Thursday 9 December, 2021

Quote of the Day

“Mark Twain and I are in very much the same position. We have to put things in such a way as to make people, who would otherwise hang us, believe that we are joking.”

  • George Bernard Shaw

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sharon Shannon | Blackbird


A phenomenal musician who lights up every venue she plays.

Long Read of the Day

Lina Khan’s Battle to Rein in Big Tech

Classic New Yorker profile by Sheelah Kolhatkar of one of the most interesting young women in America, who is now Chair of the FTC. If you don’t know about Khan, then this is a good place to start.

After years spent publishing research about how a more just world could be achieved through a sweeping reimagining of anti-monopoly laws, Khan now has a much more difficult task: testing her theories—in an arena of lobbyists, partisan division, and the federal court system—as one of the most powerful regulators of American business. “There’s no doubt that the latitude one has as a scholar, critiquing certain approaches, is very different from being in the position of actually executing,” Khan told me. But she added that she intends to steer the agency to choose consequential cases, with less emphasis on the outcomes, and to generally be more proactive. “Even in cases where you’re not going to have a slam-dunk theory or a slam-dunk case, or there’s risk involved, what do you do?” she said. “Do you turn away? Or do you think that these are moments when we need to stand strong and move forward? I think for those types of questions we’re certainly at a moment where we take the latter path.

“There’s a growing recognition that the way our economy has been structured has not always been to serve people,” Khan went on. “Frankly, I think this is a generational issue as well.” She noted that coming of age during the financial crisis had helped people understand that the way the economy functions is not just the result of metaphysical forces. “It’s very concrete policy and legal choices that are made, that determine these outcomes,” she said. “This is a really historic moment, and we’re trying to do everything we can to meet it.”

The inner lives of cats: what our feline friends really think about hugs, happiness and humans

Nice piece by Sirin Kale on a question that perplexes most cat-owners: what does their pet think of them? (My own answer: not much.)

Despite the fact that cats are the most common pet in UK households after dogs, we know relatively little about them. This, says Dr Carlo Siracusa of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, “is partly due to practical problems.”

Dogs are easy to study: you can take them to a lab and they will be content. But cats are intensely territorial creatures. “The behaviour of a cat is so modified by its environment that if you move it to a laboratory,” says Siracusa, “what you’ll see is not really reflective of what the normal behaviour of the cat is.”

But there is another reason that cats are under-researched. “There’s a stigma,” says Siracusa. Cats have been unfairly maligned through much of human history. In the middle ages, cats were thought of as the companions of witches, and sometimes tortured and burned. “They have been stigmatised as evil because they are thought to be amoral,” says the philosopher and writer John Gray, author of Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life. “Which in a sense, cats are – they just want to follow their own nature.”

Thanks to Rob for spotting it.

Footnote: John Gray’s book on the subject of cats is lovely, btw. It opens with a story about a philosopher friend who believed that he had trained his cat to be a vegan. (He omitted to notice that his cat went out every night.)

This philosopher, Gray writes,

only showed how silly philosophers can be. Rather than trying to teach his cat, he would have been wiser if he had tried learning from it. Humans cannot become cats. Yet if they set aside any notion of being superior beings, they may come to understand how cats can thrive without anxiously inquiring how to live.”


Chart of the Day

Useful way of thinking about a topic that is usually smothered in vagueness (not to say vacuity). It comes from a new report by the Reuters Institute looking at the trade-offs news organisations navigate when trying to increase trust in news. It’s the fourth instalment from the Institute’s ‘Trust in News’ Project and is based on our conversations with 54 journalists and newsroom managers in Brazil, India, the UK and the US.

It’s an interesting and worrying report — worth reading in full if you work in media. The nub of the problem, unsurprisingly, is that in an industry which is fighting for its life (in the sense of economic viability) ‘trust’ or trustworthiness may come down the list of priorities.

Here are some of the authors’ reflections on what they found.

What we find here is nuanced. On the one hand, these conversations reveal a great deal of pessimism and concern about the impact of external forces on news organisations’ abilities to forge trusting relationships with their audiences. Most focused on what they see as the highly corrosive impact of negative criticism on digital platforms, which they increasingly depend on to broaden their reach, but which also serve to amplify bad-faith criticism about independent reporting and the institution of journalism more generally. Many also expressed grave concern about the level of vitriol and toxicity in these spaces, some of it egged on by political leaders with their own reasons for antagonising the press.

