Ramanujan at 125: math articles in The Hindu

To commemorate the start of a year-long celebration of mathematics on the occasion of Srinivasa Ramanujan’s 125th birth anniversary, The Hindu has published a supplement today on mathematics. Being away at the moment, I haven’t seen it, but they can be found on this page. They cover a variety of topics, from election forecasting to machine intelligence. Have fun reading them.

One of the articles is by my colleague Ronojoy Adhikari and myself, on one of our favourite topics, Bayesian statistics.

Income inequality, taxation, and dumb ideas

When I was a graduate stuent, some people would joke about a sensationalist physics professor in Bangalore that, while his colleagues published in the Physical Review, he preferred to publish in the Deccan Herald. Similarly, I suppose the reason professors at elite U.S. universities publish stupid articles in The New York Times is that they couldn’t possibly publish such articles in a peer-reviewed journal.

Ian Ayres, a professor of law at Yale, and Aaron S. Edlin, a professor of law and of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, have written an article titled “Don’t tax the rich. Tax inequality itself”. They observe that, in 2006, the average income of the top 1% earners in the United States was 36 times greater than that of the median household, and, reasonably enough, declare that this is the limit. Literally. They write

We believe that we have reached the Brandeis tipping point. It would be bad for our democracy if 1-percenters started making 40 or 50 times as much as the median American.

How to stop this relentless climb? Easy, they say:

Enough is enough. Congress should reform our tax law to put the brakes on further inequality. Specifically, we propose an automatic extra tax on the income of the top 1 percent of earners — a tax that would limit the after-tax incomes of this club to 36 times the median household income…

Here’s how the tax would work. Once a year, the Internal Revenue Service would calculate the Brandeis ratio of the previous year. If the average 1-percenter made more than 36 times the income of the median American household, then the I.R.S. would create a new tax bracket for the highest 1 percent of income and calculate a marginal income tax rate for that bracket sufficient to reduce the after-tax Brandeis ratio to 36.

One can think of several objections, but the primary one is: what about the next 1%? If the people in the top 1% earn 50 times the median, it seems possible that the people in the next 1% earn 40 times the median. Will you fail to tax them, then? Would it be fair to tax the top earners to the extent that their income falls below the next 1%?

Here’s another objection: the top 1% likely don’t all earn the same amount: the top 1% of the top 1% (the top 1 in 10,000) earn disproportionately more. If you fix a tax rate in such a way that the “average 1-percenter” earns no more than 36 times the median household, will you not be penalising the bottom of the top 1% and not the top?

No reputable scholarly journal would let the authors get away without answering such questions. And if they did answer them, I’m pretty sure their method would evolve into the usual kind of progressive taxation system, with higher rates for higher income brackets.

But I suppose that’s why the New York Times exists.

In memoriam

Kim Jong-Il looking at a cucumber

(Image from this tumblr, which I assume will stop updating now)

What doesn’t kill you will eventually get you anyway

UPDATE 16/12/2011: Christopher Hitchens died a few hours after I wrote the following. I regret choosing the title which now seems inappropriately prescient, but have left it unchanged.

Vanity Fair announcement here. NYT obit here.

UPDATE 17/12/2011: Ian McEwan has a must-read piece on his recent time with Hitchens at the Houston hospital where Hitchens spent his last days.

Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with cancer a year and a half ago, and has written a few articles contemplating his mortality, but this is his most harrowing yet. And yet he manages his usual erudition, wit and turn of phrase.

Ostensibly the essay is a rebuttal of Nietzsche’s “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. He contrasts the proton therapy that he has received:

This put me in a rare class of patients who could claim to have received the highly advanced expertise uniquely available at the stellar Zip Code of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. To say that the rash hurt would be pointless. The struggle is to convey the way that it hurt on the inside. I lay for days on end, trying in vain to postpone the moment when I would have to swallow. Every time I did swallow, a hellish tide of pain would flow up my throat, culminating in what felt like a mule kick in the small of my back. I wondered if things looked as red and inflamed within as they did without. And then I had an unprompted rogue thought: If I had been told about all this in advance, would I have opted for the treatment? There were several moments as I bucked and writhed and gasped and cursed when I seriously doubted it.

It’s probably a merciful thing that pain is impossible to describe from memory. It’s also impossible to warn against. If my proton doctors had tried to tell me up front, they might perhaps have spoken of “grave discomfort” or perhaps of a burning sensation. I only know that nothing at all could have readied or steadied me for this thing that seemed to scorn painkillers and to attack me in my core. I now seem to have run out of radiation options in those spots (35 straight days being considered as much as anyone can take), and while this isn’t in any way good news, it spares me from having to wonder if I would willingly endure the same course of treatment again.

But mercifully, too, I now can’t summon the memory of how I felt during those lacerating days and nights. And I’ve since had some intervals of relative robustness. So as a rational actor, taking the radiation together with the reaction and the recovery, I have to agree that if I had declined the first stage, thus avoiding the second and the third, I would already be dead. And this has no appeal.

Whatever doesn’t kill you keeps you alive. I’m grateful that the Hitch is still alive, and still writing almost as actively as he ever has.

Facebook and conspiracy theories

UPDATE 13/12/11: Apparently Facebook has fixed this now — snopes is allowed again.

I’m not usually big on conspiracy theories, but sometimes it’s just too in-your-face.

A facebook friend posted an article attributed to Andy Rooney. It is bogus (as the comments on his link say), and I tried linking to the debunking page on the internet’s most important debunking site, snopes.com. And facebook rejected the comment, saying links to snopes are not allowed.

I tried posting that as a status message, but was again rejected, until I replaced “snopes.com” with “snopes dot com”.

Conspire away, facebookers. Gore claimed to have invented the internet, Obama is a Muslim terrorist born in Kenya, and don’t let snopes.com tell you anything different.