Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for March, 2014

The Guardian got tired of waiting for France to elect a woman president

… so they decided to change the sex of the current one.

Guardian headline mentioning "Françoise Hollande"

Presumably Françoise is the one in the photo

I’m guessing that European Press Award they mention wasn’t for the excellence of their copyediting. I wonder if there’s some subliminally intentional slur in the way the Guardian made the French president a woman, while the NY Times made the German chancellor a man.

Four ways of paying the piper

I was thinking about four different expressions, interestingly different, for the platitude that people shape their consciences to their circumstances.

The most straightforward is the English classic

Who pays the piper calls the tune.

This is the most straightforwardly economical. The boss makes the decisions, and the opinions of the underlings are irrelevant. It says nothing about what those underling opinions might be.

A step more cynical is the old-German proverb

Wes Brot ich ess, des Lied ich Sing. [Whose bread I eat, that’s whose song I sing.]

It has the same general musical theme, suggesting the court jester performing for his master. But the singing, rather than piping, is more intimate, and to my mind suggests a more complete subordination of ones own beliefs to those of the master.

Perhaps the most pessimistic is the saying that Mark Twain claims to have learned as a boy, from a young slave:

You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.

In other words, as Twain explains, no one can afford to have opinions that interfere with his livelihood. It’s not a matter of dissembling — which is what makes this more pessimistic (but maybe less cynical?) — but rather of naturally adopting the opinions that are a comfortable fit to his circumstances. (Twain’s more cynical version was “It is by the fortune of God that, in this country, we have three benefits: freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and the wisdom never to use either.”)

And then there was the perfection of the corn pone line, the famous dictum of Upton Sinclair,

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

Here we see the complete identification of master and slave. The slave not only gives voice to his master’s views, he not only comes to accept the master’s views, he has deformed his intellect to the point where any other opinion has become completely incomprehensible to him.






Those people

It seems like it’s a pretty solid PR principle that if your political party is bragging about what you’ve done for “them”, it’s going to seem more like pandering than like identifying with “their” core interests. Thus the Conservatives and “hardworking people” (as opposed to just “working people” who, we know, are hardly working, and usually on the dole). After presenting their hyper-pandering budget with tiny cuts to taxes on beer and Bingo, they went and boasted in a pretty crude advent that blew right across the narrow line between self-promotion and self-satire:

Beer and Bingo“The things they enjoy”? It’s this sort of thing that puts hardworking political satirists out of work. Who can top this? Even if you support the goal of cutting taxes on lower earners without judging what they’re using the money for, this is a really odd framing. Could it really be a Conservative priority to encourage people to drink and gamble more?

And, of course, this just confirms the way everyone just assumes the Conservatives talk about the sub-Etonian classes when they’re strategising in their country homes.


“Touched a nerve”

Wall Street Journal reporter Yukari Iwatani Kane has written a book about Apple, Inc. since the death of Steve Jobs. A highly critical book, apparently. In an email to reporters Jobs’s successor Tim Cook has basically called the book bullshit. In response, you might have expected the author to find a more or less deft way to say “No, it’s not bullshit.” Instead, he turns to psychobabble:

For Tim Cook to have such strong feelings about the book, it must have touched a nerve. Even I was surprised by my conclusions, so I understand the sentiment. I’m happy to speak with him or anyone at Apple in public or private. My hope in writing this book was to be thought-provoking and to start a conversation which I’m glad it has.

Not very encouraging. “Touched a nerve” is the sort of thing people say because it sounds good, but when you think about it, it really isn’t. Or rather, it could be good or bad, depending on the fundamental issue to which no response has been given. If the book’s account is accurate, then the fact that it touched a nerve among Apple’s leadership suggests that it’s also important. But if it’s bullshit, then “touching a nerve” means that it’s really offensive bullshit. The same with thought-provoking. If the book provokes interesting and well-grounded thoughts about the nature of modern capitalism, that’s a good thing. On the other hand, if it provokes utterly specious thoughts based on misconceptions, or provokes thoughts about the irresponsibility of modern publishers, that’s probably not a good thing.

It reminds me of an interview I once read with Bob Dylan from the 1970s, where he complained about the people who come up to him after a concert and say “Lotta energy, man!”

The overscheduled maths student

… at Imperial College.

