Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

The Brexit formula

A collaborative project with Dr Julia Brettschneider (University of Warwick) has yelded a mathematical formulation of the current range of Brexit proposals coming from the UK, that we hope will help to facilitate a solution:

Numeric calculations seem to confirm the conjecture that the value of the solution tends to zero as t→29/3.

The executive-time branch

We have all learned many things about the world that we might have preferred not to know, since the election of Donald Trump. One of the more bizarre little facts is that there is a rubric “executive time”, used by Trump’s minions to fill in the gaps in his schedule, when he is watching television or shooting the shit with random people. I assume that this is a term he picked up from his wealthy friends, even if few others are likely to be as assiduous as Trump in maintaining executive functions: it was recently revealed that 60% of the president’s schedule is devoted to “executive time”.

Is there any better expression than “executive time” of the way plutocrats assure each other — and pay their underlings to assure them — that they deserve to be wealthy, that they earn it by being both smarter and harder working than the lazy stiffs sitting around just cleaning toilets all day, who stay poor because they “are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies” (as US Republican Senator Charles Grassley recently put it, in explaining why he thought there should be no estate tax at all). The poors deserve their fate because they waste their time watching TV; the CEO earns his million dollars a week with executive time, assimilating complex multimedia information. The same way bankers insist that their stratospheric salaries are recompense for risk, and then get bailed out from the public purse when their risky schemes collapse.

The Labour MP Jess Philips summarised the hegemonic self-deception that goes into the government definition of “skilled workers” — those who would be entitled to immigrate to the UK after Brexit — as those earning over £30,000 (thus excluding most nurses and teachers, for instance) in her wonderful recent speech in the Commons, saying

I have met lots of people who earn way more than £30,000 and have literally no discernible skills, not even one. I have definitely met some very rich people who earn huge amounts of money who I wouldn’t let hold my pint if I had to go and vote while in the bar.

This is the sort of self-deceptive confusion between real skills and “high-level” or “managerial” skills that I have elsewhere called “how to do it“.

Unnamed EU officials described EU Brexit negotiator Sabine Weyand to The Guardian in these terms:

“She has got a real affection for and understanding of the UK,” said another EU official who knows her well. Several say she has a very British sense of humour, with a taste for sarcasm and irony. “She is really fun to work with; very direct, very quick, no bullshit,” said the official.

The comments “understanding of the UK” and “no bullshit” are direct quotes, whereas “British sense of humour” is not, which I note because I am wondering whether anyone who was not British would particularly associate the British with humour. Sarcasm possibly. But irony*? I wonder if the EU officials might have said she had a sense of irony and the British journalists translated that into “British sense of humour”, because that’s how they like to imagine themselves.

It seems like the UK had settled on the line, we may have lost our Empire, our power, our influence in the world, our manufacturing base, and even most of our self respect. But we haven’t lost our sense of humour about it all.

And then they did.

* I am supposing irony to be used in its everyday sense, and not in the technical sense used in literary criticism, a dramatic device where

the words and actions of the characters contradict the real situation, which the spectators fully realise.

Brexit has shown the British to be true masters of this device, but it is conventionally reckoned to tragedy, not to comedy. Perhaps they were misinformed.

If it is revealed in the end that Brexit was actually a piece of performance art, it will have been retrospectively hilarious.

I’m fascinated by the way ideologies get hardwired into language, so that the ideology becomes unchallengeable and yet invisible. And sometimes you only notice it when you observe how words have changed their meanings or their valence over time.

Thus I was brought up short by this remark of George Washington (quoted in Michael Klarman’s wonderful new account of the origins of the US Constitution The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution) expressing his concerns that the first Congress, considering the clamour for a Bill of Rights and other immediate amendments would produce such

amendments as might be really proper and generally satisfactory without producing or at least fostering such a spirit of innovation as will overturn the whole system.

I’ve never seen the word innovation used to express something to be avoided, rather than something to be promoted and praised. (The one exception is in time-series analysis, where the “innovation” has a purely neutral technical sense.) There is a whole world-view wrapped up in our modern veneration of “innovation”.

For repetition is a mighty power in the domain of humor. If frequently used, nearly any precisely worded and unchanging formula will eventually compel laughter if it be gravely and earnestly repeated, at intervals, five or six times.

