When power thrives on unspoken fear, bravery is in saying ‘I am afraid’

Really perceptive column by my Observer colleague, Nick Cohen.

There is a cosmetically appealing argument that going along with the lies of the powerful is better for the human spirit than acknowledging your cowardice. Writing in 1978, when communist control of eastern Europe appeared as if it might last forever, Václav Havel described a greengrocer who places the party’s slogan “workers of the world unite!” in his shop window. (You can put any gormless modern alternative in its place.) The greengrocer wants to show that he is an obedient citizen the police should leave alone. But he will not acknowledge the truth by pinning a notice in his window that says “I am afraid of being singled out for punishment”. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window. He preserves his dignity by pretending to believe what the powerful want him to believe. His sense of self-worth would be destroyed by the admission “I am afraid”.

Francis Fukuyama was so impressed with Havel’s passage he used it in The End of History to argue that the unfolding demand for human dignity was pushing humanity towards liberal democracy.

“The flaw in the argument”, says Cohen,

is that those who refuse to acknowledge their cowardice are not the only ones whose dignity is preserved. Surprisingly few of those who exercise power want their subordinates to admit that fear keeps them from speaking out. Maybe mafia leaders are happy to hear their followers say that they are too frightened to contradict them. But most people with hierarchical or ideological power are like abusive men who hit a woman one minute and expect her to act as if nothing happened the next. They want everyone around them to pretend that the fear of punishment does not explain their obedience.

Censorship is at its most effective when no one admits it exists.

Spot on. Great column.

Big Tech Has Outgrown This Planet

Interesting blast from Shira Ovide in the New York Times. I particularly liked this bit:

The current stock market value of the Big Five ($9.3 trillion) is more than the value of the next 27 most valuable U.S. companies put together, including corporate giants like Tesla, Walmart and JPMorgan Chase, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Apple’s profit just from the past three months ($21.7 billion) was nearly double the combined annual profits of the five largest U.S. airlines in prepandemic 2019.

Amazon’s stock price increases have made Jeff Bezos so rich that he could buy a new model iPhone for 200 million people — and he would still be a billionaire.

Google’s $50 billion in revenue from selling advertisements from April to June was about what Americans — all of the Americans — spent on gasoline and gas station purchases last month.

The annual revenue of one of Microsoft’s side businesses, LinkedIn, is nearly four times that of Zoom Video Communications, a star of the pandemic, in the past year.

Facebook expects to dole out more cash outfitting its computer hubs and offices in 2021 than Exxon spends around the world to dig oil and gas out of the ground in a year.

Amazon fell short of investors’ expectations on Thursday. But in the past year, Amazon’s e-commerce revenue still climbed by $109 billion — an increase in a single year that Walmart needed the past nine years to reach.

And this:

Logic would suggest that if the companies are fighting off lots of rivals, they might have to cut prices and profit margins would shrink. So how does Facebook turn each dollar of revenue, nearly all from ads it sells, into 43 cents of profit — a level that most companies can only dream of, and higher than Facebook posted before the pandemic?


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Judge Throws Out Two Antitrust Cases Against Facebook

There’s been much jubilation in the tech industry as a result of US District judge James Boasberg (an Obama nominee, incidentally) summarily dismissing antitrust lawsuits brought against the company by the Federal Trade Commission and more than 40 states.

The judge eviscerated one of the federal government’s core arguments, that Facebook holds a monopoly over social networking, saying prosecutors had failed to provide enough facts to back up that claim. And he said the states had waited too long to bring their case, which centers on deals made in 2012 and 2014.

The judge said the F.T.C. could try again within 30 days with more detail, but he suggested that the agency faced steep challenges.

As it happens, I agree with the judge but draw different conclusions about the significance of the case. I really liked his succinct critique of it.

Although the Court does not agree with all of Facebook’s contentions here, it ultimately concurs that the agency’s Complaint is legally insufficient and must therefore be dismissed. The FTC has failed to plead enough facts to plausibly establish a necessary element of all of its Section 2 claims — namely, that Facebook has monopoly power in the market for Personal Social Networking (PSN) Services. The Complaint contains nothing on that score save the naked allegation that the company has had and still has a “dominant share of that market (in excess of 60%).” Such an unsupported assertion might (barely) suffice in a Section 2 case involving a more traditional goods market, in which the Court could reasonably infer that market share was measured by revenue, units sold, or some other typical metric. But this case involves no ordinary or intuitive market. Rather, PSN services are free to use, and the exact metes and bounds of what even constitutes a PSN service — i.e., which features of a company’s mobile app or website are included in that definition and which are excluded — are hardly crystal clear. In this unusual context, the FTC’s inability to offer any indication of the metric(s) or method(s) it used to calculate Facebook’s market share renders its vague “60%-plus” assertion too speculative and conclusory to go forward. Because this defect could conceivably be overcome by re-pleading, however, the Court will dismiss only the Complaint, not the case, and will do so without prejudice to allow Plaintiff to file an amended Complaint.

What the failure of the FTC and the States’ complaint shows is that old conceptions of ‘monopoly’ don’t map accurately onto the monopolistic-like power of some tech giants — Facebook in this instance. So pursuing old-style antitrust actions on the basis of ‘monopoly’ is likely to come unstuck, especially with a judiciary that’s been conditioned by decades of Borkism. What’s needed, therefore, is lots of legislative creativity to develop conceptions of corporate power that are appropriate to the power that these corporations actually wield.

In the case of Facebook, for example, a more promising line of inquiry might be that suggested by my colleague Jennifer Cobbe — and also by Josh Simon and Dipayan Ghosh. This line of argument locates the real monopolistic power of social media companies in the algorithms that determine users’ newsfeeds, i.e. what kinds of information users are presented with. One can think of these algorithms as constituting the critical infrastructure of the public sphere. Or to put it another way: once upon a time, John D. Rockefeller & Co exerted (and abused) their monopoly control over the railroads that other oil-drillers needed to use to get their oil to market. Mark Zuckerberg plays an analogous role today — as the controller of the virtual railroad that conveys ideas and information to individual citizens. The implication is that regulation as infrastructure might be a more appropriate way of asserting democratic control.

