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.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Guardian on top form - attacking Thomas & Friends

I'm not making this up (is Craig Brown?) - the Guardian's website has this article about the rubbishy cartoon based on the Rev W. Awdry's books about steam trains:

"At first blush, Thomas and his friends seem rather placid and mild. And there are certainly a lot worse shows in terms of in-your-face violence, sexism, racism and classism. But looks can be deceiving: the constant bent of messages about friendship, work, class, gender and race sends my kid the absolute wrong message."

And don't think Britain's imperial history is not worthy of mention: the writer, Tracy Van Slyke ("a fellow at the The Opportunity Agenda, where she researches and writes about the intersection of social justice and pop culture"), also describes the Isle of Sodor as seeming "to be forever caught in British colonial times", a phrase which is hard to make sense of (is she suggesting that Sodor is a colony? is she aware that the books were in fact written at a time when Britain had a few more colonies than it has nowadays?).

I'm with Ms Van Slyke in disliking the cartoons. But the Guardian might find more to like in the source material: Wikipedia tells me that Mr Awdry taught in a school in Jerusalem for 3 years, educating Palestinian Muslims (if Wikipedia's entry on the school in question is to be believed) and was a pacifist during WWII.


Rory Sutherland compares himself to Gandhi and reflects on the Church of England's views on sleeping with virgins before introducing me to the word "measurebator" and quoting some choice bits of Adam Smith on the sort of people who like massive megapixel cameras (I rather get the impression that Smith would have liked that French and Saunders sketch about people obsessed with the Innovations Catalogue). I suspect only Sutherland could pull it off.

Monday, 21 July 2014

"Conversation with the cork in"

The title is a phrase I liked from Simon Blackburn's cracking good read on Richard Rorty (here). Rorty is one of those chaps whom, you may recall, Zadie Smith blames for global warming, i.e. people very keen on relativism. To be fair to Smith, when it comes to Rorty, some measure of blame seems entirely appropriate: his 'ironic liberalism' doesn't sound like the best thing for cutting carbon emissions. This bit from Blackburn gives a flavour of it:

"In this volume [Rorty] enthusiastically endorses a very different view advocated by Robert Brandom. This holds that “mere mammalian pain” - a phrase, I should have thought, that only trips off the tongue of people largely unacquainted with what it describes - does not matter in itself. Brandom holds that “pain, and like it various sorts of social and economic deprivation” have only a “second-hand” moral and political significance. They are important only because they distract people from the activity that really matters_the pragmatist activity variously described as “vocabulary-mongering”, or “contributing to the Conversation”, or indulging in “sprightly repartee and the production of fruitful novel utterances”. Pain matters because it incapacitates us for sprightly repartee! It turns out that cruelty is not the worst thing that we perpetrate. The worst thing is distraction.

There are very few really original ideas in moral philosophy, but this must surely be one of them. Its excuse, I suppose, is the fear of a Brave New World, in which comfortable zombies live their satisfied porcine lives. And similar ideas do have a philosophical pedigree, right back to Plato and to the last book of the Nichomachean Ethics, in which Aristotle extols the virtues of the life of intellectual contemplation, which to most contemporary philosophers simply means conversation with the cork in. But even in his paean to contemplation Aristotle does not hold that beautifully beguiling the leisure of the theory class is the only measure of value, and distracting us from it the only measure of evil."

I'm sure Smith would like the "leisure of the theory class" too - if it is not the title of at least a chapter in a campus novel then something should be done about it.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Overly detailed analysis of 'Let It Go"

This post is going to be about the Disney song "Let It Go", which comes from the film "Frozen". You may regard that as pretty trivial. You'd be right. But, according to the New Yorker, "Frozen" has taken over the world. And "Let it Go" is central to the film: it's the big song, the Oscar-winner, the one whose composition forced the makers to reconceptualise the part of Elsa. If you're not familiar with it, then here is official Disney YouTube version with sing-along subtitles. Good luck singing along.

If you're still interested, you can read my thoughts on the lyrics (the tune has its own issues) are below.

