Wednesday 13 July, 2022

Seeing to infinity and beyond

From Tortoise Media’s indispensable daily Sensemaker newsletter…

This image, the first produced by the James Webb telescope, “shows the infrared light put out by galaxies formed over 13 billion years ago, which appear as red smudges. To think about: the picture covers a patch of sky equivalent to holding up a grain of sand at arm’s length.”

Which kind of puts our mortal coil (not to mention the nauseating Tory ‘leadership’ race) in perspective.

Quote of the Day

”He was born to be a salesman. He would be an admirable representative of Molly Royce. But an ex-King cannot start selling motor-cars.”

  • The Duchess of Windsor on her husband, the former Edward VIII

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Strauss | Four Last Songs | #4 | Im Abendrot | Reneé Fleming | BBC Proms 2001


I love these songs, and keep coming back to them.

Long Read of the Day

Mark Twain, Tech Prophet

The Atlantic (to which I subscribe) has just made its entire archive — 165 years of Atlantic journalism — available online. Nearly 30,000 articles, reviews, short stories, and poems, published between magazine’s founding in 1857 and 1995, the year it launched its website (a site that included, from its start, articles that originated both in print and on the web) are now accessible to subscribers, researchers, students, historians, “and that blessed category, the incurably curious”.

David Graham’s been digging in the archive and thinks that a short story by Mark Twain published a 1878 issue may contain the first literary reference to a telephone — “along with striking insights into modern dating”.

The Times Literary Supplement’s always amusing NB column—which also unearthed this image of Proust playing air guitar on a tennis racket—has been searching for literary firsts, such as the earliest mention of a telephone. TLS readers came up with Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, which premiered in May 1878. But Mark Lasswell of The Weekly Standard came up with an even earlier reference: Twain’s “The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton,” a short story that The Atlantic published in its March 1878 issue. As Lasswell notes, that makes it just 24 months after Alexander Graham Bell was awarded the first patent for a telephone.

The story is weird enough to deserve more than a mere footnote for early phone adoption…

Do read on

My commonplace booklet

”How to streamline the hiring process” is an article by Atta Tarki, Tyler Cowen and Alexandra Ham in the Harvard Business Review. If you’ve ever been involved in making hiring decisions (and I have been over the last two years in particular) you’d sometimes wish that some of your colleagues took these rules (suggested by the authors) to heart.

  1. Reduce the number of interviewers in your process. If you have more than four or five interviewers, chances are that the costs associated with the additional complexity in your process have exceeded the benefits they produce.

  2. Be explicit about whose decision it is. Steer your organizational culture away from a consensus-oriented approach. Instead, for each role make it explicit whose decision it is, who else might have veto power, and that other interviewers should not be offended if a candidate is hired despite not getting their approval. And then keep repeating this message until most of your colleagues adapt to this new approach.

  3. Ask interviewers to use numerical ratings when evaluating candidates. We’ve experienced that doing so helps hiring committees focus on the holistic view rather than on one-off negative comments. Having interviewers submit their ratings before getting input from their colleagues will have the further benefit of reducing the chance of groupthink in your evaluations.

  4. Remove the “Dr. Deaths” from your hiring committee. Track which interviewers turn down the most candidates, and if they are not better at picking good hires, communicate with them that they will be removed from the hiring committee if they don’t correct their behavior.

  5. Change your culture to reward those who spot great hires, not penalizing those who end up with an occasional poor performer. You can further do this by emphasizing the difference between good decisions and good outcomes. Sometimes a fully logical bet will result in a poor outcome. If needs be, call out those spreading negativism.

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Tuesday 12 July, 2022


We’re getting ready for our slow drive down to Provence and I was suddenly struck by this lovely Degas landscape while looking for something else. At one point on our route we cross the Somme.

Quote of the Day

”If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

  • Rudyard Kipling

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler | I’m the Fool


Long Read of the Day

At dinner the other night someone jokingly (I think) asked me what I saw as the next looming tech catastrophe and I replied “TikTok”. This provoked astonished puzzlement, as I don’t think anyone present except me (we are all d’un certain age, as the French say) was really aware of the service. But I was serious. And so is Scott Galloway, who has written critically about TikTok before. On his blog this week, he has a post with a nice twist on a metaphor from ancient history — “Trojan Stallion”.

The most mendacious enemies hide in plain sight. And this enemy is in your pocket. Social media now captures and holds more of our attention than all traditional news outlets. The hand that holds the social graph has its grip on how the next generation of Americans and Europeans feel about capitalism, democracy, and BTS.

But, no, this post is not about Mark Zuckerberg.

Do read on.

What it takes to run Q&A at scale

Stack Exchange is one of the wonders of the online world — a network of question-and-answer (Q&A) websites on topics in diverse fields, each site covering a specific topic, where questions, answers, and users are subject to a reputation award process. The reputation system allows the sites to be self-moderating. The most popular site on the network is Stack Overflow, the one I find most useful.

