Thursday 9 February, 2023


Quote of the Day

”Four things I’d been better without
Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.”

  • Dorothy Parker

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jackson Browne & David Lindley | Stay


Long Read of the Day

The Sad Prince

Unexpectedly interesting essay by Derek Neal about trying to escape one’s origins, which means that it’s about Prince Harry, of all people.

I never thought I would write about Prince Harry. As an American, I have a natural aversion to the Royal Family and to the idea that they are somehow different or special by virtue of their birth. They’re just people. But I’m also Canadian by way of my mother, and now that I’ve lived in Canada for a few years, the Canadian interest in the Royals seems to have rubbed off on me, and I can’t help but feel some sort of sympathy for Harry’s plight. He thinks he’s made it to the end of his story—the narrative urge is incredibly strong in the Netflix show (Meghan mentions how they’ve come “full circle”)—yet I can’t help but feel this is just the first chapter, and that the story, which Meghan calls “a fairy tale,” will end up being a bit more sinister, a bit more like a Henry James novel or a Joan Didion essay.

Books, etc.

 The End of the McLuhan Centre for Culture & Technology (1968 – 2023)


The purpose of the Centre for Culture and Technology, as initially envisioned by Marshall McLuhan in 1963, was to “advance the understanding of the origins and effects of technology.” One of the specific objectives was “to organize an inter-disciplinary seminar for staff members and graduate students and to devise new experimental procedures for identifying the psychic and social consequences of technological change.” These were revolutionary ideas at the time and there was excitement in the air.

They were (and, in a way, they’ve acquired a new saliency in our current media ecosystem), but it seems that the Faculty of Information in the University of Toronto no longer has much interest in them.

I gave a talk on McLuhan years ago.

McLuhan Keynote

Click to download.

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Wednesday 8 February, 2023

Two ladies of Arles

Speaks for itself, really.

Quote of the Day

”Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.”

  • George Orwell

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

John Field | Nocturne no 5 in B flat major | John O’Conor


I love all the Field nocturnes, but this one is special.

Long Read of the Day

We are ‘greening’ ourselves to extinction

Sharp essay by Vijay Kolinjivadi from the University of Antwerp.

More than a decade ago, investment experts James Altucher and Douglas Sease wrote a book for the Wall Street Journal called ‘Investing in the Apocalypse’. They argued that the end of the world is a profitable opportunity for those who know how to “fade the fear”, as everyone else panics. They maintained that when disaster strikes, investors should approach it with the rationale that “no matter how bad things seem, they really aren’t that bad”.

Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, they advised investing in big pharmaceutical companies as a strategy to reap dividends from global pandemics. They also encouraged putting money into renewable energy systems while ramping up oil production.

Today, it seems many have followed Althucher and Sease’s advice. Under the guise of taking action on the pandemic, billions of dollars have been poured into big pharma, instead of public health and policies aimed at preventing another global outbreak. The supposed energy transition that has been undertaken has seen renewable energy production expanded, but there has been no indication that oil and gas are being substituted and ultimately phased out.

What is worse, governments and corporations have teamed up to turn the apocalypse into a money-making opportunity…

It’s good on the ‘carbon offsets’ racket, too.

And of course it reminds me that we need a theory of incompetent systems — ones that can’t fix themselves.

Books, etc.

Security guru Bruce Schneier has a new book, A Hacker’s Mind: How the Powerful Bend Society’s Rules, and How to Bend them Back, coming out soon, and it’s on my reading list. (I think I’ve read all of his previous books.) Cory Doctorow (Whom God Preserve) has a nice blog post about it — and about Schneier.

Schneier led the charge for a kind of sensible, reasonable thinking about security, using a mix of tactics to shift the discourse on the subject: debating TSA boss Kip Hawley, traveling with reporters through airport checkpoints while narrating countermeasures to defeat every single post-9/11 measure, and holding annual “movie-plot threat” competitions.

Most importantly, though, Schneier wrote long-form books that set out the case for sound security reasoning, railing against security theater and calling for policies that would actually make our physical and digital world more secure – abolishing DRM, clearing legal barriers to vulnerability research and disclosure, and debunking security snake-oil, from “unbreakable proprietary ciphers” to “behavioral detection training” for TSA officers.

He even designed the rings for Cory’s wedding — which, naturally, were cipher wheels.

One thing I especially like about Schneier is his description of himself as

“a public-interest technologist, working at the intersection of security, technology, and people”.

My commonplace booklet

Deus ex machina

My friend Quentin had the good idea of asking ChatGPT to come up with an Eleventh Commandment. And a Twelfth. And a Thirteenth!

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Tuesday 7 February, 2023

The Public Sphere, French style

Seen outside a lovely town in Burgundy.

