Thursday 25 February, 2021

Where I’d like to be. Right Now.

Quote of the Day

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

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

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Thomas Hampson | Hard times come again no more


Long Read of the Day

Shared (un)Realities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Abstract reads, in part,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other, hopefully interesting, links

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

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

This morning’s Observer [column][(

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 2 February, 2021

Nature’s Polygons

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

Lest we forget…

Trump M.D.

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

The madness of (investing) crowds

From Chris Nuttall in the FT yesterday:

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

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

Quote of the Day

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

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

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

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Diana Krall | Just The Way You Are


Twitter, George Soros, and Porn

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joke Capitalism: GameStop Populism and the Desire for Narrative

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

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

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

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

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

Great piece of investigative journalism by openDemocracy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another, hopefully interesting, link

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

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Kubler-Ross, Grief and the Pandemic

Watching people’s responses to, and thinking about, the pandemic what often comes to mind is Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s model of the ‘five stages of grief’ which postulates that those experiencing grief go through a series of five emotions: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Over the years there’s been much debate about the model with critics lining up to point out that there’s little empirical evidence for it etc. My feeling, as someone who has lived through a bereavement, is that it’s useful not as a model but as a metaphor.

In that sense, I’ve seen something of each stage in people’s responses to the Covid virus in the last year.

(a) Denial This was much in evidence in Boris Johnson’s ludicrous Greenwich speech of February 3, 2020. Here’s the passage I had particularly in mind, verbatim:

We are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.

And here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.

We are ready for the great multi-dimensional game of chess in which we engage in more than one negotiation at once and we are limbering up to use nerves and muscles and instincts that this country has not had to use for half a century.

(b) Anger All you have to look for is the rage that ran through right-wing regimes on both sides of the Atlantic against the ‘China virus’ and the defeatism of governments who were afraid to let it rip until the magical properties of ‘herd immunity’ wold manifest themselves, enabling Supermen Johnson and Trump to emerge from their phone booths to vanquish the Oriental plague. (En passant one wonders how many people under the age of 20 know what a phone booth is — except perhaps as the Tardis in Dr Who.) Remember Trump’s rage when it dawned on him that the virus might adversely affect his chances of re-election.

(c) Bargaining Here we come to the discussions about the trade-off between the economic and other costs of lockdowns. How much lockdown would people stand, and stand for? How could it be enforced if people revolted? Would the hypocrisy displayed by Dominic Cummings’s testing his eyesight in Northumberland be widely replicated? And so on. The talk was all about costs and benefits.

(d) Depression Now widespread, despite the availability of vaccines, because of the dawning realisation that this virus, like all viruses, understands neither borders nor economics.

(e) Acceptance We’re nowhere near that yet. People still haven’t grasped that there’s no going back to the way we were. That past is indeed a different country. It’s also a country that was heading straight for climate catastrophe. So every time someone talks about a “return to growth” you know that the reality of what lies ahead hasn’t yet been appreciated. The only kind of growth worth having post-pandemic is a greener, carbon-neutral one. And the only question worth asking is: could we create such a future?

Thursday 31 December, 2020

King’s in the Frame

An unusual view of a famous building.

Quote of the the Day

”We are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage. Then, at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of the populations of the Earth to buy and sell freely among each other.”

  • Boris Johnson, speech in Greenwich on February 3, 2020.

Note the date. This was arguably the most stupid speech ever made by a British Prime Minister. (See below for more detail.)

Five reasons the UK failed in Brexit talks – Jonathan Powell

Really salutary Politico piece by Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff and played the lead role in negotiating, for example, the Good Friday Agreement.

I have spent the last 40 years involved in international negotiations of one sort or another, and I have never seen a British government perform worse than they did in the four years of negotiations that concluded with the Christmas Eve Brexit agreement.

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of Brexit, purely in terms of negotiating technique, it is an object lesson in how not to do it. As the bluster and self-congratulation dies down, it is worth standing back and looking at what we can learn from the debacle.

We have ended up with an agreement which is more or less where the EU started. It is true that there have been a few sops to the U.K. position on the dynamic alignment of state aid and the role of the European Court of Justice. But on every major economic point, even including fisheries, the EU has got its way.

There are five principal reasons why.

It’s worth reading the whole piece. But in summary, here are the five mistakes Powell lists.