Stack Exchange handles 1.3 billion page-views per month and they’ve recently published an interesting graphic showing what’s needed to make the service work so briskly. Among other things, it’s a reminder that convenience doesn’t come without environmental costs.

My commonplace booklet

“The five best biographies ever written”

This interesting list by Anne Wroe, the Obituaries Editor of the Economist (and also an accomplished biographer) is a nice antidote to the standard list of poolside reads that most newspapers compile at this time of year.

I think it’s outside the paywall and hope I’m right.

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Monday 11 July, 2022

Shepherd’s delight?

Driving home the other evening.

Quote of the Day

”A state led by Sunak, Gove or Truss with reforming zeal would be an unpleasant place to live. But it’s also damaging to be governed by intellectually deficient, personally ambitious, corrupt or simply uninterested ministers. Fewer ministers than ever care about their departments, as the internecine vortex of Westminster and dreams of a slot on Question Time suck in most of their attention. This has been especially true since 2016, though the problem is of longer gestation. It doesn’t entirely explain why Britain, after twelve years of Conservative government, is run-down, stagnant, expensive, underpaid, unequal, corrupt, socially fractured, backward-looking, hungry and fearful. But it doesn’t help. It will take far more than dislodging Johnson to change that.

  • James Butler, writing in the London Review of Books.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

B.B. King | The Thrill Is Gone | with Slash, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Ronnie Wood and Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall.


Long Read of the Day

Journeys of the Pyramid Builders

By Daniel Weiss. Nice long read for a hot summer afternoon from Archaeology Magazine.

On a summer afternoon around 4,600 years ago, near the end of the reign of the pharaoh Khufu, a boat crewed by some 40 workers headed downstream on the Nile toward the Giza Plateau. The vessel, whose prow was emblazoned with a uraeus, the stylized image of an upright cobra worn by pharaohs as a head ornament, was laden with large limestone blocks being transported from the Tura quarries on the eastern side of the Nile. Under the direction of their overseer, known as Inspector Merer, the team steered the boat west toward the plateau, passing through a gateway between a pair of raised mounds called the Ro-She Khufu, the Entrance to the Lake of Khufu. This lake was part of a network of artificial waterways and canals that had been dredged to allow boats to bring supplies right up to the plateau’s edge.

As the boatmen approached their docking station, they could see Khufu’s Great Pyramid, called Akhet Khufu, or the Horizon of Khufu, soaring into the sky. At this point in Khufu’s reign (r. ca. 2633–2605 B.C.), the pyramid would have been essentially complete, encased in gleaming white limestone blocks of the sort the boat carried. At the edge of the water, perched on a massive limestone foundation, loomed Khufu’s valley temple, known as Ankhu Khufu, or Khufu Lives, which was connected to the pyramid by a half-mile-long causeway. When the pharaoh died, his body would be taken to the valley temple and then carried to the pyramid for burial. Nearby stood a royal palace, archives, granary, and workers’ barracks.

After offloading their cargo, the men anchored their boat in the lake alongside dozens—if not hundreds—of other boats and barges that had brought a variety of materials necessary to complete construction of the pyramid complex…

An antidote to the condescension of hindsight, and our hubris about how smart we are compared to those who went before us.

Britain’s electric dreams may be dependent on Chinese goodwill

Rare earth elements hold the key to a carbon-free future, but a new report reveals the UK’s shortcomings and vulnerabilities

Yesterday’s Observer column:

In his book Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future, Saul Griffith, an American inventor, entrepreneur and engineer, sets out a plan for decarbonising the US: electrify everything. From now on, every time people replace a vehicle or renovate a building or buy an appliance, they should be buying electric. Every new roof must have solar panels, all new housing must be energy efficient and shouldn’t contain a gas cooker. All that’s required to make this happen is a collective national effort comparable to the mobilisation of the US economy for the second world war. And it could be financed with the kind of low-cost, long-term loans reminiscent of the government-backed mortgages that created the postwar American middle class. QED.

Reading Griffith’s engaging, optimistic book, a wicked thought keeps coming to mind: HL Mencken’s observation: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” But Griffith is too smart to be caught in that particular net. There is, though, one serious difficulty with his grand plan and it goes by the abbreviation CRM.

It stands for “critical raw materials”. It turns out that an all-electrical future won’t be possible without secure supplies of certain elements we extract from the Earth’s crust…

Do read on

I had an email from a reader in Canada pointing out that his country has lots of these elements, which is good news if true, but didn’t seem to figure in the surveys which triggered by column.

My commonplace booklet


Thanks to Andrew Laird for spotting it.

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Friday 8 July, 2022


Quote of the Day

”After days of high political drama in Britain, Boris Johnson’s government has collapsed at last. For months the prime minister wriggled out of one scandal after another with braggadocio and buffoonery. Now, irretrievably rejected by his own MPs, he has agreed first to quit as Conservative Party leader and then to leave office within months. That day cannot come soon enough.

