Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for April, 2014

James Joyce on demography

I’ve been listening to Donal Donnelly’s wonderful recorded reading of Ulysses, and naturally both the format and my advancing years have highlighted passages that didn’t interest me when I read it in my teens and 20s. In particular, there is the unceasing drumbeat of birth and death: hundreds and hundreds of references, only the most prominent of which are, on the death side, Stephen Dedalus’s mother and Leopold Bloom’s son Rudy, and Paddy Dignam, whose funeral Bloom attends; and on the birth side, Mina Purefoy’s agonising three-day labour. Of course, you can’t miss it, but I didn’t notice the big picture. In particular, I didn’t notice how Bloom keeps circling from the individual death to the population level — what one might call the demographic perspective — and back again. (I also had forgotten how much time Bloom spends reflecting on scientific matters generally.) He has thoughts like

Funerals all over the world everywhere every minute.

Child born every minute somewhere.

and most impressively

Mina Purefoy swollen belly on a bed groaning to have a child tugged out of her. One born every second somewhere. Other dying every second. Since I fed the birds five minutes. Three hundred kicked the bucket. Other three hundred born, washing the blood off, all are washed in the blood of the lamb, bawling maaaaaa.

Cityful passing away, other cityful coming, passing away too: other coming on, passing on. Houses, lines of houses, streets, miles of pavements, piledup bricks, stones. Changing hands. This owner, that. Landlord never dies they say. Other steps into his shoes when he gets his notice to quit. They buy the place up with gold and still they have all the gold. Swindle in it somewhere. Piled up in cities, worn away age after age. Pyramids in sand. Built on bread and onions.

This sheds some light on the telegram that Stephen recalls early on, with its famous misprint: “Nother dying come home father.” It’s not just a misprint. “Nother” is one letter away from “Mother”, the person he should care about most in the world. But it’s also one letter away from “another”, that is, just another one in an endless sequence of humans dying. And many people are appalled that he seems to have treated his own dying mother as just an instance of a principle.

(The Gabler “corrected edition” appeared in 1984, right around the time I was first reading Ulysses, and so I recall that the press coverage of this publishing event emphasised a few obviously significant emendations, in particular this one, where editors had consistently  corrected the telegram misprint back to “Mother”, thus making a complete hash of the scene since it was impossible to understand why Stephen said that the telegram was a “curiosity to show”. But even then the thematic significance eluded me.)

Boycott Elsevier or not?

I am of two minds about efforts to put pressure on particularly bad actors in the scientific publishing field (such as Elsevier) to reform, since the result of that reform would be a slightly less greedy ectoparasite sucking the blood of the research community, slightly more sustainably. I think (as I wrote here) that the whole model of peer review is antiquated and oppressive and (as the British like to say) no longer fit for purpose. Perhaps we should seek to sharpen the contradictions, in the hopes that the academic proletariat will shake off these leeches. We should strive to make all journals like Elsevier, and double the prices.

Mathematician Timothy Gowers started organising a boycott of Elsevier a couple of years ago. I’m not sure how it’s going, but here’s some information about it. And here’s some artwork:elsevier tree of knowledge

Although, in fairness, I must point out that it wasn’t Elsevier who first tried to lock down the Tree of Knowledge. It was this guy:

"Here's your takedown notice."

“Here’s your takedown notice.”

Now that Elsevier has taken to making legal threats against academics who publish articles on their own academic web sites, Henry Farrell is proposing a novel strategy that combines the boycott with an embrace of Elsevier’s tactics:

I think that everyone should submit as much of their work to Elsevier as they possibly can. Any article that has even a modest chance of success. People should bear through the revise and resubmit process as many times as it takes. Once the piece has finally been accepted, then, and only then, should they withdraw the article from consideration, and then publish it on their university or personal website with an “accepted by Elsevier Journal x and then withdrawn in protest,” together with a copy of the acceptance email (containing the editor’s email address etc).

The Emancipation Haggadah

A couple of years ago, in anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and because I was blown away by reading a couple of Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies, I had the inspiration to try to integrate the American slave experience with the traditional haggadah. In particular, I put in lots of quotes from Douglass about the nature of slavery and freedom — the amazing physicality and emotional presence — to supplement the traditional text of “hard labour, clay and bricks, and all the work of the fields”. I’ve always thought the main purpose of the seder is to remind children (and adults) to think again about the difference between freedom and slavery, and for that we need text that makes it fresh and real. Douglass does that.

