Thursday 19 May, 2022

Splendid isolation

Quote of the Day

”I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.”

  • Groucho Marx

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jimmy Yancey | The Rocks


Long Read of the Day

Bertrand Russell: In praise of idleness

From way back (1932) but still great. Contains his wonderful definition of ‘work’, which I still cite when puzzled people ask me what I ‘do’.


Why Jeff Bezos’ Anti-Biden Tweets Are So Dumb

Another sharp column by Jack Shafer.

Why do the billionaires tweet? The subject here, of course, is the motivation of the Ironmen of Twitter ego-tripping, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos — not Bill Gates, whose tweets taste like weak dishwater, neither sudsy nor drinkable.

Musk tweets because his obsessive-compulsive disorder commands him to chime in on everything from his investments to his crackpot Covid-19 views to pronouns (they “suck”) to rude comments about Gates to name-calling (Elizabeth Warren, in his eyes, is a “Karen”) to raising the ire of the Securities and Exchange Commission. “Some people use their hair to express themselves, I use Twitter,” Musk tweeted in 2019.

Amazon mogul Bezos, who tragically can’t use his hair to express himself, has chosen to straddle the zone between junk mail from Gates and Musk’s shitposting. Last week, when President Joe Biden published a silly tweet saying that taxing billionaires will cure inflation, Bezos responded Musk-style that the Disinformation Governance Board should investigate that pitch.

I particularly like this bit:

Bezos should consider how counterproductive his Twitter spats with the president and his fellow mogul are. Whether he likes it or not, he’s now the face of the Washington Post. Twitter fulminations may give Bezos a Blue Origin rush of ego-gratification, but why should the man who owns an entire dairy get such a kick out of sipping from a personal-sized milk carton?


Musk doesn’t care about spam-bots

He’s trying to find a way of wriggling out of the contract to buy Twitter. Bloomberg’s Matt Levine is having none of it. Quite right too.

The battle over bots has become a sticking point for Musk, who told a tech conference in Miami on Monday that fake users make up at least 20% of all Twitter accounts, possibly as high as 90%. Twitter regularly states in its quarterly results that the average of false or spam accounts “represented fewer than 5% of our monthly daily active users during the quarter,” adding that it applied “significant judgment” to its estimate, and the true number could be higher.

I think it is important to be clear here that Musk is lying. The spam bots are not why he is backing away from the deal, as you can tell from the fact that the spam bots are why he did the deal. He has produced no evidence at all that Twitter’s estimates are wrong, and certainly not that they are materially wrong or made in bad faith. (Musk can only get out of the deal if Twitter’s filings are wrong in a way that would cause a “material adverse effect” on Twitter, which is vanishingly unlikely.)


More important, nothing has changed about the bot problem since Musk signed the merger agreement. Twitter has published the same qualified estimate — that fewer than 5% of monetizable accounts are fake — for the last eight years. Musk knew those estimates, and declined to do any nonpublic due diligence before signing the merger agreement. He knew about the spam bot problem before signing the merger agreement, as we know because he talked about it constantly, including while announcing the merger agreement. If he didn’t want to buy Twitter because there are spam bots, he should not have signed a contract to buy Twitter. No new information has come to light about spam bots in the last three weeks.

So what’s going on? Well, first of all Musk’s $54.20/share price is increasingly looking ludicrous, given that tech stocks are way down since the so-call ‘deal’ was struck.Secondly, Tesla stock — which he is depending on to finance part of the purchase price, has also gone down almost 30%, making him poorer and making the $54.20 price look even dafter. So he is trying to renegotiate the deal for obvious reasons. But, as Levine points out, “that is very clearly not allowed by the merger agreement that he signed: Public-company merger agreements allocate broad market risk to the buyer, and he can’t get out just because stocks went down”.

We haven’t reached even the end of the beginning of this farce. And Matt Levine is a great observer of it.

Chart of the Day

My commonplace booklet

Meet the amateur archivists streaming old VHS tapes online Link.

Well, someone has to do it.

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Wednesday 18 May, 2022

Tulip mania (contd.)

Shot with DXO ONE Camera

Quote of the Day

”And evening full of the linnet’s wings.”

  • W.B. Yeats: a line from The Lake Isle of Innisfree, his wistfully beautiful poem.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Randy Newman | Old Kentucky Home


Long Read of the Day

The new colonisation of Africa


Perceptive essay on the designs the tech giants have on ‘the dark continent’ and on the role that their undersea cables can play in that endeavour.

For more than a decade, U.S. tech giants have had designs on building Africa’s internet. Alphabet is now at work on Project Taara, another “moonshot,” which aims to repurpose the Loon balloons’ airborne lasers. Meta — previously Facebook — has also floated airborne internet delivery systems, including using a satellite that would beam data to Africa from space (which was abandoned when the rocket carrying it was engulfed in flames on the launchpad) and its Aquila solar-powered drones (which were grounded after disappointing performances, including a crash landing). Elon Musk’s SpaceX seems to have had better luck, having now launched over 1,700 small satellites as part of its Starlink constellation, although it won’t begin providing internet service in Africa to consumers until later in 2023.

