Discover more from The Bluestocking
The Bluestocking, vol 241
a monolith to your own majesty
And what a week. Within the space of ten minutes on Wednesday night, I both heard that Boris Johnson had sacked Michael Gove—revenge is a dished best served at the absolute last minute possible—and then saw this clip of Piers Morgan holding an actual greased piglet.
Nothing can beat British politics when things fall apart for sheer, parochial, smalltime weirdness. Take this clip: Steve Bray has been banned from shouting “stop Brexit” outside parliament—it qualifies as a “noisy protest” under new legislation—and so instead, because Hugh Grant yes THAT Hugh Grant dared him to, he played the Benny Hill theme tune every time a Tory minister tried to explain what was going on.
Two of my favourite moments there. A close third was when Nadhim Zahawi’s first act using his new Treasury headed notepaper was to call for Boris Johnson to resign after all. A reverse ferret for the ages.
Best of all, this being British politics not American politics meant that absolutely no one involved was carrying a weapon more deadly than a badly photographed letter. Just highly enjoyable. No notes. This must be what other people see in football.
PS. I wrote about what felled Boris Johnson in the end: lies, bad jokes and numbers.
On any given day, [June] Huh does about three hours of focused work. He might think about a math problem, or prepare to lecture a classroom of students, or schedule doctor’s appointments for his two sons. “Then I’m exhausted,” he said. “Doing something that’s valuable, meaningful, creative” — or a task that he doesn’t particularly want to do, like scheduling those appointments — “takes away a lot of your energy.”
To hear him tell it, he doesn’t usually have much control over what he decides to focus on in those three hours. For a few months in the spring of 2019, all he did was read. He felt an urge to revisit books he’d first encountered when he was younger — including Meditations by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and several novels by the German author Hermann Hesse — so that’s what he did. “Which means I didn’t do any work,” Huh said. “So that’s kind of a problem.” (He’s since made peace with this constraint, though. “I used to try to resist … but I finally learned to give up to those temptations.” As a consequence, “I became better and better at ignoring deadlines.”)
June Huh, 39, just won a Fields Medal—awarded every four years to promising mathematicians under 40. He epitomises an intriguing paradox you see in a lot of high achievers: they are obsessed with their work, but aware that they can not force themselves to go faster by willpower or grind.
This profile also has a couple of other notable aspects, including the fact that Huh wasn’t a particularly brilliant student at school—he copied the answers out of the back of the maths textbook rather than do the problems—and that he hated having other people direct his learning. He began to flourish at university under a professor who showed him research mathematics—the bleeding edge of the profession, where the answers are only provisional. Even then, he struggled to get into a US university for further research, because of his mediocre academic record. Also, one of his colleagues reports that if you spoke to him, you would think he was “slow,” but then you realise he is actually just slow enough to be thinking about the deeper concepts, rather than hurrying towards an answer. (One of my strongest beliefs is that our society has a deep Eloquence Bias—just look at politics.)
I’m less impressed with this anecdote, which sounds a bit like those guys who insist they don’t know how the hoover works: “As a total beginner, he adopted the strategy of making the same dish — a simple pasta in oil — every day until it was perfect. For six months, that’s exactly what he did. (To date, according to Kim, that’s the only dish he knows how to cook.)” Or this one: “While in labor, she caught Huh doing math.”
But I do love this line about why Huh gave up poetry, which I think applies to a lot of people (possibly including me, at times): “Moreover, as he later realized, ‘I wanted to be someone who writes great poetry,’ he said. ‘I didn’t want to write great poetry.’”
PS. This year also saw the second-ever woman to win a Fields medal: the Ukrainian sphere-packing theorist Maryna Viazovska.
“If you take a selection of workers in an office who are all earning $80k/year, what is the likelihood they are all producing the same amount of value for the firm? Basically zero.” Rob Henderson on the puzzle of why the most productive workers aren’t paid what they’re worth (Substack).
“[Michael] Lewis studied art history at Princeton. Can he see any value in NFTs, which some see as akin to fine art? ‘I don’t trust myself on this subject. I can see myself saying something really stupid that five years later I regret. But the answer’s no.’” (Financial Times)
Did the Early Medieval Era ever really take place? Jonn Elledge on a particularly odd conspiracy theory (Substack).
“Energy compounds on itself. If you start the morning by getting something done (a workout, an important task, writing) then you’re going to have a higher baseline energy day overall.” I’ve been reading productivity tips for work, and these ones were actually useful.
Why women cheat: Farrah Storr talks to some who did (Substack).
“Fiddles and chicanery are common. Indeed, at the end of Thatcher’s selection meeting in Finchley, everyone was told she’d won by 46 votes to 43. But she was the unknowing beneficiary of fraud. The local chairman was so impressed by Thatcher that he switched two votes to her, taken from her male opponent, Thomas Langton. Those votes made the difference, and made history. The chairman had justified it to himself on the grounds that, before long, Langton was bound to be chosen elsewhere. He never was.” Michael Crick on his new project tracking MP selections (Unherd). The piece contains this extraordinary fact: “More MPs have gone to jail in the last two decades — for dishonesty over their expenses, for perjury, and for sexual offences — than at any time in the last 200 years.”
This week was the ten-year anniversary of San Diego accidentally setting off all 7,000 of its Independence Day fireworks at once (twitter).
British Triathlon has established an “open” category alongside the female one. Sounds good! Everyone should have a chance to play sport. (BBC)
“Theatre is always on the move, and its job is to go against whatever is obvious. In a moment of absolute chaos such as now, with no faith, no belief and no conviction, there is a role to reveal something else. When we’ve had 150 years of smashing through barriers, then the theatre of protest and outrage has become conventional. Denouncing capitalism was great in the 1960s, but it’s boring now. Theatre mustn’t be a Don Quixote, charging at windmills that are no longer dangerous.” Peter Brook, who has died aged 97, in an interview in 2005 (Times, reposted on a free blog).
I’ve talked before about the power of using concepts/language traditionally associated with your political opponents. Here’s one example: Governor Gavin Newsom of California (D) trolling Governor Ron deSantis of Florida (R) by talking about freedom.
From Politico’s Playbook, I learn that Joe Biden’s new anti-corruption czar is a man named . . . Rich Nephew.
See you next time!