Petitions that made me laugh

February 10th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

A couple of petitions that are simultaneously hilarious and serious. First, to make tampons VAT-free by classifying them as essential items:

The Government taxes sanitary products but not crocodile steaks. If you value the functioning of those who menstruate at least as much as you enjoy your crocodile Friday then sign our petition and join our campaign

Then, there are a various petitions trying to prevent a planned Margaret Thatcher museum receiving any public money. It all feels a bit silly since nobody powerful is talking about using public funding to establish the museum. Still, prevention is better than cure, and this petition has the best approach — demanding that the museum have a section devoted to the paedophiles Thatcher worked with. “This will also help the waxwork industry who must by now have a large amount of public figures that they can no longer show

Psychological pricing beyond $9.99

February 8th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

The psychology of pricing goes way further than just setting prices a few cents below a whole number.

Products that are recreational or luxurious benefit from rounded prices: Consumers were more inclined to buy a bottle of champagne when it was priced at $40.00 rather than at $39.72 or $40.28. However, for purchases that are utilitarian—a calculator, in this experiment—participants were more likely to buy at the higher non-rounded price.

Presumably we now associate non-round-number pricing with products competing on price. And that doesn’t mesh well with luxury goods, making them seem less rather than more desirable.

Real estate and shell companies in the New York Times

February 8th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

The New York Times has just turned out a long, worthy article on New York real estate owned through shell companies:

On the 74th floor of the Time Warner Center, Condominium 74B was purchased in 2010 for $15.65 million by a secretive entity called 25CC ST74B L.L.C. It traces to the family of Vitaly Malkin, a former Russian senator and banker who was barred from entering Canada because of suspected connections to organized crime.

Last fall, another shell company bought a condo down the hall for $21.4 million from a Greek businessman named Dimitrios Contominas, who was arrested a year ago as part of a corruption sweep in Greece.

This kind of story tends to leave me a bit confused. Isn’t it already a cliche that luxury New York (and London) real estate gets bought by dodgy businessmen and Russian oligarchs? I’m still glad it gets written, because sometimes the journalists will turn up something actually criminal, and the attention increases the chances of getting real estate sales subject to tighter “know your customer” rules. But I don’t really see why people outside the niche of corruption-tracking should care

getting hooked on mrjob

February 7th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

A lot of my ‘programming’ time is actually spent sniffing around various libraries and open-source projects, trying to figure out which will be helpful and which will leave me cursing the mistake of building anything on top of them. ‘Soft’ areas like documentation and community management tend to matter almost as much as the quality of the code itself.

So well done mrjob for not just having decent documentation, but trying to rope new users into improving it:

If you’re reading this, it’s probably your first contact with the library, which means you are in a great position to provide valuable feedback about our documentation. Let us know if anything is unclear or hard to understand.

[if you’re interested, mrjob is a library that streamlines writing Hadoop jobs in python, with a particular focus on Amazon Elastic MapReduce]

“Why I Am Not a Maker”

February 5th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

An absolutely on-point critique of the ideology of making things:

The cultural primacy of making, especially in tech culture—that it is intrinsically superior to not-making, to repair, analysis, and especially caregiving—is informed by the gendered history of who made things, and in particular, who made things that were shared with the world, not merely for hearth and home.

Making is not a rebel movement, scrappy individuals going up against the system. While the shift might be from the corporate to the individual (supported, mind, by a different set of companies selling a different set of things), it mostly re-inscribes familiar values, in slightly different form: that artifacts are important, and people are not.

…and not to yield: Ulysses of the bond markets

February 4th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Dsquared posts on Crooked Timber, asks only Greeks to comment. Comments thread predictably explodes into erudite snark, notably Joshua W. Burton’s take on Tennyson’s Ulysses:

. . . Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer deal.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The hounding Euros; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the market, and the wrath
Of all the western banks, until I die.
It may be that the Gulf will buy us up:
It may be we shall touch the Cayman Isles
And see the great Onassis, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved oil and cargo; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of expatriate wealth,
Made weak by various new reporting regulations, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to borrow, and not to yield.

