Thursday 15 July, 2021

Once upon a time…

… I used to go to London on the train. And bring my bike. But that was in another universe.


Quote of the Day

”The Pentagon: a place where costs are always rounded off to the nearest tenth of a billion dollars.”

  • Merton Tyrrell, 1970.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Eric Clapton & Steve Winwood |Can’t find my way home

Link


Long Read of the Day

 Antitrust posturing

Benedict Evans is one of the most astute and knowledgeable commentators on the tech industry, and he’s always worth reading. This essay gives his sceptical take on the raft of ‘antitrust’ bills tabled by the Democrats in the US House of Representatives recently, and is worth a read.

My 2p-worth Although I’m passionately in favour of regulating tech giants, I agree with much of what Ben says. The current wave of legislative action belongs to the “something must be done” genre. Some of the antitrust suits — like the Facebook complaints recently rejected out of hand by a US judge — are feeble and poorly thought out. And there’s a kind of ‘disjointed incrementalism’ about lots of the others. A longer view would say that democracies face two — currently unsolved — problems:

  • what kinds of regulatory instruments are appropriate for reining in the tech giants?
  • What would appropriate new regulators look like?

The strange attractions of automobile exhaust

Further to my musings yesterday on why some drivers (mostly male, I’d say) like to buy gars that make a lot of noise, I had a lovely email from Euan Williamson who tells me that I can get an app that compensates for the eerie quietness of our Tesla.

XLR8 (pronounced accelerate) is an exciting new app from 2XL Games that makes your car sound like an exotic supercar as you drive! Connect your iPhone, iPod or iPad to your car stereo and you’re off and running. Select from one of five exciting engines: * Classic V8 muscle car  NASCAR engine * Ford GT40 * Ferrari sports car * Lamborghini supercar

Funnily enough, I regard the Tesla as ‘an exotic supercar’.


Finally, Italy bans cruise liners from docking in Venice

From Reuters:

ROME, July 13 (Reuters) – Italy on Tuesday banned cruise liners from Venice lagoon to defend its ecosystem and heritage, moving to end years of hesitation and putting the demands of residents and culture bodies above those of the tourist industry.

The government decided to act after the United Nations culture organisation UNESCO threatened to put Italy on a blacklist for not banning liners from the World Heritage site, cabinet sources said.

The ban will take effect from Aug. 1, barring ships weighing more than 25,000 tonnes from the shallow Giudecca Canal that leads past Piazza San Marco, the city’s most famous landmark.

Hooray! I wonder if it would have happened without the pandemic, which reminded people of what a civilised place Venice could/can be. Those cruise liners are grotesque. I remember being shocked when I first encountered them in Sydney harbour. They’re basically floating apartment blocks and they looked out of place even against that larger backdrop. But in Venice they were so out of proportion that it was obscene.


How to write an opening chapter

One of my grandsons, who currently lives in Italy, was with us for the weekend. He’s 11 and had been reading Italo Calvino, so at breakfast we began to talk about his writing, and I mentioned If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, which I’d loved but he hadn’t read. So I dug it out and opened it, and this is what we found:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice — they won’t hear you otherwise — “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!”

And so it goes on — like this:

Link

You get the idea. Without realising it, you’re hooked.


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Wednesday 13 July, 2021

Manuel Castells

The great scholar of Cyberspace, photographed during one of his visits to Cambridge.


Quote of the Day

”T.S. Eliot is quite at a loss
When clubwomen bustle across
At literary teas
Crying – ‘What if you please,
Do you mean by the Mill on the Floss?’”

  • W.H. Auden

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Matt Molloy & Laoise Kelly | The Mayo Fling

Link

New to me. Lovely combination of flute and harp.


Long Read of the Day

Illusions of empire: Amartya Sen on what British rule really did for India

An interesting essay adapted from Sen’s new book. Surprise, surprise! Many of the arguments defending the Raj are based on serious misconceptions about India’s past, imperialism and history itself.

