Chomskian Deep Structure of Comment Spam

There is an entire industry of spam blog comments out there. Often they take the form of either sycophantic enthusiasm or unsolicited advice. But today I was clearing out the spam comment folder, and I found this, the ur-message from which all spam comments are derived. Literally! I assume there is usually a processing step that pares this down to a single message, but somehow that did not happen this time.

Specifically, it looks like there is a nested structure something like this: { aaaa { xx | yy | zz } | bbbb }, where within each set of brackets you would choose one of the elements separated by or-pipes. So, this structure would give you aaaa xx, aaaa yy, aaaa zz, or bbbb. In the comment, we see a number of possible comments, and within each comment, there are numerous places where different phrasing can be used. Presumably the game here is to have a large enough set of combinations that spam blockers won’t zero in on a specific long sequence of words.

But here’s my favorite thing about this. Some effort has clearly gone into providing sets of alternatives that work grammatically when slotted in to the same place in each sentence. But then the rest of each sentence — the fixed part — is usually completely ungrammatical.

Anyway, it’s nice to know that someone appreciates my {great|wonderful|fantastic|magnificent|excellent} writing, even if it is just a spambot.

{I have|I’ve} been {surfing|browsing} online more than {three|3|2|4} hours today, yet
I never found any interesting article like yours.
{It’s|It is} pretty worth enough for me. {In my opinion|Personally|In my view},
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the {internet|net|web} will be {much more|a lot more} useful than ever before.|
I {couldn’t|could not} {resist|refrain from} commenting. {Very well|Perfectly|Well|Exceptionally well} written!|
{I will|I’ll} {right away|immediately} {take hold of|grab|clutch|grasp|seize|snatch} your {rss|rss feed} as I {can not|can’t} {in finding|find|to
find} your {email|e-mail} subscription {link|hyperlink} or {newsletter|e-newsletter}
service. Do {you have|you’ve} any? {Please|Kindly} {allow|permit|let} me
{realize|recognize|understand|recognise|know} {so
that|in order that} I {may just|may|could} subscribe.

{It is|It’s} {appropriate|perfect|the best} time to make some plans for the future and {it is|it’s} time
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{Perhaps|Maybe} you {could|can} write next articles referring to
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{things|issues} {approximately|about} it!|
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{Superb|Exceptional|Outstanding|Excellent} Blog!|
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Any way keep up wrinting.|
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{Thanks a lot|Kudos|Cheers|Thank you|Many thanks|Thanks}, I appreciate it!|
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soon. {Kudos|Cheers|Many thanks|Thanks}|
This is a topic {that is|that’s|which is} {close to|near to} my heart…

{Cheers|Many thanks|Best wishes|Take care|Thank you}!
{Where|Exactly where} are your contact details
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{Hola|Hey there|Hi|Hello|Greetings}! I’ve been {following|reading} your {site|web site|website|weblog|blog} for {a
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Just wanted to {tell you|mention|say} keep up the
{fantastic|excellent|great|good} {job|work}!|
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{A great|An excellent|A fantastic} read. {I’ll|I will} {definitely|certainly} be back.|
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{Howdy|Hi there|Hi|Hello}, i read your blog {occasionally|from time to time} and i own a similar one and i was just {wondering|curious} if you
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largest|the greatest|the most important|the most
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{I really|I truly|I seriously|I absolutely} love {your blog|your
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Is E O Wilson Senile, Narcissistic, or Just an Asshole?

Last weekend, renowned evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson was interviewed by BBC Newsnight. In the course of the interview, he continued his public feud with Richard Dawkins. Like most feuds, this one probably can be attributed to multiple causes, but it centers primarily around Wilson’s disavowal of kin selection.

The bit of the interview that has received the most attention is where Wilson calls Dawkins a “journalist”:

There is no dispute between me and Richard Dawkins and there never has been, because he’s a journalist, and journalists are people that report what the scientists have found, and the arguments I’ve had have actually been with scientists doing research.

This is pretty Oh-Snap! in the world of science, which is full of polite trash-talk centered on establishing who is more of a real scientist. Just like how you can insult a physicist by calling them an engineer, or how you can insult an economist by emphasizing “Memorial” in “Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences”.

The thing that struck me, though, was this bit, quoted in the Guardian’s coverage:

Wilson was asked about his current views on the concept of a selfish gene, to which he replied: “I have abandoned it and I think most serious scientists working on it have abandoned it. Some defenders may be out there, but they have been relatively or almost totally silenced since our major paper came out.”

