Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Infinite sponsorship

I’ve just been reading the novel Infinite Jest, and immediately struck by the originality of Wallace’s conception of corporate sponsorship. Universities such as my own have been willing to paste sponsors’ names on buildings, institutes, libraries, posts, scholarships, quadrangles, and pretty much anything else that is identifiable on a map or organisational chart, but they have left the temporal dimension barely touched. Whereas in Wallace’s novel the naming rights to years are sold off, so that a date might be referred to as 1 November, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, or Year of the Trial Size Dove Bar, we still name our terms for medieval feast days: Michaelmas, Hilary, and Trinity terms. Imagine if, instead, we had Nuffield Term, Sainsbury Term, and (Your-Name-Here) Term.

Of course, that is not the limit. (Of course!) There are periodic arguments in my subject over abandoning the dowdy name of “Statistics”. “Information science” and “Data science”are two alternatives that have been proposed. But if we are going to change our name, why not get paid for it? We could become the Department of GlaxoSmithKline. Across the way the Computing Laboratory would become the Department of Google. And what we now know as the Department of Mathematics would be more recognisable to prospective students as the Department of Goldman Sachs. They’re not fooling anyone.

Apparently David Cameron has decided to take what he can get from the EU and call it victory. I was particularly struck by this “concession”:

a clear long-term commitment to increasing competitiveness and taking concrete steps towards better regulation and reducing administrative burdens

The “concrete steps” presumably to replace the current wooden steps that weren’t leading anywhere. Seriously, though, how does a vague promise to take “concrete steps” in the future differ from a vague promise full stop?

My guess is that the referendum will still go against EU membership.

It is decided: The Rhodes statue remains at Oriel College. What was promised to be a long and thoughtful reconsideration of the appropriateness of honouring a notorious racist in the facade of an educational institution of the twenty-first century was short-circuited by threats to withdraw £100 million pounds in donations. The ruling class has spoken! Surely, at the least, we can agree that this demolishes the notion that Rhodes is a mere quaint historical figure, whose ideology is of no concern. Clearly there are quite a few mighty pillars of the establishment who feel that an assault on the honour due to a man who brought great wealth and power to Britain through dispossessing, subjugating, and frankly murdering members of what he considered “childish” and “subject races”.

Most bizarre is the appearance of an extreme form of the standard political-correctness jiu-jitsu, whereby students raising their voices in protest constitute an assault upon free speech, while the superannuated poobahs who tell them to shut up until they have their own directorship of a major bank are the guardians of liberty. And we academic hired hands are neglecting our pedagogical duty if we don’t help them tie on the gag.

As I remarked before, they talk as though the protesters sought to excise the name of Rhodes from the history books with knives and acid, rather than proposing that the Rhodes statue be removed from its place of honour to a museum, where it can be viewed neutrally among other historical artefacts.

There is an argument that says, the Rhodes Must Fall argument points to general iconoclasm. What statue would stand if we judge the attitudes of our past heroes by contemporary standards. Putting aside the question of whether a complete lack of granite equestrians would impoverish modern urban life or undermine public morals, there is a vast difference between a historical figure who is honoured for great accomplishments and services to his country, but who shared in what we now consider benighted attitudes of his time; and Rhodes, whose accomplishments consist in dispossession and subjugation of other races. Take away the racism and imperialism from Rhodes and nothing remains.

Obviously, different views of the Rhodes statue are possible. What I find extraordinary is the accusation that even to raise the issue is somehow improper. That this is presented as a defence of free speech only demonstrates how the implicit critique has driven some portion of the elite into unreasoning frenzy.

The American Cavalieri

The British tend to view Donald Trump as an unprecedented only-in-America freak. Self-glorifying libertine billionaire turning his media ingenuity and unbounded reserves of cunning ignorance into a nativist political career. Racism and misogyny lightly disguised as heroic candour. The strongman allure, and the tendency of opponents to dismiss him as a buffoon. He’s the American Berlusconi. Which should serve as a warning to anyone who thinks he can’t possibly win.

The role of chancellor is a difficult one: He’s the symbolic aristocratic authority figure, of modest intelligence but sterling character, set to superintend the carryings-on of the overly clever boffins.