As a long-time critic of the Imperial afterglow that still grips British governments I particularly liked this quote:

Those who wish to be inspired by the glory of the British empire would do well to avoid reading Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, including his discussion of the abuse of state power by a “mercantile company which oppresses and domineers in the East Indies”. As the historian William Dalrymple has observed: “The economic figures speak for themselves. In 1600, when the East India Company was founded, Britain was generating 1.8% of the world’s GDP, while India was producing 22.5%. By the peak of the Raj, those figures had more or less been reversed: India was reduced from the world’s leading manufacturing nation to a symbol of famine and deprivation.”

This was Boris Johnson’’s Global Britain’ at its best.


Olympics News

Coronavirus Variant Excited To Compete With World’s Top Mutations In Tokyo This Summer

Exciting news from The Onion about the forthcoming ‘superspreader’ event in Tokyo:

LONDON—Having prepared for months to make its mark at this year’s Olympics, coronavirus variant B.1.525—a U.K. native best known for its skillful weakening of antibody responses—confirmed Thursday that it was excited to compete in Tokyo against top mutations from across the globe. “I can’t wait to travel to Japan this July and show the whole world what I’m capable of,” said the highly transmissible permutation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, recounting how it had honed its spike proteins and vaccine resistance in anticipation of the international gathering of deadly pathogens. “I know South Africa, Brazil, and India will be bringing the heat, but I’m planning to have a big breakout moment myself. And if I’m not a household name by the closing ceremonies, well, there’s always the 2021 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally later in the summer.” Olympic bookmakers, observing that the United States is overdue to produce a highly lethal mutation, are reported to have the young California variants B.1.427 and B.1.429 favored in the spread.


How to write about cars

Stephen Bayley is, like I once was, a petrolhead. He’s always been fascinated by automobiles, and he writes about them with a dreamlike fluency.

I bought this — his latest book — a few weeks ago and have been dipping into it with delight ever since. Here’s a sample:

Link

As a Tesla owner, I have a dog in this fight. I love the fact that there’s no engine noise. I have a friend who is an ardent petrolhead, and he has the most beautiful Aston-Martin convertible you ever saw. It’s a gorgeous car, but despite its ultra-powerful engine, not actually as quick as our EV. One day I found him gazing admiringly at the Tesla and asked him if he’d buy one. He shook his head. Why not? I asked. “Because it doesn’t make any noise,” he replied.

Stephen Bayley is onto something.


Tuesday 13 July, 2021

Geology as Art

A rock formation in Co. Donegal, which is — geologically — the most interesting county in Ireland.


A fishy story

Our goldfish passed away last night. He was 26 years old. When we used to tell people that they invariably thought we were fibbing. But we weren’t. I got him as a 10th birthday present for my son, who was 36 last March, so we’re sure about his age. On further investigation, though, it turns out that, by goldfish standards, he wasn’t so old. One source says that they have an average lifespan of between 20 and 40 years.


Quote of the Day

Oscar Wilde

”Do you mind if I smoke?

Sarah Bernhardt

”I don’t mind if you burn.”


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

J.S. Bach | Goldberg Variations, BWV 988: Aria | Lang Lang

Link

Lovely. But also interesting to compare it with the Glenn Gould version.


Long Read of the Day

 How Rentier Capitalism Is Destroying Dublin

A sobering essay by Jack Sheehan on how Dublin, ‘Dear Dirty Dublin’, has become like every other capital city in the Western world — a bastion of inequality in which no normal person can afford to live. Dublin is now the capital city of a country in hock to foreign banks and tech giants. Its PR portrays it as a modern city that is home to the world’s most dynamic industries; but for its residents, daily life is scarred by one of Europe’s worst housing crises and rampant workplace precarity.

Nicely written too.


Tech Monopolies and the Insufficient Necessity of Interoperability

Another Long Read, but also one that’s too good to miss. Cory Doctorow (Whom God Preserve) on why monopolies are bad for everyone except those who own them.

