You couldn’t make this up, Episode 5,344

There’s a fascinating — and unintentionally hilarious — report in the FT (and therefore behind a paywall). The TL;DR summary is that a big venture capital firm which invested in companies that became the dominant tech giants is now investing in ‘crypto’ ventures in the belief that they will undermine the giants that they originally helped to grow!

Andreessen Horowitz, the Silicon Valley venture capital group, is betting on crypto to break up the excessive concentration of Big Tech power that the firm played a prominent role in creating, according to one of its leading partners.

Chris Dixon, founder of Andreessen’s crypto arm, said the internet had led to power being held by a handful of companies including Facebook and Twitter, which the venture capital group backed at an early stage.

“I don’t think that any of us expected this level of concentration,” he told the Financial Times’s Tech Tonic podcast. “I don’t think this is a good outcome, both societally and from a business point of view, because our business is investing in entrepreneurs . . . the idea of having the internet controlled by five companies is very bad for entrepreneurs and bad for VCs.”

His comments come as the firm is seeking to hone a new investment strategy built around cryptocurrencies and digital tokens to replace the traditional equity investments made by VC firms and create a new, community-led model for investing in high-growth start-ups.

Proponents of the Web3 movement claim decentralisation will shift the balance of power away from centralised platforms and towards users.

However, critics warn firms such as Andreessen will use the new technology to create a new generation of internet gatekeepers.

Which of course they will.

This is why it’s hard for satirists to keep up with outfits like Andreessen Horowitz.

Friday 19 August, 2022

Move over, Salvador

My son Brian has been experimenting with DALL-E. This was its response to his request to produce a “3D render of a chaise longue sofa that looks like a banana”.

It reminded him — and me — of Salvador Dali’s famous sofa:

Technically, it should be attributed to Salvador Dalí and Edward James, who (says the V&A) was “Britain’s most distinguished supporter of the Surrealist movement” and a friend of Dali.

”In 1936 Dalí stayed with James at his London home, where they developed a number of ideas for Surrealist objects and furniture. It was James who suggested that they create a sofa based on Dalí’s work, Mae West’s Face which May be Used as a Surrealist Apartment (1934 – 35), which sees the scarlet lips of the Hollywood sex-symbol Mae West reimagined as seating for a fantastical room-setting.”

Quote of the Day

“Aren’t women prudes when they don’t, and prostitutes when they do?”

  • Kate Millett (in a speech to the Women Writers’ Conference in 1975)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Randy Newman, Linda Ronstadt & Ry Cooder | Rider In The Rain


Long Read of the Day

ACs, climate change, and the future of cooling tech

If we didn’t know it before, we do now: air-conditioning is going to be a critical technology as the planet heats up. The problem is that the AC we have at the moment is environmentally damaging, and the more of it we choose (or are obliged) to use, the worse things will be in the longer term.

This longish read read from Vox argues that it doesn’t have to be like that. After all, the AC we use at the moment is pretty antique. It’s long overdue for a major rethink. We can do a lot better if we put our minds to it. And some people are doing just that.

Worth reading.

Afterthought: It’s another good argument argument for getting a heat pump.

Broken Britain

From yesterday’s Politico London newsletter…

The U.K. wakes up today to double-digit inflation, total chaos on the transport network, endless waits for ambulances, post-heat wave flash flooding, sewage pouring onto beaches and the most disruptive set of A-Level results since WWII — with just over two weeks left for Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak to fight over who gets to inherit this mess.

While you boil the kettle: Rail workers walk out this morning in a dispute over pay, potential job losses and working conditions. Only a fifth of services will be running — check before you travel (and brace for the Tube strike tomorrow). A-Level results will be handed to pupils from around 8 a.m. and are expected to bring about a painful reversal of COVID grade inflation.

And at the moment, there is no functioning government. The outgoing Prime Minister is on holiday in Greece, being booed at when he went into a supermarket.

If you were Putin, you’d think this would be a good moment to launch a strike.

My commonplace booklet

Getting one’s mermaids wrong

Yesterday’s image and my associated text were riddled with errors. In the first place (as many readers kindly — and tactfully — pointed out) while the image was undoubtedly of a mermaid, it was not the famous mermaid that is such a tourist attraction in Copenhagen. Secondly, the photograph was not taken — as I claimed — by my wife, but by me after I had finished pontificating in the Danish National Library. She pointed out that, on an earlier visit to Copenhagen, when I had been pontificating in the University on Neils Bohr as a public intellectual, she had braved a hurricane to go and see that real mermaid.