I combined this with other favourite passages and the portions of the traditional haggadah that I like to include in my seders. Of course, for those of us who are not keen on stories of wandering Arameans and such, it’s very convenient to have your own haggadah with your own selection of material, to spare the annoyance of announcing page numbers.

The result is here, for anyone who wants to have a look.

Vice and virtue

From a NY Times article on the crazy low success rates of applicants to prestigious (and even not-so-prestigious) US universities:

Bruce Poch, a former admissions dean at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., said he saw “the opposite of a virtuous cycle at work” in admissions.

The “opposite of a virtuous cycle”. There ought to be a name for that. Maybe, I don’t know, a “vicious cycle”?

(“Virtuous circle” is obviously a back-formation from “vicious circle”. It reminds me of the phrase “random act of kindness”, which seems to have almost superseded the “random act of violence” that it is obviously modelled on. Not that that’s a bad thing…)

Quoting clichés

There’s an interesting article in the NY Times on hackers’ use of remotely controlled devices like thermostats and vending machines to penetrate otherwise well-secured corporate networks. The subject matter is interesting, but I was also interested in the way experts were quoted. In particular, one network security expert

 compared the process of finding the source of a breach to “finding a needle in a haystack.”

I’m sure she really did use those words, but it seems peculiar to be putting a standard phrase like that in quotation marks, which are usually reserved for individual turns of phrase, or for emphasising the particular choice of words. In particular, it’s strange that only the cliché was quoted. It’s as though a national security reporter wrote “An administration source said the decision would have to be made by “the president”. Another source agreed that the decision would be made by “Barack Obama”.” Or “the engineer in charge of developing the product reduced the size of the design team, arguing that “too many cooks spoil the broth”.”

The political opinions of corporations

I’ve been intrigued by the forced resignation of Brendan Eich as CEO of Mozilla Corporation, on account of his donation of $1000 to the 2008 campaign to amend the California constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Some fascinating issues it brings up:
1. I’d forgotten that the last great political battle over same-sex marriage was fought in California. And the conservatives won it. How fascinating to be reminded that barely five years ago it was still possible to muster a majority for banning same-sex marriage in California of all places, and in the same year that Barack Obama was elected (also promising to oppose same-sex marriage). And after that Pyrrhic victory the conservatives basically fled the field, overwhelmed by an almost inexplicable tide of social change. (more…)

Killing the braces in order (technical)

I just noticed a funny tic that I have in programming (or writing LaTeX, which is sort of similar): When I remove brackets, I always look to remove the matched pair, even when they’re functionally equivalent, and even when it costs extra effort. For example, I have a text in LaTeX that goes something like


I decide to change it to $e^{-x}$. So I remove the \frac{1}, and then the open brace, leaving me with $e^{-x}}$, and my cursor is right at the x. The simplest thing (measured in keystrokes) would be to shift over and remove the brace directly following the x. But there is mental resistance to removing the “wrong” brace, which I resolve by making the extra keystroke and removing the final brace. Not a big deal, but it occurs to me that there’s probably interesting work to be done (or already being done) in the psychology of programming, and the conflicts between the logical deep structure that programmers need to work with, and the surface structure that is all the computer gets to work with.

Why are the one percent only 1%?

Have the years of unremitting oppression cut short their lifespans and suppressed their fertility? Is it because they’ve been hunted nearly to extinction?

These are questions that naturally come to mind in reading the novel genre, pioneered by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, of billionaire lamentations, the most recent of which is this cri de coeur of trust fund Croesus and libertarian political manipulator Charles Koch, with the title “I’m Fighting to Restore a Free Society”. He accuses his opponents, the nameless beasts called “Collectivists”, of acting like “20th century despots” by engaging in “character assassination”, which, as we all know, is exactly the sort of thing that 20th century despots were famous for, except for the “character” part. But character assassination is almost exactly the same as assassination, except without the bombs and stuff, and except for the fact that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish from “criticism”, which people might think a natural part of a “Free Society”. But, in case you’re not sure of how perfidious are these Collectivists who “discredit and intimidate”, Koch informs us that this approach is one that “Arthur Schopenhauer described in the 19th century”, which pretty much settles the issue, as far as I’m concerned.

Sure, it seems natural to look at the increasing concentration of wealth in the US (and not just in the US) and see a tiny oligarchy enriching itself at the expense of the rest of us. But you could look at the same numbers and see an oppressed and shrinking minority of wealth producers, slowly evaporating like a brackish pool in the sun, with its salt (wealth) concentration rising as it shrinks.

Where some of us see an opulent gated community, the reality (Charles Koch tells us) is just a gilded concentration camp. Where his character gets assassinated EVERY DAY. (True story.)

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