Friday 30 September, 2022

Britain’s new economic policy

Yours for only £21.24. Note the co-authors.

The Washington Post observed yesterday that the book

argues that Britain had become a “bloated state” with “high taxes” and “excessive regulation” and that only by taking an aggressively free-market, libertarian stance would shake the country into powerful economic growth. In this view, Britain looks particularly terrible when compared with fast-growing Asian economies.

“Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music,” the book wrote.

The authors of Britannia Unchained were, at the time, accused of chasing headlines. But as the Financial Times noted this week, Kwarteng’s other work on economic history shows an embedded distrust of financial markets and bankers that is newly relevant.

His doctoral thesis — focused on the less-than-headline-grabbing topic of William III’s decision to reissue England’s coinage in 1695-96 — argued that “the interest of the goldsmith and banker was anything but inimical to the wider good of the nation.”

Few would argue against the idea that Britain’s economy needs some sort of shake-up. The economy has slumped since the financial crash of 14 years ago, with a mean growth rate of just 1 percent for the years since compared with 2.7 percent between 1948 and 2008.

Kwarteng’s mini-budget appears to be creating a kind of supply-side economics shock therapy for Britain. The inspiration may come from America and, in particular, the U.S. counterpart to the British chancellor’s idol, Margaret Thatcher: President Reagan, who was said to be “starving the beast” when cutting back on state funding by diminishing government income.

My friend the social historian David Vincent (Whom God Preserve) noticed that the two serious actors in this drama — the Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank of England — both wrote PhD dissertations in economic history as graduate students at Cambridge. He also pointed me to Amelia Gentleman’s review of Kwarteng’s rather good book on the British Empire, about which he seems commendably detached — possibly because his family hails from a former colony of said empire and are therefore inoculated against the Imperial Afterglow Syndrome that afflicts Boris Johnson & Co.

Kwarteng’s sharpest criticism of empire, writes Gentleman,

is of the “anarchic individualism” that ran through it. “The reliance on individual administrators to conceive and execute policy with very little strategic direction from London often led to contradictory and self-defeating policies, which in turn brought disaster to millions,” he writes. There are moments where you wonder if the criticism of the inconsistent, haphazard way that Britain’s imperial rule was imposed might equally be applied to the Conservative party’s reshuffle-heavy rule of the UK over the last decade.

You do indeed wonder.

Quote of the Day

”Malcolm Muggeridge, a garden gnome expelled from Eden, has come to rest as a gargoyle brooding over a derelict cathedral.”

  • Kenneth Tynan

It’s quite an acute observation about St Mugg, who ended his days as a devout Catholic. But he was right about Stalin’s Russia, when he was a journalist in Moscow in the 1930s and many lefties and British intellectuals were unwilling to criticise Uncle Joe.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Il mio tesoro | Don Giovanni | John Dickie


One of my favourite arias. James Joyce’s friend John McCormack used to sing it beautifully.

Long Read of the Day

Project Fear 3.0 – or the gatekeepers and the Tories

Fine blog post by Adam Tooze, who is as pissed off as I am about the current liberal astonishment at the depths to which Truss & Co will stoop. What did these commentators expect from such people? They are doing exactly what they said they would do — shrinking the state until — as a famous US reactionary once put it — they could drown it in a bucket.

Tooze is on song about this. Sample:

The important point is that in diagnosing your enemy the point is not to correct their behavior. The point is to defeat them.

You are engaged not in a pedagogic exercise, but in reconnaissance. The point is to expose who they are and what they are up to. The point is to help those of us who are opposed to them to be clearer in our judgements and tactics.

It is quite a different thing to write about the Truss government and the mess it is making as though you imagine that your criticism will make a difference, as though the aim of the game is persuasion and improvement. What I wonder do all these highly esteemed sources of economic expertise imagine their exchanges with Downing Street to be about? Who do they think they are talking to? Who, in fact, would imagine sitting down with these people to talk at all? How could you keep a straight face?

This a government of Tory hardliners trying to define the third iteration of post-Brexit Tory identity – May, Johnson, Truss. This is a government that thinks nothing of putting the Northern Irish agreement in play. When they gave away 45 billion to those on top incomes, they were under no illusions. They knew what they were doing. They know it will increase inequality. No harm in that as far as Truss is concerned. Will this drive interest rates up? Of course it will. They appear to relish that too.

So what, given who Truss, Kwarteng et al are, what is the purpose of the drumbeat of opprobrium?

Do read the whole thing.


The Karl Popper quotation in yesterday’s edition included a ridiculous typo. It should have read:

”The belief that one can start with pure observations alone, without anything in the nature of a theory, is absurd.”

Thanks to Andrew Arends for tactfully pointing it out. And apologies to any Popperians out there who were annoyed by it.

