Tuesday 16 March, 2021


Russia at the heart of British government

This comes to you fresh from the you-couldn’t-make-it-up department.

A Russian-owned company played a key role in the £2.6m renovation of No.9 Downing Street in an undisclosed contract to get it ready for White House-style televised media briefings, a source has told HuffPost UK.

According to the source, Megahertz carried out crucial work, including installing computers, cameras, microphones and a control desk, to get the building ready for briefings from Boris Johnson’s press secretary Allegra Stratton.

In 2013, Megahertz was bought by the UK arm of Okno-TV – a Moscow-based firm that has carried out technical work for state-controlled broadcasters Russia Today, Channel One, and Public Television of Russia.

Most of Megahertz’s current shareholders are either current or former workers at the Russian firm, according to Companies House.

That’s the great thing about sovereignty: you can do your own thing without being shackled by Brussels red tape about competitive tendering and so on. I mean to say, under those old Brussels rules the UK would have had to put the job out to tender. And when Huawei came in with the lowest bid, they’d have to get the job, backdoor and all.


What’s going on with the AstraZeneca vaccine?

The Financial Times today reports that Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands suspended all use of the jab on Monday. They all described their actions as ‘precautionary’. At the same time the UK is steaming ahead with the vaccine.

The reason for the suspension seems to be a smallish number of people who suffered blood clots after having the jab. In Austria one person, under the age 50, was reported to have died with blood clots after receiving the shot. Denmark, Iceland and Norway halted AstraZeneca vaccinations altogether last week after further so-called thromboembolic events, including the death of one woman in Denmark. One Norwegian health worker has died and two have been hospitalised with what health authorities there called “rare clinical pictures” after taking the vaccine. Their symptoms included severe blood clots in both large and small blood vessels, low platelet counts and bleeding. Dutch authorities said 10 cases of problems, including possible thrombosis or embolisms, had been reported by people who had received the jab. Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands, suspended all use of the shot on Monday.

These are all serious side-effects, obviously, but it seemed to me to be a surprising over-reaction, given the numbers of people who have already (like me) had the jab. But then, I’m no expert. On the other hand, a real expert — Penelope Ward, Penelope Ward, a professor of pharmaceutical medicine at King’s College London — who has reviewed data collected by the UK medicines regulator, told the FT that “the number of reports of blood clots among recipients of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was still comparatively low”. In the UK, she went on,

“about 165 people a day might suffer a thrombotic episode, some of which will be fatal. In contrast, the number of reports from the ongoing vaccine programme in the UK and EU, which includes 20m individuals vaccinated to date, is just 37. By chance alone, at least 15,000 such events might have been expected from a population of that size.”

In a way, therefore, one could argue that the AstraZeneca vaccine has already had the biggest public study there’s ever been. So what’s going on in the EU?

Seeking enlightenment, I phoned a Dutch friend who has high-level experience of policy-making in the Netherlands. His view was that the decisions should be seen in the context of higher levels of vaccine hesitation and suspicion in Continental countries, together with the proliferation of anti-vaxx conspiracy theories and misinformation on social media and — not least — the fact that there’s a Dutch general election on March 17 in which there’s a serious prospect that a right-wing opposition populist party might come out on top.

In these circumstances, he argued, even if most public-health authorities actual believe that the AstraZeneca vaccine is safe, they think it would be dangerously counter-productive to appear to discount the side-effects issue out of hand. The days are over when a government minister or a senior medic in a white coat would get away with declaring that there was nothing much to worry about. (Which, in a way, is what British health authorities did those years ago when the dodgy claims about the MMR vaccine first surfaced.) In an age of social media, distrust of experts and erosion of deference taking such a stance would be wilfully counter-productive. Far better to be seen to be taking the doubts seriously, to await further examination and more data . In other words: be seen to be “putting public safety first”.

That sounds like a plausible argument to me. And, in a way, it’s corroborated By Derek Lowe, writing in Science Translational Medicine the other day.

It’s a mess. And it’s a mess that leads us right into the third problem, which is public confidence. The AZ/Oxford vaccine has been in trouble there since the day the first data came out. The efficacy numbers looked lower than the other vaccines that had reported by then, and as mentioned, the presentation of the data was really poorly handled and continued to be so for weeks. Now with these dosing suspensions, I have to wonder if this vaccine is ever going to lose the dark cloud it’s currently sitting under. Even if EU countries start dosing again in a few days, what are people going to think? And this fear and uncertainty can spill over into hesitancy for all the vaccines, of course, and that’s the last thing we need.

