Friday, 31 January 2014

Que Sera, Sera

One Dystopian Vision of the Future,
as Imagined in 1976

"It's my job to freeze you."

The special effects are laughable now, and the pretensions of what the future would look like perhaps even more comical, but the made-for-tv movie Logan's Run (featuring a young Farrah Fawcet before The Poster) came to mind when I read a recent coumn here by John Derbyshire.  In it, the professional pessimist provides some thoughts on the impact on work and prospects for life in the not-distant future.  A future where technology has improved to, if not true AI, some semblance of it.

It isn't particularly pretty.

Derbyshire himself was reacting to a recent piece in The Economist, in which the question of if (when?) office workers get displaced en masse, what becomes of them?

From the original article, titled "The Onrushing Wave":

Text-mining programs will displace professional jobs in legal services. Biopsies will be analyzed more efficiently by image-processing software than lab technicians. Accountants may follow travel agents and tellers into the unemployment line as tax software improves. Machines are already turning basic sports results and financial data into good-enough news stories.
I am not convinced that real artificial intelligence is ever going to arrive (it's a bit of a philosophical card game, but the so-called "Chinese Room" of John Searle, I find particularly convincing), but as Derbyshire argues, the technology does not have to be perfect; it just has to be good enough.

THAT, I find incredibly convincing.

I can say that, in the case of imaging, there currently are diagnostic companies creating machines and algorithms to quickly and accurately discriminate among MRIs, PET scans, x-rays, blood screens, and the like, looking for signs of cancer, genetic defects, heart disease, and a host of other diseases.  

I personally have been involved in work to help a pseudo-neural network "learn" to recognise early signs of Alzheimer's disease from whole-brain and hippocampal images.  No one would rely on a machine to make a diagnosis without expert review by a human doctor, but the technology is quickly moving to the point of deployment, and high-sensitivity testing is close.  What remains today is the specificity that a human eye provides.

That may not be enough to do away with radiologists, but it can certainly reduce the need for their numbers.  And if it can happen to medical doctors, well...If you work in an office creating PowerPoint slides, I would not get too comfortable.

Surgical robots are also currently available, though of course, they still require a human being to operate them.  The whole thing is a bit like the scene from Logan's Run where Logan goes in for plastic surgery, and a robot performs the task.  Now, the downside of such a system is vividly displayed in the movie, but...

Derbyshire then goes to the next mile to ask, what happens when - and he presumes it is a slam-dunk - the day of reckoning comes.

From the 2009 book We Are Doomed

The assumption here is that like the buggy-whip makers you hear about from economic geeks, like dirt farmers migrating to factory jobs, like the middle-class engineer of 1960, the cube people of today will go do something else, creating a new middle class from some heretofore-despised category of drudges. But… what? Which category of despised drudges will be the middle class of tomorrow? Do you have any ideas? I don’t. What comes after office work? What are we all going to do? The same thing Bartleby the Scrivener did, perhaps, but collectively and generationally.
What is the next term in the series: farm, factory, office…? There isn't one. The evolution of work has come to an end point, and the human race knows this in its bones. Actually in its reproductive organs: the farmer of 1800 had six or seven kids, the factory worker of 1900 three or four, the cube jockey of 2000 one or two. The superfluous humans of 2100, if there are any, will hold at zero. What would be the point of doing otherwise? [emphasis mine]

Our current economic model is based upon a growing GDP.  Machines undoubtedly will improve our ability to produce.  But if there are not customers to buy those products, well.  Then what?  

Which brings us back to Logan.  

Recall in the movie, that most of the people spend all of their time in a sort of narcissistic, sybaritic haze.  No one works; they merely consume.  It all seems like a sort of paradise, albeit a mildly dystopic one.  There is one problem - your life ends at 30.  

In the movie, it's never explained why - though the implication is that some catastrophic event occurred, forcing people to move into a climate-controlled bubble (it was 1976, so it was mostly like a nuclear war, not global warming - an updated version has allegedly been in the works for some time, and climate change is my bet for the culprit).  This space crunch necessitated the euthanasia, as it's unlikely the declining ability to work/contribute as one ages factored in, since no one is working.

Is that our future - carelessly spending our days doing little to nothing beyond amusing ourselves?  Derbyshire offers his own view:

The prospect, then, is for dwindling job opportunities, with handsome rewards for the Overclass of creative, very smart, and/or well-placed citizens, while the great mass of persons for whom there is no economic use vegetate in good-enough welfare provisioning, like the “thetes” of Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age.
Sounds a bit like Santa Clara County, California today.

We are going to find out, that's for sure.

In case you're curious, one of the stars of the movie - Jenny Agutter - had a very curious future, indeed.  She wound up a bit player in one of the 1990s "Chucky" movies, eventually being killed by a doll.

Might be the perfect, metaphorical ending.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Lu et Approuvé (ou en revanche, pas)

Le Jury A Parlé

Interesting item this morning in the local news.

In France there is actually a body whose job it is to police the language, Unlike English, where it is more or less up to each dictionary to decide which words are admitted into the canon, and to various competing schools of style to determine usage, the French 400 or so years ago created an official agency to manage the task.

