The first minister’s second person

There’s a comedy trope that I think of as “second person confession”. The person starts telling a generic story in the second person, except that the details of the story start getting weirdly specific, morphing into an embarrassing or disturbing confession. Something like, “You know how it is, you’ve just been working all day, you come home exhausted, you want nothing more than to eat a sandwich and zone out on the couch. And then you get a call from some guy you barely know, who wants to meet up for some reason, and you’re about to tell him to fuck off, when he reminds you that you’ve known each other since the summer when you were 17, and he’s the only person who knows where you hid that body…”

So, Boris Johnson, the cringeworthy master of does-he-mean-this-to-be-a-joke, commented recently on the need for all of us lazy British workers to get back to the office, in these terms:

My experience of working from home is you spend an awful lot of time making another cup of coffee and then, you know, getting up, walking very slowly to the fridge, hacking off a small piece of cheese, then walking very slowly back to your laptop and then forgetting what it was you’re doing.

Thinking back to his pre-election bus hobby, it makes me wonder if there’s some embarrassing story about cheese that he’s trying to push down in the Google search rankings…

Rudy Giuliani and Lenny Bruce

Former New York mayor and current bagman for Donald Trump’s Ukraine connection, Rudolph Giuliani has been getting some flak for first spouting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about George Soros, and then defending himself by saying that Soros isn’t “really Jewish” because “he doesn’t go to church”. Corrected then “he doesn’t go to religion”. Corrected again: “Synagogue. He doesn’t belong to a synagogue, he doesn’t support Israel, he’s an enemy of Israel.” One may doubt Giuliani’s bona fides as arbiter of Jewishness, but in fact

“Soros is hardly a Jew,” he continued. “I’m more of a Jew than Soros is.” Asked by NBC News if his remarks were seriously intended, the former mayor texted: “I’m more Jewish than half my friends.”

The outrage is misplaced. Giuliani’s claim rests on the authority of one of the great Jewish standup comics of the 1950s and 1960s, Lenny Bruce. Giuliani was clearly channelling Bruce’s classic “Jewish and Goyish” routine:

Dig: I’m Jewish. Count Basie’s Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Eddie Cantor’s goyish.
B’nai Brith is goyish; Hadassah, Jewish. Marine corps–heavy goyim, dangerous.
Kool-Aid is goyish. All Drake’s cakes are goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish, and, as you know, white bread is very goyish. Instant potatoes–goyish. Black cherry soda’s very Jewish. Macaroons are very Jewish–very Jewish cake. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime jello is goyish. Lime soda is very goyish.
Trailer parks are so goyish that Jews won’t go near them. Jack Paar Show is very goyish.
Underwear is definitely goyish. Balls are goyish. Titties are Jewish. Mouths are Jewish.
All Italians are Jewish. Greeks are goyish.

On the other hand, Lenny Bruce wasn’t seen in church shul much, and I don’t know that he’s on record with much support for Israel. So maybe he wasn’t really Jewish?

We should ask Giuliani.

Brexit deal still halfway concluded!

I cited this joke in the context of Brexit before:

A rabbi announces in synagogue, at the end of Yom Kippur, that he despairs at the burning need for wealth to be shared more equally. He will depart for the next year to travel through the world, speaking to all manner of people, ultimately to persuade the rich to share with the poor. On the following Yom Kippur he returns, takes his place at the head of the congregation without a word, and leads the service. At the end of the day congregants gather around him. “Rabbi, have you accomplished your goal? Will the rich now share with the poor?” And he says, “Halfway. The poor are willing to accept.”

And it’s returned, because we again have these headlines:

Except the backing of the “cabinet” means the backing of those who didn’t resign because they wouldn’t back the agreement. Including the Northern Ireland Secretary (!) and the Brexit Secretary (!!) who was tasked with negotiating the thing. So, except for all the members most relevant to the deal (oh, yes, the Foreign Secretary already resigned over Brexit a few months ago), Theresa May has managed to get her handpicked cabinet to accept the negotiated agreement. All that remains is the other half of the task, which is to get it through Parliament, which only requires that she corral votes from her coalition partner, who see the backstop on Northern Ireland as a fundamental betrayal, and sufficient members of the opposition parties, because why wouldn’t they sign up to take responsibility for an agreement that everyone will blame for everything that goes wrong, even if nothing goes wrong, rather than forcing new elections?

Tom Lehrer on academic spam

One of the weirdest phenomena engendered by the tawdry incentive structure of academic publishing is the academic spam that we all get, such as this invitation that I just found in my inbox:

Dear Prof./Dr. D. Steinsaltz:
As Co-Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Statistics in Medical Research. I am pleased to invite you to join our editorial board member team or reviewer board team.

