an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

pardonnez-moi, mais c’est ridicule

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Today I heard the American legal expert and editor of Lawfare, Ben Wittes, assuring a cable news host that the President had an absolute right, or ‘ability’, to pardon anyone he wishes. This came up in a discussion of the Roger Stone guilty verdict recently handed down.

Of course I noted that there was no sign of shame or embarrassment in Wittes’ pronouncement, which I will take on trust to be true. Nor did I expect to observe such a sign. I’ve become ‘Americanised’ to a certain degree in the past couple of years. But I also feel a need to resist this.

As has been noted by many people, Stone has been a close personal friend and associate of Trump for many decades. So, will he pardon Stone?

To be asked to enter the mind of the current US President, on this or any other matter, would be the ultimate ‘hardship assignment’, but still it’s interesting to speculate why he may hesitate to pardon Stone. First, Stone is no longer of any use to him – and that is generally Trump’s foremost consideration. Second, Trump is conscious, however vaguely, of going ‘too far’ in certain directions, though he sometimes errs on this front. Third, he appears to be a creature of the ‘eternal present’, in which case his failure to pardon Stone would be due to indifference rather than hesitation. His new ‘buddies’ are – or possibly were – the three amigos, and so it goes.

But to return to the Presidential pardoning powers – it seems to take an outsider to note how totally outrageous and immoral they are. A pardoning power, granted, is an important power for a government to have, but within very strict limitations. In Australia the power is vested in the Governor-General, the Queen’s representative, but of course he or she is instructed by the government of the day, through the principal law officer, the Attorney-General, in consultation with the rest of government. It’s a rarely used power in Westminster-style governments, as it should be. A notable recent example of its use is the so-called ‘Alan Turing Law’, which pardoned thousands of gay men, living and dead, who have been prosecuted over decades for behaviour now deemed legal. However, in the US the Presidential pardoning power has often been abused, as in the case of Richard Nixon (not sufficiently condemned), and more recently by Donald Trump’s pardoning of Libby and Arpaio. The general US population has been troublingly insouciant about this power. To have it vested in one person (there is an ‘Office of the Pardon Attorney’ but I doubt that Trump recognises or has even heard of it) is of course typical of that superhero-worshipping nation, but it’s another failure of a system that Trump will surely be seeking to exploit in his battle to secure ultimate dictatorship.

Meanwhile, there are always new developments in the runaway trainride of this current presidency. A new name, David Holmes, may have entered the lists of history, in a small way. Of course all of these names – the names of people who actually work hard for their nation and for positive international relations – deserve to remembered better than the current US President, but life never was fair.

Written by stewart henderson

November 17, 2019 at 4:21 pm

Posted in crime

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nothing so simple? the gambler’s fallacy

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Humans are capable of reasoning, but not always or often very well. Daniel Kahneman’s famous book Thinking, fast and slow provides us with many examples, and not being much of a clear thinker myself, where probability and all that Bayesian stuff is concerned, I’ll start with something really simple before ascending, one day, to the simply simple. And not being much of a gambler, I’d never heard of the gambler’s fallacy before. It appears to be a simple and obvious fallacy, but I’m sure I can succeed in making it more confusing than it should be.

The fallacy involves believing that what has occurred before might dictate what happens in the future, in a particular context. It’s best explained by the tossing of a coin. With a fair coin, the probability of it landing tails up, on any toss, is .5, given that, in probability language, absolute certainty is given a value of 1, and no possibility at all is given 0. The key here is what I’ve italicised – the fallacy lies in believing that the coin, as if it’s a thinking being, has an interest in maintaining a result, over many tosses, of 50% tails – so that if results skew towards zero, say after 6 heads results in a row, the probability of the next toss being tails will rise above .5. 

Put another way: assuming a fair coin, the probability of it landing heads on one toss is .5. That should mean that over time, with x number of tosses, assuming x to be a very large number, the result for a heads should approach 50%. So it would seem quite reasonable, if you were keeping count, to bet on a result that brings the average closer to 50%. That’s without imagining that the coin wants to get to 50%. It just should, shouldn’t it?

The clear answer is no. There can be no influence from the past on any new coin toss. How can there be? That would be truly weird if you think about it. The overall results may approach 50%, according to the law of large numbers, but that’s independent of particular tosses. If you look at it this way, creating a dependency, you decide to bet on a pair of tosses. It could be HH, TT, HT or TH. Those are the only four options and the probability of each of them is .25 (i.e .5 x .5). So you might think that, after two heads in a row, it would be wise to bet on tails. But this bet would still have a .5 probability of succeeding, and the result HHT, taken together, would be .5 x .5 x .5, which is .125 or one eighth, the same as all the other seven results of three coin tosses. The probability doesn’t change before each toss, no matter the result of the previous toss. 

