Sunday 20 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

“The nature of things is a sturdy adversary”

  • Edmund Burke

Reminds me of the famous reply Harold Macmillan gave to a reporter who asked him what kept him awake at nights: “Events, dear boy, events”.

Musical alternative to this morning’s radio news

Eric Clapton: Cocaine — at the Albert Hall


Slow and enigmatic start. Worth waiting for, though.

The Social Dilemma: a wake-up call for a world drunk on dopamine?

This morning’s Observer column.

TL;DR version: the new Netflix docudrama is a valiant if flawed attempt to address our complacency about surveillance capitalism.

Spool forward a couple of centuries. A small group of social historians drawn from the survivors of climate catastrophe are picking through the documentary records of what we are currently pleased to call our civilisation, and they come across a couple of old movies. When they’ve managed to find a device on which they can view them, it dawns on them that these two films might provide an insight into a great puzzle: how and why did the prosperous, apparently peaceful societies of the early 21st century implode?

The two movies are The Social Network, which tells the story of how a po-faced Harvard dropout named Mark Zuckerberg created a powerful and highly profitable company; and The Social Dilemma, which is about how the business model of this company – as ruthlessly deployed by its po-faced founder – turned out to be an existential threat to the democracy that 21st-century humans once enjoyed.

Both movies are instructive and entertaining, but the second one (which has just been released on Netflix) leaves one wanting more. Its goal is admirably ambitious: to provide a compelling, graphic account of what the business model of a handful of companies is doing to us and to our societies. The intention of the director, Jeff Orlowski, is clear from the outset: to reuse the strategy deployed in his two previous documentaries on climate change – nicely summarised by one critic as “bring compelling new insight to a familiar topic while also scaring the absolute shit out of you”.

For those of us who have for years been trying – without notable success – to spark public concern about what’s going on in tech, it’s fascinating to watch how a talented movie director goes about the task…

Read on

What to do if Trump and the Republicans in the Senate ram through a new Supreme Court nominee.

Interesting. I hadn’t known that the number of Supreme Court justices is not stipulated by the Constitution. That means an Act of Congress could change it.

Johnson’s not up to the job. Who knew?

It’s funny how many people seem still to be astonished by the incompetence of the Johnson administration. Given his record as a lazy, irresponsible toff who has all his life left behind him a wake of chaos, unhappiness and offspring, what else could one expect? Andrew Rawnsley has a nice column about this in today’s Observer. Here’s its conclusion:

Funnily enough, the book Superforecasting [which Dominic Cummings reviewed enthusiastically put on his reading list for ministers] identifies one of the core reasons why this government is failing. “The worst forecasters were those with great self-confidence who stuck to their big ideas,” wrote Mr Cummings himself. They are lousy at understanding the world and coming to good judgments about it. “The more successful were those who were cautious, humble, numerate, actively open-minded, looked at many points of view.” Now, which is a better description of the Johnson-Cummings method of government? “Cautious, humble, numerate, actively open-minded, looked at many points of view”? That doesn’t sound like them at all. “Great self-confidence”, which leaves them stubbornly wedded to their “big ideas”? That’s much more like it.

Their biggest idea of the moment is that leaving the EU’s single market without a deal would be fine even in a double-whammy combination with a re-escalation of the coronavirus crisis. Bear in mind his previous record as a soothsayer when the prime minister confidently predicts that a crash-out Brexit would be a “good outcome”. I hazard a guess that this is his most calamitously wrong forecast of all.

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Saturday 19 September, 2020

The Joy of Six

Nice tribute to Alex Comfort’s great 1972 bestseller

Quote of the Day

“A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 11 per cent of people in the US had contemplated suicide during the June spent in lockdown (up from 4.3 per cent in 2018). Among those aged 18-24 it was 26 per cent.”

  • Gillian Tett, writing in today’s Financial Times.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel: Silent Worship – Somervell’s arrangement of Handel’s aria Non lo dirò col labbro from his opera Tolomeo, performed by Mark Stone (baritone) and Stephen Barlow (piano).


This is how Jonathan Swift would be writing about Johnson & Co

Wonderful column by Marina Hyde. Sample:

Do you remember Ye Olde Operation Moonshotte, an ancient promise by the elders of this government to test 10 million people a day? My apologies for the leading question. There are absent-minded goldfish who remember that figure, given it was announced by Boris Johnson’s government barely three seconds ago. The only representative of the animal, vegetable and possibly mineral kingdoms who doesn’t remember it is the prime minister himself, who on Wednesday told a committee asking him about it: “I don’t recognise the figure you have just given.” Like me, you probably feel grateful to be governed by a guy whose approach to unwanted questions is basically, “New phone, who dis?”

Like me, you will be reassured by Matt Hancock’s plan to throw another “protective ring” around care homes. What’s not to fear about a Matt Hancock ring, easily the most dangerous ring in history, including Sauron’s Ring of Power. Guardian Today: the headlines, the analysis, the debate – sent direct to you Read more

Like me, you are probably impressed that the government is ordering you to snitch on your neighbours for having seven people in their garden, while whichever Serco genius is running testing as a Dadaist performance piece about human futility gets to live in the witness protection programme. Shitness protection programme, whatever.

Speaking of which, like me, you probably feel relaxed to learn that Chris Grayling, who notably awarded a ferry contract to a firm with no ferries, is now to be paid £100,000 a year for seven hours work a week advising a ports company. When I read this story I imagined his aides pulling a hammer-wielding Grayling off the pulped corpse of Satire, going: “Jesus, Chris! Leave it – it’s already dead! We need to get out of here!”

Terrific stuff. Made my day. And I hope yours, after you’ve read it.

American colleges are the new Sweden

From Politico’s newsletter…

Now there’s a new Sweden to study: American college campuses. Watching thousands of students gather in classes, in dorms, and in social settings is providing another laboratory for epidemiologists.

Here’s what they’re learning:

Herd immunity won’t save us anytime soon. More than 88,000 people have been infected across about 1,200 college campuses. That’s a fraction of the country’s total student population of 20 million. About 60 people have died, mostly college employees.

Experts believe that herd immunity will kick in when about 70 percent of the population is infected — assuming an initial infection provides lasting immunity, which scientists still aren’t sure about.