This is not really surprising, given the Gaullic love for top-down governance.  After all, King Louis XIV famously stated "L'etat c'est moi."  Despite the Revolution, where the peasants (briefly) seized power and discovered that autonomy was not so much to there liking, France is still largely a culture of written, byzantine rules, bureaucrats, and tradition.  (The word "bureaucrat" is derived from French, also no accident of history, I'm sure.)

The Académie Française was created in the 17th century, allegedly at the behest of Cardinal Richelieu (yes - THAT Cardinal, known to many from his caricature in Les Trois Mousquetaires).  Its members have had great influence over the years, as language is a central part of culture, and especially to the French.  

It is without irony that its membership are known here as "les immortels."

Today, it was announced that the very English acronymn "ASAP" has been refused entry.  In issuing its decision, the Académie stated "(c)ette abréviation semble cumuler la plupart des vices d'une langue qui cache son caractere méprisant et comminatoire sous les oripeaux d'une modernité de pacotille" (this abbrevation seems to combine most of the vices of a language intent on hiding its corrupt and menacing character in the guise of shoddy modernity.)

So ASAP is out.  

No word on whether "selfie" is in, but I do find myself envious that our own language lacks such a brake on the seepage of terms like "twerk" into acceptable company.

Vive la France....

Monday, 27 January 2014

My Football Post of the Year (It's Really About Richard Sherman, not Football)

Here in Paris, when one speaks of 'football,' of course, the game being discussed is known in the US as 'soccer.'  The French are not terribly passionate about sport beyond soccer, with an occasional interest in rugby (yes; I find it really odd as well) and tennis, when the "Roland Garros" (as it's called here) or "French Open" (as it's known everywhere else in the world) is on.

So it's no shock that there is about as close to zero interest in football as can be stated without offending the sensibilities of physicists, who are somewhat obsessive/compulsive about measurement error.

However, one item has made the radar here, and that is the "controversey" currently roiling the media in the US about Seattle Seahawks' cornerback Richard Sherman, his comic performance in an interview last week, whether his apparent lack of sportsmanship makes him a 'thug,' and whether it's some sort of racist 'code word' to even ask if he is one.

I didn't see the game (the last football game I watched was about four years ago, when I took my then four year old son to watch my alma mater - Dartmouth - play its annual, end of year game versus Princeton in Princeton, where we were then living; the last one I watched on television before that was maybe a decade or so ago), or the interview.  But apparently, this guy made a game-saving play near the end of the match, and then proceded to taunt the man he was defending.  Following the game, in a sideline interview by SpokesBarbie Erin Andrews (aka, Erin Pageviews - so named due to her obvious visual assets), Sherman proceded to boast and howl about his abilities, what a punk the other guy was, and generally made an embarrassing spectacle of himself.

I won't comment too much on this - I personally find football much less a sport than a spectacle, rather like professional wrestling.  The players are (with a few exceptions) hulking freaks.  The play is crude and violent.  The arena has cheerleaders in provocative costumes and is filled with deafening noise.

And that says nothing about the fans.

In short, what on earth does anyone find surprising that, at a circus, you're typically going to see a lot of clowns?  Sherman is a clown, but not more clownish than any of the other players.  So, his behaviour should hardly be a story, let alone a scandal.

The people who attack Sherman ought to try to get ahold of a tether to reality.  He's an entertainer.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.

That said, is he a 'thug?'  Hmmmm...  He went to Stanford, and apparently graduated at the top of his high school class.  Those aren't exactly the bona fides that, say, Tupac Shakur could boast.  Maybe his performance is meant to boost his 'street cred.'  I don't know.  I find it unlikely that he's spending his evenings 'dusting some cops off' or engaging in other 'damn it feels good to be a gangster' nonsense.

Finally, is it "racist" to ask if he's a thug?  Is "thug" the new code that white (and other) bigots use to describe guys like this?  That's apparently what others who have defended Sherman see it (most notably, the Useful Idiot Bill Maher and wannabe intelletcual Ta-Nehisi Caotes in a truly laughable piece here.)

During the 2012 campaign, some of the apologists for the current, failed US President - apparently quite afraid that President Obama might actually not be re-elected - were saturation bombing the media with all sort of innuendo about "dog whistles" and "code words" (it acutally got to the pinnacle of sophistry when Chris Mathews suggested that saying "Chicago" or "golf" on the air was actually racist code to attack the prez).

In point of fact, the defence of Sherman - implying that he is "better at life than you are" (one editiorial actually suggested that critics were fit to carry neither Sherman's jock - probably true - not his maths book) because he's some sort of renaissance man - is plainly laughable.  He was admitted to Stanford - with an SAT of about 1100 normed to the old, 1600-point system.

I would suspect that that is at least one and a half SDs - if not more - LOWER than the average admit.

Sherman is not a thug.  But let's be honest.  He got into Stanford because he could run and he could defend against the pass.

Richard Sherman is NOT exactly Richard Feynman.

Professional football is a sport in the sense that the Roman Colisseum was a sport.  And guys like Sherman are modern day gladiators.  His behaviour doesn't make him anything more than a boor and a loudmouth.  But that's what football fans want.

And pointing that fact out doesn't make one racist.

