Monday 16 November, 2020

Sloe gin anybody?

Seen on a walk today. Some people make gin with these.

Quote of the Day

“Cummings is not an evil genius, he is ultimately a tragic figure. He embodies everything wrong with the Westminster political elite. He is an oddball, entirely self obsessed and egoistical, thinking he is smarter than everybody else while knowing next to nothing beyond a superficial waffle. He bluffed his way to the most powerful unelected position in Britain. In the process he duped us all, damaged the perception of the U.K. on the world stage, and nearly derailed the premiership of the most popular Tory PM since Churchill. One day he himself will admit it — it was all BS.”

  • An unnamed Downing Street adviser speaking to Politico on Day One A.D. (after Dom)

That bit about “the most popular Tory PM since Churchill” is baloney IMHO.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Haydn Cello Concerto in C (3rd movement)


Long read of the Day

More than tools: who is responsible for the social dilemma?

Perceptive essay by Niall Docherty on the documentary film about the impact of social media.

Biden’s transition team is packed with folks from the tech industry

This from Protocol doesn’t necessarily bode well for anyone hoping that a Biden election might mean doing something about the tech giants.

Here’s the list of people from big-name tech companies:

* Tom Sullivan, Amazon's international policy team (State Department)
* Mark Schwartz, Amazon Web Services' enterprise strategist (Office of Management and Budget)
* Divya Kumaraiah, Airbnb's strategy and program lead for cities (Office of Management and Budget)
* Brandon Belford, Lyft's senior director and its public policy team's chief of staff (Office of Management and Budget)
* Nicole Isaac, LinkedIn's senior director of North America policy (Treasury Department)
* Will Fields, Sidewalk Labs' senior development associate (Treasury Department)
* Clare Gallagher, Airbnb's partnerships & events manager (National Security Council)
* Matt Olsen, Uber's trust and security officer (Intelligence Community)
* Arthur Plews, Stripe's strategy and operations lead (Small Business Administration)
* Ted Dean, Dropbox's public policy lead (U.S. Trade Representative)
* Ann Dunkin, Dell's chief technology officer (Environmental Protection Agency)
* Phillip Carter, Tableau Software's senior corporate counsel (Department of Veterans Affairs)
* Nairi Tashjian Hourdajian, VP of comms at Figma (Department of Transportation)
* Nicole Wong, former Google and Twitter, former Obama Deputy Chief Technology Officer (Office of Science and Technology Policy)

There is one consolation — there’s nobody from Facebook. But overall it looks suspiciously as though ye olde revolving door — the process of regulatory capture — is spinning vigorously. I hope I’m wrong.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • How to Shop for a Mechanical Keyboard. Sounds daft, but actually very informative. Keyboards really matter if you have to use a computer all the time. Link.
  • Can the bike boom keep going? From Bloomberg. Link.
  • How I knew that the internal combustion engine was dead. Ford have released an all-electric Transit van. White Van Man will never be the same again. Link

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Saturday 14 November, 2020

Acrobatics in Venice


“Only in the most unusual cases is it useful to determine whether a book is good or bad. It is usually both”

  • Robert Musil

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The blackbird (hornpipe) ; The chorus (reel) | Padraig McGovern & Peter Carberry


Long read of the Day

Alison Gopnik: the Grandmother Hypothesis

This is an utterly fascinating essay by one of the most insightful thinkers about children and human development I’ve encountered. Here’s how it begins:

Human beings need special care while we are young and when we become old. The 2020 pandemic has made this vivid: millions of people across the world have taken care of children at home, and millions more have tried to care for grandparents, even when they couldn’t be physically close to them. COVID-19 has reminded us how much we need to take care of the young and the old. But it’s also reminded us how much we care for and about them, and how important the relations between the generations are. I have missed restaurants and theatres and haircuts, but I would easily give them all up to be able to hug my grandchildren without fear. And there is something remarkably moving about the way that young people transformed their lives to protect older ones.

But this raises a puzzling scientific paradox. We know that biological creatures are shaped by the forces of evolution, which selects organisms based on their fitness – that is, their ability to survive and reproduce in a particular environment. So why has it allowed us to be so vulnerable and helpless for long stretches of our lives? Why do the strong, able humans in their prime of life put so much time and energy into caring for those who are not yet, or no longer, so productive? New research argues that those vulnerabilities are intimately related to some of our greatest human strengths – our capacities for learning, cooperation and culture…

The Economist on Covid vaccines: “The technology of hope”

This is the best and most informative piece I’ve read on the reality, problems and potential of Covid vaccines.

DELIVERANCE, WHEN it arrives, will come in a small glass vial. First there will be a cool sensation on the upper arm as an alcohol wipe is rubbed across the skin. Then there will be a sharp prick from a needle. Twenty-one days later, the same again. As the nurse drops the used syringe into the bin with a clatter, it will be hard not to wonder how something so small can solve a problem so large.

