Monday 5 April, 2021

Blackthorn blossom, seen on our walk in the Fens this afternoon.

Quote of the Day

”I myself have accomplished nothing of excellence except a remarkable, and to my friends, unaccountable expertise in hitting empty ginger ale bottles with small rocks at a distance of thirty paces.”

  • James Thurber (who a remarkable English teacher at school encouraged me to read)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison | No More Lockdown


Long Read of the Day

What Data Can’t Do

Lovely New Yorker essay by Hannah Fry in which she reviews two books on data-driven decision-making, Counting: How We Use Numbers to Decide What Matters by Deborah Stone, the other, The Data Detective, by Tim Harford. Here’s a sample:

The particular mistake that Tony Blair and his policy mavens made is common enough to warrant its own adage: once a useful number becomes a measure of success, it ceases to be a useful number. This is known as Goodhart’s law, and it reminds us that the human world can move once you start to measure it. Deborah Stone writes about Soviet factories and farms that were given production quotas, on which jobs and livelihoods depended. Textile factories were required to produce quantities of fabric that were specified by length, and so looms were adjusted to make long, narrow strips. Uzbek cotton pickers, judged on the weight of their harvest, would soak their cotton in water to make it heavier. Similarly, when America’s first transcontinental railroad was built, in the eighteen-sixties, companies were paid per mile of track. So a section outside Omaha, Nebraska, was laid down in a wide arc, rather than a straight line, adding several unnecessary (yet profitable) miles to the rails. The trouble arises whenever we use numerical proxies for the thing we care about. Stone quotes the environmental economist James Gustave Speth: “We tend to get what we measure, so we should measure what we want.”

The problem isn’t easily resolved, though. The issues around Goodhart’s law have come to haunt artificial-intelligence design: just how do you communicate an objective to your algorithm when the only language you have in common is numbers? The computer scientist Robert Feldt once created an algorithm charged with landing a plane on an aircraft carrier. The objective was to bring a simulated plane to a gentle stop, thus registering as little force as possible on the body of the aircraft. Unfortunately, during the training, the algorithm spotted a loophole. If, instead of bringing the simulated plane down smoothly, it deliberately slammed the aircraft to a halt, the force would overwhelm the system and register as a perfect zero. Feldt realized that, in his virtual trial, the algorithm was repeatedly destroying plane after plane after plane, but earning top marks every time.

Enjoyable and instructive, like the books themselves.

Corruption as a way of life

Catherine Bennett has a sharp Observer column about Boris Johnson’s sleazy, reckless and ethically vacuous behaviour over many decades. It was bad enough when he was just a journalist, but in office it seems to have got markedly worse. And it leads one to wonder if the current Tory government is actually the most corrupt British administration for at least a century.

In 1994, Bennett recalls, Lord Nolan was tasked by the then Tory Prime Minister, John Major, with rescuing politics from Tory sleaze.

“We seek to restore respect for the ethical values inherent in the idea of public service,” Nolan wrote of the resulting Seven Principles: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership. Enforcement was another question. “Formal procedures have a role to play,” Nolan said, “but in the end it is individuals’ consciences that matter.” By the time George Osborne and David Cameron hastened to enrich themselves, this idea was already comical. We are now left with, on the one hand, Nolan’s faded sampler; on the other, Johnson’s expensively wallpapered, ever-expanding development of luxury Augean stables. In a nice touch, Bennett takes Nolan’s ‘principles’ and recasts them as ‘Johnson’s Principles’ to match what the government has actually been doing.

1: Greed (Replaces Nolan’s selflessness.) Holders of public office should take decisions solely in their own interest or that of their friends/families.

2. Shamelessness (Replaces integrity.) Holders of public office should accept gifts from generous individuals and organisations likely to expect favours in return.

3. Self-interest(Previously objectivity.) When making appointments, awarding contracts, etc, holders of public office should not allow merit to affect choices made exclusively to benefit themselves, their supporters, family or friends.

4. Unaccountability (Replaces accountability.) Holders of public office must not submit to scrutiny of their actions.

5. Concealment (Formerly openness.) Holders of public office have a duty to be as opaque as possible about their actions.

6. Fabrication (Replaces honesty.) Holders of public office are expected to lie freely about any private interests relating to their public duties.

7. Entitlement (Previously leadership.) Holders of public office should demonstrate by example their support for these principles, which apply to all aspects of self-enrichment.

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Sunday April 4, 2021

Maybe, soon?

Quote of the Day

”Three o’clock is always too late or too early for anything you want to do.”

  • Jean-Paul Sartre

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

King’s College Choir | Jesus Christ is risen today


“The English may not like music”, Sir Thomas Beecham once observed, “but they absolutely love the noise it makes”. I feel exactly the same about Anglicanism.

Long Read of the Day Why Computers Won’t Make Themselves Smarter.

For decades people have been fretting about I.J. Good’s warning that if we ever invent a super-intelligent machine then it may be the last invention humanity ever makes, on the grounds that such a machine would trigger an ‘intelligence explosion’ because from then on machines would improve their capabilities faster than we could ever keep up with them.

Now along comes Ted Chiang with an interesting New Yorker essay questioning the assumptions underpinning Good’s pessimistic projection. It’s an absorbing read which comes to a less than reassuring conclusion: “For better or worse, the fate of our species will depend on human decision-making”.

