Friday 18 June, 2021

Guy Haworth RIP

Guy died on Wednesday, after suffering a severe stroke a few days earlier. He was an eminent academic (with about 55 papers to his name), an expert on chess programming and an historian of systems engineering as a discipline.

In the late 1960s he and I shared a lovely sub-basement office in the Cambridge Control Lab when we were graduate students. He was a much better student than I was, and I always had the feeling that he thought I was a little weird. (Perfectly understandable: I was probably the only graduate student in Engineering who went to Raymond Williams’s lectures in Sidgwick Avenue!) But he was always genially tolerant of my eccentricities and I liked him a lot.

After we left Cambridge we lost touch for a while, and then I discovered that he was a dedicated follower of this blog. He was a very sharp and perceptive reader too — I have a nice little trove of short emails from him that would arrive first thing in the morning alerting me to a typo, or a glaring error, or adding something useful to my inadequate store of knowledge. And he was always as non-judgemental as he had been when we were graduate students together.

In March this year, for example, I posted a photograph of Trinity Lane in Cambridge and observed that Vladimir Nabokov’s room had overlooked the lane when he was a student in Trinity. Back came an email from Guy pointing out that the lane had also been used by Pasolini when he was filming the Miller’s Tale — something I wouldn’t have known in a million years. The last email came on April 23 after he had spotted a claim in Memex of the day before that Joe Biden had “dominated” Lina Khan, when of course I meant that he had nominated her for the FTC.

He was the kind of reader that every blogger dreams of having — fiercely intelligent, well-informed and generous. I was lucky to have known him. May he rest in peace.

Quote of the Day

Katherine Hepburn, on meeting her co-star in a new film for the first time:

”I’m a little too tall for you, Mr Tracy.”

Spencer Tracy

”Never mind, Miss Hepburn, I’ll soon cut you down to size.”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel: | “As steals the morn” | Amanda Forsythe and Thomas Cooley | Voices of Music


I love Handel, but didn’t know this aria.

Voices of Music is a non-profit artists and teachers dedicated to: performing and recording music composed before the year 1800; affordable educational programs for children and adults; advanced training for young professionals; and community outreach. There’s a donation link which I recommend.

Long Read of the Day

A virtuous cycle of worker power and technology?

What if higher wages drive faster productivity growth?

Recently, pondering the mystery of why the pandemic doesn’t seem to have been as economically devastating as we expected, I chanced on this essay by Noah Smith.

The other day I ordered at a restaurant on my smartphone. No waiter came by to ask me if I was ready to order. I scanned a QR code on a piece of paper taped to a wooden post; this brought up the menu on my phone, and I simply indicated what I wanted. As if by magic, a server appeared a few minutes later with the food. During my meal, no one wandered by to ask me if I “was still working on that”; when I wanted more food, I just used my phone again. I’m sure I’m one of many millions of Americans who’s learning to order food this way, as a result of the understaffing and social distancing rules imposed by the Covid pandemic.

While I was ordering this way, I kept thinking over and over that this shift is a real game-changer in terms of productivity. Let people order food on their phones, and the number of wait staff you need to deliver the same service goes way down. It’s barely more onerous for the customer if at all, and it eliminates the need to have human beings constantly sashaying around the establishment, eyeing how much diners have eaten.

Which is why he wasn’t too surprised when he saw this chart of how productivity appears to be rising sharply…

So then he starts to reflect, in his characteristically thoughtful way, on the possible reasons for this.

Read on to follow his reasoning. It’s worth the journey.

Edward de Bono RIP

I could never decide whether he was a genius or a charlatan. I enjoyed some of his books in the way I enjoyed the books of Roald Dahl. Some of his former colleagues in the Cambridge Medical School, however, seemed to be in little doubt about the question (which might have been influenced by the fact that his earnings were hundreds of times theirs!).

This Guardian obit by Stuart Jeffries is nicely balanced, as obituaries should be.

He was rarely burdened with humility, informing the world that his childhood nickname was “Genius”. By contrast, he did not suffer detractors gladly. Years after a stinking review of Six Thinking Hats appeared in the Independent, written by Adam Mars-Jones, De Bono told the Guardian: “That book, we know, has saved $40m dollars and tens of thousands of man-hours. Now, some silly little idiot, trying to be clever, compared to the actual results, that just makes him look like a fool.”

Mars-Jones retorted that when his review appeared, De Bono “wrote to the editor [saying] … that he was entitled to compensation for the loss of earnings which my comments had inflicted on his lecture tours (which he assessed at £200,000). He seemed less taken with my proposal that he pay a dividend to every journalist who, by taking him seriously, had inflated his earning power.”

At last, the Onion takes Bloomsday seriously

From yesterday’s edition:

DUBLIN—Professor Hanlon O’Faolin, once called “mad” at the Royal Irish Academy for attempting to reanimate the traditional body of Celtic folktales with the power of elcectic multilingual puns, is readying his apoplectic Bloomsday Device for activation on June 16. “Yes! Yes, they laughed at me yes but now yes I will make them pay and yes!” O’Faolin wrote in a letters to the Irish Times, promising the destruction of Dublin on the same day portrayed in Joyce’s Ulysses. “When the sun first strikes the Martello Tower, the first notes of ‘The Rose of Castille’ shall ring out, the streets shall run with rashers, kidneys, and sausages, and I shall forge in the smithy of Dublin’s soul the uncreated conscience of my race!” Dublin police say they are working around the clock from profiles to create a portrait of the professor as a crazy man.

Thursday 17 June, 2021

A photographer at Dartington Hall, overlooked by Henry Moore’s reclining nude.

Quote of the Day

”Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.”

