Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for June, 2015

Unavoidable chaos in the NHS?

A BBC headline announces that

Migration rules ‘may cause NHS chaos’

The problem is, a rule introduced in 2011 requires that foreign workers must return home after 6 years if they are not earning over £35,000. This is presented a disaster that can only be averted by the government granting an exemption to the rules.

The union says that by 2017 more than 3,300 NHS nurses could be affected. And by the end of the decade the numbers could be double that – a potential waste of nearly £40m when all the costs of recruitment are taken into account, the RCN says.

RCN general secretary Peter Carter said: “The immigration rules will cause chaos for the NHS and other care services.

“At a time when demand is increasing, the UK is perversely making it harder to employ staff from overseas.”

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the move was “totally illogical” as there is currently a “major shortage of nurses”, leading to many NHS trusts spending “tens of millions” to recruit from overseas.

Dr Carter also stressed that most nurses earn “nowhere near” £35,000, with most on salaries of between £21,000 and £28,000 a year.

I don’t mean to defend the Tory policies, which combine the Conservative view that the non-rich are inherently undesirable with the usual British political one-upmanship on bashing foreigners, but this doesn’t look to me like an inherently unsolvable problem. There is a method known for increasing the supply of labour: raise wages. If there is a “major shortage” of nurses when you pay between £21,000 and £28,000 a year, I’m willing to guess that there would be less of a shortage if they were paid between £25,000 and £32,000 a year. It probably wouldn’t solve the problem completely, in the short term, but it would bring in marginal resources — some part-time workers would work more hours, some would delay retirement, and so on — and it would pull more young people into the profession. And if they raised salaries to £35,000, that would solve their international recruitment problem. (more…)

Too many orang-utans?

I recently read Pierre Boulle’s Planète des Singes [Planet of the Apes]. I knew about the novel, of course, but hadn’t read it. It is very much of its time and place — though, as I have commented, the origins of the story have been sufficiently obscured by the various film versions, as to make a French version seem to an American cartoonist a plausible punchline. What I had not anticipated was the extent to which the novel is a satire about scientists, the management of science, and science education. The point is well summarised mid-way through the story, when we are finally given an overview — from the chimpanzee perspective — of the social structure of the planet Soror. I say social structure, but the only apes who are of any interest are scientists of some sort or other, and the only social or political organisation we hear about is scientific, though we do hear about a more brutal past, where the gorillas ruled by force. They have maintained the habit of power.

Ils excellent dans l’art de tracer des directives générales et de manoeuvrer les autres singes. Quand un technicien a fait une découverte interéssante, tube lumineux par exemple ou combustible nouveau, c’est presque toujours un gorille qui se charge de l’exploiter et d’en tirer tout le bénéfice possible. Sans être véritablement intelligents, ils sont beaucoup plus malins que les orang-outans. Ils obtiennent tout ce qu’ils veulent de ceux-ci en jouant de leur orgueil. Ainsi, à la tête de notre Institut… il y a un gorille administrateur, que l’on voit très rarement…
[They excel in composing general instructions and in manipulating other apes. When a technician has made an interesting discovery, for example a luminiferous tube, or a new fuel, it is almost always a gorilla who takes charge of the development and extracting the maximum possible benefit. Without being genuinely intelligent, they are much more clever than the orang-utans. The gorillas get everything they want from them by playing on their pride. Thus, our Institute is headed by a gorilla administrator, who is almost never seen.]

The gorillas also produce, when they do occasionally stoop to research, massive tomes that are expertly structured and organised, even if the content is produced by others, each one by a different subaltern chimpanzee.

The orang-utans are referred to as the “official science”, although

certains se poussent parfois dans la politique, les arts et la littérature. Ils apportent les mêmes caractères dans toutes ces activités. Pompeux, solennels, pédants, dépourvus d’originalité et de sens critique, acharnés à maintenir la tradition, aveugles et sourds à toute nouveauté, adorant les clichés et les formules toutes faites, ils forment le substratum de toutes les academies. Doués d’une grande mémoire, ils apprennent énormément de matières par coeur, dans les livres. Ensuite, ils écrivent eux-mêmes d’autres livres, ou ils répètent ce qu’ils ont lu, ce qui leur attire de la considération de la part de leurs frères orang-outans…. Le malheur c’est qu’ils fabriquent ainsi tous les livres d’enseignement, propageant des erreurs grossières dans la jeunesse simienne.
[some of them do occasionally make their way into politics, art, and literature. They display the same characteristics in all their activities. Pompous, solemn, pedantic, lacking in originality and critical sense, obsessed with preserving traditions, blind and deaf to all novelty, adoring clichés and settled formulas, they form a substratum in all the academies. Gifted with excellent memories, they learn enormous amounts of material by heart from books. Then they write it all down in other books, repeating exactly what they read, thus attracting the approbation of their brother orang-utans… The real tragedy is that they write, in this way, all the textbooks, perpetuating gross errors among the simian youth.]

