Wednesday 17 August, 2022

Fishing, not phishing

Quote of the Day

“Conscience: the inner voice which warns us that someone may be looking.”

  • H.L. Mencken

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ry Cooder and The Village | She Runs Hot


There’s a lovely version of this that Cooder did just with David Lindley, but I can’t find it. Growl.

Long Read of the Day

The efficiency movement

Marvellous essay by Rob Miller on the way all modern societies have been shaped by their worship of efficiency. It’s basically an engineering mindset (I’m an engineer, so I can say that, though I long ago gave up believing that efficiency was the only thing that mattered.) And, we discovered during the pandemic, it’s our obsession with efficiency (e.g. in global supply chains) that has made our so-called ’civilisation’ so fragile.

Well worth your attention.

Reading it, two thoughts came to mind.

  • Efficiency is obviously important in many contexts. But there are some where it’s vital to sideline it. For example, our criminal justice system, with (a) its assumption of innocence until proved guilty, and (b) its insistence on due process, is woefully inefficient. It’d be much more efficient just to lock up suspects on the say-so of the Chief of Police. But democracies don’t do that because they have values that trump mere efficiency. In that case, inefficiency is a feature, not a bug.

  • The most persuasive account I’ve found of how engineers’ obsession with efficiency (and its fellow-conspirator, optimisation) came to dominate the world is System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot by Rob Reich, Meehan Sahami and Jeremy Weinstein. Alas, they’re better at diagnosing the illness than finding a cure. C’est La vie.

My commonplace booklet

 Why I Am Not a Painter

by John Mancini on McSweeney’s

Toulouse-Lautrec died at thirty-seven. Van Gogh died at thirty-seven. Goya did not become famous until he was in his forties, at which time he also went deaf. Beyond the evidence of his paintings, little is known of the peasant Bruegel’s life. Duchamp gave up art for chess. In Tangier, Matisse contemplated suicide. Gaugin attempted suicide. Caravaggio threw stones at police officers. Derain was killed by a car. “There is something shameful,” said Degas, “about being known.”

“Impossible to get rid of him,” Picasso said of Degas. Giorgione died in his thirties. El Greco died broke. Vermeer died in debt to the baker. De Kooning ate a cigarette. “Everything he knew about art he got from me,” Michelangelo said of Raphael. “Ignorant,” he called Leonardo. “The only person who has the right to criticize me,” Matisse said of Picasso. “I have reached the happy age of impotence,” said Delacroix…

Right, that’s it! I’m selling my watercolour set on eBay. It’s tough enough trying to be a photographer.

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Tuesday 16 August, 2022

Analog Surveillance

A ‘listening door’ used by the East German regime in the pre-1989 era. Photograph of an exhibit in the (unmissable) Stasi Museum in Berlin. Note the number of batteries required! Poor quality image because it was behind a glass screen.

Quote of the Day

“What’s a thousand dollars? Mere chicken feed. A poultry matter.”

  • Groucho Marx

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Duke Ellington | The Single Petal Of A Rose


Long Read of the Day

Electric Vehicles Are Way, Way More Energy-Efficient Than Internal Combustion Vehicles

Really useful summary of some recent research by the Yale Climate Connections project.

TL;DR version: in a fossil-fuel powered vehicle around 80% of the energy in the fuel is lost in engine and related inefficiencies. In an EV only about 11% of the energy is lost.

The details are interesting though, so worth a read.

My commonplace booklet

And while we’re on the subject of surveillance…


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Monday 15 August, 2022

Floral dance, anyone?

Hanging on a wall in Aups.

Quote of the Day

”Pardon my long preamble. It’s like a chorus-girl’s tights — it touches everything and covers nothing.”

  • Gertrude Lawrence

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ry Cooder | How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?


Thanks to John Newman for the suggestion.

Long Read of the Day

We Ignored Salman Rushdie’s Warning

Sobering blog post by Bari Weiss.

I have spoken on the same stage where Rushdie was set to speak. You can’t imagine a more bucolic place than the Chautauqua Institution—old Victorian homes with screened-in porches and no locks, a lake, American flags and ice cream everywhere. It was founded in 1874 by Methodists as a summer colony for Sunday school teachers. Now, it attracts the kind of parents and grandparents who love Terry Gross and never miss a Wordle. It is just about the last place in America where you would imagine an act of such barbarism.

