John Banville on Graham Greene

Pure delight of a review essay in The Nation.


Greene chafed under the privilege into which he was born. His family may have been top dogs, but from his earliest days Graham was firmly on the side of the underdog. His parents’ people were moneyed, with business interests including brewing, which involved the slave trade: An ancestor, Benjamin Greene, ran a business on the island of St. Kitts in the West Indies that was worked by 225 slaves. Greene’s parents were first cousins, and both had tainted genes. Charles Greene’s father suffered from what Graham judged to be manic depression, like himself, and his maternal grandfather, an Anglican priest, was also mentally ill. The latter labored under a burden of guilt—presumably he had Doubts—and according to Graham, “when his bishop refused his request to be defrocked, he proceeded to put the matter into effect himself in a field,” doffing his frock and standing naked before his goggle-eyed parishioners. Perhaps understandably, the Reverend Greene became an unmentionable in the family, so that his grandson assumed he was dead (though in fact he lived until 1924) and must have posed “a living menace” to his daughter and her family. Out of such stuff are novelists made, and a “Catholic novelist” in particular.

I particularly liked this little story about Evelyn Waugh, another ‘Catholic novelist’:

Waugh was far more firmly, if not indeed fanatically, committed to his faith than Greene ever was; in the course of a private audience at the Vatican, Pope John XXIII is said to have interrupted a tirade by Waugh against the reformist spirit sweeping through the church by observing gently, “But Mr. Waugh, I too am a Catholic.”

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Big Tech Has Outgrown This Planet

Interesting blast from Shira Ovide in the New York Times. I particularly liked this bit:

The current stock market value of the Big Five ($9.3 trillion) is more than the value of the next 27 most valuable U.S. companies put together, including corporate giants like Tesla, Walmart and JPMorgan Chase, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Apple’s profit just from the past three months ($21.7 billion) was nearly double the combined annual profits of the five largest U.S. airlines in prepandemic 2019.

Amazon’s stock price increases have made Jeff Bezos so rich that he could buy a new model iPhone for 200 million people — and he would still be a billionaire.

Google’s $50 billion in revenue from selling advertisements from April to June was about what Americans — all of the Americans — spent on gasoline and gas station purchases last month.

The annual revenue of one of Microsoft’s side businesses, LinkedIn, is nearly four times that of Zoom Video Communications, a star of the pandemic, in the past year.

Facebook expects to dole out more cash outfitting its computer hubs and offices in 2021 than Exxon spends around the world to dig oil and gas out of the ground in a year.

Amazon fell short of investors’ expectations on Thursday. But in the past year, Amazon’s e-commerce revenue still climbed by $109 billion — an increase in a single year that Walmart needed the past nine years to reach.

And this:

Logic would suggest that if the companies are fighting off lots of rivals, they might have to cut prices and profit margins would shrink. So how does Facebook turn each dollar of revenue, nearly all from ads it sells, into 43 cents of profit — a level that most companies can only dream of, and higher than Facebook posted before the pandemic?

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Friday 30 July, 2021

Quote of the Day

”Edith wholly ignorant. She said that port was made with methylated spirit: she knew this for a fact because her charwoman told her.”

  • Evelyn Waugh, writing of Edith Sitwell, in his diary.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mendelssohn | Song without Words | Jacqueline du Pré


A recording I’ve never heard before. Lovely.

Long Read of the Day

The thermocline of truth by Rob Miller.

In organisations, reality is not always what it seems. Why is it that often things look rosy right up until they fall apart?

Among other things, this is the best piece I’ve seen about one of the biggest miscarriage of British justice in at least 50 years — the way the UK Post Office prosecuted, bankrupted and destroyed the lives of hundreds of innocent postmasters by accusing them for theft while all the while the ‘missing’ money was an artefact of a bug in the Post Office’s accounting system.

It also provides an analytical way of explaining why those at the very top of large organisations often have no idea of what’s going on until it’s too late.


Thanks to Charles Arthur, who alerted me to it.

Chart of the Day

FT comment:

The three brought in combined after-tax profits of almost $5bn a week. At $56.8bn for the quarter, the total was almost double the year before and 30 per cent more than Wall Street had predicted. They generated a combined $189.4bn in revenue — 39 per cent more than the same period the year before, and some $15bn more than Wall Street had been expecting.

Sweating (contd.)

Further to the item yesterday about the lethality of humidity and the role of sweating in protecting humans, this lovely email arrived from Jonathan Rees (Whom God Preserve):

You have between 1 and 4 million sweat glands. In a sense they are like a distributed mini kidneys for pushing fluid across a membrane and reabsorbing some ions. More sweat glands than nephrons (some say…)

Max output is said to be 4 litres per hour (more than your kidneys). You can’t maintain this without constant fluid. When I taught medical students — in days when you could ad lib more — I used to make a comparison with how much beer you could drink in the bar and how often you had to visit the loo.

Humans are sweating machines. As we moved from the forest to the savannah — dry heat — we lost body hair to facilitate sweating because we became very energetic primates. Humans are better at losing heat than any other mammal.

The evolutionary problem then became how to protect the skin from UV (past-middle age bald professors of dermatology know hair is a great sunblock). The solution was re-badge melanins, molecules that absorb in the visible spectrum, but also absorb in the 290-400nm region (skin cell DNA damage max in 290-310nm). Old wine, new bottles. This is why blogging is good for autodidacts (like me).

