Trolling, trolling, trolling

October 26, 2014

A while back I did a piece about patent trolls, the companies that enforce patents in an aggressive or opportunistic way, with no intention of making or marketing the patented invention. But there is another kind of troll that is much more in the public eye – the internet troll. The internet is apparently teeming with them and no-one is immune from their bile. Caroline Criado-Perez was threatened with rape for suggesting that Jane Austen be put on the Bank Of England £10 note. More recently there is something called Gamergate, a controversy, which I don’t fully understand, in video game culture involving sexism and misogyny.

This might give the impression that this is a question of misogyny. But men too are frequently the victims. One famous case involved Real Madrid keeper Iker Casillas, who used Instagram to post a photo of his wife, Spanish TV presenter Sara Carbonero, and their baby boy, Martín, at the beach. A troll commented:

Throw it in the water and see if it floats, mole!” The word “mole” refers to the rumours that Casillas revealed dressing room secrets to the press under Mourinho’s reign.

Why do people behave this way? Psychologists talk about the Gyges Effect, a phenomenon whereby internet users experience a loss of inhibition that is not present in normal face-to-face communication. The name comes from the story of the Ring of Gyges, which Plato wrote about nearly two and a half millennia ago. The shepherd, Gyges, discovers a ring that allows him to become invisible at will. He uses the protection this offers to infiltrate the royal household, seduce the queen, assassinate the king and take over the kingdom. Anonymity can make even the most moral of people act in an unscrupulous way. We can see this clearly in the case of trolling. Any empathy is turned off; there is not an actual human being at the end of the stream of insults.

We live in an age of vox pop, where everyone has their say. On the telly it tends to be inane, but harmless. Online participation is a different beast altogether. Websites like having their readers make comments. For one thing, it drives traffic there. I sometimes regret not making more effort on the comments part of this blog. But I am busy during the week and don’t always respond to what readers have posted. However, there is a dark side to allowing carte blanche to readers.

The most dramatic case in recent times has been that of Brenda Leyland. The 62-year old woman was found dead in a hotel, after being doorstepped by Sky News reporter Martin Brunt about her Twitter activity, which involved 4,625 tweets sent over a period of four years about the Madeleine McCann case. She was undoubtedly obsessed, and her ideas about the McCanns and some kind of conspiracy were outlandish. But does that make her a troll? The trolls I have seen were not of the threatening variety. Now it was the Sky reporter who was being blamed for Leyland’s suicide. That seems to be a gross simplification; there may well have been other questions in this troubled woman’s life.

This case raises the question of free speech. In a piece in Spiked, Brendan O’Neil takes on the trollhunters:

Trollhunters are the scourge of the internet. Yes, trolls can be annoying, and even scary sometimes. I’ve had my fair share of emailed death threats, discussion threads devoted to telling me what a cock I am, and even a bag of shit with one of my articles in it hand-delivered to my office (old-school trolling). But the trollhunters, from misogyny-policing feminists to the papers that splash photos of trolls across their front pages to the police who arrest them in dawn raids, do something far worse than any vocab-challenged bloke with a grudge and an internet connection could ever hope to achieve. They chill and sanitise the internet, and invite the criminalisation of more and more forms of online speech.  

Trolling may be the price we have to pay for a free internet. I have never been trolled and I do find it rather depressing the depths to which some people will sink. But probably the best advice is summed up in the slogan, Please do not feed the trolls. Iker Casillas famously got responded to the troll:

“You must be a huge son of a bitch to write that. I hope you have enough shame to think for a few minutes about what you just said, arsehole!” It is a natural response, but an unwise. I thing he should take a leaf out of classicist Mary Beard’s book. The Cambridge University professor was trolled by former public schoolboy Oliver Rawlings. The 20-year-old tweeted the following:


Beard responded by retweeting Rawlings’s comment, shaming the troll. Rawlings recently found a job and Beard has expressed her satisfaction:

“I am very, very pleased he has got a job. Oliver made a stupid mistake, he was brave enough to apologise, and that is the end of the matter to me. Young people do some very stupid things. I think we can give them a second chance. I have now put this behind me and I shall watch Oliver’s career with interest.”

Procaffinating and other new words

October 26, 2014

Here is another selection of new words I found on the Wordspy website:


The purchase of a company for the skills and talents of its employees rather than for its products or other assets.


A person who is excessively preoccupied by their dog’s health, or who tends to imagine ailments that the dog does not actually have.


