Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

People often raise their children with ideals that they don’t really hold themselves, either because they on some level think they would be better people if they shared these ideals and hope their children will be better (tolerance, patience), or because they think these ideals are particularly appropriate to this stage of life (sharing, studiousness, Santa Claus). But I’ve been realising that some of what I learned as I child — at home, at school, and from the general culture

I genuinely found it weird that Barack Obama was attacked for harboring a secret “anti-colonialist” agenda (inherited from his father’s experience fighting the British for Kenyan independence. If I’d had to say what the core historical experience was that Americans harked back to, that defined our national identity, that we could agree upon, it was the history as colonials fighting for independence. The people opposing Obama dressed up in colonial-era costumes, harked back to the Boston Tea Party, striking a blow against the imperial power. Read the rest of this entry »

  1. Bicycles and pedestrians are stationary objects. You need to pass them, especially when turning directly ahead of them.
  2. Electric turn signals are a major energy drain! Signals should be activated only after you are well into the turn.
  3. Opening the driver-side door should be done in one fluid motion, as rapidly as possible. Don’t look back!
  4. When trapped by traffic you are exposed to attack from the sides and behind. Protect yourself and your fellow drivers by advancing your vehicle to block the pedestrian crossings, which are points of major vulnerability.
  5. “Cycle lane” is just a newfangled word for “free parking”.* Double yellow lines are there to remind you; where no cycle lane is available parking on the pavement is recommended.
  6. Killing pedestrians is wrong if you’ve been drinking. Otherwise, you’re the victim. (Don’t forget, insurance will pay for the damage. Be bold!)

* There is some uncertainty about the origin of this odd expression. Most experts believe that it has its origin in the Italian sulla collina — “on the hill” — referring to the practice, brought back by 17th century travellers, of establishing resting spots for travellers on hills in the countryside. From there it evolved into the modern usage, meaning “a strip of land set aside for parking vehicles”.

So, the “Golden Gate killer” has been caught, after forty years. Good news, to be sure, and it’s exciting to hear of the police using modern data systems creatively:

Investigators used DNA from crime scenes that had been stored all these years and plugged the genetic profile of the suspected assailant into an online genealogy database. One such service, GEDmatch, said in a statement on Friday that law enforcement officials had used its database to crack the case. Officers found distant relatives of Mr. DeAngelo’s and, despite his years of eluding the authorities, traced their DNA to his front door.

And yet… This is just another example of how all traditional notions of privacy are crumbling in the face of the twin assaults from information technology and networks. We see this in the way Facebook generates shadow profiles with information provided by your friends and acquaintances, even if you’ve never had a Facebook account. It doesn’t matter how cautious you are about protecting your own data: As long as you are connected to other people, quite a lot can be inferred about you from your network connections, or assembled from bits that you share with people to whom you are connected.

Nowhere is this more true than with genetic data. When DNA identification started being used by police, civil-liberties and privacy activists in many countries forced stringent restrictions on whose DNA could be collected, and under what circumstances it could be kept and catalogued. But now, effectively, everyone’s genome is public. It was noticed a few years back that it was possible to identify (or de-anonymize) participants in the Personal Genome Project, by drawing on patterns of information in their phenotypes. Here’s a more recent discussion of the issue. But those people had knowingly allowed their genotypes to be recorded and made publicly available. In the Golden Gate Killer case we see that random samples of genetic material can be attributed to individuals purely based on their biological links to other people who volunteered to be genotyped.

The next step will be, presumably, “shadow genetic profiles”: A company like GEDmatch — or the FBI — could generate imputed genetic profiles for anyone in the population, based solely on knowledge of their relationships to other people in their database, whether voluntarily (for the private company) or compulsorily (FBI).

