Sunday 9 August, 2020

A musical alternative to the morning’s news

Since it’s Sunday, something a bit longer (28 minutes)

James Joyce’s playlist — from a lovely Radio 4 documentary by David Norris on the significance of the music in Ulysses, made to celebrate a particular Bloomsday.


Professor Norris points out at the beginning of the recording that many people probably don’t realise that Joyce was a fine singer as a young man. On 16 May 1904 he participated in — and should have won (see later) — the national Feis Ceoil [Festival of Song] singing competition.

The James Joyce Centre takes up the story.

The Feis Ceoil is an annual celebration of Irish musical talent with competitions in various categories including singing. In 1903, the Feis Ceoil tenor singing competition was won by John McCormack. The prize was a year-long scholarship to study in Italy. Shortly after his return to Ireland in 1904, McCormack persuaded his friend Joyce to enter the Feis.

In preparation, Joyce started taking lessons from Benedetto Palmieri, the best singing teacher in Dublin, but he soon switched to Vincent O’Brien who was less expensive than Palmieri. Joyce had moved into rooms at 60 Shelbourne Road where he hired a piano to rehearse for the competition. Joyce sang in a concert given by the St Brigid’s Panoramic Choir on Saturday 14 May 1904, and two days later he sang at the Feis Ceoil.

The set pieces for the singing competition in 1904 were ‘No Chastening’ by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame), and ‘A Long Farewell,’ a traditional song arranged by Moffat. According to the review of the competition in the Irish Daily Independent on 17 May, “Mr. Joyce showed himself possessed of the finest quality voice of any of those competing…”

Part of the competition was to sing at sight from a previously unseen music score, and at that point Joyce simply walked off the stage. It seems that the judge, Professor Luigi Denza, had intended to give Joyce the gold medal but, when Joyce refused the sight-reading test, Denza could not place him among the medal-winners. However, at the end of the competition, the second-placed singer was disqualified and Denza awarded the third-place medal to Joyce. Joyce gave the medal to his Aunt Josephine and today it is owned by the dancer Michael Flatley.

There’s an interesting personal echo in this for me. The most influential teacher I ever had was a Jesuit priest called Father O’Brien, who taught us English in the fifth and sixth form and who was also — he told us once — the son of Joyce’s “less expensive” voice tutor. He was also the teacher who persuaded me that reading off the exam syllabus was one of the most sensible things an intelligent student could do. So I did. Best advice I ever had.

Amazon, books and misinformation

This morning’s Observer column:

It’s a truism that we live in a “digital age”. It would be more accurate to say that we live in an algorithmically curated era – that is, a period when many of our choices and perceptions are shaped by machine-learning algorithms that nudge us in directions favoured by those who employ the programmers who write the necessary code.

A good way of describing them would be as recommender engines. They monitor your digital trail and note what interests you – as evidenced by what you’ve browsed or purchased online. Amazon, for example, regularly offers me suggestions for items that are “based on your browsing history”. It also shows me a list of what people who purchased the item I’m considering also bought. YouTube’s engine notes what kinds of videos I have watched – and logs how much of each I have watched before clicking onwards – and then presents on the right-hand side of the screen an endlessly-scrolling list of videos that might interest me based on what I’ve just watched.

In the early days of the web, few, if any, of these engines existed. But from 2001 onwards they became increasingly common and are now almost ubiquitous…

Read on

Wendy Grossman, Whom God Preserve, sent me a link to her perceptive review of the film (Astro)Turf Wars. The main point of the movie is that what are perceived by mainstream media as “grassroots” movements are in fact often comprised of credulous folks who are skillfully manipulated by figures working for the usual crowd — Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Pharma, et al.

The link to my column comes from a passage where, in Wendy’s review,

One trainer explains that he spends 30 minutes a day going through Amazon’s book lists giving anything liberal one star and anything conservative five stars. “Eighty percent of the books I put a star on, I don’t read,” he says. “So that’s how it works”. The same goes at sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Flixster (“This is where your kids get information”), where he gives bad ratings to movies like Sicko (“I don’t want Michael Moore to come up”). “That’s how you control the online dialogue and give our ideals a fighting chance.”

What to Do When Covid Doesn’t Go Away

Ross Douhat on lessons for coronavirus long-haulers from his own experience with chronic illness.

Two months ago Ed Yong of The Atlantic reported on Covid’s “long-haulers” — people who are sick for months rather than the two or three weeks that’s supposed to be the norm. They don’t just have persistent coughs: Instead their disease is a systemic experience, with brain fog, internal organ pain, bowel problems, tremors, relapsing fevers, more.

One of Yong’s subjects, a New Yorker named Hannah Davis, was on Day 71 when his story appeared. When she passed the four-month mark, in late July, she tweeted a list of symptoms that included everything from “phantom smells (like someone BBQing bad meat)” to “sensitivity to noise and light” to “extreme back/kidney/rib pain” to “a feeling like my body has forgotten to breathe.”

That same week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a survey of Covid patients who were never sick enough to be hospitalized. One in three reported still feeling sick three weeks into the disease.

Douhat has some sensible and useful suggestions for staying sane when you’re suffering from symptoms for which conventional medicine currently seems to have no remedy. It’s a good piece, and I can imagine that some sufferers will find it helpful.

The private John Hume that few people knew

This morning the John Bowman show on RTE ran a wonderful programme compiled from the station’s archives which painted a compelling audio portrait of the man behind the towering public figure.

Many thanks to Kevin Cryan for alerting me to it.

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Saturday 8 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

”We retain the facts which are easiest to think about”.

  • B. F. Skinner

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paul Simon: Kodachrome (3min 33secs)


I wonder if this is the only popular song ever written about a brand of photographic film. When I was an analog photographer, I always used Kodachrome for 35mm and Ektachrome for 6×6. But looking back on those old slides, it’s the fidelity of Kodachrome that still strikes one. It was a terrific film.

It’s funny also to think how dominant Kodak was in its heyday. It more or less defined photography. And look what happened to it — more or less overnight.

In recent times, the hulk of the old company has taken to making PPE equipment. And its share price jumped 1500% a few days ago on news that Trump wanted to give it a $765m loan to help pay for factory changes needed to make pharmaceutical ingredients in short supply in the U.S. The loan has now been ‘paused’ pending an inquiry into alleged insider trading.

The TikTok farce

Trump’s antics over TikTok — not to mention his administration’s sudden interest in the ‘national security’ aspects of the tech industry — defy parody. Among other things, he’s been leaning on Microsoft to buy TikTok, or at any rate the bit of it that operates in the US. And then, at one point, he started saying that the US should get a cut on the transaction. Among other things, just imagine what that does to the idea of impartial regulatory scrutiny of corporate mergers and acquisitions.

