Tuesday, 31 March 2015

A miscellany of links

1. A Brief History of People Stealing Entire Houses. ""Four Italians—three men and a woman—were arrested yesterday," begins one such story, from 1911, about people who slowly carried away an entire three-story frame house "said to be owned by a Polish priest who lives in Brooklyn.""

2. It’s time to stop telling fat people to become thin. "... since 2002, study after study has turned up what researchers call the “obesity paradox”: Obese patients with heart disease, heart failure, diabetes, kidney disease, pneumonia, and many other chronic diseases fare better and live longer than those of normal weight."

3. Fear not the rootless cosmopolitan! "We show that cosmopolitanism and localism are not mutually exclusive and that members of the German elite feel even more attached to their nation than ordinary Germans".

4. New Zealand is a nice place. But the piece was interesting about the UK too: "The UK is a media-industry cluster, just in the way that New Zealand is an agriculture-industry cluster, and a big part of that in both cases is that knowledge of the industry isn’t confined to the people who are in it; it’s part of the everyday conversation. Alfred Marshall noticed this characteristic of industry clusters – “The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously. Good work is rightly appreciated, inventions and improvements in machinery, in processes and the general organization of the business have their merits promptly discussed”. The biggest asset of the British and Irish media industries is their educated consumer base, and that’s the thing that’s hardest to transplant somewhere else. I think this is the big benefit of the profusion of media-studies courses in British education – it’s not so much that all their graduates are going on to jobs in the media, it’s more that they will always be educated and critical consumers."

5. Philology: "when a celebrated German Assyriologist of my acquaintance (who shall remain nameless) got married, he rose abruptly from the wedding banquet to announce “Jetzt zur Arbeit!” (“Now to work!”) and headed for the door, a volume of cuneiform texts tucked under one arm; only the outraged intervention of his new mother-in-law kept him from leaving."

Monday, 30 March 2015

"working mothers today... are spending as much time with their children as at-home mothers did in the early 1970s"

Says a Canadian sociologist. That's one of the interesting facts from this piece about how spending time with your children doesn't really help them.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Elves make com­pro­mise with Road Ad­min­is­tra­tion

Everyone loves a good Icelandic elf-story, and here is one for you from March 2015.

As a taste: "In 2012 the elves sum­moned me into the lava and showed me an el­ven church sur­rounded by beau­ti­ful, bright en­ergy, and next to that church was Ófeigskirkja, a chapel," ex­plains seer Ragn­hildur Jóns­dót­tir who runs the Elf Gar­den in Haf­nar­fjörður. "The elves told me that Ófeigskirkja had been used as a bea­con guid­ing peo­ple through the lava, and the rock was right there, in the path­way of the new road to be con­structed. I wrote to the Mayor of Garðabær on be­half of the elves. Ófeigskirkja will now be moved to a place near other el­ven abodes in har­mony with the wishes of the elves," ex­plains Jóns­dót­tir, and in­deed an an­nounce­ment from the Ice­landic Road Ad­min­is­tra­tion to­day sup­ports this claim."

(I'm a little bit unsure about using "Jóns­dót­tir" as if it is Ragn­hildur's surname, but I will defer to Morgunbladid on the point.)

In other news, this is what makes the news in Iceland:

I think no further comment is called for.

Ignore anything under £500 million

If you are thinking about the Budget, that is.

"commentators on Budgets used to have a rule that you could safely ignore any measure which cost less than £500 million because it was too small to make a difference.

It used to be the case that Chancellors followed that rule themselves. In the 1970s when Denis Healey was in No.11 Downing Street, 96 % of his measures related to sums of more than £500 million (in today’s money). By Nigel Lawson’s time in the 1980s, the heavy content had come down to 58%.

But the rot really set in in Gordon Brown’s era when he consolidated power in the Treasury and felt this gave him the right to pronounce on policy right across Whitehall. So the measures worth £500 million accounted for only 28% of Brown's content — and gave him his reputation as a tinkerer and micro-manager.

Interestingly, however, it is worse now. Osborne is even more addicted to flannel than Brown was. In his recent speeches, less than 15% of the measures concern sums of substance.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Why is pre-school education so popular?

