The Queen’s two bodies

There’s something that baffles me about the public discussion of ERII’s legacy: Why do so many people feel comfortable lauding the late monarch as the (no longer) living embodiment of the nation when she’s waving to the crowd and dispensing Christmas bromides, but just a befuddled girl when her imperial government is committing crimes against humanity?

The cognitive dissonance is extreme: What kind of monsters would we be were we to be charmed by a person responsible for the murder and torture of thousands? Therefore she was not responsible. Therefore, implicitly — since she was responsible for everything — these crimes did not occur.

And just to be extra clear, I am not doubting the expert claim that Harold Macmillan lied like a rug to keep Her Majesty in the dark on the sordid details of the Empire, or lied to the public to pretend that he did. The living embodiment of the nation embodies its crimes as well as its virtues. She can’t embody the spirit of Paddington Bear, but be free of any taint of Hola. The victims of Her Majesty’s government are her royal victims, whether or not her mortal body participated, whether or not it was indeed aware.

The alternative is, monarchy is just bullshit, just celebrity culture with extra-fancy headgear. That seems to be the genuine belief revealed by the public’s response.

How to do (presidential) things with words

Donald Trump’s home has been raided by the FBI. While there has been no official announcement of the object of the raid, most are assuming that the government is looking for official documents that the former president may have taken with him from the White House. And particular concern has been raised about possible secret (classified) documents. This raises an interesting legal question, because it is generally accepted that the president has broad latitude to classify and declassify any information.

One of the great texts of modern Anglo-American philosophy of language is J L Austin’s How to Do Things with Words. The title is brilliant, of course, and it compelled me to pick it up off a friend’s bookshelf and read it before I’d ever heard of it or knew how significant it was. As someone who had immersed himself as a teenager in the early twentieth century mathematico-logical approach to Austin’s simple point was a revelation: Language is not solely (or even mainly) about making statements about the world that can be judged on their truth value. (Wittgenstein had already led me into this terrain, but Austin is much more concrete, and not so oracular.)

Austin’s point is that there is a whole class of “speech acts”: Verbal utterances that are not true or false, but actions. Examples are

  • Making a promise;
  • Naming something (e.g., a ship christening, one of Austin’s examples);
  • Issuing a challenge, bet, or threat;
  • Marrying (meaning here, performing the ceremony, though also one of the parties making marriage vows);
  • Making an order;
  • Handing down a legal ruling.

Crucial to Austin’s analysis is that we need different categories for describing the success of such utterances. Not truth, but appropriateness. Basically, there needs to be an accepted conventional procedure for conducting this act at a certain time, with agreement that the procedure has a certain effect, and such that the role of uttering the words has an established role in the procedure. And this procedure must have been carried out in the correct circumstances by appropriate people, and in the correct manner.

Which brings us back to the sticky-fingered former president. One of Trump’s lackeys is insisting that Trump can’t have broken the law regarding classified information, because he declassified all of it before he stole it. (Regardless of whether the information officially classified, he presumably still contravened the Presidential Records Act by taking the government documents, but that seems like a more politically venial crime than mishandling classified information.)

“The White House counsel failed to generate the paperwork to change the classification markings, but that doesn’t mean the information wasn’t declassified,” Kash Patel, a former staffer for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and, briefly, a Pentagon employee, told Breitbart in May.

“I was there with President Trump when he said ‘We are declassifying this information,’” Patel added.

There is an established procedure for declassifying documents, which may be invoked by a president, but it is more complicated than the president simply declaring “I declassify thee”. (For one thing, how would you define the blast radius of such an order? Has the president declassified all information held by the government? Everything written on papers in the general direction the president is gesturing at? What about an encrypted laptop in the same room?) “Per a 2009 executive order, markings on classified material need to be updated to reflect changes in their status.”

Patel went on to suggest that Trump had been betrayed, but that his order to “declassify” should retain legal force.

“It’s petty bureaucracy at its finest, government simpletons not following a president’s orders to have them marked ‘declassified,’” Patel said. “The president has unilateral authority to declassify documents — anything in government. He exercised it here in full.”

In Austin’s framework, there is a conventional procedure being invoked here, and the president is the appropriate person to invoke it. But the procedure was not carried out in the correct manner. It is rather as though an eager couple in a hurry appears in church. They haven’t registered their marriage (28 days required by law in England), and they don’t have time for a full ceremony. The priest says “I declare you married” and sends them on their way.

Trump’s lackey treats this as a mere matter of “petty bureaucracy”, but the need to exercise power through formal procedures is an important check on autocracy. In the Third Reich the Führer’s will was paramount, even if it had not been expressed. Germans were supposed to “work toward the Führer”. Requiring explicit instructions in specific forms creates a modicum of transparency and accountability.