So far, so clear, but it would be hard not to be influenced into betting against a run continuing. That’s not irrational, is it? But nor is it rational, considering there’s alway a 50/50 chance with each toss. It’s just a bet. And yet… I’m reminded of Swann in a A la recherche du temps perdu, as my mind clouds over…

Written by stewart henderson

November 17, 2019 at 2:19 pm

Posted in gambling, probability

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USA – suffering for its own failure

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Marie Yovanovitch – under threat

The commentariat is divided, though perhaps not entirely on partisan lines, on the treatment of the American President.

It’s becoming clear that, in the USA and elsewhere, people are inhabiting their own social media bubbles. There’s no doubt this is a massive change. Twenty years ago, the term ‘social media’ didn’t exist. Today, when you walk down the street, or catch public transport, you will see people clutching their social media connection machine in their hands as if their life depended on it, and much of the time they’re fully engaged with it. I’m not sure that this social media world can be divided clearly on left/right political lines, but it’s fairly clearly affecting the political understanding of vast numbers of people.

The commentariat, however, more or less represent the intelligentsia, and we expect them to be less in thrall to social media. Yet the division is striking, even if, it seems, uneven. I may be biased, I’m not sure, but it seems to me that those disparaging and mocking, or claiming to be bored by the career diplomats testifying to their frustration and alarm regarding the covert operation to extort the Ukraine government, are in a minority, though a loud one. At the same time, the US President was smearing, via Twitter, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, as she was about to testify. As all the evidence shows, Yovanovitch was removed from her post by Trump, and threatened by him in a phone call to the Ukrainian President, saying ‘she’s going to go through some things’. The President described this phone call as ‘perfect’.

All of this is well known, as is the reason for Yovanovitch’s removal. She was a hindrance to the extortion plot. 

So why isn’t the President in prison, as should and would occur in every reasonably regulated democratic country? The case is easy to prove, it is admitted by the culprit, and involves a number of first-hand witnesses. This morning I heard a member of the commentariat lay this all out in some detail, then lament that it’s ‘very unfortunate and appalling’, and so forth. And of course many others agreed. Their helplessness is sad, indeed tormenting, to behold.

The President should be held without bail, because of his known compulsion for witness tampering and intimidation, until the date of his trial, but of course this isn’t happening, not because the President is immune from prosecution while in office, but because – despite the massive opportunity for any holder of presidential office to pervert the course of justice – there is no clear law regarding how to treat a criminal President. That this is so, is damning. Waiting for that President to leave office is not a solution, as should be abundantly clear, even to a ten-year-old. 

What continually astonishes outsiders like myself is that the commentariat within the USA seems perversely unaware of this failure in the US politico-legal system. With great power – and the power of the US president is, IMHO, far too great – must come great legal responsibility. It’s one of the many failings of the American presidential system that this is not made abundantly clear though black letter law, and plenty of it. Depending on the Constitution, brilliant and wondrous though it might be, is insufficient. 

Written by stewart henderson

November 16, 2019 at 12:18 pm

Will the USA be able to reform its system after all this?

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It’s astonishing to most of the democratic world that a person so plainly unfit for office, in any office, should have been allowed to stand for office as President of the most militarily powerful country in the world. If any position requires vetting – and all responsible positions surely do – then it is this one. Yet in the USA anyone, even someone who more or less defines dishonesty, corruption and extreme self-interest, can become President, and this seems to be accepted as an article of faith. As one US commentator has pointed out, the current President would not last two weeks as CEO of any US company. But it is worse than this. He would not be considered for such a position by any responsible vetting panel, and he would not last for two weeks in any job whatever, from office boy to toilet cleaner. He has never worked for anyone else in his life, and would be incapable of doing so. Yet he has been given the responsibility of working for the entire American population.

This is not news. It is something known by every member of congress, every business leader and every observer of US politics. That, of course, is why the current US political situation is so bizarre. Now that he has been given that position – with the help of Russian operatives working for a dictator whose principal aim in life appears to be to undermine the most prominent democratic nations – the party that he pretends to belong to, the Republican Party, has for the most part assembled behind him, prepared to follow wherever he leads.

So, where, precisely, is the ‘leader’ going? His life, as is well known, has never involved service to others. It has generally been a convoluted and impulse-driven floundering after self-aggrandisement. Those Republicans gifted with some intellect are well aware of this, and I’m sure many of them scratch their heads at his popularity, such as it is. However, it seems that such is their hunger for power, they’re prepared to cling to someone who wields that power, in spite of never having been supported by a majority of the American public, even on election day. They will support him, again somewhat astonishingly, even if he betrays their values and their political agenda.

