Facebook and the CCTV effect

This morning’s Observer column:

Jeremy Paxman, who once served as Newsnight’s answer to the pit-bull terrier, famously outlined his philosophy in interviewing prominent politicians thus: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” This was unduly prescriptive: not all of Paxman’s interviewees were outright liars; they were merely practitioners of the art of being “economical with the truth”, but it served as a useful heuristic for a busy interviewer.

Maybe the time has come to apply the same heuristic to Facebook’s public statements…

Read on

Google drops “don’t be evil”

Interesting. Gizmodo reports that the high-minded motto disappeared from the company’s corporate code of conduct sometime between April 21 and May 4. Here’s the updated version:

The Google Code of Conduct is one of the ways we put Google’s values into practice. It’s built around the recognition that everything we do in connection with our work at Google will be, and should be, measured against the highest possible standards of ethical business conduct. We set the bar that high for practical as well as aspirational reasons: Our commitment to the highest standards helps us hire great people, build great products, and attract loyal users. Respect for our users, for the opportunity, and for each other are foundational to our success, and are something we need to support every day.

Aw, shucks.

Tom Wolfe RIP

Tom Wolfe has died at the ripe old age of 88. He was a big figure in the imaginations of my generation of writers — as big as Updike or Mailer (both of whom loathed him). I always think of Mailer, Wolfe and Hunter Thompson as the writers who changed the way I thought about reportage.

The NYT obituary quoted that famous observation by Joseph Epstein in The New Republic:

“As a titlist of flamboyance he is without peer in the Western world. His prose style is normally shotgun baroque, sometimes edging over into machine-gun rococo, as in his article on Las Vegas which begins by repeating the word ‘hernia’ 57 times.”

Most people probably remember him not for his satire — his ability to take the piss out of self-important and self-indulgent elites — but for his attire. The London Times obit (behind a paywall) claimed that he owned 40 hand-made white suits (and put a photo of him wearing one on the front page). I’ll remember him for his best book — The Right Stuff — about the pioneering flights of the Mercury astronauts. And for being one of those writers who make you think after you’ve read one of his sentences: I wish I’d written that.

How democracy ends

David Runciman’s book is out. It’s a terrific, thought-provoking read IMHO, not least because it makes a refreshing contrast to the current feeding-frenzy of shocked liberals bewailing Trump and Orban.

I’m doing a public conversation with David at the Cambridge Union on Tuesday May 22nd. Tickets available here

Quote of the Day

”If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room”

Simon Kuper, writing in the current issue of the Financial Times.

Why providing free parking places is a bad idea

Much as I hate to say it, I agree with Tyler Cowen about how the way we require employers (and stores) to provide free parking provides perverse economic incentives in a society already over-burdened with cars and their environmental disbenefits. Excerpt from an old NYT OpEd he wrote:

Many suburbanites take free parking for granted, whether it’s in the lot of a big-box store or at home in the driveway. Yet the presence of so many parking spaces is an artifact of regulation and serves as a powerful subsidy to cars and car trips. Legally mandated parking lowers the market price of parking spaces, often to zero. Zoning and development restrictions often require a large number of parking spaces attached to a store or a smaller number of spaces attached to a house or apartment block.

If developers were allowed to face directly the high land costs of providing so much parking, the number of spaces would be a result of a careful economic calculation rather than a matter of satisfying a legal requirement. Parking would be scarcer, and more likely to have a price — or a higher one than it does now — and people would be more careful about when and where they drove.

The subsidies are largely invisible to drivers who park their cars — and thus free or cheap parking spaces feel like natural outcomes of the market, or perhaps even an entitlement. Yet the law is allocating this land rather than letting market prices adjudicate whether we need more parking, and whether that parking should be free. We end up overusing land for cars — and overusing cars too. You don’t have to hate sprawl, or automobiles, to want to stop subsidizing that way of life.

Or, as Donald Shoup puts it in his forthcoming Parking and the City, “Minimum parking requirements act like a fertility drug for cars.”

The Bitcoin/blockchain story: a mixture of greed and idealism

This morning’s Observer column:

Because I write about technology I am regularly assailed by people who are exercised about so-called “cryptocurrencies” like bitcoin, which most of them regard as a scam. But when I reply that while bitcoin might be newsworthy, the really important story concerns the blockchain technology that underpins it, their eyes glaze over and they start looking for the nearest exit as they conclude that they are in the grip of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.

And, in a sense, they are. Blockchain technology is indeed important, but it seems largely incomprehensible to ordinary mortals, even though the web teems with attempts to explain it…

Read on