As for the chimpanzees,

Ceux-ci semblent bien représenter l’élément intellectuel de la planète. Ce n’est pas par forfanterie si Zira soutient que toutes les grandes découvertes ont été faites par eux. C’est tout au plus une généralisation un peu poussée, car il y a quelques exceptions. En tout cas, ils écrivent la plupart des livres intéressants, dans les domaines les plus divers. Ils paraissent animés par un puissant esprit de recherche.
[They appear to be the intellectual element of the planet. It is not mere boastfulness when Zira claims that all the great discoveries have been made by chimpanzees. To be sure, it is a bit exaggerated, as there are some exceptions. In any case, they write most of the interesting books on all subjects. They appear to be motivated by a powerful spirit of research.]

There must be important lessons for us here, in the age of the REF. Also for teaching. The government wants us to produce more gorillas, but our education system is optimised for orang-utans. As for the chimpanzees, they’ve recognised that they’ll muddle through anyway, or enough of them anyway, motivated by this “powerful spirit of research”, willing to work for a few bananas on fixed-term contracts.

Technical literature

I just read Charles Yu’s review of Neal Stephenson’s new novel Seveneves (after reading the novel itself), a story that begins with the moon being suddenly disintegrated by a mysterious force, and goes downhill from there. Yu  writes

The skill with which this is all carried out is also a liability. Stephenson is so fluid a writer, so adept at the particular thing he does, that he can get away with very long stretches of what’s frequently referred to as “infodumps” but what I prefer to call “techsposition”: an amalgam of technical geekery and plotty exposition, fused into one substance, a material Stephenson has seemingly perfected… The amount of context required to understand any given passage, its lingo and conceptual background prerequisites, is astounding — resulting, at times, in sentences like this:

“A new niksht had been formed, just at the place where the whip was attached to the hebel, and was beginning to accelerate ‘forward,’ accelerating the flivver to the velocity it would need to accomplish the rest of the mission.”

… The challenge of writing a novel in which some of the most important entities are rocks is that some of the most important entities are rocks.

This doesn’t look very good. But you might make similar comments about other, more generally esteemed, novels. For instance,

The amount of context required to understand any given passage, its lingo and conceptual background prerequisites, is astounding — resulting, at times, in passages like this:

“The lower subdivided part, called the junk, is one immense honeycomb of oil, formed by the crossing and recrossing, into ten thousand infiltrated cells, of tough elastic white fibres throughout its whole extent. The upper part, known as the Case, may be regarded as the great Heidelburgh Tun of the Sperm Whale.”

The challenge of writing a novel in which some of the most important entities are whales is that some of the most important entities are whales.

That is, indeed, how many 19th century readers appraised Moby Dick. With greater familiarity, critics came to understand that technical detail is essential to a story of human struggle with nature. Nature doesn’t care about our passions and ambitions, or any of our self-aggrandisement, except as these are manifested physically. So it is with Seveneves, whose characters strut upon a vast stage of human striving, conflict and desire, but their lofty thoughts and speeches can seem ridiculous when put up against the hard facts of orbital mechanics and inertia that brook no persuasion. The very weight of detail communicates the ponderous physical law that the characters need to contend with, a heroic age where Odysseus needs to retire to his tent to spend days calculating,

The politics of impatience

What does it mean when someone who is himself significantly responsible for solving a problem expresses his “impatience” for a solution? I think of this because today’s Times has on page 2

George Osborne lost patience with the pensions industry yesterday, announcing action against insurers who blocked savers from accessing their cash.

And on page 4 we read of

news of a fresh delay of up to a year in publication of the Iraq inquiry, prompting Mr Cameron to say that he was “fast losing patience”.

Perhaps this outbreak of impatience is somehow related to the front-page story, which says

the very best they can expect is that it will take them time — but time is not on their side.

That one is about the pervasive decline in sperm quality due to plastics in packaging, sunscreens and cosmetics.

Natural phenomena

Boris Johnson doesn’t like the fact that biologist Tim Hunt has been fired for pointing out the peculiar “natural phenomenon” that he happens to have stumbled upon in his brilliantly insightful way, that “girls in the lab” (his jocular, brilliant designation for what are sometimes referred to in other contexts as “women scientists”, or, more loosely, just as “scientists”) “cry when you criticise them”.

Sir Tim was a “distinguished” scientist who did not deserve to be “pilloried” for pointing out “a natural phenomenon”, he said.