Mr Johnson was brought down by his own dishonesty, so some may conclude that a simple change of leadership will be enough to get Britain back on course. If only. Although Mr Johnson’s fingerprints are all over today’s mess, the problems run deeper than one man. Unless the ruling Conservatives muster the fortitude to face that fact, Britain’s many social and economic difficulties will only deepen.

Britain is in a dangerous state. The country is poorer than it imagines. Its current-account deficit has ballooned, sterling has tumbled and debt-interest costs are rising. If the next government insists on raising spending and cutting taxes at the same time, it could stumble into a crisis. The time when everything was possible is over. With Mr Johnson’s departure, politics must once more become anchored to reality.”

  • The Economist, yesterday.

For those Tories anxious to succeed him, here’s a cautionary thought. Would you like to be Prime Minister on the day (in late August) when it dawns on British households that the cost of heating their homes is going up from £800 to at least £3,000 a year?

When ignorance really is bliss

Some interesting things about the media frenzy (at least those media trapped in the Westminster bubble) on Johnson’s last day of denial…

1. The way that Trumpian ideas have seeped into British media and political culture.

cf Johnson’s bluster in Parliament that, regardless of what was going on inside his own party, he had a “mandate” from the British people which entitled him to carry on regardless. This idea of a party leader having a popular ‘mandate’ is an American, presidentialist idea. The Conservative party, led by Johnson at the time, won the election. In a parliamentary democracy it’s the party that people vote for, not the leader.

2. The way some journalists — and some Tory politicians, who should have known better — spun this ‘mandate’ fantasy.

The massive Tory victory in the General Election was as much due to the fact that the Labour Party was, at the time, led by Jeremy Corbyn, as un-electable a politician that anyone could wish for. That, combined with Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done” was what clinched the outsome.

3. There was also an echo of Trump in the aftermath of the election.

Under the ragbag patchwork of concepts and conventions that constitutes the British ‘constitution’, the leader of a party that commands a significant majority in the House of Commons is, to all intents and purposes, an elected dictator who can more or less do what s/he likes. That’s the point of the country’s first-past-the-post electoral system — to deliver decisive power to the winning party. And yet Johnson — who was given that power free from the tiresome meddling of Brussels — didn’t seem to have a single coherent, worked-out idea about what he could do with it.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel | Zadok the Priest


Ironically, this is what the Massed Bands of the Household Division were playing on Horse Guards parade behind 10 Downing Street on Wednesday as breathless TV reporters tried to explain how Johnson was bluffing his way out of trouble. Handel wrote it for the coronation of George II in 1727.

Long Read of the Day

Oliver Sacks: The Machine Stops

Lovely New Yorker essay, by the most literary neurologist of his generation, on steam engines, smartphones, and fearing the future. And on E.M. Forster’s astonishing 1909 short story, from which the title of this essay is taken.

I have not adjusted as well as my aunt did to some aspects of the new—perhaps because the rate of social change associated with technological advances has been so rapid and so profound. I cannot get used to seeing myriads of people in the street peering into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces, walking blithely in the path of moving traffic, totally out of touch with their surroundings. I am most alarmed by such distraction and inattention when I see young parents staring at their cell phones and ignoring their own babies as they walk or wheel them along. Such children, unable to attract their parents’ attention, must feel neglected, and they will surely show the effects of this in the years to come.

In his novel “Exit Ghost,” from 2007, Philip Roth speaks of how radically changed New York City appears to a reclusive writer who has been away from it for a decade. He is forced to overhear cell-phone conversations all around him, and he wonders, “What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say—so much so pressing that it couldn’t wait to be said? . . . I did not see how anyone could believe he was continuing to live a human existence by walking about talking into a phone for half his waking life.”

These gadgets, already ominous in 2007, have now immersed us in a virtual reality far denser, more absorbing, and even more dehumanizing…

The Forster story is indeed amazing, especially when you realise when it was written. The Wikipedia plot summary reads, in part:

The story describes a world in which most of the human population has lost the ability to live on the surface of the Earth. Each individual now lives in isolation below ground in a standard room, with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine. Travel is permitted, but is unpopular and rarely necessary. Communication is made via a kind of instant messaging/video conferencing machine with which people conduct their only activity: the sharing of ideas and what passes for knowledge.

The two main characters, Vashti and her son Kuno, live on opposite sides of the world. Vashti is content with her life, which, like most inhabitants of the world, she spends producing and endlessly discussing secondhand ‘ideas’. Her son Kuno, however, is a sensualist and a rebel. He persuades a reluctant Vashti to endure the journey (and the resultant unwelcome personal interaction) to his room. There, he tells her of his disenchantment with the sanitised, mechanical world.

He confides to her that he has visited the surface of the Earth without permission and that he saw other humans living outside the world of the Machine. However, the Machine recaptures him, and he is threatened with ‘Homelessness’: expulsion from the underground environment and presumed death. Vashti, however, dismisses her son’s concerns as dangerous madness and returns to her part of the world.


