Saturday, 29 June 2019

Cuttings: June 2019

Witcraft by Jonathan Rée and The History of Philosophy by AC Grayling: head to head philosophy - review by Terry Eagleton in The Guardian. "Borrowing from modernist literary techniques, Rée slices into British intellectual history at 50-year intervals from 1601 to 1951 ...What we have, then, is less a lineage of Great Men than a series of cross-sections. We move through a set of landscapes rather than leap from one solitary figure to another. The book maps the way in which the different conceptual currents of a period intermingle, so that one of the finest literary critics ever to write in English, William Hazlitt, sits cheek-by-jowl with Edmund Burke, Jeremy Bentham and William Godwin.... The history of philosophy usually tells us how one set of ideas gave birth to another. What it tends to overlook are the political forces and social upheavals that shaped them. Witcraft, by contrast, sees philosophy itself as a historical practice. For much of its career, it was never easy to distinguish from political conflict, religious strife and scientific controversy.... In a mixture of arrogance and provincialism, Grayling seems to think that it is analytic philosophers such as he who get to decide who is a philosopher and who is not. A section of his book on modern European thinkers commits some elementary blunders, but this doesn’t matter much because these writers aren’t really philosophers anyway. When it comes to affairs of the mind, Grayling is determined to have as little truck as possible with fancypants foreigners, unless like Kant and Hegel they have been dead for a decent amount of time. ... The difference between the two men is clear from the way they write. Rée’s book is stylish and entertaining, whereas Grayling’s prose is lucid but lifeless. The lucidity, however, has its limits. Grayling raps European thinkers over the knuckles for writing obscurely, but in a work aimed at the general reader he produces '[(p q) & q] therefore p', which is not the kind of thing you hear in Tesco. Still, whether you understand such formulas is a handy way of sorting the Oxbridge cream from the continental dregs."

The shameful truth about Britain’s response to Grenfell - article by Gary Younge in The Guardian.  "The nation’s capacity for indignation is apparently rivalled only by its propensity for distraction. It’s not that we don’t see injustice or cannot comprehend it. It’s that we apparently get bored by it. We are becoming very careless with our innocence: we keep losing it, only to find it again in time to be 'shocked' by the next outrage. Grenfell was not only predictable, it was predicted. It did not 'take' that tragedy to teach us what happens when negligent landlords and shoddy builders come together in an age of cost-cutting and regulatory ambivalence. We already knew. But it has raised the question whether we, as a society, cared enough to do anything about it. So long as a similar tragedy could happen tomorrow, the answer is a shameful no."

The best inspiration for writers - cartoon by Tom Gauld in The Guardian. "Michael and Sarah's argument outside the coffee shop was subsequently fictionalised in three short stories and a novel, as well as inspiring the prizewinning poem 'Early Summer. Dappled sunlight. Terrible yelling.'"

'I feel terrified, betrayed': messages show strain on Jack Letts' parents - article by Caroline Davies in The Guardian, including an extract from a letter to his parents from Jack Letts, who left the UK to join ISIS: "You lot brought me up without faith. You taught me and indoctrinated me to look down on religious people as brainwashed idiots [you know you did]. You taught me that life had no true purpose … that there’s no afterlife and therefore no final justice. You taught me disbelief and darkness. Why should I be grateful for that?"

Inspired by 63 Up, author Tim Lott decides it's time to take stock - article by Tim Lott in The Guardian. "The idea of a single life captured through different points in time was behind the TV documentary series 63 Up (I am also 63). Partly for research into my next novel and partly out of curiosity, I find myself asking, who was I at 7, at 14, at 21, and so on? Does looking back on an entire life help us shape who we want to be from now on? Am I still the same person – or someone entirely different? After all, every life has two distinct aspects: the external and the internal."

Oliver Twiss and Martin Guzzlewit: the fan fiction that ripped off Dickens - article by Alison Flood in The Guardian, about Edward Lloyd and His World, eds Rohan McWilliam and Sarah Louise Lill.
"Oliver Twiss was one of many plagiarisms of Dickens published by the press baron Edward Lloyd, with Barnaby Budge, Martin Guzzlewit, The Penny Pickwick and Nickelas Nickelbery also hitting shelves in the mid-19th century.... The imitations were much cheaper than the originals – The Penny Pickwick cost a penny, compared with a shilling for Dickens’ story. 'It’s very likely that, given these things saturated the market for a while, from about 1837 to 1845, many working-class readers first encountered Dickens not through his original works but in these weird doppelgangers that were going around,' says McWilliam.... After publishing The Penny Pickwick, Lloyd went on to build a publishing empire. He told the illustrators of his 'penny dreadfuls' – grisly horror novels that included the first appearance of the demon barber of Fleet Street, Sweeney Todd, and Varney the Vampire – 'There must be blood … much more blood!' 'When we think of the 1840s, we think of the publication of major novels such as Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair,' says McWilliam. 'The reality is that many readers were as likely to be consuming shockers issued by Lloyd, such as Ada the Betrayed.' "

Language wars: the 19 greatest linguistic spats of all time - article by David Shariatmadari in The Guardian, based on his book Don't Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth about Language. "What is it about language that gets people so hot under the collar? That drives them to spend hours arguing with strangers on the internet, to go around correcting misspelt signs in the dead of night, or even to threaten acts of violence? The languages we speak are central to our sense of self, so it is not surprising that their finer points can become a battleground. Passionate feelings about what’s right and wrong extend from the use of 'disinterested' to what gay people are allowed to call themselves. Here are some of the most memorable rows, spats and controversies...."

Calling the French ‘turds’ shows Boris Johnson is the eternal spoilt 15-year-old - article by Stephen Moss in The Guardian. "[The] foreigner-bashing [of Lord Palmerston] finds its modern parallel in Johnson, who has spent much of his career being beastly about those who had the misfortune not to be born British....Calling the French 'turds' for being intransigent on Brexit is a sign of Johnson’s vulgarity and stupidity. As his second-class degree suggests, his is a second-rate mind trying desperately to persuade us it is a first-rate one by using Latin tags and improper jokes. His useless, vapid books are the measure of the man. Everything that Johnson has ever said about the world is jokey, insensitive, stupid and needlessly provocative. His racism is well-rehearsed.... [His] racist remarks – set alongside equally outrageous examples of sexism and homophobia – should disqualify him as prime minister. Instead, they appear to endear him to the Tory membership, who feel an urgent need to out-Farage Farage, perhaps even to trump Trump. The US president gets away with it by being the leader of the world’s most powerful country, as Palmerston did when Britain was top dog in the 1860s. A Johnsonian UK will just look ridiculous. Xenophobia and gunboat diplomacy only really work if you have enough gunboats. Someone needs to tell Johnson that we no longer do."

