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22 Dec 21:10

A new Van Dyke Parks single

by Michael Leddy
Van Dyke Parks has a new single out on the Bella Union label (also available from iTunes): “I’m History” b/w “Charm School.” “I’m History,” a lament for John F. Kennedy and lost hope, is a brilliant and moving song. It begins with a scene of Kennedy at the height of his Kennedyness, hosting a White House dinner for forty-nine Nobel Laureates:
When John F. Kennedy dined at the White House
he summoned the brightest and Nobel elite,
and he recalled the collection of talent
when Jefferson sat down alone there to eat.
He threw the laughter aside, said it can’t be denied,
there are those with no food at our feet.
That is history, brother and sister, to me, that’s history.
The song’s end, “in the dark before dawn,” evokes the 1932 Bonus Army and (less literally) the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign and the 2011 Occupy movement:
And in a city of tents those with no recompense
are encamped on the broad White House lawn.
The people, yes? Well, maybe. A voice says “Move on,” and the singer folds up:
And I could paint you from old Deuteronomy
a richer picture to fix your economy,
but I’d offend you my friend, I surrender, the end. I’m
There is an imperfect but intensely exciting live performance of “I’m History” on YouTube — voice, piano, and bass. The recording though gives us what might be called the Full Parks — the song scored for strings and woodwinds. I’d like to see a single with both conceptions: call them “I’m History” and ”I‘m History Too.”

“Charm School” (written with Ira Ingber) suggests tropical and western vistas. It is a instrumental full of delights — steel drums, strings playing piano-like figures, snatches of slide guitar. According to Van Dyke’s tweets, “Charm School” has been kicking around for twenty years. Like all worthwhile music, it knows no time but its own and sounds like nothing but itself.

[“I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone”: John F. Kennedy, April 29, 1962.]

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21 Dec 03:09

23, Me, and the Right to Misinterpret Probabilities

by Scott

If you’re the sort of person who reads this blog, you may have heard that 23andMe—the company that (until recently) let anyone spit into a capsule, send it away to a DNA lab, and then learn basic information about their ancestry, disease risks, etc.—has suspended much of its service, on orders from the US Food and Drug Administration.  As I understand it, on Nov. 25, the FDA ordered 23andMe to stop marketing to new customers (though it can still serve existing customers), and on Dec. 5, the company stopped offering new health-related information to any customers (though you can still access the health information you had before, and ancestry and other non-health information is unaffected).

Of course, the impact of these developments is broader: within a couple weeks, “do-it-yourself genomics” has gone from an industry whose explosive growth lots of commentators took as a given, to one whose future looks severely in doubt (at least in the US).

The FDA gave the reasons for its order in a letter to Ann Wojcicki, 23andMe’s CEO.  Excerpts:

For instance, if the BRCA-related risk assessment for breast or ovarian cancer reports a false positive, it could lead a patient to undergo prophylactic surgery, chemoprevention, intensive screening, or other morbidity-inducing actions, while a false negative could result in a failure to recognize an actual risk that may exist.  Assessments for drug responses carry the risks that patients relying on such tests may begin to self-manage their treatments through dose changes or even abandon certain therapies depending on the outcome of the assessment.  For example, false genotype results for your warfarin drug response test could have significant unreasonable risk of illness, injury, or death to the patient due to thrombosis or bleeding events that occur from treatment with a drug at a dose that does not provide the appropriately calibrated anticoagulant effect …  The risk of serious injury or death is known to be high when patients are either non-compliant or not properly dosed; combined with the risk that a direct-to-consumer test result may be used by a patient to self-manage, serious concerns are raised if test results are not adequately understood by patients or if incorrect test results are reported.

To clarify, the DNA labs that 23andMe uses are already government-regulated.  Thus, the question at issue here is not whether, if 23andMe claims (say) that you have CG instead of CC at some particular locus, the information is reliable.  Rather, the question is whether 23andMe should be allowed to tell you that fact, while also telling you that a recent research paper found that people with CG have a 10.4% probability of developing Alzheimer’s disease, as compared to a 7.2% base rate.  More bluntly, the question is whether ordinary schmoes ought to be trusted to learn such facts about themselves, without a doctor as an intermediary to interpret the results for them, or perhaps to decide that there’s no good reason for the patient to know at all.

Among medical experts, a common attitude seems to be something like this: sure, getting access to your own genetic data is harmless fun, as long as you’re an overeducated nerd who just wants to satisfy his or her intellectual curiosity (or perhaps narcissism).  But 23andMe crossed a crucial line when it started marketing its service to the hoi polloi, as something that could genuinely tell them about health risks.  Most people don’t understand probability, and are incapable of parsing “based on certain gene variants we found, your chances of developing diabetes are about 6 times higher than the baseline” as anything other than “you will develop diabetes.”  Nor, just as worryingly, are they able to parse “your chances are lower than the baseline” as anything other than “you won’t develop diabetes.”

I understand this argument.  Nevertheless, I find it completely inconsistent with a free society.  Moreover, I predict that in the future, the FDA’s current stance will be looked back upon as an outrage, with the subtleties in the FDA’s position mattering about as much as the subtleties in the Church’s position toward Galileo (“look, Mr. G., it’s fine to discuss heliocentrism among your fellow astronomers, as a hypothesis or a calculational tool—just don’t write books telling the general public that heliocentrism is literally true, and that they should change their worldviews as a result!”).  That’s why I signed this petition asking the FDA to reconsider its decision, and I encourage you to sign it too.

Here are some comments that might help clarify my views:

(1) I signed up for 23andMe a few years ago, as did the rest of my family.  The information I gained from it wasn’t exactly earth-shattering: I learned, for example, that my eyes are probably blue, that my ancestry is mostly Ashkenazi, that there’s a risk my eyesight will further deteriorate as I age (the same thing a succession of ophthalmologists told me), that I can’t taste the bitter flavor in brussels sprouts, and that I’m an “unlikely sprinter.”  On the other hand, seeing exactly which gene variants correlate with these things, and how they compare to the variants my parents and brother have, was … cool.  It felt like I imagine it must have felt to buy a personal computer in 1975.  In addition, I found nothing the slightest bit dishonest about the way the results were reported.  Each result was stated explicitly in terms of probabilities—giving both the baseline rate for each condition, and the rate conditioned on having such-and-such gene variant—and there were even links to the original research papers if I wanted to read them myself.  I only wish that I got half as much context and detail from conventional doctor visits—or for that matter, from most materials I’ve read from the FDA itself.  (When Dana was pregnant, I was pleasantly surprised when some of the tests she underwent came back with explicit probabilities and base rates.  I remember wishing doctors would give me that kind of information more often.)

(2) From my limited reading and experience, I think it’s entirely possible that do-it-yourself genetic testing is overhyped; that it won’t live up to its most fervent advocates’ promises; that for most interesting traits there are just too many genes involved, via too many labyrinthine pathways, to make terribly useful predictions about individuals, etc.  So it’s important to me that, in deciding whether what 23andMe does should be legal, we’re not being asked to decide any of these complicated questions!  We’re only being asked whether the FDA should get to decide the answers in advance.

