Friday 3 February, 2023

Double jeopardy

The current cover of Private Eye!


Quote of the Day

“Nature still obstinately refuses to co-operate by making the rich people innately superior to the poor people.”

  • Beatrice Webb

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Abide With Me | Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Link

I’m going to a friend’s funeral today, and hoping this will be one of the hymns.


Long Read of the Day

The End of the Intellectual Focal Point

A perceptive essay by Daniel Drezner on the way a particular sector of the public sphere — that occupied by ‘public intellectuals’ — is changing.

One of the key themes from The Ideas Industry was that the barriers to entry for entering the marketplace of ideas had been lowered. Traditional gatekeepers — like, say, the op-ed editors of the New York Times or Washington Post — exercised less power than they used to. It has become easier for a thought leader to bypass establishment venues and essentially engage in the intellectual equivalent of direct marketing.

That said, the dramatic shifts in the social media landscape over the past six months should remind everyone that the relationship between traditional gatekeepers and thought leaders might be a bit more complicated. Thought leaders might not want to be constrained by establishments, but they do want to be talked about by establishments. They like long profiles about their intellectual arc or consideration of just how transgressive their ideas really are. Indeed, antagonizing the establishment is a surefire means of building a brand for a lot of thought leaders.

What if, however, there is no longer an establishment to push against?

Also has interesting things to say about the role of Twitter in the public sphere.


Shelling out

Timely observation by Jonty Bloom:

Shell is making obscene profits while the country spends billions subsiding energy bills. The company reported its largest ever profits and quite possible the highest profits of any British company ever, $40bn.

The year before it made $19bn and since it has not bought any other firms, expanded its business significantly or invented a new form of energy; this is just a windfall gain from higher energy prices.

The moral and economically sensible thing is to tax this gain, all of it. The problem is not that this would restrict investment or is unfair, it isn’t. The problem is that the government is so insanely free market that it sees nothing wrong with unearned profits.

That’s ideology at work. Interestingly, although Margaret Thatcher was, in a way, a neoliberal, she had no objection to windfall profits.


Books, etc.

On novels and the movies they inspire

I’ve recently watched two movies about episodes in the lives of two writers I admire — Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Vita and Virginia is about the passionate affair that Woolf had with Vita Sackville-West and the way that led to her path-breaking novel Orlando. Nora is about the relationship between James Joyce and his long-suffering wife, Nora — but told from Nora’s point of view. It’s based on Brenda Maddox’s fine biography of Nora and shows how Joyce drew on that tempestuous relationship in his fiction – especially Dubliners and Ulysses.

I read Orlando many years ago and — to be honest — remember little about it except that I didn’t enjoy it much. And I was therefore puzzled by the fact that it seemed to be widely regarded as Woolf’s greatest literary achievement. It tells the story of an English poet who changes sex and lives for centuries, meeting the key figures in literacy history. In the process Woolf manages not only to raise transgender issues which (coincidentally) have startling contemporary resonances, but also to satirise the misogyny of conventional historical narratives, imperialist ideology and Victorian complacency.

All of this passed me by when I first read the novel, and reading the terrific Wikipedia entry on it has therefore been an embarrassing experience, not to mention a reminder of youthful ignorance and naivete! But the great — and unexpected — benefit of watching the movie was that I suddenly began to see how Woolf’s infatuation with her aristocratic bisexual lover provided the spur for her exploration of really momentous themes in her novel. As the man said, you learn something every day!

I’m not a movie buff – and indeed generally watch very few films – so this recent mini-binge was prompted originally by curiosity about how novels are adapted for the screen. In relation to Joyce, the great breakthrough was Brenda Maddox’s biography of Nora, because it vapourised the conventional narrative about the uneducated wife who never read the works of the genius to whom she was married. How she endured it was — according to the narrative — a mystery, for Joyce, in addition to being a genius, was also an impossible person to live with.

This patronising view of Nora was encapsulated in something Richard Ellmann — Joyce’s canonical biographer — wrote to Maddox when she was embarking on her quest saying how much he disliked “book-length studies of people who are clearly not of great importance themselves”. He added that Nora’s meagre correspondence and literary output would make it “possible neither to give a full character portrayal, nor to evolve a feminist tract” about her.

Maddox’s genius was to spot that what Joyce was looking for was “a Catholic girl without a Catholic conscience” — and, boy, did he find one!

I knew Maddox when I was the Observer’s TV critic and she was a prominent and influential media figure, and I liked her a lot. I found her a shrewd and detached observer of that strange world whose products I reviewed.

In the movie this interpretation of Nora is beautifully captured by Susan Lynch, and Joyce as the impossible-to-live-with genius is also well portrayed by Ewan McGregor. The adaptation shrewdly opted to cover just the pre-Ulysses period of their life together — up to the point where it was clear that Dubliners would never be published in Ireland, and that they would never return to live there.

That decision gave it a coherence that it would have lacked if the film had tried to cover the entire course of Mr and Mrs Joyce’s life together. And what it vividly illustrated were the myriad ways in which life with Nora shaped Joyce’s imagination and found expression in his fiction. We finally discover, for example, where the wonderful closing moments of ‘The Dead’, his little masterpiece, came from: Nora’s relationship with a young boy in Galway who had died of pneumonia. And Joyce’s fantasies about Nora’s suspected infidelity provided the engine for the cuckolding of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. Molly Bloom is, in essence, a projection of Joyce’s paranoia.

My only quibble is the way these movies about great literary figures of the past always over-glamourise them. The sets, dresses and hats are invariably over the top. The Woolfs’ Richmond house was nothing like as grand as it appears in the film. And although Joyce was a dandy and Nora a fine handsome woman, she rarely dressed like an escapee from a Paris catwalk; and at times in Trieste they lived in pretty modest conditions. Growl.