I wonder if “pilloried” is the right word here. There were simply a lot of people pointing out the “natural phenomenon” that elderly male scientists have a tendency to run their mouths on topics they have little understanding of, particularly when they have won a big prize. I’m sorry if anyone was offended by that.

It reminds me of the Larry Summers affair. Like Hunt, Summers was used to being treated like a genius, and so he could pull out any scientific-sounding chestnut, and expect it to be treated like a scintillating original aperçu. Why do feminists hate standard deviations? (Summers downfall also was pushed by his habit of treating other scholars like lazy schoolchildren, who couldn’t possibly understand their own subject as well as the Great Economist. I’m sure he wouldn’t care that his abuse of statistical terminology offends statisticians.)

And like Hunt, Summers found supporters who thought his trite and ill-considered comments were uncomfortable nuggets of wisdom. It’s the oldest logical fallacy: The truth hurts, they reason, so if it hurts it must be true. At least, if it hurts other people.

Hung out to dry

Poor Nobel laureate Timothy Hunt says he feels “hung out to dry” by UCL and the European Research Council, who decided they didn’t want to be associated with a man who makes disparaging remarks when invited as a representative of the science establishment to speak to the Korean Female Scientists and Engineers. For those who missed it, his comment was

Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry….

I’m in favour of single-sex labs.

Invited later to comment after reflection on his remarks, he offered the classic non-apology: I’m sorry you were offended.

“I’m really really sorry that I caused any offence, that’s awful. I just meant to be honest, actually.”

His wife, Mary Collins, an esteemed immunologist, also at UCL, expresses shock and dismay at the university’s rapid response — pressuring him to resign forthwith from his “honorary researcher” position — and offers a defence that itself seems remarkably old-fashioned: He likes to cook. And besides

he is not sexist. I am a feminist, and I would not have put up with him if he were sexist.

In one sense I think he’s right that it is unfair, just as it is unfair that one person is hit by a cosmic ray and develops cancer, while another is spared. It’s not fair to fire someone for a single spontaneous mistake. But it’s also unfair to hire someone as an “honorary researcher” because he did some good work 25 years ago. For all I know, he’s still doing great science, or plotting out the course that science might take over the next century. But he was speaking in South Korea in a symbolic role, as a genius, and symbols don’t have the same rights that human beings do. I’ve written before about the cult of genius in science that gave us such esteemed figures as James Watson. It’s not that I don’t think that thinking hard about one topic could yield beautiful insights about apparently unrelated topics.

He just blurted out the kind of “jocularity” that was standard bonding behaviour among male scientists of his generation, and the august institutions that no longer find it useful to have his name associated with them are rushing to separate themselves, in part to forestall criticism inspired by many years of ignoring or actively fostering sexism in science. Someone who built a brilliant scientific career in the days when “girls in the lab” were expected to put up with that sort of shit might have interesting things to say about how things have changed, and how they could continue to change, including even the increased distraction of sexual liaisons between labmates — though the way he phrased it suggests that he has the distraction of falling in love even when he’s all by himself — but he may have just destructive self-aggrandisement to offer. And in the latter case, he’s not a useful symbol anymore.

Honour among spies

I’m genuinely perplexed by pretensions of morality among representatives of espionage agencies. Today various news outlets are reporting that Russia and China have gained access to the Snowden files, and so found details of western agents and methods. Now, a certain skepticism is required: No details are offered, only that “sources” “believe” this to be so. Even if this information has reached Russia and China, the US government has shown itself to be so inept at network security lately that it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that they gained access through a different route.

That doesn’t stop the grandiloquent sermonising. According to the Sunday Times,

One senior Home Office official accused Snowden of having “blood on his hands,” although Downing Street said there was “no evidence of anyone having been harmed”.

Imagine if it were discovered that Edward Snowden were actually Eduard Snowdinsky, a Russian sleeper agent whose parents had been smuggled into the US to raise an agent with US background. Now that he has successfully completed his mission and returned to the motherland, what could American officials (and their running-dog lackeys) say but “Good on you. Impressive operation.” After all, everyone does it, if they can. That’s what they say when they spy on our allies, who (they say) are only putting on a show of saying they feel the Americans betrayed their trust. Or when they spy on their own citizens, who they say are simply naive in not recognising the force majeure. They wouldn’t say he had “blood on his hands”, or any such nonsense smacking of bourgeois morality that they’ve all moved beyond when they saw the higher purpose of spying on the whole world. So, are they just putting on a show?

Perhaps more to the point, should I be more appalled by the actions of a Snowden, who revealed US secrets in an attempt to defend universal principles of democracy and human rights, and the US constitution in particular; or by the actions of the NSA, who were so busy breaking into video-game chats that they couldn’t be bothered to make appropriate efforts to defend the US against having the complete set of US government security clearances hacked? That’s information that definitely puts people at risk of harm.