Photo by Adva-Berlin

All of which may explain why the mermaid in my picture looks astonished — as well she might be, given the spectacular incompetence of her crackpot admirer.

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

Why the medium really is the message

‘A prophet is not without honour”, says the Bible, “save in his own country.” This was manifestly not true in the case of Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian cultural critic, who died 35 years ago, and was famous not only in his own country, but also abroad. In fact, he’s the only public intellectual I can think of who played himself in a Woody Allen movie.

If you’re a film buff you will recall the wonderful sequence in ‘Annie Hall’, where Woody and Diane Keaton are queuing for a movie when a guy behind them starts opining pompously about McLuhan’s description of television as a “high intensity or hot medium”. Allen expresses to camera a desire to have a large sock full of horse manure with which to zonk this cretin, whereupon the guy indignantly asserts his right to express his opinion on the grounds that he teaches a course on “TV, media and culture” at Columbia, no less — a fact that (he asserts) – gives his views on McLuhan a great deal of validity.

“That’s funny,” replies Woody, “because I happen to have Mr McLuhan right here.” He goes over to a flipchart and pulls out the great man himself from behind it. “I heard what you were saying,” says McLuhan to the Columbia man. “You know nothing of my work… how you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.” The scene closes with Woody saying to camera: “Boy, if life were only like this.”

Because McLuhan was a Canadian, and spent all of his working life in American and Canadian universities, most people don’t realise that his formative intellectual experiences took place here in Cambridge, where I live and work. He came to the university in 1934 to read English, was taught by I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis among others, and obtained his B.A. degree in 1936. After a short spell as a Teaching Assistant at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he returned to Cambridge to do a PhD on the history of the verbal arts — that is to say, grammar, logic and rhetoric, from Cicero onwards — which he obtained in 1943. During that time he lived on Grange Road in a house which no longer exists, but which I pass on my bike on my way to College. And I rarely pass it without thinking of him.

After Cambridge, McLuhan appeared to embark on the life of a traditional literary scholar – an expert on Joyce and Wyndham Lewis — teaching first in the United States and eventually winding up at the University of Toronto, where he remained until he died in 1980. It was in Toronto that the first manifestations of his interest in mass media and popular culture first emerged. He ran a famous series of after-hours, impromptu seminars with students in which they decoded the hidden language of advertisements.

This led in 1951 to his first book, The Mechanical Bride: folklore of industrial man, a pioneering essay in a field hitherto largely ignored by scholars — popular culture. The more he thought about it, the more he was drawn to the work of another Toronto professor, Harold Innis, an economist who had written seminal works on media, communication and economic history and who had become fascinated by the influence of communications media on the rise and decline of empires. In his book, The Bias of Communications, Innis’s argued that any major communications medium alters the entire outlook of those who use it.

These ideas had a profound impact on McLuhan – to the point that when he published his second book, The Gutenberg Galaxy: the making of typographic man, in 1962 he described it as a mere footnote to Innis’s writings on the psychological and social consequences of writing and printing.

It was from Innis that McLuhan picked up the germ of the idea that later made him famous. This was the proposition that the form of a dominant communications medium is far more important than any messages that the medium carries. The significant thing about media, he maintained, is not the information they carry but what they do to us in terms of shaping our behaviour, the way we think and even the way our brains are structured. McLuhan argued that this had been demonstrated by the media that had dominated society up to the 1960s – starting with print and culminating with broadcast television – and added the twist that TV was restoring the “sensory balance” that had been disrupted by print. In Understanding Media (1964), the book that made him a global celebrity of sufficient status to appear in a Woody Allen film, he encapsulated this thought in one of the most celebrated – and misunderstood – aphorisms of all time: the medium is the message.

