Monday 31 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

”There’s only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.”

  • Aldous Huxley, 1945

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Rachmaninov plays Händel ~ The Harmonious Blacksmith


Why Jeff Bezos’s net worth is $200 billion

Matt Stoller is a determined campaigner for regulation of tech monopolies. He’s particularly sharp on Amazon’s strategies and tactics. This time he has a terrific analysis of the company’s ingenuity in responding to the loss of an important court case.

The background is this: An Amazon customer bought a laptop battery from a Chinese third-party seller on Amazon. The battery exploded, injuring her. She sued Amazon. The company tried to deny liability — including trying a preposterous legal stunt saying that it was protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which exempts online platforms from liability for speech published on their platforms. The Judge declined to accept that selling an exploding battery constituted “speech”.

Anyway, the case went all the way in the Californian courts, and Amazon lost. So what did it do next? Stoller takes up the story:

What speaks to the savvy of Amazon is how the corporation reacted to its loss. After the court ruled, Amazon public policy lead (and former FTC and DOJ Antitrust official) Brian Huseman then swung into action. Last Friday, he published a blog post reversing Amazon’s position.

Not only did Amazon support legislative action to hold itself strictly liable for products sold on its platform, Huseman wrote, but it would support legislation to go beyond the court’s decision. Huseman said Amazon supported Stone’s bill on online marketplace liability, but Amazon wanted it to be even stronger and broader. Amazon, after being held liable in court for hurting someone by selling defective products, would pose in a legislative fight as the consumer’s biggest champion.

Huseman is an increasingly important player in the Amazon public policy shop, and as Amazon is a creature of public policy, it makes him one of the more important executives at the corporation. Former Obama press secretary Jay Carney, who ostensibly runs global affairs for Amazon, is a public relations guy and glad-handler of political VIPs, whereas Huseman, though behind the embarrassing HQ2 fiasco, does understand law.

The California bill, AB 3262 in its original form [which Stoller’s organization endorsed in its report on Amazon], would have forced Amazon to take responsibility for what merchants sold on its platform, but the court decision essentially took care of this problem for the legislators. .

Huseman, recognizing that Amazon will have take responsibility for what it sold, in turned asked the legislature to apply strict liability to anyone remotely connected to selling things online. Not only should Amazon be held liable for products its merchants sell, wrote Huseman, but all online platforms or websites should be liable, not just for helping to place products into the marketplace but under any business model. The ultimate language of the legislation included not only placing products into the marketplace, but ‘facilitating’ the placing of such products into the marketplace.

Note the significance of this. If this were enacted it would means that every dog and pony selling anything online would be subject to strict liability. And guess what that would do to the dogs and ponies? The outfit with the deepest pockets and the best lawyers (aka Amazon) would finally be the only game in town.

Which is why Bezos winds up with a net worth of $200B.

George Packer: How Biden can lose

Grim — really grim — and perceptive piece. The nub of it is that protests about police violence against black citizens creates a no-win trap for the Democrats.

The day before, on Monday, the Republicans began their remote convention. The simultaneous mayhem in Kenosha seemed like part of the script, as it played into their main theme: that Biden is a tool of radical leftists who hate America, who want to bring the chaos of the cities they govern out to the suburbs where the real Americans live. The Republicans won’t let such an opportunity go to waste. “Law and order are on the ballot,” Vice President Mike Pence said on Wednesday night. Other speakers were harsher.

It’s no use dismissing their words as partisan talking points. They are effective ones, backed up by certain facts. Trump will bang this loud, ugly drum until Election Day. He knows that Kenosha has placed Democrats in a trap. They’ve embraced the protests and the causes that drive them. The third night of the Democratic convention was consumed with the language and imagery of protest—as if all Americans watching were activists.

On Monday, the day after Blake’s shooting, Biden and his vice-presidential nominee, Senator Kamala Harris, released statements expressing outrage. The next day, Biden’s spokesperson released a statement opposing “burning down communities and needless destruction.” And on Wednesday, Biden, after speaking with the Blake family, condemned both the initial incident and the subsequent destruction. “Burning down communities is not protest,” he pleaded in a video. “It’s needless violence.” He said the same after George Floyd’s killing.

How many Americans have heard him?

The Irish Passport podcast on #golfgate

This episode is an hour long, but worth a listen: it provides a really good insight into why the flouting of social-distancing rules by some of the Irish Establishment figures (who had promulgated the said rules) has caused such outrage in Ireland.

Seeing like a city: how tech became urban

This scholarly — and open access academic article, by the prominent urban sociologist Sharon Zukin, is the best survey article I’ve seen on the complicated infatuation of city planners and urban elites with tech companies. It asks why so many cities have failed to resist the allure of Big Tech and digital capitalism (i.e. lost their marbles). And it examines what is lost as city administrations keep genuflecting before the gods of “innovation and entrepreneurship.”

The Abstract reads:

The emergence of urban tech economies calls attention to the multidimensional spatiality of ecosystems made up of people and organizations that produce new digital technology. Since the economic crisis of 2008, city governments have aggressively pursued economic growth by nurturing these ecosystems. Elected officials create public-private-nonprofit partnerships to build an “innovation complex” of discursive, organizational, and geographical spaces; they aim not only to jump-start economic growth but to remake the city for a new modernity. But it is difficult to insert tech production space into the complicated urban matrix. Embedded industries and social communities want protection from expanding tech companies and the real estate developers who build for them. City council members, state legislators, and community organizations oppose the city government’s attempts to satisfy Big Tech companies. While the city’s density magnifies conflicts of interest over land-use and labor issues, the covid-19 pandemic raises serious questions about the city’s ability to both oppose Big Tech and keep creating tech jobs.

Longish read. Not for everybody, but if you’re interested in tech and society (as I am) it’s good stuff.

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Sunday 30 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

“All men are cremated equal”.

  • Spike Milligan

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

What happens when you put a piano in a public place


Made my day! Hope it makes yours.

Let’s not forget, Bill Gates hasn’t always been the good guy…

This morning’s Observer column:

Twenty five years ago last Monday, Microsoft released Windows 95, its first operating system based on the Wimp (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointer) interface that had been developed at Xerox PARC in the early 1970s and, er, borrowed by Steve Jobs for the Apple Macintosh that he launched in 1984.

Few geeks who were around and sentient at the time will forget the hoop-la that surrounded the launch of the Microsoft system. It included a commercial that had the Rolling Stones’ Start Me Up as a soundtrack. The symbolism of this was that in order to get Win95 rolling you had to press the “Start” button. (Satirists quickly noted that in order to turn the operating system off you also had to press the Start button, but the joke was clearly lost on Microsoft’s designers.) It was variously reported that the company had paid the Stones between $8m and $14m for the right to use the song, but Microsoft said that this was just a rumour spread by the band to increase their market value, and that the company actually paid a fraction of that amount.

