Monday 6 December, 2021

A morning view

Imagine opening the curtains in your hotel room one morning and seeing this scene.

Well, we did, just over a week ago. And it made me vow to return to Yorkshire in the Spring.

Quote of the Day

”A distributor of short messages.”

  • The Economist’s succinct description of Twitter.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Aaron Copland | Simple Gifts


Yeah, well it is nearly Christmas, after all.

Long Read of the Day

What Can the Metaverse Learn From Second Life?

An IEEE Spectrum interview with Philip Rosedale, a virtual-reality pioneer who was the chief architect of Second Life until he left in 2009.


It’s interesting to note that Second Life is, in my opinion, still the largest and the closest thing to a metaverse that we have as it relates to grown-ups. The environments that are used by kids, such as Roblox, are very interesting as well but very different in terms of what they offer. If you talk about people wanting to go to a live concert, or wanting to go shopping or something like that, I think Second Life is still US $650 million a year in transactions and a million people using it. But Second Life didn’t grow beyond about a million people. It’s been growing more with COVID, but as you say, it didn’t break out, it didn’t become a billion people. And the hope that Facebook has is that there’ll be a billion people using a metaverse.

Sensible throughout. Especially this sentence: “Any single-company, advertising-based, attention-based strategy for building virtual spaces would potentially be extremely damaging to people”. Which, of course, is exactly what Facebook has in mind.

Does the Twitter CEO’s departure signal a platform identity crisis?

Yesterday’s Observer column:

So Jack Dorsey has stepped down as the CEO of Twitter. This means that the company has had four CEOs in its 15 years of existence, with Dorsey occupying the role twice, but in all that time it’s had only one business model, which may largely explain his departure.

There are interesting parallels between Dorsey’s relationship with the company he co-founded and Steve Jobs’s with Apple, for both were ousted at one stage by their board colleagues and were then brought back to rescue said colleagues from their incompetence.

And the parallels don’t stop there. During their sojourns in the wilderness, both men founded successful new companies, in Dorsey’s case the payments firm Square, in Jobs’s case the computer firm NeXT Inc, after which he went on to transform the Lucasfilm graphics company into Pixar. For both men, these were profitable periods of exile: Square is now valued at $100bn; Jobs sold Pixar to Disney for $7.4bn and got a seat on the Disney board. Which only goes to show that sometimes being fired is the best thing that can happen to a visionary.

Do read the whole thing.

So who polices Interpol?

From this week’s Economist

Matthew hedges, a British doctoral student, says he spent nearly seven months mostly in solitary confinement in a prison in the United Arab Emirates (uae). He tells of being drugged, interrogated, blindfolded and forced to stand all day in manacles. He falsely confessed to being a spy just to end the agony, he says. He was eventually pardoned and freed. To his horror, the man he accuses of complicity in his torture, Ahmed Naser al-Raisi, the inspector-general of the uae interior ministry at the time, who was in charge of prisons, was neither sacked nor demoted. The uae denies the claims and on November 25th Mr al-Raisi was elected Interpol’s new president.

Interpol was set up to help countries’ police forces work together to catch crooks. It has an unfortunate habit of employing them instead. Jackie Selebi, its president from 2004 to 2008, was later sentenced to 15 years in jail for corruption in his native South Africa. Meng Hongwei, the boss from 2016 to 2018, was summoned back to China, disappeared, reappeared in the dock and got 13-and-a-half years for bribery. (His wife says he was framed.) A cynic might ask: whose side is Interpol on?

It’s not just cynics who ask that question.

What if the All England Club had been in charge?

John Lanchester has a characteristically brilliant review essay in The London Review of Books on five books about the Covid crisis, which I hope is not behind the magazine’s paywall. Among other things, it’s an excoriating account of the ignorance, incompetence, indolence and corruption of Boris Johnson’s government, but it starts with an interesting thought-experiment. Here’s how it goes…

The weird world – Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic – has responded poorly to Covid, and part of the reason is that the weird world had been existing at a distance from this central reality of human history. As Adam Tooze points out in his brilliant book Shutdown, 91 per cent of deaths in the contemporary West are from noncommunicable diseases like cancers and strokes and heart attacks, many of them illnesses associated with modern lifestyles. The equivalent figure in sub-Saharan Africa is 34 per cent. We have a generation of leaders in the West who have no visceral understanding of the risks posed by infectious illness. In addition, as David Runciman has pointed out, politicians and government don’t get credit for the disasters and failures they prevent. The combination of these two factors – generational obliviousness and the bias away from the good governance of prevention – goes a long way to explaining why the UK government, despite having had the possibility of pandemic at the top of its risk register since that register was instituted in 2008, was so woefully unprepared for an event it was its job to predict and either prevent or mitigate.

The story of the UK is not the whole story of the global pandemic, but it is worth taking a moment to look at the local specifics. We could take as a benchmark the All England Club, which manages Wimbledon. In 2003, having learned from the experience of Sars, Wimbledon began paying around £1.5 million a year to insure against the cost of a pandemic. As a result, when Covid hit, the club trousered cheques totalling £174 million to cover the cost of the cancelled 2020 tournament. That is what competent governance looks like. What would the UK response have looked like if the All England Club had been in charge? What would the Wimbledon number – the death toll assuming competent government – have been?

My commonplace booklet

Two things:

  • Bell Pepper Time Lapse: From Seed to Fruit in 115 Days. Fascinating video

  • 52 things Tom Whitwell learned in 2021 Link

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!