Nothing to envy

April 24, 2011

I have just finished reading Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, a journalist on the LA Times. In this book, which won the 2010 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction, she follows the lives of six North Koreans whom she chose these from over a hundred people she interviewed. Her subjects were fromChongjin, the third largest city in the country because she thought it would be more representative thanPyongyang. She has the following defectors:

Dr. Kim is a doctor, devoted to the Workers’ party, who finds herself blocked by the country’s rigid caste system.

Mrs. Song another loyal communist is a wife forced to find any way she can to feed her family, including rebellious daughter Oak-Hee as the country’s economy goes into meltdown.

Kim Hyuck, whose father is unable to support him, has to go to a state orphanage.

Jun-Sang and Mi-Ran, boyfriend and girlfriend, conduct a clandestine but chaste relationship in the dark.

Obviously these are rather special people who have risked their lives to defect. There are many more who stayed behind inNorth Korea. But there is no other way to tell these stories; you can’t just go toPyongyangand interview people. And these personal stories are what make this book so powerful. Demick mentions the misery, the food shortages the gulags, the escapes and the totalitarian nature of the North Korean state. There are harrowing passages in which she describes what happens as people starve to death. But she didn’t want to paintNorth Koreaas just a living hell. In an interview she gave she quoted Primo Levi, who said even in the hell ofAuschwitzthere was no such thing as complete misery. She wanted to show the people inNorth Koreaas real human beings who amid the repression and catastrophe also had their happy moments.

The title of the book comes from a propaganda song:






The book begins with that famous satellite image of North Korea at night. This hermit state is like a black hole which is surrounded by neighbours, South Korea, Japan, and now China which glow with prosperity. It’s called capitalism. North Korea remains an enigmatic country about which we know very little. It is a fascinating mixture of Stalinism and strict neo-Confucianism, interspersed with pseudo-Christianity. Their history has been dominated by the Kim dynasty, the late Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il, who are worshipped as divinities. Papa Kim “caused trees to bloom and snow to melt”, while Baby Kim’s birth “was heralded by a radiant star in the sky”. A swallow descended from heaven to sing of “a general who will rule the world”. We are all familiar with the scenes following Kim Il-sung’s death. If you have forgotten, check out this YouTube video – Death of the Father of the Socialist Homeland.

His son has been in charge since 1994.  In an article from the New Yorker, Kimworld Inside the North Korean slave state, Ian Buruma summed up Kim Jong-Il:

Kim Jong-il, meanwhile, was ferried about in his fleet of Mercedes-Benzes, from one grand palace to another, where Chinese, Japanese, French, Russian, and Korean food was always available for feasts that sometimes went on for days. One of the more mouth-watering accounts of life in Kim’s court is by his former Japanese chef, a man who later took on the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto, whose duties included special trips to Iran to buy caviar, to Denmark for bacon, to Japan for the best cuts of tuna. We know from Fujimoto’s book, “Kim Jong Il’s Cook—I Saw His Naked Body,” that Kim was an avid consumer of fine French wines and Hennessy X.O cognac.

In a previous post I mentioned that it was rare to be able to do an experiment on different economic systems under laboratory conditions. The division of Germanyafter WWII was probably as close as we could get. Koreahas been a similar experiment with even more striking results. Demick points out the divergence has not always been so great. But the country has fallen out of the developed world. This decline culminated in the “Arduous March,” the propaganda machine’s euphemism for the famine of the mid-1990s, in which between 900,000 and 3.5 million people died from starvation or hunger-related illnesses. The desperation was such that people were eating weeds, grass, and bark. This contrasts with the dramatic rise of South Korea.  The Kims have practised a policy of juche, which can be translated self-sufficiency. It was based on a lie because in reality they were heavily dependent on China and the Soviet Union. When these two props were removed, collapse was inevitable. North Korea cannot survive on its own, but it cannot open up, either. However, not everyone shares this negative opinion of Kimland. If you want a more nuanced perspective, you can try Andrew Holloway, who lived for a year in the capital. He has a book you can see online – A Year in Pyongyang:

The average North Korean lives an incredibly simple and hardworking life but also has a secure and cheerful existence, and the comradeship between these highly collectivised people is moving to behold.”

