Archive for the 'Asides' Category

Oliver Stone to do the Edward Snowden story

[link] Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

From a Guardian Press Release.

Academy Award-winning director Oliver Stone and his long-time producing partner Moritz Borman today announced they have purchased the rights to ‘The Snowden Files, The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man’, published by Guardian Faber and written by Guardian journalist Luke Harding.

Stone will write and direct the film, drawing from Harding’s critically-acclaimed account of events surrounding the Guardian’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting of the disclosures provided by Edward Snowden, as well as additional materials from the Guardian’s US team who broke the story.

Stone has commenced writing the screenplay and Borman is fast-tracking it as a major European co-production to start filming before the end of the year. Harding and other Guardian journalists will also act as exclusive production and story consultants.

Hmmm… Hope it’s better than his JFK film.

The importance of doubt

[link] Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Now, we scientists … take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure — that it is possible to live and not know. But I don’t know whether everyone realizes that this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle. Permit us to question — to doubt, that’s all — not to be sure. And I think it is important that we do not forget the importance of this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained. Here lies a responsibility to society.

Richard Feynman

Why the Economist’s obituaries are so good

[link] Monday, June 9th, 2014

I’ve often wondered why the obituaries in the Economist are so good. Now, thanks to a terrific piece by Isabelle Fraser I know: they’re written by a brilliant writer, Anne Wroe.

The subject of the week’s obituary is decided on Monday, and it must be written and polished by Tuesday. This 36-hour window is a marathon attempt to consume as much information as possible. “I just sort of feed it all in. Make a huge great collage in my mind. And then it compresses down terribly: there must be millions of words in there and it just comes down to a thousand.”

Often, Wroe is stepping inside the mind of someone who was utterly obsessive about something, and briefly, their passion must become of great importance to her as well. “There was one man I wrote about who was a carpenter, and he specialized in making drawers. It’s quite difficult to get drawers to go in and out smoothly, and you can understand how that could become an obsession. So I had to learn how to make them as well, and find out which woods were best. I had to be just as enthusiastic about how to do it as he was.”

“I think the hardest one was when I did Ingmar Bergman,” she says. “I had to spend the whole night watching the movies, and by the end I was suicidal. They were so dark, and they were getting darker and darker.” She compares it to an Oxford tutorial essay, a kind of fast-paced cramming. “The writers are horrifying; I absolutely dread it when the writers die. There’s such a lot to read!”

Wroe insists on only reading source material by her subject. “I never go to any books written by anybody else. I go to the words on the paper, their diaries. I think it’s the only way to do it, because that’s the voice that has disappeared.”

The debate about Piketty’s book is not a football match. FT please copy

[link] Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

The row over Thomas Piketty’s book is fascinating. Well, it is to me anyway. First, there was a wave of broadly admiring reviews — so much so that the American Right became alarmed. There’s an amusing round-up by Kathleen Geier of the dafter ones here. Megan McArdle, for example, wrote a daft piece in Bloomberg View (which opened thus:

I apologize in advance, because I am going to talk about a book that I have not yet read. To be clear, I intend to read Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” It is sitting on my (virtual) bedside with a big stack of other (digital) books that I intend to read. But it’s far down in the queue, and I’m afraid that I can’t wait to weigh in — not on the book itself, but on its topic. How much does inequality actually matter?

For this, she was roundly satirised by Fredrik deBoer’s non-review of her non-review. True to form, the Wall Street Journal employed a hedge-fund manager to review Piketty’s work as “less a work of economic analysis than a bizarre ideological screed.” Who knew?

The two most serious reviews I’ve seen are the ones by Larry Summers and the former Bank of England Governor, Mervyn King, both of whom were respectful but critical. Of the two, King is more sceptical. “The claims made for Piketty’s book are exaggerated”, he writes.

It gives a fairly complete description of what we know about changes in the distribution of income and wealth over several centuries. Piketty has some important things to say about recent developments in inequality and where they might lead. But his enthusiasm to portray his work as a theory of capitalism detracts from them”.

For my money, though, the most interesting development was the critique of Piketty’s data mounted by Chris Giles, the Financial Times Economics editor. Giles made lots of specific complaints, but the essence of his criticism focussed on his assertion that Piketty’s estimates of wealth concentration in the US and the UK were too high.

This led at least one of my journalistic colleagues to proclaim gleefully at breakfast that “Piketty was getting a bit of a pasting”, a characterisation that was hotly disputed by me, for a number of reasons, one of which was that it was typical of the journalistic mindset which portrays every public debate as a football or boxing match in which there are “winners” and “losers”, whereas this was a debate about the second most important issue that faces democracies (the most important being climate change).

