Thursday, 5 December 2019

Some interesting things

1. Do you remember when Nixon gave his eulogy for the tragic loss of the astronauts on Apollo 11? No? But it's here. (Brilliant deepfake.)

2. "It’s been a long time now since, at age 53, I became a woman." The inimitable Deirdre McCloskey of course. Happy? Sad? Honest, anyway. "My daughter still lives in the Midwest; she is married and has a child. I’ve told in Crossing about how, a year later, when she was still in college, I saw her that one time, very early in my transition, a weeping father in a dress begging for a hug. ... Her lone letter in reply said “Thanks for the money. I still don’t want you in my life.” ... My son lives not too far from me. He too won’t speak."

3. Pregnancy reduces criminal behaviour, both for the mother and the father. There is some great economics-speak at the link: "pregnancy reduces discount rates and gives men and women a reason to invest in human capital and work for the future." Also: people should get married and have children earlier.

4. On "liberalism" and liberal societies. Well put.

5. Abortion. Again, well put, I thought, which is quite a feat when the author is an American calmly and sympathetically putting forward both sides of the debate.

6. Rory Sutherland, the Wiki Man. "One avenue that is rarely explored is that a major cause of the rise of populism might be the journalists themselves, and the extent to which the once noble aim of impartiality has led to something ridiculous — where almost everyone in authority is treated as a liar. // For the past three decades, Britain has had centrist governments led by mainstream politicians. And in that period, did we find that journalists devoted much airtime and column inches to reporting this as a good thing? We did not." To be fair, we are always fighting the last war. The "why is this lying liar lying to me?" type of interview is a reaction against the "Prime Minister, is there anything you would like to say?" interview of yesteryear. But I think Sutherland's point is a good one: even if deference is dead, common sense, decency and a sense of proportion ought not to be. And there is a market for long interviews that are not all bash-bash-bash: see podcasts.

7. Cheer up everyone! It's not that bad.

8. More on what happened to New Atheism.

9. Is there a more predictably awkward social interaction than buying the Big Issue? This morning I walked past the vendor, aware that I had no change, then, appreciating that I did have a note, I walked back to him. I gave him £10 and asked if he had change. I'll see, he said. It was cold. He reached into his pocket and brought out a handful of pound coins. The Big Issue costs £3. I had already decided that I would pay £5. I could see that he had 6 £1 coins in his cold hand. He counted them into my gloved hand one by one. His breath condensed in great clouds as he counted the £1 coins. Three. Four. I waited. I took my £5, said thank you and walked away feeling like an idiot.  Anyway all of that is just a prelude to this:
Look at the order of the politicians. At the last general election, the LibDems got about 2.4m votes and the SNP got under 1m. (Did you know that more Scottish people voted Leave in the 2016 referendum than voted for the SNP in 2017: 1,018,322 versus 977,568?) And yet there is Sturgeon on the top line, with Swinson sitting at the children's table. Yes I know, number of MPs, percentage of vote in seats contested, yes, yes, yes. But surely, not so long ago, the leader of the third national party would rank above a regional separatist?

10. How humans and other modern animals would look if drawn from their skeletons in the same way dinosaurs are, if you see what I mean.

Friday, 29 November 2019

Poor young women

As I mentioned before, the BBC reported that, in England, "Among 16 to 24-year-old women in 2014, 19.7% reported having self-harmed at some point in their life", a growing trend.

It also appears that "more than a third of UK women under the age of 40 have experienced unwanted slapping, choking, gagging or spitting during consensual sex" (again from the BBC). In addition to the "unwanted" occurrences, there have also been a large number of "wanted" ones:

I'm not going to go all statistics-y on this: England is not the same as the UK; 16-24 year olds are not the same as 18-39 year olds; survey reports about personal stuff like this are no doubt less reliable than "did you eat a sandwich for lunch"-type surveys. (Also: I can't make full sense of the statistics in this piece. On the one hand, the above graph suggests that the majority of these kinds of activities were "unpressured", on the other hand, "More than a third (38%) had experienced these acts and said they were unwanted at least some of the time, while just under two-thirds of women had either experienced it and said it was never unwanted (31%), or they had no experience, didn't know or preferred not to say (31%)." Is the 38% in that quotation the same people as the 42% in the graph above? One reading of this is that most women experience these activities, but they are mostly "wanted" or "unpressured". I don't think that is what the article says, but I can't be certain.)