The book closes with the defectors arriving inSouth Korea. The North Korean system has, in Holloway’s words, stultified and infantilised the population.North Koreais like a prison camp and logically many find it hard to adapt when they leave. One poor guy actually loses all his money in a pyramid scam. Welcome to capitalism! I won’t tell you if the two lovers are finally reunited. But generally the defectors don’t find it easy to fit into their new country. The difficulties tend to suggest that any possible reunification of the whole country would bring immense problems with it.

What will happen in the future to this grotesque regime? Kim Jong-il is in many ways a comic figure but the tragedy of 20 million people is very real. Moreover, he may well have some kind of nuclear capability.  Experts have been predicting its collapse for more than fifteen years. Kim may be a nightmare for his people, but he has proved very adept at hanging on to power. That is what Kim il yung cares about – his political survival. Surely nothing could be worse than the perpetuation of this regime. What we have to hope is that if it does go, Kim will not go with a big bang.

Kim Jong-il’s titles

April 24, 2011

When Kim Jong-il, the leader of the DPRK, is mentioned in North Korean media and publications, he is not simply addressed by name. At least one special title is used and his name is emphasized by a special bold font, for example: “The great leader Comrade Kim Jong-il provides on-the-spot guidance to the Ragwon Machine Complex.”[1] The titles themselves are developed by the WPK Central Committee. The same applied to Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il-sung, who ruled North Korea from 1948 to 1994. Scholars have collected the following list of Kim Jong-il’s titles:

Superior Person

Respected Leader The title has been in use since the middle of 1970s[3].

Wise Leader

Brilliant Leader

Unique Leader The

Dear Leader, who is a perfect incarnation of the appearance that a leader should have


Great Leader

Father of the People

Sun of the Communist Future

Shining Star ofPaektuMountain

Guiding Ray of Sun

Leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces

Guarantee of the Fatherland’s Unification

Symbol of the Fatherland’s Unification

Fate of the Nation

Beloved Father

Leader of the Party, of the country, and of the Army



Great Leader of our Party and of our Nation

Great General

Beloved and Respected General

Great Leader When Kim Il-sung was alive, this title was used only to refer to him[3].

Beloved and Respected Leader

Invincible and Iron-Willed Commander

Sun of Socialism

Sun of the Nation

The Great Sun of Life

Great Sun of The Nation

Father of the Nation

World’s Leader of The 21st Century 

Peerless Leader

Bright Sun of the 21st Century

Great Sun of the 21st Century

Leader of the 21st Century

Amazing politician

Great Man, Who Descended From Heaven

Glorious General, Who Descended From Heaven

Supreme Leader of the Nation

Bright Sun of Juche

Leader of the Party and the People 

Great Marshal 

Invincible and All-triumphant General 

Beloved and Respected Father 

Guiding Star of the 21st Century 

Great Man, Who Is a Man of Deeds 

Great Defender 


Mastermind of the Revolution 

Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love 

His Excellency

My media week 24/04/11

April 24, 2011

At James Gleick asks What Defines a Meme?

The National Interest has an article Art in the Time of War.  has this short video: The Top Five Environmental Disasters that Didn’t Happen

Finally The Onion  features autistic reporter Michael Falk reporting on a train crash: Autistic Reporter: Train Thankfully Unharmed In Crash That Killed One Man.

Is the law an ass?

April 17, 2011

Recently loyal reader Alberto Arnáiz recommended that I read a book called The Law is an Ass, an anthology of legal quotations. I was unable to find the book, but it gave me the idea for this post. The law is an ass is an oft-repeated expression in English. It may be truer than we think. All over Europe for nearly 1,000 years all creatures great and small – pigs, cows, snails, rats and even flies and caterpillars – were hauled into court on charges including murder, vandalism and obscenity. These trials were conducted with full legal procedure: evidence was heard on both sides, witnesses were called, and in many cases the accused animal was defended by a lawyer provided at public expense.  I first came across this phenomenon a few years ago when I read a book called The Trial: A History, from Socrates to O. J. Simpson by Sadakat Kadri. I had forgotten about this until I heard an excellent programme on the BBC World Service. Animals on Trial, which was presented by thriller writer and former solicitor Frances Fyfield, took a look at some weird cases from the legal annals. The animals that found themselves in the dock tended to be domesticated ones, most often pigs, but also bulls, horses, and cows. The other common group to find themselves arraigned were pests such as rats and weevils. There were two distinct kinds of trials. The criminal courts would try animals for crimes against individuals, whereas those that were a menace to society would go before ecclesiastical courts.