Let’s say, he concludes, that when the next set of figures about the vaccine come in

at a solid, inarguable 60%. You would want to see a higher number in a better world, but 60% is a damn sight better than not getting vaccinated at all. Which is effectively what a number of European countries have chosen to do instead. If I were living in one of those countries where the cases are heading right back up, I would bare my arm immediately for a 60% effective vaccine and hope that as many other people as possible did the same.

Yep.


Quote of the Day

”Lady Capricorn, he understood, was still keeping open bed.”

  • Aldous Huxley, Chrome Yellow

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Máire Ní Ghradha (Uileann pipes) and Mick Daly (Guitar) | The Trip to Athlone and The Peacock’s Feather | Live | 1996

link

Wonderful piping. And tomorrow is St Patrick’s Day, after all.


Long Read of the Day

Far-right news sources on Facebook more engaging

We kind-of knew that right-wing sources on social media are much better at generating the ‘user engagement’ that tech platforms prize so highly, but this NYU study of 8.6 million posts provides an empirical confirmation of their ability to get people worked up.

In conclusion, we found that far-right sources receive considerably more engagement per follower than pages with other political leanings. Furthermore, far-right misinformation sources are the only ones that engage better with their followers than non-misinformation sources of the same partisanship as an aggregate. Which is why liberals are fighting a losing battle on these platforms.


Chris Clark’s tribute to Jonathan Steinberg…

… is now on the Cambridge History Faculty’s website. Chris is a great historian and was a good friend of Jonathan’s. His is a lovely, informed, generous memorial.


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Clubhouse: Facebook 2.0? And just as toxic for privacy?

This morning’s Observer column:

So, are you on Clubhouse, the social-media sensation du jour? No? Me neither. But – I hasten to add, lest there should be any doubt about my social status – that’s not because I wasn’t invited to join. A generous friend had a few invitations to extend, and she offered me one. After that, she had an attack of what one can only describe as donor’s remorse, because in order to be able to extend the invitation to me she had to grant Clubhouse access to all her contacts!

When I opened the app it asked me if I would like to grant it access to my contacts, an invitation I declined – as I always do. At which point it was made clear to me that I would not be able to invite anyone else to join. As Vox’s Sara Morrison succinctly put it: I had been invited to join Clubhouse, but my privacy wasn’t welcome. At which point I deleted the app – on the Groucho Marx principle that I wouldn’t join a club that would have such a schmuck as a member. (There was also the thought that Clubhouse’s behaviour, rules and operation seem to make it illegal under the GDPR – not that a small matter like that will trouble a US-based data-hoovering startup.)

Read on

The PR exercise that is Facebook’s ‘supreme court’

This morning’s Observer column

This board (originally talked about within Facebook as a “supreme court”) is both a manifestation of preposterous hubris on the part of what is, after all, merely a commercial company and a cunning stunt by said company to avoid taking corporate responsibility for difficult decisions. It consists of up to 40 bigwigs, allegedly carefully chosen (“six in-depth workshops and 22 round tables, attended by more than 650 people from 88 different countries”) but who look awfully like the kind of longlist that might be produced by a high-end corporate headhunter. It includes, for example, a former prime minister of Denmark, nine professors, one vice-chancellor and a former editor of the Guardian. Such eminent worthies, of course, cannot be expected to work for nothing, so, according to the New York Times, they receive at least $100,000 (£73,000) a year for a commitment of 15 hours a week.

Inspection of linguistic clues on the board’s website does not inspire confidence in its supposed collective IQ or independence…

Read on

Can facial recognition technology really reveal political orientation?

This morning’s Observer column:

Three things about the research paper stopped me in my tracks. The first was the title: Facial recognition technology can expose political orientation from naturalistic facial images. The second was that the author was Michal Kosinski, someone who used to be at Cambridge University, is now at Stanford and whose work I’ve followed for years. And the third was that it was published in Scientific Reports, one of the journals published by the Nature group and definitely not an outlet for nonsense.

