Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for July, 2015

Annie Get Your Prior

I was reading Sharon McGrayne’s wonderful popular (no, really!) book on the history of Bayesian statistics. At one point it is mentioned that George Box wrote a song for a departmental Christmas party

There’s no theorem like Bayes’ Theorem
Like no theorem I know…

A bit later we read of Howard Raiffa and Robert Schlaifer singing

Anything frequentists can do, Bayesians do better

(More or less… the exact text is not reproduced.) So it seems the underappreciated role of Irving Berlin in the development of Bayesian thought has yet to be adumbrated. Perhaps researchers will some day uncover such hits manqués as “How High is the Bayes Factor?”, “I’m Dreaming of a Conjugate Prior”, or even “Bayes Bless America”.


A British politician gave a brave speech a few days ago, defying political correctness to name a pressing problem of British society that most would rather ignore. He said,

There is a danger in some of our communities that you can go your whole life and have little to do with people from other… backgrounds.

The prime minister’s response to this attack on his isolated Etonian upbringing was… no, wait, that was the prime minister himself who said it. And the words I left out — “other faiths and backgrounds” — make clear that he’s talking about Muslims. (He could also be talking about the insular Hasidic communities of London, but he’s probably not.) Those are the people in need of integration.

Just joking

Following up some references related to Thomas Malthus recently, I discovered that Carlyle’s notorious appellation “dismal science” for economics (or “political economy”) was not a reference to the pessimistic world view of Malthus and his descendants. This sobriquet first appeared in an essay “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question”, in which he criticised the emancipation of Black slaves in the West Indies, leaving the unfortunate Blacks to wallow in disgraceful idleness. Carlyle attacked political economy for undermining natural hierarchies, for

declaring that Negro and White are unrelated, loose from one another, on a footing of perfect equality, and subject to no law but that of supply and demand according to the Dismal Science.

Here “dismal” is presumably not being used in the modern sense of “gloomy”, but in the older sense of “threatening” or “inauspicious”, as in Henry VI pt. 3:

Bring forth that fatal screech-owl to our house,
That nothing sung but death to us and ours:
Now death shall stop his dismal threatening sound,
And his ill-boding tongue no more shall speak.

Carlyle lumps the Dismal Science together with other unfortunate modern political innovations, such as “ballot boxes”, “universal suffrages” and “Exeter-Hall Philanthropy”.

Here I’d like to call attention to Carlyle’s framing device. The essay is attributed to a fictitious author with the absurd name Dr. Phelin M’Quirk. It begins

THE following occasional discourse, delivered by we know not whom, and of date seemingly above a year back, may, perhaps, be welcome to here and there a speculative reader. It comes to us — no speaker named, no time or place assigned, no commentary of any sort given in the hand-writing of the so-called “Doctor,” properly “Absconded Reporter,” Dr. Phelin M’Quirk, whose singular powers of reporting, and also whose debts, extravagances, and sorrowful insidious finance-operations, now winded up by a sudden disappearance, to the grief of many poor trades-people, are making too much noise in the police offices at present! Of M’Quirk’s composition, we by no means suppose it to be; but from M’Quirk, as the last traceable source, it comes to us; offered, in fact, by his respectable, unfortunate landlady, desirous to make up part of her losses in this way.

Together with some self-mocking references to some offended members of the fictional audience leaving in a huff, this sets up the cover story, particularly beloved of British racists and misogynists, that “I’m just joking”. You insult people with a wink, simultaneously spreading poisonous sentiments and confirming your superior power by forcing them to smile while you insult them — if they don’t, they are dismissed as “humourless”. Most recently there was Tim Hunt, whose defenders say that his disgraceful remarks on women in science were some kind of protected speech because he followed them with “Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it.” “Now seriously” is the proof that he was just joking, so critics are joyless harridans.

Singing the Swedish national anthem

When someone speaks incomprehensibly, an English speaker will be inclined to reference Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, saying “it was Greek to me”. But what does a Greek finance minister say when no one understands him at Eurogroup negotiations? From an interview with Yanis Varoufakis in the New Statesman:

There was point blank refusal to engage in economic arguments. Point blank. You put forward an argument that you’ve really worked on, to make sure it’s logically coherent, and you’re just faced with blank stares. It is as if you haven’t spoken. What you say is independent of what they say. You might as well have sung the Swedish national anthem – you’d have got the same reply.

