Monday 26 October, 2020

Surrealism

This is one of my favourite pictures. Absolutely no post-production artifice. This is exactly what I photographed early one morning on Nordeinde in The Hague.


Quote of the Day

“When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?”

  • Montaigne

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Randy Newman – Stay Away: His Covid song

Link


Paul Day’s St Pancras ‘Meeting Place’ sculpture

My photograph yesterday captured only a fragment of what is by any standards an extraordinary work.

Euan Williamson has made a lovely video of the frieze which captures it in the round.

Link


What can we learn from cats?

Answer: Don’t live in an imagined future.

Lovely interview by Tim Adams in yesterday’s Observer. It was triggered by publication of Gray’s new book, Cats and the Meaning of Life, which I’ve just ordered on the strength of this conversation.

Long read of the day.


Trump’s army of angry white men

Charles Blow, writing in today’s New York Times:

The most optimistic among us see the Trump era as some sort of momentary insanity, half of the nation under the spell of a conjurer. They believe that the country can be reunited and this period forgotten.

I am not one of those people. I believe what political scientist Thomas Schaller told Bloomberg columnist Francis Wilkinson in 2018: “I think we’re at the beginning of a soft civil war.” If 2018 was the beginning of it, it is now well underway.

Trump is building an army of the aggrieved in plain sight.

It is an army with its own mercenaries, people Trump doesn’t have to personally direct, but ones he has absolutely refused to condemn.

Which is why his defeat in the election is likely to provoke serious disturbances in some places.


Girl in the mirror

Link

Some of these Lincoln Project ads are really powerful. Thanks to CD for pointing me at it.


Why is everyone building an electric pickup truck?

This is a follow-up the the link I posted the other day about the Hummer electric SUV. It seems that lots of auto manufacturers are launching SUV EVs. Why? I thought the whole thing about SUVs is that people bought them because they were bad for the environment? So here’s an explanation from Ars Technica

Here’s the problem: no one knows who that American electric pickup buyer is. “It’s not like people have been asking for this,” says Jessica Caldwell, the executive director of insights at Edmunds. “I don’t think people have been sitting around and thinking, ‘You now what I need? A pickup with an electric motor.’”

But…

The Hummer, which hasn’t been produced since 2010, has gained a cult status among a certain kind of driver. General Motors wants the car aficionados and gearheads to pay attention: convince them to go electric, and the whole world might follow. To wit, GM has stuffed plenty of nerdery into the electric pickup. It comes with a crab walk feature that lets the truck drive diagonally and in-vehicle graphics developed by video game maker Epic Games. The truck, the first to use GM’s new Ultium batteries, has a 350-mile range. It can do 0 to 60 in three seconds.


Economics for the people

A remarkable essay in. Aeon by Dirk Philipsen of Duke University.

A basic truth is once again trying to break through the agony of worldwide pandemic and the enduring inhumanity of racist oppression. Healthcare workers risking their lives for others, mutual aid networks empowering neighbourhoods, farmers delivering food to quarantined customers, mothers forming lines to protect youth from police violence: we’re in this life together. We – young and old, citizen and immigrant – do best when we collaborate. Indeed, our only way to survive is to have each other’s back while safeguarding the resilience and diversity of this planet we call home.

As an insight, it’s not new, or surprising. Anthropologists have long told us that, as a species neither particularly strong nor fast, humans survived because of our unique ability to create and cooperate. ‘All our thriving is mutual’ is how the Indigenous scholar Edgar Villanueva captured the age-old wisdom in his book Decolonizing Wealth (2018). What is new is the extent to which so many civic and corporate leaders – sometimes entire cultures – have lost sight of our most precious collective quality.

This loss is rooted, in large part, in the tragedy of the private – this notion that moved, in short order, from curious idea to ideology to global economic system. It claimed selfishness, greed and private property as the real seeds of progress. Indeed, the mistaken concept many readers have likely heard under the name ‘the tragedy of the commons’ has its origins in the sophomoric assumption that private interest is the naturally predominant guide for human action. The real tragedy, however, lies not in the commons, but in the private. It is the private that produces violence, destruction and exclusion. Standing on its head thousands of years of cultural wisdom, the idea of the private variously separates, exploits and exhausts those living under its cold operating logic.

Worth reading in full.


Other, perhaps interesting, links

  • The magic of the tilt-and-turn window. Made in Germany, naturally. Link

  • I’m a Principled Republican Senator and I’m Suddenly Troubled By the Current State of Politics. Link

  • Chile restores democratic rule: Neoliberal’s first gunshot has stopped echoing. Link


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Saturday 24 October, 2020

Waiting for… who?

Venice, 2017.


Quote of the Day

”Calamities are of two kinds. Misfortunes to ourselves and good fortune to others”

  • Ambrose Bierce

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

David Lindley & Ry Cooder – Old Coot From Tennessee

Link

Well, I did warn you about these two.


Fukuyama: Liberalism and its discontents

Long read of the day. From American Purpose.

Characteristically lucid and informative essay by Francis Fukuyama on the historical background to some of our current problems.

The “democracy” under attack today is a shorthand for liberal democracy, and what is really under greatest threat is the liberal component of this pair. The democracy part refers to the accountability of those who hold political power through mechanisms like free and fair multiparty elections under universal adult franchise. The liberal part, by contrast, refers primarily to a rule of law that constrains the power of government and requires that even the most powerful actors in the system operate under the same general rules as ordinary citizens. Liberal democracies, in other words, have a constitutional system of checks and balances that limits the power of elected leaders.

Democracy itself is being challenged by authoritarian states like Russia and China that manipulate or dispense with free and fair elections. But the more insidious threat arises from populists within existing liberal democracies who are using the legitimacy they gain through their electoral mandates to challenge or undermine liberal institutions…

He goes on to argue that the contemporary attack on liberalism goes much deeper than the ambitions of a handful of populist politicians, and that they would not be as successful as they have been were they not riding a wave of discontent with some of the underlying characteristics of liberal societies.

To understand this, he says, we need to look at the historical origins of liberalism, its evolution over the decades, and its limitations as a governing doctrine.

And therein lies a master-class… Worth reading all the way through.

I’ve always admired Fukuyama’s writing. I was a bit puzzled by his book on Identity which came out a couple of years ago. But in this essay he seems back on form.

(Another thing I like about him is that he’s a keen photographer!


