Winnowing

Winnowing, 12 April 2021

by reestheskin on 12/04/2021

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Not exactly a bad idea

Steven Johnson &Evgeny Morozov Debate Social Media | The New Republic

Where good ideas come from still remains a mystery; where lucrative ideas come from everybody knows. It’s surprising that it has taken Johnson so long to discover one such lucrative idea in “the Internet.”

Evgeny Morozov (note: this quote is not a fair summary of the exchange).


On too much lurning

I find the concept of over-education repellent and was disappointed the Office for National Statistics used the word in the title of one of its reports. My starting point is that we are all under-educated. There is always more to learn and more to try to understand. The value of education goes beyond economic returns — though there are legitimate questions about the best use of public money. Moreover, it matters whether graduates and indeed non-graduates are unhappy in their work, something that touches on deeper issues of human fulfilment and flourishing.

David Willetts.Link


Same old NHS

Underfunded but ‘fabulously well organised’: a hospital trust chief on the NHS

An interview with Prof Marcel Levi, who is returning to the Netherlands. He doesn’t like the PFI swindle either.

Given this failure to give the NHS the money it needs, does he think successive governments, despite professing endless gratitude and appreciation of the service, have not valued it highly enough? He nods. “Politicians feel very positively about the NHS and speak very highly about what it’s doing. But then the Treasury comes in and looks at it from another angle.”

While the NHS is a beacon of universal access to healthcare and widespread public support, it has its flaws, Levi adds. “The NHS is a bit inward-looking. If I say to people ‘have you seen what’s happening [in health] in France or Germany?’ they say ‘we have no idea’. Also, if you meet an NHS executive they usually start the conversation by saying, ‘I’ve been in the NHS for 30 years or 40 years.’ But I think to myself silently, well maybe it’s time to move on then. There is not a lot of influx from new people with fresh ideas into the NHS.”

Scotland is even worse. His comments remind me of what Henry Miller wrote about NHS hospitals half a century ago.


The internet as a distributed con-artist

Liars, by Cass Sunstein, published by OUP was reviewed in the Economist. Some quotes below.

The remedy for false speech is not a ban, but promoting more speech—“counterspeech” as Mr Sunstein puts it—in the confidence that the truth will win out.

That principle is no longer as convincing as it once seemed. Mr Sunstein summarises decades of psychological research showing that people embrace congenial lies rather than difficult truths, and cling to them more firmly when confronted with contradictory evidence. Flashy whoppers spread faster than complex facts, and are remembered even after being debunked.

But what never ceases to amaze me is how others got there first using language that elevates my spirit (quoted in the article).

“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late,” as Jonathan Swift concluded three centuries ago, even without double-blind experiments.

We learn that

America’s courts maintain that the First Amendment gives citizens a right to lie—unless they are speaking to those same courts. Then it is a felony punishable by up to five years in jail.


Not just fit for falling down wells

If universities sacrifice philosophy on the altar of profit>f universities sacrifice philosophy on the altar of profit, what’s next? | Julian Baggini | Opinion | The Guardian

I knew the antique mockery that had it that Thales fell down a well because he was too busy staring at the stars and predicting eclipses, but this anecdote was new to me.

Fed up of being told that he was poor and therefore his learning was useless, he applied his analytical skills to the climate and the economy and then (bought up every olive press) in town. When the bumper olive harvest came, as he had foreseen, the presses were in huge demand, he had a monopoly and made a killing. Thales pulled off this stunt not to earn money but to prove a point. Someone of his intellect and ability could devote themselves to getting rich if they wanted. But he valued wisdom and learning more. His lack of wealth did not reveal a personal flaw but a justified choice about what he held most dear.

Well, I guess if not enterable for the REF at least he could tick the impact box.

 The audit society

Onora O’Neill

“What we have tended to do in the last 40 years is to build up accountability and regulation regimes,” O’Neill tells Times Higher Education, “and we haven’t always done it very intelligently. I would say that’s particularly evident in higher education. We thought it was a terrible thing that universities spent a lot of public money and maybe were not doing it well enough, so let’s hold them to account more, and equally individual academics. And then in many fields we went for metrics, which sound wonderful but create perverse incentives… I think it is problematic when all universities are looking over their shoulders at their scores on [various] metrics.”

A charnel house

Pluralistic: 23 Mar 2021 – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow

In 2017, at 72 people were burned alive when London’s Grenfell Tower went up in flames. It had been skinned in highly flammable “decorative cladding” to make it less of an eyesore for rich people in nearby blocks of luxury flats.

That charnel house was the opening act on a years-long odyssey of cruelty that just reached a new climax in Parliament, as Tory MPs ensured that working people – not landlords, developers or manufacturers – would fit the bill for removing cladding from their homes.

Kensington Council found a way to realise its twin goals of discouraging poor people from living in the borough and doing the absolute least to satisfy its legal obligations: it had the Grenfell survivors bid against their neighbours for homes.


Winnowing 9 April 2021.

by reestheskin on 09/04/2021

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All fall down!

The toppling of Edward Colston – DC’s Improbable Science

To those who say that removal of the statue erases history, there is a simple response. There are no statues to Hitler. And he most certainly hasn’t been forgotten.


Once you can fake that you can…

Monday 22 March, 2021 – Memex 1.1

Much of the Orwellian language that’s endemic in the tech business reminds me of Heidegger’s definition of ‘technology’ as “The art of arranging the world so that you don’t have to experience it.” Just think how Facebook has perverted the word ‘friend’, or how nearly every company has perverted ‘share’. As Sam Goldwyn might have said, in Silicon Valley if you can fake empathy you’ve got it made.

(John Naughton)


Which side of the isle are you on?

Pluralistic: 24 Mar 2021 – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow

By definition, you can’t shop your way out of a monopoly. If you don’t believe me, hit your local grocery aisle, where two companies – Unilever and Procter and Gamble – are responsible for nearly every product on sale.

The “cruelty free” brand is made by the same company as the “maximum cruelty” brand. The “organic” brand is made by the same company as the “Oops! All Additives” brand. The “low packaging” brand is made by the same company as the “padded with spotted owl feathers” brand.


Management consultants as seagulls

Outgrowing software — Benedict Evans

There’s an old joke that consultants are like seagulls – they fly in, make lots of noise, mess everything up and then fly out. That’s pretty much what tech has done to media industries – it changes everything and then it leaves.

Are they worse than the pigeons who hang about?


 We have no God-given right to be here for ever.

Ebola virus may lurk in survivors for many years | Science

Virus that lay dormant in a survivor of the devastating Ebola epidemic in West Africa between 2013 and 2016 apparently triggered a new outbreak in Guinea in January, genomic analyses show. Sequencing the virus from the Guinea outbreak, which has so far sickened at least 18 people and killed nine, found it was virtually identical to the strain that ravaged Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia more than 5 years ago.

Researchers knew the Ebola virus can linger in the human body and ignite fresh outbreaks for well over a year—but not 5 years. “This is pretty shocking,” says virologist Angela Rasmussen of Georgetown University. The finding raises tricky questions about how to prevent such outbreaks without further stigmatizing Ebola survivors.


Why bother, indeed!

Apple Failure Modes. by Jean-Louis Gassée | by Jean-Louis Gassée | Mar, 2021 | Monday Note

We know the old organization joke: When upper layer people look down, they see brains; when brains in the lower layers look up, they see #$$holes. For an organization, the beginning of the end comes when the brains realize the upper layers are colonized by incompetents and get into Why Bother Mode.


Winnowing MMXXI, 8 April

by reestheskin on 08/04/2021

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Curing the care issue

Letting go: my battle to help my parents die a good death | Death and dying | The Guardian

My mother dreads the hospital for sound reasons. Like hospitals in general, this one is good at heroic interventions, less good at nursing care. It is an academic institution with many groundbreaking researchers, but frail elderly people with tedious, multiple conditions are not often of interest to them. When my mother had an emergency stomach bleed she was superbly treated, but when she had spine pain she was left for four nights on a trolley, and was even trundled to theatre on it at one point to have someone else’s operation (fortunately she was turned back at the door).

This all rings true to me. Although I am suspicious of those who argue that ‘groundbreaking researchers’ produce better cures or care. Clinical practice is not synonymous with research excellence, and, in some situations, I fear the relation may be an inverse one (as, I believe, some data from the US suggests). Clinical expertise is medicine’s ‘dark matter’: it is everywhere, but we understand little about it. Worse than that: we often appear indifferent to it.


Zooming in on virtual protests

Greta Thunberg: ‘It just spiralled out of control’ | Free to read | Financial Times

But today, the world is very different. When we speak in mid-March, most of Europe is under some form of lockdown. Thunberg is at her family home in Stockholm — her dad’s exercise bike and some houseplants form the backdrop of our Zoom call. She’s also back at school, and isn’t cutting classes on Fridays any more: protests during the pandemic have been mostly virtual. [emphasis added]


A rebel song

John le Carré, chronicler of Englishness, died Irish, son reveals | John le Carré | The Guardian

John le Carré, the great embodiment and chronicler of Englishness, saved his greatest twist not for his thrillers but the twilight of his own life: he died an Irishman.

