Friday 30 December, 2022

Quintessentially English

A parish church seen on a walk yesterday.

Quote of the Day

”A committee is an animal with four back legs.”

  • John Le Carré

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel | Arrival of the Queen of Sheba | Academy of Ancient Music


Can’t think of a better way to greet the arrival of a New Year!

Long Read of the Day

The Deep Structure of Democratic Crisis

Talk to any (continental) European who is interested in politics and soon or later you will find yourself talking about the radical difference between the ‘Anglosphere’ and the rest of Europe. And that’s because such a difference really exists. The UK and the US have more in common than most people seem to realise. Just to list three examples: both have dysfunctional electoral systems which produce un-representative legislatures; both are two-party states in which the two dominant political parties have been hollowed out by sectional interests; and both are now scarred by alarming levels of socio-economic inequality. And of course they also share a common language and ruling elites heavily invested in neoliberal ideologies.

All of which is a long way of explaining why this review essay by Ruth Berins Collier and Jake Grumbach about the underpinning structural features of post-industrial political economy that constitute a challenge to democracy is interesting. It’s primarily about the US, but it has resonances on this side of the Pond also. What’s most striking about it is the way it tries to get at the seismic shifts that underpin the chaos of the present moment in both societies.

First, to use a term of art from political science, the structure of mass politics shifted from a single dominant “cleavage”— a conflict between owners and workers organized by labor unions — to a pattern in which politics is organized around many different competing cleavages. Second, there was a shift in the balance of power between capital and the state, which reduced the capacity of the government to respond to social and economic upheaval. Both of these developments present a challenge to democracy, and technology has only accelerated each.

Worth a read, IMO.

Books, etc.

Just reflecting on the best books I read in 2022…

The ones that particularly stand out are:

  • Gary Gerstle’s The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order. I found it a compulsive read — and sometimes a salutary one because it forced me to contemplate the errors of my casual assumptions! For example, for many years after I’d read Rodgers’s ‘The Age of Fracture’ and Mirowski on Hayek, Von Mises and the stealthy rise of the ‘Neoliberal Thought Collective’ I’d come to regard Ronald Reagan not as a prime motive force but as a kind of genial cheerleader of economic forces that were already under way as he climbed to the Presidency. Indeed, when I was the Observer’s TV critic during his presidency, I made a point of always referring to him as “the Acting President of the United States” and revelled in the stories of how he watched a re-run of ‘The Sound of Music’ instead of reading James Baker’s Briefing Book the night before chairing the Williamsburg summit. In other words, I underestimated him — saw him as the useful idiot of people smarter than him. But the most valuable thing about the book is the way it clarified the process by which an ideology gets translated into actual power. That’s where Gerstle’s idea of a political ‘order’ is such a masterstroke, especially the criterion that, to qualify, it has to be a mindset that infects not just one particular political party but also its opponents! That’s very illuminating in relation to Tony Blair’s ’New Labour’! Also, as I read the book I kept thinking about Thomas Kuhn and his view of how scientific disciplines work. You know the model: in any discipline, normal life revolves around stable intellectual frameworks that he eventually called ‘paradigms’. But then there comes a moment where there’s a realisation that a dominant paradigm is running into trouble and a rival one appears. And then, suddenly, the discipline is plunged into crisis because the old and new paradigms are ‘incommensurable’ — there exists no neutral language by which the relative merits of each can be objectively assessed. (Think Newtonian dynamics and quantum mechanics.) The thought that occurred to me as the book drew to a close is that we are now entering the political equivalent of a paradigm shift. Which means a period of chaos!

  • Roy Foster’s On Seamus Heaney — a moving and sensitive exploration of Heaney’s poetic journey, written by a great scholar who both understands the cultural context in which the poet evolved and loves his work. As do I.

  • Helen Thompson’s Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century. A fine book by a great scholar that was long in the making, but worth waiting for. Bill Janeway (Whom God Preserve) wrote a really perceptive review of it alongside the Gerstle book.

