Friday 21 January, 2022

Bikers

Wonder what the collective noun for a mass rally of bikers is.


Quote of the Day

”In answer to: Inside every thin woman there’s a fat woman trying to get out. I always think it’s: Outside every thin woman there’s a fat man trying to get in.”

  • Katharine Whitehorn (of blessed memory). She was one of my favourite colleagues on the Observer.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Joseph Haydn | String Quartet No. 62, Op. 76 No. 3 “Emperor” |2nd movement.

Link

Well, if you’re going to have a national anthem, make sure it’s a decent tune.


Long Read of the Day

 Oh, 2022! by Charlie Stross. Since it’s the weekend, I thought it might be appropriate to suggest a really serious read. It’s a blog post by Charlie Stross, a gifted and successful SciFi writer, and it’s about how to think about the future.

Here’s a sample:

Nobody in March 2019 imagined that by March 2020 the UK would be in lockdown and they’d be storing corpses in refrigerator lorries in New York and Milan. It’s not entirely a black swan; anyone who knew about the history of pandemics knew to expect something like it in due course, and indeed Laurie Garrett won a Pulitzer prize for her book, The Coming Plague in 1994, which predicted more or less exactly what we’re living through today. What she didn’t predict in 1994 (writing in 1991-93) is almost more interesting than what she did — nobody in the 20th century imagined that within just two decades we’d be able to sequence the genome of a new pathogen within days, much less hours, or design a new vaccine within two weeks and have it in human clinical trials a month later. If the SARS family of coronaviruses had emerged just a decade earlier it’s quite likely we’d be on the brink of civilizational, if not species-level, extinction by now—SARS1 has 20% mortality among patients, MERS (aka SARS2) is up around 35-40% fatal, SARS-NCoV19, aka SARS3, is down around the 1-4% fatality level. If SARS1 had gone pandemic we might plausibly have lost a billion people within two years.

Luckily both SARS and MERS are far less contagious than COVID19, but don’t count on this continuing. Those viruses still exist in animal reservoirs, and we know COVID19 circulates between humans and other species and can hybridize with other viruses. The worst easily-imaginable COVID19 variant would be a MERS/COVID19-Omicron hybrid — call it the Omega strain — with the lethality of MERS and the contagiousness of Omicron, which is worse than the common cold, somewhere around the same level as chickenpox. (We don’t remember how awful chickenpox was because (a) we’re generally vaccinated in infancy and (b) it’s not a killer on the same level as its big sibling, Variola, aka smallpox.) But the so-called “childhood diseases” like mumps, rubella, and chickenpox used to kill infants by windrows. There’s a reason public health bodies remain vigilant and run constant vaccination campaigns against them, despite these campaigns being so successful that deaths from these diseases are so rare, leading perversely to an upswing in vaccine denialism.

I found it houghtful and perceptive. I remember at the start of the Covid crisis, in 2020 listening to a New York Times podcast interview with Don McNeil, then the Times’s expert on epidemics. He said that the only parallel with what was coming down the line was the 1918 Spanish Flu. And, in that context, he pointed out that the shortest time it had taken us to come up with a working vaccine up to that point was four years.

At that point I realised that Covid might be really, really serious. And up to now we have consistently under-estimated the threat of the virus. Which is why Charlie’s Omega variant idea reminded me of McNeil’s sombre assessment.


What should Labour do about Brexit?

Great post by Jonty Bloom.

His answer: Accept it, and make it work without letting fantasy get in the way. And then get on with doing sensible stuff. Like: * Make sure to sign up for all the EU schemes on offer, research, space, student exchanges and a dozen more. * Promise to remove the billions of pounds worth of Customs red tape that the Conservatives have loaded on British business. * Negotiate in good faith over Northern Ireland and all other issues and accept compromises that work smoothly if not perfectly. * Accept EU standards for chemicals and everything else — reinventing the CE mark is a total waste of time and a huge unnecessary expense for British industry. * Get business people the right to travel and work temporarily in the EU at any time. * Negotiate equivalence for services including accounting, insurance and the City. * Accept EU agricultural standards, which alone would burn tons of red tape in one giant bonfire.

And do all this quietly, efficiently and without wittering on about sovereignty.

Yep.


My commonplace booklet

Source


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Thursday 20 January, 2022

Evening in Arles


Quote of the Day

“The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.”

  • Samuel Johnson

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Zoë Conway and John Mc Intyre | Faoiseamh a Gheobhadsa (I Will Find Solace)

Link

Extraordinary song, extraordinary location for a recording. Lyrics and translation from the Gallic here.


Long Read of the Day

Cory Doctorow’s review of Saul Griffiths’s  Electrify: An Optimists Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future.

Sample:

For Griffith, the roadmap is pretty straightforward. From now on, every time we replace a vehicle or renovate a building or swap an appliance, we should be buying electric. Every new roof should include solar panels. New housing should be energy efficient and shouldn’t even have a gas hookup. All of this should be financed with low-cost, long-term loans comparable to the government-backed mortgages that created the post-war middle-class (but without the racism that created Black housing precarity and poverty).

No more fossil-fuel plants should be built, period. Existing extraction and refining programs should halt, now. Existing plants should be decomissioned and replaced with renewables and batteries. This should be federally funded, as should the new jobs for fossil-fuel-sector workers, whose labor the electrification project can handily absorb, with room to spare for every un- and under-employed person in America.

The stuff we’ve been told is impossible with renewables – like maintaining base-load – is revealed as a largely solved problem (big batteries, which will get smaller and cheaper over time).

I came away from the review adding Griffiths’s book to my reading list.

Thanks to Andrew Curry for spotting it.


Lucy Mangan on ‘Ghislaine, Prince Andrew and the paedophile’

A bracing review of the ITV documentary which was screened on Monday.

I didn’t watch it because I was usefully employed on other things, but I found this passage — about Maxwell’s friendship with Prince Andrew both revealing and unsurprising.

