Friday, 17 November 2017

Miscellaneous links with some commentary from me

1. Different sets of undercover police officers fighting each other.

2. How the world looks from South Asia. For one thing, it puts Brexit in a bit of context: I'm not sure that Henry VIII's break with Rome was big news at the court of the Emperor Humayun either - the natural order is restored. (Talking of Brexit, EU workers in the UK have increased to record numbers since the Brexit vote. Not sure how that fits into anyone's Brexit narrative.)

3. Very pretty chemistry.

4. Laws very different from our own. More here. All fascinating and worth pondering. Just one little footnote from me. Alexander points out that a lot of these alternative legal systems seem to rely on there being little crime and/or little recidivism: were these societies less crime-ridden than our own? Some parts of the answer are obvious. (1) You need to have a lot of laws before you get crimes like forging cheques and tax evasion. (2) It used to be more normal to use physical force or public humiliation to settle arguments or to punish people whose crimes are disgusting. Take something as recent as Back to the Future: this is a film in which the happy ending consists in a weak man summoning up the courage to inflict vigilante violence to a sexual harasser, thereby successfully intimidating the harasser for life. (The modern equivalent might permit a 'kick-ass' woman to mete out the physical punishment, but would it prefer the harasser to experience institutional correction or counselling?) But note also (3) there are institutional incentives here. Once a society has police, prisons, courts, campaigning pressure groups for victims, etc. it will find something for them to do. Does the fact that this country can spend maybe £2m on investigating a dead man's sexual history prove that we are a fantastically rich country prepared to spend whatever it takes in order to obtain a perfect version of justice? Or that there is very little crime being committed by living people? Or simply that the institutions in favour of spending money on that sort of thing have a great deal of power?

5. This, by Adrian Chiles (an under-rated writer), finally makes baseball make sense to English people. I mean, you know it's a bit like rounders, but what it is really about? What's the story? The question had never consciously occurred to me until Chiles raised it and answered it. "Watching cricket, I was used to seeing the batsman, pain etched across his face, mournfully trudging back to the pavilion to spend long hours ruminating on his shortcomings. Here the fella just shrugged, took his seat in the dugout, and came out for another swing and miss 20 minutes or so later. Where was the pain?" Read the link for the answer. And if you understand baseball and wonder about cricket then this might help you too.

6. Nominative determinism of the day: the Church of England's statement on letting boys dress as girls in school comes from Nigel Genders.

7. Finally, this. File perhaps under law, perhaps under our common European heritage at its finest, perhaps under Brexit, and perhaps under verse.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

This is immensely weird

"Yuichi: I played a father for a 12-year-old with a single mother. The girl was bullied because she didn’t have a dad, so the mother rented me. I’ve acted as the girl’s father ever since. I am the only real father that she knows.

Morin: And this is ongoing?

Yuichi: Yes, I’ve been seeing her for eight years. She just graduated high school.

Morin: Does she understand that you’re not her real father?

Yuichi: No, the mother hasn’t told her.

Morin: How do you think she would feel if she discovered the truth?

Yuichi: I think she would be shocked. If the client never reveals the truth, I must continue the role indefinitely. If the daughter gets married, I have to act as a father in that wedding, and then I have to be the grandfather. So, I always ask every client, “Are you prepared to sustain this lie?” It’s the most significant problem our company has.

Morin: So, you could be involved with her for the rest of your life?

Yuichi: It’s risky that she might discover the truth someday. In this company, one person can only have five families at a time. That’s the rule.

...

Yuichi: ... There was one case of a man in his 60s. His wife died, and he wanted to order another copy of her. We provided that.

Morin: And he called the new woman by his wife’s old name?

Yuichi: Yes, the same name, and he wanted her to call him what his wife had. She called him Otōsan—it means father. In Japan, it’s pretty common to say father, even if you’re the wife.

Morin: Did she have the same memories as the wife?