Why Silicon Valley’s most astute critics are all women

This morning’s Observer column:

Tailors and dressmakers long ago worked out that men and women are different shapes and sizes. The news has yet to reach Palo Alto.

My hunch is that however much the industry bleats about gender diversity, it doesn’t truly see it as a real problem. Male-dominated firms still receive more than 80% of venture-capital funding and the money often goes to entrepreneurs promising to create products or services that supposedly address consumers’ real needs. The trouble is that male founders, especially engineers, are not famous for understanding the problems that women experience, which is how we got absurdities such as Apple originally failing to include menstrual-cycle tracking in its smartwatch or in the iPhone’s Health app. Wow! Women have periods! Who knew?

Do read the whole thing.

Later Lots of feedback confirming that I’d missed many other incisive critics — for example Wendy Liu, author of Abolish Silicon Valley. I need to keep a proper regularly updated, list of trenchant female critics. And I’m especially mortified to have forgotten about the Turing Institute’s recent report,  Where are the women? Mapping the gender job gap in AI, a summary of which is available here. The inquiry found evidence

of persistent structural inequality in the data science and AI fields, with the career trajectories of data and AI professionals differentiated by gender. Women are more likely than men to occupy a job associated with less status and pay in the data and AI talent pool, usually within analytics, data preparation and exploration, rather than the more prestigious jobs in engineering and machine learning. This gender skill gap risks stalling innovation and exacerbating gender inequality in economic participation.

Where Joe Biden is headed

As I’ve said a while back, I think Joe Biden is being badly under-estimated as President. And I’m amazed by how so much of the mainstream media isn’t paying attention to what he’s doing. So I’m much cheered by seeing a perceptive thinker like Noah Smith taking Biden seriously — as in this post.

By now I think everyone has realized that something is changing in American economic policy. The tenor, pace, and scope of Biden’s economic programs proposals, and the muted nature of the ideological opposition, suggest that we’ve entered a new policy paradigm — much as when FDR took office in 1933 or Ronald Reagan in 1981. Every President comes in with a laundry list of initiatives, but once every few decades a President comes in with a new philosophy for what policy should look like. And that is happening now. The fact that a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill was passed with relatively little fuss, and was really just the warm-up to an even bigger infrastructure bill, and that other “big” policies like student debt cancellation are being pursued on the side as an afterthought, should make it clear that Biden is blitzing.

Smith thinks the aim is to create a two-track American economy — a dynamic, internationally competitive innovation sector, and a domestically focused engine of mass employment and distributed prosperity. If that’s really what he’s up to, then it behoves us to pay attention.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • An eight-year-old is among contenders hoping for last word at Scrabble championships. Link
  • How Sounds Are Faked For Nature Documentaries. Link

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Saturday 3 April, 2021

Neil McGregor

The former Director of the British Museum, and now the founding Director of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, photographed after a lecture in College.

Quote of the Day

”If the war didn’t happen to kill you it was bound to start you thinking. After that unspeakable idiotic mess you couldn’t go on regarding society as something eternal and unquestionable, like a pyramid. You knew it was just a balls-up.”

  • George Orwell, in Coming Up for Air

Funnily enough, contemplating the Covid catastrophe and the likely aftermath, this quotation keeps coming to mind.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Randy Newman | Political Science


One of my favourite songs: a sardonic masterpiece.

Long Read of the Day

What it’s like driving for Uber or Lyft

This post is thoughtful, reflective and illuminating. It’s by someone who isn’t driving out of real economic need, but out of choice and — initially, anyway, curiosity. Best thing I’ve read on the subject so far, though I’m sure there are lots of similar reflections if only one had time to search for them.

Thanks to Quentin for spotting it.

Beware Goldman workhorses, deferred gratification is the worst kind

Corporate life demands more of youth than it can later repay

Lovely FT column by Janan Ganesh, triggered by the revelations of the costs of spending your 20s and 30s slaving for investment banks and elite law firms.

It’s probably behind the paywall, but here’s the interesting (and wise) gist:

Graduates, courted by banks and the like, might not resent a pointer or two from the generation above. Mine is to think very hard before trading the reality of present hardships for notional joys down the line.

Drink, sex and travel are among the pleasures that call on energies that peak exactly as graduate bankers are wasting them on work

The ageing process — as I have lived it, as I have observed it in friends — has convinced me of one thing above all. The deferral of gratification is the easiest life mistake to make. And by definition among the least reversible. A unit of leisure is not worth nearly as much in late or even middle age as it is in one’s twenties. To put it in Goldman-ese, the young should discount the future more sharply than prevailing sentiment suggests.

The first reason should be obvious enough, at least after the past 12 months. There is no certainty at all of being around to savour any hard-won spoils. The career logic of an investment banker (or commercial lawyer, or junior doctor) assumes a normal lifespan, or thereabouts. And even if a much-shortened one is an actuarial improbability, a sheer physical drop-off in the mid-thirties is near-certain. Drink, sex and travel are among the pleasures that call on energies that peak exactly as graduate bankers are wasting them on work.

And the moral: Pleasures deferred can be pleasures foregone.

I’ve lost count of the number of promising lives I’ve seen ruined by the pursuit of ‘career success’ and wealth.

