Friday 9 July, 2021

Quote of the Day

”A woman reading Playboy feels a little like a Jew reading a Nazi manual.”

  • Gloria Steinem

(Note for younger readers: Playboy was a magazine, now defunct, founded by Hugh Hefner in 1953 with the aim of making soft porn respectable. It was a great commercial success for a while, but its last issue was Spring 2020. NYmag had a good, and judicious essay marking its demise.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel | Where’er you walk | Kenneth McKellar | Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Adrian Boult


This what I would sing in the bath. If I could sing.

Long Read of the Day

Will China invade Taiwan?

A panel of so-called ‘superforecasters’ considers the likelihood of an imminent global conflict.

Interesting piece by Tom Chivers. As some readers know, I have deep forebodings about Taiwan’s future — and not just because I’ve been reading 2034: a novel of the next World War.

Just this week, a Chinese magazine published a video showing a simulation of a ballistic missile attack on Taiwan, disabling its defences ahead of an invasion. A week before, China sent 28 warplanes, including nuclear-capable bombers, into the air defence zone around Taiwan. At the same time, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping gave a speech promising to “utterly defeat any attempt toward ‘Taiwan independence’.”

The US is an ally of Taiwan’s; it would be expected to defend it, should China attempt to invade. But just as in Korea, two-thirds of a century ago, the question is: would it? And will China invade?

So the question was put to six people who have a track record of being good forecasters.

Read on.

Biden is drafting an Executive Order to promote a ‘Right to Repair’

This is really interesting.

On Tuesday, the White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki revealed President Biden is preparing an executive order on “competition.” At the same time, the Biden administration has directed the US Department of Agriculture to develop new rules that’ll grant farmers the “right to repair their own equipment how they like.”

According to Bloomberg, the upcoming executive order will also direct the Federal Trade Commission to craft new rules to stop manufacturers, including phone makers, from imposing onerous repair restrictions on their products.

The news represents a significant win for Right to Repair advocates. For years now, the movement has been calling on electronics vendors, including Apple, to make their products easier to fix, citing the benefits to consumers and to the environment. However, many consumers must instead go through official repair services from the tech companies, which can cost more.

I wrote about this four years ago, and our new research Centre is returning to the issue now by exploring user-repairable and upgradeable smartphones like the Fairphone.

There are at least two things going on here. One is the increasingly intrusive push by companies for continuing control over their digital products long after the customer has paid to ‘own’ them. (That’s the John Deere and Amazon Kindle philosophy.)

The other is the pernicious way incessant technological advance combines with the marketing strategy of planned obsolescence to push consumers into ceaseless updating. The smartphone market is the most notable example of this, but lots of other tech-related outfits do it too.

Tyler Cowen’s ideal university

This Bloomberg column of his is predictably provocative.

I would start with what I expect students to know. They should be able to write very well, have a basic understanding of economics and public policy, and a decent working knowledge of statistical reasoning. I would give a degree to students who demonstrated “B-grade” competence in all of these areas; what now goes for passing C-minus work wouldn’t cut it.

Most important, the people who write and grade the students’ tests would not be their instructors. So students would have to acquire a genuine general knowledge base, not just memorize what is supposed to be on the exam.

His ideal school would dispense with assistant deans, student affairs staff and sports teams. (I’m with him all the way here.) The focus would be on paying more money to the better teachers. Students would have the option of living on campus but not be required to do so.

Instructors would not have tenure, but would have to compete for students — by offering them classes and services that would help them graduate and improve the quality of their certification pages. Teachers would be compensated on the basis of how many students they could attract, in a manner suggested long ago by Adam Smith, who himself lived under such a system in 18th-century Scotland.

The very best instructors could earn $300,000 to $400,000 a year. They might attract students through their research, or with their active online presence, or even by helping students negotiate online courses from other institutions; the students themselves would judge the efficacy of those investments. Faculty would also be paid for mentoring students, as each student would choose a small circle of advisers to serve as guides to the system.

Don’t try recommending this in an Ivy League Faculty Club.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Christ in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction Where is Walter Benjamin when you need him? Link.
  • How I Saved Enough to Buy a House With My Parents’ Money By Eli Grober. Link

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Wednesday 7 July, 2021

Waiting for Hockney

March 15, 2012, outside the Royal Academy.

Quote of the Day

”No critic who is any good sets out deliberately to enlighten someone else; he writes to put his own ideas in order.”

  • Alfred Kazan

(Same goes for bloggers.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

“Schindler’s List” | Performed in Budapest before an audience of 8,000 people | Soloist Csongor Korossy


Thanks to Neil Sequiera for suggesting it.

Long Read of the Day

The New York Times’s ‘Nazi Correspondent’

An interesting piece in Tablet Magazine.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, The New York Times bureau chief in Berlin, Guido Enderis, was known to sit in the bar of the city’s famous Adlon Hotel spouting “a loudmouthed defense of Nazism,” eventually provoking another reporter to complain to the Times’ publisher: “Isn’t it about time that The New York Times did something about its Nazi correspondent?”