Sunday 15 November, 2020

Metropolitan life


Quote of the Day

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

  • Wilson Mezner, describing his time in Hollywood.

Musical alternative to the radio news of the Day

Mark Knopfler | Going Home | Royal Albert Hall | 2019

Link


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

This morning’s Observer column

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

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

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

Read on


Long Read of the Day

Welcome to Apple: A one-party state

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

Read on


The generational impact of Moore’s law

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

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

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

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

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

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


Other, hopefully interesting, links

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

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

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


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Saturday 10 October, 2020

What holiday cottages should be like

From my favourite village in North Norfolk


Quote of the Day

”Golf is a game that is played on a five-inch course — the distance between your ears”.

  • Bobby (Robert Trent) Jones, the great American golfer.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Wailin’ Jennys | Bird Song Link


Microsoft Thinks You’ve Been Missing Your Commute in Lockdown

A forthcoming feature — ‘Virtual commutes’ — on Teams aims to rebuild the boundaries between work and home life, and signify Microsoft’s move into corporate well-being.

At first I thought this was a spoof. After all, if there’s one area where remote working scores it is in eliminating the daily commute. But,…

The daily commute may have caused its share of headaches, but it at least helped workers define a start and end to their workday while offering a set time to think away from the demands and distractions of the home and office. That positive side of the commute is what Microsoft hopes to re-create.

The Teams update next year will let users schedule virtual commutes at the beginning and end of each shift. Instead of reliving 8 a.m. or 6 p.m. packed subway rides or highway traffic jams in virtual reality, users will be prompted by the platform to set goals in the morning and reflect on the day in the evening.

The virtual commute feature represents Teams’ move into employee wellness, said Kamal Janardhan, general manager for workplace analytics and MyAnalytics at Microsoft 365, the parent division of Teams. The company historically has focused on employee connectivity and productivity.

“Enterprises across the world right now are coming to us and saying, ‘I don’t think we will have organizational resilience if we don’t make well-being a priority,’” Ms. Janardhan said. “I think we at Microsoft have a role, almost a responsibility, to give enterprises the capabilities to create these better daily structures and help people be their best.”

Interesting that idea that the daily commute enables people to “set goals in the morning and reflect on the day in the evening”. I’ve occasionally had to do a daily commute to London when working on a particular consultancy gig, and the thing I hated most about it was the evening return in a train packed with exhausted workers staring dully at their phones. Somehow, I don’t think they were reflecting on their days in a calm meditative mood. They were simply knackered.


Political Economy After Neoliberalism

Long read of the day from the Boston Review. It’s a thoughtful essay by Neil Fligstein and Steven Vogel on “Political Economy after Neoliberalism”. Fligstein is a Professor of Sociology at Berkeley, and the author of The Architecture of Markets. Vogel is a Professor of Political Science at Berkeley and the author of Marketcraft: How Governments Make Markets Work, so they’re heavy-duty thinkers.

Starting from the fact that Western democracies have for forty or more years been governed by political elites who have drunk the Kool Aid of neoliberalist ideas about the primacy of markets and the inadequacy of the state, Fligstein and Vogel argue that if anything demonstrates the inadequacy of markets and the centrality of government it’s our experience since February. “The pandemic has exposed the fallacies of the neoliberal paradigm,” they write. “The market could not keep businesses running or people working.”

As if to highlight that fact, as economies have struggled desperately to contain the economic consequences of the plague, the stock market has been roaring ahead.

Flkigstein and Vogel propose three ‘core principles’ of an alternative political economy. They then illustrate these principles by discussing the dynamics of the American political economy, focusing particularly on the rise of “shareholder capitalism” in the 1980s. Finally, they apply the principles to the ongoing national policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, comparing the United States to Germany.

What are their ‘core principles’?

The first is that governments and markets are co-constituted. Government regulation is not an intrusion into the market but rather a prerequisite for a functioning market economy. Without government, the rule of law, the infrastructure of public order and so on, markets will run wild. Societies need markets; but markets also need society.

The second principle is that “real-world political economy hinges on power, both political and market power. Specific forms of market governance … do not arise naturally or innocently. They are the product of power struggles between firms, industries, workers, and governments within particular markets and in the political arena.”

The third principle is that there is more than one way to organize society to achieve economic growth, equity, and access to valued goods and services.

The balance of power between government, workers, and firms differs greatly across countries and time. And the different power balances in different countries shape distinctive national trajectories of policies. We can expect that the governing institutions will reinforce the status-quo balance of power, particularly in a crisis. It is rare for any one set of actors to have total control in a society, a condition that would lead to extreme rent-seeking behavior. Instead we see constant contestation between different sets of organized actors but a general balance of power that reflects the dominance of one side or another.

The essay goes on to argue that abandoning the neoliberal lens of government versus market and the “one best way” perspective opens up the possibility of a profound rethinking of economic policy that seeks to learn from the great variety of capitalisms that actually exist.

It’s a great essay — one of the only ones I’ve seen that tries to grapple realistically with the challenge of envisaging a more sustainable economic system as societies emerge from the pandemic.


