A bomb in mathematics

I’ve just been reading Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. It’s more than a century old, and I was surprised to find it such an acute analysis of the psychology of terrorism. It follows the planning and aftermath of a ridiculous and botched scheme to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. The ringleader Mr Verloc, the “secret agent” of the title, who spends his time infiltrating anarchist organisations, is put up to it by his employer, the embassy of an unnamed Central Asian nation. The crime seems almost entirely unmotivated. The new First Secretary of the embassy is irked by Verloc’s indolence and apparent uselessness, and seeks to prod him into making some exertions for his salary. The inane goal of the attack is to show up the ineptitude of the English police, and so stimulate an autocratic turn in its inconveniently soft and democratic government. Plus ça change… The target must be such as to seem senseless (hence not a tiresomely conventional target, like a crown prince or a government building), important (hence not the National Gallery — “There would be some screaming, of course, but from whom? Artists — art critics and such like — people of no account. No one minds what they say.”) and sufficiently menacing. He announces

The demonstration must be against learning—science.  But not every science will do.  The attack must have all the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy.  Since bombs are your means of expression, it would be really telling if one could throw a bomb into pure mathematics.  But that is impossible…  What do you think of having a go at astronomy?

I was also amused by the comment of the bomb engineer:

The system’s worked perfectly.  And yet you would think that a common fool in a hurry would be much more likely to forget to make the contact altogether.  I was worrying myself about that sort of failure mostly.  But there are more kinds of fools than one can guard against.  You can’t expect a detonator to be absolutely fool-proof.

Motion of confidence trick

Expecting to lose (or rather, not win) the election, Cameron is setting all his chips on pre-emptively delegitimising a Labour government. The headline on the front page of the Times (dispensing with the pose of objectivity) is

Miliband trying to con way into No. 10, says PM.

(It’s an objective fact, because it’s a quote.) The former cabinet secretary who oversaw the 2010 coalition negotiations has dismissed this suggestion:

We live in a parliamentary democracy. The rules are very clear and they are laid out in the Cabinet Manual, and it says the ability of government to command the confidence of the elected House of Commons is central to its authority to govern.

But I found most interesting Cameron’s response, explaining why any government that depends on support from the barbarians in the north would be presumptively illegitimate:

Why is that a problem, why does that raise huge questions of credibility? Well for the obvious reason that the SNP don’t want Britain to be a success, indeed they don’t want Britain to exist. [SNP voters] have every right to vote, of course they do. But I’ve also got every right to warn of the dangers of a government propped up by a bunch of nationalists who don’t want our country to succeed.

I find this startlingly apocalyptic. “Britain” used to include all of Ireland, but didn’t cease to exist when part of that island gained independence. The fact that the SNP is expected to gain a broad majority across one of the constituent nations of the UK suggests that “they don’t want our country to succeed” is too facile. After all, it’s their country too, isn’t it?


Sikh and ye shall find

… a primary school place.

Apparently the government’s decision to wipe out new school construction and put huge amounts of the remaining schools budget into independently run “free schools” has led to some unexpected consequences:

More than 20 pupils have been allocated places at a Sikh-ethos free school in Leeds that they did not choose, amid a shortage of school places.

The school is not a faith school, but it is run with a Sikh ethos.

As someone with a child who had little option but to attend a Church of England school, that really was a “faith school” — secular options were much further away, even if they did have places — I wonder what the fuss was about.

On its website, the Khalsa Free School stresses it is not a faith school, adding: “We are firmly committed to developing our pupils’ understanding and appreciation of the diverse world in which they live.” It says: “We welcome all children regardless of their backgrounds or faiths and we aim to help all our children develop a lifelong love of learning, which will support them throughout their academic careers and beyond.” 
“For Sikhs, education not only prepares students for work and life in society but also supports spiritual growth. Education is understood by Sikhs to raise aspirations and personal standards, encourage self-awareness and humility, and inspire all to seek a greater purpose in life.”

Humility! Purpose! No wonder parents are outraged. What impact will self-awareness have on lifetime earnings? How will humility help them get in to Cambridge? Where is the acknowledgement of the divine imperative to maximise test scores?