Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Last refuge

Northern Ireland under pressure after Irish gay marriage referendum win

I’m looking forward to seeing the arguments they will use to resist the pressure. Perhaps Northern Ireland can present itself as a last refuge in Europe for the non-gay-marrying, Christian bakers and florists, antigay clerics. It will help if they can get a high profile asylum case. Maybe the straight son of two North London radical feminists fleeing an arranged marriage to another man.

In all seriousness, I doubt there is anyone who is not astonished at the rapid international progress on same-sex marriage. That includes, most especially, those of us who came of age when acceptance of same-sex relationships was the norm in our student environments and/or recognised the logical force of the argument decades ago. Logical coherence doesn’t usually carry the day in politics nor, I have to admit, should it necessarily. But here we see the power of ideology in political affairs, against those who suppose that politics is merely about balancing competing interests. It’s the ideology of marriage, which had changed enormously in the past two centuries. People like Andrew Sullivan recognised in the 1980s that people’s intuitive understanding of marriage, in Europe and its cultural confrères, had evolved to where it was actually quite hospitable to same-sex marriage. Those of us who felt little emotional attachment to marriage immediately recognised the coherence of this position, but assumed that it would take approximately forever to get over that emotional hurdle, at least everywhere but Holland.

And because I personally attached little weight to marriage, I was definitely among those who thought this an unpromising, because unnecessarily charged, ground to fight on for gay rights. I didn’t see what Sullivan saw, that marriage equality could be the linchpin of a coherent struggle that could overthrow the entire framework of homophobia.

… if we get rid of the bean counters?

I can understand why you’d be annoyed by “bean counters” if, say, you are running a gourmet coffee shop, and your employees keep stopping the production of espresso in order to count the beans. But if, say, you’re running the Congressional Budget Office, I’d say that “bean counters” are exactly what you want. Not Jeb Bush, though. Speaking out in favour of “dynamical scoring”, a procedure (a generous designation) for making budget deficits disappear by counting the positive mojo of conservative principles in the budget on the credit side,

Bush first said he was “all in” for eliminating the “bean counters” who use the traditional “static scoring” method.

The problem with getting rid of the bean counters is, it doesn’t actually get you more beans. There’s no problem disappearing the deficit from your budget with creative accounting, but it doesn’t affect the debt. The creditors aren’t going to take “dynamic scoring” in lieu of payment.

Beans are stubborn things.

Wall Street idealism

A Yale senior in computer science, Steph Rhee, describes an encounter with a Wall Street tycoon at a cozy Yalie networking event:

When I said that I was studying computer science because I want to be a software engineer and hope to start my own company one day, he said, “Why waste so many years learning how to code? Why not just pay someone else to build your idea?!”

What is hilarious is the imperiously aristocratic style of the grand financier, appalled at the notion of anyone getting their hands dirty in trade, in this case, being so crass as to actually develop the skills to make anything yourself, as opposed to taking advantage of your superior status to float your IDEAS into the room, and expect the peons to praise their brilliance and knuckle down to the real work.

I am reminded of Harlan Ellison’s celebrated reply to fans who would ask him “Where do you get your ideas from?”

“There’s this ‘idea service’ in Schenectady and every week like clockwork they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas for 25 bucks.” Every time I say that at a college lecture there’s always some schmuck who comes up to me and wants the address of the service.


There was an interesting article in Der Spiegel about Angela Merkel’s visit to a Berlin secondary school as part of the the “EU-Projekttag”, a national day for teaching about the EU and its institutions. (No surprise that nothing like this happens in Britain.) This school has mostly Muslim immigrant children, and she found that instead of asking about the functions of the European Parliament the children wanted to tell her about discrimination in Germany.

Fatma, eine 15-jährige Jugendliche mit Kopftuch, klagt über Schwierigkeiten beim Praktikum im Kindergarten, weil die Eltern keine Erzieherinnen mit Kopftuch wollen. Das habe ihr Chef ihr gesagt. Ja ja, sagt Merkel, die inmitten der Schüler auf der Bühne Platz genommen hat, man kenne das Problem von Bewerbungen junger Menschen mit komplizierten, ausländisch klingenden Namen. “Viele glauben da nicht, dass jetzt gleich ein Nobelpreisträger in Mathematik um die Ecke kommt.”

