Friday, 15 December 2017

Not cheerful links

1. What do you think about "A sweeping noninterference agreement between Moscow and Washington that would prohibit both governments from meddling in the other’s domestic politics"? Apparently, "US officials told Moscow there would be no deal".

2. Now forget about Russia. Here's a compelling account of Saudi influence over US politics.

3. Think of a multi-ethnic yet long-term peaceful country? Yugoslavia? Er, no. Switzerland? Yes! So how do the Swiss do it? By keeping the ethnic groups apart from each other, mostly using mountains and lakes. Oh dear. Should we speculate that an awareness of the fragile nature of inter-ethnic cooperation is why "More than any other country, Switzerland’s ethos is centered around preparing for civilizational collapse"?

4. As if you hadn't spotted this fact from Brexit, Trump, etc, etc etc, it appears that more highly educated individuals are more strongly prejudiced against those on the other side of the political spectrum. A quantity theory of prejudice, anyone? (If you want to judge people - and it seems that many of us do - then I would suggest judging them on how they treat the people they actually come across. It's easy enough to say virtuous or nasty things about groups of people in the abstract - that's all just virtue-signalling - face to face is the real test. How many of the people who threaten to punch a Tory actually engage in unprovoked physical violence? And recall that UKIP employed a transsexual lesbian (later one of their MEPs) - have you ever done that?)

5. This one is not cheerful, but not depressing either. It is entitled "The Western Elite from a Chinese Perspective", but that is not a terribly good title for it - it is more personal and interesting than that makes it sound. Here's one example: "here at Goldman [Sachs], he said, we don’t punish people for losing money for the right reason. I have always loved asking questions, so I asked him, was anyone ever punished for making money for the wrong reason? After giving it some thought, he said that he had not heard of any such thing. And he was right."

6. You remember that article about the impending population collapse in the West? There's more! And it's not that cheerful. Should we worry? Well, "odds are we have to fight a mass-casualty war within the next 2 centuries". Hmm. Leaving that aside, women aren't having as many children as they want. I'm not sure people ask men how many children they want (listen to women! the author is always being told), but it seems that there "are actually very few large low-fertility societies out there that don’t have generous incentives or campaigns to boost fertility in place. Now, most of these are of minimal effectiveness! But their mere existence suggests that lowest-low fertility creates direct disutility for voters, at a minimum", and I suppose voters come in both male and female flavours.

7. Last, but far from least, this, the Warlock Hunt (think witch hunt, but not for witches). An article which a man could not write (and perhaps should not read ...).

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Fun stuff

1. How a restaurant that didn't exist became the No 1 restaurant in London according to TripAdvisor. It's the Shed @ Dulwich and it's all here.

2. British water companies rely on magic (well, water divining).

3. Cracking Elgar's Enigma.

4. Improvising in the style of different composers.

5. The National Health Service in the UK uses more than a tenth of the global stock of pagers, and other facts.

6. Who was the greatest military leader? Wellington was about as great a military leader as Caesar, but still well behind Napoleon. Haig was better than Rommel or Robert E Lee?

7. Vote for Tom Harwood! Seriously, do vote for him if you in the NUS.

8. The Economist's advent calendar of graphs.

9. AlphaZero beats Stockfish at chess, having learned the game in 24 hours. The paper includes 10 example games. I played out the first one. It is a little weird.

10. Prolific panda production, and its discontents.

11. Thomas the Tank Engine stunts.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Sentences to ponder

1. Let's start with empirical psychedelia: ""There is no evidence that communion with entities during psychedelic experiences is not an illusion," he explains on the phone from Buenos Aires, when I ask if LSD really allows users to communicate with nature." From here.

2. Then back to reality: "No woman is going to have sex with a man whose ears are bleeding profusely, Mr Liddle. It’s not the sort of thing they do." That's from here. Well worth reading for the postage stamps story.

3. Still in reality? "[He] was at prep school with Prince Charles, and now thinks him ‘the reincarnation of Solomon’." From here. As you might imagine, the man with that opinion has had a not altogether conventionally happy life.

4. And on the subject of wisdom: "Philosophy, you understand, is a very pharmacopoeia of cures that are worse than the corresponding diseases. This started a long while ago; perhaps with Plato’s suggestion that, although there is a problem about how so many different things can all be chairs, philosophy can fix it: there is only one chair that is really a chair, the Chair on which no one can sit; the One Chair that is in Heaven." From here. (Jerry Fodor RIP.) It's worth remembering that professional philosophers are, by and large, the sort of person who at some point in their younger years thought, "Hmm, the One Chair that is in the Heaven? Yes, that sounds like a sensible answer to a difficult problem."

5. Staying with refined pursuits: "Sooner or later [Brideshead Revisited] will be completely unintelligible to even highly educated readers, except for a few specialists." From here. (On the subject of the Waugh family, "Powell’s friend Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd [tells us that for] years, [Auberon] Waugh had hoped that his family would appear in Burke’s Landed Gentry, a volume edited by Massingberd. One year, Massingberd asked [Anthony] Powell to write a preface. It was the year in which, for some reason, Waugh had supposed that his dreams would at last be fulfilled. When the volume appeared, complete with Powell preface, the Waughs were not, however, in the book. Seeing Powell’s name at the front, Waugh assumed, wrongly, that Powell had edited the entire volume that year and therefore been instrumental in his family’s exclusion." A story surely everyone can sympathise with?)

6. But French representations of the English are always intelligible: "In the most extravagant versions, these heinous traits were combined, as in Georges Colomb’s comic-strip La famille Fenouillard (1893), which showed the English “burning Joan of Arc on the rock of Saint Helena”." From here. It would be a comic strip.

7. The future, whether French or English, belongs to those who turn up. And who's going to turn up? "As you can see, the U.S. fertility collapse is much less severe than the Russian post-Soviet fertility collapse or the Swedish collapse in the 1990s, but is on par with the Canadian collapse in the 1970s, the Japanese collapse in the 1970s, the EU collapse in the 1970s or 1980s. It is somewhat more severe than the French collapse in the 1970s and 1980s. // None of these example countries has returned to replacement-rate fertility." From here.

8. Perhaps we needn't get too upset by the impending collapse of the West. "By this point in our civilization’s development, many honest buyers and sellers have left the indignation market entirely; and what’s left behind is not, on average, good." From here. That's going too far. But if you replace "civilization" with "social media" then you'd be pretty close to the truth.

9. At any rate, surely there will always be that blossom of snow to warm our hearts? "When Hammerstein died, Theodore Bikel was on stage every night on Broadway still singing "Edelweiss", and he noticed something about the song. "This dying man writing the very last lyric of his career," he said, "the very last word he wrote was 'forever'."Here. Also: "Some years ago "Edelweiss" was played at the White House, at a state dinner for Austria's President Kirschschlager, and everyone but the Austrians stood up for the national anthem." I certainly hope that's true.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Uber - inside and out

Here are two interesting links about Uber.

First, here is Mr Money Mustache, an early retirement devotee, explaining what it is like to work for Uber. A detail from his induction: "There was a trendy little cafe in the corner of the room, so I strolled over and picked up a Clif bar and a coffee. Due to my naive privilege as a former tech worker, I expected it all to be free – after all, don’t all offices offer free coffee and snacks, along with a keg of local beer and another tap for Kombucha? But a man popped out from around the corner and rung me up for $3.85. On top of that, it was a bland coffee in a small cup. This was an interesting reminder that working in a lower-training job is a different world than the one you and I probably both inhabit, here at the top of the economy."

