Elon Musk running Twitter? It’s like giving a delicate clock to a monkey

My OpEd piece from yesterday’s Observer

When the news broke that Elon Musk had finally been obliged to buy Twitter, the company he had tried – for months – to get out of purchasing, it reminded many observers of the 1979 commercial for Remington shavers in which the corporation’s president, Victor Kiam, proclaimed that he liked the electric razor so much “I bought the company.”

This was a mistake: Kiam merely liked the business he bought, whereas Musk is addicted to his company, in the sense that he cannot live without it. In acquiring Twitter, he has therefore forgotten the advice given to Tony Montana in Scarface: “Don’t get high on your own supply.”

In the immediate aftermath of the $44bn acquisition, though, he was as high as a kite. He showed up at the company’s San Francisco office carrying a kitchen sink. “Entering Twitter HQ – let that sink in!” he tweeted with a video of him in the lobby of the building…

Do read the whole thing.

Monday 31 October, 2022

The disappearance of childhood

Coming on this picture by Breugel, The Peasant’s Wedding, when rummaging through a collection of postcards yesterday made me dig out and re-read Neil Postman’s wonderful book, The Disappearance of Childhood, in which he argued that our conceptions of childhood are shaped by the dominant communications technology of our age.

In the oral culture of the pre-Gutenberg age, he says, childhood ended when a young person could competently communicate — which in the Middle Ages was judged to be seven years of age. This is why the Catholic Church declared seven to be the “age of reason” (and the age at which children like me growing up in 1950s Ireland made their First Communion). It’s also why, Postman argued, you never see children in Breugel paintings — you just see small people dressed in adult garb.

As J.H. Plumb put it,

“There was no separate world of childhood. Children shared the same games with adults, the same toys, the same fairy stories. They lived their lives together, never apart. The coarse village festival depicted by Breughel, showing men and women besotted with drink, groping for each other with unbridled lust, have children eating and drinking with the adults”.

Postman’s argument was that the rise of a print (i.e.literate) culture lengthened the conception of childhood (to the age of 12, perhaps), because it took longer to achieve communicative competency in such a culture. He went on, famously, to argue that the dominance of broadcast television from the mid-1950s had reduced the period of childhood to about three years, because above that age children could follow most of what what was being shown on US television!

Quote of the Day

”Never did I read such tosh.”

  • Virginia Woolf on Joyce’s Ulysses, in a letter to Lytton Strachey, 24 April, 1922

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The SteelDrivers | Blue Side Of The Mountain


Long Read of the Day

Into the muck

An interesting review essay by Noam Maggor on the French economist Thomas Piketty’s three books, triggered (I’d guess) by the recent publication of a collection of the his newspaper columns (which I never see because they’re in French). The piece provides a useful Cook’s tour of Piketty’s intellectual journey — starting with his pioneering, data-intensive study of the way in which the imbalance between wages and return on capital in the US and Europe over the last 200 years varied, and the presentation of his ‘iron law’ expressed as r > g, where r is the return on capital and g is the rate of economic growth. Missing from his chronicle, though, was any explanation for how this relationship came to be so solid.

In the end, Piketty came to the conclusion that the explanation lay not in economics but in with ideology, which is why the title of his sprawling second book, Capital and Ideology, gives the game away: inequality is a product of politics.

Or, as Maggor puts it:

Inequality did not simply emerge from economic reality, from technological change or the organization of production, nor from inherent disparities in individual talent, ability, or effort. Rather, inequality is determined through struggles that take place in the political sphere. These struggles dictate the terms of engagement in the market and, by extension, the market’s distributional outcomes. Why do some groups in society accumulate wealth over time? Not because they are more deserving in any objective-economic or natural-Darwinian sense – but because they were able to write the political rules in ways that have benefited them at the expense of others.

I haven’t read Capital and Ideology so found this essay useful. Hope you do too.

And while you’re at it, it’d be worth looking at 15 proposals on what to do about inequality by the late, lamented Tony Atkinson who was the great scholar of inequality.

LinkedIn has a fake profile problem – can it fix this blot on its CV?

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Once upon a time, when LinkedIn was the newest new thing, the standard response to anyone who proudly announced that they were “now on LinkedIn” was: “Oh! I didn’t know you were looking for a job.” But then, as always happens with digital stuff, what was once new became routine and, eventually, de rigueur.