But the long and the short if it is that there is a large number of young women in this country who are the victims of violence, a lot of it "consensual", i.e. inflicted by themselves on themselves or by their partners on themselves, and a lot of it is straightforwardly non-consensual.

I am far from alone in thinking that self-harm, consensual though it is obviously is, is a Bad Thing. Worrying. A sign of disturbance, unhappiness or mental illness. No one in the article on self-harm regards its increase as an interesting development in leisure activities for young women: it is something "alarming", something that needs "prevention" and "intervention".

So why should we treat the "consensual" infliction of harm by sexual partners any differently? Indeed, the BBC article treats the whole business of violence during sex as a Bad Thing, consensual or not: "People do it because they think it's the norm but it can be very harmful. What we see is that for many, it devalues the relationship but - at its worst - violence becomes acceptable". Quite: as with self-harm, consent to the injury is sign that things are bad, not good.

The modern rule for sexual morality is "always and everywhere, consenting adults = ok". I say "modern", but, what with the #MeToo movement and now violence during sex, it is already looking rusty and obsolete. But, having abandoned Christianity, what do we have to replace it?

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Jon Kelly - part 2

I once came across a journalist called Jon Kelly. I made fun of him (just a little bit). He replied. He was, I think, not upset, but I suppose I felt a little bad about it.

So I decided to look him up again - and I am pleased that I did. Kelly is now working on BBC Stories and he is doing some really good stuff. Here are some examples.
This is about a woman prisoner.
This is about a woman who married two haemophiliacs - and was widowed twice, by the same infected blood scandal.
This is about how hard employment is when you have dementia.

And there are more.

Each of the ones I have read is a proper article, interesting or affecting as the story demands. They also reflect well on Kelly: these are people currently facing, or at least remembering, some pretty  hard times, and he treats their stories with care and respect. I recommend that you forget about politics for a few moments, read a couple of his articles and you'll be reminded why you pay your licence fee.

The BBC was wasting Kelly by getting him to write frivolous rubbish. But now he is doing what he should be doing. Well done to both of them.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Some unusual links

1. This is a surprisingly interesting and non-stupid article about being a psychic. We all have our blind spots and sometimes find it hard to remember that [insert category of people here] are people too, with all that that entails. (That's what I find most bizarre about the whole Brexit palaver: the human ability to invent wholly new categories of people based on their attitude to an international organisation and then to demonise them on that basis.) I suppose psychics and astrologers would tend to be the sorts of person I would write off, viewing them as just frauds who take money from the gullible. But they are people too. Well worth a read.

2. The Gardener by Rudyard Kipling. For Remembrance Day, a few days back.

3. Momentum knows about Bruce Wayne's company's tax arrangements. And Momentum is not happy about it. But ... hang on: isn't Bruce Wayne himself resident in Gotham City for tax purposes, so wouldn't he pay vast amounts of income tax? Or maybe he over-uses charitable deductions? The plot thickens! But if Wayne Enterprises did pay tax but nonetheless paid Wayne sufficient dividends to maintain his bat-lifestyle then would that be OK with Momentum? After all, Gotham City has pretty good tax receipts. I wonder if Momentum have thought through the property tax and VAT angles. And as for whether there is a double taxation treaty with Krypton ...

4. This is pretty amazing: real-life invisibility cloaks.

5. If you liked the Education Bicycle then you might like these, including the Well-being Umbrella, the Health Doughnut and the Vaccination Bicycle.

6. Good old Wittgenstein. Just a charmingly positive article about Ludwig.

7. You should support open borders because it will make rich countries more like South Africa! Reading this link is a lovely insight into how economists think and write among themselves.

