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 Ignorance is part of the reason, but part is just being out of date.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knowledge takes a while to catch up — a lot of it is inhaled in school, using books that might easily be a decade out-of-date, and we hold onto it for the future decades of our life.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

No more acid

January 2nd, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

LSD has gone the way of space exploration. The psychonaut is now an object of retrofuturism just as much as the astronaut. They’re relics of a time when we could believe in progress and exploration, whether of inner or of outer space.

I’ve never been able to work out why that is. So many aspects of the counterculture have made their way into a mainstream which has become inclusive to a fault. You can blame it on drug busts, on the rise of alternatives from MDMA to cocaine.

But I can’t quite believe that explanation. I think that somehow the acid culture was too modernist, too rational. The appropriation of the Dow slogan “better living through chemistry” shows as much — this was the continuing pharmaceutical research into areas where others feared to tread. Huxley and Leary were believers in progress, in infinite possibilities which could be revealed by crossing the frontier of the mind.

It’s that optimism which seems so out of joint today. Even the people who do drop acid treat it more as hedonism than shamanism. Few people consider the drug as a means to self-discovery — and those who do will find themselves looking back to 40-year-old texts for guidance, since there are so few people writing similar tracts today.

The House of Death

January 1st, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Because it’s never a bad day for some William Blake:
Blake: The house of death

All America wept

December 27th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The Japanese slang phrase zenbei ga naita… means, literally, “all America wept”. But young Japanese actually mean “It’s nothing special” by the phrase. Japundit explains:

“When many U.S. films open in Japan, they are accompanied by posters claiming that American viewers were moved to tears. But such films have little emotional impact on viewers here. So Japanese filmgoers have learned, apparently, to disregard such promotional claims as largely meaningless.”

via Momus

Tax morale

November 29th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Would you dodge taxes, if you were sure you could get away with it? Absolutely you would, according to standard economic theory:

In the benchmark economic model, the key policy parameters affecting tax evasion are the tax rate, the detection probability, and the penalty imposed conditional on the evasion being detected.

But that doesn’t match reality, argues this paper on so-called “tax morale”. All but the slimiest of us have some inclination to pay up. If we didn’t then tax revenues would be far, far lower than they currently are.

Some economists have attempted to measure this. One way is to look at what gets paid in the absence of enforcement. There is absolutely no enforcement of the church tax in Bavaria, but 20% of people pay anyway. Or you can assume that migrant entrepreneurs bring attitudes to tax with them. In the US, there’s an 8% gap in tax evasion between Nigerian-owned and Swedish-owned companies.

Free willy: when you need to pee, you stop believing in free will

November 20th, 2014 § 1 comment § permalink

When you need to pee, you’re less likely to believe in free will.

Ridiculous as that may be, it fits into a consistent pattern. If you’re tired or horny, you (on average) believe less in free will. Likewise if you’re epileptic or suffer panic attacks.

The researchers are keeping their evidence secret, so let’s generalize a bit. The more you are at the mercy of your body, the less likely you are to imagine yourself as choosing your own destiny.

I’ve no idea how free will was defined (again, because paywall). But it fits perfectly into the wider story of how the belief in autonomy and free choice correlate with privilege. So you have billionaires convinced they have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, while thanks to learned helplessness, if you’ve spent a lifetime being shat on, you probably expect it to keep happening whatever you do.

America is threatened by a cult gap

November 19th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Did you ever expect to worry about a shortage of cults?. Ross Douthat summarizes an argument from Peter Thiel:

Not only religious vitality but the entirety of human innovation, he argues, depends on the belief that there are major secrets left to be uncovered, insights that existing institutions have failed to unlock (or perhaps forgotten), better ways of living that a small group might successfully embrace.

Turkey, Iran, Oil, Gold

November 17th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Trade with Iran is one of the underlying themes of the corruption scandal which is engulfing Turkey. Sanctions on Iran led to it being excluded from the SWIFT network in March 2012, making it hard to send payment to Iran. But Turkey wanted to buy Iranian oil. So they figured out a dodge. Oil purchasers would deposit money at Turkey’s Halkbank, now at the centre of investigation. Iran would use this money to buy physical gold, which could be transported to Iran.

The entire deal infuriated the USA and others. While it was an open secret, the practitioners went to some lengths to conceal it — apparently involving Chinese front companies. Still, it’s plainly in the trade statistics:

We see a huge rise from March 2012 — when SWIFT blocked Iran — before a sudden collapse in August that year. The numbers are huge — the peak is over $1.8 billion dollars.

What happened in August 2012? Perhaps it’s linked to Obama’s Executive Order 13622, which brought gold under US national sanctions on Iran. This did not directly affect Turkey, but could have been twinned with similar pressure by American diplomats in Turkey.

What seems to have happened, in part, is another level of indirection. The gold, according to media reports, started being routed through UAE. Here’s how it looks in the trade statistics — a perfect match for the chart above.

