Wednesday 18 May, 2021

Covent Garden in Ye Olde (i.e.pre-pandemic) Days


Quote of the Day

”Marketing genius with a car company attached.”

  • Benedict Evans on Elon Musk

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

John Williams Guitar J S Bach Prelude from Lute Suite No. 4 in E Major

Link


Long Read of the Day

The Lithium Gold Rush Inside the Race to Power Electric Vehicles

EVs are ‘greener’ than internal-combustion engines, if you only count emissions (although even there it depends on how the electricity to recharge their batteries is made). But extracting the materials — like lithium — needed to make the batteries is a process fraught with environmental damage and injustice to indigenous peoples. There’s no such thing as a free lunch in relation to our biosphere, as this interesting (and imaginatively presented) NYT essay confirms.


Grift as a modern art form

I got some interesting pushback for my rant last week about Elon Musk, whom I regard as a flake of Cadbury proportions. Broadly speaking, my correspondents (mostly geeks, I’d say), admire him as an inspired innovator, a quality for which they are disposed to forgive or overlook his lunacies.

Can Duruk takes a very different view on his blog. For him, Musk is simply a grifter.

There are a couple of qualities that are common to all modern grifts. First of all, most of these grifts are enabled by a high-profile media personality who is good at content. Second, the grifts have to straddle a fine line where they are shamelessly unethical, but always one plausible deniability away from being extremely illegal. The third and the most important quality is that the main perpetrator of the grift has to be wildly shameless about their actions.

A true modern grift is not run behind closed doors. Instead, you do it fully out in the open, screaming about it from the mountaintops. While greed is about focus, grift is about shamelessness. With greed, the game is to find the path between the rules with the most profit. Grift, on the other hand, ignores the rules altogether, armed with the knowledge that with shamelessness comes zero social costs, and with absent enforcement, no real legal risk.

He first of all examines the strange phenomenon of Steve Bannon selling pharmaceuticals on his website. Just like Alex Jones had been doing for several decades.

Next up: the Tesla/SpaceX boss.

If you want to see someone who is both shameless and extremely high profile running an extremely profitable grift, luckily, you don’t have to look much farther than the top of the Richest People in the World list. I have long tried to never mention crypto on Margins but since that seal was broken a while ago, I do have to bring up Elon Musk and his Bitcoin / Dogecoin thing here. And seriously, I am convinced the world will never see a bigger, more shameless grift than this one ever again.

Let’s just briefly go over what happened here: Elon Musk decided, probably after confusing his indica for a sativa, that Tesla, the regulatory credit company that also makes cars for the Chinese market, will be accepting Bitcoin as payments, but also, btw, Tesla now holds a couple billion dollars in Bitcoin. This single piece of news coming from a single person unsurprisingly sent the extremely-decentralized, authoritarianism-busting cryptocurrency that’s mined primarily in China using fossil fuels to the moon.

And of course, just a few short weeks later, Tesla offloaded some of those said Bitcoins for a healthy profit, to the tune of 1/7 of their operating profits to be exact. But since we are, as Musk once proclaimed, all living in a stupid simulation and Elon finally realized it’s sativa that’s actually the good stuff, he decided that Bitcoin is bad actually with a tweet, and something something decentralized and Bitcoin lost 20 percent of its value.

Duruk sees the Bitcoin wheeze as a ‘pump and dump’ operation. Which of course is effectively what it was.

Footnote: Grift: noun. Money made dishonestly; a swindle or confidence game.


Another, hopefully interesting, link

  • David Hockney goes through his daily notebooks Link

He draws like the rest of us breathe. Wonderful.


Monday 17 May, 2021

Quote of the Day

”Hype works on the theory that Americans will put their money where the noise is.”

  • Russell Baker

Remind you of anyone? Elon Musk and cryptocurrency, perhaps?


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Serenata Notturna K.239

Link


Long Read of the Day

Not only do lockdowns work but…

Guess what? They don’t cause anything like as much economic damage as people (and governments) assumed.

Unmissable post by Noah Smith about what lockdowns (which did have an impact on suppressing the virus) did to the economy.

Most people make the natural assumption that lockdown hurts the economy — if you ban people from going out to restaurants, that stops people from spending money on restaurants, right? Obviously. Many economists made this assumption when they tried to model pandemic policy. In fact, some people go so far as to blame all the economic costs of the pandemic on lockdowns.

If you think something seems fishy about that claim, you’re right. The fact is, even without lockdowns, plenty of people will avoid restaurants and other crowded spaces during a pandemic simply out of fear of catching the virus. And that will hurt the economy.

And lo and behold, when we look at evidence, we find that lockdowns accounted for only a small percent of the economic slowdown. For example, economists Austan Goolsbee and Chad Syverson looked at the state border between Illinois and Iowa. On the Illinois side, the towns issued stay-at-home orders, whereas on the Iowa side they did not. And guess what — economic activity fell almost as much on the Iowa side as on the Illinois side!

Same story elsewhere. Take Sweden and Denmark. Denmark locked down and saw its economic activity decline by 29%; Sweden chose not to lock down, and saw its economic activity decline by 25%.

The obvious inference, says Smith, “is that the biggest economic destroyer by far was not government policy; it was fear of COVID”.

In the US, credit and debit card returns suggest that states that didn’t issue stay-at-home orders in the spring of 2020 saw just about the same amount of economic devastation as states that did issue those orders.

There’s lots more evidence in the post — so it’s really worth reading in full. But the inescapable inference is we failed to understand the causal mechanism at work. It’s fear of the virus that was the big economic killer. And if fear is proportional to actual infection rates, then by suppressing the virus, lockdowns reduced fear.

