Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Fannee Doolee likes college professors but she doesn’t like scientists

When I was a child, there was a regular feature on the program Zoom called “Fannee Doolees”: Riddles about the titular character who liked some things, but didn’t like other very similar things, interspersed with the question “Why do you think that is?”. Listeners could send in their own suggestions, to show they’d figured out the pattern, like: Fannee Doolee likes sweets, but she doesn’t like candy. Fannee Doolee likes batteries, but she doesn’t like electricity. The trick was, FD likes only words that have a double letter in them. So naturally I thought of this when I saw this plot (pointed out by Kevin Drum) from a paper on political partisanship by political scientist Larry Bartels, showing the results of a survey that asked for a favourability rating on a zero-to-ten scale for various groups and institutions, separated between self-identified Republicans and Democrats.

Screenshot 2018-03-20 21.59.44

Looking at this it really jumped out at me that Republicans have widely divergent views of “college professors” and “scientists”. Scientists are well up in the positive zone, about equal with Jews, and Republicans themselves, whereas college professors are well down into negative territory, next to gays and environmentalists. They also like wealthy people, but they don’t like Wall Street Bankers. Fannee Doolee is definitely not a Republican.

Weirdly, Republicans say they like men and women both more than they like Republicans.

Light red-baiting from Russian state media

Screenshot 2018-03-14 12.58.16Screenshot 2018-03-14 12.57.40

Brexit: The slacker romantic-comedy allegory

People have been comparing Brexit to a messy divorce since before Brexit was Brexit, but I suspect we may be in the wrong movie. The Tory Eurosceptic claim is, effectively, that they were never really married. And that means that we need to draw our clichés from a whole different realm of romantic fiction.

Think of Bull Johnson, an emotionally immature man with a steady but not sensational income. He’s been involved with a woman (let’s call her Europa) who lives nearby, and they get along pretty well. But he has this dynamic and very successful friend, Merry, who he used to be close to, but who now has her own life on a distant continent. They still talk often, share secrets (ahem), and occasionally lean on each other in hard times. Merry thinks that Bull should finally commit to Europa and settle down. (Europa has some reservations as well, having had some unfortunate encounters with Bulls in the past, but thinks this relationship can work.) And he does, sort of. Then one day Bull calls up Merry and says, I’m thinking of leaving Europa. I hate feeling tied down. I want my old “buccaneering” life. What does that even mean? asks Merry. He can’t say, but he insists he misses his old life. Merry says to think about the good life he and Europa have built together. Bull agrees that he’ll give it some more thought, and have a talk with Europa about what he’s dissatisfied about.

Next scene, Bull is ringing the doorbell at Merry’s flat at 3 am. “I’ve done it. I’ve left Europa. I finally realised, you and I should be together.” And Merry says, “Uhhh…”

To be continued…

Don’t you see, he’s an Englishman?

I’ve had a number of conversations with Europeans that made me realise that many Europeans actually believe in the British self-image, that they are by nature calm and pragmatic. I may be wrong, but I think Americans — in common with Canadians and Australians — tend to have a more clear-eyed view of Britain, a nation so much in the grip of their ideologies — even as they flit from one to the other — that they can’t even recognise them as ideologies. Since the Thatcher reign the obsession has been market liberalism.

If there’s one thing the British excel at, it’s marketing, and they have marketed their own image brilliantly. It’s only with Brexit that the scales are falling from the eyes of the Europeans. One foreign academic who I was talking with today on the picket line said, in her first years in the UK she was constantly stressed because British colleagues would never keep to any agreement. If you try to appeal to the fact that something was agreed, even that it’s written down in a contract, you’ll be told how petty and unreasonable you are being. “Reasonable” is a favourite power play, because only the in-group knows which of the vast number of rules a “reasonable” person has to follow.

Anyway, I just happened to be reading Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, written at a time when the British were marketing a different self-image, and came upon this passage:

“Mrs. Gould, are you aware to what point he has idealized the existence, the worth, the meaning of the San Tome mine? Are you aware of it?”

“What do you know?” she asked in a feeble voice.

“Nothing,” answered Decoud, firmly. “But, then, don’t you see, he’s an Englishman?”

