Monday 31 January, 2022

Return of our wild geese

Our village’s family of Canada geese have returned to the lake. Here they are the other evening, in the dusk.

Quote of the Day

”Eternity’s a terrible thought. I mean, where’s it going to end?”

  • Tom Stoppard, in a line from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Neil Young | Harvest Moon


Given that Neil Young has demanded that his music be removed from Spotify due to vaccine misinformation spread by podcaster Joe Rogan on the streaming service, it seems right to highlight him today out of solidarity. “They can have Rogan or Young. Not both,” he said. Predictably, Spotify chose Rogan. They are, after all, a tech company masquerading as a music company, and they paid Rogan $100m to bring his creepy but popular podcast to their platform.

Long Read of the Day

Intoxicating, insidery and infuriating: everything I learned about Dominic Cummings from his £10-a-month blog

An illuminating essay on Dominic Cummings by David Runciman, who has been reading Cummings’s blog so you don’t have to. This is a useful service to society because Cummings is both very interesting and very obnoxious, and the latter quality repels so many people that they don’t get to understand what an astute, imaginative, flawed and dangerous figure he is. David Runciman has his measure, and in this fascinating piece he lays it out.


This is his political superpower: he takes the other side’s ideas seriously, but not the people who hold those ideas. It means he can think dispassionately about what his opponents are doing – even get inside their heads and explore how they will react to what he is doing – while retaining his unshakeable contempt for them. He likes to conduct thought experiments in which he imagines how the idiots might do their version of politics better if they weren’t such idiots. It’s what won him Brexit. When remainers wailed about his tactics, traduced his character and told him he was playing with fire, he just shrugged. He ignored the commentariat and relished the howls of outrage from the chatterati. But he also thought hard about how his campaign messages would affect theirs. By wrapping the case for Brexit in the mantle of the NHS, he not only made Brexit more appealing to many voters, he infuriated remainers who knew it was nonsense. Which meant they ended up talking about his message, Brexit = NHS, and not theirs. In politics, victory doesn’t always go to the people who work hardest. It also goes to the ones for whom outrage is a weapon, not simply an indulgence.

If you read nothing else this week, make time for this.

The metaverse is dystopian – but to Big Tech it’s just a new business opportunity

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Once upon a time, a very long time ago – until Thursday 28 October 2021, to be precise – the term “metaverse” was known only to lexicographers and science fiction enthusiasts. And then, suddenly, it was everywhere. How come? Simply this: Mark Zuckerberg, the supreme leader of Facebook, pissed off by seeing nothing but bad news about his company in the media, announced that he was changing its name to Meta and would henceforth be devoting all his efforts – plus $10bn (£7bn) and thousands of engineers – to building a parallel universe called the metaverse.

And then, because the tech industry and the media that chronicle its doings are basically herds of mimetic sheep, the metaverse was suddenly the newest new thing. This was news to Neal Stephenson, the writer who actually invented the term in his 1992 novel, Snow Crash…

Read on

‘Say Souls On Board’: How Professionals Sound Under Pressure

An absolutely compelling blog post by James Fallows, a great American journalist who’s also a long-time pilot and flying enthusiast. It tells the story of an emergency landing of a commercial airliner shortly after it departed Dulles airport in Washington DC. Early in the flight, the crew detected a possible fault in the plane’s landing gear and requested permission to return to the airport. Fallows includes an audio recording of the radio exchanges between the pilots and the airport’s control tower as events unfold, and adds a commentary for readers who (like) are unfamiliar with the lingo. “Say souls on board”, for example, is the standard inquiry about how many passengers the plane is carrying.

It all ends well, but it’s a brilliant example of what competence and expertise is like in real life. And it led to wishful thoughts about what it would have been like if we had similar levels of competence in governments when they were confronted by the Covid pandemic.

My commonplace booklet

”Members of Congress have a lot of Big Tech in their portfolios. According to financial filings, at least 18 senators and 77 House members report owning shares of one or more of the biggest tech companies. And Nancy Pelosi disclosed that her husband has as much as $25.5 million in Apple stock alone.

(Source: Bloomberg)

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!


The metaverse is dystopian – but to big tech it’s a business opportunity

This morning’s Observer column:

Once upon a time, a very long time ago – until Thursday 28 October 2021, to be precise – the term “metaverse” was known only to lexicographers and science fiction enthusiasts. And then, suddenly, it was everywhere. How come? Simply this: Mark Zuckerberg, the supreme leader of Facebook, pissed off by seeing nothing but bad news about his company in the media, announced that he was changing its name to Meta and would henceforth be devoting all his efforts – plus $10bn (£7bn) and thousands of engineers – to building a parallel universe called the metaverse.

