Saturday 28 November, 2020

100 Not Out! — my lockdown diary — is out on Kindle. If you’re interested you can get it here

The Mask

Venice, 2010.

Quote of the Day

“There can be no law if we were to invoke one code of international conduct for those who oppose us and another for our friends.”

  • President Eisenhower, speech on the Suez crisis, 31 October 1956

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Chris Rea | Ace of Hearts


Long read of the Day

You have to make a proper appointment with this — the piece David Foster Wallace wrote for Rolling Stone after spending a week on the campaign trail with John McCain in 2000. It’s long, long, long, but as beautifully written as anything DFW ever wrote. And it’s the best piece of campaign reporting I’ve ever read — and I’ve read a lot over the years. (The only other campaign reporter who comes close is Hunter Thompson.)

DFW starts with a detailed account of McCain’s horrific experience as a Prison of War in Vietnam, and his refusal to accept a release because that would have given him a privilege over other servicemen who had been captured before him. Acceptance would have broken the Code in which he believed. For that refusal the Commandant, right there in the office, had guards break his ribs, re-break his arm and knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. Now read on…

But that moment in the Hoa Lo office in ’68 – right before he refused, with all his basic normal human self-interest howling at him – that moment is hard to blow off. All week, all through MI and SC and all the tedium and cynicism and paradox of the campaign, that moment seems to underlie McCain’s “greater than self-interest” line, moor it, give it a weird sort of reverb that’s hard to ignore. The fact is that John McCain is a genuine hero of the only kind Vietnam now has to offer, a hero not because of what he did but because of what he suffered – voluntarily, for a Code. This gives him the moral authority both to utter lines about causes beyond self-interest and to expect us, even in this age of Spin and lawyerly cunning, to believe he means them. Literally: “moral authority,” that old cliche, much like so many other cliche’s – “service,” “honor,” “duty,” “patriotism” – that have become just mostly words now, slogans invoked by men in nice suits who want something from us. The John McCain we’ve seen, though – arguing for his doomed campaign-finance bill on the Senate floor in ’98, calling his colleagues crooks to their faces on C-SPAN, talking openly about a bought-and-paid-for government on Charlie Rose in July ’99, unpretentious and bright as hell in the Iowa debates and New Hampshire Town Hall Meetings – something about him made a lot of us feel the guy wanted something different from us, something more than votes or money, something old and maybe corny but with a weird achy pull to it like a whiff of a childhood smell or a name on the tip of your tongue, something that would make us think about what terms like “service” and “sacrifice” and “honor” might really refer to, like whether they actually stood for something, maybe. About whether anything past well-Spun self-interest might be real, was ever real, and if so then what happened? These, for the most part, are not lines of thinking that the culture we’ve grown up in has encouraged Young Voters to pursue. Why do you suppose that is?

Like I say, it’s a mighty long read. But it leaves one musing in the silence afterwards. And thinking again about Trump’s attempt to belittle McCain way back in 2015. (“He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”) This from a guy who dodged the draft using the pretext of a bone spur. (38% of people have the same bone growth that kept Trump out of Vietnam.)

The other thought is the tragedy of DFW’s death at the age of 46.

Et in Arcadia non sum

Pithy comment today on Jonty Bloom’s Blog

The news that Arcadia the British store group seems to be about to go into administration raises many issues about business in the UK. High Streets across the country will take another massive hit, with more empty stores adding to their misery and 13,000 staff could be out of work when unemployment is already soaring.

Sir Phillip Green on the other hand will still be a billionaire, or to be more precise his wife will be; she after all owns the company. Both are based in Monaco, not for the tax benefits you understand, but as Sir Phillip told Parliament because he found the schools there were so good.

We will have to take his word for that but the wider issue is how the owners of businesses can take billions out of a company and then watch it fail. Sir Phillip is not the first and he won’t be the last to do this. Accountants, lawyers and auditors arrange and sign off these deals, they are all perfectly legal.

But stripping cash from a business, loading it with debt, failing to fund the pension pot properly and then wringing your hands as thousands of loyal workers lose everything; is not a business model any country should be proud of. Not least because at the end it is the state and its taxpayers who pick up the bill.

I particularly like the effrontery of living in Monaco because of its excellent schools. Who knew?

But there is a bigger point. The liberal democracy to which so many of us want to return to after Trump and his authoritarian peers fade away is the same system that permitted, enabled — and sometimes even valorised — the kind of looting by private equity of serious enterprises like Arcadia. Is that really what we will return to after the pandemic? And if not, what are democratic institutions going to do about it?

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • A remarkable optical illusion. Link. Eventually, this convinced me that the rotating circles didn’t move. HT to Jason Kottke.

  • Roadside America. On a series of road trips across the US, John Margolies recorded the fading remnants of a culture of roadside architecture which was under threat from freeway building, changing taste and corporate fast food. His photos of the bizarre, the surreal and the often downright brilliant examples of twentieth century popular architecture are, well, fantastic. [Link

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Friday 27 November, 2020

100 Not Out! — my lockdown diary — is now a Kindle book. Link

The inside cover of David Foster Wallace’s annotated copy of Don DeLillo’s ‘Players’.
Image Credit: Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

From Sue Halpern’s NYOB essay “What the iPad Can’t Do”, June 8, 2010.

Quote of the Day

”Here indeed was his one really notable talent. He slept more than other other President, whether by day or night. Nero fiddled, but Coolidge only snored.”

  • H.L. Mencken on Calvin Coolidge

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

O Magnum Mysterium | Morten Lauridsen | King’s College choir | Cambridge 2009 | Link

Staggeringly beautiful. What a way to begin the day!

It was new to me: many thanks to the generous reader who suggested it.