The courts were strict, bit they also tried to give the defendants a fair crack of the whip – guilty beyond all reasonable doubt and all that stuff. In 1457, a sow killed a five-year old boy. As she began devouring the body, her six piglets joined in the feast. They were caught “in fraganti”, covered in blood at the crime scene. However, the prosecution was unable to produce any evidence that would prove that the piglets had actually been accomplices in the homicide itself. Therefore, the court decided to give the piglets back to their owner on the understanding that he would be responsible if they committed a crime in the future. The owner was unwilling to vouch for the swine, so the court confiscated them, sold them, and kept the profits.

Criminal trials worked well for individual animals. But sometimes the accused operated in gangs. For this contingency ecclesiastical courts were thought to be more appropriate. These animals faced a far more serious punishment – excommunication. The Church hired lawyers to argue the case on both sides.  In the year 1510, the people of Autun,France, went to their local bishop and asked him to deal with the rats that had been eating the barley crop. Being a fair man, the bishop first ordered a trial, assigning Bartholomew Chassenee as legal counsel to the vermin. Lawyers have a reputation for sophistry and these trials certainly gave them the opportunity to show off their virtuosity. Because his clients didn’t have a very good reputation to begin with, Chassenee knew he would have his work cut out to get an acquittal. On the first day of the trial, Chassenee made an astute point. He declared that the prosecution had failed to specify which rats had been responsible. This grave oversight meant that every rat in Autun, even the ones that hadn’t eaten the barley, could be facing excommunication for a crime they hadn’t committed. This was outrageous. Therefore he demanded that every rat in the town be summoned to court to plead their case. Every priest in every parish had to announce the charges, so as many rats as possible would know that they had to testify. Despite all the Bishop’s efforts, not a single rat showed up for their court date. Thing were not looking good for the rodents. But have no fear; the ingenious Chassene had an ace up his sleeve. He pointed out that human defendants could refuse a summons if making the journey to court placed their lives in danger. Rats faced just such a danger. Every rat was under constant threat of being eaten by hungry cats, so there was no way they could be expected to appear in court unless the prosecution was able to guarantee their safe passage. As no such guarantee could be provided the case against the rats was dropped.

Animals that were caught in the act of sexual intercourse with a human being would also be punished. These punishments could be brutal – hanging, being buried alive or burning at the stake. In 1750, in France, Jacques Ferron was convicted of coupling with a female donkey. Both Jacques and the donkey were sentenced to death. However, a parish priest petitioned for the court to show mercy. Unfortunately for Ferron the priest was only willing to vouch for the good character of the animal and so the donkey was given a pardon but Ferron was burnt at the stake.

What makes these stories so irresistible is the mixture of the legal solemnity and the absurd nature of the enterprise. How can we explain such bizarre legal proceedings? Kadri argues that these trials were part of a broader phenomenon that saw corpses and inanimate objects also face prosecution. In Ancient Greece, a statue that had fallen on a man was found guilty of murder. Its sentence was to be thrown into the sea. In the ninth century Pope Stephen VI accused his predecessor, Formosus, of bringing the papacy into disrepute. The deceased Pope’s rotting corpse was exhumed and was seated on a throne while Stephen read out the charges against him. With the corpse propped up on a throne, a deacon was appointed to answer for Formosus, who was found guilty. The corpse was stripped of its papal vestments, the three fingers of his right hand used for benedictions were cut off and all of his acts and ordinations were declared invalid. The body was finally interred in a graveyard for foreigners, but was then re-exhumed, tied to weights, and thrown into the Tiber River. And in Russiain the Middle Ages a bell was convicted of treason and exiled to Siberia.

We do not try animals these days. Animal trials did continue well into the modern age, but they became less common after the Enlightenment, when it was argued that animals could not be punished as they did not have moral agency

We may feel superior but these animal trials do raise important issues about moral agency. Kadri sees modern parallels these rituals in the punishment of children and the mentally ill. A number of American states try children as though they were adults. And the insanity plea in criminal trials always generates controversy. We feel cheated if a criminal is able to get out of jail. This is despite the fact that the time spent in an asylum may actually be longer.

