Bertie the bringer of confusion

It is not correct — if I said so I wasn’t correct. I can’t recall if I did say it. But I did not say, or if I did say it, I didn’t mean to say it, that these issues could not be dealt with until the end of the Mahon Tribunal
Bertie Ahern, Taoiseach of Ireland, to the Dail, 30th January 2008.

Bertie delivered this gem of mangled syntax and distorted English to the quizzical and down-right baffled Dail yesterday. He is the master of bafflement, the bringer of confusion, the word-mangling supreme being. Bertie the word-mangler makes ancient greek look lucid and logical.

Philosophers like Sartre and Kant were famously prolix and contorted. At least Kant made sense once he could be understood – Sartre rarely did, but at least he didn’t subject a whole nation to his ponderous musings. And they both were tackling the great issues of metaphysics, meaning, and epistemology. Bertie has no such excuse. He is dealing with questions that demand yes/no answers. And we get this verbiage. Why?

The depths of muddle revealed by his multi-layered miasma of contorted speech are his greatest defence and his biggest political asset. He hides the truth while dressing up reality in a many-layered and concealing cloak of mystery.

The truth is simple. He’s hiding something. He cannot think straight because he has twisted and turned from reality so often that he breaks out in a sweat everytime he has to answer a question about it.

The facts are simple: he is not tax-compliant for a period dating back to the mid-1990s when he was Minister for Finance. That the highest official in the land responsible for the collection of taxes cannot satisfy the tax authorities that he paid his tax, from a period dating back more than ten years, means that he either didn’t pay the right tax, or his accounts were not in order. If he had any honor left in him, he’d resign. He’d put the country before his personal ambition and he’d hand over to someone more capable of running the country. With economic uncertainty, a collapsing property market, and a potential US recession around the corner, the country needs stability and focus. Not this crap.


Logic and the human mind

0.99999…. = 1. That’s true, apparently. Not convinced? Our intuitions (for most non-mathematicians) is to reject the equality of these two numbers. We feel, somehow, that 0.99999… must be less than 1, and that no matter how small the difference, logic just insists that there just is a difference. We might make various appeals to logic or common-sense before possibly making complex arguments about infinity and the meaning of infinite decimal expansions.

But here’s a proof that the two are equal: 

  1. 0.33333… = 1/3 
  2. 1/3 x 3 = 1 
  3. 0.33333… x 3 = 0.99999…
  4. therefore 1 = 0.99999…

My interest in this simple mathematical oddity is in what it tells us about human psychology. There’s a detailed discussion of it here on wikipedia. We act as intuitive creatures, mostly using approximations to judge angles, amounts, distances, and sizes. We take shortcuts to the truth. Abstract reasoning is relatively difficult and not entirely convincing even when we see it worked out in front of us. Partly because we’re so blind to the unconscious shortcuts our minds take, we don’t even see them as shortcuts. And the other reason is that those shortcuts have been honed by millions of years of evolution to be – actually – quite extraordinarily successful ways of approaching the real world. It would be foolhardy to ditch those modes of reasoning without, er, good reason.

Yet the truth is, sometimes one should ditch the intuitions and trust in reason. You see this most obviously every time a retailer sets prices at $9.99 or sell cars for $39,999. It is as near to $10 or $40,000 as makes no difference and most people know it’s a con. But it tugs at something deep in our subconscious. Why else would the retailer bother doing it? (This is an analogous situation to 1 = 0.99999… only, and is not the same, of course!)

This insight into human obstinacy in the face of logic can be applied to many situations. It has always intrigued me why people gamble – can’t they see that the odds are stacked against them? Well, most gamblers know – at some higher abstract level – that the odds are against them, but a mixture of gut instinct, fear, greed, superstition, and false reasoning about probabilities convince them that they should gamble. I remember well when a syndicate in Ireland became convinced that they could increase their chances of winning the lottery by buying combinations of numbers dictated by extremely erroneous understandings of how lotteries work. They lost thousands of euros in a vain attempt to defy logic.