“It is almost impossible to imagine a college campus will get to herd immunity,” said Howard Forman, a health policy professor at the Yale School of Management, who is leading a team that rates college Covid dashboards.

Asymptomatic exposure is a real problem. College students are carrying Covid without symptoms and then spreading it to the general population, who are then getting sick at much higher rates than the students are.

“When I talk to a lot of colleges and universities, the biggest concern is fear of downstream health in the general population,” said Ramesh Raskar, an associate professor at MIT Media Lab, which has been developing contact tracing apps and other technology to contain Covid. “We always suspected asymptomatic transfers but now see they are real. It is frightening.”

Social distancing has been more clearly defined. There’s still been a lack of clarity about what counts as close physical contact. Colleges are showing how the calculation is more involved than just remaining six feet apart and staying outdoors.

“Before colleges opened, close contact meant going to a barber or people in a meat factory together or going to a senior care center,” Raskar said. “Now it’s more complex.” Cases are spreading at outdoor events if people spend prolonged periods in proximity, without masks. NYU suspended 20 students for throwing a party in Washington Square Park.

Telling people what to do isn’t enough. Trying to force students to follow rules by issuing strict guidelines and handing out punishments isn’t keeping them from spreading Covid. Education, awareness and clear public health messaging about the importance of wearing masks, downstream risks to vulnerable populations and the contagiousness of the disease has proven to be far more effective at containing Covid, Raskar said.

The campuses that are doing well are in areas without much community spread, Forman said. They also have the money to conduct widespread testing and have students who are highly compliant with guidelines. Just a handful of non-compliant students threaten an entire college reopening plan. The University of Illinois had a comprehensive Covid plan and even accounted for parties, but a dozen students who failed to isolate after testing positive for Covid sparked an outbreak.

The UK is about to discover if these lessons also apply here.

“It turns out that human nature is awful and the algorithms have figured this out, and that’s what drives engagement.”

This is a quote from a Berkeley computer scientist who, with a machine-learning expert, Guillaume Chaslot, in 2016-17 ran a web-scraper on YouTube for 15 months looking for how often the site recommended conspiracy videos. They found the frequency rose throughout the year; at the peak, nearly one in 10 videos recommended were conspiracist fare.

In comes in “YouTube’s Plot to Silence Conspiracy Theories”, an interesting Wired piece by Clive Cookson who — as far as I know — in the first journalist allowed inside YouTube’s growing effort to curtail or counteract the radicalising impact of its recommender algorithms.

It’s a long read, but worth it. And it starts with — what else? — a flat earth conspiracy theorist who business was ruined by tweaks in YouTube’s recommender algorithm!

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Friday 18 September, 2020

State of the nation

Captures the mood nicely — of both the US and the UK.

Quote of the Day

“As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents”.

  • George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Muddy Waters & The Rolling Stones – Baby Please Don’t Go (Live At Checkerboard Lounge)


Amazing recording. Includes Keith Richards multitasking with cigarette and guitar.

When I previously mentioned this wonderful campaign, I appended the wrong link for anyone wanting to donate.

Here’s the correct link.

Many thanks to readers who pointed out the error.

What Julian Assange has in common with mainstream American media

Interesting Columbia Journalism Review essay by Harry Stopes, who worked with the novelist Andrew O’Hagan on the abortive project to ghost-write Assange’s autobiography.

TL;DR version: Assange and the media both believe that information changes the world.

Longer version:

In attempting to battle Trump with “the Truth” the American media has evinced the same simplistic faith as Assange in the capacity of information itself to be a driver of political change. This was most visible around the Mueller report and impeachment efforts but is mostly everywhere, all the time: the blind conviction that in the American public sphere there exists a common frame of reference against which the best ideas can be measured and will win out, if only all the right information is available. Trump’s tax returns and telephone transcripts, we hope, will finally bring him down.

The truth is vital, but it’s not reducible to a set of discrete facts, numbers, or documents. The rise of fact-checking features and Twitter accounts serves to highlight this, as journalists choose to focus only on those parts of political discourse that can be easily measured.

The facts themselves are not what is at issue. There is no shared basis upon which to identify them. What is really at issue are conflicts between political tribes, ideologies, and material interests. Many journalists know this, but on an institutional level some of their employers seem determined not to admit it.

That seems, to me, to be a response to an idea these institutions hold deep down: that politics and society cannot fundamentally change. If the structure of society is not up for debate, there is no place for structural critiques. All that matters is assembling chunks of information that might change the surface appearance, debunk a health plan here, reveal an air strike there. Far too little attention has been paid to what happens next when the discussion is done.

Looking back and looking forward

Long read of the day, especially if you work in a university.

Malcolm Gaskill took early retirement from his UEA Professorship before the pandemic struck. Now he’s written a lovely, reflective essay in the LRB on British academia and his experience of it.

Of course, none of us is lost in space, rounding the lip of a black hole. Higher education will always be worthwhile, if only because for students it provides three unique years removed from family, school and a career. In spite of uncertainty and austerity, versatile and resourceful young people will create their own networks and forums conducive to study and sociability. Academics will carry on doing research that informs their teaching. Learning for its own sake may suffer as courses are honed to a fine utilitarian edge and students evolve into accomplished grade accountants, expert in the work required for a 2.1 – playing the system they themselves finance. But degrees will retain value, and, for those who find graduate entry-level jobs, they will remain value for money. Above all, even allowing for a likely contraction of the HE sector, our universities will still promote social mobility, having already transformed the profile of the typical student, in terms of gender as well as class. There will be no return to sixty years ago when only 4 per cent of 18-year-olds went on to higher education, most of them men. The change is permanent. I’m glad to have played my part in this revolution.

Perhaps this is why I feel uneasy, and why my future feels more suspenseful than exciting. I’ve had dreams in which I’ve strolled across a platonically perfect ivy-clad campus, been enthralled by a perfect seminar, and had engaging discussions with old colleagues, including my Cambridge supervisor and the people I knew when I was doing my PhD, back in the halcyon days when everything had a point and a purpose. There’s guilt there: a sense of loss, of potential squandered and maybe even betrayed. UEA has made me an emeritus professor, which is an honourable discharge and something to cling to, and my wife insists we can live on her salary. But I still can’t decide whether I’ve retired or just resigned, or am in fact redundant and unemployed. I’m undeniably jobless at 53, able-bodied (I hesitate to say ‘fit’), with a full head of hair and most of my teeth, and haunted by St Teresa of Avila’s dictum that more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.