And yet as shocking as this attack was, it was also 33 years in the making: The Satanic Verses is a book with a very bloody trail…

Weiss reminds us of the way prominent writers stood firm in support of Rushdie in 1989. Her piece includes a nice picture of Susan Sontag, Gay Tales, E.L. Doctorow and Norman Mailer at a ‘Writers in Support of Salman Rushdie’ event in New York in 1989. I guess what she’s hinting at is that it’d be harder to muster that kind of courageous support now. But perhaps that’s just her grinding an anti-woke axe.

Still, it’s worth a read, given what’s happened.

Footnote: Writing in yesterday’s Observer, Kenan Malik succinctly expressed what I think Weiss was getting at:

Penguin, the publisher, never wavered in its commitment to The Satanic Verses. It recognised, Penguin CEO Peter Mayer later recalled, that what was at stake was “much more than simply the fate of this one book”. How Penguin responded “would affect the future of free inquiry, without which there would be no publishing as we knew it”.

It’s an attitude that seems to belong to a different age. Today, many believe that plural societies can only function properly if people self-censor by limiting, in the words of the sociologist Tariq Modood, “the extent to which they subject each other’s fundamental beliefs to criticism”.

Exclusive or not, this is one Clubhouse I was happy to leave

Yesterday’s Observer column:

In March 2020, a new app suddenly arrived on the block. It was called Clubhouse and described as a “social audio” app that enabled its users to have real-time conversations in virtual “rooms” that could accommodate groups large and small. For a time in that disrupted, locked-down spring, Clubhouse was what Michael Lewis used to call the “New New Thing”. “The moment we saw it,” burbled Andrew Chen of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, “we were deeply excited. We believe Clubhouse will be a meaningful addition to the world, one that increases empathy and provides new ways for people to talk to each other (at a time when we need it more than ever).”

The app could not have come at a better time for social media, he continued. “It reinvents the category in all the right ways, from the content consumption experience to the way people engage each other, while giving power to its creators.” His firm put $12m of its (investors’) money behind Chen’s fantasies and followed up a year later with an investment that put a valuation of $1bn on Clubhouse, which would have made it one of the “unicorns” so prized by the Silicon Valley crowd.

This endorsement by an ostensibly serious venture capital firm undoubtedly helped to boost the hype about Clubhouse, but the main drivers – snobbery and elitism – had little to do with funding…

Do read the whole thing.

Video of the Day

Marvellous recent talk by Huw Price on how and why the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, which he co-founded, came about. Existential risks are events of very low probability which, if they were to occur, would pose an existential risk to human society. For many years, these were ignored (and sometimes ridiculed) by conventional science, so in setting up a scholarly centre to study them the first problem Huw and his colleagues had to solve was how to make the subject academically ’respectable’. The fact that the Centre now thrives is a reflection of how successful they were in doing this.

The talk is 23 minutes long, and worth your time IMHO.

Full disclosure: I know and admire Huw, and also was able to observe CSER evolve from the very beginning because it was incubated in CRASSH, the interdisciplinary research centre in which our Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy is based.

My commonplace booklet

A Brooklyn Bar menu generator


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Friday 12 August, 2022

Quote of the Day

”It is not certain that everything is uncertain”

  • Blaise Pascal

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sharon Shannon | Tune for a Found Harmonium


Nobody sleeps at the back when this lady plays.

Long Read of the Day

The links between one Oxbridge college and the slave trade

Oxbridge colleges are, by and large, wealthy institutions, with endowments that have increased over many centuries. One implication of this is that most of them would inevitably have benefited from slave-holding families who sent their sons to Oxford or Cambridge. Until very recently, though, this sordid connection between prestigious institutions and slavery was, er, not discussed. Thankfully, things have changed a bit, but there’s a lot more to be done.

