The Economist: Text guys trying video

Anything to do with video has long been controversial at The Economist. We dabbled in something called Economist TV a decade ago, and that failed miserably. We’ve been having video clips on our site, and that works better but was always a bit fiddly to link to/share. But now we have a YouTube channel.

Some of it works, some of it less so. But one thing that always seems to work is KAL, our cartoonist, talking about his work. Here he is on Bill Clinton:

And here he is on Ronald Reagan:

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Humor, education and creativity

You probably remember the old chestnut of Philosophy 101, Metaphysics: If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, did it make a sound?

Well, enjoy Ken Robinson’s twist on it, 14:40 minutes into the talk at the end of this post:

If a man speaks his mind in a forest, and no woman hears it, is he still wrong?

The talk is another great example of the British humor that I love and am often surrounded by at The Economist. But humor is best with substance, as a vehicle that delivers a serious point more memorably.

Does Robinson have such a point? Yes. It is:

Schools kill creativity.

As he says,

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’re never going to be original.

But we–first in our schools, then in our companies–stigmatize “mistakes”. We do, don’t we? Even on this blog, I am sometimes so worried about saying something stupid that I end up saying nothing at all. As Robinson says, we “educate people out of creativity.”

Well, let’s stop doing that, certainly here on The Hannibal Blog. Watch the whole thing:

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The trouble with puns

Fantastic essay on puns and their utter, puerile non-necessity, by Joseph Tartakovsky.

I’ve said before that sarcasm is the lowest form of humor. Tartakovsky makes a strong case that punning should get that honor.

In a nutshell:

Puns are the feeblest species of humor because they are ephemeral: whatever comic force they possess never outlasts the split second it takes to resolve the semantic confusion. … They are the scourge of dinner tables and the despised prolongers of office meetings, some letting fly as instinctively as dogs bark and frogs croak, no longer concerned even with drawing applause; they simply can’t help themselves… [Consider] the similitude between puns and fruit flies, both of which die practically the instant they are born, but not before breeding others.

Nonetheless, I found myself pondering the boundary between punning, which I am willing to disdain, and wit, which I esteem. Take, for instance, this exchange between Voltaire and Frederick the Great. Witty, for sure. Punning? Possibly.

Even Tartakovsky includes among his examples one that I’m glad posterity has preserved:

Jean Harlow, the platinum-blond star of the 1930s, on being introduced to Lady Margot Asquith, mispronounced her given name to rhyme with “rot.” “My dear, the ‘t’ is silent,” said Asquith, “as in Harlow.”

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The other context for newspapers

Thanks to Stephanie (courtesy of the Orlando Sentinel) for keeping me au courant on trends in reading that affect the newspaper industry. (Possibly another implicit endorsement of the Kindle?)

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Fraught suspense in The Economist’s plaza

I still have doubts about free trade

A primate without valid ID has been spotted loitering in the “plaza” in front of our London headquarters, the modernist tower that The Economist inhabits in the heart of the “clubland” of St James’s Street.

My colleague Tom Standage immediately snapped photos and shared them on Facebook. The individual was reading The Economist, then switched to CFO, also owned by The Economist Group.

My options are under water

Suggestions that the individual is in fact an American expatriate in London, formerly in the business of collateralized debt obligations, have not been corroborated.

After several days of his vigil, the writers passing by every day are now beginning to accept his presence. Our science correspondents consider him family, and believe that he fled a hostile environment in America to be among people who are sympathetic.

Will he go? Will he stay? Will he edit?

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The Numidian headbutt


Slight change of pace from our philosophical discussions in recent posts: I just checked my impressively detailed stats in WordPress, and made an intriguing discovery: My all-time top post by far is the one about Numidians looking like…. Zidane.

I won’t even link to it, for fear of perpetuating the cycle, but I find this funny. That rather silly post came about when I was researching my book and trying to visualize what Numidians probably looked like.

Numidians were the ancient inhabitants of northern African, to the west of Carthage. (Click on map above to enlarge.) They supplied Hannibal with his cavalry, which was the best in the ancient world. The Numidians rode without stirrups and bridles, came out of nowhere and disappeared again just as fast. They were deadly.

In any case, it turned out that they were the ancestors of today’s Kabyle Berbers, so I looked around for pictures and chanced upon one particularly good specimen. Ever since, according to my stats, I have been getting a steady stream of visits, though Google perhaps, from Algeria and France in particular and the soccer world in general. (Sorry: football world.) I hazard the guess that you guys are surprised when you arrive here.

And now to business: Using the same Numidian specimen, we shall examine the tactic they used against the Romans when they dismounted:

Hannibal: The limerick version

When I said "poetry" I mean epic, not Limerick!

When I said "poetry" I meant epic, not Limerick!

Loyal readers of the Hannibal Blog will by now be familiar with the wit of one Mr Crotchety, who visits regularly. He has, in this comment, expressed the epic life of the main character of my book–why yes, he has indeed–in the following limerick.

There once was a General named Hannibal,
‘til the Romans found his army untenable.
His tactics were dodgy and favored by chance:
like his father, he walked behind elephants and never wore pants.

Subsequently, Mr Crotchety discovered that the correct rhyme scheme of a limerick is apparently AABBA, and the syllable count 9-9-6-6-9.

With that intelligence, I crafted my own initial response to this impertinence, which was this:

There once was a lad named Hannibal
and I don’t mean that one, the cannibal,
The Alps this one crossed,
then Romans he tossed,
As though he were staging a carnival.

Since that entirely omits the central thesis of my book, I then decided to have another crack at it:

From Carthage he came, the Alps he crossed,
Romans he routed in Trebia’s frost,
he seemed to have won,
at Cannae again,
until it was clear he had instead lost