On November 9th Pfizer and BioNTech, two firms working as partners on a vaccine against covid-19, announced something extraordinary about the first 94 people on their trial to develop symptoms of the disease. At least 86 of them—more than nine out of ten—had been given the placebo, not the vaccine. A bare handful of those vaccinated fell ill. The vaccine appeared to be more than 90% effective.

Within a few weeks the firms could have the data needed to apply for emergency authorisation to put the vaccine to use. The British and American governments have said that vaccinations could start in December. The countries of the EU have also been told it will be distributed quickly…

Yes, but that’s just the start of it. Worth reading in full.

Scott Galloway on Corona Corps

Scott Galloway is one of my favourite commentators on the tech industry. But he’s also good on politics — as well as being very perceptive (and critical) on how universities in the US are swindling students during the pandemic. He has an intriguing blog post this week in which he advances an idea of how to marshal the students who are currently being cheated out of an education while also doing what needs to be done to bring the pandemic. It’s an idea borrowed from the Peace Corps of the 1960s.

The equation for flattening the curve is simple: Testing x Tracing x Isolation = Flattening. On the whole, unless you are a Floridian, Americans have answered the call to take up arms (distancing) against the enemy. Testing is still a sh*tshow, but private-sector leaders (Bezos, Bloomberg) are trying to fill the void of federal incompetence. The missing link may be tracing. We currently have approximately 2,500 tracers who focus mostly on STDs and food-borne illnesses. The amount of time, hours really, between someone coming into contact with the virus and being isolated is paramount. We need 100,000 to 300,000 tracers.

As he puts it, “An Army Stands Ready”. Kids shouldn’t be going to college until the virus has been brought under control. They should all have a gap year — but one spent doing something that is socially useful: working on testing and tracing in the Corona Corps. Just like the Peace Corps back in the day.

This fall, 4 million kids are supposed to show up on campuses around the nation. I have 280 kids registered for my fall Brand Strategy class. I don’t believe it’s going to happen. The thought of 280 kids sitting elbow to elbow in a classroom presents our trustees with a challenging scenario.

Gap years should be the norm, not the exception. An increasingly ugly secret of campus life is that a mix of helicopter parenting and social media has rendered many 18-year-olds unfit for college. Parents drop them off at school, where university administrators have become mental health counselors. The structure of the Corona Corps would give kids (and let’s be honest, they are still kids) a chance to marinate and mature. The data supports this. 90% of kids who defer and take a gap year return to college and are more likely to graduate, with better grades. The Corps should be an option for non-college-bound youth as well.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Joe Biden went out cycling today. A man after my own heart. Link

  • New device puts music in your head — no headphones required. Yeah, I know, I’m a gadget freak, but this is interesting. Link. There’s a video aimed at sceptics (I think).

  • China congratulates Joe Biden on being elected President. Interesting: they must know something the Republicans don’t. Link.

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Thursday 12 November, 2020

Brancaster, Norfolk. Where I’d love to be if we weren’t locked down.

Quote of the Day

”We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.”

  • H.L. Mencken

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Joseph Haydn – String Trio, Op.53, No.3 in D Major


Death and Venice

Colm Toibín is in Venice, on his own. He’s written an enchanting diary column for the London Review of Books which I fear may be behind its paywall. In case it is, these last two paragraphs will give you a feel for it:

One of the subjects to muse on as old age begins is how unfair life is. Venice is a good place for such thoughts. One day I walked down to Riva dei Sette Martiri which is where I stayed first in the city. I had a coffee and looked out over the misty water. I came to this very spot first in 1977, which is 43 years ago. If I have the chance to come and sit here in 43 years’ time, I will be 108. I realise that this is a most banal and useless subject for contemplation. But what else is there to think about?

There was quietness to ponder; maybe that was enough. When I stood outside the Accademia, the only sound came from a stray boat on one of the lesser canals and a vaporetto on the Grand Canal, a dutiful, useful ghost, taking the small population of Venice from one place to another while the hordes that normally come to the city remained crouched in their homes, fearful, socially distant. Once they come back, we can all start complaining again. Until they do, we will wear our masks and whisper about small mercies and think about light and shade.

Long read of the Day

 Can lab-grown brains become conscious?

From Nature

In Alysson Muotri’s laboratory, hundreds of miniature human brains, the size of sesame seeds, float in Petri dishes, sparking with electrical activity.

These tiny structures, known as brain organoids, are grown from human stem cells and have become a familiar fixture in many labs that study the properties of the brain. Muotri, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), has found some unusual ways to deploy his. He has connected organoids to walking robots, modified their genomes with Neanderthal genes, launched them into orbit aboard the International Space Station, and used them as models to develop more human-like artificial-intelligence systems. Like many scientists, Muotri has temporarily pivoted to studying COVID-19, using brain organoids to test how drugs perform against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

But one experiment has drawn more scrutiny than the others. In August 2019, Muotri’s group published a paper in Cell Stem Cell reporting the creation of human brain organoids that produced coordinated waves of activity, resembling those seen in premature babies1. The waves continued for months before the team shut the experiment down.

