Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Flight Risk verdict is in...

So if you haven't been following, Isabella herself graced us with her presence in the comments to my post on the blog 'She's a Flight Risk'. I feel perhaps a little like the atheists in Rowan Atkinson's great sketch on hell - "you must be feeling a right bunch of nitwits". If you didn't read 'She's a Flight Risk' in time, it's alas gone back into the ether - jwz took it down, as he explained.

Way back in the day, AL once observed that the idea that people crave privacy was not exactly right. Instead, quite the opposite is true - as he put it, 'give people a chance, and they can't wait to tell you everything about themselves.'

The urge to confess our secrets is quite a deep one. People are wary, of course, of whom they can trust. But if you give them the right circumstances and audience, nearly everyone wants to tell their story.

I think the reason people get so misled on this point is that they keep thinking of privacy in terms of the desire for physical privacy. If I'm taking a shower, my desire for privacy may be best expressed by Mr Franklin's formulation of the right to be left alone. But the main privacy question these days is that of informational privacy. And here, people want something quite different - the ability to shape the narrative about one's self that the world has, and control the flow of information.

Suppose, like Isabella, you were on the run in strange foreign countries fleeing from pursuing relatives. You knew nobody, you could trust nobody, and revealing any details about yourself, even inadvertently, would spell disaster.

Can you imagine what a crushing burden that would be? You have only two options, both terrible.

The first is a superhuman effort to construct an entire fake back-story, and stick with it every minute of every day, for ever. Every true fact about yourself has to be substituted with some false story, a false name, an entire false identity. This would require not only enormous feats of self-control, but memory too - you have to keep track of everything you've told people already about your previous life.

And even if you manage this, the cognitive dissonance of the whole thing would be overwhelming. As soon as you finally start to get to know somebody well enough that you consider them a friend, you'll feel increasingly guilty about the fact that everything they know about you is a lie. You would desperately want someone you feel you can trust, but the only way you can get there is by demonstrating through long periods of stone-faced lies that you yourself are unworthy of the trust being reciprocated.

So what's the other alternative?

Isolation. Keeping to yourself, bearing the whole burden alone, and feeling yourself slowly being submerged, drip by drip, with the loneliness of unsought solitude.

Reading back over my original post, one bit of the reasoning now stands out as clearly wrong. I previously claimed that if you were going to run away, it would seem unlikely that you would you start a blog to describe your experiences.

The mistake is to assume that the relevant question is "if you were writing down the optimal list of how to disappear, would this include starting a blog about your experiences?". To which, the answer is obviously no.

But from the perspective of human nature, if you were on the run, the urge to do something like start an anonymous blog to describe your experiences would be overwhelming.

In addition, doing it on a blog is likely safer than telling some local person - at least on the blog, even if they know who you are, they don't know where you are.

So consider instead a comparison that I can't believe it took me this long to realise. If one is writing on a pseudonymous blog  questioning why someone would write a story like 'She's a Flight Risk' that might come back to haunt them, on some level this shows an embarrassing lack of self-awareness. Why are you writing stories you clearly don't want attached to your name for all to know?

This blog, unlike 'She's a Flight Risk' is of course located at blogger, and not at a domain registered in Lichtenstein to a specially set-up shell company. This tells you most of the differences between the two of us.

Partly, I have less at stake that needs hiding. But also, unlike Isabella, I know that I would not have the self-control to run everything in the meticulous way needed to completely cover my tracks. This is of course highly related to the fact that I also would not have the nous to run away and cover my tracks physically. I take some precautions, I retain my risks with others, and I tread each day between the Scylla of saying something that might be taken out of context and used against me, and the Charybdis of limiting one's remarks to the banal, the uncontroversial, and the trivial, laced of course with a lingering sense of cowardice.

'She's a Flight Risk' was exciting to read, and the vicarious thrill of throwing away all of one's past and living in exotic parts of the third world has a definite allure.

But at heart, running away is almost always an unhappy story, especially when one is running from something, rather than running to something. Even if we readers never find out the end, I'm glad she's (presumably) no longer on the run. I hope the story turned out well.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Oscar Pistorius shoots gun, girlfriend and progressive delusions hardest hit

Quote of the day, from AL, referencing the case of Oscar Pistorius, the South African paralympian accused of shooting his girlfriend:
I'll bet South Africans love that celebrity gun violence has joined non-celebrity sex violence, non-celebrity gun violence and apartheid as the things for which that country is famous.
Ha! Quite.

The story is sad, no matter what happened that night, certainly for the family of Reeva Steenkamp, the victim.