The geek community, which was – then as now – sceptical of the Microsoft juggernaut, viewed the hoop-la with a certain ironic detachment. Some observed that it had taken the company 11 years to catch up with Apple, or 22 years to catch up with PARC. But the most interesting aspect of the launch was the evidence it provided that even in 1995 Microsoft had not yet fully twigged the significance of the internet…

Read on

Some readers have pointed out that Microsoft had a number of earlier attempts at the WIMP user interface, which is true. But having used them, I can testify that none of them was what you might call a finished product. Win95 was the first attempt to do WIMP properly. Which is why Microsoft made such a fuss about it.

The GOP’s secret election platform

Perceptive Atlantic article by David Frum.

Republicans have decided not to publish a party platform for 2020.

This omission has led some to conclude that the GOP lacks ideas, that it stands for nothing, that it has shriveled to little more than a Trump cult.

This conclusion is wrong. The Republican Party of 2020 has lots of ideas. I’m about to list 13 ideas that command almost universal assent within the Trump administration, within the Republican caucuses of the U.S. House and Senate, among governors and state legislators, on Fox News, and among rank-and-file Republicans.

In summary they are:

  1. The most important mechanism of economic policy—not the only tool, but the most important—is adjusting the burden of taxation on society’s richest citizens.
  2. The coronavirus is a much-overhyped problem. It’s not that dangerous and will soon burn itself out.
  3. Climate change is a much-overhyped problem. It’s probably not happening. If it is happening, it’s not worth worrying about.
  4. China has become an economic and geopolitical adversary of the United States. Military spending should be invested with an eye to defeating China on the seas, in space, and in the cyberrealm.
  5. The trade and alliance structures built after World War II are outdated.
  6. Health care is a purchase like any other. Individuals should make their own best deals in the insurance market with minimal government supervision.
  7. Voting is a privilege. States should have wide latitude to regulate that privilege in such a way as to minimize voting fraud, which is rife among Black Americans and new immigrant communities.
  8. Anti-Black racism has ceased to be an important problem in American life. At this point, the people most likely to be targets of adverse discrimination are whites, Christians, and Asian university applicants.
  9. The courts should move gradually and carefully toward eliminating the mistake made in 1965, when women’s sexual privacy was elevated into a constitutional right.
  10. The post-Watergate ethics reforms overreached. We should welcome the trend toward unrestricted and secret campaign donations.
  11. Trump’s border wall is the right policy to slow illegal immigration.
  12. The country is gripped by a surge of crime and lawlessness as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement and its criticism of police.
  13. Civility and respect are cherished ideals. But in the face of the overwhelming and unfair onslaught against President Donald Trump by the media and the “deep state,” his occasional excesses on Twitter and at his rallies should be understood as pardonable reactions to much more severe misconduct by others.

Storytelling with a camera

My son Brian (the other photographer in the family) has a new website.

Living with Covid-19

The head of France’s equivalent of the UK’s SAGE put it nicely when advising the organisers of the Tour de France: Covid is like a chronic illness: it’s going to last so you just have to learn to live with it.

Succinct articulation of the reality that so many people haven’t yet grasped. This thing isn’t going to go away.

How words morph

Edward Luce has an interesting review essay in the weekend edition of the Financial Times (which may be behind the paywall: apologies if so) in which he discusses the way political terms change their meanings over time. The three examples he picks are ‘populism’, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ from Robert Frank’s new book, People without Power: the war on populism and the fight for democracy.

Frank claims, says Luce,

that the word “populism” has been hijacked. The term, an American original, now stands for what used to be meant by “Jacksonian” — resentful of those above you (the bankers and intellectuals) and cruel towards those below (the slaves and native Americans). In fact, Frank reminds us, the origins of US populism were very different. The prairie populists of the 1890s were in favour of racial integration, women’s emancipation and opposed to the robber baron capitalists. They gave birth not only to the term “populist” but also to the People’s Party, which briefly threatened to re-align US politics. Its legacy carried into the progressive era that helped tame American capitalism, enshrine fiat money, create income taxes and launch trust busting… It was quintessentially American in its yen for social equality and economic fairness. “Equal rights to all, special privileges to none”, was its founding creed.

And as far as ‘liberal’ is concerned…

The term used to mean 19th century bourgeois nationalists who believed in free trade. In America it evolved to mean people who believe both in social freedom and government intervention in the economy.

And what about ‘conservative’?

Conservative originally derived from “conserve” that things should be kept the same. Now, in America at least, it means whatever Donald Trump wants it to mean, which can take even his closest acolytes by surprise.

The Johnson method of government: total power with zero responsibility

Great Observer column by Andrew Rawnsley.


Within Mr Johnson’s inner circle, it is a private boast that they are “tearing up the rule book” of government. One of the rules that they have been shredding most aggressively is the concept of ministerial responsibility. Under previous governments of many different complexions, this idea has been central to how democratic politics is supposed to work. When things go wrong, the minister is accountable to parliament and must answer to the public for his department’s failings. When things go badly wrong, the minister resigns. Ministerial responsibility is at the core of the compact between government, parliament and public. Bronwen Maddox, the director of the Institute for Government, has it right when she says: “Unless there are consequences for ministers of the decisions that are their responsibility, the UK’s principles of democratic accountability will become meaningless.”

This government has inverted the doctrine to the point where ministers assign responsibility for misjudgments and failures to anyone but themselves. When searching for somewhere else to throw the blame, their first choice is civil servants, who make convenient targets because they are not supposed to answer back. So out goes Sally Collier, chief executive of Ofqual, the regulator, over the grading fiasco. Following her overboard goes Jonathan Slater, the permanent secretary at the Department for Education, who was sacked in a fashion brutal even by the standards of the current regime. Mr Williamson, meantime, stumbles on towards his next appointment with calamity in an apparent determination to make Chris Grayling feel a bit better about his time in government.

In an even darker part of the forest, there is a manifest effort to manipulate inquiries into the handling of the coronavirus crisis by shifting culpability from the prime minister and his lieutenants.

The Johnson/Cummings playbook is a variant of the Trump one. And people used to think that that kind of thing couldn’t happen here.

One of the things we didn’t properly appreciate until 2016 is how liberal democracy depends as much on norms and conventions as it does on the rule of law. When elected politicians like Trump and Johnson start to flout conventions and ignore norms, then things go to pieces very quickly. And the flouting creates precedents for their successors, whoever they turn out to be.

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Saturday 29 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

”Irrationally-held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors.”

  • TH Huxley

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mumford & Sons plus friends: Amazing Grace — sung like you’ve never heard it sung before. (9’49”)


At Bonnaroo, Tennessee in 2011.

How not to campaign against Trump

Shrewd column by Jack Shafer:

As Trump prepares to run the same campaign as he did in 2016, the Democrats shouldn’t feel obliged to return the favor. Clinton, like some of the Republicans who ran against Trump then, spent a great deal of her energy accentuating Trump’s many negatives—his chauvinism, his bigotry, his caustic personality, his political shallowness, his flip-floppery, his cruelty, and his endless lies, just to name a few. Clinton extended her attack on Trump into an attack on his supporters, depositing half of them in a “basket of deplorables.”

