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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Category archive: Bits from books

Thursday April 18 2019

More sport.  This time in the form of a striking (literally) little passage from the preface of a book by Richard Tomlinson about the famed Victorian era cricketer W.G. Grace:

By the time he was twenty-seven, Grace had scored fifty first-class centuries.  He performed this feat at a time when pitches were so poor, and cricket gear so flimsy, that batsmen risked their lives whenever they took guard.  In one match at Lord’s – a ground where he would pick stones out of the rutted pitch – W.G. scored a hundred and then saw another batsman killed by a ball that smashed his head.

Despite the gear having got a lot less flimsy, cricket deaths, even now, occasionally happen.

Tuesday January 08 2019

Recently, I bought a book on Amazon, about English as a Global Language.  I’ve not read it right through yet, but it seems really good.

As regulars here will know, one of the things I like to do is reproduce short excerpts from books.  This I do by scanning.  But, unfortunately, my copy of English as a Global Language came to me full of underlinings of what the previous owner consider to be significant sentences and phrases.  For what it’s worth, I often agreed with his choices.  But such underlinings play havoc with scanning, so I wanted them gone.

Luckily they were not in ink, only in pencil.  So, an eraser of some kind ought to do the trick.  So, where could I buy an eraser locally?  I actually wasn’t sure.  It would certainly be a palaver.  So, maybe I already owned an eraser.  I had a rootle through a couple of small transparent crates, which I use to keep such things as pens, pencils, felt tip markers, and so forth and so on.

I found several erasers, all hard as rock.  They hadn’t been used for a decade and they might as well have been plastic cutlery for all the use they were for removing pencil marks.  But then, I came across this:

image

Just like everything else in the crate, this thing had not been touched for a decade.  This too would prove useless, surely.

But no.  It worked perfectly.  The rubber was as soft and useable as it was the day, lost in the mists of time of the previous decade or even longer, when I first acquired it.  Amazing.  And the print of the book was utterly untouched, so soft was the rubber of this wondrous item.

One of the things you seldom see on the internet is any reportage of how well something works a decade later.  Usually the reviews are instant.  Does it work now?  If it does, five stars, or four if you have some minor quibble about it.

So now, I am delighted to report that the STAEDTLER Mars plastic, or whatever it’s called, has real staying power, as a remover of pencil marks.  Buy a STAEDTLER Mars plastic now, and if you still have it a decade hence, it will still work.

The thing is, it was such a trivial task.  To have to have spent an afternoon wandering around London SW1 looking for a new eraser would have been so annoying.  To be able to get erasing right away was just so satisfying, compared to all that nonsense.  That the actual erasing took hardly any time at all only emphasises the contrast between how well things went and how annoyingly they would have gone, in the absence of my STAEDTLER Mars plastic.

I may never do any actual scanning of this book, but that’s not the point.  The point is, now I can, with no bother.

Tuesday December 18 2018

Today I continued with chucking stuff out, including these sixty or so coathangers, which have been accumulating in my clothes cupboard, for no reason other than they seemed like they might one day come in handy.  For a sculpture perhaps?  But I’m not a sculptor.:

image

I say chucking out.  These coathangers are still in my living room.  But, they are in a black plastic bin bag and ready to go.  So, nearly.

That’s it for here today.  But I did manage a posting at Samizdata, after what I suspect may have been my longest gap there since I started in 2002.  This posting started out as something for here, but then I thought: no, there.  I really want to do more for Samizdata.  I know I keep saying that, but I do.  Thank goodness for Natalie Solent, who seems to be responsible for well over half the Samizdata output these days.  Here’s hoping I can alter that ratio a bit.

Sunday September 16 2018

I am currently reading The Closing of the Muslim Mind, by Robert R. Reilly, with a view to reviewing it for Samizdata.  Brilliant.  For as long as I’ve been reading this book, finishing reading it has been my number one concern.  Shoving up brilliant stuff here has … not.  Some Facebook friends of mine have been choosing the books that have most influenced their thinking, and this book looks like it will be added to my list.

