Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for September, 2013

Civil wars in US and British memory

I commented a while back on the NSA and GCHQ naming their most secret programs of spying on their fellow citizens after battles of their civil wars (American and English respectively). I didn’t remark at the time, but this clearly shows the dominance of the NSA, since it is striking how little memory there is of the English Civil War, in comparison to the omnipresent shadow cast by the American Civil War over US politics. It’s hard to imagine a British nerd making a playful reference to battles of the English Civil War, except in an attempt to anglicise a prior US nerd reference to the American Civil War.

A minor example of the latter is the comment by a Republican congressman, enthusiastic that his party was steering the country toward a government shutdown, and responding to a skeptical question about the (Democratic controlled) Senate’s response by saying

Ulysses S. Grant said, ‘Quit worrying about what Bobby Lee’s doing and let’s focus on what we are doing,’ ” Culberson added. “We are focusing on what we need to do and not worrying about what the other guy is going to do. . . . That’s how Ulysses S. Grant won the war.

It is a telling statement about the current state of US politics that one party is portraying the other as their opponents in a civil war. (And, in return, they are being compared to terrorists and hostage-takers.)

I see this as an improvement over Republicans invoking the spirit of the Confederacy. Oddly, Representative Culberson is from Texas. Even more oddly, he preceded this invocation of Civil War strategy by saying “We’re 100 percent united!” I guess that’s the effect of civil war, to make the residue seem more unified.

Some questions about US debt default

Some things that genuinely confuse me about the looming (again) threat that the US will default on its debts:

1) Why is it the Democrats’ problem? Why is it President Obama’s problem? Who is taking whom hostage? A debt default doesn’t particularly affect Democratic constituencies. I’d expect that Republican business interests would be more directly concerned. Why can’t President Obama threaten to veto a bill raising the debt ceiling unless the Republicans agree to attach an infrastructure stimulus bill and raise the minimum wage? Is it just that the president has the direct responsibility for coping with the financial shitstorm that would follow breeching the debt ceiling?

2) Why doesn’t the looming government shutdown obviate the default threat? I see political commentators making arguments that a government shutdown will purge some of the Republican bile, and so make a debt default less likely. And Matt Yglesias points out that some people seem to think (erroneously) that not raising the debt ceiling will save the government money. But a government shutdown clearly does save a lot of money. So, as long as that’s going on, presumably government outlays will not exceed its income. Maybe it’s a technical problem, preventing debt from being rolled over at all. [Update below]

3) Why is it such a big deal? I don’t mean, why is it a big deal? I mean, why is it such a big deal. The standard belief, as summarised here, is that the US breaching its debt ceiling will have long-term repercussions for financial markets, only the least important of which would be permanently raising the cost of US government borrowing. I have commented earlier about the peculiar faith the bankers have that past defaults are uniquely significant for predicting future defaults. Surely if I’m thinking of lending money to the US Treasury, the fact that two hundred Republican firebrands blatantly take no responsibility for US debt repayments and think that playing chicken with debt repayments is a great way to score ideological points should make me uneasy. The fact that they have already pushed it over the brink would marginally increase my unease, but the total effect would depend on how that exercise came out. Did they get a good warm feeling out of it, or was the outcome shocking and unpleasant, so that they would be very unlikely to choose this tactic again in the near future. If the latter, then I’d be more inclined to focus on the fundamental solvency of the US government, which is obviously very good.

Obviously, I’m not a banker, but I wonder if they’re being rational, in at least the house-of-mirrors sort of “the value of a bond is what people think people think people think people think … people think it’s worth” way. Of course, once you’ve iterated ad infinitum pretty much any answer can come out.

[Update 30-9-2013: By way of Andrew Sullivan comes a link to this explanation (from Zeke Miller at Time): (more…)

Wrangling the 8-ton UNIVAC

I was reading Ariel Levy’s New Yorker profile of Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the recent Supreme Court case challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (and, by extension, of bans on same-sex marriage). I was struck by this passage:

She applied for a job as a research assistant, programming an eight-ton UNIVAC computer for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

Why “eight-ton”? She wasn’t carrying the UNIVAC around with her. If she’d been a maintenance engineer at the Empire State Building I doubt Levy would would have bothered to mention the weight of the building. If the story had happened today I doubt she would have said “she applied for a job programming Google’s 8-ton server cluster.” The complexity of programming the UNIVAC — if that is what is supposed to be brought out — would be brought out by mentioning the number of switches and vacuum tubes, for example, something that is only indirectly related to its weighing 8 tons.

