Summer break

June 28, 2015

As usual I will be taking a break from blogging over the summer months. I should be back around the middle of September.

Have a great summer!

Three of my favourite foreign language TV shows

June 28, 2015

We are now said to be living in a golden age of television. This is also reflected in series which are not in English. The classic example of this is the boom in Nordic Noir of the last few years, with such shows as The Killing, Wallender and The Bridge. There are other European countries getting in on the act with Spiral (France), Inspector Montalbano (Italy) and Salamander (Belgium) all being highly entertaining. Today I want to look at three of the more recent shows; two are Danish and one Italian, none of which resemble Nordic Noir. Here is my selection:

1 – 1864

1864 is a Danish television series which deals with the Second Schleswig War between Denmark and Prussia and Austria which ended in 1864. This year has an iconic status, like 1066 for England or 1940 for France. The war proved to be a great humiliation for Denmark, which ended losing around 25% of its territory and its world-power status and prestige following a disastrous war. The story operates on different levels. You have two brothers and their love triangle, a group of debauched aristocrats, the political machinations in Denmark and of course the battle scenes. There is also parallel story set in 2020 of a young girl who has lost her older brother in the war in Afghanistan.

I have probably seen too many films and series about WWI, WWII or Vietnam. I have to confess that I knew very little of this historical episode. But that is what makes it so interesting. We see how Germany is about to come into being. But we don’t get that all-too familiar trope of the Germans as the baddies. In particular, Otto von Bismarck comes across as a pragmatic and sane leader. He was indeed the politician who gave us realpolitik. The same cannot be said for the Danish leaders, who seem to have been the victims of a collective attack of madness. They just had no idea what they were letting themselves in for. This approach is typified by Ditlev Gothard Monrad, a clergyman, politician, and leader of the mid-19th-century Danish political reform movement, who was Council President between 1863 and 1864, during the early part of Second Schleswig War. Egged on by Johanne Luise Heiberg, one of the greatest Danish actresses of the 19th century, he wilfully refuses to accept reality, leading his country to disaster. Depressed and disillusioned by the failure of the war, Monrad emigrated to New Zealand, 13,000 miles away from the land he professed such a love for.

2 – The Legacy

Instead of being a whodunit The Legacy (in Danish: Arvingerne, The Heirs) is a whogetsit. The story begins with the death of Veronika Grønnegaard, an eccentric, internationally renowned artist. She is not, though, the victim of a sadistic serial killer, but of cancer. Grønnegaard’s four adult children– her gallerist daughter Gro, her estranged son, the repressed lawyer Frederik, slacker and ne’er-do-well, Emil and the secret illegitimate daughter Signe – are thanks to their mother’s will about to have their lives turned upside down. Indeed it is Signe who will inherit the deceased matriarch’s rather dilapidated property. Where there’s a will, there’s a relative. What was meant to be a quick and painless estate division becomes a journey into secrets, lies, greed and, above all, sibling rivalry. In the words of the show’s creator and chief writer Maya Ilsøe: “You don’t know your family until you inherit with them.”

There is a second series is now being shown.

3 – 1992

Set in Rome, Milan and different Italian cities, 1992, which could be described as a cross between Mad Men, House of Cards and The Sopranos, follows the intertwined lives six people against the backdrop of Italy’s rapidly changing political landscape. The show is set in the early 1990s. At the time Italy was in the midst of the Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) investigation into political corruption. I wasn’t living in Italy at this time, but it feels like you have been transported there.

The star of the show is undoubtedly Leonardo Notte a slick, brilliant advertising guru, a la Don Draper, who sees the potential of Silvio Berlusconi and wants to around when Il Cavaliere (The Knight) makes his move into politics. Indeed in 1994, Berlusconi and his Forza Italia did enter politics by storm winning the elections.