I care about monopolies for exactly one reason: self-determination. I don’t care about competition as an end unto itself, or fetishize “choice” for its own sake. What I care about is your ability to live your life in the way you think will suit you, to the greatest extent possible, and taking into account the obvious limits when other people’s needs and wants conflict with you realizing your own desires.

We live in a world of vast and increasing monopoli­zation, with one, two, or a few companies controlling everything from the arts (publishing, movies, music, streaming, comics, bookselling, movie theaters, tal­ent agencies, games, wrestling) to finance (banks, investment funds, auditors, bond-rating agencies) to agribusiness (seeds, livestock, tractors, fertilizer, pesticides, precision agriculture) and everything in between (radio stations, cruise lines, cheerleader uniforms, pharmaceuticals, glass bottles, airlines, eyeglasses, athletic shoes, fast food, food delivery, pet food).

When just a few people have the ultimate say over what you can read, or where you can work, or how our food is grown, or even what you feed your cat, you’d better hope that they value the same things as you!

Nobody writes as compellingly about tech as Cory does. And this is just the latest example of what he can do. So read it and marvel.

En passant I loved the way he picks up on Justice Stevens’s Dissent in the Citizens United case, in particular this passage about the absurdity of treating corporations as persons in a political context:

‘Corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their “personhood” often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of “We the People” by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.’

Yep.


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Text of Joe Biden’s Executive Order on restoring competition in the US economy. Really interesting and much more far-reaching than most of us expected. Link
  • Don’t Piss Off Bradley, the Parts Seller Keeping Atari Machines Alive The world’s greatest hoard of original Atari equipment is guarded by a very temperamental, very devoted dragon named Bradley. Lovely profile of a nerd original. Link
  • Why Do Electric Cars Look The Way They Do? Because They Can Nice essay on how not having to accommodate a petrol engine could free up EV designers. Link

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Monday 12 July, 2021

Orchid in a cottage window


Quote of the Day

”The profession of book-writing makes horse-racing seem like a solid, stable business.”

  • John Steinbeck, accepting the Nobel Prize for literature.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Elvis Costello Plays “Penny Lane” for Paul McCartney at the Obama White House

Link


Long Read of the Day The woman who brought us the world

MIT Technology Review profile of Virginia Tower Norwood.

Had Virginia Tower Norwood listened to her high school guidance counselor, she would have become a librarian. Her aptitude test showed a remarkable facility with numbers, and in 1943, he could think of no better way for a young woman to put such skills to use. Luckily, Norwood didn’t suffer from the same lack of imagination. The salutatorian of her Philadelphia high school class, she had long been devouring logic puzzles and putting the slide rule her father had given her at age nine to good use. Norwood ignored her counselor’s advice and applied to MIT.

She would go on to become a pioneering inventor in the new field of microwave antenna design. She designed the transmitter for a reconnaissance mission to the moon that cleared the way for the Apollo landings. And she conceived and led the development of the first multispectral scanner to image Earth from space—the first in a series of satellite-based scanners that have been continuously imaging the world for nearly half a century.

Great story.


How bitcoin and Putin are enabling the ransomware crime spree

My column in yesterday’s Observer:

I’ve just visited the Kaseya website. “We Are Kaseya,” it burbles cheerfully. “Providing you with best-in-breed technologies that allow you to efficiently manage, secure and back up IT under a single pane of glass.

“Technology,” it continues, “is the backbone of all modern business. Small to mid-size businesses deserve powerful security and IT management tools that are efficient, cost-effective, and secure. Enter Kaseya. We exist to help multi-function IT professionals get the most out of their IT tool stack.”

Translation: Kaseya produces remote management software for the IT industry. It develops and sells this software to remotely manage and monitor computers running Windows, OS X, and Linux operating systems. As many organisations will grimly confirm, managing your own IT systems is a pain in the arse. So Kaseya has lots of happy customers in the US, the UK and elsewhere.

