This week’s election results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me neither.

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

“Under Starmer”, Ford writes,

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

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

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

Secondly, the post-Brexit education divide has intensified.

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

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

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

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


The backstory of an insurgent

Matt Stoller has a thought-provoking post about the Trump supporter who was shot while trying to break into the Speaker’s Chamber in the Capitol building on January 6. Her name is Ashli Babbitt and she was the subject of a New York Times profile, on which Stoller drew.

According to the New York Times, Babbitt was a 35 year-old woman from California who spent 14 years serving in the U.S. Air Force, deploying to both Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. government sent Babbitt abroad eight times, and though not every time was in a combat zone, such repeated deployments into violent areas tend to cause brain damage.

After her time at war, Babbitt had a modest propensity for violence, threatening a rival love interest by rear ending her with a car in 2016. She married, and bought a small business with her husband, a pool supply company called Fowlers Pool Service and Supply. There she ran into commercial problems common to small businesses these days.

She borrowed money at an extortionate rate (169%), then defaulted, but sued on the grounds that her lender had cheated her with too high of an interest rate. She lost, as “courts have held that such arrangements don’t amount to loans and are not bound by usury laws.” At which point she became more into politics through social media, and then was sucked into the QAnon conspiracy-theory-cum-cult.

So, says Stoller,

here’s the profile of a rioter, a working class person who went overseas eight times in military service, including two combat zones, who then tried her hand at a small business where financial predators and monopolists lurked. She then fell in with conspiratorial social media, and turned into a violent rioter who, like most of the rioters, thought she was defending America by overturning an election.

It’s easy to mock this kind of thinking, to see rioters as losers or racists. And no doubt there’s a strain of deep-seated racial animus that is with us and always will be, but I think ascribing all of it to such an explanation is too simple. Racist or no, Babbitt really was at one point a patriotic American, serving in the military for over half her adult life. More broadly, she’s far from alone in expressing rage at the status quo. There have protests against the existing social order for almost a decade, starting with the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and then Black Lives Matter in 2014 and accelerating into protests and riots earlier this year. I’ve written about the relationship between unrest and corporate power in the context of those protests, a sense of alienation that normal political channels, that politics itself is not a realistic path for addressing social problems.

Babbitt, he argues,

was both an adult making dangerous political choices, and a product of our policy regime, having been a soldier in a violent unnecessary war and trying to make her way a society that enables predators to make money through financial chicanery and addictive products. She chose poorly, but she also had few choices to make, one of which was getting on social media and being lured into joining a violent and paranoid cult of personality.

As everyone and his dog has realised by now, the shambolic insurgency on January 6 has been a long-time building. It was the culmination of a decade-long process of alienation, inequality, white supremacy and right-wing and neo-fascist resurgence. But it leaves the US with an almost existential problem.

There are, Stoller thinks, only two paths in a representative democracy which has a large group of its citizens who live in a cult-like artificial world of misinformation, and many more who rightly or wrongly don’t trust any political institution.

One is to try to strip these people of representation and political power; that is the guiding idea behind removing Trump, as well as a whole host of conservatives, off of Silicon Valley platforms that have become essential to modern society.

The trouble is that “removing these people is a choice to not have a society, to pretend that we can put these people into a closet somewhere and ignore them.”

It’s not going to work.

The alternative Stoller sees is less dramatic.

We can take on the legal framework behind social media so these products aren’t addictive and radicalizing. As I’ve written, there are legal immunities and policy choices that allow Facebook to profit in especially toxic ways through compiling detailed user profiles and targeting them with ads. If we change how social media companies make money, we can change how these services operate to make them socially beneficial instead of engines of radicalization.

Yep. The business model is the key to this. If it’s not brought under control then the game’s up. So there is an urgent connection between antitrust and other forms of regulation and the future of the US as a functioning democracy. Trump may or may not be finished, but the line of elected Republican presidential-hopefuls who lined up in the Senate and House to try to overturn the election shows that the supply-line of prospective autocrats is flowing nicely.

Thursday 26 November, 2020

100 Not Out — my lockdown diary — is now out in a Kindle version!

You can get it here.


The World Wide Cobweb

In our garden, one frosty morning.


Quote of the Day

“If I could explain it to the average person I wouldn’t have been worth the Nobel prize.”

  • Physicist Richard Feynman

(Not entirely correct: remember his famous explication of the O-ring failure that caused the Challenger disaster.)


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Joan Baez & Mary Chapin Carpenter sing “Catch the Wind” Live in concert

Link


Thanksgiving

Dave Winer has a nice post on his blog:

I’m sure we’ve lost a lot in the last four years that we don’t yet know about, especially in 2020. But the United States is still the United States. Journalism tends to make it appear worse than it is. In day to day life, at least where I live, things are much the same as before. The store shelves are still full. You can still buy a wonderful meal. Want to buy a car? You can. The roads are clear. Gas stations have gas. Supply chains work. The health care system is a mess, as before, but much worse right now. The laws for the most part are enforced (except for you know who and his friends). Western civilization created and tested three highly effective vaccines in record time. We did this. To Americans who hate elites, if you understand these sentences, you might want to think again about living in a country that values education, science and math enough to get these things done, pronto, when needed, to save your life. Yours. You. Now we’re going to try to get our political system to work for us again. Maybe you can possibly not get in the way of that? I know that’s a lot to hope for. :-)

It is.


Long read of the Day

Neoliberalism: the idea that swallowed the world

Very useful Guardianessay by Stephen Metcalf on an important concept that has become debased through casual usage and by being ‘weaponised’ by all and sundry.