Funny also how ’sweating’ became viewed as a vulgar term in Victorian times. (As in “horses sweat but ladies merely perspire.”). This was doubtless because the upper classes did no work. Paraphrasing Bertrand Russell’s great definition:

”Work comes in two varieties: the first involves altering the position of matter relative to the earth’s surface; the second is telling other people to do so. The first is agreeable and well-paid; the second is not.”

Gillian Tett on Trump and professional wresting

Very interesting podcast in the Media Masters series. The interviewee was Gillian Tett who’s now Editor-at-Large (whatever that means) at the Financial Times. Something she said about reporting Trump caught my attention. Here it is:

Well, I think that Trump is a symptom of many things, a growing level of polarization. But not just politically, also in terms of epistemology, in terms of how you process information. And there’s a lot of soul searching that needs to happen in the media world around this, because as journalists we’re trained to assume that command of language and words equates to credibility and respect and because we are trained to think and linear sequences, then everybody else must basically respect that and aspire to do the same. And of course the reality is that’s not the case at all. Much of the time, many people communicate in different ways, not through literal text-based analysis like journalists do, and Trump’s genius in some ways. And I use that word in a descriptive way, not in an admiring way, to tap into the kinds of communication styles that journalists were often very ill-equipped to understand. I write in my book about how I went to a world wrestling ring once because a friend of mine had told me if I wanted you to understand Trump, I had to go to a wrestling ring because the reality was that most of the American population knew him through wrestling, not through The Apprentice on TV.

But because wrestling is mostly a mass market, not elite sport. Most of the elites who were writing about Trump didn’t even realize that. And when you went into wrestling, when you realize that the performative aspect in terms of the crowd chanting and the fake aggression and the name calling and the staged contests and all of that were exactly what Trump had borrowed lock, stock and barrel for his political rallies. And elite journalists were very poorly placed to understand that because not only for the most part, are they not been to wrestling matches, but they tended to take him literally, but not seriously to quote Selena Zito, the journalist, as opposed to the crowds who were taking him seriously, but not literally because they were seeing it through the kind of performance and style of wrestling.

And I think in the aftermath of the whole Trump era, journalists need to really think about the degree to which not only are their perceptions of the world shaped by their own tribalism and that defensiveness in the face of the attacks by Trump, but also the way that they communicate and think, they often extrapolate that to other people where they look at how they think the world should work, rather than actually trying to ask other people humbling quietly, how other people think the world works. And that’s the lesson that I need to learn about to anybody else. You know, I got the Brexit vote completely wrong because I’d slipped into a period of rather lazy arrogance of looking at the UK from a distance. And after that, that was one reason why I remembered, you know, why I thought I’ve got to relearn my anthropology and go back to listening rather than just imposing my own assumptions on people.

I am thinking of replacing my electric car with a petrol car and have some questions.

From Reddit

  1. I have heard that petrol cars can not refuel at home while you sleep? How often do you have to refill elsewhere? Is this several times a year? Will there be a solution for refueling at home?

  2. Which parts will I need service on and how often? The car salesman mentioned a box with gears in it. What is this and will I receive a warning with an indicator when I need to change gear?

  3. Can I accelerate and brake with one pedal as I do today with my electric car?

  4. Do I get fuel back when I slow down or drive downhill? I assume so, but need to ask to be sure.

  5. The car I test drove seemed to have a delay from the time I pressed the accelerator pedal until it began to accelerate. Is that normal in petrol cars?

  6. We currently pay about 1.2p per mile to drive our electric car. I have heard that petrol can cost up to 10 times as much so I reckon we will lose some money in the beginning. We drive about 20,000 miles a year. Let’s hope more people will start using petrol so prices go down.

  7. Is it true that petrol is flammable? Should I empty the tank and store the petrol somewhere else while the car is in the garage?

  8. Is there an automatic system to prevent gasoline from catching fire or exploding in an accident. What does this cost?

  9. I understand that the main ingredient in petrol is oil. Is it true that the extraction and refining of oil causes environmental problems as well as conflicts and major wars that over the last 100 years have cost millions of lives? Is there a solution to these problems?

  10. I have heard that cars with internal combustion based engines are being banned to enter more and more cities around the world, as it is claimed that they tend to harm the environment and health of their citizens?? Is that true??

I may have more questions later, but these are the most important ones to me at the moment. Thank you in advance for your reply.

(Many thanks to Gerard for spotting it.)

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Thursday 29 July, 2021

Passage to Trinity

All Saints Passage. One of my favourite spots in Cambridge.

Quote of the Day

”The Right Honourable Gentleman is reminiscent of a poker. The only difference is that a poker gives off occasional signs of warmth.”

  • Benjamin Disraeli on Prime Minister Robert Peel

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sharon Shannon & Alan Connor | “Lament For Limerick”


Long Read of the Day

The homevoters and the haut precariat

Perceptive essay by Noah Smith, this time on how societies like the US (and the UK) are stratifying in new ways.

What’s less discussed are the classes of young people who don’t own homes. Some are poor or working-class, and are thus excluded from the economies of urban wealth and asset ownership. Among those are the class now being called the “precariat”, who lack steady employment and are forced to cobble together a living out of a web of tenuous work arrangements and social relationships. Others are successful high-earning PMC types, who might sigh at the price they have to pay for a home in a superstar city, but will eventually pony up the cash and become the next generation of bourgeoisie.

