Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for March, 2018

Internal Brexit

The Conservative campaign in local elections in the outer London borough of Havering has been getting some attention for their focus on keeping the borough safe from insurgents pouring across the border — from London.

Andrew Rosindell, the “staunch Brexiter” Tory MP for the area, was quoted at a campaign event — attended by Boris Johnson, which is why the press is interested — saying

While Havering is an outer London borough, we don’t want the social problems which come with more migration from inner London. Havering has always been a low crime area with great community spirit.

If it’s about letting good solid British yeoman insurance agents get on with their lives without having to be bothered by the sight of foreigners, then exiting the EU is just the beginning of the Brexit project. The enemy is already inside the gates!

I’m wondering if perhaps we were missing the signal when Johnson suggested last month that the inner-Irish border after Brexit should end up looking like the border between London boroughs.

Politically correct snowflakes

Two expressions with interesting histories have collided in recent years. I first heard the term “politically correct” in the fall of 1984, as a second-year student during the dining-hall workers strike at Yale. My one movement-left friend was talking to a comrade about suggestions for supporting the strikers by a certain lecturer. One of them asked “Is he politically correct?” and the other affirmed that he was. There was some smirking going on, and this friend had sufficient self-awareness that I was never sure of this was meant entirely seriously or more tongue-in-cheek. I next encountered the word in the late 1980s, when conservatives like John Silber, president of Boston University (and Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Massachusetts, in possibly the only election in which I voted for a Republican) picked up the term as a cudgel for attacking the Left on campus. Since Silber had attained prominence precisely as an opponent of free speech and academic freedom, there was little attempt at that time to pretend that anti-PC was a stance for freedom. In his campaign book Straight Shooting, Silber presented it instead as a struggle for absolute unchanging truth against fickle academic fashion. Weird, since the current anti-PC movement has fully embraced the extreme moral relativism that it used to ascribe to the Left.

As for snowflake, I think it’s important to remember that it didn’t start as a reference to the fragility of snowflakes, but to their beauty and uniqueness. Liberal writers on child-rearing referred to children as snowflakes in opposition to what they saw as an obsession with molding children into a predetermined image. Each snowflake is individual, and each one is beautiful in its own way. A lovely metaphor. Of course, there were immediately those who attacked what they saw as mollycoddling, rather than slapping some reality into the little brats, suggesting that these “precious snowflakes” were growing up to have an inflated sense of self. And at some point the self-esteeming precious snowflakes acquired the fragility of snowflakes. The self-described tough guys (and gals) of the right could dismiss complaints about their shredding of constitutional norms as the snivelling of “snowflakes”, implicitly unfit for the rough and tumble of real life by their neglectful upbringing.

Facebook and me

The current Facebook scandal — which is really just like every other Facebook scandal, only bigger and more consequential — has led me to think about my own interaction with Facebook. I was a researcher at UC Berkeley in 2004-5, at the time when Facebook was expanding from the Ivy League out to all universities. I had recently programmed my own personal home page, because that’s what you did then if you wanted to have a space online where you could distribute documents and photos, and generally make yourself available on the Internet. So I thought of Facebook as a template for making web pages. A colleague explained to me that it also had this facility for linking to other people’s accounts.

But fundamentally, a brief look at it really turned me off. Having spent most of my adult life in maths-stats-computing millieus, I’ve known lots of people like Zuckerberg. I never got along with them, and fortunately most of them grow up eventually. Facebook looked to me like an attempt by the Zuckerbergs of the world to get other people to map their lives into a fixed set of categories that would make us sufficiently orderly. It makes social life as much as possible like bookkeeping. So I never signed up. And since then I’ve never had the impression that there were lacunae in my real-world interactions corresponding to Facebook communication.

Of course, this has to do with the fact that I am at least a decade older than the original Facebook target generation. (To judge by my daughters and their friends, Facebook is also far from indispensable for current teens. But Facebook has bought out other platforms, like Instagram, to maintain its hold.) I remember very clearly the first time when I first recognised the overwhelming power of the Facebook phenomenon for Zuckerberg’s generation: In spring 2007 I was sitting in a cafe near the University of Toronto. At a nearby table were half a dozen students whose conversation I couldn’t help but overhear in snippets, and over an hour or so it seemed that everything they had to say was mediated through Facebook: Who had changed their relationship status indicator, and why, and particular decisions to friend or unfriend various individuals. I found it slightly disturbing.

