The Paradox of Suicidal Impulses

It is a truism that to “fail to prepare is to prepare to fail.” However, suicide seems to defy this rule: more impulsive suicide attempts seem to be more ‘successful.’ As explained in this piece in the NYT:

[T]hose methods that require forethought or exertion on the actor’s part (taking an overdose of pills, say, or cutting your wrists), and thus most strongly suggest premeditation, happen to be the methods with the least chance of “success.” Conversely, those methods that require the least effort or planning (shooting yourself, jumping from a precipice) happen to be the deadliest. The natural inference, then, is that the person who best fits the classic definition of “being suicidal” might actually be safer than one acting in the heat of the moment — at least 40 times safer in the case of someone opting for an overdose of pills over shooting himself.

As illogical as this might seem, it is a phenomenon confirmed by research. According to statistics collected by the Injury Control Research Center on nearly 4,000 suicides across the United States, those who had killed themselves with firearms — by far the most lethal common method of suicide — had a markedly lower history of depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, previous suicide attempts or drug or alcohol abuse than those who died by the least lethal methods. On the flip side, those who ranked the highest for at-risk factors tended to choose those methods with low “success” rates.

This is significant because it means that those most likely to end their lives, are those acting on impulse and thus most likely to be prevented from making the attempt by a lack of a readily available method. Thus it is a fallacy to suppose that suicidal individuals blocked from using one means will simply opt for another. Because by the time they do, the impulse has often passed. The suicide rate is actually greatly affected by the easy availability of the means to commit it in particular guns.

The philosopher who went up against Mike Tyson


…was A.J Ayer, the celebrated advocate of logical positivism

One of the last of the many legendary contests won by the British philosopher A. J. Ayer was his encounter with Mike Tyson in 1987.

As related by Ben Rogers in ”A. J. Ayer: A Life,” Ayer — small, frail, slight as a sparrow and then 77 years old — was entertaining a group of models at a New York party when a girl ran in screaming that her friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. The parties involved turned out to be Tyson and Naomi Campbell.

”Do you know who . . . I am?” Tyson asked in disbelief when Ayer urged him to desist: ”I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.” ”And I am the former Wykeham professor of logic,” Ayer answered politely. ”We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.” So they did, while Campbell slipped away.

American Civil War pensions being paid out in the 21st Century

In his book the Pinch, David Willetts illustrates how long pensions obligations can last with this rather eye catching fact:

The American Civil War veteran’s pension fund made its last payment in 2001, 140 years after it made it was first set up in 1862. (The payment was to a widow who had married a very old veteran in the 1920s when he was very old and she was very young. Such marriages were widespread and we might speculate on what was in it for both parties.)

This may not actually have been the final payments, for the federal government was still paying a pension to the child of a veteran in January 2013.

All this despite the fact that the final Civil War veteran died in 1956.

Northern Ireland shows what a miracle MLK achieved


As the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington is used to remember America’s Civil Rights movement, we should also recall the United Kingdom’s own Civil Rights movement.

1968 is famed as the year that across Europe, young people rose up against the prevailing orders. While these rebellions generally faded, in Northern Ireland they were to have a more lasting – and horrifying – impact. Young Catholics looked across the Atlantic to the victories won by Dr King’s campaign of non-violent resistance. They adopted these tactics for their own battle against those rules which excluded Northern Irish Catholics from housing, jobs and political power.

However, this peaceful movement was soon side-lined by a wave of violence.  Moderate figures like John Hume increasingly lost the initiative to Sinn Fein and the IRA, and never really regained it. The peace process ultimately wound up being a reconciliation between the sectarian extremists that largely excluded moderates.

The Troubles that erupted across little Ulster claimed three and a half thousand lives. What would have happened had the ‘American Troubles’ or even the ‘Dixie Troubles’ does not bear thinking about. MLK gave America a great gift by ending segregation but perhaps an even greater gift was doing so mostly peacefully.

Fiddling While Damascus Burns

It is the final brutal irony of the Iraq war: that futile hunt for phantom WMDs has paved the way for Assad to commit his WMD massacres. It seems we learn from history but only from the last piece of history: the folly of Iraq has wiped from our collective memories the lessons of Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo. Our horror of another ‘Iraq like’ war has meant we’ve allowed the brutal war in Syria to continue along its bloody course.