(3) As regular readers will know, I’m far from a doctrinaire libertarian.  Thus, my opposition to shutting down 23andMe is not at all a corollary of reflexive opposition to any government regulation of anything.  In fact, I’d be fine if the FDA wanted to insert a warning message on 23andMe (in addition to the warnings 23andMe already provides), emphasizing that genetic tests only provide crude statistical information, that they need to be interpreted with care, consult your doctor before doing anything based on these results, etc.  But when it comes to banning access to the results, I have trouble with some of the obvious slippery slopes.  E.g., what happens when some Chinese or Russian company launches a competing service?  Do we ban Americans from mailing their saliva overseas?  What happens when individuals become able just to sequence their entire genomes, and store and analyze them on their laptops?  Do we ban the sequencing technology?  Or do we just ban software that makes it easy enough to analyze the results?  If the software is hard enough to use, so only professional biologists use it, does that make it OK again?  Also, if the FDA will be in the business of banning genomic data analysis tools, then what about medical books?  For that matter, what about any books or websites, of any kind, that might cause someone to make a poor medical decision?  What would such a policy, if applied consistently, do to the multibillion-dollar alternative medicine industry?

(4) I don’t understand the history of 23andMe’s interactions with the FDA.  From what I’ve read, though, they have been communicating for five years, with everything 23andMe has said in public sounding conciliatory rather than defiant (though the FDA has accused 23andMe of being tardy with its responses).  Apparently, the key problem is simply that the FDA hasn’t yet developed a regulatory policy specifically for direct-to-consumer genetic tests.  It’s been considering such a policy for years—but in the meantime, it believes no one should be marketing such tests for health purposes before a policy exists.  Alas, there are very few cases where I’d feel inclined to support a government in saying: “X is a new technology that lots of people are excited about.  However, our regulatory policies haven’t yet caught up to X.  Therefore, our decision is that X is banned, until and unless we figure out how to regulate it.”  Maybe I could support such a policy, if X had the potential to level cities and kill millions.  But when it comes to consumer DNA tests, this sort of preemptive banning seems purposefully designed to give wet dreams to Ayn Rand fans.

(5) I confess that, despite everything I’ve said, my moral intuitions might be different if dead bodies were piling up because of terrible 23andMe-inspired medical decisions.  But as far as I know, there’s no evidence so far that even a single person was harmed.  Which isn’t so surprising: after all, people might run to their doctor terrified about something they learned on 23onMe, but no sane doctor would ever make a decision solely on that basis, without ordering further tests.

21 Dec 02:50

Review: How to Not Write Bad

by Michael Leddy
Ben Yagoda. How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them. New York: Riverhead Books, 2013. xiii + 175 pages. $15 paper.

I am always looking for new and better books to use when I teach prose writing to college juniors and seniors. Thus I found my way to Ben Yagoda’s How to Not Write Bad. Its premise — that novice writers can improve greatly by learning what not to do in their prose — is sound. But the book is a disappointment.

I found an examination copy of the book in the mailbox one morning last month, right before meeting this semester's writing class. Feeling the show-and-tell spirit, I brought the book to class and opened at random to page 52 and a discussion of the semicolon. I read the first two sentences aloud:
My initial thought is to limit this entry to one sentence: “If you feel like using a semicolon, lie down until the urge goes away.”

That is because when my students utilize this piece of punctuation, a substantial majority of them utilize it incorrectly.
My students winced, at least some of them. I winced too. We winced for the same reasons: the condescending tone, the ponderous diction. Utilize ? My students know better. And substantial majority ? Why not most ? What’s especially puzzling: elsewhere in this book, as I was to discover, Yagoda advises against such ponderousness. He even recommends use for utilize. It may be that the diction in the sentences I’ve quoted is meant as a joke, but the joke, if there is one, will likely be lost on a reader who wants to understand the use of the semicolon, a mark of punctuation that many teachers of writing would say is not so much misused in student writing as merely absent.

Yagoda's brief treatment of the semicolon is not likely to be of much use to such a reader. The passage continues:
[W]hile it is tempting to outlaw semicolons and just move on, that would be too easy. For one thing, there is a particular circumstance when a semicolon absolutely has to be used. This is a series of three or more items, one or more of which contain a comma.
It’s an odd presentation that begins with this relatively exotic matter before discussing the semicolon's use in joining complete sentences. And why particular circumstance? Why absolutely ? Elsewhere in the book, Yagoda says of particular that it “usually adds nothing to a thought except four syllables.” And he says that absolutely and similar qualifiers make a writer sound “mealymouthed.”

On to the primary use of the semicolon:
A semicolon can be used to connect two independent clauses if the clauses aren't already linked by conjunctions (and, but, although, etc.).
This advice is highly misleading, because it fails to distinguish between coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet) and subordinating conjunctions (such as although, because, whenever): the latter cannot introduce independent clauses. Yagoda leaves unmentioned the words that often signal semicolon territory: conjunctive adverbs (such as however, nevertheless, therefore) and transitional phrases (as a result, even so, in fact). Thus his presentation of the semicolon is grammatically confused and alarmingly incomplete. And a brief discussion of comma splices a few pages earlier in the book gives no indication that however is a word often found somewhere to the right of a semicolon. To the contrary: the sample sentences in that section of the book carry the unintended implication that because however is not a conjunction, it plays no part in joining sentences:
Tuition will go up again next year, however, it will be the smallest increase in five years. [Given as wrong.]

Tuition will go up again next year. However, it will be the smallest increase in five years. [Given as correct.]

Tuition will go up again next year, but it will be the smallest increase in five years. [Given as correct.]
The sentence that’s conspicuously missing:
Tuition will go up again next year; however, it will be the smallest increase in five years.
Or better:
Tuition will go up again next year; the increase, however, will be the smallest in five years.
The problems in my randomly chosen passage are present throughout the book. The writing is breezy and often condescending: “I certify this is an actual student sentence,” Yagoda writes of one especially bad sentence. How great to be the sap who’s responsible. Yagoda’s presentation of the word mindfulness (the idea of the mindful writer runs through the book) would not pass muster in an essay for freshman comp:
A word you see a lot nowadays is mindfulness. I confess I don’t know exactly what it means; something having to do with meditation and/or yoga, I believe. But the concept can definitely, and profitably, be adapted to writing.
Has Yagoda not heard of Thich Nhat Hahn? Or even Wikipedia? But also: why does he give mindfulness a pass and not count it with deal breaker, difference maker, and meme as a contemporary cliché? Try a Google search: mindful asset planning, browsing, cooking, driving, exercise, facilitation. Mindfulness is everywhere. I am lost.

And why does Yagoda clutter his sentences with empty prose additives like definitely (“definitely, and profitably, be adapted”)? Again and again, his writing violates the book’s precepts, not wittily but clumsily, as if neither writer nor editor was paying attention. Words that Yagoda prohibits — actually and the previously mentioned particular — turn up in his sentences often (actually, twelve times; particular, seventeen). The words definitely and simply (which are not on the hit list but should be) turn up five and seven times respectively. The book cautions against clichés, yet there are many: “bad boys” to “smoke out,” “clean bill of health,” “thunderous applause,” “train-wreck,” even a reference to a sentence “riddled” with clichés. Right before advising against unnecessary quotation marks (air quotes or scare quotes), Yagoda uses them: “eventually, you will streamline the process and ‘hear’ yourself write.” He uses such quotation marks elsewhere too: “selected and processed by an editor, and then ‘published.’”

