Cui bono?

honor hominesque honesti floreant

Month: February, 2013

Parthian shots

1) Osama Bin Laden’s photograph   2) efficient communication   3) morphology and the islamic world          4) prediction            Future distributions, if any: see special announcement at the end

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The deputy editor writes: our editor left two weeks ago, asserting that the stress of business in this office forced him to book in for a week at what he decided to call a ‘meditation centre’.  It now seems he has extended his visit to Cebu, reasons unknown, but yesterday Andrew, an old friend of his since the days in Sun City (when Jim still had a full set of toes), dropped in to the office bringing this short piece together with a note from Jim insisting on it going into the next distribution, i.e. this one.   (I personally disclaim responsibility for allowing such a farrago of hypothesis onto our site):

‘That photo of Bin Laden, keeps turning up in the prints and online as well, but there are some very odd points about it.  First off, it was obviously not taken when a helicopter had just landed outside and heavily armed soldiers were crashing through the doorway.  But this was the only time when he was in that room in company with any of his opponents.  On the other hand, he was not in the habit of holding open house, so this snapshot could only have been taken by a friend or a servant, yet nobody who fell under those headings would have been trying to make him look feeble or despondent which pretty clearly was the intention of the photographer, who therefore would have had to be on the ‘other side’.  But as I’ve said none of those on that side were close enough to take such a photo, even supposing that he would sit quietly to let them take it.  That’s all supposing it really is Bin Laden anyway.  A view of an elderly Asian, heavily bundled up, three-quarters view from behind?!  As for the claim that the man in the photograph was watching a soap opera, how could we know since we’re not shown what he’s looking at.  How could anyone know, except trusted supporters, who wouldn’t be trying to take a photo showing him like a poverty-stricken elderly refugee with nothing better to do than sit on the floor watching television.  And if some of his friends had been taking photographs to make him look bad, do we say the execution squad was lucky to pick this one up, or unlucky that they couldn’t find a better one?

            When will guys realise that the more lies you put into a case, the weaker you make it?’

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Opinion piece (Julitta Pulversie)

Is this really the era of communication, with Flitter, Facetube, and Inked-up, all competing for a place in the frontal lobes of victims of screenfever (as well as hundreds of antisocial networks and a number of outright nasties, a.k.a. ‘governments’)?  It has to be admitted that the marvels of modern technology have dramatically changed possibilities: it is now possible to sit at one’s desk and with a single click send a message off to destinations all around the world so that not one, but many thousands, both private individuals and commercial companies, may all fail to answer it.  In other words we have to refine previous notions, and distinguish between old-fashioned communication which (along with correspondence) is a bilateral business, and on the other hand modern economical, time-saving, one-way communication.  Unofficial leaks from the headquarters of a  leading organisation guarding the security of electronic data transmission report that the percentage of unanswered communications has reached a new all-time high.  An initial message, known as the αcom (pronounced ‘alpha-com’), is counted as answered if a βcom, a reply, makes a return journey between the same two communication points within 72 hours.  On Thursday last the overall percentage of βcoms neasured against the αcoms fell to a new low of 8.1% – even when identifiable spam was excluded from the αcom total.  That is, about 11 out of every 12 non-spam messages sent was unanswered, thus providing the world’s information transmission system with enormous savings in time and money.

            There are no figures available for any exact comparison with thirty or forty years ago but research by the British Post Office (shortly to be converted into a retail chain specialising in stationery and office equipment, dropping the time-wasting transmission of personal mail though still open to logistics contracts for bulk delivery of advertising material) has suggested that personal correspondence back in those days was predominantly a two-way affair, even if a longer timespan had to be allowed for replies since transmission was in those days physical not electronic.  The estimate was that in the early 1980s about 11 letters out of 12 would be answered within two weeks.

            We need a new term for this more careful concept of messages hurtling through cyberspace like missiles ¹   on their way to points from which nothing will return.  ‘One-way communication’ is far too wordy.  Perhaps, bearing in mind the reputation, justified or not, of the famous triangle, we can call them ‘Bermudan messages’; and the activity of the optimists sitting at keyboards or prodding touch-screens to send them off in their millions will therefore be ‘Bermuding’.