But beneath these shiny objects in the sky — laid, in fact, on the ocean floor — are a series of more traditional and likely much more transformative efforts to bridge the connected and the unconnected. After years of anticipation, massive undersea fiber-optic cables, stretching thousands of miles, have begun arriving on African and European shores…

This is a perceptive piece in how corporate control over the Internet is becoming ever more intensive. We tend to talk about ‘the Cloud’ (as in cloud computing) but much of what is stored in the cloud spends time travelling along undersea cables. And countries that welcome these cables to their shores are, in a way, like the Germans deciding to welcome Russian gas.

If this expansion of undersea cables continues, the article argues, “the future internet will be less a network of interconnected networks, as it was originally conceived and as it has grown, and more like a supranet, dominated by a handful of mega networks operating upon their own global physical infrastructure”.

In the end, as with Russian gas, the key question (for African states) will be: who controls the data pipes?

At the moment, the answer seems to be Google and Meta.

Orwell’s Humour 

We don’t usually associate George Orwell with laughs. Every photograph I’ve seen of him has him looking dour. Maybe that’s what led Evelyn Waugh (who detested him) to observe that Orwell “couldn’t blow his nose without moralising about working conditions in the handkerchief industry”. But then Waugh was a dyspeptic old bastard (though a gifted comic writer). This essay by Jonathan Clarke is about Orwell’s novels in which he discerns a sense of humour that is “both alert to and tolerant of human eccentricity”. As, for example, is his views about tea and celebrating “the part of us the state can never reach”.


My commonplace booklet

Those were the days.

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Tuesday 17 May, 2022

Through a glass, brightly

Quote of the Day

”An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterwards.”

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Giuseppe Verdi | Và pensiero | Nabucco


Put on your white tie, run a bath, get in and sing your heart out.

Long Read of the Day

“Life among the Econ”

Here’s a delightful reprint of Axel Leijonhfud’s celebrated satirical picture of an interesting academic tribe.

The Econ tribe occupies a vast territory in the far North. Their land appears bleak and dismal to the outsider, and travelling through it makes for rough sledding; but the Econ, through a long period of adaptation, have learned to wrest a living of sorts from it. They are not without some genuine and sometimes even fierce attachment to their ancestral grounds, and their young are brought up to feel contempt for the softer living in the warmer lands of their neighbours, such as the Polscis and the Sociogs. Despite a common genetical heritage. relations with these tribes are strained – the distrust and contempt that the average Econ feels for these neighbours being heartily reciprocated by the latter – and social intercourse with them is inhibited by numerous taboos. The extreme clannishness, not to say xenophobia, of the Econ makes life among them difficult and perhaps even somewhat dangerous for the outsider. This probably accounts for the fact that the Econ have so far not been systematically studied. Information about their social structure and ways of life is fragmentary and not well validated. More research on this interesting tribe is badly needed.

It’s a lovely read, especially if you have a jaundiced view of the discipline in question.

Another sample:

A comparison of status relationships in the different “fields” shows a definite common pattern. The dominant feature, which makes status relations among the Econ of unique interest to the serious student, is the way that status is tied to the manufacture of certain types of implements, called “modls.” The status of the adult male is determined by his skill at making the “modl” of his “field.” The facts (a) that the Econ are highly status-motivated, (b) that status is only to be achieved by making ”modls,” and (c) that most of these “modls” seem to be of little or no practical use, probably accounts for the backwardness and abject cultural poverty of the tribe. Both the tight linkage between status in the tribe and modl- making and the trend toward making modls more for ceremonial than for practical purposes appear, moreover, to be fairly recent developments, something which has led many observers to express pessimism for the viability of the Econ culture.

Do read the whole thing. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Her Majesty’s awkward question

Leijonhfud’s spoof reminded me of a lovely story from 2008 when, on Wednesday 5 November, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the London School of Economics to open a new building. During a briefing by eminent, besuited LSE economists on the build-up to the turmoil on the international markets the Queen asked: “Why did nobody notice it?” At which point the assembled geniuses were observed opening and closing their mouths in a passable imitation of stunned carp.

At this point, the economist Geoffrey Hodgson takes up the story:

On 17 June 2009, the British Academy convened a group of leading academics, economics journalists, politicians, past and present civil servants, and other practitioners for a roundtable discussion to address this question. The chairman, Professor Peter Hennessy, explained that a purpose of the British Academy Forum was to provide the basis of an ‘unofficial command paper’ that attempted to answer the Queen’s question.