Or, rather, it did have. On 2 July it was the victim of a ransomware attack that affected between 800 and 1,500 of its small business customers, potentially making it the largest ransomware attack ever.

Do read the whole thing


Why the fact that Biden’s ‘right to repair’ order also covers electronics could be a really big deal.

Great piece by Cory Doctorow which — as usual — is full of relevant links, including to Zephyr Teachout’s article in The Nation:

Presidential power in this area is technically limited but vast in practice. While some agencies, like the Department of Agriculture, must follow his orders, independent agencies like the FTC don’t have to listen to their president. They can sit on their hands and do nothing. But a clear signal of purpose and vision from the president has, in practice, an enormous energizing effect. It gives cover for agencies that want to be aggressive but find themselves drowned in the arguments by corporate lobbyists. It gives dissidents within somnolent agencies the argument that action is necessary. And it forces agencies that disagree to do some explaining: If any independent agency heads choose not to go forth with the rulemaking in the directive, they’ll be getting lots of questions about why not. For someone like FTC Chair Lina Khan, who undoubtedly was moving in the direction laid out in the directives regardless, it puts the wind at her back, and quiets the corporate critics within the Democratic Party who would be tempted to say that responsible exercise of power is stepping out of line.


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Friday 9 July, 2021

Quote of the Day

”A woman reading Playboy feels a little like a Jew reading a Nazi manual.”

  • Gloria Steinem

(Note for younger readers: Playboy was a magazine, now defunct, founded by Hugh Hefner in 1953 with the aim of making soft porn respectable. It was a great commercial success for a while, but its last issue was Spring 2020. NYmag had a good, and judicious essay marking its demise.)


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel | Where’er you walk | Kenneth McKellar | Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Adrian Boult

Link

This what I would sing in the bath. If I could sing.


Long Read of the Day

Will China invade Taiwan?

A panel of so-called ‘superforecasters’ considers the likelihood of an imminent global conflict.

Interesting piece by Tom Chivers. As some readers know, I have deep forebodings about Taiwan’s future — and not just because I’ve been reading 2034: a novel of the next World War.

Just this week, a Chinese magazine published a video showing a simulation of a ballistic missile attack on Taiwan, disabling its defences ahead of an invasion. A week before, China sent 28 warplanes, including nuclear-capable bombers, into the air defence zone around Taiwan. At the same time, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping gave a speech promising to “utterly defeat any attempt toward ‘Taiwan independence’.”

The US is an ally of Taiwan’s; it would be expected to defend it, should China attempt to invade. But just as in Korea, two-thirds of a century ago, the question is: would it? And will China invade?

So the question was put to six people who have a track record of being good forecasters.

Read on.


Biden is drafting an Executive Order to promote a ‘Right to Repair’

This is really interesting.

On Tuesday, the White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki revealed President Biden is preparing an executive order on “competition.” At the same time, the Biden administration has directed the US Department of Agriculture to develop new rules that’ll grant farmers the “right to repair their own equipment how they like.”

According to Bloomberg, the upcoming executive order will also direct the Federal Trade Commission to craft new rules to stop manufacturers, including phone makers, from imposing onerous repair restrictions on their products.

The news represents a significant win for Right to Repair advocates. For years now, the movement has been calling on electronics vendors, including Apple, to make their products easier to fix, citing the benefits to consumers and to the environment. However, many consumers must instead go through official repair services from the tech companies, which can cost more.

I wrote about this four years ago, and our new research Centre is returning to the issue now by exploring user-repairable and upgradeable smartphones like the Fairphone.

There are at least two things going on here. One is the increasingly intrusive push by companies for continuing control over their digital products long after the customer has paid to ‘own’ them. (That’s the John Deere and Amazon Kindle philosophy.)

The other is the pernicious way incessant technological advance combines with the marketing strategy of planned obsolescence to push consumers into ceaseless updating. The smartphone market is the most notable example of this, but lots of other tech-related outfits do it too.


Tyler Cowen’s ideal university

This Bloomberg column of his is predictably provocative.

