Saturday 3 October, 2020

One of our cats. Interesting thing is that when I first looked at it I thought it must have been taken with one of my high-end cameras. But in fact it was taken with the little Sony RX100M4. It’s a pretty good advertisement for that device.


Quote of the day

“If you think technology can solve your problems, then you don’t understand technology and you don’t understand your problems”.

  • Mariana Mazzucato

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Deep River Blues – Tommy Emmanuel

Link

Just the song for a rainy morning. You may need to skip the ad at the beginning.


Thirty glorious years

Long read of the day.

TL;DR Postwar prosperity depended on a truce between capitalist growth and democratic fairness. Is it possible to get it back?

I love long-sweep essays, and this one by Jonathan Hopkin fits that bill. Here’s how it opens:

With the end of the Second World War, the economies of western Europe and North America began a period of spectacular growth. Between 1950 and 1973 GDP doubled or more. This prosperity was broadly shared, with consistent growth in living standards for rich and poor alike and the emergence of a broad middle class. The French call it les trente glorieuses – the 30 glorious years – while the Italians describe it as il miracolo economico. The story of how this golden age of shared economic growth came to be has almost been forgotten, despite it being less than a century ago. There has never been a more urgent time to remind ourselves.

How did western countries, in one quarter of the 20th century, manage to increase both equality and economic efficiency? Why did this virtuous combination ultimately fall apart by the end of the century? The answer lies in the awkward relationship between democracy and capitalism, the former founded on equal political rights, the latter tending to accentuate differences between citizens based on talent, luck or inherited advantage. Democracy has the potential to curb capitalism’s inherent tendency to generate inequality. This very inequality can undermine the ability of democratic institutions to ensure that the economy works for the majority.

The rise and fall of democratic capitalism in the postwar era is one of the most important events in modern history…

My hunch is that in the long view of history, the the kind of democracy that emerged from the wreckage of WW2 in the period 1946 to 1971, and then began its long decay from then to the present, may come to be seen as a kind of blip. It was a by-product of the global shock of a global war, and it lasted until the economic ideas that informed it and the impact of the war on successive generations began to run out of steam.

Hopkin’s argument is that the war “cut capitalism down to size” and gave a decisive push to establish a new form of economic system in which political demands took primacy. As a result, the postwar era established a new form of ‘managed’ or ‘democratic’ capitalism that delivered a more equal distribution of income and wealth.

Democratic capitalism redressed the balance between the brutal inequalities of early industrial capitalism and the need for social consent to secure political stability. It rested on three broad pillars: a redistributive welfare state that provided economic security while narrowing income gaps between rich and poor, corporatist dialogue between employers and the labour force, and highly regulated capital markets. Aspects of this form of capitalism sometimes existed in nondemocratic societies too. But as a basic set of socioeconomic institutions it was most associated with the democratic form of government in which competitive elections and representative political parties incorporated citizen demands into policymaking.

All that began to change in the 1970s, when a combination of high inflation, faltering growth and industrial disputes over wages ushered in an era of social and political turbulence that brought a revival of liberal market ideology in the shape of the neoliberalism that seized the imagination of politicians and governing elites throughout the West. But, says Hopkin,

The promise of the neoliberal era to unleash the power of individual incentives to spread prosperity has not been fulfilled. Average growth rates across the advanced capitalist systems failed to match those of the postwar boom years. Since the 1970s, an increasingly unequal income distribution has meant that, for many, living standards failed to improve by much at all in subsequent decades. In the 1970s, strikes, demonstrations, riots and even terrorism expressed social tensions. By the 1990s, a resentful apathy, reflected in falling voter turnout and disengagement with formal party politics, signalled mass frustrations. The neoliberal revolution succeeded not only in shifting policy, but in fundamentally undermining the institutional preconditions of democratic capitalism. Governments progressively delegated important policy decisions to non-elected bodies, some of them supranational. Meanwhile, anti-union legislation and the declining bargaining power resulting from offshoring and heightened global competition took a heavy toll on worker rights.

Which is how we got to where we are now.

Long read, but worth it.


Trump and the virus

All of a sudden people are apparently rushing to pray for Trump as he battles with Covid. Pardon me if I sit this one out. My fear is that it will be a replay of the Boris Johnson story. You may recall that Johson damn nearly died from the virus, but was saved by the NHS and then wrapped himself in the NHS flag afterwards to ride a wave of feeble-minded public sympathy over his self-induced ordeal — brought about largely by his inability to take the virus seriously in the early days. Just like Trump.

In the meantime, it’s heartening to see how Photoshop remains the staple tool of satirists, as in this picture retrieved from my irreverent WhatsApp feed:

But there are some really interesting aspects of what has happened.

Michael Kruse has a fascinating article in Politico.com about it.

Here’s the bit that caught my eye:

“Weakness,” Tony Schwartz, co-author of The Art of the Deal, once told me, “is Trump’s greatest fear by far.”

Weakness, however, inhabits the absolute center of the most primal aspects of the long-arc engine of Trump. He knows, in the most deep-seated way, of the utter unavoidability of human vulnerability—anybody’s, everybody’s and, of course, his own. And yet Trump resolutely followed the mandate his father modeled to squelch any such concession. Fundamentally disparate but inextricably linked, these are two of the most essential and major motivators of Trump’s lifelong pattern of behavior. Now, with the news that Trump has tested positive for the virus that’s killed more than a million people worldwide, all of this has come to a perilous head.

The wee-hours shock wave of his diagnosis has exposed the fragility of his bravado. The man who’s trumpeted his genes and his blood and his virility while deriding his foes for low energy is now stricken and sequestered, cut off from the adoring supporters who stoke not just his political prospects but his needy psyche. He is 74 and obese, and already was facing a pending public reckoning—and the fear of being seen as anything other than strong in the end is precisely what has made him so weak.

His lengthy record of germophobia, encapsulated by his well-documented hatred of shaking hands, often has been considered merely a bullet point on his list of idiosyncrasies. But in fact it reflects his latent knowledge of the power of infection to wreak quick and terrible consequences. “Shaking hands, you catch colds, you catch the flu,” he said in 1999. “And who knows what else?” he said in 2004. “You don’t want to be a liability,” he said, getting perhaps unwittingly closer to the crux, in 2013. “You don’t want to become somebody’s patient.” Trump, according to Jack O’Donnell, a former Trump casino executive in Atlantic City, was “preoccupied by a fear of communicable disease.”

There’s a delicious sense of chickens coming home to roost about all this.


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Thursday 1 October, 2020

Quote of the Day

“There ain’t no Sanity Claus”.

