Monday 23 May, 2022

The point of no return

Seen in the Orchard, Grantchester, years ago.

Quote of the Day

“Just as in London you are supposedly never more than 6ft away from a rat, in Mayfair you are rarely far from a serious human rights violation.”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Miles Davis | So What


Nine minutes of bliss.

Long Read of the Day

Permanent Pandemic

When Covid first arrived and it became clear that it would be an epoch-changing event, I fell to wondering what its historical forebears might be — events that, while dramatic enough at the time of their occurrence, led to consequences and changes of such magnitude that few people at the time could have foreseen.

I came up with two: the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914; and the 9/11 terrorist attack on the US in 2001. The first led to a catastrophic war; the second to comprehensive surveillance in democratic societies as well as authoritarian ones. To that pair we now need to add Covid-19.

It’s the normalisation of the hitherto-unthinkable in states’ responses to the pandemic that has prompted this thought-provoking essay by Justin E. H. Smith in Harper’s. I think it’s outside the paywall, but I found that I had to access it using Firefox Focus because my regular browser (which does a lot of ad-blocking) triggered a “subscribe to read on” dialogue. Anyway, I hope you can get to it because it’s worth your time.

Here’s a sample:

Even tyrants would be foolish to pass down an iron law when a low-key change of norms would lead to the same results. And there is no question that changes of norms in Western countries since the beginning of the pandemic have given rise to a form of life plainly convergent with the Chinese model. Again, it might take more time to get there, and when we arrive, we might find that a subset of people are still enjoying themselves in a way they take to be an expression of freedom. But all this is spin, and what is occurring in both cases, the liberal-democratic and the overtly authoritarian alike, is the same: a transition to digitally and algorithmically calculated social credit, and the demise of most forms of community life outside the lens of the state and its corporate subcontractors.

What do Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have in common? An unhealthy Twitter habit

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Why do billionaires tweet? Is it because they no longer have to earn a living? Or because they’re bored? Or because they spend a lot of time in, er, the smallest room in the mansion? Elon Musk, for example, currently the world’s richest fruitcake, has said that “At least 50% of my tweets were made on a porcelain throne”, adding that “it gives me solace”. This revelation motivated the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to do some calculations, leading to the conclusion that more than 8,000 tweets over 12.5 years suggests that, on average, Musk “poops” twice a day. (I make it 1.75 a day, but that’s just quibbling.)

So why does Musk tweet so much? One explanation is that he just can’t help himself. He has, after all, revealed that he has Asperger’s. “Look, I know I sometimes say or post strange things,” he said on Saturday Night Live, “but that’s just how my brain works”. Understood. It may also be a partial explanation of his business success, because his mastery of SpaceX and Tesla suggests not only high intelligence but also an ability to focus intensely on exceedingly complex problems without being distracted by other considerations.

There are, however, darker interpretations…

Read on

My commonplace booklet

“The Book Of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered”

Lovely poem by Clive James, from his Collected Verse 1958-2003.

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
And sits in piles in a police warehouse,
My enemy’s much-prized effort sits in piles
In the kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs.
Great, square stacks of rejected books and, between them, aisles
One passes down reflecting on life’s vanities,
Pausing to remember all those thoughtful reviews
Lavished to no avail upon one’s enemy’s book —
For behold, here is that book
Among these ranks and banks of duds,
These ponderous and seemingly irreducible cairns
Of complete stiffs.

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Friday 20 May, 2022

No rolling

Dartington Hall, May 2021

Quote of the Day

”There are one hundred and ninety-three living species of monkeys and apes. One hundred and ninety-two of them are covered with hair. The exception is the naked ape self named Homo sapiens.”

  • Desmond Morris, in the Introduction to his best-seller, The Naked Ape.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Vivaldi as you’ve never heard him played before


Thanks to Seb Schmoller for spotting it.

Long Read of the Day

Let them eat Pasta

Striking polemic by Jack Monroe, author of  A Girl Called Jack: 100 delicious budget recipes who also runs the Cooking on a Bootstrap blog. Her post is about aspects of the UK that many of us never see, or choose not to.

Stylistically, Monroe takes no prisoners.

The point is, it’s a whistle stop tour of penury and chaos on this hellscape island right now. Pensioners sitting in their winter coats with the heating turned off. Single mothers going to bed at 8pm when their children do, because there’s naff all to do in the cold and the dark on their own. (I did this ten years ago when my son was two, and it absolutely breaks my heart that a decade later, nothing has changed except the numbers of people living like this have increased exponentially.) Low-paid workers who stock the supermarket shelves relying on top-up benefits for their poverty wages in order to actually buy any of the produce that they’re handling, day in, day out. Teachers setting up food banks in their classrooms, and sneaking lunches to the children in their care. A mother in Hackney living in hazardous, mouldy, collapsing accommodation with her children for almost three years after her upstairs neighbours flat poured water through her ceiling, basically being told to shut up and put up with it. Nurses skipping meals to feed their kids. If you’re not already painting your placard and preparing to chain yourself to the railings outside Number 10 Downing Street – provided you can afford the train fare and some decent waterproofs and a bobble hat and to miss a couple of days off work – if you aren’t raging into the small hours of the morning at the flagrant injustice of Partygate superimposed on the backdrop of the food bank queues; if you aren’t reminding every mealy-mouthed Minister who bleats about ‘green shoots of economic recovery’ that those green shoots are fertilised by the bodies of the thousands who have lost their lives after cuts and failures and deliberate cruelty by the Department of Work and Pensions, what will it take to turn this stinking failure of a rotten ship around? Powered by the fumes of needless austerity ideology, the Titanic of our times, with the working classes held below deck to drown as the electorate drink taxpayer-funded champagne and dance with the taxpayer-funded band and laugh and laugh and laugh about it all, and ensure their taxpayer-funded £60k a year vanity photographer is on hand to capture their best angles at all times.

