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.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

How to live, by Sir David Tang

I used to have the feeling that if I ever met Sir David Tang then I would not get on with him. I confess that this was never a cause of any great sadness on my part, but still, one doesn't like to worry about such things.

I warmed to Sir David somewhat on finding out that he has translated Charlie and the Chocolate Factory into Chinese (even the 'square sweets that look round' bit) but still I felt that we would end up slightly at cross-purposes if ever we met. That we wouldn't quite 'click', so to speak.

But now my fears have been effaced completely. This is cracking stuff. Sir David Anthony Prise Wing-Cheung Tang, KBE, OBE, Chevalier l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, DSc, BA is a man who knows how to live. By which I mean, how to deal with the stuff which surrounds us in life.

The piece (with the best photographs of drawers I have ever seen) is a conversation between him and Lucy Kellaway, who loves de-cluttering and minimalism. Sir David knocks that nail right on the head:

- the "dubious principle of joy through decluttering. Doesn’t that make you a slave to possessions when possessions should be our slaves?"

- "Just think of the anticlimax of opening a large drawer only to find, as I did in your set of drawers next to your bed, just a few rolled up bundles of your husband’s monochromatic underpants — and a half empty drawer. If you opened mine, it would offer you a whole range of socks: from thick to thin, from long to short, from wool to cotton, from black to white, from yellow to blue, from plain to patterned. It’s like Aladdin’s cave and who wouldn’t want to stumble into Aladdin’s cave?"

- "... we keepers of possessions are free from any fetters — we have no urgency to get rid of anything at any time. ... If the price of this is to have a drawer jammed full of socks which might never see the light of day then I draw comfort from the fact that our ocean floors are buried with immense biodiversity of which we know nothing."

- "we love the serendipities and sense of frisson arising from the sudden discovery of things we had long forgotten. These are sensations you miss out on because you have thrown away most of your things and will never suddenly come across them again, and if you do remember any of them, you can only wallow in nostalgia and regret."

What a man!

The only problem now is that a new slight sadness has entered my heart accompanying the knowledge that Lucy Kellaway, for whom previously I had nothing but respect, is a person with flaws. But she has a dresser that might just open the door to enlightenment.

Friday, 24 April 2015

The Bar Council - Integrity. Excellence. Justice. Typo-ridden short break adverts.

So I got this, from a 'Service Partner' of the Bar Council. Quite apart from the bold attempt at spelling "theatre", I was puzzled by "Afternoon tea breaks" - is the idea that people have a holiday for the purpose of having afternoon tea?

Thursday, 23 April 2015

The coming London property market crash

Did you know that (so this says) "currently there are 41,000 units under construction in London priced at over £1 million when last year only 3000 homes were sold for more than that"? Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

A capitalist/feminist critique of Matthew Crawford

You might have worried about how there are adverts everywhere, people are always distracted by email and their phones, you can't concentrate on anything for very long, and so on and so on. Matthew Crawford (sympathetic account here) seems to be the thinking man's thinking-and-practical man on this topic: "When he is not thinking about how we ought to live, Crawford works as a motorcycle mechanic, a job he turned to after growing disillusioned with office life in Washington thinktanks."

Instinctively, I have a lot of sympathy for these sorts of worries. But as I read about Crawford and his motorbikes, and saw the pictures of him (pretty manly - he's even holding a big spanner in one of them) and digested his story about how gyms have stopped being places where one big guy decides on the music and have now become full of atomised individuals with headphones and TV screens, a thought crept into my head: are these perhaps a set of male worries? (More below.)

Friday, 17 April 2015

David, The Death of Socrates

This video takes us nicely through the painting, making some interesting points along the way. Worth 7 minutes of your time.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

The multi-dimensional political spectrum passes through Grimsby

You will be familiar with the fact that  'right-wing' and 'left-wing' have to do a lot of work, covering attitudes to tax policy, immigration policy, social values, etc etc. It's interesting and perhaps surprising that, broadly speaking, they manage to do the job: why should what you think about gay marriage be correlated with what you think about the minimum wage?

Matthew Yglesias here mentions the recent debate about whether there are any libertarians in real life. He then goes on take a quick survey of the world and concludes that there does seem to be a natural link: you tend to get a right-wing political party that is a bit more religious and business-friendly, and more pluralistic, labour-friendly left-wing party. Yglesias has some brief thoughts on how the link might work, e.g., "Women are poorer than men, so maybe it's natural for redistribution to bundle with feminism and anti-redistribution to bundle with patriarchy."

Well, perhaps. But perhaps one way of looking at the decline of the share in the vote taken by the biggest two parties in the UK (and in other countries where the same has happened) is to say that that seemingly natural link has become broken. 

