Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Just William, and a dose of Silent Evidence

In December I pointed out that The Graham Norton Show, by only interviewing successful music or film stars, might be misleading viewers about their own chances of success. Such shows never interview people who fail:
But the fascination in hearing the lives of only successful people means we miss the evidence of the unsuccessful majority.
This is a big theme of Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan, where he writes about the 'silent evidence' that, by its very nature, is never observed - like the terrorist attack that doesn't happen thanks to wise policies - so it struck me as quite an important and modern insight.

I was delighted and amused, then, to see the following conversation in a second-hand, first-edition copy of William and the Space Animal by Richmal Crompton, published in 1956. Crompton wrote a long series of books about the adventures of the irrepressible English school boy William Brown published from the 1920s: really hilarious observations of life in Britain in this period, often poking fun at the fashionable beliefs and norms of the day. In various books Crompton teased her compatriots for their interests in Eastern mysticism and communism, for their hypocritical self-righteousness and youthful extravagances, all from the perspective of the energetic and mischievous William.

In this case William and his friend Ginger are discussing the possibility of their getting to the moon somehow. The boys had, Ginger reminds William, tried lots of ways already, but William is an optimist and eager to keep trying.
'We've got to keep on tryin' till somethin' does come off. Somethin's sure to come off sooner or later. Stands to reason it will. That's what happened to all the inventors in hist'ry. They went on tryin' and tryin' an' in the end it came off.'

'Yes, but you dno't know about all the ones that tried an' tried an' tried an' it didn't come off.'
Silent evidence, in a children's book, in 1956!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Anniversary of Potsdam: the coming rain of ruin

The 26th July is the anniversary of the issuing of the Potsdam Declaration in 1945, a document created by the United States, Britain and China outlining terms of surrender for Japan. Germany had already fallen and Japan's defeat seemed inevitable, yet they fought on with terrible losses; the Potsdam Declaration was offered to Japan as a final ultimatum.

The language of the document is astonishing to modern eyes. It was written with total imperial confidence and clarity, referring to the Allies as 'the aroused free peoples of the world'. It was a bleak and dreadful warning to Japan should they dare resist.
The might that now converges on Japan is immeasurably greater than that which, when applied to the resisting Nazis, necessarily laid waste to the lands, the industry and the method of life of the whole German people. The full application of our military power, backed by our resolve, will mean the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and just as inevitably the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland.
It sought to distinguish between the Japanese people and 'those self-willed militaristic advisers' who had taken Japan to war, encouraging the Japanese to 'follow the path of reason'. It ordered the removal of those guilty parties from power, announced that Japan would be occupied by the Allies until the demands were all satisfied, insisted on the obliteration of Japan's Asian empire, and the disarming of its entire military. It called for war crimes trials, and the establishment of a liberal democracy. Industries associated with armaments were to be temporarily forbidden.

All this was accompanied with clear and terrible language:
Following are our terms. We will not deviate from them. There are no alternatives. We shall brook no delay....

We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.
Prompt and utter destruction: some people believe this was a hint of the nuclear weapons that the US had already tested by the time the Potsdam Declaration was drawn up. There is a strange story about the Japanese government's response to the Declaration, incidentally, related by a 1968 National Security Agency document about the dangers of mistranslation:
Reporters in Tokyo questioned Japanese Premier Kantaro Suzuki about his government's reaction to the Potsdam Declaration. Since no formal decision had been reached at the time, Suzuki, falling back on the politician's old standby answer to reporters, replied that he was withholding comment. He used the Japanese word mokusatsu, derived from the word for "silence."
This word, unfortunately, has two meanings:
mokusatsu ... , 'l1-suru, v. take no notice of; treat
(anything) with silent contempt; ignore [by keeping
silence]; remain in a wise and masterly inactivity.
The NSA document suggested that Suzuki had intended to say the Japanese equivalent of 'no comment', but international press interpreted it as a contemptuous 'not worthy of comment'. 
U. S. officials, angered by the tone of Suzuki's statement and obviously seeing it as another typical example of the fanatical Banzai and Kamikaze spirit, decided on stern measures. Within ten days the decision was made to drop the atomic bomb, the bomb was dropped, and Hiroshima was leveled.
Hard to know if one mistranslated word had really led to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but American President Harry Truman did reference the Japanese rejection of Potsdam in an official announcement following the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima:
It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July 26 was issued at Potsdam. Their leaders promptly rejected that ultimatum. If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.
In any case the Japanese kept fighting for a few more months, and the rain of death continued: in the catastrophic (and more bloody) fire-bombing of Japanese cities and finally the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I lived for a year in a small town near Nagasaki City, and whenever I visited I felt a little proud of the bustling and friendly modern city that had recovered from the bombing.

