Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for October, 2013

Solidarity for academia

You may not have noticed, but the UK academics’ union (UCU) is on strike today, together with the higher-education employees of Unite and Unison, representing clerical, technical, and support staff. Having come to Oxford from Queen’s University (Ontario), which is a closed shop, where the union flexes its muscles on behalf of academic employees, I was surprised by the weakness of the academic unions here. UCU seems to make no effort to inform new academic employees that it even exists. The only news I ever heard about UCU during my early years in the UK were the efforts of a vocal minority to hijack the union for anti-Israel boycotts.

But I decided I should make an effort and actually sign up for the union. It’s pretty clear that the panjandrums of higher education in the UK are fundamentally managerialist in their outlook, and are happy to take advantage of academics’ hauteur to break our solidarity. We think we’re important professionals, not like those maintenance employees and secretaries and such for whom unionisation may be appropriate, but from the perspective of the VCs we’re all just a bunch of proles.

Many seem to think that the special values of academia are incompatible with unionisation. I’d say exactly the opposite: To the extent that we hold to peculiarly academic values, we are not going to preserve them in any form against the corporatisation drive of UK university administration and government through persuasion. It is going to be a power struggle, and only a strong union will give us any chance of asserting our vision. They’ll be happy for us to bring a well-honed argument to an education-policy gunfight.

A spokesman for the UCEA (University and College Employers’ Association) dissed the union last week, saying

It is for trade unions to predict their support but given that less than 5 per cent of staff chose to vote in favour of strike action, our higher education institutions anticipate low-level impact on students.

In other words, you won’t be missed.

When I ask colleagues how they feel about the union and going on strike (and following the strike, the union’s decision to “work to contract”), they tend to respond with some variant of “It would only hurt the students.” Of course, that’s the kind of scruple that the employers never have. I’ve never heard of a vice chancellor saying, “We could worsen conditions/ cut pay/ replace permanent by temporary lecturers, but it would only hurt the students.”

For academics, our salaries are not just our salaries. Many of the advantages that reconcile us to the low salaries in academia, relative to other sectors where people with our skills and education might work, depend on maintaining our departments’ research environment, which requires that the salaries be at least comparable to international standards.

“Give me the appearance of liberty or give me death…”

Patrick Henry

… if David Cameron were Patrick Henry, that would have been his impassioned cry.

Here’s what he did say to parliament:

We have a free press, it’s very important the press feels it is not pre-censored from what it writes and all the rest of it.

I don’t want to have to use injunctions or D notices or the other tougher measures. I think it’s much better to appeal to newspapers’ sense of social responsibility. But if they don’t demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act.

We would like the press to feel it is not pre-censored. But they must be in fact pre-censored, otherwise the government will have to resort to “the other measures”. But not to worry. The only people who might be subject to these other measures are in thrall to ‘a “lah-di-dah, airy-fairy view” (that was really Cameron’s expression) about the dangers of leaks.

Why am I not reassured in this government’s willingness to carefully weigh the different interests in the secrecy debate? Nothing speaks “careful analysis” like presenting your opponents’ view as”lah-di-dah, airy-fairy”.

Cameron tours the Mini car plant in Oxford.

A squash, not a pumpkin

A NY Times article on the spread of Halloween culture in Britain, includes this explanation

Britain’s adoption of the American holiday is perhaps not a surprise. Halloween was originally an ancient Celtic celebration in Ireland and Scotland, exported to the United States by immigrants. The Irish and Scots point to older Halloween traditions. The jack-o’-lantern was originally a squash, not a pumpkin; apple-bobbing began as a matchmaking ritual; and people wore costumes to ward off evil spirits.

A bit confusing to those of us who know that pumpkins are squash. What they mean to say, I think, is that before the pumpkin and its squashy compatriots migrated to Europe in the backwash of the conquistadores, the jack o’lantern was a turnip, hence the famous quip of Winston Churchill on seeing Stanley Baldwin in his dotage “the light is at last out of that old turnip.”

(I did a Google search to check the provenance of this quote. Amusingly, two web sites that mention it give diametrically opposed contexts. The website winstonchurchill.org cites a book Irrepressible Churchill for placing the anecdote as a devastating barb in the Commons smoking room in 1937, shortly after the end of Baldwin’s active political career. Another website cites no source for making it a “fond” remark after Baldwin’s death, in 1947.)

