Tag: silly

How Democracies End (maybe)

November 19, 2012


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I have a theory about Weimar Germany. It’s unencumbered with much in the way of evidence, but I did cover the subject at school, and I can remember bits.

The popular theory, which I’ve alluded to previously, is that the big event was this chap Hitler. He was some supernatural weirdo from Hell, who, like a false prophet, inspired the normal, liberal people of Germany to give up their democratic birthright and follow his dreams of securing lebensraum for the master race, etc, etc.

Then there’s that slightly odd bit where he didn’t actually win the election, but he did fairly well and it sort of counted as near enough, so he was declared Chancellor and allowed to take over everything in sight. It kind of seems like some sort of dodgy conspiracy, but it’s not obvious whose.

 My theory, grounded on the above, is that by — what are we talking, 1933? — democracy had so completely, utterly, failed that nobody, least of all those actually running it, could stomach it carrying on one year longer. The only question was what to do instead?  There were communists kicking around, but that wasn’t an attractive idea for the ruling class. And there was this Hitler dude, and while he had a bunch of somewhat fruitcake ideas, he seemed to have support, he was serious about changing things, and at least he wasn’t a commie. What else was there?  Even the leading democratic politicians didn’t have any better idea than letting him have a go.

 There was one other option, of course. As I linked to once before, it is claimed that President Hindenburg, in his will, indicated a desire to restore the Hohenzollern monarchy.

An interesting irony of history is that this, had it happened, would surely have been seen by the Allies / International Community as an outrageously aggressive, warlike, and unacceptable development. In comparison, the extension of powers held by a prominent politician, in order to deal with a crisis, seemed far less dangerous.

 It’s a cool story. I fear that if I had learned my O-level history better, or forgotten less of it, I would see some obvious flaw in it, but I really don’t have time these days to relearn it.

A Case for Ispettore Zen

January 20, 2012


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I’ve probably mentioned before that I read a lot of crime novels. My favourites of the modern era are probably the Aurelio Zen series by Michael Dibdin. Zen, a detective of the Polizia di Stato, solves his cases with a blend of staggering luck and an involuntary bloody-mindedness which distracts him from his more important tasks of attempting to understand and navigate the women in his life and the political machinations of the Italian bureaucracy.

I have no idea how realistic Dibdin’s grotesque presentation of the corruption and hidden motivations of Italian life really is, but I have not been able to see the Costa Concordia story in any other context than as an Aurelio Zen mystery. The captain who accidentally fell into a lifeboat and then argued with the coastguard on the phone, the mysterious blonde on the bridge, the cruise line that was blaming their own captain for everything even while the passengers were still being rescued:  all we can be sure of is that nothing is what it seems to be, and nobody is telling the truth. Only Zen can actually get to the truth of it, and even if he does, we probably won’t know, because the official story might be completely different…

Thoughts on the World Cup

Cephalopods aside, I think the most important fact about the 2010 World Cup is that it was the first in which both finalists were teams from monarchies – and that after a run of seven finals in a row between two republic teams.

His Majesty King Juan Carlos becomes the third monarch to reign over world cup winners, following Victor Emmanuel III of Italy (1934 and 1938) and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth (1966).

Monarchies have lost to republics in 3 finals, Sweden to Brazil in 1958, and The Netherlands to West Germany in 1974 and to Argentina in 1978. So Her Majesty Queen Beatrix joins Gustav VI Adolf of Sweden, and her mother Queen Juliana as monarchs of world cup runners-up.

What does this break in the trend signify? Possibly a resurgence of Europe relative to monarchyless South America, but that doesn’t cover the poor showing of France and Italy.

Other factoids arising from Victor Emmanuel III and fascism: Mussolini was deposed by Victor Emmanuel in a proper constitutional manner in 1943, and German President Paul von Hinderburg’s will is believed to have expressed a desire for Germany to return to a monarchy. (The History Place says he did, Wikipedia says it’s disputed).

It is the received wisdom that in 1933-34, Hitler’s oratory was so supernaturally spooky that he convinced the German people even to abandon democracy to put him in power. It seems more likely that by then democracy had failed so badly that any alternative looked like a good idea. But that’s not the stuff to give the troops.

An Enhanced Model of Zombie Infestation

It’s finally here! I have corrected what I saw as the major flaw in the zombie-infestation model I described earlier, and proceeded to draw a number of interesting conclusions about the effects of zombies on a human population based on my enhanced model.

