Thursday 11 August, 2022


Believe it or not, they were waiting for the Tour de France the year it started in Cambridge.

Quote of the Day

”Technology is a great servant but a terrible master.”

  • Sherry Turkle

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Vivaldi | Concerto For Lute And Plucked Strings | I. Moderato | DZO Chamber Orchestra


We watched Wes Anderson’s magical film The Grand Budapest Hotel the other night and went to bed with bits of the soundtrack running through our heads. Hence this choice. One of the most striking things about the film is Robert Yeoman’s stunning cinematography. Time and again one sees shots that, if printed as stills, would win awards in photographic exhibitions.

Long Read of the Day

Seriously Susan

This piece by Melinda Harvey in the Sydney Review of Booksis an illuminating review of Benjamin Moser’s biography of Susan Sontag. What I loved about it is the freshness of the literary form she adopted for the review — an adaptation of the catechismic approach James Joyce famously deployed at one point in Ulysses.

– What do we want from biography?

Facts, certainly. Names, dates, places. What happened. Some setting of the record straight.

– More than that.

To go back in time. To see the individual in their context.

– More than that.

For the act of reading to take on the intimacy of a meeting. For the page to become flesh.

– More than even that.

To go inside. To understand what made a person tick.

– What made Susan Sontag tick?

According to Benjamin Moser, an alcoholic mother. But there was also a dead father and a desert childhood – both senses. What made Susan tick might have been shame.

– Why ‘shame’?

You get the idea. Read on to get the full impact.

David McCullough RIP

NYT obituary

Wonderful writer. I loved his histories of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, and his biography of Harry Truman. All still on my shelves.

My commonplace booklet

 Joël Robuchon’s Legacy Explained in Eight Dishes

How to make mashed potatoes into a work of art, plus seven other secrets of the Michelin trade. Heaven for foodies. But for us lesser beings, life’s too short.


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Wednesday 10 August, 2022

The UK’s very own Puzzle Palace

One of the rooms in (I think) Hut 6 in Bletchley Park, restored to its wartime condition. It was taken on a visit just before the restoration was completed. As an incurable pen geek, I was pleased to see that the mechanical pencils on some of the code-breakers’ desks were authentic for the period!

Quote of the Day

“Despite Conservative Party HQ’s best efforts to keep its membership data private, this much has been established by academics at the Party Members Project: Tory members are 96 per cent white, 66 per cent male, 68 per cent over 50 and about 15 per cent more likely than average to earn over £50,000 a year.”

  • Tortoise Media

This is the 160,000-strong ‘electorate’ that is currently busy choosing the UK’s next Prime Minister. If you wanted a token of the country’s ramshackle ‘constitution’ this would be hard to beat, though the US Republican party’s antics in the US run it a close second.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Hard Times Come Again No More | the Chieftains and Paolo Nutini


Impossible to count how many versions I’ve heard of this Stephen Foster song. On balance, though, I still prefer Thomas Hampson’s rendition.

Long Read of the Day

 Apropos Marshal McLuhan…

I don’t usually use this section to push my own stuff, but I was so intrigued by Ezra Klein’s essay (yesterday’s Long Read) that I dug out the text of a lecture on McLuhan I gave in the University of Copenhagen years ago in which I argued that, if anything, his media critique was more relevant to our networked ecosystem than it was to the TV-dominated one that he focussed on.

If you’re interested you can find the lecture, “Why the medium really is the message”, here

My commonplace booklet

Hertz says that its Tesla fleet of rental EVs are 50 per cent cheaper to maintain than fossil fuel cars.

Stands to reason — they don’t have complicated engines that provide motive power from a continuous series of controlled explosions. (That’s not to say that the way the auto industry managed to refine those explosions wasn’t a triumph of human ingenuity, but…).

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Why the medium really is the message

‘A prophet is not without honour”, says the Bible, “save in his own country.” This was manifestly not true in the case of Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian cultural critic, who died 35 years ago, and was famous not only in his own country, but also abroad. In fact, he’s the only public intellectual I can think of who played himself in a Woody Allen movie.

