The Royal Society reinvents statistics


January 21, 2018 by AK

I read this post by Nassim Nicholas Taleb yesterday morning, checked out the links and still can’t quite believe my eyes. Last December, the Royal Statistical Society announced its first ever International Statistic of the Year, part of “a new initiative that celebrates how statistics can help us better understand the world around us.” The winning statistic was 69:

This is the annual number of Americans killed, on average, by lawnmowers – compared to two Americans killed annually, on average, by immigrant Jihadist terrorists.

The figure was highlighted in a viral tweet this year from Kim Kardashian in response to a migrant ban proposed by President Trump; it had originally appeared in a Richard Todd article for the Huffington Post…

Todd and Kardashian’s use of these figures shows how everyone can deploy statistical evidence to inform debate and highlight misunderstandings of risk in people’s lives.

The Huffington Post article essentially claimed (inter alia) that lawnmowers are more of a danger to American lives than terrorists because the number of people killed by lawnmowers in the US was greater than the number killed by terrorists in 2005-14. According to the author’s estimates of the 10-year averages, 69 people per year were killed by lawnmowers, 31 by lightning, and 14 (if I understand his table correctly) by Islamic and “far right-wing” terrorists. Therefore, the author believes, “the odds are greater that you will be struck by lightning than… be killed by an ISIS terrorist.”

This isn’t valid statistical inference; I would call it a case of naive frequentism. N. N. Taleb has pointed out the weakness of this logic on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Queen Mary University professors Norman Fenton and Martin Neil (who are also co-founders of Agena) have produced a note explaining the fallacies in Todd’s reasoning in reasonably non-technical terms. Here’s their summary assessment:

Contrary to the statement in the Royal Statistical Society citation, the figures directly comparing numbers killed by lawnmower with those killed by Jihadist terrorists, do NOT ‘highlight misunderstandings of risk’ or ‘illuminate the bigger picture’. They do the exact opposite as we explain here.

Fenton and Neil, as well as Taleb, provide a number of good reasons why the statistical inference that so delighted the RSS makes no sense. I don’t have much to add except restate one of their obvious points. Even if terrorist attacks were caused by nature rather than human behavior, like major earthquakes or volcano eruptions, this reasoning would be comedy material. “In the past ten years, no one’s died in an earthquake around here – this area is safe, perfectly safe.”

So how come? Perhaps the seven-member judging panel was staffed with non-statisticians? Well, yes and no. Mona Chalabi is a “data journalist”; Mark Easton is a BBC editor; Ben Page, the CEO of Ipsos MORI, a corporate manager. Diane Coyle, as a Harvard-trained economist, and Jil Matheson, with decades of experience at government statistical agencies, cannot be ignorant of elementary inference errors, but it’s understandable how political considerations might have gotten the better of them.

This leaves two academically trained statisticians: chairman David Spiegelhalter, formerly a student of Adrian Smith at Nottingham, and Liberty Vittert, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow, where she received her PhD in math and statistics, having earned her undergrad degree from MIT. Dr. Vittert is the only person on the jury who seems to be actually doing research in her main field (Spiegelhalter is mostly a science popularizer these days). With this in mind, it’s depressing to read her exulting in Kim Kardashian’s statistical perspicacity:

Everyone on the panel was particularly taken by this statistic and its insight into risk – a key concept in both statistics and everyday life. When you consider that this figure was put into the public domain by Kim Kardashian, it becomes even more powerful because it shows anyone, statistician or not, can use statistics to illustrate an important point and illuminate the bigger picture.

I hope someone generalizes Poe’s law to cover these kinds of situations: you’d think this is a quote from The Onion. Outside their discipline, out in the real world, mathematicians can be as clueless, deluded and dishonest as anybody else. But this is Dr. Vittert’s core competency. Is her paean to fake stats a rite of passage of sorts? Does one have to incant nonsense to get tenure these days?

