Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Christmas reading

Here are some more or less depressing pieces for passing the long Yuletide evenings.

1. Jersey might be going bust. (That's Jersey in the Channel Islands.)

2. All is not well for Christians in China, from a 'cross removal campaign' to the 'five entries and five transformations' and beyond.

3. Afghanistan has some bad stories too. There was "a US counterterrorist operation in January 2002. US Central Command in Tampa, Florida ... sent in a Special Forces team by helicopter; the commander, Master Sergeant Anthony Pryor, was attacked by an unknown assailant, broke his neck as they fought and then killed him with his pistol; he used his weapon to shoot further adversaries, seized prisoners, and flew out again, like a Hollywood hero.

As Gopal explains, however, the American team did not attack al-Qaeda or even the Taliban. They attacked the offices of two district governors, both of whom were opponents of the Taliban. They shot the guards, handcuffed one district governor in his bed and executed him, scooped up twenty-six prisoners, sent in AC-130 gunships to blow up most of what remained, and left a calling card behind in the wreckage saying “Have a nice day. From Damage, Inc.” Weeks later, having tortured the prisoners, they released them with apologies. It turned out in this case, as in hundreds of others, that an Afghan “ally” had falsely informed the US that his rivals were Taliban in order to have them eliminated. In Gopal’s words:

The toll…: twenty-one pro-American leaders and their employees dead, twenty-six taken prisoner, and a few who could not be accounted for. Not one member of the Taliban or al-Qaeda was among the victims. Instead, in a single thirty-minute stretch the United States had managed to eradicate both of Khas Uruzgan’s potential governments, the core of any future anti-Taliban leadership—stalwarts who had outlasted the Russian invasion, the civil war, and the Taliban years but would not survive their own allies.

Gopal then finds the interview that the US Special Forces commander gave a year and a half later in which he celebrated the derring-do, and recorded that seven of his team were awarded bronze stars, and that he himself received a silver star for gallantry."

4. What about some beautiful inter-species friendships to cheer you up after all that depressing stuff? ""Predator and prey animals are already set up to know how to read each other,” said Donna Haraway, the author of When Species Meet. “Predators read prey animals incredible well, because it’s how they get dinner. And prey animals read predators very well, because it’s how they avoid becoming dinner.”" Nonetheless, there's an ""80-85 percent chance” that Amur will end up eating his new friend",

5. Still, at least we don't live in 1177 B.C., the year civilisation collapsed.

6. Even thinking about libraries can turn the mood sombre: "We are intrinsically nostalgic animals for whom mourning is a form of recognition. Our preferred genre is the elegy." So says Alberto Manguel in the TLS.

And on that uplifting note, I wish you a very merry Christmas.

In praise of Scrooge

From Tim Harford, no misanthrope, here: "Dickens’s story is viewed as a journey of redemption; I am not so sure."

The Texas Law Hawk

You can find him here (and I recommend that you do).

Thursday, 17 December 2015


This is the most original contribution I have seen to the debate about America and guns.

I'm going to rephrase it this way. America is the policeman of the world. But what sort of person is a policeman? A gentle, cuddly kind of guy who shies away from guns and spends all his free time making artisan soda bread? No, he's the a rough and tumble, can-do kind of guy who doesn't mind using guns on his time off too. And that's America in a nutshell. A decent hegemon in a violent world is going to have a citizenry who has a comfort level with weapons and a capacity for sympathy righteous violence, and we shouldn't be surprised if that extends to the domestic sphere. The upshot is that you can consistently want America to be de-gunned at home and a non-interventionist wimp abroad, but query whether you can pick and choose between those two outcomes.

As I say, it's an interesting story. But it's a specifically American story. If you look at Switzerland, Israel, Iceland, Canada, China, the UK, Australia and so on then you get a number of different mixes of guns at home and intervention abroad tendencies. Cowen may be onto something about the culture that supports foreign interventionism in the US, but he's making a culture-specific rather than a more general point.

For the foreigners among us, the question is perhaps a bit easier: are we happy to allow Americans to carry on being a bit mad about the relative dangers of guns, Kinder Eggs and unpasteurised cheeses, so long as we get to free-ride on them keeping them the peace?

Friday, 11 December 2015

Block Donald J Trump from UK entry until ISIS is defeated (but not by using airstrikes), unless he is bringing cannabis, replacing Jeremy Hunt or David Cameron, or seeking asylum

That's my draft for the petition that would get the most votes from the UK public, based on the fact that the top UK Parliamentary petitions today are as follows (check for updates here):

My second choice is "No airstrikes on Donald J Trump". 

Third choice: "No UK entry to anyone at all, ever, including Donald J Trump".

These top petitions also raise a lot of questions. Why is The Donald's middle initial in there, but Hunt and Cameron go without? Why does Hunt get the full "Right Hon" politeness but Cameron doesn't? Do people only want the debate about Hunt or do they want a 'no' vote? Do you think the larger number of people signing up to the "no military action in response to the Paris attacks" petition compared with the "no UK airstrikes" one is simply because lots of people are happy enough with airstrikes so long as they are not in response to the Paris attacks (in the same way that more people are happy to keep immigrants out only as a pro tem measure than forever)? How many people have signed more than one of these? How many have signed all of them?

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Light links

Not quite Christmassy, but a little end-of-termy.

1. How Pixar screwed up cartoon cars for a generation of kids. Good point, well made.

2. A few of those maths-problems-that-break-the-internet all in one place. The one about coins is not hard at all.

3. Is this a circle? Your answer correlates with your political beliefs. (It works on me, anyway.)

4. Malcolm Gladwell on how to cure cancer. It's quite tricky and relies on being a brilliant maverick. Or a rule-bound automaton. More Gladwellian than end of termian.

5. Chatting to North Koreans. More interesting than end of termian.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

A split in Labour?

What is to be done? Here is Iain Martin, here is the Economist and here is Steve Richards in the Independent each talking about a split-off, moderate Labour Party. Iain Martin is discussing the Tories' internal travails (they have Corbyn to thank for the fact that a sex-and-suicide scandal is largely being ignored), while the others are discussing Corbyn directly, but they overlap on this point.

This is the Economist: "In any logical political system, the answer would be for the Labour Party to split. It is increasingly two parties: a moderate, instrumental one and a hard-left, expressive one. They could exist much more happily, perhaps even more harmoniously, were they organisationally separate." Richards agrees: "for both sides a split is neater than the current nightmare. Corbyn could lead his movement for change without having to spend 90 per cent of his time managing an insurrectionary parliamentary party that is opposed to the movement and the change. Despairing Labour MPs would be liberated from their torment by starting afresh."

And what about the prospects for such a spin-off? This is Martin: "The Conservative leadership won a stunning victory in May. But the Tory “brand” for want of a better term, has deep residual problems and is only ever five minutes away from a sleaze-related disaster. Voters – several million of them – made a practical binary choice when faced with the prospect of Ed Miliband as Prime Minister. That does not mean they love the Tories. Good grief, no. The Tory party remains remote. If a breakaway moderate Labour party ever got going, and the economy malfunctioned, the voters would switch quicker than you can say Major Dan Jarvis ...".

Imagine Farage gone and Cameron gone - this imaginary Jarvis-led party would be very attractive to a lot of people, especially if the main alternative was an Osborne, May or Johnson-led Conservative Party. (On a slightly different but related note, here is an interesting piece by Janan Ganesh in the FT suggesting that if Britain sees itself as being at way -  if politics is about big issues, and not just Major-Blair-Cameron economic tweaking - then the appetite for heavyweights or statesmen as leaders could grow.) The problem, as always, is how to get from here to there.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Cheering news about Britain

British people are pretty honest (look at page 9). Moreover, we're not bad at financial literacy, and there is no male bias in our financial literacy either.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Fear beats Decent

At least Mr Fear did better than Mr Decent in elections in Bournemouth.

