In late 1941, a mysterious Mr Gavin wrote to the Daily Telegraph offering £100 to be donated to charity if anyone could solve this crossword in less than 12 minutes. The competition was to be held at the Telegraph’s office in Fleet Street, London.
A few weeks later those who managed it received letters asking them to report to Military Intelligence (that well-known oxymoron), which then sent them on to Bletchley Park.
This recruitment method would never get past HR nowadays. But then, there was a war on.
(As you can see, someone in our house has been having a go at it!)
It’s different from the cryptic puzzles one finds nowadays in the posher newspapers — it’s a mixture of cryptic and quick clues.
Interesting interview of Michael Lewis by Tim Adams in today’s Observer, talking about Lewis’s marvellous book, The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy about how the Trump Administration is dismantling or enfeebling vital bits of the administrative state. I particularly liked this segment:
Adams: Part of your story examines the consequences of the ideological cull of climate scientists from government. You have lived in close proximity to wildfires in California, there have been unprecedented hurricanes. Do you think there will come a point when people demand leaders who understand the importance of scientific knowledge?
Lewis: You would think so. It hasn’t happened yet. For people to suddenly start to value what good government does, I think there will have to be something that threatens a lot of people at once. The problem with a wildfire in California, or a hurricane in Florida, is that for most people it is happening to someone else. I think a pandemic might do it, something that could affect millions of people indiscriminately and from which you could not insulate yourself even if you were rich. I think that might do it.
Adams: That is quite an apocalyptic thought. You have always seemed by nature an optimist, are you feeling more nihilistic about what you call the drift of things?
Lewis: I’m a little more wary than I have been. What we are seeing is an attack on the idea of progress and the idea of science. In the Trump administration there seems to be a total lack of respect for expertise. It sounds like you have something of the same with Boris Johnson. For this kind of attack to work you need to have characters who don’t care at all about consequences.
Most of the complacent guff about how American capitalism is better than its counterparts in other parts of the world is just that — guff.
The economist Thomas Philippon has done a terrific, data-intensive demolition job on the myth. In The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up on Free Markets he shows that America is no longer the spiritual home of the free-market economy (any more than Westminster is now “the mother of Parliaments”). Competition there is not fiercer than it is in ‘old’ Europe. Its regulators have been asleep at the wheel for decades and its latest crop of giant companies are not all that different from their predecessors.
Or, as he puts it:
”First, US markets have become less competitive: concentration is high in many industries, leaders are entrenched, and their profit rates are excessive. Second, this lack of competition has hurt consumers and workers: it has led to higher prices, lower investment and lower productivity growth. Third, and contrary to popular wisdom, the main explanation is political, not technological: I have traced the decrease in competition to increasing barriers to entry and weak antitrust enforcement, sustained by heavy lobbying and campaign contributions.”
So next time some tech evangelist starts to rant on about how backward Europe is, the appropriate reply is: give me a break.
This morning’s Observer column:
For my sins, I get invited to give a few public lectures every year. Mostly, the topic on which I’m asked to speak is the implications for democracy of digital technology as it has been exploited by a number of giant US corporations. My general argument is that those implications are not good, and I try to explain why I think this is the case. When I’ve finished, there is usually some polite applause before the Q&A begins. And always one particular question comes up. “Why are you so pessimistic?”
The interesting thing about that is the way it reveals as much about the questioner as it does about the lecturer. All I have done in my talk, after all, is to lay out the grounds for concern about what networked technology is doing to our democracies. Mostly, my audiences recognise those grounds as genuine – indeed as things about which they themselves have been fretting. So if someone regards a critical examination of these issues as “pessimistic” then it suggests that they have subconsciously imbibed the positive narrative of tech evangelism.
An ideology is what determines how you think even when you don’t know you’re thinking. Tech evangelism is an example. And one of the functions of an ideology is to stop us asking awkward questions…
Dave Winer has bought a house in Woodstock, where it’s been snowing. He arranged to have some boxes of stuff that was in storage in California shipped to him via FedEx. Here’s what happened —- from his blog:
As you know I’ve had trouble with UPS, so I figured when Fedex was set to do a big delivery to my house just after a 1.5 foot snow in the area, that they would never get one of their big delivery trucks down the road to my house, and I’d end up driving somewhere to pick up the packages. But yesterday afternoon there was a knock on the door, and there was the Fedex guy with my packages. Smiling. I couldn’t believe it. #
The truck said Hertz, not Fedex. It was a small AWD vehicle. He said when they came to deliver the stuff a day before they realized their big truck wouldn’t make it down the orad, so they rented a smaller truck and drove that to my house with my package. He said we like to go the extra mile. Yes, they surely do! Compared to UPS, which has basically the same policy, trust the driver, but the ethos of this driver compared to whoever made the call at UPS (basically the customer can fuck off) was night and day. #
Hat’s off to Fedex. You win this contest, hands down. #