Thursday 16 September, 2021

Worried about going back to the Office?

Watch this nice reassuring Dutch film. (And don’t forget to turn on the sound.)

There, that wasn’t too bad, was it?

Quote of the Day

“It is said the pandemic pulled forward a decade or more of “digital transformation”. Yes. But what it really is going to be is the equivalent of what WWII did to the corporation or the microprocessor to mainframe.”

  • Steven Sinofsky (see below)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paul Brady & Arty McGlynn | The Humours of Ballyloughlin


And old recording of two of the best guitarists in Ireland.

Long Read of the Day

 Disruption at Work: It’s More than just WFH

Marvellous essay, constructed as a Tweetstorm, by Steven Sinofsky, one of the most perceptive (and experienced) observers of the tech industry.

Here’s a sample:

17/ The line from Walmart to Amazon is not straight or predictable, but it was exponential. And most of the entire time, “everyone” assumed that Walmart would just catch up. How did Walmart not do same day delivery when the “warehouse” is 2 miles away from me?

18/ That is what disruption looks like — it is not linear or predictable, and most importantly, when it is happening no one knows it. The one thing we know is entities being disrupted claim to be doing the new thing everyone is talking about — BUT THEY ARE DOING IT THE OLD WAY.

19/ Second is a tendency to view disruption as a single variable — Amazon has a web site so Walmart needs one. But Amazon had warehouses, custom software, its own last mile shipping, and on and on. Disruption is never one variable, but a wholesale revisiting of all the variables.

20/ That is why the debate over remote work vs hybrid vs HQ is only part of the picture. It is very interesting and will forever change to something, but that is not where the focus should be. It is, however, why the large companies are the first to start looking to the old ways.

21/ In other words, the incumbent in this disruption is not the headquarters or office, but the full list of structures and approaches of the company.

Do read the whole thing.

Apple seems to be persisting with its car project, but nobody knows what it’s planning

Interesting note from Ben Evans’s weekly newsletter:

The Apple Car, still The head of Apple’s car project moved to Ford, and Kevin Lynch, the head of the watch (a huge hit) took over. I sometimes wonder if Apple has worked out what, exactly, it would do in cars. Making a ‘better Tesla’ seems obvious but unambitious. Yet full autonomy (even if possible) isn’t an Apple sweet spot either. The iPhone was not a Nokia with a nicer case, nor a Blackberry done better. It was a completely new concept. What would an Apple car do that wasn’t just a Tesla with a better interior? It’s clearly working on autonomy, but it’s unlikely to do that better than anyone else – though it might work out how to explain whether the car is driving or not, which may be a big deal. I’m not sure that Apple knows.

Somehow, I don’t think it’s a Tesla with a better interior.

Musings On The Anthropocene

Excerpt from an interesting essay (last of 12) by Usha Alexander…

Whatever the geologists decide about the formal definition, it is useful to think about the start of the Anthropocene. It is useful to focus a question on what so fundamentally changed in human behavior that we went from being just one creature among many, to a becoming a dangerous entity on a scale unlike any other life form in billions of years, drastically upsetting the balance of life on our planet with such force that it’s crashing the biosphere. When did our species cross that threshold? If we can understand what changed in our ways of being, then we might be able to figure out what can be set right and how we might restore human societies to their useful place within the living world. Returning to the popular metaphor of humans as a cancer, what if we instead liken the human community to an organ that—just like every other community of life—plays a part in the regulation of the Earth as an organism, imagined as Gaia? It might then be fair to say that something in our tissues, or social fabric, has become diseased. This is to say human beings are not _a disease; rather, human societies are _infected by disease. If that metaphor holds, then our societies can also be restored to health. With proper diagnosis and treatment, why couldn’t we return to our salutary functioning in Earth’s web of life?

Readers of this series will know that I’ve come to think the present disease was caused by an idea — a meme, if you prefer — contracted by societies in the Fertile Crescent during the early to mid-Holocene, an idea that humans are essentially different from all other living creatures and are entitled to destroy or co-opt other lives without regard in the service of human paramountcy. Early Mesopotamian societies at least provide the first textual evidence in which people were beginning to compare themselves favorably with their gods.

Human exceptionalism is at the root of our environmental crisis.

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Wednesday 15 September, 2021

Quote of the Day

“The Metaverse: virtual reality with unskippable ads.”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Telemann | Flute Concerto in G major | Emmanuel Pahud


Long Read of the Day

Notes From the Metaverse

You may have noticed a new obsession of the tech industry with something called the ‘Metaverse’ and dismissed it as just another passing fad of half-educated billionaires who dropped out of college and read (but obviously didn’t understand) Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.

If that’s what you thought, then can I respectfully suggest you think again? The Metaverse concept is the most audacious plan for cognitive ‘colonialisation’ since the invention of surveillance capitalism, and this essay by by L. M. Sacasas is the most insightful piece about it that I’ve come across so far. So it’s worth your attention.

It’s terrific. Here’s a taster:

According to NVIDIA’s vice president of simulation technology Rev Lebaredian, “Ultimately we’re talking about creating another reality, another world, that’s as rich as the real world.”

