Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

I was interested to read of a recent NSF study, that found only 2.1% unemployment in the US for people with doctoral degrees in science, engineering, and health fields. That’s only about 1/3 the rate in the general population over age 25. But I found even more striking that within that group, those with doctorates in mathematics and statistics had lower unemployment than those in any other field, at 1.2%.

Recruiting the dead

Former chief of the UK General Staff General Sir Richard Dannatt  has spoken up on the Scottish referendum, and what he has to say is deeply disgraceful:

Scottish soldiers have fought over several centuries and in so many campaigns to preserve the territorial integrity of their country from external threat, but in the Northern Ireland campaign more recently, they fought against internal threat, but what about today? Do the families of Scottish soldiers who lost their lives between 1969 and 2007 to preserve the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom now just say, “Well, it no longer matters”?

Now, interestingly, while he does go on to say “I cannot speak for them”, his essay includes not a single quote from a single one of these Scottish soldiers, living or dead. Putting aside the fact that some of them were probably just looking for steady pay or a certain kind of military camaraderie, I think it is extraordinarily condescending — and disrespectful — to enlist the dead to march in ones political campaign. And it is disgraceful to use the term “internal threat” to cover both the Northern Ireland campaign — where British soldiers battled against a terror campaign that sought to change the constitutional order by force — and the referendum campaign

There were many nationalists in Northern Ireland who themselves wished to dissolve the “territorial integrity” of the United Kingdom, but who also opposed the attempts to do so by force. The fact that General Dannatt cannot perceive a gap between seeking to accomplish political goals by referendum and seeking to accomplish it by force says all you need to know about the military mind at its most brutal.

In fact, as a matter of historical record, even their political masters at the time of the greatest turmoil in Northern Ireland, the government of Edward Heath, doesn’t seem to have been fighting to “preserve the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom”, so much as to prevent Northern Ireland from sinking into full-blown civil war. At least, the cabinet seems to have been willing to entertain the notion of British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, but ruled it out when it seemed certain only to exacerbate the chaos and violence.

Scotland’s European future

I commented before on the interesting way an independent, increasingly cosmopolitan Scotland, and an increasingly suspicious and insular rump-UK might pass each other on the way through the EU door. I was interested to find out who is permitted to vote in next week’s independence referendum in Scotland. You might have supposed that an attempt was being made to appeal to the inbred Bannockburn nostalgia voters, perhaps even extending the franchise to self-identified Scots by birth. Instead, the voting eligibility criteria seem sedulously post-nationalist and forward-looking. Birth plays no role, only residence and citizenship. In addition to admitting 16- and 17-year-olds to the franchise, they are permitting — in a move that seems stunningly self-assured to anyone who remembers how the aftermath of the 1995 Quebec referendum descended into ugly recriminations against “money and the ethnic vote” — EU citizens ordinarily resident in Scotland to vote. There’s no clearer statement, I think, of how differently the Scots view their future from how the English view theirs.

And if the nationalists win the referendum on this basis, it will be hard to argue that they haven’t earned their independence honourably.

I’m in Berlin now, for the first time in ten years. I lived here for much of the 1990s, and much has changed since then. But the change that I found most striking is in the Ampelmännchen, the anthropomorphic red and green traffic signals that tell you to walk or not walk. When I was first in Berlin, the backlash against Western triumphalism was just starting. With the unification of Germany, all kinds of things that had been standardised within each of the former countries now needed to be standardised between them. In principle, this would have involved some sort of consultation and compromise between the two sides. In practice, the East was treated like a colony, and the western standards were simply imposed. (I wrote a long essay at the time about my perceptions of the resentment in East Berlin.)

The resistance converged on the Ampelmännchen. The East had sort of jaunty 1950s-era conspicuously male figures, while the West had sleek, modern, gender-neutral figures. They looked like this:


By the time I arrived, quite a few signals had already been changed in East Berlin, and the Rettet die Ampelmännchen campaign (“Save the  Ampelmännchen“) was fighting to stop the losses. They distributed stickers with images of the Eastern Ampelmännchen, and hoped to slow their destruction. It was an inspired choice, since these Eastern Ampelmännchen are just so adorable. The arguments for the others — in particular, gender neutrality — may be convincing, but it is hard to contemplate their utter extinction without a pang.

