The triumph of hope over experience

This morning’s Observer column:

There is something irresistibly comical about the spectacle of two CEOs announcing a friendly takeover. The two chaps (for they are still generally chaps) stand side by side, grinning into the cameras. The proud new owner explains what a great outfit his latest acquisition is, how pleased he is with the deal, extols the “synergies” that will magically materialise once the marriage is consummated and expresses his undying admiration for the poor schmuck who is now his latest subordinate.

The schmuck, for his part, declares his undying admiration for his new boss and his deep respect for the gigantic organisation into whose maw he is about to disappear. He, too, is “incredibly excited” by the new horizons that are now open to him and his colleagues. The marriage is a very good deal for both organisations – a win-win outcome no less. The fact that he omits to mention how much he has personally made from the deal is tactfully overlooked by his admiring media audience.

Last week’s announcement of Microsoft’s acquisition of LinkedIn followed this script to the letter…

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So is England ready for self-government?

Lovely Irish Times column by Fintan O’Toole:

Is England ready for self-government? It’s a question that the English used to ask of peoples less obviously made from the right stuff than they are, such as the Indians and the Irish. But it’s time they asked it of themselves.

Brexit is essentially Exit: if the Leave side wins the referendum it will almost certainly be without securing majorities in Scotland or Northern Ireland. For all the talk of reasserting the sovereignty of the United Kingdom, the desire to leave the European Union is driven above all by the rise of English nationalism.

And the chief consequence of Brexit will be the emergence of England as a stand-alone nation. Whatever entity might eventually emerge from a tumultuous breach with the European Union will almost certainly not, in the long term, include Scotland: a second referendum on Scottish independence will be inevitable, and this time Scots would be voting to stay in the EU…

Worth reading in full.

Quote of the day

“We are not won by arguments that we can analyse, but by tone and temper; by the manner, which is the man himself.”

Justice Louis Brandeis

Brexit and cognitive dissonance

One thing that always astonishes me during election campaigns is the way one’s fellow-citizens appear to have no difficulty holding two contradictory opinions simultaneously. So it is with the current Referendum debate in the UK. A friend who lives in a deeply rural constituency, for example, reports that many of the neighbouring farmers — who are substantial beneficiaries of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and subsidies flowing therefrom — are determined to vote for Brexit. And so, it seems, is their local Tory MP. In one way, one could see this as wholly admirable: people who are willing to vote for a deeply-held principle, even when doing so goes against their economic interests. But it sure as hell runs counter to the economists’ conception of people as rational economic agents.

I used to think that this capacity to believe two contradictory things at the same time was an instance of what psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance’. This is a theory of behavioural psychology which says that “people experience uneasiness after acting in a way that appears to conflict with their beliefs and preferences about themselves or others. To minimise that mental discomfort, the theory posits, a person will adapt his or her attitude to better fit with or justify previous actions.”

The only problem with that is that many of the people I’ve met who hold contradictory beliefs don’t seem in the least uneasy. In fact, they appear to be completely relaxed about it.

There’s an interesting piece by Nathan Brooker in today’s Financial Times (sadly behind a paywall) in which he reports on a visit to British ex-pats who have settled in Europe. “Why”, he asks, “are some UK expats voting for Brexit when it could hit their healthcare, pensions and pockets?”

Why indeed? But maybe it is cognitive dissonance at work. The theory, after all, posits that people adopt beliefs that reduce the gap between their contradictory beliefs. If you apply that to Mr Brooker’s ex-pats, it may be that the reason they are pro-Brexit is because, years ago, they made an analogous radical decision to “get out” of the UK. So they want the UK now to make a similar radical break.

Hmmm… Deep waters, Holmes, eh?

LATER This interesting post by Nick Tyrone:

Several areas in London are odds on to be the place that votes to Remain in the EU in the largest numbers. Clacton-on-Sea is odds on to be the place which votes most heavily for Leave. Two things are interesting about this. One, the places in London voting for Remain are the areas most directly affected by EU immigration, i.e. that’s where the EU immigrants live. Meanwhile, Clacton is 95% both white and British born. They blame their woes on immigrants – despite the fact that there are none where they live, and if immigration fell to 0%, it would affect them and their lives 0%.

