A real champion of academic freedom

I’ve commented before about the craven assault on academic freedom at the University of Southampton, which feigned concerns about “health and safety” to justify cancelling an uncomfortable conference on international law and the legitimacy of the state of Israel. But for me it’s mainly an abstract issue. I’m not involved in the conference, my political views lie messily between those of the conference organisers and their opponents, and it’s not a hugely important topic to me.

One name that I noticed, with interest, on the programme, was that of Geoffrey Alderman, professor of history at University of Buckingham. I know of him from his frequent contributions to the Jewish Chronicle, which I usually filed in the “staunch Zionist” column, with some of the blindspots typical of that worldview. I was impressed with his willingness to appear in such a forum, clearly slanted against his beliefs, both because of the discomfort that entails, and because of the danger that his ideological allies would see him as a traitor to the cause.

He has now written a letter to Times Higher Education, forthrightly condemning this triumph of obscurantism.

As a proud Jew and a proud Zionist, I am appalled. As a patron of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, I am outraged. As someone who was to have presented a paper at the conference, I am horrified.

Academic freedom is indivisible. There is no subject that cannot be discussed in a university environment.

As a proud non-Zionist Jew, I am hugely impressed, and encouraged.

Long-running non-dom com

UK residents who can claim that their real long-term home is somewhere else — perhaps in their family suite in Monaco, or they plan to be buried in the Cayman Islands — are termed “non-domiciled”, and spared the indignity of paying UK tax on their worldwide income. This includes people who were born and lived their whole lives in this country, if their father was foreign (or himself non-domiciled). This last is particularly galling to the ordinary taxpayer.

Now Labour has vowed to do away with the whole farce, leaving the Tories spluttering about the cost to the economy of driving away wealthy job-creators. What’s fascinating is to see Conservatives suddenly arguing that foreigners are making useful contributions to Britain, even if they are benefit cheats tax avoiders. Sure, some wealthy foreigners are probably making a positive contribution to the UK economy, while others are primarily competing with local people for scarce housing. In that they are a lot like non-wealthy foreigners, if we replace “housing” with “jobs”: some make a net positive economic contribution, some don’t.

But no one is suggesting that we really need to make sure that we retain any loopholes that allow impecunious immigrants to claim benefits in ways that seem contrary to any intended purpose or basic civic morality, because otherwise they might leave.

Truth and typeface

In an article about a performance by Allen Ginsberg 50 years ago in the Albert Hall, we read

Ms Leavey, who has listened to a recording of the event made by the BBC but never used in its entirety, said that Ginsberg faced a torrent of heckles, the clearest of which was a reference to an earlier recital by Christopher Logue, who had been on stage performing translations of Sophocles.

One wonders who was the author of Sophocles, and which language it was translated from.
Interestingly, I note that the online version does not put Sophocles in italics. It’s an interesting example of where typeface, like punctuation, can make hash of an otherwise accurate statement.

The Habsburg Google

It is often portrayed as an innovation of Google, to use convenient services — starting with the provision of free email — as a honeypot to attract masses of otherwise indifferent citizens to make their private information and correspondence available for lucrative snooping provision of services. But according to Adam Zamoyski’s history of counterrevolution in Europe between the revolutions of 1789 and 1848, the Austrian empire got there first. (The parallels to trends in the modern world are so numerous and extensive that the author coyly disclaims any effort to mark them out, starting from the overarching inclination of governments frightened by revolutionary terror to snoop on everything, and invent fantastic conspiracies — often instigating the plots themselves — to justify their spiralling tyranny, to small things, like an obsession with ciphers and politicised reinvention of archaic religious movements.)

The perennial Austrian foreign minister Count Metternich was obsessed with the need to keep an eye on the revolutionary conspiracies crisscrossing the continent, but had direct access only to letters passing through the Austrian postal service.

To ensure that as much European mail as possible continued to pass through Austrian domains, Metternich saw to it that the Habsburg postal service was cheaper and faster than the alternatives.

