Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for October, 2014

The force of “overwhelming”

The New Republic has published a film review by Yishai Schwartz under the portentous title “The Edward Snowden Documentary Accidentally Exposes His Lies”. While I generally support — and indeed, am grateful — for what Snowden has done, I am also sensitive to the problems of democratic governance raised by depending on individuals to decide that conscience commands them to break the law. We are certainly treading on procedural thin ice, and our only recourse, despite the commendable wish of Snowden himself, as well as Greenwald, to push personalities into the background, is to think carefully about the motives — and the honesty — of the man who carried out the spying. So in principle I was very interested in what Schwartz has to say.

Right up front Schwartz states what he considers to be the central dishonesty of Snowden’s case:

Throughout this film, as he does elsewhere, Snowden couches his policy disagreements in grandiose terms of democratic theory. But Snowden clearly doesn’t actually give a damn for democratic norms. Transparency and the need for public debate are his battle-cry. But early in the film, he explains that his decision to begin leaking was motivated by his opposition to drone strikes. Snowden is welcome to his opinion on drone strikes, but the program has been the subject of extensive and fierce public debate. This is a debate that, thus far, Snowden’s and his allies have lost. The president’s current drone strikes enjoy overwhelming public support.

“Democratic theory” is a bit ambivalent about where the rights of democratic majorities to annihilate the rights — and, indeed, the lives — of individuals, but the reference to “overwhelming” public support is supposed to bridge that gap. So how overwhelming is that support? Commendably, Schwartz includes a link to his source, a Gallup poll that finds 65% of Americans surveyed support “airstrikes in other countries against suspected terrorists”. Now, just stopping right there for a minute, in my home state of California, 65% support isn’t even enough to pass a local bond measure. So it’s not clear that it should be seen as enough to trump all other arguments about democratic legitimacy.

Furthermore, if you read down to the next line, you find that when the targets to be exterminated are referred to as “US citizens living abroad who are suspected terrorists” the support falls to 42%. Not so overwhelming. (Support falls even further when the airstrikes are to occur “in the US”, but since that hasn’t happened, and would conspicuously arouse public debate if it did, it’s probably not all that relevant.) Not to mention that Snowden almost surely did not mean that he was just striking out at random to undermine a government whose drone policies he disapproves of; but rather, that democratic support for policies of targeted killing might be different if the public were aware of the implications of ongoing practices of mass surveillance. (more…)

Default settings, encryption, and privacy

One essay that powerfully shaped my intellect in my impressionable youth was Douglas Hofstadter’s Changes in Default Words and Images, Engendered by Rising Consciousness, that appeared in the November 1982 issue of Scientific American (back when Scientific American was good), and Hofstadter’s associated satire A Person Paper on Purity in Language. Hofstadter’s point is that we are constantly filling in unknown facts about the world with default assumptions that we can’t recognise unless they happen to collide with facts that are discovered later. He illustrates this with the riddle, popular among feminists in the 1970s, that begins with the story of a man driving in a car with his young son. The car runs off the road and hits a tree, and the man is killed instantly. The boy is brought to the hospital, prepped for surgery, and then the surgeon takes one look at him and says “I can’t operate on this boy. He’s my son.” As Hofstadter tells it, when this story was told at a party, people were able to conceive of explanations involving metempsychosis quicker than they could come to the notion that the surgeon was a woman. It’s not that they considered it impossible for a woman to be a surgeon. It’s just that you can’t think of a human being without a sex, so it gets filled in with the default sex “male”. (The joke wouldn’t really work today, I imagine. Not only are there so many women surgeons that it’s hard to have a very strong default assumption, but the boy could have two fathers. On the other hand, a “nurse” has a very strong female default, so much so that a male nurse is frequently called a “male nurse”, to avoid confusion.)


Billions schmillions

It’s no wonder the British think they’re getting a raw deal from the EU. The front page of today’s Times reports on a revision of the membership contributions of various member states. The fact that they’re asking for an extra £1.7 billion from a government that is already straining to afford even the barest crumb of tax reduction for its neediest millionaires, while simultaneously fighting to protect its citizens from the temptation of voting for a further-right anti-immigrant anti-EU party is bold, to say the least, and provides an opportunity for Cameron to pose as a red-faced half-crazed deadbeat, defending his country from being billed for services already rendered.

