Monday, 22 December 2014

Not the Road to Wigan Pier

What with it being a time for peace, joy, goodwill and whatnot, I think it is worth drawing to your attention (a) that Britain is not going back to the 1930s although (b) that would not be such a bad thing. Details below the break.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

The most awful and deadly shambles

This is an article in the LRB about Britain's involvement in Afghanistan. It is well worth reading.

This story is one of the more light-hearted (and flattering) bits:

"Martin tells the story of one ‘Taliban’ commander who believed he’d been recruited by the British because, not knowing he was ‘Taliban’, they’d given him a card allowing him to claim compensation for damage to his house. His conviction was strengthened when his house happened to be searched by courteous British troops who somehow failed to find his hidden Kalashnikov. While he was waiting for what he imagined to be the first contact from his new British employers, he was killed by British special forces. Proof that the conspiracy theory was wrong? No, said his men; he was killed by the Americans, because he was on the books of their enemy, the British."

That's a high point.

They Shoot, He Scores

That is the headline of this piece in the Economist, about Alexandre Desplat, a man who writes film music. A minor masterpiece of the headline writer's art.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

In space, no one can hear you stagnate

This is, I suppose, a follow-up to my recent comments about Concorde. Once upon a time, so the story goes, it was possible to send a man to the Moon, using a Saturn V rocket. But you don't get rockets like that any more, as xkcd shows us by reference to horses and Pegasus (go here to see it full size).

See also here: "If we could land a man on the moon, why can't we -" "- land a man on the moon?" (It's often worth hovering your cursor over the cartoon with xkcd, certainly worth it at the latter link.)

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Germans don't remember the Christmas truce in World War I

I suppose the fact stated in the headline is not that surprising: Britain's relationship with World War I seems to be much more intense than that of any other participant (and the reverse is true of World War II).

I take the headline from this piece from Sebastian Borger of Berliner Zeitung on the BBC website. It also includes one of the more surprising sentences I have read recently: "Whatever else their experience of living in Britain, most Germans here share one thing: an astonishment at the extent to which military traditions have survived in modern British society - and, at least to my mind, go more or less unchallenged." (I should say that he goes on to add that that is not necessarily a criticism.)

How strange the idea that military traditions should or might be "challenged" sounds to British ears. I suppose one can just about imagine a Frenchman noting that monarchical traditions are "unchallenged" in the UK, but somehow Borger's sentence seems even stranger than this, particularly as it comes from a German: at some level (a level at which WWI is held particularly dear), we rather have the idea that Germany has a great military tradition in which it might rightly take pride. What a shame, we might think, if their recent-ish history has led the Germans to throw out the baby of military pride with the bathwater of Nazism. But I suppose it is another example of the flippant (perhaps callously flippant, to some of our neighbours) attitude we take to WWII to think in these terms. Let us add it to the list of things we do not understand about Germans.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The Second Cold War?

This is an interesting piece about two different ways of seeing the end of the (first) Cold War and the dissolution of the USSR. The first view, shared by Reaganites and socialists alike, is that what happened was that the Gorbachev leadership of the USSR came to see sense and the Soviet Union came to (re-)join the international family of nations: it was a joint victory of both sides over an 'Evil Empire'. The second view is that there was a war which the Soviets lost: there was only victor, and that was the West.

The point of this is not to decide which is the 'right' model of what happened. Rather, the point is that these two models give very different views on what should have happened since. For example, why, on the first view, should the Soviet Union ever have been disbanded? Once its leadership became democratic, what objection could there be to the country continuing in its old borders (my caveat: give or take a Baltic state or 3)?

The other point the author makes is that the facts change perceptions. It just becomes harder, in a world of (for example) an expanding NATO, to believe the Reaganite view of history: "In the same way that Germany was shocked to have learned when it went to Paris in 1919, that it was there not to sign an armistice but a capitulation on very costly terms, thus the Russia under Putin began to reassess how the Cold War really ended."  That view naturally tends to produce a narrative of defeat and revanchism.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Poor old George Osborne

Of course I'm not really expecting Osborne to get much pity but I suspect a lot of people don't know that he is a massively left-wing tax-and-spender, redistributionist and borrower.

This graph comes from the Treasury's report on the distributional effects of the Autumn Statement.

Note that these are percentage figures - and percentages of net income. 

First point from the graph: the top quintile have been made nearly 40% worse off than they were in 2010 in order to make the bottom quintile about 60% better off. That is redistribution on a fairly grand scale.

Second point: look at the 'all households' column. The additional tax is about 30% of net 2010 income. That's a lot of tax.

Third point: all fair enough, you might think, what with that top quintile being a bunch of billionaire bankers and oligarchs and so on. Well, to get into the top quintile you need a household gross income of £60,000 (see Table L here). So a senior nurse earns enough to put her/him well into the top quintile. (In fact, 2 senior nurses in one household with no dependent children have a household income that puts them in about the top 2% of the population.) Higher taxes for the rich? Sure thing - that's a pay cut for top nurses, headteachers (and just senior teachers in London) and so on. There just aren't that many very rich people out there.

Finally, Osborne is not just a big tax and spender - he's borrowing on a vast scale too. The UK's budget deficit is larger that Belgium, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden - and so on. Osborne's budget deficit is larger than Gordon Brown's back in the heady days of 2006 and 2007.

I suspect Osborne's wider social circle includes people who consider him some sort of austerity ogre who delights in grinding the faces of the poor. But his record is as debt-loving and progressive as any social democrat could hope for. If Ed Balls had the same record, it would surprise no one.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

A couple of film reviews for you to read

1. The Imitation Game, by Alex von Tunzelmann. A film let down only by its inaccuracies, suggestion that Turing was a traitor and bad use of Tipp-Ex. Oh, and by being too interested in Soviet spies.

2. Lucy, by popbitch. I have not seen the film (and now I am not going to) so I can't tell you whether the review is accurate. It is certainly something else.

How the markets work

Alex in fine form today (see him in a larger size here).

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

A Fruit Loopy approach to inequality

Here's a story, told by the excellent Michael Lewis in a less than excellent piece.

"Jack Kenney’s assault on teenaged American inequality began at breakfast the first morning. The bell clanged early, and the kids all rolled out of their old stained bunk beds, scratched their fresh mosquito bites, and crawled to the dining hall. On each table were small boxes of cereal, enough for each kid to have one box, but not enough that everyone could have the brand of cereal he wanted. There were Fruit Loops and Cheerios, but also more than a few boxes of the deadly dark bran stuff consumed willingly only by old people suffering from constipation. On the second morning, when the breakfast bell clanged, a mad footrace ensued. Kids sprung from their bunks and shot from cabins in the New Hampshire woods to the dining hall. The winners got the Fruit Loops, the losers a laxative. By the third morning, it was clear that, in the race to the Fruit Loops, some kids had a natural advantage. They were bigger and faster; or their cabins were closer to the dining hall; or they just had that special knack some people have for getting whatever they want. Some kids would always get the Fruit Loops, and others would always get the laxative. Life was now officially unfair.

After that third breakfast, Kenney called an assembly on a hill overlooking a tennis court. He was unkempt and a bit odd; wisps of gray hair crossed his forehead and he looked as if he hadn’t bathed in a week. He was also kind and gentle and funny, and kids instantly sensed that he was worth listening to, and wanted to hear what he had to say. “You all live in important places surrounded by important people,” he’d begin. “When I’m in the big city, I never understand the faces of the people, especially the people who want to be successful. They look so worried! So unsatisfied!” Here his eyes closed shut and his hands became lobster claws, pinching and grasping the air in front of him. “In the city you see people grasping, grasping, grasping. Taking, taking, taking. And it must be so hard! To be always grasping-grasping, and taking-taking. But no matter how much they have, they never have enough. They’re still worried. About what they don’t have. They’re always empty.” Eyes closed, talking as much to himself as to us, he described the life of not-so-quiet desperation until every kid on the hill wondered what this had to do with the two-handed backhand. Then he opened his eyes and finished: “You have a choice. You don’t realize it, but you have a choice. You can be a giver or you can be a taker. You can get filled up or empty. You make that choice every day. You make that choice at breakfast when you rush to grab the cereal you want so others can’t have what they want.” And then he moved on to why no one should ever hit a two-handed backhand [it was a tennis camp]—while every kid on the hill squirmed and reddened and glanced at each other, wondering if everyone else realized what an asshole he’d been.