In the end, I gave up following the story, on the grounds that it’s just part of Trump’s desperate attempt to harness anti-Chinese sentiment to boost his electoral chances in November. But I did enjoy Ian Bogost’s summing-up:

TikTok might be pleasant, or joyful, or even subversive. But it is also an app on your phone, on the internet, connected to data centers and driving both corporate amalgamation and transnational entrenchment. It’s a bummer, but nothing is ever just an app anymore. Maybe Microsoft will save TikTok, or maybe not. Either way, there aren’t better and worse options here, so much as worse and even worse ones.

Trump’s Axios interview with Jonathan Swan

I watched it so that you don’t have to. It was like one of those discussions you used to hear in saloon bars, back in the day when we could go to pubs.

Here’s a snatch from the transcript:

Jonathan Swan: (06:58) But here’s the question. I’ve covered you for a long time. I’ve gone to your rallies. I’ve talked to your people. They love you. They listen to you. They listen to every word you say, they hang on your every word. They don’t listen to me or the media or Fauci. They think we’re fake news. They want to get their advice from you. And so, when they hear you say, everything’s under control, don’t worry about wearing masks. I mean, these are people, many of them are older people, Mr. President.

Trump: (07:19) Well, what’s your definition of control?

Swan: (07:20) It’s giving them a false sense of security.

Trump: (07:21) Yeah. Under the circumstances right now, I think it’s under control. I’ll tell you what-

Swan: (07:25) How? 1,000 Americans are dying a day.

Trump: (07:27) They are dying. That’s true. And it is what it is. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it. This is a horrible plague that beset us.

Swan: (07:39) You really think this is as much as we can control it? 1,000 deaths a day?

Trump: (07:43) Well, I’ll tell you, I’d like to know if somebody… First of all, we have done a great job. We’ve gotten the governors everything they needed, they didn’t do their job. Many of them didn’t and some of them did. Someday we’ll sit down. We’ll talk about the successful ones, the good ones. Look at that smile. The good ones and the bad. We had good and bad. And we had a lot in the middle, but we had some incredible governors. I could tell you right now who the great ones are and who the not so great ones are, but the governors do it. We gave them massive amounts of material.

Swan: (08:11) Mr. President, you changed your message this week, in terms of you canceled the Jacksonville convention, you said, “Wear a mask.” You’re saying that, “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.” It’s not something you’d like to say, I know. And you said that. The big question-

Trump: (08:23) By the way, not get worse like the original flow. You understand that.

Swan: (08:27) Well, I hope not. It’s a 1,000-

Trump: (08:29) But If you look, Arizona’s going down. Texas is going down, and Florida is going down.

Swan: (08:31) If I could just finish my question. The question is, even some of your own aides wonder whether you would stick to that message until Election Day, whether in a week or two, you won’t say, “Right, we’ve got to reopen again. We can’t do this stuff anymore.” That you’ll get bored of talking about the virus and go back to that sort of cheerleading.

Trump: (08:52) No, I’m not going to get bored. I never get bored of talking about this, it’s too big a thing.

Swan: (08:54) So will you stick to that message?

Trump: (08:54) And again, it should have been stopped by China, and it wasn’t.

Swan: (08:59) But now it’s here and you’re the President.

Trump: (09:00) We have it here.

And so it goes, on and on and on and on.

Covid: deaths and costs in context.

Two charts from Scott Galloway:


And his observation:

Donald Trump was right, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were mistakes. Mistakes that cost us almost 7,000 American souls, 208,102 Iraqi and 111,000 Afghan civilian lives, and $1.9 trillion (inflation adjusted). But Covid-19 will register an even greater toll of American blood and treasure. The response to the novel coronavirus would have been swifter and more disciplined if the pathogen had brown skin and worshiped a different god. Americans can’t seem to wrap their head around an enemy 10,000 times smaller than the width of human hair.

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Friday 7 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

Immunology Is Where Intuition Goes to Die

Think ‘sanctions’ will trouble China? Think again.

Fascinating essay by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and activist.

The US cold war with the Soviet Union was over ideology, but today’s standoff with China is different. The Chinese state has no ideology, no religion, no moral agenda. It continues wearing socialist garb but only as a face-saving pretence. It has, in fact, become a state-capitalist dictatorship. What the world sees today is a contest between the US system of free-market capitalism and Chinese state capitalism. How should we read this chessboard?

With hindsight, it’s almost comical to reflect on the West’s naiveté and wishful delusions about China. The high point of it, I suppose, was the idea of Cameron and Osborne about a new “golden era” opening up for UK-China trade and other relations. I remember the University’s pathetic nervousness about demonstrations and other signs of hostility when Xi Jinping came to visit Cambridge. And then of course there were the fond illusions of many other UK universities who were so keen to open campuses in China.

Ai Weiwei was never impressed by our naiveté.

Washington bears much of the responsibility for what has happened. In the years after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, administrations of both parties touted the absurd theory that the best plan was to let China get rich and then watch as freedom and democracy evolved as byproducts of capitalist development.

But did capitalist competition, that ravenous machine that can chew up anything, change China? The regime’s politics did not change a whit. What did change was the US, whose business leaders now approached the Chinese dictatorship with obsequious smiles. Here, after all, was an exciting new business partner: master of a realm in which there were virtually no labour rights or health and safety regulations, no frustrating delays because of squabbles between political parties, no criticism from free media, and no danger of judgment by independent courts. For European and US companies doing manufacture for export, it was a dream come true.

In a way, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the hawks on China were right. We’re now back in a bi-polar world. China is a systemic challenge and has to be approached as such. What’s needed on the Western side is a new George Kennan. What we’ve got instead is a posturing imbecile in the White House.

So what would be a sensible approach for the West to adopt?

Tim Garton Ash suggested some answers in a Guardian piece last month.

We need to:

  • Think long term
  • Combine competition and cooperation
  • Focus on China’s internal dynamics
  • Don’t believe we can engineer their system
  • Always remember that we are addressing a society as well as a state
  • Remember that China is not the Soviet Union
  • Unity is strength something that Trump is incapable of understanding)
  • Remember that Cold Wars are won at home

I really like this last point. As Tim says:

By far the most important single thing that liberal democracies did to prevail in the first cold war was to make our own societies prosperous, free, open and attractive. The same will be true this time. A former Chinese student of mine has written a fascinating essay about the attitudes of Chinese students who return home after studying at western universities. His conclusion: the experience of living in the west does not make returning Chinese students, as we might once have hoped, perfect pro-western liberal democrats. Instead, they become “double dissidents”, highly critical of both systems. It’s not our foreign policy that will ultimately convince them. It’s what we do at home.


The Workforce Is About to Change Dramatically

Three predictions for what the future might look like as a result of Covid-19. Mostly about the US, but might be relevant for us too.

