The Braindump Blog

Reliving the story of Britain's shortest-serving Prime Minister with Harry Cole's 'Out of the Blue'

📚 Finished listening to Out of the Blue by Harry Cole.

Cue the obvious jokes about that it must be the world’s shortest book - I suppose it actually is on the shortish side for a biography of a Prime Minister to be fair. It seems that the Telegraph’s suggestion that first draft of the book was submitted with the original subtitle “The inside story of the unexpected rise of Liz Truss” before a matter of days later it became critical to add “and rapid fall” is real. Indeed, you can still find images of the book with both titles out there.

It seems thorough and well-researched enough but I’m not sure there’s a tremendous number of revelations held within it that anyone who kept somewhat on top of British political news in recent years wouldn’t already know. Oddly, it misses out one or two bits and pieces that even very casual observers might have come across; the lack of explicit reference to the Daily Star livestream of a decaying lettuce being one that caught my attention (although it’s very gently hinted at in the intro - that her “seven days in control” is “….the shelf-life of a lettuce”).

But if you too want to relive the highs and lows of Britain’s record-breaking shortest tenure Prime Minister from childhood through to political demise, then this book might satisfy you.

Famously she was an anti-monarchist Liberal Democrat in her youth. Here’s the famous vid of her youth politicking.

Her premiership ended up being disrupted by the sad death of the Queen, leading to one of the finer lines in the book:

Within a week of the last leadership hustings at Wembley, the one-time teenage republican was kissing the hand of Queen Elizabeth II. Two days later, the beloved Monarch was dead;

Let the correlation vs causation debate break forth!

Truss' upbringing was decidedly left-wing. Her mother even moved to try out the communist lifestyle.

In spite of her upbringing as the privately educated granddaughter of a capitalist mill boss, Priscilla was clearly sympathetic to the Marxist cause. After spending time in Prague in the early 1960s, and with a babe in arms, she upped sticks to ‘try out life under the communists’ in 1977.

Life under the communists didn’t last long though, for either mother or daughter.

Whilst her mother retains many of her leftist ideals, Liz Truss comes across as have being as obsessionally wedded to the idea that free markets will solve all of life’s ills from the very start, whilst taxes are the devil’s work in all their forms. I think she’s a true believer, to give her credit, unlike many of her purely-populist libertarian-when-it-suits peers.

When Truss started campaigning in the early 200s it did put her mother in a tricky situation though, a battle between the personal and the political.

But it wasn’t an easy decision for Priscilla Truss, according to a former neighbour, after Liz stood again in 2005. ‘She said she was quite torn. She’d agonised over whether to support her because she was her daughter, or not to support her because she was a Tory. In the end, she decided that family ties should win out.’

Her father did not campaign with her.

Liz seemingly showed great ambition, a tireless fervor and the ability to remain committed to a cause no mater what obstacle or person gets in her way. That, for both the pursuit of her political and personal career goals. No setback was too much for her to come back from. I recall the vibes of even her resignation speech and associated interviews as somehow exuding some “I was right, everyone else is just too stupid to understand” energy. Certainly her book-promo interview in the Mail on Sunday claimed that “the fundamental problem was there wasn’t enough support for Conservative ideas” - but of course it’s the support that’s the problem, not the ideas. Hmm.

This sheer amount of determination, resilience and energy to move forward is surely extremely useful for the successful pursuit of goals - it’s just a shame her goals weren’t something more bearable.

There were nonetheless some aspects of Truss that I hadn’t fully appreciated. But those were more on her personal life and her style rather than her well-documented political accomplishments and failures. I hadn’t understood how obsessed she was with social media, especially Instagram. Call me old but I don’t tend to follow politicians on Insta. But she apparently put some real influencer effort in, continuously focusing on getting the perfect shot even at the expense of tremendous amounts of her team’s time, and in some cases her actual job of attending meetings.

The next stop in Sydney would become a defining image of Truss’s boosterist style of promoting both Brexit Britain and herself. With the rain still pouring, it took many, many goes to get the final snap of Truss on a British-made Brompton bike with a Union flag umbrella in a car park under Sydney Harbour bridge, with the opera house looming large. Freedom of Information requests would later reveal a £1,483 freelance photographer was hired for the trip – but the picture went around the world.

I know you’re dying to see the results, so:

Liz Truss with a Union Jack umbrella on a bike

She also seems to have been something of a party animal, fueling her days with espresso and her nights with alcohol. Unlike some of her retinue she somehow appeared to be frequently able to pull off something vaguely day’s work after a night at the clubs though. Not always though, which caused its own problems:

The drinking began at the airport and continued on the plane … her main advisers drank two bottles of champagne on a four-hour flight. On the ground the FS [Foreign Secretary] would drink well past midnight … and be incapable of working the next day. On several trips, Truss would cancel/attempt to cancel important parts of her programme, alienating foreign representatives, due to her hangover or to restart the party.

