Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

When I was a child, there was a regular feature on the program Zoom called “Fannee Doolees”: Riddles about the titular character who liked some things, but didn’t like other very similar things, interspersed with the question “Why do you think that is?”. Listeners could send in their own suggestions, to show they’d figured out the pattern, like: Fannee Doolee likes sweets, but she doesn’t like candy. Fannee Doolee likes batteries, but she doesn’t like electricity. The trick was, FD likes only words that have a double letter in them. So naturally I thought of this when I saw this plot (pointed out by Kevin Drum) from a paper on political partisanship by political scientist Larry Bartels, showing the results of a survey that asked for a favourability rating on a zero-to-ten scale for various groups and institutions, separated between self-identified Republicans and Democrats.

Screenshot 2018-03-20 21.59.44

Looking at this it really jumped out at me that Republicans have widely divergent views of “college professors” and “scientists”. Scientists are well up in the positive zone, about equal with Jews, and Republicans themselves, whereas college professors are well down into negative territory, next to gays and environmentalists. They also like wealthy people, but they don’t like Wall Street Bankers. Fannee Doolee is definitely not a Republican.

Weirdly, Republicans say they like men and women both more than they like Republicans.

Landing the plane

One of the weirder stories to come up right after the 9/11 attacks was that the “20th hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui  — the Al Qaeda operative who was arrested by the FBI a month before the attack — raised the suspicions of the flight school teacher because he wasn’t interested in learning how to land the plane. In fact, this doesn’t seem to have been true, but the instructor said one of the things that aroused his suspicions was that Moussaoui was interested in how to turn off the oxygen and the transponder. They also thought it was odd that he was starting with learning to fly jumbo jets, which clearly could not part of any rational career strategy.

He also had a weird reason for wanting to learn to fly a jumbo jet, said Nelson — he told them that he merely wanted to be able to boast to his friends that he could fly a 747.

“He was telling us that it’s an ego thing,” Nelson said. “That’s a lot of money to spend to play.”

“I need to know if you can help me achieve my ‘goal,’ my dream,” Moussaoui wrote, listing five types of Boeing and Airbus jets. “To be able to pilot one of these Big Birds, even if I am not a real professional pilot.”

There’s an oddly similar story in The Guardian’s new report on Cambridge Analytica’s possibly even more consequential attack on the British and US elections, facilitated by Facebook. There was this pitch that the company made to the Russian oil conglomerate Lukoil in 2014:

A slide presentation prepared for the Lukoil pitch focuses first on election disruption strategies used by Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, in Nigeria. They are presented under the heading “Election: Inoculation”, a military term used in “psychological operations” and disinformation campaigns. Other SCL documents show that the material shared with Lukoil included posters and videos apparently aimed at alarming or demoralising voters, including warnings of violence and fraud.

Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who has come forward to talk to the Observer, said it was never entirely clear what the Russian firm hoped to get from the operation.

“Alexander Nix [Chief Executive of Cambridge Analytica]’s presentation didn’t make any sense to me,” said Wylie, who left Cambridge Analytica soon after the initial meetings. “If this was a commercial deal, why were they so interested in our political targeting?”

Lukoil did not respond to requests for comments.

I guess even oil conglomerates have dreams. And they can find clueless techies willing to make their dreams come true.

Screenshot 2018-03-14 12.58.16Screenshot 2018-03-14 12.57.40

People have been comparing Brexit to a messy divorce since before Brexit was Brexit, but I suspect we may be in the wrong movie. The Tory Eurosceptic claim is, effectively, that they were never really married. And that means that we need to draw our clichés from a whole different realm of romantic fiction.

