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Suspended In Contemplation

A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Correspondence and criticism gratefully received and always read:

This week: Mind, Matter, Levitation

A LINE by Bertrand Russell gave me a jolt a couple of days back; it is from Analysis Of Mind (1921), where Russell criticises behaviourists for claiming that the workings of the mind can be reduced to the workings of the brain:

What has permanent value in the outlook of the behaviourists is the feeling that physics is the most fundamental science at present in existence. But this position cannot be called materialistic, if, as seems to be the case, physics does not assume the existence of matter.

Russell was pointing out a hundred years ago what I see only now with the help of his prompting: That in our current state of knowledge there can be no categorical quarrel about mind and brain between mentalists and materialists, because our ignorance about the nature of matter has caught up with our ignorance about the nature of consciousness.

Russell conjectures that there is no ultimate difference between tangible and intangible things. Brains, minds, tables, chairs, heat, light, energy and everything else in the universe are all in some sense composed of the same ultimate stuff. Not long ago I would have thought this theory absurd; now I am on board. The idea that my mental self is part and parcel of the universe is one that I find quite comforting, set against with the idea that my mind is present in the universe only as an exception or an interloper.

Reading Russell nudged me into looking again at Thomas Nagel's Mind And Cosmos (2012), in which Nagel argues for the absurdity of imagining the universe as a collection of matter into which life and thought and consciousness arrived as some sort of puzzling addendum. Nagel wants a theory of the world that puts mind and matter on an equal footing at least. He calls this position "postmaterialist", a word that would doubtless have appealed to Russell, and he sets out his stall thus:

The existence of consciousness is both one of the most familiar and one of the most astounding things about the world. No conception of the natural order that does not reveal it as something to be expected can aspire even to the outline of completeness. And if physical science, whatever it may have to say about the origin of life, leaves us necessarily in the dark about consciousness, that shows that it cannot provide the basic form of intelligibility for this world. There must be a very different way in which things as they are make sense, and that includes the way the physical world is, since the problem cannot be quarantined in the mind.
A postmaterialist theory would have to offer a unified explanation of how the physical and the mental characteristics of organisms developed together, and it would have to do so not just by adding a clause to the effect that the mental comes along with the physical as a bonus.

Nagel is not trying to make space for God. He wants a better scientific explanation of the world. He is hoping for something at least on the scale of a quantum revolution, a scientific discovery that the world has deeper organising principles than we had hitherto imagined, and that this foundational level gives a central generative role to life, mind and consciousness.

Most scientists, I believe, and many philosophers, think that life, the mind and consciousness will be fully explained in what we still call "material" terms. The great populariser of this view is the philosopher Daniel Dennett: He argues that genetic mutation and natural selection gave rise at some relatively late stage in human development to a brain that was adaptable enough to start generating conscious thought in response to external stimuli.

Dennett provides in Consciousness Explained (1991) a schematic explanation for how external stimuli and natural selection could have given rise to the mental processes accounting for most of what our brains seem to do. But he sees nothing peculiar in consciousness, treating it as just another piece of complex in-brain behaviour, a process of organising, prioritising and communicating information about the world. By assigning no metaphysical or transcendental nature to consciousness, he solves the hard problem of consciousness by denying that there is a problem.

In Bacteria To Bach (2017), his most recent book, Dennett explicitly demotes the significance of consciousness to that of a mental appendage:

Human consciousness is unlike all other varieties of animal consciousness in that it is a product in large part of cultural evolution, which installs a bounty of words and many other thinking tools in our brains, creating thereby a cognitive architecture unlike the “bottom-up” minds of animals. By supplying our minds with systems of representations, this architecture furnishes each of us with a perspective — a user-illusion — from which we have a limited, biased access to the workings of our brains, which we involuntarily misinterpret as a rendering (spread on the external world or on a private screen or stage) of both the world’s external properties (colors, aromas, sounds, …) and many of our own internal responses (expectations satisfied, desires identified, etc.).

This view strikes me as seriously inadequate. If consciousness is a "user-illusion", who is the user? Who is this "we" who "misinterprets" reality? I have to assume that Dennett is writing-down to his general readers, and that he has some more careful and persuasive argument available for more advanced audiences; even so, I do not like being taken for a fool.

The fact that science has not yet explained consciousness does not of course mean that science is wrong about the many things which it has explained. Just as Newtonian laws proved to be a partial and approximate account of the consequences of quantum mechanics, so quantum mechanics may prove to be a partial and approximate account of the consequences of Nagel-type laws which describe mind as well as matter. Newtonian laws still work perfectly well for large objects, and quantum mechanics will still work perfectly well for the atomic world. People do not fly, nor can they be in two places at once.

With that as my credo, I have to say that I find myself admiring Carlos Eire's new history of levitation, They Flew: A History Of The Impossible, only in the way that Dr Johnson imagined one might admire a dog walking on its hind legs: "It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all”.

Eire's book is the first full-length account of levitation since Olivier Leroy's Levitation: An Examination Of The Evidence And Explanations (1928), and one might imagine that nothing much had changed in the interim, since most of Leroy's 200 or so cases of claimed levitators were drawn from the 16th and 17th centuries. Only 38 were from the 18th and 19th centuries. Levitation appeared as a minor if perplexing phenomenon rooted in a bygone age.

Eire counters that supposed levitators and bilocators have continued well into the 20th century, with Padre Pio and Sister Maria Teresa Carloni among them. He also contends that Leroy undercounted earlier generations of Christian levitators, and that their numbers may have run into the "thousands". He declares that history has left us "an overabundance of testimonies" about levitation which cannot, in his view, be dismissed. I doubt this: My own impression, from reading Eire's book, is that claims of levitation rely heavily on a few posthumous biographies of religious figures, all of them reporting hearsay.

Eire is a professor of history and religious studies at Yale; I rather assume from his book that he believes in God; and I can understand that if he had gone to Yale University Press and said, "I want to write a book arguing that Christian saints did in fact levitate, and therefore God exists, and therefore science is wrong", then Yale University Press might have politely redirected him to a different publisher.

So, rather than appealing directly to God, Eire tries to simulate a pragmatic approach by stopping short of explicit conclusions and by blurring the distinction between "it happened" and "people said it happened", proceeding as though these last and quite different propositions deserve equal weight and respect. Just count the number of tendentious claims in this single paragraph of They Flew:

Miracles take place in the realm of faith, and that realm, by definition, transcends ordinary experience, as do the testimonies of the eyewitnesses who avouch for their occurrence and the social facts that make those testimonies possible. Miracles, it could be said, are not just puzzling for historians but also immensely frustrating. The further one goes back in time, the more difficult it becomes not to bump into them, or into their preternatural demonic counterparts. The testimonies are simply there in the historical record, cluttering it up abundantly, and their existence cannot be denied. But ironically, it is ultimately impossible to prove that what is claimed in these testimonies happened exactly as recorded.

The pity is that, by trying to smuggle his convictions in by stealth, by claiming that where there is smoke there must be fire, Eire leaves unexamined the genuinely interesting questions which could have been at the centre of his book. Are there, for example, any reputable eye-witnesses of levitation, who recorded there and then what they claimed to have seen? Assuming these eye-witnesses did not witness human levitation, given the laws of physics, what did they actually see? Why did they report it as levitation?

And why, come to that, did levitation even come to be such a thing in the Christian church? The New Testament does not record Jesus or his Apostles as having levitated to demonstrate their holiness, unless you count the walking on water. Why did levitation become a mark of holiness in the late middle ages?

Perhaps the association of levitating with holiness in later Christian doctrine came from something as simple as the notion that God and heaven were "up there", so the truly pious soul would naturally be attracted in that direction, leaving the body no choice but to follow. Coupled, perhaps, with the idea that angels fly — and are not saints are a degree closer to angels than the rest of us?

Once levitation had been accepted, for whatever reason, as a marker of saintliness, it must have become almost the job of a hagiographer to find grounds for crediting "their" saint with levitating powers. I wonder if the claims about Francis of Assisi, the first great levitating saint, were any more than an opportunistic misreading of an otherwise innocent observation by Francis's contemporary and first biographer, Thomas of Celano, who wrote that the saint, while praying, was “was often suspended in contemplation".

Elsewhere in levitation, this paper from the Sceptical Research Society has an entertaining account of the Indian Rope Trick.

— Robert

Dept of Paperclip Maximisers:

When Wordsworth and Coleridge once passed a steam engine, Wordsworth observed that it was scarcely possible to divest oneself of the impression that it had life and volition. “Yes,” said Coleridge, “it is a giant with one idea”.

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Caroline Crampton, Editor-In-Chief; Robert Cottrell, Founding Editor; Jodi Ettenberg, Editor-At-Large; Dan Feyer, Crossword Editor; Uri Bram, CEO & Publisher; Sylvia Bishop, Assistant Publisher; Al Breach, Founding Director

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Farewell, Cruel World

A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Correspondence and criticism gratefully received and always read:

This week: Hermits, Charles Dickens, Martin Amis, Questions

DOES ANYBODY out there need a hermit?

The last time there was much of a market in hermits was probably in 18th-century England when the job description went something like this:

The hermit, according to the terms of the agreement, must continue in the hermitage seven years, where he should be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his feet, a hassock for his pillow, an hourglass for his timepiece, water for his beverage, and food from the house. He must wear a camlet robe, and never, under any circumstances, must he cut his hair, beard, or nails, stray beyond the limits of Mr Hamilton’s grounds, or exchange one word with the servant. If he remained without breaking one of these conditions for seven years he was to receive the sum of seven hundred pounds.

Seven hundred pounds sterling in 18th-century England was roughly the equivalent of $100,000 in 21st-century America, a useful bonus for reintegrating into civilian life but not a sufficient reason for spending seven years in seclusion. To do a hermit's job with any enthusiasm one would need to view the hermit's life as something desirable in itself — which I think I could manage, subject to one or two tweaks of the terms and conditions.

I will take a Kindle in place of a Bible. I will reserve the right to cut my nails. I will want a calendar as well an hourglass if I am to be paid once every seven years. Living conditions in a hermitage were doubtless pretty spartan circa 1720, but I will assume that in 2023 a hermitage will have a bed, a chair, electricity, and mains water. Subject to that I am good to go.

The vocation of the eighteenth-century hermit was to be ornamental. There was no requirement to be available 24/7 for discussions about the meaning of life with one's employer, nor to write an end-of-mission impact report. The one obligation of the hermit was to take a solitary walk around the estate every evening so that he or she might be admired by dinner guests, much as those guests might also be encouraged to admire a flock of prize sheep or a gazebo in the oriental style. I would discharge that duty if hired.

Would I stick it for seven years? Mr Hamilton's first hermit lasted just three weeks, and I am sure I could do better than that.

But if I could write my own terms, if I could find an enlightened patron willing to spring for something more ambitious than a hut on a hillside, I could imagine finding perfect happiness in a secular monastery designed not for one hermit but for many. We would sleep in our whitewashed cells, read and write all day, and observe a vow of silence save for mealtimes and late evenings when conversation would be allowed.

Ideally one would enter such a retreat with the privileges that used to attend signing on with the French Foreign Legion: Take a new name, disown any past identities and previous convictions, disappear from the records and registers of the State. Lifelong immunity to buff envelopes and court orders.

Is there such a place in the world, or room for such a place? I doubt I am alone in feeling that, subject to my limited means, I would pay more for medieval austerity than for modern comfort.

My information about the life of the ornamental hermit I drew from English Eccentrics: A Gallery Of Weird And Wonderful Men And Women (1933), by Edith Sitwell, which despite its irresistible title turned out to be a rag-bag of disparate essays carelessly digested from contemporary biographies of people who were not classically eccentric and in some cases not even English; rather, they were people who might better be described as obsessive, notorious, fraudulent, miserly, reckless, or deluded. Still, that is still promising set of criteria, and the book does have its moments.

I was pleased to learn — even if further investigation proves the claim untrue — that the term "quack" for a bogus doctor is abbreviated from "quacksalver", has some claimed association with ancient Egypt, and was first used in the 17th century to salute the effusive reassurances which were held to be part of the quack-doctors' spiel:

In The Antiquities of Egypt, by William Osburn, Junior, published in 1847, the author says that the idea of a physician is frequently represented by a species of duck; the name of which is Chini. The Egyptian equivalent for cackling, or the noise of a goose, was Ka Ka, and, in Coptic, Quok, pronounced very much like Quack.

I also enjoyed encountering Squire Mytton, described in Sitwell as a "half-mad hunting creature" who drank eight bottles of port each day, and who once set his nightshirt on fire, while wearing it, as a cure for hiccups. The hiccups were cured but the burns almost killed him.

Mytton was born into great wealth, died in a debtor's prison at 38, and enjoyed life while it lasted:.

The Squire was constantly riding at dangerous fences, falling off his horse when drunk, driving his tandem at a frantic speed, and paying no more attention to crossroads and corners than he did to creditors.