Why do some people avoid news? Because they don’t trust us, or because they don’t think we add value to their lives? - article by Joshua Benton on the Nieman Lab blog, referenced in John Naughton's Observer column. "Why do people avoid news? In ... 2017 data, the leading causes for Americans were 'It can have a negative effect on my mood' (57 percent) and 'I can’t rely on news to be true' (35 percent). ... LinkedIn senior editor-at-large Isabelle Roughol ... asked readers about their own experience with news avoidance. And people left comments - comments that I think are instructive in how people who aren’t journalists view the news as a chore, increasingly one that can be skipped. ... A couple of thoughts. [1] The solutions journalism people should be sending this article to all potential funders, because the problem they’re trying to address shows up crystal clear here: News about big problems is depressing if I’m not presented with potential solutions. Regular news consumption can engender a kind of learned helplessness that make clear the appeal of ideologically slanted news - which offers up a clear cast of good guys and bad guys with no moral gray - and just avoiding news entirely. [2] These comments are also excellent evidence of the 'If the news is that important, it will find me' phenomenon.... These are people who trust that the sliver of news that’s of use to them will wind its way through social media, word of mouth, or some other distribution vector. In many cases, they may be right! And when they’re not, they probably won’t hear about it. ... Civically useful journalism is competing with every other form of media, content, or diversion on your phone. In that context, many people decide, as rational economic actors, they’re better off without us. How can we convince them otherwise?"

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Cuttings: May 2019

Why we are addicted to conspiracy theories - article by Anna Merlan in The Guardian, based on her book Republic of Lies: Conspiracy Theorists and their Surprising Rise to Power. "In July 2016, Donald Trump fans had amassed to attend the Republican national convention.... Some of the attendees were from InfoWars, the mega-empire of suspicion – a radio show, website and vastly profitable store of lifestyle products – founded by Austin, Texas-based host Alex Jones... Jones and Donald Trump were longtime mutual fans. ... The conspiracy theorists ... recognised the future president as a 'truth-teller' in a style that spoke to them and many other Americans. They liked his thoughts about a rigged system and a government working against them, the way it spoke to what they had always believed, and the neat way he was able to peg the enemy with soundbites: the 'lying media', 'crooked Hillary', the bottomless abyss of the Washington 'swamp'. They were confident of his victory – if the globalists and the new world order didn’t get in the way, and they certainly would try.... The Trump era has merely focused our attention back on to something that has reappeared with reliable persistence: the conspiratorial thinking and dark suspicions that have never fully left us. ... The elements of suspicion were present long before the 2016 election, quietly shaping the way large numbers of people see the government, the media and the nature of what’s true and trustworthy."

Who wins from public debate? Liars, bullies and trolls - article by Steven Poole in The Guardian.  "We are told debate is the great engine of liberal democracy. In a free society, ideas should do battle in the public forum. Those who seek to lead us should debate with one another, and this will help us make the best possible informed judgments. ... People whose views we find abhorrent should not be ignored. We should debate with them, and so point out the flaws in the arguments. The more we debate, the happier and more civilised we will be.... That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, modern debate has a structural bias in favour of demagoguery and disinformation. It inherently favours liars. There is no cost to, and much potential advantage in, taking the low road and indulging in bullying and personal attack. ... Online, ... the call to 'debate' is increasingly a gendered demand, made by men as a way of attacking women with whose opinions they disagree. ... Spoken debate also favours liars, who know that even if their opponent attempts to rebut them, it will often be reported as 'balance'.... Since facts aren’t the real battleground, clever debaters will operate on a different level, for instance making dark insinuations that are designed to sow doubt in the audience’s mind. ... So the art of debating is one that rewards liars and bullies, is about beating the opponent rather than finding the truth, and is structurally biased in favour of conservative bromides rather than surprising new ideas. If that’s what debate is like, perhaps we shouldn’t aspire to be good at it."

What really matters now - summary of a Martin Wolf column in the Financial Times, by John Naughton in his Memex 1.1 blog. "Starting from the undeniable fact that faith in liberal democracy is declining and that charismatic politicians are enticing people into giving them support, he addresses the question: how should liberal politicians respond? He suggests ten principles that should underpin their response. (1) Leadership matters.... (2) Competence matters.... (3) Citizenship matters.... (4) Inclusion matters.... (5) Economic reform matters. ... (6) The 'local' matters.... (7) Public services matter... (8) Managed globalisation and global cooperation also matter... (9) Looking ahead matters... (10) Complexity matters."

It Must Be Heaven: Palestine's holy fool lives the dream - review by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. "The premise for this film that [the Palestinian film-maker Elia Suleiman] is playing himself: travelling abroad from Nazareth, coming first to Paris and then to New York, trying to speak to producers about getting his latest film made.... In Paris, a trio of cops swoop around on what look like Segways, infatuated with their own performance, like ice dancers. In the US, Suleiman wanders through a supermarket and discovers people are buying automatic weapons ... Suleiman has himself said that the comically heightened visions he creates 'show the world as if it were a microcosm of Palestine'. I don’t think that is exactly what is happening in It Must Be Heaven. It is more that he is satirising the oppression, security and policing that happen everywhere in the world, but that non-Palestinians in the prosperous west, who take their freedom of movement for granted, have the luxury of taking these 'policing' facts of life casually." His comedy is usually compared to Tati and Keaton – and again this isn’t quite accurate. Tati and Keaton’s deadpan setups would almost always lead to a specific visual gag. Suleiman’s hardly ever do: they just create a quirky, preposterous, amusing contrivance, generally without a punchline, as such... But this is not the point in Suleiman’s film-making; his comedy leads to something other than a punchline, it points you in the direction of a political situation."

Fan petitions - cartoon by Tom Gauld in The Guardian, following fan petitions demanding remaking of the final season of Game of Thrones. "New ending for Beowulf. As fans, we deserve more. Beowulf should survive his battle with the dragon and go on to further adventures, maybe riding a wisecracking horse, or going into space. // Less whaling in Moby-Dick. As fans, we demand that descriptions of whaling are limited to two or three chapters. We have a long list of alternative subjects to fill out the rest of the book. // More action in Emma. As fans, we like olden-times people discussing marriage as much as anyone, but we also want seductive assassins, cursed treasure and an exploding vicarage."