Anyway, there’s been a bit of to and fro at Oxford over the position of Cecil Rhodes. Following the successful “Rhodes Must Fall” protests at the University of Cape Town, Oxford students have been demanding that Oriel College remove the statue of Rhodes prominently displayed in the college’s facade. Oxford’s chancellor, the failed Conservative politician and last colonial governor of Hong Kong Christopher Patten, has decided to stoke the flames by using his ceremonial platform, where he was supposed to be welcoming the university’s first woman vice chancellor, to attack those who wish to “rewrite history”:

We have to listen to those who presume that they can rewrite history within the confines of their own notion of what is politically, culturally and morally correct. We do have to listen, yes – but speaking for myself, I believe it would be intellectually pusillanimous to listen for too long without saying what we think…

Yes. “We” must say what “we” think. Since history has been written once and for all, correctly, it is inappropriate to rewrite it. And heaven forfend that the rewriters should rely on their own notion of what is correct, morally or otherwise! It’s about time we got rid of all those people who try to rewrite history, you know, what are they called? Historians.

It’s pretty bizarre. It’s not as though protestors are breaking into the Bodleian and excising the name of Rhodes with a razor blade. The existence of the Rhodes statue is clear testimony to his outsized influence and to the honour accorded to him in his day, and it would continue to serve this function if it were placed in a museum. To continue to display the statue on the façade of a college is a declaration of current respect for him. Which is a matter of public debate. In 1945 all the Adolf-Hitler-Strassen in Germany were renamed, and I don’t recall whether Patten protested the felling of the Lenin statues in Berlin in 1989, or the Saddam Hussein statues in Iraq.

(A friend of a friend of mine, when I was an undergraduate at Yale, made the unfortunate choice to issue the bootlicking pledge in her application essay for the Rhodes scholarship, that she would aspire to fulfil the spirit of Cecil Rhodes. At interview she was asked, “Were you thinking of Rhodes’s spirit as a racist, as a colonialist, or as a paedophile?” Her answer was not transmitted, but she was not awarded a scholarship.)

(Personally, I would have attended the ceremony, to have been present at the historic investiture of Oxford’s first woman vice chancellor, if only I’d been able to rewrite the historical dress code, since at the last moment I couldn’t locate the academic hood required for attendance.)

According to this article in PubPeer, PubPeer has been attacked by the editor-in-chief of the journal Plant Physiology, a man named Michael Blatt. This is a nominative determinism twofer, because Blatt in German can mean either “leaf” or “journal”.

A BBC report today says that some popular current account packages are having their fees increased substantially.

The change in Santander fees – announced in September – will see customers paying £60 a year, instead of the previous fee of £24. The charge for its 123 credit card rises from £24 a year to £36.
Last year the Santander account proved very popular, with more than 27,000 people switching to it in a single month. But experts said that – even after the changes -it still offered relatively generous interest payments of up to 3% a year, and cashback of up to 3% on some household bills. “Don’t jump ship until you’ve done the maths,” said Hannah Maundrell, editor in chief of advice site Money.co.uk. “To put it simply, you need to look at how much you’re earning in interest and cashback. If it’s less than the new £60 a year fee you need to take it as a wake-up call to seriously consider your options.”

Why should people need to do complicated calculations to figure out whether their bank is scamming them? Obviously, this is a rhetorical question. I know, sort of, that banks see current customers as locked in, so they are motivated to provide a minimum of interest and service to them, while trying to dislodge a few customers from other banks with some flashy (but inexpensive) offer.

Barclays has said it will double its cash rewards programme for those who take out an account this month. Marks and Spencer is already offering incentives worth up to £220 to anyone who switches.

The article cites experts arguing about whether the banks have been forced to charge more because of increased costs, or whether they are padding their profits. But even have to raise the question shows how pathological banking has become. It’s the consumer

Every few years I find myself in my bank, needing to spend half an hour talking with a customer-service drone about why the Super Privilege Advantage account doesn’t pay interest anymore, but if I switch to the brand new Club Lloyds (really) Account I’ll get interest (varying amounts depending on my balance, increasing up to £5000, and then cutting out after that.