"The welfare state is relatively good at giving people money: you collect the taxes, write a check, and now people have money. The welfare state has proven very bad at giving people stable jobs and stable families, a vibrant community life, promising career tracks, or a cure for their drug addiction. No wonder so many hopes now seem to be pinned on early childhood education, far in excess of the evidence to support them: it is the only thing we have not already tried and failed at." From an interesting piece by Megan McArdle here.

Online reviews and so on

This is Rory Sutherland.talking about 5 start reviews, two-way reviews (taxi drivers review customers as well as vice versa) and so on. I was struck by this: "Someone from an electronics company told me they have to keep manufacturing an obsolete version of a piece of kitchen equipment, even though it is superseded. After five years, the older product had acquired so many positive reviews on Amazon it was impossible to retire it."

Perhaps it's an urban myth, but it does tell us something about what we lose when critics and advertising lose their status. Back in the long-forgotten days before the internet, if you wanted to know whether a book (or a bit of kitchen equipment) was any good you would have to read a review written by someone who had a job reading books (or testing kitchen equipment) and writing about them. You would then easily see that the MegaBlender was the improved version of the TurboBlender. Equally, where advertising has some purchase then 'new and improved' (or 'revised and expanded edition' on the cover of a book) tells you something that a series of 5 star reviews does not.

That's not to say that nothing has been gained from the new system. We can see that if we stop to ask who the old reviewers were, whether they were really such experts, what their biases were, did they really have the ability to read everything (and blend everything) in the way that the crowds of the internet can. But it's also worth noting that the endgame of online reviews must be clever algorithms that weigh up reviewers' critical faculties such that we end up with advice extracted from the morass of reviews which is as incisive and helpful as (and more comprehensive than) the best of pre-internet criticism.

Here is Sutherland's other point: "Quite a few of my favourite places are not universally well liked on TripAdvisor, but are highly polarising. ... We don’t really need the Michelin Guide. The Marmite Guide to the world’s most divisive hotels and restaurants would make a much more interesting read." The internet can help with that: I bet it is not too difficult to find out which of TripAdvisor's hotels are the most polarising.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Some links you might like

1. Flowers made out of bullets. Only in America, perhaps, but pretty clever.

2. Why does terrorism (sometimes) work? "During the modern era, ... hundreds of billions of euros, hundreds of thousands of soldiers, and hundreds of ships, aeroplanes and nuclear missiles passes from one group of politicians to another without a single shot being fired. People have quickly got used to this, and consider it their natural right. Consequently, even sporadic acts of political violence that kill a few dozen people are seen as a deadly threat to the legitimacy and even survival of the state. A small coin in a big empty jar can make a lot of noise." Terrorism as theatre.

3. "At the opening ceremony in 1981, Banda arrived by helicopter in a three-piece Savile Row suit and Homburg hat. He knelt to drink from a brackish pool remembered from his childhood and then mounted a podium to address the expectant crowds. While he spoke in English, his strongman JZU Tembo translated into Chichewa. And as he proceeded to declaim page after page of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico in Latin, Tembo remained unfazed: mwamva zimene amene Kamuzu! “You heard what Kamuzu said!” The crowds roared, an honor guard stood to attention, and throngs of dancing girls wailed and cavorted in adulation." The school in Malawi, modeled on Eton, that consumed a third of the country’s education budget.

4. This, with the great title of "Out of My Mouth Comes Unimpeachable Manly Truth", is one man's account of spending a week in the Four Seasons in New York eating luxury foodstuffs (that somehow seems the right phrase) and watching nothing but Russian television. One reads about how newspapers are suffering and yet from time to time one finds signs that there might still be some fat in their budgets for expenses.

5. "Three days before Britain declared war, on September 3, 1939, Janet Vaughan received a telegram from the Medical Research Council. It read, “Start bleeding.”" That's from Rose George on Dame Janet Vaughan, who was instrumental in setting up proper blood donation services in England, and used Virginia Woolf’s mincer for medical purposes.

"Meet Miracle Mike, the Colorado Chicken who lived for 18 months without his head"

And not just lived, but grew from 2.5 pounds to 8 pounds.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

"There is also a marked division between the people of Cornwall and Devon that almost exactly matches the county border"

The genes of the UK. In addition to noting that the Cornish and Devonians are a little different, the study reveals (spoiler alert) that there are "two genetic groupings in Northern Ireland" that the Celts are not really one thing. On the other hand, we do get the interesting news that there are "subtle but distinct differences between those sampled in West Yorkshire and the rest of the country".