Honestly it does sound like a pretty fun lifestyle, I’m kind of jealous. If only she wasn’t supposed to be doing something fairly important.

At one point during her tenure as foreign secretary, she, celebrity-like, apparently insisted on in another environment would surely be termed a rider.

…orders were sent ahead to embassies around the world with details of what the Foreign Secretary would expect on a visit:

  • Double espressos served in a flat white-sized takeaway cup.
  • No big-brand coffee, independent producers only, except Pret if in the UK.
  • No pre-made or plastic-packed sandwiches – nothing to be served that has not been freshly prepared.
  • Bagels or sushi for lunch – absolutely no mayonnaise on anything, ever.
  • A bottle of Sauvignon Blanc provided in the fridge of any overnight accommodation.

And then it all went wrong. Her focus on only the freest of free markets, libertarianism (one of her children is, of course, called Liberty) and her predilection for ignoring everything anyone else would suggest that didn’t perfectly align with her world view led to a catastrophic time for Britain’s economy and a final ousting of its architect, who became Britain’s shortest serving Prime Minister ever after just 45 days in office.

It also introduced (to me) the harshly named economic concept of the moron premium. Per the FT who later went on to try and quantify it a bit:

At the height of the Trussonomics experiment, the additional yield that investors were demanding on government bonds became known in financial markets as the “moron premium”.

Nonetheless, from what we’ve learned of her character in this book and elsewhere, it doesn’t seem likely that she’ll retire quietly into the night.

Book cover for Out Of The Blue

Disenchanted ex-Vice employees sneak a final podcast episode onto the Cyber feed

🎙 Listening to Cyber: The End of Vice podcast.

Vice Media, owners of such famous media properties as Vice magazine, Motherboard, Vice Sports, i-D and Refinery29 amongst others, announced that it’s laying off hundreds of employees last week.

As the NYT reports:

The cuts will be the latest in a series of severe cutbacks that the company has endured in recent years, winnowing the globe-spanning digital colossus to a husk of its former self.

Some folk aren’t too happy about it, with a general sense that combination of mercenary private equity investors and overly-well paid incompetant top management are, unsurprisingly, happier to cut costs at everyone else’s expense rather than investing in the still well-regarded by many folk company. This to the extent of apparently making the bizarre decision that famed web publishing company Vice will not have a website in the future - no more vice.com, rather a pivot to what feels like a spectacularly ill-timed “emphasis on social channels” .

So a bunch of Vice reporters woke up to discover they no longer had access to Vice’s article publishing system. But someone forgot to take away their access to the podcast distribution feed and so here we are, with what will presumably be the last ever episode of the Cyber podcast, in which the now ex-employees Matthew, Emily, Anna Merlan, Tim Marchman and Mack Lamoureux going rogue and dropping an episode that promises to be full of behind the scenes truth. You won’t find the episode listed on Vice’s Cyber website for obvious reasons, but it should be there in the podcast RSS feed, for now at least.


The layers of the Internet

“The Internet” is just too big and too important to think about as being one thing these days, even if we constrain ourselves to the bits of it that are most popularly used in 2024 (RIP Gopher, Usenet et al for most people, although I suppose hello Gemini?). In considering the impact of things like generative AI, the demise of the original vision of social networks et al I’ve found it far more manageable think of the internet as being layered.

This is a very unoriginal and frosty take. But thinking about what those layers are fixated my attention for a while.

Probably my favourite viewpoint on it, and certainly the most beautifully illustrated one, is Maggie Appleton’s image of “our current social internet situation”.

Maggie Appleton's visual of our social internet situation

At the top we have the Dark Forest of the “clear web”. These are your classic websites. The places you usually end up on if you click on the top Google search result, or indeed a lot of Google-owned properties themselves. They’re open to almost anyone with a usable internet connection. In fact they’re often desperately vying for your attention. For the most part they’d in theory be representative of an older, more utopian, vision of the internet - information wants to be free, everyone deserves an equal voice.

…now that most citizens have the tools to engage in mass communication, do more of them have a voice in public debate? Has the web made the public sphere more accessible to a greater diversity of voices?

Many of the web’s early boosters were confident that the answer was yes. Mass media conglomerates would soon dissolve and the net would give rise to an army of Davids.

The only problem is that we’ve ruined it.

From Appleton’s writing:

Most open and publicly available spaces on the web are overrun with bots, advertisers, trolls, data scrapers, clickbait, keyword-stuffing “content creators,” and algorithmically manipulated junk.

