Archive for the 'Asides' Category

Department of Unintended Consequences

[link] Monday, April 14th, 2014

Well, what do you know? This from the New York Times

The end of the war in Iraq and the winding down of the war in Afghanistan mean that the graduates of the West Point class of 2014 will have a more difficult time advancing in a military in which combat experience, particularly since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has been crucial to promotion. They are also very likely to find themselves in the awkward position of leading men and women who have been to war — more than two million American men and women have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan — when they themselves have not.

That reality is causing anxiety and unease at West Point.

How to do new things

[link] Monday, April 7th, 2014

The best way to learn something is to start doing it. Don’t wait for full knowledge to come to you. Often it won’t. Just pretend you know what you’re doing, and hit the walls. Make the problem small enough that you can start solving it right now, without waiting. Each part of the problem is smaller than the whole thing. And tell yourself you can do it, because you can.

Yep. Characteristic wisdom from Dave Winer, the guy who got me blogging all those years ago, and who continues to amaze and inspire people everywhere.

Freshman Bill

[link] Saturday, April 5th, 2014


Billg in his first year at Harvard.


Fact or comment?

[link] Friday, April 4th, 2014


Hmmm… There are two ways of reading this headline. Is the last word comment or fact?

Partition blues

[link] Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

From J.K. Appleseed, writing in McSweeney’s:

How awesome would it be if you could partition your brain in the manner of a computer’s hard drive?

You could devote 7% of your brain to operate in foreign languages, 5% to cooking Italian food, 5% to knowing kung fu, and let’s say 23% to seduction techniques, just for starters. The sky’s the limit! Especially after you devote 5% of your brain to learning how to pilot a helicopter.

A modular brain would be so much easier to manage. You could selectively delete all unnecessary pop lyrics, reality TV show trivia, and the films of Zack Snyder. I would, however, suggest retaining the meta-memory of hating his movies, even though you no longer remember what they were, so as not to repeat your mistake. With the cleared up space, you could now set aside 5% for learning to play blues piano!

We’re only up to 50% at this point. The world of your brain is your oyster!


Meanwhile, your actual noggin is an undisciplined soup of useless details. You don’t remember where your car keys are, but you can’t get that stupid lick of Katy Perry’s “Roar” out of your head. You know the one. It goes, “Whoa, whoa! Oh, oh, oh, ohhh!”

Tony Blair’s Big Question

[link] Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

“Have you figured out how I can be on the right side of history without being on the wrong side of now?”

New Yorker cartoon showing a politician querying his staff.

Quote of the Day

[link] Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

“At times, the act of following Egyptian politics seems almost cruel — it’s like watching a lightning-fast sport played very badly, with every mistake reviewed in excruciating slow motion”.

Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, March 10, 2014

Quote of the Day

[link] Monday, March 31st, 2014

“Technology is everything that doesn’t work yet”.

Danny Hillis

Money for old Roper

[link] Sunday, March 30th, 2014

I’m reading this strange collection of 100 letters written by Hugh Trevor-Roper to various people. I’ve always been intrigued by Roper: he’s such a strange mixture of cleverness, wit, combativeness and ludicrous snobbery. This last characteristic was much on display in his sycophantic correspondence with Bernard Berenson, the art historian and general-purpose rogue. It’s also much on display in the present volume: some of the letters are suffused with nauseating sucking-up to folks who have hereditary titles and grand estates. But here and there there is an absolute gem.

In February 1952, for example, while lying in bed, he composed an astonishing letter to the publisher Hamish Hamilton, who had asked him whether it would be a good idea to commission a biography of Frederick Lindemann. In addition to being one of Churchill’s closest advisers during the war, Lindemann (“the Prof”) was also a Professor of physics at Oxford and a member of Christchurch, Roper’s own college.

Roper knew Lindemann as well as anybody and got on well with him. “I like the old wretch myself”, he writes,

“because I like wicked men (others pretend to like him because they like to know powerful men), but I can see why those who don’t share my perhaps curious taste regard him as a real menace, especially if they dislike his politics – which indeed are the blackest reaction.”

But despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that Roper was on good collegial terms with Lindemann, in six devastating pages he lays out the most economical and penetrating profile of an individual I have ever read (with the possible exception of Keynes’s savage pen-portrait of Lloyd George).

