Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

The forerunner

Whatever one thinks of the burden of proof on sexual assault, the new reports on Brett Kavanaugh’s youthful leisure activities show that he anticipated the modern GOP in putting party ahead of principle.

What is literature for?

There is an amazing interview in the newest Spiegel with the 99-year-old Traute Lafrenz, the only survivor of the Munich student anti-Nazi resistance group, the White Rose. She has been living in the US for 70 years, and has apparently never spoken publicly about her war experience. (The journalist simply showed up unannounced. When he phoned from the airport she informed him “Frau Lafrenz is no longer living. She died very suddenly.”)

I was struck by one exchange, about a teacher she had, in Hamburg, who was arrested by the Gestapo and threatened with execution for “premeditated corruption of youth”. She was commenting on her disappointment with a fellow student — who happened to be the later Chancellor Helmut Schmidt! — who declined to speak up for her.

Laf­renz: Ab 1935 ver­an­stal­te­te sie heim­li­che Tref­fen mit uns. Wäh­rend das Land im Gleich­schritt mar­schier­te, ent­ar­te­te Kunst und ver­bo­te­ne Bü­cher ver­brann­te, lud sie uns ein, ge­nau die­se Bü­cher mit ihr zu le­sen. Tuchol­s­ky, Kaf­ka, Erich Käst­ner. Das war, wie ge­gen das Böse ge­impft zu wer­den.

SPIEGEL: Kul­tu­rel­le Bil­dung hat Sie im­mun ge­macht?

Laf­renz: Auch Adolf Hit­ler war Bü­cher­narr. In sei­ner Pri­vat­bi­blio­thek stan­den 16 000 Wer­ke, er konn­te Shake­speare oder Nietz­sche ver­eh­ren und trotz­dem Mil­lio­nen Men­schen ver­ga­sen las­sen… Viel­leicht braucht man Em­pa­thie, da­mit Schön­heit et­was in ei­nem aus­löst. Je mehr Bü­cher ich las, des­to mehr mach­ten sie Front in mir.

Lafrenz: From 1935 she held secret meetings with us. While the land was marching in lockstep, burnt forbidden books and deviant art, she invited us to read precisely these books. Tucholsky, Kafka, Erich Kästner. That was like being vaccinated against the evil.

SPIEGEL: Cultural education made you immune?

Lafrenz: Even Adolf Hitler loved books. There were 16000 works in his personal library. He could worship Shakespeare or Nietzsche, and still have millions of people gassed… Maybe you need empathy, before beauty can have an effect on you. The more books I read, the more they created a conflict for me.

Ambush!

The big story in all. the UK press is about the humiliation experienced by Theresa May –and by extension the entire British nation — from being ambushed by unanimous criticism of her “Chequers plan”.

Guardian on Salzburg "humiliation"

It’s unusual to have an ambush that has been so comprehensively announced in advance. Fortunately, to help unravel it we happen to have a transcript of the top secret radio communications that preceded this ambush:

UK: Maybot here. We’re coming through the Chequers Pass.

EU: Don’t come this way. We have a big force, 27 strong, blocking the way. We can’t let you pass through here.

UK: No, we have to go through here. If we turn back our own rearguard will shoot us.

EU: We don’t want to attack you, but the Chequers Pass leads into dangerous territory. We can’t let anyone through.

UK: Maybot, approaching Chequers Pass.

EU: There are multiple other passes. Please take one of them.

Warning shots are fired.

UK: Ambush! Treachery!

Onus: on us

When the onus is on some party in a negotiation, the point is to say which of several possible parties really needs to make a move. People have been pushing the onus back and forth in the Brexit negotiation:

EU Says Onus Is on U.K. for Brexit Progress

The onus is on Parliament now to protect our post-Brexit rights

Philip Hammond sees Brexit onus on Europe

But now Theresa May has announced at an EU summit that

the onus is now on all of us to get this deal done.

While I grant that her claim seems orthographically undeniable — onus = on us — I wonder what the prime minister could possibly be talking about. There literally are only two parties to the Brexit negotiation, the UK and the EU, so who else could the onus be on? Or is “us” her fellow heads of government in Salzburg, who have the responsibility to take the decision out of the hands of the bumbling bureaucrats of Brussels?

The name of the Republican Party derives ultimately from the Latin res publica, meaning “public matters”. Which suggests a posture diametrically opposed to that which Senate Republicans have taken to the Kavanaugh sexual assault accusation. It seems obvious that, from a public policy perspective, there are broadly three possible stances you could have toward these allegations: 1) They are facially incredible; 2) They are credible but irrelevant to his fitness to serve on the Supreme Court; 3) If true they may (or certainly do) disqualify him from the Supreme Court, so it is essential to take pains to ascertain their truth or falsity. (I suppose there is a fourth as well, the mirror of (1): We believe the accuser, so the nomination simply needs to be withdrawn.)

Republicans seem to have settled bizarrely on the first part of (3), but then veered off into personal pathos. The accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, has requested that an independent investigation determine some essential facts before her testimony, and that other witnesses be called. Republicans have rejected this, and seem generally to represent her testimony as a personal favour to her, to assuage her suffering.