  1. From the outset the UK massively overestimated the strength of its negotiating position.

  2. May’s government fired the starting gun before it had worked out its own position, with the result that Britain spent the first two years negotiating with itself while the EU’s clock was ticking.

  3. Third, the UK prioritised abstract principles of ‘sovereignty’ over pragmatic economic interests and wasted time protecting a theoretical concept it didn’t actually want to use ahead of practical benefits.

  4. The government wilfully destroyed the EU’s trust in its commitment to implement what it had already agreed by threatening to unilaterally renege on the Northern Ireland Protocol. Johnson & Co imagined they could provoke a crisis and thereby give themselves the whip hand as the EU panicked. Instead the EU negotiators kept their cool and achieved the bloc’s objectives while the government wasted time on futile tactical games.

  5. The UK never developed a strategic plan for the negotiations — an an incomprehensible omission for any kind of government. But the Johnson crowd seemed to think it was OK to turn up for talks and hope things would work out.

My take on this: Johnson’s administration was never capable of conducting serious, successful negotiations because of (a) the PM’s fundamental laziness, incompetence and inexperience, (b) it had a Cabinet full of second-and third-rate politicians, and (c) it was in thrall to a powerful party cabal of Europhobic MPs with delusions about British exceptionalism.

Given these factors, the resulting ‘agreement’ — which largely seems to give the EU what it wanted all along — was predictable. This is of course bad for the country, but it has the merit (from the Leave crowd’s point of view) of enabling them to blame the EU for their own failure. It’s a Trump-lite strategy in other words.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ode to Joy Flashmobbed


I know I blogged this during the first lockdown, but if ever there was a day for repeating it, this is it.

60 years on

Charles Foster’s Plenty of Taste blog has a lovely post this week marking the 60th anniversary of the Beatle’s return to Liverpool after their sojourn in Hamburg.

The 27 December 1960 performance at Litherland Town Hall was a breakthrough – with over 1500 tickets sold – and cemented their name as Liverpool’s top live draw.

Just as sensational as the performance is this wonderful hand-drawn poster for the gig. The exuberant lettering for this and many other of their Liverpool concerts was done by a very talented signwriter, Tony Booth. The one above has been recreated from the original posters he did at the time for Brian Epstein. Booth’s story was told in a 2016 documentary for local BBC TV, which unfortunately I haven’t seen in full. It is previewed in this clip for BBC News, where you get a glimpse of Booth at work. Sadly, he died less than a year later, as this further clip tells us. His work lives on at this website, where you can buy the modern reproductions.

Imagine: you could have seen the Beatles live for three shillings! Nowadays you have to pay £1 billion to get 12 votes from the DUP.

Implications of the new variant of Covid-19

I’m temperamentally sceptical of soothing official advice about Covid. At the moment, the consensus seems to me that the existing vaccines will probably work ok, etc. Hopefully they will. But that’s not the really significant thing about the variant: it’s its much higher transmissability.

Zeynep Tufecki has a great piece in The Atlantic about this. “A more transmissible variant of COVID-19,” she writes,

is a potential catastrophe in and of itself. If anything, given the stage in the pandemic we are at, a more transmissible variant is in some ways much more dangerous than a more severe variant. That’s because higher transmissibility subjects us to a more contagious virus spreading with exponential growth, whereas the risk from increased severity would have increased in a linear manner, affecting only those infected.

Increased transmissibility can wreak havoc in a very, very short time—especially when we already have uncontrolled spread in much of the United States. The short-term implications of all this are significant, and worthy of attention, even as we await more clarity from data. In fact, we should act quickly especially as we await more clarity—lack of data and the threat of even faster exponential growth argue for more urgency of action. If and when more reassuring data come in, relaxing restrictions will be easier than undoing the damage done by not having reacted in time. [As if we in the UK didn’t know that.]

To illustrate the difference between exponential and linear risks, Tufecki cites an example put forward by Adam Kucharski from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who’s an experienced modeller of infectious-disease outbreaks (and author of a rather good book on the subject, which I’ve read).

Kucharski compares a 50 percent increase in virus lethality to a 50 percent increase in virus transmissibility. Take a virus reproduction rate of about 1.1 and an infection fatality risk of 0.8 percent and imagine 10,000 active infections—a plausible scenario for many European cities, as Kucharski notes. As things stand, with those numbers, we’d expect 129 deaths in a month. If the fatality rate increased by 50 percent, that would lead to 193 deaths. In contrast, a 50 percent increase in transmissibility would lead to a whopping 978 deaths in just one month—assuming, in both scenarios, a six-day infection-generation time.