And then, because the tech industry and the media that chronicle its doings are basically herds of mimetic sheep, the metaverse was suddenly the newest new thing. This was news to Neal Stephenson, the writer who actually invented the term in his 1992 novel, Snow Crash…

Read on

Friday 28 January, 2022

Ludwig’s corner

My late wife Carol is buried in Ascension Churchyard in Cambridge. So is Ludwig Wittgenstein, and whenever I go to Carol’s grave I also visit his grave, because visitors often leave intriguing messages and other kinds of memento there. When I checked on the day this photograph was taken, there was a one-Euro coin and a mysteriously broken mug.

Quote of the Day

”A healthy adult male bore consumes each year one and a half times his own weight in other people’s patience.”

  • John Updike

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Schubert | Ständchen | Camille Thomas and Beatrice Berrut


Long Read of the Day

’Endemic’ doesn’t mean harmless

Sobering article in Nature by Aris Katzourakis.

The word ‘endemic’ has become one of the most misused of the pandemic. And many of the assumptions that people are making about it encourage a misplaced complacency. It doesn’t mean that COVID-19 will come to a natural end. It’s here to stay.

To an epidemiologist, an endemic infection is one in which overall rates are static — not rising, not falling. More precisely, it means that the proportion of people who can get sick balances out the ‘basic reproduction number’ of the virus, the number of individuals that an infected individual would infect, assuming a population in which everyone could get sick. Yes, common colds are endemic. So are Lassa fever, malaria and polio. So was smallpox, until vaccines stamped it out.

In other words, a disease can be endemic and both widespread and deadly. Malaria killed more than 600,000 people in 2020. Ten million fell ill with tuberculosis that same year and 1.5 million died. Endemic certainly does not mean that evolution has somehow tamed a pathogen so that life simply returns to ‘normal’.

Good piece. And a useful antidote to the magical thinking about the virus that one finds in some politicians — and in many of our fellow-citizens.

Chart of the Day

From Scott Galloway

4 hours and 23 minutes.

That’s how much time Americans spend on their smartphones every day. In 2010, we spent 24 minutes on our phones — that’s 3% of our waking hours. Today, smartphone usage consumes one third of waking hours.

The Next Big Thing

My conversation with David Runciman on Talking Politics about the so-called ‘Metaverse’ and related matters.

The NYT’s The Daily podcast also had a very good edition about the Metaverse madness.

My commonplace booklet

  •  Robot vacuum cleaner escapes from Cambridge Travelodge Link
  • Om Malik’s photographs Link
  • Spotify had to choose between Neil Young and Joe Rogan. Guess who they chose. Link

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 27 January, 2022

Nature’s abundance

Walking on a Norfolk beach at the weekend I fell to wondering how many shells we had crunched through. Hundreds of thousands, I guessed, at least. This was just a typical square metre.

Quote of the Day

”I started out very quiet and I beat Mr Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Mr Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Mr Stendhal, and I think I had an edge in the last one. But nobody’s going to get me in any ring with Mr Tolstoy, unless I’m crazy of I keep getting better.”

  • Ernest Hemingway, New Yorker, 13 May 1950.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Shaun Davey | Free and Easy | Choral Scholars of University College Dublin | Arranged and conducted by Desmond Earley


Shaun Davey’s music is wonderful.

Long Read of the Day  Why skyscrapers are so short

A fascinating piece by Brian Potter on how technology, economics and regulations determine the height of buildings.

Frank Dutton RIP

Good New York Times obituary of an heroic figure – a white South African detective who took on and exposed the crimes of apartheid policing.

Frank Dutton, whose investigations into some of the biggest criminal cases in South African history, from apartheid-era hit squads to more recent high-level government corruption, earned him a reputation as his country’s greatest police detective, died on Jan. 20 at a hospital in Hillcrest, South Africa. He was 72.

Mr. Dutton came to prominence in the early 1990s, a fraught moment between the 1990 release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the 1994 multiracial elections that elevated him to the presidency and officially brought apartheid to a close.

Mr. Dutton, who was white, and his colleague, Lwandle Wilson Magadla, who was Black, were working on a separate case when they uncovered evidence related to the 1988 killing of 11 Black South Africans in Trust Feed, a town in the province of KwaZulu Natal.

