Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘US politics’

Jared Kushner thinks ahead on prison reform

One of the oddest trends of the latter half of the odd 1970s in the US was the transformation of law-and-order conservatives like Charles Colson and even G. Gordon Liddy into prison-reform advocates, after they had spent some time themselves in federal prison for their role in the Watergate scandal. The President’s son in law isn’t waiting. Congress is considering a package of reform measures to improve federal prison training programmes, and increase the possibilities for early release for good behaviour. Reports are that Kushner has taken time out of his busy schedule making peace in the Middle East and solving the opioid crisis to lobby for the bill. JK is, of course, famously well behaved. What good is advocating prison reform if it comes too late for you to take advantage of it?

The president’s dilemma

In the classic prisoners’ dilemma, two members of a criminal gang have been caught by police. There is enough evidence to convict them of minor crimes, but without testimony from one of them they will receive only a light sentence, say one year in prison. If one of them agrees to cooperate with the investigation, prosecutors will let him out for time served, and be able to send the other to prison for ten years. But if they both cooperate with the investigation, both will go to prison for five years (perhaps because the prosecutors will have their information, but not their testimony). Key to the game is that the players are unable to coordinate their strategy. Clearly the best for both of them would be to keep quiet, but the strategy of cooperating with the investigation is superior, from their private perspective, regardless of what the other player does. So they both talk, and both get heavy sentences.

One weird thing about the story here is that the symmetry really doesn’t make sense. It’s not impossible, but it’s peculiar to imagine prosecutors being so interested in pinning the major crime on someone that they’re willing to let a confederate walk free, but indifferent to who flips on whom. That suggests we consider a less-known hierarchical version of this game, where one player is the powerful boss of a crime syndicate — let’s call him “The President” — and the other one is “The Attorney”, who knows all the details of his crimes, and is sufficiently involved to be criminally liable himself. Let’s call this game “The President’s Dilemma”. (more…)

Suspicious precision

Kevin Drum notes some tweets from lawyer Susan Simpson. She was perusing (as one does) the public records of Trump campaign expenditures, and noticed something funny:

To me it looks almost too exact. Is Michael Cohen, in trying to cover up a $130,000 transfer, really incapable of seeing that $129,999.72 looks suspiciously close? Couldn’t he at least swallow, I don’t know, a $20 loss and make it $129,981.34?

Odysseus and the NRA

From Emily Wilson’s lovely new translation of The Odyssey:

I put [the weapons] safe away from all that smoke.
Some spirit also warned me if you drink
too much and argue, you could hurt each other,
dishonoring your banquet and your courtship.
Weapons themselves can tempt a man to fight.

This sounds like a classic gun-control position, refuting the classic “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” gun-rights line. Weapons themselves provoke violence. Gun control saves lives.

But! In context, the meaning is exactly the opposite. This is one of Odysseus’s deceits. He is preparing this line as an argument for removing the suitors’ weapons, to leave them defenceless when he chooses to attack them. The lesson: don’t listen to the sword-grabbers who claim that disarming will make you safer.

Odysseus for NRA president!

Self-deconstructing clichés: US Supreme Court edition

Part of an ongoing series.

From a report on recent Supreme Court oral arguments about partisan gerrymandering:

Breyer pointed out that all the tests “have slight variations on different themes”

The whole point of “variations on a theme” is to communicate that they are fundamentally the same, with some superficial differences. There is one theme, and all the distinct versions are slight “variations”, What does it mean to be “variations” if they are all on different themes?

For other entries in this series see here, here, and here.

Facebook and me

The current Facebook scandal — which is really just like every other Facebook scandal, only bigger and more consequential — has led me to think about my own interaction with Facebook. I was a researcher at UC Berkeley in 2004-5, at the time when Facebook was expanding from the Ivy League out to all universities. I had recently programmed my own personal home page, because that’s what you did then if you wanted to have a space online where you could distribute documents and photos, and generally make yourself available on the Internet. So I thought of Facebook as a template for making web pages. A colleague explained to me that it also had this facility for linking to other people’s accounts.

