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Category archive: Bits from books

Sunday September 27 2015

How much you learn from something that you just read depends not only on what it says, but on what you knew before you read it.  And for me, this short paragraph cleared up several big blurs in my knowledge of Olden Times:

The new technique of fighting which had won the battle of Hastings for the Normans was also adopted in England; instead of standing or riding and hurling the lance overarm, these new warriors, the knights, charged on horseback with the lance tucked beneath the arm, so that the weight of both horse and rider was behind the blow and the weapon was reusable.  Though it required discipline and training, giving rise to the birth of tournaments and the cult of chivalry, a charge by massed ranks of knights with their lances couched in this way was irresistible.  Anna Comnena, the Byzantine princess who witnessed its devastating effect during the First Crusade, claimed that it could ‘make a hole in the wall of Babylon’.

That’s from the second page (page 8) of the first chapter of Agincourt, by Juliet Barket.

That bit in school history where they explained what a knight was and what knights did and how the knights did it … well, I missed it.  And ever since, everyone talking about such things has assumed that I knew it very clearly, when I didn’t.  It’s so obvious.  How would someone like me not know it?

Oh, I sort of knew it, from having seen a hundred films where film actors did this, in film battles and in film tournaments.  But I had not realised that it was a military innovation like the phalanx or gunpowder or the tank or the airplane or the atom bomb.  I had not properly realised that the essence of Knighthood was collective action rather than mere individual virtue, the point being that it was the former which required the latter.  And I had not realised that it was what won the Battle of Hastings.  Or, even more interestingly, I had not realised that it was what won the First Crusade.  (After which, I’m guessing that the Muslims then copied it.

Medieval society did not give rise to Knights.  The Knights technique of fighting gave rise to Medieval society.

I remember reading Tom Holland’s Millennium, and being presented right at the end with the result of the First Crusade, without there having been any mention (that I recall) of how a European military innovation was what won it.  (That doesn’t mean Holland does not mention this, merely that I don’t remember him mentioning it.)

So, at the heart of the European years between Hastings (1066) and Agincourt (1415 (when I now suppose the Knights to have met their nemesis in the form of the next big military innovation, the Archers (hence the picture on the front of Agincourt))) was a technique of fighting.  Like I say, I sort of knew this, but have never before isolated this fact in my head, as a Big Fact.  Instead, I have spent my whole life being rather confused about this Big Fact, reading a thousand things where the Big Fact was assumed, but never actually explained.

Why did I not correct this confusion decades ago?  Because, not knowing it properly, I had not realised what a huge confusion it was.

Saturday September 05 2015

One of the many fine things about the internet – and in particular that great internet business, Amazon – is that you can now easily get hold of books that seem interesting, even if they were published a decade and a half ago.  Steven Johnson’s book, Emergence, for instance.  This was published in 2001.  I think it was some Amazon robot system that reckoned I might like it ("lots of people who bought this book you just bought also bought this one").  And I read some Amazon reviews, or whatever, and I did like it, or at least the sound of it, and I duly sent off for it.  (I paid £0.01 plus postage.) And now I’m reading it.

Chapter one of Emergence is entitled “The Myth of the Ant Queen”.  Here is the part of that chapter that describes the research then being done by Deborah Gordon, into ants:

At the heart of Gordon’s work is a mystery about how ant colonies develop, a mystery that has implications extending far beyond the parched earth of the Arizona desert to our cities, our brains, our immune systems - and increasingly, our technology.  Gordon’s work focuses on the connection between the microbehavior of individual ants and the overall behavior of the colonies themselves, and part of that research involves tracking the life cycles of individual colonies, following them year after year as they scour the desert floor for food, competing with other colonies for territory, and - once a year - mating with them.  She is a student, in other words, of a particular kind of emergent, self-organizing system.

Dig up a colony of native harvester ants and you’ll almost invariably find that the queen is missing.  To track down the colony’s matriarch, you need to examine the bottom of the hole you’ve just dug to excavate the colony: you’ll find a narrow, almost invisible passageway that leads another two feet underground, to a tiny vestibule burrowed out of the earth. There you will find the queen.  She will have been secreted there by a handful of ladies-in-waiting at the first sign of disturbance.  That passageway, in other words, is an emergency escape hatch, not unlike a fallout shelter buried deep below the West Wing.

