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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Thursday 24 December, 2020

The Butterfly Effect

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak midwinter,
forced to stay at home,
Browsing on my laptop,
searching on my phone;
Trying to order presents,
my internet’s too slow,
In the bleak midwinter,
so many gifts to go.

Oh God, what should I get them
to put beneath the tree?
What’s this? A gift subscription
to the LRB!
In this bleak midwinter,
with all our plans on ice:
An LRB subscription,
reasonably priced.

Although I am a long-time subscriber to the London Review of Books this is not an endorsement from me. It’s just that it made me smile this morning. And it’s the first ‘Xmas’ ad I’ve seen this year that hasn’t made my flesh creep. There’s nothing more nauseating than sociopathic corporations pretending to be on your side. Which at the moment is what they’re all doing, when the only side they’re on is that of their shareholders and executives.

Quote of the Day

I wish someone would gamify the virus so people understand how it works, and how it’s actually something like a game, and how we’re completely blowing it. One of the skills the virus has is it can mutate. So it’s in our collective interest to reduce the virus to almost nothing before it can mutate to something our vaccines can’t deal with. The more virus is out there btw, the more mutations there will be. The way we’re doing it now, it’s like we have all the time in the world. So a million people travel by air to go to family gatherings and then a month later do it again, and fly home, spreading all mutations of the virus everywhere. We don’t have a lot of time. We don’t have time to worry about who Trump pardons. We need to worry about what the virus mutates to and how it might not be very human friendly, even compared to the virus as we now know it.

Just what I was thinking. The virus is a more sophisticated adversary than we, in our hubristic human way, ever imagined.

Long Read of the Day

 What is a letter? Literary correspondence in the age of instant communications

Lovely essay by Hannah Williams in the venerable TLS .

It seems that the end of letters as a literary form has been lamented for almost as long as the form has been in use, with each improvement in speed, reliability or facility taken as anathema to the letter’s insistence on slow contemplation.

It’s no wonder that we’re desperate to eulogize it: authors’ letters are integral to literature’s myth-making; they build a meta-narrative that offers a glimpse into the genius of the creative process. As well as a way to deepen understanding of an individual and their work, they have always been a repository of both salacious rumours and petty rivalries; a bedroom curtain twitched aside, a seat at a dinner party none of us were invited to. Reading authors’ letters is sometimes envisioned as a way to “bring the dead back to life”, an aim Jonathan Ellis both celebrates and warns against in his book Letter Writing Among Poets (2015). They encourage a kind of hazy romanticization, as if they were the key to an ultimate understanding of a body of work…

Particularly apposite in the age of Substack. This blog is published every day on the Web, but its arrival in people’s email at 7am seems to be what many readers particularly like (at least if my inbox is anything to go by). Which suggests that email ain’t dead yet.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Liam O’Flynn | Sliabh na mBan


One of my favourite slow tunes. Beautifully played by the maestro himself.

The SolarWinds hack — contd.

Looks as though I underestimated the extent of the likely damage and the nature of the exploit. Bruce Schneier has the best piece on it that I’ve read to date. “The US has suffered a massive cyberbreach”, he says. “It’s hard to overstate how bad it is.” But it’s wrong to treat it as a massive Russian cyber-attack against the United States, on two counts. It wasn’t a cyber-attack in international relations terms but busines>s-as-usual espionage. “And the victim wasn’t just the US, it was the entire world. But it was massive, and it is dangerous.”

Espionage is internationally allowed in peacetime. The problem is that both espionage and cyber-attacks require the same computer and network intrusions, and the difference is only a few keystrokes. And since this Russian operation isn’t at all targeted, the entire world is at risk – and not just from Russia. Many countries carry out these sorts of operations, none more extensively than the US. The solution is to prioritize security and defense over espionage and attack.

So the SolarWinds exploit is not, as Senator Richard Durban said, “virtually a declaration of war by Russia on the United States” While President-elect Biden said he will make this a top priority, it’s unlikely — says Schneier — that he will do much to retaliate.

The reason is that, by international norms, Russia did nothing wrong. This is the normal state of affairs. Countries spy on each other all the time. There are no rules or even norms, and it’s basically “buyer beware”. The US regularly fails to retaliate against espionage operations – such as China’s hack of the Office of Personal Management (OPM) and previous Russian hacks – because we do it, too. Speaking of the OPM hack, the then director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said: “You have to kind of salute the Chinese for what they did. If we had the opportunity to do that, I don’t think we’d hesitate for a minute.”