  • Robert Frost

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sharon Shannon and Alan Connor | Lament for Limerick


First time I’ve heard them play together.

Short Read of the Day

Coding is not ‘fun’, it’s technically and ethically complex

Nice Aeon essay by Walter Vannini which rather punters the feel-good nonsense spouted by Education ministers everywhere.


Insisting on the glamour and fun of coding is the wrong way to acquaint kids with computer science. It insults their intelligence and plants the pernicious notion in their heads that you don’t need discipline in order to progress. As anyone with even minimal exposure to making software knows, behind a minute of typing lies an hour of study.

It’s better to admit that coding is complicated, technically and ethically. Computers, at the moment, can only execute orders, to varying degrees of sophistication. So it’s up to the developer to be clear: the machine does what you say, not what you mean. More and more ‘decisions’ are being entrusted to software, including life-or-death ones: think self-driving cars; think semi-autonomous weapons; think Facebook and Google making inferences about your marital, psychological or physical status, before selling it to the highest bidder. Yet it’s rarely in the interests of companies and governments to encourage us to probe what’s going on beneath these processes.

Victory for Tech’s Critics?

I’ve added a question-mark to that Bloomberg headline:

President Joe Biden named Lina Khan chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission, an unexpected move that puts one of the most prominent advocates of aggressive antitrust enforcement against U.S. technology giants in charge of the agency.

Khan’s elevation to chairwoman marks her rapid rise to the top of U.S. antitrust enforcement. Currently a professor at Columbia Law School, just a few years ago she was a law student at Yale University. Now the 32-year-old is in charge of one of two agencies responsible for policing competition in the U.S. The other is the Justice Department’s antitrust division.

This isn’t something I expected. I had fervently hoped that she would become a Commissioner. Making her the Chair is a brilliant move and suggests that Biden is more serious about controlling the companies than doubters believed.

Ms Khan is a remarkable woman. I’ve been following her since reading her pathbreaking article — “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” in the Yale Law Journal in January 2017. In a way, she’s the benign inverse of Robert Bork, whose 1978 book, The Antitrust Paradox shaped the way that American thinking and jurisprudence about antitrust evolved over 40 years. Bork’s view was that we should only be concerned about corporate power if there was evidence that consumer harm — for which price-gouging was a proxy — could be shown. But if companies weren’t inflicting that kind of consumer harm then we should be less concerned about their power. And since many of the products and services provided by the tech giants were both free and immensely popular with users, arraigning them simply because they were powerful amounted to punishing them for being excellent. (This was the ‘paradox’ implied by his book’s title.) My (optimistic) hunch is that Khan’s thinking will shape the next few decades of corporate regulation and jurisprudence in a different direction, at least in the tech industry.

My Observer column next Sunday is about this and the legislative blitzkrieg launched the other day by David Cicillene, the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Law and Administrative Law.

Andreessen Horowitz’s new blog

It looks like a multi-author blog on the Crooked Timber model. One of the initial posts is by Marc Andreessen, an individual who (a bit like Elon Musk) manages to be interesting, infuriating and insanely rich. And he’s often an entertaining writer.

His opening sally on this new venture is — predictably perhaps — a hymn of praise to the technology that enabled us to keep working under lockdown conditions. Sample:

Finally, possibly the most profound technology-driven change of all — geography, and its bearing on how we live and work. For thousands of years, until the time of COVID, the dominant fact of every productive economy has been that people need to live where we work. The best jobs have always been in the bigger cities, where quality of life is inevitably impaired by the practical constraints of colocation and density. This has also meant that governance of bigger cities can be truly terrible, since people have no choice but to live there if they want the good jobs.

What we have learned — what we were forced to learn — during the COVID lockdowns has permanently shattered these assumptions. It turns out many of the best jobs really can be performed from anywhere, through screens and the internet. It turns out people really can live in a smaller city or a small town or in rural nowhere and still be just as productive as if they lived in a tiny one-room walk-up in a big city. It turns out companies really are capable of organizing and sustaining remote work even — perhaps especially — in the most sophisticated and complex fields.

This is, I believe, a permanent civilizational shift. It is perhaps the most important thing that’s happened in my lifetime, a consequence of the internet that’s maybe even more important than the internet.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Magic Tricks May Fool You, but These Birds Can See Through Them Well, some of them anyway. Link
  •  Shutter sounds of 18 cameras from 135 full frame to 810 large format. You have to be a real photo-nerd to enjoy this. Also, it doesn’t mention the quietest cameras of all — the early screw and M-series Leicas. I always liked the solid ‘ker-thunk’ of my Hasselblad, which is featured in the video. Not a camera for discreet photography, though. It was an unobtrusive as an AK-47. Link

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Wednesday 16 June, 2021

The Man Himself

© National Portrait Gallery.

This portrait, oil on canvas by Jacques-Emile Blanche, painted in 1935, is my favourite picture of Joyce

Quotes of the Day

”My considered opinion, after long reflection, is that whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac. Ulysses may, therefore, be admitted to the United States.”

  • John M. Woolsey, US District Judge, in his judgment after the prosecution of Ulysses for obscenity.

Or this:

Ulysses… I rather wish I’d never read it. It gives me an inferiority complex. When I read a book like that and then come back to my own work, I feel like a eunuch who has taken a course in voice production and can pass himself off fairly well as a bass or a baritone, but if you listen closely you can hear the good old squeak just the same as ever.”

  • George Orwell, in a letter to Brenda Salkeld, September 1934.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Love’s Old Sweet Song | John McCormack


As you can tell, this is a very old recording. McCormack, a bel canto tenor, was a contemporary and friend of Joyce — who was himself a promising young singer. McCormack persuaded him to enter the national singing competition in 1904 (the year in which Ulysses is set). The story is taken up by this blog post by the James Joyce Centre in Dublin:

On 16 May 1904 Joyce participated in the Feis Ceoil singing competition.