In short, “neoliberalism” is not simply a name for pro-market policies, or for the compromises with finance capitalism made by failing social democratic parties. It is a name for a premise that, quietly, has come to regulate all we practise and believe: that competition is the only legitimate organising principle for human activity…


The dog that didn’t bark yesterday

From Jonty Bloom’s blog:

The dog that didn’t bark in yesterday’s statement from the Chancellor was the word Brexit. It didn’t get a mention yet it hangs over the economy like a dark cloud, at least according to the Office for Budget Responsibility; the Government’s own number crunchers.

I thought the figures sounded pretty good, a no deal Brexit will end up with the economy being 2% smaller than it would otherwise have been. Not too bad really, until I realised that was 2% on top of the 4% hit from Brexit with a Free Trade Agreement. So 6% in total if the talks which only have weeks to run end up without a deal.

To put that in context, 2% is about our annual average growth rate in the last ten years, or our entire annual defence budget or three times our foreign aid budget. 6% is three years growth, or three times what we spend on defence or a more than half what we spend on the NHS. That money will have to come from somewhere else, higher taxes or lower spending but will we notice?

Those losses don’t come as one hit but as slightly slower growth over many years. Will we still be blaming Brexit for slightly lower growth in, 1, 2 or 5 years time? I doubt it.


Why are we so obsessed with ‘saving Christmas’?

Great essay by Tim Harford.

We said our goodbyes to my mother on Christmas Eve 1996. She had died earlier in December after a long and painful illness, but when the end came it was sudden. It can’t have been straightforward to arrange a funeral service on Christmas Eve, the churches being put to other uses, but somehow my father managed it; the children’s stockings were filled as well.

I think I speak with some knowledge of what does or does not ruin Christmas.

It has been baffling, then, to watch the speculation in the British press about whether Boris Johnson will “save Christmas”, as though he were some over-promoted elf in a seasonal movie. (It is, admittedly, a role he is better qualified to play than that of prime minister.) Apparently, the thinking is that if the country is still in lockdown in late December, Christmas is ruined. If lockdown is lifted, as expected, in early December, Christmas is saved.

Given how desperate Boris Johnson is to be liked, my money is on the latter scenario. What makes this so absurd is that in the big scheme of things, Christmas doesn’t matter. Don’t get me wrong: I love Christmas as much as the next man, even if the next man is a reformed Ebenezer Scrooge. But when it comes to catching up with my family, I’d rather not risk giving everyone the unintended gift of Covid-19, whether or not it is legal to do so.

As for the economy, the Christmas boom is smaller than you might think. Joel Waldfogel, author of Scroogenomics, estimates that for every £100 we spend across a typical year in the UK, just over 50 pence is part of the December Christmas boom.

Of course, some retailers and restaurants will be badly hit if Christmas spending is prevented by lockdown rules. But we should be honest about the situation: large sections of the economy have already been devastated, and that would be true with or without legal restrictions. Few people want to attend pantomimes in a pandemic.

Lovely piece. Worth reading in full.


Why I use BBEdit

I’ve used a marvellous plain-text editor — BBEdit — for many years. (All my journalism is written with it.) Bare Bones Software, the outfit that created it, has just announced that it now runs natively on the new Apple M1 CPU. I’m not surprised: they’ve always been ahead of the game.

Turns out, I’m not the only fan. John Gruber is another; I just came across this story on his blog:

I was several hundred words into my iPhone 12 review last month, went to get another cup of coffee, came back, and boom, the MacBook Pro I was using had kernel panicked. This machine hadn’t kernel panicked in years. It hasn’t kernel panicked again since. Murphy’s Law was trying to screw me.

I hadn’t saved what I’d written yet. Now, it was only a few hundred words, but they were an important few hundred words, the ones that got me started. The words that got the wheels turning, that got momentum going.

Rebooted. Took a sip of coffee. Logged in.

Looked at BBEdit. There it was. Right where I left off.

That’s BBEdit.

Yep.


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • The vintage beauty of Soviet control rooms. Just thinking: they’d make terrific Zoom backgrounds. Hmmm… Link

  • How to get good at chess. Lovely piece by Stephen Moss. Link (Thinks: I need to get to work: my 7yo grandson has taken it up and challenged his Grandpa to an online match.)

  • What the former Home Office Permanent Secretary & GCHQ Director Sir David Omand thinks of the Priti Patel scandal. Link. Marvellously forthright and spot on.


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Sunday 15 November, 2020

Metropolitan life


Quote of the Day

”A trip through a sewer in a glass-bottomed boat.”

  • Wilson Mezner, describing his time in Hollywood.

Musical alternative to the radio news of the Day

Mark Knopfler | Going Home | Royal Albert Hall | 2019

Link


When it comes to Amazon, breaking up is hard to do

This morning’s Observer column

The European commission has opened an antitrust investigation of Amazon, on the grounds that the company has breached EU antitrust rules against distorting competition in online retail markets. Amazon, says the commission, has been using its privileged access to non-public data of independent sellers who sell on its marketplace to benefit the parts of its own retail business that directly compete with those third-party sellers. The commission has also opened a second investigation into the possible preferential treatment of Amazon’s own retail offers compared with those of marketplace sellers that use Amazon’s logistics and delivery services.

The good news about this is not so much that the EU is taking action as that it is doing so in an intelligently targeted manner. Too much of the discourse about tech companies in the last two years has been about “breaking them up”. But “break ’em up” is a slogan, not a policy, and it has a kind of Trumpian ring to it. The commission is avoiding that.