But then you read on a bit and find that

Last year Britain contributed £8.6 billion to the EU budget – equivalent to almost 2p on the basic rate of income tax. The recalculating of the EU budget means that Germany is about to receive a rebate of £614 million, with France getting £788 billion and Poland £249 million.

There must be champagne corks popping at the Elysée today! £788 billion would be more than half of the total 2013 government expenditure.

Mining rights and intellectual property rights

I was talking recently with an Australian, who expressed outrage that the Australian government allows mining companies to extract valuable resources from state-owned land, almost for free. Now, I have expressed similar sentiments in the past about the comparable US practice. But on reflection, it occurred to me that I couldn’t agree with the claim of another lunch participant that it is a “no-brainer” that the public should be taking a significant portion of the value realised from the resources extracted from public land.

If you think back to the time when US mining laws were first laid out — I think the main US law dates back to 1871 or so — the general view must have been, there are vast territories out there, where valuable minerals are buried, that would be of great use to the general economy, if only we could get them out of the earth. Rather than pay people to go search for them systematically, we offer that anyone who finds some and figures out how to get them to market, can keep the profits from their sale. (more…)

The paradoxes of adultery, Renaissance edition

An example that is frequently cited in elementary statistics courses for the unreliability of survey data, is that when people are surveyed about their sexual history, men report more lifetime female partners on average than women report male partners. (A high-quality example is this UK survey from 1992, where men reported 9.9 female partners on average, while women averaged 3.4 male partners. It’s possible to tinker around the edges with effects of changes over time, and age differences between men and women in sexual relationships, but the contradiction is really inescapable. One thing that is quite striking in this survey is the difference between the cross-sectional and longitudinal pictures, which I’ve discussed before. For example, men’s lifetime numbers of sexual partners increase with age — as they must, longitudinally — but among the women the smallest average number of lifetime sex partners is in the oldest group.)

In any case, I was reminded of this when reading Stephen Greenblatt’s popular book on the rediscovery of De rerum naturae in the early 15th century by the apostolic secretary Poggio Bracciolini, and the return of Epicurean philosophy more generally into European thought. He cites a story from Poggio’s Liber Facetiarum a sort of jokebook based on his experiences in the papal court, about

dumb priests, who baffled by the fact that nearly all the women in confession say that they have been faithful in matrimony, and nearly all the men confess to extramarital affairs, cannot for the life of them figure out who the women are with whom the men have sinned.

The CDC misunderstand screening too

Last week I mocked the Spanish health authorities who refused to treat an Ebola-exposed nurse as a probable Ebola case until her fever had crossed the screening threshold of 38 degrees Celsius (or, in the absurdly precise American translation, 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit). Well, apparently the Centers for Disease Control in the US aren’t any better:

Before flying from Cleveland to Dallas on Monday, Vinson called the CDC to report an elevated temperature of 99.5 Fahrenheit. She informed the agency that she was getting on a plane, the official said, and she wasn’t told not to board the aircraft.

The CDC is now considering putting 76 health care workers at Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas hospital on the TSA’s no-fly list, an official familiar with the situation said.

The official also said the CDC is considering lowering the fever threshold that would be considered a possible sign of Ebola. The current threshold is 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Most disturbing is the fact that they don’t seem capable of combining factors. Would it be so hard to have a rule like, For most people, let’s hold off on the hazmat suits until your fever goes above 38. But if you’ve been cleaning up the vomit of an Ebola patient for the past week, and you have any elevated temperature at all — let’s say 37.2 — it would be a good idea to get you under observation.

The tyranny of the 95%

The president of the National Academy of Science is being quoted spouting dangerous nonsense. Well, maybe not so dangerous, but really nonsense.

I found this by way of Jonathan Chait, a generally insightful and well-informed political journalist, who weighed in recently on the political response to the IPCC report on climate change. US Republican Party big shot Paul Ryan, asked whether he believes that human activity has contributed to global warming, replied recently “I don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t think science does, either.” Chait rightly takes him to task for this ridiculous dodge (though he ignores the fact that Ryan was asked about his beliefs, so that his skepticism may reflect a commendable awareness of the cognitive theories of Stephen Stich, and his need to reflect upon the impossibility of speaking scientifically, or introspecting coherently, about the contents of beliefs), but the form of his criticism left me troubled:

In fact, science does know the answer. Climate scientists believe with a 95 percent level of certainty (the same level of certainty as their belief in the dangers of cigarette smoking) that human activity is contributing to climate change.