Second, here is Alex Tabarrok explaining why Uber can't pay drivers more just by raising fares. I would be interested to see what Tabarrok thinks about Mustache's suggestions for changing how drivers are paid.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Incoherence on Clinton and Lewinsky

This makes no sense. In the wake of Harvey Weinstein et al, there is now a move by decent liberals to say that their defence of Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affair was wrong. The link is a piece to that effect from someone sane and reasonable. But it makes no sense. (More below)

Friday, 17 November 2017

Miscellaneous links with some commentary from me

1. Different sets of undercover police officers fighting each other.

2. How the world looks from South Asia. For one thing, it puts Brexit in a bit of context: I'm not sure that Henry VIII's break with Rome was big news at the court of the Emperor Humayun either - the natural order is restored. (Talking of Brexit, EU workers in the UK have increased to record numbers since the Brexit vote. Not sure how that fits into anyone's Brexit narrative.)

3. Very pretty chemistry.

4. Laws very different from our own. More here. All fascinating and worth pondering. Just one little footnote from me. Alexander points out that a lot of these alternative legal systems seem to rely on there being little crime and/or little recidivism: were these societies less crime-ridden than our own? Some parts of the answer are obvious. (1) You need to have a lot of laws before you get crimes like forging cheques and tax evasion. (2) It used to be more normal to use physical force or public humiliation to settle arguments or to punish people whose crimes are disgusting. Take something as recent as Back to the Future: this is a film in which the happy ending consists in a weak man summoning up the courage to inflict vigilante violence to a sexual harasser, thereby successfully intimidating the harasser for life. (The modern equivalent might permit a 'kick-ass' woman to mete out the physical punishment, but would it prefer the harasser to experience institutional correction or counselling?) But note also (3) there are institutional incentives here. Once a society has police, prisons, courts, campaigning pressure groups for victims, etc. it will find something for them to do. Does the fact that this country can spend maybe £2m on investigating a dead man's sexual history prove that we are a fantastically rich country prepared to spend whatever it takes in order to obtain a perfect version of justice? Or that there is very little crime being committed by living people? Or simply that the institutions in favour of spending money on that sort of thing have a great deal of power?

5. This, by Adrian Chiles (an under-rated writer), finally makes baseball make sense to English people. I mean, you know it's a bit like rounders, but what it is really about? What's the story? The question had never consciously occurred to me until Chiles raised it and answered it. "Watching cricket, I was used to seeing the batsman, pain etched across his face, mournfully trudging back to the pavilion to spend long hours ruminating on his shortcomings. Here the fella just shrugged, took his seat in the dugout, and came out for another swing and miss 20 minutes or so later. Where was the pain?" Read the link for the answer. And if you understand baseball and wonder about cricket then this might help you too.

6. Nominative determinism of the day: the Church of England's statement on letting boys dress as girls in school comes from Nigel Genders.

7. Finally, this. File perhaps under law, perhaps under our common European heritage at its finest, perhaps under Brexit, and perhaps under verse.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

This is immensely weird

"Yuichi: I played a father for a 12-year-old with a single mother. The girl was bullied because she didn’t have a dad, so the mother rented me. I’ve acted as the girl’s father ever since. I am the only real father that she knows.

Morin: And this is ongoing?

Yuichi: Yes, I’ve been seeing her for eight years. She just graduated high school.

Morin: Does she understand that you’re not her real father?

Yuichi: No, the mother hasn’t told her.

Morin: How do you think she would feel if she discovered the truth?

Yuichi: I think she would be shocked. If the client never reveals the truth, I must continue the role indefinitely. If the daughter gets married, I have to act as a father in that wedding, and then I have to be the grandfather. So, I always ask every client, “Are you prepared to sustain this lie?” It’s the most significant problem our company has.

Morin: So, you could be involved with her for the rest of your life?

Yuichi: It’s risky that she might discover the truth someday. In this company, one person can only have five families at a time. That’s the rule.


Yuichi: ... There was one case of a man in his 60s. His wife died, and he wanted to order another copy of her. We provided that.

Morin: And he called the new woman by his wife’s old name?

Yuichi: Yes, the same name, and he wanted her to call him what his wife had. She called him Otōsan—it means father. In Japan, it’s pretty common to say father, even if you’re the wife.

Morin: Did she have the same memories as the wife?

Yuichi: There are certain memories, yes. There’s a blank sheet, and the client writes the memories that he wants the wife to remember.

More here. Read it and weep.

Perhaps this is just another 'Japanese people are weird' story, like a piece about gameshows or the more awkward bits of Lost in Translation. Or perhaps this is a 'the future happens first in Japan' story.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Life expectancy

You might have seen this in the LRB from Danny Dorling. It's sobering stuff. Here's a flavour of it:

"Since 2011, under David Cameron and Theresa May, life expectancy has flatlined. [...] For the first time in well over a century the health of people in England and Wales as measured by the most basic feature – life – has stopped improving. Just as Macmillan had done, the government initially tried to blame the figures on flu deaths. But as the years have passed and life expectancy continues to stall it has become clear that flu isn’t the culprit. The most plausible explanation would blame the politics of austerity, which has had an excessive impact on the poor and the elderly; the withdrawal of care support to half a million elderly people that had taken place by 2013; the effect of a million fewer social care visits being carried out every year; the cuts to NHS budgets and its reorganisation as a result of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act; increased rates of bankruptcy and general decline in the quality of care homes; the rise in fuel poverty among the old; cuts to or removal of disability benefits. The stalling of life expectancy was the result of political choice."

Woah! You mean the Tories are killing people? Just like Macmillan did?

Spoiler alert: No.

Here's the ONS digest Dorling is talking about. It's a bit on the dry side, as these things are, but it shows a small improvement: "The rate of increase in life expectancy in the UK has slowed in recent years. In 2014 to 2016, improvements in life expectancy were higher than in 2013 to 2015 although they remained very slight", it says, weakly.

But wait! Dorling was talking about England and Wales. Surely the difference is that Scotland, which has a completely different NHS, devolved government, milk and honey, and so on, must be dragging up the average? Surely once those nasty Tories are out of the way, we can all live as long as the Japanese?

Um, no. "Life expectancy at birth remained highest in England and lowest in Scotland," says the ONS. Well, but that's historical? Surely it's because of those Tories being charge all those years ago? Now that devolution is in place, things are getting better?

Um, no: "Life expectancy at birth in Scotland has continued to diverge from the UK," says the ONS.

Let's be clear about all this. Here is a rather more colourfully-illustrated Government statistical paper. It shows us that this is what happened in the UK up to 2014 (and recall that things have got very slightly better since then):

Thrilling, isn't it? 

Dorling's point is this. You'll see that there was a little downward blip in about 2011-2012, i.e when that nasty Mr Cameron took over from the nice Mr Brown. So things are a bit flatline-ish if you draw a straight line from a point before the downward blip to the present day. 

Meanwhile, here is what happened to men across Europe:

And, just so you can see I'm not cherry-picking, here's what happened to women:

You can see the same 2011-2012 blip right across Europe. It was massive for the over-85s in France. Maybe that flu thing that the Government was talking about was real after all?