A middle-aged man who is a devotee of cycling or some other sport that requires or encourages the wearing of Lycra. [Acronym: middle-aged man in Lycra]


Explaining in an overly intellectual, obsessively detailed way, particularly when the topic is obscure or highly technical.


Delaying or postponing something until one has had one or more cups of coffee; drinking coffee slowly as a delaying tactic


A newly coined word that is not yet widely used or accepted.

pup nup

A prenuptial agreement that specifies who gets custody of the couple’s dog or dogs


Mental distress felt while awaiting the results of a medical test, particularly an MRI or CT scan.


The belief that every problem has a solution, particular one that utilizes technology.


An eye-catching or compelling item that makes a person stop scrolling through a list of posts, particularly when using the thumb to scroll a touchscreen device.

time confetti 

Brief scraps of leisure time scattered throughout a person’s day.


A person who repeatedly proofreads writing because they are paranoid about publishing work that contains typos or other errors.


A group photograph taken by one of the members of the group. Also: ussie. [us + selfie]

A textbook for $2,018: a look inside the crazy world of academic publishing

October 19, 2014

My students are wont to complain about the price of textbooks. A typical book costs in the region of €50. As a parent I am not immune from these problems. In Spain you have to pay for all school textbooks, although some local governments do offer means-tested grants. Between €300 and €400 is a typical amount. What’s more having to cart all these books around may well have a negative effect on our children’s backs when they grow up. So far no solution has emerged to the latter problem, but there is one in the former. At the end of the year many parents swap the used books, with no money changing heads.

But it is the United States where we see this problem in its purest state. A report issued earlier this year noted that just five textbook companies control more than 80% of the $8.8 billion publishing market. The graph below illustrates what has been happening to university textbook prices in the last 15 years or so.


And I came across this list of the highest priced college textbooks:

  1. Acta Philosophorum The First Journal of Philosophy: $1,450
  2. Encyclopedia of International Media and Communications: $1,215
  3. Management Science An Anthology: $850
  4. History of Early Film: $740
  5. Biostatistical Genetics and Genetic Epidemiology: $665
  6. Companion Encyclopedia of Psychology: $600
  7. Feminism and Politics: $600
  8. Concepts and Design of Chemical Reactors: $593
  9. Advanced Semiconductor and Organic Nano-Techniques: $570
  10. Ethics in Business and Economics: $550
  11. Environment in the New Global Economy: $510
  12. Solid State Chemistry and Its Applications: $500

I though that these might be the kind of factoids that do the rounds on the internet so I typed in Acta Philosophorum the First Journal of Philosophy into Amazon. It actually cost $1,566. I did the same with the Encyclopedia of International Media and Communications.  Admittedly, it is a four-Volume set, but the listed price was actually $2,125! Luckily those chaps at Amazon offer a reduction and you can get it for just $2,018. Indeed, both books came with this enticing offer:

Special Shipping Information: This item normally requires a shipping charge, but is eligible for FREE Shipping today.

Why are the prices of textbooks so out of control?  This is the question that Planet Money wanted to look at in a recent podcast. In the US the profit margins on high school books are around 5-10%, whereas the university ones are 25%.

The starting point has to be the anomalous nature of this market. In particular we have what economists call a principal-agent problem. This happens when someone (the principal) hires someone else (the agent) to carry out a task and the interests of the agent conflict with those of the principal. In this case the principals are the students and their agents are their teachers. The professor chooses the book, but he is not the one paying for it. This can create very bad incentives. According to the programme many professors do not even know the cost of the books that their students will have to buy. The sales reps do not seem to emphasise the price when showing their wares. What you get instead is a kind of arms race in which the books compete not on price but by adding new components and features. It rather reminds me of the regulated airline industry in which airlines used to compete on frequency or the quality of their meals but not on prices.

For me the most interesting part of the podcast is when they interview Greg Mankiw, whose book Principles of Economics, 7th Edition costs on Amazon $289.25, or $69.50 if you want to rent it. I don’t know if it’s possible to sublet it, but that might be worth looking into. As the book mentions the principal agent problem in chapter 22 his students may want to think of it as a practical, if somewhat expensive case study on its application. Mankiw does defend himself arguing that for students what is most valuable is their time. He wouldn’t want to “skimp” on quality. Well Mr Mankiw, I think we can safely say that there is no danger of that.

