Tuesday 11 February, 2020

Quote of the Day

”I have the feeling that I’ve seen everything, but failed to notice the elephants”

  • Anton Chekhov

Another reason why people buy SUVs

Apropos my post the other day about why people buy SUVs, I received this interesting email from a reader:

The other reason people buy SUVs is because they have been involved in an accident.

My wife was hit by a pick up truck head on doing 55 mph in a 25 mph zone, which totaled the car, shattered her wrist, but thankfully didn’t damage the 8-week-old in the back. She’s been nervous in cars ever since now.

So it’s not that she doesn’t trust her driving skills, it’s that she doesn’t trust the other drivers on the road (which in DC is probably a fair assessment. The driving test is a joke, you can pass it easily, and that’s assuming the person who hits you has a license. In the 8 times we’ve been hit, 3 times the driver swapped seats with the passenger, and the other one was uninsured).

Touché.


Tech Has Drained the Reality Out of Our Real Lives

Lovely essay by Jenny Judge on how, for most people, the deficiencies of their analogue photographs inadvertently reinforced the vitality of real life, whereas modern digital cameras now create a superior virtual world we don’t feel good enough for.

But the inescapable shoddiness of our amateur photographs served an important purpose, beyond the obvious one of discouraging narcissism, and it was this: Through its very mediocrity, each image told us that the real world was better than the one it depicted. We were made aware of the richness, the vividness, the sheer reality of our actual lives simply in being shown that our virtual lives were wan and insubstantial. Each of our badly framed, overexposed pictures served as an incentive to seek out the real world. Similarly, the fragmentary bootleg was a reason to go to the video store or, better still, to the cinema; the disappointing tape-recording likewise sent us in search of the CD and the live show.

Perceptive stuff. Worth reading in full.


Sunday 9 February, 2020

George Steiner: an appreciation

I knew and liked George Steiner, who died on Monday last at the age of 90. The *Observer asked me to wrote an appreciation of him. Here’s a sample:

I first met George in the 1980s, when I was a TV critic. At the time, Channel 4 was running a high-IQ chatshow called Voices, in which the host, the poet and critic Al Alvarez, batted around ideas with a panel of prominent public intellectuals. One evening, I watched, mesmerised, as George fluently extemporised for 10 whole minutes – without notes, hesitation or much repetition – on the question of whether an authoritarian political system can produce more artistic creativity than the “free” west.

My review included a riff on a literary phenomenon – the Steiner sentence – a formidable expressive work that came, perfectly formed, with an ancillary apparatus of footnotes, subordinate clauses and scholarly asides, and went on long after the programme had come to an end, the lights had been switched off and the entire production crew had gone home to bed. And having dispatched the review, I too switched off and went to bed.

A few days later, a postcard arrived from George inviting me to lunch at the Green Man in Grantchester, where we had an enjoyable, convivial conversation…

Do read the whole thing


Democrats should have seen their Iowa tech meltdown coming

Today’s Observer column:

Who needs the Russians when the Democratic party of Iowa is perfectly capable of screwing up the democratic process all by itself? The political world waited on Monday night with bated breath to see which of the Democratic candidates would emerge from the arcane “caucus” process in the state. But when the polls closed, no results were available.

There were, the party, stated, “inconsistencies” in the reported figures coming through from the precincts. No results would be issued until the results had been properly and accurately collated. The information was to have come from a recently developed smartphone app, with a back-up option that would enable precinct captains to phone in their results. Neither channel worked. CNN reported that one official who was trying to report his results was on hold for an hour and had apparently just got through to party headquarters when the party hung up on him – on live television. It was, to use a technical term, a shambles…

Read on


Events, dear Mr Xi, events

Harold Macmillan’s timeless reply to the journalist who asked him what kept him awake at night (“Events, dear boy, events.”), keeps coming to mind. I’m wondering now if the Corona virus, and in particular popular anger at the harassment and death of Li Wenliang — the young doctor who first raised the possibility that a new virus was loose might — in the end, lead to the downfall of the current Great Leader, Winnie the Pooh, as he is satirically known.

In that context, there’s an interesting piece in today’s Observer:

“The fallout from the spread of the potentially deadly coronavirus is already grim”, writes Richard McGregor,

most immediately in the form of a reeling Chinese economy that is having to temporarily sever supply lines to factories and retail outlets around the world. China has been responsible for about one-third of global growth in recent years, a greater share than the US, and any slowdown in its economy will be felt across the world.

