Friday 19 April, 2024

Gateway to ‘Global Britain’

Heathrow Airport Terminal 2, on a quiet Saturday afternoon.

Quote of the Day

”He who hesitates is poor.”

  • Mel Brooks

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler | Two Pairs Of Hands


Long Read of the Day

Why trade unions matter

Interesting and perceptive Long Read by Neil Bierbaum.

During performance related workshops, the question comes up about expectations; what to do about bosses and colleagues who send out emails late at night, expecting an immediate answer—or latest by the next morning? And what to do about the need to prove that you’re on top of things by meeting that expectation? I call it the “cult of busyness”, and point to “wearing busyness as a badge of honour”. What are we to do about that, comes the question.

What I notice is that everybody is looking for an individual answer, a personal solution, as though it’s their problem to resolve. I always ask myself; can nobody see the naked emperor? It’s all very well doing all you can to manage yourself, but what if the system doesn’t leave you alone? I try to steer people towards the idea that it’s a systemic problem and needs a systemic solution, but mostly I get met with blank stares. (I hope by writing it down here and showing some graphs, it will land with more impact.)

The short answer I would offer is that the epidemic of busyness and the dearth of work-life balance is driven systemically by what I call the “primacy of shareholder value”. In other words, placing profit over people. Despite all the talk of the “triple bottom line” (profit, people, planet), it seldom happens in practice. The systemic solution is to make people matter at least as much as profit. To achieve that, we need our leaders, those high priests of profit, to do more than just pay lip service to the “triple bottom line”. To get there, we ourselves need to stop worshipping at the altar of efficiency for the sake of shareholders. We need to start walking and working among the time poor (as much as I dislike that term, I shall use it here for its poetic ease).

This is an interesting and sharp essay (and I’m not saying that because at one point Bierbaum quotes me). One of the axioms of the neoliberalism that took hold of Western governing elites in the 1970s was that corporations needed to reduce operating costs sharply, which meant in practice reducing labour costs, which in turn meant curbing union power. And both Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK took this to heart. One of the first things Reagan did after taking office, remember, was to sack 11,359 unionised air-traffic controllers workers overnight on August 5, 1981. And over in the UK Thatcher introduced legislation curbing trade-union power (by outlawing secondary picketing, for example) and, later, by taking on — and defeating — the National Union of Mineworkers.

And then came the tech industry, to which the very idea of unionisation was anathema, resulting in the growth of gigantic firms which were effectively neoliberal wet dreams in which the idea of a counterveiling power to managerial fiat was ridiculed as a quaint throwback to the era of Fordist mass production.

In that context, one of the most interesting findings to emerge from Acemoglu’s and Johnson’s magisterial survey of society’s thousand-year experience with technology is that the only periods in which technology-generated wealth was more equitably shared with the non-owners of capital coincided with the growth of counterveiling powers like unions together with societal mobilisation against overweening corporate power.

Chart of the day

Source: Tortoise Media, which commented that:

Despite the attack’s apparent failure, Tehran gathered useful information about Israel’s defences and forced Israel and the US to spend more than $1 billion in one night to counter an attack that cost around one tenth of that to launch.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • From The Economist, 26/03/2024

“China’s government spends $6.6bn a year censoring online content, estimates the Jamestown Foundation, a think-tank in America. In one two-month period last year the authorities claim to have deleted 1.4m social-media posts and 67,000 accounts (ironically, they branded many of the posts “misinformation”). More recently officials launched an investigation into short-video platforms that were spreading “pessimism” among young people, many of whom are struggling to find jobs.”

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Wednesday 17 April, 2024

Manuel Castells, the first great scholar of cyberspace

Quote of the Day

“If you’re too open-minded; your brains will fall out.”

  • Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler’s Guitar Heroes | Going Home (Theme From Local Hero)


There’s an interesting story behind this.

Mark Knopfler’s new special recording of his anthemic ‘Going Home (Theme From Local Hero)’, produced by his longtime collaborator Guy Fletcher (who has edited the contributions into a 9 minute piece), features an unprecedented line-up of some of the greatest guitarists in history. ‘Legendary’ does not begin to cover it – David Gilmour to Ronnie Wood, Slash to Eric Clapton, Sting to Joan Armatrading, Bruce Springsteen to Pete Townshend, Nile Rodgers to Joan Jett, Brian May to Tony Iommi, Joe Walsh, Sam Fender and many more jaw dropping names.

And, in a great honour, the track opens with Jeff Beck’s final recording. Roger Daltrey, Teenage Cancer Trust’s Honorary Patron and co-founder of Teen Cancer America (with Pete Townshend), added harmonica, and Beatles icon Ringo Starr is on drums along with his son Zak Starkey, their two drum tracks switching from one to the other, revealing an unmistakable family style. Sting completes an extraordinary rhythm section on bass. With artwork designed by Sir Peter Blake (The Beatles, The Who, Band Aid, Paul Weller etc), this release is a landmark in rock music history.