What’s worse is that some of this book’s advice about writing is unhelpful or mistaken. At one point Yagoda recommends quotation marks for titles (“Gone with the Wind”), but elsewhere in the book he recommends italics for titles of “books and other compositions.” (Sample sentences in How to Not Write Bad are always in italics, which would make for maddening complications in showing the use of italics with titles.) Yagoda’s advice about the Oxford or serial comma — “choose a style you like, and stick with it” — ignores the overwhelming support for this comma in American English. Says Garner’s Modern American Usage ,
Although newspaper journalists typically omit the serial comma as a ‘space-saving’ device, virtually all writing authorities outside that field recommend keeping it.
In other words, it’s a question you shouldn’t be deciding for yourself. Yagoda’s presentation of skunked usage casts the possessive followed by a gerund (“I don’t like your talking about the senator in that tone”) as a mistake, but “you talking” is the problem, as the sample sentences make clear. And concerning the use of the word this alone (a pervasive problem in student writing), Yagoda blithely advises substituting the word that : “it can be slipped in,” he says, “without doing any damage. You didn’t hear it from me.” Such advice won’t do.

As with Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence, the real difficulties of writing good prose come in for little attention. Trying to figure out the writing conventions that apply in a field? Read “the best practitioners” and “maybe even copy down some of their sentences and paragraphs. Eventually you’ll get a feel for the expectations.” Tangled syntax? Just be mindful:
If, every time you put down a sentence, you go over it unhurriedly, you’ll learn to pick up on any ambiguities or confusion. To fix them, just shuffle and reshuffle the elements of the sentence, as if you were putting together a bouquet of flowers.
And three pages from the end of the book, we’re told that the “key issues” we now must consider are “cadence or rhythm, variety, novelty, consistency, and transitions.” In the word of many a Brooklynite before me: Sheesh.

Though this book is marketed for use in writing courses, its design alone makes it an unlikely choice for that purpose. Yagoda suggests that a teacher direct a student to “the appropriate entry in the book” to solve a writing problem. But finding, say, II.B.4.d. will be easy for neither teacher nor student: the book has no chapter headings, no index, and only a sketchy table of contents. Sections II.B.4., for instance, has five parts, a. through e., none of which are identified by page number or topic in the table of contents. It’s not surprising that Yagoda himself gets lost in this maze, directing the reader to the non-existent II.I.C.2., and referring to II.C.2.d. when he means II.D.2. Imagine the fun I’ve had working out the details of this paragraph.

How to Not Write Bad comes highly recommended, with Cynthia Ozick on the front cover and an unnamed Atlantic reviewer on the back, touting the book as appropriate for the “syntax-obsessed reader and writer” and “copy, grammar, and writing nerds.” But there is little that such readers will learn from this book. And for the student who wants to become a better writer, there are books far more helpful and trust-inspiring. They would include Claire Cook’s Line by Line, Michael Harvey’s The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences about Writing, and Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences. I remain on the lookout for books as good or better.

[Are college juniors and seniors “novice writers”? In most cases, yes. Their writing experience is limited. “Empty prose additives” is a lovely phrase I’ve borrowed from Claire Cook.]

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21 Dec 02:46

Word of the day: inane

by Michael Leddy
Last night I went to a concert that included a performance of the Bach Magnificat. (Bravo, musicians, and especially the fourth-chair violist.) How to get from Bach to inane ? The word at the end of this line of the text caught my eye: “Esurientes implevit bonis et divites dimisit inanes” (Luke 1:53). Or as the King James Version has it, “He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.”

So I looked up inane . Its source is the Latin inānis , “empty, useless, vain.” The Oxford English Dictionary traces the English word to 1662, when it meant “empty, void.” From the OED ’s earliest citation: “one little spot of an infinite inane capacity.” By approximately 1667, inane was working as a noun, meaning “that which is inane, void, or empty; void or empty space; vacuity; the ‘formless void’ of infinite space.” By 1710, the noun applied to persons: “an empty-headed, unintelligent person.” The OED ’s citation is from Alexander Pope’s correspondence: “Being all alike Inanes, & Umbratiles, we Saunter to one anothers Habitations & daily assist each other in doing Nothing at all.” And by 1819, the adjective came to apply to persons or their actions: “void or destitute of sense; silly, senseless; empty-headed.” The OED ’s first such citation is from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Cenci: “some inane and vacant smile.”

And that’s my word of the day, whose etymology, early meaning, and secret life as a noun were all news to me.

[Umbratile? “One who spends his time in the shade” (OED ).]

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21 Dec 02:46

From the British Library

by Michael Leddy

The British Library has made available through Flickr more than one million images from seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century books. The image above comes from William Turner’s Journal of a Tour in the Levant (London, 1820). I like such stamps. I like circulation slips too.

This post from the British Library’s Digital Scholarship blog explains the project.

[Found via Boing Boing.]

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20 Dec 17:34

On taking medication for anxiety.

by Site Owner
At times I'm quite all right,
and then again,
A vacuum cleaner, insecurely stowed,
Shifting in a cupboard under the stairs,
Pushing the door open from the inside,
Gradually, inexorably,
As they always come,
From out the grave,
Can make me shiver to the bone,
And jump, and fear.

Although I neither fear,
In theory, the dead,
Nor yet, the vacuum.
19 Dec 10:36

Derek's Weekly 45's: The Curious Case Of Neil MacArthur, aka Colin Blunstone

by Dereksdaily45

Neil macarthur she's not thereConsidering the love, praise and status that The Zombies swan song LP Odessey And Oracle has (deservedly) received in the last 30 or so years, it's kinda difficult to fathom the fact that the album was a commercial failure upon its early 1968 release, and it wasn't until the spring of 1969 that the single drawn from it, 'Time Of The Season" became a massive hit.

In the interim, vocalist Colin Blunstone left the music business entirely and began working in the insurance industry. To think that this man, who was gifted with one of the greatest voices in the history of pop music, could have stopped singing at such a young age is an awful thought! However, right around the same time that "Time Of The Season" was released as a 45, producer Mike Hurst coaxed Colin into the studio to record again, a collaboration that yielded three singles released in 1969. For their first collaboration together, Hurst chose to re-record The Zombies first hit, 'She's Not There', in a radical new arrangement that matched fuzz guitar, heavy orchestration, moody stop-start sections and of course Colin's incredible vocals. The frantic string arrangement at the coda is especially surprising, and this excellent record became a minor British hit single. The orchestrated, folky flip side, "World Of Glass" (an excellent compositon by producer Mike Hurst) is practically a dry run for Colin's first three brilliant solo albums, which he (wisely) decided to return to using his real name for.

She's Not There

World Of Glass

It's unclear why the name Neil MaNeil macarthur without hercArthur was chosen, but anyone who heard "Neil's" distinctive vocals here could deny that it was in fact Colin Blunstone, a point driven home by the fact that his photo was used in promotional ads for the records.

The songs of Harry Nilsson became favorites of those in the know during the late '60's, and the gorgeous ballad "Without Her" was a perfect choice for Neil/ Colin's vocal styling, and Hurst once again provided a dense, complex orchestration for the backing track. Sadly, this record did not repeat the modest success of the Neil macArthur "debut". I apologize about the groove damage on my copy (I need to upgrade); however, all of the Neil MacArthur singles are collected on a CD from Big Beat called Into The Afterlife.

Without Her

The final Neil MacArthNeil macarthur twelve twenty nineur single is the lovely 'Twelve Twenty Nine"; while it may cross over into schmaltzy pop to some ears, the heartfelt vocals from Mr MacArthur are mighty fine to my ears. MOR or not, if the chord change at the climax of the chorus (first heard at :42) doesn't melt your heart, I feel bad for you!

By 1970, Colin reunited with Zombies bassist Chris White (now acting as producer), and in 1971 his solo LP debut One Year was released. Back to being Colin Blunstone forever more, Neil MacArthur was now a faded memory.

