Notable words, Q3 2016

  • Saffronisation (Hinglish n.): official idealisation of ancient Hindu society: nationalist indoctrination masked as anti-Orientalism. At the limit, includes claims that Vedic India had TV, cars, and stem cell therapy. See also bhagwakaran.

  • Dark pool (n.): a secret asset market (private as in not governmental and private as in confidential). No transparency, no public "market depth" reporting or identities. Reduces market impact of your trading and hides your strategies from others. Legal, mostly.

  • Brownout (US n.): Reduction in the available electricity supply which knocks out high-voltage devices for a number of hours. Sometimes intentional, to stop e.g. thunderstorms from overloading the grid and causing fires. A mediocre blackout.

  • salty (adj.): touchy; of a person who is acting irritable because of their failure. A taunt in PvP culture. Britain is very salty at the moment.

  • Convex hull (n.): The smallest symmetrical shape that contains all of a given set of points. Awesome word for "tightest perimeter". Used heavily in GIS like Google Maps.

  • yak shaving (v.): two useful meanings: 1) procrastination that creeps up on you in the pursuit of actual goals:
    "I want to wax the car today. Oops, the hose is still broken from the winter. I'll need to buy a new one at Home Depot. But Home Depot is on the other side of the Tappan Zee bridge and getting there without my EZPass is miserable because of the tolls. But, wait! I could borrow my neighbor's EZPass... Bob won't lend me his EZPass until I return the mooshi pillow my son borrowed, though. And we haven't returned it because some of the stuffing fell out and we need to get some yak hair to restuff it." And the next thing you know, you're at the zoo, shaving a yak, all so you can wax your car.
    2) apparently useless activity that ends up serendipitously solving another real problem you were having. You never know which it is.

  • to golf away (v.): to solve through cleverness; to rewrite code in fewer lines through "code golf", virtuoso algorithmics.

  • FUD (n.): 'Fear, uncertainty, and doubt'. Used by grass-roots politicians to explain why they don't succeed: for the status quo sowed voters with FUD.

  • ramuno (Italian n.): the imaginary unit i. A C19th contraction of "radice di meno uno".

  • kayfabe (n.): The code of silence of stage wrestlers (about the sport's fakeness). An omerta. Possibly a Pig-Latin-like mush of "fake" ('ake-fay') with "be fake".

  • exit (n.): a corporate buy-out of your startup. Named after what the founder then does regardless of personal fallout?

  • khap (Hindi n.): An unofficial local council of northern India. Like a race-based Neighbourhood Watch. Often deeply regressive.

  • empty product (n.): The result of multiplying no numbers together. By convention, this is 1! (Ex nihilo unum fit!) Required in number theory to explain why 1 isn't prime, etc.


Highlighted passages in Holloway's Leaving Alexandria

God chose to empty himself of language and become a life. But along comes Christianity and turns it back into words, trillions of them, poured out incessantly in pulpit, book and on the airwaves, reducing the mystery of what is beyond all utterance to chatter. I told them I had come to mind religious overconfi­dence more than I minded its atheistic opposite, because atheists did not claim to put ultimate reality into words.

agnosticism should not be described as a hypothesis, because it is not positing an answer to the question so much as learning to live without one

...there is no doubt that Anglo-Catholicism, as it evolved, became attractive to gay men, though the reasons for this are probably more theo­logically rooted than is commonly understood. The high camp aesthetic of the more florid wings of the movement was clearly attractive to a certain kind of gay sensibility, as anyone who has had to negotiate a high mass in one of the more fashionable outposts of Anglo-Catholicism will testify. This is surface attrac­tion, however, and there is usually a certain amount of self-parody going on. At a deeper level something more interesting and more moving is happening. Even in societies that have stopped persecuting homosexuals, gays remain a minority community, and minorities are always under some kind of threat from the surrounding majority, even if it is only from their curiosity about or incomprehension over their sex lives. Gays will always be outsiders in straight commu­nities, and it is their status as outsiders that draws some of them to Christianity and, in particular, to its Anglo-Catholic variant.

I have known many gay priests over the years. What has moved me most about their persistence in remaining within a Church that at best only grudgingly accepts them, and at worst actively persecutes them, is their identification not with campery and high jinks in the sanctuary, but with the figure of Jesus, the great Outsider.

His theory of profession, based in gaudy Saturday matinées:
I loved the cinemas on Sauchiehall Street and Renfield Street; much grander than anything in the Vale. So I usually devoured the advertisements in the Sunday Mail for ‘future presentations’ in the Glasgow picture house. One Monday morning I found myself describing to a group of boys an exciting movie I had not actually been to, but had seen advertised in the Sunday Mail. Soon I was locked into a playground routine on Monday mornings, as a group of boys gathered round me to hear about the movie I had ‘seen’ that Saturday. I became fluent at spinning stories based on the information I’d picked up from the previous day’s paper; and I began to feel guilty about it. One night, in an agony of remorse, I woke my mother and poured out my difficulty. "It’s a’ right, Dick, she said. You’ve jist goat a good imagination. Don’t worry about it. Go back to bed." And I went back absolved.