So sit down in your nagahyde recliner.  Open some off-brand domestic beer.  And enjoy the game.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Time Really Does Wait for No Man

I was thinking last night as I was getting ready for bed about my father; I often think of my father - more on some days, less on others.  Sometimes the feeling is provoked by a memory - a television show he liked to watch (e.g., "Taxi").  A comment about a particular medical topic (my dad was a surgeon).  An item that my own son does or says.  Sometimes the memory is apparently spontaneous.

Anyhow, I was especially thinking of my dad these past couple of days because his birthday has again come along.  

Now, my father died of cancer nearly twenty years ago.  In fact, this July, it will be exactly twenty years.  I remember when I was young, and twenty years seemed in those times an eternity.  At 20, I could scarcely conceive of being 40 and middle-aged.  

But time is a somewhat artificial construct, a hubris on men - I cannot imagine that animals mark the passing of time in any sense we would recognise, but I've been accused of lack of imagination.  Of course, as the old saying goes, each day, your memory grows a bit longer, while your life, equivalently shorter.

If my father were alive, he would now be 73 years old.  I find that fact remarkable.  I remember when my grandfathers were 73.  In our culture, we never conceive of ourselves as "old," even though the mirror reminds us of the truth.  And, on the contrary, we always think of our parents as "old."  I am now less than 10 years removed from the age my father was when he passed.

He was too young.

There is a famous passage from the speech Senator Ted Kennedy (I know my dad would not have been happy to be connected in any way to the Kennedys, so sorry, dad!) in his eulogy for his brother Robert F Kenendy.

(he should) not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man
My father was a lot like that.  He wasn't a "great" man in the commonest sense.  There are no books about him, nor buildings named for him.  It's unlikely that either will ever be the case.  No - he wasn't a great man, but what he was was a good one.

Before dad died, he asked if I wanted his college ring - both of us attended the same school separated by 30 years.  I didn't (and don't) really like jewellery, so I politely declined.  When he died, my mother gave me the ring, and I've worn it ever since.

My brothers and I (and to a lesser degree, sister) are all sport fans, and as youngsters, tended to regard athletes as more than, in fact, they are.  We "looked up" to men like Steve Garvey (an artefact of being young in Los Angeles, and hence, a Dodgers' fan in my oldest brother's case).  As time has gone by, and our idols revealed to be human (and in some cases, to have feet of clay), I am reminded about a comment he would make on the odd occasion.  As a medical doctor (an orthopaedic surgeon), his job was to help mend broken bones.  His particular speciality was children.  Thus, my dad was at times fond of saying, with neither bravado nor irony, that to the people he treated each day, he was the most important person they would encounter for the day, or, perhaps week.  

For some of them, he would be the most important person they would ever deal with.  The doctor, unlike the actor, the singer, the athlete, literally has the power of life and death in his hands.  

My father could make the comment that he was the single most significant factor in many peoples' lives, and be right about it.

As an adolescent, I shrugged this off, as my own son no doubt will shrug off my observations when he reaches adolescence, if he's not already doing so.

Despite that, my main thoughts recently of my old man are what may be trivial items.  My own birthday is approaching, and I am long past the days of such things, but I was thinking last night about my ninth birthday.  (My son will be nine this year).  It being "my day," I got to choose an activity for the family, and of all things, I opted to go bowling.  

I am pretty sure my father had little (no?) use for bowling - the rented, vinyl shoes of dubious hygeine; the greasy onion rings.  As I recall, I think none of us even knew how to score.  10 points for a 'strike.'  One point for each pin.  But we loaded up the car with the family, and off to the local Brunswick Lanes. 

This was followed up by a trip to the nearby pizza restaurant - I think it was called "Patelli's," but I am almost surely mis-spelling it.  

Bowling and greasy pizza.  It was a big deal to me at nine.  I wonder will my own son remember things like that, as I do?

The other memory I come to recently was a trip that my father and I (and a friend and his father) took on a steam train.  An old locomotive was being retired, and was making its final run from Spartanburg, SC to King's Mountain, NC, just across the border.  At the time, I was quite "in to" railroads - model trains and the like.  I remember the excitement quite clearly, despite the three plus decades that have passed.  I remember, once we reached the terminus, disembarked, and watched the train continue on to wherever it was headed for scrapping.  My friend's mother had arranged to meet us at the other end and drive us back home, so while we waited, my friend and I collected railroad spikes.  They were quite grubby, covered with grease, dirt, and soot, I suppose.  My father helped me sort which ones were the "best" to keep as souvenirs.  

I'm not sure what happened to those spikes, but the day was one of the highlights in my mind's eye.  It was the perfect day in many respects.

The railroad ties are long gone, and I haven't been bowling in many, many years.  I'm no no longer young, as the cold tide of middle age is slowly rising around me.  Dad is a memory now as well.  His ring and bits and pieces of the huge place he had in my life remain.

Happy birthday, dad.  Wish you were here.

On y Va, Astérix?

Les Irréductibles Gaulois

Today on the way to work, another "I'll be damned" moment, courtesy of Direct Matin (the free mini-newspaper available in the trains in Paris.)  As I stated before here, Direct Matin has an item each morning wherein some bit of arcanum is explained - the origins of the croissant, the history of the galettes des rois, why the icons of saints have auréoles over their heads.