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Thursday 29 September, 2022


Halfway through our walk.

Quote of the Day

”The belief that one can start with ours observations alone, without anything in the nature of a theory, is absurd.”

  • Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations

I’ve always found this to be a profound insight, but I have a vague recollection that he also expressed it more succinctly somewhere as “All observation is drenched in theory.”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Oscar Peterson | C Jam Blues


Long Read of the Day

The Lost Ecological Paradise of the English Fenlands

Lovely essay by Annie Proulx on what was lost when Vermeulen & Co drained the fens.

I wanted to know how humans interacted with wetlands in the past and the present. The old image of an infinitely complex “web of life” holding the world together is still serviceable, but the web’s self-healing gossamer has been torn by humans in so many places it no longer functions. I found the story of the English fens was a story of the tearing-apart.

Worth your time, especially if you like the Fens.

Trump’s Heartless QAnon Embrace

Extraordinary NYT column by Michelle Goldberg about how Trump is now exploiting Qanon believers.

The title of the Reddit post this month seemed almost too shocking to be true: “My Qdad snapped and killed my family this morning.”

The post — by Rebecca Lanis, a 21-year-old from Michigan — was on a forum dedicated to people who’ve lost loved ones to QAnon, the sprawling conspiracy cult that imagines that Donald Trump is waging a secret war against blood-drinking pedophiles who run Hollywood and the Democratic Party. As The Detroit News would soon report, Lanis’s father, 53-year-old Igor Lanis, had indeed gone on a murderous rampage.

Lanis described how her father had fallen down the QAnon rabbit hole after the 2020 election. He wasn’t violent, however, until the morning of Sept. 11, when he shot her mother, her sister and their dog, and was then killed in a shootout with the police. Lanis’s sister, despite being shot in the back and legs, survived. Her mother and the dog did not…

The era when conspiracy theories were harmless has long gone.

Edward Snowden is granted Russian citizenship

From The Register

Snowden has been living in Russia since 2013 when the US charged him with espionage and he flew from Hong Kong to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport with the help of WikiLeaks and ended up stranded in Russia with a canceled passport. He was granted asylum in Russia and temporary residency until October 2020, when he became a permanent resident. He and his wife Lindsay reportedly applied for citizenship the following month.

My commonplace booklet

It’s not often that one comes across an ad that strikes a chord — but this Heineken one — which is about polarisation but of course also about beer — fits the bill. It’s 4 minutes 25 seconds long.

Thanks to Charles Arthur for spotting it.

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Wednesday 28 September, 2022

Quote of the Day

”I’d do anything for caviar and probably did.”

  • Henry Kissinger — on visiting Moscow.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mendelssohn | Overture ‘The Hebrides’ | LSO & John Eliot Gardiner


Long Read of the Day

Gareth Evans — philosophy’s lost prodigy

Nice memoir by Lincoln Allison in Engelsberg Ideas. Reading it, I was reminded of Keynes’s memoir of Frank Ramsey (another genius who tied tragically young) in his Essays in Biography.

University College, Oxford, October 1964: the economics fellow, David Stout, has assembled the twelve freshmen PPE students for their first class. This is an unusual procedure as lectures and individual tutorials are the normal means of teaching, but Stout is preoccupied with persuading any government and political party that will listen of the virtues of something called ‘value added tax’ and wants to meet all the students together. I am one of them and I have done none of the preparation for this class, being entirely preoccupied with such matters as rugby and new friends, but I am hoping that my ‘A’ and ‘S’ level economics from fifteen months earlier will enable me to get by. Actually, there are only eleven of us. Enter the twelfth to the traditional sarcastic remark from the tutor. The new arrival has long black hair and a black beard and wears a black scholar’s gown. With his hooked nose and rimless spectacles he seems like an edgy and hyperactive raven. He is carrying all six of the books recommended for the class which he deposits unceremoniously on the floor. ‘So this is economics?’ he demands and David Stout replies that these books are about welfare economics which is regarded by many as the foundation of the subject. ‘It’s based on a mistake,’ snaps the raven and the rest of the class is devoted to the tutor defending his subject from aggressive interrogation. It is increasingly obvious that the raven is at least the intellectual equal of the tutor…

Do read on.

Books, etc.

Just the Mann

My wife and I recently finished Colm Tóibín’s fictionalised biography of Thomas Mann. I was less impressed by it than the folks who eulogised it on its dust-jacket. You know the kind of guff — “a remarkable achievement” (John Banville); “a moving and intimate portrait by one master of another” (Anna Funder); “a great imaginative achievement — immensely readable, erudite, worldly and knowing” (Richard Ford); “no living novelist dramatises artistic creation as profoundly, as luminously, as Colm Tóibín, or conveys so well the entanglement of imagination and desire” (Garth Greenwell).