It is also avoiding another trap – that of generally labelling Amazon as a “monopoly”…

Read on


Long Read of the Day

Welcome to Apple: A one-party state

The tech giants have as much money and influence as nations. So what if we reported on them like countries? What would Apple be? A liberal China…

Read on


The generational impact of Moore’s law

Lovely post by Venkatesh Rao about the mindset induced by living in a world governed by Moore’s Law.

Moore’s Law was first proposed in 1965, then again in revised form in 1975. Assuming an 18-month average doubling period for transistor density (it was ~1 year early on, and lately has been ~3y) there have been about 40 doublings since the first IC in 1959. If you ever go to Intel headquarters in San Jose, you can visit the public museum there that showcases this evolution.

The future of Moore’s law seems uncertain, but it looks like we’ll at least get to 1-3 nanometer chips in the next decade (we were at 130nm at the beginning of the century, and the first new computer I bought had a 250nm Celeron processor). Beyond 1-3nm, perhaps we’ll get to different physics with different scaling properties, or quantum computing. Whatever happens, I think we can safely say Gen X (1965-80) will have had lives nearly exactly coincident with Moore’s Law (we’ll probably die off between 2045-85).

While there have been other technologies in history with spectacular price/performance curves (interchangeable parts technology for example), there is something special about Moore’s Law, since it applies to a universal computing substrate that competes with human brains.

GenXers are Moore’s Law people. We came of age during its heyday…

Original and interesting, like almost everything Rao writes. Worth reading in full.


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Diane Coyle’s Longlist for the economics book of 2020. Link. Damn: I’ve only read one of them.And she’s missed out Zachary Carter’s fine biography of Keynes (and Keynesianism).

  • iFixit’s iPhone 12 mini teardown looks at how Apple fit so much into such a tiny device. iFixit does wonderful analyses of intricate devices. This ‘teardown’ of the new mini version of the iPhone 12 is a gem. Link

  • Hermione Lee on what it’s like writing a biography of a living subject. Link In her case it’s the playwright Tom Stoppard. The book is out — and on my list. My friend Gerard is enjoying it. And I loved her biography of Virginia Woolf.


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Friday 13 November, 2020

Sitting drakes

By the river Cam


Quote of the Day

“Yes, yes, Mr Burne-Jones, but what does one do with the Grail once one has found it?”

  • Benjamin Jowett, inspecting the artist’s newly completed Arthurian murals in the Oxford Union.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bob Dylan – Forever Young (Slow Version) Link


Cummings and goings

Vote Leave genius departing, with cardboard box.

And here’s how the Financial Times reported it:

Sometimes, a week really is a short time in politics.


Democracy dies in complacency

One of the things I remember about 2016 was the misplaced complacency of so many liberals about the absurdity of (a) the prospect of a Trump presidency and (b) the fact that he would pose any serious danger to the republic even if he were elected. I’m having the same feelings about the complacency surrounding the apparent absurdity of Trump’s railings against the rigged and fraudulent election that is supposedly denying him a second term.

On the one hand…

Can Trump Still Win? No. He’s Already Lost. – The New York Times 

The establishment view is that Biden’s succession is secure. All that remains is some tidying up, certification of votes by states, etc. And the then the Electoral College meets and Biden’s election is formally confirmed.

On the other hand…

Why is the Republican establishment apparently supporting Trump’s nonsense and funding legal challenges to the electoral results in several states?

Trump’s big election lie pushes America toward autocracy – The Boston Globe

and

Republicans aren’t conceding – and Democrats are bringing a knife to a gun fight – David Sirota – The Guardian

It seems unlikely that there’s something really sinister going on — if there were it would surely have been picked up. Or is there some stunt that’s being planned to delay the final results of the counts to the point where the decision on a state’s delegates to the electoral college is left to Republican governors of those states?


Long read of the Day

Kurt Vonnegut: the Paris Review interview

Unforgettable interview. He was a prisoner of war in Dresden the night the city was firebombed — which was the origin of his Slaughterhouse Five.


Vaccine hysteria: the stock market is crazy — as usual

A quote I picked up from a newsletter today — and I can’t remember which!

For the first time in forever, investors snapped up beaten down “value” stocks including airlines like American along with travel and leisure companies. The Covid-induced collapse in travel and non-homebound entertainment crushed these stocks the last nine months.

At the same time, investors dumped high-flying tech companies like Netflix, Zoom and Amazon on the theory that we will all soon evacuate our work-from-home caves and trudge to our offices, see movies in theatres and shop in real life stores.

Wait, really? Hang on. This all seems pretty nuts.

It is.


Other, hopefully, interesting links

  • Why We Sigh. Link.
  • One in five Covid-19 patients are diagnosed with a mental illness within three months. Which is why being blasé about younger people catching it is foolish. Link.
  • Matt Drudge abandons Trump.. Seems there’s no honour among sleazebags. Link

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Wednesday 11 November, 2020

Geometry in stone

The Gibbs Building, King’s College, Cambridge.


Quote of the Day

”Saints should always be presumed guilty until they are proved innocent.”

  • George Orwell

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Abide with me | Sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Link

Music for Armistice Day. I’m not a religious person, but I do think the Anglicans have terrific hymns. This is one of them.


Long read of the Day

 The cheap pen that changed writing forever

An irresistible essay if, like me, you’re fascinated by the tools we use to write.


A vaccine will provide an interesting test of the power (or lack thereof) of social media

Very thoughtful Covid Diary post by David Vincent:

A succession of studies during the pandemic have described the scale of the anti-vax movement and the strength of its online presence (see also posts on July 7, July 15, August 11). Politico reports a Eurobarometer survey stating that nearly half of Europeans believe that vaccines are a danger to health. Last month The Lancet carried a story based on a study made by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate. It found that one in six British people were unlikely to agree to being vaccinated, and a similar proportion were undecided. Traffic on social media was growing. Globally, 31 million people followed anti-vaccine groups on Facebook and 17 million were subscribing to similar accounts on YouTube. A more parochial investigation of Totness published this week in the Guardian, found a thriving Facebook community opposed to face masks, lockdown, and vaccination.