Professors Tim Besley and Peter Hennessy’s letter to the Queen summarised the views raised through this discussion at the British Academy. They mentioned that ‘some of the best mathematical minds’ were involved in risk management but ‘they frequently lost sight of the bigger picture’. In summary, they concluded, ‘the failure to foresee the timing, extent and severity of the crisis and to head it off, while it had many causes, was principally a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people, both in this country and internationally, to understand the risks to the system as a whole.’

Incensed by this, Professor Hodgson and some of his colleagues, drawn from the more enlightened members of the Econ tribe (and including my good friend Geoff Harcourt), composed their own letter to Her Majesty.

“In addition to the factors mentioned in their letter,” it began,

we suggest that part of this responsibility lies at the door of leading and influential economists in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Some leading economists – including Nobel Laureates Ronald Coase, Milton Friedman and Wassily Leontief – have complained that in recent years economics has turned virtually into a branch of applied mathematics, and has been become detached from real-world institutions and events. (We can document these and other complaints fully on request.)

In 1988 the American Economic Association set up a Commission on the state of graduate education in economics in the US. In a crushing indictment published in the Journal of Economic Literature in 1991, the Commission expressed its fear that ‘graduate programs may be turning out a generation with too many idiot savants skilled in technique but innocent of real economic issues.’

Far too little has since been done to rectify this problem. Consequently a preoccupation with a narrow range of formal techniques is now prevalent in most leading departments of economics throughout the world, and notably in the United Kingdom.

The letter by Professors Besley and Hennessy does not consider how the preference for mathematical technique over real-world substance diverted many economists from looking at the vital whole. It fails to reflect upon the drive to specialise in narrow areas of enquiry, to the detriment of any synthetic vision. For example, it does not consider the typical omission of psychology, philosophy or economic history from the current education of economists in prestigious institutions. It mentions neither the highly questionable belief in universal ‘rationality’ nor the ‘efficient markets hypothesis’ – both widely promoted by mainstream economists. It also fails to consider how economists have also been ‘charmed by the market’ and how simplistic and reckless market solutions have been widely and vigorously promoted by many economists.

It goes on in this vein for a while before concluding

In summary, the letter by Professors Tim Besley and Peter Hennessy overlooks the part that many leading economists have had in turning economics into a discipline that is detached from the real world, and in promoting unrealistic assumptions that have helped to sustain an uncritical view of how markets operate.

We respectfully submit that part of the problem lies in the additional factors that we have outlined above. As trained economists and United Kingdom citizens we have warned of these problems that beset our profession. Unfortunately, at present, we find ourselves in a minority. We would welcome any further observations that Your Majesty may have on these problems and their causes.

Professor Hodgson reports that the signatories “received a grateful and considerate response from Her Majesty” but, alas, did not provide the text. Hopefully, though, the Queen came away from it with a better understanding of the Econ and their strange practices.

My commonplace booklet

More on Wernher von Braun

The philosopher Huw Price, who’s currently in Bonn and had read my Observer column, sent me this photograph.

“The street”, Huw writes,

is right behind us here in Bonn, and it’s a conspicuously minor one. My German friends are surprised it exists at all, and say that it wouldn’t be in Berlin.”

Interestingly, it’s a one-way street — straight up. Just like Wernher’s career!

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Monday 17 May, 2022

Waiting for a bite

I came on this on Saturday and was struck by it. It’s by John Singer Sargent and shows two of his nieces fishing in the French alps during a family holiday in 1912.

Quote of the Day

”If people don’t believe mathematics is simple, it is only because they don’t realise how complicated life is.”

  • John von Neumann

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bruce Springsteen | You Never Can Tell | Leipzig 7 July, 2013 |. Amazing performance. But an even more amazing audience.


Long Read of the Day

What I learned from unfollowing you

Interesting essay by Charlie Warzel on breaking — and remaking — his Twitter habit.

Anyhow, eight years in, my Twitter feed had come to resemble a party that I’d stayed at for far too long. I watched people I’d developed parasocial relationships with morph into villains or curmudgeons or get famous. I saw a lot of people become the person their followers wanted them to be, which is never good. I knew I’d changed quite a bit, too (I gained about 170,000 followers, which definitely colored my experience). It was getting late; I was coming down and getting edgy, but trying to push back the dawn and my anxiety by staying at the party.

I was, finally, frustrated and jaded every time I opened the app. I found myself giving my attention to loads of people who I fundamentally believed did not deserve it. The dissonance in that action was making me feel awful, and to make myself feel better, I sought out more of what made me feel awful, so that I could feel superior. Dumb stuff, I know. But, like many, I’d become more addicted to things that made me feel outrage or even anxiety. I told myself that Twitter was no longer a place I wanted to be, which was true. But perhaps what was more true is that the version of Twitter I’d built for myself was no longer the place I wanted to be. So I killed it.

By which he meant that he ‘unfollowed’ 2044 people he used to follow. The interesting bit is that he started again, building a new list of people worth following.