Yuichi: There are certain memories, yes. There’s a blank sheet, and the client writes the memories that he wants the wife to remember.
"

More here. Read it and weep.

Perhaps this is just another 'Japanese people are weird' story, like a piece about gameshows or the more awkward bits of Lost in Translation. Or perhaps this is a 'the future happens first in Japan' story.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Life expectancy

You might have seen this in the LRB from Danny Dorling. It's sobering stuff. Here's a flavour of it:

"Since 2011, under David Cameron and Theresa May, life expectancy has flatlined. [...] For the first time in well over a century the health of people in England and Wales as measured by the most basic feature – life – has stopped improving. Just as Macmillan had done, the government initially tried to blame the figures on flu deaths. But as the years have passed and life expectancy continues to stall it has become clear that flu isn’t the culprit. The most plausible explanation would blame the politics of austerity, which has had an excessive impact on the poor and the elderly; the withdrawal of care support to half a million elderly people that had taken place by 2013; the effect of a million fewer social care visits being carried out every year; the cuts to NHS budgets and its reorganisation as a result of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act; increased rates of bankruptcy and general decline in the quality of care homes; the rise in fuel poverty among the old; cuts to or removal of disability benefits. The stalling of life expectancy was the result of political choice."

Woah! You mean the Tories are killing people? Just like Macmillan did?

Spoiler alert: No.

Here's the ONS digest Dorling is talking about. It's a bit on the dry side, as these things are, but it shows a small improvement: "The rate of increase in life expectancy in the UK has slowed in recent years. In 2014 to 2016, improvements in life expectancy were higher than in 2013 to 2015 although they remained very slight", it says, weakly.

But wait! Dorling was talking about England and Wales. Surely the difference is that Scotland, which has a completely different NHS, devolved government, milk and honey, and so on, must be dragging up the average? Surely once those nasty Tories are out of the way, we can all live as long as the Japanese?

Um, no. "Life expectancy at birth remained highest in England and lowest in Scotland," says the ONS. Well, but that's historical? Surely it's because of those Tories being charge all those years ago? Now that devolution is in place, things are getting better?

Um, no: "Life expectancy at birth in Scotland has continued to diverge from the UK," says the ONS.

Let's be clear about all this. Here is a rather more colourfully-illustrated Government statistical paper. It shows us that this is what happened in the UK up to 2014 (and recall that things have got very slightly better since then):


Thrilling, isn't it? 

Dorling's point is this. You'll see that there was a little downward blip in about 2011-2012, i.e when that nasty Mr Cameron took over from the nice Mr Brown. So things are a bit flatline-ish if you draw a straight line from a point before the downward blip to the present day. 

Meanwhile, here is what happened to men across Europe:


And, just so you can see I'm not cherry-picking, here's what happened to women:

You can see the same 2011-2012 blip right across Europe. It was massive for the over-85s in France. Maybe that flu thing that the Government was talking about was real after all?

None of which is to explain why British male life expectancy at 85 is lower than German life expectancy. But nor is it to explain why British male life expectancy at 65 is higher than German life expectancy, or why British female life expectancy at 85 is higher than German life expectancy. (Or at least why they were so in 2013.)

There is a lot that goes into life expectancy. Smoking, public health, air pollution, diet, gun laws, migration and, yes, health services. But one of the most notable differences between the health care systems of Britain and other European countries is that we have a lot of state medicine (the NHS) and other countries have more private health care: why not say that their excellent private healthcare is why French people live so long, even before Cameron turned into Killer-Macmillan Mark II? Or at least Dorling could explain why those Spanish healthcare cuts of 2012 seem to have improved outcomes for old people?  

There are obviously arguments to be had about how much money should be raised in taxation, and about how the money that is raised in taxation should be allocated between different competing public demands, and even within the NHS there are competing priorities (would a glitzy advertising campaign promoting MMR be better at prolonging life expectancy than spending more money on hospices? would that be a better use of money?). Dorling might be right in saying that the Government has the wrong priorities. But you should not fall for his story that the Government has decided to kill people as a matter of political choice.

