Thursday 15 April, 2021

Small changes ahead…

Just a heads-up to let you know that after tomorrow this daily version of the blog will switch from seven days a week to five (Monday to Friday). The conspiracy-theory interpretation of this change will attribute it to sheer laziness on the part of the blogger. While plausible, this is a more entertaining explanation than the more mundane reality, which is that what are laughingly called his ‘day jobs’ have become more demanding as the academic world emerges cautiously from lockdown.

On a positive note, though, consider the upsides. Firstly, I have not used the abominable phrase “going forward”. And now you will have more free time at the weekends and not feel twinges of guilt when deciding that life is too short to click on Long Read of the Day!

(If you are curious about what I might be getting up to at the weekends, you can always check the online version of the blog.)

As ever, thank you for subscribing.

Quote of the Day

”The only man who really needs a tail coat is a man with a hole in his trousers.”

  • John Taylor (Editor of Tailor and Cutter)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jimmy Yancey | At the Window


This is one of my favourite recordings ever. It’s very old and so you may need to turn up the volume a bit.

Long Read of the Day

Why a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be a catastrophe for China and the world

If they do it, it won’t be for the microchips

Fascinating blog post by Jon Stokes about the geopolitics of silicon chip manufacture.

U.S. Imposes Stiff Sanctions on Russia, Blaming It for Major Hacking Operation

Pardon me while I yawn. According to the New York Times,

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Thursday announced tough new sanctions on Russia and formally blamed the country’s premier intelligence agency for the sophisticated hacking operation that breached American government agencies and the nation’s largest companies.

In the broadest effort yet by President Biden to give more teeth to financial sanctions — which in recent years have failed to deter Russian activity — the actions are aimed at choking off lending to the Russian government.

In an executive order, Mr. Biden announced a series of additional steps — sanctions on 32 entities and individuals for disinformation efforts and for carrying out Moscow’s interference in the 2020 presidential election. Ten Russian diplomats, most of them identified as intelligence operatives, were expelled from the Russian Embassy in Washington. The United States also joined with European partners to impose sanctions on eight people and entities associated with Russia’s occupation of Crimea.

For the first time, the U.S. government squarely placed the blame for the hacking, known as SolarWinds, on the Kremlin, saying it was masterminded by the S.V.R., one of the Russian intelligence agencies that was also involved in the intrusion of the Democratic National Committee six years ago. The finding comports with the findings of private cybersecurity companies.

Yeah, yeah. But what we’d like to know is what the retaliation in kind is. After all, that’s what Jake Sullivan, now Biden’s National Security Advisor, was calling for before the election. It’s a racing certainty that the US has mounted a cyber-attack on Russian facilities where it will really hurt. I wonder how long it will take before we find out what form it took. And whether the Solarwinds attack has provided the Russians with opportunities for serious retaliation.

‘All I need is a pen, paper and the First Amendment’

This, from the Columbia Journalism Review, is truly extraordinary.

During the covid-19 pandemic, CJR received a submission, via the Empowerment Avenue Writer’s Cohort, from an incarcerated writer, Kevin D. Sawyer, who explained what it’s like to be a journalist in San Quentin State Prison, in Northern California. We felt it needed no editing, and that even the means of submission—typewritten, with corrections by hand—helped tell his tale. So we have reproduced it below as we received it.

You’ve got to read it. Deeply moving. But also an exhilarating confirmation of the value of reading — and writing. And of the usefulness of a battered typewriter.

Do click on the link to see it.

Another, hopefully interesting, link

  • The Last Time a Vaccine Saved America Yes — it was the Salk polio vaccine. Interesting to reflect on that experience. Link

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Wednesday 14 April, 2021

One of our cats, who always looks at me as if whatever’s happening is my fault.

Quote of the Day

”The Swiss managed to build a lovely country round their hotels.”

  • George Mikes

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Overture | Marriage of Figaro


Prelude to glorious nonsense.

Long Read of the Day

 The geopolitical fight to come over green energy

Truly fabulous essay by Helen Thompson. Salutary read for those of us who tend to think that the tensions with China are about tech and data. Those are small beer compared with energy.

(And if you’re interested in this, there’s Adam Tooze’s post about what it would mean to face up realistically to arresting climate change.)

Is content moderation a dead end?

Really interesting essay by Ben Evans on the Sisyphean task of ‘moderating’ content on social media.

I wonder how far the answers to our problems with social media are not more moderators, just as the answer to PC security was not virus scanners, but to change the model – to remove whole layers of mechanics that enable abuse. So, for example, Instagram doesn’t have links, and Clubhouse doesn’t have replies, quotes or screenshots. Email newsletters don’t seem to have virality. Some people argue that the problem is ads, or algorithmic feeds (both of which ideas I disagree with pretty strongly – I wrote about newsfeeds here), but this gets at the same underlying point: instead of looking for bad stuff, perhaps we should change the paths that bad stuff can abuse. The wave of anonymous messaging apps that appeared a few years ago exemplify this – it turned out that bullying was such an inherent effect of the basic concept that they all had to shut down. Hogarth contrasted dystopian Gin Lane with utopian Beer Street – alcohol is good, so long as it’s the right kind.

Of course, if the underlying problem is human nature, then you can still only channel it.

Two thoughts about this. The first is that if a task really is Sisyphean — i.e. endless and impossible to complete, then isn’t it time to stop it and try something else?