The Feis Ceoil is an annual celebration of Irish musical talent with competitions in various categories including singing. In 1903, the Feis Ceoil tenor singing competition was won by John McCormack. The prize was a year-long scholarship to study in Italy. Shortly after his return to Ireland in 1904, McCormack persuaded his friend Joyce to enter the Feis Ceoil.

In preparation, Joyce started taking lessons from Benedetto Palmieri, the best singing teacher in Dublin, but he soon switched to Vincent O’Brien who was less expensive than Palmieri. Joyce had moved into rooms at 60 Shelbourne Road where he hired a piano to rehearse for the competition. Joyce sang in a concert given by the St Brigid’s Panoramic Choir on Saturday 14 May 1904, and two days later he sang at the Feis Ceoil.

The set pieces for the singing competition in 1904 were ‘No Chastening’ by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame), and ‘A Long Farewell,’ a traditional song arranged by Moffat. According to the review of the competition in the Irish Daily Independent on 17 May, “Mr. Joyce showed himself possessed of the finest quality voice of any of those competing…”

Part of the competition was to sing at sight from a previously unseen music score, and at that point Joyce simply walked off the stage. It seems that the judge, Professor Luigi Denza, had intended to give Joyce the gold medal but, when Joyce refused the sight-reading test, Denza could not place him among the medal-winners. However, at the end of the competition, the second-placed singer was disqualified and Denza awarded the third-place medal to Joyce. Joyce gave the medal to his Aunt Josephine and today it is owned by the dancer Michael Flatley.

I first learned of this from Fr. O’ Brien, my wonderful Jesuit English teacher — whose father, Vincent’ had been Joyce’s singing tutor!

Small world.

Long Read of the Day

 Virginia Woolf’s Reading of Joyce’s Ulysses, 1918-1920

Virginia Woolf’s brusque and disdainful dismissal of Ulysses (“merely the scratching of pimples on the body of the bootboy at Claridges“) is often quoted. But actually she was obsessed with Joyce and with the book, as this wonderful scholarly essay by James Heffernan demonstrates. This is how it concludes:

The startling diversity of Woolf’s comments on Joyce make one thing clear. None of them–not even the relatively complex assessment in “Modern Novels”– tells the whole truth about her response to his work. But a major clue can be found in her diary for September 26, 1920, where she writes again of the visit paid by T.S. Eliot a week before. Coming just after she had run aground in the middle of the party chapter about halfway through Jacob’s Room (on which she had been working for two months without a break), his visit–she writes– “made [her] listless” and “cast shade” upon her. Since she has already noted that Eliot praised the brilliance of Ulysses for its rendering of “internals,” of the inner lives of its characters, we might well guess the reason for her listlessness. She herself recalls: “He said nothing–but I reflected how what I’m doing is probably being better done by Mr. Joyce”. This strikes me as a revelation. By “he said nothing,” she presumably means that he said nothing about her own work in progress to accompany his extraordinary praise of Ulysses. What then could she conclude? That her own efforts to liberate the novel from the material solidity of the railway carriage and to focus its energies on the irrepressible life of the mind were probably being surpassed by Joyce, who was almost her exact contemporary? Praise him or damn him, she knew only too well that she had to reckon with him. The following April, when a “thin-shredded” cabinet minister asked her over lunch “who are our promising litterateurs?” she answered simply, “Joyce”.

But do read the whole thing. Especially today. It’s a model of how to do literary scholarship.

En passant: Woolf was such an incurable snob (which, I suppose, is one reason why she was such a terrific diarist).

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Tuesday 15 June, 2021

A wild rose, spotted yesterday on a walk.

Quote of the Day

”I do think it would speed things up if you followed my social media.”

  • Patient to psychotherapist in a New Yorker cartoon.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Blackbird (Lennon and McCartney) | Guitar adaptation | Soren Madsen


Long Read of the Day

On Algorithmic Communism

Long, thoughtful and interesting review by Ian Lorrie of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s Inventing the future: Postcapitalism and a world without work.

While neoliberal capitalism has been remarkably successful at laying claim to the future, it used to belong to the left — to the party of utopia. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s Inventing the Future argues that the contemporary left must revive its historically central mission of imaginative engagement with futurity. It must refuse the all-too-easy trap of dismissing visions of technological and social progress as neoliberal fantasies. It must seize the contemporary moment of increasing technological sophistication to demand a post-scarcity future where people are no longer obliged to be workers; where production and distribution are democratically delegated to a largely automated infrastructure; where people are free to fish in the afternoon and criticize after dinner. It must combine a utopian imagination with the patient organizational work necessary to wrest the future from the clutches of hegemonic neoliberalism.

In other words, accept the emerging realities of digital capitalism and learn from the Neoliberal Thought Collective on how to change the ideological weather.

Worth reading.

UK to abandon the backward glance

A thought experiment: Imagine putting a blackout screen over the windscreen of your car and then setting off to drive through a violent storm guided entirely by what you can see through the rear-view mirror and shouts from passengers who are leaning out of the side windows trying to see what’s ahead through the driving rain.

Well, basically, that’s how governments have traditionally been trying to manage their economies.

Now the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Alan Turing Institute have teamed up to do something about this. The press release has just dropped into my inbox:

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) and The Alan Turing Institute have today announced a new strategic partnership to produce close to real time economic statistics to help track changes in the economy while preserving privacy.

The collaboration, which will initially run for two years, between the UK’s national statistics institute and the national institute for data science and artificial intelligence will see ONS economists, analysts and data scientists working closely with a team of Turing researchers.