Implicit in my fraudulence was a theory of religion, though it would take me years to figure it out. I was to become fascinated by Saint Paul’s description of Christian preachers as ‘deceivers yet true’. We become true deceivers when we under­stand the purpose of our deceptions, when we admit that the stories we tell carry their own meaning within them, even if there is no objective reality beyond them, no movie actually seen, no stone actually rolled away from the tomb. Trouble comes when we understand what’s going on and start feeling guilty about it. That’s when we become false deceivers. To be a true deceiver you have to believe your deception — the movie actually seen, the stone actually rolled from the tomb by an angel. Tell your listeners that there was no movie, no resurrec­tion, but that the story itself has its own power to release them — try to stop deceiving them, in fact — and they will turn on you.

I never found it hard to reject the vulgarity of the idea of Hell and see it only as human darkness made visible. We have made enough Hell on earth to know how creative human cruelty can be, not excluding the grimmer theological metaphors it makes up. It was never fear of Hell that was to haunt me. It was the lacerating sadness of disappointing God that hurt. The idea of the heartbroken God reaching out to his children for their love and being rejected by them is emotionally powerful.

David Hume noted that, while errors in philosophy were only ridiculous, errors in religion were dangerous. They were dangerous because when supreme convic­tion is threatened it turns nasty. There would be a time when I would land in that trap myself, but I wasn’t there yet. I was with Schweitzer and his escape from words to action. The romance of religion was alive in them — something greater than themselves was pulling them — but it was shown only in love and service. Whatever doubts they had about the claims of Christianity, the need to help the poor was self-evident to them. They were content to be social workers. So was I. Except now I was more than that. I had a church to run. That meant speaking. It meant preaching and teaching as well as action. It also meant opening myself to the projections of those who assumed I was morally and theological sorted, the way any good minister ought to be. Being in charge of a church suggested arrival rather than pursuit, the settler rather than the charismatic drifter.

A few months later a bigger crisis hit. God himself went absent on me, though it would be more honest to say that a presence that often felt like an absence now became an absence that really was an absence. I was well aware that faith in God was not like one of these mutually supportive relationships we aspire to nowadays... God was like those emotionally unavailable Scotsmen who were such a potent part of my heritage. He cared for me — he just wasn’t good at showing it. The big difference being, of course, that emotion­ally unavailable Scotsmen are physically all too available...

Lambeth 1998:
Bishop after bishop, mainly but not exclusively from Africa, got up to denounce the wickedness and animality of lovers of their own sex... Immediately after the vote, on a grassy knoll outside the conference hall, a Nigerian bishop attempted to cast out the demons from Richard Kirker, the director of the Gay and Lesbian Christian Movement, who had bravely challenged him...

Behind Lambeth's contempt for gay men lay a deeper contempt for women, because they are incapable of the fuck, in Dworkin's primordial sense. Men fuck. Women get fucked. That was the demon released that afternoon, and it will never go back whence it came. It began the unravelling of the Anglican Communion...

We put together a resolution apologising to the world's lesbian and gay Christians for what the Lambeth Conference had said about them... The only sweet memory I brought away with me was throwing my mitre into the Thames.

I don't any longer believe in religion, but I want it around: weakened, bruised and bemused, purged of everything except the miracle of pity. I know that the people who keep it going will have to believe in it more than I do. Who could be persuaded by my whisper? Who could even hear it?

Was religion a lie? Not necessarily, but it was a mistake. Lies are just lies, but mistakes can be corrected and lessons learned from them... Religion is human, and like humanity it is both a glory and a scandal. It is full of pity and full of cruelty. Just like us. So is the Bible. Don't abandon it, any more than we ought to abandon the great flawed cruel epics of the human imagination: but don't listen to its mad voices.

I no longer want to persuade anyone to believe anything - except that cruelty, especially theological cruelty, has to be opposed, if necessary to the death.


Late Review: The Theory that Would Not Die: How Bayes' Rule Cracked the Enigma Code (...) (2012) by Sharon McGrayne

(c) Red Rationality (1987) by Wang Guangyi

A slightly forced oral history of the least romanticised scientists: Bayesian statisticians. She makes up for the long-missing romanticism single-handed! The two-hundred year eclipse of the Bayesian method was much longer than that suffered by even the irrationally-maligned continental drift theory (50 years). And this neglect and opprobrium was suffered by a paradigm now accepted everywhere as powerful and useful in literally all kinds of research.