Long Read of the Day

 From Bauhaus to Buchenwald .. to mid-century cool

Extraordinary essay by Adam Tooze about the famous design school, its historical legacy and the enigmatic career of one of its students, Franz Ehrlich.

As a canonical lieu de mémoire for global modernism, Bauhaus, truly came into its own with a retrospective exhibition hosted in Stuttgart, one of the industrial centers of postwar West Germany, in 1968. According to art historian Iris Dressler, the show with the programmatic title – 50 years of Bauhaus – was a sensational success, traveling to eight museums—in Europe, the United States, Canada, South America and Asia – and attracting more than 800,000 visitors in total. From 1974, a reduced version of the show put together by Germany’s Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (Institute for Foreign Relations) toured the globe for a further eight years. The stakes were high:

The title, 50 years of the Bauhaus, already ascribes an unbroken continuity to the school—which, as is well known, existed for only 14 years, and in his opening speech the German Federal Minister for Building and Urbanism, Dr. Lauritz Lauritzen, claimed: “The Bauhaus … has significantly contributed to the cultural philosophy of a state designed (to be) democratic and of a democratic society. It is unthinkable without the democratic constitution of the Weimar Republic,” which, as he went on to explain, failed not for political reasons but due to the lack in Germany of an authentically liberal, open society. “The Bauhaus was of global vibrancy. … Without any national hubris one can say that it is a German contribution to culture and civilization in this world of the twentieth century, a contribution to the humanization of the technical century.” He then added: “The men of the Bauhaus who left Germany kept the spirit of German humanism alive in their exiles.”

As Dressler remarks, the exhibition said nothing about the activities of the Bauhaus students who were not forced to leave Germany. Indeed, the entire exhibition was a complex exercise in self-fashioning…

Thanks to Robert Amundsen for alerting me to it.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Extraordinary video of Emperor Penguin chicks having to make a momentous decision.

This Blog is also available as an email three days a week. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays delivered to your inbox at 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Monday 15 April, 2024

Waiting for Hockney

The queue for his 2012 Exhibition at the Royal Academy.

Quote of the Day

“Genius creates, and taste preserves”

  • Alexander Pope

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison | This Loving Light Of Mine


Bruch Springsteen did a footstomping version version in Dublin.

Long Read of the Day

The Mythical people-life

This is a wonderful riff by Timothy Burke on an idea first articulated by Fred Brooks in his Meisterwerk, The Mythical Man Month, a much-thumbed copy of which sits on my bookshelves as I write.

It took a long time for me to see the pattern that is now in hindsight clear to almost everybody my age, and to younger generations as well. As the advantages gained by the early adopters became clear, more people pushed voluntarily into those spaces. And then as the productivity increases jolted down the line, everybody else was pushed involuntarily. The advantage suddenly vanished. The noise was up, the signal was down. Everything was suddenly being done in email, and suddenly the speed of email dramatically increased the amount of information and communication you were expected to produce and conduct. You were suddenly answering questions from all over all day long. We were all working more and it stopped being magic.

If you’re as old as I am, you’ve now seen this cycle repeated multiple times. We are all in some sense the extra workers being added to a long-delayed project with the expectation that we will make it go faster and instead it gets slower and slower all the time. We are all bugs on the windshield in the race to get to full frictionless efficiency, splattering over and over again as that fictional, inhuman El Dorado shimmers in the distance, calling to those who dream of a world where they no longer have to hire human beings at all but who in the meantime are happy to make the people they pay do more and more work while pretending that in fact they are making it easier for us all.

In academia, this drive to nowhere takes on familiar shapes across campuses. We imitate one another, which provides a ready answer any time you ask “Why are we adopting this new system, this new process?” Answer: because it has become an industry-wide standard! Why did the first adopters do it, then? As well ask which came first, the chicken or the egg…

It’s long, but interesting, thoughtful and insightful throughout. Burke has been around long enough (as have I) to see how digital technology seeps into, and then pervades, an organisation. And, as he says,

In practice what happens is that the job formerly done by a person gets divided in a thousand tiny jobs and distributed to the entire workforce. In this act, it does not magically become less work. The sum remains the same. The hope is just that each person will be able to add it to their workflow and barely notice because it is just that one…tiny…wafer. The problem is that we are all the character from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, being fed a mountain of tiny wafers until we are engorged to the breaking point.

When became a university lecturer way back in 1972 in the Open University, I was assigned a secretary, Viv, and she did much of the typing of draft course units. Sometimes, this led to charming errors. Once, in a text on economic modelling, for example, my scribbled reference to “exogenous” variables emerged as erogenous, to the great amusement of some of my colleagues.

And now? We’re all typists, and secretaries have become ‘Executive Assistants’ who are assigned only to senior executives.

