Friday 2 October, 2020

If only…

Arles, July 2017.


Quote of the Day

”Writing a novel does not become easier with practice.”

  • Graham Greene

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

John Field: Nocturne No. 10 in E minor

Link


EU plans for controlling tech companies

Politico has obtained a leaked copy of measures that EU regulators are considering imposing on certain kinds of tech companies. Cory Doctorow has provided a neat annotated list on Pluralistic.net.

First of all, stuff that the EU is considering prohibiting:

  • Mining your customers’ data to compete with them or advertise to their customers (think: Facebook Like buttons on publisher pages, Amazon’s own-brand competitors)

  • Mixing third-party data with surveillance data you gather yourself (like Facebook buying credit bureaux data), without user permission (which is the same as never because no one in the world wants this)

  • Ranking your own offerings above your competitors (think: Google Shopping listings at the top of search results)

  • Pre-installing your own apps on devices (like Ios and Android do) or requiring third party device makers to install your apps (as Android does)

  • Using DRM [Digital Rights Management] or terms to service to prevent users from uninstalling preinstalled apps (no immortal shovelware)

  • Exclusivity deals – mobile OS/device companies can’t force an app vendor to sell only through the app, and not on the open web

  • Using DRM or terms of service to prevent sideloading

  • Nondisparagement/confidentiality clauses that would prevent your suppliers from complaining about your monopolistic behavior

  • Tying email to other services – you have to be able to activate an Android device without a Gmail account

  • Automatically logging users into one service on the basis that they’re logged into another one (eg using Gmail doesn’t automatically log you into Youtube)

Then there are projected new ‘requirements’ that companies will have to provide:

  • Annual transparency reports that make public the results of an EU-designed audit that assesses compliance

  • Annual algorithmic transparency reports that disclose a third-party audit of “customer profiling” and “cross-service tracking”

  • Compliance documents showing current practices, on demand by regulators

  • Advance notice of all mergers and acquisitions

  • An internal compliance officer who oversees the business

This is an interesting leak, not so much for the specific kinds of measures that they are contemplating, but as revealing the general conception of regulation that underpins EU thinking. In a way, it’s as if they are regarding tech companies much as we regard banks. That may work in some circs. But it may also reflect an inadequate conception of the power of tech companies.


The mystery of John Banville’s mysteries

Lovely essay in the NYT by Charles McGrath about John Banville and the background to his forthcoming novel Snow:

The Irish novelist John Banville is a famous perfectionist — the kind of writer who can spend a day on a single sentence. His books, most written in the first person, are lapidary, intricate, Nabokovian. Or just difficult, some readers have complained, more interested in style than in storytelling. They invariably come laden with words that seem meant to prove his vocabulary is bigger than yours: flocculent, crapulent, caducous, anaglypta, mephitic, velutinous.

A Banville novel typically takes four or five painful years to complete, after which the author is still dissatisfied. In a 2009 interview, he told The Paris Review that he hated his own books. “They’re an embarrassment and a deep source of shame,” he said, and then added: “They’re better than everybody else’s, of course, but not good enough for me.”

In March 2005, however, while staying at a friend’s house in Italy, Banville sat down one morning and for some reason began writing a mystery novel set in 1950s Dublin. By lunchtime he had 1,500 words — or a week’s worth at his usual pace. He thought to himself, “John Banville, you slut,” but kept going and finished in five or six months. “I was a little appalled at the speed with which I got the thing done,” he said in a recent email. He had been reading Simenon — though not the Inspector Maigret crime novels — and was inspired by him to see what could be accomplished with a narrow vocabulary and a spare, straightforward style.

Many years ago I wrote a few pieces for the Irish Times when Banville was the paper’s Literary Editor. The striking thing (to me) when dropping in copy was the way everybody referred to him as “Mr. Banville”. Even then he was just like his writing: fastidious, distant, intimidating. Looks like he hasn’t changed. But he’s a terrific writer, so he’s excused normality.

The NYT piece has a couple of terrific photographs of him, btw.


What Trump’s tax-returns tell us

Basically, that he’s incapable of running a business.

All of his casinos, property developments, etc. have been commercial disasters. The one thing that really worked for him was his spell on The Apprentice and the celebrity status that that gave him, which he then assiduously leveraged by endorsements and lending his name to various ventures. He earned a staggering amount from that alone. He then spent a lot of those earnings on buying hotels and 15 golf courses in various parts of the US and the world (including, as I now know, one in Ireland). But these are proper businesses and he can’t run such things, so some of them have been bleeding money over the years.

By 2016, his earnings from the celebrity glow of The Apprentice were declining rapidly (all celebrity has a half-life) and he had an urgent need to find a new way of rekindling it because of the losses on the golf and hotel businesses.

So here’s my idea for a comic novel based on these circumstances…

Trump’s big idea for reigniting his celebrity status was that running for president would be a way to do it. Think of all the free publicity. His name in lights every day on cable TV, etc. So he decided to run. The end-game would be that he could then start his own TV network — Trump TV — challenging Fox and Murdoch and becoming a new media mogul. The idea was not to be elected: even his narcissism didn’t make him think that he might succeed. The celebrity-enhancement flowing from the campaign was the goal. Trump didn’t actually want to be president: too much like hard work.

Far-fetched? Hey — this is a novel, remember. Pure fiction. No requirement to adhere to the facts.

But… Michael Lewis’s terrific book, The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy opens with the night of the election and the stunned astonishment in the Trump campaign team at what was unfolding. It was one long “Oh, shit!!!!!” Moment. The plan had backfired. They had actually won the election. Trump was going to have to be President!