By choosing advertising as the currency that underpins the internet, and then creating algorithms optimised to focus your attention on a particular page within the sprawling morass available in an environment where quantity is more predictably lucrative than quality, we’ve ended up in a digital world with where of weirdly worded near-identical sites infused with surveillance trackers between a vomitorium of lurid adverts compete with each other to tell you which mail-order mattress you should buy, invisibly ranked by referral commission, when all you wanted to do was learn how to sleep better. Whilst human writers being replaced by very mid AI text generators is a real and important issue, let’s not forget that there are an indeterminate number of dissatified human writers who are currently paid to write for the AI algorithms in the first place.

I think most of the popular social networks, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter et al. largely fit into this bucket. Oftentimes they require you to sign up in order to access what lies beneath. But they’re generally open to all. At least all who are happy to sign away a vast and unreadable set of rights - the infamous yet ubiquitous “terms and conditions”.

Sometimes their content is indexed and algorithmically hoovered up by search engines and, increasingly, faceless AI bots, in the same way that any other website is. Other times their data is a preciously guarded hoard, unavailable to “outsiders”. But as soon as you sign your various rights away, up until the point where they decide they don’t want you there any more, it’s all there, searchable, exploitable, demanding your attention irrespective of whether you had actually planned to spend the evening watching people scream at each other about whether a school really did provide litter trays for their students who identified as cats (spoiler: they did not) or sing sea shanties.

There’s little incentive to present your whole, honest, self in these places. Your genuine interest in, say, providing a financially secure life for your family will translate to 6 months of every website you visit featuring adverts for the next shitcoin destined to pollute the planet until being rug-pulled away from anyone unlucky enough to have been suckered into the promise of a lifetime of financial freedom.

And if the algorithmised ads don’t get you, the polarised populace of the place may. No-one wants to be the Main Character. Everyone has said something in their lives that if taken entirely out of context and presented in the worst possible light is likely enough for a few million people to hate-scream at you about. And the “here’s something that will annoy you” algorithms will ensure that they are provided the chance to do so.

Why “Dark Forest”? It comes from a parallel Yancey Strickler makes to the amazing sci-fi trilogy (well, I’ve only read book 1, but it was great) “The Three-Body Problem”. In pondering on why humanity hasn’t yet seen all that convincing proof of alien life, Liu Cixin writes:

Imagine a dark forest at night. It’s deathly quiet. Nothing moves. Nothing stirs. This could lead one to assume that the forest is devoid of life. But of course, it’s not. The dark forest is full of life. It’s quiet because night is when the predators come out. To survive, the animals stay silent.

Why no alien visitors to our planet? Perhaps there are no aliens, or perhaps the inhabitants of the rest of the galaxy just know that to speak out, to make contact, invites only risk, only predation. Why is the open web seemingly populated mostly by adtech infused ‘brands’ and extremely partial views of the most theoretically enviable parts of every influencer’s lifestyle? Not because all the real people actually vanished. We didn’t actually turn into one-dimensional caricatures of ourselves. We’re just keeping much of our lives out of the reach of our perceived predators.

So many netizens have slunk away to the cozy web for some respite. The idea that large “open” - well, open only in the sense of letting everyone sign up - social networks are there to connect us with the people we know and love for the betterment of all our relationships has obviously failed. Many of those not still publicly arguing about whether ivermectin cures 5G or how bad their neighbour’s kids are have substantially shifted their focus to places that are less visible, more hidden, less able to have whatever gems of wisdom they contain brutally scraped by Google for it’s publisher-damaging, often inaccurate, “answer box”, or, in more recent times, by hungry AI bots looking for massive training data.

In this category we’re largely talking about chat services; think WhatsApp groups, Discord, or Slack. Often invite only, rarely searchable from the outer world, and - as yet - less infused by bots, humans acting like bots or optimised advertising. It feels easier and safer to build real relationships here; to say what’s on your mind, to talk to people who share your interests.

The downside of course is that they’re generally ephemeral. The wisdom you espouse, the photos of your friends, the stuff you find meaning in there is probably going to have gone, at least in a practical sense, by the time you want to revisit it in the more distant future. Random person X who would have enjoyed hearing what you had to say, but doesn’t happen to be signed up to same same channel of the same service at the same time, is probably not going to be able to. People who never knew others like them existed may never find out that they do if their dialogue is restricted to these spaces.

Information from these spaces is also hard to link to, hard to share with others. Want your friend to see part of a Whatsapp chat or a Discord conversation from a specific channel? Oftentimes sending screenshots, with the commensurate limitations of doing so, is the only practical way. Of course, those same screenshots will themselves become lost over time.

