Wednesday 24 November, 2021

Quote of the Day

“There is no villainy to which education cannot reconcile us.”

  • Anthony Trollope.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Eels | Can’t Help Falling in Love | Albert Hall (Live)

Link

Nice take on a very old song.


Long Read of the Day

Merve Emre on annotating Virginia Woolf

Lovely long interview by Leah Price of Merve Emre, the Oxford academic who’s done an annotated edition of one of my favourite books — Mrs Dalloway. In a way, it’s the best kind of interview, i.e. a conversation between two equals who are interested in the same thing. Here’s for instance, is one of Leah’s interventions:

I especially love the parallel that seems to be implicit in what you’re saying, between your decision to transcribe the text with your own hands—your own fingers—rather than outsourcing that work. And in the first line of the novel, Mrs. Dalloway says she’ll buy the flowers herself: the novel opens with the mistress of the house deciding not to delegate to servants a kind of work that is both aesthetic and manual. So, one direction in which we might take that is your argument about the value of different kinds—or, rather, different combinations—of scholarly labor.

Do read the whole thing. And while you’re at it, re-read Mrs Dalloway and then watch The Hours with that wonderful soundtrack by Philip Glass.


Nobel laureates aren’t interested in coming to Johnson’s world-beating Britain.

Now, why could that be?

From New Scientist

Not a single scientist has applied to a UK government visa scheme for Nobel prize laureates and other award winners since its launch six months ago, _New Scientist _can reveal. The scheme has come under criticism from scientists and has been described as “a joke”.

In May, the government launched a fast-track visa route for award-winners in the fields of science, engineering, the humanities and medicine who want to work in the UK. This prestigious prize route makes it easier for some academics to apply for a Global Talent visa – it requires only one application, with no need to meet conditions such as a grant from the UK Research and Innovation funding body or a job offer at a UK organisation.

I particularly enjoyed this quote from Andre Geim of the University of Manchester:

“Chances that a single Nobel or Turing laureate would move to the UK to work are zero for the next decade or so. The scheme itself is a joke – it cannot be discussed seriously. The government thinks if you pump up UK science with a verbal diarrhea of optimism – it can somehow become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Footnote: Geim won a Nobel prize in 2010 for his work on graphene.

Link (via Charles Arthur)


COP26 and the neoliberal cop-out

Ideology is what determines how you think when you don’t know you’re thinking. For over half a century, the ideology that has infected the minds of democratic ruling elites everywhere is a kind of economic solutionism which sees the answer to almost every problem as more competition and the imposition of marketised logic (backed up by state aid when the ideas don’t work).

Watching the farce of COP26 I became increasingly irritated by the emphasis given to Mark Kearney and his $100 trillion wheeze to solve the problem.

Turns out, I was not the only one. Here’s the philosopher of technology, Fabio Tollon, writing on this latest outbreak of magical thinking:

So what, in concrete terms, was the suggested route out of the crisis proposed at COP26? Perfectly in line with the pervasive neoliberal logic rotting the brains of most policy makers, the private sector was touted as a band aid for the burning building that is our planet.

We still seem to (somehow) be stuck at the point of acknowledging (scientifically) that we are in the grips of a crisis but lacking the (political) coordination required to enact the radical action that the situation demands. The purported private sector “solution” would be one in which massive investment firms, such as BlackRock, direct trillions of dollars into low-income economies to accelerate their transitions away from fossil fuels. This will only happen, however, if the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund come in to “derisk” these “investments”. How the same neoliberal solution can be proffered at every crisis since the 1990s is beyond comprehension.

Nor the reference to “derisking”, which is code for getting taxpayers to pick up the downsides while corporations pocket the profits.

Reminds one of Einstein’s definition of insanity: repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome each time.


My Commonplace booklet

Helpful advice from Quartz for anyone joining the post-Zoom ‘Great Resignation’ movement:

How to write a resignation letter:

  1. Start by succinctly stating that you have accepted another position, and are resigning.
  2. In a sentence or two, express your gratitude for the opportunities and experience the organization has provided you.
  3. Close by stating the final date you’ll be on the job, and offer to help transition your duties and responsibilities to your replacement.

Just happened on a masterful piece by Robert Darnton about commonplace books in a 2000 issue of the New York Review of Books, sadly behind the paywall, but here is the link anyway.


Tuesday 23 November, 2021

Mellow fruitfulness

Our amazing crab-apple tree. Year after year it produces this abundance. You can make crab-apple jelly from the fruit, but it’s a finicky business, so we generally leave the fruit on the tree and when the weather gets really cold the birds pick it clean.