1 The “Telepresence” Revolution Will Reshape the U.S. Workforce

Since 2000, as spending on travel, food, and entertainment has surged, employment in leisure and hospitality—a large category that covers restaurants, hotels, and amusement parks—has increased three times faster than the rest of the labor force.

But the boom times for this super-sector may be over, according to the economist David Autor, a co-chair of the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future. In a new paper co-authored with MIT’s Elisabeth Reynolds, he forecasts that the rise of remote work—or what they call “telepresence”—will lead to a more homebound life that creates less work for others.

2 Remote work will increase free-agent entrepreneurship and decrease collegiality

In the past few decades, the office has served, for many people, as a last community standing. In an age where various associative institutions are in retreat—such as religious congregations, bowling leagues, and unions—there is one place where the majority of adults ages 25 to 55 have kept showing up, almost every day, of almost every week. At work.

Now many companies, thrown headfirst into the remote-work experiment, have had to hurriedly retrofit their office practices for a new world.For many workers, their emotional relationships with colleagues have changed because their spatial relationships with those colleagues have changed. Many white-collar companies have become virtual group chats punctuated by Zooms. This is not business as usual.

3 A Superstar-City Exodus Will Reshape American Politics

Today’s Democratic Party is inefficiently distributed across the country. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Manhattan and Brooklyn by about 1 million votes—more than Donald Trump’s margins of victory in the states of Florida, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania combined. In election after election, liberals dominate in cities, running up huge margins in downtown areas while narrowly losing in sparser places. If Democrats abandoned liberal enclaves and spread into Red America, they could more easily win elections.

This could happen in the UK too. Tory shires beware.

The Impact of COVID-19 on the Nature of Work

Here’s the Abstract of an interesting NBER paper. It reads (in part):

We explore the impact of COVID-19 on employee’s digital communication patterns through an event study of lockdowns in 16 large metropolitan areas in North America, Europe and the Middle East. Using de- identified, aggregated meeting and email meta-data from 3,143,270 users, we find, compared to pre- pandemic levels, increases in the number of meetings per person (+12.9 percent) and the number of attendees per meeting (+13.5 percent), but decreases in the average length of meetings (-20.1 percent). Collectively, the net effect is that people spent less time in meetings per day (-11.5 percent) in the post- lockdown period. We also find significant and durable increases in length of the average workday (+8.2 percent, or +48.5 minutes), along with short-term increases in email activity.


Are humans intelligent?

This is nice: someone asked GPT-3 “are humans intelligent?”

Its answer is interestingly funny and subtle. Here’s an excerpt:

I will attempt to prove this new definition is superior to all previous attempts to define intelligence. First, consider humans’ history. It is a story of repeated failures. First humans thought the Earth was flat. Then they thought the Sun went around the Earth. Then they thought the Earth was the center of the universe. Then they thought the universe was static and unchanging. Then they thought the universe was infinite and expanding. Humans were wrong about alchemy, phrenology, bloodletting, creationism, astrology, numerology, and homeopathy. They were also wrong about the best way to harvest crops, the best way to govern, the best way to punish criminals, and the best way to cure the sick.

I will not go into the many ways humans have been wrong about morality. The list is long and depressing. If humans are so smart, how come they keep being wrong about everything?

So, what does it mean to be intelligent? Well, it’s clearly not the ability to form a correct hypothesis, because humans have failed at that thousands of times. Maybe intelligence is the ability to make the correct decision, but humans are also bad at that. They’re terrible at making decisions about politics, the economy, the environment, technology, education, medicine, and almost everything else. So, if intelligence isn’t the ability to make correct decisions or form correct hypotheses, then what is it?

Good question.

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Thursday 6 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

”It’s Mussolini or a second chance for America. That’s what’s on the ballot in November.”

Musical alternative to today’s Radio 4’s Today programme

Handel: Semele, HWV 58 “Where’er you walk” sung by Andreas Scholl


Today is the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima

This remarkable (public domain) photograph shows the Japanese delegation on the deck of the USS Missouri, waiting to sign the surrender document.

From the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Hiroshima was bombed on the morning of August 6, 1945. The city, flat and surrounded by hills, was in many ways an ideal target for the atomic bomb, at least from the perspective of its creators. Their goal was destruction and spectacle, to show the Japanese, the Soviets, and the whole world, what the potential of this new weapon was. The geography of Hiroshima meant that a bomb with the explosive yield of “Little Boy” (the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT), detonated at the ideal altitude, could destroy nearly the entirety of the city.

The historian Richard Rhodes has a sombre piece today in the Bulletin.

He starts with something that Neils Bohr said to Franklin Roosevelt in the Spring of 1944 about the significance of the weapon when war was still raging in Europe and in the Pacific: “We are in an entirely new situation, that cannot be resolved by war.”

National security”, says Rhodes,

is based on the belief that nations can only make themselves more secure by making their adversaries less secure. That’s a formula for mutual insecurity—for arms races and the continuing threat of war.

In a world armed with nuclear weapons, it’s a formula that holds potential for the deaths of billions of human beings and the destruction of the human and natural world.

National security so-called is the present policy of the nuclear powers, the United States and Russia at the head of the line. The two countries between them maintain a total arsenal of 13,000 nuclear weapons. The other seven nuclear powers combined maintain another 1,200. Should those weapons ever be exploded, they would darken and freeze the earth with a nuclear winter equivalent or nearly so to the asteroid impact 66 million years ago that shrouded the world in smoke and darkness long enough to starve out more than 90 percent of all living species, including the dinosaurs that had dominated the world for the previous 60 million years.

The only rational course is to continue on the course on which we thought Gorbachev and Reagan were about to embark when they met at their 1986 Reykjavik summit meeting and had a discussion that came within “a hair’s breadth” of an agreement between the two leaders to begin the process of abolishing all the nuclear weapons in the world.

Given what’s happening now, that looks like an impossible dream. The US and Russia have 13,000 nuclear warheads between them. Other nations have 1,200 (including the near-bankrupt UK). God knows how many China has. And the West has… Trump.

What if targeted advertising is actually a waste of time and money (for advertisers)?

Fascinating thought from Wired:

In May 2018, as the European Union’s landmark privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation, went into effect, the main Dutch public broadcaster set in motion a grand experiment. The leadership at Nederlandse Publieke Omroep—essentially the BBC of the Netherlands—interpreted the law strictly, deciding that visitors to any of its websites would now be prompted to opt in or out of cookies, the tracking technology that enables personalized ads based on someone’s browsing history. And, unlike with most companies, who assume that anyone who skips past a privacy notice is OK with tracking, any NPO visitor who clicked past the obtrusive consent screen without making a choice would be opted out by default.

Result: 90 per cent opted out.