It's also, however, a useful lens with which to examine how a certain mindset continues to view problems in South Africa. If you want to enjoy some schadenfreude, Hector Lopez points us to this breathless more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger ABC 7:30 report story on the subject
GINNY STEIN: Amidst the heartbreak, another round of soul searching has begun in a nation that despite its violent nature still believes in the miracle of Nelson Mandela.
LULU XINGWANA: We still have to deal with the consequences of the war of Apartheid and the brutality of Apartheid that has actually affected the psyche of our society.
Some possibly roided-up athlete, who apparently wasn't a saint simply because he lacked legs, killed his girlfriend, maybe intentionally, maybe because he thought she was an intruder, and the problem is ... wait for it ... Apartheid!

To paraphrase Menachem Begin: white guy kills white girl and they blame a long-dead racist government.

Amidst the heartbreak of deploying every threadbare cliche on the subject, yet another clueless progressive reporter fails to revise any of her hypotheses no matter what the evidence says.

We're coming up to, what, 20-odd years since the end of Apartheid? So how's the great universal suffrage experiment working?

Just swell!


Perplexingly, the effects of Apartheid just seem to get larger and larger the greater the time elapsed since the event. Odd, huh?

If you look at the overall trends, the good news is that they've apparently managed to reverse some of the large increase in crime that occurred in the first 8 years since the end of Apartheid:


The bad news?:
The good, but largely inexplicable news is the decrease in so‐called social fabric crimes; crimes that the police have little ability to affect. Murder, the most reliable of all police statistics, has reduced by 7.2% in the last year and by 15% over the past six years; attempted murder, common robbery and common assault have also reduced fairly dramatically since 2003/4. While this may represent a positive social change, it could also just reflect under‐recording of at least common robbery, assault and attempted murder.  
David Bruce of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation argued in a SA Crime Quarterly article in March this year that the discrepancy between the rate of change in these social fabric crimes strongly suggests that the police are under‐recording the less serious interpersonal violent crimes as a way to improve the performance ratings of stations to meet the target to reduce violent contact crimes by between seven and ten percent per annum.
The idea that police may be underreporting crime in order to improve statistics isn't a big surprise. The more grimly ironic part is that crimes like 'common robbery, assault and attempted murder' are just part of the "social fabric", which police have little ability to affect. Come on! You want the police to try to prevent all sorts of nickel and dime stuff like attempted murder? Don't make me laugh.

On the other hand, some murders are more notable than others. Let's ask the impeccably left-wing Genocide Watch about the situation in South Africa:
On 15 September 2011, Genocide Watch placed South Africa at level 6, Preparation, saying "we have evidence of organized incitement to violence against White people".... Genocide Watch stated that by 2001 "2.2 percent of ethno-European (White) farmers had already been murdered and more than... 12 percent of these farmers had been attacked on their farms". As of December 2011 approximately 3,158 - 3,811 White farmers have been murdered in these attacks.
What's that, you say? There's a genocide going on in South Africa? Quick, send in the Marines!

Oh, you mean it's blacks killing white South African farmers? Never mind then, nothing to see here. I bet they had it coming, those racists! 

Surely this is just three-thousand-odd isolated incidents that have received widespread condemnation by the government?:
On 8 January 2012, after giving a speech at the ANC Centennial 2012 celebrations in Bloemfontein, South Africa, president Jacob Zuma sang the same "shoot the Boer" that had been the subject of Julius Malema's hate speech conviction.
So take your pick - either the South African government is implicitly supporting a genocide against white farmers, or it's simply unable to prevent the widespread murder of white farmers as part of a general murder epidemic! Either way, it's a win-win for South Africa.

Apartheid is the gift that just keeps on giving for progressive do-gooders trying to explain why the 'miracle of Nelson Mandela' has entirely failed to reduce the penury and misery in South Africa.

Apartheid, like most of the other undemocratic systems that were opposed by Western democracies, is so dead that its revival is not only inconceivable, but even the fact that the system existed in living memory seems hard to fathom. So be it - it's hard to think of any political viewpoint (mine included), no matter how outlandish, that would view apartheid as anybody's ideal system of anything. This holds no matter how much scorn you may have for the current governing arrangements. Lord Cromer didn't need apartheid in Egypt, and I doubt he would have needed it in South Africa either.

Which makes it all the more puzzling that the impeccably un-racist (against blacks at least) universal suffrage democracy that replaced it has been such a disaster. How can that be? The system it followed was such a corrupt and racist disgrace. Surely virtually anything else should be a clear improvement, no? And if you replace it with the democratic consent of the governed, in the best form of government that the world has ever known, surely prosperity and stability should follow.