“As rich as the real world” almost comes off as a magnanimous concession given that the so-called “real world” is sometimes characterized as a tedious and impoverished realm compared to the wonders of the Digital City. In a recent installment, I cited Marc Andreessen’s claim that a preference for non-digitally mediated “reality” was an expression of “reality privilege.” In his view, “the vast majority of humanity, lacks Reality Privilege — their online world is, or will be, immeasurably richer and more fulfilling than most of the physical and social environment around them in the quote-unquote real world.” Andreessen knows that some will reasonably say we should then get busy making sure that we improve the “real world” experience for everyone. But times up for reality, Andreessen argues: “Reality has had 5,000 years to get good, and is clearly still woefully lacking for most people.” “We should build — and we are building –” he adds, “online worlds that make life and work and love wonderful for everyone, no matter what level of reality deprivation they find themselves in.”

Do read it.

V2G: Electric vehicles and the grid

When you look at an EV critically, what you see is basically a big skateboard. The ‘board’ is a huge (and I mean huge) battery, with four independently powered wheels at the corners. And so one is basically driving round with a great deal of stored electrical energy at your disposal, which is very satisfying, given the accelerative torque that electric motors can generate.

But of course most of the time the car is parked in a driveway or garage and all that stored energy is just sitting there, unused. And there are currently over half a million EVs doing just that most of the time.

Now switch your gaze to the future envisaged by the UK government of 14m EVs on British roads by 2030. Keeping them charged would notionally require massive upgrading of the national grid, with a massive price tag attached.

For a long time people have been pointing out that it doesn’t have to be like that. After all, the key to managing the grid is to have spare power available to cope with surges of demand. At the moment that rapid-response power comes from gas-powered generating stations, which can get up to speed quickly but emit a lot of CO2. If EVs were connected to the grid in a way that turned them into sources of rapidly-available stored power, then maybe all those gas-turbine generators could be pensioned off.

This penny has finally dropped, it seems. At any rate the energy regulator Ofgem has come up with plans to make it easier for drivers to sell the spare energy stored in their battery back to the grid. It’s a bit like the way households with solar panels can sell some of the electricity they generate back to the grid.

Ofgem will also encourage “smart” car charging to make better use of electricity when demand is low and power is cheap before releasing the cheap energy back to the grid using vehicle-to-grid technology when demand rises.

Neil Kenward, a director at Ofgem, said the regulator would take a “three-prong approach” by increasing the use of electric vehicles, “smart” car charging and vehicle-to-grid technology “which together can help drive down costs for all GB bill payers”.

He said: “Electric vehicles will revolutionise the way we use energy and provide consumers with new opportunities, through smart products, to engage in the energy market to keep their costs as low as possible.”

There’s a nice diagram of how this would work here.

One day that EV of yours could be “a nice little earner”, as Arthur Daley might have put it.

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Tuesday 14 September, 2021

Norfolk in August

You can perhaps see why I love it there.

Quote of the Day

”The media. It sounds like a convention of spiritualists.”

  • Tom Stoppard in his play Jumpers

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Crosby, Stills, & Nash – Suite Judy Blue Eyes


Long Read of the Day

9/11 Was a Warning for of What Was to Come

Characteristically thoughtful reflection on the attack by George Packer. It was, he argues, the first sign that the 21st century would be a period of shock and disaster.

September 11 dissolved this dream of being exempt from history. It had been a childish dream, and its end forced many Americans, perhaps for the first time, to consider the rest of the world. That morning, an investment banker escaped Ground Zero and staggered uptown into a church in Greenwich Village, where he began to shake and sob. A policeman put a hand on his shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, you’re in shock.” The banker replied, “I’m not in shock. I like this state. I’ve never been more cognizant in my life.”

We had not been thinking about the hijackers, but they had been thinking about us…

Great piece.

The Messy Truth About Carbon Footprints

By Sami Grover in Undark:

How much attention should each of us be paying to our individual carbon footprint? That question is the subject of a contentious debate that’s been raging in climate circles for quite some time.

In one camp stand folks like author Rebecca Solnit, whose recent op-ed for The Guardian argued that Big Oil invented carbon footprints as a deliberate attempt to “blame us for their greed.” The goal, she wrote, was to use relatively ineffectual calls for voluntary abstinence to distract the public from demanding systems-level interventions — like new taxes or the phasing out of gas-powered cars — that might meaningfully reduce society’s reliance on fossil fuels as a whole.

In the other camp are people like Polish researcher Michał Czepkiewicz, who assert that the concept of carbon footprints was simply co-opted by fossil fuel interests, and that it still has value in illuminating the vast inequality that exists between low- and high-carbon lifestyles. (A recent report from the anti-poverty organization Oxfam found that the wealthiest 10 percent of the global population — which includes the vast majority of people reading this op-ed — were responsible for more than 50 percent of global emissions between 1990 and 2015.)

The real truth, as is so often the case, is that more than one thing can be true at once.

Really good piece. Carbon footprints are useful in providing a metric for both measuring which individual actions are significant enough to meaningfully reduce emissions, and also for identifying where policy-level interventions might be most needed.

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Monday 13 September, 2021

Memories of 9/11

Amid the torrent of stuff triggered by the 20th anniversary of the attach, some things stood out, One was this Aperture essay by Lynne Gilman.