My reading of Giles’s criticisms was that they were typical of the kind of thing one would find in a reviewer’s report for a peer-reviewed journal. Criticisms of data, and of the inferences drawn from them, are par for the academic course. And of course they were only possible because Piketty published all his data precisely so that critics could pore over them at will. Giles’s analysis, in contrast, was hidden behind the FT‘s impenetrable paywall.

And, in a way, the most depressing thing about the whole spat was the way the FT played it. What its Economics Editor did was perfectly appropriate. But his newspaper chose to present it, not as a contribution to an important debate, but as an expose.

Simon Wren-Lewis, an Oxford Economics professor, expressed this view very well on his blog:

When an academic, or student, thinks they have found a mistake in an academic paper or book, what do they do? Check their calculations again and again, or course. Ask someone else to do the same, maybe. But then they will write to the authors of the original work, and ask them to comment. What they will not do, in that letter or email, is to give the original author a deadline of one day to respond. That was how much time Chris Giles of the Financial Times gave Thomas Piketty to respond to his long list of alleged errors and unexplained adjustments.

I think it might have been very different if Chris Giles had written a piece about the difficulty of interpreting wealth inequality data, and had wanted to get clarification of what Piketty had done and why. I suspect in that case the paper would have given Piketty more time to respond (what was the urgency?), and the article would have benefited greatly from that dialog.

But that was not the article that Chris Giles chose to write and the Financial Times chose to publish. Instead they wrote an exposé, in much the same way as you would expose some wrongdoing by a politician. (Is an academic making a spreadsheet error the equivalent of a politician having an illicit affair?) The phrase they use in football is playing the man and not the ball.

, in the unlikely event that I ever warranted a headline story, I know I would not want to be treated in the way Giles treated Piketty. There were only two possible justifications for writing a story of that kind. One was if the paper had clear evidence that Piketty had fiddled the numbers to get the results he wanted, and it is obvious they did not have that evidence. The other is that they had found so many simple mistakes that this discredited Piketty as an academic. Again this was not the case. 2

I also get very cross with academics who suggest that, because his book had become a bestseller and he had accepted invitations to talk to White House staff, he somehow deserved this kind of treatment. This seems to me like hypocrisy at its worst. Given this treatment, both Thomas Piketty’s initial response and his more detailed response issued yesterday are remarkable and impressive in their restraint.

In its handling of this issue, the Financial Times, in my opinion, has damaged its brand.

World Cup: conflicts of interest

[link] Monday, June 2nd, 2014

One of the interesting questions arising from the Sunday Times report of the allegations that the success of Qatar’s implausible bid to host the 2022 World Cup may have owed something to, er, bribery is how Al-Jazeera would report it. Al-J is not only based in Qatar but funded by its ruler, which means that there are, effectively, two Al-Jazeeras. The first is the network that does interesting journalistic work across the world. The other is the one that, er, covers domestic news and politics in Qatar, and I’m told that it is pretty tame by comparison with the international version.

The World Cup bribery story is therefore a tricky one for the network, so I thought it’d be interesting to see how it was covered in Al-Jazeera English. I had to dig for it on the website, but eventually found this deadpan report.

Qatar’s World Cup 2022 organisers have vehemently denied allegations by a British newspaper that the country bribed FIFA officials to gain the right to the tournament.

The organising committee’s statement on Sunday said that it “always upheld the highest standards of ethics and integrity in its successful bid”, after claims in the Sunday Times that a total of $5m was paid by a Qatari official to FIFA members.

The piece also carries this quote (presumably from the aforementioned committee:

“We vehemently deny all allegations of wrongdoing. We will take whatever steps are necessary to defend the integrity of Qatar’s bid and our lawyers are looking into this matter.”

Lawyers, eh?

Leaking as a public duty

[link] Sunday, June 1st, 2014

Of whom is this a description?

“A kind of official urinal in which, side by side, high officials of MI5 and MI6, sea lords, permanent under-secretaries, Lord George-Brown, chiefs of the air staff, nuclear scientists, Lord Wigg and others, stand patiently, leaking in the public interest. One can only admire their resolute attention to these distasteful duties.”

Why, the Daily Express journalist, Chapman Pincher, who, in his recently-published memoirs) describes this description (by E.P. Thompson) as “my most cherished professional compliment”.