In other nominative determinism news, Al Gore is now in business with a Mr Blood, and they steadfastly refuse to give their business the obvious name. (Alex Ferguson's son is also involved in that business. I'm not sure what that tells us about who runs the world nowadays, but definitely something.)

Friday, 27 November 2015

All political careers end in failure ...

It's a truism because it's true. But Tim Yeo has taken it to new extremes. He has ended his political career in failure twice.

You might remember his name from being one of the Conservative Ministers with tangled private lives who seemed to crop up in the papers so much at about the time of Back to Basics campaign. That was the end of his ministerial career.

But then a glorious second life opened up for him as Chair of the Energy and Climate Select Committee, a responsible position which he combined with some outside interests "yielding a total income of just under £200,000 a year, for some 560 hours' work". Not too bad eh?

All until he decided to sue The Sunday Times for libel (for suggesting that he was willing to accept money to push for new laws, act as a parliamentary advocate and matters of that kind). The judge, it seems, did not consider him to be all that honest:

"I am quite unable to accept this evidence. ... Experience suggests that in general those who are not interested in money tend not to get much. I can think of none who convincingly claim to have no interest in money, yet end up with an annual income in excess of £200,000. I do not consider that Mr Yeo is such a person. In my judgment this evidence was untrue. I am not persuaded that it was honest either. ...  He also resorted on occasion, when under pressure, to answers involving bluster not only in their content but also in his manner. ... This was no kind of answer to the question, and Mr Yeo cannot have believed that it was. He took on an air of exasperation if not anger, which struck me as created or at least exaggerated for effect. This in my view was a deliberate use of a hot-tempered counter-attack as a diversionary tactic. Overall, I did not find that Mr Yeo presented convincingly. ... His evidence about [one point] has been false and, in my judgment, dishonest. ... When a fish wriggles on a hook, it goes deeper into the mouth and guarantees that the fish will not escape. So with Mr Yeo's evidence on this issue. His twists and turns in the attempts to escape the obvious served only to emphasise the problem that the 22 May email presented for him."

And so his second career ends in that, and a bill for £411,000 as an interim payment towards the defendants' costs, plus his own costs and more costs to come. Oh dear.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Jonah Lomu, RIP

From The Economist: "Mr Lomu was nearly three standard deviations taller and more than four standard deviations heavier ... he was a fine practitioner of the “Maori sidestep”: the art of trampling directly over one’s opponent, with no attempt to feint or swerve". The article has good links too, including a link to a video of every one of Lomu's international tries.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Another set of links

1. A schmaltzy story about a religious lie.

2. Curiously convincing case for Jeb! becoming a Democrat.

3. Bring back good advertising! The piece is interesting in a number of ways, of which this is but a small and unrepresentative sample: "in 1986, 28 per cent of people in Britain said they enjoyed the ads more than the programmes. Today, only 12 per cent say so."

4. Why the euro was pointless.

5. Dear Betty, I hate you. Love, George

Friday, 6 November 2015

Why people don't see yetis any more

Because we don't go to the places where yetis live any more, the BBC tells us. I wonder whether the yetis miss us.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Assorted links

All worthy of commentary, glosses, pinches of salt, etc etc, but I'm afraid they will get none from me at this juncture.

1. Israel's best diplomat.

2. Music (and dance) in human evolution. "Seemingly preposterous, but worth taking very seriously."

3. No new runway at Heathrow!

4. Cameron says ministers no longer have to follow international law.

5. Lots of interesting stuff about taste, from Oxford via the New Yorker.

6. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt, ain't got no sympathy. (Note that sympathy and empathy are not the same thing. I think this just shows that they are not necessarily correlated either.)

7. The case against Luxembourg.

8. Why you might want to buy lots of sprouts.

9. The American Dream (at least, as revealed by popular culture) and the world. "After 9/11, for example, many studies were done of America’s tarnished image, and one, headed by former U.S. Ambassador Edward Djerejian, quoted an English teacher in Syria asking, “Does Friends show a typical American family?” The question was odd, given that Friends, which ran on NBC from 1994 to 2004, was notable for not showing a family." Hmm. Isn't one way of looking at Friends as being the story of the Gellers, their friends, their relationships? A bit tenuous. But then compare Friends with New Girl: there has been a huge revolution in sexual mores. And then compare New Girl with Modern Family, the source of the most heteronormative homosexual family out there. America is a big place.

"A normal British family has four meals a day, including breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. Another meal is added after nine for some districts in the UK."

That, so an impeccable source tells me, is part of the Chinese media's coverage of their President's state visit to the UK. Also: "It has been proven that British loves their tea. Traditionally, each person have their own porcelain tea cup, saucepan and a teaspoon when they drink tea."

Monday, 19 October 2015

Don't believe your eyes

Don't believe them ever again.

Here is a film showing quite how good CGI can be nowadays, and here is a very spooky thing showing how one person's facial expressions can be mapped onto another person's face.

When I think how much of our understanding of reality is mediated by screens nowadays, I am pleased that the focus of all this technology is on mere entertainment. Or is it?

Friday, 16 October 2015

Simon Jenkins favours Brexit

As you will see here. He is, I think, the most prominent metropolitan, moderate/centre/centre-left Establishment person to come out of the Brexit closet.

The Economist, which perhaps occupies an equivalent place to Jenkins but on the right of the centre, does not favour Brexit, as you will see here.

The difference between the Economist and Jenkins appears to be largely based on their assessment of how attractive the outcome of a post-Leave vote negotiation would be. But that is all a matter of crystal ball gazing. I'd be more interested in what the superforecasters have to say about that than in their opinions.

More significantly, it is surely a sign of the utter lack of any appeal in Britain of the European dream - qua dream, ideal or aspiration - that there is a possible outcome to these negotiations that would persuade elite, educated, optimistic, progressive, metropolitan opinion of the Jenkins/Economist kind that Brexit would be a Good Thing. Britain's relationship with the EU has become purely transactional. That is just one would expect from a nation of shopkeepers, as an earlier unsuccessful proponent of European integration described us, and not at all a bad thing for our political masters, both here and abroad, to bear in mind.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Some links

1. Film scripts. Free legal and accurate, so far as I can see. Including The Social Network, American Hustle, Anna Karenina. All sorts.

2. This is a great little presentation (with words) about data. "The terminology around Big Data is surprisingly bucolic. Data flows through streams into the data lake, or else it's captured in logs. A data silo stands down by the old data warehouse, where granddaddy used to sling bits. And high above it all floats the Cloud. Then this stuff presumably flows into the digital ocean. ... I would like to challenge this picture, and ask you to imagine data not as a pristine resource, but as a waste product, a bunch of radioactive, toxic sludge that we don’t know how to handle."

3. How to get to Germany, complete with prices and diagram. From the LRB.

4. An amusing old attack on literary fiction. The link came from someone in prison.

Monday, 12 October 2015

School shooters

This is a good, solid Malcolm Gladwell piece. You have an inherently interesting story (someone planning a school shooting who confesses in a rather full and polite manner) that develops in interesting ways, with a crunchy layer of theory scattered in the mix and baked on top. You should read it. But if you're not going to then here are the two main ideas and my thoughts about their implications.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Monday, 5 October 2015

Some interesting links

1. Shakespeare in modern English.

2. Organised crime is a lot more organised in Japan: "A bronze nameplate on the door helpfully identifies the Sumiyoshi-kai, another large criminal organisation. Full gang members carry business cards and register with the police. Some have pension plans."

3. Interesting piece about the politics of Star Trek.

4. Status.

5. Predictions about UKIP: "People lament these new parties without appreciating that they are as much a feature of multiculturalism as chicken tikka masala, while old-fashioned concepts like ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are really products of previously homogenous societies. Such clear ideological divisions do not arise in multicultural societies, where political identity is too often decided by whether a man worships on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. To paraphrase a man who understood the politics of identity, Ukip haven’t gone away you know."