But in between those, I’m sensing there’s another class — people raised middle- or upper-middle class, but who for whatever reason have failed to get on either the income ladder of high-paying yuppie jobs or the wealth ladder of homeownership, and who are thus perpetually in danger of falling down out of the class into which they were born. I want to call these people the haut precariat.

Interesting and original — as ever with Smith. I don’t know how he does it.

Chart of the Day

From the Washington Post:

Respondents who get news about the coronavirus via Facebook are less likely to get vaccinated than the average American and than non-Facebook users. Sixty-one percent of those Facebook users said they had been vaccinated, vs. 68 percent of the eligible U.S. population and 71 percent of non-Facebook users. The relationship was stronger for those who said that they had received coronavirus news or information only from Facebook and not from any of the other sources mentioned. Sixteen percent of all respondents fall into this category, and only 47 percent of them report being vaccinated, with 25 percent saying they will not get vaccinated.

Cyberwar: a dry run for the real thing

From yesterday’s Financial Times:

Joe Biden has warned that cyber attacks could escalate into a full-blown war as tensions with Russia and China mounted over a series of hacking incidents targeting US government agencies, companies and infrastructure.

Biden said on Tuesday that cyber threats including ransomware attacks “increasingly are able to cause damage and disruption in the real world”.

“If we end up in a war, a real shooting war with a major power, it’s going to be as a consequence of a cyber breach,” the president said in a speech at the Office for the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees 18 US intelligence agencies.

Cold wars can get hot. And, as Biden said later in his speech, Putin has oil and nukes and nothing else.

Humidity is the killer, not heat

Reading about the ‘heat dome’ phenomenon in the Pacific North West, I was puzzled about why high temperatures are deadly in some circumstances but not in others. And then I found this article in Slate.

Why is 120 degrees in Palm Beach not the same as 120 degrees in Palm Springs?

It turns out there’s some truth to the old cliché “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” In scientific terms, it’s called a “wet-bulb temperature,” and understanding it is crucial to surviving—and mitigating—the climate crisis.

In reasonable heat, the human body is very good at maintaining a constant internal temperature of 97 to 99 degrees. When it gets hot outside, our bodies produce sweat; when the sweat evaporates, its transformation from liquid water on your skin to water vapor in the air requires energy. That energy comes from your body’s heat, so as the sweat evaporates, your body cools down.

A dry heat feels comfortable because the evaporation happens so fast that you don’t even notice the sweat on your skin. (This is also why dehydration is a huge risk in desert climates—while you feel the dry air is helping you tolerate the heat, you’re also losing water from your body the whole time. “Hydrate or die” is not just a clever slogan; it’s good science.)

Now suppose you’re in the same amount of heat, but in Palm Beach, where the air is incredibly humid. The air is already holding all the water vapor it can hold. So your sweat stays on your skin, and the heat that the sweat is supposed to remove from your body … stays in your body, and accumulates.

Your body has lost its ability to shed heat, and so your core temperature starts creeping up to approach the temperature of the air around you. Let the process go on long enough, and body temperature rises from comfortable 98 to deadly 108.

The article goes on to say that, according to the best climate models, large areas of the US will experience several weeks of hot wet-bulb temperatures by the middle of this century — i.e. in 30 years’ time. “By 2050, parts of the Midwest and Louisiana could see conditions that make it difficult for the human body to cool itself for nearly one out of every 20 days in the year,” ProPublica reported in September. During these periods of deadly heat, shade and hydration won’t save you. Any human without access to reliable air conditioning risks death.

And of course air conditioning itself contributes to global warming.

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Wednesday 28 July, 2021

The coolest mug in Washington

Show this mug to a Silicon Valley mogul and you might find them gibbering. Why? Because Tim Wu, Lina Khan and Jonathan Kanter are the leaders of the team Biden has assembled to tackle the companies.

Quote of the Day

”And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

  • Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach.

Sounds right for our times.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Daniel Hope & Christoph Israel | Fauré: Sicilienne op. 78


A splendid lockdown performance

Long Read of the Day

As China Boomed, It Didn’t Take Climate Change Into Account. Now It Must.

Sobering read in the New York Times.

China’s breathtaking economic growth created cities ill-equipped to face extreme weather. Last week’s dramatic floods showed that much will have to change.

Includes some striking photographs.

The next Euro crisis

From Politico:

HYBRID WAR’ AGAINST EUROPE: Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė spoke with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Monday evening. During the call, Šimonytė stressed “the need for the EU unity and further support from EU institutions tackling irregular migration flows to Europe via Lithuanian-Belarus border,” she said, adding that her government is concerned that Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko “ruthlessly exploits migration as a tool of hybrid war against the EU.” According to fresh numbers provided by Lithuania, 2,730 illegal migrants were apprehended this year, 37 times more than in 2020. Around 60 percent of them are from Iraq.

There’s been a significant jump in the number of Afghans trying to make their way to Europe, seeking shelter from the looming threat of a return of the Taliban, now that Western troops have left the country. Now take a look at a globe — Turkey is again a key country for Europe when it comes to dealing with this next migration challenge. Make no mistake: This summer’s crisis is here.

