Tuesday 19 April, 2022

Stately home in the evening

Quote of the Day

”Went to Charleston for the night & had a clear sight of Maynard by lamplight — like a gorged seal, double chin, ledge of red lip, little eyes, sensual, brutal, unimaginative: one of those visions that comes from a chance attitude, lost so soon as he turned his head. I suppose though it illustrates something I feel about him. Then he’s read neither of my books — In spite of this I enjoyed myself: L. Came over next day and found me neither suicidal nor homicidal.”

  • Virginia Woolf, writing about John Maynard Keynes in her diary for 26 September, 1920. ‘L’ is her husband, Leonard.

At this stage Keynes was a world-famous public intellectual, largely on the back of his book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, a polemical attack on the Treaty of Versailles, in the negotiation of which he had for a time played a part as a member of the British delegation. But the Bloomsbury crowd always had ambivalent feelings about him, partly perhaps because he was the only one of them who had any role in public affairs. They were particularly pissed off because of the fact that as a young economist he joined the Treasury and played a significant role there finding ways of funding the war effort.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

David Lindley | Pay the Man


Long Read of the Day

Books Become Games

This is the kind of essay that will resonate with anyone who’s ever published a serious book. Justin Smith has just published such a volume, which I am now honour-bound to read — for reasons which will become clear in a moment). Its title:  The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, a Philosophy, a Warning. Here’s how it opens:

I have been saying “yes”, to virtually every podcast and radio invitation I’ve received. Sometimes I find myself doing some rather quick mental work, after clicking the Zoom link, to recall who exactly it is I’m talking to, and what is expected of me. Sometimes there’s a tell-tale hint —an Australian accent, say— that brings me back to the e-mail I received a week or so prior and that reminds me of the host’s general orientation and expectations. Sometimes I fly blind through the whole thing, still uncertain at the end whose show I’ve just graced with my presence.

Most of the podcasters I’ve encountered, if I may be honest, remind me of nothing so much as the classic Onion “advice column”, from back before that newspaper was generated by AI (as far as I can tell), that consisted in a book-report on Animal Farm by a kid who hasn’t read it. It’s “well worth the $5.99 purchase price,” he wrote. “It’s so good, in fact, that if I was in Canada, I would be happy to pay the higher price of $7.99.” Similarly, questions I’ve been getting on my book, I can’t help but notice, are often drawn entirely from the sheet of promotional copy that is included with it. This is text I was compelled to generate at a nearly-final stage of book-production, when I was completely exhausted by the project and just wanted it over. If I were a better player at the book-game I would take this part of the process more seriously. Instead I put most of my energy into writing the book itself, I crank out some hasty copy at the end, and then I pay for it when I have to hold forth, again and again, on the contents of that single page.

Smith’s point is that nowadays “the work of book-writing involves actual writing only in an initial phase, while subsequently the work becomes wrapped up in book-pumping, in technologically mediated promotions, branding of the self, bullet-pointing, after-the-fact elevator-pitching, and gaming of all possible metrics in the hope of going viral. In short, books, today, are a satellite of social media, operating according to the same logic, within the same empty economy of buzz and inevitable forgetting”.

It’s an engaging essay and I heartily recommend it.

What it brought to mind was an assignment I was given years ago when Jaron Lanier was in London publicising one of his books. I was asked to do a piece about him and an interview was duly set up in one of those posh hotels which seem to exist solely for PR purposes. When I arrived, his publicist apologised that Jaron’s previous interview was over-running. Would I mind waiting?

I didn’t. When we finally got to start I embarked on an opinionated stream of thought and we found ourselves in the middle of an interesting and lively conversation. And then he suddenly went silent. Had I said something to offend him, I asked. No, he replied, it’s just that he had suddenly realised that, of the 20 or so people who had interviewed him about the book in the previous two days, I seemed to be the only person who had actually read it!

When we finally finished talking I asked him if I could take a photograph.

Here it is:

Years later, I had a nice email from him asking if I still had the pic because he needed one for a gig he was doing! He’s a lovely man.

Diane Coyle on Thomas Piketty’s new book

Characteristically perceptive review in the Financial Times of 12 April (and so behind the paywall). As usual, her summing-up gets to the heart of the matter:

Strip away the detail and what remains is an all-too-apparent underlying abstraction from the practical politics of change, an abstraction emphasised by the book’s very literal translation by Steven Rendall from intellectual French. If “r” really is greater than “g”, then perhaps inequality does have its own internal dynamics, but achieving a turn to “democratic, decentralized socialism” surely demands some attention to how it might come about?

The issue is that Piketty’s theory of change is motivated by ideology, so articulating a persuasive alternative ideology is enough. And surely a vision of a fair, green, participatory future is persuasive enough? Sadly, what convinces readers in the salon differs from what drives action on the streets, or even in the corridors of power, where Pessimistic Piketty is likely to prove more persuasive than this newly Optimistic Piketty.

