Archive Page 2 of 73

A salute to Bella Subbotovskaya

Bella Subbotovskaya (1938-1982) was a Russian mathematician who founded an underground university in Moscow to teach mathematics to students, particularly but not only Jewish students, excluded from education by the anti-Semitic policies of Moscow State University and other institutions of higher learning. The unpaid lecturers in this underground university were both Jewish and non-Jewish. The activity came to be called the Jewish People’s University and operated, against strong KGB harassment, from 1978 to 1983. Her death was due to a suspicious car accident that may well have been a KGB assassination.

I never cease to be amazed at the stupidity of racism. Even in a allegedly rationalist state such as the late USSR, the authorities deemed it desirable to exclude the best students from university on the basis of their ethnicity or religion.


G. Szpiro [2007]: Bella Abramovna Subbotovskaya and the Jewish People’s University. Notices of the American Mathematics Society (NAMS), 54 (10): 1326-1330.

London restaurants named after Russian mathematicians

Indeed, both these are mathematical dynasties. For the Delaunays, see here and here.

London Life: Ethereum DevCon1


Gibson Hall, London, venue for DevCon1, 9-13 November 2015.  There was some irony in holding a conference to discuss technology developments in blockchains and distributed ledgers in a grand, neo-classical heritage-listed building erected in 1865. At least it was fitting that a technology currently taking the financial world by storm should be debated in what was designed to be a banking hall (for Westminster Bank). The audience was split fairly evenly between dreadlocked libertarians & cryptocurrency enthusiasts and bankers & lawyers in smart suits: cyberpunk meets Gordon Gekko.

St Margaret, Liberator of all the Russias

Here is Philip Henscher, writing in The Spectator (in a review of Volume 2 of Charles Moore’s biography of Mrs Thatcher):

“There is no question that Mrs Thatcher, by boldness and conviction, in large part initiated the process that brought freedom to millions in Eastern Europe.”

This is nonsense. The denizens of Eastern Europe were bravely and publicly protesting their confinement from the late 1940s, at a time when Mrs Thatcher was so junior she was still a chemist. The actual liberation of the Comecon countries began in Poland in the 1950s (and again in the 60s and 70s and 80s), in Hungary in the 1950s and 60s, in the CSSR in the mid 1960s, and the USSR in the 1950s under Khrushchev, and the 1980s, under Andropov. Mikhail Gorbachev was a brave member of the verligte wing of the CPSU, but he was not the first to seek to reform communism, not even in the USSR.

Gorbachev was university friends in the 1950s with Zdenek Mlynar, later one of the architects of the Prague Spring, which Gorbachev followed closely. See here. It is ridiculous to imagine that it took a weekend lunch with Mrs Thatcher at Chequers to persuade him to embark on reform. What next? Did she also invent the Internet?

That her supporters should seek to award the odious Mrs Thatcher the credit for the downfall of communism is also hugely insulting to the brave people who did initiate the changes, and who, with their courageous actions, brought them about.

Hackathon life


At the first Internet of Things and Distributed Ledgers Hackathon, Barclays Rise Hackspace, Notting Hill, London, 7 November 2015.

Guy Burgess and Bosie Douglas

I am reading Andrew Lownie’s fascinating new biography of Guy Burgess, member of the Soviet spy circle, the Cambridge Five. Lownie’s book contains something very curious. (I am reading a Kindle edition, so can only give chapter references.)

In Chapter 20, Relationships, we read in paragraph 1:

“In June 1945 [Peter] Pollock returned to Britain.”

Pollock had been away several years, fighting with the British Army in North Africa and in Italy, and having been captured and held as a POW in Italy. In Paragraph 4, we read:

“That summer Pollock and Burgess had seen much of Brian Howard and his boyfriend, Sam, staying with the couple at their home in Tickerage, East Sussex. On one occasion, they had visited the elderly Lord Alfred Douglas in Brighton, as Burgess wanted to show off Pollock and prove he was even more attractive than the famously attractive Douglas in his youth.[Footnote 5]”

The source (footnote 5) is given as: “Pollock taped interview, by kind permission of Miranda Carter.” Pollock died in Tangier on 28 July 2001.

But, according to Wikipedia, Bosie Douglas died on 20 March 1945, so Pollock and Burgess could not have visited him in 1945. Was Pollock mis-remembering the year they met, or deliberately lying about meeting Douglas? In either case, the date of Douglas’s death is surely something Lownie could have checked, rather than repeating Pollock’s statement without critical commentary.

Although the content of the book is superb, the book shows the weaknesses of a text written over a long period (30 years), together with some fairly mediocre editing. On several occasions, the author mentions something without explaining it, forgetting that what he knows is different to what the reader knows. Sometimes explanations are given at the second or later mention, instead of at the first. When Lownie mentions “Johnny Philipps, a rich gay bachelor who lived in Albany”, for example, he does not explain what or where is Albany. Only in a later chapter when talking of someone else do we learn that the Albany was “a fashionable set of apartments off Piccadilly.” Likewise, the Venona transcripts are mentioned in Chapter 26, but only explained in Chapter 28. At one point, we learn that Burgess earnt some GBP 800 pa from a Canadian Trust Fund. Nothing is said about this fund, nor how Burgess came to be a trustee of it, although there is an earlier mention of a trip he took in 1930 with his mother and brother to visit Canada, before going up to Cambridge. In Chapter 40, in another example, there is a throwaway reference to a party given by “the Burchetts”. Australians of a certain age would catch the reference to communist journalist Wilfred Burchett, who lived in Moscow in the 1950s, but who else would?