Finally, the Machine collapses, bringing ‘civilization’ down with it. Kuno comes to Vashti’s ruined room. Before they both perish, they realise that humanity and its connection to the natural world are what truly matter, and that it will fall to the surface-dwellers who still exist to rebuild the human race and to prevent the mistake of the Machine from being repeated.

My Commonplace booklet

What to say when you can’t think of anything to say


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Thursday 7 July, 2022


Taken two days ago. For some reason we’ve had more butterflies in our garden this year. No idea why.

Quote of the Day

”More than 220 Americans were killed by guns over the holiday. Seven of them were in my hometown.“

  • Maya Sulkin, writing here.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

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


The Humours of Carrigaholt (Reel 0:00), Mayor Harrison’s Fedora (Reel 1:13) & Tommy Peoples’ (Reel 2:26)

Long Read of the Day

Why are British politicians so rotten?

Perceptive essay by Michael Crick, one of the sharpest observers of British politics over many years. His answer to his own question is that the secretive way parliamentary candidates are chosen lies at the root of the problem.

Whereas American parties choose their candidates under the intense public scrutiny of primary elections, Britain’s parliamentary selections are conducted with great secrecy. They are rarely reported on these days; many places don’t have a local paper anymore, while those that do survive don’t regard candidate selections as particularly newsworthy.

Yet they are a vital part of British politics. Local parties aren’t just picking the MPs of tomorrow, but the ministers, Cabinet ministers and whips of future decades — the pool of people from which governments are formed. If parties regularly choose incompetent, lazy and stupid MPs, then weak and inept governments will follow: the sort of governments populated by the likes of Chris Pincher; the sort of governments that make a man accused of sexual misconduct a deputy chief whip. That, ultimately, is why I’ve started a new project to report on the selection process for every candidate who might have a chance of becoming an MP…

My Commonplace booklet

Minecraft for Adjunct Professors

Nice satire by Ross Bullen…

Getting Started

First, you need to decide between Creative Mode and Survival Mode. In Creative Mode, you are like a god, the lord and master of all you see, with an infinite number of items and resources at your disposal. Creative Mode is only available for tenured professors. Everybody else has to play in Survival Mode. You will also need to choose a difficulty level. Your options are Peaceful, Easy, Normal, Hard, and Adjunct Professor. Let’s select that last one and see what happens.

Your Character Spawns

Your character could spawn in any biome, but since you selected Adjunct Professor Mode, there is a 90 percent chance you will appear in the bathroom of a Subway restaurant where you are grading essays using a malfunctioning hand dryer as a desk and trying to answer panicky student emails on a nine-year-old iPhone. If you chose to begin with a Bonus Chest, it should be in one of the adjacent bathroom stalls. Look inside to find useful items that will help you on your quest, including more essays to grade, half a meatball sub, and a PhD in the History of Consciousness from UC Santa Cruz…

Lovely stuff — unless you’re an Adjunct Prof.

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Wednesday 6 July, 2022

Corporate cant

Er, it’s not “my” store (or yours), but the premises of a gigantic public corporation.

Quote of the Day

”The Papacy is not other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.”

  • Thomas Hobbes

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Eels | Grace Kelly Blues | Albert Hall


My favourite recording of the song.

Long Read of the Day

 The Lost Art of Looking at Nature

Nice essay by Rachel Riederer in Dissent on David Attenborough (Whom God Preserve). “Perhaps we love Attenborough”, she concludes, “because he is an advocate and practitioner of a special way of seeing and relating. His interest in the natural world begins not with the gaze of an empath, for whom another’s feelings become real because he feels them himself, but with the humility of an observer content to be an outsider”.

Yep. Worth your time.

New York Times heads downmarket…

It’s found a gap in the market between Hello magazine and The Tatler.

Witness yesterday’s pass-the-sickbag piece about a flashy dame with aspirations to pass as a public intellectual, and a culture-war spat at Princeton, a hedge-fund with a nice university attached. The centre-piece of the essay is a dinner-party that she and her husband are hosting with some friends who, apparently, are on their side in the aformentioned culture wars.

Some choice cuts from the piece.

Exhibit A:

PRINCETON, N.J. — Solveig Lucia Gold was setting the table in her backyard, next door to the house once occupied by Albert Einstein. Her yard is a sweeping field of emerald green grass leading down to the 18th-century blacksmith’s cottage with stone floors that houses her home study.

Ms. Gold, 27, was preparing for an intimate dinner with some of the few people — “our little cabal,” she said — who publicly admit to being on friendly terms with her and her husband, the recently fired (she prefers “canceled”) former Princeton classics professor Joshua Katz.

Exhibit B:

As her guests were about to arrive, Ms. Gold changed from a plain blue summer shift into a more glamorous cinched-waist yellow dress, drawing an approving smile from her husband, who was wearing a pink linen shirt.