Of course, that was before I knew about the particular egregiously misogynist origin of Facebook. And Mark Zuckerberg’s political ambitions, which frighten me beyond all measure. He is an anti-privacy fanatic, and there is no reason to expect that he would respect citizens’ autonomy, even in principle, any more than he respects Facebook customers. His pattern has always been, push and push and push until a scandal blows up, then reverse the last offensive change and keep on pushing. People are up in arms over Cambridge Analytica’s improper use of Facebook data for the Brexit and Trump campaigns. But if Mark Zuckerberg runs for president I don’t think there is anything to prevent Facebook from donating all of its data to his campaign. Or from using the site to manipulate the information that people see to favour the Zuckerberg campaign. Or their propensity to vote. Or their feelings.

People say, “Just delete your Facebook account.” I don’t have an account, but it doesn’t help me if everyone else is manipulable and half the political leaders are blackmailable through their Facebook data.

Muddying the shibboleth

As long-time readers of this blog will know, I am fascinated by words. I like words with complicated history and many layers of meaning, enabling them to encapsulate complicated ideas or sentiments — like the word Abend (“evening”) in Hofmannsthal’s poem “Ballade des äusseren Lebens” (Ballad of the outer life):

Und dennoch sagt der viel, der Abend sagt,

ein Wort, daraus Tiefsinn und Trauer rinnt

wie schwerer Honig aus den hohlen Waben.

And yet one says so much just saying “evening”,

a word from which profundity and pathos drip

like thick honey from the hollows of the honeycomb.

Often I seem to be the last to notice that a word has changed its vernacular usage, and then I see all at once several appearances of the “new” meaning. One example is this report in The New Republic on the NY gubernatorial campaign of Cynthia Nixon:

If nothing else, perhaps she’ll run a strong enough campaign to make the Democratic Party reconsider its credentialism shibboleth.

I have no opinion about the political candidacy, and I never saw Ms Nixon’s television show, but I grieve for the word shibboleth.

Its original meaning is a word whose proper usage marks someone as belonging to the in-group. (It was the word for a ‘stream’, and the Gileadites in a civil war between Hebrew tribes narrated in chapter 12 of the Old Testament book of Judges used it as a watchword, since the opposing Ephraimites couldn’t pronounce the initial consonant correctly. Rather like the story of American troops in WWII in the Pacific identifying Japanese in the dark by demanding they pronounce the word lollapalooza.) There is plenty of scope for applying this concept in the debates over political correctness and social justice warriors. But I guess it is doomed to become just a fancy synonym for a petty requirement. It is probably beyond saving.

The original story:

Then Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought with Ephraim; and the men of Gilead defeated Ephraim, because they said, “You are fugitives from Ephraim, you Gileadites—in the heart of Ephraim and Manasseh.” Then the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. Whenever one of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time.

Fannee Doolee likes college professors but she doesn’t like scientists

When I was a child, there was a regular feature on the program Zoom called “Fannee Doolees”: Riddles about the titular character who liked some things, but didn’t like other very similar things, interspersed with the question “Why do you think that is?”. Listeners could send in their own suggestions, to show they’d figured out the pattern, like: Fannee Doolee likes sweets, but she doesn’t like candy. Fannee Doolee likes batteries, but she doesn’t like electricity. The trick was, FD likes only words that have a double letter in them. So naturally I thought of this when I saw this plot (pointed out by Kevin Drum) from a paper on political partisanship by political scientist Larry Bartels, showing the results of a survey that asked for a favourability rating on a zero-to-ten scale for various groups and institutions, separated between self-identified Republicans and Democrats.

Screenshot 2018-03-20 21.59.44

Looking at this it really jumped out at me that Republicans have widely divergent views of “college professors” and “scientists”. Scientists are well up in the positive zone, about equal with Jews, and Republicans themselves, whereas college professors are well down into negative territory, next to gays and environmentalists. They also like wealthy people, but they don’t like Wall Street Bankers. Fannee Doolee is definitely not a Republican.

Weirdly, Republicans say they like men and women both more than they like Republicans.