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

"It is disquieting, but no longer unusual, to hear Jews of North African descent express affinity for the National Front."

That is from here.

I recommend following the link. However, all I need to say is Toulouse, Malmo, Anne Frank House, Jewish Museum of Belgium ... and then you know what it's about. It's horrible, you've heard it all before and it's horrible that you've heard it all before. The bit that was new to me was the cross-ethnic north African connections: "Many of Bensemhoun’s patients are North African Muslims. “These are people like me, who were born there,” he told me outside the school’s synagogue. “We speak the same language, literally”—he says he and his patients move easily between Arabic and French—“and we understand each other in very deep ways. ...”"

Monday, 16 March 2015

Jared Diamond on the Japanese

Fascinating stuff.

And, as well as the science, we get things like this: "Until 1946, Japanese schools taught a myth of history based on the earliest recorded Japanese chronicles, which were written in the eighth century. They describe how the sun goddess Amaterasu, born from the left eye of the creator god Izanagi, sent her grandson Ninigi to Earth on the Japanese island of Kyushu to wed an earthly deity. Ninigi’s great-grandson Jimmu, aided by a dazzling sacred bird that rendered his enemies helpless, became the first emperor of Japan in 660 b.c. To fill the gap between 660 b.c. and the earliest historically documented Japanese monarchs, the chronicles invented 13 other equally fictitious emperors. Before the end of World War II, when Emperor Hirohito finally announced that he was not of divine descent, Japanese archeologists and historians had to make their interpretations conform to this chronicle account." (The truth is pretty impressive too: "Emperor Akihito, who reigns today, is the eighty-second direct descendant of the emperor under whom that first chronicle of a.d. 712 was written. He is traditionally considered the 125th direct descendant of the legendary first emperor, Jimmu, the great-great-great-grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu.")

Friday, 13 March 2015

Thatcher and the end of apartheid

It is "beyond dispute that Thatcher was the most effective of leaders outside South Africa in nudging the parties and their main leaders ... towards the negotiations that led to South Africa’s freedom under a universal franchise in 1994." And "Mandela declared, “She is an enemy of apartheid.” He later freely admitted that his country had “much to be thankful to her for”." More here.

This is the sort of thing that enemies of Thatcher would do well to remember. Not because it will make them fans of her, but as antidote to the great belief, widespread on the Left, that people on the Right are not just wrong or mistaken or misguided, but evil or mad. There's a curious asymmetry here: people on the Right are quite happy to believe that their enemies on the Left are merely mistaken, perhaps weak or sentimental, but their (bleeding) hearts are in the right place. But those on the Left somehow find it hard to accept that, say, Thatcher, George W Bush or Blair were just normal fallible humans, making what they thought were the right choices given what they knew and believed: for some reason, they have to believe that these people deliberately acted out of evil motives. Jonathan Haidt could explain it.

I would put it this way. Of course Thatcher was an enemy of apartheid. Of course she wanted to end apartheid. Who wouldn't? You don't get any moral points for being on the right side of that debate. (I think she gets the moral points for doing more than she needed to do to make things right, but that is another matter and to a certain extent depends on what view you take of Britain's responsibility for the problems in the first place.) Of course - because she was, deep down, quite like you. And that's worth remembering next time you suspect that George Osborne might be deliberately trying to reduce half the population to destitution for the amusement of his Bullingdon Club chums.

Old things

1. London, as imagined by a nineteenth century Japanese artist who had never been there. Not too bad, all things considered.

2. The real house from "Up".

3. Inside Jabba the Hutt. It struck me that a lot of English people seem to have been involved in Mr the Hutt - and given George Lucas' love of CGI (evident at the time, it seems), these are English jobs that will be eaten by robots.

4. This one is not really old, just a hipster take on some old stuff. It is people who write haiku on typewriters. At least one of them wears a waistcoat.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Print your own pizza

A real one, from a "Foodini".

