Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

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A boot stamping on the face of Mars — forever

I’m reasonably positive about space exploration, and see it generally as humane and progressive, rather than as an extension of colonialist male impulses to rape virgin nature. But along comes US Vice President Mike Pence, expressing support for human space exploration in these terms:

Our nation will return to the moon and we will put American boots on the face of Mars.

I understand that books are for liberal weenies, but surely everyone hearing this must immediately think of one of the most famous lines in 20th century literature, from Nineteen Eighty-Four:

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

The secret of my success

A persistent obstacle to social reform is the common tendency to ignore the merely fortuitous in ones good fortune, and to attribute success to some self-flattering decision or essential virtue. I dropped out of school, taught myself computer programming, and became a wealthy entrepreneur. Or I became a world-famous surgeon despite growing as an impoverished black orphan. So don’t complain about being held back by poor schools and racial discrimination. It’s just hard work and faith that you need to get ahead.

This fallacy was already recognised, I have just noticed, by the Amoraim, the authors of the Babylonian Talmud. The tractate Yoma mentions Kimhith, a woman whose seven sons served, at some point*, as high priests:

The Sages said unto her: What hast thou done to merit such [glory]? She said: Throughout the days of my life the beams of my house have not seen the plaits of my hair. They said to her: There were many who did likewise and yet did not succeed.

In other words, she attributes her sons’ success to her exceptional modesty in always keeping her hair covered. The rabbis answer, many women have covered their hair without having such success.

* The story is pretty weird. If I understand correctly, two of the sons were called in to do the High Priest duties because on two different occasions their elder brother Ishmael ben Kimhith was defiled by having spat on himself during a heated discussion.

Why didn’t John Locke think of this?

Whatever the ultimate fate of US democracy, isn’t the big lesson of the 2016 presidential campaign that a republic cannot long endure if it depends on the judgement and votes of white men?

Early greenhouse

I read a novel that I’d known about for a long time, but had never gotten around to: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven. I was startled to discover that an essentially background point of the plot of this novel, published in 1971, was the destruction of the Earth’s environment by the greenhouse effect. This has already taken place before the events of the novel, set in the early twenty-first century.

Rain was an old Portland tradition, but the warmth — 70ºF on the second of March — was modern, a result of air pollution. Urban and industrial effluvia had not been controlled soon enough to reverse the cumulative trends already at work in the mid-twentieth century; it would take several centuries for the CO2 to clear out of the air, if it ever did. New York was going to be one of the larger casualties of the Greenhouse Effect, as the polar ice kept melting and the sea kept rising.

This is only incidental to the themes of the novel, which grapples with the structure of reality and the nature of dreams. But it amazed me to see global warming being confidently projected into our future, at a time when — as the climate-change skeptics never tire of pointing out — discussions of climate change tended to refer to the danger of a new Ice Age.

At least, that is my memory. According to the Google Books NGram viewer, though, the “greenhouse effect” was as mentioned in books around 1970 as frequently as it is today; and, oddly, it has declined substantially from a peak three times as high in the early 1990s.Screenshot 2015-12-16 14.22.01

For example, a 1966 book titled Living on Less begins its section on “The Environment” by discussing global warming, and launches right into a description of the greenhouse effect that sounds very similar to what you might read today.

Blurring the lines

Those of us of a statistical turn of mind and inclined toward caution (not the same, even if the categories may be highly correlated) like to compare the lives lost to terror attacks (about which there tends to be unbounded panic, leading to willingness to abandon vast stores of wealth, national pride, and long-cherished principles of justice) and to the sorts of banal lethal events that people don’t get very excited about. For example, there was the study showing that additional automobile travel due to fear of airplane hijacking in the few months following the 9/11 attacks killed more people — through the ordinary difference in automobile and airplane fatality rates — than were killed in the planes on 9/11 (and over time may have killed 2300 people, almost as many as the entire death toll of the attacks).

