June 4, 2014

Sarcasm-detecting software wanted

Filed under: Media, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:02

Charles Stross discusses some of the second-order effects should the US Secret Service actually get the sarcasm-detection software they’re reportedly looking for:

… But then the Internet happened, and it just so happened to coincide with a flowering of highly politicized and canalized news media channels such that at any given time, whoever is POTUS, around 10% of the US population are convinced that they’re a baby-eating lizard-alien in a fleshsuit who is plotting to bring about the downfall of civilization, rather than a middle-aged male politician in a business suit.

Well now, here’s the thing: automating sarcasm detection is easy. It’s so easy they teach it in first year computer science courses; it’s an obvious application of AI. (You just get your Turing-test-passing AI that understands all the shared assumptions and social conventions that human-human conversation rely on to identify those statements that explicitly contradict beliefs that the conversationalist implicitly holds. So if I say “it’s easy to earn a living as a novelist” and the AI knows that most novelists don’t believe this and that I am a member of the set of all novelists, the AI can infer that I am being sarcastic. Or I’m an outlier. Or I’m trying to impress a date. Or I’m secretly plotting to assassinate the POTUS.)

Of course, we in the real world know that shaved apes like us never saw a system we didn’t want to game. So in the event that sarcasm detectors ever get a false positive rate of less than 99% (or a false negative rate of less than 1%) I predict that everybody will start deploying sarcasm as a standard conversational gambit on the internet.

Wait … I thought everyone already did?

Trolling the secret service will become a competitive sport, the goal being to not receive a visit from the SS in response to your totally serious threat to kill the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Al Qaida terrrrst training camps will hold tutorials on metonymy, aggressive irony, cynical detachment, and sarcasm as a camouflage tactic for suicide bombers. Post-modernist pranks will draw down the full might of law enforcement by mistake, while actual death threats go encoded as LOLCat macros. Any attempt to algorithmically detect sarcasm will fail because sarcasm is self-referential and the awareness that a sarcasm detector may be in use will change the intent behind the message.

As the very first commenter points out, a problem with this is that a substantial proportion of software developers (as indicated by their position on the Asperger/Autism spectrum) find it very difficult to detect sarcasm in real life…

May 9, 2014

The 1964 trial of Jack Ruby

Filed under: History, Law, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

The Toronto Sun shares a portion of Peter Worthington’s Looking for Trouble (now available as an e-book) dealing with the trial of Jack Ruby. Worthington had been in the room when Ruby gunned down Lee Harvey Oswald.

The Ruby trial was pure showbiz. While the witnesses and characters who surfaced during the trial were Damon Runyon, the judge and lawyers seemed straight out of Al Capp and Dogpatch. Judge Joe B. Brown’s legal education before he was elected to the bench consisted of three years of night school 35 years earlier. In Dallas he was known as Necessity – “because Necessity knows no law.”


One day as a stripper who worked at Ruby’s nightclub called Little Lynn (who was over nine months pregnant at the time), was waiting to testify, seven prisoners in the connecting county jail grabbed a woman hostage and fled. They had fashioned a pistol of soap, pencils and shoe polish, persuaded guards that it was real, and made their break, witnessed by some 100 million viewers.

Little Lynn fainted and Belli prepared to play midwife. A BBC reporter on the phone to his office was describing the action and repeatedly swore to his editors that he was neither kidding, nor had he been drinking. “Listen, you bloody fools, this is America, this is Texas … any bloody insane thing is possible here!”

The next day, the New York Daily News ran an eloquent black headline: “Oh, Dallas!”

The jury returned in 140 minutes with a guilty verdict. In Texas, where the juries set the penalty, they opted for the electric chair.

Belli returned to San Francisco in disgust. “I shall never return here; it’s an evil, bigoted, rotten, stinking town.”

As it happened, Ruby died three years later and won a form of immortality and a place in criminal and political legend.

And as for conspiracy theories, the flaw is that Oswald was an ideologue, a semi-literate left-wing extremist, while Ruby wouldn’t know what an ideologue was unless he did a strip-tease for him.

To choose two such perfect foils on which to base a presidential murder plot challenges credulity. There has been so much official deceit, perjury, rationalization and cover-up that the deeds seem [...] more sinister than they actually have been.

We will probably never know the truth.

