Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for July, 2017

Extra cash

The EU is once again infringing on the British yeoman's ancestral freedom:

Fees for paying with plastic – most commonly a credit card – are routinely levied on everything from low-cost flights and tax bills to cinema tickets and takeaway meals, but the Treasury announced that these would be consigned to history from January 2018.

The government said the move, which builds on an EU directive, would mean “shoppers across the country have that bit of extra cash to spend on the things that matter to them”.

I'm just wondering: If the effect of this regulation is to leave people with more cash to spend, isn't that defeating the purpose? Anyway, I'm sure we can return to credit-card fees (and mobile roaming charges) just as soon as we're out from under the Brussels yoke.

Don(ald) Corleone

I’m fascinated by how The Godfather has become the touchstone for all attempts to understand the Trump administration. And by a line of thinking that has hardened into conventional wisdom, clearly stated in today’s op-ed by the NY Times’s token theo-conservative Ross Douthat:

As the hapless Don Jr. — the Gob Bluth or Fredo Corleone of a family conspicuously short on Michaels — protested in his own defense, the Russian rendezvous we know about came before (though only slightly before) the WikiLeaks haul was announced.

We’ve given up on any pretense that the president of the United States isn’t a gangster. Conservative thought leaders are well into lamenting that he isn’t even a competent gangster.

The fast con

Donald Trump after his discussion with Theresa May at the G20 summit:

We have been working on a trade deal which will be a very, very big deal a very powerful deal, great for both countries and I think we will have that done very, very quickly.

According to the Daily Telegraph,

The President’s comments are a huge boost for Mrs May…

I think it’s hilarious — emblematic of the desperate brexified incompetence of the UK in international trade negotiation. Does anyone think Donald Trump knows what goes into making a trade deal? Don’t they notice that this is just one of the many things that Trump has declared would be “easy” and “fast”. Building a wall on the southern border. Healthcare reform:

“Together we’re going to deliver real change that once again puts Americans first,” Trump said at an October rally in Florida. “That begins with immediately repealing and replacing the disaster known as Obamacare…You’re going to have such great health care, at a tiny fraction of the cost—and it’s going to be so easy.”

Did anyone bother to inform the PM that treaties need to be ratified by a 2/3 majority in the US Senate? That’s not a hurdle you surmount just by holding hands with DT and whispering sweet racial blandishments in his ear. (“Did anyone tell you you have the most Anglo-Saxon eyes?”) A £1 billion bribe isn’t going to cut it either.

It might be worth recalling who Trump said he was getting foreign policy advice from during the election campaign:

I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.

Parliamentary mortality

An article in the New Statesman raised the question of whether the Conservatives could lose their hold on power via by-elections over the next few years only to dismiss the possibility because by-elections simply don’t happen frequently enough. The reason? Reduced mortality rates. Quite sensible, but then this strange claim was made:

In 1992-7, the last time that the Conservatives had seven by-elections in a parliament, life expectancy was 15 years lower than it is today.

Ummm… If life expectancy had increased by 15 years over the last 20 years, we’d be getting close to achieving mortality escape velocity. In fact, the increase has been about 5 years for men and 4 years for women.

But that raised for me the somewhat morbid question: How many MPs would be expected to die in the next 5 years? Approximate age distribution of MPs is available here. It’s for the last parliament, but I’ll assume it remains pretty similar. It’s interesting that Labour had twice as large a proportion (25% vs 12%) in the over-60 category. In addition, I’ll make the following assumptions:

  1. Within coarse age categories the distribution is the same between parties. (This is required to deal with the fact that the numbers by party are only divided into three age categories.)
  2. Since I don’t have detailed mortality data by class or occupation, I’ll simply treat them as being 5 years younger than their calendar age, since that’s the difference in median age at death between men in managerial occupations and average occupations.
  3. I assume women to have the same age distribution as men.
  4. I’m using 2013 mortality rates from the Human Mortality Database.

My calculations say that the expected number of deaths over the next 5 years is about 6.4 Conservatives and 6.5 Labour. So we can estimate that the probability of at least 7 by-elections due to deceased Tory MPs is just a shade under 50%.

Learning to count

The US espionage services promised last year to reveal roughly how many Americans were illegally spied upon through “accidents” in the warrantless surveillance law restricted to communications by foreigners overseas.

Last month the promise was retracted.

“The NSA has made Herculean, extensive efforts to devise a counting strategy that would be accurate,” Dan Coats, a career Republican politician appointed by Republican President Donald Trump as the top U.S. intelligence official, testified to a Senate panel on Wednesday.

Coats said “it remains infeasible to generate an exact, accurate, meaningful, and responsive methodology that can count how often a U.S. person’s communications may be collected” under the law known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

So we’re supposed to believe that the NSA is capable of making brilliant use of the full depth of private communications to map out threats to US national security… but isn’t capable of counting them. Presumably these “Herculean” efforts involve a strong helping of Cretan Bull—-.