The secret government

According to Spiegel, Obama has told Angela Merkel that he knew nothing of “possible eavesdropping” by the NSA on her cell phone — which has been going on for over 10 years — and that he would have stopped it immediately had he known. So we have to assume one of three possibilities:

  1. Obama has decided to double down on the diplomatic affront by baldly lying to the leader of Germany.
  2. Cynics are right: Everyone spies on everyone, and everyone in the higher echelons of government knows about it, so Angela Merkel has felt obliged to collude with Obama to deceive the media and the public.
  3. Obama owes Edward Snowden an apology. The NSA was not working for the US government. It was out of control, slipping the leash of democratic control. Obama was himself naïve to think that he could simply order an investigation. Think back to what Obama said in August about the NSA and Snowden:

And if you look at the reports — even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden has put forward — all the stories that have been written, what you’re not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s emails. What you’re hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused… If you are outside of the intelligence community, if you are the ordinary person and you start seeing a bunch of headlines saying, U.S.-Big Brother looking down on you, collecting telephone records, et cetera, well, understandably, people would be concerned. I would be, too, if I wasn’t inside the government…

But people may have better ideas and people may want to jigger slightly sort of the balance between the information that we can get versus the incremental encroachments on privacy that if haven’t already taken place might take place in a future administration, or as technologies develop further…. And so those are the kinds of things that I’m looking forward to having a conversation about.

It’s a typical insider fallacy. He has access to secret information, so he assumes he understands everything that’s going on, far better than the deluded privacy obsessives who have the misfortune of being “outside of the intelligence community”.

So, maybe the president should consider whether it might not have been important after all for a concerned citizen to take matters into his own hands, if even he needed the German news media to let him know what his spooks were up to.

Vintage paranoia

The NYTimes has just published one of its brilliant series of debates, this time on the question of whether it is appropriate to spy on allies. The writers line up more or less two for, two against. Within the for camp there is a split between the world-weary cynical academic Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, and Bush-era senior Homeland Security official Stewart Baker’s raving paranoia. His headline is “Allies aren’t always friends”, but what he really means is, there are no friends, only enemies we’re not at war with yet. The world is divided up into current enemies and future enemies. He writes

Even the countries we usually see as friends sometimes take actions that quite deliberately harm the United States and its interests. Ten years ago, when the U.S. went to war with Iraq, France and Germany were not our allies. They were not even neutral. They actively worked with Russia and China to thwart the U.S. military’s mission. Could they act against U.S. interests again in the future – in trade or climate change negotiations, in Syria, Libya or Iran?

This is, to put it briefly, insane. It’s like saying, “You’re not my friend. You actively worked to take away my car keys and thwart my plan to drive home from the party yesterday,” after you managed to get the keys back and then ran the car into a tree. Anyone who followed the discussion in France in Germany at the time of the Iraq war would have to acknowledge that “harming the United States and its interests” was nowhere part of the justification for opposing the war. It wasn’t even a matter of seeing the US and Europe as having opposing interests that demand a compromise, that of course can happen between friends. The general belief was that the US and Europe had one common interest, and the US was screwing it up with its obsession with the “military mission”.

Now, the public debate may have been a charade. Perhaps Mr Baker has seen NSA-procured films of clandestine meetings between Schröder and Chirac, with Chirac twirling the thin moustache that he had specially attached by state cosmeticians for such meetings, and saying, “Of course, you are right, cher Ger’art, my plan to deploy the Force de Frappe to obliterate Washington and that freedom-loving Bush and the ‘orrible MacDo, lacks sufficient, how you say, finesse. Far better to allow our good friend Saddam ‘ussein do our dirty work.” And then they pinned the European Star, first class, to Osama bin Laden’s robe, and apologised that his great service could not yet be publicly acknowledged, but that he would be shining beacon to enemies of freedom down through the ages.

It’s a shame that they can’t publish that. Everyone would understand then why spying on our not-yet-enemies is so important. Until then, our spies will have to remain sadly misunderstood.

Blood libels we can believe in

If mamma, sir, sold the baby
To a gypsy for half a crown;
If a gentleman, sir, was a lady,—
The world would be Upside-down!

— “Topsy-Turvy World“, by William Brighty Rands (1823-82)

It’s fascinating how every new generation re-invents the old blood libels, in a form that seems plausible and worlds away from the old-fashioned superstitious hatreds. Just now Europe is experiencing a wave of gypsy baby abductions. No, sorry, we’re experiencing a wave of reports of Roma families having dishonestly come into possession of whiteness. In Italy (a few years ago), and this week in Greece and Ireland, we’ve seen authorities removing children from their families because of what seemed to some hobby eugenicists strange disparities between the skin colours of parents and children, whereas children normally have exactly the same skin colour as their parents.

The report in the Times (behind a paywall) was a veritable fount of racist conjecture. They constantly refer to the adults who have raised the child as her “parents” (their scare quotes), and her as their “daughter”. A “consultant” at a hospital “told detectives it would be unusual for Roma parents to have a blonde-haired child.” Well, thank you for that expert opinion!

Why would poor parents with multiple children of their own be abducting children anyway? They quote the head of the “Smile of the Child” “charity” with another expert opinion:

Maria may have been abducted because of her striking blonde hair so she could be used to beg in the streets.

