Monday 21 November, 2022

Hot stuff

We have a new wood-burning stove, and our cat approves of it.

Quote of the Day

”Windbags can be right. Aphorists can be wrong. It is a tough world.”

  • James Fenton

There’s hope for me yet.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ben Harper | Please Me Like You Want To


I wonder if he ever doesn’t sound lugubrious.

Long Read of the Day

Farewell, My Lovely  The New Yorker

E.B. White’s paen of praise to his Ford Model T, published in the New Yorker in 1936. It’s a beautiful — and sometimes hilarious — essay, which delighted this recovering petrolhead. And in certain respects reminded him of his Tesla which — like Henry Ford’s car and Robert Louis Stevenson’s donkey — has an unfathomable mind of its own. Which is why her name is Modestine. (Tesla allows — nay encourages — owners to name their vehicles.)

I see by the new Sears Roebuck catalogue that it is still possible to buy an axle for a 1909 Model T Ford, but I am not deceived. The great days have faded, the end is in sight. Only one page in the current catalogue is devoted to parts and accessories for the Model T; yet everyone remembers springtimes when the Ford gadget section was larger than men’s clothing, almost as large as household furnishings. The last Model T was built in 1927, and the car is fading from what scholars call the American scene—which is an understatement, because to a few million people who grew up with it, the old Ford practically was the American scene.

It was the miracle God had wrought. And it was patently the sort of thing that could only happen once. Mechanically uncanny, it was like nothing that had ever come to the world before. Flourishing industries rose and fell with it. As a vehicle, it was hard-working, commonplace, heroic; and it often seemed to transmit those qualities to the persons who rode in it. My own generation identifies it with Youth, with its gaudy, irretrievable excitements; before it fades into the mist, I would like to pay it the tribute of the sigh that is not a sob, and set down random entries in a shape somewhat less cumbersome than a Sears Roebuck catalogue…

Do read it. You won’t be disappointed, even if you’re not a petrolhead.

Elon Musk needs to learn that more debate does not mean more truth

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Underpinning Musk’s views about free speech and the public sphere (AKA town square) is the fatuous metaphor of “the marketplace of ideas” that emerged from the deliberations of the US supreme court in 1953 (though something like it was mooted by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes way back in 1919). It suggests that ideas compete with each other in a conceptual marketplace where they can be critically evaluated by every individual. As law professor David Pozen and others have pointed out, there’s no empirical evidence that a larger volume of speech, or a more open “marketplace” of ideas, tends to lead people away from falsity and towards truth. Subscribing to the metaphor is thus either a matter of faith or of evidence-free credulity. And if Musk believes that it is the secret sauce for managing Twitter then he’s a bigger crackpot than even I thought.

Do read the whole thing.

Books, etc.

My esteemed colleague, the economist Diane Coyle, runs what is, IMO, the best book blog in the world. Every year she chooses her economics ‘book of the year’. This year, the prize is shared by two authors: Brad DeLong for his *Slouching Towards Utopia and James Bressen for The New Goliaths. Since I’d already read DeLong’s book and hadn’t known about the Bessen I decided to investigate it further. It looks really interesting (it’s about why some companies get so far ahead of others) but before jumping in I was struck by an earlier book of his —  Learning by Doing: The Real Connection Between Innovation, Wages, and Wealth, partly because it addresses a question that has always puzzled me: how is knowledge transmitted from person to person. So I’ve ordered that and am looking forwards to it. In the meantime, Diane’s two winners each qualify for a free lunch.

Chart of the Day

Shipping container rates are now back to where they were before the pandemic. Is this a good thing? I’m reminded of a Christmas 15 years ago, when one of my sons needed a new overcoat (not an anorak). So we went to Debenhams, then a busy Department Store, now defunct. I sat in the relevant department while he tried on various coats. Out of curiosity I started to examine the Christmas goods on display, and to my astonishment I found that every single item in the department had been made in China.

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Elon Musk needs to learn that more debate does not mean more truth

Today’s Observer column:

Underpinning Musk’s views about free speech and the public sphere (AKA town square) is the fatuous metaphor of “the marketplace of ideas” that emerged from the deliberations of the US supreme court in 1953 (though something like it was mooted by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes way back in 1919). It suggests that ideas compete with each other in a conceptual marketplace where they can be critically evaluated by every individual. As law professor David Pozen and others have pointed out, there’s no empirical evidence that a larger volume of speech, or a more open “marketplace” of ideas, tends to lead people away from falsity and towards truth. Subscribing to the metaphor is thus either a matter of faith or of evidence-free credulity. And if Musk believes that it is the secret sauce for managing Twitter then he’s a bigger crackpot than even I thought.

Do read the whole thing.

Friday 18 November, 2022

Personal Chairs

The entrance to my favourite Copenhagen café, where we had breakfast last Thursday morning.

Quote of the Day

”What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.”