There are lots of things we don’t know at the moment. Just how much more transmissable is it, for example? 50%? 70%? We don’t know yet. What’s certain is that, as Tufecki puts it, “we are in a race against time, and the virus appears to be gaining an unfortunate ability to sprint just as we get closer to the finish line”.

2021 could be tougher than we think. Hope I’m wrong about that.

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Monday 28 December, 2020

The genius who is Matt

Matt, the Daily Torygraph‘s cartoonist, is a genius. Which — my lovely daughter thought — is why his annual collection would be a great Christmas present for her Dad.

She was right. Here’s just one reason:

Quote of the Day

”The privately educated Englishman – and Englishwoman, if you will allow me – is the greatest dissembler on Earth. Was, is now and ever shall be for as long as our disgraceful school system remains intact. Nobody will charm you so glibly, disguise his feelings from you better, cover his tracks more skilfully or find it harder to confess to you that he’s been a damned fool.”

  • George Smiley in John le Carré’s The Secret Pilgrim.

Remind you of anyone?

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sharon Shannon | Blackbird


Long Read of the Day

John Rawls: can liberalism’s great philosopher come to the west’s rescue again?

Good question, thoughtfully discussed by Julian Coman in this Guardian Long Read:

He begins with the arguments that broke out in the New York Times on how the paper should cover Trump after his election as President. Confronted with a leader who delighted in flouting democratic norms and attacking minorities, was it the duty of this bastion of American liberalism to remain above the fray or should it play a partisan role in defence of the values under attack?

As journalists and staff argued online, a prominent columnist “uploaded a PDF of John Rawls’s treatise on public reason, in an attempt to elevate the discussion”. Rawls, who died in 2002, remains the most celebrated philosopher of the basic principles of Anglo-American liberalism. These were laid out in his seminal text, A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. The columnist, Elizabeth Bruenig, suggested to colleagues: “What we’re having is really a philosophical conversation and it concerns the unfinished business of liberalism. I think all human beings are born philosophers, that is, that we all have an innate desire to understand what our world means and what we owe to one another and how to live good lives.” One respondent wrote back witheringly: “Philosophy schmosiphy. We’re at a barricades moment in our history. You decide: which side are you on?”

In an age of polarisation, the exchange encapsulated a central question for the liberal left in America and beyond. Jagged faultlines have disfigured the public square during a period in which issues of race, gender, class and nationhood have divided societies. So was Bruenig right? To rebuild trust and a sense of common purpose, can we learn something by revisiting the most influential postwar philosopher in the English-speaking world?

Worth reading in full.

Reasons to be cheerful?

The economist Tyler Cowen is temperamentally an optimist; his glass is always three-quarters full. In his Bloomberg column 2020 “gets an asterisk for Covid”, but he thinks the year also saw great scientific progress. For example:

  • The astonishingly rapid creation of several kinds of Covid-19 vaccines
  • A “very promising” vaccine candidate against malaria, perhaps the greatest killer in human history
  • New CRISPR techniques that appear to be on the verge of vanquishing sickle-cell anemia
  • GPT-3 (AI) technology that composes remarkably human-like prose
  • DeepMind’s machine learning system that seems to have cracked the problem of protein folding
  • Driverless vehicles appeared to be stalled, but Walmart will be using them on some truck deliveries in 2021
  • SpaceX achieved virtually every launch and rocket goal it had announced for the year.
  • Toyota and other companies have announced major progress on batteries for electric vehicles, with related products are expected to arrive in 2021
  • Lots of progress in affordable solar power
  • China has developed a new and promising fusion reactor
  • Many more Zoom meetings will be held, and many business trips will never return.

You get the picture. Professor Cowen is an upbeat kind of guy. But he’s also pretty perceptive about what’s going on.

Talking Politics @5

Talking Politics, the podcast founded and hosted by my friend and colleague David Runciman, has been going for five years. I’ve been a fan of it from the beginning, and occasionally ‘appeared’ on it (if that’s an accurate of describing participation in an audio recording). By any standards — and especially those of academic ‘engagement’ and outreach — the podcast has been a knockout success.

