How Silicon Valley lost its shine

This morning’s Observer column:

Remember the time when tech companies were cool? So do I. Once upon a time, Silicon Valley was the jewel in the American crown, a magnet for high IQ – and predominately male – talent from all over the world. Palo Alto was the centre of what its more delusional inhabitants regarded as the Florence of Renaissance 2.0. Parents swelled with pride when their offspring landed a job with the Googles, Facebooks and Apples of that world, where they stood a sporting chance of becoming as rich as they might have done if they had joined Goldman Sachs or Lehman Brothers, but without the moral odium attendant on investment backing. I mean to say, where else could you be employed by a company to which every president, prime minister and aspirant politician craved an invitation? Where else could you be part of inventing the future?

But that was then and this is now…

Read on

Happy Bloomsday!

It’s Bloomsday — June 16 — the day when all the action in James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place. For years — since the early 1990s — I’ve celebrated it by giving a lunch in my college at which guests have Gorgonzola sandwiches and drink Burgundy (same as Leopold Bloom did in Davey Byrne’s pub in the novel) and read from the great book. I can’t hold the lunch this year because of coincidental diary conflicts, but the lovely Bronac Ferran, a regular attendee, sent me (as a consolation prize) this photograph she’d taken recently while on a trip to Zurich — the city where Joyce died and is buried together with Nóra, his wife, and Giorgio, their son.

The Self-Destruction of American Power

For anyone interested in escaping from “the sociology of the last five minutes”, this long essay by Fareed Zakaria about the ending of American hegemony is a great read.

Sometime in the last two years, American hegemony died. The age of U.S. dominance was a brief, heady era, about three decades marked by two moments, each a breakdown of sorts. It was born amid the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in 1989. The end, or really the beginning of the end, was another collapse, that of Iraq in 2003, and the slow unraveling since. But was the death of the United States’ extraordinary status a result of external causes, or did Washington accelerate its own demise through bad habits and bad behavior? That is a question that will be debated by historians for years to come. But at this point, we have enough time and perspective to make some preliminary observations.

As with most deaths, many factors contributed to this one. There were deep structural forces in the international system that inexorably worked against any one nation that accumulated so much power. In the American case, however, one is struck by the ways in which Washington—from an unprecedented position—mishandled its hegemony and abused its power, losing allies and emboldening enemies. And now, under the Trump administration, the United States seems to have lost interest, indeed lost faith, in the ideas and purpose that animated its international presence for three-quarters of a century.

Worth reading in full.

Wanting to be Margaret

David Runciman has a lovely essay in the current issue of The London Review of Books.

Most British prime ministers since Margaret Thatcher, he observes, have wanted to be Thatcher in one way or another.

This pattern is now repeating itself among the farcically long list of would-be contenders for the Tory leadership. They all, in their different ways, want to be another Thatcher. And they are all desperate to demonstrate that they won’t be another May. How to make that case? By frantically channelling their inner iron lady. ‘Dominic is the male Thatcher,’ Raab’s supporters will tell anyone who’ll listen. ‘Like Thatcher, he is “unyielding”,’ one former cabinet minister said. What this seems to mean is that he will keep hammering away until he gets his way. Raab puts it like this: ‘I would use every lever of the executive to make sure we could execute government policy.’ He is hardly alone in this kind of talk. As his rivals lay out their various Brexit plans, one thing they have in common is the promise to supply the sense of purpose that has been missing until now. Whether it’s outright no deal, managed no deal, renegotiation, revival of the existing deal or even a second referendum, they will avoid the fate that befell May by being more resolute than she was. They won’t let the Europeans or the civil service or the judges or the Speaker or the parliamentary opposition or the chatterati knock them off course. They are not for turning.

There is, however, one problem with this.

It is hard to imagine any politician being more resolute than May. Remember, she thought she was Thatcher too. She went at it with an iron determination not to be deflected from her course. And look where that got her. What are the levers they can pull which she couldn’t? Parliament has shown that it does not take kindly to being bullied on the question of Brexit, and the Speaker is barely on speaking terms with the executive. Talk of proroguing Parliament to force through a no deal Brexit before 31 October is surely for the birds. Ignoring the views of the judges is not a way to avoid being troubled by them; it’s what gets you into trouble with them. The Irish government is not going to budge any more than the Brexit negotiators in Brussels are. In any case, Westminster’s authority barely extends to the devolved parts of the UK these days, let alone any further afield. Trying to browbeat the civil service doesn’t make sense unless the goal is to get nothing done at all. There is no magic switch that can be flicked to make the Irish border question go away; whatever fantasies of a technological solution have been entertained, it remains beyond the present government’s grasp. Raab can huff and puff all he likes. Being a successful prime minister is not just a question of willpower. Getting the job done depends on bringing people along with you. And people are not levers you can pull.

Great piece. Worth reading in full.

Why has the US got it in for cryptographers?

Ross Anderson is one of my most remarkable academic colleagues. He’s one of the world’s leading experts on cryptography, a Fellow of the Royal Society and a thoroughly good egg. His landmark book Security Engineering: A Guide to Building Dependable Distributed Systems (which is now going into a third edition) has recently been inducted into the cybersecurity canon, but Ross’s application for a US visa to attend the gala awards ceremony has been mysteriously flagged for a four-month “administrative review” by the US immigration authorities. So he decided to give his acceptance speech in Cambridge and relay it via YouTube.

Interestingly, another world expert on cryptography, Adi Shamir, (he’s the “S” in “RSA”) was denied a visa to visit the USA to participate in this year’s RSA conference. Shamir is a recipient of the Turing Prize — computer science’s answer to the Nobel Prize. And other attendees at the conference reported that other crypto experts have been denied access to the US.

So what’s going on?

UPDATE Ross has made the second edition of his book available as a free download from here. In the same place you can also find advance drafts of several of the new chapters of the forthcoming third edition.

The anatomy of male rage

Terrific New Yorker essay about the ‘incel’ phenomenon.

These days, in this country, sex has become a hyper-efficient and deregulated marketplace, and, like any hyper-efficient and deregulated marketplace, it often makes people feel very bad. Our newest sex technologies, such as Tinder and Grindr, are built to carefully match people by looks above all else. Sexual value continues to accrue to abled over disabled, cis over trans, thin over fat, tall over short, white over nonwhite, rich over poor. There is an absurd mismatch in the way that straight men and women are taught to respond to these circumstances. Women are socialized from childhood to blame themselves if they feel undesirable, to believe that they will be unacceptable unless they spend time and money and mental effort being pretty and amenable and appealing to men. Conventional femininity teaches women to be good partners to men as a basic moral requirement: a woman should provide her man a support system, and be an ideal accessory for him, and it is her job to convince him, and the world, that she is good.

Men, like women, blame women if they feel undesirable. And, as women gain the economic and cultural power that allows them to be choosy about their partners, men have generated ideas about self-improvement that are sometimes inextricable from violent rage.