In the 1960s and 1970s McLuhan was probably the most famous scholar in the world – at least in terms of name-recognition. Only Noam Chomsky would have come close. This was partly because his chosen subject was the dominant medium of the day – broadcast television – and TV people are famously narcissistic. But it was also partly due to the disdainful manner with which he dealt with media interrogators, and the aphoristic, assertive style of his public utterances. As one critic, William Melody, observed,

“Adopting a stance of arrogant superiority, he considered clarifying his ideas an unworthy menial task for intellectual plodders, and dismissed challenging questions with comments like, ‘You don’t like those ideas. I got other ones’, and the infamous, ‘You think my fallacy is all wrong?’ He paid scant attention to facts and never conceded a point. His ultimate put down was a benign explanation that the question revealed the person was locked into the uni-dimensional visual bias of the age of print and could not really be expected to understand.”

McLuhan’s infuriating public persona was particularly annoying to the British cultural establishment which could never figure out how a disciple of I.A. Richards could have gone so comprehensively off the rails.

One revealing example of the hostility he engendered is the dismissive little study that Jonathan Miller penned in 1971 for the Fontana Modern Masters series, the General Editor of which was my late and much-lamented friend, Frank Kermode. But there were lots of others. The general feeling in these parts was that McLuhan was the 1960s equivalent of the contemporary New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell – i.e. someone of whom it might be said: “deep down, he’s shallow”.

With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, that judgement now seems too harsh. What we’re discovering is that, like good claret, McLuhan’s insights have improved with age. His problem was that he was running ahead of the neuroscience that he needed to support his—and Innis’s – conjectures about the impact of media not just on society but also on our brains. Remember the subtitle of his second book: “the making of typographic man”. His conjecture was that Gutenberg’s technology changed not just the way we thought, but even the way we could think. Homo typographicus, in other words, was a different creature from his pre-print ancestors.

What McLuhan didn’t know (couldn’t have known), of course, was what neuroscience subsequently revealed about the amazing plasticity of the human brain – its ability to change its structure in response to different conditions. As Maryanne Wolf pointed out in Proust and the Squid, her riveting study of the reading brain, humans were not born to read — we evolved to cope with the task. There are, she writes,

“few more powerful mirrors of the human brain’s astonishing ability to rearrange itself to learn a new intellectual function than the act of reading. Underlying the brain’s ability to learn reading lies its protean capacity to make new connections among structures and circuits originally devoted to other more basic brain processes that have enjoyed a longer existence in human evolution, such as vision and spoken language. We now know that groups of neurons create new connections and pathways among themselves every time we learn a new skill”.

That’s why the brains of literate people are differently structured from those of illiterates. And it illuminates McLuhan’s other famous aphorism: “we shape our tools, and afterwards they shape us”.

Which brings us to where we are now. In a strange way, McLuhan’s insights into media seem more relevant now than they were in the 1960s. The past few years, for example, have seen a series of angry and sometimes anguished debates about what our comprehensively networked digital ecosystem is doing to our children, our politics, our economies — and our brains. During the Arab Spring we wondered whether social networking could bring about political revolution, for example. In retrospect, that seems pretty naive: it’s not social networking but people on the street that bring about revolutions. And even those people on the streets in Cairo didn’t in the end bring about really radical political change. Just look about Egypt now.

And we ask if Google is making us stupid – or at any rate whether networked technology is reducing attention spans, devaluing memory and blurring the line between making online connections and forming real relationships. We wonder why there are so many cute cats on YouTube. And we laugh at the crazy creativity of the ‘Downfall’ meme on YouTube. These questions are very much on our minds, as we try to assess how different our children are from us. But over all of these contemporary debates looms the shadow of McLuhan, who now seems to me to be more relevant than ever.

In a way, his really big idea was to spot that the word “medium” has distinctly different meanings. The conventional one is that a medium is a channel for communicating information – which is why much discussion about media up to his time focused on the content that was being conveyed by print, radio and television. But there is another, equally significant, interpretation. To a biologist, a medium is an environment containing the nutrients in which tissue cultures – organisms – grow. Change the medium and you change the organisms. As the sociologist John B. Thompson, puts it,

“We can understand the social impact of the development of new networks of communication and information flow only if we put aside the intuitively plausible idea that the communication media … transmit information and symbolic content to individuals whose relations to others remain fundamentally unchanged. We must see, instead, that the use of communication and media involves the creation of new forms of action and interaction in the social world, new kinds of social relationship and new ways of relating to others and to oneself. When individuals use communication media, they enter into forms of interaction which differ in certain respects from the type of face-to-face interaction which characterises most encounters of daily life. They are able to act for others who are physically absent, or act in response to others who are situated in distant locales. In a fundamental way, the use of communication media transforms the spatial and temporal organisation of social life, creating new forms of action and interaction, and new modes of exercising power, which are no longer linked to the sharing of a common locale.”

