Monday, 30 December 2013

All (cutting-edge) human knowledge is here

Or at least nearly all - it's lolmythesis.com, where people summarise their PhDs in one sentence (or, for those who can't count to one, a small number of sentences).

Some I liked:

"That Galaxy wasn’t the one we were looking for, and after careful examination we can say that it doesn’t have any other particularly interesting traits either."
- Dark Cosmology Center, University of Copenhagen.

"A well known chemical reaction works just like the literature said it would"
- Chemistry, University of Cambridge

"Using flash-cameras set up in the wild to count how many animals are in an area is a bad idea because bright flashes at night scare animals."
- Biology, Stanford

And, finally, one from France

"The people doesn’t understand."
- Political science, Sciences Po Bordeaux

Well, quite.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Death in the East End, death of the East End

This is what you call a proper East End funeral:

"Mr Redwood set off on foot, planting his elegant black cane down the middle of the road, forcing the traffic to slow down. Tall and broad-shouldered, he cut a regal figure (though that was not why the other lads at Cribb’s called him “the Queen”). The hearse followed, decorated with wreaths inside and out, spelling out in red roses and white carnations “MY DAD”, “GRANDAD” and “1, 2”, the traps Billy always bet on at the dogs. Tracey, Stacey and three other Bullard women walked behind, arm in arm, doubled up in grief for the 89-year-old patriarch.

At Mr Redwood’s stately pace, the cortege turned onto Barking Road. It was the route Billy had taken almost every day for half a century—ending at Coral, a bookmaker, where the hearse stopped. The manager of the betting-shop stepped onto the pavement and, in a gesture that seemed to encapsulate the florid theatricality of the East End funeral, where Victorian music hall meets Catholic high Mass, she handed Tracey a single white rose.
"

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Surprising facts and factoids

(1) "the average Bucharest resident is comfortably better off than the average resident of Manchester", says the Economist.

(2) "roughly 1 in 200 pregnant young American women claim to be virgins". Shouldn't that be "claims to be a virgin"? Grammar notwithstanding, that's what Slate tells us, adding that "more virgins gave birth to boys (59.8%) or may have learnt they were pregnant during Advent, these trends did not reach statistical significance".

(3) You can be poor and happy - if you are Israeli Ultra-Orthodox. "One possibility is that (some?) religions make people pretty happy. Another is that lack of money does not make you unhappy, provided that a) you can cite a good reason for having a lower income, b) you have peer and family support for your situation/decision, and c) there is no negative selection into the other lower income individuals you will end up hanging around." (From Marginal Revolution.) I suspect if you have point (c) then you will find it easy enough to satisfy points (a) and (b). One can contrive a link to the Christmas story from this factoid as well, but I leave that as an exercise for the reader.

(4) It's better to be top of your class than to hang out with clever people.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

"And with tripes we are healed"

You may not be familiar with the healing power of tripes. But Spotify claims that this is the title of one of the choruses in Handel's Messiah, and Amazon believes similarly.

Rory Sutherland - 3 columns in one

It's the Spectator Christmas special, which explains his munificence.

First, we get a little bit on how to get into copywriting (question: 'Describe, using no more than 50 words, a piece of toast to a Martian.' Model answer: ‘Floop, floop! Gribble ptáng chiz’nit greep floopiwop.’)

Second, a little bit of alternative thinking about political issues: e.g. "the people whose economic position suffers most from immigration are recent immigrants. Are periodic moratoriums the answer? No one would think this suggestion strange in a debate about overfishing. So why reject it here?" (This, I think, is the historical solution in fact adopted by the US, with periodic loosenings and tightenings of immigration policy.)

Finally, a tour de force on why it is much harder to be middle class in England than either being middle class in Wales or a successful rapper "If you make £5 million as a musician, you get to sit in a hot tub full of women, drinking vintage Krug from the bottle. Make £5 million as a professional man and you’re forced to buy the Old Rectory, Minchinhampton (Knight, Frank & Rutley, £3.24 million), before spending an additional £5,000 a year on Farrow & Ball paint. And on kitting out your splashback with those elongated white kitchen tiles which are now inexplicably fashionable, even though 15 years ago they were found only in prisons or behind Victorian urinals." And don't get him started on Machu Picchu ...

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Four fascinating facts about bombing during WWII

1. The first bombing attack on Freiburg im Breisgau killed 57 people, and it was conducted by German bombers, who thought the city was Dijon.

2. In early 1945, the main hostility of the German population was directed toward the Italians, from switching sides in 1943, and not toward the bombing Allied nations.

3. More tons of bombs were dropped on Rome than on all British cities combined.

4. Per square mile, the most bombed place on earth was…Malta.

All facts shamelessly copied from here.

Lithuania and the law in London

A mini-trend,

First, this case, which is about a Mr Khalid Ansari, who seems to be an academic in the field of tourism. Some Lithuanian academics saw him and his work, and one of them wrote an email about. In it, she said that Mr Ansari was "overpowering to a point of being arrogant; pompous and dictatorial in his conversations" and that "it was obvious that he has no publication record". She also added he "was observed excessively abusing alcohol on two successive days of the visit and he was not able to concentrate on the work to be completed. [Also he] behaved sexually inappropriately, three times inviting the Lithuanian Project Coordinator V Zilinskaite for a 'night cap' in front of other people present at dinner. This is unprofessional, unethical and is regarded as sexual harassment." I should say that the author of the email was Project Coordinator V Zilinskaite herself. Anyway, all of that turns out to have been was libellous and I should inform you that Mr Ansari has received a payment of £112,500 inclusive of damages, interest and costs from the University of Vilnius, which has also made a statement in open court acknowledging that the allegations in the email were untrue and ought not to have been made. Mr Ansari has also got judgment against Ms Zilinskaite for damages to be assessed. The Court of Appeal has now held that he can also sue Manchester Metropolitan University and Dr Knowles, one of their staff, for the libel on top of that. My guess is that Mr Ansari and Ms Zilinskaite have different views about the English justice system.

Second, a case about a car accident in Lithuania. A sad story, but did you know that you can sue the Motor Insurers' Bureau in England for an accident caused by a Lithuanian in Lithuania? The unsurprising fact is that, if you do, you get more in England than you would have done in Lithuania.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Various links

(1) The last Jew in Afghanistan is leaving. Moreover, "There are no Afghan Christians left, at least none who is open about it, and the only permanent church is inside the Italian diplomatic compound. There is a small Hindu population, but it is shrinking rapidly." Draw your own conclusions.

(2) Mediaeval wall painting in Welsh church. A nice reminder of the pleasant treasures from the past that might yet be re-discovered.

(3) John Lanchester does a MOOC, thanks to Ferran Adrià. "all undergraduates at Harvard are required to take at least one class in science. As a result, the university offers some courses designed to be appealing to the kinds of student who wouldn’t be studying science unless they had to. Once that’s known, it makes a lot of sense to involve Adrià, who is rock-star famous in the world of food, in a course designed to appeal to the clever and curious and artily-minded young. So here it is: SPU27, an acronym standing for Science of the Physical Universe 27. Spelled out in English, the name of the course is Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science. The person who thinks it’s funny that SPU sounds like ‘spew’? Harvard isn’t cross with you. Just … disappointed."

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Margaret Thatcher's letter to PW Botha asking him to release Nelson Mandela

The letter is dated 31 October 1985 and can be found here. This is from page 4: "I continue to believe, as I have  said to you before, that the release of Nelson Mandela would have more impact than almost any single action you could undertake." Fascinating stuff.

Monday, 9 December 2013

A splurge of links

With no attempt at a theme

(1) A bad graph. On the subject of Conservative statistics, "A quarter of the Tories’ new women MPs could stand down in 2015", and who can blame them? They work hard but "even the most extreme conscientiousness often goes unnoticed or at least unthanked by the public. Many MPs feel themselves assailed by a continuous barrage of insults: they are abused by people who are convinced that to be an MP is to be a lazy and corrupt parasite, devoid of any sense of public service and motivated only by greed for money and power. Women MPs get a particular kind of unpleasantness directed at them via social media by bullying men who indulge with vicious relish in every kind of obscenity. One woman told me that in her previous, high-level career, she at least felt when she went home she could switch off. She now finds she can never switch off."

(2) Lucien Freud was no gentleman. Julian Barnes compares him to the cricketer Derek Randall (formerly of Nottinghamshire and England) here and also has an interesting discussion of how much a portrait ought to look like someone. But a lot of the article, interesting throughout, is of quite a different kind and even précis would be inappropriate for a family blog.