The first three projects set for delivery are:

Understanding Economic Networks – This project will utilise a variety of cutting-edge data science techniques to provide new insights about transactions between firms in near real time, allowing the ONS to better understand the impact of seasonal patterns and major events such as the Covid-19 pandemic or Brexit on the UK economy.

Economic nowcasting – By rapidly bringing together a range of new data, we aim to create economic models in close to real time that track changes in retail prices, household spending and income at a detailed local level, allowing us to measure the pulse of the economy.

Synthetic data and privacy preservation – This project will develop tools to allow the sharing of private datasets with a wider range of stakeholders, while preserving privacy. This can be done using synthetic data generators which offer a private way to generate data, whilst preserving statistical features in the original data set. Applying this methodology to sensitive data held by ONS would allow greater flexibility for collaboration between ONS and researchers in the wider community and government.

The Age of Combustion

Because of my decision to buy a Tesla last year, and the decision of governments everywhere to outlaw fossil-fuel-powered cars, I’d been searching for a term to describe the now-doomed era of the Internal Combustion Engine. I’d thought of calling it the ‘ICE Age’ but I’m sure many others have already thought of that. Stephen Bayley has come up with a much better term: ‘The Age of Combustion’, is the title of his new book (with the subtitle ‘Notes on Automobile Design’). I’ve pre-ordered it on the basic of an extract published (behind a paywall) in the Financial Times. Here’s a sample:

Tom Wolfe said that cars are “freedom, style, sex, power, motion, colour… everything”. And indeed, from Huckleberry Finn to Grand Theft Auto, via Kerouac and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, America reads like a road epic. Consider F Scott Fitzgerald, the great poet of ruined glamour and wasted promise. In 1920, flush with the advance from This Side of Paradise, he fired up his 1918 Marmon, bundled his wife into the passenger seat and drove from Connecticut to Alabama, so Zelda could rediscover the peaches and biscuits of her southern youth. They were looking for a lost Golden Age, a quest which later became the subject of The Great Gatsby. (In the book, a yellow Rolls- Royce plays an important part.) Fitzgerald turned this eight-day journey into a series of articles, which appeared in the US Motor magazine, in 1924, eventually published in book form, in 2011, as The Cruise of the Rolling Junk.

The reality was one of bust axles, blow-outs and misdirections, since Zelda could not read a map. Scott and Zelda never found their Golden Age, but Fitzgerald could not let the fantasy go. He described “an ethereal picture of how we would roll southward along the glittering boulevards of many cities, then, by way of quiet lanes and fragrant hollows whose honeysuckle branches would ruffle our hair with white sweet fingers”. That’s what a Marmon could do for you. On return, Zelda icily wrote “the joys of motoring are more-or-less fiction”.

En passant Bayley has been obsessed with cars for a long time — see, for example, his Cars Mini: Freedom, Style, Sex, Power, Motion, Colour, Everything and Sex, Drink and Fast Cars. So he’s spent ages thinking about the automobile culture that has shaped most of our lives. His new book peers forward to a time when self-driving cars will take the thrill out of motoring and replace it with drab mobility-as-a-service provided by fleets of autonomous vehicles owned by tech companies. So we’ll move from an era where owning a car was once a badge of adulthood to one where it’ll be such an inconvenience that only elderly boomers with more money than sense will want one.

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Monday 14 June, 2021

Remembering Zoombini

A thousand thanks for the dozens of lovely emails sympathising with us on the loss of our precious cat. I’ve tried to reply individually to everyone who wrote. The overwhelming message of the responses is that the relationships we have with our pets are often more intense and more important to us than we generally admit or realise.

Another thing: Zoombini’s sibling, Tilly, came with her to us on the same day 17 years ago. After Zoombini’s heart had stopped on Thursday, Tilly went to her, sniffed around and licked her ear in the way she often did, and then left the room. Since then she’s clearly been unmoored. It’s as if life has suddenly become boring for her. Hopefully this will fade and she will settle into a new routine.

When we came down stairs on Friday morning, we found her sitting on the doormat by the cat-flap, looking out. Was she wondering when her sister would return? Or just looking out? Who knows?

These are deep waters, Holmes.

Quote of the Day

”The trouble with Ian is that he gets off with women because he cannot get on with them.”

  • Rosamond Lehmann on Ian Fleming

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bob Dylan | Visions of Johanna


First time I’ve heard this version. Lyrics are hard to make out, so here they are.

Long Read of the Day

There is nothing so deep as the gleaming surface of the aphorism

A lovely — aphoristic almost — essay on the aphorism by Noreen Masaud.

The critic Susan Sontag underlined the point in her diary of 1980: ‘Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is willing to tell you; he thinks you should get it fast, without spelling out all the details.’ But this isn’t quite right. Part of the charm of the aphorism, and mystery, is that it doesn’t really expect its audience to ‘get it fast’, or even get it at all. Its slick form sets out to confound and stymie as much as educate.

Big Brother is still watching you and he goes by the name Facebook

Yesterday’s Observer column:

The security guru Bruce Schneier once famously observed that “surveillance is the business model of the internet”. Like all striking generalisations it was slightly too general: it was strictly true only if by “the internet” you meant the services of a certain number of giant tech companies, notably those of Facebook (including WhatsApp and Instagram), Google (including YouTube), Twitter and Amazon.

The trouble is (and this is what gave Schneier’s aphorism its force) that for a large chunk of networked humanity, especially inhabitants of poorer countries, these walled gardens are indeed what people regard as “the internet”. And that’s no accident. Although Chinese smartphones are pretty cheap everywhere, mobile data tends to be prohibitively expensive in poor countries. So the deal offered by western tech companies is that data charges are low or zero if you access the internet via their apps, but expensive if you venture outside their walled gardens.