I first realised this when my Cambridge college put on an event for students who aspired to become entrepreneurs and we organised a day during which each student could have a conversation with a local venture capitalist or tech investor. I sat in on some of the conversations and was astonished to find that one of the first questions the mentors asked was: “Are you on LinkedIn?” Students who were not were firmly advised to fix that, pronto.

Intrigued, I signed up and was invited to “make the most of your professional life”. I noted that by clicking on “Agree & Join” I was accepting not only the LinkedIn user agreement but also the company’s privacy policy and cookie policy, which indicated that this was just another surveillance capitalist masquerading as a service. But since I have always tried not to write about stuff that I don’t use, I clicked. I then found that I could do interesting things such as uploading my (non-existent) CV, providing details of my “career”, interests, etc, after which I sat back to see what happened.

What happened was, essentially, spam – in the form of unsolicited messages and invitations from LinkedIn…

Read on

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Friday 28 October, 2022

The Rat-Race as was

Paul Day’s stunning frieze of strap-hanging Tube travellers in the concourse of St Pancras station .

Quote of the Day

”There’ll always be an England, but who wants an England full of morons reading the Express?”

  • P.G. Wodehouse, in a letter to Denis Mackail, 1959

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jerry Garcia and his acoustic band | Swing Low, Sweet Chariot


Long Read of the Day

Learning Language is Harder Than You Think

Bill Janeway (Whom God Preserve) was worried that yesterday’s Long Read implied that I am unduly impressed by large machine-learning language models (GPT-3 and the like) and so recommends this splendid blog post by Gary Marcus as an antidote. Methinks he overestimates my infatuation with the models but his advice is good. Hence this Long Read which, like most things Gary Marcus writes, is worth one’s time.

Marcus’s argument is that the inference some of the AI crowd are drawing from the ability of machines like GPT-3 to compose perfectly grammatical sentences — that language acquisition is basically a process of memorising usages of language — is naive in the extreme.

Do read it.

A singular scientist

A lovely profile by Roger Highfield of the late, great James Lovelock, “a visionary whose greatest ideas were made possible by his unshakeable independence.”

As the planet lurches towards a climate emergency and its life support systems falter, the need for visionary thinkers with fresh insights and big ideas has never been more pressing. No wonder, then, that the world mourned the death earlier this year of James (‘Jim’) Lovelock, whose Gaia theory provided a new framework to think about nature, one that changed the way we regard our relationship with Earth.

Lovelock contributed to many fields, such as environmental science, cryobiology and exobiology, from thawing hamsters to building exquisitely sensitive detectors to find life on Mars or to sniff out ozone-destroying chemicals. But when he died on 26 July, the day of his 103rd birthday, the world lost what the Earth scientist Timothy Lenton in Science magazine called ‘a genius and iconoclast of immense intellectual courage’. Lovelock was a true original who was detached from the pressure to conform, one who had found a way to do research outside an institution, and who showed a disregard for disciplinary boundaries.

Driven by his scepticism about conventional wisdom, enabled by his skill as an inventor, and guided by visceral scientific insights, Lovelock made much of his independence. When asked about ‘thinking outside the box’ at a meeting in the University of Exeter to celebrate his centenary, he replied: ‘What box?’

My commonplace booklet

Building engines with Lego and compressed air

Wonderful video. 14 minutes of ingenious micro-engineering. Includes the occasional curious cat

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Thursday 27 October, 2022

Lunch break

This wonderful Van Gogh — Noon, rest from work — is in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. I thought I knew most of his paintings, but this one is new to me — and a revelation.

Thanks to Andrew Curry, who used it to illustrate a post on his splendid blog.

Quote of the Day

“We inherited a bunch of formulas from the Labour Party that shoved all the funding into deprived urban areas. That needed to be undone. I started the work of undoing that.”

  • Rishi Sunak to Tory activists, Tunbridge Wells, 5 August 2022.

Selected just in case anyone had the idea that the UK’s latest PM might be some kind of liberal. He is, after all, an alumnus of Goldman Sachs. In fact, the person he most reminds me of is George Osborne, another fanatical believer in ‘fiscal rectitude’ who made ordinary people pay for the bailing out of the banks in 2008.

