Friday, 15 December 2017

Not cheerful links

1. What do you think about "A sweeping noninterference agreement between Moscow and Washington that would prohibit both governments from meddling in the other’s domestic politics"? Apparently, "US officials told Moscow there would be no deal".

2. Now forget about Russia. Here's a compelling account of Saudi influence over US politics.

3. Think of a multi-ethnic yet long-term peaceful country? Yugoslavia? Er, no. Switzerland? Yes! So how do the Swiss do it? By keeping the ethnic groups apart from each other, mostly using mountains and lakes. Oh dear. Should we speculate that an awareness of the fragile nature of inter-ethnic cooperation is why "More than any other country, Switzerland’s ethos is centered around preparing for civilizational collapse"?

4. As if you hadn't spotted this fact from Brexit, Trump, etc, etc etc, it appears that more highly educated individuals are more strongly prejudiced against those on the other side of the political spectrum. A quantity theory of prejudice, anyone? (If you want to judge people - and it seems that many of us do - then I would suggest judging them on how they treat the people they actually come across. It's easy enough to say virtuous or nasty things about groups of people in the abstract - that's all just virtue-signalling - face to face is the real test. How many of the people who threaten to punch a Tory actually engage in unprovoked physical violence? And recall that UKIP employed a transsexual lesbian (later one of their MEPs) - have you ever done that?)

5. This one is not cheerful, but not depressing either. It is entitled "The Western Elite from a Chinese Perspective", but that is not a terribly good title for it - it is more personal and interesting than that makes it sound. Here's one example: "here at Goldman [Sachs], he said, we don’t punish people for losing money for the right reason. I have always loved asking questions, so I asked him, was anyone ever punished for making money for the wrong reason? After giving it some thought, he said that he had not heard of any such thing. And he was right."

6. You remember that article about the impending population collapse in the West? There's more! And it's not that cheerful. Should we worry? Well, "odds are we have to fight a mass-casualty war within the next 2 centuries". Hmm. Leaving that aside, women aren't having as many children as they want. I'm not sure people ask men how many children they want (listen to women! the author is always being told), but it seems that there "are actually very few large low-fertility societies out there that don’t have generous incentives or campaigns to boost fertility in place. Now, most of these are of minimal effectiveness! But their mere existence suggests that lowest-low fertility creates direct disutility for voters, at a minimum", and I suppose voters come in both male and female flavours.

7. Last, but far from least, this, the Warlock Hunt (think witch hunt, but not for witches). An article which a man could not write (and perhaps should not read ...).

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Fun stuff

1. How a restaurant that didn't exist became the No 1 restaurant in London according to TripAdvisor. It's the Shed @ Dulwich and it's all here.

2. British water companies rely on magic (well, water divining).

3. Cracking Elgar's Enigma.

4. Improvising in the style of different composers.

5. The National Health Service in the UK uses more than a tenth of the global stock of pagers, and other facts.

6. Who was the greatest military leader? Wellington was about as great a military leader as Caesar, but still well behind Napoleon. Haig was better than Rommel or Robert E Lee?

7. Vote for Tom Harwood! Seriously, do vote for him if you in the NUS.

8. The Economist's advent calendar of graphs.

9. AlphaZero beats Stockfish at chess, having learned the game in 24 hours. The paper includes 10 example games. I played out the first one. It is a little weird.

10. Prolific panda production, and its discontents.

11. Thomas the Tank Engine stunts.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Sentences to ponder

1. Let's start with empirical psychedelia: ""There is no evidence that communion with entities during psychedelic experiences is not an illusion," he explains on the phone from Buenos Aires, when I ask if LSD really allows users to communicate with nature." From here.

2. Then back to reality: "No woman is going to have sex with a man whose ears are bleeding profusely, Mr Liddle. It’s not the sort of thing they do." That's from here. Well worth reading for the postage stamps story.

3. Still in reality? "[He] was at prep school with Prince Charles, and now thinks him ‘the reincarnation of Solomon’." From here. As you might imagine, the man with that opinion has had a not altogether conventionally happy life.

