Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for February, 2018

Quoth the raven, Never Trump

Carl Hempel famously crystallised an obstruction to the formalisation of inductive reasoning as the “Raven paradox”: Suppose I am an ornithologist, concerned to prove my world-shaking hypothesis, “All ravens are black”. I could go out into the field with binoculars and observe ravens. Suppose that over the course of the week I see 198 black ravens, 0 white ravens, 0 green ravens, and so on. These are strong data in favour of my hypothesis, and my publication in the Journal of Chromo-ornithology is assured. (And if they turn it down, I’ve heard there are numerous black studies journals…) But it gets cold out in the field, and sometimes damp, so I could reason as follows: “‘All ravens are black’ is equivalent to ‘all non-black objects are not ravens’.” And in my warm and dry study there may be no ravens, but there are many non-black objects. So I catalogue all the pink erasers and yellow textbooks and white mugs, and list them all as evidence for my hypothesis.

The status of this charming story as a paradox depends on the belief that no one would actually make such an inference. Behold, the president of the United States: Last week the special prosecutor for matters related to Russian interference with the 2016 US election released an indictment of 13 Russians. None of them had worked with the Trump campaign. Trump’s response:

In other words, while it is proving too difficult to collect proof of the contention “No anti-American voter fraud was performed by Trump,” he is collecting evidence that “There were actions not performed by Trump that were anti-American voter fraud.”

More democracy, more guns

I’ve long been suspicious of John Dewey’s celebrated aphorism “The solution to the ills of democracy is more democracy.” It’s brilliant, of course. Pithy. The frisson of paradox and a nugget of truth. But what seems like more democracy — for example, referenda — can be an autocrat’s best tool. There is a subtle slight of hand here, since the first “democracy” in the sentence is the currently existing realisation of democracy, while the second is presumably ideal democratic principles..

Now we see the same logic in the gun debate in the US. The gun lobby has been refining the argument for decades, from “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” to “If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns” to “The thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”. We’ve now boiled it down to the essence, which — though they haven’t yet quite formulated it this way — is

The solution to the ills of guns is more guns.

Maybe we need to recognise that the solution to the ills of democracy is careful thinking about the tradeoffs involved in creating a sensible policy to tackle some of the most negative features of the current situation without creating too many new problems, and then rethink it after the effects have become more clear. Which is, I admit, less pithy than Dewey’s version.


The bottom line on Brexit

After more than a year of fantasising that Brexit would be a replay of Agincourt with less mud, after which snivelling Europeans would pay obeisance to the mighty arm of British commerce (unwilling to forego the market for Prosecco and BMWs), Brexit minister David Davis has now gone to the other extreme, making a promise so minimal that we can be pretty sure he can keep it:

Britain will not be “plunged into a Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction” after it leaves the EU, the Brexit secretary will say in a speech.

Although, when you look at the actual text, he’s not even promising that, merely that

They fear that Brexit could lead to an Anglo-Saxon race to the bottom… with Britain plunged into a Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction. These fears about a race to the bottom are based on nothing, not history, not intention, nor interest.

So, while he’s trying to discount this extreme scenario that no one but him has actually suggested, he won’t commit to saying it won’t happen, only that it never happened before (“history”), he’s not trying to make happen (“intention”), and he doesn’t think it would be a good thing if it did (“interest”).

It does remind us all that we must provide reassurance.

So here is the government’s reassuring promise: If Mad Max does play out in Britain it may be our fault, but we’ll regret it.

Hum and buzz

Apparently there’s been low-frequency hum intermittently plaguing the residents of Windsor Ontario in recent years. It may be due to blast furnace operations on a nearby island. The report in the NY Times goes on to discuss similar complaints that have arisen at other locations. When the Taos tourism director describes her town’s troubles, which have since subsided, metaphorical noise collides with real noise:

“I have never heard the Taos hum, but I’ve heard stories of the Taos hum,” she said. “There’s not been a lot of buzz about it in the last few years.”


