Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

The Times racebaits

I mentioned before the peculiarly awkward and unfunny humour that bursts out in the Times when establishment interests are challenged (standing out particularly sharply in contrast to the usually professional and intelligent demeanour of that particular rag). Yesterday one of their columnists, Patrick Kidd, commented on Jeremy Corbyn’s first Labour Party conference speech. He noticed that two illustrious authors quoted in the speech were BLACK, and decided, giving him an appropriately racially charged metaphor for mocking the Reds:

It certainly felt as if he had taken us deep into the night with a series of unconnected riffs on a general jazz theme of “let’s be kinder to each other.” This was Jeremy Corbyn playing Miles Davis in the uncut version of Kind of Red, with contributions from Ben Okri on drums and Maya Angelou spanking the double bass.

One other point: I’ve noticed that lazy newspaper columnists have this trick of taking a stupid cliché that anyone would recognise as such — a disjointed speech is like jazz, ho hum, what is this, 1958? I think that’s when the Times was spreading fear of contamination by jazz-inflected, negro-influenced leftists, and youth contaminated by contact with racial inferiors — and inflates it to a shaggy-dog story with all kinds of extra detail and verbiage. Unless you’re SJ Perelman, it doesn’t become original this way, only more embarrassingly hackneyed.

The magic of markets

I find The Times fascinating, as a peek into the id of the British establishment. Thus, it usually seems sort of objective and reasonable — and I find its science coverage excellent, for a daily newspaper — until some event hits the nerve of class interests and establishment ideology, such as on the day after Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader. Then the news and editorials fall into line with a kind of mirthless sarcasm that astonishes in its combination of vituperation and simplemindedness. I find myself then reading it, like the scripture of some weird sect — I’m not naming names here — wondering, does anyone really find this either amusing or insightful. With the extra frisson of remembering that those who find it both amusing and insightful are running the country.

Today there was an editorial bashing the NHS. After one of those it-was-probably-clever-the-first-time-someone-said-it quips about how at current growth rates, the NHS will exceed 100 percent of the British economy by 2100, the writer (Ross Clark) refers to one of today’s news items:

A new threat to NHS financial stability has emerged: thanks to the increasing complexity of drugs it will cost a lot more in future to produce generic versions.

At present, drugs typically fall in price by 95 per cent once their patents expire. But new drugs that rely on biological agents are expected to fall in price by only 25 per cent, drastically cutting the £13.5 billion  the NHS saves every year by using generic drugs.

The NHS should have cottoned on much faster to the fact that generic drugs cannot be relied on indefinitely. It should be using its power in the marketplace much more to push prices down.

I bet there are heaps of overpaid NHS managers slapping their foreheads, thinking “power of the marketplace, why didn’t I think of that?!” The whole point is that these new drugs are expensive to produce, so no pharmaceutical company is going to rush in to sell it for 5% of the original cost, regardless of whether it is protected by patent rights. We’re seeing a change in the relative cost of development and production. (It’s the reverse of the change in the music industry from the early days of CDs when the physical production of the CD cost several dollars to now when the marginal cost of an album is infinitesimal.)

No amount of “cottoning on” by the NHS is going to change this fundamental reality.

Gay-baiting Francis

Am I wrong to see homophobic allusions in right-wing pundit George Will’s attack on Pope Francis? He accuses the pope of “fact-free flamboyance” (which would be a nice alliteration if it made any sense, which I can’t see that it does) and calls his “social diagnoses” “shrill”. Again, is this just an attempt to simulate eloquence on a deadline? The expression is striking, but nonsensical. How can a “diagnosis” be shrill? He also accuses the Bishop of Rome of “rhetorical exhibitionism”.

My earlier comments on the gender connotations of “shrill” are here.


Suppose your football coach exhorts the team with all the great coach clichés: “We win or lose together”, “There’s no I in ‘Team'”, maybe “We can still win if we pull together and give 110 percent in the second half”. Would anyone say this was a “warning”? But when Angela Merkel says Europe needs to work together to deal with the current influx of migrants, we get this headline in the Guardian:



It reminds me of the peculiar set of mandatory texts that were introduced for cigarette packets in the US in 1981: Among the warnings of carbon monoxide and foetal injury was this one:

SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health.

“Greatly reduces serious risks to your health” doesn’t sound like a warning to me.

