Monday 28 March, 2022

Peace on Earth (well, in a small corner of it anyway)

What did this scene remind me of? See today’s Musical Alternative for the answer.

Quote of the Day

”Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.”

  • John Kenneth Galbraith

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

J. S. Bach | Cantata Nº 208, ‘Sheep May Safely Graze’, BWV 208


Long Read of the Day

The Strange Rebirth Of Imperial Russia

Unmissable essay by Andrew Sullivan on what most of us have missed about the newly visible monster of post-Communist Russia. “It would be hard to conjure up a period of post-modern bewilderment more vividly than Russia in the post-Soviet 1990s”, he writes.

A vast empire collapsed overnight; an entire totalitarian system, long since discredited but still acting as some kind of social glue and cultural meaning, unraveled in chaos and confusion.

Take away a totalitarian ideology in an instant, and a huge vacuum of meaning will open up, to be filled by something else. We once understood this. When Nazi Germany collapsed in total military defeat, the West immediately arrived to reconstruct the society from the bottom up. We de-Nazified West Germany; we created a new constitution; we invested massively with the Marshall Plan, doing more for our previous foe than we did for a devastated ally like Britain. We filled the gap. Ditto post-1945 Japan.

But we left post-1991 Russia flailing, offering it shock therapy for freer markets, insisting that a democratic nation-state could be built — tada! — on the ruins of the Evil Empire. We expected it to be reconstructed even as many of its Soviet functionaries remained in place, and without the searing experience of consciousness-changing national defeat. What followed in Russia was a grasping for coherence, in the midst of national humiliation. It was more like Germany after 1918 than 1945. It is no surprise that this was a near-perfect moment for reactionism to stake its claim.

It’s a really interesting piece which illuminates something I’ve wondered about from the beginning, which is that Putin isn’t trying to reclaim the territory lost by the USSR in 1989-91, but to redraw the boundaries of Russia to those that obtained when the Tsar ruled!

If the war ends in manifest Russian failure, Sullivan says, then “Putin is surely finished”. But if it becomes a long-drawn-out grinding mess, then he might survive and emerge stronger. Russia, after all, has in the past been good at winning wars of attrition — ask Napoleon’s or Hitler’s ghosts.

Putin had a 21st-century digital battle plan, so why is he fighting like it’s 1939?

Yesterday’s Observer column:

One thing at least we know about Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine: it isn’t going according to plan. Ah, yes, you reply, but which plan? Was it plan A, which simply said that you assemble enough conscripts and heavy artillery, roll into Ukraine, shell a few apartment blocks, amble across to Kyiv and have a victory parade? What we call the George W Bush model (except that he had his Iraq victory parade on the flight deck of an American aircraft carrier).

If this was plan A, then we know what plan B is. It’s to do to Ukraine what was done to the statelet of Chechnya in 1999, namely bomb it to rubble regardless of civilian casualties. Apart from its intrinsic inhumanity, trying to implement this plan in Ukraine faces some practical difficulties: Ukraine is vast whereas Chechnya is small, and Ukraine has a serious army, a feisty capability for resistance and a plentiful supply of serious weaponry from its friends in the west. So if Putin wants a primer before embarking on the next stage of his imperial adventure, he should perhaps download Charlie Wilson’s War, an instructive film about what happened to the USSR in Afghanistan all those years ago.

For those who follow these things professionally, the biggest puzzle is why Putin embarked on a campaign that looks like the second world war in Technicolor, when his military actually had an ultra-sophisticated plan for warfare in a digital age. It’s called the Gerasimov doctrine and it was the creation in 2013 of Valery Gerasimov, a smart lad who is chief of the general staff and first deputy defence minister of the Russian Federation…

Read on

Why have Ukraine’s ‘clay pigeons’ been so successful against Russian targets?

As Putin tries to pretend that the Russian swerve back to Donbas was what he always intended, one of the intriguing aspects of the war so far has been the effectiveness of humdrum aerial warfare — in the shape of the relatively low-tech Turkish Bayraktar drones against the invaders’ supposedly invincible armoured columns. This piece entertainingly explores that mystery.

Before the war began, military experts predicted that Russian forces would have little trouble dealing with Ukraine’s complement of as many as 20 Turkish drones. With a price tag in the single-digit millions, the Bayraktars are far cheaper than drones like the U.S. Reaper but also much slower and smaller, with a wingspan of 39 feet.

As so often has been the case in this war, however, the experts misjudged the competence of the Russian military.

“It’s quite startling to see all these videos of Bayraktars apparently knocking out Russian surface-to-air missile batteries, which are exactly the kind of system that’s equipped to shoot them down,” said David Hambling, a London-based drone expert.

That is confounding, Hambling said, because the drones should be easy for the Russians to blow out of the sky — or disable with electronic jamming.

“It is literally a World War I aircraft, in terms of performance,” he said. “It’s got a 110-horsepower engine. It is not stealthy. It is not supersonic. It’s a clay pigeon — a real easy target.”

Eh? A million dollars each is ‘cheap’? Explains why arms manufacture is such a profitable racket.

Why does Tucker Carlson sound like a Berkeley leftist?

Antonio García Martínez on how the war in Ukraine has exposed an ideological vacuum  at the heart of American right. Unlike many of the commentary at, he actually went to see for himself.

I spent last week reporting from Poland and Ukraine myself. It was more than a bit eye-opening: The refugee crisis on the border is enormous, Europeans have mobilized tremendously to handle it, and Ukraine itself is on a total war footing where all thought and action go toward victory over the Russian invaders. 