Mutale Nkonde on How Biased Tech Design and Racial Disparity Intersect

This is a terrific podcast conversation between Taylor Owen and an extraordinary activist and founder of AI for People. In their conversation Mutale and Taylor discuss the many ways in which technology reflects and amplifies bias.

Many of the issues begin when software tools are designed by development teams that lack diversity or actively practise forms of institutional racism, excluding or discouraging decision-making participation by minority ethnic group members. Another problem is the data sets included in training the systems; as Nkonde explains, “Here in the United States, if you’re a white person, 70 percent of white people don’t actually know a Black person. So, if I were to ask one of those people to bring me a hundred pictures from their social media, it’s going to be a bunch of white people.” When algorithms that are built with this biased data make it into products — for use in, say, law enforcement, health care and financial services — they begin to have serious impacts on people’s lives, most severely when law enforcement misidentifies a suspect. Among the cases coming to light, “in New Jersey, Nijeer Parks was not only misidentified by a facial recognition system, arrested, but could prove that he was 30 miles away at the time,” Nkonde recounts. “But, because of poverty, Parks ended up spending 10 days in jail, because he couldn’t make bail. And that story really shows how facial recognition kind of reinforces other elements of racialized violence by kind of doubling up these systems.” Which is why Nkonde is working to ban facial recognition technology from use, as well as fighting for other legislation in the United States that will go beyond protecting individual rights to improving core systems for the good of all.

It’s 46 minutes long, but worth every minute.

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Friday 2 April, 2021

Quote of the Day

”The grinding of the intellect is for most people as painful as a dentist’s drill.”

  • Leonard Woolf

More painful, I’d say.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Tuba Skinny | Jubilee Stomp | New Orleans, 2018


Nobody sleeps at the back when this ensemble is on song.

Thanks to Ian Cole for suggesting them.

Long Read of the Day

Living in a World Without Stars

If you read nothing else this weekend, pour some coffee and read Curtis White’s elegant demolition of Klaus Schwab’s and Thierry Malleret’s fatuous book, Covid-19: The Great Reset. Here’s a sample:

According to Schwab, the global elite is indeed conspiring at Davos, but it is conspiring in the name of justice, equality, and environmental health. In short, he argues that people like himself and the wealthy organizations that flock to his Davos confab each year should be trusted to right not only their own ships but all ships, in the name of a social conscience they have always possessed even if they haven’t always succeeded in showing it. Most surprisingly, given that we’re talking about Davos, Schwab suggests that “the ostentatious display of wealth will no longer be acceptable.” So no surprise if more Honda Civics and fewer Mercedes pull up to the curb at Davos.

Slack-jawed incredulity is required here, but it is probably strongest not among capitalism’s critics, people like me, but among the elite. The business elite enjoy Davos not for the preaching they hear from Schwab or from celebrities like Bono, Elton John, and Sharon Stone, but for the unique opportunity it provides for networking and deal making. The idea that they should give authority back to governments, reform labor relations, and put the needs of the environment before the need for profit will happen…in a pig’s eye.

After all, why should they change in the ways that Schwab says stakeholder capitalism requires? And why should anyone think capitalism needs to be saved from itself? This is not the Great Depression. There was no Black Tuesday and no execs dropped from the fifteenth floor, worthless stock certificates fluttering behind.

The question is, therefore: Since the pandemic has been so incredibly profitable for the wealthy, why would they want to change anything? After all,

They have hated the New Deal for eighty years, and they have been buying up politicians to chip away at it, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s attacks on big government and the welfare state. What makes anyone think that capitalism is going to do an about-face after the past forty years of clawing back New Deal concessions? Why would they do that willingly, especially now? That being the case, well might we wonder just how much climate change and social unrest they will tolerate before they change their ways. My suspicion is that they’ll tolerate a lot, especially if stock markets continue to tell them that everything’s jake. They have no motive for following Schwab and every profit motive for not following him.

You get the idea? Highly recommended.

It Looks Like a Vespa, Rides Like a Vespa, but Doesn’t Smell Like a Vespa

An Irish mechanic in London has developed a kit to transform classic (but polluting) Italian scooters into zero-emission machines.

This story made my day.

Among the iconic designs of Italy’s vibrant postwar period, few capture the essence of La Dolce Vita like Vespas and Lambrettas, the free-spirited motor scooters that brought mobility to the masses and became beloved across Italy, and subsequently, the world.

While the two companies still make scooters, those early models — whose whining two-stroke engines spew plumes of aromatic smoke — are by far the most sought by collectors, some commanding up to $30,000.

Niall McCart, an Irishman from the city of Armagh, got his first Vespa at 16. De rigueur for a youth swept up in Britain’s early-1980s Mod revival, the Vespa was eminently practical as well.

So he built a business, Retrospective Scooters, around refurbishing and selling vintage Vespas.

But … (there’s always a but in these stories).

As his business grew, so did restrictions on older vehicles. The European Union’s first Low Emission Zones were established in 1996. London has one such zone, as well as an extra-stringent Ultra Low Emission Zone, in the city centre. To drive inside it, owners of polluting scooters must pay a daily fee of £12.50 pounds, with a heavy fine for failure to pay.

