Wednesday 26 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

“In the short-run, the stock market is a voting machine; in the long-run, it’s a weighing machine.”

  • Warren Buffett, whose 250 million Apple shares currently weigh about $118B.

(A single Apple share purchased at the 1980 IPO price – $22 – would be worth $27,859 today.)


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bach: Cello Suite No 1 in D played on the guitar by John Feeley (19 minutes)

Link


What is it about Uber and Chinese students?

A friend who lives in Cambridge and uses Uber reports a common theme in his current conversations with drivers. When he asks them the standard “how’s business?” question the common refrain is “terrible”. And the reason? There are no Chinese students around at the moment. It seems that they are the biggest users of the service when they’re in residence. They even use Uber to take them to lectures (this in a town where everything is within easy walking distance.)

Why is this, I wonder? Could it be that they have more money than sense? Or that they don’t like walking or cycling? Or that they feel vulnerable on the street? Weird.


Fixing capitalism

Quartz has a series of articles on this general theme. It’s a mixed bag, but some of them — for example the one about regulating Amazon like a railroad — is interesting.


e-Scooters: drowning not waving

Sifted story

Hundreds of e-scooters are picked up from waters around European cities every year. In Stockholm, the lake cleaning organisation Rena Mälaren has picked up 355 in total in the last couple of years. In Paris another organisation, Guppy, has picked up 235 over seven excursions.

Each e-scooter is worth a few hundred euros and the newer models have a predicted lifespan of three to five years. Apart from lost earnings, every time one is lobbed into a canal or river it also damages the scooter operator’s relationship with the local authorities.

But one scooter startup has come up with a new plan to tackle the problem: a drowning button.

Voi, the Stockholm-based scooter operator, is in the process of unveiling a new scooter with features such as indicators. It is also likely to have a feature which is the scooter equivalent of an SOS signal.

“That is the plan. We just have to work out the functionality,” says Kristina Hunter Nilsson, communication manager at Voi. She hopes the feature could also be retrofitted to Voi’s older scooters too. “Some of these things are software-driven which means that we can add it to the older models as well. And it is in everyone’s interest that we have that.

When an electric scooter ends up in the water it loses its connectivity and is therefore difficult to find. The drowning feature will alert Voi when a scooter ends up underwater and the hope is that, in many cases, it can then be rescued before too much damage has been done.

But exactly how long a scooter survives underwater is something that Hunter Nilsson cannot say for sure. “That really depends on a lot of things and I wouldn’t want to give you an exact number of days,” she says.

What have these people been smoking?


The US is facing the possibility of an illegitimate election

David Litt (author of Democracy In One Book Or Less) writing in The Atlantic:

“A sitting president trying to undermine the postal service so he might win an election is not something that happens in rich, developed democracies,” says University College London’s Brian Klaas, the co-author of How to Rig an Election. “It’s the kind of thing that happens in post-Soviet countries, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East.” In the language of political science, President Donald Trump is hoping to take America from “self-enforcing democracy”—a system of government in which leaders allow fair elections and accept the results—to “competitive authoritarianism,” in which rulers allow elections, but those elections are neither fair nor free.

The good news, or at least the 2020 version of good news, is that Americans can protect the integrity of their elections without appealing to the better angels of Trump’s nature. Would-be autocrats are unlikely to be persuaded, but they can be deterred. By making it far less likely that stealing an election would work—and far more likely that those who try to would face consequences for their actions—the United States can preserve democracy this year and beyond.

Defending American democracy starts with taking advantage of one of its greatest existing strengths: its decentralized nature. Each state, territory, and district administers its own local contests with near-total independence. The federal government sets certain rules for federal elections; that authority falls to Congress, not the White House. This makes it hard for the president to undermine an election’s integrity, and easier for local officials to uphold it. Already, some states are adding secure drop boxes for ballots, recruiting additional election staff, and finding room in their budgets to ensure that the casting and collection of ballots runs as smoothly as possible during the pandemic. The less chaos that takes place on November 3, the fewer excuses the president will have to interfere with vote counting.

Even in places—including some swing states—where officials are all too happy to help the president undermine the democratic process, individual Americans can do a great deal to protect the integrity of the election…

The most astonishing thing is that such a piece doesn’t seem outrageous in a serious magazine nowadays. It’s a measure of how serious the risks to democracy even in mature states are becoming.


Stefan Collini on the enigma of Frank Kermode

Lovely essay by Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books on a critic we were both fortunate enough to have known. Sample:

So when and how, I wondered, not for the first time, did the ‘Frank Kermode’ we admired come into being, il capo di tutti capi in the world of reviewing and criticism for more than half a century? During another of my trudges along the forgotten caravan routes of criticism (now undertaken electronically, thanks to lockdown), I chanced upon, in the online archive of the Listener, a review by John Gross of Frank’s Puzzles and Epiphanies: Essays and Reviews 1958-61, published in 1962. The very existence of such a collection of reviews – and the brazen proclamation of its origin in such a brief period – itself suggested the dramatic transformation which must have overtaken Frank’s career by this point. Gross, then a 27-year-old up-and-coming reviewer-academic who was later to write The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters and to become editor of the Times Literary Supplement, had evidently been attending to Frank’s presence on the literary scene for some time. He noted that the contents of the book were all products of a three-year period, and then went on: ‘Reading them as they appeared, one became aware of Professor Kermode as the most interesting reviewer to emerge for a long time.’ The reviews had been published in a variety of periodicals, including the Listener, Partisan Review and the London Magazine, but the majority were from either the Spectator or Encounter. So when had all that started to happen, when did the smart London weeklies and monthlies begin to commission reviews from the little-known young lecturer who, recruited by Gordon, had moved to the University of Reading in 1949?


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Tuesday 25 August, 2020

When Britain was a world power

Inside page of a British passport in the late 1940s.

It reads:

We, Ernest Bevin, a Member of His Britannic Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council, a Member of Parliament, etc.etc. His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Request and require in the name of His Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford her every assistance and protection of which she may stand in need.

Those were the days. I wonder what the Brexit version says.


Quote of the Day

“An acre in Middlesex is better than a Principality in Utopia”.

  • Thomas Macaulay

(Especially now, given London property prices.)