Some short videos you should see

1. Hot air balloons.

2. How to print a house.

3. Barcelona.

4. How to tie shoelaces very very quickly. More impressive than it sounds.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

The World in 2014 (or at least, too much of it)

Just some news stories. No comments from me. But do look at the links (perhaps you can skip the World Cup memes one).

From the Independent:

"Protesters attacked two synagogues in Paris on Sunday as pro-Palestinian protests turned violent.

Worshippers barricaded themselves inside the Synagogue de la Roquette as demonstrators tried to storm the building with bats and chairs.

Police and security volunteers blocked their way and tear gas was launched to disperse the crowds.

The Synagogue de la rue des Tournelles was also targeted by a small group and several people were arrested.

Six policemen trying to hold the attackers back and two Jews were injured in the confrontation,
Le Parisien reported."
Further details from Commentary:

"Similar incidents occurred all over Greater Paris and France at about the same time. The morning before–that is to say, on the Sabbath–a Molotov cocktail was thrown into a synagogue at Aulnay-sous-Bois, a Parisian suburb. At Asnieres, another suburb, the police said a Muslim mob of 300 gathered in front of the synagogue and shouted anti-Israel slogans for about half an hour. Smaller group of Muslim mobsters attempted to get into the Belleville synagogue, in northeastern Paris, and into the Tournelles synagogue, in the Marais district.

No less horrid were the many pro-Palestinian rallies, in Paris, Marseilles, Lille, Bordeaux, and other cities, complete with Palestinian and ISIS flags and proudly displayed fake Fajr rockets.
[FOA: You can see a picture of one of these fake rockets at the Independent link above.] The demonstrators–almost all of them of North African or Subsaharan African origin–shouted explicitly anti-Semitic slogans, notably “Itbah al-Yahud!” (Slaughter the Jews, in Arabic.) Any time they would spot Jewish-owned shops or professional offices they would cover the doors or windows with stickers urging, “to boycott the racist State of Israel.” "

I can't see any coverage of these riots on the BBC's website, but its "#BBCtrending" feature (often a sideways look at thing such as the best World Cup memes) is covering "The rise of Hitler hashtags". Apparently it's hard to know where the #HitlerWasRight and #HitlerDidNothingWrong hashtags come from, but we do know that #IfHitlerWasAlive started in Pakistan. (Interestingly, #BBCTrending has also covered an Egyptian anti-Hamas hashtag. This one is also controversial: "one Saudi Twitter user tweeted: "The enemy is the one who created this hashtag - the one who stands with the Jew against the Muslim."")

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

US$2.5m can buy you some awful places

If the New York Times "What you get for ..." series is accurate, American houses are at their nicest at about US$1m and then get gimmicky or horrible as they get more expensive (even Ivan Lendl can't escape this rule - his house is here). This, a feature on US$2.5m houses broadly confirms the theory, although the last one at least has some character to it.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Ken Clarke

Alex Massie gives a fitting instant tribute to the last of the big beasts:

"But what a career it has been. Forty four years an MP. Successively, Paymaster General, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State for Health, Secretary of State for Education, Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice and, finally and a little sadly, Minister without Portfolio."

And this:

"Sometimes, however, you get the sense that some parts of the Tory party these days think there’s something weak or feeble about Conservatism that comes with a human – even humane – face. They are wrong about that, however. Decency is a useful, valuable commodity. It helps you earn respect and respect helps get you a hearing.

That need not be confused with a sense of intellectual frailty or a limp approach to urgent policy questions. Sometimes I think that some Tories still make this mistake too. If being liked, or at least respected by the public, is not enough it is at least a useful start.

I once saw Ken Clarke give a talk to a hostile room: hostile because of Europe, I should add, i.e. angry and not afraid to say so. He was immensely impressive. Calm, reasonable, authoritative, knowledgeable - he had (has?) the knack of what I would call persuasive explanation, namely explaining things so that the listener understands them - and understands them in the same way as the speaker, showing, for example, that this is important, whereas that is not in a way that conveys a coherent picture of the world. And all this was done, as I say, in very trying circumstances. That was what made him a success: the shoes and the jazz mean nothing.