Quote of the Day

”’Living’ carries echoes of The Remains of the Day, the 1993 film of Ishiguro’s famous, novel, in which Anthony Hopkins stars as a butler whose soul has been ironed flat, like a tablecloth.”

  • Anthony Lane, reviewing the film ‘Living’ in which Bill Nighy stars as a civil servant suffering from a terminal illness. (New Yorker, 26 Dec 2022)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Norah Jones | Sunrise (live in Amsterdam )


Long Read of the Day

What you need to know about Mastodon

Nice (and illuminating) introduction by Glenn Fleischmann. I particularly liked this metaphor:

You can think of Mastodon as a flotilla of boats of vastly different sizes, whereas Twitter is like being on a cruise ship the size of a continent. Some Mastodon boats might be cruise liners with as many as 50,000 passengers; others are just dinghies with a single occupant! The admin of each instance—the captain of your particular boat—might make arbitrary decisions you disagree with as heartily as with any commercial operator’s tacks and turns. But you’re not stuck on your boat, with abandoning ship as the only alternative. Instead, you can hop from one boat to another without losing your place in the flotilla community. Parts of a flotilla can also splinter off and form their own disconnected groups, but no boat, however large, is in charge of the community.

The irrational exuberance of tech giants

Om Malik explains

An unprecedented boom in Silicon Valley that started with the once-in-a-generation convergence of three mega trends: mobile, social, and cloud computing, has peaked. It started in 2010, and it has been bananas around here for the past decade or so. The FAANG+Microsoft companies saw their revenues go from $196 billion to over $1.5 Trillion. Let that sink in. Booming stocks helped create an environment of excess like never before. 

The companies got into the business of what Paul Kedrosky calls “people hoarding.” The pandemic and the resulting growth revved up the hiring machine even more. The over-hiring of talent has led to wage inflation, which had a ripple effect across the entire technology ecosystem. Technology insiders are happy to tell non-tech companies to use data and automation as tools to plan their future. It is easier to preach than practice. 

Why does Google need close to 200,000 employees? Or does Microsoft need 225,000 people? Salesforce, till recently, had about 73,500 employees. Profitable as these companies have been, it is also clear that they have become sloppy and bloated.

Funny how the laws of economic gravity eventually have to be obeyed.

Top programming languages in 2023

From Tech Republic

Based on what employers say they want in job candidates

Based on the analysis, here are the top 10 programming languages for 2023 along with the number of open full-time jobs and each language’s ranking on Coding Dojo’s list for 2022:

Python: 68,534 jobs (No. 2 in 2022) SQL: 57,971 jobs (No. 3) Java: 57,236 jobs (No. 1) JavaScript: 48,041 jobs (No. 4) C: 35,702 jobs (No. 7) C++: 35,281 jobs (No. 5) Go: 32,503 jobs (No. 8) C#: 29,084 jobs (No. 6) Assembly: 14,866 jobs (No. 10) MATLAB: 8,504 jobs (previously unranked)

I’m not surprised Python is still tops. Even I can use it. And ChatGPT speaks Python too.

My commonplace booklet

The Seven Ages of Man

  1. Screaming baby
  2. Bratty kid
  3. Obnoxious teen
  4. Over-confident hipster
  5. Oblivious dude
  6. Smug retiree
  7. Old geezer

(From a New Yorker cartoon.)

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Monday 6 February, 2023

I’m here: where are you?

Quote of the Day

”Cryptocurrency is a game played by suckers and manipulators. Guess who’s winning? “

  • Dan Gillmor

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Dove Sono I Bei Momenti | The Marriage of Figaro | Kiri Te Kanawa


Played at the funeral of Nick Herbert on Friday.

Long Read of the Day

 Sam Bankman-Fried is not a child

But the media is treating him like one.

Great blog post by Molly White. I especially liked the sting in the tail…

Here’s how it opens, though.

He appears to have lived independently of his parents since 2010, when he left his childhood home near Stanford to move in to a big house in Cambridge with other MIT undergrads. After he graduated he went to New York to work at Jane Street, then moved back across the country to Berkeley for a brief stint at the Centre for Effective Altruism. He was 25 when he founded Alameda Research, and 27 when he founded FTX. He moved with FTX to Hong Kong, then took it with him to Nassau in The Bahamas in 2021. Only recently did he return home, moving back in with his parents in their Palo Alto home while he’s confined to house arrest.

But reading headlines and news stories, you would be forgiven if up until now you had thought he was a teenager still driving around on a learner’s permit, who picked up cryptocurrency trading to avoid the types of high school summer jobs that might force him to go outside.…

Keep reading. It’s worth it.

ChatGPT isn’t a great leap forward, it’s an expensive deal with the devil

Yesterday’s Observer column.