The second is that Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety in cybernetics suggests that, to be viable, a system has to be able to cope with the complexity of its environment. There are only two ways of doing that: the traditional way we’ve used up to now — to reduce the complexity of the environment (mass production and standardisation was one way of doing that. The other is to find ‘variety amplifiers’ that will increase the system’s ability to manage the complexity that being thrown at it. If you listen to the discourse of Zuckerberg & Co about the ‘moderation’ challenge they face, it’s clear that they see ‘AI’ (by which they mean machine learning) as that variety amplifier.

I’m sceptical that it is. There’s no computational way of dealing with the infinite variety of human ingenuity.

So, in a nutshell, I think that the answer to Ben’s question is “Yes

The wider implication of Ashby’s Law in a networked world is that an increasing proportion of our organisations are no longer viable.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Who has your face? Interesting interactive quiz to determine if a US government database has your picture. Link
  • Watch BB King keep singing while simultaneously replacing a broken guitar string Link. Now that’s real multitasking.

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Tuesday 13 April, 2021

This photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson is my favourite picture. It was taken in 1954 on Rue Mouffetard in Paris, and shows a cheeky eight-year-old lad heading homeward with two bottles of wine that he’s been sent to collect. I love it because in 1954 I was eight too, (and wearing the same kind of clothes) and I often wonder where this boy is now — or indeed whether he’s still going.

The photograph hangs in our living room, and I looked up at one moment today to see that reflected in it was the top of the gazebo in the back garden that’s been our outdoor living room during lockdown.

And as I pressed the shutter I suddenly remembered that we’re clean out of red wine.

Quote of the Day

”To trust people is a luxury in which only the wealthy can indulge; the poor cannot afford it”

  • E. M. Forster

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Duke Ellington | Across the Track Blues


Long Read of the Day

The Great Protest Wave

What lessons can we draw from the global demonstrations that began in 2019?

Absorbing essay by Noah Smith.

In 2019, the world exploded in protest. There were massive, prolonged demonstrations in Hong Kong, in Chile and Venezuela and Bolivia and Colombia and Ecuador, in Russia and Spain and France, in Iraq and Iran and Lebanon and Algeria, in Indonesia and Haiti. We in the chattering classes spent much of the latter part of that year thinking about the protests, writing about them, theorizing about them, even visiting or joining them. We asked why this was happening. Was it a revolt against inequality? Or authoritarianism? Or was it just a fad enabled by new social media technologies? We felt like we were witnessing something historic, but we couldn’t tell what we were looking at.

Even the arrival of a once-in-a-century pandemic didn’t douse the flames of unrest for long. The U.S. saw the biggest eruption of protests in its history in the summer of 2020, and those demonstrations were echoed across much of the world. The people of Belarus and Myanmar have poured into the streets in existential struggles against their dictatorial governments. India has had two entirely separate massive waves of demonstrations — one by farmers over agricultural policy, another against a discriminatory citizenship law. Overall, 2020 has seen even more protests than 2019.

So what does this portend? Read on…

Put away the bleach: you can stop playing in the hygiene theatre

It’s official — even the CDC agrees. Nice piece by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic:

Last week, the CDC acknowledged what many of us have been saying for almost nine months about cleaning surfaces to prevent transmission by touch of the coronavirus: It’s pure hygiene theater.

“Based on available epidemiological data and studies of environmental transmission factors,” the CDC concluded, “surface transmission is not the main route by which SARS-CoV-2 spreads, and the risk is considered to be low.” In other words: You can put away the bleach, cancel your recurring Amazon subscription for disinfectant wipes, and stop punishing every square inch of classroom floor, restaurant table, and train seat with high-tech antimicrobial blasts. COVID-19 is airborne: It spreads through tiny aerosolized droplets that linger in the air in unventilated spaces. Touching stuff just doesn’t carry much risk, and more people should say so, very loudly. At last!

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Domino’s pizzas now delivered with autonomous cars in Houston This is progress? Link
  • Earthrise in 4k UHD Eerily beautiful. by Seán Doran. Based on JAXA / NHK Kaguya Orbiter archive. Source is denoised, repaired, graded, retimed & upscaled. We live on that lovely sphere. And we’re busy screwing it up. Link

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Monday 12 April, 2021

Painting with light

Someone once said that photography is “painting with light”. A bit pretentious, perhaps, but it’s certainly the case that if you’re a serious photographer you’re slightly obsessed with light. I vividly remember the first time I went to Provence: we flew in to Montpelier late in the evening, arriving in total darkness. Picked up a rental car, got hopelessly lost (partly because of an eccentrically-located Autoroute toll) and arrived at our destination in the middle of the night. Climbed into bed exhausted but was woken very early by sunlight flooding into the bedroom. Went sleepily to the window and looked out over the valley (the house was on a hill). And — whoosh! — I suddenly understood why Van Gogh & Co came to this part of the world. And it was all to do with the ineffable quality of the light.

If you’re a landscape photographer you’ll also be obsessive about air-quality. I grew up in the West of Ireland where there was very little dust in the atmosphere (largely because it was regularly washed clean by rain!) So, in later life, coming off a plane from grain-harvesting East Anglia in August made one blink — it was as if a veil had been lifted from one’s eyes. The air suddenly seemed so clean.

The other thing that’s special about Irish light (and I guess about light anywhere that’s located on an ocean coast) is that it’s mostly sunlight filtered through clouds. When I was growing up I never thought about clouds, except perhaps as harbingers of rain. And then one day my family and I ran into an English tourist who was a serious photographer. My father asked her what she liked about Ireland and she replied — without hesitation — “Oh, the cloudscapes”. It was the first time I’d ever heard the word, but I date my obsession with photography from that day. (The full story is told here if you’re interested.)