This is an angle on consciousness I never expected.

Why the current lockdown is different

From Jonty’s blog:

I was walking the hound this morning which involves crossing a major road near me, which used to have numerous shops on it. You can tell by the facades that even though they are now flats they all used to be shops, now there is only one newsagent left. It made me think about the latest rebound in UK GDP figures, and whether it will last? The latest lockdown strongly suggests it won’t, the economy is bound to take another hit and for one sector in particular this lockdown will be much worse.

Many years ago I persuaded the manager of a huge department store on Oxford Street to talk about the run up to Xmas. One thing really surprised me; the store made well over 50% of its profits in November and December, it may have been as high as 75%, it was a long time ago. The January sales also brought in quite a bit of money but as the manager told me, that meant the shop was making a loss for 9 months of the year.

Which is why the retail sector is so anxious about this new lockdown. Although the last one was tough, at least it didn’t cover the most and possibly only profitable time of the year, like this one does.

What is wrong with people in the US?

This from Tyler Cowen today:

He comments:

And rising, 1500 per day seems baked in, 2000 per day might also be within reach. I just don’t get you people who say this isn’t a big deal.

Nor do I. It’s strange how this kind of carnage looks like being ‘normalised’.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • AlphaGo: the full documentary. No matter what you think about AI this film (about how a machine beat the World Champion at Go) is wonderful. And it’s on YouTube. 90 minutes. Pour a drink and sit back. And look out for Eric Schmidt’s cameo appearance. Link.
  • Ruby Bridges Tells Her Story. In 1960, at the age of six, Ruby Bridges was the first black pupil at the newly desegregated William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. She was escorted to her first day of school by federal marshals, a journey that was immortalized by Normal Rockwell in a 1964 painting called ‘The Problem We All Live With’. Ruby is now 66 and has published a new book. Jason Kottke has a lovely post about it which includes the Rockwell painting.

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Monday 2 November, 2020

A video for November 3, of all days

What Gordon Parks Saw

If you watch nothing else today, watch this. Gordon Parks was a novelist, poet, musician, composer, painter, and film director, but he was best known for his photography.

Thanks to Jason Kottke for spotting it.

Quote of the Day

“Many Things that have been printed and published, as true Relations, were only by Artifice and Imposture, Impositions upon credulous Persons.”

  • Erasmus

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Chuck Berry – Roll over Beethoven 1972



Long read of the Day

What kind of country do we want? Terrific NYRB essay by Marilynne Robinson. Snippet:

Without an acknowledgment of the grief brought into the whole world by the coronavirus, which is very much the effect of sorrows that plagued the world before this crisis came down on us, it might seem like blindness or denial to say that the hiatus prompted by the crisis may offer us an opportunity for a great emancipation, one that would do the whole world good. The snare in which humanity has been caught is an economics—great industry and commerce in service to great markets, with ethical restraint and respect for the distinctiveness of cultures, including our own, having fallen away in eager deference to profitability. This is not new, except for the way an unembarrassed opportunism has been enshrined among the laws of nature and has flourished destructively in the near absence of resistance or criticism. Options now suddenly open to us would have been unthinkable six months ago. The prestige of what was until very lately the world economic order lingers on despite the fact that the system itself is now revealed as a tenuous set of arrangements that have been highly profitable for some people but gravely damaging to the world. These arrangements have been exposed as not really a system at all—insofar as that word implies stable, rational, intentional, defensible design.

Here is the first question that must be asked: What have we done with America? Over the decades we have consented, passively for the most part, to a kind of change that has made this country a disappointment to itself, an imaginary prison with real prisoners in it. Now those imaginary walls have fallen, if we choose to notice. We can consider what kind of habitation, what kind of home, we want this country to be…

Trustbusting Google

Cory Doctorow’s OpEd for The Daily Beast is, finally, published — and very good it is too. Here’s a sample:

When Microsoft came to dominate 95% of the desktop, the DoJ stepped in again to punish it, and if they failed in their breakup bid, at least they cowed the Beast of Redmond so that it stopped killing startups the way it had with Netscape, allowing Google to rise.

What we didn’t understand was that Ronald Reagan had gutshot US antitrust enforcement and these were its last gasps, as it bled out over two decades.

We didn’t understand how thoroughly Reagan’s court sorcerer, Robert Bork, had transformed the consensus on monopolies.

We didn’t understand that every president that came after Reagan, right up to today, would continue to encourage monopolization under cover of the doctrine of Robert Bork, creating a world where every industry has collapsed into oligarchy.

  • Five publishers

  • Four studios

  • Three labels

  • Two brewers

  • One eyewear company

and falling.

Which is why the federal Google antitrust action is exciting – not merely because the complaint threads the impossible narrow eye of Robert Bork’s needle for anti-monopoly enforcement; but because it made so many people recognize that getting Google for search dominance is like getting Capone on tax-evasion. The pretense that monopolies are good, actually, is wearing so thin that even its beneficiaries are doubting it.