Here is where the ad tech industry would have predicted calamity. A study performed by Google last year, for example, concluded that disabling cookies reduced publisher revenue by more than 50 percent. (Research by an independent team of economists, however, pegged the cookie premium at only 4 percent. Needless to say, there were methodological differences.) If the Google study was right, then NPO should have been heading for financial disaster. The opposite turned out to be true. Instead, the company found that ads served to users who opted out of cookies were bringing in as much or more money as ads served to users who opted in. The results were so strong that as of January 2020, NPO simply got rid of advertising cookies altogether. And rather than decline, its digital revenue is dramatically up, even after the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic.

Well, well. Interesting, ne c’est pas?

What the post-pandemic future looks like

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s best to be realistic. I don’t know of any expert who expects that we can go back to the way we were any time soon. Various pieces around the Net are picking up on this sombre assessment.

Here, for example, is “The Coronavirus Is Never Going Away” by Sarah Zhang in The Atlantic.

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has sickened more than 16.5 million people across six continents. It is raging in countries that never contained the virus. It is resurging in many of the ones that did. If there was ever a time when this coronavirus could be contained, it has probably passed. One outcome is now looking almost certain: This virus is never going away.

The coronavirus is simply too widespread and too transmissible. The most likely scenario, experts say, is that the pandemic ends at some point—because enough people have been either infected or vaccinated—but the virus continues to circulate in lower levels around the globe. Cases will wax and wane over time. Outbreaks will pop up here and there. Even when a much-anticipated vaccine arrives, it is likely to only suppress but never completely eradicate the virus. (For context, consider that vaccines exist for more than a dozen human viruses but only one, smallpox, has ever been eradicated from the planet, and that took 15 years of immense global coordination.) We will probably be living with this virus for the rest of our lives.

And here’s Megan Scudellari in Nature on “How the pandemic might play out in 2021 and beyond”:

June 2021. The world has been in pandemic mode for a year and a half. The virus continues to spread at a slow burn; intermittent lockdowns are the new normal. An approved vaccine offers six months of protection, but international deal-making has slowed its distribution. An estimated 250 million people have been infected worldwide, and 1.75 million are dead.

Scenarios such as this one imagine how the COVID-19 pandemic might play out1. Around the world, epidemiologists are constructing short- and long-term projections as a way to prepare for, and potentially mitigate, the spread and impact of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Although their forecasts and timelines vary, modellers agree on two things: COVID-19 is here to stay, and the future depends on a lot of unknowns, including whether people develop lasting immunity to the virus, whether seasonality affects its spread, and — perhaps most importantly — the choices made by governments and individuals.

In other words: this virus is here for the long haul. We may as well get used to it.

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Wednesday 5 August, 2020

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Alison Krauss: Down to the River to Pray. 3 minutes.


Papers leaked before UK election in suspected Russian operation were hacked from ex-trade minister

LONDON (Reuters) – Classified U.S.-UK trade documents leaked ahead of Britain’s 2019 election were stolen from the email account of former trade minister Liam Fox by suspected Russian hackers, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because a law enforcement investigation is underway, said the hackers accessed the account multiple times between July 12 and Oct. 21 last year.

They declined to name which Russian group or organisation they believed was responsible, but said the attack bore the hallmarks of a state-backed operation.

Reuters story

And Liam Fox, Britain’s very own Neocon and Brexiteer, was the target. Delicious.

Rodney Brooks: what big things might change?

Things will continue to change. Below I have put a few things that I think could change from now into the beginning of the next century. I am not saying that any particular one of these will be what changes. And I would be very surprised if more than half of these will be adopted. But I have selected the ideas that currently gnaw at me and do not feel as solid as some other ideas in science. Some will no doubt become more solid. But it will not surprise me so much if any individual one of these turns into accepted wisdom.


>There is no dark matter.
>The Universe is not expanding.
>The big bang was wrong.


>There is a big additional part of quantum mechanics to be understood.
>String theory is bogus.
>The many worlds interpretation is decided to be confused and discarded.


Why Gregory Bateson matters

There’s a lovely and thought-provoking essay by Ted Gioia in the LA Review of Books on “one of the smartest and most wide-ranging intellects of the counterculture”.

He has, for the most part, been scandalously forgotten, yet his concepts and principles are especially relevant to the concerns of the digital age. Bateson worked at the interfaces between technology, environment, and individual psychology, and he grasped the specific dangers faced by society when these three forces are in conflict with each other.

Facebook, Amazon, and Google didn’t exist back when Bateson lived, but he would have understood with acute insight what risks their dominance brings. If he were alive today, he would have perspicacious things to tell us about a host of other problems, whether in our environment at large, our neighborhoods and city streets, or in the deep recesses of our psyches. In fact, his specialty was understanding the ways these are all linked and how changes in one sphere often start with shifts in another. Perhaps more than anyone of his generation, Bateson grasped that the revolution won’t be televised — in fact, it can’t — if the conflict is taking place in our own heads.

Gioia’s essay made me realise (guiltily) that I’ve never read Bateson’s collection of essays, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, a deficiency that I took steps to remedy today. “Bateson”, Gioia writes,

believed that one of the greatest innovations in human history was the feedback loop. He frequently talked about the steam engine as an analogy for healthy human interactions, focusing on the controls in the engine that check the process and keep it running at a steady pace. When looking for similar feedback loops in human interactions, Bateson saw that they didn’t always exist, or operate in the way they should. As a result, he recognized that there were two kinds of systems: ones that relied on feedback to create stability, and others that tended to escalate and create runaway trends.

For him, the Cold War arms race was an example of the latter. Rivalries are human systems that tend to move to extreme limits before they are corrected — often by reaching some dangerous or even disastrous endpoint. In the case of the arms race, this endpoint took place soon after Bateson’s death with the collapse of the Soviet Union — which he would have said teaches us that the resolution of a runaway process often happens outside the process, because there are no obvious stopping points or checks within it. But under other scenarios, this runaway social dynamic could have achieved a truly catastrophic endpoint in a kind of nuclear Armageddon. Disruptions in the environment are other obvious examples of this.

Why is this especially relevant today? Just reflect for a moment. We’re living in a world that is being dismantled and reshaped by a communications environment that is essentially a maelstrom of runaway positive feedback loops.

There’s lots more to think about here.

Senator Ron Wyden helped create the Big Tech industry. Now he wants to hold it accountable.

Wyden was the co-author of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act which exempted Internet platforms from liability for what people posted on their platforms. It was the stay-out-of-gaol card that enabled the colossal growth of social media and other platforms. If he is really beginning to wonder about the wisdom of that exemption then it’s time for the tech platforms to get worried.


There’s No Such Thing As a Tech Expert Anymore

Members of Congress clearly don’t understand the tech companies they’re supposed to regulate, says Siva Viadhyanathan in Wired. But neither does anyone else.