[for more detail on this story, you could do worse than look at this report from May]

Why has this open secret turned into a corruption scandal now? Foreign Policy

While the gas-for-gold scheme may have been technically legal before Congress finally shut it down in July, it appears to have exposed the Turkish political elite to a vast Iranian underworld

Was the internet ever nice?

November 15th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Has the internet been getting nastier, or do we just notice it more now? The latter, says Kameron Hurley:

Just because internet harassment shows up on CNN doesn’t mean it’s new. It just means it’s more visible.

And yes, we’re the ones who made it visible, after enduring a lot of bullshit.

After dealing quietly with abuse since the beginning of the internet, many folks, most of them women, decided to air the reality of the abuse they received, and though it took nearly a decade, men and mainstream media outlets finally started believing it was something that existed, and started signal boosting. Suddenly we were seeing posts that compiled all the horrible comments they got, the ones we deleted quietly back in the day. Not a day goes by now, it seems, when someone on Twitter isn’t retweeting some horrible thing some troll said to them.

Also a neat little anti-hate-mail trick:

I also reduced the number of email threats I got really easily, by simply changing my email address to a “publicity@” address instead of a “Kameron@” address. When someone sends you something hateful, they want to KNOW you’re getting it. They don’t want to think it’s being vetted by some publicist.

InterPlanetary Filesystem

November 15th, 2014 § 1 comment § permalink

The Interplanetary File-system must be one of the most interesting technical concepts I’ve come across lately.

[warning: the below is pretty technical. Likely both confused and confusing, written to help me et my head round IPFS]

Globally distributed file-storage is something that’s been just around the corner for a long time now. Bittorrent and the like got us 90% of the way there, but functioned as mechanisms for sharing single files, rather than as a layer of infrastructure for other applications to be built on.

To download a file (as with bittorrent) you query its hash in a Distributed Hash Table. You get a list of users storing that file, and download it from them. As a file becomes more popular it becomes cached by more users, so no one node gets overloaded — again like bittorrent. The IPFS designers are also leaving room for more ambitious incentive schemes like Filecoin.

As for uploading: each user has a writeable directory, with an address generated from a keypair. This means the system can enforce only one user being able to write to a directory, without needing any central authority. Only you can upload to your directory, because only you can sign uploads with the private key corresponding to the public key in your directory name.

There’s also a git-like version history built into the filesystem. This feels like overkill to me. The advantage, though, is that you can provide a mutable-seeming directory structure, while under the surface the directory is an immutable data structure, namely a Merkle Tree. It also means that files don’t get deleted — the user just commits a version of the directory without the files. And perhaps you hope that other nodes won’t store the old data, but you have no way to enforce that.

Here’s how creator Juan Benet describes it:

IPFS provides a high through-put content-addressed block storage model, with content-addressed hyper links. This forms a generalized Merkle DAG, a data structure upon which one can build versioned file systems, blockchains, and even a Permanent Web. IPFS combines a distributed hashtable, an incentivized block exchange, and a self-certifying namespace. IPFS has no single point of failure, and nodes do not need to trust each other.

IPFS gives every user a writeable directory, with an address based on their key

Bad conlang ideas

November 10th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I’m enjoying this tumblr dedicated to bad ConLang ideas. Some highlights:

  • A language that is right branching when the speaker is happy and left branching when sad.
  • Boustrophedon is pretty cool, and having letters that are rotations and flips of other letters means that you have to make fewer letter shapes, making it easier to create and alphabet, so why not use both together?
  • Your gender system should classify dead people based on how they died, and living people based on how you think they will die or how you want them to die. One of the grammatical genders is used only for wombat attacks.
  • A conlang where each number is expressed as its prime factorization, rather than using a place system
  • Require in your conlang unreleased implosives, like /ɠ̚/, after every few words or so. That way you can sound like you’re speaking to a nice thumping bass beat.

A big, empty church

November 3rd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Church-building is one of the oldest forms of self-aggrandisement. It’s especially suitable for those with a bit of guilt about however they obtained their wealth and power. Even the Hagia Sophia, perhaps the greatest church (or mosque) ever built, was perhaps partly built to expiate Justinian’s guilt at massacring the Nike rioters.

Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s entry into this tradition will not be remembered for as long, even if it does outdo the Hagia Sophia in sheer size. In fact, it has some claim to to be the largest church in the world. The president of the Ivory Coast built it at a cost of $300 million, claiming it was “a deal with God”.

Messy Nessy Chic writes that:

the whole thing is arguably one big empty and outrageous contradiction. Up to 18,000 people can worship in the basilica (7,000 seated, 11,000 standing) but in a nation where more than two thirds of its people aren’t even Christian, it has a tough time filling just a few seats. A recent visitor to the Ivory Coast told me that there couldn’t have been more than three other people inside when he toured the massive house of worship.