Landing the plane

One of the weirder stories to come up right after the 9/11 attacks was that the “20th hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui  — the Al Qaeda operative who was arrested by the FBI a month before the attack — raised the suspicions of the flight school teacher because he wasn’t interested in learning how to land the plane. In fact, this doesn’t seem to have been true, but the instructor said one of the things that aroused his suspicions was that Moussaoui was interested in how to turn off the oxygen and the transponder. They also thought it was odd that he was starting with learning to fly jumbo jets, which clearly could not part of any rational career strategy.

He also had a weird reason for wanting to learn to fly a jumbo jet, said Nelson — he told them that he merely wanted to be able to boast to his friends that he could fly a 747.

“He was telling us that it’s an ego thing,” Nelson said. “That’s a lot of money to spend to play.”

“I need to know if you can help me achieve my ‘goal,’ my dream,” Moussaoui wrote, listing five types of Boeing and Airbus jets. “To be able to pilot one of these Big Birds, even if I am not a real professional pilot.”

There’s an oddly similar story in The Guardian’s new report on Cambridge Analytica’s possibly even more consequential attack on the British and US elections, facilitated by Facebook. There was this pitch that the company made to the Russian oil conglomerate Lukoil in 2014:

A slide presentation prepared for the Lukoil pitch focuses first on election disruption strategies used by Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, in Nigeria. They are presented under the heading “Election: Inoculation”, a military term used in “psychological operations” and disinformation campaigns. Other SCL documents show that the material shared with Lukoil included posters and videos apparently aimed at alarming or demoralising voters, including warnings of violence and fraud.

Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who has come forward to talk to the Observer, said it was never entirely clear what the Russian firm hoped to get from the operation.

“Alexander Nix [Chief Executive of Cambridge Analytica]’s presentation didn’t make any sense to me,” said Wylie, who left Cambridge Analytica soon after the initial meetings. “If this was a commercial deal, why were they so interested in our political targeting?”

Lukoil did not respond to requests for comments.

I guess even oil conglomerates have dreams. And they can find clueless techies willing to make their dreams come true.

Light red-baiting from Russian state media

Screenshot 2018-03-14 12.58.16Screenshot 2018-03-14 12.57.40

Brexit: The slacker romantic-comedy allegory

People have been comparing Brexit to a messy divorce since before Brexit was Brexit, but I suspect we may be in the wrong movie. The Tory Eurosceptic claim is, effectively, that they were never really married. And that means that we need to draw our clichés from a whole different realm of romantic fiction.

Think of Bull Johnson, an emotionally immature man with a steady but not sensational income. He’s been involved with a woman (let’s call her Europa) who lives nearby, and they get along pretty well. But he has this dynamic and very successful friend, Merry, who he used to be close to, but who now has her own life on a distant continent. They still talk often, share secrets (ahem), and occasionally lean on each other in hard times. Merry thinks that Bull should finally commit to Europa and settle down. (Europa has some reservations as well, having had some unfortunate encounters with Bulls in the past, but thinks this relationship can work.) And he does, sort of. Then one day Bull calls up Merry and says, I’m thinking of leaving Europa. I hate feeling tied down. I want my old “buccaneering” life. What does that even mean? asks Merry. He can’t say, but he insists he misses his old life. Merry says to think about the good life he and Europa have built together. Bull agrees that he’ll give it some more thought, and have a talk with Europa about what he’s dissatisfied about.

Next scene, Bull is ringing the doorbell at Merry’s flat at 3 am. “I’ve done it. I’ve left Europa. I finally realised, you and I should be together.” And Merry says, “Uhhh…”

To be continued…

Don’t you see, he’s an Englishman?

I’ve had a number of conversations with Europeans that made me realise that many Europeans actually believe in the British self-image, that they are by nature calm and pragmatic. I may be wrong, but I think Americans — in common with Canadians and Australians — tend to have a more clear-eyed view of Britain, a nation so much in the grip of their ideologies — even as they flit from one to the other — that they can’t even recognise them as ideologies. Since the Thatcher reign the obsession has been market liberalism.

If there’s one thing the British excel at, it’s marketing, and they have marketed their own image brilliantly. It’s only with Brexit that the scales are falling from the eyes of the Europeans. One foreign academic who I was talking with today on the picket line said, in her first years in the UK she was constantly stressed because British colleagues would never keep to any agreement. If you try to appeal to the fact that something was agreed, even that it’s written down in a contract, you’ll be told how petty and unreasonable you are being. “Reasonable” is a favourite power play, because only the in-group knows which of the vast number of rules a “reasonable” person has to follow.

