Kremlinology 2.0

This morning’s Observer column:

In the bad old days of the cold war, western political and journalistic institutions practised an arcane pseudoscience called Kremlinology. Its goal was to try to infer what was going on in the collective mind of the Soviet Politburo. Its method was obsessively to note everything that could be publicly observed of the activities of this secretive cabal – who was sitting next to whom at the podium; which foreign visitors were granted an audience with which high official; who was in the receiving line for a visiting head of state; what editorials in Pravda (the official Communist party newspaper) might mean; and so on.

The Soviet empire is no more, much to Putin’s chagrin, but the world now has some new superpowers. We call them tech companies. Each periodically stages a major public event at which its leaders emerge from their executive suites to convey messages to their faithful followers and to the wider world. In the past few weeks, two such events have been held by two of the biggest powers – Google and Apple. So let’s do some Kremlinology on them…

Read on

Katharine Whitehorn

Alzheimer’s is a kind of living death, which I guess is why the tributes to Katharine in today’s Observer read a bit like obituaries. The peg for them is the news last week that she has advanced Alzheimer’s.

I’ve known her for many years, and once briefly provided informal IT support for her when she was first grappling with the Internet. I first got to know her when I was TV Critic of the Observer in the years 1987-1995; she had been a columnist on the paper since 1960 and was wonderfully supportive from the beginning. She was spectacularly beautiful but what was most striking was her ability to look and sound like a duchess while possessing the sense of mischief of a born troublemaker. And she was a very influential journalist. As a prominent columnist, for example, she took on the banks for not being willing to give mortgages to single women without a male guarantor — and won. And for young women, having this very posh lady writing frankly about how it was ok to be “slovenly” (because she was too) was liberating in the stultifying atmosphere of early 1960s Britain. “Have you ever taken anything out of the dirty-clothes basket”, she wrote in 1963,

“because it had become, relatively, the cleaner thing? Changed stockings in a taxi? Could you try on clothes in any shop, any time, without worrying about your underclothes? How many things are in the wrong room — cups in the study, boots in the kitchen?”

She had a blissfully happy marriage to Gavin Lyall, the thriller writer, with whom she lived in grand style in Hampstead, and was devastated when he died in 2003. But she was never one for self-pity. When my Observer colleague Yvonne Roberts wrote to her expressing condolences after Gavin’s death, Katherine’s reply included this line from Siegfried Sassoon: “I am rich in all that I have lost”.

Same goes for us now. Alzheimer’s may have taken her from us. But those of us who worked with her have been immensely enriched by her presence in our lives.

Tech-driven wealth is the new aphrodisiac

This morning’s Observer column:

It’s a quintessential Silicon Valley story. A smart, attractive 19-year-old American woman who has taught herself Mandarin while in high school is studying chemical engineering at Stanford, where she is a president’s scholar. Her name is Elizabeth Holmes. In her first year as an undergraduate she persuades her professor to allow her to attend the seminars he runs with his PhD students. Then one day she drops into his office to tell him that she’s dropping out of college because she has a “big idea” and wants to found a company that will revolutionise a huge part of the healthcare system – the market for blood testing services. Her company will be called Theranos.

Holmes’s big idea was for a way to perform multiple tests at once on a tiny drop of blood, and to deliver the results wirelessly to doctors. So she set about pitching to investors…

Read on

L’affaire Thorpe

I’ve been watching — and enjoying — A Very English Scandal, an astonishingly good BBC mini-series about the Thorpe affair, distinguished by a truly masterful performance by Hugh Grant (above) as Jeremy Thorpe, the creepy politician at the heart of the story. This was a quintessentially English political and sex scandal in the 1970s that ended Thorpe’s career as leader of the Liberal Party after he was accused of conspiracy to murder one of his former homosexual lovers, Norman Scott. It culminated in a farcical trial, presided over by Sir Joseph Cantley, (not perhaps the sharpest knife in the judicial canteen) in which Thorpe and his alleged accomplices, were acquitted. (The exception was Andrew Newman, one of the most incompetent hit-men of all time — who succeeded only in shooting Scott’s dog and had earlier been convicted of possessing a firearm with intent to endanger life.)