Some of these concerns are well-supported by academic research, especially the important role played by elite cues, polarisation, and the distance audiences may feel from the professional practices of journalism. Others centre on very real risks that have yet to be the subject of much academic investigation. However, it is important to recognise that while many journalists may feel relatively powerless to move the needle on trust (and much academic research suggests external factors are more important for trust in news than the things individual journalists or news organisations have control over), much of the public sees journalism and news media as powerful institutions (see, for example, Palmer 2017) and are unlikely to accept that the root of the problem lies elsewhere, or that they have few options at their disposal. Thus, giving up on building trust may look like a lack of real interest in the issue.

Supporting Wikipedia

I use Wikipedia a lot, and always have. And I donate to it regularly. If, like me, you write newspaper columns, a link to the relevant Wikipedia entry often frees one from having to break the narrative by pausing to explain something in detail. Regular financial donations are a way of expressing my appreciation for using it as a resource.

In the early days, though, some people — especially academics — were very sniffy about it. I remember an occasion when the Vice-Chancellor of an ancient university made a dismissive comment about Wikipedia and then was astonished to find a very distinguished Fellow of the Royal Society interrupting her to say that the Wikipedia pages on his arcane speciality were the most accurate and up to date reference on the subject. Why? Because he had written them. Result: one very embarrassed Vice-Chancellor.

As time went on, I noticed that people tended to have two kinds of views about it — (a) dismissive because they had found a glaring error in a page; or (b) gushing with praise. I developed a strategy for dealing with both types.

For (a), the dialogue would go something like this.

Me: “So you’ve found a glaring error on a subject you know about?”

Critic: “Yes. Elementary mistake”.

Me: “So why haven’t you corrected it?”

Critic: Flustered (sometimes), irritated (often), defensive (much too busy)

For (b), things were generally simpler.

Me: “I’m glad you think highly of Wikipedia”.

Gusher: “Yes, it’s wonderful, isn’t it?”

Me: “So when did you last make a donation to ensure that it keeps going?”

Gusher: Er…


The link to Colin Dickey’s essay on Mrs Galloway the other day was faulty. The correct link is:

Apologies for the error.

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Wednesday 8 December, 2021

Vanishing point

An EV year

We picked up our Tesla 12 months ago today. Before that we’d had a series of Toyota Prius hybrids, which were terrific, ultra-reliable cars, so this was our first fully electric vehicle. It’s been an interesting experience.

Some reflections on the year.

  • The biggest disadvantage of owning a Tesla is that people immediately hold one responsible for Elon Musk, the founder of the company, who is three-parts genius and one part fruitcake.

  • It was ironic having a new car without being able to go anywhere serious in it! So in the first year we were able to go on only three longish trips. And because we cycle to work, we haven’t used it to commute. That’s lockdown for you.

  • It’s lovely to drive — and I say that as someone who has been a serious petrolhead in my time. In the 1970s I had a 3.8-litre Mk 2 Jaguar, for example, when that was a pretty serious indulgence. (The Yom Kippur war in 1973 and the consequent quadrupling of the oil price ended that particular love-affair.) The Tesla Model 3 is as agile, responsive and sure-footed as any of the fancy ICE cars I’ve driven in my time. And it’s fast — as quick as even conventional Porsche 911s: zero to 60 in 3.1 seconds. Not that you’d ever want to do that in real life.

  • It has all-wheel drive and good traction control, which turned out to be very useful driving through snowstorms in Yorkshire just over a week ago.

  • Two ways of looking at it.

1: it’s basically software with wheels. Regular software updates (at near-weekly intervals) just like an iPhone. Mostly they bring bug fixes or minor changes. But sometimes big changes are software driven — for example the acceleration boost that our model has came via software, not through mechanics with spanners.

2: It’s really just a big skateboard with wheels at the four corners. The board is the battery.

  • If you’re lucky enough to have a driveway and are therefore able to install a home-charger then ‘range anxiety’ mostly fades away. That’s no consolation to urbanites, though.

  • From talking to other EV owners, I get the feeling that once you’ve owned an electric vehicle you’ll never want to go back to ICE. (And of course eventually you won’t have that option anyway, so perhaps it makes sense to jump before you’re pushed.)