Trump’s death wish

Watching Trump in recent weeks has been a weird experience. It’s like being a spectator at a live show in which the performer is losing his mind. And as I was thinking this I came on something that Judith Butler wrote in the London Review of Book a year ago:

When commentators speak of Trump’s ‘death wish’, they are on to something, though maybe not quite what they imagine. The death drive, in Freud, is manifested in actions characterised by compulsive repetition and destructiveness, and though it may be attached to pleasure and excitement, it is not governed by the logic of wish fulfilment. Repetitive action unguided by a wish for pleasure takes distinctive forms: the deterioration of the human organism in its effort to return to a time before individuated life; the nightmarish repetition of traumatic material without resolution; the externalisation of destructiveness through potentially murderous behaviour. Both suicide and murder are extreme consequences of a death drive left unchecked. The death drive works in fugitive ways, and is fundamentally opportunistic: it can be identified only through the phenomena on which it seizes and surfs. It may operate in the midst of moments of radical desire, pleasure, an intense sense of life. But it also operates in moments of triumphalism, the bold demonstration of power or strength, or in states of extreme conviction. Only later, if ever, comes the jolt of realisation that what was supposed to be empowering and exciting was in fact serving a more destructive purpose.

I do wonder what will happen to him when he loses the election and loses his frantic campaign then to discredit the results and is eventually — by whatever means the American Republic can muster to save its Constitution — physically ejected from office. Narcissists don’t take failure and humiliation well.


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Friday 2 October, 2020

If only…

Arles, July 2017.


Quote of the Day

”Writing a novel does not become easier with practice.”

  • Graham Greene

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

John Field: Nocturne No. 10 in E minor

Link


EU plans for controlling tech companies

Politico has obtained a leaked copy of measures that EU regulators are considering imposing on certain kinds of tech companies. Cory Doctorow has provided a neat annotated list on Pluralistic.net.

First of all, stuff that the EU is considering prohibiting:

  • Mining your customers’ data to compete with them or advertise to their customers (think: Facebook Like buttons on publisher pages, Amazon’s own-brand competitors)

  • Mixing third-party data with surveillance data you gather yourself (like Facebook buying credit bureaux data), without user permission (which is the same as never because no one in the world wants this)

  • Ranking your own offerings above your competitors (think: Google Shopping listings at the top of search results)

  • Pre-installing your own apps on devices (like Ios and Android do) or requiring third party device makers to install your apps (as Android does)

  • Using DRM [Digital Rights Management] or terms to service to prevent users from uninstalling preinstalled apps (no immortal shovelware)

  • Exclusivity deals – mobile OS/device companies can’t force an app vendor to sell only through the app, and not on the open web

  • Using DRM or terms of service to prevent sideloading

  • Nondisparagement/confidentiality clauses that would prevent your suppliers from complaining about your monopolistic behavior

  • Tying email to other services – you have to be able to activate an Android device without a Gmail account

  • Automatically logging users into one service on the basis that they’re logged into another one (eg using Gmail doesn’t automatically log you into Youtube)

Then there are projected new ‘requirements’ that companies will have to provide:

  • Annual transparency reports that make public the results of an EU-designed audit that assesses compliance

  • Annual algorithmic transparency reports that disclose a third-party audit of “customer profiling” and “cross-service tracking”

  • Compliance documents showing current practices, on demand by regulators

  • Advance notice of all mergers and acquisitions

  • An internal compliance officer who oversees the business

This is an interesting leak, not so much for the specific kinds of measures that they are contemplating, but as revealing the general conception of regulation that underpins EU thinking. In a way, it’s as if they are regarding tech companies much as we regard banks. That may work in some circs. But it may also reflect an inadequate conception of the power of tech companies.


The mystery of John Banville’s mysteries

Lovely essay in the NYT by Charles McGrath about John Banville and the background to his forthcoming novel Snow:

The Irish novelist John Banville is a famous perfectionist — the kind of writer who can spend a day on a single sentence. His books, most written in the first person, are lapidary, intricate, Nabokovian. Or just difficult, some readers have complained, more interested in style than in storytelling. They invariably come laden with words that seem meant to prove his vocabulary is bigger than yours: flocculent, crapulent, caducous, anaglypta, mephitic, velutinous.

A Banville novel typically takes four or five painful years to complete, after which the author is still dissatisfied. In a 2009 interview, he told The Paris Review that he hated his own books. “They’re an embarrassment and a deep source of shame,” he said, and then added: “They’re better than everybody else’s, of course, but not good enough for me.”

In March 2005, however, while staying at a friend’s house in Italy, Banville sat down one morning and for some reason began writing a mystery novel set in 1950s Dublin. By lunchtime he had 1,500 words — or a week’s worth at his usual pace. He thought to himself, “John Banville, you slut,” but kept going and finished in five or six months. “I was a little appalled at the speed with which I got the thing done,” he said in a recent email. He had been reading Simenon — though not the Inspector Maigret crime novels — and was inspired by him to see what could be accomplished with a narrow vocabulary and a spare, straightforward style.

Many years ago I wrote a few pieces for the Irish Times when Banville was the paper’s Literary Editor. The striking thing (to me) when dropping in copy was the way everybody referred to him as “Mr. Banville”. Even then he was just like his writing: fastidious, distant, intimidating. Looks like he hasn’t changed. But he’s a terrific writer, so he’s excused normality.

The NYT piece has a couple of terrific photographs of him, btw.


What Trump’s tax-returns tell us

Basically, that he’s incapable of running a business.

All of his casinos, property developments, etc. have been commercial disasters. The one thing that really worked for him was his spell on The Apprentice and the celebrity status that that gave him, which he then assiduously leveraged by endorsements and lending his name to various ventures. He earned a staggering amount from that alone. He then spent a lot of those earnings on buying hotels and 15 golf courses in various parts of the US and the world (including, as I now know, one in Ireland). But these are proper businesses and he can’t run such things, so some of them have been bleeding money over the years.

By 2016, his earnings from the celebrity glow of The Apprentice were declining rapidly (all celebrity has a half-life) and he had an urgent need to find a new way of rekindling it because of the losses on the golf and hotel businesses.

So here’s my idea for a comic novel based on these circumstances…

Trump’s big idea for reigniting his celebrity status was that running for president would be a way to do it. Think of all the free publicity. His name in lights every day on cable TV, etc. So he decided to run. The end-game would be that he could then start his own TV network — Trump TV — challenging Fox and Murdoch and becoming a new media mogul. The idea was not to be elected: even his narcissism didn’t make him think that he might succeed. The celebrity-enhancement flowing from the campaign was the goal. Trump didn’t actually want to be president: too much like hard work.