Contd. p.94, as they say in Private Eye.

I was surprised to be so disappointed by it because I had really admired The Master, Tóibín’s fictionalised biography of Henry James. But perhaps the reason is that Thomas Mann was a less interesting character than dear old Henry. Of course had, perforce, an interesting life because of circumstances beyond his control (first Hitler and, later, Joe McCarthy), but in this imaginary he comes across as a solipsistic bore. The really interesting character in the book turns out to be his remarkable wife, Katia — and, as chance has it, she actually wrote a memoir, so maybe that should be next on our list.

My commonplace booklet

Catspeak on Trump’s assertion that he can declassify documents at will.

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Tuesday 27 September, 2022


The Old Man of Coniston, the famous Lakeland peak, seen on Saturday from John Ruskin’s estate at Brentwood on the other side of the lake.

The heroines and heroes of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons christened it Katchenchunga. Nowadays, it frequently crops up in crossword clues.

Quote of the Day

”Goodby, Mr Zanuck. It certainly has been a pleasure working for 16th Century Fox.”

  • Jean Renoir, on leaving Hollywood,

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison | Have I Told You Lately


Long Read of the Day

To the Depths and Back

Christopher Sandford’s utterly compelling review in The Hedgehog Review of Kevin Birmingham’s biography of Dostoevsky. Here’s how it opens…

Shortly after dawn on the morning of Saturday, December 22, 1849, the twenty-eight-year-old Dostoevsky stood on a black-draped scaffold erected on the drilling ground at Semyonovsky Square in his native St. Petersburg, and prepared to die at the hands of a firing squad. It was a cold, overcast, Russian winter day, with flakes of snow falling at the condemned man’s feet. Dostoevsky was bound to a stake between two other men, a biblical trinity he would have recognized, with nine more prisoners awaiting their turn in the wings. All of them had been convicted of what the presiding court called a “conspiracy of ideas” to undermine the tsarist regime. On the frozen ground behind the scaffold stood a row of carts laden with twelve empty coffins.

A black-robed priest mounted the scaffold and faced the first group of prisoners at the stake. He quoted Romans 6: “The wages of sin is death.” Yet by acknowledging their sins, the condemned could still hope to inherit eternal life. All three of the bound men silently kissed the priest’s cross when it was offered to them. It’s said that Dostoevsky remained calm, remarking to the man next to him on the scaffold that he had recently read Le dernier jour d’un condamné, Victor Hugo’s novel about a criminal facing the guillotine who believes that in the end Christ’s law will replace that of man. Perhaps it was one of those timeless moments, when eternity intrudes into the world and we catch a glimpse of what the life of man was meant to be and, by the grace of God, may yet be.

There was a drumroll. No fewer than forty-five soldiers, in three rows of fifteen, shuffled into position in front of the scaffold, their rifles cocked…

I was hooked right to the end.

My commonplace booklet

The problem with rowing your own boat…

… is that you can’t see where you’re going.

But now there’a a solution. And Quentin saw it at the Southampton Boat Show.

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Monday 26 September, 2022

The Valley

The head of the Langdale Valley, Friday.

Quote of the Day

“A writer’s ambition should be to trade a hundred contemporary readers for ten readers in ten years’ time and for one reader in a hundred years.”

  • Arthur Koestler, 1951, in a New York Times book review.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Eric Clapton | Autumn Leaves


Seems appropriate at the end of a lovely seasonal break.

Long Read of the Day

 Princeton University is the world’s first Perpetual Motion Machine

I’ve long been sceptical of the esteem enjoyed by Ivy League universities, and for years have regularly referred to Harvard as “a hedge fund with a nice university attached”. But it turns out that Harvard is no longer the leading player in this league. A shocked Malcolm Gladwell (he of the $50k lecture fee) has discovered that Princeton is now the leading practitioner in the education racket with Harvard coming in a poor second.

Princeton University has an endowment of $37.7 billion. Over the past 20 years, the average annual return for the endowment has been 11.2 percent. Let us give Princeton the benefit of the doubt and assume that at least some of that was luck and maybe unsustainable, and that a more reasonable prediction going forward would be that Princeton can average a return on its investments of an even 10 percent a year. That puts Princeton’s endowment return next year at roughly $3.77 billion.

Now—what is Princeton’s annual operating budget? $1.86 billion. The arithmetic here is not hard. $3.77 billion in investment income minus $1.86 billion in operating expenses leaves you with $1.91 billion.

Princeton could let in every student for free. The university administrators could tell the U.S. government and all of its funding agencies, “It’s cool. We got this.”

