Stolen notes

I’ve been wanting to post about this story for a while, but couldn’t figure out what to say that hasn’t already been said by many people before. So I’ll just summarise and give one very interesting (if saddening) link. Google for more if you don’t know the story already.

Joyce Hatto was a classical pianist who, after an unremarkable performing and recording career, retired in 1976, reportedly with inoperable ovarian cancer. Late in the 1980s, however, she began to release a series of CDs, produced by her husband on his own small independent label, that got rave reviews in the classical music press. When she died in 2006, she got flattering obituaries from pretty much every newspaper in the UK. But in February 2007, compelling evidence emerged that many of her highly-praised recordings were fakes: copies of earlier recordings by other, talented but semi-obscure pianists, sometimes sped up or down to alter the timing (and the pitch) slightly, but otherwise little modified from the originals. After some days of feigning ignorance, her husband, William Barrington-Coupe, came clean on the fraud; but it is still unknown how much of her repertoire was forged and how much may have been genuine.

Christopher Howell has a riveting article on his personal correspondence with Barrington-Coupe and Hatto. (Thanks to Pinaki for the link.) We rarely get to know what makes plagiarists tick; but the letters make fascinating reading for the detailed attention they pay to the deception. We don’t know whether Hatto herself was party to the scam, but sadly, it appears she may not have been ignorant of it.


One other note: though the Hatto recordings lined up perfectly with previous recordings (nobody could have deliberately reproduced their own recordings to that accuracy, let alone someone else’s, let alone accidentally), apparently that wasn’t enough to totally convince some in the music press. Quoth Stereophile:


CHARM did timescape analyses of two different reissues of Jerzy Smidowicz’s recording of Op.68 No.3. On a scale where precise agreement would be 1.0, the two reissues showed a correlation of 0.993. Comparing the Hatto and Indjic performances of the same mazurka resulted in a correlation of 0.996; comparing all 54 resulted in a correlation of 0.999.

Conclusive? Perhaps not, as there is still a one in 1000 possibility that Hatto made her own recordings, but certainly troubling.


Statistics 101 for Stereophile and friends: coefficients of correlation aren’t probabilities. They can even be negative. In this case, the probability of getting such a correlation by chance is vanishingly small (just as the probability of two independent runs of 1000 coin-tosses being 99.9% identical is vanishingly small — not one in a thousand, but more like one in 10^298). Perhaps, however, it was such ignorance of statistics that led Barrington-Coupe to initially try to bluff it out.

But music reviewers aren’t the only ones confused by probability and statistics: a recent paper (that I mentioned two posts ago), purporting to link astrology and various diseases, made the point that standard methods used blindly by many medical researchers can suggest correlations when there are none. With a more careful treatment, the astrological effects vanished.

In medicine, of course, the consequences of such misunderstanding can be tragic. Among the worst examples was British paediatrician Sir Roy Meadow, whose flawed understanding of statistics led him to declare that multiple “cot deaths” are so vanishingly unlikely that the mother must be a murderer. Eventually skepticism arose, his ideas were discredited, and he was struck off by the General Medical Council, but not before his arrogant self-assurance had sent many mothers, who had already lost their children, to jail.

There are many more examples through the history of science and society. General understanding of statistics among the general public is abysmal — it grates on me whenever a cricket expert says “by the law of averages, this team must lose soon”. And therefore half-experts find it easy to hoodwink others, including other half-experts. Perhaps that will be the subject of another post…

Stolen notes

I’ve been wanting to post about this story for a while, but couldn’t figure out what to say that hasn’t already been said by many people before. So I’ll just summarise and give one very interesting (if saddening) link. Google for more if you don’t know the story already.

Joyce Hatto was a classical pianist who, after an unremarkable performing and recording career, retired in 1976, reportedly with inoperable ovarian cancer. Late in the 1980s, however, she began to release a series of CDs, produced by her husband on his own small independent label, that got rave reviews in the classical music press. When she died in 2006, she got flattering obituaries from pretty much every newspaper in the UK. But in February 2007, compelling evidence emerged that many of her highly-praised recordings were fakes: copies of earlier recordings by other, talented but semi-obscure pianists, sometimes sped up or down to alter the timing (and the pitch) slightly, but otherwise little modified from the originals. After some days of feigning ignorance, her husband, William Barrington-Coupe, came clean on the fraud; but it is still unknown how much of her repertoire was forged and how much may have been genuine.