Trust Feed was dominated by the Inkatha Freedom Party, a Black activist organization. Initial investigations into the massacre had placed the blame on Inkatha’s rival, the African National Congress, and despite glaring failures by the police — they never interviewed two survivors, for example — a judge had ruled the case closed.

In a meticulous and dangerous investigation, Dutton and Magadla discovered that the murders had been a false-flag operation carried out by a police hit squad in an effort to drive a wedge between the two African parties.

Dutton went on under the Mandela presidency and afterwards to become South Africa’s leading and best-known cop.

Looking at the photograph, you wouldn’t want to mess with him.

Thanks to Ross Anderson for the tip.

How does Elon Musk get stuff done so quickly?

Interesting essay by Frederic Filloux. You may need to curb your instinctive hostility to (or scepticism about) the guy. But you’ll emerge wiser (or at least better informed) afterwards. At least I did.

The video included in the piece is fascinating, btw.

My commonplace booklet

From Private Eye (where else?)

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!

Tuesday 26 January, 2022

Tidal sinusoids

I’m reminded of the waveforms I used to see on oscilloscopes when I was an engineering undergraduate.

Quote of the Day

”If you’re going to invest in bitcoin, a short-time horizon is four years, a mid-time horizon is 10 years. The right time horizon is forever.”

  • MicroStrategy CEO Michael Saylor talking to Bloomberg News

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Eric Clapton | Bell Bottom Blues (Live)


Long Read of the Day

Can Science Fiction Wake Us Up to Our Climate Reality?

An unmissable New Yorker profile of Kim Stanley Robinson by Joshua Rothman. If you’ve never read Robinson, then can I respectfully suggest that you consider doing so. And if you want to think hard about climate change then his The Ministry for the Future would be a good place to start.

The opening chapter is set in 2025, in Uttar Pradesh in India, which is in the grip of a “wet-bulb” heat wave — a lethal combination of heat and humidity in which human sweat ceases to evaporate. In such conditions, even healthy people in the shade cook and die. The chapter is fiction but in recent years heat waves like this have occurred in Australia, India, Mexico, and Pakistan. The death toll in Uttar Pradesh appals the watching world, but little changes. Which leads to the depressing conclusion that it’ll only when the climate-change-induced catastrophes become unbearable that humankind will finally accept that what we know is coming is actually coming.

In the Victorian era, social novels, by Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, and others, awakened us to poverty and injustice. Modern “naturalists,” like Émile Zola, took a scientific approach, following the causal chains of everyday life, which might link a kitchen stove to coal miners working underground. Robinson brings these traditions to bear on our future problems, combining them with an unusual narrative style designed to dramatize civilizational transformation. “The Ministry for the Future” contains chapters that describe the daily habits of geologists and encamped climate refugees; one chapter is narrated by a carbon atom, and another by the market—both actors in the networks that shape our world. Other chapters are oral histories of the sort one might find in the work of the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, showing how ordinary people could have their attitudes reshaped by climate disasters. The goal is to capture what the literary critic Raymond Williams calls a “structure of feeling”—an invisible scaffold, unique to its period, on which our emotions hang. In our current structure of feeling, a narrator suggests, the order of things is experienced as “unjust and unsustainable and yet massively entrenched, but also falling apart before your eyes.” Like glaciers, structures of feeling shift with time—that’s how we so readily distinguish between the nineteen-sixties and now.

It’s a long read, but worth it.

Anti-Money-Laundering (AML) isn’t working

If you’ve ever tried to open a bank account, or moving a non-trivial sum of money from one bank account to another in the UK, then you will have found yourself (and your lawyer or accountant) enmeshed in some very tedious paperwork, all of it ostensibly designed to prevent bad actors like, say, Russian oligarchs from laundering their ill-gotten gains by, say, purchasing houses in Eaton Place. And the strange thing is that while you and I get enmeshed in this paperwork, London is the money-laundering capital of the world.

Your accountant, lawyer or banker is obliged to go through this rigmarole because of the ‘Know Your Customer’ (KYC) requirement of AML. In a terrific post Dave Birch (Whom God Preserve) has a nice illustration of the downside of this laudable requirement. He is reminded, he writes,

of Faruk Fatih Özer, founder of the now-defunct Turkish crypto exchange Thodex, who vanished last year along with $2 billion in cryptocurrencies from the exchange, had fled not only with customers’ cryptocurrencies, but also with their identities. As David Gerard so eloquently phrased it, Özer paid the most “painstaking attention” to money-laundering compliance and was therefore able to take detailed Know-Your-Customer (KYC) data for hundreds of thousands of users with him. This data included scans of the customers’ national ID cards, once again proving that digitising identity is no substitute for digital identity.

