Friday, 30 January 2015

The inexplicable and untranslatable

This interesting piece deals with untranslatable philosophical concepts. It is a review of a translation of a French book and the Frenchness of it is one of the main points of interest. How about this for example: "philosophical French is “a language of women and the working class rather than of scientists”. Philosophy in French is “violently polemical . . . ignoring consensus . . . still opposed to the academy it speaks (politically) to the public and not to colleagues”"? The source of those aperçus also argues that Descartes’s dedication of his Principles of Philosophy to Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia “is in reality a basic democratic intention that turns philosophical discourse towards discussion and seduction, towards Venus rather than Minerva, moving it as far as possible away from academic or scientific entrenchment”. The gap between this and what passes for philosophy on this side of the Channel (or elsewhere in the Anglosphere) is not just a linguistic one.

All of which brings me neatly onto phenomena which are inexplicable and untranslatable even though there is no language barrier at all. I refer to this: "Now, it's pretty much a given that every sorority will have a 4-8 minute video—impeccably produced by professionals—to debut during rush." (At the link, you will find some highly regrettable examples of these videos.) All the words in that quotation make sense - even the use of "debut" as a verb - and yet there is something there that makes no sense at all. I am only sorry that Elisabeth of Bohemia (who seems to have had some pertinent points to make about Cartesian dualism) is not here to use some violently polemical language on the topic.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Stuart Broad, cricketer and acute commentator

I am of course referring to his tweet "I’ve heard if you earn minimum wage in England you’re in the top 10% earners in the World. #stay #humble’".

This is what the Institute for Economic Affairs has to say: "over half the world's population has an income of less than $5.70 a day. And as Tim Worstall has pointed out, someone working full time (say, 37.5 hours a week) on the minimum wage would earn £12,675 a year. This puts them in the top 6.41% of the global income distribution, according to this calculator which converts in purchasing power parity terms. This is before incorporating the tax and benefits system, which combined are highly progressive. Since the distribution on that website is in net income terms, we might imagine then that many people earning the NMW plus state top ups are higher still in the distribution."

Friday, 23 January 2015

Some more links

1. Some stunning mosques in Iran. I hope to live to see people saying that 'Iran is the new Croatia'.

2. Ah, the travails of modern life.

3. Adorable? In a similar vein, but rather more seriously, "He made it look cool".

4. A very hydrophobic metal.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Just some links

1. Edward Luttwak in the LRB on Napoleon and strategy, including why Guatemala joined in our side in the Second World War. All good stuff.

2. The plasticity of human nature - and why that supports conservatism. Is there any link to what the New Yorker calls the "central joke and point" of Houellebecq's “Soumission" namely that "the French élite are cravenly eager to collaborate with the new regime, delighted not only to convert but to submit to a bracing and self-assured authoritarianism. Like the oversophisticated Hellenists in Cavafy’s poem, they have been secretly waiting for the barbarians all their lives."? Perhaps at some level.

3. Some tricks of game theory. Like getting people to pay $200 for a $20 bill.

4. Lord Ashcroft's marginal constituency polls. Worth studying carefully if you are putting money on the next general election.

5. "The result was that middle-class children developed an “emerging sense of entitlement” which we might view as [...]" Fill in the blank in your own mind before clicking through to this link on class war in sociology. Then try substituting 'male' and 'female' for 'middle-class' and 'working-class' and apply a bit of feminist reasoning: i.e. imagine that a male sociologist had (ages ago) explained how males acquire sets of beliefs that assist them in life while females do not - is that a problem with the beliefs or with society?

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The Filipino Jesuits' drunk gamboling elephant

It seems that Jesuits in the Philippines used to have a pet elephant. Although it provided a lesson to people in decorum in some respects, it had a taste for wine and would, after "siphon[ing] out one entire cask at one time ... [show] his joy with a thousand gambols".

I am sorry to say that my source records that the Jesuits mis-treated this merry little elephant and eventually starved it to death for some misdemeanour or other.

Monday, 19 January 2015

You think you've got a problem with your bank ...

... but pity the Nizams of Hyderabad.

On 20 September 1948, £1 million was paid in some respect on behalf of the seventh Nizam, the absolute ruler of the largest and richest of the Indian princely states, into an account opened with the Westminster Bank Limited in the name of the first High Commissioner of the recently formed sovereign state of Pakistan, Mr Habib Ibrahim Rahimtoola.  It is worth noting that the Nizam's decision to remain independent of the newly form state of India was one that India did not like: it launched 'Operation Polo', and on 18 September 1948 the Nizam's army surrendered and Hyderabad was annexed to India.

A little over a week later, on 27 September 1948, the Nizam sought to reverse the transfer of money to Mr Rahimtoola, claiming that it had been made without his authority.

To cut a long story short-ish, the money is still there. It's now about £35 million.

The seventh Nizam was succeeded on his death in 1967 by his grandson, the present (eighth) Nizam of Hyderabad, High Exalted Highness Prince Mukkaram Jah. There are other family interests: Mr Justice Henderson, a High Court judge, tells us that "the seventh Nizam is reputed to have had as many as 49 concubines and around 150 illegitimate children".