I even went to the length of learning LaTeX so as to write it up properly.

Here it is! [pdf]
(link updated Nov 2010)

There’s actually a lot more I could do, but I don’t have enough time at the moment. I have run a lot of simulations, implemented in Ruby, which guided me to the approach I took. It would be interesting to parameterise the difference between my model and the Ottawa one – they had zombies becoming corpses when killed by humans, whereas I have made them destroyed altogether – I could add another parameter γ which is the proportion of killed zombies which are destroyed. It would be zero in the original model and one in mine, and I could calculate how values less than one affect my conclusions.

There is a serious side to this. In accepting the approach taken by Munz, Hudea, Imad and Smith? I constrained myself, while improving the model, to using the same basic technique. If I could include some phenomenon in the model as a rate of change of a population variable, I did. If I couldn’t model it in that way, I didn’t include it. So including a natural decay rate of zombies would be easy, but introducing the effects of age on humans or zombies would be very difficult.

Most strikingly, I didn’t make any correction to an obvious error in the model, that humans and zombies do not achieve better “combat” results by outnumbering the enemy. I didn’t do it because the line I did take was more interesting. But Mencius Moldbug’s law of sewage applies – if you base a conclusion on N assumptions, and one of them is crap…

Of course, nobody would really rely on such crude mathematical treatments when planning for unlikely events, would they?

Would they?

Zombie Attacks

August 20, 2009


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OK, yes, I have read the paper constructing mathematical models of an outbreak of zombie infection (as described in Wired and many other places.

The problem with it is that it’s stupid. It’s not stupid because it’s a stupid idea, or a waste of time, or the wrong approach, or anything like that, it’s just done really badly.

Basically, the authors make some simple assumptions about the rate at which the dead rise from graves, the rate at which they turn humans into zombies, and the rate at which humans kill them, and show that in any outbreak the zombies will kill everyone. They add a few slightly more subtle tweaks, and show that the zombies will still kill everyone.

Their conclusions rest entirely on one assumption that they make at the beginning and never defend, which is that dead people turn into zombies without any provocation, at a rate proportional to the number of dead people. That is, the number of new zombies rising in a given night is proportional to the number of people who have ever died (and not already risen). Even if you kill a zombie, it just goes back to being a dead person and will rise again in due course (proportional to the model parameter ζ).

Well, duh. Obviously in those circumstances the human race will be replaced by zombies. It really doesn’t take a lot of mathematics to work that out.

The problem is that this falsifies their claim to a serious conclusion:

… While the scenarios considered are obviously not realistic, it is nevertheless instructive to develop mathematical models for an unusual outbreak. This demonstrates the flexibility of mathematical modelling and shows how modelling can respond to a wide variety of challenges in ‘biology’.

I could believe that if they had shown that the modelling showed how different outcomes related to different assumptions. But that they published this without identifying the key assumption that produced their “zombie takeover” conclusion — the assumption that there is no way, natural or technological, from preventing any corpse from eventually becoming a zombie, contrary to pretty much all authorities as well as common sense — the only conclusion is that the mathematical model distracted them from thinking properly about the scenarios.

There’s just no point doing this sort of thing unless you take it seriously.

Update: Wrote my own improved model

Ten-year-old mystery solved

Thanks to Michael Brush at MSN (and the Economist), we now know the answer to a question that has been outstanding since December 1998.

Greenspan reasons that because hardly anyone actually sees a guy’s undies, they’re the first thing men stop buying when the economy tightens. (He told this to National Public Radio’s Robert Krulwich years ago.)

By extension, pent-up demand means underwear sales should be among the early risers when growth returns and consumers feel confident enough to shrug off “frugal fatigue,” says Marshal Cohen, the chief industry analyst with NPD Group, which tracks consumer behavior.

So now we know:

1. Collect underpants
2. Examine their condition, and use the degree of wear as a leading indicator of the price of risky assets, guiding your investment decisions.
3. Profit!

Thank you.

Sainsbury's Pricing

January 18, 2009


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Presumably the calendar is stored in some database as comprising zero items. Therefore 99p for a calendar is NaNp “each”. (For many products the label will say “4.39 per kg” or whatever is appropriate).