All of which is a long-winded way of explaining the photograph above. On our cycle today I was struck by how clean the air seemed and how good the visibility was. And the clouds were particularly dramatic. Hence this picture, taken on a construction site.

Quote of the Day

”One fifth of the people are against everything all the time.” * Robert Kennedy

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Dubliners | The Wonder Hornpipe The Swallow’s Tail | Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin


I think it may have been their final performance.

Long Read of the Day

The 1910 time traveller – the next wave

Lovely essay by Andrew Curry — from 11 years ago.

Why We’re Freaking Out About Substack

That’s the headline on an interesting but IMHO slightly overwrought NYT piece by Ben Smith about Substack’s (the outfit that delivers the email version of this blog) supposed disruption of the media industry.

Substack has captivated an anxious industry because it embodies larger forces and contradictions. For one, the new media economy promises both to make some writers rich and to turn others into the content-creation equivalent of Uber drivers, even as journalists turn increasingly to labor unions to level out pay scales.

This new direct-to-consumer media also means that battles over the boundaries of acceptable views and the ensuing arguments about “cancel culture” — for instance, in New York Magazine’s firing of Andrew Sullivan — are no longer the kind of devastating career blows they once were. (Only Twitter retains that power.) Big media cancellation is often an offramp to a bigger income. Though Substack paid advances to a few dozen writers, most are simply making money from readers. That includes most of the top figures on the platform, who make seven-figure sums from more than 10,000 paying subscribers — among them Mr. Sullivan, the liberal historian Heather Cox Richardson, and the confrontational libertarian Glenn Greenwald.

This new ability of individuals to make a living directly from their audiences isn’t just transforming journalism. It’s also been the case for adult performers on OnlyFans, musicians on Patreon, B-list celebrities on Cameo. In Hollywood, too, power has migrated toward talent, whether it’s marquee showrunners or actors. This power shift is a major headache for big institutions, from The New York Times to record labels. And Silicon Valley investors, eager to disrupt and angry at their portrayal in big media, have been gleefully backing it. Substack embodies this cultural shift, but it’s riding the wave, not creating it.

I don’t see what the fuss is about. A rich and diverse media ecosystem requires intellectual biodiversity, and Substack as well as the blogosphere provides that. Which is good. But serious journalism also requires the institutional heft of serious organisations like the NYT, WSJ, New Yorker, Guardian, BBC et al which can back investigations with legal and other resources.

Which is why I’m not ‘freaking out’ about Substack.

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Sunday 11 April, 2021

Travelling ghost

Snapped in a train. Remember those?

Quote of the Day

”Never forget that only dead fish swim with the stream.”

  • Malcolm Muggeridge

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Fleetwood Mac | Songbird | Christine McVie


The loveliest song on a classic album.

Long Read of the Day

What we failed (refused?) to learn from the Diamond Princess in February 2020

Stunning essay by Zeynep Tufecki. She’d been watching the HBO Documentary about the cruise ship with was the first Western case study in what the virus was like and what it could mean for the rest of us.

The first crucial piece of information needed to contain this disease has been the fact that it transmits from people without symptoms. In the HBO documentary, the ship’s doctor reiterates that by February 9th, he was sure that people without symptoms were infecting others. That fact had already been reported in scientific papers, urgently proclaimed by China’s minister of Health in January of 2020, apparent from multiple epidemiological reports already in the record. But many experts in the Western world found that difficult to believe (a topic I covered before for this newsletter), and we did not act upon this crucial piece of information until much later in the pandemic (I wrote about transmission from people who were not sick, and thus could not know they were infected, in March of 2020 in my first op-ed calling for masks—it was so clear even then that I had no problem convincing the fact-checkers at the New York Times).

Watching the documentary, it also becomes very clear that the disease is airborne. There really is no other reasonable explanation for how 567 passengers confined to their rooms, served food by heavily masked people, would get infected at that scale that quickly. In fact, this airborne transmission was quickly discerned by scientists around the world. One of the architects of Japan’s mitigation strategies, Dr. Oshitani, had told me that this was the case that convinced him that the pathogen was airborne (I had interviewed him for this article on aerosol transmission and ventilation for an article I wrote last July).

The cruise liner’s experience told us was most of what we needed to know — airborne transmission, clusters driving the epidemic, and presymptomatic transmission. And lots of scientists understood that message. But the strange thing is that the ‘official’ health authorities seemed to pay so little attention to them. It took ages for the aerosol-transmission view to overcome the obsession with surface cleaning and droplets. Ditto with official disdain for the idea that wearing a mask might be useful. And even today I see organisations obsessed with ‘disinfecting’ surfaces. In a car showroom the other day there were notices on every available surface saying that “This surface is disinfected after every consultation.”

This is just hygiene-theatre. But at least the staff were wearing masks.

With a new skipper at the helm, Intel heads for uncharted waters

This morning’s Observer column:

Watching the apparently relentless growth of Arm, and Intel’s flailing attempts to make progress (including in areas such as semiconductor lithography, the physical and chemical processes needed to etch circuits on silicon, which should have been a core competency), it was hard to see a future for it except one of inexorable decline.

