Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Commonplace book

Nabokov joke:
It is always rather perilous for a writer to try to toy with a foreign idiom. I like to recall the case of the famous Russian writer Herzen who, living in Putney and knowing very little English, illustrated a brilliant essay on the Britisher's innate contempt for poverty by the unfortunate remark that the worst invective commonly heard in London streets was the word "beggar."

Vladimir Nabokov

I don't know, I've never kippled

And with today's announcement of more Australian troops to Afghanistan, a good time to revisit this:

With home-bred hordes the hillsides teem,
The troop-ships bring us one by one,
At vast expense of time and steam,
To slay Afridis where they run.

Strike hard who cares--shoot straight who can--
The odds are on the cheaper man.

Spellcheck again

One thing that the programs seem to regard as a feature, not a bug, is a very non-Aussie approach to hyphens. Even when in English (Aus) as a language the program will correct icecream to ice cream, titbits to tit-bits, and so on. I'm not sure whether their Australianisation is superficial, simply a matter of s's and z's, or whether they think this is the correct usage, even here.

Age bin - opium

I think I'm going to use the word 'opium' in a sentence.
"I opium mother is feeling better this morning."
Dorothy Parker

Letter to Age:
So we’re off on another drug eradication crusade in Afghanistan, just as Australia adds more hostages to our force there. It’s fair to say, I think, that when you spray weedkiller on people’s crops they get pissed off at you; and it’s only reasonable to note that when Afghans get pissed off they shoot people, some of them Australians. Tasmania, too, grows opium poppies. There, however, we avoid getting people pissed off by the simple expedient of buying the product off them to make medical morphine. If the Americans didn’t insist that everybody else in the world joined them in their moral panics we’d have more returned servicemen and fewer military funerals.

Noting, to be fair, that the Centre for Research on Globalisation disagrees with me; however, their arguments appear to deal with the flaws of a payment scheme in reducing the flow of opiates rather than its effect on the war, so I'll hang in there. The folks at the Centre say, for example, that if you paid for opium the price would go up and the growers would simply make twice as much in two lots, one for the legal scheme and one for the illegal scheme; possible, I admit, but still producing fat happy growers rather than skinny pissed growers, so not an argument against my proposal. Fixing the general problem of drugs around the globe will doubtless take more than that, but it would still require the Americans to make more use of common sense than they've ever shown any signs of in this area.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Why I hate Bill Gates

One of the irritating things about my life is that I’ve always thought that I had no route to vast riches; the money-making schemes I think up have always been thought of before. One of the even more irritating things is when this turns out not to have been so, and that nobody had in fact thought of it.

Some ten or so years ago, I noted that the spelling programs that correct OCR text were falling down consistently on tasks that should have been simple. Any halfway decent linguist – more to the point, I myself – could suggest after ten minutes’ work fixes that would lift the performance by orders of magnitude. I could at that time have grabbed a coder and settled down to do this work, but I assumed – and I still don’t blame myself too much – that these were so obvious that they’d be fixed in the next iteration and I’d have wasted my time.

Ten years later and the spelling correction programs in Microsoft Word are as bad and as unthinking as ever. And I could now, I suppose, still grab a coder and settle down to do this work, but I still can’t believe that the flaws aren’t so blindingly obvious that they will finally be fixed in the next iteration and I’ll have wasted my time.
The basic principle is unarguable, and it’s utterly opaque to me why the spelling programs don’t grasp it.

Let’s input those principles now. Hell, that principle; there's only one, with three sections.

Text mistakes are not random. They occur because
(1) in scanning, some combinations of letters look very like other letters.
(2) in typing, some letters are next to other letters.
At the moment, absolutely all the attention of the programs is focussed on
(3) in writing, some words are misspelled.
Which is probably the least important.

Let’s look at the spelling program working through a page scanned off a rather poor fax.

Misspelled WordActual wordSuggestion
Departrnent Departmentno suggestions
SyndrorneSyndrome Sandrine

Or, by simple deduction,

Misspelled WordRule that was appliedSuggestion
Departrnent What word begins with Departr?no suggestions
ConcemsWhat word beginning with conc shares most letters with Concems?conches
fa~nilyWhat word shares most letters with fanily?fancily
mernbersWhat word shares most letters with mernbers?mourners
DISABIUTYWhat word shares most letters with DISABIUTY?DISUNITY
SyndrorneSearch me Sandrine
I)ocumentsScramble, scramble, what word shares most letters with ocuments?I)documents

The problem here is that the scrambling of letters, which is the primary worry of this software, is a fairly rare source of errors.

This would not be particularly difficult to fix.