In the weeks after 9/11, Steve Pyke photographed posters of the missing from the Twin Towers. Published for the first time twenty years later, they remain instant memorials to an incalculable loss…

And then this Diary piece by Sukhdev Sandhu in the London Review of Books published on 4 October 2001. It may be back behind the paywall by the time you read this, but here’s how it opens…

At first I’m sure it’s going to be a great day. Sun out. Bright blue skies. The end of summer. Even the sirens and engines that have been wailing outside my apartment window for the last hour don’t seem that unusual. Just, I assume, part of the hysteric clangour taken for granted by those who live in Manhattan. Only when I step out onto First Avenue to head downtown do things begin to seem strange. Hundreds of people are heading in my direction. Some are running. Mums are clutching young kids and looking over their shoulders fearfully. No cars or cabs, but police are everywhere. In the distance I see a huge black blob disfiguring the sky. Maybe a thunderstorm’s brewing? I step in front of a fleeing office worker: ‘Excuse me, but has something happened?’ His answer comes out as barely comprehensible comic-book babble: ‘The World Trade Center has been hit – it was a plane – enemies – terrorists – hijackers – the Pentagon too – the White House – Pittsburgh.’

By the time I reach my department at NYU everyone is ripped with panic. There was a bomb threat earlier and security has only just left. Phones ring non-stop but go dead as soon as they’re picked up. E-mail is down. The BBC and CNN websites are overloaded. A few people huddle round a radio trying to get more news. Each time Pearl Harbor is mentioned they turn their backs in fear: here at the Asian American Studies program where I teach, everyone is acutely aware that the 1941 bombings led to tens of thousands of Japanese Americans being scapegoated and interned. We yell out the names of people we knew who work at the Twin Towers and rummage around in drawers and diaries looking for their cellphone numbers, which we dial frantically, and often in vain. Do any of our students live near the financial district? Where can we go to give blood? Somebody mentions the date – 911; someone else Nostradamus. But, for once, no one has the heart or the detachment to think up sick jokes. Support staff want to go home. Many have a long journey ahead, commuting back to Jersey and Queens and Brooklyn. They’re scared that they might be trapped in Manhattan, cut off from their families. ‘My mom and me, we ain’t too close,’ says one secretary, ‘but …’

Then there’s this from the Introduction to Scott Rosenberg’s lovely 2010 book on blogging.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, James Marino sat at his desk at 568 Broadway, looking out a tall window that revealed a panorama of the lower Manhattan skyline. He’d come to the office early to work on his side business — a website called The site collected tidbits of news and gossip about the New York theater scene and served them up blog-style, time-stamped, with new items at the top. At 8:49 a.m. he’d posted a passel of links: an AIDS benefit recap. Declining box office numbers from Variety. The impending release of a cast album for a show by Rent’s Jonathan Larson titled tick, tick . . . BOOM!

Marino clicked post and looked up from his monitor. He froze a moment, stared, then started typing again:

Finally, here is the first of Jeff Jarvis’s unparalleled audio recollections of his experiences that day.


There are five more. Each one unforgettable.

Quote of the Day

”Most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.”

  • Frank Zappa

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Samuel Barber | Agnus Dei | Laurens Symfonisch


Came to mind thinking about 9/11 over the weekend.

Long Read of the Day

When every car is electric, what happens to fuel duty and the electricity grid?

A terrific piece by Charles Arthur on what few people talk or think about: what happens when the UK government’s stated policy of banning the sale of new petrol or diesel cars by 2030 comes into force? This policy will cause immense upheaval in UK tax revenues and in the infrastructure for electricity generation and supply. For starters: it means billions and billions in in lost tax revenues, and a requirement of up to 20% more electricity generation.

The switch to EVs is a good idea, but — as Charles points out — it has major implications.

Read on to see what they are…

What’s the next big technological epoch?

My column in yesterday’s Observer:

One of the challenges of writing about technology is how to escape from what the sociologist Michael Mann memorably called “the sociology of the last five minutes”. This is especially difficult when covering the digital tech industry because one is continually deluged with ‘new’ stuff – viral memes, shiny new products or services, Facebook scandals (a weekly staple), security breaches etc. Recent weeks, for example, have brought the industry’s enthusiasm for the idea of a “metaverse” (neatly dissected here by Alex Hern), El Salvador’s flirtation with bitcoin, endless stories about central banks and governments beginning to worry about regulating cryptocurrencies, Apple’s possible rethink of its plans to scan phones and iCloud accounts for child abuse images, umpteen ransomware attacks, antitrust suits against app stores, the Theranos trial and so on, apparently ad infinitum.

So how to break out of the fruitless syndrome identified by Prof Mann? One way is to borrow an idea from Ben Thompson, a veteran tech commentator who doesn’t suffer from it, and whose (paid) newsletter should be a mandatory daily email for any serious observer of the tech industry. Way back in 2014, he suggested that we think of the industry in terms of “epochs” – important periods or eras in the history of a field. At that point he saw three epochs in the evolution of our networked world, each defined in terms of its core technology and its “killer app”.

