Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for November, 2015

The right to be honoured

The journalist Barbara Ellen, writing in the Guardian, has defended Cambridge historian David Starkey, who has come under attack for his racist remarks:

An open letter to the university, signed by hundreds of staff, students and alumni, accuses Starkey of repeatedly making racist statements. It cites his appearance on BBC Newsnight after the summer riots of 2011 in which he said: “A substantial amount of the chavs have become black. The whites have become black; a particular sort of violent destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion.”

It also cited a more recent interview in the Telegraph in which Starkey said statistics “appeared” to show a black propensity to violence.

A twofer: He insulted all black people, and simultaneously applied an insulting term for the white working class. Ellen protests

Free speech is one of the most precious facets of British society, but here is proof that, for some, it is all too dispensable. The pre-emptive ban is replacing the enriching debate. Nuance and difference are being hounded into the shadows.

How long before society reaches a state of self-monitoring, self-censoring “offence-Stasi”, with everyone on permanent red alert?

That sounds terrible. Starkey was “pre-emptively banned” merely for making perfectly ordinary disparaging remarks about black people. What was he banned from? Appearing as the leading spokesman for one of the world’s most esteemed universities in a promotional fund-raising video. That’s exactly the sort of thing that used to go on in communist police states. (more…)

Politicians debate statisticians and philosophers

I should have known the writing was on the wall for my career in Canada when, at the first federal election debate in 2006, the Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe said

We don’t need inspectors. We don’t need statisticians. We need doctors and nurses.

The rest of academia kept their heads down, hoping the storm would blow over. But now, not even a decade later, just south of the border, presidential candidates have another academic discipline in their sights. In yesterday’s Republican presidential debate Marco Rubio said

Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.

As is pointed out here, the first statement isn’t actually true. Whether it should be true is another question. We might say, a philosophical question; although, in a serious dispute over the issue between a philosopher and a welder, I would not be surprised if the latter came out the better for it.

First they came for the statisticians…

Military fears emasculation, shrinkage

… but they’re not taking it lying down!

An anonymous “senior serving general” said in a recent interview that the army would “mutiny” if mere politicians tried to reduce the size of the military or take away its nuclear weapons (which are never called “weapons”, but rather “deterrent”, taking as self-evident that they would never be used.)

The unnamed general said members of the armed forces would begin directly and publicly challenging the labour leader if he tried to scrap Trident, pull out of Nato or announce “any plans to emasculate and shrink the size of the armed forces.”

He told the Sunday Times: “The Army just wouldn’t stand for it. The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that… and you would face the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be a mutiny.”

The head of the UK armed forces has repeated the threat publicly, if more obliquely.

Asked about Mr Corbyn’s refusal to use nuclear weapons, Sir Nicholas said: “It would worry me if that thought was translated into power as it were.”

So don’t think you can pansify the British Armed Forces into a girly, shriveled, no-nukes military just by voting for some new politicians!

Fat and spinach

There’s an old joke — I’ve seen it attributed to Clarence Darrow, but I have no confidence in this attribution — that goes

I don’t like spinach, and I’m glad I don’t, because if I liked it I’d eat it.

I thought of this in reflecting on the lessons of Nina Teicholz’s book Big Fat Surprise, about the sorry history of public health recommendations about dietary fat, mainly in the US. This will surely go down as one of the most embarrassing disasters in public health history, so Teicholz’s efforts to uncover how a supposedly self-correcting process was able to go so badly wrong holds important lessons for all of us who care about either science or public policy. (It’s sort of The Innocence Project, with observational studies in place of eyewitness misidentification.) (more…)

Proofreading is dead

I spotted this in Blackwell’s today:

2015-11-05 14.22.40

I suppose an “unauthorised like” might be something a particularly surly poet would have on his Facebook page…

The Shabbat automobile (and other regulatory subterfuges)

It reminds me of the questions that folklorist Alan Dundes raised in his book The Shabbat Elevator and other Sabbath Subterfuges: Why do Orthodox Jews adopt enormously rigid strictures on every element of their lives, and then devote enormous energy and creativity to evading them, as when they tie a string around a whole neighbourhood to make an eruv, defined to be a single residence for purposes of the law that bans carrying objects in a public domain.

One could well ask, if a set of customs is deemed overly oppressive, why not simply repeal or ignore them?

At least they can argue that repeal isn’t really an option when you’re talking about divine law. But what about automobile pollution regulations?

Amid all the attention focused on Volkswagen’s bizarre cheating on diesel emissions tests — which ought to, but probably won’t, lead to multiple executives spending long terms in prison — some interesting lessons about the general nature of regulations and testing threaten to be submerged. As many have pointed out, real diesel emissions are many times higher than those permitted by regulations. The tests are routinely evaded, if not always as creatively as Volkswagen has done. Some examples: (more…)

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