When the Worst Man in the World Writes a Masterpiece

This is an enjoyable essay by Alvaro de Menard about an enduring puzzle: how did a vain, shallow, lecherous nobody called James Boswell come to write the greatest biography in the English language?

de Menard begins by painting a succinct pen-portrait of the biographer:

He was a perpetual drunk, a degenerate gambler, a sex addict, whoremonger, exhibitionist, and rapist. He gave his wife an STD he caught from a prostitute.

Selfish, servile and self-indulgent, lazy and lecherous, vain, proud, obsessed with his aristocratic status, yet with no sense of propriety whatsoever, he frequently fantasized about the feudal affection of serfs for their lords. He loved to watch executions and was a proud supporter of slavery.

Boswell combined his terrible behavior with a complete lack of shame, faithfully reporting every transgression, every moronic ejaculation, every faux pas. The first time he visited London he went to see a play and, as he happily tells us himself, he “entertained the audience prodigiously by imitating the lowing of a cow.”

By all accounts, including his own, he was an idiot. On a tour of Europe, his tutor said to him: “of young men who have studied I have never found one who had so few ideas as you.”

As a lawyer he was a perpetual failure, especially when he couldn’t get Johnson to write his arguments for him. As a politician he didn’t even get the chance to be a failure despite decades of trying.

His correspondence with Johnson mostly consists of Boswell whining pathetically and Johnson telling him to get his shit together.

He commissioned a portrait from his friend Joshua Reynolds and stiffed him on the payment. His descendants hid the portrait in the attic because they were ashamed of being related to him.

Having read the first volume of Boswell’s own diary, which covers his arrival in London and his first years in the capital, that seems plausible. And yet, such an undoubted creep produces this single great work.

de Menard quotes the opinions of Macaulay — who thought that the ‘Life’ succeeded because of Boswell’s vices (he never hears a confidence that he would not betray) — and Thomas Carlyle (who thought the biography the greatest work of the 18th century) en route to an interesting conclusion. “The story of Boswell,” he writes,

is basically the plot of Amadeus, with the role of Salieri being played by Macaulay, by Carlyle, by me, and—perhaps even by yourself, dear reader. The line between admiration, envy, and resentment is thin, and crossing it is easier when the subject is a scoundrel. But if Bozzy could set aside resentment for genuine reverence, perhaps there is hope for us all. And yet…it would be an error to see in Boswell the Platonic Form of Mankind.

Shaffer and Forman’s film portrays Mozart as vulgar, arrogant, a womanizer, bad with money—but, like Bozzy, still somehow quite likable. In one of the best scenes of the film, we see Mozart transform the screeches of his mother-in-law into the Queen of the Night Aria; thus Boswell transformed his embarrassments into literary gold. He may be vulgar, but his productions are not. He may be vulgar, but he is not ordinary.

Lovely stuff.


Other, possibly interesting, links

  • Obituary of publisher Tom Maschler “No stranger to self-doubt,” but a great publisher also. Maybe the two were connected. Link
  •  Facebook Seeks Shutdown of NYU Research Project Into Political Ad Targeting Apparently research into what they’re doing violates their terms and conditions. Link
  •  Why this presidential election is special — democracy is on the ballot — not just Trump and Biden – Vox Link
  • Mask-wearing and ‘freedom’ (contd.) Paul Krugman weighs in: “Liberty doesn’t mean freedom to infect other people.”

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 you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Friday 23 October, 2020

Gone Fishin’

Cley beach, Norfolk, 2018.


Quote of the Day

”There are two things which I am confident I can do well: one is an introduction to literary work, stating what it is to contain, and how it should be executed in the most perfect manner; the other is a conclusion, shewing from various causes why the execution has not been equal to what the author promised to himself and to the public.”

  • Samuel Johnson, 1755.

Rings any bells with you? Does with me.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Beethoven | Für Elise” | Lang Lang

Link

When I lived and worked in Holland in the late 1970s I often went to the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on Sunday mornings where there would be a recital in the Spiegelzaal. You paid a small fee, got a coffee and found a place to sit. I think these treats were actually branded as Für Elise, but it’s so long ago that I can’t be sure. Still, this wonderful performance by Lang Lang brings it all back.


The false promise of herd immunity for COVID-19

Why proposals to largely let the virus run its course — embraced by Donald Trump’s administration and others — could bring “untold death and suffering”.

Useful briefing from Nature which explains the concept and the difficulty of estimating what percentage of a population have it.

It’s complicated, as you might expect. The bottom line, though, is that “never before have we reached herd immunity via natural infection with a novel virus, and SARS-CoV-2 is unfortunately no different.”

Vaccination is the only ethical path to herd immunity. Letting it rip is neither ethical nor likely to be effective.

We kind-of knew that, didn’t we? Except for Trump, of course, who called it “herd mentality”.


Writing to Simone

Terrific review essay by Vivian Gornick in the Boston Review on Simone de Beauvoir and the letters readers wrote to her. The book she’s writing about is Judith Coffin’s Sex, Love, and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir — a work that came out of the author’s discovery of the enormous trove of letters to Beauvoir from her readers in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

It was not only, or even mainly, The Second Sex that bound readers to Beauvoir for decades. More than anything it was the memoirs, following one upon another, that accounted for the remarkable loyalty thousands of women, and some men too, showered upon the gradual unfolding of a life lived almost entirely in the public eye, at the same time that its inner existence was continually laid bare and minutely reported upon. Fearless was the word most commonly associated with these books as, in every one of them, Beauvoir, good Existentialist that she was, wrote with astonishing frankness about sex, politics, and relationships. She recorded in remarkable detail, and with remarkable authenticity, everything she had thought or felt at any given moment. Well, kind of. She recorded everything that she was not ashamed of. Years later, after she and Sartre were both dead, appalling behavior came to light that she had either omitted from the memoirs or put a positive spin on.

Sex, Love, and Letters is a richly researched study based on Judith Coffin’s encounter with a batch of these letters that a sympathetic curator put into her hands one day while she was working on The Second Sex in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. As she writes in her introduction, “Nothing prepared me for the drama I found the first time I opened a folder of readers’ letters to Simone de Beauvoir. . . . What I found was an outpouring of projection, identification, expectation, disappointment, and passion.” Correspondents “asked for advice on marriage, love, and birth control; they confessed secrets and sent sections of their diaries for her to read. The letter writers’ tone was unexpected as well, alternately deferential and defiant, seductive, and wry.”