Trump’s flaws seemed like easy targets, but when the votes were counted, it turned out they didn’t matter much. Few of the punches at Trump’s negatives landed with the people whom Clinton needed to reach, and those that did were canceled out by what his supporters consider his positives—his professed love of America, his Reaganesque optimism about the future, his projection of strength, opposition to illegal immigration, his pro-gun policies, his plain-spoken, “candid” responses to the issues, his anti-government and anti-Washington rhetoric, sticking it to insiders like Jeb Bush and Clinton, and his promise to return the nation to the good old days. So great are Trump’s positives that they have provided him qualified immunity—in the eyes of his supporters, at least—from the critiques of the fact-checkers.

As I wrote in 2016, shouting about Trump’s negatives did little to persuade his supporters to abandon him, because they had already discounted—practically embraced—his warts.

That sounds to me like a shrewd analysis.

What Does Boredom Do to Us—and for Us?

This is weird. I met a guy recently who was arguing that one of the explanations for Brexit was boredom. I wondered privately what he’d been smoking. And then I open the New Yorker and there’s a long essay on the subject. Humans have been getting bored for centuries, if not millennia, it says. And now there’s a whole field to study the sensation, at a time when it may be more rampant than ever.

Here’s how it begins:

Quick inventory: Among the many things you might be feeling more of these days, is boredom one of them? It might seem like something to disavow, automatically, when the country is roiling. The American plot thickens by the hour. We need to be paying attention. But boredom, like many an inconvenient human sensation, can steal over a person at unseemly moments. And, in some ways, the psychic limbo of the pandemic has been a breeding ground for it—or at least for a restless, buzzing frustration that can feel a lot like it.

Fundamentally, boredom is, as Tolstoy defined it, “a desire for desires.” The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, describing the feeling that sometimes drops over children like a scratchy blanket, elaborated on this notion: boredom is “that state of suspended animation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.” In a new book, “Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom,” James Danckert, a neuroscientist, and John D. Eastwood, a psychologist, nicely describe it as a cognitive state that has something in common with tip-of-the-tongue syndrome—a sensation that something is missing, though we can’t quite say what.

I don’t think I’ve ever been bored, so I’m afraid I don’t get it.

Chinese students and Uber

In answer to my post a few days ago asking “What is it about Uber and Chinese students?” Paul Lefrere writes:

“The answer is in the annotated map that comes with the receipt for an Uber trip. Uber tracks and records every nuance of each journey you take, in a life-logging way that is not compatible with privacy as we experience it in the West. But, in both PRC and USA, Chinese students and Chinese professors tell me that they accept Uber’s tracking and documenting as “a feature, not a flaw”.

Many thanks, Paul.

Zuckerberg blames contractors for failing to remove Kenosha militia’s ‘call to arms’

Guardian report.

Mark Zuckerberg blamed an “operational mistake” by contractors for Facebook’s failure to remove the “call to arms” of a Kenosha, Wisconsin, militia prior to the shooting Tuesday night that left two people dead and another injured.

The Kenosha Guard militia had established a Facebook page in June 2020 and this week used a Facebook event page to invite “any patriots willing to take up arms and defend out sic City tonight from the evil thugs”, referencing those protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Facebook has admitted that both the page and the event should have been banned under the company’s new policy addressing groups linked to violence, such as militias. The company nevertheless failed to remove the page or event despite multiple users who reported the content to Facebook, the Verge reported.

“It was largely an operational mistake,” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, said in remarks during a weekly meeting with staff. Facebook has a specially trained team dedicated to enforcing its ban on “dangerous organizations”, Zuckerberg said. “The contractors and the reviewers who the initial complaints were were funneled to … basically didn’t pick this up.” Once reports were sent to the specialized team – after the fatal shooting – both the page and the event were removed.

Why do we tolerate this company?

The Conscience of Silicon Valley

An interview with Jaron Lanier.


He returned to thinking about my attempt at a summary of his life’s work. He said he thought I wasn’t wrong but it was important that people not get the impression that he was trying to tell them how to live. “I love the foundational papers of the United States, where they’ll talk about, you know, the pursuit of happiness,” he said. “Like, you don’t define what happiness is, and you don’t define it as something that will be achieved. It’s the pursuit. You leave space for future people to find it themselves. And so, I think the number one priority is to not create perverse incentives that ruin quests for meaning or for happiness or for decency or betterment.”

Perverse incentives are what Lanier has spent his life railing against—the way that tech is co-opted and digital spaces colonized for the profit of people (or, perhaps eventually, robots) who do not care about your happiness.

“So,” he said, sighing. “My project is in a way more modest than you’re making it out to be. It’s more…it’s more to not fuck the future over, you know?”

Lanier is a truly good person in an almost unworldly sense. I once went to interview him at his hotel in London when he was on a book tour. He had done three interviews with various journalists that morning before it was my turn. We had an intense conversation for about twenty minutes about issues raised in the book that had intrigued or puzzled me. Then he suddenly went quiet. “What’s up?” I asked him, anxiously. Had I said something to annoy or hurt him? “I’m just thinking”, he said, “that you’re the only person I’ve talked to who has actually read my book”.

I had my Leica with me and asked him at the end if I could take a photo (above). Years later I had an email from him saying that he urgently needed a pic for some gig he was doing and could he use it. Which of course he could.

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Friday 28 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

  • Aldous Huxley, 1927.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Haydn – Trumpet Concerto in E-flat major (9’45”)


Stamps to mark 25th anniversary of Father Ted sitcom

I could never understand why so many people — including my kids and their mother and many members of my extended family — loved the Father Ted sitcom. Given that they are all Irish I could hadly acuse them of enjoying racist trash. So I just had to grin and bear it.

And now, look what’s happened!

A quarter of a century after it first aired, Father Ted, one of television’s most loved sitcoms, has officially stamped itself on popular culture.

Ireland’s post service, An Post, issued a set of stamps on Thursday to celebrate its characters and one-liners and to mark the show’s 25th anniversary.

Phrases forever associated with Craggy Island, the fictional home of three wayward priests and their housekeeper, now adorn four stamps.

Guardian story.

People Drawn to Conspiracy Theories Share a Cluster of Psychological Features

Useful Scientific American article on the experience of the cognitive Stephan Lewandowsky when he did research on why people believe conspiracy theories.

About six years ago the cognitive scientist had thrown himself into a study of why some people refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence that the planet is warming and humans are responsible. As he delved into this climate change denialism, Lewandowsky, then at the University of Western Australia, discovered that many of the naysayers also believed in outlandish plots, such as the idea that the Apollo moon landing was a hoax created by the American government. “A lot of the discourse these people were engaging in on the Internet was totally conspiratorial,” he recalls.

Lewandowsky’s findings, published in 2013 in Psychological Science, brought these conspiracy theorists out of the woodwork. Offended by his claims, they criticized his integrity online and demanded that he be fired. (He was not, although he has since moved to the University of Bristol in England.) But as Lewandowsky waded through one irate post after another, he discovered that his critics—in response to his assertions about their conspiratorial tendencies—were actually spreading new conspiracy theories about him. These people accused him and his colleagues of faking survey responses and of conducting the research without ethical approval. When his personal Web site crashed, one blogger accused him of intentionally blocking critics from seeing it. None of it was true.

