Tuesday 11 May, 2021

Seen on our walk last last evening.

Quote of the Day

”He is forever poised between a cliché and an indiscretion.”

  • Harold Macmillan on Anthony Eden

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Michael Haydn | Trumpet Concerto No.2 in C-major


Long Read of the Day

 Why Joe Biden Punched Big Pharma in the Nose Over Covid Vaccines

Terrific explanatory piece by Matt Stoller on why vaccines are being withheld from poor countries by the pharma monopolies.

Trump Abused the System. Facebook Created It

Good piece by Virginia Heffernan on the fact that Facebook regarded Trump not as president but simply as a mega-‘influencer’. The company’s ‘oversight’ board failed to mention one thing in its ruling this week: Facebook’s responsibility for making the tools to wield undue influence and power.

The decision about Donald Trump, was neither here nor there. In the end, the result of the exercise was to distract from Facebook’s own culpability in much broader damage to democracy.

Heffernan is (rightly) struck by this passage in the ‘oversight’ board’s statement:

“As president, Mr. Trump had a high level of influence. The reach of his posts was large, with 35 million followers on Facebook and 24 million on Instagram.” The board went on: “It is not always useful to draw a firm distinction between political leaders and other influential users, recognizing that other users with large audiences can also contribute to serious risks of harm.”

What’s so shocking? Just this:

To Facebook, the American president is clearly not a public servant or even a commander-in-chief. He’s an influencer. And he gets his power not from the people but from Facebook and its business model of influencers and followers.

But power established on Facebook is not “legitimate” in the same way that the power of a schoolteacher or elected official is, because they exercise that’s regarded as just and appropriate by those over whom it is exercised.

“Influence” on Facebook, however,

is based on nothing but a (cheatable) point system in Facebook’s highly stylized massively multiplayer role-playing game. But that does not get mentioned by anyone on this committee, which has been blinded, in the McLuhan sense, to the game’s contrivances. Influence on Facebook is closer to influence in World of Warcraft than it is to legitimate power. But instead of calling out Facebook for creating a system that confers unregulated and dangerous “influence” on people, they speak of the abuse of that system by a designated bad actor.

I’ve never understood why apparently serious people agreed to participate in the farce of this ‘oversight’ board. Are they just in it for the money? Is it is the aphrodisiac effect of the illusion of being close to power? Or are they content to be ‘useful idiots’, as Lenin would have called them?


When the news of the hacking of Colonial, the quaintly-named corporation that runs one of the US’s most important energy pipelines, was announced, I assumed it was Russian retaliation for the unspecified cyber-attacks unleashed by Biden as punishment for the Solarwinds and other exploits.

Turns out I was wrong. Or, at any rate, according to the NYT, the FBI has confirmed an outfit called DarkSide as the attacker. That name, I have to say, raises my suspicion-level by several notches. (As in “I fear they’ve gone over to the Dark Side, Watson”.) And then there’s their pathetic bleat that they are only interested in making money “and not creating problems for society”. Just like Facebook, in other words — except that Facebook doesn’t give a monkey’s about societal problems so long as the money rolls in.

The most interesting aspect of the whole story is its confirmation that ransomware has now becoming a rentable service that any tech-illiterate gangster can hire — just as you can now rent a botnet to do DOS attacks on your enemies.

Simon Beard on Derek Parfit

A lovely bio by one philosopher of another. I particularly liked this bit:

“Like my cat, I often simply do what I want to do.” This was the opening sentence of Derek Parfit’s philosophical masterpiece, Reasons and Persons. He believed that it was the best way to begin his book because it showed something important about people. Often we are not as special as we think we are. For instance, when people simply do what they want to do they appear to be utilizing no ability that only people have. On the other hand, when we respond to reasons, we are doing something uniquely human, because only people can act in this way. Cats are notorious for doing what they want to do, and the sense of proximity between a cat and its owner pleasingly heightens our sense of their similarity. Hence, there could be no better way for this book to begin.

However, there was a problem. Derek did not, in fact, own a cat. Nor did he wish to become a cat owner, as he would rather spend his time taking photographs and doing philosophy. On the other hand, the sentence would clearly be better if it was true. To resolve this problem Derek drew up a legal agreement with his sister, who did own a cat, to the effect that he would take legal possession of the cat while she would continue living with it.

Reasons and Persons was far from being Derek’s final word on the philosophical problems that had consumed him for the previous 17 years. Indeed, it has been said that Derek only agreed to publish it under pressure from All Souls College who were threatening not to renew his fellowship, and he insisted the publisher accept it in 154 individual instalments so that he could submit each one at the last possible moment, mere days before the book went to press. Yet, the book has become one of the most influential, and heavily cited, works of philosophy published since the Second World War. It consists of four sections, each of which considers a different set of arguments for why people matter less than we might suppose, and why our reasons for action might be otherwise than they seem.

He was an extraordinary man. Larissa MacFarquhar wrote a lovely profile of him in the New Yorker in 2011.

Another, hopefully interesting, link

  • Before we canonise Liz Cheney for attacking the way Republicans have been indulging Trump, maybe read this. Fortunately, Maureen Dowd has a good memory. Link

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