And yet ... they don't.

Not in Libya, not in Egypt, not in South Africa, not in Zimbabwe, not in Iraq.

At some point, surely one must perhaps consider the possibility that democracy and universal suffrage in Africa are not in fact solving any of the problems that they were meant to cure, and may in fact be making them worse?

Let me pose the same question I ask of colonialism opponents when it's cited as the catch-all explanation for Africa's social ills - assuming things continue to stay wretched, at what point will you be willing to acknowledge that the fault is no longer that of Apartheid?

It's a joke question, of course - liberal opinion will never, ever stop blaming colonialism and apartheid for African problems. Not in 20 years, not ever. If in a thousand years humanity has colonised the stars and South Africa is still a hellhole, you can bet that liberal opinion will still be blaming apartheid.

The genuinely good news is that universal suffrage is taking somewhat longer to completely wreck South Africa than it took in Zimbabwe.

This means that you've got a bit more time to get out, should you have the misfortune to still be there.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Marketing Genius of Bruno Mars

Like the tobacco industry, you need not want to purchase a product to respect a well-constructed business strategy.

Consider the example of singer Bruno Mars. If you need to understand him in a single picture, try this one:

File:Bruno Mars, Las Vegas 2010.jpg

(via)

He sings cliched romance songs aimed at a young female audience, selling the fantasy of himself as some kind of mix-race romantic icon. Look at him, cheesily holding the hand of some adoring fan and singing directly to her while someone, presumably her friend, takes a photo.

Again, I'm not the target demographic here, but his stuff is well designed.

In particular, here's his famous song 'Just the Way You Are':



First of all, it's marketed broadly at the only demographic still paying for music - impressionable teenage girls.

It begins with pure boilerplate about some hypothetical beautiful girl.
Oh, her eyes, her eyes
Make the stars look like they're not shinin'
Her hair, her hair
Falls perfectly without her trying
She's so beautiful
And I tell her everyday
Yeah
So far, so ordinary. The tune is catchy, the sentiment prosaic.

But then it gets interesting. No, not interesting the way the Iliad is interesting, or the way Yeats is interesting, but the way that a well-constructed ad-campaign is interesting.
I know, I know
When I compliment her she won't believe me
And it's so, it's so
Sad to think that she don't see what I see
But every time she asks me "Do I look okay? "
I say...
These lines flow on effortlessly from the previous ones, constructing a narrative of a pretty but insecure girl. Makes sense.

Then you stop and think, and realise it makes no sense at all. Think back to the really pretty girls you've met. How many of them were in the category of:

a) Being really pretty, but for some reason being really insecure about that fact, and thinking instead they were actually quite ugly

vs.

b) Having known by at least age 10, if not earlier, that they were really hot, as evidenced by being treated nicely by strangers, complimented by adults, having men of various ages stare at them, and all the boys want to kiss them.

Reader, it is a very strong rule that the attractive women of the world generally know that they're attractive. Look at the model in the film clip - do you really think it's credible that 'when he compliments her, she won't believe him'? Don't make me laugh.

So we can be quite sure that song isn't really aimed at girls who are actually pretty but think they aren't. Those girls are unicorns. Rather, it's just aimed at girls who think they aren't pretty. They are a much larger demographic, due to the sad reality of the bell curve - only 2.5% of the population will be two standard deviations above the mean.

Girls who think they're not pretty are, sadly, probably right. But don't worry, Bruno Mars, this hunky romantic guy is here to tell you that you're actually beautiful and just don't know it! Sure, you may not be able to get him directly, but buy his CD anyway! Plus some other Bruno Mars surrogate will surely come along in your life soon.

Then the chorus makes a great segue:
[Chorus:]
When I see your face
There's not a thing that I would change
'Cause you're amazing
Just the way you are
And when you smile
The whole world stops and stares for a while
'Cause girl you're amazing
Just the way you are
Yeah
Notice how effortlessly the song shifts from the third person (she is beautiful) to the second person (you are beautiful). The song is now unashamedly being sung to the audience, just like the first photo. You, listener, are perfect! You shouldn't change anything, just be yourself. 

Talk about mainlining an IV drip of the most saccharine form of feel-good self-esteem culture. There's no problem that can't be fixed by feeling good about yourself.