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¹ Jeremy wishes to add a note that, according to his personal research, with some servers a more accurate phrase might be ‘faster than a fairly fit carrier pigeon’

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Linguistic corner (contributed by Svetlana Helgasdottir, docent in the Freie Universität Neasden)  The western news media are flushed and breathing hard with reports of islamists taking control of territories all over northern Africa.  Unless I am much mistaken this is a striking change from just a decade ago when those nations were known to have a moslem population (or in the case of very elderly journalists ‘a mohammedan people’).  The suffix ‘-ist’ has had a patchy career.  It was borrowed originally from the Greeks (who would probably like to claim it back or even better to have a large sum to cover unpaid fees for its use) but at first served simply to refer to someone regularly associated with an activity indicated by the first part of the word to which it was attached: harpist, pianist, artist, optimist, physicist.  Often there are groups of people who specialise in those activities, and so naturally ‘-ist’ was also used when the emphasis was on the group or some shared characteristic of the group rather than the activity itself: communist, socialist, impressionist, monarchist.  (This is language at work, not a mathematical system, so of course what we find are family resemblances among different uses of a suffix, no exact criteria.)   From this point it is not at all surprising that it became especially common with political groupings.  As geopolitics became more complex over the past two centuries the number of recognisable political groups increased, and their sheer number together with the fatal tribal impulse in human nature guaranteed most of them would be viewed with disfavour by any randomly selected citizen – ‘our side’ against the rest.  From the point of view of the European voting classes, colonies which wanted their freedom were full of nationalists.  The proletariats, who obediently thought as their country’s leaders instructed them, deplored the influence of marxists.  ‘Communist’ which started out as simply a designation for people subscribing to a particular social theory soon acquired this new nuance (and hasn’t it raced ahead on that route since!) 

            Given the way that history actually developed (egged on by a popular press and populist  politicians) it was entirely to be expected that the suffix would soon be used when with the implication not merely ‘on the other side, and disliked’ but ‘on the other side doing evil stuff’; thus the predominant use of anarchist, extremist, terrorist, and more recently fascist and Maoist (but let’s be kind and exclude dentist from this group)We now have a suffix with various nuances: on the other side, doing evil stuff, member of a group, attachment to a particular idea or theory, or a particular activity.  As already said this is not a mathematical system and one still finds the suffix where one or more of these ideas is not required; for instance, arsonists are not normally considered to gather together in groups.  (Also of course where a name for members of the other side was already well established there was no need to import the suffix;  Democrats continue to speak of Republicans, not Republicists, though perhaps both groups may feel that, as politicians, there is one ‘other side’ group they are are opposed to, namely the lobbyists?)  But where all those shades of meaning are felt to be present, ‘-ist’ is now definitely the favoured suffix.  There is now little danger of encountering anarcheers, extremians, or terrorites.

            So it is interesting to see the political groups in northern Africa who have a moslem allegiance referred to frequently as islamist in news reports, instead of the previously normal islamic or moslem, even when speaking of groups not engaging in violence.  Now whether the change was actually engineered by forces with axes to grind, or whether it has been promoted after appearing spontaneously is not the point.  What is a factor to be taken into account is the nuance usually carried along with the suffix.  It is then worth noticing that the islamic groups currently holding power in Egypt, put there by two successive free elections which each gave them around 65% of the vote are now widely referred to as an islamist government, while it is those opposed to them who have formed a clear majority of those rioting and throwing stones in Tahrir Square.

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prediction (after our note in the previous distribution about Leah Menshevik’s shrewd prediction, two readers have written in to comment that our own record is good enough to justify including a prediction with each distribution.  As stated in the announcement below, the journal may not be able to provide a regular feature on these lines.  Nevertheless here at least we can offer one, borrowed with permission from The Tale of Esmond Maguire pt 3 (§ 137):

            Oscar tells me that the way things are going in neurology, it will one day be possible to have elections that are truly and deeply democratic, where not merely are numbers counted, but strength of support is measured individually for each elector with respect to each candidate.  Of course, those same advances will make it unlikely that any régime, once in power, will ever find itself inclined to hold the elections.

honor hominesque honesti floreant

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announcement: The trouble with CENSOR (see earlier distributions) continues, even though we did no more than reprint items from Luddites Gazette (now indefinitely forbidden publication since they were unable to reach the appeals tribunal within the time limit set).  A final decision about our service is to be handed down on 1st April, and we have been given a temporary ban for the intervening period.  However, as often with authoritarian bodies, they have combined injustice with incompetence, and the ban was ordered for the whole of the month of March; they apparently thought this would include our next distribution scheduled for the first of that month.  So we are bringing the distribution forward by one day.  For prospects in the longer term check this site on 2nd April.