But the Times had no intention of doing anything about Enderis. In fact, it valued his close connections to the Nazi government, as it had throughout the 1930s…

On the other hand, even the American Ambassador to the UK, Joe Kennedy (father of JFK and a grade-A monster), was deeply impressed by the Nazis and opposed giving military or economic aid to his host country. During the Battle of Britain in November 1940 he publicly suggested that “Democracy is finished in England”. Robert Harris wrote a fine novel, Fatherland, based on the idea that Kennedy’s views prevailed and the Nazis occupied Britain.

The 3 Simple Rules that underscore the danger of the Delta variant. 

Another sobering read from Ed Yong. His three ‘rules’ are:

  1. The vaccines are still beating the variants.
  2. The variants are hitting unvaccinated people hard. And most of the world’s population is unvaccinated.
  3. The longer Rule 2 continues, the less likely Rule 1 will hold. Unvaccinated people — and especially those who have been asymptomatically infected — are basically variant factories. So one day we’ll get to, say, the Omricon (15th) variant and all vaccines will need to be reconfigured.

We’re in this for the long haul. Which is why it’s in all our interests to vaccinate everyone, because if a more infectious variant exists anywhere it will eventually be everywhere. As we’re discovering with Delta.

What really matters

Dave Birch has a nice story on his blog about the retirement party for a senior banker in the old days.

The guy in question had risen to a fairly senior position, so he got a fancy retirement party as I believe is the custom in such institutions. When he stepped up on stage to accept his retirement gift, the chairman of the bank conducted a short interview with him to review his lifetime of service.

He asked the retiree “you’ve been here for such a long time and you’ve seen so many changes, so much new technology in your time here, tell us which new technology made the biggest difference to your job?”

The guy thought for a few seconds and then said “air conditioning”.

It’s a funny story, says Dave,

but it’s an important story because it includes a profound truth. Robert Gordon’s magisterial investigation of productivity in the US economy “The Rise and Fall of American Growth”, shows very clearly that the introduction of air conditioning did indeed lead to a measurable jump in productivity, clearly visible in the productivity statistics.

Same was true — still is — about what has come to be known as EdTech — i.e. educational technology. One of my Open University colleagues, Tim (now Sir Tim) O’Shea, was an acknowledged expert on it, but he was always judiciously sceptical of the tech ‘solutionism’ implicit in the industry. Famously, he once infuriated a prestigious conference by declaring that “the only piece of educational technology known for sure to work is the school bus!” He later went on to become Master of Birkbeck College in London and then Principal of the University of Edinburgh so his scepticism did him no harm.

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Tuesday 6 July, 2021

Seen on our cycle yesterday evening.

Quote of the Day

”I have long felt that any book reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has just put on full armour and attacked a hot fudge sundae or banana split.”

  • Kurt Vonnegut

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Wagner | Prelude to «Lohengrin» | Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic


Mark Twain famously observed that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds”. He was wrong about this piece.

Long Read of the Day

When the Truth, and My Groom-to-Be, Stood Naked Before Me

TL;DR – Our partners can make us aware sometimes of important realities — ones we may be afraid to face — in the most loving of ways.

Lovely essay by Lauren DePino

My groom-to-be stood naked on the balcony of our fourth-floor Los Angeles apartment and threw his self-portrait over the railing, his firm toffee form glinting in the sun.

We peered at the oil painting below, a textured image of him in his 20s. The gold-leaf frame boomeranged light right up to us.

“How could you do that?” I yelled, incredulous for a moment that I chose to marry this man. “That’s my favorite painting of yours.” I darted out the door — making sure to slam it — and ran to the street. Miraculously, a car hadn’t bulldozed the art.

People were watching from their balconies…

Donald Rumsfeld, contd.

I’m temperamentally suspicious of the tradition of not speaking ill of the dead, and most of the establishment obituaries of Rumsfeld seemed to run true to that form. The notable exception was George Packer’s assessment that Rumsfeld had been the worst Secretary of Defense in American History.

But that’s really rather tame compared with the actuality. Which is why I took to “Donald Rumsfeld, Rot in Hell”, a sprightly assessment by Ben Burgis in Jacobin Magazine. Sample:

In an infamous column … at the National Review, Jonah Goldberg made the bluntest version of the case for invading Iraq, approvingly quoting an old speech by his friend Michael Ledeen: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” Warming to the same theme around the same time at the New York Times, Thomas Friedman said that “these countries” and their “terrorist” pals were being sent an important message by the very unpredictability of the Bush Administration’s warmongering: We know what you’re cooking in your bathtubs. “We don’t know exactly what we’re going to do about it, but if you think we are going to just sit back and take another dose from you, you’re wrong. Meet Don Rumsfeld – he’s even crazier than you are.”

Here’s what the craziness of Donald Rumsfeld looked like in practice for the citizens of the “crappy little countries” the United States picked and threw against the wall during Rumsfeld’s years as Bush’s Secretary of Defense: a peer-reviewed study published in The Lancet, one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals, in 2006 — the year Rumsfeld left office — estimated 654,965 “excess deaths” in Iraq since the invasion in 2003. That’s 2.5 percent of the total population of the country dead as a result of the violence.

This doesn’t, of course, take into account the spiraling waves of chaos and bloodshed that have continued to rock the region throughout the eighteen years since the region was destabilized by the 2003 invasion. A similar story has played out on a smaller scale in Afghanistan — where US troops are still present and wedding parties are still being bombed almost two decades after Rumsfeld and his friends got their invasion.