First page.
Are you
Correcting scanning? Click here X
Correcting typing? Click here

Misspelled WordRule that's neededActual word
Departrnentr n looks like m – check if substitution produces a word Department
Concems m looks like rn – check if substitution produces a wordConcerns
fa~nily ~n could be m or r n – check if substitution produces a wordfamily
mernbersr n looks like m – check if substitution produces a wordmembers
DISABIUTYLI looks like U - check if substitution produces a wordDISABILITY
Syndrorner n looks like m – check if substitution produces a word Syndrome
I)ocumentsI) looks like D – check if substitution produces a wordDocuments

The fact that one sub-rule would have removed half the errors gives some clue to the ease of the enterprise. Run through a couple of thousand examples and you’d knock over 99% of the problems. WHY HAS NOBODY DONE THIS?

How true

Dear dead days

I dig up and send off to the Age a letter last not used by them on Wednesday, November 23, 2005.

The more things change, etc.

Monday, April 20, 2009


This is what I mean here.

Basic instructions: if only I could remember them all!

Rembrandt's Wife

Last night went to Andrew Ford's Rembrandt's Wife, chamber opera at the Malthouse. We like Andrew on the Music Show, and we wanted to like it. The music was OK, though not striking, but he was let down by the libretto, which stank.

It's almost always a bad idea to try and write about geniuses when you're not yourself a genius; it ends up with your work at best being parasitic on the audience's experience of the original genius and at worst being obliterated by the comparison of talents. But this was worse than that.

Two points that grated particularly:
1) several verses seem to have been written rhyming Van Rijn with, say, sin instead of sign. So that when the proper pronunciation was put in the rhyme scheme went blooey. Something you think they'd have noticed at the first rehearsal and fixed.
2) at the end, when Remmmers is down and out, they put up a slide of his Flayed Ox -

and he sings a song identifying with the beast about how when alive he gorged grass, fought battles, and loved many cows, finishing with, just to give the idea, "My ox heart was big as the sky." Dammit, dude, loving cows is not what oxen do. "Oxen (singular ox) are bovines trained as draught animals. Often they are adult, castrated males..." OXEN ARE NOT BULLS. THEY ARE THE OPPOSITE OF BULLS. That's not a pedant's quibble; it's a gaping rent in the fundamental imagery of the opera.

People, people. We like to think you've given as much time to writing this show as we have watching it.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Return to Space

One irritating feature of Blogger is that in default it leaves no break between my writing and the boilerplate, and if I want to put a break in I find that I can't easily add blank lines on the end of a post because the system simply removes them. If I want to make a line break, I have to add a character - tilde, say - or the post won't recognise them. Which is an untidy solution. I don't suppose any reader knows the code for a hard return?
space, space, space, ~

Talk like a pirate

One of the issues that I wondered about when a practicing historian was why the Barbary pirates kept going so long after their ships were outmoded by the bigger-gunned sailing ships of the European powers, not actually getting taken out until the new-on-the-scene Americans did it ("to the shores of Tripoli...")

Having since then read more Aubrey & Maturin I suppose I did underestimate the advantages of the galley in Mediterranean warfare, but what I actually found out was that it was in fact straightforwardly economic. Yes, England, France, and Holland could each individually have blown away the Bey of Algiers and his kind, but that would cost them money and provide an equal advantage to all. How much more economically potent to make a treaty - even, if necessary, pay some kind of subsidy - so that your ships were not attacked but everyone else's were? In practice, since the French and the Dutch were doing the same, only Greek and Italian ships were subject to piracy, meaning that the ships of the great powers had an enormous advantage in the otherwise locally dominated Mediterranean coastal shipping business.

The trouble with Somalia, of course, is that there's nobody to make a treaty with or buy off or pay tolls to.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Ethics of Charity

Lewis Carroll, from the virtually unreadable Sylvie and Bruno;
Arthur continued, “When we come to consider the divine law, then measured by that standard, a man is undoubtedly doing wrong, if he fails to use, for the good of those in need, the strength or the skill, that God has given him. That strength and skill do not belong to the community, to be paid to them as a debt: they do not belong to the man himself, to be used for his own enjoyment: they do belong to God, to be used according to His will; and we are not left in doubt as to what this will is. ‘Do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again.’ “

“Anyhow,” I said, “an ‘idle mouth’ very often gives away a great deal in charity.”

“In so-called ’charity’,” he corrected me. “Excuse me if I seem to speak uncharitably. I would not dream of applying the term to any individual. But I would say, generally, that a man who gratifies every fancy that occurs to him-- denying himself in nothing--and merely gives to the poor some part, or even all, of his superfluous wealth, is only deceiving himself if he calls it charity.”