Maxwell’s relationship with (no longer His Royal Highness) Prince Andrew. They first met when she was at Oxford University and moving in circles that included prime-minister-to-be Boris Johnson. During the years she was with Epstein, she had – according to Andrew’s former protection officer Paul Page – such free access to the palace that his team assumed she and the prince were having “an intimate relationship”.

Page also reveals that the prince keeps “50 or 60 soft toys” on his bed and a laminated photo of them at his bedside. If the maids don’t put them back in exactly the order shown, he shouts, screams and becomes “verbally abusive”. You could argue that this is not relevant to the claims mounting against him as a result of his friendship with Epstein, of course. That’s the friendship (as we are shown again in a clip of the infamous interview with Emily Maitlis, which becomes no less excruciating with the passage of time) Andrew claimed endured after Epstein’s conviction for child abuse because of “my tendency to be too honourable”. On the other hand, what could be more relevant than such glaring proof of how deep the childishness and sense of entitlement runs in the man?

Yep. That’s what being in a royal family does to people.


Cyber Insurance Will Not Cover Cyber Attacks Attributable to Nation-States

Well, well.

Major insurance firm Lloyd’s of London has issued a bulletin indicating that its cyber insurance products will no longer cover the fallout of cyber attacks exchanged between nation-states. The insurer said last week that damages from “cyber war” between countries would no longer be covered, and that this definition extends to operations that have “major detrimental impact on the functioning of a state.”

Link


Chart of the Day

Welcome to Appworld: a parallel universe.

Source: App Annie’s annual report


My commonplace booklet

A Grand Unified Theory of Buying Stuff

So you’ve acquired a new thing. And now you want accessories. Ask yourself: Will the potential experience be worth the cost to the supply chain?

Nice short piece by Paul Ford.


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Wednesday 19 January, 2022

Tree, RIP


Quote of the Day

”God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant and the cat. He has no real style. He just goes on trying other things.” * Picasso


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Oscar Peterson | C Jam Blues | Live in Denmark,1964.

Link

Oscar on Piano, Ray Brown on Bass, Ed Thigpen on Drums


Long Read of the Day

Amid the hype over Web3, informed skepticism is critical

It is, and this is a pretty good example. It’s by Elizabeth Renieris, a researcher on the ethical and human rights impacts of technology in Notre Dame , Harvard and elsewhere. I’ve been collecting critiques of the Web 3 madness, and this was a welcome find.

“Increasingly apparent in the Web3 discourse,” she writes,

is a kind of imaginative obsolescence: As one vision of the future rapidly replaces the next, the technologies and systems now in place suffer decay and disrepair. Our imaginations and resources are once again diverted from fixing or rehabilitating what exists. Meanwhile, familiar problems, inevitably, resurface. Imaginative obsolescence also upends efforts at effective technological governance — and perhaps that is exactly the point.

Like its predecessors (Web 1.0, “the era of static webpages,” and 2.0, the internet of social media and user-driven content), Web3 is imagined as being apolitical, open, decentralized and inclusive, its proponents even using the same rhetoric as the cyberlibertarians of John Perry Barlow’s day. This ethos — characterized by free speech absolutism and free market ideals — has enabled all manner of online harms, including rampant mis- and disinformation, racism, discrimination, hate speech and harassment, concentrations of power, toxic business models and limited accountability. While it may be early, Web3 is quickly encountering many of the same challenges, even as it purports to be immune to them.

A good — and timely — read.

And if you’d like a constantly-updated display cabinet of Web 3 madnesses and scandals, see software developer Molly White’s Web 3 is going just great site.


Photographer finds polar bears that took over abandoned buildings

This remarkable image on the photography site Petapixel made lots of us sit up, first of all because of its haunting painterly quality, and secondly because everyone knows that getting close enough to polar bears to take a picture like that is a bad career move.

The explanatory blurb reads:

A Russian photographer has captured a fascinating series of photos showing polar bears that have taken over the abandoned buildings of a meteorological station on an island between Russia and Alaska.

In September 2021, photographer Dmitry Kokh traveled through islands in the Chukchi Sea, a marginal sea of the Arctic Ocean that sits between Russia and Alaska.

“Being the farthest and most Eastern part of Russian Arctic, this place is very hard to get but also difficult to forget,” Kokh writes. “We traveled by the sailing yacht along the coast and covered more than 1,200 miles of untouched landscapes, villages lost in time, spots with various fauna and seas full of life.”

The Petepixel post included ten more photographs taken by Kokh, some taken from vantage points suicidally close to the bears, and each one more charming than the last. There’s something about polar bears that evokes the same emotions in human animals that pictures of cats and Koala bears do.

Needless to say, some of the comments below the story were sceptical. Surely the image was photoshopped? “At least 4 grown bears all together in this house is surprising”, said another. “Also wondering how this photographer got so close to them. Probably just a brave/lucky person. Is it likely the photographer is keeping these as pets of some sort? Or luring them into the house with food?” And so on.

Fortunately, the penny dropped quickly. The pictures were stills from footage shot by a drone. It’s worth watching (three minutes), not least because it’s a reminder of how good drone footage can be nowadays — as anyone who reads Quentin’s blog will know.


My commonplace booklet

Standing on the edge of a cliff, I took my time setting up my tripod and camera in anticipation of a sunset. The light would soon be bathing the mountains in front of me, illuminating the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers. One of the most beautiful sights my eyes had ever seen, the two tributaries have very distinct colors at the place where they join. The Indus is jade green, while the Zanskar has cyan blue hues. I had big plans for capturing the magic of this place in a photograph. After futzing around with my gear for a while, I had my composition and focus set. All I had to do was press the shutter when the time was right.

As I waited, I peered over the edge and saw a group of off-duty paramilitary servicemen taking selfies with their backs to the scene. They were capturing the moment using nothing but the cameras on their smartphones. The irony wasn’t lost on me. Here I was, standing high above, with a camera rig that cost as much as a second-hand sedan, waiting for the perfect light as I took great care to keep my own shadow out of the frame. And there they were, recording the same moment with faint regard for the quality of the light or the image itself. Instead, they were letting the chips figure it all out as they strained to document their own presence.