(Excuse the hyperbolic headline. One thing all newspaper readers should know is that columnists never, ever get to write the headlines over what they’ve written! That’s the prerogative of the sub-editors who make sure the content is fit for human consumption.)

Sometimes, those who would forget history are condemned to repeat it. For those of us with long memories, the current fuss – nay hysteria – surrounding ChatGPT (and “generative AI” generally) rings a bell.

We have been here before: in January 1966, to be precise. That was the moment when Joseph Weizenbaum, a computer scientist at MIT, unveiled Eliza, which would have been called the world’s first chatbot if that term had existed at the time. Weizenbaum wrote the software (in a programming language intriguingly called MAD-SLIP) to demonstrate that communications between humans and computers were inevitably superficial. It did that by providing a text box in which one could exchange typed communications with the machine. Inside the program was a script (christened DOCTOR by Weizenbaum) which parodied the exchanges a patient might have with a psychotherapist who practised the person-centred therapy pioneered by Carl Rogers. (The program’s name came from Eliza Doolittle, the cockney lass who was taught to “speak proper” in Shaw’s play Pygmalion.)

Do read the whole thing.

Books, etc.

Apropos my recent musings on Virginia Woolf.

Another wonderful cartoon by Tom Gauld in the Guardian.

Chart of the Day

Google searches for “ChatGPT”.

H/T to Azeem Azhar

My commonplace booklet


You may have noticed the fuss over the Chinese surveillance balloon drifting over the US — coincidentally taking in some nuclear launch sites in Montana. I was much taken by Walter Kirn’s account,“The Chinese Spy Balloon Over My House” and I hope you will be too.

We weren’t supposed to notice the floating intruder. According to Bloomberg, the federal government was already aware of the balloon, and had been for several days, but they wished to keep the matter on the “down-low” so as not to disrupt a coming meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and high Chinese officials.

Too bad for the bigwigs. They miscalculated, perhaps because they dwell in cities, where people tend to stare into their phones rather than idly admiring the heavens, spotting anomalous aircraft now and then…

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Friday 3 February, 2023

Double jeopardy

The current cover of Private Eye!

Quote of the Day

“Nature still obstinately refuses to co-operate by making the rich people innately superior to the poor people.”

  • Beatrice Webb

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Abide With Me | Choir of King’s College, Cambridge


I’m going to a friend’s funeral today, and hoping this will be one of the hymns.

Long Read of the Day

The End of the Intellectual Focal Point

A perceptive essay by Daniel Drezner on the way a particular sector of the public sphere — that occupied by ‘public intellectuals’ — is changing.

One of the key themes from The Ideas Industry was that the barriers to entry for entering the marketplace of ideas had been lowered. Traditional gatekeepers — like, say, the op-ed editors of the New York Times or Washington Post — exercised less power than they used to. It has become easier for a thought leader to bypass establishment venues and essentially engage in the intellectual equivalent of direct marketing.

That said, the dramatic shifts in the social media landscape over the past six months should remind everyone that the relationship between traditional gatekeepers and thought leaders might be a bit more complicated. Thought leaders might not want to be constrained by establishments, but they do want to be talked about by establishments. They like long profiles about their intellectual arc or consideration of just how transgressive their ideas really are. Indeed, antagonizing the establishment is a surefire means of building a brand for a lot of thought leaders.

What if, however, there is no longer an establishment to push against?

Also has interesting things to say about the role of Twitter in the public sphere.

Shelling out

Timely observation by Jonty Bloom:

Shell is making obscene profits while the country spends billions subsiding energy bills. The company reported its largest ever profits and quite possible the highest profits of any British company ever, $40bn.

The year before it made $19bn and since it has not bought any other firms, expanded its business significantly or invented a new form of energy; this is just a windfall gain from higher energy prices.

The moral and economically sensible thing is to tax this gain, all of it. The problem is not that this would restrict investment or is unfair, it isn’t. The problem is that the government is so insanely free market that it sees nothing wrong with unearned profits.

That’s ideology at work. Interestingly, although Margaret Thatcher was, in a way, a neoliberal, she had no objection to windfall profits.

Books, etc.

On novels and the movies they inspire

I’ve recently watched two movies about episodes in the lives of two writers I admire — Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Vita and Virginia is about the passionate affair that Woolf had with Vita Sackville-West and the way that led to her path-breaking novel Orlando. Nora is about the relationship between James Joyce and his long-suffering wife, Nora — but told from Nora’s point of view. It’s based on Brenda Maddox’s fine biography of Nora and shows how Joyce drew on that tempestuous relationship in his fiction – especially Dubliners and Ulysses.