Maybe it’s just a bit of meaningless historical colour, but I couldn’t help thinking that this fit in with the general tone of the article, which portrays Windsor as the classic type of the crusty old lesbian. (She is quoted complaining about the women she danced with at gay bars in the 1950s: “Lesbians can’t lead.”) The image of her doing data entry at a modern computer workstation would have seemed too dainty. There might be a huge server farm and the whole Internet at the other end of your Ethernet cable, but that doesn’t change the fact that sitting at a keyboard and typing still seems prissily similar to the stereotypical 1950s secretarial pool. Wrangling an 8-ton electronic behemoth, on the other hand, that’s work for a kick-ass lesbian.

This provokes me to wonder about whether there are two fundamentally different modes of stereotypes excluding girls by from male-dominated fields: Type 1, perhaps best typified by philosophy, but earlier by medicine (before women took over), and perhaps by computing, girls and young women are warned off — and women in the field may be undermined — by a supposition that women couldn’t be very good at this. But if they do it, it doesn’t call their identity as women into question. In other professions — the military and professional sports most prominently, but perhaps also engineering, construction, plumbing, finance, etc. — there might be even more dissuasion by the dual message, not only are you probably not going to be very good at it because of your lack of masculine endowments, but if you are good at it, it will prove that you’re not really a woman.

Just speculating here, because I’m too lazy to read the research by people who think for real about these things.

Is “open for business” fit for purpose?

One peculiarity of British political culture that I find most striking, coming to it from the outside, is the occasional coining of technocratically flavoured verbal taunts, and the incessant efforts to shoehorn as many of the old chestnuts as possible into whatever attack is currently being made.

Witness the reaction of energy companies to Ed Miliband’s proposal to freeze energy prices for 20 months (which, on the merits, sounds like a pretty awful idea, managing to be offensive both to oil tycoons and environmentalists):

The companies have reacted with fury to his plans, saying he is risking power blackouts and sending a message that Britain is not open for business.

(More quotes used the same slogan to attack proposals to fund the reduction in business energy rates by raising corporate income tax.) The phrase gets associated with Margaret Thatcher, though it’s been used intensively both by the current government, and by Tony Blair, who has been well paid to travel around the world attesting to other countries being “open for business”: Palestine, Sierra Leone, Thailand.

Problems with the subjunctive [for German grammar enthusiasts]

I’ve noticed that web publishing has generally degraded proofreading standards. Still, it’s shocking to see Der Spiegel, a bastion of the German language, making two errors in conjugating the subjunctive in a report on the negotiations over the new governing coalition in Germany:

Was wäre ihre Alternative? Eine Koalition mit den Acht-Prozent-Grünen, bei der die Zahl der Ministerposten für die Union zwar größer, die inhaltlichen Kompromisse aber weitgehender ausfielen würden? Die Union wurde sich in einer solchen Konstellation Unsicherheit mit einkaufen.

I’m genuinely appalled. But no more than I am by the SPD maneuvering itself into this position by continuing to boycott Die Linke. They’re like those proverbial Japanese soldiers still hidden away on an island thinking the war is still going on. Except the SPD is the last one still fighting the Cold War. Or the war for the purity of the socialist cause.

Bill and Phil

Having published my comment on William S. Burroughs and his place in the grand tradition of English perversity, I should point my readers to this brilliant précis of the Burroughs corpus by Belle Waring at Crooked Timber:

I think pretty much all the Important Male Novelists of the mid to late 20th-century are such sexist dillweeds that it is actually impossible to enjoy the books. For me. Except William S. Burroughs, and that is because he does not want to sex chicks up. Not even a little bit. He wants us to be able to make clones, and then just go live on another planet with only men and boys and million-year-old crab creatures made of radioactive cadmium and then have gay sex there. It is astringently refreshing to have a novelist not care about having sex with you at all. It’s the best! Goodbye, poorly drawn female characters who exist as trophies for when the protagonists level up after a boss battle with Freudian analysis!

But I should complement this dismissal of the IMNs with this interesting feminist (or, at least, womanist) defence of Philip Roth.