Of course! What else would they do with them? Weirdly, the article then proceeds to report that

In July 2011, more than a dozen people were arrested for arranging for pregnant Bulgarian Roma women to give birth in Greece and then sell their babies for illegal adoption.

The careful reader will note that this example — the only actual case of child abduction, or something like it, that they can find involving Roma — it was Roma children being illegally adopted by middle-class white Europeans.

In the end, it’s turned out that the families were all telling the truth. The Irish child is the biological child of her mother. The Greek child was left with the parents by the biological mother — also Roma, so the mysteriously Arian appearance is still unexplained — who left for Bulgaria and couldn’t afford to take the baby with her. She’s said she would like to have her daughter back, but one suspects that the transfer from one poor Roma family to another would warm the hearts of the public longing to see the child returned to the bosom of the white race.

New lows in modern copy-editing

NYTimes screenshot 24-10-13, 10:53 amThe NY Times has, right at the top of its current web site, misspelled the name of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. I’m inclined to say that this is not the sort of fast-breaking news where the requirement of speed overrides the demands of careful copy-editing.

For clarification, the figure on the right is not Merkel. I’m not even sure he’s German.

A thoughtful politician

I was at the concluding conference today for the New Dynamics of Ageing research programme in London, and one of the talks was by David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science.

I won’t speak for his general politics — even if I knew how much of the policy of his ministry he is responsible for — but I was impressed with his thoughtfulness. He wasn’t academic, but he showed a nimble ability to deploy concepts from science and philosophy in response to questions, and a willingness to think on his feet that is far from the stereotype of the cautious time-serving politician.

One thing that impressed me was his answer to a somewhat vague and mundane question about ageism, and what we can do about it. It would have been easy to answer to give a conventionally pious answer, saying that we all need to recognise the contributions of blah blah blah. Instead, he spoke about the problem of increasing segregation by age in British society, related it to nurseries being more inclined to separate 2-year-olds from 3-year-olds, and concluded by saying that teenagers are at least as likely to be stereotyped and discriminated against as the elderly. I think this is true, and hardly a politically safe position to take.

In response to a question about adult learning he drew a contrast between “Calvinist education” (not quite predestination or reprobationism, but he seemed to mean more that everything is determined in the first few years) and neural plasticity. He said, “The large hippocampus of a London taxi driver isn’t because people with large hippocampus become taxi drivers.” Not a highly original point, one that I’m sure is made in any number of popular science books, but he clearly had mastered the outlines of this science, and was able to weave it in with policy considerations on the fly.

Incomplete segregation by sex is un-British

There has been a slow-burning scandal around a government-funded Islamic school that seems to be too much Islamic and too little school. The report by the schools inspectorate Ofsted that has just made its way into the press sounds pretty disastrous, if not exactly Lord of the Flies: Inexperienced teachers, overcrowded facilities, low educational attainment. But what I found fascinating was what was considered scandalous, and triggered the inspection:

An Ofsted inspection had been due to take place by the end of the year, but was brought forward by two months after allegations that women teachers were obliged to wear headscarves and that pupils were segregated.

And

the Ofsted report says that boys and girls eat lunch in separate sittings, although it puts this down to the small size of the canteen. Older boys and girls are seated on either side of classrooms although younger children sit together.

It sounds like segregating boys and girls is a terrible thing, perhaps barely justified at lunchtime if there is not enough space in the canteen.

Unless they are segregated into completely separate school. Most independent schools, and hundreds of state schools, are single-sex.

Migrants are the root of all evil…

… or something. Having commented before on the xenophobia that pervades the British political establishment — with politicians of all parties falling all over themselves to profit from public anti-immigrant sentiment — I am hardly surprised by home secretary Theresa May preening herself with the macho boast that her government will intensify the “hostile environment” for foreigners — sorry, she boasts that she will initiate the not-yet-existing hostile environment, and only for “illegal migrants”. One of the most striking provisions of the soon-to-be-law is a requirement that landlords check the immigration status of prospective tenants. This leads me to wonder, again, how exactly a British citizen can prove to a prospective landlord that he or she is British, now that the government has abolished Labour’s identity-card program as being too intrusive and really the antechamber to tyranny. Of course, many people have passports, but many don’t, and they are, of course, generally the poorer and more vulnerable citizens. Passports cost £72.50.

I asked a British colleague how he would prove his citizenship if he didn’t have a passport. He said he has a birth certificate, apparently unaware that the UK abolished birthright citizenship 30 years ago. Anyone born after 1983 would need not only his own birth certificate, but that of one of his parents.

Of course, I am being somewhat disingenuous here. We all know that the real British will demonstrate their citizenship by having the right skin colour and the right accent. That’s what this is really about.

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