Why the Chinese really get the Net

February 15th, 2015 [link]

This morning’s Observer column:

Here’s a proposition to make you choke on your granola: the only government in the world that really understands how to manage the internet is China’s. And I’m not talking about “the great firewall of China” and other cliches beloved of mainstream media. Nor, for the avoidance of doubt, am I saying that I approve of what the Chinese regime does: I do not. It’s just that I think it is better to deal with the world as it actually is, rather than as we fondly imagine it to be.

Western media coverage of China is a mixture of three parts fantasy to one part misinformation. The fantasy bit has deep ideological underpinnings: it asserts that the Chinese are embarked upon a doomed enterprise – to build a modern economy that is run by an authoritarian regime…

Read on

The Downton Abbey of bondage

February 14th, 2015 [link]

Lovely, scathing review by Anthony Lane, which contains the following choice extract:

Think of it as the “Downton Abbey” of bondage, designed neither to menace nor to offend but purely to cosset the fatigued imagination. You get dirtier talk in most action movies, and more genitalia in a TED talk on Renaissance sculpture. True, Dakota Johnson does her best, and her semi-stifled giggles suggest that, unlike James, she can see the funny side of all this nonsense. When Christian, alarmed by Ana’s maidenhood, considers “rectifying the situation,” she replies, “I’m a situation?” — a sharp rejoinder, although if I were her I’d be much more worried about the rectifying.

Great stuff! And no I haven’t read the book.

David Carr, RIP

February 13th, 2015 [link]


David Carr, the New York Times Media reporter and columnist, is dead, at the age of 58. At the end of the paper’s obituary is this quote:

“I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve,” Mr. Carr wrote at the conclusion of “The Night of the Gun,” “but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”

The caper ended yesterday, when he collapsed suddenly in the office.

He was one of the best, wisest and nicest journalists I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. I will miss his (croaky) voice, his integrity, his humanity. He had been to the edge of the abyss of drug dependency, and came back — to make the world a better and more intelligible place. May he rest in peace.

See him in action here:

LATER Jack Shafer wrote this on Politico:

In a business over-populated with characters, Carr projected an original persona that was one part shambling hipster, one part Tom Waits, a pinch of Jimmy Breslin, and a dollop of the Mad Hatter. A master interrogator, he used his guise the way an anglerfish uses the wriggling growth on its head to attract and then devour other fish. Interview subjects who paid attention to Carr’s jittery gestures and boho-lingo, thinking him a harmless eccentric, found afterwards that he’d picked their pockets for information.

Nobody seems to know when Carr became Carr, the enigma who spoke in an infectious code, not even Burl Gilyard, a Minnesota journalist of my acquaintance who met him in 1990 and later worked for him in 1993 at the alt-weekly Twin Cities Reader. Gilyard maintains that Carr was “always like that.” If you asked him how he was doing, he’d shoot back, “Workin’ hard, getting’ lucky.” Always ambitious and ever the ham, Carr had a way of bee-lining for the spotlight, even low-wattage ones like the one flung by this 1984 Minnesota public-access talk-show about local news—decades before becoming a New Yorker and a regular guest on Charlie Rose, BBC America, ABC News, CNN, MSNBC, PBS NewsHour, and other TV venues. From the beginning, he gave good soundbite, tossing off ad hoc paragraphs that lesser writers would have hoarded for a print piece later. He had that sort of confidence only a few writers possess: No matter how badly he abused her, the muse would always serve him.

And see also the collection of rememberances curated by Greg Marx in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Wolf Hall and the evolution of ‘civilised’ values

February 12th, 2015 [link]

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.]

So where’s the ‘moral hazard’ in restructuring Greek debt?

February 8th, 2015 [link]

Good post by Joe Stiglitz. Extract:

Does anyone in their right mind think that any country would willingly put itself through what Greece has gone through, just to get a free ride from its creditors? If there is a moral hazard, it is on the part of the lenders – especially in the private sector – who have been bailed out repeatedly. If Europe has allowed these debts to move from the private sector to the public sector – a well-established pattern over the past half-century – it is Europe, not Greece, that should bear the consequences. Indeed, Greece’s current plight, including the massive run-up in the debt ratio, is largely the fault of the misguided troika programs foisted on it.

So it is not debt restructuring, but its absence, that is “immoral.” There is nothing particularly special about the dilemmas that Greece faces today; many countries have been in the same position. What makes Greece’s problems more difficult to address is the structure of the eurozone: monetary union implies that member states cannot devalue their way out of trouble, yet the modicum of European solidarity that must accompany this loss of policy flexibility simply is not there.

Seventy years ago, at the end of World War II, the Allies recognized that Germany must be given a fresh start. They understood that Hitler’s rise had much to do with the unemployment (not the inflation) that resulted from imposing more debt on Germany at the end of World War I. The Allies did not take into account the foolishness with which the debts had been accumulated or talk about the costs that Germany had imposed on others. Instead, they not only forgave the debts; they actually provided aid, and the Allied troops stationed in Germany provided a further fiscal stimulus.