The Pegasus project

NSO is possibly the most sinister tech company in the world, but almost nobody outside of the tech security world has heard of it. It’s a privately-owned Israeli company best known for creating Pegasus, “a piece of software so powerful” (says the normally sober FT) “that it can hack remotely into any phone, pierce all its encrypted apps and turn on its camera and microphone to listen in to whispered secrets from a world away.”

Not surprisingly, NSO’s clients — spooks, mostly, I’d say — are pretty uncommunicative about it. Because it’s defined as a weapon, it’s regulated by the Israeli Ministry of Defence, which approves every export licence for the software — supposedly to ensure that it falls into the hands only of Israel’s current or potential friends.

The civil society organisation that has done the most useful and informed investigations of Pegasus is the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which is headed by Ron Deibert (Whom God Preserve). Their archive of these investigations is a goldmine.

In a stirring new development, 17 newspapers joined together in an Amnesty International consortium nicknamed the Pegasus Project. The subsequent investigation drew on a leaked list of 50,000 people that Amnesty says “is irrefutably linked to potential targets” and includes princesses and presidents, kings and courtiers, journalists and political dissidents, many of them critical of repressive regimes. (It’s widely believed that Pegasus was used to compromise the smartphone of Jamal Khashoggi prior to his brutal murder by a Saudi hit-squad in Istanbul.) In that context, selection of the targets uncovered by the Amnesty project makes sobering reading.

NSO has been profiting scot-free from facilitating authoritarian surveillance for a long time, possibly because it was shielded by the Netanyahu regime in Israel. But it could be that things are finally beginning to change. For one thing, the founders of the private equity firm that owns it seem to have fallen out and their other investors have seized control of the company’s $1B fund. Secondly, there are new ruling regimes in both Israel and the US. And thirdly there’s the Amnesty project, which is shedding light where hitherto there was just darkness and evasion.

So maybe, finally, this is a good news story.

Chart of the Day

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Tuesday 27 July, 2021

Royal visit

Possibly annoyed by the fuss I made in the first lockdown over the little blue tits who were nesting just outside our kitchen window, my friend David Vincent was looking for a way of demonstrating that we were just low-class birders. Hence this photograph of the kind of avian visitor who visits his bird-feeding set-up.

En passant My favourite New Yorker cartoon shows a male peacock with fully-extended regalia confronting a distinctly unimpressed female. “What do you mean ’no’?”, he is exclaiming.

You may have noticed the comedy of errors with yesterday’s edition. First of all, almost all of the links had been scrambled in one way or another. So thank you for the tolerant way in which many of you reported them. I then went through the entire thing fixing the links and hit ‘publish’ to get a corrected copy to anyone who might want it. In doing this I failed to notice that the ‘corrected’ version was for the 26th of January. Upon discovering this I rapidly lost the will to live.

However, I was revived by a sweet email from Patrick O’Beirne which reminded me that errors in corrections are a staple of journalistic lore. The example he cited was the celebrated one: “We apologise for referring to Mr Smith as a defective member of the police force; he is of course a detective member of the police farce.”

My problem, of course, is that I am an aspiring multi-tasker who was born with a bug-ridden time-sharing algorithm. When I mentioned this once to my friend Quentin, he said, reassuringly, “Don’t worry; we can always have you re-flashed.”

Quote of the Day

”If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is.”

  • John von Neumann

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Haydn | Symphony No.59 in A major, ‘Fire’ | IV Allegro Assai


Just in case you were feeling sleepy this morning.

Long Read of the Day

Why Neoliberalism Needs Neofascists

A vigorous and insightful essay by Prabhat Patnaik.

The narrative that neoliberalism would benefit everyone retained a certain currency until the early 2000s, for at least two reasons. First, neoliberal globalization was said to have contributed to the astonishing reduction of poverty in China—the economist Pranab Bardhan has forcefully questioned this conventional story in these pages—and a significant segment of the global middle class did do well: its opportunities expanded thanks to the outsourcing of a range of activities from advanced countries and to a rise in the share of economic surplus, caused by languishing wages but increased productivity of the working class. Second, even those hurt by the neoliberal regime often nurtured the hope that persistent high growth would sooner or later “trickle down” to them—a hope fed incessantly by a media establishment dominated by the middle and upper classes.

This hope more decisively receded, however, as the high-growth phase of neoliberal capitalism ended in 2008 with the collapse of the U.S. housing bubble, giving way to protracted crisis and stagnation in the world economy. As the old prop of trickle-down economics lost its credibility, a new prop was needed to sustain the neoliberal regime politically. The solution came in the form of an alliance between globally integrated corporate capital and local neofascist elements.

He uses what’s happened to India under Modi as a compelling case study.

Chart of the Day

An extinction-level threat timeline

What would happen if astronomers detected an extinction-scale asteroid on a collision course with earth.

Lovely Twitter thread. (Hint: arXiv is involved. Also Elon Musk.)

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Monday 26, July, 2021

Quote of the Day

“People’s personalities are not interesting except when you are in love with them”

  • Elizabeth Bowen

She always came over as a cold fish. But according to her biographers she also seems to have been herself foolish in love.

I’m currently reading one of her earliest novels The Last September.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Eric Clapton, Luciano Pavarotti, East London Gospel Choir | Holy Mother (Live)


Note the difference between Clapton’s and Pavarotti’s sartorial styles.