En passant… I wonder if the conspiracists of the DUP have tumbled to the fact that ‘Rishi’ is an anagram of ‘Irish’.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

George Lewis “Burgundy Street Blues” with Mr. Acker Bilk & his Band (1965)


Should be played at everybody’s funeral.

Long Read of the Day

AI is changing scientists’ understanding of language learning – and raising questions about an innate grammar

Very interesting essay on what the large language models might be suggesting about how humans learn language.

New insights into language learning are coming from an unlikely source: artificial intelligence. A new breed of large AI language models can write newspaper articles, poetry and computer code and answer questions truthfully after being exposed to vast amounts of language input. And even more astonishingly, they all do it without the help of grammar.

Even if their choice of words is sometimes strange, nonsensical or contains racist, sexist and other harmful biases, one thing is very clear: the overwhelming majority of the output of these AI language models is grammatically correct. And yet, there are no grammar templates or rules hardwired into them – they rely on linguistic experience alone, messy as it may be…

Read on.

This is a challenge to conventional theories about language learning which postulate that language learners have a grammar template wired into their brains to help them overcome the limitations of their language experience. But large language models like GPT-3 can generate grammatical sentences — without knowing anything about the world — simply by being good at predicting what word comes next.

This essay brings to mind many earlier debates about the complex relationship between technology and scientific theory. Think about the telescope and astronomy, or the microscope and biology. Which is why it’s interesting.

Exit, Beijing style

Fascinating video of strange goings-on among the top brass of the Chinese Communist Party at the Congress in which the former Chinese President Hu Jintao was led out of the hall in a moment of unexpected drama during an otherwise fastidiously choreographed event.

The 79-year-old Hu was sitting beside Xi Jinping in when he was approached by a man in a suit and Covid mask who spoke to him and appeared to pull his right arm. With Xi looking on, the man then places both hands under Hu’s armpits and attempts to lift him out of his seat. Xi appears to talk to Hu before the man gets between them and tries to lift Hu again. Then another guy in a mask arrives and Hu eventually stands up, exchanges a few words with Xi and places a hand on the shoulder of Premier Li Keqiang, the China’s number two official, before he was led away. Weird.

My commonplace booklet

From Joe Dunne:

I think your quote this morning should read ‘Too many notes, dear Mozart, too many notes’ and it should be attributed to Emperor Joseph II. It was supposedly said after the first performance of Entfuhrung aus dem Serail on 16th July 1782 in Vienna. But never let the truth get in the way of a good story!

I won’t, Joe, I won’t.

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Wednesday 26 October, 2022


Seen on the side of a large building in London yesterday. I was reminded of a conversation between two women I overheard on a Dublin bus many years ago. They were discussing their ‘useless’ sons, both of whom were apparently incapable of getting their respective acts together. One woman complained bitterly about her boy Seamus who “just lies about all day watching TV”. Her companion said, brightly, “Why doesn’t he go into demolition? I hear there’s a great future in that.”

There is. All he needs to do is join the Tory party.

Quote of the Day

”Far too noisy, my dear Mozart. Far too many notes.”

  • Archduke Ferdinand, after the first performance of The Marriage of Figaro

See below…

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Renée Fleming | Porgi Amor | The Marriage of Figaro | Chicago, 1998 | Conducted by Zubin Mehta


Long Read of the Day

What Liz Truss Proved

Astute analysis by Francisco Toro pointing out that the Truss omnishambles in the UK and the Trump catastrophe in the US have a common root cause — the thoughtless ‘democratisation’ of the process of choosing political leaders in Democrat, Republican, Conservative and Labour parties.

Until 1998, Conservative members of parliament (MPs) had the job of choosing their party leader. That leader would become head of government if the party could command a majority in the House of Commons. After 1998, however, the rules changed: henceforth Conservative MPs would “thin the herd” of leadership hopefuls through successive rounds of balloting, then leave the choice between the final two to the members.

What could possibly go wrong?

A lot, it turns out. Political scientists know that weakening party officials can introduce all kinds of dysfunction into a democracy. Britain’s recent history bears that out in great detail…

Do read on.

Books, etc.

When I learned that Annie Ernaux had won this year’s Nobel Prize for literature my first, embarrassed, thought was that I’d never heard of her. On the other hand, that was hardly surprising since she wrote (and was published) only in French, a language I don’t read. But then I discovered that her 2008 magnum opus, The Years, had been translated and so I bought it and was, well, transfixed.