And this counting of corpses leaves out the heartbreak of families in these countries that lost loved ones. It leaves out the millions of refugees displaced from their homes. It leaves out the suffering of people who had limbs blown off or had to care for people who did.

And it leaves out one of the most gut-wrenching aspects of Rumsfeld’s time in office: his and President Bush’s open embrace of what they called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or what any human being with a shred of conscience would simply call “torture.”

That’s more like it. Thanks to Andrew Curry for alerting me to it.

Thinking up ideas is easy; getting stuff done is hard

I was struck by this passage in “The Long Shadow of the Future” by Steven Weber and Nils Gilman in Noema magazine:

Put simply, ideas are cheap and easy to create and distribute — never more so than on social media platforms. But really knowing how to get things done effectively requires a set of capabilities that are difficult to create, expensive to maintain and improve, and not something you describe in 280 characters. Pandemics and other mass emergencies and mobilizations like wars demonstrate the difference in sharp relief. The ability to execute becomes visibly more important than the ability to ideate. What’s more, the best ideas are rarely discovered in isolation from practical implementation. Improvement depends on concrete feedback from what happens when ideas are put into practice in the world. What works and what doesn’t reveals itself to operators before (and often more clearly than) it reveals itself to idea generators.

A lot of what we’ve learned so far from the pandemic is about state capacity — and particularly the lack thereof — as democratic states hollowed out by four decades of neoliberal governance discovered how much they were no longer able to do.

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Monday 5 July, 2021


This photograph, which shows one of my school friends, Ivan Morris, at the top of his backswing last Wednesday at the 11th hole in Lahinch — for my money the loveliest golf links in the entire world.

The picture brought back all kinds of nice memories. Golf is the only game I was ever hooked on. I played it more or less every day from the age of ten until I went to Cambridge at the age of 22, when I stopped after discovering how time-consuming it would be to join the University golf club. By that stage, my wife and I had a baby son and the idea of being away for many weekends — not to mention for hours on end during weekday afternoons — was repugnant to our feminist souls, and so my clubs went into storage and have been used only on rare occasions ever since. But it’s still the only game that grabs my attention, and the only one that I will watch on TV.

Just for the record… Wednesday was, by all accounts, a balmy day on the Clare coast; the 11th is a 165-yard Par 3, and Ivan’s 5 iron into a right—to-left crosswind smacked down in the heart of the green. Golfers among you will know that it doesn’t get much better than that.

Quote of the Day

“I am reading Henry James and feel myself entombed in a block of smooth amber.”

  • Virginia Woolf

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Venice | The Family Tree


A group that’s new to me.

Thanks to Andrew Ingram who had just been to the funeral of Russ Shipton, author of The Complete Guitar.

Long Read of the Day

Paul Krugman on the relevance of Alexander Hamilton to our Covid experience:

Hamilton called for, among other things, temporary tariffs to protect U.S. industry and give it time to become competitive. Economists then proceeded to spend the next 220 years arguing about whether and when infant industry protection is actually a good policy. But the idea that sometimes temporary protection for an industry makes it competitive in the long run clearly has a lot to it.

What does this have to do with Covid-19? The pandemic produced some extreme forms of de facto infant industry protection, forcing millions of Americans to work differently from the way they had before. And many, though not all, of these changes are likely to stick: Even with the vaccines, many individuals and businesses won’t go back to the way things were before.

Nice column.

Enjoy the restored Night Watch, but don’t ignore the machine behind the Rembrandt

Yesterday’s Observer column:

In the late 1970s I lived and worked briefly in the Netherlands. Often, on Sundays, I would travel to Amsterdam, go to the morning concert in the Spiegelzaal of the Concertgebouw, and afterwards walk over to the Rijksmuseum, Holland’s national gallery, and spend a couple of hours there. The museum is a wonderful storehouse of Dutch art and there was always much to explore. But on nearly every visit I found myself being drawn back to one of Rembrandt’s most famous pictures – The Night Watch – which I guess is to the Rijksmuseum what the Mona Lisa is to the Louvre.

Its official title is Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq. It came to be called The Night Watch because by the end of the 18th century it had darkened considerably through the accumulation of layers of dirt and varnish, leading to the belief that the painted scene had occurred after dusk.

It’s a huge painting (379 x 453cm) and it has an overwhelming presence. One is stunned by its sweep and scale. What I hadn’t known, all those years ago though, was that I was only contemplating a part of the original painting…

Read on  

The legacy of Covid-19

From The Economist

So far it looks as if the legacy of covid-19 will follow the pattern set by past pandemics. Nicholas Christakis of Yale University identifies three shifts: the collective threat prompts a growth in state power; the overturning of everyday life leads to a search for meaning; and the closeness of death which brings caution while the disease rages, spurs audacity when it has passed. Each will mark society in its own way.

Nice economical summary of what lies in store.

The State of the World

Pompous title for a really interesting podcast conversation between Nicholas Colin and Nils Gilman of the Berggruen Institute. Nearly an hour long but worth it just to hear Gilman’s long view.

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Friday 2 July, 2021

The Boardwalk

At Wicken Fen

Quote of the Day

”He not only overflowed with learning, but stood in the slop.”