My commonplace booklet

U.S. Marines Outsmart AI Security Cameras by Hiding in a Cardboard Box

Lovely story on PetaPixel about the fragility (nay, stupidity) of image recognition systems.


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Thursday 2 February, 2023

Undrinkable


Quote of the Day

We are never so generous as when giving advice.”

  • François de La Rochefoucauld

Spot on. I’m with Oscar Wilde in this: “I always pass on good advice’, he famously observed. “It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.”


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Altan | The Wind and Rain

Link

Wonderful group. One of the best concerts I’ve ever been to was given by them when, having become world-famous, they came back one lovely Summer evening to the Donegal village whence they had sprung.


Long Read of the Day

The prescience of Joseph Weizenbaum

For people who have been watching the tech industry for as long as I have, the excitement/hysteria about ChatGPT will have brought to mind Josept Weizenbaum and his ELIZA chatbot, which he built between 1964 and 1966 and eventually unveiled that year. His reflections on what he — and we — learned from that have suddenly acquired a new salience, which is why it was so nice to come on this essay the other day.

Its starting point is a quotation from a lecture that Weizenbaum gave in 1983 on “The paradoxical role of the computer”:

“On the one hand the computer makes it possible in principle to live in a world of plenty for everyone, on the other hand we are well on our way to using it to create a world of suffering and chaos. Paradoxical, no?”

And then takes off…

though this is a clash that we still find ourselves wrestling with today, it can be useful to take a step back and consider how it could have been foreseen some forty years ago. While 1983 is certainly not ancient history, when it comes to the history of computing, forty years can certainly seem like a time when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. After all, 1983 was pre-smartphone, prior to the genuine takeoff of the personal computer, it was before the web and therefore also before Web 2.0 and Web3—heck, quite a few of the figures who dominate contemporary discussions around computer technology hadn’t even been born yet (or were still children). 1983 was a long time ago for computers, yet for some figures who were paying attention, figures like Weizenbaum, it was already possible to see the direction that the eager embrace of computers was putting societies on—and though such figures spoke out in hopes that the direction would be changed, it is likely that many of them would not be too surprised with the messes we find ourselves in at present.

It’s a terrifically thoughtful and wise piece. Well worth your time.


My commonplace booklet

Last week I found myself in a part of Cambridge that I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic. I realised after I’d parked that the parking meter only took cash and realised that I hadn’t any on me. But I remembered that there were a couple of bank branches round the corner where I could pick up some real money and strolled on — only to discover that both branches were no more. One was boarded up. The other had become some kind of food outlet.

Which is one reason I so enjoyed Robert Shrimsley’s column in the FT magazine last Saturday.

Here’s a sample:

The old bank opposite the cycle shop on the High Street is about to reopen as an exercise studio and gym. That makes at least four such places within about 500 yards of each other. On the other hand, another form of bank building is now a Gail’s bakery, so at least shuttered financial institutions are offering diversity on health options.

What used to be Barclays is now good for sourdough loaves, brownies, and sausage rolls. What do used to be NatWest will help you work off those calories. When you look at it that way, this is practically cartel behaviour. The Gail’s is clearly a valuable addition, but the bank was better for me. Say what you like about Barclays, but I’m pretty sure I never ate their bank notes on the way home.

The Santander has also gone, but not yet transformed into anything else. Presumably it is still working through the pastries – or – Pilates dilemma faced by former financial institutions. Perhaps it should consider reopening as a hairdresser. There is a serious gap in the market in that part of the High Street. Residents still have to walk several yards to get their hair done. They might even have to cross the road.

Hairdressers, Cafes, exercise, studios, cycle shops and vets seem to be the future of our High Streets. The logic of this is obvious. The only places which see a future are those offering physical services you cannot simply secure with a click of the mouse. By any measure our High Street is still very well served, especially if you need a haircut.

Welcome to Global Britain.


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Wednesday 1 February, 2023

An opening…

… onto a tennis court, as it happens.


Quote of the Day

”In Hollywood when people die they don’t ask ‘Did he leave a will?’ But ‘Did he leave a Diary?’”

  • Lisa Minelli

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Music for Imbolc (St Brigid’s Day)

Link

Imbolc is one of the four ancient Gaelic seasonal festivals. It marks the beginning of Spring. The others are Bealtaine, Lughnasadh and Samhain. Needless to say, the original festival was appropriated by the Catholic Church and allocated to St Brigid.

Photograph by Culnacreann (on a CC-by licence)

When we were kids we learned how to make ‘St Brigid Crosses’ out of rushes, of which the damp pastures of rural Ireland had a plentiful supply.

Many thanks to Pam Appleby for the link.


Long Read of the Day

Britain’s posh cliques

I’ve always liked George Orwell’s observation that England (by which I think he meant Britain) is “a family with the wrong people in charge”. Right on cue comes this sharp column by John Harris.

A country in deep crisis ought to at least have a government capable of governing; it is post-Brexit Britain’s unlucky fate to be run by an administration in a similar state of breakdown. The Tory party chair, Nadhim Zahawi, has been found to have committed a serious breach of the ministerial code and finally sacked. The investigation into bullying accusations against Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister, is yet to conclude. Meanwhile, the latest story centred on Boris Johnson grinds on.

