Thursday 22 September, 2021

LW’s last resting place

Ascension Churchyard, Cambridge.

Frank Ramsey is buried nearby.

Quote of the Day

”It takes 15,000 casualties to train a major-general.”

  • Ferdinand Foch

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ry Cooder | Feelin’ Bad Blues


Not that I’m feeling bad, mind. But this is a nice reflective track.

Long Read of the Day

How a hormone affects society

Testosterone is, IMHO, much overrated, and indeed responsible for much of what is depressing in human behaviour. So it was interesting to encounter this report of a discussion about its significance with Carole Hooven, a Harvard academic whose book,  Testosterone: The Story of the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us was published in July.

Hooven, lecturer and co-director of undergraduate studies in Human Evolutionary Biology, waded directly into the nature versus nurture debate Thursday evening, laying out her case for the hormone’s function as a foundation for aspects of male behavior. She traced the role of testosterone in the natural world, pointing out its role in differentiating males from females across the animal kingdom. Its far higher levels in males — 10 to 20 times that in females — act as a switch that turns on genes, creating stronger, more heavily muscled individuals, along with more aggressive behavior.

Facts are sacred, but opinions are everywhere

Hadley Freeman has decided to stop being a columnist.

or someone who never actually wanted to be a columnist, I have written a heck of a lot of columns. I’ve been a Weekend columnist for five and a half years, and before that I was in the Guardian’s opinion section, and before that I was a columnist in the daily features section, G2, meaning I’ve foisted about 10 million of my random opinions on all of you. It has been a joy (for me, anyway), but now it is time to stop. I’ll still be doing interviews for the Guardian, but there is a tide in the affairs of man (all columnists love a random classic quote), and even an overly opinionated, 80s movies-obsessed, Jewish New Yorker (I’m WAWKIN’ here, I’m WAWKIN’!) knows when to step away from the table. So I’ll be banging on about fewer of my opinions, and writing more about those of others.

Like I said, I never wanted to be a columnist, but no one did when I started back in 2000…

I’ve always liked her writing, and hope to go on reading her, whatever she does next.

Chart of the Day

Remember Clubhouse? It was Silicon Valley’s Sensation du jour way back in February. And now?

From Google Trends via Exponential View.

Finally, some good news about Bolsonaro!

From the Daily Beast:

Brazil’s unvaccinated far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has been photographed nibbling a pizza slice on the street in New York City, where indoor diners have to have had at least one COVID-19 shot. Bolsonaro is in NYC to take part in the United Nations General Assembly, and, last week, he boasted that he would ignore a vaccine mandate for attendees. However, it seems the city’s restaurant managers aren’t letting him bend the rules. According to Brazilian newspaper Correio Braziliense, Bolsonaro’s tourism minister Gilson Machado posted an Instagram snap of the president and his ministers having a humble outdoor dinner of pizza and Coke on their first night in NYC. The paper also noted that the unmasked Bolsonaro had to sneak into his hotel through the back door on Sunday due to protesters.

Couldn’t happen to a nastier guy.

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Friday 17 September, 2021

Quote of the Day

”It is advantageous to an author that his book should be attacked as well as praised. Fame is a shuttlecock. If it be struck at only one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground. To keep it up it must be struck at both ends.”

  • Samuel Johnson

Hmmm… try telling that to some authors I’ve known.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Wailin’ Jennys | Bird Song


God, they are a wonderful group.

Long Read of the Day

Why Are Ebooks So Terrible?

Nice essay by Ian Bogost.

None of the world’s biggest economies are on track to meet their Paris Accords emissions targets

Surprise, surprise! This from CNN:

None of the world’s major economies — including the entire G20 — have a climate plan that meets their obligations under the 2015 Paris Agreement, according to an analysis published Wednesday, despite scientists’ warning that deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions are needed now.

The watchdog Climate Action Tracker (CAT) analyzed the policies of 36 countries, as well as the 27-nation European Union, and found that all major economies were off track to contain global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The countries together make up 80% of the world’s emissions.

The analysis also included some low-emissions countries, and found that the Gambia was the only nation among all 37 to be “1.5 compatible.” As the study only included a few smaller emitters, it’s possible there are other developing countries in the world on track as well.

We need my proposed Theory of Incompetent Systems — ones that can’t fix themselves.

The toxicity of Facebook

I write a weekly column about tech in the Observer, and every week before I sit down to write it I have a conversation with my editor about possible topics. Virtually every week one of the possible items is some new scandal related to Facebook. We’ve long past the point where anyone is surprised by this. There’s a kind of resigned acceptance that this is the kind of toxic outfit it is and nobody should expect anything good to come from it. And this is dangerous because it amounts to a passive, resigned acceptance that nothing can be done about this dangerous and corrupt organisation.