That moment reinforced for me the extent to which the iPhone had changed not just the act of photography, but the very notion of photos. Before other smartphones followed suit, it marked the introduction of a new language and the beginning of a new volume in the annals of visual communication.

From Why the iPhone is today’s Box Brownie camera by Om Malik (whom God Preserve).


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Tuesday 18 January, 2022

Why Bitcoin is bad for the environment

And a serious Bitcoin-mining outfit will have hundreds if not thousands of these.

Source: a terrific presentation by Ron Ballard.


Quote of the Day

”Newspapers help you to forget the previous day.”

  • Elias Canetti

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler | The Fish and the Bird | Live

Link

Interesting to hear his take on an old Irish song.


Long Read of the Day

Omicron Has Created Two New COVID Attitudes

COVID has always divided Americans, writes Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. But the Omicron wave is even dividing the vaccinated.

A nice exploration of the paradoxes uncovered by the pandemic.

To understand how ideologically scrambling the Omicron wave has been, consider this: Some 2022 Democrats are sounding like 2020 Republicans. In spring 2020, many Republicans, including President Donald Trump, insisted that COVID was hardly worse than the flu; that its fatality risk was comparable to an everyday activity, like driving in a car; and that an obsessive focus on cases wouldn’t give an accurate picture of what was going on in the pandemic.

In the current Omicron wave, these Republican talking points seem to have mostly come true —for most vaccinated non-senior adults, who are disproportionately Democrats.

He draws a comparison between two tribes: the ‘Vaxxed and Done’ crowd, and the ‘Vaxxed and Cautious’ lot. He’s not quite sure when he fits on that spectrum. Me neither.

So how about reading it and deciding where you are?


Lost Time: remembering Proust (and others)

I was struck by an intriguing volume published by New York Review Books three years ago. Here’s the background:

During the Second World War, as a prisoner of war in a Soviet camp, and with nothing but memory to go on, the Polish artist and soldier Józef Czapski brought Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to life for an audience of prison inmates. In a series of lectures, Czapski described the arc and import of Proust’s masterpiece, sketched major and minor characters in striking detail, and movingly evoked the work’s originality, depth, and beauty. Eric Karpeles has translated this brilliant and ­altogether unparalleled feat of the critical imagination into English for the first time, and in a thoughtful introduction he brings out how, in reckoning with Proust’s great meditation on memory, Czapski helped his fellow officers to remember that there was a world apart from the world of the camp. Proust had staked the art of the novelist against the losses of a lifetime and the imminence of death. Recalling that triumphant wager, unfolding, like Sheherazade, the intricacies of Proust’s world night after night, Czapski showed to men at the end of their tether that the past remained present and there was a future in which to hope.

The volume includes an 8-page colour insert of Czapski’s lecture notes. Here’s one:

I was immediately reminded of Vladimir Nabokov’s wonderful Lectures on Literature, which I devoured decades ago. As an engineering student I found them a riveting and illuminating approach to authors of whom I knew little — Flaubert, for example, Proust and Kafka. So I dug out the battered copy that still stands on my bookshelves — and of course was immediately lulled into re-reading his lecture on Joyce’s Ulysses. Here’s a photograph of his annotated copy.

Is it any wonder that no work is being done around here? I was supposed to be doing my tax return.


Long-term impacts of childhood bereavement

My excerpt from Simon Kuper’s memorable piece about the wider impacts of the higher mortality rates of unvaccinated people rang bells. One reader emailed that:

Kuper’s observation that ‘bereaved children are often cast into depression’ struck a chord with me. My father was 11 or 12 when both his parents died of flu in 1918, and despite all his efforts to counter it, depression was with him all his adult life until he died too soon at 69.

It rang bells for me too. We’ve had experience of this in our family and, coincidentally, I’d been reading Maxine Harris’s book about childhood bereavement and had come on two recent academic articles — “The Burden of Bereavement: Early-Onset Depression and Impairment in Youths Bereaved by Sudden Parental Death in a 7-Year Prospective Study” and ” Persistent Impairment: Life After Losing a Parent”.

I’ve often thought that the worst thing that can happen to a parent is having to bury a child; and the worst thing that can happen to a child is having to bury a mother or a father. We’ve had both in my extended family.

My paternal grandparents, who were modest farmers in rural Ireland, lost three children in a single year (1921). As you can imagine, the family burial plot in Connemara can be a sobering place to visit.


My commonplace booklet

From Noah Smith:

“For a future to feel optimistic, it should feature the following elements:

  • Material abundance

  • Egalitarianism — broadly shared prosperity, relatively moderate status differences, and broad political participation

  • Human agency — the ability of human effort to alter the conditions of the world…”

How many of these does digital tech, as currently owned and managed, promise?


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Monday 17 January, 2022

Monday 17 January, 2022

Boss Cat

A friend’s lordly cat, presiding over a dinner party on Saturday evening.


Quote of the Day

”I might repeat to myself, slowly and soothingly, a list of quotations beautiful from minds profound, if I can remember any of the damn things.”

  • Dorothy Parker

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | La Nozze Di Figaro | Cherubino’s aria,  Voi Che Sapete | sung by Cecilia Bartoli.

Link


Long Read of the Day

Retrofitting Leninism

Terrific essay in Noema by Dimitar Gueorguiev.

A spectre is haunting our democratic world — the prospect of political failure fuelled by cultural civil war. Overwhelmed by the ceaseless tsunami of feedback signals unleashed by digital connectivity, democracies are fragmenting into so many ‘subjectivist’ tribes that a governing consensus seems increasingly elusive. The open societies hailed by Francis Fukuyama and George Soros could be spinning out of control.

And the strange thing is that the super-connectivity that is fragmenting the West is consolidating control in China, where the Leninist form of governance that failed in the industrial age has been given a new lease on life.