But the greatest focus is on what Li alluded to when he complained about the country being ruled by “one voice”, which Chinese people would immediately recognise as a barb directed at Xi Jinping. Xi has swept all enemies, real and imagined, aside since taking over as Communist party chief in late 2012 and made many more along the way.

Powerful families and moneyed interests toppled by his relentless anti-corruption campaign will never forgive him and are lying in wait for revenge. Equally, many of the technocratic elite have been alienated by his illiberal economic policies and his assertiveness overseas, which they blame for triggering a concerted pushback in Washington.

Much of their anger was captured in a single moment that embodied their fears that Xi is taking the country backwards – his decision in early 2018 to do away with term limits and make himself leader in perpetuity.

I was talking to a China expert last night who believes that the thing that terrifies local Chinese Communist party bosses is that the people will one day become really pissed off with them.

Eventually Xi will discover that nothing lasts forever. In the end the real Winnie the Pooh’s grip on the popular imagination will outlast him.


Friday 7 February, 2020

The Digital Dictators: How technology strengthens autocracies

Sobering reading for recovering Utopians (like me). From Foreign Affairs:

Led by China, today’s digital autocracies are using technology—the Internet, social media, AI—to supercharge long-standing authoritarian survival tactics. They are harnessing a new arsenal of digital tools to counteract what has become the most significant threat to the typical authoritarian regime today: the physical, human force of mass antigovernment protests. As a result, digital autocracies have grown far more durable than their pre-tech predecessors and their less technologically savvy peers. In contrast to what technology optimists envisioned at the dawn of the millennium, autocracies are benefiting from the Internet and other new technologies, not falling victim to them.

Long essay. Worth reading in full.


Why do people buy SUVs?

I’ve often wondered about this, and concluded that SUV owners are either arrogant or frightened, or both. An interesting piece in Vice suggests that I was on the right track. It draws on Keith Bradsher’s examination of “how the auto industry convinced millions of Americans to buy vehicles that were more dangerous (for themselves and other people on the road), got worse gas mileage, were worse for the environment, and got them to pay a premium for the privilege of doing so.“ It succeeded because the industry mounted “quite possibly the most sophisticated marketing operations on the planet.” The image of prospective SUV purchasers that emerged from the research was deeply unattractive — and, reassuringly, correlated with my own hunches. That portrait is largely the result of one consultant who worked for Chrysler, Ford, and GM during the SUV boom: Clotaire Rapaille.

Rapaille, a French emigree, believed the SUV appealed—at the time to mostly upper-middle class suburbanites—to a fundamental subconscious animalistic state, our “reptilian desire for survival,” as relayed by Bradsher. (“We don’t believe what people say,” the website for Rapaille’s consulting firm declares. Instead, they use “a unique blend of biology, cultural anthropology and psychology to discover the hidden cultural forces that pre-organize the way people behave towards a product, service or concept”). Americans were afraid, Rapaille found through his exhaustive market research, and they were mostly afraid of crime even though crime was actually falling and at near-record lows. As Bradsher wrote, “People buy SUVs, he tells auto executives, because they are trying to look as menacing as possible to allay their fears of crime and other violence.” They, quite literally, bought SUVs to run over “gang members” with, Rapaille found.

And it turned out that the auto industry’s own studies agreed with this general portrait of SUV buyers. Bradsher described that portrait, comprised of marketing reports from the major automakers, as follows:

Who has been buying SUVs since automakers turned them into family vehicles? They tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors or communities.

I knew it! It’s always nice to have one’s prejudices confirmed.


Remembering George Steiner

George died last Monday at the ripe old age of 90. I knew and liked him and have written an appreciation which is coming out in next Sunday’s Observer. Adam Gopnik has a nice tribute to him on the New Yorker site:

It was part of the genuine, and not merely patrician, seriousness of his view to see the war years as a fundamental rupture not just in history but in our faith in culture: educated people did those things to other educated people. It was not ignorant armies clashing by night that shivered George Steiner’s soul; it was intelligent Germans who listened to Schubert murdering educated Jews who had trusted in Goethe, and by the train load. This recognition of the limits of culture to change the world was the limiting condition on his love of literature, and it was what gave that love a darker and more tragic cast than any mere proselytizing for “great books” could supply.

