Wednesday 28 April, 2021

Upcoming Quote of the Day

”If I read ‘upcoming’ in the Wall Street Journal again, I shall be downcoming and somebody will be outgoing.”

  • Bernard Kilgore, Managing Editor of The Wall Street Journal from 1941 to 1965 and head of the Dow Jones company.

(BTW: Many thanks to the many readers who answered my question about who advised improving one’s writing by striking out every fine passage.

It was Samuel Johnson. Kevin Cryan was first out of the traps, shortly after the email hit his inbox.

“Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

  • Samuel Johnson, The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D. Vol 2

It is so nice to have erudite readers.

Felicity Allen reported that “at art school we were told that Picasso had said if you’ve painted a good bit, get rid of it.”

Sheila Hayman suggested Elmore Leonard’s dictum as an alternative:

”My advice to writers: try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”

Come to think of it, that might also be advice for bloggers. But then I would have to consult the ‘analytics’ to find out, and that would be cheating, not to mention unethical.)


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Grateful Dead | Truckin’

Link

Well, I’m a Deadhead.


Long Read of the Day

 The Woman Who Shattered the Myth of the Free Market

Nice essay by Zachary Carter on Joan Robinson, the under-estimated heroine of Keynesian economics, whose work on the routine imperfection of markets is finally coming back into view.


What’s Behind the Apple-Facebook Feud?

From this week on, if you’re an iPhone user and you’ve updated to the latest version of iOS then you’ll find that companies and advertisers must ask your explicit permission — in the form of yes-or-no messages that pop up on the screen — to track you from one app to another. Many companies that make apps — for example Facebook — believe (correctly) that large numbers of people (including this blogger) will say no. And that means that businesses which rely on showing people online ads will have less data to customise those ads based on what tracking you tells them about your activity and interests.

What’s not to like?

Facebook, in particular, is predictably enraged by this move by Apple, for the very good reason that it will have an deleterious impact on FB’s revenues. (Personally, I doubt that it will be that big, but you never know. And nor does Facebook at the moment.) Accordingly, Zuckerberg and his satraps have been waging a fierce publicity campaign against Apple. The complaints have focussed on two themes. The first is that Apple is abusing its monopolistic hold on the iPhone. The second is the claim that the new iPhone regime will have a terrible impact on small and medium-sized companies which allegedly rely on the precise targeting that Facebook provides for them. Cue violins.

This is pure pass-the-sickbag stuff. To see Facebook shedding crocodile tears over the plight of small businesses stretches satire to its limits. And it reminds this blogger of good ol’ Sam Johnson’s observation that “the loudest yelps for liberty are heard from the drivers of slaves”. (He didn’t say ‘slaves’, but you get the gist.)

If you’re interested in the details of this farce, then the New York Times has useful explanations, as does Vox.


Think before you Link(In)

Helen Warrell, writing (behind a paywall) in the FT on April 19 reported that MI5 caused a “frisson of social media excitement” (whatever that is) with its debut on Instagram, evidently hoping to attract recruits from ‘influencers’. This coincided with a warning from the spooks aimed at civil servants using LinkedIn. It seems that China has been using it to lure targets to meetings in person where they “may be subjected to bribery or blackmail” in order to obtain intelligence.

Tut, tut.

Not to be outdone, the excellent Chris Nuttall reports that Jeremy Fleming, the director of GCHQ, has been warning about the UK facing a “moment of reckoning” in the race to protect itself from the influence of adversaries like China and Russia. He thinks that we need to up our tech game to ensure leadership in areas such as quantum computing.

Ah, that magic word “leadership” again: the quality that ageing hegemons prize so highly.

If we don’t wise up, says the GCHQ boss, “the key technologies on which we will rely for our future prosperity and security won’t be shaped and controlled by the west”. What key technologies would that be, exactly? Why ‘AI’ (aka machine learning and facial-recognition), of course. And then there’s quantum computing which could render existing encryption methods useless. In which case all our secrets could be exposed, without — as the FT wryly puts it — “any need for a fake LinkedIn account”.

I had a LinkedIn account once, for about three days. Having concluded that it was basically a ‘spamhaus’ for business people, I deleted my account — only to find that it took me about three years to stop receiving spammy emails from it.

Bang went my chance of being recruited by Beijing. Sigh.


How The Father was made

‘The Father’ is a remarkable film about dementia that has collected a number of Oscars. Judging from the trailer it looks like a worthy winner. It stars Anthony Hopkins as an elderly man with dementia who lives alone in London and has refused another nurse that his daughter Anne (brilliantly played by Olivia Colman) has set up for him. Exuberant and independent, Anthony is struggling as his memory begins to slip. Anne announces she is moving to Paris with a new boyfriend, but later in the living room Anthony sees a stranger claiming to be Anne’s husband. Who is this man? Confusion sets in…

After watching the trailer I came on a lovely conversation between the film’s Director, Florian Zeller, Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins. Well worth viewing.