Here is a typically illuminating paragraph from this book (on page 144 of my paperback edition – which I am happy to note is towards the end of it):

The enormous influence of Saudi Arabia today in the Muslim world is often thought by Westerners to be almost completely due to its oil wealth - petro-Islam. However, this discounts the fact that many Muslims, including in countries like Egypt, which are traditionally opposed to Saudi Arabia, see this wealth as a direct gift from Allah. Can it be only an accident that these treasures are under the sands of this particular country? No, they must be there as a reward to the Saudis for following the true path. Why else would the oil be there? - a question that has to be answered not by geologists, but within the understanding that God has directly placed the oil there as He directly does all things. The presence of petroleum gives credence to the Saudi claim that its Wahhabi form of Islam is the legitimate one. It is because of the oil that other Muslims are willing to give this claim consideration. This is why Wahhabism has spread so significantly, even in parts of the world like Indonesia that would seem, from their cultural backgrounds, to have little sympathy with its radical literalism. Therefore, it is not only through Saudi oil largess but also because of where the oil is that Wahhabism enjoys such prominence.

For the sort of Muslim Reilly is writing about (and that’s a hell of a lot of them), what we in the West refer to as “reality” is continuously created by Allah, in a succession of miraculous whims.  Even to study the laws of nature is to presume to place limits on what Allah might choose to do, and is accordingly a blasphemy.  Whatever happens was done by Allah, and is accordingly right.  Might is right.

And if the Saudis have most of the financial clout in the Muslim world, that means Allah must be on their side.

Friday May 04 2018

I have been reading more of Leo McKinstry’s Operation Sealion, and very fine it is too.  I hadn’t been keeping up with McKinstry’s books, but now learn that, among several other topics, he has written books about Alf Ramsey, Jack Hobbs, and the Hawker Hurricane ("Victor of the Battle of Britain").  Memo to self: read more books, do less internetting.

In the Sealion book I have already encountered two little nuggets that were new to me.

After the “deliverance” that was Dunkirk, Churchill apparently said (p. 86):

“We’ve got the men away, but we’ve lost the luggage.”

I’d not heard that one before.

And nor did I know about this, concerning another Ramsay, Admiral Bertram Ramsay, who masterminded the Dunkirk evacuation (p.81):

The genius behind Dynamo, Admiral Ramsay, rewarded himself on 4 June with a well-deserved round of golf, on the course at Sandwich nearby, and, liberated from the strain, proceeded to attain the best score of his life.

I find it interesting that McKinstry seems to divide his writing time about equally between war and sport.  I wonder if he has developed any opinions about how these things relate to one another, along, for instance, lines like these.

Friday March 23 2018

Yes, today’s “other creature” is a sealion, Operation Sealion, Hitler’s plan to invade Britain in 1940.  And this posting is another bit from a book.  Which book?  Well, I greatly admire the books of Leo McKinstry, and have done ever since I read his wonderful biography of Geoffrey Boycott.  So, as soon as I discovered that McKinstry had written a book about Operation Sealion, I bought it.  I now possess it, and as soon as I have read the other seven or eight books above it in my TO READ list, I will start reading it.  I may even start reading it sooner than that.

This early bit (pp. 4-6), from the Introduction, has already confirmed the wisom of the purchase:

Wartime legend has presented the heroics of the RAF as an exception to an otherwise desperate military performance by Britain in I940. In this narrative, there is a chasm between the daring and efficiency of Fighter Command and the woeful inadequacy of most other parts of the British war effort.  Defeat was inevitable if the RAF was overwhelmed, according to the traditional account, which portrays Britain as hopelessly ill equipped in the face of the Nazi war machine. It was a supposed weakness highlighted by the paralysis in the civil service, the chronic shortages of men and weaponry in the regular army, the lack of modern vessels in the navy and the country’s feeble home defences. The might of Hitler’s Reich, which had blitzed its way through Poland, Scandinavia and Western Europe, would hardly have been deterred by some hastily erected pillboxes, rolls of barbed wire and lightweight guns. The ultimate symbol of Britain’s alleged vulnerability in I940 was the Home Guard, that makeshift force of volunteers whose very nickname, ‘Dad’s Army’, was so redolent of its antiquated nature in the savage new age of total war. Made famous for future generations by the television comedy series of the I970s, the Home Guard appeared more likely to provoke laughter than fear in the invader. The image of Home Guardsmen, devoid of rifles or uniforms, performing their pointless drill routines with broomsticks and pitchforks, has long been held to characterise how badly prepared Britain was. This outlook is encapsulated in a remark made by a volunteer from Great Yarmouth when his unit was inspected in the summer of 1940 by a senior army officer, who asked: ‘What steps would you take if you saw the Hun come down in parachutes?’

‘Bloody long ones: came the reply.

