Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Economical with the Truth

Thomas J. Sargent's speech at the Nobel Banquet on 10 December 2011 was economical with the truth in the very BEST senses of that phrase:

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Chris Sims and I thank you for recognizing the many women and men like us who use statistics and economic theory to understand how governments and markets can improve peoples' lives. I state 7 practical lessons taught by my beautiful subject, which investigates the consequences of time and chance and cooperation and competition and foresight and incentives.

1. Many things that are desirable are not feasible.

2. There are tradeoffs between equality and efficiency.

3. Other people have more information about their abilities, their efforts, and their preferences than you do.

4. Everyone responds to incentives, including people you want to help. That is why social safety nets don't always work as intended.

5. When a government spends, its citizens eventually pay, either today or tomorrow, either through explicit taxes or implicit ones like inflation and defaults on debts.

6. Most people want other people to pay for public goods and government transfers (especially transfers to themselves).

7. It is feasible for one generation to shift costs to subsequent ones. National government debts and the U.S. social security system do that (but not the social security system of Singapore).

Friday, December 09, 2011

Perl(mutter)s of Wisdom

2011 physics laureate Saul Perlmutter's Nobel lecture. Awesome.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Friday, November 25, 2011

The case against a carbon tax for South Africa

As the big global climate change conference to be hosted by South Africa approaches, it's worth taking a realistic look at the various public policy issues involved. Philip Lloyd, a distinguished South African engineer, makes the case AGAINST a carbon tax for South Africa.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Modernity, Majority and Generality

And now for something COMPLETELY different...

Simon Butteriss sings the Modern Major-General's Song from Gibert and Sullivan's 1879 comic opera The Pirates of Penzance:

Monday, November 14, 2011

The illusion of validity and the illusion of skill

Daniel Kahneman is one of my favourite scientists. His work combines simplicity of questions and methods with profundity of results and insights. This recent article, adapted from his latest (and perhaps greatest) book, explores two cognitive illusions that are particularly relevant to these interesting economic times: the illusion of validity and the illusion of skill.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

The (Real) Pixar Story

Dr. Alvy Ray Smith's documented correction of some of the myths about the history of Pixar.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The Gruffalo

"A gruffalo? What's a gruffalo?"

"A gruffalo! Why, didn't you know?"

A wonderful recent (last night!) discovery that boys and I loved: The Gruffalo written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Of Particular Significance

Matt Strassler, a theoretical physicist and professor at Rutgers University, recently launched his excellent science- and particle physics-related website Of Particular Significance.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Top 5 reminiscences of Steve Jobs

Following the death of Steve Jobs earlier this month, the Internet has been flooded with reminiscences of the man, very many of them with vanishingly small signal-to-noise ratios. There are a few exceptions though, and in this post I present the best five that I have come across. It's worth noting that not all of the following accounts were written in response to Steve Jobs's death (specifically, Vic Gundotra's wasn't), but in a certain sense none of them were. They were all written in response to Steve Jobs's remarkable life:

  1. Steve Jobs, 1955 – 2011 by Steven Levy
  2. Steven Levy first met Steve Jobs in November 1983, when he conducted the first of his many interviews of Jobs over the years. I get the disctinct impression that the two men were friends, or least friendly, so this is probably not the most objective obituary. Still, it is the best one I've read.

  3. Icon Ambulance by Vic Gundotra
  4. This anecdote by Vic Gundotra, Google's Senior Vice President, Social, illustrates Steve Jobs's legendary attention to detail as well as his sense of aesthetics and design.

  5. Steve Jobs: A Few Memories by Stephen Wolfram
  6. Stephen Wolfram, like Steve Jobs, was something of a wunderkind. Here he shares some memories of his personal and business interactions with Jobs. WolframAlpha, Wolfram's "computational knowledge engine" is integrated into Siri on Apple's latest iPhone 4S.

  7. What I Learned From Steve Jobs by Guy Kawasaki
  8. Guy Kawasaki had two stints at Apple, in the 1980s as a software evangelist and in the 1990s as an Apple Fellow. Here he distils the 12 most important lessons he learnt from working directly with Steve Jobs.

  9. Memories of Steve by Ben Rosen
  10. Ben Rosen first met Steve Jobs in late 1977. Rosen was 44 at the time, Steve Jobs, at 22, was exactly half Rosen's age. Rosen's piece is by far the best of these five reminiscences of Steve Jobs. It presents a delicate and tender portrait of the extremely complicated and contradictory man that was Steve Jobs. Rosen writes beautifully. Although he's now 78, judging by his very accomplished and varied career and the virtuosity of this piece, Rosen can readily achieve new success as a writer.
One more thing:
Overall, all of the above reminiscences are extremely positive about Steve Jobs, and with some justification. However, much of the posthumous commentary on Steve Jobs has been little more than unthinking, regurgitated, platitudinous idol worship. (I heard one star-struck fan refer to Steve Jobs as are our present-day Thomas Jefferson. I think he meant Thomas Edison.) This, I am quite certain, is something Steve Jobs himself would deeply disapprove of. After all, if he was anything, Steve Jobs was an iconolast. And it would be entirely inappropriate for the world, after his death, to turn him into an icon (or iCon). So in that spirit, I offer this slightly less flattering appraisal of Steve Jobs's contribution to one of his most celebrated products, the Macintosh:

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Acceleration due to Energy

The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded "for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae." Nobody yet understands what causes this (the acceleration, not the expansion), but the cause, whatever it is, has been given the name dark energy. The UC Berkeley page on Saul Perlmutter (awarded half the prize, with the other half jointly awarded to Brian P. Schmidt and Adam G. Riess) has some interesting discussions on the subject. Among other things, Prof. Perlmutter's passion for physics shines through.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Greatly Insane: Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

The version of this famous ad that went on air is the one with the voice-over by Richard Dreyfuss. Here's the same ad with a voice-over by Steve Jobs:

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Insanely Great: Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Steven Paul Jobs
(24 February 1955 - 5 October 2011)

Friday, September 30, 2011

Einstein and the speed of light

Clifford V. Johnson, a physicist at the University of Southern California, and author of Asymptotia, one of the best science blogs on the Internet, has written about the recent neutrino experiment that appears to contradict Einstein's special theory of relativity.