Trust in news and in those who provide it

The Reuters Institute in Oxford has published a fine report on an investigation its researchers conducted into the extent to which citizens of four countries (Brazil, India, the UK, and the US) trust or mistrust news. The investigation was qualitative, not quantitative, (mostly by using focus groups) but in a way that makes it more illuminating because it captures nuances that statistical surveys miss.

It’s long but worth a read if you’re interested (as I am) in trustworthiness of media. And it includes a neat Venn diagram that captures the essence of the conversations.


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Tuesday 27 April, 2021

In a rural garden


Max Hastings is not carried away by the new ‘Global Britain’ aircraft-carrier

This interview on yesterday’s BBC Today programme made my day. I hope it also makes yours.

Link


Quote of the Day

“I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son-of-a-bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in gaol.”

  • Harry Truman on General Douglas MacArthur

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Chris McMullan playing Amazing Grace

Link

I’ve always thought of this as a somewhat hackneyed tune. Not this version, though.


Long Read of the Day

What Substack is really doing to the media

Insightful essay by Will Oremus.

The current excitement about Substack (the outfit that I use to publish the daily version of this blog) is a classic case of how intellectual chatter falls into Michael Mann’s trap of “the sociology of the last five minutes”. Substack is great for writers because it enables them to earn a crust — or a fortune — from their work and ‘liberates’ them (if that’s the right word) from media organisations that were formerly their employers. But it does little or nothing for news — the lifeblood of a functioning liberal democracy because a huge proportion of what’s on Substack is just opinion. Nothing wrong with that — a vibrant public sphere needs a diversity of opinion. But Substack does nothing to solve the existential problem of the withering away of organisations that do real journalism — the heavy lifting of holding power to account.

Well worth your time.


Dan Kaminsky RIP

A celebrated — and much-loved — information security expert has died from diabetic ketoacidosis at the age of 42.

Iain Thompson has a lovely obituary of him on The Register.

When your Register hack asked Kaminsky why he hadn’t gone to the dark side and used the flaw to become immensely wealthy – either by exploiting it to hijack millions of netizens’ web traffic, or by selling details of it to the highest bidders – he said not only would that have been morally wrong, he didn’t want his mom to have to visit him in prison.

If you want to see what he was like, try this DEFCON talk.

And thanks to Cory Doctorow for spotting a bad typo (now fixed).


Boris Johnson as Lear?

Lovely blast from Jonty Bloom.

There has been much talk this weekend about how the PM has been ranting about the betrayal of Dominic Cummings and is now like King Lear driven half mad. Wrong play, wrong King.

Boris Johnson is Macbeth; he seized the crown in an act of utterly selfish betrayal, destroying any semblance of honesty, integrity and decency along the way. Then he purged those who didn’t support him, trust him or believe him; in a bloodbath that left him surrounded by sycophants, liars, chancers and back stabbers.

It would be nice to think this all might end like Macbeth. With the usurper destroyed and a rightful and decent leader supported by the whole country once again in power. The trouble is if the PM does fall he will be replaced with another courtier, quite possibly even worse than he is. Yep.


How to improve your writing

This, from Dave Winer’s blog, is good advice.

It reminds me of something I read somewhere but can’t remember where (you know the feeling) which went like this: “always re-read your work carefully, and whenever you come upon a particularly fine passage, strike it out”. I thought it was Sam Johnson, but it’s not. Wonder if anyone out there knows it


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Huge ‘superyacht’ squeezes through narrow Dutch canals. Link A reminder — if you needed one — that any mogul rich enough to own one of these ludicrous vessels ought to be taxed until his pips squeak.

  • Earth has shifted on its axis due to melting of ice Link


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Monday 26 April, 2021

Blossoming

Our apple tree, yesterday.


Quote of the Day

”Silly, snobbish, lecherous, tipsy, given to high-flown sentiments and more than a little of a humbug; he needed Johnson as ivy needs an oak.”

  • Cyril Connolly on Thomas Boswell, Samuel Johnson’s biographer.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jeanine De Bique | Handel’s Messiah | ’Rejoice greatly’ | BBC Proms

Link

Wow!


Long Read of the Day

Tinkering and thinking

Lovely reflective essay by Venkatesh Rao, who’s gone back to tinkering with electronics kit.

As I was tinkering, I was idly wondering about whether there was any fodder for blog posts in what I was up to. I don’t mean Maker posts. A lot of people write about Maker stuff, and do it a lot better than I ever could. I mean riffs on Life, the Universe, and Everything inspired by tinkering with a new power supply.