All of which made the news that Intel had a new CEO who was not behaving like a traditional Intel boss such a surprise. His name is Pat Gelsinger and although he started his career at Intel, for the last 11 years he’s been working in smaller companies. But he’s back with a vengeance, as one began slowly to realise when watching the talk he gave after less than 40 days at the helm, outlining the most radical shift in strategy since Andy Grove and Gordon Moore switched the company from making memory chips and into making processors more than 35 years ago…

Read on

Northern Ireland: Troubles 2.0?

History repeats itself, maybe, but the second act is rarely an exact replica of the past. Like many people I’ve been watching the street rioting in Belfast with foreboding and wondering what it presages.

The obvious thought is that the more militant wing of Northern Unionism (the DUP and its followers) have only finally realised what the Brexit for which they voted might mean: not a border between Ulster and the southern Republic (which I always assumed the DUP rather liked — a hard border between them and the Papists) but one down the Irish Sea between the Six Counties and the beloved British mainland — which is what the Protocol of the UK’s withdrawal agreement effectively requires. So they want to tear up the Protocol. And then what?

The official interpretation of the trouble is Unionist anger at the failure of the authorities to prosecute certain Sinn Féin grandees who attended a funeral of one of their own in a flagrant breach of the Covid regulations. Well, I get that, and would share their indignation if I lived in Belfast.

But an email from Mick Fealty (Whom God Preserve) — he of the Slugger O’Toole blog — prompts reflection on the deeper roots of Unionist unease about what’s happening to them and their little statelet. First of all, they now see that Boris Johnson’s acceptance of the Protocol essentially threw them to the wolves. Unlike Theresa May, he no longer needed their votes, and so their interests were dispensable. So the ruler of the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ didn’t seem unduly concerned about (or even interested in) what happened to their little bit of said Kingdom.

And, allied to that betrayal, Unionists are also deeply aware of a ticking demographic time-bomb. The forthcoming census is likely to reveal that the Protestant majority in the North of Ireland is no more — that the Catholics have, as it were, out-bred them. And, worse still, The Northern Ireland Act 1998, a statute passed by the Westminster Parliament, implements the Good Friday Agreement within UK law. It declares that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a referendum (the ‘principle of consent’). However, if a majority in such a vote favours a united Ireland, the UK Government must lay before Parliament any proposals to give effect to that outcome which it agrees with the Irish Government. And the Act also gives the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland a general power to call a referendum on reunification at his discretion.

If you were a devout unionist, therefore, you’d have grounds for concern, especially — as Mick Fealty points out — Sinn Féin has been ramping up its triumphalist rhetoric about the ‘inevitability’ of a re-united Ireland. In which case, could we be heading back to the Ulster Covenant and Kipling’s poem?

Believe we dare not boast,
Believe we dare not fear:
We stand to pay the cost
In all that men hold dear.
What answer from the North?
One Law, One Land, One Throne!
If England drives us forth
We shall not fall alone.

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

Saturday 10 April, 2021

Quote of the Day

”When I want a peerage, I shall buy one like an honest man.”

  • Lord Northcliffe

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Beethoven | Piano Sonata No.30 in E, Op.109 | Andante | Mitsuko Uchida



Long Read of the Day

Why Animals Don’t Get Lost

Riveting and informative New Yorker essay by Kathryn Schulz. It opens with a preposterous story that couldn’t possibly be true — but is. After that you’re hooked.

Covid and inequality

From the Council on Foreign Relations.

In a nutshell…

Beyond revealing inequalities and devastating public health, the pandemic has had two dangerous effects in all of these countries: COVID-19 actually has made socioeconomic inequality worse, possibly for years to come, and has significantly exacerbated democratic regression. In these five states, caseloads and death tolls of the novel coronavirus are falling hardest on racial, ethnic, and sometimes religious minorities and on the poor; poor and minority communities significantly overlap, and many of these same citizens have the preexisting conditions that make them more susceptible to getting extremely sick or dying from COVID-19. The pandemic seems to be further entrenching economic and social inequalities, and some leaders are passing pandemic-era measures that could further hurt poor and minority groups. Furthermore, as often has happened during past major emergencies, political leaders have taken advantage of the emergency to corrode democratic norms and institutions—in these five democracies and across the globe.

Policy-making by WhatsApp

From the Financial Times (behind a paywall):

Lex Greensill pressed Australian prime minister Scott Morrison to introduce a lending scheme for government workers in a lobbying effort that included a misdirected WhatsApp message citing David Cameron.

In the October 2019 message, intended for Morrison but sent by mistake to a different number, the financier played on his association with the former British prime minister: “David Cameron, who is on our board and a material shareholder, speaks most highly of you,” Greensill wrote.

In reality, Cameron was a paid adviser rather than a board member and was not a material shareholder, although he is believed to have options that could have entitled him to about 1 per cent of Greensill Capital. At one stage, these were thought to be worth tens of millions of pounds but since Greensill Capital’s collapse last month are now worthless.

Reading it, I began to fantasise about interesting misdirected messages that might crop up on my WhatsApp. Something like this for example, originally intended for Boris Johnson:

Clarity on the side-effects of the AstraZeneca jab

Useful piece in the Economist. It’s behind a paywall despite the fact that the magazine boasts that it’s making all its coverage of the Coronavirus available in a compendium site. Still..

Here’s the gist: it suggests that the clotting side-effect is similar to something that medicine already understands — an immune response to heparin, a widely-used drug.

The first signals emerged in late February, when doctors in several European countries noticed clusters of blood clots in people recently given the AstraZeneca jab, some of whom died. Most were women under 60, which was not terribly surprising because many EU countries were, at first, not convinced that the jab worked in the elderly and used it largely for essential workers, such as nurses, teachers and social-care workers—professions in which most employees are women.

