Archive for the ‘language’ Category

Over at CT, a link to two polls – here and here. The killer finding is that the same sort of percentage of the US population, and the same sort of people, deny that Barack Obama is a US citizen *and* that the American and African continents were once part of the same landmass.

Specifically, an actual majority – well, a plurality – of Republicans disagree with plate tectonics. The crossbreaks are hilarious; the only groups of which this was true were Republicans and Southerners, but the most likely groups to get it right were blacks, Latinos, and Democrats, in that order, so those were almost certainly the same individuals.

So far, another stupid Americans story. But the differences between the groups can be summarised as follows:

  1. Less Republican groups had a small but real advantage in the percentage who voted yes.
  2. More Republican groups had a considerable lead in the percentage who voted no.
  3. More Republican groups had many fewer Don’t Knows.

I think the most important statement is number three. The Democratic- and fact-leaning groups, although they had significant numbers of people who got it wrong, were much more likely to say they weren’t sure than to choose No. Being unsure of the answer, they expressed doubt.

Republican-leaning groups weren’t just more likely not to know, but more likely to plump for an answer anyway. Fools, you could say, rushed in.

Now, I really don’t believe quite that many of them are ignorant of basic geology – I rather suspect that the question tripped a number of trigger words (Africa!) before getting to that point. Everyone thinks like that a lot of the time.

This is, of course, how operationalised post-modernism works – what matters is the theatre of action, jumping and yelling and trying to dominate the mental space, and all that determines which way you’re pointing is a small set of identity-defining talking points. Did you know Senator X is weak on fufferum? Did you know that?? But why aren’t you talking about his position on elefurt? That’s what I want to know! The base have probably internalised this to a considerable degree.

That does raise the possibility of getting things done by tailoring your message to fire their immune receptors. The classic example is adding the word “security” to whatever proposal you have. Similarly, the Decent Left project was based on giving a whole lot of ugly right-wing ideas the right biological markers to stimulate a certain kind of leftie.

After some fiddling I got Jamie Zawinski’s Dadadodo, a program which analyses texts using a Markov chain and then generates random sentences based on their content, running. Obviously there was only one way this could go – straight to Melanie Phillips’ blog. I reproduce below the output from the machine, verbatim.

DOCTYPE HTML public Melanie Phillips is: stopped.

We can but wish.

Comments Specialist high Value and eliminating the country and is; sleepwalking towards Israel certainly will most likely carry out a complicated thing. From most by the importance of the importance school in Iraq, rubbish out a society what can surely only be easy.

“Comments specialist, high value and eliminating the country, and is sleepwalking towards Israel” – could anyone dispute this as a characterisation of Melanie Phillips? High value, I agree, is harder to sustain, but it could be as in “high value target”.

Iranian president Bush, being defeated by offering to date, objections to a simplistic manner: which thinks logically and fast. Afghanistan comes A hugely unwarranted risk by the Al Qaeda leadership. Additionally, it used to dig have to man made on Feb. The military and rationally British approaches To kill Beware The truth caught out in stockinged feet once it is her most by our staff Liz suggests email to be easy.

The military and rationally British approaches to kill; I’m thinking Basil Liddell-Hart and the indirect approach here. Note the feet theme – it’ll come up again.

Tiberius If infantry soldiers are deviating from Muslim demonstrators, a treasure trove of their property, say soldiers are waging a daily News Commentary for the theory have dream and listed homes.

By George, you’ve got it. It’s a perfect distillation of neo-con aesthetics; not only is there a lot of fantasy violence here, but the soldiers lack Will, and need to be threatened with expropriation to make them go through with it. There’s a reference to Podhoretz’s Commentary, a bit of property porn as well (listed homes?), and the obligatory dog latin.

During Operation. GetTracker, UA pagetracker; gat; States (the truth caught out a Free quote now). Https. Peter Hoskin the sheer madness of such positions as complex as Kafka esque Zionophobia continues to foment hysteria and Friday in Germany, and listed homes.

Again with the real estate.