Most of my writing to date has been inspired by things like working in an office, consulting, watching TV and of course, reading words written by others. That stuff is good fodder for riffs on Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Though I’m having a lot of fun rediscovering engineering with a middle-aged mind, I’ve found it surprisingly difficult to mine tinkering for insights on Life, the Universe, and Everything. Tinkering In, Words Out, TIWO, is a tougher transformation than SIWO: Symbols In, Words Out. Which is why it’s an interesting challenge.


ARM needs a helping hand from Boris Johnson

My column in yesterday’s Observer:

Last September, Nvidia, the American manufacturer of graphics processing chips, and the Japanese company SoftBank announced an agreement under which Nvidia would acquire the British chip designer Arm from SoftBank for $40bn. Since SoftBank had acquired Arm in 2016 for $32bn, you could say that a 25% profit on a five-year investment isn’t to be sneezed at, especially if industry mutterings about SoftBank’s crackpot investment strategy and Arm’s internal difficulties with its China-based operation are to be believed.

But even if one were foolish enough to sympathise with SoftBank’s desire to climb out of the hole it had dug for itself, the idea that Arm should be sold to a US chip manufacturer is so daft that even Boris Johnson’s administration had begun to smell a rat. And so on Monday it announced that the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport was “intervening in the sale on national security grounds”, based on advice received “from officials across the investment security community”. To which decision the only possible response is: what took him so long?


”Would you like to see my ventilators?”

Marina Hyde on Boris Johnson’s se…, er, textual, addiction . Sample:

Are we even totally sure the individual on the other end of Johnson’s text exchange is the actual hand-dryer genius James Dyson? It might just be a pseudonym for whichever tech mompreneur/concert trombonist/basic Rixo-shopping Sloane is currently keeping Johnson on the boil. I mean, MAYBE it’s a chat about respiratory aids, but maybe it’s just some mad sex code. Roughly speaking, the following is what we’re dealing with. Dyson, or rather “Dyson”: “Would you like to see my ventilators?” Johnson, panting in whatever broom cupboard in which he’s skiving off a Cobra meeting: “Oh God yes show me your ventilators.” “Sadly,” replies “Dyson”, “you need to remove the tax barriers to see them.” “I will fix it tomo!” judders the desperate Johnson. Say it. Say it. “JAMES I AM FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY.” There you go. Better out than in.

The only statement from Downing Street this week that I actually believe is the denial that cabinet secretary Simon Case ever told Johnson to change his phone number, the PM apparently having had the same one for more than a decade. Very wise advice. That phone’s like the ghost containment grid from Ghostbusters. If you switch it off, extremely bad things will happen. Even if he’s as mediocre a yes-man as he appears, Case will surely have worked out that the phone is basically the safest repository for innumerable entities who are best “managed” rather than fully ghosted. Attempting to shut down the phone completely could result in a vast release of potentially fatal psychokinetic energy to the Sunday newspapers.

Do read the whole thing.


Exclusive!!! Dominic Cummings discovers ethics and the need to respect Parliament!

From his blog:

Re the flat. The Prime Minister’s DOC (Director of Communications) has also made accusations regarding me and leaks concerning the PM’s renovation of his flat. The PM stopped speaking to me about this matter in 2020 as I told him I thought his plans to have donors secretly pay for the renovation were unethical, foolish, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations if conducted in the way he intended. I refused to help him organise these payments. My knowledge about them is therefore limited. I would be happy to tell the Cabinet Secretary or Electoral Commission what I know concerning this matter.

The proper way for such issues to be handled is via an urgent Parliamentary inquiry into the government’s conduct over the covid crisis which ought to take evidence from all key players under oath and have access to documents. Issues concerning covid and/or the PM’s conduct should not be handled as No10 has handled them over the past 24 hours. I will cooperate fully with any such inquiry and am happy to give evidence under oath. I am happy for No10 to publish every email I received and sent July 2019-November 2020 (with no exceptions other than, obviously, some national security / intelligence issues).

(Emphasis added)

Interesting. Would this be the same Dominic Cummings who contemptuously refused to appear before the House of Commons Digital, Culture, media and Sport Select Committee inquiry into fake news and the Cambridge Analytica scandal?


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Friday 23 April, 2021

Where I’d like to be today.


Vox and the higher bullshit

Here are the first two sentences of a lazy piece by Peter Kafka on Vox.

Apple more or less invented podcasting. Now it’s finally going to try to make money from it.

The first sentence is completely wrong. The second is possibly true. Dave Winer is rightly infuriated by this kind of journalistic laziness, and points to Walter Isaacson’s terrific podcast episode on the actual history of the technology. It’s baffling how media people continually get things like this wrong. Invincible ignorance is a necessary but not a sufficient explanation; it’s also because they don’t know that most things in tech have a history.