Think of Bull Johnson, an emotionally immature man with a steady but not sensational income. He’s been involved with a woman (let’s call her Europa) who lives nearby, and they get along pretty well. But he has this dynamic and very successful friend, Merry, who he used to be close to, but who now has her own life on a distant continent. They still talk often, share secrets (ahem), and occasionally lean on each other in hard times. Merry thinks that Bull should finally commit to Europa and settle down. (Europa has some reservations as well, having had some unfortunate encounters with Bulls in the past, but thinks this relationship can work.) And he does, sort of. Then one day Bull calls up Merry and says, I’m thinking of leaving Europa. I hate feeling tied down. I want my old “buccaneering” life. What does that even mean? asks Merry. He can’t say, but he insists he misses his old life. Merry says to think about the good life he and Europa have built together. Bull agrees that he’ll give it some more thought, and have a talk with Europa about what he’s dissatisfied about.

Next scene, Bull is ringing the doorbell at Merry’s flat at 3 am. “I’ve done it. I’ve left Europa. I finally realised, you and I should be together.” And Merry says, “Uhhh…”

To be continued…

I’ve had a number of conversations with Europeans that made me realise that many Europeans actually believe in the British self-image, that they are by nature calm and pragmatic. I may be wrong, but I think Americans — in common with Canadians and Australians — tend to have a more clear-eyed view of Britain, a nation so much in the grip of their ideologies — even as they flit from one to the other — that they can’t even recognise them as ideologies. Since the Thatcher reign the obsession has been market liberalism.

If there’s one thing the British excel at, it’s marketing, and they have marketed their own image brilliantly. It’s only with Brexit that the scales are falling from the eyes of the Europeans. One foreign academic who I was talking with today on the picket line said, in her first years in the UK she was constantly stressed because British colleagues would never keep to any agreement. If you try to appeal to the fact that something was agreed, even that it’s written down in a contract, you’ll be told how petty and unreasonable you are being. “Reasonable” is a favourite power play, because only the in-group knows which of the vast number of rules a “reasonable” person has to follow.

Anyway, I just happened to be reading Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, written at a time when the British were marketing a different self-image, and came upon this passage:

“Mrs. Gould, are you aware to what point he has idealized the existence, the worth, the meaning of the San Tome mine? Are you aware of it?”

“What do you know?” she asked in a feeble voice.

“Nothing,” answered Decoud, firmly. “But, then, don’t you see, he’s an Englishman?”

“Well, what of that?” asked Mrs. Gould.

“Simply that he cannot act or exist without idealizing every simple feeling, desire, or achievement. He could not believe his own motives if he did not make them first a part of some fairy tale. The earth is not quite good enough for him, I fear.”

It reminds me obliquely of when I came upon the odd passage in Holinshed’s Chronicles, where he remarks with pride how easily Englishmen pick up other languages, contrasting it with the incapacity of foreigners to learn English:

This also is proper to vs Englishmen, that sith ours is a meane language, and neither too rough nor too smooth in vtterance, we may with much facilitie learne any other language, beside Hebrue, Gréeke & Latine, and speake it naturallie, as if we were home-borne in those countries; & yet on the other side it falleth out, I wot not by what other meanes, that few forren nations can rightlie pronounce ours, without some and that great note of imperfection, especiallie the French men, who also seldome write any thing that sauoreth of English trulie.

A president, shall we say, has decided to fire his secretary of state. He tells him, “You will be fired in the next week, but you won’t know until the day of the firing that you are going to be fired.” Then the extra twist: “And you can expect a tweet tomorrow, but you won’t know until you read the tweet what it is going to be about.”

When did Trump decide to fire Secretary of State Tillerson? According to reports

The Washington Post, which was first to report Tillerson’s ouster, reported that Trump asked Tillerson to resign last Friday, prompting Tillerson to cut short his trip in Africa. The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker later clarified that a White House official told Tillerson on Friday that his days were numbered. Bloomberg News reported that Kelly told Tillerson he would be fired without specifying when, however the Associated Press reported that Kelly only gave Tillerson a vague warning about an expected tweet from Trump.

I am reminded of one of my the Unexpected Hanging. In the classic presentation of Martin Gardner, this goes as follows: A man was sentenced on Saturday to be hanged.