  • Ludwig Wittgenstein in the Tractatus (in Frank Ramsey’s translation)

I’ve always loved this quote, though in lectures I generally paraphrase it as: “Anything that can be said can be said clearly.” This is sometimes news to my fellow academics.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel | Semele, Act 2 | Oh sleep, why dost thou leave me? | Renée Fleming


Long Read of the Day

Inside Meta’s Oversight Board: 2 Years of Pushing Limits

This is the first substantial piece about Meta’s Oversight Board that I’ve seen. It’s by Steven Levy, who’d have been able to gain more access (to the Board) than most journalists would. I found it particularly interesting because I was scathingly dismissive of the Board when it was set up, regarding as a reputation-washing scam by Zuckerberg & Co. I still think that that was its function, but Levy’s account suggests that I under-estimated the persistence and determination of some members of the Board to try and hold their toxic supervisee to some kind of account.

Some critics see the Oversight Board as an exercise in corporate ass-covering by a bunch of Meta’s puppets. If the company doesn’t want to make a controversial call, it can push the board to take a position on the issue and, conveniently, take the heat. Emi Palmor, a board member who once served as the director general of Israel’s Justice Ministry, says she’s frequently approached in the supermarket by people seeking tech support for Meta apps. “I want to murder the person who chose the name Oversight Board,” she says. “It is an unexplainable term.”

But since it started hearing cases in the fall of 2020, the board has won grudging respect from the human rights organizations and content moderation wonks who pay attention to its work. “People thought it would be a total fiasco,” says Evelyn Douek, a Stanford law professor who follows the board closely. “But in some real ways, it has brought some accountability to Facebook.” Meta, meanwhile, is declaring victory. “I’m absolutely delighted—thrilled, thrilled, thrilled with the progress,” Clegg says. The board’s approach to cases “is exactly what you should expect between a social media platform and an independent oversight entity.”

Well worth your time if the issue of holding tech companies to account interests you.

Crypto news

From Tortoise media…

Crypto breaks

Crypto was changing the world and redefining global finance – until it wasn’t. First, FTX crashed. It is bankrupt and under federal investigation, while founder Sam Bankman-Fried is being sued. But FTX was just the first domino. In recent days, one of the world’s biggest crypto miners, Core Scientific Inc, said it may be seeking bankruptcy protection; Genesis Trading, a large decentralised lending and trading platform, halted trades; cryptocurrency lender BlockFi reportedly prepared for a potential bankruptcy filing; Tether briefly unpegged from the dollar (which is a problem because it’s whole job is being pegged to the dollar) and the price of Bitcoin is down nearly 20 per cent this month. Meanwhile, US quarterback and crypto bro Tom Brady faces legal action for promoting FTX and thousands of Mercedes G-Wagons – the unofficial crypto bro car of choice – are for sale on Autotrader.

Interesting. I hadn’t known about the G-Wagon obsession.

Footnote for petrolheads

According to Wikipedia,

The Mercedes-Benz G-Class, sometimes colloquially called the G-Wagen (as an abbreviation of Geländewagen) is a four-wheel drive automobile manufactured by Magna Steyr (formerly Steyr-Daimler-Puch) in Austria and sold by Mercedes-Benz. Originally developed as a military off-roader, later more luxurious models were added to the line.

It’s a perfectly hideous, vulgar vehicle, IMO. You wouldn’t want your daughter to marry anyone who drove one.

Books, etc.

Patti Smith’s Book of Days is utterly delightful. Although it has a photograph for every day of the year, it’s not really a photography book. Many of the photographs are, qua photographs, technically mediocre. But that’s fine because their function is to act as triggers for reflective captions. On 10 March, for example, the pic is of a coffee cup and Patti’s spectacles. But the cup is a Brasserie Lipp cup, and the caption “All I needed in Paris” tells everything you need to know. I’d have taken a similar photograph if I’d been there.

On 6 April, the photograph is of her daughter outside the Pantheon in Rome. Caption reads: “Jesse before Rome’s Pantheon, the burial place of Raphael, the youthful Renaissance master who died on his thirty-seventh birthday. Known for his beauty of countenance and spirit, it was said that Nature wanted him for herself.”

On 12 February a photograph of her desk with an open antique book lying on it together with her beloved (but now defunct) Polaroid camera. The caption: “Still life with Finnegans Wake, a bible of the incomprehensible, by the great Irish writer, James Joyce. I obtained it some years ago in a London bookshop with money I earned performing poetry. Joyce laboured on his masterwork for seventeen years, so one need not hurry to navigate it.”

On 13 February (the next day) a photograph of her desk with an open notebook and what looks like a typewritten manuscript of A skeleton key to Finnegans Wake by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson. Caption: The key is equally incomprehensible.”

You get the idea. It’ll make a lovely Christmas present. I can think of several of my friends who might just receive one on December 25.

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All you need to know about FTX

From The Guardian:

In a stinging court filing posted on Thursday John Ray III, the new boss of the bankrupt crypto exchange FTX, said the company had suffered an “unprecedented and complete failure of corporate controls”.

Cryptocurrency FTX’s logo reflected in an image of former chief executive Samuel Bankman-Fried.

Ray has overseen some of the biggest bankruptcies ever, including the collapse of the energy giant Enron, and has 40 years of experience in restructuring companies. He said he had never seen anything as bad as FTX.