For the record: My money's on Einstein. But ultimately that doesn't matter, because the wonderful thing about science is that what's right and wrong is not decided on the basis of status. Or whim. It's decided only on the basis of evidence. And so, perhaps the members of the OPERA consortium will be proved right and a significant hole will have been poked in special relativity. Or perhaps not. The trail of evidence will tell.

2011 Nobel Predictions

Thomson Reuters's predictions for the 2011 Nobel science and economics prizes.

The autobiographies of the 2010 science and economics laureates are now online. Those of the two physicists, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, are particularly entertaining and enlightening.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Gracious in Defeat

Outgoing Zambian President Rupiah B. Banda (MMD) deserves to be commended for accepting his defeat by Michael C. Sata (PF) with such grace and dignity. He has set a priceless example for future presidents in Zambia and across Africa, including President Sata. You are a class act Sir. We salute you.

President Banda's farewell speech:
I have called this press conference to say a few words. The election campaign of 2011 is over. The people of Zambia have spoken and we must all listen. Some will be happy with what they have heard, others will not.

The time now is for maturity, for composure and for compassion. To the victors, I say this: you have the right to celebrate but do so with a magnanimous heart. Enjoy the hour but remember that a term of government is for years.

Remember that the next election will judge you also. Treat those who you have vanquished with the respect and humility that you would expect in your own hour of defeat.

I know that all Zambians will expect such behaviour and I hope it will be delivered. Speaking for myself and my party, we will accept the results. We are a democratic party and we know no other way.

It is not for us to deny the Zambian people. We never rigged, we never cheated, we never knowingly abused state funds. We simply did what we thought was best for Zambia. I hope the next government will act likewise in years to come.

Zambia deserves a decent democratic process. Indeed, Zambia must build on her past victories. Our independence was hard won, our democracy secured with blood.

Zambia must not go backwards, we must all face the future and go forward as one nation. Not to do so would dishonour our history.

To my party, to the MMD candidates who did not win, the lesson is simple. Next time we must try harder. We fought a good campaign. It was disciplined. I still believe we had a good message and we reached every part of the country.

We travelled to all nine provinces and we spoke to all Zambians. To those who worked every hour of the day, I say ‘thank you’. You have done your best. But, sadly, sometimes our best is not good enough.

Do not be disheartened. The MMD will be back. We must all face the reality that sometimes it is time for change. Since 1991, the MMD has been in power. I believe we have done a good job on behalf of all Zambians.

Frederick Chiluba led us to a genuine multi-party state and introduced the private sector to our key industries. Zambia was liberated by an MMD ideal but maybe we became complacent with our ideals. Maybe we did not listen, maybe we did not hear.

Did we become grey and lacking in ideas? Did we lose momentum? Our duty now is to go away and reflect on any mistakes we may have made and learn from them. If we do not, we do not deserve to contest power again.

The Zambia we know today was built by an MMD government. We know our place in history and we know that we can come back to lead again in the future. A new leadership will be chosen, and that leadership will be from the younger generation.

My generation… the generation of the independence struggle– must now give way to new ideas; ideas for the 21st century. From this defeat, a new, younger MMD will be re-born. If I can serve that re-building, then I will.

I must thank my cabinet for delivering on our promises. We did a lot of good for Zambia. Many of our projects will blossom into bright flowers. Some of you will be back to serve Zambia again – I know you will do your best for your party and for your country.

To the civil servants and government officials, it has been a privilege to serve with you. We have worked many long hours together. We did it not for ourselves but for Zambia. Serve your next masters as you did me, and Zambia will be in good hands.

I must thank my family and my wife. They have stood by me and I cannot ask for more loyalty than that which they have displayed. I love you all dearly and I will always be in your debt.

Being president is hard work, it takes long hours of work. And because of it, I have not always been there for you. Yet, still you were there for me.

Words cannot express the depth of my love for you all. All I ask is that my family continues to serve Zambia as i have sought to do.

But my greatest thanks must go to the Zambian people. We may be a small country on the middle of Africa but we are a great nation. Serving you has been a pleasure and an honour. I wish I could have done more, I wish I had more time to give.

Our potential is great. Our resources are impressive. I urge you all now to rally behind your new president. Yes, we may have different ideas but we both want the same thing – a better Zambia.

Now is not the time for violence and retribution. Now is the time to unite and build tomorrow’s Zambia together. Only by working together can we achieve a more prosperous Zambia.

In my years of retirement, I hope to watch Zambia grow. I genuinely want Zambia to flourish. We should all want Zambia to flourish. So, I congratulate Michael Sata on his victory.

I have no ill feeling in my heart, there is no malice in my words. I wish him well in his years as president. I pray his policies will bear fruit.

But now it is time for me to step aside. Now is the time for a new leader. My time is done. It is time for me to say ‘good bye’.

May God watch over the Zambian people and may He bless our beautiful nation.

I thank you.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Knowledge and Wisdom

"There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit not a vegetable. Wisdom is knowing not to include it in a fruit salad."
- Anonymous

Monday, August 29, 2011

A stone of hope

"With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope."
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yesterday saw the official opening of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, DC. A great American and a great human being.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Here's to the Crazy One(s)

Here’s to the crazy ones.

The misfits.

The rebels.