That exquisite form of torture known as ‘writing’

[link] Saturday, May 31st, 2014


Brooding on conversations I’ve had this week with some of this Term’s Press Fellows about the process of writing, I came on “Lies, manuscripts and icebergs: how I’ve written two novels” by Naomi Wood, who teaches creative writing at Goldsmiths College, University of London. At one stage, she writes:

During the first draft I can’t spend longer than three hours writing a day. After that I want to do what Hemingway did – give up at noon and go sailing on my nonexistent boat, fishing for marlin with a daiquiri by my side. Plus, it usually reads awfully – the language is all over the place, the metaphors in thickets, the plotting heavy-handed as if done by a child. All I’m doing is telling, not showing, because I don’t know yet what I’m even telling, so how can I begin to represent that through showing?

If I’m feeling particularly bummed at this stage I sometimes cast my eye over some photocopies I have of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises manuscript. What I love is all the crossings-out, the bruise of the pen across the page, the margins packed with stuff that came later. It reminds me that no-one got it right the first time around; that books are built from accretions of drafts. Its final effortlessness betrays effort.

I’m sure that’s true, though Sam Johnson said it more elegantly when he observed that “nothing that is read with pleasure was written without pain”.

Naomi’s right about Hemingway, IMHO. Here’s the first page of A Farewell to Arms:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across theriver and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

The plain was rich with crops; there were many orchards of fruit trees and beyond the plain the mountains were brown and bare. There was fighting in the mountains and at night we could see the flashes from the artillery. In the dark it was like summer lightning, but the nights were cool and there was not the feeling of a storm coming.

Sometimes in the dark we heard the troops marching under the window and guns going past pulled by motor-tractors. There was much traffic at night and many mules on the roads with boxes of ammunition on each side of their pack-saddles and gray motor-trucks that carried men, and other trucks with loads covered with canvas that moved slower in the traffic. There were big guns too that passed in the day drawn by tractors, the long barrels of the guns covered with green branches and green leafy branches and vines laid over the tractors. To the north we could look across a valley and see a forest of chestnut trees and behind it another mountain on this side of the river. There was fighting for that mountain too, but it was not successful, and in the fall when the rains came the leaves all fell from the chestnut trees and the branches were bare and the trunks black with rain. The vineyards were thin and bare-branched too and all the country wet and brown and dead with the autumn. There were mists over the river and clouds on the mountain and the trucks splashed mud on the road and the troops were muddy and wet in their capes; their rifles were wet and under their capes the two leather cartridge-boxes on the front of the belts, gray leather boxes heavy with the packs of clips of thin, long 6.5 mm. cartridges, bulged forward under the capes so that the men, passing on the road, marched as though they were six months gone with child.

There were small gray motor-cars that passed going very fast; usually there was an officer on the seat with the driver and more officers in the back seat. They splashed more mud than the camions even and if one of the officers in the back was very small and sitting between two generals, he himself so small that you could not see his face but only the top of his cap and his narrow back, and if the car went especially fast it was probably the King. He lived in Udine and came out in this way nearly every day to see how things were going, and things went very badly.

At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army.

Somerset Maugham, who was an astonishingly successful writer in the 1930s, once revealed that before he embarked on a new book, he always re-read Voltaire’s Candide as a way of cleansing his palate, as it were. I’ve known other writers who start by re-reading Evelyn Waugh for the same reason. But, for my money, Hemingway beats them all.

Rupert Loewenstein: Sympathy for the Devil

[link] Saturday, May 31st, 2014

Wow! Jumping Jack Flash! Who knew about this guy? One of the things I really like about the Economist is the way it produces interesting obituaries of people I ought to have known about but didn’t. This one is a classic.


THE music of the Rolling Stones did nothing for Prince Rupert zu Loewenstein. Perhaps “Paint it Black” was not too bad. Otherwise, he doubted that their cacophanies counted as music at all. If you made your way backstage at a Stones concert, passing through dozens of grades of status and access, past aides in black T-shirts and girls in not much, you would find him at the very nerve-centre, a portly, kindly figure in immaculate suit and tie, with his hands clapped over his ears.

He was there, on every tour for 39 years, because his financial nous had turned the Stones into the most lucrative rock band in the world. Mick had his hip-swivelling energy, and Keith his wild guitar; Prince Rupert, behind the scenes, contributed wisdom and suavity to the cafetière, along with high-class fun. Before he arrived, in 1969, they were stuck in a recording contract with Decca and tied to a financial adviser, Allen Klein, who creamed off half of what they earned. Over years of litigation Prince Rupert liberated them, restoring their rights to regular revenue from their songs. He also built up a global touring machine that pulled in millions from merchandising and corporate sponsors: Budweiser, Volkswagen, Chase Manhattan. Thanks to him, the Stones in 2006 paid tax at 1.6% on 20-year earnings of £242m.