The paper reports a research project that suggests that facial recognition technology can accurately infer individuals’ political orientation in terms of whether they have liberal or conservative views…

Read on

Control shift: why newspaper hacks are switching to Substack

This morning’s Observer column:

Way back in March, at the beginning of the first lockdown, I fell to wondering what a columnist, academic and blogger under house arrest might usefully do for the duration of his imprisonment. My eye fell on my blog, Memex 1.1, which has been a harmless presence on the web since the mid-1990s and a source of puzzlement to journalistic and academic colleagues alike. The hacks unanimously shared Dr Johnson’s view that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money”, while my academic colleagues thought it peculiar to waste one’s energy writing anything that would not figure in scholarly citation indices. The idea that one might maintain a blog simply because one enjoyed doing it never crossed their minds.

So there it was, with a modest readership, which occasionally spiked as it caught some brief wave of attention. Given that many people were going to be locked down like me, I wondered if the regularity of receiving the blog as an email every morning might be welcome. The thought came from observing how Dave Winer’s wonderful blog, Scripting News, drew an even wider readership after he offered it as a daily email to subscribers. So I began looking for an easy way of doing something similar.

The obvious solution would be an email list service like Mailchimp, but that looked like hard work, so I opted for Substack, which made it really easy. My blog would be published and available on the web every day as usual, but every night the day’s version would be neatly packaged into an email and delivered at 7am the following morning to anyone who had subscribed. The only change I made was to include a daily five-minute audio diary – something I’d never done before.

It was such an obvious thing to do. But the results were surprising – and often gratifying…

Read on

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…

Read on

Finally, the Johnson government appears to have had a good idea

This morning’s Observer column:

On Tuesday, in a rare break with recent practice, a branch of the UK government did something clever. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) outlined plans for an innovative way of regulating powerful tech firms in a way that overcomes the procedural treacle-wading implicit in competition law that had been designed for an analogue era.

The proposals emerged from an urgent investigation by the Digital Markets Taskforce, an ad hoc body set up in March and led by the CMA with input from the Information Commissioner’s Office and Ofcom, the telecommunications and media regulator. The taskforce was charged with providing advice to the government on the design and implementation of a pro-competition regime for digital markets. It was set up following the publication of the Treasury’s Furman review on unlocking digital competition, which reported in March 2019 and drew on evidence from the CMA’s previous market study into online platforms and digital advertising.

This is an intriguing development in many ways. First of all it seems genuinely innovative – unlike this week’s antitrust lawsuits brought against Facebook in the US…

Read on

If this survives the ‘consultation’ (i.e. lobbying) phase and makes it onto the statute book, then things could get interesting.

Sunday 8 November, 2020


Quote of the Day

“Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.”

  • H.L. Mencken

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Blackbird | Sharon Shannon | 2011

Link

Nobody who’s been to a Sharon Shannon concert will ever make the mistake of thinking that an accordion is merely a squeeze-box.


The sweet-bitter moment

Don’t get me wrong: I’m delighted — and relieved — that Joe Biden won. But I’m also afraid that his Presidency might be just a brief interlude in an inexorable downhill slide towards autocracy because he’ll be governing a polity that is fundamentally broken, and he will lack the levers needed to reverse the slide. It’s the sheer narrowness of his win that’s so alarming. 48m Americans voted for Trump. And this time they did not have the excuse that they didn’t know what he was like, or what he stood for.

1 But first, the sweet side of all this. Joe Biden and I have two things in common. The first is that we both hail from the same town in Ireland — Ballina in Co Mayo although his connections go back some distance in time — to the Great Famine of the 1850s in fact. His great-great-great grandfather, Edward Blewitt, had been a surveyor who had worked on the Ordnance Survey and, during the extremes of the famine, was employed to run schemes for alleviating the plight of the poor in the district. But eventually, dismayed by the futility of the exercise, he emigrated to the US and set himself up as a land-surveyor in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He died there, 20 years after he had left Ballina. The rest is now history. (Biden was born in Scranton.)

I was born in Ballina in 1946, and lots of my extended family still live there and thereabouts. Rightly, this momentous event is largely unrecorded — unlike the birth, two years earlier, of Mary Bourke who — as Mary Robinson — became Ireland’s first woman President (and who I met when Cambridge was the first university to give her an honorary degree after she became President. She and I had a very funny conversation about Ballina at a tea-party after the degree ceremony, but that’s a story for another time.) So I look forward to the moment when those two Presidents — one former, the other new, finally get to meet.