Forensic Architecture

February 3rd, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Forensic Architecture is an excellent-sounding research group at Goldsmiths in London. They are trying to turn spatial data to political and legal ends:

When violence takes places within the city, architectural analysis is increasingly called upon as evidence in tribunals, international courts, and different political contexts.

Incredibly for an art-academic group, they are working with a level of rigor that lets them be taken seriously in international legal settings. They take moderately well-known issues such as drone strikes in Pakistam, and shed new light by concentrating on what they do to the built landscape:

Forensic Architecture has investigated several issues relating to the spatial mapping of drone warfare; for example, the geographical patterns of strikes in relationship to the kind of settlements (towns or villages) targeted and types of buildings targeted. Our aim was to explore what potential connections there might be between these spatial patterns and the numbers of casualties, especially civilian casualties.

The Tyranny of Structurelessness

February 2nd, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

[cross-posted from Edgeryders]

This classic essay has come up in a few conversations I’ve been having recently. It was written in 1970 in the context of feminist organizations, but it’s still a painfully accurate description of what can go wrong when groups try to abolish formal structures.

I’m going to paste some of the key passages below. But I strongly recommend reading the whole thing. As well as being valuable in its own right, it’s a useful reminder that many of our aspirations are not new, and that there is a lot to be learned from the history of non-hierarchical groups.

Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved.

As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.
For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit. The rules of decision-making must be open and available to everyone, and this can happen only if they are formalized.

[In the absence of formal structures, decisions tend to be made by an elite of members with strong personal connections to one another.] So if one works full time or has a similar major commitment, it is usually impossible to join [the ‘elite’] simply because there are not enough hours left to go to all the meetings and cultivate the personal relationship necessary to have a voice in the decision-making. That is why formal structures of decision making are a boon to the overworked person. Having an established process for decision-making ensures that everyone can participate in it to some extent.

Once the movement no longer clings tenaciously to the ideology of “structurelessness,” it is free to develop those forms of organization best suited to its healthy functioning. This does not mean that we should go to the other extreme and blindly imitate the traditional forms of organization. But neither should we blindly reject them all. Some of the traditional techniques will prove useful, albeit not perfect; some will give us insights into what we should and should not do to obtain certain ends with minimal costs to the individuals in the movement.
— from Jo Freeman (Joreen), “The Tyranny of Structurelessness

Total closing tax haven subsidiaries

February 1st, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Total, the French oil major, is closing its subsidiaries in tax havens. At least, that’s how the PR runs. So far there is nothing official on the website, and their statement to Le Monde is anything other than definitive. ‘Tax haven’ can mean anything you want it to, as can closing a ‘certain numnber’ of subsidiaries.

Still, it’s a step in the right direction, and PR moves can inadvertantly lead to real changes. If nothing else, it’ll be interesting to see the list of subsidiaries which they promise to reveal in March.

Inequality: blame assortative mating and O-Ring production

January 31st, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink


Tyler Cowen blames inequality on the tendency of the smart and rich to hang around with one another:

a common set of factors is driving inequality: equality of opportunity,  assortative mating, O-ring production, increases in the demand for talent driven by the leveraging of talent through technology. The forces are similar and so are the results, the money elite, the monetary elite, the power elite.


Save the world: stop writing C

January 31st, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Francis wants to stop building insecure software. As a start, he is pledging not to use C/C++ for new projects. Choosing a different language for your work may not inevitably lead to safe code, but at least it’ll reduce the number of gratuitous buffer overflows we are geneating everywhere. And, well, you have to start somewhere.

[I’ve not signed, because I can imagine a few circumstances where I might want to write C/C++. But I’ll continue to avoid them wherever possible]

Work on supertramp

January 29th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Can you keep a few dozen brilliant-but-disorganized geeks pointed in the right direction and collaborating productively? Supertramp is a very loose network of geeks and activists, linking up people who are working on mapping out political and economic power, and we’re looking for a cat herder to keep us in line.

The basic idea is this. My work on the Investigative Dashboard mirrors what Miguel Paz has done at Poderopedia, Friedrich Lindenberg at Grano or Chris Taggart at Open Corporates. We, and many others, have long been collaborating through code-sharing, and hackathons, and frenzied coding sessions at conferences. But we still spend too much time reinventing the wheel, and too little pushing the boundaries of what we can achieve. The hope is that by adding a thin veneer of co-ordination on top of that, we’ll be able to substantially increase our impact. Please, if you like the idea, think about applying.

