Wednesday 6 January, 2021

Thanks to Andrew Ingram for the image.

It’s Deja Vu all over again

This is the first day of Lockdown 2.0. It all feels eerily familiar — except that the weather is much worse, and it’s cold outside.

Out of interest, I dug out my blog for the period — it was when I started my audio diary

Here’s the first episode.


I did the diary for the first 100 days and then stopped, because it was taking up quite a lot of time and our new Research Centre was starting up, so I was becoming busier again. Eventually I put the (lightly-edited) scripts together in a book — 100 Not Out! A Lockdown Diary. I didn’t think it merited felling any trees and so published it as a Kindle book (in itself an interesting learning experience, btw). If you’re interested you can find it here.

Quote of the Day

If a lot of Big Tech is starting to lose its conjuring power, there is one technology that manages to be both hype and, to some, fake news: the vaccine(s). Grateful as I am for the incredible effort that went in to accomplishing the vaccines so quickly, my concern for the coming year and beyond is how the story is being rewritten into a fable that our technological prowess omnia vincit. It might be hard to imagine now that the history of the pandemic could be turned into a triumphant narrative of human control over nature, but lost battles have been transformed into glorious conquest before.

Already some are losing sight of the failures in organization, in humanity, in preparedness that have made the vaccine glow like a grail. This is unlikely to be the only challenge we see in the coming decade, or the coming year, that can be solved more easily, quickly, and cheaply through changing human behavior and which we prefer to attack using money and technology. The climate crisis leaps to mind. I hope that we can engrave some of the lessons of this past year into our collective consciousness, but I have little confidence that they will function any better than the Japanese stones warning “Do Not Build Below This Point” that became so celebrated after the tsunami hit.

  • Bruce Sterling, in his contribution to this years annual start-of-year online discussion on THE WELL — the world’s first online discussion group.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler | Brothers In Arms | Albert Hall | 2019


Robotic euphemisms Magnificent rant from Dave Winer:

Tuesday, January 5, 2021 Audible just gave me a status upgrade to “nibbler.’ I don’t know who designs these things, but did they think that I, a sentient human being of 65 years and many accomplishments would appreciate being labeled as such by a fucking algorithm? This is right up there with Heroku telling me (again via algorithm) that I am a “hobbyist” developer. Excuse me. I have a MS in Computer Science from a fine school. I have won awards for my software, and invented many things, probably as many as anyone at your fine company, so please keep your opinion of my programming ability to your robot self. Sincerely, Dave Winer, a master of science.

Long Read of the Day

An Oscar Winner Made a Khashoggi Documentary. Streaming Services Didn’t Want It.

Now I wonder why that might be?


Brexit freezes .eu domains for Brits

If you own one of the 81,000 .eu domains registered by UK residents then you have work to do – and just three months in which to do it.


How much are tech workers paid?

Interesting numbers from the New York Times:

These are the most recent yearly compensation figures for the typical worker at these companies, from documents released for annual meetings of shareholders:

  • Alphabet (Google’s parent company): $258,708

  • Facebook: $247,883

  • Microsoft: $172,142

  • Apple: $57,783

  • Amazon: $28,848 ($36,640 for full-time workers in the U.S.)

For comparison, the typical pay for full-time, year-round workers in the United States was about $52,000 in 2019. Apart from Amazon, these companies only disclose the pay calculated from their global work forces. 

What’s odd about these numbers are the figures for Apple and Amazon. The reason seems to be the composition of the companies’ staff. Apple has a large number of employees at its retail stores. And a big chunk of Amazon’s rapidly growing global work force of more than 1.2 million are people who are working in warehouses and package sorting centres, whereas Google and Facebook’s employees are mostly office workers in relatively highly paid jobs like engineers.

“The big omission from these compensation figures,” says the Times,

is the shadow work force of contractors at pretty much all the Big Tech companies. At Google, for example, direct employees are outnumbered by temps and contractors, who tend to have lower pay and less opportunity for advancement than the company’s full-time workers.

I’ll bet they get paid a lot less. And have fewer (or no) perks.

Another, hopefully interesting, link

  • An AI-generated album in the style of the Beatles. Link. Hmmm… Nice try, but gamma-minus.

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Tuesday 5 January, 2021

Newton’s apple tree

The tree in the garden of Isaac Newton’s home in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire. It’d be nice to think that it’s a descendant of the one from which the apple apochryphally fell on his head, prompting his musings about gravity.

One of my favourite cartoons shows the young Isaac rubbing the bump on his head and saying: “Now comes the hard part — getting a research grant to write it up.”

Quote of the Day

”All I’ve got against golf is that it takes you so far from the clubhouse.”

  • Eric Linklater

(This for Ivan Morris, a talented golfer who is currently recovering from a bad fall.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Alistair Anderson, Richard Thompson & Kathryn Tickell Link

If you’ve never heard the glorious sound of Northumbrian pipes before then this is your chance.

Long Read of the Day

Economics with a Moral Compass Link

Really long (13,700 words) but worth it. Transcript of a conversation between two Nobel laureates — Amaryta Sen, and Angus Deaton — and Tim Besley of LSE. It’s 13,700 words, so you need to make an appointment with yourself and get some coffee. But if you’re interested in the modern history of economics, or how the discipline got to be the way it is, this is just great.

Here, for example, is Sen remembering Joan Robinson, the great, imperious maverick of the Cambridge Economics Faculty:

I don’t know how to describe a person as other than “vigorously intolerant” when she told me, as my PhD supervisor, that “I have read the first chapter and a part of the second, and it’s the kind of thing that will be praised by established economists, and you will have no difficulty in getting your PhD.” At Cambridge, your supervisor is not one of your examiners, unlike in America. She said, “I’m not going to read the rest of your thesis.” I said, “But you’re supposed to say that the thesis is fit to be submitted for the PhD.” She said, “I will say it.” So I asked her, “On what basis?” “On the basis of what I have read already.”

The thesis had eight chapters, by the way. She said, “It’s good. Clearly, clearly, it’s good. Good in the way that these people understand it. But it’s not worthy of you. You have to promise me that someday you will come back to real economics.” I don’t know whether “vigorously” or not, but she was certainly intolerant of what I wanted to work on.

I had an odd relationship with her, but I liked her very much. She was very kind to me, took great interest even in my personal life. Later on, when my marriage with Nabaneeta broke up, she commanded me to come and see her, and told me that Nabaneeta and I should not go for a divorce. I didn’t say, “None of your business.” She said, “It’s a bad thing once you have children”—and we did have two children—“it’s very bad for the children.” In a sense, she was describing her own life, when she didn’t break up despite the distance between her and her husband. I knew that she never wanted anything other than the best thing for me, as she understood it.

