Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

People who wore top hats

In thinking about the response of many Americans to the revelations of torture of prisoners by the CIA (not that it was a huge secret before, but I think most people still found something to be surprised and appalled by in the Senate report, such as the 26 people whom even the CIA acknowledges were held in error, or “rectal feeding”), but also the response of many American and British Jews to atrocities and human rights abuses by Israel, I often find myself coming back to the remarks of Aldous Huxley, in his 1958 Brave New World Revisited. In discussing the distinction between the old-fashioned totalitarianism of 1984 — innovative propaganda and mental manipulation, to be sure, but backed up by hard power and torture — and the purely medical and psychological manipulation of Brave New World, he admits that he was too hasty in consigning the crude atrocities to the ashheap of history:

Fifty years ago, when I was a boy, it seemed completely self-evident that the bad old days were over, that torture and massacre, slavery, and the persecution of heretics, were things of the past. Among people who wore top hats, traveled in trains, and took a bath every morning such horrors were simply out of the question. After all, we were living in the twentieth century. A few years later these people who took daily baths and went to church in top hats were committing atrocities on a scale undreamed of by the benighted Africans and Asi­atics. In the light of recent history it would be foolish to suppose that this sort of thing cannot happen again. It can and, no doubt, it will. But in the immedi­ate future there is some reason to believe that the punitive methods of 1984 will give place to the rein­forcements and manipulations of Brave New World.

This phrasing is perfect. (I’m willing to give Huxley the benefit of the doubt by reading ironic scare quotes into “benighted Africans and Asiatics”.) Compare “people who took daily baths and went to church in top hats” with this excerpt from an interview with torturer-in-chief Dick Cheney:

CHUCK TODD:

Well, let me start with quoting you. You said earlier this week, “Torture was something that was very carefully avoided.” It implies that you have a definition of what torture is. What is it?

DICK CHENEY:

Well, torture, to me, Chuck, is an American citizen on a cell phone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York City on 9/11. There’s this notion that somehow there’s moral equivalence between what the terrorists and what we do. And that’s absolutely not true. We were very careful to stop short of torture. The Senate has seen fit to label their report torture. But we worked hard to stay short of that definition.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, what is that definition?

DICK CHENEY:

Definitions, and one that was provided by the Office of Legal Counsel, we went specifically to them because we did not want to cross that line into where we violating some international agreement that we’d signed up to. They specifically authorized and okayed, for example, exactly what we did. All of the techniques that were authorized by the president were, in effect, blessed by the Justice Department opinion that we could go forward with those without, in fact, committing torture.

Instead of going to church in top hats to have their crimes blessed by God, they went to the Office of Legal Council in slick suits to have their crimes blessed by the Justice department. But the idea is, people like us don’t commit atrocities, because they’re people like us.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me go through some of those techniques that were used, Majid Khan, was subjected to involuntary rectal feeding and rectal hydration. It included two bottles of Ensure, later in the same day Majid Khan’s lunch tray consisting of hummus, pasta, sauce, nuts and raisins was pureed and rectally infused.[…]  Does that meet the definition of torture in your mind?

DICK CHENEY:

–in my mind, I’ve told you what meets the definition of torture. It’s what 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11. What was done here apparently certainly was not one of the techniques that was approved. I believe it was done for medical reasons.

Where USS puts its money

UK academics are all aware that the nationwide pension scheme, called the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), believes itself to have a huge budget shortfall, that can only be resolved with major cuts to pensions for future retirees (but no cut at all to current retirees, for some reason). So it was with some interest that I read about the recent crash of the national air traffic control system, caused by persistent underinvestment in critical infrastructure by the public-private company Nats:

Nats became a public-private partnership in 2001 under the last Labour government. It is 42% owned by Airlines Group, whose shareholders include the University Superannuation Scheme, British Airways, Monarch Airlines retirement benefit plan, easyJet, Virgin Atlantic, Deutsche Lufthansa, Thomson Airways and Thomas Cook Airlines.