I would understand if the RSS had focused on another statistic – the number of Americans shot by other Americans, 1,737 per year on average. That’s 25 times the number of lawnmower deaths, and the nature of this risk is closer to the risk of being killed by terrorists. The Society’s choice would have held water, at least for some time. I’d still be in favor of the right to bear arms, but it’s a conviction that feeds on the visceral rather than the empirical.

It’s getting too hot for clear thinking


January 20, 2018 by AK

President Trump has given a Fake News award to Professor Paul Krugman, which I find both unfair and inordinately amusing. It’s unfair because Krugman is not a news reporter but a columnist and sometime economist. Since winning the Nobel prize in economics in 2008, he seems to have focused his efforts on blogging and columning at the New York Times. The title of his blog is “The conscience of a liberal,” not “Advice from an economist,” but occasionally he does share his views on the economy. Right after Trump’s election, Prof. Krugman wrote:

…If the question is when markets will recover, a first-pass answer is never…

So we are very probably looking at a global recession, with no end in sight. I suppose we could get lucky somehow. But on economics, as on everything else, a terrible thing has just happened.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) index is about 40% higher now than on Nov. 8, 2016. Not a bad return in just fifteen months. Of course the stock market may crash and will certainly correct downwards at some point, and a global recession might very well be in the works. At this moment, however, Prof. Krugman’s forecast is a delight to be savored while the rally lasts.

His doomsaying blog entry, published at 12:42 AM ET on Nov. 9, 2016, begins:

It really does now look like President Donald J. Trump, and markets are plunging. When might we expect them to recover?

For the most part, the markets merely hiccuped, as it turned out soon. The DJIA grew for seven consecutive trading days from Nov. 7 to Nov. 15. At any rate, the stock exchanges in New York and London were closed when Krugman uploaded his post. So why the rush to judgment? Let’s read the first three paragraphs as they were published, in succession:

It really does now look like President Donald J. Trump, and markets are plunging. When might we expect them to recover?

Frankly, I find it hard to care much, even though this is my specialty. The disaster for America and the world has so many aspects that the economic ramifications are way down my list of things to fear.

Still, I guess people want an answer: If the question is when markets will recover, a first-pass answer is never.

Now it’s much clearer: Trump’s victory was the end of the world. Not metaphorically but almost literally – with Trump in the White House, the planet would perish in a global-warming Gehenna. If the end is nigh, the “economic ramifications” deserve to be “way down” one’s “list of things to fear.”

False equivalence as fake news


January 6, 2018 by AK

On a meager data plan in this Alpine cottage, I’ve limited myself to reading news stories – no images, no streaming video, no podcasts. That’s my preferred way of getting news anyway. Unsurprisingly, I’ve been aware of the Iranian protests, or uprising perhaps, since their early days. I read about President Trump’s support for the Iranian protesters, in contrast to President Obama’s and Secretary Clinton’s avoidance of explicit support for Iran’s opposition in 2009. I read Tim Newman’s posts highlighting the pathetic indifference of the European establishment and mainstream media, both American and European, to the cause of Iranian freedom.

Not that I am surprised. Ever the optimist, I’m hoping the columnists and politicians unironically comparing the rule of the ayatollahs to Donald Trump’s will be eventually reduced to flipping burghers or some other productive activity favoring the dumb and the monosyllabic.

This said, there’s a TV set here in the concrete shack with dozens of channels available, mostly European. Last Tuesday or Wednesday, I caught a glimpse of a massive pro-government rally on Euronews, but failed to detect a qualifying or clarifying comment, which I believe was necessary. To quote Tim Newman commenting on reports by the BBC and CNN:

Funny how the BBC pours scorn on every word Trump utters, but quotes Revolutionary Guards commanders uncritically…

CNN went one further, saying little about the actual protests but giving front-page coverage of pro-government demonstrations…

In places like Iran, the ruling regime typically has enough leverage to gather enormous crowds in the streets and squares. Think of the numerous employees of bloated state-controlled companies, and of all the junior-level bureaucrats. As a result, pro-government rallies are politically meaningless, at most sending the message that the country’s public sector is woefully overstaffed.

