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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Sunday 4 October, 2020

Quote of the Day

”Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post how it feels about dogs.

  • Christopher Hampton, playwright.

Jim and Helen’s Window

The window in their house, which they turned into the wonderful Kettle’s yard gallery in Cambridge.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel: As steals the morn (L’Allegro, HWV 55) Amanda Forsythe and Thomas Cooley, Voices of Music 4K

link


Home with a drone

This morning’s Observer column:

Here’s the scenario. It’s 3.30pm and you’re away from home. A burglar breaks in by forcing the french window in the living room. Shortly afterwards, two things happen. A small drone sitting unobtrusively in its housing-cum-charging-station whirs into life, and your smartphone beeps. The drone leaves its housing and begins a flight through the house on an inspection path that you have programmed into it, streaming live, high-definition video to your phone as it goes. The burglar sees and hears the drone, grasps what’s happening and flees.

Fiction? Not at all. It’s just Amazon’s latest gizmo – announced at its autumn hardware event on 24 September. It came with a nice video to illustrate the above scenario – though it featured an implausibly nervous burglar who, upon seeing the drone, fled as though he had seen a ghost. But other, less dramatic uses for the drone were suggested. It would be useful, for example, if you arrived at your non-remote workplace (remember them?) and wondered if you’d left the kitchen window open. This viewer wondered about equally mundane questions: how would the device deal with his cats, which regularly roam the house seeking surfaces that are forbidden to them when he’s physically present; how does the drone deal with closed internal doors – or indeed with the interior of any normal dwelling? Advertisements for so-called “smart” homes invariably feature the interiors of sterile, open-plan dwellings that no sane adult would wish to inhabit…

Read on


The Proper Function of Government

Link

I haven’t watched the Yes Minister series for years and years. And then stumbled accidentally on this and marvelled once more at the masterful, cynical insight of the script. Take a few minutes to watch it. It’s worth it.


Bedside manners

My irreverent WhatsApp feed continues to delight.


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Sunday 27 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

”I often think how much easier the world would have been to manage if Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini had been at Oxford.”

  • Lord Halifax, Neville Chamberlain’s Foreign Secretary.

Er, note that he said Oxford, not Cambridge.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Haydn String Quartet No. 62, Op. 76 No. 3 “Emperor” (2nd mov) Veridis Quartet (Live performance)

Link


Can democracies stand up to Facebook? Ireland may have the answer

This morning’s Observer column:

Last month, the Irish data protection commissioner (DPC) sent Facebook a preliminary order ordering it to stop sending the data of its European users to the US. This was a big deal, because in order to comply with the ruling, Facebook would have to embark on a comprehensive re-engineering of its European operations, or to shut down those operations entirely, at least for a time.

Such a shutdown would of course be traumatic for the poor souls who are addicted to Facebook and Instagram, but it would be even worse for the company – for two reasons. The first is that it makes more money from European users’ data – an average of $13.21 (£10.19) per user in 2019 – than from any other territory except the US (where it earns $41.41 per user); the second is that failure to comply could land it with a fine of up to 4% of its global revenue, which in Facebook’s case would come to about $3bn. Given the scale of its revenues, that’s not a showstopper, but it would nevertheless be annoying.

Predictably, the company was furious, threatening, as one commentator put it, “to pack up its toys and go home if European regulators don’t back down and let the social network get its own way”…

Read on


How to debate against a liar

The first Presidential debate is coming up on Tuesday.

Richard A. Friedman is a professor of clinical psychiatry. He has [some advice] (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/25/opinion/debate-trump-biden-lie.html) for Joe Biden on how to handle Trump.

When Joe Biden debates President Trump on Tuesday, he will have to figure out how to parry with an opponent who habitually lies and doesn’t play by the rules.

As a psychiatrist, I’d like to offer Mr. Biden some advice: Don’t waste your time fact-checking the president. If you attempt to counter every falsehood or distortion that Mr. Trump serves up, you will cede control of the debate. And, by trying to correct him, you will paradoxically strengthen the misinformation rather than undermine it. (Research shows that trying to correct a falsehood with truth can backfire by reinforcing the original lie. )

Instead, Biden should use more powerful weapons that will put Trump on the defensive.

The first weapon may be the most effective: humor and ridicule.

