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…

The Rwandan Shabbos elevator

Comments on the present Tory government’s contempt for the law have tended to focus on the prime minister’s lockdown parties, or his bribes for home redecorating, or his lying to Parliament. But there has been nothing so explicit and brazen as the prime minister defending a plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda to await decisions on their cases, as a necessary defence against “a formidable army of politically motivated lawyers”. Rather like the US sending prisoners to be tortured abroad — or doing it themselves in the law-free zone of Guantanamo — he is saying that our legal protections for asylum seekers are too onerous (when lefty lawyers have the audacity to actually use them) so we’re going to evade the law by sending the people to another jurisdiction where they don’t apply. Rather than simply change the law to match what he believes ought to be done, providing clarity and confidence to all concerned.

Which brings me to… the Shabbos elevator. One of the things that makes Orthodox Judaism seem bizarre to us Liberal Jews is its never-ending struggle to put one over on God. The Torah is full of rules and regulations — 613 of them according to one popular enumeration — and these are variously extended, expanded, and interpreted in various rabbinical texts and traditions to form the quasi-legal corpus known as halakha. Orthodox Jews commit themselves to obeying all of these precepts, which immediately leads — because some of them (like the ban on carrying anything outside or making a flame — interpreted to include electricity — on Shabbat) are quite onerous, some (like the prohibition against borrowing money at interest and the requirement to cancel all debts every seventh year) inconvenient, and others (like the ban on clothing made of mixed fabrics) simply bizarre — devote vast stores of legalistic ingenuity to evading these rules.

Thus you see the Orthodox tying wires — an eruv — around whole neighbourhoods, or even a large part of a city, to define it as a single “household”, where objects may be carried and journeys are permitted on Shabbat. They formally transfer their loans to a rabbinical court to avoid the required cancellation of debts in the Sabbatical year. They put their electric lights on automatic timers on Shabbat. And in hotels and apartment blocks — particularly, but not only, in Israel — they continue to use elevators that are specially designed to stop on every floor on Shabbat (to avoid needing to activate electrical buttons).

In his book The Shabbat Elevator, and other Sabbath subterfuges, the folklore scholar Alan Dundes considers the question of why the same people would have a set of overly strict customs, and then “counter customs” that relax the strictures. Within the framework of Jewish tradition the explanation is simple: The halakha is not a mere custom, it is the perfect law of God, and so must be followed. To the letter. Not, though, in spirit, because interpreting the spirit is beyond the capacity of mortal man. We are responsible for obeying the exact perfect words as passed on to us from God through our ancestors. These tricks may seem bizarre and counterintuitive, but if God wanted us to behave differently he would have formulated his Torah differently.

To a liberal Jew this seems kind of crazy. Our ancestors collectively created the law, and we do not respect it by evasion. We respect it by updating it. That forces us to acknowledge what we are doing, and to justify it, to ourselves and to our community.

And so it is with refugee law in Britain. If the UK government finds the law inappropriate, if it admits what they consider abuse by lefty lawyers, then they are free to use their majority in parliament to change the law, and to remove the legal rights and protections that refugees currently enjoy. To leave the law in place, but to evade it by sending the asylum-seekers to a country where they are not legally protected is bizarre and pointless, except as way of avoiding responsibility for the moral principles that their ancestors encoded into British law.

Actors and financiers

The New Statesman has published an extended interview of Tony Blair by… the Welsh actor Michael Sheen. I found it a bizarre prospect. I know nothing about Sheen — I saw him in a film once — but I’m pretty sure if I wanted to hear Blair’s opinions, an actor would be one of the last interlocutors on my list. (A judge at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, on the other hand, would be right near the top.) What is it about actors, particularly film actors, that makes people want to rub up close to them and insert them into all kinds of roles for which they are in no way especially qualified or even interesting?