Continue reading: People tomorrow. From Muslim Afghanistan: comes a world Labour is no evidence that we are ordered to the Washington Times Roger Chapin is the high Value and the cradle of the offensive.

Note: who is Roger Chapin? This guy, who has been writing articles for Human Events Online on “How to Win in Iraq”, and…how can I put this?…taking a large cut of money he collected for wounded soldiers.

And bigotry across Europe, The number of such positions as the Israel certainly will necessarily have to negotiate with the foreign Arab support speakers included combat pilots and pony show Melanie Phillips Blog Daily News Commentary for Spectator SpectatorBusiness Wine Club book is a fateful calculation?

Email to man made on Feb. Email to dig up about morality the dig up about Iran, which States, will necessarily have? Continue reading. Email to the school; in Germany, stockinged feet once it received financial assistance from today’s culture as complex as The many children are graduates of the war in the Spectator prototype scriptaculous Peter Hoskin the mob really hates about the United States, will most likely carry out a simplistic manner. Peter Hoskin Yet The Fakhurawar in, on Feb.

The feet thing again! And note the neediness here – all those e-mails whizzing out, demanding someone else to do some work. Email to dig up about morality – is she (or maybe some downtrodden researcher) trying to tell us that the columns aren’t always her own work?

Just to be sure, I ran the program again. This is the last sentence it produced, before unaccountably erasing all traces of itself from my hard disk…no, of course it didn’t do that. Thank God I can have a machine read Melanie Phillips for me. Anyway, here goes.

And bigotry across Europe, the story it, is her blog Daily Mail columnist.

Update: Temptation. I ran it on an Abu Muqawama post.

Plus, The very least someone is against my opinion. As possible but where are rarely good question, but I was wondering about a Blog dedicated to crack addict moms and security to reconstruction stuff pioneers do not about a power

So was I, baby, so was I…

Crack BBC journo Peter Taylor’s film The Secret Peacemaker, about Brendan Duddy, the man who maintained secret communications between the IRA leadership and the British government from the early 70s to 1993, was a cracker; it provided rich detail about the practicalities of ending the war, the missed opportunities of the first ceasefire, and moreover it conveyed something of the weird atmosphere. Secret meetings with spooks and terrorists were held in a Thatcherite DIY conservatory, and it struck me that most media coverage of Northern Ireland was always urban; intellectually, I knew there had to be countryside, and that due to its latitude and geography it would look vaguely familiar, but I wasn’t prepared for it looking quite so much like the moors. And the killer detail is surely that Duddy knew Martin McGuinness from when he delivered fish to his dad’s chip shop.

But rather than the mood music, a real point which nobody picked up on: here’s something from Taylor’s summary of the film, as published in the Guardian.

But one of the great mysteries of the peace process remained. Who did send the famous “conflict is over” message? I pointed out to Duddy that if he didn’t send it and McGuinness didn’t send it, that only left “Fred”.

Duddy was protective of the man he had come to admire. “I don’t want to say, as he’s a wonderful, honourable man.” The message was written in pencil in a hotel room in London. “It seems to me that message was to encourage the British government to actually believe dialogue was possible,” Duddy said. But the revelation of the messages and the unauthorised March meeting also marked the end of “Fred”. The government was appalled at how he had exceeded his brief, disobeyed instructions and almost brought the prime minister down. “Fred”, in Brendan’s words, was “court-martialled”. As he said goodbye, he gave Duddy a farewell present, a book inscribed with a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid: “One day it will be good to remember these things.”

When I read this I double-took; did he really just say “the conflict is over” was actually sent by an MI5 agent exceeding his authority? You what? It was what I think of as an Embassy Phew, after the bit in Conrad’s The Secret Agent where Comrade Ossipon finally gets clued-in to the fact Verloc has always been a stool pigeon for both the plod and the Russians. Police! Embassy! Phew! The political equivalent of the sensation of a cricket ball not quite hitting your head.