  • Jamie Susskind’s  The Digital Republic: On Freedom and Democracy in the 21st Century. The most refreshing thing about this fine book is its ideological stance. The reason why most current attempts to rein in tech power are doomed to fail is because its critics implicitly accept its legitimacy rather than being outraged by its arrogant effrontery. That because they’ve been drinking the neoliberal Kool Aid for nearly half a century. Ideology, after all, is what determines how you think when you don’t know you’re thinking. It’s time for a change, and ‘The Digital Republic is a good place to start.

My commonplace booklet

Just what your favourite Instagram Influencer needs

From the current issue of Private Eye (Which God Preserve).

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Thursday 29 December, 2022

England’s green and pleasant land…

Millfield under snow

… under snow.

Quote of the Day

”He who hesitates is sometimes saved.”

  • James Thurber

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Norah Jones | Come Away With Me


Long Read of the Day

Who Broke American Democracy?

An insightful essay by Angus Deaton on Project Syndicate which widens the perennial focus from the usual suspects (polarisation, the GOP and social media) onto the way the country’s political and electoral systems have catered to the interests of elites and the well-off at the expense of those without a college degree. Obvious, really, but it takes a Nobel laureate to point it out.

The current mainstream narrative in the United States holds that democracy is under threat from MAGA zealots, election deniers, and Republicans who are threatening to ignore unfavorable results (as well as recruiting loyalists to oversee elections and police polling places).

That narrative is true, but only up to a point. There is another, longer-running story with a different set of malefactors. It’s a story in which, for more than 50 years, Americans without college degrees have seen their lives deteriorate over a range of material, health, and social outcomes.

Although two-thirds of the adult US population does not have a four-year college degree, the political system rarely responds to their needs and has frequently enacted policies that harm them in favor of corporate interests and better-educated Americans. What has been “stolen” from them is not an election, but the right to participate in political decision-making – a right that is supposedly guaranteed by democracy. Viewed in this light, their efforts to seize control of the voting system are not so much a repudiation of fair elections as an attempt to make elections deliver some of what they want…

Read on. It’s good.

Books, etc.

Two interesting books coming in 2023.

  1. Martin Wolf’s The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism. Democracy and capitalism have always been uneasy bedfellows, but to date they have managed to find ways of getting along. But there’s a real crunch coming and Martin Wolf is someone who has been thinking about this for a long time. It’s out in February.

  2. Mariana Mazzucato and Rosie Collington have an interesting book on the stocks — The Big Con: How the Consulting Industry Weakens our Businesses, Infantilizes our Governments and Warps our Economies. For decades I’ve been amazed by the global consulting racket and the way that firms like PwC, KPMG, Bain, the Boston Group, McKinsey et. al. get away with it. I enjoyed Duff McDonald’s revealing profile of that last outfit, btw, so not surprisingly, Mazzucato’s and Collington’s book is on my list.

My commonplace booklet

Emma Thompson’s tribute to Alan Rickman.

Truly wonderful short video. Do watch it.

My New Year’s Resolution: read his diaries.

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Wednesday 28 December, 2022

Quote of the Day

”Here we have a saying: a good friend is someone who visits you when you are in prison. But a really good friend is someone who comes to hear your lectures.”

  • Malcolm Bradbury

Hmmm… One day, many years ago, I gave a keynote talk to a large audience (300 or so). It went well, I thought — good questions, lots of applause at the end, etc. Smugly, I gathered my papers and headed for the exit when I noticed one of my academic colleagues who had been sitting — unnoticed by me — at the back. “Very good lecture”, he said. “Just the right number of half-truths.”

Out of the mouths of babes and academics…

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Joachim Cooder | When The Train Comes Along


New to me, but striking.

Long Read of the Day

Martin Rees on the future, existential risks and a good many other things besides

Martin Rees (Whom God Preserve) published another book this year — If Science is to Save Us — and John Mecklin, Editor-in-Chief of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists interviewed him about it and a number of related topics. I found the transcript of the interview fascinating, and hope you do too.