Where will this end, and how? Most experts argue that the House will vote to impeach, but the Senate will vote against removing him from office. Of course I have no idea if this will happen, or if Trump will be re-elected in 2020. It appears, though, that, given current poll numbers which have been consistent over a long period, he will need foreign assistance in the next election, of the sort he utilised in 2016. Trump has many powerful ‘advocates’ overseas, and of course he will be extremely willing to employ them, for he has many reasons for wishing to stay in power, beyond self-aggrandisement.

The utter helplessness of the American intelligentsia, and the free press (and I say this while admiring their indefatigable work in exposing all of the corruption, neglect and fecklessness) is painful to watch in this period. But there must be a silver lining. When all this is over, there must be root and branch reform of a Presidential system that has proved itself such easy prey to this extreme vandalism.

Written by stewart henderson

November 15, 2019 at 5:44 pm

America’s disgrace – presidential criminality in plain view

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George Kent reads his opening statement to the House

As an outsider looking in, I’m appalled by the US Presidential system, and the licence given in that country to its head of state. I’ve learned over the past few years of watching the slow train wreck that is this presidency, that the US head of state is granted a level of immunity that should never be granted to any individual in a democracy. This is a total disgrace, and seems to have infected the judgment of many observers and commentators. I suspect they’re blinded by the power granted to the US head of state, and by the ease with which anyone, no matter how corrupt and incompetent, can become the head of state (providing they have sufficient funds and influence). Presidents in the USA seem to be idolised beyond normality, in a land of Superheroes. This love of Superheroes, in film and elsewhere, is a somewhat juvenile trait, and a dangerous one. Its dangers have generally gone unnoticed because most US heads of state have been cognisant of, and respectful of, the rule of law. The problem has become evident with the advent of a charlatan posing as the greatest Superhero of all, and who is perfectly willing to take advantage of the power granted to him to realise any of his whims and desires. 

Just today, at the end of the first day of public impeachment hearings, I’ve listened to the opening statement of career diplomat George Kent. His statement highlighted for me the enormous damage done to a sovereign state, Ukraine, by those working for the personal interests of this President. And yet I heard a panel of journalists, I believe from CBS, more or less agree that there was wrong-doing which however wasn’t impeachable. I couldn’t help but feel that this commentary was shocking and disgraceful.

Impeachment is a process derived from the United Kingdom, where it is now obsolete. It has never been a part of the Australian system and should, I think, be removed from any democratic system, and replaced by solid, clear law. Hopefully Americans will wake up to this one day, though I’m hardly sanguine about it. 

Americans – and I’m really talking here about the intelligentsia – seem overly obsessed with their constitution. Some are even describing this latest crime of their President as bribery, simply because that crime gets a specific mention in the constitution, which is preposterous. The eighteenth century constitution doesn’t go into great detail about the crimes a President might commit, nor should it, because it should be evident that the President would be held accountable for any law-breaking, to the same extent as any other US citizen. To accept or facilitate any other outcome for the head of state would itself be a form of corruption or criminality.

The US President, and his acolytes, notably Rudi Giuliani, are clearly guilty of extortion – demanding a thing of great value for the President, with menaces, or via coercion. This crime has essentially been proven. This particular case is also at the very high end for this type of crime, as it involves the extortion of an entire nation, an ally of the USA, endangering countless lives and a nation’s freedom. A very hefty prison term should be demanded for all involved. This should not be in any way controversial.

Failing this – impeachment? To describe this as a poor substitute would be the greatest understatement in American history. The democratic world watches with bemusement tinged with contempt.

Written by stewart henderson

November 14, 2019 at 2:39 pm

the boy in the white palace 5: empêchement? sûrement pas, and farewell

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Canto: As we ghouls await the kind of ritual massacre in the USA we’ve been primed for by watching Korean historical dramas, we of course recognise that the current laughing-stock status of that once-proud nation – admitted by a number of American analysts – is really serious stuff. However…

Jacinta: Indeed there are many howevers…

Canto: You do it it yourselves, you do, and that’s what really hurts. Take impeachment – a funny word, actually adapted from the French by the English. An empêchement, from the verb empêcher, to prevent, has in modern French a very everyday meaning, i.e. something that stops you from doing something, but it was first used by the English as a (somewhat ill-defined) politico-legal process way back in the 14th century. It remains just as ill-defined to this day, inhabiting a distinctly grey area between politics and the law. 

