Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for July, 2013

Politics and Plagiarism in Germany

There’s a new plagiarism scandal in the German Bundestag! [link in German]

“A nation reveals the nature of its political culture in its choice of scandals.” That’s not a maxim, but it ought to be. I first thought of it in 1992, when the German economics minister and vice-chancellor Jürgen Mölleman was forced to resign because of what was called the “Letterhead affair”: He had used departmental stationary to write in support of a relative’s business marketing to wholesalers a plastic chip that shoppers could keep in their wallets and use instead of a 1-mark coin as the deposit on a shopping trolley. “A clever idea!” he enthused. (“Eine pfiffige Idee.”) At the time I thought it reflected well on German politics, that they could hatch a scandal of such unrelieved banality; I compared it with Italy, where at the same time politicians in the pay of organised crime barely rated a mention in the national news unless underaged prostitutes were involved.

In the past couple of years the German government has been repeatedly roiled by plagiarism scandals. What? I hear you cry. How can a politician commit plagiarism? (Barack Obama refusing to admit that his first book was ghostwritten by Mumia Abu Jamal isn’t plagiarism.) Okay, there was Joseph Biden cribbing his stump speech from Neil Kinnock, but plagiarism is one of those crimes that only certain people can commit — like adultery, or violating the secrecy of the confessional — and those people are writers and academics. Politicians aren’t paid for original turns of phrase. (more…)

What we talk about when we talk about what we talk about

It seems that everyone’s favourite hip formula for a title is “What we talk about when we talk about X”. It certainly caught my attention that there were two books by prominent fiction writers with titles of this form, Haruki Marukami’s memoir What I Talk about when I Talk About Running, and Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. I take these to be derived from Raymond Carver’s celebrated story What we Talk about When We Talk about Love, though I can’t be sure the phrase didn’t exist in some form before.

But it’s definitely taken on a life of its own. I was inspired to write this post by an article in The Atlantic titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Privacy. A recent book on the future of books included a chapter titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Metadata (which is somewhat ironic, because what we talk about has changed radically in the past few months, as metadata have gone from being a niche concern of bibliographers to a main topic in the discussion of domestic espionage). A quick Google Book search turns up books from the last few years: What We Talk About When We Talk About GodThe Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop, as well as WWTAWWTA  VisionEmotionError, Revolution, and Ralph Sampson.

So, why the swelling concern with talking about what we talk about when we talk about things? Obviously, it’s a great phrase, conveying both intense focus and ironic detachment. It promises to lift the lid on the “real story”, to get behind all the “talk”, while still sounding itself kind of chatty. To move to talking about what we talk about, you must have already mastered all the things people talk about on the relevant topic. (more…)

In America everyone lives like royalty

Twice as well, actually, at least when giving birth. According to this article, the hyperluxury private hospital wing where the DoC gave birth to our new royal master, may have cost as much as £10,000, or $15,000. The average American woman gets twice as good a birth experience, worth $30,000 according to the bill, which must be a pretty goddamned awesome hospital suite. And then, because this is such an amazingly great country, she gets the price discounted so that only $18,000 has to be paid, on average. What a deal! It’s no wonder that Americans refuse to be reduced to the kinds of primitive, parsimonious conditions that even the future queen is subjected to in England.

Kate’s lucky she got out of there before they set the leeches on her.

Genetics and Democracy in the United Kingdom

What is the attraction of monarchy? According to the BBC headline “Kate Middleton in labour as world waits”. Really? The world? What exactly are they holding off on? Doesn’t the world have important things to do? (On the other hand, I’ve just discovered that The Guardian now has an alternative “republican” versions of its web site, with a report on rock star Morrissey in place of the princess’s labour pains. Just click to toggle.)

In honour of the newly announced maturation of the royal zygote into an air-breathing royal neonate — and its generous decision to head off a constitutional crisis by choosing to make do with only half its potential complement of X chromosomes — who is already predestined to rule over Britain, even while he is likely to be occupied less with affairs of state in the near future than with spitting up curdled royal milk from HRH the DoC’s royal mammary glands, I am reposting my proposal from two years ago, occasioned by the royal wedding. The proposal has been unaccountably ignored, despite its prospects for improving the democratic legitimacy of the monarchy. I can only infer that the neglect is due to a basic discomfort among the British elite with the innovations of modern science (unlike the innovations in, say, tax accounting, of which they tend to be avidly fond).

crowned_egg

With the impending union of male and female royalty breeders, there has been increasing tendency to cite Thomas Paine’s evergreen mockery:

The idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges or hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet-laureate.