Of all the companies, Facebook was the one that first appreciated the potential of this strategy…

Read on

New York Senate Passes Electronics Right-to-Repair Legislation

The legislation still has to pass the Assembly, but the Senate became the first legislative body in the US to pass a bill that would make it easier to fix your things.

From Matthew Gault’s report:

The New York State Senate has overwhelmingly voted to pass electronics right-to-repair legislation, becoming the first legislative body in the country to do so. It is a major step forward for a movement that has overwhelming public support and has been working toward getting a law done for the last several years.

“It protects consumers from the monopolistic practices of manufacturers,” Senator Phil Boyle said on the floor. “We all have computers, laptops, and smartphones that we repair once in a while. Many times we have to send them back to the manufacturer for simple repairs that cost a lot more. Now people can repair their own computers, laptops, and smartphones, and farm equipment. We don’t have to send them back to the manufacturers.”

The Senate passed the bill with 51 Senators voting for and only 12 voting against. The bill still has to pass the Assembly on an extremely tight deadline—New York’s legislative session ends Thursday. If enacted, New York’s Digital Fair Repair Act would be the first of its kind in the United States. One of its strengths is its simplicity. According to the text, it “requires OEMs to make available, for purposes of diagnosis, maintenance, or repair, to any independent repair provider, or to the owner of digital electronic equipment manufactured by or on behalf of, or sold by, the OEM, on fair and reasonable terms, documentation, parts, and tools, inclusive of any updates to information or embedded software.”

Also — See Cory Doctorow’s blast on this subject — “Monopolists are winning the Repair Wars”.

Ed Yong wins a Pulitzer

Well deserved. Here’s his Editor’s letter to the staff of The Atlantic :

It is with great happiness that I share the news that Ed Yong has won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting. This is a wonderful moment for Ed, for his editors, and for the entire Atlantic.

Ed has become the indispensable reporter of the pandemic, and I’m so pleased that the Pulitzer Board is recognizing him for his outstanding achievements. Through his writing, Ed has illuminated pathways of understanding for tens of millions of our readers; he has been a sentinel, a source of brilliant analysis, a beacon of moral clarity; and he has provided comfort when it was needed the most. It is an enormous pleasure for me to count Ed as a colleague and friend. Ed is part of the best team covering the pandemic (and science more broadly) in our industry. One reason for their great success is that they lift one another up, and all of us are beneficiaries of this team’s selflessness and hard work.

The Pulitzers were opened to magazine entries five years ago. This is The Atlantic’s first win, and so an historic day for the magazine.

Seems to me that the only serious competition to Ed for the Explanatory Reporting prize was Zeynep Tufecki — who also writes for The Atlantic.

Dream on, Brexiteers

From Jonty Bloom’s blog

The latest Brexiteer fantasy is that the solution to the Northern Ireland Protocol is to place the border between Ireland and the rest of the EU. It tells you a great deal about the mindset of these people that they think their problem is so important that others will destroy themselves to help them but let’s just look at the facts.

Ireland is in the EU and the Single Market, is an independent country and regards Brexit as a very inconvenient mess, caused by the British government. Its huge economic successes have been built on being in the EU and it knows it. It is also best mates with the new American President, who like international law and thinks states should comply with the treaties they sign.

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Friday 11 June, 2021

Zoombini RIP

Our beloved cat, Zoombini, was — as the euphemism goes — put to sleep yesterday. After 17 years of vibrant life she suffered a stroke early on Tuesday morning which had left her pretty incapacitated. At first we hoped that she would slip quietly into oblivion but yesterday morning it became clear that she was in real distress and that the most humane thing to do was to put her out of her misery, which a wonderfully compassionate Vet then did. She died at home, in our bedroom, surrounded by those who loved her. And we buried her last night in our garden after a small, communal, Irish wake – which is why this edition arrives in your inbox later than usual.

She was a remarkable animal — the most intelligent cat I’ve ever known. She was wily, perceptive, affectionate, needy and could be imperious, so much so that we used to joke that she conformed to PG Wodehouse’s explanation of why cats are different from dogs — they know that the ancient Egyptians worshipped them as gods. She could never understood why we — her servants — never rose at daybreak, and made her displeasure vocally plain. Although we had a perfectly good cat-flap, she would on occasion sit outside the back door yowling insistently — and of course I would eventually cave in and open the door, at which point she would strut in, purring ostentatiously at the triumph of the feline will.

Her passing leaves a big gap in our lives. People who haven’t had pets will doubtless scoff at this. After all, she was “only” an animal. But in thinking that they are ignoring a fundamental truth: so are we.

(The photograph, taken over a year ago, shows her sitting on the keyboard of my Raspberry Pi, having (possibly?) inadvertently pressed a keystroke sequence bringing up the ‘install’ dialogue for the Thunderbird email client! And — in case you’re wondering — her name comes from an ancient computer game.)

Quote of the Day

”My face looks like a wedding cake that has been left out in the rain.”

  • W.H. Auden

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart |  Le nozze di Figaro | Voi Che Sapete (Cherubino’s aria) | Marianne Crebassa and the Dutch National Opera


Short but very sweet.

Long Read of the Day

The Cost of Cloud, a Trillion Dollar Paradox

The use of the term “cloud” for what is actually a global mesh of giant, air-conditioned sheds filled with computer servers, started innocently — it was the symbol that geeks would use on whiteboard diagrams to indicate something that was happening on the Internet rather than on a local network. But it morphed into a pernicious metaphor for concealing the environmental and security implications of putting all our eggs into a particular technological basket (just to square metaphors!). When the move to the ‘cloud’ had begun in earnest, Nicholas Carr, in his (fine) book  The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, dignified it with the logic of inevitability. After all, the smartphone revolution would be impossible without cloud computing.