None of which is to explain why British male life expectancy at 85 is lower than German life expectancy. But nor is it to explain why British male life expectancy at 65 is higher than German life expectancy, or why British female life expectancy at 85 is higher than German life expectancy. (Or at least why they were so in 2013.)

There is a lot that goes into life expectancy. Smoking, public health, air pollution, diet, gun laws, migration and, yes, health services. But one of the most notable differences between the health care systems of Britain and other European countries is that we have a lot of state medicine (the NHS) and other countries have more private health care: why not say that their excellent private healthcare is why French people live so long, even before Cameron turned into Killer-Macmillan Mark II? Or at least Dorling could explain why those Spanish healthcare cuts of 2012 seem to have improved outcomes for old people?  

There are obviously arguments to be had about how much money should be raised in taxation, and about how the money that is raised in taxation should be allocated between different competing public demands, and even within the NHS there are competing priorities (would a glitzy advertising campaign promoting MMR be better at prolonging life expectancy than spending more money on hospices? would that be a better use of money?). Dorling might be right in saying that the Government has the wrong priorities. But you should not fall for his story that the Government has decided to kill people as a matter of political choice.

Friday, 10 November 2017

The best advertising is true

Or at least, as the Carlsberg adverts used to say, probably. But this one has more than a grain of truth to it.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

You might be interested in ...

1. A safari in Trump's America. Molly Ball writes some good stuff.

2. This chap is very good at sliding down banisters.

3. If you have seen Blade Runner 2049 then you will know that there is plenty to wonder at. But is there anything to wonder about? Perhaps. Here is Slavoj Žižek on the film (and also on the the bourgeois triumph over the patriarchy, coffee without milk and the class differences between vampires and zombies) and here is Tyler Cowen (all Straussian spoilers). Both reviewers - so different in other ways - refer to Jesus Christ in their reviews. My first impression of the film was to agree with The Economist that the story is "thin and threadbare" and "riddled with holes", but then I was walking down the road one day and I heard a leaf-blower (spoiler alert - the main sound on the soundtrack) and I immediately started to think again about the film. Cowen says "Think of the main plot line as showing a world where the Christ miracle is inverted": I suppose you might say that the plot line of the New Testament (inverted or not) is a little thin and riddled with holes, but that's hardly the point. I'm still pretty doubtful about it all (and Jared Leto was too reminiscent of the most tedious parts of the second Matrix film for those doubts to go away), and I think the likes of the original Star Trek series or Her tried to earn their thoughtful credentials more honestly, but perhaps there is something in there that deserves a second look.

4. Students abused for being Brexit-supporters: here's a little BBC video about these people. The subtext is: they look just like you and me - but they are really Leavers! I bet they are not really the only Brexit-supporters in their respective universities, just the only ones brave enough to 'out' themselves. I'm sure quite a few students woke up on 24 June secretly rather pleased at the come-uppance of many their smugger classmates, human nature being what it is. Anyway, for that reason or some other, we are generally happier since the Brexit vote.

5. Modern Media Is a DoS Attack on Your Free Will. That's the headline. If you're intrigued, here's more.

6. Jinnah's family: Indian Parsis.

7. Economics - what a load of rubbish, eh? That's a pretty widespread take on the dismal science. And of course, economists are not terribly good at predicting the future (the short-term effects of Brexit being a good example). But that's a silly way of looking at it: like dentists and plumbers, their tools are better at analysing problems than predicting them. I'm afraid economists, like theologians, sociologists and post-modern theorists, get dismissed by people who don't understand, don't know and don't care what they actually do. But here's a corrective: you can use economic theory to locate lost ancient cities.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Questions that Courts ask themselves

1. In America: "Who would imagine that more than 150 years after the Treaty of Olympia (the “Treaty”) was signed between the United States and the Quileute and Quinault tribes, we would be asked to determine whether the “right of taking fish” includes whales and seals? Although scientists tell us sea mammals are not fish, these appeals ask us to go back to the 1855 treaty negotiation and signing and place ourselves in the shoes of two signatory tribes—the Quileute Indian Tribe (the “Quileute”) and the Quinault Indian Nation (the “Quinault”)—to determine what they intended the Treaty to cover." Spoiler alert: whales are fish.

2. In England: "Is the shape of a London taxi a valid registered trade mark?" The judgment has plenty of taxi illustrations.

3. In Australia: "Does a candidate in possession of two conflicting advices on the question know that he or she is a foreign citizen for the purposes of s 44(i) only when the advice that he or she is indeed a foreign citizen is accepted as correct by a court?" (Actually that was a rhetorical question intended to show problems with one contended-for construction of the Constitution.)  Bonus question for you. Here are the facts - was Ms Waters Canadian?
"Ms Waters was born in February 1977 in Winnipeg, Canada to Australian parents who were living in Canada at the time for study and work purposes. Neither was a permanent resident of Canada. Ms Waters' birth was registered with the Australian High Commission in Ottawa in June 1977. It was not in doubt that Ms Waters was an Australian citizen by descent. In January 1978, as an infant aged 11 months, Ms Waters left Canada with her parents, who were returning to live in Australia. Ms Waters has never held a Canadian passport. She has not visited Canada since leaving it in January 1978. She has always considered herself to be an Australian and has never understood that she owes allegiance to any other country. She has not sought or received consular assistance or any other kind of government assistance from Canada and she has not exercised any rights as a Canadian citizen. Her mother had given her to understand that she would be eligible to apply for Canadian citizenship when she turned 21. On turning 21 in 1998, Ms Waters considered applying for Canadian citizenship but she decided against it."
Answer: yes she was Canadian! (Mark Steyn's layman's take on it: "... in Australia everyone's a potential alien mainly in the sense of that John Hurt chestburster scene in which you can be as Aussie as can be chugging along all ticketty-boo and then some creepy Welsh midget great-uncle bursts through your rib cage and leaps out.")

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

How we talk when we talk about sexual wrongdoing

You might have seen that there is a spreadsheet in circulation describing the sexual behaviour (to use a neutral word) of various Tory politicians. It is being published in redacted versions, but bits of information can be put together to name names, and presumably the whole thing will become (even more) public in due course. I have no idea whether any of the accusations are accurate: I would ask you to bear in mind that false rumours are not exactly unheard of in politics, and that putting statements into a spreadsheet does not thereby make them true

Anyway, what I thought was interesting was the words people are using to talk about this behaviour.
The spreadsheet itself has some interesting choices of words. "Inappropriate" features a lot. That is not surprising. "Inappropriate" is a popular word for this sort of thing nowadays: it is pretty vague in extent but quite clear in implying "bad". It's probably quite a good word if we are talking about things like unwelcome knee-patting or making personal comments with a view to causing embarrassment; I suspect it is far from being the right word in the case of someone who has apparently obtained an injunction against "inappropriate" behaviour.

The spreadsheet also uses "impregnated" and "fornicated". Have you ever asked someone whether their father "impregnated" their mother or "fornicated with" her? Me neither, and I don't recommend it: it would almost certainly be "inappropriate". These words are only used in connection with impropriety.

