Saturday 26 December, 2020

Trinity Street, Cambridge, this afternoon.

Image courtesy of Molly Blackburn.

Quote of the Day

“Education is … hanging around until you’ve caught on.”

  • Robert Frost

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks | Never Going Back Again | Live


Long Read of the Day

Stock Picks From Space: Investors are using real-time satellite images to predict retailers’ sales. Is that cheating?

Fascinating piece by Frank Partnoy in The Atlantic


There is an old story about Sam Walton: In the early days of Walmart, its founder would monitor how stores were doing by counting the cars in the parking lot. After seeing the power of satellite imagery in his factory deal, Tom had a similar idea, but on a scale Walton could not have imagined. He asked his brother, “What if we could count the cars at every Walmart?”

After a week together in the Rockies, the brothers had a plan. Alex left DigitalGlobe and negotiated with the company to sell him three years’ worth of archival imagery. Tom downloaded a mouse-click counter, which allowed him to count the cars in those photos by clicking on each one. After a few months of scouring parking lots—at Home Depot, Lowe’s, McDonald’s, and, yes, Walmart—the brothers had a data set to back-test. Sure enough, the number of cars in a retailer’s parking lots seemed to accurately predict the company’s revenues.

Always look on the bright side

From the irrepressible Henry Mance in the Weekend FT: (With apologies to Eric Idle and the Monty Python team…)

Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things force you to stay at home
If this is your first pandemic
Don’t grumble, it’s systemic
And wait till they sort out our poor genome

And always look on the bright side of life Always look on the light side of life

If they put you in tier 4
Be glad it’s not a war
And that you’re not expected to be brave
Forget about the Zooming
Not to mention the self-grooming
Chillax now, you’ll survive the second wave

And always look on the bright side of life
(Come on!)
Always look on the right side of life…

There’s more, but you get the idea.

The Crown — Series 4

We’ve been slow to catch up with this. Last night we watched Episode 2: The Balmoral Test. Margaret Thatcher has become Prime Minister and Prince Charles has been persuaded by the real love of his life, Camilla Parker-Bowles (now married to some other bloke), that he ought to give Diana Spencer a try. The royals are ensconced in their hideous, neo-gothic, tartanised hunting lodge in the Scottish Highlands, as is their wont in late Summer and early Autumn, where they specialise in slaughtering innocent animals and playing party games in the evening like the inhabitants of an up-market residential care home.

One of the standard ordeals of an incoming Prime Minister is an invitation to Balmoral where he or she is put through a ritual humiliation by this tribe of huntin’-shootin’-and-fishin’ philistines. The episode opens with Thatcher and Denis in the plane on the way up wondering what lies in store.

What lies in store is a delicious series of humiliations. Their hostess is “out stalking” when they arrive. They’re assigned separate bedrooms, because upper-class tribe members only sleep with other people’s spouses rather than their own. A flunkey impertinently opens Denis’s suitcase in order to lay out his clothes — which infuriates his lady wife. Then they come down fully dressed for dinner (black-tie etc.) when it’s only the tribe’s afternoon teatime. After dinner they have to play a ludicrous party game involving a silly rhyme and a penalty which involves putting a large black mark on your face with a smoked cork.

But that’s just for starters. Thatcher is invited by HMQ to go stalking a limping stag the following morning. The only clothes the PM has packed are Dorothy Perkins-style stuff in primary colours. And she only has kitten-heel shoes, so is obliged to stomp about sodden moorland in a pair of cast-off size-5 boots provided by HMQ. She’s wearing enough perfume to alert a flock of reindeer in Lapland. She stumbles and nearly falls with every second step and eventually is taken back to the lodge, where she changes into something warm and dry and sits at a table going through her red boxes, only to be barked at by some royal harridan for sitting in “Queen Victoria’s chair”. Apparently “nobody sits in that chair”. The fact that she is the Prime Minister and that the entire ghastly tribe are able to live like this because of the vast pension provided by the state doesn’t seem to occur to any of them.

This episode had a strange impact on this blogger, who for decades had loathed Thatcher. I was a TV critic during her reign and had a policy (which the Observer tolerated) of always referring to her as “Mrs Hacksaw”. And yet half-way through last night’s episode I found myself rooting for her as she stared down her snooty hosts, determined as they were to point out how “common” she and her businessman husband were. By which of course they meant how awfully middle-class she was. In the end, she and Denis did what Prime Ministers never do — departed early. And I cheered them on.

The other person undergoing the Balmoral Test was young Diana Spencer who arrived after Charlie decided (on Camilla’s advice) to invite her up. Unlike Thatcher, she passed the test with flying colours. Not surprising, given that the Spencers have lived for centuries in the style to which the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas have become accustomed.

So the narrative drive of Series 4 is now established. The marriage of Charles and Diana was basically engineered by Camilla. But there is also a side plot: Diana is not as innocent as she looks. She had set out to lure Charlie, and the gambit paid off. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. The conventional story is that she was an innocent lamb sucked into the maw of a chronically dysfunctional family. Nobody who saw the famous Bashir interview will be entirely convinced by this.

Of course The Crown is fiction masquerading as reality, and I have no idea how it squares with it. Its ethics seem dubious to me: after all Diana’s two sons are still around and it’s insensitive, to say the least, to have their mother’s life turned into a revenue-generator for a giant American media corporation. If the BBC tried to do this, imagine the hysterical fury there would be from the British establishment, not to mention the salivating thugs of the Murdoch media empire who want to see the BBC eviscerated and shackled.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Washington’s Secret to the Perfect Zoom Bookshelf? Buy It Wholesale. Books by the Foot curates shelves full of books for Washington offices, hotels, TV sets—and, now, Zoom backdrops. *Link. Or, to put it another way, books really do furnish a Zoom.
  • Ten Truths about Brexit. Unpalatable but informed and probably accurate. Link.
  • In the US, School Shooting Drills Have Gone Virtual. Link

One Thursday morning in October, my daughter, an eighth-grader, spent her “homeroom” period performing a school lockdown drill. She was, of course, in her own house, like all her classmates. The students watched a video on their computers about lockdown procedures, then practiced hiding under desks. And so it happened that in this, the most absurd and bewildering academic year of her life, my eighth-grader tucked herself under the table in her bedroom, to prepare for the possibility that someone might try to shoot her, someday later, at her school.

Would like like to bring up your kids in the US? Me neither.

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