Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

National typography

jekyllandhyde

I noticed this sign the other day in the Ruhr city of Hagen. It’s an Irish pub whose sign uses a sort of Gothic script that otherwise is used in Germany as a marker of conservative German gastronomy (as on this restaurant in Munich, since 1800), and that is used on pubs and restaurants elsewhere simply to signify “German”, particularly beer. Here, it’s Irish for some reason.

And on top of that, this Irish pub is named for a quintessentially London character (or is it two characters?) in a novel by a Scottish author. At least they got the shamrock right.

Having been on a Thalys to Paris yesterday I took particular interest in the aborted attack the previous day. We hadn’t heard anything about it, but a conductor told us a bullshit story about how the news media got the story all wrong: the attacker was actually being followed by police, the capture was planned, and he didn’t have firearms.

But here’s what I’m wondering. According to the NY Times,

Less than an hour away from Paris, a French passenger got up from his seat to use the toilets at the back of the carriage. Suddenly, in front of him rose a slightly built man. Across the man’s chest, in a sling, was an automatic rifle of the kind favored by jihadists the world over: an AK-47.

The passenger threw himself on the man. The gun went off, once, twice, several times. Glass shattered. A bullet hit a passenger.

The man with the gun kept going down the carriage, holding his AK-47 and a Luger pistol. In a pocket was a sharp blade capable of inflicting grievous harm. He had at least nine cartridges of ammunition, enough for serious carnage.

So, they’re heroes. But if this had happened in the US, would they be the ones in prison? After all, up until the point where they attacked him, he was just another open-carry enthusiast celebrating his constitutional right to keep and bear arms. Once he was attacked, of course, by rowdy foreigners, it is perfectly understandable that he started firing. And even if he did fire a single shot first (the news reports disagree on this point), well, how could they have known that it wasn’t self defence. They should have waited until he’d shot at least two people before infringing on his civil rights.

Maybe that’s why they don’t have trains in Texas… (Actually, that’s not entirely true.)

The American Jewish reggae singer Matisyahu has been expelled from a Spanish music festival, for refusing to issue a statement in support of a Palestinian state. Apparently such loyalty oaths are required of suspect persons, such as Jews. His silence, they said, serves “the purposes of the Israeli colonial and apartheid regime”.

This buttresses the view that BDS has a significant dollop of antisemitism in its ideological matrix, even if not every BDS supporter is antisemitic (and not everyone motivated partly by antisemitism is entirely or even consciously motivated by antisemitism).

This takes me back to 2007, when one UK academic union, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (since melded into the University and Colleges Union (UCU)) couldn’t find any more relevant challenge to higher education in the UK than a boycott of Israeli academics who do not “publicly dissociate themselves” from Israeli “apartheid policies”.

I immediately recognised a problem: What is the appropriate form for expressing such dissociation? And how would we test whether the self-criticism was sincere, or merely careerist dissimulation. After all, we wouldn’t want crypto-Zionists sneaking in to British universities and scientific conferences, infecting them with the taint of racism and colonialism. Leaping into the breach, I composed a form to enable the aspiring good Israeli to have his anti-Zionist bona fides tested and confirmed by the proper authorities.

Five months after our article with Orzack et al. appeared in PNAS, showing that the primary sex ratio (the fraction of boys conceived) is close to 50%, contradicting centuries of supposition that it was substantially higher (more male-biased), Bill Stubblefield, Jim Zuckerman and I have published a popular account of the research in Nautilus. It was an interesting experience, the back and forth with an editor to make something comprehensible and gripping for a general audience.

I didn’t end up exactly as we would have liked, but it was probably better — as an effort to explain the science and the background to a general audience — than what we would have produced entirely on our own. The layout and graphics are also very well done.

It’s now been condensed down to three paragraphs on Gizmodo. They even condensed the illustration.

I’ve just been reading David C. Cassidy’s updated version of his Heisenberg biography, titled Beyond Uncertainty. He reports that in May 1925 Wolfgang Pauli, who was struggling together with Heisenberg to apply the new quantum theory to calculate the spectral lines of hydrogen, wrote in a letter

Physics is at the moment once again very wrong. For me, in any case, it is much too difficult, and I wish that I was a film comedian or something similar and had never heard of physics.

Here is a challenge for a young postmodernist film-maker: Produce the silent-film comedies that Wolfgang Pauli would have made, had he never heard of physics (or abandoned physics? Presumably they would have been different…)

Alternatively, a science fiction author could write about a universe governed by Charlie Chaplin’s quantum mechanics.

Gender asymmetry…

… and the “pussification of America”. This term came up in an article in Slate about the decision by the American retailer Target to remove the gender attributions from its toys. Since I had children I’ve been amazed at the extent to which children’s clothes and toys have become gender-specific since I was a child in the 1970s. And it amazes me as well how closely identified the colours pink and blue have come to be with girls and boys, despite the fact that it’s an obviously artificial (and quite recent) tradition. (Jo B. Paoletti has written a book on the subject, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America.) I have also long been intrigued by the way people seize upon even the most tenuous evidence that “science has proved” the validity of this or that gender stereotype.

Anyway, someone set up a honeytrap fake Target customer service Facebook account to collect the outrage that some people (men and women) were spewing over this issue. As chronicled in AdWeek, there are some biblical arguments, like

God made a difference between male and female as there should be. I would never give a boy a barbie doll. It’s not chauvinistic but the BIBLE says women are the weaker vessel I Peter 3:7 so many people are making their boys the weakest link and making their daughters manly.