The magen David, the “shield of David”, also known as the six-pointed Jewish star, is probably the best designation for the cringing role that the UK Jewish establishment has taken in recent weeks. Despite having a Tory prime minister who  recycles Nazi rhetoric to attack Brexit opponents, and a Conservative press that has recently been spreading antisemitic conspiracy theories about George Soros, and despite clear evidence that antisemitic attitudes in the UK are concentrated primarily on the right, the British Jewish establishment decided they absolutely needed to organise a march on parliament to address the burning issue of a six-year-old Jeremy Corbyn tweet about a political mural depicting greedy capitalists playing games on the backs of the poor. (Sometimes a greedy ruthless is just a ruthless capitalist…)

I warned the president of our synagogue at the time — when the synagogue sent out an official email advertising the demonstration — that it looked to me like the Jewish community was being manipulated by people who do not have our best interests at heart. And sure enough, we now have the government’s chief propaganda officer (officially environment minister) Michael Gove arguing that the government really didn’t do anything so terrible in hounding and deporting elderly Black people, because the real scandal is Jeremy Corbyn’s six-year-old tweet. The Jews and their concerns have become a political shield for the government, and a weapon against other minority groups who have suffered real and extraordinary injury at the hands of that government.

Antisemitism is a real issue in this country, but it is not ever and always the most salient form of racism. Allowing it to become identified with one political party, and used as a weapon to attack the interests of other minority groups, is not going to serve the long-term interests of British Jews, or British democracy.

Screenshot 2018-05-01 09.41.18


Willfully misleading

A Home Office spokesman says

It is wilfully misleading to conflate the situation experienced by people from the Windrush generation with measures in place to tackle illegal immigration and protect the UK taxpayer.

Not just misleading, but willfully. There’s no possible way anyone could honestly see a connection between a policy of “hostile environment” (their words) for undocumented immigrants — effectively deputising the health service and every landlord to act as amateur immigration sleuths — and the mistreatment of members of a minority ethnic group whose immigration status has been kept deliberately ambiguous.

One of the celebrated cases reported in The Guardian was that of a man whose radiotherapy for prostate cancer was cancelled because he couldn’t prove his legal residency, despite having lived in the UK for 45 years. It’s hard to imagine that his skin colour and accent played no role in the hospital’s decision to question his status. It reminded me of a question I’ve considered several times: How can a native-born British citizen prove his or her right to be here? Everyone born since birthright citizenship was eliminated has been subject to jus sanguinis, with citizenship conditional on their bloodline. If you’re 30 years old and your landlord is asking you to prove your right to reside in the country, what do you do? Call your parents and ask for their birth certificates? If your parents are John and Mary Smith, how do you prove that they’re your parents? We’re gradually coming to a generation that will need to prove their grandparents were citizens. Registration of citizens and ID cards would resolve the problem, but the Tories got rid of those, suggesting they would infringe on personal liberty. As I commented before, the Conservatives have a stereotype of Nazis demanding people’s “papers”, and decided that the evil was not that disfavoured individuals were punished for not having correct papers, the offense was to provide them with papers in the first place.

One of the oddest trends of the latter half of the odd 1970s in the US was the transformation of law-and-order conservatives like Charles Colson and even G. Gordon Liddy into prison-reform advocates, after they had spent some time themselves in federal prison for their role in the Watergate scandal. The President’s son in law isn’t waiting. Congress is considering a package of reform measures to improve federal prison training programmes, and increase the possibilities for early release for good behaviour. Reports are that Kushner has taken time out of his busy schedule making peace in the Middle East and solving the opioid crisis to lobby for the bill. JK is, of course, famously well behaved. What good is advocating prison reform if it comes too late for you to take advantage of it?

The trans-Atlantic romcom goes into its next season. We recall the highlight of last season, when Theresa and Donald were sharing a personal moment in their “special relationship”.


At the start of the new season, Melania confirms that she really would rather hold almost anything than Donald’s hand:

Theresa was dancing around Number 10, like, “I can have him all to myself.” But then this French dude came into the picture.


They look so happy together. Macron is even boasting about their “very special relationship”. And Theresa is saying, but Donald, I thought our relationship was the special one. I left Europa for you…

So Leave.EU is still active, and apparently last year they were soliciting a graphic to ridicule journalist Carole Cadwalladr:

As a mathematical scientist it strikes me as significant that she is considered to be discredited by association with three images: Flat Earth, Illuminati (though it looks to me like the Masonic eye from the US dollar bill), and what looks like a cheat sheet for an introductory electromagnetism course. Down in the corner we see that she’s been learning the right-hand rule for multiplying vectors. Right above it she has the formula for calculating power, which seems problematic.

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 »

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