In an even broader sense, we human beings apply our narrow reactions to the world around us – the common-sense view of the world – to entirely inappropriate situations. We cannot entirely shake the suspicion that things are a particular way because they should or must be a particular way, despite science and logic telling us differently.

For example, many people hold dear to a belief in an afterlife, because they cannot quite shake the internal, subjective sense that they’ve always been around. And they cannot imagine (none of us can) not being around. It’s like looking down at your own funeral – that logically impossible situation is still dreamt by most of us. Logic says it is impossible to have an afterlife. (Or as near impossible as makes no difference…). But then, what’s logic in the face of human need?

Handshakes from hell

“Chess is war on a board. The object is to crush the other man’s mind” Bobby Fischer

The Corus tournament in Wijk Aan Zee – the strongest chess tournament in the world – featured an example of Fischer’s dictim on Sunday. In the B Group, Nigel Short (ex-world championship contender and British number 2) was playing Ivan Cheparinov (gifted Bulgarian number 2, and team mate to Topalov, ex-world champion). This was always going to be a tetchy affair because of remarks Short made about Topalov and his manager Danailov during the infamous “Toiletgate” affair last year. Without going into the intricate details, there was clearly bad blood between Short and the Topalov-Danailov-Cheparinov team.

Short offered his hand to his opponent before the game – a normal social courtesy. Cheparinov refused to shake his hand. Short offered a second time. Again, it was pointedly refused. There’s a fascinating video of it here. Knowing Danailov’s calculated shiftiness and previous bully-boy tactics, this was probably a pre-arranged way to insult Short.

But Short then spoke to the arbiter and demanded an immediate forfeit for Cheparinov. Apparently, a new rule was issued by Fide governing such cases: players refusing to shake an opponent’s hand before a game suffer an immediate forfeit of the game.

The infamous ruling is called Behavioral norms of players in chess events. The significant part of the ruling states:

Any player who does not shake hands with the opponent (or greets the opponent in a normal social manner in accordance with the conventional rules of their society) before the game starts in a FIDE tournament or during a FIDE match (and does not do it after being asked to do so by the arbiter) or deliberately insults his/her opponent or the officials of the event, will immediately and finally lose the relevant game.

The arbiter checked the rules (he apparently had never heard of it until Short informed him!) and then immediately told Cheparinov that he was awarding the game to Short. However, the legal eyes among you will spot the weakness of his decision. He forgot the clause “and does not do it after being asked to do so by the arbiter”. He hadn’t asked Cheparinov to shake Short’s hand. Hence, Danailov lodged an appeal which stated that had the arbiter asked Cheparinov to shake Short’s hand, then he would have complied. Faced with a legalistic loop-hole, the appeals committee (ironically featuring Kramnik, the previous brunt of Danailov’s tricks) overruled the original decision and forced a replay of the game on the following day.

Short won. 1-0 for common sense and a victory for polite behaviour over the bullies! As Short said, their first game was memorable, but their second game was great.

Ironically, the very next day (Tuesday), Kramnik was playing Topalov in the A Group. The two players studiously avoided shaking hands. All observers were agreed that this was not a breech of the rules, apparently because no one refused the offer of a handshake because no one offered one!

However, the ruling states nothing about refusing to shake an offered hand. It simply states: “Any player who does not shake hands with the opponent …before the game starts in a FIDE tournament…will immediately and finally lose the relevant game”. According to that logic, both players forfeit the game. The score should be 0-0.

My argument would be that both players were issuing insults to each other. It doesn’t matter that it was mutual. It matters that it was calculated and insulting. In what sense does a double-refusal seem less than a single refusal? It’s like that old one about two negatives not making a positive. (I am reminded of Woody Allen’s joke that because he had nothing positive to say he would just state two negatives…).

