Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for February, 2014

The meaning of inversion

Probably some clever semiotician has written about this, but the recent bizarre affair of La Quenelle got me to wondering: “When is an inversion not a significant inversion?” Or rather, when does a physical inversion not invert the signification?

The lewd gesture, invented by the French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala (described by The Independent as a “black French comedian”, for some reason)  is described by The Independent thus

An arm with an outstretched finger is pointed at the ground. The other arm is folded across the chest. The hand is placed on the first arm, showing how far up your enemy’s backside you wish to slide your “quenelle”. This hand is sometimes moved suggestively upwards.

Anyway, the gesture has been described as anti-semitic, and the above-linked article describes how a footballer has been punished for performing the gesture on the field. How can a gesture be anti-semitic? one wonders. Is this like the joke about the woman who calls the police to complain about the man who whistles bawdy tunes when he walks past her house? (more…)

The age of victimhood

I recently read Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands, a synoptic account of the Nazi and Soviet terror in Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Overall, the book disappointed me somewhat. I was expecting something more profoundly original than it actually was. Most of what he had to say would be familiar to anyone who has read the separate histories of the Nazi terror and the Soviet terror. Where comparisons were made, they ofter reminded me of the dadaist antijoke that exists in many forms — all of them fairly arbitrary — going something like “How is the Pope like an orange? Answer: They’re both round, except for the Pope.”

Again and again I felt like Snyder was trying to say, “Look at how similar the Stalinist and Hitler genocides were… They were both racially motivated, except for Stalin. They were both devoted to extracting economic value from the bodies of enemies of the state, except for Hitler.” And so on. At other points he seems committed to pointing out how completely different the two were… except that then he has to admit that they weren’t all that different, and in many respects you can’t even separate them in time and space, or in motivation, as they clearly learned from each other, and in some cases intentionally or unintentionally collaborated.

But one remark impressed me: He pointed out that both Stalin and Hitler obsessively portrayed themselves as victims of their victims. Claiming the mantle of victimhood has become so pervasive as a political strategy — both in domestic affairs within western democracies and in international relations — that it’s hard to remember that it was once considered disgraceful, the last refuge of the pusillanimous. At least, that’s my impression. It would be interesting to see an academic treatise on the history of the victimhood stance.

Hitler famously accused the Jews of dragging an unwilling Germany into war. Stalin accused the starving Ukrainians of anti-Soviet propaganda by blatantly starving. The Germans dressed up prisoners as Polish soldiers (and shot them) to show that the obvious German aggression was really a response to an attack. Of course, the need to play at “just war” has been with us since the advent of Christendom. It’s hard to imagine Alexander the Great caring much about showing that Thracian soldiers had crossed the border first and hurled the first spear. But it’s also hard to imagine Bismarck feeling the need to dress up corpses in French uniforms.

And it wasn’t just the great tyrants. One of the most chilling passages that Snyder quotes comes from a German officer writing to his wife about the difficulties he had slaughtering Jewish children, who “flew in great arcs, and we shot them to pieces in the air”. But then he thought of his own children, and that perversely steeled his nerves: “I kept in mind that I have two infants at home, whom these hordes would treat just the same, if not ten times worse.”

If there is any application of this principle to contemporary events in any lands that formerly rhymed with Calamine, I can’t imagine what it might be. I remember, when we were living in Canada, reading an article in the newspaper about a recommendation by a panel of Quebec historians that the teaching of Quebec history in schools should be rethought to be more positive, less emphasis on the quebecois as perennial losers. I thought that was a great move, and would bode well for Quebec and for Canada as a whole if it were adopted. In the long term. There’s power in being a victim, until there isn’t, until the moment when it suddenly tips over into being pathetic.

Hackers will be hackers

Guardian reporter Luke Harding has published some background material on the reporting for his new book The Snowden Files. Apparently someone in the security services decided to play with his mind while he was reporting on them. Not only did he and other reporters have laptops stolen (including from a locked hotel safe), not only did both the Guardian offices in London and in Washington, as well as the New York home of their US editor in chief suddenly have sections of pavement being dug up and replaced, but when Harding was texting his wife from Rio de Janeiro

“The CIA sent someone to check me out. Their techniques as clumsy as Russians.” She replied: “Really? WTF?” I added: “God knows where they learn their spycraft.” This exchange may have irritated someone. My iPhone flashed and toggled wildly between two screens; the keyboard froze; I couldn’t type.