We don’t, and I’m sure NSA employees are grudgingly impressed with the SVR. The US has by far the most extensive and aggressive intelligence operation in the world. The NSA’s budget is the largest of any intelligence agency. It aggressively leverages the US’s position controlling most of the internet backbone and most of the major internet companies. Edward Snowden disclosed many targets of its efforts around 2014, which then included 193 countries, the World Bank, the IMF and the International Atomic Energy Agency. We are undoubtedly running an offensive operation on the scale of this SVR operation right now, and it’ll probably never be made public. In 2016, President Obama boasted that we have “more capacity than anybody both offensively and defensively.”

A key point in the Schneier piece is his view that the US (and most Western countries) have relatively poor defences against cyber-espionage intrusions like this. And there’s a critical asymmetry at work here too. Russia’s dependence on networks is probably much less than ours, simply because they’re in a different phase of economic development. That’s why North Korea has been able to engage in brazen cyber-espionage and other tricks. Retaliation in kind will have near-zero impact on them, because they don’t have the kind of intensively networked society that we have. It’s an interesting case of the power of the powerless.

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Wednesday 23 December, 2020

Truffles, anyone?

Quote of the Day

“He stared the assorted meannesses and failed promises of American life straight in the face, and they stared back.”

  • Brendan Gill, writing about Walker Evans’s photographs in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Rachmaninov | Piano Concerto No.2 (Adagio sostenuto) | Khatia Buniatishvili


11 minutes, but worth it on a chilly Thursday morning

Long Read of the Day

How an obscure British PC maker invented ARM and changed the world.

Lovely essay by Jason Torchinsky about a great Cambridge story.

ProRaw and the Gradual Gradation of Grays

From Om Malik. Probably only of interest to photo geeks. TL;DR version: it underscores the message that the computational photography enabled by high-end smartphone cameras like the iPhone makes it increasingly difficult to justify lugging around an optically-superior conventional camera. Sigh.

Om Malik is a keen Leica user and an interesting photographer. This post is his report on an experiment he did recently.

Last week, I decided to head to the Santa Cruz Mountains with a friend. The idea was to leave San Francisco, go down I-280, turn into Portola Valley, and then meander our way to Santa Cruz before grabbing a coffee and driving back down Highway 1. We would stop wherever, whenever a photo beckoned and a composition lured us. I was traveling light — just my Leica SL and the newly released iPhone 12 Pro Max, which I have on loan from Apple.

I wanted to use the adventure to focus purely on the iPhone 12 Pro Max as a camera and exploit the capabilities of Apple’s new photo format, ProRAW. I mean, everyone is talking about it. Everyone seems to love it. I just wanted to know what all the fuss is about.

Ben Sandofsky of Halide Camera has written an in-depth overview of the Apple ProRAW, which is worth the time and effort. He points out that, “Technically, there’s no such thing as a ProRAW file. ProRAW images are regular DNG files that take advantage of some little known features in the specification, and introduce a few new ones.”

I keep wondering what Ansel Adams would have made of all this.

Biden and the Solarwinds hack

Interesting NYT report. “This assault happened on Donald Trump’s watch when he wasn’t watching,” said Biden, stating the obvious. And he threatened retribution.

Unlike Mr. Trump, the president-elect left no doubt that he believed Russia was responsible, noting that both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General William P. Barr had said as much publicly, even if Mr. Trump would not. And Mr. Biden said once there was a formal determination of responsibility, a task that could take intelligence agencies weeks, “we will respond, and probably respond in kind.”

Oh yeah. One of the first things Biden will have to do is negotiate an extension of up to five years of New Start the nuclear arms control treaty that expires in early February. So, as the Times puts it, Biden will be “trying to strike a deal to prevent one threat — a nuclear arms race — while simultaneously threatening retaliation on another”.

Cyberwarfare represent a paradigm shift in aggressive behaviour between states, and we’re in the same position as we were in 1946 with nuclear weapons.

Fishing for sovereignty

From Jonty’s blog:

I know I should have noticed this earlier but the UK has agreed a Brexit fisheries deal already. In fact it has agreed 4 deals, the trouble is that they are with Norway, Iceland Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

Perhaps the reason that these agreements have got under my radar, is that the Government hasn’t made much of a fuss about them. Strange given that they allow for bilateral agreements on managing fish stocks and access to each others waters, which is a major problem in agreeing an FTA with the EU.

How the government managed to do this when, it seems to believe that without controlling its own fishing waters the UK is not a sovereign country is a mystery.