Fortunately, some media organisations have the stamina to keep monitoring the company. The Wall Street Journal’s has a new series delving into Facebook’s misleading handling of user-generated content. The evidence seems to have come from leaked documents which the Journal’s reporters have used to demonstrate how the company often says one thing about its policies only to secretly be doing another.

Since the WSJ is behind a non-porous paywall I went looking for a summary that wasn’t so that I could relay it here. I found a good summary on a Bloomberg site. Here are some of the highlights.

  • Facebook told its independent oversight board in June that a program designed to protect high-profile figures from having their posts mistakenly taken down only affected a “small number of decisions.” Turns out, Facebook’s programs in 2020 included at least 5.8 million users, some of them among the highest rungs of politics, popular culture and journalism, according to the Journal. Facebook employees said the system was specifically designed to avoid negative media attention.

  • As Facebook unveiled its plans to create a kids’ version of Instagram, its executives repeatedly said research shows the effects of social media on young users’ mental health were a mixed bag and that the platforms can play a positive role in their lives. However they downplayed the fact that their own internal research found that a third of teen girls said they felt bad about their bodies because of Instagram.

  • And when Facebook made a change to its news feed in 2018 to emphasise posts from friends and families, it concealed the fact that the change might also boost the platform’s lacklustre engagement numbers.

  • It also didn’t explain that one unfortunate byproduct of that change was that it made angry and more polarizing content more popular.

This is dishonesty and hypocrisy on an Olympic scale. And yet still supposedly respectable organisations are anxious to recruit Facebook as a ‘partner’ in their activities.

Take, for example, Cambridge’s wealthiest College, Trinity, convener of The ’Trinity Challenge’, described as

“a coalition of partners united by the common aim of developing insights and actions to contribute to a world better protected from global health emergencies.”

Guess who one of these ‘partners’ is. Don’t take my word for it — just go and check the website.

The naiveté of this is astonishing.

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Friday 27 August, 2021

Our second cat, Tilly, who is still missing her dear departed sister.

A message from the Publisher

In what can only be described as an outrageous act of pure self-indulgence, this blogger proposes to take a week off in order to stomp around the Peak District hoping to avoid a mobile phone signal. His devoted readers (Whom God Preserve) may therefore also have a week off, and can feel liberated from the obligation to peruse the Long Read of the Day when they have better things to do! Normal service will be resumed on September 6.

Charlie Watts RIP

Nice and revealing 1966 interview, now fortunately on YouTube. I love his reply to the question of how being a success has influenced him as a person. “I no longer think, unfortunately, about spending £5”. It’s the ‘unfortunately’ that signals his intrinsic good sense and humanity.

Many thanks to James Miller for pointing that the interview was 30 years earlier than I had originally claimed!

Quote of the Day

”A celebrity is one who is known to many persons he is glad he doesn’t know.”

  • H.L. Mencken

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jeff Lynne, Dhani Harrison and Joe Walsh | Something


There’s something moving about this. Maybe it’s the presence of George Harrison’s son on stage.

Long Read of the Day

Dead Marxists Society

Lovely New Statesman essay by Stuart Jeffries on how Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School failed to change the world.

Video of the Day

 How the U.S. military response to the 9/11 attacks led to decades of war.

Sobering NYT video. Summed up by Einstein’s famous definition of insanity: continually doing the same thing and expecting different outcomes.

Worth the 12 minutes.

Electrifying a bike can be electrifyingly easy

Nice DIY guide by David Schneider. Before trying it at home, though, it’d be worth noting that it was published in IEEE Spectrum, a journal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

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Charlie Watts, RIP

Lovely 1966 interview. I love his reply to the question of how being a success has influenced him as a person. “I no longer think, unfortunately, about spending £5”. It’s the ‘unfortunately’ that signals his intrinsic good sense and humanity.


Many thanks to James Miller for pointing that the interview was 30 years earlier than I claimed!

Saigon 2.0

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and academic, Viet Thanh Nguyen, managed to escape from Vietnam when the US pulled out. He’s written a sobering OpEd about it in the New York Times:

We were lucky; many others weren’t. My brother remembers dead Southern paratroopers hanging from trees. In Nha Trang, some people fell to their deaths in the sea, trying to clamber onto boats. In Da Nang, desperate soldiers crammed into the luggage compartments of a plane, while the ones left behind threw grenades and fired at the plane.