But fundamentally, a brief look at it really turned me off. Having spent most of my adult life in maths-stats-computing millieus, I’ve known lots of people like Zuckerberg. I never got along with them, and fortunately most of them grow up eventually. Facebook looked to me like an attempt by the Zuckerbergs of the world to get other people to map their lives into a fixed set of categories that would make us sufficiently orderly. It makes social life as much as possible like bookkeeping. So I never signed up. And since then I’ve never had the impression that there were lacunae in my real-world interactions corresponding to Facebook communication.

Of course, this has to do with the fact that I am at least a decade older than the original Facebook target generation. (To judge by my daughters and their friends, Facebook is also far from indispensable for current teens. But Facebook has bought out other platforms, like Instagram, to maintain its hold.) I remember very clearly the first time when I first recognised the overwhelming power of the Facebook phenomenon for Zuckerberg’s generation: In spring 2007 I was sitting in a cafe near the University of Toronto. At a nearby table were half a dozen students whose conversation I couldn’t help but overhear in snippets, and over an hour or so it seemed that everything they had to say was mediated through Facebook: Who had changed their relationship status indicator, and why, and particular decisions to friend or unfriend various individuals. I found it slightly disturbing.

Of course, that was before I knew about the particular egregiously misogynist origin of Facebook. And Mark Zuckerberg’s political ambitions, which frighten me beyond all measure. He is an anti-privacy fanatic, and there is no reason to expect that he would respect citizens’ autonomy, even in principle, any more than he respects Facebook customers. His pattern has always been, push and push and push until a scandal blows up, then reverse the last offensive change and keep on pushing. People are up in arms over Cambridge Analytica’s improper use of Facebook data for the Brexit and Trump campaigns. But if Mark Zuckerberg runs for president I don’t think there is anything to prevent Facebook from donating all of its data to his campaign. Or from using the site to manipulate the information that people see to favour the Zuckerberg campaign. Or their propensity to vote. Or their feelings.

People say, “Just delete your Facebook account.” I don’t have an account, but it doesn’t help me if everyone else is manipulable and half the political leaders are blackmailable through their Facebook data.

Muddying the shibboleth

As long-time readers of this blog will know, I am fascinated by words. I like words with complicated history and many layers of meaning, enabling them to encapsulate complicated ideas or sentiments — like the word Abend (“evening”) in Hofmannsthal’s poem “Ballade des äusseren Lebens” (Ballad of the outer life):

Und dennoch sagt der viel, der Abend sagt,

ein Wort, daraus Tiefsinn und Trauer rinnt

wie schwerer Honig aus den hohlen Waben.

And yet one says so much just saying “evening”,

a word from which profundity and pathos drip

like thick honey from the hollows of the honeycomb.

Often I seem to be the last to notice that a word has changed its vernacular usage, and then I see all at once several appearances of the “new” meaning. One example is this report in The New Republic on the NY gubernatorial campaign of Cynthia Nixon:

If nothing else, perhaps she’ll run a strong enough campaign to make the Democratic Party reconsider its credentialism shibboleth.

I have no opinion about the political candidacy, and I never saw Ms Nixon’s television show, but I grieve for the word shibboleth.

Its original meaning is a word whose proper usage marks someone as belonging to the in-group. (It was the word for a ‘stream’, and the Gileadites in a civil war between Hebrew tribes narrated in chapter 12 of the Old Testament book of Judges used it as a watchword, since the opposing Ephraimites couldn’t pronounce the initial consonant correctly. Rather like the story of American troops in WWII in the Pacific identifying Japanese in the dark by demanding they pronounce the word lollapalooza.) There is plenty of scope for applying this concept in the debates over political correctness and social justice warriors. But I guess it is doomed to become just a fancy synonym for a petty requirement. It is probably beyond saving.

The original story:

Then Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought with Ephraim; and the men of Gilead defeated Ephraim, because they said, “You are fugitives from Ephraim, you Gileadites—in the heart of Ephraim and Manasseh.” Then the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. Whenever one of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time.