A new party, Umberto Bossi’s populist Northern League is also on the rise. The traditional parties are fighting for their lives. We get judicial investigations into corrupt politicians and businessmen, who find themselves behind bars. This leads a number of them to commit suicide.  At the same time anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino are both brutally murdered.  Ultimately Clean Hands would bring down the country’s Prime Minister, Bettino Craxi

The creative time behind the show are currently are said to be working on 1993, the second part of a planned trilogy. I can’t wait.

I couldn’t find a trailer with English subtitles, but this will give you a flavour of the series:


Here’s what I’ll be watching over the next few months:

Ballers 1st season

Halt and Catch Fire 2nd season

Jordskott 1st season

Orange is The New Black 3rd season

The Legacy 2nd season


The Rise and Fall of the Silk Road

June 21, 2015

Here are a couple of videos:


I’ll see you on the dark side of the net

June 21, 2015

I’ve been on the internet for some twenty years, I think. In fact, I have trouble remembering the year in which I started. I still feel a sense of wonder every time I use this incredible tool. However, there is a part of the internet that I have never seen. It is a hidden underworld frequented by people peddling drugs, pornography, hate and extreme political opinions, known as the dark net and it has recently been the subject of a book.

In The Dark Net Jamie Bartlett delves into this unsettling world. The term was popularised by four Microsoft-affiliated researchers in a 2002 paper. In the beginning it was a series of email lists, message boards and networks, the project of a few bored computer scientists and libertarians. They saw the internet as a sphere of freedom away from the prying eyes of the state.

They were helped in this endeavour by the government! The Tor (The Onion Router) browser was invented in the mid-1990s by the U.S. Naval intelligence, who wanted a web browser that would allow their intelligence officers to browse the net without giving themselves away. This software, which you download it from the net, has been taken on by a number of websites who have taken advantage of the privacy it offers to offer services that the state does not want to be offered online.

It was Tor the software that was chosen by Edward Snowden to send information about PRISM to the Washington Post and The Guardian in June 2013. The NSA whistleblower may be in Russia now, but the Russians are working to undermine the system. Last year the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs offered a 3.9 million rouble (approximately $111,000) contract for technology that can identify the users of Tor,

The Silk Road has been the emblematic site of the Dark Net. The site, which took its name from the 4,000-mile network of trade and cultural transmission routes that connected the West and the East for over a thousand years, was created in 2011. It was an online black market, notorious as a platform for selling illegal drugs. I use “was” because the site was taken down by the FBI in 2013. Its founder, Ross William Ulbricht, aka Dread Pirate Roberts, was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole earlier this year.

The Silk Road was, essentially a black market version of eBay or Amazon, where you could buy virtually anything. The comparison with these giants of online sales is very real. The key to its success was the customer service. They had hundreds of different vendors who were kept in check by the user review system. In this type of system the different vendors, who all use pseudonyms, desperately want you to give them five stars out of five. The real money is to be made in repeat business; the best way to generate this is by supplying a high-quality product. This is the reputation economy in action.

The website is the convenient online alternative buying on street corners. In this type of transaction you are taking your life into your hands. You may end up getting stabbed and you have no idea about the purity. The Silk Road was a competitive market, which provided users with some kind of quality assurance over the product they were getting. The price of cocaine was around half that on the street. The real difference, however, was in purity. On the street the purity of can be 40% or as low as 2%, with 25% being the average. On the Silk Road it was generally around 60% but could be as high as 95%.

Ross Ulbricht is an enigmatic character. A university graduate and self-proclaimed libertarian, Ulbricht was living under the name Joshua Terrey in a shared flat until his arrest in 2013. He had told his housemates that he was a currency trader, recently returned from Australia. The FBI alleges that they confiscated 144,000 Bitcoins said to be worth some $150 million from Ulbricht’s computer.

Is Ulbricht a genuine libertarian or are his lofty words about individual liberty a cover for what is a criminal enterprise. There is no doubt that many libertarians feel attracted to the internet, a place where encryption allows you anonymity. As I pointed out at the beginning of this piece, this kind of encrypted activity does appeal to a libertarian philosophy. It is about freedom from censorship, freedom from government. Society can be organised better through markets and individuals than through governments. At the same time, some of the activities on there are clearly criminal and of questionable morality. It’s not just drugs which are available in this anarchic netherworld – it is also a haven for trolls, piracy hackers and child pornography. It was said that you could even hire a hitman.

