Monday 13 February, 2023

Early morning on the river

On Friday. Thanks to Pete for the pic.

Quote of the Day

”The dogs had eaten the upholstery of a Packard convertible that afternoon and were consequently somewhat subdued.”

  • S.J. Perelman

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Rolling Stones | Sweet Virginia (Live)


Long Read of the Day

Beyond Borders

Adam Shatz writing in the London Review of Books about Adolfo Kaminsky, possibly the most accomplished forger of the 20th century.

In the spring​ of 1944, a young man was stopped at a checkpoint of the Pétainist milice outside the Saint-Germain-des-Prés metro station. According to his identity card, he was Julien Keller, aged seventeen, a dyer, born in the département of the Creuse. The bag he was carrying contained dozens of other fake identity papers. But he was confident that the police had no idea how frightened he was because he had learned to affect an air of serenity. ‘I also knew, with certainty, that my papers were in order,’ he recalled many years later. After all, ‘I was the one who had made them.’

‘Julien Keller’ was the nom de guerre of Adolfo Kaminsky, who died in Paris last month aged 97. It was largely thanks to him that the German-occupied zone of wartime France was flooded with false documents. The Occupation authorities were on his trail, but they never suspected that the forger they were after was a teenager…

Great story. Extraordinary man.

Well, I never: AI is very proficient at designing nerve agents

Yesterday’s Observer column

Here’s a story that evangelists for so-called AI (artificial intelligence) – or machine-learning (ML) – might prefer you didn’t dwell upon. It comes from the pages of Nature Machine Intelligence, as sober a journal as you could wish to find in a scholarly library. It stars four research scientists – Fabio Urbina, Filippa Lentzos, Cédric Invernizzi and Sean Ekins – who work for a pharmaceutical company building machine-learning systems for finding “new therapeutic inhibitors” – substances that interfere with a chemical reaction, growth or other biological activity involved in human diseases.

The essence of pharmaceutical research is drug discovery. It boils down to a search for molecules that may have therapeutic uses and, because there are billions of potential possibilities, it makes searching for needles in haystacks look like child’s play. Given that, the arrival of ML technology, enabling machines to search through billions of possibilities, was a dream come true and it is now embedded everywhere in the industry…

Do read the whole piece

Books, etc.

The book speaks of the need for storytelling as protection from the chaos of reality, but for whom is reality chaotic? For disillusioned intellectuals, but probably not for merchant bankers and military planners. It may be a rough old place, but that’s different. Virginia Woolf seems to have seen the world as chaotic, but one doubts the same was true of her servants. In any case, you could just as easily see reality as stiflingly rule-bound and constrictive, and fiction as a playful relief from this straitjacket.

Terry Eagleton, reviewing Peter Brooks’s book, Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative.

My commonplace booklet

From Virginia Woolf’s diary for 9 January, 1924.

I may say that coincident with the purchase of 51 Tavistock Sqre (how I like writing that) is the purchase of a nine penny pen, a fountain pen, which has an ordinary nib & writes — sometimes very well. Am I more excited by buying Tavistock Sqre, or by buying my new fountain pen? — which reflection which reminds me that I have volume 7 of Montaigne to polish off.”

Gosh! I wonder what nine 1924 pennies pence would translate to in today’s money. (There must be a conversion table somewhere?) It would give me an idea of what my collection of pens might worth. Apart altogether from their sentimental value, of course.

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Wednesday 25 January, 2023

In Coole Park

If, as I have done, you ever go in search of Coole House in Co. Galway, on the former estate of Lady Gregory, W.B. Yeats’s friend and patroness, you’re in for disappointment. The house, which was sold to the Irish state by Lady Gregory’s daughter-in-law in 1927, was allowed to fall into ruin, and eventually demolished in 1941 in a remarkable act of official vandalism. So now all the remains is the site where it stood and this faded photograph of the building.

  But the Park surrounding where the house stood is lovely and open to the public. One of the most intriguing things I found there was a sequence of five pieces of slate, each with etched handwritten verses of some doggerel.

Here’s the first one.

And here’s the explanation!

Quote of the Day

”Here is how platforms die: First, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Josef Haydn | String Quartet No. 62, Op. 76 No. 3 “Emperor” | Second Movement | Veridis Quartet


Long Read of the Day

“Just Go Back to the Work.”

Film-maker Lizzie Gottlieb has made a documentary film, Turn Every Page, about the remarkable partnership between Robert Caro, the biographer of LBJ, and her father, Robert Gottlieb, his Editor.