Long read of the Day

Rainbow in the Dark

Characteristically thoughtful essay by Drew Austin. Here’s how it begins…

I just finished Jonathan Crary’s excellent book 24/7, which is ostensibly about contemporary sleep and 24/7 culture but really about how capitalism expands to fill every available crevice while overriding humans’ biological characteristics—with sleep being the final impenetrable frontier. Early in the book, Crary discusses the transformational role of electric light in 19th century cities: “The broad deployment of urban street lights by the 1880s had achieved two interrelated goals: it reduced long-standing anxieties about various dangers associated with nocturnal darkness, and it expanded the time frame and thus the profitability of many economic activities.” That passage rings particularly true this November, because the onset of daylight savings time—which always catches me off guard—felt especially suffocating this year, intensified by restrictions on indoor activity and New York’s soft curfew, both of which curtailed key sources of relief and made the month feel really dark. As I observed during the spring’s heavier lockdown, cities once again feel somewhat rural now: After night falls, there’s little to do, so everyone goes home. As Crary observes, modern technology enabled us to overcome our natural rhythms and limitations, and cities became focal points of that heightened activity—but this year has forced them to cool off somewhat…

Alastair Campbell on playing football with Maradona

A side of Tony Blair’s spin-doctor I never knew. Link

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Digital Tools I wish existed. Perceptive and interesting list by Jonathan Borichevskiy. As someone who teeters permanently on the brink of information overload, I feel his pain. Lots of nice ideas in his post. Clay Shirky once said that there’s no such thing as information overload; there’s just filter failure. That’s too glib. Link

  • Turning the Body Into a Wire. Sounds daft, but actually a very interesting essay on IEEE Spectrum (a serious professional publication) on how to make pacemakers and other kinds of healthcare electronics kit safer from hacking. Link.

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!

Thursday 26 November, 2020

100 Not Out — my lockdown diary — is now out in a Kindle version!

You can get it here.

The World Wide Cobweb

In our garden, one frosty morning.

Quote of the Day

“If I could explain it to the average person I wouldn’t have been worth the Nobel prize.”

  • Physicist Richard Feynman

(Not entirely correct: remember his famous explication of the O-ring failure that caused the Challenger disaster.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Joan Baez & Mary Chapin Carpenter sing “Catch the Wind” Live in concert



Dave Winer has a nice post on his blog:

I’m sure we’ve lost a lot in the last four years that we don’t yet know about, especially in 2020. But the United States is still the United States. Journalism tends to make it appear worse than it is. In day to day life, at least where I live, things are much the same as before. The store shelves are still full. You can still buy a wonderful meal. Want to buy a car? You can. The roads are clear. Gas stations have gas. Supply chains work. The health care system is a mess, as before, but much worse right now. The laws for the most part are enforced (except for you know who and his friends). Western civilization created and tested three highly effective vaccines in record time. We did this. To Americans who hate elites, if you understand these sentences, you might want to think again about living in a country that values education, science and math enough to get these things done, pronto, when needed, to save your life. Yours. You. Now we’re going to try to get our political system to work for us again. Maybe you can possibly not get in the way of that? I know that’s a lot to hope for. :-)

It is.

Long read of the Day

Neoliberalism: the idea that swallowed the world

Very useful Guardianessay by Stephen Metcalf on an important concept that has become debased through casual usage and by being ‘weaponised’ by all and sundry.

In short, “neoliberalism” is not simply a name for pro-market policies, or for the compromises with finance capitalism made by failing social democratic parties. It is a name for a premise that, quietly, has come to regulate all we practise and believe: that competition is the only legitimate organising principle for human activity…

The dog that didn’t bark yesterday

From Jonty Bloom’s blog:

The dog that didn’t bark in yesterday’s statement from the Chancellor was the word Brexit. It didn’t get a mention yet it hangs over the economy like a dark cloud, at least according to the Office for Budget Responsibility; the Government’s own number crunchers.

I thought the figures sounded pretty good, a no deal Brexit will end up with the economy being 2% smaller than it would otherwise have been. Not too bad really, until I realised that was 2% on top of the 4% hit from Brexit with a Free Trade Agreement. So 6% in total if the talks which only have weeks to run end up without a deal.

To put that in context, 2% is about our annual average growth rate in the last ten years, or our entire annual defence budget or three times our foreign aid budget. 6% is three years growth, or three times what we spend on defence or a more than half what we spend on the NHS. That money will have to come from somewhere else, higher taxes or lower spending but will we notice?

Those losses don’t come as one hit but as slightly slower growth over many years. Will we still be blaming Brexit for slightly lower growth in, 1, 2 or 5 years time? I doubt it.

Why are we so obsessed with ‘saving Christmas’?

Great essay by Tim Harford.

We said our goodbyes to my mother on Christmas Eve 1996. She had died earlier in December after a long and painful illness, but when the end came it was sudden. It can’t have been straightforward to arrange a funeral service on Christmas Eve, the churches being put to other uses, but somehow my father managed it; the children’s stockings were filled as well.

I think I speak with some knowledge of what does or does not ruin Christmas.

It has been baffling, then, to watch the speculation in the British press about whether Boris Johnson will “save Christmas”, as though he were some over-promoted elf in a seasonal movie. (It is, admittedly, a role he is better qualified to play than that of prime minister.) Apparently, the thinking is that if the country is still in lockdown in late December, Christmas is ruined. If lockdown is lifted, as expected, in early December, Christmas is saved.

Given how desperate Boris Johnson is to be liked, my money is on the latter scenario. What makes this so absurd is that in the big scheme of things, Christmas doesn’t matter. Don’t get me wrong: I love Christmas as much as the next man, even if the next man is a reformed Ebenezer Scrooge. But when it comes to catching up with my family, I’d rather not risk giving everyone the unintended gift of Covid-19, whether or not it is legal to do so.

