Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

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Home Secretary: “Go back where you came from”

I have written at some length about the different classes of British citizenship, and how even if you are born a UK citizen, if you come from the wrong ethnic or national background you will always be a citizen on sufferance. Nowhere is that more clear than in the announcement by Home Secretary Sajid Javid that Shamima Begum, the British girl who left the UK at age 15 to join ISIS, was having her citizenship revoked, despite the fact that she a) was a child victim of international sexual predators and b) was born in the UK and has no other citizenship. Since the UK is barred by international treaties from rendering a person stateless, Javid had to argue that she wasn’t really stateless, since she could claim Bangladeshi citizenship through her mother. Even if she was born here and it was the failure of British authorities that allowed her to be groomed and trafficked, she has proved herself unworthy of the first-class citizenship that she was born with, and those colonials will just have to give her one of those cheap non-British citizenships.

Putting aside the autocratic air of a government official deciding, on the basis of a vague supposition that their citizenship is “not conducive to the public good”. At the very least, as long as the revocations were confined to people who had been nationalised as adults, and who retained dual nationality, there was some limiting principle other than ethno-nationalism. Now, anyone who simply could be eligible for another citizenship can be thrown out of their own country, at the stroke of the Home Secretary’s pen. Among those potentially affected, in addition to those potential traitors whose parents came from abroad, is of course any British person born in Northern Ireland — eligible for Irish citizenship — and any Jew, since they are eligible for Israeli citizenship.

A Home Secretary who decided that the presence of Jews in the UK was no longer “conducive to the public good” could, by Javid’s precedent, simply sign the appropriate order to “send them back where they came from”. No new laws are required.

“British sense of humour”

Unnamed EU officials described EU Brexit negotiator Sabine Weyand to The Guardian in these terms:

“She has got a real affection for and understanding of the UK,” said another EU official who knows her well. Several say she has a very British sense of humour, with a taste for sarcasm and irony. “She is really fun to work with; very direct, very quick, no bullshit,” said the official.

The comments “understanding of the UK” and “no bullshit” are direct quotes, whereas “British sense of humour” is not, which I note because I am wondering whether anyone who was not British would particularly associate the British with humour. Sarcasm possibly. But irony*? I wonder if the EU officials might have said she had a sense of irony and the British journalists translated that into “British sense of humour”, because that’s how they like to imagine themselves.

It seems like the UK had settled on the line, we may have lost our Empire, our power, our influence in the world, our manufacturing base, and even most of our self respect. But we haven’t lost our sense of humour about it all.

And then they did.

* I am supposing irony to be used in its everyday sense, and not in the technical sense used in literary criticism, a dramatic device where

the words and actions of the characters contradict the real situation, which the spectators fully realise.

Brexit has shown the British to be true masters of this device, but it is conventionally reckoned to tragedy, not to comedy. Perhaps they were misinformed.

If it is revealed in the end that Brexit was actually a piece of performance art, it will have been retrospectively hilarious.

Physics crushed my dreams

Well, one dream, to be precise. Flying dreams are famously pleasant experiences. It’s been a long time since I had one. In a recent dream I found myself in a location where people could fly off the top of a hill, coasting above the landscape down toward the valley. But I was curious, and I had to ask someone why this is possible. She explained to me that it had to do with the gentle slope of the hill, and that the rate of falling produced just enough impulse to keep you above the ground. Which seemed convincing at first, but then I started thinking about the acceleration that would entail, and it seemed we’d end up crashing toward the valley floor with a horrendous speed.

And after I’d thought that through the flying, which had been so effortless before, became impossible. At least for me.

Let no one say that scientific education can be had without costs…

A missed opportunity in metrology

The international community has responded to the shrinking of le Grand K by deciding to redefine the kilogram without reference to a standard artifact. As I pointed out here, the decision to preserve the kilogram at exactly the same mass squanders a rare opportunity for the metrologists to contribute to public health:

Just a 10% increase in the size of the kilogram  — easily achievable with current technology, and barely even noticeable to the casual observer — would produce a 9% reduction in BMI, and thus reduce the number of obese Britons and the attendant costs by more than half. This approach is found to be vastly cheaper than the next most cost effective plan for reducing obesity, a complicated scheme which involves citizens exercising more and eating less junk.

As I further point out, the international metrologists could learn from the UK Department of Education, which has been much more proactive in providing low-cost improvements through creative control of measurement.

On the other hand, as I’ve pointed out here, the benefits of reducing BMI may be overstated…

Obesity and cancer

The Guardian has prominently posted a report by Cancer Research UK with a frightening headline:

Obesity to eclipse smoking as biggest cause of cancer in UK women by 2043

That’s pretty sensational. I was intrigued, because the mortality effects of obesity have long intrigued me. It seems like I’ve been hearing claims for decades, loudly trumpeted in the press, that obesity is turning into a health crisis, with the mortality crisis just around the corner. It seems plausible, and yet every time I try to dig into one of these reports, to find out what the estimates are based on, I come up empty. Looking at the data naively, it seems that the shift from BMI 20 to BMI 25 — the threshold of official “overweight” designation — has been associated in the past with a reduction in all-cause mortality. Passing through overweight to “obesity” at BMI 30 raises mortality rates only very slightly. Major increases in mortality seem to be associated with BMI over 35 or 40, but even under current projections those levels remain rare in nearly all populations.