On the way back, I was standing in line along with Ukrainian refugees to re-enter the EU zone at a desolate rural crossing point. After all the hours it took to get through, there was a collective euphoria (much stronger among the refugees surely than me) upon entering the European Union and NATO. The line between the worlds of war and destruction and desperation and that of order and safety and prosperity was very stark indeed.

Those who rail constantly against the global liberal order should step outside it every now and then. They might appreciate it more. After all, there’s no law of the physical universe that we must always live in democracies with rule of law. That’s the historical exception not the rule.

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Friday 25 March, 2022


Slowly, agonisingly slowly, I’m getting the hang of this wildlife photography business.

Quote of the Day

”Comments Are the Radioactive Waste of the Web.”

(Via Charles Arthur)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Pinetop Perkins | How Long Blues



Long Read of the Day

The Art of Monetary War

A long and sobering essay by economist Dominik Leusder pointing out the longer-term implications of the West’s ability effectively to shut down the Russian economy. The financial war, he argues, is a genuine war — and its stakes are immense. Over the course of a week, targeted financial sanctions escalated into measures that, if not lifted in the near future, “are almost certain to condemn Russia’s quasi-autarkic economy to sharp and lasting stagnation. No matter their intent or longevity, these sanctions will change the country forever”.

Globalisation turns out to be a many-faceted sword.

As globalization underwrote Putin’s militarism and his increasingly hostile posture toward Russia’s neighbors, it simultaneously rendered the country’s economy fatally reliant: on the net demand from other countries such as Germany and China; on imports of crucial goods such as machinery, transportation equipment, pharmaceutical and electronics, mostly from Europe; on access to the global dollar system to finance and conduct trade. This is one way to construe the deceptively simple insight of Henry Farrell and Abraham L. Newman’s theory of weaponized interdependence: the logic of financial globalization that generated Russia’s trade surplus and gave Putin room to maneuver also provided the economic and financial weaponry that was turned against him.

This vulnerability is reflected in Putin’s strategic economic logic. In the period since 2014, the Russian central bank has successfully sought to de-dollarize a substantial portion of its reserves, and outstanding dollar liabilities throughout the economy have been reduced. These moves were informed by Western dominance of the global payment infrastructure via SWIFT and the dollar interbank system. In a very meaningful way Russia had prepared for the current conflict. But it was also guided by a belief in the sanctity of foreign reserves held at the world’s central banks. If such a sanctity ever existed, it has been obliterated overnight.

What’s happened provides a vivid illustration of the untrammelled power of the global financial system that has turned our ‘democratic’ world upside down. At one level, it’s obviously satisfactory to see the effectiveness of the sanctions against a pitiless adversary. But at the same time we need to ask: who controls this colossus? And if it can do this to an apparently powerful country like Russia, what could it do to others who trigger its rage?

Maybe we will find after this war ends that we should have been more careful about what we wished for.

Calculator Construction Set

If you’re interested in computer lore, then this little tale by the sainted Andy Hertzfeld is a gem. It tells of how Chris Espinosa invented a way of getting Steve Job’s approval on designs.

The history of the personal computer is littered with great stories like this. Many years ago, when I taught at the Open University, Martin Weller and I had the idea of teaching the technology of the PC and the Internet through narratives about the way the technology evolved. The course we created — entitled You, Your Computer and the Net — had 12,000 students on its first presentation and was one of the most popular courses the Open University ever created.

My commonplace booklet

Tyler Cowen on John McGahern

Tyler is one of the most voracious and insightful readers I know of. He’s just read McGahern’s novel, Amongst Women (which is marvellous IMO). Here’s his succinct verdict:

That is the title of a 1990 Irish novel by John McGahern, well-known in Ireland but as of late not so frequently read outside of Ireland. In addition to its excellent general quality, I found this book notable for two reasons. First, it focuses on the feminization of Ireland, being set in the mid-century decades after independence. An IRA veteran slowly realizes that the Ireland he fought for — a place for manly men — was a figment of his civil war imagination, and not an actual option for an independent, modernizing Ireland. The latter will be run according to the standards and desires of women, and actually be far more pleasant, whether or not Moran likes it. Second, the book is an excellent illustration of the importance of context for reading fiction. The story reads quite differently, depending how quickly you realize the protagonist is an IRA veteran with his wartime service as a fundamental experience. Few readers will know this from the very beginning, but I suspect many Irish readers — especially older ones — will figure this out well before they are told. In general, the very best fiction is context-rich, and this is one reason why many people may not appreciate all of the literary classics.

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Thursday 24 March, 2022


Two slightly-dissatisfied teenagers, spotted the other day.

Quote of the Day

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect).”

  • Mark Twain

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Telemann | Horn Concerto in D Major


Long Read of the Day

The Latecomer’s Guide to Crypto

Kevin Roose is a very good journalist, so when he writes about anything I pay attention. This primer is worth it if you’re puzzled by the hysteria over ‘crypto’, NFTs and Web3.

I agree with the skeptics that much of the crypto market consists of overvalued, overhyped and possibly fraudulent assets, and I am unmoved by the most utopian sentiments shared by pro-crypto zealots (such as the claim by Jack Dorsey, the former Twitter chief, that Bitcoin will usher in world peace).

But as I’ve experimented more with crypto — including accidentally selling an NFT for more than $500,000 in a charity auction last year — I’ve come to accept that it isn’t all a cynical money-grab, and that there are things of actual substance being built. I’ve also learned, in my career as a tech journalist, that when so much money, energy and talent flows toward a new thing, it’s generally a good idea to pay attention, regardless of your views on the thing itself.

My strongest-held belief about crypto, though, is that it is terribly explained…

It was. Until now.

