The Greeks: plus ça change…

Cheri speaks as though from my own heart in lamenting the Greeks. How, oh how, to reconcile their ancient grandeur with their Euro-busting, book-cooking financial profligacy of today?

And then I remembered that passage by Polybius, that great Greek sage, which I reproduce here to cause a smirk rather than offense.

In The Rise of the Roman Empire (VI, 56), he tells us that

among the Greeks… men who hold public office cannot be trusted with the safe-keeping of so much as a single talent, even if they have ten accountants and as many seals and twice as many witnesses, whereas among the Romans their magistrates handle large sums of money and scrupulously perform their duty because they have given their word on oath.

Now, clearly one part of his observation seems, ahem, dated and the other rather au courant. 😉

Bookmark and Share

My humor test in the lift

(This one may not work for you. But try to laugh with me anyway.)

Thirteen years ago, soon after I joined The Economist, I was riding down in the elevator (“lift”, according to our style guide) of our “Tower” at 25 St. James’s Street in London.

There were two or three of us. We were silent. Drab weather. Nothing to say.

Just before the door opened, one of the others turned toward me, with expressively furtive, even dirty or intimidating, body language. Was he about to flash open his trench coat? Confess to a crime? Attack me?

I have doubts about free trade,

he said, and ducked out into the drizzle and its pin-striped shadows.

Bookmark and Share

Finally: How most of us see TV news

Charlie Brooker

The Hannibal Blog thought that Michael Kinsley did a pretty good job critiquing bad writing in the news media. Now Charlie Brooker, a Guardian columnist and TV satirist, does an even better job critiquing television news.

It helps to be British, of course.


Bookmark and Share

“I sense an obsession…”

So I’m haggling with an editor of mine about the word count of the two pieces I am writing for the next issue of The Economist. Writers always want more words; editors want fewer words (they’d rather run more articles).

In this case, I lobbied passionately for one of the ideas, leading the editor, who happens to be the same one I’ve previously highlighted for her British humor, to comment that

I sense an obsession, and feel it may be good to indulge it.

With that, she upped my word count by 20%.

This is another instance not only of charm and British humor but also of good editing. Even if you are a writer editing yourself, it is good advice:

Sense your obsession, then indulge it. It may be infectious.

Bookmark and Share

How humans are (not) unique

Robert Sapolsky

Beat me, said the masochist.

No, said the sadist.

We, Homo sapiens sapiens, are the only species that can understand the humor (ie, the meaning) of this conversation. It involves advanced versions of simpler concepts such as Theory of Mind and tit-for-tat. But the simple versions of those and other concepts are not unique to humans. So the definition of human really rests on marginal complexity.

Take 37 minutes of your time to watch Robert Sapolsky, a brilliant and hilarious neuroscientist at Stanford, as he analyzes what makes humans “uniquiest”. It is a prime example of making science accessible through storytelling.

The short of it: Almost all of the things that we used to think made us humans unique in the wild kingdom can in fact be observed in other species. Such as:

  • Intra-species aggression (including genocide)
  • Theory of Mind
  • The Golden Rule
  • Empathy
  • Pleasure in anticipation & gratification-postponement
  • Culture

However, we humans exhibit these facilities with a twist — with an added layer of complexity.

(By the way, he refers to the same baboon study that I mentioned in this post, but could not locate. Does anybody have a lead?)

Bookmark and Share

Hayek and Keynes walk into a bar …

Actually, Hayek and Keynes first walk into a hotel, and then into a bar. And they rap.

You have to be a geek to find this amusing, and regular readers of The Hannibal Blog are likely to qualify.

I’ve only mentioned Friedrich von Hayek tangentially so far, and Keynes hardly at all, although both men really belong into my pantheon of great thinkers. In due course, I’ll give them their own posts.

But for now, just enjoy the seven-minute version:

Bookmark and Share

Schwarzenegger’s revanchist word game

[picapp src=”2/d/4/4/The_2009_Womens_8b22.jpg?adImageId=6962167&imageId=6924971″ width=”234″ height=”352″ /]

The following letter by Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, to the State Assembly would not seem to make for exciting reading. But that’s if you read it conventionally–ie, horizontally.