If it was a play, it would sit awkwardly between thriller and farce, with characters that were well drawn, and well connected. Johnson, we know: the financially incontinent prime minister who desperately needed an £800,000 “credit facility”. Then there is Sam Blyth, a “distant cousin” of Johnson and founder of a chain of Canadian private schools, apparently persuaded to be the then prime minister’s loan guarantor. The cast is completed by Richard Sharp, the former banker and Tory donor who is now the chair of the BBC, and Simon Case, Britain’s most senior civil servant. Questions now swirl around Sharp’s alleged dealings with the other three, in the weeks and months before he was appointed to his role at the BBC. Last Monday, Johnson said that Sharp “knows absolutely nothing about my personal finances – I can tell you that for ding-dang sure”. Over the weekend, the Sunday Times published a leaked letter reportedly handed to Johnson by Case: “Given the imminent announcement of Richard Sharp as the new BBC chair,” it said, “it is important that you no longer ask his advice about your personal financial matters.” We now await enlightenment about how both these things could possibly be true.

It gets worse (if that’s possible):

The context for these tragedies remains as brazen and appalling as ever: at the last count, two-thirds of senior judges were privately educated, along with 51% of what the Sutton Trust charity calls “leading journalists”, and 52% of foreign office diplomats. The figure for Sunak’s cabinet is 65%.


The NYT is beginning to smoke its own exhaust

Nice Politico column by Jack Shafer.

Defying the journalistic maxim that reporters should never be the story, “The Story Behind the Story” frequently chronicles the mundane mechanics of assembling the Times. Recently, the space has featured a first-person piece by a Times reporter about how she got her story about the things people stand in line for these days; how its book critic read and reviewed Prince Harry’s Spare in a day; how its reporter found sources for a piece about young people and personal finance; how its reporter covered the recent 5.6 magnitude earthquake in West Java; inside commentary on the paper’s crossword; a profile of the paper’s photography department; and a profile of a food-truck proprietor who vends on the street outside the Times’ offices.

Other days the feature runs Q&A’s with reporters in which they regurgitate the facts they’ve already conveyed in published pieces about classified documents, Ticketmaster, and the recent German coup plot. (Some of these Q&A’s are double-dribbled from the Times’ “The Daily” podcast.) Then there have been retrospectives on the influence of the paper’s “Snow Fall” feature from 10 years ago and a history of the guest book at Times headquarters. It would be one thing if any of these pieces broke ground or were great reads, but they don’t and they aren’t. Most days’ entries have that tossed off quality that passes for insight when applied to podcasts. The reading experience is like soaking your brain in brackish well water. Perhaps nobody has ever attacked these columns because nobody ever reads them.

He’s sharp, is Jack. He’s picked up a whiff of what’s been happening to the Times. Some of its political reporting in the last few years has become lazy. And its current reporting of the ‘discoveries’ about classified documents in Joe Biden’s garage reminds me of its irresponsible reporting of the leaking of Hilary Clinton’s emails in 2016. What’s happening is that the success of its subscription model is making the paper pathologically attentive to what its subscribers will like rather than what good, detached journalism should provide.


My commonplace booklet

Splash down! Lion cubs leap across swollen river Link

Cute, eh? Just wait until they grow up.


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Tuesday 31 January, 2023

Das Boot

Or should it be zwei Boote, really?

Taken years ago in North Norfolk. The boat in the foreground eventually broke up and is no more.


Quote of the Day

”Yesterday, in the gym, my physiotherapist placed my own claw-like hand onto my own face. It was certainly a horror, as if several semi-frozen vegetarian sausages had been draped across my face by a prankster.

The hand felt cold and inanimate. But Miss S claims I should forego the self-pity. If I persist, I will soon be waving at London taxis and giving my enemies the finger. At the moment, my right hand is more lively than my left, which feels nearly dead.

What I would like, what I wish for, what I dream of, is the ability to pick up a fountain pen, and make a mark in the page; to write my own name in purple ink. This is my ambition.”

  • Hanif Kureishi, dictated from his hospital bed.

On holiday in Rome just after Christmas he suddenly collapsed onto the pavement; as he fell he twisted his neck and grievously injuring the top of his spine. He lost the use of his arms and legs and is now in a specialist rehabilitation clinic. But from the outset he has been dictating blog posts like this one to his son Carlo.

This is moving and impressive. What it reminds me of is the great historian Tony Judt who, when he was similarly immobilised before his death, managed to produce a truly beautiful book, The Memory Chalet.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Haydn | String Quartet in D Major Op.64-5, Hob.III:63, “The Lark”, 1st Movement | . Classikan String Quartet

Link

Good ol’ Papa Haydn.


Long Read of the Day

Ken Burns on His Most Important Film

Transcript of an interview Bari Weiss did with documentary film-maker Ken Burns on his latest film on American attitudes to the Holocaust.

BW: I want to start with one of the first scenes of the six-hour documentary, which is about the Frank family. Many have read the diary of Anne Frank, but you decide to tell this story in a new light by focusing on her father, Otto Frank, and the way that he desperately tried to get the Franks into the United States. He couldn’t, despite having all of the connections one would need to make it from Europe into America. This theme—America’s policy toward Jewish refugees during the war—underscores the entire film. Why did you decide to open with this story of Otto Frank desperately trying to escape, instead of the story that we know, of an innocent little girl hiding in an attic?

KB: Let’s remember that the diary of an innocent girl, who is often the point of entry for many Americans and certainly schoolkids to the story of the Holocaust, isn’t about the Holocaust. It’s about everything leading up to the moment of her arrest and the overshadowing fear of hiding in the secret annex. As a country, we think we’re disconnected from that, but we are not. We are culpable. Otto Frank had connections in the United States. He had crossed every t and dotted every i and he still couldn’t get in. What I wanted to do is leave our audience with the sense from the very beginning that she could be here and still be alive.

Unmissable. Do read it.


Nick Clegg: from Liberal hope to Trump Enabler

Nice sharp Guardian comment piece by Jan-Werner Müller on Meta’s decision (announced by Clegg) to allow Trump back on its platform.