To adapt a famous adage of Marx’s: the purpose of political economy is to understand the world, not to change it.

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Monday 18 April, 2022

Tulip mania

In the College garden on Saturday afternoon.

Johnson and the War

As far as I can discover, Boris Johnson is the first serving Prime Minister to be convicted of a crime while in office. If Putin had not invaded Ukraine and thereby enabled Johnson to posture as a Churchill tribute act, Tory MPs would be working out to defenestrate him. One of the arguments being tried for doing nothing about the ‘Partygate’ scandal is that it would be madness to change a Prime Minister in the middle of a war. Clearly none of the proponents of this line have read any history. Neville Chamberlain was the serving Prime Minister when Britain was actually in an existentially-threatening war, but he resigned on 10 May 1940 to make way for Winston Churchill.

Quote of the Day

”Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”

  • William Pitt, 1783

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Brahms | Intermezzo A Major Op 118 No 2 | Radu Lupu


Long Read of the Day

Gary Gerstle on the strange life — and possible death — of neoliberalism

Gary has a new book out – The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order — which is now on my reading list. Here is a transcript of a fascinating conversation between him and Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins of The Nation. I was particularly struck by Gerstle’s observations on Obama:

What was it about Obama that compelled him to save rather than to resist the neoliberal political order, especially given what happened after his presidency?

GG: The election of Barack Obama in 2008 unleashed all kinds of hopes for the country’s future. Fourteen years later, we have the advantage of historical perspective. That perspective tells us (or me, in any case), that Obama is best seen as the last president of the neoliberal order, not the first president of a post-racial, progressive age.

To handle the economic crisis, Obama turned to a team of advisors, including Timothy Geithner, Lawrence Summers, Peter Orszag, and Michael Froman, quite similar in policy orientation to the Rubin team that had overseen the Democratic Party’s assent to the neoliberal order in the 1990s. They decided not to punish the large banks whose misdeeds had brought on the crisis but to focus instead on restoring them to financial health and security as quickly as possible. Thus, no banks were nationalized or broken up, and no bankers were sent to jail for their misdeeds. There was not even a public shaming that would have occurred had banking executives been forced to run the gauntlet of congressional hearings.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans were losing their jobs and their homes. The gap between rich and poor widened during Obama’s first term, with the income of the top 1 percent of American income earners increasing by more than 30 percent while the bottom 99 percent had to settle for a raise too small to matter. Main Street Americans noticed that elites had been restored to financial health and security while they had not.

By temperament, Obama was a cautious man. Moreover, the burden of restoring to health a shattered global financial system was immense. But the more important point to make here is a different one: namely, that the neoliberal order was still hegemonic, constraining Obama’s sense of the choices available to him…

He’s also good on Joe Biden.

Do read the whole thing.

Peter Thiel: the cut-price Cicero

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Since powdered rhino horn has (rightly) been banned, only two aphrodisiacs remain: political power and great wealth. Of these, the second is the more interesting, partly because most humans, especially journalists, seem to be affected by it. It’s what leads them to assume that if someone is fabulously rich, then she or he must be very smart. That’s why the super-rich are invariably surrounded by fawning sycophants – and also why they eventually come to believe that they themselves are geniuses.

Which brings us neatly to Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley’s leading contrarian. With a net worth of perhaps $5bn (£3.9bn), he is undoubtedly rich, though not in the Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos or even Bill Gates league. But since he is the only public intellectual that the tech industry has produced, there is a widespread belief that he must also be a deep thinker, which is why organisations ask him to give “keynote” speeches.

The function of such addresses is to give an elevated tone to what are otherwise sordid proceedings, which explains why Thiel was invited to address the 2022 bitcoin conference in Miami, which was billed as “a four-day pilgrimage for those seeking greater freedom and individual sovereignty”. Given that the attendees at this shindig were likely subscribers to the view that he is a genius, it was an easy gig for the great man. Think of it as Narendra Modi addressing the annual conference of the Bharatiya Janata party and you’ll get the general idea.

Thiel was there to tell the attendees that they were the Lord’s anointed…

Read on

Kevin Roose’s Latecomers Guide to Crypto: the annotated version

You may remember that Roose’s NYT piece was Friday’s ‘Long Read’. Some experts were not impressed by it, and Molly White has produced a lovely critically-annotated version which provides an antidote to what critics saw as “a thinly-veiled advertisement for cryptocurrency”.

Thanks to Bill Janeway (Whom God Preserve) for alerting me to it.

My commonplace booklet

Mumurations of starlings. Extraordinary photographs. Link

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Friday 15 April, 2022

Apple time

Our apple tree has, once again, exploded into blossom! Stand under it and all you can hear is a gentle hum — of bees doing their stuff.

