Archive for the 'Asides' Category

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.

Grand Budapest Hotel

[link] Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

This I’ve got to see.

Oscar Nights

[link] Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

Is it time for the Oscars again? Surely not? How time flies when you’re enjoying yourself. Our research project has been running a little film season on the general theme of ‘conspiracy’ (last week’s was All the Presidents Men) and we had a slight struggle to get them screened because “it’s the run-up to the Oscars” — which apparently meant that The Management thought that every screen under their control should be showing a nominated film, rather than some boring old celluloid film from the Dark Ages before CGA.

Where was I? Oh, yes, the Oscars. I’m not much of a film-goer and I detest awards ceremonies, whether in the UK (the BAFTAs) or the US. So imagine my delight at discovering (courtesy of The Browser) this wonderful essay by Raymond Chandler on the 1948 Oscar ceremony. “It isn’t so much that the awards never go to fine achievements”, he writes, “as that those fine achievements are not rewarded as such.

They are rewarded as fine achievements in box-office hits. You can’t be an All-American on a losing team. Technically, they are voted, but actually they are not decided by the use of whatever artistic and critical wisdom Hollywood may happen to possess. They are ballyhooed, pushed, yelled, screamed, and in every way propagandized into the consciousness of the voters so incessantly, in the weeks before the final balloting, that everything except the golden aura of the box office is forgotten.

[...]

If you think most motion pictures are bad, which they are (including the foreign), find out from some initiate how they are made, and you will be astonished that any of them could be good. Making a fine motion picture is like painting “The Laughing Cavalier” in Macy’s basement, with a floorwalker to mix your colors for you. Of course most motion pictures are bad. Why wouldn’t they be? Apart from its own intrinsic handicaps of excessive cost, hypercritical bluenosed censorship, and the lack of any single-minded controlling force in the making, the motion picture is bad because 90 per cent of its source material is tripe, and the other 10 per cent is a little too virile and plain-spoken for the putty-minded clerics, the elderly ingénues of the women’s clubs, and the tender guardians of that godawful mixture of boredom and bad manners known more eloquently as the Impressionable Age.

And this:

It doesn’t really seem to make much difference how the voting is done. The quality of the work is still only recognized in the context of success. A superb job in a flop picture would get you nothing, a routine job in a winner will be voted in. It is against this background of success-worship that the voting is done, with the incidental music supplied by a stream of advertising in the trade papers (which even intelligent people read in Hollywood) designed to put all other pictures than those advertised out of your head at balloting time. The psychological effect is very great on minds conditioned to thinking of merit solely in terms of box office and ballyhoo. The members of the Academy live in this atmosphere, and they are enormously suggestible people, as are all workers in Hollywood.

Lots more in that vein. Wonderful stuff, which made me laugh out loud and reminded me that there is nothing — but nothing — to beat a good writer in disdainful mood.

The real significance of WhatsApp

[link] Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

I’ve been convinced for ages that the advertising-based business model of most web services is ultimately going to wither away for two reasons: it depends for its survival on the ruthless exploitation of people’s privacy; and it will have to increase its intrusiveness in order to generate the returns that investors require – which means that users will become increasingly hostile to it, and eventually seek alternatives.

It’s also seemed obvious to me for a long time that, in the end, cyberspace will have to resemble Meatspace in one respect – namely that if you want to have something that costs money to create, then you will have to pay for it.

What’s so refreshing about WhatsApp is that its co-founders understood that from the beginning. People who use the service will have to pay (modestly) for the privilege. There’s such a refreshing honesty about that, compared to the manipulative dishonesty of what Jaron Lanier calls the “siren servers”.

None of this is new, of course: wiser people than me – for example Doc Searls – have been saying it for years, as Zachary Seward points out in a splendid post on Quartz.com.

He writes about the “disquieting suspicion” that, in the long run, advertising simply might not work for the mobile web.

“No one wakes up excited to see more advertising, no one goes to sleep thinking about the ads they’ll see tomorrow,” Koum wrote in 2012. It echoed a prophesy that writer Doc Searls made about the web all the way back in 1998: “There is no demand for messages.”