Literary Hub has published the transcript of a nice interview that Lisa Liebman did with the film-maker. Here’s how she sets up the conversation…

When director Lizzie Gottlieb set out to explore the remarkable partnership between her father, celebrated book editor Robert Gottlieb, and the preeminent political biographer Robert Caro for her new documentary Turn Every Page, she knew being impartial was not only impossible, it was beside the point. “I thought, I have to bring people in through my eyes,” she says of the high-stakes story she sees as two literary titans “in a race against time to try to finish their life’s work.”

The filmmaker had met many of her now 91-year-old dad’s impressive roster of writers—who included Toni Morrison, John Le Carré, Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie, and Joseph Heller—during his years running Simon and Schuster, Knopf, and The New Yorker. But the 50-year-relationship between Gottlieb and the now 87-year-old Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning author of The Power Broker, and the multi-volume The Years of Lyndon Johnson, remained a mystery. (In the film she notes that she didn’t meet Caro, who’s working on the final Johnson book, until her father’s 80th birthday.)

If you like Caro’s books and/or the process of editing, then this is for you.

Books, etc.

Apropos Seamus Heaney’s habit of using a fountain-pen as a dipper, what should I find in Virginia Woolf’s diary for Sunday 3 September, 1922, but this?

”Perhaps the greatest revolution in my life is the change of nibs — no longer can I write legibly with my old blunt tree-stump — people complained — But then the usual difficulties begin — what is to take its place? At the present moment I’m using Blackie [a fountain pen] against his nature, dipping him, that is to say.”`

My commonplace booklet

From Dave Winer

”I went to ChatGPT and entered “Simple instructions about how to send email from a Node.js app?” What came back was absolutely perfect, none of the confusing crap and business models you see in online instructions in Google. I see why Google is worried. ;-)”

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Christmas Day, 2022

Having one’s cake (and hopefully eating it)

This is really just to say thank you for being a subscriber.

Musical Alternative to the morning’s radio news

Surely it has to be this.

Enjoy the holiday.


Wednesday 21 December, 2022

Through OS9, brightly

A 2007 post on Memex 1.1 rendered in the original Mac Operating System (pre-OSX).

Michael Dales is one of the most accomplished geeks I am fortunate to know. Years ago he was CTO of one of the tech companies Quentin and I were involved in. But he is also an accomplished photographer, an expert on motorbikes (ICE and Electric) and now he’s a luthier who makes wonderful bespoke guitars.

This image comes from a side-project of his — writing his blog posts on an old G3 Powermac. It shows what Memex 1.1 looked like on a Macintosh running OS9 back in the day.

Quote of the Day

”This going into Europe will not turn out to be the thrilling mutual exchange proposed. It is more like nine middle-aged couples with failing marriages meeting in a darkened bedroom in a Brussels for a group grope.”

  • E.P. Thompson

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jimmy Yancey | The Mellow Blues


Long Read of the Day

Trump’s post-presidential existence

I really shouldn’t be recommending this Washington Post piece, but I’m ashamed to say I found it riveting. Here’s a sample:

On a typical day since leaving office, advisers said, Trump gets up early, makes phone calls, watches television and reads some newspapers. Then, six days a week, he plays 18 or sometimes 27 holes of golf at one of his courses. After lunch, he changes into a suit from his golf shirt and slacks and shows up in the office above the Mar-a-Lago ballroom or, when he is in New Jersey, a similar office in a cottage near the Bedminster club’s pool.

By evening, Trump emerges for dinner, surrounded most nights by adoring club members who stand and applaud at his appearance; they stand and applaud again after he finishes his meal and retires for the night. He often orders special meals from the kitchen and spends time curating the music wafting over the crowd, frequently pushing for the volume to be raised or lowered based on his mood. In the Oval Office, Trump had a button he could push to summon an aide to bring him a Diet Coke or snacks. Now, he just yells out commands to whichever employee is in earshot…

18 or 27 holes a day!. I was a very keen golfer in my youth, but this sounds excessive even to me. And, since I guess he doesn’t do much walking on the course (just riding in a gold-cart), it means he’s not getting much real exercise.

There’s lots more in this piece, much of it serious.

Books, etc.

A summary of the report from the US House of Representatives on the January 6 ‘insurrection’ was released on Monday. This NPR piece about the way various publishers are planning to publish the full report in book form is interesting. Whether publishers succeed in making it into a bestseller depends in part on whether the Congressional panel produces the usual stodgy government report which reads — in the words of one professor of English consulted by NPR — “like the instruction manual to a microwave oven”, i.e. “tedious, stilted, dry and stuffed with technical language”.

