Tuesday 23 February, 2021

Spring cometh

Photographed on my cycle trip today.


Quote of the Day

”The opera is to music what a bawdy house is to a cathedral.”

  • H.L. Mencken, 1922

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paddy Keenan and Padraic Conroy | Uileann pipes and guitar

Link

Wonderful. Thanks to Ross Anderson, himself a piper, for the suggestion.


Long Read of the Day

Creativity and TikTok by Eugene Wei

I got this via Charles Arthur (Whom God Preserve) and found it fascinating, despite the fact that I don’t use TikTok. Eugene Wei has an interesting background. He’s part geek, part film-maker and has worked in a succession of interesting companies — from Amazon to Oculus via Hulu, Airtime and Clipboard. It’s a long, long read, but fascinating and full of insights. Including the observation that YouTube has never provided tools for its users so that they can creatively respond to what they’re viewing. In that sense, it’s actually a broadcast medium. TikTok, in contrast, is something else.

He also has some lovely footnotes, of which I am something of a connoisseur (though not on the Anthony Grafton scale). Here’s one:

I often lament when I refer to as fortune cookie Twitter, and to combat this, I think Twitter should set up a GPT-3 bot that constantly trains on each account, and the moment most of your followers can no longer distinguish between the GPT-3 spoof of your account and your actual account, you should be forced to vacate your account and allow the GPT-3 bot to replace you. You will have literally become a parody of yourself. Also, if for some reason I ever hacked my way into a famous person’s account, my goal would not to be to request BTC or post something offensive. Instead, my goal would be to post a tweet that so resembles their voice that no one, not even the person who owned that account, could tell. They’d just think, wow, that’s strange, I don’t remember posting that, but it is something I’d post, so ¯(ツ)


Facebook Announces Plan To Break Up U.S. Government Before It Becomes Too Powerful

Thank God for The Onion:

MENLO PARK, CA—In an effort to curtail the organization’s outsized influence, Facebook announced Monday that it would be implementing new steps to ensure the breakup of the U.S. government before it becomes too powerful. “It’s long past time for us to take concrete actions against this behemoth of governance that has gone essentially unchecked since its inception,” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, noting that while the governing body may have begun with good intentions, its history showed a culture of recklessness and a dangerous disregard for the consequences of its decisions. “Unfortunately, those at the top have been repeatedly contemptuous of the very idea of accountability or reform, and our only remaining course is to separate the government into smaller chunks to prevent it from forming an even stronger monopoly over the public.”


The UK Competition and Markets Authority gets serious

From today’s FT:

The UK competition watchdog has told Big Tech companies it is planning a series of antitrust investigations into their practices over the next year, signalling a tougher approach to reining in the sector in the wake of Brexit.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the Competition and Markets Authority, said the watchdog plans to mount a number of probes into internet giants including Google and Amazon in the coming months.

The moves come as the watchdog looks to assert its newfound independence after Britain left the EU’s regulatory orbit in January. The CMA is due to be granted additional powers to police Big Tech later this year with the creation of a new sector-specific unit.

It’s a bit like London buses in the old days: You wait twenty years for one and then three come along all at once. Same with antitrust and competition probes into tech companies. I’ll believe it’s serious when a tech executive goes to jail.


Huawei turns to pig farming as smartphone sales fall

You probably think this is a spoof, but you’re wrong. It’s a solemn BBC report.

Technology is helping to modernise pig farms with AI being introduced to detect diseases and track pigs. Facial recognition technology can identify individual pigs, while other technology monitors their weight, diet and exercise. Huawei has already been developing facial recognition tech and faced criticism last month for a system that identifies people who appear to be of Uighur origin among images of pedestrians. Other Chinese tech giants, including JD.com and Alibaba, are already working with pig farmers in China to bring new technologies. ”The pig farming is yet another example of how we try to revitalise some traditional industries with ICT (Information and Communications Technology) technologies to create more value for the industries in the 5G era,” the Huawei spokesman added.

Hmmm… Come to think of it, I seem to remember that Quentin was doing some work once on facial recognition of sheep. It seems that some vets and farmers can tell by looking at their sheep whether they’re suffering from certain diseases and the research was to see if machine-learning could acquire the same skills.

The funny thing is that I can never tell one sheep from another. They don’t think much of me either. Once, many years ago, I was walking in a remote glen in Donegal when I came on a flock who all stood staring impassively at me. I took a photograph of them and later printed it with the caption: “Yeah, we all use Microsoft Excel“.


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Monday 22 February, 2021

Agribusiness: hot stuff


Lockdown news

From the BBC’s Health Correspondent…

  • No longer is controlling infection and keeping R below 1 seen as the be-all and end-all.
  • That much is clear from the government’s four tests for its roadmap to lift lockdown in England.
  • Infection rates are only being seen as a problem if they risk a surge in hospital admissions.
  • The reasons for that change can be found from the early results published on the UK vaccination programme.
  • Scottish researchers have found a “spectacular” reduction in the risk of serious illness four weeks after the first dose of the vaccine is given.
  • The link between infections and serious illness is being broken.
  • That is not to say a surge in infections can or will be tolerated – the number of Covid patients in hospital is still only just below where it was in the first peak and not all vulnerable people have been vaccinated yet.
  • But it does give ministers some room for manoeuvre. That is important. Schools are not seen as a significant driver of infection, but reopening them for all could push infection levels up.

Easing the lockdown will be a multi-stage process, it seems, with the first two change-points March 8 and 29,

From 8 March each care home resident in England can have one regular visitor, with whom they can hold hands. This is a really welcome development.

From 29 March outdoor gatherings of either six people or two households will be allowed. It is understood this will include gatherings in private gardens. (Hooray!) Outdoor sports facilities such as tennis or basketball courts will reopen and organised adult and children’s sport, such as grassroots football, will also return. (Golf?) Also, people will once again be able to travel out of their areas – (although guidance will likely still recommend staying local, and overnight stays will not be permitted).

Hmmm… A day-trip to the coast, perhaps?


Quote of the Day

”But, good gracious, you’ve got to educate him first. You can’t expect a boy to be vicious until he’s been to a good school.”

  • Saki (Hector Hugh Munro), 1910.

Remind you of anyone?