— Mark Twain, Autobiography

The Guardian has yet another report on the radical anti-family policies of the UK Home Office. This time it is an elderly Iranian couple with three generations of descendants in Britain, who have lived in the UK since the 1970s, who are now to be deported. This despite the fact that they are ill and wholly dependent on their children for care, and despite the fact that they currently care for an autistic grandchild. The Home Office takes the official view that the grandchild would not be affected, because

It is noted that you own the house you reside in Edinburgh, therefore you could choose to allow your daughter and grandson to live there on your return to Iran, which then would not impact on your grandson as you claim he visits you there every day.

This is close to the cruelest stereotype of the British character: cold and haughty, a nation of bookkeepers and arrogant property owners, sensitive to animal suffering but indifferent to humans. The only “equity” they care about is home equity. The Guardian has become the only effective court of appeal against this inhuman immigration policies, meaning that basic human rights end up depending on the vagaries of journalists’ attention.

The series of individual tragedies reported in The Guardian seems endless. It struck me that every one of these reports ends with the same coda:

A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “All UK visa applications are considered on their individual merits, on the basis of the evidence available and in line with UK immigration rules.”

I know this conforms to ordinary journalistic standards — you have to let the government state its perspective, the government has a policy of not commenting on individual cases, blah blah blah — but, following the principle articulated by Mark Twain, this repetition — The Guardian transcribing this boilerplate again and again and again, begins to produce a darkly comic effect, satirising without comment the robotic, dehumanised and dehumanising character of the Home Office bureaucracy.

(I never cease to be fascinated by the role of bureaucracy in whitewashing tyranny. The UK Parliament could abrogate its recognition of asylum rights, eliminate family rights in immigration cases, and so on. But that would openly acknowledge what monsters they have become — and invite open resistance, at home and abroad, and might even be uncomfortable for the perpetrators themselves. We’re not splitting up families, we’re facilitating the use of modern digital technology to keep them together. It’s the same motivation that led the Nazi SS to apply the term Sonderbehandlung (special treatment) in official documents to the murder of disabled children, and the mass gassing of Jews.)

I suppose this could invite a variation on Tolstoy’s famous opening to Anna Kerenina: Comedy is repetitive. Tragedies are unique.

Like all tyrannies, though, the UK Home Office is endeavouring to mass-produce tragedies. And the evil wrought by Theresa May works on, even after she has moved on to greater things.

1561 v. Heemskerck Momus tadelt die Werke der Goetter

At the recent Evolutionary Demography meeting in Miami there were two talks on the life history of rotifers. One of the speakers praised rotifers as a model organism for their generously choosing to be transparent, facilitating study of their growth and physiological changes. I had never really thought much about transparency as a positive feature of organisms (from the perspective of those wanting to study them) — though I guess the same has also favoured the development of the C. elegans system.

I was reminded of the famous quip (reported by his son Leonard Huxley) of T H Huxley, when he asked a student at the end of a lecture whether he had understood everything:

“All but one part,” replied the student, “during which you stood between me and the blackboard.”

To which Huxley rejoined, “I did my best to make myself clear, but could not render myself transparent.”

Momus would have been pleased.

A wall with two sides

Right after the EU referendum I commented

Those now entering retirement have locked in promises of high pensions to themselves that no one before or after them will be able to receive…

I can’t help but wonder whether, on some level, the over-60s see the situation they’ve manoeuvred the younger generations into — crumbling infrastructure, insufficient and overpriced housing, excessive pensions that will come at the expense of social spending for decades, and the only solution they can see — since a pension isn’t worth much if there aren’t enough working people to actually provide the services you depend on — is to block off their children’s potential escape routes.

Maybe it’s not about keeping THEM out. It’s about keeping the younger generation IN.

This is, of course, intentionally provocative, and while I believe there’s some truth to it I’m not sure exactly how profoundly I really believe it. But I was reminded of this perspective while reading James C. Scott’s eye-opening “deep history of the earliest states” Against the Grain:

Owen Lattimore… has made the case most forcefully that the purpose of the Great Wall(s) was as much to keep the Chinese taxpayers inside as to block barbarian incursions.