Trump, faced with a pandemic and an economic downturn, tells Americans what a great job he’s done. In response, Mr. Biden should smile and say with a bit of laugh: “And just where have you been living? South Korea? Or Fiji? You cannot be in the United States — except maybe on the golf course. We’ve got about 4 percent of the world’s population and 21 percent of all Covid deaths and the highest unemployment since the Great Depression! You must be living on another planet!”

The retort mocks the president as weak and unaccomplished, which will rattle him. He is apparently so fearful of being the target of a joke that — unlike any president before him — he has skipped the last three roasts at the White House Correspondents Dinner.

Lots more in that vein. Professor Friedman also comes up with something I hadn’t thought about: there won’t be a live audience.

President Trump will not have a live audience to excite him and satisfy his insatiable need for approval and attention, which means he will be even more vulnerable to a takedown. True, no one will be there to laugh at Mr. Biden’s jokes, but it doesn’t matter because the goal is serious: to expose the truth and unnerve Mr. Trump by getting under his skin.

Interesting piece throughout.


Project Orion

One of the most interesting and unusual books I read during lockdown is George Dyson’s Analogia: the Entangled Destinies of Nature, Human Beings and Machines. In one section of it he describes an extraordinary, top-secret project that his father, the great physicist Freeman Dyson, had worked on in the late 1950s — the Orion Project. Crudely summarised, this was a project to build a huge spaceship powered by a large number of successive nuclear explosions. It sounds so daft that I have doubts even as I type the words. But the project was real (fuelled in part by post-Sputnik panic in the US) and prototypes were built and tested, though most of the information about it was highly classified until George Dyson campaigned vigorously to have it released.

Anyway, I finished the book wondering what else was known about Project Orion, and — lo! and behold! — look what I found: a wonderful 2002 BBC documentary, To Mars By A Bomb – The Secret History of Project Orion, about it.

It’s nearly an hour long, so make some coffee, pull up a chair, and ponder the exquisite madness of ultra-clever human beings.


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Sunday 20 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

“The nature of things is a sturdy adversary”

  • Edmund Burke

Reminds me of the famous reply Harold Macmillan gave to a reporter who asked him what kept him awake at nights: “Events, dear boy, events”.


Musical alternative to this morning’s radio news

Eric Clapton: Cocaine — at the Albert Hall

Link

Slow and enigmatic start. Worth waiting for, though.


The Social Dilemma: a wake-up call for a world drunk on dopamine?

This morning’s Observer column.

TL;DR version: the new Netflix docudrama is a valiant if flawed attempt to address our complacency about surveillance capitalism.

Spool forward a couple of centuries. A small group of social historians drawn from the survivors of climate catastrophe are picking through the documentary records of what we are currently pleased to call our civilisation, and they come across a couple of old movies. When they’ve managed to find a device on which they can view them, it dawns on them that these two films might provide an insight into a great puzzle: how and why did the prosperous, apparently peaceful societies of the early 21st century implode?

The two movies are The Social Network, which tells the story of how a po-faced Harvard dropout named Mark Zuckerberg created a powerful and highly profitable company; and The Social Dilemma, which is about how the business model of this company – as ruthlessly deployed by its po-faced founder – turned out to be an existential threat to the democracy that 21st-century humans once enjoyed.

Both movies are instructive and entertaining, but the second one (which has just been released on Netflix) leaves one wanting more. Its goal is admirably ambitious: to provide a compelling, graphic account of what the business model of a handful of companies is doing to us and to our societies. The intention of the director, Jeff Orlowski, is clear from the outset: to reuse the strategy deployed in his two previous documentaries on climate change – nicely summarised by one critic as “bring compelling new insight to a familiar topic while also scaring the absolute shit out of you”.

For those of us who have for years been trying – without notable success – to spark public concern about what’s going on in tech, it’s fascinating to watch how a talented movie director goes about the task…

Read on


What to do if Trump and the Republicans in the Senate ram through a new Supreme Court nominee.

Interesting. I hadn’t known that the number of Supreme Court justices is not stipulated by the Constitution. That means an Act of Congress could change it.


Johnson’s not up to the job. Who knew?