As for the economy, the Christmas boom is smaller than you might think. Joel Waldfogel, author of Scroogenomics, estimates that for every £100 we spend across a typical year in the UK, just over 50 pence is part of the December Christmas boom.

Of course, some retailers and restaurants will be badly hit if Christmas spending is prevented by lockdown rules. But we should be honest about the situation: large sections of the economy have already been devastated, and that would be true with or without legal restrictions. Few people want to attend pantomimes in a pandemic.

Lovely piece. Worth reading in full.

Why I use BBEdit

I’ve used a marvellous plain-text editor — BBEdit — for many years. (All my journalism is written with it.) Bare Bones Software, the outfit that created it, has just announced that it now runs natively on the new Apple M1 CPU. I’m not surprised: they’ve always been ahead of the game.

Turns out, I’m not the only fan. John Gruber is another; I just came across this story on his blog:

I was several hundred words into my iPhone 12 review last month, went to get another cup of coffee, came back, and boom, the MacBook Pro I was using had kernel panicked. This machine hadn’t kernel panicked in years. It hasn’t kernel panicked again since. Murphy’s Law was trying to screw me.

I hadn’t saved what I’d written yet. Now, it was only a few hundred words, but they were an important few hundred words, the ones that got me started. The words that got the wheels turning, that got momentum going.

Rebooted. Took a sip of coffee. Logged in.

Looked at BBEdit. There it was. Right where I left off.

That’s BBEdit.


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • The vintage beauty of Soviet control rooms. Just thinking: they’d make terrific Zoom backgrounds. Hmmm… Link

  • How to get good at chess. Lovely piece by Stephen Moss. Link (Thinks: I need to get to work: my 7yo grandson has taken it up and challenged his Grandpa to an online match.)

  • What the former Home Office Permanent Secretary & GCHQ Director Sir David Omand thinks of the Priti Patel scandal. Link. Marvellously forthright and spot on.

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Wednesday 25 November, 2020

100 Not Out, my lockdown diary, is now in the Kindle store!

You can get it here.

King’s in silhouette

Quote of the Day

“This could be the first Thanksgiving when you’d be better off being a turkey.”

  • Dave Pell

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Rolling Stones | Start Me Up


Microsoft bought some of the rights to use this at the launch of Windows 95 (for an undisclosed but massive sum), presumably because it was the only operating system in the world where you had to press the ‘Start’ button to turn it off.

Long read of the Day

Surveillance Capitalism Wasn’t Built by Powerful Companies Alone

How societal norms and prevailing economic models still contribute to the development of harmful technologies.

By Anouska Ruhack


This surveillance economy is made up not only of the powerful tech companies but also of the underlying assumptions, beliefs and economic models that reinforce them. Unless we scrutinize and question these beliefs, we risk merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic…

What Facebook Fed the Baby Boomers

Charlie Warzel has a terrific piece about what Facebook does to ‘ordinary’ people of a certain generation (mine). He asked two people to let him access their Facebook accounts to see what appears in their feeds, because it would be very different from what appears in the feed of a well-known New York Times journalist. It was.

Such a clever and simple idea. Here’s how it begins…

In mid-October I asked two people I’d never met to give me their Facebook account passwords for three weeks leading up to and after Election Day. I wanted to immerse myself in the feeds of a type of person who has become a trope of sorts in our national discussion about politics and disinformation: baby boomers with an attachment to polarizing social media.

I went looking for older Americans — not full-blown conspiracy theorists, trolls or partisan activists — whose news consumption has increased sharply in the last few years on Facebook. Neither of the two people I settled on described themselves as partisans. Both used to identify as conservatives slowly drifting leftward until Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party offered a final push. Both voted for Joe Biden this year in part because of his promise to reach across the aisle. Both bemoaned the toxicity of our current politics.

Every day, Jim Young, 62, opens up his Facebook app and heads into an information hellscape. His news feed is a dizzying mix of mundane middle-class American life and high-octane propaganda.

Great read throughout. Essentially, like many (perhaps most) people of their generation they signed up for Facebook for innocent reasons — like wanting to connect with people from their past, family, etc. And then, slowly, they started to discover that some of their friends were sharing weird stuff, and sometimes becoming stranger by the day…

That’s what ‘user engagement’ curation does to you.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • What some writers are (or could be) earning on Substack. Not this one, though. Link

  • On (not) leaving San Francisco. Lovely photo essay by Om Malik.

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Tuesday 24 November, 2020

This is such a useful visualisation by Ian M. Mackay making the point that there is no single way of being sure that you’ve stopped the virus getting through.

Quote of the Day

“Meanwhile, Twitter and Facebook said at the weekend they would transfer control of the @POTUS account, the official one for the US president, to the Biden administration on January 20.”

  • Financial Times

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel: Where’er you walk | Semele HWV 58 / Act 2 | Bryn Terfel


tl;dr: An AI that sums up research papers in a sentence

From Nature.

The creators of a scientific search engine have unveiled software that automatically generates one-sentence summaries of research papers, which they say could help scientists to skim-read papers faster.

The free tool, which creates what the team calls TLDRs (the common Internet acronym for ‘Too long, didn’t read’), was activated this week for search results at Semantic Scholar, a search engine created by the non-profit Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) in Seattle, Washington. For the moment, the software generates sentences only for the ten million computer-science papers covered by Semantic Scholar, but papers from other disciplines should be getting summaries in the next month or so, once the software has been fine-tuned, says Dan Weld, who manages the Semantic Scholar group at AI2.

You can test it by submitting an Abstract of a paper here.