Admittedly, this sentiment is perhaps less toxic in the area of attractiveness, where a good chunk of the effect really is fixed at birth. (It's more problematic to encourage students to feel good about the fact that they just failed the maths test). Maybe it's just not fun to realise that you're not that attractive, and this is just a palliative.

Perhaps. But the risk is twofold. First, you might just end up with unreasonably high expectations, and end up with nobody, instead of someone who's actually in your league. And secondly, you might think that self-esteem excuses you from self-improvement, especially in the areas where you can make a difference. 

I leave it to the reader to decide the extent to which the phenomenon of excessive self-esteem is a problem among modern American youth of both sexes.

(Also, if you want to hear a really catchy cover of the song that will make you hate yourself as much as I do, check out here.)

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Odd Psychology of Strip Clubs

(Previous thoughts on the psychology of strip clubs here, and male self-deception in relationships here and here.)

The standard complaint about strip clubs is that you're paying to not get what you actually want. In other words, you hand over however much cash to get a lap dance, and you don't actually end up sexually satisfied. Having never attempted to negotiate the transaction, I can't vouch for this, but I'm pretty damn sure that short of offering literally thousands of dollars, you won't get laid. I don't even know if that would work, certainly for many strippers in the US who explicitly see their job as distinct from prostitution. The woman won't get you off (except accidentally), and you won't even be able to touch where you want to, except on their rather limited terms.

Every conversation I've had with guys who paid for a lap dance indicated, privately, that there was little risk of matters escalating to, say, the Bill Clinton level or above.

Strangely, this fact has to be elicited from them in hushed terms - they typically don't like admitting straight out that they didn't get any immediate relief for their however-many hundred dollars. Maintaining the mystique serves the interests of both the stripper and the potentially embarrassed client. As I've said before, this isn't an accident - ambiguous expectations are at the heart of the strip club experience.

So if you believe the standard complaint, men like strip clubs but end up frustrated that they don't actually get any action.

Why is this puzzling though?

The puzzle is that if you actually wanted to get some action for sure, you could have just gone to a brothel and gotten laid with probability 1. Or gone to a bar and gotten laid with probability less than 1.

Taken at face value, it indicates some sort of market failure. Surely there should be more demand for clubs that blurred the line between strip club and brothel?

One answer that I can't rule out is that this is a legality issue - strip clubs are mostly legal, brothels are mostly illegal. In the places where prostitution is legal (e.g. parts of Nevada), I don't know that there's substantial business model innovation along the lines I describe. Maybe there is.

It could also be a quality issue - maybe the type of women who are prostitutes are of a fundamentally different group than strippers, and the male preference is distinct. I dunno though - do you really think the average guy at a strip club is that picky with who he sleeps with, provided the girl is willing? It's possible, but it seems unlikely.

On the other hand, we can pretty conclusively say that it's not a cost issue. Courtesy of Steven Levitt and Sudhir Venkatesh, here's some real-world data on how much it costs to get laid in Chicago with a prostitute:

In other words, no matter who you are, the average cost for most things you want is no more than a hundred bucks. If the average lap dance customer is paying less than this, I'll be highly surprised.

So, on face we have a puzzle - many men apparently pay a lot of money for women to take off their clothes and not sleep with them, and then complain about this afterwards. They do this despite passing up the opportunity to pay less money to get laid with certainty.

If the stated preference doesn't seem to make sense, maybe we can get further by hypothesising revealed preference and see where it takes us. The standard price theory assumption here is that the market is satisfying actual customer demand.

In other words, the fact that it's very hard to get laid at the strip club is actually the feature, not the bug. Even if men won't admit it.

The most obvious explanation for this is that men go to strip clubs in groups of friends such as bachelor parties, and in any such group there's going to be a large fraction, if not a substantial majority, for whom their commitments to wives and girlfriends mean that they actually don't want to get laid that night. If this were a possibility, then they might be tempted by hyperbolic discounting to do something they'll regret the next day (or, more likely, 5 seconds after it's done). If you've got commitment problems (in both the relationship sense and the behavioral economics sense), you want to go to the place where it's very difficult to do anything beyond looking at a distance.

Not only that, but the strong prohibition serves a useful signalling mechanism to wives and girlfriends. Consider the problem of the man who actually has no intention of doing anything untoward with random ladies that night, but who may not be able to credibly signal this to his wife. If you go to the strip club, your claim to having not done anything is credible. At a brothel, you're only there if you want to get laid. Even in my hypothetical innovative strip-brothel, the expected level of misbehaviour for an external observer is larger simply because the range of bad actions has expanded. By being easier to explain to significant others (or even just to rationalise to yourself), it means that the whole group is likely to attend, rather than the group splintering off or going for some consensus alternative.

