Friday 29 March, 2024

Railway sleeper

My homage to Annie Ernaux’s Exteriors!

Quote of the Day

”Tragedy is what happens to me; comedy is what happens to you.”

  • Mel Brooks

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Eels | Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues (Road Trip)


An old favourite.

Long Read of the Day

Capitalism Can’t Solve Climate Change

Really good piece in Time by Brett Christophers of Uppsala University.

Like everyone else I suffer from confirmation bias, which explains why I found this interesting. I’ve been arguing for yonks that we need a theory of incompetent systems — ones that can’t fix themselves — to explain the mess we’re in.

The author’s basic argument is that relying on the capitalist system to avoid climate catastrophe is a toxic example of magical thinking.

As Christophers observes,

How profitable are wind and solar power generation? What sort of returns do investors earn? Inevitably, there is no single, consistent answer: returns vary – often considerably – both historically and geographically. But most analyses of the issue conclude that an internal rate of return of around 5–8 percent would be what investors on average expect and achieve.

Little wonder, then, that companies accustomed to much higher returns than this serially thumb their noses at renewables. Most notable here are the big U.S. oil and gas companies, which typically do not proceed with new hydrocarbon projects unless returns of a minimum of 15 percent are anticipated. Asked at his company’s 2015 annual meeting why Exxon continued to snub solar and wind, CEO Rex Tillerson responded witheringly, ‘we choose not to lose money on purpose’…

Another interesting thing is that the one country in the planet that is making most progress on building renewables capacity is China.

IEA, for its part, expects China to continue to be the sole meaningful over-achiever. It recently revised upwards by 728 GW its forecast for total global renewables capacity additions in the period 2023–27. China’s share of this upward revision? Almost 90 percent…

Worth your time.

My commonplace booklet

The word ‘populism’ is a gift to the far right – four reasons why we should stop using it 

Good advice from Aurelien Mondon and Alex Yates.

And the ‘four reasons’?

  1. It masks the threat posed by the far right
  2. It exaggerates the strength of the far right
  3. It legitimises far-right politics
  4. It blocks democratic progress by distracting us

Yep to all of those.


Something I noticed while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • From the you-couldn’t-make it-up department.

Saudi Arabia was on Wednesday appointed chair of the United Nations’ top forum for women’s rights and gender equality. [


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Wednesday 27 March, 2024

Picasso’s guitar?

No, mine, viewed through a distorting lens.

Quote of the Day

”The McDaniel hiring speaks to a long-running poverty of imagination at television’s news divisions. Network bosses have come to believe that the news is a river that flows out of the mouths of official sources and is then routed to viewers by former members of the club.”

  • Jack Shafer, commenting on NBC’s decision to hire Ronna McDaniel, the recently sacked Republican National Committee chair (and accomplished Trump accomplice) — to a paid gig in its studio.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Planxty | Live On Aisling Ghael Special | Scoil Lorcáin, Monkstown, Dublin, Nov 1979


Plenty was the greatest Irish folk group of my time. I first heard them in August 1972, when they had been going for about six months. It was in a small, hot crowded room in an hotel on the northern shore of Galway Bay, and I vividly remember being transfixed by them, and — mesmerised by the Uileann piper, Liam O’Flynn, who went on to become the greatest piper of his generation. It was one of those evenings one never forgets.

The video of this recording is pretty crude, and the audio quality poor. But what I liked about it is the way it accurately evokes the mood of that Summer evening in Connemara.

Long Read of the Day

Jonathan Haidt on ‘The Great Rewiring of childhood’.

Haidt is a prominent social psychologist on a mission: to persuade the (Western) world that the levels of mental illness we are currently seeing in teenagers are due mainly to two things — the over-protective parenting they have had, and the pathological impact of social media on them (especially girls). His latest book seems to place most of the blame on the latter.

I haven’t read the book (yet), but was intrigued by an interview David Epstein did with him. The transcript is long but well worth reading.


DE: You make a point in the book that’s in my mind, because I just saw some clips from the recent Congressional hearings with social media executives, where they were discussing harm and sexual exploitation and harassment of teenage girls. And at one point Mark Zuckerberg is made to turn around and apologize to families who were there who say that their children were victimized or died for reasons linked to social media. And I don’t know how to parse all of that, but it did remind me of a recurring theme in your book: that we became obsessed about safety for kids outdoors — while by every measure outdoors was getting safer since the 1990s — and completely ignored safety in the virtual world. We ignored it so much that — as you write — by law, a 13-year-old can essentially sign a contract with a company to give away their data, and even the 13-year-old age limit has no meaningful enforcement.

