Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for August, 2013

Information, which terrorists could use

If there are any terrorists reading this blog, I have to make a formal demand that you not read this post. Really. Terrorists must stop reading here. (You know who you are.)

According to an article in The Guardian

Following a ruling by Lord Justice Laws and Mr Justice Kenneth Parker, the police will now investigate whether possession of the seized material constitutes a crime under the Terrorism Act 2000, which prohibits possessing information that might be useful to terrorists and specifically “eliciting, publishing or communicating” information about members of the armed forces, intelligence agencies and police which terrorists could use.

That’s quite a broad mandate, and I think many people should be worried.

For instance, I happen to be in possession of information suggesting that the UK intelligence agencies and police and armed forces are led by incompetent politicians who have lost control of their own parties and are losing the support of the public, and who could themselves wind up in prison if the laws were fairly applied. It is easy to see how this information could be of use to terrorists if they knew. And now I have gone and published the information on this blog. (They may already know, but that is no defence under the law, so far as I can tell.)

If it comes to trial, I plan to argue that I couldn’t possibly have anticipated that terrorists would violate the terms of service of this blog by reading past the first line.

Certibus paribus

I was just reading a theoretical biology paper that included the phrase “certibus paribus”. (I won’t say which paper, because I’m not aiming to embarrass the authors.)

Now, I like unusual words, particularly if they’re Latin. Ceteris paribus is sufficiently close to common usage in some branches of science, including mathematics, or was into living memory, that I could imagine using it in print. Maybe I even have. But it’s sufficiently rare that I can’t imagine using it without looking up both the spelling and the meaning. So, while I can see how mistaken word usage can slip into ones everyday language, and then spill out into print, I can’t quite picture how an error like this happens.

This is how democracy works

If you know anything about the difference between the US and the UK constitutions, you probably know that a parliamentary system, as in the UK, is more dynamic and effective: No separation of powers to hamstring the government. The Prime Minister stands on a parliamentary majority, and parliament answers to no one, so he (or sometimes she — that’s another difference), so the PM gets to make decisions and have them carried out.

That’s how it works for legislation, more or less, but not, apparently, in matters of war and peace. Parliament is now actually debating the decision to attack Syria. Labour has submitted an amendment to the government motion, requiring that military action proceed through an orderly process, including a vote by the UN security council. And it appears that there are enough disaffected coalition MPs to make it likely that it would succeed. This forced the government to back down yesterday on holding an immediate vote on a measure authorising the use of force. Now, they are debating a non-binding resolution of support.

I don’t know where I stand on the merits of this, but I’m fascinated by the process, and grateful for Ed Miliband — not someone I had previously thought of as a courageous leader — for being willing to ask some difficult questions. Presidents and prime ministers have a natural bias toward moralising with bombs. It makes them look strong and decisive, and like they’re accomplishing something important. Democracies need other forces that can ask difficult questions, and restrain the march to war.

I wonder if the the US Constitution could be amended to give the Congress a role in declarations of war? Nah, it’d never pass. Too utopian.

But this does spare the Obama administration from the frustration that leads to this sort of invective:

[A government] source was claimed to have said: “No 10 and the Foreign Office think Miliband is a f****** c*** and a copper-bottomed s***. The French hate him now and he’s got no chance of building an alliance with the US Democratic Party.”

I’m not sure what the “copper-bottomed” part means, but it sure sounds colourful.

Renters are horrible, evil people, says the NY Times

In many parts of the US the financial crisis has led to more houses being rented rather than bought by the people who want to live in them, according to an article in today’s NY Times, titled “As Renters Move In and Neighborhoods Change, Homeowners Grumble”.

Now, this might seem like a good thing, given how many families and overextended themselves financially to invest in real estate. But if you think that, you are forgetting renters are a bunch of thieves and drug dealers and all around no-goodniks. Why are they occupying single-family homes among nice Americans? Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

The Times reporter Shaila Dawan visited a neighbourhood of Memphis, TN called Hillshire.

On a recent evening, parents pushed strollers and lawn mowers droned, children played on a tire swing and in one driveway, a longtime resident and his grandson tinkered with the fat tire of a slick red drag racer.

But there was a seedy underside. Jimmy Fumich, a homeowner and air-conditioner repairman, said he had been in court that day as a witness in an animal cruelty case against a neighbor, a renter, who had left a dog chained to a stop sign in the heat. She was already in trouble, he said, for breaking into an empty house on the block. Mr. Fumich… mentioned a couple of meth houses and one that had been used as a brothel. All were rentals.