  • Groucho Marx, in A Night at the Opera

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Fleetwood Mac: Second Hand News

Link


US mainstream media: still living in the past

Wonderful blast from Dave Pell in his daily newsletter:

One of things we learned last night is that the media still hasn’t adjusted to the Trump era. The immediate headlines continued a never-ending streak of false equivalence and both sides-ism. One guy lies constantly. One guy is a bully. One guy has dragged America’s reputation into a bottomless pit. One guy turned last night’s debate into a debacle. And yet, just after the conclusion of the broadcast, these were some of the headlines I screen captured, all of which give the impression that both participants were equally responsible for the disaster. NYT: Sharp Personal Attacks and Name Calling in Chaotic First Debate. WaPo: Personal Attacks, Sharp Exchanges Mark Turbulent First Debate. CNN: Pure Chaos at First Debate. AP: Debate Anger: Biden Tells Interrupting Trump, “Shut Up, Man.” Boston Globe: First Debate Between Trump, Biden Marked By Chaos, Rancor as Candidates Made it Personal. LA Times: Trump and Biden Trade Bitter Personal Attacks in First Debate. Bloomberg: Trump-Biden Debate Descends into Bickering and Chaos. Time: Shouting Over Each Other. Yeah, it was just a couple of guys who were both losing their cool, and there are some very fine debaters on both sides. Give me a break. The debate did not “descend” into bickering and chaos. It was dragged there by the same monster who has dragged America to this maddeningly dangerous precipice. By morning, many of these headlines had been updated to more accurately depict what we all saw and heard. But the knee-jerk response was towards the false equivalence that has propped up Trump for years.

Spot on. I’m continually amazed by the small-c conservatism of mainstream US journalism.

James Fallows published a fine essay on this that I blogged recently.


Larry Tribe on watching “a coup d’Etat in progress”

Laurence Tribe is Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard and one of the most eminent Constitutional scholars in the US. He’s also a member of the ‘Real Facebook Oversight Board’ that my Observer colleague Carole Cadwalladr has assembled. Yesterday that Board held its first public meeting. Here’s what Larry Tribe said in his opening statement:

Link


Understanding how Covid spreads: it’s about averages and bursts

Here’s the long read of the day — a terrific piece by Zeynep Tufecki in The Atlantic.

The gist of it:

I’ve heard many explanations for these widely differing trajectories over the past nine months—weather, elderly populations, vitamin D, prior immunity, herd immunity—but none of them explains the timing or the scale of these drastic variations. But there is a potential, overlooked way of understanding this pandemic that would help answer these questions, reshuffle many of the current heated arguments, and, crucially, help us get the spread of COVID-19 under control.

By now many people have heard about R0—the basic reproductive number of a pathogen, a measure of its contagiousness on average. But unless you’ve been reading scientific journals, you’re less likely to have encountered k, the measure of its dispersion. The definition of k is a mouthful, but it’s simply a way of asking whether a virus spreads in a steady manner or in big bursts, whereby one person infects many, all at once. After nine months of collecting epidemiological data, we know that this is an overdispersed pathogen, meaning that it tends to spread in clusters, but this knowledge has not yet fully entered our way of thinking about the pandemic—or our preventive practices.

The now-famed R0 (pronounced as “r-naught”) is an average measure of a pathogen’s contagiousness, or the mean number of susceptible people expected to become infected after being exposed to a person with the disease. If one ill person infects three others on average, the R0 is three. This parameter has been widely touted as a key factor in understanding how the pandemic operates. News media have produced multiple explainers and visualizations for it. Movies praised for their scientific accuracy on pandemics are lauded for having characters explain the “all-important” R0. Dashboards track its real-time evolution, often referred to as R or Rt, in response to our interventions. (If people are masking and isolating or immunity is rising, a disease can’t spread the same way anymore, hence the difference between R0 and R.)

Unfortunately, averages aren’t always useful for understanding the distribution of a phenomenon, especially if it has widely varying behavior. If Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, walks into a bar with 100 regular people in it, the average wealth in that bar suddenly exceeds $1 billion. If I also walk into that bar, not much will change. Clearly, the average is not that useful a number to understand the distribution of wealth in that bar, or how to change it. Sometimes, the mean is not the message. Meanwhile, if the bar has a person infected with COVID-19, and if it is also poorly ventilated and loud, causing people to speak loudly at close range, almost everyone in the room could potentially be infected—a pattern that’s been observed many times since the pandemic begin, and that is similarly not captured by R. That’s where the dispersion comes in.

There are COVID-19 incidents in which a single person likely infected 80 percent or more of the people in the room in just a few hours. But, at other times, COVID-19 can be surprisingly much less contagious. Overdispersion and super-spreading of this virus are found in research across the globe. A growing number of studies estimate that a majority of infected people may not infect a single other person. A recent paper found that in Hong Kong, which had extensive testing and contact tracing, about 19 percent of cases were responsible for 80 percent of transmission, while 69 percent of cases did not infect another person. This finding is not rare: Multiple studies from the beginning have suggested that as few as 10 to 20 percent of infected people may be responsible for as much as 80 to 90 percent of transmission, and that many people barely transmit it.

This highly skewed, imbalanced distribution means that an early run of bad luck with a few super-spreading events, or clusters, can produce dramatically different outcomes even for otherwise similar countries…

One of the implications of this is that we’re doing testing and tracing the wrong way round. Once we’ve found an infected individual, we should be looking backwards to find who infected them rather than focussing on whom they might have infected.

Like I say, a long read. But worth it.


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Wednesday 30 September, 2020

New England in the Fall

Jason Kottke, the Über Blogger lives in Vermont. He posted this astonishing image on his blog the other day. It makes one realise that the English Autumn, though beautiful in its way, is pretty muted by comparison.


Quote of the Day

“It seems to people who are on lockdown that it’s going on interminably, but for scientists it’s just the beginning. We are still just scratching the surface of this.”

  • Dr. Martha Nelson, a scientist at the US National Institutes of Health who specializes in epidemics and viral genetics, quoted in today’s New York Times piece marking the sombre milestone of a million Covid deaths worldwide.

Yep: we’re in a marathon, not a sprint.


Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Schubert – Impromptu #3: Vladimir Horowitz, live performance in Vienna, in 1987 (I think)

Link

Audio quality is not great, but it’s a lovely performance. Amazing to see the way he seems almost to caress the keyboard with those long fingers of his.


How To Plan For The Post-Covid Future

Long read of the day

Tim O’Reilly is one of the smartest people I know. And this essay is worth your time IMHO:

The 20th century didn’t really begin in the year 1900, it began in 1914, when the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand triggered long-simmering international tensions and the world slid, seemingly inexorably, into a great world war, followed by a roaring return to seeming normality and then a crash into a decade-long worldwide depression and another catastrophic war. Empires were dissolved, an entire way of life swept away. A new, more prosperous world emerged only through the process of rebuilding a society that had been torn down to its foundations.

So too, when we look back, we will understand that the 21st century truly began this year, when the COVID19 pandemic took hold. We are entering the century of being blindsided by things that we have been warned about for decades but never took seriously enough to prepare for, the century of lurching from crisis to crisis until, at last, we shake ourselves from the illusion that our world will go back to the comfortable way it was and begin the process of rebuilding our society from the ground up.

Even when we develop a successful COVID19 vaccine or treatment, or when we achieve herd immunity, this will not be the last pandemic. Other long-predicted but “unexpected” crises lurk in the wings: flooding, drought, mass migrations, food shortages, and wars as a result of climate change; widespread antibiotic resistance due to overuse on factory farms; political instability driven by an unsustainable level of economic inequality; crumbling infrastructure and lack of investment in bettering the lives of ordinary citizens at the expense of a feverish Ponzi economy focused on growing asset values for the wealthy.

