Archive for the 'Asides' Category

Wolf Hall and the evolution of ‘civilised’ values

[link] Thursday, February 12th, 2015

I’ve been watching Peter Kosminsky’s terrific adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and thinking how much its portrayal of the Tudor court, with its intrigues, back-stabbing, arse-licking and capriciousness reminds me of British newspaper offices in the 1970s and 1980s. There’s a good deal of callous savagery also, most of it discreetly off camera. This was an era, remember, when people were routinely tortured for their religious beliefs, and executed using a variety of technologies.

All part of Britain’s fabled ‘island story’, so beloved of Michael Gove. How nice, then, to see this observation in John Sutherland’s review of the third episode of the series:

This paper called the recent burning alive of the Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh “a new depth of depravity”. One agrees. But, as Mantel chronicles, if you take the long view, it’s as British a depravity as roast beef. How much foundational cruelty does a proudly “liberal” civilisation such as ours require in forming itself? This is something explored in Mantel’s trilogy. “Quite a lot” would seem to be her answer.

State cruelty has different values, and different expressions of itself, over time. Michel Foucault has taught us that. Videotaped beheading is currently regarded as “vile”; in Henry VIII’s day, beheading was, on occasion, a privilege for the blue-blooded when condemned. Since the charge against him was treason, More should, by law, have suffered that most horrible of punishments – hanging, drawing and quartering. The sentence was commuted by the king. More’s noble head was lopped off in one clean stroke. He was dead before he felt the cut. “A moment’s pain,” he tells Cromwell. Aristocratic euthanasia. “Master” Bainham was less lucky.*

[James Bainham was burned alive as a heretic after being tortured by More.]

Inequality is a feature, not a bug of neoliberalism (contd.)

[link] Sunday, January 25th, 2015

Even the masters of the neoliberal universe are beginning to fret about this, as Seumas Milne reports:

The billionaires and corporate oligarchs meeting in Davos this week are getting worried about inequality. It might be hard to stomach that the overlords of a system that has delivered the widest global economic gulf in human history should be handwringing about the consequences of their own actions.

But even the architects of the crisis-ridden international economic order are starting to see the dangers. It’s not just the maverick hedge-funder George Soros, who likes to describe himself as a class traitor. Paul Polman, Unilever chief executive, frets about the “capitalist threat to capitalism”. Christine Lagarde, the IMF managing director, fears capitalism might indeed carry Marx’s “seeds of its own destruction” and warns that something needs to be done.

The scale of the crisis has been laid out for them by the charity Oxfam. Just 80 individuals now have the same net wealth as 3.5 billion people – half the entire global population. Last year, the best-off 1% owned 48% of the world’s wealth, up from 44% five years ago. On current trends, the richest 1% will have pocketed more than the other 99% put together next year. The 0.1% have been doing even better, quadrupling their share of US income since the 1980s.

What they’re really worried about, of course, is that the hoi-polloi might finally tumble to what’s been going on. Democracy has a slow-burning fuse, but in some places, notably Greece, it’s beginning to fizz.

“Escalating inequality”, continues Milne,

has also been a crucial factor in the economic crisis of the past seven years, squeezing demand and fuelling the credit boom. We don’t just know that from the research of the French economist Thomas Piketty or the British authors of the social study The Spirit Level. After years of promoting Washington orthodoxy, even the western-dominated OECD and IMF argue that the widening income and wealth gap has been key to the slow growth of the past two neoliberal decades. The British economy would have been almost 10% larger if inequality hadn’t mushroomed. Now the richest are using austerity to help themselves to an even larger share of the cake.

But there is one area of the world where this grim cycle doesn’t appear to operate:

The big exception to the tide of inequality in recent years has been Latin America. Progressive governments across the region turned their back on a disastrous economic model, took back resources from corporate control and slashed inequality. The numbers living on less than $2 a day have fallen from 108 million to 53 million in little over a decade. China, which also rejected much of the neoliberal catechism, has seen sharply rising inequality at home but also lifted more people out of poverty than the rest of the world combined, offsetting the growing global income gap.

And the implication of all this? The economic system doesn’t have to produce inequality. It’s just one version of it that does. So we need a change in the system. And for that we need a new politics. The big question is when will it arrive? And will the current intensification of ‘security’ stop it in its tracks?

The world’s archivist

[link] Saturday, January 24th, 2015

Seb Schmoller pointed me to this lovely New Yorker essay by Jill Lepore about Brewster Kahle and his astonishing Internet Archive project. Lepore’s piece is well worth reading in full, but you can get a flavour of it from this clip from a BBC film made by Alan Yentob.