I tried it, by feeding it the Abstract of the landmark 2013 paper by Michal Kosinski, David Stillwell, and Thore Graepel, “Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior”, which reads:

We show that easily accessible digital records of behavior, Facebook Likes, can be used to automatically and accurately predict a range of highly sensitive personal attributes including: sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age, and gender. The analysis presented is based on a dataset of over 58,000 volunteers who provided their Facebook Likes, detailed demographic profiles, and the results of several psychometric tests. The proposed model uses dimensionality reduction for preprocessing the Likes data, which are then entered into logistic/linear regression to predict individual psychodemographic profiles from Likes. The model correctly discriminates between homosexual and heterosexual men in 88% of cases, African Americans and Caucasian Americans in 95% of cases, and between Democrat and Republican in 85% of cases. For the personality trait “Openness,” prediction accuracy is close to the test–retest accuracy of a standard personality test. We give examples of associations between attributes and Likes and discuss implications for online personalization and privacy.

The ‘generated TLDR’ reads:

“We show that easily accessible digital records of behavior, Facebook Likes, can be used to automatically and accurately predict a range of highly sensitive personal attributes including”

That’s not a demanding test, because the Abstract is a good summary of the paper. It’s be better to test it on more abstruse stuff — like preprint Abstracts in Still… I can see it being useful for busy bloggers who aspire to curation!

Australian predictive policing tool for kids

Great blog post by Cory.

Predictive policing tools work really well: they perfectly predict what the police will do. Specifically, they predict whom the police will accuse of crimes, and since only accused people are convicted, they predict who will be convicted, too.

In that sense, predictive policing predicts “crime” – the crimes that the police prosecute are the crimes that the computer tells them to seek out and make arrests over. But that doesn’t mean that predictive policing actually fights actual crime.

Instead, predictive policing serves as empirical facewash for bias. Take last year’s biased policing statistics, give them to a machine learning model, and ask it where the crime will be next year, and it will tell you that next year’s crime will look much the same.

If the police then follow the oracle’s bidding and patrol the places they’re told to patrol and stop the people they’re told to stop, then yup, they will validate the prediction. Like all oracles, predictive policing only works when its self-fulfilling prophecy.

Michael Lewis: Why I live in Berkeley

Lovely little piece by one of my favourite writers. If I had to live in California I’d live in Berkeley too. Though I’d also like to have a weekend cottage in Carmel.

Hindsight: the only exact science

Steven Sinofsky used to be a senior Microsoft executive and is a knowledgeable blogger.

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!

Monday 23 November, 2020

Brass plate outside a Dutch Law Firm.

Taken long before anyone had heard of Rudy Guiliani.

Quote of the Day

“People always ask me the most ridiculous questions. They want to know, ‘How do you approach a role?’ Well, I don’t know. I approach it by first saying yes, then getting on with the bloody thing.”

  • Dame Edith Evans

Musical alternative to the radio news of the Day

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


Long read of the Day Why did Wikipedia’s competitors fail?

Marvellous Chapter (pdf) in Benjamin Mako Hill’s MIT dissertation.


We will not understand Covid until we give up debating it

Terrific essay by Tim Harford. Sample:

The mindset of the debater is not that of the calm seeker-of-truth. Opposing arguments are to be caricatured, statistics to be twisted, examples to be cherry-picked. The audience is to be entertained or even enraged as much as persuaded. Politics rewards anger and in-group loyalty.

When one is used to examining every scrap of evidence as possible ammunition, it becomes hard to use them to navigate towards a truly solid conclusion, or sometimes towards any conclusions at all: just think of Boris Johnson’s notorious pair of opinion columns, one arguing for Brexit and the other, unpublished, arguing the opposite. Such rhetorical gymnastics are familiar to anyone who has spent time in a debate club. They create the illusion of giving the pros and cons a thorough testing. But now that Brexit is happening, the illusion has faded; we realise the referendum barely scratched the surface of the real issues.

The thing about the Coronavirus is that it should have been different. Here we had a common enemy, impervious to spin and misinformation. “But it did not take long”, Harford writes, “for the polarisation to creep back in. Somehow we have now managed to start a culture war about a pandemic. There is a vociferous chorus of lockdown “sceptics” and Covid alarmists.”

The alarmists have natural allies in the media’s love of tragic yet unrepresentative tales of young people slain by the mysterious illness, or worrying reports of “long Covid” symptoms presented without any sense of whether such symptoms are common.

The so-called sceptics, who lack any of the doubt about jumping to conclusions that defines the proper use of that word, are—if anything—even louder. They have moved steadily from one talking point to another: that the virus might be vastly more common—and thus less deadly—than it seemed; that a kind of herd immunity might be in easy reach; that people were “dying with” rather than “dying of” Covid-19; that the virus was mutating to become less dangerous; and most recently, that the number of cases was dramatically overstated because tests were producing so many false positives.

There is something in most of these claims, from both sides. But my point is not that if there is truth on both sides, the centre ground must be right. It is that this grand “clash of ideas” is not bringing us any closer to understanding the truth.

He’s right. And, en passant, the example of both Brexit and the virus show up the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor for what it is: a delusion.

The implications of Substack’s success

This post — on Tanner Greer’s blog, The Scholar’s Stage — is interesting, especially if (like me) you’re interested in media-ecology and the public sphere. Its subject is the way Substack (the platform that sends out the email version of this blog) is changing the ecosystem. Greer doesn’t like this direction of travel.

Substack is the medium of the solo artist. High-rolling soloists at that. Like Patreon, Onlyfans, book publishing generally, or any other medium where creators connect with the masses sans bundled packaging, Substack has (and will continue to have) a power-law distribution. The biggest names will earn in their hundred of thousands; the median user is going to scrape away $100-200 a month, at best. If measured in page hits instead of dollars, the same could have been said for the high and low tiers of the old blogosphere as well. Then the world’s most popular independent writers occasionally drove national news cycles. After a few weeks of feeble posting the vast majority of bloggers in the lower tier gave up writing altogether (by 2009 Technocrati was reporting that there were 133 million blogs in the world—and a full 95% of them had been abandoned).2

However, the blogosphere allowed for a healthy medium layer of independent writers that existed between nationally prominent blogs and your next door neighbor’s defunct site on typepad. What allowed this middle tier to thrive? Other middle tier bloggers! Each writer was embedded in her own little archipelago of other writers all working on the same topics. It might be devoted to climate science, counterinsurgency theory, Black politics, New York fashion, Mormon Mommy blogging, Harry Potter themed slash fan-fiction, or something else altogether, but the archipelago was there. Other bloggers—along with a few of the long term commentators shared by the various blogs—were the intended audience of most pieces. Others’ pieces were the inspiration for one’s own. Bloggers were nodes on a network, and it was the network that sustained them.