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Les nains de l’homme argenté

1) Egyptian democracy   2) How to handle a population   3) yet more progress!   4) Readers’ letters   5) question of the fortnight         Further distribution aiming at 1-3-2013

This journal has acquired a fine record of political and social predictions, some from our own staff (contact harpress@gmail.com for fees of consultancy contracts), some from readers.  A good example is the observation by Leah Menshevik (20-11-2012).  She pointed out the crippling flaw in the claim that social networks using the new adult electronic toys would bring an age of truer democracy.  The crucial factor is the huge divergence between the population of frequent users of social media (and of the shiny gewgaws which support them) – very largely urban and overwhelmingly young –  and on the other hand all the other inhabitants of a country.  Instead, the tendency would be towards the appearance of urban mobs, passions inflamed by the mutual assurances of justified rage flashing around their favoured networks.  This matches extremely well what has been happening recently in Egypt (assisted, certainly, by the deep-rooted belief of police in Egypt as elsewhere that one of the rewards of serving a population is the right to beat up or taser members of the population who displease them).  There have been and are rioting mobs in Cairo and other cities, demanding the resignation of Mursi, alleging that he has betrayed the democratic revolution.  Yet the moves made since Mubarak was overthrown have twice been put to a nationwide vote, unprecedentedly free and fair, in which Mursi’s group and allies won, each time, around 65% of the vote.  That they should now take the leading part in organising the way forward conforms precisely to the principle of democracy – doesn’t it? – whether or not that 65% came from outside the cities, and the poorer sections of the population.  Or perhaps elections only count as democratic when they deliver the result that we – whoever ‘we’ may be – want?

[Two more reader’s letters at the end of this distribution]

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Our arrangement with Luddites’ Gazette (see earlier distributions passim) has to end; the editorial staff were held as suspected illegal immigrants on reaching Switzerland; their bicycles were impounded and  they lost their chance to appeal against CENSOR’s decision.  So we have made an informal agreement with the Wessex Posthorn (a young staff gallantly pushing out independent views in one of the more dismal port cities of southern England) (Please note we present this document as received, and apologise for the poor quality of the writing):

A bit of good news from France, some really bad news from America.  From this month on, first time in 212 years, Frenchwomen have the right to wear trousers without going first to a police station to get permission.  That urge to dictate to women how they can dress seems deep embedded in the collective mind of the French bureaucracy, but perhaps we should (for once) congratulate those French police, for pretty generally having had enough sense not to enforce that law, we hope they will continue with this rare sanity in the matter of that preposterous veto on the burqa.

            The terrible news (for people who are going to see brothers, husbands, neighbours, and family friends who had just popped in for a visit, killed or maimed, without any proper investigation into claims they might be intending harm to anyone) is like the American executive branch are giving themselves the right to send a drone to kill, not arrest, never mind trial, American citizens who they think are preparing violent action against America.  We think this move is heavily against America’s own interest, but first let’s just point out a lot of people think it’s a breach of the constitution (and what the hell is the point of having a constitution if the authorities any time can just ride over it when they don’t like the rules it makes?)  More important point for the rest of the world is when you ask the question, if they can do that for American citizens what are the chances for anyone else, if for any reason, right or wrong (including mistakes over identity because of similar names as has already happened, not to mention wedding parties and meetings of chief elders against the taliban), the authorities decide that someone has been plotting violence against America.

            First off, the move is puzzling.  If your surveillance techniques are so good they can detect political views and plans of action (i.e., eavesdrop on conversations inside mud houses and read thoughts inside heads, in villages high in difficult mountains) how can they not be good enough to detect when the individual actually starts to do something – like travelling outside his home base or buying dodgy equipment  – and then maybe send in the drone to stop him?  (He’ll have a hell of a long way to go.)  As we said, the policy looks exactly against America’s own interest.  Probably America’s  most unpopular policy round the world.  The evidence is already in, using superior armed force to impose your conqueror’s power and defeat resistance (which may not even be there in the first place) by a civilian population usually fails and worse it gives terrible losses to the ones trying it.  What about France and Ukraine in World War II, or Vietnam, Somalia, and Iraq since then?  Vietnam is worth looking at twice over.  Trying to beat the communists (more like nationalists really anyway) cost tens of thousands of young American lives, with even more wounded, and vast amounts of money, and it failed.  But, treating Vietnam with a mix of trade, co-operation, realism, and some sort of respect from 1988 has got America pretty much the sort of Vietnam she wants.  Please think again.

