Wednesday 30 September, 2020

New England in the Fall

Jason Kottke, the Über Blogger lives in Vermont. He posted this astonishing image on his blog the other day. It makes one realise that the English Autumn, though beautiful in its way, is pretty muted by comparison.

Quote of the Day

“It seems to people who are on lockdown that it’s going on interminably, but for scientists it’s just the beginning. We are still just scratching the surface of this.”

  • Dr. Martha Nelson, a scientist at the US National Institutes of Health who specializes in epidemics and viral genetics, quoted in today’s New York Times piece marking the sombre milestone of a million Covid deaths worldwide.

Yep: we’re in a marathon, not a sprint.

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Schubert – Impromptu #3: Vladimir Horowitz, live performance in Vienna, in 1987 (I think)


Audio quality is not great, but it’s a lovely performance. Amazing to see the way he seems almost to caress the keyboard with those long fingers of his.

How To Plan For The Post-Covid Future

Long read of the day

Tim O’Reilly is one of the smartest people I know. And this essay is worth your time IMHO:

The 20th century didn’t really begin in the year 1900, it began in 1914, when the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand triggered long-simmering international tensions and the world slid, seemingly inexorably, into a great world war, followed by a roaring return to seeming normality and then a crash into a decade-long worldwide depression and another catastrophic war. Empires were dissolved, an entire way of life swept away. A new, more prosperous world emerged only through the process of rebuilding a society that had been torn down to its foundations.

So too, when we look back, we will understand that the 21st century truly began this year, when the COVID19 pandemic took hold. We are entering the century of being blindsided by things that we have been warned about for decades but never took seriously enough to prepare for, the century of lurching from crisis to crisis until, at last, we shake ourselves from the illusion that our world will go back to the comfortable way it was and begin the process of rebuilding our society from the ground up.

Even when we develop a successful COVID19 vaccine or treatment, or when we achieve herd immunity, this will not be the last pandemic. Other long-predicted but “unexpected” crises lurk in the wings: flooding, drought, mass migrations, food shortages, and wars as a result of climate change; widespread antibiotic resistance due to overuse on factory farms; political instability driven by an unsustainable level of economic inequality; crumbling infrastructure and lack of investment in bettering the lives of ordinary citizens at the expense of a feverish Ponzi economy focused on growing asset values for the wealthy.

So, when you read stories—and there are many—speculating or predicting when and how we will return to “normal”, discount them heavily. The future will not be like the past. The comfortable Victorian and Georgian world complete with grand country houses, a globe-spanning British empire, and lords and commoners each knowing their place, was swept away by the events that began in the summer of 1914 (and that with Britain on the “winning” side of both world wars.) So too, our comfortable “American century” of conspicuous consumer consumption, global tourism, and ever-increasing stock and home prices may be gone forever.


Our failure to make deep, systemic changes after the financial collapse of 2009, and our choice instead to spend the last decade cutting taxes and spending profusely to prop up financial markets while ignoring deep, underlying problems has only made responding to the current crisis that much more difficult. Our failure to build back creatively and productively from the global financial crisis is necessary context for the challenge to do so now…

Thoughtful, far-reaching and not necessarily reassuring.

Former Facebook manager: “We took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook”

Well, well. For a long time I’ve been likening the surveillance capitalist companies to tobacco and oil companies. But I never thought I’d hear a former Facebook employee state that he once saw the analogy as a guide to policy. Yet here is Tim Kendall, who served as director of monetization for Facebook from 2006 through 2010, speaking to Congress on September 24 as part of a House Commerce subcommittee hearing examining how social media platforms contribute to the mainstreaming of extremist and radicalizing content.

He told legislators that the company “took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook, working to make our offering addictive at the outset” and arguing that his former employer has been hugely detrimental to society.

“The social media services that I and others have built over the past 15 years have served to tear people apart with alarming speed and intensity,” Kendall said in his opening testimony. “At the very least, we have eroded our collective understanding—at worst, I fear we are pushing ourselves to the brink of a civil war.”

“We sought to mine as much attention as humanly possible… We took a page form Big Tobacco’s playbook, working to make our offering addictive at the outset.”

Tobacco companies initially just sought to make nicotine more potent. But eventually that wasn’t enough to grow the business as fast as they wanted. And so they added sugar and menthol to cigarettes so you could hold the smoke in your lungs for longer periods. At Facebook, we added status updates, photo tagging, and likes, which made status and reputation primary and laid the groundwork for a teenage mental health crisis.

Allowing for misinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news to flourish were like Big Tobacco’s bronchodilators, which allowed the cigarette smoke to cover more surface area of the lungs. But that incendiary content alone wasn’t enough. To continue to grow the user base and in particular, the amount of time and attention users would surrender to Facebook, they needed more.

“We initially used engagement as sort of a proxy for user benefit. But we also started to realize that engagement could also mean [users] were sufficiently sucked in that they couldn’t work in their own best long-term interest to get off the platform… We started to see real-life consequences, but they weren’t given much weight. Engagement always won, it always trumped.”

“There’s no incentive to stop [toxic content] and there’s incredible incentive to keep going and get better. I just don’t believe that’s going to change unless there are financial, civil, or criminal penalties associated with the harm that they create. Without enforcement, they’re just going to continue to be embarrassed by the mistakes, and they’ll talk about empty platitudes… but I don’t believe anything systemic will change… the incentives to keep the status quo are just too lucrative at the moment.”


Florida Police Just Released Video of Brad Parscale Getting Tackled by Cops

Well, well. How are the mighty fallen.

Some background:

You may remember that Brad Parscale was the supposed genius behind the 2016 Trump campaign’s weaponisation of Facebook. This made him a kind of global political celebrity — worth even a big profile in the New Yorker, no less as “The man behind Trump’s Facebook juggernaut”. Come 2020 and Parscale was now the Director of the Trump campaign and an even more swaggering giant. He was the driving spirit behind the ludicrous Tulsa rally — the one that supposedly had 800,000 pre-registrations. Except, of course, that it didn’t. The Trump operation had been cleverly hijacked by kids on TikTok who made fake pre-bookings. So the rally was a fiasco, at which point I predicted that Parscale’s days as Director were numbered. It was an accurate prediction — he was replaced in July by Bill Stepien.

Now spool forward to the present. Here’s a report by Vice News from Fort Lauderdale in Florida, where Parscale reportedly owns three houses:

Police in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, just released a video of President Trump’s former campaign manager getting tackled by cops.

The body camera footage shows a police officer hurling Parscale to the ground during an incident at his home, shortly after they responded to a call for help from Parscale’s wife. She told police that Parscale had threatened to kill himself and had racked the slide of a handgun in front of her face, “putting her in fear for her safety,” according to a police report.