Epoch one in this framework was the PC era, opened in August 1981 when IBM launched its personal computer…

Read on

How Mushroom Time Lapses Are Filmed

This is utterly riveting — at least if you’re a photographer, or a fan of nature film-making.


H/T to Jason Kottke.

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Friday 10 September, 2021

Fancy wheels

A recovering petrolhead writes…

This is an absolutely pristine Bristol 400 spotted the other day in a supermarket car park. The 400 was the first car produced by a spinoff from the British Aeroplane Company (BAC) after the war, with a design inspired by two pre-war BMW cars. It was IMO the only beautiful car that Bristol produced.

Quote of the Day

“In newspaper work you have to learn to forget every day what happened the day before. Newspaper work is valuable up to the point it begins to destroy your memory.

  • Ernest Hemingway (quoted in Mick Fealty’s fine piece which is today’s Long Read).

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Joan Baez and Jackson Brown | Before the deluge | Live at the Beacon Theatre, New York


Many thanks to Ian Clark for the suggestion.

Long Read of the Day

If Populism is a rational response to how we chose to structure our political debates, we need to slow things down…

Great blog post by Mick Fealty about the implications of a loss of accountability in politics (and the reporting of it). It’s happening, he says,

partly because it (politics) has become more performative and much less informational and communicative. Autocratic politicians always do performance much better than pure democrats.

It’s key to their appeal. But in doing so they fuel a flight from the world as it is (with all its impossible and inconsumable complexity). Infinitude scares us, tires us, wears us down making us vulnerable to performative demagogic charlatans.

The dominance of polling in political reporting doesn’t help either. If popularity has become the new single currency why are we surprised that those who front load that quality come to dominate political debate?

Business air-travel:‘Forever changed’?

Bloomberg report (via Charles Arthur)

A Bloomberg survey of 45 large businesses in the U.S., Europe and Asia shows that 84 per cent plan to spend less on travel post-pandemic. A majority of the respondents cutting travel budgets see reductions of between 20 per cent and 40 per cent, with about two in three slashing both internal and external in-person meetings.

The ease and efficiency of virtual software, cost savings and lower carbon emissions were the primary reasons cited for the cutbacks. According to the Global Business Travel Association, spending on corporate trips could slide to as low as US$1.24 trillion by 2024 from a pre-pandemic peak in 2019 of US$1.43 trillion.

Business travel has “forever changed,” Greg Hayes, CEO of jet-engine maker Raytheon Technologies Corp., said in a Bloomberg Radio interview in July. About 30 per cent of normal commercial air traffic is corporate-related but only half of that is likely mandatory, he said. While the market may eventually recover, sophisticated communication technologies have “really changed our thinking in terms of productivity,” Hayes said.

Having saved billions from slashed travel budgets during the pandemic with only a marginal impact on operations, companies, banks, consulting firms and government offices will be hard pressed to explain why they’d return to their old ways.

They sure will. About time too. One of the (few) gratifying things about the pandemic was its revelation of how inessential (and frivolous) a lot of intercontinental business travel was.

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Thursday 9 September, 2021

Quote of the Day

Novelist Roddy Doyle on being famous in Ireland:

“I was waiting at Tara Street Dart station for a friend, and there was a bunch of lads coming down the quays, all in their late teens, lads in tracksuits, and one of them broke away and came right up to my face and said, ‘Are you Roddy Doyle?’”

“And I said, ‘I am, yeah.’”

“He said, ‘So what?’”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

J.S. Bach | Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, BWV 1041 | 2. Andante


Long Read of the Day

The End of Books by Justin E. H. Smith

Lovely essay on the difficulties faced by all those who (like this blogger) have a ’book problem’ (to use a euphemism for a chronic addiction).

Moving to Paris in 2013, I found a temporary solution to the problem of my personal library. I drove the vastly greater part of the books I had accumulated over the years to a very generous relative’s home in Upstate New York, somewhere between the Hudson River and the Finger Lakes, and stored them in her spacious attic.

Over the years many people have told me there are inexpensive ways to ship books across the ocean, that enterprising Poles have established their own trans-Atlantic routes serving the Polish diaspora but also accommodating American expatriates, or that the US Postal Service itself offers special book rates “by the crate”. When called upon kindly to show me how these services may be accessed, somehow the people so ready to offer this advice never follow through. So just trust me: however you pack them up, whichever service you use, Concorde or barge, it would cost a fortune to get all of my books across the Atlantic.

And so for years I let them bake up there, and then freeze, and then bake again, a significant portion of the greatest thoughts ever expressed by human beings, huddling together, not exactly thinking on their own, but perhaps waiting, with dim awareness of their true “end”, to incite thought again.

Do read the whole thing.

Chart of the day

The usefulness of sharp criticism

Joan Bakewell (Whom God Preserve) tells a nice story about her days as a student reading history in Cambridge. She had written an exuberant essay on the French Revolution and submitted it to her tutor, Betty Behrens:

I saw it as a new dawn of freedom and fulfilment such as Cambridge meant to me: humankind united, happiness for all, triumph over tyranny.

The essay came back untouched. I thought there must be some mistake. I had delivered it as required, on time, impeccably handwritten. Now it lay on my table exactly as I had written it: no annotations, no corrections of dates or names, nothing. My newfound exhilaration wilted. What of my rhetoric, my exhortations, my vision of humankind – had they been somehow overlooked?