The troublemakers.

The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently.

They’re not fond of rules

and they have no respect for the status quo.

You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.

About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.

Because they change things.

They push the human race forward.

And while some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.

Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world,

are the ones who do.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Thinking Different

Steve Jobs resigned as CEO of Apple yesterday after 14 years of helping Apple to Think Different again:
"Apple at the core, its core value, is that we believe that people with passion CAN change the world for the better [...] that those people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who actually do."
- 1997, Steve Jobs introducing the "Think Different" marketing campaign.

"There's an old Wayne Gretzky quote that I love. 'I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.' And we've always tried to do that at Apple. Since the very very beginning. And we always will."
- 2007, Steve Jobs introducing iPhone.

"It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough. That it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing."
- 2011, Steve Jobs introducing iPad 2.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

For what it's Wirth

A classic article by Niklaus Wirth on Writing Lean Software reminds us about the basic engineering virture of producing more with less. We (engineers) have been spoiled by the (seemingly) endless supply of engineering resources, like energy, storage and memory capacity, processing power, or even money (especially for military projects). But, as we all know, or should know, no supply of anything is endless. This extravagant approach ultimately produces only one result: bad engineering.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Kaspar: Prince of Cats

I've just started reading Michael Morpurgo's Kaspar: Prince of Cats to the boys at bedtime. A great find. The boys and I are enjoying it immensely. It'll be a very sad night when we get to the end of this one. Morpurgo writes beautifully. Here he explains how Kaspar came about:

I'm a story detective. I hunt down clues because I need evidence to write my stories. So what was the evidence behind the writing of Kaspar?

A year ago I was asked to be Writer-in-Residence at the Savoy Hotel in London. This involved putting on some literary events and staying for three months at the Savoy. My wife Clare and I had a bed the size of Ireland, and breakfast every morning looking out over the Thames. Everyone in the hotel was very kind. We were treated like royalty - which was great!

Then one day, in the corridor next to the American Bar, I met Kaspar, the Savoy Cat. He was sitting there in a glass showcase - a sculpture of a huge black cat - very elegant, very superior. I made enquiries, as detectives do, and found out why he was there.

One day, almost a hundred years ago, thirteen men sat down to a dinner party at the Savoy. One of them scoffed loudly at the suggestion that thirteen might be an unlucky number, said it was so much tosh. Only a few weeks later, he was shot down in his office in Johannesburg, South Africa. Thereafter The Savoy decided that they would never again allow thirteen people to sit down together for dinner. They would always have a fourteenth chair, and sitting on the fourteenth chair, there would be a specially carved sculpture of a lucky black cat. He was known as Kaspar.

My first clue.

My second clue: I came down to breakfast one morning, and was walking down the red carpeted stairs into the River Restaurant, when I looked up and had a sudden sense of déjà vu. The whole decor and atmosphere reminded me of pictures I'd seen of the restaurant on the Titanic. I knew then my story would be about a cat called Kaspar, who would live at the Savoy and become the only cat to survive the sinking of the Titanic.

But it was the people who lived and worked at the Savoy who gave me my last and most vital clue. I discovered that they came from every corner of the globe. And I soon discovered also that their lives were very different from the lives of the guests they looked after. It would have been very much like this, I thought, in 1912, at the time the Titanic went down.

My evidence was complete. A little dreamtime, to make some sense of all the clues, and I could begin my story, about how Kaspar was brought to the Savoy by a very famous diva - an opera singer, a Countess from Russia...

Thursday, August 04, 2011

the sky in monocle


by Christopher Okigbo

EYE OPEN on the sea,
eyes open, of the prodigal;
upward to heaven shoot
where stars will fall from.
Secret I have told into no ear,
save into a dughole, to hold, not to drown with –
Secret I have planted into beachsand
Now breaks
salt-white surf on the stones and me,
and lobsters and shells
in iodine smell-
maid of the salt-emptiness,
whose secret I have covered up with beachsand…
Shadow of rain over sunbeaten beach,
Shadow of rain over man with woman.

with the armpit-dazzle of a lioness,
she answers,
wearing white light about her;
and the waves escort her,
my lioness,
crowned with moonlight.
So brief her presence-
match-flare in wind's breath-
so brief with mirrors around me.
the waves distil her;
gold crop
sinking ungathered.
Watermaid of the salt-emptiness,
grown are the ears of the secret.

AND I WHO am here abandoned,
count the sand by wave lash abandoned,
count her blessing, my white queen.
But the spent sea reflects
from his mirrored visage
not my queen, a broken shadow.
So I who count in my island the moments,
count the hour which will bring
my lost queen with angels' ash in the wind.

THE STARS have departed,
the sky in monocle
surveys the world under
The stars have departed,
and I-where am I?
Stretch, stretch, O antennae,
to clutch at this hour,
fulfilling each moment in a
broken monody.

Saturday, July 30, 2011


“We pass through this world but once and the opportunities you miss will never be available to you again.”
- Nelson Mandela

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night

The Malawian poet and linguist Jack Mapanje has a gift for striking titles. And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night (Ayebia, 2011) is the title of his latest book, a memoir (some 20 years in the writing) of his detention without charge or trial on the 25th of September, 1987. He spent the next "three years, seven months, 16 days and more than 12 hours" in Malawi's infamous Mikuyu Prison. He was released on the 10th of May, 1991. He has never received an official explanation for his detention.