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Schindler’s List | John Williams | Netherlands Orchestra

Link

There’s a story in the comments that the oboist suffered from a neurological disease and had thought that she would never play again. And the day she did was also her daughter’s 18th birthday. No idea if that’s true but, as the Italians day, if it’s not true it ought to be.

There’s also a story that when Steven Spielberg showed John Williams an early cut of the film Williams was so moved that he left the room to compose himself. When he returned he said to Spielberg that the film deserved a better composer. “I know”, replied the director, “but they’re all dead.”


Long Read of the Day

What Tesla is up to

Interesting long blog post by Robert Scoble which may shed some light on Tesla’s current (and apparently insane ) valuation. Robert has been a tech enthusiast for decades, so a portion of salt is a mandatory supplement. On the other hand, he’s very well-informed and often perceptive. He understood the significance of blogging, for example, way before many of the tech crowd.


Hey Alexa what did I just type? Decoding smartphone sounds with a voice assistant

Fascinating paper (with the above lovely title) by Ross Anderson and two of his colleagues. Here’s the nub of it:

Physical keyboards emit sound on key presses. It is well known that captured recording of keystrokes can be used to reconstruct the text typed on a keyboard. Recent research shows that acoustic side channels can also be exploited with virtual keyboards such as phone touchscreens, which despite not having moving parts still generate sound. The attack is based on the fact that microphones located close to the screen can hear screen vibrations and use them successfully reconstruct the tap location. Such attacks used to assume that the adversary could get access to the microphones in the device. We take the attack one step further and relax this assumption.

In this work we show that attacks on virtual keyboards do not necessarily need to assume access to the device, and can actually be performed with external microphones. For example, we show how keytaps performed on a smartphone can be reconstructed by nearby smart speakers.

Moral: whenever you read the word “smart” replace it with “unauthorised conduit for funnelling your data to some outfit in the cloud”. It makes the sentence sound clumsy, I know, but it’s closer to the truth.

Later Bang on cue, I find this: Why you’ll be hearing a lot less about ‘smart cities’

Growing backlash against big technology companies, combined with the pandemic, has led to diminishing enthusiasm for a term that once dominated the conversation around the future of cities.


What will happen to WhatsApp users who don’t accept its new terms?

Now we know — from a TechCrunch report.

According to an email seen by TechCrunch to one of its merchant partners, WhatsApp said it will “slowly ask” users who have not yet accepted the policy changes to comply with the new terms over the coming weeks, “in order to have full functionality of WhatsApp” starting May 15.

If they still don’t accept the terms, “for a short time, these users will be able to receive calls and notifications, but will not be able to read or send messages from the app,” the company added in the note.

The company confirmed to TechCrunch that the note accurately characterizes its plan, and that the “short time” will span a few weeks. WhatsApp’s policy for inactive users states that accounts are “generally deleted after 120 days of inactivity.”

Now you know why you should be on Signal.


What the Supreme Court ruling on Uber means

From the FT

Lord George Legatt, who wrote the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling, said “the question . . . is not whether the system of control operated by Uber is in its commercial interests, but whether it places drivers in a position of subordination to Uber. It plainly does.”

The judgment, however, rests on specific facts about the relationship between Uber and its employees. The court asserted that Uber set maximum fares, drivers had no say in their contracts and the application imposed penalties if drivers cancelled too many requests. This level of control meant drivers could not increase their income using “professional or entrepreneurial skill”, the court concluded, meaning they worked for Uber and not themselves.

It remains to be seen how Uber will react and whether it can tweak the platform so that it reduces this control, allowing drivers to be genuinely self-employed. If it does so, however, it will mean the taxi booking app will be less able to guarantee a uniform service. The alternative would mean raising prices to cover the additional costs associated with conforming to the law. Either way, the company’s business model in the UK — London is one of its few profitable markets worldwide — will have to change.

Yep.


Other links

  • Draw an iceberg and see how it will float. Really sweet — try it. Link
  • Chromebooks are more powerful than people give them credit for. This matters because millions of schoolchildren are now dependent on them. Link
  • This is what happens when bitcoin miners take over your town. Thar’s gold in them there mining farms. Hint: they’re only after your cheap electricity. Link

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Sunday 21 February, 2021

Signs of life

Spring is on the way.


Quote of the Day

”Sceptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.”

  • Carl Sagan, 1980* 

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paul Simon and Miriam Makeba | Under African Skies | Live from The African Concert, 1987.

Link Wonderful song and a lovely combination of two great musicians.


Long Read of the Day

Paul Graham: What I Worked on

Lovely autobiographical essay by one of the few good essayists the tech industry has produced. Sample:

I knew that online essays would be a marginal medium at first. Socially they’d seem more like rants posted by nutjobs on their GeoCities sites than the genteel and beautifully typeset compositions published in The New Yorker. But by this point I knew enough to find that encouraging instead of discouraging.

One of the most conspicuous patterns I’ve noticed in my life is how well it has worked, for me at least, to work on things that weren’t prestigious. Still life has always been the least prestigious form of painting. Viaweb and Y Combinator both seemed lame when we started them. I still get the glassy eye from strangers when they ask what I’m writing, and I explain that it’s an essay I’m going to publish on my web site. Even Lisp, though prestigious intellectually in something like the way Latin is, also seems about as hip.

It’s not that unprestigious types of work are good per se. But when you find yourself drawn to some kind of work despite its current lack of prestige, it’s a sign both that there’s something real to be discovered there, and that you have the right kind of motives. Impure motives are a big danger for the ambitious. If anything is going to lead you astray, it will be the desire to impress people. So while working on things that aren’t prestigious doesn’t guarantee you’re on the right track, it at least guarantees you’re not on the most common type of wrong one.


Why Clubhouse looks like Facebook 2.0

My column in this morning’s Observer

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

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

Do read the whole thing.


Australia shows that it’s the job of governments not big tech to run democracies

My OpEd in this morning’s Observer

The tragedy is that the passage of Morrison’s law is actually a pyrrhic victory. One of the principles of warfare 101 is never to fight on territory chosen by your opponent. Democratic governments have been ignoring this, allowing discourse about technology and society to be captured by a deterministic narrative which says that tech drives history and society’s only role is to mop up after it has wreaked its “creative destruction” (to use Joseph Schumpeter’s famous phrase). In the process, governments everywhere bought into the myth that to challenge the arrogant intrusiveness of tech companies carried with it the risk of being portrayed as opposed to “progress”.

