One year in the Blogosphere

April 4, 2009

It’s been about a year since I took the plunge into the blogosphere and it’s been a blast. One member of staff at IH did suggest that blogging’s time was up but I’m still standing after twelve months.  In these days of crisis and tightening our belts any pastime that is absolutely free is not to be scoffed at. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a hobby so much; it’s great sharing my take on the world. I suppose I must infuriate many people but I hope I have a coherent weltanschaung. I consider myself a half-baked libertarian, and we are not living in good times for such views. I think we will regret some of the solutions that many governments are implementing now – I fear that this belief in mass government intervention is the triumph of hope over experience. However I don’t think my ideology is too in-your-face and I try to have links to Websites and articles from both left and right. I obviously have a predilection for sceptical points of view but I also celebrate diversity – we all have such different ways of seeing the world.  I also hope I have been able to educate and inform. I love sharing things I have read, seen or heard. I am absolutely passionate about knowledge and learning.

In these 12 months I have done 185 posts and have had more than 6,000 page views. Here is a list of the ten most popular posts:


1.      Riding Pipeline: The Sarah Palin blue movie  575 

2.      40 Oxbridge interview questions  366 

3.      Famous Political Gaffes and Blunders  316 

4.      Shakespeare’s influence on the English  129 

5.      Infamous tabloid headlines  95 

6.      Why do female models earn…….. 87 

7.      Bad Karma and Earthquakes 67 

8.      Some quotes about language 61 

9.      Living in a metaphor  44 

10.  Political gaffes and blunders #2  44 


You will see that the top postis about Sarah Palin. All those articles about spontaneous order, complexity, universal grammar, counterfactual history, the principal-agent problem etc and in the end it all comes down to sex. The articles are the most time consuming part but I enjoy writing them. I also love scouring the Internet and compiling those collections such as Famous put-downs, Untranslatable words, Really terrible predictions, Classic cock-ups, and all those quotes. I have a fixed format but that allows me to write about a wide variety of topics. Remember if you look on the right of your screen you can see all the stuff I have written over the year. It’s possible to search by category (Links, Trivia, Language etc) or by word.

            My two disappointments are the comments and the clicks to other websites. I have received around 111 comments and have posted almost all of them. Well, there was one man who made some immoral suggestions to me in response to the Sarah Palin piece. It would be great to have a more vibrant comments section but I guess people are busy and I don’t really have time to respond. The other frustration is that not so many people are clicking on to visit the sites and articles I recommend. In the My Media Week section and in My Favourite Links I try to show some interesting links. Whenever I surf the web I always look at recommended links as it’s a great way to find new material. There is so much stimulating stuff out there. For example last September I posted a link to the free online courses from Yale University. A few years ago it would have been impossible to imagine that one could listen in for free to lectures on  The American Novel Since 1945, Introduction to Psychology, Game Theory, or Modern Poetry from such a prestigious university. I get quite evangelical about this

            Anyway it’s been a lot of fun doing this. I’m really looking forward to beginning my second year of blogging. Enjoy this week’s holiday and I should have four new posts for Sunday April 12th.

My media week 05/04/09

April 4, 2009

Peter Leeson explains why we should let some firms go belly up: The benefits of failure.


ABC Radio has this podcast by Stephen Crittenden about the role of Harvard MBAs in the crisis. MBA, it’s being said, can also stand for ‘Mediocre but Arrogant’, ‘Mostly Bloody Awful’  or ‘Management by Accident’.


Fresh Air: The term “populist” has been heavily used by the media lately, most often coupled with “rage,” but also with “AIG” and “pitchfork.” Linguist Geoff Nunberg traces the roots of the term and considers its current usage.


The New Scientist has a feature about what science can tell us about the credit crunch – and how to solve it – Why money messes with your mind.


As Twitter-mania reaches new levels, Slate V presents a mockumentary, Flutter: The New Twitter about a company that wants to take microblogging to the next level.