Other, possibly interesting, links

  • The AI Which Mistook a Bald Head for a Soccer Ball. An AI controlled camera which was supposed to follow the ball, kept following the bald pate of a linesman. Link
  • Who are the most influential academics?. This websiteclaims to have objective measures for ranking scholars. Funnily enough, most of them appear to be Americans. Now isn’t that interesting.
  • A new Raspberry Pi built into a keyboard.. Neat idea. There’s an informative and fair review on ArsTechnica. I’ve ordered one, out of curiosity to see how it compares with an earlier 4GB Pi I’ve been running.

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Saturday 31 October, 2020

From our fen walk yesterday. Slightly over-cooked in post-processing, seeking a ‘Constable’ effect.

Quote of the Day

”Many of the greatest men who have ever lived have written biography. Boswell was one of the smallest men that ever lived and he has beaten them all.”

  • Thomas Babington Macaulay, writing about Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Salieri : Piano Concerto in C major : II Larghetto


Poor Salieri has had a bad press ever since Peter Shafer’s play Amadeus (and Milos Forman’s subsequent film).

Attenborough’s testament

Last night we watched A Life On Our Planet and loved it. It’s quite moving, also, because it’s difficult not to think of it also as a kind of last will and testament. At any rate, he describes it at the outset as his ‘Witness Statement’.

The ingenuity of starting and ending with a visit to Chernobyl was very striking. In the opening sequence he portrayed it as a human mistake that made a whole locality uninhabitable. On a global level, we are embarked on a colossal mistake that will make our planet uninhabitable. And then at the end, he returned to Chernobyl to show how nature is reclaiming the place for itself, with mature trees growing round — and in some cases in — the abandoned buildings. The subliminal message was clear. The planet doesn’t need us. And it will survive us.

En passant I fell to thinking that Attenborough has become one of the most loved man in Britain and maybe in much of the West — a kind of international treasure. The only comparison I can think of at the moment is with the late Nelson Mandela.

Long read of the Day

Absolutely fascinating article by Karen Hao on how AI (well, machine-learning, actually) has cracked a key mathematical puzzle for understanding our world.

Perhaps it wasn’t for everyone but it was certainly fascinating for anyone (like me, anyway) who, once upon a time, had to grapple with partial differential equations (PDEs) — the mathematical constructs which offer powerful ways of realistically modelling important real-world phenomena (like air turbulence), but which are VERY difficult to solve using traditional methods.

So even if the article isn’t for everyone, it’s still a brilliant example of how to make arcane concepts intelligible to lay readers.

My only complaint is that the headline over the piece makes the usual mistake of conflating ‘Artificial Intelligence’ with machine-learning.

Positively the only thing today about the US election

A useful primer on US Election Law. Includes this interesting passage about the responsibilities of TV networks — whose too-early call of the 2000 election led to the subsequent chaos and the Supreme Court eventually handing the presidency to George W. Bush:

On Election Night, what we hear on the news are projections that the media is making about who will win, based upon evolving vote tallies and exit polls. When these projections give one candidate a majority in the Electoral College, media organizations call the election, and the other candidate may even publicly concede. But none of that is official.

Indeed, the “tradition” of knowing who wins on Election Night is a modern invention and a product of network television. It makes for a dramatic evening. George Washington waited two months to find out whether he had, in fact, been elected the nation’s first president. Thus, Trump’s idea that we must know the winner on election night is not grounded in law or history. And even the projections have not led to the declaration of a winner on Election Day in three of the last five presidential elections—in 2000, 2004, and 2016.

But the thing upending everything this year is COVID. Largely due to safety concerns, more people are voting early and/or remotely than in any prior election in American history, at the same time as we are experiencing unprecedented delays in mail delivery. This causes two different sets of complications: First, because of variances in when and how states count votes, early results on election night could easily be subject to what some have described as red or blue “mirages”—where the totals from particular states are quite skewed based upon whether the early reports are from particular counties, early voting, or some inscrutable combination of both. Second, it also means states will be receiving a far higher number of mail-in ballots than they are used to—many of which could well arrive after deadlines established by the legislature even if they are sent early enough so that, if it weren’t for this year’s postal delays, they would be arriving on time. None of that will matter, of course, if the winner’s margins are sufficiently large based upon undisputed ballots so that disputed ballots wouldn’t tip the scales. But if it’s a slim margin of victory, that’s where there’s the most potential for trouble—and for post-election litigation.

The moral: this could be a good time to be a lawyer in the US who specialises in electoral law. On the other hand, if Biden wins big…

Other, possibly interesting, links

  • How Bertrand Russell Turned The Beatles Against the Vietnam War. Link.

  • New Zealand struggles with plague of peacocks. Link. One of my favourite New Yorker cartoons shows a peacock in all his finery confronted by a sceptical pea-hen. “What do you mean, no?” he is saying incredulously.