(Paine never got to see the number of statistician children filling posts in some of today’s leading statistics departments, but the point is, in principle, well taken.) Seen as the monarchical version of an election — the keystone of the procedure by which a legitimate head of state is created — a Royal wedding certainly feels a trifle arbitrary. But this opposition to monarchy, though it wears the finery of modernity, has failed to keep up with advancing technology. True, it might formerly have been the case that the hereditary principle made the choice of head of state no different from a lottery (for which, see this suggestion). It seems impossible to unite the hereditary principle with the increasingly popular superstition that rulers should be selected by some non-random process, and that hoi polloi should have something to say about it. But now the following arrangements have been announced by the Palace (a particularly sodden corner of the palace wine cellar, to be precise)*:

  1. Following the wedding, a selection of at least 5 royal spermatozoa** will be extracted and fully sequenced by a specially selected team at the Royal Institution for Genetics Pedigree Studies. The secret method (which, in a nod to popular taste, does use beer as a reagent) has been designed to be maximally non-destructive.
  2. The sequences will published on the website princesperm.gov.uk. The public will have 5 days to register and vote for the one that they prefer be invited to form their new ruler.
  3. The elected sperm will be invited in the first instance to inseminate the royal egg. Should it fail in its attempt, the second-place sperm will be sent in. In the case of a repeat failure, a national referendum will be held to determine the correct voting procedure.

* It may be argued that this election proposal, being purely fictional and even farcical, has no bearing on the justification or not of the British monarchy. A dangerous argument indeed, for those who would dispense with fiction and farce would leave central pillars of the British constitutional order bereft of all foundation.

** Why are the future queen’s eggs not also sequenced? Choice of the ovum is a royal prerogative, cf.  Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, v. 5, section 113 (Oxford 1765-1769).

purim_royal_wedding

Moral panic panic: How much ridicule are the lives of 4500 children a year worth?

As though it need to defend its title as the world’s leading provider of smug, The New Republic has published a piece by NY Times religion reporter Mark Oppenheimer (MO hereafter) about how irrational everyone is. This disturbs him, because when he was growing up, when all was right with the world, “It was taken for granted in my house… that only right-wingers were mad enough to oppose scientifically tested public-health measures.” He describes what he calls “The New Puritanism”, starting from opposition to water fluoridation in Portland (which doesn’t look like an archetypically puritanical cause to the untrained eye), and moving on to Kids Today:

At a birthday party for a three-year-old, I was hit with the realization that most of the parents around me were in the grip of moral panic, the kind of fear of contamination dramatized so well in The Crucible. One mother was trying to keep her daughter from eating a cupcake, because of all the sugar in cupcakes. Another was trying to limit her son to one juice box, because of all the sugar in juice. A father was panicking because there was no place, in this outdoor barn-like space at some nature center or farm or wildlife preserve, where his daughter could wash her hands before eating. And while I did not hear any parent fretting about the organic status of the veggie dip, I became certain there were such whispers all around me.

Now, this could be dismissed as a dreary attempt to channel PJ O’Rourke, or some comparable swaggering humourist, with a cookie-cutter tall tale, but it’s stuffed with all kinds of weird. He hallucinates “whispers all around” about the organic status of the veggie dip, and yet he insists it is the others whose mental stability is in doubt. With that in mind, one might suspect that the father was not “panicking”, but was simply asking where his daughter could wash her hands before eating, which was certainly the custom when I was a child, though perhaps not in Oppenheimer’s antediluvian childhood.

He cites The Crucible, presumably both as a touchstone of left-wing right-thinking and as a marker of his own cultural sophistication, but has clearly never read or seen it. While “witchcraft” are often taken as a metonym for fear of moral contamination, Miller’s play dramatizes political manipulation of mob psychology.

But putting aside MO’s paranoid-pretentious MO, I am fascinated by his comments

When I was a child, birthday parties involved cake, ice cream, and Chuck E. Cheese pizza, or pizza-like substance; and trips to the grandparents’ house involved root-beer floats and late-night viewings of Benny Hill with my grandfather, who liked the T&A humor. I never washed my hands before I ate. And I turned out splendidly.

