“We didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”
“As big tech’s scope expands, more non-tech firms will find their profits dented and more workers will see their livelihoods disrupted, creating angry constituencies. One crude measure of scale is to look at global profits relative to American gdp. By this yardstick, Apple, which is expanding into services, is already roughly as big as Standard Oil and US Steel were in 1910, at the height of their powers. Alphabet, Amazon and Microsoft are set to reach the threshold within the next ten years.”
- This week’s Economist.
“More trust is not an intelligent aim in this life. Intelligently placed and intelligently refused trust is the proper aim.”
- Onora O’Neill in her terrific TED talk
Quote of the Day
“If there are three kinds of people—those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who never knew what hit them — neoliberals belong to the first category and most progressives to the latter two. The left remained complacent until, suddenly, it was too late.”
- Susan George, “How to Win the War of Ideas: Lessons of the Gramscian Right”. #
Correlation vs causation and the sudden departure of the World Bank’s Chief Economist
Well, well. This from the Economist:
When autocratic, oil-rich nations enjoy a windfall from higher crude prices, where does the money go? One place to look is Swiss bank accounts. Sure enough, an increase in oil prices is followed by a spike in deposits held by these countries in financial havens, according to a 2017 paper by Jorgen Juel Andersen of bi Norwegian Business School, Niels Johannesen of the University of Copenhagen and their co-authors.
When Mr Johannesen presented this result at the World Bank in 2015, the audience included Bob Rijkers, a member of the bank’s research group. The two of them joined forces with Mr Andersen to investigate if something similar happened after another kind of windfall: infusions of aid from foreign donors. Their conclusion was dispiriting. World Bank payouts to 22 aid-dependent countries during 1990-2010 were followed by a jump in their deposits in foreign financial havens. The leaks averaged about 5% of the bank’s aid to these countries.
Rijkers reports to the Bank’s Chief Economist, Penny Goldberg. Normally these kinds of working papers are published. But this particular one hasn’t been — yet. And there are rumours that it has been held back because it is, well, embarrassing to find that 5% of the Bank’s aid might be going to the Swiss bank accounts of corrupt politicians. After all, correlation doesn’t mean causation. But now Ms Goldberg is leaving and going back to Yale. Correlation or causation?
Could the Coronavirus Help Make China More Free?
Intriguing paradoxes about China raised by Tyler Cowen in his Bloomberg column. On the one hand, being an authoritarian state means it can take decisive action — like quarantining 11m people. But what if public opinion as expressed on social media gets so torrential that it overpowers the capacity of the censors?
Northern Ireland’s future in a single chart
Quote of the Day
”I have the feeling that I’ve seen everything, but failed to notice the elephants”
- Anton Chekhov
Another reason why people buy SUVs
Apropos my post the other day about why people buy SUVs, I received this interesting email from a reader:
The other reason people buy SUVs is because they have been involved in an accident.
My wife was hit by a pick up truck head on doing 55 mph in a 25 mph zone, which totaled the car, shattered her wrist, but thankfully didn’t damage the 8-week-old in the back. She’s been nervous in cars ever since now.
So it’s not that she doesn’t trust her driving skills, it’s that she doesn’t trust the other drivers on the road (which in DC is probably a fair assessment. The driving test is a joke, you can pass it easily, and that’s assuming the person who hits you has a license. In the 8 times we’ve been hit, 3 times the driver swapped seats with the passenger, and the other one was uninsured).
Tech Has Drained the Reality Out of Our Real Lives
Lovely essay by Jenny Judge on how, for most people, the deficiencies of their analogue photographs inadvertently reinforced the vitality of real life, whereas modern digital cameras now create a superior virtual world we don’t feel good enough for.
But the inescapable shoddiness of our amateur photographs served an important purpose, beyond the obvious one of discouraging narcissism, and it was this: Through its very mediocrity, each image told us that the real world was better than the one it depicted. We were made aware of the richness, the vividness, the sheer reality of our actual lives simply in being shown that our virtual lives were wan and insubstantial. Each of our badly framed, overexposed pictures served as an incentive to seek out the real world. Similarly, the fragmentary bootleg was a reason to go to the video store or, better still, to the cinema; the disappointing tape-recording likewise sent us in search of the CD and the live show.
Perceptive stuff. Worth reading in full.