Now, of course, the reason why Mr. Özer had such a treasure trove of customers’ personally identifiable information (PII) was because regulators had forced him to obtain it. So maybe it should be up to the regulators to fix the problem! But what are they going to do? What will happen to all of the people whose identities were stolen in this way? Are they all going to be given new identities in a vast national witness protection programme while their old identities are cancelled? Will the authorities give everyone a new name and a new number, cancel their old ID cards and send them new ones?

Well, of course they won’t. Not only is this approach to money-laundering ineffective (see London), but it’s immensely wasteful. Dave says that UN estimates for the seizure of criminal assets globally are in the region of $1.5 billon while the Lexis-Nexis estimate for the global costs of AML compliance are in the region of $180 billion.

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!

Tuesday 25 January, 2022

To Infinity and beyond

Saturday morning last.

Quote of the Day

”Candy is dandy
But Liquor is quicker.”

  • Ogden Nash, Reflection on Ice-breaking

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mahler | Fifth Symphony | Adagietto | Berlin Phil | Karajan


Long Read of the Day

On Not Hating the Body

A truly extraordinary essay by Martha Nussbaum on body-hatred. An unlikely topic, you might think, though if you were brought up as a Catholic you might find resonances galore in it. Plato has a lot to answer for, and she holds him to account. But she has a much longer charge-sheet than that. And such a great intellectual range.

Let us consider other highly intelligent animals. Elephants fear death, and seek to avoid it for self and others, and even, as we now know, grieve the loss of loved ones with rituals of mourning. Mother elephants even sacrifice their lives to protect their young from speeding trains. That is how vividly they see death ahead of them, and how bad they think it is. But they stop short of body-hatred. They do not adopt a distorted attitude to their potentially crumbling frames that leads to projective aggression against other groups of elephants.

Do not say, please, that it is because they are less aware. We are finding out more all the time about their communication systems, their social organization, their capacious and nuanced awareness. But we do not find disgust. That pathology appears to be ours alone. In her beautiful memoir, Coming of Age With Elephants, Joyce Poole, one of our greatest elephant researchers, describes the way in which her human community impeded her “coming of age” as a fulfilled woman and mother. The researcher group was highly misogynistic and racist. They deliberately broke up her happy romance with an African man. When she was raped by a stranger, they treated her as soiled and did nothing to deal with her trauma. In elephant society, by contrast, she observed better paradigms of inclusive friendship, of compassionate and cooperative group care. The memoir ends when she returns to the elephant group after a two-year absence, carrying her infant child in her arms. The matriarchal herd not only recognize her, they understand her new happiness. And they greet her with the ceremony of trumpeting and defecating by which elephants greet the birth of a new elephant child. No body-hatred, no disgust, no projective subordinations.

Nussbaum’s also good on the absence of body-hatred in James Joyce’s great character, Leopold Bloom. Recall that, early in the day chronicled in Ulysses, he

ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

When Mr Kernan pompously observes that the liturgical trope I am the resurrection and the life “touches a man’s innermost heart”, Leopold thinks:

Your heart perhaps but what price the fellow in the six feet by two with his toes to the daisies? No touching that. Seat of the affections. Broken heart. A pump after all, pumping thousands of gallons of blood every day. One fine day it gets bunged up and there you are. Lots of them lying around here: lungs, hearts, livers. Old rusty pumps: damn the thing else. The resurrection and the life. Once you are dead you are dead. That last day idea. Knocking them all up out of their graves. Come forth, Lazarus! And he came fifth and lost the job. Get up! Last day! Then every fellow mousing around for his liver and his lights and the rest of his traps. Find damn all of himself that morning. Pennyweight of powder in a skull. Twelve grammes one pennyweight. Troy measure.

A long read, for sure. But worth it.

Chart of the Day

Source: Quartz, which adds the comment:

The findings go against the grain of reports of an ongoing “techlash”—a wave of hostility to technology, its numerous breaches of privacy and security, and its disconcerting pace of disruptive change. Edelman’s newest numbers suggest that tech has perhaps benefited from an overall cross-sector rise in trust. But it also follows a period in which technology has proven even more indispensable to our lives during the pandemic.


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!

Monday 24 January, 2022

Sunset in Norfolk

Walking back from the beach late Friday afternoon, I saw this through the trees on the path.