I would start with what I expect students to know. They should be able to write very well, have a basic understanding of economics and public policy, and a decent working knowledge of statistical reasoning. I would give a degree to students who demonstrated “B-grade” competence in all of these areas; what now goes for passing C-minus work wouldn’t cut it.

Most important, the people who write and grade the students’ tests would not be their instructors. So students would have to acquire a genuine general knowledge base, not just memorize what is supposed to be on the exam.

His ideal school would dispense with assistant deans, student affairs staff and sports teams. (I’m with him all the way here.) The focus would be on paying more money to the better teachers. Students would have the option of living on campus but not be required to do so.

Instructors would not have tenure, but would have to compete for students — by offering them classes and services that would help them graduate and improve the quality of their certification pages. Teachers would be compensated on the basis of how many students they could attract, in a manner suggested long ago by Adam Smith, who himself lived under such a system in 18th-century Scotland.

The very best instructors could earn $300,000 to $400,000 a year. They might attract students through their research, or with their active online presence, or even by helping students negotiate online courses from other institutions; the students themselves would judge the efficacy of those investments. Faculty would also be paid for mentoring students, as each student would choose a small circle of advisers to serve as guides to the system.

Don’t try recommending this in an Ivy League Faculty Club.


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Christ in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction Where is Walter Benjamin when you need him? Link.
  • How I Saved Enough to Buy a House With My Parents’ Money By Eli Grober. Link

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Thursday 8 July, 2021

Evening in America

Dave Winer had this wonderful Edward Hopper picture on his blog yesterday. It reminded me of how much I love Hopper’s work. Most of his pictures evoke impressions of the US in an age when it was possible to be optimistic about its future, and one of my favourites — Nighthawks — has a figure in it who looks very like my Dad.

I’m old enough to remember a time when there were no ‘petrol stations’, just roadside pumps like the ones in the picture. One of our family friends, Horace Davin, had a big grocery store in the town square. And he also had a couple of petrol pumps on the street outside. It was no big deal: he sold groceries; and he sold petrol. And during the Suez crisis in 1956, when petrol was briefly rationed in Ireland, Horace was a good man to have as a friend.

If Edward Hopper were alive today, what kinds of scenes would he paint? The new Gridserve EV-charging station in Braintree, perhaps? There’s a touch of genius in its design. When you drive in, it looks exactly like the forecourt of a petrol station — until you realise that the pumps aren’t pumps. Its designers understood a basic truth about new technology: if you want to encourage the average Joe to switch to EVs, you have to make doing so as ‘normal’ as possible. Only geeks and show-offs want to be ahead of the curve. Sensible people don’t.


Quote of the Day

Samuel Coleridge

“Did you ever hear me preach?”

Charles Lamb

”I never heard you do anything else.”


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

JJ Cale, Eric Clapton | After Midnight and Call Me the Breeze

Link


Long Read of the Day

Social class in America

TL;DR version: Class in America is so complex, so multidimensional and fragmented, that it requires an enormous amount of cultural capital just to navigate.

It also requires a perceptive thinker to analyse it, and Smith fits that bill.

Link


Another, sobering, link

  •  4th Of July Shootings Across The Country Killed More Than 180 People From NPR. Link

The Libertarian slogan “Live Free or Die” needs updating. It now reads “Live Free and Die”.


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


Wednesday 7 July, 2021

Waiting for Hockney

March 15, 2012, outside the Royal Academy.


Quote of the Day

”No critic who is any good sets out deliberately to enlighten someone else; he writes to put his own ideas in order.”

  • Alfred Kazan

(Same goes for bloggers.)


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

“Schindler’s List” | Performed in Budapest before an audience of 8,000 people | Soloist Csongor Korossy

Link

Thanks to Neil Sequiera for suggesting it.