Our glorious past is what we remember. The brutality behind it we’ve forgotten - article by Gary Younge in The Guardian. "'The essential characteristic of a nation is that its individuals must have many things in common,' wrote the French philosopher Ernest Renan. 'And must have forgotten many things as well.' But they do not forget passively or at random. Things do not simply slip our mind. They are actively, wilfully, determinedly, selectively, purposefully buried. The issue is not one of time. When needs be, we can reach all the way back to 1066, the last time Britain was invaded, to make sense of who we are and what we do. But somehow the atrocities in the Kenyan detention camps in the 1950s, our complicity in the Bengal famine in 1943 or, even more recently, the Iraq war elude us. Our collective sense of responsibility for and engagement in these moments is similarly fickle. People say, 'We won the war', even if they didn’t fight, or 'We won the World Cup', even if they didn’t play. Indeed, one needn’t even have been born to identify with the triumph in question. The 'we' is implicitly understood as an embrace. It spans time, place and agency. But few will ever say, in a similar vein: 'We raped people' or 'We massacred people'. For then, 'we' is understood as an accusation. In these moments, individuality becomes the ultimate alibi. 'What has that got to do with me? I wasn’t even alive then.'”

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Confessions of a teenage 903 user

(The original version of this reminiscence was written for the Centre for Computing History, which occasionally runs demonstrations of its working Elliott 903.)

In 1972, for a school to have a computer was something extraordinary. Computers then were huge and expensive things, owned mainly by universities, large corporate businesses and banks, such as The National Girobank whose TV advertisements made a big deal of the fact that it used a computer to manage its customers’ accounts. So imagine my excitement on starting secondary school that year to discover that we had a computer. And that excitement was undimmed by my first sight of the Elliott 903: a modest metal box the size of a desk, with a few smaller boxes standing on it and a teleprinter to one side. This was a long way short of the rooms full of steel cabinets with chattering line printers and whirring magnetic tape drives which I had been expecting. It was even further short of the talking and intelligent computers we knew from ‘Star Trek’ and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. But still, it was a real and actual computer, and that meant that it could be programmed to do things. The only question was how.

Fortunately I was friends with the top mathematician in my year, who had already been using the computer for some time, and he showed me how to write my first program in FORTRAN. Other pupils showed me how to use the Teletype in the outer computer room to type out my program onto punched paper tape, which was the 903’s medium for high-speed data input (high speed here meaning 250 characters per second). Making paper tapes was itself pretty exciting: each keystroke produced a row of up to eight holes representing a character in ASCII, with a complete set of holes being a null character to be ignored, enabling you to correct typing errors. (Backspacing the tape and typing Delete punched out any holes already there). Printing out the text encoded in a tape, and realising that we could use it for sending private messages, was also exciting. But of course the main thing was to get access to the 903 and to run a program.

So I went to see the teacher in charge of the computer, who solemnly signed a card authorising me to use it for up to an hour per week. (One hour! And kids today complain about limits on their screen time!) However, I was still a long way from getting my program to run. The computer wasn’t large enough to interpret high-level FORTAN programs directly; what I had to do was to load and run the FORTRAN compiler, one of the massive rolls of paper tape hanging from a pegboard beside the computer, and get it to read in my program and convert it to machine code. It took many efforts before it would do that successfully, because it kept finding syntax errors in my FORTRAN, which I had to find and correct and then remake my tape. Only when I had no syntax errors would it produce a new lot of paper tape containing my program in machine code, which I could load and run in its turn. I can’t now recall what my first program did, but I suspect it was something worthy but dull, probably solving quadratic equations using the standard formula. Whatever it was, certainly it was unmemorable and hardly worth all that effort.

You see there was what we were supposed to do with the computer and there was what we actually did with the computer, and these were two very different things. Our maths curriculum, devised by the School Mathematics Project or SMP, included computer programming, breaking calculations down into simple steps and using a made-up programming language called SMPOL to perform basic arithmetic operations on numbers in registers. The SMP textbooks featured an imaginary computer called Simon (SMPOL Simon, geddit?), but so that we could use our actual computer the maths teachers wrote a SMPOL compiler. We did try programming in SMPOL, but it was dreadful: painfully slow and deeply dull in its limited operations. Even the school’s administrative applications were more interesting: from time to time the computer was used for working out exam timetables, which was fun because it produced desk labels for each exam venue with pupils’ names spelled out on punched paper tape, and also for processing the marks from the scholarship entrance exams – which became exciting when one of my friends found paper tape containing the confidential raw marks in a waste paper bin. (He now works in data security!) We weren’t going to be limited to the curriculum; we took our inspiration from the very camp, very brilliant maths teacher who had first set up the 903 for the school and had actually been a pioneer computer scientist in the post-war years. Think about it: we were reasonably bright teenage pupils, and we had access to a computer. What do you suppose we did with it?

Of course, we wrote games. The tone was set by one of my friends, who wrote a program called Dork: the computer asked you quiz questions and called you a dork if you got the answer wrong. Not exactly Fortnite, but we thought it was funny. I followed this up with a program to write random sentences, picking words at random from a deliberately surreal vocabulary list to fit one of a number of grammatical forms: “the zombizical policeman urgently requires the fried egg” was a typical result. Then I wrote a game called Bath, which was a silly variant on one of the few games in the school’s program library. The original version was a (very simple) simulation of a moon landing; you had to set the level of thrust so as to land softly, but if you slowed too early in your descent you would run out of fuel and crash. In my version, you had to set the flow rate of hot and cold water to run a bath of a specified depth and temperature; I made it still more silly by having this be a giant’s bathtub, so the depth was measured in feet rather than inches, and there were appropriate in-game messages (“Fee, fi, fo, fum… (splash)”).

Between us, we also tried writing a game called Animal, of which we’d heard: the computer tries to guess the animal you’re thinking of by asking yes-or-no questions, such as “Can it fly?” The computer obviously has a limited number of questions and the trick is to get it to expand its capability by asking you for more information if you think of an animal it doesn’t already know. We never got that game working properly; I’m fairly sure the logic was flawed. We had more success with a program to play the colour pattern guessing game Mastermind, which was very popular at that time. To get the computer to guess your colour pattern as quickly as possible was a good challenge: the clever bit was to have it work out what guess would give it the most information. (The best first move, by the way, assuming the target pattern is chosen at random, is two pegs of one colour plus two pegs of another colour.) For the other half of the game, in which you try to guess the computer’s pattern, we sneakily made the computer cheat: as you made your guesses, it would change its target pattern so that its answer, while consistent with the answers it had given previously, would give you the least possible information to keep you guessing as long as possible.