Christopher Howell has a riveting article on his personal correspondence with Barrington-Coupe and Hatto. (Thanks to Pinaki for the link.) We rarely get to know what makes plagiarists tick; but the letters make fascinating reading for the detailed attention they pay to the deception. We don’t know whether Hatto herself was party to the scam, but sadly, it appears she may not have been ignorant of it.


One other note: though the Hatto recordings lined up perfectly with previous recordings (nobody could have deliberately reproduced their own recordings to that accuracy, let alone someone else’s, let alone accidentally), apparently that wasn’t enough to totally convince some in the music press. Quoth Stereophile:

CHARM did timescape analyses of two different reissues of Jerzy Smidowicz’s recording of Op.68 No.3. On a scale where precise agreement would be 1.0, the two reissues showed a correlation of 0.993. Comparing the Hatto and Indjic performances of the same mazurka resulted in a correlation of 0.996; comparing all 54 resulted in a correlation of 0.999.

Conclusive? Perhaps not, as there is still a one in 1000 possibility that Hatto made her own recordings, but certainly troubling.

Statistics 101 for Stereophile and friends: coefficients of correlation aren’t probabilities. They can even be negative. In this case, the probability of getting such a correlation by chance is vanishingly small (just as the probability of two independent runs of 1000 coin-tosses being 99.9% identical is vanishingly small — not one in a thousand, but more like one in 10^298). Perhaps, however, it was such ignorance of statistics that led Barrington-Coupe to initially try to bluff it out.

But music reviewers aren’t the only ones confused by probability and statistics: a recent paper (that I mentioned two posts ago), purporting to link astrology and various diseases, made the point that standard methods used blindly by many medical researchers can suggest correlations when there are none. With a more careful treatment, the astrological effects vanished.

In medicine, of course, the consequences of such misunderstanding can be tragic. Among the worst examples was British paediatrician Sir Roy Meadow, whose flawed understanding of statistics led him to declare that multiple “cot deaths” are so vanishingly unlikely that the mother must be a murderer. Eventually skepticism arose, his ideas were discredited, and he was struck off by the General Medical Council, but not before his arrogant self-assurance had sent many mothers, who had already lost their children, to jail.

There are many more examples through the history of science and society. General understanding of statistics among the general public is abysmal — it grates on me whenever a cricket expert says “by the law of averages, this team must lose soon”. And therefore half-experts find it easy to hoodwink others, including other half-experts. Perhaps that will be the subject of another post…

Class barriers

One of the many thoughts that rushed through my mind on seeing today’s news was this: passengers in the middle of a second-class sleeper coach have no way to get out in an emergency, because the windows are barred.

In trains I’ve been on in the west, the windows are large, made of glass, and some of them are removable and marked as “emergency exits”. Also, a hammer is provided to break the glass if necessary.

The windows in most of our AC coaches, as well as all non-AC coaches, are too small for most adults to get out of easily. And no hammer is provided. Even so, there is some hope with the AC coaches. The second-class non-AC windows, as I said, are barred. I can see this is for reasons of security and child-safety, but really, can’t our engineers come up with some sort of system of child-safe, intruder-safe, but quickly-removable bars? It can’t be that hard.

Years ago, the Uphaar cinema fire tragedy in Delhi brought the issue of fire-safety of buildings to public consciousness. Buildings must have well-marked emergency exits and stairwells that allow easy movement of large numbers of people. (Though, even now, many don’t.)

All aeroplanes have several emergency exits for rapid evacuation. The utility of this was most dramatically demonstrated in 2005 in Toronto, when the flight crew of an Air France plane that overshot the runway managed to evacuate it completely, mere moments before it burst into flames.

But what about emergency exits in railway coaches? Better exits may not have saved many of today’s unfortunate passengers. But a few, at least, could have escaped.

Missing the mark

I have long been convinced of two things: (1) many Indians don’t “get” satire, and (2) most internet users don’t read past the headline.