Since 2016, there has been a growing realisation that this narrative has to be challenged. The question now is not how can democracies mitigate the harms inflicted by tech companies on society, but what will democracies permit – and, more importantly, prohibit – tech companies to do? Which business models will we deem acceptable, and which will we outlaw? What, in other words, does democracy want from tech, not the other way round?

Applying that to the Australian case, the argument that the government should have been making was not about payments for linking to news outlets but that a vibrant, functioning democracy needs independent journalism capable of providing reliable information to citizens. Given that the social media giants have polluted the public sphere with disinformation, hatred and lies, and destroyed a business model that once funded good journalism, the companies should be subjected to a tax used to support that same good journalism. A bit like the BBC licence fee, in other words. It is the price they have to pay for the consequences of their ultra-profitable business models and insane profit margins. And for the privilege of being allowed to exist in a democracy.

The dominance of the five tech giants represents the same existential threat to liberal democracy that Louis Brandeis saw in the huge industrial trusts of early 19th-century America. The Silicon Valley narrative that sees democracies in the role of the guy who followed processional elephants during the Indian Raj, sweeping up their dung, is as ridiculous as it is pernicious. It is high time we called the industry’s bluff.


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Programming in Turbo Pascal in your browser. Not for everyone but if, like me, you enjoyed programming in Turbo Pascal, then this is a lovely emulator. Link
  • Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework. Douglas Engelbart’s original, seminal, 1962 paper. Link. Given that there have always been two ways of thinking about computers and humanity — one which sees them as replacing humans, and one that sees them as augmenting our capabilities (Doug’s vision) it’s lovely to be reminded of it. I haven’t read it since 1995 when I was working on my history of the Internet.

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Saturday 20 February, 2021

The open gates of the Van Gogh Foundation in Arles


Quote of the Day

”Well, it’s about everything in particular, isn’t it?

  • Muriel Spark, on Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions | The Peasant

Link

She was new to me. Thanks to John Darch for the suggestion.


Cory Doctorow with Edward Snowden and William Gibson

Earlier this month, Cory Doctorow hosted two interesting book launches — one for the young readers’ edition of Edward Snowden’s memoir, Permanent Record, the other for the paperback edition of William Gibson’s novel, Agency.

The videos of both events are now online — Snowden’s here and Gibson’s here.

They’re about an hour long each, but I enjoyed both, not only because Snowden and Gibson are both fascinating individuals but also because Cory is a great interlocutor.


Uber: drivers are workers!

From The Guardian: This is big news. The UK supreme court yesterday dismissed Uber’s appeal against an employment tribunal ruling that its drivers should be classed as workers with access to the minimum wage and paid holidays.

Six justices handed down an unanimous decision backing the October 2016 employment tribunal ruling that could land Uber with a big compensation pay out and lead to better terms for millions of workers in the gig economy.

Uber, like many delivery and courier companies, has argued that its drivers are independent self-employed “partners” not entitled to basic rights enjoyed by workers, which include the legally enforceable minimum hourly wage and a workplace pension.

But the supreme court said any attempt by organisations to draft artificial contracts intended to side-step basic employment protections were void and unenforceable.

The judges criticised the controversial contracts Uber asked their drivers to sign, saying they “can be seen to have as their object precluding a driver from claiming rights conferred on workers by the applicable legislation”.

The court concluded that the drivers were workers because of Uber’s level of control over them, including setting fares and not informing them of a passenger’s destination until they were picked up.

The judgment says that Uber must consider drivers as workers from the time they log on to the app until they log off. It’s important to remember that workers have more rights than ‘independent ‘contractors but fewer than employees, who are entitled to maternity pay and can challenge unfair dismissal, for example. But still, this is great news.


Inside Timnit Gebru’s last days at Google | MIT Technology Review

Amazing and sobering interview with the black researcher who was co-leader of Google’s Ethical AI team and was forced out because of a critique of the technology that she co-authored with an external researcher.

If you want to know what working inside one of these Silicon Valley firms is really like if you’re not a young, white techbro then this is an eye-opener.

There was so much talk about diversity and inclusion, but so much hypocrisy. I’m one of 1.6% Black women at Google. In Google Research, it’s not 1.6%—it’s way lower. I was definitely the first Black woman to be a research scientist at Google. After me, we got two more Black women. That’s, like, out of so many research scientists. Hundreds and hundreds. Three out of God knows how many.

So at some point I was just like, you know what? I don’t even want to talk about diversity. It’s just exhausting. They want to have meetings with you, they don’t listen to you, and then they want to have meetings with you again. I’ve written a million documents about a million diversity-related things—about racial literacy and machine learning (ML), ML fairness initiatives, about retention of women, and the issues. So many documents and so many emails.

So it’s just been one thing after another. There’s not been a single vacation I took inside Google where I wasn’t in the middle of some issue or another. It’s just never been peace of mind. Imagine somebody’s shooting at you with a gun and you’re screaming. And instead of trying to stop the person who’s shooting at you with a gun, they’re trying to stop you from screaming. That’s how it felt. It was just so painful to be in that position over and over and over again.

Very revealing. I can’t understand why people still valorise these outfits.

There’s an audio version of the interview here.


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • A map of every building in the Netherlands showing its age. Astonishing. Link
  • Bookfeed.io — a simple tool that allows you to specify a list of authors, and generates an RSS feed with each author’s most recently released book. Neat. And you don’t have to be a schmuck advised by recommender algorithms. Link

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Friday 19 February, 2021

Video of the Day

This still from the long (over two hours) recording — Link — of the final two hours of the NASA Perseverance mission is corny at times, but from about 1:30 it’s riveting and, in some ways, wonderful. Remember that all the action is happening 127m miles away, and signals take nearly 12 minutes to get from there to here at the speed of light. It reminds one that we are both an amazing and a frustrating species. We can do stuff like this, but at the same time we seem incapable of stopping the destruction of the biosphere on which we all depend.


Quote of the Day

”Recession is when your neighbour loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours.

  • Ronald Reagan

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Fleetwood Mac | Go Your Own Way | Dance Tour 1997

Link


Long Read of the Day

The SolarWinds hackers could be in US government computers for a long time. Here’s our next move

By Gregory Falco Link.

