Beyond polite conversation: torture in the 21st century

February 26, 2011

Congress’s definition of torture in those laws – the infliction of severe mental or physical pain – leaves room for interrogation methods that go beyond polite conversation.  John Yoo

Shamefully we now learn that Saddam’s torture chambers reopened under new management, U.S. management.  Edward Kennedy

Last month, “Dean of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau wrote a letter to the CIA offering to assist the agency in producing more sophisticated compilations for the systematic dehumanization of detainees, but he has reportedly not yet received a response. Nation’s Music Snobs Protest Predictable Use Of Metallica, Pantera To Torture Prisoners — from The Onion


I have to confess I have never seen the Fox series 24, which aired from 2001 to 2010. I’ve been told it makes compelling viewing. In its first five seasons there were no fewer than 67 scenes of torture, as the hero of the series, Counter Terrorist Unit agent Jack Bauer, beats, electrocutes, drugs and suffocates the unfortunate suspects. He even shot one interrogee in the leg. Of course all this coercion is in a good cause; all these suspects have real secrets, and thanks to Bauer, they truthfully reveal  this information. This was a series designed to entertain and it would seem torture is back in vogue. Torture has many guises. There were those medieval classics such as the breaking wheel and the thumbscrew. The invention of electricity gave the torturer new ways of facilitating dialogue. And recently we have seen a new sport, waterboarding and the use of Barney the Purple Dinosaur songs at Abu Ghraib. The term “torture lite” has now become part of the public discourse.

The semantics of torture has been a source of linguistic creativity in the wake of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Enhanced interrogation techniques, stress and duress tactics, rendition – a whole new lexicon has been invented. The linguist Geoff Nunberg pointed out that in one speech George W. Bush used the word professionals 26 times. This served to promote the view that the interrogators knew what they were doing. But it was also to distance what was going on from any suggestion that they were actually enjoying it. That would have been very disturbing.

Throughout history, torture has frequently been used to interrogate, punish and coerce. In Orwell’s 1984 Room 101 was used for political re-education. Winston Smith had to feel love. If the party said 2+2=5, he had to repeat it and believe it. In this post I want to concentrate on state-sponsored torture. I am not going to look at those sadistic killers who get pleasure from inflicting pain on others, even if the line between the two can be very blurred.

In Ancient Greece and Rome a slave’s testimony was admissible only if it had been extracted by torture; they believed that slaves could not be trusted to reveal the truth voluntarily. If one thinks of torture, the Middle Ages are an essential point of reference. One characteristic of this period was trial by ordeal – a judicial practice by which the guilt or innocence of the accused is decided by subjecting them to a harrowing, usually dangerous experience. In some cases, the accused were declared innocent if they survived the test, or if their injuries healed. However, at other times, only death was considered proof of innocence. Their reward for being innocent was a place in paradise in the afterlife. Torture was seen as legitimate way of obtaining a confession. When they were trying to extract information, it was usually conducted in secret, in underground dungeons. But there were also torturous executions such as hanging, drawing and quartering and burning at the stake, which inflicted intense pain on the prisoners and drew large crowds of spectators.

The twentieth century was a terrible wake-up call for those who believed that this kind of brutality was a thing of the past. Sadistic investigators such as the infamous Nazi, Doctor Mengele, carried out experiments on prisoners – he had a particular fixation on identical twins and dwarfs. The experiments involved hurting a twin to measure the other twin’s reaction, removing body parts to test the survival time of the patient and measuring the pain response of the human body in freezing water. In the Soviet Union psychiatry was used as a form of torture. Thousands of political prisoners were locked up in psychiatric hospitals to discredit their ideas, and break them physically and mentally. In more recent times torture was employed by the British during the Troubles in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1994. Tactics that were employed included wall-standing, hooding, subjection to noise, and sleep deprivation.

We have seen that torture has been used throughout history. Yet, a Martian arriving here now could be fooled into thinking that it was the Americans who invented torture. Coming after the horrors of the twentieth century, this seems to lack any sense of historical perspective. 

I now want to focus on the ethics of torture. The ticking time bomb scenario is a thought experiment that has been used in the ethical debate over whether torture can ever be justified. The thought experiment posits a situation in which you have a terrorist in custody. He knows the location of a bomb. Do you torture him in order to get this information that will save millions of lives? There are variations on this theme. What about torturing his innocent son if that will help save lives?