8. Life on Mars? I remain to be persuaded.

Friday, 8 November 2019

12 unrelated links

1. Here is the Jewish Chronicle, advising all non-Jews not to vote Labour because Jeremy Corbyn is anti-semitic. You have probably tired, as I have, of people saying "I know everything is extraordinary nowadays but this is REALLY extraordinary". So what do I say? This is now normal, I suppose. As you were - how many days are there left to save the NHS?

2. This link I am giving you for two reasons. First, as part of my ongoing project of giving you access to Zadie Smith's writings. Second, because it is well worth a read anyway. It's about an artist called Celia Paul, who seems to be, at the risk of sounding utterly bourgeois, really quite odd. Or, to put it differently, it's about one of Lucien Freud's muses and lovers. If you've ever wondered why on earth all those women put up with Freud then read this - and continue to wonder.

3. Do you remember all the fuss about atheism a few years back? And do you wonder what happened to it? New Atheism, social justice and hamartiology answers your questions in great style. (In genuinely unconnected news, it will not have passed you by that Kanye West has released an album called Jesus is King and that Kim Kardashian and her children got baptised in Armenia.)

4. The European Convention on Human Rights (which is the basis of the Human Rights Act in the UK) makes it illegal to abolish private schools. But of course it does! When, in 1950, the drafters of the ECHR surveyed the ruins of Europe, reviewed the atrocities of WWII and vowed "Never again!", they clearly had in mind the fundamental threat to human dignity - none greater! - that might result from forcing nice children to associate with the sorts of children who go to state schools. Indeed, if only Herr Hitler had been to the right kind of school, who knows what unpleasantness could have been avoided ... Seriously, whether you are on the left or the right, you should remember that human rights law is a well-intentioned but doddering and ridiculous force for wishy-washy conservatism - a kind of spectral Dominic Grieve. There are many worse things out there, but it is not an infallible source of wisdom.

5. Someone you might want to follow: Wolfgang Munchau and Eurointelligence. Interesting accounts of what is really going on in Europe. Not just Brexit, of course. How about this, for example: "If you read the German business press, you get an immediate sense of the country's dependence on CO2-emitting technologies. Three of the top stories in FAZ this morning were the final go-ahead for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a new coal-fired power station going online, and a rise in SUV sales at Volkswagen. We sometimes feel as if entering a parallel universe time warp when reading German newspapers. The country is not even pretending to try and reach the Paris climate targets." If that makes you think that the British press does not really tell you much about Europe and you want to know more then Eurointelligence is worth a look.

6. Someone else you might want to follow: Niall Gooch. Likes murder mysteries, Ravilious, trains. Not a fan of Dr Beeching. Wrote this: "Have you ever actually seen an old maid hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning? I have." Also on Twitter, rightly admiring Uxbridge's Civic Centre, for example. Here's what he wrote about Brexit (he voted Remain ... and yet ...).

7. You know Conway's Game of Life? No? You should. This is a bit fiddly but otherwise fun for all the family.

8. You know that the European Court of Justice has held that individuals have the right to request that search engines remove certain web pages from their search results. Google de-lists a lot of BBC web pages as a result. This is the BBC's reaction: "As a contribution to public policy and debate, the BBC has decided to make clear to licence fee payers which pages have been impacted by publishing this list of links." Intrigued? See some here. Not an example of the Streisand effect. Or at least not yet.

9. Private firefighters in California.

10. The signature film of every major city. Well, a lot of US cities and some others.

11. Switzerland.

12. This is pretty cool.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Matthew Parris leaves the Conservative Party

Parris' piece saying that he is leaving the Conservative Party really is immensely silly. I have no joy in saying that. I am someone who has a great deal of respect for him - indeed, someone who has met and enjoyed talking to him. I am truly sorry to see such an unfortunate example of pure Brexit Derangement Syndrome.

In 2016 a Conservative Government held a referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU or leave it. Now, Parris believes that leaving the EU is "folly". He might be right: even Dominic Cummings has said that in some of the forking paths of the future, it would be better to have stayed. Lots of clever people agree.

But there are degrees of folly. There is the folly of forgetting your packed lunch at home and having to buy a sandwich instead, and there is the folly of failing to secure your bungee rope before jumping off a bridge. Parris obviously puts leaving the EU (even with Johnson's new and improved deal) in the latter category.