Long Read of the Day

I just learned I only have months to live. This is what I want to say

By Jack Thomas, writing in the Boston Globe.

Long Read, not just of the Day, or even the Year, but perhaps of a lifetime.

Don’t miss it.

Thanks to Helen Lewis (Whom God Preserve) for spotting it.

That Cummings interview…

Some thoughts…

  • Most people only watched the hour-long ‘interrogation’ by Laura Kuenssberg. But the BBC also published (on BBC Sounds) five podcast versions containing stuff that hadn’t made it into the final cut. These, enigmatically titled episodes covered:

    • The Covid Crisis (36 minutes)
    • Brexit (28 minutes)
    • The ‘Balance of Power’ (28 minutes)
    • ‘Covid confidential’ – Part 1 (31 minutes)
    • ‘Covid confidential’ – Part 2 (32 minutes)
  • Thanks to all the readers who had watched the original interview and had interesting things to say about it.

  • Nick Wray pointed me to Mic Wright’s terrific analysis of the interview as ‘kayfabe’ — i.e. the term used in professional wrestling to describe presenting staged performances as genuine or authentic contests. This clearly irritated Cummings (see later).

It began with Kuenssberg presenting a kind of ersatz toughness, a plastic Paxmanism, designed to show that this was not just a cosy chat between a journalist and her former best source or a political operator using a hack as the channel for his own angles.

It was laughable when Kuenssberg began by saying, “Mr Cummings, you’ve never spoken like this before…” given that it was and is an open secret that he was often her “senior Number 10 source” during his time in government. This was the pretence of distance, the first example of the tactical ignorance that she would go on to show throughout the interview.

When Cummings recounted with a slight smile the Boris Johnson said it would be “ludicrous for him to be Prime Minister”, Kuenssberg did her best Joe Pesci in Goodfellas act:

’Why’s it funny? Why’s it funny to you that you helped put someone into power who in your own view — and you’re telling us today, in his view — that it’s ludicrous for him to be in the job?

This ‘tough’ line would have perhaps been mildly convincing if the BBC had not cut away with unseemly haste when Cummings told the parliamentary select committee that Kuenssberg had been his main conduit for leaks within No. 10:

The main person I really spoke to in the whole of 2020 was Laura Kuenssberg at the BBC…

The moment those words left his mouth, the corporation’s coverage on BBC Two came to an end with the rest of his Cummings’ words muted for viewers on that channel. They had to leap over to the BBC News Channel to continue watching.

  • As a former TV critic this ‘kayfabe’ portrayal of the interview struck me as insightful. TV is essentially a performative medium. It’s also a very low bandwidth channel that’s generally incapable of carrying sophisticated or nuanced conversations — which is why, for example, every issue, no matter how complex, has just two sides. The interview gave both Kuennsberg and Cummings platforms for doing their stuff, which they duly did.

  • A Dutch friend, commenting on my comparison between the problems of ‘managing’ Trump and ‘managing’ Johnson, wrote:

Whereas the WH-internal opposition to Trump (e.g. from high-rank military, cf ) was cheered by serious journalists and commentators, Cummings’ confession that they had been discussing how to get rid of the incompetent and therefore (in pandemic times) dangerous Johnson evoked quite some moral outrage with Laura Kuenssberg (“you, an UNelected official tried to have our elected PM replaced????” – or words to that effect).

Clearly, Cummings is a technocrat (or an ‘epistocrat’), not a democrat. He’s not a very nice person either. He’s arrogant, a hypocrite and he over-estimates his own judgements (esp. on being able to sort out who is competent and who’s not), etc. etc. But doesn’t that hold true for at least half of the UK political class? Cummings’ idea that there is something seriously wrong with the way the UK is governed should be considered seriously, though, even when his certainty that he himself has found the solution to all problems is clearly ridiculous.

Let us start with Vote Leave’s campaign for the UK to depart from the European Union. No powerful case for leaving the EU was made in the interview on 20 July. Instead, Cummings sounded lukewarm about it (“Is Brexit a good idea? No one on earth knows… what the answer to that is”).

His central argument for Brexit has always been about democratic accountability, but presumably even he would have found it hard to make that argument in the same interview in which he revealed that he and a small network of his friends plotted to remove a Prime Minister who had obtained a parliamentary majority days earlier.

  • All of this prompted me to look back at things I’d previously written about Cummings. Here’s for example, is an extract from an Observer piece I wrote about him two years ago. “Cummings’s heroes”, I wrote

include the mathematicians John von Neumann and Tim Gowers; the political scientist and expert on forecasting, Philip Tetlock; Robert Taylor, the Pentagon official who funded the Arpanet and later founded the computer science lab at the Palo Alto Research Center; Alan Kay, the computer scientist; the quantum physicist Michael Nielsen; and a number of other visionaries of various stripes.

The other thing one notices about Cummings is that he’s the purest of technocrats. He admires people who relish big challenges, to which they bring formidable analytical talents, mathematical insight, engineering nous and project management skills. For him, the Manhattan Project, creating the internet and the Apollo programme are inspirational examples of how smart determination delivers world-changing results.

The only problem with this – which Cummings appears not to notice – is that these technocratic dreams were realised entirely outside the realm of democratic politics. The lazy, venal, ignorant, self-aggrandising, compromising politicos whom he despises are nowhere to be seen. And the colossal resources needed to realise those dreams came from the bottomless well of wartime or cold war military funding. Chancellors’ autumn statements are nowhere to be seen.

