The puzzle at the heart of modern history

… well, as Isaiah Berlin saw it anyway (as summarised by Mark Lilla in his essay in The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin):

“The puzzle is this: how did the optimistic and progressive spirit of 18th-century Europe give way to the dark and terrifying world of the 19th and 20th centuries? How did the Europe that produced Goethe and Kant, Voltaire and Rousseau, Tolstoy and Chekhov, also produce the Lager and the Gulag?”

Ou est La Seine?


It’s been very dry in France this summer. But I hadn’t realised how dry until I came on this bridge in Châtillon-sur-seine, which is quite near the source of the river in Burgundy.

A better mousetrap



The three-pin plug has always been a bit of a pain for those of us who have to carry one around in our rucksacks. So this re-design was a welcome surprise. Guess who sells it? Er, Apple.

Three generations


One of the really nice things about being on holiday in Provence is the number of extended families who appear to be holidaying together. In a restaurant last night there were were several family parties, one of which appeared to have four generations present.

Van Gogh: texture, colour and light

There’s a lovely passage in Julian Barnes’s review of Ever Yours: The Essential Letters of Vincent Van Gogh

We have a problem of seeing, just as we often have a problem hearing (or hearing clearly), say, a Beethoven symphony. It’s hard to get back to our first enraptured seeings and hearings, when Van Gogh and Beethoven struck our eyes and ears as nothing had before; and yet equally hard to break through to new seeings, new hearings. So we tend, a little lazily, to acknowledge greatness by default, and move elsewhere, away from the crowds discovering him as we first discovered him. But if, seeking silence and untrammelled Van Gogh, we then retreat into the art book, we are let down differently: however faithful the colour reproduction, the flat page always suppresses the urgent impasto of the paint surface, an impasto so thickly wet that the painter was sometimes kept waiting weeks before he could safely post off his latest canvas to his dealer-brother Theo. Julian Bell, in his useful short biography and appraisal, aptly describes Starry Night over the Rhône as ‘closer to a sculptural relief than a reproducible flat image’.


Every Summer, on our way south, we try to spend a night in Arles, and when the Foncdacion Vincent Van Gogh first opened in 2014 we made a beeline for it. And the first thing that struck me was the brilliant way the gate to the gallery captures that “urgent impasto” of the surface of a Van Gogh.

Barnes also writes very well about his use of colour:

No one did colour more blatantly and more unexpectedly than Van Gogh. Its blatancy gives his pictures their roaring charm. Colour, he seems to be saying: you haven’t seen colour before, look at this deep blue, this yellow, this black; watch me put them screechingly side by side. Colour for Van Gogh was a kind of noise. At the same time, it couldn’t have seemed more unexpected, coming from the dark, serious, socially concerned young Dutchman who for so many years of his early career had drawn and painted dark, serious, socially concerned images of peasants and proletarians, of weavers and potato-pickers, of sowers and hoers. This emergence, this explosion from darkness, has no parallel except for that of Odilon Redon (who was prompted into colour more by internal forces, whereas Van Gogh was prompted into it externally – first in Paris by the Impressionists, and then by the light of the South).

For decades I couldn’t understood Van Gogh’s use of colour — and it wasn’t for want of trying: I lived in Holland in 1997-8 and often went to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The fog only lifted in the summer of 2003 when I came to Provence for the first time. We flew in to Montpellier after dark, and drove to our destination through a tunnel dug by the car headlights into pitch-black darkness. Then, after a restless, hot night trying to sleep, I got up at dawn and opened the shutters — and looked out on a valley full of vivid ochres, yellows and greens, illuminated by a kind of light I’d never seen before (and, as a photographer, I pay a lot of attention to light). And then, finally, I began to understand Van Gogh.

The ghosts of thinkers past


In her newly-published autobiography Antonia Fraser opens with a quote from the autobiography of G.M. Trevelyan:

The poetry of history lies in the miraculous fact that once on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone like ghosts at cockcrow.

I often think of this when walking through Cambridge, the city where I live and work. If one walks down Free School Lane, for example, one passes the lab where Ernest Rutherford and Peter Kapitza worked and where the father-and-son team of William and Lawrence Bragg did the research which earned them both the 1915 Nobel Prize for physics. Also off Free School Lane is the room where J.J. Thomson discovered the electron, the room where, in 1932, John Cockroft and Ernest Walton first split the atom, and the room where, in 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick assembled the double-helix model of DNA. Turn left onto Bene’t Street and you find the Eagle, the pub to which Crick and Watson repaired to inform patrons that they had “found the secret of life”. If you walk down St Edward’s Passage, you will see (over David’s second-hand bookshop) the apartment in which John Maynard Keynes lived with his wife Lydia when they were in Cambridge. On Trinity Street, next to the Great Gate of Trinity, is the window of Isaac Newton’s room. On the other side of the street is Whewell’s Court, where Ludwig Wittgenstein had his spartan accommodation, complete with camp bed and card table.

When I lived in the centre of the city in the 1970s, one of the dustbins in a neighbouring house on Chesterton Lane (owned by Magdalene College) was labelled “I.A. Richards”. Walk down King’s parade and you pass the college where, in 1969, I attended E.M. Forster’s 90th birthday party (an event hosted by Francis Crick), where Bernard Williams was the Provost and where Alan Turing was both a student and a Fellow.

And so it goes on, seemingly ad infinitum. There’s Christ’s College, the college of John Milton and Charles Darwin (where they have restored Darwin’s room to its original state). And the Master’s Lodge in Peterhouse, where Herbert Butterfield once lived. And…

I once thought of organising a walking tour on the theme of “Cambridge ghosts”. Who knows, maybe I still might, one day.