She set the long rectangular table in the grass precisely, with a Wedgewood-blue and white tablecloth, cloth napkins tied up in yellow ribbons, place cards inked in a neat cursive hand and melamine dishes in a Provençal design. She was schooled in formal manners from a young age, she said, as an only child to an actress and a soap opera writer. “My mom threw a lot of dinner parties, and I ended up talking to adults,” Ms. Gold said.

Exhibit C:

At the dinner table, Ms. Gold, wearing a checked kitchen apron over her yellow dress, sat at one end and Dr. Katz at the other. Ms. Gold said a swift prayer (“Come Lord Jesus be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed”) and the chilled pea soup was served.

Needless to say, the happy couple “are going to start house-hunting in Washington, D.C.” where Dr. Katz is a fellow at — you guessed it! — the American Enterprise Institute.

The New York Times, by the way, was once a serious newspaper.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Tuesday 5 July, 2022

Into the light

Quote of the Day

.”You will know you’re old when you cease to be amazed.”

  • Noël Coward

(In that case, I’m old.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

J.S. Bach | Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 | Aria | Lang Lang


Lovely but a bit showy. Makes an interesting comparison with Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording, though.

Long Read of the Day

’Davos Man’ and climate-change baloney 

I can never understand why anyone takes the Davos crowd seriously.

This sharp piece by Jag Bhalla does a nice demolition job on the climate ‘pledges’ made by the First Movers Coalition, a public-private partnership launched last year at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. The coalition consists of 55 corporations and nine national governments that have made “ambitious commitments” toward limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.


Coalition members seek to use their collective purchasing power to jump-start early markets for green technologies in “hard to abate” sectors including aluminum, aviation, chemicals, concrete, shipping, steel, and trucking. Automakers Ford and Volvo, for instance, have pledged that, by 2030, a tenth of the primary aluminum they purchase will be produced with little or no carbon emissions. Alphabet, Microsoft, and Salesforce — also First Movers — pledged to invest $500 million in carbon recapture technology. And some coalition members announced specific carbon removal goals. For instance, Swiss Re committed to remove 50,000 metric tons by 2030; Boston Consulting Group pledged 100,000 metric tons. At Davos, U.S. climate czar John Kerry heralded the moves as a “gigantic shift” and lauded businesses for “taking the lead” in areas where governments have been slow to act.

Sounds impressive? Actually it’s baloney. The $500m ‘investment’, for example,

represents about 0.1 percent of Alphabet, Microsoft, and Salesforce’s collective revenues last year. And it’s dwarfed by the nearly one trillion dollars that energy companies plan to put into new oil and gas projects — so-called “carbon bombs” each blasting more than a billion tons of carbon skyward — by 2030. Likewise, the 150,000 metric tons of carbon removal promised by Swiss Re and Boston Consulting is barely a sliver (0.00002 percent) of the extra 646 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas that those carbon bomb projects are expected to spew into the atmosphere — pollution that will cook the planet for centuries, unless it can be later removed.

In fact, Swiss Re and Boston Consulting Group’s carbon removal commitments won’t even nearly offset the carbon footprints of their own employees. The average individual in the top 10 percent of global earners — and with the current Euro-to-dollar exchange rate, if you earn more than $39,100 a year, you qualify — causes about 31 metric tons of annual carbon emissions each. (These figures are according to the 2022 World Inequality Report.) Assuming most of Swiss Re’s 14,000 employees and Boston Consulting’s 25,000 staffers fall into that category, which for Boston Consulting seems almost certain given the six figure salaries that many of their workers appear to command, those employees alone would collectively produce more carbon in just two months than the companies’ carbon removal projects would remove over the next eight years.

You get the drift. This is just corporate happy-talk while they and their clients get on with heating the planet.

My commonplace booklet

 A Declaration of Independence from the United States Supreme Court

Righteous indignation from Jennie Egerdie…

We hold this truth to be self-evident: We are sick of this shit.

We have established that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That when any branch of government becomes destructive of these rights, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it.

We acknowledge an institution such as the Supreme Court has, like our country, a complicated past. Previous Supreme Courts have supported civil rights and liberties, yet have also passed decisions reinforcing slavery, eugenics, and corruption. But now, as this current court transitions away from modern democracy and towards despotism, it is again the People’s right—and their duty—to strip power away from such governance. After all, this is what the United States of America was founded on…

Do read on.

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Monday 4 July, 2022

This is what a lock-jam looks like

Seen in Bath on Saturday morning!

Quote of the Day

“Professor Einstein would not have liked a stuffy tribute. My wife and I loved him. He was a charter subscriber to the [Weekly], and often strained its primitive bookkeeping facilities by renewing when no renewal was due. We and our three children had the great pleasure on several occasions of having tea with him at his home. It was like going to tea with God, not the terrible old God of the Bible but the little child’s father-in-heaven, very kind, very wise and yet himself very much like a child, too…

  • Izzy Stone, remembering Albert Einstein, April 1955.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Martin Hayes and The Gloaming | The Sailor’s Bonnet


A magical slow start to a famous tune. Stay with it to see how it develops.