How do I know that? Well, ponder some of the statistics:

  • Total downloads over the five years: 19.6m (20.57m if we include the History of Ideas strand)
  • Total downloads in 2020: over 8.1m
  • Weekly listens in 2020: 155,000 per week
  • Countries reached in 2020: 197

This week’s edition was #295 and was devoted to some reflections on the five tumultuous years by David, Helen Thompson and Catherine Carr, the producer of the show. It’s well worth a listen. After hearing it I fell to pondering why TP has been so successful. Here are the notes I made…

  1. Timing and luck. David made the point well — five years ago turned out to be a perfect moment to launch a show like TP because 2015 was a moment when democratic politics suddenly began to be interesting again. My own take on it is that the academic study of politics was just entering a phase which had the hallmarks of Thomas Kuhn’s description of the intellectual crises which scientific disciplines periodically go through as a field’s theoretical paradigm encounters increasing scepticism among researchers and a rival theoretical framework begins to emerge. A key feature of these crises, Kuhn observed, was incommensurability — the absence of a neutral language in which the merits of the old paradigm and its emerging rival could be objectively assessed. (Think Newtonian dynamics with its billiard balls vs quantum physics with its neutrinos, quarks and Higg’s boson.) So there’s initially no way of knowing which one ‘should’ win. The difference between the exact sciences and the social sciences is that, in the former, the experimental and observational facts are obtainable and so eventually obsolete paradigms die a natural death. That’s not the case in the social sciences (or indeed the humanities), which is why pathological paradigms (like rational expectations in economics) live on long past their sell-by dates. My hunch is that the theoretical paradigms which had governed what is laughingly called ‘political science’ lost credibility after the 2008 banking crisis and its aftermath, and TP thrived in the resulting vacuum of ideas.

  2. Given that, the fact that TP was often ‘wrong’ –in its predictions and analyses but cheerful in its acceptance of that — was a feature not a bug. When you’re in a crisis of incommensurability, that’s the only way to act rationally. And, critically, it’s what conventional political analysis cannot do: it has to purport to possess a coherent narrative for what’s going on because those involved believe that their credibility depends on it. This is perhaps a measure of intellectual insecurity, and one of the defining characteristics of TP is that the main contributors and hosts don’t suffer from that and were therefore able to live with radical uncertainty in a way that members of the political commentariat could not!

  3. Another thing that marked out TP from the burgeoning ruck of ‘politics’ podcasts was that it was forever escaping from “the sociology of the last five minutes”. No matter how urgent the question of the day, there was always Helen Thompson excavating the long history and political economy of how we got here, or Gary Gerstle or Adam Tooze doing the same, or Ken Armstrong explaining the incomprehensible complexities of regulatory divergence and related arcana. And so on.

  4. In that sense, the podcast has been a showcase for the advantages of sheer erudition. There’s no substitute for it — as the discussion of the Corn Laws that was highlighted in this week’s edition demonstrated perfectly. And one of the great advantages TP had was that of being located in a major research university. It wouldn’t have been able to tap into this huge pool of collective IQ, however, had David Runciman and Helen Thompson not been recognised by their peers as formidable thinkers in their own right. Being invited to appear on TP was recognised by many distinguished thinkers as a real compliment.

  5. Finally, TP was a great exploiter of the fact that podcasting has a wider intellectual bandwidth than other media — especially broadcast media which even on a good day have the bandwidth of smoke signals. When my son Pete (also a podcast producer) was making his ‘MPs’ Expenses’ series for the Telegraph, I remember thinking that if journalism is the first draft of history, then podcasting looks very much like the second draft. And Talking Politics is v2.1.

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Sunday 27 December, 2020

The Swiss Park in Versailles, on a peaceful Sunday morning walk.

Quote of the Day

”There are no credentials. They do not even need a medical certificate. They need not be sound either in body or mind. They only require a certificate of birth — just to prove that they were the first of the litter. You would not choose a spaniel on those principles.

  • Lloyd George on the House of Lords, 1909.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Schubert, Trio op. 100 – Andante con moto


Long Read of the Day

What We Want Doesn’t Always Make Us Happy

Nice Bloomberg column by Noah Smith.

There’s no clear consensus on how to measure happiness. Some neuroscientists have tried to link it to various measures of brain activity. But economists tend to use a method that’s a lot cheaper and quicker — they send out surveys and questionnaires asking people how happy they are.