Remembering Seamus Heaney
We were in Dublin last weekend and were accordingly able to visit the celebration of Seamus Heaney organised by the National Library of Ireland, to which he had donated his papers before he died. (He piled them all into his car and drove them to the Library.) It’s in a wing of the wonderful old Irish Parliament building opposite Trinity College, and is an inspired piece of curation by Geraldine Higgins. It has four themes: Excavations, covering Heaney’s early work; Creativity, looking at how he worked; Conscience on how he wrestled with what it meant to be a poet from Northern Ireland during the thirty years of violent conflict now known as ‘the Troubles’; and Marvels about his later work exploring some of the ways in which he circled back to the relationships of his childhood and youth.
It’s a wonderful exhibition which brings out the imaginative genius of a great poet. What was striking about Heaney (or ‘Famous Seamus’ as my countrymen dubbed him in an unnecessary attempt to stop him getting a big head) was the way he managed to be both earthed and sublime. His poetry is accessible to everyone and moving; and yet he was also a real scholarly heavyweight — a translator of Virgil and of Beowulf, for example, as well as a holder of professorial chairs at Harvard and Oxford. (Evidence: his Nobel lecture or his Oxford lectures, The Redress of Poetry.)
He’s my favourite poet, and I spent some of the exhibition close to tears while at the same time marvelling at the arc of his life. It was lovely to see marked-up drafts of his poems at various stages in their composition. And he had such nice handwriting — light and crystal clear. Also (something dear to my heart) he always wrote with a fountain pen.
The nicest things came at the end: readings of his unconventional love poem to his wife Marie after they were married. His final text message to her just before he died: noli timere (don’t be afraid). And a recording of him reading my favourite poem, Postscript, celebrating the magical coastline of the Burren in Co Clare.
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
Unmissable. And it’ll run for three years.
Quote of the Day
“Don’t attribute to stupidity what can be explained by incentives”
- Mike Elias
RIP Clayton Christensen, who coined the term ‘disruptive innovation’.
Kim Lyons wrote a nice obituary in The Verge.
Scores of notable tech leaders have for years cited Christensen’s 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma as a major influence. It’s the only business book on the late Steve Jobs’ must-read list; Netflix CEO Reed Hastings read it with his executive team when he was developing the idea for his company; and the late Andy Grove, CEO of Intel, said the book and Christensen’s theory were responsible for that company’s turnaround. After summoning Christensen to his office to explain why he thought Intel was going to get killed, Grove was able to grok what to do, Christensen recalled:
“They made the Celeron Processor. They blew Cyrix and AMD out of the water, and the Celeron became the highest-volume product in the company. The book came out in 1997, and the next year Grove gave the keynote at the annual conference for the Academy of Management. He holds up my book and basically says, “I don’t mean to be rude, but there’s nothing any of you have published that’s of use to me except this.”
Personally, I don’t think he ever recovered from Jill Lepore’s devastating critique of his theories in the New Yorker.
The ecosystem matters more than the device
I’ve been an Apple user ever since 1978. But for many years, I also used PCs, particularly during the period of Apple’s decline (the absence of Steve Jobs, I guess). I stopped using Windows entirely in 1999 and have since used only Apple stuff (and, occasionally, Linux boxes). People sometimes ask me why am I content continually to pay the Apple ‘premium’: after all, Lenovo, HP et al make pretty good stuff too. The answer is that over the years I’ve built an app ecosystem around my workflow, and any device I buy has to fit seamlessly into that.
Which is why I found “ The MacPro is more than what’s in the box” interesting. It’s written by the owner of a small video production and post-production company which for almost 20 years has been through several generations of Mac desktops (and even had a “painful period” with Windows kit). Like me, they are
entrenched in an Apple ecosystem. We have iPhones and iPads and AppleTVs and MacPros and MacBooks and Watches and peripherals and accessories and so on and so on. This harmony between all the devices adds to the overall efficiency and synergy in the office and in our personal lives. This alone is a huge cost savings to us. All the equipment works the same way with the same or similar interfaces and the same communication pipeline. We don’t spend extra time trying to figure out or adapt to new software ecosystems.
Yep. So the kit is more expensive, but when you factor in the ecosystem it’s probably worth paying the premium.
Quote of the Day
“Don’t find customers for your products, find products for your customers”
- Seth Godin
”The most talked about issues in AI today: deepfakes, bias, explainability, privacy, all have trust as a common denominator.”
- Technology Review
“I do not read advertisements. I would spend all of my time wanting things”
- Franz Kafka