Quote of the Day

“Errors are not in the art but in the artificers”

  • Isaac Newton‌

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

JJ Cale & Eric Clapton | After Midnight & Call me the Breeze


Long Read of the Day

The Latecomer’s Guide to Crypto

Useful Long Read by Kevin Roose if you’re interested in, or baffled by, this stuff.

Until fairly recently, if you lived anywhere other than San Francisco, it was possible to go days or even weeks without hearing about cryptocurrency.

Now, suddenly, it’s inescapable. Look one way, and there are Matt Damon and Larry David doing ads for crypto start-ups. Swivel your head — oh, hey, it’s the mayors of Miami and New York City, arguing over who loves Bitcoin more. Two N.B.A. arenas are now named after crypto companies, and it seems as if every corporate marketing team in America has jumped on the NFT — or nonfungible token — bandwagon. (Can I interest you in one of Pepsi’s new “Mic Drop” genesis NFTs? Or maybe something from Applebee’s “Metaverse Meals” NFT collection, inspired by the restaurant chain’s “iconic” menu items?)

Crypto! For years, it seemed like the kind of fleeting tech trend most people could safely ignore, like hoverboards or Google Glass. But its power, both economic and cultural, has become too big to overlook. Twenty percent of American adults, and 36 percent of millennials, own cryptocurrency, according to a recent Morning Consult survey…

Not Your Father’s Art, Not Your Father’s Frauds

And if you haven’t already had enough of crypto, then this marvellous post by Dave Birch (Whom God Preserve) about the racketeering that goes on around so-called non-fungible-tokens (NFTs) will cheer you up.

I bought a non-fungible token (NFT) the other day. I bought it on OpenSea, one of the major NFT marketplaces. In case you are interested in art, it is a cartoon from the talented artist Helen Holmes. In case you are interested in speculation, this is the one that I bought. It is from her “originals” collection and is now proudly on display in my crypto.com wallet for all to see.

I commissioned Helen to draw the cartoons that I use to illustrate my articles on Forbes, so I know for a fact that she is real, that the cartoons are originals created by her and that I have the right to use them due to our own agreement. And, I am happy to say, that if anyone buys one of her NFTs, the money goes to her, the deserving artist. As it turns out, this makes “my” NFT one of the small number of legitimate examples of some, because last month OpenSea said that over 80% of the NFTs created for free on the platform are “plagiarized works, fake collections, and spam”.

Do read the whole piece.

What I love about crypto is that its enthusiasts fervently believe that it’s a technical fix for an untrustworthy world.

LATER Interesting also that the Wikipedia Community has voted to stop accepting donations in cryptocurrencies.

The death of the gas station

From Vox:

Slowly but surely, electric cars and trucks are taking over American highways. The White House aims for half of new vehicles sold in the US to be EVs by 2030, and auto giants like GM and Volvo want to go all-electric in a similar time frame. As utility companies hurry to expand the number of charging stations — a critical step for the EV transition — the future of the gas station is in doubt.

Right now, gas stations are a regular part of American life, a place drivers go on a daily or weekly basis to fill up and sometimes grab a snack. But the fuel pump plus convenience store concept has much less to offer the country’s small but growing number of EV owners.

While some gas stations have taken the leap and installed charging ports alongside their pumps, people tend to do the lion’s share of their EV charging at home. And since EV chargers can be installed in almost any location that’s connected to the power grid — they’re now available in office garages and rest stops, and will soon be in some Starbucks parking lots — the gas station is increasingly unnecessary for some Americans.

And not just petrol stations either. There’s a huge, localised industry of smallish local garages and workshops whose livelihood is intimately connected with the internal combustion engine.

My commonplace booklet

Ukraine Opens Russian Drone, Finds Canon DSLR Inside Link

And an old model, too. Secured with Velcro.

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Thursday 14 April, 2022

The Empty Chair

Spotted on a beautiful beach in Kerry.

Quote of the Day

”Education is what survives when what has been learnt is forgotten.”

  • B.F. Skinner

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Dove sono | The Marriage of Figaro | Dorothea Röschmann


Long Read of the Day

What It Costs to Live

Sobering reality check by Arianne Shahvisi.

Our bodies can only maintain homeostasis within reasonable bounds, however. Acute challenges lead to disease and death; chronic pressures wear us down. There is a Silicon Valley trend for toying with those limits. Intermittent fasting and icy showers are supposed to induce ‘positive stress’, allowing tech bros to spend more hours processing code. For everyone else, there’s just old-fashioned negative stress, both psychological and biological. Poverty is a major cause. Persistent food insecurity in children leads to a sustained stress response that pushes the body to extreme homeostatic responses, including prolonged and abnormally high levels of cortisol and continuous inflammation. The result is more frequent and prolonged childhood illness. That’s in addition to the direct effects of hunger and undernutrition: stunting, fatigue, poor working memory. These effects continue into adolescence, and are associated with a higher risk of depression and suicidal thoughts. Food insecurity in adults increases the risk of hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Long-term exposure to low temperatures strains the body’s equilibrium. More people die in the winter months because of respiratory virus epidemics, increased air pollution and cold weather, but studies correcting for these factors show that one in five excess winter deaths in the UK is attributable to low temperatures at home.