"Handsy" is a great word. But, as with "fornicate", doesn't its use suggest that we are talking about the sort of men that the Mitford sisters were warned about in the 1930s rather than people today? You'll see references to men "not being safe in taxis" in the links as well. Is it possible that when the redactions come out we will discover some shocking things about Neville Chamberlain's Cabinet?

I am also fascinated by the way the reporting of the spreadsheet has tried to distinguish between more and less serious matters. How about this:

"Not all the MPs on the spreadsheet are accused of acting improperly. It includes two MPs named in Sun stories who have had relationships with staff where no misbehaviour is alleged.

Justin Tomlinson had a relationship with his younger researcher and Steve Double had an affair.

No sexual wrongdoing is suggested on the part of either.

I see what they are getting at - Mr Double's sexual advances were welcomed - it was mutual handsiness! - but surely "Steve Double had an affair ... No sexual wrongdoing is suggested" is just wrong? Or am I being terribly old-fashioned?

If I were trying to be sententious about all this (and this is not the right context for such an effort) I would suggest that these interesting linguistic choices are the result of the inherent difficulties in having just one openly-accepted test for whether sexual behaviour is right or wrong, i.e. whether the immediately present participants are consenting, while people are quietly aware that there is more to it than that. "Impregnated former researcher and made her have an abortion" you say? I'm sure he didn't force her at gunpoint, so it's all just consenting adults, isn't it? Well, of course it isn't, and it may take a lot of (rightly) angry women making a feminist fuss about "inappropriate" behaviour to re-teach us some things that our grandparents knew. But that is for another day.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Croonin' Putin

Do you want to see Vladimir Putin playing the piano and singing 'Blueberry Hill' to a clapping audience of international celebrities including Goldie Hawn? Of course you do. Here he is. What a guy.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Euthanasia in Belgium

"Among adults whose lives are ended for psychiatric reasons, the most common conditions are depression, personality disorder and Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism. ... In 2014, Belgium became the first country in the world to expand its original euthanasia law by explicitly allowing it for children, although this cannot be for psychological suffering. The Netherlands, the first country to legalize euthanasia, has proposed extending euthanasia to old, healthy people who feel they have “completed” their lives."

Read all about it here.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

The other side of Tolkein

JRR Tolkien was Sub-Warden of Merton College, Oxford. Indeed, he has a good claim to be the most famous person associated with the College in all its 753-year history. And yet one feels that he is not fondly remembered there. This extract from the obituary of a more fondly-remembered academic, Dr Roger Highfield, might help explain why.

"Tolkien mania both amused and baffled him. He liked Tolkien personally but couldn’t fathom the fuss that surrounded him. Approached by a television producer for reminiscences, he deftly recommended Bruce Mitchell at Teddy Hall as a Tolkien pupil – a rare bird indeed, Roger remarked confidentially, because Tolkien was very lazy and supervised few. This deflection spared him having to admit that, aside from having played squash together, all he could say of Tolkien was that he was incomparably the worst Sub-Warden ever. 

"The ultimate high or (depending on the vantage) low point of Roger’s and Merton’s experience of Tolkien came when Tolkien offered to bequeath to the College the priceless manuscript of The Hobbit (1937). Roger as Librarian was naturally beset by visions of queues, stretching along Merton Street and endlessly beyond, of miscellaneous devotees and doctoral students, taking it in turns to prostrate themselves before the sacred relic; but he and the Warden and Fellows manned up and duly assembled for a ceremony in the New Common Room at which Tolkien handed over the treasure to the sound of popping corks. Later, when Roger cut the string and opened the brown paper parcel, he discovered that the great man had wrapped up a different and still unfinished manuscript. Not only was he working on it, he wanted it back. It turned out to be The Silmarillion (1977) which, along with The Hobbit, Merton never did get. ‘Waste of good champagne’, was Roger’s withering verdict."

I don't think that's quite how a man of Gondor would have played it.

Monday, 23 October 2017

IKEA humans

This piece about 'IKEA humans' is well worth a read. I do not agree with all of it. I disagree with some of it. And much of it is about American issues on which I have no ability to judge. But it is interesting and thought-provoking. I have given some excerpts below.

Saturday, 21 October 2017


"A third of the world’s food supply is consumed or destroyed by rats. ... There are more rodents currently infected with plague in North America ... than there were in Europe at the time of the Black Death."

"‘Rats that survive to the age of four are the wisest and the most cynical beasts on earth,’ an exterminator told Mitchell sixty years ago. ‘A trap means nothing to them, no matter how skilfully set. They just kick it around until it snaps; then they eat the bait. And they can detect poisoned bait a yard off. I believe some of them can read.’ "

If you love reading about rats, then this is the link for you.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Friday, 6 October 2017

Really good university funding policy

What would you think of a university funding policy that resulted in "increased funding per head, rising enrolments, and a narrowing of the participation gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students" and "increasing quality, quantity, and equity in higher education". Sounds good, doesn't it?

There is in fact such a policy. It's the introduction of tuition fees in England. Worth bearing that in mind the next time you read a Stefan Collini tear-jerker in the LRB. Roll back that policy at your peril?

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Seven links, all worth a read

1. Woody Allen is very lazy.

2. This is the story of the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong-un. Fascinating and sad - perhaps too implausible to be a film.

3. This is an article by someone with Asperger's talking about neurodiversity. "Aspies don’t mince their words. Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen thinks this is a sign of low empathy and he is not alone. Baron-Cohen thinks “empathizing is about effortlessly putting yourself into another’s shoes, sensitively negotiating an interaction with another person so as not to hurt or offend them in any way, caring about another’s feelings.” Baron-Cohen is one of the pioneers in the field of autism research. But it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that what Aspies have is a failure of introspection, not empathy. // Aspies have a blunt style of speech, because they mean well. [...] Neurotypicals always think it’s about them. Tell them social media is not good for children, and they will say, “Don’t tell me how to raise my child.” Tell them intelligence is heritable, and they assume you just called them stupid. Tell them you disagree, and they think you just don’t like them. Tell them the gender salary gap is not because of patriarchy, and they will remove you from their Facebook friend list. Why do neurotypicals make a torture rack for themselves, and us, with their poor self-esteem? And they still think we don’t have empathy."

4. "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" Dr Johnson asked. This article is a well-judged attempt to answer that question.

5. Ross Douthat gives Hugh Hefner both barrels.

6. "Soon an intelligent terrorist with a cruise missile and some off-the-shelf kit will be able to sink [an aircraft] carrier using their iPhone ... [Our leaders] should also study summer 1914 and ponder how those responsible for war and peace still make these decisions in much the same way as then, while the crises are 1,000 times faster and a million times more potentially destructive." The ever-readable Dominic Cummings, of course. The headline is "Review of Allison’s book on US/China & nuclear destruction, and some connected thoughts on technology, the EU, and space": that covers most of it, although there is more Bismarck in it than you would guess from that. Oh, and also: "When the UK leaves the EU, the EU will have zero universities in the global top 20."

7. Are you scared about software? If not, you should be. "The stakes keep rising, but programmers aren’t stepping up—they haven’t developed the chops required to handle increasingly complex problems. “In the 15th century,” he said, “people used to build cathedrals without knowing calculus, and nowadays I don’t think you’d allow anyone to build a cathedral without knowing calculus. And I would hope that after some suitably long period of time, people won’t be allowed to write programs if they don’t understand these simple things.”"