On the fourth morning, no one ate the Fruit Loops. Kids were thrusting the colorful boxes at each other and leaping on the constipation cereal like war heroes jumping on hand grenades. In a stroke, the texture of life in this tennis camp had changed, from a chapter out of Lord of the Flies to the feeling between the lines of Walden.

Does this story ring true to you? Someone has to eat the Fruit Loops. And someone will prefer the Cheerios. And someone will have forgotten the subtle aside in the pep talk after breakfast yesterday morning. And then what do the children do? Take turns? Share? Let the ones who haven't had any Fruit Loops have them for the rest of the week? Eat the third best cereal quickly while no one else is watching?

The point I'm making goes to a big point made in Lewis' article. OK, I get it, the rich need to change. But how? He writes "The grotesque inequality between the haves and the have-nots is seldom framed as a problem that the haves might privately help to resolve. Instead, it is a problem the have-nots must persuade their elected officials to do something about, presumably against the wishes of the haves." I'm pretty sympathetic to the idea that personal responsibility is a better avenue for improving society than state action, but it's not stupid to think that perhaps the solution to the cereals problem was a better set of rules. As Lewis also writes: "billionaires’ activist philanthropy ..., as any billionaire will tell you, ... is as much a story of frustration as of success. (Zuckerberg has discovered this in the Newark public schools.) The big surprise about money, in this age of grotesque and growing economic inequality, may be its limits." It's a bit easier to solve the cereal distribution problems.

Perhaps what happened in reality was that the children devised the rules themselves - and enforced them with the rough and ready physical justice regularly meted out in the good old days. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But I'm not convinced it tells us anything about how to deal with billionaires (or how to deal with being one).

Friday, 28 November 2014

"His death was caused by the explosion of a machine for roasting coffee, of which he had just patented the invention"

The way people live has changed, and so has the way we die.

The snippet below is taken from The Middle Templar, a magazine about the Middle Temple which is largely of limited interest, I suspect, even to Middle Templars ("The Lord Mayor, made a gracious speech of thanks to the Inns for the evening, emphasising how vital it is to her world wide mission to promote the UK's financial services ... The evening was a great success ..." etc etc).

Issue 54 contains, for rather obscure reasons, a little history of The Gentleman's Magazine, and some excerpts from its obituaries. I shall avoid mixing cucumbers and cider.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014


Concorde is Exhibit A for the 'things are not getting any better any more' brigade. And what an Exhibit she makes! This gives you one of the pilots talking about what she was like to fly - and how he once did a complete barrel roll in one. And there are some lovely shots of the needle nose and delta wing over green fields, as if that 1950s-ish vision of clean, modernist, nuclear future had come to pass.

The bit for the secular stagnationists is this. In his interview, the pilot says, "In the history of aviation, no other single vehicle has remained at the top of the stack for 10 years. Concorde has been there for 10; it will be there for another 10." Well, Concorde was introduced into service on 21 January 1976. It remained at the top until it fell off the stack, and the stack shrank a little bit.

Friday, 21 November 2014

"Image from Rochester"

My headline is of course the caption which a Labour MP for Islington South who is married to a High Court Judge gave to her photograph of a house with some England flags on and a white van parked outside.

The Economist describes it as a "sneering caption". I think the Economist is correct - and I am far from alone in that belief: someone tweeted back "I'M TELLING YOU, ED. THERE WERE FUCKING PROLES EVERYWHERE. NOT A GRAIN OF QUINOA IN SIGHT. SHAMEFUL" and Guido Fawkes quoted George Orwell's famous comments "In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box." One immediately sees what has prompted these reactions.

But just consider how much knowledge of the minutiae of English political life and the English class system is necessary in order to see how a strictly factual caption of an unaltered photo amounts to a sneer. How many, say, French people could explain quite why tweeting that picture and its caption meant that Ms Thornberry had to resign her position as Shadow Attorney General, or explain why the fact that she has an Islington seat makes the whole thing especially telling? Or try it the other way around: the average Englishman might be able to try to construct some kind of American equivalent (would it involve bumper stickers, pick up trucks and a Democrat from San Francisco?), but a French one? Or a German? Bulgarian? And here we find ourselves back at what started the whole Rochester business - UKIP, immigration, the EU.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The robot with the brain of a worm

You know that idea about downloading brains onto computers? They've done it with the brain of a C. elegans. Read about it here.

I liked this comment: "Given its limited range of behaviors, it seems unlikely to be of practical value, but given more neurons this might change". It immediately summoned up in my mind (or should I say connectome?) an image of a demiurge at work on the plains of Africa not that long ago, seeking funding for one last experiment on those perpetually disappointing bipedal apes. "I know they're of no practical value now," he tells the inter-galactic fund-granting body, "but I just get a feeling that with a few more neurons and a little more hair, these monkeys will be good for something."

Friday, 14 November 2014

Shotguns, sundaes and segregation

There is something very immediate about seeing colour photographs of periods we normally think of in black and white. These excellent photos of 1950s segregated Alabama are a good example. Look out for the smartly-dressed mother and child outside the 'Colored Entrance' of a department store.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

A Dave Eggers story

Here is a Dave Eggers story from the New Yorker. It will not change your life, but you should not miss out on a free Dave Eggers story.

The bonus is that at the link you can also hear him reading the story to you. I was not expecting him to sound like that - I was expecting a somehow deeper and more authoritative voice.

Monday, 10 November 2014

"By welcoming migrant workers, the UAE and its neighbor Qatar do more than any other rich country to reduce global inequality" [amended]

Many people have spotted that places like Dubai are quite strange to Western eyes. "About 85 percent of the population of the UAE, for example, consists of migrant workers living on roughly $5,000 per year. Fifteen percent of the population are Emirati nationals, who live on roughly three hundred thousand dollars a year, implying greater economic inequality than existed even in Apartheid South Africa or the antebellum South." It just doesn't sound very nice.

But. so this piece argues, this is no criticism of Qatar and UAE. Quite the opposite. True it is that there are some fantastically rich people in (e.g.) Qatar and some terribly poor ones in south Asia, but allowing some of the latter to live and work in the same country as the former in fact narrows the global inequality: the south Asians do much better in Qatar than they would by staying at home. There's a good graph at the link that shows quite how much of a difference the middle-Eastern states make - a lot better than the likes of Norway.

Here, I think common sense morality conflicts with utilitarianism. But it's not clear that common sense morality should prevail.

Amendment: on the subject of global versus national inequality see Tim Harford.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

What does 'Andre' mean in Korean?

Regular readers might have noticed the irregular coverage of matters Korean on this blog.

The question in the headline is prompted by my having learned today, from here, that "agassi" means "young lady" in South Korea, but "slave of feudal society" in the North. This made me hope that the word "Andre" might have some relevant meaning in Korean, "chic" or "oppressed" for example, that would help all speakers of Korean to agree on the correct meaning of the well-known phrase or saying "Andre Agassi". My researches so far, however, have drawn a blank.

"With his drive Andre became a champion in the world of professional sports; with his passion he transcended the game and inspired a generation; with his compassion he is educating the young; with his authenticity he remains grounded, focused and committed to community", his website tells us all, and we are duly humbled. But it was perhaps too much to expect that, with his name, he could unite a peninsular riven by 50 years of war. On the other hand, perhaps other members of the Agassi family, e.g. "tennis superstar, philanthropist and businesswoman" Stefanie, Jaden Gil or Jaz Elle might yet have that honour.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

"You have to wonder what in the name of God a utility company were doing selling protection on this portfolio!!"

That headline is from an internal bank email disclosed in this case. If you read the case, you will find out the answer.

It's a long case about a complicated deal between a bank (UBS) and the Leipzig municipal water company (KWL). "The trial has revealed a sorry story of greed and corruption from which neither UBS nor KWL emerges with credit", the judge commented.

Here are some other choice phrases:

"Although it would appear that not everyone at Value Partners was corrupt ..."

"Mr [B] was a thoroughly dishonest man and dishonest witness. He had obviously been heavily coached (by his own lawyers who attended the trial during the four days when he gave evidence, not by UBS's) and was highly evasive, refusing to give straight answers to simple questions. From a long list, four examples of his dishonesty will suffice. ..."