It is, until you understand the Brexiteer mindset.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Reuters: Pictures of the Year 2020. Link
  • Joining Apple 40 years ago. Nice memoir by Jean-Louis Gasseé, who was VP of Product Development for five years before the return of Steve Jobs. Link
  • January 1, 2021 is Public Domain Day: Works from 1925 are open to all! Wonderful annual feature by James Boyle and his colleagues at Duke University Law School: a list of works that are coming into the public domain on January 1st. Link

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Tuesday 22 December, 2020


North Norfolk coast.

Quote of the Day

”To yield to the mere process of disintegration has become an irresistible temptation, not only because it has assumed the spurious grandeur of ‘historical necessity’, but also because everything outside it has begun to appear lifeless, bloodless, meaningless and unreal.”

  • Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Beatles | Get Back | A Sneak Peek from Peter Jackson.


Not a trailer but a glimpse of his forthcoming film. Wonderful.

Long Read of the Day

No ‘Negative’ News: How China Censored the Coronavirus

Great New York Times piece.

The Solarwinds hack

You will probably have seen stories about the so-called Solarwinds hack. Hackers acting on behalf of a foreign government — almost certainly a Russian intelligence agency — broke into a range of key US government networks, including in the Treasury and Commerce Departments, and had free access to their email systems. It’s clear that many other government departments had been penetrated and that the intrusions have gone undetected for many months.

The attack was only discovered because a FireEye, a well-known cyber-security firm, found that it had been hacked and began to investigate how it had happened. They realised that the intrusion stemmed from a vulnerability in a product made by one of its software providers, the Texas-based SolarWinds Corporation.

“We looked through 50,000 lines of source code, which we were able to determine there was a backdoor within SolarWinds”, a senior techie at FireEye told Bloomberg. After discovering the backdoor, FireEye contacted SolarWinds and law enforcement agencies.

Hackers, suspected to be part of an elite Russian group, took advantage of the vulnerability to implant malware, which then found its way into the systems of SolarWinds customers when they updated their software. So far, more than 25 entities have been victimised by the attack, according to people familiar with the investigations. But SolarWinds says as many as 18,000 entities may have downloaded the malicious Trojan.

So who or what is Solarwinds? It produces a piece of software called Orion on which according to the FT “hundreds of thousands of organisations around the world” rely to manage their IT networks. It’s described (perhaps fancifully) as a “single pane of glass” that can monitor everything in a system, and it seems that the hackers inserted malicious code into the software updates provided by SolarWinds to its customers, which then allowed them to open a back door that let them spy on their targets at will. The updates were released between March and June this year — which means that the hackers have been inside some systems for as long as nine months. It also means — as Ben Evans pointed out in his weekly newsletter, that the hackers have had the run of the internal networks and data of customers like the US Treasury, the Department of Energy (which, among other things, manages America’s nuclear weapons arsenal) and more besides.

This, says Evans, raises two questions:

1: This is today’s espionage, and the NSA spends billions trying to do this to everyone else. But what’s the line between espionage and something more? 2: How does this change how big networks are designed, managed and perhaps regulated?

It also raises another question: what should a state do when it is attacked in this way? Currently, this is an unanswered question. Will we get to the point where a cyberattack triggers what military people call a ‘kinetic’ response? If China eventually moves on Taiwan because it wants (or needs) that country’s chip-making expertise and facilities, will the US react with conventional military force? Or instead launch a crippling cyberattack on China, on the grounds that a conventional war could rapidly escalate to a nuclear confrontation? Same questions apply to Russia and the Baltic States.

Another, hopefully interesting, link

  • Bob Dylan on Paul McCartney. Link

  This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Monday 21 December, 2020

The key question about vaccines


Quote of the Day

In short, “neoliberalism” is not simply a name for pro-market policies, or for the compromises with finance capitalism made by failing social democratic parties. It is a name for a premise that, quietly, has come to regulate all we practise and believe: that competition is the only legitimate organising principle for human activity.

  • Stephen Metcalf, Link

Ideology is what determines how you think when you don’t know you’re thinking.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Exultate Jubilate | Regula Mühlemann Link

Long Read of the Day

Mutant coronavirus in the United Kingdom sets off alarms but its importance remains unclear

Terrifically calm and informative piece in Science summarising what is known just now about the new mutant strain of Covid-19 that has brought he UK to a juddering, isolated halt.