Coming down to earth – safely

From the US Federal Aviation Administration’s account:

At noon EDT on Tuesday, May 10, the pilot of a Cessna 208 flying to Florida from the Bahamas told his two passengers he wasn’t feeling well. He fell against the controls, putting the aircraft into a nosedive and sharp turn.

The passengers had no flying experience, and what unfolded thereafter was truly remarkable thanks to a team of air traffic controllers.

At that point, one of the passengers jumped into action. He pulled the aircraft out of the nosedive and called Fort Pierce Tower at Treasure Coast International Airport in Fort Pierce, Fla., to let them know the pilot was incapacitated, and that he had no flying experience.

“I’ve got a serious situation here … the pilot is incoherent … and I have no idea how to fly the airplane.”

The FAA account of what happened next is interesting, but I really enjoyed James Fallows’s blog post about the incident not just because it provides much more context but also because Fallows, a keen pilot himself, writes beautifully about flying.

So do read Fallows.

The former Nazi rocket scientist who all too accurately saw the future

Yesterday’s Observer column on Wernher von Braun who, as well as serving in the SS and a second act as a Nasa engineer also wrote a Martian sci-fi novel with a prescient twist…

I recently read (and greatly enjoyed) V2, Robert Harris’s absorbing second world war thriller about British attempts to locate and destroy the base in the Netherlands from which Hitler’s “Retaliation Weapon 2” – those devastating rocket-powered bombs aimed at London – were launched. Harris is famous for the meticulous research that underpins his plots and V2 is no exception. For me, a particularly interesting aspect of the novel was his portrayal of Wernher von Braun, the German aerospace engineer who was the leading figure in the development of Nazi rocketry and who was snaffled by the US (with a large number of his technical associates) to enjoy a splendid second career as the mastermind of the US space programme.

Harris portrays Von Braun as an exceedingly shrewd operator who effectively used the Nazi regime to enable him to further his dream of space exploration…

After the column was published I got some interesting emails.

One — from Andrew Arends (Whom God Preserve) pointed me towards Tom Lehrer’s nicely sardonic take on von Braun.

And George Dyson sent a photograph of his father’s copy of the technical appendix to von Braun’s novel.

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The former Nazi rocket scientist who all too accurately saw the future

This morning’s Observer column:

… In June 1945, the [US] State department approved the transfer of Von Braun and his specialist team to the US. He worked on the US army’s ballistic missile programme and designed the rocket that launched the US’s first space satellite in 1958, four months after the USSR’s Sputnik sent the American political class into a panicky tailspin. In 1960, his group was assimilated into Nasa, where he became director of the new Marshall Space Flight Center and the lead architect of the Saturn V rocket that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the moon.

Not bad for a former SS officer, eh? But, as I discovered as I burrowed down the agreeable rabbit hole on which [Robert] Harris had launched me, the story gets better. During his early years in the US, Von Braun became pally with Walt Disney, with whom he collaborated on a series of three educational films and to whom he probably confided his dream of a manned mission to Mars. More intriguingly, in 1949, when he was stationed at Fort Bliss in Texas, he wrote a science fiction novel (in German) entitled Marsprojekt but failed to find a publisher for it. He wrote it, he writes in the preface, “to stimulate interest in space travel”. Eventually, the novel was translated into English, cleared by the Pentagon (on the grounds that its author’s visions of space travel were “too futuristic to infringe on classified matters”) and published in 2006 as Project Mars: A Technical Tale…

Read on



  • And George Dyson sent a photograph of his father’s copy of the technical appendix to von Braun’s novel.

Friday 13 May, 2022

If you’re superstitious this would not be a good day to walk under ladders.

Cross Words

My wife and I are cruciverbalists in the same sense that we are ornithologists. That is to say, we like watching birds, but often have trouble identifying them. Same with crosswords. Every weekday we do the Irish Times’s cryptic crossword, and sometimes we even manage to finish it. And (as often happens) when we finally realise that the solution to a clue which has eluded us for hours turns out to be obvious, the thudding noise you hear is the sound of one of us banging his or her head on the nearest available wall.

So why do we do it? Because we enjoy it — honestly. And it provides regular confirmation that as a couple we are more than the sum of our parts. I am an inveterate guesser, while she is a logician who refuses to accept my guess unless she can reverse-engineer the logic behind the solution. The only other thing that I bring to the party is extensive knowledge of disreputable slang of which she, as a well-brought-up girl who has led a sheltered life, is ignorant.

The nice thing about the Irish Times crossword is that the setter has a blog, in which the logic of the day’s solutions is explained after 10pm on the day of publication.

On April 30 Paul O’Doherty, the genial sadist (codename ‘Crossheir’) who has been tormenting us for the last decade, hung up his thesaurus — and penned a lovely reflective farewell which includes some stirring thoughts.