May he rest in peace.


How public intellectuals can extend their shelf lives

Useful rules from Tyler Cowen, who knows a thing or two about this.


Why I won’t be upgrading to Catalina any time soon

From Jon Gruber:

Then I think about software. And that means thinking about MacOS 10.15 Catalina. And those thoughts are not good. Off the top of my head I’m hard pressed to think of anything in Catalina that’s an improvement over 10.14 Mojave, and I can think of a lot of things that are worse. I get it that security and convenience are at odds, and it’s a difficult job for Apple to find the balanced sweet spot between the two. But Catalina clearly bends too far in the direction of security. By design, it’s just too inconvenient, with apps generating system-level alerts prompting for permission for things as rudimentary as being able to see the files on my desktop — sometimes when those apps are in the background, and I know that at the moment the alert appears those apps are not trying to read files on my desktop. But why in the world is the desktop treated as some sort of sensitive location?

Back in 2007 Apple ran a “Get a Mac” commercial mocking Windows Vista for this exact same sort of overzealous permission nagging. That’s exactly what Catalina feels like.

I think I’ll sit this upgrade out and wait for the next one.


Thursday 30 January, 2020

Warren Buffett gives up on the news business

He’s selling Berkshire Hathaway’s newspapers to Lee Enterprises. You can guess what he thinks about the prospects for journalism. NYT


Social media will impair society’s ability to control the Corona epidemic

“’It plays to our worst fears’: Coronavirus misinformation fuelled by social media” This is one of the under-appreciated threats posed by social media. And it can be weaponised by bad actors.

And, right on cue, here’s the first report

“Baseless stories claiming that the two scientists are Chinese spies and that they smuggled the coronavirus to China’s only Level 4 lab in Wuhan last year have been spreading on all major social media platforms and on conspiracy theorist blogs. One article from a conspiracy blog was shared more than 6,000 times on Facebook on Monday. “


Global (dis)Satisfaction with Democracy Report

My colleague David Runciman launched his new Centre for the Future of Democracy last night with the presentation of a pathbreaking survey of citizens’ confidence (or lack thereof) in their democracies. The report aims to provide a comprehensive answer to questions regarding one measure of democratic legitimacy – satisfaction with democracy – by combining data from almost all available survey sources.

It’s based on a huge dataset which combined more than 25 data sources, 3,500 country surveys, and 4 million respondents between 1973 and 2020 in which citizens were asked whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with democracy in their countries. Using this combined, pooled dataset, the researchers now have a time-series for almost 50 years in Western Europe, and 25 years for the rest of the world.

Among their findings are:

  • Dissatisfaction with democracy has risen over time, and is reaching an all-time global high, in particular in developed democracies.
  • The rise in democratic dissatisfaction has been especially sharp since 2005.
  • Many large democracies are at their highest-ever recorded level for democratic dissatisfaction. These include the United States, Brazil, Mexico, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Colombia, and Australia. Other countries that remain close to their all-time highs include Japan, Spain, and Greece.
  • Citizens’ levels of dissatisfaction with democracy are largely responsive to objective circumstances and events – economic shocks, corruption scandals, and policy crises. These have an immediately observable effect upon average levels of civic dissatisfaction.
  • The picture is not entirely negative. Many small, high-income democracies have moved in the direction of greater civic confidence in their institutions. In Ireland, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, for example, democratic satisfaction is reaching all-time highs. These countries form part of the “island of contentment” – a select group of nations, containing just 2% of the world’s democratic citizenry, in which less than a quarter of the public express discontent with their political system.

The results are sobering. Since the mid-1990s, the proportion of citizens who are “dissatisfied” with the performance of democracy in their countries has risen by almost 10 percentage points globally. The deterioration has been especially deep in high-income, “consolidated” democracies, where the proportion has risen from a third to half of all citizens.