Public relations advice for GCHQ (from Wolf Biermann)

If you don’t speak German you probably have never heard of Wolf Biermann, who many people (I am one of them) would consider to be the greatest, or at least one of the greatest, political songwriters of the 20th century. Unfortunately, text-heavy songwriting doesn’t cross borders well, so he is almost unknown outside the German-speaking world. But he is an extraordinary poet and musician, and I’m not sure who could compare to his blend of wit, righteous anger and political sophistication.

At the moment, I’m particularly thinking of his 1974 Stasi Ballade, a sarcastic paean to the internal security service (Staatssicherheit, or Stasi) that had kept him constantly under surveillance since the early 1960s, when his communist idealism had been pegged as politically deviant. I’ve included the whole German text below (certainly a copyright sin, but perhaps a venial one). A crude translation of parts of it give a sense of Biermann’s text:

I feel myself somehow entwined
with the poignant Stasi swine
who watch my house, who come and go
in pouring rain and sleet and snow.
Who installed a microphone
to listen in on all my moaning,
songs and jokes and mild bitching
on the toilet, in the kitchen:
Brothers from Security —
You alone know all my grief!


Words that would have disappeared
are stored by you on eight-inch reels,
and I know how, now and then,
you sing my songs at night in bed!
For years I’ve been depending on
the Stasi as my Eckermann.

When I come home late at night
from the pub tired, maybe tight,
And some crude peasants were to lurk
in the darkness by my door,
and they attacked most vulgarly
to do, I don’t know what, to me –
But that’s impossible today.
The comrades in their battle grey
from the Stasi would — I’d bet you! —
Prohibit an assault or battery

Because the papers in the West
Would try to blame the crime — I’d bet you! —
on the Communists …
The Stasi is — I must regard it
as my loyal bodyguard!

Or we could reflect a while
upon my foolish carnal freestyle –
My habit, such a source of strife,
that always discomposed my wife –
This monstrous, mad, and reckless tempt-lure
pulling me toward new adventure.
Since I know how Argus-eyed
the comrades watch, I haven’t tried
to pick my cherries anymore
from the trees on other shores.

I know I’d risk that such events
would be recorded, and soon be sent
to my wife with clear intent –
Such a huge embarrassment!
And so I skip these sideways swerves
so save my strength, my time, my nerves –
And there’s no question that this spark
I save redounds to fire my work!
I say, in short: the Security
Secures my immortality!

So, let’s summarise: Biermann thanks the Stasi surveillance for three services:

  1. Recording his words. Assuring that they will never be forgotten, and that someone is paying attention. Of course, it’s not clear how much attention GCHQ is allowed to pay, according to current law, but they could do a lot more to win over the hearts and minds of the public on the other score. Imagine GCHQ Backup. Never lose another file. If you have a disagreement about what was said in a telephone conversation, just use the webform to contact GCHQ’s round-the-clock service representatives, who will be happy to provide you with the recording. Maybe they’ll even get people to agree to leave their webcams on at all times, in return for cataloguing and backing up their non-telephonic conversations.
  2. Protection from crime. They’ve emphasised this so far. I’m not sure that there is more to be gotten plausibly, at current funding levels.
  3. Preserving morals. This one is delicate, but may have the greatest potential for development. Of course, it’s implicit in the argument that people make, that those who have not committed crimes have nothing to fear from surveillance. We know that the NSA has already been experimenting with the use of electronic surveillance to control sexual deviance. They could offer a service that automatically mails to your partner the content of any conversations that include certain keywords. The application is not limited to sexual morals, of course. Employers could be alerted when their employees discuss company secrets (or theft of company property). Or maybe you’re a Muslim youth who is worried that you might be tempted into islamist terrorism. The problem is, some people don’t want to be prevented from having affairs, or consorting with islamists, or whatnot. This part still needs work.


Ambiguous Yids: The problem with speech bans

David Cameron has gotten himself onto the front page of the commuter newspaper Metro by commenting on the bizarre controversy over the use of the word “Yids” in English football.

Tottenham fans often chant the word, referring to themselves as “Yiddos” or “the Yid Army”. Some say it is a defensive gesture, to deflect abuse from opposition fans.
But the FA, backed by Jewish leaders, say it has no place in football and want it stopped.

The prime minister’s solomonic opinion is that the use of the word should be prosecuted only when it is used as an insult, not when people are applying it to themselves. The article quotes one Jewish supporter of a different team who says the word should be banned: “Yid is a race-hate word. It was daubed across the East End by Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts.” And a Jewish Tottenham supporter who says “This is part of our identity. As a Jewish person, I always find it empowering. We have turned this word into a positive.”

