Monday, 20 January 2014

Even podgy Liberal Democrat peers deserve justice

That is the controversial viewpoint espoused by Charles Moore in this interesting piece. As he writes: "Imagine how the Liberal Democrats would protest if, say, a black man were acquitted of a crime and yet still constantly accused in public of having committed it. Remember how censorious they always are if any judicial proceeding is conducted in private on grounds of national security. Yet when the case affects their party, they guard their privacy so jealously that they do not let even the accused in on it."

As Alison Smith, one of Lord Rennard’s alleged victims, put it, the result is “a bit of a fudge that doesn’t seem to please anyone”. If you'll excuse the cheap gibe, that is the Liberal Democrats in a nutshell.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Why the sum of all positive integers is -1/12

This sounds ridiculous - surely the sum of all positive integers is an infinite number? And yet, this video seems to demonstrate not only that it is -1/12 but that that a well known and useful fact.

It seems to be a bit more complicated than that, but maybe not much more complicated.

Friday, 10 January 2014

An assortment of links

First, some giants of the 20th century:

(1) Castro thinks Oswald didn't kill Kennedy. He has his reasons: "I asked Fidel why he thought Oswald could not have acted alone. He proceeded to tell the table a long and discursive story about an experiment he staged, after the assassination, to see if it were possible for a sniper to shoot Kennedy in the manner the assassination was alleged to have happened."

(2) Henry Kissinger on the Special Relationship. I don't think I am giving anything away if I say that he is getting quite old.

(3) Alex von Tunzelmann on Mandela - and what he really, really wanted.

Next, someone who turned out not to be a giant. How can you prove, in Court, that you are an unjustly overlooked composer? You can't, but this man tried.

Finally, for no particular reason, a charming 1914 map of London and the Underground.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

12 Maps That Changed the World - and some monsters too

Is the rather grandiose title of this compilation of 12 interesting maps. "We always get the map that our age deserves," a professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary University of London tells us, which is one of those impressive-sounding statements that is hard to disprove and possibly meaningless. A point that surprises me is the lack of a map generated by an Indian - there is a good Korean one, for example, but India tends to be overlooked.

Those maps should be compared with these ones. It seems that our age, the age of Google Maps, does not deserve the best monsters in the margins. If only Google Street View gave us the chance to zoom through a party picnicking on the back of a whale.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

It's cold out there - but that's a good thing in Harbin

Some photos from the Atlantic here. I would scroll quickly through the American ones to get to the more interesting Asian ones - especially the 30th Harbin International Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Asimov's predictions of the world in 2014

His predictions, made in 1964, are here.

There are some very good ones: how about "Complete lunches and dinners, with the food semiprepared, will be stored in the freezer until ready for processing" or "Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books. Synchronous satellites, hovering in space will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on earth"? And "As for television, wall screens will have replaced the ordinary set" is pretty much true outside my own, antiquated, lodgings.

On the other hand, the nuclear power, widespread cars that travel over water and moon colonies are all still to come.

One thing Asimov wrote is the sort of thing many people write nowadays: "The world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being. Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders." This is the world foretold by Tyler Cowen (including the dating app that can feed you conversational ploys throughout dinner). But is it a good prediction?

My prediction is that people will just get less interested in the sorts of things that machines can do well - or at least less interested in machines doing them. Computers can now beat people at chess. So? We still play chess; we just don't put much store by being able to beat computers at it. Machines are very good at making things - and yet Etsy is a $1bn company. Would Asimov have predicted the rise of celebrity chefs (surely machines do it better?) or baristas (machines do do it better - "Nespresso machines can now be found in the kitchens of around 30% of the world's 2,400 Michelin-starred restaurants")? Or personal shoppers or dog walkers or pet psychologists or life coaches or all of the other little personal touch careers that people spend their time doing instead of tending machines?

Most people don't like tending machines, whether spinning jennies or IT systems. Most people like tending each other, and they'll probably carry on doing that. A handful of people created Facebook; they tend it still - and are well-paid for doing so; but most of us just use it for gossiping. That's progress.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Great picture, great caption

The caption is "When Nelson Mandela tried to hide from the Camerons" and the photo is here.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Was it in fact the Syrian rebels who used chemical weapons?

That is the question that Seymour M. Hersh asks in this LRB article. It is an interesting question and a good, Seymour Hersh-y article.

An interesting counterpoint is this Atlantic piece on John Kerry. (As an aside, the Atlantic piece contains a passage which reads like English-style journalism: "One theory holds that his years in the Senate ruined him: too many hours speaking to a c-span camera in an empty Senate chamber have left him prone to run-on sentences and bloviating “Senate speak.” ... This theory is undercut by those who have known him longer. “Even as a junior or senior, he was a pompous blowhard,” says someone who attended Yale with Kerry in the 1960s and asked not to be named." It's not a hagiography.)

Hersh asks this question "do we have the whole story of Obama’s willingness to walk away from his ‘red line’ threat to bomb Syria?" He points out that Obama "claimed to have an iron-clad case but suddenly agreed to take the issue to Congress, and later to accept Assad’s offer to relinquish his chemical weapons." His suggestion that Obama "was directly confronted with contradictory information: evidence strong enough to persuade him to cancel his attack plan, and take the criticism sure to come from Republicans." The Atlantic, on the other hand, when dealing with what seemed to be an off-the-cuff suggestion from Kerry that Syria could give up missiles instead of being bombed, tells us that the plan to have Russia pressure Syria into giving up its chemical weapons was one "that Obama and Putin had first secretly discussed 15 months earlier, at a previous G20 summit, in Los Cabos, Mexico, in June 2012".

Of course, it is entirely possible for both accounts to be true: perhaps Obama wanted the weapons out first but Russia wouldn't agree, so he then decided on air strikes, but then he saw evidence that the weapons in fact used had not been used by the Syrian government and meanwhile Kerry re-raised the disarmament idea out of frustration.

One consequence of this kind of reporting is that it shows how hard it is for an electorate to decide even on the basic competence of elected representatives in the field of foreign policy. The upshot of the 'shall the US bomb Syria?' affair was that Kerry looked like an idiot and Obama looked weak. But perhaps they weren't - and by the time we know all the material facts, they will long be out of office.