Friday, 19 July 2013

Not dying

It's not a life or death decision, people often say. But sometimes it is. This is an astute and interesting article about not dying. It's also about being a philosopher and, tangentially, about cycling and American healthcare. More interesting than that sounds.

More Lanchester on banks

John Lanchester is back on the subject of banks again in the London Review of Books.

The short review: worth a read, of course, but don't forget to take it with the customary generous pinch of salt.

The long review: after the jump break.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Comparative Tests On A Human And A Chimpanzee Infant Of Approximately The Same Age

Another title, this time of a film, which does just what it says on the tin. We are told that the human infant and the chimpanzee infant were "reared together in a strictly human environment for a period of 9 months" and given comparable treatment (including being punished) as if they were in the same human family. All well and good no doubt - I assume the child's parents were the scientists. But what happened to the chimpanzee in the end? And what happened to the child? I can't think that this is a story with a very happy ending.

World's worst sentence?

Prospero, in the Economist, has some good candidates from the world of financial writing, starting with "Yet the nightmare cast its shroud in the guise of a contagion of a deer-in-the-headlights paralysis" - and that's not even the end of the sentence.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Fraud unravels all

"Fraud unravels all" (or fraus omnia corrumpit, if you prefer) is one of the more useful legal maxims: once it has been shown that a transaction has been procured by fraud then the innocent party should be able to set aside the transaction and all of its ancillary effects. The law looks on the victims of fraud very sympathetically, even if they have been rash or foolhardy themselves.

But fraud unravels all in life as well as in law, and in life it is harder to put things right. This is a case in point.

"Mrs. Padden and her husband, Mr. Nicholas Padden, were married in 1977. Three children were born in 1985, 1988 and 1991 respectively. For most of their married life they lived in the village of Broadclyst, near Exeter in Devon. She is a history graduate and had worked as a teacher until the birth of her children. She returned to part-time work as they grew up. Mr. Padden was a financial advisor with his own business in Exeter which, in about 1998, was acquired by a company called ... Arbuthnot... Mr. Padden became regional manager in southwest England for Arbuthnot and remained in their employment until 2002 when he went back into business on his own account.

In 1989 Mr. and Mrs. Padden had purchased a long leasehold interest in a property at Broadclyst known as Willow Cottage in School Lane."

Nicholas and Heather Padden; three children; Arbuthnot; Willow Cottage, School Lane, Broadclyst, Devon: it could be the happy ending of a particularly reassuring middle-brow English novel. But, this being a decision of the Court of Appeal rather than chicklit, it is instead the beginning of an awful true story.

Leeds in the 1970s

An un-appetising title perhaps, but here is a compelling set of photos from a photographer with a good eye. The series has some of the flavour of those 'Decaying Detroit' photo-stories one sees nowadays, but with the added quirks of 1970s Britain. "Authorities in Leeds prided themselves on the fact that part of the city's inner ring road was a motorway" - it was a different world then.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

For a laugh, ha ha ha

Mark Steyn has just reminded me that another Bastille Day has come and gone. Despite living in the sixth (or perhaps the 68th) biggest French city, I forgot about it this year. Now my previous post looks like a tactless reference to the late unpleasantness between our two countries resulting from the Revolution.

Fortunately Steyn also has an equally inappropriate (but more jolly) way to celebrate the occasion, namely by writing about Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? and telling us that the woman was in fact ... no, I won't spoil it. It may be too early to talk about the consequences of the French Revolution, but I think even Zhou Enlai could safely opine about that song, although not as readably as Steyn.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and Corsica

Book reviewers say that a book is funny by saying that it made them emit embarrassing noises on public transport. The equivalent test for interestingness is presumably making the reader want to read bits out to whoever is within earshot.

That Sweet Enemy is precisely such a book. It is a history of relations between Britain and France, and therefore a history of everything of most importance in Britain's culture, politics, empire, foreign policy etc etc - and of certain of France's fads and foibles. Perhaps that's a bit harsh on my own country. At any rate, it is consistently one of the most entertaining and enlightening books out there. I find it hard to read without wanting to quote bits out loud: I now only read it while I'm on my own. I will not make a habit of blogging bits of it.

The prompt for this blog title is an incident from the war against Revolutionary France. You will recall that a young Napoleon Bonaparte made a name for himself by re-taking Toulon from some anti-revolutionary French supported by the British (who took the opportunity to destroy a lot of French vessels - the equivalent of the victory at Trafalgar - and to burn Toulon's stocks of shipbuilding timber). But I hadn't heard of what happened next. I quote:

"The loss of Toulon increased Corsica's importance as a naval base. Under their old leader Pasquale Paoli, the Corsicans asked to join the British empire on the same basis as Ireland, with George III as king of Corsica. This plucky wartime experiment in Enlightenment nation-building - with a parliamentary constitution, trial by jury, religious toleration, and habeas corpus - was realised in 1795. Despite good will on both sides there were predictable disagreements. But the outcome was determined by strategy, not politics. Finding the island too hard to defend, the British withdrew at the end of 1796, taking with them 12,000 refugees."

