The dismal science

Industrial Policy Is a Nostalgic Pipe Dream by James K. Galbraith – Project Syndicate

As I have written before, a consensus of economists – even well-meaning progressives – is a dangerous thing. Consensus, by its nature, is the enemy of consistency and logic

I would add: no truly intelligent system should be 100% consistent

The desperate reality of a UK surgeon in Gaza

The desperate reality of a surgeon in Gaza

I came to understand why families without shelter cluster together when they are under attack, so they can live or die together.

Edinburgh’s Festivalisation

Rory Scothorne · Short Cuts: Edinburgh’s Festivalisation

The first humans​ settled in Scotland around 14,000 years ago. They must have arrived in summer; nobody in their right mind would choose to live here during the winter. Even as far south as Edinburgh, the sun emerges late only to disappear before 4 p.m., the rain eats umbrellas for breakfast and the Arctic gale is as rough as sandpaper. We don’t have much of a Christmas celebration to distract us from the gloom: the Scottish Reformation stamped out idolatrous Yuletide celebrations and Christmas only became a public holiday in 1958. Instead, we have Hogmanay.

(London Review of Books)


I want to end by reading something Bertolt Brecht wrote that I stumbled across in my twenties:

Nowadays, anyone who wishes to combat lies and ignorance and to write the truth must overcome at least five difficulties. He must have the courage to write the truth when truth is everywhere opposed; the keenness to recognize it, although it is everywhere concealed; the skill to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgement to select in whose hands it will be effective, and the cunning to spread the truth among such persons.

Great piece about John Markoff by Steven Levy

This is a new civilization…

Vaclav Smil on the Need to Abandon Growth

Speaking as an old-fashioned scientist, I think the message is kind of a primitive and, again, old-fashioned message. This is a finite planet. There is a finite amount of energy. There is finite efficiency of converting it by animals and crops. And there are certain sensitivities in terms of biogeochemical cycles, which will tolerate only that much. I mean, that should be obvious to anybody who’s ever taken some kind of kindergarten biology.

Unfortunately, this is a society where nobody’s taking kindergarten biology because everybody’s studying what’s communications, writing in code, economics, business administration, liaising the state office, and things like that. This is a new civilization we have. People are totally detached from reality. If you are attached, at least a bit, to reality, all of this is common sense.

Just like the buses

John Lanchester · Get a rabbit: Don’t trust the numbers · LRB 21 September 2023

One way of explaining how Britain got to this place is to say that we waited all this time for the worst prime minister in history, and then four came along at once.

On building for our children’s future

Arianne Shahvisi | Liable to Collapse · LRB 12 September 2023

The education secretary, Gillian Keegan, seemed both surprised and peeved that the prospect of concrete falling on children’s heads would cause so much bother. She observed that ‘schools can collapse for many reasons,’ mithered that no one had told her ‘you’ve done a fucking good job,’ and breezily tweeted: ‘most schools unaffected’. (Keir Starmer’s press team live for this kind of low hanging fruit, and were quick with the obvious riposte: ‘most beachgoers not eaten by big shark’.)

While in Susa, de Morgan oversaw the excavation of a seven-foot basalt stele inscribed with the Code of Hammurabi, the best-preserved copy of one of the world’s oldest legal texts, drawn up by the sixth Amorite king of the Old Babylonian Empire. It is now on display in the Louvre, five thousand miles (and a great many political barriers) away from the sight of modern Iranians. The code, which lists 282 provisions and their punishments, is the first recorded example of the lex talionis principle, predating the Torah’s ‘eye for an eye’. It also lays out the earliest written building regulations:

  1. If a builder build a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.
  2. If it ruin goods, he shall make compensation for all that has been ruined, and inasmuch as he did not construct properly this house which he built and it fell, he shall re-erect the house from his own means.
  3. If a builder build a house for someone, even though he has not yet completed it; if then the walls seem toppling, the builder must make the walls solid from his own means.

On being old

FT business books — what to read this month | Financial Times

From a book review in the FT The Perennials: The Megatrends Creating a Postgenerational Society’, by Mauro Guillén.

The loneliness and emptiness of retirement could be alleviated if classrooms and offices welcomed all comers, regardless of age. Big shifts in thinking will be needed to bring this about, not least inside educational institutions and executive suites. But it’s a change that is long overdue, says [ Mauro] Guillén, who pointed to words written about a century ago by anthropologist Margaret Mead: 

It is utterly false and cruelly arbitrary to put all the play and learning into childhood, all the work into middle age, and all the regrets into old age.