Strange times. The utter Allied confidence, the talk of annihilating another country, and with such unquestioned moral confidence, seem odd now. One of the 'aroused free peoples of the world' the Declaration said had defeated Nazi Germany was the USSR, with whom the Western Allies would plunge the world into the Cold War within a few years. I usually feel sceptical when people talk about 'simpler times' but certainly they were different times from now. I cannot imagine George W. Bush announcing that Iraq would face 'prompt and utter destruction' or a 'rain of ruin' if it failed to surrender. But I don't really understand why things have changed - readers feel free to contribute thoughts below.

Anyway here is the entire Potsdam Declaration in full:

  1. We-the President of the United States, the President of the National Government of the Republic of China, and the Prime Minister of Great Britain, representing the hundreds of millions of our countrymen, have conferred and agree that Japan shall be given an opportunity to end this war.
  2. The prodigious land, sea and air forces of the United States, the British Empire and of China, many times reinforced by their armies and air fleets from the west, are poised to strike the final blows upon Japan. This military power is sustained and inspired by the determination of all the Allied Nations to prosecute the war against Japan until she ceases to resist.
  3. The result of the futile and senseless German resistance to the might of the aroused free peoples of the world stands forth in awful clarity as an example to the people of Japan. The might that now converges on Japan is immeasurably greater than that which, when applied to the resisting Nazis, necessarily laid waste to the lands, the industry and the method of life of the whole German people. The full application of our military power, backed by our resolve, will mean the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and just as inevitably the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland.
  4. The time has come for Japan to decide whether she will continue to be controlled by those self-willed militaristic advisers whose unintelligent calculations have brought the Empire of Japan to the threshold of annihilation, or whether she will follow the path of reason.
  5. Following are our terms. We will not deviate from them. There are no alternatives. We shall brook no delay.
  6. There must be eliminated for all time the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest, for we insist that a new order of peace, security and justice will be impossible until irresponsible militarism is driven from the world.
  7. Until such a new order is established and until there is convincing proof that Japan's war-making power is destroyed, points in Japanese territory to be designated by the Allies shall be occupied to secure the achievement of the basic objectives we are here setting forth.
  8. The terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out and Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine.
  9. The Japanese military forces, after being completely disarmed, shall be permitted to return to their homes with the opportunity to lead peaceful and productive lives.
  10. We do not intend that the Japanese shall be enslaved as a race or destroyed as a nation, but stern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals, including those who have visited cruelties upon our prisoners. The Japanese Government shall remove all obstacles to the revival and strengthening of democratic tendencies among the Japanese people. Freedom of speech, of religion, and of thought, as well as respect for the fundamental human rights shall be established.
  11. Japan shall be permitted to maintain such industries as will sustain her economy and permit the exaction of just reparations in kind, but not those which would enable her to re-arm for war. To this end, access to, as distinguished from control of, raw materials shall be permitted. Eventual Japanese participation in world trade relations shall be permitted.
  12. The occupying forces of the Allies shall be withdrawn from Japan as soon as these objectives have been accomplished and there has been established in accordance with the freely expressed will of the Japanese people a peacefully inclined and responsible government.
  13. We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Is Everyone Western?

I am rather busy with my MSc dissertation these days so I don't have as much time to keep this current as I'd like, sorry to regular readers.

One small point today. I was in a McDonalds earlier to get some lunch and I found there a phenomenon I had noticed in McDonalds in Dublin several times before: foreigners. Many, diverse, foreigners. There were Spanish, Chinese, East Europeans, sub-Saharan Africans, French; I was served by a woman from some South East Asian country I guess, and a gang of Italian teenagers squeezed onto the table beside me.

Years ago I had noticed that Irish pubs, so famous and emblematic of Irish culture, seemed to generally be full of white faces, lacking the ethnic diversity of the streets while immigration was high. Perhaps the alcohol was off-putting for many immigrants for cultural or religious reasons.