While the energy required to keep a body running remains unchanged, the price of doing so is higher than ever. Even before the instability caused by Putin’s war, gas markets were failing to meet post-lockdown energy demands. Reserves depleted during the cold winter of 2020-21 haven’t been replaced. The UK only imports a fraction of its gas from Russia (5 per cent, compared with 41 per cent for the rest of Europe), but that makes little difference when prices hike on the global market. Natural gas now costs twenty times what it did at the lowest point of the pandemic, and a third more than it did in January. The UK government has responded by lifting the energy price cap by 54 per cent, protecting companies from taking the hit despite the fact that the Big Six – British Gas, EDF, E.ON, npower, Scottish Power and SSE – have made £7 billion in profit over the last five years. With the new cap in place, household fuel bills will rise by £700 over the course of the year, but it won’t stop there. Another increase has already been announced for six months’ time.

There was a brief interlude — at the beginning of the pandemic in the Spring of 2020 — when the UK government appeared to break with the neoliberal habit of several lifetimes to put the well-being of its subjects ahead of the prosperity of corporations. Turns out it was just a blip.

On getting up and going to work

Last Saturday, April 9, Heather Cox Richardson had a memorable post  on her blog:

On April 9, 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant got out of bed with a migraine.

The pain had hit the day before as he rode through the Virginia countryside, where the United States Army had been harrying the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert E. Lee, for days.

Grant knew it was only a question of time before Lee had to surrender. After four years of war, the people in the South were starving, and Lee’s army was melting away as men went home to salvage whatever they could of their farm and family. Just that morning, a Confederate colonel had thrown himself on Grant’s mercy after realizing that he was the only man in his entire regiment who had not already abandoned the cause. But while Grant had twice asked Lee to surrender, Lee continued to insist his men could fight on.

So Grant had gone to bed in a Virginia farmhouse on April 8, dirty, tired, and miserable with a migraine…

Read on. It’s worth it.

My commonplace booklet

A library of neglected books that deserve to be read

Lovely. I’ve already put two on my list. Link

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Wednesday 13 April, 2022

Everyday tragedies

Standing peacefully in the sunshine today, queueing to buy some fresh salmon from the fishmonger who comes every Tuesday, I fell to thinking about the contrast between this pastoral scene and what’s going on in Ukraine. Here we are, engaged in our everyday routines, while elsewhere in Europe, atrocity rules, apparently unstoppably. Which in turn brought to mind one of my favourite poems, Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts, inspired by Breughel’s painting of ordinary life proceeding while Icarus falls, unnoticed, to his watery death.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

And we, too, are sailing calmly on.

Quote of the Day

”It is better to have loafed and lost than never to have loafed at all.”

  • James Thurber

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ry Cooder | Living on Straight Street | live in studio.


Long Read of the Day

Why ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ Resonates 50 Years Later

Lovely review essay by James Parker on Kurt Vonnegut’s great novel, a work that has never got old and has never waned in energy. It’s the only kind of masterpiece that could match the enormity of the (Western) war crime in Dresden in the Second World War.

There are novels so potent, and so perfected in their singularity, that they have the unexpected side effect of permanently knocking out the novelist: Nothing produced afterward comes close. Had Russell Hoban written no books before Riddley Walker, and no books after it, his reputation today would be exactly the same. Should William S. Burroughs, post–Naked Lunch, or Joseph Heller, with the last line of Catch-22 on the page (“The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off.”), have tossed their typewriters out of the window? Probably. And Kurt Vonnegut, at the age of 46, with Mother Night and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (those twin magnificences) under his belt, was projected into a state of creative culmination/exhaustion by Slaughterhouse-Five.


Fifty years have passed since the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s the same age as me. And the older I get, and the more lumps fall off my brain, the more I find that rereading is the thing. Build your own little cockeyed canon and then bear down on it; get to know it, forward and backward; get to know it well. So I don’t know how many times I’ve read Slaughterhouse-Five. Three? Four? It never gets old, is the point. It never wanes in energy. This book is in no way the blossom of a flower. Slaughterhouse-Five is more in the nature of a superpower that the mutant author had to teach himself to master—and then could use, at full strength, only once.