The truth was worse. On the final page, there was indeed an intervention by Betty Behrens: a line drawn through my writing and a terse paragraph.

This piece of work was not worthy of any consideration by her: she refused to consider it. It was worthless, trite rubbish. If I was to continue to study with her, there must be a serious effort to understand what scholarship was.

I was knocked back with the force of her disapproval.


In the event, the shock of her rebuke paid off. I had nowhere to go but into my own head. The thought of sharing my shame with college colleagues was out of the question. I had some serious thinking to do. I went back to my books: the lucid prose of Keynes, the measured tones of Plumb, the steady logic of Butterfield … the standard texts of the day. If I found them stuffy, that was my problem. Rhetoric and polemic had no place in the serious matter of study. (If I wanted invective, I could and did attend the lectures of FR Leavis, the celebrated English don, and hear him inveigh against WH Auden: “Mmmister Auden …” he would sneer.)

It proved a turning point for me. It was a healthy attack against my vanity, but more importantly made me examine how I thought. I began to examine what shaped my ideas – indeed, what shaped anyone’s ideas. Where did the whole direction of western thought come from? Yes, I allowed myself some grandiosity. But I wanted and intended to do better.

This rang bells for me — and also for some of my readers. Many comments one receives on draft papers are polite and modestly useful. But in a way they merely buttress or reinforce your preconceptions. The really useful criticism is often the most severe, because then you know you have struck bedrock and need to do something about it.

The Shakespeare and Company Project

Sylvia Beach was a legendary English-language bookseller in early 20th century Paris who created a bookstore that served as a kind of home-from-home for impecunious literary ex-pats. Famously, she was also the publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses. But something I hadn’t known is that she also ran a lending library for her customers.

Her papers are in Princeton University where the library now runs The Shakespeare and Company Project which uses the Beach Papers to recreate the world of a lost literary generation. It’s all online. You can browse and search the lending library’s members and books; learn about what was involved in joining it; discover its most popular books and authors; download Project data. And more.

Beach closed the store in 1941 after refusing to sell her last remaining copy of Ulysses to a Nazi officer. This puzzled me because I have a vivid memory of visiting what I thought was the store on my first visit to Paris in 1968.

Was this further confirmation of Mark Twain’s observation that “the older I get the more clearly I remember things that never happened”?

But then Wikipedia came to my aid.

A later independent English-language bookstore was opened in 1951 by George Whitman, also located on Paris’ Left Bank, but under a different name. Whitman adopted the “Shakespeare & Co.” name for his store in 1965, and it continues to operate under that name to this day.

Today, it continues to serve as a purveyor of new and second-hand books, as an antiquarian bookseller, and as a free reading library open to the public. Additionally, the shop houses aspiring writers and artists in exchange for their helping out around the bookstore. Since the shop opened in 1951, more than 30,000 people have slept in the beds found tucked between bookshelves. The shop’s motto, “Be Not Inhospitable to Strangers Lest They Be Angels in Disguise,” is written above the entrance to the reading library.

Many thanks to Faith Johnson, who told me about the Princeton project.

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

Wednesday 8 September, 2021

Exit strategy

Nice New Yorker cover after the US’s exit from the Afghan maze.

What’s the next maze, one wonders? Taiwan?

Quote of the Day

”There is no money in poetry; but then there is no poetry in money, either.”

  • Robert Graves

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

My Back Pages | Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton & George Harrison


What a line-up.

Long Read of the Day

Steven Pinker Thinks Your Sense of Imminent Doom Is Wrong

Longish NYT interview with the great optimist himself.


The key, though, is what kind of species are we? How rational is Homo sapiens? The answer can’t be that we’re just irrational in our bones, otherwise we could never have established the benchmarks of rationality against which we could say some people some of the time are irrational. I think the answer is, especially for publicly consequential beliefs: We achieve rationality by implementing rules for the community that make us collectively more rational than any of us are individually.

Hmmm… Wonder if he spends much time on social media.

From the New Yorker

The real history of the telescope

Nice post by Thony Christie on his Renaissance Mathematicus blog:

On 25th August Google celebrated the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first public presentation of his telescope an anniversary that is also commented upon in the latest addition of the Guardian Weekly, a compendium of the English daily newspaper The Guardian for ex-patriots like myself. It’s kind of nice to see the world paying a bit of attention to the history of astronomy but unfortunately they both got the date wrong! I suspect that both of them relied on the same news agency report and didn’t bother to check the facts. Well for those that care and even for those that don’t I have put together a short chronology of the early days of the telescope…

Read on.

Automated hiring software is mistakenly rejecting millions of viable job candidates

The Verge has an intriguing report on research done by Harvard Business School and the consultancy firm Accenture which suggests that “an enormous and growing group” of people are unemployed or underemployed, and eager to get a job or increase their working hours but remain effectively “hidden” from businesses that would benefit from hiring them by the very processes those companies use to recruit people.

The researchers estimate that in the US there are, more than 27 million of these hidden workers, and similar proportions of in the UK and Germany.