But despite the Secret Service-like behavior, and the regal nomenclature, there’s nothing hierarchical about the way an ant colony does its thinking. ‘’Although queen is a term that reminds us of human political systems,” Gordon explains, “the queen is not an authority figure. She lays eggs and is fed and cared for by the workers.  She does not decide which worker does what.  In a harvester ant colony, many feet of intricate tunnels and chambers and thousands of ants separate the queen, surrounded by interior workers, from the ants working outside the nest and using only the chambers near the surface.  It would be physically impossible for the queen to direct every worker’s decision about which task to perform and when.” The harvester ants that carry the queen off to her escape hatch do so not because they’ve been ordered to by their leader; they do it because the queen ant is responsible for giving birth to all the members of the colony, and so it’s in the colony’s best interest - and the colony’s gene pool-to keep the queen safe. Their genes instruct them to protect their mother, the same way their genes instruct them to forage for food. In other words, the matriarch doesn’t train her servants to protect her, evolution does.

Popular culture trades in Stalinist ant stereotypes - witness the authoritarian colony regime in the animated film Antz - but in fact, colonies are the exact opposite of command economies.  While they are capable of remarkably coordinated feats of task allocation, there are no Five-Year Plans in the ant kingdom.  The colonies that Gordon studies display some of nature’s most mesmerizing decentralized behavior: intelligence and personality and learning that emerges from the bottom up.

I’m still gazing into the latticework of plastic tubing when Gordon directs my attention to the two expansive white boards attached to the main colony space, one stacked on top of the other and connected by a ramp.  (Imagine a two-story parking garage built next to a subway stop.) A handful of ants meander across each plank, some porting crumblike objects on their back, others apparently just out for a stroll. If this is the Central Park of Cordon’s ant metropolis, I think, it must be a workday.

Gordon gestures to the near corner of the top board, four inches from the ramp to the lower level, where a pile of strangely textured dust - littered with tiny shells and husks-presses neatly against the wall.  “That’s the midden,” she says. “It’s the town garbage dump.” She points to three ants marching up the ramp, each barely visible beneath a comically oversize shell. “These ants are on midden duty: they take the trash that’s left over from the food they’ve collected-in this case, the seeds from stalk grass-and deposit it in the midden pile.”

Gordon takes two quick steps down to the other side of the table, at the far end away from the ramp. She points to what looks like another pile of dust. “And this is the cemetery.” I look again, startled.  She’s right: hundreds of ant carcasses are piled atop one another, all carefully wedged against the table’s corner.  It looks brutal, and yet also strangely methodical.

I know enough about colony behavior to nod in amazement. “So they’ve somehow collectively decided to utilize these two areas as trash heap and cemetery,” I say. No individual ant defined those areas, no central planner zoned one area for trash, the other for the dead. “It just sort of happened, right?”

Cordon smiles, and it’s clear that I’ve missed something. “It’s better than that,” she says. “Look at what actually happened here: they’ve built the cemetery at exactly the point that’s furthest away from the colony. And the midden is even more interesting: they’ve put it at precisely the point that maximizes its distance from both the colony and the cemetery. It’s like there’s a rule they’re following: put the dead ants as far away as possible, and put the midden as far away as possible without putting it near the dead ants.” I have to take a few seconds to do the geometry myself, and sure enough, the ants have got it right. I find myself laughing out loud at the thought: it’s as though they’ve solved one of those spatial math tests that appear on standardized tests, conjuring up a solution that’s perfectly tailored to their environment, a solution that might easily stump an eight-year-old human.  The question is, who’s doing the conjuring?

It’s a question with a long and august history, one that is scarcely limited to the collective behavior of ant colonies.  We know the answer now because we have developed powerful tools for thinking about - and modeling - the emergent intelligence of self-organizing systems, but that answer was not always so clear.  We know now that systems like ant colonies don’t have real leaders, that the very idea of an ant “queen” is misleading. But the desire to find pacemakers in such systems has always been powerful-in both the group behavior of the social insects, and in the collective human behavior that creates a living city.