It might be argued that such surveys do not matter. Despite the Pfizer breakthrough, there is no vaccine available today, no real-life decision to make. Opinion is bound to change once there is a call from the GP surgery. The question is what the take-up will then be, given that the online anti-vax movement is evidently capable to responding negatively to any claimed medical advance. It needs to be somewhere near 95% fully to eradicate the virus.

The issue constitutes an interesting case history for the capacity of digital communication to shape private behaviour. There is a tendency in the critical literature to assume that networked messages have a direct effect on the actions of those who receive them. That is what power means. The fertility of the conspiracies, the scale of the readership and of the investment in them by advertisers, lead to the expectation that consumers will do things they otherwise would not do if they relied solely on more traditional forms of communication.

In this instance the online-messaging will compete with conventional newspaper, radio and television outlets which at least in Britain are united in their support of the scientific breakthrough, even though some opponents are finding their way onto chat shows. For all the damage caused to the standing of politicians and administrators during the pandemic, medical researchers retain authority. The roll-out of the vaccine will start with care-home residents, who are unlikely to be spending their enclosed days following Facebook conspiracy theories, and with eighty-year-olds in the community who will not share the online-habits of eighteen year-olds. Then there are the opinions of close friends and relatives whose views you respect and whose respect you do not want to lose.

I dare not contemplate the response were I to tell my children that I have decided to let nature take its course.

Typically astute post. I agree with him that the vaccine will be an interesting test case. People say all kinds of misleading and/or daft things to the poor wretches who work for polling companies. But I’m willing to bet that if proof of vaccination becomes the criterion deciding whether you can legally resume some semblance of ‘normal’ life, then there will be few refuseniks.

See also David’s elegant riposte to Milord Sumption who, in his Cambridge Freshfields Lecture of October 27, denounced the political response to the pandemic as “the most significant interference with personal freedom in the history of our country.”

For some reason, I always think of Lord Sumption as Lord Sumptuous. He reminds me of a cat which has not only swallowed the cream, but has also obtained a controlling interest in United Dairies. As David observes, he is “a wearer of power braces, a man with a high regard for both his principles and his intellect.”


The technological is now geopolitical

Here’s Steve Blank on “The Chip Wars of the 21st Century” in the Texas National Security Review:

Controlling advanced chip manufacturing in the 21st century may well prove to be like controlling the oil supply in the 20th. The country that controls this manufacturing can throttle the military and economic power of others. The United States recently did this to China by limiting Huawei’s ability to outsource its in-house chip designs for manufacture by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), a Taiwanese chip foundry. China may respond and escalate via one of its many agile strategic options short of war, perhaps succeeding in coercing the foundry to stop making chips for American companies. If negotiations fail, China might take drastic measures, turning the tables on the United States. On the more modest end of the spectrum, China might start some type of trade war with Taiwan to ensure access, following the playbook Beijing used to coerce Korea over Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) or Australia over its recent decision to lead a call for investigating the origins of the novel coronavirus. On the more extreme end, these Taiwanese chip foundries might be subject to an aggressive campaign of sabotage. And even though observers of the region might downplay the risk, it is not impossible that this could be used as a part of a casus belli for China’s long-held desire to reunify by force. Such is the importance of chips in this era.

Either way, Washington should be worried. If the United States were to be deprived of access to these foundries, the U.S. defense and consumer electronics industries would be set back for at least five years. Moreover, because China is investing in its own chip foundries, it could become the world leader in technology for the next decade or more. That’s why it was encouraging to see Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate propose $25 billion to help America’s semiconductor industry. But this should only be the start…

Interesting essay. It would have been even more worrying if Trump had won. The big question is whether US pressure on the Chinese tech companies could eventually lead China to move on Taiwan. Unlikely, still, but…  


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Monday 9 November, 2020


Quote of the Day

”To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle.”

  • George Orwell

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Pete Seeger – This Land is Your Land

Link

Just right for today. Thanks to Janet Cobb for suggesting it.


Long read of the Day

The town that went feral Wonderful review essay by Patrick Blanchfield on A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (and Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling. Raises the question of how often it happens that a review is almost better than the book — thought in this case the book seems pretty good too. The resulting enjoyment is an emergent property of the book+review system.

Thanks to Alina Utrata for alerting me to it.


Joe Biden and me

Yesterday’s post about the fact that Joe Biden’s ancestors came from Ballina, the town where I was born, prompted a flow of satirical comments in the WhatsApp channel of my extended family across the Irish Sea. The one I enjoyed most was this:


Trump may be leaving the White House, but he will always be with us. Alas.

Anne Applebaum explains:

While you watch Donald Trump’s presidency stagger to its ugly end, always keep in mind how it began: Trump entered the political world on the back of the “birther” conspiracy theory, a movement whose importance was massively underestimated at the time. Aside from its racist undertones, think about what a belief in birtherism really implied. If you doubted that Barack Obama was born in the United States—and about a third of Americans did, including 72 percent of registered Republicans—then that meant you also believed that Obama was an illegitimate president. That meant, in other words, you believed that everyone—the entire American political, judicial, and media establishment, including the White House and Congress, the federal courts and the FBI, all of them—was complicit in a gigantic plot to swindle the public into accepting this false commander in chief. A third of Americans had so little faith in American democracy, broadly defined, they were willing to think that Obama’s entire presidency was a fraud.