JH: We’ve overprotected our children in the real world, and we’ve underprotected them online. And you laying it out that way just made me realize something: that the real world used to be quite dangerous. It used to be for the last, you know, 200 or 300 million years, that when your kids wandered off out of sight, there was a good chance they’d be eaten. So the real world has always been dangerous for young mammals, yet they evolved to play. Play is so important for brain development that even when the world was insanely dangerous, for hundreds of millions of years mammal babies still went out and played, often out of sight of their mothers. That’s how important it is to play. And then we get to civilization, and murder rates plummet. Predation rates drop to zero; there are no animals eating our kids. And the chance that they’ll be murdered is microscopic, in modern societies, so things get safer and safer. But when I was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there was a huge crime wave. There were a lot of weirdos, there were a lot of drunk drivers. So even in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was much safer than previous times in history, but even still, there were risks. All those risks plummeted by the ‘90s. Drunk drivers were locked up and dissuaded; there’s much less drunk driving now. And, you know, my sister was flashed when she was a teenager — a guy just opened his raincoat. And that sort of thing happened a lot, because we didn’t lock those people away for 20 years, but now we do. So there are still people out there, but they have learned: don’t approach a kid, you’ll be arrested; just go on to Instagram — it’s safe. So as I say in the book, if we want to keep our kids safe, get them off of Instagram and send them out to play.

DE: This reminded me of the part of the book that discusses the decline in ER visits, particularly among boys, because they’re not outside engaging in risky play as much. So does this indicate that, in a way, we might want some more broken bones? Not for their own sake, of course, but as indicators that kids are outside taking some risks that might get them hurt, but not permanently, and are important for development…

In some ways Haidt reminds me of the late lamented Neil Postman, who was (IMO) the greatest cultural critic of his day. He too was a persuasive critic of the technology of his time, particularly broadcast TV, and he wrote a series of perceptive, readable and often very witty books about it, notably Amusing Ourselves to Death, The Disappearance of Childhood and Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, all of which are sitting on my bookshelves as I write.

My commonplace booklet

Cultural Memory in the Digital

Thoughtful little essay by René Walter on the intrinsic hostility to cultural memory in a digital world.

As W. David Marx in No Canon for Old Memes correctly writes, “Memes are cheap, fast, and disposable. They lose their cultural value instantly (…) Memes should be understood as a medium for expression on contemporary matters. But what is said or celebrated at any moment is only meant for that moment.”

There is no mechanism for a longterm cultural memory in the digital, everything stays fluid and is edited by a giant swarm of humans in every moment. The digital turns cultural memory in a constant river of changing cultural expressions.

But a cultural memory by definition is fixed, it’s canonized knowledge, it expresses itself over time in crystalized shapes and in things that shall not be changed. Society memorizes its history in mythologies, expressed in the arts, in rituals, in literature, in architecture and monuments, in a shared practice of doing things. Comparable to the biological neural memory in the single human brain we collectively write our history into culture.


Karel Tripp was moved by the strange photograph at the head of Monday’s edition to send me a remarkable photograph she had taken during the funeral of the late Queen.

“My picture”, she wrote,

“reminded me of the composite shot I took from the TV coverage of the Queen’s lying in state in Westminster. With a careful look you can see many aspects of the occasion all captured in one opportune moment with my iPhone 13 Pro. I am quietly proud of this even though it required absolutely no skill on my part.

That’s not quite right, IMO. Sure, the iPhone camera did the work. But it took a photographer’s ‘eye’ to see it.

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Monday 25 March, 2024

Director’s cut

Strange juxtaposition of Andrew ‘Brillopad’ Neil and someone else. Shot in 2007.

Quote of the Day

“Ideas rot if you don’t do something with them. Don’t hoard them. Blog them or otherwise tell people.”

  • Ed Dumbill

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Claude Debussy | Petite Suite for Piano Duet: En bateau | Dorota and Paweł Motyczyńska


Long video of the Day

This documentary, The Last Repair Shop, won an Oscar this year. It’s about the dedicated people who repair broken musical instruments for Los Angeles kids, and it’s the loveliest thing I’ve seen in a while. And the great thing is that it’s on YouTube, with occasional brief interruptions for ads. It’s 40 minutes long, but once you’ve embarked on it you’ll stay the course. So take a break, pour some coffee and enjoy a reminder of the better angels of our nature.

Ireland opens its arms to tech titans, but…

…Tax revenues from Silicon Valley giants have made the republic wealthy on paper, but housing and healthcare crises persist.

Yesterday’s Observer column.

In 1956, a chap named TK “Ken” Whitaker, an Irish civil servant who had trained as an economist, was appointed permanent secretary of the finance department in Dublin at the relatively young age of 39. From his vantage point at the top of his country’s treasury, the view was bleak. The Irish republic was, economically and socially, in deep trouble. It had no natural resources, very little industry and was mired in a deep depression. Inflation and unemployment were high. Ireland’s main export was its young people, who were fleeing in thousands every year, seeking work and better lives elsewhere. The proud dream of Irish independence had produced a poor, priest-ridden statelet on the brink of failure.

Whitaker immediately put together a team of younger officials who did a critical analysis of the country’s economic failings and came up with a set of policies for rescuing it. The resulting report, entitled First Programme for Economic Expansion, was published in November 1958, and after Seán Lemass was elected taoiseach (prime minister) in 1959, it became Ireland’s strategy for survival…

Do read on

Books, etc.

An old friend of mine was in Paris last week (lucky devil) and he messaged me (is that really a verb?) about a terrific photographic exhibition he’d just been to at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP). The show was curated by Lou Stoppard and celebrates the relationship between Annie Ernaux’s writing (especially her Exteriors book) and photography. Since I love her work and see no prospect of getting to Paris in the near future, I spent some time growling quietly about the Unfairness of Life, etc.

