Data-mining for Cthulhu

I don’t ordinarily repost what other people have written, but this post by The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal is so beautiful that I feel the need to copy it. It really just consists of juxtaposing the buzzword Big Data with this quote from H. P. Lovecraft — one that I was already familiar with, but had never exactly put into this context. It is the famous opening of The Call of Cthulhu:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Safety of a new dark age. Hmm. If only I could turn that into a grant proposal…

The demography of evil…

… or the evils of demography?

I wrote a while back about my concern, as a sometime demographer, about how the word “demographic” had been transmuted, by some offbeat associations, in the language of US electoral politics, into a euphemism for what might more plainly be called “ethnic or religious minorities”.

Max Blumenthal’s book Goliath, which I wrote about here and here, reminded me of another, even more disturbing abuse of the name of a perfectly respectable academic subject: Israel’s obsession with its “demographic time bomb”, what other people might call “Arab citizens”.

I just checked Google’s completions for a snapshot of the mass mind: Indeed, if you type “Israel demograph”, the first two completions that Google offers are “Israel demographic time bomb” and “Israel demographic threat”. (I’m not blaming anyone for this directly. There’s no way to know who did all those searches. But obviously they were inspired, directly or indirectly, by official Israeli messaging on the issue. “Demographic time bomb” is not a form of words that one would expect to arise spontaneously.)

But the third most popular search term alludes to the point that I would want to make: “Israel demographic transition”. If Blumenthal is to be believed — and while his account is certainly consistent with other reports I have read, I do not consider myself to be sufficiently informed to judge — respectable debate in Israel on the Arab question runs the gamut from “expel them all” to “pressure them to leave the country voluntarily”, with the reasonable compromise being to expel some, and pressure most of the rest to leave voluntarily. Only the radical fringe pushes extremist ideas like “kill them all” and “leave them in peace and allow them equality as citizens”.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with demography knows that the best way to get a population to stop growing is… to make them prosperous. That’s the “demographic transition”, and there don’t seem to be any exceptions. So, if Israeli Jews were really worried that higher Arab birthrates will eventually make the Jews a minority, they might have chosen to desist from their policies of trying to impede Arab economic activity and make Arab life in Israel a misery — something I first learned about from the fascinating book Separate and Unequal: The Inside Story of Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem, by former insiders in the Jerusalem municipal government — and instead shower them with economic subsidies.

I suspect that there is some willful ignorance behind this promotion of the “demographic threat”. The Palestinians, in this view, aren’t like normal people, who would respond to prosperity with lowered birthrates.

Blood libels we can believe in

If mamma, sir, sold the baby
To a gypsy for half a crown;
If a gentleman, sir, was a lady,—
The world would be Upside-down!

— “Topsy-Turvy World“, by William Brighty Rands (1823-82)

It’s fascinating how every new generation re-invents the old blood libels, in a form that seems plausible and worlds away from the old-fashioned superstitious hatreds. Just now Europe is experiencing a wave of gypsy baby abductions. No, sorry, we’re experiencing a wave of reports of Roma families having dishonestly come into possession of whiteness. In Italy (a few years ago), and this week in Greece and Ireland, we’ve seen authorities removing children from their families because of what seemed to some hobby eugenicists strange disparities between the skin colours of parents and children, whereas children normally have exactly the same skin colour as their parents.

The report in the Times (behind a paywall) was a veritable fount of racist conjecture. They constantly refer to the adults who have raised the child as her “parents” (their scare quotes), and her as their “daughter”. A “consultant” at a hospital “told detectives it would be unusual for Roma parents to have a blonde-haired child.” Well, thank you for that expert opinion!

Why would poor parents with multiple children of their own be abducting children anyway? They quote the head of the “Smile of the Child” “charity” with another expert opinion:

Maria may have been abducted because of her striking blonde hair so she could be used to beg in the streets.