I keep thinking about a short story we read at school, Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Lotus Eater’. It is the cautionary tale of a bank manager who drives off the toads of work, gives up his comfy pension and goes to live like a peasant on a paradisal Mediterranean island. Needless to say it doesn’t end well: his annuity expires, his mind atrophies, he botches suicide. He sees out his days in a state of bestial wretchedness, demoted in the great chain of being as a punishment for rebelling against nature. I don’t see the story as a prediction, and would always choose industry over idleness, but Maugham’s contempt for someone who dodges life’s challenges – the story satirised an effete acquaintance from Heidelberg – resonates. Still, I couldn’t go back. Goodbye to all that.

The US makes a fuss about TikTok, but what’s happening to the Uyghurs in China is genocide. Why don’t we call it that? And why isn’t it the top story about China?

Great piece in the National Review by Jimmy Quinn.

Chinese Communist Party officials say that the Uyghurs, a Turkic minority in the Xinjiang region, are the “happiest Muslims in the world.” The evidence trickling out of western China tells a different story. In July, U.S. customs officials intercepted a 13-ton shipment of beauty products made out of human hair from the region and a video of blindfolded prisoners being led onto train cars went viral. Over the past couple of years, some have compared the human tragedy unfolding there to North Korean totalitarianism and South African apartheid. More recent evidence has inspired comparisons to the Holocaust. “Genocide” is a word that packs a punch, spurring action by connecting “the solemn commitments of the past and a new atrocity unfolding before the world’s eyes,” as a report by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center put it last year. This word, sadly, is now an apt descriptor for the situation in Xinjiang.

Thanks to the fearless work of researchers, journalists, and victims, it’s now widely known that the CCP in 2017 stepped up its repression of the Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities by means of a mass-internment drive and a new, Orwellian surveillance state. When the Uyghurs “graduated” from these “reeducation” and “vocational training” facilities, to borrow the euphemistic terminology of CCP officials, many were forced into slave labor. All told, over a million Uyghurs and other members of Turkic minorities are estimated to have been detained, and a total of 3 million people to have been swept up in various reeducation efforts. Others were charged with bogus crimes and remain imprisoned. Beijing, citing a few terrorist incidents that took place in 2014, claims that it’s stamping out extremism, but its true aim is to solidify Han Chinese dominance over Xinjiang.

For years, experts and activists have called the situation a “cultural genocide.” That label carries a blistering significance and refers to the CCP’s attempts to wipe out Uyghur culture and traditions. The CCP has razed burial sites, closed mosques, and effectively criminalized most expressions of faith. Still, cultural genocide is not recognized as a crime under the U.N.’s 1948 convention on genocide. Invoking cultural genocide rather than simply genocide has been a cautious way to speak out about the situation in Xinjiang without discrediting one’s argument through exaggeration. In light of recent developments, that’s no longer required.

In late June, Adrian Zenz, the German anthropologist who has provided most of the groundbreaking revelations on the Xinjiang mass-detention drive, published a new report detailing a systematic forced-sterilization and birth-control program to lower Uyghur birth rates. Among his findings were that birth rates plummeted 84 percent from 2015 to 2018 in Xinjiang’s two major Uyghur prefectures; that a mass campaign to sterilize 14 to 34 percent of Uyghur women in rural parts of the region was underway; and that the CCP planned to sterilize or implant intrauterine contraceptive devices in 80 percent of childbearing-age women in Xinjiang’s rural southern areas. During the same period, Zenz noted, the state worked successfully to increase the Han Chinese population in Xinjiang. He likens these population-control techniques, which are based on ethnicity, to “opening or closing a faucet.” They are reminiscent of the CCP’s rule over Tibet, where Chen Quanguo, the party official who has presided over the Xinjiang genocide, gained a reputation for ruthless competence.

And so it goes on…

This is much, much more important than Chinese tech or surveillance in China or the Belt & Road Initiative or all the other stuff that appears in Western media about China. And yet it’s always on the bottom of page 26, as it were.

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Thursday 17 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Here’s what being called sir feels like to me. You see someone who you think you could be friends with because inside you’re 19, and they call you sir, and you remember what it was like when you were them and you saw someone who looked like you look now.”

I know just how he feels. And I’m older than he is! Although, when I think of it, I can’t recall ever calling anyone sir. Maybe I was born middle-aged.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Merle Haggard & Keith Richards – Trouble In Mind


Misconceptions about the virus

The longer this pandemic goes on, the more we’re learning about our initial misconceptions about the virus. Remember when it was just a new kind of flu? And then all the stuff about coughs, high temperature etc. being sure-fire symptoms? And how it was mainly a respiratory disease that attacked the lungs? And how you were most of risk of catching it if you touched an infected surface? And so on.

Making tea this morning I happened to catch an interview with Professor Tim Spector of King’s College London, who’s one of the researchers behind the Covid Symptom-Tracking app which apparently has been downloaded 4m times. This is an app which asks users to spend a minute every day reporting (to the app) their health status (even if they’re not feeling ill). The app asks you to share some general information (age and some health details, such as whether you have certain diseases) and then asks you every day to report know how you feel, so you can share your symptoms. It also asks if you have visited a hospital, and if so what treatment you received there, and whether you have been tested for COVID-19.

Some interesting findings seem to be emerging from this research, including ones which seem to suggest that our original ideas of signature symptoms might have been a bit off beam.

Here’s the relevant audio clip from the programme:


It’s funny how we always seem to be fighting the last war. I was thinking of this while reading about schools and hotels going to extraordinary lengths to make sure that work-surfaces, door-knobs etc are sanitised, or even made redundant.

And all the while maybe the prime means of transmission is via aerosols rather than droplets.