Images of bodies falling, of people running desperately, are now with us again, from Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. Comparisons to Vietnam began early in America’s misadventure in Afghanistan: It was classic mission creep, a quagmire, another forever war. The pessimism was warranted. Two decades, billions of dollars and tens of thousands of deaths later, Taliban forces are now in Kabul, having secured control of the country with dizzying speed. As much as some American leaders resist it, the analogy presents itself again, with the fall of Saigon and resulting catastrophe foreshadowing the possible fate of tens of thousands of Afghans.

Interesting, isn’t it, that it’s Joe Biden, not George W. Bush, who is carrying the can for the fiasco.

Thursday 8 July, 2021

Evening in America

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

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

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

Quote of the Day

Samuel Coleridge

“Did you ever hear me preach?”

Charles Lamb

”I never heard you do anything else.”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

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


Long Read of the Day

Social class in America

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

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


Another, sobering, link

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

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

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Thursday 25 February, 2021

Where I’d like to be. Right Now.

Quote of the Day

”The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.”

  • Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”, 1944

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Thomas Hampson | Hard times come again no more


Long Read of the Day

Shared (un)Realities

Lovely essay by Om Malik. Here’s how it begins…

You might have noticed that it has been awfully quiet here. I decided to take a “break” from reality and ended up staying as far away from the shackles of networked life as possible for as long as I could. I wanted to experience the kind of boredom that makes you come up with random and ludicrous ideas. The type that pushes you to jot down thoughts in a notebook, even if you can’t read your own scribbles.

My disconnection allowed me to start considering what constitutes reality in our hyper-connected world. It is apparent that we no longer live in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) kind of environment. Fact-based reality has become a figment of our imagination, or maybe we are beginning to realize that it was always so. “Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else,” George Orwell noted in 1984.

Much of today’s reality takes its cues from what we dubiously dubbed “reality” television. We all know that the Kardashians — like all reality show characters — are not really real, at least not as we know them. But they look and sound real enough, and they provide enough drama to provoke a real reaction. And this holds our attention, which can be sold to advertisers.

A few days back, I watched Vanity Fair writer Nick Bilton’s documentary, “Fake Famous”. . .

Likelihood of severe and ‘long’ COVID may be established very early on following infection  

Interesting new study by over 30 Cambridge scientists (including some from my college) on Covid and the human immune system which sheds light on some of the puzzling aspects of the virus.

The Abstract reads, in part,

In a study of 207 SARS-CoV2-infected individuals with a range of severities followed over 12 weeks from symptom onset, we demonstrate that an early robust immune response, without systemic inflammation, is characteristic of asymptomatic or mild disease. Those presenting to hospital had delayed adaptive responses and systemic inflammation already evident at around symptom onset. Such early evidence of inflammation suggests immunopathology may be inevitable in some individuals, or that preventative intervention might be needed before symptom onset. Viral load does not correlate with the development of this pathological response, but does with its subsequent severity. Immune recovery is complex, with profound persistent cellular abnormalities correlating with a change in the nature of the inflammatory response.

What it means, according to this commentary is that the likelihood of severe and ‘long’ COVID may be established very early on following infection. Some key findings are:

  • Individuals who have asymptomatic or mild disease show a robust immune response early on during infection.
  • Patients requiring admission to hospital have impaired immune responses and systemic inflammation (that is, chronic inflammation that may affect several organs) from the time of symptom onset.
  • Persistent abnormalities in immune cells and a change in the body’s inflammatory response may contribute to ‘long COVID’.

Covid-19 is such a weird disease. One of the researchers, Professor Ken Smith, was interviewed on the wonderful Naked Scientists podcast. The episode is well worth a listen. You can get it here.

The F-35 is, er, too heavy. Also too expensive.

If you want an insight into the madness of aerospace procurement, then this Forbes story provides it in style:

The U.S. Air Force’s top officer wants the service to develop an affordable, lightweight fighter to replace hundreds of Cold War-vintage F-16s and complement a small fleet of sophisticated—but costly and unreliable—stealth fighters.

The result would be a high-low mix of expensive “fifth-generation” F-22s and F-35s and inexpensive “fifth-generation-minus” jets, explained Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown Jr.

If that plan sounds familiar, it’s because the Air Force a generation ago launched development of an affordable, lightweight fighter to replace hundreds of Cold War-vintage F-16s and complement a small future fleet of sophisticated—but costly and unreliable—stealth fighters.

But over 20 years of R&D, that lightweight replacement fighter got heavier and more expensive as the Air Force and lead contractor Lockheed Martin LMT -1.1% packed it with more and more new technology.