6. Is it worth doing? Poetry, that is - and philosophy.

Disneyland - magical for 28 year olds

This is quite big, but worth looking at.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Great photographs - UPDATED

Something for everyone?

1. Soviet bus shelters (with Jonathan Meades).

2. London (with some BBC-ish words that you can safely ignore too).

[UPDATE - when I wrote about the words to the London piece being safely ignorable, I had failed to spot that they were the product of Jon Kelly - yes, that's right THE Jon Kelly, previously mentioned on (and famous reader of) this blog. The Browser has also picked up this piece as worthy of mention, but I'm sorry to say that it describes Kelly's contribution to it as "Weak, hand-wavy argument". Oh well. They're still great photos.]

3. Syria, with a slidable line showing the contrasting nighttime illumination in 2011 and 2015. Pretty sobering.

4. As a bit of a bonus, here's a lizard person of New York.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

What is religion all about?

That's a big title to use to yoke three minor pieces together.

Let's start here, with TS Eliot talking about a now forgotten attempt by AN Whitehead to reconcile 'religion' and 'science'. It seems that Whitehead had developed some idea to the effect that science requires there to be some ultimate Principle of Concretion, which is what we call "God", and so 'religion' and 'science' sit together very happily. As Eliot points out, a Principle of Concretion is wholly incapable of starting a religion. "If Professor Whitehead were a Christian, instead of what he obviously is, merely the descendant of Christians, he would know that there is no such thing as “religion,” and that to prove the existence of God, even to prove that God is the wholehearted supporter of “science,” is to do nothing at all for religion. ... God is certainly essential to some religions, as the King is essential in the game of chess. But the most important things in any religion, and certainly the most important ideas in the Christian religion, are not derivative from the notion of God." There is more of this, rather Chestertonian stuff, at the link.

So if religion is not so much about God, what is it about? Well, it seems to be about ritual. If you are no more familiar with ritual than with the Principle of Concretion then that might not be a very helpful thing to say. But perhaps you are familiar with computer games? Then might be a good way in: "by offering a voluntary, temporary experience of guidance, of certainty—of purpose, however arbitrary—video games, for Leibovitz, demonstrate “innate theological sensibilities.” Rather than being driven by boredom, or bureaucratic routine, or—as the most alarmist critics have claimed over the years—bloodlust, “video game players are guided by grace.” Indeed, video games are “like religion,” and playing them is like going to church, or even praying: “Video games…are closer in spirit to ritual than they are to any other human pursuit.”" That is from this interesting piece about computer games. (You know Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary killer who really liked computer games? His favourite seems to have been a cheerful dancing game.)

Ok, but what about religion as actually practised by people who actually do it. What's that all about? This is from someone who knows something about it: "My first “welcome to America” moment occurred when I invited an imam to my Introduction to Islam class at Columbia Theological Seminary.The imam talked about the basic tenets of Islam for an hour and asserted, among other things, that Jesus is not the Son of God, denied that he was crucified, and maintained that the Bible has been falsified. My students listened respectfully throughout the lecture. When he paused and invited discussion, the students replied with rather timid and politically correct queries, at which point the imam said: “Why are you not asking me about jihad, about terrorism, women? I know you have all these questions. Why are you not asking me the hard questions?” So one student queried him about Islamic teaching on homosexuality. The imam answered by defining the practice as un-Islamic, not of God, unnatural. Suddenly, the faces of a good number of the students went red with shock and rage. I stepped in and gently steered the discussion away from the topic. ... As I look back upon the whole episode, I think I ended up more unsettled than my students. They were agitated by what the imam said about homosexuality, but seemed wholly at ease with his negation of fundamental Christian beliefs. If this were a seminary in Ghana, my home country, the reverse would have been the case." I don't know how big Dance Dance Revolution is in Ghana. Bigger than the Principle of Concretion, probably, but smaller than the Bible.

And on the other hand, here are some Catholics in New York today and Dorothy Day and WH Auden in New York in the past (and not Doris Day, as I first mis-read).

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Honour, dignity and victimhood

"I don't know how the baker's boy got down, but I do know that he missed the cart, and got into the very hottest of hot water when he turned up at last at the bakehouse. I am sorry for him, but, after all, it was quite right that he should be taught that English boys mustn't use their feet when they fight, but their fists." (Five Children and It, first published 1902.) 

I was reminded of this passage, which struck me more forcefully when I re-read it in 2015 than when I first read it in 1980-something, by reading this.

Friday, 25 September 2015


Various recent interesting things about inequality.

(1) Elite Americans don't care about it, even if they are very left-wing. "Yale Law students’ overwhelming, indeed almost eccentric, commitment to efficiency over equality is all the more astonishing given that the students self-identified as Democrats rather than Republicans—and thus sided with the party that claims to represent economic equality in partisan politics—by a factor of more than 10-to-1".

(2) It turns out that there's not much of it in Britain, not really, not if you bear in mind that "poorest in any given year are not always poor for their entire lives" (e.g. students, unemployed between jobs, pensioners). (It's a bit like how the rise in the minimum wage helps a lot of people who are not in need of it, e.g., dabbling second earners in well-off households and students on their summer jobs.) Interestingly, although "the benefit cuts of the late 1980s reduced benefits and increased cross-sectional inequality, it had a much more muted effect on lifetime inequality. And, similarly, although Gordon Brown's massive expansion of means-tested tax credits in the 2000s reduced cross-sectional inequality, they had very little impact on cutting lifetime inequality."

(3) Finally, it's all going to be reduced massively across the world because, just like after the Black Death, there are going to be many fewer workers.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

A miscellany of links

1. You know that chap who got 14 years for Libor fixing? Here is a rather compelling account of his downfall.

2. Economics - the essentials.

3. Elephants. At the risk of sounding like a complete idiot, I wish someone would get on with translating between human speech and elephant speech. "Greg, full of confidence and top of the hierarchy, would take his position at the head of the water trough. The other bulls would approach, placing their trunks in his mouth in greeting. Having paid their respects, the lower-ranking males could relax and drink their fill."

4, It's become one of those glib things people say: we used to imagine that it would be the state enforcing surveillance on us, like a giant Panopticon, but in fact we have chosen to do it with our mobile phones, and so you get to (a version of) 1984 from the bottom up, not the top down. Maybe. But Brave New World always struck me as more plausible - and here it is.

5. Thoughts on multi-tasking. This triggers a series of half-formed thoughts in me. Once I have cleared away some other stuff I'll ... hang on, an email has just come in.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Words used to mean their opposites

"Is there a word in the English language that more reliably means its opposite than ‘amicable’?

Twitter responses included: “moot,” “humbled,” “nice,” “my friend,” “nonplussed,” “cordial,” “priceless,” “tolerance,” “literally,” “spry,” “sincerely,” “honest,” “pal,” “sure,” and “Fine” particularly when given as a one word answer.

Tyler Cowen's favourite is "spry". "Respectfully" was the one that came to mind for me, and gets a mention in the comments. 

Why We Hate Cheap Things

This piece is by Alain de Botton - but please do not let that put you off. There is an interesting observation buried in the de Bottonishness.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Unpopular things

1. Cockney rhyming slang. Well, maybe it's unpopular.

2. Privatised railways. "The unpopularity of rail privatisation is an odd phenomenon. ... The story of rail usage under British Rail was one of inexorable decline. Between 1960 and 1995, passenger numbers fell by about a third. Since 1995, they have more than doubled. The dramatic trend reversal coincides exactly with privatisation. ... privatisation has achieved many of the things its proponents hoped it would: better trains, new timetables, more responsiveness to passenger needs." So says John Kay.