Quote of the Day

””When one burns one’s bridges, what a very nice fire it makes”

  • Dylan Thomas

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ry Cooder & David Lindley | The Promised Land | April1994 | Fillmore Auditorium



Long Read of the Day

Why Humans Aren’t the Worst (Despite, Well, Everything Happening in the World) The journalist and historian Rutger Bregman makes a case for the “collective brilliance” of humanity.

Transcript of a podcast interview with Kara Swisher.

I can never figure Bregman out. Occasionally he reminds me of the Monty Python guys singing “Always look on the bright side of life”. At other times he seems good at seeing through conventional wisdom that’s actually baloney. This interview with Kara Swisher is good largely because she keeps probing him. Here’s a sample segment:

Swisher: So one of the things we’ve been talking about is self-interest. And I want you to address the downright brutality in human history. We have to talk, obviously, about the Holocaust. It’s hard to look at that and think humans are decent. Why doesn’t this disprove your argument?

Bregman: What I wanted to do at first was to show that veneer theory, this notion that we are evil or we do evil things because we are evil, is way too simplistic or just basically wrong. But then you’re still left with the question, why do we engage in warfare and ethnic cleansing and all these kinds of horrible things? So the honest answer is that you have to start building up a very layered explanation with a lot of different ingredients. I look at the role of German soldiers during the Second World War. In 1944 and 1945, many Allied psychologists couldn’t understand why these soldiers were still fighting at the end of the war, when it was clear they were going to lose. And they assumed at first that these soldiers must be brainwashed or something like that, must be highly fanatical Nazis. But it turns out that actually what was driving them most of the time was Kameradschaft, comradeship, loyalty for their friends. And the German Army Command, they knew this. So they deliberately tried to keep friends together as much as possible during the course of the war, because they knew then they would be much more effective fighters. Now, I’m not saying this to — how do you say that — condone anything. I’m just trying to use it as an explanation.

Anyway, it makes for a good read.

How TikTok keeps people hooked

With a billion users, TikTok is now the most successful smartphone app in the world.

The NYT’s Ben Smith has seen a document describing the algorithmic approach that keeps TikTokers hooked.

The document explains frankly that in the pursuit of the company’s “ultimate goal” of adding daily active users, it has chosen to optimize for two closely related metrics in the stream of videos it serves: “retention” — that is, whether a user comes back — and “time spent.” The app wants to keep you there as long as possible. The experience is sometimes described as an addiction, though it also recalls a frequent criticism of pop culture. The playwright David Mamet, writing scornfully in 1998 about “pseudoart,” observed that “people are drawn to summer movies because they are not satisfying, and so they offer opportunities to repeat the compulsion.”

“This system means that watch time is key. The algorithm tries to get people addicted rather than giving them what they really want,” said Guillaume Chaslot, the founder of Algo Transparency, a group based in Paris that has studied YouTube’s recommendation system and takes a dark view of the effect of the product on children, in particular. Mr. Chaslot reviewed the TikTok document at my request.

According to Smith the formula the apple recommendation engine runs on is:

Plike x Vlike + Pcomment x Vcomment + Eplaytime x Vplaytime + Pplay x Vplay

Which implies that a prediction driven by machine learning and actual user behaviour are summed up for each of three bits of data: likes, comments and playtime, as well as an indication that the video has been played.

Interesting but not necessarily a scoop. I bet the formula that drives YouTube’s recommendation algorithm is rather similar.

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Tuesday 7 December, 2021

Christmas in Toryland

The annual Cold War Steve charity Xmas cards have arrived !!! Pack of 5 cards (A5 size) for £10 – 100% of profit is going to @RefugeeAction


Quote of the Day

”We all get our closing parentheses. I’ve gone longer without closing mine than Kim did before closing his. That also makes me sad, not that I’m in a hurry. Being old means knowing you’re in the exit line, but okay with others cutting in. I just wish this time it wasn’t Kim. Britt Blaser says life is like a loaf of bread. It’s one loaf no matter how many slices are in it. Some people get a few slices, others many. For the sake of us all, I wish Kim had more.”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ghiribizzi | MS 43: No. 40 in A Major: Andante


Think of it as like a delicious starter for the day.