  • Texas Voters Line Up To Shoot Ballots At Local Election Range. “Texas voters lined up to begin shooting their 2020 ballots at local election ranges, sources confirmed Thursday. “It’s always nice to stare down the ol’ iron sights and make your voice heard by leaving a bullet hole on your favorite politicians,” said Cal Humphries, 54, who shouldered an AR-15 and fired multiple rounds into a sheet of paper that hung from a target retrieval system to indicate his choice in a series of down-ballot judicial races. “Being able to hit a bull’s-eye on your Senate pick is a hallowed right that our ancestors fought and died for. Just make sure you’re using the right caliber bullet, though, or your vote may be disqualified.” Link

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Friday 30 October, 2020

The fens in winter

Taken on a long walk in the fens today.

Quote of the Day

”Dear 338171 (May I call you 338?)”

  • Noel Coward, starting a letter to T.E. Lawrence, who had retired to public life to become Aircraftsman Brown, 338171

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bob Dylan | If Not for You


Long read of the Day

An interesting  New Yorker profile of cryptographer Maxie Marlinspike, founder of Signal, the encrypted messaging service that many of us use when we need to make sure that nobody’s eavesdropping.


History repeats itself

Nick Guyatt teaches North American History at Cambridge and is a Fellow of Jesus College.

The reason Isaac Newton was at his home in Woolsthorpe when the apple fell on his head was that he had fled Cambridge to escape the plague! I bet his college (Trinity) still has its bell from that period too.

Inside the Bizarre Publishing Ring That Linked 5G to Coronavirus

A truly weird story in Vice.

An international group of scientists, some seemingly well-credentialed, have been publishing prolifically in obscure scientific journals, accruing hundreds of co-authorships over the past several years.

The only problem: most of the studies they publish don’t make any sense.

One paper, titled “5G Technology and induction of coronavirus in skin cells,” was retracted in late July after it received widespread criticism from scientists on social media for being shoddy pseudoscience. The diagrams featured clipart, and one showed two vertical arrows labeled “Tower” casting what the authors label as “Milimeter waves sic” and “Radio waves” onto a cell. An arrow exits from the cell and points at a drawing of a virus, which has been labeled “COVID-19.”

After that paper was retracted, the journal posted a notice on its original landing page saying that the article “showed evidence of substantial manipulation of the peer review.”

Having read the piece, the only conclusion I can draw is that there are more than a few hyper-qualified scientists who suffer from a variant of logorrhoea (“an excessive and often uncontrollable flow of words”) and are accommodated by a scientific publishing ecosystem which has perverse incentives and has grown too bloated to be reliable.

Thanks to Charles Arthur for the link.

Art tells a story

Dave Winer had this lovely image on his blog yesterday. It’s an artwork from a Burning Man festival. (Which I think was cancelled this year.)

He quotes a commentary on the work by a documentary film-maker, Sharon Anderson Morris:

“A sculpture of two adults after a disagreement, sitting with their backs to each other. Yet, the inner child in both of them simply wants to connect. Age has many beautiful gifts but one we could live without is the pride and resentment we hold onto when we have conflicts with others. The forgiving, free spirit of children is our true nature. Remember this when you feel stubborn.”

Dave doesn’t agree:

  • Sometimes the right thing to do is to set pride to the side and renew the friendship. The child always wants to, but the adult also has a valid and important, not foolish, contribution to make — safety.

  • The child can have the impulse to connect unconditionally, because there is an adult to put the brakes on if there is real danger. The child can’t exist without the adult. When we are children, the adult must be external. Later in life we will be both the child and the adult.#

  • The child, as the sculpture illustrates, wants to connect, but the adult isn’t ready. It’s possible that they’ve reconciled many times, and every time the same thing happens. That’s also a pattern of humanity. So the adult is constrained by memory. The adult might narrate: “I remember this person hurt me the last time I trusted them. Every time I trusted them. So as much as the child wants to reconcile, I can’t. At some point it’s wrong to trust.”

Other, possibly interesting, links

  •  New study links air pollution to 15 percent of COVID-19 deaths From Al Jazeera. Link
  • Are swordfish stabbing and killing sharks? New York Times story.
  • Nice experiment that shows how photographs shape the way we view history. Link

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Thursday 29 October, 2020

Where the rainbows end

Sutton Gault, Cambridgeshire.

Quote of the Day

”The great nations have always acted like gangsters, and the small nations like prostitutes”.

  • Stanley Kubrick

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Haydn: String Quartet In F Minor, Hob. III:35, Op.20 No.5 – 3. Adagio | Emerson String Quartet


US politics and psychic colonisation

I’m puzzled (and annoyed) by the extent to which the US election is preying on my mind. Every day I could write a dozen blog posts about some or other aspect of it. It’s sucking the oxygen out of everything. And it’s not as though things are particularly rosy in this jurisdiction, as the country lurches through a worsening pandemic into the full-blown catastrophe of crashing out of the EU without a deal on New Year’s Eve. There’s plenty to worry — and write — about on this side of the pond. Maybe it’s because there’s a possibility that on November 3 something might change in the US, whereas we in the UK are stuck with the worst government in living memory for another four years. So we’re like long-term prisoners serving time and looking enviously over the wall at our fellow-prisoners in the US who might just be paroled on November 4.