The video shows Parscale, wearing white shorts and no shirt, speaking with a police officer, and then another officer rapidly approaches Parscale from his right side, telling him, “Get on the ground, man.”

Parscale doesn’t visibly react to that command at first. The police officer then hurls him to the ground, while Parscale objects, saying “I didn’t do anything.”

One doesn’t want to intrude on private grief, but it looks as though Parscale has had some kind of breakdown. CBS reports that he “was taken to a mental health facility in Florida on Sunday night after barricading himself in his home with weapons and threatening to harm himself, police said. Parscale was detained without injury and transported to a local hospital.”

Nobody works for Trump without in the end being damaged by the experience.

How Much Has Inequality Cost Workers?

From a sobering piece in the Journal of Democracy, especially for those who are nostalgic for a return to our current version of capitalism-friendly democracy.

Even if Donald Trump loses the election, the conditions that made his authoritarian regime possible won’t disappear with him. If we are to heal our country and ensure against a repeat of the past four years, we need to boldly and aggressively scale our solutions to the size of the problem. And when it comes to our crisis of rising income inequality, the problem is huge.

How big is it? A staggering $50 trillion.

That’s how much the upward redistribution of income has cost American workers over the past several decades.

This is not some back-of-the-napkin approximation. According to a groundbreaking new working paper by Carter C. Price and Kathryn Edwards of the RAND Corporation, from 1947 through 1974, real incomes grew at close to the rate of per capita economic growth across all income levels. That means that for three decades, those at the bottom and middle of the distribution saw their incomes grow at about the same rate as those at the top. Had these more equitable income distributions merely held steady, the aggregate annual income of Americans earning below the 90th percentile would have been $2.5 trillion higher in the year 2018 alone. That is an amount equal to nearly 12 percent of GDP—enough to more than double median income, and enough to pay every single working American in the bottom nine deciles an additional $1,144 a month. Every worker. Every month. Every. Single. Year.

But the ‘normal’ that our governments wish us to return to is not the normality of 1947-1974, but the post 1974 one.

The RAND paper is here. The Abstract reads:

The three decades following the Second World War saw a period of economic growth that was shared across the income distribution, but inequality in taxable income has increased substantially over the last four decades. This work seeks to quantify the scale of income gap created by rising inequality compared to a counterfactual in which growth was shared more broadly. We introduce a time-period agnostic and income-level agnostic measure of inequality that relates income growth to economic growth. This new metric can be applied over long stretches of time, applied to subgroups of interest, and easily calculated. We document the cumulative effect of four decades of income growth below the growth of per capita gross national income and estimate that aggregate income for the population below the 90th percentile over this time period would have been $2.5 trillion (67 percent) higher in 2018 had income growth since 1975 remained as equitable as it was in the first two post-War decades. From 1975 to 2018, the difference between the aggregate taxable income for those below the 90th percentile and the equitable growth counterfactual totals $47 trillion. We further explore trends in inequality by applying this metric within and across business cycles from 1975 to 2018 and also by demographic group.

The extent of my ignorance

One of the first rules of blogging is always to assume that out there are people who know far more than you do. I’ve adhered to this since Day One (in the mid-1990s) and have never been disappointed. So when the other day I confessed that I hadn’t known that Trump owned a golf-course in Ireland, in no time at all readers wrote in suggesting gently that I really ought to know better. For example, Charles Foster wrote:

You didn’t know that Trump had a golf course in Ireland? Good Lord! It’s at Doonbeg, and has been owned by him for about six years:

The Irish government laid down a red carpet for him when he came to visit in 2015 just after buying it. He’s been here a couple of times (I think) since becoming President, the last time in 2019 when he used it as an overnight stop when he was in France commemorating the 75th anniversary of the D Day landings — this was the time when he didn’t go to the US war cemetery near Paris to pay his respects because it was raining.

To which I can only protest that I did know about Doonbeg, partly because a friend of mine who is a terrific golfer is a member there. But I had no idea that it was owned by Trump and is now — of course — badged under his accursed name!

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Tuesday 29 September, 2020

“Which bit of ‘No’ don’t you understand?

From the Comedy Wildlife photography awards

Quote of the Day

”God give me the strength to ignore the news that won’t change anyone’s mind, the energy to engage with the news that might, and the wisdom to know the difference.” * Elizabeth Ayer in a tweet.

Thanks to Quentin for spotting it.

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Regina Spektor – “Better”


One of my favourite songs.

Every picture tells a story

Jason Kottke (whom God preserve) had this striking photograph on his blog. It shows Thomas Jefferson and his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson, Shannon LaNier. It comes from an article in the Smithsonian Magazine about an intriguing project of the photographer Drew Gardner, in which he takes takes photographs of people done up to look like their famous ancestors.

The description of Jefferson’s portrait on the White House website says that it

was completed in Philadelphia before mid-May 1800 when he left that capital for Monticello. The face has the glow of health, a warm complexion. The sitter here looks directly at us and does so with candor, as our equal. The splendid eyes and mouth convey reason and tolerance.

You can guess by now that there’s a ‘but’ coming…

At odds with that glowing description, writes Jason,

“is Shannon LaNier’s very existence; he’s here today because Thomas Jefferson raped his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Sally Hemings. Says LaNier of Jefferson: He was a brilliant man who preached equality, but he didn’t practice it. He owned people. And now I’m here because of it.”

There’s an interesting video on the Smithsonian site about how the portrait was made and LaNier’s thoughts about it.

Someone once told me a story about JFK’s White House dinner for all living American Nobel laureates. Standing on the balcony after the meal a member of the Cabinet observed that there was more collective IQ in the Executive Mansion that night than at any time in history. “Yes”, Kennedy is supposed to have said, “except when Thomas Jefferson dined alone”. I don’t know if the story is true: if it is, I guess it was intended to burnish JFK’s ‘Camelot’ image as a man of culture.

It might have succeeded then, but it certainly wouldn’t now.

Trump’s tax returns (contd.)

From Quartz this morning:

In the mid-2000s, Donald Trump was drowning financially. That’s when NBC and The Apprentice threw him a life raft. According to a New York Times report on the US president’s taxes, Trump made $427 million off his 50% stake in the show and its subsequent licensing deals. Here’s a brief timeline of how the highly-rated program saved his finances:

2004: The Apprentice debuts on NBC.

2004–2015: Trump dumps proceeds from the show into purchasing 13 golf courses.

June 2015: Trump is fired from The Apprentice over racist comments made while announcing his presidential run.