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Grieg – Piano Concerto II. Adagio | Arthur Rubinstein (7 minutes)

Link

Rubinstein in the finest white tie I’ve ever seen. Olympic-class sharp dressing. Conducted by a youthful Andre Previn.


US Air Force shows off latest all-electric flying car, says it ‘might seem straight out of a Hollywood movie’

Er, not if it’s an action movie.

From The Register

The US Air Force has revealed a prototype of a flying car, something the American military has desired for at least a decade.

The latest build is single-person aircraft – specifically, a version of the Lift Hexa copter, which uses 18 electric motors that allow it to take off and land vertically. The vehicle was put through its paces last Friday at the Texas State Guard’s Camp Mabry base.

The craft is part of a project the Air Force is running called Agility Prime, which has tapped up Lift and other manufacturers to develop single-person “flying car” aircraft for field tests within the next three years. Other prototypes will be showcased in the coming weeks.


Picking locks with audio technology

This is interesting or alarming, depending on your point of view. From an article by Paul Marks in the August 13 edition of Communications of the ACM:

The next time you unlock your front door, it might be worth trying to insert your key as quietly as possible; researchers have discovered that the sound of your key being inserted into the lock gives attackers all they need to make a working copy of your front door key.

It sounds unlikely, but security researchers say they have proven that the series of audible, metallic clicks made as a key penetrates a lock can now be deciphered by signal processing software to reveal the precise shape of the sequence of ridges on the key’s shaft. Knowing this (the actual cut of your key), a working copy of it can then be three-dimensionally (3D) printed.

This discovery of a major vulnerability in the physical keys that millions of us use to secure domestic and workplace doors and lockers was made by cyberphysical systems researcher Soundarya Ramesh and her team at the National University of Singapore.

What’s being attacked by the NUS team are the keys to pin-tumbler locks, best known as Yale or Schlage keys, though those are just the market leaders and a whole host of other firms make them, too. Inside such locks, six metal pins, affixed to springs, are pushed up to different heights by the ridged teeth on the key, or kept low by the voids between the ridges. When all six spring-loaded pins are pushed to the correct height by the right key, the tumbler containing them is freed to turn, allowing the lock to be opened. Such a lock typically has something of the order of 330,000 possible key shapes.

Of course, these locks can be picked by a skilled operator armed with the right tools. But if s/he wants to burgle the premises again, the same painstaking procedure needs to be repeated, with a corresponding risk of detection. The 3D printing approach enables the bad actor to acquire a duplicate which if good for multiple entries.

It’s a fascinating article IMO which covers the really tricky questions — for example, how one might obtain the audio recording needed to crack the profile of the key.


Summer books #13

The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth, Penguin Modern Classics.

Joseph Roth’s masterpiece about the Austro-Hungarian empire was published in 1932. Shortly after it came out he was forced into exile by the Third Reich, after which he lived mostly in Paris and drank himself to death. It was recommended it to me by Helen Thompson, and I owe her a debt of gratitude for that. It’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read. There’s a very good New Yorker essay about him and the way his work was rediscovered by post-war generations.


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Monday 24 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

The mystery which surrounds a thinking machine already surrounds a thinking man.”

  • B. F. Skinner

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Claudio Abaddo conducting the Berlin Phil. And I mean conducting.

Link


“Years of photos” permanently wiped from iPhones, iPads by bad Lightroom app update

From The Register:

Adobe is offering its condolences to customers after an update to its Lightroom photo manager permanently deleted troves of snaps on people’s iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches.

First reported by PetaPixel, the data annihilation was triggered after punters this week fetched version 5.4 of the iOS software. Netizens complained that, following the release and installation of that build, their stored photos and paid-for presets vanished. Adobe acknowledged the issue though it didn’t have much to offer punters besides saying sorry.

Of course this is really just a (relatively rare) glitch in cloud storage. But I stick by my conviction that if you want your grandchildren to see your photos, print them off now on photographic paper (using a company like Photobox) and put them in shoeboxes (or, better still, Tupperware-type boxes) in the attic!


If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich? Turns out it’s just chance.

The most successful people are not the most talented, just the luckiest, a new computer model of wealth creation confirms. Taking that into account can maximize return on many kinds of investment.

MIT Tech Review has a good summary of a fascinating piece of agent-based simulation modelling.

The Abstract for the research report reads:

The largely dominant meritocratic paradigm of highly competitive Western cultures is rooted on the belief that success is due mainly, if not exclusively, to personal qualities such as talent, intelligence, skills, efforts or risk taking. Sometimes, we are willing to admit that a certain degree of luck could also play a role in achieving significant material success. But, as a matter of fact, it is rather common to underestimate the importance of external forces in individual successful stories. It is very well known that intelligence or talent exhibit a Gaussian distribution among the population, whereas the distribution of wealth – considered a proxy of success – follows typically a power law (Pareto law). Such a discrepancy between a Normal distribution of inputs, with a typical scale, and the scale invariant distribution of outputs, suggests that some hidden ingredient is at work behind the scenes. In this paper, with the help of a very simple agent-based model, we suggest that such an ingredient is just randomness. In particular, we show that, if it is true that some degree of talent is necessary to be successful in life, almost never the most talented people reach the highest peaks of success, being overtaken by mediocre but sensibly luckier individuals. As to our knowledge, this counterintuitive result – although implicitly suggested between the lines in a vast literature – is quantified here for the first time. It sheds new light on the effectiveness of assessing merit on the basis of the reached level of success and underlines the risks of distributing excessive honors or resources to people who, at the end of the day, could have been simply luckier than others. With the help of this model, several policy hypotheses are also addressed and compared to show the most efficient strategies for public funding of research in order to improve meritocracy, diversity and innovation.


New Yorker profile of Joe Biden

Long read of the day.

Marvellous piece by Evan Osnos, one of the best writers on the magazine. It’s realistic, serious, unsentimental. But also sympathetic. Here’s a sample:

Every day, Biden’s aides try to get him on the phone with a regular person. One afternoon in April, he was patched through to Mohammad Qazzaz, in Dearborn, Michigan. Three weeks earlier, Qazzaz, who runs a coffee-roasting business, had tested positive for covid-19. When Biden called, he was quarantined in his house, trying to protect his wife and two children.