The paper Wilson is referring to is his 2010 Nature paper co-authored with Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita. This is a paper that prompted a condemnation signed by 137 prominent population geneticists. (That’s about 130 more than the number of population geneticists who could legitimately be considered “prominent”.)

Now, it’s one thing for Wilson to continue to defend the paper. That would just make him wrong. But to claim that it silenced everyone who disagrees with him comes off as profoundly disingenuous.

Disingenuousness, by the way, is exactly what was wrong with the paper in the first place. The mathematical model it presented (mostly in the Appendix) was fine. However, the main text was filled with misrepresentations of other people’s work. The point of the paper was to show that everyone in the field was wrong, because they had neglected factors X, Y, and Z. Of course, it’s not hard to prove people wrong when you lie about the work they’ve done.

It’s basically like if you reformatted Fox News as a Nature paper.

If you’re interested, I’ve written about this paper and the controversy surrounding it on a number of occasions (here, here, here, and here), and even made a little video dramatizing some of the criticisms of the paper.

But here’s today’s question: What is Wilson thinking? Is he starting to lose it? Or is he so arrogant that he feels comfortable dismissing any criticisms of his ideas, even to the point of denying their existence? Or has he constructed a bubble for himself, where he no longer encounters critical voices?

Or is he is so hell-bent on building a legacy as The Guy Who Proved Everyone Wrong that he does not really care whether or not anything he says is actually true?

I’m honestly puzzled. Wilson is a giant in the field. He’s a smart guy who presumably knows what it means to be a scientist. And he doesn’t (or at least didn’t) have a reputation for being a horrible person — a reputation that is common among people of his stature.

The one explanation that is off the table at this point (as far as I’m concerned) is that he is a gifted scientist trying in good faith to pursue the truth, and that this is some sort of legitimate scientific disagreement.

The Weird Racism of Doctor Who

Is Doctor Who a racist show? On the surface, it seems like a silly question. After all, there have been a number of prominent non-white characters. Moreover, the interracial and same-sex relationships in the show are presented as run-of-the-mill, everyday occurrences. Perhaps relatedly, the franchise has a strong reputation for its diverse and well-rounded portrayals of lesbian, gay, and bisexual characters.

This is one of the great affordances of science fiction. Particularly in a show set in the future (or at least set intermittently in the future, or in an alternate reality), you can take a strong prescriptive position, where the race, sex, or gender of someone’s romantic partner is unimportant or even uninteresting. Whether or not this would be a realistic expectation of how people would act in the real world, you can assert that obviously no one will care in the future. Or you can construct a plausible alternate universe where no one cares.

Basically, in science fiction, you can choose to portray certain aspects of your world not as they are, but as you believe they should be.

So the treatment of race and sexual orientation strikes me as the product of a conscious decision by a show with a progressive agenda. But that just makes the places where the show falls short all the more puzzling.

What do I mean? Well, there are two things, and I’ll go through each one separately. First, while there is a reasonable representation of non-white characters, they are almost entirely of African ancestry. People of South Asian descent (including Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh) appear infrequently and only in minor roles. This despite the fact that South Asians constitute by far the largest minority in England. Second is that the mixed-race romantic relationships between major characters don’t seem to work out.

First, let’s look at the racial diversity in the show. There are different ways to do this, and I’ve examined four possible approaches. All four give the same qualitative answer: the cast is about 85% white, and among the non-white characters, people of African ancestry outnumber people of South Asian ancestry by a ratio of somewhere between 4:1 and 8:1.

More specifically, a few weeks ago I went through IMDB for the new Doctor Who series (post 2005), and collected all of the (222) characters who appeared in at least two episodes. So, this data is current up to about 2/3 of the way through the new season, but the numbers are large enough that the past few episodes won’t change the results. For the vast majority of characters, it was straightforward to identify them as European, African, or South Asian. Only one actor, Chipo Chung, did not fit this categorization, being half Zimbabwean and half Chinese. For purposes of this analysis, she was given her own category.

Using these categorizations, I calculated the number of characters/actors of each race (where David Tenant counts as 1 European and Matt Smith counts as 1 European) as well as the number of character appearances of each race (where David Tenant contributes 52 appearances by a European and Matt Smith contributes 48 appearances by a European). Each of these was calculated both including and excluding Aliens — characters whose race was not perceptible in the show (Dalek operators, Silurians, etc.). Here are the results for the four combinations: Character Demographics

The code here is blue for European, green for African, mustard for South Asian, and red for Chipo Chung. The outermost ring (appearances by actors of identifiable race) is the one that seems to me to be the best match for what we’re interested in.