Last Writes

David Vincent’s final Covid-19 diary post of 2020

Early in the lockdown, David Vincent’s lovely book, A History of Solitude, was published. He’s also been contributing to a collective Covid Diary over the year. In his final post of the year, he observes how the incidence of loneliness, as measured by the Office of National Statistics, hasn’t varied much over the course of the pandemic, which is not something most of us would have predicted. “This stasis,” he writes, ” which contrasts so sharply with the switchback ride of government regulation, generates conclusions which may hold more broadly for the pandemic.”

Modern societies have developed a raft of techniques for exploiting the benefits of living alone and avoiding the worst of the pitfalls. In this regard as in so many others, Covid-19 struck a population full of resources built up amidst the consumer and communications revolutions in the modern era.

The second is that faced with a crisis for which no country was adequately prepared, individuals and social groups have proved far more adaptable than the arthritic structures of government. Community groups have come into being focusing on the needs of those suffering from the absence of company. Neighbours have looked out for neighbours with increased vigilance. And those most vulnerable have acquired new skills. As with so many of my generation I have gained a new mastery of Zoom and its rivals, without which my isolation from children and grandchildren would have been far more profound.

The third is that we live in time. Any experience, negative or otherwise, is conditioned by its duration. ‘One definition of loneliness’ I wrote in my book, ‘is that it is solitude that has continued for longer than was intended or desired.’ If there is no ending that we can see or control, then it becomes unbearable. With yesterday’s emergency Tier 4 lockdown, Christmas is going to be a trial for many separated families, despite the special dispensation to form a support bubble with others if ‘you are the only adult in your household’. But we do know that the vaccine is coming.

Light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe.

The threats to tear down the BBC have not gone away.

Great piece by Alan Rusbridger in today’s Guardian on the extraordinary, Murdoch-inspired, campaign to destroy the BBC.

It’s hard to know where to begin. Britain has, unusually, a highly polemical and often partisan press. Nothing wrong with that, so long as there is also a universally available source of news that aspires to be something different. Words such as impartial, fair, balanced and objective come to mind. Many people might not want to live in a country with the BBC as a sole source of news. An equal, or larger number, might not want Fleet Street to dominate the airwaves as well as the print and online spheres. The mix is all.

The timing of this debate is extraordinary. We are drowning in a world of information chaos, with many surveys showing a public no longer knowing who to trust. The middle of a pandemic, where real lives depend on the supply of widely available and reliable information, is an odd time to be playing up the possibility of destroying the very basis of our most used and trusted public service news source.

Cummings is on record as wanting more Fox News-style broadcasters in the UK. Yes, that’s the Fox News that dismissed Covid-19 as a hoax and slavishly parroted the White House line until the moment Murdoch decided to pull the plug on Trump himself. To replace the BBC with Fox News feels like a kind of national death wish.

The most recent Ofcom report into the BBC described an organisation still used by 90% of the population for news. Three-quarters of the users said it was important; 78% said it was high quality; 71% trustworthy. The corporation had, said Ofcom, responded “effectively and rapidly to Covid-19, additionally offering a significant amount of educational content to fill the gap when schools were closed”. There were zero breaches of the code requiring due impartiality or accuracy.

Rusbridger is right. The campaign against the BBC is like Trump’s against the New York Times. Clillingly documented by Patrick Barwise and Peter York in their book The War Against the BBC: How an Unprecedented Combination of Hostile Forces Is Destroying Britain’s Greatest Cultural Institution

Another, hopefully interesting, link

  •  The most-read Wikipedia page on each day of 2020. Link

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Sunday 20 December, 2020

City of Mammon by night

As seen from a friend’s apartment in the Barbican.

Quote of the Day

“Not only will I not play it. But if Rex Harrison doesn’t do it, I won’t even go to see it.”

  • Cary Grant, responding to being offered the role of Professor Henry Higgins in the film of My Fair Lady.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

J S Bach Cantata | Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir | BWV 29


If you search for ‘Christmas music’ on YouTube you rapidly lose the will to live. There’s so much kitsch and schmaltz. In the end I came back to Bach. This is lovely but a bit long (25 minutes). Still, you can always let it run while making breakfast.

Why I’m not a Slacker

Really good New Yorker essay by Cal Newport on Slack — “the Right Tool for the Wrong Way to Work”. I’m always being encouraged by the various groups with whom I work to join their Slack teams, and I always refuse, for reasons that Newport enumerates brilliantly.

