Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

The president’s dilemma

In the classic prisoners’ dilemma, two members of a criminal gang have been caught by police. There is enough evidence to convict them of minor crimes, but without testimony from one of them they will receive only a light sentence, say one year in prison. If one of them agrees to cooperate with the investigation, prosecutors will let him out for time served, and be able to send the other to prison for ten years. But if they both cooperate with the investigation, both will go to prison for five years (perhaps because the prosecutors will have their information, but not their testimony). Key to the game is that the players are unable to coordinate their strategy. Clearly the best for both of them would be to keep quiet, but the strategy of cooperating with the investigation is superior, from their private perspective, regardless of what the other player does. So they both talk, and both get heavy sentences.

One weird thing about the story here is that the symmetry really doesn’t make sense. It’s not impossible, but it’s peculiar to imagine prosecutors being so interested in pinning the major crime on someone that they’re willing to let a confederate walk free, but indifferent to who flips on whom. That suggests we consider a less-known hierarchical version of this game, where one player is the powerful boss of a crime syndicate — let’s call him “The President” — and the other one is “The Attorney”, who knows all the details of his crimes, and is sufficiently involved to be criminally liable himself. Let’s call this game “The President’s Dilemma”. Read the rest of this entry »

Neanderthal science

I just listened to all of a two-hour discussion between journalist Ezra Klein and professional atheist Sam Harris, about Harris’s defense of the right-wing policy entrepreneur (as Matthew Yglesias has described him) Charles Murray, famous for his racist application of intelligence research to public policy, most famously in a notorious chapter of his book The Bell Curve. Klein pushes back effectively against Harris’s self-serving martyrdom — Harris, not unreasonably, identifies with the suffering of a wealthy and famous purveyor of quack science whose livelihood is ever-so-slightly harmed by public criticism* — but he doesn’t sufficiently engage, I think, with Harris’s contention that he is promoting the values of real science. Unfortunately, the “mainstream social science” that Harris and Murray are promoting exists only in secret messages from “reputable scientists in my inbox, who have totally taken my side in this, but who are too afraid to say so publicly”. Harris doesn’t allow for a second that there is any good-faith argument on the other side. Anyone who disagrees is merely trying to shut down scientific progress, or simply confusing scientific truth with do-gooding wishful thinking.

The truth of the matter is, Murray and other brave seekers of truth are doing the opposite of helping to clarify reality. They are wading into a swamp of confusion, and pulling out some especially stinky slime that they can hurl at disfavoured groups.

As much as Harris tries to promote Murray as a pure-hearted “content-of-our-character” anti-racist individualist, as long as “race” exists as a social factor affecting people’s self-image, the communities they belong to, and the way they are perceived by others, it remains a potent social force. When demographers argue that “race” isn’t “real”, they are saying that racial categories don’t separate natural clusters by genetic or physical traits. When Murray says, let’s stop talking about race, let’s talk about individual genetic endowments, he is saying that racial groupings have no causal effect on their own, but only label clusters whose difference arise from deep physical causes — wrong on both sides. Read the rest of this entry »

Suspicious precision

Kevin Drum notes some tweets from lawyer Susan Simpson. She was perusing (as one does) the public records of Trump campaign expenditures, and noticed something funny:

To me it looks almost too exact. Is Michael Cohen, in trying to cover up a $130,000 transfer, really incapable of seeing that $129,999.72 looks suspiciously close? Couldn’t he at least swallow, I don’t know, a $20 loss and make it $129,981.34?

There’s no knowledge like secret knowledge… Prominent in today’s news is Labour’s contention that

leaked Home Office documents suggesting government cuts are linked to the rise in violent crime, and demanded the home secretary explain herself to parliament.

It’s a bizarre accusation, not because it is implausible, but because it could not be otherwise, and the suggestion that this has been “revealed” by a secret report is part of implicitly accepting an inane pattern of government — and not just government — obfuscation that I am choosing to call the magical zero marginal. The way it works is, the government (let us say) feels an urge to reduce expenditures on (let us say) policing. It’s a problem, because the voters rather like police, by and large, and feel that they derive benefit. Not to worry, says the government press release (possibly produced by a dedicated key on the Whitehall keyboard), there will be no reduction in service. The costs will be made up with efficiency gains. The claim is that there is a significant portion of the current budget that is bringing zero marginal benefit, and whose elimination will therefore cause no harm. Perhaps this portion doesn’t exist as a budget line item now, but will after a “reorganisation” — but then the implicit claim is that the costs of the reorganisation as well will be covered by the savings. Read the rest of this entry »

Odysseus and the NRA

From Emily Wilson’s lovely new translation of The Odyssey:

I put [the weapons] safe away from all that smoke.
Some spirit also warned me if you drink
too much and argue, you could hurt each other,
dishonoring your banquet and your courtship.
Weapons themselves can tempt a man to fight.

This sounds like a classic gun-control position, refuting the classic “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” gun-rights line. Weapons themselves provoke violence. Gun control saves lives.

But! In context, the meaning is exactly the opposite. This is one of Odysseus’s deceits. He is preparing this line as an argument for removing the suitors’ weapons, to leave them defenceless when he chooses to attack them. The lesson: don’t listen to the sword-grabbers who claim that disarming will make you safer.

Odysseus for NRA president!

So, the UK has a prime minister who dog-whistles slightly modified Nazi tropes at a Conservative Party conference, its house organ accuses Jewish financiers of wrecking the great national project, but somehow the British Jewish soi-disant mainstream organisations are demonstrating in front of Parliament because six years ago the Opposition leader supported an artist’s anticapitalist mural, and everyone knows that predatory capitalists are all really Jewish.

And now it turns out that the real Jew haters are other Jews who have the temerity to mock those mainstream Jewish leaders.