Animals did well to keep their wits about them when in Mytton's vicinity:

A horse named Sportsman dropped dead because Mytton, out of kindness of heart, had given him a bottle of mulled port. There was a day, too, when disaster came because Squire Mytton deserted the horse as a steed and rode into the dining-room on a large brown bear. Dinner was waiting, and all went well until the Squire, who was dressed in full hunting costume, applied his spurs to the bear, whereupon that injured pet bit him through the calf of his leg, inflicting a severe wound.

I was also interested to discover via Sitwell that Herbert Spencer, the Victorian philosopher, was most particular about his train travel:

Mr Spencer had been taught by experience that by travelling in a hammock when going a long journey he avoided the evil consequences which usually followed the shaking of the train. The slinging of the hammock in the saloon carriage reserved by Mr Spencer was no light matter; indeed it aroused the interest of all the denizens of the station; but when Mr Spencer became aware of this interest, he called out in stentorian tones: "Draw down those blinds". The four officials who were temporarily under bondage to him did so immediately, so that all the fun was spoilt, as far as the crowd was concerned. Mr Spencer continued his survey of the hammock-slinging, and then, as the train was about to start, he bestowed warm words of praise upon his companions, bending from the hammock to do so: "You have done very well. Good-bye".

I begin to see that Charles Dickens's variegated universe of minor characters owes less than I had thought to Dickens's powers of invention and more to his powers of observation.

I am listening each evening to a chapter of Dickens's Bleak House, which I had never found enjoyable in print but which proves a garden of delights when read aloud by a sympathetic voice. I see now why Henry Oliver considers Bleak House to be the best of Dickens's novels and perhaps of all English novels.

Of the many sub-plots in Bleak House, I am particularly taken by Dickens's prescient critique of Effective Altruism through the person of Mrs Jellyby, a middle-class Londoner who is so preoccupied with raising money for missions to Africa that she has no time to spare for her own children. The unwashed little Jellybys fall downstairs, dress in rags, and weep with misery, while their mother, indifferent to what is going on in front of her eyes, devotes her energies to the promotion of grand projects for improving the future well-being of distant peoples. I find it hard not to think of San Francisco as Mrs Jellyby's house writ large.

In my daytime reading, after finishing Sitwell's Eccentrics, I succumbed briefly to a desire for guilty pleasure, and began re-reading Martin Amis's Money (1984), which I remembered as the best-crafted novel of Amis's golden age, the one that came closest to being a classic.

The style is still a marvel. Nobody in the 20th century wrote sentences more to my taste. But the years have not been kind to the substance.

I know that critics tend to argue that style is substance; that in attempting to separate style from content you are asking, in effect, for a different book. But in the case of Money it is painfully apparent that the words are telling you one story while the events and characters are telling you quite another.

Amis mocks the vulgarity and venality of Money's anti-hero John Self. This is the stuff of the book. But Amis is always on Self's side and of Self's party, he never flips Self from anti-hero to villain. He caricatures Self's male-chauvinist piggery while wallowing in it, even revelling in it. What was offered once as satire reads now as wish-fulfilment.

And yet, and yet, there is delight in every sentence of Money:

“Yeah", I said, and started smoking another cigarette. Unless I specifically inform you otherwise, I’m always smoking another cigarette.
I’m scared of flying. I’m scared of landing, too.
My head is a city, and various pains have taken up residence in various parts of my face. A gum-and-bone ache has launched a cooperative on my upper west side. Across the park, neuralgia has rented a duplex in my fashionable east seventies. Downtown, my chin throbs with lofts of jaw-loss. As for my brain, my hundreds, it’s Harlem up there, expanding in the summer fires. It boils and swells. One day soon it is going to burst.
When English people say they can play tennis they don’t mean what Americans mean when they say they can play tennis.

I fear that Amis belonged, as I still do, to a generation that rejected the necessity of growing up. If you are having a fabulous time in your twenties, why not live there for ever?

This had obvious attractions as a way of passing the time, but it was a fashion statement rather than a change in the fundamentals of the human predicament. Authors who refused to put aside their childish things when they turned 40 evolved a genre of fiction which came to be called "hysterical realism" and which had something of the character of HDR photography. Successful novels were highly coloured, superficially intense, immediately pleasing, but with little in the way of staying power.

Time has a way of catching up with all of us sooner or later, and I fear it has caught up posthumously with Martin Amis. Much as I still admire Amis's prose style, the prose style is the only thing about Amis that I do still admire.

Against all early expectations, I am sure now that posterity will consider Martin a lesser writer than his father, Kingsley Amis. Kingsley played the bigoted buffer while Martin played the cool cat. Kingsley was the past, Martin was the future. But Kingsley's novels betray a genuine curiosity about human nature which is wholly lacking in Martin's work. I said earlier that Martin wrote satire, but I think now that I was wrong. It was Kingsley who wrote satire, while Martin wrote pastiche.

I am getting oracle envy. Every day I see a blog post somewhere that begins, "I am frequently asked ..." or "People often ask me ..."

When I was a journalist many years ago, one or two people did ask me: "Where to do you get ideas for stories?" At The Browser, if we have an event, it is not unknown for a guest to ask how we come across our more offbeat articles. But those cases aside, to a first approximation, nobody asks me anything.

I don't think I am imagining this. Here are some real-life examples of the "I am often asked" format which are so foreign to my experience as to be scarcely credible:

"I’m often asked some version of this question: How can we fix American democracy?"
"A question I’m often asked: What’s my process for taking notes?"
"I am frequently asked to define branding"
"I'm often asked, "Which power meter should I buy?"
"I am frequently asked to describe public health"
"I am frequently asked: What is your outlook for the markets for the rest of the year?"
I am frequently asked how I managed to survive in the Japanese science community"

It may be that nobody asks me such questions because I never do anything to provoke such questions. On the other hand, what if the world really is divided into "askers" and "guessers", as Oliver Wainwright and at least 4,039 other people have claimed at various times over the past twenty years, the more scrupulous among them crediting the formula to a Metafilter comment posted in 2007; and what if, in my neck of the woods, everybody is a "guesser" and the "askers" have moved elsewhere to be with their kind. We might have sorted ourselves subconsciously. Certainly, I have always led my own life in guess-only mode, walking miles in the wrong direction rather than seeking advice along the way.

When I have to ask a question, I ask it of Google, because that is what Google is for, and on Google I can find an answer that suits my purpose. As for asking and answering questions in real life, let me conclude with two rules of thumb. As in a court of law, never ask a question to which you do not already know the answer; and, as in Rosencrantz And Guildernstern, always reply to a question with another question:

How about that?


If you are not a paying subscriber to The Browser, and enjoy this letter, please do become a paying subscriber to The Browser, because that is how I earn the money to write this letter.

Shortcode Glossary:
= Ungated, free. M = Metered paywall. B = Metered paywall can be bypassed using private/incognito browsing. Full details of our shortcodes here.

This post is only for paying subscribers of The Browser, but please do forward it to any friends who deserve a treat today, especially if you think they might be interested in becoming Browser subscribers in the future.

Caroline Crampton, Editor-In-Chief; Robert Cottrell, Founding Editor; Jodi Ettenberg, Editor-At-Large; Dan Feyer, Crossword Editor; Uri Bram, CEO & Publisher; Sylvia Bishop, Assistant Publisher; Al Breach, Founding Director

Editorial comments and letters to the editor:
Technical issues and support requests:
Or write at any time to the publisher:

Elsewhere on The Browser, and of possible interest to Browser subscribers: Letters To The Editor, where you will find constructive comment from fellow-subscribers; The Reader, our commonplace book of clippings and quotations; Notes, our occasional blog. You can always Give The Browser, surely the finest possible gift for discerning friends and family.

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The Cynical Gaze

A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Correspondence and criticism gratefully received and always read:

This week: Mea Culpa, Stalin's Library, John Aubrey.

The author last week

MY THANKS to the many readers who wrote to me last week pointing out that, within hours of my asserting that dictators' chefs led charmed lives, we learned of the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, who had been Vladimir Putin's chef before he formed a private army, invaded Ukraine, and mutinied against Putin.

Not only did the private plane carrying Prigozhin and senior Wagner colleagues crash between Moscow and St Peterburg killing everyone on board, but an eyewitness was conveniently located nearby to recognise the significance of the smoke trail in the sky and to film it on a mobile phone so that broadcasters and bloggers would have a record of Prigozhin's final moments. If the brute fact of Prigozhin's death was shocking but not surprising, the video was a masterstroke. Once seen, never forgotten. Thus fare all traitors!

The following day, I added a note to my letter as it appeared on the Browser website, saying:

This letter was published before news broke yesterday that Yevgeny Prigozhin was believed to have died in a plane crash along with other Wagner leaders. My contention that "chefs always survive" has not aged well, obviously, but I will leave the letter unchanged, though I have added a new picture at the end. I will affect to think that some sixth sense for topicality actually worked rather well for me on this occasion, even if I totally misread the message which it was trying to convey.

I was less dismayed by the course of events than perhaps I ought to have been because I found my personal embarrassment to be a trivial thing when set against the prospect of a world without Prigozhin.

Prigozhin was a monster and a murderer who looked as though he ate live bats for breakfast and human flesh for dinner — and that, in a way, was the point of him. Apologists for Vladimir Putin would sometimes say that Putin was not all that bad by the standards of Russian hardliners. You ought to see the next guy! When this claim started wearing thin, the next guy was produced for our inspection, and it was Prigozhin.  

The only data-point I ever counted in Prigozhin's favour was that, when he started his first restaurant, the Old Customs House in Petersburg, he took as his partner a waiter formerly employed at the Savoy Hotel in London and resembling a moustachioed Benny Hill:

Tony Gear

Anyone who wanted such a business partner, even Prigozhin, could not have been entirely devoid of a sense of humour.

I have been trying hard of late to write this letter on Wednesdays, the day fixed in the Browser's publishing schedule, after a summer of missed deadlines and moveable feasts.

I duly completed last week's letter on Wednesday and felt rather pleased with myself when I hit "send" — only to discover that, had I procrastinated one more day, I could have been explaining with the wisdom of hindsight why Prigozhin's death was something that any fule could have seen coming.

Once bitten, twice shy. What if tomorrow we learn that the plane crash was faked and that Prigozhin is even now tanning himself somewhere in Africa? After all, we only have the Kremlin's word for it that Prigozhin was on the plane at all; and it is hard to believe that Prigozhin, in the circumstances, would not have thought to post guards around his planes for fear of strangers bearing bags of sugar, much as he must have taken to cooking his own food, turning off his GPS, and wiping his doorknobs with anti-bacterial cloths.

But no, I cannot believe the crash was faked, if only because that would have left Prigozhin at such a tactical advantage, with an option to reappear at any moment and claim his moral victory. So, no, it woz Putin wot dun it, and in truth rather elegantly. It is what it is, as they say in Mafia films.

When I imagined Putin receiving confirmation of Prigozhin's death last week, these few lines came to mind:

Cynical knowledge betrays itself through the cloudiness and coldness of the gaze. In such eyes there is an expression that can be compared with the crooked smile. The cynical gaze lets things know that they do not exist as real objects for it, but only as phenomena and information. It looks at them as if they already belonged to the past. It takes them in, registers them, and ponders its self-preservation.

The lines are from Peter Sloterdijk, whose thoughts are often so abstract as to be incomprehensible, but whose turns of phrase can be lethal.

Enough of dictators and their chefs. Time for dictators and their books. I have been reading Stalin's Library (2022), by Geoffrey Roberts, which I cannot recommend in its entirety but which raises a number of interesting points.

To say that Stalin was a highly cultured man is a troubling proposition. When an evil man takes pleasure in great art, is that an indication that he has detected in the art some capacity for evil? So it was in the case of Hitler and Wagner: Wagner's art was morally contestable before Hitler got to it, but by the very act of admiring it, by revealing previously unimaginable uses for it, Hitler dragged it down to his own infernal level.

I cannot bring myself to say that Stalin had good taste, but he did have remarkable judgement when engaging with literature and the performing arts. He could evaluate a poem or a symphony not only on its technical merits but also on its political merits. He could distinguish good propaganda from good art, and he could strike a balance between the two (as he did when encouraging socialist realist painting). His occasional public forays into criticism — abasing and then restoring Shostakovich, choosing the winners of the Stalin Prize — were primarily political signals, but they were never artistically uninteresting, and he took the work seriously:    

Stalin looked at any significant manuscript that was to be published. He could and did wipe out theater projects with a stroke of his pen. He also saw every new Soviet film and ordered changes to parts he didn’t like (he appointed his personal projectionist as Minister of Cinematography). Through his KGB, Stalin got up-to-the-minute appraisals of the attitudes of all these artists.

Stalin possessed some 25,000 books and pamphlets at his death in 1953, and was said to read 500 pages per day — which must have been an exaggeration, perhaps it would have been truer to say that he paged briskly through a book or two each day, but in any case his marginalia and underlinings provide ample evidence that he read widely and busily and critically. Among the expressions which recur in his annotations are ha ha, gibberish, nonsense, rubbish, fool, scumbag, scoundrel, and piss off. His highest praise was an m-da written in the margin, glossed by Roberts as "a difficult-to-translate expression which indicates a combination of puzzlement and pondering what is being said".