Substack, viewed as a blogging platform, is a lot like Medium — a would-be walled garden, though run by less unscrupulous folks than own the big social-media platforms. I’m temperamentally suspicious of them, as I am of any platform that is, ultimately, subject to the whim of a proprietor. So although I use both Medium and Substack, everything I write therein is also published verbatim on my ‘live’ blog, which is completely under my control, and for whose hosting I pay with my own money. For me, Substack provided merely a convenient and reliable way of sending out the email version of what really matters — the live blog on the open Web.

Both Substack and Medium have fairly honourable business models and have facilities whereby writers can get paid, if they wish to be. (I don’t.) And that’s a good thing (though it leads to the power-law outcome that Greer mentions). But it also has the downside in terms of the public sphere that, ultimately, their writing exists mainly inside a walled, members-only, garden. A genteel garden, but still a private garden. That’s why I’ve always followed Dave Winer’s lead: write wherever you like, but always make sure your stuff is also published on the Web.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • One travel job that is booming during the pandemic is pet delivery specialist. Link

  • 22 Face Masks We Actually Like to Wear. Predictable: mask-fashion is here to stay. Link

  • How to choose and maintain the best masks for use against COVID-19. Not fashion but official guidance from CDC and WHO. And it seems there are only seven. Link

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!

Sunday 22 November, 2020

Analogue nostalgia

Flowers as seen on the ground-glass screen of a Rolleiflex by an iPhone.

Anniversaries and what they evoke

57 years ago today, JFK was assassinated. Like everyone else, I can remember exactly where I was when I heard the news.

Yesterday was the centenary of ‘Bloody Sunday’ (one of the two such Sundays in recent Irish history).

Here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia account of the event in 1920:

Bloody Sunday (Irish: Domhnach na Fola) was a day of violence in Dublin on 21 November 1920, during the Irish War of Independence. More than 30 people were killed or fatally wounded.

The day began with an Irish Republican Army (IRA) operation, organised by Michael Collins, to assassinate the “Cairo Gang” – a group of undercover British intelligence agents working and living in Dublin. IRA operatives went to a number of addresses and killed or fatally wounded 15 men. Most were British Army officers, one was a Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) sergeant, and two were Auxiliaries responding to the attacks. At least two civilians were killed, but the status of some of those killed is unclear. Five others were wounded. The assassinations sparked panic among the British authorities, and many British agents fled to Dublin Castle for safety.

Later that afternoon, British forces raided a Gaelic football match in Croke Park. The RIC, supported by “Black and Tans”, Auxiliaries, and British soldiers, were sent to carry out a cordon and search operation. Without warning, these forces opened fire on the spectators and players, killing or fatally wounding 14 civilians and wounding at least sixty others. Two of those killed were children. Some of the RIC claimed they were fired at, and this was accepted by the British authorities. All other witnesses said the shooting was unprovoked, and a military inquiry concluded it was indiscriminate and excessive. The massacre further turned Irish public opinion against the British authorities.

The other ‘Bloody Sunday’ was in January 1972. Here’s the relevant excerpt from the Wikipedia page:

Bloody Sunday, or the Bogside Massacre, was a massacre on 30 January 1972 in the Bogside area of Derry, Northern Ireland, when British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civilians during a protest march against internment without trial. Fourteen people died: 13 were killed outright, while the death of another man four months later was attributed to his injuries. Many of the victims were shot while fleeing from the soldiers, and some were shot while trying to help the wounded. Other protesters were injured by shrapnel, rubber bullets, or batons, and two were run down by army vehicles. All of those shot were Catholics. The march had been organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). The soldiers were from the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment (“1 Para”), the same regiment implicated in the Ballymurphy massacre several months prior.

I’ve just watched the first episode of the new series of The Crown which opens with the murder, by the IRA, of Lord Mountbatten, a former Viceroy of India and Chief of the UK General Staff, who had a holiday house in County Sligo. That, plus the anniversary of the 1920 atrocity and memories of the 1972 one, led to two thoughts.

The first is the savagery of all of those three atrocities, and of the extent to which the 1972 massacre is still live in the memories of the people of Northern Ireland.

The second is a sense of wonder at the achievement of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to the savagery.

And then I thought of the cavalier way in which Boris Johnson and the Brexiteers are putting that fragile agreement at risk with their brinksmanship over negotiations with the EU. Giving power to this bunch of jokers was like entrusting the care of a delicate clock to a monkey.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Peter Carberry, Padraig McGovern, Seamus O’Kane | Brittany Winter School | 2015


Wonderful slow tune. Táimse im choladh is the first tune, I think.

Long read of the Day

The way we train AI is fundamentally flawed

TL;DR summary: The process used to build most of the machine-learning models we use today can’t tell if they will work in the real world or not. And yet we’re building a new world around them.


If you think Biden’s administration will rein in big tech, think again

My Observer column this morning.

As readers of this column know only too well, section 230 of the 1996 US Telecommunications Act is the clause that exempts tech platforms from legal liability for anything that users post on their platforms. It’s the nearest thing social media has to a kill switch. Pull it and their business models evaporate. Trump had been threatening to pull it before the election, but he lacked the attention span to be able to do anything about it. Biden, on the other hand, had already talked about it in January and would have people around him who knew what they were doing. So maybe we were going to get some real progress in getting tech giants under control.