Quote of the Day

“Never interrupt your enemy when they are making a mistake.”

  • Napoleon Bonaparte

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Vivace from Bach’s double concerto — but sung!

Link

Magical. Many thanks to Seb Schmoller for spotting it.


Long Read of the Day

Everyone On Facebook’s Oversight Board Should Resign

Lovely *Wired piece by Jessica Gonzalez and Carmen Scurato on Facebook’s ludicrous ‘Supreme Court’.

It’s beyond comprehension why all those supposedly eminent people agreed to serve as Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘useful idiots’ (to use Lenin’s phrase about Western intellectuals). Could it have been the money?

I liked Charles Arthur’s summing-up on his Overspill blog:

The board is, very evidently, a very expensive (viewed from outside Facebook; cheap, inside it) figleaf. I suspect if anyone does resign, there will be a certain dambreaking effect. But it also means giving up a fat paycheque for doing very occasionally what content moderators do, for far less money, all day long.


Why anonymisation of personal data is a pipe-dream

Wonderful post by Cory Doctorow.

“Wanting it badly is not enough” could be the title of a postmortem on the century’s tech-policy battles. Think of the crypto wars: yeah, it would be super cool if we had ciphers that worked perfectly except when “bad guys” used them, but that’s not ever going to happen.

Another area is anonymisation of large data-sets. There are undeniably cool implications for a system that allows us to gather and analyse lots of data on how people interact with each other and their environments without compromising their privacy.

But “cool” isn’t the same as “possible” because wanting it badly is not enough…

It’s a great piece. We continue to see the planned releases of large datasets with assurances that they have been anonymised. And it’s standard practice to demand your “consent” to have your data shared once it has been de-identified.

This is, as Cory points out, a meaningless proposition. The ‘anonymised’ dataset that cannot be re-identified has yet to be invented.

To show just how easy re-identification can be, why not visit The Observatory of Anonymity, a web-app that shows you how easily you can be identified in a data-set?

Try it.

Click on the link, give your country and region, birthdate, gender, employment and education status and it tells you how many people share those characteristics.

I’ve just tried it. Conclusion: “If a record were to be found in any anonymous dataset matching your attributes, there is a 25% chance that this record actually belongs to you”.

And the moral? In Cory’s inimitable style: “You are far less of a haystack-needle than you think.”


Lina Khan’s Senate confirmation appearance

If you haven’t heard of Lina Khan before, then can I suggest that you take note. She’s a remarkable young woman who has done more to reshape how we think about antitrust than anyone since Robert Bork did (to malevolent effect) in 1978. And Joe Biden has nominated her as one of the five members of the US Federal Trade Commission, a wilfully somnolent body in recent years but one with great powers if it chooses to use them.

Matt Stoller watched her confirmation hearing and has this to say.

The most important thing to know about Lina Khan is that she is at heart an investigative journalist. When she was 15, she did a story on Starbucks for her school newspaper, and it got picked up by the New York Times. Before she became a lawyer, she did investigations on everything from the rise of big chocolate to airlines to poultry to banks to Monsanto’s appetite for data.

Her law review piece on Amazon came out of research she did on the economy as a news gatherer, and the investigation of big tech for the Antitrust Subcommittee was basically just high-quality journalism. Khan has what is necessary in a great enforcer and regulator, which is a sense of curiosity about how the world works. She starts with empirical reality, asking what’s happening in business and how it is shaped by the law.

Khan will be just one of five votes, so she won’t be able to run the commission herself. But her nomination is a huge deal. The FTC used to be an afterthought agency, a place to stack cronies with a nice cushy job flying off to Europe to attend privacy conferences, with the need to occasionally vote to permit a massive mega-merger. If nothing else, Khan’s nomination shows that is no longer the case.


Correction

I wrongly attributed the lovely Peatlands essay that was yesterday’s Long Read to Richard Gibbons rather than to Sami Emory. Richard was the photographer, but the words are Sami’s.

Apologies to both. And many thanks to Carrie Fitton for spotting it.


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Thursday 22 April, 2021

Tulip mania

Shot on Tuesday in the college garden. Sometimes, you can see why the Dutch went nuts about them.


Opening up — for whom?

Diane Coyle (Whom God Preserve) had a thoughtful essay in the FT at the weekend about economists’ hopes that consumer spending will bounce right back and drive a recovery. And maybe it will: the pile of household savings, she says, is estimated at about £180 billion (who estimates these things?) and a lot of this is just bursting to be spent.

Yeah, maybe. But…

We are two nations, and only one will have scope for a roaring 2020s. To point out the obvious, people who have been able to work from home, spending less, for months will for the most part welcome the chance to get out and enjoy themselves. But many others do not have the money to do so, and indeed have amassed debts instead.