Michael Sheen and Tony Blair

My use of the word role there may suggest part of the reason: Even if actors are generally not especially intelligent, or insightful, or capable of repairing a leaky faucet, and their life experience is less relevant to the concerns of average people than pretty much anyone else’s — academics such as myself excepted — actors are used to playing the part of people who are intelligent or insightful or capable of fixing a leaky faucet, and perhaps they convey the superficial image of holding an intelligent conversation, even when they are utterly banal. (Just to be clear, I’m not saying that actors are unusually stupid: I have met some reasonably intelligent and interesting actors, and heard interviews with an occasional few who seemed genuinely fascinating. Only that their professional accomplishments give me no more expectation of their competence in any other area — or of them having anything interesting to say on any subject other than theatre and film — than members of any other profession or none.

It occurred to me, that there is an analogy to the perverse role of the finance industry. Money is sticky. That is, a significant fraction of the money running through the banks sticks to the people who handle it. It’s not at all obvious that the people who are responsible for investing and manipulating rich people’s money should themselves become rich. There is a German expression about the opposite expectation, “Pfarrers Kind und Müllers Vieh/ Gedeihen selten oder nie”: The preacher’s child and the miller’s livestock/ Will as good as never thrive. But we accept that there’s no way to prevent the people who are close to the money day in and day out from siphoning much of it into their own pockets. According to some estimates financial services in the US absorb a full 20% of all corporate income in the US.

Actors have a similar position in the attention economy. Attention is sticky. Their main job is to attract attention. And once they have the attention of a large public, the attention sticks to them, personally, even when they transition to activities that no sensible person would want to pay attention to.

“Unfair to other rich people”

The UK government is making a big show of considering, though they ultimately probably won’t follow through, scrapping the so-called “golden visa” programme, which allows wealthy people to bypass immigration constraints to move to the UK, in exchange for investing at least £2 million. This scheme is generally considered to have grossly abetted the growth of London as a world centre for money laundering.

Now, The Guardian reports, “London lawyers who help the global super-rich apply for “golden visas” to enter the UK have called on the government to reconsider its decision to abolish the Tier 1 investor visa scheme, warning that it would be “enormously damaging” to the economy.”

Kyra Motley, a partner at the law firm Boodle Hatfield, said the UK was jeopardising billions of pounds in overseas investment “because of a popular myth that foreign money is dirty money”…

Chetal Patel, a partner at law firm Bates Wells, said scrapping the investor visa because of increased tensions over Russia’s threat to Ukraine would be “unfair” to other rich people wishing to come to the UK.

“Since the introduction of golden visas in 2008, the UK has benefited from billions of pounds of investment. It would be enormously damaging to the UK economy if this was to be cut off.”

Weirdly, despite the fact that this is a purely economic argument the only people quoted are lawyers, not economists. I wonder whether The Guardian would be equally open to splashing on their home page claims by a group of economists that a new tax law would damage the integrity of the UK legal code? Particularly if those economists admitted — indeed, if their sole claim for expertise in this matter — was their personal pecuniary interest in having the law changed.

Honestly, is there any reason to think that the UK is suffering a shortage of foreign investment — as opposed to, say, a shortage of farm workers, which is well documented, and has been driven by intentional government action to exclude foreigners. And this despite the fact that — “popular myth” or no — the incidence of criminality among billionaires (domestic or foreign) is clearly higher than among farm workers.

No booster [update 10-12-2021]

The UK government is apparently desperately eager to get the whole population fully protected with three doses of Covid vaccine, to try and head off the mounting omicron wave. In a particularly awkward mixed pharmaceutical metaphor they promised to put the programme “on steroids”. But not so eager that they’re willing to resort to extreme measures like… just letting people get vaccinated.

The NHS website says people will be contacted for appointments six months after their second dose. But the government announced more than a week ago, following new advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations (JCVI), that “the booster will now be given no sooner than 3 months after the primary course.”

Having been initially vaccinated in Germany I can’t get on the list for an appointment anyway, so I decided to cycle down to Kassam Stadium, south of Oxford, the only nearby vaccination centre offering walk-in service. The fellow managing the queue was friendly and helpful, but told me that the current regulation — until they get new rules from the government — is actually a completely arbitrary seeming five months gap for people over 50 years of age (which I haven’t seen reported anywhere) — and six months for people over 40. (And no boosters for younger people.

