Quote

As a follow up to the previous entry

“Keep the company of those who seek the truth; run from those who have found it.”

Vaclav Havel, quoted by Randy Sullivan via the Economist

We should worry more about righteousness

I am no fan of Henry Kissinger (an easy statement to make), but the quote below says something worthy of careful consideration.

‘the most fundamental problem of politics… is not the control of wickedness but the limitation of righteousness’.

I am not certain where I came across the phrase so beware. If I had made it up I would be even happier.

No marks out of ten

by reestheskin on 11/08/2020

Comments are disabled

Q: If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?

A: I would be very dissatisfied with my life if it was ruled by marks out of 10.

Lovely answer. Interview with Jennifer Pike: My ambition is to continue fighting for the future of classical music

Dear boy, I’d rather see you in your coffin.

by reestheskin on 10/08/2020

Comments are disabled

I thought the above quote was going to be from an exchange between James Hunt and Niki Lauda. But no, it was some advice from a mother to her son (Richard Seaman) on the choice of his bride.

At a party earlier that year he had met Erika Popp, the daughter of a director of BMW. When they decided to get married his mother disinherited him. Her final words to him were: ‘Dear boy, I would rather see you lying in your coffin than that you should contract this disastrous marriage.’

Seaman was dead six months later in a crash on the track so his mother did not have to wait long. Even the spectators got in the spirit of things:

During a race on the Pescara circuit in Italy in 1937, a driver crashed into a marker stone and collided with another car before spinning off into the crowd. Four spectators were killed at the scene, others had their legs severed and five died later from their injuries. ‘The race continued,’ Williams reports, ‘as races always did.’ After the 1955 Le Mans disaster, in which 83 people were killed by flying debris, crowd safety was vastly improved, but in Seaman’s day spectators died almost as often as drivers.

Now attitudes are different: even our attitude to the nuts and bolts:

The [F1]regulations cover everything from engine size to aerodynamic shape, and part of the game is to work out how much you can get away with while still obeying them. Some innovations are modest. Before it was banned in 2012, teams used helium rather than compressed air to power the guns used to remove wheel nuts during pit stops. The helium’s lower density made the guns spin faster, allowing them to get the nuts off fractionally quicker. The incremental gains add up. When the F1 championship began in the 1950s the average pit stop took 67 seconds. Nowadays a decent one takes around two seconds.

The power of incremental change.

Jon Day · Dear boy, I’d rather see you in your coffin: Paid to Race · LRB 16 July 2020

The Great Unwashed

by reestheskin on 07/08/2020

Comments are disabled

Two letters in the LRB on the now settled status of student hygiene.

The first from Otto Saumarez Smith:

Keith Thomas reminisces about his introduction to regular baths when at Oxford in the 1950s (LRB, 16 July). The architectural historian Gavin Stamp once told me that when George Frederick Bodley came to build new student accommodation at King’s College, Cambridge in 1888, he asked the fellows whether he should include a bathroom, but was told not to be ridiculous: as terms were only eight weeks long the undergraduates could bathe after they got home.

The second from Richard J Evans, in conversation with a porter at an Oxford college:

‘What’s the main difference between the old days and now?’ I once asked him. ‘Well, sir,’ he replied, after some thought, ‘in the old days the young gentlemen used to change their shirt every day and take a bath once a week. Nowadays they take a bath every day and change their shirt once a week.’ It was clear from the shaking of his head that he did not regard this as an improvement.

I was delighted to get out of university halls, to the luxury of a toilet and bathroom only shared with five fellow students (and their occasional guests). The downsides included rodents, and ice on the inside of the bathroom windows. My memory is that the rent in 1977 was £1.85 per person for a salubrious🤣 central location on the Westgate road (opposite the Harley-Davidson shop, and a house of dubious repute). I was in hospital for a few weeks (as a patient) during this period and, at discharge, my father picked me up at the hospital, and we drove to the house so that I could collect some more clothes before heading back to my parents home;  he knew better than to come in.

Why Is College So Expensive?

by reestheskin on 06/08/2020

Comments are disabled

From an article in the Atlantic a couple of years back (but the song remains the same).

“I used to joke that I could just take all my papers and statistical programs and globally replace hospitals with schools, doctors with teachers and patients with students,” says Dartmouth College’s Douglas Staiger, one of the few U.S. economists who studies both education and health care.

Both systems are more market driven than in just about any other country, which makes them more innovative—but also less coherent and more exploitive.

State cutbacks did not necessarily make colleges more efficient, which was the hope; they made colleges more entrepreneurial.

Why Is College in America So Expensive? – The Atlantic

You can even get a degree in this sort of behaviour, now: ouroboros studies.

Roll Over Beethoven it is not.