Lewis points out that when Trump won the Republican nomination he was astonished and infuriated that he was now obliged, by law, to start forming a Transition Team to plan for forming an Administration. And he did everything in his power to hobble that process.

The New York Times’s exposé of his tax returns adds the final touch necessary for the plot of my comic novel. Their analysis suggests that Trump is now personally liable for something like $400m of debts for which he is the sole guarantor. The banks who are on the hook for that can’t touch him while he’s President. But if he loses…. Well, next stop the bankruptcy court, or worse. No wonder he’s desperate not to lost the election.


More on how to model (and explain) the spread of Covid-19

Further to my post yesterday about Zeynep Tufecki’s fascinating article on why focussing simply on R0, the reproduction rate for Covid-19 might be misleading because it misses the importance of ‘super-spreading’ events, Seb Schmoller pointed out a new research paper published by the Royal Society the other day which appears to support Tufecki’s line of argument.

Here’s the Abstract of the paper:

The basic reproduction number ℛ0 of the coronavirus disease 2019 has been estimated to range between 2 and 4. Here, we used an SEIR model that properly accounts for the distribution of the latent period and, based on empirical estimates of the doubling time in the near-exponential phases of epidemic progression in China, Italy, Spain, France, UK, Germany, Switzerland and New York State, we estimated that ℛ0 lies in the range 4.7–11.4. We explained this discrepancy by performing stochastic simulations of model dynamics in a population with a small proportion of super-spreaders. The simulations revealed two-phase dynamics, in which an initial phase of relatively slow epidemic progression diverts to a faster phase upon appearance of infectious super-spreaders. Early estimates obtained for this initial phase may suggest lower ℛ0.

The key sentence in the concluding section reads:

Spatial heterogeneity of the epidemic spread observed in many European countries, including Italy, Spain and Germany, can be associated with larger or smaller super-spreading events that initiated outbreaks in particular regions of these countries.

This is just the latest demonstration of how limited our understanding of this pandemic is — still. We’re learning as we go, but without a good understanding of the dynamics of infection and spread, we’re driving by looking in the rear-view mirror.


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Tuesday 29 September, 2020

“Which bit of ‘No’ don’t you understand?

From the Comedy Wildlife photography awards


Quote of the Day

”God give me the strength to ignore the news that won’t change anyone’s mind, the energy to engage with the news that might, and the wisdom to know the difference.” * Elizabeth Ayer in a tweet.

Thanks to Quentin for spotting it.


Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Regina Spektor – “Better”

Link

One of my favourite songs.


Every picture tells a story

Jason Kottke (whom God preserve) had this striking photograph on his blog. It shows Thomas Jefferson and his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson, Shannon LaNier. It comes from an article in the Smithsonian Magazine about an intriguing project of the photographer Drew Gardner, in which he takes takes photographs of people done up to look like their famous ancestors.

The description of Jefferson’s portrait on the White House website says that it

was completed in Philadelphia before mid-May 1800 when he left that capital for Monticello. The face has the glow of health, a warm complexion. The sitter here looks directly at us and does so with candor, as our equal. The splendid eyes and mouth convey reason and tolerance.

You can guess by now that there’s a ‘but’ coming…

At odds with that glowing description, writes Jason,

“is Shannon LaNier’s very existence; he’s here today because Thomas Jefferson raped his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Sally Hemings. Says LaNier of Jefferson: He was a brilliant man who preached equality, but he didn’t practice it. He owned people. And now I’m here because of it.”

There’s an interesting video on the Smithsonian site about how the portrait was made and LaNier’s thoughts about it.

Someone once told me a story about JFK’s White House dinner for all living American Nobel laureates. Standing on the balcony after the meal a member of the Cabinet observed that there was more collective IQ in the Executive Mansion that night than at any time in history. “Yes”, Kennedy is supposed to have said, “except when Thomas Jefferson dined alone”. I don’t know if the story is true: if it is, I guess it was intended to burnish JFK’s ‘Camelot’ image as a man of culture.

It might have succeeded then, but it certainly wouldn’t now.


Trump’s tax returns (contd.)

From Quartz this morning:

In the mid-2000s, Donald Trump was drowning financially. That’s when NBC and The Apprentice threw him a life raft. According to a New York Times report on the US president’s taxes, Trump made $427 million off his 50% stake in the show and its subsequent licensing deals. Here’s a brief timeline of how the highly-rated program saved his finances:

2004: The Apprentice debuts on NBC.

2004–2015: Trump dumps proceeds from the show into purchasing 13 golf courses.

June 2015: Trump is fired from The Apprentice over racist comments made while announcing his presidential run.

September 2015: Arnold Schwarzenneger is announced as Trump’s replacement on The New Celebrity Apprentice.

November 2016: Trump wins the electoral college vote and becomes president-elect.

January 2017: The New Celebrity Apprentice debuts on NBC with Trump as executive producer.

August 2017: The show is canceled after one season.

2018: Trump pays just $750 of federal income tax for the prior year.


In praise of uncommon readers

I admire people who read both widely and well. My colleague Diane Coyle is one. So is Tyler Cowen. And so is Venkatash Rao. Last week I came on his notes on reading Kenneth Brower’s The Starship and the Canoe, a compelling and unusual biography of a famous father (Freeman Dyson) and his son (George Dyson). This came as a shock because although I’ve read all of George’s books and lots of Freeman’s articles and essays, I hadn’t known about Brower’s book. You can guess the rest — it’s now on order!


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Sunday 23 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

”To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night, Socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about.”

  • George Orwell

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Pete Seeger: Where have all the flowers gone?