So, when you read stories—and there are many—speculating or predicting when and how we will return to “normal”, discount them heavily. The future will not be like the past. The comfortable Victorian and Georgian world complete with grand country houses, a globe-spanning British empire, and lords and commoners each knowing their place, was swept away by the events that began in the summer of 1914 (and that with Britain on the “winning” side of both world wars.) So too, our comfortable “American century” of conspicuous consumer consumption, global tourism, and ever-increasing stock and home prices may be gone forever.

[…]

Our failure to make deep, systemic changes after the financial collapse of 2009, and our choice instead to spend the last decade cutting taxes and spending profusely to prop up financial markets while ignoring deep, underlying problems has only made responding to the current crisis that much more difficult. Our failure to build back creatively and productively from the global financial crisis is necessary context for the challenge to do so now…

Thoughtful, far-reaching and not necessarily reassuring.


Former Facebook manager: “We took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook”

Well, well. For a long time I’ve been likening the surveillance capitalist companies to tobacco and oil companies. But I never thought I’d hear a former Facebook employee state that he once saw the analogy as a guide to policy. Yet here is Tim Kendall, who served as director of monetization for Facebook from 2006 through 2010, speaking to Congress on September 24 as part of a House Commerce subcommittee hearing examining how social media platforms contribute to the mainstreaming of extremist and radicalizing content.

He told legislators that the company “took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook, working to make our offering addictive at the outset” and arguing that his former employer has been hugely detrimental to society.

“The social media services that I and others have built over the past 15 years have served to tear people apart with alarming speed and intensity,” Kendall said in his opening testimony. “At the very least, we have eroded our collective understanding—at worst, I fear we are pushing ourselves to the brink of a civil war.”

“We sought to mine as much attention as humanly possible… We took a page form Big Tobacco’s playbook, working to make our offering addictive at the outset.”

Tobacco companies initially just sought to make nicotine more potent. But eventually that wasn’t enough to grow the business as fast as they wanted. And so they added sugar and menthol to cigarettes so you could hold the smoke in your lungs for longer periods. At Facebook, we added status updates, photo tagging, and likes, which made status and reputation primary and laid the groundwork for a teenage mental health crisis.

Allowing for misinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news to flourish were like Big Tobacco’s bronchodilators, which allowed the cigarette smoke to cover more surface area of the lungs. But that incendiary content alone wasn’t enough. To continue to grow the user base and in particular, the amount of time and attention users would surrender to Facebook, they needed more.

“We initially used engagement as sort of a proxy for user benefit. But we also started to realize that engagement could also mean [users] were sufficiently sucked in that they couldn’t work in their own best long-term interest to get off the platform… We started to see real-life consequences, but they weren’t given much weight. Engagement always won, it always trumped.”

“There’s no incentive to stop [toxic content] and there’s incredible incentive to keep going and get better. I just don’t believe that’s going to change unless there are financial, civil, or criminal penalties associated with the harm that they create. Without enforcement, they’re just going to continue to be embarrassed by the mistakes, and they’ll talk about empty platitudes… but I don’t believe anything systemic will change… the incentives to keep the status quo are just too lucrative at the moment.”

Wow!


Florida Police Just Released Video of Brad Parscale Getting Tackled by Cops

Well, well. How are the mighty fallen.

Some background:

You may remember that Brad Parscale was the supposed genius behind the 2016 Trump campaign’s weaponisation of Facebook. This made him a kind of global political celebrity — worth even a big profile in the New Yorker, no less as “The man behind Trump’s Facebook juggernaut”. Come 2020 and Parscale was now the Director of the Trump campaign and an even more swaggering giant. He was the driving spirit behind the ludicrous Tulsa rally — the one that supposedly had 800,000 pre-registrations. Except, of course, that it didn’t. The Trump operation had been cleverly hijacked by kids on TikTok who made fake pre-bookings. So the rally was a fiasco, at which point I predicted that Parscale’s days as Director were numbered. It was an accurate prediction — he was replaced in July by Bill Stepien.

Now spool forward to the present. Here’s a report by Vice News from Fort Lauderdale in Florida, where Parscale reportedly owns three houses:

Police in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, just released a video of President Trump’s former campaign manager getting tackled by cops.

The body camera footage shows a police officer hurling Parscale to the ground during an incident at his home, shortly after they responded to a call for help from Parscale’s wife. She told police that Parscale had threatened to kill himself and had racked the slide of a handgun in front of her face, “putting her in fear for her safety,” according to a police report.

The video shows Parscale, wearing white shorts and no shirt, speaking with a police officer, and then another officer rapidly approaches Parscale from his right side, telling him, “Get on the ground, man.”

Parscale doesn’t visibly react to that command at first. The police officer then hurls him to the ground, while Parscale objects, saying “I didn’t do anything.”

One doesn’t want to intrude on private grief, but it looks as though Parscale has had some kind of breakdown. CBS reports that he “was taken to a mental health facility in Florida on Sunday night after barricading himself in his home with weapons and threatening to harm himself, police said. Parscale was detained without injury and transported to a local hospital.”

Nobody works for Trump without in the end being damaged by the experience.


How Much Has Inequality Cost Workers?

From a sobering piece in the Journal of Democracy, especially for those who are nostalgic for a return to our current version of capitalism-friendly democracy.

Even if Donald Trump loses the election, the conditions that made his authoritarian regime possible won’t disappear with him. If we are to heal our country and ensure against a repeat of the past four years, we need to boldly and aggressively scale our solutions to the size of the problem. And when it comes to our crisis of rising income inequality, the problem is huge.

How big is it? A staggering $50 trillion.

That’s how much the upward redistribution of income has cost American workers over the past several decades.

This is not some back-of-the-napkin approximation. According to a groundbreaking new working paper by Carter C. Price and Kathryn Edwards of the RAND Corporation, from 1947 through 1974, real incomes grew at close to the rate of per capita economic growth across all income levels. That means that for three decades, those at the bottom and middle of the distribution saw their incomes grow at about the same rate as those at the top. Had these more equitable income distributions merely held steady, the aggregate annual income of Americans earning below the 90th percentile would have been $2.5 trillion higher in the year 2018 alone. That is an amount equal to nearly 12 percent of GDP—enough to more than double median income, and enough to pay every single working American in the bottom nine deciles an additional $1,144 a month. Every worker. Every month. Every. Single. Year.

But the ‘normal’ that our governments wish us to return to is not the normality of 1947-1974, but the post 1974 one.

The RAND paper is here. The Abstract reads:

The three decades following the Second World War saw a period of economic growth that was shared across the income distribution, but inequality in taxable income has increased substantially over the last four decades. This work seeks to quantify the scale of income gap created by rising inequality compared to a counterfactual in which growth was shared more broadly. We introduce a time-period agnostic and income-level agnostic measure of inequality that relates income growth to economic growth. This new metric can be applied over long stretches of time, applied to subgroups of interest, and easily calculated. We document the cumulative effect of four decades of income growth below the growth of per capita gross national income and estimate that aggregate income for the population below the 90th percentile over this time period would have been $2.5 trillion (67 percent) higher in 2018 had income growth since 1975 remained as equitable as it was in the first two post-War decades. From 1975 to 2018, the difference between the aggregate taxable income for those below the 90th percentile and the equitable growth counterfactual totals $47 trillion. We further explore trends in inequality by applying this metric within and across business cycles from 1975 to 2018 and also by demographic group.


