Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

It’s all fine

Regulations are commonly enforced by fines. Economic logic says that the level of fines should be set high enough to discourage most of the violations, and if the laws are being violated frequently that means that the penalties are set too low. But that’s not how British politicians and businesspeople think. I commented before about how the Conservatives seem to think that high levels of speeding and parking violations are prima facie evidence that the laws need to be changed, rather than that there needs to be more effective enforcement.

Now we have this comment in the Oxford Times about the “bus gate” (ban on private vehicles) in one part of High Street. It should be prefaced by saying this is hardly an arbitrary restriction. Because of river geography and the huge space taken up by colleges, Oxford is inevitably a challenge for transport. High Street is sufficiently congested at most times of the day, with just buses, taxis and bicycles, as well as the vast numbers of tourists on foot, as to be difficult and dangerous to pass through.

A top businessman said Oxford’s bus gate in High Street should be reviewed after it emerged council bosses have raked in fines totalling more than £6m over 10 years.

The bus gate uses camera enforcement to restrict normal traffic from using the High Street between 7.30am and 6.30pm.

After the £6.2m fines total emerged following a Freedom of Information request by the Oxford Mail, Jeremy Mogford, owner of The Old Bank Hotel in High Street, called for the restriction to be reviewed.

Weirdly, he also seems to believe that it’s a problem that many of the scofflaws paying the fines are tourists. Given that Oxford has to pay a huge burden for maintaining transport infrastructure for millions of annual visitors who don’t pay local taxes, what could be more appropriate than that those who abuse the system and endanger our lives to get an advantage would pay the costs.

Two other points that Mr Mogford makes:

“I do think the bus gate should be better signposted in High Street because some drivers are clearly missing the signs or ignoring them.

“It’s quite likely some delivery drivers will go through the bus gate and pay the fine instead of spending half an hour going all the way round.

I agree with the first point, though the current signs don’t seem obviously deficient. As for the latter, I don’t really object. Fines can serve as a kind of stochastic congestion charge, allowing those with an urgent need to use a certain resource to pay the cost. I think that a formal congestion charge is better, though, since it is less ambiguous, more predictable, and removes the taint of illegality.

It takes a thief

Speaking to her fellow Conservatives this week, a “contrite” Theresa May said

I got us into this mess, and I’m going to get us out.

Ummm… Is this a common hiring policy? Is there any circumstance under which you’re looking for someone to lead a project and you say, “How about Theresa? She fucked everything up last time. That makes her just the person to make it go well this time.” Because she has the best inside view of the faulty decision procedures that caused all the trouble, or something.

It’s a bromide that is usually applied to a situation where the “mess” demands some unpleasant and unglamourous labour or expense to clean up — e.g., you misplaced the envelope with the club’s collected membership dues, so you need to go find it, or work out a new fundraising scheme, or replace the money from your own pocket. No one wants to do it, but it’s your job because it’s your fault. Applying it to remaining prime minister is just bizarre.

But this is all part of the way British politics is less about the effective deployment of power than the effective deployment of clichés. Of which Theresa “Brexit means Brexit” May is an unchallenged master.

Boris is Britain

Of all the bizarre developments in British politics over the last couple of years, none is stranger than the appointment of Boris Johnson as foreign minister. I genuinely don’t think it is possible for any foreigner to understand him — or, to put it differently, I think that if you understand Boris Johnson you must have sufficiently internalised British values™ that you should be granted citizenship. I listen to him and am reminded of Oliver Sacks’s essay about observing a ward full of aphasics — patients with damage to the language-processing centres of their brains — laughing at a speech by Ronald Reagan. Limited in their ability to interpret the verbal content of his speech, they focused on the tone and expression, which they found grotesque and dishonest. One patient, with tonal agnosia, had the opposite problem. She could only recognise the text, not the charming expression, and so judged “Either he is brain-damaged, or he has something to conceal.”

I feel like I have tonal agnosia listening to Boris Johnson. He’s obviously playing a complex tune on Britons’ class consciousness that I simply can’t hear. Some people here find him clever, some call him a buffoon. I just hear the verbal equivalent the scene in Amadeus where the court opera is commanded to clomp through a dance number without any music.

One shorthand I’ve come up with to explain Johnson is that he is a stupid person pretending to be a smart person pretending to be a stupid person. I mean stupid in a relative sense. You don’t get to the highest level of politics without significant mental resources of some sort. But he has chosen to play the role of an exceptional intelligence, despite his average endowment. I’ve been around elite universities most of my life, so I recognise the glib, polished facade over the mediocre mind.

Of course, acting smart isn’t like acting strong*: You can’t just put up a show at some decisive moments and conceal your true deficits. It requires that you actually produce some penetrating insights on a semi-regular basis, and if you could do that you would really be smart. Johnson has, I think, adopted a strategy that one also sees at times in mathematics students: appealing to stereotypes of an idiosyncratic genius where the idiosyncracies take the place of demonstrating actual brilliance. Johnson invites people to identify him with a stock figure, the brilliant toff who hides his light under a bushel to feign the common touch. So he is dumb, and he acts dumb, but people attribute assume that’s all just covering up his secret brilliance.