The self-training took decades. The mutating event was, as always, brief. Between February 13 and February 15, 1945, Allied bombers dropped nearly four thousand tons of high explosives and incendiaries on the historic German city of Dresden. The effect was elemental: Air became fire. Vonnegut, an American prisoner of war, was there—but 60 feet underground. Captured during the Battle of the Bulge, conveyed to Dresden by boxcar, and billeted in a derelict slaughterhouse as the bombs fell, he was sheltering with some fellow POWs and a couple of dazed German guards in a basement meat locker. They emerged to rubble, ash, twisted metal, death. Somewhere between 18,000 and 25,000 people (we still don’t know) had been killed.

Really worth your time.

The ‘Soft’ Impacts of Emerging Technology

Interesting reflections on how to evaluate the longer-term impact of technologies.

Getting a handle on the various ways that technology influences us is as important as it is difficult. The media is awash with claims of how this or that technology will either save us or doom us. And in some cases, it does seem as though we have a concrete grasp on the various costs and benefits that a technology provides. We know that CO2 emissions from large-scale animal agriculture are very damaging for the environment, notwithstanding the increases in food production we have seen over the years.

However, such a ‘balanced’ perspective usually emerges after some time has passed and the technology has become ‘stable’, in the sense that its uses and effects are relatively well understood. We now understand, better than we did in the 1920s, for example, the disastrous effects of fossil fuels and CO2 emissions. We can see that the technology at some point provided a benefit, but that now the costs outweigh those benefits. For emerging technologies, however, such a ‘cost-benefit’ approach might not be possible in practice.

My commonplace booklet


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Tuesday 12 April, 2022

The Lookout post

On being European

Recently my wife and I went on our first trip outside of GB since January 2020. I have a large extended family in Ireland and we used to go to the the Republic a lot in pre-pandemic times. And then it all came to a halt when the lockdown happened. So going back for the first time in over two years was a big deal.

It was very interesting to be back on familiar territory. The weather was consistently beautiful (which you could say was out of the ordinary) but the most striking thing for me was that the country felt different in some subtle way. The only way I can express it is that for the first time it felt much more European in that I was picking up the kinds of signals I used to get when we went to France, Denmark or Holland in pre-pandemic times.

This is entirely subjective, of course, and it could be partly a reflection of suddenly being in a country that is not entirely overshadowed by the results of Brexit and the incompetence of the ship of fools that is the Johnson government; but it felt very real, somehow.

Then I came back and a friend pointed me to a very interesting conversation between the economist Tyler Cowen, whose blog I read every day, and Roy Foster, the distinguished Irish historian. Here’s an exchange that stood out for me:

COWEN: John Stuart Mill once wrote this in a letter: “I know tolerably well what Ireland was, but have a very imperfect idea of what Ireland is.” Is that still true? Was it ever true?

FOSTER: It’s true of many people. It’s interesting you quote Mill, who wrote a wonderful essay called England and Ireland, which reflects, I think, that opinion.

He also said something which I’ve often quoted, which I like very much, which is that Ireland is in the mainstream of European history, whereas England is in an eccentric tributary. I think that’s very true, and a lot of what we’ve been saying today, Tyler, seems to me to bear that out, from the 17th century on.

Quote of the Day

I often wished that I had clear
For life, six hundred pounds a year,
A handsome house to lodge a friend;
A river at my garden’s end,
A terrace walk, and half a rood
Of land set out to plant a wood.

  • Jonathan Swift

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

J.S. Bach | Toccata and Fugue (on a tin whistle) | Antoine Pithier


Truly extraordinary. Thanks to Ross Anderson, who as a piper himself knows what an achievement this performance is.

Long Read of the Day

 Musings on a Chameleon

John Knowles’s essay on Truman Capote.

MOST OF US FEEL THAT we go solitarily through life. Despite marriages and children and close human ties, we feel the weight of a basic isolation. We sense a uniqueness about ourselves, which makes us secretly feel special, but also alone.

But we aren’t really: Most of us are not alone, not so special, and not unique. Someone in the next street or in Denmark or Algeria or China is quite like us, very similar. That is true of virtually everyone.

But Truman Capote really was alone, and he knew it. No one anywhere on earth can have looked like him, with his odd Pekingese features, or above all sounded like him when he spoke. This very short, thick-legged person with his big head and yellow, later gray bangs, speaking in a tissue-paper thin, whiny lisp, was not at all like anybody else. Clothes were not manufactured that fit him; no voice anywhere echoed his. When he would merely enter a room or utter a few words, strangers stopped short, jerked their heads around to behold him, usually—until he became so famous—with at least a tinge of mockery, or hostility.

So as a form of self-protection, Truman made himself the only writer in the world after Ernest Hemingway whom the man in the street recognized on sight…

Read on. It’s worth it.

COVID Is More Like Smoking Than the Flu

Hundreds of thousands of deaths, from either tobacco or the pandemic, could be prevented with a single behavioral change.