Now, 20 years after the struggle broke out, I find that the Ost Ampelmännchen are everywhere in Berlin, even in the West. So, something has been saved. The rulers of the GDR vowed to create a Neuen Menschen (new man), but their only enduring success was the creation of a Neues Ampelmännchen.

I was commenting recently on the attempt by University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) Chancellor Phyllis Wise to explain to all of us addleheaded profs that her ability (and that of US employers more generally) to fire people for expressing their opinions really has nothing at all to do with freedom of speech or academic freedom:

People are mixing up this individual personnel issue with the whole question of freedom of speech and academic freedom.

Political scientist Corey Robin has taken up the same quote, and explained how pervasive it is, and how fundamental it is to the machinery of repression in the US. It seems like one of those dogmas that is patently absurd to the uninitiated, but for those inside the machine (and by “the machine”, I mean simply mainstream American thinking about politics) it is self-evident.

Robin has nothing on Mark Twain, who wrote more than a century ago:

It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.

He explained at greater length in his great essay “Corn-pone Opinions”, telling of a young slave whom he knew in his boyhood, who told him

“You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.”

I can never forget it. It was deeply impressed upon me. By my mother. Not upon my memory, but elsewhere. She had slipped in upon me while I was absorbed and not watching. The black philosopher’s idea was that a man is not independent, and cannot afford views which might interfere with his bread and butter. If he would prosper, he must train with the majority; in matters of large moment, like politics and religion, he must think and feel with the bulk of his neighbors, or suffer damage in his social standing and in his business prosperities. He must restrict himself to corn-pone opinions — at least on the surface. He must get his opinions from other people; he must reason out none for himself; he must have no first-hand views.


Mixing up the issues

The Salaita fiasco rumbles along. I have commented before on the case, where the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign took advantage of ambiguities in its hiring process to try to destroy the career of a tenured professor of American Indian Studies, whom they pretended to want to hire, and then fired after he had resigned his old job, but before his new contract had formally started. (Admittedly, by presenting it in these terms I’m pretending that it is not just a giant cock-up. This is what it looks like if you try to pretend that the people acting for the university have any idea what they’re doing. Depending on your perspective, I’m being either generous or unfair.) The current state of play is well summarised here. This was punishment for anti-Israel tweets that had attracted unpleasant attention of some of the university’s major donors.

Anyway, having made her university a place where senior academics need to consult with expert legal counsel before accepting a job offer — if they even want to challenge an international boycott and join an academic pariah — UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise (who insists, according to the Chicago Tribune, simultaneously that “she wished she had “been more consultative” before rescinding Salaita’s job offer, and said it could have led her to a different decision” and that “there was “no possibility” that he would work at the U. of I.”) has told the Chronicle of Higher Education that

“People are mixing up this individual personnel issue with the whole question of freedom of speech and academic freedom,” she said in an interview. “I stand by the fact that this institution and all of higher education stands on the bedrock of the importance of academic freedom and freedom of speech, and that we should be and are the place where we deal with the most contentious and difficult and complicated issues that face the world, and that we have to provide the platform where discussions that are difficult and contentious and uncomfortable and unimaginable happen.”

That’s the kind of careful thinking on challenging questions that we look to academic leadership for! Some confused people are mixing up the issues. UIUC stands foursquare behind the principles of academic freedom, and the open discussion of “difficult and contentious and uncomfortable” issues, while confronting the completely unrelated practical real-world challenges of firing a professor for openly making contentious and uncomfortable statements in a public forum.

Or, as the irrepressible Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith since before the Flood, more succinctly put it,

Donors give money and they expect certain things. There’s nothing wrong with them voicing their opinion.

I have no clear opinion about the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence — on the one hand, as a citizen of another former English colony, I understand the emotional appeal of revolution. On the other hand, as a current resident of England I fear the ensuing chaos, and rationally I really don’t think the negative consequences will necessarily — or even primarily — be felt south of the border. Furthermore, a UK without Scotland will be more conservative (and Conservative) and more xenophobic and anti-Europe.