At the same time, Vox found ways of reaching groups of voters who were disgruntled by other aspects of modern life that the mainstream parties weren’t addressing. Think about how record companies put together new pop bands: they do market research, they pick the kinds of faces that match, and then they market the band by advertising it to the most favourable demographic. New political parties now operate like that: you can bundle together issues, repackage them, and then market them, using exactly the same kind of targeted messaging – based on exactly the same kind of market research – that you know has worked in other places. The ingredients of Vox were the leftover issues, the ones the others had ignored or underrated, such as opposition to Catalan and Basque separatism; opposition to same-sex marriage; opposition to feminism; opposition to immigration, especially Muslim immigration… It wasn’t an ideology on offer, it was an identity: carefully curated, packaged for easy consumption, queued up and ready to be “boosted” by a viral campaign.

Anne Applebaum in the Twilight of Democracy. Her description of Boris Johnson — her once fellow traveller — is well worth a read; I am glad the lawyers thought so too.

Politics as a class of dominant negative mutation

by reestheskin on 29/07/2020

Comments are disabled

Today many scientists describe their research as apolitical, but Haldane knew that was impossible: ‘I began to realise that even if the professors leave politics alone, politics won’t leave the professors alone.’

From a review in the Economist of a biography of JBS Haldane by Samanth Subramanian.

Two things to add. Haldane’s paper A Defense of Beanbag Genetics is a personal favourite, but sticking with the genetics theme, I think of politics, and many politicians, as examples of dominant negative mutations.

Not Waiting to be an Actor

At the beginning of his career, an actor is a waiter who goes to auditions. Getting work makes him a successful actor, but he doesn’t only become an actor when he’s successful.

Paul Graham

Higher education: things have, and will get worse

The next five years will be worse for English universities than the past five years have been. And the five after that could be worse still.

 Alison Wolf quoted  in THE and on this blog in 2015. Still on course.  [direct link to this aside]

No just in time here

by reestheskin on 16/07/2020

Comments are disabled

“I hope the lesson will really be that we can’t afford as a society to create the fire brigade once the house is on fire. We need that fire brigade ready all the time hoping that it never has to be deployed.”

Peter Piot 1

No just in time here. It’s in the statistical tails that dragons lurk and reputations are shattered. Chimes with a quote from Stewart Brand that I posted a short while back.

Education is intellectual infrastructure. So is science. They have very high yield, but delayed payback. Hasty societies that can’t span those delays will lose out over time to societies that can. On the other hand, cultures too hidebound to allow education to advance at infrastructural pace also lose out.

  1. (Virologist Peter Piot,  co-discoverer of  Ebola and who worked on treating and preventing HIV, talking about getting COVID-19 on his institution’s podcast. (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine podcast )

A classics business model to die for

by reestheskin on 08/07/2020

Comments are disabled

He needed glory and he needed cash. The quickest route to glory was beating up barbarians; stealing their wealth and selling their bodies into slavery got him the cash.

The above is from a stomach-penetrating piece on the life of Julius Caesar (and not Boris Johnson). I do not know whether it is an effect of age, but perhaps the more one is aware of dying —with or without dignity— the more I find such descriptions, such as the one below, are hard to let go of when you close you eyes with the hope that they might open again.

Unlike most ancient swords, the legionary shortsword, or gladius Hispaniensis, was designed for stabbing, not slashing. While longswords and sabres create horrific, often deadly wounds, even an inch of steel can deliver a lethal puncture – especially given the limits of ancient medicine. Yet as combat instructors know, stabbing another human being at close quarters is much harder than cutting them: we have a psychological block against penetrating others’ bodies in that way, a visceral aversion that must be overcome by stern, psychologically brutalising discipline. Roman legionaries were taught to hurl their spears at the enemy line, then advance with shields held close, plunging their gladii in and out of the men arrayed against them. Units that could stomach this gruelling work against heavily armoured fellow citizens were simply killing machines against the less disciplined and lightly armoured Gauls [emphasis added]

Michael Kulikowski · A Very Bad Man: Julius Caesar, Génocidaire · London Review of Books | 18 June 2020

Meliorism certified

In 1947, Hobsbawm had excused his acceptance of the Birkbeck post by explaining that teaching preparations never took him more than two hours a week, and while he was an inspiring classroom presence, he always adroitly ducked administrative jobs. Evans tells a story of Hobsbawm backing the young Roderick Floud for a professorial chair mostly, Floud later realised, so he wouldn’t have to be head of department himself. It will be hard for today’s young academics, groaning under research assessments and short-term contracts at below the living wage, to read these passages.

Susan Pedersen reviews ‘Eric Hobsbawm’ by Richard J. Evans · LRB 18 April 2019

The search space is always bigger…

by reestheskin on 02/07/2020

Comments are disabled

Defining the appropriate probability space is often a non-trivial bit of statistics. It is often where you have to end up leaving statistics and formal reasoning behind. The following quote puts this in a more bracing manner.