I am reminded of this passage in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften [The Man without Qualities]:

Es gibt also in Wirklichkeit zwei Geistesverfassungen, die einander nicht nur bekämpfen, sondern die gewöhnlich, was schlimmer ist, nebeneinander bestehen, ohne ein Wort zu wechseln, außer daß sie sich gegenseitig versichern, sie seien beide wünschenswert, jede auf ihrem Platz. Die eine begnügt sich nicht damit, genau zu sein, und hält sich an die Tatsachen; die andere begnügt sich nicht damit, sondern schaut immer auf das Ganze und leitet ihre Erkenntnisse von sogenannten ewigen und großen Wahrheiten her. Die eine gewinnt dabei an Erfolg, und die andere an Umfang und Würde. Es ist klar, daß ein Pessimist auch sagen könnte, die Ergebnisse der einen seien nichts wert und die der anderen nicht wahr. Denn was fängt man am Jüngsten Tag, wenn die menschlichen Werke gewogen werden, mit drei Abhandlungen über die Ameisensäure an, und wenn es ihrer dreißig wären?! Andererseits, was weiß man vom Jüngsten Tag, wenn man nicht einmal weiß, was alles bis dahin aus der Ameisensäure werden kann?!

Thus there are in fact two distinct mental types, which not only battle each other, but which, even worse, generally coexist side by side without ever exchanging a word, other than that they assure each other that they are each desirable in their own place. The one contents itself with being exact and keeping to the facts; the other is not content with that, always looking for the big picture, and derives its knowledge from so-called great eternal truths. The one gains success thereby, the other gains scope and value. Of course, a pessimist could always say, the results of the one have no value, while those of the other have no truth. After all, when the Last Judgment comes, what are we going to do with three treatises on formic acid, and so what if we even had thirty of them?! On the other hand, what could we possibly know about the Last Judgment, if we don’t even know what could happen by then with formic acid?!

The NSA is focusing on the big picture…

A boot stamping on the face of Mars — forever

I’m reasonably positive about space exploration, and see it generally as humane and progressive, rather than as an extension of colonialist male impulses to rape virgin nature. But along comes US Vice President Mike Pence, expressing support for human space exploration in these terms:

Our nation will return to the moon and we will put American boots on the face of Mars.

I understand that books are for liberal weenies, but surely everyone hearing this must immediately think of one of the most famous lines in 20th century literature, from Nineteen Eighty-Four:

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

But who is she laughing at?

From the FT:

Mrs May has stabilised her situation in recent days. Her parliamentary performances have been solid, while Mr Corbyn has failed to exploit her weakness. She has replaced the aggressive Mr Timothy and Ms Hill with a single chief of staff, the popular former MP Gavin Barwell. After her woefully misjudged visit to the site of the Grenfell Tower fire last month, where she failed to meet survivors, she has had a better few days. “She’s laughing again,” says one Downing Street insider.

It’s such a relief to learn that she’s found something to laugh about. I feel like such a swine for having failed to appreciate that the real victim in all these disasters was Theresa May.

How could I have failed to see her pain? I guess it’s because, as “One Conservative MP” said,

She has the real sense of duty of a vicar’s daughter.

Sense of duty. Stoicism. I’m sure that’s the only thing keeping her from emigrating abroad to have an easy life on the public dole, as one does.

Up from disaster

US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell had this to say about the Senate’s attempts at a “healthcare” bill:

“Obamacare is a disaster,” said McConnell, according to video captured by the Louisville Courier-Journal. “No action is not an option. But what to replace it with is very challenging.”

It makes you wonder: If current policy is unquestionably a “disaster”, why is it such a challenge to find an alternative that is superior? It’s like, “Living in a hole in the ground covered by a board really sucks, but it’s challenging to find good housing…”

Emphasis!

This graphic from the US Department of Health and Human Services has been getting a lot of attention.

Mainly, people have commented on the egregious deceptiveness of the content. The government’s plan is to increase the number of uninsured by 22 million. It’s like Hitler fulminating against Soviet barbarity (which he did — and was probably sincere). But I am fascinated instead by the Trumpification of official US government communications. Leaving aside the sheer novelty of government agencies putting out propaganda against current laws, the first “informational” slogan ends with an exclamation point! Is that normal? And am I merely fantasising the phallic-impotence imagery of the second one? (I mean, it’s hard to imagine why that image is there. Who thinks of mercury thermometers as a symbol for medical care these days? How many people have even seen one? And if that is a thermometer, did Obamacare fail by not getting the fever high enough?)

Final salute

This photograph from Helmut Kohl’s memorial service in Strassburg immediately struck me as bizarre. Normal by now for America, but bizarre. Does any other democracy — not a totalitarian state or banana republic — have its leader going around playing soldier like this? Of course, the German military people and honour guard who accompanied the coffin to the burial in Germany saluted, but that’s their job. If I remember correctly, it was Reagan — who limited his military service to making propaganda films in Hollywood — who introduced this custom. And I remember very clearly how Bill Clinton was mocked, at the beginning of his presidency, for his supposed incompetence in saluting. He learned, and it’s no surprise that he wants to show that he can still do it. But seeing it on the international stage like this highlights how inappropriate it appears.

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