They could take out the cash registers in the cafeteria, hand out free parking to all visitors, give away Princeton sweatshirts on Nassau Street, and fire their entire accounts receivable staff and their entire fundraising staff tomorrow. They could say to every one of the hardworking professors on their staff: “You never have to spend even a second writing a grant proposal again.” Free at last! Free at last!

So the question becomes: will Princeton do this? Is the Pope a Muslim?

Read it and wonder. What is the point of these Ivy League outfits? Or, at the very least, why do they still charge exorbitant tuition fees? Harvard’s tuition fee this year is $52,659.

Adobe can’t Photoshop out the fact its $20bn Figma deal is a naked land grab

Yesterday’s Observer column:

So why would Adobe want to lay out such a mountain of cash to acquire this minnow? The answer is that its leaders are thinking ahead and they see a strategic threat in the making. In the networked world, more and more work is being done by geographically dispersed teams who have to collaborate online. And in that context, project management and the creation of workflows that are efficient, user-friendly and agile is moving centre stage. As James Carville, Bill Clinton’s strategist, might have said: “It’s the workflow, stupid!”

And Figma, to all intents and purposes, already owns that workflow space, whereas Adobe only makes tools that people use…

Read on

My commonplace booklet

Outside a village shop in the Lake District.

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Friday 23 September, 2022

Dish of the Day: Humble Pie

The caption on yesterday’s photograph from our window in the Lake District ended with the sentence “That’s Lake Windermere in the distance”.

This prompted a lovely note from James Cridland.

As my late grandmother would have sharply reminded you, the “mere” in Windermere means lake, and therefore the body of water is Windermere: never “Lake Windermere”. She lived close by for most of her life, after a career that included code-breaking in the war (both in Bletchley Park and Egypt). Every morning was spent in her conservatory, watching the river in Staveley go by, doing the cryptic crossword from The Times. The other thing she was keen on was telling people off if they said they were going to “ring up for a chat”. She, correctly, pointed out that the “up” was superfluous.

I have dispatched an ethereal apology to the lady in question, and ordered up a dish of the blogger’s customary meal.

Quote of the Day

“I work for a government I despise for ends I think criminal.”

  • John Maynard Keynes, 1917, in a letter to Duncan Grant

I wonder how many current Treasury officials think the same about the current Administration.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Eric Clapton and B.B. King | Worried Life Blues


Long Read of the Day

 How Memes Led to an Insurrection

An interesting introduction to the role that memes now play in our political and democratic life. An excerpt from a new book by Joan Donovan, Emily Dreyfuss, and Brian Friedberg.

“We’re storming the Capitol! It’s a revolution!” a woman who identified herself only as Elizabeth from Knoxville, Tennessee, told a reporter outside the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. She had a blue Trump flag slung across her neck like a cape. Police had just maced her in the face, she recounted through tears.

As soon as this video of Elizabeth hit Twitter, it went viral. The insurrection she’d taken part in, a very real and coordinated attempt to thwart the democratic process, was also a surreal spectacle—millions watched the chaos unfold in real time on broadcast TV and on social media—and Elizabeth was one of the minor characters. On Twitter and TikTok, she became fodder for internet jokes. People remixed the video with Auto-Tune. Sleuths spun conspiracy theories: Maybe Elizabeth was a liar who hadn’t really been maced. Maybe the insurrection was a hoax. Content was crafted to fit different political orientations and different platforms, and to delight or offend different audiences.

Elizabeth had been ‘memed’. And one of the significant things about Trump was that he was the first major US politician with an instinctive understanding of how to coin and exploit memes. After all #StopTheSteal was a memetic slogan. And so, of course, was #MeToo.

But social media did not create culture wars. Instead, we’ve found, social media did to culture wars what spinach did to Popeye—it juiced them up. Suddenly you didn’t need a radio show to get your idea to millions of people. You just needed a viral tweet, or to figure out the desires of a Facebook algorithm programmed to boost outrageous and emotionally stirring content. With the scale and ease of social media, culture warriors from across the country and globe were able to find one another and gather in communal spaces where their ideas could grow.

Great essay. Worth your time.

My commonplace booklet

From Quentin’s blog.

“If counterclockwisely isn’t a word”, he writes, “I think it should be”.

Me too.

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Thursday 22 September, 2022

The view from our window

We’re in the Lake District for a break. That’s Windermere in the distance.

More on that state funeral…

Perceptive and illuminating summing-up on the invaluable Tortoise Media morning newsletter (You have to become a member to receive it. IMO it’s well worth it.)