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Foreign funding of Facebook ads

You might have seen something about Russian organisations paying for advertising on Facebook in relation to the US elections last year. Hugo Rifkind, for one, thinks that this kind of thing is worrying.

Other than thinking that paying for political advertising is rather less worrying than various other ways countries have gone about trying to obtain their foreign policy objectives (wars, exploding cigars, etc), I am not sure what I think about it.

But I am sure that some people who are thinking about it are getting it completely wrong. I was struck by the reference to the Irish abortion referendum. Here is more from Gavin Sheridan:

Hmm. Is the real worry here that your mother and father - what are talking about? 50, 60, 70- somethings? - will be swayed by "anti-choice" ads on Facebook paid for by Russia? I don't think so. Russia had the highest number of abortions per woman of child-bearing age in the world in 2010, according to the UN. Meanwhile, George Soros is known to be funding pro-choice (let's be civil about this - the two sides go by 'pro-choice' and 'pro-life') campaigns in Ireland.

I am pretty sure that Facebook ads during the Irish abortion referendum are going to be (a) aimed at younger demographics than "your parents" (i.e. at the people who are actually influenced by what they see on Facebook), (b) pro-choice and (c) often funded by foreigners (i.e. non-Irish people) pursuing their own agendas.

If you are on Facebook and come across a well-made, heart-string-tugging viral video about (say) a teenage girl in difficult circumstances, you may be on the receiving end of foreign propaganda. How you feel about that fact should not depend on how you feel about the message in the video.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The liberal case for Brexit

You are a liberal.

Here is what you see when you look are some recent European parliamentary election results. This is the percentage of the vote won by the major party in that country that you would call "populist" (or perhaps something even ruder).

Germany (September 2017)                AfD: 13% – 3rd place
France (June 2017)                              FN: 13% (first round) (and 21% in first round of presidential election) – 2nd place
Netherlands (March 2017)                  PVV: 13% –2nd place
Denmark (June 2015)                          Danish People's Party: 21% – 2nd place
United Kingdom (May 2015)             UKIP: 13% – 3rd place
Finland (April 2015)                           Finns Party: 18% – 2nd place
Sweden (September 2014)                  Sweden Democrats: 13% – 3rd place

Here we have the big rich successful countries of northern Europe displaying pretty similar voting patterns. There are differences between the countries, but let’s forget about them for the moment. (But perhaps note how those dour, respectable, liberal Scandinavians are even keener on the populists that those living further south: the Sweden Democrats are up at 20%+ in polls for their 2018 election.) Equally, I am not going to go into a discussion of the differences between these parties: you treat all these parties as well beyond the pale. (Although in fairness to UKIP, please note that there are many important differences.)

So these results worry you. If you are of the nervy, melodramatic type over-represented in the news media, you might even see echoes of the 1930s. If you are just keen on virtue-signalling your disapproval of the deplorables who vote for these parties then that’s fine. But you are the sort of person who wants to make things better. What is to be done?

Then you see this result:

United Kingdom (June 2017)     UKIP: 2% – 5th place

Perhaps, you might think to yourself, the UK has done something to lance the boil of this horrible right-wing populism. Well, it has. It had a referendum on Brexit, voted for Brexit, and that destroyed the leadership, hopes, credibility and support of UKIP. And it turns out that there is no constituency for any other sort of populism.

Here’s a modest suggestion for you. Life is about trade-offs. You can’t have it all. At least entertain the possibility that Brexit (or Nexit, or Frexit, or ...) is the price you have to pay, in a rich northern European country, for having a political system 98% occupied by mainstream political parties – for dispelling the shades of the 1930s. Isn't that what the evidence shows you? Maybe you should just grin and bear it: some things are more important than the joys of the customs union and the jurisprudence of the CJEU.

(Or have I made the liberal case for allowing populism? Perhaps the price you are prepared to pay for having the EU is to be constantly goading increasingly large numbers of your compatriots into supporting fringe parties run by, at best, weirdos. Please say it ain’t so.) 

Monday, 25 September 2017

British vs US universities

In the US:

"At Harvard ... three biochemistry graduate students I knew and trusted all had an identical story. In the introductory course they taught, undergraduates weren’t required to show up at a single lecture or section; they could score in the teens on the final and still pass. The professor’s basis for leniency, they said, was that “they pay too much tuition for us to fail them.”"


"Once an unhappy student emailed me after a mediocre performance and said, after receiving a B-, “I always get A’s. This is the lowest grade I’ve ever gotten. What’s your problem?”"

Meanwhile in the UK:

"A huge adjustment was also just getting accustomed to how classes in the UK were structured in general. When I read that my entire grade for my courses depended on the final, I was terrified. I'm so used to the American system, where there's plenty of homework and participation points – literally you get points just for showing up – to cushion your grade. Needless to say, I actually had to work my ass off and study like hell for all of my finals."

But I was most pleased with this one of the many, largely positive, comments from overseas students at British universities:

"What shocked me most about being in a British uni is just how much people love walking. It's not the walking itself that was particularly shocking, but the fact that even on nights out, when the club is 30 minutes away and it's the dead middle of winter, most people would rather trek up the hills of Bristol rather than get a cab back quickly and safely. In Jakarta people get cabs everywhere, and my friends who go to uni in the US tell me that Uber is their first, not last, option of transport on a night out. And I would understand if it's a price thing, but between a few friends in one cab it usually ends up being the same cost as an extra pint – and British people seem to have absolutely no qualms about spending a fortune on alcohol."

It's all about priorities, isn't it?

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Three entertaining or interesting links

1. This is a great story. The headline is "The Week My Husband Left And My House Was Burgled I Secured A Grant To Begin The Project That Became BRCA1", but there is even more to it than that.

2. Sorority entry consultants. Crazy, and also a little bit sad. "Grant often starts workshops asking the crowd who’s spoken to their best friend today. “Nine out of ten girls will raise their hands,” she says. “Then I ask who’s spoken to them in person.” Crickets. As a result, says Grant, conversational nuances are getting lost. “Families don’t eat dinner at the same time,” she says. “The social niceties you need to have mastered are gone. ..." Brooke Howard, a consultant at the Midwest-based Go Greek Girl, says she spends hours helping girls learn how to have conversations they just don’t know how to have anymore." I earlier linked to a story about how you can pay vast sums of money to be taught how to talk to your children; it seems you pay slightly smaller sums of money to be taught how to talk to your friends. That, and how to get into one of these houses.

3. Somewhat longer, here is John Lanchester arguing Against Civilisation. "Jared Diamond called the Neolithic Revolution “the worst mistake in human history.” The startling thing about this claim is that, among historians of the era, it isn’t very controversial." It seems that modern scholarship tells us that there was once a time when humans lived happy and egalitarian lives in a world of abundance, but we made a horrible mistake - which seems to be bound up with acquiring knowledge (in the form of writing) - and ever since then we have been condemned to hard labour. The story sounds familiar, but doesn't a snake come into it somewhere?

Friday, 15 September 2017

Mary Poppins - the only analysis you will ever need

Mary Poppins (1964) is a film in which the happy ending includes a man killing his boss and thereby securing promotion to the board of directors of an international bank. It is not your typical children’s film. 

