Conservatives for Bam

Andrew Sullivan on Barack Obama, after last-night’s Presidential Debate:

After eight years of the most disastrous, misguided, immoral and a catastrophic foreign policy, Obama has brought the US back from the brink, presided over the decimation of al Qaeda, the liberation of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and restored America’s moral standing in the world.
. . .
But this was Obama’s debate; and he reminded me again of how extraordinarily lucky this country has been to have had him at the helm in this new millennium.
He’s flawed; he’s made mistakes; but who hasn’t? If this man, in these times, with this record, against this opposition, does not deserve re-election, then I am simply at a loss for words. I have to believe the American people will see that in time.”

George Fortune RIP

The death occurred last week of George Fortune, former Professor of African Languages at the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (later the University of Rhodesia, and later still, the University of Zimbabwe), and pioneer of the study of chiShona and Bantu linguistics.   He was the principal author of the standard chiShona language text.    His wife Denise was a daughter of Leonard Morgan (1894-1967), Rhodes Scholar and first permanent secretary of the Federal Department of Education in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.   Fortune’s nephew, the late Christopher Lewis, was one of the brave Zimbabwean opponents of minority rule assisted by the Rhodesian Underground Railroad.    I met Fortune only a few times three decades ago, and although by that time his politics were quite conservative (surprisingly so, given his earlier Jesuit training), his views on language and culture were always interesting.
An obituary is here.

Music and Physics on the Strand

The Music Shop at no. 436 Strand

Monday 22 October 2012, 6.00pm-7.30pm
Venue: King’s College London
Strand Building 2:39 (English Seminar Room)
Introduced by Clare Pettitt
“From the age of fourteen until his late teens, Charles Wheatstone worked in his uncle’s musical instrument shop on the Strand, modifying instruments and conducting experiments in acoustics at the back of the shop until he left to take up a scientific career, later moving down the road to become Professor of Experimental Philosophy at King’s College London and inventing the stereoscope, improving the concertina (Wheatstone’s musical instrument makers is still a going concern and makes concertinas) and inventing, with Cooke, the telegraph. When he was only 19 years old in September 1821, Wheatstone caused quite a sensation by inventing and exhibiting the ‘Enchanted Lyre or Aconcryptophone’ at his father’s music school/shop on Pall Mall and subsequently at the Adelaide Gallery of Practical Science on the Strand.
This session will concentrate on the crossover between musical, commercial and scientific culture and will ask whether it is possible to map the multiple utility of spaces on the Strand (shops which are schools which are galleries which are scientific workshops etc.) onto the radical rearrangement of the senses in this period which made new technologies of seeing, hearing and communication possible.”
[Text from here, where references and suggestions for further reading may also be found.]

Requiescat in pace

As the path of life unfurls, these are people I’ve encountered along the way whom I wish to remember:

Dan Adams (1919-2011), businessman/USA
Neil Adams (1957-2020), administrator/Australia
Jonathan Adler (1949-2012), philosopher/USA
Andreas Albrecht (ca. 1950-2019), computer scientist/Germany & UK
Dorothee Alsen (ca. 1940-1984), musician/Germany
Alex Armstrong (ca. 1920-ca. 1990), farmer/Australia
Cath Armstrong (ca. 1920-ca. 1990), homemaker/Australia
Kenneth Arrow (1921-2017), economist/USA
Isabelle Atcheson (ca. 1935-1999), musician/Australia
Michael Atiyah OM (1929-2019), mathematician/UK
Pam Baker (1930-2002), lawyer and refugee advocate/Scotland & Hong Kong
Michael Ball (ca. 1950-ca. 2012), mathematician/UK
Steve Barker (ca. 1955-2012), computer scientist/UK
Ole Barndorff-Nielsen (1935-2022), statistician/Denmark
Trevor Baylis (1937-2018), inventor/UK
Christophe Bertrand (1981-2010), composer and pianist/France
David Beach (1943-1999), historian/Zimbabwe
Yuri Bessmertny (ca. 1930-2000), medieval historian/Russia
Jack Bice (1919-2018), dentist and jazz-fan/Australia
Jennifer Biggar (1946-2008), charity worker/UK
Leo Birsen (1902-1992), violinist and violin teacher/Zimbabwe
Continue reading ‘Requiescat in pace’

Polygon construction

Mathematician Sean Eberhard has a nice post about constructible regular polygons, giving a proof of a characterization of the n-sided polygons (aka n-gons) which are constructible only with a ruler and a compass. Those which are so constructible correspond to n being decomposable into a power of 2 and a product of primes of a certain form:

Theorem The regular n-gon is constructible by ruler and compass if and only if n has the form p_1 * . . . . * p_l * 2^k, where p_1, . . . , p_l are distinct primes of the form 2^{2^m} + 1.

That physical geometric actions should map to – and from – certain prime numbers is a good example of some of the deep interactions that exist between different parts of mathematics, interactions that often take us by surprise and usually compel our wonder.
One question that immediately occurs to me is whether there are other instruments besides ruler and compass which, jointly with those two instruments, would enable n-gon construction for other values of n.   Indeed, is there a collection of instruments (presumably some of them “non-constructible” or infinite in themselves) which would eventually garner all n, or at least other interesting subsets of the natural numbers?

De mortuis nil nisi bonum

In a posthumous tribute to one of my late university lecturers, I read:

His [name of university] years were characterised by his love and enthusiasm for teaching.  His dedication to his students was reciprocated in their affection for him. The large Economics I classes that he taught (numbering in some cases up to 400 students) were legendary.”

