Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for June, 2014

“Continent cut off…”

The news this weekend is dominated by reports of how the entire EU failed last week to reach agreement with David Cameron on the next president of the EU Commission, and had to settle on a compromise candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker, supported only by the non-British faction of the EU. Only Hungary — despite its borderline fascist government — was able to garner Cameron’s support, while the remaining 26 EU members had to make do with the bare consolation of having their preferred candidate take office.

(This was right after soccer teams from many nations were brusquely snubbed by the England side, who could not be persuaded that the quality of the other team’s playing was such as to keep them from attending to other pressing engagements back home.)

Senior Conservatives were not magnanimous toward the defeated EU, accusing other national leaders of “cowardice” for refusing to publicly defame the EU leader whom they had agreed to, and would consequently be working with in the coming years, despite the fact that some of them had not at first considered him their favourite candidate.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, said Britons “will be proud that at last they have a Prime Minister who has demonstrated that he puts the interests of Britain first — regardless of who or what is pitted against him.” Perhaps the leader most determined to assert British interests against Europe since King Harold II, who was also famous for keeping his eye fixed (on real reform). They were similarly disdainful of reports that Pope Francis has not completed a conversion to the Anglican Church, and are seeking further investigation of reports that a large ursine has been seen defecating in a forested tract. (more…)

A very special relationship

Anyone interested in the technical details of US and British internal signals espionage, as practiced by NSA and GCHQ in the second half of the 20th century and beyond, should read James Bamford’s The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America. Some of the details are fascinating, many are disturbing, and some are just unimaginably bizarre. Like the fawning letter sent by Sir Leonard Hooper, director of GCHQ in the late 1960s, to his NSA counterpart Marshall “Pat” Carter, in which he suggested (perhaps tongue in cheek) he might like to name GCHQ’s two giant radio dishes after Carter and his deputy. After effusive thanks for the NSA’s support, and Carter’s personally, he goes on:

Between us, we have ensured that the blankets and sheets are more tightly tucked around the bed in which our two sets of people lie and, like you, I like it that way.

I’ve read this over multiple times, and I don’t think I can decipher it. Are the blankets and sheets wrapped around the two sets of people separately, or are they bound in a transatlantic conjugal embrace? Are the intelligence agencies the Mommy and Daddy, tucking us in for the night while they protect us from the bogeys (from whom they derive much of their power, while themselves knowing that they are mere figments). This talk of wrapping sheets “tightly” around two sets of people who passively “lie” makes me think of winding sheets wrapped around corpses.

And then, there’s the closing: “like you, I like it that way”. Is he still speaking metaphorically here? Was he ever? Or is he proposing or recalling a secret tryst? Is that the sort of pillow talk that deeply closeted military types engaged in half a century ago?

Chris moves on

I was looking for an edition of Pilgrim’s Progress, which I’ve never read, except in excerpts. I discovered this 1869 edition by Mary Godolphin titled Pilgrim’s Progress in Words of One Syllable. I was fascinated. It sounded like a modernist literary gag, like writing a novel with no E’s. When I had a look, I found the monosyllabicity wasn’t quite as thoroughgoing as I’d hoped. For instance, we are spared the protagonists Chris and Prude, and the City of Destruction has not been renamed to Knock Down Town, or Ruin Burg. There would be a nice alliteration if the Slough of Despond had become the Swamp of Sad.

“Crazy-headed coxcombs” becomes “such fools”, which has a certain pithiness to it. On the other hand, Mme. Godolphin does apologise: “It may be objected that my system involves the use of words which, though short, are difficult to understand.” I am reminded of Alexander Pope’s great self-referential parody, in the Essay on Criticism,

While Expletives their feeble Aid do join,
And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line,
While they ring round the same unvary’d Chimes,
With sure Returns of still expected Rhymes.

Which, in turn, reminds me of Tom Lehrer’s “Folk Song Army“:

The tune don’t gotta be clever
And it don’t matter if you put a couple extra syllables into a line.
It sound’s more ethnic if it ain’t good English,
And it don’t even gotta rhyme.
Excuse me, rine.