As an example of the value and importance of the blogosphere, this is hard to beat.


Where Search goes next

This is the most interesting paper I’ve come across in ages. It’s written by a group of Google researchers and sets out some ideas for how Internet search could become much more sophisticated and useful. Although current search engines, particularly Google, seem impressive enough to serve as a kind of memory prosthesis for humanity, in fact they’re pretty primitive. You type in a search phrase and they return a list of pages, ranked by an opaque set of criteria. In essence, they’re dilettantes, epistemologically speaking — providing a list of references to sources — none of which they understand but which are hopefully relevant in some way to your query.

But what you’d really like is the kind of answer that you would get from a human who is an expert on the subject area of your inquiry. This new paper examines how ideas from classical information retrieval and large pre-trained language models like GPT-3 can be synthesised and evolved into systems that truly deliver something approximating to an expert answer to a question.

In effect, it’s setting out a remarkably ambitious research and engineering development agenda. What’s striking (and what I like) about it is how intellectually bold it is. Its goal is not Search 2.0 but Search 8.0.

It’s the kind of proposal that Sir Humphrey in Yes, Minister would have described as “courageous”, i.e. foolhardy and impracticable. But then the British civil service didn’t have the resources of Google!


What Joe Biden is really like to work for

TL;DR summary of this NYT ‘insiders’ piece is that beneath the President’s folksy demeanour there’s a short fuse and an obsession with detail. But if you like this kind of behind-the-scenes stuff, it’s an enjoyable picture of a relatively normal administration at work.


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Monday 17 May, 2021

A beautifully delicate flower I discovered in our garden on Saturday.


Quote of the Day

”The problem with eating Italian food is that five or six days later you’re hungry again.”

  • George Miller

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Wailin’ Jennys | Light of a Clear Blue Morning

Link

Amazing group.


Long Read of the Day

The Darkness

A sombre essay By Noah Smith.

There is plenty of darkness in the world even at the best of times. Wars, ethnic cleansing, rights violations, suppression of speech and religion…these things are always, or almost always, happening in some part of the globe. No leader and no country is spotless. And yet observers of comparative government and human rights are able to clearly identify times when respect for the rights and liberties of human beings begins to gutter and wane.

We are now in one of those times. The news headlines from around the world give us a continual stream of dark portents. Concentration camps and forced mass sterilization of minorities in China. Millions rendered stateless by a new law in India amid a retreat of secularism. A coup attempt and election denial as a normalized political strategy in America. Rising authoritarianism in Turkey, in Hungary, in Brazil, in the Philippines, in Israel. Protesters massacred in Myanmar, massacred in Iran, suppressed in Belarus, suppressed in Hong Kong. Mass surveillance everywhere. Internet shutdowns. “Anti-terrorism” laws.

And the bottom line?

If electoral democracy in America relies on Democrats never losing an election, it’s doomed. If the GOP doesn’t change its tune and agree that the rules by which Americans choose their leaders are legitimate, the next decade could be one of rolling constitutional crises…or worse.


Welcome to DarkSide: the inexorable rise of ransomware

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Public discourse about cybercrime and its practitioners is way behind the curve. As Ross Anderson and his colleagues have shown, criminals are rational actors, not lone hackers with poor hygiene and a penchant for pizza. They see what they do as a low-risk activity with very high profit margins. And they operate in a networked world in which even large and wealthy companies are still failing to take computer security seriously. The significance of the Colonial hack is its confirmation of cybercrime as a major new industry…

Read on


RaaS:Ransomware-as-a-service

Further to my column (see previous item) here are some additional points from a Financial Times report by Hannah Murphy and another article by Misha Glenny in Saturday’s edition of the paper.

  • Ransomware attacks up by over 60% (to 305m) during pandemic, according to data from SonicWall. (Murphy)

  • In 2020 there was an increase of 485% in registered attacks over 2019 , according to Bitdefender, a cybersecurity firm (Glenny)

  • Over 25% of victims pay up, according to Crowdstrike.

  • About “two dozen” gangs dominate the market, earning at least $18B in ransoms in 2020 according to cybersecurity firm Emisoft, with average payment of $150,000

  • After tracking one criminal group, the Dutch telecoms company KPN found that it demanded an average of $260,000.

  • Non-techie criminals are now joining the party as RAAS has emerged — where groups rent out their software on the dark web to “affiliates” and take a cut of their earnings

  • DarkSide, the RAAS outfit behind the Colonial attack runs such an affiliate programme, according to cybersecurity firm FireEye, which means that some other group may have participated in the attack.

  • It’s believed that a group of tech and cyber companies, as well as the FBI, thwarted the Colonial attackers by shutting down US-based servers the hackers were using to store data before then sending it on to Russia.

  • On May 4, Toyota Sec, a subsidiary of the Japanese giant that sells point-of-sale systems for retailers, was hit by another DarkSide attack.


Australia Beat COVID. Why Couldn’t The U.S.?

by Nicolas Berggruen

To date, Australia has lost just 910 lives to the coronavirus, compared to 597,000 lives and counting in the U.S. Since both nations are rooted in the same individualist Anglo-Saxon culture and have a similar form of democratic federal government, one wonders why they diverged so sharply in coping with COVID. What is the underlying difference between these democracies that led one country to effectively save its citizens while the other erratically muddled through at such a high human cost?

From the very beginning, Australia’s response was speedy and robust: travel bans, mandatory quarantines, lockdowns and easily accessible COVID testing, including drive-through clinics. These were all largely possible because Australia seems to possess what America lacks: the trust of citizens in their government, particularly at the local level. The kind of “Live free or die” distrust of authority, polarized politicization of the pandemic and widespread resistance to sensible public health mandates that appeared in the U.S. never materialized in Australia.