The creator of the quintessential English spy George Smiley was so opposed to Brexit that in order to remain European, and to reflect his heritage, he took Irish citizenship before his death last December aged 89, his son has revealed.

“He was, by the time he died, an Irish citizen,” Nicholas Cornwell, who writes as Nick Harkaway, says in a BBC Radio 4 documentary due to air on Saturday. “On his last birthday I gave him an Irish flag, and so one of the last photographs I have of him is him sitting wrapped in an Irish flag, grinning his head off.”

The interview is available on the BBC Sounds app here. Wonderful stuff.


Resilience. Lessons from Uruguay.

Digital Education: Why Uruguay’s Schoolchildren Are Doing So Well in the Pandemic – DER SPIEGEL

Brechner has now also begun consulting countries and international organizations on educational issues. He says that when people ask him these days if it is really necessary for every schoolchild to have a laptop and internet access, he asks: “Do we really need electricity and warm water?” He says he is in no way interested in replacing teachers with technology. “But we can’t just continue on as we were before the pandemic,” Brechner says. “We are living in the 21st century and have 19th century schools.”

It has already been more than 10 years since the country – as one of six around the world – introduced a one-laptop-per-child policy. On top of that, Uruguay installed free internet in public squares around the country, including in rural areas, and also founded a state agency for digital education called Plan Ceibal. “In general, the last school year worked quite well,” says Fiorella Haim, a manager at Plan Ceibal.

In addition, the country began offering every schoolchild 50 gigabytes of free internet per month.


The Dream is Over 1

The Sonic (Entrepreneurship) Boom | No Mercy / No Malice

The world’s most powerful lubricant of upward mobility (U.S. higher ed) has morphed into a corrupt enforcer of the caste system. It has enjoyed 30 years of tuition increases matched only by the arrogance and self-aggrandizement of its leadership. Covid is the fist of stone coming for this chin. The pandemic moved 1.6 billion people into online education, and many will stay there. India’s largest edtech firm, Byju, is reportedly closing a $600 million investment, valuing the company at $15 billion, and Coursera is expected to go public at a $5 billion valuation.

We shall see. I fear the new boss will just be another rent collector. Hope I am wrong.


  1. The Dream is Over: The Crisis of Clark Kerr’s California Idea of Higher Education, Simon Marginson. 2016.

Winnowing MMXXI. 6 April.

by reestheskin on 06/04/2021

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Bigger than Jesus

The Economist | God the rock star

So, these very words, John Lennon was reported to have once said (jokingly) about the Beatles. But this article is about online religion. Reminded me — of course — about the MOOC hype and Sebastian Thrun’s line that the world only needs a few universities. This is about church services, but remember whenever anybody says it is being ‘Uberized’ or ‘Netflixed’ they are selling something — usually the vapour of their money moving across accounts.

Simply because a service can be watched by almost anyone in the world does not mean that it will be. Many are streamed; few are chosen, at least in any great numbers. The Church of England website AChurchNearYou now lists around 20,000 services and online events, but in a market freed from the constraints of geography, more famous churches—like more famous artists on Spotify—get the big audiences.

This, says Laurence Iannaccone, a specialist in the economics of religion at Chapman University in California, is not a great surprise. People, he explains, “are drawn inevitably toward the congregations—we’ll call them the suppliers…that are able to use this technology. You get a sort of superstars phenomenon.” As Dr Iannaccone puts it, if you are going to be watching religion online, “Why not go with the very best?” [emphasis added]

Ah, the money-makers, as Jesus foretold, take over the temples.

Many think a hybrid model of worship—on earth and in the ether—may become normal. What is clear is that increased competition is probably here to stay. This is not, says Mr Iannaccone, necessarily a bad thing. “The hand of God and the invisible hand sometimes seem to work wonderfully well together.”

Nice final line, though.


No need for English, then.

The Economist | Netflix Europa

Umberto Eco, an Italian writer, was right when he said the language of Europe is translation.


Welfare for corporations

Why Taxpayers Pay McKinsey $3M a Year for a Recent College Graduate Contractor – BIG by Matt Stoller

Such practices used to be called “honest graft.” And let’s be clear, McKinsey’s services are very expensive. Back in August, I noted that McKinsey’s competitor, the Boston Consulting Group, charges the government $33,063.75/week for the time of a recent college grad to work as a contractor. Not to be outdone, McKinsey’s pricing is much much higher, with one McKinsey “business analyst” – someone with an undergraduate degree and no experience – lent to the government priced out at $56,707/week, or $2,948,764/year.

How does McKinsey do it?

Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan is a good plan, in theory. We need to do a lot of what Biden wants to do. The problem is that every overpriced government contractor out there is gearing up to steal as much of the $2 trillion as they can. And they will try to steal it the way McKinsey has, by taking advantage of bad policy choices that turned the government into a sucker.


The land that gave us Bologna1 

John Foot · On the Barone · LRB 4 March 2021

I lived in Italy for twenty years, give or take, and although I never worked full-time for an Italian institution, I had enough dealings with its universities to be unsurprised by the allegations of corruption in the Suárez case. To have a career in an Italian university you have to be attached to a senior professor, usually a man, usually of a certain age. These immensely powerful figures are known as baroni — ‘barons’. They can be on the left or the right. All posts and other privileges pass through the baroni. Without a barone on your side, you may as well pack it in. University posts are generally filled by means of a public competition — a concorso — which is open to anyone with the right qualifications. In practice, concorsi are usually fixed. They are designed for one person, usually an internal candidate who has been waiting for this particular concorso for years. The new researcher or lecturer owes his or her job to the barone, and will remain loyal to them. With time and luck, the new appointees might become baroni themselves. The mismatch between formal rules and their application is characteristic of Italy. These networks of power and patronage have been studied by anthropologists: in some faculties at the University of Bari, for example, networks of family and kinship relationships stretch back generations. Disputes and divisions are often focused around key baroni. In one university two separate but essentially identical departments were created around two highly powerful and influential scholars.


Gravy train? Well, yes.

Did Australian universities ride the international gravy train too far? | Times Higher Education (THE)

In 2019, the latest year for which accounts are available, Australia’s higher education sector collected over 27 per cent of its revenue from foreign students — up from 17 per cent a decade earlier The dependence was particularly high at the biggest and most prestigious universities, such as Sydney (39 per cent), Monash (38 per cent), UNSW Sydney (36 per cent) and Melbourne and Queensland (both 31 per cent).

It comes at a cost, however. I remain deeply sceptical about economies of scale in traditional models of higher education.


  1. In the sense that Bolognia and Paris were the first modern european universities. For my money, Bolgnia was — in modern parlance — more student centric.

Winnowing XXMMI, 5 April

by reestheskin on 05/04/2021

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What’s for dinner mum? Chips.

The Economist | No smoke, no fire

Growing in up in South Wales, I seem to remember that the chip pan was a well-used piece of technology. I didn’t change my habits as a student, either. As far as I remember this chip pan — including fat — had been handed down cohort-to-cohort. But things change. Even firemen are affected by the winds of change.

While working practices have not changed much in two decades, the demands on workers have. Oven chips are one big reason. In the mid-1990s about one in five domestic fires in Britain began with a chip pan, but by the late 2010s that was down to closer to one in 20. Less combustible cooking, fewer smokers and safer electrical appliances have all contributed to a large decline in fires. In two decades, the number of domestic fires has fallen by more than half, while the number of firefighters has declined only slightly. The result is a sharp fall in the ratio of fires to firefighters (see chart).


The universe is queerer than we can imagine

Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli — a brief lesson on quantum physics | Financial Times

From a book review in the FT.

The greatest populariser of physics today, Carlo Rovelli, prepares readers of his new book for this familiar fate when he warns that if “what I have described seems perfectly clear, then it means I have not been clear enough about it.”

Which sort of reminds me of the idea that if students claim to have understood all of your lecture, you have been wasting your time. Or, they are just being polite, or deluded. Perhaps both.


That damned follicular microenvironment

Should you start a small business in your 50s? | Financial Times

Being a market gardener was his lifetime ambition. But it happened only after he retired from a decades-long career in IT management, 11 days before his 60th birthday.

Still, he grabbed his opportunity. “Grey hair and no hair is the future,” he says.

My thoughts concur. Living the dream.


Predator and prey

Essay mills ‘infiltrating university websites’ | Times Higher Education (THE)

Hundreds of university websites have been infiltrated by hackers aiming to steer unwitting students into essay mills’ clutches, according to preliminary studies by US experts.

Content ghostwritten by the essay mills, complete with embedded hyperlinks, has been grafted on to universities’ student service web pages. Links to legitimate services have been rigged so that they redirect to contract cheating companies, while university chat sites have been peppered with recommendations for essay mills.

The most “egregious” infiltrations involve fake essay contests for students who, hoping to win scholarships, inadvertently supply the essay mills with “clean” content unknown to plagiarism-detection databases.

Some honest intellectual hygiene would solve this problem. But universities would prefer to pretend their model is not broken. Would schoolteachers be so complicit?


Even at the time of its creation, the border made no sense

Colm Tóibín: Ireland’s bloody line of division | Financial Times

Wonderful clutch1 of book reviews by Colm Tóibín in the FT.

