Wine and money-laundering

September 19th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

For money-laundering, one of the most useful businesses is something involving small, high-value items which can be sold for cash. Ideally you want things bought by the public (so you can easily get money to/from anybody), resaleable (so you can get multiple transactions), and whose value is hard to quantify (so you can increase or decrease the price as required)

Art is great for this. China’s art market is most famed as a tool of corruption — a piece of art is an elegant gift for an official — but can also be used in other forms of fraud. It doesn’t much matter if it is good, bad, or even fake.

Susan Grossey reports on increased global interest in another sector: fine French Wine:

Chinese criminals have joined their Russian and Ukrainian counterparts in targeting French vineyards – not for tasting, but for owning….
[French anti-money-laundering agency Tracfin reported] that some buyers of vineyards were using “complex judicial arrangements with holding companies located in fiscally privileged countries”, making it difficult to establish the origin and legality of the funds brought into France.

Cash dollar amnesty in Argentina

August 28th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Got some dirty dollars? Invest them in Argentina!. The government has a plan to let you turn tainted dollars legal; you just need to find an Argentinian to buy property with your cash:

The scheme, referred to locally as the “laundering law”, invites those with undeclared dollars to invest in property and the energy industry without facing penalties for their previous financial chicanery. The government believes that Argentines have about $160 billion tucked under their mattresses or hidden away in foreign bank accounts. That is about four times the value of Argentina’s foreign currency reserves.

Write it down!

August 26th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

To disapprove of writing is something of a tactical mistake, from a memetic point of view. Most of the ancient arguments against writing must have been lost because, well, nobody wrote them down.

Socrates, at least, managed to have his cake and eat it. Part of his Phaedrus is devoted to outlining the limits of writing — but since Phaedrus itself was written down, we can at least follow his arguments.

Being Mr. Dialogue, Socrates loathes the fact that writing can’t answer questions; a text gives “one unvarying answer” whatever you ask it. Also — an argument surely understandable by anybody who has studied classics or philosophy — he worries that written texts will be passed down through generations of people who never really understand them.

Finally — and part of the reason I’m posting this — Socrates fears writing will undermine memory. He recounts that an Egyptian king, Thamus, was approached by the god Thoth. Thoth offered Egypt all kinds of knowledge, including writing. King Thamus turned down the gift of writing, lest it destroy Egyptians’ memories:

[Writing], said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied:…. this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

Socrates, then, is the moderate anti-scribe, the one who scraped into history because his disciple, Plato, was willing to commit something to paper.

If you want the extreme of the anti-writing faction, try Pythagoras. Not only did he avoid writing anything, he made sure his followers did the same. For a century or more, many people built their life around his maxims (“acusmata“), handed down orally within the cult of Pythagoras. Disciples abjured not just writing but even speaking, beginning with 5 years of total silence and continuing to keep some ideas secret within the sect. This “Pythagorean silence” had the effect that, according to one Greek writer, people “marvel more at the silence of those who profess to be his pupils than at those who have the greatest reputation for speaking”.

Well, perhaps. The above, like everything we “know” about Pythagoras, is a compote of rumour and guesswork. Pythagoras only narrowly avoided the oblivion usual for those who avoid writing. We know little about the likely core of his work — as a religious leader, a philosopher of reincarnation, and founder of a lifestyle of ritual and self-discipline. Instead he is now remembered for a theorem on triangles which he probably didn’t even invent. Bad luck, Pythagoras — try writing a book in your next reincarnation, mmkay?

I can’t help wondering, though, how many other Pythagoras-like figures there have been in history. People of great immediate influence, whose lives left no longer mark because they distrusted writing. Probably they account for the vast majority of pre-modern thinkers. I’d say we should remember them, but we can’t.

Think of my aging mother, m’lud

August 23rd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

You’re a money launderer. You’re keen that, even if you get caught, you should get off with a minimal sentence. Here’s how to arrange your life:

  • Remorse
  • Good character and/or exemplary conduct
  • Serious medical condition requiring urgent, intensive or long-term treatment
  • Sole or primary carer for dependent relatives
  • Early active co-operation particularly in complex cases
  • Determination and/or demonstration of steps having been taken to address offending behaviour
  • Activity originally legitimate

These — via Susan Grossey — are from proposed UK sentencing guidelines for fraud, bribery and money laundering. . They are the planned ‘mitigating factors’ — reasons to reduce a sentence. Demonstrate tese to the court, and you’ll have an easier time of it.