The EMA’s data as of March 22nd suggested that the rate of brain clots in people under the age of 60 who had had Astra­Zeneca’s vaccine was one in 100,000—higher than would be expected normally. Precisely how much higher, though, is hard to tell. The rates of such rare and difficult-to-diagnose conditions vary a lot by country, age and sex. Estimates of the incidence of such brain clots have ranged from 0.22 to 1.57 cases per 100,000 people per year, and they are more common in younger people and women.

As doctors began to look more closely, something curious emerged. Many patients with suspected clots from the vaccine had unusually low levels of platelets. These are fragments of special precursor cells that float in the blood. Their job is to form blood clots (they rush to the site of a cut or other bleeding). Low platelet levels therefore usually result in uncontrolled bleeding, not clots.

With this new information to hand, Britain’s medical regulators searched their data on vaccinated people for the unusual tandem of clots and low platelet counts. They found four cases per million people vaccinated, a rate several times lower than in the EU. One explanation is that Britain, unlike the rest of Europe, had used the jab primarily in older people. The rate at which the clots occurred in Britain declined steadily with age. Importantly, Britain’s experts found that the clots occurred as much in men as they did in women.

This combination of blood clots and low platelet counts is something that doctors know how to diagnose and treat, says Jean Marie Connors, a haematologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston. It resembles a condition seen in some people who are given heparin, a drug used widely to treat blood clots. For unknown reasons, some people develop an immune reaction to heparin, which results in blood clotting so profound that it depletes their platelets. The same reaction appears to be provoked by the vaccine.

Medical societies in several countries have already issued guidelines to doctors on how to spot and treat this rare reaction to the AstraZeneca vaccine. With vigilance and appropriate care, the extremely rare deaths that may result from it will become even rarer.

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Friday 9 April, 2021

Philip Mountbatten RIP

En passant. My hunch is that the first series of The Crown did wonders for Philip’s image with the general public, because it illustrated very clearly the challenges facing any sentient being trying to integrate with such a terminally dysfunctional family. In some ways, his experience was a dry run for that of Diana Spencer and — later — Meghan Markle. The difference is that Philip stayed the course.

I met him once — by chance. He was Chancellor of Cambridge University for a long time, and he came on a routine visit to my College. What was interesting was the astute way he worked the room. He got to say something to everyone. I was reminded — oddly enough — of Bill Clinton, who had the same knack.

Quote of the Day

“The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination.”

  • Philip Roth, 1960 Note the date.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Diana Krall | Narrow Daylight


Lockdown listening

Lovely blog post by Quentin Stafford-Fraser.

“I don’t really listen to many podcasts now…”, I heard someone say recently, “…because I no longer have a commute”. This made me realise how different my listening habits would be if I didn’t have a spaniel to walk. (I’ve tried the commuting thing on occasion, by the way, and gave it up as a bad lot. Spaniels are better.)

Recommended. I used to have a long commute — and listened to a lot of podcasts as a result. Lacking a spaniel, I now listen to fewer.

The problem-solving strategy we generally overlook

People often limit their creativity by continually adding new features to a design rather than removing existing ones, says Diana Kwon in an interesting Scientific American essay.

This idea of overlooking the obvious reminds me of a salutary lesson I learned as a consultant many years ago. In the 1970s, a group of us in the Open University Systems group used to tackle multi-faceted problem-situations that arose in industrial companies. We used an approach known as Soft Systems Analysis which involved identifying everyone in the organisation who had a role, however minor, in the problem-situation and working with that group on the analysis.

The first stage in the process involved collectively building a ‘Rich Picture’ — a shared representation of what was going wrong, which often involved a fairly gruelling set of group discussions. And early on we noticed a pattern: whenever a group was discussing a problem-situation, 90 per cent of the conversation was not about what was wrong, but involved people canvassing their personal candidates for a ‘solution’. It was a real struggle to get groups to focus on building a shared understanding on what was going wrong. And yet sometimes it was the construction of that Rich Picture that proved the key to making progress.

Time to regulate AI that interprets human emotions

The pandemic is being used as a pretext to push unproven artificial-intelligence tools into workplaces and schools.

Great OpEd in Nature by Kate Crawford.

In March, a citizen’s panel convened by the Ada Lovelace Institute in London said that an independent, legal body should oversee development and implementation of biometric technologies (see Such oversight is essential to defend against systems driven by what I call the phrenological impulse: drawing faulty assumptions about internal states and capabilities from external appearances, with the aim of extracting more about a person than they choose to reveal.

Countries around the world have regulations to enforce scientific rigour in developing medicines that treat the body. Tools that make claims about our minds should be afforded at least the same protection. For years, scholars have called for federal entities to regulate robotics and facial recognition; that should extend to emotion recognition, too. It is time for national regulatory agencies to guard against unproven applications, especially those targeting children and other vulnerable populations.

She uses the polygraph (lie-detector) as a case study on how flaky theories are used to justify tools — simply because they fit the only things that the tools can do. Same thing is now happening with certain applications of machine-learning.

Impressive piece.

Lack of gender and ethnic diversity in tech is not just societally damaging…

… It also leads to terrible design.

Striking Economist Leader:

Some things, you might think, are obvious. For example, if you design a device which shines light through someone’s fingertip to measure the oxygen level of their blood, then the colour of the skin through which that light is shining should be a factor when the device is calibrated.

