Mr. DeLong’s Eight Words

Brad DeLong, a member of the Culture mailing list and professor of economics at UC Berkeley, is much famed for being an advisor to President Clinton. Everyone was suitably impressed by this, until Brad eventually admitted that he’d only said “eight words to the guy in my entire life.”

We couldn’t take a challenge like that lying down, for a challenge was what it was!; what, we wondered, were those eight words that he’d said to President Clinton? A flurry of suggestions were made:

“Mr. President, I advise you to take hummer.”
“Bill, Woolite will get that stain right out.”
“Hey, did you have sex with that woman?”
“You call that a cigar? A cigarrillo maybe.”
“Where do you keep the ‘fresh’ cigars, sir?”
“How do you run and not lose weight?”

and of course,

“Bill, which eight words did Brad DeLong say?”


An excellent article in the Times today examined the content of Prince Charles’ letters to ministers, and found them sadly lacking in logic and facts. I’m not too concerned about Prince Charles writing to government ministers since this article echoes my thoughts that the letters don’t say anything useful anyway, apart from woolly heartful platitudes.

James Webb telescope

For several years I’ve been reading about the Hubble Space Telescope’s successor, the Next Generation Space Telescope (now renamed the James Webb Telescope). I’d always assumed that it’d simply be a bigger, more expensive version of the Hubble – hardly anything worth writing home about.

I was wrong; the people at NASA have been busy and came up with a truly astonishing plan. The Webb Telescope will have a primary mirror over twice the size of Hubble’s at six metres in diameter – this poses a problem because there is no rocket in existence or being planned that could take a solid mirror that size into space. Instead they’ll construct the mirror as 36 different segments and unfold them in space.

The telescope will also have a deployable sunshield the size of a tennis court. As a result, the Webb Telescope will be big, but it’ll only weigh half as much as the Hubble.

It’ll take three months for the Webb telescope to get to its destination, L2 orbit – 1.5 million kilometres away from Earth and way outside the orbit of the Moon. NASA claims it can do all of this for less than a third of the price of Hubble. I don’t think many people appreciate how ambitious the plan is – putting a telescope the size of the Webb into L2 orbit and deploying two large and delicate structures has never been done successfully before. I’m glad to see that at least someone at NASA still has the guts to be adventurous.

(The telescope’s homepage has an endearingly bad design; the FAQ is not endearing though – it’s a bit of a nightmare trying to find all the information).

Dead Air

I just finished reading Iain Banks’ new (non-SF) novel Dead Air. I finished it in less than 24 hours; it’s one of those books that reads very easily, unlike most of his other novels.

Dead Air was certainly entertaining enough and I never became bored, but as many others have noted, it doesn’t have much of a plot and nothing really starts happening until the very end. I’m feeling insufficiently moved by the book to say that if you haven’t bought it already, you might as well wait until the paperback is released. Compared to his other more powerful novels such as The Player of Games or Use of Weapons, Dead Air feels much lighter and inconsequential – entertaining, but nothing beyond that.

Small World Big Piano Silliness

A conversation with my girlfriend from yesterday, paraphrased:

Me: “This is the Jools Holland album I bought the other day. I read an interesting review which was generally positive except about the silly piano flourishes that Jools always seems to squeeze into places where they shouldn’t be.”

Her: “Well, maybe people like him for the silly piano flourishes.”

Me: “Maybe they do. But I think that he overdoes them sometimes.”

[listens to music as a particularly florid flourish segues in]

Me: “There you go.”

Her: “Okay, you’re right.”


Me: “See, there’s another one.”


In case you’re interested, it might be worth checking out the BBC2 documentary The Dancer’s Body, on Saturday nights; I’m told it’s pretty good. An added bonus is that you should see Prof. Ramachandran on it either this week or next week, since he was interviewed for the programme while I was in the US. Something to do with the science of art, I recall, and how humans appreciate art from a neuropsychological point of view.

It was pretty fun when the BBC crew came into our lab for a while, waiting for the Prof; we threw a baseball around, chatted with the cameraman about the TV business and so on, and then got told off by their presenter for being too loud while she was on the phone. Ah, great days.

BBC News

I’ve gotten into a habit of synchronising my lunch with the 1’o’clock BBC News, and after a few weeks you can almost predict what they’ll be showing when. For example, at roughly 1:16pm you can be sure that they’ll begin some kind of lighthearted piece that is accompanied by suitably cheesy music, unlike all the other taped segments. Today there was something by the BBC’s Family Correspondent (‘Family Correspondent?’ I remarked to myself. ‘What on Earth does a family correspondent do all day, stay at home or something?’).

This won’t be new to most of you, but BBC News is impressively international in its scope; I’d say that at least a quarter of each programme doesn’t touch on the UK at all. It’s a pleasing change from the news I saw in America.

On Tea

While reading a book on synaesthesia (review to follow soon) I found an interesting quotation in it by Marlene Dietrich:

The British have an umbilical cord which has never been cut and through which tea flows constantly. It is curious to watch them in times of sudden horror, tragedy or disaster. The pulse stops apparently, and nothing can be done, and no move made, until ‘a nice cup of tea’ is quickly made. There is no question that it brings solace and does steady the mind. What a pity all countries are not so tea-conscious. World-peace conferences would run more smoothly if ‘a nice cup of tea’, or indeed, a samovar were available at the proper time.

I’m not a tea drinker, and neither am I a coffee drinker. I suspect this has something to do with my fundamental laziness, that I can’t be bothered with brewing up a pot or whatever; as many people know, Ribena is my drink of choice.

Not drinking tea or coffee does make going to Starbucks much cheaper, although drinking hot chocolate every time can begin to wear on a person.