That means that he should have abandoned the Conservative Party when Cameron called the referendum. (Instead: see here.)

Look at it this way: what would you think about a party that called a referendum on something as reprehensible as the slaughter of the firstborn or as self-destructive as the abolition of all formal education? You would not wait a few years after the outcome of that referendum before deciding that that party was not one you wanted to support. Deliberately opening the door to a monster is an appalling thing to do, even if you are confident that you can shut the door before it gets in.

So why has Parris waited until now? He suggests that he is now "unwilling to support a leader who is a stranger to honesty or principle and who surfs a foolish populist wave for the sake of ambition alone, leading a governing party whose centre of gravity has shifted decisively away from the broadly centrist political force Conservatism once was." None of this makes any sense. Johnson is, I grant, a man whose personal life is perhaps more in line with Bill Clinton's than Richard Nixon's (I choose my examples advisedly), but whose time as Prime Minister has been spent doing nothing other than trying to leave the EU. If doing so is surfing a foolish populist wave and shifting away from being a broadly centrist force then I repeat: giving that option to the country in 2016 was every bit as bad - and probably worse. Charming old Cameron and diligent old May were surfers or extremists both.

On the other hand, if you believe, as I do, that the folly of leaving the EU, if folly it be, is well within the range of legitimate decisions a country might make, that becoming a little more like Switzerland or Canada and a little less like Austria is nothing like the slaughter of the firstborn, and that the fact that a majority voted for Brexit provides at least some reason for thinking it a "centrist" position (for what that is worth), then nothing Johnson has done in office merits the bizarre invective Parris has chosen to deploy. The decision that has faced the British political classes since 2016 has been whether the fact of Brexit would be sufficiently disastrous to outweigh the moral and prudential imperative of respecting the result of a high-turnout referendum; the question has been whether to dispense with democracy in order to preserve Britain's half-in, half-out status in the EU. To any reasonable objective observer, even accepting that all the economic forecasts are true (a 3.5% reduction in GDP over 10 years, i.e. an annual rounding error), it is surely clear that there is nothing extreme or "populist" or indicative of "zealotry" or any of the other words Parris uses in deciding that it is better to live in a democracy in which a referendum is respected than to live in whatever alternative system of government the likes of Dominic Grieve, Keir Starmer or the Liberal Democrats would wish for us. At the very least, is it not a reasonable view for Johnson to take? Is it not exactly the same view that May in all her sensible greyness took?

The emotional response to Brexit that has animated so many of our leaders and commentators is going to look very silly in a few years time. "I was right," they will say, looking at a large-ish holiday mobile phone bill and spotting the EU snubbing our diplomats in Davos. But they will say it quietly. And, as their friends and families watch the sun continuing to rise in the east and set in the west, and as new fads and crazes occupy their children, and as new outrages as yet undreamt of animate the opinion columns, and as the people of Britain continue to grumble their way through the minor annoyances that would dominate their lives regardless of the scope of the European customs union, they might wonder why it seemed so important to be right on this issue. Was all that Brexit fuss really happening at the same time as Hong Kong - and Yemen - and Syria - and Greta Thunberg - and Huawei - and Universal Credit and foodbanks and ...?, they will ask themselves in wonder. And I thought that Brexit was the issue worth marching about?

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

On the American 'Deep State'

I am in no position to give my own view on whether the so-called 'Deep State' in the US is anything more or less than a rather more glamorous name for the American equivalent of our own dear Establishment. But I can give you a clutch of articles from disparate sources, all better-informed than I, that makes for good reading.

First we have Matt Taibbi, the man who described Goldman Sachs as a giant vampire squid. It's pretty punchy. Then this from Robert Merry. "When the president canceled large war games with South Korea, the military held them anyway—only on a smaller scale and without fanfare. Diplomats negotiated an agreement before a NATO summit to foreclose any Trump action based on a different outlook": Yes, Minister played as tragedy rather than farce. And finally, this, an interview with Angelo Codevilla that ranges widely over all sorts of topics in a lively fandango. It has also introduced me to Branson, Missouri, which looks like a great place for a holiday.