Friday 6 May, 2022

How to stitch together a fractured Northern Ireland

Wonderful graphical summary of the fractured polity of Northern Ireland.

Source: Quartz newsletter.

Quote of the Day

”The taste was of that little crumb of Madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray … when I used to say goodbye to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea.”

  • The famous passage in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things past, (in the translation by Scott Montcrieff and Terence Kilmartin).

Terry Kilmartin was my first editor at the Observer, and although he was ‘just’ the Literary Editor was actually a central figure on the paper. He was born in Ireland but educated in England and in 1939 deemed unfit for military service because he had only one kidney. But somehow he managed to get into SOE, the legendary ’Special Operations Executive’ and I think parachuted into France in 1944 to do clandestine sabotage with the French Resistance in preparation for the Allied invasion on June 6.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

J.S. Bach | Sonata for Violin Solo No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1005 | III. Largo | performed by Ray Chen


Long Read of the Day

Thomas Piketty Thinks America Is Primed for Wealth Redistribution

If, like me, you’re pessimistic about the ability of our democracies to arrest the shocking growth in inequality in our societies, then this interview with Thomas Piketty is a must-read. What I liked most about it is that the interviewer, David Marchese, kept asking the questions that I would have asked in his position. I came away not entirely convinced by Piketty’s optimism, but less dogmatic in my pessimism.

Here’s the concluding exchange:

Marchese You know, I do find it hard to wrap my head around the idea that after 40 years of worsening inequality, you — the inequality guy, Mr. r>g — are publishing a book saying we’re on the right track historically. It’s sort of cold comfort to know we’re more equal today than we were 100 or 200 years ago. Really give me a reason to feel as optimistic as you do.

Piketty “Give me a reason to be optimistic?” By looking at my historical evidence, by thinking about the big picture, I have become more optimistic. I was a bit puzzled that many people looking at “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” came away with a pessimistic conclusion. I’m trying to show that the key in history is not the big catastrophes but the positive political construction of an alternative, and this process started with the French Revolution, the U.S. revolution. This process toward more equality is more deeply rooted in our modern ethos and modern political cultures than most people believe. I remember in 2014 having a public discussion with Elizabeth Warren in Boston. I was talking about a progressive wealth tax with a rate of 5 percent per year or 10 percent per year on billionaires. She looked at me like, Wow, that’s too much. Joe Biden today, a centrist Democrat — who voted for the Tax Reform Act of 198611 — is coming in with a wealth tax. Things can change pretty fast.

Do give it your time. The interview is also nicely footnoted. I wish all web-pages were like that.

More on McLuhan…

My observation the other day that Marshall McLuhan’s views about media applied even more to our digital age than the broadcast TV era of his time rang some bells with readers.

Andrew Arends, for example, was reminded to this wonderful clip from Woody Allen’s film, Annie Hall.

And Doc Searls sent a link to “What does the Internet make of us?” — a terrific blog post he wrote in 2019 in which he applied McLuhan’s “tetrad of media effects” to the technologies we use today. That poses four questions to ask about a technology:

  1. What does a medium enhance?
  2. What does it obsolesce?
  3. What does it retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does it reverse or flip into when pushed to its extreme (for example, by becoming ubiquitous)?

It’s such a good essay that it deserves to be a Long Read of the day soon. So it’s in the queue.

The future of the forecourt

Really interesting meditation on Quentin’s blog based on a brainstorming session about what happens to petrol stations in an EV era.

We discussed other possible uses for the sites, which, despite some problems, do have the merit of being close to good road links, and often close to towns.

One idea was that they might become last-hop delivery hubs. Instead of fuel tankers rolling in during the night to top up the tanks, it would be big Amazon trucks coming to offload their parcels. Then a fleet of smaller electric vans would zip out from there during the day, doing the deliveries.

Someone else pointed out that there’s another service to which people often need quick and easy access while travelling: the loo! Yes, petrol stations are ideally placed for public conveniences, but up to now, that part of any visit has not always been very inspiring! Apparently one gas station chain in the States made their toilets a feature, advertising that they had the nicest bathrooms in the business! I thought this was very smart: there’s not much else to distinguish one station from another, so this was a cunning way to make your visit one of choice (as well as necessity!) Could you, we wondered, actually dispense with the petrol station, and instead draw people to your roadside retail experience through the quality and cleanliness of the adjacent WC?

Lovely post.

My commonplace booklet

The Eames Institute of Infinite Curiosity, a celebration of the designs and work of Ray and Charles Eames has opened in Petaluma, California. This write-up by Anne Quito ensures that if I ever get to California again, I’ll be an eager visitor.

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Thursday 5 May, 2022

Wheel of Fortune?

