Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for December, 2013

Compute the interest

Another comment based on Sharon Ann Murphy’s wonderful book on 19th century life insurance in the US: She describes an 1852 case in which the American Mutual Insurance Company tried to renege on a claim, where a preëxisting condition was found in an autopsy.

Not surprisingly, the jury sided with the beneficiaries; they “were out thirteen minutes, just long enough to compute the interest” on the original claim.

Indeed, the verdict is not surprising. What is most surprising, however, is that the jury computed the interest. I wonder how likely it is that a jury of twelve today would include even a single person capable of computing compound interest.

Why are classical music supporters obsessed with symphonies?

I was just reading this New Republic article about the financial crisis in US symphony orchestras, and it reminded me of a question that I’ve had for a very long time: Why do people who enjoy  classical music lavish so much attention on gigantic symphony orchestras? Symphony orchestras have gotten polished to an extraordinary perfection, and suck up vast amounts of public and private subsidy, but chamber music performances are few and far between. There’s nothing in the nature of this musical tradition that requires emphasising the repertoire for huge ensembles. To put it differently, rock music would also be in crisis if it depended on putting together ensembles of around 100 musicians that would play to audiences of several thousand. Of course, there are a few bands that play to stadium crowds, but most of the professional activity in the most popular music genres is in small venues, with a handful of musicians and little or no support staff.

The same might be said of music in the schools. Most high schools manage to organise a school orchestra, but there’s rarely much effort put into chamber music. There, at least, the economics make sense, since dozens of children can be supervised by a single orchestra leader. On the other hand, the learning value is greatly reduced as well.

The 25th state?

Canadians used to accuse Americans of plotting to make them the 51st state — indeed, if all of Canada were to be a single US state it would only be the second largest by population. (I remember an article a decade ago or so that suggested that they talk so much about it, it must be their secret desire.)

In the book Investing in Life, about life insurance in 19th century US, there is a reference to the caution of William Bard, first president of New York Life Insurance and Trust Company, in insuring lives lived in climates potentially less salubrious than that of New York City.

For example, while Bard believed the climate of Halifax, Nova Scotia to be “as favorable to life as that of any other state” and consequently appointed an agent there in 1833, he was much more cautious about risks in western New York or the midwestern states.

“Rivers of Blood”: An insult (except when we say it)!

Conservative MP Nigel Mills has attacked Liberal deputy leader Vince Cable for criticising Tory anti-immigration panic with a comparison to Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, calling on the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to resign:

It would be very hard for him to sit around the cabinet table having effectively compared his Conservative colleagues to Enoch Powell, which is an utterly ridiculous thing to have done.

The thing is, my understanding was that Powell was always a member in good standing of the Conservative party, until he left of his own accord. And given that he left in protest over Britain’s entry into the EEC — a move that Mills and his faction would like to reverse — it’s not clear what the objection is. Thatcher’s government offered him a life peerage, which he refused. If the Conservatives ever officially repudiated him, I never heard of it. Certainly they never objected when he was bringing in votes from the extreme right in the early 1970s.

It seems like typical family dynamics — “Rivers of Blood” is fine within the Tory family, but it’s an insult when outsiders say it.

Christmas Demography

Whereever I have lived in my adult life, the city has been extraordinarily quiet from Christmas to New Year’s — indeed, the quiet starts somewhat before Christmas. The natural explanation is that people go away for the holidays. (Students obviously do, but it’s far quieter than even at other times when students are on vacation.) The problem is, they must go somewhere, so it can’t be that every place empties out. (Obviously, some of the apparent quiet is simply the absence of traffic from people going to work, shopping, etc. When shops and restaurants close down in late December because of lack of customers it’s a bit self-fulfilling.) So why is it that I’m always in the places that people flee for the holidays?