The other thing we have in common is that we both love the poetry of Seamus Heaney. During the campaign, Biden remembered the appositeness of Heaney’s great poem, The Cure at Troy. Here’s a snatch of him reading from it:

Link

2 Now the bitter side. Unless something unexpected happens — for example, the Democrats managing to scrape a majority together in the Senate — Biden will be completely hamstrung by Mitch McConnell. Not a single piece of significant legislation will make it onto the Statute Book. It will be like Obama all over again — although the mood music will be very different.

But the most worrying thing is the number of people who voted for Trump, and what they might represent for the future.


Robert Fisk (RIP): Meeting Osama bin Laden

A nice reminder of a great journalist:

One hot evening in late June 1996, the telephone on my desk in Beirut rang with one of the more extraordinary messages I was to receive as a foreign correspondent. “Mr Robert, a friend you met in Sudan wants to see you,” said a voice in English but with an Arabic accent. At first I thought he meant another man, whose name I suggested. “No, no, Mr Robert, I mean the man you interviewed. Do you understand?” Yes, I understood. And where could I meet this man? “The place where he is now,” came the reply. I knew that Bin Laden was rumoured to have returned to Afghanistan but there was no confirmation of this. So how do I reach him? I asked. “Go to Jalalabad – you will be contacted.”

A month later. “CLACK-CLACK-CLACK.” It was as if someone was attacking my head with an ice-pick. “CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK.” I sat up. Someone was banging a set of car keys against the window of my room in the Spinghar Hotel. “Misssster Robert,” a voice whispered urgently. “Misssster Robert.” He hissed the word “Mister.” Yes, yes, I’m here. “Please come downstairs, there is someone to see you.” It registered only slowly that the man must have climbed the ancient fire escape to reach the window of my room. I dressed, grabbed a coat – I had a feeling we might travel in the night – and almost forgot my old Nikon. I walked as calmly as I could past the reception desk and out into the early afternoon heat…

Great read.


Fox News to Trump: “You’re fired!”

Nice column by Jack Shafer.

The fractures were there from the start. Trump insisted on wearing the pants in the family, and when supplication didn’t flow from Fox News Channel he would make eyes at OAN and Newsmax, which rankled Murdoch. Trump also demands loyalty for the pleasure of his intimacies, and Murdoch couldn’t abide. He has famously called Trump a “phony“ and “fucking idiot,” and as early as the summer of 2017 was not deterring his many journalistic outlets from sniping at Trump and his family. One of the biggest anti-Trump stories, about the president’s mistresses, was broken by Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, and Fox’s Chris Wallace bedeviled the president during the reelection campaign with a slashing interview.

The final cause for separation, if you want to call it that, came on Election Night, when Fox became the first to call Arizona for Joe Biden, the New York Times reported, prompting Jared Kushner to contact Rupert Murdoch and a Trump aide to demand a retraction. For the Trump team, this had to be a bigger betrayal than finding Rupert in bed with Bernie Sanders. As liberals blinked hard in astonishment and began discovering a sudden, unfamiliar respect for Fox over its projection, there wasn’t much marriage left to save. Trump and Fox had only the details of the split to resolve.

Trump was useful to Murdoch and Fox for a while. Now he isn’t.


The ‘Crown Consultancy’ idea: stop outsourcing thinking

From the FT…

Boris Johnson’s government is quietly working on creating its own in-house consultancy arm — dubbed “Crown Consultancy” — to cut its dependence on high-charging private sector firms.

The idea, driven by efficiency minister Theodore Agnew and championed by Downing Street adviser Dominic Cummings, would bring bright civil servants and graduates together in a new division to improve delivering policies across Whitehall.

There’s a lot of reliance on consultancies,” said one official close to the project. “It would be sensible to look at what we can do internally, rather than externally.”

There have long been concerns over the spiralling costs spent on consultants by the government. According to the research firm Tussell the UK government spent £2.6bn on just eight consultancies between 2016 and 2020. These were: the UK firms PwC, KPMG, Deloitte, EY and PA Consulting; the US firms McKinsey, Bain, and Boston Consulting Group. Once, when I was working on a small consultancy gig in Whitehall, I was in the same office as a group of ‘consultants’ from one of the big firms. They had been drafted in at short notice because one of the Department’s junior ministers was pathologically unable to sign off any proposal unless he could cover his ass by having it vetted beforehand by one of the big consulting firms. They sent in a bunch of fresh-faced graduates who seemed to know very little about government. These kids beavered away for a week, mostly just interviewing the civil servants involved in the decision, and then wrote up the interviews into a ‘report’ (no doubt accompanied by a slide deck). They were billed at £2,500 per day, which in those days was real money. The whole thing was clearly an established kind of racket: the firms were security blankets for ministers — and, sometimes, for civil servants. For the firms, the government was the gift that kept on giving.

