Raymond Carr RIP


Raymond Carr, the great historian of modern Spain, has died at the ripe old age of 96. There will be lots of respectful obituaries like this one in the Guardian. I wonder, though, if they will capture the racy essence of the man. I’ve lost count of the number of people who knew him in Oxford, all of whom tell barely-credible stories of his various adventures, one involving coming upon him working as a waiter in a Swedish cafe, where he had come in pursuit of a woman.

He was also the model for the academic in Joseph Losey’s film Accident, in which Dirk Bogarde played a charismatic Oxford don.

Why this blog suddenly looks different

As you probably know, yesterday Google implemented its long-heralded algorithmic change to give more prominence to mobile-friendly sites in its search results. They also helpfully provided an online tool for checking whether one’s site was indeed ‘mobile friendly’ according to their criteria. So I ran the test on the previous version of this blog and — guess what? — it came out as being distinctly unfriendly. So there was nothing for it except to give it a facelift. Hence this new layout.

The fire next time

At the CSaP conference last week there was an interesting session on what (if anything) we have learned from the 2008 banking crisis. The consensus was not reassuring. The banking system we have now is still dangerously fragile, despite all the ‘stress testing’ of banks etc. And, as always, we prepare to fight the last war. Barry Eichengreen, whose book, Hall of Mirrors: The Great Depression, The Great Recession, and the Uses-and Misuses-of History, is a must-read on this stuff, said something bracing about this towards the end of the session. In the course of a discussion of where we should be looking for the early-warning signals of the next catastrophe, he said: “I think we’ve done a good job of putting in place an early-warning system for the last crisis”. (My emphasis.)

So what kinds of shocks could trigger another collapse? Two candidates were discussed. One was Grexit — the departure of Greece from the Euro and the chaos that would ensue from that. The other is a crisis in the Chinese economy triggered by a collapse in its housing and construction sector. A few days later, I talked to an expert on the Chinese property market, who poo-poohed the idea. And then, today, I find in the New York Times this quote from Henry Paulson’s new book, *Dealing with China:

“Frankly, it’s not a question of if, but when, China’s financial system will face a reckoning and have to contend with a wave of credit losses and debt restructurings.”

Note: not if but when. And Paulson is bullish on China!

The Eurosceptic UK

If a referendum were held on the UK’s membership of the EU with the options being to remain a member or withdraw, how do you think you would vote?

  • Would definitely vote to leave the EU = 28%
  • Would probably vote to leave the EU = 18%
  • Would probably vote to remain in the EU = 20%
  • Would definitely vote to remain in the EU = 18%
  • Don’t know = 17%
  • Source

    So can software handle your emotions?

    Interesting piece by Zeynep Tufecki in the NYT. She starts with the news that

    A robot with emotion-detection software interviews visitors to the United States at the border. In field tests, this eerily named “embodied avatar kiosk” does much better than humans in catching those with invalid documentation. Emotional-processing software has gotten so good that ad companies are looking into “mood-targeted” advertising, and the government of Dubai wants to use it to scan all its closed-circuit TV feeds.

    What this means is that

    Machines are getting better than humans at figuring out who to hire, who’s in a mood to pay a little more for that sweater, and who needs a coupon to nudge them toward a sale. In applications around the world, software is being used to predict whether people are lying, how they feel and whom they’ll vote for.

    To crack these cognitive and emotional puzzles, computers needed not only sophisticated, efficient algorithms, but also vast amounts of human-generated data, which can now be easily harvested from our digitized world. The results are dazzling. Most of what we think of as expertise, knowledge and intuition is being deconstructed and recreated as an algorithmic competency, fueled by big data.

    But computers do not just replace humans in the workplace. They shift the balance of power even more in favor of employers. Our normal response to technological innovation that threatens jobs is to encourage workers to acquire more skills, or to trust that the nuances of the human mind or human attention will always be superior in crucial ways. But when machines of this capacity enter the equation, employers have even more leverage, and our standard response is not sufficient for the looming crisis.

    Googlepower challenged? Not really

    This morning’s Observer column:

    To those of us who follow these things, the most interesting thing about Thursday’s announcement is the way it highlights the radical differences that are emerging between European and American attitudes to internet giants. The Wall Street Journal recently revealed that the US Federal Trade Commission had investigated similar claims about Google’s abuse of monopoly power in 2012 and that some of the agency’s staff had recommended charging the company with violating antitrust (unfair competition) laws. But in the end, the FTC backed off.

    Now it turns out that its staff had been in regular communication with the European commission’s investigators in Brussels, which means that the Europeans knew what the Americans knew about Google’s activities. But the commission has acted, whereas the FTC did not. Why?

    Read on