But the commonly held belief in Britain’s defencelessness in 1940 is hardly matched by the historical facts. The Few of Fighter Command were not an exception but part of a national pattern of resolute determination and thoroughness. In almost every aspect of the war effort in 1940, Britain was far better organised than the mythology suggests. The Royal Navy’s Home Fleet, guarding every part of the southern and eastern coastlines, represented a formidable obstacle to German ambitions. Between Sheerness and Harwich alone, the navy had thirty destroyers. RAF Bomber Command relentlessly pounded the invasion fleet, weakening the morale of the German forces. Similarly, the British army had gained enormously in strength and equipment since the fall of France. In September 1940, when the invasion threat was at its height, there were no fewer than 1,760,000 regular troops in service, many of them led by tough- minded figures like Alan Brooke, Claude Auchinleck and Bernard Montgomery. The same is true of the Home Guard, whose broomsticks had by then largely vanished. Most of the volunteers were armed with highly effective American rifles, which were superior, in some respects, to those used by the regular soldiers. Outside the military sphere, the British home front was just as impressive. Aircraft production was much higher than that in Germany, factory hours longer. Major operations, like the evacuation of children from areas at risk of attack, the removal of gold from the Bank of England vaults, or the transfer of national art treasures to remote shelters in Wales, were carried out with superb efficiency.

What is so striking about the British authorities at this time is pressure for survival. During his leadership of V Corps, in the front line of the army’s southern command, Montgomery set out his creed to his officers. ‘We had got to the stage where we must do as we like as regards upsetting private property. If a house was required as an HQ it must be taken. Any material required to improve the defences must be taken.’

Thursday March 22 2018

I’m reading Deidre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Equality, the final volume of her Bourgeois trilogy.  I hope that in this volume, at last, I will read evidence concerning McCloskey’s thesis about how the Great Enrichment came about, which is that it was ideological.  She keeps repeating this, but keeps flying off at other tangents.  Wish me luck.

Interesting tangents, mind you.  Like this one, which is a most interesting prediction, concerning the future of Sub-Saharan Africa (pp. 70-72):

Know also a remarkable likelihood in our future. Begin with the sober scientific fact that sub-Saharan Africa has great genetic diversity, at any rate by the standard of the narrow genetic endowment of the ancestors of the rest of us, the small part of the race of Homo sapiens that left Mother Africa in dribs and drabs after about 70,000 BCE.  The lower diversity outside Africa comes from what geneticists call the founder effect, that is, the dying out of genetic lines in an isolated small group, such as those that ventured into west Asia and then beyond. The founder effect is merely a consequence, of the small samples dribbling out, as against the big sample of the Homo sapiens folk that stayed put in Africa. Any gene-influenced ability is therefore going to have more African extremes. The naturally tallest people and the naturally shortest people, for example, are in sub-Saharan Africa. The naturally quickest long-distance runners are in East Africa. The best basketball players descend from West Africans. In other words, below the Sahara the top end of the distribution of human abilities - physical and intellectual and artistic - is unusually thick. (Yet even in Africa the genetic variability in the Homo sapiens race appears to have been thinned repeatedly before the time of the modest emigrations, by population crashes, such as when the super volcano Toba in Sumatra went off, suggestively also around 70,000 BCE. It reduced our Homo sapiens ancestors to a few thousand-a close call.)

The thickness of sub-Saharan abilities at the high end of the distribution is a mere consequence of the mathematics. Greater diversity, which is to say in technical terms, higher variance, means that unusual abilities at both ends of the distribution, high and low, are more common. Exactly how much more depends on technical measures of genetic difference and their expression. The effect could be small or large depending on such measures and on the social relevance of the particular gene expression.

The high end is what matters for high culture. Sub-Saharan Africa, now at last leaning toward liberal democracy, has entered on the blade of the hockey stick, growing since 2001 in per-person real income by over 4 percent per year-doubling that is, every eighteen years. A prominent Nigerian investment manager working in London, Ayo Salami, expects an ideological shift among African leaders in favor of private trading as the generation, of the deeply socialist anticolonialists born in the 1940s dies out.” The 6- to 10-percent growth rate available to poor economies that wholeheartedly adopt liberalism will then do its work and yield educational opportunities for Africans now denied them.