Liverpool, Spring 2010

Quote of the Day

”The text box of Twitter still prompts every user with “What’s happening?” What’s happening, invariably, is that they are looking at Twitter. This simple fact accounts for perhaps 99 percent of the acrimony on there, which is rarely about events in the outside world and frequently about the content of other tweets.”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Three numbers from Jimmy Yancey’s final recording session | Mournful Blues | How Long Blues | 35th and Dearborn


Recorded just eight weeks before his death from diabetes on July 18 1951.

Long Read of the Day

 Love is Space: Notes on Marriage and Creativity

Lovely essay by Andrea Bajani on Writing, Solitude, and Forgiveness

On the US Supreme Court leak

From Heather Cox Richardson

In 1985, President Ronald Reagan’s team made a conscious effort to bring evangelicals and social conservatives into the voting base of the Republican Party. The Republicans’ tax cuts and deregulation had not created the prosperity party leaders had promised, and they were keenly aware that their policies might well not survive the upcoming 1986 midterm elections. To find new voters, they turned to religious groups that had previously shunned politics.

“Traditional Republican business groups can provide the resources,” political operative Grover Norquist explained, “but these groups can provide the votes.” To keep that base riled up, the Republican Party swung behind efforts to take away women’s constitutional right to abortion, which the Supreme Court had recognized by a vote of 7–2 in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and then reaffirmed in 1992 in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

Although even as recently as last week, only about 28% of Americans wanted Roe v. Wade overturned, Republicans continued to promise their base that they would see that decision destroyed. Indeed, the recognition that evangelical voters would turn out to win a Supreme Court seat might have been one of the reasons then–Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell refused to hold hearings for then-president Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland. Leaving that seat empty was a tangible prize to turn those voters out behind Donald Trump, whose personal history of divorces and sexual assault was not necessarily attractive to evangelicals, in 2016…


We’re the Supreme Court, and We Should Have Used Protection

Lovely spoof by Joanna Castle Miller on the draft judgment that somehow ‘leaked’ out.

We wanted to address the controversy about our recently leaked majority opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade.

A lot of folks have been taking to social media and talk shows to discuss how this leak will cause dissent in the court, inspire riots in the public square, and threaten the future of our institution.

In their own unique and unforgettable way, each storyteller examines our crisis of access to care in ways that are at turns haunting, heartbreaking, and outright funny.

Well, that may be so, but if we didn’t want a decision to come into the world at this moment, we should have abstained from writing it in the first place.

Abstinence is the only true way to stop a majority opinion from being leaked to the press. But did we let that stop us? No, we gave in to our base desires and wrote as if there would be no consequences…

Do read on.

My commonplace booklet

  • Astra Taylor (Whom God Preserve) has invented a new term: technocratutopian It describes a lot of the nonsense we seen in neoliberal democracies. Nice Twitter thread here.

  • Molly White’s Blockchain collection She is the best critic of the crypto craziness writing today. And she has now corralled her best essays on it into one place.

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Wednesday 4 May, 2022

Stone-age Tablets

Very sharp piece of social observation, this. One of the saddest sights I’ve seen was of a young child, aged between two and three, playing with a picture book and trying to manipulate it with her fingers as if it were an iPad. She was growing up in a family where all of her siblings had screens from a young age. It was one of those moments for biting one’s tongue. But it was also, as my companion wisely observed, “none of your business”.

Quote of the Day

”The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium … result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves or by any new technology.”

  • Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media.

I’ve increasingly come to the view that McLuhan’s thinking is actually more apposite to networked media than it was to the broadcast media that were the focus of his original work. Also I love the fact that every weekday I cycle past where he lived (on Grange Road in Cambridge) when he was writing his PhD dissertation.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Titanic | Hymn to the sea


Haven’t seen the film, so this is the only thing about it that I know. (Apart from what happened to the actual ship, of course.)

Long Read of the Day

The Renewable-Energy Revolution Will Need Renewable Storage

Can gravity, pressure, and other elemental forces save us from becoming a battery-powered civilization?

Long and informative New Yorker article by Matthew Hutson on why a world powered by renewable energy sources won’t be possible until we find better ways than batteries to store energy so it’s available when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. The most interesting aspect of the piece is the diversity of searches currently under way to solve the storage problem.


Have a look at this.

And then at this.

Neat, eh?

How Hitler’s rocket scientist foresaw the colonisation of Mars

This, truly, is stuff you couldn’t make up.

It’s about Marsprojekt, a science-fiction novel written in 1948 by Hitler’s rocket scientist, Werner Von Braun (who had been snaffled by the US at the end of the war instead of being tried for the use of slave labour). The novel was originally published in German but in 1953 was published by in English by the University of Illinois Press as The Mars Project.

Von Braun was — as every baby-boomer knows — a key figure in the development of the US Space Program. Less well known is that he also envisaged a manned trip to Mars following the success of the moon mission.