The FT piece has a nice quote, which rings true to me:

Lord Agnew, a former businessman now based in the Cabinet Office, last month claimed in a leaked letter that Whitehall had been “infantilised” by “an unacceptable” reliance on expensive consultants.

Precisely. This is just about the only thing on which Dominic Cummings and I agree.


The gig economy is here to stay. Now let’s humanise it

This morning’s Observer column.

the gig economy might provide a useful case study. At the moment, most of the challenges to platform-based enterprises such as Uber and Deliveroo have involved trying to shoehorn them into legal frameworks that were designed for a pre-platform age. This is a piecemeal approach that has so far produced erratic results. In February, for example, a French court ruled that a Deliveroo courier should be treated as an employee rather than a contractor. In September, Spain’s supreme court made a similar ruling about another delivery startup, Glovo, after lower courts had made a series of contradictory rulings.

We can’t go on like this. A better way of thinking about it would be to recognise that we’re in a position analogous to that of Britain in the 1830s and 1840s when parliament passed the Factory Acts to regulate the conditions of novel kinds of employment as the Industrial Revolution roared ahead. The Factories Act of 1847, for example, colloquially known as the 10 Hours Act, met a long-standing demand by mill workers for a 10-hour day. Other legislation regulated the use of child labour and other practices.

We need that kind of comprehensive approach to the gig economy because, as other kinds of employment get automated away, it will be what provides employment for an increasing number of people (just as the factories of industrialising Britain provided jobs for people coming off the land)…


Other, possibly interesting, links

  • Books to read in lockdown. From the Irish Times Link
  • QAnon Followers Frustrated After Q Calls For Respecting Election Results, Uniting Behind Biden. Yes, you read that correctly. But remember, it’s from The Onion. Link.

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Sunday 18 October, 2020

Keeping one’s hat on

Seen in a Provencal market a few summers ago.


Quote of the Day

”It’s a funny kind of month, October. For the really keen cricket fan, it’s when you realise that your wife left you in May.”

  • Dennis Norden

Golf widows, take heart: you are not alone.


Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Ry Cooder & David Lindley. New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

Link

Whenever Cooder and Lindley get together, expect fireworks.


We need a new Walt Whitman to imagine a virtual public space

This morning’s Observer column:

Pariser’s new essay was prompted by reflecting on the Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, where he lives, a 30-acre square of elms, winding paths, playgrounds and monuments. The park serves, he writes, “as an early morning romper room, midday meeting point, festival ground and farm stand. There are house music dance parties, soccer games during which you can hear cursing in at least five languages and, of course, the world famous Great Pumpkin Halloween Dog Costume contest.” Most importantly, though, it allows very different people to gather and coexist in the same space. “When it’s all working,” he says, “Fort Greene Park can feel like an ode to pluralistic democracy itself.”

The nicest thing about his essay is its historic sensibility. In 1846, Walt Whitman envisioned Fort Greene Park to serve that democratic purpose. New York City had no public parks at the time, only walled commercial pleasure gardens for the wealthy. Whitman, then editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, campaigned for a space that would accommodate everyone, especially the working-class immigrants crowded into shantytowns along nearby Myrtle Avenue. And he succeeded.

When the internet arrived, many of us thought it would provide a virtual space that would be like Whitman’s concept, except on a global scale… Read on


The United States: An “Oligarchy With Unlimited Political Bribery”

In an interview reported in Rolling Stone, Jimmy Carter, the 39th President, described the US now as “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery” resulting in “nominations for president or to elect the president.”

It all goes back, he said to the 2010 judgment by the US Supreme Court in the Citizens United case to eliminate limits on campaign donations, a ruling that, in Carter’s view, “violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system.”

He’s right. According to the (rather good) Wikipedia entry for the judgment,

The Court held that the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent expenditures for political communications by corporations, including nonprofit corporations, labor unions, and other associations.

The case arose after Citizens United, a conservative non-profit organization, sought to air and advertise a film critical of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton shortly before the 2008 Democratic primary elections. This would have been a violation of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which prohibited any corporation or labor union from making an “electioneering communication” within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of an election, or making any expenditure advocating the election or defeat of a candidate at any time”.