Far-fetched? Hey — this is a novel, remember. Pure fiction. No requirement to adhere to the facts.

But… Michael Lewis’s terrific book, The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy opens with the night of the election and the stunned astonishment in the Trump campaign team at what was unfolding. It was one long “Oh, shit!!!!!” Moment. The plan had backfired. They had actually won the election. Trump was going to have to be President!

Lewis points out that when Trump won the Republican nomination he was astonished and infuriated that he was now obliged, by law, to start forming a Transition Team to plan for forming an Administration. And he did everything in his power to hobble that process.

The New York Times’s exposé of his tax returns adds the final touch necessary for the plot of my comic novel. Their analysis suggests that Trump is now personally liable for something like $400m of debts for which he is the sole guarantor. The banks who are on the hook for that can’t touch him while he’s President. But if he loses…. Well, next stop the bankruptcy court, or worse. No wonder he’s desperate not to lost the election.


More on how to model (and explain) the spread of Covid-19

Further to my post yesterday about Zeynep Tufecki’s fascinating article on why focussing simply on R0, the reproduction rate for Covid-19 might be misleading because it misses the importance of ‘super-spreading’ events, Seb Schmoller pointed out a new research paper published by the Royal Society the other day which appears to support Tufecki’s line of argument.

Here’s the Abstract of the paper:

The basic reproduction number ℛ0 of the coronavirus disease 2019 has been estimated to range between 2 and 4. Here, we used an SEIR model that properly accounts for the distribution of the latent period and, based on empirical estimates of the doubling time in the near-exponential phases of epidemic progression in China, Italy, Spain, France, UK, Germany, Switzerland and New York State, we estimated that ℛ0 lies in the range 4.7–11.4. We explained this discrepancy by performing stochastic simulations of model dynamics in a population with a small proportion of super-spreaders. The simulations revealed two-phase dynamics, in which an initial phase of relatively slow epidemic progression diverts to a faster phase upon appearance of infectious super-spreaders. Early estimates obtained for this initial phase may suggest lower ℛ0.

The key sentence in the concluding section reads:

Spatial heterogeneity of the epidemic spread observed in many European countries, including Italy, Spain and Germany, can be associated with larger or smaller super-spreading events that initiated outbreaks in particular regions of these countries.

This is just the latest demonstration of how limited our understanding of this pandemic is — still. We’re learning as we go, but without a good understanding of the dynamics of infection and spread, we’re driving by looking in the rear-view mirror.


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Thursday 10 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

“The battle for the mind of Ronald Reagan was like the trench warfare of World War I. Never have so many fought so hard for such barren terrain.”

  • Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for Reagan 1984-9

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel: Handel – Let The Bright Seraphim – Rowan Pierce and David Blackadder (5 minutes)

Link

Nobody sleeps at the back when this is on.


The power of a photograph to tell a story

Photograph by Fergus McGinn

Nice NYT article on the Coronavirus lockdown in Ireland.

A pint of Guinness. A half-eaten meal. And an alarm clock.

All are laid out on a table in front of an older man as he gazes out the window of a pub in Galway, Ireland, in a photo that has come to capture the nation’s coming to terms with coronavirus regulations.

The image has come to symbolize different things for different people: Some have used it to criticize the government’s restrictions on pubs, while others have applauded the man’s commitment to regulations on dining out.

Pubs that serve food have been allowed to open since the end of June. But new restrictions require that customers have a “substantial meal” costing at least 9 euros (about $10.60) if they also purchase alcohol. The rules also require patrons to leave within an hour and 45 minutes — hence the timer.

Like many countries across Europe, Ireland has seen a spike in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, with daily cases moving from the single digits during a lull in new infections in June and July to 307 new cases announced on Tuesday.

The photograph was taken by Fergus McGinn, the owner of the pub. His intention, he said, was to show a man enjoying the simple pleasure of a meal and a drink but he also hopes the picture will make people aware of the role the local pub plays for isolated members of the community in Ireland.

“Taking that away from people, that social outlet for that generation, it could be detrimental and savage on their mental health,” Mr. McGinn said.

Particularly in Ireland’s rural communities, pubs serve as a central place to connect socially, even for those who aren’t big drinkers. Yet pubs that don’t serve food have been closed since the lockdown began in March, though this week the government agreed to reopen them on September 21st.

And the significance of the timer? The government rules also require pub customers to leave within an hour and 45 minutes.


Diana Rigg RIP

A wonderful actress has passed away. There’s a nice BBC obituary up today, but there will be lots more. As the BBC obit put it, “She excelled at playing sharp-witted female characters who carried steel fists in velvet gloves.” Spot on.

As a former TV critic, though, this book is what I will remember her for.

It’s a compendium of the most wicked things theatrical folk can say about one another. I found it an indispensable fountain of ideas when I was writing about a programme or a performer that I particularly disliked.

But the interesting thing is that Rigg also included in it some of the rude things critics said about her!

For example, she reprints John Simon’s crack in New York Magazine about her nude scene in Abelard and Heloise in May 1970: “Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses”.

“I remember”, Rigg wrote,

“making my way to the theatre the following day, darting from doorway to doorway and praying I wouldn’t meet anyone I knew. The cast behaved with supreme tact and pretended they hadn’t read the review.”

btw: I think Simon needed to have an eye-test. Rigg was a truly beautiful woman. But she disliked doing nude scenes. “I come from Yorkshire”, she said once, “and no-one from Yorkshire takes their clothes off except on a Friday night”.

May she rest in peace.


What Bob Woodward knew (but didn’t tell — until now)

The veteran Washington reporter Bob Woodward (he of Watergate fame) has made a small industry out of conducting long interviews of US presidents and their courts when he then turns into what are (IMHO) surprisingly dull books. He’s just published the latest tombstone in this series — on the first Trump presidency.