In the news today was the question as to why the image of France - in sport, for example; the football, rugby, basketball, and other team jerseys - is a rooster (le coq).  If one visists the Palais de l'Eysée (the home of the president of France), the main, ornamented gate has a gold rooster above it.

Given the recent behaviour of President François Hollande, turns out that the choice may be appropriate.

According to the article, the rooster arose as a sort of insult from the Romans when they arrived in present-day France.  Apparently, they found the French to be braggards and noisy ("frimeurs et bruyants"), whilst at the same time weak in comparison with the Roman Empire.  Playing on the fact that the the local tribe of Gallic Celts had as a name the homonym "gallus" (in Latin, a sort of chicken), the Romans mocked the French people as puffed-up, noisome, but ultimately weak people.

Charles de Gaulle indeed...

Monday, 20 January 2014

Fractals, the One Per Cent, and "Le Loup de Wall St"

The Original Wolf of Wall St, circa 1939

The Updated Version

I read this morning a recent column by New York Times economics columnist (and Princeton Nobel laureate) Paul Krugman.  In it, Professor Krugman is discussing the numerical and social implications of the current desire in the US to define the "One Per Cent" as class enemies.

One per cent may seem at first blush to be a small number, but it confronts what I call "the denominator problem."  That is to say, a fraction of a huge number is not small absolutely.

A couple of years ago, a somewhat ragamuffin melange of  protestors had a few minutes of fame (infamy?) squatting in a small pocket park in lower Manhattan, rallying round a battle cry agains the perceived unfairness of the grasping rich.  President Obama, Paul Krugman, and others picked up the cry, and it still can be heard today, still loud if somewhat faint.

Setting aside the moral judgment that Professor Krugman and others inject about what various people "deserve," the argument had and continues to have serious practical problems.  Some of these may be becoming apparent to the more thoughtful.

Proessor Krugman - who has at least an apparent grasp of real mathematics, not like the president  - recognises the challenge of defining a group that is so large as the "one per cent."  Obviously, one per one hundred is a relatively small fraction, but the denominator problem immediately presents - one per cent of 300 million is the city of Los Angeles.

"The one per cent" is a useful short-hand for the intellectually lazy, who require slogans rather than ideas or workable solutions.

I wonder, though, if Krugman's epiphany has less to do with a mathematical "a-ha" moment, and more to do with his recognition that this definition puts him in the class enemy list, a place where he and other country club communists are loathe to be?

(As an aside, among Professor Krugman's manifold grievances is the continuing climb in the costs of a university education - self-awareness is apparently not among his long suits, as he seems either oblivious or wilfully ignorant that he has been an employee of Princeton for much of that time, and its tuitions have not been exactly flat over the past 25 years.  But of course, the money lavished on professors who every year teach less and less is completely deserved, not like the gross acquisitiveness of a guy working in the grubby realm of commerce.)

Now, it's true that "most of the gains" have gone to "the top one per cent."  And within that top one per cent, to the top one per cent.  Et cetera.

Krugman is bumping into the problem of a distribution that may be quite fractal in nature - that is to say, a small piece of it reproduces the same properties as the large one - hence one per cent of the total looks remarkably like one per cent of that sample, and so on.

The paradoxical challenge that folks like President Obama and others face is that, in order to prop up tax-spend policies, the net must be large enough.  It's not really possible to pay for all the 'free' stuff the Democrats desire by taxing only the group that Krguman would go after, unless you are going to confiscate virtually everything they earn AND  a good chunk of their accumulated wealth as well.  A trillion is a massive amount.  If you target the  really big earners (say, to be generous, one per cent of the one percent), you're suddenly down to 30,000.  Some quick maths will show how much you will have to take to cover a trillion dollar deficit.

Every year.

Just to cover the FEDERAL deficits.

Good luck with that.

So, the denominator has to be larger as a matter of course.  Thus, the net to catch enough class enemies must be enlarged, or the scheme will not work.

One other thing - I've seen it written that the distriution of liberal supporters (take those who vote Democrat as a proxy) is U-shaped - most of the really poor, and most of the really rich.  If you start singling out too small a group and naming them... Well, I don't think that calling some of his best supporters class enemies will make the president - or Paul Krugman - very welcome for summer parties in the Hamptons.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Future Belongs to those Who Are there to See it

Director Woody Allen once made a comment that quickly went from witticism, to accepted truism, to cliche with amazing speed, that 80% of success is just showing up.  I've heard an interesting corollary, I believe first offered by contrarian writer John Derbyshire that the future belongs to those who show up for it.  Derbyshire made the remark in discussing the dysgenic fertility patterns in the developed world (Europe, the US, Japan).

A few years before I was born, a famous (infamous) book appeared, The Population Bomb, by the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich.  In 1968, Ehrlich observed the rapid population growth of the post-World War 2 world, and delivered a canonical, Malthusian prediction of what the world would become in our lifetimes - overcrowded, starving, and war-torn over natural resources.  Much of what Ehrlich prophesied should have occurred by now.

But, much like the suppositions of "Back to the Future" of a world powered by Mr Fusion devices, or "The Jetsons" of flying bubble cars, much of what Ehrlich proposed did not come to pass.

In fact, much of the developed world has a sort of opposite pathology, and that is, that the West plus Japan (and now, China) are no longer producing sufficient numbers of children to remain stable.