I have set out below - at some length, I should warn you - the crystallised form of various thoughts I have had about this my favourite film.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

"He was again accompanied to court by his official clerical dog The Venerable Mr Piddles"

That's from a story about a fraudulent cleric here.

Also: "The court heard he has no connection to the Church of England and regularly travels to Moldova." (The owner, not the dog.) I feel that "regularly travels to Moldova" is a euphemism for something, but I have no idea what.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

A follow-up on men, women and equality

I said something here (and a little here) about women being better educated than men. Here's some further thoughts, based on data from Canada.

The conclusion: "Put (too) simply the only men who are good enough to get into university are men who are good at STEM. Women are good enough to get into non-STEM and STEM fields. Thus, among university students, women dominate in the non-STEM fields and men survive in the STEM fields. [...] I don’t know whether this story will hold up but one attractive feature, as a theory, is that it is consistent with the worrying exit from the labor market of men at the bottom."

Going back to what I said earlier, I'm not certain that "good enough" is the right way of looking at this: it might be that universities favour female traits over male ones, or that men are more likely to decide that university is not for them, or something else. But it's worth being reminded that the problem (if there is a problem) is not that STEM is favouring men, but that men are falling behind everywhere else.

British society really has changed from the 1950s (or wherever it is that reformers seem to get their stereotypes from). Men and boys are well behind in the educational races; the white British are the worst performing students (allowing for income); Christian churches are not oppressive structures in society but rather tiny groups struggling to deal with their irrelevancy. Social reformers seem to be very keen to fight the last war when they should be preparing for the current one, not least because I'm pretty sure that it would be far better if the cause of less well-off white, Christian-heritage males is not left to be defended purely by the likes of some home-grown Donald Trump equivalent.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Parents Who Pay to Be Watched

"The family architects were the foot soldiers in the Cognition Builders team, but the most critical part of the company’s strategy involved the installation of a series of Nest Cams with microphones all around the house, which enabled round-the-clock observation and interaction in real time. At the end of each day, the architects would send the parents extensive emails and texts summarizing what they’d seen, which they’d use to develop a system of rules for the family to implement at home. Over time, the role of the family architects would evolve from observing to enforcing the rules. Through this kind of intensive scrutiny and constant behavioral intervention, they claimed to be able to change a family’s, and a child’s functioning from the ground up."

It's all here.

This is a sad story in many ways. Leaving aside the fact that people are paying vast sums of money to create a mixture of Big Brother and the Truman Show in their own homes (I hope that data is very secure), how about this:
"I asked him if it was hard coming back to America, and how things were different.

“There, I could always take a walk to my friends’ houses. Here we have to drive. The only really social time is at school or on my phone or video games or Xbox. That’s where I talk to my friends the most. Back there, I could see them every day, but here I can’t.”

I asked him what he thought the best thing about being a kid was, and the worst.

“I think the best thing is being able to talk to my friends and my family. And the worst thing is definitely having a lot of homework. I’m taking a lot of honors classes. And then I have therapy once a week, drums once a week, tutoring twice a week, and an executive-functioning tutor once a week.”

Poor boy. 

Monday, 11 September 2017


This is an interesting post about what we mean by "magic", suggesting that JK Rowling's success is driven by her unerring instinct in using the concept correctly in the world of Harry Potter.

Rao's basic thesis is this: "Magic is an imaginative conception of the lawfulness of a universe where matter has the attributes of consciousness, and can be engaged purely through intention." He continues: "Here is a thought experiment to demonstrate the point of the definition: imagine a real magical broomstick that responds to Accio! Broomstick because it is, at some level, a dimly conscious and intentional entity that likes you. Now think about a broomstick that is really a Magnalev flying machine with a high-gain directional microphone for an ear and programmed to respond to a set Latin vocabulary via speech recognition algorithms. Unless you are an impossibly dull person, the idea of the former should make you yearn while the latter should make you yawn."

This is basically right, but I think Rao mis-steps a little in placing too much emphasis on connectedness rather than control. He suggests that at some level one becomes one with the broomstick. That might be right (although I doubt it), but he's probably started with the wrong example there. I think it is better to consider the primacy of human (or human-like) intention as the key concept. A magician can exercise dominion over wholly un-magical (i.e. unconscious) objects by, e.g., levitating them; and can also treat conscious objects without regard to their consciousness (e.g. levitating a human). Quite apart from that, there are also magical objects, e.g., broomsticks, which have their own powers of consciousness (e.g., they might not respond to evil commands, or what have you). The universe as a whole need not be connected on a conscious level for magic to operate, merely susceptible to the power of consciousness: the concept of magic has plenty of room for Muggles. Rao suggests that "We need to imagine magic because we want the entire universe to behave this way. To be intentionally one with us"; I would say that "subservient to us" instead. Magic is mind over matter.

This also illuminates the difference between magic and religion. (CS Lewis has it right.) Magic is like technology: both are practices aimed at controlling the universe; it is just that technology, rather more successfully than magic, uses physical rather than mental force to do so. Magic is not really that similar to religion, and indeed religions are often antipathetic to magic (you don't find many atheists burning witches). Why should this be? Because the ultimate aim of religion is not for us to control reality but rather, at a fundamental level, to understand reality such that it controls us.

Of course, in our day to day lives we need to control little bits of the physical universe, and religion will generally not care too much whether (for example) that bit of metal is flying using jet propulsion or magic power. A little bit of harmless magic, healing minor ailments and so on, is not too worrying. But magic opens up the possibility of the whole universe bowing to a human's intention: magic has inherently blasphemous tendencies.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Top-notch stuff

1. Farming challenge. The "planet must produce “more food in the next four decades than all farmers in history have harvested over the past 8,000 years.”" From here.

2. Lunching. "“There are two things you need to know,” she said. “The first is that Gavin came home yesterday happier than I have seen him in a long time. The second – and you are not to feel bad about this – is that he died this morning.”" From here.

3. Optical illusion:

No automatic alt text available.

4. Journalism. List is here. I can't vouch for it all, but I'm prepared to trust Conor Friedersdorf on this.

5. OTT-ness: "In Britain, Atlas is about to shrug". Yes, honestly. That is from the Economist, here, suggesting that "The combination of Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn could lead to the dystopia that Ayn Rand predicted". In a tone-deaf parody of what people who don't read the Economist think the Economist is all about, the article suggests that Britain should be grateful for the presence of investment bankers, and worried when demand for £2m+ houses dips slightly. I'm not saying the Economist is wrong, but I'm not sure that is quite the right line to take when trying to change the minds of the pro-Brexit or pro-Corbyn camps. (Compare that maniacal approach with the sanity on display here.)

6. Summing up the point in a nutshell: "is there a sort of law of conservation of coercion in well-functioning societies?" Further explained here as follows: "A community with a minimal state can only function if it is thick enough and homogeneous enough to enforce sanctions for antisocial behavior that are almost state-like in their severity, and, furthermore, can make them stick. Freeing individuals from their smothering parochialisms will lead to a compensating increase in the scope and reach of the state as people search for a new solution to social dilemmas formerly handled via informal means. Conversely, attempts to suddenly curtail state power may lead to chaos in the intervening period when social institutions have not yet reasserted themselves. Principled libertarians might still have good reasons to prefer the non-state forms of compulsion ... But “increased freedom” may not be one of them." (A further reason for left-wing political parties to favour immigration: a less homogeneous society requires a more active state?)