That third of Americans went on to become Trump’s base. Over four years, they continued to applaud him, no matter what he did, not because they necessarily believed everything he said, but often because they didn’t believe anything at all. If everything is a scam, who cares if the president is a serial liar? If all American politicians are corrupt, then so what if the president is too? If everyone has always broken the rules, then why can’t he do that too?

Applebaum’s argument is that while Trump’s current behaviour may seem pathetic or oathologically erratic, it is in fact part of a longer-term strategy:

Even if Trump is forced to make a grudging concession speech, even if Biden is sworn in as president on January 20, even if the Trump family is forced to pack its Louis Vuitton suitcases and flee to Mar-a-Lago, it is in Trump’s interest, and a part of the Republican Party’s interest, to maintain the fiction that the election was stolen. That’s because the same base, the base that distrusts American democracy, could still be extremely useful to Trump, as well as to the Republican Party, in years to come.

Certainly these voters can be used to discredit and demean Biden’s presidency. Just as Trump once helped convince millions of Americans that Obama was illegitimate, so he will now seek to convince Americans that Biden is illegitimate…

Sorry to make you choke on your muesli, but there might be something in this.


On the first news of a possible vaccine, what happens?

First, Pfizer makes the announcement. Then,

Zoom shares fall like a stone.


Other, possibly interesting, links

  • Zoom lied to users about end-to-end encryption for years, FTC says. Democrats blast FTC/Zoom settlement because users won’t get compensation.Link

  • Biden has a plan for tackling Covid-19. Link. Trouble is, he doesn’t yet have any authority to act.

  • Danny Kuo’s Staircase. How to build storage vertically. Clever and functional. Link


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Sunday 8 November, 2020


Quote of the Day

“Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.”

  • H.L. Mencken

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Blackbird | Sharon Shannon | 2011

Link

Nobody who’s been to a Sharon Shannon concert will ever make the mistake of thinking that an accordion is merely a squeeze-box.


The sweet-bitter moment

Don’t get me wrong: I’m delighted — and relieved — that Joe Biden won. But I’m also afraid that his Presidency might be just a brief interlude in an inexorable downhill slide towards autocracy because he’ll be governing a polity that is fundamentally broken, and he will lack the levers needed to reverse the slide. It’s the sheer narrowness of his win that’s so alarming. 48m Americans voted for Trump. And this time they did not have the excuse that they didn’t know what he was like, or what he stood for.

1 But first, the sweet side of all this. Joe Biden and I have two things in common. The first is that we both hail from the same town in Ireland — Ballina in Co Mayo although his connections go back some distance in time — to the Great Famine of the 1850s in fact. His great-great-great grandfather, Edward Blewitt, had been a surveyor who had worked on the Ordnance Survey and, during the extremes of the famine, was employed to run schemes for alleviating the plight of the poor in the district. But eventually, dismayed by the futility of the exercise, he emigrated to the US and set himself up as a land-surveyor in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He died there, 20 years after he had left Ballina. The rest is now history. (Biden was born in Scranton.)

I was born in Ballina in 1946, and lots of my extended family still live there and thereabouts. Rightly, this momentous event is largely unrecorded — unlike the birth, two years earlier, of Mary Bourke who — as Mary Robinson — became Ireland’s first woman President (and who I met when Cambridge was the first university to give her an honorary degree after she became President. She and I had a very funny conversation about Ballina at a tea-party after the degree ceremony, but that’s a story for another time.) So I look forward to the moment when those two Presidents — one former, the other new, finally get to meet.

The other thing we have in common is that we both love the poetry of Seamus Heaney. During the campaign, Biden remembered the appositeness of Heaney’s great poem, The Cure at Troy. Here’s a snatch of him reading from it:

Link

2 Now the bitter side. Unless something unexpected happens — for example, the Democrats managing to scrape a majority together in the Senate — Biden will be completely hamstrung by Mitch McConnell. Not a single piece of significant legislation will make it onto the Statute Book. It will be like Obama all over again — although the mood music will be very different.

But the most worrying thing is the number of people who voted for Trump, and what they might represent for the future.


Robert Fisk (RIP): Meeting Osama bin Laden

A nice reminder of a great journalist:

One hot evening in late June 1996, the telephone on my desk in Beirut rang with one of the more extraordinary messages I was to receive as a foreign correspondent. “Mr Robert, a friend you met in Sudan wants to see you,” said a voice in English but with an Arabic accent. At first I thought he meant another man, whose name I suggested. “No, no, Mr Robert, I mean the man you interviewed. Do you understand?” Yes, I understood. And where could I meet this man? “The place where he is now,” came the reply. I knew that Bin Laden was rumoured to have returned to Afghanistan but there was no confirmation of this. So how do I reach him? I asked. “Go to Jalalabad – you will be contacted.”

A month later. “CLACK-CLACK-CLACK.” It was as if someone was attacking my head with an ice-pick. “CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK.” I sat up. Someone was banging a set of car keys against the window of my room in the Spinghar Hotel. “Misssster Robert,” a voice whispered urgently. “Misssster Robert.” He hissed the word “Mister.” Yes, yes, I’m here. “Please come downstairs, there is someone to see you.” It registered only slowly that the man must have climbed the ancient fire escape to reach the window of my room. I dressed, grabbed a coat – I had a feeling we might travel in the night – and almost forgot my old Nikon. I walked as calmly as I could past the reception desk and out into the early afternoon heat…

Great read.


Fox News to Trump: “You’re fired!”

Nice column by Jack Shafer.