Greece and the lessons of Versailles

After commenting on the fake “assistance” that the Euro countries have bestowed on Greece for the past five years — stabilising Greece just far enough to get international banks clear of the falling debris, and then pushing it off the cliff — it occurred to me that this ties in usefully with the discussion that has been bubbling up — from Thomas Piketty among others — of how chief scold Germany had its debts written off after both world wars. Or, rather, it defaulted on its WWI debts as preparation for initiating WWII; the world then decided to cancel most of its debts after WWII — including debts to Greece — at the London conference of 1953. It would be hard to say that Germany in 1953 was more deserving of international assistance or forgiveness than Greece today. In part, this reflects the predilection for strong villains: Germany was seen as inherently strong, if currently weakened; Greece is viewed with contempt, for its weak and corrupt political system. Having reduced much of Europe to rubble and murdered millions is just one of those misadventures that befall those with big plans. At least you knew, if you bailed out Germany, the money wouldn’t just be wasted…

European Seilschaften

The image of Seilschaften, of a group of mountain-climbers connected by a rope, is as frequently used in German political discourse (both verbal and visual) as cricketing terminology in British. One common use is to represent self-interested political actors who look out for each other reciprocally. But the Greek crisis puts me to mind of a different sense of the term. The nations of the EU climbing the mountain of prosperity. Greece is lagging, but is also stuck in a position where it is blocking other members of the party. So they offer generous assistance, just long enough to manoeuvre it into a place where they can cut the rope and let it fall into the chasm without taking anyone else with it. Of course, there’s the extra piquancy that Europe’s leaders were primarily protecting private banks rather than their citizens and taxpayers.

Plus ça change: Partition of Poland edition

If you wanted to refer to a paradigmatic example of wanton brutality in international affairs, the invasion and division of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939 would likely spring to mind. That’s why I was struck by the 1903 remark on the Boer War cited by Richard Toye in his book on Churchill’s imperialism:

Bourke Cockran, Churchill’s Irish-born politician friend, thought the war to be “the greatest violation of justice attempted by any civilized nation since the partition of Poland.”

I suppose now you could say, “the partition of Poland was the greatest violation of justice since the last partition of Poland.” You’d leave out the “civilized nation” bit, not exactly because Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union wouldn’t qualify, but because the concept no longer seems to have much explanatory power.

More Zionist anti-semitism

I commented recently on the good fit between classical antisemitism and Zionism, despite the efforts of some to associate necessarily antisemitism with anti-Zionism, perhaps on the basis of both having the prefix “anti”. I just came across another forceful testimony to this alignment, from a figure less notorious than Adolf Eichmann. In the book Churchill’s Empire (about the development of Winston Churchill’s attitudes toward the British Empire), Churchill is quoted on the subject of Zionism from a 1920 newspaper article:

He distinguished between praiseworthy “National Jews”, loyal to the countries in which they lived, and the “sinister confederacy” of “International Jews” whom he claimed were largely responsible for the Bolshevik revolution. In this analysis Zionism offered a “third sphere to the political conceptions of the Jewish race”, and Churchill predicted that, “if, as may well happen, there should be created in our own lifetime by the banks of the Jordan a Jewish State under the protection of the British Crown […] an event would have occurred in the history of the world which would, from every point of view, be beneficial, and would be especially in harmony with the truest interests of the British Empire.”

German default

Following up on the previous post, it occurred to me that I don’t know any German counterpart to the English verb “default”, as in, “default on a loan”. After some searching, I’ve come to the conclusion that there isn’t one. In German there can be a default — “Ausfall” — or the  loan can passively fail — “ausfallen”, literally the loan can “malfunction”, or “be cancelled”. But the debtor cannot as the active subject of the sentence do the defaulting.

Irritating false friends

According to Reuters the German Bundestag member Volker Kaude described the new proposals for the Greek financial crisis from European Commission president Juncker as “irritating”. It’s an odd word choice. It would be quite exceptionally blunt if he had said it. Of course, he didn’t.

Turning to German-language media we see that what he actually said was that he was “einigermaßen überrascht über die irritierenden Aussagen aus Brüssel”. “Fairly surprised by the odd comments from Brussels.” “Irritierend” looks like “irritating”, but its primary meaning — and clearly the one intended here — is something more like “puzzling”. It’s diplomatic for having a range of meanings from neutral to negative. I don’t get it, and I don’t think it’s entirely my fault.

Reuters might need to invest in something more sophisticated than Google for its translations.

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