This last point does suggest, though, a convenient resolution to one of the sticking points of Scottish independence — membership of the EU. The current UK government claims that an independent Scotland would have to negotiate membership like any other new applicant, and so would certainly lose the opt-out from the Euro, and other benefits, if secession-fearing members like Spain don’t block Scottish membership altogether; the Scottish nationalists say they would be negotiating a change of terms from inside the EU. But the Conservatives — who would doubtless attain a majority in a Scotland-free Parliament — have promised a referendum on withdrawal from the EU in the near future. Perhaps these could be coupled, and Scotland could simply inherit the UK seat in the EU. It would save everyone a lot of strife.

But saying that, it makes me wonder about the outcome of the EU referendum. I’d always assumed that Scottish independence would guarantee the UK’s exit from the EU. But would politicians in London really be willing to see their counterparts in Edinburgh and Dublin making European policy, and themselves excluded? It seems hard to imagine.

Headline in the Guardian:

David Cameron: I will not resign if Scotland votes for independence

It reminds me of the Monty Python sketch about hapless gangsters, the Piranha brothers:

they began to operate what they called ‘The Operation’. They would select a victim and then threaten to beat him up if he paid the so-called protection money. Four months later they started another operation which the called ‘The Other Operation’. In this racket they selected another victim and threatened not to beat him up if he didn’t pay them. One month later they hit upon ‘The Other Other Operation’. In this the victim was threatened that if he didn’t pay them, they would beat him up. This for the Piranha brothers was the turning point.

If Cameron really wants to preserve the union, he needs to switch to the other other operation, promising that he will resign if Scotland votes to stay in the UK.

One of my favourite logical paradoxes (What, doesn’t everyone have a favourite logical paradox?) is the Unexpected Hanging. I first read about it from Martin Gardner, but you can read a summary here. A recent article in the Oxford Times, about the career plans of a local MP, raised a corresponding problem in the political realm:

Conservative Tony Baldry MP has announced he will stand down at the next General Election.

In a statement Sir Tony said: “One of the consequences of now having five year fixed term Parliaments is that if I succeed in being re-elected at the forthcoming general election, given my age, most people will assume that Parliament will be my last.

“I think this creates a danger that I may be unable to be as effective as I would wish to be; and that the constituency will be distracted from more important issues by the need to choose my successor.”

We might summarise his argument as beginning with three axioms:

  1. It is irresponsible for a politician to stand for parliament if the strong expectation is that this would be his or her last term.
  2. There is a strong expectation that someone will not stand for parliament past age 70.
  3. Terms are now fixed at five years.

Consider, now, the position of a responsible politician, whom we will call Tony65, who who will be, shall we say, 65 years old at the next election. He could stand for parliament now, but he will be 70 at the next election (axiom 3), and so the strong expectation is that he will not stand at the next election (axiom 2). Hence, by axiom 1, and the fact that he is responsible, he should not stand in this election.

But now consider Tony’s younger colleague; call him Tony60, who will be 60 years old at the next election. If Tony60 is elected, he will be 65 at the following election. As a responsible politician, like Tony65, he will stand down at that age. Thus this would be his last term, so by axiom 1 he will not stand at this election either.

By the same reasoning, Tony55 will not stand, since we know that he won’t stand again when he is 60. And so, we can keep backing it up to Tony20, who also can’t stand, because he won’t stand again when he is 25. (18 is the minimum age for election to the House of Commons.) Thus, we have proved:

Theorem: No responsible politician can stand for election to the House of Commons.

This theorem does not apply, for obvious reasons, to the House of Lords, so there will still be space for responsible (if unelected) government.



Peaking at the headlines

I was somewhat nonplussed by this headline on the BBC web site today

Screenshot 2014-09-04 11.34.08

In the centuries-long march of British anti-semitism, was the maximum really reached two months ago, since when it has begun its inexorable decline? Clicking through to the article reveals that, no, there is no evidence of a decline. Instead,

A charity set up to protect Britain’s Jewish community has recorded its highest-ever monthly total of anti-semitic incidents.

The Community Security Trust (CST) said it was aware of 302 such events in July, compared to 59 in July 2013.

So, even more disturbing than the headline suggested. Peaks have two sides, and you don’t know when the peak was until you’ve passed it.

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