The name "Foodini", to me, suggests that it makes food disappear, which is pretty much the opposite of what it does. But perhaps that just goes to show that I'm not at the forefront of edible 3D printing machine naming strategies.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Candidates to replace George Galloway? "Most had websites exhibiting photos of themselves at pro-Palestinian protests"

This (well worth a read) is Bradford: "Bradford has many major Jewish investors including the Westfield Group, whose founder and non-executive chairman Frank Lowy fought in the Israeli war of independence. “Everybody knows that,” said Green, “because Galloway’s told them all.”"

And this: "Rudi ... was not born in Bradford but in Berlin, where he remembers watching the Nazis marching. Rudi paints a nuanced but troubling picture of life as one of the last Jews of Bradford." (See more below.)

Friday, 6 March 2015

"Don't turn me off. Please": How our new robot overlords will become immortal

This is John Lanchester writing about how the robots will eat our jobs, this is Sam Altman (me neither, but my loss) about why we should be afraid of machine (i.e. artificial) intelligence, this is the New Yorker on artificial intelligence that plays (some) computer games better than we do, this is Yuval Noah Harari (me neither again) talking to Daniel Kahneman about various things, including how the economy needs intelligence not consciousness and this is a chap talking about why you shouldn't kill a Minecraft dog (sentimental value). All well worth a read (especially Lanchester and Harari). They are the jumping-off point for my thoughts below.

Atheists: autistic and afraid?

The autism comment comes from this: "a recent paper from a lab at the University of British Columbia reported that the better study participants were at reading others, the more strongly they believed in God, the paranormal, and the notion that life has a purpose. Meanwhile, one of the few true avenues to atheism may be autism. The same lab found that the more autistic traits a person had, the less likely he or she was to believe in God". It's an article about 'magical thinking', so I take it not from a strongly pro-theist position.

Afraid? That comes from this piece by John Gray. As ever, he is entertaining and highly readable. However, I found with this article, as with much of what he writes, that I am carried along and persuaded as I read it, and then immediately afterwards what it is that I was persuaded of is entirely unclear to me. So, in defence of atheists, I thought I would try to work out what he is saying. I've tried below, with little success. Try reading Gray first before my comments below.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

A miscellany of links

1. "London ... is not just by far the most diverse city in Britain but possibly the most diverse in the world and, though historians are hazy about this, plausibly the most diverse cosmopolis in history," says the FT.

2. Karl Ove Knausgaard Travels Through North America, in the New York Times. I read it and I can see the compelling quality of simultaneously mundane and thoughtful writing. Here is a low point in his saga:

"I got dressed, stepped out onto the terrace and had a cigarette. When I came back in, I went to the toilet. I hadn’t gone since I arrived in America, so the result was significant. I wiped myself thoroughly, then flushed.
Instead of the water disappearing with a slurping noise before the bowl filled up again, it started to rise. I watched it for a long time. The water level showed no sign of going down. The toilet was clogged. I flushed again, thinking perhaps that would increase the pressure sufficiently. Instead, the water flowed over the top of the bowl and ran down on both sides, spilling onto the floor. I mopped it up with a towel, put the towel in the tub and looked around for an implement of some kind. There was simply no way I was going to call the reception desk about this. I searched every drawer and closet but found nothing I could use to try to remove the plug of feces and toilet paper that must be clogging the drain. Instead, I wrapped a plastic bag around my arm and stuck my hand into the icy water that was welling up from the bowl.

You'll have to read the whole story to see how that sticky situation gets resolved.

3. Tristram Hunt on UKIP: "“When you go on the doors and actually you speak to young parents and young families who actually are feeling the impact of high levels of migration, who have concerns about their ability to get on,” he explains, “They’re [also] really concerned about their kids and their ability to get on. They’re angry if their school is in special measures and making sure we speak to the aspiration that they have for their kids is I think a strong argument to make to those voters.”" Well, it's a theory, but it's one that does not take the voters' concerns in good faith. If you are concerned that your children are being out-competed by immigrants' children, then how is improving the education of your children and those immigrants' children going to help? I suspect that no one from "plausibly the most diverse cosmopolis in history" is going to be that convincing to you.

4. Poetic justice. "Spanish Police have arrested two brothers from Girona, Spain, who attempted to sell a fake Francisco de Goya painting to a purported sheikh, EFE reports. But the “sheikh” was no victim: he paid the pair with photocopied money."