Here’s how it begins…

Martin Rees: Can I just say, at the start, that my book is not very homogeneous; the first half is concerned with big global issues, and the second half is the more personal perspective of a scientist, and interaction with the scientific community, with the public, with the government and politicians, etc. So the book’s really in two halves, and those who don’t like it say it is a dog’s breakfast; those who like it more will say it’s a smorgasbord.

John Mecklin: I enjoyed both parts of it. But could you quickly for our readers summarize the part at the beginning that is less personal: What was the main point you were trying to make with If Science is to Save Us?

Rees: I was making the point that more and more of the issues which concern us or determine our future have a scientific dimension…

Reflections on Generative ‘AI’: #2

(A thoughtstream on a current obsession.)

The last couple of years have seen an explosion of new ‘tools built on machine-learning technology which the tech industry brands as “AI” (i.e. artificial intelligence) in an attempt to give them a veneer of respectability. After all, “Machine-learning” isn’t exactly a sexy term. While these tools are certainly artificial, they are only ‘intelligent’ in an extremely limited, focussed sense.

The tools that have mainly captured public and media attention recently are so-called ‘generative’ ones because they are able to create artefacts (graphical objects and written compositions) that humans also create (or aspire to create).

This note is about the graphical tools like DALL-E, Midjourney and Stable Diffusion. (If you’re puzzled about the names, then join the club, but I’m sure that are rationales for them somewhere.)

Public interest has been ignited by the images that these tools can create in response to a verbal prompt from a user. For example: “Draw a picture of J.K. Rowling as an astronaut.” The results are often amusing, unexpected and/or dramatic.

Recently, one of these images — labelled Théâtre D’opéra Spatial — won first prize in Colorado State Fair’s annual art competition.

It’s a very striking work and was created by a games-maker, James Allen, using Midjourney, one of the ‘generative’ tools. Mr Allen’s Blue Riband sparked a controversy among artists and others which left him unmoved. Their anger should be directed at the companies that make the tools, he said, not at people like him who merely use them. And he topped it off with an incendiary closing line: “Art is dead, dude”, he said to the New York Times, “It’s over. A.I. won. Humans lost.”

This rings a bell, does it not, for anyone interested in the history of media? It brings to mind the moment in 1839 when the French painter Paul Delaroche saw a daguerreotype (an early type of photograph) for the first time and promptly declared, “From today, painting is dead!”

With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, we know that Delaroche was wrong. He had fallen into the trap that the great cultural critic Neil Postman identified many decades ago — believing that new media technology is additive (or subtractive) when in fact its main impact is ecological. A new communications technology doesn’t wipe out its predecessors. The Internet didn’t kill broadcast TV, for example, but it certainly changed the media ecosystem in which broadcast media have to operate.

Or, as L.M. Sacasas puts it,

Powerful new tools can restructure the complex techno-social ecosystem we call art in sometimes striking and often unpredictable ways. Even if we don’t think a new tool “kills” art, we should be curious about how it might transform art, or at least some of the skills and practices we have called art.”

Of course, in one limited sense Delaroche was right: photography undoubtedly had a dramatic impact on some kinds of painting — ‘realism’ — and photography made that particular activity more or less pointless in a few years.

But, as another critic, Federico Alegria put it,

painting was not going to surrender, and that’s when many of the now known “isms” (abstractionism, cubism, futurism, constructivism, dadaism, and TOO MANY others) became alive. And that’s one of the great beauties of this tragicomedy, photography took a lot from painting, but by doing that, painting was capable of truly reinventing itself from scratch.

Besides, Delaroche’s hyperbolic prediction rather overlooked the extent to which, for centuries, painters had been using photographic ideas to help them in their work. Years ago, David Hockney wrote a terrific book — Secret Knowledge – Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters in which he demonstrated how Renaissance artists used mirrors and lenses to develop perspective and chiaroscuro. And, in another remarkable book, my former colleague, Phil Steadman, explored Jan Vermeer’s possible knowledge of 17th-century optical science, and outlined the history of the camera obscura which projected an accurate image for artists to trace. The clincher for me was Phil’s meticulous reconstruction of Vermeer’s studio, complete with a camera obscura, which provided intriguing evidence for his conjecture that Vermeer did indeed use the device.