Qazzaz, who recorded the call and played it for me, told Biden that his daughter, who is two, did not understand why he would not come out of his bedroom: “She keeps telling me, ‘Baba, open the door. Open the door.’ ” As he described his situation, his voice broke, and he tried to steady himself. “I’m sorry, Mr. Vice-President,” he said.

“Don’t be sorry,” Biden said. “I think your emotional state is totally justified. And, as my mom would say, you have to get it out.”

Biden told Qazzaz that he, too, once had children too small to understand a crisis unfolding around them. “Nothing is the same, but I have some sense of what you’re going through,” Biden said. He suggested that Qazzaz play a simple game with his daughter through the door, asking her to guess a number or a color. “Tell her stories about what it’s going to be like when Daddy gets better,” he said. They talked for a while about Qazzaz’s father, who emigrated from Jerusalem. “Look, you’re going to get through this,” Biden said. “We are the nation we are because we’re a nation of immigrants.” The call was supposed to last five minutes; they talked for twenty-two.

Listening to Qazzaz’s call was reminiscent of Roosevelt’s famous line: “The Presidency is not merely an administrative office. . . . It is preëminently a place of moral leadership.” Joe Biden’s life is replete with mistakes and regrets. And, if he comes to the Presidency, he is unlikely to supply much of the exalted rhetoric that reaches into a nation’s soul. But, for a people in mourning, he might offer something like solace, a language of healing.

This is the kind of piece that reminds me why I subscribe to the New Yorker.


How Zeynep Tufekci Keeps Getting the Big Things Right

Zeynep Tufecki has for years been one of the sharpest and most perceptive academic commentators on the tech industry. This NYT piece explains why.

In 2011, she went against the current to say the case for Twitter as a driver of broad social movements had been oversimplified. In 2012, she warned news media outlets that their coverage of school shootings could inspire more. In 2013, she argued that Facebook could fuel ethnic cleansing. In 2017, she warned that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm could be used as a tool of radicalization.

And when it came to the pandemic, she sounded the alarm early while also fighting to keep parks and beaches open.

“I’ve just been struck by how right she has been,” said Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School.

I was curious to know how Dr. Tufekci had gotten so many things right in a confusing time, so we spoke last week over FaceTime. She told me she chalks up her habits of mind in part to a childhood she wouldn’t wish on anyone…

Her book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest is terrific btw.


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Sunday 23 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

”To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night, Socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about.”

  • George Orwell

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Pete Seeger: Where have all the flowers gone?

Link

It’s magical sometimes when — as happens here — an artist in a live concert embarks on a well-known and much-loved song and the audience joins in.

I’ve been to a few concerts where this happened. The most vivid memory I have is of a concert given by the Irish folk group Altan. They come from a small village in Co Donegal, but even after they became world-famous they used to come back home once a year to give a concert for the locals. I was lucky to go to one of these events on a glorious Summer evening in an hotel just outside the village of Glencolumbkille. The connection between the band and the audience was positively visceral. Everybody knew everybody else. Half-way through, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, the lead singer and co-founder of the group, embarked on Green Grow the Rushes-oh. Here’s a sample from a studio recording…

Link

After a few bars, the next time she came to the chorus, Mairéad went quiet, and the audience, without missing a beat, kept it going, softly, with the odd bit of harmony. It was an electrifying moment that I will never forget.

Thanks to Janet Cobb for suggesting Pete Seeger.


All hail the California court that put the brakes on Uber and co

This morning’s Observer column:

Last Monday, the superior court of California handed down a landmark judgment that looks like taking the wind out of the sails of at least some parts of the “gig economy”. The case was brought by the attorney general of the state of California, together with the city attorneys of Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, on the basis that the ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft have “misclassified their drivers as independent contractors rather than employees” in violation of a Californian law that took effect in January. This statute is intended to ensure that all workers who meet its criteria receive the basic rights and protections guaranteed to employees under California law.

The companies opposed this idea, for the understandable (but of course unstated) reason that complying with the law would blow their business models to smithereens. In submissions concealed under three coats of prime legal verbiage, they sought to have the hearing delayed until after the November presidential election, complained that the attorneys general should not have lumped them together (they are, after all, commercial rivals) and that judgment should be deferred until all the other cases concerning them in the US and elsewhere should be decided. Guardian Today: the headlines, the analysis, the debate – sent direct to you Read more

Judge Ethan Schulman was not impressed by these arguments…

Read on


Reflections on the Democratic National Convention…

On Thursday I blogged about Obama’s speech, and on Friday I wrote about Kamala Harris. I think she was a shrewd choice of running-mate for lots of reasons, but her record of being close to the Silicon Valley crowd bothered me because I think it’s important that a Biden administration should tackle the problems for democracy posed by these unaccountable tech giants. On the other hand, as Obama warned, there is a bigger problem looming than tech monopoly — the future of democracy itself in the US, and that should, er, trump all other concerns just now. What matters most is that Trump should not get a second term.

Looking back on the week, and the convention, I’ve been reading lots of commentary. A few things stood out…

Russell Berman is right about Obama’s speech: he’s switched from hope to fear as the motivating factor:

As Obama railed against the “cynicism” that he said Trump was relying on to win, and then as he recalled the sacrifices of those who were spit on and beaten as they fought for the right to vote, he seemed almost on the verge of tears. It didn’t seem like an act. If the former president hadn’t previously seen the need to tear into Trump for the sake of the country, what are Democrats to make of the fact that now, apparently, he does? Obama, suddenly a gray-haired father figure to his party, no longer sounded merely disappointed—he seemed frightened.

Spot on. Obama was no longer in his customary ‘professorial’ mode: he sees a second Trump term as an existential threat to democracy in America. And he’s right.