A renter mistreated an animal. Others ran a brothel (in a rented house). Or did they just have too many visitors? Mr. Fumich complains further that the renters don’t join the neighbourhood watch.

It almost seems irrelevant when the article adds, parenthetically, that “Police department records show that major crime in the area, which does not include drug offenses, has actually gone down.”

But it’s not just the homeowners who hate the renters. The renters hate themselves:

In a small cul-de-sac near Hillshire… Rusby Amador cooked dinner for her three sons while waiting for her husband, a tile layer, to get home. One son was hosing off the walkway of their rented home. Two prodigious Boston ferns hung in the entry, and at the curb a colorful ceramic urn sat atop the mailbox.

“When the people buy a house, the people’s more nice,” Ms. Amador said. “Renters, they don’t care about neighbors. We don’t know who’s going to move in. We worry all the time because we don’t know. I have children.”

So, neighbours are good, but new neighbours are instruments of the devil. Unless you know who is going to move in which, in my experience, is not usual.

What is a disease?

Gilbert’s Syndrome is a genetic condition, marked by raised blood levels of unconjugated bilirubin, caused by less active forms of the gene for conjugating bilirubin.

There are disagreements about whether this should be called a disease. Most experts say it is not a disease, because it has no significant adverse consequences. The elevated bilirubin can lead to mild jaundice, and some people with GS may have difficulty breaking down acetaminophen and some other drugs, and so be at greater risk of drug toxicity. They also have elevated risk for gallstones. GS may be linked to fatigue, difficulty in concentration, and abdominal pain. On the other hand, a large longitudinal study found that the 11% of the population possessing one of these Gilbert’s variants had its risk of cardiovascular disease reduced by 2/3.

WHAT? 2/3 lower risk of the greatest cause of mortality in western societies? That’s the “syndrome”?

Maybe we should rewrite that: anti-Gilbert Syndrome is a genetic ailment, marked by lowered blood levels of unconjugated bilirubin, caused by overly active forms of the gene for conjugating bilirubin. This leads to a tripled risk of cardiovascular disease. On the other hand, the 89% of the population suffering from AGS has lower risk of gallstones, and tends to have lowered risk of acetaminophen poisoning. They may have lowered incidence of fatigue and abdominal pain.

The gambler’s cross

2013-08-28 15.55.13The 13th century University Church of St. Mary is an important Oxford landmark. It was the first building of the university, and stands as an imposing symbol of traditional Anglicanism on the High Street. And now, apparently, it is funded by the proceeds of gambling.

I’ve long been fascinated by the gradual moral detoxification of gambling, something that I discussed at some length in my review of The Quants. Christians have vacillated between viewing gambling as a heinous sin and as a good way to fund their churches. Not unlike their earlier views of loans at interest and capitalism more generally.

It’s particularly striking to see a church displaying the symbol of the cross in the sacrilegious form of the gambler’s crossed fingers. I wonder how Christians react to the symbol. It seems like a gestural swear word, as though a priest began his sermon with “God almighty, it sure is hot this week. What are we doing in church, for Christ’s sake?”

The cost of anti-terror

By way of Brendan James at The Dish comes this report by Ben Richmond on the disruption of vaccination efforts in rural Pakistan caused by the CIA smuggling a spy into Osama bin Laden’s refuge disguised as a health worker distributing hepatitis B vaccines. I won’t question the justice of killing bin Laden, nor will I call it useless because bin Laden may have been, by that point, barely even a figurehead of al Qaeda. I appreciate the value of propaganda by force in the important struggle against violent Islamists.

But when we reckon the costs against the benefits of killing terrorists, let us consider the 22 vaccination workers killed and 14 injured in retaliation attacks, or the many thousands who will be killed or maimed by polio, now that the realistic hope of soon eradicating that horrible disease has been set back, perhaps for a very long time. One wonders iƒ the cost to public health had any place in President Obama’s decision-making in approving this particular CIA operation. Is there anyone who speaks up for non-American interests? Is there any number of  lives of the poor bystanders for whose sake a US president would judge it worth giving up a symbolic victory in the struggle to save American (and wealthy western more generally) lives? Other than because of threats of diplomatic or military retaliation against Americans.

I’d be genuinely interested if any political theorist has thought through how this calculus works.

Jane and Edith and Hunter and Bill

Jane Austen and Edith Wharton and Hunter Thompson and William Burroughs. I presume I am the first person to put those four names on the same page, but it is not in the interest of priority that I mention them.

