More about playing chess again…

April 23, 2019

Main London Chess League venue 

We give some more reflections on playing league chess in London now as against in the North-East (mainly) 30 or even 40 years ago.


Active chess-players now seem to be either people (men) of retirement age or people (not all men in fact) from Eastern Europe–certainly a diverse group in terms of origins.  With a few exceptions, there is not much evidence of juniors–possibly because there is less time or willingness to organise chess clubs in schools.

I had thought that with the far greater number of players in London you would be more likely to end up playing opponents of the same strength.  In fact the reverse seems to be the case–with large teams (8 or 10 boards) you end up with a an even match somewhere (say on the middle boards) and a mismatch somewhere else (say on the lower boards).


The fact that there is a shortage of public space in London (like church halls and community centres) is hardly a surprise.  You tend to end up doing what you can in a pub, but that won’t really do for chess.  It’s rare to encounter a venue that has sufficient space for both a match and casual games on the same evening.


My recollection is that it used to be common practice for somebody to be on hand to welcome the visiting players and show them the toilets and other necessities (this could even be the visiting captain if he was familiar with the venue).  Now it seems that if you arrive early at an away match (and manage to find your way in) you wait like nervous sheep outside a slaughterhouse for some guidance.

The common practice of playing to a finish on the evening is surely to be preferred to adjournment or adjudication, but the quick-play regime means that you get far more possible infringements and penalties, which means that the captains get distracted from their games…

Another point possibly connected with premises is that in my past clubs used to have some ongoing activity in the form of an internal tournament and would also play matches with other clubs while in London it seems to be the other way around–there may (or may not) be some internal activity in between matches.



How to make best use of Conversation Exchange?

April 3, 2019


We have been asked give some advice on the use of Conversation Exchange, based on something like 4 years’ experience of Russian-English exchange with 10 or so partners, both in  person and over the Internet.

Clarify objectives

To start off, you should be clear from the beginning what you were looking to get out of the exchange and what exactly you could offer in return.

Control discomfort

It is useful to have defined topics of conversation to avoid either having the same conversation time after time or getting into details of one’s life, thoughts and feelings that one would not necessarily want to share with a stranger or chance acquaintance.  The aim is really to keep a level of linguistic discomfort that helps you to learn things that might not be entirely straightforward.  One way of doing this is to set a target of I am going to learn (say) five new things during this conversation–if you meet your target, it really doesn’t matter how many mistakes you make or how stupid you feel.

Exchange between equals

I think you need either a reasonable level of the target language (I think that the site used to say that you needed Upper Intermediate for conversation to be any good–compare the definitions) or a degree of linguistic sophistication so as to make use of material you didn’t necessarily understand immediately.

It is probably also a good idea to explicitly agree on how long the session is going to last and to split the time so that half of it is spent in language A and half in language B.  There is always a tendency to drift into chatting in the language with the stronger learner (let’s say it’s language A), which of course minimises overall effort but then not speaking to foreigners at all reduces it still further.  So you should have discussion of points in language B and correction of mistakes in language B in language B, to avoid getting into language A as a lingua franca.

There is a tendency for some people to want their conversation partners to teach them language X, which is generally not realistic unless the partner is a language teacher by trade–and if they are, then they ought to be paid for their work.

Politeness and safety

Following the general rules for meeting people on sites of various kinds, you should avoid criticising other people you have met there (because the person you are talking to will fear you criticising them to others) and certainly give it up immediately if what is going on makes you feel uncomfortable at a personal level.  More on this here.

Time matters

There are also a number of practical points, which may apply especially to sessions of Internet contact.  It’s best to have a set time each week, because then you’re subconsciously preparing yourself for it.  It’s very difficult to arrange things on the fly with someone who is essentially a stranger–you don’t know what constraints they are operating under or what their conventions are regarding punctuality.  If you’re dealing with somebody from  another cultural background, while it may be clear to you that at five o’clock means some convenient time before 5:30–how are they meant to know that?

Old, slow, weak and stupid: playing chess again, 30 years on

April 1, 2019

Back view of the author after losing (picture from Lewisham Chess Club)

The experience of playing competitive (club) chess again after a break of 30 years gives rise to some interesting reflections.


It’s easy to decide that the whole thing is pointless.  Over the past three decades, computers have if not totally solved chess then reached the stage of being able to play better than any human player ever could.  In addition, while 30 years ago one merely weak, now one is weak old, slow and stupid.