How Putin’s weaponising of “traditional values” at home resonates with some in the US

From the Washington Post yesterday morning…

That rightist strain of support is built on one of the Russian leader’s lesser-known war tactics: His casting of a Christian catchall — “traditional values” — as a weapon. To defend Russian aggression in Ukraine, he has lobbed disproved claims of U.S.-funded bioweapons labs and a neo-Nazi takeover of the government in Kyiv (both of which have found homes on as well). But even as Russian bombs kill scores of civilians, Putin has also sought to portray his war as righteous — describing Ukraine as a microcosm of the greater global tug of war between liberal and conservative thought.

His parlance speaks to the rise of Putin as a global touchstone of the far right. Building for years, his crafted image as a right-wing Christian leader is finding its most potent outlet in the horrific war in Ukraine. For the Christian right in the United States and Europe, Putin’s messaging is not so much a dog whistle as a blaring siren. The U.S. televangelist Pat Robertson has said that the Russian leader was “compelled by God” to invade Ukraine. U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) spoke this month at a White nationalist event where the crowd was earlier heard chanting “Putin! Putin! Putin!”

Well, well.

The Royal Mint to build ‘world first’ plant to turn UK’s electronic waste into gold

According to the blurb,

Pioneering new technology enables The Royal Mint to recover precious metals from discarded electronic devices such as mobile phones and laptops

The first of its kind plant will provide a source of high-quality precious metals while offering a solution to significant and growing environmental challenges

Forms part of The Royal Mint’s reinvention and helps secure a future as a leader in sustainably sourced precious metals

I liked Charles Arthur’s observation that Isaac Newton, who was once Master of the Mint, was passionately interested in alchemy. So he’d be pleased by this development.

My commonplace booklet

A post in Jonty Bloom’s blog about the Brexiteers as a Cargo Cult sent me to Wikipedia, which had this helpful observation that Cargo cults

“are marked by a number of common characteristics, including a “myth-dream” that is a synthesis of indigenous and foreign elements, the expectation of help from the ancestors, charismatic leaders, and lastly, belief in the appearance of an abundance of goods.”

Which fits the Brexiteer crowd in government pretty well.

Russia’s only justification for aspiring to be a superpower rests only its possession of nuclear weapons (and the veiled threat that it might use them). In economic terms it’s a second-rank power which combines a huge land-mass with an economy the size of Italy’s. And its current advantage of possessing large reserves of fossil fuel is, ultimately, finite, especially as the rest of the world transitions towards renewable energy. In that sense it reminds me of the UK with its North Sea reserves in the Thatcher years.

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Wednesday 23 March, 2022

Londistan, 2022

Quote of the Day

”I’ve worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.”

  • Groucho Marx

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ry Cooder & David Lindley | Jesus on the Mainline | New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival


Yeah, I know I’ve played this before. But I needed waking up yesterday and this was just the ticket.

Long Read of the Day

Putin in His Labyrinth: Alexander Gabuev on the View from Moscow

Marvellous interview by Jonathan Tepperman of Alexander Gabuev, a former diplomatic correspondent and editor at Kommersant, a Russian newspaper. He’s now a Senior Fellow and chair of the ‘Russia in the Asia-Pacific’ Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center (although, like many of his colleagues and a huge number of other Russians, he recently left the country).

Imagine a Russian czar at the top of a powerful country, unchallenged for 20-plus years, who’s also been lucky and successful by Russian standards. Russia has never been as free and prosperous at the same time as it has been during Putin’s reign, particularly his first two terms. That’s all been undone over the last two weeks, obviously. But before that, he was very successful. To the self-confidence born from that success, add the impact of his age and his isolation, and you get a state of mind that led him to believe that his legacy would be the return of Ukraine to Russia’s control. The whole idea is irrational, but in his worldview, it’s a prize worth fighting for.

Another reason for all the mistakes is that he never went to Russia’s national-security establishment and said, “Hey guys, in a year or so I want to invade Ukraine, so let’s start thinking through the scenarios and debate the economic costs.” A full invasion of Ukraine was such an unimaginable idea that Putin tried to keep his plan as well hidden as possible. Instead of serious war planning, it became a clandestine operation, with only a handful of military planners involved.

It’s really informative (at least for me), and particularly interesting towards the end when the conversation turns to the way China will exploit post-war Russia.

How a nondescript box has been saving lives during the pandemic – and revealing the power of grassroots innovation

(And also restoring one’s faith in humanity at a time when it’s in real trouble.)

Fascinating account of how a small amount of imagination and ingenuity can go a long way.

One afternoon, a dozen Arizona State University students gathered to spend the morning cutting cardboard, taping fans and assembling filters in an effort to build 125 portable air purifiers for local schools. That same morning, staff members at a homeless shelter in Los Angeles were setting up 20 homemade purifiers of their own, while in Brookline, Massachusetts, another DIY air purifier was whirring quietly in the back of a day care classroom as children played.

The technology in all three cases – an unassuming duct tape-and-cardboard construction known as a Corsi-Rosenthal box – is playing an important part in the fight against COVID-19. The story of how it came to be also reveals a lot about communities as sources of innovation and resilience in the face of disasters.

My commonplace booklet

  • The Digital Scrapbooker Link

  • Gus Simmons’s memoir Ross Anderson has a nice blog post about it.

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Tuesday 22 March, 2022

The Elf’s-eye View

Seen on a woodland walk yesterday afternoon.

Quote of the Day

”If I were Ukrainian, I would feel insulted. If I were British, I would feel ashamed. As a French diplomat, I will not comment on Twitter.”