The problem is, most of these are things a well-lawyered fraudster will have an easy time showing — as Susan hints, they are “a standard disguise for your professional launderer

Some Monday snippets

August 19th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

The New York Times hilariously manages to claim the US has “limited options” about Egypt. The reason they’re limited is that cutting of the annual $1.3 billion of military aid is inconceivable. Sigh.

How Philip Morris is lobbying to avoid plain cigarette packaging in the UK, based on internal plans leaked to the Guardian. I guess it does no harm to have one of your lobbyists working as chief election strategist for the Tories.

Also infiltrating government is Prince Charles, who has lent one aide to the Cabinet Office, and another to DEFRA.

Ecuador agreed to protect its part of the Amazon, in return for compensation payments from the developed world. They coughed up a whole 0.36% of what they promised — so Ecuador has abandoned the idea

Place names of Shetland and Orkney

August 3rd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Fitful Head, Tongue of Gangsta, The Trip: Shetland and Orkney have some wonderful place names. Steve Goldman has done a wonderful job of collecting them.

Strange Maps picks out some of the best of them:

Somehow, the Banks of Runabout sounds vaguely like a critique of the financial sector. And the White Stane of Willies might as well have been mentioned in the lewd paragraph. The Taing of the Busy? That’s that faint ringing noise that gets inside your head when you’ve been up for 24 hours straight. Also known as the Head of Work. The Knowes of Euro? The Candle of Sneuk? The Riff of Wasbister? We sort of know what half the name means. But how frustrating to have not even the glimmer of a clue about the Neven o’ Grinni, the Sinians of Cutclaws, the Glifters of Lyrawa, or the Quilse of Hoganeap.

Choosing forgotten fights

July 31st, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Aaron Swartz on leaving a legacy. The gist is that you should achieve something which, in your absence, would not have happened:

So what jobs do leave a real legacy? It’s hard to think of most of them, since by their very nature they require doing things that other people aren’t trying to do, and thus include the things that people haven’t thought of. But one good source of them is trying to do things that change the system instead of following it. For example, the university system encourages people to become professors who do research in certain areas (and thus many people do this); it discourages people from trying to change the nature of the university itself.


June 27th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Marco “Instapaper” Arment in praise of RSS:

The true power of the RSS inbox is keeping you informed of new posts that you probably won’t see linked elsewhere, or that you really don’t want to miss if you scroll past a few hours of your Twitter timeline.

If you can’t think of any sites you read that fit that description, you should consider broadening your horizons.

I’ve been baffled by how so many people seem not to notice the value of this. And twitter doesn’t help:

The fundamental flaw in the stream paradigm is that items from different feeds don’t have equal value: I don’t mind missing a random New York Times post, but I’ll regret missing the only Dan’s Data post this month because it was buried under everyone’s basketball tweets and nobody else I follow will link to it later.

Arendt and the drones

May 27th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

What would Hannah Arendt think about Drones, and should we agree with her? Much distrust of drones, argues Abu Muqawama, comes from the same tradition as Arendt’s horror at the ‘banality of evil’. Its model of evil is the Nazi bureaucrat, efficiently implementing Genocide while mentally insulated from the reality.

Arendt tapped into a wave of humanistic sentiment that prefigured her journalism, and she popularized the fantasy of the ice-cold bureaucratic murderer. As wrong as she was [Muqawama considers Eichmann as much idealist as pen-pusher], she crafted a compelling narrative of a sociotechnical system that diminished the humanity of the men who operated it and killed millions.

So drone operators, like Eichmann, can be simultaneously driven by scientific rationalism and by rabid murderous ideology. Um, great!

Or to put a kinder spin on it: drone pilots are subject to the same passions as soldiers in the field. But, being in a less brutal environment, they might be more open to compassion than to revenge:

in what universe does does a 19-year old rifleman who took to war directly from high school prom, who has just seen his friend lose his limbs a week before in a IED attack, somehow become an a priori better choice than a Air Force officer sitting in a Creech Air Force Base trailer?

