Wednesday 31 March, 2021

Online delivery — Venice

Quote of the Day

”When the war broke out she took down the signed photograph of the Kaiser and with some solemnity, hung it in the men-servants’ lavatory; it was her one combative action.”

  • Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

John Garth | Keyboard Sonata in C | Allegro


Long Read of the Day

 The Soft Corruption of Big Tech’s Antitrust Defense

As the tech companies realise that they are going to become regulated they are mounting a massive covert rearguard action to influence the legislation that will affect them. It doesn’t just involve direct political lobbying: it involves subsidising real and phoney think-tanks, funding ‘research’ by greedy or unscrupulous academics and other stunts. This essay by Alex Kantrowitz provides a nice introduction to the soft underbelly of liberal democracy.

How Big Is Amazon, Really?

Thoughtful piece by Shira Ovide in the NYT:

I’m fond of repeating a shopping statistic that often surprises people. In the United States — even during the pandemic — only about $14 out of each $100 worth of stuff we buy is spent online. Amazon is responsible for roughly $5 of that.

So is Amazon a giant that dominates our internet spending or a blip in America’s shopping universe? It depends on how you look at the numbers. Amazon is huge in internet sales, but puny relative to all the goods Americans buy.

Our perception of Amazon’s size influences how the public and policymakers think about the company. And yet while the company’s share of spending matters, it also doesn’t tell us everything.

This is a useful piece which highlights the way we both over- and under-estimate the power of tech companies. Actually what it means is that we need appropriate ways of measuring the effective power of tech giants. And also that we need to recognise that each of them requires different regulatory approaches.

How to pitch an idea for an OpEd

Useful advice from Sifted, the Financial Times European-tech site.

Here’s what we’re looking for. A punchy opinion.

We like starting conversations. There’s nothing better than a somewhat controversial or unusual point of view to get people talking about a subject.

So, don’t pitch us an idea about why it’s a good idea to talk to your customers early on (everyone knows that!) Pitch us an idea about why customers are stupid and should be ignored at all costs. That sounds much more intriguing.

On the other hand…..

Here’s what we’re not looking for. Self-promotion.

We’re looking at you, VC firms. It’s not very interesting to hear about why you think your latest investment is great. (Of course, you think that.) And we’re looking at you, founders. It’s also not that interesting to hear about why you think there’s such a big opportunity in your niche. It’s okay to write about trends you’re a part of, but only if you place yourself within the bigger picture. Pre-written pieces.

Don’t send in pre-written pieces, just an idea, a catchy title and bullet points outlining the main gist of your argument.

Oh, and “Don’t send us something you (or your client) have already drafted. That’s what Medium is for.”

Don’t you just love that last jibe?

Critics and statues

Clive Page, citing yesterday’s Sibelius quote about nobody putting up statues to critics, asks: “What about George Bernard Shaw – he was surely an important critic and there seem to be several statues of him around, including in Dublin and Bournemouth?”

Interesting question (for which many thanks). The difference, I’d say, is that Shaw was a creator (all those plays, for example) as well as a great critic. He had a foot in both graves.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • The Overedge Catalog: New Types of Research Organizations. A catalogue of research institutions whose interests overlap with various intellectual silos. Link
  • The Year Earth Changed Trailer for a new Attenborough-narrated documentary about the side-effects of the lockdown. Link

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Tuesday 30 March, 2021

Which number?

Quote of the Day

”When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become President; I’m beginning to believe it.”

  • Clarence Darrow

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Little Village | She Runs Hot for Me


A souvenir of the days when cars were powered by a controlled series of explosions.

Long Read of the Day

Stefan Collini: Snakes and Ladders: Versions of Meritocracy

Marvellous long review essay by a master of the genre, reviewing Peter Mandler’s  The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Education since the Second World War and Daniel Markovits’s The Meritocracy Trap.

It’s a joy to read — full of gems. Here are a few:

”Where cliché led, could Theresa May be far behind? ‘I want Britain to be the great meritocracy of the world,’ she declared in 2016, ‘a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow.’”

“As usual, there is little mention in all this of the people who don’t ‘succeed’, but the clear implication is that, however grim their fate, they ‘deserve’ it: after all, everyone gets a ‘fair chance’, so it’s nobody’s fault but your own if you don’t take advantage of the ‘opportunities’ presented to you. We are asked to believe in a world in which individual agents are in full possession of undivided selves, unshaped by social determinants, and able to realise outcomes simply by willing them strongly enough.”

“In much recent social science, unmasking the sham of ‘equality of opportunity’ has become a familiar five-finger exercise. Study after study suggests that where people get to in life is largely determined by where they start. But the very fact that it is so easy to assemble the evidence for this truth gives the literature on the topic a slightly tired, stale character.”

“If you feel you are being unfairly discriminated against or are the victim of corruption, you may be angry and resentful, but your self-respect can remain intact – indeed, in some cases it can be enhanced. But in a pure meritocracy the losers, who are the majority, cannot apply that balm: the sense of being written off by the accepted rules of the system festers.”

On David Cameron’s enthusiasm for providing “ladders” up which able boys and girls could climb: “Ladders are confining modes of ascent, which don’t leave much room for choice: there is no overtaking and the direction of travel is fixed, rung by rung. Ladder-speak tends to ignore the fact that ladders are used for descending as much as ascending, and has nothing to say about what happens when someone on the way down meets someone on the way up. And of course there will always be some people who prefer to take the lift.”

“One reason university entry has become such a social flashpoint in recent times is that (wealthy) parents struggle with the fact that they can’t directly exercise the power of the purse at this crucial stage in their children’s education.” ….

