The prosecutor knows better, huh?


February 20, 2018 by AK

On January 8, 2015, The Guardian ran Tobias Jones’ account of the Yara Gambirasio case. In December 2015, the story opened the paper’s list of 15 top long reads of the year. The Guardian followed up with two more stories on the case, in July 2015 and July 2016, both by Rosie Scammell. Googling the paper’s website for the name of the victim and the man convicted of her murder produces no more stories apart from these three.

Jones does a good job introducing the reader to the Bergamese tragicomedy: the search for a 13-year-old girl’s killer turning up evidence of past cuckoldry. However, once he has a suspect, Jones accepts the prosecution’s claims – such as “circumstantial evidence” – as fact, not bothering to cast a critical eye on them. That’s understandable – it would interfere with the narrative – and unsurprising. In my experience as a reader, British journalists often treat Italian prosecutors and judges with mystical deference, reserving their scorn for the American justice system.

When his long report went into print, Jones was probably unaware of the defense’s principal argument. Massimo Bossetti was identified as the suspect and later convicted of murder as a consequence of a single finding: his nuclear DNA on the victim’s underwear. The sample was reportedly large enough – of “outstandingly good quality.” However, Bossetti’s mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) was not found; instead, someone else’s mtDNA – neither Bossetti’s or Yara’s – was detected in the sample. This is an anomaly that calls into question the DNA test result if left unexplained. The courts have so far brushed it aside as irrelevant. There are a few other oddities as well. Luca Cheli’s site has more information; I also recommend this thread at Injustice Anywhere.

Neither of The Guardian‘s two follow-up reports mentioned these anomalies. Rosie Scammell wrote simply that Bossetti’s “DNA had been found on Gambirasio’s body andf ibres from his van were on her clothes.” The second claim defies belief because fiber identification techniques are not so advanced as to trace a sample to any particular vehicle. According to the National Research Council’s 2009 report,

Fiber examiners agree… that fiber evidence can be used only to associate a given fiber with a class of fibers.

… a “match” means only that the fibers could have come from the same type of garment, carpet, or furniture; it can provide only class evidence.

But the story cannot stand another twist. Tobias Jones’ tale had it all – a dark core (a 13-year-old girl was found dead), tabloid goodness (revelations of adultery), and a story of perseverance rewarded (a single mother launching a massive investigation that eventually pinpoints the culprit). Admitting a fatal mix-up in a police lab would ruin the ending, although it would fit well in a treatise on the vanity of human endeavor.

As good as liqueur


February 17, 2018 by AK

Last November, Tobias Jones wrote this in The Guardian:

And it’s food, more now than football, that is the last refuge of that dying breed, the Italian patriot. For many, the act of eating is an almost sacred rite. Bread is something numinous: the highest compliment you can pay to someone is that they’re buono come il pane (as good as bread) and Italians are shocked less by English food than the fact that we eat it without bread… In Italy, the table is a place outside time (hence the country’s “slow food” movement) in which capitalist greed is held at bay (you never tip in a restaurant, in fact they “tip” you, invariably putting bottles of liqueur on the table for free).

I learned this expression, buono come il pane, twenty-five years ago from Hermann Hesse’s essay On the Word “Bread”. You don’t have to read Hesse to figure out that bread has been “something numinous” for agricultural civilizations since they started growing wheat, rye and corn. Besides, eating bread with other food helps to fill your stomach faster. That way, you can get up from the table feeling pleasantly full rather than unhappy with the frugal meal. It seems one of those practical habits from the age of scarcity that has survived, as a cultural custom, into the age of abundance.

For all I know, Italians don’t tip much but leaving a euro or two for the server is not unusual. As for the bottles of liqueur put on the table “invariably… for free,” most Italian eateries add a cover charge to the bill – “pane e coperto” or simply “coperto” – which is roughly the cost of cleaning the table, changing the tablecloth and refilling the bread basket. (This practice is not specifically aimed at foreign tourists, predating their mass influx.) The coperto is not a tip – it’s not optional and goes to the restaurant rather than the waiter – but a disincentive to tip after the meal. I wouldn’t be surprised if family-owned restaurants with a constant local clientele didn’t charge the coperto, out of common sense rather than “capitalist greed.”

