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.

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.

Keep a record of what matters

Dave Winer’s mother died recently and he’s been clearing out the family home. Which prompted this reflection

In hindsight, I realize we should have done a video walkthrough of mom’s house as it was when she left us. Exactly as it was. Now it is staged for sale, all the personal stuff is out. It’s a house transitioning to be a new family’s house. It was our family house for over 50 years. I didn’t think of it because at the time, the way the house was set up was the most normal thing. I never thought that it was an archive of lives that were now over, that it was about to disappear. I mention this so if you end up being the one to close up shop on a family house, take a good video snapshot before you start taking it apart. #

The intellectual benefits of bullet trains

From “The Role of Transportation Speed in Facilitating High Skilled Teamwork”

High skilled workers gain from face to face interactions. If the skilled can move at higher speeds, then knowledge diffusion and idea spillovers are likely to reach greater distances. This paper uses the construction of China’s high speed rail (HSR) network as a natural experiment to test this claim. HSR connects major cities, that feature the nation’s best universities, to secondary cities. Since bullet trains reduce cross-city commute times, they reduce the cost of face-to-face interactions between skilled workers who work in different cities. Using a data base listing research paper publication and citations, we document a complementarity effect between knowledge production and the transportation network. Co-authors’ productivity rises and more new co-author pairs emerge when secondary cities are connected by bullet train to China’s major cities.

Which attracted this comment from someone using the handle “Pedantic Blithering Idiot”:

In the famous paraphrasing of Max Planck- science advances funeral by funeral. To overturn old ideas it is often necessary for new ideas to have an incubation period among a relatively isolated group of highly talented people. If all the universities of the world were to relocate to Amsterdam the initial effect might be positive but it seems probable that a kind of group-think consensus would form up around old ideas and stagnate. (Is that finally happening in Silicon Valley?) The balance between concentration and dispersal of talent is complex involving many factors on a case by case basis. Many have tried to recreate the Silicon Valley success in some form or another, no one quite succeeds as well. In cultures where there is more conformity, where the nail that stands out gets hammered down, the tendencies toward group-think stagnation is likely to be greater which would suggest advising a balance favoring dispersal- small clumps of isolated groups, might work better for scientific advancement. In the short run I’d expect an increase in technical expertise as China finishes playing catch-up in technology (if it hasn’t already) and distributes technical knowledge more thoroughly throughout it’s regions, but it wouldn’t surprise me terribly if the long term effect of high-speed rail in China is negative for science production, and then for innovation and patents.

HT to Tyler Cowen

The nauseating White House Press corps

I’ve always been revolted by the annual dinner of the White House Press Corps, but never more than this year — after the pompous umbrage the hacks have taken to the scathing monologue delivered at the dinner by comedienne Michelle Wolf.

The Economist‘s US correspondent is no admirer of the event, either, and has written an equally scathing commentary on it. Extract:

Calls for press-corps civility are in fact calls for servility, and should be received with contempt. Some might argue that insults do not deserve the same protection as investigative journalism, but that is a distinction without a difference. Anyone who wants to outlaw or apologise for the former will end up too timid to do the latter.

In open societies, self-censorship—in the name of civility, careerism or access preservation—is a much greater threat to the media than outright repression. The only person owed an apology here is Ms Wolf, for being scolded by the very people who invited her to speak, and who purport to defend a “vigorous and free press.”

Right on! But there’s a serious point here. Trump and his acolytes treat serious journalism with contempt. (See Jay Rosen’s splendid NYRB essay). Given that, why should they be entitled to civility or respect?

Facebook’s sudden attack of modesty

One of the most illuminating things you can do as a researcher is to go into Facebook not as a schmuck (i.e. user) but as an advertiser — just like your average Russian agent. Upon entering, you quickly begin to appreciate the amazing ingenuity and comprehensiveness of the machine that Zuckerberg & Co have constructed. It’s utterly brilliant, with a great user interface and lots of automated advice and help for choosing your targeted audience.

When doing this a while back — a few months after Trump’s election — I noticed that there was a list of case studies of different industries showing how effective a given targeting strategy could be in a particular application. One of those ‘industries’ was “Government and Politics” and among the case studies was a story of how a Facebook campaign had proved instrumental in helping a congressional candidate to win against considerable odds. I meant to grab some screenshots of this uplifting tale, but of course forget to do so. When I went back later, the case study had, well, disappeared.

Luckily, someone else had the presence of mind to grab a screenshot. The Intercept, bless it, has the before-and-after comparison shown in the image above. They are Facebook screenshots from (left) June 2017 and (right) March 2018.

Interesting, ne c’est pas?

Book you ticket

From today’s Financial Times. Clearly they were so excited by the coup of landing Steve Bannon as a speaker that they omitted to employ a proof-reader.

Interesting also that the FT regards Bannon as an “influencer”. Just as Marine le Pen does, apparently.

Interesting uses for blockchain technology #15610

From a lovely rant by Paul Ford:

The blockchain can be a form of media. The writer Maria Bustillos is starting a magazine that will publish on the blockchain — which means it will be impossible to take down. (Disclosure: In theory, I’ll write for Maria, who’s a friend, and she’ll pay me in cryptocurrency, or what she calls “space jewels.”) One of her aims is to make it impossible for people—Peter Thiel, for example, who backed Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker—to threaten publications they dislike.

You could even make a distributed magazine called Information of Vital Public Interest About Peter Thiel that would be awfully hard to sue into oblivion. It’s the marketplace of ideas. Literally. Try another thought experiment. Remember that anonymously created list of men who worked in media and who were alleged sexual harassers? You could, by whispering the allegations from one wallet to the next, put that information on a blockchain. You could make a web browser plug-in so that whenever someone visited a sexual harasser’s LinkedIn page, that page could glow bright red. You could have a distributed, immutable record of sexual harassment allegations on the internet. (Is there an economy around such allegations? Well, people do pay for gossip. GossipCoin?)