Monday, 28 February 2011

bbc as pravda

Front of sports website: Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti says there is not a disciplinary problem at the club after Ashley Cole accidentally shot a work placement student. Sorry? Say that again?

Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti says there is not a disciplinary problem at the club after Ashley Cole accidentally shot a work placement student.

That is definitely funny.*

* I have checked the guy isn't dead. It was an air rifle. It's not an interesting story. But the headline is magic.

'the latest'

The Guardian writes, 'Steven Davies, the 24-year-old Surrey and England wicketkeeper, has become the latest high-profile sportsman to announce he is gay'

Er, 'the latest'? It's accurate, technically, but the implication is that gay sportsmen have started regularly coming out, which they haven't. Gareth Thomas did, and, er... I am sure some abroad. By which I mean: I assume some abroad. This is excellent news, obviously, but the overall situation is still ridiculous.

(This guy has still not been sacked.)

Friday, 25 February 2011

newt news

From WOTN (below). A team of German fighting salamanders has just been practising for war with Britain and blown up a huge chunk of coastline*:
Wolf Meynert Writes His Masterpiece
Perhaps it was those gorgeous and tragic sunsets which inspired the Koenigsberg philosopher, Wolf Meynert, in his solitary retreat to write his monumental work, Untergang der Menschheit (The Decline of Humanity). We can picture him vividly as he wanders along the seashore, bare-headed and coat-tails flying, gazing with rapturous eyes of that flood of fire and blood illuminating more than half of the sky. "Yes," he whispers in ecstasy. "Yes, the time has really come to write the epilogue to the history of mankind!" And he wrote it.

* I worry that this sounds fey, whimsical, slight or glumly portentous. It is none of these things. It is great.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

how often do you read a book which might be the best?

Not often, that's how often, and there are some idiots who will tell you that it's subjective, anyway.

Because of this recommendation, I am most of the way through War With The Newts by Karel Capek.*

In a nutshell, it's a satire on the colonialism, race, science and the early 20th century. It's well-targeted at me, because these are what my PhD was about.** An isolated population of giant, intelligent salamanders is discovered, cut off from evolution in a salty lake. Given food and tools, their population explodes. I really enjoyed the first third; thereafter I was absolutely blown away. It's a crisp, funny, breathtaking, breathtaking book. Naming the best book you've read is a silly sort of exercise - but you can have a conversation about the subject, and WWTN is part of that conversation for me.

* 'Where have I heard that name?' you are thinking. Yes, he wrote the play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) which introduced the word 'robot' to the world.
** My PhD was not about newts.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

as every schoolboy knows

The opening sentence of the book I am reading:
As every schoolboy knows, Arthur Rimbaud had reinvented poetry by the time he was twenty, at which point he gave it up.

Monday, 21 February 2011


Oddly had a weekend of getting spam followers on Twitter. Range of automatically produced bios. Sill, annoying, etc. But I did laugh at: Former Amish boy raised by raccoons now trying to make it in the big city.

Friday, 18 February 2011

nostalgia fraud

How long since you read an email from a Nigerian oil executive? 'Do those guys still exist?' you are probably thinking. Surely they belong to the same antique era as dial-up broadband and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (surely due a re-imagining?). Well, yesterday, I got one! And, moved by the fact that I was massively, unbelievably busy and in no way had the time, I read it carefully:


My name is Mr. Douglas Seko, the Regional Branch Manager, of Intercontinental Bank Plc, in the Western Region of Republic Du Benin.

Clever. Not Nigeria. Every granny knows the Nigerians are crooks.

I came across your impressive contact during my private search for a reliable, and trusted partner, to whom i should introduce this immense opportunity to.
Big up me. I am an impressive contact, and he wants a trusted contact. Trust is a good word. My main worry about this kind of email is the issue of trust.

I must apologized if am using this proposal to intrude into your privacy,
Also privacy, that's the other worry, but we'll let it pass.