Roadkill evolution

May 15th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Swallows have evolved to better dodge cars, according to an article in Current Biology. They are gradually getting shorter wings, which help them fly up from the road and swerve around cars.

During a 30-year study on social behavior and coloniality of cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) in southwestern Nebraska, we found that the frequency of road-killed swallows declined sharply over the 30 years following the birds’ occupancy of roadside nesting sites and that birds killed on roads had longer wings than the population at large.


Bits and Pieces

May 11th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Intriguing (and comprehensible) article on the ABC Conjecture, a famous mathematical problem that might — or might not — have been solved last year. After 10 years of quiet work, Shinichi Mochizuki dumped a dense 500-page quartet of papers on the world. Mathematicians are having trouble digesting them:

This is not just gibberish to the average layman. It was gibberish to the math community as well.

“Looking at it, you feel a bit like you might be reading a paper from the future, or from outer space,” wrote Ellenberg on his blog.

“It’s very, very weird,” says Columbia University professor Johan de Jong, who works in a related field of mathematics.

Mochizuki had created so many new mathematical tools and brought together so many disparate strands of mathematics that his paper was populated with vocabulary that nobody could understand. It was totally novel, and totally mystifying.

Molly Crabapple was a schoolage malcontent:

In The Medicalization of Deviance, Peter Conrad says that what was once conceived of as sin, then crime, became illness. School kids are labelled with all three. Brown kids in broke schools are seen as minicriminals. Police detain them for doodling on their own backpacks. In religious areas, queer kids are sinners.

For white kids in decent schools, adolescent rebellion is something for psychiatrists to treat. For them, school is taken as a hard-wired part of evolution. You’re broken if you can’t sit in class.

Crabapple eventually gets a quite wonderful diagnosis: “Oppositional Deviant Disorder”. Truly, America is master of the medical approach.

Finding things to read

April 15th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

I love reading about how people manage their information consumption — especially when they have managed to jump out of the social-media ghetto:

I now subscribe to about 800 individual feeds, and this number is growing daily. The trick here is to find high-quality, low-volume link sources. The motherlode of good links for me was to be found on social bookmarking sites. About 700 of my subscriptions are to the RSS feeds of individual users on Pinboard and Delicious. This gives me very fine control and a great mix of interests. Plus, getting links from individual curators handily sidesteps the social news group-think problem. The remainder of my subscriptions are split between blogs, some sub-Reddits, a few Twitter users and subsections of arXiv.

Beijing’s black guards

April 7th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

In China, if you have a problem with the authorities, you have the theoretical right to travel to Beijing to put your grievance before officialdom).

Petitioning is a thankless task, and close to hopeless. The
BBC explains that:

In modern China, petitioners make up a marginalised collection of citizens. They are often arrested and sent back to their home provinces. Many spend years trying to get the government to hear their case, but very few ever get any results. They petition on a wide range of cases – I’ve met a builder whose wages were never paid, a man engaged in a long-running land dispute, and a father who sobbed as he explained his campaign for an investigation into his only son’s death.

More often than not, the people doing the arresting and returning will be the administration of whichever province you come from. Having petitioners in Beijing reflects badly on the province, especially you do somehow manage to win action on whatever local injustice has affected you.

Thus comes the system of ‘black guards’ — semi-legal thugs who intimidate petitioners into returning home. Caixin online interviews one, who describes how they work:

After identifying each petitioner, the guards first approach them and ask that they get into a car, saying that officials from their home have made the trip to Beijing to resolve their problems. Most petitioners, however, are unwilling to enter the car. If the locale is crowded, like the entrance to the SBLC, it is not convenient for the guards to simply grab people and carry them away. Instead they wait for the petitioners to leave on their own and follow them to their lodgings, where guards again ask them to get into cars. Usually two guards are assigned to one petitioner, but the number could grow depending on the level of difficulty. If the person refuses to cooperate, the guards simply grab them by the arms and legs and force them into the car. “Usually we don’t hit anybody,” Wang said.