Stalin's non-fiction reading was devoted almost exclusively to Marxist-Leninist works by his Soviet contemporaries, which I imagine he was scouring for actionable deviations. His fiction shelves were filled with classics from Russian, Soviet and world literature: Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Hugo, Shakespeare, France etc. He lionised Gorky in public while preferring Chekhov in private. When Milovan Djilas asked his opinion of Dostoevsky, Stalin replied: "A great writer and a great reactionary. We are not publishing him because he is a bad influence on the youth. But a great writer".

In most societies books are considered intrinsically good things. Possessing them is a sign of virtue, reading them is a habit to be encouraged. Did a taste for Shakespeare make Stalin any less of a demon? Perhaps, for it is possible that reading books actually did improve Stalin and that he would have been an even worse person without his culture. But if his books did improve him, they did not improve him nearly enough.

On a very different note, I cannot recommend highly enough Ruth Scurr's book, John Aubrey, My Own Life (2015), a lightly fictionalised version of the diary which Aubrey, a 17th-century English antiquarian, might have kept, and which Scurr has confected from material in Aubrey's letters and essays. There are at least five worthwhile thoughts on every page, all of them refracted through Aubrey's and Scurr's sensibilities. We can be interested in Aubrey's ideas as they appear to us now, and interested in how they appeared to Aubrey four hundred years ago.

Scurr's Aubrey makes me think of Pierre Menard, Author Of The Quixote, the short story by Jorge Luis Borges in which an eccentric 20th-century French writer copies out Don Quixote word for word, believing that he is producing a quite different book by reimagining each word in the light of all that has changed since the time of Cervantes. In similar fashion, Scurr passes Aubrey's words through her modern invention and the result is, as Borges foretold, a book which both is, and is not, Aubrey's own.

Finally, and just for the record, I have been reading for esoteric reasons of my own an academic book called The Soviet Economic System: A Legal Analysis (1987) by Olympiad Joffe. Three paragraphs in the opening pages pulled me up sharply:

The entire [Soviet] population lives under the fully unrestricted weight of the elite's political might, and the Soviet regime would cease to exist if the relationship between the ruling pinnacle and the subordinate masses were to be destroyed or even shaken.
Only the combination of unlimited political power with economic monopoly gives rise to and assures the continuance of the Soviet system, and, conversely, were the Soviet system to be deprived of either of these two components, it would as such cease to exist.
Soviet rulers know that at the very moment when a liberalised economy is permanently introduced, their political power will be doomed.

Let nobody say now that the collapse of the Soviet Union was unforeseen and unpredictable.

I am also indebted to Joffe for this aside:

A Soviet governmental decree of May 7, 1985, initiated by Gorbachev and directed primarily against drunkenness during working hours, prohibits the sale before 2 p.m. on any work day not only of liquor, as is stated in the published text, but also of Eau de Cologne, as is provided in the unpublished text.

To readers whose interest in Russia is less all-consuming than my own, I apologise for two successive letters of almost unrelieved Russianness. I shall adventure in a different direction next week. — Robert

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How To Feed A Dictator

A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Correspondence and criticism gratefully received and always read:

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This week: Dictators and their cooks.

Editor's update, 24th August 2023: This letter was published before news broke yesterday that Yevgeny Prigozhin was believed to have died in a plane crash along with other Wagner leaders. My contention that "chefs always survive" has not aged well, obviously, but I will leave the letter unchanged, though I have added a new picture at the end. I will affect to think that some sixth sense for topicality actually worked rather well for me on this occasion, even if I totally misread the message which it was trying to convey. — Robert


EVEN THE most paranoid ruler needs at least some people around him whom he can trust, and they will almost never be found among the supposed team-mates in party and government who hug him on public stages and praise him in speeches; these are the very people who will do away with him if ever they get the chance.

The people whom the ruler must trust because he has no real choice but to trust them are his close personal staff — the people who dress and feed and drive him, the ones who have access to the body, the ones who might kill him every day.

Trust of this kind can make for strange bedfellows. Boris Yeltsin used to grunt and grumble all day to his ministers, then open his heart each evening to his bodyguard and his tennis coach over a bottle of vodka. Winston Churchill's closest confidant in later life was his doctor, Lord Moran. Margaret Thatcher bonded with her dresser, Cynthia Crawford. Turkmenbashi, the half-deranged dictator of Turkmenistan, seemed to like nobody except his personal dentist, Gurbanguli Berdimuhamedow, who became his minister of health, then his vice-president, and finally his successor.

In dictatorial lives, personal chefs seem to play a particularly significant part. The three highest-ranking leaders of the Khmer Rouge — Pol Pot, Nuon Chea and Khieu Sampan — all took chefs for their wives (in Pol Pot's case, for his second wife, though the Khmer Rouge purported to frown on remarriage).

Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese sushi chef who went to work for Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in 1988, soon became the Dear Leader's buddy-of-choice in fishing expeditions, drinking bouts and stripper parties which belied not a little the North Korean regime's pretensions to austerity:

Kim's 'pleasure squad' consisted of young women chosen to dance and sing for Kim, and to bathe him. Kim liked disco music, but preferred watching others dance rather than dance himself. Fujimoto later married one of the women at a drunken wedding, where he passed out on cognac and woke to find his pubic hair shaved.

Otonde Odera, when chef to Idi Amin, was the highest-paid member of the presidential administration after Amin tripled his salary on a whim and threw in the keys to a new Mercedes-Benz. Their relationship was not without its costs; After Amin converted to Islam, he required Odera to get circumcised and take two new wives. But Odera insists that he was never required to cook human flesh for Amin, although others say Amin spoke knowledgeably of its flavour.

Many of these details I found in a highly readable book called How To Feed A Dictator, by Witold Szablowski, a Polish journalist and former chef who interviewed at length six cooks once employed by now-dead dictators. Some shared their leaders' favourite recipes, from which I will quote here, since, while lacking exact instructions, these dishes do seem to have the makings of an unusual themed dinner party:

First Course: Saddam Hussein's Fish Soup

"Saddam called it Thieves’ Fish Soup because apparently Tikrit’s local thieves used to make it. We use the oiliest fish, gattan, for this soup. But I know you can make it with other fish, salmon or cod. First you cut the fish into inch-long pieces; then you coat it in flour. You put some onion and a dash of oil at the bottom of the pot. You fry the onion, then place a layer of fish on top. You sprinkle it with parsley. Then you add a layer of tomatoes. Then a layer of dried apricots. Then tomatoes again. Then fish again. Then a layer of almonds. Then fish again. As you arrange the layers, it’s important for the onion to remain at the bottom. And for the soup to include garlic, parsley, almonds, apricots, and tomatoes. You can also add a few raisins. Then you wait until the water from the fish and vegetables you’ve added has evaporated. When you hear a hissing sound, which means there’s no water left, you pour hot water from the kettle over it all, until you’ve covered the top layer. After pouring in the water, you cook it for another fifteen to twenty minutes. Finally, you can add a little turmeric. I’m the only person on earth who knows how to make it the way Saddam Hussein liked it."
Abu Ali, chef to Saddam Hussein

Main Course: Idi Amin's Whole Roasted Goat

“My great invention was whole roasted goat. We’d remove its innards, cut off its beard, stuff it with rice, potatoes, carrots, parsley, peas, and some herbs and spices— naturally, all mixed with goat meat cut into small pieces. We’d roast it in the oven and colour it a bit, and as a finishing touch we’d stick its beard back on. It would be brought to the table in a standing position, as if it were alive. Everyone was surprised to see a goat looking as if it had come straight from the pasture but which was ready to eat in minutes.”
Otonde Odera, chef to Idi Amin and Milton Obote

Dessert: Enver Hoxha's Sheqerpare

“Thanks to my sheqerpare I sat at the same table as Enver and his family on New Year’s Eve. Not many of his staff achieved such an honour. You’d like the recipe? You need three glasses of flour, half a block of butter, three eggs, a glass of sugar, some baking powder, and vanilla. To make it the way I made it for Hoxha, you have to replace the sugar with xylitol, of course [Hoxha was diabetic]. You use these ingredients to make a dough. For the syrup you need two more glasses of sugar, half a glass of water, and vanilla. You tip the sugar into a bowl, then melt the butter in a frying pan and pour it into the bowl with the sugar. Add the eggs, vanilla, and flour, and mix until you have a thick yellow dough. Make little balls out of it, arrange them on a baking tray, and bake for twenty minutes at 180 degrees centigrade. Take them out when they start to brown. Now the syrup. Bring the sugar, vanilla, and half glass of water to a boil in a small saucepan. Once it’s boiling, pour it over the dough balls. I couldn’t do this for Hoxha but it tastes great with whipped cream and fruit.”
Mr K, chef to Enver Hoxha

Szablowski's conversations did not touch upon wine parings, and none of his dictators were known to be wine buffs, but we do know from other sources that Saddam Hussein often drank Mateus Rosé, a light and affordable wine which might easily go well with the soup and even the dessert. Roast goat would need something big and red: Perhaps a Rioja, the wine which Fidel Castro drank in his youth before switching, once in power, to the Algerian reds which he received by the case from fellow-dictator Houari Boumedienne.

I find myself thinking about dictators and their chefs mainly because of the distinctive part played by two chefs in the life of Vladimir Putin, a subject on which I have it in mind to write a book of my own (the life, that is, not the part played by the chefs).

Putin has claimed that his paternal grandfather, Spiridon, cooked for Lenin, and then for Stalin, and in later life for the Moscow Party Committee. I am sceptical of this account pending further and better particulars, for I can no reference to Spiridon in any writings about Lenin or Stalin prior to the first publication of Putin's story in 2000, making Putin, in effect, the sole source. It also strikes me as odd that Putin would have grown up in the degree of hardship to which he often laid claim if his father was the son of Lenin's cook.

But if Putin invented or exaggerated the story, that would be, in its way, even more revealing. Was it some deep-seated reverence for the kitchen which underpinned the reckless indulgence with which Putin allowed his own chef, Yevgeny Prigozhin, to go into the private army business, recruit tens of thousands of mercenaries, then turn them against Putin's own General Staff in June's abortive mutiny?

Still more bizarre, at first glance, has been Putin's apparent willingness to forgive Prigozhin his trespass. He and Prigozhin were said to have met privately a few days later, and Putin was said to have accepted Prigozhin's argument that the mutiny had been launched in support of Putin, and directed against only the General Staff, whom Prigozhin claimed had been sabotaging Putin's war in Ukraine.

Preposterous as this sounds, and whatever the true story, I detect a more general principle at work here: Chefs always survive.

Another case in point is the debauched sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto, who fled North Korea in 2001 and began writing his astonishingly lurid series of memoirs. North Korea has a history of assassinating people for lesser offences. Fujimoto not only survived, but was welcomed back to North Korea in 2012 to cook for Kim Jong Un and to open a private sushi restaurant in Pyongyang.

In a similar vein, one of the few members of Stalin's entourage to die peacefully in bed was Stalin's executive chef, Sasha Egnatashvili. When Egnatashvili's wife was executed in 1941, apparently because she was of German descent, Egnatashvili knew the rules: He went on working and never mentioned the matter to Stalin. He was duly rewarded with a promotion to the rank of general, and his professional triumph was the 1945 Yalta conference where rivers of vodka and tureens of caviar helped reconcile Churchill and Roosevelt to Stalin's plans for post-war eastern Europe.

When Idi Amin staged his coup in 1971, Otonde Odera was cooking for Milton Obote; and when Milton Obote staged his counter-coup in 1979, Odera was still cooking for Idi Amin. Obote and Amin were not kindly or forgiving men. But while others around him were executed, Odera cooked on:

The previous coup had taught me that generals are there for coups. But a cook is there to have clean hands and a clean apron. And to cook. Nothing excuses you from your work, because once they’ve carried out their putsch, they’ll arrive with empty bellies, and as long as you have something good for them to eat, there's a chance they won't kill you.

Perhaps even Spiridon Putin belongs in this company of survivors, with a larger role than history has so far allowed him, given the modest circumstantial evidence that Lenin was poisoned on Stalin's orders and that Stalin was poisoned on Beria's orders. If we apply Lucy-Letby-style matrix analysis to this chain of events, we find Spiridon Putin in attendance in both households. Might Spiridon have dropped the cyanide into Lenin's mushroom soup and the warfarin into Stalin's watered-down wine? I do not know, but the claim seems scarcely more fanciful to me than the claim that he was cooking successively for the two leaders in the first place.

I wonder who cooks for Putin now? A whole brigade of chefs, I suppose, given that he had eight declared residences at last count and who knows how many more undeclared palaces, villas and yachts at home and abroad. But given his own record as an accomplished poisoner and a chronic germophobe, I doubt that Putin is getting much light-hearted fun out of all these thousands of marbled and gilded square meters. He must fear even to touch a doorknob, let alone to grab a late-night snack from the fridge. Where now the bare-chested horseman?

