The Descent of Man

In 1973, the BBC televised The Ascent of Man, the brilliant series by Jacob Bronowski on the development of science and society. In his final episode, The Long Childhood, Bronowski sums up what he regards as special to being human, and the essence of a healthy scientific society:

If we are anything, we must be a democracy of the intellect. We must not perish by the distance between people and government, people and power, by which Babylon, and Egypt, and Rome failed. And that distance can only be … conflated, can only be closed, if knowledge sits here, and not up there.

That seems a hard lesson. After all, this is a world run by specialists. Isn’t that what we mean by a scientific society? No, it isn’t. A scientific society is one in which specialists can indeed do the things like making the electric light work. But it’s you, it’s I, who have to know how nature works, how electricity is one of her expressions, in the light, and in my brain.

And we are really here on a wonderful threshold of knowledge. The ascent of man is always teetering in the balance. There’s always a sense of uncertainty as to whether, when man lifts his foot for the next step, it’s really going to come down ahead. And what is ahead of us? At last, the bringing together of all that we’ve learnt in physics and in biology, towards an understanding of where we have come, what man is.

Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts. Above all, it is a responsibility for the integrity of what we are, above all, of what we are as ethical creatures. You can’t possibly maintain that if you let other people run the world for you, while you yourself continue to live … out of a ragbag of morals that come from past beliefs. That’s really crucial today. You see, it’s pointless to advise people to learn differential equations, “You must do a course in electronics or in computer programming.” Of course not. And yet, fifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress, is not the commonplace of the schoolbooks, we shall not exist.

Bronowski spoke those words forty-seven years ago. Three more years.

Nuclear Fishin’

H. R. Currie and G. M. Currie, Open Access Journal

This one was brought to our attention by the Evil Mathologre. It is a tricky one, since it involves the work of a school student, and the student is in no way a target for our criticism. Out of such concerns, we haven’t made this post a WitCH; it should be considered in the same vein as this Maths Masters column.

As reported in Wagga’s Daily Advertiser a couple weeks ago, and as picked up by The Canberra Times, IB student Hugo Currie was given a “mathematics assignment” (presumably an Internal Assessment) on the golden ratio:

“… we had to investigate an element of the golden ratio in the built or natural environment so I decided to look at atomic structure …“.

Hugo considered the atomic mass number A (protons plus neutrons) of nuclides (isotopes), comparing A to the number N of neutrons and the number Z of protons. Of course, A = N + Z. Hugo then looked for “fibonacci nuclides”, nuclides for which the ratios A/N and N/Z are very good approximations to the golden ratio. He found a bunch, and suggested his results as a guide to hunting for new elements and nuclides. Hugo’s graphic above is a good illustrative summary of his investigation; the horizontal axis is N, the vertical axis is Z, and the black line indicates known stable nuclides.

OK, no big deal. From our perspective, having a class sent off to hunt for the golden ratio is asking for trouble, but it’s just an IA, and Hugo’s work seems interestingly exploratory-ish, in the manner the IB foolishly demands. But why did Hugo make the news, and what’s the problem?

In May, Hugo published a paper, co-authored with his father Professor Geoffrey Currie, in the peer-reviewed Open Science Journal. And, yes, of course that made the news. And yes, that’s the problem.

Unsurprisingly but unfortunately, we can see little if anything research-worthy in the Curries’ paper, and we noticed a number of “Uh-oh”s. A fine IA, sure, but not a research paper, and not news.

We’ll leave it at that. Readers are free to hunt for the uh-ohs.

Vanessa’s Appt Concerns

Today, the Australian government released COVIDSafe, the Government’s coronavirus tracking app, based on Singapore’s TraceTogether version. The release comes complete with the Government’s predictable reassuring and cajoling and guilt-tripping. Should Australians trust them and use the app? Really? For us, there is a very simple answer: when and only when Vanessa Teague gives the all clear.

Vanessa is an expert on cryptography and, as it happens, is an ex-student and a good friend. She is very smart and is as principled a person as we have ever met. Along with many of her colleagues, Vanessa has been critical of the Government’s needless (and entirely predictable) secrecy over COVIDSafe. She has written a series of blogposts about their underlying concerns, and in particular the Government’s failure to follow up on promises and release COVIDSafe’s source code. This is Vanessa’s current stance on using the app (as of 23/04):

“In its TraceTogether form, I would be happy to run it on the train but refuse to run it in my home or office. I need to see the details of Australia’s version before I decide.”  