Fide should have thought through the implications of their ruling before issuing it. And they should have explicitly stated that two players refusing to shake hands should both be forfeited. Yesterday was a chance to set an example and clarify the social norms expected once and for all.

Blind as a bat?

During last night’s 5-1 loss to Tottenham, the Arsenal forwards Bendtner and Adebayor squared up to each other. Bendtner suffered a cut on the nose. Gallas, the Arsenal captain intervened to separate them physically. The referee had words with them too. Flamini pleaded with them from the substitutes bench.

But amid the turmoil one man stood out. Yes, he’s our blind-as-a-bat, see-nothing, deny-everything manager, Arsene Wenger, who according to the BBC said:

“I did not know anything about it. I didn’t see it.”


It is time somebody told Arsene to stop lying and – for once – admit he saw his players misbehave. He is in danger of bringing the game into disrepute. 

Bobby Fischer is dead

I have just heard the news that Bobby Fischer has died. He died, aptly enough, aged 64: the number of the squares of his beloved game.

His chess achievements are monumental – his 11-0 sweep of the US Championships in 1963 stands out. Also his two back-to-back 6-0 wins over Taimanov and Larsen in 1971 on his way to the world championships and his mind-bending blitz win in 1970 in Herceg Novi. And then there’s the demolition of Boris Spassky in 1972 to clinch the world title, his endless US title wins (almost without defeat over many years in the US) and so on…In truth, Fischer was so far ahead of his contemporaries that he could have dominated chess for another 20 years. The tragedy was that he threw it all away, never playing a serious game after 1972, aside from the slightly pathetic re-match against Spassky in 1992.

He will be remembered for many things: being one of the greatest ever chess players; inventing Fischer-random chess; promoting the Fischer clock (now in regular use around the world); writing one of the greatest chess book ever; his erratic and angry personality.

Sadly, his legacy also includes his unforgiveable lapses into blatant anti-semitism (ironic given that his mother was Jewish) and his – frankly – bizaare 9-11 rants. That has to – must – taint any assessment of the man. Nothing can excuse those aspects of him.

I am sure that the tributes and assessments will pour out over the next few days and weeks. But I’ll try and remember the good Fischer, while acknowledging that he was, after all, only a fragile human being. Being a genius in one sphere doesn’t make one a saint: Fischer was the living proof of that.

An Irish education

Frank McCourt famously started his Angela’s Ashes biography with: “Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood. Worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

An Irish Catholic education is equally miserable. I cannot blame my school (which was average, but could have done better…) or my teachers (who individually were not cruel or wantonly ignorant). Indeed, in many respects, I had some brilliant and inspiring teachers.

It was partly the fault of the narrow curriculum of Irish, English, Maths and a couple of options thrown in, like Economics, Physics, and French. And it was partly the absence of enthralling subjects, like Anthropology, Art History, Astronomy, Philosophy, or Ancient History. But most of all, it was the fault of rote learning, the stultifying modes of repetition and brainwashing, and the unconscious dogmas of utilitarianism that dragged my education down to the level of the miserable.

Edward de Bono was recently surveyed in an Irish Times supplement extolling the virtues of training children how to think. We may quibble with his own methods or his terminology (the coy Thinking Hats sextept can be annoying) but surely we are bound to agree that getting people to think better is intrinsically worthwhile.

For the academically capable, an Irish education is like a perpetual sack race for an elite athlete: needlessly restrictive. Where were the wide-open spaces, the glittering sparkles of creativity, the intricate spiders’ webs of logic? Only after leaving school did I learn of Plato’s World of Ideas, Russell’s atheism, Darwin’s “dangerous idea”, the fallacy of the appeal to authority, the reasons for the French Revolution, the collapse and fall of the Roman empire. Nowhere since have I had need to recite four proofs that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides in a right-angled triangle.

de Bono is right to say that information is everywhere, facts abundant. We should not cram our children with facts, but focus on giving them the passion to seek for facts. Most adults are literate only in the narrowest sense: they can read and write, but choose not to. Where is their passion, their hunger for knowledge, their creative streak?
There should be an emphasis on thinking, creativity, building an historical perspective, scientific analysis, philosophy and psychology. It should be a curriculum supplemented with practical matters, like healthy eating, managing personal finances, sexuality and relationships. A curriculum with creative exploration at its very core. A curriculum that stands not on what a child has learnt when they leave school, but on what that child learns through their entire lives.