Yesterday, the vital statistics for 2013 in France were released, and France in 2013 had a fertility of 1.99 live births per woman.  That number actually put France near the top for the EU, with Germany and Italy being strong laggards, at about 1.3 per woman.  (The US was in 2012, just above the 2.1 necessary for replacement, but as I pointed out here, much of that is being driven by the children of immigrants, legal and otherwise.

One need not be a Fields Medal winner to reckon what that means, and hence, Derbyshire's remarks.

The local newspaper has ascribed some of the reluctance in France for couples to have children to the effects of the recent implosion of the French economy.  It's a sensible point- people should become more cautious about starting (or enlarging) their families when the economic footing is on slipper rocks.  But that only, I think, explains a part of the problem.  Germany - in much worse shape demographically than France - has a lower birth rate for its native population.

Governments are facing very difficult choices - for a start, the famous socialist compacts in Europe rest upon a quasi-Ponzi scheme to function.  SOMEONE has to work to pay for the benefits of pensioners who retire at 60.  Since the people have no interest in the proposed "austerity" (in France, Nicholas Sarkozy was tossed out in no small measure because he decided to fight with the unions and to reform the retirement system - he was replaced with someone perceived to be much more pliant to the needs of the unionists), the models only work if there is a growing workforce.

The French specifically and the Europeans more broadly are not up to the task.

Why is this?

Have we reached the point of affluence where children are seen as a nuisance to the BOBO lifestyle that dominates the popular media?  Think of the most popular movies, television programmes, and books.  How many of them contain any sort of "typical" (read: traditional) family models?  Children are just not compatible with a hipster lifestyle; they make it difficult to spend time tweeting about the latest "ironic" restaurant you are going to attend with your friends.

There is a movie now making the rounds in the US - "Her" - about a sort of post-modern lifestyle,  A man with a "hip" job, living in a "hip" apartment in the de-suburbanised future of Los Angeles, replaces actual human contact with a barely-concealed version of Apple's "Siri."

Apparently, only one child - shown occasionally, and living in the only single family home left in LA amid the glorious, post-ironic Utopia of high-rise apartments - appears in the movie.  Children are, I guess, not really going to exist in the future, save for as a sort of nostalgic reminder, rather like a rotary telephone in a museum.

The ideal future is a child-free one.  But then, there are also no old people, so maybe it will be OK.

Think also of the 'hot' places to live - San Francisco, or TriBeCa, or Williamsburg or Cobble Hill in (God forbid) Brooklyn.  "Walkable" areas marked by trendy restaurants and faux-antique hardware stores.  They are not family-friendly.  San Francisco - perhaps the pinnacle of hipness - has the fewest children per capita of any large American city.

The future belongs to those who show up, but that, apparently will not include creative classes.  The unpleasant task of having and raising a family will be outsourced.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

François Hollande: "Moche et Minable" (Gross and Shabby)

The news in France today got a bit funnier.  For those not familiar, the president, François Hollande, has added to his growing list of problems getting caught in an affair.  Now, the affair itself would likely not be a problem - past French presidents made little effort to hide their indiscretions, and this sort of thing can be summed up in the two word response of former head of state François Mitterand, when confronted with his latest peccadillo:  "Et alors?" (so what?)

The French news and public opinion are reacting not to the affair, but the rather classless way it's been handled by Hollande.

It seems that the economy and social order are just two among many affairs that he is incompetent at dealing with.  Jokes about him sneaking off to a small apartment on a dingy scooter in a plastic helmet under dark of night, and having his security spirit in croissants the next morning are all about. (NB: in France, the croissant is a cheap breakfast food - the least Hollande could do would be to provide some decent coffee and a pain au chocolat).

The video above from a local news broadcast is making the rounds today in France.  Sorry for the non-French speaker, but it is all in French.  But no matter, the operative items here are when the reporter on camera asks the Primer Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault,
Comment avez-vous trouvé le Président de République (how did you find the president)
one of the newsreaders back in the studio, in synch with the question, responds
moche et minable (gross and shabby)
to a round of laughter.  It seems she failed to note that her microphone was still on.  Later, the male newsreader apologises for the audience having heard "the little joke of Michelle, who thought her microphone was off."

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

You Learn Something New Every Day

Contemporary Flag of the
Ottoman Empire, ca 1680

The Famous Viennoiserie: Le Croissant

One of the small pleasures that riding the train every day to work is the opportunity to spend thirty minutes reading, rather than gripping the steering wheel in growing frustration at the stupidity of other motorists around you (pace George Carlin).  In Paris, there is a number of "free" news sheets that are on offer in the entrances to the various Métro stations, and I usually try to grab one on the way in.  I have found this to be a way to stay in touch with the basic local and world goings-on, to brush up my language skills, as well as an enjoyable way to pass the time.

The particular news I usually read is in Direct Matin.  The writing tends to be a bit on the sensational side (e.g., yesterday, there was a report of a shooting in Paris, where the victims were described thusly: "Leurs jours ne seraient toutefois pas en danger." (their days would not be in danger).

One of the interesting features of Direct Matin is a daily section called "Pourquoi?" (why?), where a reader's question on some quotidian topic is answered.  Yesterday's question concerned the origin of the halos seen above saints in religious paintings and statues.