The upshot? Genetic diversity in a rich Africa will yield a crop of geniuses unprecedented in world history. In a century or so the leading scientists and artists in the world will be black-at any rate if the diversity is as large in gene expression and social relevance as it is in, say, height or running ability. Today a Mozart in Nigeria follows the plow; a Basho in Mozambique was recruited as a boy soldier; a Tagore in East Africa tends his father’s cattle; a Jane Austen in Congo spends her illiterate days carrying water and washing clothes.  “Full many a gem of purest ray serene / The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear.”

Thursday March 01 2018

A tweet reminded me about this wonderful rant from Louis CK:

image

That’s the version of it, with dots inserted by him, that Steven Pinker quotes in his new book about the Enlightenment.

Pinker is concerned to explain why increasing affluence doesn’t seem to make everyone ecstatically happy.  Deidre McCloskey, in her Bourgeois trilogy, is fond of talking about how the Great Enrichment has made regular people as of now nearly three thousand percent richer.  So, why aren’t we three thousand percent happier?  Because we don’t seem to be.

Lots of reasons.  First, you are happy not according to your absolute level of affluence, but rather according to how affluent you get to be and how meaningful your life gets to be compared to what you were expecting, and compared to how well everyone else seems to be doing, because that tells you how well you could reasonably have expected to do.  You may well have been raised to expect quite a lot.  Second, although technology hurtles along, for most this hurtling is both pleasing and rather unsettling, the less of the former and the more of the latter as time goes by.  We don’t experience, in our one little life, how much better things like Twitter are than is looking after cows, out of doors, all year round, with not enough food or heating.  What we experience, as we get older, is how confusing things like Twitter are, or alternatively, if we ignore something like Twitter, how demoralising it is that it has defeated us and denied us its benefits.  Or how tedious air travel is, compared to what we’d hoped for rather than compared to a horse drawn wagon in a desert.  Yes, I live three thousand percent better than that wretched cowherd three hundred years ago, and if a time machine took away my life and gave me his life, I’d be three thousand percent more miserable.  But that’s not the same as me being three thousand percent happier than he was.  Happier, yes, definitely.  But not by that much.

It’s because we don’t feel that much happier that Louis CK has to rant, to remind us of how lucky we are.  And that Steven Pinker has to write his book, to make the same point.

But what if progress continues to hurtle forwards?  What if someone reads this posting, centuries from now, and he says: Good grief, those Twenty First Centurions were very easily satisfied.  Five hours to get from New York to California?

It must have been hell.

But are we any happier?
Granny Weatherwax does not allow inequality
Another quote and two more photos
Deidre McCloskey praises the Bourgeois Deal
Adam Zamoyski on Pilsudski
David Starkey on how Handel trumped Shakespeare
Nadar takes photos from his giant balloon
David Hockney likes having servants!
Ross King describes how Louis Napoleon became the most important man in the world
A lot of people used to go to see the paintings in the Paris Salon
Ross King introduces Meissonier
Our Sea (and the trade we did in it)
Lincoln Paine on how Rome mastered the sea by turning sea battles into land battles
Lincoln Paine: A ship in the desert
Lincoln Paine shifts the emphasis from land to water (with a very big book)
Tim Marshall on ‘Sykes-Picot’
Tim Marshall on the warming of the Arctic
Tim Marshall on the illiberal and undemocratic Middle East
And Africa’s rivers don’t help
Africa is (still) big
Industrial predictions from Peter Laurie in 1980
Rod Green on Boys and Men at the time of Magna Carta
Dangereuse
Matt Ridley on the educational discoveries of James Tooley
Matt Ridley on how (fracking) technology lead science
A “What If?” concerning the Battle of the Atlantic
Steven Johnson on how technology (such as the Magdeburg Sphere) grows science
Steven Johnson on how coffee replaced alcohol as the daytime drug of choice
Benjamin Franklin maps the Gulf Stream
W. F. Deedes on the rise of Stanley Baldwin
Bach’s development of the most intense musical vision from a straitened environment
Matt Ridley on the Chinese economic miracle
Matt Ridley on how culture leads where genes follow
Matt Ridley on Epicurus and Lucretius
Peter Foster on Robert Owen
Steven Pinker on the (im)moral message of the Old Testament
Juliet Barker on Knights of Old: A lot of history in one paragraph
Steven Johnson on The Myth of the Ant Queen
How David Irving put himself on trial
When David Irving called a British Judge “Mein Fuhrer”
Paul Johnson on Mozart and Da Ponte
Paul Johnson on what the young Mozart was up against
Sum
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)
MicheldeMontaigne.fr
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?