(3) England and the World Cup. If we don't even do the easy bits right then what chance do we have? But we're not alone: "Of course it makes no sense for the Netherlands to play a game against a team like Indonesia, as whatever happens it will bring down their average number of Fifa points per game. You would have to be completely mad to do something like that in World Cup year, when the points have the most value. Unfortunately for the orange hordes of Dutch fans, that is exactly what their team did ..."

(4) "Olivia Robertson, who has died aged 96, was the co-founder, archpriestess and hierophant of the Fellowship of Isis, an order devoted to the worship of the “Divine Feminine”, which she ran from her haunted ancestral pile, Huntington Castle (also known as Clonegal Castle), in Co Carlow, Ireland." Eccentric Anglo-Irish descendant of a niece of Noah (the Ark chap) who grew up first in Reigate - it's the Telegraph obituary writer's bread and butter, and none the worse for that. I liked this story in particular: Robertson had a vision which revealed to her that God was female and at much the same time "her brother, Lawrence “Derry” Durdin-Robertson, “21st baron of Strathloch”, an ordained clergyman in the Church of Ireland, had also become convinced that God was a woman. An honourable man, he at once proffered his resignation to his bishop, who assured him that “there was no need”."

(5) "The Olympiad was a good party, which cost the British population about £200 per head." It was well over budget ("The cost of the games to public funds has proved to be about 10 times the original estimate"). Was it worth it?

(6) Finally, don't miss John Gray's scathing review of Malcolm Gladwell's latest. The Economist didn't like it either.

Friday, 6 December 2013

What do PISA scores really measure? And what was George W. Bush really thinking?

Let's leave aside the "China" figures (in fact a game-the-system Shanghai). Even so, the story, pretty consistently, is that if you take advanced industrial economies where everyone has enough to eat and so on, then east Asian children do better than those of west European countries and their former colonies. For all that England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Germany, France and the United States have hugely varying approaches to educational philosophy, educational administration, educational language, importance of school sports etc etc etc, the children of these countries end up in pretty much the same place. Meanwhile, countries with histories and languages as different as South Korea and Singapore also consistently end up in much the same place - i.e. with better results that the likes of France and Germany.

Isn't the obvious answer that PISA is measuring intelligence, not schooling? (You'll have to wait a bit to get to George W. Bush - after the break.)

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Nicotine is good for you

At least, it's good for your brain, Rory Sutherland's doctor friend tells us, very good for ulcerative colitis, which I really don't want to get, and it helps with blood vessel growth and even with pre-eclampsia.

The link on ulcerative colitis is the one to follow, but only if you are prepared to read about the author leading "a reasonably bloody diarrhea free life these days".

For nicotine, it's the 'delivery system' that is the problem. Alcohol, on the other hand, seems to be pretty much good for nothing on its own - the delivery system is probably the only benefit to it.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Things you might not otherwise have known or seen

(1) There's a diplodocus for sale. Apparently, it came to England "by accident".

(2) Driverless cars are basically already here, says an interesting article in the New Yorker.

(3) "a surprisingly large chunk of our male population is now in the position where there is nothing that people can think of for them to do that is useful enough to cover the costs of making sure that they actually do it correctly, and don’t break the stuff and subtract value when they are supposed to be adding to it".That's from here. I would only query "surprisingly".

(4) Maps galore. I liked (or rather, was appalled by) the one showing the highest-paid US public employees.

(5) PMQs as seen by Simon Carr. First question: "The nightmare of my disbelief at the Opposition Leader’s gay-porn male prostitute front bench million pounds for hard working mums and dads against Ed Miliband’s Welfare party on amphetamines?”" Ed Miliband: "“Children’s lives are being destroyed by the Conservative cost of living crisis,” he said. “Heartbreak soldiers pride in British children with a fair wage, without VAT tax evading fraudsters pouring money into the Conservative party because their leader is a LOSER!”"

(6) Zadie Smith has read many books, some with pictures in them, but she's still going to die.

(7) "Herodotus’ famous discussion of the genitals of Indian camels was of course omitted" from an earlier translation of his Histories. But here's a good new one.

(8) You could call this the glass ceiling but why be so negative? Why not call it positive discrimination? There are 27 women and only 4 men. I understand that in order to be fair one's recruitment techniques should be reliable, valid, objective and transparent: I find it hard to criticise these four men on any of those grounds. They certainly don't recruit in their own image either. And yet something tells me that something has gone wrong somewhere ...

(9) You remember those 4 year olds who couldn't wait for the marshmallows? They were just being rational.

(10) PR could save the Conservatives: could this the central plank of the next coalition?

(11) This man, William Weaver, translated The Name of the Rose into English. "Weaver made a fortune from the translation and was able to build an extension to his Tuscan villa from the proceeds (the "Eco chamber" he called it)."

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Augusto Odone, RIP

The man behind Lorenzo's oil has died. His obituary in the Economist is here. The Economist's article are normally anonymous but on this occasion it says "This obituary was written by Mr Odone’s son-in-law, our International Editor".

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Wonga - still not wronger

Tim Harford writes sensibly about Wonga here. I have just one caveat on what he says, but you  have to see his points first before I get to it.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Lawyers' starting salaries - the best and the rest

This is US data, but I don't think it is going to be notably different from London data, if not UK data as a whole (from Marginal Revolution here).

In 1991, reported starting salaries looked like this (I think US$000s on the x-axis):


In 2010, they looked like this:
What do we get from that? For one thing, that there is a relatively large number of over-worked junior lawyers with scary billable hours targets. For another, that the market apparently pays for these people. Tyler Cowen's thesis is that a large proportion of the gains flow to a small number of people at the top end of any given industry - these graphs suggest that a large proportion of the gains are flowing to a fairly large number of people.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

"I liked the idea of telling my kid, 'When you were inside me, we went to see the edge of the earth.'"

This is a good read but it is not a fun read. It is Ariel Levy in the New Yorker talking about going to Mongolia while pregnant. Levy has written some good stuff that I've liked in the past, but this is a little different.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Over-enthusiastic US law enforcement, or Why don't more people get upset?

This piece tells me much more than I ever wanted to know about why I should never visit Deming, N.M. More than that, it makes some good points about that poor woman who was shot and killed in Washington by the Secret Service - to almost universal indifference. (BBC report here.) I found the quiet about this story rather horrible at the time and I'm glad I'm not alone in that. I did not know about the standing ovation for the killers and I agree with the quotation below - it was repulsive. The extensive inquest into the shooting of Mark Duggan is far more laudable.

"Under D.C. police rules, cops are not permitted to fire on a moving vehicle, because of the risk to pedestrians and other drivers. But the Secret Service and the Capitol Police enjoy no such restraints, so the car doors are full of bullet holes. The final moments of the encounter remain a mystery, but police were supposedly able to extract Ms. Carey’s baby from the back of a two-door vehicle before dispatching the defenseless mother to meet her maker. 
... 
"When you need large numbers of supposedly highly trained elite officers to kill an unarmed woman with a baby, you’re doing it wrong. In perhaps the most repugnant reaction to Ms. Carey’s death, the United States Congress expressed their “gratitude” to the officers who killed her and gave them a standing ovation. Back in the Eighties, the Queen woke up to find a confused young man at the end of her bed. She talked to him calmly until help arrived and he was led away. A few years later, Her Majesty’s Canadian prime minister, Jean Chrétien, was confronted by an aggrieved protester. As is his wont, he dealt with it somewhat more forcefully than his sovereign, throttling the guy, forcing him to the ground, and breaking his tooth, until the Mounties arrived to rescue the assailant from the prime minister. But, had the London and Ottawa intruders been gunned down by SWAT teams, I cannot imagine for a moment either the British or Canadian parliament rising to applaud such an outcome. This was a repulsive act by Congress."

Friday, 8 November 2013

"In a language which I now know to be Belgian"

An immortal phrase from the previously untold story of Ralph Miliband, cat killer. You can read the story here (not a link to the Sunday Sport, where the piece comes from) but I'm sure you would prefer to see Ed Miliband read out the story himself - that link will also allow you to hear jokes from Theresa May (including on the comparisons between her and Cara Delevingne).

Miliband was funnier.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

US healthcare

Medicine, healthcare - we don't need Foucault to tell us that it's not just science that determines how these things work out in practice and why they vary so much from country to country. Here are two stories about US healthcare that tell us so more about culture than healthcare.