He wrote in a filing with the Delaware bankruptcy court: “Never in my career have I seen such a complete failure of corporate controls and such a complete absence of trustworthy financial information as occurred here.

“From compromised systems integrity and faulty regulatory oversight abroad, to the concentration of control in the hands of a very small group of inexperienced, unsophisticated and potentially compromised individuals, this situation is unprecedented.”

The company’s collapse has shaken the cryptocurrency market to its core and already sparked international regulatory inquiries and a lawsuit against the company and the celebrities who promoted it, including Larry David, Naomi Osaka, Gisele Bündchen and Shaquille O’Neal.

The company expects to have more than 1 million creditors.

Ray said a “substantial portion” of assets held by FTX may be “missing or stolen”.

Thursday 17 November, 2022

So where’s the actual door?

Copenhagen, November 2022.

Quote of the Day

”In a sense one can never read the book that the author originally wrote, and one can never read the same book twice.”

  • Edmund Wilson

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bob Dylan | All I Really Want to Do


Long Read of the Day

On Elon Musk’s Vision of Twitter as a Hive Mind

Terrific essay by Joe Bak-Coleman.

Under what conditions can we expect a group of individuals to act cohesively and effectively as a collective, and in what circumstances does human behavior prevent such action? I believe this is a defining question for science in the coming decades, as we develop systems that alter our interactions with one another and with technology, all the while facing challenges like climate change, pandemics, and war that threaten our existence as a species.

Of course, the question isn’t wholly unanswered. We know that our minds function as a consequence of millions of years of natural selection shaping the structure of the brain to promote functioning and decision-making. And, we know that the number of neurons and connections between them is not what makes brains work, it’s how those neurons interact.

Yet neurons are ultimately a poor analogy for individual human behavior. As a collection of cells with identical DNA bound to live or die together, neurons share a common goal and have no reason to compete, cheat, or steal…

Really illuminating. Worth your time.

Books, etc.

Bruce Schneier has a new book coming early next year.

Anything by him is worth reading. It’s on my list.

How China Got Our Kids Hooked on ‘Digital Fentanyl’

TikTok is a national security threat.

Sobering blog post by Geoffrey Cain, who was kicked out of China’s China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang in 2017 for investigating the beginnings of what the State Department has since labeled a genocide. He can’t understand why the threat posed by TikTok to western democracies isn’t alarming people. Neither can I.

I know all about this. I used to be an investigative reporter in China. In December 2017, I first heard from friends on social media that a Chinese tech unicorn called ByteDance was planning on entering the American market with a new app. It was called TikTok.

Alongside its sibling app, Douyin, which operates only in China, TikTok was poised to sweep up the Gen Z audience in America, with its preference for video snippets of dancing celebrities, DIY projects, cooking demonstrations, skincare routines and other Gen Z’ers singing and dancing in their parents’ kitchens. As the fastest growing social media app ever, it rankled American competitors Facebook and YouTube, which were banned in China.

By October 2018, ByteDance was the world’s most valuable startup, with a valuation of $75 billion.

Four years later, ByteDance is worth $300 billion. TikTok is expected to reach 1.8 billion users globally by the end of the year. And a quarter of American adults under 30 get their news from the social-media app…

Read on.


In my piece about Lee Miller the other day I inadvertently claimed that she was married to Roger Penrose, not Roland. This was not a typo but a cognitive slip, because Roger Penrose, the great mathematical physicist, had been on my mind in another context, whereas Roland Penrose was an artist, art collector and the biographer of Picasso, and therefore the most likely husband for Lee. It was the kind of error that would have been picked up by even a half-witted proof-reader. But, alas, I am not even that bright.

Thanks to Keith Devlin for alerting me to the mistake.

My commonplace booklet

Hey Elon: Let Me Help You Speed Run The Content Moderation Learning Curve

Wonderful satirical take on why Musk and his ilk don’t understand what “free speech” actually means.

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Wednesday 16 November, 2022

Quote of the Day

“I asked why he was a priest and he said that if you have to work for anybody an absentee boss is best.”

  • Janette Winterson

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Toselli | Serenade | Indulis Suna (violin) & Ilga Suna (piano)


Pure schmaltz, but what the hell. It’s Wednesday.

Long Read of the Day

Critical Ignoring as a Core Competence for Digital Citizens

Many moons ago, Clay Shirky observed that “there is no such thing as information-overload; there is just filter failure”, which in a way was both profound and glib. Everyone who studies or works in the online world wrestles continually with the problem of filter design: how to craft or locate tools that help one to discover the good stuff and filter out the bad. And over time we have all built software ecosystems and workflows that help us to cope. This blog is the output of such a workflow; it’s the outcome of an ongoing struggle to decide what is interesting and potentially important, and what is unimportant and ephemeral — even if mainstream media and conventional wisdom are making a big deal of it at the time.

My discovery process has thrown up this interesting academic paper which happens to be available under Open Access arrangements (i.e. you don’t have to work in a university to access it for free). The core of its argument is that “digital environments present new challenges to people’s cognition and attention. People must therefore develop new mental habits, or retool those from other domains, to prevent merchants of low-quality information from hijacking their cognitive resources. One key such competence is the ability to deliberately and strategically ignore information”.