It’s funny how many people seem still to be astonished by the incompetence of the Johnson administration. Given his record as a lazy, irresponsible toff who has all his life left behind him a wake of chaos, unhappiness and offspring, what else could one expect? Andrew Rawnsley has a nice column about this in today’s Observer. Here’s its conclusion:

Funnily enough, the book Superforecasting [which Dominic Cummings reviewed enthusiastically put on his reading list for ministers] identifies one of the core reasons why this government is failing. “The worst forecasters were those with great self-confidence who stuck to their big ideas,” wrote Mr Cummings himself. They are lousy at understanding the world and coming to good judgments about it. “The more successful were those who were cautious, humble, numerate, actively open-minded, looked at many points of view.” Now, which is a better description of the Johnson-Cummings method of government? “Cautious, humble, numerate, actively open-minded, looked at many points of view”? That doesn’t sound like them at all. “Great self-confidence”, which leaves them stubbornly wedded to their “big ideas”? That’s much more like it.

Their biggest idea of the moment is that leaving the EU’s single market without a deal would be fine even in a double-whammy combination with a re-escalation of the coronavirus crisis. Bear in mind his previous record as a soothsayer when the prime minister confidently predicts that a crash-out Brexit would be a “good outcome”. I hazard a guess that this is his most calamitously wrong forecast of all.


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Sunday 16 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

““Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.”

  • Bertrand Russell

This was the quote that came to mind when I realised that Trump was going ahead with his Tulsa rally.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Glenn Gould plays Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca (4 minutes).

Link


Working from home: a dream now turning into a nightmare?

This morning’s Observer column:

Remember when it was so exciting to be able to WFH – work from home? When your boss, instead of being grumpy and taking a grudging “well-if-you-must” attitude was suddenly insisting that you had to work remotely? And how refreshing that seemed at the beginning? No more dispiriting 90-minute commutes, for example. Suddenly, extra hours were added to your day. A better work-life balance beckoned, because we had developed a technological infrastructure that had made distance irrelevant. What was not to like?

Of course there were glitches. Childcare, for example, became a nightmare when schools and nurseries closed. Not everyone had good, reliable broadband. And it turned out that not every household had multiple laptops either. Likewise, many people lived in small apartments where the choice of workspace boiled down to either the kitchen table or the cubbyhole that masqueraded as a spare bedroom. And there were still large numbers of “critical” workers whose work couldn’t be done from home. But still, wasn’t it wonderful that so many of us could?

Well, that was then and this is now…

Read on.


Reagan and the withering of the American state

Perceptive essay in Noema Magazine:

The great historical irony of America is that, for all its valiant efforts as a global power fighting off external threats from fascism to Soviet communism, its ultimate demise will likely be the result of its own internal doings — or undoings.

The paradox is that the politics of former President Ronald Reagan, who is credited with winning the seminal ideological battle of the 20th century, the Cold War, is also the politics that undermined America’s future. The inability to come to grips with the COVID-19 pandemic can be traced directly to his notion in the 1980s that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

Reagan saw it as his mission to undo the ambitions of the welfare state, such as it was, that came into existence through the New Deal as a response to the Great Depression, and the Great Society, that sought to cushion the security of the elderly and mend the racial injustice decried by the civil rights movement. His mantra celebrated the cult of the entrepreneur who could create wealth freely without the burdens of society weighing on his or her profit margins, while demoting the importance of education to upward mobility and dissing the role of taxation and regulation as critical pillars for maintaining the operating capacity of a complex modern society. Public administration was demeaned as nothing more than meddlesome bureaucrats clogging up free enterprise with cumbersome paperwork.

That sums it up nicely. Trump has done his best to finish the job. If he wins in November, he will have time to tidy up the loose ends of this destructive project.

(btw Michael Lewis’s fine book, The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy provides a sobering progress report on Trump’s efforts to continue Reagan’s project.)


Johnson’s ‘mandate’

I was just about to use this front page of the FT of December 14/15 2019 for wrapping garbage and realised that that would be a really appropriate use for it.

“Stonking”, I gather (having checked some dictionaries), means “of exceptional size or quality”, and is believed to derive from the verb “stonk”, which means “to bombard (soldiers, buildings, etc) with artillery”. In that sense Johnson has used his mandate to bombard the hapless British public with florid BS.

It turned out also that the electorate had given him a mandate to screw up the country’s response to Covid.


Peter Geoghegan’s Democracy for Sale

My Observer review is in today’s paper. This is how it concludes…

Remainers will probably read Geoghegan’s account of this manoeuvring by Brexiters as further evidence that the Brexit vote was invalid. This seems to me implausible or at any rate undecidable. Geoghegan agrees. “Pro-Leave campaigns broke the law,” he writes, “but we cannot say with any certainty that the result would have been different if they had not. Instead, the referendum and its aftermath have revealed something far more fundamental and systemic. Namely, a broken political system that is ripe for exploitation again. And again. And again.”