You try to cycle with your children to Hebrew classes early on a Sunday morning, and find your way blocked by thousands of Santa Clauses.


Santas

It’s the eternal conflict…

 

It is a cliché of the legal trade: “Have you stopped beating your wife?” The paradigmatic damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t trick yes-or-no question. Everyone knows it. Thus it is with a sense of awe that I read of this comment by US Representative Steve Cohen:

“I don’t keep up with football, except college football, except Eli Manning or Peyton Manning. And Eli and Peyton don’t do sexual assaults against people other than their wives,” Cohen said during his rather perplexing response.

Amazingly, it appears that no sarcasm was intended:

“Congressman Cohen misspoke, abhors sexual violence of any kind, is a fan of both Manning brothers, and deeply regrets any confusion,” spokesman Ben Garmisa told The Tennessean. “His intention was simply to indicate that Eli and Peyton are committed to monogamous marriages.”

It seems like such a simple intention could have been realised more simply.

Muted outrage

Psychologists say that children under 4 or so are generally incapable of understanding that other people’s minds are distinct from their own, that to understand other people they need a distinct representation of the knowledge and beliefs of others. But some people take longer:

Brian Williams asked former NSA Director Michael Hayden how he would have felt had a member of his own family been tortured. Hayden’s flippant response: “I actually think that my concern or my outrage, if that were ever done to any of my family members, would be somewhat muted if my family member had just killed 3,000 of my citizens.”

What about a family member who had been piloting drones in attacks that killed hundreds of civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen? I’m sure he believes that he can put himself in the place of a man whose entire extended family were wiped out because the CIA decided to bomb their wedding party. Simple herder that he is, he would nonetheless be aware that Americans only act with the best of intentions, and this unfortunate accident is only one more reason to support them in in their noble struggle to rid the world of those who are truly responsible for this mass slaughter, the terrorists. And anyone who does attribute evil intentions to Americans must be in the grip of a fanatical ideology, and so belongs on the target list anyway.

Wer es glaubt wird selig, is the German expression for such an exuberance of presumed naïveté. Only a saintly fool could believe that.

I was talking with someone recently about the bizarre British practice of allowing the A-level exams to be set by competing exam boards. It’s bizarre because of the well-known agency problems in examinations: The customers are the schools, whose interest is in high marks, not in effective exams. So we get government ministers persistently fulminating against watering-down of exams.

This is typically presented as a capitalist approach, reflecting the British enthusiasm for market-based solutions instead of big government. In fact, while this solution has the trappings of capitalism, it suffers all the theoretical and practical defects of socialism. As I understand it, those who theorise the superiority of capitalism tend to focus on the diffusion of decision-making to the periphery, where the expertise resides, and the virtues of aligning incentives with goals, which is far more efficient than central planning. Then comes the bracing effect of competition to achieve those goals.

In this case, the natural incentives of those looking to make a profit by selling their product to schools are clearly misaligned. Yes, they can fruitfully compete on accuracy and speed of marking, but the essential content and rigour of the exams is a race to the bottom. (This might not be the case if they were providing distinct qualifications, that might be competing for influence with universities. There is the competing International Baccalaureate, adding an extra level of complexity, but the multiple exam boards are supposed to be producing evaluations of the same qualification, the A-levels. We have a similar problem with university degrees, where there seems to be a pious fiction that “first-class degree” is an absolute standard, whether from Imperial or London Metropolitan; but this is clearly not taken very seriously.) The bottom is set by elaborate government regulations — central planning — and all the competitive ingenuity goes into formally hitting those standards while maximising the marks. (I don’t know if this is really true; but that is what you would predict, theoretically, and it would explain the downward spiral of A-levels.)