First, this link tells us that if you take out fatal injuries then US life expectancy would be the highest in the world, i.e. don't blame America's healthcare for its pretty unimpressive life expectancy statistics.

Second, this link is to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine saying "many patients in the United States experience substantial harm from medical interventions whose risks have not been fully discussed. The undisclosed toxicity? High cost, which can cause considerable financial strain". And so, the authors continue, because "treatments can be “financially toxic,” imposing out-of-pocket costs that may impair patients' well-being, we contend that physicians need to disclose the financial consequences of treatment alternatives just as they inform patients about treatments' side effects".

Perhaps the moral is that you get what you pay for - unless you suffer a fatal injury first.

Sport, fashion and modern Britain

Two links.

(1) Benjamin Markovits, in the London Review of Books, writing about 'sport' (although he really means 'games'). It's at least a couple of different articles stuck together.

First, there is the account of an American seeing changes to Britain over the years, starting with his childhood. The way it used to be: "the measure of character, in Britain, was your capacity to put up with something; in America, it was your ability to sort it out". His idea is that Britain has changed, and that we see the signs of that change in sport. In particular, we now win things from time to time. By the time of the 2012 Olympics, we weren't surprised to see ourselves winning things. It's a bit of a reminder of the 'how Thatcher changed Britain' articles that swarmed across the media when Lady Thatcher died, but much more interesting than those tended to be. Could someone who wasn't, at least in part, a foreigner safely write this, for example: "the [2012 Olympic] games themselves bore out the virtues people once liked to associate with the British Empire: large-scale, good-natured efficiency". That's not a bad description of the opening ceremony, or of the hordes of friendly volunteers. But how does the Empire come into that?

Second, he introduces Moneyball and the role of data in sport and then looks at cricket. (From his starting point, the next step should have been an elegy for the decline of the traditional England batting collapse. Good of him to take it in a different direction.) But it turns out that Moneyball-style data techniques aren't really relevant to cricket. The real link between Moneyball and English sport is that, just as in baseball, success on the field/pitch is measurable but on the sidelines it isn't: "If you pay clubs enough to win games, they will eventually put out the best team possible, regardless of race. It’s no coincidence that Premiership football, the British sport which has by several orders of magnitude the most money behind it, is also the most integrated. But even in the Premiership there’s been an almost total failure to integrate the coaching fraternity; as Michael Lewis points out, the game is a ruthlessly effective machine for sifting talent, but there is almost no level of incompetence, or worse, that clubs won’t tolerate off the field of play. There is one black manager in the Premiership and only five in England’s entire professional game." Very interesting point, but you will have spotted that we are not talking about cricket any more.

Then there is an embryonic article about the role of race in cricket (and how many books have been written on that subject?) and on Markovits' own experience of basketball. So, as a piece, a bit of a cut-and-shut, but interesting in each of its bits.

(2) "Is Theresa May turning into Cara Delevingne?" When the British tabloid press finally sinks into oblivion, unable to bear the burdens of laws new and old, it is questions like that one that we will miss. So don't miss the chance to see the Daily Mail's remarkably convincing attempt to make this a plausible one.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Artificial intelligence

This, in the Atlantic, is an interesting article about Douglas Hofstadter (the author of Gödel, Escher, Bach) and his attempts to create artificial intelligence which is really intelligent.

The idea, which I don't think is controversial, is that not long ago people stopped trying to make intelligent programmes and instead rely on a combination of big data and fast processing power to achieve results that look like intelligence. So computers can now do things that were previously thought to require a lot of intelligence (such as translate natural languages or play chess) but no one really thinks they know what they are doing. It's a bit like this robot, which can beat you at scissors-paper-stone every time - by cheating, i.e. by reacting very quickly to the shape your hand makes. Would you have thought that that could be done (a few years ago)? Probably not. Are you impressed? Well, I am. Do you think that the robot has obtained a massive insight into human psychology? Clearly, no way. I suppose another example is to compare satnavs with a London cabbie - pretty impressive, but clearly not the same thing at all.

Hofstadter, meanwhile, wants to replicate intelligence. As one of Google’s directors of research says in the article, “I thought he was tackling a really hard problem.” (The big-data-plus-processing-power approach is "an easier problem.”) I understand his motive. There's a great bit in the article that says that the current mainstream commercial approach to AI has become too much like the man who tries to get to the moon by climbing a tree: “One can report steady progress, all the way to the top of the tree.”

The only problem that I see is that Hofstadter just seems to be climbing a different tree. We are told that he uses "Jumbo, a program that Hofstadter wrote in 1982 that worked on the word jumbles you find in newspapers". The way this works is not, as modern AI would do, to search through all the combinations of letters against a dictionary, but to try to model what happens when a person approaches this sort of puzzle. Instead "The architecture Hofstadter developed to model this automatic letter-play was based on the actions inside a biological cell. Letters are combined and broken apart by different types of “enzymes,” as he says, that jiggle around, glomming on to structures where they find them, kicking reactions into gear. Some enzymes are rearrangers (pang-loss becomes pan-gloss or lang-poss), others are builders (g and h become the cluster gh; jum and ble become jumble), and still others are breakers (ight is broken into it and gh). Each reaction in turn produces others, the population of enzymes at any given moment balancing itself to reflect the state of the jumble."

All very interesting, no doubt, and quite like what happens in my mind when I try anagrams. But is that the key to human intelligence? It just sounds like a different, gnarlier tree to me.

Anyway, no doubt it it more likely that Hofstadter is right and I am wrong. In any event, it's an interesting story.



Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Global warming is good for all of us

And will be until 2080.

The article is from Matt Ridley, who is another one of these people who writes the same thing again and again, but he is affable and honest, and he gives his sources. Clearly there is a balance between ice age (bad) and too hot (bad) and it is tricky to know exactly where the optimum point in the middle is, but the consensus seems to be, as Ridley says, a little bit hotter than now.

Here are some excerpts:

"The chief benefits of global warming include: fewer winter deaths; lower energy costs; better agricultural yields; probably fewer droughts; maybe richer biodiversity. It is a little-known fact that winter deaths exceed summer deaths — not just in countries like Britain but also those with very warm summers, including Greece. Both Britain and Greece see mortality rates rise by 18 per cent each winter. Especially cold winters cause a rise in heart failures far greater than the rise in deaths during heatwaves.

Cold, not the heat, is the biggest killer. For the last decade, Brits have been dying from the cold at the average rate of 29,000 excess deaths each winter. Compare this to the heatwave ten years ago, which claimed 15,000 lives in France and just 2,000 in Britain. In the ten years since, there has been no summer death spike at all. Excess winter deaths hit the poor harder than the rich for the obvious reason: they cannot afford heating. And it is not just those at risk who benefit from moderate warming. Global warming has so far cut heating bills more than it has raised cooling bills.
...
The increase in average carbon dioxide levels over the past century, from 0.03 per cent to 0.04 per cent of the air, has had a measurable impact on plant growth rates. It is responsible for a startling change in the amount of greenery on the planet. ... Greening is especially pronounced in dry areas like the Sahel region of Africa, where satellites show a big increase in green vegetation since the 1970s.
"

Finally, one bit that deserves wider publicity: "cherry-picking the bad news remains rife. A remarkable example of this was the IPCC’s last report in 2007, which said that global warming would cause ‘hundreds of millions of people [to be] exposed to increased water stress’ under four different scenarios of future warming. It cited a study, which had also counted numbers of people at reduced risk of water stress — and in each case that number was higher. The IPCC simply omitted the positive numbers."

Of course, the fact that global warming will be net beneficial for a few years yet does not mean that it should be allowed to continue forever. But it has to go into the cost-benefit analysis.

The Police and the English Defence League

I want to suggest that 'right thinking' people have too high an opinion of the police and too low an opinion of the English Defence League.

First, the police. The problem here is 'Plebgate'. I'm not sure where you can find a comprehensive and impartial account of the facts - probably because it is such a toxic mix of facts (class, Tory Cabinet Minister, police conspiracy) - but the BBC's summary timeline is here.