In addition, it is certainly true that chess is a negative-sum game, in that the pain of defeat is greater than the joy of victory.  There are some rare cases where both sides get pleasure from a well-played draw and some very rare cases where even the loser feels he has played well and so is pleased with his efforts, but these hardly detract from the general point.

This is different from sports such as rugby (where you might not even know the score as the game progresses) and tennis, where you can have a healthy run around the court even in defeat.

So what is the point?  

A long time ago Aristotle asked of tragedy why people took pleasure in witnessing events that would be extremely distressing in real life.  His answer, which seems still to be the correct one, is that working out of these experiences in watching a play enabled one gto better deal with them or the threat of them in real life.

And the same thing happens when you play a game as when you watch a play.  The famous English virtue of character is reflected in how you react to defeat, and if (as you ought to be) you are playing people of the same approximate strength you will have an unfavourable outcome half of the time.  More specifically, chess does give you some insight into:

–whether you are inclined to take a decision (play a move) that makes you feel comfortable rather than one that is the best you can do,in the circumstances;

–how you react to unavoidably unfavourable situations (like playing a much stronger opponent)–of course, the only sensible thing to do is get your head down and do your best, but fantasising and cursing fate are both very popular;

–how you react to unfavourable situations that are due to your mistakes–not by flailing about is a good answer;

–how you make difficult decisions when there is no time to do a proper job.

Old, slow, weak and stupid

It is not clear how far what you learn here is easily transferable to real life, but the insights gained can hardly help.  Responding to the old, slow, weak and stupid point, the interesting thing here is that these learning experiences originate from the levels of conscious incompetence or conscious competence.  When you have reached the level of unconscious competence, so that you do as well as you’re going to without thinking about it, you don’t really get this kind of learning.  The same is true of foreign languages for instance–much of the educational value comes at the beginning when you realise that there really are different ways of doing things from those you take for granted.

Along the same lines, it is true that chess tends to be played by young males in the same way that they do maths homework–some do it better and more quickly because they are cleverer, but very few want to grapple with situations where there are many ways of tackling a complex problem.  Which approach leads to difficulties when they start doing maths tutorial problems at university.

Now the kind of insights to be gained from playing chess are much more useful to the the old, slow, weak and stupid fraternity and have actual lives and real decisions to take than to the young, fast, strong and clever who do not.

Rachel’s Hebrew Class 2018-19

March 30, 2019

Joseph and Mrs Potiphar, so it seems

Rachel Montagu is again running an Advanced Biblical Hebrew course as detailed below.

These classes work in the time-honoured fashion: each student in turn reads a verse aloud and then translates it, with input from the teacher as necessary. She also provides some background and interpretation from traditional Jewish teaching.

The emphasis is certainly on understanding the text rather than grammar as such. In my experience, there have been perhaps an average of seven or so students coming to lessons. The level things are taken at tends to depend on who the students are, while the fee per term might be something around £110-£130, depending on circumstances.  At about £ 10 per 2-hour session this certainly looks like good value!

In principle, students should have covered the material in the First Hebrew Primer from Eks before starting this class. If you know the qal conjugation (perfect and imperfect) pretty well for verbs with three strong roots (the ‘regular’ ones if you like) and have some idea about hiphil and niphal and verbs with weak roots, that will probably do.

If you want to know more, you can email Rachel.  I’ve also shared just about everything I know about studying Biblical Hebrew with the world here.

Wednesdays 6.30-8.30 p.m., at Liberal Judaism, 21 Maple Street, London, W1T 4BE

Autumn Term

 Abraham’s journeys (and Hagar’s)

26 September             Gen. 11:26-32, 12:1-20

3rd October                 Gen.13:1-18, 14:1-7

10th October                Gen. 14:8-24, 16:1-8

17th October                Gen. 16:9-16, 17:1-2, 18:16-33

[24rd October   half term]

31st October                Gen.20:1-18, 21:1-7

7th November             Gen. 21:8-34

14th November             Gen. 22:1-19, 23:1-3, 17-20

Jonah, the Unforgiving Prophet

21st November            Jonah 1:1-16, 2:1-10

28th November            Jonah 3:1-10, 4:1-10

Nahum and Obadiah, Servants of God

5th  December             Nahum 2:6-14, 3:1-14

12th  December           Nahum 3:14-19, Obadiah

Spring Term

 All is Futile (Except The Soul….)