  • Philippe Errera, political director at the French foreign ministry, commenting on Boris Johnson’s likening of Ukraine’s battle against Russian aggression to the Brexit campaign.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Shaun Davey | The Winter´s End | Uilleann Pipes (Walter Lelle) and Organ (Stefan Max Bergmann)


Long Read of the Day

Gus Simmons’s memoir

The cryptographer Gustavus (Gus) Simmons was the chief mathematician at Sandia National Laboratories for many years who worked primarily on authentication theory, developing cryptographic techniques for solving problems of mutual distrust and devising protocols whose function could be trusted, even though some of the inputs or participants cannot be. In that context he invented a lot of critical things to do with nuclear command and control, as well as related mathematics such as secret sharing and subliminal channels.

Gus came from a grindingly poor background in rural West Virginia and enlisted in the US army air force at the age of 18 to be a radar techician — and ended up a thought leader in cryptography with medals and honorary degrees. Among other things he was the Rothschild professor at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1966 when university cryptographers and security experts ran a Newton Institute program on computer security, cryptography and coding theory. All of which is by way of saying that, in a ferociously arcane field, Gus is a big deal.

Over three decades, though, he was quietly compiling a distinctive kind of memoir of his childhood in West Virginia. It takes the form of 30 stories, all of the kind that — as the grandson of a peasant farmer in early 20th-century rural Ireland — I recognise. They are the kind of compelling, quirky, amusing and occasionally shocking fireside tales that story-tellers in isolated rural villages used to tell before the age of radio and television. During the lockdown, Gus assembled them into a book which he self-published, sending a few copies to the distinguished cryptographers who are his peers and friends.

One of them — my friend and colleague Ross Anderson — persuaded Gus to release it as a pdf so that this remarkable piece of social history history could be more widely read and appreciated. It can be downloaded from Ross’s website here. I’ve been reading and really enjoying it. Here’s a sample that gives a good flavour of it:

It is not news that votes are bought and sold in West Virginia. It would be news if they weren’t. Anyone who has read The Dark Side of Camelot knows that in the 1960 democratic primary in West Virginia Bobby and Teddy Kennedy were handing out cash in large amounts well in advance of the election, which their brother Jack won easily.

How much of that cash trickled down to individual voters is anyone’s guess? The Kennedys bought elections wholesale. But anyone who grew up in West Virginia during the depression knew about buying elections retail.

A common sentiment in those days, at least on Frog’s Creek where I grew up, was; Whut’s the point in voting if you don’t get paid fur it. And lots of people got paid. Since times have changed so much, even in West Virginia, in the last seventy years, it is worth digressing to give the reader some insight into how voting was regarded and done in those days. The biggest surprise would be that not many women voted in West Virginia back then. Women’s suffrage had come into effect with the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution a decade and a half before, but almost all of the men and many of the women viewed voting as “men’s business”.

My mother voted, but then she had been a nurse before she met Pop, so she had seen more of the world than most of her contemporaries on Frog’s Creek where we lived. But even so, whoever got Pop’s vote got hers as well, since as they often said, there was no point in them voting if they just cancelled each other out. They would talk over who they were going to vote for in each position on the ticket—but it was always “two-for-one” so far as their voting was concerned.

But the main thing the reader needs to know to appreciate this story was that most families had fixed political allegiances that spanned generations. If someone’s daddy had been a Democrat, it was a matter of family pride and honor to vote the same way—and virtually everyone voted a straight ticket. Of course, that was necessary since roughly half of the adults in the community were totally illiterate so all they could do was to have someone show them where to put their X and vote a straight ticket.

The going rate for a straight ticket vote was two dollars cash and a pull of bottled in bond whiskey—a pull being what you could gulp in one large mouthful from a bottle. That may not seem like much to a modern reader, but you need to remember that the going rate for a day’s manual labor—hard labor—was one dollar and found; found being the midday meal; dinner as we called it then, the evening meal being supper. So, two dollars was the equivalent of getting paid for two days labor that you didn’t have to do and couldn’t get anyway. Almost all of the men drank; some a little, some a lot. Since the depression was hard on and cash money almost nonexistent, for the main part they drank moonshine…

If this sounds like your kind of thing, download the book, pour a glass of whisky, put another log on the fire and be transported to West Virginia long before any of us were born.

It’s not Cancel Culture, it’s Cancel Technology 

Social ostracism is as old as the hills. Social media is not.

Really perceptive essay by Noah Smith.

As anyone who either was alive before 2010 or has read a book about the period will remember, people got socially ostracized all the time before Twitter and Facebook and Google existed. The things they got ostracized for have changed over the years — maybe before it was cheating on your husband, or saying you didn’t believe in God, or being disabled, or being a communist, or whatever. Ostracism is a consistent feature of human societies, and relabeling it “Cancel Culture” is fine with me I suppose.

The really interesting question is whether ostracism has changed in important and substantial ways in the age of social media and the internet. Even if human nature doesn’t change over time (and I think the jury is still out on that one), the tools we have access to do change, and that allows society to reshape itself in new ways. (That’s what I mean when I semi-ironically call myself a “technological determinist”, by the way.)

What does the internet do? Lots of stuff, but the two things I want to focus on here are distribution and memory. The internet:

  • allows a very very large number of strangers to see what you say and do, and

  • keeps a record of most of the things you say and do online.

Terrific essay.

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Monday 21 March, 2022

Get a move on mate, I’m hungry too

My wildlife photography is improving — slowly — thanks to advice from readers like Jonathan Potter (for which many thanks).

The madness of war seeps into everything

Jan Dalley had a thoughtful column in the weekend edition of the Financial Times about how we in the West are tarring everything Russian (including musicians and artists who have nothing to do with Putin or the war) with the same brush.