On December 13, the US National Security Council acknowledged that there had been a major data breach of government entities, including the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (part of the Commerce Department) and the Treasury Department. In an analysis, the cybersecurity company FireEye said the breach was probably a “supply chain” attack involving a third-party vendor SolarWinds and that it likely began last spring. Days after the council’s report, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed the finger at Russia for perpetrating the attack.

The SolarWinds hack is problematic… You can say that again. Security experts and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) are right: The government needs to either shut down or begin patching up and remediating the systems affected by the SolarWinds hack. But they are advocating an entirely reactive approach to government-backed hacks. While some may think that hackers eventually disappear from breached networks, they actually tend to linger for a long time. Hackers can stay in networks and steal data for months, or even years. When the Chinese People’s Liberation Army attacked US government entities in a hack dubbed “Titan Rain,” for example, the hackers strategically picked off targets from at least 2003 to 2006, stealing military flight planning software, among other products.

So a cyber intrusion on that scale is a bit like the arrival of the coronavirus.

Given that, what’s the best thing to do? Answer: learn to live with it — and turn it against itself.

This is a good read with an interesting perspective on what is becoming an existential problem for a networked world.


Sound baths, self-help and teeth-grinding optimism: my strange, disorienting week on Clubhouse

Great piece of reportage by Brigid Delaney, who voluntarily spent a week on Clubhouse, Silicon Valley’s current sensation du jour.

It’s like a LinkedIn that talks to you. It’s like attending a conference that never ends. Its spirit animal is the old-style chatrooms of the early internet where you could swap ideas and soak up expertise. It will chew up hours and hours and hours of your day that are not already chewed up by the other apps.

It’s a series of virtual campfires that you join while some guy with the mic, whose bio describes him as “TRADER, BITCOIN, ANGEL INVESTOR, ENTREPRENEUR”, tells you that in order to get rich you need to get up at 3:48am and jump in an ice bath.

I spent a week in/on Clubhouse – a strange, disorientating week. While in my home, on the bus, at the beach, walking, cooking and resting, I dropped into dozens and dozens of “rooms”. In these rooms, users can listen in to live discussions and interviews about, well, anything. I now know nothing about everything.

I’m lost in admiration at her stamina and endurance. I’ve written (sceptically) about Clubhouse in my Observer column — out on Sunday. Another reason why I really enjoyed Brigid’s report.


Scott Galloway on giving and taking

I love Scott Galloway’s blog for its exuberance, honesty and liveliness. This week’s edition has a lovely reminiscence on how, as a kid, he learned about the stock market. To even quote from it would be a spoiler, so I suggest you read and savour it yourself.


Trump Hotel Employees Reveal What It Was Really Like Catering to the Right Wing Elite

This is terrific — even if you feel ashamed of yourself for wanting to read how things were behind the Trump curtain!

Sample:

As soon as Trump was seated, the server had to “discreetly present” a mini bottle of Purell hand sanitizer. (This applied long before Covid, mind you.) Next, cue dialogue: “Good (time of day) Mr. President. Would you like your Diet Coke with or without ice?” the server was instructed to recite. A polished tray with chilled bottles and highball glasses was already prepared for either response. Directions for pouring the soda were detailed in a process no fewer than seven steps long—and illustrated with four photo exhibits. The beverage had to be opened in front of the germophobe commander in chief, “never beforehand.” The server was to hold a longneck-bottle opener by the lower third of the handle in one hand and the Diet Coke, also by the lower third, in the other. Once poured, the drink had to be placed at the President’s right-hand side. “Repeat until POTUS departs.”

Trump always had the same thing: shrimp cocktail, well-done steak, and fries (plus sometimes apple pie or chocolate cake for dessert). Popovers—make it a double for the President—had to be served within two minutes and the crustaceans “immediately.” The manual instructed the server to open mini glass bottles of Heinz ketchup in front of Trump, taking care to ensure he could hear the seal make the “pop” sound.

Garnishes were a no-no. Melania Trump once sent back a Dover sole because it was dressed with parsley and chives, says former executive chef Bill Williamson, who worked at the restaurant until the start of the pandemic. Trump himself never returned a plate, but if he was disappointed, you can bet the complaint would travel down the ranks. Like the time the President questioned why his dining companion had a bigger steak. The restaurant already special-ordered super-sized shrimp just for him and no one else. Next time, they’d better beef up the beef.

Lots more in the same vein. Go on — you loved it. Admit it!


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Thursday 18 February, 2021


A Falun Gong protestor outside the Chinese Embassy in London in February 2007.


Quote of the Day

“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching at crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties are in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true…”

  • Carl Sagan

Question: when did he write this? Answer: 1995, in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.


Musical alternative to the radio news of the day

Mike Cross | Uncle Josh

Link

Mike Cross was new to me, so many thanks to Doc Searls (Whom God Preserve) for the tip.

I love the sombre wit of “Listen here, brother; Life is just another terminal disease”!


Long Read of the Day

The Coup We Are Not Talking About by Shoshana Zuboff

We can have democracy, or we can have a surveillance society, but we cannot have both. Powerful essay summing up the ideas in her pathbreaking big book:

Two decades ago, the American government left democracy’s front door open to California’s fledgling internet companies, a cozy fire lit in welcome. In the years that followed, a surveillance society flourished in those rooms, a social vision born in the distinct but reciprocal needs of public intelligence agencies and private internet companies, both spellbound by a dream of total information awareness. Twenty years later, the fire has jumped the screen, and on Jan. 6, it threatened to burn down democracy’s house.

I have spent exactly 42 years studying the rise of the digital as an economic force driving our transformation into an information civilization. Over the last two decades, I’ve observed the consequences of this surprising political-economic fraternity as those young companies morphed into surveillance empires powered by global architectures of behavioral monitoring, analysis, targeting and prediction that I have called surveillance capitalism. On the strength of their surveillance capabilities and for the sake of their surveillance profits, the new empires engineered a fundamentally anti-democratic epistemic coup marked by unprecedented concentrations of knowledge about us and the unaccountable power that accrues to such knowledge.

Dead relevant to a day in which we see a surveillance company taking on a sovereign state (Australia)


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • How to prevent being tracked while reading your Gmail Link
  • Fancy a Twizy? You never know, you might. Link
  • How to keep warm when there’s a power cut and the temperature really drops.. Interesting Twitter thread

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!