So why did Australia do so well and the US do so badly? Basically, Berggruen thinks, “because Australia seems to possess what America lacks: the trust of citizens in their government, particularly at the local level.” It turns out that Australians’ trust in their government has actually increased during the pandemic. In a July 2020 poll, a remarkable 80% said they trusted the authorities.

Berggruen cites an Australian columnist, Waleed Aly, who convincingly captured the national character thus:

“Our whole history is one of reliance on the state, heightened regulation and mass compliance. So, we were the first nation to make seatbelts compulsory in cars. We’re one of extremely few to make bicycle helmets compulsory. We were early adopters of mandatory breath tests for motorists. We have extensive prohibitions on smoking in public places, including vast outdoor ones. … We’re the only English-speaking country to make voting compulsory. … I’d venture that every one of these measures, from compulsory voting to bicycle helmets, is wildly popular here. In general, we’d argue they’re common sense and regard critics of them as unreasonably ideological.”


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Friday 14 May, 2021

We do the Irish Times cryptic crossword every morning. So, occasionally, does one of our cats.


Quote of the Day

”It’s so beautifully arranged on the plate — you know someone’s fingers have been all over it.”

  • Julia Child on Nouvelle Cuisine

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mendelssohn | Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave) | London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado

Link


Long Read of the Day

Tony Blair: Without total change Labour will die

The Labour Party needs complete deconstruction and reconstruction. Nothing less will do.

An interesting piece in the New Statesman by the man who, if he hadn’t made the catastrophic mistake of following George W. Bush into Iraq, would be regarded as one of the three great British Prime Ministers of the 20th century. (The other two being Clement Atlee and Churchill.)

I came on the piece after reading a number of gloomy (but — I think — accurate) diagnoses of the terminal decline that now faces the Labour Party, no matter who leads it.

“The progressive problem”, writes Blair,

is that, in an era where people want change in a changing world, and a fairer, better and more prosperous future, the radical progressives aren’t sensible and the sensible aren’t radical. The choice is therefore between those who fail to inspire hope and those who inspire as much fear as hope. So, the running is made by the new radical left, with the “moderates” dragged along behind, uncomfortably mouthing a watered-down version of the left’s policies while occasionally trying to dig in their heels to stop further sliding towards the alienation of the centre.

The result is that today progressive politics has an old-fashioned economic message of Big State, tax and spend which, other than the spending part (which the right can do anyway), is not particularly attractive. This is combined with a new-fashioned social/cultural message around extreme identity and anti-police politics which, for large swathes of people, is voter-repellent. “Defund the police” may be the left’s most damaging political slogan since “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. It leaves the right with an economic message which seems more practical, and a powerful cultural message around defending flag, family and fireside traditional values. To top it off, the right evinces a pride in their nation, while parts of the left seem embarrassed by the very notion.

He’s a bit too glib and upbeat IMHO about topics like tech and science and climate change. But see what you think. Worth reading all the way through.


Are bosses dictators?

I’ve been reading the work of Elizabeth Anderson and am very struck by it. This New Yorker review of her most recent book,  Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It) captures its essence well.

In the book, Anderson explores a striking American contradiction.

On the one hand, we are a freedom-obsessed society, wary of government intrusion into our private lives; on the other, we allow ourselves to be tyrannized by our bosses, who enjoy broad powers of micromanagement and coercion. Anderson believes that many American workers are constrained by rules that would be “unconstitutional for democratic states to impose on citizens who are not convicts or in the military.” She estimates that more than half are “subject to dictatorship at work.” In “Private Government,” she asks whether this might be a failure of our political system — a betrayal of America’s democratic promise.

The answer, of course, is yes. The really interesting question is why our societies tolerate it. Workers tolerate corporate dictatorship because most of them have little or no choice. It’s the company’s way or the highway. But one of the striking aspects of the recent Basecamp revolt is that in the tech industry some kinds of employees do have a choice, because they can always walk out and straight into another well-paid job, tomorrow. And that may, in due course, turn out to be a more countervailing power than we imagined.

Anderson is a very interesting thinker on equality (and therefore on inequality) and a pragmatist in the John Dewey tradition.


On Trouser Pockets

Odd title, you might think, but it’s over a lovely essay on design by Sam Bleckley.

Pockets in tight jeans look bad. Putting a modern slab phone, a wallet, and keys into a pair of skinny jeans will leave even the most fashionable figure looking looking like they’re wearing batman’s utility belt as underwear. Even empty, in tight pants a large pocket bag can show through.

The alternative, as many women know from first-hand experience, is a pocket too small to put anything in.

A wallet in the back pocket can cause back pain and bad posture.

Many of us spend most of our time sitting, but all four traditional pockets are totally inaccessible in that position. So we take out our phone, just in case, before we sit down at the restaurant — guaranteeing a distraction.

Aesthetics, storage, and access: these are user needs that are currently poorly fulfilled — and that means things are ripe for innovation.

So what if we were to design pockets from scratch? Well, first you’d have to study what people actually use pockets for. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it. But I suspect garment manufacturers haven’t asked that question for thirty years.

Worth reading. Great fun.


Taking UFOs (more) seriously

Last month the New Yorker published a long piece by Gideon Lewis-Kraus about the rise of American congressional, military and media interest in UFOs. I found it an absorbing and fascinating essay, and so did the NYT columnist, Ezra Klein, who was moved to propose a thought experiment:

Imagine, tomorrow, an alien craft crashed down in Oregon. There are no life-forms in it. It’s effectively a drone. But it’s undeniably extraterrestrial in origin. So we are faced with the knowledge that we’re not alone, that we are perhaps being watched, and we have no way to make contact. How does that change human culture and society?