By the first decade of the two-thousands, professional communication volume continued to increase, and e-mail was struggling to keep up with the world of hyper-messaging that it helped create. A tool that was designed for a time when you might expect to receive several messages a day faltered once this increased to several dozen. Information was easily lost in overflowing in-boxes, while group threads proved to be a particularly clunky format to support discussion. In 2014, Slack was publicly released, seizing on the opportunity created by these shortcomings. This messaging tool was designed to optimize the haphazard approach to work that e-mail had initiated. Slack replaced a single in-box with distinct chat channels, moved group discussions into a persistent chat format, and made all of these discussions searchable. For teams straining under e-mail’s shortcomings, Slack arrived like a digital analgesic, curing multiple pain points all at once. This palliative effect propelled Slack toward its astronomical valuation just six years later.

The problem with this trajectory is that no one stopped to ask if it made sense to optimize this style of work in the first place. Though Slack improved the areas where e-mail was lacking in an age of high message volume, it simultaneously amplified the rate at which this interaction occurs. Data gathered by the software firm RescueTime estimate that employees who use Slack check communications tools more frequently than non-users, accessing them once every five minutes on average—an absurdly high rate of interruption. Neuroscientists and psychologists teach us that our attention is fundamentally single-tasked, and switching it from one target to another is detrimental to productivity. We’re simply not wired to monitor an ongoing stream of unpredictable communication at the same time that we’re trying to also finish actual work. E-mail introduced this problem of communication-driven distraction, but Slack pushed it to a new extreme. We both love and hate Slack because this company built the right tool for the wrong way to work. If you want an historical analogy for why Slack is a menace, think of it like this: “It’s the knowledge-work equivalent of figuring out how to make the waterwheel turn faster—a useful improvement in the moment, but not nearly as important as the looming introduction of the steam engine.”

Lovely piece.

It’s a sign of a broken system when only credit card firms can force Pornhub to change

This morning’s Observer column:

Pornhub is essentially a specialised social media site: think of it as YouTube for porn. People can freely upload dodgy videos and they are hosted on the site with relatively little (if any) moderation. Not surprisingly, therefore, Pornhub suffers from the same chronic problems with user-generated content as do YouTube and Facebook. But it took Kristof’s article to put a bomb under its owner. When MindGeek began to feel the heat, its first step was to ban uploads by unverified users and to disable video downloads – to make it harder for users to save a copy of an abusive video for reuploading elsewhere. But this – of course – left millions of previously uploaded videos available, and so eventually MindGeek pulled the plug on all videos from unverified users. Poof! Terabytes of crap vanished down the digital plughole.

It would be nice, in this festive season, to think that MindGeek suddenly saw the moral light. Likewise, it would be nice to see pigs fly in close formation. Fabulously profitable corporations don’t do ethics. So what changed? Simply this: on 10 December, Mastercard and Visa announced that they had prohibited the use of their cards on Pornhub. It’s the old story, in other words: money talks…

Do read the whole piece.

Yeats’s grave

My photograph yesterday of W.B. Yeats’s grave in Drumcliff Churchyard prompted a delightful letter from Thomas Parkhill:

Nice photo of Yeats’s grave in today’s newsletter. In fact, it may not be Yeats who is buried there. Yeats died in Roquebrune in France, just along the coast from where I live now. He said that he was to be buried in Roquebrune and then, after a year, disinterred and reburied in Sligo. Unfortunately, the second world war broke out, which complicated matters. By the time the transfer to Ireland was arranged, Yeats’s burial site was only vaguely remembered, and there is considerable doubt as to whether it was Yeats, someone else, or a mixture of bones (one account I have read speaks of Yeats’s bones being “assembled” before being handed back to Ireland; this may be as true as any other story about this affair).

There are several good accounts of his last days and subsequent adventures, for example this.

Getting letters like this is one of the delights of blogging. Also confirms my conjecture that there are always readers out there who know more than me.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Paul McCartney’s creativity as a case-study for management theory. He really is a phenomenon. This is Tyler Cowen’s take on the most prolific Beatle. Link
  • The Photographer Who Set Out to Watch Herself Age. Lovely New Yorker piece on Nancy Floyd’s new book, Weathering Time, in which she collects nearly four decades of anti-perfectionist self-portraits. Link
  • Facial Hair Is Biologically Useless. So Why Do Humans Have It? Good question. Link

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!

Saturday 19 December, 2020

Horseman, Pass By

Yeats’s grave, Drumcliff Churchyard, Co. Sligo.

A regular stopping point when we’re in Ireland.

My Quarantine Diary

Find it here

Quote of the Day

”Men are the only animals who devote themselves assiduously to making one another unhappy. It is, I suppose, one of their godlike qualities.”