From boom to bust, the AI bubble is only heading in one direction

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Are we really in an AI bubble,” asked a reader of last month’s column about the apparently unstoppable rise of Nvidia, “and how would we know?” Good question, so I asked an AI about it and was pointed to Investopedia, which is written by humans who know about this stuff. It told me that a bubble goes through five stages – rather as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said people do with grief. For investment bubbles, the five stages are displacement, boom, euphoria, profit-taking and panic. So let’s see how this maps on to our experience so far with AI.

First, displacement. That’s easy: it was ChatGPT wot dunnit. When it appeared on 30 November 2022, the world went, well, apeshit…

Read on

My commonplace booklet

Think Slow

Lovely blog post by Scott Galloway on Daniel Kahneman who passed away the other day. I was pondering writing something about him, but Scott has done it much better than I could have.

Kahneman studied how humans make decisions, and the shortcuts our minds take, unbeknownst to us. These shortcuts are efficient; they foster a key skill for survival, the ability to make rapid decisions with incomplete information. We have to make thousands of decisions every day, and we couldn’t leave the house if we had to objectively analyze every choice: breakfast, outfit, route, music, etc.

Our efficiency comes at the cost of accuracy: Many instinctual decisions will be poorly calibrated (i.e., wrong). To facilitate the requisite speed, our brain buttresses our decisions with artificial confidence. Kahneman’s body of work demonstrates that we are often wrong but frequently confident. These shortcuts and mistakes are present in the structure of our brains, and impossible to avoid, but recognizing them helps us discern between trivial and important decisions and invest the appropriate intellectual capital. Put another way, take a beat and you increase the likelihood of making a better decision.

Though he was a psychologist by training, Kahneman got his Nobel Prize for economics. Before him, economists “relied on the assumption of a ‘homo œconomicus,’” as the prize committee wrote, a self-interested being capable of rational decision-making. But Kahneman “demonstrated how human decisions may systematically depart from those predicted by standard economic theory.” That dry language obscures an intellectual nuclear detonation. Expectations about human decisions — whether to work at a certain job, how much to pay for a specific good — are the foundation of economic theory. Kahneman showed those expectations were incorrect…


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Friday 12 April, 2024

The Public House

The OED says that “pub” is an abbreviation of ‘Public House’ or inn. This legendary institution has been around since 1754, so it was likely to have been called a ‘public house’ for quite a while. (The dictionary dates the abbreviation only from the mid-19th century.)

Quote of the Day

“Democracy has at least one merit, namely that a Member of Parliament cannot be stupider than his constituents, for the more stupid he is, the more stupid they were to elect him.”

  • Bertrand Russell

I kept thinking about this quote as the ‘Honeytrap’ scandal unfolded in Westminster.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Keith Richards | I’m Waiting For The Man (Lou Reed Cover)



Long Read of the Day

The Apocalyptic Systems Thriller as a non-fiction genre

Henry Farrell is one of the most perceptive observers of the times we’re living in. This essay is just the latest in a thoughtstream of distinctive commentary. It was sparked, he says, by a piece in the New York Times by the novelist Hari Kunzru on a fictional genre he (Kunzru) calls the “apocalyptic systems thriller” (think Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for The Future (which I highly recommend, btw).

“Just as Kunzru describes the influence of non-fiction on a new genre of fiction”, Henry writes,

that genre is re-shaping non-fiction, and should, in my opinion, be shaping it a lot more. We live in an enormously, terrifyingly complex world. We need new narrative techniques to make sense of it, and even more importantly to begin to articulate ways in which human beings can collectively respond to it. Furthermore, non-fiction writers ought steal liberally from fiction writers, just as fiction writers have stolen from the futurists and scenario planners that Kunzru describes. Rather than emphasizing the one-way passage from non-fiction to fiction, we should think of fiction and non-fiction as intertwined like twin helices, generating and regenerating new possibilities. The great advantage of thinking this way (at least from my selfish point of view) is that it focuses our attention on how to improve narrative technique in non-fiction too…

Do read the whole thing. It’s worth it.

Julian Assange

Good piece by Rupa Subramanya in The Free Press.

Some argue Assange is an anarchist, trying to undermine our nation. Others say he is a heroic activist, fighting for a transparent democracy.

But the truth, actually, lies somewhere in the middle: yes, Assange is a deeply flawed character, and he also does not deserve to spend the rest of his life behind bars. Today, President Biden said he is considering a plea from Assange’s homeland of Australia to drop the case, which is a welcome development. Because if the hacker is convicted, it’s not only journalism that will be weaker—it’s democracy itself.

Democracy depends on whistleblowers. We need people like Chelsea Manning. Or Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency employee who leaked documents in 2013 that revealed a disturbing level of government surveillance. Or Thomas Drake, a high-ranking NSA official who blew the whistle on 9/11 intelligence failures. Or Jamie Reed, a case manager at a gender clinic for children, who revealed in these pages that doctors there too hastily prescribed hormones to young adults with mental health issues.