The extent of my ignorance

One of the first rules of blogging is always to assume that out there are people who know far more than you do. I’ve adhered to this since Day One (in the mid-1990s) and have never been disappointed. So when the other day I confessed that I hadn’t known that Trump owned a golf-course in Ireland, in no time at all readers wrote in suggesting gently that I really ought to know better. For example, Charles Foster wrote:

You didn’t know that Trump had a golf course in Ireland? Good Lord! It’s at Doonbeg, and has been owned by him for about six years: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trump_International_Golf_Links_and_Hotel_Ireland

The Irish government laid down a red carpet for him when he came to visit in 2015 just after buying it. He’s been here a couple of times (I think) since becoming President, the last time in 2019 when he used it as an overnight stop when he was in France commemorating the 75th anniversary of the D Day landings — this was the time when he didn’t go to the US war cemetery near Paris to pay his respects because it was raining.

To which I can only protest that I did know about Doonbeg, partly because a friend of mine who is a terrific golfer is a member there. But I had no idea that it was owned by Trump and is now — of course — badged under his accursed name!


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Monday 28 September, 2020

Poppy harvest?

We spotted this field almost overgrown with poppies on our way through Norfolk. It was startling enough to brake hard, stop and photograph.


Quote of the Day

”The delicate operation of separating an American from the four-wheel part of him has to be performed with tact.”

  • Architect Philip Johnson in his essay “The Town and the Automobile or the Pride of Elm Street”, 1955

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major BWV 1049 – Sato | Netherlands Bach Society

Link


The nub of Trump’s tax returns

Marvellous scoop by the New York Times and a very long read.

Here’s what I think is the gist:

Mr. Trump’s net income from his fame — his 50 percent share of “The Apprentice,” together with the riches showered upon him by the scores of suitors paying to use his name — totaled $427.4 million through 2018. A further $176.5 million in profit came to him through his investment in two highly successful office buildings.

So how did he escape nearly all taxes on that fortune? Even the effective tax rate paid by the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans could have caused him to pay more than $100 million.

The answer rests in a third category of Mr. Trump’s endeavors: businesses that he owns and runs himself. The collective and persistent losses he reported from them largely absolved him from paying federal income taxes on the $600 million from “The Apprentice,” branding deals and investments.

That equation is a key element of the alchemy of Mr. Trump’s finances: using the proceeds of his celebrity to purchase and prop up risky businesses, then wielding their losses to avoid taxes.

Throughout his career, Mr. Trump’s business losses have often accumulated in sums larger than could be used to reduce taxes on other income in a single year. But the tax code offers a workaround: With some restrictions, business owners can carry forward leftover losses to reduce taxes in future years.

That provision has been the background music to Mr. Trump’s life. As The Times’s previous reporting on his 1995 return showed, the nearly $1 billion in losses from his early-1990s collapse generated a tax deduction that he could use for up to 18 years going forward.

The newer tax returns show that Mr. Trump burned through the last of the tax-reducing power of that $1 billion in 2005, just as a torrent of entertainment riches began coming his way following the debut of “The Apprentice” the year before.

For 2005 through 2007, cash from licensing deals and endorsements filled Mr. Trump’s bank accounts with $120 million in pure profit. With no prior-year losses left to reduce his taxable income, he paid substantial federal income taxes for the first time in his life: a total of $70.1 million.

As his celebrity income swelled, Mr. Trump went on a buying spree unlike any he had had since the 1980s, when eager banks and his father’s wealth allowed him to buy or build the casinos, airplanes, yacht and old hotel that would soon lay him low.

When “The Apprentice” premiered, Mr. Trump had opened only two golf courses and was renovating two more. By the end of 2015, he had 15 courses and was transforming the Old Post Office building in Washington into a Trump International Hotel. But rather than making him wealthier, the tax records reveal as never before, each new acquisition only fed the downward draft on his bottom line.

Interesting. I didn’t know he had a golf course in Ireland. I wonder if any of my golfing friends know that.

And here’s Politico’s succinct summary:

TOP LINE 1: Trump paid $750 in income tax the year he won the presidency. He paid another $750 in his first year in the White House.

TOP LINE 2: In 10 of the previous 15 years, he paid no income tax at all.

TOP LINE 3: He did this despite raking in hundreds of millions of dollars a year, the NYT reports, by racking up huge losses to avoid tax. His top businesses lost millions per year — he blew $70,000 on “hairstyling” alone.

TOP LINE 4: Trump faces an audit over a $73 million tax refund he received after declaring massive losses — an adverse ruling could cost him over $100 million.

TOP LINE 5: Within the next four years, Trump faces more than $300 million worth of loans coming due.

The Times summarises it all as: “Ultimately, Mr. Trump has been more successful playing a business mogul than being one in real life.”

My summary: And this is news?

Also: It goes without saying that Trump is a fraud and a moral cretin. And I’m sure the engineered bankruptcy of many of his businesses destroyed many lives. But actually he was mostly doing what many unscrupulous accountants would have advised him to do — to exploit the bankruptcy laws and the fact that it can make sense to accumulate losses to be set against tax in future years.

Before we let our moral indignation carry us away, though, there is the awkward fact that we routinely tolerate even more unscrupulous abuses. Think, for example, of the private equity racket, which has been used in the UK and elsewhere to destroy perfectly good businesses by buying them cheap, loading them with debt, stripping their assets and then letting them rot. It’s happening now to some venerable High Street businesses. And the people who are doing it are, among other things, prized donors to a certain political party.


Meanwhile in Covid-land…

If I were a betting man I’d be looking for odds on the prospect that Boris Johnson will not be Prime Minister for much longer. If the Tories are good at one thing, it’s the ruthless disposal of leaders who look like endangering their hold on power. They did it to Macmillan in the 1960s and even to Thatcher at the height of her pomp. And of course to Head Girl Theresa May in recent memory. All of the indications now are that Johnson’s backbenchers are increasingly posed-off with the chaos at the top and its accompanying authoritarian tone. Politico today quotes a text from an unnamed Conservative backbencher saying

“Which clown-faced moron thought it would be a good idea to kick thousands of pissed people out from the pubs into the street and onto the tube at the same time? It’s like some sort of sick experiment to see if you can incubate a second wave.”

Shrewd punters will now be keeping an eye on Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove with Sajid Javid as a 100 to 1 outsider.

What’s really bugging the backbenchers is the increasingly authoritarian tone of Johnson’s “diktats” about local lockdowns etc — all issued without any consultation with Parliament. That’s because in fact the author of these decrees is Dominic Cummings, who has no time at all for parliament, or indeed for any democratic process other than elections.


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Sunday 27 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

”I often think how much easier the world would have been to manage if Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini had been at Oxford.”

  • Lord Halifax, Neville Chamberlain’s Foreign Secretary.