And therein lies the significance of this remarkable book. The integrity and trustworthiness of elections is a fundamental requirement for a functioning democracy. The combination of unaccountable, unreported dark money and its use to create targeted (and contradictory) political messages for individuals and groups means that we have no way of knowing how free and fair our elections have become. Many of the abuses exposed by Geoghegan and other researchers are fixable with new laws and better-resourced regulators. The existential threat to liberal democracy comes from the fact that those who have successfully exploited some inadequacies of the current regulatory system – who include Boris Johnson and his current wingman, Cummings – have absolutely no incentive to fix the system from which they have benefited. And they won’t. Which could be how our particular version of democracy ends.


Summer books #5

Goliath: the 100-year War between Monopoly Power and Democracy by Matt Stoller, Simon and Schuster, 2019.

One of the things I found puzzling when I started to think about the societal menace of tech platforms was how apparently relaxed so many people, especially in the US, felt about the new generation of corporate giants that were acquiring monopoly power. This led to a deep dive into the history of antitrust and the pivotal influence of Robert Bork’s 1978 book, The Antitrust Paradox which essentially argued that so long as there was no evidence of consumer harm (e.g. by price gouging) then the size and reach or a corporation should not be a matter for concern. Since some of the tech giants I was interested in offer ‘free’ services, this view (which became very influential in US legal circles) gave outfits like Google, Facebook et al a mostly free pass from legislative scrutiny. Which baffled me: corporate power is unaccountable power, something that no democracy should be able to accept. While I was stuck in those weeds, I longed for a synoptic history of the monopoly problem — so you can imagine how pleased I was when Matt Stoller’s book arrived. It does what it says on the tin. And Stoller shares my combative mindset about these matters.


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Sunday 9 August, 2020

A musical alternative to the morning’s news

Since it’s Sunday, something a bit longer (28 minutes)

James Joyce’s playlist — from a lovely Radio 4 documentary by David Norris on the significance of the music in Ulysses, made to celebrate a particular Bloomsday.

Link

Professor Norris points out at the beginning of the recording that many people probably don’t realise that Joyce was a fine singer as a young man. On 16 May 1904 he participated in — and should have won (see later) — the national Feis Ceoil [Festival of Song] singing competition.

The James Joyce Centre takes up the story.

The Feis Ceoil is an annual celebration of Irish musical talent with competitions in various categories including singing. In 1903, the Feis Ceoil tenor singing competition was won by John McCormack. The prize was a year-long scholarship to study in Italy. Shortly after his return to Ireland in 1904, McCormack persuaded his friend Joyce to enter the Feis.

In preparation, Joyce started taking lessons from Benedetto Palmieri, the best singing teacher in Dublin, but he soon switched to Vincent O’Brien who was less expensive than Palmieri. Joyce had moved into rooms at 60 Shelbourne Road where he hired a piano to rehearse for the competition. Joyce sang in a concert given by the St Brigid’s Panoramic Choir on Saturday 14 May 1904, and two days later he sang at the Feis Ceoil.

The set pieces for the singing competition in 1904 were ‘No Chastening’ by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame), and ‘A Long Farewell,’ a traditional song arranged by Moffat. According to the review of the competition in the Irish Daily Independent on 17 May, “Mr. Joyce showed himself possessed of the finest quality voice of any of those competing…”

Part of the competition was to sing at sight from a previously unseen music score, and at that point Joyce simply walked off the stage. It seems that the judge, Professor Luigi Denza, had intended to give Joyce the gold medal but, when Joyce refused the sight-reading test, Denza could not place him among the medal-winners. However, at the end of the competition, the second-placed singer was disqualified and Denza awarded the third-place medal to Joyce. Joyce gave the medal to his Aunt Josephine and today it is owned by the dancer Michael Flatley.

There’s an interesting personal echo in this for me. The most influential teacher I ever had was a Jesuit priest called Father O’Brien, who taught us English in the fifth and sixth form and who was also — he told us once — the son of Joyce’s “less expensive” voice tutor. He was also the teacher who persuaded me that reading off the exam syllabus was one of the most sensible things an intelligent student could do. So I did. Best advice I ever had.