Today's offering asked why croissants have their distinctive shape.  The answer I found quite surprising - it turns out, the famous pastry is not French - a fact that I ought to have suspected, I guess, from the fact that they are generically referred to as Viennoiserie, a cognate most English speakers will be able to sound out.  As that name implies, the croissant has its origins in Austria, and its shape from further to the east.

As it turns out, during the siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Turks in the seventeenth century, bakers, who work very early in the morning before dawn, apparently heard the Turks trying to undermine the city walls, and raised the alarm, helping turn back the invasion.  As an homage to the bakers and in celebration, the government authorised the new pastry, to be shaped like the crescent moon seen in the Ottoman flags.

The pastry came to France some years later, apparently, with Mary Antoinette (in France, often referred to as Marie Autriche - Marie the Austrian), who herself was a Viennese import.  Obviously, the croissant lasted longer and was more beloved than the queen, who later became associated with a rude quip about eating bread.

Another thing that was revealed is that, due to its origins, the eating of croissants is explicitly banned by many fundamentalist Islamist militants.  Seems that they know their pastries in addition to their military history.

So, enjoy a croissant and thumb your nose at the radical jihadists who, it turns out, may actually hate us for our choose flaky pastries for breakfast.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Billions and Billions

Cover Art from Classical Text on Fractal Geometry

Read a quasi-scientific news release from the BBC that reported that scientists have mapped our universe to within one per cent accuracy.  Announced at the 223 meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) were the findings of the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscope Survey (or, BOSS - how nice), in which a new "gold standard" has been set.  To quote from Professor David Schlegel (a professor of physics at Lawrence Berkeley Labs, and no relation to Immanuel Kant):

There are not many things in our daily lives that we know to 1% accuracy. I now know the size of the universe better than I know the size of my house. 
Twenty years ago astronomers were arguing about estimates that differed by up to 50%. Five years ago, we'd refined that uncertainty to 5%; a year ago it was 2%
Don't know how precisely I know the size of my house, but plainly, he is talking about tolerances, and this is an odd sort of comparison.  I would guess he knows the size of his house to within a few square metres, so in one sense, he surely knows its size much better than he does the size of the universe.  Precision as measured by effect size is a bit of tricky sledding.

Still, the announcement and information are remarkable, and provoked a discussion on whether the universe is finite or infinite.  Of course, I had always been of the impression that it was infinite, but it turns out that that may not be accurate. Quoting Professor Schlegel once again:

While we can't say with certainty, it's likely the universe extends forever in space and will go on forever in time. Our results are consistent with an infinite universe.

What would it mean for the universe - which it turns out, is actually quite flat; suddenly, those "flat earth society" jokes aren't quite so funny, huh? - to be flat boggles my mind at least.  Flat and finite. Hmmm....

One of the comments I read said, rather of matter-of-factly, that "of course the universe is infinite.  If it were finite, then one would simply go to the end, and then go a bit further," offering a bit of a pseudo-mathematial inductionist argument.

I'm not so sure that that flies.

I was reminded of my days in high school when the concept of proof by mathematical induction was introduced to me.  (NB:  quickly, the way an inductive proof is made is to take a fixed case, show that the conjecture is true for THAT case, set this case to "N," and then show it to be true for the case of N+1.  The argument is then bootstrapped into the general case).

It was, as I recall, all quite elegant.

A cartoon was used in the book to illustrate the principle, describing a parable of a young boy, who, upon approaching a guru, asked as to how the earth stood "up" in space without falling.  The guru immediately answered that there is a giant, invisible elephant in space holding up the earth.

The boy then asked what held the elephant in space.  Well, of course, another elephant held the first.

After several asked-and-answered questions, the guru tired, and said that the universe itself is simply held by elephants, one holding the next, ad infinitum.

I find these sorts of arguments - the inductive as well as the guru and elephant - less than satisfactory.  Topology does not translate directly and perfectly to the real world.  Reaching the edge of the universe, if it be indeed finite, one cannot simply go beyond.

Topology works in the case of the Heine-Borel theorem.  It may not stand up to the Prime Directive.

Anyways, it's a big breakthrough, and if the universe turns out to be, indeed, finite, then the elephant guru's life just got that much simpler.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Dieudnonne: Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite

My family and I left the US for life in Paris, France a while back, and have been enjoying it immensely.  Contrary to American stereotypes, the people have largely been quite nice and accommodating.  And of course, life in Paris has a lot to be said for it - the architecture, the food, the history.

The official motto, if not philosophy, of la république, is the famous battle cry of the past: "Liberté (freedom), Egalité (equality), Fraternité (brotherhood).  I've heard that if the list were put in the order of actual importance, equality would come first, and liberty at the end.

That said, France is the land of Voltaire, who is often (wrongly) associated with the famous quote that one may "disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."  In fact, the quote belongs to Evelyn Beatrice Hall (herself English) who wrote a biography of Voltaire.

One frequently hears self-proclaimed liberals invoking the quote.  Sometimes, just before they condemn someone whose politics they don't like, and just after passing a speech code.

In the US, there is a First Amendment, guaranteeing one the freedom to say what one likes without risk of government prosecution.  There are limits, of course.  No such explicit right exists in France, though it is generally true that one may say what one likes so long as one stays within certain vague boundaries.  That's, of course, not real free speech, but close to it.  Something like the way that Velveeta - a "cheese food product" emulates cheese.