On Peter Mandler’s apparent approval of ‘academy schools: “But one could tell the story a little differently by looking at the political economy of a process in which private capital, seizing opportunities created by central government, extracts profit by providing what had been a community service, using corporate power to take over more and more schools, and in some cases legally appropriating public assets and property for private gain.”

“The term ‘meritocracy’ soon slipped its original moorings and became used more loosely to indicate any set of social arrangements in which outcomes were, notionally, determined by ability (effort is a more recent emphasis), not by the traditional mechanisms of rank, nepotism, inherited wealth and so on. Contrary to the spirit of Young’s minatory sketch, it has become an overwhelmingly positive term, bound up with what it is to be ‘modern’. The implicit narrative of progress that the term now encodes has proved to be astonishingly impervious to counter-evidence.”

But to get the full effect you have to read the whole thing.

What We Got Wrong About Uber and Lyft

Remember how Uber & Co were going to solve the urban mobility problem and reduce the numbers of people driving round in their own cars? This interesting NYT piece asks why that didn’t play out so well

Here’s what more research is finding: In the past few years, on-demand ride services have been a major factor in increased traffic in U.S. cities, particularly in the downtowns of big cities. And most research is showing that the ride services have also been a significant reason for declining ridership of public transportation, especially buses.

Uber and Lyft have said that people driving themselves are the biggest sources of traffic. That is true, but it doesn’t explain the surge in traffic that the services have added to cities.

So what went wrong?

The answer is what traffic modelling studies — like the San Francisco one, or the series reported in the Boston Globe are suggesting — that wherever ride-hailing and other on-demand services proliferate, so does urban traffic. Or, as the Globe puts it,

These are just some of the unforeseen and unaddressed consequences of technological innovation. We have a habit of not connecting the convenience on one end — the merchandise arriving on our doorstep at warp speed — with the inconvenience on the other. A scofflaw delivery truck, perhaps. You know the one.

It seems that delivery vans don’t get parking tickets in Boston (by special arrangement with the municipality), even though they often block inner lanes and increase congestion.

Public support for trade unions is increasing — in the US!

Apropos the forthcoming poll of Amazon workers.

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Monday 29 March, 2021

Anger management

Quote of the Day

”Pay no attention to what the critics say; no statue has ever been put up to a critic.”

  • Jean Sibelius

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Antonio Salieri | Piano Concerto in B Flat | Adagio


Long Read of the day

Yes, experts will lie to you sometimes

Terrific post by Noah Smith, picking up from a tweet by Yascha Mounk:

From the initial hesitance to admit that masks work to the current hesitance to admit that the first dose of the vaccine gives you very strong protection against Covid, the whole pandemic has been a year-long demonstration of why the Noble Lie never works in practice.

Smith supports the allegation about masks:

In other words, according to Fauci, public health experts knew that even cloth masks helped prevent the spread of COVID-19, but they were worried that if they admitted that cloth masks work, people would conclude that N95 masks work even better (which is true), and hoard N95s, thus depriving medical workers who needed the supplies more. That’s the “noble lie” bit of the story. But Smith goes on to explore what is, in fact, possibly a more damaging untruth — economists’ ‘economy with the actualité’ —about the economic benefits of free trade.

Worth reading in full.

Will Amazon workers finally get to unionise?

This is an important week in the long arc of the history of workers’ rights. As Quartz puts it:

Close to 6,000 Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, will decide whether to unionize in a vote that ends Monday, with the results expected to be announced later this week. If the organizing drive succeeds—that is, if more than 50% of the ballots cast are in favor of unionizing—the Alabama warehouse employees would form Amazon’s very first union in the US, setting a precedent that could see workers at the company’s fulfillment centers across the country following suit. More than 1,000 Amazon workers in the US have contacted the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) about the possibility of organizing in recent weeks, according to the Washington Post.

“There are strikes and elections that become historical pivot points,” Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at Cornell University, told Bloomberg. “This is one of them.”

My fear is that this will turn out to be a re-run of the Proposition 22 vote in California. But if it doesn’t, then it could indeed be an historic moment.

Amazon — like Uber & Co in California — is vehemently opposed to the idea and has been campaigning vigorously against it. Interestingly, Joe Biden came out in support of the unionisation drive.

What Can We Learn from a Big Boat Stuck in a Canal?

Quite a lot, says Matt Stoller.

“After years of bitcoin and reddit short selling and credit default swaps and a million other things I don’t understand,” one random person put in a tweet that went viral, “it’s so refreshing to hear that global commerce is in peril because a big boat got stuck in a canal.”

That’s basically the story right there, it’s a big boat and it got stuck in a canal. The ship blocking the Suez, called the Ever Given, weights 220,000 tons, and is as long as the Empire State Building is high. Despite the hilarious nature of the problem, the disruption to world trade is large and serious, costing tens of billions of dollars. And if the ship can’t be dislodged soon, some consumers will once again experience shortages of basic staples like toilet paper.

That said, the reason this disruption to global commerce seems so dumb is because it is. It starts with the ship size itself. Over the last few decades, ships have gotten really really big, four times the size of what they were 25 years ago, what the FT calls “too big to sail.’ The argument behind making such massive boats was efficiency, since you can carry more at a lower cost. The downside of such mega-ships should have been obvious. Ships like this, which are in effect floating islands, are really hard to steer in tight spaces like ports and canals, and if they get stuck, they are difficult to unstick. In other words, the super smart wizard financiers who run global trade made ships that don’t fit in the canals they need to fit into.