Quote of the Day

“To paraphrase Gramsci, crypto is the morbid symptom of an interregnum, an interregnum in which the gold standard is dead but a fully political money that dares to speak its name has not yet been born. Crypto is the libertarian spawn of neoliberalism’s ultimately doomed effort to depoliticize money.”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Little Village | She Runs Hot


I once heard a marvellous performance of this by Ry Cooder and David Lindley, but can’t find it anywhere now. So this one will have to do.

Long Read of the Day

Dan Wang’s 2021 letter from China

If you’re interested in China (and who isn’t, just now), then Dan’s annual letter is a must-read. The current edition, which sums up his impressions of the most important things that happened last year, is characteristically fascinating and thought-provoking.

It’s very long (15,200 words) so you need to make an appointment with it. What I value most about it is the way Dan tries to intuit how the ruling regime is thinking, and therefore come closer to understanding what Xi Jinping & Co are trying to do, rather than viewing their a actions through the distorting lens of Western hegemonic anxiety.

For at least a year, for example, I’ve had the feeling that the Xi regime has seen through the delusion that social media companies are technological innovators. Dan’s letter confirms that, as the following long excerpt suggests:

While Beijing has restrained internet companies, it has done nothing to hurt more science-based industries like semiconductors and renewables. In fact, it has offered these industries tax breaks and other forms of political support. The 14th Five-Year Plan, for example, places far greater emphasis on science-based technologies than the internet. Thus one of the effects of Beijing’s squeeze has been prioritization of science-based technologies over the consumer internet industry. Far from being a generalized “tech” crackdown, the leadership continues to talk tirelessly about the value of science and technology.

In nearly all of my letters over the years, I’ve lamented the idea that consumer internet companies have taken over the idea of technological progress: “It’s entirely plausible that Facebook and Tencent might be net negative for technological developments. The apps they develop offer fun, productivity-dragging distractions; and the companies pull smart kids from R&D-intensive fields like materials science or semiconductor manufacturing, into ad optimization and game development.” I don’t think that Beijing’s primary goal is to reshuffle technological priorities. Instead, it is mostly a mix of a technocratic belief that reducing the power of platforms would help smaller companies as well as a desire to impose political control on big firms.

But there is also an ideological element that rejects consumer internet as the peak of technology. Beijing recognizes that internet platforms make not only a great deal of money, but also many social problems. Consider online tutoring. The Ministry of Education claims to have surveyed 700,000 parents before it declared that the sector can no longer make profit. What was the industry profiting from? In the government’s view, education companies have become adept at monetizing the status anxieties of parents: the Zhang family keeps feeling outspent by the Li family, and vice versa. In a similar theme, the leadership considers the peer-to-peer lending industry as well as Ant Financial to be sources of financial risks; and video games to be a source of social harm. These companies may be profitable, but entrepreneurial dynamism here is not a good thing.

Where does Beijing prefer dynamism? Science-based industries that serve strategic needs. Beijing, in other words, is trying to make semiconductors sexy again. One might reasonably question how dealing pain to users of chips (like consumer internet firms) might help the industry. I think that the focus should instead be on talent and capital allocation. If venture capitalists are mostly funding social networking companies, then they would be able to hire the best talent while denying them to chipmakers. That has arguably been the story in Silicon Valley over the last decade: Intel and Cisco were not quite able to compete for the best engineering talent with Facebook and Google. Beijing wants to change this calculation among domestic investors and students at Peking and Tsinghua.

So here’s a regime believing that the best talent in the country should work in manufacturing sectors rather than consumer internet and finance. This is heresy to Western political elites who think it’s fine that so many bright physics PhDs have gone to work in hedge funds and Silicon Valley where they contribute little of value to most of the people in the country — not to mention the world — while at the same time powering the insane enrichment of a small tech elite and venture capitalists.

Dan is also very good on Xi’s new-found enthusiasm for “common prosperity”, i.e. some kind of official backlash against the rising social inequality engendered by the rise of tech and related industries.

“If Beijing were only brutal or unpredictable,” he writes,

then people wouldn’t be so on edge. But it is both. No one is sure how far the state will prosecute its values-based agenda. A lot of things happened this year that remain too bizarre for belief. For example, the end of the summer was the time when everyone’s nerves were most short, as they wondered what “common prosperity” will herald and whether the state will ravage other industries with the ferocity it brought to bear on online tutoring. The organs of state media chose that moment to publicize the ultra-left ravings of an obscure blogger. To the author’s own astonishment, he found his celebration of the crackdown splashed onto the homepages of state media and pushed into newsfeeds. The rest of us were left feeling bewildered that the propaganda officials selected such fringe view for a news push.

