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Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy

Thursday, 22 June, 2017 0 Comments

That’s the title of the new book by Tim Harford, best known to readers of the Financial Times as The Undercover Economist. True to elitist form, he conjures up pieces for that paper with intros like “Some things are best left to the technocrats: On any piece of policy, the typical voter does not understand what is at stake.”

The upcoming book is based on Harford’s BBC podcast 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy. One of them is the iPhone, and Harford trots out his typical take on its revolutionary impact thus: “Surprisingly, Uncle Sam played an essential role in the creation and development of the iPhone — of course, much has been written about the late Steve Jobs and other leading figures at Apple and their role in making the modern icon, and its subsequent impact on our lives. And rightfully so. But…”

But there’s always a “But…” However, here’s the blurb for Harford’s book, which will be published on 29 August:

“New ideas and inventions have woven, tangled or sliced right through the invisible economic web that surrounds us every day. From the bar code to double-entry bookkeeping, covering ideas as solid as concrete or as intangible as the limited liability company, this book not only shows us how new ideas come about, it also shows us their unintended consequences — for example, the gramophone introducing radically unequal pay in the music industry, or how the fridge shaped the politics of developing countries across the globe.”

Very Harfordian that, “…the gramophone introducing radically unequal pay in the music industry.” And it all began so harmoniously. In 1903, HMV in England made the first complete recording of an opera, Verdi’s Ernani, on 40 single-sided discs, and on 10 June 1924, George Gershwin recorded a shortened version of Rhapsody in Blue with Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra. It was released on two sides of Victor 55225 and ran for 8 minutes and 59 seconds. But as Tim Harford would say, “But…”

Rhapsody in Blue


The Lord of Flies

Monday, 19 June, 2017 0 Comments

On this day in 1993, the novelist, playwright and poet William Golding died. Best known for his novel Lord of the Flies, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1983 and also won the Booker Prize in 1980 with Rites of Passage.

The main theme of Lord of the Flies is the contradictory human desire for order — living by rules, peacefully and harmoniously — and the innate drive for power. A group of well-educated children descend into savagery when left to themselves on a paradisiacal island. Far from the constraints of modern civilization, they regress to a barbaric state.

“The pile of guts was a black blob of flies that buzzed like a saw. After a while these flies found Simon. Gorged, they alighted by his runnels of sweat and drank. They tickled under his nostrils and played leapfrog on his thighs. They were black and iridescent green and without number; and in front of Simon, the Lord of the Flies hung on his stick and grinned. At last Simon gave up and looked back; saw the white teeth and dim eyes, the blood — and his gaze was held by that ancient, inescapable recognition.” — William Golding, Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies


Diarist of the day: Barbara Pym

Tuesday, 13 June, 2017 0 Comments

“[Oxford] I had a note from Rupert and Miles asking me to go to the flicks. I dashed to Carfax at 7.30 and we went to Goodnight Vienna at the Queener. It was lovely, and somehow appropriate. We sat at the back in the corner and I had two arms around me for the first time in my history. The flick was over at 10, so we stopped at the coffee stall by Cowley Place on our way back. We drank to each other in chocolate Horlicks.” 13 June 1942

Barbara Pym was an English novelist. In the 1950s she published a series of social comedies, the best known of which are Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings. Her novel Quartet in Autumn was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1977. Pym moved to Finstock in Oxfordshire with her younger sister Hilary and on 11 January 1980, she died of breast cancer, aged 66. Hilary helped set up the Barbara Pym Society in 1993.


Walking 2

Saturday, 27 May, 2017 0 Comments

The American naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, author of such classics as Walden, was also a walker. His most famous essay, Walking, which celebrates the virtues of immersing oneself in nature, was published in May 1862 following his death from tuberculosis. It’s our guide for the next 10 days or so.

“My vicinity affords many good walks; and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not yet exhausted them. An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey. There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you.”

Walking


The Dragon Teeth of Michael Crichton

Tuesday, 23 May, 2017 0 Comments

The brilliant American author Michael Crichton died in 2008, suddenly and much too young, but his work has assumed a life of its own. A new novel, Dragon Teeth, based on an original Crichton manuscript, is being published posthumously today. Set in 1876, Dragon Teeth follows two palaeontologists hunting for dinosaur fossils in the Wild West — and trying to sabotage each other’s work in the process. Excerpt:

Introduction

As he appears in an early photograph, William Johnson is a handsome young man with a crooked smile and a naive grin. A study in slouching indifference, he lounges against a Gothic building. He is a tall fellow, but his height appears irrelevant to his presentation of himself. The photograph is dated “New Haven, 1875,” and was apparently taken after he had left home to begin studies as an undergraduate at Yale College.