In McDonalds, though, all the Europeans and Africans and Asians attended. I could look up and see Indonesian girls in hijabs and Australian backpackers and Indian students all chatting over their Big Macs. My guess here is that McDonalds is simply so widespread that it is represented in every single one of those countries, and carries familiarity and a taste of home. When Filipino or Polish youths want somewhere to meet where they can be confident of the kind of food and drink available, a place that is not so alien and different from home, McDonalds is the place to go.

If that's true, it's a testament to the near-global dominance of a kind of American culture. Commentators discuss the falling power or influence of the West, the economic rise of the East, but it has happened along with a massive shift towards a celebration of American, Western culture by a great many people in the East. In one sense, then everyone is Western now.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Irish babies remain conservatively Irish

In 2010 I wrote about a CNN news report that claimed the most common name for boys in Britain was now Muhammad, supposedly indicating a big increase in the Muslim population there. I pointed out that there were various problems with that interpretation.

Now the Central Statistics Office in Ireland has released a list of the most common names for babies in 2011, and these remain resolutely Anglo-Irish or Biblical. Top 20 names for girls:


And boys:

Nothing jumps out here as an especially unusual or foreign name. Does that indicate anything about demographic or cultural changes in Ireland? Not sure, feel free to comment below.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Death distribution of Pakistan and United States

Pakistani journalist Tahera, who writes at the Diverse Similarities blog, asked me to compare the death distribution for the United States (where children who survive their first year are extremely unlikely to die before adulthood) with a developing country.

I managed to find age-specified death rates from the Population Association of Pakistan. Unfortunately I don't have time right now to build exact comparisons for the US age groups and compare like with like, but these two graphs do give us a good idea of the big difference. Here are the American age-specified death rates, (deaths in each age group for every 10,000 living):
And here is the Pakistani equivalent, though broken down by sex, starting with an Under 1 age group, with no higher age group than 65+ (compared with 100+ in the US), and listed in deaths per 1,000:

I'm sorry that these are not directly comparable because the age groups differ. Death rates for the Under 1 group in Pakistan seem very high but the American equivalent is for Under 5s, which includes the lower-risk 1-4 year age group. 

But it is still very different. For Americans from 10-14, fewer than 2 per 10,000 would die in 2007. For Pakistanis of the same age the number was 27 per 10,000 for girls and 26 for boys. Younger age groups are even more at risk in Pakistan. Interestingly the age groups with the lowest death rates are the late teens to early 30s in Pakistan, for whom American rates are already climbing. 

If I get the chance I'll spend a little more time breaking down the American data to make it directly comparable, and explore the sex differences also. For the moment this quick glimpse tells us what we might expect: the extremely low risk of death for American children and teenagers is not universal; in Pakistan the risk is much greater, and the distribution of deaths across age groups is rather different.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

What death looks like

This is a graph showing the total number of people who died in the United State in 2007 at every year of age, based on publicly-available data from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. We see what one might expect: most people make it to old age, and then die in their 70s-90s. Very few people make it past 100.

There are a few cool and surprising things about this, though. First, see how few people die in childhood. Considering the great concern and caution with which many parents view their children's safety, it seems surprising that the parents are much more likely to die than the children. There is a single high-risk year in the first year of an infant's life, but if they get through their first year the risk sharply decreases. Let's zoom in on the early years a bit, excluding the Under-1 age.

The age at which children are seen as being at their most vulnerable, before adolescence, is when they appear to be least likely to die!

These graphs are imperfect because we don't know how many people are living in each year of age. The numbers drop off drastically after around 90 presumably because there are simply fewer people in their 90s and 100s alive, which means the population capable of dying is smaller. Likewise the narrow band of children dying could have been caused if Americans were simply having fewer children: there would be fewer to die. To check that I built death rates - the number of deaths per 10,000 living - by comparing the 5-year age groups for deaths in 2007 against the number living in the age groups for the 2010 Census.

Below we see our death rates. Unsurprisingly, the older one gets, the more likely one is to die. For every 10,000 people alive in the US between the ages of 10-14, fewer than two died in 2007. The death rate for those 40-44 years old was over ten times higher! Parents: your children are more likely to be orphaned by your death than to die themselves.

Why? The answer is that the big killers of humans overwhelmingly affect older people. From the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention again, the most common causes of death:

Children aren't particularly likely to die of heart disease or cancer or strokes.