Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Boom times for crisis actors

While other creative professions suffer high unemployment, actors apparently are in consistently high demand for anti-conservative propaganda films. Even groups of actors that would usually have difficulty finding work — such as hispanic children — are now at full employment, presumably commanding high salaries from George Soros. At least, that is what we can infer from this remark of senior advisor to the president Kellyanne Conway in a recent television interview:

“These child actors weeping and crying on all the other networks 24/7 right now, do not fall for it, Mr President,” she said, staring directly into the camera.

Seriously, though, the Republicans have seemed to have stumbled their way toward a genuinely novel way of excusing crimes against humanity. This started with far-right conspiracies about “false-flag” operations to stage school shootings, as an excuse to disarm law-abiding Americans. For those who can believe it, it’s a perfect package for looking away from images that any psychologically healthy person must find disturbing — and, indeed, to transform that horror into even greater support for the policies that caused the horror.

Even the highly creative Holocaust denial industry with all their careful analysis of the capacity of gas chambers and crematoria, has never, to my knowledge, come up with the expedient of simply claiming that all those grisly photos and films of “Jews” being “shot” and “gassed” were actually just performing for political propaganda. Or maybe they were doing live theatre, entertaining the troops in a culturally unique way. I’m sure someone could come up with photographic evidence that two “corpses” in different photos look like they are the same person. Maybe they can even turn the narrative around, from Nazis massacring Jews to Nazis providing work to struggling Jewish actors.

Fraud detection and statistics

Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, has now been formally indicted for criminal fraud. I’ve commented on the company before, and on the journalistic conventions around intellectuals that fostered her rise. But now that the Theranos story is coming to an end, I feel a need to comment on how utterly unnecessary this all was.

At its peak, Theranos was valued at $9 billion and employed 800 people. Yet according to John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal reporter whose investigations exposed Theranos’s fraud, the company is down to just 20 employees who are trying to close up shop.

All credit to Carreyrou, who by all accounts has done an excellent job investigating and reporting on this fiasco, but literally any statistician — anyone who has been through and understood a first-year statistics course — could have said from the start that this was sheer nonsense. That’s presumably why the board was made up mainly of politicians and generals.

The promise of Theranos was that they were going to revolutionise medicine by performing a hundred random medical tests on a drop of blood, and give patients a complete readout of their state of health, independent of medical recommendation of specific tests. But any statistician knows — and every medical practitioner should know — that the reason we don’t do lots of random tests without any specific indication isn’t that they’re too expensive — many aren’t — or that they require too much blood, but that the more tests you do, the more false positives you’re going to accumulate.

If you do a hundred tests on an average person, you’re going to find at least a few questionable results — either from measurement error, or because most tests aren’t all that specific — requiring followups and expensive investigations, and possibly unnecessary treatments.

Of course, if I had to evaluate the proposal for such a company I would keep an open mind about the possibility of a conceptual breakthrough that would allow them to control the false positives. But I would have demanded very clear evidence and explanations. The fact that the fawning news reports back in 2013-15 raved about the genius new biomedical technology, and failed to even claim to have produced (or found) any innovative statistical methodology, made me pretty sure that they had no idea what they were doing. In the end, it turned out that the biomedical innovations were also fake, which I probably should have guessed. But if the greedhead generals — among them the current secretary of defense, who definitely should be questioned about this, and probably ought to resign — had asked a statistician, they could have saved a lot of people a lot of unpleasantness, and maybe helped save Elizabeth Holmes from herself.

Less than zero: A new reckoning

One of the most important lessons I ever learned about capitalism and the nature of wealth I learned from Donald Trump. And now I discover that I was entirely misled, at least as regards Trump’s particular role.