McCart spotted an opportunity: retrofitting vintage Vespas with an electric drivetrain. Better still: make and sell retrofitting kits. His firm, Retrospective Scooters, now sells kits for five types of vintage Vespas and Lambrettas. The kits cost £3,445 and include a 64-volt, 28-amp-hour battery that can take a scooter to a top speed of 50 mph and go 30-35 miles on a charge.

Neat, eh?

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Thursday 1 April, 2021

A former resident of Bath, famous for its Roman er, baths.

Quote of the Day

“In the brutal and blunt league table of fatalities, the EU as a whole has done less badly than Britain or America, with 138 recorded deaths per 100,000, compared with 187 and 166 respectively—though Hungary, the Czech Republic and Belgium have all fared worse than either. However, it is in the grip of a vicious surge fuelled by a deadly variant. That underlines the peril of Europe’s low rate of vaccination. According to our tracker, 58% of British adults have had a jab, compared with 38% of Americans and just 14% of eu citizens. European countries are also behind on the other criterion of a covid-19 scorecard, the economy. In the last quarter of 2020 America was growing at an annualised rate of 4.1%. In China, which suppressed the virus with totalitarian rigour, growth was 6.5%. In the euro area the economy was still shrinking. A year ago Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s prime minister, called covid-19 the worst crisis to afflict the eu since the second world war. “

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paddy Callaghan and friends | ‘Be Thou My Vision’ and three reels (The Mill House, Sporting Paddy, and Homage to Rooney) | Live at the Fleadh Cheoil, Derry | 2013


I was initially puzzled by this. Why were these Irish musicians playing an Anglican Hymn at an Irish music festival? Turns out that the hymn is of Irish origin — possibly dating back to the sixth century. You learn something every day in this business.

Long Read of the Day

Sexism and Racism in Silicon Valley

A case study of what went on behind the scenes at Pinterest, if you please. Turns out that it’s not at all the cuddly service people imagine it to be.

Great report on the site.

Trust in tech seems to be decreasing

Or so the annual Edelman Trust Barometer has found.

Some highlights from the Axios report:

  • Trust in artificial-intelligence companies, and also internet-of-things businesses, fell in 25 of 27 countries.

  • Trust in “cleantech” firms fell in 23 of 27 countries.

  • Trust in the virtual-reality industry fell in 22 of 27 countries.

  • Trust in the 5G sector fell in 21 of 27 countries.

Could it be that people are wising up?

What on Earth Is Amazon Doing?

Interesting post by Ian Bogost. Sample:

The company is behaving like a common troll on social media, which is not the usual stance for a giant corporation. As someone who has spent an ungodly amount of time studying brand behavior on the internet, I have a theory—but, first, let me back up.

Over the past week, Amazon has mounted an aggressive public-opinion campaign in what appears to be an effort to discredit its warehouse workers in Alabama, who are trying to unionize. The company started by targeting legislators. First, Dave Clark, Amazon’s head of worldwide consumer business, went after Bernie Sanders on Twitter, after the senator encouraged the Alabama workers to vote for a union. Then, Amazon moved the fight to its official Twitter news account, which has some 170,000 followers. That account responded to Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, who had invoked recent news that Amazon workers urinated in bottles out of fear of missing production quotas.

That’s when things got interesting. Amazon News started maximizing provocation, or, in internet speak, shitposting. “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?” it replied to Pocan. Then it went after Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has long sought to tax, regulate, and break up big tech companies such as Amazon. “This is extraordinary and revealing,” Amazon News posted, quoting a Warren tweet. “One of the most powerful politicians in the United States just said she’s going to break up an American company so that they can’t criticize her anymore.”

It’s a good piece but, in a way, Bogost fails to address the underlying reality — which is that while corporations may generally feel the need to act restrained in public, in fact they are just sociopathic, super-intelligent machines. The useful thing about the Amazon outbursts is that they reveal what the corporate beast is actually like. Jeff Bezos (like every major tech boss) loathes and fears trade unions, and his corporate creature will do what it takes to resist their progress in its ranks.

Missing link in yesterday’s edition

The link to Shira Ovide’s piece, “How Big is Amazon, Really?” is

Apologies for omitting it.

And now for something completely different…

The Captivity-to-Workplace Reintroduction Program by Zoe Pearl.

While vaccinations are underway and offices are preparing to reopen their doors, management nationwide faces a great challenge: how to safely reintroduce office workers, softened by their months working from home captivity, back into their native corporate environments. Whether it’s the tundra of fluorescent-lit cubicles or the vast savannas of an open floor plan, the captive office worker will be reluctant and possibly hostile at the prospect of having to leave her apartment and wear tight-waisted jeans that never really fit, even pre-pandemic, again. To ease the transition and prepare the captive office work for her reintegration into the workplace, try incentivizing her return with a reward. (No, don’t worry, not a monetary one — the promise of free donuts on the first day back should suffice).


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Wednesday 31 March, 2021

Online delivery — Venice

Quote of the Day

”When the war broke out she took down the signed photograph of the Kaiser and with some solemnity, hung it in the men-servants’ lavatory; it was her one combative action.”

  • Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

John Garth | Keyboard Sonata in C | Allegro


Long Read of the Day

 The Soft Corruption of Big Tech’s Antitrust Defense

As the tech companies realise that they are going to become regulated they are mounting a massive covert rearguard action to influence the legislation that will affect them. It doesn’t just involve direct political lobbying: it involves subsidising real and phoney think-tanks, funding ‘research’ by greedy or unscrupulous academics and other stunts. This essay by Alex Kantrowitz provides a nice introduction to the soft underbelly of liberal democracy.

How Big Is Amazon, Really?

Thoughtful piece by Shira Ovide in the NYT:

I’m fond of repeating a shopping statistic that often surprises people. In the United States — even during the pandemic — only about $14 out of each $100 worth of stuff we buy is spent online. Amazon is responsible for roughly $5 of that.

So is Amazon a giant that dominates our internet spending or a blip in America’s shopping universe? It depends on how you look at the numbers. Amazon is huge in internet sales, but puny relative to all the goods Americans buy.

Our perception of Amazon’s size influences how the public and policymakers think about the company. And yet while the company’s share of spending matters, it also doesn’t tell us everything.

This is a useful piece which highlights the way we both over- and under-estimate the power of tech companies. Actually what it means is that we need appropriate ways of measuring the effective power of tech giants. And also that we need to recognise that each of them requires different regulatory approaches.

How to pitch an idea for an OpEd

Useful advice from Sifted, the Financial Times European-tech site.

Here’s what we’re looking for. A punchy opinion.

We like starting conversations. There’s nothing better than a somewhat controversial or unusual point of view to get people talking about a subject.

So, don’t pitch us an idea about why it’s a good idea to talk to your customers early on (everyone knows that!) Pitch us an idea about why customers are stupid and should be ignored at all costs. That sounds much more intriguing.

On the other hand…..

Here’s what we’re not looking for. Self-promotion.

We’re looking at you, VC firms. It’s not very interesting to hear about why you think your latest investment is great. (Of course, you think that.) And we’re looking at you, founders. It’s also not that interesting to hear about why you think there’s such a big opportunity in your niche. It’s okay to write about trends you’re a part of, but only if you place yourself within the bigger picture. Pre-written pieces.

Don’t send in pre-written pieces, just an idea, a catchy title and bullet points outlining the main gist of your argument.

Oh, and “Don’t send us something you (or your client) have already drafted. That’s what Medium is for.”

Don’t you just love that last jibe?

Critics and statues

Clive Page, citing yesterday’s Sibelius quote about nobody putting up statues to critics, asks: “What about George Bernard Shaw – he was surely an important critic and there seem to be several statues of him around, including in Dublin and Bournemouth?”

Interesting question (for which many thanks). The difference, I’d say, is that Shaw was a creator (all those plays, for example) as well as a great critic. He had a foot in both graves.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • The Overedge Catalog: New Types of Research Organizations. A catalogue of research institutions whose interests overlap with various intellectual silos. Link
  • The Year Earth Changed Trailer for a new Attenborough-narrated documentary about the side-effects of the lockdown. Link

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Tuesday 30 March, 2021

Which number?

Quote of the Day

”When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become President; I’m beginning to believe it.”

  • Clarence Darrow

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Little Village | She Runs Hot for Me


A souvenir of the days when cars were powered by a controlled series of explosions.

Long Read of the Day

Stefan Collini: Snakes and Ladders: Versions of Meritocracy

Marvellous long review essay by a master of the genre, reviewing Peter Mandler’s  The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Education since the Second World War and Daniel Markovits’s The Meritocracy Trap.

It’s a joy to read — full of gems. Here are a few:

”Where cliché led, could Theresa May be far behind? ‘I want Britain to be the great meritocracy of the world,’ she declared in 2016, ‘a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow.’”

“As usual, there is little mention in all this of the people who don’t ‘succeed’, but the clear implication is that, however grim their fate, they ‘deserve’ it: after all, everyone gets a ‘fair chance’, so it’s nobody’s fault but your own if you don’t take advantage of the ‘opportunities’ presented to you. We are asked to believe in a world in which individual agents are in full possession of undivided selves, unshaped by social determinants, and able to realise outcomes simply by willing them strongly enough.”

“In much recent social science, unmasking the sham of ‘equality of opportunity’ has become a familiar five-finger exercise. Study after study suggests that where people get to in life is largely determined by where they start. But the very fact that it is so easy to assemble the evidence for this truth gives the literature on the topic a slightly tired, stale character.”

“If you feel you are being unfairly discriminated against or are the victim of corruption, you may be angry and resentful, but your self-respect can remain intact – indeed, in some cases it can be enhanced. But in a pure meritocracy the losers, who are the majority, cannot apply that balm: the sense of being written off by the accepted rules of the system festers.”

On David Cameron’s enthusiasm for providing “ladders” up which able boys and girls could climb: “Ladders are confining modes of ascent, which don’t leave much room for choice: there is no overtaking and the direction of travel is fixed, rung by rung. Ladder-speak tends to ignore the fact that ladders are used for descending as much as ascending, and has nothing to say about what happens when someone on the way down meets someone on the way up. And of course there will always be some people who prefer to take the lift.”

“One reason university entry has become such a social flashpoint in recent times is that (wealthy) parents struggle with the fact that they can’t directly exercise the power of the purse at this crucial stage in their children’s education.” ….