The irony was amusing at first, but the ranting even included a death threat, and calls and e-mails to his university became so vicious that the administrative staff who fielded them asked their managers for help. That was when Lewandowsky changed his assessment. “I quickly realized that there was nothing funny about these guys at all,” he says.

Of course all lives matter, but that’s not the point

Memorable post by Dave Winer:

If when someone says Black Lives Matter you quickly respond with All Lives Matter then I have a few things I want to say to you.

At least pause for a moment before replying and ask yourself why this person is saying Black Lives Matter. Of course they know and agree that all lives matter. But that isn’t what they’re saying. They’re saying that Black Lives Matter not because they’re more important than white lives or cop lives, which seems to be how you’re interpreting it, but because a lot of black people are being killed and the justice system does not seem to care.

I think we all know that if Trayvon Martin, for example, had been a white teen, and George Zimmerman had been a black adult man, the outcome would have been different. But because he was black, and black lives don’t matter, Martin is dead and Zimmerman is free.

There have been a seemingly endless series of graphic stories, many of them on video, of white police killing black people, and getting off. I suspect this has been going on all along, but now with the wide use of smartphones, we’re actually seeing it, visually, as we couldn’t have seen it before. Now it’s not their word against a cop’s. The video provides testimony that is impossible to refute.

If you were black, and you saw this happening, you might be inspired to do more than say something like Black Lives Matter. Your rage and fear might overwhelm you. So the first thing I would say to a black person who said Black Lives Matter is thank you for containing the rage you must feel, that I would feel if I were in your shoes, that I feel in a small way on your behalf, at the cruelty and callousness of our system and culture. Then I’d ask if there was anything I could do to help.

The User Always Loses: How did the Internet get so bad?

Lisa Borst’s perceptive review in The Nation of Joanne McNeil’s new book, Lurking: How a Person Became a User, “a conversational and idiosyncratic account of the past 30 years of online life that reminds us that the Internet didn’t have to become what it is today”.

Long read of the Day.

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Thursday 20 August, 2020

Made my day this morning!

Quote of the Day

“Dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true”.

  • Samuel Johnson

Musical alternative to this morning’s radio news

Glen Campbell playing the William Tell Overture


And if this doesn’t leave you gibbering, then I don’t know what will.

How a brand of chalk achieved cult status among mathematicians

Improbable but lovely story — with a happy ending… Who knew that mathematicians take chalk so seriously?


Tony Connelly on Phil Hogan’s resignation from the European Commission

Connelly is Ireland’s most astute political commentator. This morning he was on song about the resignation of Ireland’s European Commissioner.

Phil Hogan’s resignation is a very dramatic development, marking a decisive moment in one of the most fractious periods in Irish politics.

It is almost unprecedented for a European Commissioner to resign. He has held one of the most important European portfolios at a time when international trade has been at the forefront of historic upheavals in global politics, from Brexit to trade wars with the United States and China, and even how the Covid-19 pandemic could change the way trade operates.

But it was that very pandemic which caused his downfall. His defensive, then fragmented response to the Clifden golf dinner raised the hackles of many Irish people angered at what were seen as double standards, and dismayed the coalition government, which feared that the critical message on curtailing infections was being drowned out by the crescendo of public anger over the controversy.

Phil Hogan did apologise, at times profusely, first in a statement, and then during an RTÉ News interview. But his position was damaged further by his defence that a negative Covid-19 test absolved him of the 14-day period of restricted movements. Official statements suggested otherwise.

Despite a passionate appeal for forgiveness and to be able continue his work as trade commissioner, the Government still could not express full confidence in him, and this put Dublin on a potential collision course with the European Commission.

That collision has been averted. Phil Hogan has chosen to resign himself.

(Readers puzzled by the “golf dinner” business may find this report helpful.)

The stock market is crazily out of sync with the real world.

From Quartz this morning…

Should we be worried about a stock bubble? It seems odd to discuss irrational exuberance when the economy is anything but exuberant, but these are unlikely times. To help answer this question, consider Boom and Bust: A Global History of Financial Bubbles, a new book by William Quinn and John Turner. Their research suggests there are three necessary ingredients for a financial firestorm: speculation, marketability (how easy it is to buy an asset—think innovation in stock trading apps, or the brainiacs who brought us mortgage-backed securities), and credit.

Quinn and Turner find that asset booms are happening more frequently, and that government policy—meant to make housing more affordable, or shed unsustainable debts, for example—is often the spark that lights the financial fire. If ultra-low interest rates and the boom in brokerage apps like Robinhood are any indications, a bubble in equities could be inflating as we speak.

Is there a pattern here? For example, social media make it easy for anyone to say virtually anything online — and have it spread like wildfire. The result: a polluted public sphere which distorts perceptions of political and social reality. Apps like Robinhood make it possible for anyone to buy and sell shares instantly. The result: an asset bubble which is totally removed from economic reality.

Citizen Lab report on Chinese censorship of Covid news

The Citizen Lab of the University of Toronto carried out daily tests on WeChat censorship practices, collecting 2,174 censored keywords between January to May 2020. The data provide a window into censorship practices related to COVID 19 on WeChat, the preeminent chat application in China. The country’s censorship regime is highly distributed, organised through a process of “intermediary liability” in which the platforms themselves largely decide what content to censor and how to do so.

OnWeChat, censored keywords and images are removed from chats without any notice to the sender or receiver — making censorship decisions largely opaque. The Citizen Lab’s daily experiments involved automatically sending thousands of news articles between WeChat accounts controlled by the Lab and then observing which of those triggered censorship, thereby allowing researchers to observe exactly what content is being censored on a daily basis. After finding a news article that was censored, they then identified which combination of keywords may have triggered its censorship.


The first period (December 31, 2019 to March 2020) covered the emergence and spread of COVID-19 in China. Censored keywords focussed on:

  • early warning of the virus,
  • interactions between China and the WHO)
  • general health information
  • criticism of China’s response to COVID-19.

The second period (beginning in March 2020) covers the phase in which the virus becomes a pandemic and goes global. During this phase, the focus of censored content went beyond issues in China proper to cover:

  • international responses to COVID-19
  • international criticism of the Chinese government.

The third and final phase focused on the period in which the United States became the global epicentre of the pandemic. Censored content in this period included:

  • conspiracy theories,
  • U.S. criticism of China’s political system,
  • critical and neutral references to China-US relations, and
  • U.S. domestic politics.


Great research. Reminds me of the work that Gary King and his colleagues at Harvard have done on examining how the Chinese censorship system works in practice.

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Wednesday 26 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

“In the short-run, the stock market is a voting machine; in the long-run, it’s a weighing machine.”

  • Warren Buffett, whose 250 million Apple shares currently weigh about $118B.