So why are they ‘hidden’?

A major culprit is inflexibly-configured automated recruitment management systems (RMS) — workflow-oriented tools that help organisations manage and track the pipeline of applicants in each step of the recruiting process.

Anyone who works in the so-called HR (‘Human Resources’) department of a large organisation will have used one of these tools, which streamline the recruiting process by automating time-consuming aspects of it — e.g. scanning CVs, candidate scoring and interview scheduling.

“These systems”, says the report,

represent the foundation of the hiring process in a majority of organizations. In fact, more than 90% of employers in our survey use their RMS to initially filter or rank potential middle-skills (94%) and high-skills (92%) candidates.

These systems are vital; however, they are designed to maximize the efficiency of the process. That leads them to hone in on candidates, using very specific parameters, in order to minimize the number of applicants that are actively considered. For example, most use proxies (such as a college degree or possession of precisely described skills) for attributes such as skills, work ethic, and self-efficacy. Most also use a failure to meet certain criteria (such as a gap in full-time employment) as a basis for excluding a candidate from consideration irrespective of their other qualifications.

As a result, they exclude from consideration viable candidates whose resumes do not match the criteria but who could perform at a high level with training. A large majority (88%) of employers agree, telling us that qualified high- skills candidates are vetted out of the process because they do not match the exact criteria established by the job description. That number rose to 94% in the case of middle-skills workers.

And the consequences of this?

These automated systems

exclude from consideration viable candidates whose resumes do not match the criteria but who could perform at a high level with training. A large majority (88%) of employers agree, telling us that qualified high- skills candidates are vetted out of the process because they do not match the exact criteria established by the job description. That number rose to 94% in the case of middle-skills workers.

So why am I not surprised? Answer: I’ve had to use some of these systems in my time.

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Tuesday 7 September, 2021


Quote of the Day

“To betray, you must first belong”

  • Kim Philby

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Josephine Baker | Si J’etais Blanche | Recorded in Paris, February 1933


The first black woman to be interred in the Pantheon in Paris, along with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo and Marie Curie.

Long Read of the Day

What if the Coronavirus Crisis Is Just a Trial Run?

Shrewd OpEd piece by Adam Tooze, adapted from his forthcoming book — which comes out today.

Almost two years since the novel coronavirus began to circulate through the human population, what lessons have we learned? And what do those lessons portend for future crises?

The most obvious is the hardest to digest: The world’s decision makers have given us a staggering demonstration of their collective inability to grasp what it would actually mean to govern the deeply globalized and interconnected world they have created. There is only one limited realm in which something like a concerted response has been managed: money and finance. But governments’ and central banks’ success in holding the world’s financial system together is contributing in the long run to inequality and social polarization. If 2020 was a trial run, we should be worried.

How did we get here?

Worth reading in full. Tooze is an historian and good on taking the Long View, which is that what’s unique about our present moment is the confluence of one age-old syndrome — the tensions of geopolitics, finance and politics — and a completely new kind of global shock: Covid.

Chart of the Day

An estimated 3,238 days until we reach the 450ppm threshold at this rate of increase. That’s just under nine years. Go figure.

Frank Bruni on our current dilemma

From his weekly newsletter…

But in a certain psychological sense, is the current chapter perhaps the most challenging of all? We thought we’d turned the corner, only to learn we hadn’t, and we’re neither isolated nor liberated. Our marching orders are fluid and feel less like orders than like caveats, nudging us not toward obedience but toward wisdom, which is even harder. We’re not being told to suspend all activities as usual, which is a digestible if dire command, but we’re being encouraged to suspend or alter many activities, maybe for the next week, maybe for this whole month, maybe not for the following one but maybe again in November, when the mercury dips, we head indoors and Thanksgiving waddles into view.

I take absolutely no issue with that. I agree with it. But I also recognize that this shifting, shapeless horizon is at war with a whole lot in human nature and a whole lot in the American psyche, and in this instance, I’m not talking about the individual-liberty part.

I’m talking about the impatience. I’m talking about the certitude and absolutism of the social-media age. We are increasingly a country of either/or, pro/con, virtuous/deplorable, all/nothing. And the pandemic right now can’t be squeezed into any dichotomy. Nor will it be hurried to its end.

I’ve had lots of conversations along precisely these lines in recent weeks with friends, family and colleagues. Subtlety and judiciousness is needed just when our media ecosystem is trying to stamp out those qualities.

The climate crisis: as seen from Summer 2071

Kim Stanley Robinson’s perceptive — and unexpectedly optimistic — perspective on our current climate crisis, as seen from the Summer of 2071.

It’s a ten-minute TED talk, and well worth your time (see below).

The Rise of ZuckTalk

Intriguing essay on the apparently irresistible rise of an oratorical style that “asks for validation while bulldozing through almost any topic”. In other words, the way Mark Zuckerberg talks. Link

Why you shouldn’t use anyone else’s charging cable

Just came on an ad for a perfectly normal, innocuous charging cable for an Apple iPhone or iPad.

Here’s an edited version of the product description:

Every cable is hand made and tailored to look and feel exactly like the cable your target already has in their possession. You won’t need a million dollar budget for this cable, but the power and capabilities are extensive.

