He needed glory and he needed cash. The quickest route to glory was beating up barbarians; stealing their wealth and selling their bodies into slavery got him the cash.
The above is from a stomach-penetrating piece on the life of Julius Caesar (and not Boris Johnson). I do not know whether it is an effect of age, but perhaps the more one is aware of dying —with or without dignity— the more I find such descriptions, such as the one below, are hard to let go of when you close you eyes with the hope that they might open again.
Unlike most ancient swords, the legionary shortsword, or gladius Hispaniensis, was designed for stabbing, not slashing. While longswords and sabres create horrific, often deadly wounds, even an inch of steel can deliver a lethal puncture – especially given the limits of ancient medicine. Yet as combat instructors know, stabbing another human being at close quarters is much harder than cutting them: we have a psychological block against penetrating others’ bodies in that way, a visceral aversion that must be overcome by stern, psychologically brutalising discipline. Roman legionaries were taught to hurl their spears at the enemy line, then advance with shields held close, plunging their gladii in and out of the men arrayed against them. Units that could stomach this gruelling work against heavily armoured fellow citizens were simply killing machines against the less disciplined and lightly armoured Gauls [emphasis added]
In 1947, Hobsbawm had excused his acceptance of the Birkbeck post by explaining that teaching preparations never took him more than two hours a week, and while he was an inspiring classroom presence, he always adroitly ducked administrative jobs. Evans tells a story of Hobsbawm backing the young Roderick Floud for a professorial chair mostly, Floud later realised, so he wouldn’t have to be head of department himself. It will be hard for today’s young academics, groaning under research assessments and short-term contracts at below the living wage, to read these passages.
Defining the appropriate probability space is often a non-trivial bit of statistics. It is often where you have to end up leaving statistics and formal reasoning behind. The following quote puts this in a more bracing manner.
There are no lobby groups for companies that do not exist.
The same goes for research and so much of what makes the future captivating.
Some quotes from William Gibson in an interview with the FT
“we’re looking at the collapse of the only liveable planetary ecosystem we know of anywhere”.
He fears that the world’s FQ — or F***edness Quotient, as he calls it — is rising to a worrying degree.
And this one gets you
If I could learn one thing about the future,” he says, “I would want to know what they think of us because that would tell me everything I’d want to know about them.”
Zuckerberg also said the company will not be changing its policies that allow lying in paid political advertisements.
‘Today’s meritocratic ideology glorifies entrepreneurs and billionaires. At times this glorification seems to know no bounds. Some people seem to believe that Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg single-handedly invented computers, books, and friends.’
Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology. p713
The best way to foster mediocrity is to found a Center for Excellence.
This is a quote from a comment by DrOFnothing on a good article by Rich DeMillo a few years back. It reminds me of my observation than shiny new research buildings often mean that the quality (but maybe not the volume) of reseach will deteriorate. This is just intellectual regression to the mean. You get the funding for the new building based on the trajectory of those who were in the old building — but with a delay. Scale, consistency and originality have a troubled relationship. Just compare the early flowerings of jazz-rock fusion (below) with the technically masterful but ultimately sterile stuff that came later.
In the closing lines of The Protestant Ethic, Weber described the typical capitalists of his own time as mediocrities much like the stunted creatures that Nietzsche had called “the last men.” A world populated by such soulless beings ran not on individual initiative but on the imperatives of the system: “Today,” Weber wrote,
this mighty cosmos determines, with overwhelming coercion, the style of life not only of those directly involved in business but of every individual who is born into this mechanism, and may well continue to do so until the day when the last ton of fossil fuel has been consumed. [emphasis added]
Peter Gordon adds, ‘Those final lines were prescient.’
The historian Michael Howard once rebuked some gratuitous flourish of this “we did it alone” hubris in the pages of the Daily Telegraph with perhaps the pithiest letter ever sent to any newspaper. It read, in its entirety: “Sir, The only major conflict in which this country has ever “stood alone’’ without an ally on the continent was the War of American Independence in 1776-83. We lost.”
Just because your doctor has a name for your condition, doesn’t mean he knows what it is — Franz Kafka.
I hadn’t come across this quote by Franz Kafka before. It is of course true, but the converse is even more worrying. I like Sam Shuster’s aphorism better: the worst thing you can do is make a diagnosis (because it stops you thinking about what really is going on).
The famous nuclear physicist, Enrico Fermi, was said to be fond of coming up with surprisingly useful numerical answers on topics where he possessed little prior expert knowledge. ‘How many piano tuners are there is New York?’ is one example. The ever excellent Jean-Louis Gassée in the Monday Note joins in, allowing us all to marvel at modern logistics. BTW, if you follow the link you will see that he does not ignore the fact that such marvels require a human calculus, too.