Of course, Searls wasn’t talking about the kind of person-to-person messages that WhatsApp specializes in. Rather, he was pushing the idea that the internet would lead to the erosion of mass media where messages—think corporate marketing or political messaging—could be imposed on people no matter what. That happened to an extent, but most of the web’s big businesses—Facebook chief among them—can fairly be described as mass media. At any rate, they have been successful selling ads.

What if things are different—and much closer to Searls’s vision—on the mobile internet? [Jan] Koum [WhatsApp's co-founder] certainly thinks so: ”Cellphones are so personal and private to you that putting an advertisement there is not a good experience,” he said last year. He has described mobile messaging as a utility akin to water or gas.

Lost in translation

[link] Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

It seems that my column about the anniversary of the BBC Micro has wound up in unexpected places. Today I received this charming email from a Greek who has been struggling to understand my references to (Sir) Clive Sinclair.

Good day.

Would you be so kind to explain this sentence?

“One was Sinclair Research, the eponymous vehicle of Clive Sinclair, a self-made man who worshipped his creator.”

I’m poor in english, but friends of mine who are good enough to work as teacher and translator, are met problems with understanding too.

Well I admit, the “vehicle” is just comprehensive metaphor for company, that allows its creator to move forward bot in professional and social planes. But “eponymous”? Did you meant company gave its name to products or made Clive famous?

Next problem is right after second comma: “a self-made man who worshipped his creator”. I think, the “self-made man” is mr. Sinclair. What about worshipping then? I even peeked in wikipedia, but there is nothing about religious motives of Sinclair nor his family traditions.

My reply:

Thanks for your email.

  1. “vehicle” is indeed a metaphor for his company, which was the corporate extension of SInclair’s personality.

  2. “a self-made man who worshipped his creator”. This an English joke, I’m afraid. Clive Sinclair is indeed a self-made man in the sense that he came from a relatively obscure background. But he also has a very high opinion of himself. A polite way of putting it would be to say that he does not suffer from a lack of self-esteem.

No religious connection is implied by the joke.

Best

John

It’s a reminder of how difficult translation is. And how impossible culturally-specific jokes are for non-native speakers.

Fracking: no such thing as a free lunch

[link] Saturday, February 8th, 2014

Fracking

This graph — which originally came from an article in Science but which I found in the latest edition of Jeremy Grantham’s fascinating investment newsletter — suggests that the assurances about the safety of fracking could conceivably be, er, wrong. Of course correlation isn’t causation etc. But still…

Togetherness, US style

[link] Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

Gives one a nice warm feeling, doesn’t it.

Thanks to The Browser for spotting it.

Pete Seeger RIP

[link] Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Another hero gone.

Why whistleblowers are rare

[link] Monday, January 20th, 2014

My Observer colleague, Nick Cohen, had a terrific column in yesterday’s paper about the Jimmy Savile affair and the BBC’s behaviour in relation to it.

For readers not in the UK I should explain that we now know that Savile was one of the most prolific sexual abusers ever to escape justice. The scale of his crimes, says Cohen, “stands comparison with emperors or tyrants, who engaged in the mass rape of captive subjects. But unlike a dictator, Savile did not require arbitrary power to protect him. All he needed was for society to believe that he was a celebrity: a ‘national treasure’ no one could touch”. (Among other things, Savile was knighted by the Queen for his “charitable” services. And after he died he was laid out in state in Leeds and thousands queued for hours to pay their respects to the deceased hero. Truly, you could not make this stuff up.)

There has been a big inquiry under way, led by a senior retired judge, which is about to issue its report. But we already know that Savile’s grisly predilections and behaviour were well known within the BBC when he was one of its most famous broadcasters. The Observer reported yesterday that the inquiry would reveal that he had abused over a thousand children and young people, many of them on BBC premises.