And if the service becomes unfashionable, too expensive or otherwise annoying for the company who runs it - it’s hardly impossible to imagine even the behemoth WhatsApp being shuttered one day by its owner who already had a similar-seeming product when they purchased it if they felt like they could get away with it - there’s a good chance that everything is lost. This stuff doesn’t appear on the Internet Archive. But it’s a safer place to be yourself, to reveal your inner workings, to open yourself up in.

From Yancey Strickler’s “Dark Forest Theory of the Internet":

These are all spaces where depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments.

In Maggie’s words:

We create tiny underground burrows of Slack channels, Whatsapp groups, Discord chats, and Telegram streams that offer shelter and respite from the aggressively public nature of Facebook, Twitter, and every recruiter looking to connect on LinkedIn.

How does it work? From Venkatesh Rao’s formative article, it’s all about very human interactions:

…the cozyweb works on the (human) protocol of everybody cutting-and-pasting bits of text, images, URLs, and screenshots across live streams. Much of this content is poorly addressable, poorly searchable, and very vulnerable to bitrot.

Between the Dark Forest and Cozy Web exists a hybrid category - information available in entirely open formats to anyone who actively requests it, but largely hidden from those who haven’t. It’s often unindexed by the web search engines and fairly inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t know that it exists. Think subscriber-only email newsletters, RSS feeds, that kind of thing. The rise of Substack and its competitors have brought email newsletters to the modern consciousness - although Substack isn’t actually the best example here, as its free newsletters are typically archived as openly accessible webpages too. But the general idea of email newsletters has probably been around for a good four decades or so.

Finally, deep below the Cozy Web, we see the Dark Web. That’s somewhere beyond the typical reach of most humans and their bot counterparts. Its content doesn’t appear on search engines. Clicking on a link in your basic default home web-browser will not get you there. Rather you’d need to get special software and/or authorisation to see it, even if you had a way of knowing it existed in the first place.

Everything’s encrypted. Anonymity is a key value - unlike visiting a surface web, a clear web, website, a darknet site does not know where in the world you’re tuning in from if everything is working well. Tor is probably the most famous of these systems. If you ever see what appear to be weblinks that end in .onion then that’s a Tor site you’ll need a (freely available, one option here - and these days easy enough to use) special browser to access.

This technology clearly has the side effect of making users very hard to police. Thus, unfortunately, much of its content is ethically or legally dubious.

Moore and Rid’s 2016 article Cryptopolitik and the Darknet included an attempt to analyse the content of thousands of .onion addresses and found that:

The results suggest that the most common uses for websites on Tor hidden services are criminal, including drugs, illicit finance and pornography involving violence, children and animals.

The most common commodity they found on sale was pharmaceutical or recreational drugs. The bulk of the finance sites were around Bitcoin-based money laundering, selling stolen credit card details, bank accounts and counterfeit currency. Let’s not spell out what’s encompassed in the third category above.

But don’t get the idea that it’s all terrible - Tor and its ilk provides a way to access information from countries that cruelly block its citizens from being able access much of the conventional internet, including from the likes of Amnesty International . Big news sites like the BBC or The Guardian have a presence. Whistleblowers can share their information with the organisations who can leverage it to make the world a better place, with a higher level of impunity. And, sad to say, some people reputedly find sourcing the drugs they need for their medical conditions easier via these unofficial channels than the methods that in-the-light society has made available to them.

Maggie Appleton credits Venkatesh Rao for the cozy web terminology. Venkatesh himself illustrated his view of the “complexity of the extended internet universe” in what I think is his original post on the matter.

Rao's illustration of the complexity of the extended internet universe

This version, whilst less aesthetically pleasing than Appleton’s beautiful illustration - but still nicer than anything I myself could accomplish - holds two dimensions within it. Imagining it as a two dimensional graph, the horizontal axis moves left to right from sites entirely hidden in the dark through to the “well-lit” conventional web on the right. The vertical axis deals with the level of security the content is held under, from entirely open at the top through to information that’s locked behind complex security technologies and procedures at the bottom.

The x-axis itself is the private-to-public boundary, marked by email for most of us. The y-axis is the high-risk to low-risk boundary, marked by security stronger/weaker than simple passwords for most of us.

There’s not a lot of stuff in the very-private very-visible top left quadrant for obvious reasons - beyond things like accidental data leaks.

Bottom left is the Dark Web, as described above. Full of private information, of secret activity, of often illicit transactions. It’s high risk stuff where privacy is essential for users to complete their goals, but stuffed behind both technological and human security systems far beyond what you’d need to provide in order to log onto Facebook.