If you’re a film buff you will recall the wonderful sequence in ‘Annie Hall’, where Woody and Diane Keaton are queuing for a movie when a guy behind them starts opining pompously about McLuhan’s description of television as a “high intensity or hot medium”. Allen expresses to camera a desire to have a large sock full of horse manure with which to zonk this cretin, whereupon the guy indignantly asserts his right to express his opinion on the grounds that he teaches a course on “TV, media and culture” at Columbia, no less — a fact that (he asserts) – gives his views on McLuhan a great deal of validity.

“That’s funny,” replies Woody, “because I happen to have Mr McLuhan right here.” He goes over to a flipchart and pulls out the great man himself from behind it. “I heard what you were saying,” says McLuhan to the Columbia man. “You know nothing of my work… how you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.” The scene closes with Woody saying to camera: “Boy, if life were only like this.”

Because McLuhan was a Canadian, and spent all of his working life in American and Canadian universities, most people don’t realise that his formative intellectual experiences took place here in Cambridge, where I live and work. He came to the university in 1934 to read English, was taught by I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis among others, and obtained his B.A. degree in 1936. After a short spell as a Teaching Assistant at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he returned to Cambridge to do a PhD on the history of the verbal arts — that is to say, grammar, logic and rhetoric, from Cicero onwards — which he obtained in 1943. During that time he lived on Grange Road in a house which no longer exists, but which I pass on my bike on my way to College. And I rarely pass it without thinking of him.

After Cambridge, McLuhan appeared to embark on the life of a traditional literary scholar – an expert on Joyce and Wyndham Lewis — teaching first in the United States and eventually winding up at the University of Toronto, where he remained until he died in 1980. It was in Toronto that the first manifestations of his interest in mass media and popular culture first emerged. He ran a famous series of after-hours, impromptu seminars with students in which they decoded the hidden language of advertisements.

This led in 1951 to his first book, The Mechanical Bride: folklore of industrial man, a pioneering essay in a field hitherto largely ignored by scholars — popular culture. The more he thought about it, the more he was drawn to the work of another Toronto professor, Harold Innis, an economist who had written seminal works on media, communication and economic history and who had become fascinated by the influence of communications media on the rise and decline of empires. In his book, The Bias of Communications, Innis’s argued that any major communications medium alters the entire outlook of those who use it.

These ideas had a profound impact on McLuhan – to the point that when he published his second book, The Gutenberg Galaxy: the making of typographic man, in 1962 he described it as a mere footnote to Innis’s writings on the psychological and social consequences of writing and printing.

It was from Innis that McLuhan picked up the germ of the idea that later made him famous. This was the proposition that the form of a dominant communications medium is far more important than any messages that the medium carries. The significant thing about media, he maintained, is not the information they carry but what they do to us in terms of shaping our behaviour, the way we think and even the way our brains are structured. McLuhan argued that this had been demonstrated by the media that had dominated society up to the 1960s – starting with print and culminating with broadcast television – and added the twist that TV was restoring the “sensory balance” that had been disrupted by print. In Understanding Media (1964), the book that made him a global celebrity of sufficient status to appear in a Woody Allen film, he encapsulated this thought in one of the most celebrated – and misunderstood – aphorisms of all time: the medium is the message.

In the 1960s and 1970s McLuhan was probably the most famous scholar in the world – at least in terms of name-recognition. Only Noam Chomsky would have come close. This was partly because his chosen subject was the dominant medium of the day – broadcast television – and TV people are famously narcissistic. But it was also partly due to the disdainful manner with which he dealt with media interrogators, and the aphoristic, assertive style of his public utterances. As one critic, William Melody, observed,

“Adopting a stance of arrogant superiority, he considered clarifying his ideas an unworthy menial task for intellectual plodders, and dismissed challenging questions with comments like, ‘You don’t like those ideas. I got other ones’, and the infamous, ‘You think my fallacy is all wrong?’ He paid scant attention to facts and never conceded a point. His ultimate put down was a benign explanation that the question revealed the person was locked into the uni-dimensional visual bias of the age of print and could not really be expected to understand.”