  • Sydney Smith on Thomas Macaulay

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Billy Preston | My Sweet Lord (Live)


Long Read of the Day

 The Rotting Internet Is a Collective Hallucination

Too much has been lost already. The glue that holds humanity’s knowledge together is coming undone.

Long and profound essay by Jonathan Zittrain (Whom God Preserve) on the problem of “link rot” and its implications for our cultural record. When historians of 2821 (if our species survives that long) look back on our era for the kind of records that we have of our predecessors, they will find at best a very patchy bricolage, and at worst a black hole. The original designs for the Internet and — later — the Web were wonderfully hospitable to innovation and originality (providing “an architecture for permission less innovation”, as one scholar put it) but, says Zittrain, they also created

gaps of responsibility for maintaining valuable content that others rely on. Links work seamlessly until they don’t. And as tangible counterparts to online work fade, these gaps represent actual holes in humanity’s knowledge.

With two colleagues and the cooperation of the New York Times archive, Jonathan analysed about 2 million externally facing links in articles at since its inception in 1996. They found that 25% of deep links have rotted. (Deep links are links to specific content—think, as opposed to just And the older the article, the less likely it is that the links work. Go back to 1998 and 72% of the links are dead. Overall, more than half of all articles in Times that contain deep links have at least one rotted link.

This is why the essay is worth your time.

And btw, if you want be sure that your grandchildren will be able to see those photographs of yours that are currently hosted online by social media or other services, get them printed on photographic paper by Photobox or similar outfits and store them in secure boxes in the attic.

Judge Throws Out Two Antitrust Cases Against Facebook

There’s been much jubilation in the tech industry as a result of US District judge James Boasberg (an Obama nominee, incidentally) summarily dismissing antitrust lawsuits brought against the company by the Federal Trade Commission and more than 40 states.

The judge eviscerated one of the federal government’s core arguments, that Facebook holds a monopoly over social networking, saying prosecutors had failed to provide enough facts to back up that claim. And he said the states had waited too long to bring their case, which centers on deals made in 2012 and 2014.

The judge said the F.T.C. could try again within 30 days with more detail, but he suggested that the agency faced steep challenges.

As it happens, I agree with the judge but draw different conclusions about the significance of the case. I really liked his succinct critique of it.

Although the Court does not agree with all of Facebook’s contentions here, it ultimately concurs that the agency’s Complaint is legally insufficient and must therefore be dismissed. The FTC has failed to plead enough facts to plausibly establish a necessary element of all of its Section 2 claims — namely, that Facebook has monopoly power in the market for Personal Social Networking (PSN) Services. The Complaint contains nothing on that score save the naked allegation that the company has had and still has a “dominant share of that market (in excess of 60%).” Such an unsupported assertion might (barely) suffice in a Section 2 case involving a more traditional goods market, in which the Court could reasonably infer that market share was measured by revenue, units sold, or some other typical metric. But this case involves no ordinary or intuitive market. Rather, PSN services are free to use, and the exact metes and bounds of what even constitutes a PSN service — i.e., which features of a company’s mobile app or website are included in that definition and which are excluded — are hardly crystal clear. In this unusual context, the FTC’s inability to offer any indication of the metric(s) or method(s) it used to calculate Facebook’s market share renders its vague “60%-plus” assertion too speculative and conclusory to go forward. Because this defect could conceivably be overcome by re-pleading, however, the Court will dismiss only the Complaint, not the case, and will do so without prejudice to allow Plaintiff to file an amended Complaint.

What the failure of the FTC and the States’ complaint shows is that old conceptions of ‘monopoly’ don’t map accurately onto the monopolistic-like power of some tech giants — Facebook in this instance. So pursuing old-style antitrust actions on the basis of ‘monopoly’ is likely to come unstuck, especially with a judiciary that’s been conditioned by decades of Borkism. What’s needed, therefore, is lots of legislative creativity to develop conceptions of corporate power that are appropriate to the power that these corporations actually wield.

In the case of Facebook, for example, a more promising line of inquiry might be that suggested by my colleague Jennifer Cobbe — and also by Josh Simon and Dipayan Ghosh. This line of argument locates the real monopolistic power of social media companies in the algorithms that determine users’ newsfeeds, i.e. what kinds of information users are presented with. One can think of these algorithms as constituting the critical infrastructure of the public sphere. Or to put it another way: once upon a time, John D. Rockefeller & Co exerted (and abused) their monopoly control over the railroads that other oil-drillers needed to use to get their oil to market. Mark Zuckerberg plays an analogous role today — as the controller of the virtual railroad that conveys ideas and information to individual citizens. The implication is that regulation as infrastructure might be a more appropriate way of asserting democratic control.

George Packer on Donald Rumsfeld

In The Atlantic:

Rumsfeld was the worst secretary of defense in American history. Being newly dead shouldn’t spare him this distinction. He was worse than the closest contender, Robert McNamara, and that is not a competition to judge lightly. McNamara’s folly was that of a whole generation of Cold Warriors who believed that Indochina was a vital front in the struggle against communism. His growing realization that the Vietnam War was an unwinnable waste made him more insightful than some of his peers; his decision to keep this realization from the American public made him an unforgivable coward. But Rumsfeld was the chief advocate of every disaster in the years after September 11. Wherever the United States government contemplated a wrong turn, Rumsfeld was there first with his hard smile—squinting, mocking the cautious, shoving his country deeper into a hole. His fatal judgment was equaled only by his absolute self-assurance. He lacked the courage to doubt himself. He lacked the wisdom to change his mind.