“Thanks in part to the advent of digital technology,” Gueorguiev writes, “China’s leaders are now at a point where they believe they have the tools to overcome and move past the computational challenge of managing ever more complexity by deepening control through connectivity.”

This is a really interesting piece. The complacent view of democracies in the analogue age was that autocracies and totalitarian states were ultimately bound to fail because central authorities could never match the complexities of their societies. (This complacency stemmed, I think, partly from political scientists’ extrapolation of a cybernetic principle — Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety — and partly from reading too much Hayek.). But it was probably plausible in the pre-digital era.

However Gueorguiev’s essay raises the thought that maybe Xi Jinping & Co have read some of the cybernetics literature and have concluded that mastery of digital technology and its comprehensive deployment on a colossal scale will enable them to escape the analogue trap.

Fascinating read about an increasingly important topic. The thing about China is that it really is an alternative system to the Western liberal democracy one. In fact it’s the only alternative game in town. Russia is a pain in the ass which has to be challenged mainly because it has nukes — and, for the moment, fossil fuel reserves. But it isn’t an alternative system. Xi and his colleagues are building one of those.


Blockchain: full of democratic promise? Or just another tool of big corporations?

Yesterday’s Observer column:

It’s easy to see why the blockchain idea evokes utopian hopes: at last, technology is sticking it to the Man. In that sense, the excitement surrounding it reminds me of the early days of the internet, when we really believed that our contemporaries had invented a technology that was democratising and liberating and beyond the reach of established power structures. And indeed the network had – and still possesses – those desirable affordances. But we’re not using them to achieve their great potential. Instead, we’ve got YouTube and Netflix. What we underestimated, in our naivety, were the power of sovereign states, the ruthlessness and capacity of corporations and the passivity of consumers, a combination of which eventually led to corporate capture of the internet and the centralisation of digital power in the hands of a few giant corporations and national governments. In other words, the same entrapment as happened to the breakthrough communications technologies – telephone, broadcast radio and TV, and movies – in the 20th century, memorably chronicled by Tim Wu in his book The Master Switch.

Will this happen to blockchain technology? Hopefully not, but the enthusiastic endorsement of it by outfits such as Goldman Sachs is not exactly reassuring…


The cruelty of vaxenfreude

From a remarkable column by Simon Kuper in the FT

For each unvaccinated American death, about nine people lose a grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse or child. Probably the most distressing thing about Covid-19 is its relentless orphaning, which recalls the HIV epidemic in Africa or the Great Flu of 1918. Think of the children of Kevin and Misty Mitchem, a couple in their forties who chose not to be vaccinated and who died of Covid within days of each other in October.

Losing a parent young is one of the great life traumas. Bereaved children are often cast into depression (which is why my own chief life goal is to plug on until my kids are at least 18). Yet when the parent is an antivaxxer taken by Covid, the child may feel shamed into silence over an unnecessary death that some people will always regard as farcical.

Meanwhile, antivaxxers will tend to blame the victim’s supposed physical weakness or pretend that the death wasn’t from Covid-19. They can’t easily change their mind about the disease, because that would mean giving up their antivax identity and the community that comes with it.

Then there are people who won’t discuss the cause of death for fear of politicising a tragedy. (A new trend in parts of the US is to keep Covid-19 out of the obituary.) So children may not have anyone to talk to about the worst moment of their lives.


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Friday 14 January, 2022

Why I never bought the idea that Boris Johnson was a lovable clown

Watching his contortions over ‘Partygate’ I keep thinking of my beloved mother-in-law, Elsie Pinniger, who was in an unprotected care-home in late April 2020 and, well, you can guess the rest…

For the first 100 days of the pandemic, I kept an audio diary. This is the entry for the 9th of May — Day 49.

Link

The transcript is in 100 Not Out: A Lockdown Diary — a Kindle version of the diary.


Quote of the Day

”An aristocracy is like cheese; the older it is the higher it becomes.” * Lloyd George

Now why does this make me think of the Duke of York? And which hill will he be marching down next?


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Scott Joplin | Solace – A Mexican Serenade | Joshua Rifkin

Link


Long Read of the Day

Putin’s Challenge to Western hegemony

If, like me, you’re puzzled about what’s happening — or likely to happen — in Ukraine then this long, long blog post by Adam Tooze is for you. As I read it I became increasingly mortified by how little I actually knew about the Ukraine, or about how Putin’s strategy had evolved over a decade or more.

Some (of my) takeaways:

  • Tooze’s astute view of Russia as a “strategic petrostate” with huge foreign currency reserves which give Putin enormous freedom of manoeuvre (and run counter to Western media delusions of how he is running out of road).
  • As a state, Ukraine is a basket case and what makes it vulnerable to Russian power is “not just its geography, but the division of its politics, the factional quality of its elite and its economic failure”.
  • NATO’s expansionism post-1989 was a colossal blunder, the consequences of which continue to haunt Europe.
  • The key factors governing what happens next are: Russia’s geopolitical concerns about America’s stance; Biden’s preoccupation with China, not Russia; Ukraine’s disastrous economic position; and Putin’s own political clock (both he and Biden face elections in 2024.)

But that’s just what I got from the piece. You may get more.


Unexpected pleasures

Two lovely literary surprises came my way this Christmas.

Carlo Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist who works mainly in the field of quantum gravity but is also a best-selling writer of accessible books about science. I first became interested in him when I read Ian Thomson’s review of Helgoland, his most recent book, which is an explanation to explain quantum mechanics to human beings. The title comes from the fact that the theory was first developed in 1925 by the young German physicist Werner Heisenberg during a summer holiday he spent on the barren North Sea island of Helgoland.

Intrigued by this (but still baffled by quantum physics) I went looking at other books Rovelli had written and came on this lovely collection of 46 short pieces, 13 of them published in Corriere della Sera (which surely must be one of the most interesting newspapers on earth, given that Umberto Eco also used to be a columnist on it). It’s a reassuring reminder of what a nice genre the newspaper column is, something that — as someone who has written 50 of them a year since the 1980s – I obviously appreciate.