Jacinta: In those countries that have had the misfortune to adopt this horribly tainted and, IMHO, worthless procedure, it’s inevitably bound up with that nation’s Constitution – and considering that most national constitutions are creaky with age, impeachment suffers from the same creakiness. 

Canto: A kind of highly formalised shemozzle. It’s wholly obsolete in the UK, being surplus to requirements, and has never been a thing in Australia. For crimes, of course, we have this thing called law, and if a Prime Minister goes rogue, without quite doing anything he can be arrested for, she gets dropped as the team’s captain, and, depending on how rogue she goes, is either consigned to another place in the team or is dropped from the team altogether. Then the team selects another PM. And it’s not a particularly traumatic event, because the PM isn’t a quasi-king with his own white palace and swathe of courtiers and princeling-in-waiting. 

Jacinta: I don’t know whether there’s any point trying to convince Americans of the rottenness of GASP – the Great American System of the Presidency. I suspect they’re rather brainwashed about the beauty and perfection of it all. Rarely do I hear any American ‘expert’ speak critically about GASP, in spite of their intelligence in other areas. It’s a frog-in-the-heating-pan sort of thing.

Canto: Yes, to do away with impeachment means to do away with the super-powers of the Leader, which have actually, I think, led to the boy-king’s cult following. Do away with the superpowers, distribute the powers, thus diluted into ordinary human powers, throughout the principal players of the team, and sharpen up the laws on emoluments, campaign finances and influence peddling, and you might just start getting back to something like a real democracy.

Jacinta: This boy-king is, very obviously to all outside observers, a crime machine. The financial morass of his self-interest takes us to Russia, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Israel, China, Indonesia and twenty-odd other countries large and small, and common garden corruption is to be found in all these dealings, because that’s all he understands, insofar as he understands anything. The cult following of his ‘base’ is all the more tragic when it’s clear that he despises them all and loves them only as dupes. He would immediately have anyone resembling these workers thrown out of his mar-a-lago shangri-la because he’s only ever comfortable with crooked rich people. But his success is, of course, the USA’s failure, and that is a vast thing. I don’t want to see the USA fail, but I would only want it to succeed from this point through a massive, soul-searching transformation. Not only of its presidential system – and I’m not sure if that system deserves to survive at all – but of its economic system and its criminal justice system. Currently, the USA is a global disgrace and deserves to be. And it will get worse – which will perhaps be a blessing in disguise. It may have to get worse for the transformation to be as fulsome as it needs to be. That, I think, is why we’re watching with such gruesome attentiveness. But I’m not confident that too many lessons will have been learned when we examine political America in five years’ time. The country won’t ‘come together’. It won’t start to rank higher on the Better Life Index. The third world poverty, disadvantage and despair in vast regions of the country won’t be alleviated, and it will continue to call itself the greatest nation on Earth, the leader of the free world, home of the brave and other nationalistic twaddle. And it will continue to be at war with itself while it bullies other nations, as powerful nations inevitably do.

Canto: Yes, we’re getting tired of watching, and maybe we should turn to other things, more positive stuff like science and solutions, heros and sheros, nice, positive go-getters who strive to make the world better and shame us, in the best possible way, with their energetic example. Adios little boy-king, may you finally get what you deserve, and may a chastened nation get out from under…

Written by stewart henderson

November 11, 2019 at 12:20 pm

The boy in the white palace 4: extortion for dummies

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Beneficence is always free, it cannot be extorted…

Adam Smith

Jacinta: I’ve been bemused by the sloppy way, IMHO, that the boy king’s adversaries – the Great Patriots – are handling their strategy for the defence of the realm. Some are still using the Queer and Daft (Q&D) term quid pro quo, as if that’s going to be an effective rallying cry for the country’s GPs. In fact it’s so feeble that the boy’s courtiers and epigones are happy to use it themselves, saying quid pro quos are great things, very handy for the MAGA cause….

Canto: Yes but I do notice that some of the more quick-witted GPs are almost at the point of considering, in a consistent way, a more obviously criminal term for the lad’s crimes. Whoduv thunk it? Unfortunately they’re not quite sure which crime to bruit about.

Jacinta: And Q&D terminology is still de rigueur for many, especially the courtiers and epigones. The two more serious, and accurate, terms for the crimes being particularly focussed on – re impeachment….

Canto: And impeachment’s a process we’re going to have to deconstruct – to use a shitty po-mo term most appropriate for the occasion – in another post.

Jacinta: Indeed – the two crimes being whispered way too softly by the GPs are bribery and extortion, with bribery being, unfortunately, the most favoured. But the Great Patriots are wrong.

Canto: That’s bad.

Jacinta: I think the only reason they prefer bribery is because, apparently, it’s in the SACUSA…

Canto: Scusi?