Save 75% the simpsons his and hers 2009 calendar 99p  NaNp each


Another voting conundrum

November 9, 2008


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Voting theory has a new mystery to explain. In what may turn out to be his greatest contribution to an understanding of electoral politics, journalist John Sergeant has made it onto week 9 of Strictly Come Dancing.

Let no one be under any illusions about this – he could end up winning the whole thing. The presenters tell us that half the contestants’ marks come from the four judges, and the other half from the phone-in vote. The final will be on phone-in votes only. Sergeant always gets the lowest votes from the judges, and yet never finishes in the bottom two once the viewers’ votes are added.

This could not have happened in the past. In years gone by, if telephone votes looked to undermine a program, the vote would simply be rigged. These practices were exposed last year, and they would certainly not be able to get away with it for Strictly this year.

An obviously similar event was the MTV Europe “Best Act Ever” award – won on Thursday by Rick Astley.

The key fact is that people cannot be assumed to vote for the “right” reason. Why vote for the best dancer, when annoying the judges is more fun? Why vote for the best Mayor of London, when Ken Livingstone or Boris Johnson will be far more entertaining?

If Sergeant does win, the TV producers will have to find a way in future to make the show workable despite perverse phone votes. The things they try may turn out to have relevance for politics.

The Lords

April 24, 2008


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I suggested in a comment at Tim’s that unicameralism would be OK, so long as it means getting rid of the House of Commons.

I was mostly joking. But maybe it’s worth thinking about.

On the anti side, there’s this amendment by the Lords to the Criminal Justice bill creating penalties for “Recklessly disclosing” personal data.

In order to rule that something is reckless, you need to have some idea of what normal practice is, to contrast against recklessness.

But in handling of data, there practically is no normal practice, and what there is is mostly terrible. We in the IT industry just make it all up as we go along. That’s what being such a young, fast-moving profession is all about. The high-profile failures that we’ve seen have been notable more for bad luck than for being worse than the rest of the industry.

I’m not saying that the current situation is satisfactory. But slinging around vague terms like ‘reckless’, outside of the context of the Data Protection Act which, for all its faults, at least tries to define the concepts it deals with, will not improve anything.

Business IT does not work to a level of reliability adequate for protecting confidential data, or for other critical functions. If we were to operate on a similar basis to the people who write software for planes or power stations, costs and delays would increase to the point where 90% of what we now do would simply not be worth doing.

And that has to be the answer for confidential personal information. If it really needs to be secret, it shouldn’t be on commercial-grade IT systems in the first place. If the state or a private business collects it, don’t be surprised when it leaks. Most of the time, the recklessness is in collecting it in the first place.

Back on unicameralism, I think the reason for this mistake by the Lords is a desire to defeat the government, to make them look weak, to get more votes. So if we didn’t have a Commons, we wouldn’t have had this bad amendment.


Wild Speculation

I’ve got this story in my head and I can’t get rid of it.

Evil Terrorist Mastermind: You my friends have been selected to smite the crusaders. Here is an hundred grand – go and prepare bombs as you have been trained.

NHS Suicide Squad head off to the god-forsaken wastes of Blackburn or Glasgow or somewhere.

First NHS Terrorist: Right. We are going to use car bombs, so we need some cars. Let us consult the Exchange & Mart.

Second Terrorist: Sod that – I always wanted a Mercedes-Benz. Let’s go to the dealership.

Third Terrorist: I concur.

(Terrorists buy nice shiny Mercedes (2 of), and a Jeep Cherokee, and show off driving them around for several months while accustoming themselves to the Land of the Infidel.)

First NHS Terrorist: I have received word: the attack is to be when the new leader of the infidels takes over. We must make our bombs. Where is the fertilizer?

Second NHS Terrrorist: ah… about the fertilizer

Third Terrorist: We had not enough money left after buying the cars. I blame the Jews.

First Terrorist: Oh shit. Well we must do the best we can. I’m going to B&Q to look for something that might blow up.

There’s absolutely no reason to believe that’s what happened, but whatever the real story is, it probably isn’t any less stupid.

Oh, and do bear in mind that the whole NHS thing might be a bit of a red herring: the police seem to be rounding up telephone contacts of the self-immolationists, which in itself is a perfectly sensible approach, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if most of those arrested the last couple of days were to turn out to be innocent within the next few days.