McLuhan’s infuriating public persona was particularly annoying to the British cultural establishment which could never figure out how a disciple of I.A. Richards could have gone so comprehensively off the rails.

One revealing example of the hostility he engendered is the dismissive little study that Jonathan Miller penned in 1971 for the Fontana Modern Masters series, the General Editor of which was my late and much-lamented friend, Frank Kermode. But there were lots of others. The general feeling in these parts was that McLuhan was the 1960s equivalent of the contemporary New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell – i.e. someone of whom it might be said: “deep down, he’s shallow”.

With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, that judgement now seems too harsh. What we’re discovering is that, like good claret, McLuhan’s insights have improved with age. His problem was that he was running ahead of the neuroscience that he needed to support his—and Innis’s – conjectures about the impact of media not just on society but also on our brains. Remember the subtitle of his second book: “the making of typographic man”. His conjecture was that Gutenberg’s technology changed not just the way we thought, but even the way we could think. Homo typographicus, in other words, was a different creature from his pre-print ancestors.

What McLuhan didn’t know (couldn’t have known), of course, was what neuroscience subsequently revealed about the amazing plasticity of the human brain – its ability to change its structure in response to different conditions. As Maryanne Wolf pointed out in Proust and the Squid, her riveting study of the reading brain, humans were not born to read — we evolved to cope with the task. There are, she writes,

“few more powerful mirrors of the human brain’s astonishing ability to rearrange itself to learn a new intellectual function than the act of reading. Underlying the brain’s ability to learn reading lies its protean capacity to make new connections among structures and circuits originally devoted to other more basic brain processes that have enjoyed a longer existence in human evolution, such as vision and spoken language. We now know that groups of neurons create new connections and pathways among themselves every time we learn a new skill”.

That’s why the brains of literate people are differently structured from those of illiterates. And it illuminates McLuhan’s other famous aphorism: “we shape our tools, and afterwards they shape us”.

Which brings us to where we are now. In a strange way, McLuhan’s insights into media seem more relevant now than they were in the 1960s. The past few years, for example, have seen a series of angry and sometimes anguished debates about what our comprehensively networked digital ecosystem is doing to our children, our politics, our economies — and our brains. During the Arab Spring we wondered whether social networking could bring about political revolution, for example. In retrospect, that seems pretty naive: it’s not social networking but people on the street that bring about revolutions. And even those people on the streets in Cairo didn’t in the end bring about really radical political change. Just look about Egypt now.

And we ask if Google is making us stupid – or at any rate whether networked technology is reducing attention spans, devaluing memory and blurring the line between making online connections and forming real relationships. We wonder why there are so many cute cats on YouTube. And we laugh at the crazy creativity of the ‘Downfall’ meme on YouTube. These questions are very much on our minds, as we try to assess how different our children are from us. But over all of these contemporary debates looms the shadow of McLuhan, who now seems to me to be more relevant than ever.

In a way, his really big idea was to spot that the word “medium” has distinctly different meanings. The conventional one is that a medium is a channel for communicating information – which is why much discussion about media up to his time focused on the content that was being conveyed by print, radio and television. But there is another, equally significant, interpretation. To a biologist, a medium is an environment containing the nutrients in which tissue cultures – organisms – grow. Change the medium and you change the organisms. As the sociologist John B. Thompson, puts it,

“We can understand the social impact of the development of new networks of communication and information flow only if we put aside the intuitively plausible idea that the communication media … transmit information and symbolic content to individuals whose relations to others remain fundamentally unchanged. We must see, instead, that the use of communication and media involves the creation of new forms of action and interaction in the social world, new kinds of social relationship and new ways of relating to others and to oneself. When individuals use communication media, they enter into forms of interaction which differ in certain respects from the type of face-to-face interaction which characterises most encounters of daily life. They are able to act for others who are physically absent, or act in response to others who are situated in distant locales. In a fundamental way, the use of communication media transforms the spatial and temporal organisation of social life, creating new forms of action and interaction, and new modes of exercising power, which are no longer linked to the sharing of a common locale.”

In that sense, our communications media likewise constitute the environment that sustains, nurtures – or constrains – our culture. And if the medium changes, then so does the culture. In other words, the medium is far, far more than the message. In fact, it’s all we’ve got.