In fact, I do realize that this kind of textbook is not like your common-or-garden bestseller. Their print runs are more limited and they require a lot of research. As the price of books goes up, students look ways to beat the system. There has always been a second-hand market in academic textbooks, but new solutions are emerging. As I mentioned above, you can now rent the books. Or worse for the publishers, they can now be illegally downloaded. And those students with moral qualms are just skipping the books altogether. All this means that the window for making money on a textbook is getting shorter. Consequently, publishers increase the prices making students even less willing to fork out their money. Prices, as shown in the graph, may have gone up, but what we are seeing is flat to declining spending.

The problem is that the value of a textbook is subjective. As another economist, Timothy Taylor, pointed out in a recent blog post, there has not been an experiment in which students were randomly assigned different textbooks but were subsequently taught and evaluated in the same way. If they kept time diaries, we would see if higher-priced books, as Mankiw claims, save time or improve academic performance. It is not obvious that a lower-cost book would be less effective than a higher-cost book from one of the big five publishers.

Mr Taylor has put his money where his mouth is. The third edition of his Principles of Economics textbook is available through Textbook Media. There are distinct prices. $25 gets you online access, but there are other bundles, the most expensive of which includes the paperback and the online version. Such “skimping” must make Mankiw apoplectic.

What about the future? I am hoping that e-readers and tablets will help to bring the price down I have used Amazon’s look inside feature to take a peek inside Mankiw’s book. I think it looks well-written, but I fail to see $300 of value there. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time. I also had a look at Amazon’s Spanish website and they also had books that require you to take out mortgage, including a bilingual dictionary of economic and financial terms which cost more than €1000. we need to look for alternatives. As well as Taylor’s textbook, I can thoroughly recommend the CEE Encyclopedia, which you can find online here I would like to see open source textbooks. But my idea goes much further than this. I see textbooks as one way of learning but we need to take advantage of other sources of knowledge. I think the internet is a wonderful tool, of which we have scratched the surface.

Odd book titles #4

October 19, 2014

I haven’t featured the Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year for a while. Here are the short lists and eventual winners for the last two years:


Was Hitler Ill? Was Hitler ILL?: A Final Diagnosis by Henrik Eberle and Hans-Joachim Neumann

Lofts of North America: Pigeon Lofts by Jerry Gagne (Foy’s Pet Supplies)

How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants by David Rees (Melville House)

God’s Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis by Tom Hickman (Square Peg)

How Tea Cosies Changed the World by Loani Prior (Murdoch)

WINNER: Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop: And Other Practical Advice In Our Campaign Against The Fairy Kingdom by Reginald Bakeley (Conari)


Working Class Cats: The Bodega Cats of New York City by Chris Balsiger and Erin Canning (SCB Distributed Publishers)

Are Trout South African? (Stories of Fish, People and Places) by Duncan Brown (Picador South Africa)

The Origin of Feces : What Excrement Tells Us about Evolution, Ecology, and a Sustainable Society by David Walter-Toews (ECW)

Pie-ography: Where Pie Meets Biography -42 Fabulous Recipes Inspired by 39 Extraordinary Women by Jo Packham (Quarry)

How to Pray When You’re Pissed at God by Ian Punnett (Harmony)

WINNER: How to Poo on a Date : The Lovers’ Guide to Toilet Etiquette by Mats & Enzo (Prion Books)


Friedensreich Hundertwasser – the nudist who hated straight lines

October 11, 2014

As you will know I love listening to podcasts. One of my favourites is 99% Invisible, a 15- minute show about the unseen and overlooked aspects of design and architecture. The title comes from a quote by the great Buckminster Fuller – “Ninety-nine percent of who you are is invisible and untouchable“. Anyway it was on this show that I learned one of the great eccentrics of the twentieth century.

Born in Vienna in 1928, Friedensreich Hundertwasser was an iconoclastic artist architect and environmentalist. He was actually born Friedrich Stowasser, but changed it to the more German-sounding Hundertwasser, which means hundred waters. He had a complicated upbringing in the Austrian capital. His father, Ernst, died when he was just one. His mother was Jewish, but pretended to be Catholic and to avoid suspicions young Fred was baptized in that faith in 1935. To this end he also joined the Hitler Youth. This strategy was probably wise; 69 relations on his mother’s side would be deported and killed before the end of the war.

