Stumbling along…


We’ve been in Berlin for a few days. Walking along a residential street in Prenzlauer Berg I came on these brass squares outside the door of an apartment block and suddenly realised what they were: Stolperstine, literally “stumbling stones”, memorials to people, mainly Jews, who once lived in that building and who were deported and murdered by the Nazis. These three commemorate the Holzmann family — father Fritz, mother Dora and son Gerhard — who were all deported on the same day, 29 October, 1941. Father and son went to a forced labour camp and were murdered within a month of one another in 1943. Dora was murdered in another camp in May 1942. According to Wikipedia, over 50,000 stolpersteine have been laid in 18 European countries, making the stolperstein project the world’s largest decentralised memorial.

Brought down by a toaster?

As readers of my stuff will know (see here and here, for example), I’ve been going on about the existential risk pose by the ‘internet of things’ for a while, so I’m loath to keep on about it. But this nice encapsulation of the problem by Ben Evans seems well worth quoting:

A chunk of the internet went down this week, effectively, because someone did a massive distributed denial-of-service attack using a botnet of millions of hacked IoT devices – mostly, it seems, IP webcams from one Chinese company that don’t have decent security. This is an interesting structural problem – the devices once sold are either impossible or unlikely to be patched, the users probably don’t even know that their device is hacked, and the manufacturer has no motivation and probably few of the necessary skills to do anything about it. A network designed to withstand nuclear attack, brought down by toasters. More interesting/worrying – who is doing this, why, and what will they do next?

How your shower could participate in a DDOS attack

This morning’s Observer column:

My eye was caught by a Kickstarter campaign for a gizmo called a SWON, described as “a connected conservation device for your shower”. You unscrew the shower head, screw on the SWON and then screw the head back on to it. From then on, water goes through the SWON before it reaches you. The Kickstarter campaign needs $50,000 to be pledged before the product can be made. Last time I checked, it had 75 backers and had raised pledges of $4,798.

Before consigning it to the “leading-edge uselessness” bin, I clicked on the link…

Read on

Diplomatic language

Simon Kuper, one of my favourite columnists, has a nice piece in the FT Magazine (sadly, behind a paywall) about what states (and their diplomats) say about others in private.

I particularly like this transcript of a 1971 conversation between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger analysing a recent visit by the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi:

Kissinger Well, the Indians are bastards anyway… While she was a bitch, we got what we wanted too…”

Nixon “We really slobbered over the old witch.”

Or how about this 2011 exchange between Nicholas Sarkozy (then President of France) and Barack Obama about the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu?

Sarkozy “I can’t stand him. He’s a liar.”

Obama “You’re tired of him? What about me? I have to deal with him every day.”

In recent times, Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, is having to live down some of the things he’s said. For example:

“The only reason I wouldn’t visit some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump.”

Johnson also compared Hillary Clinton to “a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital”.

Well, at least that gets the niceties out of the way, whoever wins the election.

Trump and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin

Yesterday, at a rally in Wilmington, North Carolina, Trump said:

“Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment. By the way, and if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”

This is nudge, nudge, wink, wink assassination talk.

Tom Friedman spotted it immediately, and remembered the historical parallel:

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin got assassinated.

His right-wing opponents just kept delegitimizing him as a “traitor” and “a Nazi” for wanting to make peace with the Palestinians and give back part of the Land of Israel. Of course, all is fair in politics, right? And they had God on their side, right? They weren’t actually telling anyone to assassinate Rabin. That would be horrible.

But there are always people down the line who don’t hear the caveats. They just hear the big message: The man is illegitimate, the man is a threat to the nation, the man is the equivalent of a Nazi war criminal. Well, you know what we do with people like that, don’t you? We kill them.

And that’s what the Jewish extremist Yigal Amir did to Rabin. Why not? He thought he had permission from a whole segment of Israel’s political class.