Link

It’s magical sometimes when — as happens here — an artist in a live concert embarks on a well-known and much-loved song and the audience joins in.

I’ve been to a few concerts where this happened. The most vivid memory I have is of a concert given by the Irish folk group Altan. They come from a small village in Co Donegal, but even after they became world-famous they used to come back home once a year to give a concert for the locals. I was lucky to go to one of these events on a glorious Summer evening in an hotel just outside the village of Glencolumbkille. The connection between the band and the audience was positively visceral. Everybody knew everybody else. Half-way through, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, the lead singer and co-founder of the group, embarked on Green Grow the Rushes-oh. Here’s a sample from a studio recording…

Link

After a few bars, the next time she came to the chorus, Mairéad went quiet, and the audience, without missing a beat, kept it going, softly, with the odd bit of harmony. It was an electrifying moment that I will never forget.

Thanks to Janet Cobb for suggesting Pete Seeger.


All hail the California court that put the brakes on Uber and co

This morning’s Observer column:

Last Monday, the superior court of California handed down a landmark judgment that looks like taking the wind out of the sails of at least some parts of the “gig economy”. The case was brought by the attorney general of the state of California, together with the city attorneys of Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, on the basis that the ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft have “misclassified their drivers as independent contractors rather than employees” in violation of a Californian law that took effect in January. This statute is intended to ensure that all workers who meet its criteria receive the basic rights and protections guaranteed to employees under California law.

The companies opposed this idea, for the understandable (but of course unstated) reason that complying with the law would blow their business models to smithereens. In submissions concealed under three coats of prime legal verbiage, they sought to have the hearing delayed until after the November presidential election, complained that the attorneys general should not have lumped them together (they are, after all, commercial rivals) and that judgment should be deferred until all the other cases concerning them in the US and elsewhere should be decided. Guardian Today: the headlines, the analysis, the debate – sent direct to you Read more

Judge Ethan Schulman was not impressed by these arguments…

Read on


Reflections on the Democratic National Convention…

On Thursday I blogged about Obama’s speech, and on Friday I wrote about Kamala Harris. I think she was a shrewd choice of running-mate for lots of reasons, but her record of being close to the Silicon Valley crowd bothered me because I think it’s important that a Biden administration should tackle the problems for democracy posed by these unaccountable tech giants. On the other hand, as Obama warned, there is a bigger problem looming than tech monopoly — the future of democracy itself in the US, and that should, er, trump all other concerns just now. What matters most is that Trump should not get a second term.

Looking back on the week, and the convention, I’ve been reading lots of commentary. A few things stood out…

Russell Berman is right about Obama’s speech: he’s switched from hope to fear as the motivating factor:

As Obama railed against the “cynicism” that he said Trump was relying on to win, and then as he recalled the sacrifices of those who were spit on and beaten as they fought for the right to vote, he seemed almost on the verge of tears. It didn’t seem like an act. If the former president hadn’t previously seen the need to tear into Trump for the sake of the country, what are Democrats to make of the fact that now, apparently, he does? Obama, suddenly a gray-haired father figure to his party, no longer sounded merely disappointed—he seemed frightened.

Spot on. Obama was no longer in his customary ‘professorial’ mode: he sees a second Trump term as an existential threat to democracy in America. And he’s right.

And Dave Winer had this sobering reflection:

Racism and misogyny are on the ballot this year. Even white men can now feel the effects. I think that’s what the last twelve years in the US have been about. Here’s the story. George W. Bush was so awful, we needed an antidote, and we liked Obama. We liked how sassy he was, and smart, and how well he spoke, his confidence and ambition. The whole package. It was his moment. Trump is the reaction because there were a lot of Americans who felt tremendous fear and resentment in having a young sassy (they’d probably say uppity) black man as president, no matter that he brought the economy back from the wreck that the Repubs left us. Remember how they drove it into a ditch. #

So in 2016 it was Trump vs HRC. But before that it was Sanders vs HRC. That’s where I, a white man, learned how men keep women down. In the debates I was so angry that Sanders interrupted and screamed over HRC, his arms waved into her space. She had to take it. Could she respond in kind? No way. Not sure what the women’s equivalent of uppity is, but it’s a real thing. And because she was my candidate, I felt it, felt it in a way I had never felt it before. I was enraged by it. But it seems most people couldn’t even see it. #

The people who hated that a black man was president sure as hell weren’t going to follow him with a woman president. No matter that she’s smart as a whip, would have been a great president, and look who she was running against. What a slap in the face for women as equals — that so many people chose a huckster, buffoon, Putin surrogate, man-child, tax evader, draft dodger, rich kid, criminal, instead of HRC. It really says something.#

This morning while getting ready to write it hit me. The last four years have been a symbolic lynching of Barack Obama. Anyone who still approves of Trump, if they have a mind, must be driven by rage, the kind of rage that results in a young confident black man being strung up on a tree. They’re willing to let a virus decimate the country in order to express their rage. Anyone who votes for Trump this time, imho, should lose the right to call themselves an American.

In today’s Observer, Edward Helmore spotted something really interesting in Biden’s speech — his adoption of a few lines from Seamus Heaney, specifically from The Cure at Troy, Seamus Heaney’s free translation of Sophocles’s Philoctetes.

History says,
Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

Helmore’s piece consulted Roy Foster, who is currently writing a book about Heaney (and who has written a magisterial two-volume biography of W.B. Yeats).

“Biden apparently is a reader of poetry, and read Yeats and Heaney to improve his stutter,” Foster said. “He has spoken about his admiration for Irish poetry. So he was coming from a background of literacy. Coming up against a functionally illiterate president, it is quite a contrast.”