[for reading if you got French: article by Jean d’Amécourt, French ambassador in Kabul 2008-2011 in Nouvel Observateur, ‘Les pièges de Kaboul’  30-1-2013]

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Dr Ilya Sprat, Chairman of Wessex Petronine Gastronomes denies being the speaker of certain remarks recorded at a dinner for toothpaste and oral hygiene executives in Exeter last Friday, congratulating Deviathon-Slodge on siting their new project in Devon.  “It’s true some local peasantry are bellyaching about too many middle-class incomers in the county already, sticking up new concrete and glass ‘villas’, blocking the parking places with their Chelsea tractors, filling the local schools with pushy kids, and sending prices in the farmers’ markets skyrocketing.  But the more thoughtful among us see the benefits people like you bring with your culture and wider commercial contacts, and some of us are already experiencing a very satisfying increase in the value of our own businesses.”

            The new project to be called Imaginative Living for Extended Value (it was originally going to be called the Extending Value in Imaginative Living project until one of the workmen installing the jacuzzi in the new building spotted the difficulty) was set up with the mission of providing the conglomerate with ‘blue-sky thinking factoring foresight into your future’, (a phrase which according to one critic already inspires a chilling surmise as to the sort of thoughts it is going to deliver).   Indeed it has already won a major government-funded contract for the provision of muzak to be played as background on all calls to emergency services nationwide, as recommended by consultant psychologists.  According to the project leader, “This will be a loss-making venture and is designed solely to show Deviathon-Slodge making a useful contribution to society.  The aim is to help these important calls to proceed with maximum efficiency and minimum distress to those involved.  Our intelligent software will be able to detect instantly from the timbre of the voices whether to play soothing music, or a brisk march – perhaps something by Philip de Sousa – to raise energy levels, or perhaps in occasional instances something loud and obtrusive to call a duty officer back to the telephone if for some reason their attention has wandered.  My nephew tells me some ‘Dubstep’ by ‘Skrillex’ – is it? – might help there.  There is also, regrettably, the possibility of the duty officer deciding that the call is a hoax in which case he will be able to use an additional facility to switch in a recording of giga-noise klaxons as developed by the military for semi-lethal crowd control, to dissuade further attempts.”

            However, speaking off the record an anonymous source alleged that Deviathon-Slodge’s boffins had another objective in view.   “Certainly they’re going to supply the service free but they’re still aiming to make money.  Adverts.  Nothing explicit of course.  Playing the jingle of a fastfood place when some woman is screaming for police to come quick because a murderer is trying to break in might not have maximum soothing effect.  No, just the old subliminal game, quick phrases not quite consciously audible behind the noise – sorry, muzak.  The thing is, in calls like that the emotions of the caller are at peak level so the ‘hit’ will go in several times harder than in the ordinary way.  Plus, of course, millions of calls like that every year.  Money in shedloads.”

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Readers’ letters (selected in accordance with our rule that submissions will be limited to one grammatically correct sentence, please note)

There is a view widely held, in the marketing departments of companies selling genetically modified doughnuts, genetically modified sardine yoghurt and similar marvels of the twenty-first century pantry and larder, that consuming genetically modified foods cannot be bad for human beings because the American public has been doing it for 25 years, but when one reviews all kinds of recent events in that nation, not least in politics as practised for instance in senatorial contests in Mississippi, one may be inclined to think more research is needed for a definitive justification of that confidence, while in the background there remains the question as to whether already 25 years ago 4% of the American public believed that they had been abducted by aliens.

Marcia Henscropp, Gaza

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Glad as I am that my ancestor Richard III has been rediscovered, albeit exhumed and indeed earlier asphalted over without my consent, and that some enthusiastic practitioners of one of the more obscure academic trades have offered us their idea of the face that once overlay the extant skull, I assume, having seen the result, that there must be a fair amount of flexibility in the procedures for producing reconstructions, since there is no reason to believe that Richard had any oriental blood flowing in his arteries, and very strong reason to believe that he was not a woman.

Prof.Pixi Immental, Porto Alegre

(Congratulations professor on the absence of that meaningless ‘as’ which so often flaunts grammatical ignorance at the head of concessive clauses!)

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Question of the fortnight.  The government in Kuala Lumpur has ruled that in future shopping malls in that city must reserve 7% of the parking space provided, for female drivers.  Since shopping is predominantly a chore undertaken by women and, even more clearly, the great majority of customer time in shopping malls is spent by women, we would suggest that the government should have ordered the reserved space to be 70%.

            The question: ‘Can any feminist explain why this suggestion gets treated as an example of male chauvinism?’

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honor hominesque honesti floreant