A selection of links

April 4, 2009

Here is a selection of the links I have posted over the last year:


Arts and Letters Daily website

According to founder Denis Dutton, Arts & Letters Daily is a web portal for “the kinds of people who subscribe to the New York Review of Books, who read Salon and Slate and The New Republic — people interested in ideas.” A&L Daily’s layout evokes the 18th century broadsheet format associated with The Enlightenment. Three columns of links dominate the site: Articles of Note, Book Reviews, and Essays/Opinions. Each link is introduced with a 25-word teaser. The teasers are often witty and provocative.



HowStuffWorks is a website dedicated to explaining the way many things work. These things could be mobile phones, mortgages, pickpockets or cults. The site uses photos, diagrams, video and animation to explain complex terminology and mechanisms in easy-to-understand language. It was founded by Marshall Brain in 1998 and has 58 million visitors annually.



As someone who sometimes falls asleep on the sofa watching a film, I find this site  very helpful. They give you a detailed plot summary and the endings of hundreds of films. In fact, with some films it’s probably better to skip the film and go directly to the spoiler.


New Yorker short stories

If you like short stories, I can recommend the New Yorker magazine. They have a monthly section of short story podcasts. They are beautifully read and have a discussion included afterwards. You can then go to the magazine archive and find the written version. All of this is absolutely free.


The Skeptic’s Dictionary

The Skeptic’s Dictionary is a collection of sceptical essays by Robert Todd Carroll, an atheist and uncompromising sceptic from the USA. The site was launched in 1994 and contains more than 400 entries. It covers such categories as alternative medicine, cryptozoology, extraterrestrials and UFOs, frauds and hoaxes, junk science, New Age and the paranormal. For me this is an invaluable resource, which helps to explain the appeal and popularity of these irrational beliefs that have survived despite the enormous advances that science has propitiated and the power of the scientific method to explain the world.



An excellent trivia website with 91,000 quizzes and over 1,700,000 questions. They have 1,900,000 members but you can play without being a member. The quizzes are organised into categories such as history, geography and science.



The website is a place where you can hear short podcasts with a transcription about words, their meanings and their history. Words you can listen about include: nemesis, quagmire, scapegoat and trivia.



Spiked is an online magazine focusing on politics, culture and society. The magazine describes itself  like this :

Spiked is an independent online phenomenon dedicated to raising the horizons of humanity by waging a culture war of words against misanthropy, priggishness, prejudice, luddism, illiberalism and irrationalism in all their ancient and modern forms. spiked is endorsed by free-thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, and hated by the narrow-minded such as Torquemada and Stalin. Or it would be, if they were lucky enough to be around to read it.The website was launched by Mick Hume in 2000 after the bankruptcy of its predecessor, Living Marxism magazine. It is currently edited by Brendan O’ Neil. It is a bit difficult to place on an ideological continuum. Their social critique has been defined as Libertarian Marxist but they have been criticised by journalists such as George Monbiot for following a right wing and pro-corporate agenda while pretending to be left wing. you like contrarian opinions, go to their website:


Videojug is a website where you can find short videos explaining how to do thing.The list is very extensive and includes: Manners And Body Language Across Cultures, Serving In Tennis, Wedding Etiquette and Strategies For Rock, Paper  and Scissors.


World Wide Words

World Wide Words is a website run by the linguist Michael Quinlon. He discusses new terms, displays weird words, gets behind expressions in the news, helps you with tricky points, and answers questions. Quinlon collaborates with the Oxford English Dictionary. He is the author of dictionary of affixes, Ologies and Isms, Port Out, Starboard Home: And Other Language Myths and Gallimaufry about words that are vanishing from the language.



This is a podcast hosted by professor Russell Roberts, a student of Milton Friedman  and an Austrian School economist, who teaches economics at George Mason University. The weekly podcasts feature Roberts interviewing a guest, often a professional economist, with each programme lasting about an hour. The podcast is notable for its clarity and these thoughtful conversations really help you to understand the economic way of thinking as applied to a vast range of subjects. Provocative and stimulating – I highly recommend it.


Open Yale Courses

Open Yale Courses is an initiative of Yale University to share full video and course materials from its undergraduate courses. Its website launched in December 2007 with seven courses from various departments and they now have 15, with the goal of reaching 30 by 2010.