Er, note that he said Oxford, not Cambridge.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Haydn String Quartet No. 62, Op. 76 No. 3 “Emperor” (2nd mov) Veridis Quartet (Live performance)

Link


Can democracies stand up to Facebook? Ireland may have the answer

This morning’s Observer column:

Last month, the Irish data protection commissioner (DPC) sent Facebook a preliminary order ordering it to stop sending the data of its European users to the US. This was a big deal, because in order to comply with the ruling, Facebook would have to embark on a comprehensive re-engineering of its European operations, or to shut down those operations entirely, at least for a time.

Such a shutdown would of course be traumatic for the poor souls who are addicted to Facebook and Instagram, but it would be even worse for the company – for two reasons. The first is that it makes more money from European users’ data – an average of $13.21 (£10.19) per user in 2019 – than from any other territory except the US (where it earns $41.41 per user); the second is that failure to comply could land it with a fine of up to 4% of its global revenue, which in Facebook’s case would come to about $3bn. Given the scale of its revenues, that’s not a showstopper, but it would nevertheless be annoying.

Predictably, the company was furious, threatening, as one commentator put it, “to pack up its toys and go home if European regulators don’t back down and let the social network get its own way”…

Read on


How to debate against a liar

The first Presidential debate is coming up on Tuesday.

Richard A. Friedman is a professor of clinical psychiatry. He has [some advice] (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/25/opinion/debate-trump-biden-lie.html) for Joe Biden on how to handle Trump.

When Joe Biden debates President Trump on Tuesday, he will have to figure out how to parry with an opponent who habitually lies and doesn’t play by the rules.

As a psychiatrist, I’d like to offer Mr. Biden some advice: Don’t waste your time fact-checking the president. If you attempt to counter every falsehood or distortion that Mr. Trump serves up, you will cede control of the debate. And, by trying to correct him, you will paradoxically strengthen the misinformation rather than undermine it. (Research shows that trying to correct a falsehood with truth can backfire by reinforcing the original lie. )

Instead, Biden should use more powerful weapons that will put Trump on the defensive.

The first weapon may be the most effective: humor and ridicule.

Trump, faced with a pandemic and an economic downturn, tells Americans what a great job he’s done. In response, Mr. Biden should smile and say with a bit of laugh: “And just where have you been living? South Korea? Or Fiji? You cannot be in the United States — except maybe on the golf course. We’ve got about 4 percent of the world’s population and 21 percent of all Covid deaths and the highest unemployment since the Great Depression! You must be living on another planet!”

The retort mocks the president as weak and unaccomplished, which will rattle him. He is apparently so fearful of being the target of a joke that — unlike any president before him — he has skipped the last three roasts at the White House Correspondents Dinner.

Lots more in that vein. Professor Friedman also comes up with something I hadn’t thought about: there won’t be a live audience.

President Trump will not have a live audience to excite him and satisfy his insatiable need for approval and attention, which means he will be even more vulnerable to a takedown. True, no one will be there to laugh at Mr. Biden’s jokes, but it doesn’t matter because the goal is serious: to expose the truth and unnerve Mr. Trump by getting under his skin.

Interesting piece throughout.


Project Orion

One of the most interesting and unusual books I read during lockdown is George Dyson’s Analogia: the Entangled Destinies of Nature, Human Beings and Machines. In one section of it he describes an extraordinary, top-secret project that his father, the great physicist Freeman Dyson, had worked on in the late 1950s — the Orion Project. Crudely summarised, this was a project to build a huge spaceship powered by a large number of successive nuclear explosions. It sounds so daft that I have doubts even as I type the words. But the project was real (fuelled in part by post-Sputnik panic in the US) and prototypes were built and tested, though most of the information about it was highly classified until George Dyson campaigned vigorously to have it released.

Anyway, I finished the book wondering what else was known about Project Orion, and — lo! and behold! — look what I found: a wonderful 2002 BBC documentary, To Mars By A Bomb – The Secret History of Project Orion, about it.

It’s nearly an hour long, so make some coffee, pull up a chair, and ponder the exquisite madness of ultra-clever human beings.


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Saturday 26 September, 2020

A message from the cloud appreciation society

From our coastal walk on Thursday.


Quote of the Day

”An expert is someone who knows the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject and who manages to avoid them.”

  • Werner Heisenberg

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler & Chet Atkins playing I’ll see you in my dreams and Imagine live at the Secret Policeman’s Third Ball 1987.

Link


Thinking about Lincoln

I’ve been thinking about Abraham Lincoln a good deal ever since I listened to David Runciman’s unmissable podcasted talk about Max Weber’s famous lecture “Politics as a Vocation”, delivered to students in Munich in 1919. Towards the end of his talk, David identifies Lincoln as the politician who comes closest to meeting Weber’s stringent requirements for a democratic leader, and so I’ve been driven to digging out Gore Vidal’s famous historical novel about him and other stuff.

Today, I came on Adam Gopnik’s roundup essay in the New Yorker on a raft of contemporary biographies of Lincoln, which of course I dived into and found myself transfixed by this wonderful photograph of him which I’d never seen before. It’s such a revealing portrait of its subject.

Lincoln was famously ungainly and physically awkward. Gopnik retells the story of when he was President and his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, compared him to a baboon. Asked how he could endure such an insult, Lincoln replied: “That is no insult; it is an expression of opinion; and what troubles me most about it is that Stanton said it, and Stanton is usually right.”

Gopnik’s argument is that historians’ visions of Lincoln have been shaped by their own political landscapes and cultural contexts. Which neatly explains why he has been much on our minds at the moment. And isn’t it weird — looking at the current GOP — that he was a Republican!


Ireland might yet be forced to accept that €13 billion in back tax from Apple

This is straight out of the you-couldn’t-make-it-up department.

Way back in 2016 the European Commission issued a ruling that Ireland had given Apple a “sweetheart deal” that let the company pay significantly lower taxes than other businesses. “Member States cannot give tax benefits to selected companies — this is illegal under EU state aid rules,” the EU’s antitrust Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said in 2016.

The commission ordered Apple to pay €13 billion ($14.9 billion) in back taxes to the Irish government. Needless to say, Apple disputed the decision, with CEO Tim Cook calling the judgment “total political crap.” But — here’s the startling bit — the Irish government also appealed the decision! This must be the first recorded case of a cash-strapped government facing Brexit campaigning not to receive enough dosh to run the country’s health service for a year or two.

In July this year In July, the General Court of the EU annulled the 2016 ruling on the grounds that that the commission had failed to make its case. “The commission did not succeed in showing to the requisite legal standard that there was an advantage” for Apple, they declared, and “the commission did not prove, in its alternative line of reasoning, that the contested tax rulings were the result of discretion exercised by the Irish tax authorities.”

On Friday the Commission announced that it will appeal the court’s July ruling, with Vestager saying in a statement that the court “has made a number of errors of law.”

“The General Court has repeatedly confirmed the principle that, while Member States have competence in determining their taxation laws taxation, they must do so in respect of EU law, including State aid rules,” Vestager said. “If Member States give certain multinational companies tax advantages not available to their rivals, this harms fair competition in the European Union in breach of State aid rules.”

