Obama to the American people: You’re beautiful when you’re angry!

Back in 2008 I remember being amused by the accusations of arrogance levelled at then-candidate Barack Obama. It seemed to me a mere expression of anti-intellectualism. Of course you don’t become a top politician, even within reach of the presidency, without being pathologically arrogant, but no one really wants a shrinking violet as president.

But the Republican He’s a smart, educated guy, and the Republicans think (I supposed) they can gain an advantage by playing to the common fear that any such person must hold the average citizen in contempt.

I must now admit to having experienced a failure of empathy. Only now, when I (and those like me) am the object of the great BO’s contempt, do I appreciate how peculiarly infuriating this man’s ego is. This idiosyncratic blend of openness and narrow-mindedness, his willingness to discuss anything with anyone, undertaken with the absolute self-assurance that his intellect already encompasses any argument we might make.

Basically, Obama tells the American people, “You’re beautiful when you’re angry”.

In his recent remarks on l’affaire Snowden, Barry said

And if you look at the reports — even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden has put forward — all the stories that have been written, what you’re not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s emails. What you’re hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused. Now, part of the reason they’re not abused is because these checks are in place, and those abuses would be against the law and would be against the orders of the FISC.

Having said that, though, if you are outside of the intelligence community, if you are the ordinary person and you start seeing a bunch of headlines saying, U.S.-Big Brother looking down on you, collecting telephone records, et cetera, well, understandably, people would be concerned. I would be, too, if I wasn’t inside the government…

But people may have better ideas and people may want to jigger slightly sort of the balance between the information that we can get versus the incremental encroachments on privacy that if haven’t already taken place might take place in a future administration, or as technologies develop further….

And so those are the kinds of things that I’m looking forward to having a conversation about.

Speaking as one of those “ordinary persons”, I am disgusted by the president offering to start a “conversation” about what I and many others who have thought deeply about these matters consider to be already huge violations of our civil liberties, an injury to the rule of law, and laying the groundwork for the complete evacuation of democracy, with the caveat right up front that the only possible result could be “to jigger slightly sort of the balance”. Because Obama the Omniscient couldn’t possibly have gotten the whole policy wrong. He’s an (adjunct) constitutional scholar, ferchrissake!

He ridicules our concerns, because we’re not well informed like the people in the “intelligence community”, but he has been withholding the information, and taking extreme measures against anyone who tries to inform us.

But he loves having these heated conversations with us. We ordinary folks are so beautiful when we’re angry!

Genetics and Democracy in the United Kingdom

What is the attraction of monarchy? According to the BBC headline “Kate Middleton in labour as world waits”. Really? The world? What exactly are they holding off on? Doesn’t the world have important things to do? (On the other hand, I’ve just discovered that The Guardian now has an alternative “republican” versions of its web site, with a report on rock star Morrissey in place of the princess’s labour pains. Just click to toggle.)

In honour of the newly announced maturation of the royal zygote into an air-breathing royal neonate — and its generous decision to head off a constitutional crisis by choosing to make do with only half its potential complement of X chromosomes — who is already predestined to rule over Britain, even while he is likely to be occupied less with affairs of state in the near future than with spitting up curdled royal milk from HRH the DoC’s royal mammary glands, I am reposting my proposal from two years ago, occasioned by the royal wedding. The proposal has been unaccountably ignored, despite its prospects for improving the democratic legitimacy of the monarchy. I can only infer that the neglect is due to a basic discomfort among the British elite with the innovations of modern science (unlike the innovations in, say, tax accounting, of which they tend to be avidly fond).

crowned_egg

With the impending union of male and female royalty breeders, there has been increasing tendency to cite Thomas Paine’s evergreen mockery:

The idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges or hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet-laureate.

