Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘social sciences’

Locker rooms and Trump’s arena of masculinity

Among the many weird things about the Trump groping scandal is the defense of this vile banter as “locker-room speech”, by a man who avers that the closest thing he does to exercise is public speaking. But then, this is of a piece with his contention that he is a better military strategist than America’s generals. There’s nothing unusual about insecure plutocrats trying to associate themselves with conventional symbols of masculinity: buying sports teams, military medals, weapons, military-style vehicles. I imagine the dominance displays of business, being almost entirely verbal and symbolic, must leave a nagging hole of insecurity in the core of your average wealthy psychopath.

I am reminded of a book I read many years ago, The Arena of Masculinity: Sports, Homosexuality and the Meaning of Sex, about the role that sports play in the performance of masculinity in the US. It’s pretty far off my usual reading, but I picked it up off the new-book display at the Lamont Library at Harvard, and it was extremely helpful to me in trying to understand why people are so interested in sports (which had always mystified me), and why people are so interested in masculinity (ditto). Well, it didn’t get me very far. I mean, sociologists and psychologists like to talk about “fragile males”, constantly under threat because “masculinity” needs to be performed anew or it is lost, unlike femininity which (in this account) is an inherent quality. (Tell that to a mid-40s Hollywood actress…) (more…)

Social science in action

IntersectionalityWhile watching Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech last week, I found it hilarious to see people in the crowd holding up (protest?) signs saying “INTERSECTIONALITY MATTERS”. Since when does abstract sociology jargon get onto political signs?

What’s next? “INHIBIT HEGEMONIC TOTALISING DISCOURSE”? Perhaps a call-and-response chant:

What do we want?
Analytically robust amelioration of social conventions!
When do we want it?

Return address

From a recent article in The Guardian about the rise of antisemitism in Europe.

A similar normalisation may be under way in Germany, according to a 2013 study by the Technical University of Berlin. In 14,000 hate-mail letters, emails and faxes sent over 10 years to the Israeli embassy in Berlin and the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Professor Monika Schwarz-Friesel found that 60% were written by educated, middle-class Germans, including professors, lawyers, priests and university and secondary school students. Most, too, were unafraid to give their names and addresses – something she felt few Germans would have done 20 or 30 years ago.

That sounds very convincing. “Unafraid to give their names” sounds like an impressive fact, showing how socially accepted antisemitic threats have become, in contrast to 20 years ago. But then it reminded me of an interview given by Ignatz Bubis, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, almost exactly 20 years ago (14 December 1992, to be precise):

SPIEGEL: Mr Bubis, have you received any antisemitic letters today?

BUBIS: Yes. They range from threats to ridiculous pamphlets explaining that Jews meddle in everything, to insults. A man wrote to me recently to say, he saw me on television, and was greatly impressed by what I said — until it occurred to him, that I belong to another race, and so everything I said was terrible.

SPIEGEL: What is new about this antisemitism?

BUBIS: The only thing that is new, is that the letters now come with name and return address. Antisemitism is now socially acceptable. It is once again permitted.

(original German below the break)

Perhaps it is just wishful thinking, to suppose that there must have been a brief shining moment when anti-Semites were ashamed to sign their names to their threatening letters.


Where the money is…

Mathematical finance as an accessory to crime

Not long after I finished my PhD in probability theory, a significant fraction of the field was devoured by the financial mathematics moloch. Particularly in Europe, probability theory positions disappeared, to be replaced by openings in financial mathematics, which either went unfilled or cycled among a very few senior researchers and a few quick-change opportunists (and, gradually, their fledgeling academic progeny).

Everyone felt they had to get in on the action, and of course there was a certain amount of positive feedback. When many jobs chase few graduates, it generates huge demand among students for training in such a demonstrably burgeoning field. Obviously, the academic feedback was limited by the fact that most of the eager young ‘uns were seeking employment in banks, not in academia — but the banks were hiring as well. Anyway, just about 10 years ago, a Dutch colleague asked me if I might be interested in joining his own institute’s planned financial mathematics group, for which they were proposing to create TEN new positions. My reply was that finance did not interest me as a topic of research, but I added that there was something unseemly — bordering on unethical — in mathematicians’ headlong chase after banking lucre. The current generation of mathematicians is the trustee of a vast and powerful system of analysis, whose creators were supported, honoured, and financed by public institutions. What is it but a crime, when we abscond with the fruits of this scholarship, and sell it off (cheaply) to banks, who will use it to extract billions of dollars from financial markets? (more…)

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