Long Read of the Day

The New York Times’s ‘Nazi Correspondent’

An interesting piece in Tablet Magazine.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, The New York Times bureau chief in Berlin, Guido Enderis, was known to sit in the bar of the city’s famous Adlon Hotel spouting “a loudmouthed defense of Nazism,” eventually provoking another reporter to complain to the Times’ publisher: “Isn’t it about time that The New York Times did something about its Nazi correspondent?”

But the Times had no intention of doing anything about Enderis. In fact, it valued his close connections to the Nazi government, as it had throughout the 1930s…

On the other hand, even the American Ambassador to the UK, Joe Kennedy (father of JFK and a grade-A monster), was deeply impressed by the Nazis and opposed giving military or economic aid to his host country. During the Battle of Britain in November 1940 he publicly suggested that “Democracy is finished in England”. Robert Harris wrote a fine novel, Fatherland, based on the idea that Kennedy’s views prevailed and the Nazis occupied Britain.


The 3 Simple Rules that underscore the danger of the Delta variant. 

Another sobering read from Ed Yong. His three ‘rules’ are:

  1. The vaccines are still beating the variants.
  2. The variants are hitting unvaccinated people hard. And most of the world’s population is unvaccinated.
  3. The longer Rule 2 continues, the less likely Rule 1 will hold. Unvaccinated people — and especially those who have been asymptomatically infected — are basically variant factories. So one day we’ll get to, say, the Omricon (15th) variant and all vaccines will need to be reconfigured.

We’re in this for the long haul. Which is why it’s in all our interests to vaccinate everyone, because if a more infectious variant exists anywhere it will eventually be everywhere. As we’re discovering with Delta.


What really matters

Dave Birch has a nice story on his blog about the retirement party for a senior banker in the old days.

The guy in question had risen to a fairly senior position, so he got a fancy retirement party as I believe is the custom in such institutions. When he stepped up on stage to accept his retirement gift, the chairman of the bank conducted a short interview with him to review his lifetime of service.

He asked the retiree “you’ve been here for such a long time and you’ve seen so many changes, so much new technology in your time here, tell us which new technology made the biggest difference to your job?”

The guy thought for a few seconds and then said “air conditioning”.

It’s a funny story, says Dave,

but it’s an important story because it includes a profound truth. Robert Gordon’s magisterial investigation of productivity in the US economy “The Rise and Fall of American Growth”, shows very clearly that the introduction of air conditioning did indeed lead to a measurable jump in productivity, clearly visible in the productivity statistics.

Same was true — still is — about what has come to be known as EdTech — i.e. educational technology. One of my Open University colleagues, Tim (now Sir Tim) O’Shea, was an acknowledged expert on it, but he was always judiciously sceptical of the tech ‘solutionism’ implicit in the industry. Famously, he once infuriated a prestigious conference by declaring that “the only piece of educational technology known for sure to work is the school bus!” He later went on to become Master of Birkbeck College in London and then Principal of the University of Edinburgh so his scepticism did him no harm.


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


Tuesday 6 July, 2021

Seen on our cycle yesterday evening.


Quote of the Day

”I have long felt that any book reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has just put on full armour and attacked a hot fudge sundae or banana split.”

  • Kurt Vonnegut

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Wagner | Prelude to «Lohengrin» | Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic

Link

Mark Twain famously observed that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds”. He was wrong about this piece.


Long Read of the Day

When the Truth, and My Groom-to-Be, Stood Naked Before Me

TL;DR – Our partners can make us aware sometimes of important realities — ones we may be afraid to face — in the most loving of ways.

Lovely essay by Lauren DePino

My groom-to-be stood naked on the balcony of our fourth-floor Los Angeles apartment and threw his self-portrait over the railing, his firm toffee form glinting in the sun.

We peered at the oil painting below, a textured image of him in his 20s. The gold-leaf frame boomeranged light right up to us.

“How could you do that?” I yelled, incredulous for a moment that I chose to marry this man. “That’s my favorite painting of yours.” I darted out the door — making sure to slam it — and ran to the street. Miraculously, a car hadn’t bulldozed the art.

People were watching from their balconies…


Donald Rumsfeld, contd.

