Sunday 11 April, 2021

Travelling ghost

Snapped in a train. Remember those?

Quote of the Day

”Never forget that only dead fish swim with the stream.”

  • Malcolm Muggeridge

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Fleetwood Mac | Songbird | Christine McVie


The loveliest song on a classic album.

Long Read of the Day

What we failed (refused?) to learn from the Diamond Princess in February 2020

Stunning essay by Zeynep Tufecki. She’d been watching the HBO Documentary about the cruise ship with was the first Western case study in what the virus was like and what it could mean for the rest of us.

The first crucial piece of information needed to contain this disease has been the fact that it transmits from people without symptoms. In the HBO documentary, the ship’s doctor reiterates that by February 9th, he was sure that people without symptoms were infecting others. That fact had already been reported in scientific papers, urgently proclaimed by China’s minister of Health in January of 2020, apparent from multiple epidemiological reports already in the record. But many experts in the Western world found that difficult to believe (a topic I covered before for this newsletter), and we did not act upon this crucial piece of information until much later in the pandemic (I wrote about transmission from people who were not sick, and thus could not know they were infected, in March of 2020 in my first op-ed calling for masks—it was so clear even then that I had no problem convincing the fact-checkers at the New York Times).

Watching the documentary, it also becomes very clear that the disease is airborne. There really is no other reasonable explanation for how 567 passengers confined to their rooms, served food by heavily masked people, would get infected at that scale that quickly. In fact, this airborne transmission was quickly discerned by scientists around the world. One of the architects of Japan’s mitigation strategies, Dr. Oshitani, had told me that this was the case that convinced him that the pathogen was airborne (I had interviewed him for this article on aerosol transmission and ventilation for an article I wrote last July).

The cruise liner’s experience told us was most of what we needed to know — airborne transmission, clusters driving the epidemic, and presymptomatic transmission. And lots of scientists understood that message. But the strange thing is that the ‘official’ health authorities seemed to pay so little attention to them. It took ages for the aerosol-transmission view to overcome the obsession with surface cleaning and droplets. Ditto with official disdain for the idea that wearing a mask might be useful. And even today I see organisations obsessed with ‘disinfecting’ surfaces. In a car showroom the other day there were notices on every available surface saying that “This surface is disinfected after every consultation.”

This is just hygiene-theatre. But at least the staff were wearing masks.

With a new skipper at the helm, Intel heads for uncharted waters

This morning’s Observer column:

Watching the apparently relentless growth of Arm, and Intel’s flailing attempts to make progress (including in areas such as semiconductor lithography, the physical and chemical processes needed to etch circuits on silicon, which should have been a core competency), it was hard to see a future for it except one of inexorable decline.

All of which made the news that Intel had a new CEO who was not behaving like a traditional Intel boss such a surprise. His name is Pat Gelsinger and although he started his career at Intel, for the last 11 years he’s been working in smaller companies. But he’s back with a vengeance, as one began slowly to realise when watching the talk he gave after less than 40 days at the helm, outlining the most radical shift in strategy since Andy Grove and Gordon Moore switched the company from making memory chips and into making processors more than 35 years ago…

Read on

Northern Ireland: Troubles 2.0?

History repeats itself, maybe, but the second act is rarely an exact replica of the past. Like many people I’ve been watching the street rioting in Belfast with foreboding and wondering what it presages.

The obvious thought is that the more militant wing of Northern Unionism (the DUP and its followers) have only finally realised what the Brexit for which they voted might mean: not a border between Ulster and the southern Republic (which I always assumed the DUP rather liked — a hard border between them and the Papists) but one down the Irish Sea between the Six Counties and the beloved British mainland — which is what the Protocol of the UK’s withdrawal agreement effectively requires. So they want to tear up the Protocol. And then what?

The official interpretation of the trouble is Unionist anger at the failure of the authorities to prosecute certain Sinn Féin grandees who attended a funeral of one of their own in a flagrant breach of the Covid regulations. Well, I get that, and would share their indignation if I lived in Belfast.

But an email from Mick Fealty (Whom God Preserve) — he of the Slugger O’Toole blog — prompts reflection on the deeper roots of Unionist unease about what’s happening to them and their little statelet. First of all, they now see that Boris Johnson’s acceptance of the Protocol essentially threw them to the wolves. Unlike Theresa May, he no longer needed their votes, and so their interests were dispensable. So the ruler of the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ didn’t seem unduly concerned about (or even interested in) what happened to their little bit of said Kingdom.

And, allied to that betrayal, Unionists are also deeply aware of a ticking demographic time-bomb. The forthcoming census is likely to reveal that the Protestant majority in the North of Ireland is no more — that the Catholics have, as it were, out-bred them. And, worse still, The Northern Ireland Act 1998, a statute passed by the Westminster Parliament, implements the Good Friday Agreement within UK law. It declares that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a referendum (the ‘principle of consent’). However, if a majority in such a vote favours a united Ireland, the UK Government must lay before Parliament any proposals to give effect to that outcome which it agrees with the Irish Government. And the Act also gives the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland a general power to call a referendum on reunification at his discretion.

If you were a devout unionist, therefore, you’d have grounds for concern, especially — as Mick Fealty points out — Sinn Féin has been ramping up its triumphalist rhetoric about the ‘inevitability’ of a re-united Ireland. In which case, could we be heading back to the Ulster Covenant and Kipling’s poem?

Believe we dare not boast,
Believe we dare not fear:
We stand to pay the cost
In all that men hold dear.
What answer from the North?
One Law, One Land, One Throne!
If England drives us forth
We shall not fall alone.

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Saturday 10 April, 2021

Quote of the Day

”When I want a peerage, I shall buy one like an honest man.”