September 2015: Arnold Schwarzenneger is announced as Trump’s replacement on The New Celebrity Apprentice.

November 2016: Trump wins the electoral college vote and becomes president-elect.

January 2017: The New Celebrity Apprentice debuts on NBC with Trump as executive producer.

August 2017: The show is canceled after one season.

2018: Trump pays just $750 of federal income tax for the prior year.

In praise of uncommon readers

I admire people who read both widely and well. My colleague Diane Coyle is one. So is Tyler Cowen. And so is Venkatash Rao. Last week I came on his notes on reading Kenneth Brower’s The Starship and the Canoe, a compelling and unusual biography of a famous father (Freeman Dyson) and his son (George Dyson). This came as a shock because although I’ve read all of George’s books and lots of Freeman’s articles and essays, I hadn’t known about Brower’s book. You can guess the rest — it’s now on order!

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Monday 28 September, 2020

Poppy harvest?

We spotted this field almost overgrown with poppies on our way through Norfolk. It was startling enough to brake hard, stop and photograph.

Quote of the Day

”The delicate operation of separating an American from the four-wheel part of him has to be performed with tact.”

  • Architect Philip Johnson in his essay “The Town and the Automobile or the Pride of Elm Street”, 1955

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major BWV 1049 – Sato | Netherlands Bach Society


The nub of Trump’s tax returns

Marvellous scoop by the New York Times and a very long read.

Here’s what I think is the gist:

Mr. Trump’s net income from his fame — his 50 percent share of “The Apprentice,” together with the riches showered upon him by the scores of suitors paying to use his name — totaled $427.4 million through 2018. A further $176.5 million in profit came to him through his investment in two highly successful office buildings.

So how did he escape nearly all taxes on that fortune? Even the effective tax rate paid by the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans could have caused him to pay more than $100 million.

The answer rests in a third category of Mr. Trump’s endeavors: businesses that he owns and runs himself. The collective and persistent losses he reported from them largely absolved him from paying federal income taxes on the $600 million from “The Apprentice,” branding deals and investments.

That equation is a key element of the alchemy of Mr. Trump’s finances: using the proceeds of his celebrity to purchase and prop up risky businesses, then wielding their losses to avoid taxes.

Throughout his career, Mr. Trump’s business losses have often accumulated in sums larger than could be used to reduce taxes on other income in a single year. But the tax code offers a workaround: With some restrictions, business owners can carry forward leftover losses to reduce taxes in future years.

That provision has been the background music to Mr. Trump’s life. As The Times’s previous reporting on his 1995 return showed, the nearly $1 billion in losses from his early-1990s collapse generated a tax deduction that he could use for up to 18 years going forward.

The newer tax returns show that Mr. Trump burned through the last of the tax-reducing power of that $1 billion in 2005, just as a torrent of entertainment riches began coming his way following the debut of “The Apprentice” the year before.

For 2005 through 2007, cash from licensing deals and endorsements filled Mr. Trump’s bank accounts with $120 million in pure profit. With no prior-year losses left to reduce his taxable income, he paid substantial federal income taxes for the first time in his life: a total of $70.1 million.

As his celebrity income swelled, Mr. Trump went on a buying spree unlike any he had had since the 1980s, when eager banks and his father’s wealth allowed him to buy or build the casinos, airplanes, yacht and old hotel that would soon lay him low.

When “The Apprentice” premiered, Mr. Trump had opened only two golf courses and was renovating two more. By the end of 2015, he had 15 courses and was transforming the Old Post Office building in Washington into a Trump International Hotel. But rather than making him wealthier, the tax records reveal as never before, each new acquisition only fed the downward draft on his bottom line.

Interesting. I didn’t know he had a golf course in Ireland. I wonder if any of my golfing friends know that.

And here’s Politico’s succinct summary:

TOP LINE 1: Trump paid $750 in income tax the year he won the presidency. He paid another $750 in his first year in the White House.

TOP LINE 2: In 10 of the previous 15 years, he paid no income tax at all.

TOP LINE 3: He did this despite raking in hundreds of millions of dollars a year, the NYT reports, by racking up huge losses to avoid tax. His top businesses lost millions per year — he blew $70,000 on “hairstyling” alone.

TOP LINE 4: Trump faces an audit over a $73 million tax refund he received after declaring massive losses — an adverse ruling could cost him over $100 million.

TOP LINE 5: Within the next four years, Trump faces more than $300 million worth of loans coming due.

The Times summarises it all as: “Ultimately, Mr. Trump has been more successful playing a business mogul than being one in real life.”

My summary: And this is news?

Also: It goes without saying that Trump is a fraud and a moral cretin. And I’m sure the engineered bankruptcy of many of his businesses destroyed many lives. But actually he was mostly doing what many unscrupulous accountants would have advised him to do — to exploit the bankruptcy laws and the fact that it can make sense to accumulate losses to be set against tax in future years.

Before we let our moral indignation carry us away, though, there is the awkward fact that we routinely tolerate even more unscrupulous abuses. Think, for example, of the private equity racket, which has been used in the UK and elsewhere to destroy perfectly good businesses by buying them cheap, loading them with debt, stripping their assets and then letting them rot. It’s happening now to some venerable High Street businesses. And the people who are doing it are, among other things, prized donors to a certain political party.

Meanwhile in Covid-land…

If I were a betting man I’d be looking for odds on the prospect that Boris Johnson will not be Prime Minister for much longer. If the Tories are good at one thing, it’s the ruthless disposal of leaders who look like endangering their hold on power. They did it to Macmillan in the 1960s and even to Thatcher at the height of her pomp. And of course to Head Girl Theresa May in recent memory. All of the indications now are that Johnson’s backbenchers are increasingly posed-off with the chaos at the top and its accompanying authoritarian tone. Politico today quotes a text from an unnamed Conservative backbencher saying

“Which clown-faced moron thought it would be a good idea to kick thousands of pissed people out from the pubs into the street and onto the tube at the same time? It’s like some sort of sick experiment to see if you can incubate a second wave.”

Shrewd punters will now be keeping an eye on Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove with Sajid Javid as a 100 to 1 outsider.

What’s really bugging the backbenchers is the increasingly authoritarian tone of Johnson’s “diktats” about local lockdowns etc — all issued without any consultation with Parliament. That’s because in fact the author of these decrees is Dominic Cummings, who has no time at all for parliament, or indeed for any democratic process other than elections.

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Sunday 27 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

”I often think how much easier the world would have been to manage if Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini had been at Oxford.”

  • Lord Halifax, Neville Chamberlain’s Foreign Secretary.