I get it, it’s exhausting. This shit-by-degrees, the chipping away at the threads of what was once a halfway decent social safety net. The cold, the hopelessness, the hunger, the shame, the gaslighting, the lies, the ‘compassionate Conservatism’ that’s anything but, the stealthy shift of responsibility from the Government to the voluntary sector to try to catch people as they fall, the sugarcoated ‘neighbourhood collection points’ in the supermarkets that their own staff eye up at the end of their shift, wondering which of the donated goods will end up in their food bank parcel that week.

Meanwhile, the supermarkets boast record profits for their shareholders; profits that would eclipse the top-up benefits their staff need to supplement their poverty-line wages. Read that again: the supermarkets could increase the hourly pay of every single member of staff to a baseline that would mean they wouldn’t need to apply for supplementary support, and they would STILL turn over millions of pounds in profit for their own pockets. But what should we expect, when the head of Tesco, John Allan, bleats that £2,500,000,000 just isn’t enough for him. Oh, diddums.

She really has it in for a Tory supporter called Kevin Edger who hit out at a report from BBC Panorama about a nurse who said she sometimes skips meals so she has enough to feed her three children. He tweeted in response: “Yet you can buy a big bag of dried pasta, that would feed a family, for about £0.50… “If you shop and cook properly, you can eat healthy meals really cheaply. I would love to see how she spends her salary…”

Here’s Monroe’s riposte:

A 500g bag of budget pasta is, as we established, 29p. That’s 5 meals there of 100g of plain pasta, with no butter, no salt, no sauce, and no nutrition, and a whole 147 calories per gruesome meal. That’s only 441 calories per day, but hey, it’s not as though nursing is a physically demanding job that requires you to be on your feet all day every day and night, working shifts, is it? (Note, this is sarcasm. My mother was a nurse.) Operating at a calorie intake lower than half that of the guidelines for Auschwitz prisoners is apparently perfectly sustainable according to the Magic Pasta Brigade. So I have a challenge for them all. Walk to your local Asda or Tesco and pick up three packets of Magic Pasta for just under a quid. That’s 15 meals, apparently. Eat nothing but 3 meals each consisting of 100g of plain pasta for five days straight. Nothing else. No salt in the cooking water. No butter. No oil. No pepper. No sauces. No proteins. No vegetables or fruits. No snacks. No Mcdonalds. No wine. No other meals. Nothing in the storecupboard. No help. No cheating. No tea. No coffee. No squash. No energy drinks. Just five straight days of this Magic Pasta that you all trumpet as the answer to everything. And come back to me five days later, when you’re skinnier but somehow also horribly bloated, when you’re exhausted, when your brain is foggy from the lack of calories and nutrition, and your sleep is all over the place, and you’re going to bed earlier and waking up starving and shattered to your bones, when your skin is breaking out in spots, and you can’t seem to stay warm, and your mental health has taken an absolute nosedive because of the monotony of your pitiful existence and the lack of variation, flavour, texture, social eating opportunities, and any ounce of joy that you had five days previously feels like a distant fever dream and you haven’t had a decent shit in what feels like forever.

You get the picture. This Edgar guy’s Instagram account says it all.

Why the Left Can’t Stand The New York Times

Lovely rant by Amber A’Lee Frost in, of all places, the Columbia Journalism Review.

Here’s how it opens:

very morning that I’m not hungover, I wake up around 8am, because that is when my two cats start howling for breakfast. I feed them, make coffee, and walk barefoot and unwashed (mug in hand) through my apartment building’s common hallway to the front door, where I pick up my New York Times and my Financial Times.

I then walk back to my apartment, look at the front page of the New York Times for approximately five to eight seconds, and throw the whole thing in the garbage with contempt. I drink my coffee and proceed to read the entirety of the Financial Times, excluding the particularly dense bits of the Companies & Markets section. If it’s the weekend edition, I even read most of House & Home, whose editors seem to have an incredibly generous definition of “real estate,” making room for topics like homelessness and wildlife conservation. I take care to read the kidding-not-kidding op-eds from wealthy people demanding that children be banned from restaurants and art museums.

Funny to see a Marxist preferring the Pink bible of capitalism to the Grey Lady. As it happens, I agree with her.

Worth a read.

My commonplace booklet

The Bertrand Russell essay “In praise of idleness” prompted some nice emails. Pascal Desmond sent an excerpt from an essay by Derek Mahon on the Irish poet Louis MacNeice — “MacNeice, the war and the BBC”.

His attitude to radio work underwent a subtle change during the later 1950s. This was related to important changes within the BBC itself, where administrative persons, and other, more disciplined departments, looked with increasing disfavour on Features, which began to be seen as something of a spoilt child. Time-and-motion experts were called in and presented everyone with a questionnaire. When the sardine man came to collect MacNeice’s he found that the poet, who liked to sit with his feet on his desk and gaze out the window, had left several blank spaces. What, inquired the sardine man, were you doing in the blank spaces? “Thinking”, replied MacNeice laconically.

As UK universities became more obsessed with neoliberal metrics, many of us became increasingly irritated by demands that we accounted for our every waking moment, rather as if we were lawyers counting billable hours. I used to leave most of my returns blank, not least because I did a lot of my thinking while driving to and from work, or while washing up or just while staring into space.