And the cause of all this? Industrial consolidation into a series of effective shipping monopolies.

In 2000, the ten biggest shipping companies had a 12% market share, by 2019 that share had increased to 82%. This understates the consolidation, because there are alliances among these shippers. The stuck ship is being run by the Taiwanese shipping conglomerate Evergreen, which bought Italian shipping firm Italia Marittima in 1998 and London-based Hatsu in 2002, and is itself part of the OCEAN alliance, which has more than a third of global shipping.

Another, really interesting, link

  • How to make a Commodore 64 sound like a cathedral organ. This is lovely. In 2008 Linus Akesson had an epiphany about church organs:

“At least in theory, organ pipes produce very simple waveforms, much like 8-bit sound chips do-and the reason church organs don’t sound like chiptunes is primarily because of the acoustics of the church”.

He remapped the keys of a Commodore 64 so he could play it like an accordion, ran it though a reverb machine, and created what he calls the ‘sixtyforgan’. The video explains how he did it, and the Bach piece he plays at the end of the video shows the result. Magical. Thanks to Jason Kottke for spotting it.

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Sunday 28 March, 2021

Fire hydrant, Venice, 2016.

Quote of the Day

”It’s only the very young girl at her first dinner-party whom it is difficult to entertain. At her second dinner-party, and thereafter, she knows the whole art of being amusing. All she has to do is listen; all we men have to do is to tell her about ourselves.”

  • A.A. Milne

There’s real wisdom in that observation. I’m a reasonably sociable chap, but I hate receptions and what used to be called “cocktail parties”. So I evolved a strategy for getting through them. I would find someone (generally a male) who wasn’t engaged in conversation and introduce myself. Then I would ask him about himself — what did he do, where did he work, who were his colleagues, etc. He would happily oblige — and very rarely ask me any questions in return. After a while I discovered that this strategy had an interesting (and unexpected) side-effect. My involuntary interviewees often told third parties (who duly reported back to me) what an interesting chap I was.

When we come out of lockdown and I have to go to receptions again, I will of course, continue this practice. It never fails.

On a related tack… One of the most interesting women I’ve ever known was Patricia Cockburn, wife of Claud, the wonderful rogue journalist. When I was an undergraduate, she and Claud were very kind to me, and I sometimes came to lunch in Brook Lodge, their glorious, rackety, Georgian house just outside of Youghal in Co. Cork.

Patricia came from an Anglo-Irish family, the Arbuthnots, who were horsey, well-connected and pretty broke. They didn’t send their girls to University on the grounds that a better strategy was to try to marry them off to rich Establishment dudes.

So Patricia was a deb, and was often invited to posh dinners. She once told me a great story about being a guest at a dinner of some posh cavalry regiment. She was seated next to a retired Indian Army colonel, a fierce, pop-eyed gent with a luxuriant moustache, who looked like an escapee from an Evelyn Waugh novel and who completely ignored her. Eventually, in an effort politely to gain his attention, she asked him if he would like some water, offering to pour some from the crystal jug placed between them.

“Never touch the stuff” snarled the Colonel, and turned away. Eventually, Patricia plucked up courage and said: “But Colonel, how do you wash your teeth?”

Again, he swivelled round like a gun turret. “A little light Sauterne, madam”, he roared. The remainder of the dinner passed in total silence, at least on her part.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler | Brothers In Arms | Meistersaal, Berlin | 10 September 2007


Long Read of the Day

Your face is Not Your Own

Terrific essay by Kashmir Hill, who has in her time done great stuff on the dominance of tech companies, among other things. This piece is about the implications of the activities of a company called Clearview AI which has been hoovering up facial images on the Web.

The legal threats to Clearview have begun to move through the courts, and Clearview is preparing a powerful response, invoking the First Amendment. Many civil-liberties advocates fear the company will prevail, and they are aghast at the potential consequences. One major concern is that facial-recognition technology might be too flawed for law enforcement to rely on. A federal agency called the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) periodically tests the accuracy of facial-recognition algorithms voluntarily submitted by vendors; Clearview hasn’t participated. In 2019, the agency found that many algorithms were less accurate in identifying people of color, meaning their use could worsen systemic bias in the criminal-justice system. In the last year, three cases have been unearthed (none involving Clearview) in which police officers arrested and briefly jailed the wrong person based on a bad facial-recognition match. All three of the wrongfully arrested were Black men.

There’s also a broader reason that critics fear a court decision favoring Clearview: It could let companies track us as pervasively in the real world as they already do online.

Facial recognition is a toxic and dangerous technology. This isn’t just a speculative opinion on my part, btw. A good working model is on display every day in Mainland China.

Is online advertising about to crash, just like the property market did in 2008?

My Observer column today:

One of the most interesting developments of the past year or so was the revelation that serious outfits such as the UK Competition and Markets Authority were launching major investigations into the hidden, high-speed advertising auctions run by the social media platforms. This suggests that there’s something rotten in there: the claims of the companies about the effectiveness of targeted advertising are, basically, too good to be true.

If so, then we are mugs to take them at their face value. And it’s time to call their bluff. Which is exactly what Sinead Boucher, the CEO of Stuff, New Zealand’s leading online news and media site, did. In March 2019, she decided to stop advertising on Facebook, a move that her peers regarded as crazy. “That action had zero effect on our traffic,” she told a seminar at the Reuters Institute in Oxford. “We were prepared for a drop in our audience but it had zero effect. It made us realise we should think more about our decisions, instead of buying into the idea that you have to work with all the social media platforms.”

Maybe the social media emperor has fewer clothes than we imagined.