"KWL submits that Dr [S] was "an obviously honest and thoughtful witness". I did not find him to be so. Rather, he was an unreliable and in important respects untruthful witness. I understand that he still faces the possibility of criminal proceedings in Germany. Some aspects of his conduct demonstrate a serious dereliction of his duty as a managing director of KWL." (Note that there have already been at least 3 relevant criminal convictions in Germany.)

"Lord Falconer for UBS asked Mr [M], a member of the KWL Supervisory Board from January 2006 and its Chairman from February 2007 until February 2010 as well as the Deputy Mayor of the City, whether he felt that he had let the people of Leipzig down by not finding out earlier about the corruption of Mr [H]. Mr [M]'s answer was that he did not. Whether that charge can fairly be laid against the members of KWL's Supervisory Board is for the people of Leipzig to judge, but the evidence adduced in this case does not make it a difficult question."

"UBS staff would not only (as it were) eat what they killed, but would fight each other if necessary for a share of the prey."

Look out too for the "impressively large car" that turns up in the story along with the "lawyer friend from their CSFB days who had nothing to do with this transaction but whose role appears to have been to arrange for strippers to entertain [the Germans] from time to time when they visited Mr [B] in the United States." (Sadly, "the evening's entertainment (arranged as usual by the lawyer ...) did not go so well, for reasons which it was unnecessary to explore at the trial ...")

This is from the conclusions:

"For UBS it has been a case study in how not to conduct investment banking in an honest and fair way. It is to be hoped that the events described belong to a bygone era. As most of the main participants have moved on, and many of them are no longer employed in the banking industry, there is room to believe that to be so. ... Mr [H]'s greed and dishonesty could easily have been catastrophic for KWL. They would have been if it had not been for the fact that the dishonest advisers with whom he was in bed overreached themselves by entering into a corrupt arrangement with a maverick banker at UBS who was allowed far too much autonomy, with a view to ripping off not only KWL but their other clients as well."

Sunday, 2 November 2014

"With the pressure on, students troll Facebook and Pinterest for the hottest trends in sorority artwork."

A sentence that would make literally no sense to anyone (especially in the UK) a few years ago. And now, after reading this article about the real cost of joining a sorority, it still somehow fails to make sense. I can only imagine that being in a sorority is really, really good at some level, because it seems really, really terrible in so many other ways (even leaving aside the hazing).

Thursday, 30 October 2014

There will be no memorial in Camp Bastion

"All over the world, from Vimy Ridge and El Alamein to Rangoon and Rorke’s Drift, stand memorials to British war dead, most of them places of pilgrimage for descendants and tourists.

Future travellers, however, will find no such proud relic at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. When the Army lowered the Union flag there on Sunday, our memorial — etched with hundreds of names of the fallen — had been dismantled and flown home.

Had it remained in war-torn Helmand province, it seemed certain to face desecration and destruction. There could be no more vivid manifestation of the failure of Britain’s Afghan mission.

Cracking stuff from Max Hastings. 

Later on in his piece, he says this: "In just two months this summer, 500 people died in fighting in Sangin, half of them civilians. That is how stable Helmand looks as we pack up and go home."

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Miscellaneous links

1. This accurately outlines the variety of ways in which Microsoft Word is annoying and also explains why Word is built that way. I'm not sure about blaming Plato for Word, but one can see that Edmund Burke would prefer WordPerfect.

2. John Lanchester on how there is too much about food nowadays. "Imagine that you’re fascinated by model trains. You’re on fire with interest, you think about them all the time, they’re your consuming passion. But then, over about twenty years, the entire culture becomes obsessed with model trains. The model-train blogosphere grows exponentially. Model-train makers are plastered all over the covers of magazines, and stage train-building smackdowns on TV, and are treated as the new rock stars. Might you, in your private heart, think that maybe the whole model-train thing, still of tremendous interest to you, has somehow got a bit out of hand? That’s where I feel food is today."

3. A judge, in England, has found police officers to have "repeatedly lied on oath" to cover up having suppressed evidence exonerating suspects (including some kind of religious minister) in important respects.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

"If current-day physics can’t explain these things, maybe there are changes that need to be made in physics," says the longest-serving professor of psychology at Harvard

This piece, despite its rather horrible illustrations, is fascinating. It is about the amazing powers of the placebo and nocebo effects.

The bit about physics in the title comes from this bit:

"A few years earlier, Langer and one of her students, Alia Crum, conducted a study, published in the journal Psychological Science, involving 84 hotel chambermaids. The maids had mostly reported that they didn’t get much exercise in a typical week. The researchers primed the experimental group to think differently about their work by informing them that cleaning rooms was fairly serious exercise — as much if not more than the surgeon general recommends. Once their expectations were shifted, those maids lost weight, relative to a control group (and also improved on other measures like body mass index and hip-to-waist ratio). All other factors were held constant. The only difference was the change in mind-set."

On the nocebo effect, how about this:

"She recruited a number of healthy test subjects and gave them the mission to make themselves unwell. The subjects watched videos of people coughing and sneezing. There were tissues around and those in the experimental group were encouraged to act as if they had a cold. No deception was involved: The subjects weren’t misled, for example, into thinking they were being put into a germ chamber or anything like that. This was explicitly a test to see if they could voluntarily change their immune systems in measurable ways.

In the study, which is ongoing, 40 percent of the experimental group reported cold symptoms following the experiment, while 10 percent of those in control group did. Buoyed, Langer ordered further analysis, looking for more concrete proof that they actually caught colds by testing their saliva for the IgA antibody, a sign of elevated immune-system response. In February, the results came in. All of the experimental subjects who had reported cold symptoms showed high levels of the IgA antibody. Placebo effects have already been proven to work on the immune system. But this study could show for the first time that they work in a different way — that is, through an act of will.

The power of suggestion seems to work on aging - and perhaps it will work on cancer too. Read the article for the details.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The anarchic experimental schools of the 1970s

That is the title of this piece on the BBC website about schools with no rules. (I say no rules - one exception was that you had to throw tomatoes at Edward Heath. With rules, you have to start somewhere.)

I (and Lord Alton) have some sympathy for the idea of these radically unauthoritarian schools. And the writer has some anecdotal evidence of people who went to the schools turning out ok. But what I would really like is some comparison with similar children who went to normal schools. "None of the Scotland Road kids went on to become millionaires, but would they have done any better at "normal" school?" That's the question - but there's no answer.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Some things you might want to know

1. If you cook pasta, let it cool down and then reheat it, the result is that it will be less fattening.

2. "Lockheed Martin ... has a new design for a fusion reactor that it reckons could be in use in a decade."

3. "Some Tory MPs are making quiet deals with Nigel Farage to run as joint Tory/Ukip candidates at the election. And in private, Ukip strategists say that they actually want Ed Miliband to become prime minister. They calculate that he will then make such a mess that he will be kicked out by a despairing electorate." So says Peter Oborne.

4. "Buzludzha was once the futuristic, flying-saucer shaped headquarters of the Communist Party in Bulgaria, but it is now a semi-ruin after being left to rot." Watch the video here.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

David Sedaris

David Sedaris is an American humorist and also, if this article he wrote about his walking and litter-collecting is anything to go by, a little odd.

It turns out that Horsham District Council regards his litter-collecting as a Good Thing and has named a dustbin van after him. The West Sussex County Times, who covered the story of the naming of the bustbin van, were unaware of the fact that Mr Sedaris is reasonably well-known author, even to the extent of being on Radio 4.

I suppose this is a great story for Britain's reputation abroad. Lovely small rural area, unaware of famous American, celebrates picking up litter in 'cute' way - that could be the way Britain looks to the world, at least some of the time.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Bar Council - Integrity. Excellence. Justice. Printing.

The Bar Council (full name: the General Council of the Bar) is the is the Approved Regulator of the Bar of England and Wales. Its website has a page on its history which starts "Lawyers took over the Inner and Middle Temples from the Order of Knights Templar, a Common Bench having been established at Westminster in the late 13th and early 14th century". It also refers to "His Majesty King Edward I", presumably to distinguish him from the other Edward Is). It is an august and distinguished institution.

It will also do your photocopying and junk mail for you.