Either of those hypotheses will explain the reader comments at the end of this article.

Cargo cults

In 1974, Richard Feynman gave a classic commencement lecture at Caltech, reproduced as the chapter “Cargo Cult Science” in his book Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman! (and available online here). The talk covered the scientific method and various forms of pseudoscience that omit “something essential”:

“In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas — he’s the controller — and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.”

Well, pseudoscience is still alive and well, and so, it seems, are some of those cargo cults.

Find the cost of freedom

Recently I rediscovered Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. I’ll come to the how below: first let’s talk of the rediscovery. I used to own a CSNY tape (“So Far”) and a CSN tape (“CSN”) when I was in high school — I think those may have been the only two CSN(Y) albums released in India. It seemed nice, with pleasing harmonies like Simon and Garfunkel and mainly acoustic instruments; I never paid the lyrics much attention, but songs like “Teach your children” and “Wooden ships” sounded pleasant and innocuous, almost like children’s songs.

Today, I’m blown away at what I missed: the ominous undertones of those songs in particular, and the countercultural 1960s symbolism everywhere. And I hadn’t known the background behind Neil Young’s “Ohio“, or listened carefully to the lyrics.

Listening to their live album, “Four way street”, recently was a revelation. Particularly disc 2. The third track is a hard-rocking thirteen-minute “Southern Man“, with at least 10 of those 13 minutes consisting of Neil Young and Stephen Stills exchanging searing guitar licks — this was CSNY? It sounded like nothing I’d heard before. Certainly Lynyrd Skynyrd’s response to that song, “Sweet home Alabama“, sounds tame in comparison. And if that’s not enough, the following track is a short but equally searing “Ohio”, with its chorus “Four dead in Ohio” drilling into your skull, and the one after that is another marathon jam between Stills and Young, “Carry on”.

Oh yes, the acoustic tracks are great too.

Now to my rediscovery of CSNY… it all has to do with youtube. That’s where I discovered Stephen Colbert (after his White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner performance in 2006). Then I discovered Stephen Colbert’s interview with Neil Young. (That was on youtube too, but seems to be gone now; you can search on Comedy Central’s site.) Then I listened to, and bought, Neil’s latest album, “Living with war” (he sang one line of “Let’s impeach the president” on Colbert’s programme before Colbert cut him off, and more to the point, he made the whole album available online). Then I heard more Neil Young on youtube; I was particularly interested by the Rust performances around 1977-78. Then, of course, I decided it was time to revisit CSNY. Among other performances, I heard a “Southern Man”, which seems to be gone now, thanks to copyright owners Viacom — the same people who yanked the Comedy Central clips.

Anyway — thanks mainly to youtube, I have now bought a CSNY double CD, a Neil Young CD, and a Neil Young DVD. And that’s just a sample of the stuff I’ve bought after discovering it online. There’s much that I’d love to buy, but it’s just not available. (Example: Yamashita’s classical guitar recordings. The guy is a genius but has had a rough reception in the west, with the result that his more interesting recordings are just not available at all.)

Listen up, record and media companies: media-sharing sites like youtube are your friends. Colbert owes his insane popularity today to youtube, and he knows it. Dozens of musicians, starting from the Grateful Dead, owe their popularity and financial success to allowing free sharing of live recordings. Madeleine Peyroux makes all her recordings available (streaming) on her website — which has earned her at least one sale, to me: I wouldn’t have chanced it without hearing it first.

Science fiction author Cory Doctorow allows his books to be downloaded for free, and believes that it has boosted sales:

“Most people who download the book don’t end up buying it, but they wouldn’t have bought it in any event, so I haven’t lost any sales, I’ve just won an audience. A tiny minority of downloaders treat the free e-book as a substitute for the printed book–those are the lost sales. But a much larger minority treat the e-book as an enticement to buy the printed book. They’re gained sales. As long as gained sales outnumber lost sales, I’m ahead of the game.”

So stop viewing every damn video on youtube as a lost sale. It isn’t. A significant number of the views will translate to gained sales.

(I’m not linking to youtube above: I have in the past but most of those links have disappeared, so I figure I can let interested readers search for themselves.)