And yes, I do think about these things more and more.

The defacement of public office

Braverman’s war on the ‘crooked lawyers’ – POLITICO

Or as Tory Deputy Chairman Lee Anderson put it: “If they don’t like barges then they should f*ck off back to France.”

Splendid. Which brings to mind Aneurin Bevan’s infamous description of the Tory party. My sympathy, as ever, is with the Welshman.

If you tolerate this, your children will be next.

I wish I had said that

Letters · LRB

Nicholas Spice speaks of ‘the conductor demanding ever more rehearsal time, the players wanting to get home and have a life’ (LRB, 16 March). This put me in mind of Frank Zappa’s definition of conducting as ‘drawing designs in the nowhere which are interpreted as instructional messages by guys wearing bowties who wish they were fishing’.

Chris Sansom

Shit life syndrome

The Enlightened Economist | Economics and business books

The over-burdened welfare state is not quite coping with people suffering from what (I learned here) doctors describe as “Shit Life Syndrome” when they go to their GPs for help with depression or other mental ill-health conditions. And there will not be enough money to fix any of this unless growth picks up. But that would require a competent, effective government able to take clear decisions, build cross-party consensus, devolve money and powers, and stick with the plan without changing ministers and policies every 18 months.

As a med student I remember sitting in with an Irish senior registrar in psychiatry as he saw a young woman whose life seemed to consist of one random but state-induced tragedy after another. That she could still get out of bed and care for her numerous children seemed to me to attest both to her sanity and her moral character.

The psychiatrist’s assessment was blunt: the patient had no need of a physician, but needed to join the f***ing labour party and mobilise for office. Quite so.

Peer review

Shakespeare’s First Folio assembled the world’s greatest literature from TheEconomist

In 1612 the founder of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library had even warned against collecting play-texts: worthless “baggage books”.

No freeman (or woman) is free if judged by their peers. [JLR]

Not like Everest at all

Phyllida Barlow had a lifetime of adventure making art | The Economist

Why do humans make sculpture? George Mallory is supposed to have said he wanted to climb Mount Everest simply because it was there. Sculpture’s special power, by contrast—the reason why Phyllida Barlow made sculpture at all—is that it isn’t there. That was where her adventure began.

Painting over humanity

Robert Jenrick has cartoon murals painted over at children’s asylum centre | Immigration and asylum | The Guardian

Murals of cartoon characters including Mickey Mouse and Baloo from The Jungle Book painted on the walls of an asylum seeker reception centre to welcome children have been removed on the orders of the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick.

The murals were painted over because he thought they were too welcoming and sent the wrong message — to children…

Boris Johnson exits as he entered, with deceit and contempt

Boris Johnson exits as he entered, with deceit and contempt | Financial Times

Truly, nothing in his public life exposed him like the leaving of it.

Robert Shrimsley

Shared something or other

Techno-Narcissism | No Mercy / No Malice

As Sacha Baron Cohen said: “Democracy is dependent on shared truths, and autocracy on shared lies.”

Boris Johnson exits as he entered, with deceit and contempt

Boris Johnson exits as he entered, with deceit and contempt | Financial Times

Truly, nothing in his public life exposed him like the leaving of it.

Robert Shrimsley

Martin Amis as the lurid chronicler of the UK

The Economist

These men dared to write vast superpower novels about the whole of society. His own smaller efforts were symptomatic of Britain’s decline: its aura of filthy pub carpets, its morbidly obese children, phone booths “slobberingly coated with thick red paint”, London “like the insides of an old plug”. Purpose had been lost along with the empire, and under Thatcher, that old witch, civility and civilisation had fallen apart. Nothing but weak left-liberalism remained to confront the ruins; that, and the scathing onslaught of his prose.

Getting rid of the fags helped the pub carpets. And Thatcher did Wales (see previous post).

Richest man in the world: but can he code?

Scarcity | No Mercy / No Malice

Scott Galloway writes:

The richest man in the world doesn’t make cars, rockets, or enterprise software — he makes handbags. Bernard Arnault, the CEO of LVMH, is now worth more than Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg combined. He’s made his fortune not selling things people need, but things they want. LVMH controls the most prestigious luxury brands in the world, from Tiffany & Co. to Loro Piana to Louis Vuitton.