You didn't get that from the Knights Templar.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Immigration and the minimum wage

The arrival of our first elected UKIP MP is a good opportunity to draw attention to this piece, by James Meek in the LRB, about Thanet and UKIP supporters. Bearing in mind that the LRB is the house journal of north London liberalism, it is not a wholly unfair piece: for example, Meek does not hide the fact that UKIP’s campaign manager in South Thanet is married to an Egyptian woman or that a keen 18 year old UKIP supporter is a fan of gay marriage.

The interesting bit for present purposes is this."‘I’ve got a friend that runs a business,’ Hughes said. ‘He has about 15 or 16 Polish people working for him, because he only has to pay them £200 a week each. He doesn’t have to give them holiday pay, sick pay, annual leave or anything like that.’"

As a footnote primly points out, that is not good legal advice. But the piece also notes that employment laws are not always enforced: "There are so few inspectors monitoring whether bosses are actually paying the minimum wage that at the present rate it would take two and half centuries to get round every employer." So let us assume that Mr Hughes' friend will get away with it.

What should we do with this knowledge? By which I mean, what should we think about immigration and the minimum wage if we start from the premise that the minimum wage means that there is a special category of work (below minimum wage illegal work) that can only be done by immigrants? Some thoughts below.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

"“Tinky Winky,” wrote Sussex University lecturer Andy Medhurst, “may be the first queer role model for toddlers.”"

The whole history of Tinky Winky's outing (and inning) is here. It tells us that "According to a few of his old co-workers, [the first Tinky Winky actor] had a penchant for “romping around naked” between takes -- a quirk that had once earned him the nickname “Kinky Winky” on set." However, we are also told that "campy" is British slang for "blatantly homosexual", which feels like an over-simplification to me.

In case you don't want to read the whole thing, including its attempt at a touching, melancholy summing-up of the fate of TW's handbag in the final sentences, the take-home message is that Tinky Winky is not gay.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Lobsters, political dresses, spy coffee, dressed-up dumpster living and doomed-to-fail lightbulbs

1. Consider the Lobster. This is a great article, first published 10 years ago, written by David Foster Wallace about a lobster festival in Maine - and about eating animals and tourism and all sorts of other things that Wallace could write about.

2. A political commercial comparing candidates to wedding dresses. I am very happy to sneer at the advert, but I also want to know if it works or not.

3. All about the Starbucks in the CIA headquarters. I think they need more branches: "Because the campus is a highly secured island, few people leave for coffee, and the lines, both in the morning and mid-afternoon, can stretch down the hallway. According to agency lore, one senior official, annoyed by the amount of time employees were wasting, was known to approach someone at the back of the line and whisper, “What have you done for your country today?”"

4. Living in a dumpster with a lot of bow ties. Judging by the diagrams showing the stages of development of his dumpster, with a balcony, outhouses, upper storeys and so on, the man will eventually reinvent the traditional house and then he will just be someone with more bow ties than most people. But perhaps I am being too negative.

5. There was a big lightbulb cartel that got together and made sure that lightbulbs have shorter lives. "The cartel took its business of shortening the lifetime of bulbs every bit as seriously as earlier researchers had approached their job of lengthening it. Each factory bound by the cartel agreement—and there were hundreds, including GE’s numerous licensees throughout the world—had to regularly send samples of its bulbs to a central testing laboratory in Switzerland. There, the bulbs were thoroughly vetted against cartel standards. If any factory submitted bulbs lasting longer or shorter than the regulated life span for its type, the factory was obliged to pay a fine." The writer wonders whether anything similar could happen for the new lightbulbs. I'm sure many people are divided between conspiracy and cock-up theories for the differences between advertised and actual lifespans for modern lightbulbs.

Returning money to shareholders - every little helps

This post is nothing more than two interesting pieces about problems in returning money to shareholders.

Friday, 3 October 2014

"Damon Horowitz ... has two jobs at Google: director of engineering and in-house philosopher"

I read that here.

Your first thought might be that, just as 'engineering' at Google presumably has a different meaning from engineering in the 'connecting bits of steel' sense, 'philosopher' probably has a different meaning too. But banish such thoughts - he has a PhD in philosophy and the article is about studying the greats (if not Greats).

Debo Devonshire: tycoon & lover of Elvis

Trust the Economist (a), for all its international-world-trade-y-ness, to give an obituary to the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire but also (b) not to forget that she was a successful businesswoman.

The Telegraph, also true to form in its obituary, includes her love of Elvis.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

"The tombstones of former Russian gang members"

That is the headline the Telegraph uses for this collection of tombstones featuring pictures of some rather intimidating-looking Russians.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Why Japanese people don't go to the beach in September

"When I questioned the local authorities in charge of Tokyo's best sea resort, Isshiki Beach at Hayama, ranked by some in the world's top 100 a spokeswoman told me it was closed because "it's not hot and it's not summer" - even though the thermometer that day was registering 28C and everyone around me was sweating in the sun." So says the BBC.

This is a story about conformism in Japan. To some extent, I am inclined to take these things with a pinch of salt. There is a market in the West for stories about Japanese people adhering to a series of stereotypes involving conformism, manga, salarymen, tiny hotel rooms, manga, very nicely presented food and so on, and very little market for stories about jovial Japanese people who are a bit messy, interrupt and eat hamburgers while reading Russian literature. So we should expect more of the former than the latter.

What I did find interesting, however, was the idea, not 'for everything, there is a season' but rather, 'for every season, there is a thing'. In particular, I liked the idea that autumn is for reading, "because the shorter days make one more reflective than during the brassier days of summer". In Britain, reading is perhaps mostly for the summer, for enjoyment on holiday - except for ghost stories, which are for Christmas. 

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The most British words - from "consultancy" to "trousers"

"These are the words people in the UK disproportionately use in talking about themselves.
  • Newcastle
  • Bristol
  • wot
  • wasters
  • Camden
  • Brighton
  • twat
  • Portsmouth
  • Biffy
  • Clyro
  • trousers
  • trainers
  • Glasgow
  • feeder
  • Plymouth
  • consultancy
  • bloke
  • moaning
  • Haribo
  • kebab
  • nan
  • Ibiza
  • Essex
  • lecturer
  • Stereophonics
  • bolognese
  • Yorkshire
  • housemate
  • bugger
  • shite"
That is from this piece in the Guardian, taken from real data from dating (and other) websites. It was slightly depressing to find that a man's favourite age for a woman varies all the way from 20 (for 20 year olds) to 22 (for 50 year olds) and interesting to note that "successful couples agree on scary movies – either they both like them or they both hate them – about as often as they agree on the existence of God".

Monday, 29 September 2014

The cult deficit? Or, be careful what you wish for

The perenially readable Ross Douthat, in the New York Times, writes about the disappointing lack of cults nowadays.

The argument goes like this. So far as religion is concerned, "spiritual experiments led by the charismatic and the zealous are essential to religious creativity and fruitful change. From the Franciscans to the Jesuits, groups that looked cultlike to their critics have repeatedly revitalized the Catholic Church, and a similar story can be told about the role of charismatic visionaries in the American experience" (and we get to Mormons). (Nothing wrong with this. I can name one Catholic priest who has expressed the view that we need some new heresies.) Meanwhile, more broadly, "every transformative business enterprise, every radical political movement, every truly innovative project contains some cultish elements and impulses — and the decline of those impulses may be a sign that the innovative spirit itself is on the wane". So across society as a whole, we are left in the sad position in which "it’s not just that alternatives — reactionary, radical, religious — to managerial capitalism and social liberalism are no longer much embraced; it’s that our best and brightest no longer seem to have any sense of why anyone ever found alternatives worth exploring in the first place."

I think the short answer to this is a quick look at the news. The people who are known as ISIS, ISIL or IS would seem to fit the description of having an innovative project with some cultish elements and impulses, and I'd say that their project is a reactionary, radical and/or religious alternative to managerial capitalism which they are exploring. In short, I don't think we need to mourn the death of cultlike groups quite yet.

Douthat concludes: "Perhaps the sacrifice is worth it, and a little intellectual stagnation is a reasonable price to pay for fewer cults and Communists. Or maybe the quest for secrets — material or metaphysical, undiscovered or too-long forgotten — is worth a little extra risk." I don't know. I feel sorry for David Koresh, and I'm not worried about Mormons - but I'm not willing to run the extra risk of beheadings (perhaps in Oklahoma or London) to pay for them.