The more interesting possibility, and one that's less discussed, is that even the people getting lap dances themselves would rather be at the strip club than at the brothel. They're not dragged away from the hookers by their more conservative friends. They actually don't want that, at least in revealed preference terms.

The standard model of male desire says that what men want is some combination of a) hot chick and b) orgasm.

Far be it for me to suggest that this model has no explanatory power. It does.

But I submit that this model of the world has difficulty explaining why lots of men go to strip clubs but not many go to brothels.

A more nuanced alternative would say that men definitely want the above things, but what they also want is to be desired by hot women. They want to conquer hot women, and feel them submit to their will. They want to feel the achievement of seduction, of power, of control.

Going to a brothel will satisfy the 'penis in vagina' aspect. But it will quite definitively not satisfy any of the other parts. Quite the contrary, in fact - it will reveal, in painful relief, how far you are from all the other things you desire about the courtship process. It will reveal you as desperate. Not to the rest of the world, who probably won't know. But to yourself, which is much worse.

In his novel, God Knows, Joesph Heller describes the situation of an aging King David. He has his various courtesans, but can no longer get aroused by them. The only woman who still holds his sexual interest is his wife, Bathsheba. But Bathsheba no longer desires him - her only interest is to try to get David to make her own son, Solomon, the next king in place of his elder son, Adonijah, whom he had with another woman.

Heller describes very aptly the paradoxical situation of the absolute monarch who, due to the difficulty of male desire, cannot have what he really wants
Abishag showed him the door and petted my heaving chest until she felt my exasperation abate. Then she washed and dried herself, perfumed her wrists and armpits, and removed her robe to stand before me a moment in all her wonderful virginal nakedness before raising a leg gracefully to enter my bed on one of her biscuit-brown knees to lie down with me again. Naturally, it did no good. I got no heat then, either. I wanted my wife. I want my wife now. Bathsheba does not believe this and would not let it make a difference if she did.
“I don’t do things like that anymore,” Bathsheba responds firmly each time I ask, and, if out of sorts, adds, “I am sick of love.”
She lost her lust when she found her vocations. Her first was to be a queen. Too bad that we had no queens. The next was to be a queen mother, the first in our history, the widowed mother of a reigning sovereign. I refused to trade and I refused to grovel. I could order her into my bed with a single cursory command, of course, and she certainly would be here. But it would be begging, wouldn't it? I am David the king, and I must try not to beg. But God knows that, by one means or another, I am going to lie with her at least one more time before I give up the ghost and bring my fantastic story to an end.
Worldly absolute power does not, alas, extend to making other people actually want you on the terms that you would like.

Being the absolute monarch of the commercial transaction is no different. Paying is begging through the medium of money. The problem is otherwise the same. 

In Heller's tale, David never does get Bathsheba to sleep with him. All the courtesans of the world, no matter how beautiful, are hollow in the end.
Abishag my angel has risen from her chair and approaches without noise, wearing only a vivid scarf. Her eyes are dark as the tents of Kedar. I want my God back; and they send me a girl.
Or as the band Gomez put it:
The things that are given, not won, are the things that you want.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Gazing into the Abyss

"During the killings I no longer considered anything in particular in the Tutsi except that the person had to be done away with. I want to make clear that from the first gentleman I killed to the last, I was not sorry about a single one"
-Leopord Twagirayezu, in Machete Season

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Miscellaneous Joy

-Mark Steyn gives a rousing defense of free speech following the scandalously underreported assassination attempt on Danish free speech advocate (and critic of Islam) Lars Hedegaard.

-A great model demonstration of herd immunity.

-Theodore Dalrymple talks about how breast cancer screening may end up killing more people than it saves, due to risky treatments being undertaken after false positives. At a minimum, the overall cost/benefit aspect is rather unclear. I'm always reminded of this when people insist that the current healthcare systems don't engage in enough preventative screening of disease. This is certainly possible, but it's usually just taken as given that more screening is always better. Proponents rarely seem to countenance the possibility that you can have too much testing, even just considered in terms of health effects, let alone costs.

-You know how you can tell that a band is awesome? When you go through odd songs from their back catalogue that you've never heard of, and they turn out to be totally sweet.

-The Last Psychiatrist is one of those bloggers with the rare distinction that they usually have something truly different to say about the world (other examples here). He doesn't post regularly, but his stuff is invariably interesting. He had a ripping sledge of people who ostentatiously insist on comforting mourners at funerals a few months back, and another post about a month ago ranging from why women wear makeup to why slaveowners were able to maintain control of such a large population of slaves. Read 'em both.