This is an edited version of a pre-dinner talk given at a conference on “Negotiating Cultural Rights” in the University of Copenhagen, 13-14 November, 2015.

Tuesday 9 August, 2022

Acton this Day

Lord Acton (he of “power corrupts…’ fame) wearing one of my hats. His bust is in a back staircase in the University Library in Cambridge. I check on the old boy occasionally, just to make sure that he is still uncorrupted.

Quote of the Day

”I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself by finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

  • Isaac Newton

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Procol Harum | A Whiter Shade of Pale | with the Danish National Concert Orchestra and choir at Ledreborg Castle, Denmark in August 2006


Long Read of the Day I Didn’t Want It to Be True, but the Medium Really Is the Message

Thoughtful (and insightful) essay in The New York Times by Ezra Klein about the significance of our current media ecosystem .

Over the past decade, the narrative has turned against Silicon Valley. Puff pieces have become hit jobs, and the visionaries inventing our future have been recast as the Machiavellians undermining our present. My frustration with these narratives, both then and now, is that they focus on people and companies, not technologies. I suspect that is because American culture remains deeply uncomfortable with technological critique. There is something akin to an immune system against it: You get called a Luddite, an alarmist. “In this sense, all Americans are Marxists,” Postman wrote, “for we believe nothing if not that history is moving us toward some preordained paradise and that technology is the force behind that movement.”

I think that’s true, but it coexists with an opposite truth: Americans are capitalists, and we believe nothing if not that if a choice is freely made, that grants it a presumption against critique. That is one reason it’s so hard to talk about how we are changed by the mediums we use…

Thanks to Peter Sutherland for the link.

The futility of ambition

An abridged version of a fable by Heinrich Böll…

An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village late one morning when a small boat docked. Inside the small boat was just one fisherman who had already caught several large fish. The American complimented the fisherman on the fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The fisherman replied, “only a little while.”

The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish?

The Mexican said he had caught plenty enough to provide for his family’s needs for quite a while and even to give some fish away to others in the village.

The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, and stroll into the village where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.”

The American scoffed. “I am an experienced businessman and can help you,” he said. “You should spend more time fishing, and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could have a fleet of fishing boats, open up your own cannery and control all of the distribution,” he said. “Of course, you would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to a bigger city to run the expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will that all take?”

To which the American replied, “Oh, 15 to 20 years or so.”

“But what then?” asked the Mexican.

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time was right, you would sell your company and become very rich. You would make millions!”

“Millions – then what?” asked the Mexican.

The American said, “Then you could retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you could sleep late, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, and stroll to the village where you could sip wine and play guitar with your amigos.”

“I already do that,” said the Mexican fisherman.

Böll’s Irish Journal provides an interesting picture of the Ireland of my childhood. My countrymen were not entirely pleased with it, which perhaps is testimony to the author’s perceptiveness.

My commonplace booklet

More than 1,300 families apply to live rent-free on Inis Meáin for a year

Lovely story in the Irish Times. Inis Meáin is the smallest of the three Aran islands off the coast of Co Galway and a place to put on your Bucket List, if you have one.

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Monday 8 August, 2010

The Web Master

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, catching up on his email at a Royal Society symposium in September 2010

Quote of the Day

Just because nobody complains doesn’t mean all parachutes are perfect”

  • Benny Hill

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

An Droichead (The Bridge) | Liam O’Flynn and Mark Knopfler


Long Read of the Day

I Speak for the Earth

The article in Resurgence in which the late, great James Lovelock outlined the Gaia concept.

Let us imagine that you are in a grove of giant redwood trees on the coast of California and that you are standing on the stump of a tree that has just been felled. When standing it was a vast tree weighing over 2,000 tons and over 100 metres tall, a spire of lignin and cellulose, a tree that started life over 2,000 years ago.

A strange thing about this tree is that during its life nearly all of it was dead wood. As a tree grows there is just a thin skin of living tissue around the circumference; the wood inside is dead, as is the bark that protects the delicate tissue. More than 97% of the tree we stand on was dead before it was cut down.