Friday, 26 September 2014

The PPElite

Andrew Gimson says that the Westminster elite is not elitist enough. One point he makes, in his rather rambling piece, is that the Westminster elite suffers from conformism.

Here's one diagnosis of the problem. "If graduates from an architecture school designed buildings that were unfit for human habitation or doctors from a university’s medical faculty left death in their wake, their teachers would worry. The graduates of Oxford’s Politics, Philosophy and Economics course form the largest single component of the most despised generation of politicians since the Great Reform Act. Yet their old university does not show a twinge of concern."

So writes Nick Cohen in the Spectator.

Did you know that "There are more PPE graduates in the Commons than Old Etonians (35 to 20)"? Cohen goes on "Remember I am not talking about Oxbridge-educated politicians, who make up 50 per cent of ministers and 28 per cent of MPs, but the graduates of just one Oxford course."

That made me think - just 35 PPEists. Not a large number in absolute terms, but they include David Cameron, William Hague, Theresa May, Jeremy Hunt, Ed Davey, Danny Alexander, Matthew Hancock, Ed Miliband, David Miliband (I know he's not an MP), Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, Angela Eagle, Maria Eagle and Rachel Reeves. That's a pretty successful set of politicians - proportionally much more so than old Etonian politicians. Moreover, it's not an un-meritocratic set: Hague went to a comprehensive, May to a grammar school, Alexander to a comprehensive, the Milibands to a comprehensive, Cooper to a comprehensive, the Eagles to a comprehensive and Reeves (who was the UK Under-14 girls Chess champion) to a school which is now an academy. (Did you know that Ed Davey went to Nottingham High School, as did Kenneth Clarke, Geoff Hoon and Ed Balls? The Eton of the Midlands?) 

Cohen has some vague thoughts about how reading PPE encourages glib superficial knowledge and an essay crisis approach to life. At this point, it is worth noting that Cohen read PPE (he was at Hertford) and is a journalist. I suspect he is writing about himself more than about Ed Balls or William Hague. 

Is there a problem? Do we have a narrow group, not in demographic terms perhaps, but in terms of their cast of thought and experience of life running the country? 

Well maybe. But I say that the country should be grateful for being run by people who got into (perhaps) the most competitive course at (perhaps) the best university in the country. More likely the problem is that we only have 35 PPEists at the top - once there are good two or three hundred then the Westminster elite will be truly elite. 

At any rate, before you think that changing to Boris Johnson, a classicist, will help matters consider that only 14% of PPE applicants get in, while 42% of classics do. 

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

What's wrong with nudging?

What, if anything, is wrong with the 'nudge' theory of liberal paternalism? (By this I mean state-sanctioned fiddling with the architecture of choice so as to encourage people, without forcing them, to choose what is good for them or for society as a whole. The classic examples are making the default option to make contributions to a pension or to be on the donor register.)

Jeremy Waldron has a little article about this in the New York Review of Books and my thoughts on his article are below.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Rats “outperformed some of the world’s leading human fund managers”

The story is this: "The rats were trained to press a red or green button to give buy or sell signals, after listening to ticker tape movements represented as sounds. If they called the market right they were fed, if they called it wrong they got a small electric shock. Male and female rats performed equally well. The second generation of rattraders, cross-bred from the best performers in the first generation, appeared to have even better performance, although this is a preliminary result, according to the text."

All very horrible and interesting, no doubt. But what I want to know is whether humans are better fund managers if (a) they can hear financial information and/or (b) they are given electric shocks for bad calls and/or (c) they are the children of successful fund managers?

As for (a), we spend a lot of time making information visually accessible, but maybe having financial information presented as tunes would be even better. On (b), I see no reason why plenty of young graduates wouldn't volunteer to be tested with little electric shocks; indeed, if it were shown to be successful, I think a few would continue to agree to the risk of electric shocks in exchange for higher bonuses if they were more successful. On (c), I suspect we will need to wait for a larger population of cross-bred fund manager offspring in order to be certain, but surely one explanation for those families of doctors and lawyers one comes across is that people have been breeding better doctors and lawyers?

Finally, is this evidence against the idea that men and their testosterone levels are to blame for financial crashes? Do female rats perform as well - but more steadily, with male rats having a larger variance? This is the sort of thing the world needs to know before men are edged out of their last well-paid bastion of over-representation.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Nicholas Wade’s Trousers

I don't think I have linked to a prose poem before, and certainly not one as silly as this. But you might find it diverting - and perhaps it has a quiet message for us not unrelated to a recent referendum.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

A miscellany of links

1. An interesting account of how the Scottish "yes" campaign got to be so strong. Written with references to Balliol and Brasenose that would surely send any self-respecting Nat into apoplectic fury.

2. "Dear Mummy and Daddy, I am getting along very well. But I am still crying slightly because I am missing you very much." A letter home from an 8 year old at boarding school.

3. "Ham is Australian—a rare sort of Australian, in that he is religiously devout and completely humorless." That's from this account of the Creation Museum ("not a museum so much as it is a 3-D hellfire sermon with a food court"), which will answer (some of) your questions about what the dinosaurs were doing in the Ark.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

How to conquer Scotland (and various other places); plus how France defeated the US in a space war

This is a great series of articles in Vice.

First, how to invade and conquer Scotland. This is really just a sensible conversation about the future security policy of an independent Scotland. As for the possibility of an invasion: "I don't think they're going to take our wind turbines."

Next, Russia. This would be tricky: "you need to embrace the notion of a total annihilation of your country". Fair enough.

Then America. Again, very tricky: "The amphibious assault capability of the world's militaries, excluding the United States, is simply too small... any attempted invasion of the US would first look like a rather motley caravan of vulnerable civilian ships and aircraft." Can't see that working too well.

But best of all is the contrast between a Brit talking about Britain and a Frenchman talking about France. Roughly equivalent invasion challenges, one might think, but such different reactions to the question. So, on nuclear weapons, from the Brit: "In order to completely remove the British deterrent you'd need to therefore find and destroy the SSBN currently on patrol, meaning you have a better anti-submarine capability than Cold War Russia, and simultaneously carry out the most audacious surprise attack since Pearl Harbour." From the Frenchman: "Nobody can attack France. ...We could kill 65 million Americans. We could destroy all major US cities on the east coast." Ca, c'est l'esprit!

I loved the Frenchman's analysis of world affairs too:

"Combat conditions have completely changed – only, the folly of men has not, and this is why we need to have a strong army. We must not let down our guard, otherwise we'll find ourselves obliged to follow our "protectors”.
Are these "protectors" the Americans?
Yes. They manipulate European countries, but not France. They impose their foreign policy throughout Europe – except on us, because we are autonomous in nuclear power.
But don't you think the States could get past all our deterrents?
Not militarily, because we have the same means of destruction. The United States are dissatisfied with our military strike force – they are our allies, not our friends – because we don't follow them like dogs, like the United Kingdom do. They bribe a number of movements, including Greenpeace, to discredit the nuclear forces. The Americans would love to be the only Westerners with nuclear power.

Finally, how about this vignette:

"A decade ago, Americans disrupted our satellites after we refused to go to Iraq. We didn't follow them in the battle because we knew that it was a shitty call and that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. The Americans also knew it, but they wanted to go there to satisfy their geopolitical goals.
We fought Uncle Sam in space?
In the name of peace, we had to make them understand that we could disrupt their satellites, too. And as you can imagine, it happened several times.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

What do we lose when we lose being lost?

That is the the question I found myself asking after reading this piece in Prospect about what the internet is doing to our minds.

"In The App Generation, Katie Davis remarks that her younger sister has never had the experience of being lost, and probably never will, unless she loses her phone. What does never getting lost do to someone’s experience of the world? With GPS everywhere, is a forest still a forest or is it just a collection of trees? And how many other states of being are vanishing? Boyd (refreshingly) insists that “the kids are alright”—but her book also suggests that they are never really alone. Are boredom, solitude and aimlessness on their way out, too?"