In that sense, our communications media likewise constitute the environment that sustains, nurtures – or constrains – our culture. And if the medium changes, then so does the culture. In other words, the medium is far, far more than the message. In fact, it’s all we’ve got.

This is an edited version of a pre-dinner talk given at a conference on “Negotiating Cultural Rights” in the University of Copenhagen, 13-14 November, 2015.

A tale of an iPod

This is my old iPod Classic.

It was a present from a wealthy and generous friend many years ago, when 40GB iPods were seriously expensive (he brought six of them to a dinner at our house one winter’s evening and distributed them like Santa Claus). It was my favourite device — the container of all my recorded music. And then, after quite a long time, it died, and ever since has sat on the windowsill in my study next to other treasured icons (like my piece of the Berlin Wall).

Recently, though, I decided that we should restore it to life, and I enlisted the help of my 12-year-old grandson Jasper in the project. Given that he’s been running his own 3D printer for a couple of years, I guessed that it would be, er, child’s play. And, in a way, it was.

From the outset, our guess was that the iPod’s demise could be due to one — or perhaps two — problems: a dead battery plus (possibly) a failed hard disk. We bet on the battery, and ordered a replacement from iFixit.

I also ordered one of their terrific toolkits (which, among other things, contain every screwdriver head that the fiends at Apple have ever devised to discourage device owners from messing with Jony Ive’s jewellery boxes).

Initially, I thought that the biggest hurdle might be opening the device, but some YouTube research revealed that it would yield to determined pressure, and it did.

Since we were all meeting up in Provence I brought the dissassembled device, plus the new battery and the toolkit and Jasper settled down to extract the (clearly knackered) old battery and insert its replacement.

He then reassembled the device, clicked the plastic cover into place, and — miming nonchalance — we hooked it up to power and to a speaker.

From the fact that I’m writing this to the sound of Van Morrison singing Days Like This you can guess the outcome. There are indeed days like this, when everything works as it should.

Two morals of the story.

  • Owners should have the Right to Repair their devices.
  • And every blogger should have a grandson who knows what he’s doing.

Footnote. Two other thoughts were striking. The first is how physically large a 40GB disk was once upon a time. The second is how different Apple’s production system was when my iPod was made — compared to the glossy, slick perfectionism of the iPhone era. Here’ for example, is what the old battery looked like.

Thursday 28 April, 2022


Quote of the Day

”Sir, I have found you an argument; but I am not obliged to find you an understanding.”

  • Samuel Johnson

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan | Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right |Live | 2014


Eccentric version of a great song but I love the guitars.

Long Read of the Day

How hypersonic missiles work and the unique threats they pose

Fascinating (and useful) explainer by Professor Iain Boyd.

Russia used a hypersonic missile against a Ukrainian arms depot in the western part of the country on March 18, 2022. That might sound scary, but the technology the Russians used is not particularly advanced. However, next-generation hypersonic missiles that Russia, China and the U.S. are developing do pose a significant threat to national and global security.

I am an aerospace engineer who studies space and defense systems, including hypersonic systems. These new systems pose an important challenge due to their maneuverability all along their trajectory. Because their flight paths can change as they travel, these missiles must be tracked throughout their flight.

A second important challenge stems from the fact that they operate in a different region of the atmosphere from other existing threats. The new hypersonic weapons fly much higher than slower subsonic missiles but much lower than intercontinental ballistic missiles. The U.S. and its allies do not have good tracking coverage for this in-between region, nor does Russia or China.

This matters because hypersonic missiles threaten to upend the relative stability of the current era of nuclear weapons. Just something else to keep one awake at night.

A Yacht Owner’s Worst Nightmare

Interesting piece in The Atlantic by Olga Khazan on how Europe and the U.S. Seize Oligarchs’ Yachts

TL;DR: it’s more difficult than you think.

