You Have A Lucky Face

I’d been walking back from a meeting in town when it suddenly began raining. I’m the type of person who packs an umbrella even at the slightest possibility of rain – in fact, at school my friends found it amusing how I always seemed to have an umbrella even in the middle of summer.

Lately though, I’d begun relying on a new weather app that provided very reliable hour-by-hour rain predictions to figure out what to wear in the morning – a sort of just-in-time clothing process – and today it told me the probability of rain was very low, hence no umbrella. And so here I was, sheltering underneath an awning waiting for the pedestrian lights to turn green, speaking to a guy who’d just been standing there.

I hadn’t noticed him at first; I was listening to a podcast of This American Life, the one about Father’s Day, and it took a while for me to realise he was actually trying to speak to me. The man was smartly dressed, wearing a dark suit jacket over an open-necked white shirt. He didn’t look like a weirdo, but you never know. I took one earbud out and turned towards him.

“You have a lucky face,” he said.

I laughed. “Thanks,” I said, thinking that he was just in a cheerful mood.

“You have a very lucky face,” he continued. “I can tell from your eyes and your mouth.”

“Hmm,” I said.

“But you look worried, you are frowning here,” he said, gesturing above my nose. “You should know that you will have good luck in the next three months, you will work hard but you will get what you are looking for.”

Ah, I thought, a fortune-teller. I glanced up at the lights; they were still red, and the rain was still coming down.

“Do you want to know why I think this? Let me tell you.” He slipped a red wallet made from leather out of his jacket and pulled out a few small bits of paper and a pen. He scribbed a few words on a scrap of paper, then crumpled it up into a little ball and gave it to me. “Don’t open it yet,” he said.

I took the paper and stuck it in my pocket.

“Okay, now pick a number from 1 to 9.”

Before I went to university, I thought I was interested in genetics and molecular biology. After precisely one lecture, I realised exactly how wrong I was and became determined to switch to something more stimulating, and I eventually found myself taking experimental psychology and neuroscience lectures. Many of them were highly reductionist or focusing on development or pathology, but some were at the cognitive level, and from them and from various textbooks I knew all about how humans reason and how poor we are at understanding logic and probability and causation.

They didn’t teach us specifically about magic, but it was clear that our limited capacity for attention and our ease of being misdirected was really the key to successful magicians. I once saw David Blaine perform a bit of magic at a TED conference. I was standing about one metre away from him when he did a fairly standard card trick on a guy he was close enough to touch, and then at the end gave the guy his watch back. We were all duly impressed; we had all been watching his hands intently, wanting to be the one person who was smart enough to see the trick, to figure out the ending. But he was too good.

“3,” I said, shrugging. He noted it down on a new piece of paper.

“Your favourite colour?”

The lights had turned green. This was the perfect opportunity to escape, but I wanted to see where this was going.

“Blue.” Why not?

“Your age?”

“Uh… 28.”

“How many brothers and sisters?”


“Brother or sister?”

“Brother.” He wrote down ‘B – 1’ at the bottom of his list.

“Okay.” He looked up. “And what do you want most? Good health, good life, good fortune, good love, good family?”

I laughed. What an absurd question. “All of them,” I said.

For the first time, he laughed as well. “You have to pick one.”

“Okay then… good family.” He wrote down ‘G – F’.

He asked me for his bit of paper he’d given me at the start. I pulled it out of my pocket and handed it over, and he waved it in front of his face at precise points, and gave it back to me. “Don’t open it,” he said again. Then he began talking about how the numbers all added up and how if you combined this and that, I would figure out my fortune.

I was starting to finally get worried. I figured that he’d be asking for money shortly, and things had gone on for long enough that it was already going to be embarrassing when I left. With the lights back to green again, I backed away and said that I had to go now.

“No no no no no, we haven’t finished yet!”

“Sorry,” I said lamely.

“But you haven’t opened the paper!” he protested.

“Sorry,” I repeated behind me.

Befitting my status as a former scientist and being an avid reader of all the science blogs and such, I’m intensely suspicious of superstition. I have no problem with black cats. I deliberately walk underneath ladders. I’m sure I’ve broken at least two mirrors. But walking away from this guy, I couldn’t help but think I’d somehow cursed myself by not letting him finish his shtick; it was surely a rude thing to do, no matter how (eventually) annoying he had become.

Of course, I opened the paper. Written on it was:

0 – 28
B -1
G -F

For about three seconds, I froze.

Firstly, I thought: Wow, could it be true? Did this guy actually figure this out? Have I been completely wrong about all of this my entire life?

Secondly: Obviously not. But what are the chances of him guessing? Still pretty high – certainly not high enough to get a decent hit rate.

Thirdly: Wait a second… he must have done a classic switcheroo while I wasn’t looking! This must be the same bit of paper he’d been writing my answers on, and when he was waving it around, he’d swapped them over.

Aha. I felt proud of myself at this piece of Sherlockian deduction, then slightly sad. It was a tremendously engrossing piece of street magic; certainly not that technically impressive, but no doubt more than good enough to fool the average passerby. I wondered how much money he made by doing this. I wondered what he would have told me next.

And I wondered whether this was his life, giving other people a glimpse ahead into their lives. Giving them a certainty, proven with written evidence and without any caveats or probabilities or qualifications, that things were going to get better. I looked down at the piece of paper again, thought about whether to throw it away or not, and kept on walking.

