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.