Does anyone, even Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai, really understand these massive, complex, global information systems with their acres of infrastructure, billions in revenue, and billions of users almost as diverse as humanity itself?

I think not. That’s the thing about complex systems. Almost no one understands any of them. As technology writer Samuel Arbesman writes in his important book, Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension, the messiness of complex systems, in which teams of people understand one aspect yet no one gets the whole thing, invited such calamities as the May 2010 “flash crash” of global financial markets. A complex system like a computer-driven securities market has multiple points of failure: a tangle of computer code, human actions, laws and regulation, and massive amounts of financial data that no one understands. Ultimately, many people have theories of what went wrong that day. No one knows for sure—or how to avoid another such collapse…

Arbesman’s book is great, btw.


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Tuesday 4 August, 2020

Sheep safely grazing

Seen on our walk this evening as we passed a large meadow containing lots of contented sheep.

Click on the image to see a larger version.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bach: Sheep may safely graze. Piano adaptation. Played by Alessio Bax. 6 minutes.


One of my favourite Bach arias. Triggered by the photograph above.

A photographic gift

After breakfast this morning, I found that someone had left a gift outside our front door.

It was a beautiful book of photographs by a friend and former colleague, Michael Dales: a record of a trip he and his wife made in the US four years ago. Micheal is an Über-geek who was the CTO of one of the companies that my friend Quentin and I co-founded many years ago.

The story behind the book is that Michael and his wife, Laura James (also a very talented geek), discovered that they both had to visit California for work in 2016. And so they decided to make a holiday out of it. They flew to Dallas, rented a car and drove 1800 miles across Texas, through New Mexico, Arizona and into Utah. At Salt Lake City they swopped the car for a berth on the California Zephyr, a sleeper train with diner and observation lounge that took them 700 miles across Nevada, through the Sierra mountains of California to Oakland, from where they both disappeared into the Bay Area for their respective work-engagements.

The book is a photographic record of the journey. It opens with a street scene from downtown Dallas…

… and ends with a photograph of Michael reflected in the door of a laundromat in Mountain View.

It closes with this lovely Epilogue on “the one picture I wish was in this book, but isn’t”.

At Goulding’s Lodge, where we stayed overnight next to Monument Valley, there was a Safeway. It was your normal, small, worn supermarket where tourists and workers could get their dinner or toiletries or whatever you go to a small supermarket for. We were there to get some things for our onward journey and for breakfast the next day, as we had an early start.

In this Safeway, as you walked through the aisles, you could have been anywhere. It was the same as the small supermarket around the corner from where you live, that you go to and don’t notice, as it’s not a place to be noticed. But then in this particular Safeway you head to the checkouts, and there you’ll find one of the most surreal views: in the foreground, the dull grey humdrum everyday checkouts you find in in any supermarket; through the large storefront window behind them, the giant, vivid red buttes of Monument Valley jutting up from the land with the blue skies behind them, radiating a geological magnificence.

The juxtaposition of the mundane and the spectacular was almost overwhelming. Here I was thinking about whether I should have got milk or yoghurt, and there was nature putting on one of its best shows. Perhaps we were just lucky with how the setting sun caught it, but it’s an image that I’ll not readily forget, a near perfect visual metaphor capturing how in life we get caught up in the necessary mundanities of life but out there is the spectacular waiting to be discovered.

Unfortunately, we were in the supermarket to get some shopping, and so I hadn’t lugged my camera to the store to capture this. Perhaps I’ll have to nip back to the shops at some point.

In the note accompanying the book Michael had written a note. “Thanks for the part you played in getting me to pick up a camera”, it read. And then I remembered that when he started to work with us I had noticed that he was beginning to take photographs, and that he had what photographers call “a good eye”. And so I encouraged him to continue. And he really started to blossom after he bought a digital SLR — from memory I think it was a Canon EOSD which was marketed in the US as the Digital Rebel. For many photographers it was the gateway camera that persuaded them that digital photography could be almost as good as analogue photography. (The equivalent for me was the Nikon D70.)

The book was a lovely gift from a lovely colleague. And it made my day. But next time I see him I’ll suggest he also carries an iPhone 11 Pro because — as the saying goes — the best camera is always the one you have with you!

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Monday 3 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Ireland is not a romantic dream; it is not a flag; it is 4.5 million people divided into two powerful traditions. The solution will be found not on the basis of victory for either, but on the basis of agreement and a partnership between both. The real division of Ireland is not a line drawn on the map, but in the minds and hearts of its people.”

  • John Hume, RIP

Today’s musical alternative to the morning news

John Field – Nocturne No. 5 in B flat major, played by Stephen Leaney


Why there won’t be an ‘election night’ on November 3rd

Worrying (and not implausible) scenario in “How the Media Could Get the Election Story Wrong”

We may not know the results for days, and maybe weeks. And a lot could go wrong in the interval. So it’s time to rethink “election night”.

This might be alarmist, but it isn’t fantasy. Even the Facebook boss has woken up to it.

Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, told me in a brief interview on Saturday that he’s planning to brace his audience for the postelection period. He said the site planned a round of education aimed at “getting people ready for the fact that there’s a high likelihood that it takes days or weeks to count this — and there’s nothing wrong or illegitimate about that.” And he said that Facebook is considering new rules regarding premature claims of victory or other statements about the results. He added that the company’s election center will rely on wire services for definitive results.

It’s possible, of course, that Joe Biden will win by a margin so large that Florida will be called for him early. Barring that, it’s tempting to say responsible voices should keep their mouths shut and switch over for a few days to Floor Is Lava, and give the nice local volunteers time to count the votes. That, however, would just cede the conversation to the least responsible, and conspiratorial, voices.

Yep. This won’t be over until January 20 2021, when Trump is finally ejected from the White House.

Interestingly, a group of former top government officials called the Transition Integrity Project have been gaming four possible scenarios, including one that doesn’t look that different from 2016: a big popular win for Mr. Biden, and a narrow electoral defeat, presumably reached after weeks of counting the votes in Pennsylvania.

For their war game, they cast John Podesta, who was Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, in the role of Mr. Biden. They expected him, when the votes came in, to concede, just as Mrs. Clinton had.

But Mr. Podesta, playing Mr. Biden, shocked the organizers by saying he felt his party wouldn’t let him concede. Alleging voter suppression, he persuaded the governors of Wisconsin and Michigan to send pro-Biden electors to the Electoral College.

In that scenario, California, Oregon, and Washington then threatened to secede from the United States if Mr. Trump took office as planned. The House named Mr. Biden president; the Senate and White House stuck with Mr. Trump. At that point in the scenario, the nation stopped looking to the media for cues, and waited to see what the military would do.

Which brings us — yet again — to Ben Franklin’s reply to the woman who asked him — as he emerged from the final deliberations of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 — “well, doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” “A republic”, said Franklin, “if you can keep it.”

We’ll see if they can.