On Peter Mandler’s apparent approval of ‘academy schools: “But one could tell the story a little differently by looking at the political economy of a process in which private capital, seizing opportunities created by central government, extracts profit by providing what had been a community service, using corporate power to take over more and more schools, and in some cases legally appropriating public assets and property for private gain.”

“The term ‘meritocracy’ soon slipped its original moorings and became used more loosely to indicate any set of social arrangements in which outcomes were, notionally, determined by ability (effort is a more recent emphasis), not by the traditional mechanisms of rank, nepotism, inherited wealth and so on. Contrary to the spirit of Young’s minatory sketch, it has become an overwhelmingly positive term, bound up with what it is to be ‘modern’. The implicit narrative of progress that the term now encodes has proved to be astonishingly impervious to counter-evidence.”

But to get the full effect you have to read the whole thing.

What We Got Wrong About Uber and Lyft

Remember how Uber & Co were going to solve the urban mobility problem and reduce the numbers of people driving round in their own cars? This interesting NYT piece asks why that didn’t play out so well

Here’s what more research is finding: In the past few years, on-demand ride services have been a major factor in increased traffic in U.S. cities, particularly in the downtowns of big cities. And most research is showing that the ride services have also been a significant reason for declining ridership of public transportation, especially buses.

Uber and Lyft have said that people driving themselves are the biggest sources of traffic. That is true, but it doesn’t explain the surge in traffic that the services have added to cities.

So what went wrong?

The answer is what traffic modelling studies — like the San Francisco one, or the series reported in the Boston Globe are suggesting — that wherever ride-hailing and other on-demand services proliferate, so does urban traffic. Or, as the Globe puts it,

These are just some of the unforeseen and unaddressed consequences of technological innovation. We have a habit of not connecting the convenience on one end — the merchandise arriving on our doorstep at warp speed — with the inconvenience on the other. A scofflaw delivery truck, perhaps. You know the one.

It seems that delivery vans don’t get parking tickets in Boston (by special arrangement with the municipality), even though they often block inner lanes and increase congestion.

Public support for trade unions is increasing — in the US!

Apropos the forthcoming poll of Amazon workers.

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Monday 29 March, 2021

Anger management

Quote of the Day

”Pay no attention to what the critics say; no statue has ever been put up to a critic.”

  • Jean Sibelius

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Antonio Salieri | Piano Concerto in B Flat | Adagio


Long Read of the day

Yes, experts will lie to you sometimes

Terrific post by Noah Smith, picking up from a tweet by Yascha Mounk:

From the initial hesitance to admit that masks work to the current hesitance to admit that the first dose of the vaccine gives you very strong protection against Covid, the whole pandemic has been a year-long demonstration of why the Noble Lie never works in practice.

Smith supports the allegation about masks:

In other words, according to Fauci, public health experts knew that even cloth masks helped prevent the spread of COVID-19, but they were worried that if they admitted that cloth masks work, people would conclude that N95 masks work even better (which is true), and hoard N95s, thus depriving medical workers who needed the supplies more. That’s the “noble lie” bit of the story. But Smith goes on to explore what is, in fact, possibly a more damaging untruth — economists’ ‘economy with the actualité’ —about the economic benefits of free trade.

Worth reading in full.

Will Amazon workers finally get to unionise?

This is an important week in the long arc of the history of workers’ rights. As Quartz puts it:

Close to 6,000 Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, will decide whether to unionize in a vote that ends Monday, with the results expected to be announced later this week. If the organizing drive succeeds—that is, if more than 50% of the ballots cast are in favor of unionizing—the Alabama warehouse employees would form Amazon’s very first union in the US, setting a precedent that could see workers at the company’s fulfillment centers across the country following suit. More than 1,000 Amazon workers in the US have contacted the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) about the possibility of organizing in recent weeks, according to the Washington Post.

“There are strikes and elections that become historical pivot points,” Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at Cornell University, told Bloomberg. “This is one of them.”

My fear is that this will turn out to be a re-run of the Proposition 22 vote in California. But if it doesn’t, then it could indeed be an historic moment.

Amazon — like Uber & Co in California — is vehemently opposed to the idea and has been campaigning vigorously against it. Interestingly, Joe Biden came out in support of the unionisation drive.

What Can We Learn from a Big Boat Stuck in a Canal?

Quite a lot, says Matt Stoller.

“After years of bitcoin and reddit short selling and credit default swaps and a million other things I don’t understand,” one random person put in a tweet that went viral, “it’s so refreshing to hear that global commerce is in peril because a big boat got stuck in a canal.”

That’s basically the story right there, it’s a big boat and it got stuck in a canal. The ship blocking the Suez, called the Ever Given, weights 220,000 tons, and is as long as the Empire State Building is high. Despite the hilarious nature of the problem, the disruption to world trade is large and serious, costing tens of billions of dollars. And if the ship can’t be dislodged soon, some consumers will once again experience shortages of basic staples like toilet paper.

That said, the reason this disruption to global commerce seems so dumb is because it is. It starts with the ship size itself. Over the last few decades, ships have gotten really really big, four times the size of what they were 25 years ago, what the FT calls “too big to sail.’ The argument behind making such massive boats was efficiency, since you can carry more at a lower cost. The downside of such mega-ships should have been obvious. Ships like this, which are in effect floating islands, are really hard to steer in tight spaces like ports and canals, and if they get stuck, they are difficult to unstick. In other words, the super smart wizard financiers who run global trade made ships that don’t fit in the canals they need to fit into.