In the next Xmas quarter, Apple will need to produce 80 million iPhones — that’s about the number Apple disclosed before it decided to no longer give out units data. Given 8 million seconds in a quarter (90 days * 24hrs * 60mins * 60 seconds = 7,776,000 seconds), this yields a nicely rounded production requirement of 10 iPhones per second — 24 hours a day!
How many production lines are needed to create that many devices? Let’s say the assembly, test, and pack process for one iPhone takes 10 minutes (600 seconds). This means a single production pipe can output 1/600th of an iPhone per second. If you trust my math, producing 10 iPhones per second would require 6000 assembly/test/pack pipes working in parallel.
Charlemagne reports on the spat between the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and the German Constitutional Court. The latter had accused the former of acting ultra vires in giving support to the bond-buying by the European Central Bank. One view is that national governments tolerate the ECJ and use dissent to any of its decisions for domestic political purposes when it suits (pace the clowns in Number 10). Charlemagne uses a colourful metaphor that some of the clowns might enjoy.
If legislators did not like the court’s actions, they could always change the law. That they hardly ever do suggests that they do not object strongly to the court’s rulings. In this sense the ECJ resembles an S&M dungeon. National governments are happy to be tied up and slapped around in a dimly lit room by people in odd outfits. However, they would prefer not to mention this fact to their jealous spouses back home: domestic courts and domestic voters.
We may be coming to realise that the people who complain about the nanny state are the people who had nannies.
Sarah Neville is the FT reviewing The Nanny State Made Me: A Story of Britain and How to Save It, by Stuart Maconie
I am very fond of the Alan Kay line that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. Indeed, my default line with Alan Kay is to tend to believe that he is always right. But Audrey Watters disagrees (via Stephen Downes)
Their imaginings and predictions were (are) never disinterested, and I don’t agree at all with the famous saying by computer scientist Alan Kay that “the best way to predict the future is to build it.” I’ve argued elsewhere that the best way to predict the future is to issue a press release. The best way to predict the future of education is to get Thomas Friedman to write an op-ed in The New York Times about your idea and then a bunch of college administrators will likely believe that it’s inevitable.
Terrific post in the Monday Note from Jean-Louis Gassée. He writes:
This week’s note was sparked by a conversation with a learned engineer friend. He cut through my lamentation that our country lacks the will to send astronauts to the Moon again. ‘It’s not about will, it’s about our changed estimate for the cost of human lives!’.
Jean-Louis then expands on this with details of the various space flight-related accidents, before moving on — as befits a Frenchman— to the legendary 2CV, and the change in safety trade-offs between then and now in car design. Then there is the matter of covid-19, and the calculus advanced societies took the in the not so distant past.
Worth a read in full, and not just for the new acronym (to me, anyway) SWAG (scientific wild-ass guess).
Education is intellectual infrastructure. So is science. They have very high yield, but delayed payback. Hasty societies that can’t span those delays will lose out over time to societies that can. On the other hand, cultures too hidebound to allow education to advance at infrastructural pace also lose out.
No, not post-covid nor even post-final Heineken or six-nation rugby 2020 🙁, but rather the default drink of the networker. As Bronowski might have said of a golden period of 20th century physics: it was done as much in coffee houses an in laboratories. Is imbibing alone also subject to that other familiar disapprobation?
What began as an obscure berry from the highlands of Ethiopia is now, five centuries later, a ubiquitous global necessity. Coffee has changed the world along the way. A “wakefull and civill drink”, its pep as a stimulant awoke Europe from an alcoholic stupor and “improved useful knowledge very much”, as a 17th-century observer put it, helping fuel the ensuing scientific and financial revolutions. Coffeehouses, an idea that travelled with the refreshment from the Arab world, became information exchanges and centres of collaboration; coffee remains the default drink of personal networking to this day.
But, as R.H. Tawney once observed, shifts to collective provision are only realised after demonstrations that ‘high individual incomes will not purchase the mass of mankind immunity from cholera, typhus and ignorance’: many elements of the coming future ought to be favourable to the left, though only if they are shaped politically, and if blame – always elusive in the UK’s diffuse system of responsibility – is correctly apportioned.
The value of wine exchanged yearly between consumers, connoisseurs and collectors—the secondary market—has quadrupled to $4bn since 2000, says Justin Gibbs of Liv-ex, a wine-trading platform. He reckons that just 15% of those buying wine on his website are doing so to drink it. The rest see it as a store of value.
Annoying, isn’t it? But we all tend to a naive idea of value. Especially when we think about pricing drugs.
As a human being, and a citizen of this country, I deplore almost everything that’s going on in public life,” Mr Herron says. “As a novelist with a bent towards the satirical, it’s a gift.
Mick Herron quoted in the Economist.
(Leave quickly. Go far away. Come back slowly.)
Faced with a highly contagious, lethal disease for which there is no known cure, President Donald Trump has ignored that timeless advice.