3. Gunslingers, now extinct. Here is the TLS, in 1928, in an elegiac mood for the Old West.

4. Quantum Russian roulette. This is "a version of Schrödinger’s cat in which the experimenter stands in for the unfortunate animal. In some futures, he will be killed. In some, he will remain alive. But since, from his point of view, he will be aware only of the latter, he will always perceive that he survives." Actually this might be very popular across the multiverse, just not so much so locally.

Friday, 21 August 2015

How Snoopy killed Peanuts

This explains why. (In fact, the title is a little misleading: Charles Schulz (on the thesis of the article) killed Peanuts and Snoopy's development was only a symptom of the disease. But we'll let that pass. Perhaps Woodstock killed Peanuts.)

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Trump, Corbyn, UKIP - that lot

Here's Ezra Klein in Vox: "it's not that Trump is a moderate Republican. It's that he's a moderate, full stop. And he's the kind of moderate that really exists, not the kind of moderate Washington likes to pretend exists — which is to say, his policy ideas, such as they exist, are often extreme, but they can't easily be classified as left or right."

Klein discusses a pollster who has looked into what Americans actually believe: ""A lot of people say we should have a universal health-care system run by the state like the British," Broockman told me in July 2014. "A lot of people say we should deport all undocumented immigrants immediately with no due process."" I suspect UKIP's views on hospital parking charges would also go down well with these people. (More below.)

Monday, 17 August 2015

Is this the worst story about homophobia ever?

Brace yourself:

"we were wearing purple tops with pro-LGBT messages picked out in white lettering. Since it was a glorious day I decided to walk to the start of the parade at Baker Street. I had just passed the offices of the Bar Council when a group of young men were coming the other way. They were strung out across the pavement. Now, High Holborn is a street I have walked up and down many hundreds of times of the day, including in the early hours of the morning. I have never felt remotely intimidated in the past but, as this group approached, and as they appeared to be staring at the slogans on the T-shirt, in what appeared to me a rather menacing way, my heart started to beat faster and I don’t mind admitting that I felt vulnerable and somewhat scared. As it happens, the group of men walked past without incident and I was able to get on unhindered. That experience, however brief and insignificant, gave me a flavour, at least, of what sort of things gay people have to put up with, day in and day out, even in today’s society. It emphasised the courage that is required to live a life true to one’s own in-built sexuality."

So he was walking down a road while other people walked the other way and nothing happened. From that, the Chairman of the Bar Council (it is from his column that I take these words of wisdom) managed to draw some rather sweeping conclusions about modern British society. For judges, this sort of thing has to happen (or rather, not happen) on the Clapham Omnibus for it to count, but Alistair MacDonald QC can find a moral on the pavement outside his office.

While reading MacDonald's article I was reminded of that time Alan Partridge listens to a guest tell a story about losing her luggage and then replies: "It’s not an anecdote. You’ve got down here in your press release 'anecdote'. And that’s dishonest." 

Friday, 14 August 2015

Seymour Hersh and that story about the Bin Laden killing

"Who believes, or ever believed, that bin Laden presented such a threat to twenty-three fully armed SEALs that he had to be shot in self-defense? And yet this is still the administration’s official story."

That's from this, an interesting piece about a few things including those which American journalists find terribly interesting (American journalism and other American journalists) but also some things of much wider importance, e.g. "the administration’s efforts to cover up the February 2010 massacre of five innocent people, including two pregnant women, by US Special Forces operators in Gardez, a provincial capital in Afghanistan. US officials told reporters the massacre was the result of an honor killing carried out by Taliban militants."

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Monday, 3 August 2015

Camille Paglia

It's a long interview with her, in three parts: part 1, part 2 and part 3.

Camille Paglia, PG Wodehouse and Caitlin Moran: the style is part of the message; when you read them, you suspect that there must be repetition as the seam that is being mined is relatively small, and yet there is not - there is always something fresh, recognisable yet new; and they are all entertaining. 

Here is Paglia: "And then in the case of Monica Lewinsky–I mean, the failure on the part of Gloria Steinem and company to protect her was an absolute disgrace in feminist history! What bigger power differential could there be than between the president of the United States and this poor innocent girl? Not only an intern but clearly a girl who had a kind of pleading, open look to her–somebody who was looking for a father figure." It's the last sentence that puts the Paglia twist on something that no doubt many other people have thought. And then it's on to late-Victorian necrophilia, Sex and the City, her grandmothers, Christopher Hitchens' chapter titles, Hillary Clinton ("She has no discernible political skills of any kind"), the Republican presidential candidates ("Rand Paul has obviously had his eye on the presidency for years, so it’s astonishing that he apparently has never given any thought to how he should dress or cut his hair or even stand in front of cameras" - who else says that?) and away we go. Enjoy the ride.

An assortment of links

1. Great costumes from Star Trek: the Next Generation. As a bonus, here's a weird story about a bad Fantastic Four film.

2. Gone With the Wind is a cracking good read, says Cass Sunstein of all people.

3. Bad people are bad, not just banal. This is an interesting piece.

4. A couple of interesting pieces from Aeon: (a) nowadays, schizophrenics make sense - reality has caught up with paranoid delusions ("Another subject was actually working on a reality TV series but came to believe that his fellow crew members were secretly filming him, and was constantly expecting the This-Is-Your-Life moment when the cameras would flip and reveal that he was the true star of the show.") and (b) a suggestive piece on Buddhist logic (but where are all the female Buddhist philosophers? not playing the game?).

5. This. Laugh? Cry? Don't know. In bad taste? Almost certainly. (It's from the GS Elevator chappy.)

6. Everyone is right.

Monday, 20 July 2015

On games, brilliance and philosophy

Here are some thoughts inspired by this article, in which David Papineau asks why there are so few women in philosophy (a fair comparison being academic English literature or history).

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Who actually supports the EU?

Owen Jones wants to rebrand 'Brexit' as 'Lexit', the left-wing eurosceptic cause he sees the great and the good from George Monbiot to Caitlin Moran espousing. The story of Greece is not a story that shows the EU to be a harmless and reliable friend of the Left. So why should the Left be its friend?

Here is John Kay describing it as an imperialist project: "The empires of history have generally collapsed from overstretch, which led to restive populations on the peripheries, and then to doubts about the wisdom of the project in the home country itself. These symptoms are recognisable in Europe today." I detect no real sadness in his diagnosis or implied prognosis.

Here's the Economist in ironic mood: "the experts (which means economists) know better. The people are not wise enough to understand that a short-term stimulus will boost their long-term wealth; better to go ahead with it now, and have results prove the experts right. Of course, this argument (dubbed output legitimacy) is how the EU let too many countries into the euro, and ended up in this mess in the first place." 'Output legitimacy' - surely Orwell would consider that too horrible even for newspeak?

And here's Timothy Garton Ash speaking some sense: "The reality of European democracy remains national, and behind that truth is an even deeper fact: there is hardly any more of a European public sphere today than there was when I started studying and travelling in Europe 40 years ago." (I hope it is clear, Mr Garton Ash, that the 'who' in my headline means 'who in Britain'.)

None of these comments is unusual. Only Owen Jones is saying something a little new - and, as he points out, he is really resuscitating something old. But all of this leaves me wondering what the constituency is in Britain for the EU. Not necessarily the constituency in the sense of particular people, but rather the emotional constituency. Certainly not socialists, little Englanders or immigration-sceptics. If your family ties are to the Indian subcontinent, Africa or the Commonwealth then it will have no claim on your emotional sympathies. Is it the way of the future, the shining path to a bright new tomorrow? Not any more. Free-marketeers? Not nowadays. Pragmatists? No - where's the output legitimacy without the output? How many people feel 'European'? I bet TGA could fit them all in his drawing room. There are a large number of non-UK EU nationals in Britain who might be worried about their immigration status if Brexit took place, but if they were given the right assurances, would they care about the principle? (And is it really for them to decide?)