Anyhow, this has become clear in France as we witness the déroulement of events surrounding the "humourist" Dieudonné M'bala M'bala.  Known more broadly in France by his given name Dieudonné (his actual name, as irony would have it), the provocateur has irritated the local government and chattering classes with a thinly-veiled anti-semitic "salute" which he has named la quenelle.

Being that I am not French, I had never heard of this guy, but he is quite well-known as a second-rate comedian, third-rate actor, and bottom-feeding politician. Despite this, he is currently dominating the news in France, largely because the government, led by the Interior Minister Manuel Valls (he is the head of domestic policy, including the police), have decided that enough is enough with Dieudonné, and have thusly moved to block his shows.  Citing a vague threat to "public security," the socialist government sought court action to ensure that the show not go on.

(As an aside, in French, these shows are called spectacles, which I do not doubt that they are, in the English sense.)

Make no mistake - I have zero sympathies for a thug like this guy, but I am shocked to see the government here - the land of Voltaire - move to ban his performances.  In essence, they are making what amounts to offensive speech illegal.

My feelings all along have been that freedom of speech exists not to protect speech we like - even North Korea allows one to offer fawning encomia to the current (insert obsequious superlative) Leader; freedom of speech means tolerating - even defending - speech we find repugnant.

Not sure if this 'news' has made it to the US, but I presume it has in one sense - the local paper ran a story about basketball player Tony Parker, a French citizen, who made a quenelle during a game, and has subsequently been brow-beaten into an overwrought apology.

Equally disturbing - France has, despite its greatness, very real problems.  Unemployment is very high.  The torching of 1100 cars on New Year's Eve represents a reduction over 2012.  A couple of thousand soldiers are deployed in God-forsaken central Africa despite overwhelming public opposition.  The recent PISA (school tests) results show the schools here slipping.  The country has massive camps of illegal immigrants festering just beyond the gleaming cities, with sky-high crime and other social maladies, which the government seems utterly impotent to do a thing about.

And the top priority for the government is to try to crush out an obnoxious, unfunny comedian.  Valls was headlined today, after an appeals court overturned another lower court who had ruled that the ban was a violation of basic free speech, commenting that "la République a gagnée" (the republic has won).  Well, the republic - the state - may have won; but its citizens have lost something.  Something more important.

I personally think this is the ultimate bread and circuses sideshow.

But I am further reminded of an equally famous comment by William F Buckley - to paraphrase: Liberals claim to want to defend and listen to other views, but are then shocked and even offended to discover that there in fact, are views other than their own.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Putting the Language to a REAL Test

I understand that back in the US, there has been a period of terrible cold recently - images have made their way to France of frozen people trudging through mounds of snow.  One can imagine the howling winds.  My teeth begin to chatter just by looking (almost).

What a perfect backdrop for the mail that landed in my inbox this morning, from Stub Hub.

Lauded as "Old-school hockey" returns.

Matches are set for play later this month in outdoor venues.  When I was younger, I can remember playing pick-up hockey on a frozen pond in Hanover, New Hampshire, so I can appreciate to a degree the appeal.

The matches will be played at Yankee Stadium (New York Rangers and Islanders) and Soldier Field in Chicago (Blackhawks will welcome the Pittsburgh Penguins).

While "Yankee Stadium" is no longer the House that Ruth built, the original having been torn down and replaced in 2008, and while the Islanders and Penguins are not from The Original Six, there is a sort of old-school feel to a battle played in the cold. And incidentally, what is more of a "tough guy" image for a hockey match than playing in "Soldier Field?"  Perhaps the best name for a stadium in professional sport.

But then, one sees the final matchup.  The Los Angeles Kings will take on the Anaheim Ducks.  At DODGER STADIUM.


To call that "old school" strains credulity to the point of breaking.

Incidentally, I hope the fans in Southern California remember their cotton pull-overs.  Winter in Los Angeles can be quite nippy...

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Ne Mets Pas Tes Mains Sur Les Portes!

Le Lapin RATP (aka "Serge, le Lapin Rose")

Today, because my wife had some business to take care of, I took our eight-year old son to his school.  This afforded me some extra time on the RATP (the famous Metro of Paris), as his school is the opposite direction of my usual trip to work.  This time was further augmented when I connected to the suburban RER-A that carries travellers out of Paris to the ring suburbs - an announcement was made that "a cause d'un panne de signalisation a l'Auber, le traffic est fortement ralenti dans l'ensemble de la ligne..." - and thus was further delayed on my out-journey.

I'm not a public transit fetishist like many of my former friends, peers, and acquaintances in northern California.  But I do appreciate the utility in certain circumstances.

Today was one such.

Living in a city of many millions of people, one can easily appreciate the up-side to an efficient and well-run (the panne de signalisation to the side) is.

The trip from my son's school in one of the western arrondissements of the city to Rueil includes two Metro lines - a switch at Trocadero - and one RER - which one reaches at the Etoile station.

During rush hour, the trains seem either by good planning or good fortune to be in relative synchrony.  In the corridors, the foot traffic is (for a Latin country) well-co-ordinated: People headed to the RER keep to the right, those headed back to the Metro the left.  There are stair wells where one must go down ("Passage Interdit") and those which one must ascend, and the conventions are obeyed.