This type of situation prompted Alan Dershowitz, a criminal appellate lawyer and Harvard law professor, to suggest that torture warrants be issued. Dershowitz is a renowned civil rights advocate who has defended high-profile clients as Claus von Bülow, O.J. Simpson, Michael Milken, Mike Tyson and most recently Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Dershowitz believes that torture is a reality. He argues that as it already goes on, it is better to regulate it. It’s a pragmatic take but it caused outrage..

Perhaps there is an alternative to resorting to torture. One fascinating story I found while researching this piece was a place known as Camp 020, an ugly Victorian mansion surrounded by barbed wire on the edge of Ham Common in London. The camp was not designed for prisoners of war (POWs), but rather for captured civilian agents (spies).During the Second World War 500 enemy spies from 44 countries sojourned here; the majority of these were interrogated by Colonel Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens, the commander of the wartime spy prison and interrogation centre. Very few resisted. What techniques did Stephens use?  Beatings and physical violence? Electric shocks to the genitals? None of the above. Stephens was a master of psychological intimidation. He would use every trick in the book to get what he wanted: threats, drugs, drink and deceit. But he didn’t resort to physical violence. Camp 020 was not a health spa and it was not that Stephens had any moral qualms about using torture, but he just felt that it wasn’t very effective:

Never strike a man. It is unintelligent, for the spy will give an answer to please, an answer to escape punishment. And having given a false answer, all else depends upon the false premise.”

Stephens was able to achieve extraordinary results. Feeling safe from physical punishment, many prisoners would open up. Some even became double agents feeding false information to Germany. This bore fruit in the misinformation over the D-Day landings; the Germans were successfully fooled into believing Britain would attack in the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy.

When the war was over, Stephens was posted to occupied Germany, where he was put in charge of a new interrogation centre based at Bad Nenndorf, where many  of Hitler’s most notorious henchmen were being held. Stephens struggled to run the camp effectively. The situation at Bad Nenndorf caused a public scandal, both in Britain and Germany. The camp was compared to the Nazis’ ‘concentration camps’ As commanding officer, Stephens faced four counts of professional negligence and disgraceful conduct. In the end he was cleared of all these charges.

Those who argue that torture is indefensible tend to one of these two strategies:

1) It is always wrong no matter what the circumstances – it is a moral line you cannot cross.

2) Torture may be morally justified in certain extreme situations.. but if you allow it will inevitably be used when it should not be.

Faced with a ticking bomb scenario, few politicians could avoid the temptation to authorise the use of torture. If there were 10,000 victims that could have been prevented, the political fallout for a leader would be enormous. It would seem like moral self-indulgence.  Torture seems to be ineffective. The type of information you get is just not reliable. This conclusion may be unsatisfactory to many. The notion that torture should not be used because it doesn’t work is rather unsettling. It suggests another question. If it were effective, would it then be justified? It would be nice to give black and white answers but the reality is unfortunately more complex.

A Modest Proposal For Preventing Torturers in Liberal Democracies From Being Abused, and For Recognising Their Benefit to The Public: John Gray

February 26, 2011

Here is a piece witten by John Gray in 2003:

A new phase in the evolution of liberal values is under way in the United States. America’s most celebrated defender of civil liberties has initiated a new debate on torture. The context of Professor Alan Dershowitz’s argument is American, but its meaning – like that of all true liberal principles – is universal. The force of his argument promises to transform liberal institutions throughout the world.

Using impeccable scholarship and the most rigorous logic, the distinguished Harvard legal scholar has demonstrated that nothing in the US Constitution forbids the use of torture. In interviews with the American media, Dershowitz has noted that while the Fifth Amendment prohibits self-incrimination, that means only that statements elicited by torture cannot be used as evidence against the person who has been tortured. It does not prohibit torture itself. Neither does the Eighth Amendment, since the ban on “cruel and unusual punishments” applies only after an individual has been convicted. The belief that torture is unconstitutional in America may be widespread, but it is a fallacy – the product of rudimentary errors in legal reasoning.

