Sunday 6 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Sentimentality is the emotional promiscuity of those who have no sentiment.”

  • Norman Mailer, 1966

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Liam O’Flynn & Mark Knopfler – An Droichead (the Bridge)


Liam O’Flynn was the greatest uileann piper of his generation. Here he teams up with Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits fame.

Why we liberals simply cannot understand Trump

Insightful essay by Matt Taibbi arguing that most of us view Trump’s language and behaviour though the wrong lens.

The elite misread of Trump is egregious because he’s an easily familiar type to the rest of America. We’re a sales culture and Trump is a salesman. Moreover he’s not just any salesman; he might be the greatest salesman ever, considering the quality of the product, i.e. himself. He’s up to his eyes in balls, and the parts of the brain that hold most people back from selling schlock online degrees or tchotchkes door-to-door are absent. He has no shame, will say anything, and experiences morality the way the rest of us deal with indigestion.

Pundits keep trying to understand him by reading political scare-tracts like The Origins of Totalitarianism or It Can’t Happen Here, but again, the books that explain Trump better tend to be about things like pro wrestling (like Controversy Creates Cash or The Business of Kayfabe) or the psychology of selling (like Pre-Suasion or Thinking Fast and Slow). The people howling about outrageous things Trump says probably never sat in a sales meeting.

This is spot on. Trump is so unlike most people, and so especially unlike anyone raised under a conventional moral framework, that he’s perpetually misdiagnosed. (I’ve often though that the same applies to people like Boris Johnson and Jeffrey Archer). “The words we see slapped on him most often”, writes Taibbi,

like “fascist” and “authoritarian,” nowhere near describe what he really is, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. It’s been proven across four years that Trump lacks the attention span or ambition required to implement a true dictatorial regime. He might not have a moral problem with the idea, but two minutes into the plan he’d leave the room, phone in hand, to throw on a robe and watch himself on Fox and Friends over a cheeseburger.”

Great essay. Thanks to Jonathan Holland for pointing it out.

The manipulation of the market in tech stocks

The gap between the stock market and the real economy has become fantastic (in the literal sense), but when the NASDAQ experienced that massive recent reversal in tech stocks one didn’t need to be Einstein to realise that something weird was going on. And indeed there was: Softbank, the huge investment fund which enables authoritarians (among others) to launder their sovereign wealth, had embarked on the biggest buying spree of options ever seen.

John Thornhill had a lovely piece — “Tesla and the Audacity of Hype” — about this in the FT on Saturday in which he pointed out that Tesla’s share price has more than quadrupled this year. Elon Musk’s company is currently valued at about $379bn, which is “one and a quarter times more than Toyota and Volkswagen combined”.

Which reminds me of an exchange I had recently with one of my grandsons. I’m planning to get an electric car soonish and he’s very keen that I should buy a Tesla. When quizzed about his approval of that particular marque, it turns out that his school class had been engaged in a stock-market simulation game. Each pupil was given ‘$100,000’ in monopoly money to invest in equities over a certain period, after which the gains and losses were totted up. He had come out top of the class by a large margin. How had he done it? “I just put it all into Tesla stock, grandad”, he replied.

That lad will go far. He’s ten years old.

Apple’s iOS update will be bad news for advertisers, but a boon for users

This morning’s Observer column:

On the other hand, users (as distinct from developers) are about to see an upside of Apple’s monopoly power. The next update of its mobile operating system, iOS14, includes a change that should have a dire impact on many online advertisers. The industry assigns a unique code to each device called an IDFA. Knowing your IDFA can help advertisers tell whether their ads are effective, particularly when they’ve shown you the same ad in multiple places. Facebook uses the IDFA as part of Audience Network, its ad network for developers.

But with iOS14, Apple will require developers to show you a warning that they are collecting your IDFA – and you’ll have to opt in to sharing it. So iPad and iPhone users can expect an initial blizzard of requests for permission to share your device’s IDFA – requests for which there is a simple, two-letter, answer: no.