The fractures were there from the start. Trump insisted on wearing the pants in the family, and when supplication didn’t flow from Fox News Channel he would make eyes at OAN and Newsmax, which rankled Murdoch. Trump also demands loyalty for the pleasure of his intimacies, and Murdoch couldn’t abide. He has famously called Trump a “phony“ and “fucking idiot,” and as early as the summer of 2017 was not deterring his many journalistic outlets from sniping at Trump and his family. One of the biggest anti-Trump stories, about the president’s mistresses, was broken by Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, and Fox’s Chris Wallace bedeviled the president during the reelection campaign with a slashing interview.

The final cause for separation, if you want to call it that, came on Election Night, when Fox became the first to call Arizona for Joe Biden, the New York Times reported, prompting Jared Kushner to contact Rupert Murdoch and a Trump aide to demand a retraction. For the Trump team, this had to be a bigger betrayal than finding Rupert in bed with Bernie Sanders. As liberals blinked hard in astonishment and began discovering a sudden, unfamiliar respect for Fox over its projection, there wasn’t much marriage left to save. Trump and Fox had only the details of the split to resolve.

Trump was useful to Murdoch and Fox for a while. Now he isn’t.


The ‘Crown Consultancy’ idea: stop outsourcing thinking

From the FT…

Boris Johnson’s government is quietly working on creating its own in-house consultancy arm — dubbed “Crown Consultancy” — to cut its dependence on high-charging private sector firms.

The idea, driven by efficiency minister Theodore Agnew and championed by Downing Street adviser Dominic Cummings, would bring bright civil servants and graduates together in a new division to improve delivering policies across Whitehall.

There’s a lot of reliance on consultancies,” said one official close to the project. “It would be sensible to look at what we can do internally, rather than externally.”

There have long been concerns over the spiralling costs spent on consultants by the government. According to the research firm Tussell the UK government spent £2.6bn on just eight consultancies between 2016 and 2020. These were: the UK firms PwC, KPMG, Deloitte, EY and PA Consulting; the US firms McKinsey, Bain, and Boston Consulting Group. Once, when I was working on a small consultancy gig in Whitehall, I was in the same office as a group of ‘consultants’ from one of the big firms. They had been drafted in at short notice because one of the Department’s junior ministers was pathologically unable to sign off any proposal unless he could cover his ass by having it vetted beforehand by one of the big consulting firms. They sent in a bunch of fresh-faced graduates who seemed to know very little about government. These kids beavered away for a week, mostly just interviewing the civil servants involved in the decision, and then wrote up the interviews into a ‘report’ (no doubt accompanied by a slide deck). They were billed at £2,500 per day, which in those days was real money. The whole thing was clearly an established kind of racket: the firms were security blankets for ministers — and, sometimes, for civil servants. For the firms, the government was the gift that kept on giving.

The FT piece has a nice quote, which rings true to me:

Lord Agnew, a former businessman now based in the Cabinet Office, last month claimed in a leaked letter that Whitehall had been “infantilised” by “an unacceptable” reliance on expensive consultants.

Precisely. This is just about the only thing on which Dominic Cummings and I agree.


The gig economy is here to stay. Now let’s humanise it

This morning’s Observer column.

the gig economy might provide a useful case study. At the moment, most of the challenges to platform-based enterprises such as Uber and Deliveroo have involved trying to shoehorn them into legal frameworks that were designed for a pre-platform age. This is a piecemeal approach that has so far produced erratic results. In February, for example, a French court ruled that a Deliveroo courier should be treated as an employee rather than a contractor. In September, Spain’s supreme court made a similar ruling about another delivery startup, Glovo, after lower courts had made a series of contradictory rulings.

We can’t go on like this. A better way of thinking about it would be to recognise that we’re in a position analogous to that of Britain in the 1830s and 1840s when parliament passed the Factory Acts to regulate the conditions of novel kinds of employment as the Industrial Revolution roared ahead. The Factories Act of 1847, for example, colloquially known as the 10 Hours Act, met a long-standing demand by mill workers for a 10-hour day. Other legislation regulated the use of child labour and other practices.

We need that kind of comprehensive approach to the gig economy because, as other kinds of employment get automated away, it will be what provides employment for an increasing number of people (just as the factories of industrialising Britain provided jobs for people coming off the land)…


Other, possibly interesting, links

  • Books to read in lockdown. From the Irish Times Link
  • QAnon Followers Frustrated After Q Calls For Respecting Election Results, Uniting Behind Biden. Yes, you read that correctly. But remember, it’s from The Onion. Link.

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Friday 6 November, 2020

Quote of the Day

“How is it possible to feel too old to learn TikTok dances but too young to be this out of touch?”

  • Hip couple in a New Yorker cartoon.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Don McClean | Starry, Starry Night | Live

Link

His tribute to Vincent Van Gogh.


America’s Next Authoritarian Will Be Much More Competent

Sobering and insightful essay by Zeynep Tufecki, who is one of the sharpest minds writing about our current catastrophes.

TL;DR summary: Trump was ineffective and easily beaten. A future strongman won’t be.

Trump is just one more example of the many populists on the right who have risen to power around the world: Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, my home country. These people win elections but subvert democratic norms: by criminalizing dissent, suppressing or demonizing the media, harassing the opposition, and deploying extra-legal mechanisms whenever possible (Putin’s opponents have a penchant for meeting tragic accidents). Orbán proudly uses the phrase illiberal democracy to describe the populism practiced by these men; Trump has many similarities to them, both rhetorically and policy-wise.

But there’s one key difference between Trump and everyone else on that list. The others are all talented politicians who win elections again and again.