Top right is the Dark Forest - the modern-day web, infused with business doing their best to make you see their adverts, to persuade you to buy their wares, to penetrate into your mind, into your email inbox. No security is needed to venture into this content. Everything is in dazzling light, actively pushed onto your eyeballs by search engines, advertising networks, and so on. So much is advertising funded. The more you see it, willingly or otherwise, the more they get paid.

That leaves the Cozy Web, which within this schema is situated in the bottom right. There is a certain amount of security to navigate. You need a special app (e.g. WhatsApp), an account, maybe even an invite. The content isn’t indexed by Google or forced into the faces of unsuspecting ‘X’ users (or for that matter trivially searchable by malicious X users). But when you’re in there, the chat is frequently low risk, stuff that doesn’t feel private in the same sense that your medical records do. It might be your friends' groupchat, which is mostly just all that stuff you’d banter about IRL if you saw each other a bit more, or your colleagues' thoughtstreams - the digital post-pandemic alternative to the watercooler, sanitised in the same sort of way. All in all, there’s no need or active desire to hide this area of the internet from the FBI in the heads of most of its users, it’s “boringly private” to use Rao’s description with both the benefits and drawbacks such an environment brings.


In data breach news, Wyze, a maker of internet-enabled smart security cameras to put in your home, recently had a rather disconcerting security issue whereby thousands of users could see temporarily see footage from other people’s cameras.


📚 Finished reading In Ascension by Martin MacInnes.

We start by learning about the childhood of our heroine, Leigh. She grew up in Rotterdam, a city surrounded by and threatened by, water - a portent of the future ravages of climate change. Her family life was not at all what one would hope for.

Years later though, she’s gotten out of it all. Life amongst water surely influenced her though. She studied as marine biologist, and later gets involved in a ship-bound expedition to investigate what appears to be an unprecedented anomaly discovered in the ocean.

One thing leads to another, and she’ll eventually get involved in a mission to investigate another anomaly, one much further away. Nonetheless, no far how far away you go, it’s impossible to entirely evade the more conventional trials and tribulations of day-to-day life as a human.

The book has been described as genre-defying. In part it’s pretty sciencey science-fiction, something that based on some reviews I’ve seen not everyone gets on well with. But it never strays far from much more human topics; psychology, connection, relationships functional or otherwise. There’s ever present mysteries, meditations on Big Questions, and just enough ambiguity to be memorable and engaging rather than frustrating.

It’s beautifully written, conveying well a real and detailed sense of the wonder and majesty of the natural world, the wider ecology, and humanity’s place within it. Profound, philosophical and truly fascinating; justly longlisted for the Booker Prize. I now want to read all the author’s other books.

Book cover for In Ascension

Apparently even more British children have smartphones than I’d have guessed.

Ofcom data says 97% of children have one by the age of 12

The idea of introducing some official guidance on a “ban” (severity left up to discretion) on kids using them in schools seems like a reasonable idea to me, even whilst already many schools do this.

I’d love to see a life-lesson on “how to use your phone in a way that doesn’t negatively impact your life” introduced too. If anyone actually knows how to do that.


Air Canada instructed to honour a refund that their chatbot inadvertently promised

From Ars Technica:

After months of resisting, Air Canada was forced to give a partial refund to a grieving passenger who was misled by an airline chatbot inaccurately explaining the airline’s bereavement travel policy.

This feels like a good, important, decision. Would Air Canada have fought so hard if it was a human customer service agent that misled the company? There is no practical difference to the customer. Although to be fair, the ruling suggests that maybe they would have, with the remarkable line that:

Air Canada argues it cannot be held liable for information provided by one of its agents, servants, or representatives

In which case why even have a customer services department? Are you supposed to be able to guess whether or not an agent is telling the truth every time you call them up?

In this case it’s not like we’re talking about something that threatens the existence of the company. Air Canada, a company that measures its quarterly revenue in billions of dollars, isn’t going to go bankrupt if they give the customer the $880 refund he was expecting.

In any case, if a company is going to replace its human customer service agents with chatbot customer service agents then they should surely be equally as liable for any misinformation.

As the judge notes:

In effect, Air Canada suggests the chatbot is a separate legal entity that is responsible for its own actions. This is a remarkable submission.

If we want to regard chatbots as being “responsible for their own actions”, well, some kind of radical legal shift would presumably be needed. It’s also kind of insane. If chatbots have responsibilities then do they also have rights? Do we put them in chatbot jail if they say something wrong?

If what they actually mean is that whoever sold them the chatbot should be held responsible, well, there are surely already legal routes that can be used by Air Canada to claim damages against another company if they believe they’ve been mis-sold something.

In no circumstance should it matter than the actual bereavement policy was somewhere else on their website. It’s not the customer’s responsibility to research the same question several times and try and guess which version the company actually meant to provide.

