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.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The tragedy of the commons? And an ecological desert in the UK

Tim Harford has an interesting article on the subject of the tragedy of the commons, contrasting Garrett Hardin, who invented the phrase, with Lin Ostrom (a comparison which is in Ms Ostrom's favour).

Ms Ostrom clearly had more to say and thought more deeply about this issue than Mr Hardin. There is no inevitable tragedy that applies at all times and in all places. But local politics and judicial decisions can conspire to create tragedies, as this week's Economist points out.

The Firth of Clyde been had rich in fish stocks and sustained a profitable fishing industry. But the rules were loosened by government and courts so that by 2010 "two marine biologists predicted, on the basis of historic catch data, that the Clyde was about to become Britain’s first “ecological desert”" In response, "the current Scottish government, run by the Scottish National Party, [which] has strong ties to the fishing industry... commissioned a rival study of the fishery. Published last year, this judged the phrase “ecological desert” an overstatement; yet it agreed that there were hardly any fish in the Clyde worth catching." The sad story is here.

Only in ...

Only in America: "The Justice Department now seems to be saying that prison rape accounted for the majority of all rapes committed in the US in 2008, likely making the United States the first country in the history of the world to count more rapes for men than for women." (See story here.)

Also, only in America: "a black man hires a member of the KKK as his lawyer" ("Everyone has the right to speak freely," he says, here.)

Only in India: "There are times when I have to dictate a stern letter to myself beca­use of the delay in response from myself fr­om the other office" (Story here.)

Only in Latvia: "the hospital-themed restaurant where 'patients' pay to wear straitjackets while waitresses dressed as nurses spoonfeed them body parts" (Trust the Daily Mail, here.)

Meanwhile, only in Brixton: "the 'horrendous' Brixton flat which could be the last to sell in inner London for under £100k ... Leigh Munday, assistant manager at agents Kinleigh Folkard & Hayward, which are handling the sale, said: ”It’s horrendous, it’s not very nice at all, It needs complete refurbishment and a hefty lease extension."" (story here.)