And then, while writing the book at home in Hertfordshire,

I was writing a chapter on the NSA’s close, and largely hidden, relationship with Silicon Valley. I wrote that Snowden’s revelations had damaged US tech companies and their bottom line. Something odd happened. The paragraph I had just written began to self-delete. The cursor moved rapidly from the left, gobbling text. I watched my words vanish. When I tried to close my OpenOffice file the keyboard began flashing and bleeping.

Over the next few weeks these incidents of remote deletion happened several times. There was no fixed pattern but it tended to occur when I wrote disparagingly of the NSA.

Now, this isn’t the worst abuse of human rights in recorded history. It’s just a prank. But exactly for that reason, it underscores a point I made back at the beginning of l’affaire Snowden: Fear of the techniques the NSA and its confederates have been developing, and in the data they gather, depends not on their being villains with nefarious intentions. It depends on their being careless mortals who have no idea what use their techniques and their data will be put to.

I doubt that there was any senior official who thought that tipping off a Guardian reporter to their real-time computer manipulation capabilities would be a brilliant idea. My guess is, some bored hacker assigned to monitor Harding’s computer got cocky, and decided to show off his electronic muscles. (It’s pretty intimidating, though. Presumably it would be child’s play for them to remotely plant child pornography on the hard drive of someone they’re eager to shut down. At least in the old days, the spies needed to break into your home to plant drugs.)

GCHQ and the NSA can’t exist without hiring hackers, but getting hackers to work on your security problems is like the old lady who swallowed the spider to catch the fly. (She’s dead, of course.) I like hackers, by and large. But I like them as scrappy underdogs. The combination of arrogant macho hacker culture with essentially unlimited resources and military organisation is, to put it bluntly, terrifying. And if the leaders of our security services think they can keep the hackers under control, they’re delusional.

4p per household

According to today’s Times, the NHS has decided to link all the country’s medical data and then sell them off to vaguely specified third parties, including pharmaceutical companies, is being delayed for six months. Not because anything is wrong with the plan, mind you, but because of a failure to “build public confidence”. Most striking in this context was the report on confidence-building measures taken so far, consisting of £1 million spent to send a leaflet “to all households in the UK”. Since there are 26 million households in the UK, that would amount to less than 4p per household to print and deliver the leaflet. Thus I am not surprised that a survey found that most people said they had not seen the information. (I certainly didn’t.)

Is Yahweh a constitutional monarch?

And was King David his prime minister?

I recently commented — as I’m not the first to notice — that an important advantage of having a monarch sitting formally on the throne, but prohibited from doing anything, is that it prevents the people wielding real power, like the prime minister, from putting on regal airs. You wouldn’t think such a silly trick would work, but it seems to.

It occurred to me that the origin of this trick could be seen in the political philosophy of the Hebrew Bible. God is repeatedly referred to as the King of Kings, and he is not at all pleased when Israel insists on having a king of their own. A king? he says. Are you out of your fucking minds? A king will be making war all the time. He’ll tax your grain and livestock. He’ll take your sons for his army and your daughters to serve in his palace. You’ll be slaves. “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” But even then, it’s a very limited sort of kingship, because the real monarch is the King of Kings.

It’s a perfect solution, for keeping kings in their place. Even Queen Elizabeth meddles in affairs of state. What better way to keep the regalia from messing with human politics than to bestow them on a deity who is (depending on your perspective) either too busy to get involved with human trifles, or simply imaginary?

I got to think about this again in reflecting on what I find one of the most fascinating stories in the Hebrew Bible, the story of the prophet Natan and King David. King David, the story goes, seduced Bathsheba, and she became, as the expression goes, with child. The problem was, her husband Uriah was a soldier out on a long-term deployment, so a pregnancy was liable to raise some eyebrows. No problem! He’s the king! He summoned Uriah back from the field, asked him for a report on the status of the front line, and then suggested he take advantage of the opportunity to see his wife. But instead, Uriah slept outside the king’s door.