Of course! What else would they do with them? Weirdly, the article then proceeds to report that

In July 2011, more than a dozen people were arrested for arranging for pregnant Bulgarian Roma women to give birth in Greece and then sell their babies for illegal adoption.

The careful reader will note that this example — the only actual case of child abduction, or something like it, that they can find involving Roma — it was Roma children being illegally adopted by middle-class white Europeans.

In the end, it’s turned out that the families were all telling the truth. The Irish child is the biological child of her mother. The Greek child was left with the parents by the biological mother — also Roma, so the mysteriously Arian appearance is still unexplained — who left for Bulgaria and couldn’t afford to take the baby with her. She’s said she would like to have her daughter back, but one suspects that the transfer from one poor Roma family to another would warm the hearts of the public longing to see the child returned to the bosom of the white race.

Incomplete segregation by sex is un-British

There has been a slow-burning scandal around a government-funded Islamic school that seems to be too much Islamic and too little school. The report by the schools inspectorate Ofsted that has just made its way into the press sounds pretty disastrous, if not exactly Lord of the Flies: Inexperienced teachers, overcrowded facilities, low educational attainment. But what I found fascinating was what was considered scandalous, and triggered the inspection:

An Ofsted inspection had been due to take place by the end of the year, but was brought forward by two months after allegations that women teachers were obliged to wear headscarves and that pupils were segregated.


the Ofsted report says that boys and girls eat lunch in separate sittings, although it puts this down to the small size of the canteen. Older boys and girls are seated on either side of classrooms although younger children sit together.

It sounds like segregating boys and girls is a terrible thing, perhaps barely justified at lunchtime if there is not enough space in the canteen.

Unless they are segregated into completely separate school. Most independent schools, and hundreds of state schools, are single-sex.

East-west school gap in Germany

I’ll admit it. When I saw the Spiegel headline warning of an “alarming performance gap in maths and science between pupils in East and West”, I assumed this was just another one of those depressing reports on the economic failure of the poor Ossis. But no:

The East has the top pupils: Saxony and Thüringen lead in the national school comparison in maths and science. The losers are the city-states [Bremen, Hamburg, and Berlin] and North-Rhine Westfalia [the largest state, in the West]. Pupils there are as much as 2 years behind.

[Der Osten hat die Musterschüler: Sachsen und Thüringen führen beim bundesweiten Schulvergleich in Mathematik und Naturwissenschaften. Schlusslichter sind die Stadtstaaten und NRW. Dort liegen Schüler um bis zu zwei Jahre zurück.]

The five states comprising the former East Germany are the five leaders (out of 16) in biology, chemistry, and physics, and are among the top six on the mathematics test (with only Bavaria sneaking in to third place.

So, nearly 25 years after reunification, can it be that we’re seeing the continuing cultural effect of the positive Russian and East European influence on East German education, in particular their cultivation of and respect for mathematics?

On-street parking

Matthew Yglesias has given a pithy summary of the case against free on-street parking:

Obviously people who currently get to occupy valuable urban space with their private vehicles would like to keep that privilege. But by the same token, I’d love it for the city government to just give me a free car or stop charging me property tax. That doesn’t mean it would be a good idea. There may be an argument that 30 to 40 parking spaces for cars is a better use for a given piece of land than protected bicycle lanes, but “Waaaah, don’t affect my parking” is not a very persuasive argument. The streets are public spaces and they need to be used for public benefit, not just the benefit of whoever happens to own a car on the block.

This is even more of an issue here in Oxford, where people with private cars get to take up not only the streets, but also substantial portions of the already quite narrow sidewalks. (Yglesias was discussing the debate over installing a new bicycle lane in Washington DC. I’m not sure if it would be quite so contentious here, since — as I discussed here — drivers don’t hesitate to park in bicycle lanes, and so far as I can tell the enforcement is zero. See, for example, the photograph below, of a typical local cycle lane.) [Update 5 Oct, 2013: Not quite zero. I actually saw a car in the cycle lane with a fixed-penalty notice on the windscreen. So there.]

