The view from here

July 31st, 2014 [link]


The view from the top of Fox-Amphoux this evening as the sun went down.

Vlad and the sanctions

July 30th, 2014 [link]

From an interesting OpEd piece by Dmitri Trenin

The sanctions will not make Putin back off. He also knows that if he were to step back, pressure on him will only increase. The Russian elite may have to undergo a major transformation, and a personnel turnover, as a result of growing isolation from the West, but the Russian people at large are more likely to grow more patriotic under outside pressure—especially if Putin leans harder on official corruption and bureaucratic arbitrariness. If the Kremlin, however, turns the country into a besieged fortress and introduces mass repression, it will definitely lose.

It is too early to speculate how the contest might end. The stakes are very high. Any serious concession by Putin will lead to him losing power in Russia, which will probably send the country into a major turmoil, and any serious concession by the United States—in terms of accommodating Russia—will mean a palpable reduction of U.S. global influence, with consequences to follow in Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere. Ironically, the challenge to the world’s currently predominant power does not come from the present runner-up, but from a former contender, long thought to be virtually defunct. China could not have hoped for such a helping hand.

Interesting times ahead, alas.

Morality vs realpolitik

July 30th, 2014 [link]

General de Gaulle, when he was President of France, was once asked by a journalist: “what about France’s friends?” “Great nations”, mon General haughtily replied, “do not have friends. They only have interests.” I was reminded of this when contemplating the strange response of the Dutch government to the downing of the Malaysian airliner by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine. The Dutch public is, understandably, traumatised by the huge loss of (Dutch) life. Yet their government’s response to the atrocity seems strangely muted, confined mostly to insistence on a full and proper investigation of what happened and who was responsible.

At first I interpreted this as an example of Dutch reserve. I once lived and worked in Holland, and came to love the country and to value its quiet civility and modernity. Like the English, the Dutch do not go in for showy sentimentality, and there’s something admirable in that.

But now, a more insidious thought surfaces: is this an example of a government making a calculation that, whatever the level of popular grief, the Netherlands is in too deep with the Russians to risk offending Putin? What triggered the thought was a sobering piece in the Economist. The Dutch government’s cautious responses, it says,

reflect Dutch commercial interests in Russia, such as Shell’s huge investments in Siberian oil fields, as Thomas Erdbrin reports in the New York Times. The Netherlands is also one of the world’s premiere hubs for shell companies created for tax avoidance, which Russians have made liberal use of. As the Dutch investigative website Follow The Money reports, these Dutch-registered Russian holding companies have made the Netherlands, on paper, the world’s second-largest investor in Russia. (Another Dutch website noted that the Russian defence conglomerate Rostec, which most likely built the missile that shot down flight MH17, operates several shell companies headquartered in Amsterdam.) Dutch political attitudes are often described as a seesaw between de dominee en de koopman, or “the preacher and the merchant”: at times the Netherlands adopts a moralistic tone towards the rest of the world, other times its interests are purely businesslike. For at least the past decade the merchant has had the upper hand.

This suggests to me that the Dutch government is increasingly going to find itself trapped between a rock and a very hard place. All the evidence is that, far from pulling back, Putin is effectively doubling his bets in Ukraine. There’s no real sign of remorse from anyone involved over there. I’ll be very surprised if this doesn’t trigger a wave of inchoate anger and disturbance in the Dutch public analogous to the one that swept the country after the assassination of Pim Fortuyn in 2002. And who knows what the consequences of that might be?

What it all goes to show, of course, is that Ukraine is not, to use an infamous cliche, “a faraway country of which we know nothing”.

What the (early) scientist saw

July 28th, 2014 [link]


Robert Hooke would have been 379 today. The British Library has marked his birthday with a nice blog post on how he did his remarkable drawings of tiny organisms while peering through a crude microscope. It includes this astonishing drawing of a flea.

Quote of the Day

July 28th, 2014 [link]

“The internet is the first thing humans have built that humans don’t understand.”

– Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Google

Well, some humans. The ones at Google understand it only too well.

Evening in Provence

July 28th, 2014 [link]


Evening in one of my favourite parts of the world.

Once upon a time…

July 28th, 2014 [link]

… even huge corporations didn’t know about the Internet. Kevin Kelly pointed me to this Wired piece by Joshua Quittner that appeared way back when. This is how it begins:

I’m waiting for a call back from McDonald’s, the hamburger people. They’re trying to find me someone – anyone – within corporate headquarters who knows what the Internet is and can tell me why there are no Golden Arches on the information highway.

It’s true: there is no on the Internet. No either.


“Are you finding that the Internet is a big thing?” asked Jane Hulbert, a helpful McDonald’s media-relations person, with whom I spoke a short while ago.

Yes, I told her. In some quarters, the Internet is a very big thing.

I explained a little bit about what the Big Thing is, and how it works, and about the Net Name Gold Rush that’s going on. I told her how important domain names are on the Internet (“Kind of like a phone number. It’s where you get your e-mail. It’s part of your address.”), and I explained that savvy business folks are racing out and registering any domain name they can think of: their own company names, obviously, and generic names like and, and silly names that might have some kind of speculative value one day, like

“Some companies,” I told Jane Hulbert, “are even registering the names of their competitors.”

“You’re kidding,” she said.

I am not, I told her, recounting the story of The Princeton Review, the Manhattan-based company that sells SAT prep courses, and how it registered the name of its arch-rival, Now the lawyers are working it out in court. Very ugly. (We’ll get to that later.)

“I could register McDonald’s right now,” I said, pointing out that the name is still unclaimed.