She points out that that is an old, old story. “During the First World War,” she writes,

”there were society ladies in London whose proud anti-German war work was to stroll in the Park every day and throw stones at dachshunds”

We will be going abroad for part of the Summer and so on Saturday we went to see a cattery where our cat might spend a week or two. As we talked to the proprietor about the post-pandemic increase in demand for ‘cat hotels’, she remarked that some people are now taking against Russian Blues.

This is madness. I feel particularly strongly about it because many years ago we had a wonderful Russian Blue called (in homage to the Marx Brothers), Harpo. He died because he was hit by a car on one of his nocturnal expeditions, but he left a gap in our lives which we felt for years afterwards. And although he was quite territorial he wasn’t in the least interested in politics!

Quote of the Day

”Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.”

  • Max Frisch (and not, as I had mistakenly thought — until more erudite readers put me right — Martin Heidegger)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Everybody Hurts (Ya Rab) – Sachal Studios Orchestra


This unusual performance of a lovely REM song (which I had highlighted last November) was suggested by Neil Sequeira. I’d never heard of Sachal Studios Orchestra and so went searching. It’s described as “the only orchestra in Pakistan that plays live and tours internationally”. Apparently it first became famous after recording a fine version of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five. And it seems to be entirely made up of chaps, which may or may not tell one something about the musical scene in Pakistan.

I still much prefer the Glastonbury performance by REM, though.

Long Read of the Day

In a World on Fire, Stop Burning Things

Great, long New Yorker essay by Bill McKibbin.

Burning fossil fuel has driven the temperature of the planet ever higher, melting most of the sea ice in the summer Arctic, bending the jet stream, and slowing the Gulf Stream. And selling fossil fuel has given Putin both the money to equip an army (oil and gas account for sixty per cent of Russia’s export earnings) and the power to intimidate Europe by threatening to turn off its supply. Fossil fuel has been the dominant factor on the planet for centuries, and so far nothing has been able to profoundly alter that. After Putin invaded, the American Petroleum Institute insisted that our best way out of the predicament was to pump more oil. The climate talks in Glasgow last fall, which John Kerry, the U.S. envoy, had called the “last best hope” for the Earth, provided mostly vague promises about going “net-zero by 2050”; it was a festival of obscurantism, euphemism, and greenwashing, which the young climate activist Greta Thunberg summed up as “blah, blah, blah.” Even people trying to pay attention can’t really keep track of what should be the most compelling battle in human history.

So let’s reframe the fight. Along with discussing carbon fees and green-energy tax credits, amid the momentary focus on disabling Russian banks and flattening the ruble, there’s a basic, underlying reality: the era of large-scale combustion has to come to a rapid close. If we understand that as the goal, we might be able to keep score, and be able to finally get somewhere. Last Tuesday, President Biden banned the importation of Russian oil. This year, we may need to compensate for that with American hydrocarbons, but, as a senior Administration official put it,“the only way to eliminate Putin’s and every other producing country’s ability to use oil as an economic weapon is to reduce our dependency on oil.” As we are one of the largest oil-and-gas producers in the world, that is a remarkable statement. It’s a call for an end of fire.

It’s an interesting and informative essay. The key insight is that renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuel, and becoming more so. So a determined transition to renewable energy would save the world twenty-six trillion dollars in energy costs in the coming decades. Which is precisely the opposite of what everyone assumes — that a green transition would be an unbelievably expensive undertaking.

Is Google’s domination of the internet finally over? Search me…

Yesterday’s Observer column:

For seasoned users of the internet, the chronology of our era divides into two ages: BG and AG – before and after Google. The year 1998 marks the dividing line. Before then, as the web expanded exponentially, a host of “search engines” had attempted to provide searchable indexes to it. The best of them was AltaVista, which launched in 1995 and provided the first searchable, full-text database of the web via a simple interface. It was the engine that I and most of my colleagues used until one fateful day in 1998 when an even starker webpage appeared with a simple text box and almost nothing else except the name Google. And from the moment you first used it, there was no going back.

Why? Because Google used an original way of ranking the relevance of the results turned up by a query. It effectively conducted an automated peer review of websites. The more webpages linked to a particular site, the more relevant it was likely to be and so it was given a higher ranking. The algorithm, dubbed PageRank, which did this was the foundation on which Google’s domination of the internet search was built.

The reason Google swept all before it was that its ranking system seemed objective: it just counted links and ranked accordingly…

Well, of course that was then and this is now. Read on.

Christopher Alexander RIP

The great design theorist passed away on Thursday. A Pattern Language, the hypertext book he wrote with a group of his students and colleagues, changed the way not just architects thought about design, but also influenced some software engineers over the years. At the core of his thinking was the idea that most of the wonderful places of the world were not made by architects, but by the people who inhabit them. I first came on his ideas when involved in a row with the ‘architects’ of a huge public-sector computing system which would have to work for decades after it was commissioned. What was striking was that none of its designers were thinking about how the needs of its future users might change over the lifetime of the system. They reminded me of Corbusier and his delusion that houses are “machines for living in”.

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Friday 18 March, 2022

A message to the Russian People…

… from, Guess Who? None other than the Terminator himself. Not many people can pull off a piece like this — and hold one’s attention throughout. It’s nine minutes long and, I think, worth it.

Here’s the Link.

Quote of the Day

”Three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write.”

  • Anthony Trollope

He would know. According to some reports, he

paid a servant an extra £5 a year to wake him up at 5:30 am every morning and get him a cup of coffee. Trollope would then work on a novel for three hours. The first half hour was spent reading over what he had already written, and after that he wrote at a pace of 250 words per 15 minutes. So, over three hours, he would write approximately 2,500 words.

And he did that while holding down a serious job in the Post Office. Infuriating, isn’t it?