J. Howard Marshall II and Anna Nicole Smith: a touching story of compatibility and companionship

That's a flippant and unfair headline for a link to this article about the idea known in sociology as a “beauty-status exchange”. Broadly speaking, so research from Elizabeth McClintock shows, it's a myth - people pair off with people similar to themselves, seeking compatibility and companionship, rather than using money to get beauty or beauty to get money.

Well, that's what the article says. But is that what the research in fact shows?

"“Women spend a lot more time trying to look good than men do,” McClintock said. “That creates a lot of mess in this data. If you don’t take that into account then you actually see there’s a lot of these guys who are partnered with women who are better looking than them, which is just because, on average, women are better looking. Men are partnering 'up' in attractiveness. And men earn more than women, we’ve got that 70-percent wage gap, so women marry 'up' in income. You’ve got to take these things into account before concluding that women are trading beauty for money.”"

So does the research say this: once you have taken into account that male-female pairings are, on average, a beauty-status exchange, then you will see that they aren't? Can that be right?

On the other hand, one sees the point McClintock makes. Apparently studies have been carried out that look only at a woman's attractiveness and a man's income and show that attractive women find it easier to "marry up". But that's ignoring a lot of important facts: if you took male attractiveness and female income into account, then you would be more likely to find that a, say, second quartile income/attractiveness man is pairing up with a second quartile income/attractiveness woman. Sure, he's richer and she's better looking but in reality they're evenly matched. There's a good exchange at the bottom of the comments section of the article on this topic: a man says "Let's not forget the top 500 or so soccer players in the world", while a woman replies "Those soccer players ARE very attractive" - she's got the point.

A couple of other points. First, given that there is (for whatever reason) a fundamental beauty-status exchange in heterosexual pairings in societies in which men out-earn women, will McClintock turn to homosexual couples next? There might be less data, but less mess in that caused by average discrepancies between the sexes. And it might help to predict what would happen if the status/income or attractiveness disparities between the sexes were to disappear. 

Second, you should note that McClintock seems like a pretty straight-talking kind of woman: "“It would be very hard to separate out class and attractiveness,” McClintock said, “because they’re just so fundamentally linked."" You don't often hear thoughts like that.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Striking sentences

1. "UNESCO has designated Iowa City as one of its seven “Cities of Literature,” along with the likes of Dublin and Edinburgh". That's an aside from an article in The Atlantic about creativity. So much the worse for UNESCO, one is tempted to say. 

2. "Today, working mothers spend almost as much time on child care as stay-at-home mothers did a generation before." That's from an article in the Economist about why young people nowadays are so up-tight and boring, and ought to be more into drugs, drinking and violence at their age, as their parents were. I paraphrase only a little.

3. "Overnight on 29th January 2012 the Defendant, Fatih Ozcan had a dream. In his dream he dreamt that he was holding a large bundle of cash and standing in front of him was the Claimant, Hayati Kucukkoylu, his employer. The Defendant is a strong believer in the power of dreams and interpreted this to mean that he and the Claimant would win the lottery. On 30th January 2012 a ticket was bought for the Euromillions Lottery which won the raffle prize of £1 million." This is a true story. It comes from the High Court decision of  Kucukkoylu v Ozcan [2014] EWHC 1972 (QB). The question for the judge, HHJ Gosnell, was which of the two gentlemen in the dream was in fact entitled to the lottery ticket in real life. The answer is here.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

"Our Germans are better than their Germans"

That is apparently what the Americans in charge of the space programme thought. (Taken from Alex von Tunzelmann's review of The Right Stuff.)

Turning to more topical matters, the Americans have a German in charge of their football team (Jurgen Klinsmann), again with quite impressive results. Perhaps it is time for the British to get some Germans in too ...

"Ghosts": people who live in show homes as if they are not living there

This is the set-up. A family lives in a house. They are neat. Very neat:

"Every inch of furnishing, every little trinket and votive candle, sits precisely as designers placed it five months ago. That would make them the most perfect suburban ideal, except for one catch: This isn't actually their home. Bob and Dareda Mueller and their three grown sons are, instead, part of an "elite group" of middle-class nomads who have agreed to an outlandish deal. They can live cheaply in this for-sale luxury home if it looks as if they never lived here at all.

