Monday, 30 December 2013

All (cutting-edge) human knowledge is here

Or at least nearly all - it's, where people summarise their PhDs in one sentence (or, for those who can't count to one, a small number of sentences).

Some I liked:

"That Galaxy wasn’t the one we were looking for, and after careful examination we can say that it doesn’t have any other particularly interesting traits either."
- Dark Cosmology Center, University of Copenhagen.

"A well known chemical reaction works just like the literature said it would"
- Chemistry, University of Cambridge

"Using flash-cameras set up in the wild to count how many animals are in an area is a bad idea because bright flashes at night scare animals."
- Biology, Stanford

And, finally, one from France

"The people doesn’t understand."
- Political science, Sciences Po Bordeaux

Well, quite.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Death in the East End, death of the East End

This is what you call a proper East End funeral:

"Mr Redwood set off on foot, planting his elegant black cane down the middle of the road, forcing the traffic to slow down. Tall and broad-shouldered, he cut a regal figure (though that was not why the other lads at Cribb’s called him “the Queen”). The hearse followed, decorated with wreaths inside and out, spelling out in red roses and white carnations “MY DAD”, “GRANDAD” and “1, 2”, the traps Billy always bet on at the dogs. Tracey, Stacey and three other Bullard women walked behind, arm in arm, doubled up in grief for the 89-year-old patriarch.

At Mr Redwood’s stately pace, the cortege turned onto Barking Road. It was the route Billy had taken almost every day for half a century—ending at Coral, a bookmaker, where the hearse stopped. The manager of the betting-shop stepped onto the pavement and, in a gesture that seemed to encapsulate the florid theatricality of the East End funeral, where Victorian music hall meets Catholic high Mass, she handed Tracey a single white rose.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Surprising facts and factoids

(1) "the average Bucharest resident is comfortably better off than the average resident of Manchester", says the Economist.

(2) "roughly 1 in 200 pregnant young American women claim to be virgins". Shouldn't that be "claims to be a virgin"? Grammar notwithstanding, that's what Slate tells us, adding that "more virgins gave birth to boys (59.8%) or may have learnt they were pregnant during Advent, these trends did not reach statistical significance".

(3) You can be poor and happy - if you are Israeli Ultra-Orthodox. "One possibility is that (some?) religions make people pretty happy. Another is that lack of money does not make you unhappy, provided that a) you can cite a good reason for having a lower income, b) you have peer and family support for your situation/decision, and c) there is no negative selection into the other lower income individuals you will end up hanging around." (From Marginal Revolution.) I suspect if you have point (c) then you will find it easy enough to satisfy points (a) and (b). One can contrive a link to the Christmas story from this factoid as well, but I leave that as an exercise for the reader.

(4) It's better to be top of your class than to hang out with clever people.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

"And with tripes we are healed"

You may not be familiar with the healing power of tripes. But Spotify claims that this is the title of one of the choruses in Handel's Messiah, and Amazon believes similarly.

Rory Sutherland - 3 columns in one

It's the Spectator Christmas special, which explains his munificence.

First, we get a little bit on how to get into copywriting (question: 'Describe, using no more than 50 words, a piece of toast to a Martian.' Model answer: ‘Floop, floop! Gribble ptáng chiz’nit greep floopiwop.’)

Second, a little bit of alternative thinking about political issues: e.g. "the people whose economic position suffers most from immigration are recent immigrants. Are periodic moratoriums the answer? No one would think this suggestion strange in a debate about overfishing. So why reject it here?" (This, I think, is the historical solution in fact adopted by the US, with periodic loosenings and tightenings of immigration policy.)

Finally, a tour de force on why it is much harder to be middle class in England than either being middle class in Wales or a successful rapper "If you make £5 million as a musician, you get to sit in a hot tub full of women, drinking vintage Krug from the bottle. Make £5 million as a professional man and you’re forced to buy the Old Rectory, Minchinhampton (Knight, Frank & Rutley, £3.24 million), before spending an additional £5,000 a year on Farrow & Ball paint. And on kitting out your splashback with those elongated white kitchen tiles which are now inexplicably fashionable, even though 15 years ago they were found only in prisons or behind Victorian urinals." And don't get him started on Machu Picchu ...

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Four fascinating facts about bombing during WWII

1. The first bombing attack on Freiburg im Breisgau killed 57 people, and it was conducted by German bombers, who thought the city was Dijon.

2. In early 1945, the main hostility of the German population was directed toward the Italians, from switching sides in 1943, and not toward the bombing Allied nations.

3. More tons of bombs were dropped on Rome than on all British cities combined.

4. Per square mile, the most bombed place on earth was…Malta.

All facts shamelessly copied from here.

Lithuania and the law in London

A mini-trend,

First, this case, which is about a Mr Khalid Ansari, who seems to be an academic in the field of tourism. Some Lithuanian academics saw him and his work, and one of them wrote an email about. In it, she said that Mr Ansari was "overpowering to a point of being arrogant; pompous and dictatorial in his conversations" and that "it was obvious that he has no publication record". She also added he "was observed excessively abusing alcohol on two successive days of the visit and he was not able to concentrate on the work to be completed. [Also he] behaved sexually inappropriately, three times inviting the Lithuanian Project Coordinator V Zilinskaite for a 'night cap' in front of other people present at dinner. This is unprofessional, unethical and is regarded as sexual harassment." I should say that the author of the email was Project Coordinator V Zilinskaite herself. Anyway, all of that turns out to have been was libellous and I should inform you that Mr Ansari has received a payment of £112,500 inclusive of damages, interest and costs from the University of Vilnius, which has also made a statement in open court acknowledging that the allegations in the email were untrue and ought not to have been made. Mr Ansari has also got judgment against Ms Zilinskaite for damages to be assessed. The Court of Appeal has now held that he can also sue Manchester Metropolitan University and Dr Knowles, one of their staff, for the libel on top of that. My guess is that Mr Ansari and Ms Zilinskaite have different views about the English justice system.