This prospect had many stalwarts of the business memorably described by George Orwell as “the rattling of a stick in a swill bucket” changing their underpants twice a day. So loud were their screams of pain that Apple announced on Thursday that it would delay the switch to 2021 to give the poor dears time to adjust. The corporate world will see this as a pragmatic decision, given current attitudes to tech monopolists. The rest of us see it as a wasted (or at least deferred) opportunity to do some good.

Algorithmic dystopia

“From viral conspiracies to exam fiascos, algorithms come with serious side effects” is the headline over a long essay of mine about machine-learning in today’s Observer.

Here’s how it concludes…

In the end the question we have to ask is: why is the Gadarene rush of the tech industry (and its boosters within government) to deploy machine-learning technology – and particularly its facial-recognition capabilities – not a major public policy issue?

The explanation is that for several decades ruling elites in liberal democracies have been mesmerised by what one can only call “tech exceptionalism” – ie the idea that the companies that dominate the industry are somehow different from older kinds of monopolies, and should therefore be exempt from the critical scrutiny that consolidated corporate power would normally attract.

The only consolation is that recent developments in the US and the EU suggest that perhaps this hypnotic regulatory trance may be coming to an end. To hasten our recovery, therefore, a thought experiment might be helpful.

Imagine what it would be like if we gave the pharmaceutical industry the leeway that we currently grant to tech companies. Any smart biochemist working for, say, AstraZeneca, could come up with a strikingly interesting new molecule for, say, curing Alzheimer’s. She would then run it past her boss, present the dramatic results of preliminary experiments to a lab seminar after which the company would put it on the market. You only have to think of the Thalidomide scandal to realise why we don’t allow that kind of thing. Yet it is exactly what the tech companies are able to do with algorithms that turn out to have serious downsides for society.

What that analogy suggests is that we are still at the stage with tech companies that societies were in the era of patent medicines and snake oil. Or, to put it in a historical frame, we are somewhere between 1906, when the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed by the US Congress, and 1938, the year Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which required that new drugs show safety before selling. Isn’t it time we got a move on?

Yes it is.

Robert McCrum bids farewell to his American dream

“A ‘tyrant-clown’ has destroyed my love affair with America”, he writes.

My own long affair with America, as an idea as much as a reality, began in the bicentennial year, 1976, with a graduate scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. Among the lovely red brick of old Philadelphia, I maxed out on the promise and possibilities of the American revolution, its majesty, optimism and rhetoric. Those pioneers of radical political self-expression, Jefferson, Franklin, et al, became idols of deep faith. For instance, years later, on a return visit to the Constitution Center, I was brought to tears by a video devoted to that love letter to democratic principles, the US constitution, and the eternal magic of “We, the people”.

Today, after the pre-election convention season, it’s almost impossible to imagine such emotions. Like many Europeans who once looked across the Atlantic at a great democratic experiment, I’ve quit. Somehow, I must cultivate indifference to disguise the end of a long love affair. It’s become an agony to express this disillusion, but I have to try.

The first intimations of this crisis probably occurred when, visiting New York in 2017, I attended a famous Public Theater production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Central Park. From the moment a strawberry blond Caesar (Gregg Henry in a Maga baseball cap) bounded on stage in a white shirt and a long red tie, this was a polemical interpretation that set cultivated New Yorkers at odds with the culture warriors of Fox News. Now, it seems eerily prescient of America’s nightmare: the disintegration of a great society under the leadership of an orange monster, half-clown, half-tyrant.

Like many US admirers, I’ve made allowances for a necessary disruption. I’ve argued with sceptical friends that America is not “broken”, the federal system remains resilient, and the grip of the constitution still sure. But once my admiration for the United States choked and died this year, bludgeoned by the racism, cruelty, corruption and outright stupidity of the current administration, this loss of faith became desolating.

I know from emails from readers that many subscribers to this blog feel the same. The Vietnam war ended my own romantic view of the US, though for a time I hoped that Obama’s presidency might rescue it. Alas.

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