And then he gets elected and what do we find? Biden’s transition eam is packed withtech industry insiders. Tom Sullivan, from Amazon, is earmarked for the Department of State. Mark Schwartz, also from Amazon, is heading for the Office of Management and Budget, as are Divya Kumaraiah from Airbnb and Brandon Belford from Lyft, the ride-hailing company. The US Treasury gets Nicole Isaac from LinkedIn, Microsoft’s department of spam, and Will Fields, who was Sidewalk Labs’ senior development associate. (Sidewalk Labs was the organiser of Google’s attempt – eventually cancelled – to turn Toronto’s waterfront into a data-geyser for surveillance capitalism.) The Environmental Protection Agency, a body that Trump looted and sidelined, gets Ann Dunkin, who is Dell’s chief technology officer. And so on.

Well, I thought, perusing this sordid list, at least there’s nobody from Facebook on it. How innocent can you be?…

Read on

The pandemic has made us even more dependent on a highly invasive technological ecosystem

Terrific OpEd by Ron Deibert in the Globe and Mail on the way panic-stricken adoption of online systems has resulted in a massive step-up in the level and intrusiveness of surveillance technology. Here’s how it begins:

My son is an undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia. Like many of his peers, he has seen his classes move online – and so have their exams.

Students in his program were recently required to consent to a remote exam invigilation software platform manufactured by a company called Proctorio. As with most tech companies, work-from-home measures and social isolation have been a boon to Proctorio: more than 2.5 million exams were proctored by the company in April, 2020, alone, a stunning 900-per-cent increase compared with April, 2019. Other companies in this space – such as ExamSoft, Examity and ProctorU – are enjoying similar surges in demand.

Once installed on a student’s device, applications like Proctorio can monitor students’ keystrokes, capture and record anything on their screens, track their web browsing, and even turn on cameras and microphones to record students’ faces, their surroundings and ambient sounds for evidence of cheating. Proctorio’s proprietary algorithms flag what it detects as “suspicious behavior” to faculty or teaching assistants (TAs) for follow up.

My son said using Proctorio made him feel “creeped out” and uncomfortable. Who can blame him?

It’s one thing to have a TA strolling up and down the aisles of an exam room. It’s quite another to force students to install spyware that tracks everything from their keystrokes to retina movements, sending that data down a mysterious black hole. Imagine having an omniscient, invisible robot looking over your shoulder, staring into your eyeballs, scrutinizing every movement, and scanning your bedroom – the entire time you’re taking an exam. Who could concentrate in those conditions? And yet, he had no choice: The course makes it mandatory…

It’s a great piece by a leading expert on the downsides of digital tech and in particular the surveillance it enables. And it highlights the way the institutional panic triggered by Covid has led universities — and employers, and other organisations everywhere to install and become reliant on tech that would be totally unacceptable in pre-pandemic times.

Well worth reading in full.

Coming soon to a store near you: the British government’s first disaster of 2021. A food shortage

Terrific piece by George Monbiot.

A few days ago, I carried out a small experiment. I sent almost identical requests to two government departments.

I asked the business department whether the UK holds strategic oil reserves. Yes: the UK keeps stocks equivalent to 90 days of net imports. I asked the environment department whether the UK holds strategic food reserves. No: they aren’t necessary, because “the UK has a highly resilient food supply chain”. The government treats oil as a strategic asset but food as a matter for the market.

So what happens if our “highly resilient food supply chain” breaks after Brexit transition, on 1 January? It won’t, the government promised. “Our risk assessments show there will not be an overall shortage of food in the UK,” whether or not there’s a deal. But when I pressed it to show me these risk assessments, the plural turned out to be misleading. There’s just one assessment: a “reasonable worst-case scenario” for the UK’s borders.

This is grim enough. It suggests that the flow of freight through the ports could be reduced by between 20% and 40%, while trucks travelling in either direction could be delayed by up to two days: a big problem for fresh food.

So far, so bad. But the UK’s border is only one link in the food supply chain, and it may not be the weakest.

The UK currently imports over 60% of its food, much if not most of it from the EU. And it turns out that the country is now chronically short of warehousing capacity — partly due to the pandemic and partly to restocking by companies in the hope that there’s a Christmas retail boom.

And the trouble is that it’s hard to stockpile, say, onions, tomatoes or salad — three of the things that we get from Europe.

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? It’s free. One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. And there’s a one-click unsubscribe link if you decide that your inbox is crowded enough already!

Saturday 21 November, 2020

A lot of creativity is going into annotating classic paintings to make them ‘Covid-compliant’. Remember the way the Rockwell Thanksgiving picture (on this blog the other day) had been similarly updated.

Quote of the Day

“I always say that a successful parent is one who raises a child so that they can pay for their own psychoanalysis.”

  • Nora Ephron

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Schubert – Serenade (arr. Liszt)


Long read of the Day

“They created a false image”: how the Reagans fooled America”


I’ve never understood why Reagan has had such an easy ride. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, we can see that the foundations of some of the dysfunction that has come to haunt present-day America were laid on his watch, especially with his folksy undermining of the idea of state capacity. As this quote from the piece puts it:

“He wasn’t intellectually curious. He wasn’t a deep thinker. He was, at heart, a reactionary. He was given the nuclear codes and the Oval Office and the greatest bully pulpit in the world, and what did he do with it? He tried to short-circuit the federal government in really detrimental ways. He implemented policies that hurt African Americans and economically disadvantaged minorities. He believed things that weren’t true and repeated them publicly. He was into science denial, he was a seeming believer in creation theory over evolution, he ignored and denied the Aids pandemic. He said trees cause pollution, which reminds us now of Trump saying wind turbines cause pollution.”