To predict government policy, listen to Boris and wait for the opposite

John Crace on Boris Johnson’s incapacity.

At one time Crace seemed to fit perfectly the mould of the Parliamentary sketch-writer: witty, irreverent, observant of petty but revealing detail, etc. He’s still all of those things, but his observation of Boris Johnson’s manifest unsuitability as Prime Minister has been so devastatingly accurate that we no longer laugh. This is way beyond a joke.

It’s now becoming easier and easier to predict government policy. Just listen to what the prime minister said in the morning and the opposite is likely to be true come the middle of the afternoon. It’s almost like clockwork – the government does what most reasonable people would have done several weeks earlier.

At every stage in the coronavirus pandemic, the government has been hopelessly behind the curve. From being late to lockdown in March while the Cheltenham festival and Carrie Symonds’s baby shower went ahead. From ignoring the Sage advice in September for a second national lockdown and being forced into one in November by both Keir Starmer and the rapidly rising rates of infection. From announcing a five-day Christmas free-for-all in early December – everyone knew Covid liked to take time off over the holiday period – which he then had to cancel after everyone had already made their plans.

During the biggest national health crisis in 100 years, it’s just our luck to have Johnson in charge. A man pathologically unable to make the right calls at the right time. The prime minister is a narcissistic charlatan. The Great Dick Faker. Someone who can’t bear to be the bearer of bad news or to be proved wrong by people who disagree with him. So he stubbornly ignores the evidence until he becomes overwhelmed by it and public opinion has turned against him. He isn’t just a liability as a leader, his indecision has cost lives. His hubris will only cost him his job.

“The mother of all U-turns”

From Politico:

MOTHER OF ALL U-TURNS: The schools debacle marks one of the most mind-melting U-turns yet in the short history of this government. Here’s a brief timeline of how it played out … December 14: Williamson threatened councils in Greenwich and Islington with legal action, forcing them to keep schools open despite rising COVID cases … December 21: Williamson said mass-testing meant schools can reopen in the new year … December 22: SAGE advised ministers to close schools in January … December 31: Williamson delayed secondary school reopening by two weeks, but told primary schools in much of London they should reopen … January 2: Williamson U-turned on London primary schools and kept them closed, but said other primaries across England should open … January 3: The PM told Andrew Marr there was “no doubt in my mind that schools are safe” and told primaries to reopen the following day … But schools across the country defied the order and emailed parents to say they were shutting … January 4: In the morning, DfE civil servants were told there were no plans to close schools or cancel exams (h/t John Johnston) … In the evening, Johnson shut all schools for seven weeks and canceled exams this summer.

‘Peak hype’: why the driverless car revolution has stalled

At one level, the driverless car project has been a surprising success — in the sense that it succeeded in getting autonomous vehicles to the level where they are remarkably capable in some contexts. But getting them to the point where they would be accepted as real alternatives to human-driven vehicles in all environments — the last 20% — turns out to be really, really hard. And of course it would require significant changes to urban areas and country roads on a significant scale. So, despite the hype it turns out that reality is a hard master — as this Guardian piece says.

Reading it made me wonder what the Gartner Hype Cycle for autonomous vehicles would look like. So I went searching. It looks like this:

Trump’s authoritarian moment is here

John Cassidy in the New Yorker.

If there were any doubt remaining that Donald Trump still represents a dire threat to American democracy, the events of this weekend dispelled it. As a new Congress gathers to confirm that the voters chose Joe Biden to be the next President, a proceeding that should be a mere formality, Trump is desperately trying to overturn the result and stay in office. Even more disturbing, large numbers of elected Republicans are joining in this unprecedented effort to reject the popular will. If the Republic gets through the next two weeks without a catastrophe, we must surely take steps to protect ourselves against the next would-be authoritarian, which could well be Trump himself in 2024.

It is like we are living in a horror movie, and just when we think it’s over, the monster comes back, stronger than ever.

My private nightmare, listening to Boris Johnson last night, is that this virus will overwhelm the capacity of even rich states to subdue it. That, in the end, we will just have to let it rip.

Pessimistic? Probably. But then I read Tyler Cowen’s latest Bloomberg column. The heading on this post is actually the last line of the column.

Preliminary data indicate that the new strain in the U.K. allows the virus to spread from one person to another more easily. The practical upshot is that even the strict lockdowns of early 2020, such as the one just ordered in the U.K. by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, may not be enough to reverse the spread of the virus.

It is far from obvious that politicians will be able to sell voters on strict lockdowns if they still allow the virus to spread. Furthermore, vaccine distribution has been sufficiently slow that a full lockdown would have to last for many months, and that probably isn’t feasible or desirable. Yet not having lockdowns would lead to a much more rapid spread of the virus, overloading hospitals and public health facilities.

It’s hard to come up with the moral language to compare those outcomes when all of them are unacceptably bad. Trust in elites is already weak in the U.S., and it is likely to wane further. Whatever one might think is the correct course of action, how exactly would or should a President Joe Biden present and defend it to the public?

He also points out the irony that the new variant could catch states that have done well at suppressing the original version of the virus, because they will have thought it less urgent to get on with vaccinating everyone.

I felt from the beginning that we in the West were underestimating the virus. I still think that’s true.

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Monday 4 January, 2021


I saw this on Quentin’s blog. He got it in a WhatsApp feed, and so couldn’t give it an attribution. But one of his readers had a go and found an earlier version on Reddit. So, in a way, it’s sort-of generic. But it made me laugh this morning because it expresses what many people were thinking on Friday last!

Quote of the Day

ONE YEAR AGO TODAY: The World Health Organization tweeted: “China has reported to WHO a cluster of pneumonia cases — with no deaths — in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Investigations are underway to identify the cause of this illness.” (H/T Anne Alexander.) A year on, the WHO says there have been 83,322,449 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,831,412 deaths.

  • From Politico this morning

Errata — Jerry Garcia and Bernard Malamud

This blog, the product of a multitasker equipped with the wrong algorithm, is prone to typos and occasional howlers — which, in general, are pointed out by sympathetic but razor-sharp readers. One, for example, pointed out an intriguing (but for a Deadhead like me deeply embarrassing) Spoonerism when Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead became Gerry Jarcia. And then the other day I described Bernard Malamud as a ‘playwright’ when he was, in fact, a novelist and short story writer. Many thanks to the readers who politely drew my attention to these gaffes.

When these things happen, I fondly recall Dr Johnson’s response to the indignant lady who asked him how could he have come to define “pastern” as “the knee of a horse” in his great Dictionary. “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance!” he replied. It’s always best to come clean.