One infamous case was Ricky Ray Rector, who was executed for the 1981 murder of two people including police officer Robert Martin in Conway, Arkansas. Rector was not actually mentally incapacitated when he committed the crimes. But after having killed the policeman, he then shot himself in the head in an apparent suicide attempt. He was unsuccessful but the resulting lobotomy left him with severe brain damage. He was clearly him unable to understand the criminal charges against him or his resulting death sentence. The Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton made sure that the execution went ahead. Rector was so oblivious to his fate that he wanted to save the pecan pie from his last meal for after his execution. Christopher Hitchens claimed that Clinton did it to distract attention from the Gennifer Flowers sex scandal. Hitchens may be right but I think Clinton was facing other incentives. He must have remembered what had happened to Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis in the race against George Bush in 1988. Willie Horton a convicted murderer committed a rape and assault in Maryland after he was allowed out for the weekend. During a debate CNN’s Bernard Shaw went straight for the jugular asking Dukakis: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis (his wife) were raped and murdered, would you favour an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Dukakis’s negative answer did not help him in the polls. The ambitious Clinton, who did not want to appear soft on crime, was not going to make the same mistake.*

For 2000 years there had been a strong link between crime and vengeance. Suddenly we had a void. Retributive justice is at the heart of law in most cultures throughout the world. Punishment serves as catharsis. We need agency to justify putting people away. But we now see that it is a very complex question. The idea of free will has suffered some important reverses. Behavioural genetics is in its infancy but we are beginning to hear the excuse that “it was my genes wot did it.” These questions will continue to be debated for many years to come. I do feel that criminals should be held responsible for their acts. We allow too many excuses. But I do draw the line at mentally retarded patients. In Atkins v Virginia the US Supreme Court banned the execution of mentally retarded patients as a cruel and unusual punishment. For dissenting justice Antonin Scalia the decision had no legal, scientific or logical basis. He argued that society’s moral outrage sometimes demanded execution of mentally retarded offenders.

I will finish with this quote from Kadri’s book:

The fact that the condemnation is incomprehensible to the person punished would seem to be not much more relevant to a judge like Scalia than the mental state of pigs and corpses was to the men who hoped to obliterate the very memory of their crimes.”

Law quotes

April 17, 2011

Q What do you do if you are in a room with a rattlesnake, a lion and a lawyer and you have a gun with two bullets?   A Shoot the lawyer twice.  Joke

Law is founded not on theory but upon nature. Cicero

Good men must not obey the laws too well. Ralph Waldo Emerson

Laws are like spiders’ webs: if some poor weak creature come up against them, it is caught; but a bigger one can break through and get away. Solon

It is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer. William Blackstone British jurist.

I have come to regard the law courts not as a cathedral but rather as a casino. Richard Ingrams

Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Louis D. Brandeis U.S. judge.

In England, Justice is open to all, like the Ritz hotel. James Mathew, British judge.

Some men are heterosexual and some men are bisexual and some men don’t think

about sex at all, you know, they become lawyers. Woody Allen in Love and Death

I’m no ambulance chaser. I always get there before the ambulance arrives. Melvin Belli, lawyer

Common-law, n. The will and pleasure of the judge. Ambrose Bierce

There’s no better way of exercising the imagination than the study of law. No poet ever interpreted nature as freely as a lawyer interprets the truth. Jean Giraudoux, French writer

My media week 17/04/11

April 17, 2011

NPR’s Planet Money looked at the economics of drugs from the perspective of Freeway Rick Ross who was one of the biggest crack dealers in LA in the ’80s and ’90s: The Tuesday Podcast: A Former Crack Dealer On The Economics Of Drugs.

With all the controversy in France about The niqab and the burqa  Foreign Policy looked at five countries – France,  Saudi Arabia, Bhutan North Korea and Sudan -where the term “fashion police” is meant literally: What Not to Wear.