Wednesday July 29 2015

The more I read of Telling Lies About Hitler (from which I have already posted an untypically amusing excerpt), the more engrossing I am finding it.

In it, Richard J. Evans criticised some of the more casual observers of the libel case that his book described, for arguing that David Irving ought to be allowed to write what he wanted, as if the case was all about David Irving’s right to be heard.  But it was not.  It was about whether David Irving could silence one of his more prominent critics, Deborah Lipstadt, who had called him a bad historian and a Holocaust denier.

Yet, there was a reason why this error kept getting made by less than conscientious observers of this case, as Evans himself explained (p. 201):

Yet as the trial got under way, it quickly became apparent that lrving was going to find it difficult to set the agenda.  The bias of the English law of defamation brings its own perils for the unwary Plaintiff.  By placing the entire burden of proof on the defence, it allows them to turn the tables and devote the action to destroying the reputation of their accuser.  Indeed, once the defence has admitted, as Lipstadt’s did without hesitation, that the words complained of mean what they say and are clearly defamatory, justifying them in detail and with chapter and verse is the only option left to them.  A successful libel defence therefore has to concentrate, in effect, on massively defaming the person and character of the Plaintiff, the only restriction being that the defamation undertaken in court has to be along the same lines as the defamation that gave rise to the case in the first place, and that it has, of course, to be true.  The defence had to prove that Lipstadt’s accusations of Holocaust denial and historical falsification were justified in Irving’s case. Thus it was lrving, not Lipstadt, whose reputation was on the line.  By the end of the third week of the trial, as Neal Ascherson observed, the defence had thus succeeded in turning the tables, ‘as if David lrving were the defendant and Deborah Lipstadt the plaintiff’, an observation shared by other commentators too.  ‘In the relentless focus on Irving’s beliefs,’ wrote Jenny Booth in the Scotsman, ‘it was easy to forget that it was actually Lipstadt’s book which was on trial.  Increasingly it seemed that it was Irving himself.’

Having thus put himself on trial, Irving was then found to be guilty as charged.

Friday July 24 2015

I have been reading Richard J. Evans’s account of the libel trial which took place at the High Court in 2000, in which David Irving sued the American historian Deborah Lipstadt, and her publisher Penguin Books.  In one of her books, Lipstadt had called Irving a bad and dishonest non-historian, and Irving was trying to suppress this opinion.  Irving lost.

Richard J. Evans was the expert witness who did most to blow Irving’s claims to be an honest and effective historian out of the water.

The Evans book is entitled Telling Lies About Hitler.  At the end of the chapter in it entitled “In The Witness Box” (p. 231), Evans recounts a truly extraordinary moment, right at the end of the court proceedings:

And when it came to rebutting the defence charge of consorting with neo-Nazis in Germany, Irving’s habit of improvising from his prepared text led him into a fatal slip of the tongue, as he inadvertently addressed the judge as ‘Mein Fuhrer’.  Everyone in court knew that he was referring to the judge as ‘Mein Fuhrer’ from the tone of voice in which he said it.  The court dissolved into laughter.  ‘No one could believe what just happened,’ wrote one spectator.  ‘Had we imagined it? Could he have addressed the judge as “Mein Fuhrer”?’ Irving himself denied having made the slip.  But amid the laughter in court, he could be seen mumbling an apology to the judge for having addressed him in this way.  Perhaps the slip was a consequence of Irving’s unconscious identification of the judge as a benign authority figure.  Whatever the reason for it, with the laughter still ringing in its ears, the court adjourned on 15 March 2000 as the judge prepared the final version of his judgment on the case.


Thursday June 11 2015

I love learning about two-man teams, and in Paul Johnson’s short, excellent biography of Mozart (see also this earlier bit) I have been learning more about just such a team, although a very temporary and unequal one:

In the meantime, Mozart had met his great partner, the Abate Lorenzo Da Ponte.  The letter (May 7, 1783) in which he tells his father, “I have looked through at least a hundred libretti and more, but I have hardly found a single one with which I am satisfied,” also says he has met the new fashionable poet in Vienna, Da Ponte, who “has promised ... to write a new libretto for me.” The emperor had decided to abandon singspiel in 1783 and embrace Italian opera again, and he put Da Ponte in charge of the words.  Da Ponte was a converted Jew, the son of a tanner, who had embraced Christianity in 1763.  He had led a bohemian life, as a teacher, a priest, a lascivious escort of married women in the Venetian fashion, a friend of Casanova, expelled from Venice for sexual depravity, and thereafter making his living as a translator and writer in the theatrical world.  He had an extraordinary gift for languages, rather like Mozart himself but on a much more comprehensive scale, and seemed to think multilingually.