Distant intimacy

I’ve been reading this over Christmas and really enjoying it. Raphael and Epstein are two writers I admire. But they’ve never met, nor even spoken to one another. They decided, however, as an experiment, to embark on a year-long email correspondence as a way of producing a book. As the weeks progress, one can see their friendship growing, and also appreciate the way they are egging one another on. Since they’re pretty good writers, it makes for great reading at times. They’re particularly good on their pet hates, which include Susan Sontag (Raphael) and Gore Vidal (Epstein). Here’s the latter on Vidal:

Gore Vidal is now in his early eighties and is perhaps best likened to a car with a dead engine whose horn nonetheless keeps sounding off. His act has been that of the crusty American aristocrat — Henry Adams with a bit of Edmund Wilson thrown in, the Wilson who claimed to look at Life magazine and not recognise the America in which he grew up — who finds his country vulgar, make that greedy, vile and vastly ignorant. The twist Vidal rang on this great American crank act was to hate America from the left instead of, more traditionally for this role, from the right. Nothing in the country he couldn’t look down his nose upon: its politics, its literature, its entertainment, above all its people. All this was admixed with a strong homosexual strain; Vidal used to call himself a “homosexualist,” a term that always reminded me of “aerialist”.


Zadok the Priest | Choir of Westminster Abbey


If that’ll doesn’t get you going on the first working day of 2021 then nothing will!

How to Get Rich Sabotaging Nuclear Weapons Facilities

With every passing day, assessment of the extent of the damage caused by Russia’s penetration of one company’s software update grows more sombre. But not enough attention has been focussed on the software company whose laxity let the hackers in — SolarWinds.

Matt Stoller has done sterling work in remedying this omission.

The point of entry for this major hack was not Microsoft, but a private equity-owned IT software firm called SolarWinds. This company’s products are dominant in their niche; 425 out of the Fortune 500 use Solar Winds. As Reuters reported about the last investor call in October, the CEO told analysts that “there was not a database or an IT deployment model out there to which [they] did not provide some level of monitoring or management.” While there is competition in this market, SolarWinds does have market power. IT systems are hard to migrate from, and this lock-in effect means that customers will tolerate price hikes or quality degradation rather than change providers. And it does have a large market share; as the CEO put it, “We manage everyone’s network gear.”

SolarWinds sells a network management package called Orion, and it was through Orion that the Russians invaded these systems, putting malware into updates that the company sent to clients. Now, Russian hackers are extremely sophisticated sleuths, but it didn’t take a genius to hack this company. It’s not just that criminals traded information about how to hack SolarWinds systems; one security researcher alerted the company last year that “anyone could access SolarWinds’ update server by using the password “solarwinds123.’”

The New York Times had a story about one “security adviser” at SolarWinds, who said that he warned management … that unless it took a more proactive approach to its internal security, a cybersecurity episode would be “catastrophic.” The executive in charge of security quit in frustration. Even after the hack, the company continued screwing up; SolarWinds didn’t even stop offering compromised software for several days after it was discovered.

This level of idiocy seems off-the-charts, says Mr Stoller, but it’s not that the CEO, Kevin Thompson, is stupid.

Far from it. “Employees say that under Mr. Thompson,” the Times continued, “an accountant by training and a former chief financial officer, every part of the business was examined for cost savings and common security practices were eschewed because of their expense.” The company’s profit tripled from 2010 to 2019. Thompson calculated that his business could run more profitably if it chose to open its clients to hacking risk, and he was right.

And yet, not every software firm operates like SolarWinds. Most seek to make money, but few do so with such a combination of malevolence, greed, and idiocy. What makes SolarWinds different? The answer is the specific financial model that has invaded the software industry over the last fifteen years, a particularly virulent strain of recklessness typically called private equity.

Of all the abuses of neoliberal capitalism in recent decades, private equity seems to me to head the list. The argument for it is that it provides a kind of corrective to lazy and incompetent management of viable businesses. In practice, much of the activity of private equity investors looks more like that of termites tearing an ageing wooden building apart.

Of course I’m prejudiced. Compared to Mr Stoller, though, I’m a Panglossian optimist. Private equity investors are, he writes,

financiers who raise large amounts of money and borrow even more to buy firms and loot them. These kinds of private equity barons aren’t specialists who help finance useful products and services, they do cookie cutter deals targeting firms they believe have market power to raise prices, who can lay off workers or sell assets, and/or have some sort of legal loophole advantage. Often they will destroy the underlying business. The giants of the industry, from Blackstone to Apollo, are the children of 1980s junk bond king and fraudster Michael Milken. They are essentially are super-sized mobsters who burn down businesses for the insurance money.

Except that in this case they seem to have burned down not just a lot of companies who depended on SolarWinds software, but a good deal of the US government as well.

Other, hopefully interesting or useful, links

  • The immediate future of European travel for British Citizens. Useful info. Link

  • The Mediterranean nearly dried up. A cataclysmic flood revived it. Wow! Who knew? Link

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Sunday 3 January, 2021

When tourists roamed the earth

Quote of the Day

”Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.”

  • Sophia Loren

Hmmm… I wonder.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bob Dylan – Subterranean Homesick Blues | 1965


My favourite version of this song.

Long Read of the Day

 Monopoly Versus Democracy in the New Gilded Age

Terrific Foreign Affairs essay by Zephyr Teachout about lessons from previous progressive, anti-monopoly movements.

The parallels with the present day are obvious, and it has become commonplace to hear the current era described as a new Gilded Age. As the journalist Barry Lynn points out in his book Liberty From All Masters, the robber barons shared with today’s high-tech monopolists a strategy of encouraging people to see immense inequality as a tragic but unavoidable consequence of capitalism and technological change. But as Lynn shows, one of the main differences between then and now is that, compared to today, fewer Americans accepted such rationalizations during the Gilded Age. Today, Americans tend to see grotesque accumulations of wealth and power as normal. Back then, a critical mass of Americans refused to do so, and they waged a decades-long fight for a fair and democratic society. On the other hand, today’s antimonopoly movements are intentionally interracial and thus avoid a massive failure of the populists and progressives of the late Gilded Age, who abandoned Black Americans even though they had played a crucial role in fostering both movements.

Worth a read. The obvious takeaway is that you can have democracy or you can have powerful monopolies, but you can’t have both. Another historical lesson is that in order to deal with corporate power, we have to tackle it in a wider framework — for example, it’s necessary to clean up the mess of private funding of political campaigns. And in the UK we’d also need to make the electoral system more fairly representative. Nearly 4m people voted for UKIP in the 2015 general election and got… precisely one MP.