Wednesday 17 February, 2021


Quote of the Day

”If we live in side a bad joke, it is up to us to learn, at best and worst, to tell it well.”

  • Jonathan Raban

Applies to all of us living under the present UK government


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

John Field | Piano Concerto No 3 | II Nocturne In B-Flat: Andantino | III. Rondo: Tempo Di Polacca | John O’Conor with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Link


Technology and the industrialisation of sport

Spoiler alert: This post is about golf, a sport about which many of my readers will have, er, mixed feelings. So if you have better things to do with your valuable time, please skip to the next item and no hard feelings will be felt.

Now to business. Golf is the only sport I have ever cared about. I played it from a very young age (starting aged ten) and until I graduated played at every available opportunity. I was a fairly good golfer — good enough, for example to play for my university team as an undergraduate (though I sometimes wondered if I owed my place in the team less to my sporting prowess and more to the fact that I was the only member who did not drink alcohol and could therefore always be relied upon to drive the minibus). But when I came to Cambridge as a postgraduate I realised that continuing to play seriously was incompatible with being married with a young son, never mind doing any academic work. And so I gave it up. But I’ve always retained a keen interest in the sport and a deep fondness for some of the great Irish links courses (Lahinch, Ballybunion, Royal Co Down and Portmarnock, for example) that I knew as a young lad.

During my lifetime golf has changed dramatically — from being a minority sport to one that had mass appeal. This was largely due to television — which brought huge audiences (and colossal amounts of money) for major golfing tournaments (the Masters, the British and American Open Championships, the Ryder Cup and so on). And it has also been industrialised as the design and marketing of golf equipment became a huge global industry. So, in a way, what happened to golf is analogous to what happened to soccer or motor racing — the infusion of huge amounts of money, industrial R&D and televised big events transformed an activity that was enjoyed by many into a series of gladiatorial spectacles involving a small elite of global stars.

At the highest level of the sport — the level of Rory McElroy, Tiger Woods, Bryson DeChambeau et al — what’s been noticeable for years is the distances that these guys can now hit the ball. In part this was due to the fact that they became athletes who spend a lot of time in the gym (a concept that would have been unknown to Christy O’Connor Snr., the chap who taught me as a kid). But it is also due to a sustained level of R&D into materials, aerodynamics and club design which has made it easier to drive the ball such huge distances that championship courses have to be continually lengthened to accommodate these prodigious drives.

These trends have widened the gulf between golf as played by normal mortals and the game played by McIlroy & Co. And so there has been a move — analogous to what happened with Formula 1 Racing — to rein in the influence of technological advance on the game and bring it back to its essence. It is, as Bobby Jones famously observed, a game that is played in the space between one’s ears, and ideally by people who are all equipped with comparable equipment.

According to a Reuters report, the two governing bodies of the game have begun concerted thinking on how to stop the rot.

The Royal and Ancient (R&A), in conjunction with the United States Golf Association (USGA), has proposed reducing driver shaft length to 46 inches from the current limit of 48.

Another “area of interest” for the R&A and USGA is for the potential use of local rules that would specify the use of clubs and/or balls, resulting in shorter distances.

The proposals are part of the latest updates to the Distance Insights Report published last February that said increased hitting distances changed the challenge of the game and risked making courses obsolete.

These proposals have irked Rory McIlroy in particular.

“I think the authorities are looking at the game through such a tiny little lens, that what they’re trying to do is change something that pertains to 0.1% of the golfing community,” four-times major champion McIlroy said.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people that play this game play for enjoyment. They don’t need to be told what ball or clubs to use.

“I think this report has been a huge waste of time and money, because the money that it’s cost to do this report could have been way better distributed to getting people into the game.”

Which brings me to Ivan Morris, a friend and former schoolmate of mine who turned out to be a very fine amateur golfer and — even better — into an astute writer and commentator on the sport. (See his book Only Golf Spoken Here for a sample.) He has taken issue with McIlroy in a splendid blast published in a French golfing magazine.

“In golf”, he writes,

the equipment manufacturers invest in new technology to showcase it on the pro tours so that gullible simpletons like me will pay exorbitant sums for the same equipment that players like Rory use in the hopeless belief that I might manage to execute similar shots to his, if only I had the same golf clubs.

Hitting the ball further is never going to happen (for me) and I am (always) wasting my money and will probably continue doing so. I also waste my time going around golf courses that are too long for me (and too short for Rory) The heart of the matter is: By and large, Rory is a fantastic media performer but, on this occasion he may have been under pressure from his equipment supplier and blatantly missed the point of what the R&A and USGA are attempting to achieve – protect golf courses and limit the costs incurred in building and maintaining them.

The reason why the manufacturers are against being reined in by the proposed changes, Ivan thinks, is the fear that their greatest marketing ploy — “that their latest creation will give the recreational player the extra distance he craves without any extra effort on his part. It’s not going to happen. It never has and it never will.”

Rory wants to see grass roots golf developed. As one of the grass root contingent I’ll tell him how to do it. Build more (short) 9-holes courses to speed up play. Turn golf into a two hour game and reduce the cost of it by allowing the grass to grow on the greens to reduce their speed. I can’t see Rory being enamoured with that idea any time soon.

Me neither.


How to introduce yourself when you’re famous

From Andrew Ingram (Whom God Preserve), commenting on yesterday’s “Lunch at Maxwell House”:

“Great Maxwell story – and an insider tip. That ploy of going round the room saying “I’m Robert Maxwell” – it’s so you can say who you are in reply. So much less scary than “…and you are?” Terry Wogan taught me that.”


The most realistic view of our post-pandemic future

In January, the journal Nature asked more than 100 immunologists, infectious-disease researchers and virologists working on SARS-CoV-2 whether it could be eradicated. Almost 90% of respondents think that the coronavirus will become endemic — meaning that it will continue to circulate in pockets of the global population for years to come. But failure to eradicate the virus does not mean that death, illness and social isolation will continue on the scales seen so far. The future will depend heavily on the type of immunity people acquire and how the virus evolves.

The full report is here.


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!


 

Tuesday 16 February, 2021

Quote of the Day

”We can applaud the state lottery as a public subsidy of intelligence, for it yields public income that is calculated to lighten the tax burden of us prudent abstainers at the expense of the benighted masses of wishful thinkers.”

