Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

The BBC reports today on the most recent THE global university rankings. The article is illustrated with a grinning, texting stock-photo student (I’m genuinely baffled as to what value these atmospheric photos are thought to add to news article) above the caption

The rankings rate universities worldwide on 13 measures, including teaching.

Wow! These rankings of higher education institutions were pretty thorough, if they even went so far as to include the quality of TEACHING among their 13 factors! If they’d had sufficient bandwidth for 14 factors they might have ranked them on the quality of their wine collections. Then Oxford would have come out tops for sure.

Devices like this one are sometimes still used to watch the BBC!

Devices like this one are sometimes still used to watch the BBC!

Frege and sexual abuse

Slate’s Amanda Hess has brought to my attention the case of Retaeh Parsons, a Nova Scotia girl who committed suicide last year, four years after being the victim of bullying over a photograph of her being sexually assaulted. She became famous across Canada after the police originally refused to prosecute those who assaulted her. The national, and then international, outcry, inspired some creativity among the reluctant police, who have now successfully prosecuted one of the perpetrators for child pornography.

The main point of the article was to comment on how

the judge in the case has barred Canadian journalists and everyday citizens from repeating the girl’s name in newspapers, on television, over the radio, and on social media. He cited a portion of Canadian criminal code that bans the publication of a child pornography victim’s name in connection to any legal proceeding connected to that alleged crime.

She quotes a Halifax reporter Ryan Van Horne on the perverse effect:

If you say the name “Rehtaeh” in Nova Scotia… you’ll be met with “instant recognition” of the case and all of the issues it represents. But when Van Horne asks locals, “You know that victim in that high-profile child pornography case?” he draws blanks. The famous circumstances surrounding Rehtaeh Parsons’ bullying and death don’t fit the traditional conception of a child pornography case, which makes linking the two difficult if reporters aren’t allowed to use her name and photograph.

This sounds like a horrible version of Frege’s Morning-Star/Evening-Star puzzle: News media (including social media) are allowed to talk about Retaeh Parsons (the famous child victim of sexual abuse and online harassment); and they are allowed to talk about the victim in that high-profile child pornography case. But they are barred from talking about Retaeh Parsons as the victim in that child pornography case. In Fregian terms, it’s as though we banned any use of the term “morning star” in reference to Venus, which could only be called the “evening star’.

Of course, there’s nothing terribly unusual here: Often important privacy concerns turn on concealing the identity of what appear to be two different individuals. It only seems so perverse here because the person whose privacy would implicitly be protected is 1) famous for her role in this case; and 2) deceased, which means that the only people whose privacy is being protected are the police officials who screwed up so badly in the first place.

Jews and evolution

Salon has published an interesting interview with former Commonwealth Chief Rabbi of the soi-disant Orthodox Jonathan Sacks about his new book about the relationship between science and religion. The man who did as much as anyone in recent years to break down cooperation and mutual respect between Orthodox and progressive streams of Judaism in the UK has rediscovered the virtues of mutual respect and toleration since stepping down last year from his post as Orthodox Chief Rabbi. At least, he believes strongly that atheists should respect him more.

One particular exchange caught my attention:

Why do so few Jews take issue with the theory of evolution, while creationism is common among Christians?

I think Christians tended to think that religion and science were part of the same universe of discourse. So they assumed that the Bible was telling us scientific stuff, as well as moral and spiritual stuff. Whereas Jews don’t read the Bible that way.

It surprises me that the good Rabbi feels so confident accepting the premise of the question, that Orthodox Jews are hip to modern (i.e., post-medieval) science. It’s hard to believe that he has become so disengaged from the cause of Jewish education in Britain in the past year that he failed to note the scandal earlier this year, when a Jewish girls’ school in London (state-funded, natch!) was found to be removing questions from A-level biology exams “because they do not fit in with their beliefs.”

Fifty-two papers were altered by Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School to remove questions on evolution.

This being Britain, where everything is a sport, no one cared much at first about the children being taught bogus biology; they only cared about the game being fair:

The examinations body, OCR, says it was satisfied that the girls did not have an unfair advantage. It now plans to allow the practice, saying it has come to an agreement with the school to protect the future integrity of the exams.

On more mature reflection, the exam regulator Ofqual did decide that excising questions from exams would be deemed “malpractice”.

Until I read of this controversy, I would have felt confident agreeing with Lord Sacks that there is no Jewish tradition for rejecting scientific biology. Now I’m obviously not so sure. Perhaps this represents part of the harmonic convergence between Orthodox Jewry and American Evangelical Christianity — rather like the way they’ve come to a consensus on supporting Israel, even if the motives may be discordant — Jews wanting Israel as a place to live, Christians wanting it as a place to stage Armageddon.

David Cameron has described the defection of Tory MP Mark Reckless to the anti-immigrant anti-Europe party UKIP not as “reckless” (too obvious), but as “senseless”. As in, absolutely nothing could be accomplished by this move to advance the anti-immigrant anti-Europe political agenda by this move.

In completely unrelated news, which BBC journalists unaccountably included in the same article, the prime minister announced that he would not argue in favour of staying in the EU in his planned 2017 referendum if he does not obtain concessions from the EU:

“If I don’t achieve that it will be for the British public to decide whether to stay in or get out,” he said.

But he added: “I have said this all my political life: if I thought that it wasn’t in Britain’s interest to be in the European Union, I wouldn’t argue for us to be in it.”

And Conservative Culture Secretary Sajid Javid told the Daily Mail the UK could still prosper if it chose to exit the EU. “I think it would open up opportunities. I am not afraid of that at all,” he added.