If you’re sick of hearing people who aren’t wearing masks telling you that Covid is “just like the flu”, then join the club. It’s pernicious nonsense and it was good to find this striking piece by Benjamin Mazer elaborating on that theme.

The end state of this pandemic may indeed be one where COVID comes to look something like the flu. Both diseases, after all, are caused by a dangerous respiratory virus that ebbs and flows in seasonal cycles. But I’d propose a different metaphor to help us think about our tenuous moment: The “new normal” will arrive when we acknowledge that COVID’s risks have become more in line with those of smoking cigarettes—and that many COVID deaths, like many smoking-related deaths, could be prevented with a single intervention.

The pandemic’s greatest source of danger has transformed from a pathogen into a behavior. Choosing not to get vaccinated against COVID is, right now, a modifiable health risk on par with smoking, which kills more than 400,000 people each year in the United States. Andrew Noymer, a public-health professor at UC Irvine, told me that if COVID continues to account for a few hundred thousand American deaths every year—“a realistic worst-case scenario,” he calls it—that would wipe out all of the life-expectancy gains we’ve accrued from the past two decades’ worth of smoking-prevention efforts.

The point is simple: whatever the reasons people have for not getting vaccinated, they should at least know the risk they are running: an unvaccinated adult is 68 times more likely to die from COVID than a boosted one.

My commonplace booklet

Jonathan Holland writes:

I love how your Friday post segued into your Monday post via a Scott/Virginia hybrid! Next week: ‘Mrs Galloway’, a modernist novel about a woman preparing for a party in Silicon Valley?

It was generous of Jonathan to attribute creativity to my poor proof-reading! The heading over my Long Read yesterday read  Scott Dalloway on Musk and Twitter, when in fact the post was by Scott Galloway!

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Monday 11 April, 2022

The ‘Wild Atlantic’ having a day off

Decades ago, some marketing genius in Bórd Fáilte the Irish Tourist Board, had the idea of branding the West Coast of Ireland, from Malin Head in Co Donegal to the Old Head of Kinsale in Co Cork, as “The Wild Atlantic Way”.

It’s billed as “the longest coastal drive in the world”, which I think is a bit of a stretch, but it’s clearly been very effective as a way of encouraging visitors to come to the West coast.

This picture was taken off Muckross Head in Co Donegal just over a week ago, when the Atlantic was unusually quiet.

Quote of the Day

“Had Putin been a better student of how Western democracies have responded to vital threats to their security, he would have understood why these assumptions were wrong. True, one lesson of the past century is that Western democracies have frequently ignored emerging security threats, as many of them did in the lead-up to the two world wars, the Korean War, and the September 11 attacks. As the U.S. diplomat and historian George Kennan once put it, democracies are like a prehistoric monster so indifferent to what is happening around him that “you practically have to whack off his tail to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed.” But an equally important lesson of the past century is that when their tails are whacked hard enough, Western democracies react with speed, determination, and strength. For the United States and its European allies, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—which in size and scope constitutes the largest use of military force on the European continent since 1945 and poses a direct threat to NATO territory—has provided just such a case.”

  • Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay, Foreign Affairs, April 7, 2022

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Debussy: Suite bergamasque, L.75: III. Clair de lune | Lang Lang


One of our neighbours held a fundraising concert for Ukraine in their house yesterday afternoon, and one of their children played this. As a contrast with the savagery that’s being unleashed on the Ukrainians, it was moving and unforgettable.

When Elon Musk buys into Twitter, I don’t need a little bird to tell me something’s afoot

Yesterday’s Observer column

When the news broke last week that Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX and the world’s richest man, had paid $2.9bn (£2.3bn) for 9.2% of Twitter, the media world – old and new – briefly lost what might loosely be called its collective mind. What was Musk up to? (He’s always up to something, after all, even if it’s just trolling. And, with more than 80 million Twitter followers, he’s quite an effective troll.)

Since nobody knows what goes on inside Musk’s head, fevered speculation began. One camp thought that he had just done it “for the lulz” (fun, amusement, humour, schadenfreude). Indeed, if your net worth is $290bn, $2.9bn is effectively loose change. And it made him the biggest single shareholder in the company. Twitter then recognised the gravity of the situation and agreed to give him a seat on the board in a deal that supposedly prevents him from buying a majority stake in the business.

For what it’s worth, I don’t buy the lulz explanation…

Long Read of the Day

Scott Galloway on Musk and Twitter

Have you ever had the experience of coming on someone who has done something you have tried to do, only much better? Well, apropos my column about Musk buying his way into Twitter, this post by Scott Galloway does just that. Admittedly, he didn’t have to stick within the word-limit of a newspaper column, but he’s been thinking about this for much longer than I have, and he does a really great job. Which is why I think it’s well worth your time.