I promise to pay the car park attendant on demand…

My friend Quentin and his wife are on holiday in Cornwall at the moment, where they have run into a problem they hadn’t anticipated — the need to use cash (as in coins and notes). Quentin has written a lovely blog post about it. Here’s a sample:

We’ve been taken by surprise, as visitors here, by the number of car parks which require payment, and where that payment can only be made with cash. Usually in coins, with no change given, so you really want the exact amount. Now, as someone who hasn’t really used cash for years, this was a minor inconvenience the first two or three times. But I’ve now realised that it’s basically the same everywhere: the Queen’s currency is still vital here; it’s a complex kind of car-parking token. Every single car park has required cash; I think we’ve been to four or five here, and one in Devon on the way down. Today, as a gesture to the 21st century, the car park had two machines. One took cards! Hurrah! It was out of order.

Now this isn’t because we’re in some remote backwater where they’ve never heard of digital transactions. Pretty much everything else, since we’ve left home, has been paid for sans contact using my Apple Watch (which is how I’ve paid for most things in the last five years). And, in fact, in Covid-world, most shops are not taking cash at all, so it’s even harder to go and buy a Kit-Kat to get some change. That’s assuming you can find an ATM from which to get some notes in the first place; they’re not exactly plentiful here.

Since there are a lot of visitors to this part of the world, car park attendants have to spend a lot of their time explaining to people that, no, I know it’s astonishing, but you do actually need cash if you want to park here. No, sorry, there isn’t an ATM here, but there’s one in the next town… Yes, that one you drove past 20 minutes ago on the narrow winding road with occasional passing places…

Why Holocaust denial thrives

One of the things that always puzzles me is why conspiracy theories involving Holocaust denial continue to circulate and thrive.

And then I read this report in today’s Guardian:

Almost two-thirds of young American adults do not know that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, and more than one in 10 believe Jews caused the Holocaust, a new survey has found, revealing shocking levels of ignorance about the greatest crime of the 20th century.

According to the study of millennial and Gen Z adults aged between 18 and 39, almost half (48%) could not name a single concentration camp or ghetto established during the second world war.

Almost a quarter of respondents (23%) said they believed the Holocaust was a myth, or had been exaggerated, or they weren’t sure. One in eight (12%) said they had definitely not heard, or didn’t think they had heard, about the Holocaust.

More than half (56%) said they had seen Nazi symbols on their social media platforms and/or in their communities, and almost half (49%) had seen Holocaust denial or distortion posts on social media or elsewhere online.

Ye Gods!

Bill Gates Sr. RIP

Bill Gates’s Dad has passed away. The Seattle Times has a nice obit. He was an Honorary Fellow of my College, Wolfson, and a thoroughly good egg. Bill Jr. said yesterday that his father “was the real Bill Gates. He was all the things I strive to be.” The funny thing is that while Bill Jr. was a very obnoxious kid, he eventually morphed into a thoroughly good human being. Rather like his old man, in fact.

At last: a full at-home rapid coronavirus test – Axios

If we’re ever to get this virus under some kind of control, the first step is not a distant vaccine but a cheap, quick and easy test. It looks as though one may have arrived. At any rate the American pharma firm Gauss and Cellux has announced what it describes as the first full at-home rapid coronavirus test.

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Wednesday 16 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

“No man should escape our universities without knowing how little he knows”.

  • J. Robert Oppenheimer

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

John Field – Nocturne No. 5 in B flat major


According to Nate Silver Biden is on course to win on November 3

I’ve just been looking at his latest projection.

I can’t help remembering that at this time in 2016 he was convinced that Hilary Clinton would win!

How to (Actually) Save Time When You’re Working Remotely

From the Harvard Business Review:

While the widespread shift to remote work hasn’t been without its challenges, it does offer a major silver lining: For many of us, commuting has become a thing of the past. In the United States alone, eliminating the daily commute has saved workers around 89 million hours each week — equivalent to time savings of more than 44.5 million full workdays since the pandemic began! These numbers suggest that working remotely could be a deus ex machina for reclaiming one of our most precious and limited resources: time.

But despite the potential for staggering time savings, many have struggled to achieve everything they hoped the pandemic would finally make time for: baking sourdough, meditating, or writing the next great literary masterpiece. On the contrary, data we collected from 12,000 people across the U.S. and Europe during the pandemic show that the additional time is often burned on unproductive work and unsatisfying leisure activities. Having more time does not necessarily mean that we use it wisely. So, what are we doing wrong?

Answers on a stamped, addressed, handmade postcard.

HT to Charles Arthur, who spotted it.

Stop Expecting Life to Go Back to Normal Next Year

Well, actually, I wasn’t expecting that. But it’s the headline on a NYT OpEd today:

Anthony Fauci warned us last week that Covid-19 is likely to be hanging over our lives well into 2021. He’s right, of course. We need to accept this reality and take steps to meet it rather than deny his message.

Many Americans are resistant to this possibility. They’re hoping to restart postponed sports seasons, attend schools more easily, enjoy rescheduled vacations and participate in delayed parties and gatherings.

It is completely understandable that many are tiring of restrictions due to Covid-19. Unfortunately, their resolve is weakening right when we need it to harden. This could cost us dearly.

The unrealistic optimism stems in part from the fact that people have started pinning their hopes on a medical breakthrough. There have been promising developments. Remdesivir holds potential for those who are hospitalized. Convalescent plasma might do the same. Antibody treatments might improve outcomes for some or prevent infections in those at highest risk…

It’s an interesting and not very cheery assessment.

The bottom line is that we’re in a marathon when too many people think it’s a sprint.

Nicci Gerrard’s crowdfunding campaign is half-way to meeting its target!

Please consider donating. It’s a great cause.

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Tuesday 15 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Where there is much to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinions in good men is but knowledge in the making.”

  • Milton, Areopagatica

Yeah, but that was before social media :-(

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Here Comes The Sun – Gabriella Quevedo


How GitLab is transforming the future of online work

GitLab is a company which makes an application that enables developers to collaborate while writing and launching software. But it has no physical headquarters. Instead, it has more than 1,300 employees spread across 67 countries and nearly every time zone, all of them working either from home or (in nonpandemic times) in co-working spaces. So in contrast with most companies — which are trying to figure out how to manage remote working — it’s been doing so successfully for years.