So, we started with fluoridation of water, which is a “scientifically tested public-health measure” that only a crazy person could oppose, but washing hands before eating — at a “barn-like space” where, presumably, it is not absurd to suppose the children may have been exposed to animal feces — is the kind of over-the-top fear of moral contamination (not just bacterial contamination) that invites mockery.

Now, MO’s aforementioned paranoid delusions may cause one to question his splendid self-appraisal, but he is certainly not alone in trumpeting the formulation “When I was a child we all did X, and we all turned out alright,” where X is some dangerous or unedifying activity that educated middle-class parents today try to limit or eliminate. An extreme version is this text that got forwarded to me a few years back:

To Those of Us Born 1930 – 1979

First, we survived being born to mothers who smoked and/or drank while they were pregnant. They took aspirin, ate blue cheese dressing, tuna from a can and didn’t get tested for diabetes. Then after that trauma, we were put to sleep on our tummies in baby cribs covered with bright colored lead-base paints. We had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, locks on doors or cabinets and when we rode our bikes, we had baseball caps not helmets on our heads. As infants & children, we would ride in cars with no car seats, no booster seats, no seat belts, no air bags, bald tires and sometimes no brakes. Riding in the back of a pick- up truck on a warm day was always a special treat. We drank water from the garden hose and not from a bottle. We shared one soft drink with four friends, from one bottle and no one actually died from this. We ate cupcakes made with Lard, white bread, real butter and bacon. We drank FLAV-OR- AID made with real white sugar…. We fell out of trees, got cut, broke bones and teeth and there were no lawsuits from these accidents. We would get spankings with wooden spoons, switches, ping pong paddles, or just a bare hand and no one would call child services to report abuse…

You might want to share this with others who have had the luck to grow up as kids, before the lawyers and the government regulated so much of our lives for our own good. While you are at it, forward it to your kids so they will know how brave and lucky their parents were. Kind of makes you want to run through the house with scissors, doesn’t it?

The implication is that the kids are all softies and the parents are anxious killjoys. I heard a stand-up comedian a few years back complaining about bicycle helmets: “When I was a kid we all fell off our bikes. We didn’t fall on our heads. If we did, no one died. Have kids’ heads gotten softer?”

Except, of course, that it’s not true that no one died. This is a good example of how people deal with small risks: Some are treated as zero, others are exaggerated. And part of the phenomenon (though I’ve never seen anyone analyse this process in detail) is that people fixate on whatever the current largest risks are, and often succeed in pushing them down. At that point, a new danger pops up that was always there, but masked by a larger risk, and so psychologically zeroed out. Thus, when I was growing up, in the 1970s, public health officials weren’t very concerned with children’s head injuries from bicycle accidents because there were far more of them from automobile accidents in the absence of seat belts, not to mention all the poisonings from medications without child-resistant packaging. If the risk of dying

To put some numbers on it: In the US, in 1998, about 6500 children under the age of 15 died in accidents. In 1981 (the earliest year whose statistics I have easily available at the moment) the number was 9000. In that time, the population under 15 increased from 49 to 60 million. In other words, if the society had held onto its habits of eschewing bicycle helmets, leaving the medications out, riding in the back of a pickup truck and all the rest, we’d have more than 4500 extra dead children a year. How awesome would that be?

That’s not to say that all concerns about health and nutrition and environment are reasonable — or that, even if they are reasonable, that the actions one would take to prevent or mitigate harm would not impose considerable costs, even such that they might be judged to outweigh the benefits. But instead of mockery and “I turned out alright” populism, we need to be clear on what the benefits are: 4500 fewer children being buried every year. And that’s ignoring the costs of nonlethal sickness and injury, the extra miscarriages and stillbirths, and the long-term damage to lungs and other organs that we now know were caused by all those smoking and drinking parents.

Update: The comedian I was thinking of was a woman, but here’s another comedian making fun of bicycle helmets for emasculating our children; in this version, he’s not asking why heads got softer, but why the pavement is harder. Same joke.

Extradition for thee but not for me

CIA agent Robert Lady, convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to 7 1/2 to 9 years in prison in Italy, has been arrested in Panama under an international arrest warrant. For some reason, though, the Panamanians have not held him, but have allowed him to board a plane bound for the US.