Amazon, books and misinformation

This morning’s Observer column:

It’s a truism that we live in a “digital age”. It would be more accurate to say that we live in an algorithmically curated era – that is, a period when many of our choices and perceptions are shaped by machine-learning algorithms that nudge us in directions favoured by those who employ the programmers who write the necessary code.

A good way of describing them would be as recommender engines. They monitor your digital trail and note what interests you – as evidenced by what you’ve browsed or purchased online. Amazon, for example, regularly offers me suggestions for items that are “based on your browsing history”. It also shows me a list of what people who purchased the item I’m considering also bought. YouTube’s engine notes what kinds of videos I have watched – and logs how much of each I have watched before clicking onwards – and then presents on the right-hand side of the screen an endlessly-scrolling list of videos that might interest me based on what I’ve just watched.

In the early days of the web, few, if any, of these engines existed. But from 2001 onwards they became increasingly common and are now almost ubiquitous…

Read on

Wendy Grossman, Whom God Preserve, sent me a link to her perceptive review of the film (Astro)Turf Wars. The main point of the movie is that what are perceived by mainstream media as “grassroots” movements are in fact often comprised of credulous folks who are skillfully manipulated by figures working for the usual crowd — Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Pharma, et al.

The link to my column comes from a passage where, in Wendy’s review,

One trainer explains that he spends 30 minutes a day going through Amazon’s book lists giving anything liberal one star and anything conservative five stars. “Eighty percent of the books I put a star on, I don’t read,” he says. “So that’s how it works”. The same goes at sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Flixster (“This is where your kids get information”), where he gives bad ratings to movies like Sicko (“I don’t want Michael Moore to come up”). “That’s how you control the online dialogue and give our ideals a fighting chance.”


What to Do When Covid Doesn’t Go Away

Ross Douhat on lessons for coronavirus long-haulers from his own experience with chronic illness.

Two months ago Ed Yong of The Atlantic reported on Covid’s “long-haulers” — people who are sick for months rather than the two or three weeks that’s supposed to be the norm. They don’t just have persistent coughs: Instead their disease is a systemic experience, with brain fog, internal organ pain, bowel problems, tremors, relapsing fevers, more.

One of Yong’s subjects, a New Yorker named Hannah Davis, was on Day 71 when his story appeared. When she passed the four-month mark, in late July, she tweeted a list of symptoms that included everything from “phantom smells (like someone BBQing bad meat)” to “sensitivity to noise and light” to “extreme back/kidney/rib pain” to “a feeling like my body has forgotten to breathe.”

That same week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a survey of Covid patients who were never sick enough to be hospitalized. One in three reported still feeling sick three weeks into the disease.

Douhat has some sensible and useful suggestions for staying sane when you’re suffering from symptoms for which conventional medicine currently seems to have no remedy. It’s a good piece, and I can imagine that some sufferers will find it helpful.


The private John Hume that few people knew

This morning the John Bowman show on RTE ran a wonderful programme compiled from the station’s archives which painted a compelling audio portrait of the man behind the towering public figure.

Many thanks to Kevin Cryan for alerting me to it.


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Sunday 2 August, 2020

Quote of the Day


Can the planet afford more and more machine-learning?

This morning’s Observer column on GPT-3:

The apparent plausibility of GPT-3’s performance has led – again – to fevered speculation about whether this means we have taken a significant step towards the goal of artificial general intelligence (AGI) – ie, a machine that has the capacity to understand or learn any intellectual task that a human being can. Personally, I’m sceptical. The basic concept of the GPT approach goes back to 2017 and although it’s a really impressive achievement to be able to train a system this big and capable, it looks more an incremental improvement on its predecessors rather than a dramatic conceptual breakthrough. In other words: start with a good idea, then apply more and more computing power and watch how performance improves with each iteration.

Which raises another question: given that this kind of incremental improvement is made possible only by applying more and more computing power to the problem, what are the environmental costs of machine-learning technology?

Read on


Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be

The easing of the lockdown on July 4 has had its predictable effect — alarming rises in numbers of new infections in many parts of country. These have now reached more than 4,000 new cases a day, attributed by the head of the government’s track-and-trace operation to social-distancing rules being “routinely flouted“ in virus hotspots.

Nothing in this is surprising. People are desperate to get back to some kind of normal behaviour — hugging friends and family, meeting, drinking, dancing, going to clubs, all the things they used to do. What everybody finds hard to realise, still less to accept, is that that ‘normal’ to which we long to return is no longer available. That train has left the station. The pre-pandemic past is indeed a different country.