Da Ponte wrote the librettos for three Mozart operas, The Marriage of Figaro (K. 492, presented May 1,1786), Don Giovanni (K. 527, October 29, 1787), and Cosi fan tutte (K. 588, January 26, 1790), and the collaboration between the two men must be accounted one of the most successful in the history of opera.  By almost universal agreement, Figaro and Giovanni are Mozart’s two best operas, though a small minority argues that Cosi contains the best music and superb staging and that a first-class production can make it the best evening’s entertainment.

The two men worked successfuly together for two reasons. First, they both understood that creating an opera was collaboration and that composer and librettist both had to know when to give way; sometimes words must yield and sometimes notes. The truth is, of course, that Mozart was extremely adept at words as well as music, and often he took over as librettist, Da Ponte acquiescing. This raises the second point: Both men were good tempered, used to hard knocks, nasty words, and intense arguments.  They had the admirable habit, essential to success in the theater, of drawing a firm line over a disagreement, once it was resolved, and moving on quickly to the next problem.  Mozart’s good nature was absolutely genuine and went to the root of his being.  He was incapable of real malice or the desire to wound (the one exception was the archbishop, and there, too, hatred was expressed in words rather than deeds). Da Ponte was a much more flawed creature.  He was a fearful liar, to begin with, and his various volumes of memories are not to be trusted at all. His subsequent career after he left Vienna and went to New York, becoming a trader, a bookseller, a bankrupt, a poet, and other things, shows that his commitment to the stage and to music - drama, particularly - was not total.

Moreover, it is not clear that he recognized quality in opera. He thought the best composer he worked with was Vicente Martin y Soler, and he had the most fulsome praise for Antonio Salieri.  The implication was that both were Mozart’s superiors as musicians.  Both were more successful commercially at the time, and their operas were performed more frequently than Mozart’s - so were those of many other composers, at least eleven by my reckoning.  But both were so inferior to Mozart by any conceivable artistic criteria as to cast doubt on Da Ponte’s musical understanding.  And it is a significant fact that his three Mozart operas are the only ones whose libretto he wrote that have remained in the repertoire or that anyone has heard of today.

Hence the inescapable conclusion is that Mozart was the dominant figure in the collaboration.  Da Ponte understood or learned from Mozart the need to keep the drama moving by varying the musical encounters and groupings, by altering the rhythms of vocal speech, and by switching the moods.  He may even have understood the great discovery in the writing of opera that we owe to Mozart - the way in which character can be created, transformed, altered, and emphasized by entirely musical means taking possession of the sense of words.  But the magic touch is always provided by Mozart as music dramatist.

Saturday May 30 2015

Paul Johnson’s appealingly brief biography of Mozart looks like being a lot of fun.  Here is a bit from near the beginning (pp. 9-11):

Mozart’s musical progress began in 1759, at age three, when he began to remember themes and pick out chords.  The next year he was taught brief pieces on the clavier and reproduced them correctly.  In 1761 he began to compose pieces, which his father wrote down.  It was essential to his father’s belief in his miracle-genius that his son should be displayed “to the glory of God,” as he put it.  In 1757, when Mozart was two, Leopold had been appointed court composer by the prince-archbishop, and as a senior musician, had opportunities to show off his son.  But in Salzburg they were limited, so in 1762, when Mozart was six, he took him to Munich, capital of Bavaria, to play before the elector.  Nannerl went with them, as a co-prodigy, and by now a very accomplished one.  But as a child of eleven, she did not raise much of a stir.  Mozart did, and was feted at many fashionable gatherings.