Long read of the Day

And just as I hit the final full stop on the previous entry when what should pop up in my inbox but “The World Is Trapped in America’s Culture War” by Helen Lewis in The Atlantic .

Sharing the internet with America is like sharing your living room with a rhinoceros. It’s huge, it’s right there, and whatever it’s doing now, you sure as hell know about it.

Every country using the English-language internet experiences a version of this angst—call it the American Rhino Problem. With so many dominant tech companies headquartered in Silicon Valley, the rules of the web are set there—and by politicians in Washington. The West once sent missionaries to bring Christianity to Africa; in 2013, Mark Zuckerberg promised to “bring the world closer together” by providing internet access to millions in the developing world. (That particular project failed, but there are now more Facebook users in India than anywhere else.)

Britain, where I live, cohabits particularly closely with the American rhino, because of our shared language and history. Brits watch Friends. We read John Grisham novels. We know what a sidewalk is, even though it should be called a “pavement.” The website of the BBC, our national broadcaster, is always plastered with stories about the U.S., while Ireland, which was under British rule until a century ago and with whom we share a border, might as well be the moon. Ask 100 Britons to name the current Taoiseach, and you’ll see 99 blank faces (and one inevitable smart-ass). Ask 100 Britons to name the U.S. president, and—well, I envy anyone who draws a blank there. Please give me directions to the rock under which they’ve been living.

The British political elite loves the United States: Every political adviser here goes to sleep hugging a West Wing box set. Great stuff.

The phlegmatic British

An intriguing Covid diary entry by David Vincent.

Since late March, social scientists have been striving to measure the impact of the crisis on what in the second world war was called ‘morale’. I have discussed some of their findings in earlier posts.

The two most useful studies are managed by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), and a Nuffield-funded research group at University College London (UCL). For the sake of speed, the ONS re-deployed an established Opinions and Lifestyle Study, based on a statistically representative sample of 2,200 people. UCL went for scale, recruiting over 70,000 respondents through advertising and contacting ‘organisations representing vulnerable groups.’

The data in the two surveys are broadly similar, and oddly counter-intuitive. Whereas the drivers of physical change represent a fairground roller coaster during an event which is far from reaching its conclusion, the dominant shape of the graphs of emotion over the period is a gentle countryside, a landscape of gradual inclines and declivities. Why this should be so is difficult to understand.

It is.

There are, David says, “discernible changes tracking the surges in the pandemic, but not on the same scale. We appear to be a more phlegmatic society than we might suppose, as was also the conclusion of the wartime studies of ‘morale’. ”

Another, possibly interesting, link

  •  Apple Watch’s Sensory Overload. Om Malik on Apple’s latest version of its watch. Interesting because OM suffers from heart problems, so having a monitoring device as good as the iWatch on his wrist matters. Link.

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Wednesday 28 October, 2020

Jesus on the mainline

Quote of the Day

”The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.”

  • Oscar Wilde

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Randy Newman: Sail Away Link

Long read of the day: The undemocratic US Constitution

Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation is a sham, but it’s one the Constitution allows. There’s only one way out of this crisis: it must be amended, writes Julie C. Suk in the Boston Review.

But if Justice Barrett’s confirmation is an undemocratic sham, it is one that the Constitution allows. As COVID-19-infected, unmasked Senate Judiciary Committee member Mike Lee tweeted, “We are not a democracy.” With his pocket Constitution in tow, he noted that the word “democracy” never appears in the Constitution.

And he’s right. By design, the Constitution empowers the Senate, the president, and the judiciary to ignore the will of most of the American people. The Senate, unlike the House, is blatantly undemocratic, overrepresenting citizens who live in small states by allocating them the same number of Senators as those who live in larger states. The presidency can be unrepresentative of the majority because the Electoral College allows for presidents who lost the popular vote (such as Trump) to assume office and exercise tremendous power. One such power is appointing the judiciary. And the judiciary, too, threatens democracy in two ways: the Constitution entitles judges to lifetime tenure, giving them power to shape the law that governs generations of people. And, since Marbury v. Madison in 1803, federal judges have assumed the power to strike down laws enacted by democratically-elected legislatures. These aspects of the Constitution are not democratic and were not meant to be…

Worth reading in full. We’re back to my theory of incompetent systems — ones that can’t fix themselves.