Some of Mapanje's other titles are:

Monday, July 25, 2011

Between the devil and the deep blue Zambezi

On Zambia Online: Chanda Chisala has written a very lucid and balanced analysis of the dilemma facing the Zambian electorate this year.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Ridley vs. Gates

From The Wall Steet Journal:

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ridley vs. Mackay

Dr. Matt Ridley, author of the The Rational Optimist, debates some of the finer points of climate change in response to a long letter by Prof. David Mackay, author of Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air and Chief Scientific Adviser at the UK's Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which, in turn, was written in reponse to an earlier article by Ridley.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Models behaving badly

Dr. David Stainforth of the London School of Economics took part in the Royal Society's recent Summer Science Exhibition. His exhibit was on the uncertainties involved in climate modelling. Some of his ideas are discussed in a new article on the Scientific American website.

The fundamental problem with the climate (and any long-term models of it) is this: it is chaotic. That's chaotic, in the mathematical sense. That means that the climate and certain other nonlinear dynamical systems are highly sensitive to initial conditions. Change the initial conditions, even slightly, and the long(er) terms results of your predictions diverge substantially. That's the basic reason why meteorologists are only able to offer us fairly short term predictions of the weather. The further out the prediction, the less likely it is to be accurate.

This phenomenon of sensitivity to initial conditions was discovered by Edward N. Lorenz. It's often called "the butterfly effect" because of a paper given by Lorenz in 1972 to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C. entitled "Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?". Lorenz's papers are a model (no pun intended) of scientific profundity and clarity (a rare combination in science). Virtually all of his key papers are available on this link at MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. Definitely worth a look.

The danger of a single story

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Who is Keyser Soze?

From The Usual Suspects:
Verbal (Kevin Spacey): Who was Keyser Soze?

Verbal (Kevin Spacey): He's supposed to be Turkish. Some say his father was German. Nobody ever believed he was real. Nobody ever knew him or saw anybody that ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for Soze. You never knew. That was his power. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist. [...] and like that, poof, he's gone. Underground. Nobody's ever seen him since. He becomes a myth, a spook story that criminals tell their kids at night: "Rat on your pop and Keyser Soze will get you." And no one ever really believes.

Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri): Do you believe in him Verbal?

Verbal (Kevin Spacey): Keaton always said: "I don't believe in God, but I'm afraid of Him." Well I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Noble Soul

Nelson Mandela turns 93 today.

His latest book, Nelson Mandela by Himself, an authorised collection of his own quotations, was launched recently. It's on my wishlist. Alongside, the launch his foundation published some publicity material for the book which is well worth reading. It contains some of the quotations featured in the book. This is one of my favourites:
On Equality

I have never regarded any man as my superior, either in my life outside or inside prison.

From a letter to General Du Preez, Commissioner of Prisons, written on Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa, 12 July 1976

A great man.

A great man.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Googlean Memory

Have you ever wondered about the impact that being able to Google anything has on our (more traditional) mental capabilities? I certainly have.

A new article published in Science, by Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu and Daniel M. Wegner, reports on four experiments to investigate the effects of Google on memory. The results are intriguing.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The write stuff

Evidence-based advice on overcoming graphophobia, one of the scientist's occupational hazards.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Inside Intuition

The cognitive pschologist Gary Klein on intution: its value and some of its mechanisms.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Just So Stories

Reading Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories (first published in 1902!) to the boys at bedtime. Excellent.

We're rich! Or are we?

William Wallis, the Financial Times's Africa editor, has written a fascinating article on the mixed blessings associated with Ghana's newfound oil resources. Dr. Mensa Otabil has some very interesting thoughts on how best Ghana can manage this wealth.

Monday, June 20, 2011


On my book wishlist: Endgame, a new biography of Bobby Fischer by Frank Brady. Kasparov wrote a largely positive review recently for The New York Review of Books.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Liberalism and Conservatism

It's interesting that, economically, Liberalism in the American sense is equivalent to Conservatism in the European sense; whereas, politically, Liberalism in the European sense is equivalent to Conservatism in the American sense.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

All the T in China

(The titular "T" stands for Truth.)

In 1941, Henry Luce famously defined the 20th Century as the American Century. Seventy years later, few would argue with him. Recently, some have defined the 21st Century as the Chinese Century. Of course, a final, definitive verdict on this second pronouncement can only be passed a century from now, after all the evidence has come in and been thoroughly and thoughtfully examined. What is already clear, however, is the emergence, or perhaps more accurately, the arrival, of China as a 21st Century global power. Consequently, understanding China is vital for anyone who's interested in issues of global significance.

But where to start, and how to proceed? In the past, and indirectly. So I'm reading The Man Who Loved China, Simon Winchester's elegantly written biography of Joseph Needham (CH, FRS, FBA), author of the monumental and multi-volume Science and Civilisation in China. Needham was a remarkable character (to say the least), whose life spanned almost the entire 20th Century (1900-1995). The various distinctions he achieved as a scientist, historian, professor, author, linguist and administrator, were more than sufficient to populate multiple distinguished careers, let alone one. He was, and remains, the preeminent authority in the field of sinology, a position he is unlikely to relinquish any time soon, so formidable and foundational is his scholarship in that domain. Winchester focuses on the sinological aspects of Needham's work and career and thereby casts new light on China's history and its place in the modern world.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

From A to Kay

Points of View, which is available for free online, is a fascinating collection of essays written to celebrate Alan Kay's 70th birthday. The list of contributors is diverse, to say the least, and includes: Leonard Kleinrock, John Sculley, Nicholas Negroponte, Vint Cerf, Bob Lucky, Quincy Jones, Gordon Bell and Danny Hillis. Like I said: fascinating and diverse. A bit like Alan Kay himself.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Tactics vs Strategy

Tactics is knowing what to do when there is something to do, strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do.
Savielly Tartakower

Monday, May 23, 2011

Beautiful Blows

Anatoly Karpov, my favourite chess player, turns 60 today.