Which is why this report is interesting. It’s on the website of Gonville and Caius, one of Cambridge richest colleges, and is the outcome of a pretty thorough investigation of Caius’s links with slavery over several centuries. “In total”, it concluded,

twenty-seven students from slavery backgrounds attended Caius from the early eighteenth century until the emancipation of enslaved persons was made legal in Parliament on 1 August 1838. Though this figure was probably higher, these new arrivals at the college came from several locations throughout the British Empire, with three from Virginia, another two from South Carolina, two from Nevis, eight from Barbados, one from British Guiana, three from Jamaica, one from St. Kitts, one from the Virgin Islands, and the remaining six students from various locations in England (including Norfolk, Surrey, and London). The families of these students had various relationships to slavery and the slave trade. The vast majority, twenty-six students, were the descendants of the landed enslaver class. The remaining student, John Baylor III, had family relations involved in both slaveholding and slave trading (Baylor later named his plantation “Newmarket” after the famous racecourse near Cambridge). These Caians arrived predominantly in the mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with the 1760s (three students), 1820s (five students), and 1830s (nine students) the three most popular decades for attendees. The figures were small, but the average admittance of Caians in one decade of the eighteenth century was around seven students, so Americans were not alone in not choosing Cambridge for their educations…

It’s a fascinating and worthwhile read. Earlier scholarly histories of the college had paid attention to its contributions to the campaign for the abolition of slavery, but had omitted to look at the other side of the coin. And it’s really good that the report is up-front on Caius’s website.

My commonplace booklet

The consolations of Blogging

Gillian Tett, an anthropologist who evolved into a fine journalist (and a senior editorial figure on the Financial Times), told a revealing story in her column this weekend. When she started out as a journalist she “sometimes felt as though the media operated a bit like Moses on Mount Sinai with his biblical tablets of stone: once a day, we writers descended from our mountains, handed over our stories, then scurried away”. Then, writing “felt like a one-way process: journalists presented readers with news; only sporadically was the information flow reversed.”

But now, apparently, it’s very different for those who labour in the mainstream media. Readers are always “constantly reacting, commenting on articles in real time.” Tett illustrates this about what happened after she wrote a story recently about the “social silence” that enabled Harvey Weinstein to get away with his foul predatory practices. She ended the column by asking her readers where they had seen analogous instances of ‘social silences’ and seemed surprised when dozens of examples flooded in.

It was, she writes, “illuminating”, which makes one wonder if she should go back to anthropology for a while to gain a better understanding of the world she now inhabits. For what she had delightedly discovered is something that every blogger knows — that information-flow in the networked public sphere is always a two-way street, and that often your readers know more than you do.

Here’s the most recent case in point for me. On July 29 I wrote from Provence about how nice it was for a recovering petrolhead like me to come on iconic vehicles like the Citroen 2CV, and the WW2 Jeep, and how I still hoped to see a properly restored Citroen DS19. For the next few days my email inbox was an utter delight, as readers jostled to update me on these important matters.

In short order, I learned more about the history and engineering background of the 2CV than I would have believed possible. I found myself looking for — and finding on YouTube — The Tin Snail, Patrick Uden’s marvellous Channel 4 documentary about the car’s history. “It’s worth noting”, he wrote,

that the 425cc 2CV engine is a piece of precision engineering designed to run on poor fuel and with no maintenance. It is loosely based on the German military 750cc BMW and Zundapp engines, which were – in turn – based on the British WW1 Douglas 350cc flat-twin engine (Douglas also invented and built the first disc brakes).

Unlike the German engines, the 2CV engine has no gaskets and is milled to precision ‘face-fits’ like an aircraft engine, thus making it fit for use in small planes. It cost as much to build as the whole of the rest of the car.

In my original post, I mentioned that in Provence I always look out for the WW2 Jeeps which one often sees there. Once again, readers knew better. The Jeeps I enjoy seeing were probably built after the war under licence by the French company Hotchkiss as the M201 and used by the French military and oil exploration companies in north Africa.

And, doubtless peeved by a French company building an American Jeep, Citroen produced an all-wheel-drive version of the 2CV. Improbably, it was a 2CV with two engines – one at the front and one at the back. But, wrote Patrick,

the engines were not connected and had to be ‘synchronised’ by the driver. The rear engine meant the fuel tanks were moved from the back to under the front seats, so the filler projected through the front doors! The spare wheel was mounted above the front engine through a hole on the bonnet.

Like this:

And Stephen Pickles wrote to ask if I’d ever seen the 2CV racing speedboats.

Which, of course, I hadn’t!

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Thursday 11 August, 2022


Believe it or not, they were waiting for the Tour de France the year it started in Cambridge.

Quote of the Day

”Technology is a great servant but a terrible master.”