For those freelancers who fell through the gaps in furlough and self-employment support schemes, or those on low incomes, the headache will be how to climb back out of a financial hole. The Resolution Foundation has reported recently on the surge in universal credit claims and evidence that many of these new claimants are further in debt than they were before the pandemic, or behind on essential bills.


 

I got my second AstraZeneca jab yesterday. (Plus a little badge to stick on my sweater.) As before, a beautifully organised operation. A well-oiled machine working like clockwork. And not a single corrupt, outsourced company in sight.

And nobody from Accenture, KPMG, PwC or McKinsey either.


Memoir of a Recovering Utopian

A short (5 minute) video I recorded for a Royal Society online event recently.

Link


Quote of the Day

”TV is a medium, because it is neither rare nor well-done.”

  • Ernie Kovacs

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ry Cooder | My Girl Josephine

Link


Long Read of the Day

Why do bogs get such a bad press?

Conserving peatlands is a cheap climate change win. So why’s it a hard sell?

Lovely essay by Sami Emory.

Peatlands often appear to the untrained eye as a bland swatch of greys, browns, oranges, and green. What we do not see is what they really are: robust ecosystems of flora and fauna—such as wetland birds, sphagnum moss, heather, and several species of quite crafty carnivorous plants. Furthermore, much of what makes these habitats so special exists beneath the surface. Peat stores, which can reach down into the earth for upwards of thirty-two feet, are dense with carbon, making the peatland a Goliath of sequestration. And with their regulatory effect on a region’s water table, peatlands also help improve water quality, reduce flooding and fires, and keep at bay rising sea levels.


What really matters to Boris Johnson

From Politico:

It took days for the prime minister to issue a tweet about violence in Northern Ireland and he missed the first five government coordination meetings about the emerging coronavirus pandemic. Yet Boris Johnson was super quick to jump on the crisis in European football. What gives? The explanation comes down to simple politics, writes my POLITICO colleague Emilio Casalicchio: “Politicians care about voters, and voters — including a large chunk of the core Red Wall group the two main parties are fighting over — care about football.”

Emilio’s great piece is here.


The Tech industry will eventually be a regulated one.

In the heat of the fray it’s always hard to take the long view. But when historians of tech come to look back at this period in the evolution of the digital world they will see that it was — in the long view — inevitable that the industry would be regulated. And we’re beginning to see the first beginnings of that phase-change.

Today’s FT ($) reports that antitrust regulators in the UK, Germany and Australia on Tuesday mounted a unified attack against the domination of internet giants on Tuesday, warning that the pandemic was not an excuse to approve deals.

The three regulators, which have been at the forefront of global attempts to rein in big tech companies such as Facebook and Google, said the pandemic had accelerated the concentration of power in the hands of a few, and warned they would take an increasingly sceptical view of tie-ups.

The head of the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority, Andrea Coscelli, said he expected “tremendous pressure” from companies citing the need to rebuild after the pandemic as a reason to justify mergers and investment.

“We’re clearly in a difficult economic situation, and it’s attractive, someone coming to you with plans for investment. But . . . this is really about the medium term, it’s about having market structures that are going to deliver day in, day out for consumers.”

The three regulators said the pandemic “should not be used to bring about a relaxation of the standards against which mergers are ultimately assessed”.

Amen to that. Now let’s see if they really mean business.


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Wednesday 21 April, 2021

Salad-dressing as art object

The things you can do with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.


Quote of the Day

”A drama critic is a man who leaves no turn unstoned.”

  • George Bernard Shaw

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Miles Davis | So What

Link


Long Read of the Day

Ferment is Abroad: Techlash, Legal Institutions, and the Limits of Lawfulness

Thoughtful post by Salomé Viljoen on the LPE Blog.

On the one hand, we have the “techlash.” Over the past several years, enthusiasm for Silicon Valley’s California Ideology as a source of hope and vigor for the Western capitalist imaginary has begun to fade. No longer does the tech industry enjoy unquestioned goodwill and enthusiastic popular support for their narratives of technological determinism and profitable do-goodery. On the contrary, the industry has been the focus of increased public distrust, civil and worker activism, and regulatory scrutiny—a collective curdling of goodwill referred to as the “techlash.” There is a growing recognition that technology is deeply political and a growing distrust of the neoliberal politics our current political economy of technological innovation materializes.

In near parallel, ferment is (once again) abroad in the law. In the face of highly controversial court appointments and clear failures of justice in how the law responds to challenges like climate change, mass incarceration, and growing economic inequality, methods that separate out the task of legal reasoning from its political urgency and distributive consequences ring increasingly false. Both popular and scholarly commentators challenge the incapacity of our legal institutions to protect against (or even to acknowledge as legally relevant) the worst abuses of our time. These critiques emphasize the limits of (anti-democratic) progressive political strategies that rely too heavily on appeals to existing legal institutions and methods rather than developing strategies to democratically re-invigorate (or replace, or abolish) those institutions.