I read Orlando many years ago and — to be honest — remember little about it except that I didn’t enjoy it much. And I was therefore puzzled by the fact that it seemed to be widely regarded as Woolf’s greatest literary achievement. It tells the story of an English poet who changes sex and lives for centuries, meeting the key figures in literacy history. In the process Woolf manages not only to raise transgender issues which (coincidentally) have startling contemporary resonances, but also to satirise the misogyny of conventional historical narratives, imperialist ideology and Victorian complacency.

All of this passed me by when I first read the novel, and reading the terrific Wikipedia entry on it has therefore been an embarrassing experience, not to mention a reminder of youthful ignorance and naivete! But the great — and unexpected — benefit of watching the movie was that I suddenly began to see how Woolf’s infatuation with her aristocratic bisexual lover provided the spur for her exploration of really momentous themes in her novel. As the man said, you learn something every day!

I’m not a movie buff – and indeed generally watch very few films – so this recent mini-binge was prompted originally by curiosity about how novels are adapted for the screen. In relation to Joyce, the great breakthrough was Brenda Maddox’s biography of Nora, because it vapourised the conventional narrative about the uneducated wife who never read the works of the genius to whom she was married. How she endured it was — according to the narrative — a mystery, for Joyce, in addition to being a genius, was also an impossible person to live with.

This patronising view of Nora was encapsulated in something Richard Ellmann — Joyce’s canonical biographer — wrote to Maddox when she was embarking on her quest saying how much he disliked “book-length studies of people who are clearly not of great importance themselves”. He added that Nora’s meagre correspondence and literary output would make it “possible neither to give a full character portrayal, nor to evolve a feminist tract” about her.

Maddox’s genius was to spot that what Joyce was looking for was “a Catholic girl without a Catholic conscience” — and, boy, did he find one!

I knew Maddox when I was the Observer’s TV critic and she was a prominent and influential media figure, and I liked her a lot. I found her a shrewd and detached observer of that strange world whose products I reviewed.

In the movie this interpretation of Nora is beautifully captured by Susan Lynch, and Joyce as the impossible-to-live-with genius is also well portrayed by Ewan McGregor. The adaptation shrewdly opted to cover just the pre-Ulysses period of their life together — up to the point where it was clear that Dubliners would never be published in Ireland, and that they would never return to live there.

That decision gave it a coherence that it would have lacked if the film had tried to cover the entire course of Mr and Mrs Joyce’s life together. And what it vividly illustrated were the myriad ways in which life with Nora shaped Joyce’s imagination and found expression in his fiction. We finally discover, for example, where the wonderful closing moments of ‘The Dead’, his little masterpiece, came from: Nora’s relationship with a young boy in Galway who had died of pneumonia. And Joyce’s fantasies about Nora’s suspected infidelity provided the engine for the cuckolding of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. Molly Bloom is, in essence, a projection of Joyce’s paranoia.

My only quibble is the way these movies about great literary figures of the past always over-glamourise them. The sets, dresses and hats are invariably over the top. The Woolfs’ Richmond house was nothing like as grand as it appears in the film. And although Joyce was a dandy and Nora a fine handsome woman, she rarely dressed like an escapee from a Paris catwalk; and at times in Trieste they lived in pretty modest conditions. Growl.

My commonplace booklet

U.S. Marines Outsmart AI Security Cameras by Hiding in a Cardboard Box

Lovely story on PetaPixel about the fragility (nay, stupidity) of image recognition systems.

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Thursday 2 February, 2023


Quote of the Day

We are never so generous as when giving advice.”

  • François de La Rochefoucauld

Spot on. I’m with Oscar Wilde in this: “I always pass on good advice’, he famously observed. “It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Altan | The Wind and Rain


Wonderful group. One of the best concerts I’ve ever been to was given by them when, having become world-famous, they came back one lovely Summer evening to the Donegal village whence they had sprung.

Long Read of the Day

The prescience of Joseph Weizenbaum

For people who have been watching the tech industry for as long as I have, the excitement/hysteria about ChatGPT will have brought to mind Josept Weizenbaum and his ELIZA chatbot, which he built between 1964 and 1966 and eventually unveiled that year. His reflections on what he — and we — learned from that have suddenly acquired a new salience, which is why it was so nice to come on this essay the other day.

Its starting point is a quotation from a lecture that Weizenbaum gave in 1983 on “The paradoxical role of the computer”:

“On the one hand the computer makes it possible in principle to live in a world of plenty for everyone, on the other hand we are well on our way to using it to create a world of suffering and chaos. Paradoxical, no?”

And then takes off…

though this is a clash that we still find ourselves wrestling with today, it can be useful to take a step back and consider how it could have been foreseen some forty years ago. While 1983 is certainly not ancient history, when it comes to the history of computing, forty years can certainly seem like a time when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. After all, 1983 was pre-smartphone, prior to the genuine takeoff of the personal computer, it was before the web and therefore also before Web 2.0 and Web3—heck, quite a few of the figures who dominate contemporary discussions around computer technology hadn’t even been born yet (or were still children). 1983 was a long time ago for computers, yet for some figures who were paying attention, figures like Weizenbaum, it was already possible to see the direction that the eager embrace of computers was putting societies on—and though such figures spoke out in hopes that the direction would be changed, it is likely that many of them would not be too surprised with the messes we find ourselves in at present.