But now one can see stirrings of doubt about this ‘inevitability’ proposition, which is why this perceptive piece by Sarah Wang and Martin Casado is interesting. Their argument is that while cloud computing clearly delivers on its promise early on in a company’s journey, the pressure it puts on margins can start to outweigh the benefits, as a company scales and growth slows.

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Thursday 10 June, 2021

Zoom with a view

Killarney, viewed from Aghadoe Heights.

Quote of the Day

”The four stages of man are infancy, childhood, adolescence and obsolescence”

  • Art Linkletter

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bob Dylan | Mr. Tambourine Man | Live at the Newport Folk Festival | 1964


Gosh! This old recording was a discovery for us ageing hippies.

Long Read of the Day

Why do people feel like their academic fields are at a dead end?

Terrific long blog post by Noah Smith who says that, in recent years, he’s noticed a lot of thinkpieces in which people talk about their academic fields hitting an impasse.

Maybe academics just always tend to think their fields are in crisis, until the next big discovery comes along. After all, some people thought physics was over in the late 19th century, just before relativity and quantum mechanics came along. Maybe the recent hand-wringing is just more of the same?

Perhaps. On the completely opposite side, there’s the “end of science” hypothesis — the idea that most of the big ideas really have been found, and now we’re sort of scraping the bottom of the barrel for the Universe’s last few remaining secrets. This is the uncomfortable possibility raised by papers like “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?”, by Bloom et al. (2020).

But in fact, I have a third hypothesis, which sort of strikes a middle ground. My conjecture is that the way that we do academic research — or at least, the way we’ve done it since World War 2 — is not quite suited to the way discovery actually works.

Aha! Now we’re onto something. He’s an amazing blogger, always original, always worth reading.

So… read on.

Life Expectancy Could Rise a Lot. Here’s What it Means 

Interesting column by David Brooks.


Even if you beat lung cancer or survive a heart attack, your body’s deterioration will finish you off before too long. The average 80-year-old suffers from around five diseases.

That’s why even if we could totally cure cancer, it would add less than three years to average life expectancy. A total cure for heart disease would give us at best two extra years.

To keep the longevity train rolling it may not be enough to cure diseases…

Endow Jones index crashes to Earth

Nice rant from Dave Pell in his daily newsletter

It was called the sharing economy. But what really being shared was billions of investment dollars from tech venture capital firms looking to use money as a weapon in the race to the top. What it meant for consumers was that our rides, resorts, and refreshments were all being subsidized by investors as part of a customer acquisition land grab. The prices seemed too good to be true because they were. “For years, these subsidies allowed us to live Balenciaga lifestyles on Banana Republic budgets. Collectively, we took millions of cheap Uber and Lyft rides, shuttling ourselves around like bourgeois royalty while splitting the bill with those companies’ investors. We plunged MoviePass into bankruptcy by taking advantage of its $9.95-a-month, all-you-can-watch movie ticket deal, and took so many subsidized spin classes that ClassPass was forced to cancel its $99-a-month unlimited plan. We filled graveyards with the carcasses of food delivery start-ups — Maple, Sprig, SpoonRocket, Munchery — just by accepting their offers of underpriced gourmet meals.” But at a point, even the winning companies have to charge more than they spend. And in many cases, that point appears to be now. In short, your allowance just got cut off.

This was triggered by an interesting NYT piece by Kevin Roose on how chickens have come home to roost for the sovereign-wealth-funded unicorns.

A few years ago, while on a work trip in Los Angeles, I hailed an Uber for a crosstown ride during rush hour. I knew it would be a long trip, and I steeled myself to fork over $60 or $70.

Instead, the app spit out a price that made my jaw drop: $16.

Experiences like these were common during the golden era of the Millennial Lifestyle Subsidy, which is what I like to call the period from roughly 2012 through early 2020, when many of the daily activities of big-city 20- and 30-somethings were being quietly underwritten by Silicon Valley venture capitalists.

But guess what? The laws of economic gravity are beginning to assert themselves.

Now, users are noticing that for the first time — whether because of disappearing subsidies or merely an end-of-pandemic demand surge — their luxury habits actually carry luxury price tags.

“Today my Uber ride from Midtown to JFK cost me as much as my flight from JFK to SFO,” Sunny Madra, a vice president at Ford’s venture incubator, recently tweeted, along with a screenshot of a receipt that showed he had spent nearly $250 on a ride to the airport.

“Airbnb got too much dip on they chip,” another Twitter user complained. “No one is gonna continue to pay $500 to stay in an apartment for two days when they can pay $300 for a hotel stay that has a pool, room service, free breakfast & cleaning everyday. Like get real lol.”

Sigh. Never having used Uber or Airbnb in those venture-funded days, I missed out on all those discounted treats.

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Wednesday 9 June, 2021

Welcome, Ol’ Timer

The ad Apple ran in 1981 when IBM introduced its PC.

(Thanks to Dave Winer)

Quote of the Day

”Though you think the world is at your feet, it can rise up and tread on you”

  • Ian McEwan

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Cherish the Ladies | Lord Inchiquin Medley


Cherish the Ladies is an interesting and talented group.

Long Read of the Day

Between Golem and God: The Future of AI

An illuminating essay by Ali Minay, who is Professor of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science and a member of the Neuroscience Graduate Faculty at the University of Cincinnati. His research focuses on complex adaptive systems, computational neuroscience, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence.

Maybe it’s because I’m an engineer, but what I really liked about this piece is the elegant way he structured his analysis round a simple diagram:

Anyway, it’s well worth your time.