All I want for 2021 is to see Mark Zuckerberg up in court

This morning’s Observer column. The tech giants’ law-free bonanza is coming to an end on both sides of the Atlantic, but let’s speed up the process.

Interestingly, Stoller suggests that another approach (inspired by the way trust-busters in the US acted in the 1930s) could have useful leverage on corporate behaviour from now on. Monopolisation isn’t just illegal, he points out, “it is in fact a crime, an appropriation of the rights and property of others by a dominant actor. The lengthy trial is essentially akin to saying that bank robbers getting to keep robbing banks until they are convicted and can probably keep the additional loot.”

Since a basic principle of the rule of law is that crime shouldn’t pay, an addition of the possibility of criminal charges to the antitrust actions might, like the prospect of being hanged in the morning (pace Dr Johnson), concentrate minds in Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple. As an eternal optimist, I cannot think of a nicer prospect for 2021 than the sight of Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai in the dock – with Nick Clegg in attendance, taking notes. Happy new year!

Do read the whole thing.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • How to read 50 books in 2021. Some useful tips from James Crabtree. Link
  • 21 Things That Kept Me Going In 2020. Some lovely discoveries from Jason Kottke (Whom God Preserve). Link
  • Adobe Flash rides off into the sunset. Adobe terminated support for its Flash software on Christmas eve. It won’t start blocking Flash content until January 12th but major browsers seem to have shut it down already and Microsoft will block it in most versions of Windows. It’s over. Link.

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Saturday 2 January, 2020

The lake in Winter

Quote of the Day

”I distrust camels and anyone else who can go a week without a drink.”

  • Joe Lewis, American comedian, 1971

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Corelli Christmas Concerto 2nd movement


On Brexit, grief and moving on

One of my strongest memories of the day after the Brexit vote in 2016 was the number of people who said to me that it felt to them like a bereavement. (Remember that I live and work in a bubble which voted heavily for Remain, and many of my friends and colleagues are, like me, Europhiles.) The word they chose for how they were feeling was interesting and, I think, significant, so over the succeeding four years I often found myself returning to it.

An obvious source to consult was Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s book, On Death & Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy & Their Own Families in which she set out her famous ‘five stages of grief’ model, which postulates that those experiencing grief go through a series of five emotions: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

In the four years since the Brexit vote, I’ve seen my fellow-Remainers going through some or all of these stages. But since 11pm last Thursday evening, it seems to me that the only one that now makes sense if the fifth: acceptance.

In that context, a reader pointed me to an interesting Guardian column by the paper’s Economics editor, Larry Elliott, under the headline “The left must stop mourning Brexit – and start seeing its huge potential .”

The lefties who voted for Brexit see it differently. For them (us, actually, because I am one of them), the vote to leave was historically progressive. It marked the rejection of a status quo that was only delivering for the better off by those who demanded their voice was heard. Far from being a reactionary spasm, Brexit was democracy in action.

Now the UK has a choice. It can continue to mourn or it can take advantage of the opportunities that Brexit has provided. For a number of reasons, it makes sense to adopt the latter course.

For a start, it is clear that the UK has deep, structural economic problems despite – and in some cases because of – almost half a century of EU membership. Since 1973, the manufacturing base has shrivelled, the trade balance has been in permanent deficit, and the north-south divide has widened. Free movement of labour has helped entrench Britain’s reputation as a low-investment, low-productivity economy. Brexit means that those farmers who want their fruit harvested will now have to do things that the left ought to want: pay higher wages or invest in new machinery.

I can see where he’s coming from. During the Referendum campaign two things puzzled me. One was the feebleness of the Remain campaign — it was as if nobody was interested in making a passionate argument for continuing to participate in the greatest geopolitical experiment in European history. As a result, the Remain campaign was essentially negative — as the Europhobes dismissively labelled it — ‘Project Fear’.

The other puzzle was the failure to make a reasonable case against the European experiment. The truth about the EU is that it has always been an elitist, technocratic experiment. It would never have happened as a democratic project — it had to be driven by political elites from the moment the European Coal and Steel Community was established in the early 1950s as a (laudable) attempt to ensure that the nations of Europe could never go to war against one another again. But as it developed into the EEC — and, later, the EU — the project always had a yawning democratic deficit (as Jurgen Habermas lamented in his book The Lure of Technocracy) — a deficit that was only partially filled by the creation of the European Parliament.

In that sense, there never was much in the way of democratic legitimacy for the EU project. And in a number of crises, notably the 2008 banking catastrophe, that lack of legitimacy was painfully obvious. Similarly the creation of the Eurozone was an elite project — it had to be — because its internal contradictions would never have withstood proper democratic scrutiny. (Indeed, one of the really good things Gordon Brown did was to keep the UK out of the Euro, despite Tony Blair’s anxiety to join it.) And then there was the crazily-accelerated post-1989 drive to incorporate the Eastern European states liberated by the implosion of the Soviet empire. And, finally, there’s the fact that all these initiatives and policies were driven or inspired by a Commission staffed by a technocratic elite that had been drinking the neoliberal Kool Aid from the time they’d been in kindergarten.

So in 2016 there were plenty of reasons to debate the wisdom of continuing to belong to such a flawed institution. But mostly those arguments were never made — or if they were they were drowned out by the crude xenophobia of the two Leave campaigns. Worse still, the corollary was never explored — the idea that a Britain governed by a radically reformist regime could forge an interesting future for itself outside of the EU.

But we are where we are: out. So it makes sense to think about the future as one that could have real possibilities for radical improvement — if Britain had a radical reforming government that was competent. It doesn’t have that at the moment, so the question is: where could such an administration come from?

The Johnson administration is incapable — for social, ideological and capacity reasons — of measuring up to the task. All that vapouring about “levelling up” is just sloganeering. They don’t have a clue about even where to start. (Dominic Cummings’s fantasies about the revolutionary possibilities of a British DARPA were the ravings of an elitist technocrat on steroids.) There’s no strategy, or indeed no real understanding of what would need to be done to transform a ‘liberated’ UK into a progressive, successful, fairer, more dynamic society.

So the odds are that the slogans will fizzle out and the decay set out by ‘Project Fear’ will come to pass. The United Kingdom will fracture, with Scotland eventually going its own way; Ireland slowly re-uniting, de facto if not de jure; and a Westminster parliament with just one pocket borough left — England. Or, as Philip Stephens put it in the FT the other day, “Forget the guff about embarking on a new Elizabethan age. ‘Global Britain’ is at present heading towards the rocks of constitutional break-up.”

