Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

I should have known the writing was on the wall for my career in Canada when, at the first federal election debate in 2006, the Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe said

We don’t need inspectors. We don’t need statisticians. We need doctors and nurses.

The rest of academia kept their heads down, hoping the storm would blow over. But now, not even a decade later, just south of the border, presidential candidates have another academic discipline in their sights. In yesterday’s Republican presidential debate Marco Rubio said

Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.

As is pointed out here, the first statement isn’t actually true. Whether it should be true is another question. We might say, a philosophical question; although, in a serious dispute over the issue between a philosopher and a welder, I would not be surprised if the latter came out the better for it.

First they came for the statisticians…

… but they’re not taking it lying down!

An anonymous “senior serving general” said in a recent interview that the army would “mutiny” if mere politicians tried to reduce the size of the military or take away its nuclear weapons (which are never called “weapons”, but rather “deterrent”, taking as self-evident that they would never be used.)

The unnamed general said members of the armed forces would begin directly and publicly challenging the labour leader if he tried to scrap Trident, pull out of Nato or announce “any plans to emasculate and shrink the size of the armed forces.”

He told the Sunday Times: “The Army just wouldn’t stand for it. The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that… and you would face the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be a mutiny.”

The head of the UK armed forces has repeated the threat publicly, if more obliquely.

Asked about Mr Corbyn’s refusal to use nuclear weapons, Sir Nicholas said: “It would worry me if that thought was translated into power as it were.”

So don’t think you can pansify the British Armed Forces into a girly, shriveled, no-nukes military just by voting for some new politicians!

There’s an old joke — I’ve seen it attributed to Clarence Darrow, but I have no confidence in this attribution — that goes

I don’t like spinach, and I’m glad I don’t, because if I liked it I’d eat it.

I thought of this in reflecting on the lessons of Nina Teicholz’s book Big Fat Surprise, about the sorry history of public health recommendations about dietary fat, mainly in the US. This will surely go down as one of the most embarrassing disasters in public health history, so Teicholz’s efforts to uncover how a supposedly self-correcting process was able to go so badly wrong holds important lessons for all of us who care about either science or public policy. (It’s sort of The Innocence Project, with observational studies in place of eyewitness misidentification.) Read the rest of this entry »

Proofreading is dead

I spotted this in Blackwell’s today:

2015-11-05 14.22.40

I suppose an “unauthorised like” might be something a particularly surly poet would have on his Facebook page…

It reminds me of the questions that folklorist Alan Dundes raised in his book The Shabbat Elevator and other Sabbath Subterfuges: Why do Orthodox Jews adopt enormously rigid strictures on every element of their lives, and then devote enormous energy and creativity to evading them, as when they tie a string around a whole neighbourhood to make an eruv, defined to be a single residence for purposes of the law that bans carrying objects in a public domain.

One could well ask, if a set of customs is deemed overly oppressive, why not simply repeal or ignore them?

At least they can argue that repeal isn’t really an option when you’re talking about divine law. But what about automobile pollution regulations?

Amid all the attention focused on Volkswagen’s bizarre cheating on diesel emissions tests — which ought to, but probably won’t, lead to multiple executives spending long terms in prison — some interesting lessons about the general nature of regulations and testing threaten to be submerged. As many have pointed out, real diesel emissions are many times higher than those permitted by regulations. The tests are routinely evaded, if not always as creatively as Volkswagen has done. Some examples: Read the rest of this entry »

Making choices is hard! Particularly when there are multiple possibilities, differing in multiple dimensions. Like choosing the best religion.

There are many possible methods, leading to a variety of outcomes. The 18th century French mathematician Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, the Marquis de Condorcet, advocated privileging methods of deciding elections that will always grant victory to a candidate who would win one-on-one against each other candidate individually. (Of course, there need not be such a candidate.) Such methods are referred to as “Condorcet methods”.

I’ve just been reading The Jews of Khazaria, about the seventh to tenth-century kingdom in central Asia that converted to Judaism around the middle of the ninth century.

According to the Reply of King Joseph to Hasdai ibn Shaprut, one of the few surviving contemporaneous texts to describe the internal workings of the Khazar kingdom,

Each of the three theological leaders tried to explain the benefits of his own system of belief to King Bulan. There were significant disagreements between the debaters, so Bulan went a step farther by asking the Christian and Muslim representatives which of the other two religions they believed to be superior. The Christian priest preferred Judaism over Islam, and likewise the Muslim mullah preferred Judaism over Christianity. Bulan therefore saw that Judaism was the root of the other two major monotheistic religions and adopted it for himself and his people.

