Online crime, USA

Infographic: Americans Lost Hundreds of Millions to Online Scams in 2014 | Statista

These numbers look like huge under-estimates to me. The obvious interpretation is that much online crime is never reported to the FBI. Interesting though that women fall for fake romance scams, while men lose their marbles over automobiles.


How to start a piece

Louis Menand is, IMHO, the best living literary critic. Perhaps that’s because he’s the most readable. At any rate, I will read anything he writes, on any subject.

One of his gifts is that, like Hemingway, he lures the reader in at the very beginning. Here he is doing it in a recent New Yorker essay on Saul Bellow:

Herzog is the book that made Saul Bellow famous. He was forty-nine years old when it came out, in 1964. He had enjoyed critical esteem since the publication of his first novel, “Dangling Man,” in 1944, and he had won a National Book Award for “The Adventures of Augie March” in 1954. But “Herzog” turned him into a public figure, a writer of books known even to people who don’t read books—an “author.” At a ceremony honoring the success of “Herzog” at city hall in Chicago, Bellow’s home town, a reporter asked the mayor, Richard J. Daley, whether he’d read the novel. “I’ve looked into it,” Daley said.

You get enough people saying that and you have a best-seller…

See what I mean? Read on.

Fame at last!

Many thanks to the numerous people who wrote to tell me that Maureen Dowd had mentioned me in her splendid column about Uber. She wrote:

“I know Uber has the image of an obnoxious digital robber baron, a company that plays dirty tricks and proves that convenience “makes hypocrites of us all,” as John Naughton put it in The Guardian, noting that its very name has connotations of Nietzschean superiority. (Travis Kalanick, the C.E.O., coined the word “Boob-er” to describe his greater appeal to women because of his success.)”

Actually, even if Ms Dowd hadn’t mentioned me I would have rated her column highly because she highlights one of the odder aspects of the Uber phenomenon. She was puzzled because when she tried to summon a Uber car, most of those in her immediate vicinity immediately headed in the other direction. The explanation was provided by the driver who did pick her up, namely that they had all checked her Uber “rating” and discovered that she only got 4.2 out of 5. (Drivers rate passengers as well as vice versa.) In the end, she learned how this reputation system can be gamed: before you part company with your driver you make a deal: “five for five”.


A pivotal moment

The resounding ‘Yes” vote in the Irish Referendum on changing the Constitution to allow same-sex marriage is a pivotal moment in the history of my beloved homeland. And in the history of the world too, in a small way, because this is the first occasion in which legal equality has been conferred on non-heterosexuals by a popular vote.

My private expectation was that it would be a narrowly positive vote, and that it would be decided by the urban/rural divide, with the electorates of Dublin, Cork and Galway voting overwhelmingly ‘Yes’ and most of the rural constituencies voting ‘No’. In the event I was completely wrong: only one constituency (Roscommon-South Leitrim) went negative, and that by a small margin. There was still an urban/rural divide, but it was much narrower than I had expected.


Cartoon by Martyn Turner in today’s Irish Times.

What it means (and what the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, conceded) is that Irish society has finally turned the corner towards secularity. What’s astonishing, in some ways, is that it took so long, especially given how long the revelations about the hypocrisy and criminality of the Catholic church over child abuse have been in the public domain. The idea that this decrepit, decaying institution could pretend to be a guide to morals (not to mention politics) was laughable for decades, but it seems that it is only now that its bluff has finally been called.

In one way, it was bound to happen, for demographic reasons — or what marketing consultants call “biological leakage”, i.e. the remorseless tendency of older people to pass away. But that doesn’t lessen the sense of wonder that it has finally happened. As the Irish Times put it in its First Leader,

“the time when bishops could instruct the Irish people on how to vote has long gone. What we may not have appreciated until now is that being a young, networked society has political consequences that can overturn the cynical conventional wisdom about voting behaviour, turnout and engagement.