I’m temperamentally suspicious of the tradition of not speaking ill of the dead, and most of the establishment obituaries of Rumsfeld seemed to run true to that form. The notable exception was George Packer’s assessment that Rumsfeld had been the worst Secretary of Defense in American History.

But that’s really rather tame compared with the actuality. Which is why I took to “Donald Rumsfeld, Rot in Hell”, a sprightly assessment by Ben Burgis in Jacobin Magazine. Sample:

In an infamous column … at the National Review, Jonah Goldberg made the bluntest version of the case for invading Iraq, approvingly quoting an old speech by his friend Michael Ledeen: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” Warming to the same theme around the same time at the New York Times, Thomas Friedman said that “these countries” and their “terrorist” pals were being sent an important message by the very unpredictability of the Bush Administration’s warmongering: We know what you’re cooking in your bathtubs. “We don’t know exactly what we’re going to do about it, but if you think we are going to just sit back and take another dose from you, you’re wrong. Meet Don Rumsfeld – he’s even crazier than you are.”

Here’s what the craziness of Donald Rumsfeld looked like in practice for the citizens of the “crappy little countries” the United States picked and threw against the wall during Rumsfeld’s years as Bush’s Secretary of Defense: a peer-reviewed study published in The Lancet, one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals, in 2006 — the year Rumsfeld left office — estimated 654,965 “excess deaths” in Iraq since the invasion in 2003. That’s 2.5 percent of the total population of the country dead as a result of the violence.

This doesn’t, of course, take into account the spiraling waves of chaos and bloodshed that have continued to rock the region throughout the eighteen years since the region was destabilized by the 2003 invasion. A similar story has played out on a smaller scale in Afghanistan — where US troops are still present and wedding parties are still being bombed almost two decades after Rumsfeld and his friends got their invasion.

And this counting of corpses leaves out the heartbreak of families in these countries that lost loved ones. It leaves out the millions of refugees displaced from their homes. It leaves out the suffering of people who had limbs blown off or had to care for people who did.

And it leaves out one of the most gut-wrenching aspects of Rumsfeld’s time in office: his and President Bush’s open embrace of what they called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or what any human being with a shred of conscience would simply call “torture.”

That’s more like it. Thanks to Andrew Curry for alerting me to it.


Thinking up ideas is easy; getting stuff done is hard

I was struck by this passage in “The Long Shadow of the Future” by Steven Weber and Nils Gilman in Noema magazine:

Put simply, ideas are cheap and easy to create and distribute — never more so than on social media platforms. But really knowing how to get things done effectively requires a set of capabilities that are difficult to create, expensive to maintain and improve, and not something you describe in 280 characters. Pandemics and other mass emergencies and mobilizations like wars demonstrate the difference in sharp relief. The ability to execute becomes visibly more important than the ability to ideate. What’s more, the best ideas are rarely discovered in isolation from practical implementation. Improvement depends on concrete feedback from what happens when ideas are put into practice in the world. What works and what doesn’t reveals itself to operators before (and often more clearly than) it reveals itself to idea generators.

A lot of what we’ve learned so far from the pandemic is about state capacity — and particularly the lack thereof — as democratic states hollowed out by four decades of neoliberal governance discovered how much they were no longer able to do.


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Monday 5 July, 2021

Bliss

This photograph, which shows one of my school friends, Ivan Morris, at the top of his backswing last Wednesday at the 11th hole in Lahinch — for my money the loveliest golf links in the entire world.

The picture brought back all kinds of nice memories. Golf is the only game I was ever hooked on. I played it more or less every day from the age of ten until I went to Cambridge at the age of 22, when I stopped after discovering how time-consuming it would be to join the University golf club. By that stage, my wife and I had a baby son and the idea of being away for many weekends — not to mention for hours on end during weekday afternoons — was repugnant to our feminist souls, and so my clubs went into storage and have been used only on rare occasions ever since. But it’s still the only game that grabs my attention, and the only one that I will watch on TV.