He probably think he has cleverly eluded justice. The joke is on him, though, because as we all know, the US is now a passionate advocate of international cooperation in arresting international fugitives, and of the rigorous enforcement of extradition treaties. So we can be sure that Mr Bob (as the Italian press has apparently taken to calling him) will be on his way back to Italy in handcuffs soon. Unless… But it can’t be that kidnapping (and abetting torture) is seen as a less weighty crime than publishing embarrassing political secrets. Can it?

Privacy rights in Germany

Unlike the US, Germany has a constitutional court that doesn’t kowtow as soon as the government yells “National Security”. Whereas the US Supreme Court has chosen to rewrite Catch 22 as a legal judgement, saying effectively that no one has standing to challenge secret government surveillance programs, because they are secret, hence no one can prove (using information the government will allow to appear in open court) that they have been affected.

Deutschlandfunk’s science programme Forschung Aktuell has been reporting this week on problems of information technology, security, and privacy, and today I learned (transcript in German)

In 2001 the police chief of Baden-Württemberg Erwin Hetger demanded a programme of advance data storage, by which all connection data of web surfers in Germany would be stored for six months.

“I think we cannot allow the Internet to become effectively a law-free zone. Hence my clear and unambiguous recommendation: Whoever moves about on the Internet must be willing to accept that his connection data are stored for a fixed period of time.”

The Bundestag did, in fact, pass such a law in 2007. But in 2010 the Constitutional Court annulled the law.

While such advance data storage is not necessarily impossible under the German constitution, the constitutional requirements for such an action would be very strict, and were not satisfied by the law that was passed.

The president of the Constitutional Court Hans-Jürgen Papier specifically emphasised that if such data were to be stored, it would have to be done in a more secure way than the law had required.

The comparison of this process — where the basic parameters of privacy rights and government snooping are set by the normal democratic process of legislatures passing laws that are then reviewed in publicly accessible court decisions — just makes clear how supine the US courts and Congress have been, as has been the UK parliament.
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Avastin didn’t fail the clinical trial. The clinical trial failed Avastin.

Writing in the NY Times, management professor Clifton Leaf quotes (apparently with approval) comments that ought to win the GlaxoSmithKline Prize for Self-Serving Distortions by a Pharmaceutical Company. Referring to the prominent recent failure of Genentech’s cancer drug Avastin to prolong the lives of patients with glioblastoma multiforme, Leaf writes

Doctors had no more clarity after the trial about how to treat brain cancer patients than they had before. Some patients did do better on the drug, and indeed, doctors and patients insist that some who take Avastin significantly beat the average. But the trial was unable to discover these “responders” along the way, much less examine what might have accounted for the difference. (Dr. Gilbert is working to figure that out now.)

Indeed, even after some 400 completed clinical trials in various cancers, it’s not clear why Avastin works (or doesn’t work) in any single patient. “Despite looking at hundreds of potential predictive biomarkers, we do not currently have a way to predict who is most likely to respond to Avastin and who is not,” says a spokesperson for Genentech, a division of the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche, which makes the drug.

This is, in technical terms, a load of crap, and it’s exactly the sort of crap that double-blind randomised clinical trials are supposed to rescue us from. People are generally prone to see patterns in random outcomes; physicians are probably worse than the average person, because their training and their culture biases them toward action over inaction.

It’s bizarre, the breezy self-confidence with which Leaf (and the Genentech spokesman) can point to a trial where the treatment group did worse than the placebo group — median survival of 15.7 months vs. 16.1 months — and conclude that the drug is helping some people, we just can’t tell which they are. If there are “responders”, who do better with Avastin than they would have otherwise, then there must also be a subgroup of patients who were harmed by the treatment. (If the “responders” are a very small subset, or the benefits are very small, they could just be lost in the statistical noise, but of course that’s true for any test. You can only say the average effect is likely in a certain range, not that it is definitely zero.)

It’s not impossible that there are some measurable criteria that would isolate a subgroup of patients who would benefit from Avastin, and separate them from another subgroup that would be harmed by it. But I don’t think there is anything but wishful thinking driving insistence that there must be something there, just because doctors have the impression that some patients are being helped. The history of medicine is littered with treatments that physicians were absolutely sure were effective, because they’d seen them work, but that were demonstrated to be useless (or worse) when tested with an appropriate study design. (See portacaval shunt.)