Now in this way a tree is very like the Earth itself. Around the circumference on the surface of the Earth is a thin skin of living tissue of which both the trees and we humans are a part. The rocks beneath our feet are like the wood, and the air above is like the bark. Both are dead matter, but the air and rocks, like the wood and the bark, are either the direct products of life or have been greatly modified by its presence. Is it possible that the Earth is alive like the tree?

Do read on. It’s remarkable.

The end of ‘tech exceptionalism’?

Yesterday’s Observer column:

While the pandemic had put many conventional companies on life support, it looked as though it had consolidated the dominance of Alphabet (neé Google), Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple, making them the new masters of our networked universe.

And then something happened. On 19 November 2021 the Nasdaq stock market index (which is heavily influenced by tech companies) stood at an all-time high of 16,057, then suddenly went into rapid decline. As I write, it stands at 12,369. And so the question became: was this just what economists euphemistically call a “market correction” or an indicator that this particular speculative bubble had really burst?

The answer, if the quarterly figures released last week by the tech giants are anything to go by, is that it looks as though the bubble has at least been punctured…

Tinkerbell Truss

From Jonny Bloom’s blog

I had no idea that there was something called the Tinkerbell Effect, but there is. The term describes things that are thought to exist only because people believe in them.

Now it is now an economic principle as proposed by Liz Truss. If we close our eyes and believe in economic growth enough, the recession won’t happen.

It is true that expectations do alter economic behaviour but just banning the mention of the word recession and thinking that means it won’t happen is as realistic as Peter Pan…

The political party that brought the UK austerity, Brexit and other disasters is on track to install another fantasist as Prime Minister.

My commonplace booklet

What not to do when you see an avalanche heading in your direction

Don’t stay to make a nice holiday video. Link

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Friday 5 August, 2022

Madame Blanc

Quote of the Day

”Life is full of alternatives but no choice.”

  • Patrick White

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler | Going Home


We watched the film last night, and it was nice to be reminded of this, its theme music.

Long Read of the Day

How Lee Miller Out-Surrealed the Surrealists

Funny title for a nice essay in Aperture by Lauren Elkin on Lee Miller, a great photographer, artist, muse, war correspondent and professional chef

“One could say that Lee’s feel for the incongruities of daily life made her a Surrealist,” writes Lee Miller’s biographer, Carolyn Burke. Although she was never an official member of the group (according to Burke, she couldn’t abide André Breton), her feeling for incongruity and unexpected juxtapositions, for dreamlike imagery and tears in consciousness, her ability to perceive instabilities in apparently ordinary scenes, and her ethical commitments to getting the picture against all odds make her one of the movement’s great photographers.

Miller was surrounded by Surrealist men in both her personal and professional lives. Her mentor turned lover, Man Ray, introduced her to Surrealist art and artistic circles in late 1920s Paris; she starred in Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet (1930); her second husband, Roland Penrose, was an established practitioner of Surrealism in Britain and later a cofounder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. But while these influences were important to her, Miller had her own decided view of the world. “I think she’s a Surrealist from the beginning to the end,” says Patricia Allmer, author of Lee Miller: Photography, Surrealism, and Beyond (2016).

Read on…

My commonplace booklet

For My Next Death-Defying Stunt, I Will Ride My Bike in This Bike Lane

By Joe Wellman

This is no Dutch bike lane with a safe, modern design and well-funded construction. This is an American bike lane — a blood-pumping obstacle course of neglected asphalt and ideas from the 1970s…

Read on

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Thursday 4 August, 2022


Quote of the Day

”You can say what you like about long dresses, but they cover a multitude of shins.”

  • Mae West

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Die Zauberflöte |Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen | Simon Keelyside as Papageno


Preposterous and lovely.

Long Read of the Day

Instagram is dead

If you’re photographer, like me, Instagram seemed a good idea at the time it launched. I signed up to follow photographers whose work I knew and admired. But in the end I realised I could spend the entire day scrolling through their work, so I quit using it. Since then it’s gone the way of all ‘social media’ platforms — dominated by ‘influencers’ trying to get you to buy stuff. And, now, under the pressure of TikTok’s new dominance, Meta is effectively de-emphasising photos in favour of ‘reels’ — i.e. TikTok-like videos

This essay by Om Malik, a photographer I admire, does a good job of explaining how this happened.