As important as the ability to think critically continues to be, we argue that it is insufficient to borrow the tools developed for offline environments and apply them to the digital world. When the world comes to people filtered through digital devices, there is no longer a need to decide what information to seek. Instead, the relentless stream of information has turned human attention into a scarce resource to be seized and exploited by advertisers and content providers. Investing effortful and conscious critical thinking in sources that should have been ignored in the first place means that one’s attention has already been expropriated (Caulfield, 2018). Digital literacy and critical thinking should therefore include a focus on the competence of critical ignoring: choosing what to ignore, learning how to resist low-quality and misleading but cognitively attractive information, and deciding where to invest one’s limited attentional capacities.

The paper goes on to suggest strategies for successful critical ignoring. None of them are, as the cliché goes, rocket science. Indeed, in a way, they are commonsensical. But we know how rare common sense can be.

Worth your time and — what’s more important, your attention.

Books, etc.

Patti Smith’s A Book of Days has arrived, and it’s lovely: 365 photographs, taking you through a single year, providing an intriguing dip into the stream of consciousness of a wonderfully creative artist. Of course I looked up my birthday to see what she was thinking of that day, and found a nice photograph of the young Nelson Mandela (with whom I share a birthday) as a boxer.

My Observer colleague, Kate Kellaway, had a great conversation with Smith, which is worth reading.

Dan O’Dowd and his campaign against Musk’s “Full Self Driving” fantasies

From the Washington Post

O’Dowd, who made his fortune selling software to military customers, has been using the Tesla Model 3 to test and film the car’s self-driving software. He’s documented what appear to be examples of the car swerving across the centerline toward oncoming traffic, failing to slow down in a school zone and missing stop signs. This summer, he triggered an uproar by releasing a video showing his Tesla — allegedly in Full Self-Driving mode — mowing down child-size mannequins.

“If Tesla gets away with this and ships this product and I can’t convince the public that a self-driving car that drives like a drunken, suicidal 13-year-old shouldn’t be on the road, I’m going to fail,” O’Dowd said in an interview from his Santa Barbara office, where glass cases display his collection of ancient coins and auction-bought mementos from NASA moon missions.

O’Dowd has run nationwide TV ads with the videos and even launched an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate as part of his one-man crusade to challenge what he sees as the cavalier development of dangerous technology. For O’Dowd and other skeptics, the program is a deadly experiment foisted on an unsuspecting public — a view underscored by a recently filed class-action lawsuit and a reported Department of Justice investigation into the tech.

Despite O’Dowd’s high-profile campaign, and the concern from some regulators and politicians, Tesla is charging ahead with what it claims is world-changing technology. The company and its supporters argue their approach will help usher in a future in which death from human errors on roadways is eliminated. At the end of September, during a four-hour event in which Tesla showed off its latest artificial intelligence tech, Musk said Full Self-Driving is already saving lives and keeping it off public roads would be “morally wrong.”

The only way to interpret Musk’s obsession with ‘FSD’ is that it’s magical thinking — believing that something can be made real if you desire it enough.

Thanks to Charles Arthur (a fellow Tesla owner) for spotting it.

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Tuesday 15 November, 2022

Lee Miller: in her own pictures (and words)

I was in Copenhagen last week at an interesting conference in the remarkable ‘Black Diamond’ extension of the Royal Danish Library. When I went in I saw this poster for an exhibition in the Library’s lower-ground exhibition space. And of course at the first opportunity I bought a ticket and went down.

The curators of the show had the brilliant idea of telling the story of her life in 100 of her photographs. She was one of the most remarkable women of her time. If cats have nine lives, then she had at least twenty: just for starters she was a beautiful model, a muse, a photographer, a surrealist, a businesswoman, an author, a war correspondent, a gourmet chef, and a friend (and sometimes a lover) of a number of great artists.

Her last years were difficult. She drank too much, had a difficult relationship with her son and often felt mentally unstable and depressed. But after her death, her son found a vast collection of her photographs in the attic of the country house that she and Roger Penrose owned. It had 20,000 original prints and 60,000 negatives — an artistic goldmine.

Some finds from this goldmine are in the exhibition. Quite a few are familiar but many I hadn’t seen before. And her war photographs are raw, stark, savage and shocking. She and her colleague David Scherman arrived in Dachau the day after it had been liberated. As the exhibition catalogue puts it:

”Miller was deeply shocked by the vast amount of dead and dying, emaciated people and the evidence of atrocities found in the camp. The crematoria had run out of fuel, so the bodies lay in piles with men in separate stacks, women and children in others. Miller photographed what she saw, just as she would later do in Buchenwald. She found the strength to document the terrors in a fierce anger and a strong sense of moral obligation to show the truth of the war, no matter how horrifying.”

It took its toll on her, as it would on anyone. There’s a photograph of her taken at the time which shows an exhausted woman in a war correspondent’s uniform who is clearly at the end of her tether — but still working. One unforgettable photograph shows two concentration camp guards who had tried to escape by dressing in civilian clothes, but had been captured and clearly been beaten. She shows them kneeling staring at her with dead eyes. Men knowing that the clock had run out for them. Another photograph shows a Nazi bigwig in stained regalia flat on his back after committing suicide in his office. And she photographed the firing squad who executed the former Hungarian Prime Minister and anti-semite, László Bárdossy, as they carried out their orders.