Happiness research has led to some surprising and troubling discoveries. People seem to reliably seek out a few things that make them unhappy…

(Spoiler alert: it’s about a certain social media company).

Fast Food in Pompeii

Well, what do you know? According to the Guardian an “exceptionally well-preserved snack bar” has been unearthed in Pompeii!

Researchers said on Saturday they had discovered a frescoed thermopolium or fast-food counter in an exceptional state of preservation in Pompeii. The ornate snack bar, decorated with polychrome patterns and frozen by volcanic ash, was partially exhumed last year but archaeologists extended work on the site to reveal it in its full glory. Pompeii was buried in ash and pumice when the nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79, killing between 2,000 and 15,000 people. Archaeologists continue to make discoveries there.

At first sight it looks like one of those counters in supermarkets where you make up your own pizza toppings — except that Tesco & Co don’t do classy frescoes. And of course you’re unlikely to be interrupted by a volcanic explosion.

What comes after Google search?

Nobody knows, but there are signs that Google isn’t hitting the spot any more. Daniel Gross has an interesting blog post about this.

In 2000, Google got popular because hackers realized it was better than Lycos or Excite. This effect is happening again. Early adopters aren’t using Google anymore.

They aren’t using DuckDuckGo either. They’re still using, but differently. To make Google usable, users are adding faux-query modifiers that to supress the “garbage Internet”.

You see this in the typeahead logs.

Gross has noticed also that more advanced users use modifiers like “site: filetype: intitle:” because adding “reddit” isn’t strict enough, because spammy websites often manipulate content to optimise their search results. Or searches for “Reviews UPDATED JANUARY 2020” exploit the fact that customers suffix queries with the year. What such experienced searchers are looking for is freshness, not a title match. “Something’s broken”, he says, “and a tiny share of Google is open for the taking”. A tiny bit in this context could be an awful lot.

One of the interesting things about this is that it reminds one of how much craft knowledge there is in using an established search engine well. I like to think I’m an experienced user, but there are often times when some of my smarter colleagues can find what I’ve failed to unearth. Which suggests there might be an opening not just for a specialised alternative to Google but also for a good course on ‘Advanced Search with [name your engine]’. Probably they already exist and I just can’t be bothered to Google them!

How to mark a fateful transition

Since next Sunday’s edition of the Observer will be published in a United Kingdom that is no longer a member of the European Union, today’s issue has gone to town on marking the significance of the change. As someone who has happily written for the paper for a long time (I think my first piece was published in 1982) I’m obviously biased, but I think that today’s edition is really special.

Just to pick some examples at random…

Tim Adams has a terrific long essay reflecting on how we got to this point.

One of the pointed ironies of the long farewell of Brexit has been that nothing has become the EU quite like Britain’s leaving it. Having tried hard for 70 years to find a single theme that unites the disparate nations of the continent, the EU has finally discovered common cause in the spectacle of serial foot-shooting that has marked Britain’s efforts to depart. As delay led to extension and to prorogation, the approval ratings for the EU never soared so high. Guy Verhofstadt, the Brexiters’ pantomime villain in Brussels, told me last year that Britain has come to represent to Europeans the consequences of not standing up to divisive populism. “You want to see what nationalism does? Come to London.”

The sadness of that observation is a reminder of Britain’s failure to bring to Europe the values with which we were once more clearly associated: democracy, scrutiny, a robust sense of fair play. Rather than successive governments insisting on a semi-detached “we know best” approach to Europe, for fear of riling the tabloid press, there would have been more courage in wholeheartedly engaging to reform its institutions. Britain, in retrospect, perhaps always flirted with crashing out because it misunderstood Europe from the start.

One of the points Tim makes is that just because the UK has left doesn’t mean that it can forget about the EU. This is spelled out in a sober, informative piece by Sam Lowe, a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Reform. The UK may have won the power to diverge from EU rules, he points out, but the new relationship will be one of constant renegotiation. The Trade Deal, for example,

marks just the beginning of the UK’s new relationship with the EU, and will inevitably evolve over time. Next year, for example, the UK will need to decide whether to link its own domestic carbon-pricing scheme with the EU’s, find out whether the personal data of EU citizens can still be stored on UK servers, and re-enter discussions on the working of the sea border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

There is also the outstanding question of financial services equivalence – a unilateral EU decision whether to allow certain UK-based financial businesses to continue selling directly to EU-based clients. Even if such permission is granted, we should not assume it will be permanent.