My favourite trivia

April 4, 2009


I have a passion for trivia and here is a selection of what I have posted over the last year:


For 122 years, the Russian head of state has alternatively been either bald or hairy. It is said to be one reason why Putin (bald) won the election to succeed Yeltsin (hairy). The sequence is: Alexander II (hairy), Alexander III (bald), Nicholas II (hairy), Lenin (bald), Stalin (hairy), Krushchev (bald), Brezhnev (hairy), Andropov (bald), Chernenko (hairy), Gorbachev (bald), Yeltsin (hairy), Putin (bald). The recently elected President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, has a lovely head of hair.


The term utopia comes from the novel of that name, written by Sir Thomas More in the early 16th century. More took two Greek words, Eutopia (good place) and Outopia (’no place’) to form a new word with an obvious ironic intention.


The English physician Thomas Bowdler published an expurgated edition of William Shakespeare’s work that he considered more appropriate for women and children. In 1818 he published the infamous The Family Shakespeare, in Ten Volumes; in which nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family. That book may have vanished from our bookshelves but his name lives on in the eponymous verb to bowdlerise, which conjures up images of the unsubtle censorship of literature, motion pictures and television programs


Bill Clinton, Woody Allen, Philip K. Dick and Vaclav Havel all studied philosophy at university.


For example at checkers they have an optimal level. In bridge chess, and Scrabble they are at super-human level; in fact for the first two they are at strong superhuman level. I am sure we all remember how the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. However at the game Go, translation and the kind of more menial work mentioned by Pinker in the quote above they are in the sub-human category. I don’t intend to look at their incapacity to play Go or the awful quality of machine translation. Rather I want to focus on computer conversations.


Thomas Friedman has a famous theory known as The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention in which he stated in a tongue-in-cheek way: “No two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s”. Unfortunately, though I think trade is a good way of increasing cooperation, putting a McDonald’s in every country in the world will not be a solution as shown by counterexamples examples such as the NATO’s bombing of Serbia or the 2008 South Ossetia war between Russia and Georgia.


The town of Pullman, 15 miles south of Chicago was founded in the 1880s by George Pullman (of luxury railway car fame) It was a utopian community based on the idea that capitalism was the best way to meet all material and spiritual needs. Pullman’s employees lived there and the town was run on a for-profit basis and had to return a profit of 7% annually. The community was unable to break down class barriers, which emerged with virulence and the experiment ended in failure.


In Papua New Guinea there are something like 850 languages for a population of just six million. This represents more than 10% of the world’s languages. Their harsh geography has created isolated communities – perfect breeding grounds for variety in language. Compare that to Europe with 300 million people and fewer than 50 native languages.


There is a conspiracy theory that the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise is owned by the Ku Klux Klan, and the chicken is laced with a drug that makes only black men impotent.


Bishop Robert Lowth who wrote A Short Introduction to English Grammar, was most definitely a prescriptivist and he had some strong ideas about the perfectibility of English grammar. He believed that the English language could be reduced to a system of uniform rules, which he took from Latin grammar. The King James Bible, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, and Swift – no book or author was safe from the criticism of the Bishop. The notion of basing English grammar on Latin makes no sense but once prescriptive rules come into existence, they take on a life of their own and are very hard to shake off.


In 1937, in Munich, the Nazis organised an exhibition called Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) the intention was to ridicule modernism but the exhibition proved extremely popular. In fact, it was seen by 3 million as it toured the country. The 650 works chosen were a sample of the thousands the Nazis had confiscated from German museums. The works were hung in a chaotic way and were accompanied with slogans such as “Revelation of the Jewish racial soul”, “An insult to German womanhood”, “The Jewish longing for the wilderness reveals itself – in Germany the Negro becomes the racial ideal of a degenerate art” and ”Nature as seen by sick minds”.


The last two speakers of the Mexican language Zoque, now in their 70s, refuse to speak to one another.


In 1898 the German firm of Bayer devised a wonderful new cough suppressor called diacetylmorphine as a treatment for asthma, catarrh, bronchitis, emphysema and tuberculosis. They gave it the trademark name of Heroin and described it as “non-habit forming.”