But no. Research suggests that, with honourable exceptions, pulse oximeters, the machines which do this, overestimate oxygen levels three times more frequently (12% of the time) in people with black skin rather than white. When this informs decisions on whom to admit to hospital during a pandemic, more black than white patients are sent home on the mistaken conclusion that their blood-oxygen levels are within a safe range. This could have fatal consequences.

The pulse oximeter is only the latest example of an approach to design which fails to recognise that human beings are different from one another. Other recent medical cases include an algorithm that gave white patients in America priority over those from racial minorities, and the discovery that implants such as prosthetic hips and cardiac pacemakers cause problems more often in women than in men.

Beyond medicine, there are many examples of this phenomenon in information technology: systems that recognise white faces but not black ones; legal software which recommends harsher sentences for black criminals than white; voice-activated programs that work better for men than women. Even mundane things like car seat-belts have often been designed with men in mind rather than women.

The Technology of Bereavement

Sombre reflection by David Vincent on being unable to attend the funeral of friends.

We are particularly diminished by the sudden loss of our friends in Scotland. We began our careers and our families together, living and working alongside each other for three decades, and then regularly exchanging visits as our paths diverged. In John Donne’s terms, a full promontory has been washed away from our lives.

David and his wife were unable to attend the funerals, because of the rules governing ceremonies. So,

Instead we depend on Obitus, which describes itself as ‘a leading UK provider of bereavement technology services.’ The firm was apparently founded a decade ago, an indication that virtual mourning was not invented by Covid. It has expanded in the last year, working with funeral directors to connect the congregations unable to attend. We sit at home, three hundred miles away, equipped with a login and a password, and five minutes before the ceremony is due to begin, an empty, unnamed, funeral chapel appears on our screen. There is one fixed camera at the rear of the chapel, transmitting an unchanging view of the backs of twenty mourners. The sound quality is indifferent, the visual effects non-existent. After half an hour the congregation leaves separately, unable to attend a wake larger than six people, and we close the lid on the laptop. In a week’s time we will repeat the process for my godfather.

We had the same experience last year, when my mother-in-law was taken by Covid. Except that, in our case, the technology didn’t work — and when we eventually got a view of the chapel it was time for the next ceremony. I wrote about it in my lockdown diary.

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Thursday 8 April, 2021

My grandson on one of my favourite beaches.

Quote of the Day

The worse the villain, the better the film”

  • Alfred Hitchcock

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

J.S. Bach | Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring | in the arrangement by Myra Hess | P. Barton


I once heard Leo Kottke play this at the Cambridge Folk Festival and the guy sitting next to me started to whistle the counterpoint — perfectly. It was one of those perfect moments.

Long Read of the Day

What Critics Don’t Understand About NFTs

A brave attempt by Jonathan Zittrain and Will Marks to explain the inexplicable — in this case the unfathomable lure of “non-fungible tokens”or NFTs. Their argument is that the complexity and arbitrariness of non-fungible tokens are a big part of their appeal. Go figure.

Footnote:If you’re the kind of reader who likes technical detail, the Blockchain company Ethereum even has a technical standard for NFTs.

EV sales

The Brazilian variant and its implications

Worrying Twitter thread. The current obsession with the AstraZeneca vaccine in the UK is absurd compared with the catastrophe currently unfolding in Brazil. But nobody seems to be paying attention. Big mistake. It’ll be here eventually. The truth about this virus is that if a variant turns up anywhere, it will eventually be everywhere. And this variant seems particularly lethal.

After Working at Google, I’ll Never Let Myself Love a Job Again


I used to be a Google engineer. That often feels like the defining fact about my life. When I joined the company after college in 2015, it was at the start of a multiyear reign atop Forbes’s list of best workplaces.

I bought into the Google dream completely. In high school, I spent time homeless and in foster care, and was often ostracized for being nerdy. I longed for the prestige of a blue-chip job, the security it would bring and a collegial environment where I would work alongside people as driven as I was.

What I found was a surrogate family. During the week, I ate all my meals at the office. I went to the Google doctor and the Google gym. My colleagues and I piled into Airbnbs on business trips, played volleyball in Maui after a big product launch and even spent weekends together, once paying $170 and driving hours to run an obstacle course in the freezing rain.

My manager felt like the father I wished I’d had. He believed in my potential and cared about my feelings. All I wanted was to keep getting promoted so that as his star rose, we could keep working together. This gave purpose to every task, no matter how grueling or tedious.

You can guess what happened. In a way she reminds me of the heroine in Dave Eggars’s The Circle. All large companies (and indeed most large organisations) are intrinsically sociopathic. When will that penny drop?

Cycling is ten times more important than electric cars for reaching net-zero in cities

Good piece by Christian Brand.

Globally, only one in 50 new cars were fully electric in 2020, and one in 14 in the UK. Sounds impressive, but even if all new cars were electric now, it would still take 15-20 years to replace the world’s fossil fuel car fleet.

The emission savings from replacing all those internal combustion engines with zero-carbon alternatives will not feed in fast enough to make the necessary difference in the time we can spare: the next five years. Tackling the climate and air pollution crises requires curbing all motorised transport, particularly private cars, as quickly as possible. Focusing solely on electric vehicles is slowing down the race to zero emissions.

This is partly because electric cars aren’t truly zero-carbon – mining the raw materials for their batteries, manufacturing them and generating the electricity they run on produces emissions. Yep. And even when one ignores the emissions involved in manufacturing EVs, they’re only green if the electricity that charges them comes from renewables. There’s no such thing as a free lunch in this area.