The average American and Western European viewer might not be aware of this, to state my case cautiously. Showing pro-government rallies alongside protests in countries like Iran or Russia, without explanatory commentary, suggests to the viewer that the two sides could be similar to the pro-independence and pro-unity parties in Catalonia – yet another worthless parallel.

TV networks can argue their business is to show, not tell. After all, it’s possible that some of their footage does capture the difference – in attitude, in motivation, in devotion to the cause – between genuine and make-believe demonstrators. However there’s no guarantee the contrast would register with most viewers as pieces of uninterrupted footage within news reports last for a few seconds. Besides, people tend to be more reserved in colder climes: if a crowd in Novosibirsk looks stone-faced and rather few are shaking fists or yelling risquée slogans, don’t infer a shortage of determination. What counts there is showing up.

What’s the right path to take, then? Be honest and use your best judgement. “Giving front-page coverage of pro-government demonstrations” is falsifying news.

The Thunderstorm


December 29, 2017 by AK

I’ve seen a dozen and a half theater performances in Moscow and St. Petersburg this year. Some turned out first-rate, as I expected from their creators – Yuri Butusov, Mikhail Bychkov, Dmitry Krymov, Evgeny Marcelli, Andrey Moguchy, Rimas Tuminas. Andriy Zholdak’s production of The Three Sisters was a disappointment: so much talent and imagination gone to waste.

One of these first-rate productions stands out in my mental landscape, theatrically and literally. It is the staging of Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Storm by director Andrey Moguchy, set designer Vera Martynov, and composer Alexander Manotskov, at the Bolshoy Drama Theater in St. Petersburg. I saw it there last February. The more I read about Ostrovsky, his work and his perception by critics, writers and artists, the more I appreciate that production.

I won’t be exaggerating much if I say The Storm (or, more precisely perhaps, The Thunderstorm) is well known, much hated and little understood in Russia. As I’ve tried to explain in a comment to Himadri Chatterjee’s post on Turgenev’s A Month in the Country,

it’s force-fed to kids as part of the high school curriculum and the approved approach to the play goes back to [Nikolai] Dobrolyubov’s article, A Ray of Light in the Realm of Darkness. I only realized the greatness of Act 3 (the tryst in the dell” by the Volga) when I saw Andrey Moguchy’s production in St. Petersburg last February… Apollon Grigoriev praised that scene effusively in a[n] 1860 article (subtitled “from [the] letters to Ivan S. Turgenev”) but I was ignorant [until recently] of his criticism, as opposed to Dobrolyubov’s positivist angle.

One of the reasons why The Storm isn’t well understood is that basic questions don’t get asked about the milieu where the action happens, despite the many clues in the text. The setting is a provincial town and the central characters are merchants, quite a different world from the oasis of Turgenev’s country squires. Pavel Melnikov-Pechersky, an expert on Old Believers, was certain that Kabanikha was a staunch Old-Rite Christian. Moreover, he argued that it was common among the Old Believers for unmarried girls and young men to enjoy virtually unlimited sexual freedom, while married life – in contrast – was governed by an ultraconservative, antiquated code.

Whether or not Melnikov-Pechersky, both a chronicler and critic of the Old Faith community, was correct in his assessment, his remarks shed a new light on the words of one of the characters addressed to another young man:

So you fell in love with someone?… It’s all right. We have freedom in this respect. Girls can hang out as they wish – the parents don’t care. It’s only married women that sit locked in.

Then there’s the sense of nature and its power – a summer thunderstorm by a mighty river. If it was drilled in you as a child that The Storm is mostly a work of social criticism, it’s harder to open your eyes to all the play’s facets, but productions like this help shed such blinkers. The posters alone are works of art. The curtain – “The Life of Katerina” (as in “lives of saints”) by Svetlana Korolenko, a master of Palekh minature – is a masterpiece by itself, apart from its vital role in the set design.