4. And on the subject of wisdom: "Philosophy, you understand, is a very pharmacopoeia of cures that are worse than the corresponding diseases. This started a long while ago; perhaps with Plato’s suggestion that, although there is a problem about how so many different things can all be chairs, philosophy can fix it: there is only one chair that is really a chair, the Chair on which no one can sit; the One Chair that is in Heaven." From here. (Jerry Fodor RIP.) It's worth remembering that professional philosophers are, by and large, the sort of person who at some point in their younger years thought, "Hmm, the One Chair that is in the Heaven? Yes, that sounds like a sensible answer to a difficult problem."

5. Staying with refined pursuits: "Sooner or later [Brideshead Revisited] will be completely unintelligible to even highly educated readers, except for a few specialists." From here. (On the subject of the Waugh family, "Powell’s friend Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd [tells us that for] years, [Auberon] Waugh had hoped that his family would appear in Burke’s Landed Gentry, a volume edited by Massingberd. One year, Massingberd asked [Anthony] Powell to write a preface. It was the year in which, for some reason, Waugh had supposed that his dreams would at last be fulfilled. When the volume appeared, complete with Powell preface, the Waughs were not, however, in the book. Seeing Powell’s name at the front, Waugh assumed, wrongly, that Powell had edited the entire volume that year and therefore been instrumental in his family’s exclusion." A story surely everyone can sympathise with?)

6. But French representations of the English are always intelligible: "In the most extravagant versions, these heinous traits were combined, as in Georges Colomb’s comic-strip La famille Fenouillard (1893), which showed the English “burning Joan of Arc on the rock of Saint Helena”." From here. It would be a comic strip.

7. The future, whether French or English, belongs to those who turn up. And who's going to turn up? "As you can see, the U.S. fertility collapse is much less severe than the Russian post-Soviet fertility collapse or the Swedish collapse in the 1990s, but is on par with the Canadian collapse in the 1970s, the Japanese collapse in the 1970s, the EU collapse in the 1970s or 1980s. It is somewhat more severe than the French collapse in the 1970s and 1980s. // None of these example countries has returned to replacement-rate fertility." From here.

8. Perhaps we needn't get too upset by the impending collapse of the West. "By this point in our civilization’s development, many honest buyers and sellers have left the indignation market entirely; and what’s left behind is not, on average, good." From here. That's going too far. But if you replace "civilization" with "social media" then you'd be pretty close to the truth.

9. At any rate, surely there will always be that blossom of snow to warm our hearts? "When Hammerstein died, Theodore Bikel was on stage every night on Broadway still singing "Edelweiss", and he noticed something about the song. "This dying man writing the very last lyric of his career," he said, "the very last word he wrote was 'forever'."Here. Also: "Some years ago "Edelweiss" was played at the White House, at a state dinner for Austria's President Kirschschlager, and everyone but the Austrians stood up for the national anthem." I certainly hope that's true.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Uber - inside and out

Here are two interesting links about Uber.

First, here is Mr Money Mustache, an early retirement devotee, explaining what it is like to work for Uber. A detail from his induction: "There was a trendy little cafe in the corner of the room, so I strolled over and picked up a Clif bar and a coffee. Due to my naive privilege as a former tech worker, I expected it all to be free – after all, don’t all offices offer free coffee and snacks, along with a keg of local beer and another tap for Kombucha? But a man popped out from around the corner and rung me up for $3.85. On top of that, it was a bland coffee in a small cup. This was an interesting reminder that working in a lower-training job is a different world than the one you and I probably both inhabit, here at the top of the economy."

Second, here is Alex Tabarrok explaining why Uber can't pay drivers more just by raising fares. I would be interested to see what Tabarrok thinks about Mustache's suggestions for changing how drivers are paid.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Incoherence on Clinton and Lewinsky

This makes no sense. In the wake of Harvey Weinstein et al, there is now a move by decent liberals to say that their defence of Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affair was wrong. The link is a piece to that effect from someone sane and reasonable. But it makes no sense. (More below)

Friday, 17 November 2017

Miscellaneous links with some commentary from me

1. Different sets of undercover police officers fighting each other.

2. How the world looks from South Asia. For one thing, it puts Brexit in a bit of context: I'm not sure that Henry VIII's break with Rome was big news at the court of the Emperor Humayun either - the natural order is restored. (Talking of Brexit, EU workers in the UK have increased to record numbers since the Brexit vote. Not sure how that fits into anyone's Brexit narrative.)