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Saturday 27 March, 2021

Look what I found in the garden this morning.

Suez 2.0

That whirring noise you hear is the sound of Gamal Abdel Nasser, erstwhile coup leader and President of Egypt, whirring contentedly in his grave. Readers with very long memories will recall that in July 1956, he abruptly nationalised the Suez Canal company, ostensibly on the grounds that its revenues would enable the construction of the Aswan Dam after the US and the UK had refused to fund the project. Since the canal was a critical conduit for seaborne traffic to India and the Far East, and Britain and France were the prime shareholders in it (and prime recipients of the revenues therefrom), the UK — under the leadership of Prime Minister Anthony Eden — conspired with France and Israel to invade Egypt to teach the upstart an imperial lesson for daring to hold the Western world to ransom and interrupt its supply lines.

The cod ‘invasion’ was what the US Marines would call a clusterfuck. The US refused to support the adventure, the pound dropped like a stone, Eden ‘resigned’ and ‘Global Britain’ suddenly realised that it wasn’t a global power any longer.

Now the canal is blocked by a giant container ship which seems to have run aground.

The Suez Canal handles around 12% of global trade, making it a key conduit in the world’s supply chains. Each day of blockage disrupts more than $9 billion worth of goods, according to Lloyd’s List, which translates to about $400 million per hour.

It’s 1956 all over again, but without the shooting.

Six years after the first Suez fiasco, Dean Acheson, who had been Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, famously observed that “Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role”. It’s still looking for one.

The procrastinator’s matrix

Yesterday’s post about the Eisenhower Decision Matrix prompted an email from Johannes Björkman with a link to an elegant blog post by Tim Urban on The Procrastination Matrix, which looks like this:


Quote of the Day

”She fitted into my biggest armchair as if it had been built around her by someone who knew they were wearing armchairs tight about the hips that season.”

  • P.G. Wodehouse

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Norah Jones | Don’t Know Why


Long Read of the day

Scott Galloway: The Sonic (Entrepreneurship) Boom

He’s always interesting. This week he’s thinking about what happens next as the world moves out of pandemic mode. And, as ever, his thinking is counter-intuitive…

Post-crisis periods are among history’s most productive eras. London rebuilt after the Great Fire with grand new architecture, and Europe after the worst of its plagues underwent a commercial revolution. The Marshall Plan turned enemies into allies, fomenting peace and prosperity for over half a century. Leaders also emerge from crises. Ulysses S. Grant was a washed-up soldier without prospects until war broke out, but that war created the opportunity for Grant to save the Union and advance the cause of freedom. This is all to say: In the next 36 months, I believe our economy will birth a new generation of web 3.0 firms and leaders. Why?

I’ve started nine businesses. The best predictive signal for their success has turned out to be the phase of the economic cycle in which they were started. Put simply, the best time to start a business is on the heels of a recession…

Thinker, Tanker, Scholar, Consultant

Every former policymaker in Washington is an academic, a researcher, and an adviser to big business.

Jake Sullivan is now one of the most powerful people in the US — Joe Biden’s national Security Advisor. The White House says that he has “spent the vast majority of his adult life in public service and academia” and “briefly did part-time consulting work for Macro Partners that was centered on his expert analysis of global policy trends.”

Jonathan Guyer of The American Prospect was not terribly impressed:

Newly released ethics forms show that Biden’s national-security adviser, Jake Sullivan, earned $80,000 last year from an academic position at Dartmouth College and $80,000 from Yale. But look to his affiliation with consulting firm Macro Advisory Partners for the less public but more lucrative work. Sullivan earned $138,000 for providing part-time “advisory services.” He worked for Uber, Mastercard, Lego, and big investment groups like Bank of America, Aviva, Standard Life Aberdeen, and Standard Chartered. (The Prospect reached out to all of the companies listed on Sullivan’s forms. Each one declined to comment or didn’t respond.) Separately, Sullivan earned $45,000 from Microsoft for providing advice to its president on policy issues.

Is there something dishonorable about working for big business? Sullivan never mentioned his role at Macro Advisory Partners in his bios on the websites of Yale, Dartmouth, or the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he was also a researcher. His corporate affiliation never appeared in articles he wrote for Foreign Affairs or Foreign Policy, The New York Times or The Washington Post.

At the same time as he was advising these companies, Sullivan was also serving as a top adviser to Biden’s presidential campaign. That’s a seven-days-a-week, 13-plus-hours-a-day job. Yet he still carved out time for the firm.

This seems to be par for the course for many of Biden’s appointees. They’ve spent their busy lives in the revolving doors between elite universities, law firms, tech companies, think tanks, consultancy firms, lobbyists and … government. And they look awfully like the crowd who constituted the ruling elite of the Clinton years.

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Friday 26 March, 2021

Named after the former US President and Supreme Commander of Allied forces in WW2.

Often recommended (to me) as an aid to decision-making.

My problem: I don’t have anyone to whom I can delegate stuff.

Quote of the Day

”Our boiler broke last week, so I skipped the newsletter. How weird must it be to be a plumber? Like that thing with the Queen thinking everywhere smells of fresh paint, plumbers must experience life as a series of smelly people who are thrilled to see you.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

John Garth | Cello Concerto in B-Flat Major, | I. Allegro moderato


Long Read of the Day

Ben Thompson on “Sovereign Writers and Substack”

As regular readers know, I’ve been puzzled about some of the fury and indignation directed at Substack (the outfit I use to send out this edition of my blog every morning) for allegedly inducing some high-profile writers (or whom the critics disapprove) to publish on Substack.

