Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for April, 2015

Social climber

What is it about rock climbing that makes it such a useful synecdoche for enjoying your life? In an article about an unusual case about a girl whose lawsuit against a sexually abusive teacher foundered when her claims of “loss of enjoyment of life” seemed to be contradicted by a happy Facebook page, I was struck by the comment

Melissa’s account was mostly locked to outsiders, but some pictures were visible: Melissa hanging out with her boyfriend, Melissa working at a veterinary hospital, Melissa rock climbing, Melissa out drinking with friends… Nor did it support her claim of “loss of enjoyment of life,” which one judge has defined as the loss of “watching one’s children grow, participating in recreational activities, and drinking in the many other pleasures that life has to offer.” Rock climbing is a recreational activity; drinking with friends is one of life’s pleasures, after all. Last month, the court ordered Melissa to hand over every photograph, video, status update, and wall message ever posted on her Facebook accounts so that the school district may search for more clues that Melissa is secretly thriving.

And that reminded me of an article many years ago in Harper’s about American casualty adjustors, whose job it is to put a price on someone’s life for purposes of wrongful death suits.

I ask them to evaluate my worth, and they tell me that outdoorsy people are worth more than people like me, who stay home and read. “People have no sympathy for somebody who sits alone on his couch, drinks beer, eats food, and is a load,” Ed says.

“That’s why nobody likes me,” says George. “It’s how sympathetic you are. People go, ‘He rock climbed,’ you know. `This guy enjoyed life. He was out there doing things.’ You cherish life more if you are interacting with it.”

Contrapositive version of “C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute”

A judge in Chicago has reversed this famous Napoleonic bon mot. Whereas Antoine Boulay attacked a judicial decision (to condemn the Duc d’Enghien) as “Worse than a crime, an error,” Judge Dennis Porter has decided to acquit a murderer with the reverse argument: “It was not an error, therefore not as bad as a crime.”

The basic facts are these: the accused, off-duty police officer (not that that has anything to do with it) Dante Servin, having decided on his own initiative to confront a noisy crowd from the comfort of his automobile, says he was spooked when he mistook a telephone for a gun. He naturally did what any reasonable person would do in such a situation: He fired five shots blindly into the crowd, missing the man with the dangerous telephone, but killing one other person and injuring another. In his trial for manslaughter the judge ruled that he could not possibly be guilty of that crime, because manslaughter requires “recklessness”, and Servin was clearly not reckless because he intended to shoot at people. No, really:

Porter… agreed that Servin was acting intentionally when he fired his gun. In fact, he said in his ruling, Illinois courts have long held that when a defendant “intends to fire a gun, points it in the general direction of his or her intended victim, and shoots, such conduct is not merely reckless,” but “intentional” and “the crime, if any there be, is first degree murder.”

Since he had not been charged with first degree murder, the only alternative was to acquit him.

Feeling good

According to the Guardian,

British taxpayers should expect to feel worse off under whichever party wins the general election next week, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

What a weird circumlocution! We’re not saying that people will be worse off, only that they will feel that way. We’re not even really saying that that they will feel worse off, only that they should expect to feel worse off. And what will be the basis for that feeling? They will be paying higher taxes which, as taxpayers, is all those people care about. It may be that British residents will be feeling better if Labour is elected — their children will have more and better school places, they won’t have to queue at the hospital A&E, they’ll have access to better social services in times of need — but British taxpayers will be down in the dumps. Maybe there’s some way we could get them to meet up, even for the residents to share some of their good fortune with taxpayers.

The funny thing is, the report does not use the expression “worse off” (except in reference to a particular proposed tax change with a cliff-edge effect, leaving some people in a particular income band worse off than if they had lower incomes). It doesn’t include broad statements about people’s general subjective well being, or even their financial well-being. It simply suggests that all the parties are going to raise taxes somewhat, make minor changes to benefits, and overall make the system slightly more complicated and less coherent.

Brussels on the Leith

It seems that the coming election is all about clawing back to Westminster those sovereign powers that have been allowed to slip away to unaccountable foreigners. In Brussels, and in Edinburgh. After fighting to convince the Scots that they really were, and by rights ought to remain, an integral part of the UK, the Conservatives have now made the danger of pernicious Scottish influence the centrepiece of their campaign. It’s no coincidence, really, since the informal alliance between Scotland and the EU was an important issue in the independence campaign, and will certainly revive calls for independence if the Conservatives are able to follow through on their threat to withdraw Britain from the EU.

