Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for February, 2019

The Brexit formula

A collaborative project with Dr Julia Brettschneider (University of Warwick) has yelded a mathematical formulation of the current range of Brexit proposals coming from the UK, that we hope will help to facilitate a solution:

Numeric calculations seem to confirm the conjecture that the value of the solution tends to zero as t→29/3.

The executive-time branch

We have all learned many things about the world that we might have preferred not to know, since the election of Donald Trump. One of the more bizarre little facts is that there is a rubric “executive time”, used by Trump’s minions to fill in the gaps in his schedule, when he is watching television or shooting the shit with random people. I assume that this is a term he picked up from his wealthy friends, even if few others are likely to be as assiduous as Trump in maintaining executive functions: it was recently revealed that 60% of the president’s schedule is devoted to “executive time”.

Is there any better expression than “executive time” of the way plutocrats assure each other — and pay their underlings to assure them — that they deserve to be wealthy, that they earn it by being both smarter and harder working than the lazy stiffs sitting around just cleaning toilets all day, who stay poor because they “are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies” (as US Republican Senator Charles Grassley recently put it, in explaining why he thought there should be no estate tax at all). The poors deserve their fate because they waste their time watching TV; the CEO earns his million dollars a week with executive time, assimilating complex multimedia information. The same way bankers insist that their stratospheric salaries are recompense for risk, and then get bailed out from the public purse when their risky schemes collapse.

The Labour MP Jess Philips summarised the hegemonic self-deception that goes into the government definition of “skilled workers” — those who would be entitled to immigrate to the UK after Brexit — as those earning over £30,000 (thus excluding most nurses and teachers, for instance) in her wonderful recent speech in the Commons, saying

I have met lots of people who earn way more than £30,000 and have literally no discernible skills, not even one. I have definitely met some very rich people who earn huge amounts of money who I wouldn’t let hold my pint if I had to go and vote while in the bar.

This is the sort of self-deceptive confusion between real skills and “high-level” or “managerial” skills that I have elsewhere called “how to do it“.

“British sense of humour”

Unnamed EU officials described EU Brexit negotiator Sabine Weyand to The Guardian in these terms:

“She has got a real affection for and understanding of the UK,” said another EU official who knows her well. Several say she has a very British sense of humour, with a taste for sarcasm and irony. “She is really fun to work with; very direct, very quick, no bullshit,” said the official.

The comments “understanding of the UK” and “no bullshit” are direct quotes, whereas “British sense of humour” is not, which I note because I am wondering whether anyone who was not British would particularly associate the British with humour. Sarcasm possibly. But irony*? I wonder if the EU officials might have said she had a sense of irony and the British journalists translated that into “British sense of humour”, because that’s how they like to imagine themselves.

It seems like the UK had settled on the line, we may have lost our Empire, our power, our influence in the world, our manufacturing base, and even most of our self respect. But we haven’t lost our sense of humour about it all.

And then they did.

* I am supposing irony to be used in its everyday sense, and not in the technical sense used in literary criticism, a dramatic device where

the words and actions of the characters contradict the real situation, which the spectators fully realise.

Brexit has shown the British to be true masters of this device, but it is conventionally reckoned to tragedy, not to comedy. Perhaps they were misinformed.

If it is revealed in the end that Brexit was actually a piece of performance art, it will have been retrospectively hilarious.

“Spirit of innovation”

I’m fascinated by the way ideologies get hardwired into language, so that the ideology becomes unchallengeable and yet invisible. And sometimes you only notice it when you observe how words have changed their meanings or their valence over time.

Thus I was brought up short by this remark of George Washington (quoted in Michael Klarman’s wonderful new account of the origins of the US Constitution The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution) expressing his concerns that the first Congress, considering the clamour for a Bill of Rights and other immediate amendments would produce such

amendments as might be really proper and generally satisfactory without producing or at least fostering such a spirit of innovation as will overturn the whole system.

I’ve never seen the word innovation used to express something to be avoided, rather than something to be promoted and praised. (The one exception is in time-series analysis, where the “innovation” has a purely neutral technical sense.) There is a whole world-view wrapped up in our modern veneration of “innovation”.

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