From the Report’s Conclusions…

If satisfaction with democracy is now falling across many of the world’s largest mature and emerging democracies – including the United States, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and South Africa – it is not because citizens’ expectations are excessive or unrealistic, but because democratic institutions are falling short of the outcomes that matter most for their legitimacy, including probity in office, upholding the rule of law, responsiveness to public concerns, ensuring economic and financial security, and raising living standards for the larger majority of society. Our analysis suggests that citizens are rational in their view of political institutions, updating their assessment in response to what they observe. If confidence in democracy has been slipping, then the most likely explanation is that democratically elected governments have not been seen to succeed in addressing some of the major challenges of our era, including economic co-ordination in the eurozone, the management of refugee flows, and providing a credible response to the threat of global climate change. The best means of restoring democratic legitimacy would be for this to change.

Tuesday 28 January, 2020

Remembering Seamus Heaney

We were in Dublin last weekend and were accordingly able to visit the celebration of Seamus Heaney organised by the National Library of Ireland, to which he had donated his papers before he died. (He piled them all into his car and drove them to the Library.) It’s in a wing of the wonderful old Irish Parliament building opposite Trinity College, and is an inspired piece of curation by Geraldine Higgins. It has four themes: Excavations, covering Heaney’s early work; Creativity, looking at how he worked; Conscience on how he wrestled with what it meant to be a poet from Northern Ireland during the thirty years of violent conflict now known as ‘the Troubles’; and Marvels about his later work exploring some of the ways in which he circled back to the relationships of his childhood and youth.

It’s a wonderful exhibition which brings out the imaginative genius of a great poet. What was striking about Heaney (or ‘Famous Seamus’ as my countrymen dubbed him in an unnecessary attempt to stop him getting a big head) was the way he managed to be both earthed and sublime. His poetry is accessible to everyone and moving; and yet he was also a real scholarly heavyweight — a translator of Virgil and of Beowulf, for example, as well as a holder of professorial chairs at Harvard and Oxford. (Evidence: his Nobel lecture or his Oxford lectures, The Redress of Poetry.)

He’s my favourite poet, and I spent some of the exhibition close to tears while at the same time marvelling at the arc of his life. It was lovely to see marked-up drafts of his poems at various stages in their composition. And he had such nice handwriting — light and crystal clear. Also (something dear to my heart) he always wrote with a fountain pen.

The nicest things came at the end: readings of his unconventional love poem to his wife Marie after they were married. His final text message to her just before he died: noli timere (don’t be afraid). And a recording of him reading my favourite poem, Postscript, celebrating the magical coastline of the Burren in Co Clare.

And some time make the time to drive out west

Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,

In September or October, when the wind

And the light are working off each other

So that the ocean on one side is wild

With foam and glitter, and inland among stones

The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit

By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,

Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,

Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads

Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.

Useless to think you’ll park or capture it

More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,

A hurry through which known and strange things pass

As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways

And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Unmissable. And it’ll run for three years.


Quote of the Day

“Don’t attribute to stupidity what can be explained by incentives”

  • Mike Elias

RIP Clayton Christensen, who coined the term ‘disruptive innovation’.

Kim Lyons wrote a nice obituary in The Verge.

Scores of notable tech leaders have for years cited Christensen’s 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma as a major influence. It’s the only business book on the late Steve Jobs’ must-read list; Netflix CEO Reed Hastings read it with his executive team when he was developing the idea for his company; and the late Andy Grove, CEO of Intel, said the book and Christensen’s theory were responsible for that company’s turnaround. After summoning Christensen to his office to explain why he thought Intel was going to get killed, Grove was able to grok what to do, Christensen recalled:

“They made the Celeron Processor. They blew Cyrix and AMD out of the water, and the Celeron became the highest-volume product in the company. The book came out in 1997, and the next year Grove gave the keynote at the annual conference for the Academy of Management. He holds up my book and basically says, “I don’t mean to be rude, but there’s nothing any of you have published that’s of use to me except this.”

Personally, I don’t think he ever recovered from Jill Lepore’s devastating critique of his theories in the New Yorker.


Tuesday January 21, 2020

Mark Knopfler musing about guitars

This is one of my favourite YouTube videos. Shows you what real mastery is like. Unshowy but unforgettable.


Clearview: the astonishing (but predictable) story

The New York Times had a great story the other day about a tiny firm called Clearview AI which had crafted a program to scrape images of people’s faces from across the Web — employment sites, news sites, educational sites, and social networks including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, etc. — and built a facial recognition algorithm that derived from academic papers. When a user uploads a photo of a face into Clearview’s system, it converts the face into a vector and then shows all the scraped photos stored in that vector’s neighborhood — along with the links to the sites from which those images came. Basically, you upload a photo and in many cases you get a name — often from a social-media posting.