Long Read of the Day

How to Fix Social media

I know, I know — the Web is full of putative answers to this question. But this essay is a bit different because it’s by Nicholas Carr, who for years has been one of the most thoughtful and provocative writers on tech. What I particularly like about the piece is that — unlike other commentaries — it isn’t overwhelmed by the supposed exceptionalism of our present moment.

It’s a mistake … to assume that technological changes, even profound ones, render history irrelevant. The arrival of broadcast media at the start of the last century set off an information revolution just as tumultuous as the one we are going through today, and the way legislators, judges, and the public responded to the earlier upheaval can illuminate our current situation. Particularly pertinent are the distinctions between different forms of communication that informed the Supreme Court’s decision in the Carlin case — and that had guided legal and regulatory policy-making throughout the formative years of the mass media era. Digitization has blurred those distinctions at a technical level — all forms of communication can now be transmitted through a single computer network — but it has not erased them.

By once again making such distinctions, particularly between personal speech and public speech, we have an opportunity to break out of our current ideological bind and create a democratic framework for governing social media that is consistent with the country’s values and traditions.

It’s long, but historically informed and comes up with an interesting idea towards the end. Worth your time.

Anatomy of a cancellation, and its withdrawal.

Or: “Jordan Peterson and the Lobster”

Nice Economist piece about how to manage an appearance by a controversial speaker on a university campus.

To culture wars, it is worth considering what happened between Jordan Peterson and a large red lobster in Cambridge University on a recent evening. Namely, nothing. Which doesn’t mean it wasn’t important. On the contrary: how it came to pass that nothing was allowed to happen between Mr Peterson and a student dressed as a lobster matters a lot.

It’s a great story. Peterson appeared, gave a talk, went away. The sky didn’t fall in. And a vote to thanks to the lobster was passed.

My commonplace booklet

 The Work of Living Goes On: Rereading Mrs Dalloway During an Endless Pandemic

A lovely essay by Colin Dickey on the dystopian undercurrents in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and the echoes he sees in our attempts to ‘move on’ from the pandemic.

And yet, the work of living goes on—doggedly, at times obscenely. We have not yet even begun to face the task of what we owe the dead, and we are nonetheless still faced with the question of what we owe the still living. There are birthday parties to plan, quarterly reports due, new books to read, new friends to make. Our faces are still turned toward the past, fixedly contemplating the single catastrophe of the past two years, wreckage upon wreckage, still wanting to wake the dead and make whole what’s been smashed, even as the storm called Progress propels us into the future.

Few books capture this moment like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, a novel obsessed with the question of how moving on can be possible. How can anyone have a party in the wake of the flood? It is a question the novel takes both rhetorically—how dare anyone have a party in such a time—and literally: how might it be possible to do such a thing? It is a novel about a broken, hobbled England, unable to face the wreckage of war and influenza and the death throes of its own empire, where nonetheless the work of the living persists, where, as the character Peter Walsh observes, “life had a way of adding day to day.”

It made my day, anyway.

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Monday 6 December, 2021

A morning view

Imagine opening the curtains in your hotel room one morning and seeing this scene.

Well, we did, just over a week ago. And it made me vow to return to Yorkshire in the Spring.

Quote of the Day

”A distributor of short messages.”

  • The Economist’s succinct description of Twitter.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Aaron Copland | Simple Gifts


Yeah, well it is nearly Christmas, after all.

Long Read of the Day

What Can the Metaverse Learn From Second Life?

An IEEE Spectrum interview with Philip Rosedale, a virtual-reality pioneer who was the chief architect of Second Life until he left in 2009.


It’s interesting to note that Second Life is, in my opinion, still the largest and the closest thing to a metaverse that we have as it relates to grown-ups. The environments that are used by kids, such as Roblox, are very interesting as well but very different in terms of what they offer. If you talk about people wanting to go to a live concert, or wanting to go shopping or something like that, I think Second Life is still US $650 million a year in transactions and a million people using it. But Second Life didn’t grow beyond about a million people. It’s been growing more with COVID, but as you say, it didn’t break out, it didn’t become a billion people. And the hope that Facebook has is that there’ll be a billion people using a metaverse.

Sensible throughout. Especially this sentence: “Any single-company, advertising-based, attention-based strategy for building virtual spaces would potentially be extremely damaging to people”. Which, of course, is exactly what Facebook has in mind.

Does the Twitter CEO’s departure signal a platform identity crisis?