As I discussed in a post a couple of years ago, back in the 1990s I read a newspaper article about Donald Trump’s most recent bankruptcy, and was struck by the fact that, despite having vastly more liabilities than possessions, Trump was still treated as a wealthy man, and not worse than a pauper. And his creditors were willing to come to an arrangement that allowed him to live a rich-man lifestyle, if somewhat less opulent than before. I understood that to mean that modern capitalism makes debt almost as valuable as property, that the person with a billion in debt and the person with a billion in property are considered to be much more similar to each other than either is to the one who has neither debts nor wealth.

Now, having read several books on Trump, including most recently Seth Hettena’s Trump/Russia: A Definitive History, I see that this beautifully esoteric interpretation must yield — at least in the case of Trump — to a simpler and crasser interpretation: At various stages of his career Trump has been propped up by criminals who found the Trump Organisation, and its self-absorbed empty-headed chief, too useful as a cover for moneylending — first for the New York mob, then on a larger scale for Russian oligarchs and criminals from the former Soviet Union — to let it fail. In some sense, this is the value of debt: When there are large numbers in play, it’s easy to hide smaller numbers, just as long as you can come to an agreement to keep the flow going. And it does take a special kind of person to have managed to accumulate that amount of debt in the first place, making Trump’s debt truly a rare and valuable commodity.

I’m perfectly willing to accept a certain claim of innocence, that Trump believed all along that the fact that he kept managing to steer around failure demonstrated nothing but his unique genius. It reminds me of Hitler’s famous comment “Ich gehe mit traumwandlerischer Sicherheit den Weg, den mich die Vorsehung gehen heißt”: I follow, with the certainty of a sleepwalker, the path that Providence has laid out for me.

That narcissistic naïveté probably was, and remains, his most useful quality. First time tragedy, second farce.

Why Israel?

The Guardian has published an “exclusive” on the future of European science funding after  Brexit. The key point:

A draft copy of the so-called Horizon Europe document, seen by the Guardian, suggests that the UK is set to be offered less generous access than countries with associate status in the current programme, known as Horizon 2020, including Israel, Turkey, Albania and Ukraine.

So why does the headline say

Brexit: UK may get poorer access than Israel to EU science scheme

Why Israel? If I had to pick a country on the list whose prominence in scientific research makes it seem insulting that they would have a higher priority in research collaboration than the UK, it might be Albania. It definitely wouldn’t be Israel. So might there be some other reason why The Guardian wants to highlight for its readers the shame of being treated worse than Israel by the EU?

From the archives: Charitable giving to universities

With The Guardian portraying the magnitude of Oxford and Cambridge college endowments on the front page as a major scandal — though taken all together they don’t reach even half of the endowment of Harvard — it seems like a good time to repost this comment I made five years ago, when the government was being attacked by Oxford’s chancellor for considering limiting the tax deduction for charitable donations to educational institutions. The post begins:

Let’s think this through:

  1. The government wants philanthropic funding of universities to replace public funding.
  2. Under current law, contributions to universities (and other charities) are matched by a 40% tax rebate for higher-earning taxpayers, so 2/5 of the costs of nominally “private” contributions are actually paid by the taxpayers. The government proposes to cap this subsidy at 15% of income or  £20,000.

Do you see the contradiction? Neither do I. In a time when the government is cutting funding for all manner of worthy projects, it seems pretty undemocratic to effectively allow wealthy citizens nearly unlimited access to the treasury to support their own favourite causes. The £560 million in charitable gifts last year presumably included more than £200 million in “gift” from the government. Whether or not this is a good thing, it seems troubling, as a point of democratic principle, that control over these £200 million has been passed from the citizenry at large (in the person of their elected representatives) to the infamous “one percent”.

For the rest, see here.

I think everyone would agree that if the wealthy elite want to spend their money on providing luxury education in medieval buildings to particularly talented young people, many but not all of whom come from privileged backgrounds, that’s probably not the most useless or antisocial thing that they’re free to do with their money. (And I can confirm, from personal experience, that Oxford colleges spend insane sums of money on maintenance for their buildings.) But as long as they’re leveraging public funds, which the current government has decided to withhold from educational institutions that serve a broader public far more efficiently, it’s no longer a simple matter of private choice.