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Strauss | Four Last Songs | No 4 – Im abendrot | Renee Fleming


Strauss’s four songs were part of the programme at the Metropolitan Opera’s Concert for Ukraine the other night. This one is my favourite.

Long Read of the Day

 How Putin’s Oligarchs Bought London

Marvellous review essay by Patrick Radden Keefe on a number of courageous books which have revealed the extent to which the top layers of British UK have been compromised by the dirty wealth of Russians who are, in one way or another, obligated to Putin.

For the past several years, Oliver Bullough, a former Russia correspondent, has guided “kleptocracy tours” around London, explaining how dirty money from abroad has transformed the city. Bullough shows up with a busload of rubberneckers in front of elegant mansions and steel-and-glass apartment towers in Knightsbridge and Belgravia, and points out the multimillion-pound residences of the shady expatriates who find refuge there. His book “Butler to the World: How Britain Became the Servant of Oligarchs, Tax Dodgers, Kleptocrats, and Criminals,” just published in the U.K., argues that England actively solicited such corrupting influences, by letting “some of the worst people in existence” know that it was open for business.

Invoking Dean Acheson’s famous observation, in 1962, that Britain had “lost an empire but not yet found a role,” Bullough suggests that it did find a role, as a no-questions-asked service provider to the crooked élite, offering access to capital markets, prime real estate, shopping at Harrods, and illustrious private schools, along with accountants for tax tricks, attorneys for legal squabbles, and “reputation managers” for inconvenient backstories. It starts with visas; any foreigner with adequate funds can buy one, by investing two million pounds in the U.K. (Ten million can buy you permanent residency.)

It’s full of interesting stories. For example:

In 2014, the American political scientist Karen Dawisha submitted her book “Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?” to her longtime publisher, Cambridge University Press. After reviewing the manuscript, Dawisha’s editor, John Haslam, wrote to her praising the book but saying that Cambridge could not publish it. “The risk is high that those implicated in the premise of the book—that Putin has a close circle of criminal oligarchs at his disposal and has spent his career cultivating this circle—would be motivated to sue,” he explained. Even if the press ultimately prevailed, the expense of the proceedings could be ruinous, Haslam said.

It’s a terrific read. And also an infuriating one, not least because the sudden faux-outrage of the Tory party about the wealthy London concierges and legal pimps who service the needs of oligarchs is so nauseating.

Preparing for Defeat 

Francis Fukuyama in upbeat mode.

I’ll stick my neck out and make several prognostications:

1 Russia is heading for an outright defeat in Ukraine. Russian planning was incompetent, based on a flawed assumption that Ukrainians were favorable to Russia and that their military would collapse immediately following an invasion. Russian soldiers were evidently carrying dress uniforms for their victory parade in Kyiv rather than extra ammo and rations. Putin at this point has committed the bulk of his entire military to this operation—there are no vast reserves of forces he can call up to add to the battle. Russian troops are stuck outside various Ukrainian cities where they face huge supply problems and constant Ukrainian attacks.

2 The collapse of their position could be sudden and catastrophic, rather than happening slowly through a war of attrition. The army in the field will reach a point where it can neither be supplied nor withdrawn, and morale will vaporize. This is at least true in the north; the Russians are doing better in the south, but those positions would be hard to maintain if the north collapses.

There are ten more where they came from.

I hope he’s right. In the meantime, I liked Charles Arthur’s sardonic take on the piece. “Mr End Of History predicting End Of War. It’s probably as good an analysis as any.”

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Thursday 17 March, 2022

St Patrick’s Day!

(And it’s not true that he banished the snakes from Ireland, as a casual inspection of the country’s political elite will confirm.)

The flock

Lovely photograph taken the other day in Glencolumbcille by John Darch (Whom God Preserve). Note the symmetry of the group.

Quote of the Day

”Quote me as saying I was mis-quoted”

  • Groucho Marx‌

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Steve Cooney | O’Farrell’s Slip Jig


You’ve got to have a slip jig on this day of all days.

Long Read of the Day

The Channel 4 exposé of the Jeremy Kyle Show made me ashamed of the TV profession

Great piece by Dorothy Byrne, the former head of news and current affairs at Channel 4 TV.

Over two nights this week, millions of viewers watched the horror that was ITV’s Jeremy Kyle Show exposed. The two-part investigation, Jeremy Kyle Show: Death on Daytime, on Channel 4, suggested that the production team lied to vulnerable participants, some of whom had obvious mental health issues, with sometimes terrible consequences. The Jeremy Kyle Show was taken off air only after one victim, Steve Dymond, “failed” a lie detector test on the show and killed himself a week later. It was also revealed that at least one other participant had killed herself after appearing on the programme years earlier – and the investigation hinted there were potentially more cases.

But the programme’s greatest shock lay not in its content but in what – or who – was not on screen. It approached more than 200 people who had worked on the Jeremy Kyle Show over 14 years, and not a single one would go on camera…

I was a TV critic for 13 years and really enjoyed the medium but detested many of the people who worked in the industry. Dorothy Byrne was one of the shining exceptions.

The Jeremy Kyle show was one of the most obnoxious, cruel and exploitative shows ever to appear on British television. What was even more depressing, though, was that so many people tuned in to watch it.

Xi’s awkward dilemma

From Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times ($)

A short, victorious Russian war would have suited China. Beijing’s favoured narrative about the inexorable decline of American power would have looked even more credible. The stage might have been set for a Chinese attack on Taiwan.

Instead, Russia has got bogged down. The western alliance has been revived, and the US and its allies have unveiled a new armoury of economic sanctions that will look very threatening in Beijing.