Friday, 10 November 2017

The best advertising is true

Or at least, as the Carlsberg adverts used to say, probably. But this one has more than a grain of truth to it.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

You might be interested in ...

1. A safari in Trump's America. Molly Ball writes some good stuff.

2. This chap is very good at sliding down banisters.

3. If you have seen Blade Runner 2049 then you will know that there is plenty to wonder at. But is there anything to wonder about? Perhaps. Here is Slavoj Žižek on the film (and also on the the bourgeois triumph over the patriarchy, coffee without milk and the class differences between vampires and zombies) and here is Tyler Cowen (all Straussian spoilers). Both reviewers - so different in other ways - refer to Jesus Christ in their reviews. My first impression of the film was to agree with The Economist that the story is "thin and threadbare" and "riddled with holes", but then I was walking down the road one day and I heard a leaf-blower (spoiler alert - the main sound on the soundtrack) and I immediately started to think again about the film. Cowen says "Think of the main plot line as showing a world where the Christ miracle is inverted": I suppose you might say that the plot line of the New Testament (inverted or not) is a little thin and riddled with holes, but that's hardly the point. I'm still pretty doubtful about it all (and Jared Leto was too reminiscent of the most tedious parts of the second Matrix film for those doubts to go away), and I think the likes of the original Star Trek series or Her tried to earn their thoughtful credentials more honestly, but perhaps there is something in there that deserves a second look.

4. Students abused for being Brexit-supporters: here's a little BBC video about these people. The subtext is: they look just like you and me - but they are really Leavers! I bet they are not really the only Brexit-supporters in their respective universities, just the only ones brave enough to 'out' themselves. I'm sure quite a few students woke up on 24 June secretly rather pleased at the come-uppance of many their smugger classmates, human nature being what it is. Anyway, for that reason or some other, we are generally happier since the Brexit vote.

5. Modern Media Is a DoS Attack on Your Free Will. That's the headline. If you're intrigued, here's more.

6. Jinnah's family: Indian Parsis.

7. Economics - what a load of rubbish, eh? That's a pretty widespread take on the dismal science. And of course, economists are not terribly good at predicting the future (the short-term effects of Brexit being a good example). But that's a silly way of looking at it: like dentists and plumbers, their tools are better at analysing problems than predicting them. I'm afraid economists, like theologians, sociologists and post-modern theorists, get dismissed by people who don't understand, don't know and don't care what they actually do. But here's a corrective: you can use economic theory to locate lost ancient cities.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Questions that Courts ask themselves

1. In America: "Who would imagine that more than 150 years after the Treaty of Olympia (the “Treaty”) was signed between the United States and the Quileute and Quinault tribes, we would be asked to determine whether the “right of taking fish” includes whales and seals? Although scientists tell us sea mammals are not fish, these appeals ask us to go back to the 1855 treaty negotiation and signing and place ourselves in the shoes of two signatory tribes—the Quileute Indian Tribe (the “Quileute”) and the Quinault Indian Nation (the “Quinault”)—to determine what they intended the Treaty to cover." Spoiler alert: whales are fish.

2. In England: "Is the shape of a London taxi a valid registered trade mark?" The judgment has plenty of taxi illustrations.