There's a lot in that to think about. Some thoughts below.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Little Pyongyang - and Greater New Malden

Little Pyongyang is of course New Malden. But on reading that "For Joo-il, the eventual goal is reunification of the North and South, and he sees the current community in New Malden as a good model for this", I have formed the hope that, one day, a unified Korea will one day be the Greater New Malden of our dreams.

I was also interested to see that our Industrial Revolution "features heavily in textbooks in North Korea, where the age is hailed as exemplary of the sort of economic success that its own society should strive for".

Thursday, 11 September 2014

NW by Zadie Smith

This blog is, among other things (or inter alia as we lawyers say), your go-to resource for Zadie Smith commentary, so it is incumbent on me to report on "NW". My advice is to read Adam Mars-Jones on the topic and then my further notes below.

Peter Thiel

Thiel is, of course, a journalist's dream. He's wealthy, successful, opinionated, interesting, better-looking than Elon Musk and he talks about flying cars. But that's not to say that he's wrong in being pessimistic about technological stagnation. I'm inclined to think he's right, largely because as a child I had the same idea. (My thesis was that the rate of technological advance had slowed since the last quarter of the 19th century. It is, I think, not too far away from Thiel's view.)

This profile is a good introduction, less fawning than many. (It is also my source for the information that Thiel is more good-looking than Musk.) Note that he is not a technology person. He was partly persuaded into becoming very wealthy by someone who wanted to be a public intellectual (which is presumably what Thiel wants to be, with knobs on). He's been pretty lucky in his timing and investments, and not so good at the hedge fund side of things. He only made US$55m from PayPal, which isn't enough to fund the Bond-villain billionaire lifestyle the papers love: it seems to be his Facebook investment has made the real money.

This is a great compilation of thought-provoking things he has said. One that struck me was not directly about technology but about money:

"Think about what happens when someone in Silicon Valley builds a successful company and sells it. What do the founders do with that money? Under indefinite optimism, it unfolds like this:
- Founder doesn’t know what to do with the money. Gives it to large bank.
- Bank doesn’t know what to do with the money. Gives it to portfolio of institutional investors in order to diversify.
- Institutional investors don’t know what to do with money. Give it to portfolio of stocks in order to diversify.
- Companies are told that they are evaluated on whether they generate money. So they try to generate free cash flows. If and when they do, the money goes back to investor on the top. And so on.
What’s odd about this dynamic is that, at all stages, no one ever knows what to do with the money.

But most of all, I would recommend this. It is a terribly interesting piece (and the source of the phrase 'indefinite optimism' in the quotation above). Summarising it is not that helpful: the piece is readable and engaging, so you should just read it. As a taster, I can tell you that he convincingly (or at least, thought-provokingly) links together why finance is so dominant in culture, why people want to teach statistics rather than calculus in schools, why physicists tend to believe in the multiverse, why John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate and why Chinese people save so much money - and all started off by thoughts about luck.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

At the Court of a Connecticut Yankee

Continuing with my theory that spending over a million dollars on property in America is a waste, here is castle in Woodstock, CT. Yours for US$45m. You need to go to the link to see the full extent of the horror.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Bio-Hackers Are Using Human DNA To Make Vegan Cheese

The headline is the story. But here is a little bit more:

"So it’ll be good for vegans and the lactose intolerant?
Yeah. If you want to make something that doesn’t have an immune reaction in humans, you want to use something that’s close to what humans naturally have. The reason we did the cows on top of that is because we quickly estimated a lot of people would have a bad reaction to the idea of eating something from human milk.

Friday, 5 September 2014

We are all poor

So, as you may have read, Britain is poorer than (i.e. has less GDP per capita at purchasing power parity than) every US state except Mississippi or, if you are going to be strict about doing PPP comparisons, every US state including Mississippi. If you're not doing PPP comparisons at all, my figures put Britain in 2013 at about the Kentucky/Maine level, i.e. about 8 from the bottom (assuming Nelson's US figures are correct).

Whether Fraser Nelson's figures are correct (first link above) is open to doubt. For one thing, I couldn't replicate them exactly. Moreover, clearly something has gone wrong with the figure for the Euro area, because he has put it in at 44.1 when the figure he gives would suggest 48.1 was more accurate; similarly Germany is in the wrong place too as it should be 40.1 not 39.1 on his figures (and Sweden should be 39.1 instead). And, if you want to raise more objections, you can argue about the accuracy and relevance of PPP: certainly if I were to sell all my worldly goods, go to America and start buying things there, then I would care about the real exchange rate, not the PPP rate.

But these are quibbles. Broadly speaking, Europeans, even rich ones like Germans, Swedes and Brits, have noticeably less GDP per capita than Americans in the likes of New York, Texas, California and Massachusetts.

What I found even more interesting was this in Tim Worstall's article (second link): "As an example of output from the LIS they had a wonderful paper a decade ago showing that the bottom 10% in the US have the same incomes (yes, PPP adjusted) as the bottom 10% in either Sweden or Finland. While the top 10% have very much larger incomes than the top 10% in either country. All that redistribution hasn’t made the Nordic poor richer than the American poor but it has made the rich poorer."

Another miscellany of links

First, some pictures. Here are artworks recreated in plasticineHere are some interesting pictures on young people in Iran in public and behind closed doors. And here is a piece telling you that all the pictures in the Ikea catalogue are CGI. Most of them, anyway.

Finally, a video: American Boys at a Nazi Summer Camp, Upstate New York, Summer of 1937.

What you get for US$2m

You can see it here. The answer is: a nice enough house in Maine, or a reasonably charming one in Charleston, but click on the link for the first one. It's a house in Puerto Rico that looks like the 'after' picture in a story about some conflict in the middle-east. It looks as if the caption should be 'This disfigured concrete shell is all that remains of the once-comfortable house of the X family after the brutal bombing campaign of the Y regime". For two million dollars!

Thursday, 4 September 2014

In defence of chimpanzees

I might have been a little dismissive of gorillas and chimps for their poor quality, nipple-focused chat, but in fairness I should let you know that they are pretty good at game theory and have top-notch working memory (the latter link is a fun 3 minute-ish BBC video) - in both cases much better than people.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

"General Stanislaw Maczek, commander of the Polish 1st Armoured Division, which had helped to seal in the defeated German armies in Normandy... got a job as a barman at a hotel in Edinburgh to support himself and his family"

... because the Communist government in Poland after the War denied him a state and a pension.

That fact is from a piece on the BBC website about the history of Poles in Britain. By and large, it seems to be a story we can be proud of.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Matthew Parris, Edmund Burke and UKIP

This (Matthew Parris' article in Saturday's Times, for those of who pay) reminded me that Parris is a great modern examplar of the best of the Burkean tradition. That's not to say that he is right about UKIP, although he might be.

This post is a little on the long side, mainly from quotations, but those of you who consider the word Burkean to be a turn-off can turn off now.

Is there a gorilla who mourns Robin Williams for his nipples?

That is the question that immediately came into my head on reading this serious and fascinating article about efforts to communicate with gorillas and chimpanzees. It turns out that the people who do it are odd, and the animals are not that communicative. Except about nipples.

Thursday, 28 August 2014


The full report is here. I haven't read it: it sounds far too horrible. I've read the concise executive summary, which says "It is hard to describe the appalling nature of the abuse that child victims suffered" and that's quite enough for me.

This bit from the executive summary is about a subject that is making a lot of people pretty angry.

"By far the majority of perpetrators were described as 'Asian' by victims, yet throughout the entire period, councillors did not engage directly with the Pakistani-heritage community to discuss how best they could jointly address the issue. Some councillors seemed to think it was a one-off problem, which they hoped would go away. Several staff described their nervousness about identifying the ethnic origins of perpetrators for fear of being thought racist; others remembered clear direction from their managers not to do so."

People are right to be angry about. "I didn’t want to appear racist’ is the ‘I was only obeying orders’ of our age", the headline of one piece, is going too far: a fairer comparison is with other forms of semi-institutionalised child abuse, of the kind that seems to have taken place within Catholic institutions and care homes. That, it seems to me, indicates the proper level of outrage, namely a high one.