(A single Apple share purchased at the 1980 IPO price – $22 – would be worth $27,859 today.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bach: Cello Suite No 1 in D played on the guitar by John Feeley (19 minutes)


What is it about Uber and Chinese students?

A friend who lives in Cambridge and uses Uber reports a common theme in his current conversations with drivers. When he asks them the standard “how’s business?” question the common refrain is “terrible”. And the reason? There are no Chinese students around at the moment. It seems that they are the biggest users of the service when they’re in residence. They even use Uber to take them to lectures (this in a town where everything is within easy walking distance.)

Why is this, I wonder? Could it be that they have more money than sense? Or that they don’t like walking or cycling? Or that they feel vulnerable on the street? Weird.

Fixing capitalism

Quartz has a series of articles on this general theme. It’s a mixed bag, but some of them — for example the one about regulating Amazon like a railroad — is interesting.

e-Scooters: drowning not waving

Sifted story

Hundreds of e-scooters are picked up from waters around European cities every year. In Stockholm, the lake cleaning organisation Rena Mälaren has picked up 355 in total in the last couple of years. In Paris another organisation, Guppy, has picked up 235 over seven excursions.

Each e-scooter is worth a few hundred euros and the newer models have a predicted lifespan of three to five years. Apart from lost earnings, every time one is lobbed into a canal or river it also damages the scooter operator’s relationship with the local authorities.

But one scooter startup has come up with a new plan to tackle the problem: a drowning button.

Voi, the Stockholm-based scooter operator, is in the process of unveiling a new scooter with features such as indicators. It is also likely to have a feature which is the scooter equivalent of an SOS signal.

“That is the plan. We just have to work out the functionality,” says Kristina Hunter Nilsson, communication manager at Voi. She hopes the feature could also be retrofitted to Voi’s older scooters too. “Some of these things are software-driven which means that we can add it to the older models as well. And it is in everyone’s interest that we have that.

When an electric scooter ends up in the water it loses its connectivity and is therefore difficult to find. The drowning feature will alert Voi when a scooter ends up underwater and the hope is that, in many cases, it can then be rescued before too much damage has been done.

But exactly how long a scooter survives underwater is something that Hunter Nilsson cannot say for sure. “That really depends on a lot of things and I wouldn’t want to give you an exact number of days,” she says.

What have these people been smoking?

The US is facing the possibility of an illegitimate election

David Litt (author of Democracy In One Book Or Less) writing in The Atlantic:

“A sitting president trying to undermine the postal service so he might win an election is not something that happens in rich, developed democracies,” says University College London’s Brian Klaas, the co-author of How to Rig an Election. “It’s the kind of thing that happens in post-Soviet countries, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East.” In the language of political science, President Donald Trump is hoping to take America from “self-enforcing democracy”—a system of government in which leaders allow fair elections and accept the results—to “competitive authoritarianism,” in which rulers allow elections, but those elections are neither fair nor free.

The good news, or at least the 2020 version of good news, is that Americans can protect the integrity of their elections without appealing to the better angels of Trump’s nature. Would-be autocrats are unlikely to be persuaded, but they can be deterred. By making it far less likely that stealing an election would work—and far more likely that those who try to would face consequences for their actions—the United States can preserve democracy this year and beyond.

Defending American democracy starts with taking advantage of one of its greatest existing strengths: its decentralized nature. Each state, territory, and district administers its own local contests with near-total independence. The federal government sets certain rules for federal elections; that authority falls to Congress, not the White House. This makes it hard for the president to undermine an election’s integrity, and easier for local officials to uphold it. Already, some states are adding secure drop boxes for ballots, recruiting additional election staff, and finding room in their budgets to ensure that the casting and collection of ballots runs as smoothly as possible during the pandemic. The less chaos that takes place on November 3, the fewer excuses the president will have to interfere with vote counting.

Even in places—including some swing states—where officials are all too happy to help the president undermine the democratic process, individual Americans can do a great deal to protect the integrity of the election…

The most astonishing thing is that such a piece doesn’t seem outrageous in a serious magazine nowadays. It’s a measure of how serious the risks to democracy even in mature states are becoming.

Stefan Collini on the enigma of Frank Kermode

Lovely essay by Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books on a critic we were both fortunate enough to have known. Sample:

So when and how, I wondered, not for the first time, did the ‘Frank Kermode’ we admired come into being, il capo di tutti capi in the world of reviewing and criticism for more than half a century? During another of my trudges along the forgotten caravan routes of criticism (now undertaken electronically, thanks to lockdown), I chanced upon, in the online archive of the Listener, a review by John Gross of Frank’s Puzzles and Epiphanies: Essays and Reviews 1958-61, published in 1962. The very existence of such a collection of reviews – and the brazen proclamation of its origin in such a brief period – itself suggested the dramatic transformation which must have overtaken Frank’s career by this point. Gross, then a 27-year-old up-and-coming reviewer-academic who was later to write The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters and to become editor of the Times Literary Supplement, had evidently been attending to Frank’s presence on the literary scene for some time. He noted that the contents of the book were all products of a three-year period, and then went on: ‘Reading them as they appeared, one became aware of Professor Kermode as the most interesting reviewer to emerge for a long time.’ The reviews had been published in a variety of periodicals, including the Listener, Partisan Review and the London Magazine, but the majority were from either the Spectator or Encounter. So when had all that started to happen, when did the smart London weeklies and monthlies begin to commission reviews from the little-known young lecturer who, recruited by Gordon, had moved to the University of Reading in 1949?

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Tuesday 25 August, 2020

When Britain was a world power

Inside page of a British passport in the late 1940s.

It reads:

We, Ernest Bevin, a Member of His Britannic Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council, a Member of Parliament, etc.etc. His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Request and require in the name of His Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford her every assistance and protection of which she may stand in need.

Those were the days. I wonder what the Brexit version says.

Quote of the Day

“An acre in Middlesex is better than a Principality in Utopia”.

  • Thomas Macaulay

(Especially now, given London property prices.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Grieg – Piano Concerto II. Adagio | Arthur Rubinstein (7 minutes)


Rubinstein in the finest white tie I’ve ever seen. Olympic-class sharp dressing. Conducted by a youthful Andre Previn.

US Air Force shows off latest all-electric flying car, says it ‘might seem straight out of a Hollywood movie’

Er, not if it’s an action movie.

From The Register

The US Air Force has revealed a prototype of a flying car, something the American military has desired for at least a decade.

The latest build is single-person aircraft – specifically, a version of the Lift Hexa copter, which uses 18 electric motors that allow it to take off and land vertically. The vehicle was put through its paces last Friday at the Texas State Guard’s Camp Mabry base.

The craft is part of a project the Air Force is running called Agility Prime, which has tapped up Lift and other manufacturers to develop single-person “flying car” aircraft for field tests within the next three years. Other prototypes will be showcased in the coming weeks.

Picking locks with audio technology

This is interesting or alarming, depending on your point of view. From an article by Paul Marks in the August 13 edition of Communications of the ACM:

The next time you unlock your front door, it might be worth trying to insert your key as quietly as possible; researchers have discovered that the sound of your key being inserted into the lock gives attackers all they need to make a working copy of your front door key.