Pizza à la Cargèse

I used to be a pizza purist. A true pizza should (a) be hand-stretched, preferably hand-tossed, not rolled; (b) use mozzarella di bufala (buffalo-milk mozzarella); (c) be baked together with the toppings; (d) be baked in a wood-fire oven. While it’s rather hard to obtain the requisite cheese in India, and a wood fire is quite out of the question, I tried to follow the other instructions. Sometimes the results were excellent, more often they were indifferent. The base would be soggy, the cheese (if “mozzarella”) would be tasteless, or the toppings would be burnt.

Last summer I spent a few days in Corsica. On the first day my Italian flatmate, another Italian, and I went out to a pizza place (their choice, not mine) for dinner. They discussed the quality animatedly, before, during, and after the meal. “The French don’t know how to make pizza.” “Well, this is Corsica, it’s almost Italy.” “Yes that’s true, but still.” After the meal, their consensus was that it wasn’t bad, but could be better. (Personally, I thought it was great. But I had spent two years in India, and two years before that in the US: while I wasn’t starved of pizza in either country, I hadn’t had a genuine Italian pizza in years.)

The next day my flatmate reported to me that he had found a truly excellent pizza place, as good as any he’d had in Italy. And it was no expensive restaurant. It was a converted van, somewhat bigger than an SUV but smaller than a minibus, parked (apparently permanently) right outside our flat.

Curious, I went there the next day, ordered a pizza, and watched the guy make it. He did indeed have a wood fire oven, right inside that van — one of the more impressive sights I’ve seen. But as for the other purist requirements… he rolled the base with a rolling pin. He pre-baked it for a couple of minutes before adding the toppings. And he used emmenthaler and gruyère, not mozzarella.

And, yes, the pizza was superb.

So I’ve abandoned my purism. I roll the base with a pin. I pre-bake it first for a couple of minutes, then add the toppings and bake it again. I use the local versions of cheddar or gouda. (After the cheese is baked for a few minutes at several hundred degrees, it’s hard to tell the difference. But avoid anything marketed as “pizza cheese”, unless you like the taste of plastic.) It’s so much easier that way.

It’s still hit or miss, but it’s a hit more often.

Give me liberty or give me politeness

Anyone who’s lived in a foreign country knows about cultural differences. In most western countries, when you pass a stranger (of either gender) on a staircase or meet them in an elevator, they greet you; in India they shrink from you. One of the oldest rules we are taught is “when you’re a guest, do as your hosts do”. (Or, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”) Thus, I offer my hand in greeting women in the west, but not in India, unless they offer it first. On the other hand, when eating out with friends in India, I often pick up the whole tab (or someone else does); in the west, it’s almost always carefully calculated and divided up, even if it was your host who suggested the idea. What’s normal in one country can be rude in another.

But a comment I made on another blog, practically in passing,

“I’m totally of the opinion that if you want to live in France (or any foreign country) you should do as the locals do. The French are just as justified in finding burqas offensive, as the Saudis are in finding bikinis offensive.”

drew an unexpectedly (to me) hostile response from one commenter, who calls such an attitude “coercive” and “oppressive” (and says much else). But what struck me as curious was this statement:

“A society can contract on any set of rules but a society which doesn’t value or protect individual liberty will necessarily be an oppressive and coercive one.”

The easy answer to that is, yes, French society is free to choose its rules, and if I find those rules oppressive, I’m free not to live in France.

But there’s more to it than that. I have some sympathy for libertarian views, as frequently expressed on Lew Rockwell and other sites, without entirely subscribing to them myself.

Now, the above commenter says:

“Shouldn’t a woman living in Saudi Arabia have the right to drive a car is she so pleases or wear a bikini?”

One question is, wear a bikini where? On most Indian beaches, it would be frowned upon. On most western beaches it’s normal and expected, but in most western city centres, it would not be much appreciated either, if not actually illegal. On the other hand, complete nudity would be illegal in most places (including most beaches) — but is not illegal in Barcelona (though not uncontroversial there either). There are smaller resorts where nudity is perfectly acceptable.