Government officials subsequently emerged to assure people that common prosperity will not mean egalitarianism. Still, precisely what it will mean is still not scoped out. Beijing reined in its control tendencies only after it had thoroughly terrified people. The essential bet of top leader Xi Jinping is that there will always be a large stock of dynamism in the country, and the job of the party-state is to steer that energy in the right directions. That bet might turn out to be successful, but this push is also demonstrating the odium of never-ending restrictions on personal liberty.

There’s lots more interesting stuff here. Worth your time.

How do we make the move to electric cars happen? Ask Norway

Two-thirds of all new cars bought by Norwegians last year were electric. Turns out you just need a government with a clue.

Yesterday’s Observer column:

So that’s how to do it. You just need lashings of money, a political system that responds to public opinion and a government that knows what it’s doing. Which is why it would be unwise to bet on the UK meeting its deadline of being an EV-only society by 2030 – a failure that would have pleased Douglas Adams (of blessed memory). “I love deadlines,” he once said, “I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” And the great thing about EVs is that they don’t growl, they merely whoosh.

Read on

My commonplace booklet

If, having read this, you thought it was April 1st, then join the club.

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!

Friday 21 January, 2022


Wonder what the collective noun for a mass rally of bikers is.

Quote of the Day

”In answer to: Inside every thin woman there’s a fat woman trying to get out. I always think it’s: Outside every thin woman there’s a fat man trying to get in.”

  • Katharine Whitehorn (of blessed memory). She was one of my favourite colleagues on the Observer.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Joseph Haydn | String Quartet No. 62, Op. 76 No. 3 “Emperor” |2nd movement.


Well, if you’re going to have a national anthem, make sure it’s a decent tune.

Long Read of the Day

 Oh, 2022! by Charlie Stross. Since it’s the weekend, I thought it might be appropriate to suggest a really serious read. It’s a blog post by Charlie Stross, a gifted and successful SciFi writer, and it’s about how to think about the future.

Here’s a sample:

Nobody in March 2019 imagined that by March 2020 the UK would be in lockdown and they’d be storing corpses in refrigerator lorries in New York and Milan. It’s not entirely a black swan; anyone who knew about the history of pandemics knew to expect something like it in due course, and indeed Laurie Garrett won a Pulitzer prize for her book, The Coming Plague in 1994, which predicted more or less exactly what we’re living through today. What she didn’t predict in 1994 (writing in 1991-93) is almost more interesting than what she did — nobody in the 20th century imagined that within just two decades we’d be able to sequence the genome of a new pathogen within days, much less hours, or design a new vaccine within two weeks and have it in human clinical trials a month later. If the SARS family of coronaviruses had emerged just a decade earlier it’s quite likely we’d be on the brink of civilizational, if not species-level, extinction by now—SARS1 has 20% mortality among patients, MERS (aka SARS2) is up around 35-40% fatal, SARS-NCoV19, aka SARS3, is down around the 1-4% fatality level. If SARS1 had gone pandemic we might plausibly have lost a billion people within two years.

Luckily both SARS and MERS are far less contagious than COVID19, but don’t count on this continuing. Those viruses still exist in animal reservoirs, and we know COVID19 circulates between humans and other species and can hybridize with other viruses. The worst easily-imaginable COVID19 variant would be a MERS/COVID19-Omicron hybrid — call it the Omega strain — with the lethality of MERS and the contagiousness of Omicron, which is worse than the common cold, somewhere around the same level as chickenpox. (We don’t remember how awful chickenpox was because (a) we’re generally vaccinated in infancy and (b) it’s not a killer on the same level as its big sibling, Variola, aka smallpox.) But the so-called “childhood diseases” like mumps, rubella, and chickenpox used to kill infants by windrows. There’s a reason public health bodies remain vigilant and run constant vaccination campaigns against them, despite these campaigns being so successful that deaths from these diseases are so rare, leading perversely to an upswing in vaccine denialism.

I found it houghtful and perceptive. I remember at the start of the Covid crisis, in 2020 listening to a New York Times podcast interview with Don McNeil, then the Times’s expert on epidemics. He said that the only parallel with what was coming down the line was the 1918 Spanish Flu. And, in that context, he pointed out that the shortest time it had taken us to come up with a working vaccine up to that point was four years.

At that point I realised that Covid might be really, really serious. And up to now we have consistently under-estimated the threat of the virus. Which is why Charlie’s Omega variant idea reminded me of McNeil’s sombre assessment.

What should Labour do about Brexit?