The moral is one that is generally lost on the tech industry. Because its practitioners know no history, they invariably think that everything they come up with is de novo. Sometimes, perhaps, it is. But the lesson from history is that however disruptive something novel appears to be, humans will find a way of using it, often in ways that its inventors never envisaged. The street finds its own use for things.

Part of an ongoing series…

My commonplace booklet

My friend Quentin had an interesting post on his blog yesterday. He had come on this juxtaposition and wondered if it was a spoof, so he investigated — and it wasn’t.

The whole post is worth reading.

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Tuesday 27 December, 2022

2 x 8 Star Street

Quote of the Day

”Cricket is full of theorists who can ruin your game in no time.”

  • Ian Botham

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Diana Krall | Narrow Daylight


Selection prompted by the slowly-lengthening daylight hours.

Long Read of the Day

Tech Journalism Doesn’t Know What to Do With Mastodon

Perceptive rant by George Dillard.

I was prompted to write this post when I ran across the following post on Mastodon by Annalee Newitz:

Gotta love tech journalists who describe Mastodon as “that impossible-to-use website.” First of all, it’s an app. C’mon. Second of all, aren’t these the same people who write breathless explainers about the wonder of cryptocurrencies, which are not only impossible to understand but literally built from bullshit?

Like Newitz, I’m an increasingly enthusiastic adopter of Mastodon, and, like them, I’ve been kind of confused by the press coverage around the platform. The media seems to be regarding Mastodon as a bizarre curiosity, something that the general public couldn’t possibly grasp. Sure, the guys with a Linux server in their basement might geek out on it, but this thing isn’t for the masses…

The problem — as Dillard acutely observes — is that Mastodon doesn’t fit the standard tech narratives.

He’s right. Do read it.

Reflections on Generative ‘AI’: #1

(A thoughtstream on a current obsession.)

2023 looks like being more like 1993 than any other year in recent history. In Spring of that year Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina released Mosaic, the first modern Web browser and suddenly the non-technical world understood what this strange ‘Internet’ thing was for.

We’ve now reached a similar inflection point with something called ‘AI’, which is really the tech industry’s name for an arcane technology called machine-learning. Until now, most people hadn’t a clue what it was about, or indeed what it was for (except perhaps automating jobs). But in 2022 a new variant of this ‘AI’ arrived. It’s called ‘Generative AI’ — machine-learning systems that can ‘generate’ plausible artefacts. Midjourney, for example, can create interesting and/or amusing graphics in response to text prompts like “Draw a picture of J.K Rowling as an astronaut”.

Up to now, most people have regarded them as interesting toys (though graphics artists fear them as threats to their jobs). But the first killer-app of Generative AI has just arrived in the form of ChatGPT, a system that can often (though not always) generate plausible text in response to a prompt. It’s become wildly popular almost overnight — going from zero to a million users in five days. Why? Because everyone can intuitively get that it can do something that they feel is useful but personally find difficult to do themselves. Which means that — finally — they understand what this ‘AI’ thing is for.

Well, maybe they do. But my guess is that they don’t understand what it might mean. Hence this series…

More tomorrow.

My commonplace booklet

What we don’t say in Silicon Valley anymore

From the blog of Om Malik (Whom God Preserve)…

In my time writing about Silicon Valley, it has gone from being a place of naive curiosity to a place where posturing is everything. And the reason we have this state of affairs is that, with extreme success, the denizens of the valley have ostracized these four phrases from their vocabulary:

  • I’m sorry
  • I don’t know
  • I was wrong
  • I need help.

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Monday 26 December, 2022

Spot the snapper

Quote of the Day

” It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

  • Fredric Jameson

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Anarchy in the UK | The Ukulele Orchestra


I was much cheered by this. Thanks to Ian Low for pointing me towards it.

Long Read of the Day

The missing profile of a crypto Wunderkind

Some time ago Adam Fisher wrote a remarkable — and compulsively readable — profile of Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of the FTX crypto exchange which went belly-up recently, who is now out on $250m bail in the US. The spectacularly enthusiastic profile was originally written for Sequoia Capital, a big Silicon Valley venture capital firm that invested in SBF’s activities. But once FTX imploded it suddenly disappeared from Sequoia’s site.