When the virus first reached these shores, I had a conversation with a member of my family who saw it as just another kind of flu — more dangerous, certainly, but something essentially familiar. I tried — and failed — to persuade her that it was much more significant and far-reaching than that. Reflecting on the conversation afterwards, I thought that the analogy I should have used was that of the First World War — in the sense that the world post-1918 was unrecognisably different from the world as it was in 1913. And, as the depth and reach of the Coronavirus became clearer with every passing day, that seemed to be quite a persuasive analogy.

But actually that still doesn’t get the measure of the change that we are now living though. The most fundamental change that we — humankind — will have to accept is in our conception of our relationship with nature. This thought was sparked by reading  “From The Anthropocene To The Microbiocene“, a long essay by Tobias Rees in Noema magazine, a publication of the Berggruen Institute.

The thrust of the essay is that from Aristotle to Thomas Hobbes we humans thought of ourselves as part of nature — as just animals with a capacity for reason. But with Hobbes, we started to think of ourselves as apart from the natural world (where lives were famously “nasty, brutish and short”). And this distinction was steadily reinforced by the rise of science, the Enlightenment , capitalism, democratic politics, and so on. Nature was something that we could master, control and exploit (and despoil). As it happened, this hubristic belief in our intrinsic superiority was ultimately going to be our downfall as the pursuit of economic growth led to the collapse of the biosphere on which human life depends.

The significance of the Coronavirus, on this view, is that it interrupts our inexorable rush to climate catastrophe by reminding us of the extent to which our post-Hobbesian hubris was a delusion. We find ourselves unable to overcome and control this manifestation of part of the natural world. And getting a vaccine will not solve it, though it may make living with it more manageable. But these viruses are part of the human future from now on. They’re here to stay.

All of which means that our view of nature as something separate from us, was delusional. What we have to learn to accept is that we’re part of nature too. Given that we’ve had 400+ years of believing something very different, it’s not surprising that people are finding it difficult to come to terms with what lies ahead. There might be many lockdowns ahead until that penny finally drops.

Since we can’t beat nature, shouldn’t we be thinking of (re)joining it?


At last, the tech titans’ nerd immunity shows signs of fading

My OpEd piece in today’s Observer on last Wednesday’s Congressional Hearings on Big Tech.

The most striking thing about Wednesday’s congressional interrogation of the leaders of Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon was the absence of deference to the four moguls. This was such a radical departure from previous practice – characterised by ignorance, grandstanding and fawning on these exemplars of the American Way – that it was initially breathtaking. “Our founders would not bow before a king,” said the House antitrust subcommittee chairman, David Cicilline, in his opening remarks. “Nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy.”

If we wanted a radical departure from the legislative slumber of previous decades, this looked like it. And indeed, to a large extent, it was. One saw it, for example, in the aggressiveness of the questioning by the Democrats. At times, one was reminded of the proceedings of the US supreme court, where the justices constantly interrupt the lawyers before them to cut off any attempt at lawyerly exposition. The implicit message is: “We’ve done our homework. Now get to the point – if you have one.” It was like that on Wednesday.

The Democrats had done their homework: they had read the torrents of private emails that the subcommittee had subpoenaed. And, like any good prosecutor, they never asked a question to which they didn’t already know the answer.

The tech titans were mostly flummoxed by this approach…

Read on


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Sunday 19 July, 2020

Don’t post on Facebook unless you are prepared to face the consequences

This morning’s Observer column:

Earlier this month Anne Borden King posted news on her Facebook page that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Since then, she reports, “my Facebook feed has featured ads for ‘alternative cancer care’. The ads, which were new to my timeline, promote everything from cumin seeds to colloidal silver as cancer treatments. Some ads promise luxury clinics – or even ‘nontoxic cancer therapies’ on a beach in Mexico.”

The irony is that King is the last person likely to fall for this crap. She’s a consultant for the watchdog group Bad Science Watch and a co-founder of the Campaign Against Phony Autism Cures. So she effortlessly recognised the telltale indicators of pseudoscience marketing – unproven and sometimes dangerous treatments, promising simplistic solutions and support. In that sense she is the polar opposite of, say, Donald Trump.

But one sentence in her thoughtful article brought me up short…

Read on


Please, Matt Hancock, let us see our loved ones with dementia

A justifiably angry piece by my friend Nicci Gerrard, who was the co-founder of John’s Campaign, which she launched after her beloved father’s dementia worsened dramatically when he was in hospital and his children were not allowed to visit him.