It’s a terrifically thoughtful and wise piece. Well worth your time.

My commonplace booklet

Last week I found myself in a part of Cambridge that I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic. I realised after I’d parked that the parking meter only took cash and realised that I hadn’t any on me. But I remembered that there were a couple of bank branches round the corner where I could pick up some real money and strolled on — only to discover that both branches were no more. One was boarded up. The other had become some kind of food outlet.

Which is one reason I so enjoyed Robert Shrimsley’s column in the FT magazine last Saturday.

Here’s a sample:

The old bank opposite the cycle shop on the High Street is about to reopen as an exercise studio and gym. That makes at least four such places within about 500 yards of each other. On the other hand, another form of bank building is now a Gail’s bakery, so at least shuttered financial institutions are offering diversity on health options.

What used to be Barclays is now good for sourdough loaves, brownies, and sausage rolls. What do used to be NatWest will help you work off those calories. When you look at it that way, this is practically cartel behaviour. The Gail’s is clearly a valuable addition, but the bank was better for me. Say what you like about Barclays, but I’m pretty sure I never ate their bank notes on the way home.

The Santander has also gone, but not yet transformed into anything else. Presumably it is still working through the pastries – or – Pilates dilemma faced by former financial institutions. Perhaps it should consider reopening as a hairdresser. There is a serious gap in the market in that part of the High Street. Residents still have to walk several yards to get their hair done. They might even have to cross the road.

Hairdressers, Cafes, exercise, studios, cycle shops and vets seem to be the future of our High Streets. The logic of this is obvious. The only places which see a future are those offering physical services you cannot simply secure with a click of the mouse. By any measure our High Street is still very well served, especially if you need a haircut.

Welcome to Global Britain.

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Wednesday 1 February, 2023

An opening…

… onto a tennis court, as it happens.

Quote of the Day

”In Hollywood when people die they don’t ask ‘Did he leave a will?’ But ‘Did he leave a Diary?’”

  • Lisa Minelli

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Music for Imbolc (St Brigid’s Day)


Imbolc is one of the four ancient Gaelic seasonal festivals. It marks the beginning of Spring. The others are Bealtaine, Lughnasadh and Samhain. Needless to say, the original festival was appropriated by the Catholic Church and allocated to St Brigid.

Photograph by Culnacreann (on a CC-by licence)

When we were kids we learned how to make ‘St Brigid Crosses’ out of rushes, of which the damp pastures of rural Ireland had a plentiful supply.

Many thanks to Pam Appleby for the link.

Long Read of the Day

Britain’s posh cliques

I’ve always liked George Orwell’s observation that England (by which I think he meant Britain) is “a family with the wrong people in charge”. Right on cue comes this sharp column by John Harris.

A country in deep crisis ought to at least have a government capable of governing; it is post-Brexit Britain’s unlucky fate to be run by an administration in a similar state of breakdown. The Tory party chair, Nadhim Zahawi, has been found to have committed a serious breach of the ministerial code and finally sacked. The investigation into bullying accusations against Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister, is yet to conclude. Meanwhile, the latest story centred on Boris Johnson grinds on.

If it was a play, it would sit awkwardly between thriller and farce, with characters that were well drawn, and well connected. Johnson, we know: the financially incontinent prime minister who desperately needed an £800,000 “credit facility”. Then there is Sam Blyth, a “distant cousin” of Johnson and founder of a chain of Canadian private schools, apparently persuaded to be the then prime minister’s loan guarantor. The cast is completed by Richard Sharp, the former banker and Tory donor who is now the chair of the BBC, and Simon Case, Britain’s most senior civil servant. Questions now swirl around Sharp’s alleged dealings with the other three, in the weeks and months before he was appointed to his role at the BBC. Last Monday, Johnson said that Sharp “knows absolutely nothing about my personal finances – I can tell you that for ding-dang sure”. Over the weekend, the Sunday Times published a leaked letter reportedly handed to Johnson by Case: “Given the imminent announcement of Richard Sharp as the new BBC chair,” it said, “it is important that you no longer ask his advice about your personal financial matters.” We now await enlightenment about how both these things could possibly be true.

It gets worse (if that’s possible):

The context for these tragedies remains as brazen and appalling as ever: at the last count, two-thirds of senior judges were privately educated, along with 51% of what the Sutton Trust charity calls “leading journalists”, and 52% of foreign office diplomats. The figure for Sunak’s cabinet is 65%.