Instagram’s co-founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger created a mobile social network based on visual storytelling. The impetus provided by the early photography-centric approach turned it into a fast-growing phenomenon. For Facebook, it was an existential threat. And it was worth spending nearly a billion dollars to own, control, and eventually subsume. And that’s precisely what Facebook has done.

What’s left is a constantly mutating product that copies features from “whomever is popular now” service — Snapchat, TikTok, or whatever. It is all about marketing and selling subs:tandard products and mediocre services by influencers with less depth than a sheet of paper.

Read on…

The era of big-tech exceptionalism may be over

Surprising Leader in The Economist

This year gravity has asserted itself once more. The tech-heavy nasdaq index is down by a quarter since January, half as much again as America’s broader stockmarket. Profitless not-so-big tech has been dragged down by anaemic revenue growth and high interest rates, which make the far-off earnings of firms like Snap look less valuable today. More surprising, despite generating piles of cash in the here and now, the giants are also feeling the tug of reality. On July 26th Alphabet reported its slowest quarterly sales growth since the bleak early months of the pandemic. Its share price rallied, though not enough to offset recent falls and only because expectations were even worse. A day later Meta said its sales fell year on year, for the first time ever.

America’s technology titans are suddenly having to contend with forces that have long plagued old-economy ceos: gummed-up supply chains, protectionism, worker shortages and competition. For [the tech giants], these constraints are something of a novelty. Its bosses had better get used to them.

Hope that’s the case.

My commonplace booklet

Esquire’s list of 80 Books Every Man Should Read


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Tuesday 2 August, 2022

The Entertainer

Not Scott Joplin exactly, but good…

Arles, 2022

Quote of the Day

”Assistant heads must roll!”

  • Anonymous, quoted in The Guardian 30 June 2004.

The traditional solution to management problems in British broadcasting

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Scott Joplin | The Entertainer


Long Read of the Day

 Like Bill Gates before him, Mark Zuckerberg is having a ‘Pearl Harbour’ moment

My column in Sunday’s Observer about whether history repeats itself, even in the tech industry.

Act one begins in the spring of 1993, when Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina released the first graphical browser for the emerging world wide web. They called it Mosaic and it was a runaway success because it was the thing that enabled ordinary people to understand what this internet thingy was for. In 1994, Andreessen and Jim Clark set up a company that eventually became Netscape and in October that year released a new, improved browser called Netscape Navigator, which in three months had 75% of the nascent browser market. In August 1995, Netscape went public in a frenzied IPO that triggered the first internet boom.

As their company thrived, Andreessen and co started to muse about an even brighter prospect. If web browsers really were the future, they reasoned, and since the operating system (OS) of a PC was effectively just a life-support system for a browser, who needed a complex and expensive OS such as Microsoft’s MS-DOS?

At this point, Bill Gates, Microsoft’s co-founder and CEO, woke up…

Read on

My commonplace booklet

“In 1858 the Foreign Office had a staff of 43. By 1902, at the almost peak for the British Empire the headcount was down to 42. Today it’s somewhere over 10,000.

That’s ‘Global Britain’ for you. Link

Via Tyler Cowen.

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Monday 1 August, 2022

So what do you want to eat?

One of those conversations…

Quote of the Day

“The dark shadow we seem to see in the distance is not really a mountain ahead, but the shadow of the mountain behind – a shadow from the past thrown forward into our future. It is a dark sludge of historical sectarianism. We can leave it behind us if we wish.”

Mick Fealty (Whom God Preserve) wrote a thoughtful and generous obituary  of him. Trimble was the only British politician I can remember who never seemed to want (or need) to be liked. Which was probably the key to his success.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

BBC Proms 2011 | Cinema Paradiso | Ennio & Andrea Morricone


From one of the loveliest films I’ve ever watched, and watched… and watched.