A later photograph, marked “Cheyenne, Wyoming, 1876,” shows Johnson quite differently. His mouth is framed by a full moustache; his body is harder and enlarged by use; his jaw is set; he stands confidently with shoulders squared and feet wide — and ankle-deep in mud. Clearly visible is a peculiar scar on his upper lip, which in later years he claimed was the result of an Indian attack.

The following story tells what happened between the two pictures.

For the journals and notebooks of William Johnson, I am indebted to the estate of W. J. T. Johnson, and particularly to Johnson’s great-niece, Emily Silliman, who permitted me to quote extensively from the unpublished material. (Much of the factual contents of Johnson’s accounts found their way into print in 1890, during the fierce battles for priority between Cope and Marsh, which finally involved the U.S. government. But the text itself, or even excerpts, was never published, until now.)

Dragon Teeth

PART I

THE FIELD TRIP WEST

Young Johnson Joins the Field Trip West

William Jason Tertullius Johnson, the elder son of Philadelphia shipbuilder Silas Johnson, entered Yale College in the fall of 1875. According to his headmaster at Exeter, Johnson was “gifted, attractive, athletic and able. But the headmaster added that Johnson was “headstrong, indolent and badly spoilt, with a notable indifference to any motive save his own pleasures. Unless he finds a purpose to his life, he risks unseemly decline into indolence and vice.”

Those words could have served as the description of a thousand young men in late nineteenth-century America, young men with intimidating, dynamic fathers, large quantities of money, and no particular way to pass the time.

William Johnson fulfilled his headmaster’s prediction during his first year at Yale. He was placed on probation in November for gambling, and again in February after an incident involving heavy drinking and the smashing of a New Haven merchant’s window. Silas Johnson paid the bill. Despite such reckless behavior, Johnson remained courtly and even shy with women of his own age, for he had yet to have any luck with them. For their part, they found reason to seek his attention, their formal upbringings notwithstanding. In all other respects, however, he remained unrepentant. Early that spring, on a sunny afternoon, Johnson wrecked his roommate’s yacht, running it aground on Long Island Sound. The boat sank within minutes; Johnson was rescued by a passing trawler; asked what happened, he admitted to the incredulous fishermen that he did not know how to sail because it would be “so utterly tedious to learn. And anyway, it looks simple enough.” Confronted by his roommate, Johnson admitted he had not asked permission to use the yacht because “it was such bother to find you.”

Faced with the bill for the lost yacht, Johnson’s father complained to his friends that “the cost of educating a young gentleman at Yale these days is ruinously expensive.” His father was the serious son of a Scottish immigrant, and took some pains to conceal the excesses of his offspring; in his letters, he repeatedly urged William to find a purpose in life. But William seemed content with his spoiled frivolity, and when he announced his intention to spend the coming summer in Europe, “the prospect,” said his father, “fills me with direst fiscal dread.”

Thus his family was surprised when William Johnson abruptly decided to go west during the summer of 1876. Johnson never publicly explained why he had changed his mind. But those close to him at Yale knew the reason. He had decided to go west because of a bet.

In his own words, from the journal he scrupulously kept:

Every young man probably has an arch-rival at some point in his life, and in my first year at Yale, I had mine. Harold Hannibal Marlin was my own age, eighteen. He was handsome, athletic, well-spoken, soaking rich, and he was from New York, which he considered superior to Philadelphia in every respect. I found him insufferable. The sentiment was returned in kind.

Marlin and I competed in every arena — in the classroom, on the playing-field, in the undergraduate pranks of the night. Nothing would exist but that we would compete over it. We argued incessantly, always taking the opposing view from the other.

One night at dinner he said that the future of America lay in the developing West. I said it didn’t, that the future of our great nation could hardly rest on a vast desert populated by savage aboriginal tribes.

He replied I didn’t know what I was talking about, because I hadn’t been there. This was a sore point — Marlin had actually been to the West, at least as far as Kansas City, where his brother lived, and he never failed to express his superiority in this matter of travel.

I had never succeeded in neutralizing it.

“Going west is no shakes. Any fool can go,” I said.

“But all fools haven’t gone — at least you haven’t.”

“I’ve never had the least desire to go,” I said.

“I’ll tell you what I think,” Hannibal Marlin replied, checking to see that the others were listening. “I think you’re afraid.”

“That’s absurd.”

“Oh yes. A nice trip to Europe’s more your way of things.”

“Europe? Europe is for old people and dusty scholars.”

“Mark my word, you’ll tour Europe this summer, perhaps with a parasol.”

“And if I do go, that doesn’t mean —”

“Ah hah! You see?” Marlin turned to address the assembled table. “Afraid. Afraid.” He smiled in a knowing, patronizing way that made me hate him and left me no choice.

“As a matter of fact,” I said coolly, “I am already determined on a trip in the West this summer.”

That caught him by surprise; the smug smile froze on his face. “Oh?”