And then, in the decades after 1960, it [Ireland] could look outwards towards Europe and concentrate on building a good relationship with London without having to represent or manage a restive Northern Ireland. Dublin could claim a right to be consulted about Northern Ireland, but it did not have responsibility for what happened there. There were times when this was seen in Dublin as a relief. [emphasis added]

In The Partition, a meticulous and finely judged study of how and why the Irish border was created, Charles Townshend shows how various British governments and Irish nationalists were outmanoeuvred by a group of Ulster Unionists whose lack of imagination was amply compensated by obstinacy and inflexibility. It is “hard to dispute”, writes Townshend, the view that partition of the island was “against the considered judgment of all parties”. But he adds: “The intensity of Unionist hostility to home rule presented a political challenge of exceptional difficulty.”

While politicians in Dublin might issue pieties about their longing for an end to partition, it should be emphasised that they don’t mean it. The self-confidence and social ease in the Republic of Ireland has come at a price — leaving Northern Ireland to its own devices. Strangely, the governing class in Dublin, in its own quiet way, would be as likely to dread a vote on a united Ireland as the Unionists would. The Unionists, however, as we learn from these books, have never made progress through being quiet.


  1. The Partition: Ireland Divided, 1885-1925, by Charles Townshend, Allen Lane.
    Partition: How and Why Ireland Was Divided, by Ivan Gibbons, Haus Publishing.
    The Dead of the Irish Revolution, edited by Eunan O’Halpin and Daithí Ó Corráin, Yale.

Winnowing XXMMI

by reestheskin on 24/03/2021

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PE — no, not Pulmonary Embolism, but something as dangerous

Private Equity and Physician Medical Practices — Navigating a Changing Ecosystem | NEJM

Finally, physicians should be aware that private equity’s growth is emblematic of broader disruptions in the physician-practice ecosystem and is a symptom of medicine’s transformation into a corporate enterprise. For some practices, outside investment may help facilitate growth and extend a lifeline that allows them to compete with larger players in an increasingly consolidated market. But this trend may also contribute to practices getting squeezed. As more investors enter health care and drive value creation, it’s worth considering for whom value is being created. How physicians respond — and the extent to which they retain core values in the service of patients — will ultimately determine the ecosystem’s resilience in the face of stressors [emphasis added]


I wish it were so (easy)

The Economist | The race to zero

The most refreshing aspect of this book is its bracing mix of cold-eyed realism and number-crunched optimism. Mr Gates reveals that when he attended the un’s landmark Paris summit on climate change in 2015, he had serious doubts about mankind’s willingness to take on this Herculean task: “Can we really do this?” Even now, after making the case for why the world must do so, and urgently, he wonders if the climate challenge will be harder than putting “a computer on every desk and in every home”.

That is a useful analogy, for the techno-Utopian vision of a global internet seemed as impossible to achieve a few decades ago as solving the climate crisis does now. Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, a pioneering computer firm, once stated flatly: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Yet before long the digital revolution succeeded—because of a happy convergence of top-down forces and disruptions from below.


University rankings as geopolitics

Link

The high-stakes pursuit of bragging rights is distorting universities’ missions, favoring research over teaching and science over the humanities, said Ellen Hazelkorn, director of the Higher Education Policy Research Unit at the Dublin Institute of Technology.

“It’s all about national prestige,” said Hazelkorn, who has written widely about rankings. “Rankings are less about students and more about geopolitics.”


Even less about students

‘Hard choices’ ahead as Spence mulls UCL’s sustainability | Times Higher Education (THE)

But the new president of UCL said that “hard choices” would have to be made about the scope of the university’s activities if it was not to become a 50,000-student campus over the next few years.

UCL’s recent expansion — it had just 17,000 students as recently as 2005 but is now the biggest in the UK apart from the Open University — has been criticised by some scholars over its potential impact on academic quality and financial stability.

This has little to do with education and perhaps even less to do with students.


Winnowing MMXXI

by reestheskin on 20/03/2021

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Cal Tech and the eunuchs of science

Catchy title.

Founded (1891) as Throop University [Cal Tech], a coeducational institution for manual training and basic education from fifth grade through college, it reinvented itself several years later as all-male Throop College of Technology (with a mission of intellectual excellence) and then assumed its current name in 1921.

In the 1960s, the undergraduates began lobbying the administration to admit women, believing that this would promote the “humanization of students.” Students complained of a sterile curriculum and social wasteland that created “eunuchs of science.”

After a 1967 national survey of rising sophomores revealed that Caltech students were much less happy with campus life than those elsewhere, an ad hoc faculty committee examined student experiences during their first two years.

The committee soon recommended that Caltech admit female undergraduates, arguing that discrimination against women is “morally unjustifiable.” A student poll in fall 1967 found 79% supported that change, and a month later the Faculty Board voted 50 to 10 to recommend to the administration and trustees to “proceed with all deliberate speed toward the admission of women undergraduates.”


A mouth without a brain: sounds familiar.

Robo-writers: the rise and risks of language-generating AI

In June 2020, a new and powerful artificial intelligence (AI) began dazzling technologists in Silicon Valley. Called GPT-3 and created by the research firm OpenAI in San Francisco, California, it was the latest and most powerful in a series of ‘large language models’: AIs that generate fluent streams of text after imbibing billions of words from books, articles and websites. GPT-3 had been trained on around 200 billion words, at an estimated cost of tens of millions of dollars.

Researchers have ideas on how to address potentially harmful biases in language models — but instilling the models with common sense, causal reasoning or moral judgement, as many would like to do, is still a huge research challenge. “What we have today”, Choi says, “is essentially a mouth without a brain.”

I know a few people like that.


Just 7%

The Economist | Shelter from the storm

At its most basic, the welfare state provides some form of social security and poverty relief. In 1990 Gosta Esping-Andersen, a political scientist, identified three models: market-oriented in Anglophone countries, where the state plays a “residual” role; family-oriented in mainland Europe, where the state and employers play a supporting role; and state-oriented for the Scandinavians, with universal protections and services. The balance between state, market and family shifts over the course of people’s lives, but most take out about as much as they put in (in any year 36% of Britons receive more than they pay in taxes, but over their lifetimes only 7% do).

Not the Mail or the Telegraph, then.


Making progress

I quote from just two of many good letters in the Economist of last week. The first, is the mess that Cummings has bequeathed. The second, how it seems our humanities masters are ignorant about, well, the humanities.

By definition, “blue skies research” is driven by curiosity, without any obvious practical implications (“Blue skies ahead”, February 6th). Yet the aim of Britain’s new Advanced Research Projects Agency is to develop proposals that give a payout to the economy. The left field nature of paradigm-changing scientific discoveries and their long path to being actually applied mean that no manager at arpa would understand the impact of such research. Who, for example, would have predicted that understanding blood-clotting in the horseshoe crab would end up protecting our drug supply from bacterial contaminants, including covid-19 vaccines?

Professor Brian Stramer, the author of the above, quotes a beautiful phrase from the father of modern neuroscience, Ramon y Cajal, who, in 1897, noted the preoccupation with applied research and ignorance of the “mysterious threads that bind the factory to the laboratory” [emphasis added]. If you know anything about Cajal’s work, the metaphor does not surprise.

The second letter is from Professor Jonathan Michie, who, if I am correct, has first hand familial experience of the example he quotes.

Your ingredients for innovation include “good education” (“How to make sparks fly”, February 27th). Quite so. “Good” should mean broad based, crossing disciplinary ranges, and lifelong. This needs stressing, as governments too often take a narrow view, emphasising skills training, stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and education ending at age 18 or 21. When Britain faced its ultimate stem-based challenge, breaking the Nazi codes at Bletchley, which included developing the world’s first digital programmable computer, researchers were recruited from across the disciplinary spectrum.


On bending the knee

The Economist | The pain of displacement

I always read the Economist by starting with the obituary. Last week’s was about Mourid Barghouti, a Palestinian poet. The prose was fitting, too.

As a lover of freedom, he could not join a party or pledge allegiance to anyone: all you need to make a tyrant, he wrote, “is a single bend of the knee”.

“I rubbed the leaf of an orange in my hands/As I had been told to do/So that I could smell its scent/but before my hand could reach my nose/I had lost my home and become a refugee.”


Winnowing MMXXI

by reestheskin on 19/03/2021

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On being the right size

On being the right size

In the early 20th century, big companies were synonymous with efficiency. In the late 20th century they were synonymous with inefficiency.

Paul Graham, The Refragmentation, 2016


Student loans (again)

The latest estimates on the loan system from London Economics suggest that 53.9 per cent of the money loaned out will be written off, 88.2 per cent of graduates will still be paying when the 30-year write off kicks in, and 33 per cent of graduates will never make any repayment. With several years of sluggish growth now forecasted, and a long road ahead for the post-Covid recovery, graduate repayments are likely to fall further in coming years, giving the Treasury even more reason to worry about the unique way it funds higher education — particularly as demand for universities continues to increase while the costs per student are rising.