Er, note that he said Oxford, not Cambridge.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Haydn String Quartet No. 62, Op. 76 No. 3 “Emperor” (2nd mov) Veridis Quartet (Live performance)


Can democracies stand up to Facebook? Ireland may have the answer

This morning’s Observer column:

Last month, the Irish data protection commissioner (DPC) sent Facebook a preliminary order ordering it to stop sending the data of its European users to the US. This was a big deal, because in order to comply with the ruling, Facebook would have to embark on a comprehensive re-engineering of its European operations, or to shut down those operations entirely, at least for a time.

Such a shutdown would of course be traumatic for the poor souls who are addicted to Facebook and Instagram, but it would be even worse for the company – for two reasons. The first is that it makes more money from European users’ data – an average of $13.21 (£10.19) per user in 2019 – than from any other territory except the US (where it earns $41.41 per user); the second is that failure to comply could land it with a fine of up to 4% of its global revenue, which in Facebook’s case would come to about $3bn. Given the scale of its revenues, that’s not a showstopper, but it would nevertheless be annoying.

Predictably, the company was furious, threatening, as one commentator put it, “to pack up its toys and go home if European regulators don’t back down and let the social network get its own way”…

Read on

How to debate against a liar

The first Presidential debate is coming up on Tuesday.

Richard A. Friedman is a professor of clinical psychiatry. He has [some advice] ( for Joe Biden on how to handle Trump.

When Joe Biden debates President Trump on Tuesday, he will have to figure out how to parry with an opponent who habitually lies and doesn’t play by the rules.

As a psychiatrist, I’d like to offer Mr. Biden some advice: Don’t waste your time fact-checking the president. If you attempt to counter every falsehood or distortion that Mr. Trump serves up, you will cede control of the debate. And, by trying to correct him, you will paradoxically strengthen the misinformation rather than undermine it. (Research shows that trying to correct a falsehood with truth can backfire by reinforcing the original lie. )

Instead, Biden should use more powerful weapons that will put Trump on the defensive.

The first weapon may be the most effective: humor and ridicule.

Trump, faced with a pandemic and an economic downturn, tells Americans what a great job he’s done. In response, Mr. Biden should smile and say with a bit of laugh: “And just where have you been living? South Korea? Or Fiji? You cannot be in the United States — except maybe on the golf course. We’ve got about 4 percent of the world’s population and 21 percent of all Covid deaths and the highest unemployment since the Great Depression! You must be living on another planet!”

The retort mocks the president as weak and unaccomplished, which will rattle him. He is apparently so fearful of being the target of a joke that — unlike any president before him — he has skipped the last three roasts at the White House Correspondents Dinner.

Lots more in that vein. Professor Friedman also comes up with something I hadn’t thought about: there won’t be a live audience.

President Trump will not have a live audience to excite him and satisfy his insatiable need for approval and attention, which means he will be even more vulnerable to a takedown. True, no one will be there to laugh at Mr. Biden’s jokes, but it doesn’t matter because the goal is serious: to expose the truth and unnerve Mr. Trump by getting under his skin.

Interesting piece throughout.

Project Orion

One of the most interesting and unusual books I read during lockdown is George Dyson’s Analogia: the Entangled Destinies of Nature, Human Beings and Machines. In one section of it he describes an extraordinary, top-secret project that his father, the great physicist Freeman Dyson, had worked on in the late 1950s — the Orion Project. Crudely summarised, this was a project to build a huge spaceship powered by a large number of successive nuclear explosions. It sounds so daft that I have doubts even as I type the words. But the project was real (fuelled in part by post-Sputnik panic in the US) and prototypes were built and tested, though most of the information about it was highly classified until George Dyson campaigned vigorously to have it released.

Anyway, I finished the book wondering what else was known about Project Orion, and — lo! and behold! — look what I found: a wonderful 2002 BBC documentary, To Mars By A Bomb – The Secret History of Project Orion, about it.

It’s nearly an hour long, so make some coffee, pull up a chair, and ponder the exquisite madness of ultra-clever human beings.

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Saturday 26 September, 2020

A message from the cloud appreciation society

From our coastal walk on Thursday.

Quote of the Day

”An expert is someone who knows the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject and who manages to avoid them.”

  • Werner Heisenberg

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler & Chet Atkins playing I’ll see you in my dreams and Imagine live at the Secret Policeman’s Third Ball 1987.


Thinking about Lincoln

I’ve been thinking about Abraham Lincoln a good deal ever since I listened to David Runciman’s unmissable podcasted talk about Max Weber’s famous lecture “Politics as a Vocation”, delivered to students in Munich in 1919. Towards the end of his talk, David identifies Lincoln as the politician who comes closest to meeting Weber’s stringent requirements for a democratic leader, and so I’ve been driven to digging out Gore Vidal’s famous historical novel about him and other stuff.

Today, I came on Adam Gopnik’s roundup essay in the New Yorker on a raft of contemporary biographies of Lincoln, which of course I dived into and found myself transfixed by this wonderful photograph of him which I’d never seen before. It’s such a revealing portrait of its subject.

Lincoln was famously ungainly and physically awkward. Gopnik retells the story of when he was President and his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, compared him to a baboon. Asked how he could endure such an insult, Lincoln replied: “That is no insult; it is an expression of opinion; and what troubles me most about it is that Stanton said it, and Stanton is usually right.”

Gopnik’s argument is that historians’ visions of Lincoln have been shaped by their own political landscapes and cultural contexts. Which neatly explains why he has been much on our minds at the moment. And isn’t it weird — looking at the current GOP — that he was a Republican!

Ireland might yet be forced to accept that €13 billion in back tax from Apple

This is straight out of the you-couldn’t-make-it-up department.

Way back in 2016 the European Commission issued a ruling that Ireland had given Apple a “sweetheart deal” that let the company pay significantly lower taxes than other businesses. “Member States cannot give tax benefits to selected companies — this is illegal under EU state aid rules,” the EU’s antitrust Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said in 2016.

The commission ordered Apple to pay €13 billion ($14.9 billion) in back taxes to the Irish government. Needless to say, Apple disputed the decision, with CEO Tim Cook calling the judgment “total political crap.” But — here’s the startling bit — the Irish government also appealed the decision! This must be the first recorded case of a cash-strapped government facing Brexit campaigning not to receive enough dosh to run the country’s health service for a year or two.

In July this year In July, the General Court of the EU annulled the 2016 ruling on the grounds that that the commission had failed to make its case. “The commission did not succeed in showing to the requisite legal standard that there was an advantage” for Apple, they declared, and “the commission did not prove, in its alternative line of reasoning, that the contested tax rulings were the result of discretion exercised by the Irish tax authorities.”

