law.The group of pro-democracy activists is calling for 10,000 people to block traffic in the central business district as part of a campaign to put pressure on the Hong Kong government, although if and when this will happen is still under discussion. In the advert, the big four firms warned that protests would disrupt the Hong Kong stock exchange, banks and the headquarters of financial and professional services firms causing “inestimable losses in the economy”. It added that clients of the four firms had reflected further concerns about the wider impact of the protests: “We are worried that multinational companies and investors would consider moving their regional headquarters from Hong Kong, or indeed leave the city entirely. This would have a long-term impact on Hong Kong’s status as a global financial centre,” the joint statement said.

This is a quite remarkable initiative. It was published in Chinese rather than English – presumably both to speak more directly to potential protesters, and to make it less likely that it would seep into the English speaking press. According to one of the firms, it was pushed by local branches rather than the accountancy groups’ international management. Even if this is true, the statement is signed in the names of the firms and have not been publicly repudiated.

Of course, this isn’t the first shameful decision made by Western companies looking to build business in China – see Bloomberg’s squashing of a story on corruption among family members of senior Chinese leaders, or, for that matter, Rupert Murdoch’s instruction to Harper-Collins not to publish Chris Patten’s memoirs. But this goes substantially further than quiet acquiescence, to public and active opposition to the pro-democracy movement, and the issuing of threats intended to stifle it. It would be nice to see Ernst-Young, KPMG, Deloitte and Price-Waterhouse Cooper put on the spot by US politicians and journalists about their Hong Kong offices’ unrepudiated public statements opposing pro-democracy protestors.

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Dreams and Plagiarism

by John Holbo on July 16, 2014

Been traveling. Bit of jetlag. Woke. I had been having the most exciting dream and was at the most thrilling part when … I woke up. I couldn’t remember anything, except I had exited at a total cliffhanger point in a very elaborate story. Like knowing your favorite tv show has been cancelled before the final season, but not knowing what your favorite show is. I tried to go back to sleep, without hope, or success. Damn.

File this one in: annals of oddly objectless intentionally. Wanting to know how it ended.

Maybe I could start a Kickstarter campaign.

If only Joss Whedon had written and directed my dream, I’d have his fans on my side.

But he didn’t, and other people’s dreams are boring, I know. In other news: Zizek isn’t looking like an especially responsible scholar. I find the explanation that ‘a friend’ sent him a long passage cribbed from a white supremacist book review and told him ‘he could use it freely’, in addition to being insufficient, rather incredible. With ‘friends’ who trick you into plagiarizing white supremacists, who needs enemies?

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Zombie DDT ban myth reanimated

by John Quiggin on July 14, 2014

A large part blogging, for me, has consisted of attempts at zombie-slaying: finding ideas that have been refuted by the facts, but that remain undead. Zombies are hard to kill, but one I thought had been permanently dealt with – the myth that Rachel Carson brought about a worldwide ban on DDT, leading to millions of deaths from malaria. Although quite a few people helped to show that this wasn’t true, the lion’s share of the credit, at least in the blogosphere, goes to Tim Lambert (who stopped blogging a while back, though his site still runs a montly open thread). Tim and I laid out the facts in a 2008 piece in the English magazine Prospect which made the following points

  • DDT has never been banned in anti-malarial use
  • The failure of DDT to eradicate malaria was due to resistance, promoted by overuse in agriculture and elsewhere, exactly as Carson warned. Bans on agricultural use of DDT helped slow the growth of resistance
  • The attacks on Carson were undertaken by tobacco industry lobbyists, seeking (among other things) to pressure the World Health Organization not to undertaking anti-smoking campaigns in poor countries

Our primary targets were Steven Milloy and Roger Bate’s Africa Fighting Malaria organization.

Whether due to our efforts or not, the DDT ban myth seems mostly to have died. Milloy, whose links to tobacco have thoroughly discredited him, seems to be out of the pundit business altogether. He still has an adjunct perch at the Competitive Enterprise Institute but his web page there shows only two opinion pieces since 2008. AFM is also quiescent – its website doesn’t show any research activity since 2011 and its staff all appear to have paying jobs in free-market thinktanks, suggesting a zombie organization.

But the zombie plague always recurs and just now I’ve seen (via Ed Darrell) another instance, oddly enough in an environmental-consumer magazine, Greener Ideal. The author, one Mischa Popoff is described as ” former organic farmer and USDA-contract organic inspector” and repeats the standard DDT myth before a segue into a defence of GMOs. But, as Ed Darrell points out, Popoff is being a bit cute here. DuckDuckGo reveals that he is in fact a Policy Advisor for The Heartland Institute and a Research Associate for The Frontier Centre for Public Policy (the latter being apparently a Canadian version of Heartland, as is the IPA in Australia. The site is down now, so I can’t check).

