Transparency, non! (If you’re M. et Mme Piketty, that is)

Well, well. This from Frederic Filloux about the leading French public intellectual, Julia Cagé (of whom, I am ashamed to say) I had never heard.

Last year, she published a book titled Sauvez Les Medias, capitalisme, financement participatif et démocratie. The short opus collected nice reviews from journalists traumatized by the sector’s ongoing downfall and eager to cling to any glimmer of hope. Sometimes, though, the cozy entre nous review process goes awry. This was the case when star economist Thomas Piketty published a rave book review in Libération, but failed to acknowledge his marital tie to Julia Cagé. In fact, Piketty imposed the review on Libération’s editors, threatening to pull his regular column from the paper if they did not oblige, and then refused to disclose his tie to Mrs Cagé; rather troubling from intellectuals who preach ethics and transparency.

Steve Jobs: genius loci

In a Time Magazine report on Apple’s battle with the FBI over the unlocking of the San Bernardino killer’s iPhone 5c, I was struck by this passage:

At 55, Cook is wiry and silver-haired, with an Alabama accent that he has carefully transplanted to Silicon Valley. We spoke in his office at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino–the address, famously, is 1 Infinite Loop. It’s a modest office, an askew trapezoid, almost ostentatiously unostentatious, with a few framed “Think Different” posters on the walls, some arty photographs of Apple stores and a large wooden plaque with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt on it (the “daring greatly” one). Jobs’ office is next door. It’s dark, with curtains drawn, but the nameplate is still there.

Another source adds some detail:

The Apple cofounder passed away from cancer in October 2011, and his successor decided to keep his office as a form of memorial. According to Cook, there are even drawings on the whiteboard that Jobs’ children drew.

There’s something deeply touching about this, not least because Tim Cook offered Jobs part of his own liver in the hope that it might have averted his death. But keeping his office untouched is a recognition of the extent to which the spirit of the company’s co-founder pervades the place still.

He’s still the genius loci — the protective spirit of the place. Which makes one wonder what they will do with the office when Apple moves to its new corporate HQ in the Autumn.


Blood sacrifices, a century on

In Dublin today, my countrymen and women are marking the centenary of the 1916 Rising. The London Review of Books is marking the anniversary with a long, thoughtful piece by Colm Ó Toibín, which quotes this passage from a 1913 article by Patrick Pearse, who was one of the leaders of the insurrection.

“I should like to see any and every body of Irish citizens armed. We must accustom ourselves to the thought of arms, to the sight of arms, to the use of arms. We may make mistakes at the beginning and shoot the wrong people; but bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and the nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood. There are many things more horrible than bloodshed; and slavery is one of them.”

Stirring, not to say bloodthirsty stuff, eh? Which perhaps explains why it has always been popular with Gerry Adams and his Sinn Féin comrades.

Ten years later, The Plough and the Stars, Sean Ó Casey’s play about the Rising, was staged in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. As Ó Toibín tells it:

“In the play, Irish nationalists carrying the tricolour mix with prostitutes, one of whom, Rosie Redmond, is in a bar in Dublin where the voice of Patrick Pearse comes from outside; the speech he is making includes the lines: ‘Bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and the nation that regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood … There are many things more horrible than bloodshed, and slavery is one of them.’ At one point, a character who has been using the Rebellion as an excuse to loot goods from posh stores runs onto the stage with ‘a new hat on her head, a fox fur around her neck over her shawl, three umbrellas under her right arm, and a box of biscuits under her left’. She describes the looting with immense comic relish. All this irreverence resulted in a riot at the Abbey …, causing Yeats to tell the audience: ‘You have disgraced yourselves again.’”

I’ve always loved that “again”.

How to sum up

Jeffrey Toobin’s astute summing up of Anton Scalia:

Antonin Scalia, who died this month, after nearly three decades on the Supreme Court, devoted his professional life to making the United States a less fair, less tolerant, and less admirable democracy. Fortunately, he mostly failed. Belligerent with his colleagues, dismissive of his critics, nostalgic for a world where outsiders knew their place and stayed there, Scalia represents a perfect model for everything that President Obama should avoid in a successor. The great Justices of the Supreme Court have always looked forward; their words both anticipated and helped shape the nation that the United States was becoming. Chief Justice John Marshall read the new Constitution to allow for a vibrant and progressive federal government. Louis Brandeis understood the need for that government to regulate an industrializing economy. Earl Warren saw that segregation was poison in the modern world. Scalia, in contrast, looked backward.

