Tony Brooker R.I.P.

Tony Brooker, the guy who developed Autocode, arguably the world’s first machine-independent programming language, has passed away at the age of 94. He did it to make one of the early computers, the Ferranti Mark 1 in Alan Turing’s lab in Manchester University, useable by human beings. There’s a lovely recording of him talking about it on the British Library site. Also, a nice obit in the New York Times.

Dining with Stalin

One of the glories of the blogosphere is its infinite variety. The economist Branko Milanovic has a fascinating post on his blog after he discovered an obscure book (probably based on an academic dissertation) in a secondhand bookstore in St Petersburg. The book is a detailed (400-page) account of 47 banquets that Stalin hosted between 1935 and 1949. The banquets, hosted in various reception rooms of the Kremlin, included between 500 and 2000 people and were, Milanovic writes,

sumptuous affairs, especially if contrasted with generalized penury of meat, fresh fruit and vegetables that often was the case in Moscow and even more so in the provinces. All produce and drinks however were Soviet-made. Compared to their equivalents organized by Hitler and his lieutenants and studied by Fabrice d’Almeda in The High Society in the Third Reich, Soviet banquets were more monotonous, less extravagant, and more modest. They were also more business-like in not (generally) including family members.

There were two groups of diners. The first (obviously) were members of the Politburo and top government officials. The guests were various groups of people. Many of the banquets were done after the May 1 or the Day of the October Revolution (November 7) military parades and thus included mostly the Army and the Navy. One especially favoured group, apparently, were Air Force pilots.

These provided some comic interludes. For example:

There were several special banquets for the pilots that in the 1930s achieved some notable successes for the Soviet aerospace, including flying to the North Pole, saving sailors stuck in the icy northern desert, and flying long-range non-stop flights to North America. These banquets seemed to put Stalin in an exceptionally good mood because he treated pilots with special consideration, allowing them liberties that very few were granted, including having his toast twice interrupted by the same pilot, at two different banquets. At times, there were unusual scenes that in a more bourgeois Western settings would have been unimaginable—as when Stalin invited the pilots to the leadership table and then began to hug and kiss each of them, which in turn led the entire Politburo to do likewise. With a dozen of pilots and more than a dozen of members of the leadership that implied perhaps as many as 150 or even 200 hugs and kisses. An almost California-like therapy of free hugs.

For those at the top table, however, things were anything but comical:

Even if the core was stable (Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich, Kalinin, Voroshilov, and to some extent Mikoyan, Andreev and Zhdanov) included also the people who were, at various times, later purged and executed. For example (p. 158), “From June 1937 to April 1938, almost to his arrest, Kosior sat five times at that [leadership] table….In August 1938 Kosior’s wife was shot. And then he was arrested himself. He was taken to the higher level of punishment [probably torture]”. Overall, out of 21 people (excluding Stalin) who sat at the leadership table in 1937 and 1938, eight were shot and two killed themselves (p. 162). Thus almost half of the convives to that supreme table were killed by the main host. Not a usual occurrence.

Simultaneously creepy and fascinating.

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.

How Microsoft reinvented itself

This morning’s Observer column:

It may have escaped your attention, but Microsoft recently became the third company in history to reach a valuation of one trillion dollars. To which the standard reaction, I have discovered, is: “Eh? Microsoft!!!” Wasn’t that the boring old monolith fixated on desktop products and operating systems that missed out on the smartphone revolution? The company that Bill Gates used to run before he decided to devote himself full-time to giving his money away? The company whose Exchange Server is the bane of every office-worker’s daily grind? The ruthless monopolist who missed the world wide web and then set out to exterminate the one company – Netscape – that hadn’t?

Yes, that Microsoft. Given the company’s history, this is surely the greatest comeback since Lazarus. But with one difference: where Lazarus’s resurrection was (according to the New Testament) instantaneous, Microsoft’s took longer. How this happened is a story that will keep MBA students occupied for decades, but with the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that it has three main strands…

Read on

Sixty years on

Today is the 60th anniversary of CP Snow’s celebrated Rede Lecture on the Two Cultures, which started an argument that sometimes rages still. Tim Harford has a nice essay marking the anniversary. Sample:

Snow was on to something important. His message was garbled, in fact, because he was on to several important things at once. The first is the challenge of collaboration. If anything, The Two Cultures understates that. Yes, the classicists need to work with the scientists, but the physicists also need to work with the biologists, the economists must work with the psychologists, and everyone has to work with the statisticians. And the need for collaboration between technical experts has grown over time because, as science advances and problems grow more complex, we increasingly live in a world of specialists.

The economist Benjamin Jones has been studying this issue by examining databases of patents and scientific papers. His data show that successful research now requires larger teams filled with more specialised researchers. Scientific and material progress demands complex collaboration.

Snow appreciated — in a way that many of us still do not — how profound that progress was. The scientist and writer Stephen Jay Gould once mocked Snow’s prediction that “once the trick of getting rich is known, as it now is, the world can’t survive half rich and half poor” and that division would not last to the year 2000. “One of the worst predictions ever printed,” scoffed Gould in a book published posthumously in 2003.

Had Gould checked the numbers, he would have seen that between 1960 and 2000, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty had roughly halved, and it has continued to fall sharply since then. Snow’s 40-year forecast was more accurate than Gould’s 40 years of hindsight. Even when we fancy ourselves broadly educated, as Gould did, we may not know what we don’t know. That was one of Snow’s points.