Looking at the conflict now, we can see that the fears of those opposed to intervention have come to pass but have done so due to our absence rather than our involvement. We heard so many wise voices warning that arming the rebels would mean arming Jihadis. Well, the Jihadis were armed by the Gulf States, while our arms embargo blocked assistance from reaching moderate forces. Those same sage minds feared that our involvement would spread the conflict to Syria’s neighbours. Well, allowing the fighting to continue has pushed destabilising numbers of refugees out across the region and reignited tensions in Lebanon.  And those cool heads who feared we would ‘escalate’ the situation have convinced Assad of our impotence, thus emboldening him to ‘escalate’ to using chemical weapons.

These are errors we’ve made before. When Yugoslavia collapsed our arms embargo simply gave those who already had weapons free reign to murder, rape and dispossess those who did not. We also dithered for too long worrying about whether the Russians would give us permission to stop its allies’ atrocities. And we held back for fear of igniting a cauldron of ethnic hatred that was already ablaze. Then after years of hesitation during which tens of thousands of preventable deaths occurred, an atrocity of such horror came along that we intervened anyway.

Those advocating diplomacy instead of military action are right in principle but wrong in practice. They often speak as if this is some novel strategy rather than the one we have been pursuing since the start with measly positive results.

While I do think Assad – and other despots with chemical weapons – should be shown that there is a price to gassing civilians, we should go further. Those who cautioned inaction, now caution against engaging in regime change. Yet that is precisely what we should do: use a combination of air power and arming friendly rebel groups to push Assad from power. That is the genuinely ‘anti-war’ stance, the one that ends Assad’s campaign against his own people.

The experience of Iraq – and numerous other disastrous conflicts – should make us sceptical about military action. But it is no excuse for a knowing cynicism that counsels despair in the face of atrocities. Having allowed so many Syrians to die already, we owe it to that nation to do what we can to halt the slaughter, whether it is committed with sarin or otherwise.

US spends $1200 per person MORE on state healthcare than the UK

The American healthcare system is – to use public policy jargon – a mess. Such a mess in fact that this supposedly free market system costs taxpayers more than Britain’s uber-statist model.

The World Bank estimates that the US spends 8.2% of its GDP on public healthcare, while in the UK the figure is 7.7%. This actually has the potential to understate the disparity because the US’s GDP per person is higher than the UK’s. So according to the OECD, the UK spends less than $3000 per capita on public healthcare but the US spends north of $4000.

Underlying these figures are two realities. Firstly, America really has a mixed economy when it comes to health. Just under three in ten Americans are covered by government programs like Medicare and Medicaid. That number includes most senior citizens who will typically require the most interventions. The result is that – according to the OECD – about half of America’s health spending comes from the government. However, that’s still a long way short of the 83% of spending we see in the UK.

What puts America ahead is that second reality: American healthcare is expensive. Ezra Klein points out that an MRI costs $280 in France and $1,080 in the US.  He argues convincingly that this difference comes about because most countries “negotiate very aggressively with the providers and set rates that are much lower than we do…[t]hey do this in one of two ways. In countries such as Canada and Britain, prices are set by the government. In others, such as Germany and Japan, they’re set by providers and insurers sitting in a room and coming to an agreement, with the government stepping in to set prices if they fail.” By contrast, in the US “it’s a free-for-all. Providers largely charge what they can get away with” and often ill-informed, desperate or actually unconscious customers have little ability to say no.

In this way Americans wind up with the worst of all worlds. They pay as much in taxes towards healthcare as Europeans but typically still have to go out and buy private insurance as well. And for this great expenditure they get a system that leaves millions out and delivers some of the worst life expectancies in the OECD. The indictment of this messed up system is as close to an open and shut case as you’ll find in public policy.

Top Gear has a larger global audience than the World Service

Seriously! And Depressingly!

In this blog post from 2011, George Monbiot explains why this is bad news:

An episode of Top Gear showed Jeremy Clarkson and James May setting off for Cleethorpes in Lincolnshire, 60 miles away. The car unexpectedly ran out of charge when they got to Lincoln, and had to be pushed. They concluded that “electric cars are not the future”.


