Tuesday, 24 October 2006

maths discourse

I love the rhetoric of maths. You have to write extremely simply, no letting the words get in the way of the concepts. You can talk about "climbing a peak" (getting to an important result). And sometimes unexpectedly, when you think you are halfway through the proof: "and now we're done." And it's like turning a corner and seeing the view. Or another thing: after some difficult proof in the book, they'll toss in some massively important result as a two-line lemma.

Lemma. Proposition. Theorem. Claim. Proof. Hah!

back at school

Just got back from Lucy's fabulous wedding. I thought I would be really glum to be back in the US but actually it hasn't been that bad. Next thing up is the midterm on Thursday. Yes, we have midterm exams!

In fact being here in general is like being back at school. I hand in weekly homework, they mark it with a red pen. And we have exams which you have to do on little A5 exercise books, like when you were 12. The big difference obviously is that the questions have got harder in the meantime. So both us political scientists are quaking in our boots at the thought of being shamed by all those practitioners of the premier social science.

Mum has a robust attitude to all of this, however. A dry comment on the phone to a friend of hers: "David is studying political science, which seems to be nothing but Higher Mathematics". Or as she once said: "but darling, isn't all this mathematical stuff just a fad?"

Before you laugh, note that Ma is usually Right In The End.

Eid mubarak

Eid mubarak to all bloggers in Iraq, and also to my Mum's friends from Pakistan, especially the Zaki family.

Friday, 20 October 2006

Great survey of Iraqi bloggers

From Treasure of Baghdad . Includes a bunch of different answers to the question "Do you think the war was worth it?"

Monday, 16 October 2006

Have we all gone mad?

Some of the top-rated comments on the BBC website about this teaching assistant who wore the veil:

"As citizens we can only reasonably claim rights if we accept the obligation to show consideration to others. In this country the vast majority belong to a culture which is deeply ill at ease with the veil. The onus must be on the small minority who wish to dress this way to accommodate to the prevailing norm, just as western women are expected to dress discretely in Moslem countries."

This was the top rated comment. Actually, rights are inalienable, and we have them whether we are considerate or not. What I find astounding, also, is the implicit idea that we ought to judge ourselves by the standards of Saudi Arabia, or how minorities are tolerated in, say, Iran or Pakistan.

"Yes they should take it off,and when they go on a bus the driver cannot see if it is that person that is on a bus pass, this is never right if they want to live in this way they should go to a country where it is there way of life."

Now this man is really getting to the heart of things. It's the muslims, they only wear the veil to get the free bus passes! I've lived in this country all my life you know...

But my all time favourite:

"Its perfectly simple. No one in Britain should be allowed to put themselves in a position whereby others cannot see them or fully identify them at all times."


Just wow.

Words fail me, so I'll cut and paste some John Stuart Mill, and add a few big angry italics:

This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. ... Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow; without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong....

No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest."

So anyway, that is the kind of country I want to live in. What kind of country these people want to live in, I don't know. Heaven knows I am no cultural relativist. But this is surely just a straightforward issue of individual freedom. If you can't cope with the fact that people are different from you, if you can't live in society alongside people whose fundamental opinions and values you dislike, fear or despise - then you are not ready to live in a modern society.

Saturday, 14 October 2006

Vice Guide to Chicago

Someone gave me a copy of this essential document. For a taster, here's the Art subsection in its entirety:


Art is for dorks.

Sunday, 1 October 2006

NWU, Evanston, Illinois, America

Thought I should give you an update. This will probably take a bit of time to write - I have a lot of new impressions, and am also very busy. (Update: very busy.)

Northwestern: the course is good, and very intensive. Essentially I'm with the first year econ PhDs. They work them very hard here. I have about 12 hours of lectures a week. These require doing the reading. If you don't do the reading, in most cases you will get little or nothing out of the lecture. It is complicated mathematical stuff: the foundations of microeconomics, techniques in linear algebra, real analysis in mathematics and so forth. These are books where you read a few pages at a time. Then there are the problem sets: three a week, the fourth course doesn't seem to have them. These can take anything up to a day to do. A typical cycle is: look at them on your own, then meet up with a group to swap ideas, insights and solutions (for most courses this is allowed), then write up solutions and maybe finally another group meeting to talk over what you've got.

End result: most days and evenings, I'm busy. I probably worked harder during my final year at Cambridge, or (in different ways) while at the Simon Community or running my business. But this is the hardest academic work I've done for a long time.

A large part of me loves this. I always liked school, doing exams etc.... I was that kind of kid. Still am. And I find the problems intellectually fascinating, even though they involve no cutting-edge ideas - it's all just "the basics" in terms of what you need to be an economist/mathematician/positive political theorist. I can practically feel my brain expanding. And a lot of the other students are much better than me at this stuff. (Damn!)

Another large part of me is knackered. I need to get into a work rhythm that gives me time for myself. At the moment I find myself waking up and still being tired... coming home late... not having time for exercise... and so forth. This is not really a good or sustainable lifestyle.

More broadly... Evanston. Evanston reminds me of Wimbledon. I am moving across the city limits to Rogers Park in a week. Roger's Park is supposedly a dodgy area but I tend to think that American cities are not that bad.

At the moment I am living in Evanston with two beautiful blondes called Blaze and Cheyenne, who like to run around the house naked. When I get home they lick me all over and one of them puts her head between my legs. I will try and post some HOT NAKED PICTURES of these lovelies.... I can hear one of them panting as I type this. Woof!

America. Mmph. I have got Minima Moralia out of the library.* It's hard to be an immigrant. And me... well, I'm a cultural elitist in the land of Disney, an agnostic among the godly, and a drinker in a place where beer is £4 a pint. But.... Every year a lot of people from the UK come here. They must know something. Maybe I am just grumbling because in the UK I am quite a privileged middle class person and here, it's a stand-on-your-own-two-feet place and you are, as Paddy McAloon would say, only as good as the last great thing you've done. Maybe it's just a curve I'm going through. I left the UK thinking good riddance to smug old Auntie and it's embarrassing how soon I started downloading Radio 4 podcasts....

Random fact: David Austen-Smith does Tae Kwon Do.

* Theodor Adorno wrote Minima Moralia at a particularly bleak time of his life, as a newly arrived exile from Germany during World War II. It's a classic of bitter cultural analysis written by a hypersensitive man who is clearly missing his home very much. But... he stayed on and even, I guess, found some kind of accommodation with mainstream American academia: his empirical work on the authoritarian personality, with Horkheimer, unearthed a fox in social psychology which continued to run for some time.