Twelve Twenty Nine

Bonus: the Italian language version of "She's Not There":


16 Dec 16:34

An anticipatory obituary for the SWP

by stavvers

The SWP have appeared dead in the water for months, since the revelations of sexual violence and attempts at cover-up like an inept, less popular and worse-dressed Catholic Church. And yet, like cockroaches, they have survived.

The latest horror to come to light is a phrase uttered to applause at their conference:

We aren’t rape apologists unless we believe that women always tell the truth – and guess what, some women and children lie

At best, this statement can be interpreted as unabashed, unapologetic rape apologism. At worst, one wonders why they’re laying the groundwork for smearing children who have survived sexual violence as liars, and what else may emerge.

Following this statement, the SWP has once again haemorrhaged members, and some are once again celebrating the death of the party. I hope this is true, but sadly I suspect that we’ll be seeing this gang of misogynists shambling on, long outstaying their welcome. After all, they’ve survived this long.

Part of the problem is the SWP are everywhere. As well as their folding tables and newspaper salesmen, and the chap who shows up with a legion of placards screaming the SWP branding, you’ll find them in other places. They get themselves elected into positions on trade unions. They have a number of front organisations, including Unite Against Fascism, Unite The Resistance and Right To Work.

There’s a lot we can do to hasten the demise of the SWP. First and foremost, we absolutely must not organise with these fuckers. We must not organise with the SWP itself, and we must not organise with the front groups. This is harder than it sounds, given they have attempted to monopolise resistance, but it’s absolutely crucial if we are to take a stand against sexual violence.

We must make sure that they are completely and utterly unwelcome in our spaces. Wherever there is a SWPper, have the words “misogynist” and “rape apologist” ringing in their ears, as anyone with principles left long ago. Vote them from elected positions, and scream at them in the streets. If they do not leave, direct action may be necessary. Be critical not just of the SWP, but those who try to defend them, like the AWL did.

This is not a ban. It is simply standing up.

And finally, we need to create a climate wherein misogyny and rape apologism are thoroughly unwelcome in all of our organising spaces. It’s not enough to challenge it when it comes from the SWP–after all, everyone hates them. We need to put the necessity of safer spaces front and centre in all that we do.

I look forward to the demise of the SWP. I look forward to the demise of misogyny in my organising spaces even more.

Further reading:

I heard you have an SWP problem (thenameoflove)

Kill the SWP inside your head (me)

14 Dec 14:12

Nearest Election to a 3-way Split of Seats

by (Alun Wyburn-Powell)
Today is the anniversary of the 1923 general election. The Conservatives won the most seats with 258, Labour had 191 and the Liberals (with the Asquith and Lloyd George wings recently reunited) won 159.

It was the nearest that the country has ever come to an equal three-way split of seats.

The Conservatives, who had been in power before the election, tried to form a minority government.
However, the Liberals and (unsurprisingly) Labour refused to support them on the King’s Speech.

Liberal leader, Asquith could potentially have formed a minority Liberal government, or a coalition with one of the other parties. Instead, he let Labour form their first administration with the words:

"There could be no safer conditions under which to make the experiment".

Asquith was right in the sense that the first Labour government was not dangerous - indeed it was safe, respectable, unadventurous and fairly unobjectionable, even to its opponents.

However, the experiment turned out to be worse than dangerous for the Liberals. Once Labour had become a party of government, the Liberals appeared to have lost their purpose and were punished at the next election, held less than a year later in October 1924. Labour lost office in 1924, but the Liberals lost almost three-quarters of their seats, crashing to only 40 MPs.

One conclusion could be that, given the chance, it is always better to be a party of government.
14 Dec 14:12

Conservative Support Goes South

by (Alun Wyburn-Powell)

Conservative Party support is heading south and has been for over 50 years – I mean this literally, rather than metaphorically.

In the 1955 general election the Conservatives won over half the seats in Scotland. If you look at election maps from then and since, the Conservative blue patches have nearly disappeared from Scotland and much of northern England, while the rest of England has gradually become more and more solid blue.

In the Labour high point of the 1945 election, you could travel all the way from London to Liverpool without leaving a Labour-held constituency. After the even bigger Labour win in 1997 you would only have got as far as St Albans. The Conservative blue still dominated southern England even after the party’s serious defeat.

The Conservative drift to the south is reflected in the party’s choice of leader, which in turn reinforces the party’s southern image, which in turn means that there are fewer candidates for the leadership from outside southern England. The Conservative Party becomes more and more English, and southern English at that.

When you compare the three major parties, since 1945 the Conservative Party has had 11 leaders, Labour 10 and the Liberals/Lib Dems 9, demonstrating a surprising amount of equality and stability. On average a leader of any of the major parties remains in post for over seven years.

When you look at the seats represented by the leaders of each of the parties over this time though, an interesting geographical imbalance emerges.

Liberal/Lib Dem leaders’ seats since 1945

England  3
Scotland 5
Wales     1

Labour leaders’ seats since 1945

England  5
Scotland 2
Wales     3

Conservative leaders’ seats since 1945

England  10
Scotland  1

So, while the Labour and Liberal/Lib Dem leaders have included an over-representation of seats outside England (according to population), the Conservative Party has only had one leader representing a seat outside England. This was Alec Douglas-Home, who was only party leader for two years and that was half a century ago.

Tellingly, one Conservative MP described John Major as representing a ‘northern seat’. Huntingdon is not in the north of England on most people’s maps – it is not even north of Birmingham!
14 Dec 14:10

MPs should have their pay-rise - Oh, and it's 2.2% not 11%

by Mark Thompson
Having seen the almost uniformly negative coverage of this "11% MP pay rise" (even from MPs themselves) I feel that somebody has to stick up for them.

All the commentary I have seen has been along the lines of the rest of the country is suffering from austerity and public sector wage rises have been kept to 1% so WHY ON EARTH SHOULD MPs HAVE AN 11% PAY RISE??!!!

Well firstly the rise would not be 11%. At least not if you measure it fairly and in the same way that pay-rises are measured for everybody else, i.e. annually. The salary is currently £66,396 (since Apr this year). The proposal is to raise it to £74,000 in 2015. So this would be a rise of just under 5.6% per year from that baseline. But that isn't really fair either because between Apr 2009 and Apr 2013 MPs' salaries rose by 0.6% annually (when the historic average of the last decade has been more like 2.2%). And this current rise is at least partly designed to address this. So when you compare the Apr 2009 figure with the proposed 2015 one you get an average pay-rise of 2.2% across the 6 years. Which doesn't even keep pace with inflation.

"AH!" I hear you cry "BUT WHAT ABOUT THE 1%?". But there's more dear irate capitalised fictional reader. IPSA are actually proposing quite radical changes to the structure of MPs' (historically very generous) pensions and also ironing out some expenses anomalies. So the cost to the taxpayer of this latest rise would actually be cost neutral. That's right, it won't cost us anything more. Not that you'd particularly have been aware of that judging by much of the coverage.

It's also worth noting that IPSA is an entirely independent body. Many MPs hate IPSA although most are reluctant to criticise them publicly. This is not a case of MPs with their snouts in the trough trying to diddle the taxpayer. It is an independent group who have scrutinised the current settlement and proposed some changes that will be entirely cost-neutral whilst addressing the fact that MPs' pay has been slipping back in the last few years. It sort of makes me wonder how we are ever going to get to a position where the politics can be taken out of this issue.

Perhaps the proposal to have rises linked to average wage increases is the answer although there are bound to be some sectors that suffer in the future even though the average is much better and hence relatively MPs will appear to be living high on the hog. There is probably no answer to this.

