Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for April, 2017

The secret of my success

A persistent obstacle to social reform is the common tendency to ignore the merely fortuitous in ones good fortune, and to attribute success to some self-flattering decision or essential virtue. I dropped out of school, taught myself computer programming, and became a wealthy entrepreneur. Or I became a world-famous surgeon despite growing as an impoverished black orphan. So don’t complain about being held back by poor schools and racial discrimination. It’s just hard work and faith that you need to get ahead.

This fallacy was already recognised, I have just noticed, by the Amoraim, the authors of the Babylonian Talmud. The tractate Yoma mentions Kimhith, a woman whose seven sons served, at some point*, as high priests:

The Sages said unto her: What hast thou done to merit such [glory]? She said: Throughout the days of my life the beams of my house have not seen the plaits of my hair. They said to her: There were many who did likewise and yet did not succeed.

In other words, she attributes her sons’ success to her exceptional modesty in always keeping her hair covered. The rabbis answer, many women have covered their hair without having such success.

* The story is pretty weird. If I understand correctly, two of the sons were called in to do the High Priest duties because on two different occasions their elder brother Ishmael ben Kimhith was defiled by having spat on himself during a heated discussion.

Fly me to the moon

In a democracy, what should be the relationship between leaders and the people? Last year Michael Gove famously offered a populist defense of Brexit against the dire warnings of economic experts: “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Donald Trump has obviously had great success with his idiosyncratic mix of doomsaying (“American carnage”) and pollyannaism (e.g. “You’re going to have such great health care, at a tiny fraction of the cost—and it’s going to be so easy”).* The vaguely conspiratorial premise — the spirit of “How to do it!” — is that our problems are all very simple, but elites are attempting to buttress their favoured position by making them seem complicated. (more…)

Petard erection

A NY Times report on Trump’s first 100 days quotes senior Obama aide Ronald Klain

If Trump finds himself hoisted on the 100-day test, it is a petard that he erected for himself.

Does one erect a petard? I think not. Really, is it too much to ask, that a flack decorating his political bromides with Shakespeareana actually know what the words mean?

Is there really a general election happening?

We’re now barely six weeks away from a general election. Supposedly.  The excitement in the press and in the public is… imperceptible? I guess you don’t see anything happening locally until the parties have chosen their candidates and geared up for the vote, which means it’s going to be an incredibly short campaign. The Prime Minister is too busy to bother defending her policies.

The general response is like, ha, well played Theresa. Calling the election was the whole game. And the fact that she was still mocking suggestions for a new election just a week before is treated is just proof of her cleverness. Rather than unscrupulousness. (more…)

No surprises

Watching the French election returns on BFM TV (the only live-streaming broadcast I could find). One reporter was summarising the early returns:

Aujourd’hui étonnament pas de surprise.

[Surprisingly, there were no surprises today.]

Protocols of the Elders of Paris

If Marine Le Pen gets knocked off by the last-minute (so to speak) appearance of a shadowy former Rothschilds banker, wouldn’t that pretty much confirm everything her people had been warning us of?

Xtreme hedging

When a series of roadside bombs hit a bus carrying members of the Borussia Dortmund football club last week, it was easy to assume that this was somehow related to islamist causes, which have been responsible for — or, at least, eager to claim credit for — much of the most prominent random violence in Europe in recent years. But this attack turns out to be linked instead to the age-old prime mover in random violence against civilians: Finance.

The accused is believed to have acted for profit, attempting to kill or injure as many members of the Borussia Dortmund team as possible with the bomb. According to the investigators, he hoped to profit from a fall in the value of the team’s stock… The suspect had opened a [€40,000] consumer credit line and purchased 15000 put options.

Is this really illegal? I’m sure he just needs the right academic economist to explain to the investigators how important it is to increase liquidation in the market. It’s reminiscent of the scene in Catch 22 where Milo Minderbinder explains the logic of private enterprise:

One day Milo contracted with the American military authorities to bomb the German-held highway bridge at Orvieto and with the German military authorities to defend the highway bridge at Orvieto with antiaircraft fire against his own attack. His fee for attacking the bridge for America was the total cost of the operation plus six per cent and his fee from Germany for defending the bridge was the same cost-plus-six agreement augmented by a merit bonus of a thousand dollars for every American plane he shot down. The consummation of these deals represented an important victory for private enterprise, he pointed out, since the armies of both countries were socialized institutions. Once the contracts were signed, there seemed to be no point in using the resources of the syndicate to bomb and defend the bridge, inasmuch as both governments had ample men and material right there to do so and were perfectly happy to contribute them, and in the end Milo realized a fantastic profit from both halves of his project for doing nothing more than signing his name twice… It was an ideal arrangement for everyone but the dead man in Yossarian’s tent, who was killed over the target the day he arrived.

I’m skeptical of the claim that “This seems to be a crime without precedent in German history, and may represent a completely new phenomenon.”

Compensation

The US news media seem to be coalescing around a consensus view of the Trump presidency: On the one hand, he is impulsive, narcissistic, and hopelessly ignorant of even the rudiments of his job as president.

On the other hand, he likes to drop big bombs.

So, positive on balance.

Bomb the shit out of healthcare

Over the past few months there has been a constant stream of articles, written with varying admixtures of sorrow, contempt, and schadenfreude, about Trump voters who are now dismayed because they never supposed that he was actually planning to take away their health insurance, eliminate reproductive rights and medical services, or deport her husband.

These articles calm with facepalm quotes about how they deceived themselves about Trump’s intentions. “She thought Trump would deport only people with criminal records — people he called ‘bad hombres’.” This is contrasted with Trump’s very explicit promises to do exactly what they are now appalled that he is now doing. (more…)

The nuclear option

I wonder how many people who don’t follow the news in detail, seeing the juxtaposition of headlines about Republicans unleashing the “nuclear option” and US missiles bombing Syria, have concluded that Trump just went and did what everyone is afraid he will eventually do…

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