Friday 14 May, 2021

We do the Irish Times cryptic crossword every morning. So, occasionally, does one of our cats.

Quote of the Day

”It’s so beautifully arranged on the plate — you know someone’s fingers have been all over it.”

  • Julia Child on Nouvelle Cuisine

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mendelssohn | Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave) | London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado


Long Read of the Day

Tony Blair: Without total change Labour will die

The Labour Party needs complete deconstruction and reconstruction. Nothing less will do.

An interesting piece in the New Statesman by the man who, if he hadn’t made the catastrophic mistake of following George W. Bush into Iraq, would be regarded as one of the three great British Prime Ministers of the 20th century. (The other two being Clement Atlee and Churchill.)

I came on the piece after reading a number of gloomy (but — I think — accurate) diagnoses of the terminal decline that now faces the Labour Party, no matter who leads it.

“The progressive problem”, writes Blair,

is that, in an era where people want change in a changing world, and a fairer, better and more prosperous future, the radical progressives aren’t sensible and the sensible aren’t radical. The choice is therefore between those who fail to inspire hope and those who inspire as much fear as hope. So, the running is made by the new radical left, with the “moderates” dragged along behind, uncomfortably mouthing a watered-down version of the left’s policies while occasionally trying to dig in their heels to stop further sliding towards the alienation of the centre.

The result is that today progressive politics has an old-fashioned economic message of Big State, tax and spend which, other than the spending part (which the right can do anyway), is not particularly attractive. This is combined with a new-fashioned social/cultural message around extreme identity and anti-police politics which, for large swathes of people, is voter-repellent. “Defund the police” may be the left’s most damaging political slogan since “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. It leaves the right with an economic message which seems more practical, and a powerful cultural message around defending flag, family and fireside traditional values. To top it off, the right evinces a pride in their nation, while parts of the left seem embarrassed by the very notion.

He’s a bit too glib and upbeat IMHO about topics like tech and science and climate change. But see what you think. Worth reading all the way through.

Are bosses dictators?

I’ve been reading the work of Elizabeth Anderson and am very struck by it. This New Yorker review of her most recent book,  Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It) captures its essence well.

In the book, Anderson explores a striking American contradiction.

On the one hand, we are a freedom-obsessed society, wary of government intrusion into our private lives; on the other, we allow ourselves to be tyrannized by our bosses, who enjoy broad powers of micromanagement and coercion. Anderson believes that many American workers are constrained by rules that would be “unconstitutional for democratic states to impose on citizens who are not convicts or in the military.” She estimates that more than half are “subject to dictatorship at work.” In “Private Government,” she asks whether this might be a failure of our political system — a betrayal of America’s democratic promise.

The answer, of course, is yes. The really interesting question is why our societies tolerate it. Workers tolerate corporate dictatorship because most of them have little or no choice. It’s the company’s way or the highway. But one of the striking aspects of the recent Basecamp revolt is that in the tech industry some kinds of employees do have a choice, because they can always walk out and straight into another well-paid job, tomorrow. And that may, in due course, turn out to be a more countervailing power than we imagined.

Anderson is a very interesting thinker on equality (and therefore on inequality) and a pragmatist in the John Dewey tradition.

On Trouser Pockets

Odd title, you might think, but it’s over a lovely essay on design by Sam Bleckley.

Pockets in tight jeans look bad. Putting a modern slab phone, a wallet, and keys into a pair of skinny jeans will leave even the most fashionable figure looking looking like they’re wearing batman’s utility belt as underwear. Even empty, in tight pants a large pocket bag can show through.

The alternative, as many women know from first-hand experience, is a pocket too small to put anything in.

A wallet in the back pocket can cause back pain and bad posture.

Many of us spend most of our time sitting, but all four traditional pockets are totally inaccessible in that position. So we take out our phone, just in case, before we sit down at the restaurant — guaranteeing a distraction.

Aesthetics, storage, and access: these are user needs that are currently poorly fulfilled — and that means things are ripe for innovation.

So what if we were to design pockets from scratch? Well, first you’d have to study what people actually use pockets for. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it. But I suspect garment manufacturers haven’t asked that question for thirty years.

Worth reading. Great fun.

Taking UFOs (more) seriously

Last month the New Yorker published a long piece by Gideon Lewis-Kraus about the rise of American congressional, military and media interest in UFOs. I found it an absorbing and fascinating essay, and so did the NYT columnist, Ezra Klein, who was moved to propose a thought experiment:

Imagine, tomorrow, an alien craft crashed down in Oregon. There are no life-forms in it. It’s effectively a drone. But it’s undeniably extraterrestrial in origin. So we are faced with the knowledge that we’re not alone, that we are perhaps being watched, and we have no way to make contact. How does that change human culture and society?

One immediate effect, I suspect, would be a collapse in public trust. Decades of U.F.O. reports and conspiracies would take on a different cast. Governments would be seen as having withheld a profound truth from the public, whether or not they actually did. We already live in an age of conspiracy theories. Now the guardrails would truly shatter, because if U.F.O.s were real, despite decades of dismissals, who would remain trusted to say anything else was false? Certainly not the academics who’d laughed them off as nonsense, or the governments who would now be seen as liars.

“I’ve always resisted the conspiracy narrative around U.F.O.s,” Alexander Wendt, a professor of international security at Ohio State University who has written about U.F.O.s, told me. “I assume the governments have no clue what any of this is and they’re covering up their ignorance, if anything. That’s why you have all the secrecy, but people may think they were being lied to all along.”

The question, then, would be who could impose meaning on such an event. “Instead of a land grab, it would be a narrative grab,” Diana Pasulka, author of “American Cosmic: U.F.O.s, Religion, Technology,” told me. There would be enormous power — and money — in shaping the story humanity told itself. If we were to believe that the contact was threatening, military budgets would swell all over the world. A more pacific interpretation might orient humanity toward space travel or at least interstellar communication. Pasulka says she believes this narrative grab is happening even now, with the military establishment positioning itself as the arbiter of information over any U.F.O. events.

Time to call Elon Musk. On second thoughts, perhaps not. He could be one of those super-intelligent aliens that the conspiracy theories were always worrying about.

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