23 February 2013

The Immortal

In his short story The Immortal, first published in 1947, J. L. Borges shows that those who cannot die cannot live, either: they retreat into a passive state of silence and inactivity.

A strikingly similar reflection appears in Elias Canetti's 1942 diary (published in The Human Province in 1973):
A land of unlimited eternity: one must walk it for days before finding somebody who so much as moves the little finger; the others, in contrast, sit around, silent as the Egyptians.

22 February 2013

The need for a college degree

One needs a college degree "for getting even the lowest-level job", says Catherine Rampell in the New York Times. See also the ensuing discussion on Slashdot. This reminds me of Lino Aldani's story Complete technocracy where, in the future, one has to go through a rigorous examination in advanced mathematics and physics to get a street sweeper position.

21 February 2013

The Question of Machiavelli

A 1971 essay by Isaiah Berlin on Machiavelli (reprinted in Against the Current as "The originality of Machiavelli"):

The idea of the world and of human society as a single intelligible structure is at the root of all the many various versions of Natural Law [...] It is this rock, upon which Western beliefs and lives had been founded, that Machiavelli seems, in effect, to have split open.

Nothing less...

20 February 2013

Life expectancy, GDP and HIV prevalence

What explains the variation in life expectancy between different countries? The GDP is of course very important: the LE increases roughly linearly with its logarithm. To remove this dependence I fitted the data with a sigmoidal function:

 \(  LE (GDP) = LE_{\text{min}} + ( LE_{\text{max}} - LE_{\text{min}}) \frac{1}{2} [1+\text{erf} (\alpha \log (\beta \, GDP))] \qquad \qquad (1)\)

shown as solid line in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Life expectancy at birth (UN World Population Prospects 2010) versus GDP by country. Overall value (male and female). Color corresponds to the geographical region.

The fit is slightly better than with a simple logarithm and the function (1) makes more sense: the LE cannot increase (or decrease) indefinitely. To give an idea of the dispersion I also plotted (as dashed lines) the same curve but with parameter \( \Delta _{LE} = LE_{\text{max}} - LE_{\text{min}} \) equal to 0.8 and 1.2 of its optimal value.

In Figure 2 I normalize the LE by the model (after subtracting the baseline) and plot the result as a function of the HIV prevalence. \(y\)-values of 0.8, 1.0 and 1.2 correspond to the lines in Figure 1.

 Figure 2: Life expectancy versus HIV prevalence by country. Color corresponds to the geographical region.

The normalized LE is strongly influenced by the HIV prevalence: All countries below 0.8 in the former are above 1% in the latter, except for Afghanistan (not shown in Figure 2), where the ongoing war might explain the reduced LE.

How can one understand the few LE values above 1.2?

17 February 2013

Bookish drones

In the New Yorker, Teju Cole wonders whether literature makes us better and cites a number of literary heavyweights who –perhaps unsurprisingly– hold this point of view: Mario Vargas Llosa, Toni Morrison and Marilynne Robinson (another poignant but more nuanced example would be Elias Canetti's "The profession [or calling] of the poet".)

The main concern of the article is Barack Obama's actions as president and in particular his liberal use of drone strikes. The author is puzzled and disappointed, since he expected Obama to have more empathy than, for instance, G. W. Bush. He does ask the question "How on earth did this happen to the reader in chief?" but without even trying to answer it.

The easiest solution is to simply deny any link between literature and human qualities (Cole himself makes the standard reference to cultured Nazis, and there is no shortage of additional examples) but this is deeply unsatisfying in itself and at odds with another widely held opinion: that education is not strictly utilitarian, but valuable in itself for it yields better citizens.

7 February 2013

Which licence for your publication?

Over at Nature, Richard Van Noorden discusses the various choices authors make when publishing in open-access journals, in particular the wide-spread adoption of the 'noncommercial' (NC) and 'no derivative works' (ND) clauses. I can see two interesting points:
  1. The possibility of data-mining (requiring bulk downloads)
  2. The meaning of "re-use".
As to the first point, I do not know whether the authors are given the choice between 'only individual downloading' and 'bulk downloading' (and I think the distinction would be difficult to implement technically). This looks more like global journal policy.