The Mars Project outlined, in 48 chapters, the engineering requirements for a huge space expedition involving a flotilla of 10 spacecraft with 70 crew members that would return after spending 443 days on Mars before the trip back to Earth.

Now comes the really interesting bit:

Chapter 24 of this science fiction work is titled, “How Mars in Governed.” In one passage of that chapter, the book states: The Martian government was directed by 10 men, the leader of whom was elected by universal suffrage for five years and had the title of “Elon.” Two houses of parliament enacted the laws to be administered by Elon and his cabinet. The upper house was called the Council of the Elders and contained 60 people who were named to those positions for life by Elon.

The reason he wrote the book, Von Braun writes in the Preface, was “to stimulate interest in space travel.”

In what can only be described as a remarkable coincidence, the world’s richest man — part tech genius and part fruitcake — plans to colonise Mars.

And his first name? Why, Elon.

Like I said, you couldn’t make it up.

My commonplace booklet

  • On unlikely headlines: My Observer column on Sunday mentioned the 1930s competition in The Times for the dullest headline (alleged winner: “Small Earthquake in Chile. Not many Dead.”) and prompted Joe Dunne to write in about a competition held in Ireland many years ago for “the most unlikely headline” in Irish publications. The winner? “FARMERS HAPPY”.

  • On “thingamajig”: Re yesterday’s Quote of the Day, Anne Kirkman writes: “Thingamajig: A character in C.S. Lewis’s book, “That Hideous Strength”, remarks on the difference between men and women which makes them unable to work together. Apparently men would say “Put this bowl inside the bigger bowl on the top shelf of the green cupboard” and women would say “Put that in the other one in there” He calls this a phatic hiatus. Lovely phrase but I don’t agree with him.” Hmmm…

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Tuesday 3 May, 2022

Ship ahoy!

This photograph seems to me as close to perfect as one could hope for. It shows my friends Quentin and Rose in their new sailboat on Grafham Water early on Sunday morning. It was taken by Douglas Smart with a Google Pixel phone, and is reproduced with his kind permission. It’s also a reminder that the best phone is always the one you happen to have with you at ‘the decisive moment’.

Quote of the Day

“Put the thingamajig in the whatyoumaycallit”.

  • An exchange between an elderly aunt and my wife when she was a child

My father often used whatyoumaycallit when he was too busy to search for the precise word. The strange thing is that one invariably knew what he meant. It was all about context. Which is one reason why machine translation is difficult.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Antonín Dvořák | Rusalka | Song To The Moon


Ravishingly beautiful IMHO.

Long Read of the Day

Twitter is not the public square — it’s just a private shop

My take on the Musk-Twitter saga, from Sunday’s Observer..

On Friday 8 January 2021, Twitter kicked Donald Trump off its platform and an eerie calm enveloped parts of our global public sphere. Depriving him of his online megaphone was a compelling demonstration of how a tech platform had acquired an awesome power – the ability effectively to silence an elected president.

But what kind of power is it really? Many years ago, in a landmark book, Power: A Radical View, the sociologist Steven Lukes wrote that power comes in three varieties: the ability to stop people doing what they want to do; the ability to compel them to do what they don’t want to do; and the ability to shape the way they think.

This third capability is clearly the kind of power that a society’s communications media wield…

Read on

My commonplace booklet

From yesterday’s Politico London Playbook…

The scoop everyone wanted: Just what was Parish googling? The Sun’s Harry Cole is among several who quote pals of the MP suggesting he searched for “Dominator combine harvester” before taking part in some career sadomasochism. For research purposes, Playbook googled that phrase last night and found … lots of pictures of tractors.

Note for non-UK readers: Neil Parish is a Tory MP who resigned after he had been seen watching porn on his phone in the Chamber of the House of Commons.

To my (suspicious) mind the Sun story looks like another of those specialities of British tabloid newspapers: making up a funny story to kick a public figure when s/he’s down, knowing that the victim is unlikely to sue for defamation. It reminds me of what they did to Tory Cabinet minister David Mellor in 1992, when his affair with actress Antonia de Sanchez was ‘exposed’. The story was spiced up with an allegation that Mellor, who was apparently a supporter of Chelsea FC, wore the club shirt while cavorting in bed with the lady. It was, of course, baloney. Then, as now, the price of a ‘free press’ is torrents of BS.

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Twitter is not the town square – it’s just a private shop.

My take on the Musk-Twitter saga.

Musk now declares himself to be a “free speech absolutist”. He doesn’t, however, seem to have done much thinking about what would actually be involved in running a platform based on absolutist principles. As the FT’s John Thornhill put it: “He grandly declares that maximal free speech reduces civilisational risk. Cue widespread applause. But back in the day, Twitter also described itself as ‘the free speech wing of the free speech party’. Then it collided with porn bots, cyberbullies and terrorist extremists. ‘We have tried that. It did not work, Elon,’ says a former Twitter executive.”