Fannee Doolee likes college professors but she doesn’t like scientists

When I was a child, there was a regular feature on the program Zoom called “Fannee Doolees”: Riddles about the titular character who liked some things, but didn’t like other very similar things, interspersed with the question “Why do you think that is?”. Listeners could send in their own suggestions, to show they’d figured out the pattern, like: Fannee Doolee likes sweets, but she doesn’t like candy. Fannee Doolee likes batteries, but she doesn’t like electricity. The trick was, FD likes only words that have a double letter in them. So naturally I thought of this when I saw this plot (pointed out by Kevin Drum) from a paper on political partisanship by political scientist Larry Bartels, showing the results of a survey that asked for a favourability rating on a zero-to-ten scale for various groups and institutions, separated between self-identified Republicans and Democrats.

Screenshot 2018-03-20 21.59.44

Looking at this it really jumped out at me that Republicans have widely divergent views of “college professors” and “scientists”. Scientists are well up in the positive zone, about equal with Jews, and Republicans themselves, whereas college professors are well down into negative territory, next to gays and environmentalists. They also like wealthy people, but they don’t like Wall Street Bankers. Fannee Doolee is definitely not a Republican.

Weirdly, Republicans say they like men and women both more than they like Republicans.

The unexpected tweeting

A president, shall we say, has decided to fire his secretary of state. He tells him, “You will be fired in the next week, but you won’t know until the day of the firing that you are going to be fired.” Then the extra twist: “And you can expect a tweet tomorrow, but you won’t know until you read the tweet what it is going to be about.”

When did Trump decide to fire Secretary of State Tillerson? According to reports

The Washington Post, which was first to report Tillerson’s ouster, reported that Trump asked Tillerson to resign last Friday, prompting Tillerson to cut short his trip in Africa. The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker later clarified that a White House official told Tillerson on Friday that his days were numbered. Bloomberg News reported that Kelly told Tillerson he would be fired without specifying when, however the Associated Press reported that Kelly only gave Tillerson a vague warning about an expected tweet from Trump.

I am reminded of one of my the Unexpected Hanging. In the classic presentation of Martin Gardner, this goes as follows: A man was sentenced on Saturday to be hanged.

“The hanging will take place at noon,” said the judge to the prisoner, “on one of the seven days of next week. But you will not know which day it is until you are so informed on the morning of the day of the hanging.”

The judge was known to be a man who always kept his word. The prisoner, accompanied by his lawyer, went back to his cell. As soon as the two men were alone the lawyer broke into a grin. “Don’t you see?” he exclaimed. “The judge’s sentence cannot possibly be carried out.”

“I don’t see,” said the prisoner.

“Let me explain. They obviously can’t hang you next Saturday. Saturday is the last day of the week. On Friday afternoon you would still be alive and you would know with absolute certainty that the hanging would be on Saturday. You would know this before  you were told on Saturday morning. That would violate the judge’s decree.”

“True,” said the prisoner.

“Saturday, then, is positively ruled out,” continued the lawyer. “This leaves Friday as the last day they can hang you. But they can’t hang you on Friday because by Thursday afternoon only two days would remain: Friday and Saturday. Since Saturday is not a possible day, the hanging Ould have to be on Friday. Your knowledge of that fact would violate the judge’s decree again. So Friday is out. This leaves Thursday as the last possible day. But Thursday is out because if you’re alive Wednesday afternoon, you’ll know that Thursday is to be the day.”

“I get it,” said the prisoner, who was beginning to feel much better. “In exactly the same way I can rule out Wednesday, Tuesday and Monday. That leaves only tomorrow. But they can’t hang me tomorrow because I know it today!”

The weird thing about Trump’s tweet, by the way, is that he writes

Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA.

He probably knows by now that these positions are subject to Senate confirmation, and the Senate is pretty evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. You’d think he’d want to acknowledge that he knows? Haspel, in particular, is going to open up a lot of questions that the CIA doesn’t really want to answer about her links to torture.

The new alternative facts

From the people who brought you alternative facts:

REPORTER: Mr. President, do you believe there should be a response from the United States?

MR. TRUMP: … As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.

We not only have to get the facts straight, we have to agree with them. Otherwise they’re not really facts. But then we’ll condemn Russia. Or whoever tried to assassinate a Russian double agent with chemical weapons. Probably someone sitting on their bed that weighs four hundred pounds.

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