Simon Carr covers the Parliamentary investigation here, opining that "If this is the level of integrity in the police, there’ll be a Royal Commission at the end of it". Worth a read

Sam Leith, in the Evening Standard, gives his carefully thought-through view here. Also worth a read. He starts his piece "When Andrew Mitchell was first accused of calling police officers “plebs”, I wrote in this spot that — though it was impossible to know what had actually happened — I inclined to believe the written testimony of more than one police officer against that of a man whose career depended on not having said what they claimed he did. That seemed to me a reasonable judgment. That it was dead, dead wrong should give us serious pause". He concludes with this suggestion: "That serving officers with everything to lose and nothing much to gain would appear to engage in a casual, slapdash, ad hoc conspiracy very strongly suggests that they felt entirely confident in getting away with it because, baldly, they do this sort of thing all the time. I don’t pretend this is probative. But it is certainly the conclusion that very many people will draw. Hard not to, when barefaced and malevolent public misleading statements are described as “errors of judgment” and two forces decide the officers concerned need face no disciplinary action." That sane and thoughtful people should be thinking in that way shows that something is very wrong with at least some section of the police.

The police have had their run-ins with the English Defence League in general and Tommy Robinson in particular. Read this interview with Tommy Robinson in the Spectator. Just to take an example of how the police treat him: "When somebody posted his mother’s address online and promised to ‘chop up’ Robinson’s kids he finally went to the police. He says they told him they could do nothing about it. He began retweeting Twitter threats, but says he was told by police that if he continued doing so he could face arrest himself." Now, I'm not saying that Robinson is a lovely chap who you would want to have round to dinner. But the police treated Andrew Mitchell dishonestly and aggressively. Consider the possibility that they might have done the same to a working class chap with right-wing views.

Robinson stresses again and again that he isn't a racist. I believe him. Mostly because of this piece from the Economist, which is fascinating. The Economist's correspondent goes to an EDL rally and concludes: "it was remarkable how unthreatening, or normal, the rally felt. There were even signs of the general tolerance in British society, of which an aversion to racism—the main cause of the BNP’s demise—is an important element. A rainbow-coloured flag, brandished by a large infidel in a burka, represented the EDL’s gay, lesbian and bisexual division. Another, who described himself as a “Judeo-Christian”, waved an Israeli flag—“I haven’t heard a single anti-Semitic comment,” he protested, “so how can we be Nazis?” The EDL’s Sikh division had been expected, but failed to show, possibly because its leader was recently convicted of armed robbery." The EDL's Sikh division don't sound any nicer than the rest of the EDL. But the fact that it has a Sikh division is pretty striking.

So, who wants to stand up for posh Tory politicians and working-class anti-Muslim ones? To a first approximation, no 'right-thinking' person at all. Which makes it all the more important that these people get fairly treated by the organs of the state, especially the police.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Hallowe'en in New York

Some photos from the New York Times, with captions including: "A skeleton waited for the subway at 14th Street", "A bear boarded a subway car packed with New Yorkers and tourists" and "Batman at rest".

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Links to photo collections

(1) The end (of civilisation) is nigh: Selfies at Funerals, the compilation.

(2) But the past had its ups and downs too. I liked the baby cage and the first morning after Sweden switched to driving on the right.

(3) Very small things. Very very small in some cases.

Second languages in London

This is a map of the most popular second languages in London (story here). You could also use it as a restaurant guide. It stands to reason that an area with a large Korean or Turkish-speaking population, for example, will have the most discerning local market for Korean or Turkish food.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

AC Grayling and the New College of the Humanities

Like most sensible people (and anyone who has seen his hairstyle), I normally have very little time for AC Grayling. But this article in the Guardian about his New College of the Humanities gave me some sympathy for him.

It seems that Grayling has found that setting up a new business involves grappling with the "labyrinthine, byzantine complexity of ... regulations" and then, because it is an education business, facing what sounds like a tediously repetitive attack on his charging structure by the Guardian's journalist, who refuses to see past the £18,000 price tag to the more interesting issues involved. Even having self-described left-wing politics does not spare him receiving clearly irritating questions: by the end of the interview we have "becomes cross", "he snaps" and "With a sigh, he suppresses his annoyance". Poor chap.

By the by, Amelia Gentleman, the journalist in question, went to St Paul's and then to Oxford, where she met her husband, Jo Johnson (the MP and brother of Boris). Such is the wide talent pool from which the social conscience of our country is drawn. Gentleman has not cut her ties to her old school: here she is on the rota for their Friday lectures, along with Alexandra Shulman (another Paulina), Patrick Grant (not a Paulina) and, I'm very pleased to see, Revd Dr Andrew Davison, tutor in doctrine at Westcott House. Andrew is a charming chap and I'm glad that the girls don't just get glamorous lecturers from the fashion industry.

Inspiring story - updated

In 1996, a black teenager protected a white man from an angry mob who thought he supported the racist Ku Klux Klan. That's the story - and it's a good one, with good pictures, here.

UPDATE: I should have coupled the story above with this one. The headline is "In which a black man hires a member of the KKK as his lawyer", and that's the story.

It raises some interesting issues. How do you feel about this bit, for example:

"“If he doesn’t like blacks, that’s on him,” Willie says. “But I’m not going to go in there, harass him and not hire him because I’m black. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be. If you know someone has a racial bias, why would you want to agitate that person? I’m not a troublemaker. As long as you don’t assault me, I couldn’t care less. You’re entitled to speak your opinion. That’s your right.""

That is the attitude of someone who thoroughly agrees with the US First Amendment approach to freedom of speech. Jeremy Waldron, the philosopher, disagrees. He recounts the story (here, but I've seen it from him elsewhere) of watching the conviction and sentencing of a man, in Oxford Crown Court, who had distributed "posters depicting Britons of African ancestry as apes". Waldron's American colleagues are appalled that a man was sent to prison for doing that. Presumably Willie from the New Statesman story would be too.

Takeaway food

Yes, it's Zadie Smith again, doggedly confirming my thesis that she relentlessly mines her own life for material. This time it's the New Yorker that receives the benefit of her wisdom. I feel justified in a bit of sarcasm. The voice of our generation really should not be wasting her time with telling us that people who deliver food in London can be quite slow. It wouldn't pass for observational comedy - indeed, it would hardly pass for acceptable conversation at a dinner party.

Moreover, it's rather oddly worded. The most striking example is this "Another treasurable thing about London’s delivery service is its frankly metaphysical attitude toward time". Is "treasurable" a word? Should it be? Did she mean "endearing"? I can't think of a good excuse for that "metaphysical". I suppose the idea is that people who deliver food take a view of time which treats it as an illusion or purely a matter of subjective perception. For the sake of argument, let us assume that this could be a humorous idea: one can imagine a pretentious comedian trying it (or, more likely, that his local takeaway is located in a warped part of the space-time continuum where time runs completely differently).  But that is just not what "metaphysical" means. Just think how much better it would have been to have said "philosophical", which its added connotations of being resigned to fate.

As ever, I should say that the only reason I write about Smith is because I am a big fan and it irks me that she is so close to being so much better.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Woman charged after police find man in a dinosaur onesie joyriding on bonnet

That's the headline and the story lives up to it. In fact, it's better than the headline:

"Police stopped the car, with the man still lying on the bonnet facing the driver, smoking a cigarette, dressed in a dinosaur onesie and wearing a snorkel."

It's an Australian story, which explains why the car was seized "under hoon legislation". But the cigarette? Don't worry, there's an explanation for that too: "Both the male and female are French nationals".

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Degrees for dogs

The BBC has procured an MBA for a dog called Pete. But the best ever degree for a dog has surely got to be that of Lulu Barnes, who a took a degree during the trial in the case of BSKyB v HP Enterprise Services UK Ltd [2010] EWHC 86 (TCC).

The story of Lulu Barnes' MBA is revealed in the judgment (below). As you will see, while Lulu did very well (better than the Managing Director of the relevant part of EDS, in fact), things did not work out so well for other graduates of that court. I saw the transcripts of the cross-examination of the witness at the time and only wish I'd seen the whole thing happen in Court.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Three links

No common theme to these that I can see.

1. More Zadie Smith. I'm afraid it confirms my theory that she has to mine her own life for material, even to the extent of going back to her (I think undergraduate) thesis. Readable, as ever, but Zadie - something new please!

2. The Anglosphere Miracle by Daniel Hannan. For those of you who like that kind of thing, this is the kind of thing that you will love. It starts with Churchill, then we have John Adams speaking in glowing terms of the English common law, then it's not long before you are onto de Tocqueville saying "The American is the Englishman left to himself” (hmmm) and a Maori saying this (in 1918!) "we know by experience that the foundations of British sovereignty are based upon the eternal principles of liberty, equity and justice". It won't surprise you to hear that Mark Steyn gets quoted (for what is described as his "penetrating... if indelicate" words).