(I recall that when I lived in the Netherlands in the 1990s there was a similar controversy around the AFC Ajax football team in Amsterdam, that had the nickname de Joden, and whose rivals would taunt the fans with antisemitic chants like “Hamas, Hamas, de joden aan het gas” (“Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas”). According to this Wikipedia article, supporters of Ajax would sometimes wave Star of David flags, and at one point Hava Nagila could be downloaded as a ringtone from the club’s official website.)

Maybe Cameron should have gone the extra step, to realise that trying to come up with a sensible set of criteria for banning speech based on its content is a fool’s errand. There’s no way to deal with all the shades of meaning, when one person hurls an insult, the victim appropriates the insult as a badge of honour (as has happened with gay, queer, Black, Quaker, and impressionist), and someone else comments on the verbiage ironically.

Health selection bias: A choose your own preposition contest

Back when I was in ninth grade, we were given a worksheet where we were supposed to fill in the appropriate conjunction in sentences where it had been left out. One sentence was “The baseball game was tied 0 to 0, ——– the game was exciting.” Not having any interest in spectator sports, I guessed “but”, assuming that no score probably meant that nothing interesting had happened. This was marked wrong, because those who know the game know that no score means that lots of exciting things needed to happen to prevent scoring. Or something.

With that in mind, fill in the appropriate preposition in this sentence:

Death rates in children’s intensive care units are at an all-time low ————— increasing admissions, a report has shown.

If you chose despite you would agree with the BBC. But a good argument could be made that because of or following a period of. That is, if you think about it, it’s at least as plausible — I would say, more plausible — to expect increasing admissions to lead to lower death rates. The BBC is implicitly assuming that the ICU children are just as sick as ever, and more of them are being pushed into an overburdened system, so it seems like a miracle if the outcomes improve. Presumably someone has done something very right.

But in the absence of any reason to think that children are getting sicker, the change in numbers of admissions must mean a different selection criterion for admission to the ICU. The most likely change would be increasing willingness to admit less critically ill children to the ICU, which has the almost inevitable consequence of raising survival rates (even if the effect on the sickest children in the ICU is marginally negative).

When looking at anything other than whole-population death rates, you always have the problem of selection bias. This is a general complication that needs to be addressed when comparing medical statistics between different systems. For instance, an increase of end-of-life hospice care, it has been pointed out, has the effect of making hospital death rates look better. (Even for whole-population death rates you can have problems caused by migration, if people tend to move elsewhere when they are terminally ill. This has traditionally been a problem with Hispanic mortality rates in the US, for instance.)

Is bleating shrill?

Having taken on the controversial question of the significance of ascribing shrillness (shrillity? shrillth?) to ones opponents, I feel obliged to wade in on the pressing issue of “bleating”.

The occasion is an open letter by a group of British education experts, pointing out the well-established fact that the UK obsession with getting children learning arithmetic and reading at ever earlier ages — formal schooling starts at age 3 1/2 — is counterproductive, and that children would be better off with age-appropriate education. The education ministry has responded with an extraordinarily unprofessional (shrill, or perhaps “spittle-flecked” would be the vernacular description) ejaculation of mostly generic insults, including the charge that

We need a system that aims to prepare pupils to solve hard problems in calculus or be a poet or engineer – a system freed from the grip of those who bleat bogus pop-psychology about ‘self image’, which is an excuse for not teaching poor children how to add up.

I can’t fault the alliteration of “those who bleat bogus pop-psychology”, but what does it mean? It sounds like an insult, but I’m not sure what is insulting about it. Presumably it’s supposed to make you think of a flock of sheep, dumbly repeating some meaningless sounds. And, bleating is sort of a shrill sound, so maybe it also is meant to have effeminate overtones.

The term “pop-psychology” is interesting in this context. Given that the letter is signed by professors and senior lecturers in psychology and education, I have to assume that, right or wrong, what they’re talking about is real psychology, not “pop”.  So it’s interesting that the bureaucrats felt that they couldn’t take on the reputation of academic psychology directly, but only by insinuating that it is all just self-help pablum. (And is “bogus” a modifier of pop-psychology — to say, this isn’t even the top-drawer pop — or a redundant intensifier, as when one refers to “disingenuous government propaganda”?) (more…)

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