But Trump has neither paid any price for various offenses against democracy, nor ever shown the slightest repentance for his role in what Facebook, in its official announcement, gingerly calls “civil unrest” (as if we were talking about some general conflagration, with all sides to blame). By allowing him back on, Facebook is signaling that neither the past, nor what a perpetrator thinks about the past, matter. It pretends that, unless Trump is on the platform, citizens have no chance to find out what “the king of social media” (according to Nigel Farage) is thinking, depriving them of vital information – a patently absurd claim given that Trump remains the most public American who has ever lived. Not only that: AJ Liebling once observed that freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one – if nothing else, freedom to address the public is also guaranteed to those who own a social network.

That description of a Trump-fomented armed insurrection as “civil unrest” would have delighted the author of “Politics and the English Language”


My commonplace booklet

Jonty Bloom sees the connection between Father Ted and Nadhim Zahawi

Nadhim Zahawi, poor love, feels hard done by, lynched by the media and driven out of office by a mob. Without even the chance to clear his name.

Father Ted was exiled to Craggy Island, when the money involved was “just resting in my account”.

How much worse for the former Chancellor, who only sought to hide the fact that he was being fined by HMRC, while running HMRC, for trying not to pay several million pounds in tax to HMRC.

After all it is not as if we need the money or anything, and he has stables to heat at his own expense these days; will no one think of the poor horses?

Still not to worry, Father Ted may have been on Craggy Island for years, but these days political exile for bullying staff, starting your own foreign policy, avoiding tax or even leaking state secrets, is a few weeks at most.

At this rate we will be lucky if Mr. Zahawi isn’t back in the cabinet by February.


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Monday 30 January, 2023

The icy forest

Actually a close up of iced-up Santolina taken during the cold snap a few days ago. But when I looked at it again I suddenly imagined it as an aerial view of an arctic forest!


Quote of the Day

”Life is not so bad if you have plenty of luck, a good physique, and not too much imagination.”

  • Christopher Isherwood

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs, Sharon White

Link


Long Read of the Day

How to win arguments online

Dave Karpf is a tenured professor at George Washington University and a blogger. He teaches a class in ‘strategic communication’, and was recently handed a case study in how not to engage in an online row.

What happened was that Karpf tweeted something rude about Brett Stephens, a conservative NYT columnist, who wrote something with which he disagreed. He called him a “bedbug”. Stephens then emailed him — cc’ing the Provost of his university (i.e. in the shaky hierarchy of a US university, his boss’s boss) — complaining about this.

This was the standard old-world response of an ‘elite’ commentator aiming to activate the usual Establishment mechanism for disciplining a heckler. Big mistake in today’s networked world. Karpf tweeted about Stephens’s action and attached a copy of the email. At which point the whole thing went viral.

Karpf’s essay is an account of what happened, and reflections on what can be learned from it.

Riveting and instructive.


Why has Alphabet hit the panic button? Only Google can answer that question

Yesterday’s Observer column

In a strange way, the best thing that could have happened to Google (now masquerading as Alphabet, its parent company) was Facebook. Why? Because although Google invented surveillance capitalism, arguably the most toxic business model since the opium trade, it was Facebook that got into the most trouble for its abuses of it. The result was that Google enjoyed an easier ride. Naturally, it had the odd bit of unpleasantness with the EU, with annoying fines and long drawn out legal wrangles. But it was the Facebook boss, Mark Zuckerberg – not Google’s Larry Page, Sergey Brin and their adult supervisor Eric Schmidt – who was awarded the title of evil emperor of the online world.

This sometimes enabled Google to fly below the regulatory radar and avoid public criticism. Its relative immunity may also have been fostered by credulity induced by its “Don’t be evil” motto. What may also have helped is the way that, over the years, it fumbled quite a few things – Google+, Google Wave, Google Glass, Knol and Google Reader, to name just five. On the other hand, it also managed to create useful and successful products – Gmail, for example, plus Google Maps, Google Scholar, Google Earth and Google Books. And, of course, it made inspired acquisitions of YouTube in 2006 and of artificial intelligence startup DeepMind in 2014.

What enabled the company to get away with that mixture of creativity, fumbling and indirection, obviously, was that it was always rolling in money…

Do read the whole thing.


My commonplace booklet

I recently highlighted an article about the way Wikipedia dealt with the thorny question of what pronouns to assign to Ernest Hemingway’s offspring — ‘Grace’ or ‘Gregory’ — before eventually settling for the former.

Chris Patten writes to say:

And if you query why ‘Grace’ has replaced Gregory, Google asks if you want to hear about HIS life! The delusion can’t be maintained.


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Friday 27 January, 2023

Whence KM came

My notes the other day about Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield prompted Andy Linton to send this photograph of her birthplace in New Zealand where, he says, Mansfield is a “minor deity”.

For which picture, many thanks.


Quote of the Day

”Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work, and then they get elected and prove it.”

  • P.J. O’Rourke

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Casals | Song of the Birds (Arr. Sally Beamish) | Steven Isserlis

Link

Casals once played it to the General Assembly of the United Nations.


Long Read of the Day

The Crypto Collapse and the End of Magical Thinking

Terrific NYT essay by Mihir A. Desai

I have come to view cryptocurrencies not simply as exotic assets but as a manifestation of a magical thinking that had come to infect part of the generation who grew up in the aftermath of the Great Recession — and American capitalism, more broadly.

For these purposes, magical thinking is the assumption that favored conditions will continue on forever without regard for history. It is the minimizing of constraints and trade-offs in favor of techno-utopianism and the exclusive emphasis on positive outcomes and novelty. It is the conflation of virtue with commerce.