There is a chain of reasoning that goes from obesity to morbid symptoms like high blood pressure and diabetes, to mortality, but this is fairly indirect, and ignores the rapid improvement in treatments for these secondary symptoms, as well as the clear historical association between increasing childhood nutrition and improved longevity. Concerned experts often attribute the reduction in mortality at low levels of “overweight” to errors in study design — such as confusing weight loss due to illness with healthy low weight — which has indeed been a problem and negative health consequences attributable to weight-loss diets tend to be ignored. All in all, it has always seemed to be a murky question, leaving me genuinely puzzled by the quantitative certainty with which catastrophe is predicted. Clearly increasing obesity isn’t helping people’s health — the associated morbidity is a real thing, even if it isn’t shortening people’s lives much — but I’m perplexed by the quantitative claims about mortality.

So, I thought, if obesity is causing cancer, as much as tobacco is, that’s a pretty convincing piece of the mortality story. And then I followed up the citations, and the sand ran through my fingers. Here are some problems:

  1. Just to begin with, the convergence of cancers attributable to smoking with cancers attributable to obesity is almost entirely attributable to the reduction in smoking. “By 2043 smoking may have been reduced to the point that it is no longer the leading cause of cancer in women” seems like a less alarming possible headline. Here’s the plot from the CRUK report:
    Screenshot 2018-09-24 11.48.43
  2. The report entirely conflates the categories “overweight” and “obese”. The formula they cite refers to different levels of exposure, so it is likely they have separated them out in their calculations, but it is not made clear.
  3. The relative risk numbers seem to derive primarily from this paper. There we see a lot of other causes of cancer, such as occupation, alcohol consumption, and exposure to UV radiation, all of which are of similar magnitude to weight. Occupational exposure is about as significant for men as obesity, and more amenable to political control, but is ignored in this report. Again, the real story is that the number of cancers attributable to smoking may be expected to decline over the next quarter century, to something more like the number caused by multiple existing moderate causes.
  4.  Breast cancer makes up a huge part of women’s cancer risk, hence a huge part of the additional risk attributed to overweight, hence presumably makes up the main explanation for why women’s additional risk due to overweight is so much higher than men’s. The study seems to estimate the additional breast cancer risk due to smoking at 0. This seems implausible. No papers are cited on breast cancer risk and smoking, possibly because of the focus on British statistics, but here is a very recent study finding a very substantial increase. And here is a meta-analysis.
  5. The two most common cancers attributable to obesity in women — cancer of the breast and uterus — are among the most survivable, with ten-year survival above 75%. (Survival rates here.) The next two on the list would be bowel and bladder cancer, with ten-year survival above 50%. The cancer caused by smoking, on the other hand, is primarily lung cancer, with ten-year survival around 7%, followed by oesophageal (13%), pancreatic (1%), bowel and bladder. Combining all of these different neoplasms into a risk of “cancer”, and then comparing the risk due to obesity with that due to smoking, is deeply misleading.

UPDATE: My letter to the editor appeared in The Guardian.

The dead end of 70s childrearing

People often raise their children with ideals that they don’t really hold themselves, either because they on some level think they would be better people if they shared these ideals and hope their children will be better (tolerance, patience), or because they think these ideals are particularly appropriate to this stage of life (sharing, studiousness, Santa Claus). But I’ve been realising that some of what I learned as I child — at home, at school, and from the general culture

I genuinely found it weird that Barack Obama was attacked for harboring a secret “anti-colonialist” agenda (inherited from his father’s experience fighting the British for Kenyan independence. If I’d had to say what the core historical experience was that Americans harked back to, that defined our national identity, that we could agree upon, it was the history as colonials fighting for independence. The people opposing Obama dressed up in colonial-era costumes, harked back to the Boston Tea Party, striking a blow against the imperial power. (more…)

Those foreign provinces all look the same…

From the Guardian,

Screenshot 2018-03-09 18.33.49

Copy-editing is dead.

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.

Hoisted from the Archives: Institutions of higher perspiration

It seems like a good time to repost this from the time of the ineffectual strike of 2014:

“They don’t want to turn the universities into sweatshops. They’ll be institutions of higher perspiration.”

That was my conclusion about the trajectory to which our managerial overlords aspire, as I was trying to convince a colleague that he should support the UCU, the British academics union, and its escalating strike action. I walked the picket lines for the first time on Thursday, during our two-hour strike. There were about 20 of us there, and only a few were senior academics, which is somewhat disheartening. There were almost as many reporters as strikers, so I got to talk to all of them. Their questions were interesting:
(more…)

Kettle logic on Fox News

Most Republican leaders, in their concern to defend the president from accusations of racist over his terming African nations and Haiti “shithole countries” and saying “get them out”, have resorted to one of two strategies:

  1. Fake news. He didn’t say it, and it’s outrageous to suggest that he did.
  2. Harsh but true. He did say it, and it shows how forthright and unconcerned he is with liberal pieties.

Neither is entirely satisfactory. It is natural, then, that a Fox News correspondent, in the spirit of Freud’s “kettle logic“, combines the two:

I think it’s either fake news or if it’s true, this is how the forgotten men and women in America talk at the bar.

The bar is the new locker room. It’s kind of weird, though, when the best defense for the president’s behaviour is, he’s talking in the formal setting of a negotiation with senators the way even average uneducated Americans would only talk in a private setting when somewhat inebriated.

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