As long as Heartland lives, zombie ideas will never truly die.

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Fun summer reading

by Henry on July 14, 2014

Books I’ve read in the last while that I’d recommend:

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UK CT readers, please read this Open Rights Group myth-buster on the surveillance legislation the three main parties have stitched up behind closed doors, and plan to vote through as an emergency tomorrow. Is your MP planning to vote for it? If they are, ask them if they will support a (to be tabled this afternoon) amendment that will bring the sunset clause down to 6 months – surely enough time to fix the ‘emergency’.

(More analysis from Paul Bernal here.)

(Email your MP here.)

What is DRIP?
The Data Retention Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP) will require internet and phone companies to keep their customers’ communications data for up to a year. It is being rushed through parliament this week: MPs will vote on Tuesday and the Lords will vote on Thursday.

DRIP will replace the Data Retention (EC Directive) Regulations 2009. The legal basis of these regulations has been uncertain since the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) after the CJEU found the EU Data Retention Directive 2006/24/EC to be invalid.
Legal wranglings aside, the ruling was very clear. Keeping everyone’s data in case they commit a crime seriously interferes with our right to privacy and our right to a private family life.

Additionally clauses 3-5 extend UK surveillance law – RIPA - to US and foreign companies. These measures are controversial, not related and there is no evidence that there is any reason for any rush.

Below are five arguments that the Government is using to justify its passing – and the real reason why it shouldn’t.

“This is an emergency”
The CJEU ruling was delivered on 8 April, 2014. The government has had three months to address the court’s findings. We believe that it is the threat of legal action by Open Rights Group and other organisations that has prompted this ‘emergency’ legislation – not the threat of terrorism or criminal activity. The government should not mislead us about the urgency of this legislation. Given its significance and the threat to our civil liberties, It should not be rushed through without proper parliamentary scrutiny.

Background: After the CJEU ruling, Open Rights Group and other organisations contacted the Home Office to ask them if they would be asking internet service providers to stop retaining data. In May, the Home Office responded by saying that ISPs should continue to retain data. Last month, over 1,500 ORG supporters wrote to their ISPs asking them to stop keeping their data. They responded by saying that they were acting under the instructions of the Home Office.

“This is not an extension of powers, it’s restoring the status quo”
The Prime Minister said, “we are not introducing new powers or capabilities” but in fact DRIP does not just deal with Regulations that were made illegal by the CJEU ruling. Clauses 3 to 5 of the Bill make amendments to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). DRIP extends the government’s surveillance powers in two ways:

It extends the territorial scope of RIPA - this means that the government can issue interception warrants for communciations data to companies outside of the UK.
It extends the definition of “telecommunications service” within RIPA. The effect of this is unclear, but it appears possible the new definition could include services such as Gmail.

“It’s the only way we can catch criminals”
We agree that the targeted retention of communications data can help the police to tackle serious crimes, such as terrorism and child abuse. However, the CJEU ruling outlined a low threshold for deciding to retain data. For example, if a serious crime if committed, data could be retained for a particular geographical region to support a criminal investigation. This means that the police could still retain data for specific investigations, rather than the blanket surveillance of all citizens.

The CJEU ruling was clear that blanket data retention interfered with our right to privacy and our right to a private family life. Other European countries, including Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Romania and Sweden, have rejected it. These countries continue to tackle serious crime without undermining their citizens’ civil liberties through blanket data retention.

“There is a sunset clause”
The Bill will expire on 31 December 2016. The government claims that this will ‘strengthen oversight and transparency’ but that is two and a half years away. Given that the Bill is to be rushed through parliament in a week, we believe that this date is too late to allow for proper parliamentary scrutiny. If legislation is to be rushed through without debate, an earlier expiry date of 31 December 2014 would allow for scrutiny in six months.

“The Bill includes concessions that take into account the CJEU ruling”
DRIP ignores the main part of the CJEU ruling – that blanket data retention severely interferes with the fundamental rights to respect for private life and to the protection of personal data. The government has claimed that other aspects of the Bill will strengthen oversight and transparency. For example, they claim it will restrict the number of public bodies that can request communications data. Yet this concession does not appear in DRIP or the secondary legislation that will implement it.

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