So torture is permitted by the American Constitution. But it remains legally unregulated. To fill this gap, Dershowitz advocates the introduction of “torture warrants”. Just as the FBI applies to the courts for search warrants, so it should be able to apply for torture warrants. At present, there is nothing in the law that explicitly authorises the use of torture to extract information from terrorists. If it is used, as it often is, it is used extra-legally. As Dershowitz has pointed out, this is a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs. The rule of law is a core liberal value. It cannot be compromised in the fight against terrorism. Torture, therefore, must cease to be something practised beyond the law; it must become part of normal judicial procedure.

If liberal thinkers in the past have shied away from rigorous thinking about torture, it is because they have been unduly influenced by history. Enlightenment thinkers such as Montesquieu and Voltaire campaigned indefatigably against judicial torture, and viewed its abolition as a vital step in human progress. In their own time, no doubt, they were right. These partisans of liberty were locked in conflict with the entrenched tyrannies of Europe’s ancien regime. In attacking judicial torture, they were aligning themselves with the cause of progress and humanity.

The present situation is quite different. In the despotic, reactionary states against which Montesquieu and Voltaire struggled, torture was used to bolster arbitrary power. Now the liberal civilisation of which they dreamt actually exists – in the United States of America. Today torture is used to defend free societies from attack by their enemies. Many liberals – especially in Europe – seem unable to grasp this distinction. Mired in the past, they are blind to the emerging new regime of universal rights.

Where European thinkers have allowed recourse to torture at all, they have allowed it only in extreme situations. For Hobbes, justice was a set of conventions that societies adopted in order to achieve what he called “commodious living” – a peaceful, civilised existence. When order breaks down, in this view, the conventions of justice lapse. If a radiological bomb has been planted on the London Underground, torture may be the only way of disarming the device in time and thereby saving hundreds of thousands of lives. No government can avoid recourse to torture in such circumstances. Human beings turn to the state for security. If the state fails to provide it, it will be overthrown.

The trouble with this view of torture is that it remains stuck in the blood-soaked history of old Europe. It assumes that any act of torture leaves an indelible moral stain – even when the alternative, the destruction of many innocent lives, is unthinkable. It reduces torture to a desperate expedient whose rightful place, if any, is in darkened cellars. Seeing the struggle against terrorism in this way only weakens our resolve. Rather than wallowing in pessimism, we need to view the reintroduction of judicial torture as the next step in human progress.

Bringing torture out of the cellar into the clear light of day will require a far-reaching modernisation of the law, but before that can be achieved we need a parallel reform in our thinking about human rights. Fortunately, we can draw on the most advanced thinking in contemporary liberal philosophy – the theory of justice elaborated by the late John Rawls. The eminent Harvard philosopher seems not to have grasped the full implications of his theory; but one of its central features is the insight that basic liberties cannot conflict. For European thinkers such as Hobbes and John Stuart Mill, one liberty collides with another; even the same freedom exercised by one person can conflict with that of another. Freedom of expression clashes with freedom from hate speech; one person’s freedom of association (in a whites-only club, for example) is another’s wrongful discrimination. Hobbes and Mill saw these as conflicts that we cannot hope to resolve completely; the best we can do is to strive for a compromise in which the competing claims are balanced against one another.

American liberal philosophers have rejected this messy and uninspiring view. They have shown that all our liberties belong in a single, unified system. When they are properly “contoured” – that is, defined so that they cannot collide with one another – human rights need never conflict. Thus, when freedom of speech clashes with freedom from hate speech, it is denied that the latter is a genuine freedom.

The relevance of this insight to the question of torture should be self-evident. The belief that torture is always wrong is a prejudice inherited from an obsolete philosophy. We need to shed the belief that human rights are violated when a terrorist is tortured. As Rawls and others have shown, basic freedoms must form a coherent whole. Self-evidently, there can be no right to attack basic human rights. Therefore, once the proper legal procedures are in place, torturing terrorists cannot violate their rights. In fact, in a truly liberal society, terrorists have an inalienable right to be tortured.

This is what demonstrates the moral superiority of liberal societies over others, past and present. Other societies have degraded terrorists by subjecting them to lawless and unaccountable power. In the new world that is taking shape, terrorists, although they themselves degrade human rights by practising terrorism, will be afforded the full dignity of due legal process, even while being tortured. We can look forward to a time when this right will be available universally.