For a less jaundiced perspective, the Columbia Journalism Review has a more detached view of the volume by Pete Vernon.

In books about presidents from Nixon to Obama, Woodward has employed a similar approach, conducting exhaustive interviews on background and using the information he gathers to write from an omniscient perspective. Woodward and Carl Bernstein, his colleague at The Washington Post, used the most famous anonymous source in American history—FBI Associate Director Mark Felt a.k.a. “Deep Throat”—to expose the cover-up behind the Watergate burglary that unraveled Nixon’s presidency. This week, Woodward told Michael Schmidt of The New York Times that “you won’t get the straight story from someone if you do it on the record. You will get a press release version of events.” But as Axios’s Jonathan Swan, one of the current masters of Washington intrigue, noted, sources “also lie on background. A lot.”

And no group of officials in recent memory has proved as willing to bend the truth as those in the Trump administration. The recent controversy over Steve Bannon’s invitation (later rescinded) to appear at The New Yorker Festival led The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan to declare, “Enough, already, with anything Steve Bannon has to say.” When Kellyanne Conway appears on CNN, critics question why the network gives a platform to the official who coined “alternative facts.” Yet for Woodward, reliance on the same sources is received differently: If it’s not OK for David Remnick to talk to Bannon in front of an audience, why is it OK for Woodward to use him, quite obviously, as a key source in the book?

Woodward’s approach hasn’t changed; the climate in which his sources are viewed has. Every administration is filled with people who have an agenda, who want to spin events in their favor, but the lines of credibility have shifted. In taking on the Trump presidency as his topic, Woodward is left to assemble a reliable book from unreliable sources….

Already, there are lots of controversies blowing up from specific parts of Woodward’s account. But one in particular has caught my eye. Here’s how Politico puts it:

President Donald Trump acknowledged the “deadly” nature of the coronavirus earlier this year in a series of recorded interviews with The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, even as Trump publicly sought to dismiss the disease’s threat to Americans.

Recounting a conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump told Woodward on Feb. 7 that the coronavirus is “more deadly than your, you know, your — even your strenuous flus.”

“This is more deadly,” he said. “This is five per — you know, this is 5 percent versus 1 percent and less than 1 percent, you know. So, this is deadly stuff.”

A few days later Trump was out in public basically claiming that this ‘Chinese flu’ was not such a big deal and he had it under control, or words to that effect.

There has been a huge hoo-hah about this, particularly the fact that Woodward knew that Trump had been lying through his teeth about the virus, but had decided not to tell anyone, let along the American people. Here’s a sample of the resulting indignation — Bess Levin in Vanity Fair:

When news broke on Wednesday that venerated reporter Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book had Donald Trump on record saying that he purposely downplayed the threat of COVID-19, despite knowing that it was “deadly stuff,” the outrage was deafening. The fury and disgust initially centered around the president’s decision to lie to the public about the fatal virus, proclaiming that it was nothing to worry about while knowing full well that it was. Later the conversation turned to Woodward’s decision to withhold crucial information, with some arguing that it was a dereliction of his duty as a journalist not to come forward and tell people, in real time, that the president was lying to their faces, as he instead saved it for his book. “There is no ethical or moral defense of Woodward’s decision to not publish these tapes as soon as they were made,” former BuzzFeed News Washington bureau chief John Stanton tweeted. “If there was any chance it could save a single life, he was obligated to do so. Bob Woodward put making money over his moral and professional duty.”

I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I was struck by Woodward’s reported response to this charge:

Speaking to the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, Woodward said he waited it out because (1) Trump is a habitual liar, and he hadn’t yet done the reporting necessary to know if the president was actually telling the truth in this instance, and (2) He wanted to put the statements into context and publish them closer to the election so that people didn’t forget about them on their way to the polls:

Who knows? That might have been a shrewd judgement.


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Tuesday 18 August, 2020

Dusk

That magical moment between daylight and darkness.

Click on the image for a bigger version.


Quote of the Day

“The convent taught me only that if you spit on a pencil eraser it will erase ink.”


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paul Brady sings ‘Arthur McBride’, an Irish folk song variously categorised as an “anti-recruiting” song, a specific form of anti-war song, or more broadly as a protest song. Planxty also has a lovely version of it.

Link


Thinking about tech regulation

This diagram comes from an interesting article, “Law and Technology Realism” by Thibault Schrepel.

While it is commonly accepted that technology is deterministic, I am under the impression that a majority of “Law and Technology” scholars also believe that technology is non-neutral. It follows that, according to this dominant view, (1) technology drives society in good or bad directions (determinism), and that (2) certain uses of technology may lead to the reduction or enhancement of the common good (non-neutrality). Consequently, this leads to top-down tech policies where the regulator has the impossible burden of helping society control and orient technology to the best possible extent.

This article is deterministic and non-neutral.

But, here’s the catch. Most of today’s doctrine focuses almost exclusively on the negativity brought by technology (read Nick Bostrom, Frank Pasquale, Evgeny Morozov). Sure, these authors mention a few positive aspects, but still end up focusing on the negative ones. They’re asking to constrain technology on that sole basis. With this article, I want to raise another point: technology determinism can also drive society by providing solutions to centuries-old problems. In and of itself. This is not technological solutionism, as I am not arguing that technology can solve all of mankind’s problems, but it is not anti-solutionism either. I fear the extremes, anyway.

Not sure I agree with his methodological recommendations at the end, but this is an interesting way of thinking about the regulation problem.


Challenging the epistemological imperialism of ‘Computer Science’

Randy Connolly has written an extraordinary article in the August issue of Communications of the ACM on “Why Computing Belongs Within the Social Sciences”. It’s a really interesting and important essay, about which I will be writing more. But for now, here’s the trailer.