And Dave Winer had this sobering reflection:

Racism and misogyny are on the ballot this year. Even white men can now feel the effects. I think that’s what the last twelve years in the US have been about. Here’s the story. George W. Bush was so awful, we needed an antidote, and we liked Obama. We liked how sassy he was, and smart, and how well he spoke, his confidence and ambition. The whole package. It was his moment. Trump is the reaction because there were a lot of Americans who felt tremendous fear and resentment in having a young sassy (they’d probably say uppity) black man as president, no matter that he brought the economy back from the wreck that the Repubs left us. Remember how they drove it into a ditch. #

So in 2016 it was Trump vs HRC. But before that it was Sanders vs HRC. That’s where I, a white man, learned how men keep women down. In the debates I was so angry that Sanders interrupted and screamed over HRC, his arms waved into her space. She had to take it. Could she respond in kind? No way. Not sure what the women’s equivalent of uppity is, but it’s a real thing. And because she was my candidate, I felt it, felt it in a way I had never felt it before. I was enraged by it. But it seems most people couldn’t even see it. #

The people who hated that a black man was president sure as hell weren’t going to follow him with a woman president. No matter that she’s smart as a whip, would have been a great president, and look who she was running against. What a slap in the face for women as equals — that so many people chose a huckster, buffoon, Putin surrogate, man-child, tax evader, draft dodger, rich kid, criminal, instead of HRC. It really says something.#

This morning while getting ready to write it hit me. The last four years have been a symbolic lynching of Barack Obama. Anyone who still approves of Trump, if they have a mind, must be driven by rage, the kind of rage that results in a young confident black man being strung up on a tree. They’re willing to let a virus decimate the country in order to express their rage. Anyone who votes for Trump this time, imho, should lose the right to call themselves an American.

In today’s Observer, Edward Helmore spotted something really interesting in Biden’s speech — his adoption of a few lines from Seamus Heaney, specifically from The Cure at Troy, Seamus Heaney’s free translation of Sophocles’s Philoctetes.

History says,
Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

Helmore’s piece consulted Roy Foster, who is currently writing a book about Heaney (and who has written a magisterial two-volume biography of W.B. Yeats).

“Biden apparently is a reader of poetry, and read Yeats and Heaney to improve his stutter,” Foster said. “He has spoken about his admiration for Irish poetry. So he was coming from a background of literacy. Coming up against a functionally illiterate president, it is quite a contrast.”

Sophocles’ play, first performed in 409BC, is about how a bitter division was overcome between the archer Philoctetes, left on Lemnos with a festering wound – a snake bite – and Odysseus, who needed his help in the Trojan War. Heaney’s 1991 translation speaks directly to Northern Ireland – his birthplace – and its conflicts.

“Heaney altered the weight of the play to place great emphasis on Neoptolemus, the go-between figure, an honourable, decent man, so the play is in many ways about negotiation,” Foster said. The former senator has quoted it at least five times before, including at the tail end of his nomination campaign, when he again turned to Heaney’s “longed-for tidal wave of justice”.

Biden was deliberately using it as a reconciliatory metaphor, Foster said, adding: “America is an immensely divided society at the moment. So for him to use it as what – for some Americans – will be an arcane poetic tag is an interesting, highly literate and culturally ambitious approach. It was unexpected from him.”

One interesting thing is that Trump seemed unable to respond to this literary reference. Presumably he has no idea who Heaney was, never mind Sophocles.


Summer books #12

Humankind: a Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman,

If ever there were a book for the pandemic, then this is it. The paradox it addresses is how a pervasive conviction that people are intrinsically selfish, vindictive and untrustworthy can be squared with the fact that in most situations of crisis humans behave sensibly, cooperatively and often generously. Why is it that we assume that William Golding’s Lord of the Flies provides a perceptive and accurate insight into human nature, when the evidence — even in a real-life case of schoolboys marooned on a desert island — says exactly the opposite? This is the “veneer theory” of human nature: the view that civilised behaviour is just a thin veneer which when shattered by events reveals a dark underside. Rutger argues that this cognitive dissonance can be — and often is — viciously circular. If we expect people to be evil, then we will treat them accordingly, and things spiral downwards from there.

I’m only part-way through the book, but am finding it immensely readable and stimulating. The work it most reminds me of is Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, which similarly challenged another pervasive (and erroneous) conviction. My personal experience of local responses to the Coronovirus pandemic has corroborated Rutger’s argument. Most people I know have behaved calmly, generously and supportively. Sure, there have been incidents of panic-buying (remember the toilet-paper shortage), irresponsible partying, etc. But on the whole the crisis seems to confirm an optimistic view of human nature.


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Saturday 22 August, 2020

Vanishing point

On our cycle today.


Quote of the Day

”Do not do unto others as you would they should do to you. Their tastes may not be the same.”

  • George Bernard Shaw.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler: Romeo And Juliet (9 minutes)

Link


Content moderation, AI, and the question of scale

Really thoughtful academic article by Tarleton Gillespie — who a while book wrote a very good book — Custodians of the Internet: Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions That Shape Social Media — on content moderation.

Abstract

AI seems like the perfect response to the growing challenges of content moderation on social media platforms: the immense scale of the data, the relentlessness of the violations, and the need for human judgments without wanting humans to have to make them. The push toward automated content moderation is often justified as a necessary response to the scale: the enormity of social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube stands as the reason why AI approaches are desirable, even inevitable. But even if we could effectively automate content moderation, it is not clear that we should.

Note that last sentence.

Worth reading in full.


Looting, American-style

Yves Smith has a withering post on the Naked Capitalism blog triggered by a report in the *Financial Times describing how CEOs who ran their (US) companies into the ground are nevertheless eing brewarded with “retention bonus” payouts shortly before the business declare bankruptcy, often mere days ahead. “The absurd rationale”, says Smith

is that it is necessary to keep a failed CEO on in order to reduce disruption. It appears instead that boards would rather pay a rich and unwarranted premium to keep a bad known quantity around, perhaps due to personal allegiances to the incumbent or because they might actually have to rouse themselves to oust the dud leader and select a replacement.

Some of these payments he goes on to say, “are flat out looting”. For example:

Brad Holly, Whiting’s chief executive who joined the company in November 2017, received $6.4m at the end of March under a new compensation plan approved by the board of directors, which he also chairs, less than a week before the company filed for bankruptcy. Whiting, which expects to emerge from Chapter 11 next month, said last week that Mr Holly would step down as chief executive when that happens and would receive an additional $2.53m in severance.

In total, Whiting paid out more than $14m to executives just a few days before declaring itself bust. In a regulatory filing on April 1 the company said its pay plan was designed “to align the interests of the Company and its employees”. Whiting did not respond to a request for comment.

