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.