The ruling effectively freed organisations like corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on electioneering communications and to directly campaign for the election or defeat of candidates. In practice it’s what enabled the flood of billions of dollars from right-wing billionaires into US politics. It effectively perverts the First Amendment to give the right of free speech to corporations. As one of the dissenting justices, John Paul Stevens, argued, the ruling represented “a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government.”

Carter’s dramatic way of describing the result of that epochal decision highlights what I was trying to say yesterday about the significance of controlling the Supreme Court. The Republican party in the US is doomed in the long run by demographic trends. It’s tried to stem the tide and hold off the inevitable by massive local gerrymandering, voter suppression and other means, but in the long run the electoral game is up for them. Given the polarisation of the country, though, Congressional deadlock and inertia can be prolonged for a long time, which means that the importance of the Court in US governance will inevitably increase.

Mitch McConnell, the Majority Leader in the Senate, understands that very well — which is why he sanctimoniously refused Confirmation hearings for Obama’s candidate in 2016 because it was the final year of his term — and also why he is now racing to confirm Trump’s current nominee, thereby contradicting the ‘principled’ stand he took in 2016. McConnell is playing a long game. His intended outcome is that, even as the Republican party fades electorally, the US will continue for decades to be governed by conservative values — through the Supreme Court that he has fashioned with Trump’s assistance.

The relationship between Trump and McConnell been a symbiotic one all along; but in the end Trump needs McConnell more than the other way round. Once he gets Barrett in place, McConnell has no further need for Trump. He’s probably much more worried about losing control of the Senate, because if Biden wins but the Republicans keep the Senate, then it’ll be like Obama all over again: a president full of ideas, but little power to make anything happen.

On the other hand, if Biden wins and the Democrats do get control the Senate, then things could get interesting — even for ye olde Supreme Court.


Mark Elliot’s testimony to the House of Lords on the Internal Market Bill.

Mark Elliott is Professor of Public Law in Cambridge and a terrific blogger with over 30,000 readers. Recently, he gave evidence to the Constitution Committee, which has been holding hearings on the Johnson government’s manifesto for breaking international law. Here’s an extract from his evidence (with emphases in bold from me).

First, the Bill, if enacted in its current form, would supply Ministers with legal powers to make regulations in breach of the UK’s binding obligations under the EU Withdrawal Agreement and the associated Northern Ireland Protocol. Unlike some of the examples, put forward by Sir Stephen, of other pieces of domestic legislation that have been found to breach international law, the Internal Market Bill is drafted with the clear and specific intent of doing so. I argued that this amounts to a significant distinguishing feature of the Bill and that it correspondingly gives rise to particularly profound rule of law-based concerns. I also argued that the fact that UK legislation may occasionally be found to have breached international law is nothing to the point, given that past, and generally incidental or unintended, wrongdoing is no justification whatever for further such wrongdoing. The wrongheadedness of the contrary view becomes immediately apparent when we recall that the UK Government is frequently found, in judicial review proceedings, to have breached domestic law: the fact that such breaches occur does not, however, give the Government licence to commit further such breaches or justify treating such breaches with equanimity. By the same token, prior examples of UK legislation that may have breached international law does not provide any justification for the enactment of further such legislation that has the clear and specific purpose of facilitating such a breach.

Second, I argued that the Bill is incompatible with the rule of law because it appears to attempt to exclude judicial review of ministerial regulations made in breach of the EU Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol. The oversight of government action, including the making of secondary legislation, by independent courts is an axiomatic feature of the rue of law. It follows that precluding judicial review is incompatible with the rule of law and is thus an assault on basic constitutional principle…


Colliding epidemics’ fears spur campaign to ramp up flu vaccinations

From the Financial Times — probably behind a paywall, so this is the gist…

Efforts to increase influenza vaccination rates to prevent “colliding epidemics” are being hampered by a limited supply, as manufacturers struggle to meet demand.

Germany has ordered 26m flu vaccines ahead of the European winter, with health minister Jens Spahn saying the country had “never had so many”. The UK government said it aimed to vaccinate 30m people this year, more than double the 2019 figure.

However, manufacturers say they have been unable to meet the increased demand at such short notice. Seqirus, one of the top three flu jab producers globally, along with Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline, estimated that global production had only increased by 1-2 per cent.