Saddam Hussein in his later years would insist that meals were prepared and served for him every day in all 29 of his palaces, and he would decide at the last minute where he would actually eat, on the grounds that this uncertainty would greatly complicate any poisoner's task. Perhaps Putin does the same — or perhaps Prigozhin is still in charge of the presidential kitchen while also managing his mutinous private army, which would account for Putin's otherwise inexplicable reluctance to make an enemy of him.

As for a possible glimpse of what comes next for Vladimir Putin, I recommend a most entertaining novel, The Senility Of Vladimir P (2016) by Michael Honig, which imagines the future ex-president in his mid-seventies: Dementia has forced him from office and confined him to a suburban mansion where he is tormented by frustration, racked by nightmares, and helplessly dependent on a feckless domestic staff redeemed only by a devoted male nurse called Sheremetev:

Quickly, before Vladimir could notice him, Sheremetev closed the door. If he got to him early enough, he could sometimes calm Vladimir and get him back into bed, but by the time Vladimir had reached this point, by the time he was striking his judo poses, there was only one way to handle the situation. Vladimir might seem like any other old man, frail and hesitant, but when the delusions took hold of him, he had the strength of a man thirty years younger and a martial arts technique with which to channel it. Sheremetev went to a phone on the wall outside the suite and called the security man who was posted in the entrance hall of the dacha. The phone rang for what seemed like minutes before someone answered. Then Sheremetev went to a locked cupboard in his room and took out a vial of tranquilliser. There were fifty milligrams in the vial–he carefully drew up five milligrams into a syringe, the dose prescribed to calm Vladimir when he was acutely agitated.

I wonder how close Putin is now to a life like that. It might well be the best old age for which he can reasonably hope. — Robert

Imagine. A plane crashes by chance, and someone is there to film its fall.
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Goats And Diplomats

A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Correspondence and criticism gratefully received and always read:

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This week: The greatest humans of all time, and (not mutually exclusive) the greatest diplomat of all time.

I SEE with some embarrassment that weeks have passed since I wrote my last letter before taking a summer break, and that I have still to respond gratefully to correspondents on the matter of Goats — greatest-of-all-timers — in various fields of human rivalry, and on the related question of whether any Goats live currently among us. Allow me to report on these discussions before proceeding to a revised and updated list of Goats.

A first AB, whom I shall identify here as Andrew Bailey, since Andrew is a friend, and since everybody should subscribe to his fine-art newsletter, The Easel, insists that we find a place of honor for Shakespeare, argues that Diego Velazquez deserves precedence over Pablo Picasso among painters, and proposes Grinling Gibbons in the new category of wood-carving.

Of Shakespeare Andrew says:

You may mount a (partial) defence that his category of Goatness is unclear. True. Is he the greatest writer, the greatest thinker or maybe the greatest pragmatist? (I might say in passing that I don’t quite understand why he is not offered up as the Smartest Of All Time, given that the field in which he worked had been heavily tilled for centuries and yet he still managed to be enduringly profound.) Indeed, I will go further and suggest that Shakespeare’s Goat category trumps all others and is thus itself Goat: He is the greatest observer of life.

And of Velazquez:

I am quarrelsome with your inclusion of Picasso. Georges Braque said insightfully of Pablo that he started out a great painter but ended up merely a genius. If the measure of artistic Goatness is the ability to impart emotion to matter, then the prize surely goes to Diego Velazquez. His portrait of Pope Innocent X, which hangs in Galleria Doria Pamphii in central Rome, is a thunderous statement of the truth about a politician/thug masquerading as a churchman. My backup exhibit is Las Meninas, in the Prado, surely the most mind-bending painting ever, and a work that, after 350 years, still generates column inches.

I defer (of course) to Andrew's arguments in their entirety, and I hereby depose Picasso in favour of Velazquez. It would be foolish of me to receive such expert advice and then not act on it. I also agree that Las Meninas has a magical quality which places it in a category of its own. Certainly it fascinated Picasso, who explored its form in dozens of variations.

A second AB, who is not Andrew Bailey, argues that Bernie Madoff should not be regarded as the greatest con-man of all time since he was caught and punished; which I have to concede is a serious objection, but one which I am going to over-rule on the grounds that it was not any of Madoff's victims who exposed him, but the Wall Street Journal, and, had it not been for this interference by third parties, Madoff might well have gone on skimming and stealing until the end of his life and then been left to rest in peace by his embarrassed victims.

AR proposes Tiger Woods among golfers, Alexander the Great among generals, and William Shakespeare among Shakespeares.  

TB seconds the claim of Alexander the Great to Goathood among generals, and wonders about an honourable mention for Ulysses C. Grant.

My reponse: I am going to stick with Napoleon among generals because I see a strong quantitative case for doing so. Of his 43 listed battles, he won 38 and lost 5, overcoming difficult odds in 17 of his victories and commanding inferior forces in all 5 of his losses. The same methodology would favour Julius Caesar as runner-up among all-time generals and greatest of ancient generals.

I readily agree that Alexander the Great is something of a wild card in any ranking of generals because of the brevity of his career. He won every battle, but lived to fight only nine of them. On the other hand, Alexander very probably brought the brevity of his career upon himself either by excessive drinking or by motivating and then allowing a subordinate to poison him, neither of which strikes me as a positive indicator for his later trajectory had he lived to fight more battles.

NS argues that if we are to advance Paul McCartney as a possible Goat in songwriting, we should also consider the rival claims of Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. TD seconds the claims of Kern, Porter and Rodgers among songwriters, while favouring Oscar Hammerstein as Rodgers's lyricist and adding the names of George & Ira Gershwin, Harry Warren, Frank Loesser, and Noel Coward.

My response: I shall be silent here, since with songwriting we are in more than usually subjective territory and Paul McCartney is certainly not in a different class from any of these contenders, even if (like me) you consider him a winner on points.  

HK argues that Bill Clinton cannot count as a Goat among retail politicians, since his duplicity (as with Bernie Madoff) was eventually exposed: "By the end of his Presidency he couldn't have been elected local dogcatcher". HK goes on to compare Clinton unfavourably with Barack Obama: Obama inspired admiration and affection among voters at least matching that inspired by Clinton, without subsequently betraying the confidence which voters placed in him.

My response: I find this argument persuasive and sympathetic, and hesitate over it only to the extent that my admiration for Obama is founded more on his personality, broadly defined, than on his political skills considered in isolation. With Clinton, on the other hand, one's admiration is best directed at his political skills in isolation; other aspects of Clinton's personality serve to diminish, rather than to elevate, the man in full.

AM raises the case of men's tennis, which I ducked partly for the reasons which AM invokes. AM writes:

I strongly support your Williams nomination for women, but for the men's side this seems to be more contentious. Your point about the Goat in football is likely true (2 in 5 chances it's a contemporary), but with tennis I think the Goat's three candidates are still alive and have all played against each other. Nadal and Djokovich are tied for grand slam titles and are two ahead of Federer, now retired. Rafa just announced he is on his way out so there is a real chance Nole [Djokovich] might end his career with more titles than anyone else. Why, then, does Federer still 'feel' more Goat than the other two? I say this as a Spaniard, which is extra frustrating. The only way I can reconcile this would be to give Roger the tennist Goat title and Rafa the 'Greatest Spanish Athlete of all time' award (with Iniesta as a runner up). But where does that leave Novak and his (potentially taller) mountain of titles?

My response: I agree in every particular. I too instinctively rank Federer as the Goatissimo of men's tennis, but mainly for what I can only describe as his effortlessness, on and off the court. He seems to achieve his stellar results with much less on-court anguish and off-court turbulence than do either of his rivals.

That said, Serena Williams's relative superiority among women players is greater than Federer's (or Nadal's, or Djokovich's) relatively superiority among men. So, given that our list of Goats skews horribly towards white males, doubtless in large degree because they have received training and opportunities denied to their potential female counterparts, I think it right to maintain Serena Williams's fairly well-founded claim to pre-eminence among all tennis players.

My thanks by the way, to TW, who wrote noting the overwhelmingly Euro-centric bias of my choices, and yet did not berate me for my blinkered view of human achievement, but observed sympathetically that one's hands are tied by the historical facts even when one would wish the history to have been different.

My thanks also to EK, for urging the claims of Lebron James against those of Michael Jordan as to Goatness in basketball. This does, I admit, seem to be a highly arguable case, with James now the all-time leading scorer in NBA history; and I do not want to insist. Perhaps basketball is a field which, by virtue of its recency, may still be testing the limits of its players, and we should wait a few more decades before arguing that one player has outpaced the field to a historically meaningful degree.  

And, finally I salute PP — whom I think I can identify here as Paolo Pascal without betraying any confidences — for his note on the matter of crossword-solving Goats. It was Paolo who lost to Dan Feyer by one second in the 2023 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Paolo's email to me reads, in its entirety:

I'd hate to be that Paolo guy!

... which I think it may well be the most satisfying email I have ever received, not least because it was written by the only person who could possibly have written it.      

Now, on to the revised list of Goatships. I have combined living with defunct Goats, removed some of the more contestable entries, changed "retail politician" to "stump politician", and added a greatest-Goat category to accommodate Goats who slipped through the cracks of the previous list even while deserving the highest positions on it simply because they defied obvious classification:

Greatest Goat of everything and always: Leonardo da Vinci
Runners-up: Aristotle, J.W. von Goethe, G.W. von Leibniz, John von Neumann, Frank Ramsey, William Shakespeare, Socrates.  

Basketball Player: Michael Jordan (in contention, Lebron James)  
Chess Player: Magnus Carlsen
Confidence Trickster: Bernie Madoff
Crossword Solver: Dan Feyer
Darts Thrower: Phil Taylor
Evangelist: St Paul
General: Napoleon
Magazine Editor: Anna Wintour
Mathematician: Leonhard Euler
Mnemonist: Solomon Shereshevsky
Mountaineer: Reinhold Messner
Painter: Diego Velazquez
Percussionist: Evelyn Glennie
Poker Player: Doyle Brunson
Scientist: Galileo Galilei
Singer: Maria Callas
Songwriter: Paul McCartney (in contention, many others)
Steve Jobs: Steve Jobs (in contention, Elon Musk)
Storyteller: J.K. Rowling (in contention, Homer)
Stump Politician: Bill Clinton
Tennis Player: Serena Williams (in contention, Roger Federer)

Before I go on, let me squeeze in a mention of Richard Feynman. I had struggled to find a way of including Feynman in the original list of Goats, but I felt that I could not reasonably co-opt him either for his physics or for his bongo-playing. Probably I should have combined the two and declared Feynman to be the greatest bongo-playing theoretical physicist of all time; and who is to say that such a combination of skills might not count for more than either skill alone? As for which of the skills — physics or percussion — deserved the greater admiration, here is Feynman himself on their perceived relative merits:

It is odd, but on the infrequent occasions when I have been called upon in a formal place to play the bongo drums, the introducer never seems to find it necessary to mention that I also do theoretical physics.

AND NOW for something completely unrelated. Tom Stevenson's article on diplomacy in the latest London Review Of Books encouraged me to read Ernest Satow's Guide To Diplomatic Practice at long last, and I am much in Stevenson's debt for the nudge.

The Guide is a joy throughout. If the Japanese thought Satow an exemplary user of the Japanese language, and the Chinese admired both his speech and his calligraphy in Chinese, I will contend here that his English-language skills were every bit as remarkable. The prose-style of the Guide is near-faultless. There is scarcely a misused word or a misplaced comma in all of its 445 pages. Discreet flourishes and hints of irony enliven the narrative without diminishing its seriousness. Maxims and aphorisms abound, adding both to the reader's entertainment and to the ease of recollection.

The 1917 first edition of Satow on diplomacy stands comparison with Fowler on English usage or Mrs Beeton on household management. If now outdated in detail, it remains timeless in spirit. And, if you would like a modern Satow for practical use, other hands have been at work over the past century producing revised and enlarged editions. An Eighth Edition of Diplomatic Practice will appear later this month, and will succeed the 2018 Seventh Edition as the standard work within the profession.

Satow is one of those people about whose life you can only say: "How on earth did he find the time?" He was, by Wikipedia's account, "an exceptional linguist, an energetic traveller, a writer of travel guidebooks, a dictionary compiler, a mountaineer, a keen botanist and a major collector of Japanese books and manuscripts on all kinds of subjects". By the time of his death in 1929 his private diary filled 47 volumes.  

Satow wrote and published his Guide after retiring from the British Foreign Office. It was one of twelve books that he wrote within his lifetime, along with papers and essays filling another five volumes. His correspondence while ambassador in Japan (1895-1900) runs to five volumes, not including diplomatic telegrams, and his correspondence while ambassador in China (1900-1906) to six volumes. His scholarly correspondence with other Orientalists fills three volumes. His personal correspondence with family and friends has not, I think, been published, and has been archived in Yokohama. The Foreign Office refused him permission to marry the partner of his choice, Takeda Kane, on the grounds that she was Japanese, but they lived together, nonetheless, with, in time, a short-lived daughter, and two sons.