By this time, the school had given up on trying to regulate our time using the computer. (The start and finish times we entered in the computer room Day Book were complete fiction anyway; we called it “fudging time”.) We had also given up on high-level languages such as FORTRAN and ALGOL; the compiled code was inefficient, and given the slow speed of the processor we needed all the efficiency we could get. Instead, we ended up programming exclusively in the 903’s assembler language, called Symbolic Input Routine, or SIR, which gave us the efficiency of working at the level of machine code and its 16 basic operations, but with the advantages of defined variable names which made our code comprehensible. So although we got some of our games ideas from the helpful American book 101 BASIC Computer Games, we recreated them all in SIR – partly because we didn’t have a BASIC compiler, but mainly for reasons of speed. Even using SIR, our efforts to get the computer playing draughts, let alone chess, were ultimately frustrated by the length of time the computer took to produce a move – 30 minutes or more, in the case of our chess program. Being inexperienced in systematic testing and debugging, we did not know how to deal with the long cycle time for seeing a problem, identifying its cause and making a change, so we never got these programs working properly. This did not, however, prevent us from mounting displays about them at the exhibitions of the computer room which we started putting on for school open days.

Our computer room exhibitions also featured some more serious mathematical work, given a fun visual twist. My friend the top mathematician, having read that the highest known prime number (at that time) was 2 to the power of 11213 minus 1, set out to calculate and print out that number. Of course this was more complicated than simply instructing the computer to multiply 2 by itself repeatedly; after only a few iterations the number would have been too big for the computer’s usual way of representing numbers, so he had to write a subroutine for handling numbers with very many digits. When printed out, the number took up a very long piece of paper (the teleprinter used continuous rolls), equivalent to three or four sheets of A4. Of course, we had no way of knowing whether the calculation was correct or not, so adapting a song from a much-played album of the time we used to sing:

(To the tune of ‘(Jesus Christ) Superstar’)
Powers of 2, superstar!
Do you think you’re what we say you are?

My mathematician friend also wrote a routine for plotting graphs on the teleprinter – the only kind of output we had in those pre-screen days – by printing Xs on the paper. A spectacular application of this was his graphing of a step function as a Fourier synthesis – in other words, representing it as a combination of sine waves, using more and more sine waves to get closer and closer to the square wave’s cliff edge shape. He scaled the graph so that the top part of the step was on one sheet of paper, which we mounted near the ceiling, with the straight line increasing fluctuating as it approached the cliff edge, eventually plunging downwards towards a second sheet of paper near the floor, where the bottom part of the wave continued. It was a great display; we showed how maths was fun.

What else did we show in our computer room exhibitions? Two programs from the school’s library made use of the computer’s sound generator. One tested your reaction time: after a random interval, the tone would change and you had to press a button as quickly as possible, and the computer would output on punched paper tape the time you took. The other used the sound generator to play tunes; for the exhibitions I programmed it to play Scott Joplin’s ‘The Entertainer’, which was very popular at that time because of its use in the film The Sting. We also had a program, written by our computer scientist maths teacher, to produce labels in punched tape by punching hole patterns in the shape of letters; I wrote an extended version which could also produce lower case letters and small caps, and also Greek letters for good measure.

Visually, the most striking thing we produced was a poster-sized pin-up of Joanna Lumley in her first famous role as Purdey in The New Avengers, rendered as teleprinter art. We had several examples of teleprinter art in our library, in which a picture was formed by characters of different densities printed from paper tape, greater degrees of darkness achieved through overprinting or double-overprinting; but most of these, and certainly the much-reproduced picture of Winston Churchill, had been produced by some kind of optical scanning to create the subtle shading. I produced my picture of Purdey manually, by tracing the magazine image, ruling a grid over it, and assigning a number representing one of four levels of darkness to each cell, then using a program to take this data and print the corresponding character combinations.

But the star attractions at the computer room exhibition in our final year at school was our implementation of the Star Trek resource management game SPACWR (don’t you just love six-character variable names?) which we adapted from 101 Basic Computer Games. The basic idea is that you command the USS Enterprise, engaging enemy ships in battle, the sector of space around you represented on an ASCII plot with your own ship represented by <*>, the enemy ships by +++, and stars by *. Phasers generally lock on target automatically, but cost you energy; photon torpedoes need to be aimed by setting a directional angle. You can replenish energy and weapons at starbases, represented by >!<, which you can locate with long-range sensors. I think pretty much every large computer installation in the Western world must have had a version of this game, but the beautiful thing about our implementation was that it was genuinely collaborative: one person wrote the shell, and the rest of us wrote various subroutines. I made two contributions: the first was to give the enemies a random name, phonemes being selected from a range biased towards hard and aggressive-sounding consonants, on the model of “Klingon”. (Some of the results were satisfactory, such as “Groshtak”, but others were just silly, such as “Bungon” or “Plibdad”.) My other contribution was to give the enemies a secret weapon, named from a buzzword generator which made a random choice from three sets of impressive words, giving for example “inter-phasing neutronic de-energiser”). One of the junior pupils, who we were treating as a coding apprentice, contributed a self-destruct function: if the final few enemy ships were in the same sector as yourself, you could activate your self-destruct and all the ships would be replaced by stars.

The other good thing about our implementation of this game was that we wrote it for a proper computer screen, the school at last having agreed to supplement the 903 with a visual display unit. This meant that instead of having to print out successive versions of the changing game map on the teleprinter, it could be displayed on screen and constantly refreshed. For the computer room exhibition, it also meant that we could demonstrate the game to a larger audience by connecting the VDU to an old television set in the outer room. I vividly remember, in the quieter period towards the end of the afternoon, sitting in the outer room with a couple of elderly ladies, as they watched the game in fascination, keeping up a running commentary on its progress. It was one of my happiest memories of the computer room.

Looking back at it all now, part of me regrets the things we didn’t do. We didn’t, for example, invent the text adventure, which would have been perfectly possible with the technology; Will Crowther and Don Woods developed the original Colossal Cave Adventure in 1976-77 (using FORTRAN!), though given the limited memory of the 903 we might only have managed a Very Small Cave Adventure. We didn’t write an implementation of Dungeons and Dragons, whose rules were first published by TSR in 1974 but which didn’t become well-known in the UK till a few years later; however, two of my friends did write a role-playing game called Rule the World, in which you managed money and armies to increase your political control over country after country. (I don’t know what they’re doing now, but it’s quite possible that they’re at the top of one of the international companies or financial institutions which really do rule the world.) And we didn’t have the greater speed and memory of microprocessors, which would change the world of computing completely. It was while stopping at a motorway service station during a post-A-levels school trip in the hot summer of 1976 that we saw and played our first micro-powered arcade machines – the tank battle, the dogfight and the cowboy gunfight; it was a glimpse of the future, and we were blown away.