Not surprisingly, police forces seem to like Clearview. One possible reason for that is that its service seems to be unique. Would-be imitators May have been deterred by the fact that the main social-media sites prohibit image-scraping, something that doesn’t seem to have bothered Clearview. Either that or they had a lawyer who knew about the LinkedIn case in which LinkedIn tried and failed to block and sue scrapers. The company lost the case and the judge said that not only could they not sue, but also that they’re not even allowed to try to block scraping by any technical means. As Ben Evans, observed, “Some people celebrated this as a triumph for free competition and the open web – welcome to the unintended consequences”. This case also confirms that facial-recognition technology is becoming a commodity.

Interestingly, Peter Thiel is an investor in, and a board member of, Clearview.


There’s a subreddit Reading Group for Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1920 edition)

Marks the centenary of the edition. Find the Reading Grouo here


UK government policy on electric vehicles is based on magical thinking

Take, for example, the UK pledge to move entirely to electric vehicles by 2050. I’ve been puzzled for a while about the electricity-generation capacity that would be needed to charge all those vehicles. And then I stumbled on a remarkable letter from a group of relevant scientific experts about the resource implications of such a commitment which was sent to the IPCC in June last year. And I realised that generation is only a smallish part of the story.

It’s well worth reading in full, but here are some of the highlights. To meet UK electric car targets for 2050 the UK would need to produce or acquire just under two times the current total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production. Oh – and 20% increase in UK-generated electricity would be required to charge the current 252.5 billion miles to be driven by UK cars.

Like I said, magical thinking. Wishing doesn’t make something happen.


Could Mike Bloomberg beat Donald Trump?

Maybe. At least he’s rich enough. But be careful what you wish for. As Jack Shafer neatly points out, Bloomberg is a surveillance addict. A guy who amassed a $54 billion fortune by collecting petabyte upon petabyte of sortable data, would be very keen on enhancing a high-tech surveillance state that would collect personal data as aggressively and as expansively as he and his company do financial data.


Linkblog

Upcoming changes

From today, I’m making some small changes in this blog, basically to tidy things up. From now on all posts written on the same day will be included on a single page, with Quotes and the Linkblog at the end, and a permalink for each element. In practice it should make for easier reading, and it might also make it easier to create an email version for readers who prefer getting it in their inboxes.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

Maternal scepticism

Dave Winer writes:

A family story. My mother was a pure capitalist. She believed in hard work, being productive. She felt threatened by evidence of idleness. I drove her crazy. Even as a kid I would sometimes just sit in a chair in the living room of our apartment in Jackson Heights and think. Once she saw me sitting, lights off, no TV, no book, appearing to be doing nothing, and she lost her shit right there. Anyway, many years later, when I sold my company and then it went public, after years of begging me to get a job, her stock in the company was all of a sudden worth a lot of money. It was the only time I remember getting her unqualified approval. She boasted, even when I could hear, that I was profitable. In other words, the money and time she put into raising me made her money.

That rings a bell. I’ve been a journalist and an academic all my working life. (My Observer Editor-in-Chief, Conor Cruise O’Brien, who straddled the same two occupations with great distinction, once said to me that he and I “had a foot in both graves”.) My mother, who hoped I would become an engineer with the national Electricity Supply Board, went to her grave believing that I never had held a proper job.

House of Windsor Inc.

So Harry and Meghan are spinning themselves off from The Family Firm. The Economist provides the stock market analysis

Harry and Meghan’s move was announced without consultation with the group’s management, but may have been encouraged by developments within it. The stock price has tumbled recently, as a result of missteps by Prince Andrew, who has now been fired. Prince Charles—who will take over the top job in the not-too-distant future—has hinted that he plans to cut costs and slim down its operations as part of a broader restructuring. Rather than wait for that shake-up, Harry, who knew he was unlikely ever to get the top job, has now decided to cut loose.

This separation has the advantage of strategic clarity, and is likely to unlock value, given that the Harry and Meghan brand was widely perceived to be undervalued. The new entity will now have more freedom to diverge from the positioning of the parent group and to tap overseas markets. The couple say they plan to divide their time between Britain and North America.