By the theory of the competitive market, you might think that someone would see an interest in providing simple financial services, to people who have better things to do than discuss their half a percent interest with a bored bank employee for half an hour every year or two.

Chinese towels

Another thought about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos: Her billion-dollar medical-testing company based on secret and unproven technology in her twenties depended largely on a board of well-connected politicians and former politicians, notable for their lack of any relevant scientific expertise. But before she got to that point she needed to turn the heads of some scientists. According to the New Yorker, she caught the attention of dean of engineering Channing Robertson in her freshman year at Stanford:

One day, in her freshman year, Robertson said, she came to his office to ask if she could work in his lab with the Ph.D. students. He hesitated, but she persisted and he gave in. At the end of the spring term, she told him that she planned to spend the summer working at the Genome Institute, in Singapore. He warned her that prospective students had to speak Mandarin.

 “I’m fluent in Mandarin,” she said.

“I’m thinking, What’s next? She’s already coming into the research group meetings at the end of her freshman year with my Ph.D. students. I find myself listening to her more than to them about the next experiments to be done and the progress that’s been made. I realized she’s different.”

Clearly scientific acumen was exceptional. But what is the role of Mandarin? (This is the second story in the article about how she impressed people with her knowledge of the language.) I am reminded of the famous passage in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value… More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have ”lost”.

Is speaking Mandarin (assuming you’re not yourself Chinese) the intellectual equivalent of having your towel? Is that what he means by “What’s next?” He’s thinking, I’m dean of the engineering school at Stanford, and I don’t speak Mandarin. She’s only 18 and she’s managed to learn to speak fluent Mandarin. She must know all kinds of things that I have no inkling of.

Is that the reason why the chic private schools in the UK all seem to be teaching Mandarin?

One thing you get used to as a mathematician: You meet someone in a non-professional context, you tell them what you do (“mathematics” coming after they’ve pushed through vague dodges like “teaching”… “at the university”…), and they look away furtively, as though you’d gratuitously inquired after the origin of their scar or their PTSD, and say something like “I could never do maths”; occasionally a more wistful “I always liked maths at school”. I thought of this when reading this article about a recent Christmas chat by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell:

Corbyn was followed by McDonnell (“he’s about to spend all our money,” said the Labour leader by way of introduction), who thanked the Eastern Daily Press for publishing a letter from a former classmate who revealed that he used to “whisper the maths answers to me to avoid me being caned”. He joked of the Daily Mail headline he expected: “Chancellor cheats at maths again”.

Clearly, he thinks his creative solution to maths anxiety — backed up by the cane — is something that right-thinking people should, if not admire, at least condone, and possibly chuckle at in self-recognition. But as the Labour Party’s aspirant to helm the Treasury, which does presumably require some sort of numeracy, doesn’t he owe the public some sort of explanation of when, if at all, he did actually learn to do sums?

Early greenhouse

I read a novel that I’d known about for a long time, but had never gotten around to: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven. I was startled to discover that an essentially background point of the plot of this novel, published in 1971, was the destruction of the Earth’s environment by the greenhouse effect. This has already taken place before the events of the novel, set in the early twenty-first century.

Rain was an old Portland tradition, but the warmth — 70ºF on the second of March — was modern, a result of air pollution. Urban and industrial effluvia had not been controlled soon enough to reverse the cumulative trends already at work in the mid-twentieth century; it would take several centuries for the CO2 to clear out of the air, if it ever did. New York was going to be one of the larger casualties of the Greenhouse Effect, as the polar ice kept melting and the sea kept rising.

This is only incidental to the themes of the novel, which grapples with the structure of reality and the nature of dreams. But it amazed me to see global warming being confidently projected into our future, at a time when — as the climate-change skeptics never tire of pointing out — discussions of climate change tended to refer to the danger of a new Ice Age.

At least, that is my memory. According to the Google Books NGram viewer, though, the “greenhouse effect” was as mentioned in books around 1970 as frequently as it is today; and, oddly, it has declined substantially from a peak three times as high in the early 1990s.Screenshot 2015-12-16 14.22.01

For example, a 1966 book titled Living on Less begins its section on “The Environment” by discussing global warming, and launches right into a description of the greenhouse effect that sounds very similar to what you might read today.

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