And the cause of all this? Industrial consolidation into a series of effective shipping monopolies.

In 2000, the ten biggest shipping companies had a 12% market share, by 2019 that share had increased to 82%. This understates the consolidation, because there are alliances among these shippers. The stuck ship is being run by the Taiwanese shipping conglomerate Evergreen, which bought Italian shipping firm Italia Marittima in 1998 and London-based Hatsu in 2002, and is itself part of the OCEAN alliance, which has more than a third of global shipping.

Another, really interesting, link

  • How to make a Commodore 64 sound like a cathedral organ. This is lovely. In 2008 Linus Akesson had an epiphany about church organs:

“At least in theory, organ pipes produce very simple waveforms, much like 8-bit sound chips do-and the reason church organs don’t sound like chiptunes is primarily because of the acoustics of the church”.

He remapped the keys of a Commodore 64 so he could play it like an accordion, ran it though a reverb machine, and created what he calls the ‘sixtyforgan’. The video explains how he did it, and the Bach piece he plays at the end of the video shows the result. Magical. Thanks to Jason Kottke for spotting it.

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Sunday 28 March, 2021

Fire hydrant, Venice, 2016.

Quote of the Day

”It’s only the very young girl at her first dinner-party whom it is difficult to entertain. At her second dinner-party, and thereafter, she knows the whole art of being amusing. All she has to do is listen; all we men have to do is to tell her about ourselves.”

  • A.A. Milne

There’s real wisdom in that observation. I’m a reasonably sociable chap, but I hate receptions and what used to be called “cocktail parties”. So I evolved a strategy for getting through them. I would find someone (generally a male) who wasn’t engaged in conversation and introduce myself. Then I would ask him about himself — what did he do, where did he work, who were his colleagues, etc. He would happily oblige — and very rarely ask me any questions in return. After a while I discovered that this strategy had an interesting (and unexpected) side-effect. My involuntary interviewees often told third parties (who duly reported back to me) what an interesting chap I was.

When we come out of lockdown and I have to go to receptions again, I will of course, continue this practice. It never fails.

On a related tack… One of the most interesting women I’ve ever known was Patricia Cockburn, wife of Claud, the wonderful rogue journalist. When I was an undergraduate, she and Claud were very kind to me, and I sometimes came to lunch in Brook Lodge, their glorious, rackety, Georgian house just outside of Youghal in Co. Cork.

Patricia came from an Anglo-Irish family, the Arbuthnots, who were horsey, well-connected and pretty broke. They didn’t send their girls to University on the grounds that a better strategy was to try to marry them off to rich Establishment dudes.

So Patricia was a deb, and was often invited to posh dinners. She once told me a great story about being a guest at a dinner of some posh cavalry regiment. She was seated next to a retired Indian Army colonel, a fierce, pop-eyed gent with a luxuriant moustache, who looked like an escapee from an Evelyn Waugh novel and who completely ignored her. Eventually, in an effort politely to gain his attention, she asked him if he would like some water, offering to pour some from the crystal jug placed between them.

“Never touch the stuff” snarled the Colonel, and turned away. Eventually, Patricia plucked up courage and said: “But Colonel, how do you wash your teeth?”

Again, he swivelled round like a gun turret. “A little light Sauterne, madam”, he roared. The remainder of the dinner passed in total silence, at least on her part.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler | Brothers In Arms | Meistersaal, Berlin | 10 September 2007


Long Read of the Day

Your face is Not Your Own

Terrific essay by Kashmir Hill, who has in her time done great stuff on the dominance of tech companies, among other things. This piece is about the implications of the activities of a company called Clearview AI which has been hoovering up facial images on the Web.

The legal threats to Clearview have begun to move through the courts, and Clearview is preparing a powerful response, invoking the First Amendment. Many civil-liberties advocates fear the company will prevail, and they are aghast at the potential consequences. One major concern is that facial-recognition technology might be too flawed for law enforcement to rely on. A federal agency called the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) periodically tests the accuracy of facial-recognition algorithms voluntarily submitted by vendors; Clearview hasn’t participated. In 2019, the agency found that many algorithms were less accurate in identifying people of color, meaning their use could worsen systemic bias in the criminal-justice system. In the last year, three cases have been unearthed (none involving Clearview) in which police officers arrested and briefly jailed the wrong person based on a bad facial-recognition match. All three of the wrongfully arrested were Black men.

There’s also a broader reason that critics fear a court decision favoring Clearview: It could let companies track us as pervasively in the real world as they already do online.

Facial recognition is a toxic and dangerous technology. This isn’t just a speculative opinion on my part, btw. A good working model is on display every day in Mainland China.

Is online advertising about to crash, just like the property market did in 2008?

My Observer column today:

One of the most interesting developments of the past year or so was the revelation that serious outfits such as the UK Competition and Markets Authority were launching major investigations into the hidden, high-speed advertising auctions run by the social media platforms. This suggests that there’s something rotten in there: the claims of the companies about the effectiveness of targeted advertising are, basically, too good to be true.