It’s good, even if it’s predominately about what has happened to the American legal system.


Haven’t we got our ideas about wearing masks the wrong way round?

Answer: yes we have. Nice piece by Derek Thompson

Last week, I covered my nose and mouth with close-fitting fabric like a good citizen and walked to a restaurant in Washington, D.C., where I de-masked at a patio table to greet a friend. I sat with my chair facing the entrance and watched dozens of people perform the same ritual, removing a mask they’d worn outside and alone. It seemed like the most normal thing in the world. Until, suddenly, it seemed very weird. The coronavirus is most transmissible in poorly ventilated indoor spaces, where the aerosolized virus can linger in the air before latching onto our nasal or bronchial cells. In outdoor areas, the viral spray is more likely to disperse. One systematic overview of COVID-19 case studies concluded that the risk of transmission was 19 times higher indoors than outside. That’s why wearing a mask is so important in, say, a CVS, but less crucial in, say, the park. At the restaurant, however, I saw an inversion of this rule. Person after person who’d dutifully worn a mask on the uncrowded street took it off to sit still, in close proximity to friends, and frequently inside. I felt like I was watching people put on their seatbelts in parked cars, then unbuckle them just as they put the vehicle in drive.


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  •  Take a Flying Leap, but Bring Your Paper Parachute How to make a parachute with paper and tape. Warning: it only carries tiny payloads. Link
  •  How Fit Can You Get From Just Walking? Pretty fit, actually. Link
  • Herman Miller is buying Knoll So fancy office chairs will all come from the same place. Link

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


Tuesday 20 April, 2021

The way the wind blows


Quote of the Day

”You’re not a celebrity until they can spell your name in Karachi.”

  • Humphrey Bogart

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Liam O’Flynn, Arty McGlynn & Rod McVey | Two reels – O’Rourke’s & Colonel Fraser’s

Link


Long Read of the Day

The real scandal of the David Cameron affair

By James Ball, writing in The New European:

If he were a more sympathetic figure, David Cameron would have a certain air of pathos about him – the longer he lives, the worse his reputation gets. Born to riches and elected to the highest office in the UK, everything since has shattered whatever self-esteem he had.

Cameron built a reputation in opposition as a reforming Conservative, a change from ‘the nasty party’. Hoodies and huskies alike would be hugged. Gay people would no longer be condemned. The Conservatives would match Labour on public spending. There was even such a thing as ‘society’.

And, of course, Tory sleaze and corruption would be a thing of the past…

Oh yeah. Read on.


The normalisation of Facebook delinquency

John Waters has a timely piece in the FT (and therefore behind a paywall) in which he asks the kind of weary question that most of us have asking for quite a while: “Is there anything left to be revealed about the extent and the frequency with which large volumes of personal data leak from Facebook?”

In a way, the answer is ‘no’.

A collective yawn seemed to be the appropriate response this month at the latest news. If the information about users’ social networks that leaked out in the Cambridge Analytica scandal was like the plutonium of social media, then this latest slip involved a decidedly low-grade fuel. Details such as names, phone numbers and birth dates of more than 530m people had been scraped from the site, in what amounted to a mass harvesting of data that was already publicly available.

The regulators, on cue, said they would investigate, as regulators must. Irish data protection officials, who take the lead in overseeing Facebook in Europe, now have 15 different reviews going on into the company’s apps.

But while this might look like a misdemeanour without any real victims, it raises more troubling questions. It does — apart altogether from the fact that some of the people whose data has been leaked might be real victims. The resigned approach to Facebook’s toxic behaviour reminds one of the way in which intolerable behaviour of people like Harvey Weinstein was passively tolerated because of the “Oh, that’s just Harvey”, or “that’s the casting couch syndrome” shrug. And we know how long that intolerable behaviour persisted before it was called out and punished.

So how long will it take until Facebook is brought to heel? And how many more billions of dollars will Zuckerberg & Co have amassed until that happens?


Jeff Bezos has begun writing his epitaph

Nice piece by Spencer Soper in Bloomberg’s Fully Charged, about Jeff Bezos’s efforts to secure his legacy during his closing months as Amazon’s CEO.

Bezos wants you to feel as good about Amazon the company as you do about its lickety-split delivery of phone chargers and paper towels.

One result of this push is that Jassy, who is slated to take over as CEO in the third quarter, will have an even more difficult job—both running one of the fastest-growing companies in American history, and fulfilling Bezos’ pledges to do it in a more humane and sustainable way. Trying to fill Bezos’ shoes would be tough enough without the executive cramming shoe trees in them to stretch them a size or two before passing them over.