And then, two days ago, I came home after giving a talk in College and what should I find on the doorstep but this delicious little book.

It’s basically a companion-piece to the exhibition, in which snippets from Ernaux’s book Exteriors are accompanied by photographs drawn from the MEP’s collections each of which in some way resonates with the accompanying snippets.

As it happens, I had read Exteriors earlier and loved it. It’s basically a compendium of unconnected snippets — observations of things, people, situations that Arnaux has seen while going about her daily life.

Here’s an example:

The lights and clammy atmosphere of the Charles-de-Gaulle Étoile station. Women were buying jewellery at the foot of the twin escalators. In one corridor, on the ground, in an area marked out by chalk, someone had scribbled: ’To buy food. I have no family.’ But the man or woman who had written that had gone, the chalk circle was empty.. People avoided walking across it.

Time and again, the thought that came to me as I read was that “these are really photographs written in text”. And of course that’s what Ernaux had in mind. “I have sought”, she writes, “to describe reality as though the eyes of a photographer and preserve the mystery and opacity of the lives I encountered.”

So it was clever and original of Lou Stoppard to have come up with the idea for the show. Her intention, she writes in an postscript, was

to compare Ernaux’s Ernaux’s texts with photographs, placing them next to images as if working on a speculative group show. I was intrigued by what this process would reveal about how we approach literature, as opposed to photography. What would it expose about the expectation and ideals we project onto each media? Can you see a text? Can you read a photograph? Do we presume a text has more narrative, or more bias, than a photograph? Do we presume that texts can never capture the same sense of reality as photographs, cannot be ‘proof’ or ‘evidence’ (to use words that Ernaux favours). What does it mean to see ‘as if through the eyes of a photographer’? And, could you say that in Exteriors Ernaux was actually making images, rather than writing texts?

Fabulously interesting throughout. And I came away with the idea that as a photographer one should sometimes try to capture the banal rather than seeking out the exceptional.

If you haven’t read Ernaux, the New Yorker had a nice essay about her by Alexandra Schwartz after she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2022.

My commonplace booklet

A closer look at Nvidia’s 120kW DGX GB200 NVL72 rack system

From The Register. It’s quite something. A real supercomputer in a rack.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Stripe’s annual report. Now when was the last time you read a corporate report that was this readable?

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Friday 22 March, 2024

Figures in a cloister

Quote of the Day

“I’ve been accused of vulgarity. I say that’s bullshit.”

  • Mel Brooks

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Liam O’Flynn | The Rocks Of Bawn


Long Read of the Day

A World Nobody Wants

If you approach the beautiful, historic city of Cambridge from the south, travelling on the M11, what is the first thing you see? Why, a vast wall of hideous Stalinist apartment blocks of the kind that Erich Honecker might have admired, if only the GDR had been able to muster the materials to build them.

This depressing vista is what came to mind when I started on David Schaengold’s bracing essay in Compact Magazine.

Some may continue to tell themselves we live in a time of great innovation, but at least in the world of architecture, engineering, and construction, the sense of stagnation is undeniable. In 13th-century France, entire new technologies of church construction were invented, boomed, and turned into clichés in the course of 50 years. What was built during those rushes of collective mania includes some of the most beautiful and magnificent objects human hands have ever touched. America has used the same amount of time to ensure that every construction worker always wears a hard hat and a shiny vest. The only big change since 1974 is that back then, some people still believed the future might be better.

Why have we built an entire world that nobody loves? Why are the riches of the wealthiest civilization in history spent on hideous highway viaducts that crumble as soon as they are built, instead of temples, monuments, towers, boulevards, and gardens?

The world of buildings, streets, cities, and rooms is a world made by human hands. The developer thought brick veneer would sell better than something else; the architect chose a brick pattern; the bricklayer laid down the mortar and set the brick in its proper place. Someone selected the particular sink in your bathroom. Someone wrote the words of the fire code that regulates the construction of the new apartment building around the corner. And yet no one chose the whole thing, and no one likes the whole thing…

You get the idea. Do read on. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Books, etc.

After watching Timothy Garton Ash’s recent talk on “Europe at War and How the World Responds to It”, I went back to his absorbing and compulsively readable personal history of Europe. I had read it shortly after it came out and loved its combination of sharp political reporting, historical analysis and personal reflections on the continent he loves and understands.

Interestingly, it seems even better second time around. He’s such a sharp observer of recent history, and is particularly good at putting events in perspective. He views post-war history as having three phases: post-war (1945-1988); post-Wall (1989-2008); and Post-Western-World (the phase we’re now in). In that context the findings of some of his recent global polling research are sobering, especially in how they reveal the sharp divide between how Europeans view the war in Ukraine and how the rest of the world (especially the post-colonial global South) sees it.

Listening to Tiim, one begins to rethink assumptions hitherto regarded as foundational — like the notion of a bipolar world dominated by two hegemonic powers — US/‘West’ and China. He thinks we’ve moved into what he calls an “a la carte world” in which states feel free to pick and choose between the potential alliances on offer, depending on where their national interests lie. So while they may disapprove of (for example) the way China treats the Uyghurs, that doesn’t stop them buying Chinese EVs.