But much more than that, I’m glad for what we did do and grateful that we had the chance to do it: grateful to the benefactor whose bequest enabled the school to buy the computer, grateful to the teachers who inspired us and then left us to get on with it, grateful to my friends with whom I learned and laughed. I’m grateful that I learned to operate computers in an era when you could appreciate the physicality of the technology: an era when you acquired the reflex of touching a radiator before handling the machine to avoid disrupting it with a static shock, when you patched the tape reader with small pieces of Sellotape to overcome its mechanical shortcomings. I’m grateful that I became a “digital native” decades before the concept was coined, and so was unthreatened by the idea that a younger generation might have a computer-facility that I lacked. But above all, I’m grateful that I learned to treat computers with familiarity, instead of with awe and reverence, or fear and terror, as did most people at the time. When I saw the film Alien in 1980, I was astonished to see Sigourney Weaver operating her computer while drinking coffee and resting a foot on the console; never before had a computer in a science fiction film been treated so casually, as literally part of the furniture. That, I had learned, was the proper attitude to take to computers. They were there; sometimes they worked, often they didn’t, and you just had to get along with them. That attitude has served me well in later life.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Cuttings: April 2019

To understand the far right, look to their bookshelves - article by Elif Shafak in The Guardian. "The radical right has seeped into the mainstream. A new breed of populist demagogue has arisen, with no care for facts, reason or data. Yet alongside this has been a silent shift: the emergence of a radical rightwing intelligentsia. With their books and talks they bridge the less-educated groups on the margins and the world of letters. A new publishing trend has emerged, and part of its task is to rewrite history. In 2018, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s memoir Son of the Nation ... sold out [in France] even before it arrived in bookshops. The book was, among other things, an attempt to rewrite the past, particularly the Vichy era. Nazi sympathisers in the Vichy government were romanticised as true French patriots. ...The Turner Diaries, a dystopian novel regarded as the bible of the far right, is a 1978 novel by WL Pierce (writing as Andrew Macdonald). It depicts a future society where white Americans have been subdued by non-white minorities. ... Anti-feminism and gender bias echo throughout the works of the Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson. Packaging age-old reactionary machismo with sophisticated, academic language, he is the perfect intellectual icon for young, discontented men involved in the radical right."

If you can’t embrace regional dialect, you can kiss my chuddies - article by Katy Guest in The Guardian. "In a rare piece of happy news to distract us momentarily from all the chaos, those lovely linguists at the Oxford English Dictionary have announced an abundance of new words all taken from regional dialects. The new entries include the Indian-English phrase 'kiss my chuddies'; the delicious word 'jibbons', which is what spring onions are called in Wales; and the Scottish words 'sitooterie', which is (obviously) a place to sit out, and 'bidie-in' ('a person who lives with his or her partner in a non-marital relationship'), which surely should have been in the dictionary ages ago, since the author Val McDermid, a fine connoisseur of the English language, uses it in her Twitter bio.... The OED promises to continue its search for regional terms, showcasing all the diverse glory of British English, as well as reminding us of everything we have in common – our wit, our ingenuity, our endless enthusiasm for a bum metaphor."

Why feedback is never worthwhile - article by Oliver Burkeman in his 'This column will change your life' column in The Guardian. "In their forthcoming book, Nine Lies About Work, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall make a startling claim, with implications far beyond the workplace: they argue that giving people feedback – in the sense of telling them what you think they’re doing right or wrong, and how to do it better – is never worthwhile. .... Buckingham and Goodall don’t just claim you should keep that knowledge to yourself: they claim that you don’t possess it, and that, in fact, you probably don’t know how a failing employee (or infuriating husband, or whatever) could most effectively change. It’s an old cliche of marital advice that you should use 'I-statements' rather than 'you-statements', telling the other person how their behaviour makes you feel, rather than attacking them for being selfish and incompetent. The standard rationale is that you-statements cause people to respond defensively. But another is that you’re a terrible judge of whether someone is selfish or incompetent. As Buckingham writes: 'The only realm in which humans are an unimpeachable source of truth is that of their own feelings and experiences.'”

Tom Gauld on the famous six-word story - cartoon by Tom Gauld in The Guardian. "Recently discovered! Further instalments of the six-word story. // For sale: baby shoes. Never worn. // Don't worry, the baby is fine. // We just bought too many shoes. // It turns out that babies don't // need to wear shoes that often."

Why smart people are more likely to believe fake news - article by David Robson in The Guardian, based on his book The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things and How to Make Wiser Decisions. "We can ... see how misinformation can be engineered to bypass logical thinking and critical questioning. But do intelligence and education protect us against false claims? ... Consider the 'birther' theory that Barack Obama was not born in the US. This has been debunked time and time again, but it became highly ingrained in many people’s political ideology. And greater brainpower did not prevent them from believing the story; indeed, it actually increased their credulity. A study by Ashley Jardina at Duke University in North Carolina, for instance, ... found that beliefs in the birther theory were strongest among the participants with the greatest political knowledge.... Somehow, their greater knowledge simply allowed them to dismiss the new information and harden their attitudes.... This new understanding of misinformation should change the way we go about debunking falsehoods. In the past, the assumption was that you could present people with the facts and they would eventually sink in. Instead, some experts studying misinformation now favour a form of 'inoculation'.... Rather than tackling the claims [of climate change deniers] head on, Cook and Lewandowsky first showed the participants a report on the tobacco industry’s previous attempts to spread misinformation, which also included the use of fake experts to cast doubt on the scientific research that linked smoking to lung cancer. The strategy worked a treat."

'It is a religion': how the world went mad for Moomins - article by Lisa Allardice in The Guardian. "The Moomins and the Great Flood, the first in the novel series, begins with Moominmamma and Moomintroll looking for a place to live after they have been forced to leave their home behind the stove due to the advent of central heating (progress!). They are also searching for poor Moominpappa, feared drowned. The next, Comet in Moominland, tells how the family shelter from what threatens to be nothing less than the end of their world. In both books, we encounter boatloads of “small, pale creatures”, the Hattifatteners, doomed to wander from place to place, and 'crowds of fleeing creatures'. Originally published in 1945 and 46, but begun in 1939, those first two books were Jansson’s attempt to escape the terror of the second world war.... Mamma and Pappa were clearly based on Jansson’s own parents, ... determinedly liberal bohemians, who seemed happy to conform to traditional gender roles – although it was her mother who actually put food on the table. As with the Moominhouse, their doors were always open to a succession of colourful visitors. ... Finn Family Moomintroll, the third breakout book and still the most popular, published in 1948, is a much brighter affair. It is here that we encounter the inseparable Thingumy and Bob, carrying around a suitcase containing a secret ruby, to them 'the most beautiful thing in the world', believed to represent Jansson and her lover at the time, theatre director Vivica Bandler. (Homosexuality was illegal in Finland until 1971). ... The final novel Moominvalley in November (1970), the saddest of them all, [was] written just after the death of Jansson’s mother. 'It is a book about death, really' [says Mark Huckerby,, scriptwriter of the new animated adaptation], 'And about the loss of the Moomins. They aren’t even in it as the main characters. It’s a book in which everyone is waiting for them to return.' It is this strangely comforting combination of catastrophe and everyday cosiness that makes the Moomins so enchanting and enduring."