The system of clinical trials that we have is predicated on the presumption that most treatments we try just won’t work, so we want strong positive evidence that they do. This is all the more true when cognitive biases and financial self interest are pushing people to see benefits that are simply not there.

Blackmailing Uncle Sam

Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist responsible for the NSA disclosures, may be going a bit too far into spy noir territory. In a recent interview he announced that

Snowden has enough information to cause harm to the U.S. government in a single minute than any other person has ever had. The U.S. government should be on its knees every day begging that nothing happen to Snowden, because if something does happen to him, all the information will be revealed and it could be its worst nightmare.

I am not making moral judgements. I find this rhetoric understandable, though clearly, whatever Snowden’s motives — and no one in politics has unmixed motives, nor should they be expected to have — by placing this dangerous information in the hands of persons unknown with some kind of dead-man’s trigger, he’s clearly increased the likelihood of it being released accidentally, which is quite a responsibility to take upon oneself.

But I’m thinking about Greenwald’s position. So far, despite the wish of some grandstanding congressmen to criminalise his role, Greenwald has clearly been a journalist. The Obama administration seems eager to draw some kind of line between “real journalists” and everyone else to prevent his administration’s witchhunting from completely gutting press freedom, so they might have played along. But they seem eager to prosecute national security leaks to the extent that they can find a bright line separating a given case from the bulk of journalism. Greenwald has given it to them, and I would be surprised if there were not a secret grand jury preparing charges against him for attempting to pervert the course of justice, or whatever the US federal term is for that.

However he meant it, Greenwald’s announcement sounds an awful lot like the language of blackmail, and that’s surely plenty of a hook for them to hang him on. This moves him from being a reporter to being a participant or, as I’m sure they’ll phrase it in the indictment, a co-conspirator. Blackmailing the feds is a pretty heavy game to play.

[Update 7/15: Greenwald has commented on his remarks, and it definitely looks as though Reuters has gone out of its way to frame a defence of Snowden’s motivations — he has held on to a lot of information that could be of great value to enemies of the US which he has not divulged, though he could reap significant rewards for it — in the theatrical argot of a mobster’s shakedown. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s not hard to imagine creative prosecutors twisting this story into a noose for an uncomfortable journalist; and that Snowden is playing a very dangerous game — just to make one obvious point, not everyone who might be in a position to harm him is opposed to his info bomb being detonated. Beginning with his current hosts…)
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Flyin’ kites in the rain: Reflections on American fairy tales

What’s the connection between Ben Franklin and Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly’s character in the 1952 film musical Singin’ in the Rain), aside from being the Americans most famous for felicitous activities during a rainstorm? I was watching the film recently, and was struck by the opening scene, which I had forgotten, where the hero, movie star Don Lockwood, narrates his biography, and we see Lockwood’s intimation of a sophisticated, upper-class upbringing — “[Mum and dad] sent me to the finest schools, including dancing school. . .   We rounded out our apprenticeship at an exclusive dramatics academy… We played the finest symphonic halls in the country.” — humorously intercut with images on the screen of low-class reality — tap-dancing in a pool hall and fiddling in burlesque theatres, piano in honky tonks and whorehouses, being slapped by parents, etc.

It occurred to me that in one paradigm old-world fairy tale, a seemingly riffraff protagonist is revealed to be a person of consequence when his hitherto concealed high birth is recognised. In the American transformation, a seemingly foppish aristocrat is revealed to be a person of consequence when his hitherto concealed low birth and plucky struggle to the top are revealed. And as in so much else, this feature of American character and culture was first limned by Benjamin Franklin, in his famous “Information to those who would remove to America“:

According to these opinions of the Americans, one of them would think himself more obliged to a genealogist, who could prove for him that his ancestors and relations for ten generations had been ploughmen, smiths, carpenters, turners, weavers, tanners, or even shoemakers, and consequently that they were useful members of society; than if he could only prove that they were gentlemen, doing nothing of value, but living idly on the labor of others.

An even more pithy statement of a similar world view, that I have seen attributed to Franklin though without being able to find the reference (so that I suspect the source is in fact someone else):

I care not who my ancestors were. I care who my descendants will be.

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