Reconsidering Tony Blair

Yesterday’s piece on Blair prompted a few interesting emails, for which many thanks. I was particularly struck by something Charles Arthur (Whom God Preserve) wrote:

Blair’s success did owe something, in retrospect, to John Major, who despite having mortars lobbed at him by the IRA while having a Cabinet meeting in Downing St did actually open up clandestine negotiations with them, which then made Blair’s job (well, Mo Mowlam’s job) at least a little easier.

None of which tempers my admiration for Blair – but until it was all pointed out to me (for it’s quite an improbably timeline to get from elected to GFA in one year) I didn’t think Major had achieved anything at all, apart from being a Spitting Image puppet.

Yep. I’ve always felt that Major was a much-underestimated figure. I met him once, when I was given the task (by my university) of introducing him to the World Wide Web. He struck me as one of the few normal people in politics — an impression that was confirmed when, on the day he was ejected from office, he went calmly to The Oval to watch cricket.

My friend and mentor, the late David Williams, once told me a nice story about Major, whom he met when he David was Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University and Major was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Major had done his homework. When the two were introduced at lunch, he said that he understood that the Cambridge Vice-Chancellor had a specially-reserved rack for his bicycle outside his office. He hoped, he said, that this had been logged in his tax return as a “benefit in kind”. David, who was a distinguished legal scholar as well as a QC, pointed out that it had no commercial value and was therefore exempt.


Quote of the Day

“I don’t mind what the opposition say of me, so long as they don’t tell the truth about me; but when they descend to telling the truth about me, I consider that that is taking an unfair advantage.”

  • Mark Twain

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

What Sweeter Music | John Rutter | Choir of King’s College Cambridge | 2008

Link

For Hap and CD, who will be in Cambridge today.


Long Read of the Day

As I watch the slow, and I fear inexorable, decay of the American republic, I’m struck by a memory of something I read way back in the Summer of 2016. At the time we were on holiday in Provence (which is where we used to be every summer in pre-pandemic times), and one day I read a remarkable piece of reportage by Dave Eggars which made me sit up and think: Jesus! Trump could make it to the presidency!.

The piece was a gripping account of a day Eggars had spent at a Trump rally in California on June 1st in which he “spoke to and overheard dozens of the rally’s attendees, not as a journalist but as one ticketholder to another”.

I was dressed in jeans, workboots and wore a Nascar hat – and found every last one of the attendees to be genial, polite and, with a few notable exceptions, their opinions to be within the realm of reasonable. The rally was as peaceful and patriotic as a Fourth of July picnic.

And yet I came away with a host of new questions and concerns. Among them: why is it that the song Trump’s campaign uses to mark his arrival and departure is Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer?” Is it more troubling, or less troubling, knowing that no one in the audience really cares what he says? And could it be that because Trump’s supporters are not all drawn from the lunatic fringe, but in fact represent a broad cross-section of regular people, and far more women than would seem possible or rational, that he could actually win?

The passage in the piece that really struck home was this one:

Yes, they were generally white, but there were also African-Americans and plenty of Latinos. A startling number of Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders and South Asian-Americans. There were the expected Harley-Davidson riders in black vests, but there were also a remarkable number of people with disabilities. There were families, professional types, veterans and one Filipino-American navy officer in full dress whites. It was not the homogeneous sea of angry white men that one might have expected. Instead, it appeared to be a skewed but not wholly unrepresentative cross-section of the people of northern California.

After reading that, I found myself distressed by the thought that, yes, Trump could indeed win and spent a couple of days trying to write an essay that would make sense of that thought. Then, remembering that I was supposed to be on holiday, I looked up Nate Silver’s tracking of the opinion-poll data in the New York Times, noted the derisory probability he attached to Trump’s chances of victory, and went for a swim in the pool.

But, as we know, Eggars — with his writer’s finely-tuned antenna — was on the money, and Silver wasn’t.

This is all by way of explaining why I’ve been struck by an analogous piece of reportage by David Brooks. Its title is “The Terrifying Future of the American Right”, and it’s the most illuminating thing I’ve read in ages about what’s happening on the right-wing of US politics.

The piece is an account of his thoughts on attending the National Conservatism Conference in Florida. When he arrived, he reported, he confessed to being

a little concerned I’d get heckled in the hallways, or be subjected to the verbal abuse I occasionally get from Trump supporters. Judging by their rhetoric, after all, these are the fire-breathers, the hard-liners, the intellectual sharp edge of the American right.

But everyone was charming! I hung around the bar watching football each night, saw old conservative friends, and met lots of new ones, and I enjoyed them all. This is the intellectual wing of the emerging right.

Brooks listened while his old friend Rod Dreher of The American Conservative argued that, because the left controls the commanding heights of the culture and the economy, the only institution the right has a shot at influencing is the state. In these circumstances the right has to use state power to promote its values. “We need to quit being satisfied with owning the libs, and save our country,” Dreher said. “We need to unapologetically embrace the use of state power.”