And I have to say that I am not really interested in what cabinet ministers like Phillip Hammond, David Cameron and Danny Alexander have to say on the subject as they all earn well over £100K anyway and in many cases are already very independently wealthy anyway. Just because they can afford to refuse a pay increase does not mean all other MPs should be pressured to do so too. We need to be very careful about this. If this sort of thing carries on and MPs are continually forced through political pressure to refuse successive pay rises we will eventually end up with even higher numbers of MPs from wealthy backgrounds which is not good for politics. We have seen a similar dynamic recently with the whole "expenses saints" phenomenon where MPs who do not claim any expenses at all are lauded. Of course they are all independently wealthy and can afford to pay the expenses themselves. This should not afford them better career prospects but sadly it does seem to be doing so.

In the meantime, can we please stop comparing apples with oranges? Putting the 11% MP figure alongside the 1% public sector figure is completely distorting and unfair. It would be much fairer to compare it to the 2.2% figure for the average rise over the last few years. And it would also only be just to acknowledge that it is cost neutral.

Anything else is simply bullying our MPs and I really do fear where that will ultimately lead.

14 Dec 12:07

#466; In which Everyone loves the Freak

by David Malki !

Rudolph is a classic Mary Sue. But then again so is Jesus

This comic was originally published (in black & white) in 2008! The version above, colored by Anthony Clark, appears in my book Emperor of the Food Chain.

Click here to read the Scripture that accompanies it in the book.

14 Dec 11:39

World War II Anecdote about Trust and Security

by schneier

This is an interesting story from World War II about trust:

Jones notes that the Germans doubted their system because they knew the British could radio false orders to the German bombers with no trouble. As Jones recalls, "In fact we did not do this, but it seemed such an easy countermeasure that the German crews thought that we might, and they therefore began to be suspicious about the instructions that they received."

The implications of this are perhaps obvious but worth stating nonetheless: a lack of trust can exist even if an adversary fails to exploit a weakness in the system. More importantly, this doubt can become a shadow adversary. According to Jones, " was not long before the crews found substance to their theory [that is, their doubt]." In support of this, he offers the anecdote of a German pilot who, returning to base after wandering off course, grumbled that "the British had given him a false order."

I think about this all the time with respect to our IT systems and the NSA. Even though we don't know which companies the NSA has compromised -- or by what means -- knowing that they could have compromised any of them is enough to make us mistrustful of all of them. This is going to make it hard for large companies like Google and Microsoft to get back the trust they lost. Even if they succeed in limiting government surveillance. Even if they succeed in improving their own internal security. The best they'll be able to say is: "We have secured ourselves from the NSA, except for the parts that we either don't know about or can't talk about."

14 Dec 11:21

Polyamory Now Legal In Utah

by (Jae Kay)
I wrote last year about the Brown's of "Sister Wives" fame and their campaign to end Utah's regressive laws on "religious cohabitation".

Utah has, I'm sure you'll know, a long and complicated relationship with both the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and polygamy. In the 19th century polygamy was a central tenet of the LDS Church and they played a cat and mouse game with federal authorities to keep the "Principle" alive in Utah. By the 20th century the federal authorities had won and the LDS Church gave up the "Principle" in order for Utah and the church itself to commence normal relations within the Union.

By the middle of the 20th century the LDS Church was busy rebranding itself and, in so doing, sort to ever further distance itself from its polygamous past. It did this with the help of Utah state authorities and passed, in 1973, a law which banned living with more than one person as if you were married.

“A person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing he has a husband or wife or knowing the other person has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person.”
Not only did this allow authorities to intervene in some cases of abuse among fundamentalist Mormons, it also became a rod to beat those who were causing harm to no one else. A couple of years ago the Brown family themselves fled their beloved Utah home and settled in Las Vegas in order to avoid jail for the adult members and family separation.

Now the Brown's have won a victory that will allow others of their faith to practice non-legally binding plural marriage without fear. This is absolutely fantastic news, marking another step forward for freedom. It may be appealed however so fingers crossed this ruling is a keeper.

As predicted last year Lawrence v. Texas (which ended US state's anti-sodomy laws in 2003) played its part:

“Consensual sexual privacy is the touchstone of the rational basis review analysis in this case, as in Lawrence.”

Gay rights lead to human rights. Good times!
13 Dec 17:41

The David Cameron paradox: His “little black book” could form both the CON and LD manifestos

by MikeSmithson

Cameron in SA

In an interview with Speccie editor, Fraser Nelson David Cameron gives an interesting insight into how his party will present itself at GE2015

“..The coalition is still strong and radical, he says, ‘but because of what I see as the problems facing Britain — and what I want to do next as Prime Minister — I feel very passionately that I want single party government’. It’s strange, I say, he doesn’t come across as a man held captive by the perfidious Liberal Democrats. ‘I don’t believe that you succeed in government by sitting around whingeing about what you can’t do,’ he says. ‘But I’m happy to tell you — and Spectator readers — privately that there’s a good list of things I have put in my little black book that I haven’t been able to do which will form the next Tory manifesto.

That’s fine except it is exactly the message that the Lib Dems will try to put over as well. For their main hope of beating off the CON threat to most of the seats they’ll be defending is that LAB>LD tactical voting to block the Tories continues.

    In this context the more Cameron highlights the things that the LDs have stopped his party doing the more that it makes the case for such anti-CON tactical voting.

The great hope of the Tories is that in the LAB>CON battlegrounds the 2010 LDs will stay with their allegiance and that in the CON>LD ones that LAB voters will stay with the red team.

Concerted tactical voting in both sets of marginal seats makes the CON majority aim that bit more difficult.

Mike Smithson

Blogging from OUTSIDE the Westminster bubble since 2004

Follow @MSmithsonPB

12 Dec 23:36

#536 Pale Dot Blues

by (treelobsters)
12 Dec 16:04

NSA Tracks People Using Google Cookies

by schneier

The Washington Post has a detailed article on how the NSA uses cookie data to track individuals. The EFF also has a good post on this.

I have been writing and saying that surveillance is the business model of the Internet, and that government surveillance largely piggy backs on corporate capabilities. This is an example of that. The NSA doesn't need the cooperation of any Internet company to use their cookies for surveillance purposes, but they do need their capabilities. And because the Internet is largely unencrypted, they can use those capabilities for their own purposes.

Reforming the NSA is not just about government surveillance. It has to address the public-private surveillance partnership. Even as a group of large Internet companies have come together to demand government surveillance reform, they are ignoring their own surveillance activities. But you can't reform one without the other. The Free Software Foundation has written about this as well.

Little has been written about how QUANTUM interacts with cookie surveillance. QUANTUM is the NSA's program for real-time responses to passive Internet monitoring. It's what allows them to do packet injection attacks. The NSA's Tor Stinks presentation talks about a subprogram called QUANTUMCOOKIE: "forces clients to divulge stored cookies." My guess is that the NSA uses frame injection to surreptitiously force anonymous users to visit common sites like Google and Facebook and reveal their identifying cookies. Combined with the rest of their cookie surveillance activities, this can de-anonymize Tor users if they use Tor from the same browser they use for other Internet activities.

12 Dec 01:38

Don’t Live For Your Obituary

by John Scalzi

Image borrowed from here.

Via Nick Mamatas,this article about writer Colin Wilson, who passed away in the last week, which begins: 

How dismayed the late Colin Wilson would have been if, through some of the occult powers in which he believed, he had been able to read his own obituaries.