-I'm certainly no conspiracy theorist, but after both Waco and now Chris Dorner, it's a fair bet that if you find yourself in an extended siege situation with the police, the following might occur:
a) the cops will be throwing flash grenades into the building
b) these may set things on fire
c) when that happens, the police may well prevent the fire department from actually putting out the fire based on the claim (not unreasonable, but also self-serving) that it would be too dangerous to let them approach a building filled with madmen, and hence
d) you'll burn to death, and nobody will much care.

Update: Apparent vocal evidence of the police demanding to 'burn that f***ing house down'

As usual, Chris Rock's advice on "How to Not Get Your Ass Kicked By the Police" is apposite.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Assortative Mating of Celebrities

A fairly robust fact about celebrities is that they tend to date and/or marry other celebrities.

The most obvious explanation for this is that celebrities are the apex of the dating distribution, and hence this is simply a sorting on quality. In other words, everybody wants to marry Scarlett Johansson, but you have to be Ryan Reynolds to get a chance. This is the most depressing (but likely) possibility, and I imagine it explains most of the effect.

The more interesting hypothesis, albeit probably a smaller factor, is that celebrities might prefer to date other celebrities because these are the only people that they can be sure aren't dating them just for the novelty of their celebrity. People who are rich have a similar dilemma - if your husband or wife has much less money than you, can you be really sure that they aren't with you for the money? Sure, they'll hopefully like you as a person too, but you'll never really know the counterfactual. And the not knowing can become a nagging doubt in itself.

The other related factor is that the life of a celebrity almost certainly has its own peculiar problems and miseries, but these are likely difficult to explain to people who aren't themselves famous. Well, you can explain them, but you'll probably just sound like an ingrate - "boo hoo, unlucky me, I'm such a famous movie star that now I can't get a litre of milk without someone wanting a photo, if only I were a no-name janitor instead." Being rich is the same - sure, you have the enormous problem of how you're meant to stop your kids turning into spoiled brats (if you give them money) or resentful and bitter (if you don't give them money). But the average joe will just ask why you don't just give the money away if this is such a problem.

The most cynical answer, I think, is simply a marketing one - most celebrities have a tenuous grip on their status, and will go to huge lengths to stay in the spotlight. Dating or marrying other celebrities is a way to keep the tabloids interested, which is your very oxygen if you're some 'famous for being famous' talentless celebrity.

What these explanations have in common is that they provide very little avenue for you as Joe Public to ever actually date a famous person. So relax! You really aren't good enough for them, so you may as well just enjoy your life.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

She's a Flight Risk

Jwz recently posted about this blog called 'She's a flight risk', which ran from 2003 to 2006 and is diary of sorts claiming to be written by a  twenty-something woman who is on the run from her family. The story is that her father is a very rich and well-connected member of a small European country, and he was trying to get her to marry some guy she didn't want to marry. Afraid of his power and influence, and with a fair amount of money stuffed away, she decided to go on the run.

It subsequently got taken down from the net, but jwz thankfully downloaded it and posted it.

It's definitely a great story - I read it all, and really liked it.

The question is, is it real?

Firstly, it's worth reading even if it's not. The author writes really well.

But on the substantive question, it's hard to say. The initial presumption is probably not - Occam's razor says that the more unusual a story is, the less likely it is to be true. Most people live rather boring lives, and some narratives are just too good to be true.

Beyond that, the two biggest points against it are the following. First, the idea that a rich daughter would escape pressure towards an arranged marriage by becoming a fugitive for several years, rather than just giving her father the middle finger. Sure, he'd cut off your money, but is this really better? Some people do crazy things, but this is pretty extreme without more explanation.

Second, if you were going to run away, would you start a blog to describe your experiences? It seems a bit unlikely. Then again, I can imagine that the need to connect to somebody would be pretty strong when you spent months on the run knowing nobody.

So that's the starting presumption against it being real, which seems fairly strong. But there's a reasonable amount of evidence in favor of it actually being true. At a minimum, if it's a hoax, it's clearly one that someone spent quite a bit of money and thought on, and one without a clear motivation.

First, she managed to convince a reporter from Esquire (linked at the jwz site), by at least having someone who matched her description and acted like her meet him in a very expensive hotel room with an armed guard. That on its own doesn't prove anything, but it's pretty serious commitment to a hoax. In addition, I presume that Esquire reporters are not entirely gullible, since the guy knows he'd look like a real fool if it turned out to be proven false.