This is where Viktor Orbán comes in. It was Dreher who prompted Carlson’s controversial trip to Hungary last summer, and Hungarians were a strong presence at the National Conservatism Conference. Orbán, in Dreher’s view, understands the civilizational stakes of the culture war; he has, for instance, used the power of the state to limit how much transgenderism can be taught to children in schools. “Our team talks incessantly about how horrible wokeness is,” Dreher said at the conference. “Orbán actually does something about it.”

This, says Brooks, is national conservatism pursued to its logical conclusion: using state power to break up and humble the big corporations and to push back against coastal cultural values.

The culture war merges with the economic-class war—and a new right emerges in which an intellectual cadre, the national conservatives, rallies the proletarian masses against the cultural/corporate elites. All your grandparents’ political categories get scrambled along the way.

Perhaps you can see why I found this illuminating. But I might have got it wrong. See what you make of it.


My commonplace booklet

Nice piece by Tayo Bero pointing out that students at Harvard, a famous hedge fund with a nice university attached, apparently aren’t that smart after all. A whopping 43% of its white students weren’t admitted on merit. It’s basically “affirmative action for the rich and privileged”.

In reality, 43% of Harvard’s white students are either recruited athletes, legacy students, on the dean’s interest list (meaning their parents have donated to the school) or children of faculty and staff (students admitted based on these criteria are referred to as ‘ALDCs’, which stands for ‘athletes’, ‘legacies’, ‘dean’s interest list’ and ‘children’ of Harvard employees). The kicker? Roughly three-quarters of these applicants would have been rejected if it weren’t for having rich or Harvard-connected parents or being an athlete.


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Monday 22 November, 2021

Autumnal footpath

Seen on my cycle trip on Saturday morning.


Quote of the Day

”Writing is an integral part of the process of understanding.”

  • Hannah Arendt

E.M. Forster (whose 90th birthday party I attended when I was a student) once said that there are two kinds of writers: those who know what they think, and write it; and those who find out what they think by trying to write it. I belong to the latter category, but I have a few friends who belong to the first — and of course I secretly resent their talent!


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Vivaldi | Four seasons | Spring

Link

Played by like you’ve never heard it before by Alexandr Hrustevich in Vilnius in 2013.

I’ve always thought of the accordion as a clumsy, ponderous instrument. In the hands of Sharon Sharon and musicians like Hrustevich it’s definitely not that.

Thanks to Ross Anderson for spotting it.


Long Read of the Day

Is there still time to rein in the tech giants?

Long piece (3,000 words) by me in yesterday’s Observer:

When historians look back on this period, one of the things that they will find remarkable is that for a quarter of a century, the governments of western democracies slept peacefully while some of the most powerful (and profitable) corporations in history emerged and grew, without let or hindrance, at exponential speeds.

They will wonder at how a small number of these organisations, which came to be called “tech giants” (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft), acquired, and began to wield, extraordinary powers. They logged and tracked everything we did online – every email, tweet, blog, photograph and social media post we sent, every “like” we registered, every website we visited, every Google search we made, every product we ordered online, every place we visited, which groups we belonged to and who our closest friends were.

And that was just for starters. Two of these companies even invented a new variant of extractive capitalism. Whereas the standard form appropriated and plundered the Earth’s natural resources, this new “surveillance capitalism” appropriated human resources in the shape of comprehensive records of users’ behaviour, which were algorithmically translated into detailed profiles that could be sold to others. And while the activities of extractive capitalism came ultimately to threaten the planet, those of its surveillance counterpart have turned into a threat to our democracy…

Read on


Tony Blair reconsidered

I’ve been watching the re-run of the BBC documentary series on the history of New Labour (now on the BBC iPlayer, which means normally accessible only to people in the UK) and finding it gripping. It’s partly because it’s an opportunity to re-visit stories that I thought I knew — but now with the 20/20 vision of hindsight realise that I hadn’t known the half of it.

The second episode was particularly gripping. It open with the night of the 1997 election and New Labour’s landslide victory. And then it recounts how Blair and Brown set about governing.

Two things stood out. The first was how assured they were — especially given that none of them had ever served in government. The film shows Gordon Brown arriving at the Treasury, being greeted by the assembled staff and then meeting in his new office with the most senior officials, led by (Sir) Terry Burns.

The officials were clearly expecting a tea-and-biscuits getting-to-know-you sort of meeting. Instead, Brown says to Burns (the Permanent Secretary) that he has a draft letter with him, addressed to the Governor of the Bank of England, informing him that from now on the Bank would be responsible for setting interest Rates! Talk about hitting the ground running.

The other remarkable thing was that Blair came into office determined to sort out Northern Ireland. The senior officials were stunned by this level of ambition. How much did the Prime Minister know about NI asked the Cabinet Secretary. Blair replied primly that his mother was an Irish protestant. The Cabinet Office officials clearly thought that this idea of his was Mission Impossible. They didn’t twig at first that he was deadly serious, and the film did a brilliant job of conveying how determined he was to get a deal between the warring tribes.