Next they went to Vienna, capital of Austria and of the German- speaking musical world, in so far as it had one. Maria Theresa, the empress, who had survived the attempt by Frederick the Great of Prussia to destroy her and was now a formidable woman, received them graciously but, though a robust Catholic, showed no signs of treating Mozart as a personified miracle.  She was not unmusical.  On the contrary, she was gifted, a fine singer, and had been educated musically by her vice Kapellmeister, Antonio Caldera. But her advisers were strongly against spending much on music.  Under Emperor Charles VI, her father, and his Hofkapellmeister, Johann Joseph Fux, there had been 134 musicians in the imperial chapel.  Under Maria Theresa, the number fell to 20.

Hence, the empress received the Mozarts, but that was all.  Her daughter, Marie Antoinette, picked Wolfgang up when he fell on the slippery parquet flooring.  Her mother listened patiently when he played a difficult piece by Georg Christoph Wagenseil.  When he jumped up onto her lap and kissed her, she made no complaint. Leopold got a bag of Maria Theresa thalers; the children, presents of court dresses, in which they were painted (not too well).  But no job was offered. Later, when her son did offer some kind of job, she objected, in a devastating letter: “You ask me about taking the young Salzburger into your service.  I do not know why, believing you have no need for a composer or useless people.  If, however, it would give you pleasure, I would not hinder you. What I say is so that you do not burden yourself with unproductive people, and even give titles to people of that sort.  If in your service, this debases the service when such people go around the world like beggars. Furthermore he has a large family.”

The last point is curious as Leopold did not have a large family.  Otherwise the letter gives a telling glimpse of how a sovereign saw music on the eve of its greatest age in history.  Musicians were exactly in the same position as other household servants - cooks, chambermaids, coachmen, and sentries.  They existed for the comfort and well-being of their masters and mistresses.  The idea that you took on a composer or performer simply because he was outstanding, when you already had a full complement of household musicians, was absurd.  And of course performing music for money, outside palace or church employment, was mendicancy.  There was plenty of it, of course.  The trade was overcrowded.  Groups played at street corners for coppers.  In London there were “German Bands.” There were also Italian street musicians, who played “Savoyards,” what we would call hurdy-gurdies, or barrel organs. All this was begging, and beggars usually had, or came from, large families: hence the empress’s error.

In short the only respectable way a musician could earn his living was in salaried employment at a court, a wealthy nobleman’s house, or a cathedral or major church.  Leopold had such a job, but it was at a low level and miserably paid.  To rise higher - at a court like Vienna or the elector’s in Munich - required interest. That was a key eighteenth-century word, usually to do with family connections.  When George Washington distinguished himself in colonial service during the Seven Years’ War, when Mozart was an infant, he aspired to rise in the British regular Army or its Indian offshoot.  But he had no interest at the Horse Guards (War Office) or the East India Company in London.  So he went on to become a revolutionary leader, and first president of the United States.  When Napoleon was a young teenager in Corsica, he greatly admired the Royal Navy ships that anchored in its harbors.  But he had no influence in the London Admiralty, and so a commission in the Royal Navy was out of his reach.  He went on to become emperor of France and conquer half of Europe.  Thus history is made.  In Mozart’s world, to become a court painter, architect, or musician required interest, and his father had none.  Fortunately in his case, he could go on “begging” by composing and performing.

Wednesday May 20 2015

Goddaughter 2 recently suggested I read this.  I now suggest that you read it:

In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.

You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex.  You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes.  For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet.  You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it.  Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, it’s agony-free for the rest of your afterlife.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant.  You spend six days clipping your nails.  Fifteen months looking for lost items.  Eighteen months waiting in line.  Two years of boredom: staring out a bus window, sitting in an airport terminal.  One year reading books.  Your eyes hurt, and you itch, because you can’t take a shower until it’s your time to take your marathon two-hundred-day shower.  Two weeks wondering what happens when you die.  One minute realizing your body is falling.  Seventy-seven hours of confusion.  One hour realizing you’ve forgotten someone’s name.  Three weeks realizing you are wrong.  Two days lying.  Six weeks waiting for a green light.  Seven hours vomiting.  Fourteen minutes experiencing pure joy.  Three months doing laundry.  Fifteen hours writing your signature.  Two days tying shoelaces.  Sixty-seven days of heartbreak.  Five weeks driving lost.  Three days calculating restaurant tips.  Fifty-one days deciding what to wear.  Nine days pretending you know what is being talked about.  Two weeks counting money.  Eighteen days staring into the refrigerator.  Thirty-four days longing.  Six months watching commercials.  Four weeks sitting in thought, wondering if there is something better you could be doing with your time.  Three years swallowing food.  Five days working buttons and zippers.  Four minutes wondering what your life would be like if you reshuffled the order of events.  In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.