Remembering John Hume

He was the greatest Irishman of our times. Tommie Gorman, RTE’s Northern Editor, knew Hume well and has written a lovely tribute to him.

Strasbourg was also the city where I saw him in his most sociable mode. He had a favourite restaurant, Maison Des Tanneurs, a family-run business at 42, Rue du Bain aux Plante. Religiously Hume would invite the quota of visiting journalists from Dublin, the Brussels-based Irish crew and any other waifs and stragglers to a meal.

He’d tell his party-piece joke about Mickey Doherty from Derry, he would insist on his visitors having Dame Blanche for desert, he would order more bottles of gewürztraminer and he would pay the bill. Before the fun broke up in the small hours, he would insist on singing ‘The Town I Love So Well’ in the nearby bar, The Aviator.

Hume had a real, steely courage to back his profound conviction that violence would never solve the Northern Ireland problem. And alongside that steel was an equally profound generosity of spirit. He gave the money from his Nobel Prize to charity.

Two inspired moves gave his cause momentum. One was to connect with the most powerful politicians of Irish extraction in the US — Senator Ted Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York State, and New York governor Hugh Carey. This enabled him to tap into the vast power of the Irish diaspora in the US, to erode the IRA’s fundraising grip on Irish-American sympathies and to challenge British influence in official Washington.

The second inspiration was to stand for the European Parliament where he was able to attract and harness the support of powerful European opponents of political violence — particularly Jacques Delors and Helmut Kohl.

Hume suffered from dementia at the end. But, as Gorman recalls, his memories

often came back when our paths crossed after his retirement in 2004. At close up range his eyes would clock some form of familiarity. “What’s your name” he would say. I’d tell him who I was and give an account of some of our past adventures. Sometimes the anecdotes would register and he’d break into a smile.

May he rest in peace.

Why it’s difficult to assess how badly the UK is doing

Good Guardian piece by David Spiegelhalter:

It is worth noting that the problems of counting Covid-19 deaths are vividly illustrated every day, when the Public Health England dashboard releases a count for the UK; for example, 119 and 83 additional coronavirus deaths were reported last Tuesday and Wednesday. NHS England is currently experiencing fewer than 15 Covid-19 deaths a day in hospitals, but the implausibly high PHE figures for England apparently also include any of the 250,000-plus people who have ever tested positive and have gone on to die of any cause, even if completely unrelated to coronavirus.

The Department of Health and Social Care has suspended these daily figures, but they are still going on all the international sites, and presumably are being used by others to judge how things are developing in the UK. They may be giving an inappropriately negative picture, as the ONS recently reported that the total number of deaths in the UK has shown no overall excess for the past five weeks.

But when we look at where the deaths are happening it is clear that we are not back to normal: people are still staying away from hospitals and dying at home. In England and Wales there were 766 excess deaths that occurred at home in the week ending 17 July, only 29 of which were with coronavirus, whereas in hospitals 862 fewer deaths than normal were registered. So more than 100 deaths a day were happening in people’s homes that would normally happen in hospital – although this is at least a reduction from the peak of the epidemic, when there were 2,000 additional home deaths a week.

This is his takeaway:

My original comments still hold: we will need years to properly assess the effect of the epidemic and the measures taken against it. We’ve now got a league table, but as to why the UK has done so badly, the arguments will go on.

The nostalgia boom

Interesting survey. The UK’s favourite decade was the 1960s, apparently. 21% of “top-tier earners” (whoever they are) are “willing to spend more money opt vintage record players than the latest tech”. Men are twice as likely as women to see nostalgia as “an avoidance of the present”.

Personally, I long for the days when the marmalade was thicker and newspapers were so big that you couldn’t read them comfortably in trains.

Basically, what this demonstrates is why features editors love surveys when there’s no real news to report.

Compared with a chronological newsfeed, Twitter’s algorithm tends to show tweets that are more emotive

Fascinating piece of research by the Economist.

Source: Economist

The researchers wanted to find out if algorithmically-curated tweets are more emotive than chronologically-displayed ones. Answer: they are. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone — after all, the algorithm prioritises content that increases ‘user engagement’ — which is where the revenues come from. But it’s nice to see some evidence for it.

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Sunday 2 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

Can the planet afford more and more machine-learning?

This morning’s Observer column on GPT-3:

The apparent plausibility of GPT-3’s performance has led – again – to fevered speculation about whether this means we have taken a significant step towards the goal of artificial general intelligence (AGI) – ie, a machine that has the capacity to understand or learn any intellectual task that a human being can. Personally, I’m sceptical. The basic concept of the GPT approach goes back to 2017 and although it’s a really impressive achievement to be able to train a system this big and capable, it looks more an incremental improvement on its predecessors rather than a dramatic conceptual breakthrough. In other words: start with a good idea, then apply more and more computing power and watch how performance improves with each iteration.

Which raises another question: given that this kind of incremental improvement is made possible only by applying more and more computing power to the problem, what are the environmental costs of machine-learning technology?

Read on

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be

The easing of the lockdown on July 4 has had its predictable effect — alarming rises in numbers of new infections in many parts of country. These have now reached more than 4,000 new cases a day, attributed by the head of the government’s track-and-trace operation to social-distancing rules being “routinely flouted“ in virus hotspots.

Nothing in this is surprising. People are desperate to get back to some kind of normal behaviour — hugging friends and family, meeting, drinking, dancing, going to clubs, all the things they used to do. What everybody finds hard to realise, still less to accept, is that that ‘normal’ to which we long to return is no longer available. That train has left the station. The pre-pandemic past is indeed a different country.

When the virus first reached these shores, I had a conversation with a member of my family who saw it as just another kind of flu — more dangerous, certainly, but something essentially familiar. I tried — and failed — to persuade her that it was much more significant and far-reaching than that. Reflecting on the conversation afterwards, I thought that the analogy I should have used was that of the First World War — in the sense that the world post-1918 was unrecognisably different from the world as it was in 1913. And, as the depth and reach of the Coronavirus became clearer with every passing day, that seemed to be quite a persuasive analogy.

But actually that still doesn’t get the measure of the change that we are now living though. The most fundamental change that we — humankind — will have to accept is in our conception of our relationship with nature. This thought was sparked by reading  “From The Anthropocene To The Microbiocene“, a long essay by Tobias Rees in Noema magazine, a publication of the Berggruen Institute.

The thrust of the essay is that from Aristotle to Thomas Hobbes we humans thought of ourselves as part of nature — as just animals with a capacity for reason. But with Hobbes, we started to think of ourselves as apart from the natural world (where lives were famously “nasty, brutish and short”). And this distinction was steadily reinforced by the rise of science, the Enlightenment , capitalism, democratic politics, and so on. Nature was something that we could master, control and exploit (and despoil). As it happened, this hubristic belief in our intrinsic superiority was ultimately going to be our downfall as the pursuit of economic growth led to the collapse of the biosphere on which human life depends.