If politicians truly respect the First Amendment, they must defend the freedom of whistleblowers and investigative journalists to deliver the truth to the public—however ugly it may be…


My commonplace booklet

On the naming of plants

A fragment from a nice essay in the New Yorker by Yiyun Li:

“Lotus” comes from the Greek lōtos, a mythical plant bringing forgetfulness to those who eat its fruits. (I have eaten my share of lotus seeds, a delicacy in Chinese cuisine, without achieving oblivion.) “Fuchsia,” a word I often misspelled as “fuschia”—what mythical story accompanies thee? It turns out that fuchsia was named for the sixteenth-century German physician and botanist Leonhard Fuchs, whose name gave birth not only to that of the flower and that of the color but also to the nickname, Fuchsienstadt, for his home town of Wemding, where there is a pyramid made of as many as seven hundred fuchsia plants. And yet Fuchs never saw the flower fuchsia in his lifetime: it was discovered in the Caribbean and named by the French botanist and monk Charles Plumier, who was born a hundred and forty-five years after Fuchs. What led Plumier to name the flower for Fuchs? One can ask the question, but any speculation would be closer to fiction, just as peony was once the physician of the gods and lotus would bring forgetfulness.

I love fuchsia, largely I guess because I spent part of my childhood in Kerry, where it grows in fabulous abundance — so much so that you can drive on small rural roads where the hedges on either side seems to be entirely made up of fuchsia. And, like Li, it took me years to realise that it’s not spelled ‘fuschia’!

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Wednesday 10 April, 2024

The listening post

Dishes in Cambridge’s Lord’s Bridge radio telescope system: listening to the universe.

Quote of the Day

“He would have been considered a great Emperor, had he never ruled.”

  • Roman historian Tacitus on the Emperor Galba

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison | Green Rocky Road


Long Read of the Day

The State of the Culture, 2024

Or a glimpse into post-entertainment society. (Spoiler alert: it’s not pretty)

Intriguing essay by Ted Gioia.

Here’s how it opens:

Until recently, the entertainment industry has been on a growth tear—so much so, that anything artsy or indie or alternative got squeezed as collateral damage.

But even this disturbing picture isn’t disturbing enough. That’s because it misses the single biggest change happening right now.

We’re witnessing the birth of a post-entertainment culture. And it won’t help the arts. In fact, it won’t help society at all.

Even that big whale is in trouble. Entertainment companies are struggling in ways nobody anticipated just a few years ago…

Read on. It’s good, particularly on how the Tec industry views ‘entertainment’, and where we’re headed.

Andrew Curry also had a nice commentary on it on his Substack.

Books, etc.

Sometimes, serendipity works. I’ve been brooding for ages about whether cybernetics and complexity science would be helpful in understanding the mess we’re in — which led to me re-reading Stafford Beer and other systems theorists. And then, out of nowhere, two interesting books pop up. This is the first one: Doyne Farmer is Professor of Complex Systems Science in Oxford but he’s also attached to the Santa Fe Institute. The book is out on April 25. The other book is  The Unaccountability Machine: Why Big Systems Make Terrible Decisions – and How The World Lost its Mind by Dan Davies, who has also been thinking about Stafford Beer and cybernetics. So an interesting few weeks lie ahead.

My commonplace booklet

From Seth Godin’s newsletter, which is a fount of pithy common sense:

Have you ever wondered what the wiring layout behind the control panels at Abbey Road studios was like?

Neither have I.

The Beatles recorded some of their best work there, and I have no idea if it was a rat’s nest of tangled wires, or if each wire was labeled, coded and perfectly aligned.

Just as I have no idea if Eliot Peper writes his novels in Scrivener or Word.

Yes, of course, for sure, it helps if your tools are properly arranged and maintained. Yes, it saves time and effort to embrace mise en place and get your workspace right.

But making it even more right, alphabetizing the pencils and making sure your servers all have the right names–that’s simply stalling.

Yep. One of my favourite adages when talking to students and others about their projects is that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”..


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

The costs of long COVID – estimated for the UK

While Long Covid remains inadequately understood, the evidence is clear on the adverse effects on people’s lives. The most recent ONS estimates from early March 2023 suggested that there were almost 2m people living with Long Covid in the UK, representing some 3% of the UK population. While diverse in its symptoms, around 80% of people reported Long Covid as affecting their ability to carry out day-today activities in at least some way. For those more severely affected, people have reported being unable to live alone without assistance and either a reduced ability to work or having to leave work altogether. The financial implications for individuals and families may be substantial.

Early hopes that Long Covid might prove to be short-lived have not been realised and at this point, Long Covid should be considered a long-term condition that requires investment in long-term solutions. UK government commitments to addressing Long Covid remain uncertain, with current funding in England of clinics for assessment and rehabilitation only recently extended to March 2025, with no commitment to longer-term support.

With Long Covid now established in the population and clearly affecting health and livelihoods, there are questions about what Long Covid means in the longer term for the UK economy. This report takes the available evidence to examine future scenarios of Long Covid to 2030, considering trends such as future prevalence, effects on the ability to work and the costs of Long Covid treatment.