“If we get an overlap of Sars-Cov-2 [the virus responsible for Covid-19] and influenza, that could be a disaster,” said Rebecca Jane Cox, professor of medical virology at University of Bergen. “The question will be how hard the northern hemisphere is going to be hit by the flu now.”


Other possibly interesting links…

  • Time to unscrew subscriptions — Doc Searls Weblog Doc is one of the Elder Statesmen of the Web and always good value. Oh — and if you follow the link, FUBAR means “Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition” — which is quite a good description of most online magazine subscription systems.

  • Computer game by Cambridge psychologists ‘pre-bunks’ COVID-19 conspiracies as part of the UK government’s fight against fake news — Link. Basically, it’s an attempt to cognitively inoculate kids against fake news.

  • The MySpace moral panic — First Monday. Peer-reviewed paper. Old story, but still interesting.


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Sunday 11 October, 2020

Walking by a clear running stream this afternoon, we came on this beautiful carpet of star-shaped plants. No idea what it is, but it was really striking.


Quote of the Day

I had a lovely email from a friend about last Friday’s “Quote of the Day” (cricket commentator Brian Johnson’s immortal remark: “The bowler’s Holding, the batsman’s Willey”) It reminded him, he wrote,

of the story about Harry Caray, a legendary American baseball announcer. Caray was calling a Chicago Cubs game on TV in the mid 1980’s. Baseball is a slow game so the cameramen were often looking for something interesting going on in the crowd. At several times during the game, the broadcast showed a particular couple in the stands making out. Finally, towards the end of the game, Caray says, “Folks, I think I figured it out. He kisses her on the strikes and she kisses him on the balls!”

Many thanks to Hap for that knockout quote.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Alfred Brendel – Schubert, Klavierstücke D. 946 No. 2 in E Flat

Link


Finally US politicians are taking the fight to the tech giants

This morning’s Observer column

On Tuesday evening, a large (449-page) pdf landed in my inbox. It’s the majority report of the US House of Representatives judiciary committee’s subcommittee on antitrust, commercial and administrative law and it makes ideal bedside reading material for only two classes of person: competition lawyers and newspaper columnists. But even if it’s unlikely to be a bestseller, its publication is still a landmark event because it marks the first concerted (and properly resourced) critical interrogation of a new group of unaccountable powers that is roaming loose in our democracies: tech companies. Its guiding spirit was something said by the great Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis many moons ago: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”

Only four tech companies were targeted – Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. How Microsoft escaped scrutiny is a mystery (to me anyway); perhaps it’s because that company had its day in court long ago and survived to become the handmaiden of governments and organisations everywhere and is therefore part of the ruling establishment.

The inquiry that led to the report started in 2019 as an investigation into the state of competition online. It had three aims: “1) to document competition problems in digital markets; 2) examine whether dominant firms are engaging in anticompetitive conduct; and 3) assess whether existing antitrust laws, competition policies and current enforcement levels are adequate to address these issues.” Crudely summarised, its conclusions are…

Read on


Good news for Glassholes

Wearable tech has never been so fashionable. Meet Spectacles 3 from Snap Inc. Capture your world in 3D with two HD Cameras and four built-in mics, which store up to 100 3D videos or 1,200 3D photos. Photos and videos wirelessly sync to your phone, where you can edit and transform then with a new suite of 3D effects on Snapchat. Recharge Spectacles 3 on the go with the included charging case.

Think of it as DIY sousveillance.

Source


The looming mental health crisis

This is a slide from one of the most alarming presentations I’ve been to in a long time. It’s worth reading carefully. In particular, note the bullet points for life expectancy, male suicide rates, the estimated cost to the economy and the fact that three-quarters of mental health problems start before the age of 18.

Cambridge University is setting up an Institute for Mental Wellbeing, and the presentation was giving some background information on the new institute and the justifications for it.

Of course, like most people, I’ve been aware of a degree of public concern about mental health — concern which has been greatly amplified by the Coronavirus and associated lockdowns, job losses, precarity and other sources of stress. But since it’s not my field I’m ashamed to say that I had relegated discussions about it to the status of depressing background noise. I had absolutely no idea of the scale of the crisis until the meeting last Monday when the presentation was given.

Over the years some of my friends and family members have suffered from depression, anxiety and other psychological conditions, and I supported one of them through three terrible bouts, but until now I’d always thought of these as relatively rare misfortunes rather than as conditions that afflict millions of people.

How wrong can you be?


How to film a conversation in a yellow Fiat Quinquecento

From Axios


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