It is clear that the new regime of human rights that is emerging will not be confined to the United States. The US will not rest until other states have also adopted it. Developing a modern, liberal regime for the practice of torture will require reform of international treaties. The UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights embodies the discredited view that torture is inherently incompatible with respect for human rights. Along with other international treaties, it needs modernisation. Securing agreement on the changes that are required may seem a daunting task. Our experience during the Iraq crisis suggests it is not impossible, however. Using its formidable resources, the US has persuaded a number of refractory states of the wisdom of launching a pre-emptive attack to dislodge the rights-violating regime of Saddam Hussein. It can surely be relied upon to secure a similar agreement around reform of the international law on torture.

There is a deeper reason for believing that the new regime of rights will be universal. Dershowitz’s contention that torture is not forbidden by the US Constitution may look like a purely local argument; but that is to disregard the universal validity of the principles on which the Constitution is founded. Human rights are not just cultural or legal constructions, as fashionable western relativists are fond of claiming. They are universal values. To deny the benefits of the new regime of rights to other cultures is to patronise them in a way that is reminiscent of the colonial era. If the new regime on torture is good enough for the US, who can say that it is not good for everyone?

In practice, there will be countries that resist the new order. Rogue states are nothing new. Those that choose to defy the emerging consensus, however, must accept that they thereby place their legitimacy in question. States that refuse to modernise their laws on torture cannot expect the protection afforded them in the past by old-fashioned notions of sovereignty. They must expect increasing pressure to conform to global norms. If, despite all attempts at persuasion, they persist in opposing the international community, they will face action to enforce regime change.

No one will deny that the reintroduction of torture into the legal process will present some difficult problems. At present, torture is normally contracted out to less developed countries; but sending terrorists to friendly dictatorships for interrogation is hypocritical – and possibly inefficient. Surely it is far better that we do the job ourselves. If we do, however, we will need a trained body of interrogators, backed up by a staff of doctors, psychiatrists and other specialists. A new breed of lawyer will have to deal with the tricky cases that are bound to arise when people suffer injury or death under interrogation. We shall need expert social workers, trained to help the families of subjects under interrogation. Universities in particular must show they are capable of delivering the skills that will be required.

It would be wrong to forget the needs of the interrogators themselves. In the past, torturers were shunned as outcasts – a tacit admission that they acted as the servants of tyrants. If we are to put interrogators to work in defence of liberal values, their role in the community must receive proper recognition. They will require intensive counselling to overcome the inevitable traumas that this difficult work involves. They must be enabled to see themselves as dedicated workers in the cause of progress. Psychotherapy must be available to help them avoid the negative self-image from which some torturers have suffered in the past. Unlike torturers who violated human rights at the behest of tyrants, interrogators who apply their skills to terrorists today are in the vanguard of human progress. In effect, they are practitioners of a new profession. Those who enter it must feel that society values them.

Changing the law on torture may seem to be only one more item on the agenda of modernisation – part of the ongoing process of law reform, in which archaic notions about double jeopardy and trial by jury have already been swept away. Still, the problems posed by changing our policies on torture are undoubtedly more challenging than those we have confronted and overcome in other areas of reform. Especially in Europe, the reforms that are so urgently needed run up against an ingrained conservatism that treats inherited patterns of thought as sacrosanct.

We need nothing less than a fundamental advance in moral thinking. Liberals have often stressed that we must question the values we inherit from the past. The debate initiated by Alan Dershowitz shows that – in America, at least – they are not afraid to apply this lesson. The world’s finest liberal thinkers are applying themselves to the design of a modern regime of judicial torture. At a time when civilisation is under daily threat, there can be no more hopeful sign.

My media week 27/02/11

February 26, 2011

At John Stossel made the case legalizing prediction markets: Why Does Government Suppress Information?

On the Bottom Line Evan Davis asked his panel of top executives about the value of consumer research. whether business awards served any purpose.

At Café Hayek Russ Roberts attacks the idea of buying local: Don’t follow the money.

