Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for May, 2013

Bake sales of the rich and famous

Via Rachel Larimore is this NY Post article about the struggle by headmasters of exclusive NY private schools to get wealthy parents to perform menial duties in person. Instead, many are sending nannies to

fund-raisers, designing sets for school plays and taking seats at graduations and public performances.

“Now the schools are getting angry — and other parents are getting angry. They don’t want to work the school bake sale with someone’s paid employee,” Uhry said.

Now, it certainly makes sense that the parents should be present in person to see the performances, and designing sets is at least a reasonable parent-child joint activity, though, as Larimore points out, it’s not clear why the schools aren’t hiring professionals to help children with these tasks. This seems to reflect, more than anything the schools’ lack of respect for crafts as educational activity: Presumably they don’t expect the parents to come in the afternoon to grade the math homework.

But bake sales? Why are schools with $40,000 a year tuition holding bake sales? What is the economic rationale for parents to pay a nanny $15 an hour (just guessing…) to sell cookies at 3 for $1 to raise money for the school? Surely the fundraising purpose would be better served by eliminating the middleman.

I appreciate that working together on a fundraising activity may be a bonding experience for parents (or children), but then again, it may not. Presumably for most non-impoverished parents — and that describes, I’m guessing, pretty much all parents at the schools in question here — the hours that the bake sale costs would be more valuable than the pittance that the activity brings in. If the parents wanted to devote that time to the school, there are probably more constructive contributions they could make.

Unless, that is, the bake sales of these schools are more lavish (and lucrative) than I can imagine…

Computer culture and gun culture, ctd.

Since I’ve been interested in the history and political significance of cryptography (I discussed the connection between computers and the 2nd amendment here) I read the book This Machine Kills Secrets by journalist Andy Greenberg, a fascinating, if somewhat brief and barely technical history of underground cryptography in the internet age. Among other things I learned there is that, whereas I had thought of gun culture and computer culture as analogous but non-intersecting, in fact there was considerable overlap:

One adjunct group, called the Cypherpunks Shooting Club, even organized trips to rifle ranges to teach each other to shoot .22s and semiautomatic weapons, the final resort should the government ever come after their electronic and physical freedoms. (Tim May, an avid gun enthusiast himself, didn’t attend. “I Don’t give free lessons, especially not to clueless software people,” he says.)

Jim Bell, a cypherpunk insider, proposed in the mid-1990s “Assassination Politics”, basically a scheme for combining strong cryptography with a sort of stock market for murder contracts. The goal was anarchy:

If only one person in a thousand was willing to pay $1 to see some government slimeball dead, that would be, in effect, a $250,000 bounty on his head[…] Chances are good that nobody above the level of county commissioner would even risk staying in office.

Just how would this change politics in America? It would take far less time to answer, “What would remain the same?” No longer would we be electing people who will turn around and tax us to death, regulate us to death, or for that matter send hired thugs to kill us when we oppose their wishes.

This all sounds like the sorts of rant you hear these days from the extreme gun nuts. So maybe the analogy is not that far-fetched.

And, come to think of it, now that concrete schemes are afoot to turn weapons manufacture into a software problem with 3d printing, even the technical differences between guns and codes are dissipating.

New frontiers in cost-benefit analysis

Headline in the online edition of the Toronto Star

Finding the ‘sweet spot’ on transit taxes: where benefit and cost match up.

I’m no expert on the subject, but I think that when the costs and benefits “match up”, you’ve gone too far…

More seriously, the article is based on weird analysis like this:

“It’s unfair to tax people for parking their cars when there is no real alternative (to driving),” he said.

That sounds superficially fair, but does it correspond to any principle that is more generally followed? How about: It’s unfair to tax people (i.e., charge them) for riding a bus when there is no real alternative. Or, it’s unfair to tax people for getting a passport when there is no real alternative. Why is it that services provided by the government ought to be free by default? Conversely, if “fairness” (defined as not charging people for necessities) is an important principle for the public sector, then why not for the private sector?

The right to bear codes

Back when I was a graduate student, in the late 1980s and early 90s, there was a lot of discussion, among those interested in cryptography and computing (which I was, only peripherally) of the status of cryptographic algorithms as “weapons”, subject to export controls. The idea seemed bizarre to those of us who thought of algorithms as things you prove theorems about, and computer code as something you write. It seemed as absurd as declaring a book to be a weapon. Sure, you might metaphorically call Das Kapital  a weapon, or the Declaration of Independence, but it’s not really a weapon, and a country was much more likely to think about banning imports than banning exports. The author of PGP was then being threatened with prosecution, and had the code published as a book to mate the analogy more explicit.