My hunch, from watching how the Panel went about its work, is that the document might be a page-turner the moment it appears on the Web. It was clear that some people working for the lawmakers understood the importance of building a compelling narrative. Which is what thriller-writers do.

My commonplace booklet

One way of thinking about the future

A sketch for a paper I’m working on.

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Tuesday 13 December, 2022


On Sunday evening, after I had put Monday’s edition to bed (as we used to say in the letterpress days), I went outside to get some logs and found that it was — unexpectedly — snowing. Suddenly, everything was muffled and eerily quiet. And, as always happens when it first snows, I found myself thinking of the closing pages of James Joyce’s great short story, The Dead, and of the wonderful movie that John Huston made of it.

In the story, Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta have returned from a convivial party to the posh Dublin hotel where they are staying. Before retiring to bed they have a sombre conversation about a young boy, Micheal Furey, who had been in love with Gretta many years ago and who had died heartbroken when she had gone to live elsewhere. Sobbing, Gretta throws herself onto the bed and lies face down until she falls asleep, leaving Gabriel pensive and ashamed of his earlier brusqueness.

This is how the story ends.

Quote of the Day

”If there’s one tweet that will tell you everything you need to know about Elon Musk, it’s this one from early this morning:

In five words, Musk manages to mock transgender and nonbinary people, signal his disdain for public-health officials, and send up a flare to far-right shitposters and trolls. The tweet is a cruel and senseless play on pronouns that also invokes the right’s fury toward Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, for what they believe is a government overreach in public-health policy throughout the pandemic and an obfuscation of the coronavirus’s origins.”

Musk is, like Trump before him, an Uber-troll. I’ve never used Twitter much and have been havering about deleting my account ever since Musk bought it. The only reason I haven’t is that I need to use my Twitter login to access Dave’s new feed-reader, Feedland, which is one of the best things to happen on the Web for years. Dave is aware of the problem — but thinks is a “lesser of two evils” choice. “Not loving FeedLand because it uses Twitter for identity”, he writes,

“is like not loving a friend because they had a baby with someone you don’t like. Or not loving NetNewsWire, for example, because it runs on Macs and iOS and Apple does crazy shit that fucks everything up. (I use Macs, lots of them, despite what I think of Apple.)”

I get it, so I will keep my Twitter account (but not post to it) until Dave decides to add another user-authentication method. Feedland is too good to lose.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bach – Oboe d’Amore Concerto in D BWV 1053 Cafe Zimmerman


Long Read of the Day

The Apocalyptic Vision of T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’

Fabulous long read by James Parker in The Atlantic. The best thing I’ve read on The Waste Land. It’s interesting that the two best essays I’ve read marking the centenary of the poem — this one and Anthony Lane’s have both been by journalists rather than literary critics.

This is how Parker’s essay opens…

Imagine, if you will, a poem that incorporates the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the blowing up of the Kerch Bridge, Grindr, ketamine, The Purge, Lana Del Rey, the next three COVID variants, and the feeling you get when you can’t remember your Hulu password. Imagine that this poem—which also mysteriously contains all of recorded literature—is written in a form so splintered, so jumpy, but so eerily holistic that it resembles either a new branch of particle physics or a new religion: a new account, at any rate, of the relationships that underpin reality.

Now imagine this poem making news, going viral, becoming the poem—hailed over here, reviled over there—such that everybody is obliged to react to it, and every poem yet unwritten is already, inevitably, altered by it. And now imagine that the author of this poem—the poet himself—is a haunted-looking commuter whom you half-recognize from the subway platform.

You’re getting close to The Waste Land.

Do read it.

My commonplace booklet

Raspberry Pi hires former spy gadget-maker who baked devices into surveillance ops

Nice story in The Register.

A former technical surveillance officer at the UK’s Eastern Region Special Operations Unit (ERSOU) – a team charged with tackling serious organized crime and terrorism across seven local police forces – has joined the Raspberry Pi Foundation and expressed his professional admiration for the organization’s single board computers when pressed into service on police business.

Toby Roberts, the former officer, has been revealed as the Foundation’s maker-in-residence – a gig devoted to baking Pis into all sorts of devices to assist pros and hobbyists alike do likewise…

If he offers you a piece of the Chocolate Pi, be suspicious.