Quite so.

A detached observer might ask why the Irish government took the line it did in this case. The short answer is that since 1958 the prime strategy of the Irish state has to carve out an economic future for a small island by being nice to giant foreign companies (especially US ones). So if it were obliged to take a more hands-off stance to these giants — even as some of them, especially Facebook and Google (both with their European HQs in Dublin) are turning toxic — then it would be changing the habits of several political lifetimes.

This one will run for a while yet.


Why we need satire

From the (consistently funny) current issue of Private Eye — sometimes the only publication that keeps UK residents sane and the moment.


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Thursday 23 September, 2020

On our way to North Norfolk today, we came on a flower we’d never seen before on a roadside verge.

This is one of the (tiny) flowers, shot with a Summilux 28mm on macro setting.


Quote of the Day

”Pray, good people, be civil; I am the Protestant whore.”

  • Nell Gwyn, the actress who became Charles II’s mistress. She is supposed to have said it when her carriage was besieged by an angry mob who thought she was the King’s unpopular Catholic mistress, Louise de Kérouaille.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Dougie Maclean & Guests – Caledonia

Link


So why is this front-page news now?

It would be news if a normal politician — or indeed a normal person — said it. But Trump isn’t normal — and surely we all knew that by now. If a mafia boss were elected president and began behaving like a mafia boss, then nobody would be surprised. They might be outraged or alarmed, but surprised? Not in the least. Trump is a like a low-grade mafia boss with a short attention span. Of course he will dispute the results if he loses the election. Goddam it, he disputed the results in the election that he won!


The unrelenting horizonlessness of the Covid world

Eerie and possibly insightful essay by Nick Couldry and Bruce Schneier, who needs no introduction.

Six months into the pandemic with no end in sight, many of us have been feeling a sense of unease that goes beyond anxiety or distress. It’s a nameless feeling that somehow makes it hard to go on with even the nice things we regularly do.

What’s blocking our everyday routines is not the anxiety of lockdown adjustments, or the worries about ourselves and our loved ones — real though those worries are. It isn’t even the sense that, if we’re really honest with ourselves, much of what we do is pretty self-indulgent when held up against the urgency of a global pandemic. It is something more troubling and harder to name: an uncertainty about why we would go on doing much of what for years we’d taken for granted as inherently valuable.

They think we’re suffering from Acedia. Eh? Apparently it was a malady that plagued many medieval monks. It’s a sense of no longer caring about caring, not because one had become apathetic, but because somehow the whole structure of care had become jammed up.

It’s here, moving back to the particular features of the global pandemic, that we see more clearly what drives the restlessness and dislocation so many have been feeling. The source of our current acedia is not the literal loss of a future; even the most pessimistic scenarios surrounding Covid-19 have our species surviving. The dislocation is more subtle: a disruption in pretty much every future frame of reference on which just going on in the present relies.

Moving around is what we do as creatures, and for that we need horizons. Covid has erased many of the spatial and temporal horizons we rely on, even if we don’t notice them very often. We don’t know how the economy will look, how social life will go on, how our home routines will be changed, how work will be organized, how universities or the arts or local commerce will survive.

What unsettles us is not only fear of change. It’s that, if we can no longer trust in the future, many things become irrelevant, retrospectively pointless. And by that we mean from the perspective of a future whose basic shape we can no longer take for granted. This fundamentally disrupts how we weigh the value of what we are doing right now. It becomes especially hard under these conditions to hold on to the value in activities that, by their very nature, are future-directed, such as education or institution-building. That’s what many of us are feeling. That’s today’s acedia.

That rings a bell. When a loved one becomes terminally ill, for example, you discover that day-to-day living becomes harder because the future has become both certain and uncertain. It’s very disabling.

Thanks to Charles Arthur for spotting it.


The NHS Test and Trace app has two flaws: QR codes and people

As a conscientious citizen (note: not ‘subject’ — I’m an Irish citizen rather than a British subject) I downloaded the app and it’s now running on my iPhone.

Nicole Kobie has an interesting piece in Wired about it, based on the experiences of people in Newham, which was one of the two areas in the country where it’s already been trialled.

The trials were clearly necessary and useful because they’ve highlighted some important areas of potential difficulty

Conflicting QR codes are one of several problems raised by the contact tracing app, alongside residents having phones too old to use the app, language challenges in this diverse area, and distrust of the government.

A key feature of the app is that it is supposed to let you check in to a venue by scanning an official NHS QR code displayed in the premises you are trying to enter. But Newham residents told WIRED that they’ve barely seen any of the official NHS QR codes in shops or restaurants. [This could be because the residents were effectively Beta-testers for the app and the QR codes would not have been widely distributed.]

Others say they’re confused as to whether a QR code on the door is the right one to scan or not, as existing contact-tracing systems also use the codes – just wait until these codes are ubiquitous and scammers start putting up false ones. And some residents reported that the QR code throws up an error message in the app or simply takes too long to scan, causing queues to enter a shop — hardly ideal in these times of social distancing. “Although the app looks good, if I can’t use the QR scanner, it defeats the object of the app’s purpose,” wrote one app reviewer on Google Play.

Another challenge was downloading the app.

Residents were sent out a detailed, four-page letter with instructions on how to install the app and use one-time codes to activate it for the trial, which residents said was off-putting – especially so for those who don’t speak English as a first language. The council has pushed for the app and online advice for it to be available in several languages, including Polish, Gujarati, Urdu and more, but as Fiaz notes, Newham has more than 100 languages and dialects spoken locally.

And then there’s the age of your smartphone…

It only works on recent smartphones, running Android 6.0 or iOS 13.5 later; that’s iPhone 6S and newer. However, that risks leaving out people with older phones, in particular those without the money to buy a newer one. …

Apparently Age UK is warning that this could leave those most at risk of Covid being treated as “second-class citizens.” Another way of putting it is that it’s just another illustration of how the pandemic is revealing the extent of inequality in UK society.


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Wednesday 23 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

”Give me a man with big hands and big feet and no brains and I’ll make a golfer out of him

  • Walter Hagen, the first great professional US golfer who won the US Open twice and the British Open four times.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Labi Siffre – Something Inside So Strong

Link

Thanks to Ian Clark for the suggestion.


The TikTok farce

I was going to write about this, but then the weekly edition of Ben Evans’s (free) newsletter dropped into my inbox and I realised there is no way I could do any better than that. So here is his take on it, in its entirety:

As of right now (and this will probably change again), the plan is that there will be a new US company running Tiktok US, with a board of US citizens (who?), that will move its systems from (mostly) Google Cloud to Oracle’s (distant also-ran) cloud platform, and Oracle will manage the data and source code. Bytedance says it will IPO this company next year and that Oracle and Walmart will be able to buy a 20% stake before then (at what valuation?). In addition, there is a nebulous claim of ’25k new jobs’ in the USA (for what?) and of ‘$5bn’ going from Bytedance to either the US Treasury (the Oracle press release) or an ‘education fund’ (Trump), but Bytedance says it doesn’t know anything about that (!) and that actually this is just an estimate of future corporation taxes. Oracle also has a press release claiming Tiktok ‘chose’ their ‘tech’ because it’s better. Don’t embarrass yourself, Larry.

