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".