Rather, I happen to have just read The Age of Innocence right after Pride and Prejudice, and was reminded obliquely of my experience, many years ago, reading Naked Lunch right after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. My thought then was, Hunter Thompson, for all his skill as an entertainer, is just a little boy playing at decadence. Burroughs, for good or ill — and he seems pretty ill — is serious. And it caused me to feel retrospectively revolted at Thompson for playing with horrors, instead of feeling revolted at Burroughs, who describes the perversity of the flesh in a  style that feels more real — hence more disturbing — than any realist chronicle could be. Surreal in the original sense: higher than reality, more intense.

And it is the same with Austen and Wharton. I am not insensible to the charms of Austen’s prose, and I finished P & P with great satisfaction, but next to Wharton, her fellow in the comedy-of-manners genre, she seems terribly unserious. Her characters have motives and passions, but they all seem so superficial. Obviously we can’t blame Austen for not anticipating the psychological revolution in fiction that Wharton was heir to, and her elegantly polished prose has many pleasures that Wharton’s prickly — and sometimes overly analytical — sentences can’t match. But her characters are all such simpletons — particularly the men. There is an occasional mention of the virtue of someone being generous to his servants, but no one has any real project beyond redesigning her garden, and ambition is scoffed at. It all feels so confined and dreary.

Maybe a mathematician has trouble appreciating Pride and Prejudice because it’s too much like our work. It’s like a chess game, or someone working through all the combinatorics of possible relationships with a certain set of people, given some arbitrary but fixed social rules. A friend of mine  likes to compare Jane Austen’s novels to the publications of the RAND corporation.

On a peripheral note, I discovered recently that there is a whole world of Jane Austen reënactors, who meet at the Jane Austen Society of North America to dress up in regency gowns and do… stuff. (Deborah Yaffe has written a whole book on the cult.) It seems pretty bizarre to me. There are authors whose fictional worlds I would less like to inhabit — the aforementioned William Burroughs is one; George Orwell comes to mind — but not many. I’ll have to read Yaffe’s book for insights. I suppose there are all those Civil War reënactors who play at having their legs sawn off in a field hospital, so who can say what motivates people? (more…)

LOVEINT

John Quiggin points us to this Washington Post report: By analogy with the classic military terms SIGINT (signals intelligence) and HUMINT (human intelligence), there is now the NSA-internal abbreviation LOVEINT:

The LOVEINT violations involved overseas communications, officials said, such as spying on a partner or spouse. In each instance, the employee was punished either with an administrative action or termination.

NSA released a statement saying that  “NSA has zero tolerance for willful violations of the agency’s authorities” and responds “as appropriate.” I contend that if you respond “as appropriate”, you don’t understand the concept of “zero tolerance”. “Administrative action or termination” doesn’t sound like Edward Snowden’s experience of NSA’s zero tolerance — depending on what they mean by “termination”.

But it gets better.

NSA Chief Compliance Officer John DeLong emphasized in a conference call with reporters last week that those errors were unintentional. He did say that there have been “a couple” of willful violations in the past decade. He said he didn’t have the exact figures at the moment.

So, he’s the Chief Compliance Officer of our super math spies, but he can’t keep track of numbers bigger than two.

But it gets better. “Most of the incidents, officials said, were self-reported.” Is this supposed to reassure us about the fundamental honesty of NSA employees? Here we have a secret government agency, accused of abusing its power. We are told that there have been only “a couple” of abuses, all of which were revealed by the perpetrators themselves. Might a more robust investigation — you know, maybe not third-party investigation, but at least second-party?

At least we know Snowden wasn’t the only one being granted too much trust.

Police break the law: The law must be stopped!

Former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair — now titled Lord Blair as reward for his 2010 resignation and his tireless efforts to expand the scope of police anti-terror activity — has given an interview in which he advocates criminalising any release of information that the state wishes to keep secret. He bemoans the fact that

Most of the legislation about state secrets is in the Official Secrets Act and it only concerns an official.

Now, before you wonder how far he might go in criminalising the discussion of public policy, rest assured, Blair is only interested in promoting discussion:

I think there is going to have to be a look at what happens when somebody possesses material which is secret without having authority.

That doesn’t sound so bad. They’re just going to “have a look”, and see “what happens”.

You might think, as soon as someone without “authority” possesses the material, that it is no longer a secret, but that would be only if you don’t have Lord Blair’s experience of making words mean what you intend them to mean.

If only we’d had these laws back in 2005, poor Charles de Menezes might still be a terrorist today!

Tag Cloud