Unwritten rules of the road for Oxford

  1. Bicycles and pedestrians are stationary objects. You need to pass them, especially when turning directly ahead of them.
  2. Electric turn signals are a major energy drain! Signals should be activated only after you are well into the turn.
  3. Opening the driver-side door should be done in one fluid motion, as rapidly as possible. Don’t look back!
  4. When trapped by traffic you are exposed to attack from the sides and behind. Protect yourself and your fellow drivers by advancing your vehicle to block the pedestrian crossings, which are points of major vulnerability.
  5. “Cycle lane” is just a newfangled word for “free parking”.* Double yellow lines are there to remind you; where no cycle lane is available parking on the pavement is recommended.
  6. Killing pedestrians is wrong if you’ve been drinking. Otherwise, you’re the victim. (Don’t forget, insurance will pay for the damage. Be bold!)

* There is some uncertainty about the origin of this odd expression. Most experts believe that it has its origin in the Italian sulla collina — “on the hill” — referring to the practice, brought back by 17th century travellers, of establishing resting spots for travellers on hills in the countryside. From there it evolved into the modern usage, meaning “a strip of land set aside for parking vehicles”.

Your shadow genetic profile

So, the “Golden Gate killer” has been caught, after forty years. Good news, to be sure, and it’s exciting to hear of the police using modern data systems creatively:

Investigators used DNA from crime scenes that had been stored all these years and plugged the genetic profile of the suspected assailant into an online genealogy database. One such service, GEDmatch, said in a statement on Friday that law enforcement officials had used its database to crack the case. Officers found distant relatives of Mr. DeAngelo’s and, despite his years of eluding the authorities, traced their DNA to his front door.

And yet… This is just another example of how all traditional notions of privacy are crumbling in the face of the twin assaults from information technology and networks. We see this in the way Facebook generates shadow profiles with information provided by your friends and acquaintances, even if you’ve never had a Facebook account. It doesn’t matter how cautious you are about protecting your own data: As long as you are connected to other people, quite a lot can be inferred about you from your network connections, or assembled from bits that you share with people to whom you are connected.

Nowhere is this more true than with genetic data. When DNA identification started being used by police, civil-liberties and privacy activists in many countries forced stringent restrictions on whose DNA could be collected, and under what circumstances it could be kept and catalogued. But now, effectively, everyone’s genome is public. It was noticed a few years back that it was possible to identify (or de-anonymize) participants in the Personal Genome Project, by drawing on patterns of information in their phenotypes. Here’s a more recent discussion of the issue. But those people had knowingly allowed their genotypes to be recorded and made publicly available. In the Golden Gate Killer case we see that random samples of genetic material can be attributed to individuals purely based on their biological links to other people who volunteered to be genotyped.

The next step will be, presumably, “shadow genetic profiles”: A company like GEDmatch — or the FBI — could generate imputed genetic profiles for anyone in the population, based solely on knowledge of their relationships to other people in their database, whether voluntarily (for the private company) or compulsorily (FBI).

Human political magenim

The magen David, the “shield of David”, also known as the six-pointed Jewish star, is probably the best designation for the cringing role that the UK Jewish establishment has taken in recent weeks. Despite having a Tory prime minister who  recycles Nazi rhetoric to attack Brexit opponents, and a Conservative press that has recently been spreading antisemitic conspiracy theories about George Soros, and despite clear evidence that antisemitic attitudes in the UK are concentrated primarily on the right, the British Jewish establishment decided they absolutely needed to organise a march on parliament to address the burning issue of a six-year-old Jeremy Corbyn tweet about a political mural depicting greedy capitalists playing games on the backs of the poor. (Sometimes a greedy ruthless is just a ruthless capitalist…)

I warned the president of our synagogue at the time — when the synagogue sent out an official email advertising the demonstration — that it looked to me like the Jewish community was being manipulated by people who do not have our best interests at heart. And sure enough, we now have the government’s chief propaganda officer (officially environment minister) Michael Gove arguing that the government really didn’t do anything so terrible in hounding and deporting elderly Black people, because the real scandal is Jeremy Corbyn’s six-year-old tweet. The Jews and their concerns have become a political shield for the government, and a weapon against other minority groups who have suffered real and extraordinary injury at the hands of that government.