Planning.It was good and it paid off. The Duke of Norfolk spent 20 years on it. By the end 280 broadcasters, senior military and clergy were attending his meetings, which went on for hours. Sky positioned 275 cameras in Westminster Abbey and along the processional routes. The BBC had 213 more. There were no bad angles. Nothing went wrong, and no wonder: money was no object. Much more than the £8.4 million spent on the Queen Mother’s funeral will have been spent on her daughter’s, and whatever the total it will be seen as a good investment because ceremony is part of the British brand.

PR and self-censorship. In the past fortnight’s praise of duty and service there has been scarcely a murmur about untaxed income, cash for honours, suitcases of Qatari money or the eight-figure sum paid with the late Queen’s help to settle her son’s child sex abuse case. (Also file under: Manners. De mortuis nil nisi bonum.)

Covid. Commemoration of a 70-year reign and a 96-year life was always going to prod people to reflect on their own lives, loves, losses and mortality – but especially so after 180,000 deaths in varying degrees of lockdown.

Past. Forget for a moment holy oils and Arthurian legend, which will return to royal commentary with next year’s coronation. World War Two was the foundation of the Queen’s legitimacy. She and her parents were intimately associated with the war effort, eclipsing memories of the Abdication Crisis and rumours of Nazi sympathies in high places; forging the mantra of duty that served her (and, royalists say, her country) so well; and ultimately enabling her family to claim a stature it could never have claimed anywhere else in complicated northern Europe. It helped that Britain was on the winning side.

Quote of the Day

“The nice thing about being a celebrity is that when you bore people, they think that it’s their fault.”

  • Henry Kissinger

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

J.S. Bach | Prelude (Suite No. 1 for solo cello) | YoYo Ma


Long Read of the Day

What’s Breaking Democracy?

Terrific review essay on Project Syndicate by Bill Janeway on Gary Gerstle’s The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order and Helen Thompson’s Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century.

This is an enlightening essay. I can say that because I’ve read both books, and Bill found things in them that I had missed. This is how he opens the subject…

My colleagues Gary Gerstle and Helen Thompson share an academic home at the University of Cambridge, and their new books share a common purpose: how to understand the dysfunctionality that has beset Western democracies. They explore that question in very different but complementary ways, offering deep insights into the disequilibrium dynamics of democratic capitalism. When read together, one sees clearly how the dissolution of Gerstle’s Neoliberal Order has stoked the disorder that Thompson analyzes.

The contrast between the two books owes much to the authors’ backgrounds. Gerstle, a historian of political ideas, ideologies, and cultures, writes from an American perspective. In The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order: America and the World in the Free Market Era, he tracks how initially radical political programs become institutionalized as all-encompassing “orders” when the opposition accepts their terms. Thus, the New Deal Order was established when the Republican Eisenhower administration chose not to try to repeal the Democratic Roosevelt administration’s central institutional reforms.

Thompson’s perspective is Eurasian, and her account … is driven by a granular analysis of the geopolitics of energy. Once oil began to supplant coal at the start of the twentieth century, the political economy of energy became international, and securing access to oil became a high priority for most countries. Thompson focuses presciently on Germany, which chose to become existentially dependent on Soviet and then Russian oil and gas. Strikingly, her book was completed just prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine…

Worth your time.

My commonplace booklet

Why blog?

Advice from Robin Rendle:

Ignore the analytics and the retweets though. There will be lonely, barren years of no one looking at your work. There will be blog posts that you adore that no one reads and there’ll be blog posts you spit out in ten minutes that take the internet by storm. How do you get started though? Well, screw the research! A blog post can anything, a half-thought like this one or a grandiose essay with a million footnotes. It can look like anything, too: you can have a simple HTML-only website or you can spend a month on the typography, getting every letter-spaced part of it just right.

There are no rules to blogging except this one: always self-host your website because your URL, your own private domain, is the most valuable thing you can own. Your career will thank you for it later and no-one can take it away. But don’t wait up for success to come, it’s going to be a slog—there will be years before you see any benefit. But slowly, with enough momentum behind it, your blog will show you the world: there will be distant new friends, new enemies, whole continents might open up and welcome themselves to you.

Or maybe they won’t. But you’ll never know unless you write that half-assed thing that’s in your head right now…

I agree wholeheartedly with his rule about self-hosting. It’s why this blog is also always available on my own site — — and it will still be there even if the proprietors of Substack and I fall out.

Thanks to Om Malik (Whom God Preserve) for the link.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not [subscribe]? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Wednesday 21 September, 2022

Quote of the Day

”In this country, it is rare for anyone, let alone a publisher, to take writers seriously.”

  • Anthony Powell in the Daily Telegraph, 1979

Despite that, Powell managed to sell quite a lot of books. I’ve never fully understood his charm, but perhaps that’s because I was not brought up as an English public schoolboy.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Four reels: Father Kelly’s; Reconciliation; Mountain Road; MacArthur Road


A hyper-energetic performance at Glucksman Ireland House at New York University. Caitlin Warbelow, Patrick Mangan, and Troy MacGillivray on fiddles with Johnny Cuomo and Jake Charron on guitars.

