The unexpected epidemic: A political paradox

An epidemiologist says, “A new pandemic will definitely sweep the world some time this century. But you won’t know until the day it starts when it will be. So you’d better start preparing now.”

The president is downcast. He doesn’t like preparing, but he also doesn’t like when the stock-market falls and people on TV blame him for millions of deaths and blah blah blah. What can he do?

His son-in-law comes to him and says, “I read a book on this. This prediction of an unexpected epidemic can’t happen. Imagine it’s 2099 and there hasn’t been a pandemic yet. Then people would know it has to happen in 2099. So it has to happen earlier. But now, suppose we get to 2098 without a pandemic. We know it can’t happen in 2099, so we would know for sure it must be 2098, which would contradict what the so-called expert told us.” And so, step by step, he shows that the unexpected pandemic can never happen.

You know the rest: The president disbands the National Security Council pandemic preparedness team and writes a celebratory tweet. And then in 2020 a pandemic arrives, and the president announces that “this is something that you can never really think is going to happen.”

(For the original version see Quine’s “On a so-called paradox“. For an account of some of the many times experts warned that a pandemic was coming and would be disastrous, see here.)

Do billionaire mayors make you live longer?

In trying to compose an argument for why Democrats’ best hope for defeating the incompetent septuagenarian autocratic billionaire Republican in the White House is to nominate a highly competent septuagenarian autocratic billionaire (former) Republican of their own, Emily Stewart at Vox — jumping in to extend Vox’s series on the leading candidates in the Democratic presidential primary with the case for late entrant Mike Bloomberg — has some reasonable points, mixed in with one very odd accolade:

Under Bloomberg, New Yorkers’ life expectancy increased by about three years.

Not that this is false, but we must recall that Bloomberg was mayor of New York for 12 years. As pointed out by Oeppen and Vaupel in a Science article that appeared in 2002 (the first year of Bloomberg’s mayoralty), life expectancy at birth in the most economically advanced countries of the world has been increasing at an astonishingly steady 2.5 years per decade since around 1840. If we had then predicted how much increase we should expect over 12 years, we should have said… three years. Indeed, looking at a few comparably wealthy countries chosen more or less at random over the same period we see life expectancy at birth as follows:

Country20022014Increase
Australia80.0782.592.52
UK78.2481.162.92
Japan81.8383.731.90
Canada79.5781.942.37
Netherlands78.4181.653.24

Mike got it done!

To be fair there are two exceptions to this trend: Japan, which had the highest life expectancy in the world in 2002 still had the highest in 2014, but it had gained only two years.

The USA, which had the lowest life expectancy at the start (among large wealthy countries), at 77.03, fell further behind, to 79.06, and has since actually decreased. So I guess you might say that Bloomberg has shown his ability to thwart the destructive trends in the US, and make it, as he made New York, as successful as an average West European country. Which doesn’t sound like the worst campaign platform.

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.

“Zelensky loves your ass”

There’s a lot of competition for the weirdest moments in the Ukraine bribery-extortion-political meddling affair that underlies the current impeachment hearings, but for me there’s not much that can compete with the testimony of diplomat David Holmes that he overheard hotel-magnate-cum-ambassador Gordon Sondland telling Trump that Zelensky would “do anything you ask for” because Zelensky “loves your ass”.

My first reaction on reading this — I may have understood it differently had I heard it spoken — was that it was most bizarre for a head of state to be commenting (favourably or unfavourably) on the intimate anatomy of the US president. And that Trump didn’t strike me as someone particularly concerned about his toned glutes.

I quickly realised that this is not actually an erotic compliment, but rather an application of the somewhat gangster argot that uses “ass” as a general intensifier. I am reminded of the section of Gravity’s Rainbow titled “On the phrase ‘ass backwards’”, where the literal-minded Berlin drug dealer Säure Bummer asks a group of AmericanS

Why do you speak of certain reversals — machinery connected wrong, for instance, as being “Ass backwards”? I can’t understand that. Ass usually is backwards, right? You ought to be saying “ass forwards,” if backwards is what you mean.

After a typical digression about umlauts and helicopters Seaman Bodine replies

“‘Ass’ is an intensifier, as in ‘mean ass’, ‘stupid ass’ — well, when something is very backwards, by analogy you’d say ‘backwards ass.’”

“But ‘ass backwards’ is ‘backwards ass’ backwards,” Säure objects.

“But gee that doesn’t make it mean forwards.”