John McPhee is one of the New Yorker writers I’ve admired for many years. What I hadn’t known until recently is that he also teaches a course on ‘Creative Nonfiction’ at Princeton. This little book is a masterclass in the art of long-form journalism which makes one envious of his students, and it led me to buy several copies to give away as gifts to people who I thought would appreciate it. They do.


My commonplace booklet

Perils of a blind date

From the Guardian:

A Chinese woman has become an overnight sensation after she posted video diaries documenting her life after being stuck at a blind date’s house.

Wang went for dinner on Sunday at her blind date’s residence in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou, where a recent outbreak of Covid cases sent thousands into quarantine in parts of the city. As she was finishing her meal, the area was put under lockdown.

She was unable to leave her date’s house as result, she told the Shanghai-based news outlet the Paper this week, saying she had gone to the city for a week-long trip to meet potential suitors from the southern province of Guangdong.

Wang quickly shared the bizarre experience with friends on social media. “I’m getting old now, my family introduced me to 10 matches … The fifth date wanted to show off his cooking skills and invited me over to his house for dinner,” said Wang in one of the videos.


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Thursday 13 January, 2022

Morning on the river

A friend who has a houseboat in London took this yesterday morning. Beats living in an apartment any day.


Quote of the Day

”I just received the following wire from my generous Daddy — ‘Dear Jack. Don’t buy a single vote more than necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide’.”

  • JFK, in a speech to journalists, Washington, 1958.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Shannon family and Tim Edey | Four jigs

Link

Sometimes, musical talent really does run in families. Consider the Shannons: this session was recorded in 2010 in Bofey Quinn’s restaurant, Corofin, Co. Clare. The musicians are: Sharon Shannon (Accordion), Mary Shannon (Banjo), Majella Shannon (Fiddle), Garry Shannon (Flute) with accompaniment from Tim Edey (Guitar). The music: 3 jigs — Dan The Cobbler, The Kilmovee (or Larrisey’s) and Calliope House.


 

Long Read of the Day

On the Legacy of Hunter S. Thompson and Gonzo Journalism

Fifty years after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, maybe Hunter S. Thompson’s journalism is ripe for a reassessment. Peter Richardson has written one which is due out on January 25. I’ve always preferred Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail to Thompson’s famous Las Vegas essay, partly because he was so perceptive about Jimmy Carter at a time when the rest of the press crowd overlooked the peanut farmer. I hadn’t known, though, that Thompson first came to prominence after being asked to write a piece about the Kentucky Derby with cartoonist Ralph Steadman providing the visuals. The two went to the race but didn’t bother looking at the horses.

It was a stroke of genius, a bit like going to the Folies Bergere in the 1930s and watching the audience.

Anyway, I found this an informative and enjoyable read. Hope you do too.


How does an electric car work?

Tyler Cowen (Whom God Preserve) was asked this question by one of his readers:

Say you were trying to teach yourself, to a 99th percentile layperson’s level, how, say, an electric car actually worked. How would you go about doing that, precisely?

Tyler’s answer

I am not sure exactly how high (or low) a standard that is, but here is what I would do.

  1. Watch a few YouTube videos.

  2. Read a book or two on how electric cars work, along the way finding an expert or mentor who could answer my questions.

  3. If needed, read a more general book about electricity.

  4. Try to explain to someone else how electric cars work. Try again.

I would recommend this same general method for many particular questions.

Hmmm…. A week or so after we took delivery of our Tesla, this helpful video on how the new Model 3 motors worked appeared on YouTube. I watched it diligently several times, and got the general drift but wouldn’t have been able to explain it to anyone without making detailed notes.

Being a practical sort of chap, though, I then got into the car, floored the accelerator and was able to confirm that the motors worked as advertised. Zero to 60 in 3.1 seconds. After a few minutes I was able to breathe again. Not recommended for persons of a nervous disposition.


My commonplace booklet

The Covid Derby: Wonderful spoof race commentary.

Note the authentic Irish accent. My countrymen have always taken a keen interest in the inequality of horses, whatever about humans.

Thanks to Christine Happel for spotting it.


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Wednesday 12 January, 2022

The view from my bike

Taken the other day.


Quote of the Day

Question: Stephen Hawking worried about unintended consequences of machine intelligence. Do you share his concern?

Answer: I worry about the unintended consequences of human intelligence, such as climate change, human-made pathogens, mass poverty, and environmental catastrophe. The quest for AI should result in new technology, greater understanding, and smarter decision making. AI may one day become our greatest tool in averting such disasters. However, we should proceed cautiously and establish clear rules prohibiting unacceptable uses of AI, such as banning the development of autonomous weapons.

  • David Silver, chief architect of DeepMind’s AlphaGo, in an interview with Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Rolling Stones | Far Away Eyes

Link

Jagger with a faux Southern drawl. I never knew that the Stones were fans of country music. You learn something new every day.


Long Read of the Day

How did she do it? 

A terrific essay by Julian Barnes on the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald. One great novelist paying tribute to another. She was an accident-prone grandmother, who fitted writing into the gaps in family life, and her first publisher dismissed her as ‘an amateur writer’. But, says Barnes, she became the best English novelist of her time. His essay explains why, making good use of Fitzgerald’s letters and of his own insights into the process of writing fiction. Sample:

In 1996 an old friend, Hugh Lee, made the bizarre complaint that he found her fictional children “precious”. Denying this, she replied that: “They’re exactly like my own children, who always noticed everything.” And having noticed, voiced innocence’s damaging truths. In 1968 the novelist reported a conversation with – or rather, denunciation by – her younger daughter:

“Maria has much depressed me by 1. Looking at Daddy and me and saying “What a funny old couple you are!” and 2. Telling me that studying art and literature is only a personal indulgence and doesn’t really help humanity or lead to anything, and, I suppose, really, that is quite true: she said it very kindly. My life seems to be crumbling into dust.”