But I was also interested in this aspect of the case: "Police gave no priority to CSE, regarding many child victims with contempt and failing to act on their abuse as a crime. ... . Some at a senior level in the Police and children's social care continued to think the extent of the problem, as described by youth workers, was exaggerated, and seemed intent on reducing the official numbers of children categorised as CSE." Remember that we are talking about the period 1997 to 2013. This is a period during which enlightened opinion has been pretty sympathetic to victims of this sort of thing. What was it about these children that made them be considered unsympathetic?

Frankly, another kind of prejudice seems to have been in place, something that meant that young white girls from bad backgrounds were not treated as children. There's something very horrible about that. No doubt some soul-searching among the 'Pakistani-heritage' community is called for, but also some soul-searching among the different sections of the majority white population: there are clearly some sections that treat their own children differently from other people's.

Below the break are some more excerpts from the report illustrating this point.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Marie Antoinette and Mel Gibson

The link between these two illustrious figures is Father Jean-Marie Charles-Roux, formerly of Ely Place and now deceased. He seems to have had a good war too, complete with swords and glow-worms.

Here is an excerpt from, inevitably, his obituary in the Telegraph: "In conversation with even the humblest, Charles-Roux assumed a shared familiarity with the families of the Anjou claimant to the French throne, the King of Spain and members of other European royal families; and he championed the canonisation of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Mary Queen of Scots and even Charles I of England who, he maintained, should be acknowledged as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

As communism tottered in Eastern Europe in 1989, the ambassadors of Poland and Hungary (possibly hedging their bets) were to be seen on their knees at a memorial service for the Empress Zita of Austria while Charles-Roux led them in prayers for the restoration of the Holy Roman Empire.

Jean-Marie Charles-Roux was born in Marseille into a French diplomatic family on December 12 1914. His first memories were of Rome, where his father was a member of the French embassy to the King of Italy. He and his sisters – Cyprienne, a talented pianist who became the Principessa del Drago, and Edmonde Defferre, a writer and Prix Goncourt judge who married a Socialist cabinet minister – found their parents loving but distant. But he relished the care of a Nanny Carter, who taught him English and made him recite collects from the 1662 Anglican Prayer Book before bedtime.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Another miscellany of links

1. Life and Happiness in Siberia’s Cold. Some striking photos, including what seems to be a pet polar bear.

2. Starting a new driving school in France is not easy. (The fact that one chap learned in London makes me think that it would probably easier to arrange to teach French people abroad but in French. Belgium? Switzerland?)

3. Surely this should be a much more well-known story? "After the news [about a New York corruption scandal] broke, the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, urged the Legislature to pass a package of anticorruption reforms, including a Campaign Finance Reform Act. The Legislature failed to pass a single measure. That summer, Cuomo announced the formation of a twenty-five-member panel, the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, “to probe systemic corruption and the appearance of such corruption in state government, political campaigns, and elections.” He said, “Anything they want to look at, they can look at: me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, any senator, any assemblyman.”" But then Cuomo shut down the commission. "This spring, while the U.S. Attorney’s office launched an inquiry into the possible corruption of the corruption commission, the Times began its own investigation. Reporters discovered that, after the commission issued a subpoena to a political-consulting firm called Buying Time (“How and where campaigns spend their money on media is more important than ever,” the firm’s Web site reads), Cuomo’s top aide called one of the commission’s co-chairs, told him that Cuomo was one of Buying Time’s clients, and said, of the subpoena, “Pull it back.” The subpoena was withdrawn. (It was later reissued.) The Times report appeared in July. In a thirteen-page response, the Governor’s office insisted that by law the commission had never been independent: “A commission appointed by and staffed by the executive cannot investigate the executive.”" Full story here. (This is 2013 and 2014, by the way.)

4. The Wettest Place on Earth has some interesting bridges.

5. Interesting vignettes of the relationship between India and China: "Persistent racism towards dark-skinned Indians is broken in only one case, by the head of a Chinese modelling agency who says he is fond of Indians who can pull off a “Western look”."

6. 40 maps that explain the Roman Empire.

7. Who are all those Christians in Syria?

Thursday, 21 August 2014

“A likable robot may not be useful in gaining cooperation”

Not a line from Bladerunner, but from this survey of robot personalities. Other choice quotes:

"It turned out that “supportive” and “nurturing” robots, which said things like “I hope it’s not too hard” and “I’m here for you,” produced better results when dealing with introverts, while “coach-like” robots, which said things like “Move! Move!” and “You can do more than that!” in a more assertive tone, were more effective with extroverts."

"a lab experiment determined that a smiling virtual guard was perceived as unserious and weak, while an unsmiling one projected power and authority. Elkins said his team has started experimenting with different scripts, in which the guard’s demeanor gradually shifts from friendly to accusatory." That's right - they are designing accusatory robots.

We could have "ultra-reliable, infinitely tolerant artificial spirits [that] invade people’s lives so thoroughly that it becomes difficult to live without them". What a great and worrying juxtaposition of words: 'infinitely tolerant' (should we be grateful for robots tolerating us?), 'artificial spirits' (what a thought) and finally 'invade'.

The advantages of dyslexia

There are advantages in being dyslexic, a dyslexic writing for Scientific American tells us, particularly in seeing the big picture and spotting things that are out of place.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Class in America - what Google tells us

What Google tells us is that the middle classes in America love digital cameras and baby massage, while the working classes want to lose weight and go to heaven. You probably guessed that already. What is very striking is quite how much the middle classes love cameras. Probably even more than they love the Vengaboys and Zoolander, their other notable obsessions. At the other end of the scale, perhaps most surprising is the correlation between being poor and having severe itching.

I should say that the New York Times article presenting these results talks in terms of 'hard' and 'easy' places to live, but when you see that the division is based on  "factors including income, education and life expectancy" and that the hard places "include large areas of Kentucky, Arkansas, Maine, New Mexico and Oregon", while the easy places include "much of the large metropolitan areas of the Northeast and West Coast", the British mind turns immediately to thinking in terms of class. After all, who cares about dividing people up by whether the living is easy?

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

In America, about 80% of workers once took an annual weeklong vacation — and now, just 56%

Barely half of American workers take a whole week off in one go, Tyler Cowen tells us. Surely this puts off lots of the skilled immigrants the US is looking for? I can see why you might go to work there if you have to (e.g. to play American football or to star in films) or if you want to make a fortune in technology, but if you plan to have a reasonably normal job until retirement, does it really provide the best quality of life?

Monday, 18 August 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

Nathan Englander's excellent short story is here.

I liked the light touches (e.g. a character is asked whether such and such is kosher: "That’s got to be the No. 1 most annoying thing about being Hasidic in the outside world. Worse than the rude stuff that gets said is the constant policing by civilians. Everywhere we go, people are checking on us. Ready to make some sort of liturgical citizen’s arrest.”), but it adds up to a well-earned ending.


Not coy wolves, but a mix between coyotes and wolves, with a bit of dog thrown in. They are the apparently the new big thing in the US and Canada:

"It can be as much as 40 percent larger than the Western coyote, with powerful wolflike jaws; it has also inherited the wolf’s more social nature, which allows for pack hunting. (In 2009, a pack of Eastern coyotes attacked and killed a 19-year-old Canadian folk singer named Taylor Mitchell in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.) But it shares with coyotes, some 2,000 of which live within Chicago’s city limits, a remarkable ability to thrive in humanized landscapes."

Sounds wonderful. The NY Times article is also interesting on other hybridisations among different species.

Friday, 15 August 2014

What faces look like in UV

An interesting little video, with the unnecessarily pretentious title of "How the Sun Sees You". The short answer is 'very freckly'.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

A miscellany of interesting links

1. ""Inexpensive plastics are highly light-sensitive,” she said, adding, “We look after these objects in the same way we would a Constable painting or a Hogarth print.”" Says the V&A (via the New Yorker).

2. "one strange, unique Bricusse & Newley song is the slender thread that connects Michael Buble, Frank Sinatra Jr, George Michael, Jennifer Hudson, Kanye West, David Hasselhoff and a zillion others to Norman Wisdom and a BBC calypso singer on a floppo tour of the English Midlands in the summer of 1964". You can add Nina Simone to that list too. You will know the song well, but the Norman Wisdom connection might be news to you.

3. "Meet the mother who went on a £5,000 holiday to Bora Bora while her husband and children had a soggy caravan break in Dorset". That's the headline and the story too. This will take you to more details and two sets of holiday photos. And yet one feels there must be more to it ...