This is the first Irish electoral event in which young people have taken the lead and determined the outcome and it has been a bracing, refreshing experience. It had been visible on the streets for weeks in the Yes badges that became ubiquitous during the campaign but it had its most potent and poignant expression in the multitude of young emigrants who came home to vote on Friday. Here, in a single gesture, was all the pathos of separation and longing; an expression of solidarity and belonging; and an enduring loyalty to the nation that had so signally failed them. The tweets from those returning to vote for marriage equality were at once inspiring and heartbreaking, testimony to our failure and their promise.”

The campaign was fascinating because it was, as Noel Whelan put it in the Times, “the most extensive civic society campaign ever seen in Irish politics”. In that sense, it reminded one of the campaign that propelled Obama to the White House in 2008. The people who masterminded it — Brian Sheehan and Gráinne Healey — have shown themselves to be consummate, canny strategists who crafted a campaign that was deliberately open and conversational rather than confrontational. (The chosen theme was: “I’m Voting Yes, Ask Me Why?”)

For me, it was especially cheering to see that a long, lonely and exceedingly courageous campaign by a fellow Joycean, Senator David Norris, had finally born fruit. Writing in the Times today, he recalled the long and winding road “from criminal to equal citizen”:

I have been privileged in my life to follow a remarkable trajectory from being defined into criminality, challenging the criminal law, losing in the High Court and Supreme Courts, finally winning out by a margin of one vote in Europe, seeing the criminal law changed and then starting to build on this basis for human and civil rights for gay people.

Fifty years ago my first boyfriend said to me outside a Wimpy Bar on Burgh Quay: “I love you David but I can’t marry you.” I still remember that all these years later.

Go forward 10 years when, after a debate on decriminalisation, the late Mona Bean O’Cribben remarked vehemently to me: “This isn’t just about decriminalisation. You have a homosexual agenda. You won’t be satisfied until you have homosexual marriage.” I turned to her and said: “What a wonderful idea, thank you very much madam, have you got any other suggestions?”

But there is another, intangible but real, aspect to this vote. One of the strangely positive side-effects of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years — when the Irish economy zoomed from sensible economic development to casino property-development insanity — was that my fellow citizens experienced for the first time what it was like to be seen as successful by the rest of the world. It was suddenly, as some of them observed at the time, “cool to be Irish”. All of which meant that the bust and the subsequent economic collapse had an even harsher psychic impact: it turned out that we had been kidding ourselves; that we had, as Frank McDonald (the great Irish Times journalist) used to say, “lost the run of ourselves”.

But one of the most unexpected byproducts of Friday’s vote is that we can be genuinely proud of ourselves, and for a reason infinitely better than fuelling a crazed property boom: for once, we did the right thing. Not a bad day’s work.

Scribble, scribble

From Virginia Woolf’s diary for Tuesday 11 May, 1920…

“It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly on beginning a new book quiets down after a time, & one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, & the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything. I’m a little anxious. How am I to bring off this conception? Directly one gets to work one is like a person walking, who has seen the country stretching out before. I want to write nothing in this book* that I dont [sic] enjoy writing. Yet writing is always difficult.”

Yep. As someone who is working on a book, I can vouch for this.

*She was working on ‘Jacob’s Room’.

The “dedicated public servants” who protect us from harm

One of the strangest things about the current debates about surveillance and the law-enforcement and security agencies that are lobbying energetically for even more intrusive powers than they already have, is the eerie absence of any sceptical voice about the integrity and trustworthiness of these agencies. The idea that there might be even a single black sheep among the serried ranks of ‘dedicated’ public servants (aka spooks, NSA/GCHQ geeks, public police officers, etc.) is treated with outrage by their leaders and political masters. I know, because I’ve uttered such outrageous conjectures in their presence!

This is really weird, because you can only rationally take this line if you have no knowledge of history. And we’re not talking ancient history either — the recent past will do. In Britain, for example, it’s not that long ago since MI6 was riddled with Soviet spies (Blunt, Burgess, Maclean, et al, or that MI5 was staffed by right-wing nutters (see, for example, the files on that agency’s surveillance of Eric Hobsbawm). So the idea that their successors are 100% certain to be squeaky clean seems, well, a mite implausible.

On the other side of the pond, we have seen the former head of the NSA lying under oath to Congress (though now Agency lawyers are claiming that it was just a slip of the memory that led him to mislead legislators). And the current Director of the FBI, one James Comey, has been weighing in against companies like Apple and Google providing their customers/users with strong encryption with which to protect their privacy.