One immediate effect, I suspect, would be a collapse in public trust. Decades of U.F.O. reports and conspiracies would take on a different cast. Governments would be seen as having withheld a profound truth from the public, whether or not they actually did. We already live in an age of conspiracy theories. Now the guardrails would truly shatter, because if U.F.O.s were real, despite decades of dismissals, who would remain trusted to say anything else was false? Certainly not the academics who’d laughed them off as nonsense, or the governments who would now be seen as liars.

“I’ve always resisted the conspiracy narrative around U.F.O.s,” Alexander Wendt, a professor of international security at Ohio State University who has written about U.F.O.s, told me. “I assume the governments have no clue what any of this is and they’re covering up their ignorance, if anything. That’s why you have all the secrecy, but people may think they were being lied to all along.”

The question, then, would be who could impose meaning on such an event. “Instead of a land grab, it would be a narrative grab,” Diana Pasulka, author of “American Cosmic: U.F.O.s, Religion, Technology,” told me. There would be enormous power — and money — in shaping the story humanity told itself. If we were to believe that the contact was threatening, military budgets would swell all over the world. A more pacific interpretation might orient humanity toward space travel or at least interstellar communication. Pasulka says she believes this narrative grab is happening even now, with the military establishment positioning itself as the arbiter of information over any U.F.O. events.

Time to call Elon Musk. On second thoughts, perhaps not. He could be one of those super-intelligent aliens that the conspiracy theories were always worrying about.


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Thursday 13 May, 2021

Just fancy that!

From the current Private Eye.


Quote of the Day

”Play Hemingway — be fierce.”

  • Gertrude Stein — speaking to her dog

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

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

Link


Long Read of the Day

 Battlestar Galactica Lessons from Ransomware to the Pandemic

A truly wonderful long essay by Zeynep Tufecki which is about network insecurity and hacking but is really about why we never learn, even though we’re supposedly the smartest animals on the planet. It starts with the pipeline hack and ends … well, where would you expect? Covid-19.

Unmissable.


The Dead contd.

Many thanks to the readers who emailed about the ‘redevelopment’ of No 15 Usher Island in Dublin. And Mick Fealty (Whom God Preserve) found the YouTube link for the complete version of John Huston’s wonderful movie of the Joyce story, for which link I am deeply grateful, and I hope you will be too.


Well, that didn’t take long

From Axios:

📚 Apple parts ways with author

After an employee uproar over his writing demeaning women and others, Apple cut ties with new hire Antonio García Martínez, the former Facebook employee who wrote “Chaos Monkeys,” Axios’ Ina Fried learned.

Employees circulated a petition yesterday calling for Apple to explain its hiring of García Martínez. It’s not known what he was going to do.

It’s rare for Apple employees to organize publicly on any issue, let alone an individual hiring.

In a passage of “Chaos Monkeys,” García Martínez describes women in the Bay Area as “soft and weak, cosseted and naive despite their claims of worldliness.”

Apple confirmed to Axios that García Martínez was no longer employed, and said in a statement that it has “always strived to create an inclusive, welcoming workplace.”

I read his book — Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley years ago, and wasn’t over-impressed. It was essentially a tech-bro miming Hunter S. Thompson — full of stuff that you’d have got away with in Hunter’s time but which looks pretty dodgy after #MeToo and #BLM. Gonzo journalism seems less impressive now. I’m surprised that Apple hired him: must have been because they saw his social-media advertising experience as a boon at a time when the company is aiming to grow its own advertising business. My conclusion is that Apple needs rapidly to improve the ethnic and gender diversity of its panels that hire people (and do more sophisticated due diligence on potential hires).


We get the ‘heroes’ we deserve

The only drawback I’ve discovered since we bought a Tesla last December is that people hold me personally responsible for Elon Musk, who is by any standards a flake of Cadbury proportions. If pressed, I’d say he was a gifted lunatic, and what’s really depressing is the legions of fanboys he seems to have attracted.

(Here’s how to spot a fanboy at 50 paces, btw: he — and it’s generally a male — refers to Musk as ‘Elon’, as if he were a personal friend. At that point the sensible precaution is to check for the nearest exit.)

Musk’s exploitation of his celebrity status would be nauseating if he were just a normal celebrity. But the really insidious thing is the way he’s using it (a) to move markets and (b) to disguise the realities of Tesla’s financial performance.

Scott Galloway has a terrific essay on all this. Lots of great things in it, but a few stood out for me.

Tesla posts an accounting profit, but in its most recent quarter, it was emissions credits (a regulatory program that rewards auto companies for making electric rather than gas vehicles) and — wait for it — $101 million in bitcoin trading profits that morphed earnings from a miss to a beat. What Tesla did not do last quarter was produce a single one of its two premium cars, the Model S or the Model X. Promised redesigns have apparently snarled production. On this topic, Musk has been uncharacteristically CEO-like (that is, discreet).

So this is what it looks like:

Part of the reason Tesla is dominant in the higher-end of the EV market is that it had very little competition for a long time. But now, as Galloway points out, that’s changing. “The innovation gap is closing”, he writes.

And it’s not just car companies coming for Tesla’s fat margins. The industry’s shape-shift from a $100 billion low-margin manufacturing business to an $800 billion high(er)-margin software business has attracted some enormous sharks. The first overnight $100 billion-plus transfer of shareholder value will occur in 2022, when Tim Cook stands onstage in front of an automobile bearing an Apple logo.