[Fatma, a 15-year-old with head-scarf, complains about her difficulties in an internship in a kindergarten, because the parents don’t want a teacher with head-scarf. Her boss told her that. Yes, yes, says Merkel, who is sitting on the podium with the students, we know these problems, as with job applications from young people with complicated, foreign-sounding names. “Many people don’t think, this is a future Nobel-prize winner in mathematics coming around the corner.”]

Never mind this bizarre and nearly incomprehensible stream-of-consciousness from a major world leader asked an uncomfortable question by a 15-year-old. What is it about the chimeric Nobel prize in mathematics? Alfred Nobel established prizes in subjects that were related to the kind of practical science that he made his fortune with (chemistry and physics) and to the kind of selfless causes (medicine, literature, peace) that he hoped would blur the association of his name with weapons manufacture. There are lots of subjects that he did not create prizes in. Mathematics. Geology. Engineering. Astronomy. History. Cooking. No one thinks it odd that any of these subjects don’t have a Nobel prize, except mathematics. They think it so odd, that they either imagine that there actually is one, as above, or they invent outlandish stories to explain this lacuna, generally involving some mathematician — Gosta Magnus Mittag-Leffler, when he is given a name — running off with Nobel’s wife. (This story has the advantage of Mittag-Leffler actually having been Swedish, but the fact that Nobel never married is usually counted against its credibility.)

A land without serious problems, Australia is worrying about the pampered dogs of a pampered movie star, who were smuggled in on a private jet without proper medical screening. Agriculture minister William Joyce has declared that the dogs must be returned to California forthwith or be put down. These dogs are of particular concern because they “come from a country that has rabies.”

The reason you can walk through a park in Brisbane and not sort of have in the back of your mind – what happens if a rabid dog comes out and bites me or bites my kid – is because we’ve kept that disease out.

Obviously he is not aware that Californians always put on their bite-proof body armour to protect themselves when they leave their fortified bunkers. Rabies is pretty much all anyone thinks about when they walk through a park in San Francisco.

Qualified majorities

The new Conservative government has announced plans to make strikes by public-sector unions more difficult, including

A strike affecting essential public services will need the backing of 40% of eligible union members under government plans.

Currently, a strike is valid if backed by a majority of those balloted.

There will also need to be a minimum 50% turnout in strike ballots.

The new Business Secretary Sajid Javid said “What people are fed up of is strike action that hasn’t been properly supported by the members of the relevant union.” It is notable that this complaint comes from a government that received less than 37% of the votes in the last election, accounting for less than 25% of eligible voters.

Keeping focus

Angela Merkel is caught in a political struggle over the German government’s relationship to the NSA. One element of the struggle is the government’s attempt to suggest, without explicitly saying so, that the US was open to negotiating a “No-Spy” treaty, whereas they knew that the Americans had made absolutely clear that no such treaty would be entered into. What I find fascinating in this affair is how blatant the US is willing to be about its contempt for the sovereignty of other nations:

Doch bereits im Juli 2013 hatte die Europa-Strategin im Weißen Haus, Karen Donfried, in E-Mails an Merkels Berater Christoph Heusgen trotz dessen nachdrücklichem Bitten vermieden zuzusichern, dass sich US-Geheimdienste in Deutschland an deutsches Recht halten würden. Die “SZ” zitiert etwa aus einer E-Mail vom 19. Juli 2013:

“Bei uns liegt der Fokus natürlich darauf, ob wir das US-Recht einhalten. Unsere Experten fühlen sich nicht dafür gerüstet, die Einhaltung des deutschen Rechts zu beurteilen.”

[Already in July 2013 the White House European-strategy expert Karen Donfried had refused to give assurances to Merkel’s advisor Christoph Heusgen, despite his explicit request, that US espionage agencies in Germany would follow German laws. Süddeutscher Zeitung quotes from a July 19, 2013 email:

Our focus is naturally on whether we obey US laws. Our experts do not feel qualified [literally, “adequately armed”] to evaluate our conformity with German laws.]

What admirable modesty! It’s only natural that their number one concern is whether they are obeying US law, and given their very limited success in achieving that goal, they have no excess capacity for anything as complicated as trying to simultaneously obey both sets of laws. The expertise budget is really not unlimited. Not to mention that the German laws aren’t even written in English!