It’s a kind of autobiography, but one in which the author never once uses the pronoun “I”. It’s always “she” or “her”. Ernaux has effectively invented a new genre — an intimate portrait of an entire generation — hers — from 1940 to 2006. She calls it autosociobiography. And although she’s a bit older than me, her brisk, unsentimental, clear-eyed evocation of experiences, social and political change, marriage, children, middle-class ennui and all the other things that go to make up a life resonate with the contemporary reader. The book, one reviewer concluded, “is placed somewhere on the edges of literature, history, and sociology. It moves in fragments, from personal to common, from exceptional to ordinary and vice versa”.

Sometimes, it reads like an endless stream of consciousness — but a capacious consciousness that notices everything, from the absurdities of French presidents to the smell of menstrual blood, from the strange way rebellious adolescents morph into responsible young parents with mortgages and feelings of psychic imprisonment, and then into divorcees trying to explore new-found liberties while at the same time coming to terms with mortality. And so on.

As the stream flows, we find Ernaux continually returning to thinking about the book she feels impelled to write.

She would like to assemble these multiple images of herself , separate and discordant, thread them together with the story of her existence, starting with her birth during World War II up until the present day. Therefore, an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of a generation. Each time she begins, she meets the same obstacles: how to represent the passage of historical time, the changing of things, ideas, and manners, and the private life of this woman? How to make the fresco of forty-five years coincide with the search for a self outside of History, the self of suspended moments transformed into the poems she wrote at twenty (‘Solitude’, etc.)? Her main concern is the choice between ‘ I ’ and ‘ she ’.

In the end, she sure solved that problem. And this reader, for one, couldn’t put her book down.

But don’t take my word for it. There are interesting reviews here, here and here.

My commonplace booklet

Why to avoid ‘very’ in English grammar

Nice Opinion piece  in The Washington Post.

One must draw the line somewhere. I recommend striking out “actually” at every opportunity, unless it’s in a discussion of the movie “Love Actually,” in which case we might want to focus on the title’s confounding commalessness. Similarly, though I would never fault the supreme lyricist Johnny Mercer for the gorgeous “You’re much too much / And just too very very,” I am on constant alert for “very,” always looking for the chance to dispose of it. I’d encourage you to do the same.

For one thing, “very” is a fraud, masquerading as a strengthener when it merely wheedles and pleads. To call someone “brilliant” is to make a bold assertion; to call someone “very brilliant” attempts to persuade others of something one appears not to truly believe. Moreover, it’s a dull adverb and encourages duller adjectives. What, after all, is “very hungry” compared with “ravenous”? What’s “very sad” up against “despondent”? Who’d want to be “very strong” when you might be “herculean”?

It’s by Benjamin Dreyer, who is Random House’s executive managing editor and copy chief. He’s also the author of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style which, on closer inspection, it not at all as pompous as its title. In fact, it’s rather nicely written — though he would immediately put his blue pencil through that ‘rather’.

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Tuesday 25 October, 2022

Airstream on a stormy night

Eddington, near Cambridge

Quote of the Day

”Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the picture of man at twice its natural size.”

  • Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, one of my favourite books.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ralph McTell with John Williams | Streets Of London Live


Long Read of the Day

Why I think an invasion of Taiwan probably means WW3

If you’ve been paying attention to the translations of Xi Jinping’s address upon obtaining a ‘Putin extension’ of his leadership, then this long post by Noah Smith makes interesting — and sobering — reading. In it he applies elementary game-theory to think through the consequences of a move by Xi to ‘reunite’ the lost province of Taiwan with the motherland. What’s nice about the post from a public-sphere viewpoint is that it’s an attempt to go beyond the generalities in which an invasion of Taiwan is usually discussed in the media.

If you don’t have time to read it, then maybe his conclusion might persuade you to save it for later:

I expect that U.S. defense planners and their Chinese counterparts are gaming out far more sophisticated versions of these scenarios, with far better-informed probabilities. And I think those will still be subject to mistakes and miscalculations. In the past, humankind has often been very stupid about blundering into wars — Putin’s invasion of Ukraine being only the most recent example. So I think the people warning about a war over Taiwan are far from alarmist; there are lots of reasons to be worried here.