Ben Thompson has a daily newsletter (for which I pay a hefty annual subscription because he’s a really good analyst of what goes on in the tech industry). On Monday he turned his beady analytical eye on the Substack controversy, and came up with this intriguing concept of the Sovereign Writer as a lens through which to view the changes in our media ecosystem.

Here it is. And it’s worth reading in full.

The Alan Turing £50 note: the nerdiest banknote ever?

From The Register:

Turing’s face will adorn a polymer version, which replaces the familiar paper of old. Noting Turing’s contributions to codebreaking as well as to the fields of mathematics and computer science, Governor {of the Bank of England] Andrew Bailey said: “By placing him on our new polymer £50 banknote, we are celebrating his achievements, and the values he symbolises.”

Bailey also noted of Turing: “He was also gay, and was treated appallingly as a result.”

Indeed he was. Despite his wartime efforts, Turing was persecuted by the state for his homosexuality and was convicted of gross indecency in 1952. He died in 1954 from cyanide poisoning and an inquest determined his death as suicide.

He was eventually granted a posthumous pardon in 2013 following an apology in 2009 from then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

On the note, Turing’s birthday (23 June 1912) is rendered in binary on ticker tape, a medium he thought could be used to enter data into machines. And the table and mathematical formulae come from Turing’s famous 1936 paper “On Computable Numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem.”

UK Deliveroo riders can earn as little as £2 an hour

According to this report by Sarah Butler on the realities of the gig-economy, a survey of more than 300 riders for the food delivery service reveals that some couriers can earn as little as £2 an hour.

As the company prepares for an £8.8bn stock market flotation next month, analysis of thousands of invoices sent in by riders found that as many as a third of the riders who took part in the survey received less than the legal minimum hourly wage for over-25s of £8.72.

Deliveroo has said riders are paid more than £10 an hour on average, but the analysis by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism of invoices collected via Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain found more than half of the couriers were paid less than that.

It found that one cycle courier in Yorkshire was paid the equivalent of £2 an hour over 180 hours of work.

The food delivery group does not guarantee minimum pay rates, as it argues couriers are independent self-employed contractors not entitled to benefits such as holiday pay and thee national minimum wage.

Couriers are supposed to receive an average £4 to £5 an order but they say that pay rates are complex, making it hard to calculate what they are owed.

Deliveroo says those logged on to its app are not necessarily working for it, as they are free to reject work without penalty and could be working for other apps at that time.

Upton Sinclair 2.0?

This looks like an interesting read. Here’s an excerpt from the blurb:

In 1937, the famed writer and activist Upton Sinclair published a novel bearing the subtitle A Story of Ford-America. He blasted the callousness of a company worth “a billion dollars” that underpaid its workers while forcing them to engage in repetitive and sometimes dangerous assembly line labor. Eighty-three years later, the market capitalization of has exceeded one trillion dollars, while the value of the Ford Motor Company hovers around thirty billion. We have, it seems, entered the age of one-click America—and as the coronavirus makes Americans more dependent on online shopping, its sway will only intensify.

Alec MacGillis’s Fulfillment is not another inside account or exposé of our most conspicuously dominant company. Rather, it is a literary investigation of the America that falls within that company’s growing shadow. As MacGillis shows, Amazon’s sprawling network of delivery hubs, data centers, and corporate campuses epitomizes a land where winner and loser cities and regions are drifting steadily apart, the civic fabric is unraveling, and work has become increasingly rudimentary and isolated.

The New York Times has a good review which puts it in the same league as George Packer’s great book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. For example:

In Alec MacGillis’s urgent book, “Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America,” true fulfillment is elusive in Amazon’s America. Through interviews, careful investigative reporting and vignettes from across the country, MacGillis deftly unravels the strong grip Amazon has on the United States, from the ground level — in the inhumane working conditions of the warehouse, in rural towns upended by deindustrialization and subject to the glint of Amazon’s economic promise — to the gilded halls of Washington, D.C., where Amazon’s lobbyists flock.

Rather than the smooth story of innovation that makes Amazon’s rise to power inevitable, MacGillis reminds us that the company’s totalizing influence is one of parasitic opportunism, filling the spaces left by the decline of American manufacturing and taking advantage of industrial consolidation. Through careful detail and deeply humanizing portraits of communities impacted by Amazon, MacGillis gives us a picture of contemporary America as mere survival under precarity — the simple need for shelter, food and a safe workplace. Another one for my reading list.

On being married to a startup

Here’s an aspect of the tech world you rarely hear discussed: what starting a company does to relationships. Nobody who thinks that building a successful company is easy has ever done it. And anybody who’s been a marital or other partner of a founder will confirm how difficult it can be for everyone.

Sifted has an interesting piece by Amy Lewin who went round interviewing founders’ partners. It confirms what you’d expect. But she doesn’t seem to have talked to people whose relationships were vaporised by the stresses of converting a consensual hallucination into a working corporate reality. I wonder what the picture would be like if she had.

Another, hopefully interesting, link

  • Tim Hunkin: the Secret Life of the Vacuum Cleaner — Remastered for HD. This is truly wonderful — a revitalised version of a marvellous old TV series. It’s 30 minutes long, and worth every one of them. Link

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Thursday 25 March, 2021

Quote of the Day

”The only way to escape misrepresentation is never to commit oneself to any critical judgement that makes an impact — that is, never say anything.”