On Friday the Commission announced that it will appeal the court’s July ruling, with Vestager saying in a statement that the court “has made a number of errors of law.”

“The General Court has repeatedly confirmed the principle that, while Member States have competence in determining their taxation laws taxation, they must do so in respect of EU law, including State aid rules,” Vestager said. “If Member States give certain multinational companies tax advantages not available to their rivals, this harms fair competition in the European Union in breach of State aid rules.”

Quite so.

A detached observer might ask why the Irish government took the line it did in this case. The short answer is that since 1958 the prime strategy of the Irish state has to carve out an economic future for a small island by being nice to giant foreign companies (especially US ones). So if it were obliged to take a more hands-off stance to these giants — even as some of them, especially Facebook and Google (both with their European HQs in Dublin) are turning toxic — then it would be changing the habits of several political lifetimes.

This one will run for a while yet.

Why we need satire

From the (consistently funny) current issue of Private Eye — sometimes the only publication that keeps UK residents sane and the moment.

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Friday 25 September, 2020

Mellow fruitfulness

Rose-hips and blackberries. Seen on our coastal walk yesterday.

Quote of the Day

”The best number for a dinner party is two — myself and a damn good head waiter.”

  • Nubar Gulbenkian

I have a good friend who used to say that the best conversations in his house always took place between himself and the TV set.

Musical alternative to the radio news of the day

Für Elise: Lang Lang


A year is such a long time in Brexit politics

Private Eye, 25 September, 2020

Tracking historical changes in trustworthiness using machine learning analyses of facial cues in paintings

It’s amazing what people do research on. This paper published in Nature Communications describes an interesting use of machine-learning technology to analyse portraits over the ages. The researchers built an algorithm to automatically generate trustworthiness evaluations for the facial action units (smile, eye brows, etc.) of European portraits in large historical databases. Their results show that “trustworthiness in portraits increased over the period 1500–2000 paralleling the decline of interpersonal violence and the rise of democratic values observed in Western Europe.

Portraits are particularly promising to document and quantify the level of trust over time. Experimental work have revealed that specific facial features, such as a smiling mouth or wider eyes, are consistently recognized as cues of trustworthiness across individuals and cultures. In this paper, we capitalize on this large empirical literature to build an algorithm that estimates trustworthiness based on a pre-identified set of facial characteristics. More precisely, we apply recent machine-learning methods to extract quantitative information about the evolution of social cues contained in portraits. The algorithm generates automatic human-like trustworthiness ratings on portraits based on the muscle contractions (facial action units) detected in facial displays using the open software OpenFace. This algorithm was trained on avatars controlled for trustworthiness and optimized using a random forest procedure (see Supplementary Methods for more details). To assess the generalizability of our model, we then tested its validity on four databases of natural faces rated by real participants. We first demonstrated that the algorithm produced trustworthiness ratings that were aligned with those produced by human participants in all four controlled databases.

Interestingly, the only painting illustrated in the paper — a portrait of Thomas Cranmer, who was Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and, for a short time, Mary I. He helped build the case for the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, which was one of the causes of the separation of the English Church from union with the Holy See. Along with Thomas Cromwell, he supported the principle of royal supremacy. So he was the polar opposite of a “troublesome priest”. Interestingly, the algorithm examined Gerlach Flicke’s famous portrait of Cranmer and pronounced him untrustworthy. Which I’d say was a pretty shrewd assessment.

Jonathan Dancy’s British Academy memoir of Derek Parfit.

Whenever a Fellow of the British Academy dies, the Academy commissions another Fellow to write an extended memoir of him. (The Royal Society has a similar tradition.) Jonathan Dancy’s memoir of the Oxford Philosopher Derek Parfit is a gem. (And quite a long read.)

Parfit was a genius, but by the metric-driven standards of contemporary academia he would have had difficulty holding onto an academic post. I never knew him personally, but his wife, Janet Radcliffe Richards, was at one time a valued colleague of mine, and it was from her that I learned that in addition to being a distinguished philosopher he was also an interesting and fastidious photographer. Larissa MacFarquhar wrote a fabulous New Yorker profile of him in 2011. Here she is on his photographic habit:

Sometime after he gave up the idea of being a poet, Parfit developed a new aesthetic obsession: photography. He drifted into it—a rich uncle gave him an expensive camera—but later it occurred to him that his interest in committing to paper images of things he had seen might stem from his inability to hold those images in his mind. He also believed that most of the world looked better in reproduction than it did in life. There were only about ten things in the world he wanted to photograph, however, and they were all buildings: the best buildings in Venice—Palladio’s two churches, the Doge’s Palace, the buildings along the Grand Canal—and the best buildings in St. Petersburg, the Winter Palace and the General Staff Building.

His photographs are enigmatic and fascinating. Bryan Appleyard (himself a photographer) has a lovely New Statesman piece about an exhibition of them held in 2018.

His perfectionism in photography was as fierce as in his philosophy. Over about 25 years he shot thousands of rolls of film but he only believed he had made “about 120 good photographs”. There was method in this, an adaptation of his own sense of a shortcoming. “What he said about the whole project,” says Richards, “was that he wasn’t an artist but he was a good critic, so he took thousands and thousands of photographs and just selected the ones he thought were best.”

Sometimes his processing went wrong. Richards tells me that one St Petersburg picture was not displayed by the gallery because it was just too processed – “too CGI, too postcard”. And his favoured cities did not always co-operate. He eventually stopped going to St Petersburg because he said the snow had become the wrong colour and he abandoned photography altogether when he decided weather in general had changed.

From a distance Parfit struck me as an astonishing combination of formidable intellect and a kind of childlike innocence; and also as a thoroughly good person. Dancy’s memoir and MacFarquahar’s profile reinforce that impression.

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Thursday 23 September, 2020

On our way to North Norfolk today, we came on a flower we’d never seen before on a roadside verge.

This is one of the (tiny) flowers, shot with a Summilux 28mm on macro setting.

Quote of the Day

”Pray, good people, be civil; I am the Protestant whore.”

  • Nell Gwyn, the actress who became Charles II’s mistress. She is supposed to have said it when her carriage was besieged by an angry mob who thought she was the King’s unpopular Catholic mistress, Louise de Kérouaille.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Dougie Maclean & Guests – Caledonia


So why is this front-page news now?

It would be news if a normal politician — or indeed a normal person — said it. But Trump isn’t normal — and surely we all knew that by now. If a mafia boss were elected president and began behaving like a mafia boss, then nobody would be surprised. They might be outraged or alarmed, but surprised? Not in the least. Trump is a like a low-grade mafia boss with a short attention span. Of course he will dispute the results if he loses the election. Goddam it, he disputed the results in the election that he won!