As a non-native, I have no emotional attachment to the union or to the particular nationalisms, but I do wish they would make up their minds. “English votes for English laws” is the latest Tory slogan. That would be easily accomplished by creating a devolved parliament for England, which would turn the UK into a logically structured federal state. For whatever reason, that seems to be unthinkable, or at least unspeakable. Instead, they want to keep the Scottish MPs in a combined national and English parliament, but only allow them to vote on certain bills, creating a dangerous (but perhaps convenient for some) ambiguity about which MPs can form a majority, and hence a government.

I wonder if any of the people who helped defeat the referendum a few years back on a partial move toward proportional representation has any regrets now. It used to be that the first-past-the-post system was praised for providing clear parliamentary majorities and a stable balance of two major parties, as opposed to the silly continentals with their every-shifting coalitions of splinter parties. In fact, the system rewards, up to limits, geographic concentration of support. According to the most recent polls, Labour and Conservatives are each expected to get about 33% of the votes, and about 42% of the seats. So far so good for the “stable-large-party” doctrine. But the small parties receive very unequal treatment among themselves. The Liberal Democrats are projected to garner 8% of the votes and 4% of the seats. UKIP, a new party with broad but geographically diffuse support, is projected to snag 14% of the votes, but only 3 seats, or 0.5%. The SNP, with 4% of the votes, are expected to get 8% of the seats, essentially all of the MPs representing the 8% of the population who live in Scotland. The Greens, also with 4% of the votes, will be lucky to hold on to their single MP (out of 650 total).

So I wonder if, amid all this fragmentation, people are wondering if people are reconsidering the wisdom of Britain’s indirect approach to promoting large, broad-based parties, that is no longer really accomplishing its goal, but is unintentionally promoting regional-parties.

Always the Jews…

I can’t help wondering: Can it be a coincidence that when an Islamist extremist decides to shift from attacking Jewish institutions to planning mass slaughter at churches — a plot which seems to have been foiled only because the shooter accidentally shot himself first, and called an ambulance — he chooses as his target a town called Villejuif?

Security theatre, WWII and today

Computer security researcher Chris Roberts has been banned from United Airlines for the offense of pointing out that the lax security in their onboard wifi systems could endanger the safety of the aircraft. At the same time, they insisted that

We are confident our flight control systems could not be accessed through techniques [Mr Roberts] described.

The only danger to the flight control systems, it turns out, was the researcher who informed them (via Twitter) of the security flaws.

This reminded me of the story Richard Feynman told about cracking safes for a lark at Los Alamos. One time he decided to needle a colonel he was visiting at Oak Ridge, who had just deposited some highly secret documents extra heavy-duty safe, but with the same easy-to-crack lock on it. He’d figured out that when the safe was left open, it was easy to pick up two of the three numbers of the combination by feel.

“The only reason you think they’re safe in there is because civilians call it a ‘safe’.”

The colonel furiously challenged him to open it up. This Feynman accomplished, in two minutes, though he pretended to need much longer, to distract from what an easy trick it was.) After allowing some moments of astonishment, he decided to be responsible:

“Colonel, let me tell you something about these locks: When the door to the safe or the top drawer of the filing cabinet is left open, it’s very easy for someone to get the combination. That’s what I did while you were reading my report, just to demonstrate the danger. You should insist that everybody keep their filing cabinet drawers locked while they’re working, because when they’re open, they’re very, very vulnerable.”

The next time Feynman visited Oak Ridge, everyone was wanting to keep him out of their offices. It seems, the colonel’s response to the danger was to make everyone change their combinations if Feynman had been in or passed through their office, which was a significant nuisance.

That was his solution: I was the danger.[…] Of course, their filing cabinets were still left open while they were working.

Risk categories and e-cigarettes

I’ve been reading Kate Fox’s celebrated Watching the English, which is sort of a pop-sociological treatise on English customs, but somewhat hard to take for all its flattering the English in all the myths they cherish about themselves — including their supposed modesty and inability to accept compliments. (I was particularly astonished by her description of the supposedly considerate English drivers. Perhaps they treat other drivers with more respect than they can spare for pedestrians.)

Anyway, since I am intrigued by the way “e-cigarettes” — devices for inhaling an addictive drug — have managed to float free from drug regulations, not to mention the prohibition that usually gets slapped onto designer drugs, as well as from their association with increasingly illicit tobacco. Fox is a huge fan, and can’t understand how anyone could object:

These clever devices are a sort of glorified version of nicotine inhalators, which look and feel rather more like a real cigarette, and emit a totally harmless, odourless steam or vapour that looks a bit like smoke. Many people are now accustomed to seeing these electronic cigarettes, and know that they are harmless…

Some people, however, do not instantly grasp this… and I have been conducting informal cross-cultural research on their reactions. In England, there are the usual raised eyebrows, frowns, pursed lips, tuts and mutters… But in all the years that I have been using these e-cigarettes on public transport and in restaurants, pubs and other public places where smoking is banned, only one English person has ever actually ‘confronted’ me about it…

In almost all countries, this disapproval quickly turns to friendly laughter, or curiosity, once I have explained that my ‘cigarette’ is an innocuous electronic device. The only exception I have found so far is the US, where some people seem to object almost as much to completely risk-free e-cigs as they do to the real thing — an irrational reaction that brings to mind my favourite definition of Puritanism: ‘The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be having fun.’