In the latter part of the twentieth century people in the wealthy world got used to the notion that everyone is free to travel, but there is a natural right of nations to decide who to let in — a right granted primarily to wealthy individuals and citizens of wealthy nations. This belief was communicated to me so strongly that when I first encountered the historical fact that passports were originally documents confirming the permission to leave granted by a state to its subject — rather like the travel passes issued to slaves by their owners — I found this intensely shocking, and put it on my growing the-past-is-a-foreign-country list, right next to the Roman practice of “exposing” surplus newborns, leaving them to die or be picked up by other families in need of a slave. Indeed, I just came across this comment in Jill Lepore’s magisterial new one-volume history of the US, on the first US federal laws regulating passports:

In 1856, Congress passed a law declaring that only the secretary of state “may grant and issue passports,” and that only citizens could obtain them. In August of 1861, Lincoln’s secretcary of state, William Seward, issued this order: “Until further notice, no person will be allowed to go abroad from a port of the United States without a passport either from this Department or countersigned by the Secretary of State.” From then until the end of the war, this restriction was enforced; its aim was to prevent men from leaving the country in order to avoid military service.

The fact that the soi-disant German Democratic Republic had built a wall, with armed guards to prevent its own citizens from fleeing was widely seen to fatally undermine that state’s legitimacy. Indeed, the GDR’s rulers themselves seemed to concede this point, as they denied the obvious truth of the wall’s function, designating it in official proclamations the antifaschistischer Schutzwall [antifascist defensive rampart]. (Just by the way, I’ve long been fascinated by the way this word “Wall”, a partly-false-cognate to the English expression for what Germans generally called by the more standard German word Mauer, came to be used as a competing term in GDR propaganda.)

Possibly one effect of rising economic inequality is that freedom of movement will be one of the special privileges that states had been routinely providing to their citizens that will increasingly be reserved to a privileged elite. And like the GDR, states like the UK will assure their citizens that they are not being kept in, but rather, that they are being protected from the barbarian hordes outside.

(Title of this post with apologies to André Cayatte.)

The inflationary university

The universe, the standard model tells us, began with rapid inflation. The university as well, or at least, the modern exam-centered university.

With UK universities being upbraided by the Office for Students (OfS), the official regulator of the UK higher education sector, for handing out too many first-class degrees, I am reminded of this wonderful passage unearthed by Harry Lewis, former dean of Harvard College, from the report of Harvard’s 1894 Committee on Raising the Standard:

The Committee believes… that by defining anew the Grades A, B, C, D, and E, and by sending the definitions to every instructor, the Faculty may do something to keep up the standard of the higher grades. It believes that in the present practice Grades A and B are sometimes given too readily — Grade A for work of no very high merit, and Grade B for work not far above mediocrity.

Noting that letter grades were first introduced at Harvard in 1886, Lewis summarises the situation thus:

It took only eight years for the first official report that an A was no longer worth what it had been and that the grading system needed reform.

If I had been asked when it first came to be understood that skin cancer is caused by exposure to the sun, I would have said probably the 1970s, maybe 1960s among cognoscenti, before it was well enough established to become part of public health campaigns. But I was just reading this 1953 article by C. O. Nordling on mutations and cancer — proposing, interestingly enough, that cancers are caused by the accumulation of about seven mutations in a cell — which mentions, wholly incidentally, in a discussion of latency periods between the inception of a tumour cell and disease diagnosis

40 years for seaman’s cancer (caused by solar radiation).

So, apparently skin cancer was known to be frequent among sailors, and the link to sun exposure was sufficiently well accepted to be mentioned here parenthetically.

Physics crushed my dreams

Well, one dream, to be precise. Flying dreams are famously pleasant experiences. It’s been a long time since I had one. In a recent dream I found myself in a location where people could fly off the top of a hill, coasting above the landscape down toward the valley. But I was curious, and I had to ask someone why this is possible. She explained to me that it had to do with the gentle slope of the hill, and that the rate of falling produced just enough impulse to keep you above the ground. Which seemed convincing at first, but then I started thinking about the acceleration that would entail, and it seemed we’d end up crashing toward the valley floor with a horrendous speed.

And after I’d thought that through the flying, which had been so effortless before, became impossible. At least for me.

Let no one say that scientific education can be had without costs…

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