“The hanging will take place at noon,” said the judge to the prisoner, “on one of the seven days of next week. But you will not know which day it is until you are so informed on the morning of the day of the hanging.”

The judge was known to be a man who always kept his word. The prisoner, accompanied by his lawyer, went back to his cell. As soon as the two men were alone the lawyer broke into a grin. “Don’t you see?” he exclaimed. “The judge’s sentence cannot possibly be carried out.”

“I don’t see,” said the prisoner.

“Let me explain. They obviously can’t hang you next Saturday. Saturday is the last day of the week. On Friday afternoon you would still be alive and you would know with absolute certainty that the hanging would be on Saturday. You would know this before  you were told on Saturday morning. That would violate the judge’s decree.”

“True,” said the prisoner.

“Saturday, then, is positively ruled out,” continued the lawyer. “This leaves Friday as the last day they can hang you. But they can’t hang you on Friday because by Thursday afternoon only two days would remain: Friday and Saturday. Since Saturday is not a possible day, the hanging Ould have to be on Friday. Your knowledge of that fact would violate the judge’s decree again. So Friday is out. This leaves Thursday as the last possible day. But Thursday is out because if you’re alive Wednesday afternoon, you’ll know that Thursday is to be the day.”

“I get it,” said the prisoner, who was beginning to feel much better. “In exactly the same way I can rule out Wednesday, Tuesday and Monday. That leaves only tomorrow. But they can’t hang me tomorrow because I know it today!”

The weird thing about Trump’s tweet, by the way, is that he writes

Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA.

He probably knows by now that these positions are subject to Senate confirmation, and the Senate is pretty evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. You’d think he’d want to acknowledge that he knows? Haspel, in particular, is going to open up a lot of questions that the CIA doesn’t really want to answer about her links to torture.

From the people who brought you alternative facts:

REPORTER: Mr. President, do you believe there should be a response from the United States?

MR. TRUMP: … As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.

We not only have to get the facts straight, we have to agree with them. Otherwise they’re not really facts. But then we’ll condemn Russia. Or whoever tried to assassinate a Russian double agent with chemical weapons. Probably someone sitting on their bed that weighs four hundred pounds.


So yesterday I was reading about the White House position on the nerve-agent poisoning  of Sergei Skripal et al.:

White House declines to back UK’s assertion that Russia is behind poisonings of ex-spies

Not what you would expect if you believed that the US would stand up for its number-one lapdog ally, but obviously someone in the White House is concerned about not upsetting the Kremlin. But then there was a report that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said

Russia is ‘clearly’ behind spy poisoning and ‘must face serious consequences’

This seemed like a significant disagreement. And I thought, either this reflects a change of position — perhaps with more information implicating the Russians — or Rex is freestyling. Presumably Tillerson is speaking for the state department professionals and the White House is speaking for… Well, let’s just say that Vlad would want to see some evidence that Donald hasn’t forgotten who he’s working for. I was expecting there to be some sort of demeaning tweet about Tillerson’s height or his body odour, or something.

And today we have this:

Rex Tillerson Out as Trump’s Secretary of State, Replaced by Mike Pompeo

Weird coincidence. Even if Tillerson’s ouster actually had been planned long in advance, it’s pretty obvious that a small delay would have prevented this appearance of truckling to the Kremlin’s interests. Which means that, whatever else may have motivated this step, that appearance was almost certainly desired.

From the Guardian,

Screenshot 2018-03-09 18.33.49

Copy-editing is dead.

The Guardian today knocks back the argument that UK vice chancellors are not overpaid — indeed, are grievously underpaid — when you take account of the extraordinary talents they must bring to the job, and compare them with the appropriate reference group of CEOs and American university presidents. They fill their remunerations committees with CEOs who will swear that no one worth their salt would get out of bed for less than half a million, and what can you do but pay what it costs to hire someone who can manage this huge and complex organisation and wheedle the high-class donors.Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.27.50 Read the rest of this entry »

Tag Cloud