Yesterday’s Observer column:

So Jack Dorsey has stepped down as the CEO of Twitter. This means that the company has had four CEOs in its 15 years of existence, with Dorsey occupying the role twice, but in all that time it’s had only one business model, which may largely explain his departure.

There are interesting parallels between Dorsey’s relationship with the company he co-founded and Steve Jobs’s with Apple, for both were ousted at one stage by their board colleagues and were then brought back to rescue said colleagues from their incompetence.

And the parallels don’t stop there. During their sojourns in the wilderness, both men founded successful new companies, in Dorsey’s case the payments firm Square, in Jobs’s case the computer firm NeXT Inc, after which he went on to transform the Lucasfilm graphics company into Pixar. For both men, these were profitable periods of exile: Square is now valued at $100bn; Jobs sold Pixar to Disney for $7.4bn and got a seat on the Disney board. Which only goes to show that sometimes being fired is the best thing that can happen to a visionary.

Do read the whole thing.

So who polices Interpol?

From this week’s Economist

Matthew hedges, a British doctoral student, says he spent nearly seven months mostly in solitary confinement in a prison in the United Arab Emirates (uae). He tells of being drugged, interrogated, blindfolded and forced to stand all day in manacles. He falsely confessed to being a spy just to end the agony, he says. He was eventually pardoned and freed. To his horror, the man he accuses of complicity in his torture, Ahmed Naser al-Raisi, the inspector-general of the uae interior ministry at the time, who was in charge of prisons, was neither sacked nor demoted. The uae denies the claims and on November 25th Mr al-Raisi was elected Interpol’s new president.

Interpol was set up to help countries’ police forces work together to catch crooks. It has an unfortunate habit of employing them instead. Jackie Selebi, its president from 2004 to 2008, was later sentenced to 15 years in jail for corruption in his native South Africa. Meng Hongwei, the boss from 2016 to 2018, was summoned back to China, disappeared, reappeared in the dock and got 13-and-a-half years for bribery. (His wife says he was framed.) A cynic might ask: whose side is Interpol on?

It’s not just cynics who ask that question.

What if the All England Club had been in charge?

John Lanchester has a characteristically brilliant review essay in The London Review of Books on five books about the Covid crisis, which I hope is not behind the magazine’s paywall. Among other things, it’s an excoriating account of the ignorance, incompetence, indolence and corruption of Boris Johnson’s government, but it starts with an interesting thought-experiment. Here’s how it goes…

The weird world – Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic – has responded poorly to Covid, and part of the reason is that the weird world had been existing at a distance from this central reality of human history. As Adam Tooze points out in his brilliant book Shutdown, 91 per cent of deaths in the contemporary West are from noncommunicable diseases like cancers and strokes and heart attacks, many of them illnesses associated with modern lifestyles. The equivalent figure in sub-Saharan Africa is 34 per cent. We have a generation of leaders in the West who have no visceral understanding of the risks posed by infectious illness. In addition, as David Runciman has pointed out, politicians and government don’t get credit for the disasters and failures they prevent. The combination of these two factors – generational obliviousness and the bias away from the good governance of prevention – goes a long way to explaining why the UK government, despite having had the possibility of pandemic at the top of its risk register since that register was instituted in 2008, was so woefully unprepared for an event it was its job to predict and either prevent or mitigate.

The story of the UK is not the whole story of the global pandemic, but it is worth taking a moment to look at the local specifics. We could take as a benchmark the All England Club, which manages Wimbledon. In 2003, having learned from the experience of Sars, Wimbledon began paying around £1.5 million a year to insure against the cost of a pandemic. As a result, when Covid hit, the club trousered cheques totalling £174 million to cover the cost of the cancelled 2020 tournament. That is what competent governance looks like. What would the UK response have looked like if the All England Club had been in charge? What would the Wimbledon number – the death toll assuming competent government – have been?

My commonplace booklet

Two things:

  • Bell Pepper Time Lapse: From Seed to Fruit in 115 Days. Fascinating video

  • 52 things Tom Whitwell learned in 2021 Link

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Friday 3 December, 2021

The first Webmaster

I was sorting through a batch of old photographs the other day and came on this picture of Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, at a Royal Society symposium we both attended a few years ago.

Quote of the Day

“The cat which isn’t let out of the bag often becomes a skeleton in the cupboard.”