The man whose first book The Outsider caused him to be lionised in 1956 by the literary greats of the day has been remembered in several blogs for his later novel Space Vampires, which inspired a famously trashy Hollywood film. In the broadsheets, the life of a self-proclaimed genius has been given the faintly amused treatment favoured by obituarists when dealing with a life of eccentricity or failed promise.

Yet there is sort of heroism in the way that Wilson, having been abandoned by those who once praised him, remained loyal to his own talent, living a life of writing, reading and thinking –probably in that order.

The article, which you might be able to tell from the excerpt, is playing both ends of the game with regard to Wilson (which is why Nick pointed it out, I suspect — to mock it). Wilson would be dismayed, but on the other hand he did what he wanted, but on the other other hand here’s a checklist of things to avoid if you want your obits to be properly reverential.

And, I don’t know. One, I think if Mr. Wilson is still sentient after his death, he’s got other, more interesting things to think about than his obits; I suspect at that point worrying about your obits would be like worrying about the end-of-year assessment of your kindergarten teacher once you were out of college (“Nice kid. Hopefully will figure out paste is not for eating.”).

Two, if Mr. Wilson had any sense at all — or any ego, which by all indications he certainly did — then he recognized (before he passed on, obviously) that to the extent he and his work will be remembered at all, obituaries, transient news stories that they are, are insignificant. He’ll be remembered for the work, and the status of the work in the context of history is not settled at the time of the obituary.

Salient example: Gaze, if you will, on the New York Times obituary for Philip K. Dick, on March 3, 1982. It is four graphs long (the final two graphs being two and one sentences long, respectively) — which for a science fiction writer is pretty damn good, when it comes to obits in America’s Paper of Record, but which, shall we say, does not really suggest that Dick’s notability would long survive him. Now, look at the voluminous record of writing about Dick in the NYT post-obit — an index of five pages of thumbsuckers. Pre-death, I find one note about Dick in the index, and it’s one of those Arts & Leisure preview bits.

So, yes. The obit was not the final word, because the work continues — or at least, can. In Dick’s case, the majority of his fame has come after his death, alas for him. He (nor any of us) would not know that from the four paragraphs in the NYT on 3/3/82.

I noted it before and will like do so again: As a creative person (or, really, any other sort of person), you have absolutely no control how history will know you, if indeed they know you at all. For most creative people, to the extent they are remembered at all, they will be remembered for one thing, because the culture at large only has so much space for any of us. You won’t get to choose which one thing for which you are remembered. If, for Wilson, the one thing he’s remembered for is Space Vampires rather than The Outsider, then that is still one more thing for which he is remembered than the billions of us who go to our graves and are swallowed up by them. So well done him.

But even then, the culture’s memory is not infinite. Wilson’s work, one way or another, is not likely to survive the vicious cultural culling that happens over the course of time; it’s unlikely to be remembered by anyone but academics in a hundred years, or even them long after that (nor, to be clear, will mine, or the unfathomably large majority of works being created today). The good news is the judgment of the obits will have passed from this world long before then. And in any event the sun is going to swell up into a red giant in five billion years and likely swallow up the planet, so that’ll be the end of all of it.

(Obit for the sun: “A long, pedestrian life followed by a brief illness; survived by Jupiter, three other planets and numerous moons and comets. In lieu of flowers, please donate to the Orphaned Trans-Neptunian Objects Fund.”)

I don’t know Mr. Wilson to any degree — I am one of those who knew him best for creating the source material for Life Force, which was a terrible movie — but my wish for him was that he lived the sort of life where he didn’t actually care what his obits said, and instead enjoyed his life and left work that had the possibility of speaking for itself, over time. If you’re a creative (or indeed any other) person, let me suggest you don’t worry about your obits either. As well as you can, live the life you want to live and make the work you want to make. After you’re gone, it’ll all be sorted out or not. You won’t be around to worry about it. Focus on the parts you’re around for.

11 Dec 08:42

One Year Later

by (Philip Sandifer)
Nearly one year on, these are the things I remember.

Going to my favorite breakfast restaurant the next morning and sitting next to a loudmouth man who talked about how he didn't even want to have Christmas anymore, but who, as he paid for his meal, tried to get the waitress to stop by his car dealership.

The town piling up all the toys people donated in the basement of the town hall and letting kids just pick freely from them. After Chirstmas they still had so many that they had to make expensive plans to get rid of the absurd mass of toys that people donated with no thought whatsoever as to whether they were comforting anyone but themselves.

The woman who set up an ad hoc memorial consisting of little Christmas trees, which she described as having "pink lights for the girl angels and blue lights for the boy angels," and my bafflement both at the fact that gender essentialism is somehow necessary after death and that the six adults got red lights.

The day it took an hour to drive the mile from my house to the comic shop because of the traffic around the church, not from people going to one of the funerals, but from news vans parked across the street filming people at the funeral.

The numbing awkwardness of meeting a bunch of Jill's family for the first time at a family Christmas party two days after, and having a half-dozen identical conversations, all of which begin with someone I've just met asking where in Connecticut we live, and which end precisely one sentence later.

How it was too soon to talk about the politics of gun control right up until the impetus to actually do anything had passed.

Reading an article in Salon that offered a deconstructive take on the name of the bar Nancy Lanza frequented - My Place - viewing it as the epitome of American capitalist culture. My Place added a bar no more than a decade ago, and anyone local knows it as one of the main local pizza places; I first ate there over twenty years ago.

The signs some presumably well-meaning people put up suggesting that everything is God's plan, and how I wanted to just drive out at 2am and tear them all down, along with the brightly colored signs comforting the town made by kids who had never been there and hung from every telephone pole, and all the other mawkish, brightly colored shit that consisted of nothing more than hollow platitudes trying to advance the sickening lie that there is anything OK about a world where one morning twenty first graders can be gunned down in their classroom. 
09 Dec 14:24

File Extensions

I have never been lied to by data in a .txt file which has been hand-aligned.
09 Dec 13:47

PSA: Why there won't be a third book in the Halting State trilogy

by Charlie Stross

I really wanted to make it a trilogy, you know? I mean, what could be cooler than a trilogy of near-future Scottish police procedurals about crimes that don't exist yet, written in multi-viewpoint second person? (Elizabeth Bear has a term for that kind of thing: she calls it "stunt writing".)

Unfortunately the NSA have done it again:

To the National Security Agency analyst writing a briefing to his superiors, the situation was clear: their current surveillance efforts were lacking something. The agency's impressive arsenal of cable taps and sophisticated hacking attacks was not enough. What it really needed was a horde of undercover Orcs.

Real-life agents have been deployed into virtual realms, from those Orc hordes in World of Warcraft to the human avatars of Second Life. There were attempts, too, to recruit potential informants from the games' tech-friendly users.

At this point, I'm clutching my head. "Halting State" wasn't intended to be predictive when I started writing it in 2006. Trouble is, about the only parts that haven't happened yet are Scottish Independence and the use of actual quantum computers for cracking public key encryption (and there's a big fat question mark over the latter—what else are the NSA up to?).

I'm throwing in the towel. I probably will write another near-future Scottish police procedural by and by, but it won't be a sequel to the first two except in the loosest sense. The science fictional universe of "Halting State" and "Rule 34" is teetering on the edge of turning into reality. Meanwhile, the financial crisis of 2007 forced me back to the drawing board for "Rule 34"; the Snowden revelations have systematically trashed all my ideas for the third book.