Two things were particularly revelatory about the exhibition. One was that Miller was a very good writer. Her account — in Vogue, of all places — of what post-defeat Germany was like is vividly readable. After the liberation, she and Scherman drove to Munich and strolled straight into Hitler’s flat in 16 Prinzregentenplatz, where one of the most famous photographs of Miller — of her washing herself in the dictator’s bathtub — was taken. She also took one of Scherman doing the same, but of course it is the one of her in the bath that became famous.

The other nice discovery was what a gentle and considerate man her early photographic mentor and lover, Man Ray, was. His letter to her advising her against marrying the wealthy Egyptian businessman, Aziz Eloui Bey is a beautiful example of someone who really cared for her and didn’t want her to be taken for granted.

Quote of the Day

”Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”

  • Mark Twain

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jackson Browne and Billy Strings | Running On Empty (live) | San Francisco, Sept. 29, 2022


Long Read of the Day

The Age of Social Media Is Ending

Interesting retrospective essay by Ian Bogost in The Atlantic on the way an era is ending.

It’s over. Facebook is in decline, Twitter in chaos. Mark Zuckerberg’s empire has lost hundreds of billions of dollars in value and laid off 11,000 people, with its ad business in peril and its metaverse fantasy in irons. Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has caused advertisers to pull spending and power users to shun the platform (or at least to tweet a lot about doing so). It’s never felt more plausible that the age of social media might end—and soon.

Now that we’ve washed up on this unexpected shore, we can look back at the shipwreck that left us here with fresh eyes. Perhaps we can find some relief: Social media was never a natural way to work, play, and socialize, though it did become second nature. The practice evolved via a weird mutation, one so subtle that it was difficult to spot happening in the moment. The critical moment was when social networking changed into being social media.

Perceptive and worth a read.

The aphrodisiac effect of crypto ‘wealth’

Well, isn’t this nice.

Sam Bankman-Fried and two friends.

Puzzled? I don’t blame you. But this blog post by Michael W. Green might help. The headline kind-of gives it away: “The $32 Billion Crypto Scammer”.

“The Next Warren Buffett.” That’s how Fortune magazine dubbed Sam Bankman-Fried, the crypto wunderkind who wore shorts, schlubby socks, and sneakers on stage with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. But Bankman-Fried, worth an estimated $32 billion at his height, wouldn’t just be a financial oracle like Buffett. He would also be the second-coming of George Soros: By the end of this midterm election cycle, he’d become the second largest donor to the Democratic Party.

Over the past few days, all of that has come spectacularly undone.

Now, Bankman-Fried looks, at best, like the original storyline for Michael Saylor of Microstrategy during the Dotcom bust. Or, more likely, like Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos infamy. Or, with increasing plausibility, like a less civic-minded Bernie Madoff.

Tens of thousands of people who invested their savings on various FTX exchanges have likely been wiped out. FTX employees have quit en masse. And SBF? According to reports, he’s been taken into custody by Bahamian authorities after holing up at FTX HQ with his father.

Do read on. And marvel at the gullibility, not just of the crypto crowd, but also of ex-Prime Ministers and former Presidents.

My commonplace booklet

  • From PetaPixel: A Russian Missile Crew Was Geolocated From Just This Photo.

  • From Bill Janeway (Whom God Preserve): “I always heard your “McKee’s Law” as stated by Nelson Algren, one of three in A Walk on the Wild Side. “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.” Wikipedia attributes it to “Murphy.” At least it is not attributed either to Yogi Berra or Maynard Keynes….

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Monday 14 November, 2022

Cyclists ahoy!

Copenhagen is one of the most liveable cities in the world, IMO. The first thing that strikes one in the morning is the astonishing number of cyclists commuting to work, school and elsewhere. It makes Cambridge look like toytown. The second striking thing is the remarkable infrastructure the city has built to make cycling easy and safe.

This bridge, the Lille Langebro (literally, “Little Long Bridge”) is one of the newer pieces of that infrastructure. It’s beautiful, imaginative and quirky. And it can be opened for shipping on the few occasions when that’s necessary. When I first came on it last Thursday I stood transfixed as the morning rush of two-wheelers flowed off it.

Quote of the Day

“Thou shalt not sleep with anyone who has more problems than you.”

  • One of the ‘Ten Commandments’ of screenwriting coach Robert McKee

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Franz Schubert | Nacht und Träume | Renée Fleming | 2005


Sound quality is poor, but I prefer it with an orchestral backing rather than just the piano. Either way, it’s lovely.

Long Read of the Day

Elephants in the Room

Years ago, the security guru Bruce Schneier famously observed that “surveillance is the business model of the Internet” and got slammed for it, because he should have said “the Web”, not the Internet. But actually it was advertising that was really the business model of at least two of the Web giants — Google and Facebook.

This blast from Scott Galloway dares to utter the thought that may be beginning to dawn on Silicon Valley, namely that the advertising boom may be over for social media.