So, no booster yet for me…

Update (8/12/2021): The NHS has now opened up boosters to people who had their second dose more than 3 months ago. Except, the bad people who had their first doses in foreign lands — including, if I understand correctly, Scotland — are still excluded.

[update 10-12-2021]: Yesterday mid-afternoon the official NHS website for vaccination information reported that anyone over 40 could get a booster at a walk-in site 3 months after their second dose. So I cycled down to Kassam Stadium again this morning. And again I was turned away. This time they agreed that I was eligible according to the NHS rules, but they have their own rules at this centre, and they’re not changing until Monday.

Not that it matters, because they also — my partner found this out when she went in the afternoon — decided spontaneously as of 2pm today to stop accepting walk-ins at all.

Conversion ratio

The attempted terrorist bombing of a Liverpool hospital a couple of days ago was apparently carried out by a Christian convert. As far as I can tell from reports in the press, Christian leaders — including the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury — have declined to condemn the attack, or engage in any soul-searching about violence in their communities. The bishop who confirmed the bombing suspect has professed to be “shocked and saddened” by the act, while denying having any specific recollection of the man, and dismissing any possibility of a connection between the conversion and the terror attack:

I know that he would have been thoroughly prepared with an understanding of the Christian faith. It seems that, sadly, despite this grounding, the bomber chose a different path for his life.

Where are the headlines about the “terror bishop”? Speculation about the Liverpool Cathedral terror cell?

In all earnestness, I doubt that this man was specifically motivated by Anglicanism to bomb a hospital, but at the same time, I come from a country (the US) where a significant fraction of terror attacks are committed by people adhering to Christian churches, and often claiming inspiration by their Christian faith. If the would-be terrorist has had been a Muslim convert would the press have devoted nearly so much space to the religious leader responsible for his conversion, lamenting that he had not taken the promised religious path? Instead, we get reports suggesting that there are many fake conversions, of Syrians hoping to strengthen their case for asylum.

Opine borders

Boris Johnson has aroused the ire of many classical historians for his dubious claim that the Roman Empire was destroyed by “uncontrolled immigration”. What is most striking is the unquestioned implication that when Romans moved outward, conquering and enslaving their neighbours, that was GLORY, and much to be lamented when it was (possibly) destroyed by their ultimate failure to prevent people from “the east” from migrating in the opposite direction. It seems to me, if there’s anyone who had a problem with uncontrolled migration from the east it was Carthage.

Possibly we misheard Michael Gove

From The Guardian today:

Gove has been subjected to a lot of mockery for supposedly having dismissed the value of (economic) expertise during the Brexit referendum campaign, but perhaps he was misquoted. Maybe what he really said was

people in this country have had enough of exports.

Thinking about exponential growth and “Freedom Day”

The UK government is holding fast to its plan to drop all pandemic restrictions as of 19 July, even in the face of rapidly increasing infection rates, hospitalisation rates, and Covid deaths — all up by 25-40% over last week. And numerous medical experts are being quoted in the press supporting the decision. What’s going on?

To begin with, Johnson has boxed himself in. He promised “Freedom Day” to coincide with the summer solstice, and then was forced to climb down, just as he was from his initial “infect everyone, God will recognise his own” plan last March, on realising that his policies would yield an unsustainable level of disruption. The prime minister has, by now, no reputation for consistency or decisiveness left to protect, but even so he probably feels at the very least that a further delay would undermine his self-image as the nation’s Fun Dad. At the same time, the the new opening has been hollowed out, transformed from the original “Go back to living your lives like in pre-pandemic days” message to “Resume taxable leisure activities, with the onus on individuals and private businesses to enforce infection-minimisation procedures.” Thus we have, just today, the Transport Secretary announcing that he expected rail and bus companies to insist on masking, even while the government was removing the legal requirement.