$6.4 million for Holly for at most five months of babysitting bankruptcy lawyers? Seriously? Another example:

Meanwhile, at another insolvent company, Briggs & Stratton, its board

approved more than $5m in retention payments on June 11, including more than $1m to chief executive Todd Teske, who has led the company for a decade. Four days later the company failed to make a $6.7m interest payment on a bond due later this year, and on July 20 it filed for bankruptcy. On July 19, the company’s board voted to terminate the health and life insurance benefits of the company’s retirees…

It’s outrageous — like share buy-backs and the antics of private equity — but it’s all allowed under the warped kind of capitalism we’ve been building (and tolerating) since the 1970s.


Facebook Braces Itself for Trump to Cast Doubt on Election Results

Zuckerberg & Co are — according to the New York Times — working out what steps to take should Trump use its platform to dispute the vote.

Well, well. Could this be the moment that reality dawns on these genuises?

Employees at the Silicon Valley company are laying out contingency plans and walking through postelection scenarios that include attempts by Mr. Trump or his campaign to use the platform to delegitimize the results, people with knowledge of Facebook’s plans said.

Facebook is preparing steps to take should Mr. Trump wrongly claim on the site that he won another four-year term, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Facebook is also working through how it might act if Mr. Trump tries to invalidate the results by declaring that the Postal Service lost mail-in ballots or that other groups meddled with the vote, the people said.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and some of his lieutenants have started holding daily meetings about minimizing how the platform can be used to dispute the election, the people said. They have discussed a “kill switch” to shut off political advertising after Election Day since the ads, which Facebook does not police for truthfulness, could be used to spread misinformation, the people said.

The preparations underscore how rising concerns over the integrity of the November election have reached social media companies, whose sites can be used to amplify lies, conspiracy theories and inflammatory messages. YouTube and Twitter have also discussed plans for action if the postelection period becomes complicated, according to disinformation and political researchers who have advised the firms.

No point in staying up on the evening of November 3rd. This one might run and run.


Extraterrestrial?

There’s a strange entry in the Amazon.co.uk catalogue for a forthcoming book by a distinguished Harvard astronomer, Avi Loeb. Here’s the blurb:

Harvard’s top astronomer lays out his controversial theory that our solar system was recently visited by advanced alien technology from a distant star. In late 2017, scientists at a Hawaiian observatory glimpsed an object soaring through our inner solar system, moving so quickly that it could only have come from another star. Avi Loeb, Harvard’s top astronomer, showed it was not an asteroid; it was moving too fast along a strange orbit, and left no trail of gas or debris in its wake. There was only one conceivable explanation: the object was a piece of advanced technology created by a distant alien civilization. In Extraterrestrial, Loeb takes readers inside the thrilling story of the first interstellar visitor to be spotted in our solar system. He outlines his controversial theory and its profound implications: for science, for religion, and for the future of our species and our planet. A mind-bending journey through the furthest reaches of science, space-time, and the human imagination, Extraterrestrial challenges readers to aim for the stars—and to think critically about what’s out there, no matter how strange it seems.

It might just have been a rogue Tesla roadster.


Summer books #11

The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media by Nathan Jurgenson, Verso, 2019.

A slim and interesting book (at least if, like me, you are a photographer). Its core argument is that to understand the world of the selfie, Instagram and today’s “pics or it didn’t happen” mindset the place to start is the way way photography was regarded after it first emerged in the 19th century. After all, Emile Zola wrote in 1901, “In my view, you cannot claim to have really claim to have seen something until you have photographed it”. Jurgensen has been described as “the Susan Sontag of the selfie generation”. I think that was meant as a compliment.


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Friday 21 August, 2020

From small beginnings…

… come mighty oaks. Found this on the pavement near our house yesterday.


Quote of the Day

”Actually, I am a golfer. That is my real occupation. I never was an actor; ask anybody, particularly the critics.”

  • Victor Mature

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio new

Joan Baez & Paul Simon – The Boxer – Live 2016 NYC at 75th – Birthday Celebration

Link


A TikTok Ban Is Overdue

Tim Wu in the NYT with what is, for him, an unfamiliar argument: basically just because Trump is an idiot, that doesn’t mean that everything he does is wrong.

The United States government does not usually block or censor lawful websites, foreign or domestic, because it subscribes to the idea that the internet was designed to be open and connect everyone on earth. On its face, then, President Trump’s recent treatment of the Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat, which he threatened to ban from the United States unless they could find American buyers, looks close-minded and belligerent.

There is more to this situation, though, than meets the eye. Were almost any country other than China involved, Mr. Trump’s demands would be indefensible. But the threatened bans on TikTok and WeChat, whatever their motivations, can also be seen as an overdue response, a tit for tat, in a long battle for the soul of the internet.

In China, the foreign equivalents of TikTok and WeChat — video and messaging apps such as YouTube and WhatsApp — have been banned for years. The country’s extensive blocking, censorship and surveillance violate just about every principle of internet openness and decency. China keeps a closed and censorial internet economy at home while its products enjoy full access to open markets abroad.

The asymmetry is unfair and ought no longer be tolerated. The privilege of full internet access — the open internet — should be extended only to companies from countries that respect that openness themselves.

China can’t have it both ways, and it’s about time we enforced that rather than appeasing Xi Jinping & Co.


Kamala Harris has a long record of being pally with Big Tech

Yeah, well I wondered about that. Today’s NYT article is not exactly reassuring.

For Ms. Harris, a Bay Area politician, connections to tech have been essential and perhaps inescapable. In past campaigns — her two elections to be attorney general, her successful run for the Senate and her failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination — she relied on Silicon Valley’s tech elite for donations. And her network of family, friends and former political aides has fanned throughout the tech world.

Those close industry ties have coincided with a largely hands-off approach to companies that have come under increasing scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers around the world. As California’s attorney general, critics say, Ms. Harris did little to curb the power of tech giants as they gobbled up rivals and muscled into new industries. As a senator, consumer advocacy groups said, she has often moved in lockstep with tech interests.

Now that she is the running mate of Joseph R. Biden Jr., tech industry critics worry that a Biden administration with Ms. Harris would mean a return to the cozy relationship that Silicon Valley enjoyed with the White House under President Barack Obama.

Although vice presidents rarely set policy, as a former state attorney general Ms. Harris is expected to have a say in Mr. Biden’s political appointments at the Justice Department, including officials who oversee antitrust enforcement. She could also have a significant influence on tech policy in a Biden administration, since Mr. Biden has largely focused on other issues.