Much of the concern was a function of the ad-driven nature of platforms — algorithms that tapped into good/bad aspects of human nature to addict us. Most people knew how Facebook and Google made money, but not how they actually worked, how the ad revenue was fueled by the collection of data and the harvesting of attention. In fact, the phrase “Big Tech” was barely known back then. (Check the Wikipedia entry for Big Tech and see which NYU professor is credited with defining the category.) I just read the last sentence and realized I still crave other people’s affirmation. #Pathetic.

Anyway, things are different today. We know we’re being tracked, and we understand how digital platforms make money. We also know they’re lucrative, as in, among the fastest growing, most profitable businesses in history. Since A Beautiful Mind won Best Picture in 2002, Google has grown its revenue 625-fold. Digital ads transformed the company from a garage project into a multinational corporation, and turned Meta from a college-campus website into the largest media business in the world. If you had to bet everything, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to go with whoever controls our attention. Meta or Google? Safe bets. Snap? Riskier, but the moppets love it. It’s fun to flirt with other sectors and firms, but these companies are the smart, safe bets.

Until now.

Do read it. Especially the bit about how you would feel if you had bought Facebook shares in 2015!

Ireland has raked in billions from tech giants. But what if the golden goose flies the nest?

Yesterday’s Observer column:

In 1958, a young Irish civil servant named Kenneth Whitaker surprised his political masters in Dublin with a 250-page document on which he and some of his colleagues in the department of finance had been covertly working for months. Its title, Economic Development, may have been deceptively bland, but its message was blindingly clear. The country was an economic mess and unless radical action was taken its very existence as a viable state was in doubt.

As the writer Fintan O’Toole put it in his memoir, 1950s Ireland was basically “a vast cattle ranch with a few cities and a lot of small provincial towns attached”. This ranch had two main exports: live cattle and beef products, most of them destined for the British market, and young people, emigrating in their thousands every year because there were no livelihoods, or any prospect of fulfilling lives, at home.

In July 1958, the Irish government accepted Whitaker’s analysis and instructed him to work out a programme for economic expansion, which he duly did. A key phrase in the resulting document was that “a readiness to welcome foreign capital is a necessary complement to secure foreign participation in industrial development”. In one of those occasional miracles that are the hinges of history, this radical idea escaped the notice of the country’s reactionaries and became government policy. And a government body called the Industrial Development Authority (IDA), staffed with zealous technocrats, set out to make it a reality.

And boy, did they succeed. Ireland may still export cattle and dairy products, but foreign multinationals now account for 10.2% of employment and 66% of the country’s exports…

Do read the whole thing

My commonplace booklet

From Joe Pell…


‘I really think this is the most important object ever found in my excavations,’ said Yosef Garfinkel, an archaeologist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a co-author of the study who has unearthed evidence of King David’s reign during his career. He paused, then added, with a hint of emotion in his voice: ‘This is the first sentence ever found in the alphabet.'” The sentence that Garfinkel is referring was etched into a tiny ivory comb that “came from ancient ruins in central Israel and was about the size of a child’s thumb. A number of its teeth had snapped. It was so encrusted in dirt that the archaeologist who found it initially added it to a bag of assorted bones.” Years later, someone re-discovered it. So what was the message that humans of 1700 BC passed forward? A message about war and peace? A treatise on the existence of gods? A guide to keeping your cave well-organized during the holidays? Nope. The message for the ages is this: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.”

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Wednesday 9 November, 2022

Home from home

Quote of the Day

”A team effort is a lot of people doing what I say.”

  • Michael Winner, film director

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

She Moved Through the Fair | Patrick Dexter (Cello)


Long Read of the Day

 Twitter consequences; not just for little people

One of the most revolting things about the media coverage of Elon Musk’s antics in acquiring Twitter is its implicit acceptance of his sociopathic worldview. A company employing 7,500 people has suddenly become his plaything. He can do whatever he likes with it. So we watch breathlessly to see what he does, and speculate endlessly on whether this move or that will do the trick. It’s like watching a chess grandmaster playing some practice games — trying this opening gambit, or that; moving pieces on a board.

The ‘pieces’ with which Musk is playing, however, are not inanimate objects but people with mortgages, partners, children, dependents, commitments, and so on. People like you and me, living in one of the most expensive and anti-social places on earth. And with one sweep of his arm, this weird grandmaster has just cleared half of these pieces from his board. But because the casualties are ‘just’ tech employees nobody gives a damn. It’s just capitalism, innit.

All of which is by way of explaining why I found Maria Farrell’s blast on the Crooked Timber blog so welcome.

The US employees will find themselves out on the street with no health insurance. That’s catastrophic, and stop-gap insurance cover is prohibitively expensive. I availed of it myself over a decade ago, and it was more than a thousand dollars a month – not the kind of money you have lying around when you’ve just been sacked. Many senior Twitter managers resigned before they were sacked, and the mass lay-offs were clearly in the post, so many employees – the ones with the sense not to work 24/7 to keep a job they were likely to lose, anyway – will have taken steps to stay in contact with former colleagues once they’re locked out of their work messaging channels. The levels of chaos and dysfunction inside Twitter right now can only be imagined. Relatively few workers are unionised, and in these situations many people think they can keep their jobs by screwing their co-workers or just ignoring abuse, so those who remain will be in an increasingly toxic situation. It can be fifty-fifty as to whether the lucky ones are those who got sacked or walked early on.