Fortunately it was archived (that’s the Internet for you) and here it is for your delectation.

It’s a long but (IMO) a striking — and also salutary — read. Someone said that it looked like something that F. Scott Fitzgerald might have written in his day. And I can see why.

From the closing paragraphs, though, you can see why it suddenly disappeared.

After my interview with SBF, I was convinced: I was talking to a future trillionaire. Whatever mojo he worked on the partners at Sequoia—who fell for him after one Zoom—had worked on me, too. For me, it was simply a gut feeling. I’ve been talking to founders and doing deep dives into technology companies for decades. It’s been my entire professional life as a writer. And because of that experience, there must be a pattern-matching algorithm churning away somewhere in my subconscious. I don’t know how I know, I just do. SBF is a winner.

But that wasn’t even the main thing. There was something else I felt: something in my heart, not just my gut. After sitting ten feet from him for most of the week, studying him in the human musk of the startup grind and chatting in between beanbag naps, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this guy is actually as selfless as he claims to be.

So I find myself convinced that, if SBF can keep his wits about him in the years ahead, he’s going to slay—that, just as Alameda was a stepping stone to FTX, FTX will be to the super-app. Banking will be disrupted and transformed by crypto, just as media was transformed and disrupted by the web. Something of the sort must happen eventually, as the current system, with its layers upon layers of intermediaries, is antiquated and prone to crashing—the global financial crisis of 2008 was just the latest in a long line of failures that occurred because banks didn’t actually know what was on their balance sheets. Crypto is money that can audit itself, no accountant or bookkeeper needed, and thus a financial system with the blockchain built in can, in theory, cut out most of the financial middlemen, to the advantage of all. Of course, that’s the pitch of every crypto company out there. The FTX competitive advantage? Ethical behavior. SBF is a Peter Singer–inspired utilitarian in a sea of Robert Nozick–inspired libertarians. He’s an ethical maximalist in an industry that’s overwhelmingly populated with ethical minimalists. I’m a Nozick man myself, but I know who I’d rather trust my money with: SBF, hands-down. And if he does end up saving the world as a side effect of being my banker, all the better.

We shouldn’t be too hard on Mr Fisher. We’ve all written daft things in our time. But what of the allegedly sober Venture Capitalist which commissioned the piece, and invested in SBF?

My Commonplace Booklet

A novel sales pitch for a literary magazine

From the London Review of Books yesterday…

You will know the tune, so here are the lyrics:

Rudolph the well-read reindeer
Had a love for stunning prose.
Rudolph the well-read reindeer
Wanted to be in-the-know.

All of the other reindeer
Used to laugh and read the Sun.
They never let poor Rudolph Give a gift to anyone.

Then one dreary Christmas Eve
Santa came to say:
Rudolph with your mind so bright
What gifts should I give tonight?

Then all the other reindeer
Opened up the LRB,
And Rudolph the well-read reindeer
He went down in history!

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Christmas Day, 2022

Having one’s cake (and hopefully eating it)

This is really just to say thank you for being a subscriber.

Musical Alternative to the morning’s radio news

Surely it has to be this.

Enjoy the holiday.


Friday 23 December, 2022

The World Wide (Cob)web

Quote of the Day

”My Twitter feed has essentially become a television tuned to a channel only showing 24/7 programs about what should and shouldn’t be on TV.”

  • Austin Carr, writing in Bloomberg’s  Tech Daily

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Yo-Yo Ma and Alison Krauss | The Wexford Carol


A change from the usual Xmas fare.

Long Read of the Day

O Holy Crap

Wonderful guest post by Walter Kirk on Bari Weiss’s blog.

About five years ago, for seven dollars, I bought an old citrus juicer at a thrift shop. It was one of those vintage small appliances which seem built to survive gas explosions and hammer attacks. When I turned on the motor with a metal toggle switch, a drive shaft spun a heavy ceramic knob that gouged out the hearts of lemon and orange halves, leaving not a scrap of pulp uncrushed. The thing worked beautifully, almost like new, so I looked up its serial number on the internet to see when the unit was manufactured, guessing it might be almost 40 years old. 