Is it a coincidence that these stories are coming out at the same time?

Aggressive passive voice

A front-page article in yesterday’s Times attacks Labour’s election strategy as having been too left-wing. Much of it is framed as a family feud, with David Miliband expressing retrospectively his certainty that his brother Ed was leading the party — and the nation — to disaster. But beyond this hyper-personalisation, we also have remarks that combine anonymity and the passive voice in an effort to make special interests sound oracular:

One of Labour’s most generous private donors warned Mr Miliband that the party was seen as too anti-business and that the mansion tax was “completely insane”.

Here we have a completely disinterested ordinary citizen — an exceptionally “generous” one — reporting that, regardless of his own personal opinions on the matter, he had found that Britons from all walks of life from his broad social group, were united in finding Labour too “anti-business”. At gatherings in their modest Chelsea flats, they agreed that none of them could see any rational purpose in taking extra taxes from people on the completely adventitious pretext that they happen to have big houses. (What’s next? Taxing people with big ears? Why wasn’t that proposed under Red Ed?)

So then we have an anonymous claim about how Labour is “seen” by unnamed other people, on the basis of investigations not specified, being delivered to us in a front-page report in the Times. Presumably this has something to do with the man’s generosity…

The last unbreakable code?

I noticed a brief article in The Guardian with the captivating headline “Can Google be taught poetry?”.

By feeding poems to the robots, the researchers want to “teach the database the metaphors” that humans associate with pictures, “and see what happens,” explains Corey Pressman from Neologic Labs, who are behind the project, along with Webvisions and Arizona State University….

The hope is that, with a big enough dataset, “we’ll be delighted to see we can teach the robots metaphors, that computers can be more like us, rather than the other way around,” says Pressman. “I’d like them to meet us more halfway.”

That sounds utopian, magnificent, turning away from the harsh and narrow-minded informaticism to grand humane concerns. And yet, it reminded me of a recent article in the New Yorker “Why Jihadists Write Poetry”:

Analysts have generally ignored these texts, as if poetry were a colorful but ultimately distracting by-product of jihad. But this is a mistake. It is impossible to understand jihadism—its objectives, its appeal for new recruits, and its durability—without examining its culture. This culture finds expression in a number of forms, including anthems and documentary videos, but poetry is its heart. And, unlike the videos of beheadings and burnings, which are made primarily for foreign consumption, poetry provides a window onto the movement talking to itself. It is in verse that militants most clearly articulate the fantasy life of jihad.

Whatever the motives of Neologic Labs — and I’m guessing they have a pitch to investors that doesn’t rely upon the self-actualisation of smartphones, nor on the profits to be turned from improving the quality of poetry — can we doubt that sooner or later this technology is going to be applied to improving the quality of government surveillance, escaping the literal to follow human prey down into the warrens of metaphor and allusion. It will start with terrorists, but that’s not where it will stop.

Imagine, just to begin with, China equipping its internet with a cybernetic real-time censor that can’t be fooled by symbolic language or references to obscure rock lyrics, which the software will be more familiar with than any fan. Protest movements will be extinguished before people are even aware that they were ever part of a movement.

Hannah’s sweets

The following problem appeared on one of yesterday’s GCSE maths exams, leading to considerable frustration and media attention:

Hannah has 6 orange sweets and some yellow sweets.

Overall, she has n sweets.

The probability of her taking 2 orange sweets is 1/3.

Prove that: n^2-n-90=0

^ is “to the power of”

Now, I am a professional probabilist, and I wasn’t immediately sure how to do it. Why not? Well, there’s something missing: The problem doesn’t tell us what Hannah’s options are. Did she pick sweets at random from the bag? How many? Are we asked the probability that she took 2 orange sweets rather than 3 yellow, given that she actually prefers the orange?  Did she choose between taking sweets out of the bag and putting it away until after dinner?

There should have been a line that said, “She picks two sweets from the bag, at random, without replacement, with each sweet in the bag equally likely to be taken.”

According to the news reports

Hannah’s was just one of the many supposed “real life” problems that the students were required to tackle.

This is just an example of the ridiculous approach to mathematical “applications” induced by our testing culture. It’s not a “real life” maths problem. It’s a very elementary book problem, decked out with a little story that serves only to confuse the matter. You are supposed to know a standard rule for decoding the chatter. If you try to make use of any actual understanding of the situation being described you will only be misled. (Richard Feynman described this problem, when he was on a commission to examine junior high school maths textbooks in California in the 1960s. His entertaining account is the chapter “Judging Books by their Covers” in Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman.)

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