How McConnell played Trump

Perceptive piece by John Gruber:

It’s almost comical how badly Trump misplayed this opening at Mitch McConnell’s behest. It serves McConnell’s interest to fill the seat while they can, before Trump seems likely to lose the election. It doesn’t serve Trump’s interest at all. There are voters who love Trump all the more for filling this seat now before the election, but they’re the sort of voters who were going to vote for Trump no matter what. But there are almost certainly an electorally significant number of conservative-leaning voters who care about the makeup of the Supreme Court who might have held their noses and voted (again) for Trump even though they dislike him – maybe really dislike him – just on this issue alone, who will now feel free to vote for Joe Biden because conservatives on the Court now hold a 6-3 majority. If a conservative Supreme Court majority is your top issue as a voter, you’ve already got it. You’re free to move on to your next issues, like, say, having someone you respect in the White House. Or someone who believes in science.

Dave Winer wrote the following a month ago, and I haven’t seen anything that puts McConnell’s place in this better:

McConnell is 78, an old man, and he’s got maybe one more term in him, maybe not even that. He’s playing a game for the sake of the game, the same way a compulsive crossword puzzler has to finish the Sunday NYT puzzle.

He set out to do one thing in his life, turn the court Republican.

Look at it this way. The Republicans had two ways to play this vacancy: ram a nominee through before the election just because they can, or use the vacancy as an issue to help win the election.

McConnell was guaranteed of his life’s goal if they rammed it through pre-election. If they’d waited, that turned into a maybe. It served McConnell’s interest to take the sure thing now, even if it hurt Trump personally and Republicans in general in the upcoming election.

I used to think that Trump was the most evil man in American politics. I was wrong: Mitch McConnell beats him hands down.

Other, possibly interesting, links

  • North Pole ice cap too thin for testing Russia’s giant icebreaker. The Arktika icebreaker will have to undergo a second test-voyage to prove its capabilities to crush thick and hard sea-ice. Link
  • White House science office says Trump ended COVID-19 pandemic as US hits record cases. I know. You think I made that up. Well, see here.
  • New Parents Freaked Out Upon Learning That Babies Can Live Up To 100 Years. “Oh God, we got this baby thinking it would just be a few year commitment, tops,” said Conway, who grew increasingly distressed with her partner as she discovered that some infants can be expected to grow up to six feet long.” News from The Onion

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Wednesday 21 October, 2020

The road in Winter

One of my favourite roads in Norfolk. When we get to it we know we’re nearly at the coast.

Quote of the Day

“Discipline is choosing between what you want now, and what you want most”

  • Abraham Lincoln

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Boccherini | Cello Sonata in A Major, G.4 | 2013 | Jonathan Roozeman


Zoom is trying to turn itself into a platform

Sigh. It’s predictable. As video conferencing becomes a commodity, Zoom needs to find a way of not just being a video-conferencing app. So it’s signed up lots of ‘partners’, mostly the usual suspects (Slack, Trello, etc.) They all have cheery and (to my jaundiced eye) slightly depressing videos. For example:


The aim is to build what corporate strategists call a ‘moat’ round Zoom to keep users inside the compound.

Call police for a woman who is changing clothes in an alley? A new program in Denver sends mental health professionals instead.

As austerity and the pandemic continues to destroy people’s lives, many police forces say that they are having to turn into part-time social workers. This heartwarming report in the Denver Post illustrates what an intelligent response to human distress would be like.

A concerned passerby dialed 911 to report a sobbing woman sitting alone on a curb in downtown Denver.

Instead of a police officer, dispatchers sent Carleigh Sailon, a seasoned mental health professional with a penchant for wearing Phish T-shirts, to see what was going on.

The woman, who was unhoused, was overwhelmed and scared. She’d ended up in an unfamiliar part of town. It was blazing hot and she didn’t know where to go. Sailon gave the woman a snack and some water and asked how she could help. Could she drive her somewhere? The woman was pleasantly surprised.

“She was like, ‘Who are you guys? And what is this?’” Sailon said, recounting the call.

This, Sailon explained, is Denver’s new Support Team Assistance Response program, which sends a mental health professional and a paramedic to some 911 calls instead of police.

Since its launch June 1, the STAR van has responded to more than 350 calls, replacing police in matters that don’t threaten public safety and are often connected to unmet mental or physical needs. The goal is to connect people who pose no danger with services and resources while freeing up police to respond to other calls. The team, which is not armed, has not called police for backup, Sailon said.

“We’re really trying to create true alternatives to us using police and jails,” said Vinnie Cervantes with Denver Alliance for Street Health Response, one of the organizations that helped start the program.

Though it had been years in the making, the program launched just four days after protests erupted in Denver calling for transformational changes to policing in response to the death of George Floyd.

Other, possibly interesting, links

  • The Nobel Prize Committee couldn’t reach Paul Milgrom to tell him that he won the Nobel Prize for Economics, so his neighbour (and fellow winner) Robert Wilson knocked on his door in the middle of the night. Here’s what Milgrom’s Ring doorbell recorded! Link

  • Q: Why has New Zealand rejected populist ideas other nations have embraced? Hint: The country doesn’t have any newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch. Link.