Using our E3ME macroeconomic model to simulate a Long Covid future, the results suggest that Long Covid may have macroeconomic costs of some £1.5bn of GDP each year, with the impacts increasing if future prevalence were to rise. The main driver of this result is the way in which Long Covid reduces people’s ability to work, leading to lower household incomes and lower economic growth overall. Lower employment of around 138,000 by 2030 follows as a consequence. The pattern of these impacts across the economy reflects a mix of sectors in which more people have Long Covid, leading to reductions in and exits from work; and lower economic activity, which tends to affect market services in an economy such as the UK.

Two million people! 3% of the population. Why aren’t we hearing more about this?

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Monday 8 April, 2024

Light, shade and all that rot

Quote of the Day

”Musk’s management philosophy for Twitter hasn’t so much been a random walk as a grasshopper lepping around on a hotplate.”

  • Henry Farrell

(Nice, especially Henry’s use of the derisive Irish term for ‘leaping’).

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel | Semele HWV 58 / Act II | Where’er you walk | Bryn Terfel


I love this aria, and have even been tempted to sing it in the shower, even if the lyrics are premier-grade tosh.

Long Read of the Day

Death is a Feature

Striking blog post by Doc Searls (Whom God Preserve).

Here’s how it opens:

Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars.

This is a very human thing to want. But before we start following his lead, we might want to ask whether death awaits us there.

Not our deaths. Anything’s. What died there to make life possible for what succeeds it?

From what we can tell so far, the answer is nothing.

To explain why life needs death, answer this: what do plastic, wood, limestone, paint, travertine, marble, asphalt, oil, coal, stalactites, peat, stalagmites, cotton, wool, chert, cement, nearly all food, all gas, and most electric services have in common?

They are all products of death. They are remains of living things or made from them…


How one engineer’s curiosity may have saved us from a devastating cyber-attack

Yesterday’s Observer column

On Good Friday, a Microsoft engineer named Andres Freund noticed something peculiar. He was using a software tool called SSH for securely logging into remote computers on the internet, but the interactions with the distant machines were significantly slower than usual. So he did some digging and found malicious code embedded in a software package called XZ Utils that was running on his machine. This is a critical utility for compressing (and decompressing) data running on the Linux operating system, the OS that powers the vast majority of publicly accessible internet servers across the world. Which means that every such machine is running XZ Utils.

Freund’s digging revealed that the malicious code had arrived in his machine via two recent updates to XZ Utils, and he alerted the Open Source Security list to reveal that those updates were the result of someone intentionally planting a backdoor in the compression software. It was what is called a “supply-chain attack” (like the catastrophic SolarWinds one of 2020) – where malicious software is not directly injected into targeted machines, but distributed by infecting the regular software updates to which all computer users are wearily accustomed. If you want to get malware out there, infecting the supply chain is the smart way to do it…

Read on

Books, etc.

On reading ‘A Room of One’s Own’

Andrew Curry has been reading Virginia Woolf’s little masterpiece. He hadn’t read it before, and so was coming to it fresh. And he plans three blog posts about it, of which this is #1.

When she gave the pair of lectures to Cambridge undergraduates, her reputation as a leading modernist novelist was secure. She was in her 40s, and had already published Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse. But the persona that Virginia Woolf adopts for the pair of lectures, to women undergraduates in Cambridge, is of the poorly educated woman who is struggling to understand the things that male authority figures are saying about women in general, and about women writers in particular.

For example, in an early sequence in the British Library she ploughs through a large pile of books written by men about women, while also noting that there are far fewer books the other way around:

How shall I ever find the grains of truth embedded in all this mass of paper? I asked myself, and in despair began running my eye up and down the long list of titles. Even the names of the books gave me food for thought. Sex and its nature might well attract doctors and biologists; but what was surprising and difficult of explanation was the fact that sex—woman, that is to say—also attracts agreeable essayists, light-fingered novelists, young men who have taken the M.A. degree; men who have taken no degree; men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women.

It’s one of my favourite books, so I’m looking forward to seeing what Andrew makes of it.

My commonplace booklet

I discovered these on the faded back of an old postcard that had been pinned to the notice board of an office I used to have.

Techniques of argument

  1. Avoiding giving evidence
  2. Using carefully selected evidence
  3. Over-extending your opponent’s argument
  4. Appealing to ‘authority’, epistemic or otherwise
  5. Appearing to be clever
  6. Sarcasm, innuendo, etc.
  7. Appealing to people’s prejudice
  8. Asking rhetorical questions
  9. Appealing to your opponent’s vanity

In my time I have been guilty of #2,3,6 and 8. I tried #5, but it didn’t work (because I’m not).

This Blog is also available as an email three days a week. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays delivered to your inbox at 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already! hr

Friday 5 April, 2024

Anyone for truffles?

Provence (where else?)