And, dammit, every child in Ireland should be writing a blog by age fifteen, and drawing and making music and exploring and building things. And none of them should cause to regret what they fail to know when they’ve grown up. None of them should leave school without feeling the need to redress any regret they do have.  

Many more fish in the sea?

Myself and the girlfriend wandered through Howth, in Dublin, over the weekend, looking for a restaurant to eat at. Howth has a large fishing port, crammed with trawlers, with their nets and rusty gear. The harbour – in one of Dublin’s most exclusive northside neighbourhoods – is lined with fish mongers and fish restaurants. We entered the most famous of them – Wrights of Howth. They boast their credentials as an “Irish” fish shop, but the shop itself was full of foreign fish – from as far away as Argentina in one case. Quite what the trawlers just 20 feet away in the harbour were catching I don’t know. I expected fresh fish, practically still jumping. Instead, we were getting fish flown half-way around the world. Standing as we were, in the middle of a movie-set-like fishing port, looking at fish that originated 10,000 miles away. This struck me as surreal, and somewhat disheartening. 

Now I’ve just read this very disturbing report from the New York Times in today’s paper (free registration required), entitled “Europe’s Appetite for Seafood Propels Illegal Trade”. In this article, Elisabeth Rosenthal outlines the recent trend for European’s to switch their love of fish from their overfished local waters to foreign seas. And due to lack of regulation and profiteering fishing fleets, those waters tend to be third-world ones, like West Africa.

Very alarmingly:

In Europe, the imbalance between supply and demand has led to a thriving illegal trade. Some 50 percent of the fish sold in the European Union originates in developing nations, and much of it is laundered like contraband, caught and shipped illegally beyond the limits of government quotas or treaties. The smuggling operation is well financed and sophisticated, carried out by large-scale mechanized fishing fleets able to sweep up more fish than ever, chasing threatened stocks from ocean to ocean.

And where the money goes…:

Prices have doubled and tripled in response to surging demand, scarcity and recent fishing quotas imposed by the European Union in a desperate effort to save native species. In London, a kilogram of lowly cod, the traditional ingredient of fish and chips, now costs up to £30, or close to $60, up from £6 four years ago.

So money and profit is driving prices ever higher, international fishing companies are bending and breaking the law to overfish third-world fisheries, and western consumers are turning a blind eye. I found that this particular quote got to the heart of the matter:

“There isn’t a market we can’t access anymore,” said Lee Fawcitt, selling tuna from Sri Lanka, salmon and cod from Norway, halibut from Canada, tilapia from China, shrimp from Madagascar and snapper from Indonesia and Senegal. [in Billinsgate Market, London]

To many traders, the origin of the fish hardly matters. “We try to do something, but once it’s here, my attitude is that if it’s been caught it should be sold.” Mr. Fawcitt said. “I’d hate to see it being thrown away.”

Quite. That’d be such a shame, to throw it away, now wouldn’t it. It’s the shrug-of-the-shoulders, moral disinterest that bothers me. Consumers can presumably take the same attitude, retailers can say they are only meeting consumer demand (as if that demand has to be satisfied) and I am sure the fishermen plead a similar case. All of it is morally bankrupt. Ignorance substituting for moral deliberation.

A single consumer can refuse to buy unsustainably-caught fish, refuse to sample that Argentinian trout or that Indonesian shrimp. God knows it won’t stop anything destroying the world’s oceans, but sometimes it’s all we can do.

Bush-Clinton forever?

