Britain’s hypnotic monarchy

Nice column by Polly Toynbee asking why people are still so in thrall to the monarchy.

Maybe Shakespeare is partly to blame. The history of our monarchs is so profoundly embedded in us by our greatest writer that his plays on the rise and fall of kings elevates them in our minds, adding cultural depth and meaning to the absurdity of monarchy.

What an irony that the royal family itself seems devoid of cultural enthusiasm, preferring polo, corgis and shooting. But then, if centuries of privileged breeding and education produce dunderheads and philistines, that proves talent is genetically random, not inherited. A meritocracy would send the likes of Prince Andrew into the tender clutches of Iain Duncan Smith.

Potholes on the road to the self-driving future

This morning’s Observer column:

Somehow I think it’s going to take quite a while to get to self-driving nirvana. For one thing, autonomous vehicles require digital mapping that is an order of magnitude more detailed than anything in Google Streetview. Secondly, those maps need to be continually updated, because even an unexpected new mini-roundabout might confuse the vehicle and cause an accident.

But the biggest obstacle might come from what supposedly kept Harold Macmillan awake at nights – “events, dear boy, events”. Driving in Devon last weekend, I came on a number of temporary traffic lights at roadworks, and wondered how an autonomous vehicle would cope with them. After all, they would not appear on its digital map; and although it would be programmed to look for a red light in a standard position at a junction, it might not “see” a temporary one.

Devon is a ravishing county, but it has one quirk from the motorist’s point of view: it has lots of extremely narrow lanes, most of which have high hedges growing on either side. There are occasional passing places which allow two vehicles to edge past one another. This is fine until a procession of three or four vehicles meets another procession of several cars stuck behind a truck, at which point the only way to reach a solution involves a good deal of human-to-human negotiation. This is something that even the dumbest human is good at, but which will lie beyond the capability of even the smartest machine for some time to come…

Read on.

Privacy – and networked hypocrisy – begins at home

I’ve been arguing for years that the Internet holds up a mirror to human nature. And much of what we see in that mirror isn’t flattering. But that doesn’t stop us blaming the mirror rather than addressing the awkward questions that our reflected behaviour reveals. The result is stinking hypocrisy. Evan Selinger makes this point forcefully in the CS Monitor today:

When people lament that privacy is dead or dying, they typically point fingers outwards, saying that government and corporate surveillance deserve all the blame. But as recent events highlight, our urge for online voyeurism plays an important role in the erosion of privacy.

As the Ashley Madison hack had the Internet gawking over details of the possible infidelity of its members, another lurid tragedy was going viral thanks to a woman live tweeting the breakup of a couple sitting next to her on an airplane. Both are examples of people succumbing to their baser instincts and failing to look away when when someone’s personal life is spilled online.

But until we can resist those urges, stop from clicking those articles, and trolling the databases hackers’ victims, we are just encouraging other hackers with an ax to grind, digital eavesdroppers, and snoopers to uncover our private moments and publishing them for the world to see. And, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like we’ve hit that point of maturity in our collective Internet evolution.

Spot on. For chapter and verse see Jon Ronson’s terrific book — So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

Quote of the Day

“The economic management team in Beijing has seriously lost its way. But leaders do funky things when the ruling party’s bargain with its people is ‘we get to rule and you get to get rich.’ Collapsing markets can quickly lead to collapsing legitimacy.”

Tom Friedman, writing in today’s New York Times.

Not sure what he means by “funky”, though. It sometimes is a synonym for “cool”. But it could mean “frightened” — as in “he was in a blue funk”.

Just say ‘No’? I think not.

Hmmm… I found this a bit worrying:

A Hungarian psychology professor once wrote to famous creators asking them to be interviewed for a book he was writing. One of the most interesting things about his project was how many people said “no.”

Management writer Peter Drucker: “One of the secrets of productivity (in which I believe whereas I do not believe in creativity) is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours — productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one’s time on the work the Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well.”

Secretary to novelist Saul Bellow: “Mr Bellow informed me that he remains creative in the second half of life, at least in part, because he does not allow himself to be a part of other people’s ‘studies.’ ”

Photographer Richard Avedon: “Sorry — too little time left.”

Secretary to composer György Ligeti: “He is creative and, because of this, totally overworked. Therefore, the very reason you wish to study his creative process is also the reason why he (unfortunately) does not have time to help you in this study. He would also like to add that he cannot answer your letter personally because he is trying desperately to finish a Violin Concerto which will be premiered in the Fall.”