The unrelenting horizonlessness of the Covid world

Eerie and possibly insightful essay by Nick Couldry and Bruce Schneier, who needs no introduction.

Six months into the pandemic with no end in sight, many of us have been feeling a sense of unease that goes beyond anxiety or distress. It’s a nameless feeling that somehow makes it hard to go on with even the nice things we regularly do.

What’s blocking our everyday routines is not the anxiety of lockdown adjustments, or the worries about ourselves and our loved ones — real though those worries are. It isn’t even the sense that, if we’re really honest with ourselves, much of what we do is pretty self-indulgent when held up against the urgency of a global pandemic. It is something more troubling and harder to name: an uncertainty about why we would go on doing much of what for years we’d taken for granted as inherently valuable.

They think we’re suffering from Acedia. Eh? Apparently it was a malady that plagued many medieval monks. It’s a sense of no longer caring about caring, not because one had become apathetic, but because somehow the whole structure of care had become jammed up.

It’s here, moving back to the particular features of the global pandemic, that we see more clearly what drives the restlessness and dislocation so many have been feeling. The source of our current acedia is not the literal loss of a future; even the most pessimistic scenarios surrounding Covid-19 have our species surviving. The dislocation is more subtle: a disruption in pretty much every future frame of reference on which just going on in the present relies.

Moving around is what we do as creatures, and for that we need horizons. Covid has erased many of the spatial and temporal horizons we rely on, even if we don’t notice them very often. We don’t know how the economy will look, how social life will go on, how our home routines will be changed, how work will be organized, how universities or the arts or local commerce will survive.

What unsettles us is not only fear of change. It’s that, if we can no longer trust in the future, many things become irrelevant, retrospectively pointless. And by that we mean from the perspective of a future whose basic shape we can no longer take for granted. This fundamentally disrupts how we weigh the value of what we are doing right now. It becomes especially hard under these conditions to hold on to the value in activities that, by their very nature, are future-directed, such as education or institution-building. That’s what many of us are feeling. That’s today’s acedia.

That rings a bell. When a loved one becomes terminally ill, for example, you discover that day-to-day living becomes harder because the future has become both certain and uncertain. It’s very disabling.

Thanks to Charles Arthur for spotting it.

The NHS Test and Trace app has two flaws: QR codes and people

As a conscientious citizen (note: not ‘subject’ — I’m an Irish citizen rather than a British subject) I downloaded the app and it’s now running on my iPhone.

Nicole Kobie has an interesting piece in Wired about it, based on the experiences of people in Newham, which was one of the two areas in the country where it’s already been trialled.

The trials were clearly necessary and useful because they’ve highlighted some important areas of potential difficulty

Conflicting QR codes are one of several problems raised by the contact tracing app, alongside residents having phones too old to use the app, language challenges in this diverse area, and distrust of the government.

A key feature of the app is that it is supposed to let you check in to a venue by scanning an official NHS QR code displayed in the premises you are trying to enter. But Newham residents told WIRED that they’ve barely seen any of the official NHS QR codes in shops or restaurants. [This could be because the residents were effectively Beta-testers for the app and the QR codes would not have been widely distributed.]

Others say they’re confused as to whether a QR code on the door is the right one to scan or not, as existing contact-tracing systems also use the codes – just wait until these codes are ubiquitous and scammers start putting up false ones. And some residents reported that the QR code throws up an error message in the app or simply takes too long to scan, causing queues to enter a shop — hardly ideal in these times of social distancing. “Although the app looks good, if I can’t use the QR scanner, it defeats the object of the app’s purpose,” wrote one app reviewer on Google Play.

Another challenge was downloading the app.

Residents were sent out a detailed, four-page letter with instructions on how to install the app and use one-time codes to activate it for the trial, which residents said was off-putting – especially so for those who don’t speak English as a first language. The council has pushed for the app and online advice for it to be available in several languages, including Polish, Gujarati, Urdu and more, but as Fiaz notes, Newham has more than 100 languages and dialects spoken locally.

And then there’s the age of your smartphone…

It only works on recent smartphones, running Android 6.0 or iOS 13.5 later; that’s iPhone 6S and newer. However, that risks leaving out people with older phones, in particular those without the money to buy a newer one. …

Apparently Age UK is warning that this could leave those most at risk of Covid being treated as “second-class citizens.” Another way of putting it is that it’s just another illustration of how the pandemic is revealing the extent of inequality in UK society.

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Wednesday 23 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

”Give me a man with big hands and big feet and no brains and I’ll make a golfer out of him

  • Walter Hagen, the first great professional US golfer who won the US Open twice and the British Open four times.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Labi Siffre – Something Inside So Strong


Thanks to Ian Clark for the suggestion.

The TikTok farce

I was going to write about this, but then the weekly edition of Ben Evans’s (free) newsletter dropped into my inbox and I realised there is no way I could do any better than that. So here is his take on it, in its entirety:

As of right now (and this will probably change again), the plan is that there will be a new US company running Tiktok US, with a board of US citizens (who?), that will move its systems from (mostly) Google Cloud to Oracle’s (distant also-ran) cloud platform, and Oracle will manage the data and source code. Bytedance says it will IPO this company next year and that Oracle and Walmart will be able to buy a 20% stake before then (at what valuation?). In addition, there is a nebulous claim of ’25k new jobs’ in the USA (for what?) and of ‘$5bn’ going from Bytedance to either the US Treasury (the Oracle press release) or an ‘education fund’ (Trump), but Bytedance says it doesn’t know anything about that (!) and that actually this is just an estimate of future corporation taxes. Oracle also has a press release claiming Tiktok ‘chose’ their ‘tech’ because it’s better. Don’t embarrass yourself, Larry.

Setting aside the chaos – what does this solve? As a reminder, we worry about subtle manipulation of what videos are shown, and we worry about the app on your phone being used to steal other data, either deliberately or via ‘bugs’ left in accidentally-on-purpose. The actual user data on Tiktok’s servers comes a distant third: even if Oracle can look after that, who cares? What matters is who runs the app and the recommendation systems, but we have no visibility on what that would look like, and Oracle is not the company to play any kind of role here.

Finally: Trump demanded it be shut down or sold: instead the app continues in place, Bytedance still has a majority, a Trump donor now has an option to buy a minority stake and gets it as a (partial) customer, and we don’t have visibility on a solution to the (very real) actual issues. It does notionally get a US board, but we didn’t need all this chaos to get that. But, Trump has (he claims) a cheque to wave around. This is a shakedown, but it’s also a climbdown. Putin does this in Russia all the time, but manages it much better. Links: Tiktok statement, Oracle press release, Bytedance on that $5bn

Ben’s newsletter and blog are really good. You can sign up here.