But then, of course, I had tenure. Younger academics didn’t.

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Thursday 19 May, 2022

Splendid isolation

Quote of the Day

”I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.”

  • Groucho Marx

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jimmy Yancey | The Rocks


Long Read of the Day

Bertrand Russell: In praise of idleness

From way back (1932) but still great. Contains his wonderful definition of ‘work’, which I still cite when puzzled people ask me what I ‘do’.


Why Jeff Bezos’ Anti-Biden Tweets Are So Dumb

Another sharp column by Jack Shafer.

Why do the billionaires tweet? The subject here, of course, is the motivation of the Ironmen of Twitter ego-tripping, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos — not Bill Gates, whose tweets taste like weak dishwater, neither sudsy nor drinkable.

Musk tweets because his obsessive-compulsive disorder commands him to chime in on everything from his investments to his crackpot Covid-19 views to pronouns (they “suck”) to rude comments about Gates to name-calling (Elizabeth Warren, in his eyes, is a “Karen”) to raising the ire of the Securities and Exchange Commission. “Some people use their hair to express themselves, I use Twitter,” Musk tweeted in 2019.

Amazon mogul Bezos, who tragically can’t use his hair to express himself, has chosen to straddle the zone between junk mail from Gates and Musk’s shitposting. Last week, when President Joe Biden published a silly tweet saying that taxing billionaires will cure inflation, Bezos responded Musk-style that the Disinformation Governance Board should investigate that pitch.

I particularly like this bit:

Bezos should consider how counterproductive his Twitter spats with the president and his fellow mogul are. Whether he likes it or not, he’s now the face of the Washington Post. Twitter fulminations may give Bezos a Blue Origin rush of ego-gratification, but why should the man who owns an entire dairy get such a kick out of sipping from a personal-sized milk carton?


Musk doesn’t care about spam-bots

He’s trying to find a way of wriggling out of the contract to buy Twitter. Bloomberg’s Matt Levine is having none of it. Quite right too.

The battle over bots has become a sticking point for Musk, who told a tech conference in Miami on Monday that fake users make up at least 20% of all Twitter accounts, possibly as high as 90%. Twitter regularly states in its quarterly results that the average of false or spam accounts “represented fewer than 5% of our monthly daily active users during the quarter,” adding that it applied “significant judgment” to its estimate, and the true number could be higher.

I think it is important to be clear here that Musk is lying. The spam bots are not why he is backing away from the deal, as you can tell from the fact that the spam bots are why he did the deal. He has produced no evidence at all that Twitter’s estimates are wrong, and certainly not that they are materially wrong or made in bad faith. (Musk can only get out of the deal if Twitter’s filings are wrong in a way that would cause a “material adverse effect” on Twitter, which is vanishingly unlikely.)


More important, nothing has changed about the bot problem since Musk signed the merger agreement. Twitter has published the same qualified estimate — that fewer than 5% of monetizable accounts are fake — for the last eight years. Musk knew those estimates, and declined to do any nonpublic due diligence before signing the merger agreement. He knew about the spam bot problem before signing the merger agreement, as we know because he talked about it constantly, including while announcing the merger agreement. If he didn’t want to buy Twitter because there are spam bots, he should not have signed a contract to buy Twitter. No new information has come to light about spam bots in the last three weeks.

So what’s going on? Well, first of all Musk’s $54.20/share price is increasingly looking ludicrous, given that tech stocks are way down since the so-call ‘deal’ was struck.Secondly, Tesla stock — which he is depending on to finance part of the purchase price, has also gone down almost 30%, making him poorer and making the $54.20 price look even dafter. So he is trying to renegotiate the deal for obvious reasons. But, as Levine points out, “that is very clearly not allowed by the merger agreement that he signed: Public-company merger agreements allocate broad market risk to the buyer, and he can’t get out just because stocks went down”.

We haven’t reached even the end of the beginning of this farce. And Matt Levine is a great observer of it.

Chart of the Day

My commonplace booklet

Meet the amateur archivists streaming old VHS tapes online Link.

Well, someone has to do it.

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Wednesday 18 May, 2022

Tulip mania (contd.)

Shot with DXO ONE Camera

Quote of the Day

”And evening full of the linnet’s wings.”

  • W.B. Yeats: a line from The Lake Isle of Innisfree, his wistfully beautiful poem.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Randy Newman | Old Kentucky Home


Long Read of the Day

The new colonisation of Africa


Perceptive essay on the designs the tech giants have on ‘the dark continent’ and on the role that their undersea cables can play in that endeavour.

For more than a decade, U.S. tech giants have had designs on building Africa’s internet. Alphabet is now at work on Project Taara, another “moonshot,” which aims to repurpose the Loon balloons’ airborne lasers. Meta — previously Facebook — has also floated airborne internet delivery systems, including using a satellite that would beam data to Africa from space (which was abandoned when the rocket carrying it was engulfed in flames on the launchpad) and its Aquila solar-powered drones (which were grounded after disappointing performances, including a crash landing). Elon Musk’s SpaceX seems to have had better luck, having now launched over 1,700 small satellites as part of its Starlink constellation, although it won’t begin providing internet service in Africa to consumers until later in 2023.

But beneath these shiny objects in the sky — laid, in fact, on the ocean floor — are a series of more traditional and likely much more transformative efforts to bridge the connected and the unconnected. After years of anticipation, massive undersea fiber-optic cables, stretching thousands of miles, have begun arriving on African and European shores…

This is a perceptive piece in how corporate control over the Internet is becoming ever more intensive. We tend to talk about ‘the Cloud’ (as in cloud computing) but much of what is stored in the cloud spends time travelling along undersea cables. And countries that welcome these cables to their shores are, in a way, like the Germans deciding to welcome Russian gas.