Policy Games

Ever since last year’s UK elections produced a hung Parliament and the current Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, I’ve been following politics with a keen eye – particularly the travails of the Lib Dems, who find themselves in (sort of) power after many, many decades. It’s been interesting to see the spirited debates on places like Lib Dem Voice and the reactions of party members to their drubbing in last month’s local elections (alternately complacent and apocalyptic).

When I saw that the Social Liberal Forum conference was being held in London on a Saturday (yesterday, actually), with two cabinet members speaking (Chris Huhne and Vince Cable) and tickets for only £25, it seemed like a brilliant opportunity to see how political parties come up with policies at an early stage. The Social Liberal Forum is an:

Internal party pressure group with the aim of developing social liberal solutions and approaches which reflect these principles and which find popular support.

Despite being only two years old, it has around 1800 members and claims to have influenced Lib Dem party policy to a significant degree; so going to the conference wasn’t exactly like going to a proper Party Conference with all the attendant votes and such, but it was definitely a step up from the usual local confab.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve been to dozens of conferences from TED to SXSW to FooCamp to book publishing conferences in Italy and spoken at many of them, and my feeling about those is that you rarely learn anything new (apart from maybe TED; otherwise, books and the web are better) but they’re very good places to gauge the general feeling of a community, and of course, to swap gossip. The purpose of the SLF Conference wasn’t clear to me – was it to listen to some speeches, or was it to try and formulate a bit of policy – but either way, I was hoping it’d at least be a novel experience. I also strongly believe that there is desperately little political engagement among the tech community and I wanted to see how things were done.

Due to general laziness and not knowing my way around City University, I ended up missing the first session, which apparently was quite good, but I did arrive just in time for the second session, Deficit Reduction – Ideology or Necessity?

(Side note: This month there was a very big kerfuffle within the Lib Dem community about how attendees to the upcoming Party Conference will need to provide accreditation, i.e. address and passport/driving licence/NI number, to check that they’re not about to embarrass everyone with protests a terrorist. Both the Conservatives and the Labour Party already do this for their conferences, so I think the Lib Dem organisers were taken aback by the strong opposition regarding privacy, civil liberties, etc, not to mention the fact that the decision was made in private.

Anyway, the reason why things are different this year is apparently because David Cameron is speaking at the conference and that the Home Office and the police have ‘suggested’ to the Lib Dems that increased security measures should be in place. After a lot of back and forth in the comments, it emerged that the measures have happened mostly because they couldn’t get insurance for the venue otherwise.

The reason why this is relevant is because when I walked in to the conference venue, all I had to do was say my name and I could pick up a badge. Since I wasn’t asked to show ID, I could have just said any of the names I saw laid on the registration table; and because there was no bag search or metal detectors, well, who knows what someone could have done to two Cabinet Ministers, multiple MPs, and a room full of party activists… but hey, David Cameron wasn’t there, so I guess it’s all OK).

The two speakers were Vince Cable, Business Secretary in the Cabinet, and Ed Randall, a Senior Lecturer in Politics and Social Policy at Goldsmiths. After an endearingly unorganised struggle with the microphones, Vince Cable entered the room and was greeted by a round of applause. I found this a bit odd until I realised that the sentiment was probably along the lines of, “Wow, how awesome are we as a group to get Vince Cable, a Cabinet Minister, to come along to our audience?” rather than “This guy is so amazing he deserves applause wherever he goes.”

(Side side note: There were about 200 people in the room and it was about 90% white, 70% male, and mostly middle-aged. Not many students – I guess they’re all too annoyed with the Lib Dems to come along any more. When I tweeted this observation (along with the caveat that it was probably the same at other Conservative and Labour gatherings), someone told me that it used to be worse. Well, I hate to think what the last meeting was like then…) Continue reading “Policy Games”

Social Liberal Forum

I’m going to the Social Liberal Forum in London tomorrow, a conference being run by the Liberal Democrats. I’m not a member of the Lib Dems and to be honest I’m pretty disappointed by them, but I feel it’d be an interesting and useful experience to go to a political conference, just to see how these things work and what people say, unmediated by the usual lens of newspapers. Will post some more thoughts on it later.

The UK is not the same as the US

In Louis Menand’s insightful article about why we have college in this week’s New Yorker, he highlights the increasing selectivity of private US universities (in contrast to the very accommodating nature of public universities) and reinforces his point by comparing them with Oxford and Cambridge:

In 1940, the acceptance rate at Harvard was eighty-five per cent. By 1970, it was twenty per cent. Last year, thirty-five thousand students applied to Harvard, and the acceptance rate was six per cent.

Almost all the élite colleges saw a jump in applications this year, partly because they now recruit much more aggressively internationally, and acceptance rates were correspondingly lower. Columbia, Yale, and Stanford admitted less than eight per cent of their applicants. This degree of selectivity is radical. To put it in some perspective: the acceptance rate at Cambridge is twenty-one per cent, and at Oxford eighteen per cent.

This is not a useful comparison. Under the British university admissions system as administered by UCAS, people can only apply to up to five universities and they can’t apply to both Oxford and Cambridge; they need to choose one or the other. No doubt if these rules were changed (and the UK were as big a country as the US), the acceptance rate would plummet.

This is not to say that I disagree with Menand’s overall point, but it speaks to a disappointing lack of appreciation in how other countries’ university admissions schemes differ from the US.