Where did this ideology come from? An exceptional period of low interest rates and excess liquidity provided the fertile soil for fantastical dreams to flourish. Pervasive consumer-facing technology allowed individuals to believe that the latest platform company or arrogant tech entrepreneur could change everything. Anger after the 2008 global financial crisis created a receptivity to radical economic solutions, and disappointment with traditional politics displaced social ambitions onto the world of commerce. The hothouse of Covid’s peaks turbocharged all these impulses as we sat bored in front of screens, fueled by seemingly free money.

With Bitcoin now trading at around $17,000, and amid declining stock valuations and tech sector layoffs, these ideas have begun to crack. The unwinding of magical thinking will dominate this decade in painful but ultimately restorative ways — and that unwinding will be most painful to the generation conditioned to believe these fantasies.


Is life in the UK really as bad as the numbers suggest?

Yes, it is, says economist Tim Harford, writing in the Financial Times on what has happened to the UK.

TL;DR version: The past 15 years have been a disappointment on a scale we could hardly have imagined.

The British economy is in a generation-long slough of despond, a slow-burning economic catastrophe. Real household disposable income per capita has barely increased for 15 years.

This is not normal. Since 1948, this measure of spending power reliably increased in the UK, doubling every 30 years. It was about twice as high in 1978 as in 1948 and was in touching distance of doubling again by 2008, before the financial crisis intervened. Today, it’s back at those pre-crisis levels.

It’s worth lingering on this point because it is so extraordinary. Had the pre-crisis trend continued, the typical Brit would by now be 40 per cent richer. Instead, no progress has been made at all. No wonder the Institute for Fiscal Studies is now talking of a second lost decade…

And…

Many people struggle to pay for the basics. A large survey conducted by the Resolution Foundation in late November found that about a quarter of people said they couldn’t afford regular savings of £10 a month, couldn’t afford to spend small sums on themselves, couldn’t afford to replace electrical goods and couldn’t afford to switch on the heating when needed. Three years ago, only an unlucky few — between 2 and 8 per cent — described themselves as having such concerns over spending. More than 10 per cent of respondents said that at times over the previous 30 days, they’d not eaten when hungry because they didn’t have money for food.

This is not supposed to happen in one of the world’s richest countries. But then, the UK is no longer in that club. As my colleague John Burn-Murdoch has recently shown, median incomes in the UK are well below those in places such as Norway, Switzerland or the US and well below the average of developed countries. Incomes of the poor, those at the 10th percentile, are lower in the UK than in Slovenia.


My commonplace booklet

Yehudi Menuhin gets his Blue Plaque

The plaque, which is awarded by English Heritage, will commemorate the six-storey house in Belgravia, London, where he lived, worked and entertained for the last 16 years of his life until 1999.

The news triggered a memory of a story I was once told about him when he visited the painter Derek Hill at his lovely house on the shores of Lake Cartan in Co Donegal.

The house (which is maintained as it was when Hill was alive), has a large old-fashioned kitchen, in which Hill, who was a convivial soul and very popular with the people of the locality, used occasionally to invite local musicians to drop in on Saturday evenings for drinks, singing, dancing and music-making. Since Donegal is famous for its tradition of fiddle-playing, Hill set up such an evening when Yehudi Menuhin was staying, and the great violinist joined in wholeheartedly. A good night was had by all, but it seems that some of the locals had no idea who the visitor was, and when the party was breaking up one of the departing musicians was heard saying to Hill “Yon Hughdie McMenamin is a fine fiddler!”

‘Hughdie’ was a popular adaption of ‘Hugh’ when I lived in Donegal as a child. And McMenamin is a common family name thereabouts.

Hill left his house and land to the Irish state on his death and there’s now a lovely gallery in the grounds. If you’re ever in Donegal, don’t miss it.

Grey Gowrie has written a nice book about Hill, whom he knew well.


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Thursday 26 January, 2023

Misalignment

Wonderful photograph from Quentin’s blog. One person who commented on it thought that the seagull ruined the picture. I disagree. The bird upsets the symmetry, which is the whole point!


Quote of the Day

”If I have to prove I’m not a computer by identifying traffic lights and busses, perhaps we’re not quite ready for self-driving cars.”

  • Mastodon user @joelle@social.joelle.us

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Crosby Stills and Nash | Suite: Judy Blue Eyes | Live 2012

Link

A small memorial to David Crosby, sadly no longer with us.


Long Read of the Day

Wikipedia Quietly Shapes How We View the World

Really interesting piece by Noam Cohen in The Atlantic

As veteran readers of this blog will know, I am an admirer (and user of) Wikipedia. (I also try to donate to it regularly.) What fascinated me about it from the beginning — and certainly from reading the chapter about it in Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet — was the elaborate protocols its founders developed to handle disagreements. They were extraordinarily prescient in that they anticipated what would happen when people would not only have their own opinions, but their own ‘facts’ too. They saw the future in which we are now living.

What’s nice about this essay is that it starts with a contemporary case study that brilliantly illustrates this.

For more than 15 years, Wikipedia discussed what to call the third child of Ernest Hemingway, a doctor who was born and wrote books as Gregory, later lived as Gloria after undergoing gender-affirming surgery, and, when arrested for public disorderliness late in life, used a third name, Vanessa. Last year, editors on the site finally settled the question: The Gregory Hemingway article was deleted, and its contents were moved to a new one for Gloria Hemingway. This would be her name going forward, and she/her would be her pronouns.