Dolchstosslegende à l’anglaise

Another Jew has stabbed us in the back, warns defence secretary Michael Fallon. This time, it’s Ed Miliband, who has shown himself an utter failure at trying to pass for a normal bacon-eating Brit, who is potentially going to leave us helpless, with barely a nuclear-armed submarine to protect us against the benefits scroungers. His choice of detail was fascinating: He wrote that Miliband

could not be trusted with the nation’s defences after he “stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader”. In a Times article Fallon wrote: “Now he is willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become prime minister.”

Now, of course, we can’t be sure of the details until David Miliband’s body is found*, but so far as I am aware, they competed fairly for the leadership of Labour. Ed won. Doesn’t sound particularly nefarious to me. But then, I come from a religious tradition whose scripture celebrates younger brothers who stab the older ones in the back triumph over the disadvantages of their birth.

*Correction: It has already been found. It is in New York, directing the International Rescue Committee.

Losing sleep

One thing that surprised me when I moved to the UK was the lack of any significant paternity leave. It seemed peculiar, in this century, for the government to have a policy of making space for new parents to take care of their newborn children without losing their jobs, but to be insisting that the care must be provided by the mother. It seemed even more peculiar that otherwise progressive employers, that go beyond the statutory minimum in providing leave for new mothers, rarely seemed to extend any protection to fathers. (Oxford, in particular, provides on its own initiative leave for fathers who adopt a child, but not when a child is born.)

This has now changed. The government passed a shared parental leave law that now comes into effect. Not everyone is happy about it, though:

The Institute of Directors has previously warned the new law could create a “nightmare” for employers.

I’m not particularly prone to nightmares, but those I have had almost never involved men taking care of their infant children while the mothers returned to work. At least, not primarily. Perhaps a different cliché would have been more appropriate here.

As a sign of how much difficulty journalists have keeping the UK’s constitutional arrangements straight, the article concludes with

Parental leave is a devolved issue in Northern Ireland but the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a bill offering parents the same rights as in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Scotland didn’t even vote to secede, but it’s already forgotten…

The Emancipation Haggadah [reprinted from last year]

A few 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.

The biggest genetics-investment opportunity ever!

I was just looking at this paper from 2012, that purports to discover the heritability of economic and political preferences by slightly shady statistical analysis of GWAS data. And then it hit me: We could market

An investment plan tailored to YOUR genotype

Okay, we’ll have to work on the catchphrase. Feel free to send your seed money. (The genotype-based diet is running like gangbusters.) Excuse me while I go off for a moment to write the patent application.


A new challenge for computer science

Do you remember the Sokal affair? Mathematical physicist Alan Sokal submitted a fake paper titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to a postmodern cultural studies journal Social Text. Well, it was a real paper, but it was a hoax. It was written as a hoax, cobbling together the silliest tropes he could find about social construction of science and left-wing politics. Once it was published, he used it as a club to beat up on postmodern theory, and the humanities more generally. Many self-satisfied scientists claimed, at the time, that this confirmed all their worst suspicions about the emptiness of academic jargon-spinning in the humanities and social-scientists. The implication — sometimes made explicit — was that the reverse could never happen, that scientists know exactly what their terms mean, and could never be fooled by such a prank.

It turns out, the situation is much worse than that. Springer and IEEE have been forced to withdraw 120 papers that they published in various conference proceedings, and that turn out to have been randomly generated by the software SCIgen. Concerned to assure the public of the reliability of their peer-review process, Springer has now announced a technical solution: SciDetect, software that checks papers to determine whether they have been generated by SCIgen. (If it had been announced today I would have assumed that it was an April Fools prank, but the press release is from 23 March.)

Confirming me in my opinion that the whole system of peer review has outlived its usefulness, and is now living on as a vestigial parasite on the scientific enterprise.

Anyway, Springer has now thrown down the gauntlet, and young computer scientists should rise to the challenge of improving SCIgen, to fool the new software. We may see an accelerating arms race in scientific publishing, a kind of reverse Turing Test, with computers trying to fool other computers into believing that they are computer scientists. In the end, maybe the software will get so good that it will be doing original research and writing real scientific papers.