Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

NHS hit by unforeseen Earth tilt

A critical government service has to be prepared for all foreseeable contingencies. But sometimes the unpredictable occurs, and bureaucrats can fall into panic.

A tilt in the Earth’s axis that no one could have foreseen is apparently causing daylight to grow shorter in northern latitudes and temperatures to drop, leading to an increase in communicable diseases and accidents that threatens to overwhelm NHS emergency services. Or, in other words,

Disclosure of NHS England’s attempt to impose a detailed series of duties on hospitals comes amid claims by senior insiders that its leadership is in a state of panic over winter.

The anarchist Trump

I just read Chris Hedges’s book The Wages of Rebellion, about the small sprouts of revolt against the omnipotent corporate state that are still popping up. I was struck by this quote from Jeremy Hammond, who was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for hacking into government computers to steal and release evidence of government crimes:

He said he did not support what he called a “dogmatic nonviolence doctrine” held by many in the Occupy movement, describing it as “needlessly limited and divisive.” He rejected the idea of protesters carrying out acts of civil disobedience that they know will lead to arrest. “The point,” he said, “is to carry out acts of resistance and not get caught.”

In this he has a soul-brother in the White House, famous for having mocked John McCain for his years in Vietnamese captivity:

He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.

Why people hate statisticians

Andrew Dilnot, former head of the UK Statistics Authority and current warden (no really!) of Nuffield College, gave a talk here last week, at our annual event honouring Florence Nightingale qua statistician. The ostensible title was “Numbers and Public policy: Why statistics really matter”, but the title should have been “Why people hate statisticians”. This was one of the most extreme versions I’ve ever seen of a speaker shopping trite (mostly right-wing) political talking points by dressing them up in statistics to make the dubious assertions seem irrefutable, and to make the trivially obvious look ingenious.

I don’t have the slides from the talk, but video of a similar talk is available here. He spent quite a bit of his talk trying to debunk the Occupy Movement’s slogan that inequality has been increasing. The 90:10 ratio bounced along near 3 for a while, then rose to 4 during the 1980s (the Thatcher years… who knew?!), and hasn’t moved much since. Case closed. Oh, but wait, what about other measures of inequality, you may ask. And since you might ask, he had to set up some straw men to knock down. He showed the same pattern for five other measures of inequality. Case really closed.

Except that these five were all measuring the same thing, more or less. The argument people like Piketty have been making is not that the 90th percentile has been doing so much better than the 10th percentile, but that increases in wealth have been concentrated in ever smaller fractions of the population. None of the measures he looked was designed capture that process. The Gini coefficient, which looks like it measures the whole distribution, because it is a population average is actually extremely insensitive to extreme concentration at the high end. Suppose the top 1% has 20% of the income. Changes of distribution within the top 1% cannot shift the Gini coefficient by more than about 3% of its current value. He also showed the 95:5 ratio, and low-and-behold, that kept rising through the 90s, then stopped. All consistent with the main critique of rising income inequality.

Since he’s obviously not stupid, and obviously understands economics much better than I do, it’s hard to avoid thinking that this was all smoke and mirrors, intended to lull people to sleep about rising inequality, under the cover of technocratic expertise. It’s a well-known trick: Ignore the strongest criticism of your point of view, and give lots of details about weak arguments. Mathematical details are best. “Just do the math” is a nice slogan. Sometimes simple (or complex) calculations can really shed light on a problem that looks to be inextricably bound up with political interests and ideologies. But sometimes not. And sometimes you just have to accept that a political economic argument needs to be melded with statistical reasoning, and you have to be open about the entirety of the argument. (more…)

Hate the sin, vote for the sinner

When the Republicans selected for the Senate race in Alabama a man so sanctimonious that he insisted on displaying a monument to the Ten Commandments at the state Supreme Court  — insisted to the point of losing his job as Chief Justice — it was almost to be expected that he had some pretty nasty dirt in his past. According to the Washington Post he molested a 14-year-old when he was a 32-year-old district attorney. This wasn’t one of those “met her in a bar and I thought she was 19” sort of things:

He struck up a conversation, Corfman and her mother say, and offered to watch the girl while her mother went inside for a child custody hearing.

“He said, ‘Oh, you don’t want her to go in there and hear all that. I’ll stay out here with her,’ ” says Corfman’s mother, Nancy Wells, 71. “I thought, how nice for him to want to take care of my little girl.”

Honestly, if this were a television show I’d almost accuse the writers at this point of being too stereotyped and predictable.

Of course, Alabama Republicans are shocked and appalled — NOT! There are the standard excuses: The news media are mean, they’re all Democrats and liars, it can’t be true because if it were we would have heard about it before. And then, for the particularly Evangelical among them, there is this, from Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler:

Even if you accept the Washington Post’s report as being completely true, it is much ado about very little… Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus… There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.

I admit, I get tripped up on the finer points of Christian theology, but wasn’t Mary a virgin?