  • Lord Northcliffe

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Beethoven | Piano Sonata No.30 in E, Op.109 | Andante | Mitsuko Uchida



Long Read of the Day

Why Animals Don’t Get Lost

Riveting and informative New Yorker essay by Kathryn Schulz. It opens with a preposterous story that couldn’t possibly be true — but is. After that you’re hooked.

Covid and inequality

From the Council on Foreign Relations.

In a nutshell…

Beyond revealing inequalities and devastating public health, the pandemic has had two dangerous effects in all of these countries: COVID-19 actually has made socioeconomic inequality worse, possibly for years to come, and has significantly exacerbated democratic regression. In these five states, caseloads and death tolls of the novel coronavirus are falling hardest on racial, ethnic, and sometimes religious minorities and on the poor; poor and minority communities significantly overlap, and many of these same citizens have the preexisting conditions that make them more susceptible to getting extremely sick or dying from COVID-19. The pandemic seems to be further entrenching economic and social inequalities, and some leaders are passing pandemic-era measures that could further hurt poor and minority groups. Furthermore, as often has happened during past major emergencies, political leaders have taken advantage of the emergency to corrode democratic norms and institutions—in these five democracies and across the globe.

Policy-making by WhatsApp

From the Financial Times (behind a paywall):

Lex Greensill pressed Australian prime minister Scott Morrison to introduce a lending scheme for government workers in a lobbying effort that included a misdirected WhatsApp message citing David Cameron.

In the October 2019 message, intended for Morrison but sent by mistake to a different number, the financier played on his association with the former British prime minister: “David Cameron, who is on our board and a material shareholder, speaks most highly of you,” Greensill wrote.

In reality, Cameron was a paid adviser rather than a board member and was not a material shareholder, although he is believed to have options that could have entitled him to about 1 per cent of Greensill Capital. At one stage, these were thought to be worth tens of millions of pounds but since Greensill Capital’s collapse last month are now worthless.

Reading it, I began to fantasise about interesting misdirected messages that might crop up on my WhatsApp. Something like this for example, originally intended for Boris Johnson:

Clarity on the side-effects of the AstraZeneca jab

Useful piece in the Economist. It’s behind a paywall despite the fact that the magazine boasts that it’s making all its coverage of the Coronavirus available in a compendium site. Still..

Here’s the gist: it suggests that the clotting side-effect is similar to something that medicine already understands — an immune response to heparin, a widely-used drug.

The first signals emerged in late February, when doctors in several European countries noticed clusters of blood clots in people recently given the AstraZeneca jab, some of whom died. Most were women under 60, which was not terribly surprising because many EU countries were, at first, not convinced that the jab worked in the elderly and used it largely for essential workers, such as nurses, teachers and social-care workers—professions in which most employees are women.

The EMA’s data as of March 22nd suggested that the rate of brain clots in people under the age of 60 who had had Astra­Zeneca’s vaccine was one in 100,000—higher than would be expected normally. Precisely how much higher, though, is hard to tell. The rates of such rare and difficult-to-diagnose conditions vary a lot by country, age and sex. Estimates of the incidence of such brain clots have ranged from 0.22 to 1.57 cases per 100,000 people per year, and they are more common in younger people and women.

As doctors began to look more closely, something curious emerged. Many patients with suspected clots from the vaccine had unusually low levels of platelets. These are fragments of special precursor cells that float in the blood. Their job is to form blood clots (they rush to the site of a cut or other bleeding). Low platelet levels therefore usually result in uncontrolled bleeding, not clots.

With this new information to hand, Britain’s medical regulators searched their data on vaccinated people for the unusual tandem of clots and low platelet counts. They found four cases per million people vaccinated, a rate several times lower than in the EU. One explanation is that Britain, unlike the rest of Europe, had used the jab primarily in older people. The rate at which the clots occurred in Britain declined steadily with age. Importantly, Britain’s experts found that the clots occurred as much in men as they did in women.

This combination of blood clots and low platelet counts is something that doctors know how to diagnose and treat, says Jean Marie Connors, a haematologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston. It resembles a condition seen in some people who are given heparin, a drug used widely to treat blood clots. For unknown reasons, some people develop an immune reaction to heparin, which results in blood clotting so profound that it depletes their platelets. The same reaction appears to be provoked by the vaccine.

Medical societies in several countries have already issued guidelines to doctors on how to spot and treat this rare reaction to the AstraZeneca vaccine. With vigilance and appropriate care, the extremely rare deaths that may result from it will become even rarer.

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Friday 9 April, 2021

Philip Mountbatten RIP

En passant. My hunch is that the first series of The Crown did wonders for Philip’s image with the general public, because it illustrated very clearly the challenges facing any sentient being trying to integrate with such a terminally dysfunctional family. In some ways, his experience was a dry run for that of Diana Spencer and — later — Meghan Markle. The difference is that Philip stayed the course.

I met him once — by chance. He was Chancellor of Cambridge University for a long time, and he came on a routine visit to my College. What was interesting was the astute way he worked the room. He got to say something to everyone. I was reminded — oddly enough — of Bill Clinton, who had the same knack.

Quote of the Day

“The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination.”

  • Philip Roth, 1960 Note the date.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Diana Krall | Narrow Daylight


Lockdown listening

Lovely blog post by Quentin Stafford-Fraser.

“I don’t really listen to many podcasts now…”, I heard someone say recently, “…because I no longer have a commute”. This made me realise how different my listening habits would be if I didn’t have a spaniel to walk. (I’ve tried the commuting thing on occasion, by the way, and gave it up as a bad lot. Spaniels are better.)

Recommended. I used to have a long commute — and listened to a lot of podcasts as a result. Lacking a spaniel, I now listen to fewer.

The problem-solving strategy we generally overlook

People often limit their creativity by continually adding new features to a design rather than removing existing ones, says Diana Kwon in an interesting Scientific American essay.