The physical reality of ‘AI’

Kate Crawford’s Atlas of AI:Power, Politics, and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence is a landmark book which challenges the glib way in which ‘AI’ (a polite and misleading term for machine-learning) is regarded as an abstruse abstraction.

Last Sunday, the Observer carried an excellent interview of her by Zoë Corbyn. Here’s a sample:

What’s the aim of the book?

We are commonly presented with this vision of AI that is abstract and immaterial. I wanted to show how AI is made in a wider sense – its natural resource costs, its labour processes, and its classificatory logics. To observe that in action I went to locations including mines to see the extraction necessary from the Earth’s crust and an Amazon fulfilment centre to see the physical and psychological toll on workers of being under an algorithmic management system. My hope is that, by showing how AI systems work – by laying bare the structures of production and the material realities – we will have a more accurate account of the impacts, and it will invite more people into the conversation. These systems are being rolled out across a multitude of sectors without strong regulation, consent or democratic debate.

.What should people know about how AI products are made?

We aren’t used to thinking about these systems in terms of the environmental costs. But saying, “Hey, Alexa, order me some toilet rolls,” invokes into being this chain of extraction, which goes all around the planet… We’ve got a long way to go before this is green technology. Also, systems might seem automated but when we pull away the curtain we see large amounts of low paid labour, everything from crowd work categorising data to the never-ending toil of shuffling Amazon boxes. AI is neither artificial nor intelligent. It is made from natural resources and it is people who are performing the tasks to make the systems appear autonomous.

Worth reading in full.

Italy’s fading digital democracy dream

Interesting Wired piece by Michele Barbero.

The Five Star Movement (5SM), launched one of the most interesting experiments in using tech to revitalise democracy by reconciling thousands of disenfranchised citizens with democratic processes by giving them a say on strategic decisions and in the selection of candidates by means of frequent online votes. But, writes, Barbero,

over the past two months its internal processes have been disrupted by a painful divorce with the association that owns Rousseau, the web platform (named after the Genevan political philosopher and theorist of direct democracy) where the 5SM used to hold its ballots and debates. The end of a long stalemate between the party and the platform, this week, provided some respite – but questions remain on whether the party’s online democracy utopia can ever be revived.

In many ways, the row resembled an Italian opera buffa rather than a political showdown over the future of participatory democracy. The Rousseau association, founded by Gianroberto Casaleggio and his son Davide – now the president following Gianroberto’s death in 2016 – had long been complaining that many Five Star elected officials had stopped paying, with the blessing of their leaders, the €300 (£260) monthly quotas that accounted for much of its revenue. The organisation claimed that the total back fees amounted to about €450,000 (£388,000), a figure that the 5SM rejected, arguing that it had been calculated including representatives that had long left the party, and billing for services it had never asked for.

The billing fiasco will doubtless be used by opponents of digital experiments as proof that this kind of ‘direct democracy’ can’t work. But the interesting thing about the 5SM experiment is that it was the biggest experiment of its kind to date. It shows that governing is a difficult business, that deliberative democracy is hard and that the problems highlighted by Edmund Burke in his famous letter to the electors of Bristol are still relevant. The fact that there’s no magic tech solution doesn’t mean that we can’t use the technology creatively to reduce the distance between the governors and the governed.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Puffin island: a voyage to one of Scotland’s remotest habitats A wonderful photo-essay by Murdo MacLeod. They are the most beautiful birds. Link

  • US recovers millions in cryptocurrency paid to Colonial Pipeline ransomware hackers So much for the idea that crypto kept the Feds at bay. Link

ERRATUM The link to yesterday’s Long Read was missing. It’s Apologies for the omission.

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, 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!

Tuesday June 8, 2021

After the party

We had a nice family gathering in the garden one night last week. After everyone had departed I sat at the table, admiring the little Hay light that I got as a present. It’s a really lovely piece of kit.

Quote of the Day

”It’s fairly common to say that Google is the new Microsoft, but from a regulatory perspective Apple is the new Microsoft and Google is the new AT&T. (Amazon is the new Walmart and Facebook perhaps the new Murdoch.)”

  • Benedict Evans

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ry Cooder and David Lindley | Promised Land


Recorded in the Vienna Opera House (not what one usually associates with that staid institution).

Beautiful Reggae number. If it doesn’t improve your breakfast, then nothing will.

Long Read of the Day

The best books on the Industrial Revolution

Recommended by historian Sheilagh Ogilvie. Plus an interview in which she talks about the topic and the books.


Annoying, though, that Humphrey Jennings’s wonderful  Pandaemonium, 1660-1886: Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers wasn’t mentioned. Maybe it’s because it’s just an anthology.

What We Leave Behind

Wonderful blast from Scott Galloway from a year ago, as the extent of the pandemic was beginning to become clear (at least to those who were disposed to think about it.)

Essential workers. The term essential means we’re going to treat you like chumps but run commercials calling you heroes. Just stop it. We lean out our windows and applaud health-care workers, as we should. We don’t, however, lean out our windows to salute other front-line workers — the guy or gal delivering your groceries or dropping Indian food through the window in your back seat.

Why? Because, deep down, we’ve been taught to believe that we live in a meritocracy and that billionaires and minimum wage workers all deserve what they get. We’ve conflated luck and talent, and it’s had a disastrous outcome — a lack of empathy.

There is so much that’s jarring about American exceptionalism. An enduring American image of the pandemic is a makeshift morgue in a refrigerated tractor-trailer in Queens. Worse? We idolize the founder of Tesla, who’s added the GDP of Hungary to his wealth (all tax-free/deferred) during this crisis, even as we discover 25% of New Yorkers are at risk for becoming food insecure. This isn’t a United States, it’s The Hunger Games.

