Monthly Archives: December 2019

Collecting the wrong information

Some people seem to think that if you have a problem or an issue, all you need to do is to collect enough information about it, and that will tell you the answer.

Robert McNamara has provided a stark counter-example. As well as being the Secretary of Defence during the Cuban missile crisis and president of Ford motor company, McNamara was a statistics analyst for the US airforce during WW2.

In the story he told, the Americans did a huge analysis of data from repair reports on B17 bombers, the plan being to add armour to the areas of the aircraft most commonly damaged, because bomber losses were so high. You can’t armour the whole plane, because of weight, so it was incredibly important that the armour went in the right place.

As McNamara told the story, one of the guys on the team, a Jewish mathematician named Abraham Wald (who had been thrown out of Austria because of Nazi anti-semitism), discussed the project with an armourer who’d been shipped back from overseas, who was helping the design team with the armour kits.

The armourer told Wald the project was all wrong; that he’s seen planes fly home with damage in all the areas they were armouring. Then Wald had a eureka moment – he drew a diagram of the bomber, and ruled out every area where a plane had come home with a bullet hole in that part. The diagram was stark – no plane had ever come home with damage in certain angles of the cockpit (where a bullet would kill both pilots) or at the base of the vertical stabiliser.

Wald had realised that the planes that had been shot in these bullet-free zones never made it home to be accounted for. They changed the armour, and crew survival rates shot up.

McNamara told the story to make a point about data – he said had they just followed the data, it would have led them to armour the places the plane could survive a hit and get back, not the places that would always bring the aircraft down if they were shattered.

So you need to collect the right information, because collecting the wrong information can mislead you to a wrong conclusion – in the above case the opposite conclusion to the right one.

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Scott Aaronson and Steve Pinker decry language policing

Why Evolution Is True

On December 12 I reported on what has to get the award for Dumbest Pecksniffery of 2019. A group of 16 computer scientists wrote a letter to Nature saying that their colleagues (and everyone) should stop using the phrase “quantum supremacy”, a term that refers to the ability of a quantum-computing device being to do what conventional computers simply cannot. The language police, always sniffing about for something to condemn, decided that the word “supremacy” was unpalatable: the title of their Nature letter was “Supremacy is for racists—use ‘quantum advantage’.” (I see the title has now been changed to simply “Instead of ‘supremacy’ use ‘quantum advantage.” That already shows they knew they overstepped.)

At any rate, here’s a bit of the Pecksniff’s plaint:

In our view, ‘supremacy’ has overtones of violence, neocolonialism and racism through its association with ‘white supremacy’. Inherently violent language has crept into other branches of science…

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Dora Maar @ Tate Modern

Books & Boots

This is the most comprehensive retrospective of photographer and painter Dora Maar ever held.

Dora Maar photographed by Man Ray (1936)

Brief synopsis

  • Maar was a successful fashion and commercial photographer in the early 1930s
  • a social documentary photographer in the mid-1930s, as well as being a left-wing political activist, signing manifestos, going on marches
  • she developed into a dazzling surrealist photographer in the mid to late-1930s
  • Maar was introduced to Picasso in 1935 and was his mistress for nine years, documenting the creation of his 1937 masterpiece Guernica, providing the model for thirty or so many paintings and many drawings on the theme of the Weeping woman, and under his encouragement taking up painting again
  • 1944 saw the break-up with Picasso, and the start of years struggling with depression – she never returned to photography
  • 1940s to her death in 1997: experiments with a range of painting styles…

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J. K. Rowling demonized for defending another woman who considers trans-women different from “biological women”

Why Evolution Is True

Well, it finally happened: writer J. K. Rowling, who’s been vocally progressive in her politics since she became famous, has now become demonized for being a “transphobe”. What that means is that she gave support, on Twitter, to another woman who was fired from her job (a charity) because she refused to recognize transsexual females (male —> female) as completely equivalent to biological females. The court case about the firing is summarized by Andrew Sullivan (who has views similar to Rowling) in his latest New York Magazine column, and he links to the judge’s decision declaring that the woman supported by Rowling, Maya Forstater, had every right to be fired. Another account of the case, insisting that Forstater was indeed a hateful transphobe, was given by Vox, which also displays many anti-Rowling tweets as if to buttress its stand. (Vox is quickly becoming like HuffPo.)


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Obama suggests that women should run all the countries in the world

Relevance deprivation syndrome?