I was hoping for exciting nighttime combat on the high seas, but the process of detaining a yacht is rather boring. Most of the 16 yacht “seizures” that have occurred so far have been more like freezes, according to Alex Finley, a writer and former CIA officer who has been tracking the seizures. First, a country will notice that a large, majestic vessel is parked in one of its shipyards and attempt to ascertain its true owner—a process that requires cracking open shell company after shell company, a nesting doll of paperwork, if you will. If the yacht is indeed connected to an oligarch, the country’s port authority simply forbids the yacht to move. The yacht remains at the dock, and the oligarch can’t use it for a while. The owners aren’t usually on their yachts when the boats are seized, Finley told me, so there are unfortunately no images of carabinieri dragging away tuxedoed men as they curse in Russian. Nor are the boats chained to the docks with comically large padlocks, as I had hoped. “They just are not given permission to leave,” Finley said.

Some countries are deregistering the yachts, negating their insurance, which discourages the boat from sailing off. An Italian official who was not authorized to give reporters his name told me that the boats are simply floating in the harbor, with no one allowed to get on. This person then sent me some videos of Italian officials walking around a dock in a calm and unhurried manner.

The real drama seems to happen either before or after the yachts are seized…

Pity. I was hoping for gunboats and boarding parties and Putin’s buddies swinging from the yardarm. Still, it’s an informative read.

My commonplace booklet

 I Like Free Speech So Much I’ve Decided to Buy It by Eli Grober

From McSweeney’s

Hi there, I’m Elon Musk. I’m mostly known for rockets and cars, but what I really care about is free speech. I can’t get enough of it. In fact, I like free speech so much I’ve decided to buy it.

That’s right, it turns out free speech isn’t free—it costs exactly $44 billion. That might sound like too much money for one person to be allowed to spend, but that’s only because it is. And I’ve decided free speech is worth the cost. I’m going to make sure some board full of rich guys doesn’t get to define what counts as free speech. Instead, just one rich guy will get to decide what counts as free speech: me.

So what does free speech mean to me? Free speech means… well, anything you want it to mean. Free speech is magical. It’s amorphous. It’s undefinable. That’s the power of free speech: nobody in history has ever defined it—not our founders, or politicians, or judges, or even average citizens. There’s simply no definition of free speech.

“That’s not true,” you might say, “It’s pretty clearly defined.” And to that, I’d say, “That’s the beauty of free speech—it can be a lie. I was lying to you. And that’s allowed.”

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

Wednesday 9 February, 2021

Signs of Life

Last year we bought a young cherry tree to replace an acer that had died in the first year of the pandeic, possibly because we hadn’t reckoned with the very dry Spring. So we have and watched over its successor like a pair of anxious parents. Yesterday morning I went out to check on it and photographed the top of one of its branches, relieved by the realisation that it is clearly ok.

Later, looking again at the photograph, I find myself marvelling at how good the camera in the iPhone 11 is. I’m a serious photographer and usually bring a Leica with me when we go walking. But, even then, I sometimes find that the iPhone produces better pictures. And, of course, the old adage — that the best camera is always the one you happen to have with you — applies with increasing force. Apple’s decision to pour astonishing amounts of resource and technical talent into the iPhone camera has clearly paid off.

Quote of the Day

The Prime Minister made much the same false statement to parliament on 24 Nov, 5 Jan, 12 Jan and 2 Feb. @FullFact have repeatedly requested a correction and the Office for Statistics Regulation have written to his office to ask him to stop. The claim is important in its own right (it’s that there are hundreds of thousands more people in employment now than before the pandemic; in fact there are hundreds of thousands less) but the principle is important too. You can be thrown out of the House of Commons for accusing someone of lying – but not, it seems, for repeatedly making untrue statements?

Tim Harford, on his blog

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler | I Still Can’t Say Goodbye


It’s nice the way it steals up and grabs you.

Long Read of the Day

What Was the TED Talk?

An insightful assessment by Oscar Schwartz of the TED-talk phenomenon and the story about our future(s) that it’s been subliminally pushing over recent decades and which, Schwartz thinks, “has contributed to our unending present crisis”.

The story goes like this: there are problems in the world that make the future a scary prospect. Fortunately, though, there are solutions to each of these problems, and the solutions have been formulated by extremely smart, tech-adjacent people. For their ideas to become realities, they merely need to be articulated and spread as widely as possible. And the best way to spread ideas is through stories — hence Gates’s opening anecdote about the barrel. In other words, in the TED episteme, the function of a story isn’t to transform via metaphor or indirection, but to actually manifest a new world. Stories about the future create the future. Or as Chris Anderson, TED’s longtime curator, puts it, “We live in an era where the best way to make a dent on the world… may be simply to stand up and say something.”