“Yes,” I said. “I am going with Professor Marsh. He takes a group of students with him each summer.” There had been an advertisement in the paper the previous week; I vaguely remembered it.

“What? Fat old Marsh? The bone professor?”

“That’s right.”

“You’re going with Marsh? Accommodations for his group are Spartan, and they say he works the boys unmercifully. It doesn’t seem your line of things at all.” His eyes narrowed. “When do you leave?”

“He hasn’t told us the date yet.”

Marlin smiled. “You’ve never laid eyes on Professor Marsh, and you’ll never go with him.”

“I will.”

“You won’t.”

“I tell you, it’s already decided.”

Marlin sighed in his patronizing way. “I have a thousand dollars that says you will not go.”

Marlin had been losing the attention of the table, but he got it back with that one. A thousand dollars was a great deal of money in 1876, even from one rich boy to another.

“A thousand dollars says you won’t go west with Marsh this summer,” Marlin repeated.

“You, sir, have made a wager,” I replied. And in that moment I realized that, through no fault of my own, I would now spend the entire summer in some ghastly hot desert in the company of a known lunatic, digging up old bones.


Munich by Robert Harris

Sunday, 12 March, 2017 0 Comments

Munich’s Oktoberfest, the world’s biggest beer festival, will run from 16 September to 3 October this year and some six million visitors are expected to take part in the annual swilling. It’s a global event and the organizers are constantly seeking ways to broaden the appeal. Their latest innovation is the Oktoberfest 7s, an international rugby tournament. Sevens is a variant of rugby union in which teams of seven players play seven-minute halves, instead of the usual 15 players playing 40-minute halves. The Oktoberfest 7s hopes to emulate the success of the Hong Kong Sevens tournament, which has evangelized the game in Asia and now features teams from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

Munich While all the scrimmaging and drinking are taking place in the Bavarian capital, Robert Harris will debut his new novel, titled simply Munich. According to the blurb, “Munich is a spy thriller about treason and conscience, loyalty and betrayal, filled with real-life characters and actual events.”

The book is set over four days during the infamous Munich Conference of September 1938, which ended with the signing of an agreement by the major powers of Europe that permitted Nazi Germany’s annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia. Anticipating this act of appeasement, Winston Churchill remarked, “England has been offered a choice between war and shame. She has chosen shame, and will get war.” And that’s exactly what happened.

Between beer and betrayal, Munich shoulders an enormous weight of culture and history with impressive dignity. The past and the present intersect on most streets and one is commemorated as the other is celebrated. Robert Harris has chosen his subject and his timing well.


Camille Paglia talks Trump

Wednesday, 8 March, 2017 1 Comment

Camile Paglia’s new book is called Free Women, Free Men and it’s a compilation of her writings about sex, gender and feminism. In advance of publication next week, Paglia spoke to Molly Fischer of New York Magazine. The sisterhood will not be pleased with her take on Trump, Clinton and the US election results. Snippet:

“I felt the Trump victory coming for a long time,” she told me. Writing last spring, she’d called Trump “raw, crude and uninformed” but also “smart, intuitive and a quick study”; she praised his “bumptious exuberance and slashing humor” (and took some pleasure in watching him fluster the GOP). Speaking two weeks into his administration, she sounded altogether less troubled by the president than any other self-declared feminist I’d encountered since Inauguration Day: “He is supported by half the country, hello! And also, this ethically indefensible excuse that all Trump voters are racist, sexist, misogynistic, and all that — American democracy cannot proceed like this, with this reviling half the country.”

Paglia In fact, she has had to restrain herself from agreeing with the president, at least on certain matters. “I have been on an anti–Meryl Streep campaign for about 30 years,” she said. When Trump called the actress “overrated” in a January tweet, “I wanted to leap into print and take that line but I couldn’t, because Trump said it.”

It’s true that there is not infrequently something Trumpian in Paglia’s cadence (lots of ingenuous exclamation points — “This tyrannical infantilizing of young Americans must stop!”), as well as her irresistible compulsion to revisit enemies, slights, and idées fixes (substitute “Gloria Steinem” and “Lacan” for “the failing New York Times”). And then, perhaps most important: She, like Trump, gives her audience the vicarious thrill of watching someone who appears to be saying whatever the hell they want. Reading Paglia is a bit like how it must have felt to be an enthusiastic attendee at a Trump campaign rally: She can’t possibly REALLY mean that, you think, and laugh, bewildered — but can you imagine how annoyed it must make people?

Camille Paglia Predicted 2017 makes for refreshing reading in this time of faux media outrage.


Portraits and Profiles of warriors and senators

Friday, 3 March, 2017 0 Comments

After leaving the White House in 2009, George W. Bush found inspiration in painting. This has now resulted in a book of 66 portraits of post-9/11 US veterans called Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors. The proceeds from the book will be donated to the George W. Bush Presidential Center, “a non-profit organization whose Military Service Initiative works to ensure that post-9/11 veterans and their families make successful transitions to civilian life with a focus on gaining meaningful employment and overcoming the invisible wounds of war.”