There’s a certain formality two-step here that is immensely corrosive of public responsibility. You start with the observation, the president has the right to do X if he chooses. It’s a plenary power, potentially dangerous, so it is hemmed in by various complications and procedures. In particular, he needs to explicitly invoke the power. Which you can’t do in the required specificity to an unlimited extent. And then you start to say, well, it’s his power, he could exercise it any time he wants, so it’s mere pettifogging to insist that he actually have done that rigmarole of invoking, and pretty soon everyone is just working toward the leader, guessing what the law currently is.

Socialist maths

The recent decision by the state of Florida to ban a slew of mathematics textbooks from its schools because of their links to banned concepts has attracted much attention. The website Popular Information has pored through the banned texts to try and suss out what the verboten ideological content might be. Some books seem to have impermissably encouraged students to work together and treat each other with respect. Another may have set off alarms because it included, among its capsule biographies of mathematicians, some non-white individuals.

I’ve always wondered, though, why it’s not considered problematic that books persistently teach the concept of division with problems that require that a fixed amount of wealth — 10 cookies, say — be allocated equally among a group of children. No consideration of whether some of the children might be smarter, or work harder, or just be closer to the cookie jar, and thus be entitled to a larger share. Pretty much the definition of socialism!

(More generally, it always fascinated me, in my years spent as an observer on the playground, that it was taken for granted that toddlers were always being pressured to share their toys, and learning to share was seen as a developmental milestone, where we do not expect adults to be willing or able to share anything at any time.)

Opine borders

Boris Johnson has aroused the ire of many classical historians for his dubious claim that the Roman Empire was destroyed by “uncontrolled immigration”. What is most striking is the unquestioned implication that when Romans moved outward, conquering and enslaving their neighbours, that was GLORY, and much to be lamented when it was (possibly) destroyed by their ultimate failure to prevent people from “the east” from migrating in the opposite direction. It seems to me, if there’s anyone who had a problem with uncontrolled migration from the east it was Carthage.

Neanderthals and women

The article seems to have good intentions, but this headline in today’s Guardian is the most sexist I’ve seen in some time. It sounds like the men were hard at work “creating language”, and some women helped out with some testing, and maybe brought snacks. Also some Neanderthals came by and lent a hand. And apes.

Last and First Antisemites

There’s something fascinating about 19th and 20th century English antisemitism. In continental Europe hatred of Jews was seen as fundamentally political, hence controversial, and was viewed with some distaste by many bien-pensant intellectuals.

Not so in England, where anti-Semitism was never so passionate or violent, but also never particularly controversial until the Nazis went and gave it a bad name. It’s all over the literature, hardly seeming to demand any comment, as I noted with some surprise a while back about the gratuitous anti-Semitism in The Picture of Dorian Grey.

Anyway, I just got around to reading for the first time Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. It’s a remarkable piece of work, barely a novel, giving a retrospective overview of about a billion years of human history from the perspective of the dying remnant of humanity eking out its last days on Neptune. And the early parts, at least, are blatantly antisemitic. Chapter 4 tells of a time, still only thousands rather than millions of years in our future, when all racial and national distinctions have vanished through intermixing of populations and the creation of a world state. There is just one exception: the Jews. They are still there, defining themselves as a separate “tribe”, that uses their native “cunning” — specifically, financial cunning — to dominate their weaker-minded and less ruthless fellow humans:

The Jews had made themselves invaluable in the financial organization of the world state, having far outstripped the other races because they alone had preserved a furtive respect for pure intelligence. And so, long after intelligence had come to be regarded as disreputable in ordinary men and women, it was expected of the Jews. In them it was called satanic cunning, and they were held to be embodiments of the powers of evil… Thus in time the Jews had made something like “a corner” in intelligence. This precious commodity they used largely for their own purposes; for two thousand years of persecution had long ago rendered them permanently tribalistic, subconsciously if not consciously. Thus when they had gained control of the few remaining operations which demanded originality rather than routine, they used this advantage chiefly to strengthen their own position in the world… In them intelligence had become utterly subservient to tribalism. There was thus some excuse for the universal hate and even physical repulsion with which they were regarded; for they alone had failed to make the one great advance, from tribalism to a cosmopolitanism which in other races was no longer merely theoretical. There was good reason also for the respect which they received, since they retained and used somewhat ruthlessly a certain degree of the most distinctively human attribute, intelligence.

