Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for October, 2017

The past isn’t even past

I was slightly perplexed by this statement by the PM’s spokesman about the defense minister’s misbehaviour:

He did say the prime minister believed her defence secretary was right to say sorry for repeatedly touching the knee of Julia Hartley-Brewer, a journalist, during a dinner. “He has been clear he apologised for something that took place in the past – it is right that he apologised in relation to that incident,” the spokesman said.

He added that the prime minister did not approve of Fallon’s behaviour towards Hartley-Brewer in 2002 but said the case was in the past and would not be taken further.

I’m wondering, what is the role of the repeated phrase “in the past”? There seems to be an attempt to excuse the behaviour, to say it’s not worthy of punishment, because of its pastness. How far would this go? “Your honour, I would like the court to consider that the murder of which my client is accused (and for which he has apologised) took place in the past, and should not be taken further.”

Update: Fallon has resigned. Apparently some of his inappropriate behaviour was not quite so distantly past…

Polar-bear academics

I have on occasions compared my position, as a statistics professor in Oxford, to that of one of those forlorn polar bears photographed on shrinking ice floes as the Arctic melts around them. In my immediate neighbourhood the ice is still ice: my job looks like the academic profession that I imagined when I started training for it three decades ago. But if you go just a little distance away, either to other UK universities, or even within Oxford to some other disciplines, you see something that looks like a freakish hybrid of the worst features of academia and corporations. I just came upon this disturbing account of the phenomenon by Michael Edwards, a lecturer in music in Edinburgh, now moving to Germany:

Now that I’m constantly being monitored and spending increasing amounts of time justifying what I do instead of doing it, I, like a lot of my colleagues, am taking all of my leave and I’m not answering emails while I’m away. My perception is that, because of the increasingly unattractive working environment, academics are correspondingly increasingly unlikely to put in all of the extra hours organising talks, concerts, and other activities that, let’s be honest, make universities so attractive in the first place, not only for staff and students but for the wider community too. All in all, the good will which holds together UK universities is being stretched beyond breaking point.

I realise that some of these trends are universal, but I believe that Britain is, at least in this pathological respect, exceptional. Seen from the outside, the UK has first-class universities that are the envy of the world, and a mostly hapless industry and business sectors (excepting the finance industry, with its world-leading money-laundering and tax-evasion facilities). A healthy reaction might be to consider what lessons British business could learn from the successful universities. A neurotic nation trapped in pathological mourning for its lost empire instead tries to destroy the universities by forcing them to be more like British business.

True friends and False friends

This week’s Spiegel has a headline quote from Emmanuel Macron:

Ich bin nicht arrogant… Ich sage und tue was ich mag.

I don’t know whether everyone does this, but whenever I read a line translated from a language that I know well, I subliminally translate it back. Often you find, particularly in news reports, that lazy translators have used false — or at least dubious -cognates. For example, I vaguely remember a quote from an English source referring to a leader being irritated by protests getting translated into irritiert, which actually means confused.

In this case, my own subliminal process stumbled over the cognate tue, meaning “I do” in German — so Macron said “I say and do what I want”, but “I kill” in French. Which immediately mapped onto another language giving me a momentary flash of Oscar Wilde’s famous line from The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

Yet each man kills the things he loves

It would have been pretty interesting if Macron had actually quoted Wilde to say “Je tue ce que j’aime”.

As for the other part, it’s probably a pretty good bet that if you find yourself insisting “I’m not arrogant”, you’re probably pretty arrogant. Speaking of which, I recently came across these videos of Donald Trump actually (and apparently unironically) acting out the classic punchline of the guy who boasts about his exceptional humility:

In the second one he manages to innovate beyond the obvious comedy of boasting about humility, by going one step farther and ridiculing the interviewer for being too stupid to be able to appreciate his humility.

The new Athens

Reports from Theresa May in Brussels

Speaking on Thursday night, the prime minister said both sides needed an “outcome that we can stand behind and defend to our people”, hinting at the political difficulty she would have in selling a deal that involves handing over a large sum to the EU.

Translation: We made unrealistic promises to our people. Now it’s up to you to fulfill our promises. In the name of democracy.

As I recall, another European leader recently tried to reject financial demands from international organisations by appealing to the spirit of democracy and the results of a popular referendum. I wonder how that one turned out?

Harold MacMillan famously compared postwar Britain to the Ancient Greeks:

These Americans represent the new Roman empire and we Britons, like the Greeks of old, must teach them how to make it go.

I guess, after the last dreams of empire fade, the British establishment can still grasp for the hope of becoming the new Athens.

Free speech for me but not for thee

Today:

Universities will be told that they must uphold free speech and clamp down on student unions that “no platform” controversial speakers, the government is to announce.

Two years ago:

Universities will be forced to vet visiting speakers to stop extremists brainwashing students on campus, under plans being drawn up in the Home Office.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is preparing new rules that will require universities to crack down on the activities of their student unions and Islamic societies.

Preserving dignity

The latest from Brussels:

EU leaders at a crunch summit dinner are set to rebuff Theresa May’s appeal for trade talks while they seek to publicly talk up her efforts in the Brexit negotiations as they fear that the prime minister’s domestic weakness will leave her unable to make vital concessions on Britain’s divorce bill.

The member states are acutely aware that the prime minister needs to come out of the summit with her dignity intact if she is to get her cabinet and party to accept concessions on the divorce bill…

There are many strategies for helping a negotiating partner come out with “dignity intact” after you rebuff their demands. The one where you tell the press that you’re trying to make the failure of your opposite number look less terrible because you’re afraid she might collapse if the public were made aware of how terrible it is, is perhaps one of the more counterintuitive.

Food for unthought

Guardian headline:

Amber Rudd calls no-deal ‘unthinkable’

Amber warning

to May’s dismay:

If no-deal is ‘unthinkable’

then no deal is unthinkable.

Theresa is concerned

The EU isn’t doing very well at these negotiations…

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s government fears Brexit talks will break down unless the European Union gives ground at a key summit this week, according to a person familiar with her team’s views.

She’s trying to help. There’s no way they can succeed without agreeing to British demands. Isn’t that obvious? How else could they possibly achieve an agreement?

Warring factions seek EU mediation

That was my immediate translation when I saw this headline yesterday:

Theresa May and David Davis to travel to Brussels for urgent Brexit talks

Obviously the British are trying to create an impression of comity with the EU negotiators, to show that misunderstandings are being swept aside, and the negotiations are now going to run smoothly. An impression that is not fostered by this:

Though Downing Street insisted the dinner had long been in May’s diary, EU sources suggested it may have been more last-minute, but were not able to provide confirmation.

On the other hand, given the warnings about the security of post-Brexit food supplies, maybe they were just hoping to get a solid meal.

The people let down the NHS

I saw this headline in the Daily Mail yesterday:

Pity the poor NHS. Doing its job perfectly, but being cruelly let down by the shiftless population. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, perhaps it would be better were the NHS to carry out a root-and-branch reform of the British public. Eliminate waste. Get rid of the dead wood.

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