But maybe I’m wrong and he’s just faking that, and he’s secretly an evil genius…  Read the rest of this entry »

Extreme left

Vox is explaining Jeremy Corbyn to Americans:

He is far to the left of Bernie Sanders: Corbyn has proposed renationalizing Britain’s rail system, abolishing tuition for British universities, massively hiking taxes, capping CEO salaries, and imposing rent controls to deal with Britain’s affordable housing problem. He’s even suggested reopening the coal mines that used to be a big part of Britain’s economy.

Hmmm. The rail system is already nationalised in US, as in most developed countries. Sanders himself did propose abolishing tuition at public universities in the US and raising taxes. He formerly advocated a maximum wage, though he retreated from that in the most recent election campaign. Rent control is, for obvious reasons, seldom an issue in US presidential campaigns, but it is certainly an issue that Sanders advocated as mayor of Burlington. As for reopening the coal mines, that’s kind of crazy, but it’s a Trump policy.

I think this shows, above all, how far Britain has drifted to the right (NHS notwithstanding) and the US has drifted to the left (despite the persistence of gerrymandered Republican control).

I think often of a lecture I heard many years ago by the late Richard Marius at Harvard, on Shakespeare’s Richard II. He made the point, novel to me, that the inviolability of kingly rule demanded that critics of the monarch direct their wrath ostensibly at the king’s advisers: The king is not unfit to rule, he is only being misled or corrupted. Compare:

Several politicians told the Guardian that Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, who act as the prime minister’s joint chiefs of staff in Downing Street, must take responsibility for the poor result, which saw the Tories lose their majority. The pair were at the centre of recriminations flying back and forth between MPs on WhatsApp groups and even resulted in one cabinet minister branding the pair as “monsters who propped her up and sunk our party”.

Yes, those monsters! May should be furious at how badly they performed in the election campaign. I suspect that they are also the people — wasn’t one of them Home Secretary or something? — who were responsible for the “tolerance of extremism” and failed anti-terror policies of the past seven years that May rightly excoriated when she laid out her detailed new “Things need to change” policy.

It’s a good thing that she’s now formed an alliance with a party famous for lacking all tolerance (for terrorism).

What we’ve come to

I wonder whether any Republican legislators, in a quiet moment alone, is troubled to realise that the path they’ve followed has led them to work to trash the reputation of a highly respected moderate Republican former deputy attorney general and (until very recently) director of the FBI. Does it ring any alarm bells for them? Do they think, this isn’t really what I expected to be doing with my life?

Theresa May’s gamble has gone badly wrong. There’s a danger of chaos overwhelming all of us now, but I want to take this moment, with the result  still fresh, to exult.

There is a special joy at seeing a tactically shrewd and wholly cynical and unprincipled scheme fail. The Tories made a principled case back in 2010 for fixed-term parliaments, which they enshrined in law. May made a principled case for not calling a new election last year when she took over the leadership last year. And then she abandoned all those principles as soon as she saw a political advantage in the sky-high poll numbers for herself and her party. There was no other justification than that she thought she was sure to win, because all the press barons loved her, and Jeremy Corbyn dresses badly, and she couldn’t conceive of having to compromise. Just to make it particularly destructive, she lit the 2-year fuse on Brexit before calling the new election, so that time is running out even while they sort out their mess in Westminster.

A reasonable conclusion would be that it was a mistake to try to run the country off the hard Brexit cliff on the basis of a paper-thin referendum majority, and that she should instead seek a broad consensus, at least on the EU negotiations, with all the major parties. That wouldn’t be Theresa May’s conclusion, though. She may not have been in favour of Brexit, but she’s not going to lose the opportunity to knife the perfidious foreigners, even if the price is collaborating with the DUP to undermine abortion rights, climate policy, and peace in Northern Ireland.

By the way, if you don’t recognise the reference in the post title…


On the BBC website there was this article about increasing dissatisfaction among university students in the UK, as measured by their response to a survey question about whether their studies provided “good value for money”, and questions about their happiness and wellbeing. I was struck by this sentence:

Young women and gay students at university are particularly likely to feel unhappy.

Why “young women” and not simply “women”? I’m willing to bet that they are not basing this on a distinction in reported happiness between younger and older female students. Those who are gay are referred to simply as “students”. Most students are, in a general sense, young, but why is this emphasised for the women? Why are the women not referred to as students? I feel like there is some invidious stereotyping going on here, but I can’t quite put my finger on what is irritating me.

Like most mathematicians, I think, I’m irritated by the way “grows exponentially” has come into common parlance as a synonym for “grows rapidly”; whereas exponential growth in mathematics may be fast or slow, depending on the current level of the quantity. This has even crossed into technical discussions, as when I heard a talk by a cancer expert who objected to standard claims that cancer mortality increases exponentially through adulthood — which it does — because the levels actually stay low through the 50s, and so only “increase exponentially” after that point.

Anyway, I was under the impression that the vernacular application of this mathematical concept was fairly recent. So I was intrigued to find the cognate concept of “growing geometric”  popping up in Evan Thomas’s Nixon biography, on the Watergate tapes. In the context of cancer. Used correctly! It’s quite a famous part of Watergate lore, where John Dean refers to Watergate as a “cancer… close to the presidency”.

We have a cancer — within — close to the presidency, that’s growing. It’s growing daily. It’s compounding, it grows geometrically now, because it’s compounding.

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