A common pattern is that younger people with children travel to their parents, in their old home towns. In general, if there is a pattern of migration from some places X to other places Y, the sort of people who move around (like myself) will tend to be living at Y. At Christmas, then, the migration is temporarily reversed, and people travel from Y to X. For a brief time, Y empties out and X gets full.  (Even 2000 years ago Joseph and Mary had to go back to their home town for Christmas. And, as we know, the town was full up.) So, people like me notice that whereever they happen to be living is one of the places that empties out, because of the selection bias. People of my parents’ generation are generally living in places that take in visitors at Christmas, and so perhaps seem livelier than at other times of the year.

Plus ça change — post-feminist edition

One of the most useful nuggets of compressed wisdom that I absorbed from the humanities portion of my university education was an off-hand remark by a teaching assistant, Paul Leopold, that “each generation rejects its parents and rediscovers its grandparents.” Implicit was that the rediscovery is often unintentional and even unwitting. It’s just that there is very little scope for real novelty, so those who are both eager to be new will turn away from what is familiar, and can then hardly help — particularly if they think they are avoiding influence by remaining ignorant of the past — but recapitulate an earlier generation.

feminism survey

It has commonly been observed that many women who came of age in the late 1980s and 1990s, heirs to all the accomplishments of 1970s feminism, who take for granted that they are free to shape their own careers and relationships, reject the word “feminism”. They associate the word with sins of their mothers (even if not their own literal mothers), and identify with various sorts of vaguely defined “post-feminist” ideologies, if they are the sort of people inclined to care about ideologies rather than just living their lives. A recent survey of American women found that among women aged 30-44, only 32% identify themselves as feminists, barely more than in the oldest (pre-baby Boom) age group. Among women aged 45-64 feminism has 41% support; interestingly (and confirming Leopold’s dictum) support seems to have revived among the youngest women.

My impression, from occasional glances at journalism on the issue, is that women wish to separate themselves from the “feminist” label, which they associate with negative attitudes toward family, men, and sex, and a generally rigid view of life, and denial of femininity. This is supported by research finding that current undergraduates were most likely to associate a random feminist with the following adjectives: man-hating, lesbian, unhygienic, angry, behaves like a man, unattractive.

I was reminded by all this by a remark in the chapter on women’s issues in Dominic Sandbrook’s history of Britain in the early 1970s:

For most of the 1950s and 1960s, feminism was widely supposed to have disappeared… On the left, it was often seen as divisive, distracting, and self-indulgent… Even articulate outspoken young women like Shirlie Williams, the daughter of the pioneering women’s rights campaigner Vera Britain, rejected the “feminist” label, which was thought to belong to the lost age of the suffragists. “it was,” she said, “a matter of generations.”

And the young Sheila Rowbotham, who… later became one of Britain’s best-known feminist writers, thought that feminists were “shadowy figures in long, old-fashioned clothes, who were somehow connected with headmistresses, who said you shouldn’t wear high heels and makeup. It was all very prim and stiff, and mainly concerned with keeping you away from boys.”

So, right before what now appear as the glory days of militant feminism, a post-feminist malaise had already set in, rejecting the word “feminist” and what was perceived as the joyless feminism of an earlier generation. I suppose it’s cause for hope.

Who is Santa?

Do adults struggle to distinguish reality from fantasy?

Growing up in New York, and attending a Jewish primary school, I don’t have a very intimate relationship with Santa Claus. Of course, I knew the story — fat man, presents, chimneys, reindeer — from television, and from Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, but it was more or less of a piece with the tooth fairy, Spiderman, and Mickey Mouse. That is, when you’re 7, you may have a heated discussion over the details of Spiderman’s backstory, and which other characters he knows (he may know Captain America; probably doesn’t know Santa or Mickey Mouse), and what he might do in the future, but that doesn’t mean he’s real, in the sense of inhabiting the same world that we do. Magical beings are something you play make-believe with, tell stories about, act out stories about.

(I remember when I was 3, my brother told me that there used to be a Santa Claus, but he was killed falling off a roof. I guess that did seem plausible to me at the time.)