Re-reading this marvellous book in the light of how his thinking has evolved since its publication is a real treat.

My commonplace booklet

Carlota Perez’s ‘five surges’ model of technology evolution

Perez is one of the most profound thinkers about technology-driven cycles. We all know about the Gartner Hype Cycle, and the fact that new technology usually follows a sigmoid curve — an elongated S-shape which asymptotically flattens out at the end.

But for a while Perez has been struck by the fact that our current sigmoid seems to have broken in the middle. “With the current ICT revolution”, she muses,

we seem to be stuck in the installation period or in what I call the ‘turning point’, which is the mid-way time of recessions and uncertainty, revolts and populism that reveals the pain inflicted on society by the initial ‘creative destruction’ process. It is precisely when the system is in danger and is being questioned and attacked that politicians finally understand they must set up a win-win game between business and society. And it is the time when much of business understands it must be done.

Of course, each revolution is unique, and the pattern is not mechanical. It depends on the context and on the particularities of each set of new technologies. And yet this time, although installation has been more intense than ever, both in jobs and regional destruction and in lifting new areas and whole countries to development, post bubble crashes have not led to an institutional rethinking to unleash the better and fairer times of the Information revolution. Expectations for a golden age after the NASDAQ collapse, and again after the 2008 financial crash, have been disappointed…

She goes on to try to figure out why this time may be different.

One reason might be that

“after four revolutions replacing manual labour, the new technologies have found an enormous new territory to mechanise: mental labour!”

(Cue ‘AI’?)

Another could be that the globalisation that accompanied the digital revolution

“implies a more complex process of propagation of production and demand across many countries. The ease of internet penetration to the most hidden corners of the world, and the access to information about conditions anywhere, have made it easy to reach many more parts of the globe and much more deeply than the first globalisation from the 1870s, which was based on telegraph, railways and steamships.

It’s refreshing to encounter a thinker who manages to rise above contemporary discourse about technology, which mainly involves thinkers with short attention-spans thrashing about in the reeds.

(h/t to the incomparable Andrew Curry for reminding me about Perez. And to Bill Janeway, who first alerted me to her work.)


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • Double Helix Lacing

I like wearing boots, both for everyday use as well as long walks, but find that lacing them up can be a pain. Yesterday, my friend Quentin (Whom God Preserve) pointed me to Ian’s Shoelace Site, which in turn pointed me to this video and made my day! And maybe yours too. Sometimes, the Internet is wonderful.

This Blog is also available as an email three days a week. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays delivered to your inbox at 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!

Wednesday 20 March, 2024

Gardener’s world

Quote of the Day

”A clothes rack in search of a war zone.”

  • Gavin Jacobson on the faux intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Samuel Barber | Adagio for Strings, Op.11 | Vienna Philharmonic | (Summer Night Concert 2019)


Nice piece now that Spring is — allegedly – here.

Long Read of the Day

How the “Frontier” Became the Slogan of Uncontrolled AI

Terrific essay by Bruce Schneier about the pernicious power of metaphors.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been billed as the next frontier of humanity: the newly available expanse whose exploration will drive the next era of growth, wealth, and human flourishing. It’s a scary metaphor. Throughout American history, the drive for expansion and the very concept of terrain up for grabs—land grabs, gold rushes, new frontiers—have provided a permission structure for imperialism and exploitation. This could easily hold true for AI.

This isn’t the first time the concept of a frontier has been used as a metaphor for AI, or technology in general. As early as 2018, the powerful foundation models powering cutting-edge applications like chatbots have been called “frontier AI.” In previous decades, the internet itself was considered an electronic frontier. Early cyberspace pioneer John Perry Barlow wrote “Unlike previous frontiers, this one has no end.” When he and others founded the internet’s most important civil liberties organization, they called it the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

America’s experience with frontiers is fraught, to say the least. Expansion into the Western frontier and beyond has been a driving force in our country’s history and identity—and has led to some of the darkest chapters of our past. The tireless drive to conquer the frontier has directly motivated some of this nation’s most extreme episodes of racism, imperialism, violence, and exploitation.

That history has something to teach us about the material consequences we can expect from the promotion of AI today…

This is a long essay but worth your time because it looks at what’s going on through an insightful lens. The narrative about ‘unstoppable’ all-conquering ‘AI’ is actually the latest version of a colonial imperative — rather as “Go West, Young Man” was one for the 1890s in America.

Books, etc.

Analog nostalgia?

A funny thing happened on the way to digital utopia: people are deciding that they rather like the non-digital alternatives. My kids, though obsessed with music, are buying vinyl LPs and digging out old turntables from the family attic. And their kids are discovering the special qualities of 35mm celluloid film. In his book David Sax examines the people and companies at the forefront of analog’s new growth and argues for the enduring value of real things, even while embracing constant change.

I kept my turntable and my LPs, but they’re in storage. And I still have my film cameras, but haven’t used them much in the last few years. I bought this book a few weeks ago and the big test is whether it’ll change my behaviour.