Ten new courses have recently been added to Open Yale Courses:

The American Revolution with Professor Joanne B. Freeman

Capitalism: Success, Crisis and Reform with Professor Douglas W. Rae

Cervantes’ Don Quixote with Professor Roberto González Echevarría

Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts  with Professor Keith E. Wrightson

Environmental Politics and Law with Professor John P. Wargo

Epidemics in Western Society Since 1600 with Professor Frank Snowden

Financial Theory with Professor John Geanakoplos

Foundations of Modern Social Theory with Professor Iván Szelényi

Fundamentals of Physics, II with Professor Ramamurti Shankar

The Moral Foundations of Politics with Professor Ian Shapiro

The secret history of acupuncture

April 9, 2011

The fact that acupuncture has been used successfully in China for 2000 years with very few side effects is something that most surgeons, doctors and pharmacologists could only wish for. John Wood, medical acupuncturist from London.

Theory and practice are based on primitive and fanciful concepts of health and disease that bear no relationship to present scientific knowledge. The National Council Against Health Fraud 1990 description of acupuncture.

Psychologists can list plenty of other things that could explain the apparent response to acupuncture. Diverting attention from original symptoms to the sensation of needling, expectation, suggestion, mutual consensus and compliance demand, causality error, classic conditioning, reciprocal conditioning, operant conditioning, operator conditioning, reinforcement, group consensus, economic and emotional investment, social and political disaffection, social rewards for believing, variable course of disease, regression to the mean – there are many ways human psychology can fool us into thinking ineffective treatments are effective. Then there’s the fact that all placebos are not equal – an elaborate system involving lying down, relaxing, and spending time with a caring authority can be expected to produce a much greater placebo effect than simply taking a sugar pill. Harriet Hall, Puncturing the Acupuncture Myth



Acupuncture is perhaps the most misunderstood of all the so-called complementary/alternative medicine (CAM) treatments – almost everything you’ve ever heard about acupuncture is wrong. It is a history which is rather convoluted. But, before we go into it we need to get a working definition. Webster’s dictionary defines acupuncture thus:

A procedure used in or adapted from Chinese medical practice in which specific body areas are pierced with fine needles for therapeutic purposes or to relieve pain or produce regional anaesthesia. For its supporters acupuncture represents ancient Chinese wisdom. It has evolved over thousands of years of experimentation; if it didn’t work, it wouldn’t exist today.  It is certainly true that acupuncture goes back a very long way.  However, acupuncture should not be seen as exclusively Chinese. it needs to be put into a wider historical and geographical context.

Ötzi the Iceman, Europe’s oldest natural human mummy, lived about 5,300 years ago. He was found in September 1991 in the Ötztal Alps on the border between Austria and Italy. His mummified body is exceptionally well-preserved: Ötzi had tattoos running along his back, right knee and left ankle. They were not decorative and he even had some in areas that had been covered in hair. The mummy and other mummies found with similar non-decorative tattoos has led a number of researchers to conclude that this shows a treatment akin to acupuncture. Ötzi apparently suffered from arthrosis of the lumbar spine. What is interesting about the marks on his body is that they coincide with points usually used by acupuncturists to treat this condition! This may be a coincidence but I think acupuncture has to be seen as belonging to a pre-scientific paradigm of medicine.

In the quote by John Wood that I used in the introduction there is a fallacy known as the argument from antiquity, or appeal to tradition. Because we have been doing something for thousands of years does not make it right. Galen’s theory of the four humours was popular for two millennia. Doctors thought that bloodletting was an effective treatment based on anecdotal evidence. I have nothing against Galen. He was doing the best he could in those days. What I find depressing is that people now want to take us back to those pre-scientific times.

Traditional Chinese medicine is based o Daoism, which believes that all parts of the universe are interconnected. As Chinese medicine forbade dissection, their understanding of human physiology was based on the external world and not on what was going on inside the body. Their 365 divisions of the body were based on the number of days in a year, and the 12 meridians are believed to be based on the 12 major rivers that run through China. The similarity with what was happening in Europe is clear; traditional acupuncture points were very similar to the bloodletting or lancing locations that were being used in Europe. This foundation is problematic for me. We are dealing with philosophies of illness, not scientific theories of disease. They were developed in an era dominated by superstition. I found it hard to take Sharon Stone seriously when she claimed that the 2008 Chinese earthquakes were caused by bad karma. I have a similar opinion of the notion that disease is caused by failure to live in harmony with the Dao. Scientific medicine, which is based on the germ theory of disease and the study of human anatomy and human physiology, is more convincing than TCM explanations. The qi force has never been discovered in physics or human physiology. Maybe supporters will try to claim that qi is metaphorical but I don’t want to be cured with metaphors.