3. Very pretty chemistry.

4. Laws very different from our own. More here. All fascinating and worth pondering. Just one little footnote from me. Alexander points out that a lot of these alternative legal systems seem to rely on there being little crime and/or little recidivism: were these societies less crime-ridden than our own? Some parts of the answer are obvious. (1) You need to have a lot of laws before you get crimes like forging cheques and tax evasion. (2) It used to be more normal to use physical force or public humiliation to settle arguments or to punish people whose crimes are disgusting. Take something as recent as Back to the Future: this is a film in which the happy ending consists in a weak man summoning up the courage to inflict vigilante violence to a sexual harasser, thereby successfully intimidating the harasser for life. (The modern equivalent might permit a 'kick-ass' woman to mete out the physical punishment, but would it prefer the harasser to experience institutional correction or counselling?) But note also (3) there are institutional incentives here. Once a society has police, prisons, courts, campaigning pressure groups for victims, etc. it will find something for them to do. Does the fact that this country can spend maybe £2m on investigating a dead man's sexual history prove that we are a fantastically rich country prepared to spend whatever it takes in order to obtain a perfect version of justice? Or that there is very little crime being committed by living people? Or simply that the institutions in favour of spending money on that sort of thing have a great deal of power?

5. This, by Adrian Chiles (an under-rated writer), finally makes baseball make sense to English people. I mean, you know it's a bit like rounders, but what it is really about? What's the story? The question had never consciously occurred to me until Chiles raised it and answered it. "Watching cricket, I was used to seeing the batsman, pain etched across his face, mournfully trudging back to the pavilion to spend long hours ruminating on his shortcomings. Here the fella just shrugged, took his seat in the dugout, and came out for another swing and miss 20 minutes or so later. Where was the pain?" Read the link for the answer. And if you understand baseball and wonder about cricket then this might help you too.

6. Nominative determinism of the day: the Church of England's statement on letting boys dress as girls in school comes from Nigel Genders.

7. Finally, this. File perhaps under law, perhaps under our common European heritage at its finest, perhaps under Brexit, and perhaps under verse.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

This is immensely weird

"Yuichi: I played a father for a 12-year-old with a single mother. The girl was bullied because she didn’t have a dad, so the mother rented me. I’ve acted as the girl’s father ever since. I am the only real father that she knows.

Morin: And this is ongoing?

Yuichi: Yes, I’ve been seeing her for eight years. She just graduated high school.

Morin: Does she understand that you’re not her real father?

Yuichi: No, the mother hasn’t told her.

Morin: How do you think she would feel if she discovered the truth?

Yuichi: I think she would be shocked. If the client never reveals the truth, I must continue the role indefinitely. If the daughter gets married, I have to act as a father in that wedding, and then I have to be the grandfather. So, I always ask every client, “Are you prepared to sustain this lie?” It’s the most significant problem our company has.

Morin: So, you could be involved with her for the rest of your life?

Yuichi: It’s risky that she might discover the truth someday. In this company, one person can only have five families at a time. That’s the rule.


Yuichi: ... There was one case of a man in his 60s. His wife died, and he wanted to order another copy of her. We provided that.

Morin: And he called the new woman by his wife’s old name?

Yuichi: Yes, the same name, and he wanted her to call him what his wife had. She called him Otōsan—it means father. In Japan, it’s pretty common to say father, even if you’re the wife.

Morin: Did she have the same memories as the wife?

Yuichi: There are certain memories, yes. There’s a blank sheet, and the client writes the memories that he wants the wife to remember.

More here. Read it and weep.

Perhaps this is just another 'Japanese people are weird' story, like a piece about gameshows or the more awkward bits of Lost in Translation. Or perhaps this is a 'the future happens first in Japan' story.