More from the ruling:

While a chatbot has an interactive component, it is still just a part of Air Canada’s website. It should be obvious to Air Canada that it is responsible for all the information on its website. It makes no difference whether the information comes from a static page or a chatbot.

While Air Canada argues Mr. Moffatt could find the correct information on another part of its website, it does not explain why the webpage titled “Bereavement travel” was inherently more trustworthy than its chatbot. It also does not explain why customers should have to double-check information found in one part of its website on another part of its website.


Another 'abuse of power': thousands of students wrongly deported from the UK for supposedly cheating on a test

This multi-year miscarriage of justice is embarrassingly new to me, but then again so was an event that it has recently been compared to - the Post Office Horizon scandal.

A decade ago, one condition for foreign students who applied for a visa to come study in the UK was that they first had to pass a specific English test called the Test of English for international communication or Toeic. Although I haven’t seen the questions, it sounds like it’s quite basic, something that anyone reasonably fluent in English would do OK at. It’s intent is merely to “measure the everyday English skills of people working in an international environment” rather than check whether you’re PhD-level familiar with the literature of the English-speaking world.

The Home Office authorised 4 approved test providers that students could use to do this. One of these was US-based company, “Education Testing Service” aka ETS.

Back in 2014, TV show Panorama found that there was cheating going on in a couple of their centres. As far as I can tell everyone agrees that this part is true: cheating definitely went on in 2 of around 90 centres ETS ran.

But rather more controversial was the follow-up investigation that claimed that of the ~58,000 students who sat that test in their centres over a 5 year period, over half “had used deception” and another 39% were questionable, entirely on the basis of some unspecified voice recognition technology analysis. Yes, the claim was that 97% of entrants cheated.

Consequently, these students had their visas revoked. This made it illegal for them to remain in the UK. At best they could hope to be simply thrown out of their (expensive) university courses. At worst some were locked up in detention centres and eventually deported, only to live a life in disgrace as their nearest and dearest were led to believe they were nothing but a foolish cheat.

From politics.co.uk:

Then people started being rounded up. Families were woken in dawn raids, the husband separated from the wife and sent to detention centres ahead of deportation. It would have been a profoundly harrowing experience. These were students, not criminals. Their only crime had been to do a test recommended by the Home Office. But the full sadistic force of the state was brought down upon them.

Not even a entitlement right of appeal was given at first, at least without having first left the country.

All in all, 2500 were forcibly deported and another 7.2k have left the country after being threatened with arrest. Others have ended up destitute and homeless, depressed or suicidal.

Since then at least 3600 of those students have won immigration appeals, although the public records don’t specify whether that’s because they’ve been found to be innocent of cheating or for some other reason. But it was certainly the supposed cheating that put them in the position of needing an appeal in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, many of the students have claimed they are entirely innocent and that any supposed evidence against them is extremely weak. The Home Office hadn’t previously acknowledged let alone taken action based on that. But they were certainly aware of the issue.

In 2019, the National Audit Office found that the Home Office didn’t have the expertise to validate the evidence provided by ETS, and that it had simply taken it at face value. They’d made no real effort at all to investigate whether or not the accused had been incorrectly classified as cheats

Even earlier, in a 2016 tribunal case that challenged the actions of the Home Office on these matters, the presiding judge found that none of the people representing the Home Office:

had “any qualifications or expertise, vocational or otherwise, in the scientific subject matter of these appeals”. At no time, in fact, had the Home Office had advice or input from a suitable expert. The criticisms of their witness statements “were not addressed, much less answered, in their evidence”.

and that:

The Home Office’s case that these students had committed fraud was “entirely dependent” on ETS. The tribunal found the Home Office accepted uncritically everything reported by the firm.

One of the complainants in that case, a Mr Qadir who had been accused of cheating the test, of course spoke “excellent English” when testifying.

Thousands of the other accused people were waiting on the results of this case to use as evidence in their own appeals. Some of their cases had specifically been put on hold until this tribunal’s verdict was out. However, at the time the committee refused to report on their findings, as important and universal as they were, making it very difficult to cite elsewhere.

The decision means that the case cannot be cited, except under very strict and laborious conditions, in other appeals. It means many thousands of people who have been unjustly deported will not even know of its existence. The decision makes the ruling against Theresa May legally useless. It’s as if it never happened.

Lawyers went on to accuse the committee of “an abuse of power”, with their decision to not publish what went on as being “plainly hostile to common sense”. Accusations flew that the decision whether to publish or hide the proceedings of the cases seen by this committee were very much dependent on whether the case showed the Home Office in a positive light.