(Paine never got to see the number of statistician children filling posts in some of today’s leading statistics departments, but the point is, in principle, well taken.) Seen as the monarchical version of an election — the keystone of the procedure by which a legitimate head of state is created — a Royal wedding certainly feels a trifle arbitrary. But this opposition to monarchy, though it wears the finery of modernity, has failed to keep up with advancing technology. True, it might formerly have been the case that the hereditary principle made the choice of head of state no different from a lottery (for which, see this suggestion). It seems impossible to unite the hereditary principle with the increasingly popular superstition that rulers should be selected by some non-random process, and that hoi polloi should have something to say about it. But now the following arrangements have been announced by the Palace (a particularly sodden corner of the palace wine cellar, to be precise)*:

  1. Following the wedding, a selection of at least 5 royal spermatozoa** will be extracted and fully sequenced by a specially selected team at the Royal Institution for Genetics Pedigree Studies. The secret method (which, in a nod to popular taste, does use beer as a reagent) has been designed to be maximally non-destructive.
  2. The sequences will published on the website princesperm.gov.uk. The public will have 5 days to register and vote for the one that they prefer be invited to form their new ruler.
  3. The elected sperm will be invited in the first instance to inseminate the royal egg. Should it fail in its attempt, the second-place sperm will be sent in. In the case of a repeat failure, a national referendum will be held to determine the correct voting procedure.

* It may be argued that this election proposal, being purely fictional and even farcical, has no bearing on the justification or not of the British monarchy. A dangerous argument indeed, for those who would dispense with fiction and farce would leave central pillars of the British constitutional order bereft of all foundation.

** Why are the future queen’s eggs not also sequenced? Choice of the ovum is a royal prerogative, cf.  Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, v. 5, section 113 (Oxford 1765-1769).

purim_royal_wedding

Moral panic panic: How much ridicule are the lives of 4500 children a year worth?

As though it need to defend its title as the world’s leading provider of smug, The New Republic has published a piece by NY Times religion reporter Mark Oppenheimer (MO hereafter) about how irrational everyone is. This disturbs him, because when he was growing up, when all was right with the world, “It was taken for granted in my house… that only right-wingers were mad enough to oppose scientifically tested public-health measures.” He describes what he calls “The New Puritanism”, starting from opposition to water fluoridation in Portland (which doesn’t look like an archetypically puritanical cause to the untrained eye), and moving on to Kids Today:

At a birthday party for a three-year-old, I was hit with the realization that most of the parents around me were in the grip of moral panic, the kind of fear of contamination dramatized so well in The Crucible. One mother was trying to keep her daughter from eating a cupcake, because of all the sugar in cupcakes. Another was trying to limit her son to one juice box, because of all the sugar in juice. A father was panicking because there was no place, in this outdoor barn-like space at some nature center or farm or wildlife preserve, where his daughter could wash her hands before eating. And while I did not hear any parent fretting about the organic status of the veggie dip, I became certain there were such whispers all around me.

Now, this could be dismissed as a dreary attempt to channel PJ O’Rourke, or some comparable swaggering humourist, with a cookie-cutter tall tale, but it’s stuffed with all kinds of weird. He hallucinates “whispers all around” about the organic status of the veggie dip, and yet he insists it is the others whose mental stability is in doubt. With that in mind, one might suspect that the father was not “panicking”, but was simply asking where his daughter could wash her hands before eating, which was certainly the custom when I was a child, though perhaps not in Oppenheimer’s antediluvian childhood.

He cites The Crucible, presumably both as a touchstone of left-wing right-thinking and as a marker of his own cultural sophistication, but has clearly never read or seen it. While “witchcraft” are often taken as a metonym for fear of moral contamination, Miller’s play dramatizes political manipulation of mob psychology.

But putting aside MO’s paranoid-pretentious MO, I am fascinated by his comments

When I was a child, birthday parties involved cake, ice cream, and Chuck E. Cheese pizza, or pizza-like substance; and trips to the grandparents’ house involved root-beer floats and late-night viewings of Benny Hill with my grandfather, who liked the T&A humor. I never washed my hands before I ate. And I turned out splendidly.