“It is at such moments,” writes Barnes,

that writers have a small advantage over non-writers: the painful moment can at least be stored for later use. Twenty years later, here is Dolly, the plain-speaking young daughter of Frank Reid, owner of a printing works in pre-revolutionary Moscow. When Frank’s wife Nellie inexplicably abandons the family and returns to London, Frank asks Dolly if she wants to write to her mother. Dolly replies, “I don’t think I ought to write.” Frank, whose innocence means that he is devoid of self-righteousness, asks “Why not, Dolly? Surely you don’t think she did the wrong thing?” Dolly gives him a reply neither he nor we expect: “I don’t know whether she did or not. The mistake she probably made was getting married in the first place.”

This is a long read (nearly 5,000 words) but worth it.

Full disclosure: I’m biased. I’ve always been a fan of Julian’s work. And when his first novel, Metroland, came out decades ago, I gave it a rave review in The Listener (sadly now extinct). When an archive edition of the novel was published in 2010, my review was one of the contemporary documents included in that special edition.

Although he preceded me as the Observer’s TV critic after Clive James left for higher things, we had never met until one evening in the late 1980s we both found ourselves at a farewell dinner for Tony Howard, a great editor who had been a mentor for both of us. Julian was on the other side of a large table across which conversation was impossible. Eventually, I got up to go (I had a train to catch whereas most of the other diners lived in London). I made my apologies to Tony and walked towards the door. As I passed Julian he reached out a hand to stop me. “Thank you for the review”, he said. Just that. It was a reminder that writers never forget reviews, even those who say they don’t read them!


We are all polarised

(And that’s a problem)

One of the symptoms of our current malaise is how widespread the inability to ‘agree to disagree’ has become. I have a friend who regards climate change as a myth and thinks Greta Thunberg is a witch, and sometimes I have to remember that he’s also a good and generous soul (and excellent — if provocative — company). But in contemporary public discourse it seems increasingly difficult for people to accept that others with whom they disagree politically are anything other than stupid or wicked.

This has become particularly obvious in relation to attitudes towards ‘anti-vaxxers’. Almost everyone I know (that is to say, members of my ideological bubble) think they are misguided or just plain crazy. That’s too crude a response, I think. For one thing it assumes that all vaccine sceptics or opponents are the same. They’re not. Some have legitimate health reasons for being hesitant. Some undoubtedly are conspiracy theorists. Some are libertarians, ideologically speaking. But many are — for very good reasons — sceptical about anything that the neoliberal ‘democratic’ state tells them to do. Which means that any attempt to reduce the degree of vaccine hesitancy (to use the polite term) that doesn’t recognise the diversity of the phenomenon is doomed to fail.

This thought is sparked by discovering — courtesy of Andrew Curry (Whom God Preserve) — a paper that was published in The Lancet in (wait for it!) December 10, 2020. Its title: “The COVID-19 vaccines rush: participatory community engagement matters more than ever.”

It’s behind a journal paywall, I think, but the relevant bit for me was this:

From the outset it is important to distinguish between people wholly opposed to vaccination (anti-vaxxers) and individuals with limited or inaccurate health information or who have genuine concerns and questions about any given vaccine, its safety, and the extent to which it is being deployed in their interests before accepting it (vaccine hesitancy). In conflating and problematising the spectrum of those who do not accept vaccination, authorities might further erode trust and confidence, thereby exacerbating rather than resolving the factors underlying vaccine hesitancy. COVID-19 vaccines arrive as the social contract between some governments and their populations is being eroded and when many people, especially those in vulnerable groups, have little confidence that their government will protect them. In the UK, for example, a parliamentary report highlighted that more than 60% of Black people do not believe that their health is protected by the National Health Service to the same extent as White people.

Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has further marginalised historically oppressed and excluded groups, including people with disabilities and growing numbers living in precarity. These groups have suffered disproportionate economic and health consequences, and have been largely excluded from social protection and resources needed to minimise their contracting the virus. The widespread impacts of the pandemic have illuminated the structural violence embedded in society. Now these communities are being asked to trust the same structures that have contributed to their experiences of discrimination, abuse, trauma, and marginalisation in order to access vaccines and to benefit the wider population.

The thrust of the paper’s argument was that neither government diktats nor contempt for vaccine refuseniks would do any good. Experience since 2020 seems largely to confirm this view. Different kinds of community-based initiatives (outlined in the paper) might, but as far as I know none of these have been adopted by the UK government.

Morals of this story:

  1. Polarised thinking may make people feel comfortable in their righteousness; but it’s not a way of solving a problem.

  2. Most of us are polarised in one way or another.


My commonplace booklet

From a nice essay, ”Have We Forgotten How to Read Critically?”, by Kate Harding:

Not every piece of short nonfiction writing is an opinion piece, crafted to advance a particular argument. This is the first thing we all need to understand. What you’re reading now, for instance, is an essay—not an op-ed, a chapter, or a blog post. I’ll spare you the customary French translation here and simply note that I love the essay form because it’s an opportunity to watch someone—including yourself, if you write them—think deeply, out loud. To me, the signal pleasure of reading is finding partial answers to the question I have about everyone I encounter: What is it like inside your brain? I am incorrigibly nosy, and reading essays is a socially acceptable outlet for it.

Essays worthy of the name—i.e., distinct from diaries, journals, op-eds, and other forms with lower expectations for depth—have a certain quality that Virginia Woolf identified as belonging “to life and to life alone. You have not finished with it because you have read it, any more than friendship is ended because it is time to part. Life wells up and alters and adds.” In the opening essay of The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts describes a similar quality in Woolf: The ideas in A Room of One’s Own, he writes, “are, in fact, few and fairly obvious—at least from our historical vantage. Yet the thinking, the presence of animate thought on the page, is striking.”


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Tuesday 11 January, 2021

Quote of the Day

”Cooking is a minor art. I cannot imagine an hilarious soufflé, or a deeply moving stew.”