The home must remain meticulously cleaned and preserved: the temperature precisely pleasant, the mirrors crystalline clear. If a prospective buyer wants to see the home, they must quickly disappear. And when the home sells, they must be gone for good, off to the next perfect place.

Rationally speaking, this is a happy story: a family fallen on hard times gets to live in a nice house pretty cheaply, on condition that they keep it (very very) tidy. But phrases like 'human props' and the sentence "He [a 23-year old man] has taken to "periods of rebellion," marked largely by not making his bed" make me wonder.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Daily Mail has a sense of humour

This is the complete non-story of Nigella Lawson having lunch with Alan Rusbridger (at the Chiltern Firehouse, as if you needed to ask). The charming thing is that Rusbridger is given the full Daily Mail treatment: we are told that "the beautiful chef was keen to taste Chiltern’s wares alongside her Harry Potter look-a-like pal" being told that "Alan, her lunchtime companion, wore a crumpled navy suit and a blue shirt which clung to his curves. His hair looked in need of a good brushing and he wore his trademark round glasses - making him look like the fictional wizard." For those of you who like this sort of thing, there is a picture of the Editor of the Guardian's blue shirt clinging to his curves.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

What's wrong with consultation papers

This comes from Jon Moulton, via the ever-readable Anthony Hilton. The quotation is about corporate governance, but the problem applies much more widely:

""First of all, you generate lots of lengthy and tough-to-read papers addressing problems which most people could not even care about.

Over time, this ensures that generally only those with a vested interest in the production and implementation of proposals have the will and the depth of knowledge to respond to consultations. Normal people and users are extremely unlikely to respond to consultations.”

This is dangerous, he adds, because it means consultations are no longer an effective communication with potential users. Rather, the respondents are normally people and organisations who owe their existence to [the complexity of whatever it is that the consultation is about].

Anyone who deals with modern professional regulation will recognise this. Once upon a time, so the story goes, the professional rules for barristers amounted to 'wear a tie and don't lie'. No longer. Nowadays page 163 of the Handbook, to take a page at random, tells us, in rule Q134, that: 

"Rule Q133 does not apply:
.1 in the case of a barrister to whom Rule Q131 applies, to any calendar year forming or containing 
part of the period of 3 years referred to in Rule Q131; or
.2 in the case of a barrister to whom Rule Q132 applies, during any pupillage year or during the first 
three calendar years in which the barrister holds a practising certificate.

No doubt various bodies interested in legal regulation would have loads to say about any Bar Standards Board's consultation on whether to amend the time periods in rule Q134. But who else would? No one with any interest in returning to the days of 'wear a tie and don't lie' anyway. As Hilton observes, "It is a feature of organisations that they rarely abolish themselves. When their initial purpose is done, they seldom declare themselves redundant. It is far more likely they will find new things to do."

And just remember - ultimately you are paying for all of these people to generate all of these consultation papers and their responses. I hope it is good value for money.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Here is a man who really hates Alain de Botton

And isn't afraid to say so. At length.

Not all of it is repeatable. This bit is:

"Alain de Botton specialises in a kind of humdrum potted sagacity, the kind of stuff that has all the outward appearance of insight while managing to avoid saying anything at all. This mushy nothingness can take the form of pointless tautology (‘In a meritocracy, success comes to seem earnt – but failure deserved’), excerpts from the Dictionary of Twee Vacuousness (‘Magnanimity: the one who was right does not say ‘I told you so,’ the one who was wronged does not seek vengeance’), outright untruth (‘Choosing a spouse and choosing a career: the two great decisions for which society refuses to set up institutional guidance’), inspirational pap (‘Our real motivation comes from people who don’t believe in us’), and the final spluttering descent into total incoherency (‘The end logic of our relationship to computers: sincerely asking the search engine “what should I do with the rest of my life?”‘)."

The writer is not a fan of Julian Baggini either, but you have to scroll down to the comments for that.