Not that it’s a perfect production – nothing is. Katerina’s artificial accent is suspicious, for one. Also, I watched the performance from the last row up there so I had a perfect view of the whole stage but missed out on some of the details. The front seats probably offered a different experience. The female characters’ outfits reminded me somewhat of the choir in the Kupfer-Sykora production of Der Fliegende Holländer from the 1980s (with Lisbeth Balslev). But that’s just one detail. The visual complexity and richness of this work is striking. I’m not commenting on Manotskov’s score – also essential to the staging – not being qualified for that: I simply felt the music was right for the drama.

“Help me, sister”


December 28, 2017 by AK

The BBC’s Russian service has run the story of a young man from Kostroma, an old Russian city 185 miles northeast of Moscow, who was charged with insulting a government official for calling Putin a “thief” and a “miserable crook” at a public rally in 2012. He fled to the Netherlands and was granted political asylum.

Unfortunately, his troubles did not stop there: he’s been charged with a number of speech crimes, as it were, in the Hague. His antics, harmless as they seem to me, must have gone beyond the Dutch pale of political correctness. Moreover, the BBC reveals that in March 2017, the activist fell ill with flu-like symptoms, which grew worse, included loss of consciousness, and peaked in late June. In July, the doctors finally realized that he had gone through the acute phase of the Lyme disease.

In working with a number of patients with Lyme/tick-borne diseases it is apparent to many clinicians these conditions can cause reduced frustration tolerance, irritability, depression, cognitive impairments and mood swings, but more significantly, in a few patients, suicidal and aggressive tendencies.

Now, here’s the little detail that struck me the most in Ruslan Lebusov’s story:

He was accepted to the school of law [of the Free University of Amsterdam]: he passed the English and Dutch exams himself but copied his math exam from an Iranian [girl or woman], saying: “Help me, sister, I don’t understand sh-t about it.”

I’ve read that Iranian women are doing their best to get a good education, especially in the hard science and technical disciplines, which are both in demand and unpolluted by ayatollic excrement. I also know that the only female Fields medalist to date was of Iranian origin. But it’s still stereotype-shattering when a Russian guy asks an Iranian girl for help with a math exam.



Pataphysica Borealis


December 27, 2017 by AK

What’s the principal connection between this song, which Juliette Gréco recorded in 1952 and sang at concerts for decades afterwards, and this 1984 number by the semi-underground Soviet-Russian band called Strange Games (Strannye Igry; here’s the same song performed live at a brief reunion in the mid-1990s)?

(Musical groups that failed to get or didn’t seek a stamp of approval from the Soviet “culture” bureaucracy were denied access to major concert venues and recording studios, which were all state-owned at the time. However, they were able to perform before small audiences and even record albums courtesy of sympathetic sound engineers such as Andrei Tropillo. Their legal status was precarious. I call them “semi-underground.”)

The connection is Raymond Queneau’s poem Si tu t’imagines (published in 1948), which serves as the lyrics to both songs – the original for Gréco and a Russian translation for Strange Games. One can clearly hear chto tak, chto tak, chto tak (pronounced shtuh tAHk, more or less) in place of xa va, xa va, xa va (that is, “qu’ça va”).

The band from St. Petersburg (then Leningrad, obviously) had an unusual approach to lyrics. Most unofficial groups were famous for their original poetry – some of the those songs remain popular to this day – but Strange Games turned to translations of post-WW2 French poets and songwriters. (The Soviet Union only joined the Universal Copyright Convention in 1973.)

Out of the eight songs on their 1984 album, Metamorphoses, three are based on poems by Queneau – Si tu t’imagines, Égocentrisme II & I – translated by Mikhail Kudinov (Shostakovich used his translations of Apollinaire in the 14th Symphony). Plus, one finds Air de ronde and Solipsisme by Maurice Fombeur and Métamorphoses by Jean Tardieu there, also translated by Kudinov. In addition, the album includes two complete remakes, where only the lyrics, translated, remain of the original song: La mauvaise réputation by Georges Brassens (my favorite, #6) and Il nous faut regarder by Jacques Brel.

