Alphabetical order

Google’s decision to morph into Alphabet — i.e. a holding company which has one enormously profitable cash-cow (Google) plus a raft of unprofitable and speculative ventures, has prompted a search for models and analogies. In a thoughtful piece, Neil Irwin sees three possible models:

  • Berkshire Hathaway
  • General Electric
  • AT&T in its monopolistic heyday

Of the three, Irwin sees AT&T as the most likely model, basically because of Bell Labs, which AT&T owned until it was broken up for anti-trust reasons. The Labs were only viable because AT&T had monopoly profits from its phone business, which enabled the company to fund all kinds of fabulous long-term research, only some of which actually benefited AT&T. So long as Google search remains a money-pump, that model will work for Alphabet. If the Search well runs dry, though, one wonders what will happen.

French regulator vs. First Amendment

This morning’s Observer column:

Although Google is an American company, it had no option but to comply with the ECJ ruling because it trades with – and has assets in – all the countries in the European Union. But because it is based in the US, it also has to obey the laws of that particular land. And in the US, the first amendment to the constitution means that people take a very dim view of any interference with free speech. Sanitising Google search results to comply with the rulings of a foreign court would certainly be perceived as such an interference. So while RTBF links are removed from, say,, they remain visible on search results from, which is easily accessible from any European country.

It turns out that some of Europe’s data protection regulators are not amused by this…

Read on

The (political) power of search engines

This is interesting:

We present evidence from five experiments in two countries suggesting the power and robustness of the search engine manipulation effect (SEME). Specifically, we show that (i) biased search rankings can shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more, (ii) the shift can be much higher in some demographic groups, and (iii) such rankings can be masked so that people show no awareness of the manipulation. Knowing the proportion of undecided voters in a population who have Internet access, along with the proportion of those voters who can be influenced using SEME, allows one to calculate the win margin below which SEME might be able to determine an election outcome.

Writing as someone who is working on a piece about the new kinds of power wielded by Internet companies, this seems pretty significant.

The anti-innovation system

The patent system has become dysfunctional. Even The Economist thinks so. This from the current edition:

Patents are supposed to spread knowledge, by obliging holders to lay out their innovation for all to see; they often fail, because patent-lawyers are masters of obfuscation. Instead, the system has created a parasitic ecology of trolls and defensive patent-holders, who aim to block innovation, or at least to stand in its way unless they can grab a share of the spoils. An early study found that newcomers to the semiconductor business had to buy licences from incumbents for as much as $200m. Patents should spur bursts of innovation; instead, they are used to lock in incumbents’ advantages.


The puzzle at the heart of modern history

… well, as Isaiah Berlin saw it anyway (as summarised by Mark Lilla in his essay in The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin):

“The puzzle is this: how did the optimistic and progressive spirit of 18th-century Europe give way to the dark and terrifying world of the 19th and 20th centuries? How did the Europe that produced Goethe and Kant, Voltaire and Rousseau, Tolstoy and Chekhov, also produce the Lager and the Gulag?”

Ou est La Seine?


It’s been very dry in France this summer. But I hadn’t realised how dry until I came on this bridge in Châtillon-sur-seine, which is quite near the source of the river in Burgundy.

A better mousetrap



The three-pin plug has always been a bit of a pain for those of us who have to carry one around in our rucksacks. So this re-design was a welcome surprise. Guess who sells it? Er, Apple.

Three generations


One of the really nice things about being on holiday in Provence is the number of extended families who appear to be holidaying together. In a restaurant last night there were were several family parties, one of which appeared to have four generations present.

Van Gogh: texture, colour and light

There’s a lovely passage in Julian Barnes’s review of Ever Yours: The Essential Letters of Vincent Van Gogh

We have a problem of seeing, just as we often have a problem hearing (or hearing clearly), say, a Beethoven symphony. It’s hard to get back to our first enraptured seeings and hearings, when Van Gogh and Beethoven struck our eyes and ears as nothing had before; and yet equally hard to break through to new seeings, new hearings. So we tend, a little lazily, to acknowledge greatness by default, and move elsewhere, away from the crowds discovering him as we first discovered him. But if, seeking silence and untrammelled Van Gogh, we then retreat into the art book, we are let down differently: however faithful the colour reproduction, the flat page always suppresses the urgent impasto of the paint surface, an impasto so thickly wet that the painter was sometimes kept waiting weeks before he could safely post off his latest canvas to his dealer-brother Theo. Julian Bell, in his useful short biography and appraisal, aptly describes Starry Night over the Rhône as ‘closer to a sculptural relief than a reproducible flat image’.