(Mencken’s definition was actually “that someone, somewhere, may be happy”.) There’s a fascinating number of words about risk here: odourless, harmless [twice], innocuous, completely risk-free, irrational reaction. It brings to my mind the ridicule heaped upon the killjoys who suggested in the 1980s and 1990s that something as innocuous as sidestream tobacco smoke could harm people’s health. Now everyone accepts that sidestream smoke is highly toxic, but the completely unregulated mixtures of chemicals spewed out by e-cigarettes are supposed to be harmless. On the basis of advertising copy, so far as I can see.

In contrast to the anthropologist Kate Fox, mere epidemiologists do not describe the second-hand exposure to e-cigarette vapour as “completely risk-free”. Instead, they say things like

Schober et al. measured indoor pollution from 3 people using e-cigarettes over a 2-hour period in a realistic environment modeled on a café. They found elevated nicotine, 1,2-propanediol, glycerin, aluminum, and 7 polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons classified as probable carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in the room air.[…]

on average, bystanders would be exposed to nicotine but at levels 1/10th that of cigarette smoke (e-cigarette aerosol, 3.32±2.49 μg/m3; cigarette smoke, 31.60±6.91 μg/m3; P=0.008). Both e-cigarette aerosol and cigarette smoke contained fine particles …

So e-cigarette vapour contains known carcinogens and the addictive drug nicotine. It is known that persistent low-level exposure to nicotine can provoke nicotine dependence, particularly in adolescents, or predispose them to other drug addiction.

Some people choose to take that drug recreationally, and I don’t object to them having that right. But why would a scientist disparage other people’s unwillingness to accept these risks to support her habit as “an irrational reaction”?

Of course, I know why. It’s one of the standard clichés about scientists, that they use the pose of rationality to claim an authority that they have not earned, to pretend that their private caprices are facts. It is unprofessional, and it undermines the whole enterprise of science.

Disastrous coalitions

The polls show the UK general election campaign stuck in an uncomfortable pattern. The three biggest parties seem clear to be the Conservatives and Labour, each with about 41.5% of the seats, and the SNP (Scottish Nationalists) with about 8.5%. That means that unless the two main parties form a coalition — which might happen if the Earth is invaded by bug-eyed monsters from Beta Centauri or Europe or someplace like that, but is extremely unlikely under any less circumstances less conducive to national unity — there is no majority without the SNP. In terms of policy the SNP is a natural ally of Labour —  but they have this one particular ambition to dismantle the country that makes them hard to accept as a coalition partner. They’re like the Bloc Québécois, who blocked majorities in the Canadian parliament for a decade or so until the most recent election.

The natural consequence would be a minority government, with informal concessions to the regional party that fall short of secession. But that’s naturally a worrying prospect for those who don’t want the country to be taken apart, or are worried about special benefits streaming north. So Cameron is beating that drum: (more…)

Baby, it’s cold outside

I was just reading an article in Die Zeit (not available online, for some reason) about a divorced mother in Bavaria who abruptly had custody of her six-year-old son removed, and given to her ex-husband and his new wife, on the basis of vague complaints that anonymous neighbours communicated to social services. They said the boy had injured himself playing outside with a lawnmower, though there is no evidence that such an injury ever occurred. She yells at him. The boy sits outside and waits for his father to pick him up, showing that he doesn’t like being there. But one detail — from the testimony of the new wife — stood out for me:

She doesn’t pay any attention to her son. She lets him play outside in the winter for hours when it’s minus 12 degrees Celsius.

If that were child neglect, you’d have to prosecute most of the parents in Canada. As I recall, when we lived in Kingston, my daughter’s kindergarten would have them playing outside during breaks unless the temperature went below -30°C.

Every three minutes

From a Guardian article on a new theory about the aetiology of Alzheimer disease:

It is thought that this year one person every three minutes will develop dementia.

It’s hard to explain statistics in a way that they feel real to people, but is “one person every three minutes” really a useful way to think about a disease that develops gradually over many years, as opposed to, say, muggings? Perhaps they meant to say “one person every three minutes will be diagnosed with dementia”.

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