  • Kenneth Tynan

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ola Gjeilo | The Ground | Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua.

Link

I was ambushed by this. There’s another performance here with the composer at the piano.


Long Read of the Day

The American polity is cracked, and might collapse.

So how should Canada prepare for Trump v2.0?

A striking OpEd by Thomas Homer-Dixon in the country’s leading newspaper, The Globe and Mail:

“I’m a scholar of violent conflict,”. He writes.

For more than 40 years, I’ve studied and published on the causes of war, social breakdown, revolution, ethnic violence and genocide, and for nearly two decades I led a centre on peace and conflict studies at the University of Toronto.

Today, as I watch the unfolding crisis in the United States, I see a political and social landscape flashing with warning signals.

By 2025, American democracy could collapse, causing extreme domestic political instability, including widespread civil violence. By 2030, if not sooner, the country could be governed by a right-wing dictatorship.

Despite the dramatic tone of the headline over the piece, it’s actually a desperately serious piece. And both adjectives count. By exploiting people’s fear and anger, Trump and a host of acolytes and wannabees such as Fox’s Tucker Carlson and Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene have captured the Republican Party and transformed it into a near-fascist personality cult that’s a perfect instrument for wrecking democracy.

Homer-Dixon cites David Frum’s view that Trumpism increasingly resembles European fascism in its contempt for the rule of law and glorification of violence. He points to the viral circulation of ‘holiday photos’ showing Republican politicians and their families, including young children, sitting in front of their Christmas trees, all smiling gleefully while cradling pistols, shotguns and assault rifles.

It’s the possession of 400 million guns in ordinary citizens’ hands that make political polarisation in the US more dangerous than in any other democracy.

All of which makes this a worrying and compelling read.


Anne Enright on Ulysses @100

2022 is the centenary of the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses — so you can expect a lot about it in this space. But just for starters, the Irish novelist Anne Enright has a lovely essay marking the anniversary in the New York Review of Books, which is, alas, probably behind its paywall. But here, for your delectation, is how she ends the piece.

Recently, just to get the full experience, I sat on a bench near the Forty Foot, the swimming spot below the Martello tower where Buck Mulligan goes for his dip, and I read a page or two. It was a mild September afternoon. The day was so windless and still, I could hear a man address a quiet friend, one leaving, one arriving, both of them with their towels rolled.

“Hello there, young Thomas,” he said. “Were you aware that a certain gentleman is home this week? Your presence may be required.”

And it seemed to me a continuation of the book I held in my hand.

“I’ve been in since four,” the man went on, cheerfully. “Went for a walk, took a Barry White in the new jacks they have up there. Lovely.” The local council had recently reopened a nearby public restroom, so this good news was both personal and civic. It was also astonishingly male.

I felt a theory coming on. I wondered at the way male speech often confuses top and bottom, why Irish men are so happily described as “talking shite” or “bollocks,” or why an “old fart” is by default male. So many of the men in Ulysses are heard huffing and blowing, not to mention gassing about politics. Perhaps, for Joyce, speech was just another thing that came from the body and lingered on the air. If you ask me what Ulysses has to offer—despite the maleness of the text, despite the author’s perversion, despite the way it exists not on the page but in your reading of the page—the answer is still “Everything, everything, everything.”


Canon reaches the end of the DSLR line

Health warning: What follows may be of interest only to photographers, but it marks a significant moment in photographic history.

DSLR stands for ‘Digital Single Lens Reflex’, which just means that it’s a Single Lens Reflex (SLR) which has a digital sensor where film used to go.

SLRs first appeared in the late 1940s and Nikon was the first Japanese manufacturer to build them, and for many years Nikons (and Leica rangefinder cameras) were the preferred tool of professional photographers — especially war correspondents. The fact that Nikons and Leicas were built like tanks may have had something to do with it. It is said that Don McCullin’s life may have been saved by his Nikon F, which allegedly stopped a bullet during the Vietnam war.

Here, in comparison, is my beloved F3 (a later version of McCullin’s camera), which is in better nick — possibly because its owner has led a sedentary life in which the only dangerous activity involved was jumping to conclusions.

For 30 years, Nikon had the pro market largely to itself, but in 1987 Canon introduced an autofocus system that was much better than the Nikon equivalent (which was designed to be backwards-compatible with all existing Nikon lenses and was therefore clunky). Canon brutally decided to abandon its legacy kit and created a completely new system which was significantly better, and from the 1990s onwards Canons became the favourite of sports and news snappers.

When digital sensors appeared and DSLRs replaced their analogue predecessors, Nikon again took the lead, but Canon overtook it in 2012 and has been ahead ever since. Some marketing genius in Canon had the idea of encasing all the long lenses in their range in white plastic, which meant that sports fans watching on TV eventually only saw photographers with Canon gear.

The trouble with DSLRs, though, is that they still had that mechanical mirror that flipped up just before the photograph was taken, and I guess it was only a matter of time before the industry realised that digital displays would make that last bit of click-clunk redundant. Thus was born the ‘mirrorless’ DSLR, where the optical viewfinder is replaced by a tiny, high-resolution, digital screen.

Which is why Canon has looked in the mirror and decided that it can no longer see its future in it. Flipping mirrors henceforth belong in photo museums. It’s called progress. But it may also represent Canute-style futility. Most photographs today are taken by smartphone cameras, equipped with sensors that produce images that are computationally enhanced by powerful processing engines in the phones — with results that are sometimes as good as anything a relatively bulky Canon, Nikon, Panasonic or Sony can produce.

Which, I guess means, that traditional cameras may eventually become quirky devices used only by enthusiasts. After all, the First Law of Photography states that the best camera is the one you happen to have with you.


Errata

The link in yesterday’s edition to Joan Baez’s rendition of ‘The Battle Hill of the Republic’ should have been this. Apologies and thanks to those who tactfully pointed it out.


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Monday 10 January, 2022

Teasels

Amazing plants. Seen on a woodland walk yesterday.