This idea of overlooking the obvious reminds me of a salutary lesson I learned as a consultant many years ago. In the 1970s, a group of us in the Open University Systems group used to tackle multi-faceted problem-situations that arose in industrial companies. We used an approach known as Soft Systems Analysis which involved identifying everyone in the organisation who had a role, however minor, in the problem-situation and working with that group on the analysis.

The first stage in the process involved collectively building a ‘Rich Picture’ — a shared representation of what was going wrong, which often involved a fairly gruelling set of group discussions. And early on we noticed a pattern: whenever a group was discussing a problem-situation, 90 per cent of the conversation was not about what was wrong, but involved people canvassing their personal candidates for a ‘solution’. It was a real struggle to get groups to focus on building a shared understanding on what was going wrong. And yet sometimes it was the construction of that Rich Picture that proved the key to making progress.

Time to regulate AI that interprets human emotions

The pandemic is being used as a pretext to push unproven artificial-intelligence tools into workplaces and schools.

Great OpEd in Nature by Kate Crawford.

In March, a citizen’s panel convened by the Ada Lovelace Institute in London said that an independent, legal body should oversee development and implementation of biometric technologies (see Such oversight is essential to defend against systems driven by what I call the phrenological impulse: drawing faulty assumptions about internal states and capabilities from external appearances, with the aim of extracting more about a person than they choose to reveal.

Countries around the world have regulations to enforce scientific rigour in developing medicines that treat the body. Tools that make claims about our minds should be afforded at least the same protection. For years, scholars have called for federal entities to regulate robotics and facial recognition; that should extend to emotion recognition, too. It is time for national regulatory agencies to guard against unproven applications, especially those targeting children and other vulnerable populations.

She uses the polygraph (lie-detector) as a case study on how flaky theories are used to justify tools — simply because they fit the only things that the tools can do. Same thing is now happening with certain applications of machine-learning.

Impressive piece.

Lack of gender and ethnic diversity in tech is not just societally damaging…

… It also leads to terrible design.

Striking Economist Leader:

Some things, you might think, are obvious. For example, if you design a device which shines light through someone’s fingertip to measure the oxygen level of their blood, then the colour of the skin through which that light is shining should be a factor when the device is calibrated.

But no. Research suggests that, with honourable exceptions, pulse oximeters, the machines which do this, overestimate oxygen levels three times more frequently (12% of the time) in people with black skin rather than white. When this informs decisions on whom to admit to hospital during a pandemic, more black than white patients are sent home on the mistaken conclusion that their blood-oxygen levels are within a safe range. This could have fatal consequences.

The pulse oximeter is only the latest example of an approach to design which fails to recognise that human beings are different from one another. Other recent medical cases include an algorithm that gave white patients in America priority over those from racial minorities, and the discovery that implants such as prosthetic hips and cardiac pacemakers cause problems more often in women than in men.

Beyond medicine, there are many examples of this phenomenon in information technology: systems that recognise white faces but not black ones; legal software which recommends harsher sentences for black criminals than white; voice-activated programs that work better for men than women. Even mundane things like car seat-belts have often been designed with men in mind rather than women.

The Technology of Bereavement

Sombre reflection by David Vincent on being unable to attend the funeral of friends.

We are particularly diminished by the sudden loss of our friends in Scotland. We began our careers and our families together, living and working alongside each other for three decades, and then regularly exchanging visits as our paths diverged. In John Donne’s terms, a full promontory has been washed away from our lives.

David and his wife were unable to attend the funerals, because of the rules governing ceremonies. So,

Instead we depend on Obitus, which describes itself as ‘a leading UK provider of bereavement technology services.’ The firm was apparently founded a decade ago, an indication that virtual mourning was not invented by Covid. It has expanded in the last year, working with funeral directors to connect the congregations unable to attend. We sit at home, three hundred miles away, equipped with a login and a password, and five minutes before the ceremony is due to begin, an empty, unnamed, funeral chapel appears on our screen. There is one fixed camera at the rear of the chapel, transmitting an unchanging view of the backs of twenty mourners. The sound quality is indifferent, the visual effects non-existent. After half an hour the congregation leaves separately, unable to attend a wake larger than six people, and we close the lid on the laptop. In a week’s time we will repeat the process for my godfather.

We had the same experience last year, when my mother-in-law was taken by Covid. Except that, in our case, the technology didn’t work — and when we eventually got a view of the chapel it was time for the next ceremony. I wrote about it in my lockdown diary.

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Thursday 8 April, 2021

My grandson on one of my favourite beaches.

Quote of the Day

The worse the villain, the better the film”

  • Alfred Hitchcock

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

J.S. Bach | Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring | in the arrangement by Myra Hess | P. Barton


I once heard Leo Kottke play this at the Cambridge Folk Festival and the guy sitting next to me started to whistle the counterpoint — perfectly. It was one of those perfect moments.

Long Read of the Day

What Critics Don’t Understand About NFTs

A brave attempt by Jonathan Zittrain and Will Marks to explain the inexplicable — in this case the unfathomable lure of “non-fungible tokens”or NFTs. Their argument is that the complexity and arbitrariness of non-fungible tokens are a big part of their appeal. Go figure.

Footnote:If you’re the kind of reader who likes technical detail, the Blockchain company Ethereum even has a technical standard for NFTs.

EV sales

The Brazilian variant and its implications

Worrying Twitter thread. The current obsession with the AstraZeneca vaccine in the UK is absurd compared with the catastrophe currently unfolding in Brazil. But nobody seems to be paying attention. Big mistake. It’ll be here eventually. The truth about this virus is that if a variant turns up anywhere, it will eventually be everywhere. And this variant seems particularly lethal.

After Working at Google, I’ll Never Let Myself Love a Job Again


I used to be a Google engineer. That often feels like the defining fact about my life. When I joined the company after college in 2015, it was at the start of a multiyear reign atop Forbes’s list of best workplaces.