  • F.R. Leavis

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Ave Verum | Cello Solo in the Irish countryside | Patrick Dexter


Long Read of the Day

How to Become an Intellectual in Silicon Valley 

Nicely barbed essay. The keys to success, apparently, are:

First, the point of your interventions in the public sphere is not to “win” any “argument,” nor to attract new adherents or convince neutrals of the righteousness of your cause. It is to avoid competition. When competition seeks you out, as it invariably will, your task will be to lose the debate and propose ideas that “seem” (and often are) “shit,” since popular discourse is a test of conventional mindedness; to be truly radical, you must be wrong. Second, there is no absolute moral evil that cannot be playfully reframed on irrelevant grounds as a net historical good. Take, for instance, poverty: what looks to most people like a recipe for social inequality, resentment, division, and violence will be, in your spritely retelling, the most powerful mechanism for income mobility in the history of human civilization. Or consider, say, Pol Pot’s killing fields: bad for the people who got stuck in them, but good for Cambodia’s startup ecosystem? Nazis did bad things to the world in the middle of the twentieth century, but there’s no reason to think they won’t do wonders for agency culture at the Food and Drug Administration in the early 2020s. Your success as a Silicon Valley intellectual will depend on your ability to insert difficult but necessary conversations like these into the public domain. A couple of half-decent ratioed tweets about the beauty of population control or the necessity of transphobia, and you’ll be well on your way to securing your status among the Silicon Valley elite.

Read on. And if you’ve enjoyed it, consider reading Adrian Daub’s What Tech Calls Thinking: An Inquiry into the Intellectual Bedrock of Silicon Valley.

Facebook guidelines allow users to call for death of public figures

People sometimes look askance at me when I describe Facebook as one of the most toxic corporations in existence. Obligingly, the company keeps delivering confirmations of this proposition.

For example, this from the Guardian:

Facebook’s bullying and harassment policy explicitly allows for “public figures” to be targeted in ways otherwise banned on the site, including “calls for their death”, according to a tranche of internal moderator guidelines leaked to the Guardian.

Public figures are defined by Facebook to include people whose claim to fame may be simply a large social media following or infrequent coverage in local newspapers.

They are considered to be permissible targets for certain types of abuse “because we want to allow discussion, which often includes critical commentary of people who are featured in the news”, Facebook explains to its moderators.

So how does the company define a ‘public figure’?

The company’s definition of public figures is broad. All politicians count, whatever the level of government and whether they have been elected or are standing for office, as does any journalist who is employed “to write/speak publicly”.

Online fame is enough to qualify provided the user has more than 100,000 fans or followers on one of their social media accounts. Being in the news is enough to strip users of protections.

“People who are mentioned in the title, subtitle or preview of 5 or more news articles or media pieces within the last 2 years” are counted as public figures. A broad exception to that rule is that children under the age of 13 never count.

And this is the outfit which we now allow to curate the public sphere.

Other, hopefully interesting, links.

  • Job Posting: Assistant Professor of Robotics and Animal Husbandry with a Specialization in Dance. by Kate Brennan. You think it’s a spoof? You haven’t been reading job ads in US universities. Link
  • Four musicians and one cello. Link

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!

Wednesday 24 March, 2021

How do you do?

Quote of the Day

”The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines.”

  • Frank Lloyd Wright

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Crosby, Stills & Nash (Live) | Teach Your Children


Short and very sweet. I used to play it to the kids when they were small. They understood that it was their job to teach me. And that I was a slow learner.

Long Read of the Day

How to review a book

Watch Scott Alexander take on Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile.

A masterclass in how to be thorough, fair-minded and critical.

Memoir of a recovering Utopian

I was invited to give a brief talk on March 16 at a (virtual) symposium on the history of UK computing from the 1950s to the 1990s organised by the Royal Society. The video is here if you’re interested. It’s short — just under 5 minutes. (It’d have been longer if I had a Nobel prize, I guess.)

Why a thriving market in used EVs is needed to speed up the decarbonising of transport

Andrew Curry (Whom God Preserve) pointed me to this post by Andrew Salzberg:

One of the challenges of turning over the vehicle fleet to 100% electric is that old gasoline cars stay on the road for a long time, as I wrote about in an earlier newsletter and the New York Times explored last week. However, if each new EV can stay on the road longer than their gasoline counterparts, they can help accelerate the retirement of fossil fuel burning cars. That’s one reason to hope that EVs can have long and happy lives in the second hand vehicle market.

Since electric vehicles emit carbon dioxide when they’re made, keeping them on the road longer also spreads those emissions out over a larger number of miles. A thriving market for older EVs could help make them a better climate fighting tool.

Second hand EVs also make electric mobility cheaper and more accessible to lower income consumers. That’s important, since a valid criticism of EVs today is that they’ve mostly ended up in affluent hands. Cheaper second hand electric vehicles could also serve growing ridehail and food service fleets like Uber and Doordash (Uber’s even said so). Those drivers are looking for cheap-to-operate vehicles, and often aren’t in a position to afford the high price tag of new EVs. One way to rapidly electrify those fleets is to funnel a growing pool of second hand EVs into their hands.

In order to speed things up, we also need legislation to enshrine the Right to Repair in English law (as it is, I believe, already in France)

En passant The second-hand car market has always been an instructive place in which to learn about human nature. And also to learn something about the economics of information — as testified, for example, by George Akerlof’s famous 1970 paper, “The Market for Lemons”.

”I Beg to Differ”

Really lovely, insightful essay by Geoff Shullenberger about the interesting role that contrarians play in our media ecosystem.