Portraits of Courage

Note: Portraits of Courage echoes Profiles in Courage, a 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Senator John F. Kennedy. Profiles consisted of short biographies describing acts of courage and integrity by eight United States Senators throughout the Senate’s history. The book became a best seller, but in his 2008 autobiography, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, Kennedy’s speechwriter Ted Sorensen claimed that, while the senator had provided the theme, the speechwriter wrote most of the book.


The Christian conundrum

Tuesday, 28 February, 2017 0 Comments

Early Christianity expanded rapidly through Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece and Italy. Because it had no linguistic, cultural, ethnic or territorial centre, it spread to towns, cities and communities that differed widely from one another. The rulers of Rome had seen nothing like it and were confounded by this new and challenging ideology. The British classicist Mary Beard discusses how the Romans viewed the conundrum of Christianity in her excellent SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. Snippet:

“First, it had no ancestral home. In their ordered religious geography, Romans expected deities to be from somewhere: Isis from Egypt, Mithras from Persia, the Jewish god from Judaea. The Christian god was rootless, claimed to be universal and sought more adherents. All kinds of mystical moments of enlightenment might attract new worshippers to (say) the religion of Isis. But Christianity was defined entirely by a process of spiritual conversion that was utterly new. What is more, some Christians were preaching values that threatened to overturn some of the most fundamental Greco-Roman assumptions about the nature of the world and of the people within it: that poverty, for example, was good; or that the body was to be tamed or rejected rather than cared for. SPQR All these factors help to explain the worries, confusion and hostility of Pliny and others like him. At the same time, the success of Christianity was rooted in the Roman Empire, in its territorial extent, in the mobility that it promoted, in its towns and its cultural mix. From Pliny’s Bithynia to Perpetua’s Carthage, Christianity spread from its small-scale origins in Judaea largely because of the channels of communication across the Mediterranean world that the Roman Empire had opened up and because of the movement through those channels of people, goods, books and ideas. The irony is that the only religion that the Romans ever attempted to eradicate was the one whose success their empire made possible and which grew up entirely within the Roman world.”

Is past prologue? Could a faith-based or technology-driven belief system challenge the fundamentals of our world? Note: The phrase “What’s past is prologue” comes from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, Act 2, Scene I. In contemporary usage, the phrase stands for the idea that history sets the context for the present. The quotation is engraved on the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.


The dreary quarrels of Northern Ireland re-emerge

Wednesday, 11 January, 2017 0 Comments

In a time of global turbulence, when we should be focused on issues that will affect stability and prosperity, Northern Ireland threatens to divert attention with a crisis fueled by, well, fuel, and headlined “Cash for Ash”. The bizarre Renewable Heat Incentive scandal is exposing the old tribal antagonisms and the brittle peace is endangered. Nothing new, however. Let us pause for a moment and go back a century to Winston Churchill describing the aftermath of World War I:

“The position of countries has been violently altered. The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous change in the deluge of the world. But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.”

High Dive The integrity of that quarrel is central to the latest novel by Jonathan Lee. High Dive centres on an event that took place at the Grand Hotel in Brighton on 12 October 1984. Then, the Provisional IRA terrorists group attempted to assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet, who were staying at the hotel for the Conservative Party conference. Although Mrs Thatcher narrowly escaped injury, five people were killed including a Conservative MP, and 31 were injured, by the long-delay time bomb planted in the hotel by the IRA.

Jonathan Lee’s book doesn’t offer an analysis of violent Irish republicanism or Tory party politics, but it excels in describing the particulars of the English hospitality trade. Lee, like so many members of the writing class, harbours some sympathy for the “rebels”, but the reader should be aware that the characters in his novel are no idealists. More than three decades after the Brighton bombing, the antagonists of Northern Ireland have turned their dreary, squalid feud into an industry that supplies their claques with cash from ash and other combustibles. The integrity of their quarrel is endless.


Seven eggs for a prince

Monday, 28 November, 2016 0 Comments

While watching the modest breakfast egg boiling, our thoughts turned to eggs royal and On Royalty. Jeremy Paxman claims on page 275 that “one of the prince’s friends” told him that after a day’s hunting, Prince Charles likes to have a boiled egg but is so fussy about its consistency that his staff routinely provide seven eggs, numbered according to cooking time, so that if number five is too soft he can move on to number six.

The story was denied by Clarence House, the Prince of Wales’s official residence and metonym for his private office. “It is not by chance that the boiled-egg story has been so much touted in pre-publication publicity for On Royalty: it is almost the only exciting moment in an otherwise dull tome,” wrote the hard-boiled Lynn Barber as she consigned Paxo’s book to the nesting box of hens and history.

Eggs