I bought into the Google dream completely. In high school, I spent time homeless and in foster care, and was often ostracized for being nerdy. I longed for the prestige of a blue-chip job, the security it would bring and a collegial environment where I would work alongside people as driven as I was.

What I found was a surrogate family. During the week, I ate all my meals at the office. I went to the Google doctor and the Google gym. My colleagues and I piled into Airbnbs on business trips, played volleyball in Maui after a big product launch and even spent weekends together, once paying $170 and driving hours to run an obstacle course in the freezing rain.

My manager felt like the father I wished I’d had. He believed in my potential and cared about my feelings. All I wanted was to keep getting promoted so that as his star rose, we could keep working together. This gave purpose to every task, no matter how grueling or tedious.

You can guess what happened. In a way she reminds me of the heroine in Dave Eggars’s The Circle. All large companies (and indeed most large organisations) are intrinsically sociopathic. When will that penny drop?

Cycling is ten times more important than electric cars for reaching net-zero in cities

Good piece by Christian Brand.

Globally, only one in 50 new cars were fully electric in 2020, and one in 14 in the UK. Sounds impressive, but even if all new cars were electric now, it would still take 15-20 years to replace the world’s fossil fuel car fleet.

The emission savings from replacing all those internal combustion engines with zero-carbon alternatives will not feed in fast enough to make the necessary difference in the time we can spare: the next five years. Tackling the climate and air pollution crises requires curbing all motorised transport, particularly private cars, as quickly as possible. Focusing solely on electric vehicles is slowing down the race to zero emissions.

This is partly because electric cars aren’t truly zero-carbon – mining the raw materials for their batteries, manufacturing them and generating the electricity they run on produces emissions. Yep. And even when one ignores the emissions involved in manufacturing EVs, they’re only green if the electricity that charges them comes from renewables. There’s no such thing as a free lunch in this area.

Homeless in the Shadow of Apple’s $5 Billion HQ

Superb piece by Brian J Barth on OneZero about the astonishing inequalities in the epicentre of the tech industry.

At the corner of East Homestead and North Wolfe Road in Cupertino, California, stands a large oak tree planted by one of the most successful companies in history — Apple. The tree is a landmark at the entrance to Apple Park, the company’s $5 billion spaceship-of-a-campus, which surrounds a circular headquarters set in an entire city block, not unlike the home button in the rectangle of an early-model iPhone. At least three or four stories tall, the oak is one of the larger specimens among the 9,000 trees planted in this 175-acre Garden of Eden. There are 37 varieties of fruit: plums, apricots, persimmons, cherries, and of course, apples.

Outsiders are not allowed in the 2.8 million-square-foot steel building at the center of campus, which is protected by a tight wall of vertical beams reminiscent of the barrier at the U.S.-Mexico border. Inside, the office furniture, according to an employee who leaked photos on Instagram, includes “custom-made high-grade leather seats from Louis Vuitton.”


If you walked south down Wolfe Road in early 2020, past the hummocky meadows of sedge, penstemon, and yarrow — the “ecologically rich oak savanna” that Steve Jobs envisioned for Apple Park — you would see another side of Silicon Valley. Just half a block from Apple’s campus, tents and tarp homes lined the sidewalk in front of The Hamptons apartment complex. A half-block further, more tarp structures peeked from the bushes along the I-280 off-ramp. These scattered abodes were the satellites of the main Wolfe Camp, which sits another block south, in front of a Hyatt hotel.

Many years ago I had a conversation with Manuel Castells, the great scholar of Cyberspace. We were talking about Silicon Valley and he suddenly asked me if I knew about the astonishing levels of inequality in San Jose, right in the heart of Silicon Valley. Shamefully, I hadn’t — until that moment. This piece beautifully illustrates that sordid reality.

Tim Hunkin on connectors

Another one of his lovely videos. Everything you didn’t know you wanted to know about connectors. It’s 45 minutes long, so make some coffee first.


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Wednesday 7 April, 2021

There will be a Summer — eventually

Quote of the Day

””A ship is safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships are for”

  • John Shedd

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Planxty | Three reels – Jenny’s Wedding, The Virginia, Garett Barry’s


I keep coming back to this set and its astonishing, almost manic, energy. And in the centre of it all is Liam O’Flynn, ice cool while driving it all.

Long Read of the Day

There’s another pandemic under our noses, and it kills 8.7m people a year

Fine piece by Rebecca Solnit.

Among the striking phenomena of the early weeks of the pandemic were air quality and birdsong. In the quiet as human activity halted, many people reported hearing birds singing, and across the world air pollution levels dropped dramatically. In some places in India, the Himalayas were visible again, as they had not been for decades, meaning that one of the subtle losses of pollution was vistas. According to CNBC, at the outset of the pandemic, “New Delhi recorded a 60% fall of PM2.5 from 2019 levels, Seoul registered a 54% drop, while the fall in China’s Wuhan came in at 44%.” Returning to normal means drowning out the birds and blurring out the mountains and accepting 8.7 million air pollution deaths a year.

Those deaths have been normalized; they need to be denormalized…

 ## Sleazy Dave

I’m sorely tempted to have a Must-read of the Day section. If I did, then this blast by Marina Hyde would be top of the list.

Here’s a sample to keep you going:

Zip forward to the present, and it has now been a full 36 days since the former prime minister first declined to take calls from the Financial Times on the collapse and mushrooming fallout of Greensill, the specialist bank for which he was an active payrolled lobbyist with what he hoped was $60m worth of shares. There was one time Cameron accidentally answered the phone to the FT, then breezed “Do you want to ring my office?” before hanging up. Said office has not cared to answer a single call or text.