But it wasn’t unexpected: Nissan has a monitoring device in the car which transmits information on the state of the battery. This shows that, while the company delivered the car to Top Gear fully charged, the programme-makers ran the battery down before Clarkson and May set off, until only 40% of the charge was left. Moreover, they must have known this, as the electronic display tells the driver how many miles’ worth of electricity they have, and the sat-nav tells them if they don’t have enough charge to reach their destination. In this case it told them – before they set out on their 60-mile journey – that they had 30 miles’ worth of electricity. But, as Ben Webster of the Times reported earlier this week, “at no point were viewers told that the battery had been more than half empty at the start of the trip.”


It gets worse. As Webster points out, in order to stage a breakdown in Lincoln, “it appeared that the Leaf was driven in loops for more than 10 miles in Lincoln until the battery was flat.”


When Jeremy Clarkson was challenged about this, he admitted that he knew the car had only a small charge before he set out. But, he said: “That’s how TV works”. Not on the BBC it isn’t, or not unless your programme is called Top Gear.


Top Gear’s response, by its executive producer Andy Wilman, is a masterpiece of distraction and obfuscation. He insists that the programme wasn’t testing the range claims of the vehicles, and nor did it state that the vehicles wouldn’t achieve their claimed range. But the point is that it creates the strong impression that the car ran out of juice unexpectedly, leaving the presenters stranded in Lincoln, a city with no public charging points.


Yes, this is an entertainment programme, yes it’s larking about, and sometimes it’s very funny. But none of this exempts it from the BBC’s guidelines and the duty not to fake the facts.


So how does it get away with it? It’s simple. It makes the BBC a fortune. Both the 15th and 16th series of Top Gear were among the top five TV programmes sold internationally by BBC Worldwide over the last financial year. Another section of the editorial guidelines tells us that “our audiences should be confident that our decisions are not influenced by outside interests, political or commercial pressures”. But in this case we can’t be. I suggest that it is purely because of commercial pressures that Top Gear is allowed to rig the evidence, fake its trials, pour petrol over the BBC’s standards and put a match to them. The money drives all before it.

China’s small state

FACT: Government spending in China amounts to 20.8% of GDP, a little over half what it is the United States.

The Chinese state also employs a small and shrinking proportion of China’s workforce.

While these figures are about what you would expect from an East Asian nation at China’s level of economic development, they do rather undercut the idea of the Chinese state as a communist monolith.

The fact that actual dictatorships often have pretty minimal expenditures on social security – see also Chile – does remind us how ridiculous are those American Conservatives who paint social programs as a menace to democracy.

Hat tip: Nightwaves

The World’s most crowded urban area


Is Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh which has 100,000 residents per square mile. In practice that means having a city with approximately the same area as Bradford and packing it with the population of LA or Moscow.

Population density is generally a good thing. It boosts economic productivity by bringing consumers and producers closer together reducing transport costs and more importantly in the present day allows for more rapid dissemination of ideas as one comes into contact with more people. For similar reasons it also boost cultural creativity. Cities are also able to support a greater range of amenities than smaller settlements.

However, my instinct is that Dhaka probably has too much of a good thing. When I visited the second most dense urban area, Mumbai, I was very struck by the way that the congestion effectively inflated distances, making traveling even short distances into a lengthy ordeal. The city would effectively seize up during rush hour as the cities mediocre transport system buckled trying to move the population of a modest sized country around. The cliche cached image of Indian trains so busy they have passengers clinging to their roofs is basically unknown in most of the country but is commonplace in Mumbai. Dhaka’s terrible scores in measures of quality of life do perhaps bear out this suspicion.

The Voice of Minions


As Despicable Me 2 has become the year’s highest grossing film at the UK box office, I thought I’d share a fact about the funniest animated yellow characters since the Simpsons.

FACT: the majority of the minions are voiced by the film’s co-director Pierre Louis Padang Coffin. Fellow director Chris Renaud also voices another minion. This despite neither man having previous voice acting experience.

The Hollywood Reporter recounts:

Coffin recalled that when initial vocalizations for Gru’s henchmen weren’t working, he stepped in to make a test. “I told [Illumination founder-CEO and producer] Chris Meledandri, ‘Let me make a test. It won’t be an official one; it’s just to show whoever is going to design the voice a way to go.’ … When I asked Chris to listen to it, he said, ‘Well, you’re going to be the voice of the minions.’

So compare…..

….and contrast