Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for July, 2016

No more fun and games

2016-07-28 09.26.08I’ve been in Britain long enough to know most of the peculiar verbal overlaps between this country and my native USA, but I still tend to overlay the British words with their American meanings. So it was several years ago when I was told by my daughter’s Hebrew teacher “Today we’re going to be revising the alphabet”…

Of course, this sort of linguistic alienation can happen even within a country, in the intersection between different language registers. Thus, a number of years ago UC Berkeley put the legend “REFUSE ONLY” on its outdoor trash bins. When I saw this text, my immediate reaction was to read it as an absurdly formal version of the slogan “JUST SAY NO”.

Soft bones

From political journalist Simon Maloy in Salon

People often note that public opinion of Hillary tends to be ossified after more than two decades spent continuously in the national political spotlight, but Trump’s unique and unrelenting awfulness as a candidate represents a timely opportunity to get voters to start thinking more positively about Hillary Clinton.

It amazes me that people can make claims like this, in light of the fact that her net favourability in Gallup polls has shifted by almost 50 points in three years. (She was at +31 in April 2015.)

Predicting the future of communication

I just had the thought: Who would have predicted, thirty years ago, that in 2016 bookstores would still be thriving, but video stores would have all but disappeared?

I am reminded of this essay by Isaac Asimov, “The Ancient and the Ultimate”, that I read about 1980, but was written in the early 1970s, about the future of video technology. He was at a conference on communications and society, where a speaker was praising the new technology of videocassettes, and suggesting that authors such as him would soon be tossed on the scrapheap of history. The essay speculates about possible future improvements to video technology, inferring tongue-in-cheek that the pinnacle of the technology would be attained when it had turned into books.

The debate debate

We’re still waiting for the Democratic convention, but ofter that, the general election campaign gets off to a particularly early start, with no defining events until the debates. Debates? Will there actually be US presidential debates in the fall?

I haven’t seen any discussion of this. Of course there will be debates. There are always debates. But then, candidates always release their tax returns. I can’t really imagine Trump being willing to share a stage with a woman, one on one. A woman whom he has been saying should be imprisoned. (Will she need to flee the country if she loses the election?) Surely there will be a fund-raiser for veterans that he can’t possibly miss on the same night as the debate, or his people will just find themselves unable to consent to extremely unfair conditions that the rigged system is trying to impose on him.

Health choices

From the Guardian:

In February Prof Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England,… told a parliamentary hearing: “Do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine. Think: do I want the glass of wine or do I want to raise my own risk of breast cancer? I take a decision each time I have a glass.”

Umm… Wine or cancer? Are those really the options? Seems like an easy choice to make…

An opportunistic political infection

Donald Trump is likely to lose the US presidential election. But maybe not. And we need to recognise that a healthy body politic would not have a dangerous figure like him in striking distance of the most powerful office in the land — and in the world.

Trump is almost comically incompetent, and still has more than 40% of the public willing to vote for him. (According to the most recent estimates of fivethirtyeight.com he has nearly a 40% chance of winning the election.) Even if he doesn’t win, it is purely coincidental that his frightening demagoguy, autocratic impulses, and willingness to trample on democratic traditions and norms was not coupled with even an average competence in running a campaign, or even ability to let professionals take over managing the thing for long enough to get him elected.

A more competent demagogue will almost surely follow where he has led.

Donald Trump and the polygamy of virtue

The expression “marry X to Y” is used conventionally to represent the possibility of combining two unrelated qualities to make a harmonious new quality. Two. But in Donald Trump’s America virtues are polygamous:

[Ivanka Trump] told London’s Sunday Times “And it’s a big reason I am the woman I am today. He always told me and showed me that I could do anything I set my mind to if I married vision and passion with work ethic.”

Does Mike Pence know about this?

Statistics and causal truth: Police edition

As usual, Andrew Sullivan — who has now returned temporarily to blogging, attracted like a moth to the Trump conflagration — manages to take a common, superficially convincing argument, and express it with moral fervour and personal conviction that makes the tenuous logic really conspicuous. In this case, it’s the argument based on the much-discussed study by Roland G. Fryer, Jr. of the rate of various violent outcomes of police stops, finding that black people are more likely than white to be physically abused by police, but not more likely to be shot.

(Here’s an excellent NY Times report, and  the original study.)

…the Black Lives Matter activists, whose core and central argument is that black men are disproportionately killed by cops. The best data shows this is false…  I find [the study] conclusive. Feelings do not, er, trump data in a deliberative democracy. A reader writes:

I understand that there has been the recent study suggesting that given an interaction with a police officer occurs, then the police officer is no more likely to use a gun with a black person than with a white person. However, given that many black men have a much higher rate of interaction with police (such as, anecdotally, Philando Castile, with 52 traffic stops), then is it not fair to say that black men are disproportionately killed by cops?
The point is that there is no evidence of individual racism in these police encounters, despite the impression from many chilling phone videos. The structural bias still exists as a whole, as I said, but the narrative about cops being more likely to kill a black member of the public when encountering him is false.

I have no criticism to make of the study — I have not analysed it in any depth, but it seems credibly and even impressively done — even if I find the premise absurd, that a single study of such a complex phenomenon could be “conclusive”. But they do not “trump” the data that black people make up 13% of the US population, but 31% of those killed during an arrest, and 42% of those killed during an arrest when unarmed. The point is, what these facts (and many others, including the others) mean jointly depends on what we think is the reason for black people being so much more likely to be arrested.


The rot goes deep

There’s a certain kind of insane genius to the Donald Trump performance. So we have this interview, where Trump was asked by a right-wing journalist,

There are still some black Americans who believe that the system is biased against them… What do you say to them?

He answered

Well, I’ve been saying, even against me the system is rigged. When I ran for president, I could see what is going on with the system, and the system is rigged… I can really relate it very much to myself.

Has our democracy really sunk so far, that even white billionaires can’t get a fair shake anymore?


Political typecasting

It is a well-known phenomenon, that some well-known actors find themselves too prominently identified as themselves to be appreciated as the character they are playing. So it is, I think, with Boris Johnson in his new role as foreign secretary. The BBC and other news outlets ran headlines yesterday saying

Boris Johnson to meet with EU counterparts.

For an instant I was genuinely puzzled. You’re supposed to understand this as

UK foreign secretary to meet with foreign ministers of other EU countries.

But I could only read it as “Boris Johnson is to meet with pompous upper-class clowns who are somehow similar to him in other EU countries”, which somewhat stymied me in trying to think of an example.

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