David Cameron is still allowed to claim up to £115,000 a year from the public purse, literally to run this office. Surely that’s enough for someone in it to return a call? Seemingly not. Maybe the “office” is just a burner mobile ringing out in a shepherd’s hut. Either way, the firm of which Cameron was a salaried employee – and on whose behalf he lobbied the current government – has now imploded. Furthermore, its administrators have been unable to verify invoices underpinning loans to its top client, steel magnate Sanjeev Gupta, with several companies denying they have ever done business with Gupta. This is becoming quite the shitstorm. And while no one is suggesting the former prime minister is to blame for the shitstorm, he is certainly shitstorm-adjacent.

For the second time in five years, then, Britain is being ghosted by David Cameron. You’ll recall that having tanked his own Brexit referendum, he promptly retreated into the usual lucrative prime ministerial afterlife, while the rest of us had to endure years of the winners – the winners! – arguing about what they’d won. Even so, this latest silence is a giant piss-take.

Wonderful. Read the whole thing.

Buying your Tesla with Bitcoin

This morning an interesting page appeared on the ‘Support’ section of the Tesla site explaining how to buy your Tesla using Bitcoin. It contained some hilarious advice.

So I logged the URL for later reference. When I went back to it this evening, though, guess what?

This was a purely theoretical exploration, you understand. I don’t possess any Bitcoin. And I already have a Tesla, paid for with unfashionable pound notes.

Gilded Age 2.0

From Protocol: Tech’s rich get richer

The pandemic has been very good for some people.

There are 2,755 billionaires in the world, according to the new version of Forbes’ “World’s Billionaires List.” That’s 660 more than last year, including 493 newcomers. (Special congrats to the 167 who got that third comma back!) Together they’re worth $13.1 trillion, up more than 60% from last year.

Surprise surprise, tech CEOs dominate the list. In all, eight of the top 10 richest people on Earth are tech people:

Jeff Bezos, worth $177 billion, is still the richest person alive.

Elon Musk is #2 at $151 billion, up more than 6x in just the last year.

Bill Gates is #4 at $124 billion, and Mark Zuckerberg #5 at $97 billion.

Those four men added a combined $259 billion to their wealth in the last year alone, which is a truly mind-boggling number. Elsewhere in the top 10: Larry Ellison, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Mukesh Ambani are all worth at least $84 billion. MacKenzie Scott is the richest tech-related woman on the list at #22, worth $53 billion.

Ms Scott, I’ve just realised, used to be Mrs Bezos.

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Tuesday 6 April, 2021

In Memoriam

On a beautiful but dangerous beach in Kerry

Quote of the Day

”Bigotry may be roughly defined as the anger of men who have no opinions.”

  • G.K. Chesterton

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Byrn Terfel | the Welsh National Anthem | Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau


I once heard him sing — unamplified, at close range — at a funeral of a mutual friend. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

Long Read of the Day

Bill Janeway: Lessons from the first New Deal for the Next One

A guest post by Bill on Noah Smith’s blog. It’s a terrific, illuminating essay, which takes the current rhetoric portraying Biden’s recovery programme as FDR2.0 and exploring the important differences between the Roosevelt era and the Biden one.

“As a metaphor”, Janeway writes,

the ‘New Deal’ has been mobilized both in response to climate change and in support of President Biden’s rescue and infrastructure initiatives. It needs examination if it is to go from serving as a mere slogan to defining a coherent program. Compelling invocation of the New Deal turns on:

  • Building state capacity for implementing interventions in the market economy;

  • Navigating potential conflicts in overlapping missions; and

  • Managing inescapable tradeoffs between efficiency versus effectiveness.

In folk memory, Janeway points out, “FDR’s New Deal combined relief, reform, and positive investment in one great seamless demonstration of the progressive potential of vigorous government. In reality, though, it was complicated and conflicted.

He then proceeds to explain how and why this was so, and explores the parallels and differences with Biden’s challenge.

Great piece, worth reading in full.

Writers, tools and blogging platforms: an exchange

This letter from Dave Winer made my day.

John, I’ve been following the story of the strange URLs from your Substack newsletter. I also appreciated your telling how you produce your newsletter by copy/pasting from WordPress into Substack. I bet 90 percent of Substack’s text comes in this way. And that’s what this letter is about. #

I’ve been asking them to automate that part for you via an API or RSS, or whatever they specify, to remove the copy/paste step from your publication workflow. I am deliberately being a squeaky wheel, hoping that writers who use Substack will join in.# Basically, it should be possible to hook your writing tool directly to both WordPress and Substack.#

I would have used Substack myself if it weren’t for this limit. As a writer, I want to eliminate steps, to make my writing more effortless. Publishing an idea takes too many steps, as a result, a lot of ideas don’t get out. #

I want to have a better flow on the web as a writer, and I think if other writers knew what was possible they’d want it too, and hopefully they would write about it. You wrote about it yesterday! ;-)#

JN, writers have a lot more power imho than they think. Esp in the early days of a service like Substack. They are listening to you. They know they depend on you. If enough writers wanted a feature, they would implement it. That’s how development works. # Please consider writing something yourself about eliminating copy/paste-to-publish step. There’s a lot of power trapped in that limit. #


Dave: Many thanks for writing. Funny coincidence: I was about to write to you about the email exchange you’ve embarked on with Ray Ozzie, but that can wait for another day. For now, I just wanted to say that I’m with you all the way in your view that the formulaic editing tools offered by platforms like Blogger, WordPress, Medium, Substack et al are, clumsy and restrictive to use. And I wholeheartedly agree that writers should be able to use whatever tool they find best for them, and that publishing platforms should make it easy to upload text and implement whatever formatting is needed.