The UK will also need to decide whether to use the new-found freedom to diverge from EU rules and approaches, and if so whether it is willing to accept the consequences of doing so. If it chooses to do so, years and years of disputes and reviews await.

In the longer term, it is inevitable that every successive UK government will want to renegotiate, or alter, aspects of the relationship with the EU…

If one adopts the ‘divorce’ metaphor which has been endlessly popular with the British tabloids, the UK has got its Decree Nisi. Now comes the awkward period of finding a working relationship. Who picks up the kids from school? What happens at Half Term? What happens with one of the parents is ill? And how to handle Christmas?

There’s also a lovely piece by the Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole, who had been a merciless critic of the Brexit shambles from the very beginning. In today’s essay, headlinded “So long, we’ll miss you – we Europeans see how much you’ve helped to shape us”, he points out the ways in which the UK helped shape the EU about which it always seems to be ambivalent.

The single market is the EU’s great achievement – protecting it was, ironically, the overwhelming aim in the negotiations on future trade with the UK. It simply would not have happened, when it happened, if Margaret Thatcher had not pressed so hard. It is easy to forget – because it has suited almost every side to do so – that the blueprint for the single market was a booklet called Europe – The Future that Thatcher presented to her fellow leaders at the Fontainebleau summit in 1984.

The problem was that Thatcher could never accept that the workings of a single market would have to be counterbalanced by common social, environmental and safety standards, with the political, legal and administrative capacity to enforce them. The fact remains: the force that has shaped the EU for the past 30 years was set in motion by Britain.

Equally, without Britain, it is not at all obvious that the EU would have responded so boldly to the fall of the Berlin Wall by bringing the Warsaw Pact states into its fold. Again, it was Thatcher who proclaimed the goal of enlargement in her Bruges speech in 1988. It was under a British presidency that talks on membership were opened with the first wave of central European states. It was Tony Blair who later pushed for Romania and Bulgaria to be allowed to join. Here, too, the implications of a British policy were not really understood in Britain. It was not explained that free movement would mean more immigration from these countries. Or that the governance of a much bigger EU would inevitably have to be more closely co-ordinated. Nonetheless, on these two defining issues, Britain was adventurous, ambitious, energetic and effective.

History, says O’Toole, will judge that the long relationship between the UK and Europe has been good for both. So now is the time to forget the rancorous parting and get on with life. He’s right.

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Saturday 26 December, 2020

Trinity Street, Cambridge, this afternoon.

Image courtesy of Molly Blackburn.

Quote of the Day

“Education is … hanging around until you’ve caught on.”

  • Robert Frost

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks | Never Going Back Again | Live


Long Read of the Day

Stock Picks From Space: Investors are using real-time satellite images to predict retailers’ sales. Is that cheating?

Fascinating piece by Frank Partnoy in The Atlantic


There is an old story about Sam Walton: In the early days of Walmart, its founder would monitor how stores were doing by counting the cars in the parking lot. After seeing the power of satellite imagery in his factory deal, Tom had a similar idea, but on a scale Walton could not have imagined. He asked his brother, “What if we could count the cars at every Walmart?”

After a week together in the Rockies, the brothers had a plan. Alex left DigitalGlobe and negotiated with the company to sell him three years’ worth of archival imagery. Tom downloaded a mouse-click counter, which allowed him to count the cars in those photos by clicking on each one. After a few months of scouring parking lots—at Home Depot, Lowe’s, McDonald’s, and, yes, Walmart—the brothers had a data set to back-test. Sure enough, the number of cars in a retailer’s parking lots seemed to accurately predict the company’s revenues.

Always look on the bright side

From the irrepressible Henry Mance in the Weekend FT: (With apologies to Eric Idle and the Monty Python team…)

Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things force you to stay at home
If this is your first pandemic
Don’t grumble, it’s systemic
And wait till they sort out our poor genome

And always look on the bright side of life Always look on the light side of life

If they put you in tier 4
Be glad it’s not a war
And that you’re not expected to be brave
Forget about the Zooming
Not to mention the self-grooming
Chillax now, you’ll survive the second wave

And always look on the bright side of life
(Come on!)
Always look on the right side of life…

There’s more, but you get the idea.