But what strikes me the most is the silent way people go about getting from A to B.  A friend who also is currently living in Paris on a sabbatical - another Bay area refugee of sorts - remarked about how odd it was that, in the crowded subway cars, the French are practically silent.  I had not noticed it, but in paying attention, he is correct.  People are crammed together, but save for the occasional "pardon" one hears when a fellow passenger wishes to get off (or on) the train, words are generally not exchanged.  In the tunnels between the platforms, if there is not a busker, one hears the clop, clop, clop of hard-soled shoes as the people march from train to train.  In the cars, the creaking of the breaks or the rattle of the wheels - occasionally broken by the messages one hears when there is a slow-down - are all that meets the ears.

It's an eerie feeling.  In Paris, not like, say, the New York MTA, people seem to observe that 'their' space begins and ends within themselves and that others on the train have their own space, and thus don't talk loudly on their phones or to one another.  Relative quiet is valued, a stark feeling for an American.

The whole scenario takes some getting used to, but one that I think makes a crowded, somewhat stressful environment eminently more tolerable.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

I Saw a Ship a Sailing, Part 2

Some months ago, I wrote of the news of an old college friend who had had a brain tumour; the tumour turned out to be cancerous.

Yesterday, Ben (the friend) celebrated his 44th birthday - so he's older than I am.

He celebrated the birthday in grand form, and shared pictures of himself skating on a rink that had been set up in Boston's Fenway Park.  Ben and his family have been kind to update those of us far flung on his progress, which I am happy to say has been good.

Also shared were holiday pictures, including a couple with the Boston Red Sox's (Sox'?) 2013 World Series Trophy - Ben is from New England, and a life-long fan of the Red Sox.

Now, I personally hate the Red Sox, but am willing to let this go.

Hope to see of him singing the national anthem again at Fenway this year (as he has done in the past), though sorry; still cannot bring myself to cheer for a Boston victory.

Friendship has its limits.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Who Knows, You Might Even Meet THIS Guy

Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video, Part 1

The 2013 holiday season is over, 2014 has begun, and it's back to work.

I was speaking on Christmas Day with my mother, who was visiting in Cleveland, Ohio.  A couple of siblings had come into town (one from California, the other from Georgia) to celebrate.  We talked about a number of things, including the past, present, and presumed future.

Among the topics was the city of Cleveland and northeast Ohio more broadly.  

My family moved to the Cleveland suburbs at the very end of 1980 (late December, if memory is correct), so whilst it's not really true that I "come" from Cleveland, I spent a number of my formative years in the city, and though I've been gone for more than 20 years and have spent virtually all of my adult life (and a good chunk of years as a kid) elsewhere, I remember the area mostly fondly.

My sister, who lives just outside the San Francisco Bay Area, and my brother, who resides in Atlanta, from time to time express a desire to return to Cleveland.  Both are three years younger than I am, spent more time in the area than I did, and have a stronger "home" tie to Cleveland.  I like to tease my brother about the city, and have had more than one go-round about the video above, a satirical "travel guide" which was put to YouTube by a professional comedian. 

Turns out, the guy (Mike Polk) himself is from nearby (Warren, Ohio), and has written a book entitled Damn Right I'm from Cleveland. 

Some of the jokes in the video seem good-natured ("the Flats look like a Scooby-Doo ghost town").  But some I think might be a bit too close to the truth.

One of the spots focuses on a barren patch of land with the comment that "here's a place where there used to be industry;" another, showing a train heading to some unmentioned destination with the tag, "this train is carrying jobs out of Cleveland."

The struggles of the city are well-known, including the implosion of the steel and auto industries, the default of the city, the immolation of the Cuyahoga River, the disappointments of the Indians/Browns/Cavaliers.  Cleveland had a population of just under a million residents in 1950.  At that time, it was (I believe) the 9th largest city in America.

Cleveland and its leadership have tried to right the ship.  The old rail terminal under the Terminal Tower (the signature building in the city) was converted to a nice retail mall (that was mostly empty the last time I visited).  The Rock Hall of Fame opened just after I moved away.  The Indians opened a new stadium.  Slogans have been tried.

What result?

Today, the population stands at less than half of its peak, and Cleveland has fallen to 47th on the list of cities.

In our family, I live in Paris, France.  Another brother lives in New England.  My mother has returned to Canada.  My oldest friend lives in Texas.  

As stated, my youngest siblings have indicated that they would like to return, and in fact, I believe my sister is actively looking to return.  My friend left Cleveland not necessarily by choice, but out of necessity to provide for his family.

If I wanted to return to Ohio, what would I be able to do?  

So the question I had was, how is it that a city gets to the point that its educated, productive citizens who would like to remain, simply are not able to because the outlook is frankly too bleak?  Does the city reach a point of no return - a death vortex - which, with increasing speed, spins out those who would/could make it a thriving, vital location that people want to live?  Has Cleveland reached such a point, where, for all the talk about growth, and the future, and perpetual comebacks has become a fantasy?

Detroit comes to mind.  The video ends with a quip that "at least we're not Detroit."  I am not so sure.

I laugh about the video, but it is in fact quite sad.