There are no lobby groups for companies that do not exist.

The same goes for research and so much of what makes the future captivating.

The man from Cyberspace on the FQ

by reestheskin on 01/07/2020

Comments are disabled

Some quotes from William Gibson in an interview with the FT

“we’re looking at the collapse of the only liveable planetary ecosystem we know of anywhere”.

He fears that the world’s FQ — or F***edness Quotient, as he calls it — is rising to a worrying degree.

And this one gets you

If I could learn one thing about the future,” he says, “I would want to know what they think of us because that would tell me everything I’d want to know about them.”

William Gibson — the prophet of cyberspace talks AI and climate collapse | Financial Times

Read that again

Zuckerberg also said the company will not be changing its policies that allow lying in paid political advertisements.

Facebook policy changes fail to quell advertiser revolt as Coca-Cola pulls ads | Facebook | The Guardian

Quote of the day

by reestheskin on 27/06/2020

Comments are disabled

‘Today’s meritocratic ideology glorifies entrepreneurs and billionaires. At times this glorification seems to know no bounds. Some people seem to believe that Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg single-handedly invented computers, books, and friends.’

Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology. p713

The beginning is where its at.

by reestheskin on 12/06/2020

Comments are disabled

The best way to foster mediocrity is to found a Center for Excellence.

This is a quote from a comment by DrOFnothing on a good article by Rich DeMillo a few years back. It reminds me of my observation than shiny new research buildings often mean that the quality (but maybe not the volume) of reseach will deteriorate. This is just intellectual regression to the mean. You get the funding for the new building based on the trajectory of those who were in the old building — but with a delay. Scale, consistency  and originality have a troubled relationship. Just compare the early flowerings of jazz-rock fusion (below)  with the technically masterful but ultimately sterile stuff that came later.

Berufmensch

by reestheskin on 05/06/2020

Comments are disabled

Two quotes from an article on Max Weber caught my attention. They are both from his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (which I have not read).

In the closing lines of The Protestant Ethic, Weber described the typical capitalists of his own time as mediocrities much like the stunted creatures that Nietzsche had called “the last men.” A world populated by such soulless beings ran not on individual initiative but on the imperatives of the system: “Today,” Weber wrote,

this mighty cosmos determines, with overwhelming coercion, the style of life not only of those directly involved in business but of every individual who is born into this mechanism, and may well continue to do so until the day when the last ton of fossil fuel has been consumed. [emphasis added]

Peter Gordon adds, ‘Those final lines were prescient.’

Max the Fatalist | by Peter E. Gordon | The New York Review of Books

On British exceptionalism.

by reestheskin on 04/06/2020

Comments are disabled

The historian Michael Howard once rebuked some gratuitous flourish of this “we did it alone” hubris in the pages of the Daily Telegraph with perhaps the pithiest letter ever sent to any newspaper. It read, in its entirety: “Sir, The only major conflict in which this country has ever “stood alone’’ without an ally on the continent was the War of American Independence in 1776-83. We lost.”

Britain’s pride in its past is not matched by any vision for its future

Kafka on diagnosis

by reestheskin on 02/06/2020

Comments are disabled

 

Just because your doctor has a name for your condition, doesn’t mean he knows what it is — Franz Kafka.

I hadn’t come across this quote by Franz Kafka before. It is of course true, but the converse is even more worrying. I like Sam Shuster’s aphorism better: the worst thing you can do is make a diagnosis (because it stops you thinking about what really is going on).

On the back of the envelope

by reestheskin on 01/06/2020

Comments are disabled

The famous nuclear physicist, Enrico Fermi, was said to be fond of coming up with surprisingly useful numerical answers on topics where he possessed little prior expert knowledge. ‘How many piano tuners are there is New York?’ is one example. The ever excellent Jean-Louis Gassée in the Monday Note joins in, allowing us all to marvel at modern logistics. BTW, if you follow the link you will see that he does not ignore the fact that such marvels require a human calculus, too.

In the next Xmas quarter, Apple will need to produce 80 million iPhones — that’s about the number Apple disclosed before it decided to no longer give out units data. Given 8 million seconds in a quarter (90 days * 24hrs * 60mins * 60 seconds = 7,776,000 seconds), this yields a nicely rounded production requirement of 10 iPhones per second — 24 hours a day!

How many production lines are needed to create that many devices? Let’s say the assembly, test, and pack process for one iPhone takes 10 minutes (600 seconds). This means a single production pipe can output 1/600th of an iPhone per second. If you trust my math, producing 10 iPhones per second would require 6000 assembly/test/pack pipes working in parallel.