Homeless in the Shadow of Apple’s $5 Billion HQ

Superb piece by Brian J Barth on OneZero about the astonishing inequalities in the epicentre of the tech industry.

At the corner of East Homestead and North Wolfe Road in Cupertino, California, stands a large oak tree planted by one of the most successful companies in history — Apple. The tree is a landmark at the entrance to Apple Park, the company’s $5 billion spaceship-of-a-campus, which surrounds a circular headquarters set in an entire city block, not unlike the home button in the rectangle of an early-model iPhone. At least three or four stories tall, the oak is one of the larger specimens among the 9,000 trees planted in this 175-acre Garden of Eden. There are 37 varieties of fruit: plums, apricots, persimmons, cherries, and of course, apples.

Outsiders are not allowed in the 2.8 million-square-foot steel building at the center of campus, which is protected by a tight wall of vertical beams reminiscent of the barrier at the U.S.-Mexico border. Inside, the office furniture, according to an employee who leaked photos on Instagram, includes “custom-made high-grade leather seats from Louis Vuitton.”


If you walked south down Wolfe Road in early 2020, past the hummocky meadows of sedge, penstemon, and yarrow — the “ecologically rich oak savanna” that Steve Jobs envisioned for Apple Park — you would see another side of Silicon Valley. Just half a block from Apple’s campus, tents and tarp homes lined the sidewalk in front of The Hamptons apartment complex. A half-block further, more tarp structures peeked from the bushes along the I-280 off-ramp. These scattered abodes were the satellites of the main Wolfe Camp, which sits another block south, in front of a Hyatt hotel.

Many years ago I had a conversation with Manuel Castells, the great scholar of Cyberspace. We were talking about Silicon Valley and he suddenly asked me if I knew about the astonishing levels of inequality in San Jose, right in the heart of Silicon Valley. Shamefully, I hadn’t — until that moment. This piece beautifully illustrates that sordid reality.

Tim Hunkin on connectors

Another one of his lovely videos. Everything you didn’t know you wanted to know about connectors. It’s 45 minutes long, so make some coffee first.


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Wednesday 7 April, 2021

There will be a Summer — eventually

Quote of the Day

””A ship is safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships are for”

  • John Shedd

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Planxty | Three reels – Jenny’s Wedding, The Virginia, Garett Barry’s


I keep coming back to this set and its astonishing, almost manic, energy. And in the centre of it all is Liam O’Flynn, ice cool while driving it all.

Long Read of the Day

There’s another pandemic under our noses, and it kills 8.7m people a year

Fine piece by Rebecca Solnit.

Among the striking phenomena of the early weeks of the pandemic were air quality and birdsong. In the quiet as human activity halted, many people reported hearing birds singing, and across the world air pollution levels dropped dramatically. In some places in India, the Himalayas were visible again, as they had not been for decades, meaning that one of the subtle losses of pollution was vistas. According to CNBC, at the outset of the pandemic, “New Delhi recorded a 60% fall of PM2.5 from 2019 levels, Seoul registered a 54% drop, while the fall in China’s Wuhan came in at 44%.” Returning to normal means drowning out the birds and blurring out the mountains and accepting 8.7 million air pollution deaths a year.

Those deaths have been normalized; they need to be denormalized…

 ## Sleazy Dave

I’m sorely tempted to have a Must-read of the Day section. If I did, then this blast by Marina Hyde would be top of the list.

Here’s a sample to keep you going:

Zip forward to the present, and it has now been a full 36 days since the former prime minister first declined to take calls from the Financial Times on the collapse and mushrooming fallout of Greensill, the specialist bank for which he was an active payrolled lobbyist with what he hoped was $60m worth of shares. There was one time Cameron accidentally answered the phone to the FT, then breezed “Do you want to ring my office?” before hanging up. Said office has not cared to answer a single call or text.

David Cameron is still allowed to claim up to £115,000 a year from the public purse, literally to run this office. Surely that’s enough for someone in it to return a call? Seemingly not. Maybe the “office” is just a burner mobile ringing out in a shepherd’s hut. Either way, the firm of which Cameron was a salaried employee – and on whose behalf he lobbied the current government – has now imploded. Furthermore, its administrators have been unable to verify invoices underpinning loans to its top client, steel magnate Sanjeev Gupta, with several companies denying they have ever done business with Gupta. This is becoming quite the shitstorm. And while no one is suggesting the former prime minister is to blame for the shitstorm, he is certainly shitstorm-adjacent.

For the second time in five years, then, Britain is being ghosted by David Cameron. You’ll recall that having tanked his own Brexit referendum, he promptly retreated into the usual lucrative prime ministerial afterlife, while the rest of us had to endure years of the winners – the winners! – arguing about what they’d won. Even so, this latest silence is a giant piss-take.

Wonderful. Read the whole thing.

Buying your Tesla with Bitcoin

This morning an interesting page appeared on the ‘Support’ section of the Tesla site explaining how to buy your Tesla using Bitcoin. It contained some hilarious advice.

So I logged the URL for later reference. When I went back to it this evening, though, guess what?

This was a purely theoretical exploration, you understand. I don’t possess any Bitcoin. And I already have a Tesla, paid for with unfashionable pound notes.

Gilded Age 2.0

From Protocol: Tech’s rich get richer

The pandemic has been very good for some people.

There are 2,755 billionaires in the world, according to the new version of Forbes’ “World’s Billionaires List.” That’s 660 more than last year, including 493 newcomers. (Special congrats to the 167 who got that third comma back!) Together they’re worth $13.1 trillion, up more than 60% from last year.