Although I would prefer not to speak ill of the dead, these words are a distortion of the historical truth, or at the least, very incomplete.   The lecturer concerned was certainly legendary, but mostly for his vituperative disdain for anyone who did not share his extreme monetarist and so-called “economic rationalist” views. It is true that I did not know ALL of my fellow economics students, but of the score or so I did know, no one I knew felt they received any affection from him, nor did they reciprocate any. Indeed, those of us also studying pure mathematics thought him innumerate. He once told us, in a thorough misunderstanding of mathematical induction, that any claim involving an unspecified natural number n which was true for n=1, n=2, and n=3 was usually true, more generally, for all n. What about the claim that “n is a natural number less than 4“, I wondered.

As I recall, his lectures mostly consisted of declamations of monetarist mumbo-jumbo, straight from some University of Chicago seminar, given along with scorn for any alternative views, particularly Keynesianism. But he was also rudely disdainful of any viewpoint, such as many religious views, that saw value in social equity and fairness. Anyone who questioned his repeated assertions that all human actions were always and everywhere motivated by self-interest was rebuked as naive or ignorant.

In addition to the declamatory utterance of such tendentious statements, his lectures and lecture slides included very general statements marked, “Theorem“, followed by words and diagrams marked, “Proof“. A classic example of a “Theorem” was “Any government intervention in an economy leads to a fall in national income.” His proof of this very large claim began with the words, “Consider a two-person economy into which a government enters . . . ” The mathematicians in the class objected strongly that, at best, this was an example, not a proof, of his general claim. But he shouted us down. Either he was ignorant of the simplest forms of mathematical reasoning, or an ideologue seeking to impose his ideology on the class (or perhaps both).

I remained sufficiently angry about this perversion of my ideal of an academic discipline that I later wrote an article for the student newspaper about the intellectual and political compromises that intelligent, numerate, rational, or politically-engaged students would need to make in order to pass his course. That such a lecturer should be remembered as an admirable teacher is a great shame.

Halmos on learning mathematics

Paul R. Halmos:

Don’t just read it; fight it! Ask your own questions, look for your own examples, discover your own proofs. Is the hypothesis necessary? Is the converse true? What happens in the classical special case? What about the degenerate cases? Where does the proof use the hypothesis?


The Great British Rail Network Franchise Disaster of 2012

The British papers are full of stories about The Great British Rail Network Franchise Disaster of 2012.  Like Bristow’s Great Tea Trolley Disaster of 1967, we may never learn the real reasons behind the disaster — errors are alleged in calculations (arithmetic errors? using multi-line spreadsheets?) undertaken by senior civil servants, now suspended.  But one item leapt out to me:

Government sources said “heads will definitely roll in the department” over the affair, adding that “the minister cannot be expected to be responsible for a very technical models with hundreds of lines in a spreadsheet”.
The key error seems to have been to underestimate the potential value of the franchise – where the company pays a premium to the Government, rather than receiving a subsidy.
The department said mistakes had been made over estimates of the number of passengers who would use the route and the way inflation was calculated. Three civil servants have been suspended.

Why on earth are government civil servants estimating future passenger numbers and rates of inflation?  Surely, that is the business of the bidders.   Only the bidders, after all, have the expertise, the experience, and the motivated self-interest to make these forecasts as accurately and realistically as possible.  The Government should be making its franchise decision on whatever criteria it thinks appropriate (eg, the numbers of jobs created, the novelty of services provided, the public fares charged, the money payments offered for the franchise, etc), but not trying to second-guess the business plans of the train operators.   Any demand forecast will depend on assumptions about the actual services offered, the actual prices charged for these services, and the actions undertaken to market, promote, distribute, and sell them, and none of these assumptions are within the purview of the Government.
Indeed, not only do civil servants not know these marketing plans, civil servants — in my extensive experience of submitting telecommunications licence applications — do not even have the expertise needed to assess such plans.     How can they tell whether a marketing plan is effective or not?  Feasible or not?  Sensible or not?  Even experienced marketers can get market planning wrong, so how much more so civil servants with no commercial experience at all, no direct stake in the outcome, and no ear to the market ground?  A famous British example of marketing ignorance by civil servants was the refusal by British Treasury officials during the 1960s to approve (what is now) British Telecom’s proposed telecoms switch upgrades, since the proposed switches allowed for itemized billing of calls:  What user would need that? asked the refusenik officials.
A decade of telecommunications licences awarded by beauty contests finally convinced Governments around the world to put aside any attempt to plan the businesses involved, and just ask potential operators to pay what they think each licence is worth, via auctions.   Of course, British regional rail network franchises are monopolies, so it is appropriate for franchise allocation decisions to be based on criteria additional to the amount of money offered for the franchise.   It is even appropriate for these criteria to include subjective and qualitative factors, such as the degree of risk of the bidder going bankrupt during the franchise period.  Even so, I cannot see a need for a Government to be predicting customer demand,  or even assessing the predictions of customer demand made by the bidders.  They should leave that job to the people with the most to lose for getting the forecasts wrong.
If, for some reason, the Government does need its own independent forecast of demand, it should outsource the creation of the forecast (strictly, the forecast model) to some outside entity with the expertise, the experience, and the motivated self-interest to make these forecasts (or model) as accurately and realistically as possible.   Outsourcing would also more likely ensure that the generation of such demand forecasts is independent from their use in any evaluation of franchise bids, so that neither decision — deciding the forecasts nor choosing the franchise winners — could corruptly influence the other.