What I only learned much later that for many (perhaps most?) in the US (and the UK, apparently) Santa Claus (Father Christmas) is a different sort of magical being. Children seem to genuinely believe he exists, and, even more strangely, adults seem to think it important to encourage them in that belief. It’s not just, “Let’s pretend on Christmas that a magical man comes and brings your gifts”, but “No, really. He really does come.” And making significant effort to prevent anyone from revealing the wicked truth. I was reading about a weird spat on American television, about an online article that suggested portraying Santa not as a white man, but as a penguin. The article was criticised on right-wing Fox News, but what I found most interesting was that the television reporter Megyn Kelly apparently began the discussion by announcing “By the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white but this person is just arguing that maybe we should also have a black Santa.” She was heavily criticised for prejudging the issue of the skin colour of a fictional character, but she was just following the prescribed line of pretending publicly (whenever children might be listening) that Santa Claus is real. Not “real” in the “let’s pretend” way that the child’s mudpie is really a cake. Really really real.

(more…)

Distant relative: A transitive relation?

With regard to Martin Scorcese’s new film “The Wolf of Wall Street”, portraying ancien règime levels of decadence and debauchery in 1990s New York finance, based on the memoir of stockbroker Jordan Belfort, fellow broker and ex-convict Danny Porush commented

The book … is a distant relative of the truth, and the film is a distant relative of the book.

It’s a strange thing to say. I’m guessing he means to say that the film is even farther from the truth than the book is, but it’s perfectly consistent with a claim that the film (unlike the book) is the truth, or that it is closely related to the truth. By analogy, the famous rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is a distant relative of mine. And my brother is a distant relative of Adin Steinsaltz. But I am not distantly related to my brother.

Sex education and the multiverse

I recently read and enjoyed David Deutsch’s book The Beginning of Infinity, a tour d’horizon of quantum physics and philosophy of science, brewed up with a remarkably persuasive idiosyncratic worldview, even if it does descend into a slightly cranky and increasingly ignorant rant on politics and economics by the end. This was my first introduction to the “multiverse”, which seems to be the modern version of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. I was impressed at how cogent this picture has become since I last interested myself for quantum mechanics and its philosophical interpretations in my teens.

It might not be right, but it does lay down a marker against the Copenhagen interpretation — position and path don’t exist except when measured,  wave-particle “duality”, etc. — which in comparison seems more like a counsel of despair than a physical theory in any meaningful sense.

In thinking about it, I realised that I’ve long had the feeling that the Copenhagen interpretation was more than anything the physics educator’s version of chastity education: not a real solution, but mainly a way to avoid dealing with parents yelling “Your teacher told you what?!”

How long is forever? Capitalist and Communist perspectives

I was struck by a comment in Kalefa Sanneh’s fascinating review of several new books on the economics of the entertainment industry. Discussing Anita Elberse’s book Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, and the argument that the obsession with finding isolated major hits rather than the profits to be made in the “Long Tail”,  Sanneh writes

In the seventies and eighties the hit men worried mainly about each other, but the rise of digital delivery means that their modern-day successors must also contend with a more existential threat… Betting on blockbusters might be a defensive strategy: a way for established entertainment companies to stall the larger forces eroding their “channel power”, at least for a while. Unlike the old hit men, Elberse’s executives can’t assume that their industries will be around forever.

This got me to marvelling, once again, at how short a time forever is, in human experience. (This was a major theme of one of my small excursuses into academic literary criticism, the essay Kafka’s Geometry.) The “old hit men” are only 30 years or so in the past. I suppose “around forever” could mean here “around until the end of their careers”, and this would just about be right. But it seems logically inevitable that if workers toiling in the modern entertainment industry have reason to doubt that it will be around forever, then those of 30 years ago were simply deluded to think that their industry’s future was assured. It’s the same future. It makes as much sense as it would to explain ones teenage behaviour by saying, “Back then I was going to live forever.” You might say this, but only as a joke, or as an expression of amazement at your earlier delusion. (Speaking for myself, I was never immortal, and I doubt that anyone was. It looks to me as though teenagers may not care about the consequences of their actions, for reasons good and bad, and they may have difficulty inhibiting their impulses if they do care, but the research I am aware of does not suggest that they actually feel invulnerable.) (more…)

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