Another instance of poor editing is the description of Novodevichy Cemetery in Chapter 37. Burgess moved to a flat near the cemetery in 1956. Lownie describes the cemetery thus: “where amongst others were the graves of Chekhov, Gogol, Khrushchev, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Stalin’s wife . . . “. But, Khrushchev only died in 1971, and Shostakovich in 1975, both well after 1956; indeed, well after 1963, when Burgess died. I imagine that such poor editing must be an embarrassment to an author whose day job is acting as a literary agent for other authors.

And perhaps taking so long to write a non-fiction book means not enough advantage has been taken of the Web. For instance, is the young German actor named George Mikell mentioned in Chapter 26 the same person as the Lithuanian-Australian actor named George Mikell who has a website? Is the drifter of no fixed abode named James Turck mentioned in Chapter 29 the same James Turck (1924-2011) who acquired an MBA from Columbia and a seat on the American Stock Exchange? I find myself Googling every name mentioned, so I am surprised the author has not done so too.

Overall, the book is fascinating and riveting despite the sloppy writing and apparent lack of editing. Lownie makes a convincing case for the importance of Burgess as a Soviet agent, detailing the documents he was able to provide to his handlers at each stage of his career. Whether Burgess was MORE important than his fellow spies could not be assessed from a life of just one of them. My one major disappointment from the book was the absence of any discussion of the theory that one or more of the Cambridge Five were known to Britain’s senior spy-masters, long before their departures East, to be Soviet agents and were allowed to remain in place. If you want to deceive your enemy you need to communicate through channels your enemy will likely believe, and that may mean using their own loyal agents (or people they believe to be their loyal agents). Such channels are even more necessary if you mostly communicate to deceive but occasionally want, or may need, to send truthful messages.

Indeed, this hall of mirrors might even have further mirrors, if one or more of Burgess, Maclean, or Philby were themselves witting in this deception, and sacrificed their public reputations, their pensions, and their quiet English country-side retirements to serve the land of their birth even beyond their defection. To my mind, such knowing and self-sacrificing deception by these upper-class Englishmen, educated at the best schools and habitués of London clubs, is immensely more plausible than any other explanation I have seen for their treason. Does MI6 hold secret medals for them all in a hidden safe in its Ziggurat-on-Thames?


Andrew Lownie [2015]: Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess. London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton.

Russell’s Spelling Test

Bertrand Russell once proposed the following sentence as a test of spelling:

“I prophesy the unparalleled embarrassment of a battalion of harassed postillions gauging the symmetry of a potato peeled by a lovable but grisly sibyl.”

This was on 21 December 1955, so well before Dan Quayle.

Source: Rupert Crawshay-Williams [1970]: Russell Remembered. OUP: London, UK, page 114.

Musical Instrument Museums

For reasons of record, here is a list of musical instrument museums, ordered by their location:

  • Athens, Greece: Museum of Popular Musical Instruments
  • Berlin, Germany: Musikinstrumenten Museum
  • Brussels, Belgium: Musical Instrument Museum
  • Monte Estoril, Portugal: Museum of Portuguese Music, Casa Verdades de Faria
  • New York, NY, USA: Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Phoenix, AZ, USA: Musical Instrument Museum
  • Rome, Italy: Museo di Strumenti Musicali dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
  • Vermillion, SD, USA: National Music Museum, University of South Dakota
  • Vienna, Austria: Collection of Historic Musical Instruments, Kunsthistorisches Museum

A number of people

Despite some ridiculous practices at the BBC, the grammar of English allows for apparent subject-verb disagreement on occasion: A number of people are unhappy, for example, is grammatically correct. This is because the statement refers to a situation where it is the people who are unhappy, not the number that is unhappy. The correct grammar is derived from the meaning (ie, the semantics), not merely the syntax. Geoffrey Pullum has an explanation here.

Some of the people, all of the time

Writer Colm Toibin has an article in praise of Henry James’ novel The Ambassadors, here.

Did Toibin not notice the words of the text as he read it? That novel is appallingly badly written. James’ long, rambling, discursive sentences reflect not subtlety and nuance, but long, rambling, muddled thought. The prose is often hard to comprehend, due to this muddle. An irritating widespread quirk of his style are sentences containing multiple pronouns, each pointing to different people – or perhaps to the same people. There is no consistency. Sometimes a pronoun in one sentence refers to the subject of the previous sentence, and sometimes to the object. Sometimes, indeed, one pronoun in a sentence may refer to the subject in an earlier sentence, while another pronoun refers to the object in another sentence. I lost count of the number of times I encountered this deictic ambiguity: eventually I concluded that either James was deliberately aiming to make it impossible for the reader to parse his text, or else it was he himself who was muddled, following no consistent rule in his pronoun assignments; in either case, I should feel no shame at abandoning such poor prose. James is justly neglected, and long may he remain so.