The Crown — Series 4

We’ve been slow to catch up with this. Last night we watched Episode 2: The Balmoral Test. Margaret Thatcher has become Prime Minister and Prince Charles has been persuaded by the real love of his life, Camilla Parker-Bowles (now married to some other bloke), that he ought to give Diana Spencer a try. The royals are ensconced in their hideous, neo-gothic, tartanised hunting lodge in the Scottish Highlands, as is their wont in late Summer and early Autumn, where they specialise in slaughtering innocent animals and playing party games in the evening like the inhabitants of an up-market residential care home.

One of the standard ordeals of an incoming Prime Minister is an invitation to Balmoral where he or she is put through a ritual humiliation by this tribe of huntin’-shootin’-and-fishin’ philistines. The episode opens with Thatcher and Denis in the plane on the way up wondering what lies in store.

What lies in store is a delicious series of humiliations. Their hostess is “out stalking” when they arrive. They’re assigned separate bedrooms, because upper-class tribe members only sleep with other people’s spouses rather than their own. A flunkey impertinently opens Denis’s suitcase in order to lay out his clothes — which infuriates his lady wife. Then they come down fully dressed for dinner (black-tie etc.) when it’s only the tribe’s afternoon teatime. After dinner they have to play a ludicrous party game involving a silly rhyme and a penalty which involves putting a large black mark on your face with a smoked cork.

But that’s just for starters. Thatcher is invited by HMQ to go stalking a limping stag the following morning. The only clothes the PM has packed are Dorothy Perkins-style stuff in primary colours. And she only has kitten-heel shoes, so is obliged to stomp about sodden moorland in a pair of cast-off size-5 boots provided by HMQ. She’s wearing enough perfume to alert a flock of reindeer in Lapland. She stumbles and nearly falls with every second step and eventually is taken back to the lodge, where she changes into something warm and dry and sits at a table going through her red boxes, only to be barked at by some royal harridan for sitting in “Queen Victoria’s chair”. Apparently “nobody sits in that chair”. The fact that she is the Prime Minister and that the entire ghastly tribe are able to live like this because of the vast pension provided by the state doesn’t seem to occur to any of them.

This episode had a strange impact on this blogger, who for decades had loathed Thatcher. I was a TV critic during her reign and had a policy (which the Observer tolerated) of always referring to her as “Mrs Hacksaw”. And yet half-way through last night’s episode I found myself rooting for her as she stared down her snooty hosts, determined as they were to point out how “common” she and her businessman husband were. By which of course they meant how awfully middle-class she was. In the end, she and Denis did what Prime Ministers never do — departed early. And I cheered them on.

The other person undergoing the Balmoral Test was young Diana Spencer who arrived after Charlie decided (on Camilla’s advice) to invite her up. Unlike Thatcher, she passed the test with flying colours. Not surprising, given that the Spencers have lived for centuries in the style to which the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas have become accustomed.

So the narrative drive of Series 4 is now established. The marriage of Charles and Diana was basically engineered by Camilla. But there is also a side plot: Diana is not as innocent as she looks. She had set out to lure Charlie, and the gambit paid off. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. The conventional story is that she was an innocent lamb sucked into the maw of a chronically dysfunctional family. Nobody who saw the famous Bashir interview will be entirely convinced by this.

Of course The Crown is fiction masquerading as reality, and I have no idea how it squares with it. Its ethics seem dubious to me: after all Diana’s two sons are still around and it’s insensitive, to say the least, to have their mother’s life turned into a revenue-generator for a giant American media corporation. If the BBC tried to do this, imagine the hysterical fury there would be from the British establishment, not to mention the salivating thugs of the Murdoch media empire who want to see the BBC eviscerated and shackled.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Washington’s Secret to the Perfect Zoom Bookshelf? Buy It Wholesale. Books by the Foot curates shelves full of books for Washington offices, hotels, TV sets—and, now, Zoom backdrops. *Link. Or, to put it another way, books really do furnish a Zoom.
  • Ten Truths about Brexit. Unpalatable but informed and probably accurate. Link.
  • In the US, School Shooting Drills Have Gone Virtual. Link

One Thursday morning in October, my daughter, an eighth-grader, spent her “homeroom” period performing a school lockdown drill. She was, of course, in her own house, like all her classmates. The students watched a video on their computers about lockdown procedures, then practiced hiding under desks. And so it happened that in this, the most absurd and bewildering academic year of her life, my eighth-grader tucked herself under the table in her bedroom, to prepare for the possibility that someone might try to shoot her, someday later, at her school.