Most Russian sources say Strange Games were the first Russian ska band. The group’s musical and stage style has been compared to Madness – reportedly, they used to do the Madness duck walk when getting onto the stage. This comparison amuses me greatly, placing Suggs next to Ray Q as it does, implicitly but inevitably. However, one of the band’s founders, Victor Sologub, painted a more nuanced picture of their influences:

I bought my first disc in 1972, in the eight grade. It was T. Rex, Tanks. I already knew and loved them and had been hunting for [their records]. Later, in the ninth grade probably, at a party somewhere, I heard Led Zeppelin on tape…

Strange as it may be, we all loved Led Zeppelin. Then there was this interesting Belgian group, Honeymoon Killers [Les Tueurs de la Lune de Miel]. By the way, we got familiar with UB40 before Madness… we first saw Madness in a video around 1983. We had been already listening to Depeche Mode then; I loved Joy Division very much. My brother [Grigory Sologub, the singer on Si tu t’imagines] was listening to Sex Pistols a whole lot. Speaking of ska and reggae, I – for one – only found out about Skatalites in the 1990s, about these granddads. For us, only Bob Marley and UB40 had existed before then. As for Madness, they seemed a tad “poppy” to us. My brother and I liked Stranglers much more… Our second album ended up more under the influence from the Neue Deutsche Welle, bands such as Trio.

For the interested and the tenacious, I would suggest the segments (1, 2) on Strange Games and its successor groups from Alexander Lipnitsky’s documentary The Pinewood Submarine.

“Oddly overlooked aesthetic connections”


December 25, 2017 by AK

As I’ve said, James Panero’s recent piece on the painter Andrew Wyeth does not seem particularly well-reasoned to me. Nevertheless, it does a service to the reading public as it points out that painters can be influenced by filmmakers, not only the other way round.

There are plenty of examples of directors and cameramen drawing on the work of painters, as a quick Google search reveals. Tarkovsky and Bruegel et al. (1, 2, 3), Vidor and Burchfield et al. (1, 2), Wenders et al. and Hopper – this is only a small random selection out of dozens of dozens of connections.

However, the observed influence seems to mostly run from canvas to celluloid. What about the opposite direction? In 1978-80, King Vidor made a “short documentary about painting,” The Metaphor, largely based on his conversations with Andrew Wyeth and his wife Betsy Wyeth. It seems that the enlightened public paid little attention to that piece until the 21st century. In my previous post, I linked to Tag Gallagher‘s excellent 2007 article, How to Share a Hill:

In Metaphor, Vidor and Wyeth and Wyeth’s wife Betsy discuss specific affinities linking The Big Parade to famous Wyeth depictions of a hill (e.g., “Winter 1946”; “Snow Flurries”); a sharpshooter medal (“Portrait of Ralph Kline”); a tree branch (“Afternoon Flight of a Boy up a Tree”). From another Vidor movie, Wild Oranges (1924), a vacant rocking chair swaying in the wind made its way into Wyeth’s “Due Back” (1963).

A few days after reading this for the first time, I ran across this 2006 blog post by the late Lloyd Fonvielle, a novelist and screenwriter, who remarked:

N. C. Wyeth kept the “cinematic” narrative-based academic style alive in his book illustrations (as did Norman Rockwell in his magazine illustrations) and N. C.’s son Andrew has been almost alone in keeping elements of this style alive within the circles of modern “high art”, by making the narrative element more ambiguous and blending the dramatic representation of space (which is crucial to his work) with a more pronounced abstraction of design.

In Andrew Wyeth’s obsession with The Big Parade we have a concrete example of the transmission of these oddly overlooked aesthetic connections.

Overlooked, perhaps, as far as painting and graphic artistry are concerned. Cinematic motives in literature – even of the highest order, such as Nabokov’s prose – are hardly an esoteric subject.

“The idioms of one medium through the materials of another”?


December 20, 2017 by AK

James Panero of The New Criterion has produced a puzzling review of “the traveling exhibition, ‘Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect’.”

Wyeth manipulated his compositions much like a silent film director… In his lack of authenticity and his chilly sentiment, Wyeth was decidedly unmodern. His artifice might be considered postmodern, even contemporary, as he processed the idioms of one medium through the materials of another…

At the same time, the approach was far from superficial for Wyeth. His compositions largely emerged from personal, psycho-cinematic places. His figures and locations all conveyed a personal if sublimated feeling.