Anyway, I just happened to be reading Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, written at a time when the British were marketing a different self-image, and came upon this passage:

“Mrs. Gould, are you aware to what point he has idealized the existence, the worth, the meaning of the San Tome mine? Are you aware of it?”

“What do you know?” she asked in a feeble voice.

“Nothing,” answered Decoud, firmly. “But, then, don’t you see, he’s an Englishman?”

“Well, what of that?” asked Mrs. Gould.

“Simply that he cannot act or exist without idealizing every simple feeling, desire, or achievement. He could not believe his own motives if he did not make them first a part of some fairy tale. The earth is not quite good enough for him, I fear.”

It reminds me obliquely of when I came upon the odd passage in Holinshed’s Chronicles, where he remarks with pride how easily Englishmen pick up other languages, contrasting it with the incapacity of foreigners to learn English:

This also is proper to vs Englishmen, that sith ours is a meane language, and neither too rough nor too smooth in vtterance, we may with much facilitie learne any other language, beside Hebrue, Gréeke & Latine, and speake it naturallie, as if we were home-borne in those countries; & yet on the other side it falleth out, I wot not by what other meanes, that few forren nations can rightlie pronounce ours, without some and that great note of imperfection, especiallie the French men, who also seldome write any thing that sauoreth of English trulie.

The unexpected tweeting

A president, shall we say, has decided to fire his secretary of state. He tells him, “You will be fired in the next week, but you won’t know until the day of the firing that you are going to be fired.” Then the extra twist: “And you can expect a tweet tomorrow, but you won’t know until you read the tweet what it is going to be about.”

When did Trump decide to fire Secretary of State Tillerson? According to reports

The Washington Post, which was first to report Tillerson’s ouster, reported that Trump asked Tillerson to resign last Friday, prompting Tillerson to cut short his trip in Africa. The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker later clarified that a White House official told Tillerson on Friday that his days were numbered. Bloomberg News reported that Kelly told Tillerson he would be fired without specifying when, however the Associated Press reported that Kelly only gave Tillerson a vague warning about an expected tweet from Trump.

I am reminded of one of my the Unexpected Hanging. In the classic presentation of Martin Gardner, this goes as follows: A man was sentenced on Saturday to be hanged.

“The hanging will take place at noon,” said the judge to the prisoner, “on one of the seven days of next week. But you will not know which day it is until you are so informed on the morning of the day of the hanging.”

The judge was known to be a man who always kept his word. The prisoner, accompanied by his lawyer, went back to his cell. As soon as the two men were alone the lawyer broke into a grin. “Don’t you see?” he exclaimed. “The judge’s sentence cannot possibly be carried out.”

“I don’t see,” said the prisoner.

“Let me explain. They obviously can’t hang you next Saturday. Saturday is the last day of the week. On Friday afternoon you would still be alive and you would know with absolute certainty that the hanging would be on Saturday. You would know this before  you were told on Saturday morning. That would violate the judge’s decree.”

“True,” said the prisoner.

“Saturday, then, is positively ruled out,” continued the lawyer. “This leaves Friday as the last day they can hang you. But they can’t hang you on Friday because by Thursday afternoon only two days would remain: Friday and Saturday. Since Saturday is not a possible day, the hanging Ould have to be on Friday. Your knowledge of that fact would violate the judge’s decree again. So Friday is out. This leaves Thursday as the last possible day. But Thursday is out because if you’re alive Wednesday afternoon, you’ll know that Thursday is to be the day.”

“I get it,” said the prisoner, who was beginning to feel much better. “In exactly the same way I can rule out Wednesday, Tuesday and Monday. That leaves only tomorrow. But they can’t hang me tomorrow because I know it today!”

The weird thing about Trump’s tweet, by the way, is that he writes

Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA.

He probably knows by now that these positions are subject to Senate confirmation, and the Senate is pretty evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. You’d think he’d want to acknowledge that he knows? Haspel, in particular, is going to open up a lot of questions that the CIA doesn’t really want to answer about her links to torture.

Tag Cloud