  • Willard Van Orman Quine

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paul Simon & Ladysmith Black Mumbazo | Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes | Live (from the concert in Hyde Park

Link


Lunch at Maxwell House

I’ve just bought John Preston’s Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell on the strength of the Economist review, partly because I was struck by these closing paragraphs.

The portrait that emerges is more subtly drawn than previous ones. For all his bombast, chicanery and revolting personal habits, and his vile treatment of pretty much everyone who was beholden to him, not least his family, it is hard not to feel a stab of pity for Maxwell as the end draws near. He seems always to have been running away from his terrible childhood, assuming new identities as he went. He abandoned Judaism until late in life, yet was haunted by awful guilt for not having been able to save family members from the death camps. He was incapable of personal friendship (perhaps the only exception was the man who used to dye his hair and eyebrows). Ceaseless activity masked his essential loneliness.

Maxwell left a trail of wreckage: this reviewer’s father was one of the Mirror Group pensioners he stole from. But was he any worse than the cynical lawyers, bankers, politicians—and some journalists—who fawned on, flattered and abetted a man long nicknamed the “Bouncing Czech”? Peter Jay, a former economics editor of the Times and British ambassador in Washington, who spent three miserable years as Maxwell’s “chief of staff”, has perhaps the book’s best insight: “There was something not so much amoral about him, as pre-moral. It was as if he was literally uncivilised, like some great woolly mammoth stalking through a primeval forest wholly unaware of things like good and evil.”

I only met Maxwell once and the encounter was a memorable one (for me, anyway). I had been recruited as a columnist for the London Daily News, the paper he founded to challenge the Evening Standard’s local monopoly, and the occasion was a lunch he hosted shortly before the publication of this ill-fated organ.

It took place on the day when the tabloid sensation du jour was the news that Prince Edward had quit the Royal Marines. Here’s how I remember it.

************** 

Upon arrival in the Publisher’s office at the top of the Daily Mirror building (via the special Express Lift guarded by a goon in the foyer), we were ushered by a butler into what Private Eye used to call “Maxwell House” – the unique blend of Louis Quatorze and Southfork decor which was Captain Bob’s London base. Cocktails were served to the assembled guests by servants in an atmosphere which resembled, in its hushed propriety, the prelude to a public hanging.

After a time, two double doors were thrown open and our host appeared. He went round shaking hands and saying “How you do? I’m Robert Maxwell” as if there might be some doubt about his identity. Then he looked round the company disdainfully, seeking someone worthy of his attention. His gaze alighted on Ken Livingstone, then at the height of his fame. Maxwell motioned briskly to him, much as one might summon a recalcitrant dog, and walked out of the room, followed by an obedient Livingstone. The rest of us talked quietly among ourselves.

After a while, the great man reappeared and invited us to join him for “luncheon”. This old-fashioned locution, by the way, seemed to be typical of his speech, at least when he was trying to be polite. On my way in I had passed him in a corridor, deep in conversation with two besuited lackeys. I caught a phrase as we went by: “We should issue proceedings forthwith,” he said. His English sounded oddly quaint, as if he had learned it out of that mythical phrasebook in which the postillion has been struck by lightning.

Lunch was served in the dining room where Cecil King used to plan his abortive coups against Howard Wilson. To my relief I found myself seated way below the salt and settled down to enjoy a quiet lunch. The food was excellent; the drink even better. Perhaps, I thought, there really was such a thing as a free lunch. Or at any rate a free luncheon.

But it wasn’t to be. Maxwell banged the table and boomed: “Ladies and gentlemen, I invited you here not only to make your acquaintance but also to ascertain from you what you think my new paper should stand for. So I shall expect you to sing for your suppers.

“And I shall start with you, Julian,” he said, turning to a startled Julian Critchley MP, who happened to be seated at his left. The grizzled parliamentarian muttered some elegant platitudes and passed the parcel to his neighbour who in turn added some high-minded sentiments. The paper should be truthful, should not invade people’s privacy, should be entertaining to read, and so on. Maxwell nodded his vigorous agreement with these banal propositions. I noticed that he had an unnerving habit of repeating every fifth word. It was possibly his way of miming politeness but it made him sound slightly batty.

This went on all round the table, each succeeding guest embellishing a portrait of a newspaper which was to be the publishing equivalent of Caesar’s wife. By the time my turn came I was too drunk and bored to conform.

“The purpose of newspaper,” I said pompously, “is to make trouble.”

At this a hush fell on the company. “How do you mean trouble?” asked our host. “Well,” I said, “first of all, for the government.”

He nodded.

“Then, trouble for the City of London.”

Again, he nodded. (He’d had a lot of trouble with that same City.)

“And thirdly,” I said, thinking it was as well to be hung for a sheep as for a lamb, “trouble for its Proprietor.”

At this, all that could be heard was a terrified whimpering of Mirror executives who had taken up defensive positions under the table.

“Would you care to explain?” asked Maxwell, in a voice of bottled thunder.

“Well,” I said, “if I had been writing my column today I would have said that it was high time British society decided whether a spell in the Royal Marines was a fit training for a chimpanzee, never mind a Prince of the Blood.”

Maxwell then gave me forcibly to understand that if I had tried to say such a thing in his newspaper he would have been very greatly displeased. Indeed, he would have spiked it.

At this, Magnus Linklater, the saintly editor of the embryonic newspaper, emitted a noise somewhere between a yelp and gasp. But, flushed with excitement – not to mention the Chateau Lynch-Bages ’75 – I was beyond redemption, even by a solicitous and humane editor. I cheekily requested an explanation of the proprietor’s repressive position.

“It is one thing,” boomed Maxwell, “for an unknown journalist like you to say such things, but if I were to publish such a column it would be tantamount to giving a message to the Youth of this Country that it is acceptable to renege on a commitment the moment the going gets tough.”

I sat there, flabbergasted at the pomposity of the man. The rest of the company studied their fingernails while judiciously plotting the line to the nearest exit. Silence reigned, until eventually another guest – Ms (later Baroness) Tessa Blackstone – spoke: “Bullshit, Bob,” she said.

I have had a soft spot for that woman ever since.