Sophocles’ play, first performed in 409BC, is about how a bitter division was overcome between the archer Philoctetes, left on Lemnos with a festering wound – a snake bite – and Odysseus, who needed his help in the Trojan War. Heaney’s 1991 translation speaks directly to Northern Ireland – his birthplace – and its conflicts.

“Heaney altered the weight of the play to place great emphasis on Neoptolemus, the go-between figure, an honourable, decent man, so the play is in many ways about negotiation,” Foster said. The former senator has quoted it at least five times before, including at the tail end of his nomination campaign, when he again turned to Heaney’s “longed-for tidal wave of justice”.

Biden was deliberately using it as a reconciliatory metaphor, Foster said, adding: “America is an immensely divided society at the moment. So for him to use it as what – for some Americans – will be an arcane poetic tag is an interesting, highly literate and culturally ambitious approach. It was unexpected from him.”

One interesting thing is that Trump seemed unable to respond to this literary reference. Presumably he has no idea who Heaney was, never mind Sophocles.


Summer books #12

Humankind: a Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman,

If ever there were a book for the pandemic, then this is it. The paradox it addresses is how a pervasive conviction that people are intrinsically selfish, vindictive and untrustworthy can be squared with the fact that in most situations of crisis humans behave sensibly, cooperatively and often generously. Why is it that we assume that William Golding’s Lord of the Flies provides a perceptive and accurate insight into human nature, when the evidence — even in a real-life case of schoolboys marooned on a desert island — says exactly the opposite? This is the “veneer theory” of human nature: the view that civilised behaviour is just a thin veneer which when shattered by events reveals a dark underside. Rutger argues that this cognitive dissonance can be — and often is — viciously circular. If we expect people to be evil, then we will treat them accordingly, and things spiral downwards from there.

I’m only part-way through the book, but am finding it immensely readable and stimulating. The work it most reminds me of is Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, which similarly challenged another pervasive (and erroneous) conviction. My personal experience of local responses to the Coronovirus pandemic has corroborated Rutger’s argument. Most people I know have behaved calmly, generously and supportively. Sure, there have been incidents of panic-buying (remember the toilet-paper shortage), irresponsible partying, etc. But on the whole the crisis seems to confirm an optimistic view of human nature.


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Wednesday 12 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

”It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.”

  • Abraham Maslow (he of the famous ‘hierarchy of needs’)

Reminds me of Geoffrey Vickers, the wisest man I ever knew. In a conversation towards the end of his long life he said to me, “The hardest thing in life is to know what to want; most people never figure it out, so they wind up pretending that they wanted what they could get”.


Musical alternative to this morning’s news

Ringo Starr, Robbie Robertson and a host of other musicians in a terrific Internet-wide performance of ‘The Weight’

If this isn’t an alternative to the news, then I don’t know what is. Fans of the movie Easy Rider will doubtless remember the tune.

Link


Sharpies, Covid and re-opening schools

Astonishing post in McSweeney’s by a teacher in the US.

I’m thinking about one Sharpie pen in particular. It’s black, medium thickness. And it stays in the blue emergency bag that I keep on the filing cabinet closest to my classroom door. Our school’s emergency bags are remarkably sparse. No band-aids, no first aid materials. We have one flashlight, one sign with my name to help my students find our class if they get separated during a mass exodus, one copy of my class rosters, and one Sharpie marker. Why a marker? Someone asked that very question at a staff meeting. The nurse explained, in a completely emotionless tone, that the Sharpie was so we could identify students and write their names on their bodies in the event of an incident.

She was vague, but we all knew exactly what she was saying. You have a marker in case someone armed with a military-style assault rifle strolls onto campus and starts murdering your co-workers and students. When the shooting stops, we need you to walk through the carnage of your classroom, checking for signs of life. And where there is none, take out that marker and write the name of that precious child, that beautiful life snuffed out too early. She didn’t tell us where we were supposed to write the name — on an arm? A leg? But nobody asked any more questions. We shuffled out of the library silently.

That Sharpie tells me everything I need to know about teaching through COVID. We could have poured resources into prevention. We could’ve spent all summer enforcing mask use and social distancing. We could’ve sacrificed small pleasures for the greater good. We could’ve kept this from happening. But instead, we’re blindly barreling toward reopening even though we know teachers and students will die. We’re going to treat COVID the same way we treat school shootings. An unfortunate but unavoidable cost to doing business. There will be some new morbid addition to the emergency bag. Some simple tool made macabre by the expectation for its use. And like we always do, we will ask our teachers to stand in the doorways and use our bodies as human shields. And if we make it out alive, we’ll be the ones tasked with walking through the wreckage and counting the bodies.


How Covid is hollowing out ‘unsustainable’ Manhattan

Interesting (but not surprising) NYT piece.

[Image credit: New York Times]

For four months, the Victoria’s Secret flagship store at Herald Square in Manhattan has been closed and not paying its $937,000 monthly rent. “It will be years before retail has even a chance of returning to New York City in its pre-Covid form,” the retailer’s parent company recently told its landlord in a legal document.

Wow! A million bucks a month in rent! How much lingerie do you have to sell to justify that?

(Full disclosure: I’ve never been in a Victoria’s Secret store, so I don’t know what her secret was/is. Clearly I should have got out more when I still could.)


Democracy for losers

Long read of the Day.

Remarkable essay by Jan-Werner Müller which puts Trump’s pre-emptive strikes against the legitimacy of the forthcoming election in context.

The TL;DR summary is: since populist politians represent “the people” they cannot, by definition, be the losers in an election. So if, in fact, they lose, then the election must be rigged.