John Holbo has pointed out, in a post on Crooked Timber, that Nietzsche advocated in Morgenröte expatriating 1/4 of the European population, and replacing them with Chinese immigrants, who would

bring with them the type of thinking and living that would suit industrious ants. Indeed, they could generally help the nervous Europe that is jittering itself to bits to attain some measure of asiatic calm and contemplation…

Know we know where the Tories have been cribbing their social policies! Just a few weeks ago Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, made headlines by declaring that cuts to tax credits for the working poor were needed to inspire them to work as hard as Chinese and Americans:

My wife is Chinese. We want this to be one of the most successful countries in the world in 20, 30, 40 years’ time. There’s a pretty difficult question that we have to answer, which is essentially: are we going to be a country which is prepared to work hard in the way that Asian economies are prepared to work hard, in the way that Americans are prepared to work hard?

Unlike Nietzsche, Hunt believes in transfer of spirit without transfer of people. I’m not sure if this is what the UKIP voters thought they would get by keeping out the foreigners.

His cabinet colleague Michael Gove believes the Chinese have other lessons to teach. He wrote a few years back that

I’d like us to implement a cultural revolution just like the one they’ve had in China.

Powers that give MI5, MI6 and GCHQ a “dizzying” range of electronic surveillance capabilities will be laid out in the investigatory powers bill next month, in a move that will bolster the confidence of the intelligence agencies but pave the way for a row with privacy campaigners.

According to one headline announcing this report in the Times, the security services will get the “legal right” to hack into people’s computers and other electronic devices. Under must circumstances, “legal right” might be seen as redundant, but not here. They already do these things, they have the power to do these things, but what they lack, apparently, is confidence in their abilities.

Cue the Growth Mindset (TM). I suppose it was only a matter of time before education fads started sloshing over into spying: After all, aren’t GCHQ and the others supposed to be “learning things”? What they need is confidence. The standard critiques apply:

Confidence and motivation are crucial, but confidence without competence is simply hot air.

I was commenting just recently on the cult of big ideas, where people whose life experiences have given them hierarchical power are suckers for “ideas” that are mostly blather, lots of words about the irrelevant bits of the problem, distracting attention from the real difficulties. And now Theranos is in the news. I read about this company, started by the obviously charismatic Elizabeth Holmes, in The New Yorker about a year ago. My immediate reaction was, this must be a joke. It was very much in the spirit of Monty Python’s How to do it.

Theranos, a Silicon Valley company[…], is working to upend the lucrative business of blood testing. Blood analysis is integral to medicine. When your physician wants to check some aspect of your health, such as your cholesterol or glucose levels, or look for indications of kidney or liver problems, a blood test is often required. This typically involves a long needle and several blood-filled vials, which are sent to a lab for analysis… [Theranos] has developed blood tests that can help detect dozens of medical conditions, from high cholesterol to cancer, based on a drop or two of blood drawn with a pinprick from your finger. Holmes told the audience that blood testing can be done more quickly, conveniently, and inexpensively, and that lives can be saved as a consequence.

Sounds wonderful. Quick. Convenient. Inexpensive. Saving lives. How is she going to do all that? Well, she wears “a black suit and a black cotton turtleneck, reminiscent of Steve Jobs”. She dropped out of Stanford. She has a board of directors full of highly influential aged former politicians, but no scientists, so far as I can tell. She “is in advanced discussions with the Cleveland Clinic. It has also opened centers in forty-one Walgreens pharmacies, with plans to open thousands more. If you show the pharmacist your I.D., your insurance card, and a doctor’s note, you can have your blood drawn right there…. A typical lab test for cholesterol can cost fifty dollars or more; the Theranos test at Walgreens costs two dollars and ninety-nine cents.” Read the rest of this entry »

One of my favourite Monty Python sketches is “How to do it“. It parodies a children’s show, teaching children how to do interesting and cool new things — in this case, “How to be a gynecologist… how to construct a box-girder bridge, … how to irrigate the Sahara Desert and make vast new areas of land cultivatable, and… how to rid the world of all known diseases.” The method described for the last is

First of all, become a doctor, and discover a marvelous cure for something. And then, when the medical profession starts to take notice of you, you can jolly well tell them what to do and make sure they get everything right, so there will never be any diseases ever again.

I think of this sketch often, when I hear a certain kind of blustering politician, most commonly (but not exclusively) of the US Republican variety. The classic sort of “How to do it” (HTDI) solution is the completely generic “I’d get the both sides into the room and tell them, c’mon guys, let’s roll up our sleeves and just get it done. We’re not leaving here until we’ve come up with a solution.” (That’s for a conflict; if it’s a technical challenge, like cancer, or drought, replace “both sides” with “all the experts”. Depending on the politician’s demeanor and gender this may also include “knocking heads together”.) The point is, they see solving complicated problems the way they might appear in a montage in a Hollywood film: Lots of furrowed brows, sleeves being rolled up, maybe a fist pounds on a table. It’s a manager’s perspective. Not a very intelligent manager. Of course, it sounds ridiculous to anyone who has ever been involved in the details solving real problems, whether political, technical, or scientific, but it sounds good to other people who have only seen the same films that the politician has seen. Read the rest of this entry »

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