Quote of the Day

”A toy car is a projection of a real car, made small enough for a child’s hand and imagination to grasp. A real car is a projection of a toy car, made large enough for an adult’s hand and imagination to grasp.”

  • Michael Frayn

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

George Lewis | Burgundy Street Blues | Acker Bilk & his Band (1965)


Long Read of the Day

 Angus Deaton: Rethinking My Economics

This is one of the most encouraging things I’ve read this week — a great economist thinking out loud about how he’s been wrong . I wish more people in public life could do this.

Economics has achieved much; there are large bodies of often nonobvious theoretical understandings and of careful and sometimes compelling empirical evidence. The profession knows and understands many things. Yet today we are in some disarray. We did not collectively predict the financial crisis and, worse still, we may have contributed to it through an overenthusiastic belief in the efficacy of markets, especially financial markets whose structure and implications we understood less well than we thought. Recent macroeconomic events, admittedly unusual, have seen quarrelling experts whose main point of agreement is the incorrectness of others. Economics Nobel Prize winners have been known to denounce each other’s work at the ceremonies in Stockholm, much to the consternation of those laureates in the sciences who believe that prizes are given for getting things right.

Like many others, I have recently found myself changing my mind, a discomfiting process for someone who has been a practicing economist for more than half a century. I will come to some of the substantive topics, but I start with some general failings. I do not include the corruption allegations that have become common in some debates. Even so, economists, who have prospered mightily over the past half century, might fairly be accused of having a vested interest in capitalism as it currently operates. I should also say that I am writing about a (perhaps nebulous) mainstream, and that there are many nonmainstream economists.

He thinks economics as a discipline had been wrong in:

  1. ignoring the role of power in economic (and real) life.
  2. stopping thinking about philosophy and ethics — and especially equating well-being with money or consumption, missing much of what matters to people.
  3. being obsessed with efficiency. (The engineers who run tech companies have the same destructive obsession.)
  4. having an obsession with empirical methods that focus attention on local effects, and away from potentially important but slow-acting mechanisms that operate with long and variable lags.
  5. Lacking humility in the face of the complexity of the real world.

Books, etc.

The Miseducation of Kara Swisher

Nice demolition job by Edward Ongweso Jr. on the noted tech columnist’s apologia for an over-credulous life.

Though she’d been covering the industry for decades in the likes of the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, Swisher could not understand how our enlightened stewards of innovation would capitulate so quickly to an authoritarian-in-waiting. “Welcome to the brave new world,” she concluded. “Yeah, you can say it: Fuckfuckfuck.”

This apparent about-face of Silicon Valley prompted Swisher to undertake some agonized soul-searching, the results of which have been published as Burn Book: A Tech Love Story, a tortured and tortuous memoir that, in remixing swaths of past reporting and commentary, as well as regurgitating tales she’s told ad nauseam, tries to answer two burning questions: How did Silicon Valley end up in that room with Trump? And, more importantly, how did a tech journalist as good and uncompromising as Kara Swisher fail to anticipate this turn to the dark side?

The long and short of it is that Swisher is not a good journalist — or, framed more generously, that she thrived in an industry with remarkably low standards for which we are still paying the price. For decades, tech journalism and criticism has primarily consisted of glowing gadget reviews, laudatory profiles, and reprinted press releases, all of it colored by Silicon Valley’s self-aggrandizing vision of itself as a laboratory of a brighter future.

This is largely identical to what Swisher admits to having believed up until 2016.


My commonplace booklet

How to interview a tech man-child

An object lesson from Don Lemon in how to do it properly as he politely exposes the slippery, callow gaucheness of the world’s richest man.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Neo-Utilitarians Are Utter Philistines Enjoyable rant by Justin Smith-Ruiu.

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Wednesday 3 April, 2024

In the sticks…

In the wilds of Donegal. What estate agents, those masters of euphemism, would call “a development opportunity”.

Quote of the Day

”I think that maybe if women and children were in charge we would get somewhere.”

  • James Thurber

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler | Ahead Of The Game


Long Read of the Day

Trump’s 5-Step Fascist Plan

Robert Reich in sombre mood. His question: how could Trump actually turn America into a fascist state?

His answer: In five steps, which he’s already signalled he intends to take.

The steps, in a nutshell:

  1. Use threats of violence to gain power.
  2. Consolidate power after taking office.
  3. Demonize a group of people and establish a police state to round them up into detention camps.
  4. Jail the opposition.
  5. Undermine the free press.

If you haven’t been following what’s going on in the US, you probably think this is scare-mongering. If so, maybe you should have a look at Project 2025: Building now for a conservative victory through policy, personnel, and training. It’s a detailed plan for a comprehensive takeover.

When Trump came to power in 2016, he hadn’t expected to win, and so had no plan for governing. Hence the chaos of his first administration. If he wins this year, though, he would come into office with a plan. And, as Robert Reich points out on his blog (and in this video, it all looks remarkably like a plan that someone else adopted in Germany in the mid- to late-1930s.