China is now having to digest the news that, as a result of western sanctions, Russia has lost access to most of its foreign reserves. As the economist Barry Eichengreen points out, one of the main reasons that countries hold foreign reserves is “as a war chest to be tapped in a geopolitical conflict”. But China, which has the world’s largest foreign reserves, has just discovered that it could lose access to its war chest overnight.

China is not nearly self-sufficient in either energy or food. It has worried for decades about the “Malacca Dilemma” — the threat that the US navy could blockade China by cutting off key shipping routes. China’s huge investments in its navy are partly aimed at averting that possibility. Now, however, Beijing has to consider the possibility that a freezing of the country’s foreign reserves, allied to other financial sanctions, could be just as threatening as a naval blockade.

Frustratingly for China, there is no easy way out of this. The obvious solution would be for it to trade increasingly in its own currency, the renminbi. But Beijing has shied away from making the RMB fully convertible, fearing that this would lead to destabilising capital flight.

The piece is accompanied by a brilliant cartoon showing Putin, with hands dripping with blood, embracing ‘Pooh Bear’, as Xi is known to Chinese dissidents.

The moral of the story is, I suppose, “don’t put all of your Faberge eggs in other people’s baskets”.

Later Noah Smith has an intriguing blog post suggesting that Xi suddenly has a lot on his plate — to wit: the Ukraine war, renewed Covid outbreaks, a stock-market crash and a real estate bubble that is now bursting.

My commonplace booklet

Saturday Night Live does Amazon Go Lovely sketch. Link

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Wednesday 16 March, 2022

Quote of the Day

”Cats are intended to teach us that not everything in nature has a purpose.”

  • Garrison Keillor

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bob Dylan & Van Morrison | And It Stoned Me | BBC Outtake, Athens 27.06.1989


Two of my favourite singer-songwriters in the open air on a hill in Athens, with the Parthenon in the background.

I love outtakes. They show how the magical sausage is made.

Long Read of the Day

In my Observer column last Sunday I wrote about DAOs — Distributed Autonomous Organisations, the latest crypto-obsession. I said that the Gadarene rush into this crypto wormhole reminded me of the 1960s and early 1970s hippie obsession with communes. “There’s something touching about the DAO idea”, I wrote.

It seeks to break the stranglehold of hierarchical organisations dominated by a few and replace them with more democratic structures. In that sense, they’re reminiscent of 1960s and 1970s attempts to create communes for breaking the grip of the nuclear monogamous family and creating more collegial structures for domestic life. Those experiments often broke up because the alpha males couldn’t hack real egalitarianism. And DAOs are now riven by similar conflicts. The only difference is that some members are more equal than other, not because of gender but because they own more of the cryptocurrency tokens and can therefore determine what happens. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

This struck a chord with Dave Birch (Whom God Preserve), who has an enviable talent for making complex ideas clear by finding material examples. In a lovely blog post he told the story of a British football team, Ebbsfleet United, a “proto-DAO” which was taken over by an online community of fans in 2008 and initially did well in the league in which it was located.

The fan voting evolved in what I imagine many social anthropologists would regard as an entirely predictable way. After the investment, the fans voted on who should pick the team, themselves or the manager: they chose the manager every time. This is exactly what I would do: If I had a vote in how Manchester City should line up at the weekend, I would inevitably delegate that vote to someone who knows what they are doing (in this case, one of the most successful managers in the history of the game, Pep Guardiola). Why on earth would I allow people like me to decide on something that they have no demonstrable aptitude for?

Will Brooks, who was behind the idea in the first place, later said that “one of my biggest conclusions is that perhaps the idea was more exciting than the reality”. I think this probably going to be true of any other DAO as well. Even if there was a wisdom of crowds to be tapped, people have other things to do. Such communities tend to evolve rapidly into groups where a small number of people co-ordinate action and the majority are happy to delegate responsibility. You get, in effect, cabals or councils who direct the organisation. Thus there is what SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce called “shadow centralisation”.

Dave’s point is that “truly decentralised systems just do not survive, they mutate into centralised systems (ie, representation and republic) or an anonymous oligarchy (whales and warlords)”.

I think he’s right, but his blog post is worth reading in its entirety for pleasure as well as wisdom.

Niall Ferguson on ‘Czar Vladimir Putin’ and MAFD

Interesting interview in Nikkei Asia which is behind some kind of impenetrable paywall. But two things in it struck me as interesting.

First, Ferguson’s guesses about Putin’s misjudgement of the possibility of effective Ukrainian resistance:

These are miscalculations, not signs of madness. They’re the kind of miscalculations you make if you are very divorced from reality, because you lead the life of a czar, in vast — if hideous — palaces, surrounded by people who are terrified of you and tell you what they think you want to hear. If I put myself in Putin’s position, I don’t think he’s trying to resurrect the Soviet Union. He’s looking back even further and trying to bring back the Russian Empire, with himself as “Czar Vladimir.” It’s an ideology of conservative, orthodox nationalism that Putin offers, that has nothing to do with the Soviet legacy. A lot of people get this wrong.

Secondly, how will Putin’s difficulties be interpreted in Beijing? In particular, what are the implications for Taiwan?

Ferguson: Xi Jinping has, as his ultimate goal, to bring Taiwan under the control of the Chinese Communist Party, and I assume that he will conclude from observing the events in Ukraine that the West is weak, in military terms, and reluctant to fight, but it is strong in economic terms and prepared to use sanctions to punish aggression.

The question he will ask himself is: “Can they do to me what they are doing to Russia?”

And the answer will be no. Unlike Russia, China is a huge economy that is still, despite Cold War tendencies, deeply bound up with the U.S. economy, with very large U.S. investments in China. If you did to China what we’re currently doing to Russia, it would hurt us a lot more. That is what I’ll call the “mutually assured financial destruction” problem.