Would like like to bring up your kids in the US? Me neither.

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Friday 25 December, 2020

Kubrick in Venice

Until I saw this poster in Venice years ago I hadn’t known that Stanley Kubrick had been a photographer long before he became a film-maker. He was quite a good one too, though a lot of his best shots were staged — which I guess was an indicator of how he would evolve.

A different kind of day

Such a strange Christmas Day. Normally it would have involved a crowded, noisy family dinner with much ado about Secret Santa, jokes about the absurdity of the Johnson government, commentary on the fiendish ingenuity of the virus, delicious photographs and videos of the latest infant additions to my extended family (I have 43 first cousins I’ll have you know), wistful speculation of when we might be able to see people we miss in person again, and slightly apprehensive speculation about what 2021 might hold.

Mercifully, we managed to have some of this by converting our car-port into a kind of outdoor sitting room to which family members dropped in — in a lightly-organised, socially-distanced rota — for a glass of fizz, Christmas cake and a chat. Lovely in its way, especially in the morning when the sun shone in and made the space almost comfortably warm. But still only a pale reflection of the real thing — a thought that was doubtless mirrored a hundred thousand times in households throughout the UK.

Quote of the Day

”The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it”

  • Sydney Harris

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

In dulci jubilo | King’s College Choir, 2020 


Long Read of the Day

 The Best Version of Itself: Nora Ephron’s New York  

Lovely meditation by Carrie Courogen on Nora Ephron, When Harry Met Sally and New York.

Nora Ephron and I only lived in the same New York for a little over a year, though, of course, we didn’t really inhabit the same New York. I was a poor student downtown, she was a famous filmmaker uptown. We did share one thing, however: Central Park. New York’s park. Harry and Sally’s park. Our park. I like to think she delighted in its small wonders her last year here: the reservoir regulars who start running laps at the same time every morning, no matter how cold; the few short weeks in spring when you can smell old ladies’ perfume lingering in the air; the way bare backed bodies spread out across Sheep Meadow on a hot summer afternoon resemble a painting; the perfect afternoon walk by the history museum when the leaves begin to turn.

I miss Nora Ephron. I know it’s such a strange thing to say about someone I never even met, but it’s true, and I feel it more acutely as the years go by and the city seems to grow increasingly crueler and more difficult to love unconditionally. I still don’t live in Nora Eprhon’s New York; I have been made aware of this countless times over the past decade. I don’t think I know anyone who does though, really…

If you’ve liked Nora Ephron’s films, this is for you.

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Christmas Day, 2020

This is the day for having your cake and eating it!

Note the homage to Linux.

Quote of the Day

”One Christmas was much like another… I can never remember whether it showed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”

  • Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Yo-Yo Ma, Alison Krauss | The Wexford Carol


Long Read of the Day

 Thank You for Choosing Manger Health Systems for the Birth of Your Savior by Rebecca Saltzman

in McSweeney’s.

At Manger Health Systems, we strive to provide you with the highest quality care when the inn is full and you need to give birth to the child of God. To accomplish that goal and not get smote by the Holy Father of the Baby, we rely on your feedback to let us know how we’re doing. We care deeply about your experience, although we are also required by law to record patient satisfaction scores in order to remain eligible for CaesarCare funding, which we care about more.

Please take a few minutes to complete the following survey and return the postage-paid scroll. In accordance with HIPPA and DONKEE, your responses will remain entirely confidential, although they may be displayed in the gospels and misquoted for millennia.

Name: Mary, Wife of Joseph…

You get the idea. Keep going. It’s worth it.

James Joyce’s first Christmas Dinner

From Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This is the most unforgettable account of a family meal I’ve ever encountered. The Joyce family were bitterly divided by the Catholic church’s role in the downfall of Charles Stewart Parnell, one of the most formidable figures in British (and Irish) parliamentary history. The episode is read here by Andrew Scott. It’s 13 minutes long but worth it.

I once sat in the room where this meal took place. It was during a memorable afternoon spent with the literary historian Vivien Igoe (author of James Joyce’s Dublin Houses) who took me on a tour of all the houses in Dublin where the Joyce family had lived during James’s youth.

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