In 2004 Kiichi Inoue, the Minister of State for Disaster Management, suggested that the murder of a classmate by an 11-year-old schoolgirl indicated a sign of women’s progress. He was quoted as saying “Men have committed thoughtless, harsh acts but I think this is the first for a girl.”


The largest alphabet is Khmer with seventy-four letters; the smallest is apparently Rokotas, used in the Solomon Islands with a mere eleven letters


In the last few years Epagogix, a London-based company with a background in risk management has emerged as a player in the film industry. Movie studios can approach them with details about their movie and compare it to Epagogix’s  enormous database of US film releases since 1970. They use neural networks to analyse film scripts by looking at script, location, cast, whether the hero is black or white and thousands of other variables. The computer can then assign a commercial value to each these constituent elements and then give the film a score that is a measure of its box-office potential. They claim they can estimate the likelihood of success much more accurately than more traditional methods. According to Epagogix they can estimate 80% of movies’ likely US box office takings to within $10m of the final figure. The human mind is incapable of calculating the complex interactions between multiple factors.


In classical times, memory was taught as one of the five elements of rhetoric. Being able to recite long poems or speeches required a system based on an imaginary multi-roomed building in which a speaker “placed” various objects. By assigning each place and object a meaning, the speaker could use them as memory aids (each room could be a verse, the objects in it the beginning of each line) and mentally move through the building in sequence. The same building could then be used to memorise different pieces of work.


The Ryugyong Hotel is an unfinished concrete skyscraper in Pyongyang, North Korea. Work initially began in 1987 but ceased in 1992 due to the government’s financial difficulties. It has yet to be opened but after 16 years of inactivity building has finally resumed this year. It has 105 stories and stands 330 m tall with 360,000 m² of floor space, making it by far the largest structure in Kim Jong-il communist paradise. When they first started, they intended it to be world’s tallest hotel. Critics have been less than complimentary about it. It has earned epithets such as the “worst building in the history of mankind”, “one of the most expensive white elephants in history” and the “Hotel of Doom”. The North Korean government has airbrushed the building out of pictures of the capital.


Eamon de Valera, Taoiseach (prime minister) during WWII, paid a visit to Eduard Hempel, director of the German diplomatic corps in Ireland to express condolences on the death of Adolf Hitler in his Berlin bunker. The act was widely condemned by the international community and remains one of the biggest diplomatic blunders in the history of Ireland . But De Valera argued that to refuse condolences “would have been an act of unpardonable discourtesy to the German nation and to Dr. Hempel himself. During the whole of the war, Dr. Hempel’s conduct was irreproachable. … I certainly was not going to add to his humiliation in the hour of defeat.”


The popular idea of six degrees of separation, by which someone can be connected to anyone else in just six steps, emerged from the experiments of Stanley Milgram at Harvard. In 1967, Milgram sent packages to 160 random Nebraskans and asked them to forward each one to someone who would be better placed to get it to the target recipient, a Boston stockbroker. The majority, Milgram claimed, made it to Boston within six steps. The phrase was popularised by the eponymous play (and later film) written in 1990 by John Guare, inspired by the life of a conman called David Hampton, who posed as Sidney Poitier’s son and swindled many celebrities and New Yorkers out of thousands of dollars. Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, the popular US college game of the 1990s, in which actors were assigned a Bacon number based on their career proximity to the ubiquitous actor, has inspired him to set up a charitable online social network called


The first athlete disqualified from the Olympic Games for drug abuse was Swedish pentathlete Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall, who confessed to having two beers before the pistol-shooting discipline to calm his nerves during the 1968 Games in Mexico.


When he was Vice-President of the United States, George H.W. Bush caused widespread offence when, on being shown the gas chambers at Auschwitz, he remarked: “Boy, they were big on crematoriums, weren’t they?” 