“But, even in giving away superfluous wealth, he may be denying himself the miser’s pleasure in hoarding?”

“I grant you that, gladly,” said Arthur. “Given that he has that morbid craving, he is doing a good deed in restraining it.”

“But, even in spending on himself”, I persisted, “our typical rich man often does good, by employing people who would otherwise be out of work: and that is often better than pauperizing them by giving the money. "

“I’m glad you’ve said that!” said Arthur. “I would not like to quit the subject without exposing the two fallacies of that statement--which have gone so long uncontradicted that Society now accepts it as an axiom!”

“What are they?” I said. “I don’t even see one, myself.”

“One is merely the fallacy of ambiguity--the assumption that ’doing good’ (that is, benefiting somebody) is necessarily a good thing to do (that is, a right thing). The other is the assumption that, if one of two specified acts is better than another, it is necessarily a good act in itself. I should like to call this the fallacy of comparison--meaning that it assumes that what is comparatively good is therefore positively good.”

“Then what is your test of a good act?”

“That it shall be our best,” Arthur confidently replied. “And even then ‘we are ‘unprofitable servants’. But let me illustrate the two fallacies. Nothing illustrates a fallacy so well as an extreme case, which fairly comes under it. Suppose I find two children drowning in a pond. I rush in, and save one of the children, and then walk away, leaving the other to drown. Clearly I have ’done good’, in saving a child’s life? But--Again, supposing I meet an inoffensive stranger, and knock him down and walk on. Clearly that is ’better’ than if I had proceeded to jump upon him and break his ribs? But--”

“Those ‘buts’ are quite unanswerable,” I said. “But I should like an instance from real life.”

“Well, let us take one of those abominations of modern Society, a Charity-Bazaar. It’s an interesting question to think out--how much of the money, that reaches the object in view, is genuine charity; and whether even that is spent in the best way. But the subject needs regular classification, and analysis, to understand it properly.”

“I should be glad to have it analysed,” I said: “it has often puzzled me.”

“Well, if I am really not boring you. Let us suppose our Charity-Bazaar to have been organized to aid the funds of some Hospital: and that A, B, C give their services in making articles to sell, and in acting as salesmen, while X, Y, Z buy the articles, and the money so paid goes to the Hospital.

“There are two distinct species of such Bazaars: one, where the payment exacted is merely the market-value of the goods supplied, that is, exactly what you would have to pay at a shop: the other, where fancy-prices are asked. We must take these separately.

“First, the ‘market-value’ case. Here A, B, C are exactly in the same position as ordinary shopkeepers; the only difference being that they give the proceeds to the Hospital. Practically, they are giving their skilled labour for the benefit of the Hospital. This seems to me to be genuine charity. And I don’t see how they could use it better. But X, Y, Z are exactly in the same position as any ordinary purchasers of goods. To talk of ‘charity’ in connection with their share of the business, is sheer nonsense. Yet they are very likely to do so.

“Secondly, the case of ‘fancy-prices’. Here I think the simplest plan is to divide the payment into two parts, the ‘market-value’ and the excess over that. The ‘market-value’ part is on the same footing as in the first case: the excess is all we have to consider. Well, A, B, C do not earn it; so we may put them out of the question: it is a gift, from X, Y, Z, to the Hospital. And my opinion is that it is not given in the best way: far better buy what they choose to buy, and give what they choose to give, as two separate transactions: then there is some chance that their motive in giving may be real charity, instead of a mixed motive--half charity, half self-pleasing. ‘The trail of the serpent is over it all.’ And therefore it is that I hold all such spurious ‘Charities’ in utter abomination!” He ended with unusual energy, and savagely beheaded, with his stick, a tall thistle at the road-side

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Fun Rides

Over at Core Economics Joshue Gans writes

Robert Merkel [Larvatus Prodeo] is riding his bike through the Pyrenees to raise money from Crohn’s Disease. He wrote a few econbloggers an email asking for advice as to how best to raise funds from this exercise. He proposed some pledge based on whether he can achieve some goal in his upcoming ride.

to which I added the comment that

Being in the professional fundraising business I add these comment to educate anybody who may be thinking of looking to similar challenge events as a means of fundraising.