I know a bit about this because I was once married to a woman whose life was changed by reading the Second Sex and the successive volumes of Beauvoir’s remarkable autobiography. Carol (who died in 2008) was deeply influenced by these texts and for her (and to some extent for me) this amazing French intellectual became a kind of heroine — so much so that Carol later did a Masters thesis on the autobiography. I’m looking at it now as I write. She even wrote to Beauvoir asking for an interview — and went to Paris to see her in her apartment. So I guess her letters are also in the BN’s trove.

As Gornick implies, the passage of time, and posthumous revelations, has taken the shine off the image of Beauvoir and her accomplice in literary celebrity, Jean-Paul Sartre. Subsequent biographies have revealed that they both sometimes behaved abominably towards other people. I guess it leaves those of us who, as impressionable students, were dazzled by them, looking naive. So what? Everybody was young and foolish once. And whatever one thinks about its author with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, The Second Sex was a genuinely pathbreaking book.


There’s a word for why we wear masks, and Liberals should say it

Michael Tomasky has a fine OpEd piece in the New York Times about the way the word “freedom” has been hijacked by the alt-right and their accomplices in the Republican party.

Donald Trump is now back on the road, holding rallies in battleground states. These events, with people behind the president wearing masks but most others not, look awfully irresponsible to most of us — some polls show that as many as 92 percent of Americans typically wear masks when they go out.

Trumpworld sees these things differently. Mike Pence articulated the view in the vice-presidential debate. “We’re about freedom and respecting the freedom of the American people,” Mr. Pence said. The topic at hand was the Sept. 26 super-spreader event in the Rose Garden to introduce Amy Coney Barrett as the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court and how the administration can expect Americans to follow safety guidelines that it has often ignored.

Tomasky goes back to John Stuart Mill (whom many right-wingers apparently revere). In On Liberty he wrote that liberty (or freedom) means “doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow, without impediment from our fellow creatures, as long as what we do does not harm them even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse or wrong.” This is a standard definition of freedom, more succinctly expressed in the adage: “Your freedom to do as you please with your fist ends where my jaw begins.”

Most of the nonsense about mask-wearing in the US is expressed in the language of “my freedom”. It’s ludicrously oxymoronic, though. I saw a fanatical anti-mask woman on TV recently saying “it’s my body and I’m not going to have anyone telling me what to wear on my face” while it was pretty clear that she doesn’t agree with pro-abortion campaigners who maintain “It’s my body and I’m going to decide what happens to it.” Par for the course: fanatics don’t do consistency.

“Freedom,” Tomasky observes,

emphatically does not include the freedom to get someone else sick. It does not include the freedom to refuse to wear a mask in the grocery store, sneeze on someone in the produce section and give him the virus. That’s not freedom for the person who is sneezed upon. For that person, the first person’s “freedom” means chains — potential illness and even perhaps a death sentence. No society can function on that definition of freedom. emphatically does not include the freedom to get someone else sick. It does not include the freedom to refuse to wear a mask in the grocery store, sneeze on someone in the produce section and give him the virus. That’s not freedom for the person who is sneezed upon. For that person, the first person’s “freedom” means chains — potential illness and even perhaps a death sentence. No society can function on that definition of freedom.

He’s right about how strange it is that “freedom” belongs almost wholly to the right. They talk about it incessantly and insist on a link between economic freedom and political freedom, positing that the latter is impossible without the former. (This is a legacy of Hayek and what Philip Mirowski calls the “Neoliberal Thought Collective”.) And yet, as Tomasky says,

the broad left in America has let all this go unchallenged for decades, to the point that today’s right wing can defend spreading disease, potentially killing other people, as freedom. It is madness.

It is.


Dutch Ethical Hacker Logs into Trump’s Twitter Account

From the Dutch newspaper, De Volkskrant.

Last week a Dutch security researcher succeeded in logging into the Twitter account of the American President Donald Trump. Trump, an active Twitterer with 87 million followers, had an extremely weak and easy to guess password and had according to the researcher, not applied two-step verification.

The researcher, Victor Gevers, had access to Trump’s personal messages, could post tweets in his name and change his profile. Gevers took screenshots when he had access to Trump’s account. These screenshots were shared with de Volkskrant by the monthly opinion magazine Vrij Nederland. Dutch security experts find Gevers’ claim credible.

The Dutchman alerted Trump and American government services to the security leak. After a few days, he was contacted by the American Secret Service in the Netherlands. This agency is also responsible for the security of the American President and took the report seriously, as evidenced by correspondence seen by de Volkskrant. Meanwhile Trump’s account has been made more secure.

So what was Trump’s password? Yes — you guessed it! — it was “maga2020!”


Other, perhaps interesting, links

  • Doomsday preppersLink
  • The new Hummer. Beyond parody, really but interesting technically. Link
  • The Criminal Case Against Donald Trump Is in the Works. Link. No wonder he doesn’t want to lose the Presidency.

Monday 19 October, 2020

The High Road to France

Once upon a time…


Quote of the Day

”The pendulum of the mind oscillates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong”.

  • Carl Justav Jung

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Joseph Haydn Piano Sonata nº 59 in E flat, Hob. XVI:49

Link


A more optimistic perspective?

While gloomily pondering the state of the world with a good friend (and reader of this blog) this morning, I was struck by the motto by which she is currently trying to live at the moment — Nietzsche’s dictum: Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the Will.

In that spirit, given that the previous two editions of this blog have been relatively pessimistic (theories of incompetent systems and all that), I thought of looking for alternative visions of the near future and came on some interesting stuff.

The first was an essay, ”Joe Biden Has Changed” by Franklin Foer in The Atlantic arguing that Joe is preparing for a transformative presidency.

Here’s how the essay begins…

If Joe Biden prevails, his basement will rest alongside William McKinley’s front porch in the annals. In his subterranean retreat, Biden not only sat still while his opponent spectacularly self-destructed, but also underwent a metamorphosis. He entered it a cautious pragmatist, yearning for a reversion to the time before Donald Trump; he left convinced of his chance to become a latter-day Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Over the spring and summer, Biden inverted the historic template of the Democratic nominee. According to time-honored political logic, a candidate poses as a bleeding heart in the primary, only to retrace his or her steps back to the center in the general. During his time in his basement, by contrast, Biden’s ambitions for the presidency began to acquire a grandiosity that his intramural battle with Bernie Sanders hardly anticipated.