Why Evolution Is True

This provocative statement of Barack Obama made many headlines today (this one from CNBC), and the article below gives some data showing that women excel in several measures of leadership.

A quick summary:

A recent Gallup Poll found that when it comes to bosses, Americans . As women continue striving for representation as leaders, former U.S. President Barack Obama recently shared a message heard around the world: More women need to be put in positions of power “because men seem to be having some problems these days,” he said at an invitation-only event in Paris Saturday, AFP reports.

“Not to generalize but women seem to have a better capacity than men do, partly because of their socialization,” Obama said.

. . . Although Obama didn’t mention any particular male leaders who are currently having problems, he did speak of “the importance of more focus on putting women in power, because…

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Pre-Raphaelite Sisters @ the National Portrait Gallery

Books & Boots

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was an art movement set up initially by three idealistic young art students (John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt) in 1848 and lasted in its first form until 1853.

However, the initial founders were joined by followers, including the young disciples William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, who evolved a style of medievalising, idealising and spiritualising art which endured till the end of the nineteenth century. In the latters’ hands many of the PRB values evolved into the Arts and Crafts Movement which went on to influence craftspeople across the country and abroad.

Possibly the most memorable style associated with the original Pre-Raphaelites is the depiction of long-gowned, long-necked beautiful women with cupid lips and frizzy hair, brought to perfection in the later paintings of one of the founders and central figures, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti…

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Andrew Sullivan on Boris Johnson, Labour, and the lessons for America

Why Evolution Is True

For a while Andrew Sullivan has been a). strongly criticizing Trump, b). saying that while he opposed Brexit personally, the referendum results should still stand, and c). arguing that the excesses of the American Left endanger our getting a Democrat in the White House in 2020.  I agree with a), don’t know enough about Brexit to venture an educated opinion, and, as for c)., I still think that the Left needs to curb wokeness to appeal to more centrist voters, though I am now more confident than I was a few months ago that Trump can’t win re-election. (You’re allowed to chastise me of that if he does.) But I do think that a hard “Medicare for All” program, with no choice (I do favor a Medicare option for everyone), and a failure to address immigration will constitute serious problems for a Democratic candidate.

In this week’s New York Magazine

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Is “white empiricism” hindering physics?

Why Evolution Is True

My ears always perk up when I hear the claim that there are special ways of doing science (“ways of knowing” if you will), that are practiced by different groups, and that the nature of science would be different, and better, if these groups are included in science.  There is a modicum of truth in this. Nobody denies that, in the past, oppressed people—women, minorities, and so on—have not been given the same opportunities to enter science as, say, white men. And I can think of at least one case in which the interests of different groups, by being different, have enriched science. (I think that the presence of women in evolutionary biology, for example, could have prompted the increasing emphasis on female choice in “Darwinian” sexual selection, though of course males have also done pioneering work in that area and my contention is aguable.)

But in general, though social…

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Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art @ Barbican

Books & Boots

This is a fabulous exhibition, packed with wonderful paintings, photos, films, drawings, posters and all kinds of memorabilia connected with a dozen or so avant-garde and trend-setting nightclubs around the world from the 1880s to the 1960s, And as well as all the lovely works and ideas and stories, it raises a number of questions, which I’ll address at the end of this review…

First the clubs and their stories. The Barbican exhibition space is laid out not as ‘rooms’ but as successive alcoves or spaces running off the first floor gallery, from which you look down onto the ground floor which can be divided up into various areas, or opened up to make one through-space (as they did for the Lee Krasner exhibition).

There are eight of these room-sized alcoves upstairs, and in this exhibition each one tells the story of one or two famous nightclubs which became a focus…

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The Quiet Revolution, Boyer lectures 2012, by Marcia Langton

ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

Every year, ABC Radio invites a public intellectual to give a series of lectures. Inaugurated in 1959 as ABC Lectures, they were renamed as the Boyer Lectures in 1961 as a memorial to Sir Richard Boyer, who as chairman of the ABC had led their introduction.  (You can see past programs and still listen to some of them, here.)

In 2012, Professor Marcia Langton, a descendant of the Yiman and Bidjara people of Queensland, introduced the 53rd series of lectures with a statement that is probably still true today:

The emergence of an Aboriginal middle class in Australia in the last two to three decades has gone largely unnoticed. (p.31)

While she acknowledges that the numbers are small, they portend  an economic future for Aboriginal people unimaginable fifty years ago. Langton herself, she tells us later in the lectures, was born at a time when Indigenous people weren’t…

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