In September, I wrote a column warning that Donald Trump’s language toward immigrants could end up inciting just this kind of violence. I never in my wildest dreams, though, thought he’d actually — in his usual coy, twisted way — suggest that Hillary Clinton was so intent on taking away the Second Amendment right to bear arms that maybe Second Amendment enthusiasts could do something to stop her. Exactly what? Oh, Trump left that hanging.

Gongs for the boys — again

Looking at David Cameron’s ‘resignation honours’ list of people given peerages, knighthoods and other gongs either for doing their (often well-paid) jobs or for giving money to the Tories reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a friend who is a Life Peer. He is an eminent, decent, intelligent and thoroughly honourable person. I asked him how it felt being a Lord. He thought for a moment and then replied: “It’s a privilege but it’s no longer an honour, given some of the other people who now get peerages.”

Sums it up, really. Also, recall that we recently had a vote to leave the EU because we didn’t want to be governed by ‘unelected’ bureaucrats in Brussels. We are apparently still content to be governed by unelected political donors in London, though.

The politics of the fake orgasm

Magnificent essay by Fintan O’Toole:

In the days after the Brexit vote, a number of rueful commentators were drawn to WB Yeats’s lines from the apocalyptic poem The Second Coming: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

But this is to miss the point of our particular political moment in the Anglophone world. It may be true that the best lack conviction, but the second part of Yeats’s comparison emphatically does not apply. The worst are not full of passionate intensity; they are, to borrow from a different Yeats poem, just a pretty bellows full of faux-angry wind. They have no serious intention – no plan and no means – of doing the things they say they will do.

Great stuff. Well worth reading in full. As is Kipling’s poem about phoney statesmen.

Lest we forget

While the calling of the Referendum can be laid at the door of two people, Nigel Farage and David Cameron, the catastrophe of the Brexit majority is really the work of one man — Boris Johnson. The best articulation of this salutary truth that I’ve seen is Jonathan Freedland’s Guardian piece. It’s worth reading in full, but here’s the key bit:

This week’s antics of Gove and Johnson are a useful reminder. For the way one has treated the other is the way both have treated the country. Some may be tempted to turn Johnson into an object of sympathy – poor Boris, knifed by his pal – but he deserves none. In seven days he has been exposed as an egomaniac whose vanity and ambition was so great he was prepared to lead his country on a path he knew led to disaster, so long as it fed his own appetite for status.

He didn’t believe a word of his own rhetoric, we know that now. His face last Friday morning, ashen with the terror of victory, proved it. That hot mess of a column he served up on Monday confirmed it again: he was trying to back out of the very decision he’d persuaded the country to make. And let’s not be coy: persuade it, he did. Imagine the Leave campaign without him. Gove, Nigel Farage and Gisela Stuart: they couldn’t have done it without the star power of Boris.

He knew it was best for Britain to remain in the EU. But it served his ambition to argue otherwise. We just weren’t meant to fall for it. Once we had, he panicked, vanishing during a weekend of national crisis before hiding from parliament. He lit the spark then ran away – petrified at the blaze he started.

Now Gove loses his marbles

What is wrong with these people? I don’t know Michael Gove, but when he was Education Secretary and we were campaigning for a change in the GCSE ICT curriculum he was courteous and appeared rational, or at any rate cerebral. But according to this report he has today been comparing the economists who think that leaving the EU would be a mistake for Britain to the Nazi-recruited scientists who challenged Einstein’s theory of relativity.

The Justice Secretary made the historical comparison to Einstein after being asked why voters should not listen to the economic organisations warning about the impact of an Out vote.

“I think the key thing here is to interrogate the assumptions that are made and to ask if these arguments are good,” Mr Gove said during an interview with LBC Radio.

“We have to be careful about historical comparisons, but Albert Einstein during the 1930s was denounced by the German authorities for being wrong and his theories were denounced and one of the reasons of course he was denounced was because he was Jewish. They got 100 German scientists in the pay of the government to say that he was wrong and Einstein said ‘Look, if I was wrong, one would have been enough.’”

Hmmm… Time for a lie-down in a darkened room, methinks.