It's an intriguing episode in Anglo-French relations; it's something Americans should learn about when they learn about George III; it's a premise for a counter-factual novel. You will have to take my word for it that there is stuff like this on every page of the book, all in that amused ironic academic tone.

Friday, 12 July 2013

The history of typography

In convenient, stop-motion form.

I think stop-motion is inevitably a format that occupies the boundaries of charming, quirky and twee. But I like it. Apparently schoolchildren now learn it too, as I saw on the Waterstones blog. This could be part of a programme of training to become a a manic pixie dream girl, but if it is, don't worry: even that condition is not incurable.

Great headlines

There are some headlines that oversell the story, but not this one
"A Mongolian Neo-Nazi Environmentalist Walks Into a Lingerie Store in Ulan Bator". Photo 3, which combines hard man, swastika and unexplained blue cuddly toy is, well, something you don't see every day. Even in Mongolia.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Malcolm Gladwell talks about a good listener

When I was at school, we were often being told that we should value everyone because we all have different talents. Some people are good at schoolwork, some people are good at sport, some people are very kind, and so on. Children quickly spot that some people are not noticeably good at anything in particular. The writers of the textbooks were aware of that and so they had to have a catch-all 'talent' for untalented, undistinguished people, and that was 'being a good listener'.

Or at least, that was how it seemed to me at the time. But Malcolm Gladwell has now contributed a piece on the BBC suggesting that being a good listener really is a valuable skill, at least in the case of Konrad Kellen, who combined it with being the sort of intelligent, handsome, charismatic, well-connected, cultured character who so enriched British and US life when the Germans were, um, undergoing an unfortunate and unwelcoming period in their history and now, sadly, enrich the obituary pages. It's an interesting piece, although I would add that being a good listener only got Kellen so far: being good at grabbing Kissinger's attention might have helped too.

The piece is illustrated with an unflattering picture of Gladwell, which was perhaps chosen to show that he can also listen very skilfully, in his case letting his eyebrows do most of the work.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Cheap for £20

And a whole referendum for £120? Dirt-cheap.

Latest edition of the Spectator

The 6th July edition is a pretty good one. Good competition; Rod Liddle on top form, offending all his favourite targets all at once (how about this on Channel 4 broadcasting the call to prayer during Ramadan "I had expected them to do something special for Ramadan, but I rather hoped it would be commissioning four special — if rather brief — editions of their (comparatively) popular programme Come Dine With Me. ‘And what’s on your menu tonight, Tariq?’ ‘Nothing.’"?); Rory Sutherland with an offer that can't be missed; Charles Moore on the Garter ceremony; Deborah Ross giving the Bling Ring its best review I've seen. BoJo and Hugo Rifkind not on top form, but otherwise there's some good stuff there. However, I would single out Jeremy Clarke on having dysentery - the Low Life column is horribly compelling.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Where Zadie Smith went wrong

Don't be misled by the title of this post: of course Zadie Smith can do no wrong. But I think we, her public, have missed out because she never got a proper job. I explain below.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Photos of algae in China

In Qingdao.

Weird languages

Very interesting survey of the weirdest languages in the world (spoiler: English is not the weirdest). All I can add is the single Hindi weirdness (predicative possession, i.e. "ke pas") is quite weird, but otherwise it is a good sensible language, rather like Latin - except for the numbers. Turkish, another non-weird language, is also a good sensible one: my limited acquaintance with it did not reveal any weirdness at all. Perhaps being a good sensible language is in itself weird.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The sun has not set on the British Empire

According to XKCD. (Thanks Rokuzayemon.)


The BBC reports on a boy killed for making an offhand remark about the Prophet. 

The theological knowledge of the killers is open to doubt: "The four [killers] looked like jihadis but stopped to buy a packet of sunflower seeds. People explained that the truly pious would not eat sunflower seeds because they take so long to shell". Perhaps real jihadis crack their eggs at the other end too.

Are we meant to be supporting the people who eat sunflower seeds or the other ones?

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

High Speed 2

It never looked like a good use of money, but the costs go up and the benefits go down. Rory Sutherland has said it more than once in The Spectator, this being just the latest time.


Terry Eagleton says Americans need more irony (except that he is obviously being ironic). This is what they are getting instead. A Hugh Grant-style apologetic air, or hard-core apologetics?

Laurence Olivier was "a 1930s Henry Cavill, only slightly less inflated and wearing more guyliner"

The words of Alex von Tunzelmann, of course.

John Lanchester on banks (but off-target)

In the London Review of Books here. Very readable, as Lanchester always is, but unpersuasive.

The only bit I know anything about is the PPI mis-selling business. I worked on a sizeable number of cases coming from one of the big retail banking groups. I can't claim to have seen a statistically significant proportion of the vast number of claims, but I saw a lot. Moreover, I worked with other people who saw more and I've talked to other people who have seen yet other ones and I've read the cases that went to trial.

From that experience, I just don't recognise Lanchester's description of the problem.