Chinese paediatrician Cheng Dan’an reformed acupuncture in the 1930s, seeking to distance it from bloodletting. Traditional acupuncture points were moved from over veins to over nerves. This modern version of acupuncture is what is taught in the West. Chairman Mao helped give a big boost to acupuncture. It was Mao’s government that coined the term traditional Chinese medicine – TCM. His barefoot doctor campaign of the 1960s was a backlash against Western-style elite medicine. Acupuncturists were a cheap way to provide healthcare to the masses. Acupuncture, which had been banned, was now regarded as equal to Western medicine. Of course Mao himself wasn’t treated with TCM.

It was in the 1970s that TCM began to emigrate west. It meshed perfectly with the hippy/counterculture zeitgeist. Acupuncture, which was part of this trend, was a therapy that could heal everything. President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 provided an excellent opportunity to promote it. The American delegation saw a patient undergoing major surgery while fully awake, receiving acupuncture instead of anaesthesia. Alas all was not what it seemed to be. The “lucky” patients were chosen for their high pain tolerance and had received intense political indoctrination. And just to make sure, they supplemented the acupuncture with sedatives, narcotics, and local anaesthetics. Historian Paul Unschuld has a damning verdict on acupuncture anaesthesia:

Attempts to use needles instead of drugs to achieve anaesthesia even in major surgical operations have in the meantime slipped into deserved oblivion, just as much as collective management and public self-criticism. It was not until after the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’ in 1976 and the opening of China in 1978 that Chinese doctors were able to report, without personal risk, about the pain that patients had been expected to endure through therapy applied in operating theatres not on the basis of scientific knowledge, but in accordance with the ideological precepts of the Communist Party.

What about the clinical research for acupuncture? Although it is notoriously difficult to conduct scientific trials, acupuncture has been one of the most studied fields of alternative medicine. The principal difficulty lies in carrying out double blind trials where neither the practitioner nor the patient know the treatment is real or fake. There are a number of ways of testing: Sham acupuncture involves putting the needles in the wrong places, whereas placebo acupuncture uses a placebo needle. This is a real acupuncture needle with its tip removed. It is designed in such a way that the patient cannot tell if needle has penetrated the skin.

What do the results show? A review of trials of acupuncture for back pain showed that the studies which were properly blinded showed a tiny benefit for acupuncture, which was not statistically significant. The trials which were not blinded showed a massive, statistically significant benefit for acupuncture. How can we explain these results?

I am not convinced that what we see is anything other than the placebo effect. Admittedly, it is a superior version of the effect. While receiving acupuncture, you will be lying down on a table for 30 to 60 minutes. There will be pleasant music playing in the background. As the acupuncturist touches the acupuncture points you will get a pleasant massage. Besides this there is the positive effect of the therapeutic   interaction. It would be surprising if it didn’t produce a greater effect than simply taking a sugar pill. Acupuncture does release endorphins. And a 2010 study found that acupuncture needle caused the local release of a chemical known as adenosine, which helped to reduce local pain and inflammation.  

However none of this justifies the hype surrounding acupuncture. Considering the inconsistent research results and the improbability of qi and meridians, my verdict has to be negative. Scientific knowledge is like a torch illuminating our dark world. Why ignore this knowledge and replace it with the fairy tales of people who did not have the slightest conception of how the human body worked?

*If you are interested in this area, check out Steven Novella’s NeuroLogicaBlog. The other site I would recommend is Science-Based Medicine. In particular retired doctor Harriet Hall has written some excellent articles debunking Acupuncture.

Medical myths

April 9, 2011

Medicine is one field which is particularly prone to myths. Even doctors can fall victim to these false ideas.  Here are a few typical ones:

Vitamin C prevents you from catching a cold.

There is a link between additives and food, and hyperactivity or behavioural changes.

You can sweat toxins out of your body.

You lose most of your body heat through your head.

Hair and fingernails continue to grow after death.

Carrots can improve your eyesight.

If you shave, your hair will grow back faster.

There are effective cures for hangovers.

Mobile phones create considerable electromagnetic interference in hospitals.

You shouldn’t go swimming immediately after you’ve eaten.