The only emotional constituencies I can think of - the only reasons you would oppose Brexit with anything more than a feeling of fear of the alternative and a mustn't grumble shrug - are (a) dislike of Nigel Farage, (b) being Scottish and disliking government from London and (c) a nostalgic attachment to those years - say from 1975 to the Single European Act of 1986 - when 'Europe' was the future. Surely the Brexiters (and the Lexiters) have more of the emotional energy. I can well imagine it might be enough to shift the inertia of the bulk of the population into their camp.

Some striking sentences

1. What It’s Like to Face a 150 M.P.H. Tennis Serve. (A little video)

2. "I think that neural privacy is something we should worry about". I think so too.

3. "according to its eccentric creator, the majestic building is neither a chicken nor a church".

4. "If they want to get married at a gun range holding a big fat Uzi, far be it for me to keep them from it." And from the same story: "The only thing not allowed is a real shotgun wedding: Pregnant bride aren't allowed to shoot because of the sound reverberations from a MP-40 can negatively effect the unborn child."

5. "Both men and women erred in estimating what the opposite sex would find attractive. Men thought women would like a heavier stature than females reported they like, and women thought men would like women thinner than men reported they like."

6. "After somewhere in the neighborhood of ten billion games of Pac-Man had been played, Mitchell achieved the first ever perfect game. The very first thing he said: “I never have to play that damn game again.”" (I'll let you in on a secret: he didn't have to play it in the first place.)

7. "Counting from the earthquake of 1700, we are now three hundred and fifteen years into a two-hundred-and-forty-three-year cycle." That "we" is the people of Seattle, Portland and so on in the Pacific Northwest: if you know your interstates, you might want to know that the "operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast."

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Tower Hamlets stole a Henry Moore statue - and got away with it

Well, sort of. This is the judgment. in short:

- The GLC had a Henry Moore sculpture - called 'Old Flo' - installed in Stepney.
- The GLC was abolished and the sculpture passed to the London Residuary Body.
- But Tower Hamlets Council seems to have thought it has passed to them instead.
- So they lent it to Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where it stayed for 18 years.
- And now it is too late for the London Residuary Body (now Bromley council, for reasons that don't matter) to get it back. Their title has been extinguished and it belongs to Tower Hamlets.

In legal terminology it's a bit like what you hear referred to as "squatters' rights" or "adverse possession", but the strictly correct term for it is "chutzpah".

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Things that went wrong

1. The palaces of African dictators.

2. Virtual reality in the 1990s. "After Dactyl Nightmare players, convinced they were being carried 20 feet into the air by a killer pterodactyl, fell to the ground, the company installed padded rings around the machines." But that was just a teething problem. PlayStations were worse.

3.  My Dad Tried to Tame a Wolf. The headline tells you just what to expect. "I was afraid of Dusty after the glove incident, but I hadn't learned my lesson. He was so beautiful. The way he howled at the moon was art, and I wanted him to love me like he loved my dad." The people who first domesticated dogs, horses and cows must have been pretty odd too.

4. Greece. But here is an interesting little glimpse into the once (and perhaps future) fightback plan: "Everybody knew what a fight would mean. ... They would "requisition" the Bank of Greece and sack the governor under emergency national laws. The estimated €17bn of reserves still stashed away in various branches of the central bank would be seized. They would issue parallel liquidity and California-style IOUs denominated in euros to keep the banking system afloat, backed by an appeal to the European Court of Justice to throw the other side off balance, all the while asserting Greece's full legal rights as a member of the eurozone. If the creditors forced Grexit, they - not Greece - would be acting illegally, with implications for tort contracts in London, New York and even Frankfurt. ..." Meanwhile, Varoufakis intends to "wear the creditors’ loathing with pride", he says. Wrong but Wromatic? Perhaps, but Piketty says: "When I hear the Germans say that they maintain a very moral stance about debt and strongly believe that debts must be repaid, then I think: what a huge joke! Germany is the country that has never repaid its debts. It has no standing to lecture other nations."

5. Possibly America? Here is Charles Murray advocating "massive, systematic civil disobedience" as a cure.

6. Finally I am shoehorning in this, the Ballard of Steinbjørn Jacobsen, which is about a trip that did not really go wrong, although at times it looked as if it might. A Faeroese poet meets the great and good of US academia, and the mini-bar, answering questions about Gawain and the Green Knight with a children's story about a snow-white kitty.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Is there any chance this is a spoof?

Not the fantastic "relocate the people of Hong Kong to Northern Ireland" plan, but this.

It's by Jess Phillips, MP (Labour) for Birmingham Yardley. She seems to have had an odd mother ("my mom, the mother of three sons, and me her only daughter, whispered in my ear every day from birth, 'there's nothing they can do that you can't'" - every day?), but she's a grown up now.

The story is this. The Opposition tabled a motion "to task the Equalities and Human Rights Commission with performing an 'Annual Equal Pay Check' to collate and analyse information published and recommend actions to ensure we close the gender pay gap this generation". They lost the vote. And then Phillips got upset. She writes: "When the votes were declared and we lost, I lost it. And Nicky Morgan laughed at me. She stared across and gloated because I was upset. But I remain unapologetically upset. Maybe if she had wiped the blood off a women who was left for dead she wouldn't laugh." Whoa there! Where did all that blood come from? Lack of gender pay gap information collation?

Phillips concludes: "Today I shall sit in the cupboard in Parliament where Emily Wilding Davison the suffragette hid to show her worth. I shall whisper, "there's nothing you can't do." Then I'll step out in to that fancy Palace of Westminster and know that those around me think I don't matter quite so much." I really hope Morgan doesn't catch Phillips whispering to herself in a cupboard - she'll just laugh even louder, and then I dread to think how upset Phillips will be.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Hillary Clinton on David Cameron - "wacky"; on D Miliband - "sorry"

Some of her emails are here. I searched for "Cameron" and got some moderate gems (see below). I am pretty sure that Clinton calls Cameron "wacky", but you can read the email yourself below. And she felt sorry for David Miliband in 2009, when a number of people were out to get him.

For anyone interested in reading the searchable private emails of one of the most powerful people in the world in modern times, this is a great resource. You can follow the ups and downs of Tony Blair's attempt to become President of Europe. You can .... well, I leave it to you.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Some interesting links

1. "The territories along the world’s craziest border include the pièce de résistance of strange geography: the world’s only “counter-counter-enclave”: a patch of India surrounded by Bangladeshi territory, inside an Indian enclave within Bangladesh."

2. Stowaways on planes should all die. But they don't.

3. The paintings of the Australian artist Grace Cossington Smith.

4. "Macnee’s mother took refuge in a circle of friends that included Tallulah Bankhead and the madam Mrs Meyrick, before absconding with a wealthy lesbian, Evelyn. Young Patrick was brought up by the pair and was instructed to call Evelyn “Uncle”. He managed to resist their efforts to dress him as a girl, wearing a kilt as a compromise. His father fled to India, from where he was later expelled for urinating off a balcony on to the heads of the Raj’s elite, gathered below for a race-meeting. Evelyn financed Macnee’s education, at Summer Fields — where he first acted, playing opposite Christopher Lee — and then Eton. His corruption began when he was introduced to whisky by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff, who had escaped into the garden with a bottle when brought in to consecrate Evelyn’s private chapel. Macnee was then expelled from Eton for running a pornography and bookmaking empire." That's what people read Telegraph obituaries for.

5. "The descendants of Scandinavian migrants in the US combine the high living standards of the US with the high levels of equality of Scandinavian countries. Median incomes of Scandinavian descendants are 20 per cent higher than average US incomes. It is true that poverty rates in Scandinavian countries are lower than in the US. However, the poverty rate among descendants of Nordic immigrants in the US today is half the average poverty rate of Americans – this has been a consistent finding for decades. In fact, Scandinavian Americans have lower poverty rates than Scandinavian citizens who have not emigrated. This suggests that pre-existing cultural norms are responsible for the low levels of poverty among Scandinavians rather than Nordic welfare states." Make of that what you will.