Just for the record… Wednesday was, by all accounts, a balmy day on the Clare coast; the 11th is a 165-yard Par 3, and Ivan’s 5 iron into a right—to-left crosswind smacked down in the heart of the green. Golfers among you will know that it doesn’t get much better than that.


Quote of the Day

“I am reading Henry James and feel myself entombed in a block of smooth amber.”

  • Virginia Woolf

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Venice | The Family Tree

Link

A group that’s new to me.

Thanks to Andrew Ingram who had just been to the funeral of Russ Shipton, author of The Complete Guitar.


Long Read of the Day

Paul Krugman on the relevance of Alexander Hamilton to our Covid experience:

Hamilton called for, among other things, temporary tariffs to protect U.S. industry and give it time to become competitive. Economists then proceeded to spend the next 220 years arguing about whether and when infant industry protection is actually a good policy. But the idea that sometimes temporary protection for an industry makes it competitive in the long run clearly has a lot to it.

What does this have to do with Covid-19? The pandemic produced some extreme forms of de facto infant industry protection, forcing millions of Americans to work differently from the way they had before. And many, though not all, of these changes are likely to stick: Even with the vaccines, many individuals and businesses won’t go back to the way things were before.

Nice column.


Enjoy the restored Night Watch, but don’t ignore the machine behind the Rembrandt

Yesterday’s Observer column:

In the late 1970s I lived and worked briefly in the Netherlands. Often, on Sundays, I would travel to Amsterdam, go to the morning concert in the Spiegelzaal of the Concertgebouw, and afterwards walk over to the Rijksmuseum, Holland’s national gallery, and spend a couple of hours there. The museum is a wonderful storehouse of Dutch art and there was always much to explore. But on nearly every visit I found myself being drawn back to one of Rembrandt’s most famous pictures – The Night Watch – which I guess is to the Rijksmuseum what the Mona Lisa is to the Louvre.

Its official title is Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq. It came to be called The Night Watch because by the end of the 18th century it had darkened considerably through the accumulation of layers of dirt and varnish, leading to the belief that the painted scene had occurred after dusk.

It’s a huge painting (379 x 453cm) and it has an overwhelming presence. One is stunned by its sweep and scale. What I hadn’t known, all those years ago though, was that I was only contemplating a part of the original painting…

Read on  


The legacy of Covid-19

From The Economist

So far it looks as if the legacy of covid-19 will follow the pattern set by past pandemics. Nicholas Christakis of Yale University identifies three shifts: the collective threat prompts a growth in state power; the overturning of everyday life leads to a search for meaning; and the closeness of death which brings caution while the disease rages, spurs audacity when it has passed. Each will mark society in its own way.

Nice economical summary of what lies in store.


The State of the World

Pompous title for a really interesting podcast conversation between Nicholas Colin and Nils Gilman of the Berggruen Institute. Nearly an hour long but worth it just to hear Gilman’s long view.


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


 

Enjoy the restored Night Watch, but don’t ignore the machine behind the Rembrandt

This morning’s Observer column:

In the late 1970s I lived and worked briefly in the Netherlands. Often, on Sundays, I would travel to Amsterdam, go to the morning concert in the Spiegelzaal of the Concertgebouw, and afterwards walk over to the Rijksmuseum, Holland’s national gallery, and spend a couple of hours there. The museum is a wonderful storehouse of Dutch art and there was always much to explore. But on nearly every visit I found myself being drawn back to one of Rembrandt’s most famous pictures – The Night Watch – which I guess is to the Rijksmuseum what the Mona Lisa is to the Louvre.

Its official title is Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq. It came to be called The Night Watch because by the end of the 18th century it had darkened considerably through the accumulation of layers of dirt and varnish, leading to the belief that the painted scene had occurred after dusk.

It’s a huge painting (379 x 453cm) and it has an overwhelming presence. One is stunned by its sweep and scale. What I hadn’t known, all those years ago though, was that I was only contemplating a part of the original painting…

Read on