Seasonal compassion

I’ve always been ambivalent about Christmas. Because my parents were’t very good at celebrations, my childhood experience of the festival was often one of disappointment. When I met Sue, my late wife, I had to change my views because she really loved Christmas and took great delight in every part of it, and our children learned that from her. But I remain acutely aware of the stresses it puts on people who are poor, unhappy or depressed, when the contrast between their own conditions and the glitzy, showy, consumer-driven atmosphere all around is painful. So it was sweet to find this message on one of the main pedestrian bridges across the Cam this Christmas.

Sleepwalking into dystopia

This morning’s Observer column:

When the history of our time comes to be written, one of the things that will puzzle historians (assuming any have survived the climate cataclysm) is why we allowed ourselves to sleepwalk into dystopia. Ever since 9/11, it’s been clear that western democracies had embarked on a programme of comprehensive monitoring of their citizenry, usually with erratic and inadequate democratic oversight. But we only began to get a fuller picture of the extent of this surveillance when Edward Snowden broke cover in the summer of 2013.

For a time, the dramatic nature of the Snowden revelations focused public attention on the surveillance activities of the state. In consequence, we stopped thinking about what was going on in the private sector. The various scandals of 2016, and the role that network technology played in the political upheavals of that year, constituted a faint alarm call about what was happening, but in general our peaceful slumbers resumed: we went back to our smartphones and the tech giants continued their appropriation, exploitation and abuse of our personal data without hindrance. And this continued even though a host of academic studies and a powerful book by Shoshana Zuboff showed that, as the cybersecurity guru Bruce Schneier put it, “the business model of the internet is surveillance”.

The mystery is why so many of us are still apparently relaxed about what’s going on…

Read on


20 Questions for 2020

The Financial Times (behind paywall) at least gives clear answers.

  1. Will Boris Johnson agree a trade deal with the EU? Yes.
  2. Will Britain’s Labour Party return to electability? No.
  3. Will Angela Merkel’s grand coalition collapse? Yes.
  4. Will Mattel Salvini come back to power in Italy? Yes.
  5. Will Donald Trump win the popular vote in November’s election? No (but he will still be re-elected because of the Electoral College).
  6. Will the US go into recession? No.
  7. Will China become world leader in 5G telecoms? Yes.
  8. Will India regain its status as the fastest-growing large economy? No.
  9. Will there be war with Iran? No.
  10. Will South African debt hit junk levels? Yes.
  11. Will the protest that have shaken Latin America continue? Yes.
  12. Will France’s Macron engineer a “reset” with Putin’s Russia? No.
  13. Will we see meaningful regulation of Big Tech? No.
  14. Will Disney+ change the game in streaming? Yes.
  15. Will Uber become profitable in 2020? No.
  16. Will vaping be banned? No.
  17. Will global carbon emissions fall? No.
  18. Will Brent crude prices end the year above $65 a Barrel? No.
  19. WIll the three-decade bond rally finally come to an end? No.
  20. Will Europe’s banks keep slashing jobs? Yes.

So now we know where we stand. Happy New Year!

Hong Kong: only two possible end-games

Roger Cohen, in today’s NYT:

The most significant, perhaps the only, foreign policy achievement of the Trump administration has been to get behind the Hong Kong protesters while pressuring Xi on trade and keeping channels open to the Chinese leader. This American pressure, which has made Trump popular in Hong Kong, must not relent.

Mike Bloomberg, who has said Xi “is not a dictator,” and Joe Biden, who has said China “is not competition for us,” should take another look. Universal suffrage for Hong Kong is the only endgame I can see to the “one country, two systems” impasse, short of the People’s Liberation Army marching into the city and all hell breaking loose.

China’s abuse of human rights is possibly the only thing that the fractured US Congress agrees about. And Trump reluctantly signed the Bill.

Practice makes perfect

Tyler Cowen, the economist, is one of the most interesting public intellectuals around. His blog is a marvel (and a daily visit for me). His capacity to absorb ideas is remarkable. And he is fearsomely productive. So how, one wonders, does he do it?

This week he shed some light on how he works:

  1. I write every day. I also write to relax.

  2. Much of my writing time is devoted to laying out points of view which are not my own. I recommend this for most of you.

  3. I do serious reading every day.

  4. After a talk, Q&A session, podcast — whatever — I review what I thought were my weaker answers or interventions and think about how I could improve them. I rehearse in my mind what I should have said. Larry Summers does something similar.

  5. I spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to crack cultural codes. I view this as a comparative advantage, and one which few other people in my fields are trying to replicate. For one thing, it makes me useful in a wide variety of situations where I have little background knowledge. This also helps me invest in skills which will age relatively well, as I age. For me, this is perhaps the most importantly novel item on this list.

  6. I listen often to highly complex music, partly because I enjoy it but also in the (silly?) hope that it will forestall mental laziness.

  7. I have regular interactions with very smart people who will challenge me and be very willing to disagree, including “GMU lunch.”

  8. Every day I ask myself “what did I learn today?”, a question I picked up from Amihai Glazer. I feel bad if I don’t have a clear answer, while recognizing the days without a clear answer are often the days where I am learning the most (at least in the equilibrium where I am asking myself this question).

  9. One factor behind my choice of friends is what kind of approbational sway they will exercise over me. You should want to hang around people who are good influences, including on your mental abilities. Peer effects really are quite strong.

  10. I watch very little television. And no drugs and no alcohol should go without saying.

Footnote ‘GMU’ = George Mason University, where he works.

Sex sells, apparently

Well, what do you know? the best-selling book over the last decade was E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey, which which sold 15.2 million copies from 2010 through 2019. It was originally self-published as a Kindle ebook and print-on-demand publication in June 2011; the publishing rights were acquired by Vintage Books in March 2012. Smart move. I wonder what they paid for them.