According to a report on The Intercept, a US anti-Muslim group has been pushing back against claims that Texas teenager Ahmed Mohammed, who was recently arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school, was the victim of anti-Muslim prejudice, or, indeed, that he was unfairly treated in any way.

Center for Security Policy vice president Jim Hanson argued on his organization’s podcast that the clock “looks exactly like a number of IED triggers that were produced by the Iranians and used to kill U.S. troops in the war in Iraq.” He said the clock “was half a bomb.”

Rightwing organisations spouting nonsense is nothing worth commenting on, but I find the particular logical construction here fascinating. He’s right, after all. It is indeed half a bomb. It just happens to be the half without explosives. And if any Muslim teens think of bringing homemade telescopes to school, I trust they’ll be arrested for bringing “half a sniper rifle” to school. That may look like an innocent block of wood to you, but it’s actually half a combat knife; no more innocuous for being the part without a blade.

All very logical. I admit, it’s slightly odd to hear this obsession with dangerous components coming from the same side of the political spectrum that inclines to dismiss the dangerousness of firearms because they can’t kill people all on their own.

From The Guardian:

In a pointed letter to the NUS president Megan Dunn, higher education minister Jo Johnson has said he is disturbed by a motion passed at the NUS conference to oppose the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, the government’s main piece of counter-terrorism legislation.

Although he concedes the NUS is doing some good work, he also asserts contradictory statements made by NUS officials, including those that described the government’s approach as a “racialised, Islamophobic witch-hunt”. Earlier in the year, another officer claimed that strategies such as Prevent “ultimately exist to police Muslim expression”.

He said such views cause division, and points to motions passed by student unions in a series of institutions opposing Prevent, including King’s College London, Durham and Soas, University of London.

We can’t have people espousing “views” that “cause division”. Because uniformity of views is one of those British values that immigrants need to learn about.

You may think it’s all fun and games, passing motions at your conference in opposition to certain government policies. But you have to be aware that these “motions” lead to other people making “contradictory statements”, then you’re on a slippery slope to other student unions also opposing the government policies, and before you can stop it you’ve destroyed the House of Lords:

The Home Office is concerned peers could reject the regulations, which are due to come into force next week, on the grounds they inhibit free speech and thought on campuses.

Stupid kids! Not thinking about the consequences of their actions. Presumably that’s why David Cameron said

Schools, universities and colleges, more than anywhere else, have a duty to protect impressionable young minds.

My 13-year old child received the following maths problem in school:

Paul saves 4/15 of his pocket money and spends 5/12 on topping up his mobile phone. What fraction of his pocket money does he have left?

(The question was part of a sheet from Cambridge Essentials.) With a PhD in mathematics, I usually feel myself adequately qualified to deal with school maths questions, but this one stymied me. I have decided to stop blaming myself, though. This question is

  1. misleadingly formulated;
  2. ambiguous;
  3. exceptionally dependent on hidden cultural assumptions.

Let’s start with number 1. Who counts fractions of pocket money? This makes about as much sense as asking

Paul and Paulina order a pizza together. Paul eats 0.375 pizza. Paulina eats 0.5 pizza. How much pizza do they take home?

It’s like you were trying to teach children about toothbrushes, and showing them how useful they are by having them use the toothbrush to clean the floor. Sure, you can do it, but it’s really not the tool anyone would choose to use, and it doesn’t give them a fair impression of what it could really be good for.

Okay, maybe Paul lives in a socialist country, where “from each according to his ability”, so that prices are stated as fractions of your income. But it gets worse. Point 2: My first thought was that Paul had spent 11/15 of his money on other things — probably drugs — and now had to top up his phone, which cost 5/12 of his pocket money. But he only has 4/15, which is smaller, so he needs to go into debt by 5/12-4/15=3/20. Okay, that didn’t seem likely. So then I figured that the 5/12 was intended to be a proportion of the 4/15 that he has remaining. Then it would at least make a little bit of sense to express it as a fraction. (Extreme socialism: Prices are all formulated as a fraction of the money you have in your pocket. Customer: How much? Merchant: How much you got?) So the amount remaining is 4/15*7/12=7/45.

But on further discussion with my partner I recognized that neither of these versions was what was intended by the people who set the question. I was thinking in terms of a model of sequential spending: The money you “save” is the money you have available to spend the next time an expense arises. The question, though, presumes that money that is “saved” is being saved from yourself. Whereas I would think that the money you “save” is part of — or possibly identical with — the money you “have left”, you were supposed to think of spending and saving as just two different ways of losing money. You add the two together to get a total loss of 4/15+5/12=17/30, leaving Paul with 13/30 pocket money units to spend on non-mobile-phone and non-banking expenses. (Probably drugs.)