FastCompany has an interesting piece on what the rest of us might learn from GitLab’s experience.

Research shows that talking about non-work-related things with colleagues facilitates trust, helps break down silos among departments, and makes employees more productive. At GitLab, all of this has always had to happen remotely.

The company takes these relaxed interactions so seriously that it has a specified protocol in its employee handbook, which is publicly available online in its entirety. If printed, it would span more than 7,100 pages.

The section on “Informal Communication in an All-Remote Environment” meticulously details more than three dozen ways coworkers can virtually connect beyond the basic Zoom call, from Donut Bot chats (where members of the #donut_be_strangers Slack channel are randomly paired) to Juice Box talks (for family members of employees to get to know one another). There are also international pizza parties, virtual scavenger hunts, and a shared “Team DJ Zoom Room.

But in addition to cultivating a vibrant culture of watercooler Zoom meetings over the past decade GitLab has also tackled a real problem in remote-working organisations: how to effectively induct new recruits into such a distributed organisational culture. It’s done this by setting rules for email and Slack to ensure that far-flung employees, working on different schedules around the globe, are looped in to essential messages.

To make this possible, the company has designed a workplace that makes other companies’ approach to transparency look positively opaque. At GitLab, meetings, memos, notes, and more are available to everyone within the company—and, for the most part, to everyone outside of it, too. Part of this embrace of transparency comes from the open-source ethos upon which GitLab was founded. (GitLab offers a free “community” version of its product, as well as a proprietary enterprise one.) But it’s also crucial to keeping employees in lockstep, in terms of product development and corporate culture.

GitLab raised $268 million last September at a $2.75 billion valuation and is rumored to be preparing for a direct public offering. (Its biggest competitor is GitHub, which Microsoft acquired for $7.5 billion in 2018.) As the company’s profile rises, its idiosyncratic workplace culture is attracting attention.

This is interesting. Lots of organisations could learn lessons from this. Maybe GitLab should spin out a consultancy business.

Life in the Wake of COVID-19

Lovely, moving photo essay

In April, José Collantes contracted the new coronavirus and quarantined himself in a hotel set up by the government in Santiago, Chile, away from his wife and young daughter. The 36-year-old Peruvian migrant showed only mild symptoms, and returned home in May, only to discover his wife, Silvia Cano, had also fallen ill. Silvia’s condition worsened quickly, and she was taken to a nearby hospital with pneumonia. Although they spoke on the phone, José and their 5-year-old daughter Kehity never saw Silvia again—she passed away in June, at the age of 37, due to complications from COVID-19. José found that he’d suddenly become a single parent, and felt haunted by questions about why Silvia had died and he survived.

AI ethics groups are repeating one of society’s classic mistakes

It’s funny to see how the tech industry suddenly discovered ethics, a subject about which the industry’s companies were almost as ignorant as tobacco companies or soft-drinks manufacturers. Now, ‘ethics’ and ‘oversight’ boards are springing up everywhere, most of which are patently pre-emptive attempts to ward off legal regulation, and are largely engaged in ‘ethics theatre’ — much like the security-theatre that goes on in airports worldwide.

This Tech Review essay by Abhishek Gupta and Victoria Heath argues that even serious-minded ethics initiatives suffer from critical geographical blind-spots.

AI systems have repeatedly been shown to cause problems that disproportionately affect marginalized groups while benefiting a privileged few. The global AI ethics efforts under way today—of which there are dozens—aim to help everyone benefit from this technology, and to prevent it from causing harm. Generally speaking, they do this by creating guidelines and principles for developers, funders, and regulators to follow. They might, for example, recommend routine internal audits or require protections for users’ personally identifiable information.

We believe these groups are well-intentioned and are doing worthwhile work. The AI community should, indeed, agree on a set of international definitions and concepts for ethical AI. But without more geographic representation, they’ll produce a global vision for AI ethics that reflects the perspectives of people in only a few regions of the world, particularly North America and northwestern Europe.

“Those of us working in AI ethics will do more harm than good,”, Gupta and Heath argue,

if we allow the field’s lack of geographic diversity to define our own efforts. If we’re not careful, we could wind up codifying AI’s historic biases into guidelines that warp the technology for generations to come. We must start to prioritize voices from low- and middle-income countries (especially those in the “Global South”) and those from historically marginalized communities.

Advances in technology have often benefited the West while exacerbating economic inequality, political oppression, and environmental destruction elsewhere. Including non-Western countries in AI ethics is the best way to avoid repeating this pattern.

So: fewer ethics advisory jobs for Western philosophers, and more from experts from the poorer parts of the world. This will be news to the guys in Silicon Valley.

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Monday 14 September, 2020

Cambridge: morning rush-hour

Trumpington Street, 09:10 this morning.

Quote of the Day

McJob: A low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice for people who have never held one”.

  • Douglas Coupland, Generation X.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Last Thing On My Mind, sung by Tom Paxton and Liam Clancy


That must have been some evening.

Computers for Cynics 0 – The Myth of Technology


If, like me, you’re interested in the history of computing, then Ted Nelson is almost a mythical figure. He’s an American pioneer of information technology, philosopher and sociologist. He coined the terms hypertext (the idea that text doesn’t have to be linear) and hypermedia (ditto for other media) and devoted much of his life to a utopian project called Xanadu — a global hypertext system that would store and display documents, together with giving users the ability to perform edits. On top of this basic idea, Nelson wanted to facilitate nonsequential writing, in which readers could choose their own paths through an electronic document. He outlined some of these ideas in a famous paper to the 1965 ACM national conference, calling the new idea “zippered lists” which would allow compound documents to be formed from pieces of other documents, a concept named Nelson called transclusion.

I first came on Nelson when writing my history of the Internet in the mid 1990s, and saw his work as a continuation of Vannevar Bush’s 1939 idea of ‘associative linking’ (which he published in a 1945 edition of The Atlantic) and as a precursor of Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web. Nelson was always very critical of the Web (and of its inventor) because Tim hadn’t built into it the possibility that a web page could be annotated or rewritten by a user. In other words, it was a one-way hypertext system rather than the multi-way concept of Xanadu. (We had to wait until Ward Cunningham invented the wiki for that to become possible.)