Second, a case about a car accident in Lithuania. A sad story, but did you know that you can sue the Motor Insurers' Bureau in England for an accident caused by a Lithuanian in Lithuania? The unsurprising fact is that, if you do, you get more in England than you would have done in Lithuania.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Various links

(1) The last Jew in Afghanistan is leaving. Moreover, "There are no Afghan Christians left, at least none who is open about it, and the only permanent church is inside the Italian diplomatic compound. There is a small Hindu population, but it is shrinking rapidly." Draw your own conclusions.

(2) Mediaeval wall painting in Welsh church. A nice reminder of the pleasant treasures from the past that might yet be re-discovered.

(3) John Lanchester does a MOOC, thanks to Ferran Adrià. "all undergraduates at Harvard are required to take at least one class in science. As a result, the university offers some courses designed to be appealing to the kinds of student who wouldn’t be studying science unless they had to. Once that’s known, it makes a lot of sense to involve Adrià, who is rock-star famous in the world of food, in a course designed to appeal to the clever and curious and artily-minded young. So here it is: SPU27, an acronym standing for Science of the Physical Universe 27. Spelled out in English, the name of the course is Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science. The person who thinks it’s funny that SPU sounds like ‘spew’? Harvard isn’t cross with you. Just … disappointed."

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Margaret Thatcher's letter to PW Botha asking him to release Nelson Mandela

The letter is dated 31 October 1985 and can be found here. This is from page 4: "I continue to believe, as I have  said to you before, that the release of Nelson Mandela would have more impact than almost any single action you could undertake." Fascinating stuff.

Monday, 9 December 2013

A splurge of links

With no attempt at a theme

(1) A bad graph. On the subject of Conservative statistics, "A quarter of the Tories’ new women MPs could stand down in 2015", and who can blame them? They work hard but "even the most extreme conscientiousness often goes unnoticed or at least unthanked by the public. Many MPs feel themselves assailed by a continuous barrage of insults: they are abused by people who are convinced that to be an MP is to be a lazy and corrupt parasite, devoid of any sense of public service and motivated only by greed for money and power. Women MPs get a particular kind of unpleasantness directed at them via social media by bullying men who indulge with vicious relish in every kind of obscenity. One woman told me that in her previous, high-level career, she at least felt when she went home she could switch off. She now finds she can never switch off."

(2) Lucien Freud was no gentleman. Julian Barnes compares him to the cricketer Derek Randall (formerly of Nottinghamshire and England) here and also has an interesting discussion of how much a portrait ought to look like someone. But a lot of the article, interesting throughout, is of quite a different kind and even précis would be inappropriate for a family blog.

(3) England and the World Cup. If we don't even do the easy bits right then what chance do we have? But we're not alone: "Of course it makes no sense for the Netherlands to play a game against a team like Indonesia, as whatever happens it will bring down their average number of Fifa points per game. You would have to be completely mad to do something like that in World Cup year, when the points have the most value. Unfortunately for the orange hordes of Dutch fans, that is exactly what their team did ..."

(4) "Olivia Robertson, who has died aged 96, was the co-founder, archpriestess and hierophant of the Fellowship of Isis, an order devoted to the worship of the “Divine Feminine”, which she ran from her haunted ancestral pile, Huntington Castle (also known as Clonegal Castle), in Co Carlow, Ireland." Eccentric Anglo-Irish descendant of a niece of Noah (the Ark chap) who grew up first in Reigate - it's the Telegraph obituary writer's bread and butter, and none the worse for that. I liked this story in particular: Robertson had a vision which revealed to her that God was female and at much the same time "her brother, Lawrence “Derry” Durdin-Robertson, “21st baron of Strathloch”, an ordained clergyman in the Church of Ireland, had also become convinced that God was a woman. An honourable man, he at once proffered his resignation to his bishop, who assured him that “there was no need”."

(5) "The Olympiad was a good party, which cost the British population about £200 per head." It was well over budget ("The cost of the games to public funds has proved to be about 10 times the original estimate"). Was it worth it?

(6) Finally, don't miss John Gray's scathing review of Malcolm Gladwell's latest. The Economist didn't like it either.

Friday, 6 December 2013

What do PISA scores really measure? And what was George W. Bush really thinking?

Let's leave aside the "China" figures (in fact a game-the-system Shanghai). Even so, the story, pretty consistently, is that if you take advanced industrial economies where everyone has enough to eat and so on, then east Asian children do better than those of west European countries and their former colonies. For all that England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Germany, France and the United States have hugely varying approaches to educational philosophy, educational administration, educational language, importance of school sports etc etc etc, the children of these countries end up in pretty much the same place. Meanwhile, countries with histories and languages as different as South Korea and Singapore also consistently end up in much the same place - i.e. with better results that the likes of France and Germany.

Isn't the obvious answer that PISA is measuring intelligence, not schooling? (You'll have to wait a bit to get to George W. Bush - after the break.)