Link


Jack Shafer: stop fretting about Trump’s bluffing on postal voting and get your vote in early

Typically robust Shafer column:

If you’re still worried about the disenfranchisement of the 76 percent of eligible voters who have the right to cast their ballot by mail, there are practical things you can do as an individual besides tweeting anxiously about Trump. The progressives at Democracy Docket recommend that in addition to using special drop boxes, you avoid the Election Day crowds by taking part in the early, in-person voting offered in 41 states. Some states even offer weekend voting. They also suggest you participate in the organized collection of ballots, which some states allow. (Trump assails organized collection as “ballot harvesting.”)

Other things you can do to increase the tabulated vote: Request your absentee ballot at the earliest date possible and return it in person, by mail or secure dropoff as soon as you can. If you live in a state that sends ballots to all registered voters, complete yours and return it promptly. Also, use the USPS sparingly in the three weeks before the election to liberate capacity. Pay your bills via the web. Don’t send postcards. Place phone calls instead of sending birthday cards. Send packages through FedEx or UPS.

Do what you can—if only to call Trump’s postal bluff.

I like Shafer’s brusque, no-nonsense style. Which is why I always read him.


Summer books #7

Magic Mobile by Michael Frayn.

This is lovely. I bought it at the beginning of lockdown. It’s a “no-fuss, non-digital entertainment system”, complete with 35 “pre-loaded new text files” by one of Britain’s greatest playwrights and humourists. No batteries required. Makes a lovely gift for non-techies, I’ve discovered.


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Tuesday 14 July, 2020

Le Quatorze Juillet!

In pre-pandemic times, we’d be there today. Sigh.


Notes from the new battleground

Cyberspace viewed through a military lens.

1/ The Internet is now the dominant communications medium of our world. And we’re still only at the beginning of that transformation.

2/ The network is now a battlefield, indispensable to militaries and their governments.

3/ This changes how conflicts are being — and will be — fought.

  • It’s now impossible to keep secrets
  • Power becomes the ability to command people’s attention
  • Conflicts become “contests of psychological and algorithmic manipulation.”

4/ The nature of ‘war’ is changing. It used to be “the continuation of politics by other means”. But now war and politics have begun to fuse together. However the laws of this new battlefield are not formulated by democratic or military authorities but by a handful of American tech companies.

5/ And we’re all caught up in this new warfare, as combatants, spectators or collateral damage. Our attention has become a piece of contested territory “being fought over in conflicts that you may or may not realise are unfolding around you. Your online attention and actions are thus both targets and ammunition in an unending series of skirmishes. Whether you have an interest in the conflicts of ‘Likewar’ or not, they have an interest in you”.

Notes from reading Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking, Houghton Mifflin, 2018.


The dark underbelly of ‘efficiency’

Tim Bray, one of the most thoughtful geeks around, has an interesting essay on his blog about the downsides of the neoliberal obsession with ‘efficiency’.

On a Spring 2019 walk in Beijing I saw two street sweepers at a sunny corner. They were beat-up looking and grizzled but probably younger than me. They’d paused work to smoke and talk. One told a story; the other’s eyes widened and then he laughed so hard he had to bend over, leaning on his broom. I suspect their jobs and pay were lousy and their lives constrained in ways I can’t imagine. But they had time to smoke a cigarette and crack a joke. You know what that’s called? Waste, inefficiency, a suboptimal outcome. Some of the brightest minds in our economy are earnestly engaged in stamping it out. They’re winning, but everyone’s losing.

I’ve felt this for years, and there’s plenty of evidence:

Item: Every successful little store with a personality morphs into a chain because that’s more efficient. The personality becomes part of the brand and thus rote.

Item: I go to a deli fifteen minutes away to buy bacon, rashers cut from the slab while I wait, because they’re better. Except when I can’t, in which case I buy a waterlogged plastic-encased product at the supermarket; no standing or waiting! It’s obvious which is more efficient.

Item: I’ve learned, when I have a problem with a tech vendor, to seek out the online-chat help service; there’s annoying latency between question and answers as the service rep multiplexes me in with lots of other people’s problems, but at least the dialog starts without endless minutes on hold; a really super-efficient process. Item: Speaking of which, it seems that when you have a problem with a business, the process for solving it each year becomes more and more complex and opaque and irritating and (for the business) efficient.

Item, item, item; as the world grows more efficient it grows less flavorful and less human. Because the more efficient you are, the less humans you need.

To help develop his argument, Bray links to a terrific essay by Bruce Schneier, my favourite security guru:

For decades, we have prized efficiency in our economy. We strive for it. We reward it. In normal times, that’s a good thing. Running just at the margins is efficient. A single just-in-time global supply chain is efficient. Consolidation is efficient. And that’s all profitable. Inefficiency, on the other hand, is waste. Extra inventory is inefficient. Overcapacity is inefficient. Using many small suppliers is inefficient. Inefficiency is unprofitable.

But inefficiency is essential security, as the COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us. All of the overcapacity that has been squeezed out of our healthcare system; we now wish we had it. All of the redundancy in our food production that has been consolidated away; we want that, too. We need our old, local supply chains — not the single global ones that are so fragile in this crisis. And we want our local restaurants and businesses to survive, not just the national chains.

We have lost much inefficiency to the market in the past few decades. Investors have become very good at noticing any fat in every system and swooping down to monetize those redundant assets. The winner-take-all mentality that has permeated so many industries squeezes any inefficiencies out of the system.

This drive for efficiency leads to brittle systems that function properly when everything is normal but break under stress. And when they break, everyone suffers. The less fortunate suffer and die. The more fortunate are merely hurt, and perhaps lose their freedoms or their future. But even the extremely fortunate suffer — maybe not in the short term, but in the long term from the constriction of the rest of society.

Efficient systems have limited ability to deal with system-wide economic shocks. Those shocks are coming with increased frequency. They’re caused by global pandemics, yes, but also by climate change, by financial crises, by political crises. If we want to be secure against these crises and more, we need to add inefficiency back into our systems.

Yep.