I’m still not exactly sure what “he loves your ass” actually means and, in particular, whether it conveys an erotic charge.

The other Trump-Ukraine transcript

A preview:

President Zelensky: Hello, Mr President. I call to confirm what we agreed at the end of our previous conversation. After you say everyone went home, so it missed being on the official transcript.

The President: Thank you, Mr President. As the interests of world peace are to me second in importance only to the interests of the United States of America, it is most important that our plans be carried out exactly as we agreed.

President Zelensky: Yes, that was what you said to me last time, during that interval when the stenographer said she had urgently to use the -- how did he say? -- little boys' room? My advisors tell me that you are very brave to pursue only what is best for your country, despite the evil distortions of the fake news media.

The President: The understanding of my fellow world leaders is all I can hope for. Now repeat back to me the steps of the plan we agreed.

President Zelensky: Yes, as you know, for political reasons I must emphasize the so-called threat from Russia, but in fact our nation is menaced most severely by the corruption emanating from a gang of American oligarchs who my people have termed "the angry Democrats". We thought these were primarily the family of your former Vice President, but we have discovered that the criminal organization is also being led by Senators Warren and Sanders and, according to a recent poll, by the mayor of one of your smaller cities, whose name I find difficult to pronounce.

The President: Yes, and we're doing what we can.

President Zelensky: I understand. You explained to me that this conspiracy has its tentacles in your "deep state", who are protecting their criminal machinations. That is why we agreed that you would have to make a show of withholding the military aid, that we really do not need anymore.

The President: It is the only way to force them to reveal their corrupt plans, by luring them into an impeachment trial.

President Zelensky: So brave. Have I told you that The Ukrainian Academy of History will be presenting its report on presidential harassment at its next annual meeting? These meetings are usually held in Ukraine, but then they found out about the deals available at a spectacular resort in Miami, called Mar-a-Lago. Have you heard of it? My minister of culture was very skeptical, but when they explained how superior the facilities are to anything we have in Ukraine, we almost could not afford not to move the meeting there. They will be presenting a report confirming that no leader in history has ever been so treated so unfairly as you. Despite the unprecedented strong economy, including record low unemployment for African Americans. If you don't mind my saying so, if your unqualified predecessor had had half so good an economy…

The no quid pro quo party

Hearing Donald Trump and all his lackeys repeating “no quid pro quo” ad nauseam gave me flashbacks to an earlier Republican president:

This was sufficiently prominent to be parodied in Doonesbury:

Rick: Sir, off the record, what’s the deal with Honduras? It really is starting to look like you cut a deal with President Suavo to support the Contras…
Bush: Rick, that’s just a bunch of needless, reckless speculation, so let me help you out, fella…The word of the President of the United States, me, George Bush, is there was no pro quo! Repeat, no… quid…pro…quo! Ergo, no de facto or de jure nolo contendere! Reporters: Quis? Quois?

Trump supporters are ignoring the base (rate) — Or, Ich möcht’ so gerne wissen, ob Trumps erpressen

One of the key insights from research on decision-making — from Tversky and Kahneman, Gigerenzer, and others — is the “base rate fallacy”: in judging new evidence people tend to ignore the underlying (prior) likelihood of various outcomes. A famous example, beloved of probability texts and lectures, is the reasonably accurate — 99% chance of a correct result — test for a rare disease (1 in 10,000 in the population). A randomly selected person with a positive test has a 99% chance of not having the disease, since correct positive tests on the 1 in 10,000 infected individuals are far less common than false positive tests on the other 9,999.

This seems to fit into a more general pattern of prioritising new and/or private information over public information that may be more informative, or at least more accessible. Journalists are conspicuously prone to this bias. For instance, as Brexit blogger Richard North has lamented repeatedly, UK journalists would breathlessly hype the latest leaks of government planning documents revealing the extent of adjustments that would be needed for phytosanitary checks at the border, for instance, or aviation, where the same information had been available for a year in official planning documents on the European Commission website. This psychological bias was famously exploited by WWII British intelligence operatives in Operation Mincemeat, where they dropped a corpse stuffed with fake plans for an invasion at Calais into the sea, where they knew it would wind up on the shore in Spain. They knew that the Germans would take the information much more seriously if they thought they had found it covertly. In my own experience of undergraduate admissions at Oxford I have found it striking the extent to which people consider what they have seen in a half-hour interview to be the deep truth about a candidate, outweighing the evidence of examinations and teacher evaluations.