Back pain should be treated with bed rest.

Chocolate causes acne.

Cold weather causes colds.

Jellyfish stings can be eased by urine.

My media week 10/04/11

April 9, 2011

Radio 4’s Great Lives looked at Thomas Edison. The great American inventor was nominated by Sir Clive Sinclair, the man behind the electronic calculator, the ZX 81 computer and the ill-fated C5 electric car.

Ronald Bailey at reviews Dan Gardner’s new book Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless, And You Can Do Better, which explains why dart-throwing monkeys are better at predicting the future than most pundits: It’s Hard to Make Predictions, Especially About the Future.

Don Boudreaux argues that predatory pricing is a myth: The Problem With Predation.

And finally I liked this quote by Bryan Caplan:

Before you study public opinion, you wonder why policy isn’t far better. After you study public opinion, you wonder why policy isn’t far worse

Codes and how to break them

April 3, 2011

Cryptography refers to both the practice and study of hiding information. Modern cryptography is a field in which the disciplines of mathematics, computer science, and electrical engineering meet and its applications include ATM cards, computer passwords, and electronic commerce. According to Wikipedia, the earliest known use of cryptography is found in non-standard hieroglyphs carved into monuments from Egypt’s Old Kingdom some 4500 years ago. These were probably not serious attempts at secret communication; they seem to have been attempts at mystery, or they may have just been challenging those who saw to decipher it

However, cryptography, should not be seen as a game or some arcane discipline. Codes have decided wars and changed the course of history. They have been the subject of movies like Mercury Rising, U-571 and Windtalkers. These movies tend to be disappointing and far less interesting than reality.  Many writers have been fascinated by the world of cryptography. We have The Gold Bug, by Edgar Allan Poe, the Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson, Enigma by Robert Harris and of course more recently in The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Michael Drosnin’s, The Bible Code is supposed to be non-fiction. It purported to prove that the Holy Book had predicted historical events such as the assassination of President Kennedy This is a case of mathematical seek and ye shall find. It is inevitable that computers will be able to find patterns in a large text, especially when you don’t set out what you are looking for in advance, or the gap between the letters is not established. Without such constraints, any pattern you wish to find is likely to be there. Drosnin, sick of the book’s detractors issued a challenge to his critics:

When my critics find a message about the assassination of a prime minister encrypted in Moby Dick, I’ll believe them.’”  That was an unwise move as mathematicians immediately set to work examining Herman Melville’s magnum opus and found references to the assassinations of Indira Gandhi, Leon Trotsky and John F. Kennedy.

An important part of the history of codes is steganography, the art and science of writing hidden messages in such a way that they can only be understood by the sender and the intended recipient. This can be done in a number of ways. One classic method used by the ancient Greeks was to shave the messenger’s head, tattoo a message on it and then allow the hair to grow back. The Ancient Chinese were big on steganography because in Chinese each character represents a word or a concept, which makes it difficult to hide the content. They would write their secret message on a piece of fine silk, which they would make into a little ball. This would be covered with wax and then swallowed by the messenger. Steganography was not confined to the ancient world. The period between the two word wars saw the invention of microdot technology, in which a text or image is substantially reduced in size so that it can be put on to a 1mm disc. It could be used to pass messages through insecure postal channels. Invisible ink is another steganographic technique. This may sound like something that schoolboys get up to but it is still relevant today. British Muslim, Rangzieb Ahmed, who was allegedly the highest ranking Al-Qaeda operative in the United Kingdom, was arrested in 2005. He had a diary in his possession which contained Al-Qaeda contacts, some of which were written in invisible ink. Today Steganography is still used to hide secret messages on the Internet.

While steganography was about hiding the existence of the message cryptography involves scrambling the message up so that it becomes unreadable.  It was linked to the spread of literacy, the invention of the alphabet and the rise of large empires, where safe communication across great landmasses was at a premium. The Romans made an important contribution to cryptography – the Caesar shift cipher, a technique used by Julius Caesar to communicate with his generals. This would form the basis of cryptography for the next 900 years. The next important jump was down to serendipity. Arabic scholars in their quest to understand the Qur’an better engaged in sophisticated, in-depth study. This led them to see patterns and from this frequency analysis, a key tool in early cryptanalysis, was born. This analysis is based on the fact that, in any given page of written language, certain letters and combinations of letters occur with varying frequencies. For example, if E represents 12% of the original message, it should also appear approximately 12% of the time in the coded message in the guise of another letter. You also play with the fact that vowels are very promiscuous and can go with almost any letter, whereas consonants tend be more strait-laced and combine less frequently. By doing a frequency analysis of the coded message, you will be able to establish what each letter represents and thus break the code.