Musk suffers from the delusion that “Twitter has become the de-facto town square”, which, frankly, is baloney. The internet, as Mike Masnick points out, is the metaphorical “town square”. Twitter is just one small private shop in that space – a shop in which hyperventilating elites, trolls, journalists and millions of bots hang out and fight with one another.

He also seems to have forgotten that Twitter operates outside the first-amendment-obsessed US – in Europe, for example. Last Tuesday, Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner for the internal market, warned that Twitter must follow European rules on moderating illegal and harmful content online, even after it goes private. “We welcome everyone,” said Breton. “We are open but on our conditions… ‘Elon, there are rules. You are welcome but these are our rules. It’s not your rules which will apply here.’” Since Musk seems temperamentally allergic to rules imposed by governmental agencies, Twitter under his command should have interesting challenges ahead in Europe…

Read on

Monday 2 May, 2022

The “people’s car”

Hitler being shown the Volkswagen on its launch. Next to him, in civilian clothes, is its designer, Ferdinand Porsche. I’ve often wondered if the photographer — behind Hitler focussing a Leica — might be Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler’s personal photographer. Against that is the thought that although Hoffmann sometimes wore a military uniform, it seems unlikely that he was in the SS.

Quote of the Day

”Accuracy is a duty, not a virtue”

  • A.E. Housman

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler | Miss You Blues



Long Read of the Day

Dinner with Queen Elizabeth

Unmissable 1996 New Yorker essay by Paul Theroux.

Subscriber slump may be bad news for Netflix, but better for the planet

Yesterday’s Observer column:

In the early 1930s, when Claud Cockburn worked on the Times, the subeditors had a competition to see who could compose the dullest headline. Cockburn claimed that he won with “Small earthquake in Chile. Not many dead”. Alas, subsequent factcheckers have failed to unearth such a headline in the archives, but it came to mind last week when Netflix announced, in a quarterly earnings report, that for the first time in a decade it had lost subscribers – 200,000 of them, to be exact. In North America, it had lost 640,000 and suffered additional losses in every other region except for Asia-Pacific area, where it added a million.

This didn’t seem very interesting to this columnist, especially as it included the period when Netflix had pulled out of Russia, where it had 700,000 subscribers, which to my mind meant that the reported loss would have been a gain of half a million had Putin not invaded Ukraine.

Still, the negative 200,000 figure seemed to spook Wall Street. Netflix’s stock price collapsed by nearly 40% in two days, taking more than $50bn off the company’s market value in the blink of an eye…

Read on

Dave Winer on what a better Twitter could be

Dave (Whom God Preserve and whose birthday is today!) is one of the smartest software developers around. His ThinkTank outliner for the Apple Mac was one of the best programs I’ve ever used, and it hooked me on outliners for life. I once used it to write the first draft of an entire book.

But Dave is also one of the wise Elders of our online world. He’s a tireless campaigner for the open Web — which is why every word he’s ever written is available, for free, on his blog — even if has also been published inside some paywalled or corporate silo. I’ve followed his example: I’ve written a lot of stuff that has appeared behind paywalls and other enclosed spaces (like Substack), but it’s always also been available on Memex, hosted on my own server.

He is also a fierce critic of mainstream media, which he believes has still not properly adjusted to the possibilities of a networked world.

On Saturday, like everyone else, he was musing about Musk buying Twitter:

People often ask if when I talk about having our own TWTRs that means Mastodon. It could, if that’s your thing. But the center of this space will host all kinds of apps. Just like vehicles with wheels aren’t all Chevies and Hondas. Some are buses, trucks, Teslas or eBikes. There will be a lot of variety in the middle.

There was a time when all computers were basically the same. Big honkers in air conditioned rooms with raised floors. You had to have a degree to run one.

Then we got personal computers. Steve Jobs had a term for this. He called them “fractional horsepower” computers, to compare it to large mainframes.

I loved the idea of the Mac because it made the power of the mainframe usable by independent and free individuals. People who had ideas, and wanted to organize and share them…

ps: If you’re interested in Mastodon, see here.

My commonplace booklet

Joe Biden’s speech to the annual White House Correspondents dinner

Transcript is here. Some good jokes too. For example in the opening salvo:

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you, Steve, for that introduction. And a special thanks to the 42 percent of you who actually applauded. (Laughter.)

I’m really excited to be here tonight with the only group of Americans with a lower approval rating than I have. (Laughter.) That’s hard to say after what we just saw. (Laughter.)

This is the first time a President attended this dinner in six years. (Applause.) It’s understandable. We had a horrible plague followed by two years of COVID. (Laughter and applause.)

Just imagine if my predecessor came to this dinner this year. Now, that would really have been a real coup if that occurred. (Laughter.) A little tough, huh? (Laughter.)

But I’m honored to be here at such an event with so much history…

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