Wrong. It dated to the 1940s. It was 70, the stubborn monster, still giving satisfaction with every use.

I can’t say the same about my coffee grinders. I use the plural because I’ve owned a lot of them, all bought in their original packaging and dead within a year. They’re good ones, supposedly, with burrs not blades, but they stop performing before long, ending their long journeys from overseas factories in unmarked graves in my local Montana landfill. 

I have a whole ghost kitchen in this landfill, and soon I will need to reserve a bigger plot…

You get the drift.

Time to Close Down the Elon Musk Circus

Jack Shafer writing on the way Uber-trolls like Musk and Trump lead journalists everywhere by the nose. At the moment Musk is making monkeys of the world’s mainstream media.

In addition to being the world’s second richest person, Elon Musk is now the greatest press manipulator since Donald Trump inhabited the White House. Daily, often hourly, frequently minute-by-minute, Musk intercepts the news cycle and rides it like a clown on a barrel to the astonishment of all. Should he fall, he always gets back on and rides some more as the press corps records and transmits his every gyration.

Given Musk’s track record, reporters should put little stock in what he says. Instead, the press continues to chart and publish nearly every bold utterance he makes and every tweet he types into his account. This tendency, already severe, has exploded into full flower over the past month, ever since Musk rolled his barrel into Twitter headquarters in San Francisco and established residence there to remake the service. Why does the press keep falling for this circus act?

I’ve been asking that question for several years. To no avail. Sigh.

My commonplace booklet

The Military-Industrial complex is alive and well and living in the Pentagon

From The Register

The US Air Force has awarded $334 million to defense contractor Leidos to develop the next phase in its hypersonic arsenal: An unmanned craft meant for super-speed spying dubbed “Mayhem.” 

This latest contract award comes less than a week after the USAF announced the successful test of its first service-ready hypersonic weapon (defined as able to travel faster than Mach 5 while maintaining maneuverability), the Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW.

Unlike ARRW, Leidos’ Mayhem award isn’t just about building a weapon – it’s for “Expendable Hypersonic Multi-mission ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) and Strike program, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike craft.” A warhead will fit, but this is more like a photon torpedo/probe/space coffin from Star Trek: customizable to meet the needs of the mission.

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Thursday 22 December, 2022

Dickensian Xmas

A doorway in Doughty Street, London, the street where Charles Dickens once lived, photographed one December when I was on my way to an Observer lunch. Further down the street I passed the house which was the office of the Spectator magazine, then edited by one Boris Johnson. I stopped, thinking that I would photograph that door also, when it opened and out stepped a posh floozie of the kind favoured by Johnson. The conversation went like this:

Floozie: “What do you think you’re doing?”

Me: “I’m thinking of taking a photograph.”

Floozie: “Why?”

Me: “Because I’ve always wondered what a den of iniquity looked like?”

As I raised the Leica to my eye she turned on her heel and went back into the building, slamming the door behind her.

After which I went to lunch in high good humour, though without the pic I was after.

Quote of the Day

”There is no human bliss equal to twelve hours of work with only six hours in which to do it.”

  • Anthony Trollope

(Who used to write a thousand words an hour before breakfast.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Patti Smith performs Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” | Nobel Prize Award Ceremony 2016


It’s not often you see a veteran performer overcome by the lyrics she’s singing. Wonderful.

Long Read of the Day

Becoming a chatbot: my life as a real estate AI’s human backup

Fabulous essay by Laura Preston

For one weird year, I was the human who stepped in to make sure a property chatbot didn’t blow its cover – I was a person pretending to be a computer pretending to be a person.

Gripping, illuminating, nicely written and a good antidote to the kind of gig-work she was doing.

Books, etc.

A classic laid bare

Lovely review by Alex Clark of Matthew Hollis’s  The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem.