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Monday 19 April, 2021

Cascade


Quote of the Day

”There may have been disillusionments in the lives of the medieval saints, but they could scarcely have been better pleased if they could have foreseen that their names nowadays would be associated nowadays with racehorses and the cheaper clarets.”

  • H.H. Munro (aka ‘Saki’)

(One thinks, perhaps, of the St Leger Stakes and St Julien claret — though nobody in their right mind would call that cheap.)


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Blues for Jimmy Yancey | Andrew Campbell

Link


Long Read of the Day

This Must Be the Place

Thoughtful meditation by Drew Austin on what the Internet is doing to our sense of place.

In an environment of nearly infinite variety, we seem to hunt more eagerly than ever for shared territory and common experience, however fleeting. Earlier this month a house in Santa Monica, currently on the market for $5 million, became available to TikTok influencers, who can apply to spend two hours filming amid its pool and amenities as long as they help market the house in their videos. The process by which Airbnb transformed shelter into a liquid commodity might similarly transform content creation sites, which is to say that humans and content will soon have to compete for housing. The next time you enter a new place and instantly recognize its layout, it might be that you’ve been in a similar one before, but you probably just saw it on the internet.


Tech giants are happy to do Modi’s bidding in return for access to the Indian market

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Looking at his record, Modi seems to have been following the playbook of Viktor Orbán, that country’s prime minister, except that Modi has added religious and ethnic dimensions to his programme. But the formula seems pretty similar, based as it is on a thumping electoral majority and weak parliamentary opposition. The formula is to promise economic reform and then, when that falters, suppress opposition, control mainstream – and then social – media and undermine the judicial system. To this Modi has added his own distinctive flourish: radical and sustained use of internet shutdowns to hamper the mobilisation of opposition. And, so far, the strategy seems to be working: last year, Freedom House, an organisation that continually monitors the health of democracies, had judged India to be a “free” society. This year, the country’s rating is “partly free”.

All of which impales American tech giants, especially Amazon, Facebook, Google and Netflix, on the horns of an ethical dilemma. Read on.


Tim Harford: What have we learnt from a year of Covid?

Great piece.

We are now about a year into the ohmygosh-this-is-for-real stage of the pandemic. A time, perhaps, for taking stock of the big decisions — and whether they were wise.

To my mind, there were two big calls to be made. The first: was this virus a deadly enough threat to merit extraordinary changes to life as we know it? The second: should those changes be voluntary or a matter for politicians, the courts and the police?

Well worth reading in full. His summary at the end captures it well:

I’ll remember to trust the competence of the government a little less, to trust mathematical models a little more and to have some respect for the decency of ordinary people.

I love Harford’s writing. He’s a model of clarity and informed common sense.


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


Friday 16 April, 2021

As I intimated yesterday, there won’t be a newsletter on Saturdays or Sundays from now on. So if you find it missing from your inbox at weekends, it won’t be because your spam filter has dumped it. Next edition will arrive as usual on Monday morning.

John


Mirror, mirror…

Venice, November 2010


Quote of the Day

“Men are most likely to believe what they least understand.”

  • Montaigne

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Eels | Last Stop this Town

Link

Ignore the daft video.


Long Read of the Day

Economics in nouns and verbs by W. Brian Arthur

Brian Arthur is a really formidable thinker and writer. His book, The Nature of Technology: What it is and How it Evolves is a classic. But basically he’s a distinguished economist, which is why this new essay by him is so beautiful.

Here’s the Abstract.

Standard economic theory uses mathematics as its main means of understanding, and this brings clarity of reasoning and logical power. But there is a drawback: algebraic mathematics restricts economic modeling to what can be expressed only in quantitative nouns, and this forces theory to leave out matters to do with process, formation, adjustment, and creation—matters to do with nonequilibrium. For these we need a different means of understanding, one that allows verbs as well as nouns. Algorithmic expression is such a means. It allows verbs—processes—as well as nouns—objects and quantities. It allows fuller description in economics, and can include heterogeneity of agents, actions as well as objects, and realistic models of behavior in ill-defined situations. The world that algorithms reveal is action-based as well as object-based, organic, possibly ever-changing, and not fully knowable. But it is strangely and wonderfully alive.

Look out for the lovely comparison between how Alfred Marshall expressed his theory of industrial agglomeration and Paul Samuelson explaining international trade.


How to get at ‘the truth’

Public truths cannot be dictated-neither by a pure, all-knowing science nor unilaterally from the throne of power. Science and democracy, at their best, are modest enterprises because both are mistrustful of their own authority. Each gains by making its doubts explicit. This does not mean that the search for closure in either science or politics must be dismissed as unattainable. It does mean that we must ask and insist on good answers to questions about the procedures and practices that undergird both kinds of authority claims. For assertions of public knowledge, the following questions then seem indispensable:

  • Who claims to know?