Among the weirder aspects of American politics recently has been the presence in the White House of either a Clinton or a Bush for the last 27 years. Think that’s bad? Here’s a nightmare scenario for you: how about 60 years?

1980-88 Bush Snr VP
1988-1992 Bush Snr P
1992-2000 Bill Clinton P
2000-2008 Bush Jnr P
2008-2016? Hillary Clinton P
2016-2024? Jeb Bush P
2024-2032? Clinton Jnr VP
2032-2040? Clinton Jnr P

The scenario runs like this: Hillary squeezes out Obama in the Democratic convention and sweeps the Presidential elections in November. She gets re-elected in 2012. In a dramatic backlash against her reign, the Republicans re-energise under Jeb Bush for an eight-year run to 2024. We’re clocking up 44 years of a Bush-Clinton White House residency by now. Then, in a dramatic change of fortune, Barack Obama comes back to prominence in 2024 alongside Chelsea Clinton as his running mate: the dream Democratic ticket. After 8 years as Vice-president, Chelsea takes sole power in 2032.

Come on America. Wake up before the nightmare continues…

The concept of Eve

Daniel Dennett, philosopher and Darwinian, introduced me to one of the most devastating arguments that I had ever read, in one of his many great books. (I cannot remember if it was his original argument or not). It concerned natural selection, populations, and humanity. It was an a priori-type argument for the concept of an Eve: a single mother for all of the existing human race.

It is like an a priori argument because we don’t need to test the argument against reality, but do need to know a little something about human reproduction. We simply need to make one or two quick assumptions: everybody has a mother; and we all only have one mother. (Aside from Zaphod Beeblebrox from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, that second one is probably a safe assumption to make.)

The argument is simple, but mind-blowing in its consequences. It goes like this: take the set of every single person now living on the planet. It’ll be about 6.5 billion people or so. Now, take the set of their mothers, living or dead. That second set is necessarily less than or equal to the first set. It’ll be, maybe, 2 or 3 billion, depending on the average number of living descendents they’ve left. If you continue taking the mother’s of each set as you progress, it inevitably, invariably, inexorably reduces to one. (Think through it for a while, it makes sense). It might take several thousand generations to whittle it down to one, but it is inevitable, logical.

This last set of one woman is the ‘mother’ of us all, speaking figuratively. The woman who is the common female ancestor of every single living person on the planet is called by scientists, perhaps unwisely, Mitochondrial Eve. It goes without saying that this Eve is no relation to the Eve of Genesis and was most certainly not married to Adam. In fact, scientists studying human genetics postulate an Eve for the human race as living around 140,000 years or so and a y-Chromosome Adam about 60,000 years ago. In the scientific jargon, she is known as the matrilineal most recent common ancestor (MRCA) for all living humans. Eve will do.

In any case, this argument from Dennett blew me away for its use of recursive logic, set theory and overwhelming simplicity. It quite literally blew my mind with its clarity and forcefulness. But most of all for the set of implications it left behind.

First, there is a kind of reverse argument possible here. As we naively think back through the generations, we generally, as is only human, tend to think it a wonderful or special thing to be descended from someone famous. But it isn’t that difficult to be descended from someone famous, as long as that person lived long enough ago in history (and had a penchant for bedding fertile young women). For example, it is well known that Ghengis Khan fathered many, many sons who each then fathered many hundreds more each. Inevitably, those princes, being powerful and wealthy, each fathered, on average, even more sons and daughters than the average. Hence, about 8% of central Asians living nowadays descend from Ghengis Khan. It is, quite frankly, nothing special to say that one is “descended from Ghenis Khan”.

Interestingly, this can be equally applied to the theory, for example, that Jesus was a direct descendent of King David. Perhaps he was. But applying the logic above, we inevitably yawn at the meaning of it, if any. It could only be a theological fancy anyway, since Jesus’s descent or otherwise from David was a Christian claim, only broached to make spurious links to Biblical prophecies. It is unnecessary theologically, but genetically it makes even less sense.