And yet, Schwartz maintains, TED’s archive is actually “a graveyard of ideas” an endlessly optimistic manifesto for futures that never materialised. So what happened to those futures?

It’s a great read, so the spoilers stop here.

But afterwards…

I came away with two thoughts.

One was that the interesting futures envisaged by the attractive solutionists on the TED stage didn’t come about because they seemed blissfully unaware of the realities of political, ideological and corporate power which are actually making sure that those futures never happened, or — if they did — happened under their supervision.

Another thought sparked by one striking passage:

Perhaps the most incisive critique came, ironically, at a 2013 TEDx conference. In “What’s Wrong with TED Talks?” media theorist Benjamin Bratton told a story about a friend of his, an astrophysicist, who gave a complex presentation on his research before a donor, hoping to secure funding. When he was finished, the donor decided to pass on the project. “I’m just not inspired,” he told the astrophysicist. “You should be more like Malcolm Gladwell.” Bratton was outraged. He felt that the rhetorical style TED helped popularize was “middlebrow megachurch infotainment,” and had begun to directly influence the type of intellectual work that could be undertaken. If the research wasn’t entertaining or moving, it was seen as somehow less valuable. TED’s influence on intellectual culture was “taking something with value and substance and coring it out so that it can be swallowed without chewing,” Bratton said. “This is not the solution to our most frightening problems — rather, this is one of our most frightening problems.”

I also liked Robert Cottrell’s assessment on his curated newsletter, The Browser.

He thought that Schwartz’s piece was,

an astute assessment of the impact that the TED Talk had on the cultural role of the public intellectual. No punches are pulled. At the height of its popularity, the “inspiresting” style of these speakers was reaching tens of millions. This mode is “earnest and contrived. It is smart but not quite intellectual, personal but not sincere, jokey but not funny. It is an aesthetic of populist elitism”

Has Facebook peaked?

My OpEd in last Sunday’s Observer:

Facebook was much in the news last week, although you may not realise that because it has been renamed Meta in the hope the bad vibes associated with its maiden name would gradually fade from public memory. (Google tried the same stunt with Alphabet and that hasn’t worked either.)

For a change, though, Facebook’s latest moment at the top of the news agenda had nothing to do with scandals and everything to do with its financial results, which were so unexpectedly bad that the shares dropped 25% at one point, taking $240bn (£177bn) off its market value, which in turn led to a 2% drop in the Nasdaq index.

Given that Facebook has hitherto been a licence to print money, so much so that at one stage (in 2019), when it was fined $5bn by the Federal Trade Commission, its shares actually went up as Wall Street registered that the ostensibly massive fine was actually the equivalent of a fleabite on an elephant.

But this time was different. Why? Three factors stood out from reports of Mark Zuckerberg’s conference call with stock market analysts: the impact of TikTok; Apple’s move to require iPhone users to consent to being tracked by advertisers; and the revelation that the hitherto unstoppable growth in the number of Facebook users has stalled…

Read on

Embracing George W?

Fabulous essay by Elayne Oliphant on meeting George W Bush at the ceremony where she became a US citizen.

Beforehand, I had told myself numerous stories about why I was pursuing American citizenship: the US had undeniably become home, I wanted to vote, I wanted to cross borders with the same passport as my children. To myself, however, I carefully avoided the question of whether or not I could obtain American citizenship—with relative ease as a white, cis-gendered, straight, professional, upper middle-class Canadian—without also engaging in American violence.

But now here I was, participating in a shocking display of televised propaganda, waving my tiny flag furiously as the camera swooped around us ahead of each commercial break. In the presence of George W. Bush, I uttered an oath in which I promised to forego all previous loyalties and be willing to “bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law.” It was a powerful and painful reminder that all of these elements—my family, my community, and American violence—cannot be disentangled.

Fascinating, nuanced piece.