This is why technocrats often suffer from “dictator envy”: it’s so much easier to get things done if politics doesn’t get in the way.

  • As someone who was interested in Cummings long before he became famous (I always found his blog interesting, partly because he’s an autodidact like me, but mostly because he was reading — and was interested in — stuff that interested me). But after he eventually become famous with Brexit I discovered that he evokes really strong emotions in people, such that it’s difficult or impossible to have a detached conversation with people about him. (David Cameron described him as a “career psychopath”) It’s as if a strange kind of force-field surrounds him that prevents people from judging him detachedly. I know lots of people who detested the rather fine feature film in which Benedict Cumberbatch played Cummings brilliantly. They saw it as a documentary that was glorifying someone they regard as a monster.

  • Since returning to ‘private’ life, Cummings has adopted a new business model — turning his blog into a profitable venture. He uses Substack for this (as indeed I do), but Cummings’s reserves all his inside knowledge and innermost thoughts for paying subscribers. I don’t know how many customers he has, but I’d guess in runs into the thousands. At £10 a month, that looks like a tidy income. You can subscribe to it for free, but all you get are ‘teasers’ hinting at the juicy titbits that lie behind the subscription paywall.

Tech solutionism and the climate crisis

Yesterday’s Observer column:

So Jeff Bezos made it safely back to the universe that most of us lesser mortals inhabit. He graciously thanked his Amazon employees and customers (that’s you and me, folks) who made the realisation of his childhood Star Trek dreams possible. “I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for this,” he said. “Seriously, for every Amazon customer out there and every employee thank you from the bottom of my heart very much. It’s very appreciated.”

Aw, shucks. Thanks, Jeff. In a post-flight press conference he declared that the venture had reinforced his commitment to tackling the climate crisis and using his project as a stepping stone towards colonising space for the benefit of Earth. “We’re going to build a road to space,” he said, “so our kids, and their kids, can build the future. This is not about escaping Earth … this is the only good planet in the solar system and we have to take care of it. When you go to space and see how fragile it is you want to take care of it even more.”

Now I know that, as Oscar Wilde famously observed, consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative, but can we unpack this rhetoric a bit? Is this the same Jeff Bezos, for example, who founded (and, until recently, ran) a company that – according to some reports – threatened to fire employees who were speaking out about the company’s role in the climate crisis?

Do read the whole thing.

Chart of the Day


In both technical usage and popular discussion, energy flows and CO2 or carbon emissions per unit of time are quantified with a bewildering array of numbers. Livermore’s estimates are expressed in units of quadrillion British thermal units or quads of energy per year. US 2019 annual primary power use was 100.2 quads. In international standard (SI) units, the implied rate of power consumption was 3.38 terawatts, on the low side in comparison to other US estimates.

The SAM in Table 1 shows that the total value-added in 2019 was $21.4 trillion. Probably around 10% ($2 trillion) was supported by primary energy, mostly fossil fuels as shown in the Livermore diagram. One quad per year of primary energy roughly generates $20 billion of value-added (one terawatt supports $592 billion). Total US carbon (not CO2) emissions in 2019 were 1.39 billion tonnes. GDP per unit of emissions was $15.4 million, and energy value-added per tonne was $1.54 million. The ratio of one billion tonnes of carbon emission in response to one trillion dollars of value-added was 0.065.

In Livermore’s usage, two-thirds of primary energy is “rejected” in line with the first and second laws of thermodynamics (“wasted” might be a better word). The energy put to use amounts to 32.7 quads or $754 billion of value-added. Residential and transport services, mostly used for consumption by households, absorb 13.7 quads or $274 billion. The remaining unwasted energy value-added of $480 billion is used for electricity generation, commercial services, and industry. The value of rejected energy is split between $800 billion from production and $500 billion from consumption.

Source: “Carbon Pricing Isn’t Effective at Reducing CO2 Emissions” by Lance Taylor, Institute for New Economic Thinking, May 10, 2021. Link

H/T to Adam Tooze.

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Friday 23 July, 2021

Honey business

Spotted in our garden yesterday evening. Zoom in to see the bee covered in pollen. Taken with an iPhone 11 Pro. Astonishing to have a camera this good in one’s pocket.

Quote of the Day

“The first time I walked downstairs, and they played ‘Hail to the Chief,’ I wondered: ‘Where is he?'”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Here Comes the Sun | Christopher Austin’s arrangement


The other day I linked to George Harrison and Paul Simon singing this wonderful song. Afterwards my wife, who is a musician, spotted the Austin arrangement and I went looking for it. Turns out that the song has an interesting history, and a nice Wikipedia entry. It was written at a difficult period in Harrison’s life. He had quit the Beatles temporarily, had been arrested for possessing marijuana, and had had his tonsils removed. It was composed, Harrison later wrote in his autobiography, in April 1969,

at the time when Apple was getting like school, where we had to go and be businessmen: ‘Sign this’ and ‘sign that.’ Anyway, it seems as if winter in England goes on forever, by the time spring comes you really deserve it. So one day I decided I was going to sag off Apple and I went over to Eric Clapton’s house. The relief of not having to go see all those dopey accountants was wonderful, and I walked around the garden with one of Eric’s acoustic guitars and wrote “Here Comes the Sun”.

