Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for February, 2018

Hoisted from the Archives: Institutions of higher perspiration

It seems like a good time to repost this from the time of the ineffectual strike of 2014:

“They don’t want to turn the universities into sweatshops. They’ll be institutions of higher perspiration.”

That was my conclusion about the trajectory to which our managerial overlords aspire, as I was trying to convince a colleague that he should support the UCU, the British academics union, and its escalating strike action. I walked the picket lines for the first time on Thursday, during our two-hour strike. There were about 20 of us there, and only a few were senior academics, which is somewhat disheartening. There were almost as many reporters as strikers, so I got to talk to all of them. Their questions were interesting:
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Why I am striking

Strike actions have been conducted every year or two since I’ve been at Oxford. At the first one I participated unquestioningly. My previous job was at Queen’s University in Ontario, where everyone was a member of the union, and the union was our joint instrument for protecting our rights, both academic and contractual. So if there’s a strike, I figured, everyone stops working.

I felt like I’d fallen for a prank. There were three days of “strikes”, on three different weeks, I signed up to forego my salary for those days, joined three other people on a picket line for an hour, while all of my colleagues were at work — and all my work still had to get done on other days. The strikes would go unnoticed, but the 1.5% after-inflation salary cut would be replaced by 1%, approximately replacing the pay lost by striking, and the whole process would repeat a year or two later.

I consequently ignored the most recent strike action, to begin with. But I’ve now come to realise that this is a more serious matter. The strike isn’t continuous, but it covers most workdays over a period of four weeks (to begin with). The basis of the conflict is more fundamental than a one-percent salary cut: the decision by employers to offload pension risk onto the individuals, in replacing defined-benefit plans by defined-contribution plans. It’s not just a matter of how we — and particularly our younger colleagues — are being treated, and how it will affect people’s financial plans. It is part of a longer-term struggle about who will stay in the profession, and who will choose to enter the profession in the future. And of the struggle to define the nature of the academic profession, and of academic institutions.

I entered academia long after those halcyon days when there was an easy path for any reasonably smart person to a secure job. But there was still a sense that an academic career was a plausible aspiration for normal people from all kinds of backgrounds, and that one could plausibly trade away a quick grab at the high salaries of private industry against a quieter, socially useful, and more contemplative life, that would provide at least financial security and a long planning horizon.

Last week we received a letter from Oxford’s registrar, arguing that the pension cuts were unavoidable. Not to worry, though:

Nothing in the current proposals changes anything that USS members have already accrued as pension rights.

This line rankled. It is a direct appeal against solidarity. For all the aggravation that one should have over opaque employment practices and discriminatory pay at Oxford, the fact is that every one of us who have permanent jobs at a leading research university has won the lottery grand prize compared with what is left for equally talented students. We are clinging to the last helicopters fleeing the ruins of the academia that most of us aspired to join. The younger academics who had the poor foresight to be born too late are being overrun.

Decisions are being made on the basis of an ideological assertion that co-operative academic institutions motivated by a shared pursuit of truth and scientific advancement have no future: Universities need to emulate the soi-disant successes of British industry. They need to be ruthlessly hierarchical and constantly marketing their “product”. The proximate cause of  the strike is a qualitative cut in pension rights — the shift from defined benefits to defined contributions — driven by irrational changes to official pension valuation methodology, combined with universities’ boundless need for capital to fund expansion. (Lest one think that expansion might be good for higher education in the long run, and hence for higher education careers, it should be noted that student numbers have actually been declining. In keeping with its ideology of competition, the government seems to be promoting a contest for dwindling resources.) Those of us who got in ahead of the capitalist singularity are being promised a partial reprieve, in exchange for acquiescence to the

I don’t want to strike. It creates conflict. It disrupts the lives of students. It disrupts my own life. At a time when the position of all foreigners is particularly under threat in this country, I’d like to keep my head below the parapets. I don’t like getting caught up in fights between different groups of English people, that always seem to involve subtexts that no foreigner can understand. Especially in Oxford, participating in strike action feels like the opposite of collective action.

In discussions with several colleagues in recent days I tried to argue for why I, personally, shouldn’t strike. No one tried to persuade me otherwise, but I frankly could even persuade myself. The arguments rang hollow, particularly the argument that I don’t know which portion of my work counts for my three-days contribution to the university. (Oxford academics have a complicated division of roles between university and college, and the colleges are not being targeted by the strike. Oddly, because all reports suggest that they had an outsized role in provoking the strike.)

I am inspired by reports of young academics walking picket lines, and humbled by the support of the National Union of Students, which wrote

We believe that fairly rewarded staff are the cornerstone of the university experience and that the proposal by Universities UK to substantially cut the pensions of members of the USS pension scheme will be hugely damaging if implemented.

Day by day we accept the small privileges that accrue to us from the steady erosion of opportunities for the younger generation of teachers and scholars. Now, in the rare circumstance where a decision is forced upon us, where the cost to ourselves is minimal, where the students themselves — “think of the poor students!” — are collectively supporting the action, at the very least now we can take this tiny step in support of our colleagues, and of hope for better conditions in the future. A step that will take me out of my office and down the street, to the picket line.

Dostoevsky on the Dunning-Kruger effect

From The Idiot:

There is nothing so annoying as to be fairly rich, of a fairly good family, pleasing presence, average education, to be “not stupid,” kind-hearted, and yet to have no talent at all, no originality, not a single idea of one’s own—to be, in fact, “just like everyone else.”
Of such people there are countless numbers in this world—far more even than appear. They can be divided into two classes as all men can—that is, those of limited intellect, and those who are much cleverer. The former of these classes is the happier.
To a commonplace man of limited intellect, for instance, nothing is simpler than to imagine himself an original character, and to revel in that belief without the slightest misgiving… Others have but to read an idea of somebody else’s, and they can immediately assimilate it and believe that it was a child of their own brain. The “impudence of ignorance,” if I may use the expression, is developed to a wonderful extent in such cases;—unlikely as it appears, it is met with at every turn.
Our friend, Gania, belonged to the other class—to the “much cleverer” persons, though he was from head to foot permeated and saturated with the longing to be original. This class, as I have said above, is far less happy. For the “clever commonplace” person, though he may possibly imagine himself a man of genius and originality, none the less has within his heart the deathless worm of suspicion and doubt; and this doubt sometimes brings a clever man to despair.

(A description of the D-K effect here.)

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.”

The EU OS

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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