Both of the best-known definitions of diplomacy originated as jokes. Sir Henry Wotton* wrote in 1604 that "An Ambassador is an honest man, sent to lie abroad for the good of his Country". Three centuries later, Will Rogers described diplomacy as "the art of saying 'nice doggy' until you can find a rock".

For a serious definition of diplomacy I doubt that the sentence with which Satow begins the Guide will ever be bettered:

Diplomacy is the application of intelligence and tact to the conduct of official relations between the governments of independent states.

And, having quoted Satow once, I find that the urge to continue quoting him is all but irresistible. There is wisdom in his every line.

Here is the Guide on the writing of despatches:

Never place an adjective before a noun, if it can be spared; it only weakens the effect of a plain statement. Above all, do not attempt to be witty. Each despatch must treat of one subject only. It is a good practice to number the paragraphs. To keep a diary of events and of conversations is very useful.

On choosing between the first person and the third person in diplomatic correspondence:

The third person is stiff, cold, formal, and dignified; it is negotiation in court dress, bag wig, sword by side, chapeau de bras, white silk stockings, and patent shoe-buckles. Letters in the first person are negotiations in frock coat, pantaloons, half-boots, and a round hat.

On stonewalling a difficult interlocutor, and other diplomatic niceties:

If, as frequently happens, an indiscreet question, which seems to require a distinct answer, is put to you abruptly by an artful minister, parry it either by treating it as an indiscreet question, or get rid of it by a grave and serious look.
Bribery may be permissible as a weapon of defence; as a means of attack it is disallowed.
It is better to spend money on telegrams than to risk the failure of a negotiation.
In concluding a written agreement with the State to which you are accredited, do not be in too great a hurry to sign.

There are lines as crisp as this on every page.

Part of what makes Satow such as fine stylist, I think, is that he has a sound instinct for knowing when a short sentence will do best and when a long sentence is necessary. Then, when constructing long sentences, he keeps their syntax and sense on a short, tight leash. The result is that, even in a paragraph-length fugue about the wisdom of accommodating naval contingencies in peace treaties, one can hear the harmony of words well chosen, and sense Satow's quiet delight in his mastery of the relevant arcana:

Expeditions at sea requiring preparations of long standing, and depending on navigations which are uncertain, as well as on the concurrence of seasons, in places which are often too distant for orders relative to their execution to be adapted to the common vicissitudes of negotiations, which for the most part are subject to disappointments and delays, and are always fluctuating and precarious: from whence it necessarily results, that the nature of such operations is by no means susceptible, without prejudice to the party who employs them, of any other epochas than those which have reference to the day of signing the treaty of peace.

A generous proportion of Satow's Guide is taken up with what we might broadly call etiquette — titles, styles of address, precedence, protocol and so on. Obviously these things were important then, and they still are now; but the relish with Satow cites some of his more outlandish examples suggests, as with the expeditions at sea, that he was alive to the eccentricities of his profession. Here he is on the titles of sovereigns:  

Certain sovereigns use three sorts of title: the grand titre, the titre moyen and the petit titre. The first of these includes the names of the fictitious as well as of the real dominions. For instance, the grand titre of the Emperor of Austria was “Empereur d’Autriche, roi apostolique de Hongrie, roi de Bohême, de Dalmatie, de Croatie, d’Esclavonie, de Galicie, de Lodomérie et d’Illyrie, roi de Jerusalem, etc., archiduc d’Autriche, grand-duc de Toscane et de Cracovie, duc de Lorraine, de Salzbourg, de Styrie, de Charinthie, de Carniole et de Bukovine, grand prince de Transylvanie, margrave de Moravie, duc de la Haute-Silésie, de la Basse-Silésie, de Modène, de Parme, Plaisance et Guastalla, d’Auschwitz et Zator, de Teschen, Frioul, Raguse et Zara, comte princier de Habsbourg et Tyrol, de Kybourg, Goritz et Gradisca, prince de Trente et Brixen, margrave de la Haute et de la Basse-Lusace et en Istrie, Comte de Hohenembs, Feldkirch, Brigance, Sonnenberg, etc., seigneur de Trieste, de Cattaro et de la Marche Wende, grand voyvode de la voyvodie de Serbia, etc., etc."

The King of Spain’s grand titre includes the two Sicilies, Jerusalem, Corsica, Gibraltar, Austria, Burgundy, Brabant and Milan, Habsburg, Flanders, Tyrol, all of which are fictitious, one of them, Jerusalem, being also claimed in the grand titre of Austria. Those of the King of Prussia and the Emperor of Russia also were very long. The latter comprised “héritier de Norvège, duc de Slesvig-Holstein, de Stormarn, des Dithmarses et d’Oldenbourg” (but the last four also belong to the grand titre of the King of Denmark, together with sovereignty over the Wends and Goths). Down to 1783 inclusive the sovereigns of England asserted their right to the crown of France in similar fashion. To avoid disputes arising out of this practice, which was sometimes maintained with a show of seriousness in order to protract treaty negotiations, diplomatists discovered the expedient of inserting an article de non preejudicando, that cela ne tire pas à conséquence.

The titre moyen is confined to real facts, and the petit titre, the most generally made use of in these days, is the highest of the whole number — namely, that by which the sovereign is habitually designated. Sovereigns, in addressing each other officially, begin, Monsieur mon Frère, adding the name of any blood relationship that may exist between them. To an empress or queen it is Madame ma Soeur.

When addressing the Pope, always a special case in diplomacy, acceptable styles might include "Most Holy Father; Très Saint Père; Vénérable or Très Vénérable Père; Holiness; Sainteté; or, Béatitude". A Catholic king writing to the Pope would sign himself the Pope's dévoué — or très-dévoué fils. The Pope might salute the sovereign by return as Carissime in Christo Fili, or Dilectissimo in Christo Fili, "even when the text of the letter is in French".

For addressing the Emperor of Japan, Satow advises that the correct style is Tennô. The title Mikado, "by which the emperor is sometimes spoken of by European writers, is antiquated, and its use is not desired.”

That use of "desired" is somehow exquisite, is it not? I do not think that I have seen the words "not desired" used in quite that exact sense anywhere else, and yet it is so obviously the perfect formulation for warning against a faux pas.

Wherever possible Satow goes scampering in the nooks and crannies of diplomatic lore, never quite declaring things absurd but letting his examples hint at that judgement. Here, for example, is his explanation of uti possidetis, a doctrine which holds that when a new state emerges through decolonisation or secession, it inherits the administrative frontiers it enjoyed when it was a colony or region of another state:

While uti possidetis relates to the possession of territory, the status quo may be the previously existing situation in regard to other matters, e.g. to privileges enjoyed by one of the parties at the expense of the other, such as the French privilege of taking and drying fish on a portion of the coast of Newfoundland.

As examples of good form for new diplomats to emulate, Satow cites at length, in their French and German and Latin originals, letters and treaties going back to the Middle Ages, in the course of which he makes a point which had not previously occurred to me, namely, that there are conventions not only as to what is written, but also as to what it is written on:

From the rules of the French Foreign Office: “Letters addressed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs to the representatives of foreign Powers accredited to the French Republic are written on folio paper with gilt edges.”

Gilt edges abounded when Satow was writing his Guide because most nations were still monarchies, and only a relative few — notably the United States Of America — were republics. To adjust those conventions of diplomacy which had developed among monarchies such that they gave no offence to the conduct of diplomacy among republics was largely a matter of improvisation. Monarchs, for example, generally wrote to one another to announce formally the birth of an heir, the death of a reigning king or queen, and the fact of a succession to the throne. The American government declined to follow this practise, explaining itself as follows (in the words of Secretary of State William Seward):

We receive from all monarchical states letters announcing the births and deaths of persons connected nearly with the throne, and we respond to them in the spirit of friendship and in terms of courtesy. On the contrary, on our part, no signal incident or melancholy casualties affecting the Chief Magistrate or other functionaries of the Republic are ever announced by us to foreign states. While we allow the foreign states the unrestrained indulgence of their peculiar tastes, we carefully practice our own. This is nothing more than the courtesy of private life extended into the intercourse of nations.”

The current Seventh Edition of Practice does a generally good job of maintaining the spirit of the original, while covering a lot of new ground. Satow's extensive citations from antique documents have been cut heavily to make room for newer chapters on international institutions, international law, international conferences, public diplomacy, NGOs, and other 20th century inventions. The updated book is not nearly as much fun to read as Satow's original, but it is clear and informative to a degree rarely encountered nowadays in writing of any kind relating to the business of government.

— Robert

*According to Satow, Wotton coined the line when asked to contribute a sentence to a friend's commonplace book. Wotton camouflaged his joke in Latin: Legatus est vir bonus peregre missus ad mentiendum Rei publicet causa. But it was too good a joke not to be Englished and repeated until eventually it came to the notice of King James, who was furious, and who only regained his composure after obliging Wotton to produce two apologies, one to the King himself and one to be printed and distributed throughout Europe.

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Cottrell v Oliver

A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Correspondence and criticism gratefully received and always read:

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Much of this letter looks forward to my planned argument in London next week with Henry Oliver, of the Common Reader, at City Lit, on 25th April. The writer and teacher Sarah Leipciger has kindly agreed to be our moderator. Henry and I will be arguing whether Orwell's Rules For Writers are good or bad. I say good, Henry say bad. A very few tickets — four, to be exact — remain, as I write. They are free, they are available at Eventbrite, and you will need the password rulesforwriters to access our Eventbrite page. Please take a ticket only if you are reasonably confident that you will attend.

Wondering what to expect from airport immigration when I go to America next month, I visited the Transport Security Administration's website yesterday and found that the TSA has "expanded its security focus" from searching bags into what it calls Identity Management:

A person centric approach is the positioning of processes around an individual’s identity. It uses the information provided by individuals to evaluate the risk they pose to the transportation enterprise, including secure spaces and information. TSA also prioritizes opportunities to scale existing person centric functions and introduce new elements of human-centered design to improve the customer experience.

Having also been re-reading George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four very recently, it occurs to me that Newspeak could compress the essentials of this paragraph into just two words:

ungoodperson untravel.

If we wanted to represent the rationale of the TSA in more detail, we might add

ownlife crimethink

... though the TSA might reasonably object that this was not quite what they meant.

I am not sure that much is lost this compression, and something may even be gained. But Newspeak is ugly and I do not want to live there.

If I try now to translate what I think the TSA is saying into what I think of as everyday English, I arrive at something like this:

"We want to know what people have done in the past, maybe even more than we want to know what they are doing at the airport right now".

Which, by the way, I think is a pretty good approach for the TSA to take.

The more I think about my argument with Henry next week, the more I appreciate the virtues of plain English.

I have been looking again at George Orwell's rules for writers, and comparing them with other rules on offer in what turns out to be quite a crowded market. I have been reading Strunk and White, H.W. Fowler, Ernest Gowers and Kurt Vonnegut. They all propose rules which resemble those of Orwell, if often less concisely expressed. Be short, be simple, be concrete. You know the stuff.

The Guardian has a whole series on writers' rules contributed by Zadie Smith, Margaret Atwood and others. Many of these rules are about writing habits rather than writing styles, but here are a few of my favourites:

Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can't sharpen it on the plane, because you can't take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils — Margaret Atwood
Write a book you'd like to read. If you wouldn't read it, why would anybody else? — Hilary Mantel
Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it — Zadie Smith
Remember how much time people spend watching TV. If you're writing a novel with a contemporary setting there need to be long passages where nothing happens save for TV watching — Will Self
My minimum is 1,000 words a day. Those 1,000 words might well be rubbish – they often are. But it is always easier to return to rubbish words at a later date and make them better — Sarah Waters
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it — Elmore Leonard

But of all the writers canvassed by The Guardian, not one of them recommends difficulty, digression, self-indulgence or complexity as a writing strategy. Which is, for my purposes, a bit of a problem. If I am to argue for plain English, what am I supposed to rebutting? Where are the rules with which I disagree, the rules in praise of wordy and difficult writing, the new arguments in need of new rebuttals?

Ideally, I need a copy of the TSA Stylebook.

As the next best thing, I keep close the essay by David Bentley Hart which got me thinking about all this in the first place. It is a gift which never stops giving. There is a misdirection in every line. Take this one: "Never squander an opportunity for verbal cleverness". If I were ever obliged to try explaining the distinction between cleverness and wisdom, I would start with that sentence.  

I have also been re-reading Henry's defence of Hart, in which Henry says:

In this world where all prose must be staccato to be considered readable, I was glad to find someone prepared to say so much against Orwell and the nasty trend he helped embed in ordinary English.

It is not ordinary but extraordinary English which bothers me. But I can argue this out with Henry on the evening.