If this expansion of undersea cables continues, the article argues, “the future internet will be less a network of interconnected networks, as it was originally conceived and as it has grown, and more like a supranet, dominated by a handful of mega networks operating upon their own global physical infrastructure”.

In the end, as with Russian gas, the key question (for African states) will be: who controls the data pipes?

At the moment, the answer seems to be Google and Meta.

Orwell’s Humour 

We don’t usually associate George Orwell with laughs. Every photograph I’ve seen of him has him looking dour. Maybe that’s what led Evelyn Waugh (who detested him) to observe that Orwell “couldn’t blow his nose without moralising about working conditions in the handkerchief industry”. But then Waugh was a dyspeptic old bastard (though a gifted comic writer). This essay by Jonathan Clarke is about Orwell’s novels in which he discerns a sense of humour that is “both alert to and tolerant of human eccentricity”. As, for example, is his views about tea and celebrating “the part of us the state can never reach”.


My commonplace booklet

Those were the days.

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Tuesday 17 May, 2022

Through a glass, brightly

Quote of the Day

”An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterwards.”

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Giuseppe Verdi | Và pensiero | Nabucco


Put on your white tie, run a bath, get in and sing your heart out.

Long Read of the Day

“Life among the Econ”

Here’s a delightful reprint of Axel Leijonhfud’s celebrated satirical picture of an interesting academic tribe.

The Econ tribe occupies a vast territory in the far North. Their land appears bleak and dismal to the outsider, and travelling through it makes for rough sledding; but the Econ, through a long period of adaptation, have learned to wrest a living of sorts from it. They are not without some genuine and sometimes even fierce attachment to their ancestral grounds, and their young are brought up to feel contempt for the softer living in the warmer lands of their neighbours, such as the Polscis and the Sociogs. Despite a common genetical heritage. relations with these tribes are strained – the distrust and contempt that the average Econ feels for these neighbours being heartily reciprocated by the latter – and social intercourse with them is inhibited by numerous taboos. The extreme clannishness, not to say xenophobia, of the Econ makes life among them difficult and perhaps even somewhat dangerous for the outsider. This probably accounts for the fact that the Econ have so far not been systematically studied. Information about their social structure and ways of life is fragmentary and not well validated. More research on this interesting tribe is badly needed.

It’s a lovely read, especially if you have a jaundiced view of the discipline in question.

Another sample:

A comparison of status relationships in the different “fields” shows a definite common pattern. The dominant feature, which makes status relations among the Econ of unique interest to the serious student, is the way that status is tied to the manufacture of certain types of implements, called “modls.” The status of the adult male is determined by his skill at making the “modl” of his “field.” The facts (a) that the Econ are highly status-motivated, (b) that status is only to be achieved by making ”modls,” and (c) that most of these “modls” seem to be of little or no practical use, probably accounts for the backwardness and abject cultural poverty of the tribe. Both the tight linkage between status in the tribe and modl- making and the trend toward making modls more for ceremonial than for practical purposes appear, moreover, to be fairly recent developments, something which has led many observers to express pessimism for the viability of the Econ culture.

Do read the whole thing. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Her Majesty’s awkward question

Leijonhfud’s spoof reminded me of a lovely story from 2008 when, on Wednesday 5 November, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the London School of Economics to open a new building. During a briefing by eminent, besuited LSE economists on the build-up to the turmoil on the international markets the Queen asked: “Why did nobody notice it?” At which point the assembled geniuses were observed opening and closing their mouths in a passable imitation of stunned carp.

At this point, the economist Geoffrey Hodgson takes up the story:

On 17 June 2009, the British Academy convened a group of leading academics, economics journalists, politicians, past and present civil servants, and other practitioners for a roundtable discussion to address this question. The chairman, Professor Peter Hennessy, explained that a purpose of the British Academy Forum was to provide the basis of an ‘unofficial command paper’ that attempted to answer the Queen’s question.

Professors Tim Besley and Peter Hennessy’s letter to the Queen summarised the views raised through this discussion at the British Academy. They mentioned that ‘some of the best mathematical minds’ were involved in risk management but ‘they frequently lost sight of the bigger picture’. In summary, they concluded, ‘the failure to foresee the timing, extent and severity of the crisis and to head it off, while it had many causes, was principally a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people, both in this country and internationally, to understand the risks to the system as a whole.’

Incensed by this, Professor Hodgson and some of his colleagues, drawn from the more enlightened members of the Econ tribe (and including my good friend Geoff Harcourt), composed their own letter to Her Majesty.

“In addition to the factors mentioned in their letter,” it began,

we suggest that part of this responsibility lies at the door of leading and influential economists in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Some leading economists – including Nobel Laureates Ronald Coase, Milton Friedman and Wassily Leontief – have complained that in recent years economics has turned virtually into a branch of applied mathematics, and has been become detached from real-world institutions and events. (We can document these and other complaints fully on request.)

In 1988 the American Economic Association set up a Commission on the state of graduate education in economics in the US. In a crushing indictment published in the Journal of Economic Literature in 1991, the Commission expressed its fear that ‘graduate programs may be turning out a generation with too many idiot savants skilled in technique but innocent of real economic issues.’

Far too little has since been done to rectify this problem. Consequently a preoccupation with a narrow range of formal techniques is now prevalent in most leading departments of economics throughout the world, and notably in the United Kingdom.