Links without context

January 28th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Mississippi schools aren’t allowed to teach how to use a condom. One has resorted to an inspired workaround using socks.

Booking fees for A-list music acts. Supposedly you can get Coolio for <$30,000.

Demographic Intuition

January 27th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Most of us have pretty bad intuition about the relative populations of the countries of the world. I certainly do, despite my many attempts to improve.

Paul has found this map, which scales the world according to population:

My own approach has been lots of time staring at Wikipedia’s various listings of countries by population.

That’s a start, but it still leaves out the dimension of time. Why are our intuitions about population so inaccurate? Ignorance is part of the reason, but part is just being out of date. Even historical eurocentrism makes a bit more sense, when you consider that, fifty years ago, Europe had about thrice the population of Africa. Africa took the population lead some time this century, and by 2050 will have perhaps thee times the population of Europe.

So it wouldn’t have been so irrational if your grandparents gave France more attention than Nigeria. But general knowledge takes a while to catch up — a lot of it is inhaled in school, using books that might easily be a decade out-of-date, and we hold onto it for the future decades of our life.

So take a good look at wikipedia’s List of countries by past and future population. The 1950s figures, to my mind, correlate quite well with the size countries have in our popular imagination. China and India at the top, the US and Russia understood to be huge, then countries like Brazil, Japan and Pakistan, before reaching the larger European states.

The current figures seem far less familiar. Bangladesh is more populous than Russia, Ethiopia has twice the population of Spain, and so on. The estimates for the future get more alien the further the get. I’ve spent a fair while looking at the 2050 figures. While I can understand them in my head, I’m so conditioned to focus on Europe that I can’t come to grips with its demographic insignificance.

D^2 on Greece

January 26th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

D-Squared expects Syriza to play chicken with the ECB — “present them with a fait accompli on the debt default, and gamble that they will not have the nerve to take measures which might have the effect of forcing Greece out of the Euro“. But Europe has had several years to get used to the threat of a Greek default, so will be able to contain it relatively easily. So Syriza either wins concessions or gets booted out of the Euro, but neither approach hurts the rest of Europe that deeply.

Saudi floggers and executioners to be trained by Britain

January 25th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has long shown that, with enough money floating around, the British establishment can be coaxed into the most unpleasant behaviour. The multi-million-dollar corruption around BAE’s Al-Yamamah arms deal is only the most extreme case.

Last week Union flags were flying at half-mast, in a government-mandated show of sympathy on the death of the king of Saudi Arabia.
But David Hencke has unearthed, and David Allen Green has explained, something more than symbolic. The English Ministry of Justice is taking money to work with the Saudi punishment system. Yep, they are taking some £6 million to work with the world leaders in flogging and beheading. As Green says:

There are many responses to the horrific brutality of the legal system of our ally Saudi Arabia. One is to ignore it; another is to seek to improve it. But on the face of it, it takes a peculiar callousness to use UK civil service resources to try to make money for the UK government out of it.

Kansai Cool explains the Elegant Gothic Lolita

January 24th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

I’ve been reading Kansai Cool, Christal Whelan’s book on culture in the region around Kyoto, Japan. It has a short but entirely fascinating chapter on the Lolita subculture.

What’s striking to me is just how closely the explanations given by Lolita adherents resonate with those I’ve heard from ostensibly quite different subcultures elsewhere in the world.

There’s a sense that the orderly aestheticism of the scene is a reaction to the confusion of the world, creating a structure of your own to sidestep the one forced on you. There’s the choice of clothing with the explicit intention of rejecting sexual attention:

“If I didn’t dress in this totally conspicuous and bizarre way,
I’d make friends and be popular with boys.”

The ornate dress then is clearly not worn to be sweet and demure, or become the object of someone else’s desire, but instead is an act of defiance. The hyper-feminine clothing creates a boundary around those who wear it. Empowered by an aesthetic that allows an imaginary flight from Japan, Lolitas seek sanctuary in a foreign time and place largely of their own invention.