David said to Uriah, “Have you not come from a journey? Why did you not go down to your house?” Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing.”

The king got him drunk, but he maintained his scruples. So the king decided to have him “accidentally” killed in battle. That worked, and David could take up openly with Bathsheba.

Problem solved! One could hardly imagine anyone criticising Rameses for accidentally on purpose bringing about the death of one of his subjects; nor Nebuchadnezzar; nor Louis XIV, for that matter. The story is set up so that the death is a soldier’s death in battle. The only crime was in David’s intention.

But then comes the prophet Natan and announces God’s anathema (to be punished by the death of their firstborn child — when I read the story as a child, I of course thought, why is the child being punished for this?). Actually, he gets David to condemn himself, by presenting his deed as an anonymous case of a wealthy man who stole the little that his neighbour had.

I’ve always been amazed that people 2500 years ago were able to formulate the principle that everyone, even a king, even the most majestic of holy priest kings, must respect the basic rights and dignity of other human beings. And a king who violates this principle is no better than a common thief.

But what never occurred to me before is to think that part of the trick was to declare the absent god to be the real king, and the king on earth to be just another servant. It took another couple of millennia for the West to instrumentalise this lesson.

King Camerute, holding back the waves

“Prime minister seeks to assert his authority over natural disaster”

Canute: “But it’s not a blank cheque…”

This was a sub-headline in The Guardian. He has pledged unlimited funds to the flood control effort:

My message to the country today is this. Money is no object in this relief effort, whatever money is needed for it will be spent. We will take whatever steps are necessary

However, before he can control the storms, the PM needs to assert his authority over his cabinet, since today the transport secretary said “I don’t think it’s a blank cheque.”

Of course not. Philosopher King Camerute was simply asserting the Buberian I-Thou relationship of the government to money. Money is not an object, it is a subject, and we must respect its concerns. The people whose homes are under water may feel that certain steps are necessary, but the money may have different feelings, and not wish to be instrumentalised in that way.

The Tory idea of education

David Cameron and his Bullingdon circle have education policies borrowed from the Wizard of Oz: Like the Scarecrow, the British public doesn’t need brains, it needs diplomas (see below). And why not? No one they know learned anything they needed to know at university except how to run away from trouble. The value of three years in Oxford for them was that they spent three years in Oxford, and that they were there together with other similarly situated scions of privileges. This is why they see nothing but prejudice in top universities’ reticence to admit the products of second-rate British comprehensive schools. They seem genuinely mystified by the notion that there could be any objective preparation that these children are lacking, preventing the top universities from admitting them to the charmed circle to which all good things flow.

Anyway, their new education initiative is to get more children learning about computer programming, dubbed the Year of Code. The director of the programme, one Lottie Dexter, explained in a recent interview, “You can pick up [learning to code] in a day.” Alas, her busy job didn’t leave her a day free to do it herself, so she knows nothing about programming, and she says she’s planning to space out this day of learning over a full year — minus the month that’s already gone. It’s not just that she lacks anything so crass as expertise in either programming or teaching; or that she couldn’t answer a question about what “code” is; or that her main qualification seems to be her excellent connections to the Conservative Party elite. Even for a non-expert her idea of what’s involved in teaching people this complicated skill are laughably vague: All about “getting people thinking about it now” and “by September they’ll be really excited”, and by the end she’s babbling about computer code as an international language fostering understanding between peoples.

Lottie Dexter explaining how to code reminded me of Monty Python explaining how to rid the world of disease.



More Hockey Statisticks

I wrote last week about my surprising response to two books about the public conflicts over palaeoclimatology. Whereas I expected to find myself sympathising with the respected scientist Michael Mann, I found both authors equally repellant — both are smug and self-absorbed, both write crudely — and had most sympathy with Steven McIntyre, the former mining engineer who stars in Andrew Montford’s book. Fundamentally, I found that Mann’s own account made him seem like just the sort of arrogant senior scientist I have occasionally had to deal with as a statistician, one who is outraged that anyone outside his close circle would want to challenge his methodology.