So, I used to defend free access to cryptography because I thought it was ridiculous to consider codes to be weapons. I now think that was naïve. But if codes are weapons, does that provide a justification for a right of free access (in the US)? Maybe it’s not freedom of speech or the press — 1st amendment — but if cryptography is a weapon, is the use and manufacture of cryptographic algorithms and software protected in the US by the 2nd amendment? Certainly the main arguments made for a right to firearms — sport, self-defence, and bulwark against tyranny — are all applicable to cryptography as well. Are there current US laws or government practices that restrict the people’s free access to cryptography that would be called into question if cryptography were “arms” in the sense of the 2nd amendment?

This is connected to the question I have wondered about occasionally: Why didn’t strong cryptography happen? That is, back then I (and many others) assumed that essentially unbreakable cryptography would become easy and default, causing trouble for snoops and law enforcement. But in fact, most of our data and communications are pretty insecure still. Is this because of legal constraints, or general disinterest, or something else? The software is available, but it’s sufficiently inconvenient that most people don’t use it. And while it wouldn’t actually be difficult to encode all my email (say) with PGP, I’d feel awkward asking people to do it, since no one else is doing it.

It seems as though the philosophy of the Clipper chip has prevailed: Some people really need some sort of cryptography for legitimate purposes. If you make a barely adequate tool for the purpose conveniently available, you’ll prevent people from making the small extra effort to obtain really strong cryptography.

(more…)

How much do BART police earn?

I have great affection for BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit, to the uninitiated), and I have no criticism to make of the BART police. That said, I was somewhat astonished a few months ago when I saw an advertisement for BART police recruits much like the one below, except that it quoted numbers well over $100,000 for the salary range. I think they deserve to be well paid. They have a difficult and dangerous job, and they spend so much of their lives down in gloomy subway tunnels that (to judge by the evidence of the photo below) they are left blinking in stunned amazement when they are summoned up into the light of day to be photographed, and all but one seem to have had their growth stunted.

Obviously I wasn’t the only one who was surprised. They have now put up exactly the same poster, but with numbers barely half as big, and now supplemented with the word base in bold-face type modifying “annual base, entry-level pay range”. Boldfaced type really stands out in this context. Particularly with the comma after it. That line looks like the typographic incarnation of embarrassment.

BART police (cropped)

Benjamin Franklin’s advice on vaccination

I’ve never seen Franklin brought into the discussion of parents’ refusal to vaccinate their children. This passage from his autobiography made a deep impression on me:

In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the small-pox, taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.

More comments on Andrew Wakefield and the MMR-autism hoax here.

I once was at a parents’ meeting in Oxford where a homeopath had been invited to speak. I was genuinely nonplussed that she was raving against vaccines. Aren’t vaccines the one great success of the homeopathic world-view? Giving a tiny dose of the disease-causing agent to cure (or prevent) the disease. Her answer was incomprehensible to me, but seemed to suggest that the very fact that there was a measurable physiologic effect showed that they weren’t any good (from a homeopathic perspective). And the fact that pharmaceutical firms made the vaccines was all you needed to know about their chthonic nature.

I fled the meeting in revulsion when the homeopath started prating about homeopathic cures for tetanus.

Hospital advertisements

How to choose your emergency room

How to choose your emergency room

So, you’ve just been hit by a bus, and you’re lying bleeding in the gutter. Naturally, what you’re thinking about is, what would be the most convenient place to get a couple of pints of blood, and maybe have a ruptured spleen removed. Sure, the ambulance drivers might know the closest one, but I’m going to insist on being taken to the best, and what better recommendation could there be, when your life is at stake, than a placard on the side of a bus. (Anyway, the EMTs probably have a remunerative arrangement with some other hospital that will pad their incomes, regardless of whether you survive the trip.) And while I’m paying thousands of dollars a day just for being in the bed, I can think about how my money is being put to good use subsidising mass transit.

Seriously, isn’t this beyond bad taste? I’m used to a medical system that advertises to, you know, inform the public about medical matters. Not to drum up business for the ER.

(more…)

Impact à la canadienne

I’ve mocked the sometimes risible implications of the British obsession with tying academic research one-for-one with “impact” on industry or society. It’s not absurd to want to ask the question, I would argue, but expecting to be able to get answers about impact on the fine grain that is needed for steering funding decisions leads, I suggest, is a fool’s errand. There is also a (not very) hidden political agenda behind impact: Research that elucidates the origin of the Himalayas or the inner workings of modern religious movements, let us say, has no impact unless the BBC makes a documentary about it. Research that helps one bank increase its market share over another bank by better confusing its customers is rewarded for its impact, because definable (and potentially grateful) people have made money from it.