Spring-powered wheel claims to be ‘E-bike alternative at lower cost’

This belongs in the ‘important if true’ category.

An Ireland-based entrepreneur is claiming to have invented a power-assisted bicycle wheel that doesn’t use batteries, doesn’t need charging, is not speed restricted and has an infinite range.

Simon Chan says his SuperWheel, which is powered simply by weight and movement via a patented technology called ‘Weight to energy conversion technology’ (WTECT), supplies an efficiency improvement of over 30 per cent compared to a standard wheel.

According to SuperWheel: “The WTECT system is a type of suspension system, using the reactive force to generate additional torque, to facilitate the wheel rotation.”

The first batch has sold out, apparently. The key thing about it is that it just requires one to fit a new kind of wheel to an existing bike. It’ll be interesting to see what the cycling press make of it. Link

Populism, bridge-building and recovery

Interesting essay by Mick Fealty. The rise of populism, he says, is a

symptom of a deeper malaise in the modern governance system, namely that the old bridges which carry relations between the traditional centre (where key resources are) and the edge (the parish) is broken.

So how to build (or rebuild) such bridges?

Over the last few years myself and John Kellden have been working on a methodology which reverses the traditional dynamic of the focus group where instead of gathering opinions on stuff we already know we ask them to tell us what we don’t know, through anecdote.

This deliberately unfocused approach involves the gathering of small stories that illustrate the feelings (not the averaged thoughts) of ordinary people. Whilst opinions tend to converge then diverge, stories invariably diverge even if their themes converge as universal.

It’s not just because understanding the unknown unknowns has become more important in the whirl of digital society, but as part of a three stranded process over time it is capable of building an ongoing participatory inquiry into the sense and purpose government or itself.

The aim is to build a more reliable narrative map for deciding what’s needed whilst at the same time immersing politicians and policy makers in the quotidian language of ordinary people to create a shared and a sharable understanding of key the problems ahead.

As he describes it, the approach sounds interesting and original. More here. It’s refreshing to see a sharp critic also committed to trying to make things better.

Other, hopefully interesting,links.

  • A 360-degree camera/microphone for hybrid meetings. “The Meeting Owl Pro is a 360-degree tabletop camera that automatically shifts focus to whomever is speaking in a room, training its lens and microphone on the speaker. In “hybrid” meetings, this means that virtual participants have a better feel for what’s happening in a meeting or classroom or wherever others are gathered in real life.” Hmmm… Costs nearly a grand. At that price it had better be good. Link.

  • Tom Stoppard and the Last Crusade. Lovely essay by Tim Carmody about Hermione Lee’s marvellous new biography of Tom Stoppard.

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? It’s free. One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. And there’s a one-click unsubscribe link if you decide that your inbox is crowded enough already!


Friday 20 November, 2020

The Ring of Kerry must be one of the most celebrated round-trips in the Western world. On a fine day, it’s easy to see why. This is the view you come one rounding a bend after passing through Waterville.

Quote of the Day

“She fitted into my biggest arm-chair as if it had been built around her by someone who knew they were wearing arm-chairs tight about the hips that season.”

  • P.G. Wodehouse

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Chris Rea | Stainsby Girls


Keep the volume down if you don’t want to annoy the neighbours. Turn it up if you do.

Long read of the Day

The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done

How personal productivity transformed work — and failed to.

Lovely New Yorker essay by Cal Newport which will resonate with anyone who’s ever read Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done.

Logic School

Interesting and novel. An online course for techies to get them thinking about the kind of world they are creating. Runs for twelve weeks from March 8 through May 31, 2021.

Its theme of “creative protest”covers

issues of justice in tech through a multitude of approaches — whether it’s organizing in the workplace, contributing to an existing data visualization project or worker-owned platform, or building a new platform to nurture creative activism. Participants will work towards a final project as part of the program. Logic School meets for a live, two-hour session each week. Before a session, participants are expected to complete self-guided work: listening, reading, reflecting, and making progress on their final projects.

It’s free (funded by the Omidyar Network) and requires a commitment of five hours a week.

Software is trying to change your habits. Make sure you agree with it.

Software is trying to change your habits. Make sure you agree with it.

Link Nice little sermon, with homely examples.

Facebook notifications used to be so simple: if someone tagged me or responded to one of my posts, the red dot would let me know. Over time, this changed, and I started getting notifications for all kinds of things. Sometimes I’d get notifications about a friend liking a post by someone I don’t know. Occasionally I’d get notifications that were just friend recommendations.

As with malls, this isn’t some accident. This is a decision Facebook made. I can only speculate, but the data probably showed people are more likely to engage with content if there’s a notification, and a decision was made to put more stuff in the notifications. Their agenda, if I had to guess, is for me to spend more time on Facebook.

You might not think about this much. Tech companies do—a lot.

The shopping mall also has an agenda: they want you to walk around, see a bunch of different stores, and buy stuff. Knowing about this agenda can help you make better decisions. Maybe you’ll look up maps before heading to the mall, so you know where you’re going. Maybe you’ll give yourself a strict budget ahead of time, so you don’t overspend. Or maybe you don’t mind the mall’s agenda and are perfectly happy to wander and buy things.

My point here isn’t that malls are bad—it’s that they’re not neutral. Malls are designed with an agenda, and knowing about that agenda can help you make better decisions.

Software is the same way. The companies that make software have an agenda, and every design choice is in service of that agenda. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but that agenda may or may not line up with yours. So it’s worth thinking about your agenda and how it aligns with the agenda of the services you’re using.

Yeah. When you can wean yourself off the dopamine.