3. In Australia: "Does a candidate in possession of two conflicting advices on the question know that he or she is a foreign citizen for the purposes of s 44(i) only when the advice that he or she is indeed a foreign citizen is accepted as correct by a court?" (Actually that was a rhetorical question intended to show problems with one contended-for construction of the Constitution.)  Bonus question for you. Here are the facts - was Ms Waters Canadian?
"Ms Waters was born in February 1977 in Winnipeg, Canada to Australian parents who were living in Canada at the time for study and work purposes. Neither was a permanent resident of Canada. Ms Waters' birth was registered with the Australian High Commission in Ottawa in June 1977. It was not in doubt that Ms Waters was an Australian citizen by descent. In January 1978, as an infant aged 11 months, Ms Waters left Canada with her parents, who were returning to live in Australia. Ms Waters has never held a Canadian passport. She has not visited Canada since leaving it in January 1978. She has always considered herself to be an Australian and has never understood that she owes allegiance to any other country. She has not sought or received consular assistance or any other kind of government assistance from Canada and she has not exercised any rights as a Canadian citizen. Her mother had given her to understand that she would be eligible to apply for Canadian citizenship when she turned 21. On turning 21 in 1998, Ms Waters considered applying for Canadian citizenship but she decided against it."
Answer: yes she was Canadian! (Mark Steyn's layman's take on it: "... in Australia everyone's a potential alien mainly in the sense of that John Hurt chestburster scene in which you can be as Aussie as can be chugging along all ticketty-boo and then some creepy Welsh midget great-uncle bursts through your rib cage and leaps out.")

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

How we talk when we talk about sexual wrongdoing

You might have seen that there is a spreadsheet in circulation describing the sexual behaviour (to use a neutral word) of various Tory politicians. It is being published in redacted versions, but bits of information can be put together to name names, and presumably the whole thing will become (even more) public in due course. I have no idea whether any of the accusations are accurate: I would ask you to bear in mind that false rumours are not exactly unheard of in politics, and that putting statements into a spreadsheet does not thereby make them true

Anyway, what I thought was interesting was the words people are using to talk about this behaviour.
The spreadsheet itself has some interesting choices of words. "Inappropriate" features a lot. That is not surprising. "Inappropriate" is a popular word for this sort of thing nowadays: it is pretty vague in extent but quite clear in implying "bad". It's probably quite a good word if we are talking about things like unwelcome knee-patting or making personal comments with a view to causing embarrassment; I suspect it is far from being the right word in the case of someone who has apparently obtained an injunction against "inappropriate" behaviour.

The spreadsheet also uses "impregnated" and "fornicated". Have you ever asked someone whether their father "impregnated" their mother or "fornicated with" her? Me neither, and I don't recommend it: it would almost certainly be "inappropriate". These words are only used in connection with impropriety.

"Handsy" is a great word. But, as with "fornicate", doesn't its use suggest that we are talking about the sort of men that the Mitford sisters were warned about in the 1930s rather than people today? You'll see references to men "not being safe in taxis" in the links as well. Is it possible that when the redactions come out we will discover some shocking things about Neville Chamberlain's Cabinet?

I am also fascinated by the way the reporting of the spreadsheet has tried to distinguish between more and less serious matters. How about this:

"Not all the MPs on the spreadsheet are accused of acting improperly. It includes two MPs named in Sun stories who have had relationships with staff where no misbehaviour is alleged.

Justin Tomlinson had a relationship with his younger researcher and Steve Double had an affair.

No sexual wrongdoing is suggested on the part of either.
"

I see what they are getting at - Mr Double's sexual advances were welcomed - it was mutual handsiness! - but surely "Steve Double had an affair ... No sexual wrongdoing is suggested" is just wrong? Or am I being terribly old-fashioned?

If I were trying to be sententious about all this (and this is not the right context for such an effort) I would suggest that these interesting linguistic choices are the result of the inherent difficulties in having just one openly-accepted test for whether sexual behaviour is right or wrong, i.e. whether the immediately present participants are consenting, while people are quietly aware that there is more to it than that. "Impregnated former researcher and made her have an abortion" you say? I'm sure he didn't force her at gunpoint, so it's all just consenting adults, isn't it? Well, of course it isn't, and it may take a lot of (rightly) angry women making a feminist fuss about "inappropriate" behaviour to re-teach us some things that our grandparents knew. But that is for another day.