Here’s a sample:

We found out Elon was Twitter’s largest shareholder on Monday morning, because that’s when he disclosed his holdings to the SEC, as required of anyone who acquires more than 5% of a public company. Only Elon filed the wrong form, and he filed it nearly two weeks late. He filed the form for “passive” investors — and if you’ve been talking to the CEO for the past few weeks about joining the board and changing the product, you are not a “passive” investor.

Elon filed the correct form (Schedule 13D) the next day, but it requires more fulsome disclosures, which revealed he had crossed the 5% threshold on March 14. Meaning he’d been obligated to disclose his stake back on March 24. By illegally concealing his stake for 11 days, Musk was able to continue buying shares from sellers who didn’t know he was accumulating a huge position. Had he disclosed his shares properly on March 24, TWTR would have shot up 25% then, instead of on April 4, and the shares he bought subsequently would have garnered selling shareholders approximately $150 million more. That’s fraud, and while I have increasingly less confidence in the SEC, Congress has recently beefed up its power to seek disgorgement of ill-gotten gains for securities law violations. Shareholder lawsuits may also be in the offing.

Even if the SEC acts, $150 million is immaterial to Elon. On a relative basis, his entire $2.5 billion investment in Twitter is about the price of a MacBook for the average household. A $150 million fine is buying an extra charger. Takerists such as Elon are exempt from the law — they can buy their own…

Do read the whole thing.

Marina Hyde on Dishy Rishi’s local difficulties

Fabulous column. Here’s how it opens:

A debilitating week for Treasury-based luxury casualwear influencer Rishi Sunak. He used to seem invincible; now he’s the pocket Samson who’s just taken a massive haircut courtesy of his wife. I know Rishi wants to be prime minister and stuff, but it’s increasingly difficult to imagine how the mega-rich chancellor would persuade ordinary British people to do difficult things. Mate – you can’t even persuade your own wife to pay you tax.

But before I get accused of being a sexist by … hang on, let me get my lorgnette … James Cleverly, we’d better have a recap of developing events, which now include a US green card controversy. Initially believed to be watching his political oxidisation on Pacific time, the chancellor is in fact on these shores. I hear Lynton Crosby has banned Easter getaways, meaning Sunak will have to unwind in one of his houses in this country, as opposed to the high-end Santa Monica apartment he owns in a complex that includes a pet spa.

Anyway, he has granted a hotly defensive exclusive interview to the Sun, which runs under the apoplectic banner LAY OFF MY MISSUS. And I think you’ll agree that headline truly captures the way Rishi Sunak speaks. This, quite simply, is a guy who is as at-home screaming a warning out of a van window as he is indulging in a desultory browse of Mr Porter’s fine knits, his cursor hovering briefly over a £495 smoke-blue James Perse cashmere hoodie before the window is closed in listless pique. There are some injustices even a knitwear purchase can’t alleviate. Even so, I think the headline could have been punchier. I’d have gone with PAY TAX? IN THIS ECONOMY?!

It’s never a good career move to get on the wrong side of Ms Hyde.

My commonplace booklet

Nine Ways to imagine Jeff Bezos’ wealth


I particularly liked this one:

The average full-time Amazon employee made $37,930 in 2020. In order to accumulate as much money as Bezos ($172 billion)… an employee would have had to start working in the Pliocene Epoch (4.5 million years ago, when hominids had just started standing on two feet!).

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Friday 8 April, 2022

To the Lighthouse

With apologies to Virginia Woolf.

Quote of the Day

”In answer to: Inside every fat woman is a thin 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)

… and whose Memorial Service I am looking forward to attending soon. She was a colleague of mine on the Observer.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bach | Cello Suite No.1 in G | Mischa Maisky


I love these Suites. I have the Casals performance on vinyl somewhere. Now where in the attic is my turntable?

Long Read of the Day

 The Unlikely Persistence of Antonio Gramsci

I never read Gramsci until I started to read Francis Fukuyama and then started to think about the ‘hegemonic anxiety’ one can now see in the US as China becomes ever more powerful. This essay by Thomas Meaney in The New Republic is interesting because it helpfully puts Gramsci into a contemporary context.

If Gramsci has aged better than many of his peers, it is in part because he became a thinker for a defeated, rather than a triumphalist, left. With his own cause in ruins, Gramsci became ever more interested in the ways of the enemy. One of his abiding inquiries was how capitalist elites and their publicists laundered their perversions of the social order into “common sense,” how they spun morality tales around their economic interests, and how they were able to preserve their leadership of society after each crisis delivered by the capitalist system. The ground of this inquiry may have shifted in the decades since his death, but the main battle lines remain the same, and this still makes Gram­sci a thinker worth turning to in our moment.

Looks matter, ask Dorian

Jonty Bloom is not impressed by Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer (aka Finance Minister).