Immigrants (and potential immigrants) are poorer than natives, so maybe it's natural to bundle pro-immigration policies with redistribution? Not now. Here is the ever-readable James Meek in the LRB going to Grimsby to talk about UKIP and other such matters, and finding characters such as "Val O’Flynn, the ex-Militant Tendency candidate for the radical left-wing Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition ... The open door immigration policy, she said, ‘suited the capitalist because it increases the labour force, it has a downward effect on wages, and immigrants are much easier to exploit...’" O'Flynn is engaged to a UKIP chap who "was a Labour member for many, many years. I was at Orgreave and I was a steel worker at Scunthorpe during the strike of 1980, on the picket lines".

The Economist has a fun quiz showing how similar many Green and UKIP policies are. The similarities include anti-elitism, increased state funding for education and healthcare and using state powers to open up empty houses. That's to say, they have both spotted a gap in the political market for left-wing economics. What other gaps in the market are out there?

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Of causation, correlation, cigarettes and claimants

This is a nice little piece from Tim Harford about causation and correlation. I particularly liked this:

"It’s not clear why Huff and Fisher were so fixated on the idea that the growing evidence on smoking was a mere correlation. Both of them were paid as consultants by the tobacco industry and some will believe that the consulting fees caused their scepticism. It seems just as likely that their scepticism caused the consulting fees. We may never know."

I hope that Harford is being gently wry here rather than downright sarcastic: it is well worth remembering that there are plenty of people who will say things whether or not they were being paid to say them and regard the money as a pleasant bonus.

In my own line of work I find that there's a pretty good correlation between the expert witnesses who support claimants and the expert witnesses who are paid by claimants (and a pretty good correlation on defendants' side too), but that's not to say that expert witnesses simply say what they are paid to say - indeed, we make them swear that they won't do so. Now, who paid me to say that?

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Why airliners crash - and what conservatism is going to look like

Richard I. Cook, MD, formerly of the Cognitive Technologies Laboratory at the University of Chicago and now of the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, has written about How Complex Systems Fail (18 headlines over 4 pages and well worth reading). 

The sorts of things Cook has looked into are operating theatres, airline cockpits, electrical power generation and so on (there's a video here - 30 minutes). You probably have a vague idea of the sorts of things that we learn from these kinds of studies, e.g. that catastrophe requires multiple failures – single point failures are not enough (the 'Swiss cheese effect' and Cook's point 3), and so post-accident attribution accident to a ‘root cause’ is fundamentally wrong (point 7).

All of that is interesting enough. But I want to leave hospitals and planes aside and turn to even broader issues. A civil society is a complex system. It can fail - we even have the new phrase 'failed state'. So how can a civil society fail? (See further below).

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Medmenham Abbey is for sale

From the particulars: "The ruinous Abbey house, which sits adjacent to the old site of The Abbey, was rented by Sir Francis Dashwood, afterwards Lord Le de Spencer, and in the early 1700s was restored for him by Italian artists. It was here that he founded the famous brotherhood of ‘the Knights of St Francis of Wycombe’ in 1745 with the motto of love and friendship. This profligate society had the dress consisting of a gown and a turban of crimson and blue satin, with the device in silver. The society was limited to 24 members of rank and fashion, mostly resident in the neighbourhood, who resorted to Medmenham Abbey during the summer months. Over the main entrance was placed the famous inscription ‘Fay ce que voudras’ or do what you will." The inscription also appears above one of the fireplaces pictured in the brochure.

I think the cinema (with tiered seating) post-dates Dashwood.

It is obviously a rather desirable house in many ways. But if you look at the map at the end of the particulars, you will see that it has an almost immediately adjoining neighbour to the west, despite having acres of parkland and privacy to the east - something to be aware of if you are thinking of re-founding the Hellfire Club.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

The General Election - big money betting

I have no idea who is going to win the General Election. But I'm not just saying that - I'm putting my money where my mouth is.

Below is my betting slip. (It is expressed in decimal odds: 101.00 means 100/1 for example. These are the odds available at Ladbrokes - some of these bets may be available at better odds elsewhere but Ladbrokes seemed to be the best place to put all of them.)

Some of these odds look crazy to me, in particular Cons/LD/DUP at 50/1 and Cons/DUP at 100/1. These seem to me to be pretty plausible outcomes, more in the 10/1 - 20/1 range.

Moreover, the overall position appears quite attractive: I win money (ranging from £30 to £900) on what seems to me to be any plausible outcome other than a minority government or a Conservative majority. The polling indicates that there will not be a Conservative majority. So I suppose the bets below demonstrate that I believe that the last 5 years of coalition government have been such a success that whoever ends up with the most seats will want to repeat it. Hmm. Perhaps the bookies are right after all.