Of Giants and Donkeys

According to the Sunday Times, the pending General Election will be “the battle of the Svengalis” (paywall) – between Dominic Cummings and Seamus Milne.

Unsurprisingly, Brexit limbo and #GE2019 was THE theme for the SmallDataForum as we recorded episode 30 on All Hallows Day 2019, otherwise known as #NoBrexitDay.

And since the PM whisperer has so much more of a public profile than his equivalent for the leader of Her Majesty’s opposition, it was Dominic “Machiavelli” Cummings, rather than the invisible man (paywall) behind Jeremy Corbyn, who enjoyed our full attention. Or at least mine.

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Back to the Future

When Rome teetered on the brink of democratic collapse in the first century BCE, as it prepared – unknowingly – to move from a form of notional democracy to imperial rule, three men came together to save the ever-expanding city state and advance their political careers.

Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus – the swashbuckler, the strategist, and the finance guy – effectively took power under emergency measures. Known collectively as the First Triumvirate, they made mistakes along the way, and were all – eventually – stabbed in either the front or the back.

And as we live today in extraordinary, turbulent times, I’m certain that the classicists’ classicist Mary Beard will be along with a BBC series to draw parallels soon.

There are two troubles with classical references and analogies, from both history and mythology.

The first is that two societies, 2,000 years apart, separated by the Dark Ages, Medieval Times, the Renaissance, and the four revolutions – from agricultural to industrial, technological to digital – are just quite literally incomparable.

The second is down to the current – at time of writing – incumbent of Number 10 Downing Street. Prime Minister Cummings – sorry Johnson – has a long track record of using classical allusions to spice up but ultimately bamboozle his public with his application of erudition. Most recently, he compared himself to Prometheus, the demi-god who stole fire from the gods and gave it to man, but was punished for eternity by being lashed to a rock and having his liver pecked out by vultures.

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Summertime Special

In England’s distant past, long before the spread of wealth and the explosive growth of the middle classes, holidays were a rarity. Overseas holidays were unheard of, except for those gilded few who’d grown fat on the Empire and took a ‘grand tour’ of Europe for months at a time, or else went off to add new lands to said Empire.

The closest most workers got to any kind of holiday was being taken in a charabanc to the nearest seaside resort, where enforced fun would be had on piers stretching out into coastal waters. One of the highlights of such a visit would be an end-of-the-pier show, where metropolitan idols would perform song-and-dance, music hall routines for the masses. The shows were often billed as Summertime Specials.

In the world of the Small Data Forum podcast, this latest episode – 28 already – is our equivalent of an end of the pier show, our very own Summertime Special. As regular listeners will know, Thomas, Neville, and Sam don’t meet together IRL all that often. But in a tradition stretching back – ooh – as long as last December, last week we three braved metaphorical thunder, lightning, and rain to meet again at our favourite pre-pod haunt, Olivelli in the Cut, Waterloo, London.

Suitably stoked by pizza, pasta, and a surprisingly modest couple of bottles of Nero d’Avola, we set about our task of looking at the uses and abuses of data big and small in business, politics, and public life. But for only the third time in the three years we’ve been recording the podcast we did it in person.

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When April Fool’s meets Groundhog Day

So this is the episode when the three stooges of the SmallDataForum were meant to reflect wistfully on what was Great Britain exiting Greater Europe.

The irony of recording this on April Fool’s Day wasn’t lost on us.

Brexit Fool’s day is every day, these days. Our resident classicist Sam even managed to squeeze in Juvenal’s Satire VI, and even though the reference was in regard to another April Fool’s – Facebook regulation, haha – Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes might just as well mean “who regulates the regulators?”

Ah – wouldn’t that be The Great British Electorate? Well, they have spoken, just over 1,000 days ago. And what they said, means what it means. Fool’s Day and any other day.

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To regulate, or not to regulate, that is the question…

“We can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.“ So the famous US Supreme Court Justice and ‘crusader for social justice’ and breaker-upper of Gilded Age monopolies, Louis D. Brandeis is said to have said, perhaps sometimes in the early 1930s.

Today, perhaps the best-known neo-Brandeisian anti-trust advocate is Tim Wu, Columbia law professor, ‘father of net neutrality’ and author of a series of books likening today’s commercial excesses – in particular in the digital space – to the ‘Gilded Age’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Of course, it is not really an either-or debate. It’s a complex and convoluted, tangled web of interests and angles, and any claimant of simple solutions has likely got a degree from snake oil university.

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