Every Summer, on our way south, we try to spend a night in Arles, and when the Foncdacion Vincent Van Gogh first opened in 2014 we made a beeline for it. And the first thing that struck me was the brilliant way the gate to the gallery captures that “urgent impasto” of the surface of a Van Gogh.

Barnes also writes very well about his use of colour:

No one did colour more blatantly and more unexpectedly than Van Gogh. Its blatancy gives his pictures their roaring charm. Colour, he seems to be saying: you haven’t seen colour before, look at this deep blue, this yellow, this black; watch me put them screechingly side by side. Colour for Van Gogh was a kind of noise. At the same time, it couldn’t have seemed more unexpected, coming from the dark, serious, socially concerned young Dutchman who for so many years of his early career had drawn and painted dark, serious, socially concerned images of peasants and proletarians, of weavers and potato-pickers, of sowers and hoers. This emergence, this explosion from darkness, has no parallel except for that of Odilon Redon (who was prompted into colour more by internal forces, whereas Van Gogh was prompted into it externally – first in Paris by the Impressionists, and then by the light of the South).

For decades I couldn’t understood Van Gogh’s use of colour — and it wasn’t for want of trying: I lived in Holland in 1997-8 and often went to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The fog only lifted in the summer of 2003 when I came to Provence for the first time. We flew in to Montpellier after dark, and drove to our destination through a tunnel dug by the car headlights into pitch-black darkness. Then, after a restless, hot night trying to sleep, I got up at dawn and opened the shutters — and looked out on a valley full of vivid ochres, yellows and greens, illuminated by a kind of light I’d never seen before (and, as a photographer, I pay a lot of attention to light). And then, finally, I began to understand Van Gogh.

The ghosts of thinkers past


In her newly-published autobiography Antonia Fraser opens with a quote from the autobiography of G.M. Trevelyan:

The poetry of history lies in the miraculous fact that once on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone like ghosts at cockcrow.

I often think of this when walking through Cambridge, the city where I live and work. If one walks down Free School Lane, for example, one passes the lab where Ernest Rutherford and Peter Kapitza worked and where the father-and-son team of William and Lawrence Bragg did the research which earned them both the 1915 Nobel Prize for physics. Also off Free School Lane is the room where J.J. Thomson discovered the electron, the room where, in 1932, John Cockroft and Ernest Walton first split the atom, and the room where, in 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick assembled the double-helix model of DNA. Turn left onto Bene’t Street and you find the Eagle, the pub to which Crick and Watson repaired to inform patrons that they had “found the secret of life”. If you walk down St Edward’s Passage, you will see (over David’s second-hand bookshop) the apartment in which John Maynard Keynes lived with his wife Lydia when they were in Cambridge. On Trinity Street, next to the Great Gate of Trinity, is the window of Isaac Newton’s room. On the other side of the street is Whewell’s Court, where Ludwig Wittgenstein had his spartan accommodation, complete with camp bed and card table.

When I lived in the centre of the city in the 1970s, one of the dustbins in a neighbouring house on Chesterton Lane (owned by Magdalene College) was labelled “I.A. Richards”. Walk down King’s parade and you pass the college where, in 1969, I attended E.M. Forster’s 90th birthday party (an event hosted by Francis Crick), where Bernard Williams was the Provost and where Alan Turing was both a student and a Fellow.

And so it goes on, seemingly ad infinitum. There’s Christ’s College, the college of John Milton and Charles Darwin (where they have restored Darwin’s room to its original state). And the Master’s Lodge in Peterhouse, where Herbert Butterfield once lived. And…

I once thought of organising a walking tour on the theme of “Cambridge ghosts”. Who knows, maybe I still might, one day.