And dammit, on Good Friday 1998 he got it. It was a stupendous achievement.

I found the episode both inspiring and depressing.

Inspiring because it showed what good democratic leadership can do in the UK when backed by a big Parliamentary majority.

Depressing because it highlighted the shambles to which the governance of contemporary Britain has been reduced. And what is particularly galling is having to watch the callous indifference of the Brexit crowd to safeguarding the Good Friday agreement. Entrusting such a delicate task to Johnson & Co is like giving a delicate clock to a monkey.

As a child, I lived in Donegal (in the Republic) and we occasionally visited Derry — just across the border — and once or twice went to Belfast, which I remember as a grimy, forbidding place. Then, a few years ago, I was unexpectedly invited to do a long interview on BBC Northern Ireland.

My wife and I flew to Belfast the night before, checked into a nice hotel in the City Centre and then went out in search of a restaurant for dinner. Sitting in a pleasant bistro, surrounded by people having a peaceful Friday night out in what now looked like a modern city, I fell to think that this was all Tony Blair’s doing. And if he had not dragged the country into the Iraq war, he would be remembered as one of the great prime ministers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

But that’s a pointless counter-factual. As Enoch Powell famously observed: all political careers end in failure.


The view from Westminster

Lovely cartoon by Dominic McKenzie in the Observer. It’s a good way of explaining why Johnson’s “Levelling Up” fantasies are doomed. We used to think that France was the most centralised state in the world. In fact, compared to the UK, France is now relatively decentralised.


Commonplace booklet

Headlines in the New York Times.


Friday 19 November, 2021

Portrait of the Director as a Young Photographer

Random discovery: if you do an image search for “Self-portrait with Leica” you get a lot of images. It’s not surprising, I suppose, given that Leica cameras were the working tools of many celebrated photographers.

This, for example, is one of Stanley Kubrick’s selfies. He was a talented photographer before he became a movie director.


Quote of the Day

.”I’d like to kick the habit of writing books, at least for a while. If there were a detox unit or an analog to the nicotine patch for serial offenders, I think I would sign up for treatment. My habit has already cost me more precious time than I care to admit. The problem with book writing and other addictions is that the resolve to quit is greatest during withdrawal, but as the painful symptoms recede, the craving is apt to return.”


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Brian Eno | An Ending (Ascent)

Link

According to MusicRadar, this was originally recorded for a documentary on the Apollo moon missions entitled For All Mankind. An Ending was taken from Eno’s 1983 studio album Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks and was written by Eno alongside production from his brother Roger and long time collaborator Daniel Lanois.


Long Read of the Day

The genius of John Von Neumann

I’m reading Ananyo Bhattacharya’s fine biography at the moment and have been collecting interesting reviews of it.

This is one of them.

At 17, still at high school, he partly rescued Cantor’s set theory, the basis of much mathematical theory, from a crippling paradox. A couple of years later, he helped reconcile Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger’s rival models of quantum mechanics. In the early Thirties, he met the astronomer Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, and worked with him on general relativity and the behaviour of stellar clusters. Chandrasekhar would later tell an interviewer, “If I say, ‘He reminds me of von Neumann,’ that’s about the best compliment I can give anyone.”

Von Neumamm read some Alan Turing research which imagined a hypothetical computing machine, and saw how to build a working computer. The paper he produced building on Turing’s ideas is considered “the birth certificate of modern computers”, according to the computer scientist Wolfgang Coy. With his wife Kläri, and Ulam, he pioneered Monte Carlo simulations, vital now in climate modelling and a million other fields.

Astonishing man. Even those whom we traditionally regard as geniuses thought he was smarter than they were.


Apple changes its mind about the right to repair

This is big news, at least to people who live in the Apple ecosystem.

Early next year, a previously impossible repair will be possible: you can buy an iPhone screen directly from Apple, use Apple’s repair guide (and tools, if you want) to install it, and have it fully work as intended, using Apple’s diagnostic software. And you won’t have to own an authorized repair shop to do it.

What makes this surprising is that Apple always maintained that letting consumers fix their own stuff would be dangerous, both for them and for the kit. Now, though, the company has discovered a new interest in letting people fix the things they own.

Starting in early 2022, Apple will sell parts and tools for the iPhone 12 and 13 including the display, battery, and camera to individuals in the US. Apple intends to expand the program to more complicated iPhone repairs and to M1 MacBooks later in the year. You’ll be able to buy parts and tools through the ‘Self Service Repair Online Store,’ where you’ll also have access to service manuals and some version of their repair-enabling software.

This is good for the environment, at least. But I wonder if it has anything to do with the renewed interest of regulators in Apple’s monopoly control of its ecosystem?