I’ve been to Italy more than once or twice, but you don’t have to trust my word – try Googling “pane e coperto” for a start. The region of Lazio – which includes Rome – has even outlawed the coperto, or at least considered outlawing it. Not that it’s a wise idea (mildly speaking) but the practice must have been widespread enough in the 1990s and the 2000s to earn itself a regional prohibition. A complimentary offer of liqueur after a good meal might be expected from every decent restaurateur, but to speak of it without mentioning the near-ubiquitous bread-and-tablecloth charge isn’t quite fair to the reader.

Tobias Jones is the author of The Dark Heart of Italy, a well-received “account of his four-year voyage across the Italian peninsula.” (I couldn’t help noticing the review by Prof. John Foot misspelled “unrepentant.”) He has since moved on to crime fiction.

Chekhov’s early maturity


February 15, 2018 by AK

Almost three weeks ago now, the Argumentative Old Git (Himadri Chatterjee) wrote of his plan to re-read Ibsen’s mature works, which include Brand, Peer Gynt and the twelve plays from The Pillars of Society (1877) to When We Dead Awaken (1899). On the strength of these dozen plays, Ibsen is often grouped with Chekhov and Strindberg as a founder of modern drama. However, Ibsen was much older than the other two: he was born in the same year as Leo Tolstoy (1828) and died four years before LT (1906). When he published the first of his “realist” plays, in 1877, Ibsen was going on fifty and already famous for his poetic output. Likewise, when Leo Tolstoy published Anna Karenina in 1875-77, he was already the author of War and Peace, in his late 40s.

In contrast, Chekhov wrote The Seagull at 35, Uncle Vanya at 37, The Three Sisters at 40, and The Cherry Orchard at 43. He had won fame and critical recognition by thirty with his short stories and novellas, although without an Epic Masterpiece like War and Peace or Peer Gynt towering in the background. On the other hand, his journey to Sakhalin and back in 1890 was barely short of epic, if at all.

At twenty-nine, Chekhov wrote A Dreary Story, where the narrator is a 62-year-old, terminally ill professor of medicine. It was published in the fall of 1889, three years after Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Some Russian critics saw A Dreary Story as Chekhov’s response to The Death of Ivan Ilyich or a variation on Tolstoy’s theme. This superficial view invites a comparison between the two authors’s ages: Tolstoy was 53 when he started Ivan Ilyich and 57 or 58 when he completed it.

Years later, Tolstoy – already in his 70s – admired Chekhov’s intelligence when listening to Alexander Goldenweiser reading aloud A Dreary Story. But Tolstoy never appreciated Chekhov’s plays. “This is affected, coming from Ibsen, and Ibsen isn’t worth much himself.” Or, in Tolstoy’s trademark manner, “You know I can’t stand Shakespeare, but your plays are even worse. At least Shakespeare grabs the reader by the collar and takes him to a known destination, not letting him turn aside. And how far can you get with your characters? From the sofa where they are lying to a closet and back?”

The way it should be


February 5, 2018 by AK

Central Russia has gotten too much snow in the past week – ideally, it should have fallen over a few weeks, not days – but the cities and the countryside are finally looking the way they ought to in the middle of a Russian winter.

Yes, Moscow and the environs have put on their once-canonical winter look. “Your Benvenuto, O Russia, // Our homegrown frost,” as Pyotr Vyazemsky put it in 1861.

Plus, it’s dogs’ paradise: unlimited snow bathing opportunities. And this photo is vaguely Wyethian.

And you’re calling it “risk analysis”?


February 4, 2018 by AK

Roger Cohen has detected and denounced the eternal crypto-Nazism of the Trumpians with such integrity and equipoise that I’m starting to worry for his eyesight. Towards the end of Cohen’s diatribe, one finds this statistical observation:

You would not guess from Trump’s words that a Cato Institute study of refugees admitted to the United States between 1975 and 2015 found that the chance of an American being killed in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion.

The study in question, by Alex Nowrasteh (published in September 2016) found no such thing. Apparently, the columnist couldn’t be bothered to cite its conclusions properly. Cohen makes it sound as if the analyst had made an estimate of a future event’s probability and found it extreme low. Cohen also misunderstood the meaning of the 1975-2015 time interval: it has nothing to do with the time of the refugees’ admission.