Yes, we’re talking about the F-35. The 25-ton stealth warplane has become the very problem it was supposed to solve. And now America needs a new fighter to solve that F-35 problem, officials said.

You could buy an awful lot of drones for what a single F-35 would cost. But that wouldn’t keep a huge parasitic industry in employment.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • GameStop jumped 104% yesterday. The sport continues. Link.
  • QAnon used to be a conspiracy theory. Now it’s a full-blown cult. Link
  • Famous Philosophers in Quarantine. by Jesse Schupack and Michael Rauschenbach. Lovely. Guess what Plato would do. Or St Augustine. Link

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Forget Zuckerberg and Cook’s hypocrisy – it’s their companies that are the real problem

This morning’s Observer [column][(

A few years ago, during a period when there was much heated anxiety about “superintelligence” and the prospects for humanity in a world dominated by machines, the political theorist David Runciman gently pointed out that we have been living under superintelligent AIs for a couple of centuries. They’re called corporations: sociopathic, socio-technical machines that remorselessly try to achieve whatever purpose has been set for them, which in our day is to “maximise shareholder value”. Or, as Milton Friedman succinctly put it: “The only corporate social responsibility a company has is to maximise its profits.”

Given that, it doesn’t really matter whether those who sit at the top of giant tech corporations are saints, sinners or merely liars and hypocrites. Facebook could be staffed entirely by clones of St Francis of Assisi and it would still be a toxic organisation, relentlessly pushing to achieve the purpose assigned to it by Professor Friedman. So if we want to make things better, our focus has to be changing the machine’s purpose and obligations, not on trying to persuading its helmsman to attend to the better angels of his nature.

Later. The point about corporations being sociopathic, superintelligent machines prompted an interesting email from Ross Anderson (Whom God Preserve) gently pointing out that he had made a similar point to the philosopher Daniel Dennett during a lecture Dennett gave in Cambridge in June 2019, which of course led me into an interesting dive back through diaries and notebooks.

Tracing the genesis of an idea can be a fool’s errand, especially if it’s a powerful idea. But this one proved more fruitful than I expected.

On the chronology, the Dennett lecture that Ross mentioned was in June 2019, but I had comeacross the ‘sociopathic’ idea before then in one of four seminars that David Runciman ran for the Centre for the Future of Intelligence in 2017-8 and I attended. It came up because he’s an expert on Hobbes and he argued at one point that Hobbes’s Leviathan was, essentially, an AI. The political philosopher, Philip Pettit, who was also at the seminar took up the idea and argued that corporations are intrinsically sociopathic — which is what I took away from that particular conversation (though I may have been wrong in attributing the sociopathy attribute to David rather than to Philip).

But it seems that the question of corporate sociopathy was been around a long time in American constitutional discourse. In part this seems to have been about the (ancient) legal doctrine that companies were granted “legal personhood” long ago. In 2003 Joel Bakan, a legal scholar, published The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, a book which was accompanied by a documentary film, The Corporation (which I haven’t seen — but which gave rise to lots of commentary about psycho/socio-pathy (e.g. And then, of course, there was the 2010 ‘Citizens United’ judgment of the US Supreme Court which held that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent expenditures for political communications by corporations, including nonprofit corporations, labor unions, and other associations. Which effectively means that in the US these sociopaths have free speech rights and can fund politicians who advance their interests.

I’m sure there’s a lot more but the bottom line is that this is an older idea than I had thought and it’s been been around for quite a while.

Tuesday 2 February, 2021

Nature’s Polygons

Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland, on a quiet evening.

Lest we forget…

Trump M.D.

Dr Deborah Birx, one of Trump’s Coronavirus advisers, listens to her boss. Thought bubbles not by me,btw.

The madness of (investing) crowds

From Chris Nuttall in the FT yesterday:

Silver has replaced GameStop as the investment du jour for retail traders, but there is also the Elon effect out there, with Mr Musk lifting bitcoin last week after adding it to his Twitter bio. Now his appearance on the Clubhouse audio service at the weekend has led to a doubling in the share price of Clubhouse Media Group, which happens to be a completely different company. The same thing happened last month when he recommended the Signal messaging service and unrelated Signal Advance rose by more than 6,000 per cent. Regarding Clubhouse, Lex says audio could be the future of online socialising, with the Discord chat app attracting 300m users as well.

Does make you wonder about people, sometimes. The way in which Elon Musk can shape opinion is one of the wonders of the online world.

Quote of the Day

“The battle for the mind of Ronald Reagan was like the trench warfare of World War I. Never have so many fought so hard for such barren terrain.”