To these foundational texts I can now add an essay in last week's Literary Hub by Ed Simon (whose writing I know mainly from The Millions; and do look in on his Belt Magazine, a splendid publication based in Pittsburgh), who makes this seductive claim:

When Orwell says that we must always cut a word out, when Zinsser says that we must strip the sentence and valorize function above all else, when Strunk and White demand that all words must be necessary, they are making a philosophical argument about what matters and what doesn’t.

For the authors of such style guides, good composition is an exercise in the literal, the straightforward, the utilitarian. Certainly, there are some forms of writing for which that’s nothing but good advice, but taken to the extreme of dictate handed down from Sinai, it eliminates much of which is lush and fecund in long sentences, what is ecstatic, incantatory, and sublime about literature.

My first thought when reading this was a relatively trivial one: Could William Zinsser ever have said, "we must strip the sentence and valorize function", or anything nearly so ugly? Google says not. (Try the search yourself, even without quotes). I am going to go with Google on this.  

My second thought was that, thanks to Ed's essay, I believe I now understand the argument for what Ed calls "incantatory and sublime" writing more clearly than I did when reading David Bentley Hart alone, and I hope you will not think me unfair if I summarise the argument as follows:

I am a writer. I am a writer because I think my writing is good. If my writing is good, then more of my writing must be better; and more of my writing in my own distinctive style must be better still.  

This logic holds good if one is Shakespeare, and even if one is James Joyce. It starts to fall away at the level of George Bernard Shaw. But if it encourages merely competent writers, such as myself, to think ourselves capable of writing "sublime" prose, then we fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which holds that "people with low ability, expertise, or experience regarding a certain type of task or area of knowledge tend to overestimate their ability or knowledge".

I know that sounds a bit rich coming from me, a person with no track record to speak of in writing books, so here is Sarah Waters saying much the same thing:

Without "overwritten" prose, we would have none of the linguistic exuberance of a Dickens or an Angela Carter. If everyone was economical with their characters, there would be no Wolf Hall . . . For the rest of us, however, rules remain important. And, ­crucially, only by understanding what they're for and how they work can you begin to experiment with breaking them.

However weak the arguments in favour of convoluted writing, I still want to rest my case for simple writing on something more enduring than personal preference or current fashion. And I want to get beyond the circular argument which holds that simple writing is good because good writing is simple. This argument can easily be refuted by citing good writing which is not simple; the King James Bible, for example.  

So, what if we agree that life, whether long or short, is doled out to each of us in a finite quantity?

It does not necessarily follow that we are obliged to make good use of such time as we have. But most of us hope to make good use of such time as we have.

A preference for brevity and for clarity emerges fairly naturally from this, at least in conditions of uncertainty. Even if I arrive at a decision that the best use of my time is to read an almost incomprehensible book such as Finnegans Wake, I will want to have arrived at that decision thanks to information that I was able to digest easily and efficiently along with information about other potential pastimes.

Dear reader, you may have decided once and for all upon your ideal. You may want to read and re-read the works of Shakespeare. You may want to listen to the symphonies of Beethoven. Nobody would call these works simple, nor is brevity their selling-point, yet they are among the greatest achievements in human history, and they are generally agreed to reward life-long devotion.

For myself, I am stuck at the search and discovery stage. I have not yet found perfect happiness. I want to try out more things. I want to cast my net widely. I am not going to read something that I do not understand at all. I am not going to read much of something that I find hard to understand unless I have reason to think that doing so is worth the effort.

I am describing here mainly what you might call the recreational part of my life — books, music, films, theatre, food, conversation. As for the functional part of my life, the stuff I consume out of necessity and inertia, ranging from signs in airports to front-page articles in the New York Times, clarity and brevity are primary virtues exceeded only by truth. A good newspaper article is one that I can abandon at any time and still have most of the story in my head, because the key points will have been up there in the first sentence, and preferably in the headline.

I admire Orwell's rules for writers. I admire Orwell's invention of Newspeak. But I can see good reason for rejecting Orwell's rules for writers, if one believes that following his rules will put writers on a slippery slope towards Newspeak, by obliging them to eliminate the digressions and ambiguities and obscurities with which they conceal what they think and, often, what they do not know.

The error here is in taking Newspeak seriously. Even in Nineteen Eighty-Four nobody actually converses in Newspeak. Newspeak is an idea, a language under construction. Orwell provides an appendix to his novel in which he explains how it is meant to work. Our sole extended glimpse of Newspeak in action within Nineteen Eighty-Four comes when a Party member sends a telegram which reads:

Items one comma five comma seven approved fullwise stop suggestion contained item six doubleplus ridiculous verging crimethink cancel stop unproceed constructionwise antegetting plusfull estimates machinery overheads stop end message.

There are also some fragments of Newspeak visible in the instructions which Winston Smith receives at his place of work, the Ministry Of Truth:

times 3.12.8 reporting bb dayorder doubleplusungood refs
unpersons rewrite fullwise upsub antefiling

The funny thing is, apart from some oddities of vocabulary, that telegram is exactly how telegrams were often written in Orwell's day, when telegram companies charged by the word.

And, having been on the receiving end of many telegraphed instructions in my early work as a journalist, I can greet the order "rewrite fullwise upsub antefiling" almost as an old friend. It tells me that I need to rewrite the given piece in its entirety, then sub-edit my own copy diligently, and then file it to the editor of the day. (I would be wrong on one point if I was working at the Ministry Of Truth; there, "upsub" means "submit it to higher authority", not "give it a good sub-edit".)

The ugliness of Newspeak is merely a by-product. The main point of Newspeak is to make some things unsayable, and thus unthinkable, by having no words for them.  

It was widely believed in the 1940s, when Orwell was writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, that a person's capacity for thought was determined by their capacity for language. If you spoke a different language, you would think in a different way and you would experience the world in a different way. The shorthand term for this belief was "linguistic relativity", or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and it drew heavily on ideas developed separately by the linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf.

I see Orwell's Newspeak as a thought-experiment in extreme linguistic relativity — no word > no concept > no problem. I doubt that Orwell believed that such a thing could actually be imposed across a society, but he certainly saw the dramatic value of raising it as a threat. His Appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four on The Principles Of Newspeak reads to me as satire, or at least as a game with the reader, rather like T.S. Eliot's footnotes to The Wasteland.

In any case, few linguists still believe in any strong form of linguistic relativity. Try finding anybody now who believes we would have no wars if we had no word for "war". It seems far more probable that we have the word "war" because we have wars and we need to talk about them.

Yes, there is a touch of Newspeak in Russia's denial that its war in Ukraine is a war. But the invented Russian term, "special military operation", is a shibboleth, a loyalty test. It does not replace "war" in anybody's mind or vocabulary. Rather, it formalises an additional idea, an additional term, representing a war which cannot be called a war.

Orwell's rules would require us to call a war a war, a spade a spade, etc. Can too much plainness of this kind be bad for our language? Henry will speak to this on Tuesday, but I am far more worried about the opposite drift, into vagueness and abstraction, which seems to be going on all around me. I began with a paragraph from the TSA, but the British are just as equal to the task. Here is part of the job specification for a "Continuous Improvement Consultant" now being sought by a British goverment department:

You'll lead and deliver complex change and improvement projects that result in better processes, outcomes and value for DDTS and our customers. In addition to leading projects, you'll be helping to achieve the team's strategic priorities of growing continuous improvement capability and culture whilst embedding best working practices.

Our team use structured, evidence based continuous improvement methodologies including lean, six-sigma and systems thinking to deliver our improvements. We are part of the Change Awareness and Adoption team, which reports to the DDTS Chief Operating Officer.

Do you have any idea, based on this description, what the Continuous Improvement Consultant actually does all day? Obviously they are supposed to improve things, or improve the way that things are improved — but what things? There is nothing here which seems to have any concrete form, save perhaps for the "DDTS Chief Operating Officer", whom I imagine to be a person in their forties with an office and an air of authority.

Older generations of pedants used to get quite angry about "jargon", by which they meant technical terms and terms of art imported from particular professions and fields of study. They talked as though language was a commons under their stewardship, and the jargoneers were vandalising it.

I don't feel that way myself, perhaps thanks to the Internet. When I see jargon that I don't recognise I can go to Wikipedia and learn something. Looking up "six sigma" in Wikipedia tells me that the term is derived from statistical science and was popularised by American corporations fifty years ago as a way of saying that they had come to see value in making greater efforts to minimise defects in their products.

It is more the drift towards baroque abstraction which worries me. Words seem more negotiable than they used to be. People who used to sell clothes or show films now say they "deliver experiences" and nobody turns a hair. Words and ideas which might give offence are replaced with circumlocutions or omitted entirely — a practice which may well increase the sum of human happiness, but which frustrates my desire to know what is going on. Organisations which have always had private jargon now use that jargon in preference to everyday speech when addressing the public, and I cannot tell whether they do so because they believe the result is more precise, or because they know the result is more obscure.  

Foolishly or not, I feel insecure, even frightened, when the language used in the world around me diverges ever further from the language that I use myself. I do not want to be kept in a state of increasing bafflement, even with good reason.

So when I shall meet Henry next week, I shall approach him as a supplicant, pleading for plain English to be maintained. If Henry points out that every great writer breaks all of Orwell's rules all the time, I shall plead that Orwell's rules are meant as a floor, not a ceiling. I hope above all that we shall not bore our audience, and I hope that if some disagreements remain between us at the end of our argument, we will both consider the disagreements to be reasonable ones.

— Robert

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The Clock Strikes Thirteen

A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Correspondence and criticism gratefully received and always read:

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This week: AI overload, text-to-voice, notable newsletters, and books I have been reading.

WE HAVE been recommending relatively few articles about artificial intelligence and GPT4 on The Browser of late — relative, at any rate, to the number being published in newspapers and newsletters in the months since ChatGPT went public. For myself, I find people's accounts of their conversations with AI somewhat similar to people's accounts of their dreams: Both subjects can seem fascinating, even revelatory, to the person involved, but neither travels well into writing or conversation.

I do feel that something momentous is happening when machines master language, but I do not know what that something will amount to over time, and nor, I think, does anyone else. At most I am confident that we will soon understand a lot more about how language works, thanks to AI, an advance which is excitement enough for me; and that we will come to a better understanding of what we mean by "intelligence".

I recommended Tyler Cowen's conversation with "Jonathan Swift" on The Browser last week because I saw it as useful evidence of just how far AI has already moved beyond the Turing Test. Not only can GPT4 pass for a human being, it can assume the history and to some very limited extent the personality of a particular person. Likewise, I recommended Stephen Wolfram's recent paper on AIs and neural networks because I thought it the most detailed and concrete explanation likely to be accessible to a general reader such as myself.

As to the social and political implications of AI, I recommend The Moral Economy Of High-Tech Modernism, by Henry Farrell and Marion Fourcade. The paper is primarily concerned with the replacement of bureaucratic choice by algorithmic choice, but the interests and factors at work in that shift are similar to those at work in the rise of AI.

Most of all I recommend exploring AI at first-hand. It is readily available in the form of ChatGPT. Play with it, ask it questions, give it commands, draw it into conversation. A minute with ChatGPT is worth a thousand words of commentary.

An email from Berit Andreone reminds me of something that used to be very much on my mind until I was distracted by AI. Are we anywhere near the point at which Browser subscribers can listen with pleasure to recommended stories as well as reading them?

We did suggest a while back that Browser subscribers who wanted audio might try linking their accounts to Instapaper Premium, which includes a text-to-speech feature. Saved articles are read out loud by a computer-generated voice. But while computer speech is good enough when one merely wants information, as with GPS, there is little pleasure to be had, at least for me, in listening to a computer's reading of long and nuanced essays. The Instapaper feature, while ingenious, is not one that I have been using.

I trust that computer-generated voices will soon improve to the point at which they are acceptable for longer listening, and that in a year or two subscribers may be able to pair The Browser easily with some text-to-voice platform that does near-human speech. Uri points me towards AD Auris, a text-to-speech service which allows one to make Spotify playlists of articles read aloud by computerised voices, and which may well be the best option for the time being.

I have added two newsletters to my feed-reader this week. They are hosted on Substack, they do similar jobs for contrasting publications, and they suggest an interesting trend towards summarisation.

As its name suggests, Last Week's New Yorker, by Sam Circle, summarises and evaluates a selection of articles from the latest print issue of the New Yorker. I find it well-written, and I generally agree with Sam's judgements.

We very rarely recommend New Yorker articles on The Browser, despite their general excellence, only because we think it highly likely that Browser subscribers will have seen them anyway.

So, on the face of it, if you want to be alerted to the best things in the New Yorker, without subscribing to the New Yorker, then Last Week's New Yorker might be the answer. The counter-argument is that, whereas an annual subscription to Last Week's New Yorker costs $40, a digital subscription to the New Yorker itself is today being advertised at just $49.99, at least for the first year — a limited-offer discount which seems to me an extraordinary bargain.

Tracking People's Daily, by Manoj Kewalramani, provides translations, summaries and analysis of articles appearing in People’s Daily, the main newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party. The suggested yearly subscription is $40 (in rupees), or you can read for free if you so choose.