If so, then we are mugs to take them at their face value. And it’s time to call their bluff. Which is exactly what Sinead Boucher, the CEO of Stuff, New Zealand’s leading online news and media site, did. In March 2019, she decided to stop advertising on Facebook, a move that her peers regarded as crazy. “That action had zero effect on our traffic,” she told a seminar at the Reuters Institute in Oxford. “We were prepared for a drop in our audience but it had zero effect. It made us realise we should think more about our decisions, instead of buying into the idea that you have to work with all the social media platforms.”

Maybe the social media emperor has fewer clothes than we imagined.

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Saturday 27 March, 2021

Look what I found in the garden this morning.

Suez 2.0

That whirring noise you hear is the sound of Gamal Abdel Nasser, erstwhile coup leader and President of Egypt, whirring contentedly in his grave. Readers with very long memories will recall that in July 1956, he abruptly nationalised the Suez Canal company, ostensibly on the grounds that its revenues would enable the construction of the Aswan Dam after the US and the UK had refused to fund the project. Since the canal was a critical conduit for seaborne traffic to India and the Far East, and Britain and France were the prime shareholders in it (and prime recipients of the revenues therefrom), the UK — under the leadership of Prime Minister Anthony Eden — conspired with France and Israel to invade Egypt to teach the upstart an imperial lesson for daring to hold the Western world to ransom and interrupt its supply lines.

The cod ‘invasion’ was what the US Marines would call a clusterfuck. The US refused to support the adventure, the pound dropped like a stone, Eden ‘resigned’ and ‘Global Britain’ suddenly realised that it wasn’t a global power any longer.

Now the canal is blocked by a giant container ship which seems to have run aground.

The Suez Canal handles around 12% of global trade, making it a key conduit in the world’s supply chains. Each day of blockage disrupts more than $9 billion worth of goods, according to Lloyd’s List, which translates to about $400 million per hour.

It’s 1956 all over again, but without the shooting.

Six years after the first Suez fiasco, Dean Acheson, who had been Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, famously observed that “Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role”. It’s still looking for one.

The procrastinator’s matrix

Yesterday’s post about the Eisenhower Decision Matrix prompted an email from Johannes Björkman with a link to an elegant blog post by Tim Urban on The Procrastination Matrix, which looks like this:


Quote of the Day

”She fitted into my biggest armchair as if it had been built around her by someone who knew they were wearing armchairs tight about the hips that season.”

  • P.G. Wodehouse

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Norah Jones | Don’t Know Why


Long Read of the day

Scott Galloway: The Sonic (Entrepreneurship) Boom

He’s always interesting. This week he’s thinking about what happens next as the world moves out of pandemic mode. And, as ever, his thinking is counter-intuitive…

Post-crisis periods are among history’s most productive eras. London rebuilt after the Great Fire with grand new architecture, and Europe after the worst of its plagues underwent a commercial revolution. The Marshall Plan turned enemies into allies, fomenting peace and prosperity for over half a century. Leaders also emerge from crises. Ulysses S. Grant was a washed-up soldier without prospects until war broke out, but that war created the opportunity for Grant to save the Union and advance the cause of freedom. This is all to say: In the next 36 months, I believe our economy will birth a new generation of web 3.0 firms and leaders. Why?

I’ve started nine businesses. The best predictive signal for their success has turned out to be the phase of the economic cycle in which they were started. Put simply, the best time to start a business is on the heels of a recession…

Thinker, Tanker, Scholar, Consultant

Every former policymaker in Washington is an academic, a researcher, and an adviser to big business.

Jake Sullivan is now one of the most powerful people in the US — Joe Biden’s national Security Advisor. The White House says that he has “spent the vast majority of his adult life in public service and academia” and “briefly did part-time consulting work for Macro Partners that was centered on his expert analysis of global policy trends.”

Jonathan Guyer of The American Prospect was not terribly impressed:

Newly released ethics forms show that Biden’s national-security adviser, Jake Sullivan, earned $80,000 last year from an academic position at Dartmouth College and $80,000 from Yale. But look to his affiliation with consulting firm Macro Advisory Partners for the less public but more lucrative work. Sullivan earned $138,000 for providing part-time “advisory services.” He worked for Uber, Mastercard, Lego, and big investment groups like Bank of America, Aviva, Standard Life Aberdeen, and Standard Chartered. (The Prospect reached out to all of the companies listed on Sullivan’s forms. Each one declined to comment or didn’t respond.) Separately, Sullivan earned $45,000 from Microsoft for providing advice to its president on policy issues.

Is there something dishonorable about working for big business? Sullivan never mentioned his role at Macro Advisory Partners in his bios on the websites of Yale, Dartmouth, or the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he was also a researcher. His corporate affiliation never appeared in articles he wrote for Foreign Affairs or Foreign Policy, The New York Times or The Washington Post.

At the same time as he was advising these companies, Sullivan was also serving as a top adviser to Biden’s presidential campaign. That’s a seven-days-a-week, 13-plus-hours-a-day job. Yet he still carved out time for the firm.

This seems to be par for the course for many of Biden’s appointees. They’ve spent their busy lives in the revolving doors between elite universities, law firms, tech companies, think tanks, consultancy firms, lobbyists and … government. And they look awfully like the crowd who constituted the ruling elite of the Clinton years.

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