In his remarkable book, How Democracy Ends, my friend David Runciman argued that democracies never fail backwards but forwards (i.e. in some new way). The implication was that looking for models in Europe’s decline into fascism is misguided. I’m beginning to wonder if that was too complacent a judgement.

Books, etc.

This arrived today. I’ve been looking forward to it. Neil is the DeepMind Professor of Machine Learning in the Cambridge Computer Lab and one of the most thoughtful experts on ‘AI’ I know. It comes out in the UK on June 6.

Chart of the Day

‘MMLU’ stands for Massive Multitask Language Understanding. It’s defined as

”a new benchmark designed to measure knowledge acquired during pretraining by evaluating models exclusively in zero-shot and few-shot settings. This makes the benchmark more challenging and more similar to how we evaluate humans. The benchmark covers 57 subjects across STEM, the humanities, the social sciences, and more. It ranges in difficulty from an elementary level to an advanced professional level, and it tests both world knowledge and problem solving ability. Subjects range from traditional areas, such as mathematics and history, to more specialized areas like law and ethics. The granularity and breadth of the subjects makes the benchmark ideal for identifying a model’s blind spots”.

What the chart suggests is that powerful LLMs are proliferating — and that CO2 emissions and water consumption are increasing proportionately.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Willie Nelson and Kermit the Frog sing Rainbow Connection!

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Monday 1 April, 2024


As regular readers will know, I am trying to re-learn the art of black-and-white photography, after years and years of working in colour. B&W requires one to ‘see’ things differently — to look for structure, contrast, subtle changes in light and shadow.

This gate would look banal in colour, and yet it struck me as interesting when I passed it yesterday.

Quote of the Day

”If God wanted us to fly, He would have given us tickets.”

  • Mel Brooks

(Came to mind while reading some fatuous nonsense about flying cars.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Namadingo Ft. Giddes Chalamanda | Linny Hoo


Enchanting song by an extraordinary musician.

Thanks to Anne Chapel for suggesting it.

Remembering Ross

Ross Anderson died unexpectedly in his sleep last Thursday, leaving a large group of us devastated. He was one of those unforgettable people — fabulously erudite, generous with his knowledge and friendship, fiercely independent, and fearless. He had a kind of flinty integrity that was wholly admirable, which meant that he was often a thorn in the side of university, governmental and academic establishments, who discovered that he was no pushover.

He was a Fellow of the Royal Society and a recipient of the British Computer Society’s Ada Lovelace Medal. He was a world authority on computer security, cybercrime and cryptography. He was Professor of Security Engineering at Cambridge, and leaves behind a remarkable cohort of PhD students who were lucky enough to have him as a supervisor.

Many people found him formidable and indeed sometimes forbidding. He didn’t do small talk. And yet when you were lucky enough to get to know him (as I was) he was great company. He and I used to walk round the ‘800’ Wood near Cambridge with his two lovely dogs, deep in conversation about the sordid ingenuity of cyber-criminals, the short-sightedness of academic administrators, the intrusiveness of national security agencies, as well as about Celtic folk music of which he knew a lot. (He was a piper and shared my interest in Uileann piping.)

I learned such a lot from those conversations. Ross changed the way I looked at computing, and alerted me to the political economy of the technology which has shaped my thinking ever since. He always spoke his mind — which is why when an email from him would arrive at 8am on Sunday mornings I knew that he had read my Observer column and had something to say about it, and accordingly braced myself before reading further.

The last time I saw him was a few weeks ago, when we both snuck into a talk given by Matt Clifford (who has become Rishi Sunak’s go-to man on “AI Safety”). He had been invited by a student group, and Ross and I were the only two grizzled veterans in the room. Before Clifford embarked on his boosterish talk, I got out my pen to take notes, and then noticed that Ross had opened his MacBook. So I put my pen away. He always took the most detailed and accurate notes of any event he attended, and I knew that if I needed to check something later about Clifford’s performance, Ross’s record would provide the evidence I needed.

Ross was furious about Cambridge University’s remorseless determination to force academics to retire at 67, and he had been mounting a campaign against the policy. At 5pm on the day he died, he had an email conversation with one of his colleagues, Jon Crowcroft, about the possibility of harnessing generative AI to add spice to the campaign. Ross sent Jon a link to a song he had just prompted to create.

As Jon observed afterwards, it could almost serve as an obituary.

Ross’s death marks the passing of the last of the five computer scientists who made Cambridge such a pioneering centre of research in the field — Maurice Wilkes, Roger Needham, David Wheeler, Karen Spärck Jones and Ross.

May he rest in peace. We were lucky to have known him.

Frank Stajano, one of Ross’s colleagues in the Computer Lab, has written a lovely tribute to him in the blog that Ross and his colleagues have been running since 2006.

Long Read of the Day

What Have Fourteen Years of Conservative Rule Done to Britain?