Polar-bear academics

I have on occasions compared my position, as a statistics professor in Oxford, to that of one of those forlorn polar bears photographed on shrinking ice floes as the Arctic melts around them. In my immediate neighbourhood the ice is still ice: my job looks like the academic profession that I imagined when I started training for it three decades ago. But if you go just a little distance away, either to other UK universities, or even within Oxford to some other disciplines, you see something that looks like a freakish hybrid of the worst features of academia and corporations. I just came upon this disturbing account of the phenomenon by Michael Edwards, a lecturer in music in Edinburgh, now moving to Germany:

Now that I’m constantly being monitored and spending increasing amounts of time justifying what I do instead of doing it, I, like a lot of my colleagues, am taking all of my leave and I’m not answering emails while I’m away. My perception is that, because of the increasingly unattractive working environment, academics are correspondingly increasingly unlikely to put in all of the extra hours organising talks, concerts, and other activities that, let’s be honest, make universities so attractive in the first place, not only for staff and students but for the wider community too. All in all, the good will which holds together UK universities is being stretched beyond breaking point.

I realise that some of these trends are universal, but I believe that Britain is, at least in this pathological respect, exceptional. Seen from the outside, the UK has first-class universities that are the envy of the world, and a mostly hapless industry and business sectors (excepting the finance industry, with its world-leading money-laundering and tax-evasion facilities). A healthy reaction might be to consider what lessons British business could learn from the successful universities. A neurotic nation trapped in pathological mourning for its lost empire instead tries to destroy the universities by forcing them to be more like British business.

Free speech for me but not for thee

Today:

Universities will be told that they must uphold free speech and clamp down on student unions that “no platform” controversial speakers, the government is to announce.

Two years ago:

Universities will be forced to vet visiting speakers to stop extremists brainwashing students on campus, under plans being drawn up in the Home Office.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is preparing new rules that will require universities to crack down on the activities of their student unions and Islamic societies.

The people let down the NHS

I saw this headline in the Daily Mail yesterday:

Pity the poor NHS. Doing its job perfectly, but being cruelly let down by the shiftless population. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, perhaps it would be better were the NHS to carry out a root-and-branch reform of the British public. Eliminate waste. Get rid of the dead wood.

This could have been me…

Ten years ago, still living in Canada, I had to look into the procedures for acquiring the right to work in the UK. As my partner is German, and would be working here as well, I had the right to live and work here under EU law. The procedure looked easier, and it would be free. Instead, I chose to spend hundreds of dollars to get my own UK work permit. Why? Looking at comments on various web forums I got the general impression that the UK authorities were generally hostile toward the EU. It seemed to me that I could have trouble if the laws or circumstances changed, and the UK bureaucrats felt that I had evaded their laws to sneak into the country under colour of foreign laws. I wanted to have my rights registered under UK law.

Here is what could have happened otherwise:

A Spanish woman who has lived in the UK for 15 years has accused the Home Office of treating her family like criminals after her American husband and the father of her three children applied for a permanent residency (PR) card.

In a three-year ordeal, the Home Office threatened to deport the historian Stuart Ross three times, suggested he was lying about his wife’s work as a Spanish language teacher and refused to accept a judge’s verdict in a Belfast court that officials had been wrong to refuse him a PR card when he first applied in 2013.

 

“Indefinite” leave to remain

I came back from Germany yesterday. Passing through UK passport control in the Brussels train station I was confronted by an extremely aggressive border agent. I have had “Indefinite leave to Remain” (ILR) status in the UK for the past five years, and I understood the “indefinite” to mean “with no fixed endpoint”. This border agent seemed to interpret it to mean “conditional”. The following is an approximate reconstruction of the dialogue:

Border Agent: It says here you have settled status. What category is that in?

Me: I don’t know. What are the possible categories?

BA (already almost yelling): You must have had some basis for receiving settled status.* Was it Tier 1, Tier 2, Student, Spouse?

Me: I was working. I had a work permit.

BA: What was the category of the work permit that you first entered the UK on?

Me: I don’t know. It was ten years ago.

BA: You need to know that. You can’t enter without that information.

Me: I thought the ILR card has all the information I need to enter.

BA: I have the card here. You need to know it.

Me: Well, I don’t. I’ve forgotten. How can I find it out?

BA: You should know it. It must be in your paperwork, or an old passport.

At that point she just gave me a particularly menacing scowl, stamped my passport, and let me through.

Until now, I’d thought that ILR should leave me fairly unmolested at the border, and that’s mostly been my experience, but this servant of the Crown clearly thought that my ILR status was somehow a sneaky trick, and she resented the fact that she had to let me in on such a flimsy pretext. I don’t know if this was just an individual unpleasant character, or if this is the developing shape of Theresa May’s planned “hostile environment” for foreigners. (People forget that May has been pushing this notion since long before Brexit.) She says it’s only for “illegal migrants”, but UKBA may be reading between the lines.

* It’s funny, with her obsession with my failure to remember the precise bureaucratic immigration categories, I think she was using obsolete terminology: I believe “Indefinite Leave to Remain” replaced the older “Settled” status.

The World’s Greatest University(TM) has a bad PR day

Pity the poor flack in Harvard’s press office that needs to deal with two remarkable instances of cravenness in a single day: Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government bowed to criticism from the CIA to revoke its invitation to military whistleblower and transgender activist Chelsea Manning to come for a short stay as a “visiting fellow”. And Michelle Jones who rehabilitated herself in prison after a gruesome childhood that culminated in the neglect, abuse, and possibly murder of her own child, to emerge 20 years later as a noted historian of the local prison system, to be admitted to multiple graduate programmes in history, but had her acceptance at Harvard overruled by the university administration. (more…)

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