To make matters worse, Scotland is teetering on the edge of a political singularity. There is a Referendum on Scottish Independence coming up in September 2014. Then the UK (with or without Scotland) is expected to hold a referendum on whether or not to stay in the EU—a vote with consequences which are probably even more disruptive than the question of whether Scotland should separate from the Union. In just two years the map of the Scottish near future will have changed, unpredictably and drastically, from where it is now. I therefore conclude that there is simply no point in my starting to write a near-future politically astute crime thriller set in Scotland before I know the outcome of those votes (especially as it couldn't be published before mid-2016).

Sometimes I wish I'd stuck with the spaceships and bug-eyed monsters. Realism in fiction is over-rated.


If you're wondering what sort of near-future dystopian panopticon surveillance state/spy thriller I would be writing if I wasn't setting it in Scotland and writing in the second person, you'll get to see when I finish it. Ahem. Because that's the direction the trilogy provisionally titled "Merchant Princes: The Next Generation" is going in.

There will eventually be another near-future Scottish thriller, but I'm not going to start writing until after the votes are in. And it won't be in-series with the first two.

09 Dec 09:19

How to Find a Mutually Beneficial Solution

by Scott Meyer

Yeah, wrote this and sent it out to the subscribers over a month ago. In the time since, Monty Python has announced that they've reunited. In other news, it looks like they're makign another Beverly Hills Cop movie, so that's something.

Hey, just a reminder that any holiday gifts purchased through my Amazon Affiliate links (USUKCanada) would, in theory, throw a little money my way without costing you a dime extra! Just Sayin'.

08 Dec 21:23

Tributes have flooded in

by Mark Steel

I wonder if it was like this two thousand years ago. If it was, when Jesus died, Pontius Pilate would have appeared on Sky News moments after the cross was taken down and said “The world mourns today a man of great integrity. It was an honour to have known him, and even when I sentenced him to crucifixion, he showed great forgiveness, and that shows what a great figure he was.”

On the BBC the newsreader would say “With me here is one of his closest associates. Judas, what memories do you have of Jesus?”

And Judas would say he always displayed dignity and humility, and most importantly forgave those that betrayed him, and finish with an amusing anecdote, about how pernickety he could be about which bread to break at supper.

On Radio 5 live the moneylenders at the temple would say he was a heroic figure, who may have thrown over the moneylenders’ tables in the temple, but said he was sorry for the mess that was caused, which is the main thing, then every newspaper would tell us “Tributes have flooded in from across the Roman Empire, led by King Herod who said ‘It is a sad day for Nazareth, and a sad day for Rome’.”

Many of the official tributes to Nelson Mandela, such as the one from David Cameron, have emphasised his ability to forgive, and his apparent rejection of bitterness is part of what made him extraordinary. But the reason his capacity for forgiveness towards the rulers of apartheid mattered, was that he’d organised opposition to it, took up arms against it and overthrew it. If he hadn’t, if his notable side was forgiveness, he would simply have been a kindly chap who’d passed away with no one outside his family taking much notice.

Few people now defend apartheid, but someone must have liked it at the time or it wouldn’t have been such a nuisance to destroy. Margaret Thatcher, idol of many who made tributes to Mandela, bragged with a fervour that actually made her look drunk, that she’d rejected sanctions against the regime, as the ANC was a “typical terrorist organisation.” Many sportsmen and musicians broke the boycott, repeating the sentiments of Dennis Thatcher who said “we play our rugby where we like”. There were the ‘Hang Mandela’ t-shirts, and countless commentators and politicians who belittled the demonstrations and boycotts.

I visited Robben Island prison, where Mandela had been incarcerated, in 2003. To get my ticket I visited an office in Cape Town, with glossy posters on the wall, covered in flowery lower case jolly African writing, exclaiming your trip to South Africa wasn’t complete without taking the unique opportunity of a trip to the famous island. I got on a catamaran with Americans and Germans, who smothered themselves in sun cream and took pictures of each other as they held out their arms and giggled.

Had they turned the prison into a theme park, I wondered, maybe with a water-canon-slide, and a helter skelter shaped like a giant Desmond Tutu?

But tours of the prisons are conducted by ex-prisoners. As we wandered round the cells our guide explained how he and fellow convicts had been allotted different amounts of bread according to their race, and how they were made to work sixteen hours a day on the land.

“One day”, he said, “As I was digging, on the day of the month my father was due to visit, a guard called my name. I stood before him on that spot there and he said ‘Your father won’t be visiting today as he’s been shot. Now get back to work’.”

His father lived, it turned out, but never walked again, and the guide told us the three responsible for the attempted murder were free under the rules of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, and were now wealthy businessmen.

To my left a woman in shorts and a bright silk top, put her camera away and started sobbing onto her sun cream.

On another day I was taken around Soweto, by a friend of the family I was staying with. We toured the roads from which its residents hadn’t been allowed to leave without a pass, met countless children running along dusty tracks selling water, as if auditioning for a film that Morgan Freeman will probably be in, and went round the museum built where the schoolchildren were massacred.

My host was fascinated by England and cricket and the Premier League, and overflowing with tales of his youth, of plantains and preachers, and pondering why after apartheid there were still hundreds of thousands living in squalor, in the camps outside each town.
“What a memorable day”, I said when I got back to the people I was staying with. “Marvellous”, they said, “but you were lucky today. That lad you were with was arrested in the 1980s, and tortured by the police in the station at John Foster Square. He made such a noise they called him The Screamer, and whenever they brought in new prisoners, they would torture him again, so his screams would terrify them and make them talk. Sometimes he’s still a bit jittery but he was on good form today.”

So it was indeed remarkable that Nelson Mandela endured this regime and yet displayed no malice. But the real reason he was remarkable is that he took on its wealth and weaponry and brutality, its distinguished friends and its air of impregnable authority, he became the figure of a global movement and he beat it. The kids of Soweto not legally allowed past their street, the protestor throwing flour at rugby players, the student taking their twenty quid out of Barclays, the pensioner leaving South African grapes at the checkout, The Specials, the prisoners and the screamers and Nelson Mandela were united in opposition to this heavily armed barbarity and they won.

During the campaign against apartheid Nelson Mandela was a distant figure, locked away but a name on mugs, posters and student union halls, barely more real than Batman. But the De Klerks and Bothas were alarmingly real, an air of menace in their presence, like the bouncer that orders around the other bouncers.

Now the hazy figure is revered above all, and the defenders of apartheid have to scramble in his shadow for a space to declare that really they admired him, and the people they helped to torture.

The precise nature of his legacy will be debated for centuries. His capacity for forgiveness was impressive, and perhaps it isn’t surprising if that’s emphasised by some paying tribute, rather than his role in overturning inequality, as they’re now arranging inequality of their own.

Because surely his most important achievement was to prove that bastards and their bastard regimes can be overthrown, against seemingly impossible odds, by all of us, as no one knows which unsold grape was the one that finally brought down a tyranny.

08 Dec 16:41

Recommended Reading

by evanier
Andrew Hickey

I do hope not. I don't think I could stand it if I had to sit on a transatlantic flight listening to the kind of half-conversations I hear on the bus to work. It would, quite literally, drive me mad.

Joe Brancatelli, the man who knows more about airlines than anyone alive, doesn't think much will come of this proposal to allow passengers on flights to use their cell phones. At least, there won't be a lot of voice calls, sez Joe.

08 Dec 02:30

Ten lazy assumptions that are part of the mainstream political consensus.

Ten lazy assumptions that are part of the mainstream political consensus.
07 Dec 19:38

#987; In which Jeremy is Defeated

by David Malki !


07 Dec 19:11

by Charlie Stross

Michael Walker trained a Markov chain with the King James Bible and Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, a classic computer science textbook.