Of course, the question is, compared to what? The natural comparison would seem to be the demographic composition of the UK, since it’s a British show, and most of the scenes set on Earth are set there. Here, using the same color scheme, is what that looks like:

England Demographics

The first thing to note is that diversity, overall, is pretty good. By the four different metrics, Doctor Who’s cast is somewhere between 81% and 87% white. The thing that is striking is the difference in the composition of the non-white portion. In England, South Asians outnumber Africans by more than 2 to 1. In Doctor Who, Africans outnumber South Asians by 4.7 to 1 (counting characters) or 8.4 to 1 (counting appearances). That’s a distortion of 10-fold or more.

What about the mixed-race romantic issues? There are three big ones: Rose and Mickey, Martha pining after the Doctor, and Clara and Danny in the season that just concluded. Let’s review.

When Rose first becomes a companion, she is dating Mickey. She sort of gradually breaks up with him and becomes attached to the Doctor. Mickey keeps after her for a while, but eventually gives up. After some regeneration shenanigans, the Doctor sends his doppelganger off to live happily ever after with Rose in another dimension.

Martha is the Doctor’s next companion, and although she has a romantic interest in the Doctor, it is completely unrequited from start to finish. Eventually, Mickey and Martha become a couple in a (different) alternate dimension where they fight Cybermen all the time. So, what we have is two black characters who are in love with white characters, but are rejected by them. The two white characters fall in love, and the two black characters become a couple in what seems to be both of them settling for their second choice (in a dystopian hell-scape no less).

Until the season finale aired, I was holding out hope that the mixed-race romance between Clara and Danny would reach a happy conclusion. Instead we got a pattern similar to the other two. Danny was devoted to Clara, but while she loved him, her primary commitment was to the Doctor. The fact that Danny was and would always be playing second fiddle was spelled out in pretty explicit (and heartbreaking) detail in the finale.

Now, three is a small number, and you can always argue that this is just coincidence, rather than some systematic racial thing. I’m sure a dedicated enough Doctor Who apologist could rationalize the racial composition of the show as something unintentional. Or that we should cut them some slack because of all of the things the show does right.

What bothers me most, though, is that these patterns exist in a show that seems to have made a real effort to be careful about race, making me think they point to something really taboo. That despite a progressive agenda and a conscious effort to portray racial diversity, there are a couple of places that the show is unwilling or unable to go.

On the absence of South Asians, here’s the most generous theory I’ve come up with. Globally, American media has enormous reach and influence. Traditionally, having a diverse cast in American TV was more or less synonymous with having some African American characters. Only quite recently have other ethnic minority groups started to show up on TV in large numbers. So, maybe there’s a naive but deeply rooted notion in the minds of British producers that “diversity = black”. Maybe they’re unconsciously basing their model not on British society, but on American TV and movies of twenty years ago.

A less generous (but more plausible, in my mind) theory is that the show is simply avoiding engagement with the strongest form of British racism. My own experience, anecdotal though it is, is that most white British folks don’t really harbor negative racial stereotypes about immigrants from Africa — or immigrants of African descent from the Caribbean. However, attitudes toward South Asians are a very different (and offensive) story.

I have had multiple interactions that went something like this. British person talks about how racist Americans are, citing the treatment of African Americans. British person takes up moral high ground, citing their own open views towards Africans. British person says some really awful racist crap about Pakistanis or Indians — the sort of thing you never heard in public in post-Archie-Bunker, pre-Twitter America. When hypocrisy is pointed out, British person defends stance, saying something like, “You don’t have them. You don’t understand what they’re like.”

So, theory B is that if Mickey and Martha and Danny had all been Pakistani, Doctor Who might have alienated much of its British audience, including some people who self-identify as liberal. Or at least the producers feared that would happen. So, they cast black people for diversity, but avoid the racial group that is the focus of the greatest antipathy in Britain.

Similarly for the romantic relationships. Maybe it’s just coincidence that a white couple, Amy and Rory, get a happy ending (even if they do have to endure an insufferable series of World Series wins by the Yankees), while the mixed-race relationships fail when the white person just doesn’t feel quite the same way.

Or maybe the producers (rightly or wrongly) worry that Britain is not quite ready for a successful, normalized mixed-race couple, at least not one involving one of the show’s stars.

Or maybe the producers would say that this was just who the characters are, that it just would not seem right for Clara to go all in on her relationship with Danny. That given everything we’ve seen Clara go through, she would not be able to separate herself from the Doctor in that way. Fine. Perfectly defensible. But maybe if they had made Danny white, it would not have felt out of character to them.

Anyway, if Russell T. Davies and/or Steven Moffat are regular readers of the blog, I would invite them to share their take(s) in the comments.