Long Read of the Day

What Makes Brain Fog So Unforgiving?

I’ve been thinking for two years that so-called ‘Long Covid’ is one of the most worrying — and under-discussed — consequences of the pandemic. Particularly terrifying is the “brain fog” which afflicts many sufferers. This startling essay by Ed Yong is the best thing I’ve read about it to date.

Here’s how it opens…

On March 25, 2020, Hannah Davis was texting with two friends when she realized that she couldn’t understand one of their messages. In hindsight, that was the first sign that she had COVID-19. It was also her first experience with the phenomenon known as “brain fog,” and the moment when her old life contracted into her current one. She once worked in artificial intelligence and analyzed complex systems without hesitation, but now “runs into a mental wall” when faced with tasks as simple as filling out forms. Her memory, once vivid, feels frayed and fleeting. Former mundanities—buying food, making meals, cleaning up—can be agonizingly difficult. Her inner world—what she calls “the extras of thinking, like daydreaming, making plans, imagining”—is gone. The fog “is so encompassing,” she told me, “it affects every area of my life.” For more than 900 days, while other long-COVID symptoms have waxed and waned, her brain fog has never really lifted…

Worth your time.

Books, etc.

Roy Foster on Seamus Heaney

Roy Foster is an eminent Irish historian — and an accomplished biographer (his two-volume biography of W.B. Yeats is terrific); and Seamus Heaney was a great Irish poet and a Nobel laureate.

This book is a sensitive exploration of Heaney’s poetic journey, written by a scholar who both understands the cultural context in which the poet evolved and loves his work. “I remember”, he writes in the Preface,

”where I was sitting when I read ’North’ in 1975 and felt that authentic sensation of the hairs standing up on my head. Nearly twenty years later, I read ‘At The Well-head’ in the New Yorker, tore it out, and pinned it to the noticeboard in my Oxford study; slightly yellowed by enduringly magical, it was still there when I moved out after another twenty-odd years. And reading ‘Album’ in his last collection, the attempts to embrace a lost father resonated to profoundly that my eyes filled with tears.”

It’s a truly wonderful book. I have a friend who also loves Heaney’s poetry, and had the great idea of reading it alongside the poems themselves. That’s really what it deserves.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Tuesday 20 September, 2022

Floral tribute

Seen on a walk the other day. 

Quote of the Day

”Every scientific statement must remain tentative for ever.

  • Karl Popper in Logik der Forschung, 1934

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

J.S. Bach | Cantata Ich habe genung BWV 82 | Mortensen | Netherlands Bach Society


What made me think of it after watching the Queen’s funeral was one of the programme notes: “Death was seen as a deliverance from the earthly vale of tears, and as a chance to unite with your creator. So rather than being heart-rending, the music exudes a subdued melancholy.”

It was recorded for the ‘All of Bach’ project on February 1st 2014 in the Geertekerk in Utrecht.

Long Read of the Day

Form, function, and the giant gulf between drawing a picture and understanding the world

A characteristically sharp essay by Gary Marcus asking awkward questions about the sensation du jour — machine-learning systems that can generate interesting graphics in response to a text prompt. They are clearly brilliant at drawing images. But how well do they understand the world?

In assessing progress towards general intelligence, the critical question should be, how much do systems like Dall-E, Imagen, Midjourney, and Stable Diffusion really understand the world, such that they can reason on and act on that knowledge? When thinking about how they fit into AI, both narrow and broad, here are three questions you could ask:

  1. Can the image synthesis systems generate high quality images?

  2. Can they correlate their linguistic input with the images they produce?

  3. Do they understand the world that underlies the images they represent?

Seems to me that the answer to #3 is obvious: no.

Worth reading, though.

Remembering Philip

My notes yesterday about the Queen and her funeral led to some lovely emails from readers. David Vincent, the social historian (a draft of whose forthcoming book on the pandemic I am currently reading), wrote with a revealing account of a meeting with the late Queen’s husband:

The Queen and Philip paid a state visit to Keele around 2000. As Deputy Vice Chancellor I was allocated the deputy monarch to take around the campus. We arrived back in the main hall in which were assembled a hundred of the great and the good of North Staffordshire, standing around in groups of ten. We were meant to meet up with the Queen, but we had arrived first. Philip did not want to wait for her. So I took him through the hall, introducing him to each person – ‘This is Mr Blenkinsop of Allied Ball Bearings’ – with the aid of a crib sheet. When we arrived at the end, the Queen appeared, and Philip said he would take her round. I still had the crib sheet. Without it, he introduced her to each guest in turn, getting their name faultlessly correct. Back at the beginning, awestruck, I said to Philip (who was already about seventy), ‘how did you do that?’ ‘It’s the ties’ he said. ‘I remember each tie, and then the name of its wearer.’ I thought then, as I think now, that you can forget all the stuff about service and moral stature. Those two were just consummate professionals, really good at a really difficult job.