Because of my interests in technocracy, one passage in this profile really stood out. Lindemann, says Roper,

has no interest in tradition, and no liberal ideas, – none whatever. He does not even allow that liberalism is a cheaper and more efficient system of government than despotism, as some illiberal political thinkers would nevertheless reluctantly concede; for as a trained scientist and bureaucrat he believes that really scientific despotism could be made cheaper and more efficient still, without any of that waste of energy which toleration, liberalism, and such untidy systems necessarily entail and which exact scientists almost deplore.

He goes on.

It is fundamental to the Prof’s political views that this ruthless mechanical bureaucracy must be run in the interests, and by the agents, of the classes, not the masses. The Prof’s attitude towards the masses is quite clear: he hates, despises, and – above all – fears them. His insulation from their world is complete. The Churchillian idea of ‘Tory democracy’, of sharing any of their emotions (he has no emotions) or enthusiasms (he hates enthusiasms) or pleasures (he despises their pleasures) is incomprehensible to him. His only contact with the lower classes is with butlers. He only moves in limousines. He has never been seen walking in the street. His life is spent, carefully secluded from the tiresome evidence that humanity exists, in luxury-hotels, great houses, carefully-run laboratories, and his own inaccessible rooms in college. These rooms are of an indescribable hideousness (for the Prof is an utter Philistine), furnished like a first-class steamship saloon, along with endless photographs of views available to rich tourists travelling by that line.

Enough said?

” I hope I have convinced you,” Roper concludes, “that the Prof has fundamentally a dull mind and that no biography of him could be interesting”.

It seems that Hamish Hamilton took this advice, but in the end several biographies of Lindemann did emerge. The Earl of Birkenhead (one of Roper’s chums) published the ‘official’ biography in 1961. Two years earlier, another one of Roper’s Oxford mates, Roy Harrod, published a “personal memoir” of Lindemann. And in 2003 Adrian Fort published a rather good biography.

Dear Diary, er, Blog…

[link] Monday, March 24th, 2014

There is, I have discovered, a clear inverse correlation between blogging and what is laughingly called my “work”. That is to say, when I am busy doing dutiful things I am, as a result, not writing about the things that I’d like to blog about. So an alert reader can determine from this blog whether or not I have been rushing around, sitting on committees, interviewing candidates for jobs, being polite to visiting dignitaries and doing all the other things needed to feed the administrative appetite of an academic institution.

As I write this, for example, in my notebook there are fragmentary notes about at least a dozen topics on which I would like to write a blog post. There is, for example, that post I was hoping to write about a terrific film – The Grand Budapest Hotel – that we saw the other night and which led me to read everything I could lay my hands on about Stefan Zweig, the Austrian writer whose life and work inspired Wes Anderson to make the film.

And then there’s that blog post I was incubating about the strange paradox that everywhere one looks contemporary political scientists are studying everything except real politics, while in another part of the academic forest computer scientists (for God’s sake) are arguing and thinking about cryptography, virtual currencies, privacy, network effects, increasing marginal returns and the Power Law distributions that are the stuff of the realpolitik of our emerging networked world.

Of course, part of the reason for the inverse correlation is that I am hopelessly inefficient. One way of putting it is that I am a multi-tasker equipped with the wrong algorithm. (When I once said that to my friend Quentin he replied cheerily that I could always be re-flashed, like a recalcitrant DSL modem, but he was just being polite.)

Another way of putting it would be to say that I’m easily distracted. I’m a fox rather than a hedgehog – to use Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction. And one of the things I have been distracted by this week is One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper. Roper was often castigated by his critics for squandering his talent and effort on essay-writing, reviewing, journalism — and letter-writing — when he should have been writing massive volumes of specialised historical research. But it seems that he too was not very efficient at the administrative side of academic life. Here he is, for example, writing to Jack Plumb in 1970:

“I am a hopeless writer of letters – or at least, a hopeless organiser of the paper which falls like a gentle but continuous blizzard of snow on my various desks. Some of them congeal into solid, lasting ice; others have somehow get pushed off into great drifts at the table-side; others simply melt away and no trace is left of them. Yours has suddenly emerged from beneath the drift, and fills me with shame for my long silence.”

Hmmm… I should perhaps write in the same vein to this blog.