“Well, what of that?” asked Mrs. Gould.

“Simply that he cannot act or exist without idealizing every simple feeling, desire, or achievement. He could not believe his own motives if he did not make them first a part of some fairy tale. The earth is not quite good enough for him, I fear.”

It reminds me obliquely of when I came upon the odd passage in Holinshed’s Chronicles, where he remarks with pride how easily Englishmen pick up other languages, contrasting it with the incapacity of foreigners to learn English:

This also is proper to vs Englishmen, that sith ours is a meane language, and neither too rough nor too smooth in vtterance, we may with much facilitie learne any other language, beside Hebrue, Gréeke & Latine, and speake it naturallie, as if we were home-borne in those countries; & yet on the other side it falleth out, I wot not by what other meanes, that few forren nations can rightlie pronounce ours, without some and that great note of imperfection, especiallie the French men, who also seldome write any thing that sauoreth of English trulie.

The unexpected tweeting

A president, shall we say, has decided to fire his secretary of state. He tells him, “You will be fired in the next week, but you won’t know until the day of the firing that you are going to be fired.” Then the extra twist: “And you can expect a tweet tomorrow, but you won’t know until you read the tweet what it is going to be about.”

When did Trump decide to fire Secretary of State Tillerson? According to reports

The Washington Post, which was first to report Tillerson’s ouster, reported that Trump asked Tillerson to resign last Friday, prompting Tillerson to cut short his trip in Africa. The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker later clarified that a White House official told Tillerson on Friday that his days were numbered. Bloomberg News reported that Kelly told Tillerson he would be fired without specifying when, however the Associated Press reported that Kelly only gave Tillerson a vague warning about an expected tweet from Trump.

I am reminded of one of my the Unexpected Hanging. In the classic presentation of Martin Gardner, this goes as follows: A man was sentenced on Saturday to be hanged.

“The hanging will take place at noon,” said the judge to the prisoner, “on one of the seven days of next week. But you will not know which day it is until you are so informed on the morning of the day of the hanging.”

The judge was known to be a man who always kept his word. The prisoner, accompanied by his lawyer, went back to his cell. As soon as the two men were alone the lawyer broke into a grin. “Don’t you see?” he exclaimed. “The judge’s sentence cannot possibly be carried out.”

“I don’t see,” said the prisoner.

“Let me explain. They obviously can’t hang you next Saturday. Saturday is the last day of the week. On Friday afternoon you would still be alive and you would know with absolute certainty that the hanging would be on Saturday. You would know this before  you were told on Saturday morning. That would violate the judge’s decree.”

“True,” said the prisoner.

“Saturday, then, is positively ruled out,” continued the lawyer. “This leaves Friday as the last day they can hang you. But they can’t hang you on Friday because by Thursday afternoon only two days would remain: Friday and Saturday. Since Saturday is not a possible day, the hanging Ould have to be on Friday. Your knowledge of that fact would violate the judge’s decree again. So Friday is out. This leaves Thursday as the last possible day. But Thursday is out because if you’re alive Wednesday afternoon, you’ll know that Thursday is to be the day.”

“I get it,” said the prisoner, who was beginning to feel much better. “In exactly the same way I can rule out Wednesday, Tuesday and Monday. That leaves only tomorrow. But they can’t hang me tomorrow because I know it today!”

The weird thing about Trump’s tweet, by the way, is that he writes

Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA.

He probably knows by now that these positions are subject to Senate confirmation, and the Senate is pretty evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. You’d think he’d want to acknowledge that he knows? Haspel, in particular, is going to open up a lot of questions that the CIA doesn’t really want to answer about her links to torture.

The new alternative facts

From the people who brought you alternative facts:

REPORTER: Mr. President, do you believe there should be a response from the United States?

MR. TRUMP: … As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.

We not only have to get the facts straight, we have to agree with them. Otherwise they’re not really facts. But then we’ll condemn Russia. Or whoever tried to assassinate a Russian double agent with chemical weapons. Probably someone sitting on their bed that weighs four hundred pounds.