********************* 

Afterwards I thought it would be fun to write this up, and I took it to the Editor of a magazine for which I then wrote a monthly column. As he read it, I saw the colour drain from his face. He handed back the copy to me, his hand shaking. “I want you to go away and burn this”, he said. He knew even better than I did that Maxwell was the most vindictive litigant then operating in London. So I put it in a drawer and only took it out on the night Maxwell fell (or was pushed?) off his yacht. And when my friend Sam Jaffa was putting together a book of reminiscences of Maxwell, with proceeds to go to the pensioners whom Maxwell had defrauded, I offered it to him and he published it.


Johnson is a tunneller as well as a leveller-up

Boris Johnson’s latest wheeze is a tunnel under the Irish Sea to link Scotland (currently in the UK, for the time being) to Northern Ireland (also currently in the UK for the time being). You do have to wonder what he’s been smoking.

Jonty Bloom isn’t impressed

The idea of a tunnel linking GB with NI has reared its head again, this is a subject that just gives and gives. In particular the lobbying by the construction industry is a joy, all about how the cost of digging tunnels has fallen massively, got far faster and easier. After all the industry is impartial and can be trusted, just like when they salivated over moving Heathrow to a marsh in the middle of the Thames estuary or a new bridge over the Thames.

But the real delusions don’t stop there, the Channel Tunnel cost its private investors pretty much everything they put into it and it links an island of 63 million to a continent of several hundred million. Construction ran massively over budget and ferries didn’t disappear but increased their competition, which hit projected income. A similar length tunnel linking 1.5 million people in NI to a remote part of Scotland is economically farcical. But it gets better.

Apparently the major benefit will be to by-pass all those annoying EU checks on the border in the Irish sea. Amazing that travelling by tunnel negates the NIP, who knew it only applied to boats and planes? So the UK will spend tens of billions building one of the longest, most expensive tunnels in history to avoid red tape it agreed to? In fact a deal it boasted about only weeks ago.


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Monday 15 February, 2021

Seen on our walk (in freezing cold) the other day


Quote of the Day

”Adolescence is the only time when we can learn something.”

  • Marcel Proust, 1918.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Dire Straits | Sultans Of Swing (Ukulele version) | Overdriver Duo

Link

They’re a pretty talented pair who have done lots of other famous cover versions. Thanks to Quentin for spotting it.


Long Read of the Day

 Presidential Cybersecurity and Pelotons by Bruce Schneier

Absolutely fascinating essay, of particular interest to anyone who’s a keen indoor cyclist. Here’s how it begins:

President Biden wants his Peloton in the White House. For those who have missed the hype, it’s an Internet-connected stationary bicycle. It has a screen, a camera, and a microphone. You can take live classes online, work out with your friends, or join the exercise social network. And all of that is a security risk, especially if you are the president of the United States.

Any computer brings with it the risk of hacking. This is true of our computers and phones, and it’s also true about all of the Internet-of-Things devices that are increasingly part of our lives. These large and small appliances, cars, medical devices, toys and — yes — exercise machines are all computers at their core, and they’re all just as vulnerable. Presidents face special risks when it comes to the IoT, but Biden has the NSA to help him handle them.

Not everyone is so lucky, and the rest of us need something more structural.

US presidents have long tussled with their security advisers over tech. The NSA often customizes devices, but that means eliminating features.

President Donald Trump resisted efforts to secure his phones. We don’t know the details, only that they were regularly replaced, with the government effectively treating them as burner phones.

Now why does that last paragraph not surprise us?

Great read from beginning to end.


Bill Janeway’s course is online

Bill Janeway is one of the most interesting people I know. Sometimes also the most annoying, because just when I’ve read something interesting it turns out that he read it ten years ago. His book  Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy: Reconfiguring the Three-Player Game between Markets, Speculators and the State changed the way I thought about tech, investment and irrational speculation. He’s had a remarkable career as a venture capitalist and an academic economist, so you could say he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And that he’s not just a theoretician.

Every year he gives a lecture course in Cambridge on “Venture Capital in the 21st Century”. But this year he’s marooned in New York. So he’s decided to give the course online, and make it publicly available. This is a big deal IMHO.

This trailer may give you a hint of why I think that.

Link


With Covid, we’re fighting the last war — as usual

Remember the first lockdown — now almost a year ago — and the hysteria about cleaning surfaces, disinfecting doorknobs etc.? And the dismissive official attitude towards wearing masks? And the scepticism about the evidence that actually the virus was more likely to be spread by aerosols? Me too. So this article — in Nature, no less — will make you feel wearily cynical:

A year into the pandemic, the evidence is now clear. The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted predominantly through the air — by people talking and breathing out large droplets and small particles called aerosols. Catching the virus from surfaces — although plausible — seems to be rare (E. Goldman Lancet Infect. Dis. 20, 892–893; 2020).

Despite this, some public-health agencies still emphasize that surfaces pose a threat and should be disinfected frequently. The result is a confusing public message when clear guidance is needed on how to prioritize efforts to prevent the virus spreading.

The article goes on to report that the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority estimates that its annual COVID-related sanitation costs will be close to US$380 million between now and 2023. Late last year, the authority asked the US federal government for advice on whether to focus solely on aerosols. It was told to concentrate on fomites (i.e. surface contamination), too, and has so far directed more resources towards cleaning surfaces than tackling aerosols.

Now that it is agreed that the virus transmits through the air, in both large and small droplets, efforts to prevent spread should focus on improving ventilation or installing rigorously tested air purifiers. People must also be reminded to wear masks and maintain a safe distance.

It’s not rocket science. Which is why agencies such as the WHO and the US CDC need to update their guidance on the basis of current knowledge. They have a clear responsibility to present clear, up-to-date information that provides what people need to keep themselves and others safe.

And then I found a piece on ‘Hygiene Theatre’ that Derek Thompson had written in The Atlantic last week:

Six months ago, I wrote that Americans had embraced a backwards view of the coronavirus. Too many people imagined the fight against COVID-19 as a land war to be waged with sudsy hand-to-hand combat against grimy surfaces. Meanwhile, the science suggested we should be focused on an aerial strategy. The virus spreads most efficiently through the air via the spittle spray that we emit when we exhale—especially when we cough, talk loudly, sing, or exercise. I called this conceptual error, and the bonanza of pointless power-scrubbing that it had inspired, “hygiene theater.”