The hitch here is that People's Daily is not generally interesting in any conventional sense. You will find in it exactly what you would expect to find in the flagship newspaper of a totalitarian state: Leaders' speeches; meetings between Chinese and visiting officials; protestations of China's benevolent and selfless intentions towards the world at large; plus lots and lots of statistics about exports, bank loans, and industrial production.

The trick is to read People's Daily regularly and carefully until you recognise all the boilerplate, at which point you can start spotting the anomalies, especially the innovations and omissions, which is where the real news is hiding. Has a new adjective been applied to Xi Jinping Thought? Is somebody's name missing from a list of attendees? Is some event of significance being unaccountably ignored?

If you need to know about China in detail, Tracking People's Daily is fascinating stuff. If not, I still recommend a salutary glance at it every now and then, if only to remind yourself how lucky we are to have the New York Times.

Books I have been reading

Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell (1949).
I am a timid, tree-hugging liberal. My preferred way of life is a house and garden connected by public transport to a walkable town centre where I can do as I please. I doubt I harbour any unconscious desires to live under an totalitarian dictatorship. But as I re-read Nineteen Eighty-Four, almost seventy-five years after it was written, and many decades since I read it last, I cannot warm to Winston Smith, nor can I quite believe in the world that Orwell imagines for him.

Yes, the life described there seems horrible to me — but why are Winston and Julia the only people who seem to hate it? Why is Smith the only person whose memory seems to work? How can an all-seeing totalitarian state have placed Smith's home-surveillance camera with a blind spot just where Smith has his desk and his diary?

I start to imagine a revisionist reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four in which Smith is revealed as an unreliable narrator, and the horrors of Airstrip One are revealed as the product of his paranoia — something along the lines of Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island. Not that Orwell intended such a reading, but all credit to him if his novel would support it, since a classic novel is, almost by definition, one that can be read at different times in different ways.

Some have called Nineteen Eighty-Four the greatest novel of the 20th century. It would deserve that acclaim if its impact had helped prevent the worst of its prophecies from being realised. At this safe distance in time, I doubt that was the case. If Orwell had died a couple of years earlier with Nineteen Eighty-Four unfinished, I doubt Britain would now be another North Korea. But I respect the argument and it has some merit.

If Nineteen Eighty-Four were published today, I suspect it would pass little-noticed. It would be classed as a work of dystopian science fiction and compared unfavourably by critics with the work of George Saunders, Ted Chiang, or Margaret Attwood. I do not mean by this to diminish Orwell's achievement, but rather to salute the flourishing of science fiction and speculative fiction in the decades since Orwell's death. Even our dystopias have got better.

The Fourth Man, by Robert Baer (2022)
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago how much I enjoyed The Company, by Robert Littell, a book about spies which was offered as a work of fiction. I have just now finished reading The Fourth Man, by Robert Baer, a book about spies which is offered as a work of non-fiction. Given the impossibility of checking what is fact and what is fiction in the world of espionage, even for those involved, I wonder if the distinction matters. If The Fourth Man had been published as a novel I would have been none the wiser.

The Fourth Man covers much of the same ground that The Company does (indeed, as many spy novels do), namely, the pursuit of of a double-agent in the upper reaches of CIA. The conclusions to Littell's fictional hunt and to Baer's supposed factual hunt are eerily similar: The answer has been hiding in plain sight.

As far as I know, Littell never worked for CIA. Baer spent 30 years there. Yet the minutiae of Littell's fictional CIA — the jargon, the daily habits, the personality types — are exactly those of Robert Baer's factual CIA. I see three ways to explain this coincidence:

— Littell, sitting at his desk, intuited brilliantly how CIA operates day-to-day;
— Novelists find it much easier to obtain detailed information from and about CIA than one might have imagined;
— The culture of CIA is shaped by its depiction in spy novels. Life imitates art.

The third of those possibilities is the most pleasing. John Le Carré believed it to be true of the British Secret Intelligence Service that young spies were learning their habits from his books. It also echoes the more readily documented ways in which the culture and conversation of the American Mafia are said to have reinvented themselves in the light of The Godfather. According to the New York Times:

Generations of mobsters have looked to The Godfather for inspiration, validation and as a playbook for how to speak and act and dress. Federal and local investigators on surveillance duty saw and heard made men and wannabes imitating the mannerisms and language of the screen gangsters.

Diego Gambetta captures the reasons for this mimicry in his book, Codes Of The Underworld:

How a real mobster should behave, dress, and speak are questions for which there is no optimal technical solution that presents itself independently of what others do and perceive as the meaning of their action. While criminals need conventional signals to communicate with each other and with the outside world, they are also hard put to agree on what these signals are and how to establish them credibly. They lack a coordinating and standardizing authority, and have to operate in secrecy. Movies can accidentally offer some solutions to those problems. What they offer is 'common knowledge', the foundation of coordination in the absence of a central authority. Coordination occurs when everyone knows that everyone else knows that s means k or that people like us always do j.

Of course, one thing that "people like us" do not generally do in CIA is to publish books accusing other CIA officers of being double agents.

So while I enjoyed Baer's Fourth Man, just as I enjoyed his earlier memoir, and his book about Saudi Arabia, I can see why others found it repugnant for Baer to imply on the basis of circumstantial evidence alone that a well-respected CIA veteran was a double-agent working for the KGB.

In fact, I found it amazing, accustomed as I am to strict British libel laws, that such a book could be published at all. I know things are different in America. But are CIA officers, of all people, "public figures"?


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My Dream Of Reason

A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Correspondence and criticism gratefully received and always read:

If you are not a paying subscriber to The Browser, but enjoy this letter, please do become a paying subscriber to The Browser, because that is how I earn the money to write this letter.

This week: The tempting of Thomas Pynchon; the philosophy of David Papineau; Dan Wang's China; and books that I have been reading

THIS BUSINESS of extracting an autobiography from Thomas Pynchon, 85, while we still can: Does anyone doubt that such a book would be a best-seller? Does anyone doubt that it would be the most interesting autobiography ever written? Does anyone doubt that it would be Thomas Pynchon's best book? Is this finally a good use-case for Kickstarter?

Last year the science-fiction writer Brandon Sanderson raised $40 million on Kickstarter from 185,000 subscribers by promising delivery of four "secret" novels in the course of 2023.

If Pynchon devotees were able to raise, say, $10 million on Kickstarter or similar, would that be enough to persuade Pynchon to set pen to paper and write an autobiography? Or even just dictate one into his iPhone? Subscribers might get the book chapter by chapter, as a work in progress, before the finished work went on public sale.

There may be better models, but I have kicked the tyres on this one and they seem robust. Dear readers, does any among you have any experience of trying to draw things to Thomas Pynchon's attention? He would have to endorse the project to make it work. His attachment to privacy is one of his most attractive features, but the prospect of $10 million upfront might be worth at least a moment of even Pynchon's time.

After grumbling for years about the impenetrability of much philosophical writing, not least in this letter in recent weeks, I have been handed the key to the mysteries. It is called Philosophical Devices: Proofs, Probabilities, Possibilities, And Sets, and it is a highly readable book written in 2012 by David Papineau, Professor of Philosophy of Science at King's College London and at the City University of New York Graduate Center, and published by the Oxford University Press.

My delight at finally encountering this vade mecum, this Rosetta Stone, this basket of rich, ripe, high-hanging fruit, has been tempered only by my regret at having failed to encounter it when it was published more than ten years ago, in consequence of which I have spent the past ten years bumping up against utterances such as "R = {x: x not-∈ x}" and coming away bruised and baffled. I still prefer plain English to symbolic notation, but at least I begin to understand what I have been complaining about.

Here is Papineau's characterisation of his method, from his introduction, upon which I can scarcely improve:  

I aim to introduce a range of technical ideas without assuming any prior knowledge ... The technical ideas that matter to philosophy can be grasped perfectly well without having to plough through a lot of irrelevant and often boring details.

I owe news of David Papineau's book to my friend and correspondent Anthony Gottlieb, now an historian of philosophy — his Dream Of Reason (2001) and Dream Of Enlightenment (2016) are both joys to read — who was a colleague of mine some years ago at The Economist.

I suspect it was my inability to enjoy Spinoza which moved Anthony to think that an intervention might be required. In the Dream Of Enlightenment, Anthony approvingly cites Bertrand Russell as calling Spinoza “the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers.” Likewise, I thank Robert Keith Thomas for encouraging me to continue with my reading of Spinoza's Tractatus, and for reassuring me that it is not as difficult as I had imagined it to be.

In truth, it is probably all the God in Spinoza which bothers me. I thought the same thing when I was trying to read Descartes. Spinoza offers original and sublime ideas about the Universe, while also trying to accommodate at least the possibility of a relatively conventional God who made the Universe for reasons of Their own. I feel half of my reading time is being wasted, and I am not sure which half. Either God did it all, or there is no God. I could never tell which of those things Descartes believed, and I fear the same impasse with Spinoza.  

It's tempting to think "Well, yes, they had to write like that, the morals of the 17th century did not yet allow for explicit atheism". But we do a similar double-think in our own beliefs today. Our books and newspapers are full of people confidently discussing the future of all manner of things in measured and purportedly scientific terms; and yet at the same time science gives us good reason to believe that world civilisation may collapse relatively soon unless we do something almost unthinkably radical about climate change, which we do not plan to do.  

F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed that the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one's head at the same time was the mark of a "first-rate" intelligence. I counter-claim that the capacity to decide between two such opposing ideas, based on the evidence available, would be more intelligent still, though I cannot manage it myself. I go about my daily life as though all were well with the world, somehow indifferent to my simultaneous expectation that we will all be baking or drowning.

Another joy of the past week has been Dan Wang's annual letter — a letter not to me but to the world at large. Dan is at the top of the hierarchy of people whose reports from China and whose views on China I value. Andrew Batson and Michael Pettis are also right up there. As is Stephen Kotkin, whom I had previously thought of as a Russianist, but who has much of value to say about China. Geremie Barmé is in a category of his own: I go to him as I would to a beloved antiquarian, hoping to rummage around in his stock for as long as I possibly can before he asks me exactly what it is that I am looking for.

Dan's letter this year (looking back on 2022) is mostly about food and mountains, which is in itself an unusual overlap. The world has great mountains, and great food, but the correlation is generally quite low. Yunnan, apparently, has both.

Of Dan's book recommendations I have gone first for The Jesuits, by Markus Friedrich. Here is Dan:

I couldn’t help, as I read about this Catholic order, to compare the Vatican with the Communist Party. It is not only that China is moving towards life terms for the top leader. Both the Holy See and the CCP must dedicate an immense amount of thought to make doctrine fit into a practical philosophy of governance. Sometimes they fail, producing cadres willing only to mouth Marxist or Christian pieties without believing in all the tenets of the faith.

To me, this understates the question. I take it that our beliefs are outside our conscious control, and that we can only infer the beliefs of others through their behaviour, which may not be a reliable guide. Any high-ranking Russian who professed to believe in Marxism in 1982 would be saying in 1992 that they had not believed, but had merely behaved as if they believed, on the grounds that doing otherwise would have brought ruin on themselves and on their country — as proved to be the case.

I wonder in the same vein now about the Pope and his Cardinals. If you lose your faith, as many priests do, and you happen to be in charge of the Catholic church, do you say as much? I would guess not. Imagine the chaos. Imagine your own situation if you lost your faith, resigned as Pope, and then found it again. Bears may poop in woods, but the question of whether the Pope is Catholic is not, to me, entirely rhetorical.

Reading Dan's letter, and thinking about China, what I want to read now is a novel called The Hu Jintao Incident. I have no idea what it would say, but I would buy it like a shot. Perhaps it would be in the vein of The Conspiracy And Death Of Lin Biao. Perhaps it would be something less urgent, more intimate, more like The Successor by Ismail Kadare — perhaps Kadare could even write it, and call it The Predecessor. What happened in the days, hours and minutes before Hu Jintao was hustled off stage? What happened during the cuts in the video? What has happened to Hu Jintao since? We may never know, but that is what fiction is for.

Books I Have Been Reading

Ironweed, by William Kennedy (1983)
I started Ironweed by mistake, thinking it to be about the final years of the gangster Legs Diamond, having read in the New York Times that the author of Ironweed, William Kennedy, was selling the house in Dove Street, Albany, where Diamond was killed. (I also thought that any novel must be pretty special if the film adaptation could attract Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep.)

As I have since discovered, Kennedy's Albany Cycle consists of three novels, but only the first of them, Legs, is about Legs Diamond. The second, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, is about a 1930s kidnapping. The third, Ironweed, is about two homeless alcoholics, one of them terminally ill. A bundle of laughs it is not.    

Ironweed is well done, but novels about alcoholics are necessary difficult projects, since alcoholics tend to do a very limited number of things and have a very limited range of priorities, perhaps especially so when they are homeless and/or dying. Leaving Las Vegas worked, as did The Girl On The Train; there is an alcoholic undertow to much of Michel Houellbecq's writing, as there is to Raymond Chandler's and Patricia Highsmith's. I had hoped that Ironweed might likewise surprise on the upside. In truth I can recommend it only as a novel of degradation and despair.