My commonplace booklet

Testing the effectiveness of KN95 and surgical mask ‘fit hacks’. You’d be amazed what people do to try and improve the fit. Link

Tuesday 16 November, 2021

Little Gidding

Last Sunday morning I watched a televised conversation between Andrew Marr and the actor Ralph Fiennes, who is currently engaged in an amazing theatrical experiment — doing TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, his last great poem, as a combination of Shakespearean soliloquy and an intimate monologue. (Arifa Akbar has a nice review of it in the Observer.)

Towards the end of the conversation, Marr asked Fiennes to read a piece from Little Gidding, the last of the four poems that make up the set. It was spellbinding to watch and listen to him. And a reminder of what an amazing gift actors have of bringing text to life.

And so on the spur of the moment, I decided to get into the car and drive to Little Gidding, a tiny hamlet about 45 minutes’ drive away. I’d often seen signs to it when driving up the A1 and made the kind of mental notes one makes but never follow up. So this was a nice way of making amends.

We drove along country roads of decreasing width and eventually came to the sign. We turned onto a narrow straight road which was marked as a dead end (somehow appropriate for Eliot, I thought) and eventually came to a beautiful spot with one large house and a few smaller dwellings. And a tiny church set in what appeared to be the garden of the large (but currently apparently deserted) house. There was nobody around — although there were some cars parked near the smaller dwellings.

Somewhat to our surprise, the church was open, but as it was towards the end of a November day, it was pretty dark. But it was also extraordinarily peaceful. If you wanted to retreat from the world, this would be a pretty good place to do it.

And then I took out my phone and found the text of the poem, and read this:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire
Beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

Quote of the Day

”However conservatism might be defined, placing the free market at its centre has been self-defeating. Margaret Thatcher’s political outlook was a blend of Burkean traditionalism with Hayekian libertarianism, a highly combustible mix. Unleashing the anarchic energy of free markets dissolves any social order that is based on traditional notions of duty and responsibility. Choice trumps other values, and everything is for sale. The result has been a culture of narcissism and the commodification of anti-capitalism. It is probably only an oversight on the part of their PR team that the Kardashians have not been marketed as daily readers of Karl Marx.”

  • John Gray, writing in last week’s New Statesman

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Händel | Lascia Ch’io Pianga (from Rinaldo) | Michael Rieber (double bass) and Götz Schumacher (piano)


This is the first instrumental version of the aria I’ve ever heard.

Long Read of the Day

How Does Britain Maintain Relevance in a Changing World?

With difficulty, I’d say. Terrific, perceptive essay by Tim Marshall on the Political Future of Post-Brexit England.

This is how it opens:

Britain’s instinct post-2016 has been to look to the United States. Given America’s continuing political and economic power, this makes sense; but there are now differences to the 20th-century rationales for doing so. In the Cold War, it wasn’t just politically unacceptable to do major trade deals with Russia, it was of limited economic value. But this is not the case with 21st-century China, which, along with the EU and the US, is one of the three modern entities with massive purchasing power. So another hybrid strategy will be required, one that sticks with Washington, but somehow leaves the door open for good political and economic relations with Beijing. It will be, as the diplomats in the Foreign Office like to say, by way of understatement, “challenging.” However, a clear indication of what the British believe to be their best option was seen in the summer of 2021 when its new aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, was dispatched to the South China Sea with ten US Marine Corps F-35 jets on board.

Don’t you just love that word — “challenging”?

Seán Quinn, the Streisand Effect, and improving the operation of the right to be forgotten

Very interesting blog post by Eoin O’Dell (Whom God Preserve), a distinguished Irish legal scholar, on the flaws in the so-called ‘Right to Be Forgotten’ (RTBF).

Before you embark on it, it might be helpful to know a bit about the Quinn family which features in the story. The Wikipedia page on Seán Quinn, once allegedly the richest man in Ireland, is helpful in that context.

Footnote: The RTBF is a misnomer as the material of which a petitioner complains remains published on the Web. It’s just the right to have Google exclude that article or articles from its Search engine. Perhaps it should be known as The Right to be ‘Disappeared’, since in a comprehensively networked world if the dominant search engine can’t (i.e. won’t) find you then you have been ‘disappeared’ as Pinochet & Co used to put it.

A commonplace booklet

Airless tyres

Now here’s a really good idea.

Made by Michelin, it combines an aluminum wheel with a special “tyre” around it. Made with a plastic matrix laced with — and reinforced by — glass fibres. The company claims to be hoping to have them on the market by 2024.

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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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