The most interesting part of the essay is his exploration of the fact that democracy only works if the losers accept that they’ve lost. And of course this is also its great weakness, if there are parties around who refuse the accept the possibility that the people might have chosen others than them.

Worth reading in full. Müller’s book on populism is very good, btw.


Summer reading #2

Zachary Carter’s life of Keynes is the best biography I’ve read in years. Admittedly, this may be a reflection of the fact that I’ve been fascinated by Keynes for a very long time. I learned a lot about the man that I should have known but didn’t, and it gave me the context I lacked when I first embarked, many years ago, on Keynes’s General Theory.

In fact — as a wise and scholarly friend of mine observed — it’s really two biographies, because Keynes dies about half way through: the first is a biography of the man; the second is a biography of Keynesianism, the economic (and democratic) philosophy that he inspired. Both ‘books’ matter, and the second really helps one to understand how the world we inhabit today was shaped.

One of the things I was grateful to the lockdown for was that it gave me the time — and the excuse — to read this terrific work.


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Saturday 4 July, 2020

Quote of the Day

Rich, fabulous people are the ideal billboards for luxury brands. Our nation’s best universities have adopted the same strategy. Universities are no longer nonprofits, but the highest-gross-margin luxury brands in the world. Another trait of a luxury brand is the illusion of scarcity. Over the last 30 years, the number of applicants to Stanford has tripled, while the size of the freshman class has remained static. Harvard and Stanford have become finishing school for the global wealthy.

  • Scott Galloway

Carl Reiner RIP

A giant of American comedy has died at the age of 98. He was still writing up to the day he passed away.

He was a great writer for TV — creator of the Dick Van Dyke Show which ran from 1961 to 1966 and earned him six Emmy awards. As a comedian, he was the consummate straight man. For a snatch of it, hear him with his pal Mel Brooks in a routine they developed which became The 2000 year old man.

Link

And if you have time, this is a wonderful TV interview they did in 2000:

Link


“Ghislaine, Is That You?”: Inside Ghislaine Maxwell’s Life on the Lam

This Vanity Fair report by Mark Seal on the hunt for Geoffrey Epstein’s (and Prince Andrew’s) friend — and alleged procurer — is a terrific long read.

Sample:

After Epstein’s death, Maxwell disappeared from view entirely, leaving the courts, the media, his victims, and a transfixed and horrified public focused on a single question: Where in the world was Ghislaine Maxwell? Everyone, it seemed, had a theory, each wilder than the last. She was said to be hiding deep beneath the sea in a submarine, which she was licensed to pilot. Or she was lying low in Israel, under the protection of the Mossad, the powerful intelligence agency with whom her late father supposedly tangled. Or she was in the FBI witness protection program, or ensconced in luxury in a villa in the South of France, or sunning herself naked on the coast of Spain, or holed up in a high-security doomsday bunker belonging to rich and powerful friends whose lives might implode should Maxwell ever reveal what she knows—all the dirty secrets of the dirty world that she and Epstein shared.

I expect Prince Andrew is not enjoying it, though — any more than he enjoyed Marina Hyde’s latest piece in the Guardian.


Lockdown and summer reading – 2

From Martin’s Wolf’s list

Martin Wolf is one of my favourite commentators. He’s very serious, knowledgeable and, in a word, wise. Several times a year he produces a long list of books he’s read and finds worth recommending. This is my distillation of his Summer Books list.

  • Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Princeton University Press. This is about why mortality rates of middle-aged White Americans stopped falling in the 21st century and — have been rising for non-college-educated men. Wolf calls this a “seminal” book, and he’s right. I’ve been reading it. The German magazine Der Spiegel did a long interview with the authors recently which is worth reading. Here’s a slightly critical review, and a more appreciative NYT review.

  • Radical Uncertainty: Decision-Making Beyond the Numbers by John Kay and Mervyn King. The future isn’t calculable, so why do we believe that it is (or might be)? The right approach, Kay and King argue, is to accept that we don’t live in a world of calculable risk, but of radical uncertainty. Brief NYT review here.

  • Capital and Ideology by Thomas Piketty, Belknap Press. This is other big book of the year, in both senses. It’s huge — over 1000 pages; and it has an amazing historical sweep. It is, says Wolf, “an immense work of scholarship on the history of inequality”. The Boston Review published a terrific, far-ranging review. I read Piketty’s previous best-seller and am contemplating embarking on this. But on the other hand there are only 24 hours in the day, even under lockdown.

  • Uncharted: How to Map the Future Together by Margaret Heffernan, Simon & Schuster. Argues that we should wean ourselves off attempting precise ‘prediction’ and focus instead on preparedness, adaptability and robustness. This is the book that Dominic Cummings, with his delusions about ‘superforecasting’ ought to read. But I doubt that he will.


Monty’s message

My wife’s late father was in the Normandy Landings in June 1944 and she’s been going through his archive where she came on this rousing exhortation from Field-Marshal Montgomery, who — as you can see from the general tone — was clearly one of Boris Johnson’s spiritual forebears.

Monty was also (like Johnson) a prime pain in the ass, and one of the most astute decisions the Allies made in planning Operation Overlord was to make Eisenhower Supreme Commander rather than him.


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Tuesday 16 June, 2020 – Bloomsday

Happy Bloomsday!

June 16, 1904 is the day in which all the action in Joyce’s great modernist novel, Ulysses, takes place. Since the 1950s the day has been celebrated by Joyce enthusiasts all over the world, usually by meetings, readings, lunches, talks, performances — all events that involve people meeting in groups, and therefore difficult or impossible in many locations today.

Hopefully, next year will be different. And 2022 will mark the centenary of the publication of the novel, so that should be fun.