I know I find it more than I can manage to decide, on any given day, whether I’m going to obey US or UK law. I imagine finding myself some day in court, having to say, “I’m sorry Judge, but my focus is on whether I obey US laws. I do not feel qualified to evaluate my conformity with UK laws.”

Of course, someone might say that representatives of the US government who feel themselves incapable of keeping within the confines of German law do have the option of staying out of Germany…

Just browsing

Among the first orders of business for the Conservatives, now that they have a majority, is to increase their ability to spy on the general public — for only the most noble of reasons bien sûr:

That law, labelled a snooper’s charter, would have required internet and mobile phone companies to keep records of customers’ browsing activity, social media use, emails, voice calls, online gaming and text messages for a year. 

It occurred to me that a reasonably effective defense against government snooping on your browsing history (and, indeed, Google snooping on your browsing history) might be to have a browser that is constantly active, and searches for random search terms whenever it is not being actively used.

Some ideas:

  1. The random browsing should not be completely arbitrary. It should include sufficient numbers of securityphilic keywords to make it difficult to search through.
  2. You don’t want the real searches to stand out as topically coherent. You’d want the choice of search terms to crawl through topic space.
  3. You might want to embed the real searches in the crawl. Suppose I type “David Cameron smashed restaurant” into my search window, when the browser, on its own initiative, has just searched for “spurious GCHQ bomb plots”. Instead of carrying out my search immediately, it interpolates thematically. Maybe a dozen searches like “spurious David Cameron bomb plots” and “spurious David cameron bomb restaurant”.

I’ve just been reading Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. It’s more than a century old, and I was surprised to find it such an acute analysis of the psychology of terrorism. It follows the planning and aftermath of a ridiculous and botched scheme to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. The ringleader Mr Verloc, the “secret agent” of the title, who spends his time infiltrating anarchist organisations, is put up to it by his employer, the embassy of an unnamed Central Asian nation. The crime seems almost entirely unmotivated. The new First Secretary of the embassy is irked by Verloc’s indolence and apparent uselessness, and seeks to prod him into making some exertions for his salary. The inane goal of the attack is to show up the ineptitude of the English police, and so stimulate an autocratic turn in its inconveniently soft and democratic government. Plus ça change… The target must be such as to seem senseless (hence not a tiresomely conventional target, like a crown prince or a government building), important (hence not the National Gallery — “There would be some screaming, of course, but from whom? Artists — art critics and such like — people of no account. No one minds what they say.”) and sufficiently menacing. He announces

The demonstration must be against learning—science.  But not every science will do.  The attack must have all the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy.  Since bombs are your means of expression, it would be really telling if one could throw a bomb into pure mathematics.  But that is impossible…  What do you think of having a go at astronomy?

I was also amused by the comment of the bomb engineer:

The system’s worked perfectly.  And yet you would think that a common fool in a hurry would be much more likely to forget to make the contact altogether.  I was worrying myself about that sort of failure mostly.  But there are more kinds of fools than one can guard against.  You can’t expect a detonator to be absolutely fool-proof.

Expecting to lose (or rather, not win) the election, Cameron is setting all his chips on pre-emptively delegitimising a Labour government. The headline on the front page of the Times (dispensing with the pose of objectivity) is

Miliband trying to con way into No. 10, says PM.

(It’s an objective fact, because it’s a quote.) The former cabinet secretary who oversaw the 2010 coalition negotiations has dismissed this suggestion:

We live in a parliamentary democracy. The rules are very clear and they are laid out in the Cabinet Manual, and it says the ability of government to command the confidence of the elected House of Commons is central to its authority to govern.

But I found most interesting Cameron’s response, explaining why any government that depends on support from the barbarians in the north would be presumptively illegitimate:

Why is that a problem, why does that raise huge questions of credibility? Well for the obvious reason that the SNP don’t want Britain to be a success, indeed they don’t want Britain to exist. [SNP voters] have every right to vote, of course they do. But I’ve also got every right to warn of the dangers of a government propped up by a bunch of nationalists who don’t want our country to succeed.

I find this startlingly apocalyptic. “Britain” used to include all of Ireland, but didn’t cease to exist when part of that island gained independence. The fact that the SNP is expected to gain a broad majority across one of the constituent nations of the UK suggests that “they don’t want our country to succeed” is too facile. After all, it’s their country too, isn’t it?


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