  • Peggy Noonan, Reagan’s speechwriter 1984-9.

I’ve never understood why people had such a high opinion of Reagan. He was an amazingly destructive President who just happened to have a good bedside manner.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Diana Krall | Just The Way You Are


Twitter, George Soros, and Porn

An interesting essay by Ranjan Roy on subjective vs objective realities: or, social media vs the real world. A worrying aspect of pandemic life is how our understanding of reality is increasingly being shaped by algorithmically-curated, ad-funded digital representations. We trust the platforms to let us know “what’s happening right now” (to coin a Twitter trope) because we can’t be out there seeing it for ourselves.

For any of you that may have ever perused a pornography website, you may have noticed the scenarios getting increasingly preposterous over the years. Multiple partners and medically improbable appendages are the base case. I am cognizant that the situations presented are not representative of ‘real life’. They are not representative of typical sexual relations. I’m sure the scenarios presented on porn sites really do happen sometimes, but they’re highly exaggerated outliers.

I’ve been a tech platform cassandra for my non media+tech friends for a few years now, but trying to explain how ad-based business models and algorithms combine to create a completely distorted understanding of reality has been difficult. The one thing that almost instantly breaks through is to equate the reality presented in a social feed to porn. Yes, the things you are presented with are real and do exist, but they are not representative of the mundane nature of everyday life. Again, highly exaggerated outliers.

In the same way none of us are going to pornhub and searching “suburban pudgy 40something couple missionary” (maybe you are and kudos to you) the algorithm does not promote the uninteresting and the unstimulating. If there is any censorship on these platforms, it’s of the tedious and routine elements of life.

To look at your Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter feed as representative of reality is to look at Pornhub and think “this is how most people have sex”.

Great stuff. He goes on to explain George Soros’s concept of ‘reflexivity’, which is basically the feedback loop by which expectations or desires can shape reality.

Joke Capitalism: GameStop Populism and the Desire for Narrative

Fabulous piece by Andrew Granato that suggests that my initial reading of the GameStop narrative might have been a trifle, er, naive! Sigh.

This story that retail investors buying GameStop shares constitutes populism relies on the fact that the most publicly visible reason for the stock surge is investors who are putting in small amounts of money by public equity markets standards (from the hundreds to the tens of thousands, if we choose to believe screenshots with thousands of upvotes on Reddit) while the most visible losers are two hedge funds, Melvin Capital and Citron Research.

Who is actually reaping the strong majority of the benefits of the surge, on the other hand, bears little resemblance to Reddit day traders and much more resemblance to Melvin and Citron, because the strong majority of equities in the United States are owned by wealthy individuals and asset managers who act on behalf of mostly wealthy individuals. Who are the biggest owners of GameStop? Fidelity (14%), Cohen’s RC Ventures (13%), and BlackRock (11%), and then a bunch of other mutual and hedge funds, and also a guy named Donald Foss who became a billionaire from a subprime auto loan company. Pick almost any American publicly traded company; the list of names will be pretty similar. And as Ranjan Roy wrote about yesterday for some newsletter, there is strong evidence that the rally itself is primarily driven by professional investors.

Maybe I should eat my hat — again! I’ve always found it a nutritious diet.

Still living in a council flat with ‘Grenfell’ cladding? The Westminster government would prefer that you — and we — didn’t know about it.

Great piece of investigative journalism by openDemocracy:

Aluminium composite cladding (ACM), which was implicated in the catastrophic Grenfell Tower fire that killed 72 people in June 2017, was banned the following year.

But the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has told local authorities they can block Freedom of Information (FOI) requests that may identify high-rise buildings with aluminium cladding.

In a letter sent to all local authority chief executives, and obtained by openDemocracy, the housing ministry told councils that when responding to FOI requests about ACM “it is appropriate to withhold information that could lead to the identification of affected buildings”.

The news comes as Labour leader Keir Starmer announced that he will force a vote in Parliament next week to commit the government to publishing figures on the number of buildings affected by dangerous cladding.

The housing ministry’s letter, written by the director-general of building safety in November 2017, states that “clearly it is not for” the department to determine how councils respond to FOI requests. But Jon Baines, an information rights expert at the law firm Mishcon de Reya, said he “cannot see any other way of interpreting” the letter than as official guidance.

You think this is a scandal? So do I. But for the current regime it’s business as usual.

Another, hopefully interesting, link

  • Gigapixel Vermeer: Girl with a Pearl Earring has no more secrets. Amazing. Just keep zooming in. Link

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