In his work, Nowrasteh set out to answer this question: What was “the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee” in the span from 01/01/1975 to 12/31/2015? What he did compute, if I understand him correctly, was the frequency of such event per year per capita. In other words, if refugees caused three deaths via terrorist attack in that period, the frequency per year was 3/41 events, and if the average population was a little above 266 million, the frequency per year per capita was 3/(41*266,000,000), approximately equal to 1 divided by 3,64 billion.

I doubt Nowrasteh’s frequency calculations add much to a good-faith observer’s understanding of the issues involved. His first paragraph is the most informative of them all:

Foreign-born terrorists who entered the country, either as immigrants or tourists, were responsible for 88 percent (or 3,024) of the 3,432 murders caused by terrorists on U.S. soil from 1975 through the end of 2015.

I would add, as a footnote perhaps, that only one of those 3,024 Americans was killed by an illegal alien, and three more, by refugees. However, Nowrasteh’s study does not even attempt risk analysis, contrary to its title. The calculation of frequencies, misrepresented as “chances” – that is, probabilities – is only performed by the author for the shock value of the “odds” he obtains, such as “one in three billion.”

Which aren’t really odds of anything in particular. Frequency, generally speaking, does not mean chance. (Nor is past frequency necessarily a good predictor of future probability, which is more or less obvious.) Even in repeated identical trials, the outcomes of a relatively short sub-series can trick people into misestimating the underlying probability distribution. For example, a fair coin often lands a series of heads or tails that some people mistake for evidence of its bias.

In a sufficiently long series of trials, long runs of heads or tails are to be expected. See, for example, Mark Schilling‘s 1990 article, The Longest Run of Heads, for which he won the George Pólya award. In a later article, Prof. Schilling derived a simplified rule of thumb for the longest success run and remarked:

The run lengths given by this rule of thumb are often longer than what people expect. For example, formula (1) predicts that the longest run of heads in 200 tosses of a fair coin would have length about seven. Yet few individuals, when asked to write down a simulated sequence of 200 coin tosses, include a run as long as seven consecutive heads or tails… This may go a long way toward explaining the so called “hot hand” phenomenon… in which a casual observer of a sporting contest or similar situation ascribes a long run to psychological “momentum” when it is entirely compatible with natural variation.

Needless to say, we’re not even dealing with repeated experiments here, unless we imagine identical worlds, as many as of them as we wish… see the Sunrise problem for more.

Below the cut, a more technical explanation of my understanding of Nowrasteh’s calculations.


Bolívar in winter


February 3, 2018 by AK

The in fall of 2016, I wrote about the foundation stone for an equestrian statue of Simón Bolívar in the South-West of Moscow, unveiled by Hugo Chávez himself in October 2010.

It was supposed to be a copy of Adamo Tadolini‘s monument to the Liberator as seen in Carácas and elsewhere. The first bronze cast of the statue was first installed in Lima (1859), and later in Carácas (1875) and San Francisco (1984). The Treccani encyclopedia names Tadolini’s son Scipione as a co-author of the Lima statue.

More than seven years after the stone was installed in Moscow, there are no signs of further activity on the site. One is left to imagine how the mighty horseman would look against this wintry backdrop.

If you don’t have a billion…


January 31, 2018 by AK

Ten years ago, Moscow developer Sergei Polonsky greeted guests at his party with an affectionate disclaimer: “If you don’t have a billion, you can go f— yourself.” Before long, the Fates ejected him from the billionaire camp: bankruptcy, flight to Cambodia, extradition, a stint in jail, conviction and release for time served all followed in due course.

On Monday, the US Treasury published a list of Russia’s top bureaucrats and oligarchs, as required by the bill passed last August. It is not particularly meaningful, since the Treasury has the power to sanction any Russian, whether on or off that roster. Still, some of the listed billionaires are reportedly feeling ill at ease. I say billionaires because the Treasury’s list of oligarchs only includes Russians worth at least one billion dollars according to Forbes’ Russia list published in April 2017. Those without a billion have been left off…

…well, not really. There’s a classified section coming, as Secretary Mnuchin has hinted and Senator Corker has indirectly confirmed. Bershidsky’s criticism of the public roster is understandable but unimpressive. He thinks that US policy goals include “shaming the Putin regime in the eyes of Russians and the whole world…” I hope not: how do you shame the shameless? And who trusts reports from the swamp these days? You hit where it hurts, that’s all.

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.


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