War minus the shooting: violence in sport

February 20, 2011

If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill will that exists in the world at this moment you could hardly do it better than by a series of football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Indians and British, Russians and Poles, and Italians and Yugoslavs, each match to be watched by a mixed audience of 100,000 spectators. George Orwell, The Sporting Spirit

Soccer is a paradigm of Sun Tzu’s war strategy of confusing the enemy and creating uncertainties. It is not necessary to annihilate the enemy team. Instead, the tactics of surprise, finesse and continual movement of the ball are employed in order to create strategic opportunities for goals. Football v Soccer: American Warfare in An Era of Unconventional Threats – November 2003 Armed Forces Journal  

Sure, there have been injuries and deaths in boxing – but none of them serious. Alan Minter, British boxer



George Orwell, whose essay The Sporting Spirit provided the quote for the title of this post, took a dim view of sport, seeing it a source of ill-will between peoples. Sport and violence have always been inextricably linked, In AD 532, the bitter rivalry between supporters of the Blue and Green chariot-racing teams in the Byzantine Empire sparked 30,000 deaths in the Nika riots. In the Middle Ages we had jousting – the martial spectacle of two knights riding towards each with their lances would remain popular until the seventeenth century. Along with jousting, the Middle Ages also gave us mob football in which two teams of the great unwashed would try to move an inflated pig’s bladder to their opponent’s goal, which was often miles away. The sport was characterised by having no restrictions on the number of players each team could field and few rules. As long as no one got killed, any means could be used to propel the ball. In 1969 El Salvador and Honduras fought a four-day war coinciding with the qualifying round for the 1970 FIFA World Cup. It thus became known as the Football War. The New Zealand All Blacks have been performing their war chant, the Haka, for more than a century. Was Orwell right?

If there is one sport that epitomises war this surely must be American Football. Baseball may be America’s “national pastime“, but the NFL is “America at war.” The chaos and mayhem on the football field is the sporting version of the fog of war I know it has become a cliché, but it is inevitable to make this comparison. Both war and gridiron are about tactics of manoeuvre; you concentrate your forces in order to  have your helmet-clad players penetrate the enemy’s lines and take possession of their territory. You have a ground game, the equivalent of the artillery. Commentators talk about games being won here in the trenches. To complement the running game, you can deploy aerial power when the quarterback throws the ball through the air. This is the air force and we talk of throwing bombs. The successful combination of these joint operations is the key to success. The coaching staff, who have carefully prepared each play, have, like their military counterparts, state-of-the-art telecommunications equipment and computer technology. The T-formation, which is used by the offence, is apparently based upon German Panzer strategies used during WWII. A couple of years ago Fox’s NFL pregame show went on the air from Afghanistan. While coaches and sportswriters have adopted military language over the years, the military has sometimes reciprocated with football terminology, as in Operation Goalpost in World War II and Vietnam’s Operation Linebacker. During the Gulf War Pentagon public relations machine would often use the vocabulary and imagery of sport. War reporting seemed to reflect the conventions of sports broadcasting. The press briefing room in the field was just like those used for NFL coaches’ press conferences. War is sport and sport is war.

Throughout the last century, many of the greatest sporting icons were boxers. The Rumble in the Jungle is one of those defining sporting moments. With all the different titles, I, and many others, have rather lost interest in the sport. The last boxer who I found worth watching was “Iron Mike” Tyson. This man was a force of nature. But his antics outside the ring would derail his career. There is a paradox here. On the one hand many sportsmen are paid huge sums of money for deploying violence in their particular sports. However this behaviour is unacceptable in the private sphere. Mike Tyson had severe difficulties in distinguishing between these two domains. Violence became pleasurable to him. Sports Illustrated quotes the former heavyweight champion as saying: “I like to hurt women when I make love to them, I like to hear them scream with pain, see them bleed ….. It gives me pleasure.” In the end Tyson went too far in the ring as well, taking a bite out of Evander Holyfield’s ear as he was losing a fight to him. And in 1992 Tyson was found guilty of raping Desiree Washington, and was sentenced to six years in prison, of which he served three. I do have serious doubts about that conviction. However what cannot be denied is that Mike Tyson was out of control. He admitted as much himself:

I’ll never admit to raping that woman, even if it lessens my time in here, because I just didn’t do it. However, there are about 5-7 other things I’ve done in my life which are far worse than that for which I am in prison for, so I feel I’m in the right place.

