Inherent Vice?

Everything about Equifax’s inept handling of its massive data breach in September suggested that the credit bureau had put no time or effort into planning for how to respond to such an incident. From accidentally publicising a phishing website aimed at affected consumers to forcing people who used the company’s credit monitoring service to waive their rights to sue it for failing to protect their information, Equifax gave the impression it had no plan in place for dealing with a major security breach. But in one respect the company was prepared: it had insurance. More »

Internalising Borders

The Ehang 184 is a Chinese-produced taxi drone that has begun tests in Dubai of trips up to ten miles long. When it arrives on the market, each one will probably cost its private hire operator between $200,000 and $300,000. But prices fall almost as fast the technology improves. According to Paul Rigby, the CEO of Consortiq, a drone consultancy firm, you can now buy for £500 a drone with capabilities that in an equivalent model five years ago would have set you back £10,000. In five years’ time, Rigby says, there’ll probably be drones that can carry a person two hundred miles before the batteries need to be recharged. Uber foresees a day when a 50-mile drone taxi flight from the São Paulo suburb of Campinas to the city centre will cost the equivalent of $24.

Refugees who can afford it currently pay thousands of dollars to escape war zones and make the uncertain journey to a place of greater safety in Europe. In the future, perhaps some of them will be able to travel by drone: More »

Can’t you take a bit of sexual assault?

To mark the 60th anniversary of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Michael Gove and Neil Kinnock were interviewed by John Humphrys about the experience of being interviewed by John Humphrys on the Today programme. In the live broadcast from the Wigmore Hall on Saturday, they were happy to go along with the myth of the 8.10 interview and show their willingness to play the game of politics hard and with good humour. ‘Coming into the studio with you, John,’ Gove said, ‘is a bit like going into Harvey Weinstein’s bedroom.’ There was laughter from much of the studio audience and applause from some. Not to be outdone, Kinnock said: ‘John goes way past groping – way past groping.’ Cue more laughter. Beyond the Wigmore Hall, there was outrage at Gove’s treatment of sexual violence as an opportunity for a chummy witticism; he soon apologised ‘unreservedly’ for his ‘clumsy attempt at humour’. In the furore, the BBC continued to report that Michael Gove had made a joke about Harvey Weinstein.

It’s worth looking more closely at Gove’s queasy analogy (the remark clearly wasn’t off the cuff). More »

Interplanetary Gold Rush

Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, has said he expects to see the first delivery of cargo to Mars using his new Interplanetary Transport System as early as 2022, with the first manned mission following two years later. A manned mission to Mars may sound implausible, but so did just about everything else that Musk’s company has achieved in the last fifteen years. More »

Return to Gdańsk

Like Neal Ascherson, I recently revisited Gdańsk. The last time I was there was in August 1983, three years after the Gdańsk Agreement, the Communist Party’s abortive deal with the Solidarity trade union movement. Protests were expected. I was 19, and still had a few weeks left before university. It seemed sensible to lend a hand.

I was detained several times by the ZOMO riot police, and once found myself marching beside Lech Wałęsa. But it was a lull in the action that came to mind most often last week. At one point in 1983, as protesters around me contemptuously tossed złoty coins towards ZOMO officers, a wall of shields advanced and we were all swept into a subway. Smiling nervously at a priest who ended up next to me, I heard him murmur something like a prayer. When I explained that I spoke only English, his eyes widened. ‘England?’ he repeated. Reaching for my wavy black hair, he pressed a curl between his fingers. ‘But you are … nigger?’ More »

Ironies of American History

James Comey has confirmed that he’s the man who’s been calling himself Reinhold Niebuhr on Twitter. David Bromwich wrote about Niebuhr (1892-1971) and his book The Irony of American History in the LRB in 2008:

Irony can turn into tragedy, and Niebuhr addressed that possibility in the last sentence of his book: ‘If we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.’

In Tlayacapan

‘Here, the dead are more alive than ever,’ the ad on the radio said. ‘That’s why I love Mexico.’ I was on my way to Tlayacapan, one of Mexico’s pueblos mágicos, a category invented to promote tourism. Tourism is down in this magic village. Located near the epicentre of the earthquake of 19 September, in Morelos state, south-west of the capital, it experienced the worst impact in living memory. There are husks of adobe homes on every street, most of the churches are damaged, and the town hall clock tower fell; the arches where the last scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was filmed are still standing, pocked and scuffed as if after a gun battle. I saw a sign flapping taped to a gate: ‘Careful with the wall.’ A woman was organising a tequio, the old indigenous form of community labour, to make adobe bricks. Scrawled in purple all the way across a yellow house, its outbuildings now tidied into piles of rubble, was: ‘Thanks to everyone for your help.’ The state is nowhere to be seen, apparently. More »

Sovereignty or Power

On 29 March 2019, unless the European Council unanimously decides otherwise, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union and a new trading arrangement between the EU and the UK will come into effect. If no bespoke deal is approved, trading arrangements will be conducted on World Trade Organisation terms. The UK will also lose any arrangements to which it is a party through the EU: there are more than 750. This is one reason the UK’s negotiating position with the EU is asymmetrical: even if ‘no deal’ harms both sides’ trade, it will be much worse for the UK. More »

Pentonville Stays Open

The head of the Prison and Probation Service announced last week that plans to close old prisons are being put on hold because of an unexpected spike in the population; the increase looks set to continue over the next few years. The news was almost immediately displaced by a ‘disturbance’ at HMP Long Lartin in Worcestershire, one of the eight high secure prisons in England and Wales.

Eighty men, most of them serving life sentences, took over a wing, attacking staff with pool balls; the specialist Tornado riot team was sent in; order was restored and the damage assessed. Such events are rare in the high secure estate because it’s better resourced than its medium and low secure counterparts. Of course a riot makes the news. But it plays into the one-dimensional fantasies we have of prison: staff and prisoners swapping roles as thugs and victims, abuse of the oppressed, powder kegs of danger. More »

Heavy Water

‘Iranian regime has committed multiple violations of the agreement,’ Donald Trump said last week. ‘For example, on two separate occasions, they have exceeded the limit of 130 metric tons of heavy water.’

In 1931, the American physical chemist Harold Urey discovered deuterium, the isotope of hydrogen that has a neutron in its nucleus along with a proton. He manufactured some ‘heavy water’ (D2O) and, I think, drank some. Heavy water remained an interesting laboratory phenomenon until the Second World War, when it took on new importance since it plays a role in the production of plutonium, which does not exist naturally on earth. More »

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