Following two consecutive presidents who professed to disdain politics, Biden is a politician to the core—attuned to the limits of the possible, always finding his way to the epicenter of the zeitgeist. As he cocooned in Delaware, the pandemic, the ensuing economic fallout, and the protests against racial inequality reset the context for the next presidency. Biden grasped that.

Biden came to understand that the necessity of public investment presented a singular opportunity to transform American life. In August, he promised $2 trillion to combat climate change, to be spent, in part, on 1 million unionized jobs and 1.5 million affordable-housing units. This wasn’t a pure transposition of the Green New Deal, but it was spiritually aligned. As David Wallace-Wells has noted, Biden’s proposed spending is more than 20 times the size of Barack Obama’s expenditure on green energy. And having endured the primary derided as a collaborator of Strom Thurmond’s, he started describing systemic racism in far blunter language than any previous nominee, and elevating police reform to the center of his plans.

On paper, Biden has proposed the most progressive administration in American history. According to a Columbia University study, if the totality of the Biden agenda were implemented, it would lift 20 million Americans out of poverty.

One of the things that really irritates me at the moment is the way liberals who detest Trump as much as I do nevertheless cavil about Biden’s alleged deficiencies. He’s elderly, not very smart, loses the thread when speaking, etc., etc. To which the only sensible response, it seems to me, is that Biden has one overwhelming recommendation: He’s not Trump. He doesn’t have to be Einstein to qualify for a vote. He just has to be what he is, a relatively normal, fallible, decent human being.

But aside from that, the other reason for optimism is that this non-Einsteinian candidate for President seems to have a rather good team of advisers, not to mention a smart Vice Presidential running mate.

His most impressive adviser, it seems to me, is Jake Sullivan.

Jake Sullivan, a stalwart of Biden’s inner circle, exemplifies the shift. Everything in his résumé—his Rhodes Scholarship, his years as a Hillary Clinton aide-de-camp—suggests that he would advise his boss to govern in the technocratic mold of Barack Obama. But Sullivan has vocally championed the Democrat’s rediscovery of populist economics. In 2018, he wrote a long essay in the journal Democracy urging robust public investment and the waging of war on monopoly, a return to the spirit of liberalism that more or less preceded Bill Clinton’s arrival on the scene. “The bottom line is that Democrats should not blush too much, or pay too much heed, when political commentators arch their eyebrows about the party moving left. The center of gravity itself is moving, and this is a good thing.”

Much of Biden’s inner circle has adopted a variation on this attitude. One of his former chiefs of staff, Bruce Reed, a veteran of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, has become a tough critic of Big Tech; he helped write California’s new privacy regulations, curbing Silicon Valley’s power to surveil. Another of Biden’s counselors, Ron Klain, a contender for White House chief of staff, is a ubiquitous presence on Twitter, and has spent the past four years steeped in the resistance to the Trump presidency. Klain has also been a pugilistic critic of what the Republican Party has become.

I’ve just read Sullivan’s long essay in the journal Democracy. It’s good.

His basic message is that Reaganism and neoliberalism have had their day. It’s not the 1990s anymore. People want the government to help solve big problems. The disastrous legacy of neoliberal governance (perhaps aided by the pandemic) has — finally — moved the country’s political centre of gravity to the left.

“When political commentators aren’t talking about Donald Trump”, he writes,

they are often talking about how the Democratic Party has “moved to the left.” This is often phrased as a lament, the notion being that the party has been hijacked by its progressive wing. But what if that is missing the point? What if, when it comes to economic policy at least, it’s the country’s political center of gravity that is actually shifting? That is, what if not just one party, but the American electorate as a whole is moving to embrace a more energized form of government—one that tackles the excesses of the free market and takes on big, serious challenges through big, serious legislation instead of the more restrained measures to which we’ve grown accustomed? What would that mean for Democrats?

The essay first runs through two analogous ‘centre of gravity shifts’ in recent American history — first by FDR in the 1930s, and then by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

This essay proceeds from the premise that we have reached another turning point. Just as the Great Depression discredited the ideas of the pre-New Deal conservatives who fought for total laissez-faire outcomes in both the political branches and the courts, so the Great Recession once again laid bare the failure of our government to protect its citizens from unchecked market excess. There has been a delayed reaction this time around, but people have begun to see more clearly not only the flaws of our public and private institutions that contributed to the financial crisis, but also the decades of rising inequality and income stagnation that came before—and the uneven recovery that followed. Our politics are in the process of adjusting to this new reality. The tide is running in the other direction, and, with history serving as our guide, it could easily be a decades-long tide.

It’s a long read, but worth it.


Other possibly interesting links


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Sunday 18 October, 2020

Keeping one’s hat on

Seen in a Provencal market a few summers ago.


Quote of the Day

”It’s a funny kind of month, October. For the really keen cricket fan, it’s when you realise that your wife left you in May.”

  • Dennis Norden

Golf widows, take heart: you are not alone.


Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Ry Cooder & David Lindley. New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

Link

Whenever Cooder and Lindley get together, expect fireworks.


We need a new Walt Whitman to imagine a virtual public space

This morning’s Observer column:

Pariser’s new essay was prompted by reflecting on the Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, where he lives, a 30-acre square of elms, winding paths, playgrounds and monuments. The park serves, he writes, “as an early morning romper room, midday meeting point, festival ground and farm stand. There are house music dance parties, soccer games during which you can hear cursing in at least five languages and, of course, the world famous Great Pumpkin Halloween Dog Costume contest.” Most importantly, though, it allows very different people to gather and coexist in the same space. “When it’s all working,” he says, “Fort Greene Park can feel like an ode to pluralistic democracy itself.”

The nicest thing about his essay is its historic sensibility. In 1846, Walt Whitman envisioned Fort Greene Park to serve that democratic purpose. New York City had no public parks at the time, only walled commercial pleasure gardens for the wealthy. Whitman, then editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, campaigned for a space that would accommodate everyone, especially the working-class immigrants crowded into shantytowns along nearby Myrtle Avenue. And he succeeded.

When the internet arrived, many of us thought it would provide a virtual space that would be like Whitman’s concept, except on a global scale… Read on


The United States: An “Oligarchy With Unlimited Political Bribery”

In an interview reported in Rolling Stone, Jimmy Carter, the 39th President, described the US now as “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery” resulting in “nominations for president or to elect the president.”

It all goes back, he said to the 2010 judgment by the US Supreme Court in the Citizens United case to eliminate limits on campaign donations, a ruling that, in Carter’s view, “violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system.”