Panero writes about Wyeth’s lifelong fascination with King Vidor’s silent film The Big Parade (1925) and an affinity between the two masters’ vision: “Vidor’s cinematic innovations were Wyeth’s great artistic inheritance…”. However, this somehow contributed, in Panero’s eyes, to Wyeth’s work being un-modern and inauthentic. It’s not too difficult to define modernity and authenticity in a way that would exclude Wyeth (and Vidor for good measure) but I don’t see much value in the exercise.

This said, James Panero’s piece opened up a new field for me, for which I am grateful. I soon found this article by Tag Gallager, an American film historian and critic. It is in a class of its own and deserves at least one separate post.

Mmes. de L. and R.


December 17, 2017 by AK

On a slightly lighter note, Dmitry Bykov, “one of Russia’s most colorful, versatile, and recognizable public intellectuals” and currently a visiting professor at UCLA, occasionally suffers from a condition typical of preternaturally productive speakers and writers: getting facts wrong in an entertaining way.

Last month, Bykov gave a short talk on Maximilian Voloshin on the Ekho Moskvy (Moscow’s Echo) radio station. Voloshin was a major Russian poet of the so-called Silver Age, largely remembered today for his long poems on the Civil War. During the first Russian revolution, in 1905-6, Voloshin wrote The Head of Madame de Lamballe, a poem about the execution, or rather lynching, of Marie Thérèse of Savoy, Princess de Lamballe, in 1792. Speaking of Voloshin on the radio, Dmitry Bykov said, literally: “You remember his famous verses about Madame Récamier,” and quoted the first two lines from The Head of Madame de Lamballe.

It takes some bad luck to confuse Princess de Lamballe (1749-1792), the highborn superintendent of Marie-Antoinette’s household, with Julie, or Juliette, Récamier (1777-1849), the great Paris hostess of the first half of the 19th century, from the Consulate through the end of the July Monarchy. The famous depictions of Madame Récamier by David and Gérard are so obviously post-Revolutionary.

Another trial in Moscow


December 17, 2017 by AK

Shaun Walker reports from Moscow for The Guardian:

A Moscow court has sentenced a former Russian economy minister to eight years in a high-security prison for corruption, in a verdict that is likely to send chills through the Russian elite…

The trial was a rare case of the vicious infighting between government clans spilling out into the open.

I’m not an expert on undercarpet bulldog fights and have little interest in the souls and bodies involved. The trial, in contrast to the infighting, was mostly open to the public and the press. Anyone with a knowledge of Russian and a minimum understanding of the Russian criminal procedure (broadly Continental) can draw one’s own conclusions from the publicly available reports of the proceedings. It’s more or less obvious that the judge’s summary of the verdict, as read out in the courtroom this past Friday, was irrelevant to the facts of the case as found during the trial. This is typical of politically motivated Prozesse in Russia, such as the Navalny and Bolotnaya Square trials. Some well-informed observers say this is typical of the Russian criminal justice system more generally.

The prosecution’s number one witness failed to appear, and number two mostly produced hearsay on the stand. Another major witness, a relatively low-ranking FSB operative, was also unavailable. This would have killed the prosecution’s case in an American or British court, if not an Italian one, admittedly. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), if the case makes it so far, will probably point out that relying on a key witness’ pre-trial interview without questioning him in court (he was neither dead nor hiding) is a major failure making the verdict unsound.

There is also the troubling issue of president Putin publicly commenting on the case twice – the second time on the day before the verdict, which could have been interpreted by the judge as an implicit instruction to convict. Both times, Putin communicated his belief in the minister’s guilt based on nothing but the FSB investigation, to the blanket exclusion of facts and circumstances that would be or had been found during the trial. His comments seemed to break with his customary legalism. On the other hand, if no law prohibits such comments by a senior member of the executive branch, the speaker must have felt he was not breaking any written rules.


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