Some say that young people today are overscheduled, but I didn’t realise how bad it had gotten until someone showed me the sample student timetable posted by the maths department at Imperial College. Some highlights:

  1. The student spends up to 6 hours on music practice on some days.
  2. Working on problem sheets starts only at 11 pm, and lasts for an hour, and only on Mondays and Tuesdays (and maybe Wednesdays, when “study time” is planned).
  3. Monday and Tuesday are also the only days on which lunch is planned.
  4. Two hours of “self-help” are planned on Thursdays, perhaps a therapy group to cope with the stress and lack of sleep.

On the weekend (schedule available here) she spends hours on French assignments, but again doesn’t get around to doing her problem sheets until 11 pm on Sunday night. Five straight hours of orchestra rehearsals, though.

student timetable

“Buyer’s market”

When did the values of the market become a substitute for ethical standards? I found myself wondering this in reading this article in Inside Higher Education about a young philosophy PhD who was offered a tenure-track job at Nazareth College in New York, replied with an enthusiastic email attempting to start a negotiation about starting salary, sabbatical, maternity leave, and limited teaching in her first year. Although she made clear that she didn’t expect all of her requests to be possible, the university responded with a brusque retraction of the job offer. Now, the misogyny of philosophy departments is by now well established, but this smackdown of a young colleague who has just been selected as the best available for a job in your department, merely for making some requests, seemed shocking to me. Not to the commenters on the IHE blog, though, who may be supposed to be mainly higher education professionals. Some sample comments:

She has too many requests and this is always a sign that a person is going to be a pain in the *&*%. Her requests on balance are not unreasonable but she is in no position to ask for all of this — it is a buyer’s market. … Lots of great people to choose from so why saddle yourself with someone who is challenged right off the bat.

several substantial requests, the sum of which went beyond the pale for hat-in-hand applicants.

You just spent a semester narrowing hundreds (or more) candidates and arguing for this ONE person… only to have them forward THAT? Not exactly who I want to spend the rest of my career with (not to mention that the person clearly felt they were ‘playing with house money’ and could afford to lose the job offer… someone who REALLY wants the job wouldn’t risk that message).

(To be fair, some comments are supportive of the candidate, and others take on other issues.) What fascinate me in these responses are these references to a “buyer’s market” to which the presumably arrogant candidate should have meekly submitted, with the clear presumption that the logic of the market is proper and just. If you are in a powerful position, where you can take advantage of those unfortunate enough to have qualifications that are in high supply and low demand, then of course you should, and no one could be surprised if you do. It’s an argument that is rarely applied to those who are robbed at knifepoint by those stronger or more ruthless than themselves, but it does show up in certain comments on rape and on international relations. It’s the belief that power creates its own justification.

I am frequently reminded of Nietzsche’s remarks on markets in Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Gay Science):

Kaufen und verkaufen gilt jetzt als gemein, wie die Kunst des Lesens und Schreibens; Jeder ist jetzt darin eingeübt, selbst wenn er kein Handelsmann ist, und übt sich noch an jedem Tage in dieser Technik: ganz wie ehemals, im Zeitalter der wilderen Menschheit, Jedermann Jäger war und sich Tag für Tag in der Technik der Jagd übte.

Buying and selling are common skills nowadays, like the art of reading and writing: Everyone is accomplished in it, even if he’s not a businessman, and practices every day, just as in earlier times, in the days of primitive man, everyone was a hunter, and practiced that skill every day.

One last point: The largest number of commenters fault the young scholar for her “tone”. Everyone knows, apparently, that you don’t put this sort of thing so baldly in an email, for God’s sake! Obviously they had no choice but to rescind the offer when she attacked them with an EMAIL that clearly laid out what she would like. This is pretty hilarious, given how much philosophers pride themselves on their ruthlessly direct style of academic disputation, with some of them arguing that the would-be philosophers with excessive numbers of X chromosomes can’t hack it.

Impunity or alacrity?

Obviously you’d go crazy trying to note every misuse of words in the news media, but I grew up thinking of the NY Times as the gold standard of proper English usage, so when I see a sub-headline like

NY Times headline

I feel like the end times must be upon us. At first I tried to make literal sense of this. It’s not as though “impunity” is an unusual word.


A hot topic in statistics is the problem of anonymisation of data. Medical records clearly contain highly sensitive, private information. But if I extract just the blood pressure measurements for purposes of studying variations in blood pressure over time, it’s hard to see any reason for keeping those data confidential.