The next case I want to look at is the famous German Enigma machine. Its messages were broken by the boffins at Bletchley Park. A key figure here was Alan Turing, one of the founders of modern computing. Sadly Turing didn’t get the recognition he deserved. In 1952, when he was reporting a burglary to the police, he revealed that he was having a homosexual relationship. The police arrested him and he was charged with gross indecency. The subsequent trial and conviction were humiliating for Turing. His security clearance was withdrawn and he was forced to undergo hormone treatment, which made him impotent and obese. On June 7, 1954, at the age of 40, Turing he committed suicide by eating an apple that had been dipped in cyanide. One shudders to think what would have happen if his homosexuality had been discovered during the war.

One famous use of codes were the so-called code talkers, Native Americans serving in the United States Marine Corps whose primary job was the transmission of secret tactical messages. The most important contribution was from bilingual Navajo speakers. It was the idea of Phillip Johnston, the son of a Protestant missionary, a civilian who was living in California. Johnston, who had grown up on the Navajo reservation, was fluent in the language. He realised that its hideous complexity, typical of many tribal languages that have relatively few speakers, would be perfect for bamboozling the enemy. Verbs incorporate adverbs and reflect whether or not the speaker has experienced what they are talking about, or whether it is hearsay. A single verb can be equivalent to a whole sentence, making it virtually impossible for foreigners to extract the meaning. It was to become one of the only unbroken codes in modern military history, completely baffling the Japanese in the Pacific. Native Americans from the Choctaw tribe had been used during World War I. Although the enemy was unable to understand the language, there was a major drawback – the Choctaw had no lexis for modern military jargon. This made efficient unambiguous communication very hard. Having learned from their previous experience, the Marine Corps built a lexicon of 274 Navajo terms to replace otherwise untranslatable English words, thus removing any ambiguities. They used words from the natural world.  Here are a few examples:

fighter plane   da-he-tih-hi    humming bird

submarine   besh-lo  iron fish

battleship      lo-tso    whale

In just eight weeks trainee code talkers were able to learn the entire lexicon and alphabet. Words that were neither in the natural Navajo vocabulary nor in the list of 274 authorized codewords had to be spelled out using the special alphabet. Because they had an oral culture they were used to memorising folk stories prayers songs and family histories they had few difficulties. This proved to be a great advantage because they didn’t need codebooks, which could easily have been captured by the enemy. There were some 420 Navajo code talkers and their special role in securing communications was classified information and like the codebreakers at Bletchley Park they were unable to reveal their amazing contribution. It was only in 1982 that they received the recognition they deserve; the U.S. Government named August 14 National Navajo Code Talkers Day.

The 1970s saw a watershed in cryptography – thanks to some pioneering work done by American cryptographers, the knowledge and techniques necessary for encoding or scrambling speech and writing are no longer the sole preserve of government intelligence agencies. The end of the near monopoly enjoyed by governments on high quality cryptography has made the authorities uneasy. States generally like to be able to monitor and gather evidence about their citizens, and have traditionally relied on the wiretap to gather evidence of criminal activity. J. Edgar Hoover used evidence gathered in this way to harass political dissenters and activists. He amassed a huge collection of secret files on political figures. What would happen if the state  could no longer do this? If everything is encrypted, the security services may be unable to recover any useful information. This worry has led the U.S. government to lobby for legislation against the use of cryptography. This story does not generally hit the headlines. It seems esoteric – codes and ciphers are the stuff of spies. But it raises important questions about government powers and our right to privacy. What is so fascinating about this scenario is that it is the opposite of dystopias like 1984. In these nightmare worlds the government knew everything about us. We may be facing an entirely different problem.  So far U.S. governments have been relatively successful in suppressing the spread of encryption technologies both at home and abroad. Will they be able to stop the genie getting out of the bottle? What seems clear is that codes and cryptography will continue to play a vital role in our world for many years to come.