They say that politics is show business for ugly people, but the Chancellor is a well turned out, good looking, young chap and it has done him no harm.

But actions matter as well, they have to look and smell good and here the Chancellor is beginning to suffer.

Nothing says we are all in this together like swanning off to your holiday home in California, having totally failed to deal with a cost of living crisis.

And nothing says we are all in this together like discovering that the man responsible for gathering every single penny of taxation in this country is married to a woman who has non-dom tax status.

A wife who is therefore pretty much immune to all the tax rises that her husband is imposing on the rest of the country.

At any other time this would have cost the Chancellor his job and career.

But this is a Dorian Gray government. What matters is whether the public sees the real picture.

My commonplace booklet

Sheila Hayman (Whom God Preserve) was musing on the story of the return of Darwin’s two missing notebooks, and wrote:

It occurred to me to mention, amidst all the rejoicing over the return of Darwin’s notebooks, that in our glorious collective digital future, there will be no notebooks, manuscripts, annotated copies, autographs, sketches or any other evidence of the individual human behind the text on the (flat, textureless, colourless, odourless, undifferentiated) screen. #Senseless.

She’s right. When future historians try to exhume the records of our era, they will find a huge black hole. That’s why I say to people that if they want their great-grandchildren to know what they looked like, they should print off all their digital images on 6 x 4 photographic paper and put them in shoeboxes in the attic. Because, one day, nobody will be able to access those digital images.

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Thursday 7 April, 2022

Urban Cormorants

Seen on the Liffey in Dublin one September day in 2019

Quote of the Day

”When I’m good, I’m very good. When I’m bad, I’m better.”

  • Mae West

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Steve Cooney | O’Farrell’s Slip Jig


From Wikipedia:

The slip jig is one of the four most common Irish stepdances, the others being the reel, the jig and the hornpipe. It is danced in soft shoes. At one time only men danced it, then for several decades only women, and today slip jigs can be danced by any dancer, though at a competitive level they are almost exclusively danced by women. This dance is graceful and controlled, with heels very high, often called “the ballet of Irish dance”.

Long Read of the Day

Erasmus in the 21st century

Erasmus lived for five years in Cambridge (in Queens’ College) and is often described a “the man who brought the Renaissance to the fens”. As I pass Queens’ I’ve often wondered what he was like.

So this nice essay by Jeroen Bouterse turned out to be a welcome delight. And made me want to find a biography of a remarkable man.

I decided to read Erasmus on war because he was, though I know him only superficially, not completely new to me; I went to a school named after him that consciously sought to channel his individualism and cosmopolitanism, and over the years I have read some of his works, admiring his open-minded, kind and forgiving attitude to people for whom existing social institutions didn’t work so well. Based on this, however, I did not expect to be challenged; I did not expect surprising insights in war from a Christian theologian and classicist who lived before the nation-state, before NATO, before modern artillery and nuclear weapons. I was not looking for analyses, or for arguments pro or contra no-fly zones, but for a simple, friendly voice that cried out for peace.

It’s also appropriate that the great EU student programme is named after him.

Meme stocks and Bitcoin will not redistribute wealth

Useful reality check from Noah Smith…

Financio-populism may not excite quite the passion it did last year, but it’s still definitely an undercurrent in modern society. Most recently, it seems to be manifesting in the form of NFT mania.

And I deeply understand the financio-populist impulse. Wealth inequality is at record levels. That wouldn’t be so bad if fortunes rose and fell, and everyone got to spend a little time at the top. But you hardly hear about anyone going from richest to rags these days. There’s always the nagging sensation that the system is rigged — that to get rich you have to have gone to the right East Coast prep school or met the right angel investors at the right parties. In that kind of world, anything that mixes up the set of who’s rich and who’s not can feel like justice.

There’s just one problem — financio-populism is not really going to do this. Yes, we all know that one guy who worked at Starbucks before he got rich on Bitcoin or GameStop, and now drives a Lamborghini. Financial markets are random enough where there will always be that guy. But overall, trading meme stocks and crypto is likely to leave the average person poorer than before. Their dreams will end up lining the pockets of the rich, knowledgeable, and well-connected…

Sadly, he’s right.

My commonplace booklet

More on the provenance of ‘meatspace’…

From Kevin Nolan:

You mentioned this morning that you considered the term ‘meat-space’ to have been coined by John Perry Barlow, or perhaps in the slightly more obscure realms of ‘cyberpunk sci-fi’. I think that this second speculation is correct, and that in fact the term is a demi-invention leading back at least as far as the 1960s, where William Burroughs and other, cynical realists who straddled the zone between High Literature and Anarcho-punk science fiction frequently used the expression ‘meat’ to refer to human flesh (and biology) in a somewhat offhand and dispassionate manner. John Lennon used it a trope also, in his later, vegetarian phases: ‘(Meat is Murder’ etc.)

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