And in the end Lolita emerges as — almost — the pursuit of feminism by the unlikeliest of means:

The outlandish costume challenged prosaic futures as office ladies (OLs) who prepare tea and make endless photocopies. Lolitas criticized the norm by standing outside it in bold visual contrast. They may have been merely stalling for time, but in that interim Lolitas created a space in which to dream of a possible self within an imaginable Japan.

The Amanda Palmer hate industry

January 12th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Sady Doyle on internet bullying of celebrities. Amanda Palmer in particular. Having been a (small-f) fan since quite early on, I hadn’t realised just how much more fame she has achieved as a hate figure than as a musician. I’d vaguely assumed that the people reading diatribes were simply Amanda Palmer fans, disillusioned to find that their idol had feet of clay.

But in Doyle’s telling — and I think she’s right — the Amanda Palmer hate industry mushroomed far beyond that.

It’s hard to see how [attacking Palmer] was a victory for feminism. Or for music. Or for media: The fact of the matter is, a woman in her mid-thirties wrote, performed and released an album that was musically relevant and probably her best work to date; we responded by talking about her body, her personality and who she was sleeping with. We called her too loud, too self-assured, too ambitious. We wondered why she couldn’t simply live off her rich husband’s income, as if that isn’t a question that feminism has been in the process of answering for the past five decades. We affirmed that the artist’s persona mattered more than the quality of their work, and we affirmed that female ambition or self-confidence was a crime: That if you were a loud or aging or difficult woman, and you wouldn’t let us ignore you, we would turn our attention on you full-force, in order to burn your life down to its foundation.


January 4th, 2015 § 2 comments § permalink

I have an entirely clichéd adoration of Ginsberg’s Howl. I remember spending the winter of 2009 in a state of undirected euphoria. Somehow whenever I stepped out into the Berlin snow — unusually long-lasting that year, giving the streets a kind of crisp unreality — it was this poem rattling around in my head. It was the perfect reflection of a certain mood in me, in the city, in the communities I was ricocheting between. Tangled, manic, anguished, hopeful, terrified, frustrated and frustrating, and above all energetically, forcefully intense.

who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in 
              Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their 
              torsos night after night 
       with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, al- 
              cohol and cock and endless balls, 
       incomparable blind; streets of shuddering cloud and 
              lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of 
              Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the mo- 
              tionless world of Time between, 
       Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery 
              dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, 
              storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon 
              blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree 
              vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brook- 
              lyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind, 

Here’s the full thing.

A little poptimism

January 3rd, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

My filter bubble can sometimes be rather too effective at removing pop from my life, driving me to youtube binges to work out what on earth an Iggy Azalea is, or why people are talking about a Lorde who isn’t Audre. And, of course, to stay enough in touch to party with the High Court Judges — a clique which, inexplicably, still hasn’t lent its name to a psychobilly outfit.

Tove Lo, Habits. I like this a lot. It’s your standard despair-driven hedonism (“You’re gone, and I got to stay / high all the time / to keep you off my mind”). But this incarnation, unusually, makes the griminess feel real — “I eat dinner in my bathtub”.

Sia, Chandelier. And here’s another take on the Self-hating party girl, one that somehow didn’t connect with me. Perhaps it’s that the suicidal despair of the chorus (“I’m gonna swing from the chandelier”) isn’t echoed in the deflated-sounding presentation. Then there’s a video that’s clever and interesting, but not affecting — Lady Gaga meets Home Alone, a mime-artist ballerina bouncing off the walls.

OneRepublic, counting stars. I like it — country-infused pop at 120bpm, christianity with a touch of rebellion, a video of cheering up the old folks at a prayer meeting. It feels like a toned-down take on Kipling’s If (“Old, but I’m not that old / Young, but I’m not that bold”). I can’t quite believe “Make that money, watch it burn” is a shout-out to the KLF. Wouldn’t be wonderful, though, to see these crooners triumphantly self-obliterate themselves in the footsteps of the Justified Ancients?

Ylvis, What does the fox say? This is such gloriously silly fun that I can’t quite believe it isn’t from the 80s. To be paired with Chinese star Rollin Wang’s even more bonkers zoological offering, Chick Chick