Don’t hire geeks for their cool hobbies

April 3rd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Not only is there massive institutional sexism in computer programming, things get worse as you move into the areas I feel most enthusiastic about. The light side — open-source projects, innovative startups, socially-engaged organisations — tends to be more male-dominated than the megacorps we love to hate.

One reason for this is that it’s a world run by guys in their 20s and 30s, with neither management experience nor formalized procedures to back them up. People trying to wing it are likely to fall back on their own prejudices. Geek Feminism gives one example, jobseeker interviews which involve talking about hobbies:

hiring based on hobbies has two major possible implications for software jobs. One is that it’s easier for people who hack on open-source code in their free time to get a software job
The other possible implication is that “interesting” hobbies don’t necessary have to involve programming, but you do have to have a hobby and it does have to be interesting to your interviewer, which probably means it has to be something that wouldn’t be a surprising interest for a hetero white cis male software engineer
You’ll be disadvantaged on both counts, of course, if your spare time gets spent taking care of your family or doing the household work
Because status hierarchies in geek circles are frequently about who has the assets (in both time or money) to do the coolest projects in their spare time, I often feel excluded when other people talk about what they do in their free time, and guilty because I don’t have enough executive function to do much after work besides recharge so I can do more work the next day.

Academic blogging

April 2nd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

There’s a bleak hilarity to watching academic bloggers defend their activities to colleagues, especially in the medium of semi-academic printed prose.
Two years ago, John Sides introduced blogging to the readers of Political Science and Politics. He was restrained and reassuring — to the extent that’s possible when you have a subheading “Do I really want to be a Nazi scumbag moron?”:

blogging is not without its challenges, particularly
in terms of the time and energy needed to maintain a site. But
blogging can also have its benefits by not only helping polit-
ical science reach a broader audience, but also aiding individ-
ual scholars’ research, teaching, and service goals.

Now comes a response from Robin Farley of Lawyers, guns and money. He summarizes:

Sides treats blogging (and what I tend to think of as associated “public intellectual” activities) as adjunct to a successful political science career. I, on the other hand, think that we should take seriously the possibility that these activities should become the main course of a successful career in political science (and other fields)

The comments to Farley’s post are, as you’d expect, more interesting and persuasive than anything you’d find in a journal:

that’s what blogging is good for: core arguments. Peer-reviewed journals are better for extensive and careful analysis of those arguments. It’s fine to have different standards, since they serve fundamentally different purposes. That doesn’t mean that blogging doesn’t have academic value, however, and in political science there appears to be a growing recognition of that. In the recent TRIPS survey of international relations scholars I believe around 65% said that blogging should count for tenure/promotions as academic service.


My own point of view is that the field became so self-infatuated with scientism in the 1980s and 1990s that political scientists lost both the ability (on average) and the will (much more importantly) to contribute to public debates in accessible language. One of the things I’ve admired very much about LGM and The Monkey Cage and other political science blogging, is the way they use political science in a way that is accessible, yet neither patronizes nor panders.

Like Farley, I’m a bit of a pro-blogging absolutist here. Not that it’s narrowly about blogging; much the same argument could apply to anything from Usenet to (God forbid) twitter. Any discipline without objective verification must engage with the widest possible audience, simply to avoid falling into self-referential nonsense. If you can’t convey ideas outside your clique, and convince people of their value, they don’t count for anything.

I’m not rushing to the barricades in defense of polsci-bloggers, though. They don’t need it: the current outcast state of academic blogging will evaporate within a decade. Already students, jobseekers, and many others are being ordered to blog. Blogging isn’t yet given much weight in academic promotion, but it doubtless will be in the near future. The closed world of academic publishing is crumbling. As journal articles become systematically available online, ungated, there should be more substantial interchange between public and narrowly academic writing. All in all, the future’s bright.

Owen Hatherley on the Moscow metro

April 1st, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

I’m enjoying The Calvert Journal, a fairly young English-language blog covering Russian contemporary art and other culture. They’re based in London and seem to have some funds behind them; at least, they’ve been able to get Owen Hatherley writing about the Moscow metro:

Largely, the model developed in the mid-1930s continues, and not just in Moscow – extensions in Kiev or St Petersburg, or altogether new systems in Kazan or Almaty, carry on this peculiar tradition. Metro stations are still being treated as palaces of the people, over two decades after the “people’s” states collapsed. This could be a question of maintaining quality control, but then quality is not conspicuous in the Russian built environment. So why does this endure?