GP land

David Oliver: We can support primary care without blaming hospital doctors | The BMJ

Primary care (GPs and other practice staff—notably nurses) does around 90% of NHS patient contacts for about 10% of the budget and an annual budget of around £155 (€179; $217) per patient on the practice list. A 2019 study in The BMJ compared 11 high-income countries and found that UK GPs saw patients at twice the speed of those in the other nations. Surveys show an average of 41 patient contacts a day, and 10% of GPs see 60 or more.4

The number of GPs barely grew during 2010-15, and the Nuffield Trust has reported nearly 2000 fewer permanent, qualified GPs in 2020 than in 2015 despite a growing population and demand. Community nurse numbers have also fallen, and social care and local government budgets have been cut. The UK has some of the lowest numbers of hospital beds per capita in the world, and ever increasing activity means ever faster patient transfers into the community and more pressure to keep patients at home.

It will get worse before it gets better. Scrub that. Not in my lifetime. Scrub that. Perhaps it will not get better. (This is before you add in all the ‘professional’ and ‘technical’ debt the NHS has accrued over the last thirty years.)


Quelle surprise!

Union condemns Liverpool’s ‘rank and yank’ science cuts plan | Times Higher Education (THE)

Scientists at the University of Liverpool face being made redundant based on research grant income and citation impact scores, a union has claimed.

The institution is poised to cut 47 research jobs from its Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, with compulsory redundancies due to be made after voluntary severance packages were rejected.

The cuts are being made as part of Project Shape, which aims to realign the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences “in order to help tackle the extreme health inequalities and unmet health needs in the Liverpool city region”.[emphasis added].

Speechless.


A truly fluent narrative.

Squandering trust is no route to a ‘Global Britain’ | Financial Times

True, the [Global Britain] plans include some eye-catching proposals for new military technologies in the spheres of cyber, drones and space. These are largely chaff. Whitehall insiders say that overall, the document offers a fluent narrative largely detached from real strategic purpose [emphasis added].

Neat phrase. Cock-up, as usual.


Winnowing XXMMI

by reestheskin on 27/02/2021

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On the right stuff

From one of Paul Graham’s essays:

Princeton professor Robert George recently wrote:

“I sometimes ask students what their position on slavery would have been had they been white and living in the South before abolition. Guess what? They all would have been abolitionists! They all would have bravely spoken out against slavery, and worked tirelessly against it.”

He’s too polite to say so, but of course they wouldn’t.

Quoted by Paul Graham, The Four Quadrants of Conformism.


Smallpox (again): It takes time

The Economist | Broken arrow

Nevertheless smallpox vaccination became near universal. And then in 1977, 177 years after Benjamin Waterhouse, a Harvard professor and correspondent of Jefferson’s, published his pamphlet “A Prospect of Exterminating the Small-pox”, it became obsolete. The disease was wiped out. No other human disease has yet followed it to oblivion, though polio is close. But many death tolls have been slashed.


A man of principle: Nobel got it right

The Economist | Seer of the Anthropocene

Paul Crutzen, the atmospheric scientist, died on January 28.

When in 1995, while running the Max Planck Institute in Mainz, he heard of his Nobel prize, he celebrated with sekt rather than champagne: not because of his modest, Dutch, cycling-to-work frugality, but because of France’s blinkered position on nuclear testing.


Of bacon and eggs, and that wonderful film

Defector Tae Yong-ho: ‘A very small spark could topple Kim Jong Un’ | Financial Times

The former North Korean diplomat on life under the Kims — and how the world should counter the regime.

Pictures of a full English breakfast left Tae mystified. “How could it be possible for just breakfast you have eggs, bacon, milk, butter, cheese, all of these things? We thought it was propaganda.” And after watching Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music he wondered how it was that a country like America, which killed people at random, could also produce such good films. “I started to have other thoughts.”

As for the Sound of Music, at Xmas, I watched it for again for the first time in close to 60 years. Wonderful. Growing up I remember a story in the South Wales Echo about a woman pensioner In Cardiff who saw it every day for well over a year. Eventually, she was given a free pass. But no popcorn or Coca-Cola, I suspect.


Scale, dissent and staying small

How to Think for Yourself

I enjoy Paul Graham’s essays. I don’t always agree with him, but I admire the clarity of his expression. Here, he is talking about the need to promote and protect dissent.

The decrease in independent-mindedness in growing startups is still an open problem, but there may be solutions.

Founders can delay the problem by making a conscious effort only to hire independent-minded people. Which of course also has the ancillary benefit that they have better ideas.

Another possible solution is to create policies that somehow disrupt the force of conformism, much as control rods slow chain reactions, so that the conventional-minded aren’t as dangerous. The physical separation of Lockheed’s Skunk Works may have had this as a side benefit. Recent examples suggest employee forums like Slack may not be an unmitigated good.

And he is bang on the nail with regard to universities.

The most radical solution would be to grow revenues without growing the company. You think hiring that junior PR person will be cheap, compared to a programmer, but what will be the effect on the average level of independent-mindedness in your company? (The growth in staff relative to faculty seems to have had a similar effect on universities.) Perhaps the rule about outsourcing work that’s not your “core competency” should be augmented by one about outsourcing work done by people who’d ruin your culture as employees.


Sickness is just a business opportunity

‘It needs to change its culture’: is McKinsey losing its mystique? | Financial Times

Moreover, it collected millions of dollars designing and implementing marketing campaigns for three other opioid manufacturers — Johnson & Johnson, Endo Pharmaceuticals and Mallinckrodt — the lawsuits found. One presentation released in court showed it suggesting that “high abuse-risk patients” were an “opportunity” for J&J with a patch based on fentanyl, an opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

Always remember the mantra: if there are not enough sick people about, create some more.

The Bondage of Thine Own Desire

by reestheskin on 23/02/2021

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Perry Anderson · Ever Closer Union? · LRB 7 January 2021

Perry Anderson wrote three articles recently in the LRB on the EU. The first I found hard to get into, but the second and third are terrific. Whether he is right about everything or makes the right calls, I cannot say. But strongly recommended. I will be interested to check out any letters.

The quote below is, about, and in part, from Chris Bickerton who is a regular on Talking Politics podcast. He wields a scalpel more sharply through your eyes than your ears.

Christopher Bickerton’s European Integration, whose anodyne title, shared by dozens of other books, conceals its distinction, which comes in the subtitle that delivers its argument: ‘From Nation-States to Member States’. Everyone has an idea what a nation-state is, and many know that 27 countries (with the UK’s departure) are member states of the European Union. What is the conceptual difference between the two? Bickerton’s definition is succinct. ‘The concept of member state expresses a fundamental change in the political structure of the state, with horizontal ties between national executives taking precedence over vertical ties between governments and their own societies.’ This development first struck him, he explains, at the time of the Irish referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon. ‘When the No result was announced, members of the Irish government expressed a mixture of surprise and embarrassment: surprise as they were unfamiliar with the sentiments prevailing within their own population, and embarrassment because this compromised many of the promises they had made to their peers at previous meetings in Brussels.’ (The description is something of an understatement. Spotted outside a pub in Dublin that evening, Brian Lenihan, minister of finance at the time, was white around the gills.)

Bickerton again.

With the advent of the European Community, once the Court of Justice had succeeded in effectively, if not formally, constitutionalising it, member states accepted a set of external constraints whose form was radically different. ‘The active subject, namely the people, is not doing the binding…

Now I get this! This is a device used by just so many organisations. They choose the bondage of their own desire (literally, it seems, for some politicians).

Anderson:

Rather, national governments commit to limit their own powers in order to contain the political power of domestic populations. Instead of the people expressing themselves qua constituent power through this constitutional architecture, national governments seek to limit popular power by binding themselves through an external set of rules, procedures and norms.

Perry Anderson · The Breakaway: Goodbye Europe · LRB 21 January 2021

Anderson in the third essay:

Much of​ the anger aroused by Brexit in once Tory circles comes from an acute sense of the anachronism of leading advocates of departure, the ostentatious fogeyism of Rees-Mogg, Bone, Baker and others, defenders of the indefensible in the age of climate change, crowd-sourcing and correct speech. What is the order they uphold? A first-past-the-post electoral system dating back to the 16th century, before most constituencies were even contested, which regularly produces results that bear no resemblance to the divisions of opinion in the country; an unelected upper chamber crammed with flunkies and friends of the two dominant parties; an honours system devised to reward bagmen and sycophants; a Parliament that can be bundled into a poll at a day’s notice; a judiciary capable of covering any administrative enormity. Little wonder its admirers quote Latin statutes from the time of Richard II or Henry VIII in praise of its workings.


The Great Dick Faker

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

John Crace writing in the Guardian:

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.


Incoherence

Frontline UK teams query ability to vaccinate most vulnerable | Financial Times

A comment from Risk Man:

This Government is not capable of coherence.


A necessary and immodest proposal

These dark materials | Books | The Guardian

The great physicist Richard Feynman expressed the methodology of science beautifully: “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your guess is or how smart you are or what your name is. If [your idea] disagrees with experience, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

Note the world experience.

But here, another great physicist and thinker says something even more profound for how we think about science.

