A law was made a distant moon ago here…

As we know, from the esteemed chronicles Lerner and Loewe, in Camelot

The winter is forbidden till December

and exits March the second on the dot.

By order summer lingers through September

In Camelot.


Not to be outdone, the British House of Commons has ordered that the departure from the EU, that will happen in just over two weeks, shall not happen without a deal. Right after voting resoundingly to reject the only possible deal.

The magic continues!

Guilt of admission

When I first arrived at Oxford I expressed admiration for the rigorously academic nature of the student admissions procedure. I have since soured somewhat on the whole segregate-the-elite approach, as well as on the implicit fiction that we are selecting students to be future academics, but I still appreciate the clarity of the criteria, which help to avoid the worst corruption of the American model. I have long been astonished at how little resentment there seemed to be in the US at the blatant bias in favour of economic and social elites, with criticism largely focused on discrimination for or against certain racial categories. Despite the enormous interest in the advantages, or perceived advantages, of elite university degrees, very little attention has been focused on the intentionally byzantine admissions procedures, on the bias in favour of children of the wealthy and famous (particularly donors or — wink-wink — future donors), the privileging of students with well-curated CVs and expensive and time-consuming extracurricular activities, the literal grandfather clauses in admissions.

Now some of the wealthy have taken it too far, by defrauding the universities themselves, paying consultants to fake exam results and athletic records. The most unintentionally humorous element of the whole scandal is this comment by Andrew Lelling, U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts:

We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school is more likely to take your son or daughter. We’re talking about deception and fraud.

Fraud is defined here as going beyond the ordinary bounds of abusing wealth and privilege. You pay your bribes directly to the university, not to shady middlemen. The applicant needs to actually play a sport only available in elite prep schools, not produce fake testimonials and photoshop their head onto an athlete’s body.

Of course, this is all fraud, because no one is paying millions of dollars because they think their child will receive a better education. The whole point is to lay a cuckoo’s egg in the elite-university nest, where they will be mistaken for the genuinely talented. For a careful (tongue-in-cheek) analysis of the costs and benefits of this approach, see my recent article on optimised faking.

The next thing

Theresa May has given a statement that very well summarised the Conservative approach to governing in general, and to Brexit in particular. Asked about what she plans to do in the (overwhelmingly likely) event that the Parliament rejects her deal again, in the vote that she has now scheduled for barely two weeks before the UK is scheduled to leave the EU her response was to dismiss the premise. Plans are for losers. Winners plan only for success. Or, in her inimitable words,

Why is it that people are always trying to look for the next thing after the next thing after the next thing? It is pointless, we should focus on what we are doing now…

Home Secretary: “Go back where you came from”

I have written at some length about the different classes of British citizenship, and how even if you are born a UK citizen, if you come from the wrong ethnic or national background you will always be a citizen on sufferance. Nowhere is that more clear than in the announcement by Home Secretary Sajid Javid that Shamima Begum, the British girl who left the UK at age 15 to join ISIS, was having her citizenship revoked, despite the fact that she a) was a child victim of international sexual predators and b) was born in the UK and has no other citizenship. Since the UK is barred by international treaties from rendering a person stateless, Javid had to argue that she wasn’t really stateless, since she could claim Bangladeshi citizenship through her mother. Even if she was born here and it was the failure of British authorities that allowed her to be groomed and trafficked, she has proved herself unworthy of the first-class citizenship that she was born with, and those colonials will just have to give her one of those cheap non-British citizenships.

Putting aside the autocratic air of a government official deciding, on the basis of a vague supposition that their citizenship is “not conducive to the public good”. At the very least, as long as the revocations were confined to people who had been nationalised as adults, and who retained dual nationality, there was some limiting principle other than ethno-nationalism. Now, anyone who simply could be eligible for another citizenship can be thrown out of their own country, at the stroke of the Home Secretary’s pen. Among those potentially affected, in addition to those potential traitors whose parents came from abroad, is of course any British person born in Northern Ireland — eligible for Irish citizenship — and any Jew, since they are eligible for Israeli citizenship.

A Home Secretary who decided that the presence of Jews in the UK was no longer “conducive to the public good” could, by Javid’s precedent, simply sign the appropriate order to “send them back where they came from”. No new laws are required.

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”.

“… in line with UK immigration rules”

For repetition is a mighty power in the domain of humor. If frequently used, nearly any precisely worded and unchanging formula will eventually compel laughter if it be gravely and earnestly repeated, at intervals, five or six times.

— Mark Twain, Autobiography

The Guardian has yet another report on the radical anti-family policies of the UK Home Office. This time it is an elderly Iranian couple with three generations of descendants in Britain, who have lived in the UK since the 1970s, who are now to be deported. This despite the fact that they are ill and wholly dependent on their children for care, and despite the fact that they currently care for an autistic grandchild. The Home Office takes the official view that the grandchild would not be affected, because

It is noted that you own the house you reside in Edinburgh, therefore you could choose to allow your daughter and grandson to live there on your return to Iran, which then would not impact on your grandson as you claim he visits you there every day.

This is close to the cruelest stereotype of the British character: cold and haughty, a nation of bookkeepers and arrogant property owners, sensitive to animal suffering but indifferent to humans. The only “equity” they care about is home equity. The Guardian has become the only effective court of appeal against this inhuman immigration policies, meaning that basic human rights end up depending on the vagaries of journalists’ attention.

The series of individual tragedies reported in The Guardian seems endless. It struck me that every one of these reports ends with the same coda:

A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “All UK visa applications are considered on their individual merits, on the basis of the evidence available and in line with UK immigration rules.”

I know this conforms to ordinary journalistic standards — you have to let the government state its perspective, the government has a policy of not commenting on individual cases, blah blah blah — but, following the principle articulated by Mark Twain, this repetition — The Guardian transcribing this boilerplate again and again and again, begins to produce a darkly comic effect, satirising without comment the robotic, dehumanised and dehumanising character of the Home Office bureaucracy.

(I never cease to be fascinated by the role of bureaucracy in whitewashing tyranny. The UK Parliament could abrogate its recognition of asylum rights, eliminate family rights in immigration cases, and so on. But that would openly acknowledge what monsters they have become — and invite open resistance, at home and abroad, and might even be uncomfortable for the perpetrators themselves. We’re not splitting up families, we’re facilitating the use of modern digital technology to keep them together. It’s the same motivation that led the Nazi SS to apply the term Sonderbehandlung (special treatment) in official documents to the murder of disabled children, and the mass gassing of Jews.)

I suppose this could invite a variation on Tolstoy’s famous opening to Anna Kerenina: Comedy is repetitive. Tragedies are unique.

Like all tyrannies, though, the UK Home Office is endeavouring to mass-produce tragedies. And the evil wrought by Theresa May works on, even after she has moved on to greater things.