What they teach us in school

The other night at a dinner for graduate students at Balliol, I had a German on my left and a Frenchman on my right. The question came up, what happened around 1870 involving Germany and France?

The German student was unaware of any events from this period.

The French student was aware of one event from 1870: the founding of the French Third Republic. He did not know of any connection of this with Germany.

(In fact, in 1870-71 Germany conquered France.  Napoleon III surrendered in September, and Paris fell in January.)

[1 February 2017]

The purest love of all

The love of parents for their children, it is well known, is the purest love of all. There is nothing we would not do for them, and we keep giving to the end of our lives without thought of what we get in return.

The irony is that from an evolutionary point of view, love of one’s children is obviously selfish, since they carry forward one’s genes. It is so perfectly in our self-interest to take care of our children that natural selection would not dream of letting us deliberate about the matter! No, our love is hardwired. We deeply want to give to them, and who cares what it costs?

And because it’s hardwired, that’s why it feels selfless. This is the love that bypasses our brains and inhabits our bones.

[19 January 2017]

How far is Perth from Boston? (2)

Of course it’s trivial in principle, but one of my notes from 1990 records that I found it surprisingly tricky in practice to calculate how far Perth is from Boston, based on their latitudes and longitudes. In fact I remember working out the formula while on the train crossing the Nullarbor Plain.

It’s not tricky any more. On a whim I just asked my phone, “How far is Perth from Boston?”, and it responded instantly in a friendly man’s voice. “Perth, Australia is about 11,621 miles from Boston, Massachusetts as the crow flies.”

However, it is still only 2017. I followed up with “How far is that in kilometers?” and the friendly man responded, “Sorry, I don’t know where that is”.

[13 January 2017]

Affirmative fraction

About 19% of SIAM’s non-student members are women, but at the next SIAM Annual Meeting, 9 out of 16 invited speakers will be women. These figures imply that the fraction invited to speak will be around 5.5 times higher for women than for men.

That’s the math, which is easy. The politics? Not so easy.

[6 January 2017]

Pikachu evolves into Raichu

“Did you see the tombs of Mary of Burgundy and Charles of Burgundy in the chancel?”

(Kate asked me this just now in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges.)

I couldn’t help thinking of when Emma and Jacob were little and they knew every detail of Pikachu and Charmander and the other Pokémon characters, each with its particular abilities and weaknesses and path of evolution. Pokémon for the kids, Harry Potter for the teenagers, saints for the Catholics, celebrities for the masses. Our appetite for particulars about people is infinite, and it hardly matters how small the facts are or whether the people are even real.

[31 December 2015]

Why don’t thieves take my bike helmet?

I lock my bike, but often I don’t bother to lock my helmet. Instead I buckle it around the lock so that the casual onlooker would guess that it too is secure.

A thief, however, is no casual onlooker. If thieves were out to steal bike helmets, they’d have stolen mine long ago. This gets me thinking about what makes it rational to be so insouciant about my helmet.

Let’s say the bike costs 300 pounds and the helmet costs 30. Then loss of the helmet means just 1/10th the pain of loss of the bike.

But because it’s worth less, the helmet is also less likely to be stolen! Let’s say, 1/10th as likely. So we have a quadratic effect in play: the expected loss from leaving my helmet unlocked is 1/100th that of leaving my bike unlocked.

[19 December 2016]

Hillary, Donald, and the theory of comparative advantage

“I don’t like either one. Donald’s a racist and Hillary’s a liar”. I heard a voter interviewed along these lines the other day, and it encapsulates the view of millions that has brought us to the edge of a possible Trump victory.

It’s an astonishing view, for by any empirical standard, as many analysts have shown, it’s Donald who’s the liar. In terms of telling the truth, Hillary is a normal politician and Donald is far from normal. Yet by systematically attacking her honesty in every speech and tweet, he has gone a good way to destroying her reputation, just as earlier in the campaign he systematically destroyed Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio.

What Donald is doing is exploiting what economists call the theory of comparative advantage. David Ricardo famously observed that if England is less efficient than Portugal in making cloth but much less efficient in making wine, then it should make cloth anyway and trade it with Portugal. In cloth-making, England has an absolute disadvantage but a comparative advantage.

The same principle determines what insults are traded by Hillary and Donald. On an absolute scale, Trump is the liar, but his dishonesty must be ranged against his other defects of racism, misogyny, ignorance, lack of experience, impetuousness, laziness, narcissism, and contempt for the rule of law. Hillary lacks such defects, so it’s her honesty that gets attacked. Every time Trump speaks of “crooked Hillary”, he is endorsing Ricardo’s analysis of free trade.

[6 November 2016]