Esteemed researchers are invited to join the editorial boards of excellent journals, and it is a mark of prestige that they put on their CVs, etc. This is vaguely formulated like such an invitation, but then goes on with

If you are interested to be the part of the journal as member in editorial or reviewer board then please send your CV along with photograph.

making it clear that they have no idea who I am, and they’re just spraying out these invitations to all and sundry. It’s part of the fungal growth of journals needed to meet the needs for publications to fill other people’s CVs for their academic hiring and promotion. The best part was that this flattering invitation was closed off with a dutiful unsubscribe notice “If you wish not tor receive any such communication in future.” (Which also gave a taste of the standard of writing and editing expected for this journal.)

It reminded me of this line from Tom Lehrer’s outro to the song “Alma” (on the album That Was the Year that Was):

Not long ago I received a letter which said: “Darling, I love you, and I cannot live without you. Marry me, or I will kill myself.” Well, I was a little disturbed at that until I took another look at the envelope, and saw that it was addressed to Occupant.

Unity!

The news from Westminster and Holyrood inspires me to adapt a cartoon that I recall from a German newspaper from the days shortly after the opening of the Berlin wall:

Theresa May: We are one nation!

Nicola Sturgeon: We are too!

Maybe this doesn’t completely work in translation. In the original, of course, it was the East German demonstrators who really did shout “Wir sind ein Volk!”, and then the West Germans reply, “Wir auch!” That plays on the ambiguity in the German: “ein Volk” can mean “one people” or “one nation” or “a nation”.

Donald Trump gets into refugees

The Washington Post reports on Donald Trump’s objections to an agreement to take in 1250 mostly Middle Eastern refugees currently in Australian detention sites:

Trump was also skeptical because he did not see a specific advantage the United States would gain by honoring the deal, officials said.

He can’t conceive of a deal whose purpose is to benefit someone else. This reminds me of Monty Python’s Merchant Banker sketch. A humble fellow raising money for charity wanders into the office of a very wealthy and self-centred banker:

Mr Ford: Oh. I wondered whether you’d like to contribute to the orphan’s home. (he rattles the tin)

Banker: Well I don’t want to show my hand too early, but actually here at Slater Nazi we are quite keen to get into orphans, you know, developing market and all that…

Mr Ford: So er, how about a pound?

Banker: A pound. Yes, I see. Now this loan would be secured by the…

Mr Ford: It’s not a loan, sir.

Banker: What?

Mr Ford: It’s not a loan.

Banker: Ah… Look, I think I’d better run this over to our legal department. If you could possibly pop back on Friday…

Mr Ford: Well do you have to do that, couldn’t you just give me the pound?

Banker: Yes, but you see I don’t know what it’s for.

Mr Ford: It’s for the orphans.

 

Banker: Well, I’m awfully sorry I don’t understand. Can you just explain exactly what you want.

Mr Ford: Well, I want you to give me a pound, and then I go away and give it to the orphans.

Banker: Yes?

Mr Ford: Well, that’s it.

Banker: No, no, no, I don’t follow this at all, I mean, I don’t want to seem stupid but it looks to me as though I’m a pound down on the whole deal.

How to do it, according to Donald Trump

Last year I wrote a post about the kind of table-thumping simple-minded blather that you sometimes hear about public policy (what the Germans call Stammtischgerede), that reminds me of the Monty Python sketch about a children’s show “How to do it“, which explains to the audience in one two-minute episode

How to be a gynecologist… how to construct a box-girder bridge, … how to irrigate the Sahara Desert and make vast new areas of land cultivatable, and… how to rid the world of all known diseases.

When expressed by the male working classes the simple HTDI solutions that no one is willing to put into practice typically involves violence, stringing the appropriate people up, or use of nuclear weapons. It’s all vague blather, but needs just enough spurious detail to give it the verbal form of presenting a solution. I wrote in this post about the version of HTDI that tends to belch forth from mostly right-wing veterans of the business-lawyer-finance trenches, who like to think that their experience holding meetings and berating subordinates has been far more meaningful than actually doing anything

is the completely generic “I’d get the both sides into the room and tell them, c’mon guys, let’s roll up our sleeves and just get it done. We’re not leaving here until we’ve come up with a solution.”

I didn’t have a particular example to cite at the time, but of course Donald Trump has followed the script exactly. Speaking yesterday at a “National Security Forum”, Trump was pressed on his claim to have a secret plan for defeating ISIS. Despite having previously stated that he knows “more about ISIS than the generals do”, in a speech on Tuesday he said

We are going to convey my top generals and give them a simple instruction. They will have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.

It’s no wonder some Republicans think President Obama is intentionally betraying the country. If he couldn’t even be bothered to instruct his top generals to come up with a plan. And the 30-day deadline is pure genius…

“I wish that I was a film comedian”

I’ve just been reading David C. Cassidy’s updated version of his Heisenberg biography, titled Beyond Uncertainty. He reports that in May 1925 Wolfgang Pauli, who was struggling together with Heisenberg to apply the new quantum theory to calculate the spectral lines of hydrogen, wrote in a letter

Physics is at the moment once again very wrong. For me, in any case, it is much too difficult, and I wish that I was a film comedian or something similar and had never heard of physics.