Galloway’s explanation for some of Musk’s publicity stunts is that he needs to keep investment and talent flowing into his company as the competition hot up. (The new electric Mercedes S-class limo, for example, is not all that more expensive than a Tesla Model S.) The stunts, Galloway says, help to distract public attention from

anything regarding fundamental analysis (P/E ratios) or sobriety (it’s a car company). The embrace of crypto serves both needs: It’s consistent with his techno-utopian vibe, and it directs the conversation away from the Mercedes EQS or Apple car while providing a shock absorber for earnings misses. The SNL appearance, Dogecoin tweets, Elvish-letter-named kids, tickling of our senses with 420 references and suggestive emojis: It’s David Copperfield, plus 60 IQ points.

The big question (for me, anyway) is: why is Musk’s reality distortion field so powerful?

Galloway is similarly puzzled:

One in five U.S. households with children is food insecure, and we have a man telling his 53 million acolytes to purchase a digital currency so he can sell it at a profit to pad the earnings of a company that’s worth more than automakers producing 60 times the vehicles. And why wouldn’t he? When you tell an innovator he’s Jesus Christ, he’s inclined to believe you. Once we idolized astronauts and civil rights leaders who inspired hope and empathy. Now we worship tech innovators that create billions and move financial markets. We get the heroes we deserve.

We do.

But here’s the really strange thing. The Tesla we have (the Model 3) is a terrific car. It’s a delight to drive, is as agile as any roadster, goes from zero to 60 in 3.1 seconds and yet is quiet and undemonstrative. If you charge it with electricity from renewable sources it’s also reasonably environmentally friendly. So the only question that comes repeatedly to mind is: how did a certifiable fruitcake manage to make such a good product?


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Wednesday 12 May, 2021

Lilac patterns

One of the trees in our front garden this evening.


Quote of the Day

”An expensive way of playing marbles.”

  • G.K. Chesterton on golf

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Liam O’Flynn, Seán Keane, Paddy Glackin, Arty McGlynn & Paul Brady | Gradam Ceoil | TG4 2007

Link

The late, great Liam O’Flynn (Uilleann Pipes) plays The Humours of Carrigaholt (Reel 0:00), Mayor Harrison’s Fedora (Reel 1:13) & Tommy Peoples’ (Reel 2:26) with Seán Keane (Fiddle), Paddy Glackin (Fiddle), Arty McGlynn (Guitar), Paul Brady (Guitar) and Rod McVeigh (Keyboard).

Tommy People’s reel is one of my favourite tunes.


Long Read of the Day

Book Review: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

I love Scott Alexander’s blog for all kinds of reasons, among them his thoughtful intelligence, intellectual stamina and the range of his interests. A while back he embarked on an interesting experiment — inviting people to submit a review of a book (any book they chose). He’s publishing the entries a couple of times a week, and will ask readers to vote for the winner at the end of the experiment.

The other day he published this review of Robert Caro’s The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson which is the most unusual book review I’ve seen in years. Hope you enjoy it.


Triumph of the Gombeen Men

A gombeen man, Wikipedia helpfully reminds us is “a pejorative Hiberno-English term used in Ireland for a shady, small-time ‘wheeler-dealer’ businessman or politician who is always looking to make a quick profit.” Every Irish town has had at least one (and often numerous) members of the species. It comes from the Irish word gaimbín, meaning monetary interest, which is probably a reference to those 19th-century shysters who prospered during the potato Famine by selling food and goods to their starving fellow-countrymen and women at blackmarket prices.

For most of the 20th century there has been an informal and cosy relationship between the gombeen wing of the property development racket and local authority planning departments (and their political overlords). Indeed, during the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ period, the ruling Fianna Fáil party effectively functioned as the political wing of the construction industry, with consequences that were only fully appreciated in 2008 when the country was brought to bankruptcy by its zombie banks.

All of which is by way of context to the news that Dublin’s planners have now given permission to two property developers to transform No 15 Usher Island, the Georgian house which was the setting for James Joyce’s great short story, ‘The Dead’, into a tourist hostel.

I hadn’t known about this until Andrew Arends (Whom God Preserve) sent me a link to the New York Times story:

Last month, despite vigorous opposition from prominent writers, artists, academics and heritage groups, Ireland’s planning authority approved a proposal to convert one of Dublin’s most beloved Joycean landmarks into a tourist hostel, dashing hopes that it could be preserved as a museum and cultural space.

Located on the banks of the Liffey river near the Guinness brewery, the 18th-century townhouse at 15 Usher’s Island was the setting for “The Dead,” the final story in Joyce’s collection “Dubliners,” often cited as the greatest short story written in English.

If you don’t know it, ‘The Dead’ is an entrancing short story, of which John Huston made a lovely film — his last — which got an Oscar nomination. Joyce’s two great aunts ran a music school in the Usher Island house, and every January 6 — the Catholic feast of the Epiphany — they held a party, with food and music, for friends and family. ‘The Dead’ tells the story of one such evening.

The house’s original room plan had been restored by its previous owner, but he went bust, after which it was bought by the developers who plan to turn it into space for 56 beds and a cafe.

There’s been a petition from many distinguished Irish writers and artists to save the house and transform it into a cultural centre, but to no avail. The Times reports that the Irish Department for Tourism and Culture “said in a statement that it had considered the house’s cultural value when the proposal was before Dublin City Council in 2019 and that it had no further comment”.

That figures. Gombeen men value tourism but have little use for culture.

If you’d like to see the official trailer for the Huston film, it’s here.


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Tuesday 11 May, 2021

Seen on our walk last last evening.


Quote of the Day

”He is forever poised between a cliché and an indiscretion.”