Setting aside the chaos – what does this solve? As a reminder, we worry about subtle manipulation of what videos are shown, and we worry about the app on your phone being used to steal other data, either deliberately or via ‘bugs’ left in accidentally-on-purpose. The actual user data on Tiktok’s servers comes a distant third: even if Oracle can look after that, who cares? What matters is who runs the app and the recommendation systems, but we have no visibility on what that would look like, and Oracle is not the company to play any kind of role here.

Finally: Trump demanded it be shut down or sold: instead the app continues in place, Bytedance still has a majority, a Trump donor now has an option to buy a minority stake and gets it as a (partial) customer, and we don’t have visibility on a solution to the (very real) actual issues. It does notionally get a US board, but we didn’t need all this chaos to get that. But, Trump has (he claims) a cheque to wave around. This is a shakedown, but it’s also a climbdown. Putin does this in Russia all the time, but manages it much better. Links: Tiktok statement, Oracle press release, Bytedance on that $5bn

Ben’s newsletter and blog are really good. You can sign up here.


The UK government’s communications strategy examined

POLITICO’s Andrew McDonald on how the government guidance has varied:

July 4: Go to the pub … July 8: Go to restaurants … July 17: Work wherever your employer wants you to … August 19: No excuse not to go back to the office … August 28: Go back to the office or risk losing your job … September 14: Report rule of six breakers … September 16: Don’t report rule of six breakers … September 22: Work from home, curfew on pubs and restaurants.

Read the full timeline here.

To put it another way: A senior Conservative tells the FT’s Seb Payne: “We told people to eat out, now we’re telling them to eat in. We told people to go back to the office, now we’re telling them to work from home. It’s a total shambles and I can’t see how people are going to understand it.”

Me neither.

Watching Boris Johnson’s plea to the nation to link together last night, the one question in my mind was: is Dominic Cummings also required to adhere to these ‘guidelines’?

From the (terrific and free) Politico daily newsletter.

btw: The full timeline is really instructive.


What If Trump Refuses to Concede?

If you want a tranquil day, then perhaps you should give this long read by Barton Gellman a miss. It covers questions that I never thought we have to ask in my lifetime. And I’m glad I read it. What we always forget is that democracy is a very fragile plant. And it’s historically an accident or a blip that we’ve sustained it this long. It was probably the trauma of WW2 that shocked us into trying to make it work. And then we got complacent. Between now and Christmas we will discover if America’s long experiment with democracy is over.

If we are lucky, this fraught and dysfunctional election cycle will reach a conventional stopping point in time to meet crucial deadlines in December and January. The contest will be decided with sufficient authority that the losing candidate will be forced to yield. Collectively we will have made our choice—a messy one, no doubt, but clear enough to arm the president-elect with a mandate to govern.

As a nation, we have never failed to clear that bar. But in this election year of plague and recession and catastrophized politics, the mechanisms of decision are at meaningful risk of breaking down. Close students of election law and procedure are warning that conditions are ripe for a constitutional crisis that would leave the nation without an authoritative result. We have no fail-safe against that calamity. Thus the blinking red lights…

Many thanks to Seb Schmoller, who pointed it out to me. I had missed it.

En passant: of all the publications I read, the Atlantic is the one that has come out of this crisis period with flying colours.


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Tuesday 22 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all these people who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.”

  • Graham Greene, Ways of Escape, chapter 9.

Simple: they keep a daily blog.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Albinoni: Adagio For Strings And Organ In G Minor, Berliner Phil and von Karajan

Link


Boris Johnson is not lost; he’s right in front of you

Nice Financial Times column by Robert Shrimsley. Sample:

It was all meant to be such fun. There would be cocktails at Chequers, hilarious nose-tweaking of po-faced progressives and the bellowing of “Brussels sucks” as they roared down freedom highway like Mr Toad in his new car. Anyone who got in the way would be sacked, debagged or prorogued. Yes, there’s a crisis, but dammit where’s the good old Boris they used to know?

The answer is he’s right there in front of them. Mr Johnson’s weaknesses were never hidden. It cannot, surely, be a shock to discover his lack of focus, carelessness, excessive delegation and love of the bold play over the grinding detail. Furthermore, “good old Boris” is not going to change. He is not, aged 56, suddenly going to “get a grip”.

Their dismay would be laughable if it were not shared by his MPs, who are staggered by his mis-steps and outraged by the obvious contempt shown for them by his Downing Street team.

Even loyalists are open-mouthed at the accumulation of errors. How, they ask, could a conservative premier advocate breaking the law? How could he not foresee that the return of schools would lead to surging demand for Covid-19 tests? As they look ahead to mass unemployment and virus spikes, MPs can no longer see the rapids for the rocks.

Well, as the notices in antique shops say: “If you break it, then you own it.”


Facebook needs Trump as much as Trump needs Facebook

Interesting Bloomberg piece:

Zuckerberg isn’t easily influenced by politics. But what he does care about—more than anything else perhaps—is Facebook’s ubiquity and its potential for growth. The result, critics say, has been an alliance of convenience between the world’s largest social network and the White House, in which Facebook looks the other way while Trump spreads misinformation about voting that could delegitimize the winner or even swing the election. “Facebook, more so than other platforms, has gone out of its way to not ruffle feathers in the current administration,” says Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of Accountable Tech, an organization making recommendations to tech companies on public-policy issues. “At best, you could say it’s willful negligence.”

The pattern hasn’t been confined to U.S. politics. A Facebook executive in India was accused in August of granting special treatment to a lawmaker from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party who’d called for violence against Rohingya Muslim immigrants. (It was only after the Wall Street Journal reported on the posts that the company banned the lawmaker, T. Raja Singh.) A memo from a former employee, published by BuzzFeed on Sept. 14, detailed how Facebook had ignored or delayed taking action against governments using fake accounts to mislead their citizens. “I have blood on my hands,” she wrote.

The (long) piece goes on to details the ways in which Zuckerberg has sought to deflect Trump’s ire onto other targets. But…

Trump is trailing by 7 points or so nationally, and it’s likely that a Biden administration would seek to regulate Facebook. In July, Zuckerberg got a preview of the Democrats’ playbook when he faced the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, alongside all the other major tech executives. Representatives’ questions for him were pointed, prosecutorial, and informed by thousands of internal emails and chat logs that seemed to suggest a path for regulators to argue that the company should be broken up or penalized in some other way.

As the election nears, and Trump continues to lag in the polls, the prospect of a Biden presidency becomes more likely. And last January said that he also favours removing Section 230 protections and holding executives personally liable. “I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan,” he told the New York Times in January.

So Zuckerberg seems to have woken up to the risks — for Facebook, not humanity — of a Trump loss. The Bloomberg piece says that he’s told employees that the company is likely to fare better under Republicans.

Just one more reason for electing Biden!