But although Nelson was firmly lodged in the collective unconscious of the Web I’d never actually seen him in action. Which is why coming on this video today was such a delight. He’s just as I imagined him — irrepressible and original to the core.

Some universities are doing admissions right

Universities that brought students back to campus have already seen a rough start to the fall, with more than 50,000 infections across the country. But some have seemingly cracked the code.

The big picture: A number of schools have managed to open up while quelling or even preventing outbreaks, either because they’re effectively testing and tracing or because they’ve got smaller student bodies and more rural locations.


But, on the other hand, see this rant by Scott Galloway, an NYU professor who has been right on a lot of other issues (including tech power). He thinks it’s not only unwise but immoral for American colleges to be re-opening at the present time.

Fasten your seat-belts. Scott doesn’t do nuance.

America’s Plastic Hour Is Upon Us

This is the strange headline over the long read of the day — George Packer’s essay on whether American democracy is capable of revival. The country is at a low point, he says, “but we may be on the cusp of an era of radical reform that repairs our broken democracy”. He’s good on how American politics has degenerated into its current crisis, and very informative on how radical and far-reaching Biden’s policy platform is (much of it was — shamefully — new to me), but at the end I remained as pessimistic about the future of American democracy as I had been when I started reading.

Here’s how he concludes the essay, though:

I began writing this essay in a mood of despair. The mood had grown so familiar, really almost comfortable, that it made me sick of myself and my country. But because I can’t give up on either—suicide is too final, and expatriation is no longer possible—I tried to think about the future and the past. And this is what I’ve come to believe: We have one more chance—in Lincoln’s words, a “last best hope”—to bring our democracy back from the dead. It will be like a complex medical rescue that requires just the right interventions, in just the right sequence, at just the right speed: amputation, transfusion, multiple-organ transplant, stabilization, rehabilitation. Each step will be very hard, and we can’t afford to get any wrong or wait another hour. Yet I’ve written myself into a state of mind that I recognize as hope. We’ve made America before. Self-government still gives us the chance. Everything is in our hands.

Cambridge sans tourists

I lived in the centre of Cambridge from 1968 to 1989 (I now live three miles outside), and one of the things I most liked about the city was how it was in the month of September. The town was always crammed with tourists between Easter and the end of August, but once September arrived the tourists disappeared and the local inhabitants used to emerge from their hideouts and reclaim their town. So suddenly you’d run into people you hadn’t seen since before the Summer, rediscover cafes and delicatessens that were no-go-areas during the tourist season, and so on.

But then that all began to change in the 1990s — largely, I think, because of the increasing prosperity of China. So Chinese and other oriental tourists seemed to come almost the whole year round and there were times when the town reminded one of Venice. It got so bad, for example, that I stopped cycling up King’s Parade because of the risk of hitting oblivious, selfie-stick-wielding tourists trying to get a portrait with King’s chapel as a backdrop.

And now? There are no tourists. And precious few locals either: they’re mostly still cowering in their Covid-resistant bunkers. But this morning was beautifully sunny so we cycled in early and I parked my bike in the centre and went walkabout with a Leica, taking pictures and drinking in the place. I had breakfast in the open air from a stall in the half-deserted market (looks as though many stallholders have had to give up during the tourist-famine), and sat listening to the conversation of the chaps from local building sites as they gathered for their elevenses. It was absolutely heavenly. Just like it used to be in the 1970s and 1980s.

Here are a few of the pictures (as well as the ‘rush-hour’ one at the top. (A click on each should give you a larger image.)

The Fitzwilliam Museum is defiantly open!

At least one stallholder is hoping that someone will want ‘souvenirs’ of their visit to Cambridge.

Great St Mary’s still looms over the largely deserted market.

And on the pavement outside the door of the apartment that Maynard Keynes used after his marriage the council has stencilled “Keep Left” in white paint!

Cognitive dissonance rules OK?

Given the slogan, I wonder how many of the mask-refusniks also believe that it’s a woman’s right to choose?

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Sunday 13 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.

  • George Orwell, 1945.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Glenn Gould plays Haydn Piano Sonata no.60 in C major (13 minutes)


It will take more than attacks on Huawei to win the tech cold war

My Observer column this morning. Banning the Chinese giant from using US components won’t stop a company that’s too big for China to allow it to fail.

Nobody knows how this attempt to strangle Huawei will pan out. The company is too big and too dominant in China to fail – and it’s unlikely the Chinese state would let it go down anyway. After all, Huawei still has a huge domestic market and non-aligned countries will still buy its mobile networking gear. But if one of the motives behind the American assault was to reduce the chances that China would replace the US as the global tech hegemon then it’s unlikely to work.

All that’s happened is that the campaign has highlighted the extent to which semiconductor design and manufacturing capacity have become key strategic assets. The Chinese understand this and there’s no reason that they can’t build that strategic capacity: all it needs is money and brains and they have plenty of both. And when they finally achieve tech parity, the US – and hopefully the rest of the world – will have learned a new slogan: the technological is not just political, it’s geopolitical.

Trevor Paglen has a fascinating, sobering new exhibition on the history of photography and its relationship to state surveillance.

His work brilliantly illustrates how artists can sometimes critique tech much more effectively — and efficiently — than we academics. He was the guy behind ImageNetRoulette, for example, a digital art project and viral selfie app that exposed how biases are intrinsic in facial-recognition technology. Here’s how the NYT reported in 2019.

When Tabong Kima checked his Twitter feed early Wednesday morning, the hashtag of the moment was #ImageNetRoulette.

Everyone, it seemed, was uploading selfies to a website where some sort of artificial intelligence analyzed each face and described what it saw. The site, ImageNet Roulette, pegged one man as an “orphan.” Another was a “nonsmoker.” A third, wearing glasses, was a “swot, grind, nerd, wonk, dweeb.”

Across Mr. Kima’s Twitter feed, these labels — some accurate, some strange, some wildly off base — were played for laughs. So he joined in. But Mr. Kima, a 24-year-old African-American, did not like what he saw. When he uploaded his own smiling photo, the site tagged him as a “wrongdoer” and an “offender.”