Way back in January, Biden was very forthright on these matters in an extended interview with the NYT’s editorial team. Here’s the relevant passage:

Charlie Warzel: Sure. Mr. Vice President, in October, your campaign sent a letter to Facebook regarding an ad that falsely claimed that you blackmailed Ukrainian officials to not investigate your son. I’m curious, did that experience, dealing with Facebook and their power, did that change the way that you see the power of tech platforms right now?

Biden: No, I’ve never been a fan of Facebook, as you probably know. I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan. I think he’s a real problem. I think ——

CW: Can you elaborate?

No, I can. He knows better. And you know, from my perspective, I’ve been in the view that not only should we be worrying about the concentration of power, we should be worried about the lack of privacy and them being exempt, which you’re not exempt. The Times can’t write something you know to be false and be exempt from being sued. But he can. The idea that it’s a tech company is that Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For Zuckerberg and other platforms.

(Footnote: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act says that online platforms aren’t held liable for things their users post on them, with some exceptions.)

CW: That’s a pretty foundational laws of the modern internet.

That’s right. Exactly right. And it should be revoked. It should be revoked because it is not merely an internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false, and we should be setting standards not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy. You guys still have editors. I’m sitting with them. Not a joke. There is no editorial impact at all on Facebook. None. None whatsoever. It’s irresponsible. It’s totally irresponsible.

CW: If there’s proven harm that Facebook has done, should someone like Mark Zuckerberg be submitted to criminal penalties, perhaps?

He should be submitted to civil liability and his company to civil liability, just like you would be here at The New York Times. Whether he engaged in something and amounted to collusion that in fact caused harm that would in fact be equal to a criminal offense, that’s a different issue.

So, we’ll see…


Summer books #10

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford, Faber & Faber, 2010.

This is one of the most imaginative books I’ve ever read. It’s a part-factual, part-fictional account of a moment in the history of the Soviet Union when, briefly, it looked as though the fairy-tale that a centrally-planned economy could produce an abundance of good things might actually be true. It was a fairy tale, of course, and Francis Spufford has come up with a literary form that matches it.


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Thursday 20 August, 2020

Clean break?


Quote of the Day

“Hypocrisy is the most difficult and nerve-wracking vice that any man can pursue; it needs an unceasing vigilance and a rare detachment of spirit. It cannot, unlike adultery or gluttony, be practised at rare moments; it is a whole-time job.”

  • Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale, chapter 1.

Now why does this remind me of Boris Johnson?


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Andres Segovia Plays Minuet and Trio by Joseph Haydn

Link


Apple is now a $2 trillion company

Which only goes to show the disconnect between the stock market and the real world. More evidence is provided by the Tesla market cap.


Text and video of Barack Obama’s speech to the 2020 Democratic Convention

Text can be found here

Link to video


Truth decay: when uncertainty is weaponized

Terrific review in Nature by Felicity Lawrence of David Michaels’s new book, The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception. Sample:

These are indeed upside-down times, as epidemiologist and former safety regulator David Michaels demonstrates in his excoriating account of the corporate denial industry, The Triumph of Doubt. Unwelcome news is automatically rebranded fake news. Inconvenient evidence from independent sources — say, about climate breakdown and fossil fuels, or air pollution and diesel emissions — is labelled junk science and countered with rigged studies claiming to be sound.

But it would be wrong to see truth decay solely as the preserve of today’s populist politicians. Normalizing the production of alternative facts is a project long in the making. Consultancy firms that specialize in defending products from tobacco to industrial chemicals that harm the public and the environment have made a profession of undermining truth for decades. They hire mercenary scientists to fulfil a crucial role as accessories to their misrepresentations.

Michaels was among the first scientists to identify this denial machine, in his 2008 book Doubt is Their Product. His latest work combines an authoritative synthesis of research on the denial machine published since then with his own new insights gleaned from battles to control the toxic effects of a range of substances. He takes on per- and polyfluoroalkyls, widely used in non-stick coatings, textiles and firefighting foams; the harmful effects of alcohol and sugar; the disputed role of the ubiquitous glyphosate-based pesticides in cancer; and the deadly epidemic of addiction to prescribed opioid painkillers. In each case, Michaels records how the relevant industry has used a toolbox of methods to downplay the risks of its products, spreading disinformation here, hiding evidence of harm there, undermining authorities — all tactics from the tobacco industry’s playbook…


How to fix a lethal aircraft

Step 1: Get advice from the President

Step 2: Implement it

Boeing Press Release issued today:

WARSAW, Poland, Aug. 19, 2020 – Boeing [NYSE: BA] and Enter Air today announced the Polish airline is expanding its commitment to the 737 family with a new order for two 737-8 airplanes plus options for two more jets.

No mention of the 737 MAX. Yet that’s what Enter Air is actually buying.

HT to Cory Doctorow for spotting it.

Remind me never to fly Enter Air.


Summer books #9

The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson, Norton, 2018.

A truly extraordinary and beautiful book: Homer’s epic translated in vigorous, pellucid prose. It has exactly the same number of lines as the original. And the pages are rough-cut to encourage the suspension of disbelief. Here’s how it begins:

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered on the sea, and how he worked
to save his life and bring his men back home.
He failed, and for their own mistakes, they died.
They ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.

Wonderful.


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Wednesday 19 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

“He is the man who sits in the outer office of the White House hoping to hear the President sneeze”.

  • H.L. Mencken, writing about the Vice President, 29 January 1956.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Anne-Sophie Mutter, Daniel Barenboim, Yo-Yo Ma:
Beethoven: Triple Concerto in C Major, Op. 56 No. 2

5 minutes and 22 seconds of pure bliss.

Link

Note: I’ve decided that the embedded links that I’ve been providing up to now create more problems for some readers than they’re worth. So henceforth each musical interlude will just have a simple URL link. Often, simplest is best.


A European at Stanford

Terrific New Yorker profile of the Dutch politician (and former MEP) Marietje Schaake and what she found when she entered the belly of the Silicon Valley beast.