So what could be done to move on creatively from Brexit? The only answer I can see is a radically revitalised Labour Party that comes to power four years from now. The question then becomes: could Keir Starmer build such a party? And where would its ideas come from?

Long Read of the day

 Where loneliness can lead

Hannah Arendt enjoyed her solitude, but she believed that loneliness could make people susceptible to totalitarianism.

Nice essay by by Samantha Rose Hill

The companies that have done best in the pandemic year

The FT has a list of the companies that did best last year. I was interested in the nationalities of the winners.

Here are the top 6:

  • USA: 33 companies

  • China: 32

  • S. Korea: 6

  • Japan: 4

  • Denmark: 3

  • Germany: 3

And, just for completeness:

  • UK: 1

Could this be the same “Global Britain” about which we have been hearing so much lately?

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Friday 1 January, 2021

A dog’s life

Quote of the Day

”I love metaphor. It provides two loaves where there seems to be one. Sometimes it throws in a load of fish.”

  • Bernard Malamud, playwright, 1975 in a Paris Review interview.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Grateful Dead | I Fought The Law | Live


Like many of my student generation, I was a fan of the Grateful Dead — the first band to really understand the power of bootlegged music and (later) the Internet. I once shared a (speaking) platform with their lyricist, John Perry Barlow (who was one of the founders of the Electronic Freedom Foundation and author of the famous Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace). This particular number has a fascinating and extensive discography. There’s an excessively clean-cut early version of it by the Bobby Fuller Four, and an impressively noisy and aggressive rendition by The Clash. Green Day also recorded it, and doubtless many others. But as a Deadhead I still prefer Gerry Jarcia and his crew.

Long Read of the Day

The Master and the Prodigy — Bill Janeway on biographies of John Maynard Keynes and Frank Ramsey

This is a masterful review essay on two fascinating and impressive biographies — Zachary Carter’s  Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes and Cheryl Misak’s  Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers. I devoured both during the first lockdown and talked about them in my audio diary, and felt that I’d got a lot from them. Reading Bill Janeway’s long essay, however, made me realise that I had only scratched the surface. So it’s really worth making an appointment with yourself to read it.

The Beatles: 60 years on

Yesterday’s post about the poster for the Fab Four’s Litherland gig after their return from Hamburg prompted a small stream of interested reflections.

Hugh Taylor (Whom God Preserve) wrote:

Interesting to compare the price of that Liverpool gig in 1960 with the Beatles’ appearances in Cambridge. In March 1963 they were playing support (even though they’d released two singles by then – one of them rather successful) for a date in which prices were between 5/6 and 8/6. But by November, it looks as though the cheapest Rear Stalls had increased to 6/6. But they were headliners by then, with two number ones to their name.


There’s an entertaining description of their November visit on singer and activist Tom Robinson’s blog – his brother worked for Varsity (didn’t we all!), and was sent to interview them…

The brother was allocated three minutes for an interview in a dressing room after the show. His report of the encounter is a hoot (or, if you’re of a pedantic turn of mind) an hoot. Here’s a sample:

Local journalists queued outside the dressing room door. There were grumbles as I was led to the front. “He’s only a student!” said PR. “He’s only got three minutes. You’ve all got five!” The grumbles subsided, but only a bit.

PR knocked. “Enter at your peril!” shouted a Liverpudlian voice that could have been John, Paul, George or Ringo. PR pulled a face and gingerly opened the door. I edged in behind, pulling out my compact notebook and pencil stub.

The Beatles sat perched like parrots on a line of cane chairs, clutching cigarettes and wine glasses, glistening with perspiration.

“Who’s this fine figure of a young man?” said John Lennon pretending to screw up his eyes as he peered at me while drawing heavily on his fag.

“Varsity, University newspaper,” said PR. “He’s only got three minutes.”

“Ringo! Stopwatch!” said Paul McCartney.

“Haven’t got one,” said Ringo Starr. “But I’ll count the seconds.”

“One hundred and eighty,” said George Harrison. Ringo started counting down aloud.

“He’s clever!” said John pointing at George. “He does MATHS!”

“Aren’t YOU supposed to be clever?” said Paul pointing at me. “Being a student!”

I nodded.

“He’s NOT a student,’ said John. “He’s an UNDERGRADUATE. Under-Grad-U-Ate! Students call themselves that at Cambridge Uni-Ver-Si-Ty. Right, Mister Undergraduate?”

“We’re in Cambridge?” asked Paul. “I thought it was Oxford.”

“Ordinary universities have students,” said George. “Posh places like Oxford and Cambridge have UNDERGRADUATES.”

The interview wasn’t heading in the direction I’d planned…

Wonderful. Do follow the link.

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Thursday 31 December, 2020

King’s in the Frame

An unusual view of a famous building.

Quote of the the Day

”We are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage. Then, at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of the populations of the Earth to buy and sell freely among each other.”

  • Boris Johnson, speech in Greenwich on February 3, 2020.

Note the date. This was arguably the most stupid speech ever made by a British Prime Minister. (See below for more detail.)

Five reasons the UK failed in Brexit talks – Jonathan Powell

Really salutary Politico piece by Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff and played the lead role in negotiating, for example, the Good Friday Agreement.

I have spent the last 40 years involved in international negotiations of one sort or another, and I have never seen a British government perform worse than they did in the four years of negotiations that concluded with the Christmas Eve Brexit agreement.

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of Brexit, purely in terms of negotiating technique, it is an object lesson in how not to do it. As the bluster and self-congratulation dies down, it is worth standing back and looking at what we can learn from the debacle.

We have ended up with an agreement which is more or less where the EU started. It is true that there have been a few sops to the U.K. position on the dynamic alignment of state aid and the role of the European Court of Justice. But on every major economic point, even including fisheries, the EU has got its way.

There are five principal reasons why.

It’s worth reading the whole piece. But in summary, here are the five mistakes Powell lists.

  1. From the outset the UK massively overestimated the strength of its negotiating position.

  2. May’s government fired the starting gun before it had worked out its own position, with the result that Britain spent the first two years negotiating with itself while the EU’s clock was ticking.

  3. Third, the UK prioritised abstract principles of ‘sovereignty’ over pragmatic economic interests and wasted time protecting a theoretical concept it didn’t actually want to use ahead of practical benefits.

  4. The government wilfully destroyed the EU’s trust in its commitment to implement what it had already agreed by threatening to unilaterally renege on the Northern Ireland Protocol. Johnson & Co imagined they could provoke a crisis and thereby give themselves the whip hand as the EU panicked. Instead the EU negotiators kept their cool and achieved the bloc’s objectives while the government wasted time on futile tactical games.