What was the effect of the government’s shutting down of The Silk Road? As soon as it went down, as is wont to happen in cyberspace, a number of other replica sites turned up in its place. It is like the hydra’s head and there will surely be dozens of similar sites. Readers of this blog will be aware of my opposition to the so-called War on Drugs or the “noble experiment” that was Prohibition. Such repressive policies have generally been ineffective. I see no reason why the results of current policies will be any different.

This quote from Heisenberg2.0, who was a Silk Road competitor, sums it up:

“And this is what Law Enforcement is now parading as a victory? Over two years of investigation, millions of dollars spent and for what? So a couple of armchair programmers can build it again in a few days while in the meantime vendors simply move to other sites.”

The dark net is a paradoxical place. The TOR was seen as a network that would help people in authoritarian countries communicate and not be censored. Indeed it has served a useful function. But you can never control how people will use a technology.  If you try too hard to sabotage these privacy and encryption systems, you are also going to penalise all the people that use it to make the world a better place, not just those with nefarious purposes. This is the difficult trade-off we face. I think the benefits are so large that they outweigh the harms.

If we want democratic campaigners, civil liberties groups and whistleblowers to have protection and privacy, we will have to accept the downsides. But we shouldn’t destroy the whole system simply as a result of some bad behaviour. I am highly suspicious of government intentions. The solution may be worse than problem.

You can hear an interview with Bartlett here.


My political lexicon

June 14, 2015

I am a big fan of both political drama and comedy. At the moment I am following House of Cards, 1992 and Veep. But we mustn’t forget the original House of Cards, The Thick of It, Borgen or Yes Minister to name but a few. Frank Underwood, Selina Mayer, Pietro Bosco, Birgitte Nyborg, Malcolm Tucker and Sir Humphrey Appleby are now perhaps more familiar to me than today’s real politicians. To really appreciate these programmes you need to know the vocabulary. I am also a fan of the language of politics and English and American politics are a rich lexical source. Here is my selection:


Ballot comes from Italian ballotta, the diminutive of balla, meaning a “small ball used in voting” or a “secret vote taken by ballots”. It comes from Venice in the 16th century, where small coloured balls were placed in a container to register a vote-


A filibuster in the United States Senate usually refers to delaying tactics used to prevent a measure from being brought to a vote. This term, imported from the Spanish filibustero, is synonymous with piracy in the Caribbean in the 17TH century. In its political meaning did not come in until the latter half of the 19th century. The rules permit a senator, or a series of senators, to speak for as long as they wish and on any topic they choose. The only way to stop this is if three-fifths of the Senators (usually 60 out of 100 senators) agree to bring the debate a close. The classic method involves speaking for hours. Some practitioners have been known to recite cooking recipes. There is a dark side as this tactic was employed by Southern senators to stymie anti-lynching legislation. U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond holds the record for the longest filibuster goes to U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond. The senator from South Carolina spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.


Gerrymandering is the system of redrawing electoral districts that attempts to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries to create partisan advantaged districts. This portmanteau word is a combination of the surname of a Massachusetts governor last name and salamander. In 1812 Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party. The contorted districts in the Boston area were said to look like the shape of a salamander, leading to the use by the Boston Gazette in an article on 26 March 1812.

Gerrymandering is often done with the connivance of the Republicans and Democrats. What politicians value more than anything else is having a safe seat. This of course goes against the interests of the electorate.