I can understand neuroscientists who are horrified by the pounding a brain receives in the ring or on the football field. However the idea of trying to tame these sports is anathema to me. There is a version of American football called flag football which involves no hard contact. Instead of tackling players to the ground, the defensive team must remove a flag or flag belt from the ball carrier. Boring or what? I love the physicality of the NFL.  Maybe we will look back in 200 years’ time and we will view such aggressive sports in the same way we view gladiatorial combats. But I strongly feel boxing with protective headgear is not boxing. American football without the hits is another sport. If you castrated these sports like this, it would be better to ban them outright.

English football has also seen its fair share of violence. Vinny Jones, who now lives and works in Hollywood, was known as one of football’s hard men. As well as being sent off twelve times in his career, he was once shown a yellow card after just three seconds! The most infamous picture of Jones shows him grabbing Paul Gascoigne by his testicles. He summed up his attitude very succinctly: “I’ve taken violence off the terracing and onto the pitch.” Joey Barton, who currently plays for Newcastle United, also has a colourful history. One famous incident occurred at Manchester City’s Christmas party, where he stubbed out a lit cigar in youth player Jamie Tandy’s eye after he had caught Tandy attempting to set fire to his shirt. Barton subsequently apologised for his actions and was fined six weeks’ wages. After another incident, City manager, Stuart “Psycho” Pearce made Barton undergo anger management therapy. It doesn’t appear to have been too successful. In May 2007 after a training session he assaulted his team mate Ousmane Dabo, who he sent to hospital with severe head, injuries, including a suspected detached retina. I haven’t heard the same stories about Spanish players. I can’t quite see Andrès Iniesta headbutting an opponent or Casillas trashing a flight cabin. And Spanish football is all the poorer for it.

Hooliganism has been called the English disease. Football violence is nothing new with incidents going back for more than a century. The 1923 cup final between West Ham and Bolton was marred by a pitch invasion and the Royal Box was wrecked. It does go through phases. There was a big spike from the 60s to the 80s. There has been a decline in the last couple of decades. My students often ask me about it. How can we explain this phenomenon? In her book Watching the English, social anthropologist, Kate Fox argued that two apparently contradictory features of Englishness, the stiff upper lip and hooliganism were really two sides of the same coin. She calls it social dis-ease, her shorthand term for all the English chronic social inhibitions and handicaps; she sees it as a congenital disorder, bordering on a sort of sub-clinical combination of autism and agoraphobia:

When we feel uncomfortable in social situations (that is, most of the time) we either become over-polite, buttoned up and awkwardly restrained or loud, loutish, crude, violent and generally obnoxious. Both our famous ‘English reserve’ and our infamous ‘English hooliganism’ are symptoms of this social dis-ease…

The spirit of Orwell has been very present in this post. In many ways Eric Blair was right. We have seen a lot of examples of the violence that pervades sport. But there is another side to this story. 1995’s Rugby World Cup in South Africa was vital in healing the wounds of apartheid. Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era was a trailblazer for the peaceful civil rights campaign in the fifties and sixties. In many conflict-riven places sport provides the only modicum of normality. Ultimately sport is reflection of what makes us human. We can’t expect sport to make war a thing of the past. Aggression needs an outlet, and sport, for all its many faults, delivers just that.

Words made in Japan

February 20, 2011

I have done a few posts about untranslatable words, including one on the idiosyncrasies of  German. My other favourite is  Japanese. I have been looking through Adam Jacot de Boinod’s I Never Knew There Was a Word For It and here is my selection of Japanese lexical items:


aki ga tatsu a mutual cooling of love (literally, the autumn breeze begins to blow)

arigata-meiwaku an act someone does for you thinking they are doing you a favour, but which you really didn’t want them to do; added to which, social convention now requires you to express suitable gratitude in return

chokuegambo the wish that there were more designer-brand shops on a given street; the desire to buy things at luxury brand shops

harawata o tatsu to break one’s heart (literally, to sever one’s intestines)

hiza o majieru to have an intimate talk (literally, to mingle each other’s knees)

ichigo-ichie the practice of treasuring each moment and trying to make it perfect

ikibari a lively needle, if a man is willing but under-endowed

juubakonosumi o (yoojide) tsutsuku to split hairs (literally, to pick at the corners of a food-serving box with a toothpick)