I haven't been able to track down the original source of the following quote, but it is entirely consistent with Karpov's approach to the game:
"Let us say the game may be continued in two ways: one of them is a beautiful tactical blow that gives rise to variations that don't yield to precise calculation; the other is clear positional pressure that leads to an endgame with microscopic chances of victory [...] I would choose the latter without thinking twice. If the opponent offers keen play I don't object; but in such cases I get less satisfaction, even if I win, than from a game conducted according to all the rules of strategy with its ruthless logic."
In a recent interview with Big Think, Karpov explains his style.

One of the best performances of Karpov's career was at the 1994 Linares chess tournament where he crushed an outstanding field of the world's best grandmasters, including Kasparov, Shirov, Kramnik, Kamsky, Anand, Topalov and Polgár (Judit). There he played one of the best games of his career, against Topalov. Some chess enthusiasts call it Karpov's Immortal.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A remarkable man

This week the New York Times published a brief interview with Professor Stephen Hawking. Here is one of the questions and answers:
Q. Given all you’ve experienced, what words would you offer someone who has been diagnosed with a serious illness, perhaps A.L.S.?

A. My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit, as well as physically.
Good advice for anyone, disabled or not: focus on what you can do (well), not on what you can't do (well).

Professor Hawking was one of my heroes growing up (he still is) and one of the people who inspired my interest in science and technology.

I remember going round to my ex-primary school headmaster's home one afternoon to borrow his copy of A Brief History of Time. (Finding, let alone buying, the book was out of the question for me then for various reasons.) It had just come out and was making headlines around the world. As he handed it to me, he said in that wonderful Canadian accent of his: "It's a strange sort of book. Doesn't seem to answer any questions. Only seems to raise more!"

I later came to realise that that is the very essence and engine of science and technology: always asking questions.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The misuse of space

A highly entertaining short piece by Robert Fisk on the growing misuse of space, the word "space" that is. (Here's another one he wrote on academese, the arcane language of academia.)

Friday, May 06, 2011

How to Get a Real Education in College

That's the title of a recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Scott Adams (0f Dilbert fame) in which he does indeed offer advice on how to get a real education in college. His basic idea is that much academic-oriented education is wasted on many people; these people would instead, Mr. Adams's says, profit from a much more skills-oriented education, "something useful, like entrepreneurship''.

The only problem with Mr. Adams's proposal is that it rests on what appears to be a false, or at the very least misguided, premise: namely, that so-called academic subjects like "physics, chemistry, calculus and classic literature" are necessarily useless, whilst so-called vocational subjects like entrepreneurship (whatever that is; the subject I mean, not the activity) are necessarily useful. Education (or knowledge) should have its uses certainly, but it should have it's non-uses, too. And knowledge can (and does) move unpredictably from useless to useful, or vice versa, and not bat an eye. Consider the following two cases of apparently useless knowledge.

G. H. Hardy revelled in the uselessness of his mathematical research:
"I have never done anything 'useful'. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world."
He was wrong. A number of his discoveries have turned out to be very useful indeed.

The second example is from the life and career of Steve Jobs. He recounts his decision to drop out of college:
After six months, I couldn't see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. [...]. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

[...] I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.
[Emphasis added]
There is the initial, apparently immutable uselessness again. And there, too, is the later, apparently inevitable usefulness

The trick to finding something useful, it seems, is to follow your intuition, indulge your curiosity and cultivate your interests.

I wonder how much of what appears to be really useful now turns out to be utterly useless later?

Quite a lot, no doubt. So isn't it better to follow your deepest whims (not passions, mind)? If they turn out to be useless, well, at least you enjoyed yourself. If they turn out to be useful, that's a bonus. Either way, you win.

Of course, there are some "useful skills" that are virtually a dead certainty and Mr. Adams highlights a few of these. My favourite is the one on writing: Write Simply, he admonishes. It is an excellent example of itself. A self-evidential example, so to speak. (How's that for a Russellian paradox?) Observe:
Write Simply. I took a two-day class in business writing that taught me how to write direct sentences and to avoid extra words. Simplicity makes ideas powerful. Want examples? Read anything by Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett.
Hear, hear.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Einstein proved right. Again

New experimental verification of some predictions of Einstein's general theory of relativity from the Gravity Probe B project. Paper accepted for publication in Physical Review Letters.

Monday, May 02, 2011


"Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done."
- George W. Bush, 20 September 2001

"Justice has been done."
- Barack H. Obama, 2 May 2011

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Stig of the Dump

Just started reading (to the boys):
Stig of the Dump
One word: brilliant. Here's the first paragraph of the first chapter.
If you went too near the edge of the chalk-pit the ground would give way. Barney had been told this often enough. Everybody had told him. His grandmother, every time he came to stay with her. His sister, every time she wasn't telling him something else. Barney had a feeling, somewhere in his middle, that it was probably true about the ground giving way. But still, there was a difference between being told and seeing it happen. And today was one of those grey days when there was nothing to do, nothing to play, and nowhere to go, Except to the chalk-pit. The dump.
I challenge anyone to resist reading on after such an enchanting start. And read on we did, enchanted, all the way to the end of chapter. The only sad part is this enjoyable experience will be over far too soon: Stig of the Dump only has nine chapters.

Update (10 May 2011): Well, it started brilliantly. The prose is consistently good, but a chapter or two into the book and the plot has literally thickened to the consistency of molasses. The boys are getting bored, I can tell. And your intrepid narrator certaintly is. We're somewhere in the third chapter at the moment. The best children's writing should follow at least three of Dahl's 4 Laws: "It's got to be exciting, it's got to be fast, it's got to have a good plot, but it's got to be funny." Dahl's books are all funny (or at least, meant to be) in a way that Clive King's Stig of the Dump is not. So it has to satisfy all three of the other laws. And sadly, so far, it doesn't. But we'll press on. Perhaps the tide will turn. Or we'll get fossilised in the molasses. One or the other.