November 22, 2013

“…you wonder why it took so long for somebody to shoot the swinish bastard”

Filed under: History, Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 17:28

Colby Cosh makes no friends among the over-60 Kennedy worshipping community:

The myth of Kennedy as a uniquely admirable knight-errant has finally, I think, been wiped out by the accumulation of ugly details about his sexual conduct and family life. For a while it was still possible to regard JFK’s tomcatting as the inevitable concomitant of super-masculine greatness. By now it is pretty clear that he was just an abusive, spoiled creep. There are scenes in White House intern Mimi Alford’s 2012 memoir that make you wonder why it took so long for somebody to shoot the swinish bastard.

As for the assassination itself, the experience of seeing conspiracy theories bloom like a toxic meadow after 9/11 has hardened us all against the nonsense that was still popular in the 1990s. Most adults, I think, now understand that Oliver Stone’s JFK was a buffet of tripe. It is no coincidence that Stephen King’s 2011 time-travel book about JFK’s slaying, written after decades of fairly deep research, stuck close to the orthodox Warren commission narrative.

The new favourite themes in the 50th anniversary coverage dispense with grassy-knoll phantoms and disappearing-reappearing Oswalds. One new documentary has revived Howard Donahue’s idea that the final bullet that blasted Kennedy’s skull apart might have been fired accidentally by a Secret Service agent in one of the trailing cars. This would help explain the oddity of the Zapruder footage, and might also account for some awkwardly disappearing evidence — notably JFK’s brain — without requiring us to believe anything obviously outrageous.


In the early ’70s Lyndon Johnson made a cryptic remark about JFK possibly being killed because his administration had been “running a damn Murder Inc. in the Caribbean.” This offhand remark turned out to be quite specific; rumours of multiple CIA assassination attempts against Castro were true, as were wilder tales of literal Mafia involvement (confirmed when the CIA “Family Jewels” were declassified in 2007). Oswald would not exactly have been anyone’s first choice as an intelligence asset, and probably had no state sponsor. But notice that it’s 2013 and we still have to say “probably.”

July 30, 2013

Was Caligula the victim of a historical smear campaign?

Filed under: Europe, History, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

I confess, my views on Emperor Caligula (formally Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus) were almost completely informed by the character in the novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves. BBC News Magazine‘s Mary Beard thinks Caligula got a fearful load of bad press:

Of course, there had been some very nasty monarchs and despots before Caligula. But, so far as we know, none of his predecessors had ever ticked all the boxes of a fully fledged tyrant, in the modern sense.

There was his (Imelda Marcos-style) passion for shoes, his megalomania, sadism and sexual perversion (including incest, it was said, with all three of his sisters), to a decidedly odd relationship with his pets. One of his bright ideas was supposed to have been to make his favourite horse a consul — the chief magistrate of Rome.

Roman writers went on and on about his appalling behaviour, and he became so much the touchstone of tyranny for them that one unpopular emperor, half a century later, was nicknamed “the bald Caligula”.

But how many of their lurid stories are true is very hard to know. Did he really force men to watch the execution of their sons, then invite them to a jolly dinner, where they were expected to laugh and joke? Did he actually go into the Temple of the gods Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum and wait for people to turn up and worship him?

It is probably too sceptical to mistrust everything that we are told. Against all expectations, one Cambridge archaeologist thinks he may have found traces of the vast bridge that Caligula was supposed to have built between his own palace and the Temple of Jupiter — so it was easier for him to go and have a chat with the god, when he wanted.

So the idea that Caligula was a nice young man who has simply had a very bad press doesn’t sound very plausible.

All the same, the evidence for Caligula’s monstrosity isn’t quite as clear-cut as it looks at first sight. There are a few eyewitness accounts of parts of his reign, and none of them mention any of the worst stories.

No revisionist slant on Caligula is complete without a few nasty cracks directed towards kindly old Uncle Claudius:

More topical though is the question of what, or who, came next. Caligula was assassinated in the name of freedom. And for a few hours the ancient Romans do seem to have flirted with overthrowing one-man rule entirely, and reinstating democracy.

But then the palace guard found Caligula’s uncle Claudius hiding behind a curtain and hailed him emperor instead. Thanks to Robert Graves, Claudius has had a good press, as a rather sympathetic, slightly bumbling, bookish ruler.

But the ancient writers tell a different story — of an autocrat who was just as bad as the man he had replaced. The Romans thought they were getting freedom, but got more of the same.

Considering what happened then, it’s hard not to think of the excitements and disappointments of the Arab Spring.