Yep. We’ve been on a holiday from history for decades. Putin’s invasion should have brought us back to earth. But it may be just a dry run for something worse.

Magical thinking and the modern ‘conservative’ party

From a marvellous column by Matthew d’Ancona of Tortoise Media about the strange hold that Boris Johnson has on the Tory party…

(It’s behind a members’ paywall but some access is possible for non-members.)

My point is that Johnsonism is not an exogenous force. It emerged from the very heart of contemporary Conservatism and it flared up again dangerously over the weekend. At 6:15pm on Friday, the Press Association reported that Sir James Duddridge, International Trade Minister and Johnson’s former PPS, had been in contact with him. “He’s going to fly back. He said, ‘I’m flying back Dudders. We are going to do this. I’m up for it’.”

And there it was: “Dudders”. The trademark Wodehouse idiom, the jolly japes ahoy, Duddridge and Nadine Dorries referring to the prospective return of “the boss”. What larks!

And – like it or not – adrenaline coursed suddenly through the body politic. Johnson’s fans were thrilled that he might take up the reins so quickly. Those who were not so in love with the idea were no less captivated, checking their social media feeds with unhealthy regularity to see if there were any updates on the return of Sauron to Middle Earth (flying economy, to be fair).

The essence of this is that Johnson had again pulled off the Trump trick — of inserting himself at the heart of things — the classic narcissist’s manoeuvre. And the mainstream media fell for it — again. Sigh.

D’Ancona also perceptively remembered Neil Postman’s prophetic book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, in this context. When, many years ago, I was a TV critic it shaped my thinking about the medium.

My commonplace booklet

The Financial Times is a great newspaper, one that I read every day online (I’m lucky enough to have a subscription because of where I work). On Saturday, though, I always buy the weekend edition in paper form. It comes with a preposterous colour magazine, previously called ‘How To Spend It’, containing glossy advertisements showing starved but fashionable waifs wearing clothes costing thousands of pounds, ads for men’s watches costing more than the GDP of small island nations and features about super yachts and other trophy-possessions of the super-rich. Eventually, the incongruity of a serious paper becoming a puff-piece for the yacht-owning classes began to embarrass the paper, and so the offending magazine was renamed HTSI.

Last weekend, in a token gesture to the austerity that will be inflicted on ordinary citizens, the editors of the magazine had an attack of conscience and produced an edition about “How to spend it Wisely.”

Intrigued, I investigated how I might spend my money sensibly. The nice young woman on the front cover was wearing a “CELINE vintage wool jumper” costing £700. Someone else was wearing a “BEYOND REMADE post-consumer suede jacket” costing £795. Newly-wed billionaires setting up house could purchase a “PLASTICIET Mother-of-Pearl chair” made from plastic waste, a snip at 5,500 Euros. Or they could opt for a “CHARLOTTE KIDGER side table” made from “salvaged PU dust and resin composite”, available for £12,500.

I know, I know: the fabulous profits generated by this glossy trash subsidise the excellent journalism that I value so highly. But still…

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Monday 24 October, 2022

So who exactly do you think you are?

Our imperious cat, Tilly, in typically incredulous mood, photographed by one of her two domestic retainers.

Quote of the Day

Has anyone seen a dramatic critic in the daytime? Of course not. They come out after dark, up to no good.”

  • P.G. Wodehouse

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Fleetwood Mac | Never Going Back Again


Long Read of the Day

The Art of Dying

Peter Schjeldahl, the Art critic of the New Yorker has died from lung cancer at the age of 80. He had been given the terminal diagnosis in August 2019 and had undergone unexpectedly successful immunotherapy but never recovered entirely. In December 2019, the New Yorker published this unforgettable essay of his on the prospect of dying.

It’s a kind of unanticipated Apologia pro vita sua. Many years ago, he got a Guggenheim award to enable him to write a memoir. He spent most of the money buying a tractor for the farm he had bought in Delaware County, New York State. So, in a way, this essay is a kind of ruminative substitute for what the Guggenheim Foundation expected him to do..

The essay is long but memorable, IMO. I always liked Schjeldahl’s writing, even when I wasn’t interested in many of the exhibitions and works that he scrutinised. What I learned from his Apologia was that he had a pretty eventful life, scarred by alcoholism and other misadventures. It never showed in his writing, though, or if it did I was too dense to spot it.

