Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for June, 2016

Don Quixote on sampling bias

Continuing my series on modern themes that were already thoroughly treated in Don Quixote, here is the passage where Don Quixote and Sancho Panza discuss whether it is better to be a knight errant or a monk:

“Señor, it is better to be an humble little friar of no matter what order, than a valiant knight-errant; with God a couple of dozen of penance lashings are of more avail than two thousand lance-thrusts, be they given to giants, or monsters, or dragons.”

“All that is true,” returned Don Quixote, “but we cannot all be friars, and many are the ways by which God takes his own to heaven; chivalry is a religion, there are sainted knights in glory.”

“Yes,” said Sancho, “but I have heard say that there are more friars in heaven than knights-errant.”

“That,” said Don Quixote, “is because those in religious orders are more numerous than knights.”

Cervantes on objectification of women

For those inclined to be too optimistic about the pace of progress in recognising the validity of female perspectives — the way an objectifying male perspective has been perniciously treated as a default and inherently valid — I note that Cervantes in Don Quixote made this point more than four centuries ago. In satirising the tradition of courtly pickup artists who stalk their fair damsels remorselessly, Cervantes allows a woman to speak at the funeral of a man whose friends furiously attribute his death to her “cruelty” in rejecting his advances:

Heaven has made me, so you say, beautiful, and so much so that in spite of yourselves my beauty leads you to love me; and for the love you show me you say, and even urge, that I am bound to love you. By that natural understanding which God has given me I know that everything beautiful attracts love, but I cannot see how, by reason of being loved, that which is loved for its beauty is bound to love that which loves it; besides, it may happen that the lover of that which is beautiful may be ugly, and ugliness being detestable, it is very absurd to say, “I love thee because thou art beautiful, thou must love me though I be ugly.” But supposing the beauty equal on both sides, it does not follow that the inclinations must be therefore alike, for it is not every beauty that excites love, some but pleasing the eye without winning the affection; and if every sort of beauty excited love and won the heart, the will would wander vaguely to and fro unable to make choice of any; for as there is an infinity of beautiful objects there must be an infinity of inclinations, and true love, I have heard it said, is indivisible, and must be voluntary and not compelled. If this be so, as I believe it to be, why do you desire me to bend my will by force, for no other reason but that you say you love me? Nay–tell me–had Heaven made me ugly, as it has made me beautiful, could I with justice complain of you for not loving me?

I am reminded of the joke about the holy warrior who is struck down at last after many grim battles. He arrives in the afterlife and is ushered into a room where waits a plain woman who proceeds to abuse him verbally and physically. “Lord,” he shouts out, “I expected, for all my service, that I would be rewarded with a beautiful virgin when I was carried off to heaven.” And the woman says, “Heaven? You’re not in Heaven. I’m in Hell.”

The worst form of government

One of the key points of indictment of the EU, favoured by those in the Leave campaign chary of venting raw xenophobia in public, was the “democracy deficit”. “Take back control” they said. Decisions about Britain need to be taken by the British parliament, rather than by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. The British people need to show they are capable of governing their own fate.

Well, apparently we need to put Britain on the list of those countries whose culture is not yet ready for democracy:

Electoral services workers have reported calls from people asking if they could change their decision after Friday’s result became clear, while some publicly admitted they intended to use a “protest vote” in the belief the UK was certain to remain in the European Union.

Among those who “democratically” chose to take us out of the EU was

Mandy Suthi, a student who voted to leave, told ITV News she would tick the Remain box if she had a second chance and said her parents and siblings also regretted their choice.

“I would go back to the polling station and vote to stay, simply because this morning the reality is kicking in,” she said.

“I wish we had the opportunity to vote again,” she added, saying she was “very disappointed”.

My email inbox is full of solicitations from friends promoting a petition for a second referendum. That’s not how it works, I’m afraid, even if the petition has gathered close to 3 million signatures. It’s done.

 

The masks come off

I think a lot of people — a lot of foreigners living in Britain — are feeling like this character in Paul Murray’s wonderful satire of the financial crash, The Mark and the Void:

“But if you write the truth about our time? How can the truth ever be obsolete?”

“People don’t want the truth,” he says, waving a hand at the streets around us. “They want better-quality lies. High-definition lies on fifty-inch screens. I wrote the damn truth already, Claude. Maybe I didn’t write it well, but I wrote it. And not only did no one want to see it, they made me feel like a fool for even trying. They laughed out the window at me as they sped away on the gravy train.”

“That was during the boom. Now the gravy train has stopped.”

“Yeah, well, I can’t unsee what I saw. The money poured in, and it was like suddenly everyone in Ireland took off their masks, and they were these horrific, rapacious alien beings who if you fell down in the street would just leave you there to die.”

The day after 

Oxford is full of Europeans, and it seems like everyone is walking around in a daze since the referendum. It’s rare that you hear any other topic of conversation. If anyone has an opinion other than pro-EU they’re not saying, only citing some elderly relatives for possible insights into the psychology of Leave.