Why is this troubling? Two reasons. One is that I get asked to do a lot of things — give lectures, attend other people’s events, read and comment on drafts, sit on committees and advisory boards, etc. And I often say ‘yes’, and then half-regret it because I’m conscious that life is a zero-sum game: the more time I give to other people’s stuff, the less I have to do the things I want to do (like finishing the book I’m currently incubating).

On the other hand… I gain a lot from participating in things. Innovation and creativity are, to a greater or lesser extent, social processes. I get a lot us useful ideas — ideas that I wouldn’t have generated myself — from interacting with others. If I took the Saul Bellow line I would probably wind up leading a pretty sterile existence.

But at least then people wouldn’t ask me to do things!

Calling the Chinese bluff

Lovely column by Joe Nocera about Jim Chanos, the guy who spotted the unsustainability of the Chinese real-estate bubble before most people — and acted on his insight.

Perhaps you remember Jim Chanos. The founder of Kynikos Associates, a $3 billion hedge fund that specializes in short-selling, Chanos was the first person to figure out, some 15 years ago, that Enron was a house of cards.

He shorted Enron stock — meaning that he would profit if the stock fell, rather than rose — and shared his suspicions with others, including my friend Bethany McLean, who wrote a story for Fortune that marked the beginning of the end for Enron. That call not only made Chanos a small fortune; it also made him famous.

Chanos and his crew at Kynikos don’t make big “macro” bets on economies; their style is more “micro”: looking at the fundamentals of individual companies or sectors. And so it was with China. “I’ll never forget the day in 2009 when my real estate guy was giving me a presentation and he said that China had 5.6 billion square meters of real estate under development, half residential and half commercial,” Chanos told me the other day.

“I said, ‘You must mean 5.6 billion square feet.’ ”

The man replied that he hadn’t misspoken; it really was 5.6 billion square meters, which amounted to over 60 billion square feet.

For Chanos, that is when the light bulb went on. The fast-growing Chinese economy was being sustained not just by its export prowess, but by a property bubble propelled by mountains of debt, and encouraged by the government as part of an infrastructure spending strategy designed to keep the economy humming. (According to the McKinsey Global Institute, China’s debt load today is an unfathomable $28 trillion.)

The 2015 Bad Taste Award

There are reports (the reliability of which is currently unknown) that two individuals whose identities have been disclosed in the Ashley Madison hack have committed suicide.

But in this crisis, ingenious entrepreneurs have spotted an opportunity. For example, this:

At least one company is using the whole unfortunate situation as a PR opportunity. Travel group is offering $50 vouchers for anyone who sends the company a message from an email address that was disclosed on the leaked user list. “If your relationship is in ruins and you’re thinking about heading out of town, we have a solution for you,” the company wrote. “You may have made some mistakes, but a vacation may be just what you both need right now.”

This wins the Memex 1.1 Bad Taste Award for 2015. As the Obama election team used to say, never waste a good crisis.

The ad-blocking paradox

This morning’s Observer column:

Mail Online is one of the world’s most popular news websites and it’s free: no paywall. But my browser has a plug-in program called Ghostery, which will scan any web page you visit and tell you how many “third-party trackers” it has found on it. These are small pieces of code that advertisers and ad-brokers place on pages or in cookies in order to monitor what you’re doing on the web and where you’ve been before hitting the current page.

When I looked at the Mail Online report, Ghostery found 31 such trackers. Some of them came from familiar names (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Pinterest, Doubleclick). But others were placed by outfits I have never heard of, for example, Bidswitch, Brightcove, Crimtan, Sonobi, Taboola. These are companies that act as high-speed intermediaries between your browser and firms wanting to place ads on the web page you’re viewing. And theirs is the industry that pays the bills (and sometimes makes a profit) for the publisher whose “free” content you are perusing.

But we humans are cussed creatures. It turns out that we loathe and detest online ads and will do almost anything to avoid them…

Read on

Unnatural beauty


The genius of Capability Brown and the other great English landscape artists was to make the artificial seem utterly and timelessly natural — as here at Cockington Court in Devon. Their only modern counterparts are golf architects: think of the way Augusta National looks now, compared to what the terrain was like when Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie first got to grips with it.