If you (like me) spend too much time on social-media platforms, especially Twitter, you will have noted the outsized presence of a particular type: the contrarian. By this, I mean someone who nominally belongs to an ideological faction, but consistently dissents. You probably also have strongly positive or negative feelings about contrarians. But such loyalties tend to obscure the pivotal role this figure plays in the current media landscape.

The rise of the self-publishing platform Substack over the past year has highlighted the contrarian’s role, since many newsletters in its top earning tier (including this one) might be understood as contrarian efforts. For example, Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi are leftists who have attacked Democrats’ allegations against Donald Trump; Matt Yglesias is a liberal who has advocated causes like deregulation and population growth; Andrew Sullivan is a conservative who long advocated for gay marriage and was a vocal opponent of Trump. Other recent additions include castaways from previous perches like Bari Weiss (formerly of The New York Times), Freddie deBoer (formerly of Brooklyn College) and Scott Alexander (formerly behind the influential blog Slate Star Codex).

In investing, contrarianism can be an overt tactic. But you will rarely find an online political contrarian who openly embraces the label. Instead, it tends to be applied by others, often as an insult. The implied criticism is that contrarians only define themselves against the prevailing views of the group, without articulating an independent stance.

Worth reading in full.

Blockchain Democracy

Our Research Centre is holding a Webinar with the author tomorrow (Thursday) at 17:00 GMT. All welcome. Register here.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • What does your filter bubble look like? Interesting tool. Link

Here’s its verdict on me.

  • Was Len Sassaman actually Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor of Bitcoin? This is the most plausible conjecture I’ve seen. If true, it’s a sad story. The identity of Satoshi is one of the most tantalising puzzles of the digital age. Link.

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Tuesday 23 March, 2021

Homeward bound

The path back to our hotel in Norfolk. One Summer’s evening long ago.

Quote of the Day

“Well, I made the wave, didn’t I?”

  • Ernest (Lord) Rutherford, in answer to the jibe: “Lucky fellow, Rutherford, always on the crest of the wave”.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free | Billy Taylor Trio


Long Read of the Day

Gene editing: A potentially catastrophic policy decision

A thoughtful essay by Patrick Holden, an organic farmer and founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust, a body that works to accelerate the transition towards more sustainable food systems. He suspects that the regime now in charge of ‘Global Britain’ wants to remove the current regulatory barriers (probably represented as ‘Brussels red tape’) to gene editing.

Thanks to Janet Cobb for the link.

What if it was all a con?

Here’s a disturbing thought for us critics of the tech industry: are we unduly credulous about the capabilities of the technology? An example would be the widespread conjectures that attribute the election of Trump and the Brexit vote to social media and its capacity for targeted advertising? (I’ve argued before many times that anyone who attributes political earthquakes on that scale just to tech companies hasn’t been paying attention to what’s been happening in democratic countries since the 1970s.) But the drum-beat of angst about what networked technology and surveillance capitalism are doing — or are capable of doing — to civilisation as we have known it, continues.

We’re beginning, though, to see interesting indications of a rethink, or at any rate a reconsideration, of these questions. Lee Vinsel, Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Virginia Tech, for example, has a really nice essay, “Notes on Criticism and Technology Hype” on Medium.

“Recently”, he writes,

I’ve become increasingly aware of critical writing that is parasitic upon and even inflates hype. The media landscape is full of dramatic claims — many of which come from entrepreneurs, startup PR offices, and other boosters — about how technologies, such as “AI,” self-driving cars, genetic engineering, the “sharing economy,” blockchain, and cryptocurrencies, will lead to massive societal shifts in the near-future. These boosters — Elon Musk comes to mind — naturally tend to accentuate positive benefits. The kinds of critics that I am talking about invert boosters’ messages — they retain the picture of extraordinary change but focus instead on negative problems and risks. It’s as if they take press releases from startups and cover them with hellscapes.

Vinsen points to a nice piece in Scientific American  by the veteran science writer John Horgan in which he argues that “Debates about whether to “improve” our mind and body often exaggerate the feasibility of doing so.” For years, Horgan writes,

I’ve grumbled to myself about an irritating tendency in science punditry. I haven’t written about it before, because it’s subtle, even paradoxical, and I couldn’t think of a catchy phrase to describe it. One I’ve toyed with is “premature ethical fretting,” which is clunky and vague. I’m venting now because I’ve discovered a phrase that elegantly captures my peeve: wishful worries.

The problem arises when pundits concerned about possible social and ethical downsides of a technology exaggerate its technical feasibility. This happens in discussions of psychopharmacology, genetic engineering, brain implants, artificial intelligence and other technologies that might, in principle (that wonderful, all-purpose fudge factor), boost our cognitive and physiological abilities. Warnings about what we should do often exaggerate what we can do.

These are what the technology historian David Brock called “wishful worries” — ie “problems that it would be nice to have”. For example:

“As biotechnology affords dramatically longer human lifespans, how will we fight boredom? With neurotechnology-augmentation rendering some of us essentially superheroes, what ethical dilemmas will we face? How can we protect privacy in an age of tech-enabled telepathy?”

Then there’s Subprime Attention Crisis: Advertising and the Time Bomb at the Heart of the Internet, a fascinating book by Tim Whang in which he argues that digital advertising – the core business model of the Web – is at risk of collapsing, and that its potential demise bears an uncanny resemblance to the housing crisis of 2008. Evidence he cites includes the unreliability of advertising numbers, the unregulated automation of advertising bidding wars and the fact that online ads mostly fail to work. The link with the 2008 banking crisis is that in the current online economy the value of consumers’ attention is wildly misrepresented — much as subprime mortgages were in the years leading up to 2008. If online advertising does implode, Hwang maintains, the Web and its ‘free’ services will suddenly be accessible only to those who can afford it.