I also plead you not to consider this letter as one of those hoax emails scam artists sent over the internet,
That was my worry. I'm glad he's tackling this head on.

and I urge you to put a little attention to it as deserves, although this medium (internet) has been greatly abused by those artists, but I choose to reach you through it because it remains and considered the fastest and most secured means of communication.
This medium is the internet is it? Ok. I am slightly worried that you don't feel the need to qualify 'artists' when talking about fraudsters, but otherwise this is good stuff, putting me at my ease. I am particularly relieved that this is the most secured means of communication.

It is obvious that Internet scammers uses similar letters to connect innocent citizens into their scam lane, but i plead you my dear not to consider this letter as one, only give a little attention to it and see things yourself.
Ok, I get it. You're not a scammer. But I don't mind you saying it again. It's very important to us both that you are a trustworthy person, if we're to have a business relationship. Or a sexual relationship, but that's further down the line. Let's not get ahead of ourselves.

I have a great transaction in my bank, which i will like both of us to handle, that will be of immense benefit to both of us at this end, if carefully and properly handled.

I am writing to solicit your acceptance and assistance in the noble transfer of US$ 5,200,000.00 to any of your overseas nominated bank account.

Wow, this is a noble transfer, and without letting people too far behind the veil of the freelance economy, half of $5.2m would be of immense benefit to me.

Following the end of the year financial report audit (2010), My office, through the audition discovered that my branch made a total of Five Million, Two Hundred Thousand United States Dollars ($5,200,000.00), from the transactions accruing to the account of the Inland Revenue Service (IRS) ,which the Head Office of our bank is not aware of, because the Transaction with IRS was not detected by the audit department from the head office.
What a boo boo! I presume you told them immediately? By the way, the sum of $5.2m rings a bell. It'll come to me in a minute.

As the Branch Manager of this Bank, my official duties include submitting and sending the annual financial report to our head office at every end of the year, In the case of this IRS transaction, I failed to send the report and the audit department at the head office did not detect such.
So you made a boo boo too? That worries me, if we are to go into business, but at least you've realised now. So you told them at this point, right?

I have already separated the said fund ($5.2M) out from the Management Account and lodged it into a Domiciliary Account with no clear and specified Depositor of the Fund. I have packaged this project in such a way that there will be no risk attached.
No risk of what? Of it being stolen?

As the Branch Manager of this bank, I cannot directly handle the transfer out of this fund from our bank,

to avoid raising an eyebrow or suspicion on me and my office in the process of the transfer, thus i soliciting your urgent and sincere assistance to stand as the original and official depositor/beneficiary of this fund, and you will nominate any overseas Bank Account of your choice to transfer this fund.
Wait. Wait a second. You've stolen this money! And you want me to be your fence? But all that stuff at the start about being honest? Was that all just words?

I have decided that we should share this fund to the ratio of 50/50 when successfully transferred out to you bank account.
I remember it all now: $5.2m. I should have seen this coming. On the other hand, if you transfer it to my account and you've stolen this money, maybe I could just share it out at a ratio of 100/0? That would teach you.

If it is in your keen interest to partner with me in this transaction, I will advise and suggest you urgently respond today and send me the following below information. data, so as to program your name and other information to our branch computer system as the depositor/beneficiary of the fund.

(1)-Your Full Name and Current Address:
(2)-Your Direct Contact Telephone Number/Mobile Number:
(3)-Your present Occupation:
(4) ? Your Sex / Marital Status:
(5) ? Copy of International Passport or Driver's license:

Since I don't want to make you suspicious that I will nick all the money, I'll be safe and send you the originals.

Please Mail me the moment you receive this letter with the above listed information ...
And so on

Thanks for your co-operation in advance.

Yours truly,

Mr. Douglas Seko

So, yes, I know this is ancient news, but I hadn't read one in an age, and I found it funny. I know it isn't if you fall for it, and some people must still, but I find I don't much care about them.