Zen and the art of Rosetta emulation

Yesterday I blogged about the new M1 processor that Apple has developed and now rolled out in some of its Macintosh line. I knew that the main Apple apps ran very well in the new architecture (no surprise there), but also knew that many of the programs that are part of my workflow ecosystem weren’t ready for the new processor and would therefore have to run under the Rosetta emulation software — which would therefore mean (I assumed) that they would run slowly until they had been rewritten.

Seems that I was wrong. Quentin emailed me this morning to alert me to a review that Samuel Axon had done for ArsTechnica. Here’s the relevant extract:

Every now and then, the Hollywood studio system makes a sequel to a movie that came out a long, long time ago. It hasn’t usually gone well.

Rosetta in macOS Big Sur is such a sequel, but it’s for the most part a phenomenal success. It’s better than the original. The last time the Rosetta name appeared, it was there to help PowerPC applications run on Intel Macs after Apple made the last architecture transition, back in 2006. Now, as Apple leaves Intel behind, Rosetta 2 is here to make apps made for Intel Macs run on the new Apple Silicon ones, like the Mac mini with the M1.

Rosetta 2 translates apps developed for x86 macOS to work on the M1 or other Apple Silicon CPUs, which are not capable of natively running said apps. It does this ahead of time, not on the fly—meaning when you install the app or first launch it (depending on the installation method) it is recompiled for the new architecture. Further, the app is automatically recompiled again as Apple releases relevant software updates.

The results are near-perfect. You’ll be prompted to install Rosetta when you first launch a legacy app, and that installation just takes a few seconds. After that, and in almost all cases, the user might never know whether an app was originally native to this hardware or not. The only common clue is that the translated Intel apps might take a few seconds longer to launch from the dock for the first time.

We installed and tested 120 apps—a wide variety of types and inclusive of both Mac App Store apps and Web downloads—and almost none of them failed to launch, ran noticeably slowly, or produced errors that impacted usage. The few exceptions were all 3D games downloaded on Steam, which mostly worked but with problems in a couple of titles.

This is astonishing, really astonishing. And if you were looking for an excuse for not buying the new Macs, it’s just been undermined. Sigh.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Lockdowns For Thee, But Not For Me. An anthology of Covid hypocrisy by elites. Link
  • Big Tech Doesn’t Want You to Be Able To Fix Your Things. Good podcast on the Right to Repaior movement. Link. It isn’t just tech companies either. John Deere doesn’t want you fixing your tractor.

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not [subscribe][11]? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!

Thursday 19 November, 2020

Girls’ Night Out, 2010

Life before social distancing.

Quote of the Day

“It was through the Second World War that most of us suddenly appreciated for the first time the power of man’s concentrated efforts to understand and control the forces of nature. We were appalled by what we saw.”

  • Vannevar Bush, 1967 in Science is Not Enough

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Johnny Cash | The Gambler


Re: cycling

Coming home today after a pleasant sunlit cycle ride (our government-approved daily exercise) I noticed that the odometer on my (electric) bike had nudged from 4,199.9 miles to 4,200.

We’ve had those bikes for about three years, which means that I’ve cycled the distance from Cambridge to Nairobi in that time. (When I told my wife this, she replied deadpan that she had cycled 4,800 miles in the same time, which rather put me in my place, even after I tried to rationalise it with the thought that her daily commute to work is a mile longer than mine.)

The really interesting thing, though, is that without our bikes, those 4,200/4,800 miles would have been travelled in cars, with attendant environmental costs.

Norman Rockwell’s ‘Thanksgiving’ picture, Covid version

From Dave Winer’s blog.

Apple ARM Macs arrive — but don’t expect all third-party apps to work without emulation

Geeky stuff, but interesting. Apple’s achievement in building its own processor — the M1 — based on ARM architecture and delivering it on time is astonishing, given the technical complexity of doing it. And it seem that all of Apple’s own main apps (Mail, Pages, Numbers, Keynote, etc.) run just fine on the new processor. But many third-party apps are not yet ready for it and have to run via the Rosetta emulator. The Register has a useful summary of the current state of play.

The moral of the story is don’t upgrade just yet if those third-party programs are important for your workflow. Which is annoying because the new laptops are blazingly fast, and seem to have much better battery life.

Trump’s Firehose of Falsehood

Very perceptive piece:

What Trump and his supporters are up to should be thought of not as a litigation campaign that is likely to fail, but as an information-warfare campaign that is likely to succeed—and, indeed, is succeeding already. More specifically, they are employing a tactic called “the firehose of falsehood.” This information-warfare technique, according to researchers at the RAND Corporation, is marked by “high numbers of channels and messages and a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions.”

After Russian agents poisoned Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain in 2018, Kremlin-controlled media blamed Britain. And/or Ukraine. And/or it was an accident. And/or it was suicide. And/or it was a revenge killing by relatives. And/or Russia did not produce the nerve agent that was used. And/or an entirely different nerve agent was used. The Washington Post, which published a flowchart of Russia’s kaleidoscopic inventions, summarized what the propagandists were up to: “They fling up swarms of falsehoods, concocted theories, and red herrings, intended not so much to persuade people as to bewilder them.”

Unlike more traditional forms of propaganda, the firehose of falsehood does not aim primarily at persuading the public of something that is false (although this is a welcome result). Rather, it floods the information environment with so many lies, half-truths and theories that the public becomes disoriented, confused and distrustful of everyone.

The Russians were the great innovators in this space. And the alt-right have learned a lot from them.

John Williams gets Gold

Composer John Williams received the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society last night. There was a nice interview with him on this morning’s Today programme.


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Oslo got pedestrian and cyclist deaths down to zero. How did they do it? Hint: it involves fewer cars. Link
  • How I Draw Spherical Panoramas. By Paul Heaston. Lovely — and ingenious, with a nice hack at the end. Link
  • Was Roger Fenton’s famous photo of the ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’ faked? Errol Morris’s investigation. Link

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!