14th January                (Obadiah 1:3-21) Ecclesiastes 1:1-6

21th January                Ecclesiastes 1:7-2:14

28th  January               Eccl. 2:15-3:13

4th February                Eccl. 3:14-4:17

11th  February             Eccl. 5:1-19, 6:1-6

[18th February – half term]

25th February              Eccl. 6:7-7:22

4th March                     Eccl. 7:23-8:17

[11th March – extra break week]

18th March                   Eccl. 9:1-18, 10:1-7

25th March                   Eccl. 10:8-11:10

Brothers in Genesis – In The End, Things Improve

1st April                       (Eccl. 12:1-15) Genesis 37:1-10

8th April                        Genesis 37:11-36

 Summer Term

29th April                      Genesis 39:1-23

[6th May           no class – Spring Bank Holiday]

13th  May                     Genesis 40:1-23

20th  May                     Genesis 41:1-24

[27th May         no class – Half term]

3rd June                       Genesis 41:25-57

[10th  June       no class – 2nd day Shavuot]

17th  June                    Genesis 42:1-38

24th June                     Genesis 43:1-34

1st  July                       Genesis 44:1-34

8th July                         Genesis 45:1-28

15th July                      Genesis 47:1-31


The NYT Dialect Quiz and Me

February 18, 2019

reaction to First version

My first reaction to this was The NY Times dialect quiz  suggests I come from Middlesbrough or Carlisle–well I’ve been stuck at Carlisle station a few times…

And furthermore it’s a question of what age you acquire the characteristics of your speech, so for me you’ve got Teesside (ages 8-18 say) and possibly the Isle of Man (5-8 perhaps) but nothing for Sarf London (2-3 ish and 29-58).

But in summary–for my case–since even the existence of Teesside is only weakly acknowledged in Yorkshire and County Durham and hardly at all further afield, I find this seriously impressive!


Version 2

Of course, it also helps if you read what it says, which is The map shows places where answers most closely match your own, based on more than…respondents who said they were from Ireland or Britain.

My inititial view was that you acquire your accent/pronunciation from the other children you go to school with, but I don’t know whether that applies quite so definitively to vocabulary.  

The rubric, however, gives a more nuanced account:

The way that people speak — the particular words they use and how they sound — is deeply tied to their sense of identity. And it’s not just about geography. Education, gender, age, ethnicity and other social variables influence speech patterns, too.

These dialect markers are so ingrained into people’s sense of self that they tend to persist well after they move away from home. “Identity is what underlies most people’s retention of at least some of their local features,” said Clive Upton, professor emeritus of English language at the University of Leeds, “because ultimately what we say is who we are.”


Version 3

And you can always try again–I don’t think it shows you exactly the same 25 questions each time and you can change your mind about doubtful cases. I ended up with an overall conclusion of the North in general, the North-East in particular and specifically Teesside.


January 11, 2019


Karen Hewitt writes:

I need to ask you if you know people who would like to go (or return) to Perm. Many of you know what is involved, although of course it changes slightly from year to year.

One point – as far as possible that person should have an Oxford/Oxon connection. Local residents, people who are close, people who are/were at the universities, students at the Department for Continuing Education, people with relatives here, etc.
That doesn’t mean that we are ruling out ideal people from further away, just that we hope to select as many as possible with some kind of Oxford connection. After all, it is Oxford which is twinned with Perm. 

The Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre together with Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education is arranging for a group of eight people to visit Perm as guests of the Perm State University. They will live in families with at least one English speaker and will have many opportunities to observe real Russian life. The visit is part of an exchange scheme in which the payment made by you supports the visit of a Perm teacher to Oxford.

Perm is Oxford’s twin city in Russia so the visit is open chiefly to people in Oxfordshire or with an Oxford connection such as attendance at OUDCE summer schools. Others will be considered if we do not fill all places. The programme of the fortnight can vary according to individual interests. As guests of Perm University you will be asked to talk to University students, while your activities can include: visits around the city, and to the Urals countryside; canoeing along the Silva river; professional and specialist contacts with economists, lawyers, local politicians, (and lectures if you are willing and able); visits to art galleries, concerts, ballet; studying the work of the city council and local voluntary groups; taking part in family life with your hosts and their friends. Previous visitors on this scheme have seized all sorts of opportunities to see how Russian society works. Several have returned for a second visit.