Which reminds me — I need to order the tools I need to revitalise my Classic iPod.


Let’s Not Consign Journalistic Transparency to the Memory Hole

Very interesting Politico column by Jack Shafer on how newspaper should correct previous stories when they find they were mistaken or flawed.

Newspaper proprietors, especially former Washington Post President and Publisher Philip L. Graham, have long subscribed to the idea that their newspaper articles constitute “the first rough draft of history.” Some first rough drafts are more accurate than others, as every journalist will concede. So when reporters uncover new information that undermines earlier copy, they write new stories, updating the record. What they don’t do is go back and erase the original, flawed version. But that’s what the Washington Post did last week.

As Post journalist Paul Farhi reported last Friday, the newspaper removed from its archives two stories from 2017 and 2019 related to the controversial Steele dossier and replaced them with new articles that added and deleted whole sections and also added explanatory text at the top, alerting readers to the changes…

What’s peculiar about the Post’s method of error correction, says Shafer, was its decision to vaporise the two original stories. They can’t be retrieved from LexisNexis, as the Post left that database in late 2020. Apparently the deleted pages can be found on Factiva, a Dow Jones subscription database that costs about $249 a month, which makes it expensive for readers who can’t afford the service to determine precisely what the paper’s first rough draft got wrong and how it was amended.

Such heavy reworking of years-old copy is so rare it approaches the unprecedented, as American University media history professor W. Joseph Campbell told Farhi. Stephen Bates, a professor of journalism at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, concurs. “It’s hard to have a paper of record if the record keeps changing,” Bates says.

Surely the ‘first draft of history’ should stand, along with the updated correction, even if its presence is embarrassing for the publication that originally ran it.


My commonplace booklet

Caroline O’Donoghue: How I imagine an annual performance review with the dog would go

Hello, dog. Please take a seat. I’m so glad we could find time for this little chat.

Are you… Ok, you’re still sitting down.

So to begin… Still sitting down. Right. Maybe the tight circular movements can wait until after our annual performance review, and you can just stand for the meantime.

I know you only do the little circle movements when you’re anxious. I also know why you are anxious. You have sensed, correctly I think, that there has been a certain level of disharmony among the senior members of staff (me and Gavin) and much of that unhappiness has stemmed from our disappointment in your most recent work.

Link


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Thursday 18 November, 2021

Self-portrait with Leica

I love this self-portrait by Ilse Bing. She was one of the leading European photographers of the interwar period — as this V&A summary demonstrates.


Quote of the Day

“What you think is the point is not the point at all but only the beginning of the sharpness”

  • Flann O’Brien

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Alison Krauss | When You Say Nothing At All

Link

Magical!


Long Read of the Day

AI-tocracy

By Martin Beraja, Andrew Kao, David Y. Yang and Noam Yuchtman

An NBER working paper that is both fascinating and depressing. The authors argue that the conventional wisdom which holds that autocracies are generally bad for innovation is wrong, or at least not universally the case. Their conclusion is that some advanced technologies can be sustained under autocracy when the tech and the authoritarian leadership mutually reinforce each other.

There’s a free pdf download if you’re a newcomer to NBER. And if you’re too busy, here’s the Abstract:

Can frontier innovation be sustained under autocracy? We argue that innovation and autocracy can be mutually reinforcing when: (i) the new technology bolsters the autocrat’s power; and (ii) the autocrat’s demand for the technology stimulates further innovation in applications beyond those benefiting it directly. We test for such a mutually reinforcing relationship in the context of facial recognition AI in China. To do so, we gather comprehensive data on AI firms and government procurement contracts, as well as on social unrest across China during the last decade. We first show that autocrats benefit from AI: local unrest leads to greater government procurement of facial recognition AI, and increased AI procurement suppresses subsequent unrest. We then show that AI innovation benefits from autocrats’ suppression of unrest: the contracted AI firms innovate more both for the government and commercial markets. Taken together, these results suggest the possibility of sustained AI innovation under the Chinese regime: AI innovation entrenches the regime, control stimulates further frontier innovation.

If you wanted an argument for why facial recognition is a toxic technology, then this is a pretty good one.


Tech can’t fix the car problem

Good piece by Shira Ovide with interesting references. She’s been reading Peter Norton’s  Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving.

Our health and that of the planet will significantly improve if we switch to electric cars. They are one focus of the global climate summit underway in Glasgow. And taking error-prone drivers out of the equation could make our roads much safer. But making better cars isn’t a cure-all.

Popularizing electric vehicles comes with the risk of entrenching car dependency, as my New York Times Opinion colleague Farhad Manjoo wrote. Driverless cars may encourage more miles on the road, which could make traffic and sprawl worse. (Uber and similar services once also promised that they would reduce congestion and cut back on how many miles Americans drove. They did the opposite.)