And Sheila Hayman reminded me of “Dining with a prince could leave you hungry for more”, a lovely piece she wrote for the Guardian in 2017 about her mother’s experience of lunch with Philip at Buck House.

Her mathematics weren’t as arcane as my dad’s, but her skills in running committees were second to none, and in addition to bludgeoning the Soviet Union into extending their olympiad to the entire world, she’d become president of the London Mathematical Society, of which the prince was patron. The lunch was her reward, but all she saw was an irritating requirement to obtain a hat.

Quakers have always had trouble with the symbolism of hats; in George Fox’s day they refused to take them off, and by now apparently having to put one on was an issue, especially when it involved the outlay of cash on something that would never be worn again. A week of mulling later, she dashed up to Peter Jones in her lunch-break, and came home triumphant, waving some offcuts of ribbon and lace, which she stitched together in 15 minutes before pinning it to her hair as she left.

Naturally, I was waiting by the front door when she got back, already planning my outfit for the first date with Prince Edward…

It’s worth reading just for the denouement!

My commonplace booklet

Carl Sagan’s Keynote Address on the threat of global warming — given in 1990. And here he is in 1985 testifying before Congress on climate change.

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Monday 19 September, 2022

Thought for the day (without the God stuff)

A few random thoughts sparked by events of the last few days.

  1. I saw the Queen only once in person, quite by accident. It was on one Holocaust Memorial Day and I was on the train from Cambridge to King’s Cross. That particular train had originated in King’s Lynn and was non-stop from Cambridge to KX. I had work to do and wasn’t therefore paying much attention to what was going on around me, though I did notice a couple of police officers at the end of our carriage and vaguely wondered what they were doing there. But I had a deadline to meet, opened my laptop and didn’t look up until we pulled into King’s Cross. When I alighted from the train I noticed that there was a bit of activity at the end of the platform, so stood to one side looking up and down. And then saw a familiar figure walking alone down the platform — the Queen, small, perfectly coiffed and quietly assured, immaculately dressed and carrying a handbag the way ladies did in the 1950s. And a few yards behind her the Duke of Edinburgh, loping languidly along. They had come down from Sandringham, having embarked at King’s Lynn and were doubtless on their way to some ceremony or other. Using the ‘ordinary’ train was, I think, a response to some earlier controversy about the cost of the Royal Train.
  2. What struck me was that she was what my mother would have described as “perfectly turned out”. For two decades, said a fashion expert, Lauren Indvik, in the FT, “she almost invariably appeared in a single-breasted collarless coat in a bright, solid hue.”
  3. I met the Duke once, when he was Chancellor of the University of Cambridge and came on a visit to my college. Lots of Fellows were asked to turn up to meet him and I duly obliged. The thing I noticed was the efficient way he ‘worked the room’. He spoke to nearly everybody in a conscientious but slightly detached way. As he talked, I remembered an old story (or was it a joke?) that in the 1960s he usually asked the same question every time he was obliged to visit or open an industrial plant: “how much of this equipment is made in Britain?” Since I don’t make anything other than trouble for the editors and lawyers of the Observer, I was clearly of no interest to him.
  4. Thinking of ‘working the room’, I once observed Bill Clinton doing it at a function in London that I attended. It was after he had stepped down from the presidency, and I was there because he had once written a personal reference for a Masters student I was supervising. Like the Duke, Clinton made sure he spoke to everyone present. The difference was that, for the brief moment that you had his attention, he seemed to be totally focussed on you.
  5. Earlier last week I was struck by a point Ethan Zuckerman made in his recent essay that media responses to events like the Queen’s death tend to go through three phases: the pre-ordained reactions, the obituaries written years before they needed to run, the reactions from world leaders and luminaries; then there’s a set of unanticipated reactions to the event, as people who weren’t booked years in advance take advantage of the event to promote narratives they feel are important, hooking an OpEd to the news hook, or using the historical moment to remind people of an underexplored chapter of history (more or less what I’m doing now); and then there’s a third wave, in which we debate whether or not speech in the second wave is acceptable in a democratic society.
  6. On this last point, it struck me that mainstream media got two things wrong. One: they underestimated the impact of the Queen’s passing on ‘ordinary’ people. YouGov reported last week that 44% of their respondents had admitted to crying or welling up in response to the Queen’s death. And two: their relentless narrative about how Charlie would be such a huge let-down after his mother’s sterling reign that it would eventually lead to hard questions being asked about the continuance of the monarchy.
  7. My reading of the last few days is that Charles has played a blinder, wrong-footing almost everyone — including, hilariously and deliciously, the DUP in Northern Ireland. He may turn out to be a more formidable operator than the media expected.
  8. Admittedly, he was helped by circumstances beyond his control. As a canny Scot was heard to observe in Edinburgh, his mother was smart to die in Scotland, thereby giving everyone north of the border a chance to display how attached they were to the monarch even if they are repelled by Johnson, Truss, Rees-Mogg & Co.
  9. For these and other reasons, I think that any ideas British republicans might have about the monarchy withering away as memories of Elizabeth II fade are pipe dreams. I say this in a detached frame of mind, because — as an Irish citizen and not a British subject — I don’t have a dog in this fight. I happen to think that monarchy infantilises the people over whom it ostensibly reigns, but it’s clear from the obsequies and commemorations that a lot of people hereabouts rather like being in that state. And who am I to deny them their pleasures.
  10. Finally, I have been deeply impressed by the way ‘The Firm’ (the in-house colloquialism for the royal family) choreographed every detail of the Queen’s death and burial for maximum impact. Those who run that show are darned good at it. And as I watched their preparations play out I was reminded of a story a friend of mine once told me. He had been briefly the editor of one of this country’s national newspapers, but had been abruptly sacked by his proprietor. One day, his lunch diary was booked solid for three months ahead. The next day all those entries had been cleared — except one — lunch with the Palace press officer and a colleague. When they met for lunch, my friend told them what had happened to his diary, and asked him why they, alone, had still wanted to take him to lunch. “Well”, one of them replied, “one never knows when you might come in useful”. That sums it up nicely. And I’m sure the new boss of The Firm understands it perfectly.