I’ve been through a narcissist takeover, so my heart goes out to Twitter’s current and former workers. It’s very tough to be sacked not because you did anything wrong, but because your face doesn’t fit (or some xenophobic shit like you have the wrong passport). When you’ve worked for one of these organisations that demand your heart and soul and all your waking hours, and get canned for no reason, it’s brutal. It’s also tough to see how some colleagues act. I cut a deal where I was a dead man walking for a few months so I could avoid being legally required leave the country by midnight of the day I was sacked, and one person in a tiny office suddenly found me invisible. Awkward. I did not become visible again until I was gainfully employed and ran into them a couple of years later, when they were effusively friendly. Ugh.

This is Maria Farrell at her best. Do read it.

Fleeing from Twitter

Moments like this reveal the astonishing power of network effects in digital technology — especially in social media. Once you’ve made a commitment to a particular networked service and you spend a few years building up a ‘social graph’ — the network of people you interact with or follow — then the idea of quitting, leaving that network behind, becomes more difficult to contemplate and carry out.

I remember a colleague of mine who works in computer security having a conversation with a grad student who had been looking at security issues in Facebook and reported finding some serious flaws. “So you’ll be deleting your account then?” said his supervisor. “Do you want me to have no social life?” The lad expostulated. You get the point: for him, a lot of his social life happened on Facebook, and FOMO (fear of missing out) ruled.

Ideally, you should be able to take your social graph with you when you leave a platform. But so far that’s difficult or impossible with most of them.

Given that, what other considerations are there? The first is: can you bear to be without that social graph? Secondly, is there a genuine alternative to which you can move? Often there isn’t.

But sometimes there is. For example, when Facebook (aka Meta) announced that it was making some significant changes to the terms of use of WhatsApp, a lot of people left quickly — so much so that the messaging services to which most people fled — Telegram and Signal — were temporarily overwhelmed. But that was because both of these services were actually pretty good alternatives to WhatsApp, and they were easy to use. I was able to move both my family groups and our research centre’s group in a day or so, and we’ve been happily using Signal ever since.

So what about pulling out of Twitter?

The obvious place to go is Mastodon , which looks a bit like Twitter but is in fact pretty different. It’s been around since 2016 but until recently was a pretty niche platform. The big difference is that whereas Twitter is a centralised service, Mastodon is distributed across thousands of servers. For a brief intro try this.

I’ve got a Mastodon account but haven’t used it very much — yet.

Significant numbers of people have been moving to it, though.

I liked this summary from a fellow-newbie, Gerard Cunningham.

So here’s what I’ve learned.
Mastodon isn’t Twitter.
And that’s by design.
You’ve grown used to things designed to give you that anger rush.
Mastodon is very deliberately built to avoid that.
The temptation is to replicate your Twitter experience.
Picking arguments, amplifying trolls.
Please don’t.
This isn’t your house, people here put time into building it.
Content warnings, ALT tags.
Don’t turn it into a replica of the mess you just left.
If you miss the fights, the birdsite is still there.

Also: Alex Hern has a really good overview in the Guardian of Twitter alternatives.

Sunak in a nutshell

Basically, he’s a British Macron with more expensive skinny suits.

Similarly networking at leading schools Winchester and Oxford University, much like Macron, Sunak also fell under the spell of Silicon Valley. Unlike Macron who dreams of a French Silicon Valley, however, Sunak moved to the original tech hub for an MBA at Stanford University.

Sunak never pretended he was a Socialist either — an impossible trick to turn at Goldman Sachs, where he worked as an analyst, or the hedge fund firms he subsequently joined. His free-market convictions led him to the Tory party in 2010, where he eventually joined — out of conviction, not convenience — the Brexiteer wing. Brexit represented, he explained, “a once in a generation opportunity for our country to take back control of its destiny and leave our nation freer, fairer, and more prosperous.”

A Thatcherite, like his close friend and predecessor as chancellor Sajid Javid, Sunak has less in common with the Tory party’s One-Nation faction than with the New Right, favoring tax cuts — particularly those earmarked for the finance and tech sectors — rather than spending increases, especially for social programs.

Source: Politico

My commonplace booklet

What is this?

A never-ending conversation between Bavarian director Werner Herzog and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. When you open this website, you are taken to a random point in the dialogue. Every day a new segment of the conversation is added. New segments can be generated at a faster speed than what it takes to listen to them. In theory, this conversation could continue until the end of time.

Who made this?

A motivated fool with an interest in philosophy, cinema and machine learning. More projects by the author.

The conversation is created by a machine-learning system. Seems to me that it gets the voices right. But the content is weird at times, but also sometimes uncannily appropriate. Think of it as the audio equivalent of ‘uncanny valley’.