An obvious point of comparison is between the Paris terror attacks and the remarkably similar style of mass shootings that have become such a regular affair in the US. (More than one a day in 2015!) The latter evokes reactions ranging from a shrug to a right-to-bear-arms rally. The former have American conservatives — who not too long ago would eat nothing but freedom fries — expressing their fraternité with the noble liberty-loving French people, and the need to exclude refugees from ISIS from the US because you can never be too careful. The connection was best expressed by Texas congressman Tony Dale, with an “A” rating from the NRA, who argued that Syrian refugees need to be kept out of Texas because once legally admitted they would be entitled to Texas drivers licenses, and with those they could freely purchase firearms: (more…)

Aggressive passive voice

A front-page article in yesterday’s Times attacks Labour’s election strategy as having been too left-wing. Much of it is framed as a family feud, with David Miliband expressing retrospectively his certainty that his brother Ed was leading the party — and the nation — to disaster. But beyond this hyper-personalisation, we also have remarks that combine anonymity and the passive voice in an effort to make special interests sound oracular:

One of Labour’s most generous private donors warned Mr Miliband that the party was seen as too anti-business and that the mansion tax was “completely insane”.

Here we have a completely disinterested ordinary citizen — an exceptionally “generous” one — reporting that, regardless of his own personal opinions on the matter, he had found that Britons from all walks of life from his broad social group, were united in finding Labour too “anti-business”. At gatherings in their modest Chelsea flats, they agreed that none of them could see any rational purpose in taking extra taxes from people on the completely adventitious pretext that they happen to have big houses. (What’s next? Taxing people with big ears? Why wasn’t that proposed under Red Ed?)

So then we have an anonymous claim about how Labour is “seen” by unnamed other people, on the basis of investigations not specified, being delivered to us in a front-page report in the Times. Presumably this has something to do with the man’s generosity…

Every three minutes

From a Guardian article on a new theory about the aetiology of Alzheimer disease:

It is thought that this year one person every three minutes will develop dementia.

It’s hard to explain statistics in a way that they feel real to people, but is “one person every three minutes” really a useful way to think about a disease that develops gradually over many years, as opposed to, say, muggings? Perhaps they meant to say “one person every three minutes will be diagnosed with dementia”.

Can’t beat duct tape

I remember hearing a comedian — perhaps Garrison Keillor? — saying everything could be fixed with duct tape and WD40. “If it moves and it shouldn’t, duct tape it. If it doesn’t move and it should, use WD40.

I was reminded of this in reading today’s article in the NY Times about the Nebraska Biocontainment Patient Care Unit, a hospital unit specialised for treating the most contagious diseases, that has stood empty, with the staff conducting only drills, since its founding ten years ago, until the current Ebola outbreak. Ot the front line of the high-tech, state-of-the-art defence against contagion,

Nurses on the biocontainment team… take turns spending four straight hours in Mr. Mukpo’s room in full protective gear, including full face shields and three pairs of surgical gloves duct-taped to water-resistant surgical gowns.

For the last millimetre of sealing the boundary, you still can’t beat duct tape. I can’t see this making it into the advertising copy, though.

New applications for IP

The Guardian reports that the English Premier League is asserting its copyright over fans sharing short films of goals on social networks:

Dan Johnson, director of communications at the Premier League, said posting goal vines was illegal, as was sharing the videos on websites such as Twitter, and amounted to breaking copyright laws.

“You can understand that fans see something, they can capture it, they can share it, but ultimately it is against the law,” he told the BBC’s Newsbeat programme. “It’s a breach of copyright and we would discourage fans from doing it, we’re developing technologies like gif crawlers, Vine crawlers, working with Twitter to look to curtail this kind of activity. I know it sounds as if we’re killjoys but we have to protect our intellectual property.”

If it is really possible to copyright events, so that making or distributing images would be illegal, this could provide a solution to the modern problem of hardworking police officers being pilloried by the public when a viral video shows them working hard to beat a crime suspect senseless. Police departments could declare certain operations to be “performances”, and then impose heavy fines on anyone who distributes video on social networks.
(They’d need a release from the accused, who also participated in the performance, but the Metropolitan Police have never had difficulty obtaining the signatures they need.)

How Harold Wilson kept it together

One could spend the whole day and half the night recording the weird infelicities of expression that automatic spell-checking has wrought upon once-proud journalistic enterprises. But some are truly exceptional.

According tq The New Republic, his close associate Joseph Kagan (who was rumoured to be his KGB handler, by those who thought he was a Soviet mole) was a “clothing magnet”.

The New RepublicIt sounds like the kind of excuse a teenager caught shoplifting might use. “I don’t know how it got into my bag, your Honour. I seem to be a clothing magnet.”

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