  • H.L. Mencken

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Michael Haydn | Trumpet concerto in D major, MH 104


New to me, but lovely.

Long Read of the Day

Means of Descent by Rachel Syme

Wonderful interview with Robert Caro, the biographer of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, on writing about political power and the people who wield it.


Newsday had me investigate Moses wanting to build a bridge from Rye to Oyster Bay, and another one from Orient Point to Connecticut. It was the world’s worst idea. It would have required 8 or 10 more lanes on the expressway just to handle the traffic. And it was so long that the piers that would hold it up would have to be so big that they would disrupt the tidal flow in Long Island Sound and cause pollution. So I wrote these stories.

They sent me up to Albany, and I saw Governor Rockefeller and the assembly speaker, and the president of the State Senate. Everyone seemed to know it was the world’s worst idea. So I wrote these stories that the bridge was dead. And about two weeks later, a friend called and said, “Bob, you better come back up here.” And I said something like, “Oh, I don’t think that’s necessary.” But I remember walking into the assembly chamber as they were voting on the next step, and it was some vote like 144-to-3 to authorize it.

I remember thinking in that moment: Everything you have been doing so far is bullshit. That was a moment for me. Everything is based on this feeling that in a democracy power comes from the voters, being elected. But here was a guy who was never elected to anything. A guy who had more power than anyone who was elected, more power than any mayor, more power than any governor, more power than any mayors or governors combined. And he had had this power for 44 years, and with it, had built everything! And I said to myself: You, who are supposed to know something about political power, have not the faintest idea about how it works, and apparently neither does anybody else.


US Army develops a Covid face mask in record time

The U.S. Army has developed a new face mask called the Combat Cloth Face Covering (CCFC). It consists of a piece of cloth and head bands.

Question: how long did this take? Answer: nearly 12 months.

Here’s the story — from Popular Mechanics, which never fails to delight.

U.S. Army soldiers will soon be wearing a new face mask designed to protect them from COVID-19. The Army developed the Combat Cloth Face Covering (CCFC), which is visibly no different from commercial masks designed and brought to market within days of the pandemic, on what the service calls an “expedited timeline.”

But the glacially slow development is yet another dysfunctional procurement program from a service that takes years to purchase something as simple as a handgun.

The CCFC is a face mask in the Army’s Operational Camouflage Pattern (OCP), allowing it to match the appearance of the standard OCP combat uniform. It consists of a piece of OCP cloth, an elastic headband, and a second drawstring band … and that’s pretty much it.

According to the Army:

The CCFC was designed, developed, and produced along an expedited timeline. It normally takes 18–24 months for DLA (Defense Logistics Agency) to have the item available for order once the technical description, design, and components are approved and submitted. The CCFC, from inception to issuance, is slated to take less than one year.

Truly, you couldn’t make this up. Unless, that is, you have never worked in military procurement.

Sadly, though, the story of the Fisher Space Pen — the one with the pressurised refill which enabled it to write in zero-gravity conditions — is an urban legend. Here’s how Wikipedia tells it:

An urban legend states that NASA spent a large amount of money to develop a pen that would write in space (the result purportedly being the Fisher Space Pen), while the Soviets just used pencils. In reality, NASA began to develop a space pen, but when development costs skyrocketed the project was abandoned and astronauts went back to using pencils, along with the Soviets. However, the claim that NASA spent millions on the Space Pen is incorrect, as the Fisher pen was developed using private capital, not government funding. NASA – and the Soviets – eventually began purchasing such pens.

Shame to spoil such a lovely neoliberal story with the mundane truth, but there it is.

I’ve had several Space Pens in my time. Sadly, they’re not as good as they used to be. I’ve found that there’s sometimes leakage from the ballpoint if you keep the pen in a trouser pocket..

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Friday 18 December, 2020


Aldeburgh, Suffolk

My Quarantine Diary

Find it here.

Quote of the Day

“We have the power to do any damn fool thing we want to do, and we seem to do it every ten minutes.”

  • Senator William Fulbright, 1952.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Status Quo | Whatever You Want


The rock cognoscenti are sometimes dismissive about this, but I think its driving energy makes it a quintessential example of classic rock. And I see it’s racked up over 15m views on YouTube, so it must be doing something right. Anyway, if you want to annoy the neighbours, turn up the volume.

Long Read of the Day

 The Scars of Democracy: Theodor Adorno and the crises of liberalism.