  • Sherry Turkle

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Vivaldi | Concerto For Lute And Plucked Strings | I. Moderato | DZO Chamber Orchestra


We watched Wes Anderson’s magical film The Grand Budapest Hotel the other night and went to bed with bits of the soundtrack running through our heads. Hence this choice. One of the most striking things about the film is Robert Yeoman’s stunning cinematography. Time and again one sees shots that, if printed as stills, would win awards in photographic exhibitions.

Long Read of the Day

Seriously Susan

This piece by Melinda Harvey in the Sydney Review of Booksis an illuminating review of Benjamin Moser’s biography of Susan Sontag. What I loved about it is the freshness of the literary form she adopted for the review — an adaptation of the catechismic approach James Joyce famously deployed at one point in Ulysses.

– What do we want from biography?

Facts, certainly. Names, dates, places. What happened. Some setting of the record straight.

– More than that.

To go back in time. To see the individual in their context.

– More than that.

For the act of reading to take on the intimacy of a meeting. For the page to become flesh.

– More than even that.

To go inside. To understand what made a person tick.

– What made Susan Sontag tick?

According to Benjamin Moser, an alcoholic mother. But there was also a dead father and a desert childhood – both senses. What made Susan tick might have been shame.

– Why ‘shame’?

You get the idea. Read on to get the full impact.

David McCullough RIP

NYT obituary

Wonderful writer. I loved his histories of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, and his biography of Harry Truman. All still on my shelves.

My commonplace booklet

 Joël Robuchon’s Legacy Explained in Eight Dishes

How to make mashed potatoes into a work of art, plus seven other secrets of the Michelin trade. Heaven for foodies. But for us lesser beings, life’s too short.


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Wednesday 10 August, 2022

The UK’s very own Puzzle Palace

One of the rooms in (I think) Hut 6 in Bletchley Park, restored to its wartime condition. It was taken on a visit just before the restoration was completed. As an incurable pen geek, I was pleased to see that the mechanical pencils on some of the code-breakers’ desks were authentic for the period!

Quote of the Day

“Despite Conservative Party HQ’s best efforts to keep its membership data private, this much has been established by academics at the Party Members Project: Tory members are 96 per cent white, 66 per cent male, 68 per cent over 50 and about 15 per cent more likely than average to earn over £50,000 a year.”

  • Tortoise Media

This is the 160,000-strong ‘electorate’ that is currently busy choosing the UK’s next Prime Minister. If you wanted a token of the country’s ramshackle ‘constitution’ this would be hard to beat, though the US Republican party’s antics in the US run it a close second.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Hard Times Come Again No More | the Chieftains and Paolo Nutini


Impossible to count how many versions I’ve heard of this Stephen Foster song. On balance, though, I still prefer Thomas Hampson’s rendition.

Long Read of the Day

 Apropos Marshal McLuhan…

I don’t usually use this section to push my own stuff, but I was so intrigued by Ezra Klein’s essay (yesterday’s Long Read) that I dug out the text of a lecture on McLuhan I gave in the University of Copenhagen years ago in which I argued that, if anything, his media critique was more relevant to our networked ecosystem than it was to the TV-dominated one that he focussed on.

If you’re interested you can find the lecture, “Why the medium really is the message”, here

My commonplace booklet

Hertz says that its Tesla fleet of rental EVs are 50 per cent cheaper to maintain than fossil fuel cars.

Stands to reason — they don’t have complicated engines that provide motive power from a continuous series of controlled explosions. (That’s not to say that the way the auto industry managed to refine those explosions wasn’t a triumph of human ingenuity, but…).

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Tuesday 9 August, 2022

Acton this Day

Lord Acton (he of “power corrupts…’ fame) wearing one of my hats. His bust is in a back staircase in the University Library in Cambridge. I check on the old boy occasionally, just to make sure that he is still uncorrupted.

Quote of the Day

”I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself by finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

  • Isaac Newton

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Procol Harum | A Whiter Shade of Pale | with the Danish National Concert Orchestra and choir at Ledreborg Castle, Denmark in August 2006


Long Read of the Day I Didn’t Want It to Be True, but the Medium Really Is the Message

Thoughtful (and insightful) essay in The New York Times by Ezra Klein about the significance of our current media ecosystem .

Over the past decade, the narrative has turned against Silicon Valley. Puff pieces have become hit jobs, and the visionaries inventing our future have been recast as the Machiavellians undermining our present. My frustration with these narratives, both then and now, is that they focus on people and companies, not technologies. I suspect that is because American culture remains deeply uncomfortable with technological critique. There is something akin to an immune system against it: You get called a Luddite, an alarmist. “In this sense, all Americans are Marxists,” Postman wrote, “for we believe nothing if not that history is moving us toward some preordained paradise and that technology is the force behind that movement.”