But that doesn’t mean one can’t read from it today. There’s a good annotated version of the text on Wikisource if you don’t possess a copy or if the novel is new to you.


Permanent secretaries ‘not aware of any economic planning for a pandemic’

From today’s Guardian:

Two of the government’s most powerful civil servants have said they were not aware of any attempt to make economic preparations for a possible global pandemic in the years leading up to the coronavirus outbreak.

Sir Tom Scholar and Alex Chisholm, the permanent secretaries in the Treasury and the Cabinet Office respectively, confirmed that although the government simulated an international flu outbreak in 2016, Whitehall did not devise a plan for dealing with the consequences for the economy.

Instead, Scholar told MPs, civil servants devised schemes to help businesses “as they went along”. The disclosure, made before the public accounts committee, prompted its chair, Labour’s Meg Hillier, to say she was “dumbstruck”.

Scholar and Chisholm appeared before the committee on Monday to answer questions about the government’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak. The Conservative MP James Wild asked them whether they were aware of an economic plan equivalent to Exercise Cygnus, the 2016 simulation that involved 950 emergency planning officials.

Scholar, who joined the Treasury in 1992, replied: “We developed our economic response in the weeks leading up to the budget. I don’t know to what extent the Treasury was involved in that exercise.”

Referring to the schemes devised to help businesses during the pandemic, Scholar added: “We didn’t have these schemes ready and designed and ready to go. We have been designing them as we have gone along.”

Why are we not surprised? In one way, the whole Coronavirus shambles is a story of the loss of state capacity.


America’s democratic unravelling

From an essay by Daron Acemomoglu of MIT in Foreign Affairs:

Institutional collapse often resembles bankruptcy, at least the way Mike Campbell experienced it in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “gradually and then suddenly.” As James Robinson and I argue in our recent book, The Narrow Corridor, democratic institutions restrain elected leaders by enabling a delicate balance of oversight by different branches of government (legislature and the judiciary) and political action by regular people, whether in the form of voting in elections or exerting pressure via protest. But democratic institutions rest on norms—compromise, cooperation, respect for the truth—and are bolstered by an active, self-confident citizenry and a free press. When democratic values come under attack and the press and civil society are neutralized, the institutional safeguards lose their power. Under such conditions, the transgressions of those in power go unpunished or become normalized. The gradual erosion of checks and balances thus gives way to sudden institutional collapse.

By refusing to disclose his tax returns, openly pursuing policies that serve his family’s financial interests, vilifying Hispanic and Muslim Americans, propagating conspiracy theories, and relentlessly lying to the press, the president has left practically no norm of democratic governance unviolated.

The United States is currently working through the later chapters of this same authoritarian playbook, which Trump adopted early in his presidency. By dismissing concerns about Russian interference in the U.S. election, refusing to disclose his tax returns, openly pursuing policies that serve his family’s financial interests, vilifying Hispanic and Muslim Americans, propagating conspiracy theories, and relentlessly lying to the press, the president has left practically no norm of democratic governance unviolated. These actions not only weakened the institutions that are supposed to restrain the president but also further polarized the U.S. electorate, creating a constituency that unconditionally supports Trump out of fear that the Democrats will take power. Having destroyed many Americans’ trust in their country’s democratic institutions, Trump has set about destroying the institutions themselves, one oversight mechanism at a time.

That’s why the November election is so important. If Trump is defeated, then there’s a chance that American institutions will recover. If he wins then I think the game’s over.


Quarantine diary — Day 87

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Friday 10 April, 2020

It might come to that yet. Some of the largest producers of wheat and rice, namely Kazakhstan and Vietnam, have suspended exports. This suggests that they may be anticipating severe disruption to their domestic supplies. The UK imports 50% of some of the foodstuffs we consume.


Sure, the lockdown saves lives that might otherwise be lost to Covid-19. But what about the avoidable deaths it might also be causing?

Fraser Nelson, the Editor of The Spectator has a startling article in today’s Daily Telegraph about the other side of social distancing and self-isolation. Here’s the core bit that struck me:

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, had been working with the Prime Minister on the next step: how to stop the end of lockdown being seen as a question of “lives vs money”. As a former economic adviser, Hancock is certainly mindful of the money: a £200 billion deficit could mean another decade of austerity. But other figures – infections, mortality rates and deaths – are rightly holding the national attention. Phasing out the lockdown needs to be spoken about in terms of lives vs lives. Or, crudely, whether lockdown might end up costing more lives than the virus.

Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, has worried about this from the offset. In meetings he often stresses that a pandemic kills people directly, and indirectly. A smaller economy means a poorer society and less money for the NHS – eventually. But right now, he says, there will be parents avoiding the NHS, not vaccinating their children – so old diseases return. People who feel a lump now may not get it checked out. Cancer treatment is curtailed. Therapy is abandoned.

Work is being done to add it all up and produce a figure for “avoidable deaths” that could, in the long-term, be caused by lockdown. I’m told the early attempts have produced a figure of 150,000, far greater than those expected to die of Covid.

Nelson is pretty well-connected, so there might be something in this. And, as he points out, all of these numbers come from modelling studies, so should be treated cautiously. But, he says, estimates of lockdown victims are being shared among those in government who worry about the social damage now underway: the domestic violence, the depression, even suicides accompanying the mass bankruptcies. But since these are deaths that may, or may not, show up in national figures in a year’s time, it’s hard to weigh them up against a virus whose victims are being counted every day.

What all of this says to me is that the only reasonable way forward is gradual easing accompanied by dramatic increases in the production of N95 masks.