The NYT is beginning to smoke its own exhaust

Nice Politico column by Jack Shafer.

Defying the journalistic maxim that reporters should never be the story, “The Story Behind the Story” frequently chronicles the mundane mechanics of assembling the Times. Recently, the space has featured a first-person piece by a Times reporter about how she got her story about the things people stand in line for these days; how its book critic read and reviewed Prince Harry’s Spare in a day; how its reporter found sources for a piece about young people and personal finance; how its reporter covered the recent 5.6 magnitude earthquake in West Java; inside commentary on the paper’s crossword; a profile of the paper’s photography department; and a profile of a food-truck proprietor who vends on the street outside the Times’ offices.

Other days the feature runs Q&A’s with reporters in which they regurgitate the facts they’ve already conveyed in published pieces about classified documents, Ticketmaster, and the recent German coup plot. (Some of these Q&A’s are double-dribbled from the Times’ “The Daily” podcast.) Then there have been retrospectives on the influence of the paper’s “Snow Fall” feature from 10 years ago and a history of the guest book at Times headquarters. It would be one thing if any of these pieces broke ground or were great reads, but they don’t and they aren’t. Most days’ entries have that tossed off quality that passes for insight when applied to podcasts. The reading experience is like soaking your brain in brackish well water. Perhaps nobody has ever attacked these columns because nobody ever reads them.

He’s sharp, is Jack. He’s picked up a whiff of what’s been happening to the Times. Some of its political reporting in the last few years has become lazy. And its current reporting of the ‘discoveries’ about classified documents in Joe Biden’s garage reminds me of its irresponsible reporting of the leaking of Hilary Clinton’s emails in 2016. What’s happening is that the success of its subscription model is making the paper pathologically attentive to what its subscribers will like rather than what good, detached journalism should provide.

My commonplace booklet

Splash down! Lion cubs leap across swollen river Link

Cute, eh? Just wait until they grow up.

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Tuesday 31 January, 2023

Das Boot

Or should it be zwei Boote, really?

Taken years ago in North Norfolk. The boat in the foreground eventually broke up and is no more.

Quote of the Day

”Yesterday, in the gym, my physiotherapist placed my own claw-like hand onto my own face. It was certainly a horror, as if several semi-frozen vegetarian sausages had been draped across my face by a prankster.

The hand felt cold and inanimate. But Miss S claims I should forego the self-pity. If I persist, I will soon be waving at London taxis and giving my enemies the finger. At the moment, my right hand is more lively than my left, which feels nearly dead.

What I would like, what I wish for, what I dream of, is the ability to pick up a fountain pen, and make a mark in the page; to write my own name in purple ink. This is my ambition.”

  • Hanif Kureishi, dictated from his hospital bed.

On holiday in Rome just after Christmas he suddenly collapsed onto the pavement; as he fell he twisted his neck and grievously injuring the top of his spine. He lost the use of his arms and legs and is now in a specialist rehabilitation clinic. But from the outset he has been dictating blog posts like this one to his son Carlo.

This is moving and impressive. What it reminds me of is the great historian Tony Judt who, when he was similarly immobilised before his death, managed to produce a truly beautiful book, The Memory Chalet.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Haydn | String Quartet in D Major Op.64-5, Hob.III:63, “The Lark”, 1st Movement | . Classikan String Quartet


Good ol’ Papa Haydn.

Long Read of the Day

Ken Burns on His Most Important Film

Transcript of an interview Bari Weiss did with documentary film-maker Ken Burns on his latest film on American attitudes to the Holocaust.

BW: I want to start with one of the first scenes of the six-hour documentary, which is about the Frank family. Many have read the diary of Anne Frank, but you decide to tell this story in a new light by focusing on her father, Otto Frank, and the way that he desperately tried to get the Franks into the United States. He couldn’t, despite having all of the connections one would need to make it from Europe into America. This theme—America’s policy toward Jewish refugees during the war—underscores the entire film. Why did you decide to open with this story of Otto Frank desperately trying to escape, instead of the story that we know, of an innocent little girl hiding in an attic?

KB: Let’s remember that the diary of an innocent girl, who is often the point of entry for many Americans and certainly schoolkids to the story of the Holocaust, isn’t about the Holocaust. It’s about everything leading up to the moment of her arrest and the overshadowing fear of hiding in the secret annex. As a country, we think we’re disconnected from that, but we are not. We are culpable. Otto Frank had connections in the United States. He had crossed every t and dotted every i and he still couldn’t get in. What I wanted to do is leave our audience with the sense from the very beginning that she could be here and still be alive.

Unmissable. Do read it.

Nick Clegg: from Liberal hope to Trump Enabler

Nice sharp Guardian comment piece by Jan-Werner Müller on Meta’s decision (announced by Clegg) to allow Trump back on its platform.