In contrast, Trump is a reality-TV star who stumbled his way into an ongoing realignment in American politics, aided by a series of events peculiar to 2016 that were fortunate for him: The Democrats chose a polarizing nominee who didn’t have the requisite political touch that can come from surviving tough elections; social media was, by that point, deeply entrenched in the country’s politics, but its corrosive effects were largely unchecked; multiple players—such as then–FBI Director James Comey—took consequential actions fueled by their misplaced confidence in Hillary Clinton’s win; and Trump’s rivals in the Republican primaries underestimated him. He drew a royal flush.

But ‘Trumpism’ is now a powerful force in American democracy — a contemporary kind of Peronism. And soon or later a really astute demagogue in the Orban/Erdogan league will spot its potential.

Interesting also to see the signs that the Republicans are done with Trump. When Fox called Arizona for Biden and Trump phoned Rupert Murdoch to demand a retraction, Murdoch curtly refused. For him and Mitch McConnell and the others Trump has been a useful idiot. He delivered what they wanted — tax cuts, umpteen Conservative senior judges and a stacked Supreme Court. So he’s now surplus to requirements — and becoming a real embarrassment, even to them. So he’s toast. He just doesn’t know it yet.


Lockdown sceptics vs zero-Covid: who’s got it right?

Tim Harford has a really good post on his blog, bringing his customary tone of good sense and rationality to a debate that has become vicious (especially in the Tory party):

Some lockdown sceptics have advanced a variety of dishonest or deluded views over the course of the pandemic. Months ago, one correspondent wrote to assure me that the infection fatality rate was just one in 2,000. This implies 33,500 deaths if the whole UK population was infected. We have suffered 67,500 excess deaths; am I to conclude that we have all had the virus twice? Then, in what now looks like a line from a Shakespearean tragedy, there is Donald Trump’s early declaration: “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”

But there is an honest argument against lockdowns — namely that while the disease is dangerous, the lockdown cure is worse. The virus has the power to kill many more people than died in the first wave. Yet in England and Wales, the vast majority of those who have died were 65 or over, with two-thirds of them aged 75 or over. The honest lockdown sceptic asks, is it wise or fair to impose radical limits on the freedom of all with no apparent end in sight? Thousands of lives are being saved — but millions of young people are seeing their prospects sacrificed. Is their sacrifice worthwhile?

The zero-Covid position reaches the opposite conclusion from the same starting point: since there will be no end to the suffering as long as the virus is circulating, the answer is to eliminate the virus in the UK and Ireland. We are island nations, like New Zealand. If community transmission can be stopped, then border controls — plus contact tracing for the occasional outbreak — can keep the virus out.

The most prominent British advocates of the zero-Covid approach are the scientists calling themselves “Independent Sage”. In July, they explained that the first step would be to apply lockdowns until we reached “control”, defined as one new case per million people per day. Thereafter, a contact- tracing system, plus support for people in isolation, would eliminate the virus on these shores.

Both sides of this debate hold out tempting rewards if only we are willing to suffer now. But both are mistaken. Zero-Covid looks prohibitively costly for European countries. A relentless lockdown would be needed even to reach the “control” step, with no guarantee against backsliding.

And his conclusion. There’s no magic bullet, just hard slog and competence, bot alien concepts to the Johnson administration.

Germany has learnt to live with the virus as a constant yet contained threat. The secret is no secret: lockdown suppressed the virus enough to allow contact tracing, mask-wearing and general vigilance to take over. In July, at a time when the British were still emerging from their homes, blinking in the sunlight, I visited Bavaria. Masks and sanitisers were everywhere, but it was thriving.

The UK had the same opportunity but we are squandering it. Our contact-tracing system was slow to grind into action, our testing capacity was overwhelmed by the predictable surge in demand as schools reopened and, most recently, a technical error led to many thousands of positive test results not entering the contact tracing system promptly.

Forget the clash of grand ideas, of Sweden versus New Zealand. Just stop bungling the basics. It is not much of a slogan. But it might just be a solution.

Great post.


How introducing friction into a communications system improves things

The holy grail of geeks is to make things “frictionless” — to do away with all the cumbersome blockages and delays of analog life. And, to a great extent, they have achieved their goal — to make everything just a click away — in the process achieving what the economist Ronald Coase envisaged in his great 1937 article, “The Nature of the Firm”. In that, he explained why it is that people choose to form partnerships, companies and other business entities rather than trading bilaterally through contracts on a market. (It was all about whether the ‘transaction costs’ of contracting out were higher than the costs of doing it inside the organisation: that’s why the great US automobile firms wound up running rubber plantations in tropical countries.) One of the most important affordances of the Internet was that it often dramatically reduced transaction costs, and therefore changed the shape of corporations.

As the so-called “marketplace of ideas” was inexorably sucked into social media, the same affordance was deployed. The transaction cost of having to copy and paste a piece of information before passing it on to someone else was retuced to zero with a simple ‘Like’, ‘Share’ or re-tweet button. Which meant that ideas, lies, information (and disinformation) started to circulate with the speed of light. When feedback loops operate at that speed, any control engineer can tell you what happens to systems whose behaviour is determined by that feedback.

All of which is by way of background to an interesting piece by Kevin Roose in today’s New York Times. The TL;DR summary is “On Election Day, Facebook and Twitter Did Better by Making Their Products Worse”. What happened is that the social media platforms effectively introduced some friction into the feedback loops.

For months, nearly every step these companies have taken to safeguard the election has involved slowing down, shutting off or otherwise hampering core parts of their products — in effect, defending democracy by making their apps worse.