My own journey has taken me about 90% of the way towards that. I decided years ago that from henceforth everything I wrote would be composed as ASCII text rather than in a proprietary format (e.g. Microsoft Word) and stored as such. So I started doing that, relying on PANDOC to transform my text into pdf, Word, LaTex or whatever. (In doing that, I was of course harking back to when I first started writing on a Unix time-shared machine, producing plain marked-up text which was then fed into troff to produce beautifully typeset copy.) When John Gruber and Aaron Swartz (RIP) came up with Markdown in 2004 as a lightweight way of marking-up text, I adopted that. And eventually, thanks to Quentin I found a writing app that worked for me — Ulysses — and have used that ever since. Once WordPress started to accept Markdown text, all my blog posts (except the daily Substack version of the blog) have been written that way. Ulysses will also spit out a version of any text I write in a variety of proprietary formats and so looks like being the only writing tool I will need from now until I keel over.

Now, to your point that “Basically, it should be possible to hook your writing tool directly to both WordPress and Substack”… It turns out that Ulysses eventually cracked the WordPress route, and so I can now hit a button and have it immediately uploaded to, and formatted on, Memex 1.1. The HTML looks a bit verbose and clunky, but it renders just fine. And it’s efficient and quick. So getting Substack to create an API that enables Ulysses to upload as easily would mean that I was nearly there.

Nearly, but not quite — which is why I really appreciate your feature request to Substack to also enable paragraph-level permalinks.

Keep well.


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Monday 5 April, 2021

Blackthorn blossom, seen on our walk in the Fens this afternoon.

Quote of the Day

”I myself have accomplished nothing of excellence except a remarkable, and to my friends, unaccountable expertise in hitting empty ginger ale bottles with small rocks at a distance of thirty paces.”

  • James Thurber (who a remarkable English teacher at school encouraged me to read)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison | No More Lockdown


Long Read of the Day

What Data Can’t Do

Lovely New Yorker essay by Hannah Fry in which she reviews two books on data-driven decision-making, Counting: How We Use Numbers to Decide What Matters by Deborah Stone, the other, The Data Detective, by Tim Harford. Here’s a sample:

The particular mistake that Tony Blair and his policy mavens made is common enough to warrant its own adage: once a useful number becomes a measure of success, it ceases to be a useful number. This is known as Goodhart’s law, and it reminds us that the human world can move once you start to measure it. Deborah Stone writes about Soviet factories and farms that were given production quotas, on which jobs and livelihoods depended. Textile factories were required to produce quantities of fabric that were specified by length, and so looms were adjusted to make long, narrow strips. Uzbek cotton pickers, judged on the weight of their harvest, would soak their cotton in water to make it heavier. Similarly, when America’s first transcontinental railroad was built, in the eighteen-sixties, companies were paid per mile of track. So a section outside Omaha, Nebraska, was laid down in a wide arc, rather than a straight line, adding several unnecessary (yet profitable) miles to the rails. The trouble arises whenever we use numerical proxies for the thing we care about. Stone quotes the environmental economist James Gustave Speth: “We tend to get what we measure, so we should measure what we want.”

The problem isn’t easily resolved, though. The issues around Goodhart’s law have come to haunt artificial-intelligence design: just how do you communicate an objective to your algorithm when the only language you have in common is numbers? The computer scientist Robert Feldt once created an algorithm charged with landing a plane on an aircraft carrier. The objective was to bring a simulated plane to a gentle stop, thus registering as little force as possible on the body of the aircraft. Unfortunately, during the training, the algorithm spotted a loophole. If, instead of bringing the simulated plane down smoothly, it deliberately slammed the aircraft to a halt, the force would overwhelm the system and register as a perfect zero. Feldt realized that, in his virtual trial, the algorithm was repeatedly destroying plane after plane after plane, but earning top marks every time.

Enjoyable and instructive, like the books themselves.

Corruption as a way of life

Catherine Bennett has a sharp Observer column about Boris Johnson’s sleazy, reckless and ethically vacuous behaviour over many decades. It was bad enough when he was just a journalist, but in office it seems to have got markedly worse. And it leads one to wonder if the current Tory government is actually the most corrupt British administration for at least a century.

In 1994, Bennett recalls, Lord Nolan was tasked by the then Tory Prime Minister, John Major, with rescuing politics from Tory sleaze.

“We seek to restore respect for the ethical values inherent in the idea of public service,” Nolan wrote of the resulting Seven Principles: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership. Enforcement was another question. “Formal procedures have a role to play,” Nolan said, “but in the end it is individuals’ consciences that matter.” By the time George Osborne and David Cameron hastened to enrich themselves, this idea was already comical. We are now left with, on the one hand, Nolan’s faded sampler; on the other, Johnson’s expensively wallpapered, ever-expanding development of luxury Augean stables. In a nice touch, Bennett takes Nolan’s ‘principles’ and recasts them as ‘Johnson’s Principles’ to match what the government has actually been doing.

1: Greed (Replaces Nolan’s selflessness.) Holders of public office should take decisions solely in their own interest or that of their friends/families.

2. Shamelessness (Replaces integrity.) Holders of public office should accept gifts from generous individuals and organisations likely to expect favours in return.

3. Self-interest(Previously objectivity.) When making appointments, awarding contracts, etc, holders of public office should not allow merit to affect choices made exclusively to benefit themselves, their supporters, family or friends.

4. Unaccountability (Replaces accountability.) Holders of public office must not submit to scrutiny of their actions.

5. Concealment (Formerly openness.) Holders of public office have a duty to be as opaque as possible about their actions.

6. Fabrication (Replaces honesty.) Holders of public office are expected to lie freely about any private interests relating to their public duties.

7. Entitlement (Previously leadership.) Holders of public office should demonstrate by example their support for these principles, which apply to all aspects of self-enrichment.

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Sunday April 4, 2021

Maybe, soon?

Quote of the Day

”Three o’clock is always too late or too early for anything you want to do.”

