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.)

Booster — the final report

Another update of my Covid booster saga. After the only walk-in vaccination centre in Oxford decided to stop accepting walk-ins I looked about for other options. I was now eligible for a booster, but couldn’t sign up for an appointment, because only NHS-delivered vaccines count. I considered getting an appointment for a nominal first vaccine, but worried that that might just get me into trouble. I heard that the NHS had suddenly decided to start registering vaccinations performed abroad, and that would allow me to get a booster. (The website even suggested that you may be given a booster vaccine at the appointment, but you may not, and the appointment is really only to register your information.) But, bizarrely, the registration has to be done in person, and the nearest place is Reading, 25 miles away. So I could take the train, possibly get infected on the way, in order to get a booster.

Instead, I saw that there was a pharmacy offering drop-in vaccinations in Aylesbury, about 17 miles from Oxford, and connected by a reasonable route for cycling. And they were open Sunday. The weather was good, so I set out a bit after 8 on my bicycle, arriving around 9:45, shortly after they opened at 9:30.

“Do you have an appointment?”
“No. I’m here for a walk-in.”
Funny look.
“This is listed on the NHS website as a walk-in site.”
“It was, until yesterday, when we ran out of vaccine.”
“I just cycled two hours from Oxford.”
“If you want you can wait in that queue over there and try your luck.”
There were about a dozen people waiting already. I ended up being the last walk-in they let in, and I got the booster.

A student of mine waited 6 hours in the rain yesterday for a booster. I remember a German colleague commenting many years ago that he liked American university libraries because the librarians consider it their job to serve the readers with books. Unlike German librarians who consider it their job to protect the books from the readers.

The NHS — meaning, the larger dysfunctional system of the NHS and its many private subcontractors — seems to have a similar attitude toward vaccines. Better that ten should go unvaccinated than that one ineligible person should be vaccinated.

No booster [update 10-12-2021]

The UK government is apparently desperately eager to get the whole population fully protected with three doses of Covid vaccine, to try and head off the mounting omicron wave. In a particularly awkward mixed pharmaceutical metaphor they promised to put the programme “on steroids”. But not so eager that they’re willing to resort to extreme measures like… just letting people get vaccinated.

The NHS website says people will be contacted for appointments six months after their second dose. But the government announced more than a week ago, following new advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations (JCVI), that “the booster will now be given no sooner than 3 months after the primary course.”

Having been initially vaccinated in Germany I can’t get on the list for an appointment anyway, so I decided to cycle down to Kassam Stadium, south of Oxford, the only nearby vaccination centre offering walk-in service. The fellow managing the queue was friendly and helpful, but told me that the current regulation — until they get new rules from the government — is actually a completely arbitrary seeming five months gap for people over 50 years of age (which I haven’t seen reported anywhere) — and six months for people over 40. (And no boosters for younger people.

So, no booster yet for me…

Update (8/12/2021): The NHS has now opened up boosters to people who had their second dose more than 3 months ago. Except, the bad people who had their first doses in foreign lands — including, if I understand correctly, Scotland — are still excluded.

[update 10-12-2021]: Yesterday mid-afternoon the official NHS website for vaccination information reported that anyone over 40 could get a booster at a walk-in site 3 months after their second dose. So I cycled down to Kassam Stadium again this morning. And again I was turned away. This time they agreed that I was eligible according to the NHS rules, but they have their own rules at this centre, and they’re not changing until Monday.

Not that it matters, because they also — my partner found this out when she went in the afternoon — decided spontaneously as of 2pm today to stop accepting walk-ins at all.

Panic goods

I was listening to a talk by Ian Diamond of the Office for National Statistics, about the statistical response to Covid. He showed the results of a survey that was organised spontaneously a year ago by ONS, of the price changes of various “panic goods”. There were 22 product categories on the list, including

  • antibacterial surface wipes
  • baby food
  • toilet rolls
  • vitamin C
  • tomato puree
  • nappies
  • paracetamol
  • pet food

The choice makes perfect sense. And I found myself imagining showing this list to myself 2 years ago, and being challenged to guess what the theme of the list is…

Can’t look away

Many years ago I read to my daughter a children’s book in which a little girl learning to ride a bicycle keeps running into objects like trees and lampposts. A bicycle instructor explains to her that when you become too fixated on an obstacle it exerts a strong psychological pull, so that the very exigency of evading it leads to a crash.