“To go back to the beginning”, he writes,

I can’t say I was an avid crossword doer when I started this job, although I had been setting crosswords for other publications since the early 2000s. I was, however, intrigued by the history of crosswords and the various conspiracy theories that revolved around them, particularly during the second World War. For instance, Dieppe was the answer to a crossword clue in The Telegraph two days before the Dieppe raid in August 1942. MI5 laughed it off as a fluke.

The British newspaper was also responsible for a number of suspicious solutions appearing in its crossword in the weeks up to D-Day: Juno, Gold, Utah, Sword, Omaha (Allied invasion beaches); Mulberry (D-Day portable harbour); Neptune (codename of Normandy landings); and incredibly Overlord (D-Day itself). What the general public didn’t know was that a copy of the Overlord plan had recently blown out of a window of military HQ at Norfolk House.

Not surprisingly, suspicion fell on The Telegraph setter Leonard Dawe, a headmaster at a school close to where US and Canadian troops were bivouacked. It transpired that Dawe had gotten them from school children when he asked them to suggest unusual words for his crossword. Little ears, how are you?

Then there was the time The Times setter Adrian Bell was investigated by MI5 days after the double agent George Blake escaped from Wormwood Scrubs gaol – a car had been waiting in Artillery Lane for him. Bell had unwittingly included the following words in his daily crossword: gaol, rungate (a synonym for runaway) and artillery. And of course, British war-time code-breaking HQ Bletchley Park was always on the lookout for crossword doers – people with “twisted brains” to break the Enigma codes, for instance. As for myself, this week’s crosswords contain solutions that refer to … oh, I’d better not say!

You might ask what has it been like producing 178 clues a week over six days, every week, along with the Christmas Crossword and the odd speciality for a decade? Sometimes the clues come easy, on other occasions it takes hours, tinkering with nouns noticing they should be verbs, occasionally realising that a word is more American than is palatable and having to discard or reword.

After a while, the faithful crossword indicators take on a life of their own: anagram, deletion, reversal, homophone, heads, ends, tail, containment, local, repetition and archaic. They’re a bit like Sartre’s crabs after a touch of mescaline. They follow me in the streets, into my office, into my social life. Occasionally, they wake me up in the middle of the night poking me Shakespeare-like “mumbling of wicked charms conjuring the moon to stand auspicious mistress” or just telling me “hey Dumbo that anagram indicator needs changing”. Lads, it’s been a blast – I’ll miss you the most!

Lovely stuff.

My appalling profreading

Which brings me to something that keeps me awake at night: my terrible proof-reading. For reasons that escape me, but which can largely by explained by bad planning on my part, I am perpetually busy on academic and other pursuits. (At the beginning of the pandemic, for example, I co-founded a new research centre in Cambridge.) This means that my blog is invariably put together at the end of a long day. It’s usually the last thing I do before retiring (to bed, that is). And that means that I often miss glaring errors in my rush to press ‘Publish’.

Yesterday, for example, I wrote that Apple had “called time” on its landmark product, the “AirPod”, when of course I meant the iPod. And a few day’s earlier, introducing the transcript of an interesting interview with Thomas Piketty, I wrote “If, like me, you’re pessimistic about the ability of our democracies to arrest the shocking growth in equality in our societies, then this interview with Thomas Piketty is a must-read.” When of course I meant to say ‘the shocking growth in inequality.” And before that, I wrote about the splendid blog produced by the American historian “Heather Cox Robinson” when of course I meant Heather Cox Richardson. And so on.

This kind of nonsense would not happen if I were to employ a proper proof-reader. But then I would have to pay her or his salary, which in turn would mean that I had — like Dominic Cummings, for example — to charge readers for the privilege of reading me. Which would be embarrassing because I might wind up with no readers at all. So you see the problem. It would be a case where the cure would be worse than the disease.

I can (and do) easily correct these excrescences on the online version once some kind reader has pointed them out at 7:02 am, but once I’ve pressed ‘send’ on this edition the error is set in virtual stone. Sigh.

Quote of the Day

“Right through our national life we have got to fight against the notion that a half-witted public schoolboy is better for command than an intelligent mechanic.”

  • George Orwell, 1941

Thanks to Sheila Hayman for reminding me of it.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Richard Strauss | Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks op. 28 | Cristian Măcelaru | WDR Symphony Orchestra


Long Read of the Day

Medieval Scholars Spar on a Modern Battlefield: Twitter

Lovely piece by Jennifer Schuessler.

Medieval Twitter can be a noisy and fractious place, where scholars post articles, memes and, not infrequently, fierce blasts at each other.

But over the past week, things turned hotter than a pot of boiling oil, as a dispute over a spiked book review spiraled into a conflagration involving charges and countercharges of racism, bullying and deception.

It started when Mary Rambaran-Olm, a literary scholar who focuses on race and early medieval England, accused editors at The Los Angeles Review of Books of “torpedoing” a strongly negative review she had written of “The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe” because of their friendship with the fellow white scholars who wrote it. As the online furor grew, one of the editors posted a fierce rebuttal, accusing her of misrepresenting the situation, and saying the publication had killed the review because she refused to accept edits.