Quote of the Day

“Many single-species societies in nature are like a human society in the grip of civil war. A single human society at war with itself is a complex adaptive system, in the sense that it is composed of agents following their respective adaptive strategies. But clearly, and this is a crucial distinction, the society suffering a civil war is not itself adaptive as a system. After all, it’s breaking apart.

  • David Sloan Wilson, in an essay on E.O. Wilson

I was reminded of this as I pondered the chronic divisions in Washington four days ago.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

When I was putting together the January 6 edition of this blog last week, I thought of selecting a bizarre recording of the Soviet Red Army choir singing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ but then rejected the thought for couple of reasons: it would have been a tastelessly ironic commentary on the anniversary of an ominous portent; and the fact that (as an ignoramus) I actually knew very little about the hymn. So I selected a more upbeat track instead.

Only later did I read Heather Cox Richardson’s blog post on the day. This is how it began:

Just before sunrise on a November day in 1861, Massachusetts abolitionist Julia Ward Howe woke up in the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. She got out of bed, found a pen, and began to write about the struggle in which the country was engaged: could any nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” survive, or would such a nation inevitably descend into hierarchies and minority rule?

Howe had faith in America. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” she wrote in the gray dawn. “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword; His truth is marching on.”

She thought of the young soldiers she had seen the day before, huddled around fires in the raw winter weather, ringing the city to protect it from the soldiers of the Confederacy who were fighting to create a nation that rejected the idea that all men were created equal: “I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps; They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps; I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps, His day is marching on.”

Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic became inspiration for the soldiers protecting the United States government. And in a four-year war that took hundreds of thousands of lives, they prevailed. Despite the threats to Washington, D.C., and the terrible toll the war took, they made sure the Confederate flag never flew in the U.S. Capitol.

And guess what? Here’s a photograph taken on January 6, inside the Capitol. The emblem of white supremacy had reached the heart of the American government.

At which point, I regretted not having the hymn as the Musical Alternative of the day. So here it is, belatedly … sung by Joan Baez

Link

Later in the day I was reminded that I also chose this recording for the edition of 5 November, 2020 as I pondered the numbers who had voted for Trump. An equally sombre moment.


Long Read of the Day

Capital Is Not a Strategy

If you’re looking for an intelligent antidote to the current irrational investment bubble, then this essay by Bill Janeway on Project Syndicate is just the ticket. In it he points out that the apparently limitless supply of low-cost capital available to entrepreneurs and early-stage venture-capital firms has led to the proliferation of business models with little or no potential to generate sustainable, self-financed growth. A delusion — “capital as a strategy” — has taken hold. “In the low-friction world of internet-delivered or mediated services, start-ups are eager to spend ever-greater amounts of other people’s money to acquire customers, the goal being to emerge victorious in a winner-takes-all race.”

And the strange thing is that we all know how this is ultimately going to end.

Great read. Worth your time. And if you want more, there’s the new edition of Bill’s book, Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy which, as it happens, I’ve been re-reading for something I’m working on at the moment.


Why the craze for crypto art really is beyond satire

Yesterday’s Observer column:

On 24 December, the movie Don’t Look Up began streaming on Netflix following a limited release in cinemas. It’s a satirical story, directed by Adam McKay, about what happens when a lowly PhD student (played by Jennifer Lawrence) and her supervisor (Leonardo DiCaprio) discover that an Everest-size asteroid is heading for Earth. What happens is that they try to warn their fellow Earthlings about this existential threat only to find that their intended audience isn’t interested in hearing such bad news.

The movie has been widely watched but has had a pasting from critics. It was, said the Observer‘s Simran Hans, a “shrill, desperately unfunny climate-change satire”. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw found it a “laboured, self-conscious and unrelaxed satire… like a 145-minute Saturday Night Live sketch with neither the brilliant comedy of Succession … nor the seriousness that the subject might otherwise require”.

Those complaints about crudity and OTT-ness rang a bell. It just so happens that a distinctly over-the-top satire published in 1729 attracted comparable reactions…

Read on


The UK’s kleptocracy problem

How servicing post-Soviet elites weakens the rule of law

Bracing report by Chatham House on how London has become the money-laundering capital of the world. The UK does, of course, have laws against that kind of thing. But the report shows that failures of enforcement and implementation of the law – plus the exploitation of loopholes by professional enablers (including some of the City’s fanciest legal firms) – have meant that little has been done in practice to prevent kleptocratic wealth and political agendas from entering Britain.

It’s a long, long read which will shock only those who have been vacationing on Mars. If you’re pressed for time, just see the Summary. Or, better still, Cory Doctorow’s acerbic analysis, especially this paragraph:

As interested as oligarchs are in being associated with the charitable sector, they’re even more interested in funding the UK Conservative Party itself. The Tories’ co-chairman Ben Elliot has formalized a “cash for access” arrangement where major donors are invited to private events and dinners with ministers and the PM. Elliot is a natural to court oligarchs for the Tories; his day job is running a “luxury concierge service” called Quintessentially, which provides “services” to the ultra wealthy. Elliot’s spox says that this work is “entirely separate” from his work as co-chair of the Tories.

All of which puts Boris Johnson’s wallpaper wheeze into context. By comparison with what his funders facilitate, it’s really small change. That’s no reason to ignore it, but it provides an ironic commentary on his fatuous declaration at COP26 that Britain is not a corrupt state.


My commonplace booklet

Don’t throw apple cores out the car window

I’m normally pretty scrupulous about not littering, but one thing I have done in the past is to throw apple cores out of the window onto roadside verges. After reading this piece by Katherine Martinko, though, I won’t be doing it from now on. Turns out that a study of apple trees along the sides of the M9 and A9 highways in Scotland by Dr. Markus Ruhsam, a botanist and molecular ecologist at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, has revealed that more than half have sprouted from supermarket apple varieties that have most likely been pitched out a car window in passing. This is a concern because the cultivated varieties cross-pollinate with wild apples to create hybrids that could lead to the eventual demise of wild varieties.


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