  • Jean-Paul Sartre

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

King’s College Choir | Jesus Christ is risen today


“The English may not like music”, Sir Thomas Beecham once observed, “but they absolutely love the noise it makes”. I feel exactly the same about Anglicanism.

Long Read of the Day Why Computers Won’t Make Themselves Smarter.

For decades people have been fretting about I.J. Good’s warning that if we ever invent a super-intelligent machine then it may be the last invention humanity ever makes, on the grounds that such a machine would trigger an ‘intelligence explosion’ because from then on machines would improve their capabilities faster than we could ever keep up with them.

Now along comes Ted Chiang with an interesting New Yorker essay questioning the assumptions underpinning Good’s pessimistic projection. It’s an absorbing read which comes to a less than reassuring conclusion: “For better or worse, the fate of our species will depend on human decision-making”.

Why Silicon Valley’s most astute critics are all women

This morning’s Observer column:

Tailors and dressmakers long ago worked out that men and women are different shapes and sizes. The news has yet to reach Palo Alto.

My hunch is that however much the industry bleats about gender diversity, it doesn’t truly see it as a real problem. Male-dominated firms still receive more than 80% of venture-capital funding and the money often goes to entrepreneurs promising to create products or services that supposedly address consumers’ real needs. The trouble is that male founders, especially engineers, are not famous for understanding the problems that women experience, which is how we got absurdities such as Apple originally failing to include menstrual-cycle tracking in its smartwatch or in the iPhone’s Health app. Wow! Women have periods! Who knew?

Do read the whole thing.

Later Lots of feedback confirming that I’d missed many other incisive critics — for example Wendy Liu, author of Abolish Silicon Valley. I need to keep a proper regularly updated, list of trenchant female critics. And I’m especially mortified to have forgotten about the Turing Institute’s recent report,  Where are the women? Mapping the gender job gap in AI, a summary of which is available here. The inquiry found evidence

of persistent structural inequality in the data science and AI fields, with the career trajectories of data and AI professionals differentiated by gender. Women are more likely than men to occupy a job associated with less status and pay in the data and AI talent pool, usually within analytics, data preparation and exploration, rather than the more prestigious jobs in engineering and machine learning. This gender skill gap risks stalling innovation and exacerbating gender inequality in economic participation.

Where Joe Biden is headed

As I’ve said a while back, I think Joe Biden is being badly under-estimated as President. And I’m amazed by how so much of the mainstream media isn’t paying attention to what he’s doing. So I’m much cheered by seeing a perceptive thinker like Noah Smith taking Biden seriously — as in this post.

By now I think everyone has realized that something is changing in American economic policy. The tenor, pace, and scope of Biden’s economic programs proposals, and the muted nature of the ideological opposition, suggest that we’ve entered a new policy paradigm — much as when FDR took office in 1933 or Ronald Reagan in 1981. Every President comes in with a laundry list of initiatives, but once every few decades a President comes in with a new philosophy for what policy should look like. And that is happening now. The fact that a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill was passed with relatively little fuss, and was really just the warm-up to an even bigger infrastructure bill, and that other “big” policies like student debt cancellation are being pursued on the side as an afterthought, should make it clear that Biden is blitzing.

Smith thinks the aim is to create a two-track American economy — a dynamic, internationally competitive innovation sector, and a domestically focused engine of mass employment and distributed prosperity. If that’s really what he’s up to, then it behoves us to pay attention.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • An eight-year-old is among contenders hoping for last word at Scrabble championships. Link
  • How Sounds Are Faked For Nature Documentaries. Link

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Saturday 3 April, 2021

Neil McGregor

The former Director of the British Museum, and now the founding Director of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, photographed after a lecture in College.

Quote of the Day

”If the war didn’t happen to kill you it was bound to start you thinking. After that unspeakable idiotic mess you couldn’t go on regarding society as something eternal and unquestionable, like a pyramid. You knew it was just a balls-up.”

  • George Orwell, in Coming Up for Air

Funnily enough, contemplating the Covid catastrophe and the likely aftermath, this quotation keeps coming to mind.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Randy Newman | Political Science


One of my favourite songs: a sardonic masterpiece.

Long Read of the Day

What it’s like driving for Uber or Lyft

This post is thoughtful, reflective and illuminating. It’s by someone who isn’t driving out of real economic need, but out of choice and — initially, anyway, curiosity. Best thing I’ve read on the subject so far, though I’m sure there are lots of similar reflections if only one had time to search for them.

Thanks to Quentin for spotting it.

Beware Goldman workhorses, deferred gratification is the worst kind

Corporate life demands more of youth than it can later repay

Lovely FT column by Janan Ganesh, triggered by the revelations of the costs of spending your 20s and 30s slaving for investment banks and elite law firms.

It’s probably behind the paywall, but here’s the interesting (and wise) gist:

Graduates, courted by banks and the like, might not resent a pointer or two from the generation above. Mine is to think very hard before trading the reality of present hardships for notional joys down the line.

Drink, sex and travel are among the pleasures that call on energies that peak exactly as graduate bankers are wasting them on work

The ageing process — as I have lived it, as I have observed it in friends — has convinced me of one thing above all. The deferral of gratification is the easiest life mistake to make. And by definition among the least reversible. A unit of leisure is not worth nearly as much in late or even middle age as it is in one’s twenties. To put it in Goldman-ese, the young should discount the future more sharply than prevailing sentiment suggests.

The first reason should be obvious enough, at least after the past 12 months. There is no certainty at all of being around to savour any hard-won spoils. The career logic of an investment banker (or commercial lawyer, or junior doctor) assumes a normal lifespan, or thereabouts. And even if a much-shortened one is an actuarial improbability, a sheer physical drop-off in the mid-thirties is near-certain. Drink, sex and travel are among the pleasures that call on energies that peak exactly as graduate bankers are wasting them on work.