He’s very good on the advantages of being an ‘unknown’ in competitive fields.

My uptown feats didn’t impress people whom I looked up to in the downtown art scene, where anti-bourgeois hardheadedness and minimalist disdain for the “literary” reigned. They were contemptuous of the Times. I was Peter the poet, a relative nobody. Advice to aspiring youth: in New York, the years that you spend as a nobody are painful but golden, because no one bothers to lie to you. The moment you’re a somebody, you have heard your last truth. Everyone will try to spin you—as they should, with careers to think of. For about a dozen years, I hung out, drank, and slept with artists who didn’t take me seriously. I observed, heard, overheard, and absorbed a great deal.

One drunken night, a superb painter let me take a brush to a canvas that she said she was abandoning. I tried to continue a simple black stroke that she had started. The contrast between the controlled pressure of her touch and my flaccid smear shocked me, physically. It was like shaking hands with a small person who flips you across a room…

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

The US supreme court case that could bring (some) tech giants to their knees

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Two weeks ago, the US supreme court decided that it would hear Gonzalez v Google, a landmark case that is giving certain social-media moguls sleepless nights for the very good reason that it could blow a large hole in their fabulously lucrative business models. Since this might be good news for democracy, it’s also a reason for the rest of us to sit up and pay attention.

First, some background. In 1996, two US lawmakers, Representative Chris Cox from California and Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon, inserted a clause into the sprawling telecommunications bill that was then on its way through Congress. The clause eventually became section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and read: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

What those two politicians couldn’t have foreseen was that section 230 would turn into a get-out-of-jail card for some of the most profitable companies on the planet.

Do read the while thing.

On the importance of knowing what to want

The wisest man I’ve ever known was a distinguished lawyer who had won a Victoria Cross as a young officer in the First World War. I got to know him only towards the end of his long life, and treasure that memory. “The hardest thing in life,” he observed to me one day, “is knowing what to want. Most people never figure it out, and so wind up pretending that they wanted what they could get.”

This came to mind on Saturday reading Janan Ganesh’s column in the weekend edition of the Financial Times. “Knowing what to want,” said the headline, “is the ultimate life skill.” The peg for the column peg was Ewen McEwen’s latest novel, Lessons, which “is about a man to whom life just happens”.

Reflecting on the contrast between this and his own life-experience, Ganesh observes that

I have liked each of the last 17 years a bit more than the last. It isn’t a noble or profound life but it is fun, tranquil and so far in excess of childhood expectations as to still feel alien. How has it been achieved? I have a useful brain but nothing special. I have had some good luck, but not before I had some bad luck. As for hard work, I am of the Reagan view that while it never killed anyone, why take the chance?

“I have but one superpower,” he goes on: “knowing my own mind. For whatever reason I always had a picture of the life I wanted.”

Me too. Thanks to that wise old lawyer, I figured it out early, and was lucky enough to be able to make it happen.

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Friday 21 October, 2022


This week’s Economist cover. The magazine has a splendid first Leader on the subject (which, sadly, is probably behind a paywall) which begins thus:

In 2012 Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, two of the authors of a pamphlet called “Britannia Unchained”, used Italy as a warning. Bloated public services, low growth, poor productivity: the problems of Italy and other southern European countries were also present in Britain. Ten years later, in their botched attempt to forge a different path, Ms Truss and Mr Kwarteng have helped make the comparison inescapable. Britain is still blighted by disappointing growth and regional inequality. But it is also hobbled by chronic political instability and under the thumb of the bond markets. Welcome to Britaly.

The comparison between the two countries is inexact. Between 2009 and 2019 Britain’s productivity growth rate was the second-slowest in the G7, but Italy’s was far worse. Britain is younger and has a more competitive economy. Italy’s problems stem, in part, from being inside the European club; Britain’s, in part, from being outside. Comparing the bond yields of the two countries is misleading. Britain has lower debt, its own currency and its own central bank; the market thinks it has much less chance of defaulting than Italy. But if Britaly is not a statistical truth, it captures something real. Britain has moved much closer to Italy in recent years in three ways…

And those ways are?

  1. Political instability almost on the Italian scale.
  2. Italy was the plaything of the bond markets during the euro-zone crisis; now the same markets are “visibly in charge” of Britain.
  3. Britain’s low-growth problem has become more entrenched.