Long Read of the Day

Geographies in Transition

Or why the technological is geopolitical. This article raises interesting thoughts about the neocolonialism implicit in the rich world’s desire to switch to ‘green’ technologies. Put crudely, the problem is that in order to electrify our societies we need huge quantities of certain minerals — so-called ‘rare earths’ plus cobalt, nickel, lithium, etc. — which mostly don’t exist in significant amounts in the global north and which are now known as ‘Critical Raw Materials’ (CRMs). So for Europe and the US making the transition to greener technologies requires (a) a step-change in the extraction of these critical raw materials, and (b) secure access to them by European and American industry.

Requirement (a) is troublesome because for many CRMs China is the pre-eminent supplier, and so a ‘greening’ West will find itself strategically dependent on an authoritarian regime with its own hegemonic ambitions — in much the same way as European countries made themselves dependent on Russian gas and oil.

Requirement (b) has to take into account that the West is no longer the only customer in town: Asian countries are becoming big players in the ‘green’ technology business (witness the numbers of EVs now coming from Korea and its neighbours). Which means that they will be competitors for supplies of these CRMs.

The obvious implication is that CRMs are likely to shape the geopolitics of our medium-term future, much as oil did in the automobile age. It also means that the EU has to play nice with African and other countries in the global south which are potential sources of some of them. Poor countries might find themselves burdened with a new variant of the “resource curse” — extracting raw materials (from which corrupt regimes extract illegal rents rather than using them to support local industrial development) which are then shipped abroad for processing by advanced industrial states, leaving the source country under-developed. Or, as the paper puts it, the EU needs…

… To seriously engage with the historical legacy of colonialism, the EU’s future cooperation and infrastructure strategy must recognize Europe’s historical responsibility for the lack of industrialization in the developing world. This would legitimate demands for more value added from resource-rich states. Crucially, it might help correct the colonial logic of extraction that is deep-seated and widely embedded in European institutions and public debates. If anything, the current shift eastwards could tame the intrinsically Eurocentric perspective dominant in mainstream social sciences.

Worth reading.

Could Molly White be the new JK Galbraith?

Yesterday’s Observer column:

In 1955, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith published a slim volume entitled The Great Crash 1929, a history of the Wall Street crash. In it, he chronicled, with his customary caustic wit, the rampant speculation that led to the catastrophe and its striking resemblance to all speculative bubbles in one key respect: speculators’ endearing belief that they can become rich without doing any work. The book ran through many editions and reprints, for many of which Galbraith wrote new prefaces. When his Harvard colleagues asked him why he continued to do this, his reply was that a good knowledge of what happened in 1929 would be the best safeguard against its recurrence.

In believing this, Galbraith was uncharacteristically naive, as even a cursory inspection of recent history will confirm…

Read on

How consumer drones are changing warfare

An ‘explainer’ from the Economist. Mostly behind its paywall (clearly the paper doesn’t believe in explaining things to the hoi polloi), but you get the drift from the intro…

In may a pro-Kremlin journalist posted on Telegram, a messaging app, asking Russians to donate their drones to the armed forces. In Ukraine both sides have been buying cheap consumer drones. In peacetime, these were the playthings of technology enthusiasts and amateur film-makers. How are Russia and Ukraine using devices that have more in common with toys than military hardware?

Consumer drones were first popularised by Parrot, a French company. In 2010 it released the AR.Drone, a 400g quadcopter. A camera gave the pilot a bird’s-eye view, and a sophisticated autopilot made manoeuvring and hovering simple. The AR.Drone was successful in part because it required little piloting skill, unlike previous radio-controlled toys. In 2013 the market changed radically with the arrival of the Phantom, made by dji, a Chinese startup. A more sophisticated device with a range of one kilometre and a GoPro video camera, it brought affordable aerial photography to the masses. dji has dominated the consumer drone market ever since. Its recent offerings boast a range of several kilometres, broadcast-quality cameras and automatic obstacle-avoidance…

Interesting that the piece doesn’t mention that the first outfit to appreciate the military utility of consumer drones was ISIS.

My commonplace booklet

  1. If you want the world to change, join a Union. (And if democracies want to survive, they need to make it a legal requirement that employers have to recognise a union if the majority of their workers wish to belong to one.) Why? Because in the long run no democracy will endure if the living standards of the majority of its population inexorably decrease while the profits of companies and their owners continue to increase. Which is what’s happening in every ‘liberal’ democracy I can think of.
  2. What if someone opens the door of an airliner in flight? A pilot explains why you shouldn’t worry about it. Phew!

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Friday 1 July, 2022

Quote of the Day

”Where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face
The marble image of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.”

  • Wordsworth, The Prelude.

(Wordsworth was an undergraduate in St John’s College, Cambridge, which is next door to Trinity, in whose chapel the statue of Newton stands.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Wagner | Parsifal | Karfreitagszauber (Act 3, Good Friday Music) | Rudolf Kempe


Hypnotically beautiful, even on a normal Friday.