Nonetheless, to stumble upon him backstage was as odd as to come across Jumpin’ Jack Flash in the pages of the “Almanach de Gotha”. He was the son of Bavarian aristocrats, and properly speaking (as he always spoke) was called Loewenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg. He could trace his descent on his father’s side from the royal house of Wittelsbach; his mother, the Countess of Treuberg, was related to the kings of Brazil. From a somewhat solitary childhood, which included being abandoned in Grasse when he was six with only a maid and a cook, he recalled his father telling stories of his ancestry and stressing the importance of tenue—the bearing necessary to a gentleman.

I particularly liked the story that when he first met up with Mick Jagger to discuss business he realised that he had seen him once before — when he had to step over his recumbent, stoned, form at a party.

Making Hay

[link] Friday, May 30th, 2014


Last weekend I spoke at the Hay Festival. It was my first time attending and an interesting experience. The weather was foul, the car parks resembled WW1 battlefields (in terms of mud, anyway) and everywhere people were trying to shelter from the rain. And yet the atmosphere was utterly delightful. Think of it as a rock festival for ideas. Here and there were the usual suspects from the metropolitan media elite, preening themselves in designer wellies. But mostly the town was thronged with normal people queuing to get into lectures and discussions on all sorts of subjects. Most would, I’d guess, be loath to describe themselves as ‘intellectuals’. (Especially since the word has such unfortunate connotations in Britain.) They were just for the most part unpretentious people interested in ideas. And as I walked around I found myself thinking that these are the folks whom Rupert Murdoch most despises. But in fact they are the people who make Britain such an interesting and civilised society. And I’m pretty sure that they are also the kind of people who will make sure that UKIP fizzles out when the general election comes next year.

Nigel Warburton, virtual philosopher

[link] Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

When I worked at the Open University, Nigel Warburton was one of my most inspiring colleagues. Among other things, he co-founded Philosophy Bites, an admirable site which publishes interviews with philosophers whose podcasts have been downloaded zillions of times. As such, he’s probably done more than any living philosopher to bring his subject to the wider public.

But then, a couple of years ago, he decided to give up his university job to go freelance. As someone who admires people who live by their wits (as opposed to living on an institutional salary), I’m lost in admiration. So too is The Philosophers Magazine, which carries an interview with Nigel in which he is asked why he took this leap into the unknown.

His answer is interesting:

“It’s complicated,” he says. “On the positive side, this is a wonderful time to explore new ways of communicating with a global audience free from the constraints and obligations of academic life. I’ve seen plenty of philosophy lecturers get increasingly bitter about higher education, and I don’t want to end up like them.

“Far better to have a go at following my own direction than stagnate. It might not work out, but at least I’ll be able to say I had a go. It feels exciting at the moment, and I wanted to see if it is possible to live as a writer and podcaster. I’ve always found lot of academic philosophy rather dry, but I love philosophy at its best. Through Philosophy Bites I’ve met some of the top living philosophers, and I’ve been inspired by them.

“But I feel weighed down by the short sightedness, the petty bureaucracy, and the often pointless activities that are creeping into higher education. These things eat time and, more importantly, sap energy. Meanwhile the sand sifts through the hourglass. At the Open University I’d always hoped that we’d be able to offer a named undergraduate degree in philosophy, but actually the subject has, if anything, become marginalised, with fewer courses available than when I joined nineteen years ago, and with much higher fees. This at a time when philosophy is becoming increasingly popular. There had also been suggestions that I might be able to take on an official role promoting the public understanding of philosophy, but that didn’t materialise either.

“The easy option would have been to sit it out and keep taking the salary, but I respond better to interesting challenges than pay cheques. I knew I’d made the right decision when I felt exhilarated rather than scared after handing in my notice, and already I’ve had numerous offers of paid work of one kind or another, including some interesting journalism and plenty of invitations to speak in schools. Interview me again in ten years to see if I was crazy.”

“Crazy or not”, comments the interviewer, “it’s a worrying sign for philosophy in the academy. Someone who’s very good at conveying complex philosophical ideas in plain English– a good teacher, in other words – has come to the conclusion that a university is not the best place for him to be”.

Yep. It is worrying.