You know the answer, but this sharp New Yorker essay by Sam Knight gives some useful detail.


Some people insisted that the past decade and a half of British politics resists satisfying explanation. The only way to think about it is as a psychodrama enacted, for the most part, by a small group of middle-aged men who went to élite private schools, studied at the University of Oxford, and have been climbing and chucking one another off the ladder of British public life—the cursus honorum, as Johnson once called it—ever since. The Conservative Party, whose history goes back some three hundred and fifty years, aids this theory by not having anything as vulgar as an ideology. “They’re not on a mission to do X, Y, or Z,” as a former senior adviser explained. “You win and you govern because we are better at it, right?”

Another way to think about these years is to consider them in psychological, or theoretical, terms. In “Heroic Failure,” the Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole explains Brexit by describing Britain’s fall from imperial nation to “occupied colony” of the E.U., and the rise of a powerful English nationalism as a result. Last year, Abby Innes, a scholar at the London School of Economics, published “Late Soviet Britain: Why Materialist Utopias Fail,” which argues that, since Thatcher, Britain’s political mainstream has become as devoted to particular ideas about running the state—a default commitment to competition, markets, and forms of privatization—as Brezhnev’s U.S.S.R. ever was. “The resulting regime,” Innes writes, “has proved anything but stable.”

Read on. It’s perceptive, realistic … and depressing (if you live in the UK).

How did a developer of graphics cards for gamers become the third most valuable firm on the planet?

Yesterday’s Observer column:

A funny thing happened on our way to the future. It took place recently in a huge sports arena in San Jose, California, and was described by some wag as “AI Woodstock”. But whereas that original music festival had attendees who were mainly stoned on conventional narcotics, the 11,000 or so in San Jose were high on the Kool-Aid so lavishly provided by the tech industry.

They were gathered to hear a keynote address at a technology conference given by Jensen Huang, the founder of computer chip-maker Nvidia, who is now the Taylor Swift of Silicon Valley. Dressed in his customary leather jacket and white-soled trainers, he delivered a bravura 50-minute performance that recalled Steve Jobs in his heyday, though with slightly less slick delivery. The audience, likewise, recalled the fanboys who used to queue for hours to be allowed into Jobs’s reality distortion field, except that the Huang fans were not as attentive to the cues he gave them to applaud.

Still, it made for interesting viewing. Huang is an engaging speaker and he has built a remarkable company in the years since 1993, when he first sketched his idea for Nvidia in a Silicon Valley diner. And the audience were in awe of him because they regard him as a man who saw the future long before they did, and hoped to catch a glimpse of what might be coming next.

And in this they were not disappointed…

Do read the whole thing

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Friday 29 March, 2024

Railway sleeper

My homage to Annie Ernaux’s Exteriors!

Quote of the Day

”Tragedy is what happens to me; comedy is what happens to you.”

  • Mel Brooks

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Eels | Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues (Road Trip)


An old favourite.

Long Read of the Day

Capitalism Can’t Solve Climate Change

Really good piece in Time by Brett Christophers of Uppsala University.

Like everyone else I suffer from confirmation bias, which explains why I found this interesting. I’ve been arguing for yonks that we need a theory of incompetent systems — ones that can’t fix themselves — to explain the mess we’re in.

The author’s basic argument is that relying on the capitalist system to avoid climate catastrophe is a toxic example of magical thinking.

As Christophers observes,

How profitable are wind and solar power generation? What sort of returns do investors earn? Inevitably, there is no single, consistent answer: returns vary – often considerably – both historically and geographically. But most analyses of the issue conclude that an internal rate of return of around 5–8 percent would be what investors on average expect and achieve.

Little wonder, then, that companies accustomed to much higher returns than this serially thumb their noses at renewables. Most notable here are the big U.S. oil and gas companies, which typically do not proceed with new hydrocarbon projects unless returns of a minimum of 15 percent are anticipated. Asked at his company’s 2015 annual meeting why Exxon continued to snub solar and wind, CEO Rex Tillerson responded witheringly, ‘we choose not to lose money on purpose’…

Another interesting thing is that the one country in the planet that is making most progress on building renewables capacity is China.

IEA, for its part, expects China to continue to be the sole meaningful over-achiever. It recently revised upwards by 728 GW its forecast for total global renewables capacity additions in the period 2023–27. China’s share of this upward revision? Almost 90 percent…

Worth your time.

My commonplace booklet

The word ‘populism’ is a gift to the far right – four reasons why we should stop using it 

Good advice from Aurelien Mondon and Alex Yates.

And the ‘four reasons’?

  1. It masks the threat posed by the far right
  2. It exaggerates the strength of the far right
  3. It legitimises far-right politics
  4. It blocks democratic progress by distracting us

Yep to all of those.


Something I noticed while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • From the you-couldn’t-make it-up department.

Saudi Arabia was on Wednesday appointed chair of the United Nations’ top forum for women’s rights and gender equality. [


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