I hadn’t anticipated how hurt and angry people would be. Lots of people are talking about leaving. It’s not that anyone is expecting anti-European pogroms, but it makes it suddenly palpable how thoroughly unwelcome foreigners are in this country. I noticed this immediately when I arrived here, so maybe that’s why I’m not so shocked by this result.

Oxford is a xenophobic bubble, in this respect — 70% for Remain — so it’s easy to ignore, if you’re so inclined. Also, many Europeans didn’t really think of themselves as foreigners, which is why this rejection was such an emotional blow. It’s devastating for the university, of course.

I fear that this may turn a lot uglier. I think the British are going to be shocked to discover how much the rest of Europe resents them. It’s like a bad marriage: Europe has been making all kinds of compromises and telling Britain how much they love it to keep the union together. For the sake of the children let us say. The effect was only to heighten the British sense of their own importance. Now that they’ve announced, even though you’ve done everything I asked, I’m still leaving you, because I never loved you, and I never wanted to be married anyway, the British we’ll be surprised to discover how cold and businesslike the Europeans can be, in tojust wanting  be rid of them as quickly as possible. I fear that the unrealistic expectations will give way to fury and escalating rounds of retaliation against the hostages, who are the Europeans living in Britain and the Britons living in Europe.

Not the Day of Remain

It is accomplished. The UK is headed out of the EU. The generational coup of the pensioners against their children and grandchildren.

I’d hoped, but not expected, that it would turn out otherwise. Huge self-inflicted damage, and I doubt that the situation will develop to the advantage of those who supported Brexit. Scotland will likely secede. Northern Ireland may see the peace process unravel. I’m slightly worried that “Project Fear” actually underplayed the risk. It’s perhaps not the most likely scenario, but I see as perfectly conceivable that we face years of escalating frustration on both sides of the negotiating table, as the British are confronted with the reality of a Europe that has no interest in making the fantasies of the Conservative Party come true. The British public will become more bloody-minded, unwilling to be dictated to by a bunch of foreigners, leading to a feedback loop of retaliation against the hostages, the EU citizens living in Britain and the British living in the EU. It could get very ugly.

It’s a bit like climate-change denialism: You have one side saying, there’s a lot of uncertainty about the effects of our actions, so let’s be hopeful that it won’t be so bad. It might be substantially better than the median prediction. They conveniently ignore the downside risk, which could be pretty terrible.

Utility of the Devil

I very much enjoyed reading Richard Thaler’s book Misbehaving, on behavioural economics and his own role in its development. It occurred to me that the basic lessons of that soi disante science may be summarised by a variant on a famous Rolling Stones song:

You can’t always know what you want…

But if you don’t try, most of the time

You just might find you want what you know.

Should I stay or should I go?

How will the referendum turn out? I’ve been saying, from the time when the referendum was just a twinkle in Nigel Farage’s eye, that I could hardly imagine the process, once Cameron had agreed to promise it as an election ploy, could end in anything but a UK withdrawal from the EU. Whatever the ostensible question, these sorts of referenda almost invariably turn into plebiscites on people’s general satisfaction with their government, and the answer is invariably NO. I can’t imagine the British people, given an opportunity to poke a finger in the eye of their leaders and those in Brussels, will turn it down. It just seems too exciting. On the other hand, people say that the undecideds will swing toward a status quo position, afraid of disruption. Could be. I suppose it depends on whether the public generally views their votes as political actions or as a form of self-expression.

Whatever happens, the next days and weeks will certainly be eventful.

Hope I leave the EU before I get old

I’m certainly not the only one to remark on the generational war being waged by the cohort of postwar babies, who discovered the power of age-based politics in the 1960s, against their children and grandchildren. Those now entering retirement have locked in promises of high pensions to themselves that no one before or after them will be able to receive.

That’s where the Brexit referendum comes in. The Guardian reported that Britons under 35 are almost 2:1 in favour of remaining in the EU, while those over 60 are almost as heavily biased in favour. A new article in the NY Times gives some anecdotal evidence in the same direction. This is usually explained as a matter of generational experience, those who experienced the Second World War smelling plans of German domination. But these are some of the same people who voted overwhelmingly to enter the EEC 40 years ago.

I can’t help but wonder whether, on some level, the over-60s see the situation they’ve manoeuvred the younger generations into — crumbling infrastructure, insufficient and overpriced housing, excessive pensions that will come at the expense of social spending for decades, and the only solution they can see — since a pension isn’t worth much if there aren’t enough working people to actually provide the services you depend on — is to block off their children’s potential escape routes.

Maybe it’s not about keeping THEM out. It’s about keeping the younger generation IN.

Whisper sweet non-racist nothings to me…

Continuing the theme of how Republicans see the problem with Trump as being his mode of expression, rather than his noxious world-view and beliefs, this new comment after everything from Ohio governor John Kasich:

Kasich told Scarborough that he was still open to supporting Trump if he moderated his anti-minority rhetoric and pivoted towards the general election.

It’s almost to Trump’s credit that he won’t camouflage himself, however much his copartisans bribe him so.

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