Physical science has historically progressed not only by finding precise explanations of natural phenomena, but also by discovering what sorts of things can be precisely explained. These may be fewer than we had thought.

Steven Weinberg

Depending on your point of view you can either find this sentiment reassuring or — as in my case — terrifying.


The quality of the stool is not strained…

NIH’s ‘precision nutrition’ bet aims for individualized diets | Science

Well, lets leave the likes of real science and Feynman and Weinberg to one side.

A few posts ago, I talked about the hype that is the claimed discovery of, or facility for, precision medicine. Life is getting more and more messy as the story runs down and out…

The study “has the potential to truly transform the field of nutrition science,” generating new tools, methods, and “a wealth of data to fuel discovery science for years to come,” Griffin Rodgers, director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), said last year at an NIH board meeting where he introduced the project. Ultimately, it might enable nutritionists to tailor diets to an individual’s genes and microbiome.

With a few notable exceptions — usually from long ago — the words nutrition and science should rarely appear in the same sentence. When they do, they are best flushed down the pan.


Winnowing MMXXI

by reestheskin on 21/02/2021

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The Wealth of Nations

China’s hidden crisis

Much of the blame for all this rests with Mao, whose Cultural Revolution was “perhaps the largest intentional destruction of human capital the world has ever seen”.

The story is…

Their team gave an IQ-like test to thousands of rural Chinese toddlers. They found that more than 50% were cognitively delayed and unlikely to reach an IQ of 90 (in a typical population, only 16% score so poorly).

Why?

Half of rural babies are undernourished. Caregivers (often illiterate grandmothers) cram them with rice, noodles and steamed buns, not realising that they also need micronutrients… A third of rural 11- and 12-year-olds have poor vision but no glasses, so struggle to read their schoolbooks.

Some of these problems would be laughably cheap to fix. A pair of glasses costs $30. Multivitamin pills are a few cents. De-worming tablets cost $2 per child each year. One reason the problems persist is that harmful myths abound. Many rural folk believe that—as a grandmother told this reviewer—glasses are bad for children’s eyesight. Some fret that de-worming pills reduce fertility in girls. A recent study found that 99% of Chinese farmers gave their pigs de-worming drugs, but hardly any did the same for their children.

Read that last sentence again.


Having a thing for snails.

The Economist | The lives of others

Patricia Highsmith had a thing for snails. She admired their self-sufficiency and found it “relaxing” to watch them copulate, delighted by the impossibility of distinguishing male from female. She collected them for decades, keeping hundreds at home and scores in her handbag, which she let loose when bored at dinner parties. Her affection for snails was matched by her ambivalence towards people, whom she often found baffling and kept at a distance. When a literary agent suggested Americans didn’t buy her books because they were “too subtle” and the characters too unlikeable, Highsmith responded: “Perhaps it is because I don’t like anyone.”


Not having a fling …for rotifers

The Economist | Godzilla the rotifer

Rotifers are famously asexual. The last time members of one group of the animals, the bdelloids, had sex is reckoned by zoologists to have been about 80 million years ago.


Who is cheating who?

Skidmore hopes to push UK government to outlaw essay mills | Times Higher Education (THE)

Former universities minister Chris Skidmore hopes that his private member’s bill on essay mills will prompt the Westminster government to finally take legislative action against contract cheating. Proposing the bill, which would make the operation and advertising of essay mill services illegal in the UK, Mr Skidmore said contract cheating was “a rot that infects the very discipline of learning and has the potential to damage academic integrity beyond repair”.

Hard to argue with, but would the essay mills fool school teachers? I suspect not. There is more than one way to cheat, just as there is more than one agent in any con.


Is that a fact!

The Economist | Betting all the chips

When microchips were invented in 1958, the first significant market for them was inside nuclear missiles. Today about a trillion chips are made a year, or 128 for every person on the planet.


We’re all just naked apes

Letter to the economist from Allan Milne Lees.

As Johnson rightly notes, we humans need regular undemanding social interactions such as small talk to support our well-being (January 2nd). As a primate species that is relatively hairless we are unable to use grooming rituals to establish and maintain social bonds. Chatting about the weather and stock performances is our equivalent of removing salt crystals and lice from each other.

The dermatologists might add that the value of host responses to such infestations, like stock prices, may go up and down in value.


The regulator as Ouroboros

WONKHE

Some lives leave love, others just a trail of utter destruction.

There was much amusement on Wednesday when outgoing OfS chair Michael Barber used his King’s College London Commemoration Oration to wade in on “no platforming”. He said he was willing to believe that the vast majority of controversial speaking engagements do in fact go ahead on campus, but that he would love to see figures — adding, “It’s hardly a job for a regulator but if I were a university administrator or an influence at UUK, I would be collecting the data.”

What he hadn’t clocked is that it is, in fact, a job for a regulator, given the Prevent duty — his regulator, whose most recent figures show that just 0.09 per cent of such events don’t go ahead. When we pointed that out later in the Q&A, adding that the example of a problematic speech code he’d picked from a book was both inaccurate and eighteen years old, Barber offered praise for our work here at Wonkhe but suggested that we may want to “spend less time on the detail”. We can’t imagine why.


Worthy of Wallace and Gromet

How clams fight pollution

The system is nifty. When the molluscs encounter heavy metals, pesticides or other pollutants, they close their shells, explains Piotr Domek of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, who has worked on the project for three decades. To create a natural early-warning system, Mr Domek and his colleagues collect the clams from rivers or reservoirs, and attach a coil and a magnet to their shells. Computers register whether their shells are open or closed by detecting changes in the magnetic field.

Priti Patel will be on the case

In the case of a terrorist attack, an ecological disaster or another contamination of the water supply, the clams will close,” says Mr Domek. This, in turn, will automatically cut off the water supply. The clams, he thinks, are life-savers.

Winnowing XXMMI

by reestheskin on 19/02/2021

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Thinking clearly

It is a fun trope to imagine that ability in one domain comes at the cost of another. Scientists are geeks etc. I knew the quote below, but not who had said it. Perhaps technocrats devoted to public service are what we are missing.

We are not a great power and never will be again,” wrote Tizard. “We are a great nation, but if we continue to behave like a great power we shall soon cease to be a great nation.”

A distinguished Whitehall scientist, Henry Tizard, sounding the alarm. Quoted in Britain Alone: The Path from Suez to Brexit, by Philip Stephens.


Fast and slow-moving metaphors

Graduate deans ‘must speak up for PhD students’ | Times Higher Education (THE)

“Even today, people applying to graduate school feel obliged to say: “My goal is research”, according to Robert Weisbuch, former president of Drew University in New Jersey. Yet in reality only a small proportion will go on to find a permanent academic position, and failure to acknowledge this often prevents them making the most of their knowledge and talents.

“We teach them to believe they are Lamborghinis,” suggested Leonard Cassuto, professor of English and American studies at Fordham University in New York, “when in fact they are all-terrain vehicles. If you are an all-terrain vehicle and believe you are a Lamborghini, all you are going to do is stay on the racetrack, no matter how much traffic there is on it.”


Just so you know

Why can’t the UK tax year start on January 1? | Financial Times

Our April 5 year-end originates from when people in England were required to pay rents to their landlords quarterly on what were, and still are, known as quarter days; March 25, June 24, September 29 and December 25. The first in the year, known as Lady Day, came to be regarded as the start of the financial year.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII ordered that the old Julian calendar introduced by Julius Caesar should be replaced by the Gregorian calendar we use today. The old calendar, although reasonably accurate, was slightly too short and had slipped over the years. Much of Europe moved across immediately, but Britain took a little longer — 170 years in fact. By then, our calendar was out of step by 11 days and so it was that after the taxes had been paid on March 25 1752, 11 days were removed from the calendar and the new tax year started on April 5 1752. 


The Long Now: Plant the oaks now for we do not know when we might need them

Political union through science | Nature Physics

Almost 100 years later, in a Europe that had been forced apart by war, 17 nations from around the world came together in Paris on 20 May 1875 to sign what is now known as the Metre Convention. The aim of the convention — in the spirit of Talleyrand’s proposal — appears prominently on the first page, and states that the signatories desired “to assure the international unification and perfection of the metric system” and they undertook “to create and maintain, at their common expense, a scientific and permanent International Bureau of Weights and Measures with its headquarters in Paris”.


Turn of phrase

Moving mountains: the reforms that would push academia to new heights | Times Higher Education (THE)

It remains one of the great ironies of higher education that while most of us in the sector are employed to educate, any professional learning offered to improve our practice leaves us as repulsed and as lost as Jack Nicholson at a women’s studies conference.

I not in love with the gist of the article, all those dilemmas about whether opening doors for colleagues or strangers is micro-aggression or not, but a nice turn of phrase. Personally, I would have thought Nicholson would have gone down well (academically speaking, that is).


Just brilliant!

Outbreaks are inevitable, but pandemics are optional.

Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist who contribute greatly to the global eradication of smallpox. Quoted in via Private Eye MD No 1541

I knew another scientist called Brilliant, Murray Brilliant, a melanocyte biologist. Always wondered what it was like being called Brilliant, and how Oscar Wilde might have played with it.