I’m pretty sure the opposite of anti-Semitism is not “Political leaders should not associate with Jews who aren’t approved by the Board of Deputies”.

Part of an ongoing series.

From a report on recent Supreme Court oral arguments about partisan gerrymandering:

Breyer pointed out that all the tests “have slight variations on different themes”

The whole point of “variations on a theme” is to communicate that they are fundamentally the same, with some superficial differences. There is one theme, and all the distinct versions are slight “variations”, What does it mean to be “variations” if they are all on different themes?

For other entries in this series see here, here, and here.

Internal Brexit

The Conservative campaign in local elections in the outer London borough of Havering has been getting some attention for their focus on keeping the borough safe from insurgents pouring across the border — from London.

Andrew Rosindell, the “staunch Brexiter” Tory MP for the area, was quoted at a campaign event — attended by Boris Johnson, which is why the press is interested — saying

While Havering is an outer London borough, we don’t want the social problems which come with more migration from inner London. Havering has always been a low crime area with great community spirit.

If it’s about letting good solid British yeoman insurance agents get on with their lives without having to be bothered by the sight of foreigners, then exiting the EU is just the beginning of the Brexit project. The enemy is already inside the gates!

I’m wondering if perhaps we were missing the signal when Johnson suggested last month that the inner-Irish border after Brexit should end up looking like the border between London boroughs.

Two expressions with interesting histories have collided in recent years. I first heard the term “politically correct” in the fall of 1984, as a second-year student during the dining-hall workers strike at Yale. My one movement-left friend was talking to a comrade about suggestions for supporting the strikers by a certain lecturer. One of them asked “Is he politically correct?” and the other affirmed that he was. There was some smirking going on, and this friend had sufficient self-awareness that I was never sure of this was meant entirely seriously or more tongue-in-cheek. I next encountered the word in the late 1980s, when conservatives like John Silber, president of Boston University (and Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Massachusetts, in possibly the only election in which I voted for a Republican) picked up the term as a cudgel for attacking the Left on campus. Since Silber had attained prominence precisely as an opponent of free speech and academic freedom, there was little attempt at that time to pretend that anti-PC was a stance for freedom. In his campaign book Straight Shooting, Silber presented it instead as a struggle for absolute unchanging truth against fickle academic fashion. Weird, since the current anti-PC movement has fully embraced the extreme moral relativism that it used to ascribe to the Left.

As for snowflake, I think it’s important to remember that it didn’t start as a reference to the fragility of snowflakes, but to their beauty and uniqueness. Liberal writers on child-rearing referred to children as snowflakes in opposition to what they saw as an obsession with molding children into a predetermined image. Each snowflake is individual, and each one is beautiful in its own way. A lovely metaphor. Of course, there were immediately those who attacked what they saw as mollycoddling, rather than slapping some reality into the little brats, suggesting that these “precious snowflakes” were growing up to have an inflated sense of self. And at some point the self-esteeming precious snowflakes acquired the fragility of snowflakes. The self-described tough guys (and gals) of the right could dismiss complaints about their shredding of constitutional norms as the snivelling of “snowflakes”, implicitly unfit for the rough and tumble of real life by their neglectful upbringing.

Facebook and me

The current Facebook scandal — which is really just like every other Facebook scandal, only bigger and more consequential — has led me to think about my own interaction with Facebook. I was a researcher at UC Berkeley in 2004-5, at the time when Facebook was expanding from the Ivy League out to all universities. I had recently programmed my own personal home page, because that’s what you did then if you wanted to have a space online where you could distribute documents and photos, and generally make yourself available on the Internet. So I thought of Facebook as a template for making web pages. A colleague explained to me that it also had this facility for linking to other people’s accounts.

But fundamentally, a brief look at it really turned me off. Having spent most of my adult life in maths-stats-computing millieus, I’ve known lots of people like Zuckerberg. I never got along with them, and fortunately most of them grow up eventually. Facebook looked to me like an attempt by the Zuckerbergs of the world to get other people to map their lives into a fixed set of categories that would make us sufficiently orderly. It makes social life as much as possible like bookkeeping. So I never signed up. And since then I’ve never had the impression that there were lacunae in my real-world interactions corresponding to Facebook communication.

Of course, this has to do with the fact that I am at least a decade older than the original Facebook target generation. (To judge by my daughters and their friends, Facebook is also far from indispensable for current teens. But Facebook has bought out other platforms, like Instagram, to maintain its hold.) I remember very clearly the first time when I first recognised the overwhelming power of the Facebook phenomenon for Zuckerberg’s generation: In spring 2007 I was sitting in a cafe near the University of Toronto. At a nearby table were half a dozen students whose conversation I couldn’t help but overhear in snippets, and over an hour or so it seemed that everything they had to say was mediated through Facebook: Who had changed their relationship status indicator, and why, and particular decisions to friend or unfriend various individuals. I found it slightly disturbing.

Of course, that was before I knew about the particular egregiously misogynist origin of Facebook. And Mark Zuckerberg’s political ambitions, which frighten me beyond all measure. He is an anti-privacy fanatic, and there is no reason to expect that he would respect citizens’ autonomy, even in principle, any more than he respects Facebook customers. His pattern has always been, push and push and push until a scandal blows up, then reverse the last offensive change and keep on pushing. People are up in arms over Cambridge Analytica’s improper use of Facebook data for the Brexit and Trump campaigns. But if Mark Zuckerberg runs for president I don’t think there is anything to prevent Facebook from donating all of its data to his campaign. Or from using the site to manipulate the information that people see to favour the Zuckerberg campaign. Or their propensity to vote. Or their feelings.

People say, “Just delete your Facebook account.” I don’t have an account, but it doesn’t help me if everyone else is manipulable and half the political leaders are blackmailable through their Facebook data.

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