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Friday 7 October, 2022

Above Coniston

This, the vista from the crag above John Ruskin’s house, must be one of the nicest views in the whole of the Lake District.

Quote of the Day

”When all is said and done, leading a good life is more important than keeping a good diary.”

  • Siegfried Sassoon, diary entry, 8 July 1923

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Piano Sonata No. 12 in F Major, K. 332 | II. Adagio


Perfect for a reflective moment after breakfast.

Long Read of the Day

‘The Onion’ goes to court 

And not any old court either but the US Supremes. It’s submitted an Amicus Curiae brief to the US Supreme Court, which is hearing a case brought by a guy who was arrested by Ohio police because he made fun of them on a Facebook page. The US Sixth Circuit court upheld the police’s case, and he has appealed to SCOTUS.

The Onion’s Brief is hilarious but profound. It is in fact the best justification for parody and satire that I’ve read. Among other things, it points out that “for parody to work, it has to plausibly mimic the original”.

The Sixth Circuit’s ruling imperils an ancient form of discourse. The court’s decision suggests that parodists are in the clear only if they pop the balloon in advance by warning their audience that their parody is not true. But some forms of comedy don’t work unless the comedian is able to tell the joke with a straight face. Parody is the quintessential example. Parodists intentionally inhabit the rhetorical form of their target in order to exaggerate or implode it — and by doing so demonstrate the target’s illogic or absurdity.

If you read nothing else this weekend, read the Brief.

This is how it opens:


The Onion is the world’s leading news publication, offering highly acclaimed, universally revered cover- age of breaking national, international, and local news events. Rising from its humble beginnings as a print newspaper in 1756, The Onion now enjoys a daily readership of 4.3 trillion and has grown into the single most powerful and influential organization in human history.

In addition to maintaining a towering standard of excellence to which the rest of the industry aspires, The Onion supports more than 350,000 full- and part- time journalism jobs in its numerous news bureaus and manual labor camps stationed around the world, and members of its editorial board have served with distinction in an advisory capacity for such nations as China, Syria, Somalia, and the former Soviet Union. On top of its journalistic pursuits, The Onion also owns and operates the majority of the world’s transoceanic shipping lanes, stands on the nation’s leading edge on matters of deforestation and strip mining, and proudly conducts tests on millions of animals daily.

The Onion’s keen, fact-driven reportage has been cited favorably by one or more local courts, as well as Iran and the Chinese state-run media. Along the way, The Onion’s journalists have garnered a sterling repu- tation for accurately forecasting future events. One such coup was The Onion’s scoop revealing that a for- mer president kept nuclear secrets strewn around his beach home’s basement three years before it even happened.

The Onion files this brief to protect its continued ability to create fiction that may ultimately merge into reality…

You get the idea. Do read on.

The EU wants to put companies on the hook for harmful AI 

At the moment, the EU seems to be the only game in town when it comes to trying to rein in tech power. (The US under Biden is making real efforts, but we’ll have to see if any of them prove fruitful.) This MIT Technology Review article by Melissa Heikkilä provides a good background on the EU’s AI Act and its new proposal to impose strict liability on companies that release or deploy AI products which cause harm to individuals and/or organisations.

The EU is creating new rules to make it easier to sue AI companies for harm. A bill unveiled this week, which is likely to become law in a couple of years, is part of Europe’s push to prevent AI developers from releasing dangerous systems. And while tech companies complain it could have a chilling effect on innovation, consumer activists say it doesn’t go far enough.

Powerful AI technologies are increasingly shaping our lives, relationships, and societies, and their harms are well documented. Social media algorithms boost misinformation, facial recognition systems are often highly discriminatory, and predictive AI systems that are used to approve or reject loans can be less accurate for minorities.

The new bill, called the AI Liability Directive, will add teeth to the EU’s AI Act, which is set to become EU law around the same time. The AI Act would require extra checks for “high risk” uses of AI that have the most potential to harm people, including systems for policing, recruitment, or health care.

The new liability bill would give people and companies the right to sue for damages after being harmed by an AI system…

My commonplace booklet

”Google UK staff earned average of more than £385,000 each in 18 months” 

Guardian Link. Gives you some idea of how insanely profitable these tech companies are.

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Thursday 6 October, 2022

Quote of the Day

”Well, it’s about everything in particular, isn’t it?”