The letter by Professors Besley and Hennessy does not consider how the preference for mathematical technique over real-world substance diverted many economists from looking at the vital whole. It fails to reflect upon the drive to specialise in narrow areas of enquiry, to the detriment of any synthetic vision. For example, it does not consider the typical omission of psychology, philosophy or economic history from the current education of economists in prestigious institutions. It mentions neither the highly questionable belief in universal ‘rationality’ nor the ‘efficient markets hypothesis’ – both widely promoted by mainstream economists. It also fails to consider how economists have also been ‘charmed by the market’ and how simplistic and reckless market solutions have been widely and vigorously promoted by many economists.

It goes on in this vein for a while before concluding

In summary, the letter by Professors Tim Besley and Peter Hennessy overlooks the part that many leading economists have had in turning economics into a discipline that is detached from the real world, and in promoting unrealistic assumptions that have helped to sustain an uncritical view of how markets operate.

We respectfully submit that part of the problem lies in the additional factors that we have outlined above. As trained economists and United Kingdom citizens we have warned of these problems that beset our profession. Unfortunately, at present, we find ourselves in a minority. We would welcome any further observations that Your Majesty may have on these problems and their causes.

Professor Hodgson reports that the signatories “received a grateful and considerate response from Her Majesty” but, alas, did not provide the text. Hopefully, though, the Queen came away from it with a better understanding of the Econ and their strange practices.

My commonplace booklet

More on Wernher von Braun

The philosopher Huw Price, who’s currently in Bonn and had read my Observer column, sent me this photograph.

“The street”, Huw writes,

is right behind us here in Bonn, and it’s a conspicuously minor one. My German friends are surprised it exists at all, and say that it wouldn’t be in Berlin.”

Interestingly, it’s a one-way street — straight up. Just like Wernher’s career!

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Monday 17 May, 2022

Waiting for a bite

I came on this on Saturday and was struck by it. It’s by John Singer Sargent and shows two of his nieces fishing in the French alps during a family holiday in 1912.

Quote of the Day

”If people don’t believe mathematics is simple, it is only because they don’t realise how complicated life is.”

  • John von Neumann

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bruce Springsteen | You Never Can Tell | Leipzig 7 July, 2013 |. Amazing performance. But an even more amazing audience.


Long Read of the Day

What I learned from unfollowing you

Interesting essay by Charlie Warzel on breaking — and remaking — his Twitter habit.

Anyhow, eight years in, my Twitter feed had come to resemble a party that I’d stayed at for far too long. I watched people I’d developed parasocial relationships with morph into villains or curmudgeons or get famous. I saw a lot of people become the person their followers wanted them to be, which is never good. I knew I’d changed quite a bit, too (I gained about 170,000 followers, which definitely colored my experience). It was getting late; I was coming down and getting edgy, but trying to push back the dawn and my anxiety by staying at the party.

I was, finally, frustrated and jaded every time I opened the app. I found myself giving my attention to loads of people who I fundamentally believed did not deserve it. The dissonance in that action was making me feel awful, and to make myself feel better, I sought out more of what made me feel awful, so that I could feel superior. Dumb stuff, I know. But, like many, I’d become more addicted to things that made me feel outrage or even anxiety. I told myself that Twitter was no longer a place I wanted to be, which was true. But perhaps what was more true is that the version of Twitter I’d built for myself was no longer the place I wanted to be. So I killed it.

By which he meant that he ‘unfollowed’ 2044 people he used to follow. The interesting bit is that he started again, building a new list of people worth following.

Coming down to earth – safely

From the US Federal Aviation Administration’s account:

At noon EDT on Tuesday, May 10, the pilot of a Cessna 208 flying to Florida from the Bahamas told his two passengers he wasn’t feeling well. He fell against the controls, putting the aircraft into a nosedive and sharp turn.

The passengers had no flying experience, and what unfolded thereafter was truly remarkable thanks to a team of air traffic controllers.

At that point, one of the passengers jumped into action. He pulled the aircraft out of the nosedive and called Fort Pierce Tower at Treasure Coast International Airport in Fort Pierce, Fla., to let them know the pilot was incapacitated, and that he had no flying experience.

“I’ve got a serious situation here … the pilot is incoherent … and I have no idea how to fly the airplane.”

The FAA account of what happened next is interesting, but I really enjoyed James Fallows’s blog post about the incident not just because it provides much more context but also because Fallows, a keen pilot himself, writes beautifully about flying.

So do read Fallows.

The former Nazi rocket scientist who all too accurately saw the future

Yesterday’s Observer column on Wernher von Braun who, as well as serving in the SS and a second act as a Nasa engineer also wrote a Martian sci-fi novel with a prescient twist…

I recently read (and greatly enjoyed) V2, Robert Harris’s absorbing second world war thriller about British attempts to locate and destroy the base in the Netherlands from which Hitler’s “Retaliation Weapon 2” – those devastating rocket-powered bombs aimed at London – were launched. Harris is famous for the meticulous research that underpins his plots and V2 is no exception. For me, a particularly interesting aspect of the novel was his portrayal of Wernher von Braun, the German aerospace engineer who was the leading figure in the development of Nazi rocketry and who was snaffled by the US (with a large number of his technical associates) to enjoy a splendid second career as the mastermind of the US space programme.

Harris portrays Von Braun as an exceedingly shrewd operator who effectively used the Nazi regime to enable him to further his dream of space exploration…

After the column was published I got some interesting emails.

One — from Andrew Arends (Whom God Preserve) pointed me towards Tom Lehrer’s nicely sardonic take on von Braun.

And George Dyson sent a photograph of his father’s copy of the technical appendix to von Braun’s novel.