Yep. That’s about it.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Boris Johnson and Brideshead Revisited. Interesting piece by John Quiggan on Boris getting married in a Catholic Church. Link

  • DuckDuckGo continues to grow. It’s now the #2 search engine on mobile in the U.S., Canada, Australia, the Netherlands & other places. Link

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


Thursday 1 July, 2021

The Bee’s-eye view

A Foxglove in our garden, this morning.

Quote of the Day

”Suburbia is where the developer bulldozes out the trees, then names the streets after them.”

  • Bill Vaughan

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Travelling Wilburys | Handle With Care | Concert For George Live | 2002


Long Read of the Day

The Devil’s Dictionary of AI talk

Wonderful compendium by Karen Hao. Think of it as Ambrose Bierce’s take on so-called ‘AI’.

Here’s a sample:

adversary (n) – A lone engineer capable of disrupting your powerful revenue-generating AI system. See robustness, security.

artificial general intelligence (phrase) – A hypothetical AI god that’s probably far off in the future but also maybe imminent. Can be really good or really bad whichever is more rhetorically useful. Obviously you’re building the good one. Which is expensive. Therefore, you need more money. See long-term risks.

audit (n) – A review that you pay someone else to do of your company or AI system so that you appear more transparent without needing to change anything. See impact assessment.

compliance (n) – The act of following the law. Anything that isn’t illegal goes.

democratize (v) – To scale a technology at all costs. A justification for concentrating resources. See scale.

diversity, equity, and inclusion – The act of hiring engineers and researchers from marginalized groups so you can parade them around to the public. If they challenge the status quo, fire them.

ethics board – A group of advisors without real power, convened to create the appearance that your company is actively listening. Examples: Google’s AI ethics board (canceled), Facebook’s Oversight Board (still standing).

for good – As in “AI for good” or “data for good.” An initiative completely tangential to your core business that helps you generate good publicity.

governance (n) – Bureaucracy.

impact assessment – A review that you do yourself of your company or AI system to show your willingness to consider its downsides without changing anything. See audit.

integrity (n) – Issues that undermine the technical performance of your model or your company’s ability to scale. Not to be confused with issues that are bad for society. Not to be confused with honesty.

interdisciplinary (adj) – Term used of any team or project involving people who do not code: user researchers, product managers, moral philosophers. Especially moral philosophers.

partners (n) – Other elite groups who share your worldview and can work with you to maintain the status quo. See stakeholders.

regulation (n) – What you call for to shift the responsibility for mitigating harmful AI onto policymakers. Not to be confused with policies that would hinder your growth.

stakeholders (n) – Shareholders, regulators, users. The people in power you want to keep happy.

transparency (n) – Revealing your data and code. Bad for proprietary and sensitive information. Thus really hard; quite frankly, even impossible. Not to be confused with clear communication about how your system actually works.

value (n) – An intangible benefit rendered to your users that makes you a lot of money.

values (n) – You have them. Remind people.

Lovely! Do read the whole thing.

Where there’s a grille there’s a vent

Absolutely fascinating Guardian piece by Oliver Wainwright on Inventive Vents: A Gazetteer of London’s Ventilation Shafts, a new book that celebrates the disguised vents, shafts and funnels that help London’s underground breathe.

A gas lamp still flickers on the corner of Carting Lane in the City of Westminster, adding a touch of Dickensian charm to this sloping alleyway around the back of the Savoy Hotel. The street used to be nicknamed Farting Lane, not in reference to flatulent diners tumbling out of the five-star establishment, but because of what was powering the streetlamp: noxious gases emanating from the sewer system down below.

The Sewer Gas Destructor Lamp, to give the ingenious device its proper patented name, was invented by Birmingham engineer Joseph Webb in 1895, and it still serves the same purpose today. As a plaque explains, it burns off residual biogas from Joseph Bazalgette’s great Victorian sewer, which runs beneath the Victoria Embankment at the bottom of the lane.

Thanks to Charles Arthur for the link.

How to ask better questions

I’ve often thought that the one thing that marks out the brilliant people I’ve known is that they ask questions that open up areas of inquiry that others have ignored, or been unaware of. A reader of Tyler Cowen’s terrific blog asked him how does he manage to do this. Here’s his reply:

  1. Highly specific questions are better on average.
  2. It is often better to preface a question with a confession of some sort, or with information from yourself. That sets a standard for the respondent. Set that standard high!
  3. Demonstrate credibly that you are truly listening and that you care about the answer.
  4. With any possible question, ask yourself in advance: can the person being asked the question respond too easily in a vague and not very useful way? “Why did a write a book about Napoleon? Well, let me tell you, French history always fascinated me.” etc. If that is the kind of slop you might get back in response, try making the question more pointed or more specific.
  5. High status people get better answers than do low status people. So be high status. Or at least credibly pretend to be high status.
  6. I have enjoyed Gregory Stock’s The Book of Questions.
  7. You might say “listen to other interviewers.” Well, maybe, but perhaps not too much? They will encourage you, by default, to ask the same questions that everyone else does. And too many of the sources available to you are mega-famous people who are getting by using their fame to boost the significant of their questions. (Anything Oprah might ask me would be interesting per se.) So use this standard tip sparingly and with caution.
  8. Any questions about all this?