I think that’s true, but it coexists with an opposite truth: Americans are capitalists, and we believe nothing if not that if a choice is freely made, that grants it a presumption against critique. That is one reason it’s so hard to talk about how we are changed by the mediums we use…

Thanks to Peter Sutherland for the link.

The futility of ambition

An abridged version of a fable by Heinrich Böll…

An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village late one morning when a small boat docked. Inside the small boat was just one fisherman who had already caught several large fish. The American complimented the fisherman on the fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The fisherman replied, “only a little while.”

The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish?

The Mexican said he had caught plenty enough to provide for his family’s needs for quite a while and even to give some fish away to others in the village.

The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, and stroll into the village where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.”

The American scoffed. “I am an experienced businessman and can help you,” he said. “You should spend more time fishing, and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could have a fleet of fishing boats, open up your own cannery and control all of the distribution,” he said. “Of course, you would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to a bigger city to run the expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will that all take?”

To which the American replied, “Oh, 15 to 20 years or so.”

“But what then?” asked the Mexican.

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time was right, you would sell your company and become very rich. You would make millions!”

“Millions – then what?” asked the Mexican.

The American said, “Then you could retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you could sleep late, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, and stroll to the village where you could sip wine and play guitar with your amigos.”

“I already do that,” said the Mexican fisherman.

Böll’s Irish Journal provides an interesting picture of the Ireland of my childhood. My countrymen were not entirely pleased with it, which perhaps is testimony to the author’s perceptiveness.

My commonplace booklet

More than 1,300 families apply to live rent-free on Inis Meáin for a year

Lovely story in the Irish Times. Inis Meáin is the smallest of the three Aran islands off the coast of Co Galway and a place to put on your Bucket List, if you have one.

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Monday 8 August, 2010

The Web Master

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, catching up on his email at a Royal Society symposium in September 2010

Quote of the Day

Just because nobody complains doesn’t mean all parachutes are perfect”

  • Benny Hill

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

An Droichead (The Bridge) | Liam O’Flynn and Mark Knopfler


Long Read of the Day

I Speak for the Earth

The article in Resurgence in which the late, great James Lovelock outlined the Gaia concept.

Let us imagine that you are in a grove of giant redwood trees on the coast of California and that you are standing on the stump of a tree that has just been felled. When standing it was a vast tree weighing over 2,000 tons and over 100 metres tall, a spire of lignin and cellulose, a tree that started life over 2,000 years ago.

A strange thing about this tree is that during its life nearly all of it was dead wood. As a tree grows there is just a thin skin of living tissue around the circumference; the wood inside is dead, as is the bark that protects the delicate tissue. More than 97% of the tree we stand on was dead before it was cut down.

Now in this way a tree is very like the Earth itself. Around the circumference on the surface of the Earth is a thin skin of living tissue of which both the trees and we humans are a part. The rocks beneath our feet are like the wood, and the air above is like the bark. Both are dead matter, but the air and rocks, like the wood and the bark, are either the direct products of life or have been greatly modified by its presence. Is it possible that the Earth is alive like the tree?

Do read on. It’s remarkable.

The end of ‘tech exceptionalism’?

Yesterday’s Observer column:

While the pandemic had put many conventional companies on life support, it looked as though it had consolidated the dominance of Alphabet (neé Google), Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple, making them the new masters of our networked universe.

And then something happened. On 19 November 2021 the Nasdaq stock market index (which is heavily influenced by tech companies) stood at an all-time high of 16,057, then suddenly went into rapid decline. As I write, it stands at 12,369. And so the question became: was this just what economists euphemistically call a “market correction” or an indicator that this particular speculative bubble had really burst?

The answer, if the quarterly figures released last week by the tech giants are anything to go by, is that it looks as though the bubble has at least been punctured…

Tinkerbell Truss

From Jonny Bloom’s blog

I had no idea that there was something called the Tinkerbell Effect, but there is. The term describes things that are thought to exist only because people believe in them.

Now it is now an economic principle as proposed by Liz Truss. If we close our eyes and believe in economic growth enough, the recession won’t happen.