So, we started with fluoridation of water, which is a “scientifically tested public-health measure” that only a crazy person could oppose, but washing hands before eating — at a “barn-like space” where, presumably, it is not absurd to suppose the children may have been exposed to animal feces — is the kind of over-the-top fear of moral contamination (not just bacterial contamination) that invites mockery.

Now, MO’s aforementioned paranoid delusions may cause one to question his splendid self-appraisal, but he is certainly not alone in trumpeting the formulation “When I was a child we all did X, and we all turned out alright,” where X is some dangerous or unedifying activity that educated middle-class parents today try to limit or eliminate. An extreme version is this text that got forwarded to me a few years back:

To Those of Us Born 1930 – 1979

First, we survived being born to mothers who smoked and/or drank while they were pregnant. They took aspirin, ate blue cheese dressing, tuna from a can and didn’t get tested for diabetes. Then after that trauma, we were put to sleep on our tummies in baby cribs covered with bright colored lead-base paints. We had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, locks on doors or cabinets and when we rode our bikes, we had baseball caps not helmets on our heads. As infants & children, we would ride in cars with no car seats, no booster seats, no seat belts, no air bags, bald tires and sometimes no brakes. Riding in the back of a pick- up truck on a warm day was always a special treat. We drank water from the garden hose and not from a bottle. We shared one soft drink with four friends, from one bottle and no one actually died from this. We ate cupcakes made with Lard, white bread, real butter and bacon. We drank FLAV-OR- AID made with real white sugar…. We fell out of trees, got cut, broke bones and teeth and there were no lawsuits from these accidents. We would get spankings with wooden spoons, switches, ping pong paddles, or just a bare hand and no one would call child services to report abuse…

You might want to share this with others who have had the luck to grow up as kids, before the lawyers and the government regulated so much of our lives for our own good. While you are at it, forward it to your kids so they will know how brave and lucky their parents were. Kind of makes you want to run through the house with scissors, doesn’t it?

The implication is that the kids are all softies and the parents are anxious killjoys. I heard a stand-up comedian a few years back complaining about bicycle helmets: “When I was a kid we all fell off our bikes. We didn’t fall on our heads. If we did, no one died. Have kids’ heads gotten softer?”

Except, of course, that it’s not true that no one died. This is a good example of how people deal with small risks: Some are treated as zero, others are exaggerated. And part of the phenomenon (though I’ve never seen anyone analyse this process in detail) is that people fixate on whatever the current largest risks are, and often succeed in pushing them down. At that point, a new danger pops up that was always there, but masked by a larger risk, and so psychologically zeroed out. Thus, when I was growing up, in the 1970s, public health officials weren’t very concerned with children’s head injuries from bicycle accidents because there were far more of them from automobile accidents in the absence of seat belts, not to mention all the poisonings from medications without child-resistant packaging. If the risk of dying

To put some numbers on it: In the US, in 1998, about 6500 children under the age of 15 died in accidents. In 1981 (the earliest year whose statistics I have easily available at the moment) the number was 9000. In that time, the population under 15 increased from 49 to 60 million. In other words, if the society had held onto its habits of eschewing bicycle helmets, leaving the medications out, riding in the back of a pickup truck and all the rest, we’d have more than 4500 extra dead children a year. How awesome would that be?

That’s not to say that all concerns about health and nutrition and environment are reasonable — or that, even if they are reasonable, that the actions one would take to prevent or mitigate harm would not impose considerable costs, even such that they might be judged to outweigh the benefits. But instead of mockery and “I turned out alright” populism, we need to be clear on what the benefits are: 4500 fewer children being buried every year. And that’s ignoring the costs of nonlethal sickness and injury, the extra miscarriages and stillbirths, and the long-term damage to lungs and other organs that we now know were caused by all those smoking and drinking parents.

Update: The comedian I was thinking of was a woman, but here’s another comedian making fun of bicycle helmets for emasculating our children; in this version, he’s not asking why heads got softer, but why the pavement is harder. Same joke.