Croatian weapons in Syria

March 31st, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

My first article for the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project is on suspected Croatian arms exports to Syria:

export figures obtained by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) show that last December, Jordan suddenly began buying Croatian weapons….
Within weeks of the trade, powerful new weapons began appearing among Syrian rebel fighters. They match the categories listed in the Croatian export records: rocket and grenade launchers, artillery guns, and plenty of ammunition.

This is following on from work by CJ Chivers in the New York Times. He used American officials and flight data to argue that Croatian weapons were reaching Syria via Jordan; I used Comtrade trade stats to confirm the first leg of that.

So far it’s been picked up by Foreign Policy, and there’s an Arabic version at Ammannet.

On Chavez

March 7th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Here’s a chart from the Economist, showing how dramatically Chavez reduced poverty. The blog post is a classic example of faux-rational Economist promotion of the party line, if you like that kind of thing


Here’s Greg Grandin in the Nation dismissing the argument that Chavez got popular simply by bribing the poor:

During the 2006 presidential campaign, the signature pledge of Chávez’s opponent was to give 3,000,000 poor Venezuelans a black credit card (black as in the color of oil) from which they could withdraw up to $450 in cash a month….But in this election at least, Venezuelans managed to see through the mist. Chávez won with over 62 percent of the vote.

And here’s blood and treasure, arguing that the presence of an unashamedly anti-US socialist in Latin America made it easier for other countries to do their own thing, without worrying so much about the US:

But the rhetorical broadsides did a bit of wider good. You have a leader who survived a coup attempt that the US very much wanted to see succeed and who then based his foreign policy around the Khrushchev principle of throwing a hedgehog down Uncle Sam’s pants at every opportunity: and Uncle Sam went on and let him do it. Uncle Sam was busy at the time rampaging elsewhere and the whole golpista approach was waning after the end of the Cold War. But it sends a signal to even the dimmest Brazilian general, say, that he’d better knuckle down and learn to live with Lula. It lets the coca farmer in the Altiplano know he can vote for who he wants without worrying about the army showing up and conducting a limpieza. It creates political space.

Persona as art

March 6th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Rachel White on goth and self-creation:

Persona is a sort-of-art that deserves more celebration and more experimentation. And Persona is double-edged. A tumblr trap of re-blogging into a void. A way to not actually create. A mirror within a mirror. A trap within a trap: Persona being not taken seriously because it is girls and often queer people who dabble in it.

Secular ethics

March 5th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

In the US, claims Troy Jellimore,
no system of secular ethics has managed to displace religious approaches to ethics in the contemporary [US] popular imagination. He blames Kant and Bentham, for setting an dry and overwhelming tone for secular ethics:

Kantian and utilitarian approaches have been both fruitful and influential, and they get a lot of things right. But they share an impersonal, somewhat bureaucratic conception of the human being as a moral agent. The traits that are most highly prized in such agents are logical thinking, calculation, and obedience to the rules. Personal qualities such as individual judgment, idiosyncratic projects and desires, personal commitments and relationships, and feelings and emotions are regarded as largely irrelevant.

Well, for a start utilitarianism is much more flexible than that. It’s philosophy’s Church of England — able to encompass any number of other beliefs, and self-dilute until it requires no change to your actions. Sure, an occasional fanatic may take trolley problems as an immediate guide for how to act. But for the most part, your personal preferences, fallible judgement and less-than-perfect generosity can all sit comfortably within utilitarian ethics.

And there are many more approaches to secular ethics — just rarely by that name. They are much more likely to be subsumed within animal rights, or identity politics, or family values, or charity, or any number of other ethical programs. Possibly, though, these aren’t enough integrated into systems which are coherent but not inhumanly demanding. How do you balance saving CO2 against flying to your nephew’s wedding, sneaking in the detail that you never liked him anyway? And there, OK, the religious have an advantage over us. It’ll take a while before the contradictory thoughts of a million agony aunts accrete into a comprehensive moral guide.