The years this was all happening in were well into the still-ongoing inhumane period where the at-the-time British Home Secretary Theresa May was explicitly trying to create a “hostile environment” in theory for illegal immigrants, but in practice for anyone that in any sense didn’t “look British”.

Being able to tout ever bigger numbers of punishments against and deportations of immigrants who were in Britain illegally - the situation these poor students found themselves in when stripped of their visas due to having been accused of cheating on a test - was exactly what the government, particularly the Home Office, would have wanted. Clearly there was little incentive - outside of, you know, the basic tenets of justice and humanity - for May’s department to look into it.

May now regrets the phase “hostile environment”, but so far that doesn’t seem to have helped many of the folk who unjustly suffered, nor lessened the hostility of the environment itself.

The “97% of people are cheats” figure just seems prima facie implausible to me. Surely it’s well beyond the threshold that basic common sense should have caused an immediate halt to the punitive proceedings and further investigations to have urgently been done a decade ago.

In the unlikely case that cheating was really that endemic, there have also been scenarios suggested whereby it may have been the centres, rather than the students, that were cheating. And if it had turned out that 97% of individual students had cheated, well that surely points to a systemic problem with the structure of the testing regime than something individually defective about almost every single person who took the test.

But, in any case, that’s all a meaningless thought experiment when it seems like there’s no real evidence that cheating on anything like this scale ever happened in the first place.

Also to add to the mix: the inconvenient fact that several of the students entangled in this mess were provably perfectly fluent in English well before they took the test. To the extent it’s basically inconceivable that they could have failed what is a fairly basic test. Hence there would be absolutely no incentive for them to have paid someone else to take it for them, which is generally the allegation being made, or engage in any other such nefarious scheme.

One such example of this is poor Kishor. He successfully completed a degree in English literature, worked as an English teacher, and worked with NATO troops in Afghanistan, which required passing an English test, before coming to the UK to pursue a business degree which is the point at which he took the Toiec test. He probably speaks better English than I do. Nonetheless he was amongst the crowd that were accused of cheating.


Learned a new phase last week: stinge-watching.

It’s the opposite of binge-watching. Particularly for the cases where you could in theory binge all episodes right now just like the streaming services want you to do but instead you go out of your way to space them out.


📺 Watching The Apprentice - season 18.

It’s sometimes reassuring when things stay the same - and here once more we have a bunch of buzzword-laden people, with apparent levels of self-confidence most of us could only dream of, doing whatever it takes to impress the master of awkwardly delivering badly-scripted jokes and pointing at people, Lord Sugar, all in the name of getting an investment.

I was just looking up the iconic 2010 contestant Stuart “The Brand” Baggs to be sure of getting his justifiably famous quote right - ‘I’m not a one-trick pony. I’m a whole field of ponies’ - only to discover that sadly he died in 2015, aged just 27. Lord Sugar left a floral tribute.

Another thing I recently learned is that in order to keep who wins a total secret until broadcast, the show apparently films two different endings, one where each of the two finalists win and the other one loses. Even the two candidates concerned don’t learn who won until much later - the day before the final show is broadcast. Same for the production team.

Sometimes even the same ending has to be filmed more than once. Harpreet Kaur, the winner of the 2022 season, had to have her “winning” ending filmed twice because she didn’t have “the right level of excitement” the first time through. I suppose it is probably hard to muster the TV-level appropriate extremes of performative excitement when there’s a good chance what you’re celebrating never happened. I’m not sure how she reconciles that with her quote in the same article that “there’s no acting” in the Apprentice, but there we go.

I’ll watch with interest when it’s time for the 2024 final to see if this cohort’s acting-like-a-winner skills are better than one might imagine.


For anyone that finishes Wordle too quickly, Puzzmo - “the (new) place for thoughtful puzzles” - looks to be a cute ‘n’ fun newspaper-puzzle-page style site.

It’s got the classic crosswords, slightly reimagined for the digital age, along with a mass of other puzzle types, old and new. A good chunk of it is entirely free to play. Not sure how to fit more puzzles into my life, but it’s pretty fun and that’s even before experimenting with the interesting sounding “play with a friend” options.

Puzzmo screenshot

Their manifesto is also pretty cool. You deserve better, you are smart, play is healthy - all good affirmations.

They’ve also already been acquired apparently. That was quick. Let’s hope (against all hopes?) it doesn’t tarnish the original vision. First up it seems like they’re offering revenue-share collaborations with other “brands” - that’s why for instance you could choose to do the same puzzles alongside Polygon branding if you really want to.

Here’s an embedded “Spelltower” puzzle to keep you busy. Click and drag the letters to form words, submit by clicking on the last letter again, in order to clear as many letters as you can.