How to travel in style to the Cote d’Azur


Note the bicycle pump strategically placed on the side of the engine compartment. And the effect of the stylish leather bag on the back seat is somewhat undermined by the modern rucksack next to it. There was also a starting handle to get the engine going. Those were the days.

How business schools lost the moral plot

One of the drivers of inequality — as Thomas Piketty and others have pointed out — is the colossal increase in the remuneration of senior executives in major public companies. Since much of this increase is accounted for by the switch from mere salary to salary-plus-stock-options, it has incentivised executives to prioritise share price at the expense of almost everything else.

But who taught these executives the techniques needed to boost share prices? Answer: the business schools which gave them their MBAs. But in looking at modern business schools, it’s clear that they are very different from their first predecessors like the Sloan School in MIT. And so are their students. The huge fees charged for an MBA course by leading business schools (the cost of a Wharton MBA, for example, is currently over $100,000) are usually borne by the students studying for the degree. It’s a huge personal investment, which means that they are understandably desperate to start paying it back as soon as they can.

So what happened to turn an MBA from a sensible preparation for a professional career as an executive into a sausage machine for shareholder-value-maximisation? It might be worth looking to From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession by Rakesh Khurana for some answers.

Khurana is the new Dean of Harvard College as well as a professor in the Harvard Business School, so he knows his field well.

Here’s the blurb for his book:

Is management a profession? Should it be? Can it be? This major work of social and intellectual history reveals how such questions have driven business education and shaped American management and society for more than a century. The book is also a call for reform. Rakesh Khurana shows that university-based business schools were founded to train a professional class of managers in the mold of doctors and lawyers but have effectively retreated from that goal, leaving a gaping moral hole at the center of business education and perhaps in management itself.

Khurana begins in the late nineteenth century, when members of an emerging managerial elite, seeking social status to match the wealth and power they had accrued, began working with major universities to establish graduate business education programs paralleling those for medicine and law. Constituting business as a profession, however, required codifying the knowledge relevant for practitioners and developing enforceable standards of conduct. Khurana, drawing on a rich set of archival material from business schools, foundations, and academic associations, traces how business educators confronted these challenges with varying strategies during the Progressive era and the Depression, the postwar boom years, and recent decades of freewheeling capitalism.

Today, Khurana argues, business schools have largely capitulated in the battle for professionalism and have become merely purveyors of a product, the MBA, with students treated as consumers. Professional and moral ideals that once animated and inspired business schools have been conquered by a perspective that managers are merely agents of shareholders, beholden only to the cause of share profits. According to Khurana, we should not thus be surprised at the rise of corporate malfeasance. The time has come, he concludes, to rejuvenate intellectually and morally the training of our future business leaders.

Remembering Caspar


Caspar Bowden, one of the most remarkable people I’ve been lucky to know, has died. His Wikipedia entry summarises his remarkable, highly-principled life and his accomplishments. I first met him in 1999 when campaigning against the Regulation of Investigatory Powers bill which was then on its way through a clueless UK parliament.

He was an extraordinarily serious man in whose company, I always felt slightly frivolous by comparison. But his seriousness derived from a deeply perceptive and informed concern about the scale of the surveillance nightmare into which we were sleepwalking — a concern that was amply corroborated by the Snowden revelations.

Caspar and I were both speakers at the conference in Copenhagen University held in December 2013 to mark the centenary of the Bohr model of the atom. I was lecturing on “Neils Bohr as a public intellectual” and in the course of my talk I slipped in a small but heartfelt tribute to Caspar:

On the face of it, it might seem that we have plenty of scientifically- and technologically literate public intellectuals: television and other mass media are awash with media superstars like Brian Cox, the rock-musician-turned-physicist who has been wowing British TV audiences for what seems like an eternity. Other cultures doubtless have their own equivalents.

The problem is that scientists like Cox are not really public intellectuals, because what they are doing is just explaining their disciplines to a general audience rather than engaging with the thorny public issues that science and technology now poses. What they do is important and often delightful in its way, but it’s not the heavy lifting that needs to be done.

A very good example of this heavy lifting is the work done by Caspar Bowden in unravelling the real nature and implications of NSA surveillance. This is difficult and often unrewarded labour but it’s what democracies need. And it’s only when one sees what’s involved that one really appreciates why people might settle for the comfortable option of media stardom rather than getting down and dirty in the public marketplace of ideas.

Caspar had seemed very depressed during the conference, so one reason for mentioning him was to cheer him up and let him know that some people really valued his work.

Later, he emailed me:

I missed your talk because I had promised my wife 1st proper holiday in 2 yrs and only way to make flights work affordably.

I haven’t justified my inlcusion – yet, but I take it as a spur to fulfil some rather late developing potential. I have consciously tried to re-read Arendt, Russell, Orwell, Lippmann and Chomsky over last few years. Almost more fun reading between the lines of what even they seemed to regard as unsayable about the power systems of their time, and why.

Failing my Maths Tripos 30 years ago has been both a curse (much time wasted in rather pointless jobs and many jobs inaccessible still) and a blessing (it saved me from specialisation and I can read as eclectically as I like).

With Caspar’s passing we have lost someone brave and significant. May he rest in peace.

Ross Anderson has written a lovely obituary in the Guardian.

Later Thanks to James Miller for spotting the incorrect link to Caspar’s Wikipedia entry. Now fixed.