By the end of this week, some of the protagonists had either locked or deleted their Twitter accounts, as rubbernecks outside the profession started sharing screen shots and joking about the latest circular firing squad on academic Twitter.

Do read on.

My commonplace booklet

How migrants of the 1947 partition introduced Delhi to the celebrated culinary tradition – Tandoor. Nice Twitter thread.

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Thursday 12 May, 2022

Work in progress

In 2010, a we had a guest speaker for a project I was running in the Cambridge university library. He had done his PhD on Isaac Newton and before his talk the University Librarian arranged for its copy of Newton’s own annotated copy of his Principia to be brought out. Watching our guest’s delighted astonishment on being confronted by the object itself reminded me of Walter Benjamin’s celebrated essay on the ‘aura’ possessed by the original work.

As he was pondering it I snatched a photograph of the page.

Quote of the Day

”History teaches us nothing except that something will happen.”

  • Hugh Trevor-Roper

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Joe Williams | Blues For Gamblers


I once saw Sonny and Brownie in concert at the Corn Exchange many moons ago. Unforgettable.

Long Read of the Day

 Victory Day

James Meek in the LRB:

The strangest thing about the Victory Day parade in Moscow this year was the absence of victory. Normally it’s there, the victory over Nazi Germany, a safely won triumph, unchangeably in the past, veterans and the glorious dead honoured, the country rebuilt, and in his speech today Vladimir Putin went through the motions of commemorating it. But this year, for the first time since the original Victory, Russian troops are openly fighting a war against the descendants of their Ukrainian former comrades-in-arms, on land whose evocative toponymy casts doubt on Russia’s traditional representation of May 1945.

After the speech, after the military parade, Putin, as usual, went to lay a flower on each of a row of granite blocks outside the Kremlin walls commemorating the ‘hero cities’ judged to have shown special valour in the struggle against the Nazis. He laid the first flower on the monument to heroic Leningrad, his home town. He laid the second flower, without any noticeable hesitation, on the monument to heroic Kiev.

For the three decades after 1991, it didn’t make much difference to the original Victory that Russia accepted, however grudgingly, Kyiv’s being the capital of another country. But now that Putin has invaded the other country, now Putin seeks to beat Kyiv, to capture Kyiv – in Russian nationalists’ fantastical construction, to liberate Kyiv – Putin isn’t just setting himself the task of achieving victory. He makes the original Victory contingent on victory over Kyiv, and if he doesn’t achieve it, that foundational moment, in the top-heavy ideological framework of Putin’s Russia, is no longer Victory with a capital V. It’s just one victory in a mundane cycle of historical wins and losses.

Good, thoughtful, realistic piece.

Chart of the Day

Seems that now trust in, or distrust of, science depends on your politics — at least in the US.


My commonplace booklet

Apple calls time on the AirPod

On Tuesday, Apple announced it had phased out production of its iPod Touch, bringing an end to a two-decade run of a product line that inspired the creation of the iPhone and helped turn Silicon Valley into the epicentre of global capitalism. Link

My grandson and I have a plan to resuscitate my old iPod Classic, and I’ve got the spare parts for the job. Now all I have to do is wait to him to come from Italy so we can do it together.

Cult of Mac has a nice illustrated history of the iPod over its lifetime. It really was a breakthrough product — the spiritual heir heir of the Sony Walkman. (I still have one of those too. Maybe I should open a museum.)

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Wednesday 11 May, 2022

The river at dusk

Taken walking back from dinner yesterday evening

Quote of the Day

”What really flatters a man is that you think him worth flattering.”

  • George Bernard Shaw

Acute observation. I’ve seen umpteen confirmations of it in my lifetime.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Corelli | Concerto in D Major Op. 6 No. 4 | Adagio


I spent most of yesterday online, interviewing candidates for senior academic jobs. Listening to this seemed a good way to prepare for it.

Long Read of the Day

 The lady vanishes

Very nice essay in Aeon by Ann-Sophie Barwich on how the history of ideas still struggles to remember the names of notable women philosophers. Mary Hesse, pictured here in Peter Mennim’s beautiful portrait, is a case in point.

Mary was a Fellow of my college, Wolfson. She was quiet and reserved, with a lovely smile, but so eminent that she unwittingly terrified me. Once, I brought a philosopher friend to lunch and when he noticed her at the table he seemed dumbstruck to actually see her in person.

The essay is good on her views on the merits and uses of metaphor in scientific thinking (a favourite obsession of mine in trying to communicate ideas to lay audiences).