Twenty years ago I had a short visit from a college friend* who had just discovered the technical utopia. Completely enthralled. The Internet was going to upend all power relations, make all governments irrelevant, make censorship impossible. I was fascinated, but I did ask, How is The Internet going to clean the sewers?

But there was something else that intrigued me. He was very much on the nonscience side as a student, but he had just been learning some programming. And he had discovered something amazing: When your computer looks like it isn’t doing anything, it’s actually constantly active, checking whether any input has come. The user interface is a metaphorical desktop, inert and passive until you prod it, but beneath the surface a huge amount of complicated machinery is thrumming to generate this placid illusion.

I thought of this when reading The European Union: A Very Short Introduction. The European Union is complicated. For instance, in EU governance there is the European Council and the Council of the European Union, which are distinct, and neither one is the same as the Council of Europe (which is not part of the EU at all). There is a vast amount of work for lawyers, diplomats, economists, and various other specialists — “bureaucrats” in the common parlance — to give form and reality to certain comprehensible goals, the famous “four freedoms” — free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour. The four freedoms are the user interface of the EU, if you will, and the

There’s a lot of legacy code in the EU. In the absence of a further world war to flatten the institutions and allow a completely new constitution to be created, EU institutions had to be made backward compatible with existing nation states. There is a great deal of human work involved in carrying out these compatibility tasks. When people complain that the EU is “bureaucratic”, that’s more or less what they mean. And when they complain about “loss of sovereignty” what they mean is that their national operating system has been repurposed to run the EU code, so that some of the action of national parliaments has become senseless on its own terms.

Some people look at complicated but highly useful structures with a certain kind of awe. When these were social constructs, the people who advised treating them with care used to be called “conservatives”. The people who call themselves Conservative these days, faced with complicated structures that they can’t understand, feel only an irresistible urge to smash them.

* German has a word — Kommilitone — for exactly this relationship (fellow student), lacking in English. Because it’s awkward to say “former fellow student”.

Horse thieves and inverse probabilities

Reading Ron Chernow’s magisterial new biography of Ulysses Grant, I came across this very correct statistical inverse reasoning from the celebrated journalist Horace Greeley (whose role in the high school history curriculum has been reduced to the phrase, “Go West, young man” — that he denied having invented):

All Democrats are not horse thieves, but all horse thieves are Democrats.

This seems like an ironic bon mot, but after he became the Democratic candidate for president against Grant in 1872 he tried to use a milder version unironically as a defence of his new party colleagues:

I never said all Democrats were saloon keepers. What I said was all saloon keepers are Democrats.

Presumably he meant to add that if we knew the base rate of saloonkeeping (or horse thievery) in the population at large, we could calculate from the Democratic vote share the exact fraction of Democrats (and of Republicans) who are saloonkeepers (or horse thieves).

Very fine people of 1863

I’ve just been reading Ron Chernow’s new biography of U.S. Grant, struck by some of the parallels to current events. As interim Secretary of War Grant was at the center of the struggle over the Tenure of Office Act that served as the pretext for Johnson’s impeachment. Johnson’s supporters charged Grant with lying and drunkenness. The New York Tribune retorted

In a question of veracity between U.S. Grant and Andrew Johnson, between a soldier whose honor is as untarnished as the sun, and a President who has betrayed every friend, and broken every promise, the country will not hesitate.

And Grant’s opponent in the 1868 presidential election, New York governor Horatio Seymour, had

Denounced the Emancipation Proclamation as “a proposal for the butchery of women and children, for scenes … of arson and murder.” During the 1863 draft riots in New York, Seymour had praised the responsible hooligans as “my friends”.

Shades of Charlottesville.

On the one hand, it might be comforting to know that the US has come through worse. On the other hand, to say that current affairs have their parallels in the extreme crisis of civil war, and in a state of division that could only be “resolved” by policies that imposed essentially a century of apartheid in the southern states, is hardly comforting.

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