It is packed with a web server, 802.11 radio, and way more memory and processing power than the type of cable you would want for just doing demos. But the flexibility makes demos easy.

The cable is built for covert field-use, with features that enhance remote execution, stealth, forensics evasion, all while being able to quickly change your tooling on the fly. And, of course, it works just like a normal USB cable when not deploying payloads.

A special ‘keylogger’ version has all the features of the standard cable but adds a keylogger capable of storing up to 650,000 keystrokes. This version was specifically built to be used against keyboards with detachable cables.

A snip at $199.99.

You can see why only the paranoid survive in a computerised world (as Andy Grove used to say).

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Monday 6 September, 2021

The Magpie Mine

It’s nice to be back. We spent a lovely week in the UK’s Peak District, a wonderland of rolling farmland, hills and dales criss-crossed with footpaths, exquisite drystone walls, ingenious stiles and gates. (And often devoid of even the feeblest of mobile network signals, so we were frequently off the grid’ and left to our thoughts as we walked.)

It is also a countryside of paradoxes. I spent a lot of time thinking about ‘Capability’ Brown, the great 18th-century English landscape architect who mastered the art of capturing that particular kind of rural vista and miniaturising it for the parkland surrounding England’s great stately homes. But even as one was entranced by it one also realised that this wonderful countryside is entirely man-made. The Peak District looks the way it is because of the way it is farmed: it’s dairy-farming and sheep—farming country. Without those agricultural industries it would rapidly return to wilderness, and one of the paradoxes of Brexit is that it may threaten those landscape-curating industries, or at any rate make them less economically sustainable.

Another paradox is that two centuries ago this bucolic paradise was a hive of less salubrious industry. Derbyshire is littered with the shafts and spoil-heaps of intensive lead mining, each of which is designated with the term ‘dis’ (for “disused”) on the Ordnance Survey maps by which we were navigating. Those ubiquitous and inexplicable grassy mounds — those “humps and bumps”, as one farmer put it — are in fact mining spoil heaps that nature has reclaimed and rendered picturesque.

Little of the overground infrastructure of this mining industry survives — which is why the buildings of the famous Magpie Mine shown in the photograph are now so striking.

But the lush grass that surrounds them is still contaminated by lead. So on the one hand, nature has reclaimed and obliterated the industry’s detritus, which is a metaphor for the way the planet doesn’t need us. But one the other hand, our poisonous effluent remains.

Quote of the Day

”Afghanistan provides a useful reminder that while we and our European allies might be tired of “forever wars,” the Taliban are not tired of wars at all. The Pakistanis who helped them are not tired of wars, either. Nor are the Russian, Chinese, and Iranian regimes that hope to benefit from the change of power in Afghanistan; nor are al-Qaeda and the other groups who may make Afghanistan their home again in future.”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sharon Shannon and Gerry O’Connor | Mammy Shannon’s Jig


Nice way to start a week.

Long Read of the Day

A Forgotten Prophet Whose Time Has Come

Wonderful review essay in Noema by Nathan Gardels on Ivan Illich, “a purveyor of impossible truths”:

truths so radical that they questioned the very foundations of modern certitudes — progress, economic growth, health, education, mobility. While he was not wrong, we had all been riding on a train going in the opposite direction for so long that it was hard to see how, in any practical sense, the momentum could ever be stalled. And that was his point. Now that “the shadow our future throws” of which Illich warned is darkening the skies of the present, it is time to reconsider his thought. Gardels is a deeply insightful thinker and this is as fine and generous a summary of Illich’s thinking as I’ve seen.

I loved Illich’s books when they came out in the 1970s, particularly his Tools for Conviviality and Energy and Equity. He was a radical counter-cultural thinker with a terrifically spare literary style.

Pearce Wright wrote an excellent profile of him in — of all places, The Lancet — which was remarkable given Illich’s full frontal assault on modern medicine.

Blog posts composed on the fly last week

From the online version of this blog…

  •  So who’s really responsible for the Afghanistan fiasco? Link
  •  On the sociopathy of organisations Link

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Thursday 26 August, 2021

Quote of the Day

”Sir Walter Scott, when all is said and done, is an inspired butler.”

  • William Hazlitt

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

C.P.E. Bach: Cello Concerto in A | 3 Allegro assai


Sprightly, n’est-ce pas?

Long Read of the Day

 Build competence, not literacy

How do you build a culture that emphasises solving problems rather than adhering to processes?

Nice blog post by Rob Miller, useful to anyone building a project team. ‘Literacy’ is about familiarity with processes; competence is about the ability to produce things.

Fusion dreams get a boost? Er, maybe

The NYT reported on an exciting experiment done by the Lawrence Livermore Lab in which 192 huge lasers were pointed at a tiny pellet of hydrogen (“the width of a human hair”) which they then annihilated, producing a burst of more than 10 quadrillion watts of fusion power (which is a non-negligible fraction of the 170 quadrillion watts the sun lavishes on the planet every day). There’s only one snag: the energy burst — “essentially a miniature hydrogen bomb”, says the Times — lasted only 100 trillionth of a second.