My commonplace booklet

  • Restoring and attributing ancient texts using deep neural networks An imaginative use of machine-learning.  Nature report 

  • People are being arrested in Russia for demonstrating with blank posters Link. This reminded Ben Evans of an old Soviet joke. A man hands out leaflets on Red Square, and the KGB arrest him. But when they get him to the station, they find that the leaflets are all blank. And he says “Well, everyone knows what the problem is, so why bother writing it down?”

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Tuesday 15 March, 2022

A picture for our time.

Farewell, painted by August Macke in 1914.

Quote of the Day

”Every country has its own mafia. Putin’s Russia is the first where the mafia has its own country.”

  • Garry Kasparov

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bob Dylan | Visions of Johanna


A bootleg recording of a wonderful song. Written during a black-out in New York while he was dating Joan Baez but was falling in love with his first wife Sara. “Visions of Johanna” is one of Dylan’s most enigmatic and loved songs. The message? He misses Johanna. Lyrics here.

Long Read of the Day

Time for a Diplomatic Revolution

by Noah Smith

Really thoughtful essay by Noah Smith. The basic message is that Cold War 2 is here, and the U.S. needs all the allies we can get.

By way of a preamble, Smith writes:

I’m taking a brief break from posting about economics to offer some ideas on geopolitics and international relations. I’m not any kind of an expert on these things, so as always, take what I have to say with a grain of salt. But remember that lots of other people confidently writing about these subjects make no such disclaimers when they offer their opinions.

What I like about the essay is the way a non-specialist in the history of international relations goes about pondering our current moment.

In late 1940, Nazi Germany had conquered France and was allied with Japan, while the USSR had helped Hitler devour Poland. The U.S. was neutral, still hobbled by isolationism. It looked as if totalitarian powers would dominate the globe. But a year later, when Hitler turned on Stalin and Stalin allied with the U.S., the tables were entirely turned — the Allies now had a coalition that could beat the fascist powers.

In the Cold War, too, alliances played a role. When the USSR and China were communist allies during the Korean War, it was all the U.S. could do to hold them at bay; after the Sino-Soviet Split, the USSR had to worry about attack from China. The U.S. was able to exploit this by arranging a de facto alliance with China against the Soviets in the 1970s and 1980s. The Soviets probably would have lost the Cold War anyway, but the U.S.-China rapprochement probably hastened the end.

Now we find ourselves at another dangerous, potentially pivotal moment in history.

“Pragmatism in the defence of liberty is no vice”. And the ambiguities thereof. The best is always the enemy of the good.

Time to think about the unthinkable?

We liberals have spent the last two decades being continually surprised and horrified by the ‘unthinkable’ things that have happened. It was unthinkable that the deregulated and globalised financial system would very nearly bring the world to its knees — that ATM machines wouldn’t dispense cash on a Monday morning. It was unthinkable that the criminals who presided over this catastrophe would not go to gaol. It was unthinkable that the costs of bailing out these criminals would be imposed on ordinary citizens. It was unthinkable that the UK would vote to leave the EU. It was unthinkable that the US would elect a crooked narcissist as its President. It was unthinkable that there would be a land war ever again in Europe.

And here we are. You’d have thought that by now we’d have wised up.

We haven’t, I think, which is really worrying because now there is one more unthinkable that we really need to think about — the thought that there might be a nuclear exchange in Europe.

Up to now we have been dismissing Putin’s putting his nuclear forces on a heightened state of readiness as the sabre-rattling of a madman, or the intimidatory bluff of a brutal gambler. I don’t see it that way, I’m afraid.

Nor does David Holloway, Professor of International History at Stanford. His books include Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956 (Yale University Press, 1994) and The Soviet Union and the Arms Race (1983). An essay of his in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists suggested that he might be someone who is indeed thinking about the unthinkable. Here’s the money quote:

On February 24—the day Putin invaded Ukraine—he warned that Russia would respond immediately to those who stood in its way, with consequences that “will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.” On February 27, he publicly ordered his minister of defense and chief of the general staff to transfer Russia’s “deterrence forces” to “special combat readiness.” Putin’s aim was evidently to deter outside intervention and to signal Russia’s determination to achieve its goals.

But another, more troubling, aspect to Putin’s recent comments has received little or no attention. It has to do with the circumstances under which Russia might use nuclear weapons.

In June 2020, Putin signed a decree—the Basic Principles of the Russian Federation’s State Policy in the Domain of Nuclear Deterrence—that specifies two conditions under which Russia would use nuclear weapons. The first is unsurprising: “The Russian Federation retains the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear weapons and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies…” But that sentence ends with an unusual statement: “… and also in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is put under threat” [emphasis added].

In his February 24 speech, Putin echoed that unusual language to describe his Ukraine invasion. The United States, he claimed, was creating a hostile “anti-Russia” next to Russia and in Russia’s historic land. “For the United States and its allies, it is a policy of containing Russia, with obvious geopolitical dividends,” he said. “For our country, it is a matter of life and death, a matter of our historical future as a nation. This is not an exaggeration; this is a fact. It is not only a very real threat to our interests but to the very existence of our state and to its sovereignty” [emphasis added]. Putin has defined the current situation as one in which, in line with the principles of its deterrence policy, Russia retains the right to use nuclear weapons.

That’s the ‘unthinkable’ that we should be thinking about now. The concept of “de-escalation” embedded in current Russian military doctrine says that if Russia were faced with a large-scale conventional attack that exceeded its capacity for defence, it might respond with a limited nuclear strike, i.e. so-called ‘tactical’ nukes, or maybe neutron bombs.

And if that were to happen, what would NATO’s response be? Hopefully someone is thinking about that unthinkable back at Ramstein.

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