Tracking through his links, I found that he’d copied this comparison between climate change and the hazards of smoking pretty much verbatim from another blog, and that it ultimately derived from this “explanation” from the AP:

Some climate-change deniers have looked at 95 percent and scoffed. After all, most people wouldn’t get on a plane that had only a 95 percent certainty of landing safely, risk experts say.

But in science, 95 percent certainty is often considered the gold standard for certainty.


The president of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, Ralph Cicerone, and more than a dozen other scientists contacted by the AP said the 95 percent certainty regarding climate change is most similar to the confidence scientists have in the decades’ worth of evidence that cigarettes are deadly.

Far be it from me to challenge the president of the National Academy of Sciences, particularly if it’s the “prestigious” National Academy of Sciences, or more than a dozen other scientists, but the technical term for this is “bollocks”. (more…)

One-fifth of a teaspoon

I was brought up short by this odd sentence in a NY Times article on attempts to protect health-care workers treating Ebola patients:

At the peak of illness, an Ebola patient can have 10 billion viral particles in one-fifth of a teaspoon of blood. That compares with 50,000 to 100,000 particles in an untreated H.I.V. patient, and five million to 20 million in someone with untreated hepatitis C.

“One-fifth of a teaspoon” is an odd reference unit. I had to think a moment to realise that the reporter had presumably translated into American from Scientific the sentence

At the peak of illness, an Ebola patient can have 10 billion viral particles in one milliliter of blood.

As I discussed before, the partial conversion to the metric system has left fault lines between and within nations. And the attempt to cover over those cracks mechanically creates odd dissonances. Thus, the 19th century estimate of average human body temperature of 37 degrees Celsius (plus or minus about half a degree) gets turned into the incredibly precise sounding 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. It makes as much sense as saying “28 grams of prevention are worth 454 grams of cure”.

If the reporter had thought about it, she might have translated less mechanically, writing “an Ebola patient can have 50 billion viral particles in a teaspoon of blood”. But that still leaves the weird resonance of “teaspoon of blood”. A millilitre can be water or blood or Martian atmosphere, but when I hear “teaspoon” I subliminally feel like it’s supposed to go in my tea, or cake, or soup. The thing that people like so much about these traditional units is their historical and narrative specificity, their attachment to human-scale measuring activities, but that also makes them awkward for transferring measurements between domains. I could state my height in furlongs, and my weight in grains, but I’ll just confuse people.

Before posting, I just wanted to check that I was right about the size of a teaspoon in milliliters. I asked Google, and received the information “1 Imperial teaspoon =5.91939047 millilitres”. So, first of all, I was surprised to learn — if indeed it is true — that the teaspoon has been standardised to the hundred-billionth of a litre. Second, I found the thought of “the imperial teaspoon” hilarious.

Can’t beat duct tape

I remember hearing a comedian — perhaps Garrison Keillor? — saying everything could be fixed with duct tape and WD40. “If it moves and it shouldn’t, duct tape it. If it doesn’t move and it should, use WD40.

I was reminded of this in reading today’s article in the NY Times about the Nebraska Biocontainment Patient Care Unit, a hospital unit specialised for treating the most contagious diseases, that has stood empty, with the staff conducting only drills, since its founding ten years ago, until the current Ebola outbreak. Ot the front line of the high-tech, state-of-the-art defence against contagion,

Nurses on the biocontainment team… take turns spending four straight hours in Mr. Mukpo’s room in full protective gear, including full face shields and three pairs of surgical gloves duct-taped to water-resistant surgical gowns.

For the last millimetre of sealing the boundary, you still can’t beat duct tape. I can’t see this making it into the advertising copy, though.

Political talk therapy

Two apparently unrelated items from Nick Clegg’s speech at the Liberal Democrats’ party congress: First the BBC quoted his exhortation to the party soldiers, that they should

go to the next election with their “heads held high”.

Then came his announcement of

the first national waiting time targets for people with mental health problems.

People with depression should begin “talking therapy” treatments within 18 weeks, from April.

Let’s see: If the depressed Liberal Democrats can get their talk therapy started in April, maybe they’ll hold their heads a bit higher by the 7 May election.

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