This country was built by titans of industry even wealthier than today’s billionaires — Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan. But 1 in 11 steel workers didn’t need to die for bridges and skyscrapers to happen. We are a country that rewards genius. Yet no one person needs to hold enough cash to end homelessness ($20 billion), eradicate malaria worldwide ($90 billion), and have enough left over to pay 700,000 teachers’ salaries. Bezos makes the average Amazon employee’s salary in 10 seconds. This paints us as a feudal state and not a democracy.

Our lack of empathy for fellow Americans is vulgar and un-American. We can and should replace the hollow tributes with a federally mandated $20/hour minimum wage. This “outrageous” lift in the hourly wage would vault us from the 1960s to the present. As of 2018 the federal minimum was worth 29% less than in 1968.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • China’s WeChat bans nose-picking, spanking in bid to clean up livestreams Reuters report. Link
  •  Government Report Finds No Evidence U.F.O.s Were Alien Spacecraft Damn. Link

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Monday 7 June, 2021

From the Preface to my copy of Keynes’s General Theory.

What caught my eye was the point that his readers will have difficulty not with the new ideas they will encounter in the text, but in sloughing off the old ideas with which they have been conditioned and reared. I see this all the time at the moment, as our governing elites can’t escape from their neoliberal conditioning.

Quote of the Day

”A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”

  • Richard Bach

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

John Garth | Concerto for Violoncello Nº 2 in B flat Major


Lessons from Trump’s short career as a blogger

‘From the Desk of Donald J. Trump’ lasted just 29 days. It’s tempting to gloat over this humiliating failure of a monster hitherto regarded as an omnipotent master of the online universe.

Tempting but unwise, because Trump’s failure should alert us to a couple of unpalatable realities.

The first is that the eerie silence that descended after the former President was deplatformed by Twitter and Facebook provided conclusive evidence of the power of these two private companies to control the networked public sphere. Those of us who loathed him celebrate his silencing because we saw him — rightly — as a threat to democracy. But nearly half of the American electorate voted for him. And the same unaccountable power that deprived him of his online megaphones could easily be deployed to silence others of whom we approve.

The other unpalatable reality is that Trump’s failure to build an online base off his own bat should alert us to the way the utopian potential of the early Internet — that it would be the death of the couch potato, the archetypal passive consume — has not been realised. Trump, remember, had 80m followers on Twitter and God knows how many on Facebook. Yet when he starts his own blog they didn’t flock to it. In fact they were nowhere to be seen. Indeed his blog, as reported Forbes, had “less traffic than pet adoption site Petfinder and food site Eat This Not That.” And he shuttered it because “low readership made him look small and irrelevant”. Which it did.

What does this tell us? The answer, says Philip Napoli in an insightful essay in Wired,

lies in the inescapable dynamics of how today’s online media ecosystem operates and how audiences have come to engage with content online. Many of us who study media have long distinguished between “push” media and “pull” media. Traditional broadcast television is a classic “push” medium, in which multiple content streams are delivered to a user’s device with very little effort required on the user’s part, beyond flipping the channels. In contrast, the web was initially the quintessential “pull” medium, where a user frequently needed to actively search to locate content interesting to them. Search engines and knowing how to navigate them effectively were central to locating the most relevant content online. Whereas TV was a “lean-back” medium for “passive” users, the web, we were told, was a “lean-forward” medium, where users were “active.” Though these generalizations no longer hold up, the distinction is instructive for thinking about why Trump’s blog failed so spectacularly.

In the highly fragmented web landscape, with millions of sites to choose from, generating traffic is challenging. This is why early web startups spent millions of dollars on splashy Super Bowl ads on tired, old broadcast TV, essentially leveraging the push medium to inform and encourage people to pull their online content.

Then social media helped to transform the web from a pull medium to a push medium…

He’s right. See today’s Long Read for Cory Doctorow’s expansion of this idea.

Long Read of the Day

 Recommendation engines and “lean-back” media

Typically perceptive essay by Cory Doctorow.

The optimism of the era is best summarized in a taxonomy that grouped media into two categories: “lean back” (turn it on and passively consume it) and “lean forward” (steer your media consumption with a series of conscious decisions that explores a vast landscape).

Lean-forward media was intensely sociable: not just because of the distributed conversation that consisted of blog-reblog-reply, but also thanks to user reviews and fannish message-board analysis and recommendations.

Worth reading in full. Our media ecosystem has profoundly changed. And that means our culture is changing too.

Why a silicon chip shortage has left carmakers in the slow lane

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Once upon a time, cars were made the Henry Ford way, revolutionary in its time, but involving holding huge stocks of components to feed a relentless mechanised production line. As Japan started to rebuild after the war, its leading carmaker, Toyota, came up with a more efficient way of making them. It came to be called the “lean machine” and a key feature of it was to hold very small inventories of components and instead have the necessary parts delivered just when they were needed for a particular assembly task. It was the beginning of just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing and it eventually became the way all cars were made because lower inventories meant lower manufacturing costs, better quality and higher profit margins.

But JIT critically relies on an efficient, reliable and robust supply chain. If the chain falters, then everything grinds to a halt. This applies whether the part is a gearbox or a silicon chip and over the last two decades chips, particularly in engine management units (EMUs), have become vital to the functioning of even the humblest petrol or diesel vehicle. We’re heading towards a future when cars will essentially be computers with wheels. But even now, if the relevant chips don’t arrive, then it’s crisis time.

The current distress of the car industry stems from the fact that the chips aren’t arriving – for several reasons…

Read on

Another, hopefully interesting, link

  • Ice-skating Robot Also Swims No, I don’t need one. But interesting nonetheless. Link

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