Antisemitism is a real issue in this country, but it is not ever and always the most salient form of racism. Allowing it to become identified with one political party, and used as a weapon to attack the interests of other minority groups, is not going to serve the long-term interests of British Jews, or British democracy.

Screenshot 2018-05-01 09.41.18


Willfully misleading

A Home Office spokesman says

It is wilfully misleading to conflate the situation experienced by people from the Windrush generation with measures in place to tackle illegal immigration and protect the UK taxpayer.

Not just misleading, but willfully. There’s no possible way anyone could honestly see a connection between a policy of “hostile environment” (their words) for undocumented immigrants — effectively deputising the health service and every landlord to act as amateur immigration sleuths — and the mistreatment of members of a minority ethnic group whose immigration status has been kept deliberately ambiguous.

One of the celebrated cases reported in The Guardian was that of a man whose radiotherapy for prostate cancer was cancelled because he couldn’t prove his legal residency, despite having lived in the UK for 45 years. It’s hard to imagine that his skin colour and accent played no role in the hospital’s decision to question his status. It reminded me of a question I’ve considered several times: How can a native-born British citizen prove his or her right to be here? Everyone born since birthright citizenship was eliminated has been subject to jus sanguinis, with citizenship conditional on their bloodline. If you’re 30 years old and your landlord is asking you to prove your right to reside in the country, what do you do? Call your parents and ask for their birth certificates? If your parents are John and Mary Smith, how do you prove that they’re your parents? We’re gradually coming to a generation that will need to prove their grandparents were citizens. Registration of citizens and ID cards would resolve the problem, but the Tories got rid of those, suggesting they would infringe on personal liberty. As I commented before, the Conservatives have a stereotype of Nazis demanding people’s “papers”, and decided that the evil was not that disfavoured individuals were punished for not having correct papers, the offense was to provide them with papers in the first place.

Neanderthal science

I just listened to all of a two-hour discussion between journalist Ezra Klein and professional atheist Sam Harris, about Harris’s defense of the right-wing policy entrepreneur (as Matthew Yglesias has described him) Charles Murray, famous for his racist application of intelligence research to public policy, most famously in a notorious chapter of his book The Bell Curve. Klein pushes back effectively against Harris’s self-serving martyrdom — Harris, not unreasonably, identifies with the suffering of a wealthy and famous purveyor of quack science whose livelihood is ever-so-slightly harmed by public criticism* — but he doesn’t sufficiently engage, I think, with Harris’s contention that he is promoting the values of real science. Unfortunately, the “mainstream social science” that Harris and Murray are promoting exists only in secret messages from “reputable scientists in my inbox, who have totally taken my side in this, but who are too afraid to say so publicly”. Harris doesn’t allow for a second that there is any good-faith argument on the other side. Anyone who disagrees is merely trying to shut down scientific progress, or simply confusing scientific truth with do-gooding wishful thinking.

The truth of the matter is, Murray and other brave seekers of truth are doing the opposite of helping to clarify reality. They are wading into a swamp of confusion, and pulling out some especially stinky slime that they can hurl at disfavoured groups.

As much as Harris tries to promote Murray as a pure-hearted “content-of-our-character” anti-racist individualist, as long as “race” exists as a social factor affecting people’s self-image, the communities they belong to, and the way they are perceived by others, it remains a potent social force. When demographers argue that “race” isn’t “real”, they are saying that racial categories don’t separate natural clusters by genetic or physical traits. When Murray says, let’s stop talking about race, let’s talk about individual genetic endowments, he is saying that racial groupings have no causal effect on their own, but only label clusters whose difference arise from deep physical causes — wrong on both sides. (more…)

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