Bray ends with a protest:

It’s hard to think of a position more radical than being “against efficiency”. And I’m not. Efficiency is a good, and like most good things, has to be bought somehow, and paid for. There is a point where the price is too high, and we’ve passed it.

Actually, there are times when efficiency is not good but positively bad. Take our criminal justice system. It’s woefully inefficient because we have this commitment to ‘due process’, the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven, legal representation and the rest. It would be much more ‘efficient’ to be able to lock people up on the say-so of the local chief of police. But we don’t do that because our liberal, democratic values abhor it. (Which is also why authoritarians love it.) Of course the criminal justice system should operate more efficiently — in the sense that courts should be run so that the dispensation of justice is quicker and with less pointless delay, lower legal costs, etc. But the central inefficiency of the system implied by the need for due process is the most precious thing about it.


Tim Bray’s essay led me to David Wooton’s book, Power, Pleasure, and Profit: Insatiable Appetites from Machiavelli to Madison, and thence to his 2017 Besterman Lecture at Oxford, which is based on Chapter 8 of the book.

Link


I Have Cancer. Now My Facebook Feed Is Full of ‘Alternative Care’ Ads

Here we go again. Most of the current hoo-hah about Facebook and moderation is about politics and extremism. But actually almost every area of life is affected by the Facebook targeting system. Here’s a great example of that from the personal experience of Anne Borden King — who, ironically, is an advocate working to prevent the spread of medical misinformation online. “Last week”, she writes,

I posted about my breast cancer diagnosis on Facebook. Since then, my Facebook feed has featured ads for “alternative cancer care.” The ads, which were new to my timeline, promote everything from cumin seeds to colloidal silver as cancer treatments. Some ads promise luxury clinics — or even “nontoxic cancer therapies” on a beach in Mexico.

When I saw the ads, I knew that Facebook had probably tagged me to receive them. Interestingly, I haven’t seen any legitimate cancer care ads in my newsfeed, just pseudoscience. This may be because pseudoscience companies rely on social media in a way that other forms of health care don’t. Pseudoscience companies leverage Facebook’s social and supportive environment to connect their products with identities and to build communities around their products. They use influencers and patient testimonials. Some companies also recruit members through Facebook “support groups” to sell their products in pyramid schemes.

Anyone who has experimented with using Facebook’s advertising system will not be surprised by her experience. What happened is that people flogging snake oil were using Facebook’s automated machine for helping them to build a “custom audience”, and one of the questions the system will have asked them is whether they would like to target people who have posted that they have had a cancer diagnosis. Click yes and it’s done.


Finally: the UK government is mandating the wearing of face masks

This is how Politico’s daily ‘London Playbook’ newsletter puts it.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock will give a statement in the House of Commons this afternoon confirming the news on every front page this morning: face coverings will be compulsory in shops and supermarkets in England from Friday July 24, with those refusing to wear them facing fines of up to £100.

What took you so long? The British Medical Association last night called the announcement — which brings England in line with Scotland Germany, Spain, Italy and Greece and many other countries — “long overdue,” and called for the regulation to be extended to all settings where social distancing is not possible. BMA council Chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul also questioned why the government was waiting 10 days to implement the policy. “Each day that goes by adds to the risk of spread and endangers lives,” he said. Officials say the delay will give businesses and the public time to prepare. Retailers won’t be expected to enforce the new regulations, which will be a matter for police. Only children under 11 and those with certain disabilities will be exempt.

We’ve come a long way since … the received wisdom in the U.K. was that mass wearing of face masks did little or nothing to help. It’s just over 100 days, for instance, since England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van-Tam said at the Downing Street lectern on April 3: “There is no evidence that general wearing of the face masks by the public who are well affects the spread of the disease.”

We’ve not come very far at all since … Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, when asked by the the BBC’s Andrew Marr whether face masks should be mandatory in shops in England, said: “I don’t think mandatory, no.” It’s not yet been 48 hours.

Nothing changes. The UK government couldn’t run a bath.

(The Politico newsletter is indispensable IMHO. And it’s free. First thing I read every morning.


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Saturday 13 June, 2020

Saturday 13 June

Quote of the Day

Some on the left drew a strange consolation from Trump’s hostility to foreign wars, as if it meant he could be a tactical ally against American imperialism. They failed to see that he wanted to wage war at home: his furious inauguration speech with its talk of ‘American carnage’ was a declaration of war on urban racial liberalism, especially as represented by New York, the city that had rejected him.


 

The West’s ‘China problem’

I started the day reading Peter Oborne’s piece on whether China will replace Islam as the West’s new enemy — and then got sucked into the rabbit-hole of whether we are sliding into a new Cold War, with China playing the role that the Soviet Union played in the old days. This is all about geopolitics, of course, about which I know little. But if you write about digital technology, as I do, this emerging Cold War is a perennial puzzle that pops up everywhere. For example, in:

  • the discussions about whether Huawei kit should be allowed in Western 5G networks;
  • whether we should be concerned about becoming addicted to Zoom, a company with a sizeable chunk of its workforce and infrastructure based in China;
  • what to make of China’s increasing technological assertiveness at the ITU over changing the centrals protocols of the TCP/IP-based Internet we use today
  • anxieties in (mostly-US companies and the US government) about the inbuilt advantages an authoritarian regime has in fostering the development of ‘AI’ (aka machine-learning) technology, the essential feedstock for which is unlimited volumes of user data — as compared with the way our liberal reservations about privacy and civil rights hobbles our tech giants.
  • the strange and enduring legacy of old Cold War attitudes in the Western military-industrial complex which continually obsesses about Russia rather than China.

This last factor is particularly weird. In the immediate post-war period, we lived in a genuinely bi-polar world, with competition between two different economic and ideological systems — the Soviet, centrally-planned one, and the Western liberal capitalist one.