Here is a challenge for a young postmodernist film-maker: Produce the silent-film comedies that Wolfgang Pauli would have made, had he never heard of physics (or abandoned physics? Presumably they would have been different…)

Alternatively, a science fiction author could write about a universe governed by Charlie Chaplin’s quantum mechanics.

Just joking

Following up some references related to Thomas Malthus recently, I discovered that Carlyle’s notorious appellation “dismal science” for economics (or “political economy”) was not a reference to the pessimistic world view of Malthus and his descendants. This sobriquet first appeared in an essay “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question”, in which he criticised the emancipation of Black slaves in the West Indies, leaving the unfortunate Blacks to wallow in disgraceful idleness. Carlyle attacked political economy for undermining natural hierarchies, for

declaring that Negro and White are unrelated, loose from one another, on a footing of perfect equality, and subject to no law but that of supply and demand according to the Dismal Science.

Here “dismal” is presumably not being used in the modern sense of “gloomy”, but in the older sense of “threatening” or “inauspicious”, as in Henry VI pt. 3:

Bring forth that fatal screech-owl to our house,
That nothing sung but death to us and ours:
Now death shall stop his dismal threatening sound,
And his ill-boding tongue no more shall speak.

Carlyle lumps the Dismal Science together with other unfortunate modern political innovations, such as “ballot boxes”, “universal suffrages” and “Exeter-Hall Philanthropy”.

Here I’d like to call attention to Carlyle’s framing device. The essay is attributed to a fictitious author with the absurd name Dr. Phelin M’Quirk. It begins

THE following occasional discourse, delivered by we know not whom, and of date seemingly above a year back, may, perhaps, be welcome to here and there a speculative reader. It comes to us — no speaker named, no time or place assigned, no commentary of any sort given in the hand-writing of the so-called “Doctor,” properly “Absconded Reporter,” Dr. Phelin M’Quirk, whose singular powers of reporting, and also whose debts, extravagances, and sorrowful insidious finance-operations, now winded up by a sudden disappearance, to the grief of many poor trades-people, are making too much noise in the police offices at present! Of M’Quirk’s composition, we by no means suppose it to be; but from M’Quirk, as the last traceable source, it comes to us; offered, in fact, by his respectable, unfortunate landlady, desirous to make up part of her losses in this way.

Together with some self-mocking references to some offended members of the fictional audience leaving in a huff, this sets up the cover story, particularly beloved of British racists and misogynists, that “I’m just joking”. You insult people with a wink, simultaneously spreading poisonous sentiments and confirming your superior power by forcing them to smile while you insult them — if they don’t, they are dismissed as “humourless”. Most recently there was Tim Hunt, whose defenders say that his disgraceful remarks on women in science were some kind of protected speech because he followed them with “Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it.” “Now seriously” is the proof that he was just joking, so critics are joyless harridans.
Continue reading “Just joking”

Counting to zero

I was amused by the comments made by right-wing American TV news personality Bill O’Reilly, who referred to his time in the Falklands “war zone” because he reported on an unruly protest in Buenos Aires after the war ended. He supported his position by quoting a NY Times report that referred to a police officer firing five shots, without mentioning that the shots were fired “over the heads of fleeing protestors”.

Rich Meislin, the Times reporter who wrote the article, said on Facebook that as far as he knew no demonstrators were shot or killed by police that night. On Monday, Mr. O’Reilly said he was just reading clips from the piece during the Media Buzz interview and that official reports on casualties there were difficult to obtain.

One could imagine that in a dispute over the exact number of protesters shot or killed you might say that the official reports were “difficult to obtain”. It seems like an odd defence when people are claiming that the exact number was zero, since, of course, in that case there would be no reports on casualties to obtain. “I do remember that there was tension between the authorities and the crowd,” [CBS correspondent Charles Gomez] said, but added that he “did not see any bloodshed.”

Humans have a separate system for unconsciously apprehending the numbers of items under about four, called subitizing, that is distinct from the conscious process of counting. The idea of “counting” one or two items seems ridiculous, and counting zero items exaggerates the comic effect. I was reminded of a scene in the second volume Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, The Restaurant at the end of the Universe. Ford Prefect and his friends have accidentally stowed away on a space ship programmed to crash into the local sun (as part of the light show for a rock concert). Zaphod Beeblebrox yells “Ford, how many escape capsules are there?”

“None,” said Ford.

Zaphod gibbered.

“Did you count them?” he yelled.

“Twice,” said Ford.

 Update: In another interview O’Reilly continued to conflate the Falklands War with the unruly demonstration in Buenos Aires:

“A lot of people died,” said O’Reilly, nodding his head. “You bet.”

“On both sides, both the British and the Argentines,” Browne said, appearing to reference the broader war rather than the protests.

“Nine hundred deaths on the Island,” O’Reilly said. “And we don’t know how many in Buenos Aires.”

We don’t know how many. The number is generally reckoned to be around… zero.