kakobijin the sort of woman who talks incessantly about how she would have been thought of as a stunner if she had lived in a different era, when men’s tastes in women were different (literally, bygone beauty)

kara-shutcho to pay or receive travel expenses for a trip not actually taken (literally, empty business trip)

katahara itai laughing so much that one side of your abdomen hurts

koro the hysterical belief that one’s penis is shrinking into one’s body

kotsuniku no araso domestic strife (literally, the fight between bones and flesh)

kurisumasu keiki leftover Christmas cake (traditionally applied to women over twenty-five years old)

kyoikumama a woman who crams her children to succeed educationally

masu-kagami( masturbating in front of a mirror). Female masturbation, by contrast, is described as shiko shiko manzuri (ten thousand rubs) and suichi o ireru (flicking the switch).

mono-no-aware appreciating the sadness of existence

mukamuka feeling so angry one feels like throwing up

no-pan kissa coffee shops with mirrored floors to allow customers to look up waitresses’ skirts

okuri-okami a man who feigns thoughtfulness by offering to see a girl home only to try to molest her once he gets in the door (literally, a see-you-home wolf)

potto to be so distracted or preoccupied that you don’t notice what is happening right in front of you

rabu hoteru hotels especially for making love

radudaraifu single women who spend much of their weekends cooking food and deep-freezing it so that it can be reheated in a hurry when they return late from work (literally, camel life)

shiri ni shikareru a husband who is under his wife’s thumb (literally, under her buttocks)

sokozuma a woman who settles for a so-so marriage just to get it out of the way

toirebijutsukan a trend whereby young women moving into an apartment alone for the first time will go to extreme lengths to decorate their lavatory, scent it with perfume and stock it with interesting literature (literally, toilet museum)

utouto to fall into a light sleep without realizing it

utsura-utsura to fluctuate between wakefulness and being half asleep

wabi a flawed detail that enhances the elegance of the whole work of art.

My media week 20/02/11

February 20, 2011

RSA’s Animate videos, in which an illustrator draws images while a speaker presents an idea, are one of the best things you can see on the web. In this one, Steven Pinker looks at Language as a Window into Human Nature

The Guardian had a link to this visual representation of the most borrowed authors from UK libraries.

In The City Journal Clark Whelton attacks Vagueness, the linguistic virus that infected spoken language in the late twentieth century: What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness:The decline and fall of American English, and stuff.

The LSE has a podcast of the always controversial Bjørn Lomborg: Putting Global Warming into Perspective.

Sexonomics #2: dating

February 13, 2011

I’ve been on so many blind dates; I should get a free dog. Wendy Liebman

I only date stewardesses. Or maybe it just seems that way. Women always seem to be showing me the exits. Scott Roeben

A man on a date wonders if he’ll get lucky, the woman already knows. Monica Piper

Nothing defines humans better than their willingness to do irrational things in the pursuit of phenomenally unlikely payoffs. This is the principle behind lotteries, dating, and religion. Scott Adams 


Dating is a form of courtship in which two people take part a social activity, such as going to the cinema or having a meal in a restaurant, in order to assess each other’s suitability as a partner. Traditionally the ultimate goal was matrimony. When marriage was more of a business or political enterprise dating was not especially prevalent, although there were sometimes clandestine meetings between lovers who tried to rebel against their parents’ will.. During medieval times, the importance of love in a relationship emerged as a reaction to arranged marriages, but was still not considered a prerequisite in matrimonial decisions. Lovers would woo their intended with serenades and ornate poetry. With the empowerment of the individual, the dynamics of dating began to change. In The 1700’s and 1800’s romantic love emerged as a motive for finding a final marriage partner. Romantic novels, poems and literature led to changing perceptions of the role of marriage in society. The courtship ritual evolved. In the Victorian Era young women would entertain gentleman at home in the presence of a chaperone, whose job it was to ensure that nothing untoward took place.  Among the lower classes it was often impractical to entertain at home so they began dating in public.

Technology has played a huge role in dating. In last week’s post I talked about the significance of birth control and abortion. But a number of inventions have transformed the way we court. I am only going to mention two here. The car was a major boon. Not only did it make it possible to travel further, but it also proved to be an excellent venue for .couples to get to know each other better.  And of course we have the computer, which has replaced the traditional village matchmaker.