$12B TSMC US Plant: What Problem Does It Solve? – Monday Note

Bound by their briefs

by reestheskin on 29/05/2020

Comments are disabled

Charlemagne reports on the spat between the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and the German Constitutional Court. The latter had accused the former of acting ultra vires in giving support to the bond-buying by the European Central Bank. One view is that national governments tolerate the ECJ and use dissent to any of its decisions for domestic political purposes when it suits (pace the clowns in Number 10). Charlemagne uses a colourful metaphor that some of the clowns might enjoy.

If legislators did not like the court’s actions, they could always change the law. That they hardly ever do suggests that they do not object strongly to the court’s rulings. In this sense the ECJ resembles an S&M dungeon. National governments are happy to be tied up and slapped around in a dimly lit room by people in odd outfits. However, they would prefer not to mention this fact to their jealous spouses back home: domestic courts and domestic voters.

Charlemagne – The wizards of Luxembourg | Europe | The Economist

On the Nanny State

by reestheskin on 26/05/2020

Comments are disabled

We may be coming to realise that the people who complain about the nanny state are the people who had nannies.

Sarah Neville is the FT reviewing The Nanny State Made Me: A Story of Britain and How to Save It, by Stuart Maconie

On predicting the future

by reestheskin on 20/05/2020

Comments are disabled

I am very fond of the Alan Kay line that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. Indeed, my default line with Alan Kay is to tend to believe that he is always right. But Audrey Watters  disagrees (via Stephen Downes)

Their imaginings and predictions were (are) never disinterested, and I don’t agree at all with the famous saying by computer scientist Alan Kay that “the best way to predict the future is to build it.” I’ve argued elsewhere that the best way to predict the future is to issue a press release. The best way to predict the future of education is to get Thomas Friedman to write an op-ed in The New York Times about your idea and then a bunch of college administrators will likely believe that it’s inevitable.

Space, SWAG, 2CVs, and viruses

by reestheskin on 19/05/2020

Comments are disabled

Terrific post in the Monday Note from Jean-Louis Gassée. He writes:

This week’s note was sparked by a conversation with a learned engineer friend. He cut through my lamentation that our country lacks the will to send astronauts to the Moon again. ‘It’s not about will, it’s about our changed estimate for the cost of human lives!’.

Jean-Louis then expands on this with details of the various space flight-related accidents, before moving on — as befits a Frenchman— to the legendary 2CV, and the change in safety trade-offs between then and now in car design. Then there is the matter of covid-19, and the calculus advanced societies took the in the not so distant past.

Worth a read in full, and not just for the new acronym (to me, anyway) SWAG (scientific wild-ass guess).

The slow now

by reestheskin on 18/05/2020

Comments are disabled

Education is intellectual infrastructure.  So is science.  They have very high yield, but delayed payback.  Hasty societies that can’t span those delays will lose out over time to societies that can.  On the other hand, cultures too hidebound to allow education to advance at infrastructural pace also lose out.

Stewart Brand.

On waking Europe from an alcoholic stupor

by reestheskin on 15/05/2020

Comments are disabled

No, not post-covid nor even post-final Heineken or six-nation rugby 2020 🙁, but rather the default drink of the networker. As Bronowski might have said of a golden period of 20th century physics: it was done as much in coffee houses an in laboratories. Is imbibing alone also subject to that other familiar disapprobation?

What began as an obscure berry from the highlands of Ethiopia is now, five centuries later, a ubiquitous global necessity. Coffee has changed the world along the way. A “wakefull and civill drink”, its pep as a stimulant awoke Europe from an alcoholic stupor and “improved useful knowledge very much”, as a 17th-century observer put it, helping fuel the ensuing scientific and financial revolutions. Coffeehouses, an idea that travelled with the refreshment from the Arab world, became information exchanges and centres of collaboration; coffee remains the default drink of personal networking to this day.

The Economist | The big grind

What money can’t buy

by reestheskin on 13/05/2020

Comments are disabled

But, as R.H. Tawney once observed, shifts to collective provision are only realised after demonstrations that ‘high individual incomes will not purchase the mass of mankind immunity from cholera, typhus and ignorance’: many elements of the coming future ought to be favourable to the left, though only if they are shaped politically, and if blame – always elusive in the UK’s diffuse system of responsibility – is correctly apportioned.

James Butler · Follow the Science · LRB 4 April 2020

I’ll Drink to That

by reestheskin on 08/05/2020

Comments are disabled

The value of wine exchanged yearly between consumers, connoisseurs and collectors—the secondary market—has quadrupled to $4bn since 2000, says Justin Gibbs of Liv-ex, a wine-trading platform. He reckons that just 15% of those buying wine on his website are doing so to drink it. The rest see it as a store of value.

Amateur buyers of fine Burgundy fear a speculative bubble – Smoking barrels

Annoying, isn’t it? But we all tend to a naive idea of value. Especially when we think about pricing drugs.