Hundertwasser briefly attended the Montessori School, which may have contributed to his belief in radical self-expression. He credited the school with influencing the choice of colour in his paintings His formal art training included three months at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna in 1948 and a day at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1950. However, Hundertwasser would later profess an intense dislike for all art theory. He preferred a quasi-mystical conception of art. He founded Transautomatism, a kind of surrealism which focussed on the viewer’s fantasy rather than an objective interpretation, allowing different people see different things in the same picture. Hundertwasser’s believed that straight lines were ‘godless and immoral’. We had lost our connection to the organic geometry of nature. You can see his paintings in this video:

Beginning in the early 1950s, he began to focus on architecture bringing these same concerns with him. This led him to reject orthodox architectural ideas. Our built environment is dominated by straight lines. We take it for granted and economically it makes sense. But this kind of reasoning was anathema to Hundertwasser. He felt straight lines enslaved modern man in a cold heartless modern rationalist architecture. He hated the idea of being forced to live in boxes. His most iconic project was the Hundertwasserhaus in his native Vienna. It was his paintings made architecture.


One of his last architectural projects was the Green Citadel of Magdeburg, which he had been working on it right up until his death in 2000. It was finally in a ceremonial act on 3rd October 2005.


Hundertwasser did not limit himself to art and architecture; he also created flags, stamps, coins, and posters. One of Hundertwasser’s most famous designs was the Koru Flag, a proposal for a new national flag for New Zealand based on a Maori motif. It was not accepted ultimately.


There is no doubt that he enjoyed courting controversy. He was big on manifestos. In 1958 he delivered the Mould Manifesto against Rationalism in Architecture on the occasion of a congress at Seckau monastery. It was in the Mouldiness Manifesto that he first claimed the “Window Right”:

A person in a rented apartment must be able to lean out of his window and scrape off the masonry within arm’s reach. And he must be allowed to take a long brush and paint everything outside within arm’s reach. So that it will be visible from afar to everyone in the street that someone lives there who is different from the imprisoned, enslaved, standardised man who lives next door.”

He was very much into mould, believing it to be part of nature. He argued that watching it grow was much more interesting than sitting in front of the television This closeness to nature is the part of Hundertwasser that is hardest to stomach. He also favoured what he called indoor humus toilets. This humus has nothing to do with the creamy chickpea dip which originated in the Middle East, but the dark organic material in soils, produced by the decomposition of vegetable or animal matter. What Hundertwasser wanted was to have compost toilets within his buildings, something which the planning authorities took a dim view of.

Another of his manifestos was the Right to a Third Skin. For Hundertwasser, man has five skins: his natural epidermis, his clothes, his house, his identity and the planet. He gave that speech without his second skin as can be seen in the photo below. But we are talking about the sixties, and in those days everything went.


In the 1970s, Hundertwasser acquired a number of properties in the Bay of Islands in New Zealand. He was able to live largely self-sufficiently and at one with nature. He installed solar panels, a water wheel a biological water purification plant and his trademark grass roofs. Hundertwasser was buried in New Zealand after his death at sea on board the QE2 in 2000 at the age of 71.

 I have to say I was initially drawn to Hundertwasser by his eccentricity, but I am now attracted to his art and architecture. Architectural critics accuse of being kitschy, but I like to see buildings that stand out and I think we can say that nobody could accuse his buildings of being bland. Having said that, I’m not sure I’d want to actually live in one. We have uneven floors in our flat and it doesn’t feel like a “a melody to the feet“. But we do need people who push the boundaries. And his idea of vegetation growing in and out of buildings has now become a standard practice. But I’ll think I’ll give mould and compost toilets a miss.

Hundertwasser in quotes

October 11, 2014

Here is a selection:

  1. The straight line is ungodly.
  2. Progression is retrogression and retrogression becomes progression.
  3. When we dream alone it is only a dream, but when many dream together it is the beginning of a new reality.
  4. Just carrying a ruler with you in your pocket should be forbidden, at least on a moral basis. The ruler is the symbol of the new illiteracy. The ruler is the symptom of the new disease, disintegration of our civilisation.
  5. There are no evils in Nature, there are only evils of Man.
  6. The colourful, the abundant, the manifold, is always better than mediocre grey and uniformity.
  7. Everyone should be able to build, and as long as this freedom to build does not exist, the present-day planned architecture cannot be considered art at all.
  8. We must at last put a stop to having people move into their quarters like chickens and rabbits into their coops,
  9. One must live as though one were at war and everything rationed
  10. Only when architect, bricklayer and tenant are a unity, or one and the same person, can we speak of architecture. Everything else is not architecture, but a criminal act which has taken on form.
  11. Today we live in a chaos of straight lines, in a jungle of straight lines. If you do not believe this, take the trouble to count the straight lines which surround you. Then you will understand, for you will never finish counting.”
  12. Visual pollution is more poisonous than any other pollution because it kills the soul.
  13. I should perhaps like to be known as the magician of vegetation or something similar. We are in need of magic. I fill a picture until it is full with magic, as one fills up a glass with water.