The significance of the Coronavirus, on this view, is that it interrupts our inexorable rush to climate catastrophe by reminding us of the extent to which our post-Hobbesian hubris was a delusion. We find ourselves unable to overcome and control this manifestation of part of the natural world. And getting a vaccine will not solve it, though it may make living with it more manageable. But these viruses are part of the human future from now on. They’re here to stay.

All of which means that our view of nature as something separate from us, was delusional. What we have to learn to accept is that we’re part of nature too. Given that we’ve had 400+ years of believing something very different, it’s not surprising that people are finding it difficult to come to terms with what lies ahead. There might be many lockdowns ahead until that penny finally drops.

Since we can’t beat nature, shouldn’t we be thinking of (re)joining it?

At last, the tech titans’ nerd immunity shows signs of fading

My OpEd piece in today’s Observer on last Wednesday’s Congressional Hearings on Big Tech.

The most striking thing about Wednesday’s congressional interrogation of the leaders of Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon was the absence of deference to the four moguls. This was such a radical departure from previous practice – characterised by ignorance, grandstanding and fawning on these exemplars of the American Way – that it was initially breathtaking. “Our founders would not bow before a king,” said the House antitrust subcommittee chairman, David Cicilline, in his opening remarks. “Nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy.”

If we wanted a radical departure from the legislative slumber of previous decades, this looked like it. And indeed, to a large extent, it was. One saw it, for example, in the aggressiveness of the questioning by the Democrats. At times, one was reminded of the proceedings of the US supreme court, where the justices constantly interrupt the lawyers before them to cut off any attempt at lawyerly exposition. The implicit message is: “We’ve done our homework. Now get to the point – if you have one.” It was like that on Wednesday.

The Democrats had done their homework: they had read the torrents of private emails that the subcommittee had subpoenaed. And, like any good prosecutor, they never asked a question to which they didn’t already know the answer.

The tech titans were mostly flummoxed by this approach…

Read on

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Saturday 1 August, 2020

Waving, not drowning

Click on the image to see a larger size.

Today’s musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Jan Lisiecki: Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp Minor (1830) at his 2013 Proms debut.


I Tried to Live Without the Tech Giants. It Was Impossible

One of the standard dismissive tropes of the tech companies is the airy claim that if you don’t like what a particular company is doing then you can always move to another service which is “just a click away”.

In January and February last year Kashmir Hill spent six weeks blocking Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple from getting her money, data, and attention, using a custom-built VPN. Her aim was to see if one could have a normal life without using their services. It was an amazing — and valuable — piece of work.

Following Wednesday’s House Subcommittee interrogation of four of the Big Tech bosses, Kashmir wrote a reprise of her experiment for readers of The New York Times. It’s a good read. And you can guess what she found out.

Critics of the big tech companies are often told, “If you don’t like the company, don’t use its products.” My takeaway from the experiment was that it’s not possible to do that. It’s not just the products and services branded with the big tech giant’s name. It’s that these companies control a thicket of more obscure products and services that are hard to untangle from tools we rely on for everything we do, from work to getting from point A to point B.

One of the things Kashmir discovered, for example, is that nearly everything on the Web uses Amazon’s cloud services. So even when you think you’re not interacting with Amazon, it turns out that you are.

She found two kinds of reaction to her findings.

Some people said that it proved just how essential these companies are to the American economy and how useful they are to consumers, meaning regulators shouldn’t interfere with them. Others, like Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York and ex officio member of the House’s antitrust committee, said at the time that the experiment was proof of their monopolistic power.

“By virtue of controlling essential infrastructure, these companies appear to have the ability to control access to markets,” Mr. Nadler said. “In some basic ways, the problem is not unlike what we faced 130 years ago, when railroads transformed American life — both enabling farmers and producers to access new markets, but also creating a key chokehold that the railroad monopolies could exploit.”

This is why in addition to old-style antitrust laws, we need news ones what are attuned to these new realities.

Jeff Bezos’s personal statement to the House Judiciary Subcommittee’s hearing last Wednesday

No matter what you think about Amazon or Bezos, this is a remarkable piece of storytelling. Here’s how it begins…

My mom, Jackie, had me when she was a 17-year-old high school student in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Being pregnant in high school was not popular in Albuquerque in 1964. It was difficult for her. When they tried to kick her out of school, my grandfather went to bat for her. After some negotiation, the principal said, “OK, she can stay and finish high school, but she can’t do any extracurricular activities, and she can’t have a locker.” My grandfather took the deal, and my mother finished high school, though she wasn’t allowed to walk across the stage with her classmates to get her diploma. Determined to keep up with her education, she enrolled in night school, picking classes led by professors who would let her bring an infant to class. She would show up with two duffel bags—one full of textbooks, and one packed with diapers, bottles, and anything that would keep me interested and quiet for a few minutes.

My dad’s name is Miguel. He adopted me when I was four years old. He was 16 when he came to the United States from Cuba as part of Operation Pedro Pan, shortly after Castro took over. My dad arrived in America alone. His parents felt he’d be safer here. His mom imagined America would be cold, so she made him a jacket sewn entirely out of cleaning cloths, the only material they had on hand. We still have that jacket; it hangs in my parents’ dining room. My dad spent two weeks at Camp Matecumbe, a refugee center in Florida, before being moved to a Catholic mission in Wilmington, Delaware. He was lucky to get to the mission, but even so, he didn’t speak English and didn’t have an easy path. What he did have was a lot of grit and determination. He received a scholarship to college in Albuquerque, which is where he met my mom. You get different gifts in life, and one of my great gifts is my mom and dad. They have been incredible role models for me and my siblings our entire lives.

You learn different things from your grandparents than you do from your parents, and I had the opportunity to spend my summers from ages four to 16 on my grandparents’ ranch in Texas. My grandfather was a civil servant and a rancher—he worked on space technology and missile-defense systems in the 1950s and ‘60s for the Atomic Energy Commission—and he was self-reliant and resourceful. When you’re in the middle of nowhere, you don’t pick up a phone and call somebody when something breaks. You fix it yourself. As a kid, I got to see him solve many seemingly unsolvable problems himself, whether he was restoring a broken-down Caterpillar bulldozer or doing his own veterinary work. He taught me that you can take on hard problems. When you have a setback, you get back up and try again. You can invent your way to a better place.

I took these lessons to heart as a teenager, and became a garage inventor. I invented an automatic gate closer out of cement-filled tires, a solar cooker out of an umbrella and tinfoil, and alarms made from baking pans to entrap my siblings…

Tugs your heart-strings, doesn’t it? Well, maybe not. But still: he came over as the most articulate of the four moguls.