Does that mean that these should be the standards all over the world? A consistent libertarian would (or should) say yes. But most of us would not be so sure (even if we are not personally offended by nudity). Every society in the world has conventions that have taken root over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Before uprooting them, we would want to balance the benefit against the cost of upsetting a large fraction of society. If it’s child marriage, or dowry, clearly society benefits from getting rid of such traditions. (Yes, these examples involve imposing bans, but I hope most libertarians will support the bans.) If it’s smoking in public places, I’m of the opinion that society benefits from banning it; others disagree. If it is a particular dress code, the benefit of suddenly uprooting it is less clear to me. If we were to allow bikinis, much less nudity, on beaches in Saudi Arabia (or Chennai’s Marina!) we will, in the short term, need police protection for the wearers of those bikinis. But libertarians loathe the police. So we will want to allow bikini-wearers to carry weapons for defence. So we will need to relax our gun laws. You see the slippery slope. (I’m not entirely joking. These are often actual libertarian arguments.)

Coming back to the burqa question: if revealing clothing is impolite in many countries, hiding one’s face is regarded as impolite in Western societies. I said above, somewhat flippantly, that those who disagree are free not to live in France. But for second-generation immigrants it’s not so easy to leave. Isn’t there an argument for saying that a community of citizens, however small, has the right to practise its religious customs?

Well, suppose there were a religious community in India that believed in not wearing clothes: would we allow them in our cities? In fact there is precisely such a community, the Jains, a very old community that originally did not wear clothes. Over time they split into two sects, the Digambar (naked) and Swetambar (white-clothed). Today practising Digambars have practically vanished, and most Jains I know don’t even object to coloured clothes. Would we tolerate a large community of Digambar monks moving around freely without clothing in our cities, even though their heritage is at least as old as anyone else’s in India? If the answer is no, why should we expect other cultures to be accepting of burqas, which are not part of their heritage at all?

Politeness isn’t the most serious issue with hiding your face or wearing loose swaddling clothing: there’s also the question of security, as jewellers in Pune recently discovered. A consistent libertarian should argue that a jeweller is free to debar burqas from his private shop; but the commenter above called such a ban “bigoted” and “petty” (probably because he misread me as saying the French had done it). And indeed, the jewellers backed down, I believe. In contrast, I don’t know of any crimes attributable to nudists: the Digambars are the most non-violent people in the world.

And after all, the burqa ban in France is only in public schools. Women are free to wear burqas elsewhere, and are free to choose a private school.

Perhaps in an ideal world, the French would be happy with burqas and we would be happy with bikinis on public beaches. Neither of us are there yet. But the western world is unquestionably further along the road of religious freedom and individual liberty. Let us catch up before berating them on burqas.

What killed the dinosaurs

Thanks to that eminent scientist, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, we have a new theory for the extinction of dinosaurs. He blames their flatulence.

He proposes an indirect mechanism: the output of methane from their posteriors caused global warming in the Palaeocene-Eocene period.

I would suggest a more direct cause. Perhaps dinosaurs who emitted such prodigious quantities of greenhouse gas just couldn’t stand to be around one another, and stopped reproducing.

And in that case, perhaps we can hope that our politicians (whose resemblance to dinosaurs goes beyond flatulence) will drive themselves to extinction in the same way.

“Success is like a fart: only your own smells nice” (James P. Hogan)

Is it cause I is wheatish?

Spotted on DesiPundit: Saket Vaidya a.k.a. Vulturo (a DP contributor) thinks that “Madrasi chicks” are ugly. He clarifies in the comments, there and here, that he’s talking about averages, not individuals. But it’s more than an opinion: he calls it an “objective factual statement“.

While Saket’s post is full of stereotypes, the one I’ll focus on here is this: he — like most Indians — seems to think fair skin (“complexion”) is the primary measure of beauty.

We like to shout racism when it is convenient to us, most recently during the Shilpa Shetty flap. But some days ago, this post (also via DP) described, better than I could, what racist attitudes are like in India. (In short: we are the perpetrators, not the victims.)