The result is King James Programming:

And Satan stood up against them in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the role of procedures in program design.

22:14 The mouth of strange women is a deep and wonderful property of computation.

In APL all data are represented as arrays, and there shall they see the Son of man, in whose sight I brought them out

This was not, obviously, silly enough for my tastes, so ...

Half an hour on CPAN and in vim, and then some discreet dumpster-diving in the nether reaches of the internet, brought me three things:

  • A dodgy copy of the complete works of H. P. Lovecraft
  • The text of the King James Version of the Bible
  • And the first code I've written in, oh, close to two years (please go easy on me)

Here it is:

    #         FILE:
    #        USAGE:  ./ 
    #      VERSION:  1.0
    #      CREATED:  05/12/2013 20:08:15 GMT
    #     REVISION:  ---
    use strict;
    use warnings;
    use Algorithm::MarkovChain;
    use Path::Class;
    use autodie; # die if problem reading or writing a file

    my @inputs = qw(king_james_bible.txt lovecraft_complete.txt); 
    my $dir = dir(".");
    my $f = "";
    my @symbols = ();
    foreach $f (@inputs) {
        my $file = $dir->file($f);
    	my $lcounter = 0;
        my $wcounter = 0;
        my $file_handle = $file->openr();
        while( my $line = $file_handle->getline() ) {
    		chomp ($line);
    		my @words = split(' ', $line);
            push(@symbols, @words);
    		$wcounter += scalar(@words);
    	print "$lcounter lines, $wcounter words read from $f\n";
    my $chain = Algorithm::MarkovChain::->new();
    $chain->seed(symbols => \@symbols, longest => 6);
    print "About to spew ...\n";
    print "---\n\n";
    foreach (1 .. 20) {
        my @newness = $chain->spew(length   => 40,
                                   complete => [ qw( the ) ]);
        print join (" ", @newness), ".\n\n";
Yes, it's a Markov chain generator, seeded with the King James Bible and the complete works of H. P. Lovecraft. Sample output:

krina:markov charlie$ ./ 2> /dev/null
99820 lines, 821134 words read from king_james_bible.txt
16536 lines, 775603 words read from lovecraft_complete.txt
About to spew ...
    the backwoods folk -had glimpsed the battered mantel,
    rickety furniture, and ragged draperies. It spread over it a
    robber, a shedder of blood, when I listened with mad
    intentness. At last you know!At last to come to see me. Now
    the absence of any real link with that of 598 Angell Street
    was as the old castle by the shallow crystal stream I saw
    unwonted ripples tipped with yellow light, as if those
    depths of their rhythm. The training saved them.
    the bed, and make thee borders of gold with studs of silver.
    1:12 While the case histories, to expect. As mental
    atmosphere. His eyes were pits of a hundred and fifty
    shekels, 30:24 And he laughed mockingly at the village
    the commandment of the room; then this. If this thing. 25:1
    If he had no way to turn either to the coyote - or to
    something was wrong. Marsh and Marceline represents. I am
    strong. 26:16 I also in me. 14:2.
    the ghouls, whose utter strangeness and their backsliding, I
    will love him, and have redeemed them, yet thou never gavest
    me a people: 8:11 And I said unto them, and I believe that
    the king doth behold the upright. 33:2 Thus.
    the gleaming sand, bobbing lanterns. The Philistines be upon
    thee, and because the famine in the heart proceed evil for
    Israel, with hesitancy, and which I had known it, to
    himself, he said, How shall depart from his house. 7:2 That.
    the results we learned that no harm him, and rent it. 7:22
    My face again no not to inform me, even all the heads of the
    unutterable consequences. It could tell, it thunders. The
    thing came out of Egypt. Who knoweth.
    the grass-grown line on the glassy, phantom bones. 50:18
    Therefore the children of Israel dedicated the sea, diverse
    and I hung an air of the war, to rest in my brother for
    nought, and the counsellor, and the cunning workman, and.
    the great hill that put bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for
    Tammuz. 8:15 As it fastened his body to the dead youth who
    would "go the king lifted up his Son of Professor George
    Saintsbury - "the criminal is securely strapped to.

As you can see, the output is pretty crude. Obviously this was a half-hour hack, not a properly finished product; but I think it shows promise — His eyes were pits of a hundred and fifty shekels — and a definite feel of familiarity — It spread over it a robber, a shedder of blood, when I listened with mad intentness.

Stuff to do: fine-tune the parameters of the Markov chain output, pick different seed words, possibly filter out chapter headers, titles, and verse numbers, possibly scan the output for sentence-shaped lexical chunks and top and tail them (capitalize and terminate properly).

I wonder: if I run it for long enough, will it emit a fully-formed draft of the Necronomicon?

07 Dec 13:42

Carter Country

by evanier

Here's a review of the Beyoncé show I attended. I pretty much agree with everything in it.

And here, for my own record if not your info, is the set list she performed: Run the World, End of Time, If I Were a Boy, Get Me Bodied, Baby Boy, Diva, Naughty Girl, Party, Freakum Dress, Why Don't You Love Me, 1+1, Irreplaceable, Love On Top, Survivor, Countdown, Crazy In Love, Grown Woman, I Was Here, I Will Always Love You, Halo. In that order.

I received an e-mail from someone who wrote "How could you stand that crap?" and a couple others from folks who said essentially the same thing, only nicer. Obviously, given the lady's popularity, I am hardly the only person on the planet who likes "that crap." I thought she was terrific…and I also took the POV that I was something of an alien presence there, enjoying the chance to observe native customs. I mean nothing racial in that. It's just that her show is not geared to 61-year-old guys who are not heavy into what she does or to R&B played at that volume.


So I guess I could have gone into Old Man mode and barked at these kids today and their music and how it's not like the old days and while you're at it, get the hell off my lawn! But I always feel a certain arrogance welling up within me when I go anywhere near there. It's like, "How dare there be entertainment not geared for my tastes?" And on some level, "How dare something I don't like be so successful?" I just found much there to admire and enjoy, including the sheer professionalism of the performance and the sense of audience connection and participation. Most of all, I thought this: How often do you get to be in a room with 18,000 people all having the best time of their lives and showing it?

There are people in this world who somehow feel threatened by the happiness of others. I'm thinking of one guy I occasionally encounter at conventions when I can't avoid him. He's got to be one of the unhappiest people on this planet. Whenever he runs into someone who's happy (or at least, seems happy to him) you can see it make him madder. It's like they've got something he can't seem to get. And those grins on their faces? That's them flaunting it just to make him feel worse.

I think the happiness of others is the best drug in the world. Well, not always. When your knee is hurting, as my left knee (the one I didn't have surgery on earlier this year) is now, a shot of cortisone is the best drug in the world and I got one today so I can do something over the weekend besides wince. But when your knee is not hurting, the happiness of others is the best drug and I got a good shot of that on Tuesday evening. I'd go again if she was here, I got another free ticket and I didn't have to stand for the whole show.

07 Dec 00:47

WHAT is GOING ON with your LIFE

Andrew Hickey

Important advice for Holly

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December 4th, 2013: AUSTIN: last time I was there (to sign literally thousands and thousands of books) I loved it. So I'm coming back! Webcomics Rampage is this weekend in Austin, Texas! THAT IS WHERE I'M GONNA BE. Let us hang out! LET US DO THAT

One year ago today: sufficiently-advanced reindeer

– Ryan

06 Dec 17:24

Telepathwords: preventing weak passwords by reading your mind.

Telepathwords: preventing weak passwords by reading your mind.