My commonplace booklet

A laugh a minute

Nice sharp piece by Jonty Bloom on the activities of what is loosely called the UK’s ‘government’. Apparently he’s been reading the Daily Telegraph and its Sunday stablemate.

At the moment the government and its commentariat supporters are desperately trying to whip up a storm of indignation about those who are too ill to work, with the obvious solution that their benefits should be cut further. Because the way to get the ill back to work is to increase their levels of malnutrition.

Nowhere in the articles I read was there any acknowledgement that if you run down the NHS so that millions are waiting years for treatment, it shows up in the jobless figures. Nor, that if you don’t give people enough benefits to feed themselves or their children then they will develop long term health problems. Nor that if you force down wages and protections at work you end up with an underclass of people with severe anxiety and depression and other mental problems.

No, apparently they are all just lazy shirkers, enabled by woke doctors who sign them off work at the drop of a hat.

Oh, and the obvious solution is a “real” Tory government, unlike the last 14 years which have apparently been nothing but a left wing farce with policies that Labour would support.

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Monday 18 March, 2024

Cue Wordsworth…

Quote of the Day

”If economists wished to study the horse, they wouldn’t go and look at horses. They’d sit in their studies and say to themselves, ‘What would I do if I were a horse?'”

  • Ely Devons

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Carly Simon | You’re So Vain


Long Read of the Day

How Piketty discovered politics

Transcript of a fascinating interview Gavin Jacobson conducted with the celebrated French economist, Thomas Piketty. I read Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (as did 2.5 million other people) when it first came out, but not his later books. Time to fix that, methinks, starting with A Brief History of Inequality (2022), which he says is his favourite book.

Lots of interesting things in the conversation.

At the beginning, for example, Jacobson asks Piketty for his thoughts on the success of ‘Capital’ and on the ways his thinking has evolved sine its publication.

GJ: To what extent has your work since the publication of Capital in the Twenty-First Century been about taking ownership of how the book was understood? Do you feel torn between two Thomas Piketties: the one who has tried to demonstrate evidence of an iron law of capital, and the other who highlights the importance of contingent factors and the politics behind inequality? Have you become more explicitly political in your analysis?**  TP: My own thinking and writing would have evolved even without the success of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The main impact of the debate around that book was merely that it accelerated the transition of my research to a more global, south/north approach and to give more explicit attention to political ideology. I’ve written several books since 2014, on subjects such as voting structures, and I’ve recently published another with my wife Julia Cagé [the economist] on French political conflict, as well as embarking on new research programmes on the structure of political cleavages and ideologies around the world. I think my research would have evolved in this direction in any case.

But it is true that the debate around Capital helped me to realise the book’s limitations. One of which is that I put excessive emphasis on the universal law of capital…

He did, which in a way explains why two of his later books — on ideology — were attempts to explore variations in the effectiveness of that ‘universal law’.

Interesting throughout.

TikTok may be on borrowed time in the US, but it still holds a Trump card

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Last week, the US House of Representatives, a dysfunctional body that hitherto could not agree on anything, suddenly converged on a common project: a bipartisan bill that would force TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, to sell the app to an owner of another nationality, or else face a ban in the US, TikTok’s largest market.

American legislators’ concerns about the social media app have been simmering for years, mostly focused on worries that the Chinese government could compel ByteDance (and therefore TikTok) to hand over data on TikTok users or manipulate content on the platform. A year ago, Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, told Congress that TikTok “is a tool that is ultimately within the control of the Chinese government – and it, to me, it screams out with national security concerns”.

These fears were amplified by the raging popularity of TikTok among US users. It has upwards of 170 million of them and their addiction to it has bothered Mark Zuckerberg and his empire for the very good reason that TikTok is the only other social media game in town. Six of the world’s 10 most downloaded apps last year were owned by Meta, Facebook’s parent. But TikTok, beat all of them except Instagram to the top spot.

TikTok is ferociously addictive, at least for people under 30. What bothers Meta most is that TikTok extracts far more granular data from its users than any other platform…

Do read on.

Books, etc.

Diane Coyle is an eminent economist with an office on the floor above where our centre is based. She’s also a member of our Advisory Board, and one of the smartest people I know. This is her latest book — an extended set of reflections on what’s wrong with economics as a discipline (of which a lack of gender and social diversity is just one shortcoming) and what could be done to improve things.

She explains the book’s title thus:

”Cogs are the self-interested individuals assumed by mainstream economics, acting as independent, calculating agents in defined contexts. The monsters are snowballing, socially-influenced, untethered phenomena of the digital economy, the uncharted territory where so much is still unknown (labelled ‘Here Be Monsters’, in medieval maps. In treating us all as cogs, economics is inadvertently creating monsters, emergent phenomena it does not have the tools to understand.”

This is a critique whose time has come. And what’s great about it is that it comes not from some yahoo like me shouting abuse from outside the tent, but from an exceedingly distinguished insider. Which is why I bought it the other day.

Her blog is also terrific, btw.

My commonplace booklet

I’ll be surprised if the US Congress’s enthusiasm for forcing TikTok to detach itself from its Chinese parent actually comes to fruition. First of all, the Senate has to get its geriatric act together. Then there would be legal challenges on First Amendment grounds. And in any event the Chinese government is adamantly opposed to the idea.

