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).