Of course, I’m overthinking this. The point is that you’re not supposed to think. You’re just supposed to see two fractions and add them, because that’s what you’ve been learning to do. It’s a kind of pseudo-applied maths problem that is quite common — even at university level — where any actual thought about the issues involved will only penalise you. It’s a puzzle, where you’re supposed to read through the irrelevant verbiage to get to the maths problem that has been concealed there.

I call this “adding up the temperatures”, after the story by Richard Feynman (in Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman) about his time evaluating textbooks for the state of California. He describes a problem from one elementary school textbook:

Red stars have a temperature of four thousand degrees, yellow stars have a temperature of five thousand degrees, Green stars have a temperature of seven thousand degrees, blue stars have a temperature of ten thousand degrees, and violet stars have a temperature of … (some big number).

John and his father go out to look at the stars. John sees two blue stars and a red star. His father sees a green star, a violet star, and two yellow stars. What is the total temperature of the stars seen by John and his father?

Feynman points out that the temperatures aren’t really right, and that there is no such thing as green and violet stars, which he is willing to tolerate, but then blows up at the sheer pointlessness of adding up temperatures. Like the above, it only looks like an application of the mathematical tool being presented (in this case addition).

But I’m even more amazed at the absurdity of the story. How is it possible that John sees only 3 stars, his father sees 4, and they see completely different stars? But the point is, in school mathematics you’re supposed to do, not think.

Many years ago, when I was hitchhiking through the US, I met a guy at a highway rest stop who, for no particular reason that I could discern, was agitated about foreigners. (My accent in English strikes some Americans as vaguely foreign, even though it is unmistakably American to any non-American native English speaker.) But I was surprised about why he was angry. I had always assumed that animus toward immigrants was directed at transients who have no roots or attachment, don’t speak English, are really oriented toward their home country. But this guy thought it was great to have people come and do unpleasant work for low pay for a few years, as long as they move on. What he didn’t like were immigrants who come and remain permanently.

Apparently the current UK government agrees. People like me are a failure of the system. Soon after they came into power the government announced the goal of “breaking the link between temporary and permanent migration.” Now, as net immigration ignores the government’s arbitrary goals and continues to rise, they are growing desperate, even forcing out highly skilled and expensively recruited foreigners who thought they had immigrated. They have introduced draconian fines and even prison sentences for landlords who rent to illegal immigrants; since landlords are hardly equipped to judge people’s immigration status, the effect (possibly unintentional) will be to make life difficult for everyone who looks or sounds foreign.

Most of Europe decided that “temporary workers” isn’t a category that you can reasonably force people into. As Max Frisch famously commented on the European experience of the 1950s through 1970s, “Wir haben Arbeitskräfte gerufen, und es sind Menschen gekommen.” (“We called for workers, but human beings came.”)

The contrast to Germany is stark. Universities are switching much of their lecturing to English, in an effort to attract bright students from around the world to study in Germany. UK universities scrabble for foreign students, too, but the justification is primarily mercenary: non-EU student fees are uncapped — typically they pay around £20,000 a year, whereas EU nationals pay £9,000. German universities, on the other hand, don’t charge fees. 

We could call it plutocratic tolerance: Germans are, by and large, willing to live with foreigners as long as they can profit from them. Britons are willing to exploit foreigners economically, but only if they don’t have to live with them. (The Home Secretary has particularly identified students as people whose otherwise welcome money is tainted by their propensity to continue existing after they have spent it, and to impose their existence on the long-suffering British. “Universities should now develop sustainable funding models that are not so dependent on international students” she said.) Next year’s EU referendum will force the population to decide which of the famous “British values” — greed or xenophobia — has priority.

This issue is not identical with, but obviously not entirely distinct from, the disgusting British government response to the refugee crisis in southern Europe — a combination of “it’s not my problem” and pompous moralising about the moral hazard of encouraging desperate people to make perilous journeys. Angela Merkel has resolutely refused to pander to anti-foreigner sentiment, and has even managed to pressure the UK into taking some small measure of responsibility for taking in some refugees — even if they’ll never accept that they, of all Europeans, bear the most direct responsibility for the Syrian disaster, which is part of the long-term aftermath of Tony Blair’s splendid little war in Iraq.

National typography


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.)

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