The future of transportation needs to include more energy efficient and safer cars. But Dr. Norton also said that it would be useful to redirect money and attention to make walking, cycling and using shared transportation more affordable and appealing choices.

EVs are wonderful in their way. But they’re still cars. They’re so good, in fact, that they might make us even more infatuated with the automobile.


My commonplace booklet

Eh? (See here)

Are AirPods Out? Why Cool Kids Are Wearing Wired Headphones

The Wall Street Journal confirms that I am not cool. But then, I never was.

Also, none of my current Apple mobile devices has a headphone port.


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Wednesday 17 November, 2021

Quote of the Day

”Poor Henry James! He’s spending eternity walking round and round a stately park and the fence is just too high for him to peep over and he’s just too far away to hear what the countess is saying.”

  • Somerset Maugham

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Liam O’Flynn | The Fox Chase

Link

Extraordinary piece which captures the dynamics of a fox-hunt.


Long Read of the Day

 We have privatised our cyber security. The winners are the hackers

Stark warning in Prospect magazine from Ciaran Martin, the ex-GCHQ guy who set up the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre. He uses as a case-study the successful hacking of the Colonial pipeline in the US.

Colonial, it should be said, broke no rules. And that’s the point. Insufficient protection of its pipeline—a critical national asset—caused social disruption that clearly met the threshold of a national security threat. But there is nothing—yet—in the regulations governing this critical sector that requires firms to do better (and Republicans in Washington are starting to push back against suggestions for tighter controls). The unspoken message behind the Colonial case is that businesses can choose how to respond, whatever the consequences, and the government will pick up the tab.

It’s a neoliberal wet-dream, in other words — just like the 2008 banking crisis. An unregulated private sector is allowed to run risks which eventually come to threaten the security of the rest of us. And then the taxpayer (in the shape of the government) comes to the rescue and no corporate executive goes to gaol.

Good piece, worth reading in full.


The erosion of the American republic (contd.)

Joe Biden achieved what many people thought would be impossible — the passing of a huge bi-partisan Bill to renew the country’s crumbling infrastructure. And guess what? Heather Cox Richardson takes up the story:

It is a historic bill, not least because it recalled times when the government just…functioned, with members of both parties backing the passage of a popular bill that reflected a lot of hard work to hammer out a compromise.

And yet, Trump loyalists have attacked the bill as “Joe Biden’s Communist takeover of America” and have attacked any Republican who supported it as “a traitor to our party, a traitor to their voters and a traitor to our donors.” Some of the Republicans voting for it have gotten death threats.


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Monday 15 November, 2021

Fuchsia

My favourite plant. Still going strong in the front garden.


Quote of the Day

Dominic Cummings on working with Boris Johnson:

“One morning in mid-January he called me into his study.

Johnson: Dom, I want to run something by you.

Do you think it’s OK if I spend a lot of time writing my Shakespeare book?

Cummings: What do you mean?

Johnson: This fucking divorce, very expensive. And this job. It’s like getting up every morning pulling a 747 down the runway. (Pause) I love writing, I love it, I want to write my Shakespeare book.

Cummings: I think people expect you to be doing the PM’s job, I wouldn’t talk to people about this if I were you…

You get the idea. Within a month of the election he was bored with the PM job and wanted to get back to what he loves while shaking down the publishers for some extra cash.”


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Wailin’ Jennys | The Parting Glass

Link

A favourite end-of-the-evening song in my part of the world. And if you want to hear what it sounds like at the end of a really big evening, try this.


Long Read of the Day The pandemic and the chronic erosion of trust

A fascinating Tweetstream by Michael Bank Petersen.

Public support for governments is decreasing across the democratic world. This is driven by voter fatigue with restrictions that drag on and on. Such fatigue is a major explanation of increasing radicalisation…

And so the argument builds.

This is an adroit use of Twitter to outline a complicated argument. The end-point is that if countries try to compel vaccination or to quarantine the unvaccinated (as, say, Austria is apparently doing now) then the political backlash could turn really nasty.

Not such a long read. But it gives one a different perspective on things..


DeepMind crunches the numbers – but is it really a magic bullet?

My column in yesterday’s Observer:

The most interesting development of the week had nothing to do with Facebook or even Google losing its appeal against a €2.4bn fine from the European commission for abusing its monopoly of search to the detriment of competitors to its shopping service. The bigger deal was that DeepMind, a London-based offshoot of Google (or, to be precise, its holding company, Alphabet) was moving into the pharmaceutical business via a new company called Isomorphic Labs, the goal of which is grandly described as “reimagining the entire drug discovery process from first principles with an AI-first approach”.