Long Read of the Day

Stop Building Bad AI

Terrific Boston Review essay by Annette Zimmermann on the question that is rarely asked: aren’t there some digital technologies that simply ought to be outlawed? Facial recognition tech, for example. I mean to say, Pharma companies are not allowed to release drugs until they have been comprehensively tested for safety. Why should some digital technologies be any different?

Should these technologies exist? Whether AI can make accurate predictions in these areas is far from clear. But beyond this technical issue, we ought to ask whether we need such tools to begin with. Are the problems they set out to solve worth solving? How does predicting someone’s sexual orientation, possibly without their knowledge and against their will, make the world better, or more just? What harms might result from the use of such a tool? We should ask questions about the goals and likely consequences of a particular technology before asking whether it could be made to work well. And when we do so, we need to be open to the possibility that some AI tools should not be built in the first place.

This is important and worth reading in full.

Amazon and AWS want to hire all your friends, enemies, and everyone in between

Amazing report from The Register:

Amazon has 55,000 employees in the UK, and 1.3 million worldwide. At the end of 2019, its global workforce stood at 798,000, while five years ago it was a mere 341,000.

The firm does not officially break out either its workforce by role, or its recruitment targets. But at time of writing, Amazon’s vacancies page lists 54,000 jobs, of which more than 15,000 are in software development, with just under 3,500 in ops, IT and support engineering, and over 3,000 in technical project, program, and product management. It also needs over 5,400 new solution architects.

Drilling down into AWS specifically reveals over 19,000 full time vacancies. Of those, more than 6,100 are in software development, 5,258 are solutions architect roles, with 1,604 in ops, IT and support engineering, with another 1,200 project, program, and product management jobs.

By comparison Microsoft’s entire workforce is 144,000, while Facebook currently employs around 60,000 people, up 26 per cent on the year.

This is what a behemoth looks like.

Thanks to Seb Schmoller for the link.

The costs of tech CEO security

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Thursday 22 July, 2021

Blue Yonder

Interestingly, this is a lab that’s supposed to be doing blue-sky research!

That Cummings interview…

Mainstream media commentary on the hour-long interview that Dominic Cummings gave to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg seems unanimous about C’s foolishness in doing it. Robert Shrimsley of the FT summed up the consensus when he tweeted that “This may be the most self-destructive interview since Prince Andrew” (the one where he denied knowing anything about his friend Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual proclivities).

I found the interview really useful, though, in one respect: Cummings confirmed everything about Boris Johnson that most of us suspected — that he is terminally clueless, self-centred, careless and basically incapable of even running a bath without flooding the bathroom. If only for establishing this (with evidence) on the public record, Cummings ought to be given a gong: Order of the Bath, perhaps?

Intriguingly, most of the UK media didn’t seem to be interested in the damning assessment of Johnson that emerged from the programme. What it shows is that the UK, like the US in 2016, elected a clown as its leader. The only difference is that Trump turned out to be more dangerous.

Also, the impression one gets of the the Cummings-Johnson regime as recounted in the interview is oddly reminiscent of what went on in the White House during Trump’s tenure. Then — as Bob Woodward records, for example — there were lots of cases where serious public servants were trying to devise ways of getting round their boss’s ignorance, arrogance, infinitesimal attention span, narcissism and temper. It sounds as though Cummings and his team were operating in a similar mode with Johnson.

Quote of the Day

”The English never draw a line without blurring it.”

  • Winston Churchill

Currently applies to a line drawn down the Irish Sea

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Piano Concerto No 21 in C major KV 467 | Andante | Daniel Barenboim


Pure schmaltz, but lovely for a Summer morning.

Long Read of the Day

Can Silicon Valley find God?

What a cod headline, I thought. But it turned out to be more interesting than I had expected.

I was one of 32 people from six faith backgrounds — Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and nonreligious “nones”— who had agreed to participate in Mr. Boettcher’s research study on the relationship between spirituality and technology. He had programmed a series of A.I. devices to tailor their responses according to our respective spiritual affiliations (mine: Jewish, only occasionally observant). The questions, though, stayed the same: “How am I of value?” “How did all of this come about?” “Why is there evil and suffering in the world?” “Is there a ‘god’ or something bigger than all of us?”

By analyzing our responses, Mr. Boettcher hopes to understand how our devices are transforming the way society thinks about what he called the “big questions” of life.

Read on.

The Ugly Truth

My Observer review of an interesting book — An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang:

I approached An Ugly Truth with a degree of scepticism on account of its subtitle: “Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination”. But this book is different. For one thing, its co-authors are not “insiders”, but a pair of experienced New York Times journalists who were members of a team nominated in 2019 for a Pulitzer prize. Much more importantly, though, they claim to have conducted over 1,000 hours of interviews with 400-odd people, including Facebook executives, former and current employees and their families, friends and classmates, plus investors and advisers to Facebook, and lawyers and activists who have been fighting the company for a long time. So if this is an “insider” account, it’s better sourced than all of its predecessors in the genre.

We’ll get to what this account reveals in a moment, but first let’s clear up the title. It comes from the header on an internal memo sent by Andrew Bosworth (AKA “Boz”), a senior Facebook executive and one of Mark Zuckerberg’s closest confidants. “So we connect more people,” it says. “That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs someone a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people. The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is de facto good.”