But what are they hoping to accomplish, other than a slight reduction in the budget deficit? The only formal justification offered is that of Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who said on Monday

that infection rates were likely to get worse before they got better – potentially hitting 100,000 a day – but said the vaccination programme had severely weakened the link between infections, hospitalisations and deaths.
Javid acknowledged the risks of reopening further, but said his message to those calling for delay was: “if not now, then when?”.

“Weakened the link” is an odd way of putting a situation where cases, hospitalisations, and Covid deaths are all growing exponentially at the same rate. What has changed is the gearing, the chain and all of its links is as strong as ever. In light of that exponential growth, what should we make Javid’s awkward channeling of Hillel the Elder?

I’ll talk about “masking” as synecdoche for all measures to reduce the likelihood of a person being infected or transmitting Covid. We need to consider separately the questions of when masking makes sense from an individual perspective, and from a public perspective. The individual perspective is straightforward:

On the societal level it’s more complicated, but I do find the argument of England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty… baffling:

“The slower we take it, the fewer people will have Covid, the smaller the peak will be, and the smaller the number of people who go into hospital and die,” he said.
By moving slowly, he said modelling suggested the pressure on the NHS would not be “unsustainable”.
Prof Whitty said there was less agreement on the “ideal date” to lift restrictions as there is “no such thing as an ideal date” .
However, he said a further delay would mean opening up when schools return in autumn, or in winter, when the virus has an advantage and hospitals are under more pressure.

We may argue about how much effect government regulations have on the rate of the virus spreading, but I have never before heard anyone argue that the rate of change of government regulation is relevant. Of course, too rapid gyrations in public policy may confuse or anger the public. But how the rapidity of changing the rules relates to the size of the peak seems exceptionally obscure. To the extent that you are able to have any effect with the regulations, that effect should be seen directly in R0, and so in the weekly growth or contraction of Covid cases. If masking can push down the growth rate its effect is essentially equivalent at any time in terms of the final infection rate, but masking early gives fewer total cases.

To see this, consider a very simple model: With masking cases grow 25%/week, without masking they shrink 20%/week. So if we have 1000 cases/day now, then after some weeks of masking and the same number of weeks without masking, we’ll be back to 1000 cases/day at the end. But the total number of cases will be very different. Suppose there are 10 weeks of each policy, and we have four possibilities: masking first, unmasking first, alternating (MUMU…), alternating (UMUM…). The total number of cases will be:

StrategyTotal cases
masking first57 000
unmasking first513 000
alternating (MU…)127 000
alternating (UM…)154 000

Of course, the growth rate will not remain constant. The longer we delay, the more people are immune. In the last week close to 2 million vaccine doses have been administered in the UK. That means that a 4-week delay means about 4 million extra people who are effectively immune. If we mask first, the higher growth rate will come later, thus the growth rate will be lower, and more of the cases will be mild.

The only thing I can suppose is that someone did an economic cost-benefit analysis, and decided that the value of increased economic activity was greater than the cost of lives lost and destroyed. Better to let the younger people — who have patiently waited their turn to be vaccinated — be infected, and obtain their immunity that way, than to incur the costs of another slight delay while waiting for them to have their shot at the vaccine.

The young were always at the lowest risk in this pandemic. They were asked to make a huge sacrifice to protect the elderly. Now that the older people have been protected, there is no willingness to sacrifice even another month to protect the lives and health of the young.

Auto-antonyms: Drawing a line

The BBC is being scourged for having been — 25 years ago — once insufficiently open and honest with its rightful liege lords (in this case, the then Princess of Wales). Apparently they tried to trick her into giving an interview, though the BBC says it has a handwritten note from her saying she didn’t mind, and she would have done the interview anyway.

In the course of discussing this Diana’s brother is quoted saying “he ‘draws a line’ between the [BBC] interview and her death two years later.” It’s an interesting phrase, of a rare sort that I call auto-antonyms. The same words might mean two diametrically opposite things. I think he means to say that the two events are causally connected — as though by a straight line. But he could also mean that even though one event followed the other, he considers them to be completely separate — to emphasise which he would draw a (dividing) line between them.