Update 2.0 (16 June 2011): We finally finished Stig of the Dump. My final verdict is: It doesn't work, it is less than the sum of its parts. The book's main problem is the plot, or more accurately the lack of one. The story veers from chapter to chapter in disjointed fashion and many of the episodes just don't seem to make sense. I get it that the story is deliberately told in such a way as to leave it unclear whether the events being narrated actually happened or were just a bored youngster's daydreams. But still: a reader is entitled to a certain amount of consistency and narrative logic. Sad, for a book that started so well.

And then there is the depiction of Stig and, later on, Stig's tribe. For instance, here's how King describes Barney's first encounter with Stig after falling into the cave in the chalk-pit (the eponymous "dump") where Stig lived:
He lay quiet and looked around the cave again. Now that his eyes were used to it he could see further into the dark part of the cave.

There was somebody there!

Or Something!

Something, or Somebody, had a lot of shaggy black hair and two bright black eyes that were looking very hard at Barney.

'Hallo!' said Barney.

Something said nothing.

'I fell down the cliff,' said Barney.

Somebody grunted.

'My name's Barney.'

Somebody-Something made a noise that sounded like 'Stig'.
And on and on it goes throughout the rest of book: Stig is simply unable to speak. He only grunts, makes noises, and does hand gestures. Even his name, "Stig", isn't really his name at all. It's just a word that sounded like the noise he made after Barney introduced himself. Understandable, you may think, if you consider the fact that Stig is supposed to be a Stone Age man. And Barney is supposed to a 20th Century boy. A fair point, until you read a statement made by Barney much later on in the book when he says "There aren't any savages in England." Quite. But plenty outside England, presumably? What exactly is a child supposed to make of such ideas?

My overall recommendation for Stig of the Dump is: dump it.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Truth and Falsehood

"Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?"
- John Milton, Areopagitica

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Perhaps the most civilised man who ever lived

That's how someone once described Cicero. I'm reading Anthony Everitt's superb biography of Cicero. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

R H Coase: 100 not out

Ronald H. Coase turned 100 last December. He's one of my favourite scholars because his ideas are both simple and profound at the same time, and because of his ability to express them with elegance and clarity. I also admire his intellectual courage: virtually all his ideas, which are now so widely accepted by his peers, began as intellectual heresies. Some 20 of the famous Chicago School of Economics, including Director, Friedman and Stigler, invited Coase to Chicago to discuss one of these ideas, which has come to be known as The Coase Theorem. Stigler recounts what happened:

We strongly objected to this heresy. Milton Friedman did most of the talking, as usual. He also did much of the thinking, as usual. In the course of two hours of argument the vote went from twenty against and one for Coase to twenty-one for Coase.
And despite his advanced age, Coase is still at it. He has a new book coming out later this year entitled How China Became Capitalist. In a fascinating interview with his coauthor Ning Wang, Coase discusses some of the ideas in the new book - and much else besides.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Fit for the King

The 400th anniversary of the King James Version (KJV) version of the Bible is being celebrated this year. Lawrence M. Vance has written an excellent background article on it. The King James Bible Trust, whose patron is Prince Charles, was formed specially to commemorate it. And Christopher Hitchens' latest Vanity Fair column is devoted to it.

The title page of the first edition reads like this (I've modernised the spellings and punctuation):


Containing the Old Testament,

Newly Translated out of the Original
tongues: & with the former Translations
diligently compared and revised, by his
Majesty's Special Commandment.

Appointed to be read in Churches.

Imprinted at London by Robert
Barker, Printer to the King's
most Excellent Majesty.

ANNO DOM. 1611.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Write-down Comedy

I recently happened to be reading, at random, some pages from The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (her best work of fiction, in my opinion) and I found some myself chuckling at some rather good jokes. Now, we don't think of Ayn Rand as a funny writer (of the ha-ha variety, I mean). Philosophical, combative, polemical, controversial, even implacable perhaps, but never funny. And yet she was. Here are a few jokes from Chapter 3 ("Gail Wynand"), randomly selected of course, in keeping with the random motif:
  • The Banner was permitted to strain truth, taste and credibility, but not its readers' brain power.
  • When a newspaperman received an invitation to call on Wynand, he took it as an insult to his journalistic integrity, but he came to the appointment. He came, prepared to deliver a set of offensive conditions on which he would accept the job, if at all. Wynand began the interview by stating the salary he would pay. Then he added: "You might wish, of course, to discuss other conditions--" and seeing the swallowing movement in the man's throat, concluded: "No? Fine. Report to me on Monday."
  • The succession of his mistresses was so rapid that it ceased to be gossip. It was said that he never enjoyed a woman unless he had bought her--and that she had to be the kind who could not be bought.

Real Power

Yesterday, the 16th of April 2011, was the 48th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail. It contains some of Dr. King's most memorable words:
  • Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
  • Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
  • I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. [...] There will be the old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year-old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: "My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest."
  • Never before have I written so long a letter. I'm afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

    If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.
But today something struck me in response to the following passage that I'd never thought about before:
  • I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
Here's the thought: Just as we often mistakenly ascribe to time power that it does not really possess, so we unwittingly surrender power that we really do.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The indomitable spirit

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.
- Maya Angelou

Monday, April 11, 2011

Jamie's Classroom

For anyone interested in teaching and learning, Jamie's Oliver's new TV show is fascinating. Robert Winston, in particular, is good, very good. I think the secret, if secret it be, is really just one thing: passion.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Spirit of the Western

Imagine you're a Hollywood studio executive.

A director walks in with a pitch, his eyes delirious with excitement. A western, he says. A cartoon. No, not 3D. Just Johnny Depp and a host of other unlikely lads and lasses to play the characters. The lead character being...a chameleon. Family friendly, good for both the kids and the parents. But not condescending or patronising to either audience.