This is from Sum, by David Eagleman, which is subtitled “Forty tales from the afterlives”, the above being the first of them, also entitled “Sum”.

I sum- (hah!) -marised this tale as best I could to another friend, who immediately got the point that Eagleman makes at the end, that the mere fact of the variety of life becomes a source of joy, if you compare it with a life from which variety has been drained away.  This alone turns humdrumness into hell, and contemplating that hell turns the humdrumness into a kind of heaven.

Count your blessings, but not the same blessings all at the same time.

Tuesday May 19 2015

Okay, this quote is from Chapter One, “A Universal Language?”, of The Story of English: How the English Language Conquered the World by Philip Gooden (pp. 11-12):

English is the closest the world has yet come to a universal language, at least in the sense that even those who cannot speak it - admittedly, the large majority of the world’s population - are likely to be familiar with the odd English expression.  One term that is genuinely global as well as genuinely odd is OK (or O.K. or okay), originating in America in the 19th century.  An astonishingly adaptable word, it works as almost any part of speech from noun to verb, adjective to adverb, though often just as a conversation-filler - ‘OK, what are we going to do now?’ Depending on the tone of voice, OK can convey anything from fervent agreement to basic accquiescence.  It may be appropriate that such a truly universal term has no generally agreed source.  Attempts to explain where it came from don’t so much show variety as a high degree of imaginative curiosity.  So, OK is created from the initials of a deliberate misspelling, oll korreket, or from a campaign slogan for a would-be US president in the 1840s who was known as Old Kinderhook because he came from Kinderhook in New York State.  Or it is a version of a word imported from Finland or Haiti, or possibly one borrowed from the Choctaw Indians.  Or it is older than originally thought and derives from West African expressions like o-ke or waw-ke.  Enough explanations, OK?


Richard J. Evans on how evidence can become more significant over time
Marc Morris on how the Bayeux Tapestry ought not to exist
Paul Kennedy on centimetric radar
Peter Thiel on how humans and computers complement each other
Marc Morris on medieval evidence (there’s more of it than you might think)
Matt Ridley on how technology leads science and how that means that the state need not fund science
Dominic Frisby on the Hype Cycle
On the rights and wrongs of me posting bits from books (plus a bit about Rule Utilarianism)
How Bill Bryson on white and black paint helps to explain the Modern Movement in Architecture
Chippendale without Rannie
Bill Bryson on the miracle of crop rotation
Postrel goes for Gray
Self-healing concrete
JK Rowling describes two rich girls
Quota quote
Christopher Seaman on conducting
3D printed baby in the womb
Don’t judge a new technology by its first stumbling steps
Alex on Quentin
Algernon Sidney sends for Micklethwait because Micklethwait is wise, learned, diligent, and faithful
New apostrophe-shaped footbridge in Hull
Lighter blogging here but not none
76 operas and a monument in the wrong place for Hermann the German
Emmanuel Todd quoted and Instalanched
Richard Dawkins on university debating games
Alex Ross on Hollywood film scores
Professor C. Northcote Parkinson on the Edifice Complex
Alex Ross on Sibelius
Lawrence H. White on the Scottish experience of free banking
“I will cause a boy that driveth a plough to know more of the scriptures than thou dost.”
John Carey on Shakespeare and the high-art/ popular-art distinction
Official bias
Switching from dumb bombing to smart bombing
“I’ll build it with explosive bolts connecting the wings to the fuselage …”
If the Jews have been running the world they haven’t been doing it very successfully
Terence Kealey on the Wright brothers and their patent battles
Ed Smith on how baseball defeated cricket in America
Understanding is the booby prize exclamation mark
Will China fail?
A dreadful age
Richard Dawkins on the Muhammad cartoons affair
Is Jeremy Paxman a closet libertarian?