  • Muriel Spark on Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ry Cooder & David Lindley | Its All Over Now


Long Read of the Day

King Charles Has Some Very Strange Ideas About How Cities Should Look

He sure does, as this nicely critical essay by Owen Hatherley reveals. I thought I knew it all, including the cringe-worthy Poundbury, the village/town he founded in Dorset, but I hadn’t known about his chosen architect or his role in Transylvania.

The key to understanding the politics of Britain’s new king, Charles III, lies in Transylvania. Anyone interested in architecture in the United Kingdom since the 1980s has had to reckon with the activities of the then Prince of Wales, which have included books, a TV series, and even an entire town, Poundbury in Dorset, designed as a showcase of his ideas. But it is in the eastern Balkans that his personal vision has come closest to fruition.

In 2018, on a trip to Romania, I was tipped off by the urbanist Gruia Badescu that I would find an explanation of Charles’s politics in the western region of the country — the area that was for many centuries part of the Habsburg Empire, but which is best known outside Romania for being the ancestral seat of a (fictional) aristocratic vampire…

Read on. It’s worth it.

Molly Russell was trapped by the cruel algorithms of Pinterest and Instagram

My Observer OpEd piece about a social-media-engineered tragedy.

As the inquest into the death of Molly Russell ground to its conclusion on Friday, what kept flashing like a faulty neon sign in one’s mind was a rhetorical question asked by Alexander Pope in 1735: “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” For Pope it was a reference to “breaking on the wheel”, a medieval form of torture in which victims had their long bones broken by an iron bar while tied to a Catherine wheel, named after St Catherine who was executed in this way.

For those at the inquest, the metaphor’s significance must have been unmistakable, for they were listening to an account of how an innocent and depressed 14-year-old girl was broken by a remorseless, contemporary Catherine wheel – the AI-powered recommendation engines of two social media companies, Instagram and Pinterest.

These sucked her into a vortex of, as the coroner put it, “images, video clips and text concerning or concerned with self-harm, suicide or that were otherwise negative or depressing in nature… some of which were selected and provided without Molly requesting them”. Some of this content romanticised acts of self-harm by young people on themselves, while “other content sought to isolate and discourage discussion with those who may have been able to help”. His verdict was not suicide but that “Molly Rose Russell died from an act of self-harm whilst suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content”…

It was an extraordinary inquest. And it reached a radical verdict. Do read on.

Does Keir Starmer needs to raise his rhetorical game?

Matthew d’Ancona of Tortoise Media thinks that he does:

In an interview with the Observer yesterday, Starmer called for fossil fuel corporations to pay more of their windfall profits to meet the costs of the energy price freeze – a legitimate and popular idea. But here is how he justified it: “We’ve tried it out with numerous focus groups, polling. We’ve tested it and tested it and the vast majority of people can’t understand why you wouldn’t do that.”

No prospective PM should ever speak like this in public. It is not the language of a man who is straining to take command of the ship of state, to stride into Downing Street and immediately start writing “Action This Day” on the briefs in his first red box. It is the language of the Monty Python accountant, Mr Anchovy, who claims that he wants to be a lion tamer – but only “via easy stages”, such as banking and insurance.

It’s smart piece, but I’m not convinced. The best Prime Minister in modern British history — Clement Attlee — might have been mistaken for an accountant. When he was PM, he and his wife went — in their own modest car — bed-and-breakfasting in the Lake District. Arriving at one B&B, Atlee realised that he had no cash on him, so he asked the landlady if she would accept a cheque. She said no. He asked why. “Because I don’t know who you are. You might be anybody”.

What people forget is that Atlee ran the country while Churchill ran the war. And after Labour’s landslide victory he ran a very efficient Cabinet which was full of strong and bigger egos than his. Among other things, they created the National Health Service and nationalised the coal, steel and railway industries (a task that Attlee, in his down-to-earth way regarded as a Mergers & Acquisition activity — which is why he called for Geoffrey Vickers, the leading M&A specialist in the City of London, to oversee it.)

Churchill was witty in his public disparagement of him. (E.g. “A modest man with much to be modest about.” “An empty taxi drew up and Clement Attlee got out.”) But he knew better than anyone what a formidable operator Attlee was.

There’s a famous limerick which is sometimes attributed to him.

There were few who thought him a starter,
And many who thought themselves smarter.
But he ended up PM, CH and OM,
An Earl and a Knight of the Garter.

It’s not inconceivable that people might write about Keir Starmer in these terms in a century from now. We shall just have to wait and see.

My commonplace booklet

Sacre Bleu! The Paris Métro goes paperless link

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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.

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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.