One of the numerous illuminating anecdotes of their entwined lives sees TS Eliot deliver a parcel to James Joyce in Paris at their first ever meeting. Entrusted with the gift by Pound but forbidden from knowing its contents, Eliot, alongside his fellow traveller Wyndham Lewis, ceremoniously presented the package as the trio assembled at a Left Bank hotel and waited as Joyce struggled with its strings until, for want of a knife, a pair of nail scissors was found. Within, a clearly second-hand pair of brown shoes, prompted by Pound’s anxiety that Joyce, whom he liked and admired, was short of funds and in need of sturdy footwear. “‘Oh!’ said Joyce faintly, and sat down.” That night the Château Latour flowed, and subsequently a humiliated Joyce settled every bill…

My commonplace booklet

Dave Winer’s not going to allow Musk get between him and his car

Lovely rant by Dave (Whom God Preserve):

As a Tesla owner I find all the press about people dumping their Teslas because Musk is a brat pretty fucked up. Like going to a diner in Ohio to find out what Trumpsters are up to as if that were measuring anything credible.

I am an extreme liberal, esp when it comes to the web. My creds are excellent. And I love my Model Y. I feel like its a privilege to drive it every time I get in the car. And I’ve owned some terrific cars in my life. There are some cars that are just great to drive. So great that their flaws are not relevant. That Elon Musk is tied to the product is unfortunate. But until I drive a car that’s equal to the car I have, I’m not going to bend to the bullshit the press is putting out there.

I also still use Twitter. I’m not going to let Musk chase me off. He’ll have to suspend me if he wants me off. I would regret that. I’ve been on Twitter since 2006. Musk can do whatever he wants, Twitter is big enough for both of us.

I voted for Obama twice, Hillary and Biden. So fuck you if you think driving a Tesla is like being a MAGA.

Yep. As a fellow Tesla owner I agree with every word of this. One of the strangest things about getting the car was the way people started to hold me personally responsible for Musk.

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 December, 2022

Through OS9, brightly

A 2007 post on Memex 1.1 rendered in the original Mac Operating System (pre-OSX).

Michael Dales is one of the most accomplished geeks I am fortunate to know. Years ago he was CTO of one of the tech companies Quentin and I were involved in. But he is also an accomplished photographer, an expert on motorbikes (ICE and Electric) and now he’s a luthier who makes wonderful bespoke guitars.

This image comes from a side-project of his — writing his blog posts on an old G3 Powermac. It shows what Memex 1.1 looked like on a Macintosh running OS9 back in the day.

Quote of the Day

”This going into Europe will not turn out to be the thrilling mutual exchange proposed. It is more like nine middle-aged couples with failing marriages meeting in a darkened bedroom in a Brussels for a group grope.”

  • E.P. Thompson

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jimmy Yancey | The Mellow Blues


Long Read of the Day

Trump’s post-presidential existence

I really shouldn’t be recommending this Washington Post piece, but I’m ashamed to say I found it riveting. Here’s a sample:

On a typical day since leaving office, advisers said, Trump gets up early, makes phone calls, watches television and reads some newspapers. Then, six days a week, he plays 18 or sometimes 27 holes of golf at one of his courses. After lunch, he changes into a suit from his golf shirt and slacks and shows up in the office above the Mar-a-Lago ballroom or, when he is in New Jersey, a similar office in a cottage near the Bedminster club’s pool.

By evening, Trump emerges for dinner, surrounded most nights by adoring club members who stand and applaud at his appearance; they stand and applaud again after he finishes his meal and retires for the night. He often orders special meals from the kitchen and spends time curating the music wafting over the crowd, frequently pushing for the volume to be raised or lowered based on his mood. In the Oval Office, Trump had a button he could push to summon an aide to bring him a Diet Coke or snacks. Now, he just yells out commands to whichever employee is in earshot…

18 or 27 holes a day!. I was a very keen golfer in my youth, but this sounds excessive even to me. And, since I guess he doesn’t do much walking on the course (just riding in a gold-cart), it means he’s not getting much real exercise.

There’s lots more in this piece, much of it serious.

Books, etc.