Retirement has its rewards

W.H. Auden imagined “The Fall of Rome” as the moment in which:

“an unimportant clerk/Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK/On a pink official form.”

Quoted here


Winnowing MMXXI

by reestheskin on 13/02/2021

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Canada pushes abundant PhD graduates towards industry needs | Times Higher Education (THE)

Canada’s universities need to adjust their doctoral degree programmes to help make their swelling surplus of PhD graduates more attractive to industry, a government-chartered assessment has concluded.

Perhaps they need fewer PhDs. And as for how to make a bad situation worse:

Universities, meanwhile, should keep adjusting the content of their doctoral degree programmes to include skills in management, teamwork and communication that are valued by companies, the experts say.

David Hubel, a Canadian by birth, and a Nobel Laureate, wrote that one of the advantages of having an MD was that — in those days, but not now — you didn’t need to do a PhD. Like many so many of his ideas about doing science, he was spot-on. I was delighted to have got through in the wonderful bad-old days, managing to avoid this credential.


Its just business

Australian universities in ‘deep trouble’ as borders stay closed | Times Higher Education (THE)

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, said in 2018 that Australia was poised to overtake the UK as the second most popular global destination for international students in 2019. However, speaking to Times Higher Education, he said it was now “impossible to see that position being restored.…in fact, Australia may not recover market share in the longer run”.

He goes on:

My sense is that international education in Australia is in deep, deep trouble. That means higher education is in deep trouble and scientific research is in equally deep trouble because this is heavily financed from international student fees.

One commentator on this report states:

Australian Universities are at a cross-roads and along with them the huge international education market (our 3rd biggest export industry), yet our politicians are doing nothing… It is unimaginable that any other large export industry would be so conscientiously ignored. [emphasis added].

Rich DeMillo describes higher education as a multisided marketplace. It is a feature of our age that cross-subsidies within such marketplaces will come under strain. If you want to do research, you need to fund it; if you want high-quality teaching, you have to fund it on its merit. No free lunch.

 


Precisely what?

Precision medicine in rheumatology: are we getting closer? — The Lancet

One of the things that led me to become disenchanted with much of modern medical genetics was the hype that was necessary to secure funding. Genetics is a great way to do biology, but biology is not synonymous with medicine; advance in one does not necessarily follow from the other.

And personally speaking, the best reason for the study of modern human genetics was to tell the story of humanity — how we got here, and what is our story. It is sad that there is no Nobel for biology.

Precision medicine is another (IMHO) bullshit phrase. Read this recent Lancet article (link above):

The overarching aim of precision (also referred to as personalised) medicine is to identify the best possible management approach for an individual with a certain disease. The main prerequisite for such an approach is the identification of characteristics linked to a favourable outcome of a certain treatment. The characteristics of interests might be clinical or molecular biomarkers or identified through imaging, allowing for stratification of patients and prediction of response. The size of the strata might range from big subgroups covering a substantial proportion of patients to individual patients.

But medicine has always worked this way. You don’t give children the same dose of drugs as adults; you don’t treat all cases of psoriasis the same way. And as for biomarkers, well, over a century ago there was the H&E project (H&E standing for the two most common dyes used in diagnostic histopathology), a discovery that still predicts outcomes better than all those wonderful machines in the Sanger centre (and they are wonderful).

And then in Science I read:

A genome to celebrate | Science

The completion of the draft sequence laid the foundation for a new precision medicine paradigm that aims to use a person’s unique genetic profile to guide decisions about the treatment and prevention of disease. We have already seen some signs that precision medicine is possible, and although off to a slow start, the promise of this approach may ultimately be realized.…. Given the pace at which breakthroughs based on the human genome sequence are happening, when we next commemorate the publication of the draft human genome sequence, be it at 25, 30, or 50 years, we may look back again, realize that this accomplishment was a watershed for the biological sciences, and marvel at how far we have come in such a short period of time. [emphasis added].

We might indeed, but the phrasing reminds me of the celebrations that used to surround a grant being awarded, rather a discovery made. I, too, should confess on this point.

Please, oh please, a little modesty and perspective. We are not in sales.


That Welshman

Here is something more solid and sustaining; something where the purpose of language is to communicate and not to shill.

I have been reading Nye Bevan’s biography by Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds. Here is an excerpt from a speech Bevan made in 1959.

I have enough faith in my fellow creatures in Great Britain to believe that when they have got over the delirium of the television, when they realize that their new homes that they have been put into are mortgaged to the hilt, when they realize that the moneylender has been elevated to the highest position in the land, when they realize that the refinements for which they should look are not there, that it is a vulgar society of which no person could be proud, when they realize all those things, when the years go by and they see the challenge of modern society not being met by the Tories who can consolidate their political powers only on the basis of national mediocrity, who are unable to exploit the resources of their scientists because they are prevented by the greed of their capitalism from doing so, when they realize that the flower of our youth goes abroad today because they are not being given opportunities of using their skill and their knowledge properly at home, when they realize that all the tides of history are flowing in our direction, that we are not beaten, that we represent the future: then, when we say it and mean it, then we shall lead our people to where they deserve to be led.

Winnowing XXMMI

by reestheskin on 12/02/2021

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More evidence in the case against Luxembourg | Financial Times

Luxembourg sometimes resembles a criminal enterprise with a country attached.

Via The Tax Justice Network and Cory Doctorow


666 trademarks and all that

Mark of the Devil: The University as Brand Bully by James Boyle, Jennifer Jenkins :: SSRN

James Boyle is a Scottish law professor at Duke. He is one of the leading academics in the field of IPR. His book Shamans, Software and Spleens: Law and Construction of the Information Society opened my eyes to a world that I literally did not know existed. It is hard to live a game when you fail to understand not just the nature of the rules, but the idea that there are rules. I would also plug his graphic book on IPR and music Theft: A History of Music.

He has now obviously been studying things closer to his own academic home.

In recent years, universities have been accused in news stories of becoming “trademark bullies,” entities that use their trademarks to harass and intimidate beyond what the law can reasonably be interpreted to allow. Universities have also intensified efforts to gain expansive new marks. The Ohio State University’s attempt to trademark the word “the” is probably the most notorious.

I don’t have a reference, but one of the delivery companies (DHL, Fed Express etc.) tried to get IPR — wait for it — not for their package design but over the dimensions of air that the package encompassed.


On being human

Academic jailed in Iran pulls off daring escape back to Britain | Iran | The Guardian

“They started on me in a very, very small room, it’s almost like a grave. You have three army blankets, one as a cover, one to sleep on and one as a pillow. For 24 hours there is a bright shining light on top of your head, a Qur’an, a mohr on which Shias pray, and a phone to contact the guards to take you to the toilet. There is no natural light, and a window in the prison door opens through which they put your food. That is your only communication with the outside world. It is incredibly quiet, and you just become crazy. You don’t know what time it is, and you don’t know what will happen next.

“When you are taken out to go to the toilet, or half an hour’s fresh air or to be interrogated you are blindfolded. And then your interrogation becomes your lifeline, it’s so sad that you want to be interrogated more because that is the only way you can communicate with a fellow human being. [emphasis added]


The Irish pol is a revenant from a dead era.

Can Joe Biden make America great again? | Books | The Guardian

Probably not…but some nice words (again from Fintan O’Toole)

In normal times, this rhetoric would seem ludicrously over the top, all the more so coming from a garrulous, glad-handing old Irish pol, who spent 36 years in the Senate and eight as vice-president. Biden is not obvious casting for the role of apocalyptic warrior.

The impulse comes with the territory of Biden’s Irish Catholicism, its fatalistic view of this earthly existence as, in the words of the rosary, a “valley of tears”. This is, as Biden sees it, “the Irishness of life”.

Biden the Irish pol is a revenant from a dead era. His skills as an operator, a fixer, a problem-solver, are finely honed — but they are redundant. He is a horse whisperer who has to deal with mad dogs. He is a nifty tango dancer with no possible partners. There is no reasonable, civilised Republican opposition with which he can compromise. There can be no such thing as a unilateral declaration of amity and concord.

The great problem of American political discourse has always been — strangely for such a Biblical culture — a refusal to accept the idea of original sin.


Surprise, surprise

No confidence vote in Leicester v-c as 145 at risk of redundancy | Times Higher Education (THE)

Union members at the University of Leicester have voted in favour of a motion of no confidence in the vice-chancellor in response to the threat of redundancies across the university.

A Leicester spokeswoman said the university was “naturally disappointed to learn about [the] vote of no confidence”.


Winnowing MMXX1

by reestheskin on 07/02/2021

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Britain Alone: the Path from Suez to Brexit, by Philip Stephens

I know little about Paul A Myers except that he is one of the sharpest commentators on the online FT comments forum.

Britain made a bad choice with Brexit. The coming years will probably reveal just how much. It failed the one test it had to make as an international strategist in the opening decades of the 21st century. It is inevitably going to wind up with something smaller and less influential — and probably less prosperous. But then it has been making bad choices for a long, long time.

When London is able to imagine itself as a bigger and similarly successful Copenhagen, then new geopolitical success will await. Apparently just some such thinking is taking hold in Edinburgh.

As for Edinburgh, I truly wish that to be the case.


