Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘language’

Worst mathematics metaphor ever?

I’ve come to accept “growing exponentially” — though I once had to bite my tongue at a cancer researcher claiming that “exponential growth” of cancer rates began at age 50, because earlier the rates were just generally low — and didn’t say anything when someone recently referred to having “lots of circles to square”. But here’s a really new bad mathematics metaphor: the Guardian editorialises that after Brexit

Europe will be less than the sum of its remaining parts.

“More than the sum of its parts” or “less than” is something you say when you’re adding things together, and pointing out either that you don’t actually get as much extra as you’d think or, on the contrary, that you get more. That you get less when you take something away really doesn’t need much explanation and, in any case, it’s not about the sum of the parts. Whether the remains of Europe are more or less than the sum of the other parts seems kind of irrelevant to whatever argument is being suggested.

Friendly warnings

Donald Trump spoke to Republican legislators yesterday, encouraging them in a friendly way to support necessary legislation that would ease 24 million Americans off their dependence on health insurance. Apparently he didn’t threaten anyone:

“He warned us that there are consequences if we don’t come together for us as a party and also for individuals,” Representative Richard Hudson of North Carolina said after the meeting. “He wasn’t threatening in any way. He was just giving us a pretty clear warning.”


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”.

Contorting with reality

People misspeak all the time, and there’s usually no point to mocking them for it.

But in this quote from an article about dissatisfaction among Congressional Republicans with the way the Congressional Budget Office is likely to evaluate their healthcare proposal, Senator Roger Wicker reveals too much about the true basis of their disagreement

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said he has “never been one who worried too much about scores because there are constraints that the bean counters have to operate under that don’t necessarily contort with reality.”

Friends like these

I was commenting recently on Donald Trump’s tendency to describe himself in superlatives, which expresses itself particularly in his verbal tic of exaggerated protestations of friendship for groups of people that he actively despises. This is not a new pattern. I just came across this description of Trump’s testimony to Congress nearly a quarter century ago, at a time when he was trying to stymie American Indian competition to his Atlantic City casinos:

Testifying before a congressional committee in 1993, he began with his rote protestations of friendship. “Nobody likes Indians as much as Donald Trump.” He then proceeded to worry that the tribes would prove unable to fend off gangsters. “There is no way Indians are going to protect themselves from the mob … It will be the biggest scandal ever, the biggest since Al Capone … An Indian chief is going to tell Joey Killer to please get off his reservation? It’s unbelievable to me.”

Trump poured money into a shell group called the New York Institute for Law and Society. The group existed solely to publish ads smearing his potential Indian competition. Under dark photos of needles and other junkie paraphernalia, the group asserted, “The St. Regis Mohawk Indian record of criminal activity is well documented.” (It wasn’t.) “Are these the new neighbors we want?”

No daylight

In case there was any doubt that the Trump administration is stumbling about in the dark:

White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Wednesday denied reports that Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos clashed over an upcoming executive order expected to weaken protections for transgender students.

“There’s no daylight between anybody, between the President, between any of the secretaries,” Spicer told reporters at his daily press briefing.

Debating Trump’s state visit

The House of Commons is now debating two petitions that both received more than the required 100,000 signatures to force a debate in parliament. One opposing a Donald Trump state visit (1.8 million signatures) and one supporting it (312 thousand). I couldn’t believe that the text given in favour of Trump’s visit in the newspaper so I checked on the official government website. The text was accurate. It’s just one (admittedly convoluted) sentence! Couldn’t they find someone to proofread it? Or was the text actually written by anti-Trump trolls eager to make the Trumpistas look like illiterate dunces?

petition question

(I’m not sure whether “leader of a free world” counts as an error… Of course, “leader of the free world” is the traditional phrase. But maybe they want to leave open exactly which “free world” he is leading.)

The random correspondence theory of truth

Republicans may not believe in scientific reasoning, but Republican administrations seem to be the best for generating innovations in epistemology. The Bush administration brought us the taxonomy of “known unknowns”, etc.

Now presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway continues to press forward her creative truth-value confections. After coining the term “alternative facts” for what were formerly called “lies”, she is now attacking what might be called the curatorial conception of truth.

“You can talk about somebody almost making a mistake and not doing it,” Tapper said. “I’m talking about the President of the United States saying things that are not true, demonstrably not true. That is important.”

“Are they more important than the many things that he says that are true that are making a difference in people’s lives?” Conway replied.

It is not important, in her conception, for true statements to be statistically more common than false, or, presumably, even more common than background randomness. Only that they are there, and that they “make a difference”. The lies presumably make a difference as well.

Abstractly, statements can be generated by a machine, or a Magic 8 Ball, and there are approximately equal numbers of potential statements that are true as false. (Think Library of Babel.) We count on humans having a preference for truth, even an abhorrence of falsehoods. From Conway’s point of view, though, Trump has no obligation to make overwhelmingly true statements, as long as the truths that do crop up “make a difference”.

Who are you calling illegal?

So this tweet came from the President of the United States:

The use of the term “illegal immigrants” has long been a point of contention between the right (who like the stigmatisation it implies) and the left (who don’t, and prefer terms like “undocumented immigrants”) in the US. The racist right likes to go further and simply call the people “illegals”.

Whatever the politics or the human considerations, at least it’s not entirely inaccurate when applied to people who crossed the border without proper clearance, or who overstayed their visas. How can anyone think it appropriate to call asylum seekers for whom an agreement has been negotiated by the US president to bring them legally into the country “illegal immigrants”? Except, of course, that for the racist right — of which DJ Trump is a charter member — illegal is not a legal description, but simply a term of aspersion against nonwhite people without large real estate portfolios who cross borders.

Political DNA

As someone who actually works with DNA — or, at least, DNA data — I find the drift of the colloquial use of “DNA” disturbing. It’s impossible for me to avoid the resonances of biological determinism, but I’m not sure how other people understand it. I’ve collected a lot of usages, and it seems to have been used in the past to suggest that individuals are being driven by their training or by the historical imperatives of their organisations. Which is sort of fair. But either the meaning is drifting, becoming more crude, or it’s being appropriated for racist purposes.

In this article in yesterday’s Washington Examiner

That Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., will politicize everything is a given — it’s in his DNA 

Now, I’m pretty sure that the reference to his DNA is not meant to be an ethnic slur. But not completely sure. Why is it there? What is DNA supposed to be adding? Is it his political DNA, his personal DNA (in which case it’s just a redundant statement that this is his immutable characteristic), his family DNA, or his ethnic DNA (which would make it an antisemitic slur). Impossible to say.

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