Long Read of the Day

 Toronto wants to kill the smart city forever

If I possessed a revolver, I would reach for it every time I heard anyone extolling the desirability of ‘smart’ cities. What they invariably mean are cities that are optimised not for humans but for data-guzzling corporations, fake ‘efficiencies’ and techno-solutionism.

In that context, one of the most hopeful things that happened during Covid was that democratic pushpack led Alphabet (neé Google) to abandon its preposterous plan to turn a waterfront area in Toronto into a showcase for the company’s vision of a ‘smart’ new urban area.

This essay in MIT’s Technology Review tells the story of the Google/Alphabet fantasy and of how its abandonment stimulated Toronto to think more imaginatively about how an urban area could be humanely revitalised.

My commonplace booklet

 These Are the Most Famous Photos of All Time According to a New Study

From Petapixel. You can probably guess the #1 — the Hasselblad shot of Neil Armstrong on the moon. But some of the others are interesting.

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Friday 29 July, 2022

Two Horses are better than one

One of the joys of being a recovering petrolhead in Provence is coming on beautiful examples of iconic cars — in this case the Citroen Deux Chevaux or 2CV. It was a brilliant concept when it was introduced in 1948 — a combination of smart engineering and utilitarian design. It was cheap to make and purchase, easy to maintain and repair and powered by an economical air-cooled engine. (Just like the original VW Beetle, in fact.) But because it was French, it was always somehow more chic than the German people’s wagon.

In the last week I’ve come on two interesting examples of the 2CV. This beautifully-maintained one:

And this imaginatively upgraded version:

Provence is also a good place to spot original WW2 Jeeps still in daily use (spare jerrycan and all). Alas, this year we haven’t as yet seen any. And of course I keep my eyes peeled for a properly restored DS19.

Quote of the Day

”All really new ideas have a certain aspect of foolishness when they are first produced.”

  • Alfred North Whitehead

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Tom Waits | Hold On


Those stories that Tom is in the pay of manufacturers of throat pastilles are fake news.

Long Read of the Day


This utterly riveting story by Stewart Brand about the world’s first round-the-world solo yacht race is a great read. The race was a thrilling and, for some, deadly contest. The moral that Brand draws from it is how important being able to maintain your boat can be.

Here’s a sample (about Robin Knox-Johnson) the eventual winner of the race…

Dressing in a dark shirt and jeans to hide his white body from potential sharks, he dove down and tried wedging strips of cotton caulking into the gaps. But five feet underwater, he couldn’t hold his breath long enough to secure the caulking in place.

He thought some more. Then he cut a 1- 1/2inch canvas strip seven feet long, sewed caulking to one side of it, coated it with Stockholm tar, and pushed tacks through the canvas every six inches. With a hammer he kept suspended below the hull, he was able to pound in the tacks to hold the caulking in place, but he could only manage one tack at a time before having to surface to breathe. It took two hours.

Then, worried that the canvas strip might tear off eventually, he cut a long strip of copper that could be nailed over it. Meanwhile a shark had arrived and was circling the boat. He fetched his rifle, shot the shark, and watched it sink out of sight, apparently without attracting other sharks. He went back into the chilly water hoping that was so…

Wonderful stuff, and good enough to confirm me as a definite landlubber.

My commonplace booklet

**An Apple-1 prototype that was hand-soldered by Steve Wozniak is going under the hammer. Link from The Register.

This specific piece of hardware is expected to bring in a cool half a million, being the board the Steves (Wozniak and Jobs) used to demo the Apple-1 to Paul Terrell, leading Terell to give them their first big purchase order for fifty Apple-1s in 1976. The Byte Shop owner paid them $500 per unit, cash on delivery, and sold them for $666.66 apiece.

Woz alone designed the hardware, circuit boards, and the operating system for the computer, first demonstrated at a meeting of Palo Alto’s Homebrew Computer Club (Terrell and Jobs were also members) in July of the same year. As the listing points out: “Without Jobs, Woz had no market — he had already given away the Apple-1 design to members of the Homebrew Computer Club, and had little interest in exploiting it for profit.” But Jobs, as history tells us, did.

And so the path to a $2.453 trillion market cap company began…

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