The Capitalist Case for Overhauling Twitter

This next quote is via Scott Galloway in the New York Magazine.

The political philosopher Hannah Arendt, analyzing the fall of democratic Germany to the Nazis, observed that totalitarianism comes to power through a “temporary alliance between the elite and the mob.”


Forget Zuckerberg and Cook’s hypocrisy – it’s their companies that are the real problem | Facebook | The Guardian

The following is from John Naughton, one-time TV critic of the Listener, and who effectively introduced me to the world of blogs and tech a long, long, time ago.

A few years ago, during a period when there was much heated anxiety about “superintelligence” and the prospects for humanity in a world dominated by machines, the political theorist David Runciman gently pointed out that we have been living under superintelligent AIs for a couple of centuries. They’re called corporations: sociopathic, socio-technical machines that remorselessly try to achieve whatever purpose has been set for them, which in our day is to “maximise shareholder value”. Or, as Milton Friedman succinctly put it: “The only corporate social responsibility a company has is to maximise its profits.”


The paradox of human nature, our obsession with the skies, and the realities of transplant surgery: Books in brief

Desmond Morris in one of his popular ethology books pointed out the logical flaw in the arguments that posits that war is a function of individual violence, whether the origins of the latter are inherited or acquired. The propensity to cooperation over dissent is problematic.

The following is from a review of The Goodness Paradox by Richard Wrangham. The subtitle is: How Evolution Made Us More and Less Violent.

Homo sapiens see-saws endlessly between tolerance and aggression. To parse our paradoxical nature, primatologist Richard Wrangham marshals gripping research in genetics, neuroscience, history and beyond. His lucid, measured study ranges over types of aggression, the evolution of moral values, the age-old problem of tyrants, and war’s “coalitional impunity”. The propensity for proactive violence, he argues — forged by self-domestication, language and genetic selection — marks out our primarily peaceful species. We uniquely bend cooperation to ends both cruel and compassionate. [emphasis added].


Winnowing MMXXI

by reestheskin on 26/01/2021

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Machines #1: A crisis of connoisseurship

The Economist | Computer says no

Conventional scholarship involves the study of aesthetics, style and historical records. The oeuvre of a great painter has traditionally been defined by a scholarly panel that maintains a definitive catalogue of the artist’s authentic works. The Corpus Rubenianum, for instance, is an Antwerp-based body that adjudicates the work of Peter Paul Rubens; it reveres the legacy of Ludwig Burchard, a German-born expert who died in 1960. Yet such scholarly deference can be excessive: many of Burchard’s attributions have turned out to be mistaken, as the Rubenianum has quietly acknowledged. “There is no question that more scientific examination is needed” to clean up the Flemish master’s oeuvre, says Kasia Pisarek, a Polish-born British art scholar, whose doctoral thesis traces what she calls a crisis of connoisseurship.


Machines #2: A crisis for pollers

Facial recognition technology can expose political orientation from naturalistic facial images | Scientific Reports

Ubiquitous facial recognition technology can expose individuals’ political orientation, as faces of liberals and conservatives consistently differ… Accuracy remained high (69%) even when controlling for age, gender, and ethnicity. Given the widespread use of facial recognition, our findings have critical implications for the protection of privacy and civil liberties.


Machines #3: A crisis in a company

Paul Taylor · Insanely Complicated, Hopelessly Inadequate · LRB 21 January 2021

Last year, Google’s work on natural language processing was the subject of a piece co-written by Timnit Gebru, one of the leaders of its ‘ethical AI’ team. The article expressed concerns about the work’s carbon footprint — the extraordinary scale of computation involved means that the carbon dioxide emitted in training Transformer is equivalent to 288 transatlantic flights — and about the way it looks at language. Because it is trained on text that Google harvests from the internet, its calculations reflect the way language has been used in the past or is used now. The problem isn’t just that its outputs therefore reflect our biases and prejudices, but that they crystallise them and, because the programs are inscrutable, conceal them. The paper also discusses the opportunity cost involved in pursuing this approach …

Google’s response was to shoot the messenger, sacking Gebru and then claiming she had resigned. Given that one very dangerous aspect of AI is that it amplifies the already extraordinary power of a very small number of massive corporations, this authoritarian behaviour is alarming. On the other hand, one of its immediate effects has been to galvanise workers at Google into forming a trade union.


Celtic feelings… I know thee well.

The ‘Ulysses’ trial still resonates 100 years on

When Ulysses eventually found a publisher — in Sylvia Beach, proprietor of Shakespeare & Co in Paris — in 1922, it was promptly banned in the UK until 1936. In the US, its publication was finally legalised in 1933, after a long campaign by Morris Ernst, legal counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, against efforts by the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and others. Judge Woolsey, delivering his opinion on United States vs One Book Called Ulysses, stated his defence of Joyce: “In respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of his characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season spring.”


Celtic words

Cartographers of Stone and Air | by Colin Thubron | The New York Review of Books

Tim Robinson, an English writer, died from Covid-19 in April at the age of eighty-five. For more than forty years he made an intensive study of the region that many conceive as Ireland’s heart: Connemara.

His words:

History has rhythms, tunes and even harmonies; but the sound of the past is an agonistic multiplicity. Sometimes, rarely, a scrap of a voice can be caught from the universal damage, but it may only be an artefact of the imagination, a confection of rumours. Chance decides what is obliterated and what survives if only to be distorted and misheard.

Irish placenames dry out when anglicized, like twigs snapped off from a tree. And frequently the places too are degraded, left open to exploitation, for lack of a comprehensible name to point out their natures or recall their histories.


No free lunch

Arianne Shahvisi | No such thing as a free lunch · LRB 12 January 2021

The UK’s free school meals programme ensures that children from deprived households get at least one meal a day and costs the government £600 million a year. (‘Eat Out to Help Out’, which ran for just a month and subsidised restaurant meals, cost £849 million.) According to the Sustainable Food Trust, malnutrition costs the UK £17 billion a year, as well as leaving people desperate, miserable, reduced to bellies with a few accessory organs.

Winnowing MMXXI

by reestheskin on 21/01/2021

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STEM stupidity

Stupid | No Mercy / No Malice

Mark Zuckerberg is what happens when you replace civics with computer science.


Eureka… if not the bath

New Year Monday Note. | Jean-Louis Gassée | Jan, 2021

In the shower, all ideas look good.


Post-modem

Universities challenged: critical theory and culture wars | Financial Times

A comment about the above article:

As a full professor in a similar situation, a humanities department in a British teaching factory (sorry major research university) I completely agree with Musidorus.


Girl-talk

The Economist | Awesome, weird and everything else

Ironically, some old gender stereotypes may now be helping girls. When girls are toddlers they are read to more than boys. Their fathers are five times more likely to sing or whistle to them and are more likely to speak to them about emotions, including sadness. Their mothers are more likely to use complex vocabulary with them. Most of this gives girls a leg up in a world that increasingly prizes “soft skills”. Girls still have less leisure time than boys, but nowadays that is primarily because they spend more time on homework and grooming, rather than an unfair division of chores. And in the time left for themselves they have far more freedom.

The one good thing about COVID-19 is that it’s good for nature and the environment and dolphins,” says Sarah, “but I wish it wouldn’t kill so many people in the process.”


COVID-19 aware

David Hume — Wikipedia

He had little respect for the professors of his time, telling a friend in 1735 that “there is nothing to be learnt from a Professor, which is not to be met with in Books”. He did not graduate.

Nor did I ever submit my PhD. As David Hubel once said, the great advantage of an MD degree was (then) being able to avoid having to gain a PhD credential.

Pathologies of power

by reestheskin on 16/01/2021

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COVID

UK COVID-19 public inquiry needed to learn lessons and save lives – The Lancet

It is hard not to be moved nor not be angry on reading the editorial in this week’s Lancet, written by three members of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group.

The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has previously suggested that an immediate public inquiry into the government’s handling of COVID-19 would be a distraction7 or diversion of resources in the fight against COVID-19. We have long proposed that quite the opposite is true: an effective rapid review phase would be an essential element in combating COVID-19.

An independent and judge-led statutory public inquiry with a swift interim review would yield lessons that can be applied immediately and help prevent deaths in this tough winter period in the UK. Such a rapid review would help to minimise further loss of life now and in the event of future pandemics. In the wake of the Hillsborough football stadium disaster on April 15, 1989, for example, the Inquiry of Lord Justice Taylor delivered interim findings within 11 weeks, allowing life-saving measures to be introduced in stadiums ahead of the next football season.

I will quote Max Hastings, a former editor of the Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard, and a distinguished military historian, writing in the Guardian many years ago. He was describing how he had overruled some of his own journalists who had suspected Peter Mandelson of telling lies.

I say this with regret. I am more instinctively supportive of institutions, less iconoclastic, than most of the people who write for the Guardian, never mind read it. I am a small “c” conservative, who started out as a newspaper editor 18 years ago much influenced by a remark Robin Day once made to me: “Even when I am giving politicians a hard time on camera,” he said, “I try to remember that they are trying to do something very difficult – govern the country.” Yet over the years that followed, I came to believe that for working journalists the late Nicholas Tomalin’s words, offered before I took off for Vietnam for the first time back in 1970, are more relevant: “they lie”, he said. “Never forget that they lie, they lie, they lie.” Max Hastings

Two of Hasting’s journalists at the Evening Standard were investigating the funds Peter Mandelson had used to purchase a house.