  • Harold Macmillan on Anthony Eden

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Michael Haydn | Trumpet Concerto No.2 in C-major

Link


Long Read of the Day

 Why Joe Biden Punched Big Pharma in the Nose Over Covid Vaccines

Terrific explanatory piece by Matt Stoller on why vaccines are being withheld from poor countries by the pharma monopolies.


Trump Abused the System. Facebook Created It

Good piece by Virginia Heffernan on the fact that Facebook regarded Trump not as president but simply as a mega-‘influencer’. The company’s ‘oversight’ board failed to mention one thing in its ruling this week: Facebook’s responsibility for making the tools to wield undue influence and power.

The decision about Donald Trump, was neither here nor there. In the end, the result of the exercise was to distract from Facebook’s own culpability in much broader damage to democracy.

Heffernan is (rightly) struck by this passage in the ‘oversight’ board’s statement:

“As president, Mr. Trump had a high level of influence. The reach of his posts was large, with 35 million followers on Facebook and 24 million on Instagram.” The board went on: “It is not always useful to draw a firm distinction between political leaders and other influential users, recognizing that other users with large audiences can also contribute to serious risks of harm.”

What’s so shocking? Just this:

To Facebook, the American president is clearly not a public servant or even a commander-in-chief. He’s an influencer. And he gets his power not from the people but from Facebook and its business model of influencers and followers.

But power established on Facebook is not “legitimate” in the same way that the power of a schoolteacher or elected official is, because they exercise that’s regarded as just and appropriate by those over whom it is exercised.

“Influence” on Facebook, however,

is based on nothing but a (cheatable) point system in Facebook’s highly stylized massively multiplayer role-playing game. But that does not get mentioned by anyone on this committee, which has been blinded, in the McLuhan sense, to the game’s contrivances. Influence on Facebook is closer to influence in World of Warcraft than it is to legitimate power. But instead of calling out Facebook for creating a system that confers unregulated and dangerous “influence” on people, they speak of the abuse of that system by a designated bad actor.

I’ve never understood why apparently serious people agreed to participate in the farce of this ‘oversight’ board. Are they just in it for the money? Is it is the aphrodisiac effect of the illusion of being close to power? Or are they content to be ‘useful idiots’, as Lenin would have called them?


Ransomware-as-a-service

When the news of the hacking of Colonial, the quaintly-named corporation that runs one of the US’s most important energy pipelines, was announced, I assumed it was Russian retaliation for the unspecified cyber-attacks unleashed by Biden as punishment for the Solarwinds and other exploits.

Turns out I was wrong. Or, at any rate, according to the NYT, the FBI has confirmed an outfit called DarkSide as the attacker. That name, I have to say, raises my suspicion-level by several notches. (As in “I fear they’ve gone over to the Dark Side, Watson”.) And then there’s their pathetic bleat that they are only interested in making money “and not creating problems for society”. Just like Facebook, in other words — except that Facebook doesn’t give a monkey’s about societal problems so long as the money rolls in.

The most interesting aspect of the whole story is its confirmation that ransomware has now becoming a rentable service that any tech-illiterate gangster can hire — just as you can now rent a botnet to do DOS attacks on your enemies.


Simon Beard on Derek Parfit

A lovely bio by one philosopher of another. I particularly liked this bit:

“Like my cat, I often simply do what I want to do.” This was the opening sentence of Derek Parfit’s philosophical masterpiece, Reasons and Persons. He believed that it was the best way to begin his book because it showed something important about people. Often we are not as special as we think we are. For instance, when people simply do what they want to do they appear to be utilizing no ability that only people have. On the other hand, when we respond to reasons, we are doing something uniquely human, because only people can act in this way. Cats are notorious for doing what they want to do, and the sense of proximity between a cat and its owner pleasingly heightens our sense of their similarity. Hence, there could be no better way for this book to begin.

However, there was a problem. Derek did not, in fact, own a cat. Nor did he wish to become a cat owner, as he would rather spend his time taking photographs and doing philosophy. On the other hand, the sentence would clearly be better if it was true. To resolve this problem Derek drew up a legal agreement with his sister, who did own a cat, to the effect that he would take legal possession of the cat while she would continue living with it.

Reasons and Persons was far from being Derek’s final word on the philosophical problems that had consumed him for the previous 17 years. Indeed, it has been said that Derek only agreed to publish it under pressure from All Souls College who were threatening not to renew his fellowship, and he insisted the publisher accept it in 154 individual instalments so that he could submit each one at the last possible moment, mere days before the book went to press. Yet, the book has become one of the most influential, and heavily cited, works of philosophy published since the Second World War. It consists of four sections, each of which considers a different set of arguments for why people matter less than we might suppose, and why our reasons for action might be otherwise than they seem.

He was an extraordinary man. Larissa MacFarquhar wrote a lovely profile of him in the New Yorker in 2011.


Another, hopefully interesting, link

  • Before we canonise Liz Cheney for attacking the way Republicans have been indulging Trump, maybe read this. Fortunately, Maureen Dowd has a good memory. Link

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Monday 10 May, 2021

Quote of the Day

”Henry James had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.”

  • T.S. Eliot

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Peter Maxwell Davies | Farewell to Stromness | LAGQ

Link

Nice arrangement for guitar. Interesting to compare it with the traditional piano arrangement


Long Read of the Day

The unstoppable Mr Higgins

My review of We are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People, by Eliot Higgins.

On the face of it, this book tells an implausible story. It’s about how an ordinary guy – a bored administrator in Leicester, to be precise – becomes a skilled Internet sleuth solving puzzles and crimes which appear to defeat some of the world’s intelligence agencies. And yet it’s true. Eliot Higgins was indeed a bored administrator, out of a job and looking after his young daughter in 2011 while his wife went out to work. He was an avid watcher of YouTube videos, especially of those emanating from the Syrian civil war, and one day had an epiphany: “If you searched online you could find facts that neither the press nor the experts knew.”