Shortly after the trial, the great comedian Peter Cook did a wonderful parody of Cantley’s summing-up:

UPDATE It seems that the case may be re-opened because of new evidence that Newton may still be alive. (A previous police investigation was terminated because it was believed that he had died.)

George Soros on the European crisis

Standfirst from his essay:

There is no longer any point in ignoring the reality that a number of European Union member countries have explicitly rejected the EU’s goal of “ever closer union.” Instead of a “multi-speed Europe,” where all members are still heading toward the same destination, the goal should be a “multi-track Europe” that offers member states a wider variety of choices.

‘Social credit’ in China

This morning’s Observer column:

In the old days, western snobbery led to the complacent view that the Chinese could not originate, only copy. One hears this less now, as visitors to China return goggle-eyed at the extent to which its people have integrated digital technology into daily life. One colleague of mine recently returned exasperated because he had been expected to pay for everything there with his phone. Since he possesses only an ancient Nokia handset, he was unable to comply and had been reduced to mendicant status, having to ask his Chinese hosts to pay for everything.

If the future is digital, therefore, a significant minority of China’s 1.4 billion citizens are already there. More significantly, the country’s technocratic rulers have sussed that digital technology is not just good for making economic transactions frictionless, but also for implementing sophisticated systems of social control.

Read on

Ireland springs another surprise

I’m stunned by the outcome of the referendum on abortion in my native land. I expected it to be close, and watched with distaste the attempts by the American fanatical anti-choice movement to influence the campaign. I thought the Yes campaign would win, but suspected that it would be by a narrow margin (as in the Brexit referendum in the UK). And I expected that the result would reflect the growing urban/rural divide in Ireland.

I was wrong about all this. Two thirds of my fellow-citizens voted to repeal a previous amendment to the Constitution that effectively banned abortions in the Republic. And as for my idea about the urban/rural divide — well, only a single constituency (Donegal) voted against repeal — and then only by a narrow margin (51.9% to 48.1%).

The Irish Times columnist, Una Mullally, summed it up nicely:

We were told this was a divisive campaign. It was a unifying campaign. We were told this was a difficult issue for people, yet for many it was straightforward. We were told it was the third rail of Irish politics, so instead, the people led, from the activists and protestors to the canvassers and ordinary women and men who rolled up their sleeves, to the Citizen’s Assembly, to the women who shared their abortion stories. We were told about Middle Ireland. There is no Middle Ireland. Just Ireland. Its islands, villages, cities, towns, coasts, midlands, mountains, estates, flats, and fields. This campaign was intergenerational. Younger activists stood on the shoulders of those gone before them, and brought an energy, fearlessness, creativity and sense of unrelenting determination and optimism that inspired people across the board. The brilliantly eclectic make-up of the campaign brought in doctors, mothers, lawyers, students, trade unionists, the LGBT community, feminists, and everyone in between.

Who did the No campaign really have in the end, apart from a cabal of fringe fundamentalists whom no one can really understand how or why they have gained such a platform and unfettered access to the media? The No campaign drove recklessly and ended in a car crash. They alienated undecided voters at every juncture with extreme messaging. In the final weeks, the No campaign acted as an asset to the Yes campaign, with spokesman John McGuirk, who revelled in bizarre statements, and campaigners such as Ronan Mullen getting short shrift, particularly when he disrespected a woman who shared her abortion story in a television debate. No amount of media training could connect No campaigners with the public.

This is now the second referendum that my fellow-citizens have surprised the world. In 2015 they voted 62.1% to 37.9% to legalise same-sex marriage. And again only one constituency in the entire country voted against.

This is getting to be a habit. Long may it continue.

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.