Great post by Jonty Bloom.

His answer: Accept it, and make it work without letting fantasy get in the way. And then get on with doing sensible stuff. Like: * Make sure to sign up for all the EU schemes on offer, research, space, student exchanges and a dozen more. * Promise to remove the billions of pounds worth of Customs red tape that the Conservatives have loaded on British business. * Negotiate in good faith over Northern Ireland and all other issues and accept compromises that work smoothly if not perfectly. * Accept EU standards for chemicals and everything else — reinventing the CE mark is a total waste of time and a huge unnecessary expense for British industry. * Get business people the right to travel and work temporarily in the EU at any time. * Negotiate equivalence for services including accounting, insurance and the City. * Accept EU agricultural standards, which alone would burn tons of red tape in one giant bonfire.

And do all this quietly, efficiently and without wittering on about sovereignty.


My commonplace booklet


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 20 January, 2022

Evening in Arles

Quote of the Day

“The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.”

  • Samuel Johnson

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Zoë Conway and John Mc Intyre | Faoiseamh a Gheobhadsa (I Will Find Solace)


Extraordinary song, extraordinary location for a recording. Lyrics and translation from the Gallic here.

Long Read of the Day

Cory Doctorow’s review of Saul Griffiths’s  Electrify: An Optimists Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future.


For Griffith, the roadmap is pretty straightforward. From now on, every time we replace a vehicle or renovate a building or swap an appliance, we should be buying electric. Every new roof should include solar panels. New housing should be energy efficient and shouldn’t even have a gas hookup. All of this should be financed with low-cost, long-term loans comparable to the government-backed mortgages that created the post-war middle-class (but without the racism that created Black housing precarity and poverty).

No more fossil-fuel plants should be built, period. Existing extraction and refining programs should halt, now. Existing plants should be decomissioned and replaced with renewables and batteries. This should be federally funded, as should the new jobs for fossil-fuel-sector workers, whose labor the electrification project can handily absorb, with room to spare for every un- and under-employed person in America.

The stuff we’ve been told is impossible with renewables – like maintaining base-load – is revealed as a largely solved problem (big batteries, which will get smaller and cheaper over time).

I came away from the review adding Griffiths’s book to my reading list.

Thanks to Andrew Curry for spotting it.

Lucy Mangan on ‘Ghislaine, Prince Andrew and the paedophile’

A bracing review of the ITV documentary which was screened on Monday.

I didn’t watch it because I was usefully employed on other things, but I found this passage — about Maxwell’s friendship with Prince Andrew both revealing and unsurprising.

Maxwell’s relationship with (no longer His Royal Highness) Prince Andrew. They first met when she was at Oxford University and moving in circles that included prime-minister-to-be Boris Johnson. During the years she was with Epstein, she had – according to Andrew’s former protection officer Paul Page – such free access to the palace that his team assumed she and the prince were having “an intimate relationship”.

Page also reveals that the prince keeps “50 or 60 soft toys” on his bed and a laminated photo of them at his bedside. If the maids don’t put them back in exactly the order shown, he shouts, screams and becomes “verbally abusive”. You could argue that this is not relevant to the claims mounting against him as a result of his friendship with Epstein, of course. That’s the friendship (as we are shown again in a clip of the infamous interview with Emily Maitlis, which becomes no less excruciating with the passage of time) Andrew claimed endured after Epstein’s conviction for child abuse because of “my tendency to be too honourable”. On the other hand, what could be more relevant than such glaring proof of how deep the childishness and sense of entitlement runs in the man?

Yep. That’s what being in a royal family does to people.

Cyber Insurance Will Not Cover Cyber Attacks Attributable to Nation-States

Well, well.

Major insurance firm Lloyd’s of London has issued a bulletin indicating that its cyber insurance products will no longer cover the fallout of cyber attacks exchanged between nation-states. The insurer said last week that damages from “cyber war” between countries would no longer be covered, and that this definition extends to operations that have “major detrimental impact on the functioning of a state.”


Chart of the Day

Welcome to Appworld: a parallel universe.

Source: App Annie’s annual report

My commonplace booklet

A Grand Unified Theory of Buying Stuff

So you’ve acquired a new thing. And now you want accessories. Ask yourself: Will the potential experience be worth the cost to the supply chain?

Nice short piece by Paul Ford.

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!

Wednesday 19 January, 2022

Tree, RIP

Quote of the Day

”God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant and the cat. He has no real style. He just goes on trying other things.” * Picasso

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Oscar Peterson | C Jam Blues | Live in Denmark,1964.