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Friday 13 May, 2022

If you’re superstitious this would not be a good day to walk under ladders.

Cross Words

My wife and I are cruciverbalists in the same sense that we are ornithologists. That is to say, we like watching birds, but often have trouble identifying them. Same with crosswords. Every weekday we do the Irish Times’s cryptic crossword, and sometimes we even manage to finish it. And (as often happens) when we finally realise that the solution to a clue which has eluded us for hours turns out to be obvious, the thudding noise you hear is the sound of one of us banging his or her head on the nearest available wall.

So why do we do it? Because we enjoy it — honestly. And it provides regular confirmation that as a couple we are more than the sum of our parts. I am an inveterate guesser, while she is a logician who refuses to accept my guess unless she can reverse-engineer the logic behind the solution. The only other thing that I bring to the party is extensive knowledge of disreputable slang of which she, as a well-brought-up girl who has led a sheltered life, is ignorant.

The nice thing about the Irish Times crossword is that the setter has a blog, in which the logic of the day’s solutions is explained after 10pm on the day of publication.

On April 30 Paul O’Doherty, the genial sadist (codename ‘Crossheir’) who has been tormenting us for the last decade, hung up his thesaurus — and penned a lovely reflective farewell which includes some stirring thoughts.

“To go back to the beginning”, he writes,

I can’t say I was an avid crossword doer when I started this job, although I had been setting crosswords for other publications since the early 2000s. I was, however, intrigued by the history of crosswords and the various conspiracy theories that revolved around them, particularly during the second World War. For instance, Dieppe was the answer to a crossword clue in The Telegraph two days before the Dieppe raid in August 1942. MI5 laughed it off as a fluke.

The British newspaper was also responsible for a number of suspicious solutions appearing in its crossword in the weeks up to D-Day: Juno, Gold, Utah, Sword, Omaha (Allied invasion beaches); Mulberry (D-Day portable harbour); Neptune (codename of Normandy landings); and incredibly Overlord (D-Day itself). What the general public didn’t know was that a copy of the Overlord plan had recently blown out of a window of military HQ at Norfolk House.

Not surprisingly, suspicion fell on The Telegraph setter Leonard Dawe, a headmaster at a school close to where US and Canadian troops were bivouacked. It transpired that Dawe had gotten them from school children when he asked them to suggest unusual words for his crossword. Little ears, how are you?

Then there was the time The Times setter Adrian Bell was investigated by MI5 days after the double agent George Blake escaped from Wormwood Scrubs gaol – a car had been waiting in Artillery Lane for him. Bell had unwittingly included the following words in his daily crossword: gaol, rungate (a synonym for runaway) and artillery. And of course, British war-time code-breaking HQ Bletchley Park was always on the lookout for crossword doers – people with “twisted brains” to break the Enigma codes, for instance. As for myself, this week’s crosswords contain solutions that refer to … oh, I’d better not say!

You might ask what has it been like producing 178 clues a week over six days, every week, along with the Christmas Crossword and the odd speciality for a decade? Sometimes the clues come easy, on other occasions it takes hours, tinkering with nouns noticing they should be verbs, occasionally realising that a word is more American than is palatable and having to discard or reword.

After a while, the faithful crossword indicators take on a life of their own: anagram, deletion, reversal, homophone, heads, ends, tail, containment, local, repetition and archaic. They’re a bit like Sartre’s crabs after a touch of mescaline. They follow me in the streets, into my office, into my social life. Occasionally, they wake me up in the middle of the night poking me Shakespeare-like “mumbling of wicked charms conjuring the moon to stand auspicious mistress” or just telling me “hey Dumbo that anagram indicator needs changing”. Lads, it’s been a blast – I’ll miss you the most!

Lovely stuff.

My appalling profreading

Which brings me to something that keeps me awake at night: my terrible proof-reading. For reasons that escape me, but which can largely by explained by bad planning on my part, I am perpetually busy on academic and other pursuits. (At the beginning of the pandemic, for example, I co-founded a new research centre in Cambridge.) This means that my blog is invariably put together at the end of a long day. It’s usually the last thing I do before retiring (to bed, that is). And that means that I often miss glaring errors in my rush to press ‘Publish’.

Yesterday, for example, I wrote that Apple had “called time” on its landmark product, the “AirPod”, when of course I meant the iPod. And a few day’s earlier, introducing the transcript of an interesting interview with Thomas Piketty, I wrote “If, like me, you’re pessimistic about the ability of our democracies to arrest the shocking growth in equality in our societies, then this interview with Thomas Piketty is a must-read.” When of course I meant to say ‘the shocking growth in inequality.” And before that, I wrote about the splendid blog produced by the American historian “Heather Cox Robinson” when of course I meant Heather Cox Richardson. And so on.

This kind of nonsense would not happen if I were to employ a proper proof-reader. But then I would have to pay her or his salary, which in turn would mean that I had — like Dominic Cummings, for example — to charge readers for the privilege of reading me. Which would be embarrassing because I might wind up with no readers at all. So you see the problem. It would be a case where the cure would be worse than the disease.

I can (and do) easily correct these excrescences on the online version once some kind reader has pointed them out at 7:02 am, but once I’ve pressed ‘send’ on this edition the error is set in virtual stone. Sigh.

Quote of the Day

“Right through our national life we have got to fight against the notion that a half-witted public schoolboy is better for command than an intelligent mechanic.”

  • George Orwell, 1941

Thanks to Sheila Hayman for reminding me of it.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Richard Strauss | Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks op. 28 | Cristian Măcelaru | WDR Symphony Orchestra


Long Read of the Day

Medieval Scholars Spar on a Modern Battlefield: Twitter

Lovely piece by Jennifer Schuessler.