She wins us over, particularly with her chapter on the secretive, truculent, omnicompetent genius John Tukey, who used Bayesian methods for elections 40 years before Fivethirtyeight, with comparable success. But her prose is borderline, with lots of clear but dim-bulb sentences. She has one infuriating mannerism: she constantly refers to Bayes' rule, Bayesian logical foundations after Bayes, Bayesian inference, and personalist Bayesian epistemology by the single terrible metonym "Bayes":

At its heart, Bayes runs counter to the deeply held conviction that science requires total objectivity and precision. Bayes is a measure of belief.

even many nonstatisticians regarded Swinburne's lack of care and measurement as a black mark against Bayes itself.

Bayes, on the other hand, seemed to produce results that corresponded more closely to sociologists' intuitions.

Wagner took along the youngest and greenest of his three-man staff, Henry Richardson, who had earned a PhD in probability theory all of seven months earlier. He would be Bayes' point man at Palomares.

I suppose she did this to elide away jargon, but it both equivocates between very different entities, hides the complexity of the 'Bayesian' marquee, makes it seem like the frequentists were attacking a logically sound theorem, and produces a whole list of bizarre images, where we see the reclusive Reverend doing all these things: cracking Enigma and Tunny, finding H-Bombs lost at sea, calculating appropriate worker's comp amounts in the absence of reliable data, attributing The Federalist Papers to Hamilton, and blocking 99.9% of the spam email from reaching you (yes, you). It is also even more unfair to Laplace than usual. (It was he who developed Bayesianism into the powerful applied framework it is, into more than a single gambler's theorem. Ok, so "Laplace-Coxism" is admittedly even less admissible as a term to which the wise and honest may repair.) But grammatical twitching aside this was a fun introduction to an important thing.

She focusses on the soft, social side (and on applications vaguely summarised). There was a huge amount of factional bitching between these serious and cloistered men:
Attending his first Bayesian conference in 1976, Jim Berger was shocked to see half the room yelling at the other half. Everyone seemed to be good friends, but their priors were split between the personally subjective, like Savage's, and the objective, like Jeffrey's - with no definitive experiment to decide the issue.

In a frustrated circle of blame, Persi Diaconis was shocked and angry when John Pratt used frequentist methods to analyze his wife's movie theater attendance data, because it was too much for the era's computers to handle. But one of the low moments of Diaconis' life occurred in a Berkeley coffee shop, where he was correcting proofs of an article of his and where Lindley blamed him for using frequency methods. "And you're our leading Bayesian", Lindley complained. Lindley, in turn, upset Mosteller by passing up a chance to conduct a big project using Bayes instead of frequency...

Asked how to encourage Bayesian theory, Lindley answered tartly, "Attend funerals".
This human focus means she gives no treatment of Cox's theorem, certainly the most remarkable result in formal epistemology (and probability theory?), and one of the main things which rationally warrants the partisanship and excitement she displays for Bayesian thought throughout. ("Justified fundamentalism", as one great commentator puts it!) It proves that any attempt to use numbers to model belief must be Bayesian or logically equivalent to it. With other results, it raises Bayesianism to the only viable quantitative theory of rationality and of right learning, a behemoth of which Aristotelian logic is a mere special case. No doubt I'm unusual in finding this the most exciting bit.

She's to be applauded for digging out novel examples of Bayesian analysis which were classified or which avoided using the word: early actuarial work, Tukey's US election model, the pre-Three-Mile-Island federal report of reactor safety, and the entire field of operational research. But she is so concerned with emphasising the (genuine) long oppression of the paradigm that she under-emphasises the good reasons to resist Bayesian methods before 1980: they were simply computationally intractable before MCMC. (Which makes the sheer effort put in to shortcuts and approximation methods by ingenious people quite tragic; they just aren't needed anymore, thirty years later.) To her credit, she does mention the parallel dogmatism of the 60s Bayesians and the presumptive overenthusiasm of some people in the last 10 years.

(The great contemporary frequentist, Deborah Mayo, is able to subtitle her blog "Frequentists in Exile" without being absurd - even though Stats 101 and "Methods for [Social Science]" courses are still everywhere dominated by canned Fisherian tests and frames. She means exile from the philosophy of statistics and probability.)

Insofar as you want to understand the large trends of the present and coming age, you need to know its economics; insofar as you must understand the new economics, you must understand AI; insofar as you must understand AI, you must understand machine learning and decision theory; insofar as you must understand machine learning, you must understand both frequentism and Bayesianism. Insofar as you do not yet have the mathematics to understand Bayesianism, nor the excitement of the promise of a final, real synthesis of objective with subjective, you must read this gentle prose work. Once you are excited by its vague promises, you can find progressively more rigorous people and will have actually have reason to stomach the formalism.

3/5, 4*/5 for those just beginning the march.

(c) African Sonata (c.2000) by Vladimir Kush