The multitasking illusion

[link] Monday, January 19th, 2015

When asked to describe myself I often say that I’m a multi-tasker with a faulty algorithm. (To which Quentin once responded, “Don’t worry: we can always have you re-flashed”.). But it’s true, alas.

So it’s comforting to read this:

Although we think we’re doing several things at once, multitasking, this is a powerful and diabolical illusion. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT and one of the world experts on divided attention, says that our brains are “not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.” So we’re not actually keeping a lot of balls in the air like an expert juggler; we’re more like a bad amateur plate spinner, frantically switching from one task to another, ignoring the one that is not right in front of us but worried it will come crashing down any minute. Even though we think we’re getting a lot done, ironically, multitasking makes us demonstrably less efficient.


And you thought algorithms were boring?

[link] Friday, January 16th, 2015

See the quick-sort algorithm performed by Hungarian folk dancers.

From a fascinating essay by Christian Sandvig.

Reminds me of The Grand Budapest Hotel. HT to Seb Schmoller, who spotted it..

Canine Wisdom

[link] Thursday, January 8th, 2015

I love the New Yorker dog cartoons. (Remember the 1993 one of one mutt explaining to another that “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”?)

I’ve just come on another classic. Two dogs are walking past a picket fence. One is saying: “It’s always ‘Sit’, ‘Stay’, ‘Heel’ — never ‘Think’, ‘Innovate’, ‘Be Yourself’.”

Which reminds me, perversely, of a New Yorker cat joke. A man, about to go out through his front door, is pointing to a litter-tray and saying to his cat, “Don’t you dare think outside of the box”.

The Paris massacre: journalism is in the front line, but what kind of journalism?

[link] Thursday, January 8th, 2015

Interesting comment by Charlie Beckett.

What struck me was how weird it is that these people — and they do deserve the label ‘terrorist’ — have struck against cartoonists. Not drone manufacturers or military bases, diplomats, politicians or financiers, but satirists. It shows what we should have already known. That journalism is part of the ideological war. It is the front-line.

That makes it all the more important that journalists respond thoughtfully and responsibly. I am not going to tell editors what they should publish in relation to this story. But it would be good if their response is in the best tradition of liberal, positive journalism and not just an angry, lashing out that feeds the fear that helps sustain those who perpetrate the violence.

On the other hand, commenting on the firebombing of the Charlie Hebdo offices in 2011, the Time Bureau Chief in Paris at the time wrote this:

It’s obvious free societies cannot simply give in to hysterical demands made by members of any beyond-the-pale group. And it’s just as clear that intimidation and violence must be condemned and combated for whatever reason they’re committed—especially if their goal is to undermine freedoms and liberties of open societies. But it’s just evident members of those same free societies have to exercise a minimum of intelligence, calculation, civility and decency in practicing their rights and liberties—and that isn’t happening when a newspaper decides to mock an entire faith on the logic that it can claim to make a politically noble statement by gratuitously pissing people off.

The new movie business

[link] Sunday, December 21st, 2014


Nice piece of PhotoShopping. Via @Steve Hewlett.

Kim Jong Un is not a joke

[link] Saturday, December 20th, 2014

I’m not entirely overwhelmed by Obama & Co going all righteous over Sony’s ill-fated comedy, The Interview. So this piece in The Atlantic came as a welcome antidote to the fabricated indignation emerging from the White House.

This film is not an act of courage. It is not a stand against totalitarianism, concentration camps, mass starvation, or state-sponsored terror. It is, based on what we know of the movie so far, simply a comedy, made by a group of talented actors, writers, and directors, and intended, like most comedies, to make money and earn laughs. The movie would perhaps have been better off with a fictitious dictator and regime; instead, it appears to serve up the latest in a long line of cheap and sometimes racism-tinged jokes, stretching from Team America: World Police to ongoing sketches on Saturday Night Live.


Yes, North Korea has long been ruled by an eccentric dynasty of portly dictators with bad haircuts. Yes, the propaganda the regime regularly trumpets to shore up its cult of personality is largely ridiculous. And yes, we on the outside know better, and can take comfort in pointing fingers and chuckling at the regime’s foibles.

But it takes no valor and costs precious little to joke about these things safely oceans away from North Korea’s reach. When a North Korean inmate in a political prison camp or a closely monitored Pyongyang apparatchik pokes fun at Kim Jong Un and the system he represents — that is an act of audacity. It very literally can cost the person’s life, and those of his or her family members. To pretend that punchlines from afar, even in the face of hollow North Korean threats, are righteous acts is nonsense.

Right on.

Uber and second-order disruption

[link] Saturday, December 13th, 2014


Interesting insight from Jason Calcanis.