He’s right. According to the (rather good) Wikipedia entry for the judgment,

The Court held that the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent expenditures for political communications by corporations, including nonprofit corporations, labor unions, and other associations.

The case arose after Citizens United, a conservative non-profit organization, sought to air and advertise a film critical of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton shortly before the 2008 Democratic primary elections. This would have been a violation of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which prohibited any corporation or labor union from making an “electioneering communication” within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of an election, or making any expenditure advocating the election or defeat of a candidate at any time”.

The ruling effectively freed organisations like corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on electioneering communications and to directly campaign for the election or defeat of candidates. In practice it’s what enabled the flood of billions of dollars from right-wing billionaires into US politics. It effectively perverts the First Amendment to give the right of free speech to corporations. As one of the dissenting justices, John Paul Stevens, argued, the ruling represented “a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government.”

Carter’s dramatic way of describing the result of that epochal decision highlights what I was trying to say yesterday about the significance of controlling the Supreme Court. The Republican party in the US is doomed in the long run by demographic trends. It’s tried to stem the tide and hold off the inevitable by massive local gerrymandering, voter suppression and other means, but in the long run the electoral game is up for them. Given the polarisation of the country, though, Congressional deadlock and inertia can be prolonged for a long time, which means that the importance of the Court in US governance will inevitably increase.

Mitch McConnell, the Majority Leader in the Senate, understands that very well — which is why he sanctimoniously refused Confirmation hearings for Obama’s candidate in 2016 because it was the final year of his term — and also why he is now racing to confirm Trump’s current nominee, thereby contradicting the ‘principled’ stand he took in 2016. McConnell is playing a long game. His intended outcome is that, even as the Republican party fades electorally, the US will continue for decades to be governed by conservative values — through the Supreme Court that he has fashioned with Trump’s assistance.

The relationship between Trump and McConnell been a symbiotic one all along; but in the end Trump needs McConnell more than the other way round. Once he gets Barrett in place, McConnell has no further need for Trump. He’s probably much more worried about losing control of the Senate, because if Biden wins but the Republicans keep the Senate, then it’ll be like Obama all over again: a president full of ideas, but little power to make anything happen.

On the other hand, if Biden wins and the Democrats do get control the Senate, then things could get interesting — even for ye olde Supreme Court.


Mark Elliot’s testimony to the House of Lords on the Internal Market Bill.

Mark Elliott is Professor of Public Law in Cambridge and a terrific blogger with over 30,000 readers. Recently, he gave evidence to the Constitution Committee, which has been holding hearings on the Johnson government’s manifesto for breaking international law. Here’s an extract from his evidence (with emphases in bold from me).

First, the Bill, if enacted in its current form, would supply Ministers with legal powers to make regulations in breach of the UK’s binding obligations under the EU Withdrawal Agreement and the associated Northern Ireland Protocol. Unlike some of the examples, put forward by Sir Stephen, of other pieces of domestic legislation that have been found to breach international law, the Internal Market Bill is drafted with the clear and specific intent of doing so. I argued that this amounts to a significant distinguishing feature of the Bill and that it correspondingly gives rise to particularly profound rule of law-based concerns. I also argued that the fact that UK legislation may occasionally be found to have breached international law is nothing to the point, given that past, and generally incidental or unintended, wrongdoing is no justification whatever for further such wrongdoing. The wrongheadedness of the contrary view becomes immediately apparent when we recall that the UK Government is frequently found, in judicial review proceedings, to have breached domestic law: the fact that such breaches occur does not, however, give the Government licence to commit further such breaches or justify treating such breaches with equanimity. By the same token, prior examples of UK legislation that may have breached international law does not provide any justification for the enactment of further such legislation that has the clear and specific purpose of facilitating such a breach.

Second, I argued that the Bill is incompatible with the rule of law because it appears to attempt to exclude judicial review of ministerial regulations made in breach of the EU Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol. The oversight of government action, including the making of secondary legislation, by independent courts is an axiomatic feature of the rue of law. It follows that precluding judicial review is incompatible with the rule of law and is thus an assault on basic constitutional principle…


Colliding epidemics’ fears spur campaign to ramp up flu vaccinations

From the Financial Times — probably behind a paywall, so this is the gist…

Efforts to increase influenza vaccination rates to prevent “colliding epidemics” are being hampered by a limited supply, as manufacturers struggle to meet demand.

Germany has ordered 26m flu vaccines ahead of the European winter, with health minister Jens Spahn saying the country had “never had so many”. The UK government said it aimed to vaccinate 30m people this year, more than double the 2019 figure.

However, manufacturers say they have been unable to meet the increased demand at such short notice. Seqirus, one of the top three flu jab producers globally, along with Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline, estimated that global production had only increased by 1-2 per cent.

“If we get an overlap of Sars-Cov-2 [the virus responsible for Covid-19] and influenza, that could be a disaster,” said Rebecca Jane Cox, professor of medical virology at University of Bergen. “The question will be how hard the northern hemisphere is going to be hit by the flu now.”


Other possibly interesting links…

  • Time to unscrew subscriptions — Doc Searls Weblog Doc is one of the Elder Statesmen of the Web and always good value. Oh — and if you follow the link, FUBAR means “Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition” — which is quite a good description of most online magazine subscription systems.

  • Computer game by Cambridge psychologists ‘pre-bunks’ COVID-19 conspiracies as part of the UK government’s fight against fake news — Link. Basically, it’s an attempt to cognitively inoculate kids against fake news.

  • The MySpace moral panic — First Monday. Peer-reviewed paper. Old story, but still interesting.


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Saturday 17 October, 2020

‘Development opportunity’

Well, if self-isolation’s your thing.


Quote of the Day

“If things were simple, word would have got around”

  • Jacques Derrida

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Mozart – Lacrimosa

Link


What lies ahead

It’s such a strange time. Everywhere I look (at any rate, inside my particular filter bubble) I sense a growing conviction that Trump will lose the popular vote, perhaps by quite a margin), but might still win a majority in the Electoral College (as he did in 2016). I also pick up a growing foreboding that he and his allies will create chaos by contesting the result, drawing it out with malicious litigation and egging on the Second Amendment freaks with their capacity for intimidation and worse. It’ll be like Gore v. Bush in 2000, but this time with armed mobs in the streets. And if it goes like that, then — as in 2000 — the decision of who is President will come to the Supreme Court, which Trump has already packed with two conservative appointments and to which the Senate is primed to confirm a third conservative justice, Amy Barrett. So even if Trump loses convincingly on November 3, his most enduring legacy will be a Supreme Court with an unbreakable 6-3 majority which could last for decades (Barrett, for example, could serve for 40 more years.) Which is why her Confirmation hearings have such significance.