There are other signs as well that are less visible. For instance, the Esquire article discusses some of the early investigations into the place where the domain was registered:
AeroBeta, Sociedad Anonima
Apartado Postal 0832-0387
World Trade Center
Panama, Republica de Panama WTC
As another commenter pointed out, the name 'AeroBeta, Sociedad Anonima' is comprised of 'Aero', meaning flight, and 'Beta', the measure of financial risk, with 'Sociedad Anonima' in companies being abbreviated 's.a.'. So hence you have 'FlightRisk, s(he's).a.'

That quite a bit of planning, no? Not only do you drop enough cash to set up a company in Panama to hide the domain registration, you give it a name that's a coded version of the website.

The other problem with the hoax theory is that there's no clear payoff. Not only was the author not angling for a book or movie deal, but she turned down a number of offers of such (reported in the Wired and Esquire articles at the time). The website wasn't selling any products, and ended up just drifting off without a clear end. This fact becomes even more stark in hindsight - we now know ex-post that there really was no obvious financial payoff to the whole thing.

For my own part, there's two other small aspects that also point to the 'genuine' side. First, there's an odd tendency for hoaxes that involve a female protagonist to be written by a man. E.g. here and here. Being male fantasy, they tend to eventually end up focusing on male fantasies of female sexuality, with the characters being lesbian, bisexual, or that kind of thing. She's a flight risk had virtually none of that, other than one or two very references that weren't particularly sexualised and instead focused on the charisma of the men in question. In that regard, at least, it suggests a female writer, or a male writer very committed to representing the protagonist as sounding more female.

Second, there's one detail in particular that seems plausible in hindsight that would have been harder to come up with at the time. Here's a line from the April 2003 entry on some of the people she encountered:
Also amongst the exiles was a fairly famous software magnate who had elected to leave the United States "not so much for the tax issue, though that played a part, but more for the everyday nonsense of regulation."
A software magnate, living in a sunny tax haven type country, back in 2003, who left due to "the tax issue" and "the everyday nonsense of regulation"? Tell me that doesn't sound an awful lot like John McAfee, who recently managed to get out of Guatemala and escape back to the US to avoid questioning by the Belize police over a murder. (Previously discussed by me here).

The point is that if I were to think of a name to add now about someone who might have been travelling in the Caribbean back in 2003, I'd pick a description of McAfee. But this one predated by many years the publicity that made him famous as a rich guy living in tax haven countries.

You add all this up, and you're left to choose between two scenarios, both of which would seem highly unlikely on their own, but one of which is very likely true. Odd, huh?

Hard to say. Overall, I'd give it about a 70% chance of being true. Then again, I'm rather gullible.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Lepanto

Apropos nothing, the great G. K. Chesterton, on Don John of Austria at the Battle of Lepanto:

Lepanto

White founts falling in the courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard,
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips,
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.
They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,
They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea,
And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross,
The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;
The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass;
From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,
And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.

Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young,
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war,
Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,
Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world,
Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.
Love-light of Spain—hurrah!
Death-light of Africa!
Don John of Austria
Is riding to the sea.

Mahound is in his paradise above the evening star,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
He moves a mighty turban on the timeless houri’s knees,
His turban that is woven of the sunset and the seas.
He shakes the peacock gardens as he rises from his ease,
And he strides among the tree-tops and is taller than the trees,
And his voice through all the garden is a thunder sent to bring
Black Azrael and Ariel and Ammon on the wing.
Giants and the Genii,
Multiplex of wing and eye,
Whose strong obedience broke the sky
When Solomon was king.

They rush in red and purple from the red clouds of the morn,
From temples where the yellow gods shut up their eyes in scorn;
They rise in green robes roaring from the green hells of the sea
Where fallen skies and evil hues and eyeless creatures be;
On them the sea-valves cluster and the grey sea-forests curl,
Splashed with a splendid sickness, the sickness of the pearl;
They swell in sapphire smoke out of the blue cracks of the ground,—
They gather and they wonder and give worship to Mahound.
And he saith, “Break up the mountains where the hermit-folk can hide,
And sift the red and silver sands lest bone of saint abide,
And chase the Giaours flying night and day, not giving rest,
For that which was our trouble comes again out of the west.
We have set the seal of Solomon on all things under sun,
Of knowledge and of sorrow and endurance of things done,
But a noise is in the mountains, in the mountains, and I know
The voice that shook our palaces—four hundred years ago:
It is he that saith not ‘Kismet’; it is he that knows not Fate ;
It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey in the gate!
It is he whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth,
Put down your feet upon him, that our peace be on the earth.”
For he heard drums groaning and he heard guns jar,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
Sudden and still—hurrah!
Bolt from Iberia!
Don John of Austria
Is gone by Alcalar.