I was born black and working class. The identities need not be in opposition - article by David Olusoga in The Guardian. "Talking about class and identity can be as divisive as talking about race and racism. I am as much British, white and working class, my mother’s background, as I am black and Nigerian, my father’s heritage.... For me, staking a claim to the regional and class elements of my identity, and maintaining strong links to the place I grew up in, was a conscious decision. ... But what I once regarded as a personal choice, an act of self-identification, ... is increasingly viewed as a political stance or even an act of cultural appropriation. When black and mixed-race people claim their working-class identities, they now have to confront a strain of political thinking that asserts that only white people can be working class and that the 'white working class' is a group that has been assailed by minorities and betrayed by a 'metropolitan liberal elite' that cares only about minorities and race. This way of thinking strips non-white people of their class identities. It also denies basic historical and economic reality. For 70 years, people of all races in Britain have shared the same economic struggles. Despite racism, they have in many cases done so together, forging friendships, relationships and interracial families. As a result, working-class people are a diverse group."

Appeasing Hitler by Tim Bouverie: how Britain fell for a delusion - review by Andrew Rawnsley in The Guardian. "There were plenty of people in the British ruling class who were appalled by Hitler and apprehended that he was a menace. Yet most of them trembled before the threat rather than take the necessary actions. One anxiety was that Britain had few allies. America had turned isolationist. To much of the British political class, Stalin’s Soviet Union was even more dangerous than Nazism. ... Another paralysing fear was of public opinion. ... A country deeply scarred by the 1914-18 conflict with the Germans had no appetite for another one. There was particular terror of the carnage that could be inflicted on civilian populations by aerial bombing. It became convenient for Britons to later forget that appeasement was highly popular with most of them right up to the point when Hitler’s invasion of Poland revealed the magnitude of the error. Chamberlain was widely proclaimed a masterful statesman when he came back from Munich in 1938 with his infamous piece of paper promising 'peace for our time'. In a flagrant abuse of his constitutional position, George VI invited the prime minister on to the balcony of Buckingham Palace to receive the cheers of the crowds thronging the Mall. They sang Rule Britannia and For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow."

Robinson Crusoe at 300: why it’s time to let go of this colonial fairytale - article by Charles Boyle in The Guardian. "A chauvinistic take on Robinson Crusoe, a very selective obsession with the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, and complete isolation from the opposite sex: at the posh end of the education system [in the 19th and early 20th centuries], an end that for generations was reserved exclusively for boys, this was a toxic mix. Long after the British empire had crumbled, it was a recipe designed to perpetuate the racism, sexism and unearned entitlement on which the empire had subsisted. Robinson Crusoe’s place in this mix was abetted by its status as (arguably) the first English novel and by the status accorded to literature within the culture. Simple in design, with strong contrasting colours overriding any psychological shading, Crusoe became a flag for empire and travelled in the luggage of merchants, missionaries and generals."

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Seen and heard: January to March 2019

Gemini Rue - classic lo-fi point-and-click sci-fi noir adventure game. Just shows what can be done with simple technology, if you have really good story-telling, dialogue and voice-acting. (See this review.)

Middle England - Brexit novel from the clever and compassionate Jonathan Coe, ingeniously tracking characters first introduced in the 70s-set The Rotters Club through the events of the last seven years, and into the future. Frightening but convincing in its account of how Brexit has set neighbour against neighbour, as well as unleashing at the political level the hostilities previously confined to the Conservative Party.

The Children Act - Top performance (career best?) from Emma Thompson as a family court judge, presiding over a case of a nearly-but-not-quite adult Jehovah’s Witness refusing a life-saving blood transfusion, which brings up long-suppressed tensions in her own life and marriage. Great support from Stanley Tucci as her long-suffering husband.

Blowing the Bloody Doors Off - lessons from life by Michael Caine: a fun and easy collection of stories from the veteran film actor, whose talents as a master raconteur were revealed for many of us in his BBC acting masterclass. Many men of posher background should be ashamed of their lack of the gentlemanly courtesy and respect shown here.

Grantchester / Call the Midwife / Endeavour – It’s very confusing switching between these three shows at the moment, because Grantchester is currently set around 1960, Midwife in 1964, and Endeavour in 1969: only a few years apart though significantly different in cultural historical terms. It’s also weird to watch historical dramas set in a period which I can remember – and to realise that probably none of the people involved in making them can.

Life is Strange - a milestone in adventure games, partly for its deep characterisation, continually surprising storyline and rich environments (to explore or not, as you choose) but mainly for its convincing portrayal of friendship between two teenage girls (entirely authentic, I am informed by a female reviewer) surely unprecedented in the history of video games. As an indicator of its power, the immersion in the high school setting, with its bullies and snobs and authoritarian staff or step-parents, was so vivid that I began to get genuinely frightened and alarmed at the prospect of confrontation; even though I’m now aged sixty and a senior manager, the game took me straight back to that age of relative powerlessness. The game is great to play, with echoes of the classic The Longest Journey (art student protagonist, opening in which a nightmare dream gives way to college reality, constant balancing of the mundane with the supernatural), but it's Max (Maxine) and Chloe who make the game sing.

Monty Don’s Japanese Gardens - a two-part (spring and autumn) visit to celebrated Japanese gardens and gardeners, from Monty Don whose own televisual style has a touch of the Zen master about it.

Travelling Blind - extraordinary documentary following the blind Amar Latif in his tour of Turkey, accompanied by (sighted) comedian Sara Pascoe. She has no experience in guiding or describing for blind people and is a risk-averse traveller, so there is a lot for her (and us) to learn.

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Cuttings: March 2019

Power to the people: could a citizens’ assembly solve the Brexit crisis? - article by Leo Benedictus in The Guardian. "In the summer of 1978, George Bishop and a team of researchers in Cincinnati, Ohio, conducted a poll on some of the big political topics of the day. One question went as follows: 'Some people say that the 1975 Public Affairs Act should be repealed. Do you agree or disagree with this idea?' It turned out that 16% did agree, and 18% didn’t. This was surprising. There should have been no controversy about the 1975 Public Affairs Act because it did not exist. The study, Pseudo-Opinions on Public Affairs, became a classic of political science. It has been rerun in different versions several times: in 1983, 1984, 1995 and 2013, always with similar results. Around a third of people will pretend to have an opinion, unless you make it easy to say 'don’t know'. If you say that 'President Obama' or 'the Republicans' want to repeal the Public Affairs Act, even more opinions appear, along partisan lines.... In November last year, Gordon Brown suggested that [a citizen's] assembly might resolve the Brexit crisis. Last month, Damon Albarn, Rowan Williams and a number of other public figures wrote an open letter to the Guardian in support, and the idea now has this newspaper’s backing. ... In 2016, for instance, when Ireland decided to reconsider its abortion laws, ... parliament established a citizens’ assembly of 99 randomly selected Irish citizens, who would reflect the national balance of age, gender, class and region. They would be chaired by a supreme court judge (now retired), Mary Laffoy. No politicians would be involved."