4. "During the “courting” process there were none of the usual wooing signals—no flowers or chocolates—but he did once thrust into her arms the complete keyboard scores of Bach. He also lent her an old desktop computer sold to him by Ronald Dworkin. It kept crashing. “It was an indication of the strangeness of what was going on, that when Derek suggested he come round at midnight to deal with the computer, I thought he meant it.”" That's Parfit on the pull

5. Good news from Unilever, which the Economist says is trying to be good. But less cheerful news from America: "There's a good chance that your [bottled] water comes from California, a state experiencing the third-driest year on record", says the Atlantic.

6. Finally, very dispiriting news from Poplar. But, to end on a positive note, there is cheering news from Bradford (albeit not for George Galloway). 

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

We don't build ships anymore

That's what this graph from the Economist confirms.

Still, as the article explains, that's not necessarily for bad reasons.

The Man Who Got it Right

The man in question, Pierre Ryckmans aka Simon Leys, is a a French-speaking Belgian with a Flemish name who writes about China and lives in Australia. This article by Ian Buruma in the NYRB is about him. What he was right about, ostensibly at least, was the evils of Mao's rule of China. But the article is about much more than that, and suggests that Ryckamns/Leys was right, or at least interesting, about much more.

Below are some bits from the essay to whet your appetite (or to let you know that you don't want to read it).

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Is it a bench?

This thing
is a new piece of street furniture outside the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand. You can get the scale of it from the two standard envelopes for A5 paper that I have placed on it. 

Is it meant to be a bench? Well, (a) it is every bit as hard as it looks: it is made in the same way and from the same stuff that you would make a particularly solemn memorial to a worthy cause. I expect someone to carve 'All ye who sit hereupon, forget not' or something like that on the back bit. And (b) as you can see from the picture, the 'seat' is divided, by sharpish metal things, into 5 sections, two of which do not seem to be for sitting on. I can tell you from experience that the little sections at each end will just about admit two adult male buttocks, but it's not pretty - you'd have to be on good terms with anyone sitting in the full-sized section next door. Why not have 4 decent-sized sections and use only 3 bits of metal?  

So I assume it is one of those things placed outside important buildings to stop terrorists ramraiding them, mocked up to look like a bench. But I reckon they could have tried harder.

Malcolm Gladwell in praise of the late-stage mafia and low-level police corruption

Here he is in the New Yorker, highly readable as always. There's certainly something to it, if only a moral about not letting the best be the enemy of the good.

Lucien Freud and secret trusts

You are a rich man who has lived a life that's been lots of fun but not necessarily neat and tidy. You're not a mean person and so you want to provide for various mistresses, illegitimate children and so on. But you want to be discreet. That's easy enough when you're alive - just give them money. But what about when you are dead? One obvious answer is: leave them money in your will. But a will is a public document: all the mistresses and children will be able to find out about each other - and to find out how much you loved each of them in cash terms. Let's say you want to avoid embarrassing people in that way. How do you do it?

Obviously this is not just a problem for people with less than straightforward personal lives. Perhaps you want to leave money to an unpopular cause without embarrassing your relatives. Or perhaps you just want a bit of privacy at that particular moment in your, erm, death.

English law provides a solution: the secret trust. This comes in two flavours, the fully secret trust and the semi-secret or half-secret trust. In short, your will says 'I leave money to Mr X' but you have previously made Mr X sign a deed saying that when he gets the money, he will hold it on trust for whoever it is you really want to have the money. (In a semi-secret trust, the will says 'I leave money to Mr X on trust' but without saying who the trust is for.)

The late Lucien Freud has just provided the world with a case about secret trusts. The case provides a good example of a half secret trust (his 2004 will) and a fully secret one (the 2006 will, which was his last one): for whatever reason (perhaps not unapropos, the judgment records that he lived a 'full' life and his children numbered "at least 14") Freud felt that a secret trust of some sort was a good idea.

Of perhaps more general interest is the fact that Freud's "net United Kingdom estate was sworn for probate at just under £96m, and his residuary estate after payment of legacies and inheritance tax but before administration expenses has been estimated by the Claimants to be worth about £42m" (his residuary estate is subject to the secret trust). So there is really quite a lot of money which Lucien Freud has left to secret beneficiaries. We may never know who they are.

The bit I found most surprising in this whole story was the statement that Freud spoke to his solicitor almost daily for 20 years. It's not the most rock 'n' roll way to spend your money. You can find a portrait of the solicitor in question here. (The portrait is by Catherine Goodman, not by Lucien Freud, but Goodman is very good too.)

Monday, 11 August 2014

"The type of foodie who could add Nutella to a Choco Taco"

That quotation is not the most striking thing in  this, a slideshow of what the Washington Post claims to be "30 of Washington’s ‘Most Beautiful’ people" (the quotation marks around "Most Beautiful" are puzzling until you see the pictures). Starting from the first picture, which shows one of the strangest-looking men ever to wear an unpleasant tie, you will get to see a number of rather odd-looking people with ill-matched facial features. One or two of them are almost as attractive as the average person in the street, but even they look decidedly scary.

Life, death and autonomy - part 2

Conversely, what would you think if euthanasia was permitted - but only by guillotine?

Friday, 25 July 2014

Life, death and autonomy

This is a moderately interesting review article in the TLS about some books on euthanasia and the death penalty. I think they are rightly yoked together: my view, for what it is worth, is that each is a question of easy cases making bad law. One can readily see circumstances in which each seems like the most caring or moral or just outcome (as the case may be): euthanasia is topical and the examples well-known; and for capital punishment, consider the Nuremberg Trials. But just try coming up with a robust legislative structure that separates the easy cases from the hard ones ... most countries have given up on trying to do it with capital punishment, while the fashion seems to be to embark on the journey the other way with euthanasia.

All that is by the by for the purposes of this post. Instead I want to set up a thought experiment. Personal autonomy is of course the big difference between capital punishment and euthanasia: we are (in the easy cases) talking about someone who really, seriously, after thinking about it, wants to die. But what would you think of a law which, in specified cases (think of your own list e.g.: multiple murders, murder after acts of extreme sexual violence; murder in the course of treason) offered the convicted criminal the option of taking his life using whatever doctor-assisted mechanism is provided for euthanasia? He might well, in such cases, really, seriously, after thinking about it, want to die. He might also, unlike the terminally ill person, in some sense 'deserve' to die. Surely it would be no affront to his autonomy to give him the choice?

My initial reaction is that it would be wrong. But I'm having great difficulty putting a finger on why.

I suspect the main popular objection would be that it would be allowing criminals an easy way out. But was capital punishment - latterly intended to be swift and painless - ever viewed that way?

Israel and the West

Whatever is happening on the ground, Israel seems to be slowly but surely losing the propaganda war in the West. Why? Every British or American or French bomb that goes astray is a tragedy, but every Israeli mistake somehow summons up waves of visceral loathing for the whole country. Why? Some thoughts below.

"At important moments, the Fanbot encourages group cheering"

That's the Korean baseball Fanbot, of course. The link describes that headline as "the most creepily utopian baseball-related sequencing of words ever uttered", which is entirely possible (and a good example of how 'utopian' has acquired the meaning of its opposite). But the creepy words that got me to click on the link were "the robots take on the actual faces of absent fans". The link has a short video that explains everything.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Then and now - from the Telegraph

The Telegraph has an amiable piece looking back at what made the news on the eve of the First World War. You know the sort of thing: "the occasion of “mixed bathing in Weymouth” was to make a current item in the news pages", we are told, before learning that "Mrs Patrick Campbell was invoked in court on the eve of the war to prove that a driver charged with “exceeding the motor-car speed limit” (20mph) was really driving “very carefully”" and then discovering that Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst's "black silk dress, relieved by touches of white lace, and her bonnet were undisturbed" after an altercation with the police. For those of you who like that sort of thing ...

But I noticed the piece on the same day that I saw this from Bryony Gordon. It starts "Here’s your starter for 10: which member of David Cameron’s new “female-friendly” Cabinet came up to me at a party four years ago and called me a word I hope he never uses in Parliament?" (The word was 'slut'.) One has to suppose that at some level Mrs Pankhurst was aiming to create a world safe for Bryony Gordons, but I suspect not a conscious level.