Instead, like a medieval demagogue, Trump is spouting quackery and hatred straight out of the 14th century, when panicked Europeans confronting the Black Death strapped live chickens to their bodies, drank potions tinged with mercury and arsenic, and blamed the Mongols and the Jews when none of it worked.
Feel in need of a “mental health day” right now (or what we used to call “a break”)? We certainly do.
FT Moral money 8 April 2020
The millennial generation — the first to have lived entirely inside the mature meritocracy — appreciates these burdens most keenly. Elite millennials can be precious and fragile, but not in the manner of the special snowflakes that derisive polemics describe. They do not melt or wilt at every challenge to their privilege, so much as shatter under the intense competitive pressures to achieve that dominate their lives. They are neither dissolute not decadent, but rather tense and exhausted.
The Meritocracy Trap, Daniel Markovits.
(“Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift – look out out kid, they keep it all hid”, Bob Dylan)
I have been reading the ‘The Fifth Risk’ by Micheal Lewis. It is a book for out time, telling many stories about how competent governments can be. Or not, as is increasingly the case in many modern states. We can blame a group of ideologues for our current crisis. A quote about the book by Cory Doctorow (in the frontispiece) strikes the right tone. The book he says is:
‘A hymn to the “deep state,” which is revealed as nothing more than people who know what they’re talking about’
Bruce Charlton pointed me to this entry in Wikipedia on Seymour Cray
“One story has it that when Cray was asked by management to provide detailed one-year and five-year plans for his next machine, he simply wrote, “Five-year goal: Build the biggest computer in the world. One year goal: One-fifth of the above.” And another time, when expected to write a multi-page detailed status report for the company executives, Cray’s two sentence report read: “Activity is progressing satisfactorily as outlined under the June plan. There have been no significant changes or deviations from the June plan.”
Which brings to mind Sydney Brenner’s comments that eventually requests for research grant funding will eventually resemble flow diagrams recording who reports to who.
Alfred North Whitehead: “Some of the major disasters of mankind have been produced by the narrowness of men with a good methodology” (The Function of Reason).
Comments that seem germane to some of our current day covid-19 debates.
Michael Chabon writing in the NYRB:
The world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and surprises that it takes years for most people to begin to notice that it is, also, irretrievably broken. We call this period of research “childhood.”
There follows a program of renewed inquiry, often involuntary, into the nature and effects of mortality, entropy, heartbreak, violence, failure, cowardice, duplicity, cruelty, and grief; the researcher learns their histories, and their bitter lessons, by heart. Along the way, he or she discovers that the world has been broken for as long as anyone can remember, and struggles to reconcile this fact with the ache of cosmic nostalgia that arises, from time to time, in the researcher’s heart: an intimation of vanished glory, of lost wholeness, a memory of the world unbroken. We call the moment at which this ache first arises “adolescence.” The feeling haunts people all their lives.
Everyone, sooner or later, gets a thorough schooling in brokenness. The question becomes: What to do with the pieces? Some people hunker down atop the local pile of ruins and make do, Bedouin tending their goats in the shade of shattered giants. Others set about breaking what remains of the world into bits ever smaller and more jagged, kicking through the rubble like kids running through piles of leaves. And some people, passing among the scattered pieces of that great overturned jigsaw puzzle, start to pick up a piece here, a piece there, with a vague yet irresistible notion that perhaps something might be done about putting the thing back together again.
In discussing some aspects of Higher Education, Dennis Tourish writes:
On all sides, it seems that long-term loyalty is an idea without a long-term future.
Nice article in the LRB by Wang Xiuying, ‘The Word from Wuhan’.
(Throwing woks: when everyone denies all responsibility and tries to shift the blame back onto the blamer, they are busy ‘throwing woks’).
Throwing woks is an art you need to understand if you want to get things done in China. Whether you’re building an airport, applying for a research grant or inviting a foreign national to give a talk, you have to fill in so many forms, and get approval from so many departments with all their competing demands, that you risk getting trapped somewhere in the middle: whichever way you turn you risk causing upset or offence in one quarter or another. In the workplace too, a step in the wrong direction can provoke a superior and ruin a career, so that sometimes it’s wisest to do nothing at all. Until a virus strikes, that is.
With couples confined together 24/7, ordinary marital friction soon escalates into all-out war. Domestic servants, often migrants, who went out of town over the Chinese New Year, have been unable to return to work – but someone still has to do the household chores. Men slump on the sofa playing video games or hide behind a laptop pretending to work, while still expecting three meals a day and fresh laundry. A joke went around:
Client: My wife and I have been quarantined together for 14 days and we’ve decided to get back together! I don’t want to go ahead with the divorce. Can you refund the fee?
Lawyer: 14 days … hmmmm … Let’s not rush it: I think we’re still in business.