But there is also this, which has something to it:

"It is natural, when we think of a country, to focus on the things that make it different rather than the things that it has exported successfully. When people are asked to name a British food, they will be likelier to say “steak-and-kidney pie” than “a sandwich.” When asked to name an English sport, they will pick cricket rather than football. And so it is with values. Asked what the identifying features of the U.K. political system are, foreigners and Britons alike will often point to the monarchy, the House of Lords, the maces and horsehair wigs and other trappings of parliamentary procedure. Asked the same question about the United States, they will talk of the exorbitant cost of campaigns, the insidious corporate donations, the vicious attack ads. In neither case are they likely to identify the truly extraordinary feature, namely that the lawmakers are answerable to everyone else, and that governments change peacefully as a result of popular votes."

Hannan says this: "The owl of Minerva, wrote Hegel, spreads its wings only with the gathering of the dusk. As the sun sets on the Anglosphere imperium, we understand with sudden clarity what it is that we stand to lose." If you agree, you'll like his piece. If you don't, this isn't the place to convert you.

3. Something completely different. What people are wearing in Finland. The owl of Minerva is fast asleep there.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Three interesting articles

All free and all in this week's Times Literary Supplement.

(1) "When small arms are being fired, an increase in enemy casualties starts at a distance of 400 metres ... and almost quadruples at 100 metres. By the time the enemy is 20 metres away, however, “defensive fire has less effect than at 200 metres”. Fear and aversion to killing, as well as perceptual distortion, prevent a soldier fighting effectively at close quarters with the enemy". More about the psychology of war here.

(2) FP Ramsey "has some claim to be the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century". "Contemporary debates about truth, meaning, knowledge, logic and the structure of scientific theories all take off from positions first defined by Ramsey. Equally importantly, he figured out the principles governing subjective probability, and so opened the way to decision theory, game theory and much work in the foundations of economics.... An incidental theorem he proved in a logic paper initiated the branch of mathematics known as Ramsey theory, while two articles in the Economic Journal pioneered the mathematical analysis of taxation and saving."

All pretty impressive. And how about this:

"[Ramsey] was deemed the only person with enough mathematical logic and German to be trusted with the English translation of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. In the spring term a review of Keynes’s Theory of Probability pointed the way to the concept of subjective probability. The following year he published a long article on the Tractatus for the philosophical journal Mind, and then spent a fortnight that summer in Austria discussing it with Wittgenstein himself. At this point he was still some months short of his twenty-first birthday."

He died when he was 26. Oh and his brother was Archbishop of Canterbury.

(3) This one on the Larkin-Amis friendship/correspondence, which is worth reading to the final two words.

I have no opinion on the Larkin-Amis friendship. There is no point in having an opinion: it is just one of those things that repeatedly crop up in this sort of journal, like Walter Benjamin and post-colonialism.

Anyway, some chap called Donald Davie said this about Kingsley Amis (in response to the allegation that he was a 'pornographer'): "On the contrary of course he is and always has been a very severe moralist, as one sees from his shocked repudiation of both Philip Roth and Vladimir Nabokov. On the other hand he is a master of comic caprice – a perfectly legitimate and entertaining garment for the moralist to appear in, but one that Cambridge has never been able to account for and acknowledge." The reviewer describes those two sentences as "among the most acute ever written about Amis". Perhaps. They're not bad on Cambridge too. 

"Men big enough to be worth laughing at", an Amis phrase this time, is also a good one.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

"I’d love to go the pub this evening, but I have to go out. It’s my wife’s wedding anniversary."

A Freudian slip reported by the ever-readable Rory Sutherland in the Spectator. The rest of the piece is good stuff too, talking about why we don't enjoy meals if we resent being at the restaurant in the first place, or at least don't really want to be there.

The converse is true too. Those delightful, simple meals of local bread and cheese, fresh from the market, that you enjoyed in sunny Mediterranean climes; that unpretentious local booze - of course it all tasted great! You were on holiday, you wanted to be there - even a cheese and pickle sandwich with no pickle is a treat. But once you're back home again, tired after a day of work, it's going to take more than a bit of bread, a bit of cheese and some funny-tasting foreign liqueur to make you think you're having a great meal.

Good sentences

In otherwise so-so articles.

(1) "For Labour, Chris Bryant, something of a cult, has been reprogrammed and is promoting the opposite of devoutly-held pieties he previously professed. He is steadily on course to be one of the Commons’ Nearly Men.

That's from Simon Carr, who is sometimes very funny and often very rude.

(2) "Meanwhile the internet turned up the frankly inexcusable translation of "cheeky monkey" as "zesty little chipmunk"."

That's from an unnecessarily solemn exploration of the concept of 'cheekiness' by a doctor writing for the BBC. At least if Jon Kelly had done it (hi Jon!) it would have been much shorter.

How times change

The Daily Telegraph has a piece called "The tragic tale of George Smith and Gilgamesh", which is well worth a read in its own right but also tells us some slightly melancholy things about how times have changed.

The story so far: George Smith, the son of a Chelsea carpenter and a father of six, was a man of modest means but "he spent what spare time and money he had pursuing his interests of Assyriology and biblical archaeology". He discovered part of the Epic of Gilgamesh in some cuneiform fragments lying around in the British Museum. The Daily Telegraph gave a sneak preview of his findings in the newspaper.

"December 3 1872 was a cold and showery day. At 9 Conduit Street in Mayfair (now the double-Michelin-starred restaurant Sketch) Smith stepped up to begin his lecture to the Society [of Biblical Archaeology]. Because The Daily Telegraph had previewed Smith’s discovery, the room was thick with reporters and members of the public – even the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, was in attendance."

It seems to have gone well. "To loud applause, Gladstone rose to respond with enthusiasm to the paper, but also to quash Smith’s appeal for a publicly funded excavation to find more parts of the poem. Gladstone celebrated the “individual effort” which was “the pride of this country”, and joked about “the vulgar expedient” of applying for public funds. In the days that followed, the story was reported widely on both sides of the Atlantic. But it was not until January 1873 that the Telegraph stepped in to offer the British Museum £1,000 for Smith to conduct further excavations. Taking travel advice from Arnold, Smith departed for Ottoman Iraq later that month."

What is most striking about all this? It's a close call. Is it:
- a national newspaper covering recent developments in Assyriology in glowing terms and funding expensive new research in the field?
- recent developments in Assyriology producing lecture halls thick with reporters?
- carpenters in Chelsea and lectures where we now find Sketch? (This is the "Lecture Room and Library" at Sketch. It's a fun place to eat and "The extensive and acclaimed wine list was awarded ‘Best Award for Excellence’ by the Wine Spectator and AA Guide’s ‘Best UK Wine List'", which is more than the Society of Biblical Archaeology ever got for its wine list.)
- a Prime Minister turning up to a lecture on recent developments in Assyriology?
- a left-wing Prime Minister casually brushing aside a claim for public funding for a popular cause by saying that was a "vulgar expedient"?

Let's just go back to the Prime Minister point. In 1872, Gladstone was not just the David Cameron of his day, he was the Barack Obama. He stood at the head of a Government that controlled what was the most powerful country and empire on earth - and would remain so for a generation. Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India four years later - and that wasn't one of those empty titles handed out by the poor old exiled King Kigeli V Ndahindurwa of Rwanda, living in social housing in Oakton, Virginia. That was a title reflecting reality. And the head of that Government turned up to a public lecture on a translation of a cuneiform fragment. Mark Steyn often makes fun of how much personal protection the American President gets (e.g. here), but there is a serious point here. Did Gladstone turn up to this lecture with several hardened carriages filled with a gang of heavily-armed constables?