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Who wears a black shirt to a political rally nowadays?

If my own experience is anything to go by, you will have seen many - far too many - attempts to draw parallels between events of the 1930s (and I'm talking about Nazis here) and current affairs. They are all, I find, very silly, tending to the "Nigel Farage grew a moustache - do you know who else had a moustache?" line of argument.

One reason why people reach for this period in history for their analogies is that it is one of the few periods that pretty much everyone knows about. Which means that, for example, it's a safe bet that no one who uses a swastika at their rallies nowadays is a nice person who spotted the device in a Hindu temple and liked the look of it. People understand the symbolism and iconography of the 1930s, and know what they are doing when they use it today.

All of which makes it seem extraordinary to me that there is in fact a sizeable number of people in America who put on black shirts and beat people up at political rallies. In California, no less. You should read this for an account of a half-Japanese man and a Samoan not getting killed by these people. It's even funny in parts.

The black shirted characters call themselves 'antifa' (meaning 'anti-fascist'), but then North Korea is officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Sometimes actions speak louder than words.

Symbolism matters too. This is the caption to one photo: "Masked counterprotesters kick and punch a Hispanic man in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, August 27". What is the symbolic impact of putting on a black shirt and then beating up a member of an ethnic minority in a park named after Martin Luther King?

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

The Platonic ideal of the Judas goat

They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The story so far. Pirates introduced goats to the Galapagos as a source of food. The goats multiplied and ended up posing a threat to the native giant tortoises. The view was taken that the Galapagos' strength does not lie in diversity and rather than cherish the contribution these immigrants were making, the goats needed to be exterminated. So, an attempt was made to eradicate goats from parts of the Galapagos. What does that mean in practice? Helicopters, special hunting dogs from New Zealand, semi-automatic weapons from Italy and lots of rotting goat carcasses. "Carlos, another hunter, talked to me with embarrassment about his experience with corralled goats in Santiago. His task was to shoot goats, one by one, for hours." But the goats started to get good at hiding. So a vet called Karl Campbell suggested capturing goats, fitting them with radio collars and releasing them, as the natural sociability of these "Judas goats" would lead the hunters to other goats. That helped a bit, but sometimes the Judas goats would get pregnant, or just find other collared goats.

The story continues here:

"“I started then to think about how to improve this,” Campbell explained to me in an interview. “What would be the perfect, ideal Judas goats?” He was thinking about a Judas goat that would search for, and be searched for, by other goats in perpetuity. What may sound like a Platonic quest for an ideal animal in fact unfolded in the realm of actual goats. Since veterinarians identified males searching for mates as the main driver of gregariousness, strategies to increase estrus became key. According to Campbell and his colleagues, the literature had established that “estrus duration may be increased by denying penile intromission during estrus” (Campbell et al. 2007, 14)—admittedly rather impractical in the wild. The other known cause of a longer estrus is nymphomania, “a poorly understood condition often diagnosed as cystic ovarian disease” (Campbell et al. 2007, 14). Campbell and his colleagues went on to reflect that “while nymphomaniac behavior would be desirable in Judas goat operations, it is unknown how to induce this condition” (Campbell et al. 2007, 14).

Putting aside the desire for an always desiring goat, Campbell resolved to capture female goats, terminate any pregnancy, sterilize them, and inject hormone implants. As a result of a new procedure, estrus would not last for the typical twenty days per year but for an astonishing one hundred eighty days. Since transportation to a veterinary camp would have been costly and time-consuming, Campbell operated on goats, one by one, on the scorched slopes of Isabela’s volcanoes or the treeless volcanic plains of the lowland. Famous as “the natural laboratory of evolution” (Larson 2001, 125), the Galápagos became less a site for observing gradual changes over time and more a setting for artificial and deliberate variations on mattering: the making of a new goat. With a scalpel, anesthetics, and hormones, PI recombined the elements of female goats into oversexualized individuals, devoid of the ability to bear life but with an irresistible talent for delivering death.

This is clearly a metaphor for something. If you are in any doubt, consider this: after they had been finished with, they also killed the dogs.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

More on Amazon

So, Alexa is going to talk to Cortana, and vice versa.

Everything I read about Amazon reminds me of this piece,  supposedly by Jeff Bezos, headlined "My Advice To Anyone Starting A Business Is To Remember That Someday I Will Crush You".

Some links for you

1. A better job than that one in San Francisco? Probably.

2. Physiognomy is very bad. But you (yes, you) can tell how clever someone is by looking at them.

3. Literally rent-a-mob: "Whether your organization is lobbying to move forward a healthcare, financial or other social initiative, we can organize rallies and get media attention for your causes and candidates. We also assist individuals, companies and political organizations with protests and picketing campaigns. We’ve protested governments, corporations and everything in between." There's even a case study: "A foreign government hired Crowds on Demand to help generate a positive reception for its newly elected leader during the UN General Assembly. The concern was ensuring that the leader was well received by a US audience and confident for his work at the UN. We created demonstrations of support with diverse crowds. We also used the media primarily local and national outlets to bring more attention to these demonstrations which led to a mostly positive portrayal. The crowds that we deployed drew in more supporters creating a strong presence for this leader at the UN and an improved perception of him by the American public."

4. Have you ever wondered what had happened to Walid Jumblatt? Spoiler alert: he's still going.

5. Why do women wear so much make-up? Hmm. I don't think this is anywhere near being the whole story. I'd want to include signalling effects including 'making an effort'. The women were asked to do their make-up as if they were going out for the evening, not as if they were aiming to be as attractive as possible. Those are not the same thing. To take another example, I am quite prepared to believe that women consider men more attractive in clothes other than kilts, but at the same time would regard a man who went to the effort of putting on a kilt (the right man, on the right occasion) as being better dressed than a man who didn't. There are social norms about clothing and make-up that are only distantly related to attractiveness. I wonder what the results would be of asking the women to put on make-up as if "going to an undergraduate lecture in the morning but wanting to look attractive to a fellow student" or "going to a wedding and wanting to look more attractive than the other female guests" or "having Sunday lunch at your parents' house but there will be a guest there that you want to impress" or "for a job interview, where you think attractiveness will be a plus" or "for your only photo on a dating website"? 

Friday, 18 August 2017

Who would want to be in the centre party?

Hugo Rifkind makes a similar point to the one in a Vice article I linked to before, i.e. that the potential new centrist/anti-Brexit party is an endeavour motivated by a feeling that all is basically right with Britain at the moment, or that this is as good as it gets, or at least better-the-Devil you know. That is to say, it is an inherently conservative project. For reasons I explore below, I think that will doom it.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Three links with brief comments

1. Things to hang on your mental mug tree. Rory Sutherland and therefore recommended. His comment about architecture reminded me of an observation from Roger Scruton to the effect that the main consumers of architecture are the people on the outside of the building rather than the inside. It's not surprising that the owners of buildings are not prepared to pay much for the architecture. But he has a lot more to say, all worth thinking about.