Computer dating actually goes back to the late 50s. Through the years compatibility algorithms and matching software have become increasingly sophisticated and online dating services are becoming increasingly popular all over the world.  These firms tend to operate in a similar way. Customers pay a fee and post a personal profile, which typically includes a photo, vital statistics, their salary, educational level, personal preferences, and so on. Many sites let you to specify what you are seeking: “a long-term relationship”,a casual lover”, or “just looking.” If somebody likes your ad, they can e-mail you and perhaps arrange a date. The rapid growth of online dating has been a godsend for economists – these websites provide an excellent opportunity for data mining. They are a fascinating natural experiment which allows you to see how people actually behave. In his book Freakonomics Stephen Leavitt looked at a study carried out by the economists Günter J. Hitch and Ali Heretics, and the psychologist Dan Ariely with data from more than 20,000 active users of mainstream dating sites, such as, I want to look at their results.

What do people say about themselves? What interests me is the enormous gulf between what we say and what we really do. Undoubtedly online daters can be very economical with the truth in their descriptions. Maybe they are just narcissistic. They definitely seem to find it difficult to grasp the meaning of the word average; the majority claimed to be a lot richer, taller, slimmer, and better-looking than average. However, there were some users who were a bit franker. 7% of the men conceded that they were married, with 243 of these men reporting that they were “happily married.” But this honesty came with a logical prudence. Only 12 of the “happily married” men in the survey actually posted a picture of themselves. They were responding to incentives; they wanted to have a mistress but the fear of being found out by their wives led them to withhold photographic evidence of their infidelity.

Here is some  more of the information that came out of the study:

  • More than 4% of the online daters claimed to earn more than $200,000 a year, whereas less than 1% of typical Internet users actually earn that much.
  • Male and female users typically reported that they are about 2.5 cm taller than the national average
  • 72% of the women and 68% of the men described themselves as above average in looks
  • 56% of the men who post ads don’t receive even one e-mail
  • 28% of the women on the site said they were blond. As Stephen Leavitt quipped this would suggest either dyeing, or lying, or perhaps both.
  • These creative descriptions are of course perfectly rational. There is, like in the housing market, high inflation in the personal adjectives market. Potential partners will apply a minimum 20% discount to anything you see. If someone says they have average looks, you assume they look like Quasimodo. 

What kind of information received the most favourable responses? Online dating preferences seem to dovetail with the most common stereotypes about men and women:

  • Men who say they want a long-term relationship do much better than men looking for an occasional lover.
  • Women looking for an occasional lover have no problem attracting suitors.
  • For men, a woman’s looks are of fundamental importance.
  • For women, a man’s income is extremely important. But for men a woman’s income appeal is a bell-shaped curve: men do not want to date low-earning women, but once a woman starts earning too much, they can feel intimidated. 
  • For men, being short is a bigger disadvantage than being fat, whereas for women, being overweight is a killer.

These preferences are not fixed in stone. Supply and demand come into play. Daters adapt their tastes to what is available, like in any other market. Photos are the key. Men who do not include a photo get only 60 % of the volume of e-mails compared to men who do; with women this figure is 24% An unattractive, slightly overweight man with few qualifications and in a low-paid dead-end job  stands a better chance of getting a response than a hunk who says he makes $200,000 but doesn’t post a photo. If you can’t even post a photo, it is assumed that there must be something wrong with you.

Apart from all the information I mentioned above, the clients had to list their race and state what race or races they would be willing to date. They had two options for the latter question – “the same as mine” or “it doesn’t matter”. Approximately half of the white women on the site and 80 % of the white men declared that race didn’t matter to them. When they actually chose, the white women who said race didn’t matter sent about 97 % of their e-mail responses to white men. For men the figure was 80%. They wanted to come across as broad-minded but their choices reflected different preferences.

What does the future hold for dating? Technology is bound to remain in the forefront given that we have a generation that has grown up with computers, Facebook and Twitter. I imagine that online agencies will continue their growth and will become more professional, using increasingly sophisticated software. Dating may well spread to mobile phones. I am very much in favour of technology but I think offline activities are also necessary. We are always going to want physical interaction.