  • In answer to whose questions?

  • On what authority?

  • With what evidence?

  • Subject to what oversight or opportunity for criticism?

  • With what openings for countervailing views to express themselves?

  • And with what mechanisms of closure in cases of disagreement?

If those questions can be raised and discussed, even if not resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, then factual disagreements retreat into the background and confidence builds that ours is indeed a government of reason. For those who are not satisfied, the possibility remains open that one can return some other day, with more persuasive data, and hope the wheel of knowledge will turn in synchrony with the arc of justice. In the end, what assures a polity that knowledge is justly coupled to power is not the assertion that science knows best, but the conviction that science itself has been subjected to norms of good government.

From “Back from the Brink: Truth and Trust in the Public Sphere” by Sheila Jasanoff, (Issues in Science and Technology Washington, Vol. 33, Iss. 4, (Summer 2017): 25-28.)


Another, hopefully interesting, link

  • How People Get Rich Now Interesting essay by Paul Graham. Link

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Thursday 15 April, 2021

Small changes ahead…

Just a heads-up to let you know that after tomorrow this daily version of the blog will switch from seven days a week to five (Monday to Friday). The conspiracy-theory interpretation of this change will attribute it to sheer laziness on the part of the blogger. While plausible, this is a more entertaining explanation than the more mundane reality, which is that what are laughingly called his ‘day jobs’ have become more demanding as the academic world emerges cautiously from lockdown.

On a positive note, though, consider the upsides. Firstly, I have not used the abominable phrase “going forward”. And now you will have more free time at the weekends and not feel twinges of guilt when deciding that life is too short to click on Long Read of the Day!

(If you are curious about what I might be getting up to at the weekends, you can always check the online version of the blog.)

As ever, thank you for subscribing.


Quote of the Day

”The only man who really needs a tail coat is a man with a hole in his trousers.”

  • John Taylor (Editor of Tailor and Cutter)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jimmy Yancey | At the Window

Link

This is one of my favourite recordings ever. It’s very old and so you may need to turn up the volume a bit.


Long Read of the Day

Why a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be a catastrophe for China and the world

If they do it, it won’t be for the microchips

Fascinating blog post by Jon Stokes about the geopolitics of silicon chip manufacture.


U.S. Imposes Stiff Sanctions on Russia, Blaming It for Major Hacking Operation

Pardon me while I yawn. According to the New York Times,

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Thursday announced tough new sanctions on Russia and formally blamed the country’s premier intelligence agency for the sophisticated hacking operation that breached American government agencies and the nation’s largest companies.

In the broadest effort yet by President Biden to give more teeth to financial sanctions — which in recent years have failed to deter Russian activity — the actions are aimed at choking off lending to the Russian government.

In an executive order, Mr. Biden announced a series of additional steps — sanctions on 32 entities and individuals for disinformation efforts and for carrying out Moscow’s interference in the 2020 presidential election. Ten Russian diplomats, most of them identified as intelligence operatives, were expelled from the Russian Embassy in Washington. The United States also joined with European partners to impose sanctions on eight people and entities associated with Russia’s occupation of Crimea.

For the first time, the U.S. government squarely placed the blame for the hacking, known as SolarWinds, on the Kremlin, saying it was masterminded by the S.V.R., one of the Russian intelligence agencies that was also involved in the intrusion of the Democratic National Committee six years ago. The finding comports with the findings of private cybersecurity companies.

Yeah, yeah. But what we’d like to know is what the retaliation in kind is. After all, that’s what Jake Sullivan, now Biden’s National Security Advisor, was calling for before the election. It’s a racing certainty that the US has mounted a cyber-attack on Russian facilities where it will really hurt. I wonder how long it will take before we find out what form it took. And whether the Solarwinds attack has provided the Russians with opportunities for serious retaliation.


‘All I need is a pen, paper and the First Amendment’

This, from the Columbia Journalism Review, is truly extraordinary.

During the covid-19 pandemic, CJR received a submission, via the Empowerment Avenue Writer’s Cohort, from an incarcerated writer, Kevin D. Sawyer, who explained what it’s like to be a journalist in San Quentin State Prison, in Northern California. We felt it needed no editing, and that even the means of submission—typewritten, with corrections by hand—helped tell his tale. So we have reproduced it below as we received it.

You’ve got to read it. Deeply moving. But also an exhilarating confirmation of the value of reading — and writing. And of the usefulness of a battered typewriter.

Do click on the link to see it.


Another, hopefully interesting, link

  • The Last Time a Vaccine Saved America Yes — it was the Salk polio vaccine. Interesting to reflect on that experience. Link

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