1) These events are not primarily fundraising events, they're to provide an excuse - and a small charge - for people to enjoy themselves. If Robert really wanted to generate money for Crohn's he'd give up the holiday, work at his day job, and donate the money he made there.
2) As it is, the money is doubtless a useful addition to whatever charity gets it, provided that no work at all is required of it. If the charity gets suckered into providing the admin backup the net value drops precipitously and can easily drop into negative territory. Do your costings carefully including all admin time.
3) In general, all these fundraising schemes are there to avoid the embarrassment of coming right out with it and asking for money - to take the curse of what we have been taight to despise as begging. They try to give the impression that there's some sort of transaction taking place, that something of value is changing hands, when there isn't. If you seriously want to raise money, cut out the shit and ask your friends and family to give it to you, and to ask their friends and family.

I'm being a little harsh here, as a bike trip through the Pyrenees is pretty harmless. The ones that really need overhead are the riding-a-penny-farthing-around-australia or pushing-a-bathtub-across-the-nullabor vanity projects that cost tens of thousands and raise at best net thousands.

Anyway, if you want hints, here's a successful bike ride organiser speaking, from the Our Community newsletter Raising Funds;

The Fundraiser: John Rathgeber leads the Big Heart cycling team each year in the annual Murray to Moyne bike ride, a heroic 536-kilometre dash from one end of Victoria to the other.
Unique Selling Point: Total commitment.
Success factor: In the last three years John has raised over $30,000, over $60,000, and over $70,000 respectively for DEAL Communication Centre, an enormously impressive feat.
The Murray to Moyne is a bike ride, of course, not a bike race, but I notice that you manage to lead the Big Heart team into the finish first every year.
John Rathgeber: I don’t like wasting time. If I’m going to ride 536 k I want to be on the bike for as short a time as possible, and so we try to start last and finish first. It’s the same with fundraising. My time is pretty valuable - not because I’m special, but because I’ve got a lot of things to do, especially with my family, and because I lose a whole month doing this it has to be worth while. Selling tickets, running raffles, rattling the tin – that isn’t a good ratio of dollars to kilojoules. It’s not about that, it’s all about being able to make a call to a director of Telstra and get him to throw in five grand. It’s about recruiting people with influence and having them leverage it.
What do you mean by ‘leverage’ in this context?
John Rathgeber: I look for people with some influence that they can leverage into funds. This year, for example, Mark, one of the riders, has a real estate company that does a lot of business with one of the major corporate law firms and one of the banks, so he was able to ring them up. Mark’s good for $28,000. I ring Terry at another firm and say Terry, it’s that time of the year again, and you can do one of two things – you can give me two thousand dollars or you can come on the ride as support crew. And he says What shall I make the cheque out to?
I’m selective about who I ask to join the team, for that reason. Most of us are from the corporate sector – though we have a mix of people, of course, to keep it interesting. You don’t want it to be aggressively corporate.
How do you get the funds in?
John Rathgeber: There’s no simple formula. But I do set a threshold goal of $2,000-$2,500. Not everybody can make it. One of the team who’s been on the ride for years is a schoolteacher, and she has to work like hell to raise half the money some of the newer riders can get with two phone calls. In general, though, I look for people who can leverage their influence into a greater net fundraising capacity, and if they’ve never thought about raising funds before, I encourage them to explore their opportunities in new ways. Last year, for example, we had a surgeon on the team. He found it very difficult to come to terms with asking people for money, so he just donated $500 of his own money. This year I got him involved. You work in an upmarket suburb, the people you operate on are generally fairly wealthy, quite often you’ve saved their lives, why don’t you tell them what you’re doing and ask them for money? They’re giving it to someone, and unless you ask them they’re not going to give it to you. He identified patients with high net worth whom he’d treated for life-threatening conditions, and I helped him write letters to them and worked out how he should talk to them about focusing some of their charitable efforts in our direction, and he raised about $5,500. You just have to get people to work through their contacts.
I’m developing a real feel for people who can raise serious amounts of money. We’ve picked up two or three new ones this year who have been fairly lucrative. One rang up when I already had sixteen riders and said he wanted to join; I said Look, Lloyd, I can squeeze you in, but it’s going to cost you. How much? he said. Three and a half grand, I said, minimum. All right, he said, Three and a half grand it is. It’s no longer ‘What we get, we get’; this is business. There’s a small window of opportunity, and I know how much it means to DEAL, and I drive it as hard as I can. Next year I’m aiming for $100,000.
How important is the Murray to Moyne?
John Rathgeber: I’m a great believer in event-specific fundraising. It allows you to focus your energy – there’s an urgency about it. We leverage our sponsors to the event, and the emotion, and the commitment -- I’m putting my body through all this pain, the least you can do is sponsor me. And the Murray to Moyne is quite well known now, so it’s partly sold in advance and we don’t have to do the whole selling job.
How do you get people to front up for such a long and gruelling ride?
John Rathgeber: The event is a whole heap of fun. I don’t have to ring people back the next year to ask them if they want to be part of it, they ring me asking when it’s on. This year we got a speaker system for the support van, and Matt, our driver, acted as disc jockey and comic – he told some really disgusting jokes, several of us nearly fell off our bikes from laughing. We do it properly. Everybody gets a Big Heart Team shirt, with the logos of our sponsors on the front (which isn’t to say that our sponsors do it for the advertising, they don’t, but it demonstrates our commitment). It gives the event a signature – come and ride with us and you can get a shirt. And to make it even more enjoyable, you can pay for it. We charge every participant $250 for meals, motel expenses, ride entry fee, and the shirt.
What’s the secret to great fundraising?
John Rathgeber: Commitment. It’s a mindset. I’ll do a thing properly or not at all. I don’t want to be involved with a half-hearted effort. I’ve had some discussions with another team, trying to encourage them to make a real go of it, and they just said no, we’re happy enough just rolling along. That’s stupid, I said, you’re investing all this energy and you’re still missing out on a wonderful opportunity to make a difference. No, he said, that’s the way we want to do it… And so they raised about $10,000 all up. I couldn’t work that way. The way to look at it while you’re doing it is that first is first and second’s nowhere. I don’t know that that approach endears me to everybody, but this is the only chance I have each year to make my contribution to the bigger effort, and I know the money we raised has done a lot of good.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Hannoush writes