Long Read of the Day

Our Constitution is “actually trash” — but the Supreme Court can be fixed

One of the great mysteries about the US — at least to outsiders — is its astonishing Koranic obsession with ‘originalist’ interpretations of its Constitution, a document which was drafted by slave-owners who enshrined their business model (including a definition of black people as three-fifths human) in the document’s prose.

All of which makes this transcript of a Salon interview with Elie Mystal, the author of a bracing critique of the sacred text, a salutary read.

Here’s a sample:

 You were recently on “The View” talking about your book and created some controversy. The first line in “Let Me Retort” is “Our constitution is not good,” followed up a few paragraphs later with “Our constitution is actually trash.” You’re obviously trying to challenge people. Tell people what your goal is there.

There are two things going on there. One, the veneration that this country has for the Constitution is simply weird. It’s crazy. It’s not what other countries do for their written documents. We act like this thing was etched in stone by the finger of God, when actually it was hotly contested and debated, scrawled out over a couple of weeks in the summer in Philadelphia in 1787, with a bunch of rich, white politicians making deals with each other, right? These politicians were white slavers, white colonizers and white abolitionists — who were nonetheless willing to make deals with slavers and colonists. No person of color was allowed into the convention. Their thoughts were not included. No women were allowed to have a voice or a vote in the drafting of the Constitution. And quite frankly, not even poor white people were allowed to have a voice or a thought in what the Constitution was.

Do read on.

Facial recognition technology is as toxic as plutonium, so why isn’t it outlawed?

Answer: partly because of the inertia of governments, partly because of the resistance of tech companies (with one notable exception) and partly because our laws about biometric surveillance are woefully inadequate.

The first sign that things might be about to change for the better comes from a wide-ranging investigation by a prominent British lawyer that was commissioned by the Ada Lovelace Institute. It’s come up with ten recommendations, of which these are the most important (IMO):

  • There is an urgent need for a new, technologically neutral, statutory framework. Legislation should set out the process that must be followed, and considerations that must be taken into account, by public and private bodies before biometric technology can be deployed against members of the public.
  • The scope of the legislation should extend to the use of biometrics for unique identification of individuals, and for classification. Simply because the use of biometric data does not result in unique identification does not remove the rights-intrusive capacity of biometric systems, and the legal framework needs to provide appropriate safeguards in this area.
  • A legally binding code of practice governing the use of LFR (Live Facial Recognition) should be published as soon as possible. We consider that a specific code of practice for police use of LFR is necessary, but a code of practice that regulates other uses of LFR, including use by private entities and public-private data sharing in the deployment of facial recognition products, is also required urgently.
  • The use of LFR in public should be suspended until the framework envisaged by earlier Recommendations is in place.
  • The regulation and oversight of biometrics should be consolidated, clarified and properly resourced. The overlapping and fragmented nature of oversight at present impedes good governance. We have significant concerns about the proposed incorporation of the role of Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner into the existing duties of the ICO. We believe that the prominence and importance of biometrics means that it requires either a specific independent role, and/or a specialist Commissioner or Deputy Commissioner within the ICO.

This is a great piece of work. Congrats to the Lovelace Institute for funding and supporting it.

Here we go again

The leak some weeks ago of the US Supreme Court’s intention to reverse Roe v. Wade triggered the expected spike in online disinformation, conspiracy theories, trolling and worse. So we can expect the next spike to be even more intense. And we can also resignedly look forward to the inability or unwillingness of social media companies to take effective remedial action, even though it was pretty clear what was coming down the line.

There is now, though, an interesting added complication. As the Bloomberg ‘Fully Charged’ newsletter put it, the SCOTUS decision

also signals some complex decision-making for the world’s largest tech platforms as the US becomes divided into states where abortion is legal, and states where it is illegal. Companies have historically adjusted their policies to fit geographically-specific legal requirements, and thirteen states have so-called trigger laws that would automatically ban abortions—including, in some of them, laws that would punish citizens for assisting pregnant people in obtaining one. Would the companies’ operations in those states geo-block information that would allow users to access accurate information supporting an abortion decision? These are open questions that we will have to see play out over the next few weeks or months.

We will indeed. It also nicely highlights the way in which what was hitherto a single polity is now fragmenting. And it’s no longer a split on a North-South axis. An American friend I spoke to the other day was speculating that if the US does indeed fragment, it will be into four fragments: the New England group; the old Confederacy; Northern Texas plus California, Oregon and Washington State; and the flyover states in the middle of the country. A bit like the Balkans on steroids.

My commonplace booklet

As readers of this blog will know, Dave Winer is one of my heroes. He’s a gifted software developer with a string of great products and services (including outliners, RSS and podcasting) to his credit. And his blog, which has been been running continuously for 27 years, 8 months, 22 days, 22 hours, 6 minutes and 30 seconds when I last checked, is one of the wonders of the online world.