Interesting essay by the Harvard historian Peter E. Gordon in The Nation on “Aspects of the new right-wing extremism”, a recently re-discovered lecture Theodor Adorno gave in Vienna on April 6, 1967.

The lecture, writes Gordon,

spoke to the general question of what fascism is and how we should think about challenges to liberal democracy that come from the extreme right. Liberal democracies, Adorno argued, are by their nature fragile; they are riven with contradictions and vulnerable to systemic abuse, and their stated ideals are so frequently violated in practice that they awaken resentment, opposition, and a yearning for extrasystemic solutions. Those who defend democracy must confront the persistent inequalities that breed this resentment and that prevent democracy from becoming what it claims to be.

Readers of Adorno’s lecture today,

cannot help but recognize in his warnings a reflection of the current global situation. In Germany a neofascist resurgence has once again taken root with Alternative für Deutschland, a far-right and anti-immigrant movement that in 2017 secured 94 seats in the Bundestag to become the body’s third-largest party. Across Europe and around the rest of the world, this trend in neofascist or authoritarian politics is now ascendant (in Turkey, Israel, India, Brazil, Russia, Hungary, Poland, and the United States). The extravagant notion that the past is utterly past—that its alterity inhibits us from drawing any analogies across differences of time and space—will hold us in its grip only if we see history as broken into islands, each one obeying laws entirely its own.

Augmented Reality and the Surveillance Society

Short, punchy and really insightful opinion piece by Mark Pesce in IEEE Spectrum about the potential — and dangers — of Augmented Reality

First articulated in a 1965 white paper by Ivan Sutherland, titled “The Ultimate Display,” augmented reality (AR) lay beyond our technical capacities for 50 years. That changed when smartphones began providing people with a combination of cheap sensors, powerful processors, and high-bandwidth networking—the trifecta needed for AR to generate its spatial illusions. Among today’s emerging technologies, AR stands out as particularly demanding—for computational power, for sensed data, and, I’d argue, for attention to the danger it poses.

Unlike virtual-reality (VR) gear, which creates for the user a completely synthetic experience, AR gear adds to the user’s perception of her environment. To do that effectively, AR systems need to know where in space the user is located.

And there’s where the dangers start. Facebook, for example, is working on AR spectacles. When these glasses come to market in a few years, Pesce thinks that they will

transform their users into data-gathering minions for Facebook. Tens, then hundreds of millions of these AR spectacles will be mapping the contours of the world, along with all of its people, pets, possessions, and peccadilloes. The prospect of such intensive surveillance at planetary scale poses some tough questions about who will be doing all this watching and why.

Yeah. And who exactly will be asking these ‘tough’ questions?

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Thursday 17 December, 2020

The road once travelled

Quote of the Day

“Most of the change we think we see in life

Is due to truths being in and out of favour.”

  • Robert Frost, ‘The Black Cottage’, 1914.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Joseph Haydn – Serenade


Long Read of the Day

Concentrate! How a chess grandmaster thinks Lovely essay by Jonathan Rowson. Sample:

Chess invites me to deepen my concentration a few centimetres away from another being who is also trying to concentrate; someone I can smell, sense moving, and hear breathing. I often know, even like, these people, but they loom within my psyche in a relatively impersonal sense – a familiar energy, not friends as such. I sometimes think of chess opponents as psychopathic flatmates with whom I have to share a living space. They look harmless, but I know we signed the same contract that says they need to try to get inside my room, steal my possessions and hunt me down, before killing me; naturally, I am obliged to do the same to them. Together we create a story, and narrative themes such as attack and defence are both reduced and reified into particular moves with particular pieces on particular squares, which we record like stenographers, into our own arcana of algebraic notation. The climax of a game’s story might be ‘Brutal counter-attack!’ but the record merely reflects the logical power of a short sequence of moves, for instance: ‘…34. Bf3 Nh3+ 35.Kh1 Qg4!! Resigns.’

And this:

In his Utopian novel Island (1962), Aldous Huxley depicts ‘reminder birds’ called Mynahs who fly around periodically saying: ‘Attention!’ and ‘Here and now!’ to help bring the inhabitants back to themselves and the present moment. However, if Mynahs were to be released into London, New York, Delhi or Beijing today, it’s not clear what we would be asked to pay attention to or for. Today’s Mynahs are smartphone notifications, which seduce us through our weakness for novelty and coerce us through our fear of missing out, as ubiquitous advertisers, in league with psychographic profilers, harvest our attention as a commodity. Our problem today is not that we don’t or can’t pay attention, but that the systems and structures of society oblige us to pay attention so frequently and fleetingly that we cannot in fact concentrate. Lacking an ability to concentrate, it’s a struggle to construct and maintain a coherent and autonomous sense of self, which leaves us at the mercy of digital, commercial and political puppeteers. Without concentration, we are not free.