Actually, the rich pay lots of tax. But on income, not their wealth - article by Patrick Collinson in The Guardian. "In London, ... the city has 4.2 million income tax payers, but just 87,000 individuals earning over £200,000 a year paid nearly half the £43.8bn income tax raised in the capital.... Those London bankers, lawyers and their ilk paid more income tax in 2016-17 than the entire sum raised from every income tax payer in Scotland and Wales combined. None of this is a plea on behalf of the rich.... While as a country we tax the incomes of PAYE employees relatively heavily, we leave the enormous wealth of the truly rich, much of it accumulated through property gains, largely untouched. The great triumph of the rich is that they have persuaded the average person to vote against taxes on wealth, such as inheritance tax, and taxes on property – such as a land valuation tax or even a properly progressive council tax."

The artist in the machine – cartoon by Tom Gauld in The Guardian, after an AI attempts to write as George Orwell and Jane Austen. "The novel-writing algorithm has not written a novel yet. But it has written a series of emails to its editor claiming to be 'nearly there' and promising to finish 'really soon'."

Philippa Perry: ‘Listen carefully, parents, and don’t despair’ - interview by Robyn Wilder in The Guardian. "I’ve come to talk to Perry about her new manual, The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did).... Much of the book’s inspiration, she tells me, ... came from what she saw in her 20-plus-years of practising psychotherapy. 'Most of my clients did not have abusive parents. They had kind, nice, well-meaning parents who – because no one had told them it was important – couldn’t attune to their children. So their children felt lonely and the loneliness sort of grew into depression. And I thought: All this mirroring and validating of feelings that I’m doing in this relationship, now, to put this person back on track – wouldn’t it be great if the parents did it themselves? If parents could do this from the off, surely I could give up being a psychotherapist – and arrange flowers instead.' Would she like to arrange flowers? 'Oh God, no.'”

Four Words for Friend by Marek Kohn: why language matters more than ever - review by Steven Poole in The Guardian. "Is the British disdain for foreign languages partly responsible for the cliff-bound clown car that is Brexit? 'Among the many asymmetries that worked to Britain’s disadvantage in its negotiations to leave the European Union,' this study suggests, 'was the 27 other nations’ fluent grasp of the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, unmatched by any corresponding British familiarity with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or Bild.'... To know another language is also to know more about how others think, since some weakened version of the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – that different languages, because they carve up the world in different ways, cause speakers to perceive and think differently – is almost certainly true. Hence the book’s title: in Russian, one is obliged to specify one of four levels of closeness when referring to a friend. Other examples abound of subtle differences that influence thought: Turkish has 'evidential grammar', according to which one must mark whether the information one is conveying is first-hand or not. This might be useful if forcibly adopted on social media."

Road signs for a gothic novel - cartoon by Tom Gauld in The Guardian. "Ghostly figures crossing. Tunnel closed due to ancient curse. Beware of low-flying monstrosities. No stopping on moonlit nights. Fog-shrouded castle ahead. Give way to headless horsemen."

Mary Warnock obituary in The Guardian - "A consummate chair, she was skilled at giving people rein in discussion ... , knowing exactly how long to let the members debate an issue and when to insist that the time had come to reach a conclusion. She also knew when to postpone troublesome issues so that, as one of the demurrers on the fertilisation report conceded: 'When you came back you’d be surprised at how far the block had melted away.' The human fertilisation committee (1982-84) [which she chaired] was one on which feelings ran high, above all on the issues of embryo research and surrogate motherhood. Warnock believed that morality involves the engagement of feeling and that those dealing with public morality should respect ordinary people’s moral intuitions. She somehow managed more or less to satisfy the conflicting claims of science and religion."

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Cuttings: February 2019

What’s the best way to halt the march of urban decay? Playing SimCity - column by John Naughton in The Observer. "The only computer game I’ve ever played ... was called SimCity and involved developing a virtual city from a patch of undeveloped land. The game enabled you to determine where to place development zones, infrastructure (like roads and power plants), landmarks and public services such as schools, parks, hospitals and fire stations. You could decide the tax rate, budget and social policy for your city – populated by Sims (for “simulated persons”, I guess) who had to live and work in the three zones you created for them: residential had houses and apartment buildings, commercial had shops and offices and industrial had factories, warehouses, laboratories and (oddly) farms.... What you discovered early on ... was that your decisions had consequences. Forget a fire station and one day a fire would get out of control and raze a city block. Set taxes too high and the inhabitants might emigrate. What you were learning was your city was a dynamic system in which hidden feedback loops determined its behaviour and apparently innocuous policy ideas had unanticipated consequences.... It’s at least 20 years since I played the game and I had more or less forgotten about it. But last week, I stumbled on Model Metropolis, a remarkable essay by Kevin Baker, a science historian. Baker answers a question I’d sometimes thought about (but never answered) when playing SimCity: where did the theoretical model underpinning its feedback dynamics come from?... The answer is Jay Forrester, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology technocrat... Forrester called [his] model 'urban dynamics', declaring that he had reduced the problems of the city to a series of 150 equations and 200 parameters. ... Some of his simulations produced alarming conclusions, suggesting, for example, that the worst thing you can do for a city that is beginning to decay at its core is to build affordable public housing: that just attracts more poor people, erodes the tax base and sends the city into a death spiral... [It is not] clear how much of Forrester’s urban model was incorporated into SimCity. But with hindsight it’s suddenly clear why it often seemed impossible – at least to this player – to design planning policies that embodied social justice. In fact, the most successful policies always seemed to be ones that maximised economic growth. Perhaps this was a measure of my incompetence. Or was it just a reminder that the technological is now political too?"

Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There by Rutger Bregman – review by Will Hutton in The Guardian. "Medieval idealists imagined a land of plenty – Cockaigne – where rivers ran with wine, everyone was equal and partied and drank all their lives. The trouble with today’s liberals – witness Hillary Clinton or any of Labour’s recent past or present leadership – is that they have lost any comparable vision, however far-fetched or unrealistic. Utopia has become the preserve of the right. It is Mr Trump and Mr Farage who dream of a world of America and Britain first, revelling in low taxes and little or no state, liberated from the dark forces of the UN, World Trade Organisation and the EU. The liberal left, declares Rutger Bregman, a 28-year-old Dutch historian, has no comparable vision. Working family tax credits or spending 0.7% of GDP on aid simply don’t cut it. Liberals can hardly inspire themselves, let alone the electorate. Gone is a belief in socialism, science, great international institutions or even a willingness to experiment with new ways of living. But if this is the book’s big insight, much of the rest fluctuates from the genuinely challenging to politically correct tosh. ... So what about other utopias if those offered by Bregman are pie in the sky? Why not try to inject some moral purpose into today’s capitalism? Couldn’t ordinary people band together into newly legitimate trade unions to insist on better and more rewarding work? And how about creating a union of neighbouring states on our continent? We could call it the European Union. You may not dream the same dreams as Bregman – but he invites you to take dreaming seriously. For that alone, this book is worth a read.

The Money Saving Expert: how Martin Lewis became the most trusted man in Britain - article by Daniel Cohen in The Guardian. "At a time when money has become the measure of everything – when people often think of themselves as consumers rather than citizens – Lewis has become the most trusted man in Britain. In 2015, seven months before the EU referendum, a poll found that 71% of people trusted him when he talked about Europe, putting him ahead of any other public figure. He has achieved that status through an unusual combination of journalism, campaigning and light entertainment, without falling victim to the public’s suspicion of journalists, campaigners and entertainers... Lewis’s success depends on the trust he has built with the public, and he tends to this like an anxious parent... Lewis applies that same care to his campaigns and public pronouncements. He has based his career on just about the last thing we all have in common: the wish to save money. And he tends not to weigh in on the most contentious issues of the day, for fear of dividing opinion and undermining his sway.... With his fiery rhetoric, his efforts to defend the little guy against vested interests, Lewis may look like a populist. But, at heart, he has a technocratic temperament: he identifies specific problems, and tries to solve them with tweaks. On the rare occasions when he does speak out, it’s because he has decided the system has stopped working properly. Lewis is, in short, a centrist – perhaps the only truly popular centrist in Britain. Instead of seeking structural change, his formula combines educating the public with campaigning for small adjustments to the system. But at a time of growing inequality, with politicians unwilling or unable to hold corporations to account, is this enough? What is needed, the economist John Kay told me, 'is not more information from the financial services industry, but actually an industry that is trustworthy and reliable'. The question remains whether Lewis’s approach is the best we can hope for, or a distraction from real change.

The class pay gap: why it pays to be privileged - article by Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison in The Guardian. "[The] idea of a 'following wind', a gust of privilege, gets to the heart of what we call the class ceiling. It neatly captures the propulsive power provided by an advantaged class background – how it acts as an energy-saving device that allows some to get further with less effort... Equally, the metaphor also describes the experience of the upwardly mobile who, very often, have the wind against them. It is not that such individuals cannot move forward, or never reach the top; just that, generally, it takes longer, happens less frequently and often represents a markedly more labour-intensive, even exhausting experience. ... The key issue is that when the following wind of privilege is misread as merit, the inequalities that result are legitimised. This leads those who have been fortunate to believe they have earned it on their own, and those who have been less fortunate to blame themselves.... Most academics, policymakers, charities and businesses have tended to make [the] mistake [of fixating on access], implicitly suggesting that the baggage of our class origins somehow disappears once we enter the workplace. We wanted to shift the debate – from getting in to getting on. And what we found was striking. In contemporary Britain, it quite literally pays to be privileged. Even when those from working-class backgrounds are successful in entering the country’s elite occupations, they go on to earn, on average, £6,400 less than colleagues whose parents did 'middle-class' professional or managerial jobs – a nearly 16% class pay gap. This is exacerbated for women, people with disabilities, and most ethnic minorities."

The country I walked through deserves better than Brexit - article by Mike Carter in The Guardian. "In May 2016, a few weeks before the EU referendum, I walked 340 miles from Liverpool to London to see what was happening to my country.... People in those former industrial towns spoke of their anger and betrayal, of having being forgotten by Westminster politicians, of their communities having been destroyed as the manufacturing that had sustained them either folded or moved to low-wage economies. Nearly everyone I spoke to in those towns said they were going to vote for Brexit. There was a lot of talk of 'taking back control', and in the context of the industrial wastelands, that sentiment made a lot of sense. But the EU issue was, for a majority, a proxy for their pain.... In Nuneaton (66% leave), I met a man who reeled off the names of closed-down factories like you might your football team’s greatest all-time XI ... and told me he would be voting out in the EU referendum. But that might make the economy even more precarious, I said. He paused for a moment, narrowed his eyes. 'If the economy goes down the toilet,' he said, at least those bastards [in London] will finally know what it feels like to be us.' ... If you asked the vast majority of people what they want, they would say that essential services should be renationalised ... . They want properly funded health and education services, and to live in a country where they are not afraid to grow old or sick. They want jobs with meaning and value and security. They want to feel that politicians are in charge, not their corporate paymasters. And many, whether progressives like it or not, want a conversation about immigration. Brexit will deliver none of this. As driven by the right, it is the final part of the race to the bottom that started 40 years ago."

New AI fake text generator may be too dangerous to release, say creators - article by Alex Hern in The Guardian. "The creators of a revolutionary AI system that can write news stories and works of fiction – dubbed 'deepfakes for text' – have taken the unusual step of not releasing their research publicly, for fear of potential misuse.... The AI system is fed text, anything from a few words to a whole page, and asked to write the next few sentences based on its predictions of what should come next.... When used to simply generate new text, GPT2 is capable of writing plausible passages that match what it is given in both style and subject. It rarely shows any of the quirks that mark out previous AI systems, such as forgetting what it is writing about midway through a paragraph, or mangling the syntax of long sentences.... That quality, however, has also led OpenAI to go against its remit of pushing AI forward and keep GPT2 behind closed doors for the immediate future while it assesses what malicious users might be able to do with it.... OpenAI made one version of GPT2 with a few modest tweaks that can be used to generate infinite positive – or negative – reviews of products. Spam and fake news are two other obvious potential downsides, as is the AI’s unfiltered nature . As it is trained on the internet, it is not hard to encourage it to generate bigoted text, conspiracy theories and so on."

Picture books for young billionaires - cartoon by Tom Gauld in The Guardian. "The Very Wealthy Caterpiller. Spot's Offshore Trust. The Cat in the Private Jet. The Tax Consultant who Came to Tea. Frog and Toad are Rich."