You would have thought that this was front-page stuff; “Fred” ended the war in Northern Ireland and nearly disposed of John Major, at one stroke of his pencil, whilst also precipitating the interrogation of Duddy. Frankly, he deserves a knighthood for the first two out of those three; he may of course have got one. But there are some pretty gigantic constitutional issues here, no? I mean, did the spies deceive the prime minister? As usual, the limits of British political discourse are that it stops as soon as you get to the question of power.

Alternatively, it’s possible that the message was given to “Fred” by a third party; it’s certainly not impossible that he had other Republican contacts, a back channel to the back channel. Or perhaps, as it seems that whatever the facts about the message, it accurately described the IRA leaders’ thoughts, an intelligence source in the IRA clued him in? (If it was the near-legendary Freddie Scappaticci, you’d be forgiven for suggesting it was more of a back passage than a back channel.) After all, it would be surprising, had he simply made it all up, if the results had accurately matched the IRA’s intentions. That suggests strongly that if the message wasn’t received from someone, it was composed with extensive knowledge of the IRA leadership’s thoughts; which begs the question of exactly what the word “message” means.

Presumably “Fred” was required to report on what was said at the meetings as well as what the IRA told him to pass on; it’s not impossible that a text which contained his opinion of their intentions, or a summary of the conversation, was taken for a verbatim message. In which case, it’s possible that the IRA deliberately signalled its content to him in order to stay plausibly deniable; a virtual back channel within a channel. At which point, the brain reels.

One of the many wonderful things about the Web is that its hypertext structure not only permits us to navigate it, and to invoke external resources (scripts, graphics, etc), but also to measure relevance and authority. Google’s killer insight was of course just this; to use links as votes for the relevance of a given document, and to do this recursively so that the more authoritative the document, the more powerful its outbound links.

But there is a fundamental problem here; the introduction of the REL=”NOFOLLOW” tag was meant to stop spammers manipulating this structure by autogenerating great numbers of links, but this is only a partial solution. After all, the fact that somebody considers a document unreliable, irrelevant, spammy, or just…repellent is useful information; but there is no way of capturing it. Ideas like the “Semantic Web” have examined things like the idea of creating links that go backwards as well as forwards; I for one have never been able to understand this, and it sounds far too much like INTERCAL’s COME FROM… statement. (You thought GOTO was considered harmful; COME FROM … is the exact opposite.)

What I propose is that we introduce a negative hyperlink. A kind of informational veto. I’ve blogged about the Stupid Filter before, which attempts to gather enough stupidity from the Web that it can characterise stupid and use Bayesian filtering to get rid of it, as we do with spam. But I suspect that is a fundamentally limited, and also illiberal, approach; StupidFilter is indexing things like YouTube comments threads, which seems to guarantee that what it actually filters will be inarticulacy, or to put it another way, non-anglophones, the poor, the young, and the members of subcultures of all kinds. The really dangerous stupidity walks at noon and wears a suit, and its nonsense is floated in newspaper headlines and nicely formatted PowerPoint decks. StupidFilter would never filter Dick Cheney.

But a folksonomic approach to nonsense detection would not be bound to any one kind of stupidity or dishonesty, just as PageRank isn’t restricted to any one subject. Anyone could antilink any document for any reason, across subjects, languages and cultures. Antilinks would be simple to capture programmatically – just as simple as other HTML tags are. In Python, it would be as simple as replacing the search string in a BeautifulSoup instance – one line of code. Even without changes to today’s Web browsers, a simple user script could flash a warning when one was encountered, or provide a read-out of the balance between positive and negative links to a page.

Consider this post at; Chris is quite right to mock the Metropolitan Police’s efforts to encourage the public to report “unusual” things. After all, there is no countervailing force; if you collect enough noise, statistically speaking, you will eventually find a pattern. What you need is the refiner’s fire. Why is there no Debunk a Terror Alert hotline?

I am quite serious about this. Implementation could be as simple as a REL=”BULLSHIT” attribute. Now how do you go making a submission to the W3C?