Which, of course, reminds anyone with a sense of history of one of Mr Comey’s predecessors, J. Edgar Hoover. There’s an interesting article by Margaret Talbot in the New Yorker about a new book by Betty Medsger, a former Washington Post reporter. It’s about a incident that took place in March 8, 1971, when a group of pacifists broke into an F.B.I. field office in Media, Pennsylvania, and stole hundreds of the agency’s files.

The files, predictably, were very revealing about Hoover’s FBI. Among other things they showed that

Hoover’s F.B.I. had a twisted idée fixe about African-Americans; it aimed to put spies in every black student union at every college in the country, “without regard for whether there had been disturbances on such campuses,” and had largely achieved that goal. As Medsger writes, the over-all impression the files gave was that Hoover and many other F.B.I. officials “thought of black Americans as falling into two categories—black people who should be spied on by the F.B.I. and black people who should spy on other black people for the F.B.I.”

But that was relatively small beer compared to some of the other stuff. As Talbot tells it, “One of the files contained a routing slip with a strange word on it: COINTELPRO. It took two years and the determination of Carl Stern, an NBC News reporter who filed several Freedom of Information Act requests and a lawsuit against the Justice Department and the F.B.I., for Americans to discover what COINTELPRO was.”

So what was it?

Hoover had been running a highly secret program under that name which not only spied on civil-rights leaders, suspected Communists, public critics of the F.B.I., student activists, and many others but also sought to intimidate, smear, and blackmail them, to break up marriages, get people fired, demoralize them. These were the auspices under which the F.B.I. spread a false rumor that the actress Jean Seberg, who had recently given a donation to the Black Panther Party, was pregnant by a Panther leader. (Seberg was pregnant, and, shortly after the story appeared in a gossip column, she miscarried.) It was under COINTELPRO that Hoover waged his assault on Martin Luther King, Jr., wiretapping his hotel rooms and recording his sexual encounters, and, at one point, trying to coerce him to commit suicide.

So Hoover was a bad apple, and he bent the FBI into a contorted shape. The stolen files led to a scandal and the setting up of the Church Committee, the imposition of a ten-year term for the Director of the FBI and permanent Congressional oversight of the Bureau. Ironically, they also led to the setting up of the secret FISA court under which the NSA now supposedly operates.

All of this took quite a while (five years between the leaking of the files and the second report of the Church Committee). Given that the Snowden revelations started in June 2013, we’re on track to find out about the current deficiencies and perversions of NSA/FBI/GCHQ/MI6 round about 2018.

Self-service checkouts

As someone who detests self-service checkout systems (why should the customer do all the work?), I was delighted to find a cartoon in the New Yorker showing a sign over the accursed terminals saying “NOT IN THE MOOD FOR HUMAN INTERACTION LINE”.

Networked echo chambers

Lots of people, including Cass Sunstein, have written about the gap between the Internet’s potential to become the greatest marketplace of ideas the world has ever seen, and the actuality, which is that most of us seem to prefer to operate inside digital echo chambers.

Nick Corasaniti thinks that use of the ‘Unfollow’ button on social media may be the way in which people now construct their own echo chambers.

With the presidential race heating up, a torrent of politically charged commentary has flooded Facebook, the world’s largest social networking site, with some users deploying their “unfollow” buttons like a television remote to silence distasteful political views. Coupled with the algorithm now powering Facebook’s news feed, the unfollowing is creating a more homogenized political experience of like-minded users, resulting in the kind of polarization more often associated with MSNBC or Fox News. And it may ultimately deflate a central promise of the Internet: Instead of offering people a diverse marketplace of challenging ideas, the web is becoming just another self-perpetuating echo chamber.

Sheer genius


This is lovely. From a compendium of ingenious answers to exam questions. Reminds me of the (probably apocryphal) story about Michael Frayn when he was a philosophy student at Cambridge. The story goes that one of the questions in a Part II paper read “Q2. Is this a question. Discuss.” To which he supposedly answered: “If it is, then this is an answer.”