Spot on. Wish I’d written that.

Orion mission re-ignites moon landing conspiracy theories

Orion is NASA’s next-generation spacecraft, “built to take astronauts deeper into space than we’ve ever gone before”. The video was made to highlight the complexity of the design challenges, particularly the amount of protection needed to safeguard fragile equipment and astronauts as the craft hurtles through the Van Allen radiation belt. “Radiation like this could harm the guidance systems, on-board computers or other electronics on Orion,” says the personable narrator. “Shielding will be put to the test as the vehicle cuts through the waves of radiation… We must solve these challenges before we send people through this region of space.”

Aha! Cue moon landing conspiracy theorists. “If the moon missions were real”, says one then it seems the whole ‘punching through the Van Allen belt’ problem should have been solved over 40 years ago.”

Sadly, the problem wasn’t solved then. The Apollo astronauts were pushed through the belt on their way to the moon and back, on the basis that their exposure was brief and the amount of radiation they received was below the dose allowed by US law for workers in nuclear power stations.

Sigh. The “slaughter of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact”, as TH Huxley used to say.

Killer Apps?

This morning’s Observer column:

“Guns don’t kill people,” is the standard refrain of the National Rifle Association every time there is a mass shooting atrocity in the US. “People kill people.” Er, yes, but they do it with guns. Firearms are old technology, though. What about updating the proposition from 1791 (when the second amendment to the US constitution, which protects the right to bear arms, was ratified) to our own time? How about this, for example: “algorithms kill people”?

Sounds a bit extreme? Well, in April 2014, at a symposium at Johns Hopkins University, General Michael Hayden, a former director of both the CIA and the NSA, said this: “We kill people based on metadata”. He then qualified that stark assertion by reassuring the audience that the US government doesn’t kill American citizens on the basis of their metadata. They only kill foreigners…

Read on

LATER In the column I discuss the decision-making process that must go on in the White House every Tuesday (when the kill-list for drone strikes is reportedly decided). This afternoon, I came on this account of the kind of conversation that goes on in Washington (possibly in the White House) when deciding whether to launch a strike:

“ARE you sure they’re there?” the decision maker asks. “They” are Qaeda operatives who have been planning attacks against the United States.

“Yes, sir,” the intelligence analyst replies, ticking off the human and electronic sources of information. “We’ve got good Humint. We’ve been tracking with streaming video. Sigint’s checking in now and confirming it’s them. They’re there.”

The decision maker asks if there are civilians nearby.

“The family is in the main building. The guys we want are in the big guesthouse here.”

“They’re not very far apart.”

“Far enough.”

“Anyone in that little building now?”

“Don’t know. Probably not. We haven’t seen anyone since the Pred got capture of the target. But A.Q. uses it when they pass through here, and they pass through here a lot.”

He asks the probability of killing the targets if they use a GBU-12, a powerful 500-pound, laser-guided bomb.

“These guys are sure dead,” comes the reply. “We think the family’s O.K.”

“You think they’re O.K.?”

“They should be.” But the analyst confesses it is impossible to be sure.

“What’s it look like with a couple of Hellfires?” the decision maker asks, referring to smaller weapons carrying 20-pound warheads.

“If we hit the right room in the guesthouse, we’ll get the all bad guys.” But the walls of the house could be thick. The family’s safe, but bad guys might survive.

“Use the Hellfires the way you said,” the decision maker says.

Then a pause.

“Tell me again about these guys.”

“Sir, big A.Q. operators. We’ve been trying to track them forever. They’re really careful. They’ve been hard to find. They’re the first team.”

Another pause. A long one.

“Use the GBU. And that small building they sometimes use as a dorm …”

“Yes, sir.”

“After the GBU hits, if military-age males come out …”

“Yes, sir?”

“Kill them.”

Less than an hour later he is briefed again. The two targets are dead. The civilians have fled the compound. All are alive.

Ok. You think I made that up. Well, I didn’t. The author is General Michael Hayden, who was director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2006 to 2009. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror, from which (I’m guessing) the New York Times piece is taken.