Finding the mitochondrial Na’ama

I was having a conversation recently about Biblical ancestry and the antediluvian generations, and it got me to thinking about how scientists sometimes like to use biblical references as attention-grabbing devices, without actually bothering to understand what they’re referring to — in this case, the so-called “mitochondrial Eve”. The expression was not used in the 1987 Nature paper that first purported to calculate the genealogical time back to the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) of all present-day humans in the female line, but it was a central to publicity around the paper at the time, including in academic journals such as Science.

The term has come to be fully adopted by the genetics community, even while they lament the misunderstandings that it engenders among laypeople — in particular, the assumption that “Eve” must in some sense have been the first woman, or must have been fundamentally different from all the other humans alive at the time. The implication is that the smart scientists were making a valiant effort to talk to simple people in terms they understand, taking the closest approximation (Eve) to the hard concept (MRCA), and the simple bible-y people need to make an effort on their part to understand what they’re really talking about.

In fact, calling this figure Eve is a blunder, and it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the biblical narrative. Eve is genuinely a common ancestor of all humans, according to Genesis, but she is not the most recent in any sense, and suggesting that she is just confusing. The MRCA in the Bible is someone else, namely the wife of Noah. Appropriately, she is not named, but if we want a name for her, the midrashic Genesis Rabbah calls her Na’ama. She has other appropriate characteristics as well, that would lead people toward a more correct understanding. To begin with, she lived many generations after the first humans. She lived amid a large human population, but a catastrophic event led to a genetic bottleneck that only she and her family survived. (That’s not quite the most likely scenario, but it points in the right direction.) And perhaps most important — though this reflects the core sexism of the biblical story — there was nothing special about her. She just happened to be in right place at the right time, namely, partnered with the fanatic boat enthusiast when the great flood happened.

Gender and the Metropolis (algorithm)

I’ve always heard of the Metropolis algorithm having been invented for H-bomb calculations by Nicholas Metropolis and Edward Teller. But I was just looking at the original paper, and discovered that there are five authors: Metropolis, Rosenbluth, Rosenbluth, Teller, and Teller. Particularly striking having two repeated surnames, and a bit of research uncovers that these were two married couples: Arianna Rosenbluth and Marshall Rosenbluth, and Augusta Teller and Edward Teller. In particular, Arianna Rosenbluth (née Wright) appears to have been a formidable character, according to her Wikipedia page: She completed her physics PhD at Harvard at the age of 22.

In keeping with the 1950s conception of computer programming as women’s work, the two women were responsible, in particular, for all the programming — a heroic undertaking in those pre-programming language days, on the MANIAC I — and Rosenbluth in particular did all the programming for the final paper.

And also in keeping with the expectations of the time, and more depressingly, according to the Wikipedia article “After the birth of her first child, Arianna left research to focus on raising her family.”

Vaccine probabilities

From an article on the vaccine being developed by Robin Shattock’s group at Imperial College:

The success rate of vaccines at this stage of development is 10%, Shattock says, and there are already probably 10 vaccines in clinical trials, “so that means we will definitely have one”

It could be an exercise for a probability course:

  1. Suppose there are exactly 10 vaccines in this stage of development. What is the probability that one will succeed?
  2. Interpret “probably 10 vaccines” to mean that the number of vaccines in clinical trials is Poisson distributed with parameter 10. What is the probability that one will succeed?

Putting Covid-19 mortality into context

[Cross-posted with Statistics and Biodemography Research Group blog.]

The age-specific estimates of fatality rates for Covid-19 produced by Riou et al. in Bern have gotten a lot of attention:

0-910-1920-2930-3940-4950-5960-6970-7980+Total
.094.22.911.84.013469818016
Estimated fatality in deaths per thousand cases (symptomatic and asymptomatic)

These numbers looked somewhat familiar to me, having just lectured a course on life tables and survival analysis. Recent one-year mortality rates in the UK are in the table below:

0-910-1920-2930-3940-4950-5960-6970-7980-89
.012.17.43.801.84.2102885
One-year mortality probabilities in the UK, in deaths per thousand population. Neonatal mortality has been excluded from the 0-9 class, and the over-80 class has been cut off at 89.

Depending on how you look at it, the Covid-19 mortality is shifted by a decade, or about double the usual one-year mortality probability for an average UK resident (corresponding to the fact that mortality rates double about every 9 years). If you accept the estimates that around half of the population in most of the world will eventually be infected, and if these mortality rates remain unchanged, this means that effectively everyone will get a double dose of mortality risk this year. Somewhat lower (as may be seen in the plots below) for the younger folk, whereas the over-50s get more like a triple dose.