I used to wonder whether this was a real phenomenon. I don’t anymore…

Actually, I’ve long thought the second Iraq War was an example of the same phenomenon. There was no possibility that there wouldn’t be a war, because once they’d started to consider it Bush and Blair couldn’t bare not to see how it would turn out.

O tempora, o mores!

I was watching a 15-year-old comedy yesterday — The Terminal (okay, not great) — set in an airport. And the whole time I was feeling viscerally uncomfortable at seeing people in public standing close to each other, touching each other, touching their faces, sharing food.

This pandemic is going to have very serious long-term social and cultural reverberations. I hope someone is documenting these.

A problematic false Italian friend

For some reason I’ve been reading a lot of Italian epidemiology reports lately, and my Italian isn’t very good. So I found myself at first assuming that counts of “ricoverati” cases were those who had recovered. And that made it really confusing that this document estimates the median time from “ricovero in ospedale” to death (4 days). I had to look it up to discover that ricovero actually means hospitalised (and more generally, sheltered).

Bergson and Brexit

Once it became clear that I would be staying indefinitely in the UK, I had long planned to apply for UK citizenship. I am a strong believer in democracy, and I thought it would be the good and responsible thing to vote and otherwise take part in politics.

Then came Brexit, and this, naturally, led me to think about Henri Bergson. Born to a Jewish family, Bergson moved gradually toward Christianity in his personal life, he considered himself a Christian from the early 1920s. By the 1930s he was making plans to convert formally to Catholicism, but held off because of solidarity with the increasingly threatened Jewish community. A few weeks before his death, Bergson left his sickbed — having rejected an offered exemption from the anti-Semitic laws of Vichy — to stand in line to register as a Jew.

He wrote in his will:

My reflections have led me closer and closer to Catholicism, in which I see the complete fulfillment of Judaism. I would have become a convert, had I not foreseen for years a formidable wave of anti-Semitism about to break upon the world. I wanted to remain among those who tomorrow were to be persecuted.

For a while, then, I deferred applying for citizenship, out of solidarity with my fellow migrants. And then I went and did it anyway. The stakes are obviously much lower than they were for Bergson. And while I regret having to renounce the migrant identity, which suits me well, I also see that this isn’t an entirely noble inclination, as it also excuses me from taking a citizen’s responsibility for the nation’s xenophobic turn. It’s easy to blame those dastardly “British”. The permission to acquire citizenship reflects the growing responsibility for the society that one acquires merely by living here.

I also can’t resist noting that Bergson’s first publication was the solution of Pascal’s problem in Annales des Mathématiques, for which he won the first prize in mathematics in the Concours Général. On learning that he was preparing for the École normale supérieure entrance examination in the letters and humanities section, his mathematics teacher reportedly exclaimed

You could have been a mathematician; you will be a mere philosopher.

May we compare Anne Frank’s case to the Holocaust?

Following up on my earlier post on the unequivocal rejection by many authorities — including the US Holocaust Museum — of any comparison between the concentration camps in which Central American migrants are being interned in the US, and Nazi atrocities. No one is being gassed, no one is being murdered, no one is being worked to death. They are simply being interned in unsafe and unsanitary conditions for indeterminate periods.

And here it occurs to me that if we are being very careful about our historical analogies, we really need to strike out one of the most celebrated stories that (erroneously) is placed in this context, that of Anne Frank. The USHMM includes a page about her life and diary, and the “Holocaust Encyclopedia” describes her as “among the most well-known of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.” But was she really? Anne and her sister were undocumented migrants in The Netherlands, rounded up in a police raid and deported to Germany. They were not sent to a death camp, but to Bergen-Belsen, which is commonly referred to as a concentration camp, but that is obviously misleading, since people could think Jews were being gassed there. Nobody killed them there. They just happened to die (like most of their fellow prisoners) of typhus.

Indeed, we should consider Primo Levi’s contention that everyone who survived Auschwitz did so because of some freak combination of exceptional events and exceptional personal qualities (not necessarily positive):

At a distance of years one can today definitely affirm that the history of the Lagers has been written almost exclusively by those who, like myself, never fathomed them to the bottom. Those who did so did not return, or their capacity for observation was paralysed by suffering and incomprehension.

So if the true generic experience of the Holocaust belonged only to those who died, maybe it is inappropriate to compare anyone’s experience to the Holocaust, including that of its victims.