A pair of long comments on the post underlined my impression of the cultish behaviour of people who have gotten enmeshed in the struggle over climate change, on both sides. The commenter writes:

I would suggest that McIntyre’s work went out of its way to try to cast doubt on Mann’s research, and in that process created as many errors of its own. Montford’s book takes that dubious effort and magnifies it for the purposes of attacking climate change science in general by vilifying a single piece of research by a single researcher.

I have to say, Montford’s effort has been highly effective. In one lecture I saw, given by Dr Richard Alley, he recounted being in Washington speaking to a science committee where one high level member stated, “Well, we know all this climate change stuff is based on a fraudulent Hockey Stick graph.”

I’m sure [Andrew] Montford appreciates your piece here perpetuating that position.

I don’t know exactly what Montford’s “effort” is. Certainly, in his book he has little to say about the rest of climate science, but what he does have to say can hardly give any impression other than that the “hockey stick” is a small part of palaeoclimatology, and that palaeoclimatology is a small part of climate research. He never accuses Mann or anyone else of fraud in his book, although he is unyielding and close to hysterical in imputing incompetence to Mann and some of his closest collaborators.

As for McIntyre’s work going “out of its way to try to cast doubt”, this hardly seems different to me than the usual way scientists are motivated. It’s no different than the comments about “getting rid of the Mediaeval Warm Period”, that Montford is obsessed with, as evidence of scientific corruption. I was never bothered by that comment, or any of the comments that came out of the disgraceful email hack of the Climatic Research Unit, because I understand that scientists rarely launch an investigation without any preconceptions. It’s perfectly plausible — even likely — that climate researchers would have had a strong gut feeling that this warm period was much less substantial than it had seemed, but were casting about for a way to prove the point. The trick here is to have a rigorous methodology that won’t bend to your preconceptions. The same way, McIntyre had a gut feeling that the climate was much more variable in the past than the mainstream researchers wanted to believe, and he set about proving his point by trying to find the flaws in their methodology.

The fact that later studies ended up confirming the broad outlines of Mann’s picture, and disproving McIntyre’s intuition does not make his critique any the less serious or important. And it doesn’t make Mann’s efforts to portray all of his opponents as villains any less unsavoury. And his efforts to present scientific defensiveness as high principle do a disservice to science in general, and to climate science more specifically.

The commenter describes Mann’s self-righteous refusal to provide essential materials for McIntyre’s attempts to re-evaluate his work as a natural response to ” the levels to which “skeptics” are willing to go. It may seem absurd, but I think that is only because the levels they go to are so outrageous.” Except that it looks to me as though Mann’s stonewalling came first. Maybe that’s wrong, but again, if so, he doesn’t seem to think anyone has a right to expect evidence of the fact.

Mann comes across in his own book as a manipulator who would like to tar all of his opponents with the outrageous actions that some have committed. He accuses McIntyre of “intimidation” without considering it necessary to provide any shred of evidence. The portion of their correspondence quoted by Montford obviously doesn’t show anything beyond occasional exasperation at Mann’s stonewalling. Obviously there could be more to it, but Mann seems so persuaded of his own saintliness that his bare assertion of his own pure motives — and of the correctness of his methodology — ought to persuade every reader. And so convinced of the objectivity of his friends and colleagues that merely quoting their statements in his defence should suffice.

Science is science, but many climate scientists have (quite rightly) decided that the implications of what they have learned demand political action. They can’t then express horror when others blend their scientific inquiry with a political agenda.

“One bomb”

The efforts of the Israeli right wing to politicise the Holocaust are nothing new, so we shouldn’t be surprised by the recent parade of Israeli parliamentarians through Auschwitz. What particularly struck me in the report of the Jewish Chronicle was this quote from Israel’s economy minister Naftali Bennett:

The lesson is this: only Israel will defend Jews. We can never and we will never rely on anyone else.

One bomb [from the Allies] would have stopped the murder machine, and yet no one bombed.

I find it intensely disturbing that a man so obviously delusional about what could be accomplished with “one bomb” is near the top of a government in possession of a large nuclear arsenal.

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