Tuesday 21 December, 2021

My sceptical friend

When I joined him on the floor of my study a few years ago, he gave me a suitably quizzical look. He’s now a strapping young lad, but still, I hope, sceptical.

Quote of the Day

”If you decided to come back, that choice is yours. But I can tell you it won’t be viewed as for your own safety. The safest practice is to stay exactly where you are. If you decide to return with your packages, it will be viewed as you refusing your route, which will ultimately end with you not having a job come tomorrow morning. The sirens are just a warning.”

  • Text from an Amazon manager to a delivery driver after the driver suggested she return to base for her own safety as a tornado ripped through the area. (Source: Bloomberg).

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Edvard Grieg | Wedding Day at Troldhaugen Op.65 No.6


I’ve often heard this piece but didn’t know (until today) that it was by Grieg. And it makes one think that it must have been an interesting wedding!

Long Read of the Day

There is no ‘Them’

An entertaining but ultimately implausible protest by Antonio García Martínez against the ‘othering’ of West Coast tech billionaires by US East Coast elites.

Thus was I sitting at a very well-appointed and welcoming shabbat dinner table this past Friday. The specific host family and guests are not directly relevant, other than to mention these are extremely media savvy people who in fact make a living in The Spectacle (much as I do) and are by no means the ‘normies’ that techies often dismissively cite.

The conversation was wide-ranging and generally warm…until we got to the topic of technology, and I suddenly felt as I did in the late 90s when backpacking around Europe. Cut to scene at a youth hostel in Belfast or Brindisi, and I was the lone representative of a hegemonic entity that had defined and marked everyone’s lives, and I had a lot to answer for. In the case of backpacker me, it was the United States of America and its assumed depredations throughout the world; in the case of shabbat guest me, it was me as emissary (and, worse!, defender) of ‘Big Tech’ which has wrought so much turbulence in our lives.

In the same way that the hostel scenes possessed their own ironies that still gleam in distant memory—one Spanish dude who was letting me have it about evil America was literally wearing blue jeans and eating McDonald’s—this scene also had its odd juxtapositions…

Like everything he writes, it’s sparky and readable.

Thanks to Charles Arthur for spotting it.

Christmas Books – 3


This is an extraordinary book which I read (and reviewed) when it first came out in 2019, but have been re-reading recently because its author is this year’s Reith Lecturer. So you could view his book as the extensive background reading for the ideas that he has distilled into the four lectures of the series.

What makes it remarkable is that Russell is one of the most distinguished figures in the field of artificial intelligence — among other things he’s the co-author (with Peter Norvik) of what is still a canonical textbook of the field — who also believes that his discipline is incubating an existential threat to our species.

The slow death of democracy in America

It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion. Larry Lessig (Whom God Preserve) is the latest scholar to chronicle and explain what’s happening. He has a long and depressing essay in the current edition of the New York Review of Books which I fear may be behind their paywall. If it is, here’s his conclusion:

For most of this year, President Biden defended the filibuster and stood practically silent on this critical reform. He has focused not on the crumbling critical infrastructure of American democracy, but on the benefits of better bridges and faster Internet. Democratic progressives in Congress were little better on this question. Although Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren all supported the For the People Act, in the public eye the issues they’ve championed have overlooked the country’s broken democratic machinery: forgive student debt, raise the minimum wage, give us a Green New Deal…. As a progressive myself, I love all these ideas, but none of them are possible unless we end the corruption that has destroyed this democracy. None of them will happen until we fix democracy first.

It may well be that nothing could have been done this year. It may well be true that nothing Biden could say or do would move Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema, the two who are apparently blocking reform just now. Yet we have to frame the stakes accurately and clearly: if we do not “confront” those “imperfections” in our democracy, “openly and transparently,” in the State Department’s words, we will lose this democracy. And no summit will bring it back.

I’ve known and admired Larry since the 1990s, and will never forget the sombre telephone conversation he and I had in 2000 just after the Supreme Court had given the Presidency to George W. Bush. His 2011 book,  Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress – and a Plan to Stop It was a prescient warning of the dangers ahead, and things have got steadily worse since it was published.

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