Saturday 13 March, 2021

Listening to the Cosmos

Some of the radio telescopes at Lord’s Bridge.

Quote of the Day

”We were discussing the possibility of making one of our cats Pope recently, and we decided that the fact that she was not Italian, and was female, made the third point, that she was a cat, quite irrelevant.”

  • Katharine Whitehorn

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison | Days like this


Such a lovely, evocative song. Especially when we’re marking such a grim anniversary. Thanks to Anne Chapel for reminding me of it.

Long Read of the Day

Rug Time by Jonathan Steinberg

My friend Jonathan, who died last week, was a terrific book-reviewer. I’ve just been re-reading his LRB review  of The Price of Power, Seymour Hersh’s biography of Henry Kissinger, published in 1983. It’s a typically thorough Steinberg piece which is a pleasure to read — hence my recommendation.

This is how it concludes:

The Price of Power has perplexed me more than any book I have read for a long time. The story Mr Hersh has to tell is unrelieved and nasty. He attacks Kissinger less by invective than by weight of evidence. Super-K is to be buried under the thousand interviews and the mountains of notes. Yet the man himself slips through, almost unscathed. I tried to log the number of times Mr Hersh uses strong language, words like ‘betray’ or ‘fawn’ or ‘lie’, but gave it up for he does so sparingly. The facts, it would appear, are to speak for themselves. But they don’t. I know that the first law of reviewing is to talk about the book and not to complain about the one that the reviewer might have wanted. I have to break the rule in this case. Here we have a work by one of America’s most famous journalists, a work which he evidently felt was so important that he left the New York Times to complete it: and yet he gave me no deeper understanding of Kissinger the man or Kissinger the statesman than I had before I started. Perhaps the rigorous traditions of New York Times journalism with its non-committal tone and taste for factual accounts unfit a writer for the flights of imagination or sweep of judgment that seem to me to be lacking here. Perhaps Mr Hersh hates Dr Kissinger and has to restrain himself lest it show. I don’t know. What I do know is that nobody will ever be in a better position to write the definitive study of Kissinger’s foreign policy and I am sorry that, for whatever reason, Seymour Hersh has not done so.

One of the nice ironies of history was that when Jonathan’s magisterial biography of Bismarck was published, the New York Times asked Kissinger to review it.

I never hear the name Kissinger without thinking of Tom Lehrer’s famous observation that “Satire died the day Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize”.

The one great thing about YouTube

YouTube’s recommender algorithm has been a disaster for democracy, but the basic service YouTube provides is often wonderful in all kinds of mundane ways. It’s particularly good — in my experience — when you’re trying to do some mundane DIY task and discover that it’s more difficult than you envisaged. At which point you discover that someone much more competent and resourceful than you has encountered and solved it — and is willing to demonstrate on video how s/he did so.

A good case study of this public good arose this morning. Our second car is a Toyota Aygo, a small runabout that I bought years ago when the kids were learning to drive, and which we still use as a workhorse for all kinds of mundane trips. Although it’s badged as a Toyota, in fact it’s just a rebranded runabout that was designed by either Peugeot or Citroen — which is why you see various manifestations of it all over the place.

One of the curious aspects of the car that we discovered years ago is that it seems to have been designed to be cheap to manufacture but fiendishly difficult to repair. A few years ago the heater fan broke and we discovered that it would cost neatly £600 to replace it. Why? It wasn’t the cost of the fan — about £100 — but the labour costs of the work needed to replace it. A significant chunk of the front interior had to be painstakingly removed in order to get at the faulty part. One of my wife’s sons — who is naturally good at this stuff — kindly did it for us, and it was an eye-opener to observe the lengths to which he had to go in order to replace that one single component. We had a similar experience when trying to replace a headlamp bulb — an apparently trivial task which, on the Aygo, seems to require superhuman dexterity and the ability to work in a very confined space.

Yesterday, the indicators started to malfunction, making the car dangerous to drive. Having consulted the Haynes manual I concluded that the indicator stalk on the steering column was probably faulty and would need to be replaced. I then discovered that doing so looked like being tricky in classic Aygo style — involving, among other things, temporarily disabling the airbag and taking off the steering wheel. But just to confirm that suspicion, I went to YouTube and found this wonderful video — which provided the desired confirmation but was also a beautiful example of how to teach by example. And while the chap was doing the repair, he had occasional interludes (complete with visual warnings) for rants about French automobile design, with all of which I heartily concurred.

”No 10 was a plague pit”

The Guardian today carried a vivid account of what it had been like inside Johnson’s so-called government in the early days of the pandemic. It’s useful in confirming what one guessed it must have been like, but it has lots of colourful detail. Here’s how it opens…

Horrified staff and ministers, dealing with the worst crisis in decades, had to reckon with how the country could be run when everyone in charge was getting ill.

Famously, Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and Dominic Cummings contracted the virus. So did England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, and the then cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill. Ministers and their staff had it. Almost all the staff in Downing Street, too.

It spread to special advisers across Whitehall and to parliamentary lobby journalists. Although the Palace of Westminster escaped any mass outbreaks among staff, several MPs caught Covid. Many in the office of the Labour leader, including Seumas Milne, had it. Jeremy Corbyn may have had it, although he was never tested and so has never been sure.

But the situation was at its worst at the heart of Downing Street. For a number of days aides looked almost entirely to the then director of communications, Lee Cain, for direction.

“No 10 was a plague pit,” one adviser recalls. “No one outside the postcode quite knows how bad it got in there.”

Another said: “Lee was running the country, genuinely, for quite some time.”

According to many of those present, almost the entire staff team in Downing Street caught Covid-19 at some point during those weeks, with James Slack, the prime minister’s spokesperson, a notable exception.

I’ve been to No 10 a couple of times and was astonished at how much of a rabbit-warren it is. I once interviewed one of the UK’s most senior civil servants in his office there. It was not that much bigger than a walk-in wardrobe.

The other thing I remember (it was in the late 1990s) was that on entry you had to switch your mobile phone off and put it on the hall table with a post-it note giving your name. I did as required and went off to do the interview. When I went to reclaim my phone I noticed that next to it was a Nokia on which the post-it note said “First Sea Lord”.

Straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Another — fascinating — link

The Antikythera Cosmos: Recreating an ancient mechanical Cosmos Link

This is an utterly fascinating 30-minute video account of how researchers at UCL have solved a major piece of the puzzle that makes up the ancient Greek astronomical calculator known as the Antikythera Mechanism, a hand-powered mechanical device that was used to predict astronomical events.

It was the world’s first analogue computer and the most complex piece of engineering to have survived from the ancient world. The 2,000-year-old device was used to predict the positions of the Sun, Moon and the planets as well as lunar and solar eclipse.

The stupendous effort and ingenuity that went into this project is astonishing.

And the video makes for riveting viewing. Best way of spending half an hour I can think of.

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