What if you read vertically? Could it be that the gubernator, cigar-chomping cad and prankster that he is, has had a bit of fun?

Tim Redmond spotted the hidden code. See if you find it:


[picapp src=”1/6/d/7/Gov_Schwarzenegger_Addresses_4e56.jpg?adImageId=6962178&imageId=4919912″ width=”234″ height=”351″ /]

For background, AB 1176 was a bill by Tom Ammiano of San Francisco about infrastructure or something boring of that sort. The same Tom Ammiano recently did a reverse Joe Wilson and yelled “You lie” at Schwarzenegger, when the Republican governor had the audacity to drop in on a meeting of Democrats in a San Francsico ballroom. Ammiano then stormed out, yelling “Kiss my gay ass.”

So now Schwarzenegger is having a bit of revanchist fun. All in good humor, if you ask me. It is a sign of the unshophisticated mind to get squeamish about this sort of thing. Ammiano himself is probably laughing loudest.

If you have not already spotted it, here is the hint:


Bookmark and Share

Either odd to us or to them and we opt for them

As most of you know by now, I am an admirer of British irony and wit, the subtler instances of which I occasionally highlight or dissect, as here, here, and here. At its best, it is a matter of tone, not a matter of telling jokes. And it is best delivered casually.

Today happens to be our weekly deadline day at The Economist, and I am right now (thanks to the London time zone that I am forced to observe in California) finalizing my piece in the next issue with one of our editors, Ann Wroe, who happens to be one of my favorites (and who is a successful book author in her own right).

In the piece, I quoted an American think tank whose name starts (as they all seem to do) with “Center For The…”

Ann changed it to “Centre For The…”. I asked: Do we change words to British spelling even when they are names?

And she replied:

Yes, words are anglicised even within proper names; it either has to look odd to us or odd to them, and we opt for them.

Bookmark and Share

Spunky language in the search for truth

Yesterday I gave an example of bad–meaning squeamish, cowardly and therefore intentionally obtuse–writing. Today I came across an example of good–meaning courageous, irreverent and therefore clear and authentic–language.

It comes in the form of a spunky almost-ninety-year-old Welsh lady named Elaine Morgan. She took the stage at TED and clearly and humorously laid out her case that we descend not from apes that stood up because they left the trees and went onto the savannah (the mainstream paradigm) but rather from aquatic apes. The video is below.

A few things, before you watch:

  • Her theory is fascinating, but whether or not it convinces you is not my point. Most people are not convinced.
  • My point is the clarity of her language that comes from her courage, the corollary of my view that bad writing/expression comes from fear.
  • Worth noting: Morgan’s talk contains humor and sprezzatura, which often accompany courage but never cowardice.
  • She nods to Thomas Kuhn, whom I declared one of the runners-up for the title of greatest thinker ever. Kuhn, remember, was the guy who described how scientists will disregard any evidence (and messenger) that does not fit their paradigm until that paradigm collapses entirely. It is her way of saying to her audience: Snap out of it and open your minds!
  • Listen to her point about how to treat “priesthoods”!
  • Finally, think about how she would react if new evidence came to light that proved her theory wrong but advanced our understanding. Would she be upset? Or would she celebrate?

Bookmark and Share

Was Jesus black, Jewish or female?

Willie Brown

Willie Brown

Willie Brown, the only black mayor San Francisco has every had, as well as a California state assemblyman for donkey’s years, many of them as speaker, tells a good joke in his latest column:

There are three good arguments that Jesus was black: He called everyone brother, he liked gospel, and he didn’t get a fair trial.

But then, there are three equally good arguments that Jesus was Jewish: He went into his father’s business, he lived at home until he was 33, and his mother was sure he was God.

But then, there are three equally good arguments that Jesus was Californian: He never cut his hair, he walked around barefoot, and he started a new religion.

But most compelling of all are the three arguments that Jesus was a woman:

He fed a crowd at a moment’s notice. He kept trying to get a message across to a bunch of men who just didn’t get it. And even when he was dead, he had to get up because there was work to do.

Bookmark and Share