The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare…Today, popular interest in the typing monkeys is sustained by numerous appearances in literature, television, radio, music, and the Internet. In 2003, an experiment was performed with six Celebes Crested Macaques, but their literary contribution was five pages consisting largely of the letter ‘S’

A selection of quotes from the last year

April 4, 2009

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you will know I love throwing in quotes. Here is a selection from the last year:

It is easy for a well-fed metropolitan with time and money on his hands to talk about dealing with his chronic symptoms with Ayurvedic medicine or Chinese herbal remedies, but if you go those countries where they are all they have, you’ll find them crying out for goof old Western antibiotics, painkillers and all the rest of the modern and expensive pharmacopoeia. A Ugandan dying of AIDS-related tuberculosis doesn’t wanted to be treated with the natural remedies of his forefathers: he wants an aseptic syringe full of antibiotics…  John Diamond


We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment. Richard Dawkins


A language is a dialect with an army and navy. Anonymous


Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.  This has sometimes been attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, but without a definite citation.


There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. Donald Rumsfeld


The palest ink is better than the best memory. Chinese Proverb


Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work—whereas economics represents how it actually does work. Steve Levitt


I remember the time Dr Shipman gave to my dad. He would come round at the drop of a hat. He was a marvellous GP. The son of one of Dr Harold Shipman’s patients. Shipman may well have murdered more than 200 of his patients.


All political lives, unless they are cut off in mid-stream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.  Enoch Powell


Not many moons ago, Monbiot was looked upon by many people as a green-ink eccentric, who was probably given a newspaper column on the same basis that friends of the Marquis de Sade smuggled scraps of paper and pots of ink into his cell in the Charenton insane asylum: because if he’s kept busy writing, he won’t go utterly off his nut. (The chasm-shaped difference between the Marquis and Monbiot, of course, is that the former wrote some brilliant stuff that nobody was allowed to read, while the latter writes inane copy that one can hardly escape.) Spiked on George Monbiot


The Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many sceptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive. Prestigious economist Paul Samuelson in an economics textbook published in 1988, one year before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.


Before we work on artificial intelligence why don’t we do something about natural stupidity? Steve Polyak


You don’t see something until you have the right metaphor to let you perceive it. Robert Stetson, an American physicist, one of the pioneers of chaos theory


In an era of faceless organisations owned by other equally faceless organisations Bernard L Madoff Investment Securities LLC harks back to an earlier era in the financial world: the owner’s name is on the door. From  the company website.


Karl Marx was right, socialism works; it is just that he had the wrong species. Edward O. Wilson suggesting that communism would have been more suitable for ants.


America, based on the premise of absolute equality, has one of the most extremely unequal divisions of wealth in the world. Japan, based on the premise of inequality, is one of the most egalitarian societies of all. Alan Macfarlane, anthropologist.


When I hear the word culture – I release the safety-catch of my Browning. Said by a character from the play Schlageter, written by Nazi playwright Hanns Johst


The common thread that binds nearly all animal species seems to be that males are willing to abandon all sense and decorum, even to risk their lives, in the frantic quest for sex. Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer


We all know how stupid the average person is. Now realize that, by definition, fifty percent of the population is dumber than that. Ivan Stang 


Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.  H. L. Mencken


Economics is the study of the use of scarce resources which have alternative uses. Lionel Robbins


The crossroads of trade are the meeting place of ideas, the attrition ground of rival customs and beliefs; diversities beget conflict, comparison, thought; superstitions cancel one another, and reason begins.  Will Durant


Languages deal with and describe the natural world, a world which is so complex that any individual attempt to describe it, and make sense of it, can only capture part of it. In order to survive, each individual must make some sense of his environment, most fundamentally by acquiring a language. But the language of each individual (his idiolect) only functions effectively if it forms part of a wider structure such as the language of a group, a region or a nation. So our languages are complex decentralised mechanisms for transmitting information. And we use them confidently without much explicit understanding of their structure or of how they develop.  Dr John Marks


There are no atheists in foxholes and there are no libertarians in financial crises. Economist Paul Krugman.


I would remind you that extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!  Barry Goldwater


Most of economics can be summarised in four words. People respond to incentives. The rest is commentary.  Steven Landsburg


That woman speaks eight languages and can’t say no in any of them. Dorothy Parker