Medieval Twitter can be a noisy and fractious place, where scholars post articles, memes and, not infrequently, fierce blasts at each other.

But over the past week, things turned hotter than a pot of boiling oil, as a dispute over a spiked book review spiraled into a conflagration involving charges and countercharges of racism, bullying and deception.

It started when Mary Rambaran-Olm, a literary scholar who focuses on race and early medieval England, accused editors at The Los Angeles Review of Books of “torpedoing” a strongly negative review she had written of “The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe” because of their friendship with the fellow white scholars who wrote it. As the online furor grew, one of the editors posted a fierce rebuttal, accusing her of misrepresenting the situation, and saying the publication had killed the review because she refused to accept edits.

By the end of this week, some of the protagonists had either locked or deleted their Twitter accounts, as rubbernecks outside the profession started sharing screen shots and joking about the latest circular firing squad on academic Twitter.

Do read on.

My commonplace booklet

How migrants of the 1947 partition introduced Delhi to the celebrated culinary tradition – Tandoor. Nice Twitter thread.

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Thursday 12 May, 2022

Work in progress

In 2010, a we had a guest speaker for a project I was running in the Cambridge university library. He had done his PhD on Isaac Newton and before his talk the University Librarian arranged for its copy of Newton’s own annotated copy of his Principia to be brought out. Watching our guest’s delighted astonishment on being confronted by the object itself reminded me of Walter Benjamin’s celebrated essay on the ‘aura’ possessed by the original work.

As he was pondering it I snatched a photograph of the page.

Quote of the Day

”History teaches us nothing except that something will happen.”

  • Hugh Trevor-Roper

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Joe Williams | Blues For Gamblers


I once saw Sonny and Brownie in concert at the Corn Exchange many moons ago. Unforgettable.

Long Read of the Day

 Victory Day

James Meek in the LRB:

The strangest thing about the Victory Day parade in Moscow this year was the absence of victory. Normally it’s there, the victory over Nazi Germany, a safely won triumph, unchangeably in the past, veterans and the glorious dead honoured, the country rebuilt, and in his speech today Vladimir Putin went through the motions of commemorating it. But this year, for the first time since the original Victory, Russian troops are openly fighting a war against the descendants of their Ukrainian former comrades-in-arms, on land whose evocative toponymy casts doubt on Russia’s traditional representation of May 1945.

After the speech, after the military parade, Putin, as usual, went to lay a flower on each of a row of granite blocks outside the Kremlin walls commemorating the ‘hero cities’ judged to have shown special valour in the struggle against the Nazis. He laid the first flower on the monument to heroic Leningrad, his home town. He laid the second flower, without any noticeable hesitation, on the monument to heroic Kiev.

For the three decades after 1991, it didn’t make much difference to the original Victory that Russia accepted, however grudgingly, Kyiv’s being the capital of another country. But now that Putin has invaded the other country, now Putin seeks to beat Kyiv, to capture Kyiv – in Russian nationalists’ fantastical construction, to liberate Kyiv – Putin isn’t just setting himself the task of achieving victory. He makes the original Victory contingent on victory over Kyiv, and if he doesn’t achieve it, that foundational moment, in the top-heavy ideological framework of Putin’s Russia, is no longer Victory with a capital V. It’s just one victory in a mundane cycle of historical wins and losses.

Good, thoughtful, realistic piece.

Chart of the Day

Seems that now trust in, or distrust of, science depends on your politics — at least in the US.


My commonplace booklet

Apple calls time on the AirPod

On Tuesday, Apple announced it had phased out production of its iPod Touch, bringing an end to a two-decade run of a product line that inspired the creation of the iPhone and helped turn Silicon Valley into the epicentre of global capitalism. Link

My grandson and I have a plan to resuscitate my old iPod Classic, and I’ve got the spare parts for the job. Now all I have to do is wait to him to come from Italy so we can do it together.

Cult of Mac has a nice illustrated history of the iPod over its lifetime. It really was a breakthrough product — the spiritual heir heir of the Sony Walkman. (I still have one of those too. Maybe I should open a museum.)

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Wednesday 11 May, 2022

The river at dusk

Taken walking back from dinner yesterday evening

Quote of the Day

”What really flatters a man is that you think him worth flattering.”

  • George Bernard Shaw

Acute observation. I’ve seen umpteen confirmations of it in my lifetime.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Corelli | Concerto in D Major Op. 6 No. 4 | Adagio


I spent most of yesterday online, interviewing candidates for senior academic jobs. Listening to this seemed a good way to prepare for it.

Long Read of the Day

 The lady vanishes

Very nice essay in Aeon by Ann-Sophie Barwich on how the history of ideas still struggles to remember the names of notable women philosophers. Mary Hesse, pictured here in Peter Mennim’s beautiful portrait, is a case in point.

Mary was a Fellow of my college, Wolfson. She was quiet and reserved, with a lovely smile, but so eminent that she unwittingly terrified me. Once, I brought a philosopher friend to lunch and when he noticed her at the table he seemed dumbstruck to actually see her in person.

The essay is good on her views on the merits and uses of metaphor in scientific thinking (a favourite obsession of mine in trying to communicate ideas to lay audiences).

