Saturday 29 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

”Irrationally-held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors.”

  • TH Huxley

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mumford & Sons plus friends: Amazing Grace — sung like you’ve never heard it sung before. (9’49”)


At Bonnaroo, Tennessee in 2011.

How not to campaign against Trump

Shrewd column by Jack Shafer:

As Trump prepares to run the same campaign as he did in 2016, the Democrats shouldn’t feel obliged to return the favor. Clinton, like some of the Republicans who ran against Trump then, spent a great deal of her energy accentuating Trump’s many negatives—his chauvinism, his bigotry, his caustic personality, his political shallowness, his flip-floppery, his cruelty, and his endless lies, just to name a few. Clinton extended her attack on Trump into an attack on his supporters, depositing half of them in a “basket of deplorables.”

Trump’s flaws seemed like easy targets, but when the votes were counted, it turned out they didn’t matter much. Few of the punches at Trump’s negatives landed with the people whom Clinton needed to reach, and those that did were canceled out by what his supporters consider his positives—his professed love of America, his Reaganesque optimism about the future, his projection of strength, opposition to illegal immigration, his pro-gun policies, his plain-spoken, “candid” responses to the issues, his anti-government and anti-Washington rhetoric, sticking it to insiders like Jeb Bush and Clinton, and his promise to return the nation to the good old days. So great are Trump’s positives that they have provided him qualified immunity—in the eyes of his supporters, at least—from the critiques of the fact-checkers.

As I wrote in 2016, shouting about Trump’s negatives did little to persuade his supporters to abandon him, because they had already discounted—practically embraced—his warts.

That sounds to me like a shrewd analysis.

What Does Boredom Do to Us—and for Us?

This is weird. I met a guy recently who was arguing that one of the explanations for Brexit was boredom. I wondered privately what he’d been smoking. And then I open the New Yorker and there’s a long essay on the subject. Humans have been getting bored for centuries, if not millennia, it says. And now there’s a whole field to study the sensation, at a time when it may be more rampant than ever.

Here’s how it begins:

Quick inventory: Among the many things you might be feeling more of these days, is boredom one of them? It might seem like something to disavow, automatically, when the country is roiling. The American plot thickens by the hour. We need to be paying attention. But boredom, like many an inconvenient human sensation, can steal over a person at unseemly moments. And, in some ways, the psychic limbo of the pandemic has been a breeding ground for it—or at least for a restless, buzzing frustration that can feel a lot like it.

Fundamentally, boredom is, as Tolstoy defined it, “a desire for desires.” The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, describing the feeling that sometimes drops over children like a scratchy blanket, elaborated on this notion: boredom is “that state of suspended animation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.” In a new book, “Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom,” James Danckert, a neuroscientist, and John D. Eastwood, a psychologist, nicely describe it as a cognitive state that has something in common with tip-of-the-tongue syndrome—a sensation that something is missing, though we can’t quite say what.

I don’t think I’ve ever been bored, so I’m afraid I don’t get it.

Chinese students and Uber

In answer to my post a few days ago asking “What is it about Uber and Chinese students?” Paul Lefrere writes:

“The answer is in the annotated map that comes with the receipt for an Uber trip. Uber tracks and records every nuance of each journey you take, in a life-logging way that is not compatible with privacy as we experience it in the West. But, in both PRC and USA, Chinese students and Chinese professors tell me that they accept Uber’s tracking and documenting as “a feature, not a flaw”.

Many thanks, Paul.

Zuckerberg blames contractors for failing to remove Kenosha militia’s ‘call to arms’

Guardian report.

Mark Zuckerberg blamed an “operational mistake” by contractors for Facebook’s failure to remove the “call to arms” of a Kenosha, Wisconsin, militia prior to the shooting Tuesday night that left two people dead and another injured.

The Kenosha Guard militia had established a Facebook page in June 2020 and this week used a Facebook event page to invite “any patriots willing to take up arms and defend out sic City tonight from the evil thugs”, referencing those protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Facebook has admitted that both the page and the event should have been banned under the company’s new policy addressing groups linked to violence, such as militias. The company nevertheless failed to remove the page or event despite multiple users who reported the content to Facebook, the Verge reported.

“It was largely an operational mistake,” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, said in remarks during a weekly meeting with staff. Facebook has a specially trained team dedicated to enforcing its ban on “dangerous organizations”, Zuckerberg said. “The contractors and the reviewers who the initial complaints were were funneled to … basically didn’t pick this up.” Once reports were sent to the specialized team – after the fatal shooting – both the page and the event were removed.

Why do we tolerate this company?

The Conscience of Silicon Valley

An interview with Jaron Lanier.


He returned to thinking about my attempt at a summary of his life’s work. He said he thought I wasn’t wrong but it was important that people not get the impression that he was trying to tell them how to live. “I love the foundational papers of the United States, where they’ll talk about, you know, the pursuit of happiness,” he said. “Like, you don’t define what happiness is, and you don’t define it as something that will be achieved. It’s the pursuit. You leave space for future people to find it themselves. And so, I think the number one priority is to not create perverse incentives that ruin quests for meaning or for happiness or for decency or betterment.”

Perverse incentives are what Lanier has spent his life railing against—the way that tech is co-opted and digital spaces colonized for the profit of people (or, perhaps eventually, robots) who do not care about your happiness.

“So,” he said, sighing. “My project is in a way more modest than you’re making it out to be. It’s more…it’s more to not fuck the future over, you know?”

Lanier is a truly good person in an almost unworldly sense. I once went to interview him at his hotel in London when he was on a book tour. He had done three interviews with various journalists that morning before it was my turn. We had an intense conversation for about twenty minutes about issues raised in the book that had intrigued or puzzled me. Then he suddenly went quiet. “What’s up?” I asked him, anxiously. Had I said something to annoy or hurt him? “I’m just thinking”, he said, “that you’re the only person I’ve talked to who has actually read my book”.

I had my Leica with me and asked him at the end if I could take a photo (above). Years later I had an email from him saying that he urgently needed a pic for some gig he was doing and could he use it. Which of course he could.

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