Audiobook Turing test

I downloaded and listened to the audiobook This is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American CultureThe author is Iain Anderson, and the language and structure seem like those of a slightly rewritten doctoral dissertation. It’s pretty interesting as a source for the politics — particularly racial politics — of jazz in the late 50s and early 60s, and it held my interest for the 5 hours I needed to listen to it at double speed. But what really fascinated me was the reader’s voice. The reader is listed as Paul Steven Forrest, but I can hardly believe that this is a human voice. (Indeed, this is the only book that this name has been assigned to as reader.) The sentence intonations are much too regular, and seem to ignore any cues related to the meanings of words. Some reasonably common English words — at least, common enough in academic jargon — such as “diaspora” are systematically mispronounced, but without any hesitation such as you might expect from a human reader stumbling over an unfamiliar word. Similarly, non-English words were completely botched, but without apparent self-consciousness.

On the other hand, if Paul Steven Forrest is in truth the pseudonym for a computer-generated voice, it’s remarkably good, at least to someone who has not been following progress in speech generation over the past decade. It took me an hour of listening before it struck me that something was off about the voice, and while it started to bug me, it never became unbearable.

The right to bear codes

Back when I was a graduate student, in the late 1980s and early 90s, there was a lot of discussion, among those interested in cryptography and computing (which I was, only peripherally) of the status of cryptographic algorithms as “weapons”, subject to export controls. The idea seemed bizarre to those of us who thought of algorithms as things you prove theorems about, and computer code as something you write. It seemed as absurd as declaring a book to be a weapon. Sure, you might metaphorically call Das Kapital  a weapon, or the Declaration of Independence, but it’s not really a weapon, and a country was much more likely to think about banning imports than banning exports. The author of PGP was then being threatened with prosecution, and had the code published as a book to mate the analogy more explicit.

So, I used to defend free access to cryptography because I thought it was ridiculous to consider codes to be weapons. I now think that was naïve. But if codes are weapons, does that provide a justification for a right of free access (in the US)? Maybe it’s not freedom of speech or the press — 1st amendment — but if cryptography is a weapon, is the use and manufacture of cryptographic algorithms and software protected in the US by the 2nd amendment? Certainly the main arguments made for a right to firearms — sport, self-defence, and bulwark against tyranny — are all applicable to cryptography as well. Are there current US laws or government practices that restrict the people’s free access to cryptography that would be called into question if cryptography were “arms” in the sense of the 2nd amendment?

This is connected to the question I have wondered about occasionally: Why didn’t strong cryptography happen? That is, back then I (and many others) assumed that essentially unbreakable cryptography would become easy and default, causing trouble for snoops and law enforcement. But in fact, most of our data and communications are pretty insecure still. Is this because of legal constraints, or general disinterest, or something else? The software is available, but it’s sufficiently inconvenient that most people don’t use it. And while it wouldn’t actually be difficult to encode all my email (say) with PGP, I’d feel awkward asking people to do it, since no one else is doing it.

It seems as though the philosophy of the Clipper chip has prevailed: Some people really need some sort of cryptography for legitimate purposes. If you make a barely adequate tool for the purpose conveniently available, you’ll prevent people from making the small extra effort to obtain really strong cryptography.

Continue reading “The right to bear codes”

Benjamin Franklin’s advice on vaccination

I’ve never seen Franklin brought into the discussion of parents’ refusal to vaccinate their children. This passage from his autobiography made a deep impression on me:

In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the small-pox, taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.

More comments on Andrew Wakefield and the MMR-autism hoax here.

I once was at a parents’ meeting in Oxford where a homeopath had been invited to speak. I was genuinely nonplussed that she was raving against vaccines. Aren’t vaccines the one great success of the homeopathic world-view? Giving a tiny dose of the disease-causing agent to cure (or prevent) the disease. Her answer was incomprehensible to me, but seemed to suggest that the very fact that there was a measurable physiologic effect showed that they weren’t any good (from a homeopathic perspective). And the fact that pharmaceutical firms made the vaccines was all you needed to know about their chthonic nature.