It’s impossible to overstate the ironies in the Eurozone’s (for which read German) hostility to the new Greek government. Which is why Stiglitz’s reminder of the Marshall Plan (which not only recognised the foolhardiness of the Versailles Treaty’s imposition of crippling debts on Germany, but also the wisdom of helping countries to recover from the disasters into which they themselves had blundered) is so apposite.

The Telescreen is here

February 8th, 2015 [link]

Thinking about getting a ‘smart’ Samsung TV? Think again.


Thanks to Hannes Sjoblad for the tweet.

Footnote: In Orwell’s 1984 there was a ‘telescreen’ in Winston’s apartment.

“Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork.”

The madness of King Cam

February 8th, 2015 [link]

Lovely Observer piece by Armando Iannucci. Sample:

While millions were spent on allowing Scotland a full, careful debate, a debate about the future of 8% of the UK population, Cameron knocks off a cheap and quick version for the English, who make up an astonishing 84% of the UK and surely deserve something more considered. This says some unpalatable things about both Cameron and our constitution. For one, it reveals our prime minister for the slap-dash opportunist he is. This is what he does – ignores the detailed pros and cons, thinks of himself as a commonsense sort of guy and so goes on to decide he and he alone knows best. It’s what led to the bungled and inordinately destructive reforms to the NHS conducted in Cameron’s first years in office, described last week by the King’s Fund, a non-partisan thinktank, as “incomprehensible”, “disastrous” and with a decision-making process “not fit for purpose”.

Cameron’s same duckin’-and-divin’ opportunism shines out of every response he makes to the proposals for televised leaders’ debates, ie, offer cobbled-together arguments masquerading as reasonableness to make the whole thing go away. And so here he is too with his suggested constitutional reform.

The reason Cameron can do this is because he is prime minister. However much we kid ourselves that we live in a democracy where the law is deliberated over by an elected and accountable set of parliamentary representatives, the truth is that any prime minister commanding a majority of MPs can do anything he or she likes. Increasingly hands-on prime ministers have neutered the independence of cabinet ministers and their departments and run a far more presidential system of government. Advertisement

Their power to act on whim is far more sweeping than anything most official presidents can do. The president of France has a prime minister whom he can appoint but can’t dismiss and must deal with a national assembly that may have a majority made from his opponents. Even the American president, the Most Powerful Man on Earth, faces so many checks and balances to his executive authority that he can often feel powerless if Congress is resolved to block his ideas.

Iannucci’s right. Cameron has long been past a joke. Every day he is somewhere on our TV screens, speaking at some photo-op, saying how “passionately” he feels about whatever abuse/scandal has surfaced in the Daily Mail that morning and how he is determined to do something about it Right Now. He feels passionately about everything, which in fact means that he’s passionate about nothing — except perhaps staying in power and warding off Boris Johnson.

The prosecution of Aaron Schwartz – and what it might mean

February 8th, 2015 [link]

This morning’s Observer column:

On Monday, BBC Four screened a remarkable film in its Storyville series. The Internet’s Own Boy told the story of the life and tragic death of Aaron Swartz, the leading geek wunderkind of his generation who was hounded to suicide at the age of 26 by a vindictive US administration. The film is still available on BBC iPlayer, and if you do nothing else this weekend make time to watch it, because it’s the most revealing source of insights about how the state approaches the internet since Edward Snowden first broke cover…

Read on.

Quote of the Day

February 4th, 2015 [link]

“The lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience … “.

Aldous Huxley, writing to George Orwell in 1949.

Never forget — surveillance is big business. And not just for Internet companies

February 3rd, 2015 [link]

Terrific column by Cory Doctorow. Excerpt:

Spying is a business, after all: BT and Vodaphone collect huge fees for giving GCHQ illegal access to their fibre optic trunks. The NSA’s massive data-centre in Bluffdale, Utah cost $1.5bn, built by the private sector at public expense.

Remember that Edward Snowden didn’t work for the NSA: he was a contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton, a company that turned over $5.48bn in 2014. Every new expansion of NSA mass surveillance means potential new contracts for Booz Allen Hamilton.

In other words: spying on everyone may not catch terrorists, but it does make military contractors and telcos a lot of money. Mass surveillance is policy with a business model.

We live in a post-evidence-based-policy world.

If we ever lived in such a world, that is. I feel about evidence-based policy much as Gandhi did when asked, on his arrival at Tilbury, what he thought of Western civilisation. “Ah”, he replied, reflectively. “Western civilisation — now that would be a good idea.”

As far as evidence-based policy is concerned, there are some areas — surveillance, regulation of illegal drugs, alcohol abuse, prison reform, immigration, to name just a few — where British governments of every stripe are entirely immune to evidence.