A summary of the report from the US House of Representatives on the January 6 ‘insurrection’ was released on Monday. This NPR piece about the way various publishers are planning to publish the full report in book form is interesting. Whether publishers succeed in making it into a bestseller depends in part on whether the Congressional panel produces the usual stodgy government report which reads — in the words of one professor of English consulted by NPR — “like the instruction manual to a microwave oven”, i.e. “tedious, stilted, dry and stuffed with technical language”.

My hunch, from watching how the Panel went about its work, is that the document might be a page-turner the moment it appears on the Web. It was clear that some people working for the lawmakers understood the importance of building a compelling narrative. Which is what thriller-writers do.

My commonplace booklet

One way of thinking about the future

A sketch for a paper I’m working on.

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Tuesday 20 December, 2022

Shadows of Christmas

The sun came out when I was opening the blinds yesterday morning, yielding this image.

Here’s the decoration that gave rise to it:

Quote of the Day

”If God had intended us to have group sex, I guess he’d have given us all more organs.”

  • Malcolm Bradbury

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Chuck Berry | Johnny B. Goode


The FT had a fascinating piece about the song’s history in its weekend edition (behind a paywall), which said, in part, that

Johnny B. Goode is thought to be the first song in popular musical history in which the singer celebrates their own success. This surely accounts for why rock’s most legendary artists have regularly performed it: Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Cliff Richard, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Beach Boys, Sex Pistols, Grateful Dead, the Carpenters and dozens of others have sung Berry’s celebration of himself as a kind of mantra — they may not be able to read or write but, hey, they can play a guitar like ringing a bell!

John Lennon once introduced Berry by saying “If you had tried to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry'”.

Long Read of the Day

Elon’s stale playbook

Sorry to keep going on about Musk and Twitter, but this essay by Linette Lopez was too insightful to pass up. Her argument is that Musk was always a “visionary jerk” and a bad boss at Tesla and SpaceX, but got away with it in those cases because the companies were making tangible things. But it won’t work at Twitter.

Lopez opens her case thus:

Here’s the Musk playbook: Enter a field with very little competition. Claim that your new company will solve a massive, global problem or achieve a seemingly impossible goal. Raise money from a fervent group of true believers and keep them on the hook with flashy, half-baked product ideas. Suck up billions from the government. Underpay, undervalue, and overwork your employees. Repeat.

Twitter is the antithesis of an “Elon Musk company.” It’s an influential but small player in a field that is dominated by giant, well-funded competitors. The government is more likely to put the clamps on Twitter than give it some windfall contract. And Twitter’s employees have options: They can leave and work for companies that treat them much better than Musk ever would.

But perhaps most importantly, a lot of people think Twitter — and Musk’s ownership of the company — is part of a global media problem, rather than some grand solution. And without a big, world-changing promise to paper over his sophomoric product ideas and erratic management, Musk’s Twitter takeover is doomed…

Read on. It’s good.

Why were the media hypnotised by Sam Bankman-Fried?

My Observer column on Sunday.

The big puzzle, though, was why couldn’t FTX have just given its investors their money back? The answer appears to be that it wasn’t there; in some way, SBF’s hedge fund had been treating FTX as its piggy bank, possibly even playing the hedge fund market with investors’ money.

Once it was clear that this particular game was up, SBF then embarked on an astonishing apology tour on every media outlet he could find. In almost every interview he was touchingly apologetic while at the same time maintaining that he had no knowledge of potentially fraudulent activities at his own company, including using billions of dollars of customers’ deposits as collateral for loans for other purposes. He had, he explained ruefully, been out of his depth. On some occasions, he also seemed to be trying to deflect blame on to Caroline Ellison, the former CEO of his other company, Alameda Research.

The biggest question prompted by this apology tour is: why did so many apparently serious media outfits let him get away with it? The interview questions were often softball ones, occasionally toe-curlingly so…

Do read the whole thing.

My commonplace booklet

December 20 was my Dad’s birthday. He was born in 1914 and so would have been 108 today. A perfectly banal thought, I know, but it always hits me on the day. He came into the world four months into the the war that was going to be “over by Christmas”.

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