Since they’re interested in first principles, let us first clarify that reference to AI. What it means in this context is not anything that is artificially intelligent, but simply machine learning, a technology of which DeepMind is an acknowledged master. AI has become a classic example of Orwellian newspeak adopted by the tech industry to sanitise a data-gobbling, energy-intensive technology that, like most things digital, has both socially useful and dystopian applications.

That said, this new venture by DeepMind seems more on the socially useful side of the equation. This is because its researchers have discovered that its technology might play an important role in solving a central problem in biology, that of protein folding.

Proteins are large, complex molecules that do most of the heavy lifting in living organisms…

Read on


My commonplace booklet

Eh? (See here)

Think Robots can’t dance? Boston Dynamics taught its robodogs to mimic the Rolling Stones on stage.

Video


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Friday 12 November, 2021

Cafe society


Quote of the Day

”He only feels life through his brain, or through sex, and there is a gulf between these two separate departments.”

  • Ottoline Morrell on Bertrand Russell (she would know, since she had a long affair with him)

She was an interesting, generous woman and quite a good photographer. Some of her pictures are on her Wikipedia page.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

J.S. Bach | French Suite No.2 in C minor BWV813 | András Schiff

Link


Long Read of the Day

The Internet’s Unkillable App

Well, of course I was bound to enjoy this paean of praise by Dave Pell in which he argues that the noisier our digital lives get, the more popular the humble newsletter becomes. I’m hoping that you might like it too.

Cave paintings. Petroglyphs. Smoke signals. Carrier pigeons. Telegraphs. The Pony Express. Airmail. Blogs. Myspace. Human modes of communication come and go, each replaced by a new technology and a faster method of delivery. But somehow, the humble newsletter survives. In an era with countless ways to reach out and bombard someone, newsletters have not only endured; they’re more popular than ever (and not only as some artisanal relic kept alive by the same people who keep buying vinyl LPs). More and more writers—including, ahem, some excellent ones right here at The Atlantic—are competing to entice us with the perfect subject line and the most sublime greeting…

Read on.


Mario Vargas Llosa: How I Lost My Fear of Flying

A lovely little essay by a great writer:

There are certain naïve people who believe that a fear of flying is, or can be explained by, a fear of death. They are wrong: fear of flying is fear of flying, not of death, a fear as particular and specific as a fear of spiders, or of the void, or of cats, three common examples among the thousands that make up the panoply of human fears. Fear of flying wells up suddenly, when people not lacking in imagination and sensitivity realise that they are thirty thousand feet in the air, travelling through clouds at eight hundred miles an hour, and ask, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ And begin to tremble.

It happened to me, after many years getting on and off aircraft as often as I change my shirts…


Frank Pasquale on digital capitalism

Frank Pasquale is one of the geniuses in my line of business and this 16-minute Keynote is a paradigm of a perfect Keynote talk: just the right length and profundity. And memorable because you come away with the central message he wanted to get across.

Try it.


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Thursday 11 November, 2021

Quote of the Day

”My face looks like a wedding cake that has been left out in the rain.”

  • W.H. Auden

He was right, as you can see here! But good for him.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ry Cooder | My Girl Josephine

Link


Long Read of the Day

 Shortage nation: why the UK is braced for a grim Christmas

Nice explainer by Tim Harford on why we run out of petrol when supplies are constrained rather than just putting up the price of a gallon (as economists would recommend).

In the textbooks, a “shortage” doesn’t mean dry pumps or empty shelves: it means that prices spike. They might double or triple. Some will find it impossibly expensive to drive, and others might find their finances ruined because they have no choice but to buy fuel they cannot really afford. But there are no queues; there is always petrol available to those who are willing and able to pay.

Ah, those dreamworld textbooks. The real world is a different place.

An instructive read.


More on Alexis Madrigal’s experience of Covid

Andrew Brown (Whom God Preserve) was not impressed by Madrigal’s experience (mentioned in yesterday’s edition). He writes:

Madrigal’s piece gave off such an extraordinary vibe of terrified Eloi wandering too close to the Morlocks. He and his entire family are vaccinated. He caught something that affected him no worse than a bad cold as the price of a fun fancy weekend in New Orleans. And yet we get paragraph after paragraph of freakouts, and the whole family panicking, because of this enormous catastrophe which disrupted his life for a whole week. Right at the end, he asks the only interesting question, which is how will society cope when Covid becomes low-level and endemic: the only possible answer is “better than you did, chum.”

Someone I know who lives in Hong Kong has just sent me pictures of the building opposite where he lives cordoned off by police, and everyone in it tested because someone who lives there tested positive. That’s the price of zero covid and Chinese societies can pay it, for the moment. But there is no way in hell America could be run like that. Poor people just aren’t part of their health planning. So the Eloi are going to remain in a state of ineffective terror while the disease, presumably, slowly loses virulence as it spreads through the Morlocks.