(Interesting that “as there should be”. Not that she’s simply going to accept on faith that God got this one right. But she approves.) And many rants against PC

You guys should listen to the people who spend money in your stores, not the liberal, PC Complaint people that don’t have two cents to rub together.

I thought the PC Complaint people were wealthy elitists…

Anyway, I thought this comment was particularly telling:target-troll-12a

This is classic Simone de Beauvoir stuff. This is an American woman, outraged at a refusal to emphasise gender distinctions, because it will feminise America. Because America is a man, and if America can’t get a steady diet of trucks and toy soldiers when he’s a boy, he’ll be “pussified”. She’s not concerned that America will be toughened, or dickified, or whatever the corresponding word for “pussified” would be.

I’ve always been impressed by German political scandals. More generally, I think that the quality of political scandals is an excellent indicator of the general health of a country’s political culture. More than 20 years ago I was in Germany during the Briefbogenaffäre, the “letterhead affair”, when the business minister and deputy chancellor Jürgen Mölleman was forced to resign after having used his department’s letterhead to tout a really banal business idea of his cousin (selling plastic chips to be used instead of one-mark coins to stick into supermarket trolleys as deposit), calling it a “pfiffige Idee” (clever idea). At the time I thought the whole thing seemed ridiculous, and simultaneously I was impressed at a political culture capable of being genuinely shocked by minor corruption. You couldn’t imagine an Italian minister being forced to resign over something like that.

Now there’s a new scandal, and Germany has again showed itself to be a country that takes democratic values seriously. About a week ago the blog netzpolitik.org, a major organ for German journalism about issues of internet freedom and privacy, received notification that the Generalbundesanwalt (GBA — basically, attorney general) that they were officially being investigated under suspicion of treason, for having published secret documents of the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV — the “Federal Agency for Defense of the Constitution”, the somewhat Orwellian name that Germany has bestowed on its internal secret police) relating to its new plans for mass internet surveillance with a special secret budget. The letter says that the investigation was provoked by a criminal complaint issued by the Verfassungsschutz.

What happened next was surprising. The Verfassungsschutz and the GBA were both strongly criticised in the press, with accusations that they were trying to stifle public criticism. Comparisons were drawn to the 1962 Spiegel Affair, a crucial event in postwar German history, where the government imprisoned journalists who had revealed secret documents showing weaknesses in German military preparedness, but was then forced to back down. Then the circular firing squad began. The justice minister criticised the decision as improper. The GBA office said they were obliged to act on the complaint from the BfV. The BfV said they only reported the facts to the GBA, they had no responsibility for the criminal investigation. Then the GBA fired back at the justice minister, saying his comments were an “intolerable interference” in the independence of the judicial system. Whereupon the justice minister fired him and had the investigation stopped.

It’s hard to imagine any important political or judicial figure in the UK or US losing his job because he was seen as being too aggressive in protecting state secrets against press freedom.

After commenting on the confusion between different clichés about physics and physicists in reporting about Angela Merkel, I feel obliged to note this sentence, from an article in the New Statesman about the fake traveller-tourist dichotomy:

The rush to witness the “authentic” ultimately alters the reality, in a kind of behaviourist butterfly effect.

Once again, physics clichés are being confounded. When you’re looking for an educated-sounding way to make the banal observation that it’s hard to observe things without getting mixed up in them, and so changing them, the cliché you want is “uncertainty”. The “butterfly effect” is what you cite when you’re bloviating about how small actions can have large long-term effects.

It’s slightly depressing for anyone who has hopes for general science education. It suggests that even if you come up with compelling ordinary-language metaphors for scientific concepts, the result will just be a salad of interchangeable expressions gesturing vaguely at an undifferentiated mass of physics woo-woo concepts.

Quantum politics

According to The Guardian,

It is, perhaps, a measure of just how powerful she has become: Angela Merkelnow appears to be influencing youth slang. The compilers of Germany’s most popular dictionary say that the verb “merkeln” is on track to become the most popular “youth word” of the year… The word is none-too flattering, meaning being indecisive, or failing to have an opinion on something – behaviour that Germans often attribute to Merkel.

They attribute this characteristic to quantum physics:

Merkel observers put the chancellor’s approach down to her training in quantum physics, which leads her to work a problem through step by step like an experiment, rather than trying to predict its outcome in advance.

What’s weird is, first of all, that she’s not particularly an expert on quantum physics. Her doctorate is in physical chemistry, and while it did involve quantum mechanics, it also involved many other tools and methods equally well. Second, the characteristics they describe have nothing to do with quantum physics. They’re simply attributes of an experimental scientist (though I would have thought that scientists are more typically accused of being dogmatic and inflexible, more than of being indecisive).

Surely, if you’re attributing someone’s indecision to their training in quantum physics you have to make some reference to “uncertainty” or “quantum superposition”. Merkel is Schrödinger’s Kanzlerin.

queue2
Queueing up to board the Eurostar in London recently, I saw these very conspicuous signs engraved in the doors leading to the platforms

On apprend l’art de faire la queue comme les anglais.

Attributed to “Jean-Marc, Paris”. There was also a translation, something like “We are learning the art of queueing up like the English”. Is this intended to shame the French passengers into behaving well in the queue? To flatter the English? To mock them?

Of course, while the English are very proud of their queueing habits, there are greater superlatives imaginable. Historical context is crucial, though. If the French develop their skills further (and if the Germans make more progress in dismantling the European economy), perhaps one day they will be able to say they have learned “the art of queueing up like the Poles (Communist era)”. Or even the Russians. If they get really advanced, they might learn the art of queueing up like Depression-era Americans.

And that’s the pinnacle. Presumably they’ll never have to learn to queue up like these people…

holocaust victims queueing for train

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