Wikipedia’s billions of facts, rendered as dry prose in millions of articles, help us understand the world. They are largely the brain behind Siri and Alexa. They have been integrated as official fact-checks on conspiracy-theory YouTube videos. They helped train ChatGPT. So, unsurprisingly, when you search Google for “Gregory Hemingway,” it follows Wikipedia’s lead: You are told about Gloria instead…

Worth your time.

PS: I have a standard modus operandi whenever I get into discussions with people about Wikipedia. If the person is complaining about an error in an entry, my response is: well then, if you know it’s wrong, why haven’t you corrected it?

And to the person who gushes about how wonderful Wikipedia is! I ask: well, then, have you given it a donation?

You can guess what the most common responses to both questions are!


Books, etc.

Recently my good friend Quentin embarked on reading Joyce’s Ulysses and blogged on how unimpressed he was by it. He drew comfort, he said, from the fact that no less a person than Virginia Woolf herself was repelled by the book and quoted the well-known extract from a her diary entry on the subject:

“Never did I read such tosh. As for the first 2 chapters we will let them pass, but the 3rd 4th 5th 6th–merely the scratching of pimples on the body of the bootboy at Claridges. Of course genius may blaze out on page 652 but I have my doubts. And this is what Eliot worships…”

I took him to task about this and we had an enjoyable exchange on Signal. My point was that VW’s views on the novel were rather more complicated than you’d gather from just reading that extract, and so I set about gathering everything Woolf had written about the book in her diaries. It was an enjoyable rabbit-hole for someone who’s interested in Joyce, as you can imagine.

But then yesterday morning Quentin alerted me to a lovely essay  by James Heffernan published in the Yale Modernism Lab. He had, of course been reading Woolf’s diaries (like me) but (unlike me) had also been reading her letters. So it was an enjoyable and instructive read.

Heffernan insightfully illuminates one aspect of the controversy which had always annoyed me, namely what I saw as Woolf’s obtuseness (or even hypocrisy) in ostensibly dismissing Joyce’s method while at the same time using it herself in the writing of Mrs Dalloway. She may have had trouble admitting it but she and Joyce were in the same business. And he had beaten her to it.

“A few days earlier,” writes Heffernan,

she had told her diary that in her “laborious dredging . . . for Mrs Dalloway” [her story, that is] she was “bringing up light buckets” (D 2: 189). Having begun to suspect–as noted above–that Joyce was probably beating her at her own game, how could she avoid measuring herself against him or, more precisely, wanting to find his buckets just as light as hers? And could she finish her story or turn it into another novel of her own so long as this strange new giant of literature cast his shadow before her? The answer, I think, is no. To go on writing, she had to stop reading Ulysses. I believe that she stopped at page 200 and then did all she could to drive it from her mind. On August 26 she tells her diary: “I dislike Ulysses more & more–that is think it more & more unimportant; & dont even trouble conscientiously to make out its meanings. Thank God, I need not write about it” (D 2: 195-96). By this she clearly meant that she would write no more about it for publication, since she did indeed have a few more things to say in private. On September 3, eight days after last reporting that she had read just 200 pages, she tells her diary, “I should be reading the last immortal chapter of Ulysses: but I’m hot with Badmington [sic] in the orchard . . . we dine in 35 minutes; & I must change” (D 2: 197). And three days later she tells her diary, “I finished Ulysses” (D 2: 199).

“Just what does this mean?” asks Heffernan,

I believe it can only mean that she had finished with it – not that she had read it all, let alone tried “conscientiously to make out its meanings.” In the more than four months from mid-April to August 24, she had read just two hundred pages of Ulysses even though she had already read many of them once or twice before. Could she have read the remaining 532 pages in the eleven days from August 26 to September 6, when she claims to have finished the novel? The answer is both yes and no. On one hand, she could have read those pages in one long day, for the whole of Ulysses has been many times read aloud–typically by a team of readers– in twenty-four hours. On the other hand, given the rate at which she had been reading Ulysses, she could not possibly have read it all by September 6 – especially since she was already overloaded with other tasks.

Thanks to Quentin (who is now listening to an audio version of Ulysses) for launching me down such an enjoyable slippery slope.


My commonplace booklet

What if everything ran on gasoline?

Fabulous ad for the Nissan Leaf. It’s only a minute long. Don’t miss it.


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Wednesday 25 January, 2023

In Coole Park

If, as I have done, you ever go in search of Coole House in Co. Galway, on the former estate of Lady Gregory, W.B. Yeats’s friend and patroness, you’re in for disappointment. The house, which was sold to the Irish state by Lady Gregory’s daughter-in-law in 1927, was allowed to fall into ruin, and eventually demolished in 1941 in a remarkable act of official vandalism. So now all the remains is the site where it stood and this faded photograph of the building.

  But the Park surrounding where the house stood is lovely and open to the public. One of the most intriguing things I found there was a sequence of five pieces of slate, each with etched handwritten verses of some doggerel.

Here’s the first one.

And here’s the explanation!


Quote of the Day

”Here is how platforms die: First, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.”


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Josef Haydn | String Quartet No. 62, Op. 76 No. 3 “Emperor” | Second Movement | Veridis Quartet

Link


Long Read of the Day

“Just Go Back to the Work.”

Film-maker Lizzie Gottlieb has made a documentary film, Turn Every Page, about the remarkable partnership between Robert Caro, the biographer of LBJ, and her father, Robert Gottlieb, his Editor.

Link

Literary Hub has published the transcript of a nice interview that Lisa Liebman did with the film-maker. Here’s how she sets up the conversation…

When director Lizzie Gottlieb set out to explore the remarkable partnership between her father, celebrated book editor Robert Gottlieb, and the preeminent political biographer Robert Caro for her new documentary Turn Every Page, she knew being impartial was not only impossible, it was beside the point. “I thought, I have to bring people in through my eyes,” she says of the high-stakes story she sees as two literary titans “in a race against time to try to finish their life’s work.”