Pinker on style

October 5, 2014

As I have mentioned in an earlier post there is an ongoing debate in language between prescriptivists and descriptivists. The former want to see language as it should be, whereas the latter prefer to see language as it actually is. This war is reflected in Steven Pinker’s latest work – The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Pinker, like most professional linguists, is in the descriptivist camp.

This will not be a comprehensive review of the book. Instead, I intend to look at what I consider the most interesting parts.

He begins with what he considers good writing, with some fine examples from Richard Dawkins, Brian Greene and Rebecca Goldstein, his wife. I love the clarity with which these writers express themselves. Alas, such clarity is not universal. Particularly egregious examples are from those mainly left-wing academics. Pinker cites the late Dennis Dutton’s bad Writing Contest. The winner in 1998 was by the critic, philosopher and gender theorist, Judith Butler:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

It does bear a striking resemblance to The Postmodernism Generator, a website which uses an algorithm to randomly generate this kind of nonsense. Here is an example:

If one examines social realism, one is faced with a choice: either reject neocultural dialectic theory or conclude that the significance of the writer is deconstruction. It could be said that social realism holds that society, somewhat ironically, has intrinsic meaning, given that Lacan’s model of submaterialist capitalism is valid. The primary theme of von Junz’s[2] analysis of Sartreist absurdity is the role of the participant as artist.

The main theme of the works of Joyce is not discourse per se, but postdiscourse. However, if submaterialist capitalism holds, we have to choose between postdialectic discourse and capitalist nationalism. Lyotard uses the term ‘submaterialist capitalism’ to denote the difference between culture and sexual identity.

Why do people write so incomprehensibly? Pinker does not think that there is a conspiracy to write badly. The reality is that it is difficult to write well. There is something called the curse of knowledge – the difficulty of imagining what it’s like for someone else not to know something that you know. In fact, it’s hard work to sound simple and natural. In the case of postmodernist writers I do think this he is being charitable. I think that there is a lot of pretentiousness to hide the lack of intellectual rigour.

The final chapter is an A to Z of the areas of controversy. I have covered some of them in previous posts. Here is a selection:

Dangling modifiers

The rule decrees that the implied subject of the modifier must be identical to the overt subject of the main clause. This is one of my favourite topics as its one of those errors that can produce hilarious results

As a baboon who grew up wild in the jungle, I realized that Wiki had special nutritional needs.

For Pinker the principal criteria should be to avoid confusion. He argues that the decision of whether to rewrite a sentence in order to align its subject and modifier is a matter of judgement, not grammar.

Singular they

In a previous post, How to be a pedant, I pointed out the Fergie song Big Girls Don’t Cry. In it Stacy Ann Ferguson committed the following faux pas:

“And I’m gonna miss you like a child misses their blanket.”

As I said in that piece I have a lot of sympathy with the singular they. Indeed, as loyal reader Nick Gomez showed old Anglo Saxon used their for 3rd person possessives of unknown gender. In question tags we use they with singular words like nobody:

Nobody loves me, do they?

There have been gender-neutral pronouns that have been proposed over the years, such as hir, zhe, or thon. These have not caught on. How you solve this problem will depend on the level of formality, the nature of the antecedent (It’s not as problematic with a universally quantified antecedent like “everyone”) and the available alternatives. It is also possible to make the antecedent plural.

The singular they has history and logic behind it. Pinker cites experiments which show that this use causes little or no delay to readers’ comprehension times, whereas using a generic he slows readers’ understanding considerably.

Serial commas

The serial (AKA the Oxford comma) is one that precedes the conjunction before the final item in a list of three or more items:

This book is dedicated to my roommates, Nicole Kidman, and God.

As Pinker shows you have to be careful when you leave them out:

Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.

This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

Highlights of Peter Ustinov’s global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector

This is one area where Pinker is more of a purist. Other include disinterested as impartial, literally as actually and data as a plural countable noun. I do feel the need to disagree with the Harvard scientist. For me data should be an uncountable mass noun.

In my case Pinker really is preaching to the converted, but some of the Grammar Taliban would benefit from a read. Many seem to be stuck in the 19th century. I am not a linguistic anarchist. It is probably necessary to be aware of these rules, even if they often have little basis in reality. You may be judged as a poor writer for flouting (not flaunting) them. But we need to get rid of some of these bogus rules. Only then will we be able to have a more informed debate.