Legs, on the other hand, is exactly what I wanted. Fierce and wry, period noir. Here is the missing link between Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy. Never has Albany seemed so interesting.

Your Driver Is Waiting, by Priya Guns (2023)
Irresistible. Every bit as fast and clever and funny as the reviews say — I think here of the New York Times,  LA Times, Vogue, among others. The book was sold to the publisher as an update of Taxi Driver, and is now being marketed by the publisher in much the same vein, but there is very little here which is derivative. On the contrary, Guns's novel is remarkable for its originality, at least in my demographic. I surrendered immediately to the writing voice. Guns says that she wrote the first draft in four weeks and I believe her: There is a roughness and a recklessness about her style which is perfectly of a piece with her story, staves off any earnestness, and keeps the plates spinning. Frankly, Martin Scorsese should close the circle by buying the rights and filming the book — though the result would be more like After Hours than like Taxi Driver.      

Pragmatism As Anti-Authoritarianism, by Richard Rorty (2021)
Pragmatism is Richard Rorty's last book, and for me his most enjoyable, full of confidence and shorn of technicalities. The ideas in it are genuinely thrilling and subversive. Rorty's message is roughly this: "Reality is what we believe to be true, and we should be constantly updating our beliefs in line with what works best". He is not quite denying reality, but he might as well be. In Rorty's view, government institutions have no business getting religious or philosophical about their vocation. Their job is to dispense justice and happiness, not to leave their mark on history.  

Reading Rorty is like living through the 1960s all over again — wonderfully uplifting but wildly impractical. You might enjoy it for a year or so but you would not want to grow old there. My only regret is that Rorty treats Charles Peirce so cavalierly. The notion that Peirce was a lesser thinker than Dewey seems to me almost absurd. It might help to consolidate Peirce's reputation if there were a biography that did him justice. Daniel Everett has taken on the job, and I hope he delivers.



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An Honest Book

A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Topics may vary. Correspondence and criticism welcome:

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This week: Language in translation, books I have been reading, long words

WHAT IS the opposite of "fluent", for language? That is the word I need this week to describe my competence in the Latvian language, after and despite several years of residence in Latvia. I am roughly at the level of what, in typing, would be called "hunt and peck". Give me a newspaper and a Latvian-English dictionary and I can work out what is going on in the world. Engage me in conversation and I seize up.

Can one have the opposite of a "gift for languages"? A "liability for languages", perhaps? I feel that I have been moving steadily into deficit since I learned minimal viable French in my twenties. My happiest moment as a French-speaker came when a Parisian asked me whether I was Belgian. It was only later that I realised they had taken me for Flemish.

Still, I felt that with the help of Google, and dictionaries, and family, and friends, I could make a stab at translating a single line by Isaiah Berlin into Latvian, for possible use as an epigraph. The line was: "The first public obligation is to avoid extremes of suffering". It came from an essay called The Pursuit Of The Ideal, delivered first by Berlin as a speech in Italy, then published in the New York Review Of Books.

Berlin was balancing tolerance ("let's all try to be accommodating") against realism ("people want conflicting things"), and arguing that at least one objective priority ("avoid extreme suffering") should be respected, whatever trade-offs might be managed elsewhere.

But if the meaning seemed clear enough, the words were another matter. Was "first" best translated in the sense of "first-in-order", or "first-in-importance", or "fundamental"? Did "public" point in the direction of "people", or "society", or "nation", or "everyone"? Why "avoid" rather than "prevent"? And, come to think of it, was the whole proposition even true, when the first public obligation of Ukraine is arguably to endure and even impose extremes of suffering?

I was suddenly in awe of translators. I had no idea of the work involved, the choices to be made. It took me a day to translate a sentence. How did anybody ever translate a book?

Thanks to that experience I realise that when I say (in the note below) how much I have enjoyed reading Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago, I am saying in large part how much I have enjoyed the 1958 translation by Max Hayward and Manya Harari.

Pasternak's niece, Anna Pasternak Slater, a considerable scholar and translator herself, also admired the Hayward-Harari translation, and thought that it gained in quality from the haste with which it was produced. The smuggling of Pasternak's manuscript out of Soviet Russia in 1957 produced a political uproar and a race among publishers to bring it to market.

"I remember Max [Hayward] saying he would read a page in Russian, and then write it down in English, without looking back", wrote Slater. The result was a Dr Zhivago rendered in easy, natural, idiomatic English — but often at quite a distance, in its exact wording, from the original Russian.

This natural language is most obvious in dialogue. For example, nobody would ever say: "Yes, yes, it's vexing in the highest degree that we didn't see each other yesterday". They might easily say: "Oh, I wish I'd seen you yesterday". Yet both of those are translations of the same spoken line in Dr Zhivago. The first comes from a more studied translation produced in 2010 by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The second comes from Hayward-Harari's rush-job in 1958. Slater thinks that the Hayward-Harari falls more easily on the ear, and so do I.  

Books I Have Been Reading

Dr Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak (1957)
Translated by Max Hayward and Manya Harari (1958)

I think it was Ivan Klima who, when asked why Communist regimes had banned the works of Franz Kafka, replied, "Perhaps it was his honesty they could not stand". I feel that way about Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago. This is an honest book.

There are a couple of stylised villains and zealots in Dr Zhivago, but mostly the story is populated by people with doubts, people with other things on their minds, people who, by choice, would live uneventful lives, and yet, caught amid a revolution and a civil war, have no choice but to shift as best they can.

So gentle and persuasive is Pasternak's writing voice that I can visualise him, pen in hand, working away in Peredelkino, feeling that if he does not tell this story of ordinary people in extraordinary times then nobody else will — and all the while knowing that he will suffer for that exact quality in his writing, honesty, which in writing should be valued above all.

I saw David Lean's 1965 film of Dr Zhivago in my childhood, enjoyed it, and retained a few images (was it Tom Courtenay with the broken spectacles?) in my memory. But nothing in those fragments prepared me for the directness, the intimacy, of Pasternak's book, when I listened to it last week, read by Phillip Madoc.

So much of what makes Dr Zhivago great is Pasternak's modesty, his genius for seeing that the recent turmoil of his vast nation could be captured in a few lives closely observed, the lives of people who were not quite in control of themselves, let alone in control of events. I love Pasternak's writing for its hesitancy. Nobody in Dr Zhivago is ever quite certain about anything. They are always changing their minds. I am like that myself. I have found my book.

Chip War, by Chris Miller (2022)

I said last week that I was puzzled to find that only one company on Earth — a Dutch company called ASML — was capable of making the machine tools needed to produce the latest generations of microchips, without which the technological progress of the world would grind to a halt.

My thanks to Henry Farrell for recommending Chris Miller's Chip War, which is an excellent account of the evolution of the microchip industry over the past 70 years, and which tracks closely the rise of ASML.

Thanks to Chip War I now understand, at least schematically, how a semiconductor works. I have a sense of just how difficult it was to work with William Shockley. And I feel the place of Morris Chang in world history. Chang, after working for Texas Instruments, went on to found the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, which is now so far ahead of the global competition in fabricating the tiniest of chips that if China does invade Taiwan any time soon, control of Chang's factory will be high on its list of reasons.

As for the peculiar position of ASML, I came away from Chip War less puzzled, but more worried, than I was before.

There is a lot of Clayton Christensen's disruption theory in Chip War, but it seems to me that the triumph of ASML is more a case of Hirschman's Hiding Hand.

As far back as the 1960s the most advanced integrated circuits were becoming so tiny that the best way of making them was to "print" them, by shining narrow beams of light on to photosensitive coatings.

As the chips got smaller and smaller, even visible light waves became too big and clumsy to do the printing. By the 1980s it was clear that the point would soon be reached at which extreme-ultra-violet light would be needed to print new generations of chips — and the machines capable of such precision would be fantastically difficult to make. They would not be the sort of things that even an Intel would want to make in-house.

Nobody in the industry anywhere in the world was especially averse to co-operating with, and co-financing, a potential producer of these extreme-ultra-violet light machines in the Netherlands, spun off from Philips. This was seen partly as a way of getting the thing done at all, and partly as a way of forestalling the emergence of an eventual monopoly producer in America or Japan.

Then, as the decades rolled by, the semiconductor industry changed almost beyond recognition. Companies and countries rose and fell, came and went, had trade wars, focused on other things.

ASML, meanwhile, stayed doggedly focused on its machine tools, secured new rounds of financing from new investors and partners who knew its tools would be needed eventually, built a supply chain of hundreds of other companies making components to its own impossible standards, and, by the time it finally got all its ducks in line, there was nobody left standing who was even pretending to compete with it. Intended to avert a monopoly, it became the monopoly. In Miller's summation, ASML "builds 100 percent of the world’s extreme ultraviolet lithography machines, without which cutting-edge chips are simply impossible to make”.

So there you are. The most strategically valuable place on Earth is not the Taiwan Straits, nor some nexus of oil pipelines in Saudi Arabia, but a suburb of Eindhoven. I hope ASML has a high fence, a large and well-padlocked inventory of raw materials, several back-up power supplies, and a special deal with Nato for air cover.

Early Modern Texts, edited by Jonathan Bennett

Not technically a book, but near enough; Early Modern Texts is an archive of downloadable PDFs containing classic works of philosophy rewritten in plain English. Nigel Warburton recommended it to me after I wrote to compliment him on his piece in the New European in which he argued that it was perfectly possible to write philosophy in terms comprehensible to the general reader, and gave Schopenhauer as an example:

Schopenhauer wrote lucid prose because he wanted to be read and understood. “Truth,” he declared, “is fairest naked”: the simpler its expression the more profound its influence. Humans, he believed, can only think clearly when dealing with one thought at a time.

Three cheers for that. If a person can think clearly then they ought to be able to write clearly. And since philosophers are in the business of thinking for a living, the sheer difficulty of so much philosophical writing strikes me as a logical problem if not a deliberate discourtesy.

Even philosophers find some philosophy heavy going. Here is Derek Parfit on Immanuel Kant:

The first problem is Kant’s style. It is Kant who made really bad writing philosophically acceptable. We can no longer point to some atrocious sentence by someone else, and say "How can it be worth reading anyone who writes like that?" The answer could always be "What about Kant?"

We have translations of the Bible into plain English which are generally agreed by those in the trade to have lost nothing of their sacred character. Why not great works of philosophy (including those first written in English) translated into plain English? Luckily, before I got too excited about the originality of this idea, Nigel pointed out Bennett had already delivered on it.

I am starting my reading of Bennett with his version of Spinoza's Treatise On Theology And Politics, since philosophers often claim Spinoza, along with Hume, as the most likeable of their number, but I have never managed to get more than three lines into any of Spinoza's works without feeling out of my depth.

First impressions are encouraging. Here is how Bennett's Spinoza begins:

If men could manage all their affairs by a definite plan, or if they never ran into bad luck, they would never succumb to superstition. But often they are in such a jam that they can’t put any plan into operation, and can only trust to luck, wobbling miserably between hope and fear. That makes them ready to believe anything that will calm them down; when they are in doubt, a slight impulse drives them this way or that — especially when they are tormented by hope and fear, and don’t know which way to turn. At other times they are over-confident, boastful and presumptuous.

Yup. I can live with this.

As for my quest last week to find a word which meant "using a particular word to show that one knew the particular word", we had several near-bull's-eyes, and one inspired winner.

"Sesquipedalian" was the hands-down favourite for describing words that are notable for their length, and also speech in which such words are used. But I think it would have to be used ironically, if one wanted to mock, as showing-off, the use of long words. Used in all seriousness to describe the use of long words, "sesquipedalian" would become an example of exactly the sort of showing-off that we are seeking a word to describe.    

Does this start to sound a bit self-referential? I hope so, because that will bring us nicely to our winner: It is "self-reverential", which Andrew John dropped into his email so lightly that at first I misread it, and only then, doing a double-take, did I grasp its genius. Everything is in there: Not only the use of attention-seeking words, but attention-seeking behaviour in general.

My thanks to correspondents for comments and suggestions relating both to the long-word word, and to other points in recent letters. I am especially indebted to Henry F, Paul M, Jonathan B, Nathaniel J, Jay W, Reed H, Amy S, Neil O, David R, Benajmin W, Richard K, Andre M, Jack H, Anar B, Jack A, Sean C, Nancy D, Galen S, Philip W, Stephen Y, Scott M, John M, afwaz, Robert B, Doug R, Alex M, John K, Scott S, Kate N, Rory O'C, Dan N, Naftali F, Francesca B, bvann, and, of course, Andrew J. I apologise for not writing more personal replies more promptly; I am at fault; but I do read and value all of the emails which you are kind enough to send.  

A giftable Browser subscription is on its way to Andrew John. Which may also be a good moment to mention that giftable Browser subscriptions are readily available for purchase at the button below — Robert

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