Mourn the fact that we have lost so much of Gilgamesh; loss of all the other epics, the ones that pre-date Gilgamesh; mourn the Library of Alexandria too; but don't forget to mourn Prime Ministers who talk to the sons of carpenters about cuneiform tablets too.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Sustainable Energy – without the hot air

This is the synopsis (well worth reading in its own right) of a book by Professor David MacKay about how the UK could move to sustainable energy. The link comes from Marc Gawley, whose post on German solar panels demonstrates how easy it is to waste vast amounts of effort and money on achieving next to nothing in this field. MacKay shows the vast effort required to achieve something.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Place-hacking

Which means: breaking into places you're not really allowed to go. It looks like fun. I was particularly taken with photo 13, an abandoned mass of cages in an old German coal mine.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

More reasons to be careful with emails

From time to time, perhaps you think about writing emails like this:

"It is the Natasha colour of my soul. I guess it must always have been there, but it took you coming into my life to awaken it.
Since then, my life has not been the same.
It can never be the same.
The specialness of who you are has opened my heart as I never knew it could be.
That is an amazing, beautiful, thing
."

Or, in a different mood, like this:

"Guess what when I have forgotten about you in a years time enjoying my £100 million home or sailing on one of my 40 meter yachts – you'll still be ... a sad loser ... Suggest a new career as a traffic warden might be ideal at least it wouldn't involve lying.
...
Oh no, little guy like you - throws his weight around - big chip on your shoulder - you were definitely bullied at school!!!!

…or is it the fact that your little victorian 1800 sq ft cottage in pulborough can fit into my dining room…... I'll bet you will lord it in the pub over those neighbours of yours in the cheap semi's.

What is it that makes you so chippy little man.
...
You're such a loser. I'm going to enjoy finishing you off over the summer. But don't worry you'll be reading the contract I'll be on the beach.
...
50 this year - midlife crisis as well - nearest to a Ferrari you'll ever get is a toy one…
...
My middle name is relentless. I have the money and anger at this point to push on ... Never underestimate me
."

If you do, just pause before you click send and consider whether you might end up in Court on the other side from the recipient. These are genuine emails quoted in Court cases (first one here; second one here).

Some good sentences

(1) This is from David Frum (via here) talking about the American right-wing in the 1980s

"However heady the 1980s may have looked to everyone else, they were for conservatives a testing and disillusioning time. Conservatives owned the executive branch for eight years and had great influence over it for four more; they dominated the Senate for six years; and by the end of the decade they exercised near complete control over the federal judiciary. And yet, every time they reached to undo the work of Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon — the work they had damned for nearly half a century — they felt the public’s wary eyes upon them. They didn’t dare, and they realized that they didn’t dare.

(Frum's next sentence is "Their moment came and flickered", which somehow put me in mind of the eternal footman holding their coats and snickering.)

They didn't dare, and they realised that they didn't dare. That will make you despise yourself. 

It makes an interesting comparison with the experience of the right in the UK in the 1980s. That was very much an invigorating experience of daring and realising, once the wets were out and the Falklands won, that they did dare. It probably made lots of other people dare too - not least Tony Blair. 

(2) Also on politics, Charles Moore in the Spectator writes about how hard it is for politicians nowadays to talk about why Ed Miliband's price freezing idea is so bad, because you need to start talking about economics and no one wants to listen.

"It is not so much that our leaders don't know what they are talking about as that they don't (or can't) talk about what they know."

This is slightly reminiscent of the most famous saying of Jean-Claude Junker (Prime Minister of Luxembourg): "We all know what to do, we just don't know how to get re-elected after we have done it."

(3) To make it a hat-trick of right-wing commentators, here is Mark Steyn. Apparently, the Obama health reforms have the bizarre effect, at least on paper, of requiring US citizens resident outside the US to buy US health insurance. But the US government is going to waive that requirement. As Steyn writes, "The IRS is issuing its waiver because it takes it as read that U.S. citizens overseas, wherever they reside, have health-care arrangements in place. The underlying assumption is that the rest of the planet already has universal coverage, or, at any rate, that wherever you reside — Sweden, Slovenia, Sudan, Waziristan — you live somewhere whose health system is less crazy than here."

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Atlantis and Tolkien

I wouldn't normally link to anything from James Delingpole, but I quite liked this in his Spectator review of Atlantis (a new programme on the BBC):

"at no point when writing Lord of the Rings, you suspect, did Tolkien ask himself: 'How can I take the very best of what I know about Old Norse and Old English literature — and then fashion a turd thereof?"

"Sir, you are recreating"

Some people have had a horrible time in the US government shutdown and the English language has suffered some collateral damage too.

"Vaillancourt was one of thousands of people who found themselves in a national park as the federal government shutdown went into effect on Oct. 1. For many hours her tour group, which included senior citizen visitors from Japan, Australia, Canada and the United States, were locked in a Yellowstone National Park hotel under armed guard.

The tourists were treated harshly by armed park employees, she said, so much so that some of the foreign tourists with limited English skills thought they were under arrest.

When finally allowed to leave, the bus was not allowed to halt at all along the 2.5-hour trip out of the park, not even to stop at private bathrooms that were open along the route.
...
The bus stopped along a road when a large herd of bison passed nearby, and seniors filed out to take photos. Almost immediately, an armed ranger came by and ordered them to get back in, saying they couldn’t “recreate.” The tour guide, who had paid a $300 fee the day before to bring the group into the park, argued that the seniors weren’t “recreating,” just taking photos.

“She responded and said, ‘Sir, you are recreating,’ and her tone became very aggressive,” Vaillancourt said.

The seniors quickly filed back onboard and the bus went to the Old Faithful Inn, the park’s premier lodge located adjacent to the park’s most famous site, Old Faithful geyser. That was as close as they could get to the famous site — barricades were erected around Old Faithful, and the seniors were locked inside the hotel, where armed rangers stayed at the door.
"

(Full story here.)


Wednesday, 2 October 2013

137 SS officers had their testicles permanently destroyed by American interrogators

So says Year Zero: A History of 1945 by Ian Buruma. (The Economist's review is here.) That, I suppose, is what we call victors' justice.

One wonders what interrogation guidance those Americans had to hand - clearly more robust ones than the those about enhanced interrogation techniques that caused so much fuss recently: you will recall that the notorious 2002 'Bybee Memo' inclined to the view that "serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function" was torture and therefore not allowed. That, I suppose, is what we call moral progress.

Monday, 30 September 2013

High Speed 2

Rory Sutherland, in the Spectator, gets it right again:

"I think it says something about the priorities of the UK’s financial sector that you can take flights from London City airport to Jersey, Zurich (and Liechtenstein), Bern, Basel, Geneva, Nice (i.e. Monaco, a ‘sunny place for shady people’) and the Isle of Man (a rainy place for shady people). But not to Britain’s third city.

It says something too about the priorities of Mancunians that you can fly direct from Manchester airport to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Las Vegas and Barbados but not to Luton, Gatwick, Stansted, London City or Southend.

And all this also says something about how much importance people attach to getting between Manchester and London half an hour quicker. Not much.

There are two million people who live in Kent and Sussex and another million and a bit who live in Essex. All these people might find it takes half the time to fly to Manchester via a nearby airport than to get there via Euston — London’s nastiest and worst-connected station by far. I’m sure that, if offered £40 billion, Michael O’Leary would agree to operate these routes. Yet currently it seems demand isn’t there. Perhaps people are perfectly happy with the current speed.
"

I went to Leeds a week ago. There was a socket on the train so I could plug my phone in. I could send emails. Another half-hour in bed would have been nice (not that HS2 would help with Leeds, would it?) but it's not the top infrastructure priority for Britain.

Sutherland continues: "You see, in technical terms, a business trip between Manchester or Birmingham and London involves that unit of time which we businesspeople call ‘a day out of the office’.
And 20 years hence, after £40 billion pounds has been spent, that same trip will involve, um, ‘a day out of the office’.
"

I was in Leeds Court from 9 to 10.30 and back at my desk around lunchtime.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Ed Miliband

The chances are, as things stand at the moment, that Ed Miliband be running the country after the next election. Ukip splits the Conservative vote while, "When Clegg jumped into bed with Cameron, just under half of his erstwhile supporters leapt into Labour’s arms," the Spectator tells us.

The Economist's correspondent takes up the theme with an interesting analysis of exactly who Miliband is appealing to and why. The aim is to "unite Mr Miliband’s coalition while driving a wedge between parts of the Conservative coalition", so "Freezing energy bills ... divides free-market Tories from blue-collar conservatives. Building houses ... drives a wedge between Tory NIMBYs and those who are (or whose children are) struggling to get on the housing ladder. Extending the school day ... splits modernising “One Nation” Tories from more libertarian or socially conservative ones" but at the same time each policy unites various actual and potential Labour voters.

I would add two things. First, since Miliband only needs 35% and has no party to his left, there is a lot to be said for following a core vote strategy.