Keith Devlin (Whom God Preserve) alerted me to fact that the claim in yesterday’s lovely piece about the origins of railway gauges might not be accurate. So I went to Snopes, as he recommended. Here’s its ruling:

Claim: The U.S. standard railroad gauge derives directly from the width of Imperial Roman war chariots.

Verdict: It’s a mixture. It’s true that the standard U.S. railroad gauge is similar in width to the wheel spacing of Roman chariots. But that similarity is based much more on coincidence and inherent physical limitations than a direct line of imitation.

I’m not entirely convinced. And I like the “horses asses” explanation better.

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Tuesday 8 November, 2022

On Putin’s border

Riga, 2017

Quote of the Day

“The secret of power is the knowledge that others are more cowardly than you are”

  • Ludwig Borne

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Tuba Skinny | Once in a While


Thanks to Ian Cole for the tip.

Long Read of the Day

AI is plundering the imagination and replacing it with a slot machine

Terrific essay by Annie Dorsen in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists which puts the current obsession with ‘AI’-generated art in its proper, humanistic, context. It’s about the difference between (a) the process that an artist develops to create an algorithm and (b) the process through which the art maker uses an already developed set of instructions to generate an output. Dorsen is a theatre director and writer whose works explore the intersection of algorithmic art and live performance and her essay gets to the heart of what’s happening to us as we are enmeshed in the current obsession with DALL-E and the like.

Much has been written about the cheesy aesthetics of AI-generated art. A bigger issue is the exploitation of living artists, who are neither credited nor compensated for the use of the existing works that feed the programs’ datasets. (It’s also worth noting that even as these companies scrape millions of images from the internet, appropriating the work of others for their own commercial ends, the code running these models is protected by copyright.) Others have also pointed out the enormous energy consumption of AI models, and the massive amounts of user-generated data collected by them. All of that is true.

But there should be an even deeper concern: These tools represent the complete corporate capture of the imagination, that most private and unpredictable part of the human mind. Professional artists aren’t a cause for worry. They’ll likely soon lose interest in a tool that makes all the important decisions for them. The concern is for everyone else. When tinkerers and hobbyists, doodlers and scribblers—not to mention kids just starting to perceive and explore the world—have this kind of instant gratification at their disposal, their curiosity is hijacked and extracted. For all the surrealism of these tools’ outputs, there’s a banal uniformity to the results. When people’s imaginative energy is replaced by the drop-down menu “creativity” of big tech platforms, on a mass scale, we are facing a particularly dire form of immiseration.

The conventional narrative about digital technology is that it is all about the augmentation of human capabilities — as good ol’ Douglas Engelbart envisaged. But in practice it is as much about asset-stripping human capabilities, turning its delighted users into supercharged Skinnerian pigeons. This is particularly the case with the ‘AI’-powered graphics tools, which leave their delighted users tweaking prompts to try and get a result they want, for all the world like pigeons pecking at levers.

Good essays should open up a subject rather than close it off. This one achieves that IMO.

Doc Searls on the ‘metaverse’

A characteristically insightful take on Zuckerberg’s pet obsession…

As for Meta (and its Reality Labs division), virtual and augmented realities (VR and AR) via headgear are today where “Ginger” was before she became the Segway: promising a vast horizontal market that won’t materialize because its utilities are too narrow.

VR/AR will, like the Segway, will find some niche uses. For Segway, it was warehouses, cops, and tourism. For VR/AR headgear it will be gaming, medicine, and hookups in meta-space. The porn possibilities are beyond immense.

As for business, both Twitter and Facebook will continue to be hit by a decline in personalized advertising and possibly a return to the old-fashioned non-tracking-based kind, which the industry has mostly forgotten how to do. But it will press on.

Not much discussed, but a real possibility is that advertising overall will at least partially collapse. This has been coming for a long time. (I’ve been predicting it at least since 2008.) First, there is near-zero (and widespread negative) demand for advertising on the receiving end. Second, Apple is doing a good job of working for its customers by providing ways to turn off or thwart the tracking that aims most ads online. And Apple, while not a monopoly, is pretty damn huge.

It may also help to remember that trees don’t grow to the sky. There is a life cycle for companies just as there is for living things.

My commonplace booklet

Things I hadn’t known

By Andrew Kissinger on the Facebook science humor group, via Adam Tooze.

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That’s an exceedingly odd number.

Why was that gauge used? Well, because that’s the way they built them in England, and English engineers designed the first US railroads.

Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the wagon tramways, and that’s the gauge they used.

So, why did ‘they’ use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they had used for building wagons, which used that same wheel spacing.

Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break more often on some of the old, long distance roads in England . You see, that’s the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So who built those old rutted roads? Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (including England ) for their legions. Those roads have been used ever since.

And what about the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match or run the risk of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing. Therefore the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot. Bureaucracies live forever.

So the next time you are handed a specification/procedure/process and wonder ‘What horse’s ass came up with this?’, you may be exactly right. Imperial Roman army chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war horses. (Two horses’ asses.) 

Now, the twist to the story: When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah . The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains, and the SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses’ behinds. So, a major Space Shuttle design feature, of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system, was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse’s ass.

And you thought being a horse’s ass wasn’t important? Ancient horse’s asses control almost everything.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!