  5. The UK never developed a strategic plan for the negotiations — an an incomprehensible omission for any kind of government. But the Johnson crowd seemed to think it was OK to turn up for talks and hope things would work out.

My take on this: Johnson’s administration was never capable of conducting serious, successful negotiations because of (a) the PM’s fundamental laziness, incompetence and inexperience, (b) it had a Cabinet full of second-and third-rate politicians, and (c) it was in thrall to a powerful party cabal of Europhobic MPs with delusions about British exceptionalism.

Given these factors, the resulting ‘agreement’ — which largely seems to give the EU what it wanted all along — was predictable. This is of course bad for the country, but it has the merit (from the Leave crowd’s point of view) of enabling them to blame the EU for their own failure. It’s a Trump-lite strategy in other words.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ode to Joy Flashmobbed


I know I blogged this during the first lockdown, but if ever there was a day for repeating it, this is it.

60 years on

Charles Foster’s Plenty of Taste blog has a lovely post this week marking the 60th anniversary of the Beatle’s return to Liverpool after their sojourn in Hamburg.

The 27 December 1960 performance at Litherland Town Hall was a breakthrough – with over 1500 tickets sold – and cemented their name as Liverpool’s top live draw.

Just as sensational as the performance is this wonderful hand-drawn poster for the gig. The exuberant lettering for this and many other of their Liverpool concerts was done by a very talented signwriter, Tony Booth. The one above has been recreated from the original posters he did at the time for Brian Epstein. Booth’s story was told in a 2016 documentary for local BBC TV, which unfortunately I haven’t seen in full. It is previewed in this clip for BBC News, where you get a glimpse of Booth at work. Sadly, he died less than a year later, as this further clip tells us. His work lives on at this website, where you can buy the modern reproductions.

Imagine: you could have seen the Beatles live for three shillings! Nowadays you have to pay £1 billion to get 12 votes from the DUP.

Implications of the new variant of Covid-19

I’m temperamentally sceptical of soothing official advice about Covid. At the moment, the consensus seems to me that the existing vaccines will probably work ok, etc. Hopefully they will. But that’s not the really significant thing about the variant: it’s its much higher transmissability.

Zeynep Tufecki has a great piece in The Atlantic about this. “A more transmissible variant of COVID-19,” she writes,

is a potential catastrophe in and of itself. If anything, given the stage in the pandemic we are at, a more transmissible variant is in some ways much more dangerous than a more severe variant. That’s because higher transmissibility subjects us to a more contagious virus spreading with exponential growth, whereas the risk from increased severity would have increased in a linear manner, affecting only those infected.

Increased transmissibility can wreak havoc in a very, very short time—especially when we already have uncontrolled spread in much of the United States. The short-term implications of all this are significant, and worthy of attention, even as we await more clarity from data. In fact, we should act quickly especially as we await more clarity—lack of data and the threat of even faster exponential growth argue for more urgency of action. If and when more reassuring data come in, relaxing restrictions will be easier than undoing the damage done by not having reacted in time. [As if we in the UK didn’t know that.]

To illustrate the difference between exponential and linear risks, Tufecki cites an example put forward by Adam Kucharski from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who’s an experienced modeller of infectious-disease outbreaks (and author of a rather good book on the subject, which I’ve read).

Kucharski compares a 50 percent increase in virus lethality to a 50 percent increase in virus transmissibility. Take a virus reproduction rate of about 1.1 and an infection fatality risk of 0.8 percent and imagine 10,000 active infections—a plausible scenario for many European cities, as Kucharski notes. As things stand, with those numbers, we’d expect 129 deaths in a month. If the fatality rate increased by 50 percent, that would lead to 193 deaths. In contrast, a 50 percent increase in transmissibility would lead to a whopping 978 deaths in just one month—assuming, in both scenarios, a six-day infection-generation time.

There are lots of things we don’t know at the moment. Just how much more transmissable is it, for example? 50%? 70%? We don’t know yet. What’s certain is that, as Tufecki puts it, “we are in a race against time, and the virus appears to be gaining an unfortunate ability to sprint just as we get closer to the finish line”.

2021 could be tougher than we think. Hope I’m wrong about that.

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Wednesday 30 December, 2020

Who said robots can’t dance?


Quote of the Day

”If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”

  • Motto embroidered on one of Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s settee cushions.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Tommy Emmanuel, Richard Smith and friends


“The best jam I’ve ever witnessed.” Recommended by Andrew Ingram, Whom God Preserve, who writes :

“Tommy is famous (and I think this is why I just love the guy) for jamming with other people – helping them to improve their technique, learning from youngsters with good ideas etc. Apparently if he stays in a hotel after a gig, there’s usually a session in the bar / back room, and usually with amateurs. This is him with Richard Smith (who is a pro) and two others who I think are just getting a shot at jamming with the master. No notes, no music sheets, just bring your brain, memory and fingers. And ears.”

Long Read of the Day

How mRNA went from a scientific backwater to a pandemic crusher

Terrific story in Wired UK

In 1995, Katalin Karikó was at her lowest ebb. A biochemist at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), Karikó had dedicated much of the previous two decades to finding a way to turn one of the most fundamental building blocks of life, mRNA, into a whole new category of therapeutics.

More often than not, Karikó found herself hitting dead ends. Numerous grant applications were rejected, and an attempt to raise funding from venture capitalists in New York to form a spin-off company had proved to be a fruitless endeavour. ”They initially promised to give us money, but then they never returned my phone calls,” she says.

By the mid 1990s, Karikó’s bosses at UPenn had run out of patience. Frustrated with the lack of funding she was generating for her research, they offered the scientist a bleak choice: leave or be demoted. It was a demeaning prospect for someone who had once been on the path to a full professorship. For Karikó’s dreams of using mRNA to create new vaccines and drugs for many chronic illnesses, it seemed to be the end of the road…

Read on. It all comes good in the end.

Christmas in an alternate 2020

Lovely blog post by Tim Harford.

Perhaps there is no wrong way to exchange Christmas gifts, but in a hurried rendezvous just off junction six of the M40 must come close. My sister was furious; we had planned to go for a walk in the woods together the day before Christmas Eve, one of the safest activities imaginable. No longer: true to form, the prime minister had promised far more than seemed possible, realised it wasn’t possible after all, and then snatched it all away in a tumble of confusion. If the present-swap was to be legal, we had just hours to get it done.

As I drove to the rendezvous, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. For 15 years I’ve been writing columns discussing the problem with Christmas gifts, and now we were testing the idea to destruction. If nothing remained of Christmas except the presents, what would I do? The situation revealed the answer: at almost any cost, I’d hand over the damn presents.