February 5, 2013

The President’s “license to kill”

Filed under: Government, Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:56

At Reason, Jacob Sullum has a few concerns about the information that came to light in a Department of Justice memo leaked to the media:

The Justice Department white paper on “The Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen Who Is a Senior Operational Leader of Al-Qa’ida or an Associated Force,” noted earlier tonight by Mike Riggs, fills in the fine print of the license to kill claimed by President Obama in several ways, none of them reassuring. The main conclusion of the paper, which was obtained by NBC News, is that “it would be lawful for the United States to conduct a lethal operation outside the United States against a U.S. citizen who is a senior, operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force of al-Qa’ida without violating the Constitution or…federal statutes…under the following conditions: (1) an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; (2) capture is infeasible, and the United States continues to monitor whether capture becomes feasible; and (3) the operation is conducted in a manner consistent with the four fundamental principles of the laws of war governing the use of force” — i.e., “necessity, distinction, proportionality, and humanity.”

[. . .]

More generally, the white paper fleshes out the Obama administration’s argument that U.S. citizens killed by drones are getting all the process that is appropriate in the circumstances; hence the Fifth Amendment, though implicated, is not violated. And since these targeted killings are lawful acts of self-defense, the Justice Department says, they do not violate the law against killing U.S. nationals in foreign countries or the executive order banning assassination. After all, “A lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination.” Duh.

The problem is that to accept this position, you have to put complete trust in the competence, wisdom, and ethics of the president, his underlings, and their successors. You have to believe they are properly defining and inerrantly identifying people who pose an imminent (or quasi-imminent) threat to national security and eliminating that threat through the only feasible means, which involves blowing people up from a distance. If mere mortals deserved that kind of faith, we would not need a Fifth Amendment, or the rest of the Constitution.

November 18, 2012

Having (in)famous ancestors

Filed under: History, Humour, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:40

John Scalzi is having mixed reactions to all the Twitter updates about Lincoln and theatres:

And he wrote about his infamous relative a few years ago:

Every family should have an interesting skeleton in the family closet. In my family, it’s John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln, who, of course, was the President of the United States during the American Civil War. Booth assassinated Lincoln not long after the cessation of hostilities between the Union and the Confederacy, by sneaking into the President’s box at Ford’s Theater (the show: Our American Cousin) and shooting him in the back of the head with a pistol. Booth then leaped from the box to the stage, shouting “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Thus it is with tyrants”) and “The South is avenged.” He broke his leg but managed to escape nevertheless. However, eleven days later, he was discovered in a barn, burned out, and then shot (by himself or by a soldier, it’s unclear). He died shortly thereafter. Some maintain that Booth’s body was never positively identified, so it’s possible he actually escaped. Either way, he’s dead now.

For the record, I’m not a direct descendant — my line goes through one of his nine other siblings, making him something along the lines of a great-great-great-great-great-grand-uncle. Whenever I mention my relationship to him, though, people’s eyes get wide, their jaws go momentarily slack, and some people actually back up a step, as if a long dormant assassination gene might suddenly fire up, and they’d be the unlucky recipient. I get a kick out of that. Then I go for the extra point my mentioning that John Wilkes and I have the same birthday: May 10, 131 years apart. By the time I mention I get edgy handling pennies and five dollar bills, people begin to wend their way to the nearest door.

October 18, 2012

Domestic terrorism less common in the US now than in the past

Filed under: History, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:42

At the Cato@Liberty blog, Benjamin Friedman looks at the history and compares it with today’s constant worry about US domestic terror operations:

Homegrown terrorism is not becoming more common and dangerous in the United States, contrary to warnings issued regularly from Washington. American jihadists attempting local attacks are predictably incompetent, making them even less dangerous than their rarity suggests.

Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, and Robert Mueller, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, are among legions of experts and officials who have recently warned of a rise in homegrown terrorism, meaning terrorist acts or plots carried out by American citizens or long-term residents, often without guidance from foreign organisations.

But homegrown American terrorism is not new.

Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who assassinated President McKinley in 1901, was a native-born American who got no foreign help. The same goes for John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray. The deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history, the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing, was largely the work of New York-born Gulf War vet, Timothy McVeigh.

As Brian Michael Jenkins of RAND notes, there is far less homegrown terrorism today than in the 1970s, when the Weather Underground, the Jewish Defense League, anti-Castro Cuban exile groups, and the Puerto Rican Nationalists of the FALN were setting off bombs on U.S. soil.

[. . .]

After the September 11, the FBI received a massive boost in counterterrorism funding and shifted a small army of agents from crime-fighting to counterterrorism. Many joined new Joint Terrorism Task Forces. Ambitious prosecutors increasingly looked for terrorists to indict. Most states stood up intelligence fusion centers, which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) soon fed with threat intelligence.

The intensification of the search was bound to produce more arrests, even without more terrorism, just as the Inquisition was sure to find more witches. Of course, unlike the witches, only a minority of those found by this search are innocent. But many seem like suggestible idiots unlikely to have produced workable plots without the help of FBI informants or undercover agents taught to induce criminal conduct without engaging in entrapment.