But none of these eventualities has dissuades a motley crew of American predators starting to circle TikTok much as hyenas circle a wounded gazelle. Their activities have led Robert Reich to ask a relevant question: Who do you trust more with TikTok — China, or American billionaires?

It’s a toss-up, I’d say


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • As a regular cyclist, I find this interesting:

Copilot is an AI-powered bike light that uses smart sensors to constantly watch the roadway. Cyclists will receive audible and visual feedback from Copilot to indicate driver behavior and warn cyclists of potentially dangerous situations. Audible and visual cues will also indicate to drivers that a cyclist is near in order to avoid potential crashes.

Shipping soon for about $400. And it’s powered by a Raspberry-Pi!

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Friday 15 March, 2024

And the mural of the story is…

Brignoles, France.

Quote of the Day

“Raw data is an oxymoron.”

  • Lisa Gitelman

Simple and profound truth that is rarely understood in contemporary discourses. All data collection is the product of human choices (what to collect, how to classify it, who’s included and excluded, etc.) It reminds me of Karl Popper’s point that “all observation is drenched in theory”: we only see (or notice) what we are looking for.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Zombie | Cranberries | Alexandr Misko (guitar), Alexander Boldachev (harp)


A string duet of the somber, defiant Cranberries song “Zombie” in tribute to Alexei Navalny, whom both musicians greatly admired.

Long Read of the Day

 Something Like Fire

Will the AI revolution warm us or burn us?

Remarkable long, long essay by Michael Totten in City Journal.

The debate over whether AI will be a net positive or net negative runs along a spectrum. Google’s chief AI engineer, Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near, is on the optimistic (even utopian) edge of that spectrum. A few years ago, he gave a talk about what he calls the Law of Accelerating Returns—how information technology has advanced at a double-exponential rate since the 1890s. This isn’t only because of Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles roughly every two years. Rather, information technology evolves exponentially because innovations build on one another in a positive feedback loop, a process that began before Gordon Moore was born and before integrated circuits even existed.

Exponential growth is radically counterintuitive. How much money do you think you’ll have after 30 years if you put $1 into an account that doubles in value every year? The answer: $1 billion. Thirty years after that, you’ll need exponents to render how much money you have. Think of exponential growth as a mathematical singularity, a value that approaches, but never quite reaches, infinity. In the function y=1/x, for example, as the value of x gets closer and closer to zero, the value of y explodes. You can plot y on a graph and watch it begin as a slowly rising horizontal line that accelerates upward before becoming a nearly vertical wall.

Our information technology is currently advancing at a double-exponential rate; but even if it were doing so only at a single-exponential rate, 30 years from now we will have the equivalent of a billion years of progress based on our current rate of speed, unless, for the first time ever, the growth curve finally—and dramatically—slows.

Nearly all forecasters fail to account for this…

Read on. It’s good.

Books, etc.

I went to a very interesting conversation last night between Diane Coyle (Whom God Preserve) and Verity Harding, author of a new book about how we might go about ensuring that AI is used for human flourishing.

The book has three big case-studies which in different ways illustrate ways of thinking about both enabling and controlling powerful technologies: the Space race and the United Nations’s Outer Space Treaty of 1967; the way the UK went about regulating the novel — and potentially dangerous — technology of in-vitro fertilisation (IVF); and the creation and evolution of the Internet in the period before 9/11. In conversation with Diane and members of the audience, Harding was very impressive. She also has had a remarkable range of experience in both AI (she was an early hire at DeepMind) and politics (she worked for Nick Clegg when he was Deputy Prime Minister — before he became Zuckerberg’s bagman).

So of course I bought the book, but didn’t wait to get her to sign it; the queue was too long and I was late for dinner. Looking forward to delving into it.

My commonplace booklet

Like me, Robert Reich is wondering why mainstream media isn’t covering Trump’s mental disintegration.

The media continues to discuss Trump’s criminal indictments, and is — finally! — noticing that Trump is becoming less and less coherent. But why isn’t it reporting on something almost every lawmaker and journalist in official Washington knows — that Trump is remarkably stupid?

I don’t mean just run-of-the-mill stupid. I mean extraordinarily, off-the-charts, stupifyingly stupid.

He recently claimed that magnets don’t work in water, that the Civil War was unnecessary because it should have been “negotiated,” and that no one would know who Lincoln was if he hadn’t gone to war.

Then there are the views of the people who worked most closely with him during his presidency. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Trump a “f—king moron?”

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster called him a “dope?” And Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and even Rupert Murdoch all referred to Trump as an “idiot?” (Technically, Murdoch called him a “f—king idiot.”)

Reich’s conclusion, though, is interesting. Trump may not be intelligent on any scale that we measure it. But he has high Emotional Intelligence, at least in the sense that he is good at stoking the emotions of his fans.


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Wednesday 13 March, 2024

My TV critic

I was the Observer’s TV critic for eight years, so I’ve done my tour of duty as a couch potato. Accordingly, I now watch very little TV, and this guy stands watching me accusingly whenever I succumb. In vain did I protest that I was only watching the rugby match between Ireland and England on Saturday. (Ireland lost by a whisper.)