Higgins realised that one reason why mainstream media were ignoring the torrent of material from the war zone that was being uploaded to YouTube and other social media channels was that these outlets were unable to verify or corroborate it…

(Forthcoming in British Journalism Review, June, 2021)


The meltdown at Basecamp shows even small tech firms are sociopathic

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Basecamp is a plucky little (57-person) tech company that makes useful and imaginative project-management software and innovative email software. Or, rather, it was until a fortnight ago, when it suddenly became embroiled in a traumatic internal row between its employees and its two cofounders, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, a row that has transformed Basecamp into a much smaller company bearing the scars of collateral damage from a firefight in the culture wars.

Although Basecamp is a minnow in the world of tech giants, what happened there reflects what is already commonplace in its bigger counterparts. This is because, at base, the company’s internal dissension highlighted that the conflict was actually between the sociopathic imperatives of a corporation and the feelings of skilled employees concerned about the racism and sexism that is endemic in both US society and in an industry that for decades pretended that it was above such sordid concerns.

The first indication to the outside world that something was awry came on Monday 26 April when Fried, the company’s CEO, published a blogpost entitled “Changes at Basecamp”…

Read on


Last Thursday’s election results

Mostly predictable, I’d say. The Tories got some kind of ‘vaccination boost’. The voters aren’t much interested — yet — in the corruption, sleaze and incompetence of the government. And anyone who owns assets — which mostly means houses — has done just fine out of the pandemic. (Coincidentally, Hartlepool — where Labour lost a seat they’d held for generations — has a lot of owner-occupiers.) And then there was the fact that a Tory government — a Tory government! — has been paying furlough wages and spending public money like drunken Marxists.

So one wonders what are the implications for Labour? The results reminded me of what happened to the Democrats in the US after the Obama ‘Hope’-boost ran out of steam. Keir Starmer’s frank admission — that “Labour has lost the confidence of working people” — made me think of Listen Liberal, Thomas Frank’s sobering book about how the Democrats lost their way in the US. Here we are, he wrote (in 2016),

“eight years post-Hope. Growth that doesn’t grow; prosperity that doesn’t prosper. The country, we now understand, is simply no longer arranged in such a way as to make its citizens economically secure.”

I think that’s broadly the case for large swathes of the UK. If so, it’s difficult just now to see what kind of party Labour needs to become if it’s to find new audiences and revived electoral support.

Last week the FT ran a feature about the so-called ‘Red Wall’ of Labour seats that fell to Johnson in the last general election . The headline was: “Labour’s lost heartlands. Can it win them back?”

“No it can’t”, wrote an online commenter.

“Lovely people, but conservative (with a small c), despite traditionally voting Labour. I simply can’t see how Labour can be a modern, progressive party of the sort you find in most Northern European countries and serve the red wall at the same time.”

Me neither.

Later: Good piece in the Observer by Professor Robert Ford which reminded me that I had forgotten about the ‘Brexit effect’.

“Under Starmer”, Ford writes,

the party has sought to move on from Brexit. This, it seems, is not yet something English voters are willing to do. In seat after seat in Leave-voting parts of England, the Conservatives surged and Labour slumped. Leave voters, it seems, remain keen to reward the prime minister who “got Brexit done”.

Ford thinks that the results indicate significant changes under way in British politics. First of all,

traditional class-politics patterns are being turned upside down by a realignment around divides by age, education and – most of all – Brexit choices. On every available measure of socioeconomic conditions, the Conservatives prospered most in the most deprived places and Labour did best in the most prosperous areas. This inversion of class politics has already been evident for several years but it has continued, and perhaps intensified, in the first post-Brexit local elections.

Secondly, the post-Brexit education divide has intensified.

There were major swings to the Conservatives in the wards with the highest shares of voters with few or no formal qualifications, while there were modest swings to Labour in the wards with the largest concentrations of university graduates. There was less evidence of the generational divide seen in the last two general elections and Labour’s traditional advantage in more ethnically diverse areas was more muted than usual.

And here’s the sting in the tail that rang that bell for me about the US Democrats:

In 2021, as in 2019, Labour’s core electorate was graduates, well-off professionals and Remainers.

In other words, the people whose counterparts in the US voted for Hilary Clinton.


Seeing the Real Faces of Silicon Valley

Nice photo essay in The New York Times making the point that levels of inequality in the epicentre of the tech industry are mind-blowing.


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Friday 7 May, 2021

New arrivals

There’s a new family in the village. There are eight goslings, but two are hidden behind their mother in the picture. Amazing to think that these little fluffballs will turn into formidable geese.


Dave’s Artshow

Dave Winer (Whom God Preserve) has just done another magical thing — Artshow.

It’s a growing collection of great art, collected from art lovers’ feeds on Twitter. Dave wrote an app that scans the tweet streams, collects the images and displays them as a slide-show. The collection can also be downloaded for use in a screen saver. And of course the app is provided as open source.

Try it: it’s wonderful.


Quote of the Day

”Should Heaven send me any son
I hope he’s not like Tennyson.
I’d rather have him play a fiddle
Than rise and bow and speak an idyll.”

  • Dorothy Parker

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jimmy Yancey | Mournful Blues

Link


Long Read of the Day

 Two Centuries of ‘The Guardian’ by Alan Rusbridger

This is a nice essay by the paper’s second-greatest Editor (C.P. Scott takes first place) in The New York Review of Books to mark the bicentenary of the paper. Its survival — and its current financial health — is nothing short of a miracle, given what has happened to most of journalism, and Rusbridger’s piece takes the reader through the good times and the bad.