It is true that expectations do alter economic behaviour but just banning the mention of the word recession and thinking that means it won’t happen is as realistic as Peter Pan…

The political party that brought the UK austerity, Brexit and other disasters is on track to install another fantasist as Prime Minister.

My commonplace booklet

What not to do when you see an avalanche heading in your direction

Don’t stay to make a nice holiday video. Link

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Friday 5 August, 2022

Madame Blanc

Quote of the Day

”Life is full of alternatives but no choice.”

  • Patrick White

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler | Going Home


We watched the film last night, and it was nice to be reminded of this, its theme music.

Long Read of the Day

How Lee Miller Out-Surrealed the Surrealists

Funny title for a nice essay in Aperture by Lauren Elkin on Lee Miller, a great photographer, artist, muse, war correspondent and professional chef

“One could say that Lee’s feel for the incongruities of daily life made her a Surrealist,” writes Lee Miller’s biographer, Carolyn Burke. Although she was never an official member of the group (according to Burke, she couldn’t abide André Breton), her feeling for incongruity and unexpected juxtapositions, for dreamlike imagery and tears in consciousness, her ability to perceive instabilities in apparently ordinary scenes, and her ethical commitments to getting the picture against all odds make her one of the movement’s great photographers.

Miller was surrounded by Surrealist men in both her personal and professional lives. Her mentor turned lover, Man Ray, introduced her to Surrealist art and artistic circles in late 1920s Paris; she starred in Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet (1930); her second husband, Roland Penrose, was an established practitioner of Surrealism in Britain and later a cofounder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. But while these influences were important to her, Miller had her own decided view of the world. “I think she’s a Surrealist from the beginning to the end,” says Patricia Allmer, author of Lee Miller: Photography, Surrealism, and Beyond (2016).

Read on…

My commonplace booklet

For My Next Death-Defying Stunt, I Will Ride My Bike in This Bike Lane

By Joe Wellman

This is no Dutch bike lane with a safe, modern design and well-funded construction. This is an American bike lane — a blood-pumping obstacle course of neglected asphalt and ideas from the 1970s…

Read on

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Thursday 4 August, 2022


Quote of the Day

”You can say what you like about long dresses, but they cover a multitude of shins.”

  • Mae West

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Die Zauberflöte |Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen | Simon Keelyside as Papageno


Preposterous and lovely.

Long Read of the Day

Instagram is dead

If you’re photographer, like me, Instagram seemed a good idea at the time it launched. I signed up to follow photographers whose work I knew and admired. But in the end I realised I could spend the entire day scrolling through their work, so I quit using it. Since then it’s gone the way of all ‘social media’ platforms — dominated by ‘influencers’ trying to get you to buy stuff. And, now, under the pressure of TikTok’s new dominance, Meta is effectively de-emphasising photos in favour of ‘reels’ — i.e. TikTok-like videos

This essay by Om Malik, a photographer I admire, does a good job of explaining how this happened.

Instagram’s co-founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger created a mobile social network based on visual storytelling. The impetus provided by the early photography-centric approach turned it into a fast-growing phenomenon. For Facebook, it was an existential threat. And it was worth spending nearly a billion dollars to own, control, and eventually subsume. And that’s precisely what Facebook has done.

What’s left is a constantly mutating product that copies features from “whomever is popular now” service — Snapchat, TikTok, or whatever. It is all about marketing and selling subs:tandard products and mediocre services by influencers with less depth than a sheet of paper.

Read on…

The era of big-tech exceptionalism may be over

Surprising Leader in The Economist

This year gravity has asserted itself once more. The tech-heavy nasdaq index is down by a quarter since January, half as much again as America’s broader stockmarket. Profitless not-so-big tech has been dragged down by anaemic revenue growth and high interest rates, which make the far-off earnings of firms like Snap look less valuable today. More surprising, despite generating piles of cash in the here and now, the giants are also feeling the tug of reality. On July 26th Alphabet reported its slowest quarterly sales growth since the bleak early months of the pandemic. Its share price rallied, though not enough to offset recent falls and only because expectations were even worse. A day later Meta said its sales fell year on year, for the first time ever.

America’s technology titans are suddenly having to contend with forces that have long plagued old-economy ceos: gummed-up supply chains, protectionism, worker shortages and competition. For [the tech giants], these constraints are something of a novelty. Its bosses had better get used to them.

Hope that’s the case.

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