Quote of the Day

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

  • Arthur Ashe

Good advice from a great tennis player. But actually it’s a motto that also applies to life generally.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ennio Morricone | Man with a harmonica (Once upon a time in the West)


Extraordinary piece.

Thinking Aloud

This is an experiment. As I go about my various day jobs I often find myself thinking about something I’ve read or heard on the news but don’t have the time to write it. So the other day I took out my phone and dumped my momentary stream of consciousness into it. Not sure if it works, but I thought I’d give it a try. Here’s one from yesterday.

Long Read of the Day

Sharing the Tech Wealth

Terrific essay by my colleague, Diane Coyle.

TL;DR summary is: Big Tech firms flagrantly disregard the implicit social contract that enables capitalist economies to thrive. The time has come to curb their market power and establish the institutional mechanisms necessary to prevent the benefits of technological innovation from being monopolised by a privileged few.

But that’s just the summary. Do read the whole thing.

It’s hard to over-estimate the important of her argument. Democracy depends on a social contract with capitalism. Since the 1970s, that contract has been weakened and then broken (Martin Wolf link) by neoliberal ruling elites. And the tech companies, with their colossal profit margins, have been generating wealth at a rate — and on a scale — that John D. Rockefeller and his peers couldn’t even imagine. But none of this wealth is currently being shared. If this isn’t fixed, societal breakdown lies ahead, with predictable and ultimately catastrophic consequences for democracies.

Books, etc.

Martin Wolf and democracy’s ‘doom loop’

I’ve had this book for a while, but had only dipped into it. I’m now embarked on a proper reading because it covers territory of something I’m working on. The book is about the fragile, rocky marriage between liberal democracy and capitalism. Wolf’s fear is that capitalism is now undermining, perhaps destroying, the democracy that has in the past saved it from itself (just think of the way the banks were rescued in 2008). As Bill Emmott points out in his review of the book, “there is nothing new in worrying about democracy, nor about capitalism. But, to borrow a phrase from the 2011-12 euro sovereign debt crisis, Wolf’s fear is that this once productive pairing might now have trapped itself in a kind of doom loop”.

Wolf is a deeply serious man, who owes his existence to the fact that some of his Jewish ancestors were insightfully pessimistic and made their escape from the Continent before Hitler got to them. If he sees trouble ahead, then it’d be foolish not to pay attention to what’s happening all around us.

My commonplace booklet

The “Aha!” Moment

From Seth Godin:

The most effective persuasion happens when we persuade ourselves.

The purpose of the memo or the table or the graph or the presentation is to create the conditions for someone to make up their own minds. Because it’s almost impossible to make up their mind for them.

The aha is actually a chemical reaction, a rewiring of our brain, the moment when we see what we hadn’t seen before and make a new decision based on what we believe to be new information.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

Back to the bog

The conventional idea about offsetting carbon emissions involves planting trees. But a fascinating item in Andrew Curry’s unmissable blog makes the point that regenerating peat bogs is a much more efficient — and cheaper — alternative.


Tom Roper was prompted to write by my (mis)attribution of a quotation in Monday’s edition:

May I point out, though, that the expression ‘optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect’, though used by Gramsci, was originally the formulation of Romain Rolland? See Francesca Antonini. (2022) Gramsci on Bureaucracy. Italian Culture 40:1, pages 16-26. for a discussion of this point.

Which nicely confirms my belief about the delights of being a blogger: often, your readers know more than you do :-)

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Monday 11 March, 2024

Guess which way the wind blows

North Norfolk

Quote of the Day

“ Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naïvete.”

  • Maria Popova

Reminds me of Gramsci’s adage — that what we need is “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will”. Except that I would substitute ‘realism’ for ‘pessimism’.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bruce Springsteen | No Surrender (Live at Meadowlands Arena, E. Rutherford, NJ – August 1984)


I love this recording of the song.

Long Read of the Day

Viewing the Ob-scene: On Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest”

I’ve been putting off going to see the film, largely because I dread the prospect. But having read David Hering’s striking essay about it by in The LA Review of Books I have to see it.

Here’s how Hering’s piece opens.

A MAN IS being murdered outside a child’s window. A prisoner of Auschwitz, he was caught fighting with another captive. As punishment, he’s being drowned in a river. We can’t see the incident, but the child can. He moves over to the window and looks out beyond our field of vision. Almost immediately, he withdraws back into the room, and utters a gnomic phrase: “Don’t do that again.”

To viewers watching this scene, it’s unclear to whom this is directed: to the prisoners, to the toy soldiers with which the boy has been playing, or to himself. If it’s the prisoners, he has inculcated the values of the murderers who live in his house; he is the son of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, whose home lies on the other side of the camp wall. If it’s the toys, his revulsion at the murder has been redirected to miniature avatars of those outside his window. Most likely, he is talking to himself, and the thing he must not do again is look at what’s happening next door. Better to stay indoors, on the other side of the wall, and withdraw into the make-believe narrative of his toys. The window, as so often occurs in The Zone of Interest (2023), the film from which this scene is taken, is a blinding white square covered by a gauzy curtain. Something awful we cannot see is happening, just out of sight.