The filmmaker had met many of her now 91-year-old dad’s impressive roster of writers—who included Toni Morrison, John Le Carré, Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie, and Joseph Heller—during his years running Simon and Schuster, Knopf, and The New Yorker. But the 50-year-relationship between Gottlieb and the now 87-year-old Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning author of The Power Broker, and the multi-volume The Years of Lyndon Johnson, remained a mystery. (In the film she notes that she didn’t meet Caro, who’s working on the final Johnson book, until her father’s 80th birthday.)

If you like Caro’s books and/or the process of editing, then this is for you.


Books, etc.

Apropos Seamus Heaney’s habit of using a fountain-pen as a dipper, what should I find in Virginia Woolf’s diary for Sunday 3 September, 1922, but this?

”Perhaps the greatest revolution in my life is the change of nibs — no longer can I write legibly with my old blunt tree-stump — people complained — But then the usual difficulties begin — what is to take its place? At the present moment I’m using Blackie [a fountain pen] against his nature, dipping him, that is to say.”`


My commonplace booklet

From Dave Winer

”I went to ChatGPT and entered “Simple instructions about how to send email from a Node.js app?” What came back was absolutely perfect, none of the confusing crap and business models you see in online instructions in Google. I see why Google is worried. ;-)”


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Tuesday 24 January, 2023

Leaves of ice

It’s still cold around here.


Quote of the Day

”The people of Crete, unfortunately, make more history than they can consume locally.”

  • Saki (H.H. Munro)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Like Someone in Love (by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke) | Gregory Chen (Piano), Mike Karn (Bass), Scott Lowrie (Drums)

Link


Long Read of the Day

The Dark Underbelly of ChatGPT

Good exposé by Time.

In its quest to make ChatGPT less toxic, OpenAI used outsourced Kenyan labourers earning less than $2 per hour.

To build that safety system, OpenAI took a leaf out of the playbook of social media companies like Facebook, who had already shown it was possible to build AIs that could detect toxic language like hate speech to help remove it from their platforms. The premise was simple: feed an AI with labeled examples of violence, hate speech, and sexual abuse, and that tool could learn to detect those forms of toxicity in the wild. That detector would be built into ChatGPT to check whether it was echoing the toxicity of its training data, and filter it out before it ever reached the user. It could also help scrub toxic text from the training datasets of future AI models.

To get those labels, OpenAI sent tens of thousands of snippets of text to an outsourcing firm in Kenya, beginning in November 2021. Much of that text appeared to have been pulled from the darkest recesses of the internet. Some of it described situations in graphic detail like child sexual abuse, bestiality, murder, suicide, torture, self harm, and incest.

OpenAI’s outsourcing partner in Kenya was Sama, a San Francisco-based firm that employs workers in Kenya, Uganda and India to label data for Silicon Valley clients like Google, Meta and Microsoft. Sama markets itself as an “ethical AI” company and claims to have helped lift more than 50,000 people out of poverty.

The data labelers employed by Sama on behalf of OpenAI were paid a take-home wage of between around $1.32 and $2 per hour depending on seniority and performance. For this story, TIME reviewed hundreds of pages of internal Sama and OpenAI documents, including workers’ payslips, and interviewed four Sama employees who worked on the project. All the employees spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for their livelihoods.

OpenAI confirmed that Sama employees in Kenya contributed to a tool it was building to detect toxic content, which was eventually built into ChatGPT.


Books, etc.

One of the things that’s always puzzled me about Virginia Woolf’s diaries (to which I am addicted) is her apparent obsession with Katherine Mansfield. Here are the index entries for her in Volume 2 of the Woolf diaries.

Although puzzled by Woolf’s obsession with KM, I’ve always put off reading her. Life’s too short, etc.

Now, however, an essay by Kirsty Gunn in Literary Hub has persuaded me that that omission will have to be rectified. This month is the centenary of KM’s death — which, says Ms Gunn,

marks the beginning of a flurry of publications and reviews honoring the author of a prose style that Virginia Woolf envied (“I was jealous of her writing,” she wrote after Mansfield’s death, “the only writing I have ever been jealous of”) and whose stories established a prototype for the kind of short fiction in English we now take for granted.

And,

Her stories plunge the reader into their midst and off we go: “And after all the weather was ideal.” “The week after was one of the busiest weeks of their lives.” “In the afternoon the chairs came.” From their first lines, the reader is brought right inside the fictional worlds which simply seem to open up and change as time passes—a method that Mansfield herself described as “unfolding,” introducing to literature a kind of free indirect narrative that traces the actions and minds of characters with such detail and nuance and sensitivity that she may as well be writing in invisible ink. “What form is it? you ask,” she wrote in a letter to the painter Dorothy Brett about her long short story “Prelude,” first published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press. “As far as I know it’s more or less my own invention.”

Time to visit a bookshop.


My commonplace booklet

Rentokil pilots facial recognition system as way to exterminate rats

At first I thought that this has to be a spoof released inadvertently two months ahead of April 1st. If it is, then both the Financial Times and the Guardian have taken the bait.


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Monday 23 January, 2023

Tulip Mania

Seen on our kitchen windowsill the other day.


Quote of the Day

”Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get.”

  • A man from the UK Meteorological Office, quoted by Andrew Martin in the FT weekend edition.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sharon Shannon | Blackbird

Link

I’ve always thought she’s terrific, and now find from reading Alan Rickman’s diaries that he thought so too.


Long Read of the Day

The UK is wasting a lot of wind power

Fascinating (and sobering) explanation by Archy de Berker of the dysfunctional way the country’s energy market — and grid planning — works.