Various steps have been taken by various parties to get the money. The most recent appears to be a claim by Pakistan led by Cherie Booth QC. It is not going very well, as the link will show. Some of Pakistan's claims have been regarded as "unsustainable" and "unfounded", and even Pakistan's attempt to drop the case altogether has failed.

What's next? Well, I hope the current Nizam is not holding his breath.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Existentialism and housework

You may well have heard that, following the unfortunate demise of God and the failure of any other absolute source of value, life is ultimately meaningless and absurd. I am not your go-to guy for exegesis of existentialism but I do at least know that Jean-Paul Sartre notably compared the essential condition of man to that of Sisyphus, the baddie in Greek myth punished by having as his task for all eternity to push a boulder up to the top of a hill, only to see it roll down again (the Ancient Greeks having been every bit as inventive as French philosophers in the depressing ideas department). Human existence is similarly meaningless and futile, but the solution suggested by Sartre is for us to embrace the futility and absurdity of our struggle against an uncomprehending and uncaring universe: we must, in his words, imagine Sisyphus happy.

This is precisely the sort of cheerful thinking that philosophers are paid to provide and all kudos to Sartre for coming up with it. But I think quite differently about Sartre and the Myth of Sisyphus having just seen that Simone de Beauvoir wrote: "Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day. The housewife wears herself out marking time: she makes nothing, simply perpetuates the present." (That's from The Second Sex.) 

The Sartre-de Beauvoir household was an unconventional one. Perhaps one manifestation of this was that a private argument between them was thrashed out through some of the major philosophical works of the 20th century. Is it too fanciful (as a philosopher might say, at least on the other side of the Channel) to read that passage in the Second Sex as Simone saying to Jean-Paul: "if you want to embrace the fundamental absurdity of human existence then you can start by doing the dishes"?

Friday, 16 January 2015

There's a Bobby Sands burger bar in Tehran - and it's orange

"'In Iran we think highly of the sacrifice Bobby Sands made for his people. Our goal is to honour him and show respect for his courage,' he said while flipping burgers in the tiny orange room."
Full story and photos here.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Ayatollah Khomeini once wrote a poem containing the unlikely line, 'Let the doors of the tavern be opened and let us go there day and night.'

The fact in the headline is from this piece in the Literary Review, from which we also learn that:

- Yazidis refuse to eat lettuce or wear blue

- the Druze and the Yazidis are at one on the importance of moustaches, and

Mandaeans are keen astrologers who believe that children who die unbaptised are comforted for eternity by trees bearing breast-shaped fruit.

On happiness

This is a long-ish post containing thoughts prompted by Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness. If that sounds like the sort of thing for you, then carry on after the break.

George Osborne is now backing Boris Johnson?

Or so says Peter Oborne.

It's not as if Osborne doesn't want to be leader, but he has "abandoned all realistic prospect of becoming Tory leader, not just now but ever. There are two main reasons for this.

First, [the] more Tory MPs that Michael Gove canvassed, the worse it got. Many Tories admire Mr Osborne. Very few think that he is a plausible party leader.

A second factor was more urgent: Theresa May. For reasons I do not fully understand, David Cameron and his inner circle have no time for Mrs May.
" And Johnson is the only person who can beat May. 

But that does not make Osborne and Johnson best friends: "Mr Osborne neither likes nor trusts Mr Johnson. ... Mr Johnson does not like or trust Mr Osborne either, but he knows and respects the fact that this is the man who is in ultimate charge of the Tory machine. He probably calculates that once he becomes leader he can do what he wants. Mr Osborne probably calculates that he can stop him." That sounds like a recipe for great government.

So "Here is the situation. The team that installed Michael Howard in 2003, and David Cameron as leader in 2005, is moving towards transition mode. It figures that Boris Johnson is broadly compatible: neo-liberal, pro-American, pro-European, liked by the big donors, a proven election-winner. He will play a huge part in the election campaign. In the event of a referendum on Europe he will champion the Yes vote (Mr Johnson’s Euroscepticism has been overestimated)."

They gave you Howard! They gave you Cameron! And now they give you Johnson! But who are they?

Oborne concludes "Many observers, contemplating this latest Bullingdon Club stitch-up, will side with Mrs May, the feisty outsider. What does the Home Secretary do about it? That is the subject for another column." "Many observers"? "Bullingdon Club stitch-up"? I'm not sure we need another column to see what May, the "feisty outsider", is doing about it - although I'd be surprised if that column didn't mention that there is a precedent for a strong-minded female from outside the Conservative Party's inner circle turning out to be a fair bit more successful than the Establishment candidate.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

You won't read anything ...

(1) ... more French (albeit in English) than this conversation with Michel Houellebecq in the Paris Review. It got me thinking as to what the English equivalent of Michel Houellebecq might be: I got no further than Rod Liddle and Julie Burchill, at which point I suspected that I was going wildly astray.

(2) ... more entertainingly rude about the US air force and its procurement strategy than this.

(3) ... more amusing about Dutch bridges and Euro bank notes designs than this.

Each recommended in its own way.

Monday, 5 January 2015

The Government has followed Alistair Darling's fiscal plans

The point is nicely demonstrated here. It's good to see that the Guardian prospectively endorsed what the Government has in fact done. I suppose it all goes to show that economic forecasting is rather like the entertainment business as analysed by William Goldman - nobody knows anything.