To this, Charles Arthur (Whom God Preserve) added his characteristically sardonic comment:

I love the principle of fusion, and I’ve written about it a few times (and stood inside the torus at JET in Oxfordshire – not while it was running), and I’m just as excited – possibly more – as the next person about it, but stories like this are absolute classics of the genre. Incredibly short duration? Check. Incredibly complex array required? Check. Didn’t achieve “ignition” (self-sustaining output)? Check. Excited scientists? Check. It might as well be a story in The Onion; you could, if you wanted, read it as emanating from that august publication, and they wouldn’t have to change a word.

Which is just perfect.

The fiasco in Kabul

An excoriating blast from Professor Paul Cornish, a friend and former colleague, now a distinguished defence and security analyst. Here’s an excerpt:

Instead of confronting this crisis of strategic credibility, too many in strategic leadership positions in the West indulge instead in wishful thinking, displacement activity and even rampant self-justification.

In the UK, with one or two notable exceptions such as James Heappey, the Minister for the Armed Forces, who manages to combine a sense of empathy with honest political realism and a soldier’s instincts for problem solving, we have had the embarrassing spectacle of high-level politicians, public officials and very senior military officers showing just how disconnected they are from this looming strategic reality. Keen to convince the media and the electorate that this is a temporary politico-military malfunction, from which ‘lessons will be learned’ before the normal service of strategic mastery is resumed, we are assured repeatedly that the Taliban surge was unexpected and unpredictable. Really? Ten years ago, following the second of two visits to Afghanistan, I made the following observation at a conference: ‘withdrawal – whenever it happens – should be seen not simply as the desperate ending of the intervention but as the most complex and dangerous part of the intervention. If this is mishandled or rushed, then we might be talking in five years’ time not just of the resurgence of some very unpleasant extremist and criminal groups, but of a regional conflagration.’ My sense of foreboding was premature by five years but if a visiting academic/think tank analyst could see things in this way then plenty of others, in more influential positions, will have come to a similar conclusion. And if the capture of Kabul was indeed so unexpected, why was there not only a ‘Plan A’ for the evacuation but also a ‘Plan B’? Was the capitulation unexpected, or were we preparing for it? As well as presenting a wholly confused, if not disingenuous analysis, the UK’s strategic leadership has also demonstrated an unbeatably inappropriate choice of actions and words: the Foreign Secretary remaining determinedly glued (some have alleged) to a sunbed in Crete while the crisis grew; or the UK Chief of Defence Staff insisting that the Taliban, an implacable enemy of Britain’s armed forces for many years, ‘has changed’ and that British troops are now ‘happy to collaborate’ with them.

The Taliban’s resumption of power in Afghanistan could have a very wide range of local, regional and international consequences, many of them incompatible with Western values and interests: the cancellation of human rights and liberties; the repression and maltreatment of women and girls; discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities; the dismantling of civic society; overreach by Pakistan and India’s reaction to it; the expansion of China’s geostrategic and political interests; and the recrudescence of state-sponsored, anti-Western, Sunni terrorism. In this dismal context, uncomfortable questions must be asked about the West’s reputation as a global strategic actor, about its ‘strategic ambition’ and about the relevance of its vision for the world. Both the US and the UK have presented themselves as expert in the high strategic art of combining ‘hard power’ (i.e., the power of coercion and compulsion) with ‘soft power’ (i.e., the power of attraction and persuasion). Does the Rout of Kabul suggest that either of these is functioning as it should, or is as convincing as is claimed? In the UK, the March 2021 review of national security and defence offered a vision of a post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’, finally achieving its destiny as a ‘force for good in the world’, a ‘soft power superpower’, and a country with globally deployable ‘hard power’. Broadly similar rhetoric was heard at the G7 and NATO summits in June 2021. After Kabul, are any of these promises, offers and assurances convincing? And who would rely upon them? Bells that ring as hollow as this should probably not be rung – at least not in public.

Chart of the Day

Looks like EV owners in lots of places will suffer from range anxiety.

Electrostatic headphones

The piece about electrostatic headphones yesterday prompted a nice email from Thomas Parkhill, who wrote that

Electrostatic headphones have been around since at least the 1970’s, but I think that they have always been a niche even in that rarefied world. Here is the very famous Jecklin Float, which sold for $300 in 1971 – worth looking up.

So I did look them up, and found a delicious review by J. Gordon Holt:

These are some of the most lusciously transparent-sounding headphones we’ve ever put on our ears, but we doubt that they will every enjoy much commercial success, for a couple of reasons.

First, and probably foremost, they are just downright uncomfortable for most people to wear. They feel as awkward as they look. Their width is not adjustable, so they either press uncomfortably against your head or flop loosely all over the place, depending on the fatness of your skull. Also, if you have a short neck, or like to sit hunched down in an easy chair while listening, the bottoms of the ‘phones or their protruding cable get hung on your shoulders.

Sonically, they are extraordinarily good (fig.1), except for two little hitches: They have virtually no deep-bass response; and they have a slightly vowel-like “eeh” coloration that seems to have something to do with the cavity between the headphones and the sides of your head.

The review also quoted the verdict of another audiophile, Bill Sommerwerck, who summed the Jecklin Floats up thus:

They are to hi-fi what a strapless bra is to undergarments.

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