An honest government ad

Link

Nice surprise appearance by Greta Thunberg at the end.

H/T to Andrew Curry — who, incidentally, warns that it’s “not safe for work”. Can’t think why. Readers of this Blog are hardened viewers, surely.


Chart of the Day

Every year, Knight Frank releases data on what it takes to join the 1 per cent in different countries. I always find this data and the disparity between countries to be fascinating. In the UK, $1.8m gets you into the top 1 per cent. Compare that with $280,000 in Brazil or $60,000 in Indonesia.


My commonplace booklet

Eh? (See here)

Hand-build wooden Apple 1 goes on sale

Anyone interested in an Apple I hand built by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak circa 1976 has until 11:30 am PST today to make a bid as the rare computer goes up for auction at John Moran Auctioneers outside Los Angeles, California.

The vintage machine is one of the few Apple-I versions encased in koa wood, from the Acacia koa tree that is endemic to Hawaii and was fashionable in the 1970s. The computer was made during the company’s garage start-up days and is only one of six known remaining Koa wood case Apple-I machines in existence.

Link

Oddly enough, my maternal grandfather was a John Moran. And he was also an auctioneer, among other things. He never sold anything like this, though.


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Wednesday 10 November, 2021

Quote of the Day

”Why are women so much more interesting to men than men are to women?”

  • Virginia Woolf

Good question.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Cannonball Adderley | One for Daddy-O

Link


Long Read of the Day

‘Politics-as-Sports’: Why It Matters

This long essay by James Fallows is terrific. In part, it’s a reprise of an idea he first put forward in the book Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, which I first read avidly when it came out in 1997 (and still have on my shelves).

This is how the essay begins:

This post has a simple purpose. It is to clarify and illustrate an important point about journalism of this moment. Once you start noticing the pattern I’m talking about, I predict you’ll see it everywhere.

Read on to see why.


How one ratings agency assesses corporations’ preparations for, and risks from, climate change

Moody’s, one of the big ratings agencies has just published an assessment of how prepared various industrial sectors are for the proposed transition to a zero-carbon future. The report

assesses the outlook in a scenario of rapid emissions reduction for carbon-intensive sectors – the ones whose transformation will be vital to the world’s ability to halve emissions by 2030 and achieve a net zero economy by 2050. Incorporating insights from across Moody’s, it analyzes these sectors’ exposure to climate risk and their relative ‘transition readiness’, and models the likely impacts on their default risk.

It’s an 18-page document, but here are the overall conclusions:

  1. Progress: Momentum in automotive and utilities demonstrates that rapid improvement in companies’ positioning for a rapid transition is possible in some of the most carbon-intensive sectors.

  2. Challenges: Many carbon-intensive sectors and companies are less well-positioned for a rapid transition – leaving the world off track for 1.5 degrees C.

  3. Risk: Variations in disclosure within and between sectors mask hidden climate- related financial risks. In some key instances company-level disclosures do not fully reflect the true level of exposure.

  4. Pressure: Sectors that are least prepared overall for rapid transition also have the widest range of potential default risk outcomes for individual companies. Competitiveness is set to intensify within sectors as some companies position themselves to prosper in a zero-carbon future.

  5. Opportunities: Early action by companies during the 2020s can halve their probability of default compared to delayed action, while enabling the global economy to chart a smoother path to net zero. By contrast, delayed action in the 2030s increases default risk as less progress this decade is likely to lead to higher degrees of intervention and a less orderly transition later.

TL;DR version: Lots of bankruptcies ahead. On the other hand, given the abysmal failure of Moody’s and their peers to spot the 2008 banking catastrophe, I’m not sure we can take this seriously either.


Johnson nailed

Sam Knight has a nice piece in the New Yorker about Boris Johnson’s, er, performance at COP26. Knight gets him bang to rights:

He is, more than anything, a facile student in a perpetual essay crisis: staying up late, scribbling unwieldy, fancy-sounding analogies to get through another assignment. Something something Sophocles. It’s mostly wordplay and bullshit.

Bingo! Got him in one.


Getting Back to Normal Is Only Possible Until You Test Positive

Alexis Madrigal (a writer I’ve been following for years) is a co-founder of the COVID Tracking Project. He was ultra-careful for 18 months. Then he got COVID at a wedding.

He’s written a compelling piece about the experience. He was double-vaccinated and is ok. But it was the impact on his family that was the killer punch. His conclusion:

Right now most policies appear designed to make life seem normal. Masks are coming off. Restaurants are dining in. Planes are full. Offices are calling. But don’t be fooled: The world’s normal only until you test positive.

Yep.


My commonplace booklet

Eh? (See here)

This catalogue dropped through the letterbox the other day. At first I thought it was a spoof, because it was beyond parody. But it’s genuine.

Here, for instance, is one of the items women can order for their semi-house-trained male companions:


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