This type of practice is prevalent n countries where the voting systems are not proportional. We have this kind of debate in the UK about constituency boundaries as demographics change. However, nothing prepared me what goes on across the Atlantic. You have to see it to believe it. Curiously the two are Democrat districts, but both parties get up to these shenanigans. Take a look at the first one, Maryland’s 3rd district:


This is known as the Pinwheel of Death. I checked on Wikipedia which defined a pinwheel as “a simple child’s toy made of a wheel of paper or plastic curls attached at its axle to a stick by a pin. It is designed to spin when blown upon by a person or by the wind”. I would say that a Rorschach test is a better comparison. A local reporter claimed that it took him nine hours to drive from end to end.

My second choice is the Illinois 4th district:

latin earmuffs

In this example the Democrats wanted to pack as many Hispanic voters as possible into Rep. Luis Gutierrez’s redrawn Chicago seat. The northern portion is predominantly Puerto Rican, whereas the southern part has a Mexican majority. The two sections are on opposite sides of the city and are only connected by a section of Interstate 294 to the west.

Hung parliament

This term which describes a situation in which no one party has an overall majority is actually fairly recent going back to the failure of Labour’s Harold Wilson to win an overall majority in the February 1974 election.

The Nasty Party

According to Wikipedia the first person to use the term Nasty Party referring to the Conservatives was actually a Conservative. In a speech in October 2002, Theresa May, then Chairperson of the party argued that:

There’s a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us – the Nasty Party.” This perception characterised the New Statesman, a British sitcom of the late 1980s and early 1990s which satirised the Conservative government of the time. The star of the show was Rik Mayall as Alan B’Stard. There was also a book a few years ago, Too Nice to be a Tory: It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want to by Jo-Anne Nadler. Curiously the word Tory comes from the Middle Irish word tóraidhe meaning outlaw, robber or brigand,

Pork barrel politics

The term pork barrel politics refers to spending which is intended to benefit constituents of a politician in return for their political support, which could be votes or campaign contributions. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the modern sense of the term from 1873.  One theory is that it originated in a pre-Civil War practice of giving slaves a barrel of salt pork as a reward.  They were then required to compete among themselves to get their share of the largesse. Apparently a barrel of salt pork was a common larder item in 19th century households, and could be used as a measure of the family’s financial well-being. In his 1845 novel The Chainbearer, James Fenimore Cooper wrote: “I hold a family to be in a desperate way, when the mother can see the bottom of the pork barrel.” Classic examples of pork-barrel legislation include Federal appropriations bills for dams, river and harbour improvements, and bridge and highway construction. These projects may not be bad, but when public money is involved, it would be ingenuous to think that purely logical criteria would be applied.

One of my political heroes has to be Robert Carlyle Byrd, a United States Senator from West Virginia for the Democratic Party. After serving as a U.S. Representative from 1953 until 1959, Byrd became the longest-serving U.S. Senator and, at the time of his death, he was the longest-serving member in the history of the United States Congress. It was in this capacity that Senator Byrd became known as the Prince of Pork because of his undoubted skill in the art of procuring funds for federal public works in his state. There are more than 30 federal projects with Byrd in their names. Wikipedia even has a page, List of places named after Robert Byrd. There are 4 Robert C. Byrd stretches of highway, 2 Robert C. Byrd United States Courthouses, a Robert C. Byrd Bridge, the Robert C. Byrd Lifelong Learning Center, the Robert C. Byrd Hardwood Technology Center, the Robert C. Byrd Conference Center (also known as the Robert C. Byrd Center for Hospitality and Tourism, the Robert C. Byrd Health and Wellness Center, and the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing. His wife was also in on the act with the Erma Byrd Biomedical Research Center and the Erma Byrd Eastern Panhandle Health Professions Center among others. Luckily Byrd was a modest man:

”It has never been my expectation that any facility be named for me, although I am humbled that some have. It is a deep honour when West Virginians make the kind gesture to name a project for me in appreciation for my efforts in their behalf.”


Psephology is the study of elections and trends in voting. This name comes from the Greek word psephos meaning pebble. The link may not appear immediately obvious, until you discover that the Ancient Greeks used pebbles to cast their votes. As all the pebbles looked pretty much alike, nobody could tell who had voted for whom the principle of secret voting was preserved. Psephology itself, though seems to a much later coinage, perhaps linked to the rise of election coverage on TV in the 1950s.