The second thing that is interesting about the London-Clacton divide is that if we vote to leave the EU, one way or another London will be fine. Either we go for the full course WTO deal, or despite what everyone’s been saying about a Norway deal being off the table that’s what we do in the end anyway, it doesn’t really matter to the capital in the long term. London is London and it will find a way of pulling through, even if the shock is really bad to the system post-Brexit.

It is places like Clacton that will really feel it. If there is a recession, those are the people who won’t be able to suck it up and say it’s temporary; they are barely making it now. If further funds are taken out of benefits, and there’s not even any EU money around for regeneration projects anymore, places like Clacton have nowhere to turn when it turns out a post-Brexit world has simply made regional inequalities even starker.

Careless talk costs lives


During the war there were posters in every public place in Britain saying “Careless talk costs lives”. Pondering the savage murder of Jo Cox MP, I wonder if this thought strikes any of the Brexiteers. Or any of the journalists who produce British tabloid newspapers.

Did their careless talk just cost a young mother her life?



Today is Bloomsday — the day when Joyce enthusiasts all over the world celebrate Ulysses. In my case, I always host a Bloomsday lunch in which guests drink red Burgundy and eat Gorgonzola sandwiches. Why? Because that’s what Leopold Bloom had when he lunched in Davy Byrne’s pub, taking a break from his perambulations around Dublin.

This year’s lunch was special because one of the guests was an old friend, Dr Vivien Igoe, who is one of the foremost experts on Joyce’s connections with his native city. Her new book, The Real People of Joyce’s Ulysses came out last week, and throws a fascinating light on Joyce’s powers of observation and imagination.

We’ve always known that most of the hundreds of characters in Ulysses were drawn from real people, and many of them appear under their own names in the pages of the novel. But who were they, really? Now we know, thanks to an extraordinary piece of scholarship.

The Apple watch: a solution in search of a problem

As some readers know, I’m not a fan of the Apple watch. Nor, it turns out, is the Guardian‘s Alex Hern:

The future of the watch can’t be the same iterative improvements that Apple has pulled off with the iPhone, iPod and iPad. The interface is just too ill-thought-through to work, even if the device itself is sped up significantly. But the most obvious alternative is to massively increase the amount of voice control the watch offers, and Apple simply doesn’t have the technical chops to do so. While Google and Amazon have been creating voice assistants that people seem to actually use and wax lyrical about, Apple … hasn’t. There’s no easy solution there.

But the saving grace for Apple is that the broader problem isn’t the company’s fault. It’s that smartwatches are a solution in search of a problem. A technology created, not to serve consumer demand, but to serve the need of device manufacturers to fill the revenue hole created by declining smartphone growth. You don’t need one, and neither do I. It just took me nine months of wearing it to realise.


BUT… This thoughtful comment from a reader:

If you have a significant medical condition like Diabetics, particularly if you have diabetic kids, the Apple Watch and their Android equivalent is revolutionizing how you can go out in the world. I have neighbors who would have never allowed their 8 year old daughter go out for a sleepover because they need to check their blood sugar levels so often and now all they have to do is glance at their watch to track their behavior. Previously that sort of equipment was over $50,000 and now you can do it for a few hundred.

Theresa May-Machiavelli

This morning’s Observer column:

So Theresa May’s investigatory powers bill has completed its passage through the House of Commons. It passed its third reading by 444 votes to 69 and now goes to the Lords for further consideration. Their lordships will do their best – and they are good at scrutinising complex legislation – but sometime in the next parliamentary session the bill, substantially unchanged, will receive the royal assent and become law. As a result, the powers of the national security state will have been significantly expanded.

As an example of legislative cunning, the bill is a machiavellian masterpiece…

Read on