“You could?” she asked, then quickly answered my silence: “You could.”

“So could Burger King,” I said, and Jane Hulbert rang off, looking for some MIS person with the answers.

Those were the days.

Quote of the Day

July 27th, 2014 [link]

“The worse your logic, the more interesting the consequences to which it gives rise.”

— Bertrand Russell

Net neutrality: or why some comments are more equal than others

July 27th, 2014 [link]

This morning’s Observer column.

Want to know if someone is internet-savvy? Just ask them why anyone should care about net neutrality. If they understand the technology, stand by for a lecture on why it is vital that all data on the network should be treated equally by ISPs, and why it is essential that those who provide the pipes connecting us to the network should have no influence on the content that flows through those pipes.

On the other hand, if the person knows no more about the net than the average LOLcat enthusiast, you will be greeted by a blank stare: “Net what?”

If, dear reader, you fall into neither category but would like to know more, two options are available: a visit to the excellent Wikipedia entry on the subject or comedian John Oliver’s devastatingly sharp explication of net neutrality on YouTube…

Read on

Our enigmatic adversary

July 26th, 2014 [link]



As the West becomes more and more infuriated by Vladimir Putin, it’s extraordinary how little is known about him. Up to now all I had picked up was his neurotic obsession with physical fitness and macho imagery. So this long piece in Newsweek by Ben Judah, one of Putin’s biographers, made fascinating reading. It’s written in the style of a medieval chronicler describing life in a monarchical court.

Consider this passage, about Putin’s daily routine:

The President wakes late and eats shortly after noon. He begins with the simplest of breakfasts. There is always cottage cheese. His cooked portion is always substantial; omelette or occasionally porridge. He likes quails’ eggs. He drinks fruit juice. The food is forever fresh: baskets of his favourites dispatched regularly from the farmland estates of the Patriarch Kirill, Russia’s religious leader.

He is then served coffee. His courtiers have been summoned but these first two hours are taken up with swimming. The President enjoys this solitary time in the water. He wears goggles and throws himself into a vigorous front crawl. This is where the political assistants suggest he gets much of Russia’s thinking done.

The courtiers joke and idle and cross their legs in the lacquered wood waiting rooms. He rarely comes to them quickly. They say three, perhaps four hours is the normal wait for a minister. He likes to spend some time in the gym where Russian rolling news is switched on. There he enjoys the weights much more than the exercise bikes.

He sometimes reads after the sweat. This is because he likes to work late into the night. He summons his men at the hours that suit his mental clarity – the cold hours where everything is clearer. The books he finds most interesting, are history books. He reads these attentively. Heavy, respectable tomes: about Ivan the Terrible, Catherine II, Peter the Great.


He spends time completing his cleanse. He immerses himself into both hot and cold baths. Then the President dresses. He chooses to wear only ­tailored, bespoke suits in conservative colours. His choice of ties is usually dour.

And now power begins…

Or this, about his personal style:

There are no stories of extravagance: only of loneliness. The President has no family life. His mother is dead. So is his father. His wife suffered nervous disorders, and after a long separation, there has been a divorce. There are two daughters. But they are a state secret and no longer live in Russia. There are rumours of models, photographers, or gymnasts that come to him at night. But there is a hollow tick to these stories, which no courtier can quite explain.

The President loves animals. He smiles at the sight of creatures that refuse to obey him. The President finds solace in the company of a black Labrador, who is not afraid of him. He enjoys the hunting parties. He enjoys the helicopter rides with camera-crews over the grey-white tundra looking for tigers and bears – the beauty of Russia.

Or this, about his working practices:

The early afternoon is about briefing notes. This mostly takes place at his heavy wooden desk. These are offices without screens. The President uses only the most secure technologies: red folders with paper documents, and fixed-line Soviet War era telephones.

The master begins his work day by reading three thick leather-bound folders. The first – his report on the home front compiled by the FSB, his domestic intelligence service. The second – his report on international affairs compiled by the SVR, his foreign intelligence. The third – his report on the court complied by the FSO, his army of close protection.

He is obsessed with information. The thickest, fattest folders at his request are not intelligence reports: they are press clippings. His hands first open the Russian press digest. The most important papers come at the front: the obsequious national tabloids – such as Komsomolskaya Pravda and Moskovsky Komsomolets. These matter most, with their millions of readers. Their headlines, their gossip columns, their reactions to the latest Siberian train wreck affect the workers’ mood.

Then he moves onto Russia’s quality press: the lightly censored broadsheets, Vedomosti and Kommersant. These matter in the Kremlin court: this is their gossip, their columnists, their analysis. He pays particular attention to the regular columns about Vladimir Putin written by Andrey Kolesnikov in ­Kommersant. His courtiers say he enjoys this one greatly and always reads right to the end.

Putin’s life, by this account, is “monotonous”.

The meaningless meetings. The pedantic clip of presidential protocol. The repetitive routine these schedules have year after year. His motorcade goes in two directions: either to the Kremlin or to the airport. The President says that he works harder than any leader since Stalin.

The reference to the motorcade commute is explained by the writer’s claim that Putin hates working in the Kremlin and much prefers to work at his estate outside Moscow.

It’s a fascinating piece, well worth reading in full. Given that all of the information comes from anonymous sources, it’s impossible to know how accurate it is, but if it’s even 50% accurate then the West is dealing with a very strange guy indeed. It also makes one wonder what he wants power for. There’s no mention in the piece, for example, of the stories about Putin’s allegedly vast personal wealth.