Very cute post on Twitter by New Orleans' superstar quarterback Drew Brees:
Is anybody else a huge fan of the show Glee? Those kids are unbelievably talented. Fun to watch. And Sue Sylvester is hilarious
I know it's him being just this guy, but it made me think of a judge asking who The Beatles are.

Thursday, 17 February 2011


Gennaro Gattuso, an Italian footballer, headbutted Joe Jordan, an English coach. Guardian Sport reports:
Gattuso's agent alleged on an Italian radio station yesterday that his client had been called a "fucking Italian bastard" by Jordan. Claudio Pasqualin said: "For someone like Rino, who has a strong sense of belonging to Italy, I think this is the most cowardly and unspeakable of insults."
Really? I'm not saying it's a nice thing to say, but this is:

A) (Uninteresting) mealy-mouthed
B) (Interesting) more evidence that footballers and other sportsmen, living in a (sort-of) extra-legal bubble, have retreated into a crazy and touchy code of 'honour', as per mediaeval knights. I haven't got time to expound on this, but you know in your heart that I'm onto something. Maybe lots of other people are onto it. They usually are. I just don't know who they are

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

big merv

It's not my fault if you haven't read everything Michael Lewis has ever written. His books on high finance, Liar's Poker and The Big Short top-and-tail the mortgage-crisis. The former describes the guys who invented mortgage-derivatives in the 1980s, when Lewis worked briefly in a bank. The latter describes some people who made a fortune by seeing that it was going to implode. This is from Tim Harford's interview with Lewis for the FT:
Although there is outrage in Lewis’s descriptions of high finance, it is muted by the fact that he seems to regard much of life on Wall Street as risible. His former tutor at the London School of Economics, a certain Mervyn King, didn’t always see the funny side.

“Four or five months after I got the job at Salomon, the head of the London office comes over to me and says, ‘We’ve got this guy in the lobby. He’s the academic adviser to the new FSA, and he’s been sent in to see how the markets really work and nobody wants to sit with him. Could you sit with him?’ It was Mervyn.”

After three hours “listening to me selling people stuff”, King asked what Lewis was paid.

“It was two-and-a-half times what they were paying him to teach me at LSE. And he was, ‘This is just criminal, this is outrageous.’ He couldn’t believe it.”

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

this is not what i call hot horse on horse action

A child is born! I mean a horse. I mean a superfoal! I mean Unnamed out of Zarkava by Sea The Stars is born.

Unnamed's parents are wizard racehorses. The Aga Khan, who owns Zarkava, said, 'I believe the two Arc winners were made for each other. The best needs to be bred to the best.' Leaving aside the dodgy politics of this,* the AK is hardly a neutral observer, since he paid £71,000 for Sea The Stars's services, which only last a few minutes. The AK also 'believes the pair are similar in ability, temperament and conformation.' It's the conformation which is the key. I only breed with people who are similar to me in conformation.

The BBC says there is no guarantee the foal will be as good as its parents. Do they know nothing about genetics? It is guaranteed to have the best traits of both. That is what 'dominant trait' means. It's just common sense.

* The politics of this are not dodgy, these are horses.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

like every frenchwoman

Because A) it is good manners and B) it is professionally sensible, I try to avoid offending people. So I am not naming names here. But a review I've just read, in a proper newspaper, opens:
How can you not like a heroine who invents lascivious confessions to shock the priest and finds that kneeling in church makes “naughtiness” spring to her mind?