People clearly have ideas about things that by right and nature ought to be free. Perhaps because I don’t drive a car myself, I cannot imagine why parking spaces should be one of them, particularly not residents’ parking. To be sure, residents’ parking is not free here. It’s £50 a car — just enough to create a sense of entitlement among those who have paid for it, not enough to come anywhere close to covering the real costs of providing

It’s not at all clear why people have any more right to 6 square metres of public road to semi-permanently store their automobiles than I have to store my surplus books. I would not be permitted to set out a storage shed by the side of the road. (I suppose I could use an automobile as a storage facility — some people clearly do, at least in Berkeley — but I would at least need a driver’s license and a car that was sufficiently functional to be registered.)

Bicycle lane on Iffley Road
Bicycle lane on Iffley Road

Cool nerds

An interesting article by Carl Wilson (apparently the start of a month-long series) in Slate looks at the word “cool” in its past and current incarnations. It’s a lot more readable and to the point than jazz critic Ted Gioia’s fundamentally trivial book The Birth and Death of the Cool, but I found myself hung up on his comment

 You’d be unlikely to use other decades-old slang—groovy or rad or fly—to endorse any current cultural object, at least with a straight face, but somehow cool remains evergreen.

As it happens, I was just recently having a conversation about the word nerd. I have a very clear memory that when the ’50s nostalgia wave broke in the mid-1970s (so I was about 8 years old), I encountered the word in TV programs like Happy Days as an antiquated idiom. I had never heard anyone use the word, and I associated it with my parents’ childhoods. When I was a student the prevailing word for someone too bookish to be cool (such as myself) was weenie. As late as 1993, according to an OED citation, Scientific American felt the need to explain

 ‘Nerd’ movie shorthand for scientists, engineers and assorted technical types who play chess, perhaps, or the violin.

And I remember encountering the word again in the self-righteous name of the Society of Nerds and Geeks (SONG), an undergraduate club that popped up at Harvard about 1989 (when I was a graduate student in mathematics). This was a self-conscious attempt to co-opt these words, which at the time were exclusively terms of abuse, along the lines of the way what was formerly the sexual invert community, or whatever, renamed itself gay, and later queer. Harvard mathematics graduate student Leonid Fridman, who advised the club, published an op-ed on Jan 11, 1990 in the NY Times arguing that the popular disdain for the brainy and bookish would put the US at a disadvantage in competing with its economic and military competitors. (Remember, this was still the Cold War.) The article concluded with this plea:

Until the words “nerd” and “geek” become terms of approbation and not derision, we do not stand a chance.

This dream has come to fulfilment more than could have been imagined in the linguistic sense, but my impression is that there has been little change in the effective social status of academically-inclined American youth. Fridman’s NY Times op-ed is mysteriously unfindable in the Times online archive, so I have copied the text below: Continue reading “Cool nerds”

Civil wars in US and British memory

I commented a while back on the NSA and GCHQ naming their most secret programs of spying on their fellow citizens after battles of their civil wars (American and English respectively). I didn’t remark at the time, but this clearly shows the dominance of the NSA, since it is striking how little memory there is of the English Civil War, in comparison to the omnipresent shadow cast by the American Civil War over US politics. It’s hard to imagine a British nerd making a playful reference to battles of the English Civil War, except in an attempt to anglicise a prior US nerd reference to the American Civil War.

A minor example of the latter is the comment by a Republican congressman, enthusiastic that his party was steering the country toward a government shutdown, and responding to a skeptical question about the (Democratic controlled) Senate’s response by saying

Ulysses S. Grant said, ‘Quit worrying about what Bobby Lee’s doing and let’s focus on what we are doing,’ ” Culberson added. “We are focusing on what we need to do and not worrying about what the other guy is going to do. . . . That’s how Ulysses S. Grant won the war.

It is a telling statement about the current state of US politics that one party is portraying the other as their opponents in a civil war. (And, in return, they are being compared to terrorists and hostage-takers.)