Another consequence of this theory is that the Eve of the next generation may be different. It may be that Eve had two or more daughters who have left descendents. And it might be that one of the two lines is about to die out, right now, perhaps even today. As long as that last descendent is a woman and is about to die without giving birth to a daughter, then that line faces extinction (on the female side). It is inevitable that as time progresses, over the next 150,000 years or so, that this theoretical Eve figure moves forward in time continually. Sometimes a single individual might be Eve for several thousand years. But then, all of a sudden, she’d lose the mantle to one of her daughters, or granddaughters. Hence, it seems logical to argue that the Eve point will pass through this generation, but perhaps not for another 150,000 years or so.

There could be, living among us now, an Eve of a future generation. She could be sitting next to you in your local diner. She could be playing ball in that park. Perhaps she’s even running for President (shudder the thought). But, she is there. So, be nice to her, whoever you are. She could be the only surviving mother of a future human generation somewhere down the line.

Obama’s Theory of Hope

Winning the American Presidency requires a candidate to embody an abstract principle: a rhetorical Archimedean point. The candidate needs to push it at every opportunity and embody it in their political DNA.

Bush’s campaigns (particularly in 2004) rested on two huge abstract principles: fear and his own constancy. The world was a fearful place, full of hidden dangers. He had the antidotes and was prepared to apply them through thick and thin. Unfortunately for America, Bush proved to be the candidate he said he would be. He and Cheney have peddled war, fear, partisan division, and narrow opportunism at every turn. And they’ve peddled it constantly and in face of the evidence.

Americans are hungry for a new start. They want to disengage from the war in Iraq. They fear the coming recession. They want affordable health care and secure jobs and fair tax breaks. In short, the time is ripe for a new phase in politics.

And this is where Barack Obama’s Theory of Hope comes in. He is the only candidate who has captured the mood of the nation, embodied it in his campaign wholly and completely, and expressed it most eloquently. He has the stirring words of the orator, the passionate gestures, the emotional voice, the evangelical fervour. And he has that word: Hope. He has made it his own, identified with it totally and completely, turned it into the key to his campaign.

Obama’s victory speech in Iowa is already being hailed as one of the ‘great’ speeches. I think it takes time for great speeches to be recognised, so I’ll reserve my personal judgement on that.

But central to that speech is a long definition of hope. Obama’s words are worth quoting in detail:

…hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path.  It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. 

Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it. 

Hope is what led a band of colonists to rise up against an empire; what led the greatest of generations to free a continent and heal a nation; what led young women and young men to sit at lunch counters and brave fire hoses and march through Selma and Montgomery for freedom’s cause. 

Hope—hope—is what led me here today – with a father from Kenya; a mother from Kansas; and a story that could only happen in the United States of America. 

Hope is the bedrock of this nation; the belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us; by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is; who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.

Obama is resting his campaign on this one, flexible, powerful word.

Hope is mankind’s greatest virtue. Without hope there would be little chance of innovation, determination, or bravery in the face of despair. Pandora’s box exposed us to all evils, but hope remained. And that myth also gives us another clue to the word’s potency: its ancient origins. It is not a bedrock, just, of America: it is a bedrock of all of mankind.

And everyone responds to a a little bit of flattery too. America is being flattered in the speech, as the country most capable of embracing hope and changing things for the better. And everyone responds well to a challenge, to the roll-up-your-sleeves encouragement and the rallying cries of the great motivators.

Challenging Obama on the specifics misses the point. Modern American politics is not about specifics. It is about the big message, the selling of a dream. And none have come bigger and more polished than Obama’s Theory of Hope. Inevitably, he will be challenged to offer more details, to make difficult choices, to alienate some constituencies. His opponents have no other option but to fight him on the ground he is weakest on: experience and the ability to make tough decisions. If he overcomes those challenges, then he has every chance of succeeding.

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