But what happens when you want to link up the blood pressure with some sensitive data (current medications, say), and look at the impact of local pollution, so you need at least some sort of address information? You strip out the names, of course, but is that enough? There may be only one 68-year-old man living in a certain postcode. It could turn into one of those logic puzzles where you are told that Mary likes cantelope and has three tattoos, while John takes cold baths and dances samba, along with a bunch of other clues, and by putting it all together in an appropriate grid you can determine that Henry is adopted and it’s Sarah’s birthday. Some sophisticated statistical work, particularly in the peculiar field of algebraic statistics, has gone into defining the conditions under which there can be hidden relations among the data that would allow individuals to be identified with high probability.

I thought of this careful and subtle body of work when I read this article about private-sector mass surveillance of automobile license plates — another step in the Cthulhu-ised correlations of otherwise innocuous information that modern information technology is enabling. Two companies are suing the state of Utah to block a law that prevents them from using their own networks of cameras to record who is travelling where when, and use that information for blackmail market research.

The Wall Street Journal reports that DRN’s own website boasted to its corporate clients that it can “combine automotive data such as where millions of people drive their cars … with household income and other valuable information” so companies can “pinpoint consumers more effectively.” Yet, in announcing its lawsuit, DRN and Vigilant argue that their methods do not violate individual privacy because the “data collected, stored or provided to private companies (and) to law enforcement … is anonymous, in the sense that it does not contain personally identifiable information.”

They’re only recording information about  So, in their representation, data are suitably anonymised if they don’t actually include the name and address. We’re just tracking vehicles. Could be anyone inside… We’re just linking it up with those vehicles’ household incomes. Presumably they’re going to target ads for high-grade oil and new tires at those cars, or something.



So, they only differ by one letter (in fact, just one step in the alphabet), but what else do they have in common? It occurs to me that the NSA’s weird Schrödinger’s-cat defence of its mass collection of phone records — it’s not spying until someone actually looks at the records — is reminiscent of the NRA’s famous anti-gun-control slogan. We could write it this way:

Computers don’t spy on people. People spy on people.

Tevye in the City

I recently read Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories (inspired by the wonderful book by Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders: A cultural history of Fiddler on the Roof — they’re available now free from the Yiddish Book Center), and I was startled by several features. Tevye is a much more forward-looking figure than he appears in Fiddler on the Roof, which chose to emphasise the cultural divide between him and his daughters.

One thing that really caught my attention was that Tevye, before he got to marrying off his daughters, the travails of which are the basis for Fiddler on the Roof, lost all his savings in some vague financial schemes. The description is priceless, how his distant cousin Menachem Mendel

let me understand how he makes three rubles out of one, and from three — ten. First of all, he said, you invest a hundred rubles and then you order ten somethings — I’ve already forgotten what they’re called — to be bought for you; then you wait a few days until its price goes up. Then you send off a telegram somewhere with an order to sell, and with the money, to buy twice as much; then the price goes up again and you dispatch another telegram; this goes on until the hundred becomes two hundred, the two hundred — four hundred — eight, the eight — sixteen hundred, real “miracles and wonders”! There are people, he said, in Yehupetz, who just recently walked around barefoot, they were brokers, messengers, servants, today they live in their own brick houses, their wives complain of stomach ailments and go abroad for treatment. (Trans. Joseph Simon)

(Much of the imagery of the song “If I were a Rich Man” comes from this story.) As ever, finance was an extractive industry, fuelled by a steady stream of gullibility and greed, in varying proportions.

Anyway, this all reminded me, obliquely, that Tevye had an exact contemporary, who has recently been experiencing some great success on the small screen, having been updated and moved into modern London, namely Sherlock Holmes. I don’t mean to draw any comparison between the figures, but it seems to me that Tevye might do equally well in modern London. (Mad magazine moved him into the American suburbs in the 1970s, which was an obvious idea, but in some ways more foreign.) I could see him drudging away in a small hedge fund, trying to do the right thing, never getting to see his family, suffering with computer breakdowns, losing money through honest dealing, accepting the ups and downs of London real estate with his idiosyncratic proverbs, like

All life ends in death. We’ll all be dead some day, Golda. A man is like a carpenter: a carpenter lives and lives and dies, and a man lives and dies.

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