We economists have a troubled relationship with gift exchange…

They do. That’s because they think people are very bad at choosing gifts.

To a brother-in-law who likes cricket, we give a cricket-themed tchotchke whose sole purpose is to symbolise the fact that we know he likes cricket. To a music-lover, we give CDs, not realising that she threw out the CD player years ago and listens only to vinyl. The shirt is lovely but does not fit; the toys would have been cool three years ago; the book is so perfectly chosen that in fact the recipient read it over the summer. Many pitfalls lie in wait even for a gift-giver who has empathy, imagination and patience — and by mid December many of us are running low on all three.

But because gift-giving remotely is one of the few things we have been able to do this Christmas, Harford comes up with an interesting thought-experiment. “The pandemic”, he writes,

has operated like a neutron bomb, destroying the hugs and the feasting and carol services and the visiting of elderly relatives, while allowing the flow of gift-wrapped plastic to continue unabated. What a shame that things aren’t the other way around. Imagine an alternate universe in which Christmas carols and pantomimes and parties and feasts with family and friends were all possible, but because of a strange virus that lived on wrapping paper, it was unsafe, illegal and deeply antisocial to offer Christmas gifts.

Might be worth a try.

On the other hand…

On Sunday, December 20, my phone buzzed with a news alert. From midnight, the government was going to put London and lots of other places into Tier 4. This caused alarm in our household because my son lives in London and is currently renovating his place, and a special new sink that he had ordered had been delivered to us. He had been planning to collect it on a day trip around Christmas, but that would now be out of the question. Since it was on the critical path for the renovation, the work might be delayed for weeks or even months.

So we hit on a plan. We would meet him half-way at an open air venue and hand over the sink so that we could all be back in our respective bases before midnight. The meeting place we arranged as the car park of a large motorway service station.

We got there early and sat in the car waiting for him to turn up. And then a strange thing began to happen. Cars were arriving in large numbers, parking at a slight remove from one another. And we watched as people got out, opened the boots, extracted gift-wrapped boxes and bags and brought them to other cars, where people were doing the same thing. Over half an hour, the entire parking lot was briefly transformed into one massive gift-exchange venue. Families and friends stood outside in the cold under street-lights, mostly observing social distancing, talking and laughing and taking photographs.

It was a lovely, moving scene — of friends and families whose plans to spend Christmas together had been abruptly squashed by the government’s abrupt decision, but who were determined to mark the season somehow. A profound reminder of human resourcefulness and of how cruelly a basic human need — to touch, to embrace, to kiss — has been denied by the virus.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  •  Swan song: German firefighters remove ‘mourning’ bird blocking railway line. Its mate had been killed by flying into an overhead high-voltage line, and it had settled at the point of his/her death. Swans apparently do that sometimes. Link.
  • Some modellers think that by February 1 over 90% of Covid infections in the UK will be of the new variant. Link.
  •  How My Record Player Helped Me Feel the Music.. Analogue nostalgia rules OK. Link

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Tuesday 29 December, 2020

Antibes, August 2010

How to do data visualisation well

Global Energy Production by Source 1860 – 2019


My Quarantine Diary

I kept an audio diary for the first 100 days of lockdown. You can find it in the online version of this blog for March-July 2019.

Alternatively, the text is now available as a Kindle book.

You can get it here

Quote of the Day

”Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing.”

  • Norman Mailer

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Tubas in the Moonlight | Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band


Long Read of the Day

 “If it Hadn’t Been for the Prompt Work of the Medics”: FSB Officer Inadvertently Confesses Murder Plot to Navalny

Wonderful investigative reporting, with a neat twist. Bellingcat, like Wikipedia, is one of the wonders of the online world. Note the trick question about the colour of his underpants!


The perverse political effects of Covid-19

Gideon Rachman has a column in today’s FT (probably paywalled) on the geopolitics of Covid.

Nothing, it seems, can get in the way of geopolitical rivalry. Not a pandemic, not the collapse of international travel or a worldwide recession. In different ways China, the US and the EU have all treated Covid-19 as a very public test of their rival approaches to governance — and as part of an international contest for prestige and influence.

The obvious preliminary conclusion is that the pandemic will turn out to be an overall geopolitical win for the People’s Republic of China. The PRC’s success in largely suppressing the disease stands in marked contrast with the terrible toll that Covid-19 has taken on the west.

But politics moves in unexpected ways. Paradoxically, there is a strong case to be made that both the US and the EU may also end up being politically strengthened by Covid-19….

Wishful thinking, methinks.

WHO warns Covid-19 pandemic is ‘not necessarily the big one’

According to the Guardian, the organisation’s end of year media briefing warned that the virus is likely to become endemic and that the world will have to learn to live with it.

The head of the WHO emergencies program, Dr Mark Ryan, said: “The likely scenario is the virus will become another endemic virus that will remain somewhat of a threat, but a very low-level threat in the context of an effective global vaccination program.

“It remains to be seen how well the vaccines are taken up, how close we get to a coverage level that might allow us the opportunity to go for elimination,” he said. “The existence of a vaccine, even at high efficacy, is no guarantee of eliminating or eradicating an infectious disease. That is a very high bar for us to be able to get over.”

That was why the first goal of the vaccine was to save lives and protect the vulnerable, Ryan said. “And then we will deal with the moonshot of potentially being able to eliminate or eradicate this virus.”

Ryan warned that the next pandemic may be more severe. “This pandemic has been very severe … it has affected every corner of this planet. But this is not necessarily the big one,” he said.

“This is a wake-up call. We are learning, now, how to do things better: science, logistics, training and governance, how to communicate better. But the planet is fragile.

I’m sorry to say that I’m not surprised.

The Bart Simpson Chalkboard Generator

But here’s an antidote to gloom.

Go on — try it here!

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Monday 28 December, 2020

The genius who is Matt

Matt, the Daily Torygraph‘s cartoonist, is a genius. Which — my lovely daughter thought — is why his annual collection would be a great Christmas present for her Dad.

She was right. Here’s just one reason:

Quote of the Day

”The privately educated Englishman – and Englishwoman, if you will allow me – is the greatest dissembler on Earth. Was, is now and ever shall be for as long as our disgraceful school system remains intact. Nobody will charm you so glibly, disguise his feelings from you better, cover his tracks more skilfully or find it harder to confess to you that he’s been a damned fool.”

  • George Smiley in John le Carré’s The Secret Pilgrim.

Remind you of anyone?