Hesse’s philosophical ideas about science were remarkably modern. She is often described as a ‘moderate’ between the ‘conservative’ scholars of logical positivism and ‘radical’ philosophers such as Feyerabend or Kuhn in the historical literature. This presents a remarkable misapprehension concerning the novelty of her ideas. Instead of obsessing over the justification of scientific knowledge, she highlighted the need to think about its generation. How do scientists develop their ideas about the world and come to discover new things? Hesse considered the use of metaphors and analogies in scientific models. Metaphors were analysed as a conceptual tool, and one might say a cognitive scaffold, to redescribe the nature of a scientific object by comparing the properties of a metaphor with its target phenomenon.

Consider the analogy between billiard balls and gas molecules. The positive part of the analogy is the properties we know from billiard balls with which we can also describe gas molecules. Of course, there also is a negative analogy since some properties of billiard balls certainly do not apply to gas molecules. Meanwhile, Hesse was explicitly concerned with the importance of neutral analogy: those properties of billiard balls that may or may not apply to gas molecules. Metaphors in their neutral analogies, she recognised, act as a cognitive tool for learning about the yet unknown dimensions of scientific phenomena. Hesse did not refer to metaphors as cognitive tools herself. This is admittedly modern terminology. Yet Hesse notably engaged with the cognitive conditions involved in creating scientific knowledge. At the same time, she was classically philosophical in style. Models and Analogies is partly written as a Platonic dialogue between two scientists of different persuasion: a Campbellian (from Norman Robert Campbell, who argued for the crucial role of models in scientific thinking) and a Duhemian (from Pierre Duhem, who favoured the logic of scientific theories as the principal characteristic of the special status of scientific knowledge).

For Hesse, metaphors were not passive representations of things but constituted conceptual tools actively shaping scientific thought: ‘It is still unfortunately necessary to argue that metaphor is more than a literary device and that it has cognitive implications whose nature is a proper subject of philosophic discussion.’ The cognitive power of metaphors, in her view, resided in their capacity to create similarity. The use of metaphors is an act of co-creating, not discovering, similarities between a metaphor and its physical target system. Such an act of metaphorical co-creation is inevitably shaped by cultural context…

It’s an interesting read that does something to offset the selective memory of historians of ideas.

My commonplace booklet

Why are watches usually set to 10:10 in advertisements?.

Ross Pomeroy investigates. It seems that since the 1950s advertisements for analog watches often have the time set to 10:10. Why?

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Tuesday 10 May, 2022

Quote of the Day

”Anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison.”

*  Evelyn Waugh

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Little Richard | Good Golly Miss Molly | Muhammad Ali’s 50th Birthday


They don’t make them like that any more. (Ali died in 2016, Little Richard in 2020.)

Long Read of the Day

Cars Are Here to Stay

Sobering essay by Alex Trembath

As knowledge economy workers increasingly crowd into walkable, expensive urban cores, lower-income Americans are crowded out into suburbs and exurbs. Increased housing construction and affordability would certainly reduce these pressures. But as civil rights attorney Jennifer Hernandez recently wrote, the policies and regulations put in place to reduce car dependence and invest in transit often come at the expense of these low-income communities. Even a radical acceleration of densification is unlikely to reverse these dynamics:

Public transit, the “solution” wealthy Whites imagine will supplant personal vehicles, does not work for many people in less-affluent communities of color, where housing, employment, and other opportunities are often more dispersed and many more jobs can be accessed in a 30-minute drive than a 30-minute ride on public transit. Unlike affluent residents in the keyboard economy, workers of color more often have multiple jobs, commute during non-peak hours, and simply cannot use transit to “balance work, child care, elder care.”

It is easy and credible enough to blame the fossil fuel and auto industries and the legacies of redlining and racial covenants for the land use and transportation infrastructure arrangements we have in the United States today. But there are legitimate reasons that more and more people, in the United States and abroad, continue to sprawl outwards. Housing will always be more affordable and more spacious in the suburbs, amenities that remain attractive to many people here and around the world.

And switching to EVs won’t fix that fundamental dependence on cars.

Inflation is worse than we think

Blog post by Samuel Gregg, arguing that the way our societies measure inflation is partly designed to understate it.

In 2011, the last time inflation was on the rise, the then-president of the New York Federal Reserve, William Dudley, ventured into a working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York, to give a speech explaining why inflation wasn’t a big deal. Finding that he wasn’t making an impact, Dudley famously picked up an iPad 2 and told his audience, “Today you can buy an iPad 2 that costs the same as an iPad 1 that is twice as powerful.”

“I can’t eat an iPad!” someone in the audience shouted back.

I was reminded of this story recently while standing in the checkout line of my local grocery store. An elderly neighbor standing in front of me saw the total price of her purchases flash up on the screen. For a moment, her eyes registered shock. Then I heard her mutter, “That sure doesn’t feel like $150 worth of groceries.”

I was thinking this the other day when it was announced that inflation in the UK is running at 10% — which seemed to me to be an under-estimate.