As it stands, Edward Luce writes in today’s FT Magazine,

“Barrett’s confirmation is likely to be hurried through the Senate the week before the election — a breathtaking move when liberals are already livid about the anti-democratic direction of America’s judiciary. The controversy could light the dust that ends in a full-blown crisis over America’s founding creed. “I think it’s hard to overstate how shocking this move is'” says Norman Ornstein, a leading scholar of US politics at the American Enterprise Institute. Barrett’s confirmation could escalate the already existing nuclear arms race between liberals and conservatives. It cannot end in a good place.”

Barrett is an “originalist” — someone who adheres to the belief “that the country’s limits are defined by the words of America’s founding fathers, or the intended meaning behind their words”. As Sarah Churchwell, the historian, observed on the Talking Politics podcast this week, the Constitution is to originalists as the Bible is to religious fundamentalists: every word of it is sacred.

The absurdity of this legal doctrine is as staggering as the way it is still worshipped by conservatives. In the first place, the Founders wouldn’t have entertained the notion that Amy Barrett (a mere female) could be a judge, let alone a candidate for the Supreme Court! Secondly, those same authors of the sacred text were not designing a democracy, but a republic, which is not necessarily the same thing at all. In fact they weren’t overly attached to the idea of democracy. They expressly denied citizenship to slaves, for example, defining a slave as three fifths of a human being — thereby granting the Southern states more congressional representation than warranted by the number of their white male citizens. Thirdly, the Electoral College was expressly designed to ensure that winning the majority vote would not guarantee that the presidency went to the winner. And the Senate gives two seats to every state, which means that thinly populated rural states have the same representation as populous ones like California. So the idea that a document written in the late 18th century when America had only four million people, most of whom were farmers, should be a guide to how to run a modern society is, well, preposterous.

For these and other reasons, I’m with another FT columnist, Henry Mance, who writes in his column today:

“I no longer see an American dream — I see a broken society. Indeed its so easy to see the US’s flaws from 2,000 miles away that I have a new respect for for foreign critiques of the UK. All countries have systemic problems. But the US is exceptional. It has a geographic and historic bounty that made other countries jealous. Now it has a political system that makes us terrified. You can’t have a two-party system if one side ceases to believe in democracy. You can’t make a constitution that relies on bipartisanship if one party refuses to participate. You can’t fix the socio-economic malaise until you fix the politics”.

He’s right. And it ain’t going to happen, unless Biden suddenly discovers how to be a radical.

But here’s a cheerier thought. Supposing Trump does win, but the Democrats win control of both the Senate and the House. Then they can impeach Trump at their leisure, making his second term the shortest on record. And pack the Supreme Court into the bargain.


How to amend Section 230

For readers who are not as interested as I am in finding ways of controlling the power of tech companies, Section 230 of the 1996 US Communications Decency Act (which is wrapped inside the sprawling Telecommunications Act) is the get-out-of-gaol-card that has enabled Internet platforms like Google, Facebook, Twitter and others to profit from viral untruths and other crap without having to take legal responsibility for it and the societal damage it wreaks. It says:

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

There were arguably good reasons for such protection in 1996 (because there was a prospect that liability for what people posted would mean that everything on your site would have to be vetted by lawyers before being published. If that had been the case, then the growth of the Web — and the networked public sphere — would have been much less dramatic).

But that was long before social media.

It remains the case, though, that S230 could be the “kill switch’ for social media if the liability shield were removed. And the US Congress could, if it were so minded, pull that switch. If it did, though, there would be harms as well as benefits: much of what is published on the Web is good and we would all be poorer if it were not available. So the question is: is there a way of modifying S.230 so that we keep most of the good things while reducing the bad?

Joe Moreno has an interesting suggestion on his blog:

Here’s my solution that doesn’t violate the First Amendment:

Section 230 should differentiate between platforms that amplify content (e.g. retweeting on Twitter, resharing on Facebook, etc) and platforms that don’t allow amplification (e.g. Instagram, WordPress, etc). If a platform allows amplification, regardless if it’s done through manual curation or via an automated algorithm, then it’s no longer a service provider but rather a publisher.

If this degree of editing and censorship sounds like an administrative burden then take a look at the lack of child porn found through search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc. There is none, but certainly not from a lack of trying. And while the CAN-SPAM Act doesn’t eliminate all spam, it does a great job (certainly much better than the wireless network providers when it comes to spoofing caller ID, etc).

Just as a news service doesn’t pass along fact as fiction without liability (libel) neither should social media. This clarification to Section 230 will cut into the profitability of social media companies, but they’ve reaped the benefits (and revenue) and now it’s time to take responsibility.

There might be something in that.


CORRECTION The link to the Lancet‘s series on syndemics in yesterday’s edition was incorrect. The correct link is: https://www.thelancet.com/series/syndemics

Apologies.


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Thursday 15 October, 2020

The Sociopath: 2010

What a difference a decade makes.


Quote of the Day

”I work for a government I despise for ends I think criminal.”

  • John Maynard Keynes, 1917, in a letter to Duncan Grant.

I wonder how many officials in the US and UK governments currently feel the same way.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Hothouse Flowers – I Can See Clearly Now

https://youtu.be/Y1HRcoHGmi4


Turns out, Boris Johnson doesn’t do detail. Who knew?

John Crace, writing about yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions:

Starmer started with some basic detail. On 11 May Johnson had promised the country he would be guided by the science at all times. On 21 September the Sage scientists had recommended a short circuit breaker. So at what point did the prime minister decide to abandon the science and cobble together a three-tier regional system with which almost no one was happy?

Despite having had the whole morning to prepare for such an obvious question, Boris looked genuinely bemused. As if he had quite forgotten it was Wednesday and had been hoping for a lie-in. So he did what he always did. He filled dead air with dead words. When he had said he was going to follow the science, he had never intended to imply he would do so faithfully. Rather he was going to pick and choose the bits he liked. He reminded me of a builder I once used who, when I observed the kitchen floor was not level, replied that I had never specified it should be “dead level”.

Amazing to think that this clown is the Prime Minister of a major country.