In conversation and lectures, Schaake often describes herself as an alien, as if she were an anthropologist from a distant world studying the local rites of Silicon Valley. Last fall, not long after she’d settled in, she noticed one particularly strange custom: at parties and campus lectures, she would be introduced to people and told their net worth. “It would be, like, ‘Oh, this is John. He’s worth x millions of dollars. He started this company,’ ” she said. “Money is presented as a qualification of success, which seems to be measured in dollars.” Sometimes people would meet her and launch directly into pitching her their companies. “I think people figure, if you’re connected with Stanford, you must have some interest in venture capital and startups. They don’t bother to find out who you are before starting the sales pitch.”

These experiences spoke to a pervasive blurring between the corporate and the academic, which she saw almost everywhere at Stanford. The university is deeply embedded in the corporate life of Silicon Valley and has been directly enriched by many of the companies that Schaake would like to see regulated more heavily and broken apart; H.A.I., according to one of its directors, receives roughly thirteen per cent of its pledged gifts from tech firms, and a majority of its funding from individuals and companies. The names of wealthy donors on buildings and institutes,the department chairs endowed by corporations, the enormous profits from high tuition prices—none of this happened at her alma mater, the University of Amsterdam, where tuition is highly subsidized and public funding supports the operating expenses of the university. (The University of Amsterdam, of course, is not internationally known as an incubator of startups and a hotbed of innovation.) Beyond Stanford, the contrasts seemed just as stark. Roughly sixty per cent of housing in Amsterdam is publicly subsidized. The main street running through Palo Alto, by contrast, is lined with dozens of old R.V.s, vans, and trailers, in which many semi-homeless service workers live. The public middle school in Menlo Park, where Schaake now resides, has students who are homeless, although the area’s average home value is almost $2.5 million.

When I first heard that she was going to Stanford, I feared for her sanity. Having read this, I think she’ll be ok. Her bullshit detector is still in good working order.


Scream if you want to go faster: Johnson in Cummingsland

This is my long read of the day. Terrific essay by Rachel Coldicutt

The emergence of a patchwork of UK innovation initiatives over the last few months is notable. Rather than fiddling with increments of investment, there is a commitment to large-scale, world-leading innovation and enthusiasm for the potential of data.

But there is also a culture of opacity and bluster, a repeated lack of effectiveness, and a tendency to do secret deals with preferred suppliers. Taken together with the lack of a public strategy, this has led to a lot of speculation, a fair few conspiracy theories, and a great deal of concern about the social impact of collecting, keeping, and centralising data.

But it seems very possible that there is actually no big plan — conspiratorial or otherwise. In going through speeches and policy documents, I have found no vision for society —save the occasional murmur of “Levelling Up” — and plenty of evidence of a fixation with the mechanics of government.

This is a technocractic revolution, not a political one, driven by a desire to obliterate bureaucracy, centralise power, and increase improvisation.

And this obsession with process has led to a complete disregard for outcomes.

The thing about Cummings — and the data-analytics crowd generally — is that they know nothing of how society actually works, and subscribe to a crippled epistemology which leads them to think that the more data you have, the more perfect your knowledge of the world.

Actually, most of them don’t even realise they have an epistemology.


Furloughed Brits got paid not to work—but two-thirds of them worked anyway

From Quartz:

Economists at the universities of Oxford, Zurich, and Cambridge looked into the UK furlough program, which supports one-third of the country’s workforce, accounting for more than 9 million jobs, furloughed by mid-June 2020. Under the scheme, the UK government pays workers up to 80% of their salary for a limited period of time, allowing companies to retain them without paying them—though companies were allowed to top up the government money.

Until July 1st, the plan also specifically prohibited workers from working for their employers when on the scheme. But the researchers, who surveyed over 4,000 people in two waves in April and May 2020, discovered a striking fact: Only 37% of furloughed workers reported doing no work at all for their employers during that time.

In some sectors, the imperative to work definitely came from employers. In the the sector termed “computer and mathematical,” 44% of those surveyed said they had been asked to work despite being furloughed.

But it also seems that many employees chose to work because they wanted to. Two-thirds of all workers said they had done some work despite being on furlough, even though only 20% were actually asked to. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those on higher salaries, those able to work from home, and those with the most flexible contracts were most likely to do some work.


One in five college students don’t plan to go back this fall

As the coronavirus pandemic pushes more and more universities to switch to remote learning — at least to start — 22% of college students across all four years are planning not to enroll this fall, according to a new College Reaction/Axios poll.

Among other things, the report claims that 20% of Harvard undergraduates have decided to defer for a year. Harvard (a hedge fund with a nice university attached) can ride out that kind of dropout, but many poorer institutions will struggle.

Source: Axios


Summer books #8

Puligny-Montrachet: Journal of a Village in Burgundy by Simon Loftus, Daunt Books, 2019.

If you like France, or wine, or (like me) both then you’ll enjoy this eccentric but utterly charming social history of the village (well, pair of villages) from which some of the country’s finest dry white wine comes. Loftus is a very good social historian, and his account of what are, in most respects, unglamorous villages is both affectionate and unsentimental. Some good friends of mine, when driving home to Holland from Provence, always used to have an overnight stop in Puligny, from which they would depart the following morning with a car boot full of the most wonderful wine. My fond hope is that, when the plague recedes a bit, we might one day do the same.


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Tuesday 18 August, 2020

Dusk

That magical moment between daylight and darkness.

Click on the image for a bigger version.


Quote of the Day

“The convent taught me only that if you spit on a pencil eraser it will erase ink.”


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paul Brady sings ‘Arthur McBride’, an Irish folk song variously categorised as an “anti-recruiting” song, a specific form of anti-war song, or more broadly as a protest song. Planxty also has a lovely version of it.

Link


Thinking about tech regulation

This diagram comes from an interesting article, “Law and Technology Realism” by Thibault Schrepel.

While it is commonly accepted that technology is deterministic, I am under the impression that a majority of “Law and Technology” scholars also believe that technology is non-neutral. It follows that, according to this dominant view, (1) technology drives society in good or bad directions (determinism), and that (2) certain uses of technology may lead to the reduction or enhancement of the common good (non-neutrality). Consequently, this leads to top-down tech policies where the regulator has the impossible burden of helping society control and orient technology to the best possible extent.

This article is deterministic and non-neutral.