One morning, Peter Mandelson rang me at the Evening Standard. “Some of your journalists are investigating my house purchase,” he said. “It really is nonsense. There’s no story about where I got the funds. I’m buying the house with family money.”

I knew nothing about any of this, but went out on the newsroom floor and asked some questions. Two of our writers were indeed probing Mandelson’s house purchase. Forget it, I said. Mandelson assures me there is no story. Our journalists remonstrated: I was mad to believe a word Mandelson said. I responded: “Any politician who makes a private call to an editor has a right to be believed until he is proved a liar.” We dropped the story.

Several months later

…when the Mandelson story hit the headlines, I faced a reproachful morning editorial conference. A few minutes later, the secretary of state for industry called. “What do I have to do to convince you I’m not a crook ?” he said.

I answered: “Your problem, Peter, is not to convince me that you are not a crook, but that you are not a liar.”

The default, and most sensible course of action, is to assume that the government and many of those who answer directly to the government have lied and will continue to lie.


Canadian’s tolerance of mediocrity

Where Health Care Is a Human Right | by Nathan Whitlock | The New York Review of Books

An article discussing Canadian health care with echoes of the UK’s own parochial attitude to health care (and don’t mention Holland, Germany, France, Switzerland…).

How do such gaps and problems persist? Part of the problem, ironically, is the system’s high approval ratings: with such enthusiasm for the existing system, and with responsibility for it shared between federal and provincial or territorial governments, it’s easy for officials to avoid making necessary changes. Picard sees our narrowness of perspective as a big obstacle to reform: “Canadians are also incredibly tolerant of mediocrity because they fear that the alternative to what we have is the evil US system.” Philpott agrees that Canadians’ tendency to judge our system solely against that of the United States can be counterproductive. “If you always compare yourself to the people who pay the most per capita and get some of the worst outcomes,” she told me in a recent Zoom call, “then you’re not looking at the fact that there are a dozen other countries that pay less per capita and have far better outcomes than we do.”


The longest lasting health care corpotation in the world

Holy See – Wikipedia

The Holy See is thus viewed as the central government of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church, in turn, is the largest non-government provider of education and health care in the world.[8] The diplomatic status of the Holy See facilitates the access of its vast international network of charities.[emphasis added]


The antithesis of science, is not art, but politics

There is a famous quote ( I don’t have a primary source) by the great Rudolf Virchow

“Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing more than medicine on a large scale.”

I know what Virchow was getting at, but if only.

Winnowing MMXXI

by reestheskin on 14/01/2021

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Kieran, Please Come Over For Gay Sex

Excellent summary of recent discoveries in human evolution by John Lanchester in the LRB1. Lucid writing. When I worked on the evolution of skin and hair colour, I was always puzzled about the way a single find of skeletal remains could pivot a whole narrative of how we got here. N-of-1s, are tricky. In recent years many remains have been discovered and, amazingly (because it is amazing), using DNA we can literally spy on the past, not quite in real time, but in a way that when I was a medical student would have seemed like science fiction.

Another thing that I never understood was why these remains were often found in caves. Is that where the action was? John Lanchester put me right — to an extent.

In the case of the Neanderthals, the sense of distance and the sense of strangeness are stronger; empathy seems both more necessary and more remote, harder to access. I have stood at the site of a Neanderthal shelter at Buoux in the South of France and been hit by an overwhelmingly strong feeling of remoteness, the idea that these people, these similar-but-different humans, were so far from anywhere human and place-like that they must have been hiding from something. Their very existence — we now know there were only a few tens of thousands of Neanderthals alive at any one time — seems contingent and marginal. What were they trying to get away from?

But that’s bollocks. That sense of remoteness, of distance from and hiddenness, are a side effect of humanity’s planetary domination: the only places where traces of the deep past remain are places we haven’t built over or crushed underfoot. There could be Neanderthal remains all around where I’m writing this, but I live in London and those traces, if they ever existed, are long and permanently lost. We find evidence mainly in caves because they’re the only places where remains haven’t been washed away by time and the human present. This is the same reason the far past continues to make news: we are constructing knowledge from scraps and fragments, and big new discoveries have the potential to rewrite the story.

Bollocks, as he says. As for my title, well, the best mnemonics at medical school tended to be rude. Lanchester writes

If you’re having trouble remembering the sequence of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species, I can recommend the mnemonic ‘Kieran, Please Come Over For Gay Sex.

In truth, mnemonics never did much for me.


‘Fellatio, Masochism, Politics and Love’. And Hwyl

The above was the title of a book by Leo Abse, the Labour MP for Pontypool when I was growing up in Cardiff. I do remember my parents mentioning his name, although I am not certain what their views of him were. As the Economist writes.

A little after 10pm on Monday July 3rd 1967, just as most sensible Britons were turning in for the night, the member for Pontypool was warming up. Leo Abse (pronounced Ab-zee) had been working the tea rooms of the House of Commons all day, charming and cajoling his fellow MPs in his rococo tones—a little flattery here, a white lie there. Now he slipped into the chamber, turning heads as always in spite of his short frame. Settling in his usual perch on the Labour government’s benches, his mischievous eyes darted about the place, searching out both his “stout fellows” and his foes. If his bill were ever to get through, tonight was surely the night.

His bill, printed on the green pages each MP clutched, was plain enough: that, in England and Wales, “a homosexual act in private shall not be an offence provided that the parties consent thereto and have attained the age of twenty-one years”

Abse what a colourful character in all sorts of ways. His WikiP entry gives you some flavour. His second marriage was to Ania Czepulkowska, in 2000, when Abse was 83, and she fifty years younger. A bust of him was unveiled in 2009 at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, but his nomination for a seat in the House of Lords had been vetoed by Margaret Thatcher. What would you expect?

  1. The title of the article is Twenty Types of Human: Among the Neanderthals and he is reviewing Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art by Rebecca Wragg Sykes. Bloomsbury, 400 pp., £20, August, 978 1 4729 3749 0

Winnowing MMXXI

by reestheskin on 08/01/2021

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Sunday 27 December, 2020 | Memex 1.1

The following were both posted separately by John Naughton over recent weeks. It may seem bad manners to ‘borrow’ in such a way, but the combination seems apposite, and the necessary conclusion hard to put aside.


There are no credentials. They do not even need a medical certificate. They need not be sound either in body or mind. They only require a certificate of birth — just to prove that they were the first of the litter. You would not choose a spaniel on those principles.

Lloyd George on the House of Lords, 1909.


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?

Winnowing MMXXI

by reestheskin on 05/01/2021

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Vaccine rollout hampered by red tape and lack of back-up stocks | Financial Times

Mr Hancock told the BBC that the amount of bureaucracy would be reduced, including no longer requiring vaccinators to undergo training on the need to tackle terrorism.

No surprise here. Those familiar with the NHS (and many other organisations) will know there is little limit to the crap that those at the top can pass down, chiefly to protect their own hides. I used to chair a student teaching ethics committee (note: an ethics committee, not an ethical committee). We had to ask all applicants whether they were aware of the Home Office’s Prevent Strategy (terrorism!). As for training, the standard of NHS online modules that I used to have to do, was execrable. They were yet another form of subsidy for the parasitism this is much of UK Private Business. Even with retirement, the rage only ebbs away slowly. Wasted days.


So far away

Between now and Easter universities should stop, collaborate and listen | Wonkhe

Academics got good at distance learning — for students who were studying at the distance of half a mile away.

The long-term issue is simply that if the experience is mainly large lecture delivery, then the value of university has been washed away by successive cuts and internal transfers of money to research and ‘impact’. That is what should worry universities now. At one time you could find high street retail with knowledgeable staff. Then rationalisation took over and quality took a nose dive in order to pay the dividends of investors. Then came Amazon.


All I want for 2021

All I want for 2021 is to see Mark Zuckerberg up in court | Internet | The Guardian

It’s always risky making predictions about the tech industry, but this year looks like being different, at least in the sense that there are two safe bets. One is that the attempts to regulate the tech giants that began last year will intensify; the second that we will be increasingly deluged by sanctimonious cant from Facebook & co as they seek to avoid democratic curbing of their unaccountable power.

John Naughton, my first and still my favourite blogger. It was on my list too, but Amazon have failed to deliver.


Innumerate economists.

Blanchflower aiming to counter ‘disastrous’ austerity economics | Times Higher Education (THE)

“I think I said on Bloomberg [the business TV channel] I thought Brexit was the worst decision made by any advanced country in the last thousand years,” he continued. “And I only said a thousand because I’m not very good on the thousand before that.”

Danny (David) Blanchflower.


Bozo et al.

What makes John le Carré a writer of substance | Financial Times

Again, like Orwell — who revealed himself now and then as a poetic limner of deep England — le Carré had a pitch-perfect ear for the disingenuous hypocrisies sustaining those who mistook “Getting Away with It” for national purpose.