Second, the freezing energy bills policy is a monstrously stupid piece of economic illiteracy. It may therefore be aimed at those Ukip voters who defected from Labour. (For details of Geoffrey Bloom's economics, see this piece he apparently wrote recently. Actually don't. Just this bit is enough: "It is my belief low flat tax with high thresholds will either flat line or increase revenue". Or this: "To those who criticise Ukip, always anonymous for some reason, for “back of an envelope numbers” - let me argue they work better on the back of an envelope than reams of Government statistics which never add up.")  Note that, so Wikipedia tells me, "UKIP finished in second place in the 2012 Rotherham by-election ... second in ... Barnsley Central in 2011. UKIP also came second in 2012 in the Middlesbrough by-election and third in the Croydon North by-election, which were held on the same day as Rotherham" - that is a lot of ex-Labour voters who might be tempted back by new idiocies. On the other hand, perhaps Nick Clegg is trying to woo them with his moronic 'free school meals for millionaires' children' idea.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Random links

1. Oswin Beingsick, personal trainer. Nominative determinism?

2. You have to take pleasure where you find it with Windows: apparently, there is "in many cases a sense of satisfying sword play in executing the two-handed finger strike of Ctrl-Alt-Del." The BBC is to thank for finding that apercu for us.

3. Fancy being an MP? There is no charge for pre-registering for the open primary for this safe Conservative seat. You don't even need to be a member of the Party.

4. Peter Oborne continues to be readable. This piece, about Lord Finkelstein embodying "the collapse of boundaries between the media and politics", is interesting and revealing. Some of the comments describe it as mean-spirited or unpleasant. I don't think it is meant that way. Oborne says that "Mr Finkelstein is a decent, highly intelligent man, who lacks an ounce of malice". Oborne is just bloody-minded, in my view, and if he thinks that Finkelstein's way of life is an affront to media ethics then the fact that Finkelstein is not a bad person won't stop him saying that. That said, the tone of this sentence is not the nicest: "Meanwhile, we should all thank David Cameron for recommending his old chum to the peerage and finally making an honest man of Lord Finkelstein of Pinner, who will fit in well at the House of Lords: there are a lot of people in there just like him."

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Nuclear near-misses

Some scary stuff from the New Yorker, including this: "In 1960, the computer at the North American Air Defense Command (norad) in Colorado Springs warned, with 99.9-per-cent certainty, that the Soviets had just launched a full-scale missile attack against North America. The warheads would land within minutes. When it was learned that Khrushchev was in New York City, at the United Nations, and when no missiles landed, officials concluded that the warning was a false alarm. They later discovered that the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System at Thule Airbase, in Greenland, had interpreted the moon rising over Norway as a missile attack from Siberia." A reminder that human judgment is not always worse than computer analysis.

10 email commandments

Some good stuff from Tim Harford (although badly formatted - I suspect it looked better in the FT).

This is one I do already: don't file emails. "A fine research paper with the title “Am I Wasting My Time Organizing Email?” by Steve Whittaker and others at IBM Research concluded that, broadly, yes, you are. ... They found that an email search typically takes about 15 seconds, while a hunt through folders takes about a minute. (Some users also just scrolled up and down their inboxes; typically it took about 30 seconds to find an email!) Just to be clear: it took four times as long to find emails using the painstaking-to-set-up system than it did using the “archive and forget” system. Nor were “filers” any more likely to find the email they were looking for than “searchers”."

I have sympathy with this one too: "If you’d like to really aggravate a busy person, send them an email with an attachment saying “please see the attached letter”, and add no elaboration. This is a three-for-one communication catastrophe. First, you are impersonating the behaviour of someone trying to spread a virus. Second, your message is hard to read on a phone and, on some systems, is not searchable. Third, you’re slowing everything down. This isn’t a children’s treasure hunt, where each message points to the next message. It’s a failed attempt to communicate with a busy person."

And one to remember: "Be nice. You never know who will get to read your email – the jury at your fraud trial; the NSA; your partner; your boss."

Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Amplituhedron

This is an article which gives one the pleasant but illusory sense of being just on the verge of understanding something quite important. It starts "Physicists have discovered a jewel-like geometric object that dramatically simplifies calculations of particle interactions and challenges the notion that space and time are fundamental components of reality" and carries on from there.Here are some bits I liked:

"The positive Grassmannian is the slightly more grown-up cousin of the inside of a triangle." I liked '"slightly" and the idea that there might be family gatherings where positive Grassmanians just manage to pull rank on the insides of triangles.

"They have also found a “master amplituhedron” with an infinite number of facets, analogous to a circle in 2-D, which has an infinite number of sides. Its volume represents, in theory, the total amplitude of all physical processes. Lower-dimensional amplituhedra, which correspond to interactions between finite numbers of particles, live on the faces of this master structure." One can just imagine the stunted minor amplitudehra clinging on to the surfaces of their majestic master for dear life.

"The discovery of the amplituhedron could cause an even more profound shift, Arkani-Hamed said. That is, giving up space and time as fundamental constituents of nature and figuring out how the Big Bang and cosmological evolution of the universe arose out of pure geometry.

"“In a sense, we would see that change arises from the structure of the object,” he said. “But it’s not from the object changing. The object is basically timeless.”" To the layman, this all sounds very much like theology, except that Mr Arkani-Hamed would have said "in a very real sense" instead.

Prince Philip: big in Japan

Back in the 1980s, the Economist tells us, Japan was importing a lot of ivory. The future for elephants was looking bleak. What could the world do to save the elephant?

Efforts were made to change Japanese tastes. But you need a major cultural icon to effect a major cultural shift. Luckily, the Royal Family's top diplomat took charge: "the big breakthrough ... came when Britain’s Prince Philip gave a rousing speech at an event organised by the World Wildlife Fund, which encouraged Japan’s crown prince to speak out. ... Ivory became uncool."

Good old Prince Philip.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Wearing a niqab in Court

Here is a link to the decision in this much-publicised case. It is a decision of HHJ Peter Murphy sitting in the Crown Court, so not the final word on the subject, but it has persuasive authority and is of general interest. It strikes me as a careful and conscientious decision.

Monday, 16 September 2013

John Kerry: "unbelievably small"

In perhaps the worst piece of deterrence since 1938, John Kerry has said that any US attack on Syria would be "unbelievably small". Mark Steyn and Rod Liddle need no further encouragement.

Some questions about Anglo-Indians and Americans

(1) Would these photos of the "fast dwindling" Anglo-Indian community in Calcutta (as the BBC calls it) have the same elegiac quality if they were in colour?

(2) Talking of links between England and India, has anyone ever heard of someone who autumned in Harrogate? These people did. Sir Dhunjibhoy and Lady Bomanji also summered in Windsor and wintered in Poona (Daily Mail's spelling this time). The article does not say where they springed (sprung?).

(3) These may be the five cognitive distortions of people who get things done (link here):

1. Personal exceptionalism
2. Dichotomous thinking
3. Correct overgeneralization
4. Blank canvas thinking
5. Schumpeterianism (i.e. seeing creative destruction as natural, necessary, and one's vocation)

Are these not also five cognitive distortions often considered (by non-Americans) to be stereotypically American traits? (And perhaps Americans agree: American exceptionalism seems to be regarded as a pretty uncontroversial thesis even among Americans, for example.) Do Americans tend to "get things done"? Or are these perhaps traits that allow one to get things done in America (I can't tell from here whether the research is only about Americans)? 

Friday, 13 September 2013

Bonnie Prince Charlie

The ever-quotable Alex von Tunzelmann makes this film about Bonnie Prince Charlie sound so bad it's good.

Obviously, there were problems with production: "Halfway through the nine-month shoot, Niven cabled producer Sam Goldwyn: "I have now worked every day for five months on this picture and nobody can tell me how the story ends stop advise." Goldwyn couldn't help: according to Niven's biographer, Sheridan Morley, he thought the movie was called "Charlie Bonnie", and was "apparently under the mistaken impression that it was to be the story of a lovable Scots terrier".

But the outcome sounds superb: "In Rome, the Old Pretender, James Stuart, and his son Charlie (Niven) plot their return. The Old Pretender is wearing a massive grey wig and rhinestone-encrusted frock coat; his son is in a white wig and dazzling jacket. If you remember how Sir Elton John and his husband dressed for the singer's 50th birthday party, that's the look."