When you assemble artisans and create scarcity that results in a supply/demand imbalance, you generate a cash volcano that you can cap the same way you do an oil well — and turn on/off as needed. Businesses are either supply-constrained (e.g., rare earth minerals, 1945 Château Mouton wine, etc.) or demand-constrained (pretty much everything else). The companies that trade at the greatest multiples are those that are artificially supply-constrained, where the supply/demand imbalance puts a dial on the spigot the managers control. Imagine the decision to have more revenue is just a function of when you’d like more revenue (see above: Hermès).


Jonathan Meades · Let’s go to Croydon · LRB 13 April 2023

Architects’ dialect comprises delusional boasts that cast them as philosophers and their trade as at best a social service, at worst a particularly dodgy branch of alternative medicine or new age bunk: sustainabulous, green, responsible, liminal, wellness, community, performative, holistic, participatory, community (again). Mind mange? Ghosts in the infrastructure? Boney’s or Bogey’s or the Bears’ advance through the gaps between the paving stones? Architecture will get it sorted. As Reinier de Graaf noted of a speech by Richard Rogers: ‘With each new sentence a new location, topic or domain is added to the theoretical competence of architecture.’

Vaclav Havel

There is always something suspicious about an intellectual on the winning side.

Makes me feel better already. I used to read Havel a lot, but this line had fallen from my RAM. Sadly, not applicable to rugby.

Not all can be learned

The fertile hatred had dried up in Grosz’s headlong attempt transform himself into an American and get into the spirit of the place. ‘Nobody really needs art anymore, since everybody is practising it,’he wrote in his autobiography. ‘I really love the American optimistic believe that everything can be learned; but I don’t quite believe it.’

Thomas Meaney on the artist, George Grosz, in the London Review of Books, 16th of February 2023

The trouble with computers

“The trouble with computers is that all they give you is answers.”

Pablo Picasso

Via Ian Leslie: Answer Machines – by Ian Leslie – The Ruffian

Ands the gods looked on

As far as Toby was concerned, Jay Crispin was your normal, rootless, amoral, plausible, half-educated, nicely spoken frozen adolescent in a bespoke suit, with an unappeasable craving for money, power and respect, regardless of where he got them from.

And from there, he wandered off into an argument with Friedrich Schiller’s grandiose statement that human stupidity was what the gods fought in vain. Not so, in Toby’s opinion, and no excuse for anybody, whether god or man. What the gods and all reasonable humans fought in vain wasn’t stupidity at all. It was sheer, wanton, bloody indifference to anybody’s interests but their own.

A Delicate Truth, John le Carré

YMMV, but for me, one of his very best.

Ain’t no rock’n roll star

by reestheskin on 07/12/2022

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Do you really want to live to be 100? | Financial Times

Sarah O’Connor in today’s FT

I’m one of life’s optimists. When I think about living to be 100 years old, I picture a birthday party where I am surrounded by my devoted descendants, perhaps followed by a commercial space flight as a celebratory treat.

But I’m in the minority here. A lot of people would rather be dead. In a recent UK poll by Ipsos, only 35 per cent of people said they wanted to become centenarians.

Simplicity beyond complexity

by reestheskin on 05/12/2022

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Monday 17 May, 2022 – by John Naughton – Memex 1.1

John Naughton’s Quote of the Day

”If people don’t believe mathematics is simple, it is only because they don’t realise how complicated life is.”

John von Neumann

They just can’t help sharing it

by reestheskin on 28/04/2022

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Debt is the sexually transmitted disease of finance. People won’t discuss it in public.

Rich People’s Problems: My debt is becoming an albatross | Financial Times

Confusion reigns over us

by reestheskin on 25/04/2022

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F Scott Fitzgerald remains correct that first-class minds can handle ambiguity and contradiction. The rest of us need structure.

No grand theory can explain the Ukraine crisis | Financial Times

If only this was generalisable?

by reestheskin on 18/03/2022

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Via John Naughton

”Three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write.” Anthony Trollope

He would know. According to some reports, he paid a servant an extra £5 a year to wake him up at 5:30 am every morning and get him a cup of coffee. Trollope would then work on a novel for three hours. The first half hour was spent reading over what he had already written, and after that he wrote at a pace of 250 words per 15 minutes. So, over three hours, he would write approximately 2,500 words.

And he did that while holding down a serious job in the Post Office. Infuriating, isn’t it? [JN]


But they are my own failures

Is the age of ambition over? | Financial Times

Here’s the second thing I learnt: it’s still better to be disappointed by your own dreams than shaped by the dreams of others. Patrick Freyne

Was my own research philosophy. I would rather my own less-than-perfect experiments than be a cog.