“Not infinite”

From The Guardian:

British nurses are planning to debate whether GPs should start charging patients for appointments.

The Royal College of Nursing’s (RCN) annual conference in Liverpool will discuss whether the union backs the idea of charging people a fee to see their family doctors.

Traditionally the RCN has stood behind the belief that the NHS should be free at the point of delivery. But nurses have put forward the motion, saying that NHS finances are “not infinite”.

“Not infinite” sounds like a sensible observation. Neither are the funds available to the police infinite, which is why we charge people a fee to report a burglary, with extra hourly charges for the investigation. And schools. And that’s why when the smoke alarm klaxons you out of bed, the first thing you need to do is grab enough cash to pay the firefighters who show up. Because their finances are not infinite.

Obviously, the RCN is just trying to make the point that healthcare workers are having their salaries squeezed up against the free-at-the-point-of-delivery. But this argument is made often, and it’s ridiculous. If you want to advocate patient fees, as opposed to all the other ways that the nation could increase funding of the NHS, it can only be because you think that the service that is now free is being overused, and you want to encourage ill people to do something else, besides visiting their GPs. In any case, the cost of administering the £10 fee would probably be more than the fee would bring in.

Here’s what charging for fire and rescue services looks like.

Poor parents

Fining parents is the latest fashion in UK education policy. The government has this started fining — and threatening with criminal prosecution — parents who take their children out of school, other than for illness, for any reason short of a funeral. Education Secretary Michael Gove has recently announced his intention to impose fines on parents if their children misbehave in school.

Now we have the UK chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, wanting to go beyond the school walls, suggesting fines for parents who don’t read to their children enough (or, presumably, the right books full of “British values“). In an interview reported on the front page of today’s Times he said

It’s up to head teachers to say quite clearly, “You’re a poor parent”… I think head teachers should have the power to fine them. It’s sending the message that you are responsible for your children no matter how poor you are.

To be fair, the context makes clear that the first use of the word poor is meant to be metaphorical, but I think there’s no denying that the word choice there simply reveals more than is intended. The government’s attitude is that families with children in state schools must be indifferent to education, because if they weren’t, they would have sent their children to private schools, wouldn’t they?

If you’re poor and a parent, you must certainly be a poor parent, and you need to be chivied into allowing your children to be trained to the appropriate mediocre level that will spare the City drones of the future from ever having to do an honest day’s work. If you think that education is a collaborative project between families and schools, and that children need to be engaged rather than bullied, you’re just making “an excuse for not teaching poor children how to add up.”

In other words, if we don’t make schools like prisons now, those children will end up in real prisons later on.

What is unclear to me is whether this reflects reflexive  an intentional policy to drive families who could afford private education out of the state sector, whether purely in the interest of cutting costs or to curtail social mixing.

Trojan hobby horses

Don’t forget: Troy was in Turkey — a Muslim country!

A scandal has been rumbling on in the UK primary and secondary education establishment. A few months ago the UK press splashed around the text of The Protocols of the Elders of Islam the “Trojan Horse” letter, purporting to be a missive from one group of Islamists to another, describing the progress of their nefarious plan to take over and islamise the Birmingham schools, and recommending methods for expanding the process to other cities. The quotes read like uncensored excerpts from Nigel Farage’s fever dream:

We have caused a great amount of organised disruption in Birmingham and as a result now have our own academies and are on the way to getting rid of more headteachers and taking over their schools. Whilst sometimes the practices we use may not seem the correct way to do things you must remember that this is say ‘jihad’ and as such using all measures possible to win the war is acceptable.