It sounds unlikely, but security researchers say they have proven that the series of audible, metallic clicks made as a key penetrates a lock can now be deciphered by signal processing software to reveal the precise shape of the sequence of ridges on the key’s shaft. Knowing this (the actual cut of your key), a working copy of it can then be three-dimensionally (3D) printed.

This discovery of a major vulnerability in the physical keys that millions of us use to secure domestic and workplace doors and lockers was made by cyberphysical systems researcher Soundarya Ramesh and her team at the National University of Singapore.

What’s being attacked by the NUS team are the keys to pin-tumbler locks, best known as Yale or Schlage keys, though those are just the market leaders and a whole host of other firms make them, too. Inside such locks, six metal pins, affixed to springs, are pushed up to different heights by the ridged teeth on the key, or kept low by the voids between the ridges. When all six spring-loaded pins are pushed to the correct height by the right key, the tumbler containing them is freed to turn, allowing the lock to be opened. Such a lock typically has something of the order of 330,000 possible key shapes.

Of course, these locks can be picked by a skilled operator armed with the right tools. But if s/he wants to burgle the premises again, the same painstaking procedure needs to be repeated, with a corresponding risk of detection. The 3D printing approach enables the bad actor to acquire a duplicate which if good for multiple entries.

It’s a fascinating article IMO which covers the really tricky questions — for example, how one might obtain the audio recording needed to crack the profile of the key.

Summer books #13

The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth, Penguin Modern Classics.

Joseph Roth’s masterpiece about the Austro-Hungarian empire was published in 1932. Shortly after it came out he was forced into exile by the Third Reich, after which he lived mostly in Paris and drank himself to death. It was recommended it to me by Helen Thompson, and I owe her a debt of gratitude for that. It’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read. There’s a very good New Yorker essay about him and the way his work was rediscovered by post-war generations.

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Monday 24 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

The mystery which surrounds a thinking machine already surrounds a thinking man.”

  • B. F. Skinner

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Claudio Abaddo conducting the Berlin Phil. And I mean conducting.


“Years of photos” permanently wiped from iPhones, iPads by bad Lightroom app update

From The Register:

Adobe is offering its condolences to customers after an update to its Lightroom photo manager permanently deleted troves of snaps on people’s iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches.

First reported by PetaPixel, the data annihilation was triggered after punters this week fetched version 5.4 of the iOS software. Netizens complained that, following the release and installation of that build, their stored photos and paid-for presets vanished. Adobe acknowledged the issue though it didn’t have much to offer punters besides saying sorry.

Of course this is really just a (relatively rare) glitch in cloud storage. But I stick by my conviction that if you want your grandchildren to see your photos, print them off now on photographic paper (using a company like Photobox) and put them in shoeboxes (or, better still, Tupperware-type boxes) in the attic!

If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich? Turns out it’s just chance.

The most successful people are not the most talented, just the luckiest, a new computer model of wealth creation confirms. Taking that into account can maximize return on many kinds of investment.

MIT Tech Review has a good summary of a fascinating piece of agent-based simulation modelling.

The Abstract for the research report reads:

The largely dominant meritocratic paradigm of highly competitive Western cultures is rooted on the belief that success is due mainly, if not exclusively, to personal qualities such as talent, intelligence, skills, efforts or risk taking. Sometimes, we are willing to admit that a certain degree of luck could also play a role in achieving significant material success. But, as a matter of fact, it is rather common to underestimate the importance of external forces in individual successful stories. It is very well known that intelligence or talent exhibit a Gaussian distribution among the population, whereas the distribution of wealth – considered a proxy of success – follows typically a power law (Pareto law). Such a discrepancy between a Normal distribution of inputs, with a typical scale, and the scale invariant distribution of outputs, suggests that some hidden ingredient is at work behind the scenes. In this paper, with the help of a very simple agent-based model, we suggest that such an ingredient is just randomness. In particular, we show that, if it is true that some degree of talent is necessary to be successful in life, almost never the most talented people reach the highest peaks of success, being overtaken by mediocre but sensibly luckier individuals. As to our knowledge, this counterintuitive result – although implicitly suggested between the lines in a vast literature – is quantified here for the first time. It sheds new light on the effectiveness of assessing merit on the basis of the reached level of success and underlines the risks of distributing excessive honors or resources to people who, at the end of the day, could have been simply luckier than others. With the help of this model, several policy hypotheses are also addressed and compared to show the most efficient strategies for public funding of research in order to improve meritocracy, diversity and innovation.

New Yorker profile of Joe Biden

Long read of the day.

Marvellous piece by Evan Osnos, one of the best writers on the magazine. It’s realistic, serious, unsentimental. But also sympathetic. Here’s a sample:

Every day, Biden’s aides try to get him on the phone with a regular person. One afternoon in April, he was patched through to Mohammad Qazzaz, in Dearborn, Michigan. Three weeks earlier, Qazzaz, who runs a coffee-roasting business, had tested positive for covid-19. When Biden called, he was quarantined in his house, trying to protect his wife and two children.

Qazzaz, who recorded the call and played it for me, told Biden that his daughter, who is two, did not understand why he would not come out of his bedroom: “She keeps telling me, ‘Baba, open the door. Open the door.’ ” As he described his situation, his voice broke, and he tried to steady himself. “I’m sorry, Mr. Vice-President,” he said.

“Don’t be sorry,” Biden said. “I think your emotional state is totally justified. And, as my mom would say, you have to get it out.”

Biden told Qazzaz that he, too, once had children too small to understand a crisis unfolding around them. “Nothing is the same, but I have some sense of what you’re going through,” Biden said. He suggested that Qazzaz play a simple game with his daughter through the door, asking her to guess a number or a color. “Tell her stories about what it’s going to be like when Daddy gets better,” he said. They talked for a while about Qazzaz’s father, who emigrated from Jerusalem. “Look, you’re going to get through this,” Biden said. “We are the nation we are because we’re a nation of immigrants.” The call was supposed to last five minutes; they talked for twenty-two.

Listening to Qazzaz’s call was reminiscent of Roosevelt’s famous line: “The Presidency is not merely an administrative office. . . . It is preëminently a place of moral leadership.” Joe Biden’s life is replete with mistakes and regrets. And, if he comes to the Presidency, he is unlikely to supply much of the exalted rhetoric that reaches into a nation’s soul. But, for a people in mourning, he might offer something like solace, a language of healing.

This is the kind of piece that reminds me why I subscribe to the New Yorker.

How Zeynep Tufekci Keeps Getting the Big Things Right

Zeynep Tufecki has for years been one of the sharpest and most perceptive academic commentators on the tech industry. This NYT piece explains why.

In 2011, she went against the current to say the case for Twitter as a driver of broad social movements had been oversimplified. In 2012, she warned news media outlets that their coverage of school shootings could inspire more. In 2013, she argued that Facebook could fuel ethnic cleansing. In 2017, she warned that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm could be used as a tool of radicalization.