U.K. Plans New Law to Undo Foreign Deals on Security Grounds

This from Bloomberg is interesting:

Boris Johnson’s government is drawing up plans for a radical new law that would give ministers power to unravel foreign investments in U.K. companies — potentially casting doubt on deals that have already been concluded — to stop hostile states gaining control over key assets.

The National Security and Investment Bill is in the final stages of drafting and could be published later this month, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because the subject is sensitive.

It aims to cover deals in sectors such as defense and critical infrastructure, and will make provisions to protect sensitive intellectual property.

Among the most potentially controversial parts of the draft law is a proposal to allow the government to intervene retrospectively in circumstances where national security is an issue. That would mean allowing government officials to look at past takeovers and mergers where concerns have been raised.

It’s got Dominic Cummings’s fingerprints all over it. Especially the retrospective bit. I’m willing to bet that it’ll affect the proposed Nvidia takeover of ARM.


Kara Swisher on Zuckerberg, the slow learner about Holocaust denial

Good column, in which she reprises her famous interview with Zuckerberg and thinks about what questions she would like to ask him now.

Since that interview with me two years ago, Mr. Zuckerberg has talked to a lot of reporters, but has declined to do another interview with me, although I have asked time and again. That’s a shame, because I have a lot more questions for him. Such as:

Why tell everyone that you do not want to be an arbiter of truth after you purposefully built a platform that absolutely required an arbiter of truth to function properly?

Why did you never build firebreaks that could have dampened the dangerous fires of disinformation that you have let burn out of control?

Were you motivated by a need to expand the business without limit or by a real belief that human beings would behave if you let them do anything they wanted?

And most important, now that we agree that Holocaust deniers mean to lie, can we also agree that we need to remake the nation and also Facebook so that we can have a real dialogue built on community? You always said that was your goal, right?

Or, after all this time and pain, is that completely idiotic?

It’s idiotic to expect anything good from this guy.


Nihilistic password security questions

Lovely piece of satire by Soheil Rezayazdi on McSweeney’s. Here’s a sample:

What is the name of your least favorite child?

In what year did you abandon your dreams?

What is the maiden name of your father’s mistress?

At what age did your childhood pet run away?

What was the name of your favorite unpaid internship?

In what city did you first experience ennui?

What is your ex-wife’s newest last name?

What sports team do you fetishize to avoid meaningful discussion with others?

Lots more, but you get the point.


First documented death from a ransomware attack

From Bruce Schneier’s blog:

A Düsseldorf woman died when a ransomware attack against a hospital forced her to be taken to a different hospital in another city.

I think this is the first documented case of a cyberattack causing a fatality. UK hospitals had to redirect patients during the 2017 WannaCry ransomware attack, but there were no documented fatalities from that event.

The police are treating this as a homicide.


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Sunday 11 October, 2020

Walking by a clear running stream this afternoon, we came on this beautiful carpet of star-shaped plants. No idea what it is, but it was really striking.


Quote of the Day

I had a lovely email from a friend about last Friday’s “Quote of the Day” (cricket commentator Brian Johnson’s immortal remark: “The bowler’s Holding, the batsman’s Willey”) It reminded him, he wrote,

of the story about Harry Caray, a legendary American baseball announcer. Caray was calling a Chicago Cubs game on TV in the mid 1980’s. Baseball is a slow game so the cameramen were often looking for something interesting going on in the crowd. At several times during the game, the broadcast showed a particular couple in the stands making out. Finally, towards the end of the game, Caray says, “Folks, I think I figured it out. He kisses her on the strikes and she kisses him on the balls!”

Many thanks to Hap for that knockout quote.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Alfred Brendel – Schubert, Klavierstücke D. 946 No. 2 in E Flat

Link


Finally US politicians are taking the fight to the tech giants

This morning’s Observer column

On Tuesday evening, a large (449-page) pdf landed in my inbox. It’s the majority report of the US House of Representatives judiciary committee’s subcommittee on antitrust, commercial and administrative law and it makes ideal bedside reading material for only two classes of person: competition lawyers and newspaper columnists. But even if it’s unlikely to be a bestseller, its publication is still a landmark event because it marks the first concerted (and properly resourced) critical interrogation of a new group of unaccountable powers that is roaming loose in our democracies: tech companies. Its guiding spirit was something said by the great Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis many moons ago: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”

Only four tech companies were targeted – Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. How Microsoft escaped scrutiny is a mystery (to me anyway); perhaps it’s because that company had its day in court long ago and survived to become the handmaiden of governments and organisations everywhere and is therefore part of the ruling establishment.

The inquiry that led to the report started in 2019 as an investigation into the state of competition online. It had three aims: “1) to document competition problems in digital markets; 2) examine whether dominant firms are engaging in anticompetitive conduct; and 3) assess whether existing antitrust laws, competition policies and current enforcement levels are adequate to address these issues.” Crudely summarised, its conclusions are…

Read on


Good news for Glassholes

Wearable tech has never been so fashionable. Meet Spectacles 3 from Snap Inc. Capture your world in 3D with two HD Cameras and four built-in mics, which store up to 100 3D videos or 1,200 3D photos. Photos and videos wirelessly sync to your phone, where you can edit and transform then with a new suite of 3D effects on Snapchat. Recharge Spectacles 3 on the go with the included charging case.

Think of it as DIY sousveillance.

Source


The looming mental health crisis

This is a slide from one of the most alarming presentations I’ve been to in a long time. It’s worth reading carefully. In particular, note the bullet points for life expectancy, male suicide rates, the estimated cost to the economy and the fact that three-quarters of mental health problems start before the age of 18.

Cambridge University is setting up an Institute for Mental Wellbeing, and the presentation was giving some background information on the new institute and the justifications for it.

Of course, like most people, I’ve been aware of a degree of public concern about mental health — concern which has been greatly amplified by the Coronavirus and associated lockdowns, job losses, precarity and other sources of stress. But since it’s not my field I’m ashamed to say that I had relegated discussions about it to the status of depressing background noise. I had absolutely no idea of the scale of the crisis until the meeting last Monday when the presentation was given.

Over the years some of my friends and family members have suffered from depression, anxiety and other psychological conditions, and I supported one of them through three terrible bouts, but until now I’d always thought of these as relatively rare misfortunes rather than as conditions that afflict millions of people.

How wrong can you be?


How to film a conversation in a yellow Fiat Quinquecento

From Axios


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Monday 5 October, 2020

Conversation piece

Arles, 2015


Quote of the Day

”A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.”