6. "Readers can, of course, draw their own conclusions." Here is a chance to see the awesome sight of the Daily Mail's weapons being trained on a target, and to see an "anonymous EU official" being cited positively.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Things that struck me

1. Local councils in the UK know how to buy Turkish bath services and machine guns.

2. "Should You Be Eating LSD for Breakfast?" Maybe.

3. "We have at least to consider the possibility that the scientific establishment behind the global warming issue has been drawn into the trap of seriously overstating the climate problem—or, what is much the same thing, of seriously understating the uncertainties associated with the climate problem—in its effort to promote the cause. It is a particularly nasty trap in the context of science, because it risks destroying, perhaps for centuries to come, the unique and hard-won reputation for honesty which is the basis for society’s respect for scientific endeavour." That's Matt Ridley quoting an Australian climate scientist.

4. You've probably come across the question: would you rather be a rich person in the past or a slightly less rich person now (what with all the brilliant things we have nowadays like selfies, Oyster cards and those blue bicycle superhighways)? Someone has pointed out that old people were alive in the past and they seem to like the old stuff, so maybe this new stuff isn't so great after all. (This is how science progresses.) All of which is leading up to this question: "Which would you prefer: (a) a doubling of your income right now, or (b) a world with driverless cars, internet chips implanted in your brain, and vacation flights to the moon? For a lot of people, this would not be an obvious choice at all." I wonder about that. It seems like an easy one to me.

5. Here's James Fenton on pleasant enough meandering form, but I don't recommend it for that. However, he ends with this. "My own feeling about the Rothschilds is that they score highest when you can tell that they see the point of being Rothschilds. They see the point, in a way that, let’s say, the Windsors don’t always see the point of being Windsors, or the Marlboroughs Marlboroughs." There's something to that, isn't there? 

6. "There are genuine bloodstains on the [Turin Shroud] and we even know the blood group (AB, if you're interested)."

7. "Foreigners, even those who teach Japanese literature at a university, cannot read novels written in Japanese with any ease." And does this sound like Japanese in translation to you: "That is my only conclusion. I have no advice to give, no remedies to suggest, because I do not believe there is anything anyone can do about it. I am simply lamenting the sad fact of it all"? More on translating Japanese here.

8. Here is "On Cooling the Mark Out". 'Cooling the mark out' means calming down someone who has been conned so that they don't make too much of a fuss about it, seeking revenge or police involvement for example, so "The mark is given instruction in the philosophy of taking a loss." Now, there are a lot of marks out there who need cooling. The article ends as follows: "perhaps the most important movement of those who fail is one we never see. Where roles are ranked and somewhat related, persons who have been rejected from the one above may be difficult to distinguish from persons who have risen from the one below. For example, in America, upper‑class women who fail to make a marriage in their own circle may follow the recognized route of marrying an upper‑middle class professional. Successful lower‑middle class women may arrive at the same station in life, coming from the other direction. Similarly, among those who mingle with one another as colleagues in the profession of dentistry, it is possible to find some who have failed to become physicians and others who ‑have succeeded at not becoming pharmacists or optometrists. No doubt there are few positions in life that do not throw together some persons who are there by virtue of failure and other persons who are there by virtue of success. In this sense, the dead are sorted but not segregated, and continue to walk among the living."

9. Finally, a bit of law. The judgment starts: "This is by any standards a bizarre case." The judgment could be part of a Julian Barnes story. 

Monday, 22 June 2015

English History

I have just started reading The English and Their History by Robert Tombs. I earlier lauded That Sweet Enemy (which is by both the Tombses) and this one looks to be just as good.

Tombs has an eye for the telling and interesting detail. In a few pages, I have learned that in the dying days of the Roman Empire, the Romans stationed "more troops in Britain than any medieval English monarch would ever command" (at the outermost edges of Empire!), that Offa's Dyke is the longest and, from an engineering point of view, most demanding earthwork known to European history, that, "In more than 1,000 years of European history between the emperor Marcus Aurelius and Alfonso the Wise of Spain, Alfred [the Great] is the only European ruler we see reflecting personally on the moral duties of kingship" and a fair bit about the difference between English and Danish hairstyles at the time of the Danelaw. So far, I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Good clean fun

These are a couple of things I saw, unless you are terribly po-faced, count as innocent fun.

First, Toby Young has a plan to get Jeremy Corbyn elected as Labour leader. It seems that for just £3 you can vote in the Labour leadership election, and for people of a certain cast of mind, that is not the least fun you can have for £3. But do note that Jeremy Corbyn is the man who divorced his wife (partly) because she wouldn't send their son to a comprehensive school and supports the extinction of the human race, so he's a man of principle. I'm sure he'll find a way of invalidating Toby's vote for him.

Second, Zionist single shoe-stealers! "Asghar Bukhari, the founding member of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK (MPACK UK) unwittingly sent Twitter into a meltdown, after he posted a public rant in which he appeared to claim that Zionists attempted to intimidate and threaten him by breaking into his home and ... stealing one of his shoes. ... He didn't stop there. In fact, he posted a dramatic image capturing the emotional impact of the heinous crime that took place while he slept, sharing an image of a bare foot and a solitary, bereft shoe." I am a non-user of Twitter and it seems to me that making fun of people like this is what it is for. This is not quite up there with the Cameron on the phone thing, but it's not far behind. Here's Mr Bukhari on the BBC on non-shoe related matters: in fact, he turns up on the BBC a fair bit.

As a bonus, this one has no downside to it: if you want to escape from a zoo successfully, be a flamingo.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Is creativity research elitist?

This is a piece by a chap called Keith Sawyer who says that creativity research is elitist. It's a pretty confused piece (it's short - you can read it first) but there is are some nuggets in there.

Friday, 12 June 2015

The people who put the 'fog' into 'infographic'

Here's a sample of what to expect when you click here (not Buzzfeed, strangely, but Vox):

As the commentator says "There is so much to appreciate about this map I hardly know where to begin."

As a bonus:

Thursday, 11 June 2015

The unsung hero who single-handed brought justice to Tower Hamlets

It's a bold headline and not strictly true, but bear with me.

You will have seen that 4 people took a case to an election court claiming that Lutfur Rahman, the (apparent) mayor of Tower Hamlets was corrupt. They won. Here is the BBC's mostly harmless summary of the decision. (I say mostly harmless: you have to wonder why they were quoting Ken Livingston at the end attacking the Court's decision.)

The judgment is here. It is long but (once you skip past the technical legal bits) full of interest. There is the councillor who voted twice, the cleric who lied on oath, the voters who signed identical witness statements and lied and so on. Look out for Mr Choudhury too:

"Mr Choudhury was a very unsatisfactory witness. He was arrogant, indeed cocky, and did not hesitate to tell bare-faced lies in the smug assurance that the mere lawyers listening him would not have the wit to see through them. He also came over as an immature man who possessed, and did not shrink from expressing, outrageous views. ... In describing Mr Choudhury as Mr Rahman's right-hand man, perhaps the slang term 'hatchet-man' would be more appropriate. The modus operandi of the two men would be that Mr Rahman would retain a statesmanlike posture, making sure that he always said the right thing – particularly in castigating electoral malpractice – while what might be called 'the dirty work' was done by Mr Choudhury. This was especially apparent in the campaign against Mr Biggs which will be discussed below, in which, on the surface at least, Mr Choudhury would be responsible for the attempted character-assassination of Mr Biggs while Mr Rahman claimed to have had no input into – indeed, on occasion, not even to have read – the press releases put out in his name."

As judgments go, it's not a bad read.