And, if that’s what Vanessa suggests then that’s what we’ll do, right up until Vanessa and her colleagues suggest otherwise. We’ll regularly be checking on Vanessa’s blog and twitter account.


Postscript: We had planned on writing about Vanessa a month or so ago, when she made the news. That story is highly relevant, since it involves privacy concerns, government screw-up, an arrogant and inept minister, a limp lettuce watchdog, a thuggish department secretary being matey matey with a vice chancellor, and a spineless university. Yep, same old, same old. But, given the speed of the times, we’ll probably have to leave that story be.


UPDATE (27/4)

The Minister for Health has today made an undertaking to release the source code “within two weeks”. We’ll see. (The formal agency response on privacy (26/4) states that such release will be “subject to consultation with the Australian Signals Directorate’s Australian Cyber Security Centre”.)

Vanessa and her colleagues have a new blog post (27/4). The post has been written “on a best-effort basis using decompiled code from the app, without access to server-side code or technical documentation.” Their conclusion:

Like TraceTogether, there are still serious privacy problems if we consider the central authority to be an adversary. That authority, whether Amazon, the Australian government or whoever accesses the server, can

    • recognise all your encryptedIDs if they are heard on Bluetooth devices as you go,
    • recognise them on your phone if it acquires it, and
    • learn your contacts if you test positive.

UPDATE (01/05)

We’re not going to bother with the nasty guilt-tripping on the COVIDSafe app, including from numerous media nitwits who should know better. This from Bernard Keane suffices.

Vanessa now has a very good twitter thread on the seemingly contradictory safe/not-safe messages from IT folk.

UPDATE (11/5) Vanessa has a twitter thread (08/05) on ScoMoFo’s latest round of silly buggers.

UPDATE (13/5) This will come as a great surprise, but it turns out that Greg Hunt is a dishonest piece of shit.

UPDATE (15/5) Vanessa and her colleagues have a new blog post (14/5): The missing server code, and why it matters.

UPDATE (20/5) Vanessa and her colleague Chris Culnane have a new blog post (19/5), on flaws in and corrections to the UK covid app (and why this was possible). Vanessa also has an accompanying twitter thread.

The Coronavirus Post

This post is inspired by an article by Tomas Pueyo, which I believe is compelling reading for understanding the growth of and the control of the COVID-19 outbreak:

Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now

(Update 01/04/20: Pueyo’s follow up article, from 20/3)

I have no idea who Pueyo is, I cannot vouch for his data, and commenters are free to argue against his analysis and his conclusions. I do not claim to know what Pueyo’s analysis might imply for how any particular city or country should be responding at any particular time.

I’m not sure where this post, or this blog, might go for the next while. Nothing is as important to society right now as managing COVID-19. Ironically, I’ll probably have plenty of time sitting at home in the next weeks or months, to write on the standard maths ed topics.

I plan to update this post from time to time, with links to articles and reports that, to my amateur eye, seem considered and important. In general the articles will be linked without comment; linking them means I believe they are worth reading, but I am not pretending to be an expert and I am open to counterclaim on anything. Commenters are also welcome to suggest articles; I may then update the post with a link up high. My general intention, however, is to have fewer articles, of high quality.

To be clear, this post is not particularly intended to be a forum for naive mathematical models, and I don’t intend to engage in that. I’ll also try to lay off the snarkiness, at least in the actual post. Commenters can comment as they wish. If, for example, some Liberal clown or some Greens clown says something stupid on social media, feel free to call it out. But the post itself is intended to promote clear-headed analyses. My other posts will continue to be as charmingly snarky as ever.

UPDATE (19/03/20)

Link 1 Here is the link to the original article, by Thomas Pueyo, that inspired this post:

Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now (and Pueyo’s follow-up article.)

Link 2 Here is a World Health Organisation summary that commenter Steve R gave below:

WHO: Situation Reports (updated 25/03/20: link points to all reports)

Link 3 Here is an comprehensive map from the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at John Hopkins University:

CCSE map of global cases

UPDATE (25/03/20)

Below are a few more links (and link 2 above has been redirected). The top two come from David Nagayam Nayagam a sciency friend of ours who sends article-links to an email list. David mostly links to technical-clinical articles. If you want to be added to David’s list, you can email David directly.

