50th anniversary of these notes

 

Fifty years ago today, as a young teenager in Lexington, Massachusetts, I typed my first index card note. Naturally I have an interest in others who have followed a similar habit. Lichtenberg, Leopardi, Maugham, Manguso. Emily Dickinson, Michael Frayn. Samuel Butler, B. F. Skinner, N. N. Taleb. I happily regard these as kindred spirits through the ages, and I keep their books on a special shelf.

Lichtenberg wrote notes for more than 30 years, and Butler more than 40. Tomorrow I’ll be past 50!

[14 February 2020]

Don’t follow a Queen

Edward VII was 59 when he ascended the throne, and Prince Charles is already 71. As Wikipedia puts it, he is “the oldest and longest-serving heir apparent in British history”.

I’ve realized that three different effects conspire to make it particularly unfortunate to succeed a Queen — a perfect storm of actuarial bad luck. First, of course, women live longer than men (Victoria to 81, Elizabeth to 93 so far). Second, women marry younger than men (Victoria was 20, Elizabeth 21).

Now these two effects apply to all of us, making our mothers last a decade longer than our fathers. But there’s a third factor that hits royals especially. If you are the Queen, or destined to be crowned as such, don’t imagine you can spend a few years after the wedding working on the relationship! No, the babies must come immediately. Edward arrived 12 months into the marriage, and Charles 21.  Their mothers were practically teenagers.

[8 February 2020]

LGBT flag triple take

As I walked in I noticed the LGBT rainbow flag flying over the humanities building. My immediate happy reaction was: good!

Instantly this was followed by a second, unhappy thought as I reflected that these days, flying the rainbow flag is about more than just LGBT rights. Equally, it’s a statement of which side you are on, which public figures you approve of and which you disapprove of. How depressing.

And then my thoughts took a third, bitter turn. Who’s to blame for polarising us? It’s Trump and the Republicans.

All this in five seconds upon seeing that rainbow flying in the breeze.

[28 January 2020]

Song game

I don’t exactly often write notes of the kind you might find in the family section of a newspaper. But Kate and I have stumbled upon a delightful game and we’re thrilled to have found it. Try it next time you and a friend are on a drive for a few hours.

Simply pick a word or a theme and take turns choosing songs that mention the word or touch the theme. The magic is, nowadays it’s easy to call up any song on your smartphone and play it over the car speakers. To play the game, the driver drives and the passenger manages the electronics, but you take equal turns picking songs.

We’ve had half a dozen drives like this so far. The theme of “cities” led to Molly Malone, Brownsville Girl, and Jamaica Farewell (along with twenty others of course). “Work” led to the Lumberjack Song, Easy Wind, and 9 to 5. “Sky” led to Penny Lane, Over the Rainbow, and Clouds. “Railroads” gave us King of the Road, This Train, and Casey Jones. We’ve done flowers, girls’ names, animals, American states,….

Happy driving!

[22 January 2020]

Arabic script and music

حصلت على هذا البرنامج النصي من جوجل ترجمة

Arabic script is beautiful, isn’t it?

I find it fascinating that readers of Arabic are incapable of seeing the script as I do. Of course they too can see beauty, but it will be beauty of a different kind, for they can’t turn off the message.

For me there’s a similar effect in the gulf between musical pieces I know and those I do not. I can get pleasure and even emotion from listening to a piece I don’t know, but it’s a formless experience, without any of the meaning that takes over when I’ve heard the piece ten times. Listening to a piece I know is much more satisfying.  But once I know it, I’ve lost the ability to hear those sounds as sounds and nothing more.

[3 January 2020]

Everyone goes to heaven

In the spirit of Occam’s Razor, I’d like to propose a simplification of the current system of rewarding the good with heaven and punishing the bad with hell.

The good spend their days on earth in sober industry, avoiding all excesses of food, drink, sex, and high spirits. Then they go to heaven for an eternity of the same.

The bad break these rules. It seems to me that as punishment, it suffices to send them to heaven too.

[31 December 2019]

Why we have committees

I’ve long had the view that there are three main functions of a committee:

(1) Generate good decisions;
(2) Spread responsibility for decisions;
(3) Groom participants for future leadership roles.

[16 September 2019]