As the tottering pile of improbables mounts, your mind reaches the inescapable conclusion: Impossible.

And quite right, too. Except, somehow, Gore Verbinski and his merry men (sorry, merry persons) have contrived to do just that and created the best movie I've seen this year: Rango.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Wealth of Nations

Hot off the press (or more accurately, the screen, in this brave new pixelated world of ours): A report by the Royal Society on the scientific wealth of nations. It documents the continued dominance of the world's scientific superpowers like the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan, and the rapid emergence of new scientific powers like China, Singapore and Brazil. In 2007, Sub-Saharan African countries spent an average of just 0.5% of their GDP on research and development. The corresponding 2007 statistics for China, Singapore and Brazil were 1.44%, 2.61% and 1.4%. And rising...

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Wise men from the South East

The Economist this week has a special report on the future of the state. The government of Singapore, probably the world's most efficient and effective government of the last 50 years, provides a particularly interesting case study.

Friday, March 04, 2011

He shot, he scores

The Mathematical Association of America's 2011 Euler Prize was recently awarded to Timothy Gowers, editor of the excellent Princeton Companion to Mathematics (2008). Here is the award committee's citation and Gowers' response (Source: 2011 JMM Prize Booklet):

Committee's Citation

The Princeton Companion to Mathematics is the kind of book that comes along only rarely—a vast compendium of mathematical information in the form of essays by experts on a wide variety of fields, in most cases bringing the reader up to date on developments in recent decades in a way that nonexperts can understand and appreciate. The Committee recommending this award realizes that it is the work of many: Professor Gowers and his two associate editors (June Barrow-Green and Imre Leader) as well as 133 distinguished contributors, a list that includes George Andrews, Sir Michael Atiyah, Béla Bollobás, Alain Connes, Ingrid Daubechies, Persi Diaconis, Jordan Ellenberg, Andrew Granville, János Kollár, Peter D. Lax, Barry Mazur, Dusa McDuff, Karen Hunger Parshall, Carl Pomerance, Peter Sarnak, and Terence Tao, to name but a few. Gowers singles out two of the many contributors for special recognition for their especially valuable help both in writing text and in editing work by others: Jordan Ellenberg and Terence Tao. The Committee, in recommending the award, singled out Professor Gowers because of his extraordinary achievement in putting this whole volume together (over 1000 pages of text) and also for writing a beautiful 76-page introduction as well as 68 of the 288 individual entries. The organization is thematic, with sections on the origins of modern mathematics, mathematical concepts, the various branches of the subject, the big problems, biographical essays, and, though the subjects are mainly confi ned to what we call “pure” mathematics, a section on the influence of mathematics on other fields.

That the level of exposition in this volume is so impressive will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Professor Gowers’ superb but diminutive volume (a sharp contrast in length at roughly 150 pages), Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2002). Both books display an exceptional talent for mathematical exposition.

The Companion has something for everyone who has any interest in mathematics. Many sections can be read with great benefit and considerable pleasure by mathematical amateurs and students. Overwhelmed as we are in the twenty-first century by the enormous size of mathematics, the professional mathematician can benefit from finding out what colleagues are doing in branches of mathematics that did not exist when many of us were in school. Anyone who wonders about “mirror symmetry,” “quantum groups, “vertex operator algebras,” “automorphic forms,” or “Ricci flow,” topics referred to in the current mathematical literature or even in the newspapers, can find help here.

Gowers in his preface points out that in deciding what to include he “simply aims to present for the reader a large and representative sample of the ideas that mathematicians are grappling with at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and to do so in as attractive and accessible a way as possible.” The book, he is quick to add, is not an encyclopedia and “does not have a serious online competitor: rather than competing with the existing Web sites, it complements them.”
Tim Gowers' Response

For a long time I have felt that there was a gap in the market for mathematics books that are much less formal than textbooks and monographs, but aimed at an audience that already knows a substantial amount of mathematics. The Princeton Companion to Mathematics was an attempt to do something about this. I am honoured and delighted that the effort that went into the book has been rewarded with the 2011 Euler Book Award, and in a more general way I am also very pleased that the committee has chosen to recognise a book that demands more of
the reader than most popular mathematics books.

The Princeton Companion to Mathematics was very much a collective undertaking. It could not have been finished without the hard work of June Barrow-Green and Imre Leader, my associate editors, and without the work of the large number of contributors, who were willing not just to send us their contributions, but also to cooperate in a long editing process. The editors also received huge support from Sam Clark of T&T Productions, who converted the authors’ files into a unified format and did a large amount of copyediting. We also received just the right balance of pressure and encouragement from Anne Saverese, the reference editor at Princeton University Press.

The response to the book has been very positive, which suggests to me that the gap in the market that I thought I had identifi ed was real. I hope that people are not just buying the book but also reading it, and that one of its central aims, to improve communication amongst mathematicians by helping them to understand what other mathematicians are doing, is to some extent being fulfilled.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Double dog dare

Seen recently with my own eyes (physiological and digital) on the mean streets of Gauteng Province (GP):

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Tweer Review

Scientific peer review in a Twittered world.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Wellcome Images

21 stunning scientific images: The winners of the 2011 Wellcome Image Awards.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Nullius in verba

The motto of the Royal Society is "Nullius in verba":
It is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.
It is taken from one of the phrases of Horace, a leading Latin lyric poet and satirist who wrote during the reign of Emperor Augustus: "Nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri, quo me cumque rapit tempestas, deferor hospes" meaning "I am not bound over to swear allegiance to any master; where the storm drives me I turn in for shelter."