Link 4 Our World in Data

OWD: Coronavirus Summary

Link 5 Imperial College analysis of public health measures (widely reported upon)

IC: Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions

Link 6 Snopes factchecking

Snopes: The Coronavirus collection

Link 7 Norman Swan’s podcast

ABC: Coronacast

UPDATE (27/03/20)

More links below, from David Nagayam Nayagam. You can still email David directly, if you wish to be added to his email list. (Also, David’s twitter account contains more day to day information, plus howling at Australia’s idiocy.)

Link 8 University College London National Research Group’s tracking for each country

UCL: Worldwide Growth Rates

Link 9 National Center for Biotechnology Information hub for scientific literature on Covid-19

NCBI: LitCovid Hub

Link 10 A survey and discussion in Lancet on the public use of face masks.

Lancet: Rational use of face masks in the COVID-19 pandemic

UPDATE (01/04/20)

We’ve added a link added to Pueyo’s follow-up article from (20/03)

UPDATE (08/04/20)

More links courtesy of David Nayagam.

Link 11 David Nayagam now has a link for all the clinical articles he sends:

David Nayagam digest

Link 12 The Institute for Health Metrics modelling of required resources:

IHME: Projections

Link 13 An impressive private compilation by “Alexey” of current data

Covidly: Current cases summary

Link 14 ScoMoFo finally releases the Australian government’s modelling:

Australian federal government modelling: Impact

An Educational Qandary

We see that Monday’s episode of Q & A has an education theme. The panel features Tanya and Adrian and, of course, Eddie the Great. (There’s also a token principal and a token student, who one hopes have the foresight and the intelligence and the courage to be troublesome tokens.)

We won’t watch. We can’t watch. We do, however, have a question about how the show might go:

How long into the show might it be before we have the first dumb question on PISA, and how long until the first dumber answer?

We’ll guess 2 minutes into the show for the question, and 2:30 for the answer.

UPDATE (11/02/20) We had to look up the commenters’ reference to “Jurgen Klopp reply”, but we’re glad we did. It should be watched by everybody with a platform in the media and, in particular, by everyone who appears on Q and Fucking A:

Woody Gets a Hachette Job

After signing a deal to publish Woody Allen’s memoirs, The Hachette Book Group has pulled out. That comes after Ronan Farrow whined about the deal and HBG employees walked out in protest. HBG spokeswoman Claire Cottrell stated that “The decision to cancel Mr. Allen’s book was a difficult one”, but of course Claire is lying. What was difficult, and what proved to be too difficult, was for HBG to stand up to a lynch mob. Meaning, we suppose, that we’ll have to stick to actresses for models of integrity, rather than self-righteous publishers.

UPDATE (22/03/20)

Lionel Shriver has written a very good article on the Hachette job.

What Happened to the Evil Mathologer?

I know something of the current Mathologer issue, but not much. I’ll write more soon.

ps. For those who are unaware, I always refer to the Mathologer as ‘Evil”. I support the Evil Mathologer 100%, here and always.

UPDATE (Wednesday Morning)

I’ve talked to the Evil Mathologer, and all is (sort of) OK.

Mathologer will definitely continue, with a new video under construction as we speak. As for the deleted Mathologer videos, Burkard is enquiring about that, but no promises for a quick fix. As for why the videos were deleted, I don’t want to preempt whatever Burkard may want to say or not say about that.

UPDATE (Wednesday Afternoon)

OK, the Mathologer videos are now back up! Except, there was (hopefully only) a glitch with the re-upping of the latest video. I think Burkard expects that also to be sorted out soon.

UPDATE (Thursday)

Unfortunately, the Evil Mathologer’s latest video is still not back up, and nothing really to report. I had begun to write a comment for people who know (or think they know) what happened, and how I think they should try to understand it. I thought better of it.

What I do hope to do, in the next day or so, is write some of the prehistory of the Mathologer channel. That might at least provide some perspective.

UPDATE (Friday)

Burkard’s latest video is back up!

INtHiTS 3: ScoMoFo Is Told Where to Go

Australia is on fire. Which has led to pretty much the whole country, and a good part of the planet, telling Scott “Morals” Morrison to go fuck himself. But supposedly Morals “understands“, and can see why people “fixate“, and “doesn’t take these things personally“.

You’re wrong, Morals. It is personal. Many, many people are disgusted by your person. They are disgusted because you’re a sanctimonious, unprincipled, greasy huckstering halfwit who deserves to fry in Hell if only for the sheer loathsome meaninglessness of your government. Fuck you, fuck the mining lizardmen and Murdoch gargoyles who cover for you, and fuck all the dumb fucks who allowed themselves to be conned into voting for you.