China’s Bizarre Authoritarian-Libertarian COVID Strategy

By Alex Tabarrok

It’s difficult to understand China’s COVID strategy. On the one hand, China has confined millions of people to their homes, even to the extent of outlawing walking outside or having food delivered. Many thousands of other people have been taken from their homes and put into quarantine centers. On the other hand, vaccination is not mandatory! I can understand authoritarianism. I can understand libertarianism. I have difficulty understanding how jailing people, potentially without food, is ok but requiring vaccinations is not. (Here’s a legal analysis of China’s vaccine policy.) Moreover, put aside making vaccines mandatory because as far as I can tell, China has only recently started to get serious about non-coercive measures to vaccinate the elderly.

He’s right: the strategy is weird.

My commonplace booklet

How I would learn to code (if I could start over) Link A nice illustration of why so many people turn to YouTube to learn stuff — in this case programming in Python.

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Monday 9 May, 2022

Getting to first base

Base of a table in one of my favourite cafes.

Quote of the Day

“It is outrageous that five unelected, unaccountable and relatively unknown political operatives masquerading as impartial jurists can so profoundly alter our lives.”

  • Maureen Dowd (also see below)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel | Ombra mai fu (from Xerxes) | Andreas Scholl


I still remember the first time I heard this. It was on a beautiful, sunny early-September afternoon and we had driven over the Simplon pass from Switzerland into Domodossolo, a small town in in northern Italy. My wife and our son had gone off looking for a cafe, but I was tired and opted to sit quietly in a small church, when an elderly man in the gallery suddenly started to play it on the violin.

Long Read of the Day

The World Order Reset

This extraordinary blog post is a really long read, but it left me brooding all weekend. It’s by ’N.S. Lyons’ which is a pen-name for someone who is probably someone in the foreign policy establishment, but who seems relatively detached from it and has a helicopter’s-eye view of how geopolitics might pan out from now on. It’s basically an exploration of what the puncturing of the myth of Russian military superiority and competence means, first for China and then for the West.

As I read it, I was sometimes reminded of George Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’ which, in a way, shaped the architecture of the Cold War world.

Worth your time, but you need to make an appointment with it and brew some coffee.

How Russia and Ukraine are finding new ways to use tech in the war

Yesterday’s Observer column

One of the few welcome surprises of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was the speed and apparent effectiveness of western governments’ imposition of conventional sanctions on his country. In short order, half of Russia’s $600bn foreign reserves held in western financial institutions was immediately frozen. The country was expelled from Swift, the vast messaging network that banks use to transfer money across the world. PayPal, Visa and Mastercard abruptly ceased to work in Russia. There was an immediate ban on technology transfers from the west. Then there was the sudden sanctioning of Putin-friendly oligarchs and those who service them in London, though Ben Elliot, the Tory co-chair and Quintessentially, the “concierge service” for the super-rich that he runs, seem to have been exempted from the strictures.

Trebles all round, then? Only up to a point: some of the successes involve measures that in other contexts are deeply toxic. Russian troops, for example, have been nabbing high-end John Deere tractors in Ukraine and shipping them back to Mother Russia. But when the lucky beneficiaries of these wondrous machines attempt to start them up, they discover that John Deere has remotely “bricked” them – ie turned them into multi-ton paperweights. Which is why many western farmers detest John Deere. Having paid a fortune for their new tractors, they find that they are not allowed to repair them themselves and any attempt to download bootleg software to diagnose malfunctions may get them into legal trouble on intellectual-property and user-agreement grounds.

Similarly, Ukraine has been using another toxic technology – facial recognition – to identify dead Russian soldiers…

Read on

Marilyn Monroe v. Samuel Alito

Fighting talk from Maureen Dowd:

Then Variety sent out a news bulletin that Kim was actually wearing Marilyn’s dress. I had last seen the crystal-strewn souffle concoction back in 1999, at a Christie’s exhibit for an auction of Marilyn’s property. It sparkled amid detritus such as sombreros, see-through nighties, and lighters from Frank Sinatra’s Cal-Neva lodge. The “nudest dress,” as the designer Jean Louis called it, was reverently displayed in a room by itself, lit from above like the Pieta.

As I was contemplating the comeback of this sartorial symbol of American seduction, I got another news bulletin: The Supreme Court was going to yank away the right of women to control their own bodies, strapping us into a time machine hurtling backward.

The two simultaneous emails were a perfect distillation of America’s bizarre duality — our contradictory strains of sexuality and priggishness…

A terrific read. Especially in her view that “Alito is a familiar type in American literature: the holier-than-thou preacher, so overzealous in his attempts to rein in female sexuality and slap on a scarlet letter that one suspects he must be hiding some dark yearnings of his own”.

Also relevant, perhaps: this (crudely-scanned) chart in Friday’s Financial Times.

My commonplace booklet

Intriguing typographic analysis of the leaked US Supreme Court opinion on Roe v. Wade. Does it given any hints to the identity of the leaker? Link

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