“War” is the wrong framing for this crisis

I’m as remiss as everyone else in thinking about the current crisis as a ‘war’ against the virus. So one resolution I’ve made today is to avoid using the metaphor in future.

Of course some of the measures now in force in the UK and elsewhere are reminiscent of ‘real’ wartime (e.g. 1939-1946). The burgeoning political talk about an “exit strategy” is likewise misleading, because it implies that, one day, victory over the virus will be achieved. In that sense it’s a bit like the so-called ‘war on terror’, which is really a war on an idea — and therefore never-ending.

There is no end to this, because the virus is a product of nature, and nature will be around long after humans have disappeared from the earth.

Besides, if the virus is an adversary, then it seems to hold most of the cards. It has reduced us to huddling in our caves, for example, while it does its own thing regardless. The human delusion of ‘taming’ nature was always hubris. Now we’re coming to terms with the inevitable nemesis.

And of course this is a tea-party compared to climate change.


Quarantine reading: Emily Wilson

The TLS has a nice compendium of what its various writers and reviewers are reading under lockdown. I was struck by this passage from Emily Wilson’s notes:

In my minimal work time, I am engaged in my translation of the Iliad. I’m now in the throes of Book 5, in which Diomedes confronts the gods on the battlefield. The idea of theomachy – in which a mortal human being grapples with immortal, unkillable, superhuman forces – takes on a new resonance now that far-shooting Apollo, god of plague, has afflicted our world with Covid-19. I began working on this translation at a time when the theme of sudden premature violent death, afflicting vast numbers of the population and bringing down prosperous cities and cultures, seemed relatively distant from my lived reality. Now, I feel haunted in new ways by the poem’s awareness that people can die far from home, far from their loved ones; that wealthy, beautiful, successful cities can be totally destroyed; that the squabbles of a privileged few can cost numberless people their lives, as well as their culture’s prosperity. It isn’t escapism, but there is a kind of comfort in the sense of being in an imaginary poetic landscape that feels so heartbreaking, so human and so truthful.

ps: Her translation of the Odyssey is terrific.


Why learning from other people’s mistakes is a useful skill

Lovely post by Alex Tabarrok.

People get good at something when they have repeated attempts and rapid feedback. People can get pretty good at putting a basketball through a hoop. But for other decisions we only get one shot. One reason South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan have been much better at handling coronavirus is that within recent memory they had the SARS and H1N1 flu pandemics to build experience. The US and Europe were less hit by these earlier pandemics and responded less well. We don’t get many attempts to respond to once-in-a-lifetime events.

Even as coronavirus swept through China and Italy, many people dismissed the threat by thinking that we were somehow different. We weren’t. Even within the United States some people think that New York is different. It’s not. Most people learn, if they learn at all, from their own experiences, not from the experiences of others–even others like them. Learning from your own mistakes and experiences is a good skill. Many people make the same mistakes over and over again. But learning from other people’s mistakes or experiences is a great skill of immense power. It’s rare. Cultivate it.


The Zoombot arrives

It’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Already people working from home have discovered that they have too many Zoom meetings. The bad habits of organizations — especially their addiction to meetings — is being replicated online. I know people who have been online all week and have decided to have nothing to do with screens over this holiday weekend.

But help is at hand. Popular Mechanics reports that Matt Reed, a technologist at redpepper, a marketing design firm in Nashville, has created an AI-powered “Zoombot” that can sit in on video calls for you.

It all began when he noticed someone on Twitter (jokingly) complaining they don’t have time to go outside anymore because they’re always on Zoom calls.

“I was thinking, ‘How can I get someone out of this? What if you need to take a bathroom break, or you want to take a walk during a one-hour conference call? I wanted to find a funny take. We try not to take ourselves too seriously [at redpepper] but we still like to show what’s possible.”

For now, the project is tongue-in-cheek; Reed’s doppelgänger is a little slow to respond, doesn’t really blink, and uses a robotic voice similar to voice assistants like Siri or Alexa. But the code’s up on Github, so it’ll get smarter quickly. Stay tuned.

It’s the kind of thing that restores one’s faith in humanity.


Quarantine diary — Day 20

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Monday 16 March, 2020

Quarantine reading

If (as seems possible) some of us are going to be confined to barracks for a substantial period, it would make sense to lay in a stock of useful reading material. There’s always the final volume of Hillary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, of course. But for non-fiction addicts here’s a list of some books that, in one way or another, shed light on our current crisis. It’s worth remembering that (a) we’ve been here before, and (b) that pandemics hold up a mirror to human nature — and to society.

Albert Camus, The Plague
Published in 1947, this modern classic tells the story of a plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran. It asks a number of questions relating to the nature of destiny and the human condition. The characters in the book, ranging from doctors to holidaymakers to fugitives, all show the effects the plague has on a populace. Though set in the 1940s, the book is believed to be based on the cholera epidemic that killed a large percentage of Oran’s population in 1849 following French colonisation.

I was struck by a Guardian essay about the book by my Observer colleague, Ed Vulliamy, in 2015 during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. “Most of us read The Plague as teenagers”, he wrote,

and we should all read it again. And again: for not only are all humankind’s responses to death represented in it, but now – with the advent of Ebola – the book works on the literal as well as metaphorical level.

Camus’s story is that of a group of men, defined by their gathering around and against the plague. In it we encounter the courage, fear and calculation that we read or hear in every story about West Africa’s efforts to curtail and confront Ebola; through its narrator, Dr Rieux, we can identify with the hundreds of Cuban doctors who went immediately to the plague’s Ground Zero, and those such as the Scottish nurse currently fighting for her life at the Royal Free Hospital in London.