Now, I have nothing for respect for the four petitioners who brought the case. As the judge (strictly speaking, the election commissioner) said:

"To bring an election petition as a private citizen requires enormous courage. If things go wrong and the petition is dismissed, the Petitioners face a potentially devastating bill of costs which, unless they are very fortunate, may well bankrupt them. ...

If the bringing of an election requires courage in ordinary circumstances, bringing a petition to try to unseat Mr Rahman required courage of a very much higher order. The Petitioners knew that Mr Rahman would deploy all his resources to defeat them and could rely on the Bangladeshi media to back him all the way. The Petitioners would be portrayed as racists and Islamophobes, attempting to set aside the election (by a large majority) of a Mayor whose government of the Borough had been inspirational, for no better reason than the fact that he was a Bangladeshi. And so it proved. The Petitioners have been duly vilified - but they have hung in there. ... And they have been vindicated."

But the man the headline is about is Francis Hoar, the petitioners' barrister. This was a huge case. And he did it, in effect, on his own. This is what the judge said about him:

"For Mr Hoar, this has been a complete tour de force. He accepted the case on the basis of direct access. That is to say that his four clients, members of the public, could not afford to instruct and therefore did not instruct solicitors. Mr Hoar, with such assistance as his lay clients could give him, has thus single-handedly conducted the entirety of the case: pleadings, witness statements, disclosure, directions, the Scrutiny, preparation of the trial and conduct of the trial. Though he occasionally allowed his enthusiasm to get the better of his judgment, he has carried the entire case on his back and has brought it to a successful conclusion. By any standards this was a considerable feat and worthy of the admiration of the court." Of one of Hoar's opponents, the judge said: "There were times when he obviously found Mr Hoar to be 'unplayable', and he was not alone."

Direct access work is not subject to the 'cab rank' rule. That is to say, Hoar did not have to take the case - he chose to. He would have known when he took it on that it would be a massive job and that his clients did not have much money, and yet he took it on and saw it through to the end. He has done a great public service and I think he deserves appropriate recognition for the job he has done.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Videos and Belgians

First, the videos.

This is a sort of animated infographic illustrating the numbers of people who died in the Second World War. It's well worth watching.

This is a video which you do not need to watch, but you might want to know exists. Here's the description: "Kinder Surprise Eggs are extremely popular around the world, but illegal to sell in the US due to small toy parts which the FDA says could be a choking hazard. ... We got a case and unwrapped each one to see what fun surprises were inside!" Seriously. A video of the toys from Kinder Eggs being revealed, to provide an illicit (but frankly very minor) thrill.

And then this: "This woman took a photo of herself every single day for a week, and the results will blow you away!"That's ClickHole's "moving testament to life’s impermanence".

So what about the Belgians? Well, the Low Countries seem to have got the most fun out of the Euro. I brought you the chap in the Netherlands who built the imaginary bridges on the notes, and here is Belgium's contribution to the party.

"Belgium on Monday began minting €2.50 coins marking the 200th anniversary of Napoleon's defeat of at the Battle of Waterloo, after France forced it to scrap a two-euro coin made for the same purpose.

Paris objected to the new Belgian coin, commemorating the French emperor's defeat by British and Prussian forces, earlier this year, saying it would create tensions at a time when Europe's unity is under threat.

Belgium was forced to get scrap about 180,000 two-euro coins that had already been minted after Paris sent a letter saying they could cause an "unfavourable reaction in France".

But Belgium has managed to skirt the French protests using a rule that allows eurozone countries to unilaterally issue coins if they are in an irregular denomination - in this case, €2.50.

The bit that puzzled me was this: "Sold in special plastic bags priced at six euros... " How many coins in one of those bags? Is it great value for 3 or pretty poor for 2? Or are the bags €6 each and the coins extra? 

Monday, 8 June 2015

The loos in Winchester: "I remember Chios, Rhodes, Colophon, Salamis, Smyrna, Argos, because of their joint hexametrical rhythm"

The New York Review of Books has seen fit to indulge a couple of eminent ex-pat Wykehamists in reminiscences of their school days. If you want a comparison between the word "mofo" and Winchester slang then it seems that the highbrow American press is the place for you.

The loos were, of course, named after the rival birthplaces of Homer. I'm afraid there are no points for guessing the missing one that Prof Strawson had to look up (although do give it a go) - but I can tell you that it's not Springfield.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

More Zadie Smith

I have new Zadie Smith to report: it's this piece in the New Yorker. It is, as will become clear should you read it, an account of Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando fleeing New York in a rented Toyota Camry on the day of 9/11. Apparently there is "some textual support" for this being a real story and it is at least an urban myth. It is not one of Smith's best efforts, I'm afraid.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Snippets of life past and present

1. Some glimpses of the 20th century. First, some fantastic Communist buildings.  Second, some facts prompted by the anniversary of VE Day. I did not know this: "Hitler killed himself on the afternoon of 17 Iyar, according to the Jewish calendar, a few hours before the onset of Lag b'omer - when mourning is traditionally abandoned for celebration. Such symbolism was understood by all Jews ...". There are hundreds of stories like this: "By chance, King George, his wife, Queen Elizabeth and the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret visited the East End of London the day after VE Day. They stopped at Hughes Mansions in Vallance Road in Stepney where the penultimate V-2 rocket of the war had struck at the end of March 1945. ... Of the 134 people killed in Hughes Mansions, 120 were Jews. The eleven-year-old cousin of the writer, Anthony Rudolf, was killed and the journalist Jonathan Freedland lost the grandmother he never knew."

2. And here are some glimpses into relationships between the sexes in the 21st century. First, Shagaluf is alive and well. (Is it just me, or is it odd that in these times of austerity taxpayers' money is being spent on sending a woman to stay in Magaluf despite the fact she didn't really enjoy being there: "I was often subjected to attention I didn’t want and regularly invited to hotel rooms with men I didn’t know.") While in New York, wives can earn bonuses from their husbands: "New York, unlike London, has a very flexible and mobile class system, so it makes sense that these women deserve a ‘bonus’ or an infusion of cash, because they’re tirelessly working on the social rank of the couple." Meritocracy in action.

3. You remember the Broken Windows Theory? Perhaps it is true. Here is a report on a whole series of tests including this one: "A person on the sidewalk accidentally drops some oranges just before meeting another pedestrian. Normally, 40% of passersby help the stranger pick up their oranges. If approximately 20 yards earlier, the passersby had witnessed someone drop an aluminum can and pick it up back up, 64% will help the stranger. If 20 yards earlier, the passerby had witnessed someone (a private citizen) sweeping the sidewalk, 82% helped the stranger."

4. Say you have multiple personalities inside one body. Is that actually a disorder? Lots of people (it's hard to count them, for a variety of reasons) would say no. And this is interesting: "Studies about dissociative identity disorder have shown the following: First, a body diagnosed with DID can react differently to medicine depending on which person is fronting. Second, one body examined by doctors could see when certain people were fronting, but was blind when others fronted. And third, there are distinct differences between the brain patterns of those with DID and the brain patterns of actors who are simply taking on different personas." I clicked on the link about blindness and got this abstract: "We present a patient with dissociative identity disorder (DID) who after 15 years of diagnosed cortical blindness gradually regained sight during psychotherapeutic treatment. At first only a few personality states regained vision, whereas others remained blind. This was confirmed by electrophysiological measurement, in which visual evoked potentials (VEP) were absent in the blind personality states but normal and stable in the seeing states. The switch between these states could happen momentarily. As a neural basis of such psychogenic blindness, we assume a top-down modulation of activity in the primary visual pathway, possibly at the level of the thalamus or the primary visual cortex. Therefore VEPs do not allow distinction of psychogenic blindness from organic disruption of the visual pathway. In summary, psychogenic blindness seems to suppress visual information at an early neural stage."