The analogy is particularly interesting for me. Way back in 1973, Ireland and the UK joined the EEC on the same day. A few weeks afterwards, I was in Dublin and went with a journalist friend to the Horseshoe Bar in the Shelbourne hotel, where the Irish political elite used to gather for pre-dinner drinks and gossip. I asked a TD (the Irish version of MP) what joining the EEC meant to him. “It means”, he replied, “that when an Irish minister goes to Brussels he sits across the table from a British minister (pause) as an equal!

A couple of months later I was at a political event in London and I asked the same question of a friendly Tory MP. What did joining the EEC mean for him. “It means,” he said, “that we are now just an ordinary country…”. He paused, for emphasis, “just like Italy”.

And here we are. The one piece of good news is that — as the Economist puts it — there is one reason to feel more hopeful about Britain: political instability here is just a one-party disease. “The Tories have become nigh-on ungovernable, due to the corrosion from Brexit and the sheer exhaustion of 12 years in power”. Yep. Which is why the country needs a general election.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know what the country’s new constitutional monarch makes of it all.

Quote of the Day

”The object of war is not to die for your country. The object of war is to make damn sure the other sonofabitch dies for his”.

  • General George Patton

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Brahms | Trio in A minor for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano, Op 114, I. Allegro


A much-needed calming influence after reading the latest update on the Westminster circus.

Long Read of the Day

 Globalism Failed to Deliver the Economy We Need

Terrific essay By Rana Foroohar.

The neoliberal philosophy is tapped out not only in the United States but also abroad — witness the backlash in Britain to Prime Minister Liz Truss’s ill-fated experimentation with trickle-down tax cuts. Offshoring to multiple countries was supposed to make manufacturing more productive and business more efficient. But many of those supposed efficiencies collapsed with any sort of global stress, from pandemics to tsunamis, port backups and other unforeseen events.

And complex supply chains resulted in any number of production disasters well before the global crises of the past few years; think about the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in 2013, in which a factory making clothes for various global brands (which had no idea about downstream risk in their supply chains) collapsed and killed over 1,100 people. Meanwhile, free trade itself, which was supposed to foster peace between nations, became a system to be gamed by mercantilist nations and state-run autocracies, resulting in deep political divides at home and abroad.

Fortunately, the pendulum of the political economy eventually swings back, and philosophies that have outlived their usefulness give way to new ones…

I hope she’s right.

How to tax energy companies’ windfall profits

One of the many ironies of the current energy crisis is that although electricity is now much cheaper to generate from renewable sources than that generated by gas-powered stations, nevertheless the renewables companies are getting the same price for their electricity as are the gas generators. Which is why electricity prices have shot up. If you’re as puzzled by this as I was initially, then this explainer by Clemens Fuest and Alex Ockenfels may help.

Books, etc.

I’m reading my way (slowly) through Brad DeLong’s magnum opus, Slouching towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century and hope to write something about it soon. In the meantime, for those who are interested, Diane Coyle has a characteristically insightful review of the book on her blog. Highly recommended.

My commonplace booklet

Matt Pritchett is a genius. (And, as I’ve just discovered, also grandson of the writer V.S. Pritchett)

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Thursday 20 October, 2022

Oh, No!

Seen on a door in (I think) Arles.

Quote of the Day

”I thought lacrosse was what you find in church.”

  • Robin Williams

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

My Back Pages | Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton & George Harrison


Long Read of the Day

Amsterdam: some impressions

Noah Smith went to Amsterdam and wrote a nice blog post about it.

One of my little dreams was always to be one of those bloggers who takes a three-day trip to a new city and draws sweeping conclusions about society and politics and culture from walking around and seeing some tourists and eating in a couple of cafes. And now that dream has finally been realized!

Ha. I kid. But since I was only in Amsterdam for three days (to see friends), I tried to look around and pay as much attention as I could, and perhaps formulate a few thoughts.

If you run in educated liberal America circles (as I do), you find that Amsterdam is the one of the cities that everyone tells you to visit. Its only real competition in this regard is Tokyo…

It’s an enjoyable piece. I lived and worked in Holland for a year in the late 1970s and fell in love both with Dutch society and with its cities. I was living on my own at the time, and often drove into Amsterdam on a Sunday morning to spend the day browsing there, going to galleries, cafes (especially ones where chess was played) and walking the city.