Adam Kucharski, The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread and Why They Stop. Published earlier this year. The author is a mathematician who works at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where he works on the mathematical analysis of infectious disease outbreaks. The book uncovers the underlying principles that drive contagion, from infectious diseases and online misinformation to gun violence and financial crises. It explains what makes things spread, why outbreaks look like they do, and how we can change what happens in future. It’s beautifully — and clearly — written (I’m reading it at the moment and can testify to that.) Funnily enough, I ordered it before COVID-19 hit the news, because I’m interested in the way that memes and conspiracy theories spread virally online. Serendipity rules OK.

Frank Snowden: Epidemics and Society: from the Black Death to the present, Yale, 2016. A real big-picture, long-view work of historical scholarship. examines the ways in which disease outbreaks have altered the societies through which they have spread — shaping politics, crushing revolutions, and entrenching racial and economic discrimination, affecting personal relationships, the work of artists and intellectuals, and the man-made and natural environments. Gigantic in scope, stretching across centuries and continents, Snowden’s account also seeks to explain the ways in which social structures have allowed diseases to flourish. “Epidemic diseases are not random events that afflict societies capriciously and without warning,” he writes. “On the contrary, every society produces its own specific vulnerabilities”. The New Yorker recently published an interview with Snowden which explores these questions. One passage in the conversation particularly stood out for me:

Epidemics are a category of disease that seem to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are. That is to say, they obviously have everything to do with our relationship to our mortality, to death, to our lives. They also reflect our relationships with the environment—the built environment that we create and the natural environment that responds. They show the moral relationships that we have toward each other as people, and we’re seeing that today.

If you’re settling down for a long quarantine, this book will keep you absorbed for quite a while.

Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, Souvenir Press, 2011. A masterpiece of investigative reporting. Shilts covered the AIDS epidemic from 1982 for The San Francisco Chronicle, the only US newspaper willing to give its full attention to the epidemic. He traced the roots of AIDS beginning in 1976 to two events and focussing on the mysterious illness of a Danish physician working in Africa. Before the virus even had a name, it had leapt across continents and destroyed communities, while the world stood idly by. It was, after all, a disease that affected ‘only’ gay men. There are lots of echoes of the Trump Administration in Stilts’s account. Like the present President, Ronald Reagan’s budget cuts affected the programs that needed funding for the necessary research. His Administration also dismissed scientists, thereby delaying the discovery of pharmacological defences. Remind you of anyone? Other culprits include: the businesses whose decisions to keep blood banks unaccountable and bathhouses liberated helped to spread the disease; mainstream media, for its reluctance to report AIDS; and the blasé attitudes of political officials, public health authorities, and community leaders. There are heroes in this story too, of course. But somehow it’s the villains we remember. Will it be any different this time?

Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year. Although a novel published in 1722, it’s really an early example of imaginative journalistic reportage. It’s an account of one man’s experiences of the year 1665, in which the bubonic plague struck the city of London. It’s presented as an eyewitness account of the events at the time, but Defoe was only five years old in 1665, and the book itself was published under the initials H. F. and is probably based on the journals of Defoe’s uncle, Henry Foe, who lived in London and survived the plague. It’s still a vivid read.

Dorothy Crawford, The Invisible Enemy: A Natural History of Viruses Published in 2000, this is an overview of the viruses that have wreaked havoc in the past. She looks at the havoc viruses have caused in the past, where they have come from, and the detective work involved in uncovering them. Finally, she considers whether a new virus could potentially wipe out the human race. It’s informative and readable. James Meek wrote an informative review of it for the London Review of Books in 2001.

Richard J. Evans, Death in Hamburg – Society and Politics in the Cholera Years 1830-1910 A terrific study by a formidable historian of the way Hamburg reacted when it was hit in 1892 by cholera.

Allan M. Brandt, No Magic Bullet – a social history of venereal disease in the United States since 1880 In a way, this book has echoes of the story told in Randy Shilts’s book on AIDS. Brandt demonstrates that Americans’ concerns about venereal disease have centered around a set of social and cultural values related to sexuality, gender, ethnicity, and class. At the heart of our efforts to combat these infections, he argues, has been the tendency to view venereal disease as both a punishment for sexual misconduct and an index of social decay. This tension between medical and moral approaches has significantly impeded efforts to develop “magic bullets”–drugs that would rid us of the disease–as well as effective policies for controlling the infections’ spread.

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Loserthink

Scott Adams has a new book out. Note the subtitle. Blurb reads:

Even the smartest and most educated among us can slip into ‘loserthink,’ since we haven’t been exposed to the best thinking practices in every discipline. Psychologists, engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, historians, and artists, for example, all see the world through different filters. If we don’t understand the basics of those filters, we’re likely to fall into loserthink. Some signs you’ve succumbed to loserthink include: inability to get your ego out of your decisions, thinking with words instead of reasons, failing to imagine alternative explanations, trusting your preferred news sources, and making too much of coincidences. And with the never-ending stream of urgent notifications on your phone and anger on your social media feeds, it’s easy to feel miserable, defensive, anxious, poor, and sick. But Adams offers a cure for loserthink by teaching you the most productive thinking practices from a variety of disciplines. In this book, you will learn how to… Recognise the walls of your own mental prison and break out. Understand the world in a way you have never seen it before. Be among the most perceptive and respected thinkers in every conversation. Your bubble of reality doesn’t have to be a prison. This book will show you how to break free.

Autumn books

In one of my periodic attempts to impose order on my study I rounded up all the books I have been

  • reading
  • reviewing
  • need to read for work
  • want to read for pleasure

And, having done so, wondered about my sanity.

From the top down…