But, here’s the catch. Most of today’s doctrine focuses almost exclusively on the negativity brought by technology (read Nick Bostrom, Frank Pasquale, Evgeny Morozov). Sure, these authors mention a few positive aspects, but still end up focusing on the negative ones. They’re asking to constrain technology on that sole basis. With this article, I want to raise another point: technology determinism can also drive society by providing solutions to centuries-old problems. In and of itself. This is not technological solutionism, as I am not arguing that technology can solve all of mankind’s problems, but it is not anti-solutionism either. I fear the extremes, anyway.

Not sure I agree with his methodological recommendations at the end, but this is an interesting way of thinking about the regulation problem.


Challenging the epistemological imperialism of ‘Computer Science’

Randy Connolly has written an extraordinary article in the August issue of Communications of the ACM on “Why Computing Belongs Within the Social Sciences”. It’s a really interesting and important essay, about which I will be writing more. But for now, here’s the trailer.

Link


Jack Shafer: stop fretting about Trump’s bluffing on postal voting and get your vote in early

Typically robust Shafer column:

If you’re still worried about the disenfranchisement of the 76 percent of eligible voters who have the right to cast their ballot by mail, there are practical things you can do as an individual besides tweeting anxiously about Trump. The progressives at Democracy Docket recommend that in addition to using special drop boxes, you avoid the Election Day crowds by taking part in the early, in-person voting offered in 41 states. Some states even offer weekend voting. They also suggest you participate in the organized collection of ballots, which some states allow. (Trump assails organized collection as “ballot harvesting.”)

Other things you can do to increase the tabulated vote: Request your absentee ballot at the earliest date possible and return it in person, by mail or secure dropoff as soon as you can. If you live in a state that sends ballots to all registered voters, complete yours and return it promptly. Also, use the USPS sparingly in the three weeks before the election to liberate capacity. Pay your bills via the web. Don’t send postcards. Place phone calls instead of sending birthday cards. Send packages through FedEx or UPS.

Do what you can—if only to call Trump’s postal bluff.

I like Shafer’s brusque, no-nonsense style. Which is why I always read him.


Summer books #7

Magic Mobile by Michael Frayn.

This is lovely. I bought it at the beginning of lockdown. It’s a “no-fuss, non-digital entertainment system”, complete with 35 “pre-loaded new text files” by one of Britain’s greatest playwrights and humourists. No batteries required. Makes a lovely gift for non-techies, I’ve discovered.


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Monday 17 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”

  • Jonathan Swift

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Randy Newman: Political Science

Link

I always think of George W. Bush when I hear this.


Inside the chaotic, desperate, last-minute Trump 2020 reboot.

My long read of the day — wonderful account in New York Magazine of what’s going on inside the Trump campaign. Small sample:

It was July before he “saw for the first time” that he could be defeated, according to the official. And he didn’t blame himself. He blamed a cruel world, a crueler media, and the Death Star’s failure to defend him from both. “They thought they were running one campaign: We’re on cruise control for the president who gave us the greatest economy of all time, and all the messaging would flow from there. Which socialist are we running against? Bop, bop, bop. And everything changed, and they didn’t change,” the senior White House official said. “The president started to hate the ads. He hated ‘Beijing Biden’ — he didn’t come up with that name.”

In the West Wing, officials filed away gossip and unflattering data points about the campaign manager as if drafting a dossier. When it was reported that Parscale’s web of companies took in $38 million between Inauguration Day and the spring of the pandemic, according to the Federal Election Commission, the story circulated widely. Though Parscale has declined to make clear what portion of his bills to the campaign amount to his personal salary, the New York Times reported in March that Trump had imposed a salary cap on Parscale of somewhere between $700,000 and $800,000 — enough for him to become in midlife a collector of luxury cars and seaside real estate, or at least a media caricature of one. But it wasn’t only Parscale’s spending on Parscale that worried — or “worried” — some of his colleagues; it was his spending on everything else, too, like the $15,000-a-month payments to Kimberly Guilfoyle, Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend, and to Lara Trump, Eric Trump’s wife, both of whom crisscross the country as campaign surrogates.

“The campaign was spending all this money on silly things. Brad’s businesses kept making money,” the first senior White House official told me. “Everyone was like, What does he even do? He’s just milking the family, basically.

In the end, it seems to be all about Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. Or a cut-price Mafia family.


Facebook still enabling Holocaust denial

The Guardian reports that an investigation by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a UK-based counter-extremist organisation, found that typing “holocaust” in the Facebook search function brought up suggestions for denial pages, which in turn recommended links to publishers which sell revisionist and denial literature, as well as pages dedicated to the notorious British Holocaust denier David Irving.

The findings coincide with mounting international demands from Holocaust survivors to Facebook’s boss, Mark Zuckerberg, to remove such material from the site.

Last Wednesday Facebook announced it was banning conspiracy theories about Jewish people “controlling the world”. However, it has been unwilling to categorise Holocaust denial as a form of hate speech, a stance that ISD describe as a “conceptual blind spot”.

The ISD also discovered at least 36 Facebook groups with a combined 366,068 followers which are specifically dedicated to Holocaust denial or which host such content. Researchers found that when they followed public Facebook pages containing Holocaust denial content, Facebook recommended further similar content.

Jacob Davey, ISD’s senior research manager, said: “Facebook’s decision to allow Holocaust denial content to remain on its platform is framed under the guise of protecting legitimate historical debate, but this misses the reason why people engage in Holocaust denial in the first place.

I like that idea of “protecting legitimate historical debate”, but how does it square with Holocaust denial? You only have to ask the question to know the answer.


The testing plan that could give us our lives back

Another long read of the day: think of it as “everything you wanted to know about Covid testing but were afraid to ask”. Great piece of public interest reporting by Robinson Meyer and Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic, triggered by frustration that the US testing record is getting worse, not better.


Summer books #6

After Ireland: Writing the Nation from Beckett to the Present, Head of Zeus, 2018.

A sobering, unsentimental analysis of what has happened to modern Ireland since it became independent, told through studies of the writers who understood what was happening to Irish culture and had the wit (and sometimes the courage) to tell it like it was. I received this as a birthday present last month and have been happily dipping into it ever since, marvelling at Kibbert’s range and intellectual stamina. The cover is a reproduction of a ravishing painting by Jack Butler Yeats.


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