But the deepest point of all — buried a little too deep, perhaps — is a practical problem that remains as pressing today as it was in 1959: how to reconcile technical expertise with the demands of policy and politics. In short — have we really had enough of experts?

The historian Lisa Jardine highlights this sentence in Snow’s argument: “It is the traditional culture, to an extent remarkably little diminished by the emergence of the scientific one, which manages the western world.” We didn’t decide we’d had enough of experts in 2016; we made that decision long ago.

Cambridge University Press published a nice anniversary edition of the lectures a while back, with a wonderful introductory essay by Stefan Collini.

In some ways, Snow was a sad — and sometimes a ponderous — figure. I met him once. I was writing a profile of Solly Zuckerman at the time and went to see him in his office in London (he was an official in Harold Wilson’s administration). I found him to be helpful and generous with his time.

What the Huawei debacle demonstrates

Nice Guardian column by Larry Elliott in which he focusses on an interesting (and under-discussed) aspect of the Huawei controversy: why a country (the UK) that emerged from the second world war with a technological edge in computers and electronics should require the assistance of what is still classified as an emerging economy to construct a crucial piece of national infrastructure. It’s a sign, he argues, of how diminished Britain is as a manufacturing force that the only rivals to Huawei are not the great names of the past such as Marconi and Plessey, but Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson.

The Huawei affair should help to puncture a few myths. In the early years of China’s rapid industrialisation, the UK took comfort from the fact that it was only low-cost manufacturing that was migrating east. Developed countries like Britain, it was said, would do all the clever, high-end, profitable stuff, while the Chinese would have to be content with churning out cheap toys and clothes.

It seemed highly complacent to assume that China – a country which was making technological breakthroughs while Europe was stuck in the dark ages – would be content with being an assembly plant for western consumer goods, and so it has proved. China is now one of the world leaders in artificial intelligence and solar panels. When the government wanted to build a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point, the Chinese got the contract.

A second myth that China has well and truly busted is that all will be well provided market forces are not hampered by state interference. China has had an industrial strategy over many decades, and has stuck to it, while during the same period Britain has seen the state’s role wane and manufacturing become an ever smaller part of the economy.

Britain’s mid-20th century edge in computing, jet engines and radar was a direct consequence of putting the economy on a war footing between 1939 and 1945. What’s more, the reason the UK retains a global presence in aerospace and pharmaceuticals is that companies have been able to rely on the state – in the form of the Ministry of Defence and the NHS – being an important customer.

Interestingly, Huawei is now trying to persuade the residents of Sawston — a village just down the road from me — that they should be relaxed about the company’s plans to build a new factory on its outskirts.

The paradox that is the EU

I’ve been sorting out my files and in the process came on the transcript of an interview that one of my heroes — Ralf Dahrendorf — gave to an Italian journalist, Antonio Polito in 2003. It was published in the Journal of Democracy, Volume 14, Number 4, October 2003, p. 103. (doi). The headline over the interview is “The Challenge of Democracy”. Here’s the section that brought me up short, because it gets right to the heart of the problem of the EU. Dahrendorf says:

You are bound to know the witty remark, now no longer new, that in looking at the conditions set for the candidate countries for enlargement, we can draw only one conclusion: Were the European Union itself to ask to become an EU member, it would not be accepted. For its structure does not fit the basic criteria of political democracy that the Union imposes for the accession of, say, Poland or Hungary or Slovenia. We are facing the historical absurdity of having created something partly for the purpose of strengthening democracy, but having created it in a way that is intrinsically not democratic.

And why is it not democratic? In part the answer lies in the very origins of the project. There is little doubt that when the European Economic Community—and still earlier the European Coal and Steel Community—was planned, democracy did not constitute the prime con- cern of those who designed and built the new construction. The central issue was instead the need to set up an efficient mechanism for making decisions. The result was a typically French solution: Two categories of interests had to be reconciled, the European interest on one side, and national ones on the other. So there was a need for two institutions: one to represent the European interest, charged with putting forward pro- posals, and the other to represent national interests, charged with reaching decisions. That was how the Commission and the Council were invented. Rather a brilliant idea, but certainly not democracy. Europe was designed in such a way that the European interest could find a locus for expression in the Commission, while decisions were ultimately made in terms of national interests, which in any case were prevalent; and this was guaranteed by the Council’s role. That is why, right from the start, the unanimity rule has always operated, and failure to reach unanimity still remains a trauma.

I would add that, in my view, the Assembly (as the European Parlia- ment used to be known), which initially was made up of representatives of the national parliaments, was nothing but an afterthought in the initial project. At bottom, it was not even necessary in the original structure, and for a long time that was the way it was treated.

That’s the strange paradox of the EU. It was, from the beginning a well-intentioned, elite project. Indeed, it had to be an elite project, because the populations of the original member states would never had agreed to it — had they been consulted. (This is the ‘democratic deficit’ that Jurgen Habermas lamented in The Lure of Technocracy). And of course the attempt to retrofit the EU with democratic institutions (like the European Parliament) was always going to be ineffective (though the Parliament has gradually acquired a degree of control over the Commission). But ultimately it the Council of Ministers that holds the power, and although its members are elected via their nation-states’ various electoral systems, democratic control is heavily diluted and indirect.