And when it came to the pandemic, she sounded the alarm early while also fighting to keep parks and beaches open.

“I’ve just been struck by how right she has been,” said Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School.

I was curious to know how Dr. Tufekci had gotten so many things right in a confusing time, so we spoke last week over FaceTime. She told me she chalks up her habits of mind in part to a childhood she wouldn’t wish on anyone…

Her book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest is terrific btw.

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Sunday 23 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

”To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night, Socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about.”

  • George Orwell

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Pete Seeger: Where have all the flowers gone?


It’s magical sometimes when — as happens here — an artist in a live concert embarks on a well-known and much-loved song and the audience joins in.

I’ve been to a few concerts where this happened. The most vivid memory I have is of a concert given by the Irish folk group Altan. They come from a small village in Co Donegal, but even after they became world-famous they used to come back home once a year to give a concert for the locals. I was lucky to go to one of these events on a glorious Summer evening in an hotel just outside the village of Glencolumbkille. The connection between the band and the audience was positively visceral. Everybody knew everybody else. Half-way through, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, the lead singer and co-founder of the group, embarked on Green Grow the Rushes-oh. Here’s a sample from a studio recording…


After a few bars, the next time she came to the chorus, Mairéad went quiet, and the audience, without missing a beat, kept it going, softly, with the odd bit of harmony. It was an electrifying moment that I will never forget.

Thanks to Janet Cobb for suggesting Pete Seeger.

All hail the California court that put the brakes on Uber and co

This morning’s Observer column:

Last Monday, the superior court of California handed down a landmark judgment that looks like taking the wind out of the sails of at least some parts of the “gig economy”. The case was brought by the attorney general of the state of California, together with the city attorneys of Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, on the basis that the ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft have “misclassified their drivers as independent contractors rather than employees” in violation of a Californian law that took effect in January. This statute is intended to ensure that all workers who meet its criteria receive the basic rights and protections guaranteed to employees under California law.

The companies opposed this idea, for the understandable (but of course unstated) reason that complying with the law would blow their business models to smithereens. In submissions concealed under three coats of prime legal verbiage, they sought to have the hearing delayed until after the November presidential election, complained that the attorneys general should not have lumped them together (they are, after all, commercial rivals) and that judgment should be deferred until all the other cases concerning them in the US and elsewhere should be decided. Guardian Today: the headlines, the analysis, the debate – sent direct to you Read more

Judge Ethan Schulman was not impressed by these arguments…

Read on

Reflections on the Democratic National Convention…

On Thursday I blogged about Obama’s speech, and on Friday I wrote about Kamala Harris. I think she was a shrewd choice of running-mate for lots of reasons, but her record of being close to the Silicon Valley crowd bothered me because I think it’s important that a Biden administration should tackle the problems for democracy posed by these unaccountable tech giants. On the other hand, as Obama warned, there is a bigger problem looming than tech monopoly — the future of democracy itself in the US, and that should, er, trump all other concerns just now. What matters most is that Trump should not get a second term.

Looking back on the week, and the convention, I’ve been reading lots of commentary. A few things stood out…

Russell Berman is right about Obama’s speech: he’s switched from hope to fear as the motivating factor:

As Obama railed against the “cynicism” that he said Trump was relying on to win, and then as he recalled the sacrifices of those who were spit on and beaten as they fought for the right to vote, he seemed almost on the verge of tears. It didn’t seem like an act. If the former president hadn’t previously seen the need to tear into Trump for the sake of the country, what are Democrats to make of the fact that now, apparently, he does? Obama, suddenly a gray-haired father figure to his party, no longer sounded merely disappointed—he seemed frightened.

Spot on. Obama was no longer in his customary ‘professorial’ mode: he sees a second Trump term as an existential threat to democracy in America. And he’s right.

And Dave Winer had this sobering reflection:

Racism and misogyny are on the ballot this year. Even white men can now feel the effects. I think that’s what the last twelve years in the US have been about. Here’s the story. George W. Bush was so awful, we needed an antidote, and we liked Obama. We liked how sassy he was, and smart, and how well he spoke, his confidence and ambition. The whole package. It was his moment. Trump is the reaction because there were a lot of Americans who felt tremendous fear and resentment in having a young sassy (they’d probably say uppity) black man as president, no matter that he brought the economy back from the wreck that the Repubs left us. Remember how they drove it into a ditch. #

So in 2016 it was Trump vs HRC. But before that it was Sanders vs HRC. That’s where I, a white man, learned how men keep women down. In the debates I was so angry that Sanders interrupted and screamed over HRC, his arms waved into her space. She had to take it. Could she respond in kind? No way. Not sure what the women’s equivalent of uppity is, but it’s a real thing. And because she was my candidate, I felt it, felt it in a way I had never felt it before. I was enraged by it. But it seems most people couldn’t even see it. #

The people who hated that a black man was president sure as hell weren’t going to follow him with a woman president. No matter that she’s smart as a whip, would have been a great president, and look who she was running against. What a slap in the face for women as equals — that so many people chose a huckster, buffoon, Putin surrogate, man-child, tax evader, draft dodger, rich kid, criminal, instead of HRC. It really says something.#

This morning while getting ready to write it hit me. The last four years have been a symbolic lynching of Barack Obama. Anyone who still approves of Trump, if they have a mind, must be driven by rage, the kind of rage that results in a young confident black man being strung up on a tree. They’re willing to let a virus decimate the country in order to express their rage. Anyone who votes for Trump this time, imho, should lose the right to call themselves an American.

In today’s Observer, Edward Helmore spotted something really interesting in Biden’s speech — his adoption of a few lines from Seamus Heaney, specifically from The Cure at Troy, Seamus Heaney’s free translation of Sophocles’s Philoctetes.

History says,
Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

Helmore’s piece consulted Roy Foster, who is currently writing a book about Heaney (and who has written a magisterial two-volume biography of W.B. Yeats).

“Biden apparently is a reader of poetry, and read Yeats and Heaney to improve his stutter,” Foster said. “He has spoken about his admiration for Irish poetry. So he was coming from a background of literacy. Coming up against a functionally illiterate president, it is quite a contrast.”

Sophocles’ play, first performed in 409BC, is about how a bitter division was overcome between the archer Philoctetes, left on Lemnos with a festering wound – a snake bite – and Odysseus, who needed his help in the Trojan War. Heaney’s 1991 translation speaks directly to Northern Ireland – his birthplace – and its conflicts.

“Heaney altered the weight of the play to place great emphasis on Neoptolemus, the go-between figure, an honourable, decent man, so the play is in many ways about negotiation,” Foster said. The former senator has quoted it at least five times before, including at the tail end of his nomination campaign, when he again turned to Heaney’s “longed-for tidal wave of justice”.

Biden was deliberately using it as a reconciliatory metaphor, Foster said, adding: “America is an immensely divided society at the moment. So for him to use it as what – for some Americans – will be an arcane poetic tag is an interesting, highly literate and culturally ambitious approach. It was unexpected from him.”

