Monday 10 January, 2022


Amazing plants. Seen on a woodland walk yesterday.

Quote of the Day

“Many single-species societies in nature are like a human society in the grip of civil war. A single human society at war with itself is a complex adaptive system, in the sense that it is composed of agents following their respective adaptive strategies. But clearly, and this is a crucial distinction, the society suffering a civil war is not itself adaptive as a system. After all, it’s breaking apart.

  • David Sloan Wilson, in an essay on E.O. Wilson

I was reminded of this as I pondered the chronic divisions in Washington four days ago.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

When I was putting together the January 6 edition of this blog last week, I thought of selecting a bizarre recording of the Soviet Red Army choir singing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ but then rejected the thought for couple of reasons: it would have been a tastelessly ironic commentary on the anniversary of an ominous portent; and the fact that (as an ignoramus) I actually knew very little about the hymn. So I selected a more upbeat track instead.

Only later did I read Heather Cox Richardson’s blog post on the day. This is how it began:

Just before sunrise on a November day in 1861, Massachusetts abolitionist Julia Ward Howe woke up in the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. She got out of bed, found a pen, and began to write about the struggle in which the country was engaged: could any nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” survive, or would such a nation inevitably descend into hierarchies and minority rule?

Howe had faith in America. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” she wrote in the gray dawn. “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword; His truth is marching on.”

She thought of the young soldiers she had seen the day before, huddled around fires in the raw winter weather, ringing the city to protect it from the soldiers of the Confederacy who were fighting to create a nation that rejected the idea that all men were created equal: “I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps; They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps; I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps, His day is marching on.”

Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic became inspiration for the soldiers protecting the United States government. And in a four-year war that took hundreds of thousands of lives, they prevailed. Despite the threats to Washington, D.C., and the terrible toll the war took, they made sure the Confederate flag never flew in the U.S. Capitol.

And guess what? Here’s a photograph taken on January 6, inside the Capitol. The emblem of white supremacy had reached the heart of the American government.

At which point, I regretted not having the hymn as the Musical Alternative of the day. So here it is, belatedly … sung by Joan Baez


Later in the day I was reminded that I also chose this recording for the edition of 5 November, 2020 as I pondered the numbers who had voted for Trump. An equally sombre moment.

Long Read of the Day

Capital Is Not a Strategy

If you’re looking for an intelligent antidote to the current irrational investment bubble, then this essay by Bill Janeway on Project Syndicate is just the ticket. In it he points out that the apparently limitless supply of low-cost capital available to entrepreneurs and early-stage venture-capital firms has led to the proliferation of business models with little or no potential to generate sustainable, self-financed growth. A delusion — “capital as a strategy” — has taken hold. “In the low-friction world of internet-delivered or mediated services, start-ups are eager to spend ever-greater amounts of other people’s money to acquire customers, the goal being to emerge victorious in a winner-takes-all race.”

And the strange thing is that we all know how this is ultimately going to end.

Great read. Worth your time. And if you want more, there’s the new edition of Bill’s book, Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy which, as it happens, I’ve been re-reading for something I’m working on at the moment.

Why the craze for crypto art really is beyond satire

Yesterday’s Observer column:

On 24 December, the movie Don’t Look Up began streaming on Netflix following a limited release in cinemas. It’s a satirical story, directed by Adam McKay, about what happens when a lowly PhD student (played by Jennifer Lawrence) and her supervisor (Leonardo DiCaprio) discover that an Everest-size asteroid is heading for Earth. What happens is that they try to warn their fellow Earthlings about this existential threat only to find that their intended audience isn’t interested in hearing such bad news.

The movie has been widely watched but has had a pasting from critics. It was, said the Observer‘s Simran Hans, a “shrill, desperately unfunny climate-change satire”. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw found it a “laboured, self-conscious and unrelaxed satire… like a 145-minute Saturday Night Live sketch with neither the brilliant comedy of Succession … nor the seriousness that the subject might otherwise require”.

Those complaints about crudity and OTT-ness rang a bell. It just so happens that a distinctly over-the-top satire published in 1729 attracted comparable reactions…

Read on

The UK’s kleptocracy problem

How servicing post-Soviet elites weakens the rule of law

Bracing report by Chatham House on how London has become the money-laundering capital of the world. The UK does, of course, have laws against that kind of thing. But the report shows that failures of enforcement and implementation of the law – plus the exploitation of loopholes by professional enablers (including some of the City’s fanciest legal firms) – have meant that little has been done in practice to prevent kleptocratic wealth and political agendas from entering Britain.

It’s a long, long read which will shock only those who have been vacationing on Mars. If you’re pressed for time, just see the Summary. Or, better still, Cory Doctorow’s acerbic analysis, especially this paragraph:

As interested as oligarchs are in being associated with the charitable sector, they’re even more interested in funding the UK Conservative Party itself. The Tories’ co-chairman Ben Elliot has formalized a “cash for access” arrangement where major donors are invited to private events and dinners with ministers and the PM. Elliot is a natural to court oligarchs for the Tories; his day job is running a “luxury concierge service” called Quintessentially, which provides “services” to the ultra wealthy. Elliot’s spox says that this work is “entirely separate” from his work as co-chair of the Tories.

All of which puts Boris Johnson’s wallpaper wheeze into context. By comparison with what his funders facilitate, it’s really small change. That’s no reason to ignore it, but it provides an ironic commentary on his fatuous declaration at COP26 that Britain is not a corrupt state.

My commonplace booklet

Don’t throw apple cores out the car window

I’m normally pretty scrupulous about not littering, but one thing I have done in the past is to throw apple cores out of the window onto roadside verges. After reading this piece by Katherine Martinko, though, I won’t be doing it from now on. Turns out that a study of apple trees along the sides of the M9 and A9 highways in Scotland by Dr. Markus Ruhsam, a botanist and molecular ecologist at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, has revealed that more than half have sprouted from supermarket apple varieties that have most likely been pitched out a car window in passing. This is a concern because the cultivated varieties cross-pollinate with wild apples to create hybrids that could lead to the eventual demise of wild varieties.

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