Tom Loosemore’s ‘Internet-era ways of working’

Yesterday I blogged about something that I’d found on Tom Loosemore’s blog without giving a link to the blog. Which was a regrettable oversight — as a reader kindly pointed out to me — because Tom is always worth reading. So here’s the link.

This then set me thinking about other stuff he’s written, and I suddenly remembered a guide to intelligent ways of working that he’d written two years ago.

Here’s a early version of it that was seen pinned to a doorway, possibly somewhere in Whitehall.

The updated version is here

Don’t cower

Really good column by Josh Marshall.

I’ve been saying for months – along with so many others – that this Fall will be an ordeal of democracy. Perhaps one of the greatest threats our Republic has ever faced from internal enemies. But the truth is that the values and reflexes that make liberals and Democrats support things that will make society more just and humane lead them to react to moments like these with outrage and trembling more than mockery and power.

I can only suggest people not fall back into themselves.

All of this comes from Trump’s weakness rather than strength. A sinking ship. The answer in any trial of strength or right is to maintain the initiative rather than cower. Every reporter working a beat today should be asking Republican elected officials … asking isn’t even the right word – giving Republican elected officials their one chance to denounce and disassociate themselves from the President’s words. They have one chance. Tomorrow won’t cut it. If they want to go down with the President’s sinking ship, get their answer and lock them in.


We need to talk about ventilation

Characteristically thorough coverage by Zeynep Tufecki of the question of aerosol transmission of the virus.

Long read, but worth it if you’re interested in the issue.

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Friday 31 July, 2020

Quote of the Day

Why is flying so bad? Because it takes a lot of energy to lift a metal bucket full of people and suitcases into the air. Go figure: a Boeing 747 burns more than 190 tons of kerosene for an average long-haul flight. With 410 people on board, that’s four bathtubs per passenger. Burning that fuel emits 530 tons of CO₂. That’s nearly 2.5 times the weight of the plane, all deposited in the atmosphere.

Today’s musical alternative to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme

The lark in the morning: Cillian Vallely (pipes) and Alan Murray (guitar). About 9 minutes.


Uileann Pipes are my favourite musical instrument. Played well, they have a haunting beauty which can be sometimes exhilarating and sometimes elegiac. They are also ferociously difficult to play — the word ‘Uileann’ means ‘elbow’ in Irish, a reference to the way the musician inflates the bellows.

I love this comment below the video:

I can hardly guess what the guy who once invented the uilleann pipes was thinking… “Hmm let´s see: We have a chanter you have to use both hands to play it. We have that left elbow pumping the bellows, the right elbow to control the bag pressure to switch chanter octaves. The right knee to place the chanter on, where you have to (of course) occasionally lift it up from. So, how could I make this instrument any more difficult to play? Oh I know! Let´s invent some extra pipes you have to play with your right wrist and make them nearly impossible to keep in tune!” xD What a diabolic genius!

The Panopticon is already here

After George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” here comes the Axis of Autocracy. Ross Anderson has an interesting essay on how Xi Jinping is using artificial intelligence to enhance his government’s totalitarian control—and exporting this technology to regimes around the globe.

Despite China’s considerable strides, industry analysts expect America to retain its current AI lead for another decade at least. But this is cold comfort: China is already developing powerful new surveillance tools, and exporting them to dozens of the world’s actual and would-be autocracies. Over the next few years, those technologies will be refined and integrated into all-encompassing surveillance systems that dictators can plug and play.

The emergence of an AI-powered authoritarian bloc led by China could warp the geopolitics of this century. It could prevent billions of people, across large swaths of the globe, from ever securing any measure of political freedom. And whatever the pretensions of American policy makers, only China’s citizens can stop it. I’d come to Beijing to look for some sign that they might.

This is a long, long read (7,500 words). But worth it if you have the time. Some of it is horrifying — especially the section on the persecution of the Uighur people. But it also makes one think about the future. It’s too simplistic to write off Western hostility to and suspicion of China as just hegemonic anxiety about having the world dominated not by the US, but by a new superpower. In the US, the threat of being overtaken and outclassed in AI and related technologies is regularly used by tech companies as the rationale for keeping them unregulated at home.

And there’s the deep irony that both superpowers are in the process of building surveillance states of unimaginable intrusiveness. The difference is that in China this is all controlled by the state, whereas in the West it’s happening via a strange amalgam of loosely regulated (or unregulated) tech companies and the connivance of the state which needs them to complement its own surveillance capabilities. So in the end, it all comes down to whether one believes (as Ross Anderson does) that in China the chances of this being stopped are essentially zero, whereas in the West (and the US) there’s some chance of the technology being regulated and brough under some kind of public control. Talk about a choice between evils.

Tom Loosemore on crappy website design

Tom Loosemore is the nearest thing the UK has to a guru on digital transformation of government services. In 2010 he founded the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS), and served as its deputy director for five years. And he led the project to create GOV.UK, the single website for UK Government, which has now received over 3 billion visits, and won the UK’s top design award in 2013. His blog is a source of insightful commentary on design issues.

I’ve just come on an example:

One sign that your website isn’t meeting the needs of all your users is when Matthew Somerville gets sufficiently grumpy about it to do a proper version himself.

Today Matthew released his own version of the UK Government’s official coronavirus data dashboard, which last week received a shiny revamp.

A shiny revamp that only worked after a bloated pile of client side javascript had been dumped in your browser (nearly a Mb of React).

A shiny revamp that didn’t initially publish the raw data, and when it did, broke any automated links to the actual data by rendering them via javascript. I imagine the data journalists doing great coronavirus work at the likes of the FT were thrilled.

Just to make the point forcefully, Matthew posted a little video showing the performance of the ‘official’ version alongside the performance of his rewritten version.


You get the message?

Lovely stuff.

Kathleen MacMahon on the Irish women writers who were ignored at home but feted abroad

Wonderful essay. Samples:

Mary Lavin, or Grandmother (never Granny or Nana or, God forbid, Gran), made her name as a world-class short story writer from the unlikely setting of the Abbey Farm, near Navan, County Meath. The mother of three small children, she was widowed as a young woman, becoming a single mother and lone farmer in one fell swoop. While the male writers of her generation worked out of sight in holy sanctity, Grandmother took up a table in Bewley’s cafe on Grafton Street and wrote there until my mother and aunts joined her from school. In the evenings, the men gathered in the pubs around Baggot Street, while Grandmother cooked spaghetti bolognese and held court at her mews in nearby Lad Lane. If she broke the mould, it was for the simple reason that there was no other way for her to write and meet her peers. She had young children at home. Needs must.


Female writers, no less today than in my grandmother’s day, must find a way of working amid all this noise, and they do. Anne Lamott famously said that, before she had a child, she couldn’t write if there were dishes in the sink – but afterwards she could write if there was a corpse in the sink.


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