St. Michael’s on his mountain in the sea-roads of the north
(Don John of Austria is girt and going forth.)
Where the grey seas glitter and the sharp tides shift
And the sea folk labour and the red sails lift.
He shakes his lance of iron and he claps his wings of stone;
The noise is gone through Normandy; the noise is gone alone;
The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes
And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise,
And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room,
And Christian dreadeth Christ that hath a newer face of doom,
And Christian hateth Mary that God kissed in Galilee,
But Don John of Austria is riding to the sea.
Don John calling through the blast and the eclipse
Crying with the trumpet, with the trumpet of his lips,
Trumpet that sayeth ha!
Domino gloria!
Don John of Austria
Is shouting to the ships.

King Philip’s in his closet with the Fleece about his neck
(Don John of Austria is armed upon the deck.)
The walls are hung with velvet that, is black and soft as sin,
And little dwarfs creep out of it and little dwarfs creep in.
He holds a crystal phial that has colours like the moon,
He touches, and it tingles, and he trembles very soon,
And his face is as a fungus of a leprous white and grey
Like plants in the high houses that are shuttered from the day,
And death is in the phial, and the end of noble work,
But Don John of Austria has fired upon the Turk.
Don John’s hunting, and his hounds have bayed—
Booms away past Italy the rumour of his raid
Gun upon gun, ha! ha!
Gun upon gun, hurrah!
Don John of Austria
Has loosed the cannonade.

The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
The hidden room in man’s house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea
The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery;
They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and Castle dark,
They veil the plum├Ęd lions on the galleys of St. Mark;
And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.
They are lost like slaves that swat, and in the skies of morning hung
The stair-ways of the tallest gods when tyranny was young.
They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen or fleeing on
Before the high Kings’ horses in the granite of Babylon.
And many a one grows witless in his quiet room in hell
Where a yellow face looks inward through the lattice of his cell,
And he finds his God forgotten, and he seeks no more a sign—
(But Don John of Austria has burst the battle-line!)
Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.
Vivat Hispania!
Domino Gloria!

Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!

Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight forever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade....
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)

(via John Derbyshire)

Update: If you want to hear a really awesome reading of the second stanza, listen to the last 1:30 of the broadcast here. Trust me, I've never heard a poetry reading anywhere near this radical.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Stories from an Atlanta Limo Driver

If you're ever with a Limo driver, I recommend asking them to tell you about some of the celebrities they've driven around. I was with one guy, and I just had to suggest the topic and he went on a crazy roll, including the following:

-Expressing skepticism of the claim that Kobe Bryant was a rapist, based on his firsthand experience of the sheer number of groupie women who follow around basketballers, and the gold-digging nature of a lot of them. Apparently it's common practice for these guys to pay off all the groupie women they sleep with - partly to make sure it doesn't get in the papers, partly to make (potentially false) accusations afterwards of rape more difficult ("So why did you take his money afterwards if he raped you? Are you a prostitute?" etc.). I take no stand on any of the above, just reporting what he told me.

-As part of the above, when there were enough groupie women around, some of the guys would say 'okay, one of you go with the driver too', to which he would apparently have to turn them down, noting 'I'm an old man, I've got God in my life. But if you'd caught me 20 years ago...'

-Among rappers, Usher and 50 Cent are apparently d***heads (no, really!), while Lil John and Sean Paul are good guys. P Diddy is okay, but his entourage is full of tools (stop, that surely can't be right!). Apparently it's common for no-name losers in the entourage to act much more entitled than the stars themselves, which I'd totally believe.

-Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley apparently act in real life just like you'd expect from TV - "both really cool guys".

-Apparently, he was in a limo with Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown, where Bobby Brown was talking to some business associate and Whitney went crazy and started attacking Brown and screaming - in other words, while the rumors that Bobby beat her up are true, she was also apparently nuts and not an easy woman to be around.

-Chris Brown and Rhianna both apparently seemed quite normal right before he beat the hell out of her. Go figure.

Interesting times - it's like the Taxi-cab confessionals, but with famous people.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Facts I Challenge You To Explain

In the USA, the portion sizes of nearly every food item are significantly larger than in the rest of the world.

Except for sugar packets.

For some reason, those need to be half the size of everywhere else.