  • Geoffrey Madan

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

J.S. Bach | Nun danket alle Gott | BWV 192*


A cantata written for Trinity Sunday in 1730. The words (translation: “Now thank we all our God”) are taken from a hymn written by Martin Rinkart a century earlier.

Long Read of the Day

How clothing and climate change kickstarted agriculture

An intriguing Aeon Essay by Ian Gilligan, a prehistorian at the University of Sydney and the author of Climate, Clothing, and Agriculture in Prehistory: Linking Evidence, Causes, and Effects.

(With thanks to Andrew Curry, who spotted it first and wrote a nice commentary on it.)

We talk a lot about “Artificial Intelligence”. Shouldn’t we also talk about AS — Artificial Stupidity?

Here’s a transcript of an interaction between a real human being and the Boston Globe‘s ‘Globot’. The human is trying to cancel her subscription.

\ 9:51 am today (Trying to end the chat…)

No that’s it, thanks Sorry, I don’t understand that. I’m still learning, with your help! Try me again with different words?

Nothing more, thank you Sorry, I don’t understand that. I’m still learning, with your help! Try me again with different words?

All done Sorry, I don’t understand that. I’m still learning, with your help! Try me again with different words?

Nothing else for now I’ll put you in touch with our live chat support team (please note our chat hours of operation are 8:00 am – 5:00 pm from Monday to Friday, and 8:00 am to 12:00 pm from Saturday to Sunday). What can the team help you with today?

Bollocks I’m sorry our chat agents are not available right now. I can pass along your message to our Support team and they will get back to you by email. Please describe your problem in one message.

Please just cancel my subscription and remove my contact details from your records. Thanks Your information has been sent to our team. They will get back to you within 24 hours. Let me know if there’s anything else I can help you with.

I think that’s it, for now. Thanks Sorry, I don’t understand that. I’m still learning, with your help! Try me again with different words?

I don’t need any more help If you’d like the Boston Globe to no longer contact you with marketing offers, please contact support by clicking the button below. Please include the phone number or address to be excluded when you contact us. It may take up to two weeks for your information to be fully removed from our records. You’ll still hear from us about transactional, account-related issues though! Was this helpful?

Bye Bye! With advanced notice, we can temporarily suspend home delivery while you’re away. You can do this online by clicking the link below and logging in using your credentials: Vacation Stop  In most cases, this will take effect within two days or less from the request date (depending on your delivery area).

Good bye. Have a lovely day. No more help needed. Thanks With advanced notice, we can temporarily suspend home delivery while you’re away. You can do this online by clicking the link below and logging in using your credentials: Vacation Stop In most cases, this will take effect within two days or less from the request date (depending on your delivery area).

Is there any way to make you stop pestering me, please? Sorry I wasn’t helpful Try me again with different words?

No thanks Sorry, I don’t understand that. I’m still learning, with your help! Try me again with different words?


“Finally”, my source writes, “though it goes against every rule of good manners I was ever taught, I hit ‘end chat’. Then I see the globot is ‘powered by Ada’. She’d be cursing from the grave…”.

She would.

Nicole Perlroth wins FT /McKinsey prize

From the Financial Times:

Nicole Perlroth’s sobering investigation into the cyber weapons arms race, This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends, has been named Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year for 2021.

The judges lauded Perlroth’s unprecedented in-depth analysis, which they said had opened their eyes to the potential for a cyber catastrophe.

Roula Khalaf, FT editor and chair of judges, said: “Cyber security isn’t featuring highly enough on CEOs’ agenda. I hope this award will prompt them to read this book and pay attention.”

If it took this book to ‘open’ the judges’ eyes to the risks of cyber catastrophe, one can only wonder which planet they have been vacationing on this past year.

My commonplace booklet

  • If you think that the ‘selfie’ is a modern invention, then check out this lovely set of goofy 18th-Century self-portraits by the painter Joseph Ducreux. Nothing new under the sun and all that. (via Jason Kottke)
  • Richard Moore, the new Head of MI6 gave his first broadcast interview to the BBC the other day. Gordon Carera, the BBC’s Security Correspondent had an interesting snippet about the interview: “Mr Moore also revealed the significance of the green ink used by those in his role – which came from a tradition started by Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the first head of MI6, or ‘C’. He said the green ink means those working in the service know any directive has been signed by him. ‘The same is true of my typescript on my computer,’ he added.” That’s interesting because anyone who’s worked in pre-Internet journalism knows that letters to the Editor that were written in green ink invariably came from nutters.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already! 