I see this as an improvement over Republicans invoking the spirit of the Confederacy. Oddly, Representative Culberson is from Texas. Even more oddly, he preceded this invocation of Civil War strategy by saying “We’re 100 percent united!” I guess that’s the effect of civil war, to make the residue seem more unified.

Wrangling the 8-ton UNIVAC

I was reading Ariel Levy’s New Yorker profile of Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the recent Supreme Court case challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (and, by extension, of bans on same-sex marriage). I was struck by this passage:

She applied for a job as a research assistant, programming an eight-ton UNIVAC computer for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

Why “eight-ton”? She wasn’t carrying the UNIVAC around with her. If she’d been a maintenance engineer at the Empire State Building I doubt Levy would would have bothered to mention the weight of the building. If the story had happened today I doubt she would have said “she applied for a job programming Google’s 8-ton server cluster.” The complexity of programming the UNIVAC — if that is what is supposed to be brought out — would be brought out by mentioning the number of switches and vacuum tubes, for example, something that is only indirectly related to its weighing 8 tons.

Maybe it’s just a bit of meaningless historical colour, but I couldn’t help thinking that this fit in with the general tone of the article, which portrays Windsor as the classic type of the crusty old lesbian. (She is quoted complaining about the women she danced with at gay bars in the 1950s: “Lesbians can’t lead.”) The image of her doing data entry at a modern computer workstation would have seemed too dainty. There might be a huge server farm and the whole Internet at the other end of your Ethernet cable, but that doesn’t change the fact that sitting at a keyboard and typing still seems prissily similar to the stereotypical 1950s secretarial pool. Wrangling an 8-ton electronic behemoth, on the other hand, that’s work for a kick-ass lesbian.

This provokes me to wonder about whether there are two fundamentally different modes of stereotypes excluding girls by from male-dominated fields: Type 1, perhaps best typified by philosophy, but earlier by medicine (before women took over), and perhaps by computing, girls and young women are warned off — and women in the field may be undermined — by a supposition that women couldn’t be very good at this. But if they do it, it doesn’t call their identity as women into question. In other professions — the military and professional sports most prominently, but perhaps also engineering, construction, plumbing, finance, etc. — there might be even more dissuasion by the dual message, not only are you probably not going to be very good at it because of your lack of masculine endowments, but if you are good at it, it will prove that you’re not really a woman.

Just speculating here, because I’m too lazy to read the research by people who think for real about these things.

Reprobationist childrearing

This article about the differences between parental attitudes and obsessions in the US from those in other western nations (in this case, the Netherlands, Italy, Poland, Sweden, and Spain) reminded me of my own perplexity about the general culture of childrearing among ambitious middle-class Americans. (When I say Americans, I really mean Anglo-Americans. I think the Americans would have seemed less of an outlier if the original study had included Canadian or British parents.) In particular, why are parents in these countries (and their governments — particularly in the UK) so concerned with training their children in age-inappropriate skills — reading at 4, playing violin at 3 — and so keen to find evidence that their children are prodigies? This despite the clear evidence of child development research that early training in reading is largely counterproductive.

The article points out that the Anglo-American parents are uniquely concerned with convincing themselves (and reassuring their friends) that their children are “intelligent”. Why? Well, in our increasingly winner-take-all societies, there’s obviously a lot of anxiety for the future status of ones children: Modest success no longer seems feasible, so one is left straining to heave ones children into the ranks of the winners, lest they sink into the vast mob of losers. Despite all the evidence that the main criterion for success is having successful parents, it seems to me that there’s been an enormous amount of propaganda in recent decades for the notion that intelligence determines all, and that intelligence is innate.

This is where reprobationism comes in, the Calvinist doctrine that God has chosen the elect, those who ultimately will be saved, from the beginning of time, and there is nothing a damned goat can do, neither faith nor good works, to ascend to the saved sheep. Continue reading “Reprobationist childrearing”