They added friction to processes, like political ad-buying, that had previously been smooth and seamless. They brought in human experts to root out extremist groups and manually intervened to slow the spread of sketchy stories. They overrode their own algorithms to insert information from trusted experts into users’ feeds. And as results came in, they relied on the calls made by news organizations like The Associated Press, rather than trusting that their systems would naturally bring the truth to the surface. ImageAn alert on the Facebook newsfeed notifying users that votes are still being counted. An alert on the Facebook newsfeed notifying users that votes are still being counted.

Nowhere was this shift more apparent than at Facebook, which for years envisioned itself as a kind of post-human communication platform. Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, often spoke about his philosophy of “frictionless” design — making things as easy as possible for users. Other executives I talked to seemed to believe that ultimately, Facebook would become a kind of self-policing machine, with artificial intelligence doing most of the dirty work and humans intervening as little as possible.

But in the lead-up to the 2020 election, Facebook went in the opposite direction. It put in place a new, cumbersome approval process for political advertisers, and blocked new political ads in the period after Election Day. It throttled false claims, and put in place a “virality circuit-breaker” to give fact-checkers time to evaluate suspicious stories. And it temporarily shut off its recommendation algorithm for certain types of private groups, to lessen the possibility of violent unrest. (On Thursday, The New York Times reported that the company was taking other temporary measures to tamp down election-related misinformation, including adding more friction to the process of sharing posts.)

I don’t like the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor but it does provide a way of thinking about how a market operates. We saw what happened when stock markets were effectively automated — when trading is mostly done by machines. And then we saw how that led to the epidemic of so-called High Speed Trading described by Michael Lewis in his book, Flash Boys — and the instabilities that introduced into what was once a marketplace for investors valuing companies on the basis of long-term prospects as well as short-term gains. Similarly, our marketplace of ideas has become a space also distorted by high-speed ‘trading’ in every kind of information, good, bad and indifferent. So we shouldn’t be surprised at where we’ve got to. Going frictionless is great — until it isn’t.


Other, possibly interesting, links

  • FDR’s 1994 State of the Union address. This is what politicians used to be like. Link
  • Bentley will ditch internal combustion engines by 2030. Don’t all rush to buy a collector’s item. Link.

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Thursday 5 November, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Really I suppose what I hate myself most on is showing other people where to dig, not having time to do intensive and exclusive digging myself. I am a dowser and not a navvy.”

  • Queenie Leavis

A bit like a blogger, really.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

I struggled with this today, given the thoughts below.

What I kept thinking of was the famous reply that Ben Franklin gave to the woman who accosted him as he emerged from the final day of deliberation of 1787 with the question,”Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”

Franklin answered, “A republic… if you can keep it.”

In the end, I came up with this:

Joan Baez singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic in 1963.

Link


The sobering truth

From this morning’s Washington Post

The inescapable reality of the election results is that Trumpism remains a powerful current in American politics. It’s akin to political tendencies in other parts of the world where strongmen have co-opted democracies. The president’s brand of demagogic nationalism, his ceaseless campaigning through every year of his term and his unrepentant embrace of divisive messaging and tactics have clearly mobilized tremendous support.

“Trump over-performed in myriad polling measures. There would be no landslides, only squeakers and clenched jaws — and, possibly, court fights,” wrote my colleague Monica Hesse. “Win or lose, Trumpism will not have been swept into the dustbin of history; it will remain all over the furniture. It’s part of the furniture.”

Indeed, it may wholly define right-wing politics in the United States for years to come. “Trumpism might be becoming America’s version of Peronism,” tweeted Dan Slater, director at the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan, referring to Argentina’s own legacy of populist nationalism. “Highly mobilizing, highly polarizing, not always in power, but never going away.”

And this from Janan Ganesh of the Financial Times

Naturally, a Biden win, even a slight one, is a better outcome for liberalism than Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016. But the absence of a landslide and a strongly Democratic Senate will sting. Four years ago, the party could cite excuses and circumstances: an unpopular candidate, an opponent with no political history to attack.

This time, they have no such solace. Democrats nominated a seasoned and unobjectionable moderate. They ran on the fundamentals of public health and prosperity. They amassed a Fort Knox of campaign money. They had the encouraging precedent of the 2018 midterm elections. Above all, they had Mr Trump’s ethical and administrative record to go after. All the raw materials were there for a crushing victory that would double as a purgative moment for the republic: a clean-up of sorts.

Yes, a Californian running mate was never ideal — the election hinges on the Midwest and the south-east — but there was no clear alternative to Kamala Harris. As for his avoidance of mass political rallies, Mr Biden could hardly run as a slayer of the coronavirus pandemic while holding them.

At this point in the search for unforced errors, the trail runs cold. Liberals are left to accept a deeper fact about the US. Far more than when the phrase started doing the rounds a generation ago, this is a 50-50 nation, or thereabouts.

And so the question is: how did that come to pass? That’s a long story, and some of it is peculiarly American (particularly the racism that runs through that society like the message in a stick of Blackpool rock). But not all of it; there’s an element of it also that other Western democracies share, namely that this pathological polarisation has been a long time building — by my reckoning since the collapse of the post-war Keynesian order from 1971 onwards, and the subsequent ideological infection of ruling elites in most democracies by neoliberalism. We are now reaping the whirlwind of what we sowed in those decades.

And Trumpism isn’t going away. It’s the new Peronism. Time to brush up on Argentinian history.


Other, possibly interesting, links

  • How Stanford voted. Interesting (and, to me, surprising). Very few Republicans there, it seems. Link
  • First words spoken or sent on various communication systems. Link
  • So who emptied that Bitcoin wallet of nearly a billion dollars? Now we know — or at any rate Uncle Sam does: the hacker who did it (“Individual X”, if you please) panicked after being threatened by the original owner of the wallet (now behind bars) and handed the loot over to the Department of Justice. Link.

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