How chocolate can help you lose weight

June 6, 2015

Can you indulge your sweet tooth and lose weight at the same time? If it’s chocolate you crave, then the answer seems to be: yes. That is the surprising conclusion of a study by German researchers published this week in the International Archives of Medicine.

Confusion reigns in the diet world, with conflicting recommendations for diets that range from high-protein to low-carbohydrate and even high-fat. According to many nutrition researchers, the problem is that these tools are too blunt. “What is important is the specific combination of foods in your diet,” says lead author Johannes Bohannon, research director of the nonprofit Institute of Diet and Health. “Just lowering the proportion of carbohydrates is not a reliable weight loss intervention because it has different physiological effect depending on the bioactive compounds in your diet.”

Chocolate is a rich source of bioactive compounds, particularly a group of molecules called flavonoids, plant compounds associated with several positive health impacts. But teasing out the possible effects of such compounds in your diet, and how it may interact with various diet interventions, is rarely studied. It could be that simply consuming chocolate in combination with dietary interventions has no effect, or it could make such diets even more effective in the right dose.

To test the idea, the researchers divided volunteer human subjects aged 19 to 67 into three groups: One group followed a strict low-carbohydrate diet, another group followed the low-carbohydrate diet and also consumed 42 grams of dark (81%) chocolate per day, and a control group followed their status quo diet. Besides tracking their body weight and measuring blood chemistry before, during, and after the intervention, subjects filled out questionnaires to assess sleep quality and subjective well-being, a key predictor of dietary compliance.

As predicted, the low-carb group lost weight compared to the control. But surprisingly, the low-carb plus chocolate group lost 10% more weight. Not only that, but the weight loss persisted, compared to the low-carb group which saw a return of the weight after 3 weeks—a classic problem in dietary interventions known as the “yo-yo effect”. The chocolate group also reported better sleep and well-being, and their blood cholesterol levels were significantly reduced.

“To our surprise, the effect of chocolate is real,” says Bohannon. “It is not enough to just consume chocolate, but in combination with exercise and reduction in carbohydrates, our data indicate that chocolate can be a weight loss accelerator.”The researchers suggest that high-cocoa chocolate has the potential to enhance other diets as well. “The best part about this discovery,” says Bohannon, “is that you can buy chocolate everywhere, cheaply and without having to believe diet gurus or purchase expensive nutrition products over the Internet.”

Press release from The Institute of Diet and Health


Don’t you just love this press release? It is just the kind of thing to get some newspaper editors salivating and social media users sharing online. If it sounds too good to be true, I’m afraid it actually is. The chocolate-helps-you-lose-weight hoax was the brainchild of German television reporter Peter Onneken who pitched the idea to American journalist John Bohannen. They set out to prove how easy it was to get a dodgy scientific study published. In fact, the study did take place, but as we shall see, it was deliberately shorn of any scientific value.

Some people may find this unethical, but elaborate hoaxes are a tradition among sceptics. In previous posts I have mentioned how physicist Alan Sokal was able to get a bullshit article, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, published in an American cultural-studies discussion journal, Social Text. The spoof piece was made up of ideas and quotations from various postmodernist philosophers and full of mathematical absurdities, which the editors failed to spot. I have also featured the magician James Randi, who coached stage performer José Alvarez to pretend he was channelling a two-thousand-year-old spirit named “Carlos”. And who can forget science writer Dr. Ben Goldacre’s dead cat, Henrietta, who became a certified member of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants after Goldacre paid $60 to the Clayton College of Natural Health?