11 April 2009
An Easter Thought

The Toad says that spirituality is one of several things he has never been drawn to.

Easter therefore may present him with problems if, as I suspect, he is not particularly drawn to the commercialisation that accompanies the holiday - how does he answer the question popular at this time of year (and at Christmas) "Do you think the significance of Easter has been lost by commercialisation?" - at least popular on news sites as an instant poll.

How does someone who doesn't understand why spirituality might be important for some people answer this question?

I tried to comment, but it told me

We're sorry, we cannot accept this data


Well, you look on this sort of thing as a profanation of the holy only if you think there is something actually holy involved; that aside, the chocolate egg can be seen as the only thing that has allowed Easter to survive into the era of unbelief. If there was no commercial impulse, Easter (and Christmas,probably) would have followed Lent and Advent and Ash Wednesday and Pancake Tuesday and uncounted saints' days into the dustbin of history. And before that Saturnalia. Which could do with a comeback, I suppose. Though it'd probably become commercialised...


This does seem to be going on and on...

I should record, in the interests of fairness, that I have never been able to get my mind around the attractions of, or the compulsion to,
# spirituality
# wanting children
# suicide
# jealousy
# cars

Some very large elements of human experience are denied me, even though it does make for a quiet life.


Thursday, April 09, 2009


And oh yes, I forgot: so

I should record, in the interests of fairness, that I have never been able to get my mind around the attractions of, or the compulsion to,
# spirituality
# wanting children
# suicide
# jealousy

Some very large elements of human experience are denied me, even though it does make for a quiet life.


Wednesday, April 08, 2009

These Names Make News

Reading Time for 3 Feb 1958, I note that one letter on juvenile delinquency is by Larry McMurtry of Texas.
"McMurtry was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, the son of Hazel Ruth (née McIver) and William Jefferson McMurtry, who was a rancher.[1] He grew up on a ranch outside Archer City, Texas, which is the model for the town of Thalia that appears in much of his fiction. He earned degrees from North Texas State University (B.A. 1958) and Rice University (M.A. 1960)."

Looks about right. Collected letters, jot it down.

Also noted; a report of a breakthrough in nuclear fusion leading to the prospect that
mankind will one day be able to live in a world where power will be unlimited.

Mind you, one of the machines is named the Perhapsatron, which doesn't seem that serious.



I should record, in the interests of fairness, that I have never been able to get my mind around the attractions of, or the compulsion to,
# spirituality
# suicide
# jealousy*

Some very large elements of human experience are denied me, even though it does make for a quiet life.

*well, love, really.


Deep Insights

I am now, let me see, sixty-four or so, and should take advantage of those decades of studying public affairs to pass on the insights I have gained. One I've covered already:

1) If you wear your boots on the wrong feet on alternate days it enables you to rotate the edge of maximum wear, increasing usable heel life.

The next few aren't really unique to me, it has to be said.

2) Don't start land wars in Asia:
3) Or anywhere else, really, if it can be avoided;

and now the latest - and here I think I really am breaking entirely new ground -

4) If you wear your underpants inside out you have one layer of cloth between yourself and the seams, minimising rubbing.

New insights, in the event that they occur, will be added over the next decade.


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