One interesting thing is that Trump seemed unable to respond to this literary reference. Presumably he has no idea who Heaney was, never mind Sophocles.

Summer books #12

Humankind: a Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman,

If ever there were a book for the pandemic, then this is it. The paradox it addresses is how a pervasive conviction that people are intrinsically selfish, vindictive and untrustworthy can be squared with the fact that in most situations of crisis humans behave sensibly, cooperatively and often generously. Why is it that we assume that William Golding’s Lord of the Flies provides a perceptive and accurate insight into human nature, when the evidence — even in a real-life case of schoolboys marooned on a desert island — says exactly the opposite? This is the “veneer theory” of human nature: the view that civilised behaviour is just a thin veneer which when shattered by events reveals a dark underside. Rutger argues that this cognitive dissonance can be — and often is — viciously circular. If we expect people to be evil, then we will treat them accordingly, and things spiral downwards from there.

I’m only part-way through the book, but am finding it immensely readable and stimulating. The work it most reminds me of is Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, which similarly challenged another pervasive (and erroneous) conviction. My personal experience of local responses to the Coronovirus pandemic has corroborated Rutger’s argument. Most people I know have behaved calmly, generously and supportively. Sure, there have been incidents of panic-buying (remember the toilet-paper shortage), irresponsible partying, etc. But on the whole the crisis seems to confirm an optimistic view of human nature.

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Saturday 22 August, 2020

Vanishing point

On our cycle today.

Quote of the Day

”Do not do unto others as you would they should do to you. Their tastes may not be the same.”

  • George Bernard Shaw.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler: Romeo And Juliet (9 minutes)


Content moderation, AI, and the question of scale

Really thoughtful academic article by Tarleton Gillespie — who a while book wrote a very good book — Custodians of the Internet: Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions That Shape Social Media — on content moderation.


AI seems like the perfect response to the growing challenges of content moderation on social media platforms: the immense scale of the data, the relentlessness of the violations, and the need for human judgments without wanting humans to have to make them. The push toward automated content moderation is often justified as a necessary response to the scale: the enormity of social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube stands as the reason why AI approaches are desirable, even inevitable. But even if we could effectively automate content moderation, it is not clear that we should.

Note that last sentence.

Worth reading in full.

Looting, American-style

Yves Smith has a withering post on the Naked Capitalism blog triggered by a report in the *Financial Times describing how CEOs who ran their (US) companies into the ground are nevertheless eing brewarded with “retention bonus” payouts shortly before the business declare bankruptcy, often mere days ahead. “The absurd rationale”, says Smith

is that it is necessary to keep a failed CEO on in order to reduce disruption. It appears instead that boards would rather pay a rich and unwarranted premium to keep a bad known quantity around, perhaps due to personal allegiances to the incumbent or because they might actually have to rouse themselves to oust the dud leader and select a replacement.

Some of these payments he goes on to say, “are flat out looting”. For example:

Brad Holly, Whiting’s chief executive who joined the company in November 2017, received $6.4m at the end of March under a new compensation plan approved by the board of directors, which he also chairs, less than a week before the company filed for bankruptcy. Whiting, which expects to emerge from Chapter 11 next month, said last week that Mr Holly would step down as chief executive when that happens and would receive an additional $2.53m in severance.

In total, Whiting paid out more than $14m to executives just a few days before declaring itself bust. In a regulatory filing on April 1 the company said its pay plan was designed “to align the interests of the Company and its employees”. Whiting did not respond to a request for comment.

$6.4 million for Holly for at most five months of babysitting bankruptcy lawyers? Seriously? Another example:

Meanwhile, at another insolvent company, Briggs & Stratton, its board

approved more than $5m in retention payments on June 11, including more than $1m to chief executive Todd Teske, who has led the company for a decade. Four days later the company failed to make a $6.7m interest payment on a bond due later this year, and on July 20 it filed for bankruptcy. On July 19, the company’s board voted to terminate the health and life insurance benefits of the company’s retirees…

It’s outrageous — like share buy-backs and the antics of private equity — but it’s all allowed under the warped kind of capitalism we’ve been building (and tolerating) since the 1970s.

Facebook Braces Itself for Trump to Cast Doubt on Election Results

Zuckerberg & Co are — according to the New York Times — working out what steps to take should Trump use its platform to dispute the vote.

Well, well. Could this be the moment that reality dawns on these genuises?

Employees at the Silicon Valley company are laying out contingency plans and walking through postelection scenarios that include attempts by Mr. Trump or his campaign to use the platform to delegitimize the results, people with knowledge of Facebook’s plans said.

Facebook is preparing steps to take should Mr. Trump wrongly claim on the site that he won another four-year term, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Facebook is also working through how it might act if Mr. Trump tries to invalidate the results by declaring that the Postal Service lost mail-in ballots or that other groups meddled with the vote, the people said.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and some of his lieutenants have started holding daily meetings about minimizing how the platform can be used to dispute the election, the people said. They have discussed a “kill switch” to shut off political advertising after Election Day since the ads, which Facebook does not police for truthfulness, could be used to spread misinformation, the people said.

The preparations underscore how rising concerns over the integrity of the November election have reached social media companies, whose sites can be used to amplify lies, conspiracy theories and inflammatory messages. YouTube and Twitter have also discussed plans for action if the postelection period becomes complicated, according to disinformation and political researchers who have advised the firms.

No point in staying up on the evening of November 3rd. This one might run and run.


There’s a strange entry in the catalogue for a forthcoming book by a distinguished Harvard astronomer, Avi Loeb. Here’s the blurb:

Harvard’s top astronomer lays out his controversial theory that our solar system was recently visited by advanced alien technology from a distant star. In late 2017, scientists at a Hawaiian observatory glimpsed an object soaring through our inner solar system, moving so quickly that it could only have come from another star. Avi Loeb, Harvard’s top astronomer, showed it was not an asteroid; it was moving too fast along a strange orbit, and left no trail of gas or debris in its wake. There was only one conceivable explanation: the object was a piece of advanced technology created by a distant alien civilization. In Extraterrestrial, Loeb takes readers inside the thrilling story of the first interstellar visitor to be spotted in our solar system. He outlines his controversial theory and its profound implications: for science, for religion, and for the future of our species and our planet. A mind-bending journey through the furthest reaches of science, space-time, and the human imagination, Extraterrestrial challenges readers to aim for the stars—and to think critically about what’s out there, no matter how strange it seems.

It might just have been a rogue Tesla roadster.

Summer books #11

The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media by Nathan Jurgenson, Verso, 2019.

A slim and interesting book (at least if, like me, you are a photographer). Its core argument is that to understand the world of the selfie, Instagram and today’s “pics or it didn’t happen” mindset the place to start is the way way photography was regarded after it first emerged in the 19th century. After all, Emile Zola wrote in 1901, “In my view, you cannot claim to have really claim to have seen something until you have photographed it”. Jurgensen has been described as “the Susan Sontag of the selfie generation”. I think that was meant as a compliment.

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