And the moral: Pleasures deferred can be pleasures foregone.

I’ve lost count of the number of promising lives I’ve seen ruined by the pursuit of ‘career success’ and wealth.

Mutale Nkonde on How Biased Tech Design and Racial Disparity Intersect

This is a terrific podcast conversation between Taylor Owen and an extraordinary activist and founder of AI for People. In their conversation Mutale and Taylor discuss the many ways in which technology reflects and amplifies bias.

Many of the issues begin when software tools are designed by development teams that lack diversity or actively practise forms of institutional racism, excluding or discouraging decision-making participation by minority ethnic group members. Another problem is the data sets included in training the systems; as Nkonde explains, “Here in the United States, if you’re a white person, 70 percent of white people don’t actually know a Black person. So, if I were to ask one of those people to bring me a hundred pictures from their social media, it’s going to be a bunch of white people.” When algorithms that are built with this biased data make it into products — for use in, say, law enforcement, health care and financial services — they begin to have serious impacts on people’s lives, most severely when law enforcement misidentifies a suspect. Among the cases coming to light, “in New Jersey, Nijeer Parks was not only misidentified by a facial recognition system, arrested, but could prove that he was 30 miles away at the time,” Nkonde recounts. “But, because of poverty, Parks ended up spending 10 days in jail, because he couldn’t make bail. And that story really shows how facial recognition kind of reinforces other elements of racialized violence by kind of doubling up these systems.” Which is why Nkonde is working to ban facial recognition technology from use, as well as fighting for other legislation in the United States that will go beyond protecting individual rights to improving core systems for the good of all.

It’s 46 minutes long, but worth every minute.

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Friday 2 April, 2021

Quote of the Day

”The grinding of the intellect is for most people as painful as a dentist’s drill.”

  • Leonard Woolf

More painful, I’d say.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Tuba Skinny | Jubilee Stomp | New Orleans, 2018


Nobody sleeps at the back when this ensemble is on song.

Thanks to Ian Cole for suggesting them.

Long Read of the Day

Living in a World Without Stars

If you read nothing else this weekend, pour some coffee and read Curtis White’s elegant demolition of Klaus Schwab’s and Thierry Malleret’s fatuous book, Covid-19: The Great Reset. Here’s a sample:

According to Schwab, the global elite is indeed conspiring at Davos, but it is conspiring in the name of justice, equality, and environmental health. In short, he argues that people like himself and the wealthy organizations that flock to his Davos confab each year should be trusted to right not only their own ships but all ships, in the name of a social conscience they have always possessed even if they haven’t always succeeded in showing it. Most surprisingly, given that we’re talking about Davos, Schwab suggests that “the ostentatious display of wealth will no longer be acceptable.” So no surprise if more Honda Civics and fewer Mercedes pull up to the curb at Davos.

Slack-jawed incredulity is required here, but it is probably strongest not among capitalism’s critics, people like me, but among the elite. The business elite enjoy Davos not for the preaching they hear from Schwab or from celebrities like Bono, Elton John, and Sharon Stone, but for the unique opportunity it provides for networking and deal making. The idea that they should give authority back to governments, reform labor relations, and put the needs of the environment before the need for profit will happen…in a pig’s eye.

After all, why should they change in the ways that Schwab says stakeholder capitalism requires? And why should anyone think capitalism needs to be saved from itself? This is not the Great Depression. There was no Black Tuesday and no execs dropped from the fifteenth floor, worthless stock certificates fluttering behind.

The question is, therefore: Since the pandemic has been so incredibly profitable for the wealthy, why would they want to change anything? After all,

They have hated the New Deal for eighty years, and they have been buying up politicians to chip away at it, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s attacks on big government and the welfare state. What makes anyone think that capitalism is going to do an about-face after the past forty years of clawing back New Deal concessions? Why would they do that willingly, especially now? That being the case, well might we wonder just how much climate change and social unrest they will tolerate before they change their ways. My suspicion is that they’ll tolerate a lot, especially if stock markets continue to tell them that everything’s jake. They have no motive for following Schwab and every profit motive for not following him.

You get the idea? Highly recommended.

It Looks Like a Vespa, Rides Like a Vespa, but Doesn’t Smell Like a Vespa

An Irish mechanic in London has developed a kit to transform classic (but polluting) Italian scooters into zero-emission machines.

This story made my day.

Among the iconic designs of Italy’s vibrant postwar period, few capture the essence of La Dolce Vita like Vespas and Lambrettas, the free-spirited motor scooters that brought mobility to the masses and became beloved across Italy, and subsequently, the world.

While the two companies still make scooters, those early models — whose whining two-stroke engines spew plumes of aromatic smoke — are by far the most sought by collectors, some commanding up to $30,000.

Niall McCart, an Irishman from the city of Armagh, got his first Vespa at 16. De rigueur for a youth swept up in Britain’s early-1980s Mod revival, the Vespa was eminently practical as well.

So he built a business, Retrospective Scooters, around refurbishing and selling vintage Vespas.

But … (there’s always a but in these stories).

As his business grew, so did restrictions on older vehicles. The European Union’s first Low Emission Zones were established in 1996. London has one such zone, as well as an extra-stringent Ultra Low Emission Zone, in the city centre. To drive inside it, owners of polluting scooters must pay a daily fee of £12.50 pounds, with a heavy fine for failure to pay.

McCart spotted an opportunity: retrofitting vintage Vespas with an electric drivetrain. Better still: make and sell retrofitting kits. His firm, Retrospective Scooters, now sells kits for five types of vintage Vespas and Lambrettas. The kits cost £3,445 and include a 64-volt, 28-amp-hour battery that can take a scooter to a top speed of 50 mph and go 30-35 miles on a charge.

Neat, eh?

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