Which brings us to Donald Trump, who has been accused of colluding with foreign governments to defame his political opponents. He has done his collusion both in private and in public. He famously announced in a speech during the 2016 election campaign, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” And just the other day he said “I would think that if [the Ukrainean government] were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens. It’s a very simple answer. They should investigate the Bidens because how does a company that’s newly formed—and all these companies—and by the way, likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine.”

It seems pretty obvious. But no, that’s public information. Trump has dismissed his appeal to Russia as “a joke”, and just yesterday Senator Marco Rubio contended that the fact that the appeal to China was so blatant and public shows that it probably wasn’t “real”, that Trump was “just needling the press knowing that you guys are going to get outraged by it.” The private information is, of course, being kept private, and there seems to be a process by which formerly shocking secrets are moved into the public sphere gradually, so that they slide imperceptibly from being “shocking if true” to “well-known, hence uninteresting”.

I am reminded of the epistemological conundrum posed by the Weimar-era German cabaret song, “Ich möcht’ so gern wissen, ob sich die Fische küssen”:

Ich möcht’ so gerne wissen
Ob sich die Fische küssen –
Unterm Wasser sieht man’s nicht
Na, und überm Wasser tun sie’s nicht!

I would so like to know
if fish sometimes kiss.
Underwater we can’t see it.
And out of the water they never do it.

Election hacking, part 2

Given that the official US government response to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has been essentially nothing, and the unofficial response from Trump and his minions has been to welcome future assistance, I’ve been assuming that 2020 will be open season for any other intelligence agencies with a good cyberwar division to have a go. Why should the Russians have all the fun?

And number one on my list would be the Israeli Mossad. Is this so obvious that no one thinks it worth mentioning, or so wrong-headed that even crazy people don’t think of it? They’re technologically sophisticated, have excellent contacts to the US political establishment, and they have already demonstrated the absence of any compunction at interfering in US internal affairs. They are also highly motivated: Having bet the entire US-Israel relationship on the premise that Trumpism will rule in the US forever, Israel’s security essentially requires the destruction of US democracy. At least, that’s how they’ll rationalise it to themselves.

Something to think about, one week before Israel’s parliamentary election.

De Gaulle’s final vindication

De Gaulle famously opposed British entry into the European Common Market, in part because of fear that the UK would serve as a stalking horse for the US. Now the UK is withdrawing from the EU to chase after its unrequited transatlantic crush. And this photo from Le Monde shows the penultimate stage of the drama. The body language is telling. Trump is relaxed, Johnson the overeager schoolboy trying to suck up to the teacher.

I know that public figures are often caught in awkward postures by photographers, but I can’t imagine any person with a shred of self-respect — not to mention any respect for the country he is supposed to be representing — mugging like this in public.

AFP Nicholas Kamm

May we compare Anne Frank’s case to the Holocaust?

Following up on my earlier post on the unequivocal rejection by many authorities — including the US Holocaust Museum — of any comparison between the concentration camps in which Central American migrants are being interned in the US, and Nazi atrocities. No one is being gassed, no one is being murdered, no one is being worked to death. They are simply being interned in unsafe and unsanitary conditions for indeterminate periods.

And here it occurs to me that if we are being very careful about our historical analogies, we really need to strike out one of the most celebrated stories that (erroneously) is placed in this context, that of Anne Frank. The USHMM includes a page about her life and diary, and the “Holocaust Encyclopedia” describes her as “among the most well-known of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.” But was she really? Anne and her sister were undocumented migrants in The Netherlands, rounded up in a police raid and deported to Germany. They were not sent to a death camp, but to Bergen-Belsen, which is commonly referred to as a concentration camp, but that is obviously misleading, since people could think Jews were being gassed there. Nobody killed them there. They just happened to die (like most of their fellow prisoners) of typhus.

Indeed, we should consider Primo Levi’s contention that everyone who survived Auschwitz did so because of some freak combination of exceptional events and exceptional personal qualities (not necessarily positive):

At a distance of years one can today definitely affirm that the history of the Lagers has been written almost exclusively by those who, like myself, never fathomed them to the bottom. Those who did so did not return, or their capacity for observation was paralysed by suffering and incomprehension.

So if the true generic experience of the Holocaust belonged only to those who died, maybe it is inappropriate to compare anyone’s experience to the Holocaust, including that of its victims.