A knowledge of Russian is not necessary since interpreters will be provided, but obviously you will learn more if you know a little Russian. Participants should be physically fit and willing to walk reasonable distances. Some of our hosts do not have cars, and walking, climbing flights of stairs and public transport are normal. And you should be adaptable…

DATES: Saturday 7th September to Sunday 22nd September 2019 (Fifteen nights) The journey is by British Airways scheduled flight to Moscow. You will travel from Moscow to Perm by train – about 900 miles and the first day of the Trans-Siberian route. You will have a few hours in Moscow on the return journey.

COST: £1050 This includes air fares, train fares, other travel in Russia, accommodation with a family, breakfast and many other meals, a programme of activities including two visits to the opera or ballet, and two full day tours. It does not include visas, insurance, and some cheap meals. We will arrange your visas and inform you in June of the cost. Currently official visas are £50 plus admin and special delivery postage – in total about £85. You will need to go to London to give your fingerprints, but otherwise it should be straightforward.

Better email Karen if you are interested and sufficiently Oxonian!  You can also read about 2012…

More Brexit planning assumptions

December 21, 2018

Man looks at unicorn and remains unconvinced

We have been asked for some further planning assumptions to go with the original set.  These are given below.

Asset prices

The optimistic assumption would be that Brexit does not happen or happens in a way that is not harmful so some of the correction is recovered from what had been priced in on that account.  So say a loss of 10%.  And the middle option would be 20%.

Investment performance

The most optimistic figure that has been canvassed is 3.5%, but this is surely too optimistic in the circumstances.  Say 3%, with a middle figure of 2%.


The question here is really what the difference between inflation and interest rates will be.  The BoE forecasts suggest a real interest rate of around -2%, as at present.  To be more scientific, real interest rates are currently something like -1.75% (0.75% Bank Rate – 2.5% inflation).  The BoE forecasts tend to imply a real interest rate of about -2%, but it would depend on how the rate was adjusted to counter inflation.  Say -2.5%/-2%/-1.5% for pessimistic/middle/optimistic.

As for inflation itself, the optimistic forecast would be that MPC manages to hold inflation to say 2.5% over the period, giving overall inflation of 13%.  So we take 22% as the middle point.

CS Pension

There seems to be no room for variation here.

State Pension

If one assumes 2.5 % inflation then the only room for growth even under the ‘triple lock’ would be if earnings rose faster than inflation.  The latest ONS figures show essentially no real growth in earnings over the period from 2005 (!), so one cannot expect any real increase there either.

Tax rates and allowances

Hard to see any room for giveaways here!

> 60 concessions

Too make things easy for ourselves, we assume that in the optimistic case these survive for the next 5 years, while in the middle case half of them do.


Table of assumptions (unless otherwise stated in real terms and for period 2019-20 to 2024-25)


The pessimistic scenario reflects a coherent view of unmediated Brexit plus asset price correction while the optimistic scenario also reflects a coherent (but unlikely) outcome where Brexit is rendered harmless.  It is hard to give such a definite interpretation to the middle scenario and as such it should be treated with caution.

The treatment of tax and pension changes  as proxied by >60 concessions is very likely insufficient–at the very least, one could consider allowances as being constant in nominal terms, thus reducing in real terms.

The present treatment also implicitly assumes that things remain as they are for the remainder of 2018-19, which is certainly open to challenge.

Planning assumptions for Brexit and after

December 17, 2018


Having grown tired of insomnia, our client has now fled the Civil Service and hopes to avoid starvation by a combination of his investments in bonds and equities, a Civil Service Pension (soon) and a State Pension (not so soon).

He writes:

Meanwhile, I need to make some concrete plans without knowing exactly what is going to happen around Brexit and indeed asset price correction generally. I would like some planning assumptions–the idea is to give a solid basis for planning on the basis that things should not realistically be worse than this.

Our advice is as set out above.  We draw on on the Bank of England forecasts.  These have been criticised on the grounds that:

i)  they take no account of any policy response;

ii)  they are phenomenological, based on observed correlations more than causal modelling.

The point about a policy response is that it can spread the effect out to different times or different people but cannot in general create value from nothing.  So this is really a question of distributional effects–who gets how much of the pain and when–rather than the quantum.