“I might have a bad sense of humor,” he tweeted, “but I don’t think this is particularly funny.”

As it turned out, his response was just what the site was aiming for.

An immodest proposal

Nice essay by Samuel Weber, meditating on the ageism intrinsic in mask refusal.

He starts by reminding us of Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal” for alleviating the shortage of food facing the growing Irish population. The essay, published in 1729, suggested that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food to rich people. This satirical hyperbole mocked heartless attitudes towards the poor, as well as British policy toward the Irish in general.

Samuel Weber has used this satirical lens as a way of thinking about contemporary attitudes towards the pandemic. The virus, he writes,

has one distinctive quality that might have appealed to Swift’s satiric talent: in attacking above all the poor and the elderly, it can be seen to be a kind of Malthusian force striving to rid “society” of its unproductive elements. This is especially relevant to the elderly persons “parked” in “nursing” or “old-age homes.” In French there is a good word that describes the reality of many of these institutions, even if it does so brutally: mouroir. It is a place people are sent to die, when there is no one willing or able to care for them in a less institutional manner. The spread of dementia, in its various forms, collected often under the name “Alzheimer,” has only increased this tendency of contemporary societies to dispose of the elderly by removing them to invisible institutional settings, more or less well-equipped depending on the financial resources of those subjected to them.

If he’d been around today, Weber writes, Swift would have had to modify his satirical proposal.

No one is proposing to eat the poor and the elderly. It is enough to dispose of them, just as society has tried to exclude them from public view by parking them in “homes” or in segregated housing “projects” where they are free to assassinate each other in a scramble for the profits of a socially imposed “drug trade.”

Not cannibalism today — that would be too crude. Today’s “immodest proposal” is being made practically if implicitly by all those who have decided that the extra effort involved in wearing masks, distancing, etc., is simply not worth it, since it only affects “others” and not oneself. This attitude and behavior should not surprise anyone, since it simply builds on the invisibility that is already a characteristic of most of the societies affected by this pandemic. Such invisibility — which sustains thoughtlessness and unconcern about structural injustice — has long been a “preexisting condition” of these societies. COVID-19 has only cast a fresh and harsh light on this — but it is a light that conceals more than it reveals.

I love these sharp perspectives on current events. Swift’s modest proposal also made a lot of people think — though perhaps not the right people.

Haven’t we come far

No comment needed.

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Saturday 12 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Marry me and I’ll never look again at another horse”.

  • Groucho Marx in A Day at the Races

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

“Don’t think Twice” as you’ve never heard it before: Bob Dylan with Eric Clapton


Personally, I much prefer the classic version with that lovely clawhammer pick.

Is Trump Planning a Coup d’État?

Did I really write that? I did: I was just typing out the headline on a sobering cover story in The Nation about Rebublicans who are worried that Trump is indeed preparing for an illegal holding-on to power. And they are organizing now to stop him.

This summer, shortly after scores of camo-wearing, heavily armed federal agents descended on Portland, Ore., to attack protesters, Charles Fried, Ronald Reagan’s solicitor general, pondered the implications of what he was seeing on the streets. What he saw scared him; he remembered the use of paramilitaries by fascist leaders in 1930s Europe, where he was born, and he feared he was now witnessing a slide into paramilitarism in the United States. (His family fled the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia.) Fried felt that President Trump was using the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies in a way that was “very menacing. You might as well put brown shirts on them. It’s a very bad thing.”

A Harvard Law School professor who still counts himself as a Republican and a board member of groups such as the Campaign Legal Center, Checks and Balances, and Republicans for the Rule of Law, Fried has grown increasingly worried in recent months about Trump’s willingness to stir chaos and violence as an electoral strategy in the run-up to November’s vote and about the willingness of his attorney general, William Barr, to burn the country’s democratic institutions to the ground to preserve this administration’s hold on power. Like earlier authoritarians, Trump could, Fried fears, utilize “agents provocateurs, getting right-wing people to infiltrate left-oriented and by-and-large peaceful demonstrations to turn them violent to thereby justify intervention.”

Fried, a student of history who chooses his words carefully, has concluded that Trump and his team are “certainly racist, contemptuous of ordinary democratic and constitutional norms, and they believe their cause, their interests, are really the interests of the nation and therefore anything that keeps them in power is in the national interest. Does that make you a fascist? It kind of looks that way, doesn’t it?”

The next two months are going to be increasingly weird.

What happens when populists encounter reality?

Lovely Financial Times column by Simon Kuper today. Sample:

Mostly, the Conservatives and Five Star have found a different route out of policy populism: by dropping the novelties and returning to some semblance of a traditional party. The Tories are veteran shapeshifters. In just five years, they have been David Cameron’s austerity Remainer party, a get-Brexit-done movement, a Boris Johnson cult and now an economically almost Corbynista anti-austerity pro-state-aid party, usually while providing the main opposition to themselves.

In other words, populists can campaign but can’t govern. And their policies, such as they are, tend to disintegrate when confronted with reality. But this is no consolation if people continue to elect them.

Jake Sullivan on the coming world order

If Joe Biden becomes president, then Jake Sullivan will have a big role in determining US foreign policy. I’ve just been reading an account of an interesting session he did recently with the Asia Society, in which he put forward this intriguing metaphor:

The future of the global order, said Sullivan, was among the most profound questions facing the next president. Asked to name an idol, Sullivan chose Harry Truman, who he said had been “more responsible than anyone else for building a global architecture for the 20th century.” The tandem of President Truman and his Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Sullivan said, had represented “the best traditions of American statecraft.” The two leaders, he said, had “built a web of institutions, alliances, across the Atlantic of a depth and texture that doesn’t exist across the Pacific.”

That post-World-War II order, Sullivan argued, had been “like the Parthenon,” with columns that included the United Nations, NATO, and the various Bretton Woods institutions. Now? “We’re entering a phase of the Frank Gehry international order,” he said, referring to the architect known for his complicated designs. “It’s not clean lines. It’s surprising, it’s sometimes formal and sometimes informal, sometimes linear and sometimes ad hoc, sometimes shiny and sometimes not. That is hard for people who grew up with a certain view of how rules and institutions are supposed to operate.”