The BBC reports on a study by the Prisoners Education Trust, of the impact of the recent decision of the prison service to limit prisoners’ access to books. The Ministry of Justice has dismissed the study, saying

the PET survey of 343 inmates represented just 0.01% of the total prison population in England and Wales.

This is a twofer, with a pair of errors packed into impressively small space. Even a government minister should be able to calculate that if 343 inmates represent 0.01% of the prison population, then more than 6% of the population (53.5 million) must be imprisoned, which I don’t need to check the figures to know must be wrong. But I did check it, and find that the Ministry of Justice made a wee error of not quite 2 orders of magnitude. According to this publication (coincidentally, also from the Ministry of Justice) there were about 84,000 prisoners in June 2013. Assuming there haven’t been any huge changes since then, those 343 inmates in fact represent 0.4% of the prison population. Where is Michael Gove when you need him?

More generally, the comment conveyed the impression that if the sample were a small fraction of the population then it couldn’t be statistically valid. Of course, that’s not true. If you were doing an election poll of the whole population of England, a random sample of 0.01% of the population would be about 5000 people, which is much larger than most surveys, and enough to get a result that’s accurate to within about ± 1.5%. The real problem with this survey is that it’s not a random sample, and not representative, being self-selected among readers of a certain magazine; but there is no pretence about that, and if the Ministry of Justice were interested in addressing the issue rather than issuing talking points, they could address the question of whether the concerns raised by the more literate of the prisoner population most concerned with literacy are worth taking seriously.


I read with amazement the new book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit.  For a book that is so attentive to the physicality of the land, and the particularity of place, it struck me as surprisingly willing to use place names in their platitudinous sense, in a context that made them leap off the page in bizarre ways:

By his very presence, he turns En Harod into the Mecca of the kibbutz movement.

… has turned a huge garage in southern Tel Aviv into the new mecca of dance, drugs, and casual encounters.

After seven and a half years in inferior and mediocre Sephardic institutions, Aryeh Machluf Deri had reached the Eton of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox world.

If the thought of the Mecca of “dance, drugs, and casual encounters” doesn’t make your head spin (imagine, conversely, describing the Kaaba as “the Reeperbahn of pilgrimage and divine ecstasy”) then surely the thought of an ultra-Orthodox Eton must.

In all seriousness, the book accomplishes something I would have thought impossible: It tells the story of Israel from a Zionist perspective, while refusing to look away from, dismiss, or otherwise morally diminish the suffering inflicted upon the Arab population of Palestine. Ultimately, it’s the most depressing book on the subject I have ever read, not because of the horror that is recounted, but because holding up the justice and injustice of both sides to the cold light leaves the reader (and the author) with the sense that this is a paradox of justice that has no resolution, a doom of eternal conflict. Other books, like Max Blumenthal’s Goliath, that take a much harsher tone toward Israel and its political establishment, arouse a sense of moral fervour, a sense that just a bit of generosity and good will could bring both sides to the promised land of peace. Shavit’s is the disillusion of an old man, who has seen the rise and fall of grand hopes, and sees the avoidance of destruction as the best that his country can hope for.

Fishiness in Scotland

So now Alex Salmond has resigned. Not entirely unexpected, despite the fact that he managed to stampede the British establishment into promising effective autonomy for Scotland, which was exactly what Cameron opposed when the referendum was first mooted.

But surely I am not the only person who thought that a situation where the First Minister was named Salmond and the Deputy First Minister named Sturgeon was too fishy to be allowed to continue. In the interest of expanding the phylogenetic variety at the top of Scottish government, perhaps Liam Fox could be persuaded to abandon the Conservatives?

When to call it quits

Today is the day of the Scottish referendum. As I’ve commented before, I don’t really have a personal opinion about the question, though I think Scottish independence would probably make my life marginally worse. (To the extent that I have a coherent political view of the situation, it is mostly concurrent with that expressed with some eloquence by Charles Stross. I’d much prefer to see a federal UK. I guess that’s what happens when you let aliens with their strange ideas infiltrate the nation.)

The only sense in which I think I have relevant expertise is with regard to the way people are talking about risk. The whole thrust of the No campaign has been to conjure up dangers, known and unforeseeable, of Scottish independence. I think they’re probably right — in particular, I think the economists are right that Scots are being misled by those who claim that they can successfully keep the British pound as their currency. On the other hand, there are also risks of staying part of the UK. In particular, the risk of being taken out of the EU by an English public that is increasingly insular in its outlook (inlook?) Since everyone’s fond of divorce metaphors, we might see Scotland as a woman whose jealous husband is trying to force her to move with him away from her friends and family. There is a long tradition of Scotland using relations with the Continent as a balance against England. It’s not so much a question of whether Scotland wants to be part of a bigger nation or go it alone; it’s a question of whether Scotland wishes to confederate with England or with Europe. And despite a reasonably successful 307 year run with England the choice for the future is not so obvious.

And that raises what I think is the most irksome twist of the No campaign’s logic: The question of timing. If you protest early against a new arrangement, you can be told, “You haven’t given it enough of a chance”. But if you wait too long, you can be told it’s really been settled by custom and tradition. (To be fair, “you haven’t given it enough of a chance” wasn’t really the argument against the 18th century Scottish rebels, who tended to find English muskets doing the persuading.) Surely it’s reasonable to reconsider these sorts of arrangements after 300 years or so. England offered Scotland the opportunity to be a co-coloniser rather than a colony, and it accepted. Now that the imperial dream is not just dead but despised, isn’t it reasonable to ask a new generation whether the union is still meeting their needs?

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.

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