Every Sunday morning in the Concertgebouw there used to be a chamber-music concert (badged, if I remember correctly, as Für Elise) at 11am. You bought a ticket, grabbed a coffee and sat around while musicians appeared and wonderfully relaxed performances were given. Wonderful.

A world first? A US Tech giant forced to unwind an acquisition

And it was a UK regulator that did it. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has ruled that Meta has to unwind its acquisition of Giphy on the grounds that the takeover of the gif-creation website could harm social media users and advertising.

Meta had bought Giphy – the largest supplier of animated gifs to social networks such as Snapchat, TikTok and Twitter – in 2020.

The CMA investigated the sale and published its original decision in November 2021, ordering Meta to dispose of Giphy.

Meta, then called Facebook Inc, had been fined a record £50.5m for refusing to comply with the CMA during the investigation.

Meta had hoped its purchase of Giphy would improve finding gifs and stickers on its social networks Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook.

While Meta maintained that Giphy would be “openly available” to other social networks, the CMA’s investigation found the buyout would harm competition in social media and advertising.

In a post-Brexit UK, the CMA is one of the few government agencies that seems to be working.

My commonplace booklet

After WFH (Working from Home), what next?

How about WFP?

In the UK, the Fuller brewery’s chain of more than 350 pubs now offers WFP packages that start at £10 per day and include lunch and a drink (non-alcoholic beverages are also available). A lunch and unlimited tea and coffee are typically included in the £15 per day bargain offered by Young’s, another significant brewery, which has 185 pubs.


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Wednesday 19 October, 2022

On history repeating itself…

Yesterday’s rant about historical cycles set some Classics scholars thinking about the year 69AD (or, as we PC folks are supposed to say, 69CE) when the Romans had no fewer than four emperors in a single year.

This picture (from Wikipedia) illustrates that crazed succession with coins (clockwise from top left) Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian.

This set me thinking about the Tory party which — although it could not manage it in a single year — is embarked on a similar process.

The only difference is that we do not yet know who fits into the bottom left-hand slot.

Also, there was a nice letter from Anthony Black in the FT quoting what the historian Tacitus observed about Galba, the first of the Roman quartet. Omnium consensu capax imperii nisi imperasset, quoth he. “Everyone agreed he was capable of ruling until he ruled.” Mr Black thinks that this applies to Liz Truss, which is surely a mistake. I can’t think of anyone who thought she was up to the job even before she landed it.

(Image copyright Richard Mortel on a Creative Commons licence)

Another Classics scholar, upon learning of my interest in the Roman succession, added the useful information that Galba was bald, which meant that when Otho, having decapitated him, was unable to brandish the head in public by holding it by his victim’s hair, and so displayed it by holding it up by the nose.

The Tory party is famously ruthless when disposing of leaders who look like losers, but somehow this would be seen as too extreme for present circumstances.

Quote of the Day

”I don’t object to foreigners speaking a foreign language; I just wish they’d all speak the same foreign language.”

  • Billy Wilder

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

J.S. Bach | Suite for Solo Cello No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1009: III. Courante | John Williams


Long Read of the Day

William Shatner on going into space (for real)

From his memoir in Variety

During our preparation, we had gone up eleven flights of the gantry to see what it would be like when the rocket was there. We were then escorted to a thick cement room with oxygen tanks. “What’s this room for?” I asked casually.

“Oh, you guys will rush in here if the rocket explodes,” a Blue Origin fellow responded just as casually.

Uh-huh. A safe room. Eleven stories up. In case the rocket explodes.

Well, at least they’ve thought of it.

When the day finally arrived, I couldn’t get the Hindenburg out of my head. Not enough to cancel, of course—I hold myself to be a professional, and I was booked. The show had to go on.

We got ourselves situated inside the pod…

Read on to read when he discovered.

My commonplace booklet

My story yesterday about how the code for PGP escaped CoCOM export restrictions reminded my friend Quentin of the T-shirts that were produced with the Perl code for the RSA algorithm on them, which meant that they were also classed as munitions? Then activists realised that it might not count unless it was in machine-readable form, so they printed the same bit of perl as a barcode on the shirt :-)

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