But Trump has neither paid any price for various offenses against democracy, nor ever shown the slightest repentance for his role in what Facebook, in its official announcement, gingerly calls “civil unrest” (as if we were talking about some general conflagration, with all sides to blame). By allowing him back on, Facebook is signaling that neither the past, nor what a perpetrator thinks about the past, matter. It pretends that, unless Trump is on the platform, citizens have no chance to find out what “the king of social media” (according to Nigel Farage) is thinking, depriving them of vital information – a patently absurd claim given that Trump remains the most public American who has ever lived. Not only that: AJ Liebling once observed that freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one – if nothing else, freedom to address the public is also guaranteed to those who own a social network.

That description of a Trump-fomented armed insurrection as “civil unrest” would have delighted the author of “Politics and the English Language”

My commonplace booklet

Jonty Bloom sees the connection between Father Ted and Nadhim Zahawi

Nadhim Zahawi, poor love, feels hard done by, lynched by the media and driven out of office by a mob. Without even the chance to clear his name.

Father Ted was exiled to Craggy Island, when the money involved was “just resting in my account”.

How much worse for the former Chancellor, who only sought to hide the fact that he was being fined by HMRC, while running HMRC, for trying not to pay several million pounds in tax to HMRC.

After all it is not as if we need the money or anything, and he has stables to heat at his own expense these days; will no one think of the poor horses?

Still not to worry, Father Ted may have been on Craggy Island for years, but these days political exile for bullying staff, starting your own foreign policy, avoiding tax or even leaking state secrets, is a few weeks at most.

At this rate we will be lucky if Mr. Zahawi isn’t back in the cabinet by February.

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Monday 30 January, 2023

The icy forest

Actually a close up of iced-up Santolina taken during the cold snap a few days ago. But when I looked at it again I suddenly imagined it as an aerial view of an arctic forest!

Quote of the Day

”Life is not so bad if you have plenty of luck, a good physique, and not too much imagination.”

  • Christopher Isherwood

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs, Sharon White


Long Read of the Day

How to win arguments online

Dave Karpf is a tenured professor at George Washington University and a blogger. He teaches a class in ‘strategic communication’, and was recently handed a case study in how not to engage in an online row.

What happened was that Karpf tweeted something rude about Brett Stephens, a conservative NYT columnist, who wrote something with which he disagreed. He called him a “bedbug”. Stephens then emailed him — cc’ing the Provost of his university (i.e. in the shaky hierarchy of a US university, his boss’s boss) — complaining about this.

This was the standard old-world response of an ‘elite’ commentator aiming to activate the usual Establishment mechanism for disciplining a heckler. Big mistake in today’s networked world. Karpf tweeted about Stephens’s action and attached a copy of the email. At which point the whole thing went viral.

Karpf’s essay is an account of what happened, and reflections on what can be learned from it.

Riveting and instructive.

Why has Alphabet hit the panic button? Only Google can answer that question

Yesterday’s Observer column

In a strange way, the best thing that could have happened to Google (now masquerading as Alphabet, its parent company) was Facebook. Why? Because although Google invented surveillance capitalism, arguably the most toxic business model since the opium trade, it was Facebook that got into the most trouble for its abuses of it. The result was that Google enjoyed an easier ride. Naturally, it had the odd bit of unpleasantness with the EU, with annoying fines and long drawn out legal wrangles. But it was the Facebook boss, Mark Zuckerberg – not Google’s Larry Page, Sergey Brin and their adult supervisor Eric Schmidt – who was awarded the title of evil emperor of the online world.

This sometimes enabled Google to fly below the regulatory radar and avoid public criticism. Its relative immunity may also have been fostered by credulity induced by its “Don’t be evil” motto. What may also have helped is the way that, over the years, it fumbled quite a few things – Google+, Google Wave, Google Glass, Knol and Google Reader, to name just five. On the other hand, it also managed to create useful and successful products – Gmail, for example, plus Google Maps, Google Scholar, Google Earth and Google Books. And, of course, it made inspired acquisitions of YouTube in 2006 and of artificial intelligence startup DeepMind in 2014.

What enabled the company to get away with that mixture of creativity, fumbling and indirection, obviously, was that it was always rolling in money…

Do read the whole thing.

My commonplace booklet

I recently highlighted an article about the way Wikipedia dealt with the thorny question of what pronouns to assign to Ernest Hemingway’s offspring — ‘Grace’ or ‘Gregory’ — before eventually settling for the former.

Chris Patten writes to say:

And if you query why ‘Grace’ has replaced Gregory, Google asks if you want to hear about HIS life! The delusion can’t be maintained.