I’ve seen the same, though less starkly. Some quotes from people I know and don’t know:

  • About someone who married an American: “Thank god she didn’t marry a black.”
  • About roads in Delhi: “When they can rename roads with British names, like Cornwallis Road, why didn’t they rename Muslim roads like Shahjahan Road?”
  • About me, after I’ve spent some days outdoors: “How frightfully dark you’ve become.” (Actually, the word was “bhayankara” which means the same in Tamil as in Hindi.)
  • A relative’s well-meaning domestic help, about our newborn kid: “Is he fair?” Me: “No, he’s pretty much our complexion.” She: “Bathe him in milk and apply cream, he’ll become nice and fair…” She seemed mystified that I didn’t want him to be fair.

Of course, such things are intimately linked with casteist attitudes. More comments:

  • To a woman I know: “Don’t wear that jewellery, you’ll look like a Sudra kid.”
  • To another woman I know: “Don’t make dosa that way, that’s how sudras do it.”
  • (About some noise from the street) “Oh, that must be some Sudra wedding…”
  • (Comment to a post on Abi’s blog, about the absence of Bharat Ratnas in recent years): “they should catch a random Dalit and give him the Bharat Ratna.” (The particular creature who wrote this basks in anonymity.)

We all know such attitudes, experience them, perhaps indulge in them. How do we change them?

Caste, if one dresses “neutrally”, is not externally visible, so skin colour serves as a proxy. If we remove the idea that dark is ugly, we will have made some progress. I think the media should take the lead (and, in fact, bears huge responsibility for the state of affairs). We rarely see dark-skinned people in the media or advertising. Really, how many truly dark (not “wheatish”) celebrities can you think of in India? After racking my brains for a bit, the only male I could think of is Vijay Amritraj, and I can’t think of any darker-skinned woman than Nandita Das (who is not darker than average, at best, in India).

Take something as innocuous as news-reading. Back in the days when TV meant Doordarshan, and the only TV reviewer worth reading was Amita Malik in the Indian Express, I remember her talking about DD’s treatment of one of their better newsreaders (I forget his name now): they stopped his services because (they openly said) his skin colour was too dark to look good on TV. Though people may not say such things openly any more, it’s obvious that the attitude persists, in the private channels as much as on DD.

As for advertising, the only dark-skinned people I can think of (other than in “Fair and Lovely” cream ads) were in the fairly obnoxious “United Colors of Benetton” ads, where they seemed to be placed there just for the sake of “diversity”. Other advertisers rarely even make that token gesture.

Our friend Saket would no doubt argue that all this is simply because dark-skinned people are, “objectively”, butt-ugly. I say it’s cultural conditioning.

In my time in Paris, I was struck by the number of advertisements for up-market, designer clothing, perfumes, cosmetics, that featured dark-skinned (African-origin) women (and sometimes men) — not for the sake of diversity, but because they looked good. And it was not just the advertising: Paris’s streets and metro trains are filled with people of all races, and an astonishing number of very elegant black women. Some of them wear European clothes with characteristic French flair, others wear traditional African costumes. My own perception of beauty has never had much correlation with skin colour, but having lived all my life in India up to that point, this was one of the more eye-opening things I found there.

Blacks have penetrated popular culture deeply in France — in fact, in the pre-civil-rights days of the US, jazz legends like Bud Powell, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Clarke and many others took refuge in Paris from the racism back home. This cultural colour-blindness seems to predate the twentieth century: I was taken aback when I discovered that Alexandre Dumas was partly black. (For some reason, non-whites haven’t penetrated more “serious” establishments like government and the TV news. Post civil rights, blacks in the US have had more success in such fields, and also in the private sector.)

I was also struck by the number of mixed-race couples on the streets — far more than in New York, which is itself the most cosmopolitan city in the US, and (I’d guess) far, far more than the number of mixed-caste couples in India — certainly more than the number of “colour-mismatched” couples, so to speak.

I’m not saying dark is beautiful: I’m saying dark is irrelevant. But dark is often beautiful, and we used to know that. In our own mythology, Draupadi was supposed to be dark, as was Krishna (whose very name means dark). Looking around me today, I see no shortage of extremely good looking, dark-skinned people in India. When do we start seeing them in the media?

And when do we stop seeing this absurd word “wheatish” in matrimonial ads?

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