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sharon Shannon | Blackbird


Long Read of the Day

John Rawls: can liberalism’s great philosopher come to the west’s rescue again?

Good question, thoughtfully discussed by Julian Coman in this Guardian Long Read:

He begins with the arguments that broke out in the New York Times on how the paper should cover Trump after his election as President. Confronted with a leader who delighted in flouting democratic norms and attacking minorities, was it the duty of this bastion of American liberalism to remain above the fray or should it play a partisan role in defence of the values under attack?

As journalists and staff argued online, a prominent columnist “uploaded a PDF of John Rawls’s treatise on public reason, in an attempt to elevate the discussion”. Rawls, who died in 2002, remains the most celebrated philosopher of the basic principles of Anglo-American liberalism. These were laid out in his seminal text, A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. The columnist, Elizabeth Bruenig, suggested to colleagues: “What we’re having is really a philosophical conversation and it concerns the unfinished business of liberalism. I think all human beings are born philosophers, that is, that we all have an innate desire to understand what our world means and what we owe to one another and how to live good lives.” One respondent wrote back witheringly: “Philosophy schmosiphy. We’re at a barricades moment in our history. You decide: which side are you on?”

In an age of polarisation, the exchange encapsulated a central question for the liberal left in America and beyond. Jagged faultlines have disfigured the public square during a period in which issues of race, gender, class and nationhood have divided societies. So was Bruenig right? To rebuild trust and a sense of common purpose, can we learn something by revisiting the most influential postwar philosopher in the English-speaking world?

Worth reading in full.

Reasons to be cheerful?

The economist Tyler Cowen is temperamentally an optimist; his glass is always three-quarters full. In his Bloomberg column 2020 “gets an asterisk for Covid”, but he thinks the year also saw great scientific progress. For example:

  • The astonishingly rapid creation of several kinds of Covid-19 vaccines
  • A “very promising” vaccine candidate against malaria, perhaps the greatest killer in human history
  • New CRISPR techniques that appear to be on the verge of vanquishing sickle-cell anemia
  • GPT-3 (AI) technology that composes remarkably human-like prose
  • DeepMind’s machine learning system that seems to have cracked the problem of protein folding
  • Driverless vehicles appeared to be stalled, but Walmart will be using them on some truck deliveries in 2021
  • SpaceX achieved virtually every launch and rocket goal it had announced for the year.
  • Toyota and other companies have announced major progress on batteries for electric vehicles, with related products are expected to arrive in 2021
  • Lots of progress in affordable solar power
  • China has developed a new and promising fusion reactor
  • Many more Zoom meetings will be held, and many business trips will never return.

You get the picture. Professor Cowen is an upbeat kind of guy. But he’s also pretty perceptive about what’s going on.

Talking Politics @5

Talking Politics, the podcast founded and hosted by my friend and colleague David Runciman, has been going for five years. I’ve been a fan of it from the beginning, and occasionally ‘appeared’ on it (if that’s an accurate of describing participation in an audio recording). By any standards — and especially those of academic ‘engagement’ and outreach — the podcast has been a knockout success.

How do I know that? Well, ponder some of the statistics:

  • Total downloads over the five years: 19.6m (20.57m if we include the History of Ideas strand)
  • Total downloads in 2020: over 8.1m
  • Weekly listens in 2020: 155,000 per week
  • Countries reached in 2020: 197

This week’s edition was #295 and was devoted to some reflections on the five tumultuous years by David, Helen Thompson and Catherine Carr, the producer of the show. It’s well worth a listen. After hearing it I fell to pondering why TP has been so successful. Here are the notes I made…

  1. Timing and luck. David made the point well — five years ago turned out to be a perfect moment to launch a show like TP because 2015 was a moment when democratic politics suddenly began to be interesting again. My own take on it is that the academic study of politics was just entering a phase which had the hallmarks of Thomas Kuhn’s description of the intellectual crises which scientific disciplines periodically go through as a field’s theoretical paradigm encounters increasing scepticism among researchers and a rival theoretical framework begins to emerge. A key feature of these crises, Kuhn observed, was incommensurability — the absence of a neutral language in which the merits of the old paradigm and its emerging rival could be objectively assessed. (Think Newtonian dynamics with its billiard balls vs quantum physics with its neutrinos, quarks and Higg’s boson.) So there’s initially no way of knowing which one ‘should’ win. The difference between the exact sciences and the social sciences is that, in the former, the experimental and observational facts are obtainable and so eventually obsolete paradigms die a natural death. That’s not the case in the social sciences (or indeed the humanities), which is why pathological paradigms (like rational expectations in economics) live on long past their sell-by dates. My hunch is that the theoretical paradigms which had governed what is laughingly called ‘political science’ lost credibility after the 2008 banking crisis and its aftermath, and TP thrived in the resulting vacuum of ideas.

  2. Given that, the fact that TP was often ‘wrong’ –in its predictions and analyses but cheerful in its acceptance of that — was a feature not a bug. When you’re in a crisis of incommensurability, that’s the only way to act rationally. And, critically, it’s what conventional political analysis cannot do: it has to purport to possess a coherent narrative for what’s going on because those involved believe that their credibility depends on it. This is perhaps a measure of intellectual insecurity, and one of the defining characteristics of TP is that the main contributors and hosts don’t suffer from that and were therefore able to live with radical uncertainty in a way that members of the political commentariat could not!

  3. Another thing that marked out TP from the burgeoning ruck of ‘politics’ podcasts was that it was forever escaping from “the sociology of the last five minutes”. No matter how urgent the question of the day, there was always Helen Thompson excavating the long history and political economy of how we got here, or Gary Gerstle or Adam Tooze doing the same, or Ken Armstrong explaining the incomprehensible complexities of regulatory divergence and related arcana. And so on.

  4. In that sense, the podcast has been a showcase for the advantages of sheer erudition. There’s no substitute for it — as the discussion of the Corn Laws that was highlighted in this week’s edition demonstrated perfectly. And one of the great advantages TP had was that of being located in a major research university. It wouldn’t have been able to tap into this huge pool of collective IQ, however, had David Runciman and Helen Thompson not been recognised by their peers as formidable thinkers in their own right. Being invited to appear on TP was recognised by many distinguished thinkers as a real compliment.

  5. Finally, TP was a great exploiter of the fact that podcasting has a wider intellectual bandwidth than other media — especially broadcast media which even on a good day have the bandwidth of smoke signals. When my son Pete (also a podcast producer) was making his ‘MPs’ Expenses’ series for the Telegraph, I remember thinking that if journalism is the first draft of history, then podcasting looks very much like the second draft. And Talking Politics is v2.1.

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