Tuesday 1 February, 2022

The lane in sunlight

Little St Mary’s Lane — one of my favourite streets in Cambridge. In the early 1970s Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane lived at No. 6 and I would sometimes meet them in the morning, Jane wheeling Stephen in his wheelchair to the Department of Applied Mathematics and Physics (DAMPT), which was next door to my lab. Initially, I had no idea who he was, or what a significant figure he was — even then. But I found out quickly enough, because some of my friends were students in DAMTP and I would sometimes go there for the morning coffee break and notice that in one corner of the room was this chap in a wheelchair, invariably surrounded by a small group of animated graduate students and post-docs. One of the latter was Nathan Myhrvold, who later became Microsoft’s Chief Technology Officer. There’s a story that when Bill Gates decided to set up a global scholarship fund on the lines of the Rhodes Scholars at Oxford, Nathan steered him in the direction of Cambridge. I’ve no idea if that’s true, but Cambridge now has an annual cohort of Gates Scholars. I’ve worked with a few of them in recent years, and they have been, without exception, remarkable young people.

Quote of the Day

”I expect you’ll be becoming a schoolmaster, sir. That’s what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behaviour.”

  • Evelyn Waugh, Prelude to Decline and Fall.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Radu Lupu & Murray Perahia | Brahms Haydn Variations, op. 56b


Longer (18 minutes) than usual, but worth it. I just started it off when I was writing and let it roll. And when it got to the end, I played it again!

Long Read of the Day

Luxury at the top, privation at the bottom: Britain is becoming feudal in its disparities

(An advertisement in a recent copy of the Financial Times.)

Good John Harris column in the Guardian. My only quibble is with the word ‘becoming’. The fact that so-called ‘liberal’ democracies have become comfortable with inequality levels that are now at pre-1914 levels is what leads increasing numbers of their citizens to ask why that kind of ‘democracy’ is such a big deal. Which is one reason why its survival is in doubt.

Makes for uncomfortable reading.

There are good reasons why the Met may want a redacted version of the Gray report

Informative piece by Parm Sandhu in the Guardian:

If criminal proceedings go ahead, the matter must be proven beyond reasonable doubt for each named individual. Using the gathered evidence, the Crown Prosecution Service would consider using tests of sufficiency of evidence and public interest in determining whether to prosecute. The process on the whole is held to a much more robust standard than the publishing of a report, and could go some way to explaining the Met’s requests.

Conspiracy theories about the Met and the Sue Gray report are entertaining (and might even be true) but adhering to the rule of law in a criminal inquiry requires different standards to those which guide a civil service inquiry. This piece by a former cop provides a useful corrective to the current hoo-hah about Johnson and his various ‘partygates’.

Dominic Cummings says it is his ‘duty to get rid’ of Boris Johnson

While we’re on the subject of Johnson, another Guardian piece pointed me to an interview his nemesis and former adviser, Dominic Cummings, gave to New York Magazine. Trying to take the Prime Minister down, he says, is “an unpleasant but necessary job. It’s like sort of fixing the drains.” The interview is larded with other entertaining quotes.

He’s particularly — and savagely — dismissive of conventional British politicians, who are, he says,

obsessed with the media and little else. “People just don’t understand the extent to which they are dominated by what’s going to appear on TV tonight what’s going to appear in the papers tomorrow,” he says. Johnson is an example of a man who governs — or performs — for the media. In Cummings’s telling, he is an imbecile. “In January 2020,” Cummings says, “I was sitting in No. 10 with Boris and the complete fuckwit is just babbling on about: ‘Will Big Ben bong for Brexit on the 31st of January?’ He goes on and on about this day after day.

Eventually I say to him: ‘Who cares? What are you talking about? Why are you babbling on about Big Ben? It’s completely ludicrous. We won the election a few weeks ago. We have an eighty-seat majority. You are literally only in this study because for six months we actually had a plan that focused on the country, not on the stupid media. And that’s why we won, despite all the pundits saying we are idiots, we didn’t know what we are doing. Now we have proved them wrong, we have an eighty-seat majority, we don’t have to worry about their babbling.’” He looks aghast: “‘Why the fuck are we sitting around having these meetings about what will the Sun do tomorrow about Big Ben?’”

What I don’t understand is why people are astonished — and even shocked — to learn that Johnson is like this. It’s been obvious for at least three decades that’s he’s a lazy narcissist with an entitlement complex.

But, in a way, it was the same with Trump when he was elected. The quasi-liberal mainstream US media were continually shocked by the things he would do, by his contempt for constitutional and behavioural norms and by his obvious corruption. Which made one wonder which planet they had been inhabiting in the previous three decades.

My commonplace booklet

My piece yesterday about James Fallows’s lovely account of how an airline emergency was handled and the convention that an air-traffic controller used the agreed phrase “Say Souls Aboard” to inquire how many passengers were on the plane. The phrase struck a chord with a reader who emailed to say:

Always remember the phrase ‘souls on board’ from the Titanic film. It appeals to me in the way it seems to place a greater value on passengers.

She included a clip of the relevant moment in the film.

The thought that sparked in this blogger is about the way a new mode of transportation (air travel) adopts approved lingo from older modes — in this case seafaring.

Which in turn reminds me of an academic symposium I attended decades ago on the challenge of devising a legal system for regulating a global system like the internet. At one point, international maritime law was proposed as a model by some of the lawyers present. At which point a very senior Microsoft executive laconically observed: “That’s fine, so long as you remember that we own all of the water and most of the ports”. He may have been joking, but somehow I doubt it.

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