His master’s voice


So yesterday I was reading about the White House position on the nerve-agent poisoning  of Sergei Skripal et al.:

White House declines to back UK’s assertion that Russia is behind poisonings of ex-spies

Not what you would expect if you believed that the US would stand up for its number-one lapdog ally, but obviously someone in the White House is concerned about not upsetting the Kremlin. But then there was a report that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said

Russia is ‘clearly’ behind spy poisoning and ‘must face serious consequences’

This seemed like a significant disagreement. And I thought, either this reflects a change of position — perhaps with more information implicating the Russians — or Rex is freestyling. Presumably Tillerson is speaking for the state department professionals and the White House is speaking for… Well, let’s just say that Vlad would want to see some evidence that Donald hasn’t forgotten who he’s working for. I was expecting there to be some sort of demeaning tweet about Tillerson’s height or his body odour, or something.

And today we have this:

Rex Tillerson Out as Trump’s Secretary of State, Replaced by Mike Pompeo

Weird coincidence. Even if Tillerson’s ouster actually had been planned long in advance, it’s pretty obvious that a small delay would have prevented this appearance of truckling to the Kremlin’s interests. Which means that, whatever else may have motivated this step, that appearance was almost certainly desired.

What’s English for Führerprinzip?

The Guardian today knocks back the argument that UK vice chancellors are not overpaid — indeed, are grievously underpaid — when you take account of the extraordinary talents they must bring to the job, and compare them with the appropriate reference group of CEOs and American university presidents. They fill their remunerations committees with CEOs who will swear that no one worth their salt would get out of bed for less than half a million, and what can you do but pay what it costs to hire someone who can manage this huge and complex organisation and wheedle the high-class donors.Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.27.50 (more…)

The eat-your-marshmallows party

When did the Conservatives become the party of immediate gratification? This follows a development across the Atlantic that I first noticed thirty years ago when Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was described as the “eat your peas” candidate.

I was shocked to hear from my daughter that her high school class had been given a talk encouraging them to consider leaving school and switching to an apprenticeship programme, because they could immediately be earning £3 an hour, or whatever it was. I thought this was just some weird individual thing, but then I saw an official government advertisement on a bus shelter making exactly this argument. I’m all in favour of apprenticeship programmes, but I think the choice of who should continue on to further education should not be best on the goal of getting paid £3 an hour right now. It is so obviously targeted at getting underprivileged children into menial jobs, to prevent them from rising above their station, that it astonishes me that the government was not too embarrassed to create this campaign.

Similar thinking seems to underly the recent proposal by the education secretary to reduce university fees for courses of study that tend to lead to lower salaries, which has been taken to be suggesting lower fees for arts and social science degrees, while maintaining current fees for science and technology degrees. This is a proposal to incentivise poorer students to prioritise short-term costs over long-term benefits. The most charitable interpretation one can have is that they read chapter 1 of the economics textbook, about prices being set by an equilibrium of supply and demand, and never made it to chapter 2, on the effect of incentives.

It’s purely coincidental that this would tend to brighten the career prospects of dimmer children of affluent familes. It’s almost like the Tories read about Mischel’s marshmallow test, and their response was that it’s unfair that poor children can get ahead just because they might happen to be constitutionally better inclined to delay gratification. I remember John Kerry being mocked in 2004 for having limited his children’s television viewing when they were young, showing them as out of touch with the habits of ordinary Americans, and thinking, self-indulgent habits work out different for aristocrats like the Bushes than for children of middle-class and working-class families. Which is perhaps exactly the point.

Counting to 20

I’m sitting in the Sheldon Theatre for a meeting of Congregation, Oxford University’s governing body, to discuss a suspension of rules to allow a discussion of the proposed resolution to change the university’s negotiating posture on the pension issue. (The motion was proposed with only 18 days notice, rather than the required 22.) The rules allow 20 members to rise (ageism!) to object, which blocks consideration.

It surprised me how determined the university administration was to block this vote.

But it also surprised me how difficult it was to count to 20. It took around ten minutes. They seemed to keep getting confused, and needing to recount various sections.

Whether there really were 20 I’m not sure, but they finally said there were, and adjourned the meeting, to shots of “Shame!”

At which point the meeting was spontaneously moved outside, and a wildcat vote was held.

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