Re-use seems to cover a lot of very different situations, from "build[ing] on work if [credit is given] to the original author" to "remix[ing]", "tweak[ing]", and reselling for a profit.
  • The first type of use is unobjectionable, since that is exactly what publishing is for.
  • Forbidding others from making a profit on one's own work (NC) is a reasonable point of view, but it might be at odds with the commonly involved argument that "all this work has been paid for with public funding, so it should be made available with as little constraints as possible".
  • Modifying the work is a much more serious problem. In the particular case of scientific publications I cannot see how the 'attribution' clause (BY) can work without the ND one. In a changed version of a paper, what is still by the original author? Can I take an article from a prestigious journal, keep all the data and "slightly" modify the presentation to draw exactly the opposite conclusions (all this while benefiting from the reputation of the original authors and of the journal)?

5 February 2013

French science reform: Hollande's speech

Yesterday, French President François Hollande gave a speech at the Collège de France in honour of Serge Haroche (laureate of the Nobel prize in physics, 2012.) A substantial part of the talk addressed the changes in the French research system to be introduced by the new government.

The talking points were of course in line with the documents already made public: the Berger report, the Le Déaut report and the law project to be introduced this spring, but the tone of the speech (calm and conciliatory) was very different from that of former President Nicolas Sarkozy. An instructive comparison can be made with Sarkozy's speech of January 2008, given in very similar circumstances: announcing science reform, at the beginning of his mandate, on the occasion of celebrating a Nobel prize in physics (Albert Fert, 2007.)

 Hollande's message can be summarized as follows:
  1. Research and higher education are a priority, as proven by the constant funding for the relevant ministry (alongside that of national education), while all other ministries had to deal with budget cuts. This way, 1000 new positions per year will be opened in higher education. The "investments for the future" program launched by the Sarkozy administration will be maintained and accelerated.
  2. Increase the undergraduate success rate and avoid premature specialization.
  3. The system must be restructured, with fewer and more visible institutions, at all levels. A memorable quote: "We cannot keep on adding structures on top of structures, layers upon layers. Here, as elsewhere, we need to simplify". Build federations of universities!
  4. The universities and the grandes écoles must be brought together, "without however mixing them up".
  5. The professional status of PhD holders must be improved. First of all, we should make them more attractive for the private sector, but this will never happen until we also recognize the PhD as an asset in the selection process for state employees.
  6. The autonomy [of the universities] is the foundation of this reform. Some changes will be made to the election procedures within the universities.
  7. Student exchanges will be facilitated, in particular by easing the administrative procedures for foreign students in France. Teaching in foreign languages.
  8. Improve the perspectives of young researchers, especially in fundamental research.

Links above are in French. Some background information in English is available:
  • On the French system of higher education and research: 1
  • On the relation between universities and grandes écoles: 2 
  • On the reforms of the Sarkozy administration: 3, 45
  • On the current reforms: 6

1 February 2013

Nozick's protective associations

In Anarchy, State and Utopia Robert Nozick tries to justify a minimal state. Protective associations are an important part of the process, since they will ultimately give rise to the state by assuming the monopoly of violence.

In his reasoning, the relation between these associations and their clients is very limited: the associations simply provide a service in exchange for a fee, without violating their rights (in particular, the right to choose a different association). One can wonder why they should stop at that, instead of turning their clients into subjects (after all, as sole providers of violence, they have the means to do it). Historically, this is what often happens, whether the associations are (non-democratic) states or lower-level entities: warlords, clans, criminal syndicates etc. Only a (reasonably strong) democratic state can organize such a "protection market", but this is of course  begging the question.
  1. This objection is not a direct refutation of Nozick's argument, since he does not claim to present a historical account, but only a morally permissible path from a putative "state of nature" towards the minimal state. It is however interesting to know whether this transition could actually take place.
  2. What would invalidate the argument is showing (by historical analysis) that the state must be stronger than the minimal one in order to guarantee individual rights.
Interestingly, Murray Rothbard also critiques Nozick's argument1 for (among other reasons) its ahistorical character. Of course, when discussing protection agencies he reaches an opposite conclusion, namely that these agencies can very well coexist, without the emergence of the ultra-minimal state. He shares however Nozick's belief in an effective protection market and in the self-correcting character of the pre-state configuration:

Any agencies that transgressed the basic libertarian code would be open outlaws and aggressors, and Nozick himself concedes that, lacking legitimacy, such outlaw agencies would probably not do very well in an anarchist society.

 One can wonder how well-equipped is the anarchist society to deal with such an aggressor.

1. Murray N. Rothbard, Robert Nozick and the Immaculate Conception of the State, Journal of Libertarian Studies, 1(1), 45-57, 1977.