Quote of the Day

”Where men are forbidden to honour a king, they honour millionaires, athletes, or film stars instead; even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.”

  • C.S. Lewis

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Cillian Vallely & Alan Murray | The Lark in the Morning


Long Read of the Day

An Icon, Not An Idol

Andrew Sullivan’s summing up of Elizabeth II. Best one I’ve read. Sample:

Whatever else happened to the other royals, she stayed the same. And whatever else happened in Britain — from the end of Empire to Brexit — she stayed the same. This is an achievement of nearly inhuman proportions, requiring discipline beyond most mortals. Think of a year, 1992, in which one son, Andrew, divorced, a daughter-in-law, Sarah Ferguson was seen cavorting nude in the tabloids, a daughter, Anne, separated, another son’s famously failed marriage, Charles’, dominated the headlines, and your house burns down. Here is how Her Majesty “vented”:

1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an ‘Annus Horribilis.’

Dry, understated, with the only vivid phrase ascribed to a correspondent. Flawless.

Great stuff. Do read it.

So how come Charlie is King?

The Economist explains:

The legal basis for succession stretches back to the 17th century and James II, the last Roman Catholic king of England. When Protestant bishops recoiled and invited William of Orange to invade, James fled to France. The throne went to his daughter Mary, a Protestant who had married William, and Parliament passed two acts: the Bill of Rights of 1689 and the Act of Settlement of 1701. These established that the monarch rules with the consent of Parliament, and set out numerous conditions that a successor must meet. A British monarch needs to be a descendant of Princess Sophia (the nearest Protestant heir to William of Orange, who became William III), and in communion with the Church of England. Until 2013, when Parliament passed a new Succession to the Crown Act, younger male heirs would jump ahead of their older sisters in line to the throne (Spain and Monaco’s royal families still use this male primogeniture), and anyone married to a Catholic was banned, even a dyed-in-the-wool Anglican.

Charles ticks all the boxes.

That’s what’s so nice about ‘Global Britain’ — modern, forward-looking, cosmopolitan and so on.

Will today’s tech giants reach a century?

Yesterday’s Observer column:

question: what’s the average lifespan of an American company? Not any old company, mind, but one big enough to figure in Standard and Poor’s index of the 500 largest. The answer is surprising: the seven-year rolling average stands at 19.9 years. Way back in 1965 it was 32 years and the projections are that the downward trend will continue.

Remember that we’re talking averages here. The trend doesn’t mean that no companies currently extant will get to their first century. Some almost certainly will, as some have in the past: AT&T, for example, is 137 years old; General Electric is 130; Ford is 119; IBM is 111; and General Motors is 106. But most companies wither or are gobbled up long before they qualify for a telegram from the president.

With that thought in mind, let us examine the giant tech corporations that now straddle the globe and overawe our legislators. Apple is 46 years old; Amazon is 28; Microsoft is 47; Google is 24; Meta (née Facebook) just 18…

Read on

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