The UK government’s communications strategy examined

POLITICO’s Andrew McDonald on how the government guidance has varied:

July 4: Go to the pub … July 8: Go to restaurants … July 17: Work wherever your employer wants you to … August 19: No excuse not to go back to the office … August 28: Go back to the office or risk losing your job … September 14: Report rule of six breakers … September 16: Don’t report rule of six breakers … September 22: Work from home, curfew on pubs and restaurants.

Read the full timeline here.

To put it another way: A senior Conservative tells the FT’s Seb Payne: “We told people to eat out, now we’re telling them to eat in. We told people to go back to the office, now we’re telling them to work from home. It’s a total shambles and I can’t see how people are going to understand it.”

Me neither.

Watching Boris Johnson’s plea to the nation to link together last night, the one question in my mind was: is Dominic Cummings also required to adhere to these ‘guidelines’?

From the (terrific and free) Politico daily newsletter.

btw: The full timeline is really instructive.

What If Trump Refuses to Concede?

If you want a tranquil day, then perhaps you should give this long read by Barton Gellman a miss. It covers questions that I never thought we have to ask in my lifetime. And I’m glad I read it. What we always forget is that democracy is a very fragile plant. And it’s historically an accident or a blip that we’ve sustained it this long. It was probably the trauma of WW2 that shocked us into trying to make it work. And then we got complacent. Between now and Christmas we will discover if America’s long experiment with democracy is over.

If we are lucky, this fraught and dysfunctional election cycle will reach a conventional stopping point in time to meet crucial deadlines in December and January. The contest will be decided with sufficient authority that the losing candidate will be forced to yield. Collectively we will have made our choice—a messy one, no doubt, but clear enough to arm the president-elect with a mandate to govern.

As a nation, we have never failed to clear that bar. But in this election year of plague and recession and catastrophized politics, the mechanisms of decision are at meaningful risk of breaking down. Close students of election law and procedure are warning that conditions are ripe for a constitutional crisis that would leave the nation without an authoritative result. We have no fail-safe against that calamity. Thus the blinking red lights…

Many thanks to Seb Schmoller, who pointed it out to me. I had missed it.

En passant: of all the publications I read, the Atlantic is the one that has come out of this crisis period with flying colours.

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Tuesday 22 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all these people who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.”

  • Graham Greene, Ways of Escape, chapter 9.

Simple: they keep a daily blog.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Albinoni: Adagio For Strings And Organ In G Minor, Berliner Phil and von Karajan


Boris Johnson is not lost; he’s right in front of you

Nice Financial Times column by Robert Shrimsley. Sample:

It was all meant to be such fun. There would be cocktails at Chequers, hilarious nose-tweaking of po-faced progressives and the bellowing of “Brussels sucks” as they roared down freedom highway like Mr Toad in his new car. Anyone who got in the way would be sacked, debagged or prorogued. Yes, there’s a crisis, but dammit where’s the good old Boris they used to know?

The answer is he’s right there in front of them. Mr Johnson’s weaknesses were never hidden. It cannot, surely, be a shock to discover his lack of focus, carelessness, excessive delegation and love of the bold play over the grinding detail. Furthermore, “good old Boris” is not going to change. He is not, aged 56, suddenly going to “get a grip”.

Their dismay would be laughable if it were not shared by his MPs, who are staggered by his mis-steps and outraged by the obvious contempt shown for them by his Downing Street team.

Even loyalists are open-mouthed at the accumulation of errors. How, they ask, could a conservative premier advocate breaking the law? How could he not foresee that the return of schools would lead to surging demand for Covid-19 tests? As they look ahead to mass unemployment and virus spikes, MPs can no longer see the rapids for the rocks.

Well, as the notices in antique shops say: “If you break it, then you own it.”

Facebook needs Trump as much as Trump needs Facebook

Interesting Bloomberg piece:

Zuckerberg isn’t easily influenced by politics. But what he does care about—more than anything else perhaps—is Facebook’s ubiquity and its potential for growth. The result, critics say, has been an alliance of convenience between the world’s largest social network and the White House, in which Facebook looks the other way while Trump spreads misinformation about voting that could delegitimize the winner or even swing the election. “Facebook, more so than other platforms, has gone out of its way to not ruffle feathers in the current administration,” says Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of Accountable Tech, an organization making recommendations to tech companies on public-policy issues. “At best, you could say it’s willful negligence.”

The pattern hasn’t been confined to U.S. politics. A Facebook executive in India was accused in August of granting special treatment to a lawmaker from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party who’d called for violence against Rohingya Muslim immigrants. (It was only after the Wall Street Journal reported on the posts that the company banned the lawmaker, T. Raja Singh.) A memo from a former employee, published by BuzzFeed on Sept. 14, detailed how Facebook had ignored or delayed taking action against governments using fake accounts to mislead their citizens. “I have blood on my hands,” she wrote.

The (long) piece goes on to details the ways in which Zuckerberg has sought to deflect Trump’s ire onto other targets. But…

Trump is trailing by 7 points or so nationally, and it’s likely that a Biden administration would seek to regulate Facebook. In July, Zuckerberg got a preview of the Democrats’ playbook when he faced the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, alongside all the other major tech executives. Representatives’ questions for him were pointed, prosecutorial, and informed by thousands of internal emails and chat logs that seemed to suggest a path for regulators to argue that the company should be broken up or penalized in some other way.

As the election nears, and Trump continues to lag in the polls, the prospect of a Biden presidency becomes more likely. And last January said that he also favours removing Section 230 protections and holding executives personally liable. “I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan,” he told the New York Times in January.

So Zuckerberg seems to have woken up to the risks — for Facebook, not humanity — of a Trump loss. The Bloomberg piece says that he’s told employees that the company is likely to fare better under Republicans.

Just one more reason for electing Biden!

The legal fight awaiting the US after the Election

Jeffrey Toobin, the New Yorker‘s legal eagle, has a long piece in the magazine looking forward to November 3 and its likely aftermath. There’s no good news in it. Here, in a nutshell, is why:

Trump’s grievance is almost certainly tied to the fact that Democrats are more likely to vote by mail in the upcoming election than Republicans are. This will contribute to a phenomenon called the “blue shift”—votes that are counted, and reported, later on tend to favor Democrats. This year’s blue shift may be particularly dramatic. In a recent poll by Hawkfish, a data firm associated with Democrats, only nineteen per cent of Trump supporters said that they planned to vote by mail, compared with sixty-nine per cent of Biden supporters. Using data from late-summer polls, Hawkfish predicted that Election Night results could show Trump in the lead, with a total of four hundred and eight electoral votes. Four days later, with seventy-five per cent of the mail-in votes counted, Biden would take the lead, with two hundred and eighty electoral votes and, with all the votes counted, the former Vice-President would win the Presidency, with three hundred and thirty-four electoral votes.