Why a Biden landslide didn’t materialise

Probably there are lots of reasons. But I was struck by this NYT interview with Jon Tester, the Democratic Senator from Montana who is also a farmer. The interview is basically about why the Democrats seems to have lost rural America, but this passage in particular stood out:

NYT: Some Democrats believe they are never going to establish a durable Senate majority because of the nature of every state having two senators and the party’s difficulties with rural voters. When you hear that, does that tick you off?

Yeah, it does. Yeah, it does.


Because the problem isn’t that the country’s skewed against the Democrats; the problem is that the Democrats have not done a very good job talking about what we believe in.

If there’s one mistake that is made way, way, way too often by folks in public service, it’s that you walk into a room and who does most of the talking? The senator.

Now, some forums that’s what the people want. But for the most part if you’re in a town hall, and you let people tell you what they’re thinking, let them tell you what’s going on — and then search into your mental database to find out if there’s anything that we’ve done to help solve that problem — then maybe you can have a conversation. But to walk in and say, “You need to think this, and this is what I believe is the right thing to think,” that switch goes off.

And then I find that this point has been taken up by Dave Winer on his blog:

The key point that the Democrats keep missing is that we want to do more. We will give you money and we will vote, but that’s not all we can do. Each of has special talents, abilities. Some of us have more time to give than others. But almost to a person, we want to be part of this, not spectators. Trump kind of got that, with his rallies. He didn’t condescend. He included them in his speeches. Talked to them like humans. This stuff isn’t hard, you have have to try to see things differently. We’re not just dollars and votes. # I’d like to hear Biden say, when asked if the US can get rid of the virus, hell yeah we can. This is what we’re good at. It’s why we invested in the military and science, to protect our people from deadly threats. Here’s the plan, here’s the timetable, and here’s how you particpate. #

The Dems talk about Americans, but rarely talk to Americans.

Senator Tester is also good on the mysterious way that Trump seemed to connect with people in rural America.

There’s no doubt about it, he has an appeal in rural America. I can’t figure it out, but there’s no denying it.

But I will also tell you I think there’s a long-term structural issue. And by the way, I’ve had this conversation with Chuck Schumer (the Senate Democratic leader) several times — that we have to do a better job developing a message so that rural Americans can say, “Yeah, those guys, they think like I do.” Because that’s what Trump has right now.

I can go into the list of things that might be insane about this president, but the truth is that rural people connect more with a millionaire from New York City than they do with the Democrats that are in national positions.

Facebook is developing a tool to summarise articles so you don’t have to read them

From Buzzfeed

Facebook told employees on Tuesday that it’s developing a tool to summarize news articles so users won’t have to read them. It also laid out early plans for a neural sensor to detect people’s thoughts and translate them into action.

Those announcements and product demos were part of an end-of-year, companywide meeting at the social networking giant, whose year has been pockmarked by controversy, employee discontent, and multiple state and federal antitrust lawsuits. BuzzFeed News obtained audio of the meeting, which was not public but was broadcast virtually to thousands of employees.

Led by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the meeting featured a slew of prerecorded company executives, some of whom called 2020 a trying year as the company weathered a global pandemic and the backlash of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans.

Despite the turmoil, the company’s leaders said the social networking company has moved forward, adding some 20,000 new workers this year. With more people around the world at home, the company has experienced record usage, said Facebook Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer. Traffic throughout March was akin to New Year’s Day, typically Facebook’s busiest period of the year, he added.

“Our investments in technology aren’t just about keeping our services running,” he said, comparing the speed of Facebook’s improvements in messaging to the advancement of the COVID-19 vaccine. “We are paving the way for breakthrough new experiences that, without hyperbole, will improve the lives of billions.”

Oh yeah? This is another twist in the evolution of what Frank Pasquale calls the automated public sphere

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • The Fake News Immunity Chatbot. Linkl
  • Kangaroos can ‘communicate’ with humans, study finds. This is sweet. Link
  • Build your own earthquake detector — using a Raspberry Pi. Link The ingenious uses people find for this wonderful little computer never cease to amaze me. (And makes me ashamed that I only use it for mundane things like email, writing and browsing the Web.)

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