Just to cheer you up, here’s a pic of one of Gehry’s buildings.

Michael Cohen’s “twisted umbilical cord” to Trump

Interesting interview in Vanity Fair with Micheal Cohen’s daughter. Here’s the bit that initially caught my attention:

That summer day felt like all the others before it, standing alongside Trump outside the pool area, discussing what Cohen writes was “some pressing business matter, like the size of the breasts of a woman sunbathing on a lounge chair.” Somehow Trump’s attention was diverted to another skirt walking off a tennis court. “Look at that piece of ass,” Cohen recalls Trump saying, as he whistled and pointed. “I would love some of that.” It so happened that Trump was referring to Cohen’s then 15-year-old daughter, Samantha.

Cohen informed Trump of his mistake. “That’s your daughter?” Trump responded.“When did she get so hot?” When Samantha reached her dad, Trump asked her for a kiss on the cheek, before inquiring, “When did you get such a beautiful figure?” and warning her that in a few years, he would be dating one of her friends.

In the interview, a steely Samantha has an interesting and revealing perspective on this incident:

I would have given a different account of the interaction. My dad always tuned out everything negative Trump said about him, but what I remember was Trump saying, “Thank God she got those looks from her mother. She certainly didn’t get them from you.” That’s the part that stood out to me. I was not desensitized to someone putting down my dad and insulting him and degrading him. That was one of the reasons I hated Trump so much.

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Friday 11 September, 2020

Autumn’s on its way

Seen on my walk home this morning.

Quote of the Day

“The trouble with epistemologists is that they think they know something”.

  • Guy Haworth

Musical alternative to the radio news of the day

My Back Pages (Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton & George Harrison)


How Police Are Using ‘Super Recognizers’ to Track Criminals

Interesting piece in Vice.

The term “super recognizer” first appeared in 2009 and describes people who can remember more than 80 percent of the faces of people they meet (the average is 20 percent). The neural-mechanism behind super recognition is still largely unknown, but the skill seems to be genetic and possessed by only about one percent of the population.

Today, police in many countries employ super recognizers (possibly including Hong Kong) but police in the United Kingdom have recruited more than most.

Kelly Hearsey is one such super recognizer…

Well, at least they’re not just using automated facial-recognition systems.

It’s amazing the abilities that some people have. Reminds me of the folks who can accurately multiply two 20-digit numbers in their heads.

Facebook doesn’t just mirror the world. It filters it for its own benefit.

Really good OpEd by Shira Ovide:

In an interview that aired on Tuesday, Zuckerberg was asked big and thorny questions about his company: Why are people sometimes cruel to one another on Facebook, and why do inflammatory, partisan posts get so much attention?

Zuckerberg told “Axios on HBO” that Americans are angry and divided right now, and that’s why they act that way on Facebook, too.

Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives consistently say that Facebook is a mirror on society. An online gathering that gives a personal printing press to billions of people will inevitably have all the good and the bad of those people. (My colleague Mike Isaac has talked about this view before.)

It’s true but also comically incomplete to say that Facebook reflects reality. Instead, Facebook presents reality filtered through its own prism, and this affects what people think and do. [Emphasis added]

That last sentence is the key to understanding the problem. The prism is driven by a particular business model. And it’s designed to achieve corporate objectives, not users’.

America Is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral

Long read of the day — Ed Yong’s latest piece in The Atlantic.

Here’s how it begins…

Army ants will sometimes walk in circles until they die. The workers navigate by smelling the pheromone trails of workers in front of them, while laying down pheromones for others to follow. If these trails accidentally loop back on themselves, the ants are trapped. They become a thick, swirling vortex of bodies that resembles a hurricane as viewed from space. They march endlessly until they’re felled by exhaustion or dehydration. The ants can sense no picture bigger than what’s immediately ahead. They have no coordinating force to guide them to safety. They are imprisoned by a wall of their own instincts. This phenomenon is called the death spiral. I can think of no better metaphor for the United States of America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. enters the ninth month of the pandemic with more than 6.3 million confirmed cases and more than 189,000 confirmed deaths. The toll has been enormous because the country presented the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus with a smorgasbord of vulnerabilities to exploit. But the toll continues to be enormous—every day, the case count rises by around 40,000 and the death toll by around 800—because the country has consistently thought about the pandemic in the same unproductive ways…

He goes on to list the nine big mistakes the US has made so far. The most horrifying one is #9: The Habituation of Horror:

The U.S. might stop treating the pandemic as the emergency that it is. Daily tragedy might become ambient noise. The desire for normality might render the unthinkable normal. Like poverty and racism, school shootings and police brutality, mass incarceration and sexual harassment, widespread extinctions and changing climate, COVID-19 might become yet another unacceptable thing that America comes to accept.

Ed Yong is the best journalist writing about this stuff at the moment.

Of Course Trump Couldn’t Resist Bob Woodward

Timothy O’Brien once wrote a book about Donald Trump — Trumpnation: The Art of Being The Donald. Now he’s written an interesting Bloomberg column reflecting on Trump’s experience with Bob Woodward.

My book turned out to portray a negative Trump. He then sued me for libel and lost. During the litigation, he had to produce his tax returns and other financial records, and he also had to sit for two damning days of depositions. The depositions, in which Trump, under oath, was forced to admit 30 times that he had lied over the years about all sorts of stuff are now a permanent part of the public record and his legacy. Trump would have been wise not to sue.

Trump would have been wiser not to cooperate with my book in the first place, and he would have been wise not to have cooperated with Woodward’s book, either. He didn’t cooperate with “Fear,” Woodward’s previous book, and that probably saved him some additional grief. But here’s the rub: Trump isn’t wise.

It seems that Trump regretted not cooperating with Woodward on his earlier book about him, and was convinced that it would have come out glowingly if he had engaged more directly with the reporter who brought down Richard Nixon. So, says O’Brien,

he ambled into the ring for round two, certain that he could steer the effort toward a positive outcome. Graham and others might have laced up his gloves and escorted him to his corner, but it was Trump’s choice. At age 74, he’s been battling and courting the media for the better part of 50 years. He knows the game.

Trump courts the media 24/7 because he is addicted to it, and addicts can’t help themselves.

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