Thursday 2 December, 2021

Swaledale under snow

Last Sunday morning. Blissfully peaceful.

Quote of the Day

”I read part of it the whole way through.”

  • Sam Goldwyn on being asked whether he had read a particular book.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Lark in the Morning | Cillian Vallely (Uileann pipes) and Alan Murray (Guitar)


Wonderful rendition of a lovely tune.

Long Read of the Day

Learning from machine learning

The world is a black box full of extreme specificity: it might be predictable but that doesn’t mean it is understandable.

Fascinating essay by David Weinberger, which tries to address one of my complaints about the “crippled epistemology” of machine learning — i.e. that it finds only correlations, whereas true understanding requires a theory of causal connections.

Here’s the core of the matter:

As we grow more and more reliant on machine learning models (MLMs) such as DeepMetab that we cannot understand, we could start to tell ourselves either of two narratives:

The first narrative says that inexplicability is a drawback we often must put up with in order to gain the useful, probabilistic output that MLMs generate.

The second says that the inexplicability is not a drawback but a truth: MLMs work because they’re better at reading the world than we are: they result from the statistical interrelating of more and finer-detailed data than other systems can manage, without having to worry about explaining itself to us humans. Every time a concerned citizen or regulator cries out in understandable despair: ‘We don’t know how machine learning works!’, we hear that these models do indeed work.

If machine learning models work by dispensing with understandable rules, principles, laws and generalisations that explain complexity by simplifying it, then in the cry ‘It works!’ we detect beneath the Harmony of the Spheres the clacking and grating of all the motes and particulars asserting themselves in their interdependence as the Real. The success of our technology is teaching us that the world is the real black box.

It’s a really interesting piece, beautifully written. And it contains a rather good general explanation of the technology. But it ignores the purposes to which most machine-learning algorithms are currently put — namely not to further human understanding but to achieve the commercial goals of the companies that dominate the technology.

Thanks to Seb Schmoller for reminding me of it.

Martin Wolf on the twilight of democracy in America

Today, the transformation of the democratic republic into an autocracy has advanced. By 2024, it might be irreversible. If this does indeed happen, it will change almost everything in the world.

Nobody has outlined the danger more compellingly than Robert Kagan. His argument can be reduced to two main elements. First, the Republican party is defined not by ideology, but by its loyalty to Trump. Second, the amateurish “stop the steal” movement of the last election has now morphed into a well-advanced project. One part of this project is to remove officials who stopped Trump’s effort to reverse the results in 2020. But its main aim is to shift responsibility for deciding electoral outcomes to Republican-controlled legislatures.

Thus, health permitting, Trump will be the next Republican candidate. He will be backed by a party that is now his tool. Most important, in the words of David Frum, erstwhile speechwriter for George W Bush, “what the United States did not have before 2020 was a large national movement willing to justify mob violence to claim political power. Now it does.” It does so because its members believe their opponents are not “real” Americans. A liberal democracy cannot long endure if a major party believes defeat is illegitimate and must be rendered impossible.

From the Financial Times, 28 September.

Chart of the Day

Entrenched dominance of the top five

The top five holdings in the S&P500 now make up 23.5% of the entire index. The firms of the Exponential Age are cementing their leadership. A point to note is that two years ago, one could argue the S&P500 was no more concentrated than in previous highs. But that is clearly no longer the case.

My commonplace booklet

  • An explication of R.B. Kitaj’s painting ‘The Wedding’ Link

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Wednesday 1 December, 2021

Quote of the Day

”Horse sense is the good judgement that keeps horses from betting on people”.

  • W.C. Fields

And, as we say in Ireland, he never spoke a truer word.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Felix Mendelssohn | Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14 | Jan Lisiecki


Long Read of the Day

Shortage nation: why the UK is braced for a grim Christmas

By Tim Harford, written at the beginning of last month.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. After last year’s pandemic-related shortages of masks and toilet paper and spaghetti subsided, supply chains were supposed to adapt. At first, the numbers suggested that the economy was adjusting — the UK’s second lockdown did far less economic damage than the first. We were getting through this; there was no reason to expect another winter of discontent. (It should be acknowledged that the original, in 1978-79, was rather different: a lorry drivers’ strike, a refuse collectors’ strike and even a gravediggers’ strike filled the front pages and put pressure on James Callaghan’s government. That winter has been a bruise on British politics ever since.)