I fled the meeting in revulsion when the homeopath started prating about homeopathic cures for tetanus.

Third most popular

Being a fan of the Dvorak keyboard layout, I was intrigued to learn that there is another QWERTY competitor, called Colemak. On the official Colemak web site one learns that

Colemak is now the 3rd most popular keyboard layout for touch typing in English, after QWERTY and Dvorak.

That formulation could be effective in other contexts. For example,

Standing up is now the 3rd most popular posture for sleeping, after lying down and sitting.

Or a political version:

Congress is now the 3rd most respected branch of the US government, after the executive and the judiciary.

World’s Greatest Healthcare, ctd.

Addendum to my earlier post on US health care. Impressions from a friend’s trip, thankfully not an emergency in the end, to the emergency room of Children’s Hospital in Oakland:

  1. It’s not just the general practitioners in the US who are not very competent. So, a child being examined to exclude appendicitis is given a popsicle — presumably for hydration and glucose — by the intern. A bit later, he wants to give her IV fluids. Why can’t she just drink water? In case it is appendicitis, she shouldn’t take anything orally. Oh yes, I probably shouldn’t have given her that popsicle… I’m sure the microneurosurgeons in the US are first-rate, though. Continue reading “World’s Greatest Healthcare, ctd.”

What’s the Matter with Economics?

One of the most politically important economics results of recent years has been the paper by Reinhart and Rogoff on the link between high sovereign debt and low GDP growth. This work is something I’d been following for a while, as R&R’s book was one that I’d admired greatly. Their work claimed to show a strong negative correlation between sovereign debt/GDP ratio and ensuing GDP growth, and was reported as saying that 90% debt/GDP ratio marks a cliff that an economy falls off, killing future growth. This was seized upon by proponents of austerity as proof that budget cuts can’t wait.

As reported here and here by Paul Krugman, and here and here by Matt Yglesias, it now turns out that the result isn’t just theoretically misguided, it’s bogus. Economists who struggled to reproduce the results finally isolated a whole raft of errors and dubious hidden assumptions that completely undermine the conclusion. Only the most blatantly ridiculous fault was an error in their Excel spreadsheet formula that caused them to exclude important sections of the data from their computation. You’d think that this couldn’t get any worse, but instead of apologising abjectly, R&R have tried to argue that none of this was really essential to their real point, whatever that was.

My main thoughts:

  1. Do economists really do their analysis with Excel? I find this kind of shocking, like if I found out that some surgeons like to make their incisions with flint knives, or if airline pilots were calculating their flightpaths with slide rules. Once you accept that premise, it’s not surprising that they made a blunder like this. I’m not a snob about technology. Spreadsheets are great for doing payrolls, and for getting a look at tables of numbers, and doing some quick calculations. But they’re so opaque, they’re not appropriate to academic work, and they’re so inflexible that it’s inconceivable to me that someone who analyses data on a more or less regular basis would choose to use them. Continue reading “What’s the Matter with Economics?”

Maximum utility

Back when I first arrived in Oxford I remarked on the peculiar repurposing of utility bills as the indispensable proof of address. That is, the banks were enjoined by law from opening an account without proof of address (except Lloyds, which didn’t care for some reason, and so won our custom and our loyalty — until they lost the latter by refusing to consider us for a mortgage on account of my irresponsible decision to be a foreigner), and they seemed to consider proof of address to be equivalent to providing a utility bill. This seems strange for many reasons. First, utility companies are private entities that have designed their bills for, well, billing purposes, not as secure identity cards. The security measures on my water bill are pretty negligible. They have made no effort to check whether the person residing at this address is the same person who is paying the bill, or that either of them has the name on their records. Second, not every legitimate resident has utility bills. In particular, people who have just moved house don’t have utility bills for quite some time.

This requirement is usually attributed to a money-laundering statute. Is there a money-laundering scam that depends on faking a residential address? By criminals who are incapable of faking the address on a water bill? But who would be able to fake a lease, letter from an employer, or any other means of proving identity?
Continue reading “Maximum utility”