In the end, two BBC journalists — Liz MacKean, a reporter for the nightly Newsnight current affairs programme and her producer, Meirion Jones — found the evidence that Savile was a voracious paedophile. But their report was spiked by senior BBC management, possibly because, in another corner of the Corporation, there were plans in the works for a major celebratory documentary about Savile the ‘national treasure’.

Given that MacKean and Jones were the first journalists in the BBC to wish to tell the truth about Savile, you’d have thought that they would be regarded as heroines. After all, the BBC’s Royal Charter requires all BBC journalism to strive “to be impartial, accurate and independent”. But that’s not what happened. Here’s how Nick Cohen puts it:

The BBC has not treated its whistleblowers honourably or encouraged others to speak out in the future. Liz MacKean has had enough. Her managers did not fire her. They would not have dared and in any case the British establishment does not work like that.

Instead, they cold-shouldered her. MacKean was miserable. The atmosphere at work was dreadful. The BBC wouldn’t put her on air. She could have stayed, but she did not want to waste her time and talent and end up a bitter old hack. She chose the life of a free journalist instead and went off to work in independent – in all sense of that word – television.

She had been at the BBC for 24 years. Not a single manager came to her leaving party; even though the Pollard inquiry into the BBC’s handling of the Savile affair had vindicated her and Jones’s banned reports; even though every new revelation about Savile and every new celebrity arrest vindicated them further.

Jones, by contrast, stayed at the BBC. He has found a bolt hole at Panorama, which tried to save what was left of the BBC’s honour by producing an exposé of the Savile cover-up. But it is common knowledge that the BBC management will never promote him. His colleagues say he’s had offers to write a book about Savile or to work for independent television, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he took them.

At no point has Chris Patten, the chairman of the BBC Trust, offered Jones or MacKean his support or thanks. If the BBC had run their reports, it would have made all the difference. It could say now that at least it had the integrity to break the news about the crimes of one of its biggest stars. Liz MacKean and Meirion Jones acted in the best interests of the corporation. They were its true defenders. No good did it do them.

This is all par for the course. Moral courage is the scarcest commodity in our society. And whistleblowers are often the embodiment of it. The reason they are detested is partly because they sometimes undermine powerful commercial, organisational or political interests, but mainly because they highlight how compromised and cowardly the rest of us are.

And this is an old, old story. I first began to think about it as a student when I saw a production of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, a scarifying play on this theme. Here’s how Wikipedia summarises the plot:

Doctor Thomas Stockmann is a popular citizen of a small coastal town in Norway. The town has invested a large amount of public and private money towards the development of baths, a project led by Stockmann and his brother, Peter, the Mayor. The town is expecting a surge in tourism and prosperity from the new baths, which are said to be of great medicinal value, and as such, a source of great local pride. Just as the baths are proving successful, Stockmann discovers that waste products from the town’s tannery are contaminating the waters, causing serious illness amongst the tourists. He expects this important discovery to be his greatest achievement, and promptly sends a detailed report to the Mayor, which includes a proposed solution which would come at a considerable cost to the town.

To his surprise, Stockmann finds it difficult to get through to the authorities. They seem unable to appreciate the seriousness of the issue and unwilling to publicly acknowledge and address the problem because it could mean financial ruin for the town. As the conflict develops, the Mayor warns his brother that he should “acquiesce in subordinating himself to the community.” Stockmann refuses to accept this, and holds a town meeting at Captain Horster’s house in order to persuade people that the baths must be closed.

The townspeople — eagerly anticipating the prosperity that the baths will bring — refuse to accept Stockmann’s claims, and his friends and allies, who had explicitly given support for his campaign, turn against him en masse. He is taunted and denounced as a lunatic, an “Enemy of the People.” In a scathing rebuttal of both the Victorian notion of community and the principles of democracy, Stockmann proclaims that, in matters of right and wrong, the individual is superior to the multitude, which is easily led by self-advancing demagogues. Stockmann sums up Ibsen’s denunciation of the masses with the memorable quote “…the strongest man in the world is the man who stands most alone.” He also says: “A minority may be right; a majority is always wrong.”

Right on.