Ten days ago, in response to a letter from seven dementia charities and organisations, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced that the ban on visits to care homes was “coming to an end very soon”. That brought a huge sense of relief to the thousands of family carers who have been unable to see their relatives for almost four months. But since then: nothing. Was it an empty promise, a disgraceful piece of window dressing? Perhaps the health secretary could tell us what “very soon” means; how many days are there in “a few days”?

The letter was sent by John’s Campaign, the Alzheimer’s Society, Alzheimer’s Research UK, Dementia UK, Young Dementia UK, Innovations in Dementia and Tide and called for the government to grant family and friend carers the same status as a “key worker” care home member of staff, allowing them the same access to care homes with the same provision of testing so they can meet the essential needs of residents…

The neglect of care homes from the outset has been one of the greatest scandals in the Johnson regimes handling of the crisis. My mother-in-law, who also had dementia, died because she was in an unprotected care home.


Wacky reasoning and the virus

Tim Harford has a nice piece in the weekend FT about self-fulfilling prophecies.

A vocal minority argues that Covid-19 is not much worse than the influenza we ignore every winter, so both mandatory lockdowns and voluntary precautions have been unnecessary.

A glance at the data gives that argument a veneer of plausibility. The UK has suffered about 65,000 excess deaths during the first wave of the pandemic, and 25,000-30,000 excess deaths are attributed to flu in England alone during bad flu seasons.

Is the disparity so great that the country needed to grind to a halt?

The flaw in the argument is clear: Covid was “only” twice as bad as a bad flu season because we took extreme measures to contain it. The effectiveness of the lockdown is being used as an argument that lockdown was unnecessary. It is frustrating, but that is the nature of a self-defeating prophecy in a politicised environment.

Nice. And necessary.


Recovery from Covid-19 will be threatened if we don’t learn to control big tech

My OpEd piece in today’s Observer.

As societies try to recover from the pandemic, an alarming scenario begins to loom. It goes like this: a vaccine is invented and countries embark on massive vaccination programmes. However, conspiracy theorists use social media to oppose the programme and undermine public confidence in the vaccination drive. It will be like the anti-MMR campaign but on steroids.

What we have learned from the coronavirus crisis so far is that the only way to manage it is by coherent, concerted government action to slow the transmission rate. As societies move into a vaccination phase, then an analogous approach will be needed to slow the circulation of misinformation and destructive antisocial memes on social media. Twitter would be much improved by removing the retweet button, for example. Users would still be free to pass on ideas but the process would no longer be frictionless. Similarly, Facebook’s algorithms could be programmed to introduce a delay in the circulation of certain kinds of content. YouTube’s recommender algorithms could be modified to prioritise different factors from those they currently favour. And so on.

Measures such as these will be anathema to the platforms. Tough. In the end, they will have to make choices between their profits and the health of society. If they get it wrong then regulation is the only way forward. And governments will have to remember that to govern is to choose.


Freud and the pandemic

Striking essay by Alax Danco.

Three months ago, he wrote this:

Over the next few months, across America, a lot of people are going to die. And they’re going die because other Americans are – not just cluelessly, but gleefully – refusing to wear masks, and celebrating it, the way you’d celebrate winning a football game. Meanwhile, the urgent topic occupying all of the air time in elite circles isn’t the pandemic, or its generational economic devastation; it’s “how bad should other people be allowed to make you feel online?”

And now, he concluded,

So yeah, it did, indeed, get worse.

You know who would really have recognized and understood this moment? Sigmund Freud.

In retrospect, he thinks, “the critical mistake of the pandemic was telling Americans that masks protect other people”.

The minute that wearing masks became about protecting other people, it was game over for America. Masks became a symbol of the superego; and as far as symbolism goes, it’s laid on pretty thick. (It’s literally something that you put on your face into order to stop yourself from spraying germs onto other people, and therefore suppress your own guilt of being part of a pandemic!) The minute masks became about suppressing yourself to protect others, the narrative became: The Elites want you to feel guilty about not wearing a mask, just like they want you to feel guilty about driving a car, or eating a burger, or anything else you love. Don’t let them!