2. This, from Megan McArdle, makes several good points about That Google Memo. Here's one: "A "natural" split of, say, 65-35 could evolve into a much more lopsided environment that feels downright unfriendly to a lot of women." Here's where the danger is. If the majority of people in a given profession consider (rightly or wrongly) that it is natural that one gender predominates then it's easy for them to create a culture that is ready to welcome people from that gender and harder to welcome the other. I suspect that doctors and lawyers, after a difficult initial period, just realised that there was no 'natural' reason for men to predominate. But think of those rooms in One Born Every Minute where the midwifes hang out drinking tea and eating chocolates in between delivering babies. Everyone there is going to be thinking (even if only subconsciously) that it is entirely natural that it is a female-dominated space. They are probably right about that too. But it could end up putting off a few good men from helping there too.

3. This distinctly dull article about abortion has one point to make (sometimes people talk about the foetus as separate from the mother, sometimes not, and they are not necessarily consistent about this as they pick and choose depending on the point they are making). Your average sixth former has thought about all this already. But this work has - bizarrely - "received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme". I'd like to think that Brexit will at least have some upside if this sort of thing gets left by the wayside in favour of funding actual research and innovation, or just plain tax cuts.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The Raja of Mahmudabad

This little BBC video is subtitled, but only so that it can be shared on social media with the sound off. You should watch it with the sound on. Of all the unfortunate consequences of Partition, the legal affairs of the Raja, sitting in the better rooms of his crumbling palace, are among the less serious. But - perhaps because he is an educated man and speaks, to English ears, so nicely - he has my sympathy nonetheless. On the other hand, perhaps there are Indians who hear him and then a 'Vive la Revolution!' feeling wells up in their hearts.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Links worth a look

1. Two from Vice, each with a more imaginative (and also entertaining) take on modern politics than one normally finds elsewhere.

First, here is why people who want a new middle-ground party are fantasists. The writer imagines the party taking shape: "It was one of those cathartic moments: finally someone was saying what we were all thinking, which was: "Everything is pretty much OK, but could you make some minor adjustments?" and then the new party's campaigners "out on the streets bedecked in their new political home's colours of beige and grey – handing out leaflets, knocking on doors and winning round swing voters with rational arguments grounded in key metrics and meticulous use of data-based policy soundings".

Second, Sam Kriss, the Marmite of such writers, with an account of how some Remainers now sound like Leavers: "They are not left or right. They are not neoliberals or social democrats. They are Remain. As they look out on a world grinding itself apart, where zombie governments shovel themselves deeper into a mouldering power, where tower blocks blaze up fuelled by class warfare and cynical profiteering, where hundreds of millions of people are living in vast tracts of land that will shortly be as uninhabitable as the moon, there are people whose main political self-identification is still that they don't want Britain to leave the EU." I often find myself violently disagreeing with Kriss, but often agreeing with him about what is worth disagreeing about.

2. Gef, the talking mongoose of the Isle of Man.

3. Another anecdote about Britain hacking the US political system. All in a good cause.

4. This is quite rude, but this (carefully crafted) quotation from it isn't: "I am certain a large number of men are more attracted to overweight women than skinny women but try to date skinny women to impress their friends and family members.... the data from dating sites tells us that just about all men try to date skinny women. Many people don’t try to date the people they’re most attracted to. They try to date the people they think would impress their friends. ... There are a lot of single men and single overweight women who would be sexually compatible. But they don’t date, while the man tries and fails to date a skinny woman even though he’s less attracted to her. And then there are women who practically starve themselves to remain skinny so their husbands won’t leave, even though their husbands would be more attracted to them if they weighed more. The desire to impress people causes all kinds of inefficiency."

5. A Buzzfeed list of 14 things, but not at all amusing: 14 suspected killings by Russia on British soil; and here's a suspected one on US soil too. Read Bill Browder's testimony here.

6. "“There is no case on record in which a secular society has been able to uphold its birthrate,” Lord Sacks says." Well, maybe. I'm not totally impressed with the argument that something can't be done because it hasn't been done before: sometimes things get done for the first time. And if he is right, then religion will be fine - all the secularists will die out, so what's the worry? But Lord Sacks may well be right that the future for all religions (in the West at least) will involve them looking a lot more like Judaism.

7. "When all job differences are accounted for, the pay gap [between men and women] almost disappears". Tell that to Google.

8. Japan spends less on education than other countries but has better schools. Yawn. But what about this: "In a classroom I visited, all five second-graders in the school watched a teacher demonstrate flower-arranging as three other teachers surrounded them, helping them with each step." We need more flower-arranging in Western schools. Or at least - isn't it worth a try?

Monday, 17 July 2017

To what extent should a party's policies be decided by self-interest?

Let us confine ourselves political parties in democracies and let us assume that the electoral and financial success of a party is at least to some extent determined by its policies. To what extent should a party choose policies simply in order to benefit itself?

There is clearly no simple answer. It is not right to say that parties should be defined by eternal and unchanging principles and never change policies: even unchanging principles require new policies in new situations; and we might even say that a party committed to democracy is required at least to reconsider its views in the face of electoral defeat.

Equally, it not right to say that there is no dilemma. For example, one might say that any party that betrays its principles will lose votes, but history gives us too many examples to the contrary to believe that. Or one might say that the dilemma does not affect the party that considers being in power itself (or excluding the other party) to be a matter of principle; but a principle stated as baldly as that, with no account taken of the nature of the party (or its opponent), does not deserve to be called a principle.

Even if there is no simple answer, I am certain that we can do better than saying that anything goes. It is possible that a policy can be so obviously adopted by reason of a naked appeal to votes and financial support that the party adopting it has crossed a line between democratic evolution and outright corruption.

These thoughts have been prompted by the change in policies on immigration in the US. (See further below.)

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Postscript on class

I don't think the sandwich story would be at all interesting in the UK as everyone is well aware that there is a live and kicking class system here, full of hundreds of amusing traps for the unwary would-be social climber (in either direction).

But here is a rather sensible take on it all: The Spectator invited its Social Mobility Foundation interns to its summer party so that they could mingle with the likes of the Prime Minister and Boris Johnson. They probably won't be so scared by unusual sandwiches in the future.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Class in America, Ireland, England, France and China

These three pieces are all worth a read for various reasons but I have put them together because they are touch upon class. Each country has its own quirks as far as class is concerned, but there are interesting universal features.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

My body, my choice?

"The case for banning extreme sports, for example, is much stronger than the case for banning extreme medicine. Extreme sports don’t provide much benefit to the rest of humanity, other than some entertainment of questionable social value. Extreme medicine, on the other hand, has the potential to improve all our lives and at the very least is a useful warning about what not to do. Yet, extreme sports are lauded, or at least treated as mostly your own business (we do put some regulations on boxing and race car driving), while extreme medicine is heavily regulated and socially frowned upon.

My attitude is the reverse. You want to risk your life climbing without ropes? Knock yourself out–but don’t expect any support from me. ... But, you want to risk your life trying an unapproved medical treatment? Sir, I salute you. Give that man a Nobel prize.

That's from here.

The background to this is that foecal transplants are highly regulated in the US. They could of course lead to infection. As the writer puts it, "No doubt–this is why we also ban sex and french kissing.

Which prompts in me this thought: would the authorities be more likely to bend to pressure from adults who wanted to carry out these procedures if they were sexually motivated rather than prompted by an interest in curing diseases?  And, for adults at least, isn't this a question of "My Body, My Choice"?