For the experiment Bohannon claimed to be Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D., a health researcher and lead author of the study. Onneken and his collaborator, Diana Löbl handled the logistics. They had a few thousand Euros to recruit research subjects on Facebook. They also required the services of Gunter Frank, a German doctor responsible for running the study, and Alex Droste-Haars, a financial analyst, to massage the data. The study was intentionally flawed with a ridiculously small sample size, measuring 18 variables (weight, sleep quality, and cholesterol levels among others) that naturally fluctuate in participants. The 16 subjects (5 men and 11 women, aged between 9 and 67) chosen were from Frankfurt, and were paid €150 to go on a diet for 3 weeks. They were divided into three groups – one was a low-carb. Another was low-carb plus chocolate a bar every day, and the final one was a control group who were told to follow their normal diet. The participants had to weigh themselves every day for the three weeks, and the researchers also took blood tests, measuring all the variables you can measure from a drop of blood. The subjects also filled out surveys about their sleep quality and well-being and physical complaints.

By the end of the study they had a mountain of data. The control group’s average body weight fluctuated up and down around zero. Both of the treatment groups lost an average of around 2.5 kilos over the course of the study. But the people on the low-carb diet plus chocolate lost weight 10% faster, a statistically significant result. Moreover, the chocolate group had better cholesterol results and higher scores on the well-being survey.

The amount of data was of course one of the problems with the study. If you have a small number of people and a large number of variables that you’re testing for, you’re more or less guaranteed to find something that will appear to be statistically significant. It is a tried-and-tested recipe for false positives. And If you don’t say ahead of time what exactly you’re looking for, then you can just pick up wherever random result you do get and claim that you have made an important discovery. In this case what varied was the speed at which the participants lost weigh, but the result could have just as easily been that chocolate improves sleep quality or lowers blood pressure or cholesterol levels.

Now Bohannon and Onneken wanted to share their “scientific breakthrough” with the world. They needed to get their study published ASAP. As it was such patently bad science, they had to avoid any kind of peer review. They had the perfect solution. For €600 Euros published it in their premier journal, the International Archives of Medicine, an open access medical journal.

What happened then? It did get picked by the German newspaper Bild and Britain’s the Daily Star. It also made it on to Cosmopolitan’s German website and both the German and Indian websites of Huffington Post. On the other hand none of Britain’s broadsheets were fooled. Nor was the New York Times. The story also failed to appear on a major national network. However, I’m sure that this kind of material does frequently get through. Just go to Ben Goldacre’s website.

Curiously, the Facebook page for the International Archives of Medicine featured a statement from Carlos Vazquez the journal’s CEO, claiming the paper was published by mistake and was only live for hours:

Disclaimer: Weeks ago a manuscript that was being reviewed in the journal “Chocolate with High Cocoa Content as a Weight-Loss Accelerator” appeared as published by mistake. Indeed that manuscript was finally rejected, although it went online for some hours. We are sorry for the inconvenience. We are taking measures to avoid this kind of mistakes happens [sic] again.

This appears to be a terminological inexactitude as the paper appears appears to have been on a number of weeks. What’s more there is apparently this email from Vazquez:

I’m contacting to let you know your manuscript “Chocolate with High Cocoa Content as a Weight-Loss Accelerator” has been pointed by our editors as an outstanding manuscript and could be accepted directly in our premier journal *International Archives of Medicine.

Bohannen’s hoax raises questions about scientific experiments. This has been an ongoing theme in this blog. The abovementioned Ben Goldacre is a trenchant critic of such practices by the pharmaceutical industry. In “Missing Data“, the first chapter of Bad Pharma he shows the tricks employed by Big Pharma so that clinical trials will reach conclusions favourable to the drug company. He describes publication bias, in which only tests with important results are published. If a lot of tests with inconclusive results are ignored, this will skew the results. If the trial seems to be producing negative data, it may be stopped prematurely and the results not published, or if it is producing positive data it may be stopped early so that longer-term effects are not examined.

Ultimately we have to look at the role of the journalists. If you’re reporting on a scientific study, you need to actually look at the paper. You need to talk to a source with real scientific expertise. They need to actually interview the people behind the studies, and they should seek independent researchers’ opinions. And a healthy dose of scepticism wouldn’t go amiss.

10 Greatest Hoaxes of All Time

June 6, 2015