Note: It’s a graphics-heavy page and might be slow to load, so be patient.

Last year, the UK generated 30% of its energy from renewables, of which windpower (23% total generation) was by far the biggest contributor.

But on the windiest days, we deliberately capped the amount of power our turbines were producing, reducing the total amount generated by 6%. In fact, it’s worse than that: not only did we turn off our turbines, but we paid the owners of windfarms to turn them off. This is called curtailment.

In 2022, a year characterized by extraordinary hikes in energy prices for consumers, we spent £215m on turning windfarms off, and then another £717m turning on gas power plants to replace the lost wind power. In the process, we emitted an extra 1.5 million tonnes of CO2.

Very good explainer which is worth reading. But it’s also a compelling illustration of difficult long-term energy planning is, especially when you have governments like the ones the UK has been labouring under for over a decade.

Thanks to Charles Arthur for alerting me to it.


How you get fired by Google

As you will doubtless have read, Google has ‘let go’ (e.g. fired) 12,000 people, taking the total number of redundancies in the big tech companies to 200,000 and rising. Jeff Jarvis pointed me to a LinkedIn post by one of them, Bobby Nath, on how he found out he no longer had a job — via his Nest thermostat!

I woke up this morning to our Google Nest Hub in a locked state asking to link my account. I don’t recall ever seeing it in this state before, but it’s an older prototype unit with bugs from time to time, so I didn’t think much of it. When I went to check my work email, I was still in a waking state and couldn’t make sense of why I was getting so many emails asking if I was OK. Scrolling further down, there was a form email from PeopleOps indicating, as you may have surmised by now, that my employment at Google has been terminated.  

Skipping straight to the 5th stage of grief (acceptance) — THANK YOU so much to everyone for the outpouring of support (and apologies in advance if I don’t respond immediately). I’m still in shock of course, but am totally OK for the moment, and am grateful for the privilege of being able to feel OK despite the tragic nature of news like this… 

There’s an interesting Comment below the post from another Google executive, Guillermo Romano, who also finds that he has been ‘let go’.

It seems it was a numbers game, they kept the people that costs less or have not been promoted or less pay apparently and let go of the people that had either a higher salary or costs more to keep ( for the same job). I know this does not help but gives maybe a little answer to a “why”.

Still, it was good (for them) while it lasted. Part of the reason was the company adapting to a much worse economic downturn than its bosses anticipated (after all, Google had been growing continuously ever since it was founded), and partly because there’s panic over the deterioration of their Search engine and the perceived threat from competitors like ChatGPT.

Funny how everyone in the tech industry is astonished when they discover that the laws of economic gravity eventually apply to them.


How to sell to the youth of today

Nice Leader in The Economist

Dear boss—You have always tried to attract young and youngish consumers, and our consultants have always come up with new ways to label them. I don’t need to remind you that “millennials” and, increasingly, “Gen Z” are our most important markets. Together they make up a majority of the world’s population and a third of America’s. The trouble is that coming up with rules to define a swathe of humanity is more art than science. It is liable to become an exercise in applying stereotypes; not every youngster is sipping kombucha in a Brooklyn warehouse. Luckily you have me, and I’m here to tell you that much of what is written about marketing to today’s most prized consumers is a myth.

Start with the idea that, glued to smartphones, Gen Z barely notices the physical world and slavishly follows the latest hype from Instagram or TikTok. It’s true that the days of marketing chiefly through television, newspapers and magazines are long gone. Yet social media has not just changed the ways in which people discover brands; it has undermined the power of marketing as a whole. Such is the ease with which digital natives can fact-check our dodgy marketing claims and swipe left on our ads that it is getting harder to build brand loyalty. Online, talk is cheap and prices are readily Googled. Surveys suggest that young Americans are among the most price-sensitive food shoppers. It doesn’t help that they have accumulated less wealth than earlier generations had by the same age.

There is a similar temptation to think that physical shops no longer matter…

It goes on like this. Uncomfortable reading for many senior marketing executives, I’d say.


Mastodon: restoring the lost art of online conversation?

Yesterday’s Observer column:

What I loved about Twitter at the beginning was that it enabled you to plug into the thought streams of people you liked or admired. Like all good things, though, that came to an end when the platform embarked on the algorithmic curation of users’ feeds to increase “engagement” (and, it hoped, profits). And from then on, it became increasingly tiresome, though I kept my account. But when it became clear that Elon Musk was going to buy the platform – and wreak havoc – I decided to explore possible alternatives.

Like many other people, my gaze alighted on Mastodon as a possible refuge from the Musk-induced madness. After all, it offered its users the same kind of microblogging facilities. But there the similarities ended. Twitter is a single site. Mastodon, in contrast, is a protocol – “a system of rules for spinning up your own social network that can also interact with any other following the same code”. So whereas Twitter is a universe, Mastodon is what has come to be called a “fediverse” – that is, a decentralised network made up of a large number of semi-independent nodes, or as one observer put it: “A distributed network of Twitter-like services.”

That sounds intimidating, but in reality, it’s relatively straightforward…

Do read the whole piece.


My commonplace booklet

The first Selfie

… Well, in photographic form anyway, since artists have been doing self-portraits for aeons. It comes from 42 Photos That Are Authentic Milestones In The History Of Photography, a cheery and interesting list.

According to the accompanying blurb for this picture,

The very first portrait photograph was actually a selfie! In 1839, Robert Cornelius, a photographer from Philadelphia, had the patience and determination to sit still for 15 minutes, the time needed for a daguerreotype. This resulted in the first clear photograph of a person, the first portrait, and the first ever selfie, all at once.

Thanks to Quentin (himself an accomplished photographer) for the link.


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