You can imagine the scenario. And gun sales have gone through the roof in the US. The only consolation is that there’s a shortage of some kinds of ammunition.


Why would anyone pay £1500 for this when they could have, say, an infinitely more useful Apple Watch for a third of the price?

Look, as a regular reader of the Financial Times I get it that for some rich guys watches are basically the male equivalent of women’s jewellery. And that’s fine by me: it’s a free country and all that. But what baffles me is why anyone would pay good money for a half-assed smartwatch that a famous analog watch brand has tried to cobble together.

I’ve just read a friendly review of it and this is the best it can say:


If you want a smartwatch that looks like a traditional Tag, the Connected 2020 fully delivers. That attractive design now includes an upgraded screen and the extra software additions help to make it feel less of a Wear OS watch. The included watch faces are great, while the new sports app certainly shows good potential.

Its sports tracking skills can’t really rival what you’ll get from a serious Polar or Garmin sportswatch, but if you’re more 20 minute treadmill runner than marathon racer, it should more than do the job.

There are other brands like Montblanc and fellow LVMH stablemate Louis Vuitton that have noticeably raised their game on the luxury smartwatch front. But Tag Heuer remains ahead of the pack as far as building a truly desirable smartwatch that feels worthy of that steep price tag.

There’s no getting away from it: the Tag Heuer Connected 2020 is a beauty of a smartwatch.

Sad, isn’t it.

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Monday 21 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

”Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering that we work for Fox.”

  • David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Rolling Stones, “Satisfaction”, Glastonbury 2013


An amazing moment: the first time the Stones played Glastonbury. I’ve always been a fan, but the lovely thing is that one of my grandsons has also been one since he was a very small boy. And on this Saturday evening, I was watching the gig at home, while somewhere in the crowd were three of my kids, and that particular grandson.

Mick Jagger had some interesting things to say about it at the time:

Going on was this amazing sight. I’ve done a lot of big crowds, but normally when you do these big crowds you can’t often see them. In this case, though, the crowd goes up the hill and was illuminated by flares. You could actually see 100,000 people, which was amazing. The crowd was amazingly supportive, vibrant, enthusiastic, exuberant – even though you’re a long way away from them, you can still feel the wave of feeling coming from them.

Glastonbury has had a long, involving history, as almost a protest, and then evolving into this anything-goes, very different, multi-generational event, with every kind of music represented and lots of other things besides. I used to joke that it’s the alternate Ascot, which is maybe a bit of a misnomer, but it’s an amazing English cultural event that embodies some kind of Englishness – some odd Englishness. Glastonbury is a great tradition, and the way it’s evolved, it sort of represents this rather eccentric English culture, in a really good way. Everyone reveres it because of that, and because of its longevity – it’s been passed down through generations. People have got this special affection for it.

Mists and mellow fruitfulness

An audio fragment from a morning cycle ride.


Packing the US Supreme Court

The late Justice Ginsberg by Art Lien.

The death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg has triggered a political and legal storm in the US. As expected, Trump has announced that he intends to nominate a right-wing candidate for her place to be confirmed as soon as possible. And true to form, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader — who refused a confirmatory process for one of Barack Obama’s nominee in the last year of Obama’s term, on the grounds that democracy required that they wait until after the presidential election — has now decided that Trump’s nominee should be confirmed before the election. Neither of these stunts should surprise anyone, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of good folks from being outraged.

Meanwhile — as I mentioned yesterday — the enraged Democrats have reminded us that the number of judges on the Supreme Court is not specified by the Constitution and can therefore be increased (or reduced) by an Act of Congress. Accordingly, if the Republicans insist on pressing ahead with the sure-fire confirmation of Trump’s nominee and then Biden is elected, there’s nothing to stop a Democratic administration from packing the court by increasing the number of justices, thereby securing a non-Republican majority on it.

Needless to say, this has in turn, caused outrage in some circles.

Enter the historians, who point out that in the 1930s Franklin Roosevelt threatened to pack the court with his nominees if the existing Court continued to oppose his New Deal legislation. In the end, he didn’t have to carry out the threat, because the justices backed down.

Now comes Henry Farrell, a terrific Irish-American political scientist, with this post:

The obvious point here is that Roosevelt’s threat was the reason why the Court backed down. If Roosevelt had not made it clear that he was willing to upset the game, by packing the Court, the Court would have had no reason to back down on judgments and precedents that systematically limited the scope of democratic politics. One norm that had been pretty systematically trashed – judicial respect for what citizens and their democratically elected representatives actually wanted – was only preserved through Roosevelt’s credible threat to upset another norm.

There’s lots more… His piece is worth reading in full.

Sex in the office? Or a crude publicity stunt?

This story from the FT‘s Sifted site belongs in the you-couldn’t-make-it-up department.

The chairman of the dating app Thursday mistakenly sent a confidential email to a public-mailing list apologising for one of the company’s cofounders being caught having “sexual activity” in the office, according to the company.

The letter, posted below, expresses “great disappointment” and says that the company’s leaders “do not condone any sexual activity on office premises between employees.” Chairman Tim Hammond added that, in line with government guidelines on coronavirus, the office has been “thoroughly cleaned”.

Sifted was alerted to the note by this Tweet, and obtained a copy of the letter. The company has not responded to multiple requests for comment but issued a statement on its Instagram account saying: “We’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to anyone that received an unintentionally circulated email today. Thank you for alerting us to the mistake. Many have asked — was it rigged? No, but we’ll run with it.”

It’s unclear which of the three cofounders — Sam McCarthy, Matthew McNeill and George Rawlings — were being referred to in the letter.

There are, however, reasons to suspect that this could could just be a publicity stunt, given that Rawlings has form, as we racing enthusiasts say. Last year, for example, he performed a stunt last year on the streets of central London to draw attention to the app (which was then called Honeypot).

So what was he up to then?

The dating app entrepreneur posed at busy spots with a huge cardboard sign saying: “I @GeorgeRawlings cheated on my girlfriend and this is my punishment. Do NOT download Honeypot.” He later admitted it was a stunt.

Press coverage wasn’t exactly positive, but Rawlings estimates that the number of downloads that resulted from the stunt equated to approximately £9,500 in online marketing spend. All that at a cost of £2.65 — the price of some cardboard and a pen.

Advice: If you were thinking of using Thursday’s services, don’t.

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