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Artist Makes Portraits That Age As You Move Around Them. Interesting technique, slightly scary. Link
  • Facebook is launching a clone of Substack. This is what Zuckerberg calls ‘innovation’ — basically lifting other people’s good ideas. Link
  • NASA Chief Says He Believes Aliens Are Real. Of course they are. Hasn’t he ever heard of Rudi Giuliani? Or Dominic Cummings? Link

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


Wednesday 30 June, 2021

Quote of the Day

”Everyone wants an artist on the wall or on the shelf, but nobody wants him in the house.”

  • James Baldwin

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sheryl Crow, Eric Clapton, Vince Gill, Albert Lee | Tulsa Time


Nobody sleeps at the back when this crew are in action.

Long Read of the Day

Where Did the Coronavirus Come From? What We Already Know Is Troubling.

Another unmissable piece  from Zeynep Tufecki.

Even if the coronavirus did jump from animal to human without the involvement of research activities, the groundwork for a potential disaster had been laid for years, and learning its lessons is essential to preventing others.

This is a really sobering read, which starts by chronicling the history of virological research conducted with sometimes lax attention to safety. I didn’t know, for example, that:

Nearly every SARS case since the original epidemic has been due to lab leaks — six incidents in three countries, including twice in a single month from a lab in Beijing. In one instance, the mother of a lab worker died.

Or that,

In 2007, foot-and-mouth disease, which can devastate livestock and caused a massive crisis in Britain in 2001, escaped from a drainage pipe leak at an English lab with the highest biosafety rating, BSL-4.

Or that,

the last known person who died of smallpox was someone infected because of a lab incident in Britain in 1978.

Read on.

We still don’t know — and maybe never will — how the Covid-19 virus escaped into the human population. But that’s no excuse for not tightening up security precautions — and maybe even banning some kinds of virological research.

He Thought He Could Outfox the Gig Economy. He Was Wrong

Startling story from Wired.

Jeffrey Fang, DoorDash delivery guy, knows you judge his parenting skills, and he’ll join in your condemnation in a moment. He’ll explain that bringing his kids along on his Saturday night shift “made sense, until it didn’t,” and that in hindsight, he understands that it really, really didn’t. But right now, on the night of February 6, he’s not thinking clearly, and you’ll have to excuse him as he sprints pell-mell down a promenade of swank homes after the thief who just stole his phone.

He sees the thief dive into the back seat of a silver sedan, and as the car accelerates Fang keeps running alongside and grabs the passenger door handle—less DoorDash Dad than some kind of bespectacled Jason Bourne. The phone, you see, is his “moneymaking tool”; it’s how he feeds his family. But each stride is taking him farther from his unlocked Honda Odyssey minivan, parked illegally, engine humming, in a driveway where he was making a delivery, with precious cargo in the back seat.

His kids…

Good story, well told. (And, in case you’re worried, it ends well.) But in the process, it paints a graphic picture of what working in the gig economy is like.

David Halberstam

I’d been thinking about The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam’s great book about America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam, and went looking for speeches by him. This YouTube video of a keynote address he gave at the JFK Presidential Library is terrific. Nearly an hour long, so make some coffee first.

Another, hopefully interesting, link

 Developing 120-Year-Old Photos found in a Time Capsule

Absolutely fascinating — at least if you’re a photographer. Link

H/T to Jason Kottke.

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Tuesday 29 June, 2021

The divinity of cats

Further to yesterday’s picture of a regal feline, this arrived, courtesy of Dave Winer (Whom God Preserve)!

Quote of the Day

“We know no spectacle more ridiculous than the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.”

  • Lord Macaulay

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Così fan tutte – Come Scoglio | Corinne Winters | The Royal Opera


Long Read of the Day

Jonathan Rauch: The Constitution of Knowledge


When Americans think about how we find truth amid a world full of discordant viewpoints, we usually turn to a metaphor, that of the marketplace of ideas. It is a good metaphor as far as it goes, yet woefully incomplete. It conjures up an image of ideas being traded by individuals in a kind of flea market, or of disembodied ideas clashing and competing in some ethereal realm of their own. But ideas in the marketplace do not talk directly to each other, and for the most part neither do individuals.

Rather, our conversations are mediated through institutions like journals and newspapers and social-media platforms. They rely on a dense network of norms and rules, like truthfulness and fact-checking. They depend on the expertise of professionals, like peer reviewers and editors. The entire system rests on a foundation of values: a shared understanding that there are right and wrong ways to make knowledge. Those values and rules and institutions do for knowledge what the U.S. Constitution does for politics: They create a governing structure, forcing social contestation onto peaceful and productive pathways. And so I call them, collectively, the Constitution of Knowledge. If we want to defend that system from its many persistent attackers, we need to understand it—and its very special notion of reality.

An excerpt from his new book. Worth reading.

