18 August 2017

Revolution - I

How a revolution erupts from a commonplace event — tidal wave from a ripple — is cause for endless astonishment ...

First, a piece of news about something said or done travels quickly, more so than usual, because it is uniquely apt; it fits a half-conscious mood or caps a situation ... The fact and the challenger’s name generate rumour, exaggeration, misunderstanding, falsehood. People ask each other what is true and what it means. The atmosphere becomes electric, the sense of time changes, grows rapid; a vague future seems nearer ...

As further news spreads, various types of people become aroused for or against the thing now upsetting everybody’s daily life ... ardent youths full of hope as they catch the drift of the idea, rowdies looking for fun, and characters with a grudge. Cranks and tolerated lunatics come out of houses, criminals out of hideouts, and all assert themselves.

Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence

11 August 2017

Foreign aid

While on the subject, here is another suggestion for donations to finance a website that is — at least in part — very useful.

(Such donations are likely to form an important part of the new economy, in which most cultural output is delivered via the web, and much of it is ‘free’.)

I never thought I would find myself saying this, but: why not donate to The Guardian. True, its articles often set one’s teeth on edge. Nevertheless, it is often the first port of call for researching cultural topics, not counting Wikipedia.

As the newspaper points out,

unlike many news organisations, we haven’t put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as open as we can.
When I last heard anything about it, this strategy was generating losses, so donations may be essential if their open-journalism model is to continue.

Here is the link for their donations page.

04 August 2017

Wikipedia: best thing since sliced bread?

Wikipedia is an extraordinarily useful resource.

Sure, it suffers from occasional errors. And its articles about living persons need to be treated with caution. But in the fields of science and general knowledge it is an unparalleled source of information.

Founder Jimmy Wales had the vision to progress the Wikimedia project through the early years, in spite of its detractors, a remarkable achievement. While Google, Facebook etc. honchos garnered zillions, Wales’s involvement has not made him a rich man.

Mr Wales is asking users to make a donation to Wikimedia. He says that if everyone currently visiting Wikipedia gave 2 pounds, they could keep it “thriving for years to come”.

Please make a small donation now, e.g. GBP5 / EUR10 / USD10. If you have Paypal it only takes a minute.

To paraphrase Sir Geldof, jolly well go and do it now.

Gregory Kohs has sent me a link to an interesting article highlighting some of the weaknesses of Wikipedia.
Wikipedia cannot be treated as an authoritative source. Despite that it is tremendously useful, in my opinion.
One has to maintain a critical attitude to what one is reading and remember it might be wrong.
This is true of anything published on the web and, indeed, anything published by a university.

28 July 2017

Thank you for letting us extract your phone number!

So, I get this email from The Economist.
Claim your complimentary print copy, inside!
I know this sort of thing is often a scam. But it is The Economist, right?
Yes, technically the email comes from iberuss.com, which seems spammish, but the link you click on takes you to a web form at economist.com.
It all looks respectable and not like spam usually does.
No doubt The Economist wants to bombard you with marketing emails, as the price for your print copy, but I am potentially willing to pay that price.
Please enter your title, first name and surname.
Fair enough.
Please enter your email address.
You already have that. It can’t do much harm giving it again.
Please enter your phone number.
Less keen on that one. But okay, in exchange for a free print copy I’ll give you one of my mobile numbers. To be honest, I tend not to answer it unless I know who’s calling.
Thank you for giving us your details! Goodbye!
All right, it doesn’t say “goodbye”. But that does seem to be the end of the process.
No more links to click on.
I thought I would be asked for a mailing address so I could be sent the alleged free print copy.
But unless they are going to deliver it by means of flying drone homing in on my mobile phone location, I seem unlikely to get it.
The Economist must be getting a bit desperate if it’s having to resort to dodgy marketing tactics like this.

21 July 2017


Ich habe eine Frage für deutschsprechende Leser. Ich suche Informationen über russische oder ukrainische Kriegsgefangene und Zwangsarbeiter in Eisenach in 1940. Ich habe vor kurzem gelernt, dass mein Großvater möglicherweise einer von diesen Gefangenen war.

Der Wikipedia Artikel über Eisenach erklärt ein bisschen von der Geschichte.

Wenn jemand — vielleicht ein noch lebender Sohn oder Tochter einer der Zwangsarbeiter — Kenntnisse von der Episode hat, die Hinweise zum Schicksal meines Großvaters geben könnte, würde ich gern davon hören. Bitte benutzen Sie das “Contact” email im Sidebar.

Ich entschuldige mich für mein nicht perfektes Deutsch.

14 July 2017

spellcheck #4

Another one from the S C Johnson stable. They make great cleaning products; could they not find a way to reliably cleanse their labels of typos and other bloopers?

Do not use on self-cleaning ovens, microwave ovens, hot ovens, exterior surfaces, chrome, aluminium, zinc, cooper, plastic or polished/lacquered surfaces.