She is French, of course ... She straddles a motorcycle with “thrilled and shivering limbs,” commits adultery (and possibly incest) to the rhythms of the Lord’s Prayer and, like every Frenchwoman I have ever observed, approaches food like a lyric courtesan
My reading of this: a banally fetishised description of a Frenchwoman as reviewed by someone with a banal, fetishistic idea of Frenchwomen. I might be wrong.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

death of a racehorse

I can't remember where I first read Death of a Racehorse. I second read it a few weeks ago when someone forwarded it to me among the rest of the equiphemera that is joining the pisciphemera in my inbox these days. Then it was on Slate's Hang Up and Listen podcast. Read the whole thing - it's not a thousand words long - if you have time. It's about a promising colt called Air Lift who breaks his leg during his first race. It ends like this, and it is fetishised as one of the great pieces of deadline writing. Sometimes the fetishists fetishise the right things.
They moved the curious back, the rain falling faster now, and they moved the colt over close to a pile of loose bricks. Gilman had the halter and Catlett had the gun, shaped like a bell with a handle at the top. This bell he placed, the crowd silent, on the colt's forehead, just between the eyes. The colt stood still and then Catlett, with the hammer in his other hand, struck the handle of the bell. There was a short, sharp sound and the colt toppled onto his left side, his eyes staring, his legs straight out, the free legs quivering.

"Aw, ----" someone said.

That was all they said. They worked quickly, the two vets removing the broken bones as evidence for the insurance company, the crowd silently watching. Then the heavens opened, the rain pouring down, the lightning flashing, and they rushed for cover of the stables, leaving alone on his side near a pile of bricks, the rain running off his hide, dead an hour and a quarter after his first start, Air Lift, son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assault.

Sunday, 6 February 2011


On Saturday Review on R4 last night, person A said, re The Fighter, something along the lines of, 'Of course he wins, name a sporting movie when the underdog doesn't win in the end!' General mocking laughter. To which Person A or Person B adds, 'Especially a boxing movie!' More mocking agreement over this.

I don't mind if you don't watch sports movies, that's fine, but if you don't, you should probably slightly beware of generalising. I mean, searching in my encyclopaedic knowledge of unknown and arcane films, I thought: 'Er, Rocky?


I don't have an OED subscription, so this info is cobbled together from not super-trustworthy bits of internet, but I like it: umpteen is a WWI-era compound coining made of 'umpty' - telegraphers' slang for an indefinite number (having originally been Morse for a dash; not sure how it made the leap to 'indefinite number'*) + teen.

* Morse was taught to native troops in India as iddy-umpty (dot-dash) based on the sounds they made when being tapped out.

Friday, 4 February 2011

microsoft stole my carbonara! (and other stories)

Sorry - I have a lot of tabs I want to close at the moment:

1. Nate Silver, brilliant politics statto at NYT, did a piece on Microsoft Search Engine Bing and how it uses Google's results. It's fine to have lots of inputs, but if it basically recycles Google's, then is it not just trying to copy a top chef's carbonara but actually getting hold of some of that chef's carbonara and saying it's its own? And if it is the same, then how big a problem is this? Well, read the comments section. If you ever want to see a massive fight between people without a dog in the fight who act as if they've got a dog in the fight and assume everyone else has a dog in the fight, mention either Microsoft, or Google, or Apple. If you mention two at once, people go batshit.

2. Lazy journalists repeat, endlessly, urban myths about prostitutes traveling to major sporting events. The Super Bowl gets this story every year; the World Cup and Olympics every four years. Mike Tanier, who is my ultimate nemesis (and therefore the nemesis of all my other nemeses) is very funny about it, and quotes a report which says:
The Dallas Women's Institute calculated their underage prostitute estimate by looking at advertisements by back-page escort services and guessing the age of the ladies in the photos. It was well-intentioned but overwhelmingly distorted activism masquerading as data analysis.
He also points out the bad stats behind other Super Bowl hypes, like the idea that it causes heart-attacks and domestic violence.

just call me mc neat settlers of catan in the morning*

Yo Sushis. Last night Marie Phillips and I hosted a Book Swap at the excellent LRB book shop. I only mention it because one of the questions out of the jar was, 'What would be your hip hop name?' and Nikesh Shukla said there should be some algorithm for working this out automatically, preferably one that wasn't nakedly trying to get information to use in identity theft. He went for 'Style of Carving' (where he got this from I do not know, but I am still impressed) + 'Favourite Board Game'.