Fanciful? Hysterical? Not necessarily. One of the most interesting developments of the past year is to see serious outfits like the UK Competition and Markets Authority launching a major investigation into the hidden, high-speed advertising auctions run by the social media platforms. This suggests to me that there’s something rotten in there because the claims of the companies are, basically, too good to be true.

So maybe history may be repeating itself, this time as farce. In the years preceding the banking crash, the bankers took the world for a ride and screwed us all. Maybe the surveillance capitalist crowd have been doing just the same to us.

And the question we will ask when the penny finally drops? Will their bosses escape gaol just as the bankers did?

Another, hopefully interesting, link

  •  I Captured the Iceland Volcano Eruption from Up Close. Astonishing photographs. Shot by a professional landscape photographer, Iurie Belegurschi, with a Sony a7R IV camera and a DJI drone equipped with a Hasselblad 20MP camera. (We photographers are interested in these details.) Link H/T to Charles Arthur, who spotted it.

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Monday 22 March, 2021

Gravity’s Apple

An apple from the tree in the front garden of Woolsthorpe, Isaac Newton’s home in Lincolnshire.

One year on

On this day, exactly a year ago, I entered lockdown. As an experiment, I started keeping an audio diary, a recording of which appeared on this blog for 100 days. Here’s Day 1.


I stopped after a hundred days, partly because I was becoming increasingly busy and recording and editing a five-minute audio segment every day turned out to involve more work than you’d think. But because I was using a wonderful piece of software called Descript which makes a pretty good transcript as one talks, I wound up with a set of scripts for the 100 episodes. I then edited them into a short volume which is now available as a Kindle book for a modest charge — 100 Not Out! A Lockdown Diary.

Editing the diary for publication was an interesting exercise in repressing the wisdom of hindsight. After all, the whole point of a diary is that you don’t know at any point what the future holds. C’est la vie.

And while we’re on the subject of hindsight. . .

… The Plague Prophets

From Contagion to World War Z to Palm Springs, what the artists who foresaw the pandemic are thinking now.

Nice idea by Alissa Wilkinson on Vox:

To mark the one-year anniversary of lockdowns in the US, and the American death toll having crossed half a million and counting, I talked to seven of those artists — “plague prophets,” as I came to think of them. I wanted to hear about what crossed their minds when the pandemic hit, what they’ve learned in the past year, and what they’re thinking now. Like so many others, they’re sorting through unexpected resistance to mitigation efforts, what they’ve done to survive, and the disastrous consequences of misinformation. In their thoughts I hear echoes of my own — along with some hope for the future, if only we can pay attention.

One of the people to whom she spoke was Scott Z. Burns, screenwriter of Contagion — Steven Soderbergh’s film about a deadly novel virus that spreads around the world with horrifying results. The film was praised by experts for its surprisingly accurate depiction of a hypothetical pandemic. Not surprisingly, in early 2020, with news of a novel coronavirus on the rise, Contagion rocketed back up to the top 10 charts on iTunes.

“I expected that many of the panic-related phenomena we saw would happen,” Burns told her,

— hoarding of goods, fake cures, collapse of health care, and conspiracy theories about the origins and the effects of the disease. I also expected that the internet would become filled with misinformation and once again, science was unable to respond in a compelling way.

One of the problems with science is that it tends to move more slowly than conspiracy, as it relies on facts and experiments and repetition. Many of those things take time, and ideally, that time should be filled with leaders encouraging calm and focusing on what we do know. In the absence of clear information, we need to rely on leadership — and that was woefully lacking.

I did not expect that at all. I did not anticipate that wearing a piece of fabric over your mouth and nose in order to save lives would become so controversial.

Quote of the Day

”Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy”

  • Franz Kafka

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

John Garth | Cello Concerto in G Major, Op. 1, No. 6 | II. Siciliana


Long Read of the Day

The end of Silicon Valley as we know it


A fascinating essay by Tim O’Reilly, who is the nearest thing that the tech industry has to a sage. It’s long but worth reading in full if you have the time. If not, Andrew Curry has quite a good dissection of it on today’s edition of his blog.

Sherry Turkle on empathy and tech

Terrific interview with my colleague Ian Tucker on the publication of her new book, The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir.

Q: It’s quite unusual for an academic to put themselves central to the story. What was your motivation for writing a memoir? A: I see the memoir as part of a trilogy. I wrote a book called Alone Together in which I diagnose a problem that technology was creating a stumbling block to empathy – we are always distracted, always elsewhere. Then I wrote a book called Reclaiming Conversation, which was to say here’s a path forward to reclaiming that attention through a very old human means, which is giving one another our full attention and talking. I see this book as putting into practice a conversation with myself of the most intimate nature to share what you can learn about your history, about increasing your compassion for yourself and your ability to be empathic with others.

I also wanted to write this book because I’ve wanted to read this kind of book. That is to say a book where you learn about the backstory of somebody whose work life has truly been animated by the personal story. Many people have this book to write but daren’t because they think their work life should be pristine, that it should come from a purely cognitive place. And I knew that in my case, that wasn’t true.

Wonderful woman. And a great scholar.

Much of the Orwellian language that’s endemic in the tech business reminds me of Heidegger’s definition of ‘technology’ as “The art of arranging the world so that you don’t have to experience it.” Just think how Facebook has perverted the word ‘friend’, or how nearly every company has perverted ‘share’. As Sam Goldwyn might have said, in Silicon Valley if you can fake empathy you’ve got it made.

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!