Operation Nightwatch

This is utterly captivating. When Rembrandt’s masterpiece, The Night Watch was moved from its original location, it was cut to fit its new location and the severed pieces were lost. The Dutch Rijksmuseum launched an extraordinary project to reconstruct and repaint the missing strips using machine-learning technology. A set of short videos explains how it was done.

For someone like me, who spends a good deal of time contemplating the downsides and abuses of the technology, this was a salutary reminder of how — in the right hands and for the right purposes — it can also be a positive augmentation of human capability.

Thanks to Gerard de Vries, who alerted me to it.

More fallout from l’affaire Hancock

Like Macaulay (see Quote of the Day) I dislike the gleeful sanctimoniousness of the British media whenever a public figure is caught in flagrante, as the former Secretary of State for Health was. But I was struck by this item from the (unmissable) daily Politico newsletter from Westminster:

Tory MPs were last night openly sharing the video of Sky News’ Trevor Phillips laying into Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis — which had more than a million views online in 12 hours. It’s worth quoting Phillips: “I wouldn’t normally do something like this but I want to put a private, personal question to you … The pictures that we saw were of an encounter on May 6. On May 11, my family buried my daughter who had died, not of COVID, but during the lockdown. Three hundred of our family and friends turned up online, but most of them were not allowed to be at the graveside, even though it was in the open air, because of the rule of 30, because of the instruction by Mr Hancock. Now the next time one of you tells me what to do in my private life, explain to me why I shouldn’t just tell you where to get off?”

Other hopefully interesting, links

  • Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP = officialese for UFOs) Published by the office of the US Director of National Intelligence. It’s only nine pages long and is billed as a ‘preliminary’ report. My reading of it is that the US government is genuinely puzzled about some of the reported ‘sightings’. Link Useful background might be the long New Yorker piece by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in the April 30, 2021 issue of the magazine.

  • People of Earth: Hello Lovely New Yorker message from aliens by Will Stephen. Sample:

We have been observing you for millennia, from a great distance. Your development, your cultures, your wars. Your ways fascinate us. Recently, you have seen our crafts in your airspace. Yes, we are real. And, yes, we are ready to initiate contact.

In earthly terms, we have progressed beyond the concepts of nations, division, and conflict. We are a peaceful civilization, built on coöperation, technological progress, and the power of thought.

We have gathered from our observations that currently the most powerful Thought Leader in your most powerful nation is a human known as Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson. Is that correct?

Because, frankly, this . . . confuses us. What is his deal, exactly?

He is decent at speaking on television, we understand that. But he is far from your most intelligent or most capable human. By, like, a long shot. He seems very upset, all the time, about things that basically don’t exist. And this is coming from aliens.

So why him? Your planet is suffering, its extinction is imminent. And yet this asshole is talking about Antifa. It’s, like, dude. Zoom out.

He does realize Antifa isn’t a thing, right? I mean, we have technology beyond the scope of human comprehension, and even we cannot find a shred of evidence that an organization called Antifa exists, let alone poses any actual threat to your “suburbs.” So some Nazis get punched every once in a while. No offense, but who gives a shit?

Your world is melting, its people are more divided than ever. We want to share our knowledge and alleviate your pain. But, honestly, that Tucker weirdo kinda makes us want to turn around and go home. I mean, good Lord, what a pill.

Puts it in context, eh? The big question is not whether there is intelligent life in space; it’s whether there’s any intelligent life in the Republican party.

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Monday 28 June, 2021

Master of the Universe

This handsome specimen is a cat we looked after for a couple of days last week when his so-called ‘owners’ (i.e. servants) were away. He is living proof that P.G. Wodehouse was right about cats.

Tweet of the Day

See Marina Hyde’s column — linked below.

Quote of the Day

”So boring you fall asleep halfway through her name.”

  • Alan Bennett on Arianna Stassinopoulos

She was an undergraduate at Cambridge in my time, and boy, was she a pain.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ruth Moody with Mark Knopfler | Pockets


Long Read of the day

The untold story of the big boat that broke the world

Intriguing Wired story of what happened to the ship that blocked the Suez Canal.

Outside, the Egyptian sun slowly simmers cargo headed for the UK and Germany, as well as trains destined for central and eastern Europe – wiring, lawnmowers and gazebos which will one day be bound for assembly lines, supermarket shelves and homes across the continent. Alongside surgical gowns, wheelchair parts and sun loungers, there’s also plenty of food: tea leaves, lemons and tofu all rot away in the heat. None of it can be offloaded.

This is the Ever Given, the same ship that launched a thousand memes when it got stuck across the Suez Canal on March 23 and held up nearly $60 billion of trade. It took a week of tugs, dredging and a crack team of salvage experts to free the 220,000-tonne megaship. As the Ever Given set sail once more, horns blared out in triumph. Yet its next unscheduled stopover lay just 30 kilometres away in Great Bitter Lake where it was towed for a seemingly routine inspection. It’s been anchored there ever since.

The vessel is stuck once more – this time by an almighty international legal row.

Great read.

Marina Hyde on Hancock’s Half Hour

As usual, she’s spot on:

Sorry, but the only thing I want to see Matt Hancock doing against the back of his office door is sliding down it with his head in his hands. But he can probably bank on not being sacked by Boris Johnson for having an affair. It would be like being sacked by Stalin for being slightly arsey to work with.