  • “Eight Persistent COVID-19 Myths and Why People Believe Them”. From Scientific American

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Thursday 17 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Here’s what being called sir feels like to me. You see someone who you think you could be friends with because inside you’re 19, and they call you sir, and you remember what it was like when you were them and you saw someone who looked like you look now.”

I know just how he feels. And I’m older than he is! Although, when I think of it, I can’t recall ever calling anyone sir. Maybe I was born middle-aged.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Merle Haggard & Keith Richards – Trouble In Mind


Misconceptions about the virus

The longer this pandemic goes on, the more we’re learning about our initial misconceptions about the virus. Remember when it was just a new kind of flu? And then all the stuff about coughs, high temperature etc. being sure-fire symptoms? And how it was mainly a respiratory disease that attacked the lungs? And how you were most of risk of catching it if you touched an infected surface? And so on.

Making tea this morning I happened to catch an interview with Professor Tim Spector of King’s College London, who’s one of the researchers behind the Covid Symptom-Tracking app which apparently has been downloaded 4m times. This is an app which asks users to spend a minute every day reporting (to the app) their health status (even if they’re not feeling ill). The app asks you to share some general information (age and some health details, such as whether you have certain diseases) and then asks you every day to report know how you feel, so you can share your symptoms. It also asks if you have visited a hospital, and if so what treatment you received there, and whether you have been tested for COVID-19.

Some interesting findings seem to be emerging from this research, including ones which seem to suggest that our original ideas of signature symptoms might have been a bit off beam.

Here’s the relevant audio clip from the programme:


It’s funny how we always seem to be fighting the last war. I was thinking of this while reading about schools and hotels going to extraordinary lengths to make sure that work-surfaces, door-knobs etc are sanitised, or even made redundant.

And all the while maybe the prime means of transmission is via aerosols rather than droplets.

I promise to pay the car park attendant on demand…

My friend Quentin and his wife are on holiday in Cornwall at the moment, where they have run into a problem they hadn’t anticipated — the need to use cash (as in coins and notes). Quentin has written a lovely blog post about it. Here’s a sample:

We’ve been taken by surprise, as visitors here, by the number of car parks which require payment, and where that payment can only be made with cash. Usually in coins, with no change given, so you really want the exact amount. Now, as someone who hasn’t really used cash for years, this was a minor inconvenience the first two or three times. But I’ve now realised that it’s basically the same everywhere: the Queen’s currency is still vital here; it’s a complex kind of car-parking token. Every single car park has required cash; I think we’ve been to four or five here, and one in Devon on the way down. Today, as a gesture to the 21st century, the car park had two machines. One took cards! Hurrah! It was out of order.

Now this isn’t because we’re in some remote backwater where they’ve never heard of digital transactions. Pretty much everything else, since we’ve left home, has been paid for sans contact using my Apple Watch (which is how I’ve paid for most things in the last five years). And, in fact, in Covid-world, most shops are not taking cash at all, so it’s even harder to go and buy a Kit-Kat to get some change. That’s assuming you can find an ATM from which to get some notes in the first place; they’re not exactly plentiful here.

Since there are a lot of visitors to this part of the world, car park attendants have to spend a lot of their time explaining to people that, no, I know it’s astonishing, but you do actually need cash if you want to park here. No, sorry, there isn’t an ATM here, but there’s one in the next town… Yes, that one you drove past 20 minutes ago on the narrow winding road with occasional passing places…

Why Holocaust denial thrives

One of the things that always puzzles me is why conspiracy theories involving Holocaust denial continue to circulate and thrive.

And then I read this report in today’s Guardian:

Almost two-thirds of young American adults do not know that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, and more than one in 10 believe Jews caused the Holocaust, a new survey has found, revealing shocking levels of ignorance about the greatest crime of the 20th century.

According to the study of millennial and Gen Z adults aged between 18 and 39, almost half (48%) could not name a single concentration camp or ghetto established during the second world war.

Almost a quarter of respondents (23%) said they believed the Holocaust was a myth, or had been exaggerated, or they weren’t sure. One in eight (12%) said they had definitely not heard, or didn’t think they had heard, about the Holocaust.

More than half (56%) said they had seen Nazi symbols on their social media platforms and/or in their communities, and almost half (49%) had seen Holocaust denial or distortion posts on social media or elsewhere online.

Ye Gods!

Bill Gates Sr. RIP

Bill Gates’s Dad has passed away. The Seattle Times has a nice obit. He was an Honorary Fellow of my College, Wolfson, and a thoroughly good egg. Bill Jr. said yesterday that his father “was the real Bill Gates. He was all the things I strive to be.” The funny thing is that while Bill Jr. was a very obnoxious kid, he eventually morphed into a thoroughly good human being. Rather like his old man, in fact.

At last: a full at-home rapid coronavirus test – Axios

If we’re ever to get this virus under some kind of control, the first step is not a distant vaccine but a cheap, quick and easy test. It looks as though one may have arrived. At any rate the American pharma firm Gauss and Cellux has announced what it describes as the first full at-home rapid coronavirus test.

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