Senator John Cornyn:

We don’t know if she’s coming or not but this is her chance. This is her one chance. We hope she does.

Why is it “her chance”? Presumably it is the nation’s chance to avoid having an attempted rapist and perjurer on the Supreme Court. I understand that the disposition of a crucial witness is important, but surely that cannot affect the need to resolve the matter before an irrevocable decision is taken. Senator Bob Corker:

I just felt that it was important that if she had these types of serious allegations that she ought to have the opportunity to be heard. And I hope she is going to take advantage of that. If she doesn’t — that’s a whole other thing.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell:

Dr. Ford has talked to the Washington Post, indicated she wants to talk to the committee, and we’re going to give her that opportunity on Monday.

Pseudo-centrist and sometime feminist Susan Collins is particularly concerned about Brett Kavanaugh’s feelings:

I think it’s not fair for Judge Kavanaugh for her not to come forward and testify.

The subtext is, if she doesn’t help us, we’ll just have to move ahead and confirm him. Which suggests that they really don’t think this is important, raising the question, why are they inviting her to testify at all? Surely the Senate Judiciary Committee is not the place for a public therapy session, particularly when the witness will be bringing great public opprobrium on herself, regardless of how the hearings turn out.

Had enough Kavanaugh?

To adopt for a moment the president’s rhetorical style:

The Federalist Society isn’t sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with them. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
We need a total and complete shutdown of men being appointed to positions of power and influence until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on. Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in male supremacy, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.

Anti-publishing

George Monbiot has launched an exceptionally dyspeptic broadside in the Guardian against academic publishing, and in support of the heroic/misguided data scraper Alexandra Elbakyan, who downloaded millions of papers, and made them available on a pirate server.

I agree with the headline “Scientific publishing is a rip-off. We fund the research – it should be free”, but disagree with most of the reasoning. Or, maybe it would be better said, from my perspective as an academic his complaints seem to me not the most significant.

Monbiot’s perspective is that of a cancer patient who found himself blocked from reading the newest research on his condition. I think, though, he has underestimated the extent to which funding bodies in the UK and US, and now in the EU as well, have placed countervailing pressure for publicly funded research to be made available in various versions of “open access”, generally within six months of journal publication. In many fields — though not the biomedical research of most interest to Monbiot — it has long been the case that journal publication is an afterthought, with research papers published first as “preprints” on freely accessible archive sites. Read the rest of this entry »

Written wordplay

Isaac Asimov, in a side-remark in his Treasury of Humor, mentioned a conversation in which a participant expressed outrage at a politician blathering about “American goals”. “His specialty is jails, not goals,” and then seeming to expect some laughter. It was only on reflection that Asimov realised that the speaker, who was British, had spelled it gaols in his mind.

I was reminded of this by this Guardian headline:

Labour has shifted focus from bingo to quinoa, say swing voters

The words bingo and quinoa look vaguely similar on the page, but they’re not pronounced anything alike. Unlike Asimov’s example, this wordplay is in writing, so spelling is important. My feeling is that wordplay has to be fundamentally sound-based, so this just doesn’t work for me. Maybe the Guardian editors believe in visual wordplay.

Alternatively, maybe they don’t know how quinoa is pronounced.

Hysterical costs

There’s an interesting article in the NY Times about a young legal scholar, Lina Khan, who is gaining attention for a novel and detailed argument that antitrust enforcement in the US has come to be inappropriately fixated on price as the sole anticompetitive harm, and so giving a free pass to Amazon. I have no original thoughts about the argument, but I am intrigued by the dismissive language of the critics cited in the article. One (antitrust lawyer Konstantin Medvedovsky) called her approach “hipster antitrust”. And then there’s this:

Herbert Hovenkamp, an antitrust expert at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, wrote that if companies like Amazon are targeted simply because their low prices hurt competitors, we might “quickly drive the economy back into the Stone Age, imposing hysterical costs on everyone.”

Is “hysterical costs” a real thing? Or was he just reaching for a word that would impugn the rationality of a female opponent, and came up with the classic wandering womb?

Trump’s branding

In reading Donald Trump’s rant on the anonymous freak who wrote in the NY Times that, yes, Donald Trump is a raving loon, but no need to take any extreme measures like electing Democrats, because the people supposedly working for him have everything under control, I was reminded of a weird tic that Trump has that I’ve never seen remarked upon. It’s in this line:

“We have somebody in what I call the failing New York Times talking about he’s part of the resistance within the Trump administration. This is what we have to deal with,” he told reporters in the East Room early Wednesday evening.

Now, if you’re trying to insult someone, you say, “He’s an idiot.” You don’t say, “He’s what I call an idiot.” Calling attention to the fact that this is merely your private designation saps the force of the insult.

Trump is enormously proud of his ability to brand people with epithets (even if no one else actually uses them). So proud, that he needs to call attention to his invention at every opportunity, even against the objective of the epithets. One of the many ways that he acts like a toddler (or a Hollywood producer). “Look Mama, I made it self!”

I imagine a version of the Odyssey featuring Homer’s trademarked characters “what I call grey-eyed Athena” and “Odysseus, or as I call him, ‘sacker of cities'”.

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