Stephen Jay Gould explains:
Arthur Cain was the summer-up of the whole session. There's a line in Durrell's Alexandria Quartet where the narrator, Pursewarden, says that he's a Protestant in the only meaningful sense of the term — that he likes to protest. Well, moderators are supposed to be moderate, I suppose. Arthur Cain was not. He devoted his entire summary of the conference to a vitriolic attack on this paper, essentially saying that Dick and I knew that adaptation was true because we had to, because it obviously is true. Arthur said that we had attacked it because, although we knew it to be true, we so disliked the political implications of sociobiology, which is based on it, that we abrogated our credentials as scientists.

That was so off the wall that it was just amazing. When I got up to give my re-reply, the second coordinator of the conference was standing in front of the podium — which had the motto of the Royal Society, "Nullius in verba," on it — and I asked him to step aside. He was annoyed: why was I asking him to move, that was not fair. But he later realized why I had. Now, I'm stupid about certain things that scientists are supposed to be good at. I'm not particularly quantitative; I'm numerate but not innovative. I'm not a great experimentalist. But I pride myself on having immersed myself in Western culture and having learned some languages, and knowing certain aspects of humanism that many scientists don't take up.

I asked him to step aside, and I said that I thought Arthur had been entirely wrong, that he'd completely misunderstood the motives of my talk, and that I was doing nothing but trying to uphold the motto of the Royal Society, which had sponsored this meeting. The reason that was an effective strategy was that I knew that most people, most members, didn't know what the motto "Nullius in verba" meant. It looks like it means "Words do not matter" or "Do not pay any attention to words," since nullius means "nothing" and verba is "word." So most people think it means that words mean nothing and you have to do the experiment.

But nullius is genitive singular; it can't mean that. It means "of nothing" or "of no one." I knew what the motto meant. I knew that it was a fragment of a statement from Horace — a famous quotation from a poem, in which he says, "I am not bound to swear allegiance to the dogmas of any master." Nullius addictus jurare in verba magister. It's "Nullius in verba," or "In the words of no (master)." It's just a fragment from a larger line.

"That's all I'm doing," I said. "I'm saying that we are not bound to swear allegiance to the dogmas of any master; I'm here to present an alternative viewpoint that's consistent with your own society. How can you castigate me?"
(Emphasis and links mine)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Science and Wonders

The world is full of wonders, but they become more wonderful, not less wonderful, when science looks at them.
- Sir David Attenborough

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Model Behaviour

"It does require maturity to realize that models are to be used but not to be believed."
- Henri Theil, preface of Principles of Econometrics (Wiley, 1971)

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Cigars of the Pharaoh

A new article in Foreign Policy examines the link between Egyptian politics and Egyptian humour.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Tweeting truth to power

speak2tweet, a new service just launched by twitter and SayNow (recently acquired by Google), is being used in the Egyptian revolution.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Friday, January 28, 2011


Daniel H. Pink's TED talk on the surprising science of motivation:

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Freedom: Universal and Absolute

In the 2010 BBC Debate - Nobel Minds programme, there is a five minute segment (from 17:55 to 22:55) where the participants, all 2010 Nobel laureates, discuss the absence (due to his detention by his own government) of their fellow 2010 laureate, Liu Xiaobo (Peace) from China. Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov (Physics), both originally from Russia but currently living and working in the United Kingdom, advance the argument that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu is "patronising" and a case of Westerners imposing their own views on the rest of the world. Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru (Literature) strongly rejects this idea and argues that freedom is a universal value.

Vargas Llosa's is undoubtedly right. And over the last two months or so we have seen, and (will) continue to see, the truth of this view being played out on the streets of North Africa and the Middle East. Many commentators have put forward the ridiculous notion that so-called Western-style democracy is only for Westerners, and not for the people of North Africa and the Middle East, or other parts of the developing world. The dramatic push (it can hardly be called a fall) from power of Tunisian President Ben Ali, or Ben A Vie ("Ben for Life") as he was known by Tunisians, is just the latest evidence of freedom as a universal and absolute human value.

Every normal human being wants to be free TO live their own life, free FROM political intrusion and interference. This truth is, in the words of the signatories of the United States Declaration of Independence, self-evident. If, on the other hand, it were true, as Geim and Novoselov suggest, that freedom is a local (versus universal) and relative (versus absolute) value, then why do so many people from relatively unfree parts of the world try to move to relatively free parts of the world? If we asked every single person in the world (including the 1.3 billion citizens of China) where they would voluntarily choose to live, I suspect that China and Russia would be nowhere near the top of the list, whereas countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Norway (the Nobel Peace Committee is Norwegian) would. But perhaps Professors Geim and Novoselov were merely being as politically "aware" as people generally have to be to survive in unfree countries. After all, the two Professors appear to still have some ties with their country of origin. In a more candid moment, reported in The Moscow Times, Geim was asked whether he could envisage a scenario in which he would go back to Russia. "Reincarnation," he said.

And that really says it all: Freedom is a universal and absolute value. Even for those who claim to believe the opposite.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Philosophic Fisticuffs

In the blue corner: Jamie Whyte.

And in the red corner: Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

True story

This happened earlier this evening:

My son (4, and who's had a runny tummy lately) asked me: "Can diarrhoea kill you?". The wee lad had a very worried look on his face.

So I tried to put him out of his misery: "No, of course not."

Wee lad: "But how come it has 'die' in its name?"

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Myths and Menace

From Standpoint magazine: Eminently good sense by Nigel Lawson.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Monday, January 10, 2011

Happy birthday Wikipedia

Wikipedia went online exactly 10 years ago, in January 2001. The strapline pretty much says it all: "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit". A simple and counterintuitive idea that works wonderfully in practice. In Internet time, 10 years is an eternity. (I mean, who can even remember what the Internet was like pre-Wikipedia?) So, Wikipedia can be proud of itself: it's been around "forever".