Our reaction to this narrative misses what’s really being said. If you’ve ever thought, “how stupid do you have to be to think the government wants to control with a mask”, pause for a minute and think about what’s really being communicated. The real message is “they want to control you with guilt.” Doesn’t sound so stupid anymore, does it? Freud would certainly argue that this message gets it exactly right.

Unfortunately, there is a right answer. Wear the stupid mask. This should be a conversation about public health, not yet another forum for symbolic battle between the ego and superego. And in most countries, that’s the case; people cooperate, wear masks, and their countries can cautiously reopen and get back to something like normal life. Not in America, though! In America, you see political talking heads saying things like “Mask-wearing has become a totem, a secular religious symbol. Christians wear crosses, Muslims wear a hijab, and members of the Church of Secular Science bow to the Gods of Data by wearing a mask as their symbol, demonstrating that they are the elite; smarter, more rational, and morally superior to everyone else.”

Actually, it’s not just in America that you hear people talking like that. A colleague of mine came back wearily from a meeting of his College’s Council the other day, after a two-hour argument about whether students and staff ought to be compelled to wear face masks in the Autumn.


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Sunday 28 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

In 1990, the top three carmakers in Detroit had a market capitalization of $36 billion and 1.2 million employees. In 2014, the top three firms in Silicon Valley, with a market capitalization of over $1 trillion, had only 137,000 employees.


A family outing

A scene from our walk yesterday evening. Think of it as my homage to John Constable! The Canada geese goslings have grown at an extraordinary rate. And it was very considerate of them and their parents to swim in such a straight line.

Click on the image to see a larger version.


Is it payback time for Apple as the EU goes after its licences to print money?

This morning’s Observer column:

On 16 June, the European commission opened two antitrust investigations into Apple’s App Store and Apple Pay practices. The first investigation will examine whether Apple has broken EU competition rules with its App Store policies. The second investigation is into whether restrictions imposed by Apple on the near field communication (NFC) capability of its iPhone and Apple Watch mean that banks and other financial institutions are prevented from offering NFC payment systems using Apple kit.

Let’s take the App Store first. When Apple unveiled the iPhone in 2007, it created an amazing new opportunity for software developers and, of course, for Apple itself. Because the new phone was basically a powerful handheld computer, that meant it could run smallish programs, which came to be called apps. And because it had an internet connection those programs could be efficiently distributed across the net. From this came the idea that Apple should set up an App Store to which developers could upload their programs. Apple, being a control-freak corporation, would vet those apps before they appeared on the store and would levy a 30% commission on sales. It seems like a great idea…

Read on


Thinking of moving to the US? Listen to this first

Stunning The Daily podcast on what’s been going on in Texas.

Made me realise I didn’t know the half of it.


Anne Case and Angus Deaton interviewed by Der Spiegel

Link. Interesting throughout. For example:

DER SPIEGEL: What has caused this mass-despair in white, middle-class life?

Deaton: Look at the labor market, at wages. Life-time jobs and the meaning that comes from a life like that is very important. Roles for men and women are defined by it, as is their place in the community. It’s almost like Marx: Social conditions depend on the means of production. And these means of production are being brought down by globalization, by automation, by the incredible force of health care. And that’s destroying communities.

DER SPIEGEL: Yet where there are losers, there should be winners as well. Who is to blame for this development?

Deaton: Many people have said that there are two ways of getting rich: One way is by making things, and the other is by taking things. And one of the ways of taking things is to make the government give you special favors. Those special favors don’t create anything, but they can make you rich, at the expense of everybody else.

Case: For instance, the pharma companies get a law passed that Medicare has to pay for drugs at whatever price the pharma companies choose. Or the doctors’ lobby doesn’t allow as many people to go to medical school, which helps to keep doctors salaries up. That’s one of the reasons why doctors are the largest single occupation in the top 1 percent.

DER SPIEGEL: Would you argue that those in the top 1 percent are peculiarly prone to rent seeking?

Deaton: No, but many people are in the 1 percent because of rent seeking. This mechanism is creating a lot of very wealthy people who would not be wealthy if the government hadn’t given them a license to rip off the rest. We’re not among the people who think of inequality as a causal force. It’s rent-seeking opportunities that create inequality.

DER SPIEGEL: How do the losers of this development react politically?

Deaton: Well, many of them like Donald Trump (laughs)!

I’ve just got their book.


If you thought that the Pizzagate conspiracy theory was dead and buried (I did), then think again.

Astonishing — and depressing — NYT story.

Sigh.


Quarantine diary — Day 99

Link


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