The Zone of Interest focuses on the everyday lives of the Höss family. We never see what happens inside Auschwitz, which appears only as a backdrop. Its towers loom above the concrete garden wall, the smoke from its chimneys spreads upwards into the sky, and human bones are washed downstream into the nearby river. We hear sounds of gunfire, screams, barked orders, and machinery, all of which play out over the Höss family’s domestic lives. Each day, Rudolf Höss leaves his house, murders countless prisoners, and comes home to read his children a bedtime story…

It’s a really compelling essay. Criticism at its best.

EU finally sinks its regulatory teeth into tech giants

Yesterday’s Observer column

Last Wednesday was a landmark moment for the tech industry, or at any rate for that part of it that aspires to do business in the EU. It was the day when six of the biggest companies in the world had to start complying with the EU’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) – the most sweeping law thus far aimed at regulating their activities in one of the world’s biggest marketplaces.

The act – which aims to promote fair competition and limit the market power of the largest tech companies (“gatekeepers”) – has been long in gestation, and was vigorously opposed by them from the outset. So the fact that it emerged from the Brussels lawmaking process with some of its teeth still intact is itself a small miracle. But what is even more delicious is to see these behemoths grudgingly announcing how they are going to comply with what they see as an infuriating infringement of their freedom to do whatever they please.

Read on

Books, etc.

Córy Doctorow’s review alerted me to this.

Engineering professor and materials scientist Deb Chachra’s new book How Infrastructure Works is a hopeful, lyrical – even beautiful – hymn to the systems of mutual aid we embed in our material world, from sewers to roads to the power grid. It’s a book that will make you see the world in a different way – forever:

Chachra structures the book as a kind of travelogue, in which she visits power plants, sewers, water treatment plants and other “charismatic megaprojects,” connecting these to science, history, and her own memoir. In so doing, she doesn’t merely surface the normally invisible stuff that sustains us all, but also surfaces its normally invisible meaning…

Infrastructure underpins our world, and yet we pay little attention to it. And — at least in the case of the UK’s public water infrastructure — we turn it over to private-equity and other monopolistic rent-seekers who let sewage pollute rivers while they pay grotesque dividends to directors

My commonplace booklet

How Pseudo-Intellectualism Ruined Journalism

William Deresiewicz provides an original lens through which to view the decay of mainstream American journalism.

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Friday 8 March, 2024


Magdalene College yesterday morning. I’m always astonished what skilled gardeners can do with headstrong plants.

Quote of the Day

“I don’t want to be immortal through my works, I want to be immortal through not dying.”

  • Woody Allen

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bach | Cantata BWV 147 | Daniil Trifonov


Long Read of the Day

Of top-notch algorithms and zoned-out humans

Sobering essay by the FT columnist Tim Harford on what can happen when we become accustomed to relying on smart machines.

This is how it opens:

On June 1 2009, Air France Flight 447 vanished on a routine transatlantic flight. The circumstances were mysterious until the black box flight recorder was recovered nearly two years later, and the awful truth became apparent: three highly trained pilots had crashed a fully functional aircraft into the ocean, killing all 288 people on board, because they had become confused by what their Airbus 330’s automated systems had been telling them.

I’ve recently found myself returning to the final moments of Flight 447, vividly described by articles in Popular Mechanics and Vanity Fair. I cannot shake the feeling that the accident has something important to teach us about both the risks and the enormous rewards of artificial intelligence.

The latest generative AI can produce poetry and art, while decision-making AI systems have the power to find useful patterns in a confusing mess of data. These new technologies have no obvious precursors, but they do have parallels. Not for nothing is Microsoft’s suite of AI tools now branded “Copilot”. “Autopilot” might be more accurate, but either way, it is an analogy worth examining.

Back to Flight 447. The A330 is renowned for being smooth and easy to fly, thanks to a sophisticated flight automation system called assistive fly-by-wire. Traditionally the pilot has direct control of the aircraft’s flaps, but an assistive fly-by-wire system translates the pilot’s jerky movements into smooth instructions. This makes it hard to crash an A330, and the plane had a superb safety record before the Air France tragedy. But, paradoxically, there is a risk to building a plane that protects pilots so assiduously from error. It means that when a challenge does occur, the pilots will have very little experience to draw on as they try to meet that challenge…

And of course such a challenge did arise.

Books, etc.

This came out in 2022 and I missed it. Now rectifying that mistake.

My commonplace booklet

The Pen, Mightier

As someone who collects fountain pens (and tries never to write with anything else) I’m a sucker for essay about pens and the writing process. This is the latest I’ve come across. If you suffer from the same affliction you might enjoy it.


There was a glaring typo in Wednesday’s edition, when I was writing about “an experience that one never forgets” and it came out as “never gorgets”. Thanks to the readers who tactfully drew this to my attention.

Max Whitby (Whom God Preserve) though, took matters a stage further. “Thanks to your typo,” he wrote, “we can now discover the fascinating history of the neck croissant — via a YouTube video: The 18th Century Gorget: A Vestigial Authority Symbol.

This Blog is also available as an email three days a week. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays delivered to your inbox at 6am UK time. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!