07 July 2017

Book reviews

The modern world is geared to the large. Despite the theory of the long tail, small organisations in practice have numerous problems trying to get themselves heard. Take our books. Nielsen holds the central register for UK book publishers. A couple of years ago they migrated their system but didn’t bother to inform us. At least, we never received an email to that effect. The first thing we knew of it was when we tried to log in and discovered they had moved, and we were no longer listed.

There was then a rigmarole about getting re-registered, though the staff involved at that stage were friendly and helpful.

Then it emerged that, presumably because of our temporary disappearance from the publishing register, Amazon had apparently misplaced the reviews attached to some of Celia Green’s books. So now there are only one or two per book for the currently available versions. A number of well-written reviews seem to have got lost.

It would be nice if fans of Dr Green’s books, who want to give her a boost, post a review or two on Amazon. Here are the links to the Amazon UK pages for her three classic philosophical books:

The Human Evasion

The Decline and Fall of Science

Advice to Clever Children

Amazon US, incidentally, has some good reviews of Letters from Exile, here.

30 June 2017

Phaseolus coccineus

The scarlet runner bean is one of the most charming of vegetable plants to grow in one’s garden. It needs something to climb up, but is otherwise easy to grow from seed. It’s a jungle plant originating from South America. The fully formed pods are large but excellently camouflaged, so they can be hard to spot among the foliage.

There is however one serious pest you have to contend with: molluscs. Slugs and snails are capable of decimating the leaves, leading to poor yields. All the humane remedies mentioned in books are, in my experience, ineffective. Fortunately, I have worked out a trick for repelling them. As far as I can tell, it is not mentioned anywhere on the web.

A person who worked with us on an intern basis, being willing to do useful work where required, could acquire this trick, among others.

23 June 2017

Separation of past and future

Albert Einstein:

For us believing physicists, the separation between past, present and future has the significance only of an illusion, albeit a stubborn one.

From letter to Michele Besso’s family, 1955. “Für uns gläubige Physiker hat die Scheidung zwischen Vergangenheit, Gegenwart und Zukunft nur die Bedeutung einer wenn auch hartnäckigen Illusion.” See Metanexus.

16 June 2017

American Gods

Poor Neil Gaiman. Has he seen what Amazon have done with American Gods? (Rhetorical. Presumably he has.)

The TV series constructed from what some regard as his best book is one of the trashiest things I have ever watched.

Mediocratic culture is characterised by a relatively high level of trash, but its attitude to it is ambivalent. In part mediocracy celebrates its own trashiness, in part it denies and conceals it.

Compared to other societies, the trash of mediocracy is relatively sophisticated. There is aesthetically presented trash, technically complex trash, extraordinarily expensive trash. (Mediocracy, p.176)
Expensively produced trash can be entertaining, and so would this be, except for the fact that the way it is trashy is exactly the way loads of other American TV series are trashy, only more so. It is all pretty brainless, like a crude comic strip turned into live action. I imagine it is designed to provide maximum enjoyment for people with an IQ of about 100. That can work well for adaptations of books which themselves were written for that IQ level, but for novels like Gaiman’s it results in a depressing parody.

Gaiman doesn’t seem readily filmable in the normal cinematic medium. Stardust (2007) was a reasonable stab, but perhaps Coraline (2009) – a stop-motion animation – is the only visual product to have captured the flavour of his novels, so far.

(Don’t worry, Amazon. You’re good at lots of other things.)

09 June 2017


Post-election-recovery Julep:

1 glass of mineral water

5 drops of freshly squeezed lime juice *

Er, that’s it.

* This ingredient may be omitted.

02 June 2017

Statistics tutorials

My colleague Dr Charles McCreery recently posted updated versions (in PDF) of his statistics tutorials for psychology students:

The Chi-square test

Probability and Bayes’ Theorem

Analysis of Variance

26 May 2017

Sleight of hand in The Pinch

Among other things, The Pinch is an apologia for the role of government. Not surprising, perhaps, given the author is a professional politician. But the way in which David Willetts tries to provide support for the state frequently uses sleight of hand.

In chapter 1, for example, having discussed the history of the British people (pre welfare state), Willetts explains the significance of John Locke, who helped define the individual’s right to property and freedom from interference. He then writes:

This English political tradition emphasizes the strength and importance of civil society, our country’s historic freedoms, [...]
Fine so far, but then:
[...] our country’s historic freedoms, a legitimate role for government in providing equitable justice accessible to all, together with a faith in evolutionary social progress.
Suddenly the “English political tradition”, the discussion of which had hitherto made no mention of welfare, supposedly involves the government providing it. The paragraph continues in the same vein:
[The tradition] sustained a political programme – spreading the rights of citizenship widely and generously – which still matters today. That meant widening the franchise and also spreading what Beveridge called social security – mutual insurance against the evils of Want, Ignorance, Disease, Squalor, and Idleness.
So we somehow jump from Locke, who wrote on the limits of the state and the right to private property, to the government having an important role in redistributing resources. This I call sleight of hand.

19 May 2017

Age quod agis

Celia Green on the difference in ethos between a private school and a state school.

Girl to state school teacher: You have marked my work wrong!
State school teacher to girl:

“In a hundred years no one will remember.”