Jacinta: What? Oh yes, dummy, the Sublimely Awesome Constitution of the USA. Get out from under your rock, mate. It’s apparently mentioned in the SACUSA as one of the high Crimes and Mis Demenours you’re not allowed to consort with. We’ll look into that later. But I think extortion’s the thing, to set before the wee king, because, well, it’s much more nasty-sounding. I also think it’s more accurate. Off the top of my head, it’s about demanding money – or a thing of value – with menaces. And the boy king doesn’t need money – he’s been rolling in it since he was in his nappies, according to the New York Times. He’s far more in need of something to trounce his enemies, so that he can stay in the White Palace until he’s all growed up – and that’s a long long time.

Canto: Is he still in his nappies d’you think? I’ve heard rumours…

Jacinta: Well, I don’t think I’d have the stomach for that piece of investigative journalism, but it would certainly raise a stink if that were true. But here’s the thing. Ukraine has a new leader, with an overwhelming mandate to beat off Madame Putain and fight internal corruption. It’s a vastly important, and simply vast, country lying between La Putain and his or her designs on Europe, and it desperately needs an alliance with the USA, Europe and any other region it can ally itself with, but their President, when he came to office, hadn’t yet cottoned on to the fact that the USA is an ex-democracy and that its wee king had googly eyes for La Putain. ..

Canto: So he was ripe for extortion, I get it. The boy loves La Putain and wants to be like him, master of all he surveys, so he wants to have the Ukraine slay his rival, so he menaces them with a range of shite – saddling the country with being behind interference in his ascension to the throne in 2016, refusing to have an alliance with it, and with-holding funds and weapons, in the hope that La Putain will invade, slay the putative wrong-doers and share the spoils with the wee laddie.

Jacinta: Yeah, something like that. But let’s just get back to demanding a thing of value with menaces. I think it’s pretty straightforward.

Canto: Yes, others use the term coercion, but it’s the same thing, and it definitely applies in this case. The boy’s courtiers even drafted exactly what they demanded the Ukrainian Prez had to publicly say about the poor wee Biden boy and his nasty papa.

Jacinta: It’s time to look more closely at what the SACUSA has to say on the matter. Impeachment gets a mention very early on (Article 1, Section 2), but the nub of the matter is expressed, albeit briefly, in Article 2, Section 4, entitled ‘Disqualification’:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

So only two actual crimes are specified, which is a wee bit disappointing for dealing with the Most Powerful King in the Multiverse – but I don’t want to get into the impeachment disaster here, we’ll save that for another post. For now I’ll just say that ‘high Crimes and Misdemeanours’ however vague, was surely meant to cover more than nothing, and extortion sounds pretty lofty as crimes go. So let’s look more closely at extortion.

Canto: I have one dictionary definition here: ‘the practice of obtaining something, especially money, through force or threats’. Sounds like just the Right Thing.

Jacinta: Yes, and what the boy-king wanted to obtain was far more valuable to him than all the gold in Ukraine….

Canto: Encyclopedia Brittanica gives the definition as ‘the unlawful exaction of money or property through intimidation’, but in an article about white-collar crime it describes extortion as ‘a threat made to obtain a benefit from either a private individual or a public official’, and the threat here made by the boy and his courtiers, was ‘if you don’t invent something to besmirch the reputation of my domestic enemy, or announce that he has a reputation as a criminal, you will have no alliance with our mighty kingdom, no aid or support in defeating your enemy, La Putain (my own true love), and your people will die in great numbers, crushed by his or her mighty fist’.

Jacinta: Hmmm. A more clear-cut and extremely serious case of extortion could hardly be found. A girl-boy lawyer would win the case with a few hours’ training, except that the king is apparently above all law. He’s only subject to the law’s feeble sibling, impeachment.

Canto: I note that one of the Royal lad’s acolytes, one Nikki Hayley, has sought to churlishly dismiss the affair by pointing out that Ukraine finally received the aid, so no problem. However, the above definition points out that the threat is the crime, not the success or otherwise of the threat.

Canto: It also should hardly need pointing out that Ukraine finally received the promised aid because the scheme against the country was being leaked out – the lad’s courtiers had learned about the whistleblower complaint – not because there was a change of heart. In fact it’s widely believed that mirabile dictu, the withered boy has never managed to develop a heart, the poor sod.

Jacinta: That’s ridiculous, a piece of fantasy emanating from the Deep Kingdom….

Canto: We should operate on the boy to find out – we need real, pulsating evidence. I’m even prepared to do it under anaesthetic. I’d like him to do us a favour though…

Written by stewart henderson

November 10, 2019 at 11:13 am