Nonetheless, the British establishment is not so crass as to suppose that helping to make money is the only possible utility of research. The UK research councils are at pains to point to the multiple “pathways to impact”, through changing public understanding, government policy, health benefits, education. For some purposes, even something as useless as influencing the progress of science can be counted as impact, though it fail to swell the bank account of even the smallest party donor.

To see the full unfolding of impact’s crassness potential, we need to look to Canada. John MacDougal, director of Canada’s National Research Council (NRC), announced his agency’s new focus on impact by saying,

Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.

No hedging there about social impact, contributing to public understanding, government policy, etc. Science minister Gary Goodyear  said that

We want business-driven, industry-relevant research and development.

This is not quite as outrageous as astronomer Phil Plait makes it seem, when he contends that “the Canadian government and the NRC have literally sold out science”. And he goes on to say that NRC “will only perform research that has ‘social or economic gain’.” An article quotes Goodyear saying

the government isn’t abandoning basic science, just shifting its focus to commercializing discoveries. “The day is past when a researcher could hit a home run simply by publishing a paper on some new discovery,” he said. “The home run is when somebody utilizes the knowledge that was discovered for social or economic gain.”

(more…)

Exile in the modern world: Can a country deport its own citizens?

One of my favourite novels is B. Traven’s Das Totenschiff (“The Ship of the Dead”). Written in the mid-1920s, this novel tells the story of an American seaman who accidentally gets left behind with no papers when his ship sails from Rotterdam. Suddenly he is a stateless person. He tries to get help from the US consulate, but gets a Catch 22-like sermon, along the lines of, “I would of course help an American citizen who was stranded here without papers, but I am unable to assist you without proof that you are indeed an American citizen.” All the officials he encounters treat him as some sort of ghost, a man without identity papers being a contradiction in terms. (This reminds me of Bertrand Russell’s comments on the imposition of passport requirements for international travel after the First World War, a tyranny that until then had been thought characteristic of Russian despotism.) Since no one wants to deal with a ghost, they find ways to dump him across a border, taking him further and further west, until he lands in Barcelona and ends up being signed on, not entirely willingly, to the Yorick, a ramshackle ship, a floating hell of labour, crewed by other unpersons from all over the world, its hold stuffed with useless cargo that is just being carried around the Seven Seas in the hopes that it will eventually sink and yield an insurance payment.

Anyway, I thought of this surreal novel when I read the recent New Yorker article by William Finnegan, about a US citizen with a minor criminal record and mental disabilities who, for no reason that anyone can reconstruct, was targeted by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) for deportation to Mexico. He was born in the US, had never been outside the US, was not Hispanic, but somehow when he was booked into a state prison for a short sentence his birthplace was listed as Mexico, and that was enough to get him deported to Mexico less than a year later. And the Mexican authorities, since he wasn’t Mexican, managed to ship him off to Guatemala. He eventually got returned to the US, though more by accident than design. When he flew into Atlanta, with a passport issued to him by a vice consul in Guatemala City, the immigration officials there noted that he had already been deported and had him arrested, intending to redeport him.

(more…)

Why don’t we throw people out of emergency rooms?

In discussions of market forces in health care, someone always points out that we don’t allow people to just die in the streets. Anyone who shows up in an emergency room must be treated (in the US this has been true since the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act of 1986, I believe). Among the many other reasons why medical care does not respond to free market incentives, then, is the fact that the providers are not able to turn away customers who are unwilling or unable to pay.

But here’s what I’m wondering: This is always presented as an issue of basic humanity, or altruism. We can’t let the poor die of treatable injuries or illnesses because that seems too brutal. But is that the whole story, or even most of the story? My suspicion — and I’d have to go back to the debates on EMTALA to develop any clarity on this — is that the real reason we have a no-exceptions requirement that hospitals provide urgent care to the poor is that there’s a significant danger that the non-poor might be confused with the poor, particularly in times of medical emergency. Someone who has been hit by a car or has suffered a stroke and is disoriented is likely incapable of quickly identifying herself as an upstanding creditworthy citizen with health insurance. So the hospital is required to try to keep them alive long enough to allow them (or their relatives) to demonstrate that they are worth saving.

Which leads to a question: Supposing biometric databases become universal, and the hospitals are able to immediately ID anyone who comes through the door. Will we then relax the rules, and allow them to turn away the indigent, perhaps sending them off to some primitive alternative hospital for the poor?

Tag Cloud