February 23, 2008:

One of things that I find so frustrating about blogging is dealing with people who are either stupid, venal or willfully choose to misrepresent your views. More often than not, these people post anonymously and decide to tar their opponents with the epithet “racist”, “homophobic” or “fascist” in the hope that by using such a description, debate is closed down and they win by default.

O rly?

February 25, 2008:

Moving on from the oh-so powerful list of race-baiters who announced their endorsement of Ken Livingstone, we now see a new list of Livingstone supporters – except that this time it isn’t particularly impressive at all.

The idea that this alcohol-dependent divisive figure should be re-elected as Mayor is absurd. He has had his time and it is time for a change. While Boris Johnson may not be perfect, he’d be a damn slight better as Mayor of London than Ken Livingstone.

A few years back I observed that the Tory policy which envisaged an opposition on fundamental principle to the Euro, but only for the life of one parliament, made it possible to objectively estimate the length of a Tory principle at something less than five years. Clearly, exposure to the Leadership Institute has enabled the puissant advocate Blaney to dramatically reduce the half-life; it’s like a political linear accelerator that blasts neutrons off anything you place in front of it.

However, given enough power you can transmute lead to gold with a real linac; this version works more in the opposite sense. A reverse Maxwell’s Demon; it actually increases entropy by reducing information.

Further, note the interesting fact; the first post has an active comments thread. The second, containing two arguably libellous statements (“race-baiters”? “alcohol-dependent”?) as it does, doesn’t. Blaney again:

Such is their intellectual insecurity that they will not engage in honest debate and instead they resort to infantile abuse in an attempt to stifle debate. I cannot help but wonder whether these people would not prefer to live in a police state where only certain views (theirs) are allowed to be held because the venom and vitriol that flows when you dare to stand up to them is quite astonishing. It says a hell of a lot about them and their upbringing.

How right you are, eh.

Regarding his “race-baiters” smear, it’s worth stopping for a teachable moment here; this is a classic piece of extreme-right rhetoric. You could call it the phone-in three card monte. First of all, you make a coded attack on some group or other; Where is the BBC White Male Middle-Class Network? Well, it’s called Radio 4, as someone pointed out. The basis of all this stuff is that you deny that racism exists; the existing institutions are perfect, so any specific provision for any other group is illegitimate. (Don’t miss him getting schooled about the World Service Polish programme, either.) Then, when you get called on it, whine like a whipped dog;

The fact that I do not believe in multiculturalism, cultural apartheid or so-called positive discrimination automatically makes me, in their eyes, a racist – despite the fact that in opposing these beliefs I share the same worldview as the likes of Martin Luther King, Bishop Nazir-Ali and Trevor Phillips.

Finally, you’re ready to launch an inversion smear: see comments above.

Now, the messages that are actually transmitted here are as follows: first of all, Look at me! Bashing THOSE PEOPLE! (This one for the benefit of your target audience.) Secondly, to the wider public: I’m a lady libertarian. (This one is an exercise in working the ref; it’s necessary camouflage.) Thirdly; RACISTS RACISTS RACISTS!! Nur-nur-nye-nur! (This one is intended to demonstrate your aggression to your target audience; see Josh Marshall’s classic statement.)

Blaney: hypocritical, intellectually dishonest, determined to import everything that is most repellent about US politics into Britain. And apparently cool with the idea of shooting Greenpeace protestors.

I recently read about a Zimbabwean refugee who was sent a letter by the Home Office, which stated that his presence in the UK was “not essential for him to enjoy family ties with his new partner and her family”. The letter went on to demand that he leave “without delay” and that this might be “enforced”. Well, it wouldn’t; the courts having ruled that Zimbabwe is too dangerous to send people back to, their hands are tied.

Somehow, though, the government continues to contend that although the legal test of refugee status is “a well-founded fear of persecution”, the fact that asylum-seekers cannot be returned to Zimbabwe for fear they might die does not imply that their fear of this fate is well-founded. This pernicious fuckery just keeps going; it is one of the most repellent features of the post-Michael Howard Home Office that it has so little respect for legality. An unfavourable judgment is not a fact that should alter behaviour, but an unreasonable caprice to be reversed by superior power as soon as possible.