My chief inspiration was an essay in the medical journal The Lancet called “Exaggerated Risk of Transmission of COVID-19 by Fomites.” (Fomites is a medical term for objects and surfaces that can pass along an infectious pathogen.) Its author was Emanuel Goldman, a microbiology professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. At the time, Goldman was a lonely voice in the wilderness. Lysol wipes were flying off the shelves, and it was controversial to suggest that this behavior was anything less than saintly and salutary. Other journals had rejected Goldman’s short essay, and some were still publishing frightening research about the possible danger of our groceries and Amazon packages.

But half a year later, Goldman looks oracular.

He does. And the rest of us look a bit foolish.


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Radio.Garden. A combination of Google Earth and all the world’s radio stations. Magical. Link Thanks to Gerard de Vries for the link.
  • Scientists Stored This Famous Japanese Painting in Protein Molecules. According to researchers, using this method, the entire contents of the New York Public Library could be stored within a teaspoon of protein molecules. Link
  • Facebook’s Dead Users Could Outnumber the Living Within 50 Years. If Facebook’s growth continues at its current rate, more than a billion users will die before 2100 — effectively making the social network a mass grave. Quaint. Assumes Facebook will survive more than a decade or two more. Link.

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 your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


 

Sunday 14 February, 2021

Digging into The Dig contd.

From Pete Ashton…

I too saw The Dig recently and have enjoyed the ongoing saga on your blog. It seems we as a culture find it impossible to deal with the phrase “based on a true story”, as in not a true story, just inspired by one. I would prefer these films dispense with the whole “true” thing and fully fictionalise everything, but I guess that’s not financially prudent. For me the film (and presumably the novel (fiction, not history) it was based on) wasn’t about the Sutton Hoo find or even archeology. It was a meditation on death on the eve of a period of mass slaughter in Europe. It’s doubtless frustrating for those who know the facts, but the facts are just raw material for the storytellers. Or to put it another way, it’s art, innit. (See also, Black Swan isn’t really about ballet, Armageddon isn’t really about extinction-event meteorites, The Crown isn’t really about the royal family, and so on)

Re historical (in)accuracy of movie blockbusters, I heard a nice story about an American scholarly friend who, when asked by her father how historically accurate Braveheart was, replied, carefully: “Well, there was a man named William Wallace”.


More on dental services in Tenerife…

Readers may have been amused (or perhaps outraged) by yesterday’s revelations of my countrymen’s Cummings-style ingenuity in discovering how to travel (including overseas) for ‘medical’ reasons. Some of them have been booking dental appointments in Tenerife, getting email confirmations, and then flying gaily off to the sun having waved these tokens of authorisation at the airport. (Looks like this loophole has now been closed, btw.)

The one saving grace in all this is that others among my fellow-countrymen and women have a lively sense of humour, evidence of which keeps popping up in my WhatsApp and Signal feeds. For example, this:

Or this:

I was also reminded of a story I told on my lockdown audio diary about similar evasive tricks employed by Dublin’s drinkers in 1939:

Link

(Text version available here)


Quote of the Day

“Growing old is like being increasingly punished for a crime you haven’t committed.”

  • Anthony Powell, 1973.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Johnny Cash | My Old Kentucky Home (Turpentine and Dandelion Wine)

Link

I love this song and prefer Randy Newman’s version. On the other hand, nobody has a rich gravy voice like Johnny Cash.


The real conspiracy theory…

… is not to mention the reality of Brexit, as it is now being discovered by British subjects (Britain doesn’t have citizens, remember; only republics have those) and firms.

Terrific column by my Observer colleague, Nick Cohen. Sample:

We have the hardest of possible Brexits because the Conservative right insisted we must leave the European customs union and single market. Every promise they made to the public is turning to ashes in their mouths as a result. Take trade. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s Vote Leave swore to the electorate in 2016 that Brexit would free Britain to strike deals “with major economies like China and India”. It was just another in the interminable list of false pledges they made, safe in the knowledge that, by the time the truth came out, Brexit would be done. Yet, even now, they try to maintain the pretence. Last week, the Sun announced that Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, had created a post-Brexit “Enhanced Trade Partnership” with Delhi. Already it had “created” 1,540 jobs, courtesy of the Indian tech firm Tata Consultancy Services.

It was pure propaganda: utter bullshit. No one knows what “Enhanced Trade Partnership” means, the former government trade official David Henig told me. I asked Truss’s department when it was signed and how might exporters read its terms. They can’t. There’s nothing there beyond a “commitment” to a “long-term India-UK partnership” and the hope of drawing up a “road map”. The UK and India have signed no agreement. Tata Consultancy is already in Britain. Indeed, it was ranked as the “UK’s top employer”. Truss’s department accepts Tata’s new jobs are “not linked directly” to the alleged partnership.

Amazing to be governed by such stupid charlatans. But the most important point in Nick’s piece is this: why is the Labour party not calling the government out on this?

(Answer: because there are too many Brexiteers in what were once safe Labour seats.)


Universities need to wise up – or risk being consigned to history

This morning’s Observer column:

Eli Noam’s point was that the new technologies could not be ignored because they involved a reversal of the historic direction of information flow that determined how universities functioned. “In the past,” he wrote, “people came to the information, which was stored at the university. In the future, the information will come to the people, wherever they are. What then is the role of the university? Will it be more than a collection of remaining physical functions, such as the science laboratory and the football team? Will the impact of electronics on the university be like that of printing on the medieval cathedral, ending its central role in information transfer? Have we reached the end of the line of a model that goes back to Nineveh, more than 2,500 years ago? Can we self‐reform the university, or must things get much worse first?”

When that article came out I was teaching at the Open University, and to me and my academic colleagues Noam’s article seemed like an elegant, pithy statement of the obvious. This was because we were running a university that had many, many thousands of students, none of whom ever came near the campus. So in that sense, we were already living in the future that Noam was envisaging. But what was astonishing – to me, anyway – was that no one in the conventional university sector paid much notice to the warning. Every so often, when I ran into a vice-chancellor of a traditional institution, I would ask what he or she made of Noam’s essay. “Eli who?” was generally the response.

And so it went on for 25 years.

Do read the whole thing.


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • The Top 1% of Americans Have Taken $50 Trillion From the Bottom 90%—And That’s Made the U.S. Less Secure. Yep. Link
  • I’ve Seen the Evidence, and There’s a Lot of It, and It’s Overwhelming and Very Persuasive, and I’ve Decided to Ignore It. Eli Grober has a stab at getting inside Mitch McConnell’s brain. Link

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!