Hesse’s philosophical ideas about science were remarkably modern. She is often described as a ‘moderate’ between the ‘conservative’ scholars of logical positivism and ‘radical’ philosophers such as Feyerabend or Kuhn in the historical literature. This presents a remarkable misapprehension concerning the novelty of her ideas. Instead of obsessing over the justification of scientific knowledge, she highlighted the need to think about its generation. How do scientists develop their ideas about the world and come to discover new things? Hesse considered the use of metaphors and analogies in scientific models. Metaphors were analysed as a conceptual tool, and one might say a cognitive scaffold, to redescribe the nature of a scientific object by comparing the properties of a metaphor with its target phenomenon.

Consider the analogy between billiard balls and gas molecules. The positive part of the analogy is the properties we know from billiard balls with which we can also describe gas molecules. Of course, there also is a negative analogy since some properties of billiard balls certainly do not apply to gas molecules. Meanwhile, Hesse was explicitly concerned with the importance of neutral analogy: those properties of billiard balls that may or may not apply to gas molecules. Metaphors in their neutral analogies, she recognised, act as a cognitive tool for learning about the yet unknown dimensions of scientific phenomena. Hesse did not refer to metaphors as cognitive tools herself. This is admittedly modern terminology. Yet Hesse notably engaged with the cognitive conditions involved in creating scientific knowledge. At the same time, she was classically philosophical in style. Models and Analogies is partly written as a Platonic dialogue between two scientists of different persuasion: a Campbellian (from Norman Robert Campbell, who argued for the crucial role of models in scientific thinking) and a Duhemian (from Pierre Duhem, who favoured the logic of scientific theories as the principal characteristic of the special status of scientific knowledge).

For Hesse, metaphors were not passive representations of things but constituted conceptual tools actively shaping scientific thought: ‘It is still unfortunately necessary to argue that metaphor is more than a literary device and that it has cognitive implications whose nature is a proper subject of philosophic discussion.’ The cognitive power of metaphors, in her view, resided in their capacity to create similarity. The use of metaphors is an act of co-creating, not discovering, similarities between a metaphor and its physical target system. Such an act of metaphorical co-creation is inevitably shaped by cultural context…

It’s an interesting read that does something to offset the selective memory of historians of ideas.

My commonplace booklet

Why are watches usually set to 10:10 in advertisements?.

Ross Pomeroy investigates. It seems that since the 1950s advertisements for analog watches often have the time set to 10:10. Why?

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Tuesday 10 May, 2022

Quote of the Day

”Anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison.”

*  Evelyn Waugh

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Little Richard | Good Golly Miss Molly | Muhammad Ali’s 50th Birthday


They don’t make them like that any more. (Ali died in 2016, Little Richard in 2020.)

Long Read of the Day

Cars Are Here to Stay

Sobering essay by Alex Trembath

As knowledge economy workers increasingly crowd into walkable, expensive urban cores, lower-income Americans are crowded out into suburbs and exurbs. Increased housing construction and affordability would certainly reduce these pressures. But as civil rights attorney Jennifer Hernandez recently wrote, the policies and regulations put in place to reduce car dependence and invest in transit often come at the expense of these low-income communities. Even a radical acceleration of densification is unlikely to reverse these dynamics:

Public transit, the “solution” wealthy Whites imagine will supplant personal vehicles, does not work for many people in less-affluent communities of color, where housing, employment, and other opportunities are often more dispersed and many more jobs can be accessed in a 30-minute drive than a 30-minute ride on public transit. Unlike affluent residents in the keyboard economy, workers of color more often have multiple jobs, commute during non-peak hours, and simply cannot use transit to “balance work, child care, elder care.”

It is easy and credible enough to blame the fossil fuel and auto industries and the legacies of redlining and racial covenants for the land use and transportation infrastructure arrangements we have in the United States today. But there are legitimate reasons that more and more people, in the United States and abroad, continue to sprawl outwards. Housing will always be more affordable and more spacious in the suburbs, amenities that remain attractive to many people here and around the world.

And switching to EVs won’t fix that fundamental dependence on cars.

Inflation is worse than we think

Blog post by Samuel Gregg, arguing that the way our societies measure inflation is partly designed to understate it.

In 2011, the last time inflation was on the rise, the then-president of the New York Federal Reserve, William Dudley, ventured into a working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York, to give a speech explaining why inflation wasn’t a big deal. Finding that he wasn’t making an impact, Dudley famously picked up an iPad 2 and told his audience, “Today you can buy an iPad 2 that costs the same as an iPad 1 that is twice as powerful.”

“I can’t eat an iPad!” someone in the audience shouted back.

I was reminded of this story recently while standing in the checkout line of my local grocery store. An elderly neighbor standing in front of me saw the total price of her purchases flash up on the screen. For a moment, her eyes registered shock. Then I heard her mutter, “That sure doesn’t feel like $150 worth of groceries.”

I was thinking this the other day when it was announced that inflation in the UK is running at 10% — which seemed to me to be an under-estimate.

China’s Bizarre Authoritarian-Libertarian COVID Strategy

By Alex Tabarrok

It’s difficult to understand China’s COVID strategy. On the one hand, China has confined millions of people to their homes, even to the extent of outlawing walking outside or having food delivered. Many thousands of other people have been taken from their homes and put into quarantine centers. On the other hand, vaccination is not mandatory! I can understand authoritarianism. I can understand libertarianism. I have difficulty understanding how jailing people, potentially without food, is ok but requiring vaccinations is not. (Here’s a legal analysis of China’s vaccine policy.) Moreover, put aside making vaccines mandatory because as far as I can tell, China has only recently started to get serious about non-coercive measures to vaccinate the elderly.

He’s right: the strategy is weird.

My commonplace booklet

How I would learn to code (if I could start over) Link A nice illustration of why so many people turn to YouTube to learn stuff — in this case programming in Python.

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