I’m biased, of course, partly because I’ve written for the Observer (which the Guardian rescued in 1993 after its bruising experience with a corrupt proprietor, Tiny Rowlands) since 1982 (and as a columnist since 1987). But mostly because it was the paper which, for me, opened my eyes to what a newspaper should be like. I was the first member of my family to go to university, and as an undergraduate in 1964 my walk to college took me passed a rather seedy but (for Ireland) rather adventurous newsagent. And it was from there that I took to buying the Guardian every weekday and reading it from cover to cover.

Rusbridger often rubs people up the wrong way as great leaders often do. But I will never forget his steely courage during the Snowden revelations when he was confronted by the full might of the vindictive British state and didn’t flinch. Nobody who saw his performance before a seething Parliamentary Committee that year will ever forget his uncompromising fortitude. It was grace under real pressure, and then some.


The Daily Mail is 125

It seems to be the week for newspaper anniversaries. Unherd has a nice piece by Ed West about it:

The paper is 125 years old today, and for most of that time has represented the soul of a particular kind of England, read in the golf courses of Surrey, the semis of suburban Essex, the pub gardens of Dorset. It is the most popular paper in Britain — it overtook the Sun last year — and easily the most hated. It’s guaranteed to get a laugh, or a sneer, when a comedian mentions its name.

The Daily Mail is not exactly the conscience of Middle England, but it is certainly a guiding spirit, a collection of all its fears and hopes, although more of the former than the latter. It represents people overwhelmingly conservative in their cultural tastes while also having a prurient interest in other people’s sex lives and bodies, and in particular their failures.

The way it covers sex scandals is quintessentially English, with just enough information to both titillate and disgust, a dose of moralising and concluding the story with a description of the property in which the disgusting actions took place and an estimated market value. (“MP’s sordid sex sessions with rent boy in £600,000 maisonette”.)

I’ve never knowingly read the Daily Mail, and indeed I don’t know anyone who does (that’s my liberal bubble for you!) But it’s remarkable is how afraid British politicians are of the paper. Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff, once observed — when talking about how the Blair government ‘managed’ the news agenda — that “the best way to bury bad news was to get it onto the front page of the Guardian.” After the laughter had died away, he explained, “Because if it was the lead in the Guardian the Daily Mail wouldn’t touch it”!


How Internal Combustion Engines work

Wonderful explanation by Bartosz Ciechanowski.

I can imagine my great-great-grandchildren saying: “Mom, is it really true that in the BTE our ancestors propelled themselves around using a series of controlled explosions?”

Footnote: BTE = Before Tesla Era.


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Thursday 6 May, 2021

It’s over there!


Quote of the Day

”A newspaper editor is someone who knows precisely what he wants but isn’t quite sure.”

  • Walter Davenport

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Schubert | Auf dem Wasser zu singen | Camille Thomas and Beatrice Berrut

Link


Long Read of the Day

Paid in Full

The emerging dream of an internet where every interaction is a financial transaction

An insightful essay by Drew Austin on the end of Web 2.0 and the beginnings of Web 3.0 as represented by the Substack boom. Reminds me of Tim O’Reilly’s famous essay on Web 2.0.


Facebook’s ‘Oversight’ Board makes a decision on Trump

Much to my surprise, the Board decided that the ban should be retained — at least for the time being.

Shira Ovide has some shrewd observations about what transpired.

Facebook’s Oversight Board, a quasi-independent body that the company created to review some of its high-profile decisions, essentially agreed on Wednesday that Facebook was right to suspend Trump. His posts broke Facebook’s guidelines and presented a clear and present danger of potential violence, the board said.

But the board also said that Facebook was wrong to make Trump’s suspension indefinite. When people break Facebook’s rules, the company has policies to delete the violating material, suspend the account holder for a defined period of time or permanently disable an account. The board said Facebook should re-examine the penalty against Trump and within six months choose a time-limited ban or a permanent one rather than let the squishy suspension remain.

Facebook has to make the hard calls:

A big “wow” line from the Oversight Board was its criticism of Facebook for passing the buck on what to do about Trump. “In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities,” the board wrote.

But also…

The meat of the board’s statement is a brutal assessment of Facebook’s errors in considering the substance of people’s messages, and not the context. Facebook currently treats your neighbor with five followers the same as Trump and others with huge followings.

(Actually, at least when he was president, Trump had even more leeway in his posts than your neighbor. Facebook and Twitter have said that the public should generally be able to see and hear for themselves what their leaders say, even if they’re spreading misinformation.)

The Oversight Board agreed that the same rules should continue to apply to everyone on Facebook — but with some big caveats.

“Context matters when assessing issues of causality and the probability and imminence of harm,” the board wrote. “What is important is the degree of influence that a user has over other users.”


Trump now has a blog, even though he doesn’t know what a blog is

(He thinks it’s a ‘platform’, which suggests that he doesn’t know what a platform is, either. But its appearance at this juncture suggests that he anticipated continuation of the ban.)

It’s here, in case you’re interested.


The Instagram ads you’ll never see

Really ingenious experiment by Signal. They tried to run Instagram ads like the ones shown above.

We created a multi-variant targeted ad designed to show you the personal data that Facebook collects about you and sells access to. The ad would simply display some of the information collected about the viewer which the advertising platform uses. Facebook was not into that idea.

So…

Facebook is more than willing to sell visibility into people’s lives, unless it’s to tell people about how their data is being used. Being transparent about how ads use people’s data is apparently enough to get banned; in Facebook’s world, the only acceptable usage is to hide what you’re doing from your audience.


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