Even so, Hancock will be glad that the British Antarctic Territory has been added to the green list, just as he’s been added to the shit list. The South Pole suddenly looks well worth packing his bags for. Temperatures are currently minus 87 but feel like minus 108, making it considerably less frosty than any of Matt’s current climes.

That said, if Hancock does end up being resigned for this, it would fit with the general twilight mood in the UK’s national story. Nothing says “country that’s going to make a massive success of itself’” like a guy getting away with contributing to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths but having to quit for a knee-trembler. It’s like getting Al Capone for snogging.

What a columnist!

Memo to corporate leaders post-Covid: the disruption to businesses has only just begun

My column in yesterday’s Observer:

The problem with having had the fast-forward button suddenly propel us into an unexpected place, though, is that we find ourselves unmoored. We start wondering about what lies ahead as the immediate threat of the virus recedes. What will our post-pandemic future be like? In relation to work, three main possibilities are currently taking up all the airtime: continuing to work from home (WFH); a hybrid mode in which we spend some time in the office but also two or three days WFH; and a return to ye olde days commuting to the office to gather round the water cooler and pretend to be doing something useful.

In a remarkable essay published a few days ago, first as a long blog post entitled Creating the Future of Work and later as an engaging Tweetstorm, Stephen Sinofsky, a former senior Microsoft executive, argues that if these are the only options under consideration then we have gravely underestimated the industrial significance of the pandemic. Of course the nature of work will have been changed by what has happened. But what is more significant, he contends, is that the shock will also reshape the nature of the corporations in which most of us work. The problem is that most of the people who run large organisations and corporations haven’t twigged that yet…

Do read the whole thing.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Cat who family thought had been cremated turns back up at home Link
  • Michigan boat captain finds message in a bottle after almost a century Link

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Friday 25 June, 2021

Girl and grand piano

Quote of the Day

”My idea of a good picture is one that is in focus.”

  • Andy Warhol, 1979

And, boy, did it show.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Diana Krall | Fly Me to the Moon | Live in Paris


Long Read of the Day

 Whose Democracy Counts When Global Social Media Rules Are Set? 

What works for the United States may not work elsewhere, and a provision that seems benign in one national governance context can be anything but, in another.

Insightful essay by Heidi Tworek arguing that when we talk about the impact of social media on democracy, we spend most of the time talking about social media and very little about ‘democracy’ — as if it were a simple and uncontested concept.

Instead of talking about democracy as an abstract, ill-defined ideal, we can examine different definitions of democracy and consider the role of social media in each. By breaking down the components of democracy, we can piece together a more complete picture of how platform governance might address each issue. Perhaps even more crucially, we can follow a global thread to see how solutions that might seem to work in one democracy may prove harmful or extremely complicated in another.

She puts forward a neat idea — to think about democracy is as a Venn diagram of values. For different democracies, these values overlap in different ways.

Worth reading the whole thing.

Hypocrisy, Pulitzer prizes and the New York Times

Zaid Jilani asks whether the New York Times’s behaviour in forcing out a star reporter over claims of racism, only to reassure the Pulitzer Prize Board that he was innocent was hypocritical.

The answer, of course, is yes.

Don McNeil is the star reporter in question, and his treatment by the Times was, in my opinion, unforgivable. It provided a vivid confirmation of Naughton’s First Law of Organisations: All organisations are sociopathic. Which is why Facebook, say, could be entirely staffed by clones of Mahatma Gandhi and St Francis of Assisi and it would still be a toxic organisation — because it will do what it’s constituted to do, namely maximise shareholder value.

Jilani’s account of what happened to McNeil is worth reading, just to get chapter and verse of the case.

Is it time to ditch Chrome?

From Wired

Answer: yes. I did it long ago, and I get very cross when I come on websites which refuse to work properly if you access them with a less obnoxious browser.

Despite a poor reputation for privacy, Google’s Chrome browser continues to dominate. The web browser has around 65 per cent market share and two billion people are regularly using it. Its closest competitor, Apple’s Safari, lags far behind with under 20 per cent market share. That’s a lot of power, even before you consider Chrome’s data collection practices.

Is Google too big and powerful, and do you need to ditch Chrome for good? Privacy experts say yes. Chrome is tightly integrated with Google’s data gathering infrastructure, including services such as Google search and Gmail – and its market dominance gives it the power to help set new standards across the web. Chrome is one of Google’s most powerful data-gathering tools.

It’s dead simple to do: Other browsers — Brave, Firefox, Safari, to name just three — are just a click away. And they’re more protective of your privacy.

A Day at the Seaside in 1899

This is astonishing — a short movie filmed 132 years ago on the beaches of Étretat and Le Tréport in Normandy, possibly by George Mikes. It’s been enhanced using machine-learning technology and colorisation. The film begins with passengers arriving at Mers-Le Tréport train station. Interesting also to see the preposterous mobile beach huts for more adventurous women to change into swimming costumes. The huts were then rolled down to the water’s edge for a secluded dip in the water.

The ‘enhancements’ were:

  1. Cleaned noise artifacts
  2. Increased frame interpolation from 15 fps to 60 fps using Rife
  3. Increased resolution from 240p to 4000p.
  4. Colorised using Deoldify
  5. Created ambient soundtrack.


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