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Someone else foaming at the mouth

An Oxford philosopher, posting on a blog entitled 'Practical Ethics', has written something entitled "If you’re a Conservative, I’m not your friend". It starts "One of the first things I did after seeing the depressing election news this morning was check to see which of my Facebook friends ‘like’ the pages of the Conservatives or David Cameron, and unfriend them. (Thankfully, none of my friends ‘like’ the UKIP page.) Life is too short, I thought, to hang out with people who hold abhorrent political views, even if it’s just online." It continues in similar vein here.

The post has caused a bit of a stir: the Independent covers it here, archly starting its article by saying that "Britain’s liberal intelligentsia normally tries to react to setbacks in the spirit of peace, love and understanding."

Meanwhile, Daniel Hannan continues to speak sense, including this: "Labour is also built on many decent impulses: standing up for the underdog, dispersing power away from elites, raising the condition of the poorest."

Hannan's argument includes a suggestion that the sort of left-wing rhetoric he describes creates shy Tories. But here is an interesting snippet suggesting that it is lazy Labourites who disproved the polls rather than shy Tories - it seems that Labour turn out was not as high as expected. I'd like to see the figures for the other parties before putting too much weight on that, but at least I've found one of these people - here is Zoe Williams in the Guardian, saying "I didn’t even vote for them myself; God knows how I expected to wake up with a Labour government."

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Facts about television

Really, these are facts about society.

First, "In the UK today, a young person is more likely to have a television in their bedroom than a father in their house by the end of their childhood. And even if fathers are around, their sons don’t engage with them much: boys spend 44 hours in front of a TV, smartphone or computer screen for every half hour in conversation with their fathers." That's from here.

Second, "the for-profit commercial TV industry is far more effective than our subsidized nonprofit arts organizations at engaging economically vulnerable members of our society". That's from here. It seems that it isn't the cost that puts poor people off going to the ballet.

David Runciman, foaming at the mouth

Left wingers get so emotional, don't they? It's not enough for them to say that their opponents are people of good faith who are sadly mistaken about the importance of deficit reduction - they have to say that their opponents are evil people, intent on cutting for the sake of it, who would love nothing more than putting the NHS in a workhouse and birching it, or something like that, purely because they have sold their souls to the devil. Even if the differences between the parties are pretty small, the sense of moral outrage somehow seems the same: effective overall tax rate of 40% - outrageous, the poor dying on the streets! Effective overall tax rate of 41% - the new Jerusalem, socialist paradise!

It's definitely asymmetric. There is no equivalent to the phrase "Tory bastard". In fact, there is hardly any real equivalent to "Tory", said with that sneer of disapproval that is bizarrely acceptable in polite company.

All of which is just part of life's rich tapestry, you might say, but I don't think it is good for the psychological health of left wingers. "Were you up for Portillo?" they still ask, taking positive pleasure in having seen a human being lose an honest livelihood, his dreams crushed before their eyes. Right wingers will happily concede that Ed Balls turns out to be gracious, human and impressive in defeat and as for Nick Clegg, well, surely no one delights in his tears. But left wingers seem to have so much anger inside them, just waiting to be unleashed. Isn't it all rather tiring?

Which leads me to the frankly comic spectacle of David Runciman in the LRB. He is certainly angry about the election, but beyond that, who knows what he is saying. I've had a go at understanding it below.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Striking sentences

1. "But what could be more important than the resurgence of a fascist movement on the European continent? I’m not talking about these sappy fascists who run around the streets in Western Europe. I’m talking about guys with a lot of weapons, guys who have done dastardly things and who have killed people." That is Stephen F. Cohen being very interesting about what is going on in Russia and Ukraine. He would have interesting things to say to the chap who wrote about whether the West won the Cold War (or thought it did) that I posted about not that long ago.

5. "Do we still have to lean in if Dave Goldberg is dead?" A warning: this is strong stuff, and is not for members of the (David) Goldberg/Sandberg family or their close friends. The writer has a point, but you have been warned.

Friday, 1 May 2015

The origins of the UK Green Party go back to 1972, when a former Conservative councillor read an interview in Playboy

Read blue, go green, as Cameron didn't quite say.

That fact is from this article in the LRB that explains what the Greens are really all about. "The trouble for the Greens is that they really would like to see the end of modern civilisation – as we know it". It's a policy that a lot of people would support. But when I say 'a lot of people' I still mean fewer people than their current poll numbers would suggest.

That interview in Playboy was with Paul Ehrlich, the chap who predicted in 1968 that "In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programmes embarked upon now." As with Malthus, of course, Ehrlich may well have been right except on the question of timing. But just as markets can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent, I suspect that Western civilisation can stumble on for longer than the Greens can remain the middle-class left's guilt-free alternative to the LibDems.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

A miscellany of links

1. "You really wouldn't want to see your kid become addicted to heroin and commit suicide or go crazy and cut his ear off. Learning that your son had also recorded a game-changing alternative rock album or painted a bunch of the world's most beloved paintings would not seriously alter the calculus. You'd rather have your son grow up to be an unremarkable accountant who has a couple of hobbies he enjoys." But you might like someone else's son to suffer ear-loss if you get to see the paintings. So letting people genetically engineer their children will result in too many accountants and not enough Van Goghs. Well, it's a theory. Maybe Van Gogh wanted an accountant for a son; maybe accountants want rock stars.

2. Here's an interesting story about a female Sikh bank robber. One minor detail caught my eye. "Inside, a greeter jumped out and said: "Hey, how can I help you?" This technique is called SafeCatch, and it's taught by the FBI to put potential robbers off their stride." Wouldn't having someone jump out at you put anyone off their stride? Or does it mean that all those people who hand around in HSBC branches just to point to the machines are there to put off bank robbers?

3. Inequality. Here's "an interesting thought for those people at Oxfam complaining so vociferously about inequality. Absolutely everyone who works for them at home base is in the global top 6 percent by income, all of their senior people are in the top 1percent. And given that some of them are middle aged, with houses and pensions, there’s almost certainly more people working for Oxfam in that top 1 percent of wealth in the world than there are actual billionaires on the planet." Even closer to home: "Median pay for employees in Britain last year was £22,044; only 10% of people earned more than £48,250. Mean annual pay, says the ONS, was £27,271, but more than 60% earned less than that, the overall average being skewed by the tiny minority who make considerably more." That's from here, a piece which also explains why George Osborne is more in touch with C2 voters than Ed Milliband.

4. Here are a couple of Buzzfeed-esque 'amazing places' links: "Are these the most magical settlements in the world?" (they're in the running) and (slightly less Buzzfeed-y) "The Sensational Architecture of the Strangest Village in Lebanon".

5. PJ O'Rourke says "you really do love your NHS. But what I don't understand is if it's so good why are you always trying to fix it?". Well, so the saying goes, the Americans hate their healthcare and do nothing about it; the French love theirs and are always fiddling with it. 

7. For those of us who don't understand relativity, quantum mechanics and all that jazz, here's Freeman Dyson, clear as always. "To summarize the present situation, there are three ways to understand philosophically our observations of the physical universe. The classical philosophy of Einstein has everything in a single layer obeying classical laws, with quantum processes unexplained. The quantum-only philosophy has included everything in a single layer obeying quantum laws, with the astonishing solidity and uniqueness of the classical illusion unexplained. The dualistic philosophy gives reality impartially to the classical vision of Einstein and to the quantum vision of Bohr, with the details of the connection between the two layers unexplained. All three philosophies are tenable, and all three are incomplete. I prefer the dualistic philosophy because I give equal weight to the insights of Einstein and Bohr. I do not believe that the celestial harmonies discovered by Einstein are an accidental illusion."

8. The thing about Minecraft is that it allows children to run riot, the way they used to.

9. Finally, if you have got this far, you might be interested in knowing that you do a course on wasting time on the internet at the University of Pennsylvania. It seems as if it's (almost entirely) a waste of time.