May 31, 2012

Bush violated US constitution by authorizing drone strikes

Filed under: Government, Law, Military, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:50

At Reason, Judge Andrew Napolitano on the presidential “kill list” and the limits of presidential power under the constitution:

The leader of the government regularly sits down with his senior generals and spies and advisers and reviews a list of the people they want him to authorize their agents to kill. They do this every Tuesday morning when the leader is in town. The leader once condemned any practice even close to this, but now relishes the killing because he has convinced himself that it is a sane and sterile way to keep his country safe and himself in power. The leader, who is running for re-election, even invited his campaign manager to join the group that decides whom to kill.

This is not from a work of fiction, and it is not describing a series of events in the Kremlin or Beijing or Pyongyang. It is a fair summary of a 6,000-word investigative report in The New York Times earlier this week about the White House of Barack Obama. Two Times journalists, Jo Becker and Scott Shane, painstakingly and chillingly reported that the former lecturer in constitutional law and liberal senator who railed against torture and Gitmo now weekly reviews a secret kill list, personally decides who should be killed and then dispatches killers all over the world — and some of his killers have killed Americans.

[. . .]

The president cannot lawfully order the killing of anyone, except according to the Constitution and federal law. Under the Constitution, he can only order killing using the military when the U.S. has been attacked, or when an attack is so imminent and certain that delay would cost innocent American lives, or in pursuit of a congressional declaration of war. Under federal law, he can only order killing using civilians when a person has been sentenced lawfully to death by a federal court and the jury verdict and the death sentence have been upheld on appeal. If he uses the military to kill, federal law requires public reports of its use to Congress and congressional approval after 180 days.

November 5, 2011

George Jonas: A plot too crazy not to be true

Filed under: Media, Middle East, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:37

The alleged Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador is too unrealistic for Hollywood, but George Jonas says it’s also too crazy not to be real:

If someone came up with an outlandish plot in which two Iranian agents, acting on behalf of government circles in Tehran, scheme with Mexican drug lords to blow up a Saudi ambassador on American soil, would a California screenwriter buy into it before a Virginia intelligence analyst, or would it be the other way around?

Place your bets.

[. . .]

Iranians are smart. If they weren’t smart, we wouldn’t have to worry about them building bombs. Do smart people come up with stupid plots? Not plausible. And look at the amateur pitch. Here’s a story that not only sounds like a B-movie, but is unveiled at a press conference that looks like a poster for a low-budget diversity flick: An African-American Attorney-General (Holder) flanked by a male Caucasian FBI Director (Robert S. Mueller) and a female Caucasian Assistant Attorney-General for National Security (Lisa Monaco) with a male Asian-American U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (Preet Bharara) hovering in the background. It’s early Hollywood multicultural chic. All that’s missing is the line “Coming to a theatre near you.”

This amuses the intelligence analyst. “The trouble with Hollywood-types,” he says, “is that they’ve manipulated reality for so long, they can’t even recognize it when they see it. Does your friend think Holder and Mueller and Monaco and Bharara are from Central Casting? Hello! They are who they are. Life has caught up with multicultural chic. It imitates art — or at least imitates Hollywood.”

My spook friend goes further. “Yes, it’s a stupid plot and that’s why it rings true to me,” he says. “Most true stories of international intrigue sound like B-movies.”

February 24, 2010

Was there anyone in Dubai who wasn’t involved in the killing?

Filed under: Middle East — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:57

Dubai’s investigators announce another 15 suspects in the killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a military leader with Hamas:

Dubai has identified 15 new suspects in the assassination of a Hamas official at a Dubai luxury hotel, bringing the total number of people believed involved in the death to 26, the government said on Wednesday.

Hamas military commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was killed last month in his hotel room in what Dubai police have said they are near certain was an Israeli hit. They said the killers travelled to the Gulf Arab emirate on European passports.

Of the new suspects, six carried British passports, three held Irish documents, three Australian, and three French, the Dubai government’s media office said in an emailed statement.

At this rate, they’ll be trying to arrest hundreds of people in connection to the assassination. Israel, of course, has not admitted any involvement (and you have to admit that previous Mossad activity didn’t appear to require a cast of this size).

August 15, 2009

Would-be assassins

Filed under: History, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:42

In honour of this news item, I felt it appropriate to buy this (actually, I downloaded it from iTunes).

I always thought it’d have been more appropriate if she’d tried to do this at the Lincoln Centre, just for the symmetry . . .


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