Therefore, it is still worth menacing “Thomas” in the hope he might bugger off; and if he was to do so, and later die in some unpleasantly public fashion in Zimbabwe, the government would bear no responsibility for it. (Even if they paid for his ticket.)

But what was the official who signed this document thinking when they signed their name to the statement that his presence was “not essential to enjoy family ties with his new partner and her children”? What on earth does this mean? Are we to believe that he could pop around at the weekend? Perhaps videoconferencing might be a solution, if he can find a computer and an operational Internet connection whilst keeping away from the Central Intelligence Organisation and not starving to death?

Clearly, this sentence should read something along the lines of “We are aware of your family, and we are indifferent to them,” or perhaps just “We don’t care.” But this would make it a far harder document to sign; it’s traditional to cite Orwell’s Politics and the English Language at this point. I prefer Vaclav Havel’s parable about the baker, who every year put a sign in his window on Revolution Day that read: Workers of the world, unite! Havel asked if he was actually enthused at all about the idea of unity among the workers of the world – of course not. He did it because the Party wanted him to.

But, Havel wrote, had the Party demanded that he put the sign’s actual meaning there – a sign that said I am afraid, and therefore obedient – he would have been far less indifferent to its content. If we were to rewrite the letter, we might frame it like this:

Dear Sir,
We want you to go back to Zimbabwe because we think you are a liar. Unfortunately, the courts do not agree with us and will not permit us to force you, but this makes no difference to our opinion. We are aware of your family, but we do not care.

If I don’t sign this they’ll sack me.


Civil Servant X.

I agree that the tone is harsh, but it could hardly be more distressing for the recipient than the original. I’m not sure what the correct formula of politeness is. (Yours faithfully? Surely not. With kind regards? Nuh. Yours sincerely? That’s more like it, I suppose – this version is nothing if not sincere.) But at least, it is clear to the writer what is meant; it would be considerably harder to sign this without examining your conscience, and you could not sign very many without altering your opinion of yourself.

That such a programme of ruthless honesty, and specifically honesty with self, would be a good first step is a cliché. But sometimes, I doubt it. Consider this column in the FT, by ex-Sunday Torygraph editor Sarah Sands.

So, my Polish builder first worked on my house only a year ago. Seven days a week, 14 hours a day with his crack team. Barely spoke a word in English. Refused tea or coffee, just smoked and consumed Coca-Cola and chocolate biscuits. I was so swelled up with pride at my good fortune that, last December, I recommended him to a liberally inclined film director. I waited for grateful e-mails but none came. I grew a little uneasy.

Then a few months ago, I commissioned my Pole to do a bathroom. He returned without his team. Where were they? He was a little vague; they had disbanded/gone back to Poland/were busy elsewhere, but I should not worry about that.

I didn’t, until it became clear that he was arriving at 10 and knocking off at five. The driven gang was gone. Now he had a baby-faced apprentice who spilt his fizzy drinks on the carpets and broke the window. Every couple of hours they would down amateurish tools for a break. Finally my tight-lipped resentment spilt over.

“What on earth has happened to you?” I cried. “Why don’t you work any more?”

Well, you cannot accuse her of not being conscious of the literal meaning of her words. You could accuse her of class prejudice, exploitation, snobbery, and just being fucking gratuitiously unpleasant because she can, like a dog licking his balls. But you cannot imagine that she was not fully aware of her own meaning, and so, responsible for it.

It’s also hypocritical; by her own lights, why didn’t she put in more time at the Torygraph? Maybe she would still be there – and then, I could more thoroughly avoid the risk of reading her thoughts. Anyway, if you doubt that this little tale is serious, you might read this, published the same day.

Listening to all these experiences, it was as if all the Factory Acts and health and safety regulations had suddenly disappeared in a puff of smoke, along with 150 years of trade union gains. None of this protection existed in the minds of these workers. The government will point to an avalanche of legislation, but the devil is in the detail.

I refer the honourable gentleman to this post, this one, and this one.