Oscar on Piano, Ray Brown on Bass, Ed Thigpen on Drums

Long Read of the Day

Amid the hype over Web3, informed skepticism is critical

It is, and this is a pretty good example. It’s by Elizabeth Renieris, a researcher on the ethical and human rights impacts of technology in Notre Dame , Harvard and elsewhere. I’ve been collecting critiques of the Web 3 madness, and this was a welcome find.

“Increasingly apparent in the Web3 discourse,” she writes,

is a kind of imaginative obsolescence: As one vision of the future rapidly replaces the next, the technologies and systems now in place suffer decay and disrepair. Our imaginations and resources are once again diverted from fixing or rehabilitating what exists. Meanwhile, familiar problems, inevitably, resurface. Imaginative obsolescence also upends efforts at effective technological governance — and perhaps that is exactly the point.

Like its predecessors (Web 1.0, “the era of static webpages,” and 2.0, the internet of social media and user-driven content), Web3 is imagined as being apolitical, open, decentralized and inclusive, its proponents even using the same rhetoric as the cyberlibertarians of John Perry Barlow’s day. This ethos — characterized by free speech absolutism and free market ideals — has enabled all manner of online harms, including rampant mis- and disinformation, racism, discrimination, hate speech and harassment, concentrations of power, toxic business models and limited accountability. While it may be early, Web3 is quickly encountering many of the same challenges, even as it purports to be immune to them.

A good — and timely — read.

And if you’d like a constantly-updated display cabinet of Web 3 madnesses and scandals, see software developer Molly White’s Web 3 is going just great site.

Photographer finds polar bears that took over abandoned buildings

This remarkable image on the photography site Petapixel made lots of us sit up, first of all because of its haunting painterly quality, and secondly because everyone knows that getting close enough to polar bears to take a picture like that is a bad career move.

The explanatory blurb reads:

A Russian photographer has captured a fascinating series of photos showing polar bears that have taken over the abandoned buildings of a meteorological station on an island between Russia and Alaska.

In September 2021, photographer Dmitry Kokh traveled through islands in the Chukchi Sea, a marginal sea of the Arctic Ocean that sits between Russia and Alaska.

“Being the farthest and most Eastern part of Russian Arctic, this place is very hard to get but also difficult to forget,” Kokh writes. “We traveled by the sailing yacht along the coast and covered more than 1,200 miles of untouched landscapes, villages lost in time, spots with various fauna and seas full of life.”

The Petepixel post included ten more photographs taken by Kokh, some taken from vantage points suicidally close to the bears, and each one more charming than the last. There’s something about polar bears that evokes the same emotions in human animals that pictures of cats and Koala bears do.

Needless to say, some of the comments below the story were sceptical. Surely the image was photoshopped? “At least 4 grown bears all together in this house is surprising”, said another. “Also wondering how this photographer got so close to them. Probably just a brave/lucky person. Is it likely the photographer is keeping these as pets of some sort? Or luring them into the house with food?” And so on.

Fortunately, the penny dropped quickly. The pictures were stills from footage shot by a drone. It’s worth watching (three minutes), not least because it’s a reminder of how good drone footage can be nowadays — as anyone who reads Quentin’s blog will know.

My commonplace booklet

Standing on the edge of a cliff, I took my time setting up my tripod and camera in anticipation of a sunset. The light would soon be bathing the mountains in front of me, illuminating the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers. One of the most beautiful sights my eyes had ever seen, the two tributaries have very distinct colors at the place where they join. The Indus is jade green, while the Zanskar has cyan blue hues. I had big plans for capturing the magic of this place in a photograph. After futzing around with my gear for a while, I had my composition and focus set. All I had to do was press the shutter when the time was right.

As I waited, I peered over the edge and saw a group of off-duty paramilitary servicemen taking selfies with their backs to the scene. They were capturing the moment using nothing but the cameras on their smartphones. The irony wasn’t lost on me. Here I was, standing high above, with a camera rig that cost as much as a second-hand sedan, waiting for the perfect light as I took great care to keep my own shadow out of the frame. And there they were, recording the same moment with faint regard for the quality of the light or the image itself. Instead, they were letting the chips figure it all out as they strained to document their own presence.

That moment reinforced for me the extent to which the iPhone had changed not just the act of photography, but the very notion of photos. Before other smartphones followed suit, it marked the introduction of a new language and the beginning of a new volume in the annals of visual communication.

From Why the iPhone is today’s Box Brownie camera by Om Malik (whom God Preserve).

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!