So why do Britain’s shortages seem worse than ever? Is there anything we can do to ease the problem, in the UK and around the world? And — whisper it — is there a chance that all this chaos might just make us stronger?

The Popularity of E-Bikes Isn’t Slowing Down

Even the New York Times has discovered that the biggest-selling EVs have only two wheels.

There is a joke told in transit circles about people who ride electric bicycles: How do you know if someone has an e-bike? They’ll tell you. The idea, of course, is that users of the battery-powered two-wheelers tend to be proselytizers for the technology.

Yep. My wife and I bought two e-bikes nearly five years ago, and they’re among the best pieces of technology we’ve ever owned. We live about 3.5 miles from our respective places of work, and in the past we mostly used a car to do the commute. When the roads were clear that was a five-minute ride. But, given that in pre-pandemic times tens of thousands of cars tried to get into Cambridge every morning, that journey could often take up to an hour (and in one memorable case took 90 minutes).

So in the end, we saw sense and bought the bikes.

They have been transformative devices. For one thing, the journey now takes the same time every day!. For another, they’ve been good for our health. The ones we bought are power-assisted — you can switch on the motor if you need a boost, but for much of the time they are just a pair of ordinary — albeit rather heavy — bikes.

At the beginning we noticed slight disdain from ‘real’ cyclists who regarded us as engaging in what travel agents call “cycling for softies”. But when Covid came and we went into lockdown, things changed.

The weight of the bikes suddenly became a feature rather than a bug (as a programmer would put it). We live in the countryside and were therefore lucky enough to be able to cycle every day for exercise during lockdowns. So we took to travelling with the power off. This had the expected effect of making us fitter, because we had to work harder. But it also had the unanticipated effect of vastly increasing battery range. With our pre-pandemic cycling pattern the nominal range was about 25 miles . But when using the bikes just for exercise — and therefore severely limiting the amount of power-assist requested — the effective range quadrupled.

Electric cars are great, but they’re nothing like as good for the environment — or their owners’ health — as e-bikes. And they don’t wean us off cars.

How’s that for a bit of “proselytizing”?

What happens when you take cars off city streets

Fascinating before-and-after pictures from David Zetland’s blog

Omicron updates


(via Seb Schmoller)

What we should learn from the variant

From Quartz:

The emergence of the omicron variant has led several nations to ban flights from countries in southern Africa. The knee-jerk response punishes places hard-hit by the pandemic and fails to address the real issue: If more people in poor countries were vaccinated, it would be more difficult for covid-19 to mutate and spread. Rich countries should stop hoarding vaccines. A small group of countries—the US, UK, EU, Canada, and Japan—have bought 60% of the world’s vaccines, and between a third to half are stockpiled rather than used. South Africa shouldn’t be punished for being transparent. The country’s prompt efforts to sequence and identify the new omicron variant allowed the world to react quickly—but the travel ban risks sending the wrong message on sharing data.

Noah Smith’s summing up:

Basically, the age when we could expect to stop the virus with non-pharmaceutical interventions — lockdowns, social distancing, masks, test-and-trace — is long, long over. Not only has popular appetite for this strategy waned to almost nothing, but new variants are so contagious that these strategies just aren’t sufficient to stamp out the virus. Every country except China is transitioning to a “live with Covid” strategy (and China is hurting itself by trying to maintain its “zero Covid” policy). So while you should still wear a mask, and while some cities may do some limited business closures, we should assume that distancing measures will not be our first line of defense against Omicron.

Vaccines will be our first line of defense. In the short term this means getting a booster shot of the existing vaccine, in order to restore antibody levels in time for the Omicron wave.

My commonplace booklet

  • “When civilisation ends, a Xenix box will be running a long-forgotten job somewhere.” Lovely story in The Register about how our world is kept going by 50-year-old software that only boomer hackers still understand. For me, it sparks reflections about Chris Alexander’s A Pattern Language and the need for software systems to be ‘habitable’ in the long term, just like houses. And of course there’s the salutary fact that Cobol is still an integral component of some (perhaps many) banking systems.

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