As it happens, we in the West greatly over-estimated the capacity of the Soviet system, perhaps because it seemed to be very good at some things — nuclear weapons development and space science in particular. In part we owe the Internet to the fright the US received when in 1957 the USSR launched Sputnik, the first earth-orbiting satellite. This, among other things, led to the establishment of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in the Pentagon, which was the organisation that conceived and funded Arpanet, the precursor of today’s Internet.

Nevertheless, it remained true that the bi-polar world into which I was born was based on an ongoing contest between two socio-economic systems which could be — and were often — seen as genuine alternatives.

This bi-polar world evaporated in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down and two years later the USSR imploded, leaving the Western model apparently triumphant. This was the moment that coincided with the publication of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ essay, which argued that the post-1917 ideological competition about the best way to organise society had been decisively resolved with liberal democracy as the winning candidate. This was an overly-simplistic reading of Fukuyama, but what was indisputable was that, post-1989, we moved into a uni-polar world, with the US as the reigning hyper power, able to do exactly as it pleased. Which it did, including launching a disastrous war in Iraq on a pretext, and further destabilising the Middle East as a consequence.

But even before 1989, things were beginning to change elsewhere in the world. In 1978, in particular, as Laurie Macfarlane points out,

Deng Xiaoping became China’s new paramount leader, after outmanoeuvring Mao’s chosen successor, Hua Guofeng. Deng oversaw the country’s historic ‘Reform and Opening-up’ process, which increased the role of market incentives and opened up the Chinese economy to global trade. In the decades since, China’s economic transformation has been nothing short of astonishing.

In 1981, 88% of the Chinese population lived in extreme poverty. In the four decades since, nearly a billion people have been lifted out of poverty, leaving the figure at less than 2%. Over the same time period, the size of China’s economy increased from $195 billion – around the same size as the Spanish economy – to nearly $14 trillion today. By some measures, China’s economy has overtaken the US and is now the largest in the world. China is also home to the second largest number of Fortune 500 companies in the world, and more billionaires than Europe.

So even as the old bi-polar world was dying, a new alternative system was being born. I don’t think that Deng had many geopolitical ambitions, but his successors certainly had. And have.

China’s astonishing economic transformation has been engineered by a distinctive economic model which they call “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, combining strategic state ownership and planning with market-oriented incentives and a one-party political system to create a unique economic model that while poorly understood in the West is found interesting and perhaps attractive by a significant number of non-aligned countries.

It doesn’t look much like ’socialism’ to anyone who studies the tech sector, because the private sector accounts for the overwhelming majority of output, employment and investment in China; and there is — as Macfarlane points out, little sign of democratic workers’ control. But it’s a powerful and effective system, and — to date — it appears to be working. Which is more than could ever be said for the Soviet system.

So here we are in a bi-polar world again. But it’s nothing like its predecessor. In the old Cold War, for example, European democracies were resolutely anti-Soviet (even if they didn’t always pay their mandatory 2% of GDP into the NATO budget). But now, with China as the opposite ‘pole’ to the US, they’re much more ambivalent. As are many global companies. China’s role as the workshop of the world, and also as the fastest growing and potentially most profitable market, means that outright hostility to the new superpower looks like a self-defeating policy.

This doesn’t bother Trump, whose most desperate need is to find an enemy he can blame for the unfolding disaster of the pandemic that has occurred on his watch. And it isn’t just Trump, as Peter Oborne says:

China is being presented as the new existential enemy, just as Islam was 20 years ago. And by the very same people. The same newspaper columnists, the same think tanks, the same political parties and the same intelligence agencies.

After Huntington’s famous essay that led the charge against Muslims – or what they often call radical Islam – now they have turned their attention to the Far East.

US President Donald Trump, the world’s Muslim-basher-in-chief, has now started to attack China, rather as Bush, his Republican predecessor, attacked Iraq in 2003 and the “axis of evil” 20 years ago. During his campaign in 2016 he accused China of “raping” the US economy.

However, since the outbreak of Covid-19, Trump’s attacks have gained speed and traction. He has accused China of covering up the virus and lying about its death toll.

Leaving aside Trump, who thinks only in transactional terms and doesn’t seem to have any strategic sense, the impression one gets from the US foreign policy establishment is of hegemonic unease. The feeling that it would be disastrous if the US lost its position as the global leader in digital technology is palpable. And it’s ruthlessly exploited by the tech companies — as we saw when the Facebook boss ‘testified’ to Congress and hinted that not hampering (i.e. regulating) the tech giants is a way of ensuring the continuance of US technological hegemony.

So is American hegemony really in doubt? Writing in 2018, Adam Tooze was sceptical:

As of today, two years into the Trump presidency, it is a gross exaggeration to talk of an end to the American world order. The two pillars of its global power – military and financial – are still firmly in place. What has ended is any claim on the part of American democracy to provide a political model. This is certainly a historic break. Trump closes the chapter begun by Woodrow Wilson in the First World War, with his claim that American democracy articulated the deepest feelings of liberal humanity. A hundred years later, Trump has for ever personified the sleaziness, cynicism and sheer stupidity that dominates much of American political life. What we are facing is a radical disjunction between the continuity of basic structures of power and their political legitimation.

If America’s president mounted on a golf buggy is a suitably ludicrous emblem of our current moment, the danger is that it suggests far too pastoral a scenario: American power trundling to retirement across manicured lawns. That is not our reality. Imagine instead the president and his buggy careening around the five-acre flight deck of a $13 billion, Ford-class, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier engaged in ‘dynamic force deployment’ to the South China Sea. That better captures the surreal revival of great-power politics that hangs over the present. Whether this turns out to be a violent and futile rearguard action, or a new chapter in the age of American world power, remains to be seen.

And if you felt that this post was TL;DR. (Too long, don’t read) I perfectly understand. E.M. Forster once observed that there are two kinds of writer: those who know what they think and write it; and those who find out what they think by trying to write it. I belong mostly in the latter category.


Quarantine diary — Day 84

Link


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