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Friday 27 January, 2023

Whence KM came

My notes the other day about Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield prompted Andy Linton to send this photograph of her birthplace in New Zealand where, he says, Mansfield is a “minor deity”.

For which picture, many thanks.

Quote of the Day

”Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work, and then they get elected and prove it.”

  • P.J. O’Rourke

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Casals | Song of the Birds (Arr. Sally Beamish) | Steven Isserlis


Casals once played it to the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Long Read of the Day

The Crypto Collapse and the End of Magical Thinking

Terrific NYT essay by Mihir A. Desai

I have come to view cryptocurrencies not simply as exotic assets but as a manifestation of a magical thinking that had come to infect part of the generation who grew up in the aftermath of the Great Recession — and American capitalism, more broadly.

For these purposes, magical thinking is the assumption that favored conditions will continue on forever without regard for history. It is the minimizing of constraints and trade-offs in favor of techno-utopianism and the exclusive emphasis on positive outcomes and novelty. It is the conflation of virtue with commerce.

Where did this ideology come from? An exceptional period of low interest rates and excess liquidity provided the fertile soil for fantastical dreams to flourish. Pervasive consumer-facing technology allowed individuals to believe that the latest platform company or arrogant tech entrepreneur could change everything. Anger after the 2008 global financial crisis created a receptivity to radical economic solutions, and disappointment with traditional politics displaced social ambitions onto the world of commerce. The hothouse of Covid’s peaks turbocharged all these impulses as we sat bored in front of screens, fueled by seemingly free money.

With Bitcoin now trading at around $17,000, and amid declining stock valuations and tech sector layoffs, these ideas have begun to crack. The unwinding of magical thinking will dominate this decade in painful but ultimately restorative ways — and that unwinding will be most painful to the generation conditioned to believe these fantasies.

Is life in the UK really as bad as the numbers suggest?

Yes, it is, says economist Tim Harford, writing in the Financial Times on what has happened to the UK.

TL;DR version: The past 15 years have been a disappointment on a scale we could hardly have imagined.

The British economy is in a generation-long slough of despond, a slow-burning economic catastrophe. Real household disposable income per capita has barely increased for 15 years.

This is not normal. Since 1948, this measure of spending power reliably increased in the UK, doubling every 30 years. It was about twice as high in 1978 as in 1948 and was in touching distance of doubling again by 2008, before the financial crisis intervened. Today, it’s back at those pre-crisis levels.

It’s worth lingering on this point because it is so extraordinary. Had the pre-crisis trend continued, the typical Brit would by now be 40 per cent richer. Instead, no progress has been made at all. No wonder the Institute for Fiscal Studies is now talking of a second lost decade…


Many people struggle to pay for the basics. A large survey conducted by the Resolution Foundation in late November found that about a quarter of people said they couldn’t afford regular savings of £10 a month, couldn’t afford to spend small sums on themselves, couldn’t afford to replace electrical goods and couldn’t afford to switch on the heating when needed. Three years ago, only an unlucky few — between 2 and 8 per cent — described themselves as having such concerns over spending. More than 10 per cent of respondents said that at times over the previous 30 days, they’d not eaten when hungry because they didn’t have money for food.

This is not supposed to happen in one of the world’s richest countries. But then, the UK is no longer in that club. As my colleague John Burn-Murdoch has recently shown, median incomes in the UK are well below those in places such as Norway, Switzerland or the US and well below the average of developed countries. Incomes of the poor, those at the 10th percentile, are lower in the UK than in Slovenia.

My commonplace booklet

Yehudi Menuhin gets his Blue Plaque

The plaque, which is awarded by English Heritage, will commemorate the six-storey house in Belgravia, London, where he lived, worked and entertained for the last 16 years of his life until 1999.

The news triggered a memory of a story I was once told about him when he visited the painter Derek Hill at his lovely house on the shores of Lake Cartan in Co Donegal.

The house (which is maintained as it was when Hill was alive), has a large old-fashioned kitchen, in which Hill, who was a convivial soul and very popular with the people of the locality, used occasionally to invite local musicians to drop in on Saturday evenings for drinks, singing, dancing and music-making. Since Donegal is famous for its tradition of fiddle-playing, Hill set up such an evening when Yehudi Menuhin was staying, and the great violinist joined in wholeheartedly. A good night was had by all, but it seems that some of the locals had no idea who the visitor was, and when the party was breaking up one of the departing musicians was heard saying to Hill “Yon Hughdie McMenamin is a fine fiddler!”

‘Hughdie’ was a popular adaption of ‘Hugh’ when I lived in Donegal as a child. And McMenamin is a common family name thereabouts.

Hill left his house and land to the Irish state on his death and there’s now a lovely gallery in the grounds. If you’re ever in Donegal, don’t miss it.

Grey Gowrie has written a nice book about Hill, whom he knew well.

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