Anthony Romero, director of the American Civil Liberties Union, has published in the NY Times a plea to pardon the officials who approved or conducted torture. This seemed to me ridiculous at first, but on reading his argument I find that it makes a certain kind of perverse sense. Given that the US government has shown itself incapable of prosecuting these atrocities, the only way to assert the principle that these were in fact crimes, and not simply exuberant excesses of patriotic zeal, is to issue pardons. It would also have the salutary effect of making explicit the intention of the US not to prosecute, opening the way for other governments and international courts.

But when you let that sink in, it makes clear how close the corruption of the American state has come to making the US ungovernable. A state that is incapable of punishing officials who conspire to commit some of the most heinous war crimes of recent times is either a tyranny or constitutional anarchy; and the US is definitely not a tyranny. The US constitution has had a good run, but it seems to be coming apart at the seams. Read the rest of this entry »

“The same terrorists”

Andrew Sullivan quotes conservative journalist K. T. McFarland:

According to media reports, the report concludes that we tortured terrorists.

These are the same terrorists who blew up the World Trade Center, bombed the Pentagon, and tried to level the U.S. Capitol. These are the same terrorists that today have beheaded Christians, Westerners and, just this past weekend, another American citizen.

It’s a bizarre and revealing statement. Putting aside the fact that some of the people tortured by the CIA and its confederates were completely innocent and not any sort of terrorists, they obviously weren’t the same terrorists who did any of the things on that list. A few of them were involved in planning the World Trade Center attack, but none of them was anywhere near beheading Americans last weekend. This notion of collective guilt expresses very well the sense of indiscriminate impotent rage that led to the disasters of the first decade of the 21st century. It’s simply inconceivable that something terrible can happen to America, and that they are unable to strike back. If the perpetrators are dead — and that’s the frustration of suicide attacks — then someone else must be punished. And if it has been decided that the barbarians wouldn’t mind dying, then they’ll have to dig deeper to find a way to assert dominance.

So can we ignore him now?

Of course, he couldn’t sell the prize, only the medal. But the fact that this deeply mediocre and bigoted mind received so much attention and adulation for so long casts a harsh light upon the scientific cult of genius. Exalted prizes and prestigious chairs often serve a similar purpose to those plaques that we see on buildings around Oxford, marking the place where an important intellectual event once occurred. There might be a frisson to sitting in the room where Robert Boyle discovered the gas law, but you wouldn’t really expect any important scientific insight to come out of it. Read the rest of this entry »

Paul Krugman has taken on the Conservatives’ new budget, which proposes tax cuts, spending increases (until the election) and reducing the budget deficit in some unspecified way.

Osborne produces a ludicrous budget, and even commentators who acknowledge that it’s ludicrous give him credit for showing

a keen understanding of the constraints facing the country

Think about that: someone says that 2+2=5, and gets credit, because it shows that he recognizes how hard it is to live within the constraint of 2+2 just equalling 4.

Admittedly, it looks like vote-grubbing flimflam, but maybe we’re misunderestimating (to use a phrase popular among conservative Georges) the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Maybe, when you look past the snazzy new haircut we would see a soul in existential crisis, who would cry out from the floor of the Commons like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man:

“Upon my word, they will shout at you, it is no use protesting: it is a case of twice two makes four! Nature does not ask your permission, she has nothing to do with your wishes, and whether you like her laws or dislike them, you are bound to accept her as she is, and consequently all her conclusions. A wall, you see, is a wall … and so on, and so on.”

Merciful Heavens! but what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic, when, for some reason I dislike those laws and the fact
that twice two makes four? Of course I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it if I really have not the strength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength.

As though such a stone wall really were a consolation, and really did contain some word of conciliation, simply because it is as true as twice two makes four. Oh, absurdity of absurdities! How much better it is to understand it all, to recognise it all, all the impossibilities and the stone wall; not to be reconciled to one of those impossibilities and stone walls if it disgusts you to be reconciled to it; by the way of the most inevitable, logical combinations to reach the most revolting conclusions on the everlasting theme, that even for the stone wall you are yourself somehow to blame, though again it is as clear as day you are not to blame in the least…

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