In recent weeks he’s been reading Elie Mystal’s book (see today’s Long Read above) and thinking about its implications. The other day he recorded a podcast about these in his inimitable, laid-back, unpretentious but compelling style. It’s 28 minutes long but it won’t feel like that.

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Thursday 30 Jun, 2022

Ultimate Selfies #4

Edward Hopper

Quote of the Day

”The more things a man is ashamed of, the more respectable he is.”

  • George Bernard Shaw

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paul Simon & George Harrison | Here Comes The Sun & Homeward Bound


Two for the price of one!

Long Read of the Day

 Does Hungary Offer a Glimpse of Our Authoritarian Future?

A few years ago, my colleague David Runciman and I ran a small research project exploring the implications for democracy of digital technology. Our conclusion: the implications aren’t good. One of the outcomes of the project was a nice short book by David — How Democracy Ends — in which he makes the point that those who see echoes of the rise of fascism in our current difficulties are likely to be wrong. If our democracies fail, he argues, they will fail forwards, not backwards (as it were) and in new and unexpected ways. And so, in the years since the book was published, I’ve been looking for clues that might indicate where the fault-lines really lie.

All of which is a long-winded way of explaining why I found this New Yorker essay by Paul Marantz fascinating — and sobering. He too has been thinking about what the future of democracy might look like, and he’s found a possible candidate — the ‘illiberal democracy’ that Viktor Orbán has built in Hungary, a statelet of which the right wing of the US Republican Party seems increasingly enamoured.

It’s a long read but worth it, especially when you consider that this is how it concludes:

Trump may run in 2024, and he may win, fairly or unfairly. What worried me most, sitting in the belly of the Whale, was not the person of Donald Trump but a Republican Party that resembled Orbán’s party, Fidesz, more by the month—increasingly comfortable with naked power grabs, with treating all political opposition as fundamentally illegitimate, with assuming that any checks on its dominance were mere inconveniences to be bypassed by any quasi-legalistic means. “There are many things that the Americans here want to learn from the Hungarians,” Balázs Orbán had told me. “We’re going to keep our heritage for ourselves, our Christian heritage, our ethnic heritage . . . that’s what I think they want to say but they can’t say, and so they point to someone who can say it. If they want us to play that role, we are fine with that.”

Borisland: where money grows on trees

Wonderful Guardian column by Marina Hyde.


In many ways it was impressive to get a whole two days into Boris Johnson’s world statesman tour before it emerged he’d tried to get a Tory donor to fund a £150,000 treehouse for his then infant son. No matter what Commonwealth/G7/Nato posturing comes after that, you’ll have found it rather difficult to suspend your disbelief. It’s like hearing that Churchill whined and whined to get some mid-century sad-sack to buy his grandson a pony. Fine: 30 ponies.

The story of the treehouse somehow still retains the power to shock, if only as a reminder that there really is no beginning to the prime minister’s financial morality. As reported by the Times, Johnson and his wife planned to build an eye-wateringly expensive treehouse in the grounds of Chequers in autumn 2020, potentially funded by the Tory donor Lord Brownlow. “He was told it would look terrible,” a government source told the paper, yet the PM pressed ahead. It was only when the Johnsons’ security staff objected definitively on the basis that the treehouse was visible from the road that the welfare king and queen of Downing Street had to reluctantly abandon their plans. At the time, their son would have been about six months old.

Who builds a baby a treehouse for £150,000, which can currently buy you a three-bedroom semi-detached house in Wakefield? Answer that question without using a four-letter word…

There’s more. Much more.

My commonplace booklet

I’m the Last Bottle of Ketchup at Mar-a-Lago and I Live in a State of Constant Fear

Terrifying tale by Matt Fotis…

Now you know. The explosive January 6th hearing testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson revealed many things, like how the former president wanted to remove metal detectors to let his armed supporters attend the rally and storm the Capitol. Or how he didn’t want to do anything to stop the violence. Or that Mike Pence “deserved it.” Or that he assaulted a Secret Service agent with his tiny hands. In light of recent events, from now until July 1, 25% of all sales of I Know What’s Best For You: Stories on Reproductive Freedom support the Brigid Alliance’s abortion travel services program.

You also now know what I’ve always known — Donald J. Trump is a clear and present danger. Tiny hands may struggle to open a bottle, but they are more than capable of toppling a democracy.

A little about me. I’m a Heinz 57 glass ketchup bottle. That’s really it. I’m not that complicated. I mean, I have a secret blend of fifty-seven…somethings, but other than that, I live a simple life. Like any bottle of ketchup, I want to make the world a better place. I’m sweet. Not everybody likes me, but outside of maniacs in Chicago eating hot dogs, everyone recognizes I’m a force for good.

And I live in constant fear. I don’t remember much about my early days in Pittsburgh, but I’ve spent the last eighteen months at Mar-a-Lago. It’s a house of horrors, and I’m talking about more than just the interior design and the sinkholes…

Do read on. Somebody should do something about this cruelty.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already! _______________________