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.