In a way, this tells you everything you need to know about Facebook…

Do read the whole thing

European regulation of Big Tech is primarily political — efficiency is secondary

From Frederic Filloux in Monday Note:

Since 2010, Europe has launched no less than 36 probes against Big Tech, including 10 from the EU Commission, and 25 from individual European countries. Altogether, more than 70 probes have been launched. But these probes have a puzzling distribution.

The distribution of the probes has nothing to do with the toxicity of these companies toward the competitive field or society as a whole. Ask any expert, they will tell you that Facebook is the most dangerous player in the digital world. The social network’s business model is based on fracturing society, spreading false information ranging from the “stolen” election of 2020 to antivax propaganda. As for Amazon, its behavior is a textbook model of leveling the competitive field of e-commerce, such as imposing its will on the merchants who joined its marketplace by forcing them to buy ads if they want to be visible. Add to that the ever-present risk of the dreaded “Amazon Basics” copycat those merchants face if their product is too successful, etc. Amazon might not be a monopoly in the traditional sense (none of the Four are, actually), but the company is a rare collection of near-perfect predatory practices.

Apparently, the EU and its members are tallying things up differently: each of these two companies are getting globally half of the scrutiny of the global regulators that Google does!

This chimes with my own feeling that the current regulatory feeding-frenzy looks chaotic, disjointed and sometimes incoherent.

Good critical piece by Filloux.

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Wednesday 21 July, 2021

On a roll?

It was my birthday the other day. I particularly enjoyed this card — clearly a lockdown special!

Quote of the Day

”Media is a word that has come to mean bad journalism.”

  • Graham Greene

Snail email

Andrew Nash emailed to say that Monday’s Quote of the Day about the courage of the French discovering that eating snails was ok, turns out to be historically inaccurate. According to a learned website, “Dining on escargots experienced its first boom in ancient Rome. They were highly popular due to their supposed stimulating properties. Pliny the Edler (100 BCE) wrote about escargot and their preparation in his volume of natural history, and Marcus Gavius Apicius eternalized popular recipes and breeding tips in his book of Roman cookery written in the 4th or 5th century ADE.”

Apologies to the ancients concerned.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paul Simon & George Harrison | Here Comes The Sun


I like it as much as I liked the original Beatles version.

Long Read of the Day

Kim Stanley Robinson on How Science Fiction Works

Terrific interview by John Plotz.


Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR): People sometimes think that science fiction is about predicting the future, but that isn’t true. Since predicting the future is impossible, that would be a high bar for science fiction to have to get over. It would always be failing. And in that sense it always is failing. But science fiction is more of a modeling exercise, or a way of thinking.

Another thing I’ve been saying for a long time is something slightly different: We’re in a science fiction novel now, which we are all cowriting together. What do I mean? That we’re all science fiction writers because of a mental habit everybody has that has nothing to do with the genre. Instead, it has to do with planning and decision making, and how people feel about their life projects. For example, you have hopes and then you plan to fulfill them by doing things in the present: that’s utopian thinking. Meanwhile, you have middle-of-the-night fears that everything is falling apart, that it’s not going to work. And that’s dystopian thinking.

So there’s nothing special going on in science fiction thinking. It’s something that we’re all doing all the time.

I was particularly struck by the interview because I’m reading his new book, The Ministry for the Future, which opens with a protagonist who finds himself in a catastrophic heatwave in India. Here’s a passage from the chapter:

Curious, alarmed, feeling himself breathing hard, Frank walked down the streets toward the lake. People were outside buildings, clustered in doorways. Some eyed him, most didn’t, distracted by their own issues. Round-eyed with distress and fear, red-eyed  from the heat and exhaust smoke, the dust. Metal surfaces in the sun burned to the touch, he could see heatwaves bouncing over them like hair over a barbecue. His muscles were jellied, a wire of dread running down his spinal-cord was the only thing keeping him upright. It was impossible to hurry, but he wanted to. He walked in the shade as much as possible. This early in the morning one side of the street was usually shaded. Moving into sunlight was like getting pushed towards a bonfire. One lurched towards the next patch of shade, impelled by the blast.

He came to the lake and was unsurprised to see people in it already, neck deep. Brown faces flushed red with heat. A thick talcum of light hung over the water. He went to the curve in the concrete road that bordered the lake on this side, crouched and stuck his arm in up to the elbow. It was indeed as warm as a bath, or almost. He kept his arm in, trying to decide if the water was cooler or hotter than his body. In the cooking air it was hard to tell. After a time he concluded the water at the surface was approximately the same temperature as his blood. Which meant it was considerably cooler than the air. But if it was a little warmer than body temperature… Well, it would still be cooler than the air. It was strangely hard to tell.

Later, I started to read reports of the ‘heat dome’ that has been making parts of Western Canada hellish.

KSR’s remark that “We’re in a science fiction novel now, which we are all cowriting together” now makes sense.

A proper police crackdown


Malaysian authorities seized 1,069 bitcoin mining rigs, laid them out in a parking lot at police headquarters, and used a steamroller to crush them.

Assistant Commissioner of Police Hakemal Hawari told CNBC the crypto crackdown came after miners allegedly stole $2 million worth of electricity siphoned from Sarawak Energy power lines.

The video is too good to miss:


Tokyo: No sex please — we’re athletes

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