As for correlations, there are times when you need to produce numbers and don’t have time to model the economic universe in detail.  The effect size claimed is similar to that of the credit crunch of 2007/08, which is the nearest–if hardly most similar–comparator.

In summary, our advice would be to look not so much towards the destruction of value (something between significant and staggering) to be expected over the next year but at the effect changed circumstances might have on the revaluation of pensions.

Taking a rather more short-term view focused on the immediate future, our client says:

Applying this set of assumptions to my circumstances, I come to the conclusion that I would lose money that I can afford to lose, which is irritating but no worse than that.

There’s nothing like a satisfied client!  But we can hardly say we have always been in the Brexit loop.  On our first encounter, we took three days to work out what it was, and a further two to decide it could hardly happen.

This analysis has now been extended here.

Recommending a dictionary

December 14, 2018


We were asked by a Russian contact to recommend an English dictionary. I think I would plump for the Concise OED.

Naturally enough, both dictionaries of American English and dictionaries for learners of English are beyond my ken.  A very long time ago (probably before I left school) I got myself a Concise OED.  When I had worn that out I got a copy of the Chambers dictionary (in 1989) on the grounds that it had more words.  The corresponding Wikipedia article has a different opinion, but as they say it depends on how you count entries.

Anyway the single-volume candidates that a native (but non-specialist) English speaker would use seem to be the Concise OED and the offerings from Collins and Chambers.

I had a look at what was available in the shops today.  As for new words, the Concise OED had entries for hashtag and flashmob (as flash mob) while the Collins Reference dictionary didn’t (although it was published later).  It also had something useful to say about the stressing of controversy, while the  Collins Reference didn’t do pronunciation at all.  The large Collins was covered in cellophane while there was no sign of the Chambers.

Back home, I was able to compare some bits of the large Collins and the COED on Amazon.  The Collins annoyed me by including encyclopedia-style entries, which I don’t like, while for  the terms aorist and accusative the Collins tended to flap around giving examples while the COED gave concise, pointed definitions.

While I can’t judge how up-to-date the Chambers is on the basis of my 1989 copy, the definitions of aorist and accusative there are a lot better than the ones in Collins if not quite as good as the Oxford ones.

In general terms, I think that the Oxford dictionaries:

i)   have the most systematic infrastructure for capturing new words and usage;

ii)  have the best definitions and etymologies. (In fact I think that in many cases they have the natural definition since they were there first and other dictionaries have to work round it for reasons of copyright or at least embarrassment);

iii)  are taken as the default in libraries and schools.

So in general you would take the suitable size Oxford dictionary as your default and look to something else only if you had particular needs.  The Concise OED also happens to be cheaper than the other candidates.

Turning now to the Internet, if you’ve got a word that refers to something reasonably definite and you’re dealing with widely-used languages (like English and Russian), your best bet is often to turn to Wikipedia where you can see a picture/chemical formula/mathematical definition/Linnean binominal and compare what the corresponding articles say in the two languages.

Nowadays, if I find that I don’t know an English word it tends to be something I can either look up on Wikipedia or find in the Urban Dictionary.  And there are also resources like OneLook that will search the free online versions of numerous dictionaries for you.


Challenging times at the Premier Inn (Cumberland Lodge) Southampton

November 23, 2018


My visit to Southampton was marked by the normal provincial routine of inflated prices, offhand service and disappearing change.  I say nothing of dirt, grease and cracked crockery.

The Premier Inn (Cumberland Lodge) proved to be a remarkable experience, even ignoring the automatic door that opened with deathly slowness as you tried to gain admittance.  Upon arriving, I signed up for a £ 9-50 breakfast and paid with a £ 20 note, for which I got £1-00 back, until I protested.

Then check-out was at midday on the following day.  At ten o’clock I went out to the shops and when I got back…they had taken my stuff away.  Eventually after protestations I was admitted to the linen room and got some of it back.

Surely taking people’s things away without asking is theft?

So when I finally decided to depart shortly before midday I had a sudden urge to go back and check that I hadn’t left anything behind, but the keycard had been deactivated.

When I checked out I was asked how things had been and I said they had been difficult for the reasons above.  The reception staff searched briefly for an Internet address and then said I could find it myself so as to complain, there was nothing they could do for me.

Following our previous experiences, we can only say:  don’t go to Southampton and if you do, don’t stay in a hotel.