Surprise surprise, tech CEOs dominate the list. In all, eight of the top 10 richest people on Earth are tech people:

Jeff Bezos, worth $177 billion, is still the richest person alive.

Elon Musk is #2 at $151 billion, up more than 6x in just the last year.

Bill Gates is #4 at $124 billion, and Mark Zuckerberg #5 at $97 billion.

Those four men added a combined $259 billion to their wealth in the last year alone, which is a truly mind-boggling number. Elsewhere in the top 10: Larry Ellison, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Mukesh Ambani are all worth at least $84 billion. MacKenzie Scott is the richest tech-related woman on the list at #22, worth $53 billion.

Ms Scott, I’ve just realised, used to be Mrs Bezos.

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Tuesday 6 April, 2021

In Memoriam

On a beautiful but dangerous beach in Kerry

Quote of the Day

”Bigotry may be roughly defined as the anger of men who have no opinions.”

  • G.K. Chesterton

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Byrn Terfel | the Welsh National Anthem | Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau


I once heard him sing — unamplified, at close range — at a funeral of a mutual friend. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

Long Read of the Day

Bill Janeway: Lessons from the first New Deal for the Next One

A guest post by Bill on Noah Smith’s blog. It’s a terrific, illuminating essay, which takes the current rhetoric portraying Biden’s recovery programme as FDR2.0 and exploring the important differences between the Roosevelt era and the Biden one.

“As a metaphor”, Janeway writes,

the ‘New Deal’ has been mobilized both in response to climate change and in support of President Biden’s rescue and infrastructure initiatives. It needs examination if it is to go from serving as a mere slogan to defining a coherent program. Compelling invocation of the New Deal turns on:

  • Building state capacity for implementing interventions in the market economy;

  • Navigating potential conflicts in overlapping missions; and

  • Managing inescapable tradeoffs between efficiency versus effectiveness.

In folk memory, Janeway points out, “FDR’s New Deal combined relief, reform, and positive investment in one great seamless demonstration of the progressive potential of vigorous government. In reality, though, it was complicated and conflicted.

He then proceeds to explain how and why this was so, and explores the parallels and differences with Biden’s challenge.

Great piece, worth reading in full.

Writers, tools and blogging platforms: an exchange

This letter from Dave Winer made my day.

John, I’ve been following the story of the strange URLs from your Substack newsletter. I also appreciated your telling how you produce your newsletter by copy/pasting from WordPress into Substack. I bet 90 percent of Substack’s text comes in this way. And that’s what this letter is about. #

I’ve been asking them to automate that part for you via an API or RSS, or whatever they specify, to remove the copy/paste step from your publication workflow. I am deliberately being a squeaky wheel, hoping that writers who use Substack will join in.# Basically, it should be possible to hook your writing tool directly to both WordPress and Substack.#

I would have used Substack myself if it weren’t for this limit. As a writer, I want to eliminate steps, to make my writing more effortless. Publishing an idea takes too many steps, as a result, a lot of ideas don’t get out. #

I want to have a better flow on the web as a writer, and I think if other writers knew what was possible they’d want it too, and hopefully they would write about it. You wrote about it yesterday! ;-)#

JN, writers have a lot more power imho than they think. Esp in the early days of a service like Substack. They are listening to you. They know they depend on you. If enough writers wanted a feature, they would implement it. That’s how development works. # Please consider writing something yourself about eliminating copy/paste-to-publish step. There’s a lot of power trapped in that limit. #


Dave: Many thanks for writing. Funny coincidence: I was about to write to you about the email exchange you’ve embarked on with Ray Ozzie, but that can wait for another day. For now, I just wanted to say that I’m with you all the way in your view that the formulaic editing tools offered by platforms like Blogger, WordPress, Medium, Substack et al are, clumsy and restrictive to use. And I wholeheartedly agree that writers should be able to use whatever tool they find best for them, and that publishing platforms should make it easy to upload text and implement whatever formatting is needed.

My own journey has taken me about 90% of the way towards that. I decided years ago that from henceforth everything I wrote would be composed as ASCII text rather than in a proprietary format (e.g. Microsoft Word) and stored as such. So I started doing that, relying on PANDOC to transform my text into pdf, Word, LaTex or whatever. (In doing that, I was of course harking back to when I first started writing on a Unix time-shared machine, producing plain marked-up text which was then fed into troff to produce beautifully typeset copy.) When John Gruber and Aaron Swartz (RIP) came up with Markdown in 2004 as a lightweight way of marking-up text, I adopted that. And eventually, thanks to Quentin I found a writing app that worked for me — Ulysses — and have used that ever since. Once WordPress started to accept Markdown text, all my blog posts (except the daily Substack version of the blog) have been written that way. Ulysses will also spit out a version of any text I write in a variety of proprietary formats and so looks like being the only writing tool I will need from now until I keel over.

Now, to your point that “Basically, it should be possible to hook your writing tool directly to both WordPress and Substack”… It turns out that Ulysses eventually cracked the WordPress route, and so I can now hit a button and have it immediately uploaded to, and formatted on, Memex 1.1. The HTML looks a bit verbose and clunky, but it renders just fine. And it’s efficient and quick. So getting Substack to create an API that enables Ulysses to upload as easily would mean that I was nearly there.

Nearly, but not quite — which is why I really appreciate your feature request to Substack to also enable paragraph-level permalinks.

Keep well.


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