This looked like a decent strategy when Marie said this would make her MC Sloppy Monopoly, and not terrible when William Feinnes added it would make him MC Diligent Cluedo. It would, however, make me MC Neat Settlers of Catan. Nikesh said he probably needed to work on the algorithm.

There's another book swap next week at the LSE Literary Festival. I'm not going to be there but I am going to be speaking at another LSE Festival event, as previously stated (I am so boring). It's with David Shields and Geoff Dyer, hosted by Claire Armitstead, and it's spinning off the former's book Reality Hunger. We'll be in the reality/fiction badlands, and I will be twisting this way and that, but blowing a historian's trumpet.

* Previously 'Cataan'. In spite of the fact I really like the game and should know better, I am obsessed with spelling it that way. (Some people don't edit old blog posts. I do.)

Thursday, 3 February 2011

win the lottery! for real!

(If this is the past and you live in Ontario.)

Mohan Srivastava, a geological statistician, which I hope and honestly think means someone who works out from stats models where you might be able to dig for gold, worked out how to beat the Ontario State Lottery's scratchcards a few years ago.

It's a crackerjack story, told here in Wired. 'The North American lottery system is a $70 billion-a-year business, an industry bigger than movie tickets, music, and porn combined.' Srivastava started thinking about scratchcards. They couldn't feature random numbers, 'since the lottery corporation needs to control the number of winning tickets ... Instead, it has to generate the illusion of randomness while actually being carefully determined.'

He wondered if there was a flaw in the system and cracked it almost immediately - it was to do with visibly-printed numbers which hinted at numbers to be scratched away. He worked out it would be too labour-intensive to make a living out of, and tried to tell the Lottery. Amusingly, they wouldn't listen. There's loads more, including 'Joan Ginther, who has won more than $1 million from the Texas Lottery on four different occasions.' She won't do interviews. It's possible that she's the luckiest person in the world. Or...

who's the wardaddy?

Slate's Hang Up and Listen podcast was discussing the peculiar sports analysis lexicon. I'd never heard of a wardaddy before - a player who leads through toughness/violence/intimidation/example/whatever. They explained that it wasn't a huge term in discussing sports, but coaches - and some coaches in particular - use it a lot. Coaches love players who are going to be setting an example. (We will not get into the wisdom of this particular kind of example, especially with the current seismic and slow-moving shift in attitudes to concussion.) They talked about some guy making tackles while covered in blood, and I thought that Terry Butcher was probably one. Martin Johnson must be the ultimate British sporting wardaddy.

(Sarang commented on yesterday's Widowmaker post. I recommend clicking on his biog. It is probably the perfect biog for a reader of this blog.)

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Widowmaker (the horse)

Warhorses of Letters is a running strand in a comedy night called Tall Tales. People with a lot of time and Google on their hands periodically send me things they have found while looking for one or the other: Disney (one of my more persistent Nemeses, see Stripes, Racing) released a film called Tall Tale in 1995.

Luckily, Tall Tale is not about an evening of comic stories and songs; it's a ropey-sounding Western. it features a legendary cowboy called Pecos Bill, played by Patrick Swayze, and his horse, Widowmaker, a dangerous animal he eventually leaves with the small boy who is the film's hero, which doesn't seem sensible. Still, Widowmaker is a good name for a warhorse.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

words of wisdom

The opening paragraph of the book I am swapping on Thursday evening at the LRB, with Marie Phillips, William Fiennes and Nikesh Shukla, runs:
The only advice I can offer, should you wake up vertiginously in a strange flat, with a thoroughly installed hangover, without any recollection of how you got there, with the police sledgehammering down the door to the accompaniment of excited dogs, while you are surrounded by bales of lavishly-produced magazines featuring children in adult acts, the only advice I can offer is to try to be good-humoured and polite.
To make it easier for long-time readers of this blog, this is a book reviewed on Amazon thusly:
Of the many books I have read so far, I have come to the conclusion that XXXX is the best.
When I first read it, somewhere in about 1997 I think, I was blown away.