One needs to imagine an Osama bin Laden lookalike twirling the ends of his beard and laughing maniacally as he reads this aloud. (more…)

Bert and the Duke

I just read Terry Teachout’s biography of Duke Ellington. The most prominent theme of the book — beyond Teachout’s efforts at a clear-eyed appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of Ellington’s music — is an elucidation of Ellington’s, to put it charitably, magpie tendencies. Throughout his career, Ellington compensated for his own deficiencies — little talent for melody, inability to write for strings, extreme procrastination — by poaching the inventions of his sidemen, often with minimal compensation and little or no credit. This tendency reached its acme in Ellington’s wholesale subordination of Billy Strayhorn, who was almost completely subsumed into the Ellington persona.

This reminded me of another fascinating biography that I read many years ago, John Fuegi’s Brecht & Co.  That book portrayed Bertolt Brecht as a kind of literary parasite, who seduced brilliant women and enslaved them to write plays for him. Just to mention one of the most egregious examples, Elisabeth Hauptmann appeared on the original publication as co-author of The Threepenny Opera — even there, only as the “translator” of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, with “German treatment by Bertolt Brecht” — though almost certainly a substantial majority of the text is by her. Brecht later sold off the international rights entirely on his own, under his own name. Similarly, Mother Courage and The Life of Galileo  were cowritten with Margarete Steffin — and again, her contribution is not minimal, the same not being entirely clear for Brecht himself — but are invariably described as works of Brecht.

These sound like clear cases of abuse, they seem to undermine the stature of the great artist — perhaps worse in Brecht’s case, where erotic seduction was being abused as well, and the weak social position of women vis-à-vis intellectual property. And yet… it’s clear that both Ellington and and Brecht produced brilliant, world-changing work with a variety of collaborators, while none of the collaborators produced great work apart from the master. (Billy Strayhorn is an interesting possible counterexample, in part because Ellington’s thefts from him were so extensive — some of the “collaborations” were entirely Strayhorn’s work, or almost so — and in part because the collaboration with Ellington subsumed almost his entire career.) Elisabeth Hauptmann, at least, always denied that she had been ill-used by Brecht.

Part of the problem may be with the romantic image we have of the lone genius. As Fuegi’s title suggests (perhaps ironically), the image of the “workshop” may be more appropriate to some — perhaps most? — artistic creation. There is a special skill required to recognise the flashes of creativity in others and shape them to a whole — as Ellington did (Strayhorn excepted) — or to provide a framework to which creative artists can contribute their own genius wholeheartedly. This was the job of the master of a Renaissance workshop, and it’s not clear that we should think less of “Brecht” or “Ellington” as creative artists, to know that these names are, at least in part, fronts for a collective. While they were alive it would have been good to redirect some of the material rewards — though Ellington, at least, directed everything he had to maintaining his orchestra — but now all that remains is esteem for the work and its creator, however the latter is defined.

The real question about “e-cigarettes”

I’ll preface this by saying, whoever thought to call inhalable nicotine delivery devices “e-cigarettes” probably deserves a marketing prize. More generally, the whole framing of these devices seems bizarre.

There’s an article by Sally Satel in The New Republic, under the title “Everyone Is Asking the Wrong Questions About E-Cigarettes”, which presents current opposition to the e-cigarrette phenomenon as a kind of neuropharmacological Luddism. The argument — which is depressingly common — is that electrically generated nicotine vapour is so clearly a health gain relative to tobacco smoke that no regulatory hurdles should inhibit an addict from replacing the latter by the former.

This sounds compelling, but it’s not, because it ignores fundamental principles of government regulation, and in particular the awkward respect that it shows to stasis: Very often we impose new regulations on changes, allowing the old to remain in place because the expense or disruption imposed by requiring the old to be replaced is seen as excessive. An example that first caught my attention many years ago was the way Boston (and presumably Boston is not at all unusual in this) imposed a requirement that, for example, new outdoor light fixtures or windows need to meet requirements of historic preservation — even (and this was the part that amazed me at first) if it’s just a matter of replacing one fixture by a new but identical fixture. But of course, the idea is that over time replacements will be made, and that will the appropriate time to upgrade to the desired (historically sensitive) appearance. (more…)

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