Monday, 9 September 2013

More on bullshit jobs

I linked before to David Graeber's article about bullshit jobs and called it "provocatively interesting". The only point I made in my previous post was simply to expand on Graeber's point that the most useful jobs tend to be the worst paid, which is a good line for a dinner party argument-starter, but I wouldn't put it more strongly than that as there are too many badly-paid crap useless jobs too, like telemarketing (an industry Graeber is obviously quite annoyed with).

However, I think the article deserves a bit more analysis. It turns out that the Economist agrees with me.

Gentrification - and its reverse

The Economist links to an interesting map showing which bits of London have got more gentrified and which have moved downmarket.

I found three things interesting. (1) Why is red upmarket and blue downmarket? Red is hot and strong, while blue is cold and sad? Maybe. But gentrification has political consequences and red and blue have political meanings. I found it a strange decision.

(2) There's a lot of blue. Much more than there is red. And there looks to be plenty of blue off the map too. Is Greater London as a whole moving downmarket? Is the UK?

(3) Brixton, almost a synonym for gentrification (even the Economist mentions its burgers - and the Economist is also serious about burgers), is not being gentrified. Just look at those blue patches on the map.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Jon Kelly - the man who does not keep Malcolm Gladwell awake at night, trembling with fear

According to the BBC, "The Georgian period runs from 1660-1840". The article is about architecture, but I am not sure that that makes it any better. Is St Paul's a Georgian cathedral? Whatever happened to the style of building known as Queen Anne?

The article includes a number of bizarre phrases: apparently there are people "for whom the words "original period features" are like manna" (what do they do with those words?); "Those with an affection for concrete at least have plenty of affordable options on former local authority-run estates the length and breadth of the UK" (those are pretty big estates!); ""Barratt-style homes" - synonymous with the 1980s Channel 4 soap opera Brookside" (synonymous?); and did a senior lecturer really say "Most serious architects do think these pastiches do negate real design because they are not innovative"?

I saw that the author of the article is a chap called Jon Kelly and I thought I might investigate his oeuvre for other gems.

It turns out that his other works include:

- "Why do people mock men in red trousers?", which tells us that "In the popular imagination, red trouser-wearing sits at a Venn diagram intersection between hipsters and the upper classes" but indulgently concludes that "red trouser-wearers remain a misunderstood, if colourful, band of sartorial outcasts" (I'm not sure what the misunderstanding is); 

- "Eight low-tech ways to keep cool in a heatwave" (now I know I can open the windows, fan my face or wear Bedouin robes); 

- and, in a piece that sits at the Venn diagram intersection between investigative reporting and utter tat, "James Bond: How his sex life compares with an average man". On the subject of James Bond, after considerately warning us of plot spoilers ahead, we are told that Bond's "chat-up lines err towards the rubbish" (indeed, the "typical man deploying these bon mots while seeking female companionship might worry about having his facial features, as well as his cocktail order, shaken, not stirred" - wince) but "agent 007 exists in a world where the usual laws of romantic gravity do not apply". Despite him being a fictional character, Kelly finds a doctor who tells him that the "likelihood of James Bond having chlamydia is extremely high", probably because, as Kelly delicately reveals (spoiler alert!) the "series tends not to dwell on its protagonist's use or otherwise of contraception". (Very sensitive use of the phrase "or otherwise", Kelly.) But Kelly is nothing if not fair-minded, pointing out that (another spoiler alert!) "you don't see characters going to the toilet or remembering to lock their car door."

I will certainly keep many of these bon mots in mind, not when "seeking female companionship", but rather in trying to avoid any tendency to "err towards the rubbish".


Thursday, 5 September 2013

Government blunders

Here's a breezy review (by Francis Wheen) of Unfit to Rule: The Blunders of our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe. One example is the NHS IT contract: "£20 billion - enough to build three dozen general hospitals - pissed away on the whim of a prime minister who knew nothing about computers" (that's Tony Blair).

The Dangerous Dogs Act is in there and it is a good example of over-hasty legislating. But it's nowhere near as costly as the mistakes in big infrastructure projects. Some new ones are happening as we speak: Universal Credit and HS2 for example. The Labour Party has just released a double-edged sword of a report about problems with long-term infrastructure planning.

But what is the answer? In one sense the answer probably involves things like early design-freeze and continuity of senior personnel, but I mean why are those answers not already being adopted? The answer must be that there is no real answer: it is an inherent cost of democracy that projects are subject to change and cancellation if political will changes, (at best) contractors build that cost in and (at worst) that means huge wasted costs when changes occur.

The Labour report seems to recognise that democracy is the problem: "Mr Balls added: ... "The Olympics showed what can be done when there is cross-party consensus and a sense of national purpose. Now we need that same drive and spirit to plan ahead for the next 30 years and the needs of future generations."" Fair enough, Mr Balls, but a cross-party consensus means 'no change no matter what which party is in power', i.e. no democratic control over the choices at all. (Didn't we use to have a cross-part consensus on HS2 - until Labour saw how the wind was blowing?) If we all agreed what the needs for the next 30 years were then perhaps that would be fair enough - but we don't. How many Sharia Court buildings will we need over the next 30 years? How many nuclear power stations - or are we going to frack instead?

Of course, there's room for improvement etc etc. But there is a reason why 'they do these things much better in China/Singapore/take your pick of effectively one-party state'.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Only in ... (part 2)

Only in the past (if that counts as a different country): "Capt Campbell had languished in the Magdeburg prisoner of war camp for two years when he received word that his mother, Louise Campbell, had cancer and was close to death. He wrote to Kaiser Wilhelm II, begging to be allowed home to visit her one final time... the German leader granted his request, allowing him two weeks leave, including two days travelling each way by boat and train, as long as he returned. The only bond he placed on him was Capt Campbell's “word” as an Army officer."

Was the Kaiser right to trust the word of Captain Campbell? Of course he was. "The young soldier returned to his family home in Gravesend, Kent, in December 1916 and spent time with his mother before returning to the camp, where he was held until the war ended in 1918."

I said "only in the past" but I suspect the same would happen today if two countries were fighting.who regarded each other as basically civilised, with some fundamentally shared notions of culture and honour. That was pretty common for European wars up to WWI. That Sweet Enemy, which I have plugged before, gives numerous examples of the links between Britain and France even during the Napoleonic Wars. Some remnants of that mutual respect were found even in the European combatants in WWII, which was to a large extent regarded, perhaps on both sides, as a fight of civilisation against barbarism.

But since then, war has been viewed (at least in the western world) as something that 'we' do to people who do not share a common civilisation. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan are all quite foreign to the Brits, Americans and French. (The Falklands conflict hardly counts.) In some ways that is the price of progress: democracies do not fight democracies and so on. But it is a price: we lose a certain empathy for our opponents and an ability to fight with regard to certain standards of decency.

Let us take an example: drone warfare. "Mr. Obama ... in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants", the New York Times tells us. One cannot imagine that the British or the Germans would have taken that approach during WWI (certainly not prior to universal male conscription, which at least provides some support for it). Of course, that is partly a problem caused Al Qaeda being a non-uniformed, irregular opposition: it is simply much harder to distinguish combatants from non-combatants. But it is also, I suspect, a problem deriving from the opponents not sharing a common culture.

The Atlantic has an interesting article about drones, including describing what a drone controller actually does: "flying a drone, [the remote pilot] sees the carnage close-up, in real time—the blood and severed body parts, the arrival of emergency responders, the anguish of friends and family. Often he’s been watching the people he kills for a long time before pulling the trigger. Drone pilots become familiar with their victims. They see them in the ordinary rhythms of their lives—with their wives and friends, with their children."

The inter-European wars were not just wars between combatants who shared a common culture, but also in some ways reciprocal. If you were on the same side as the Prussians this year and might be captured by the French next year, but could be on the victorious side against the Austrians the year after, then you all had an interest in playing by the same basic rules. But who imagines that the Afghans might be sending drones to hover over Washington, their controllers gradually trying to work out who is a threat and who is just a secretary? And if that could happen, what rules would we want to play by? Under the rules of war espoused by the Americans, as I understand them, an Al Qaeda operative is entitled to fly a remote controlled aircraft around America, following Barack Obama around his house and on holiday, looking in through his windows as he kisses his children goodnight or reads a book on the loo, and then to make it fire a missile at his car and count his security detail as combatants. Such a drone controller would simply be a latter day Red Baron, a knight of the sky with a more comfortable chair and better working hours.