The legal fight awaiting the US after the Election

Jeffrey Toobin, the New Yorker‘s legal eagle, has a long piece in the magazine looking forward to November 3 and its likely aftermath. There’s no good news in it. Here, in a nutshell, is why:

Trump’s grievance is almost certainly tied to the fact that Democrats are more likely to vote by mail in the upcoming election than Republicans are. This will contribute to a phenomenon called the “blue shift”—votes that are counted, and reported, later on tend to favor Democrats. This year’s blue shift may be particularly dramatic. In a recent poll by Hawkfish, a data firm associated with Democrats, only nineteen per cent of Trump supporters said that they planned to vote by mail, compared with sixty-nine per cent of Biden supporters. Using data from late-summer polls, Hawkfish predicted that Election Night results could show Trump in the lead, with a total of four hundred and eight electoral votes. Four days later, with seventy-five per cent of the mail-in votes counted, Biden would take the lead, with two hundred and eighty electoral votes and, with all the votes counted, the former Vice-President would win the Presidency, with three hundred and thirty-four electoral votes.

You can imagine the scenario. And gun sales have gone through the roof in the US. The only consolation is that there’s a shortage of some kinds of ammunition.


 

Why would anyone pay £1500 for this when they could have, say, an infinitely more useful Apple Watch for a third of the price?

Look, as a regular reader of the Financial Times I get it that for some rich guys watches are basically the male equivalent of women’s jewellery. And that’s fine by me: it’s a free country and all that. But what baffles me is why anyone would pay good money for a half-assed smartwatch that a famous analog watch brand has tried to cobble together.

I’ve just read a friendly review of it and this is the best it can say:

Verdict

If you want a smartwatch that looks like a traditional Tag, the Connected 2020 fully delivers. That attractive design now includes an upgraded screen and the extra software additions help to make it feel less of a Wear OS watch. The included watch faces are great, while the new sports app certainly shows good potential.

Its sports tracking skills can’t really rival what you’ll get from a serious Polar or Garmin sportswatch, but if you’re more 20 minute treadmill runner than marathon racer, it should more than do the job.

There are other brands like Montblanc and fellow LVMH stablemate Louis Vuitton that have noticeably raised their game on the luxury smartwatch front. But Tag Heuer remains ahead of the pack as far as building a truly desirable smartwatch that feels worthy of that steep price tag.

There’s no getting away from it: the Tag Heuer Connected 2020 is a beauty of a smartwatch.

Sad, isn’t it.


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Monday 21 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

”Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering that we work for Fox.”

  • David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Rolling Stones, “Satisfaction”, Glastonbury 2013

Link

An amazing moment: the first time the Stones played Glastonbury. I’ve always been a fan, but the lovely thing is that one of my grandsons has also been one since he was a very small boy. And on this Saturday evening, I was watching the gig at home, while somewhere in the crowd were three of my kids, and that particular grandson.

Mick Jagger had some interesting things to say about it at the time:

Going on was this amazing sight. I’ve done a lot of big crowds, but normally when you do these big crowds you can’t often see them. In this case, though, the crowd goes up the hill and was illuminated by flares. You could actually see 100,000 people, which was amazing. The crowd was amazingly supportive, vibrant, enthusiastic, exuberant – even though you’re a long way away from them, you can still feel the wave of feeling coming from them.

Glastonbury has had a long, involving history, as almost a protest, and then evolving into this anything-goes, very different, multi-generational event, with every kind of music represented and lots of other things besides. I used to joke that it’s the alternate Ascot, which is maybe a bit of a misnomer, but it’s an amazing English cultural event that embodies some kind of Englishness – some odd Englishness. Glastonbury is a great tradition, and the way it’s evolved, it sort of represents this rather eccentric English culture, in a really good way. Everyone reveres it because of that, and because of its longevity – it’s been passed down through generations. People have got this special affection for it.


Mists and mellow fruitfulness

An audio fragment from a morning cycle ride.

Link


Packing the US Supreme Court

The late Justice Ginsberg by Art Lien.

The death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg has triggered a political and legal storm in the US. As expected, Trump has announced that he intends to nominate a right-wing candidate for her place to be confirmed as soon as possible. And true to form, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader — who refused a confirmatory process for one of Barack Obama’s nominee in the last year of Obama’s term, on the grounds that democracy required that they wait until after the presidential election — has now decided that Trump’s nominee should be confirmed before the election. Neither of these stunts should surprise anyone, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of good folks from being outraged.

Meanwhile — as I mentioned yesterday — the enraged Democrats have reminded us that the number of judges on the Supreme Court is not specified by the Constitution and can therefore be increased (or reduced) by an Act of Congress. Accordingly, if the Republicans insist on pressing ahead with the sure-fire confirmation of Trump’s nominee and then Biden is elected, there’s nothing to stop a Democratic administration from packing the court by increasing the number of justices, thereby securing a non-Republican majority on it.

Needless to say, this has in turn, caused outrage in some circles.

Enter the historians, who point out that in the 1930s Franklin Roosevelt threatened to pack the court with his nominees if the existing Court continued to oppose his New Deal legislation. In the end, he didn’t have to carry out the threat, because the justices backed down.

Now comes Henry Farrell, a terrific Irish-American political scientist, with this post:

The obvious point here is that Roosevelt’s threat was the reason why the Court backed down. If Roosevelt had not made it clear that he was willing to upset the game, by packing the Court, the Court would have had no reason to back down on judgments and precedents that systematically limited the scope of democratic politics. One norm that had been pretty systematically trashed – judicial respect for what citizens and their democratically elected representatives actually wanted – was only preserved through Roosevelt’s credible threat to upset another norm.

There’s lots more… His piece is worth reading in full.


Sex in the office? Or a crude publicity stunt?

This story from the FT‘s Sifted site belongs in the you-couldn’t-make-it-up department.

The chairman of the dating app Thursday mistakenly sent a confidential email to a public-mailing list apologising for one of the company’s cofounders being caught having “sexual activity” in the office, according to the company.

The letter, posted below, expresses “great disappointment” and says that the company’s leaders “do not condone any sexual activity on office premises between employees.” Chairman Tim Hammond added that, in line with government guidelines on coronavirus, the office has been “thoroughly cleaned”.

Sifted was alerted to the note by this Tweet, and obtained a copy of the letter. The company has not responded to multiple requests for comment but issued a statement on its Instagram account saying: “We’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to anyone that received an unintentionally circulated email today. Thank you for alerting us to the mistake. Many have asked — was it rigged? No, but we’ll run with it.”

It’s unclear which of the three cofounders — Sam McCarthy, Matthew McNeill and George Rawlings — were being referred to in the letter.

There are, however, reasons to suspect that this could could just be a publicity stunt, given that Rawlings has form, as we racing enthusiasts say. Last year, for example, he performed a stunt last year on the streets of central London to draw attention to the app (which was then called Honeypot).

So what was he up to then?

The dating app entrepreneur posed at busy spots with a huge cardboard sign saying: “I @GeorgeRawlings cheated on my girlfriend and this is my punishment. Do NOT download Honeypot.” He later admitted it was a stunt.

Press coverage wasn’t exactly positive, but Rawlings estimates that the number of downloads that resulted from the stunt equated to approximately £9,500 in online marketing spend. All that at a cost of £2.65 — the price of some cardboard and a pen.

Advice: If you were thinking of using Thursday’s services, don’t.


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