  • Samuel Johnson

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Hot House Flowers – “Don’t go”: Diamond Awards festival, 1988, Antwerp.

Link

Terrific Irish band. I first heard them sing this at a street concert in Kerry many years ago.


What do we do with Cruise ships now?

Why, dismantle them, of course, and recycle whatever we can.

Neat set of photographs from Reuters.

Well, well. What’s next? Universities?


What happens if there’s no Brexit trade deal?

You can guess the answer, but Politico has done a really useful deep dive into the matter.

(Number of stars indicates how bad things could be — for the UK.)

Tariffs: ★★★★★
Custom checks:
State aid: ★★
Dispute settlement: ★★★
Health: ★★★★★
Air travel: ★★★★
Road transport: ★★★
Security/intelligence: ★★
Environment/climate:
Energy:
Fishing: ★★★★
Digital: ★★★★
Finance: ★★
Citizens’ rights/immigration: ★★
Science and Education: ★★★
Pet travel:
Gibraltar: ★★★

It’s a long read, but worth it. If some of the assessments puzzle, dig into the text for an explanation.

Great piece of public-interest journalism.


The dangerous and inexorable rise of the instant expert

Interesting essay in the FT by Andrew Hill triggered by a new book by Roger Kneebone about the nature of expertise.

TL;DR summary: attaining expertise is hard and there are no short-cuts.

The real threat to becoming an expert, though, is an increasing yearning for quick fixes, pat answers, and instant gratification. “There’s a growing sense that anyone can learn to do anything — and quickly,” laments Prof Kneebone in his book. People applaud Tik Tok experts over those who have “done time”, or they assume that real skills displayed on social media can be picked up without effort or the acquisition of basic techniques.

Mr Trump is a case in point. He has sometimes been swift to claim “natural ability” in matters that his expert advisers took years to understand. But that is no surprise. After all, in the TV show that vaulted him towards the presidency, the apprenticeships he bestowed were a high-profile reward for a few weeks of showy salesmanship, not the first step in a hard but fulfilling journey towards mastery.

Yeah: just look at how Trump now regards himself as an expert on Covid-19.


What is the virus doing to us?

One answer, prompted by reading this thoughtful essay by historian Peter Frankopan, is that it’s softening us up for authoritarian rule. The crisis, he says, “has the capacity to be apocalyptic”.

More than eighty countries declared a state of emergency as a result of the virus, according to the Centre for Civil and Political Rights. In some cases this resulted in impassioned debate about the erosion of civil liberties, for example in Israel, where the government approved a controversial measure in March to digitally track those who had tested positive for coronavirus.

In Britain, meanwhile, the 329 page ‘Coronavirus Bill’ was passed in a single day – suspending the requirement for councils to meet the eligible needs of the disabled and vulnerable people, amongst others, as well as the right to cancel or re-arrange elections and to close ports and borders. Police releasing drone footage of walkers in the Peak District, officers reprimanding people for using their own front garden, or Thames Valley police issuing appeals for local residents to inform on each other if they suspect they are ‘gathering and then dispersing back into out communities’ during the lockdown show that the relationship between citizens and the authorities has changed dramatically in a matter of a few weeks. The new mantra of our pandemic and post-pandemic world is best expressed by Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha – a general who himself took power in a coup in 2014: ‘right now it’s health over liberty.’

There are, of course, pockets of resistance, such in the US, where armed militias gathered on the steps of some state assemblies to demand an end to lockdown. Ironically, they were encouraged by President Trump who issued a series of tweets effectively urging civil disobedience: ‘Liberate Michigan’, he tweeted; ‘Liberate Minnesota !’Liberate Virginia !’ But even in the complicated and contradictory United States of 2020, things have not been straightfoward, with Trump asserting that his powers are not so much presidential as dictatorial: ‘When somebody’s the President of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be,’ he said in a press briefing in mid-April – a few weeks after he had boasted that ‘I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about’, before a bilateral meeting with Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar.

The push away from democratic norms to autocratic measures is framed by the justification that the crisis is so severe as to require emergency measures that usually reflect a war footing. So it is no surprise that so many leaders around the world have referred to the coronavirus as a ‘war’, nor that wartime parallels are the ones we turn to in order to make sense of the situation: it is no coincidence either that the death toll from the Vietnam War contextualised mortality figures from the US, or that those of the height of the Blitz in the twenty eight days to 4 October 1940 were set against those to Covid-19 in the four weeks to mid-April.

Not a cheery read. But riveting nevertheless.


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Sunday 4 October, 2020

Quote of the Day

”Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post how it feels about dogs.

  • Christopher Hampton, playwright.

Jim and Helen’s Window

The window in their house, which they turned into the wonderful Kettle’s yard gallery in Cambridge.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel: As steals the morn (L’Allegro, HWV 55) Amanda Forsythe and Thomas Cooley, Voices of Music 4K

link


Home with a drone

This morning’s Observer column:

Here’s the scenario. It’s 3.30pm and you’re away from home. A burglar breaks in by forcing the french window in the living room. Shortly afterwards, two things happen. A small drone sitting unobtrusively in its housing-cum-charging-station whirs into life, and your smartphone beeps. The drone leaves its housing and begins a flight through the house on an inspection path that you have programmed into it, streaming live, high-definition video to your phone as it goes. The burglar sees and hears the drone, grasps what’s happening and flees.

Fiction? Not at all. It’s just Amazon’s latest gizmo – announced at its autumn hardware event on 24 September. It came with a nice video to illustrate the above scenario – though it featured an implausibly nervous burglar who, upon seeing the drone, fled as though he had seen a ghost. But other, less dramatic uses for the drone were suggested. It would be useful, for example, if you arrived at your non-remote workplace (remember them?) and wondered if you’d left the kitchen window open. This viewer wondered about equally mundane questions: how would the device deal with his cats, which regularly roam the house seeking surfaces that are forbidden to them when he’s physically present; how does the drone deal with closed internal doors – or indeed with the interior of any normal dwelling? Advertisements for so-called “smart” homes invariably feature the interiors of sterile, open-plan dwellings that no sane adult would wish to inhabit…

Read on


The Proper Function of Government

Link

I haven’t watched the Yes Minister series for years and years. And then stumbled accidentally on this and marvelled once more at the masterful, cynical insight of the script. Take a few minutes to watch it. It’s worth it.


Bedside manners

My irreverent WhatsApp feed continues to delight.


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