TIL: Elon Musk wasn’t the founder of Tesla. Tesla’s real founders were Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning.

Musk was merely an early investor in the company. Who seemingly started out as he meant to go on.

From The Verge:

Musk was brought on as a crucial early investor but soon used his clout, money, and even a few strong-arm tactics to oust Eberhard and Tarpenning and eventually install himself as CEO of Tesla.

Eberhard ended up suing Musk for all manner of things: libel, defamation, breach of contract, infliction of emotional distress, and failure to pay his wages, The only reason Musk is even allowed to call himself the founder of Tesla is because he effectively purchased the right to do so as part of the legal settlement.


Interesting that “social media” is such a toxic brand these days that Snapchat’s recent marketing campaign is all about how Snapchat very definitely isn’t social media

In fact, it was built as an antidote to social media

This is rather different to how they previously touted it, at least to organisations who might want to pay them something. Less than one year ago they were busy business-blogging that you should throw your advertising dollars their way given that:

Snapchat is a prime example of a social media platform.


NearbyWiki.org is a fun site that plots Wikipedia encyclopedia entries over an interactive map. You can then, for instance, see what stuff-famous-enough-to-be-on-Wikipedia exists near where you live.

One thing this led me to learn is that there are a lot of entries for pretty unexciting roads on Wikipedia. I suppose there are about 262,300 miles of them to go around in the UK.


📧 Reading the Bits About Money newsletter.

I’d never spent too much time thinking about how the financial infrastructure behind organisations such as banks and payroll providers was set up. It turns out it’s pretty interesting to read about, and may even help explain a lot of the weirdness about how such organisations treat customers.

All previous issues live here if you’re more of a web-reading fan.


TIL: Buckingham Palace pays a council tax bill of £1,828 per year.

That’s lower than 46% of households in the UK according to The Economist, who rightly argue that the whole system needs a shakeup for reasons beyond palace inequities. It’s an extremely regressive tax as it stands.

Chart showing that the poorest households pay the most council tax as a proportion of their income

Neuralink implants a chip in someone's brain

Elon Musk has implanted a microchip in someone else’s brain.

No, this isn’t some weird conspiracy theory, it actually happened.

Well, it probably wasn’t him, but rather someone a bit more qualified to do so from a company he founded, Neuralink whose stated mission goal is to:

Create a generalized brain interface to restore autonomy to those with unmet medical needs today and unlock human potential tomorrow.

It’s an FDA approved operation. The end goal is to let folk use their computers just by thinking, developing a “Brain Computer Interface”. This has obvious applications for people who can’t use the limbs for instance. In the future the same technology might be used to restore vision to the blind.

So it’s all exciting and potentially “good-for-the-world” stuff. If only the show wasn’t being run by Mr Musk I’m sure I’d be slightly less worried about it. It seems like The Guardian couldn’t resist a bit of a commentary on the guy and what he chooses to spend his time on in-between whatever running his businesses involves:

In follow-up tweets sent in between arguing about video games and bantering with far-right influencers, the businessman said the first Neuralink product was called Telepathy.

Telepathy of course, despite its potential for revolutionary good, also sounds like something straight out of Black Mirror. Musk might have a vision for it beyond the medical it seems:

Speaking in 2017, Mr Musk said the ‘merger of biological intelligence and machine intelligence’ would be necessary if humans were to stay economically valuable.


The asylum seekers fleeing from Rwanda make the UK's plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda seem even more unhinged

I feel like a bare minimum criteria for the criminal abrogation of the UK’s international responsibilities and sense of humanity that is the plan to send our asylum seekers to Rwanda should be that people from Rwanda are not currently finding the need to seek asylum from Rwanda in the UK.

Nonetheless, from the Observer:

Four Rwandans were granted refugee status in the UK over “well-founded” fears of persecution at the same time as the government was arguing in court and parliament that the east African country was a safe place to send asylum seekers.

I mean, are we just going to put those who were compelled to flee Rwanda on a flight to…Rwanda?

Even if Rwanda was the paradise-for-all that the Government attempted to legislatively wishcast into being the case recently, the idea is entirely unworkable, unethical and illegal anyway. But come on, surely even some people who would otherwise support this dreadful culture-war nonsense might concur that the idea that is is OK to send asylum seekers to a country that legitimate asylum seekers come from is a non-starter.

One person fleeing from Rwanda saw a successful asylum claim here literally the day after the Government finished arguing that it was safe in the Supreme Court.


📺 Watched season 6 of The Crown.

This is the final season of this “is it fact or fiction?” drama documentary, which nonetheless will also probably become the primary reference material for royal life in the minds of some of its viewers.

It mainly focuses on the years from somewhere around 1997 to maybe around 2006, although with shoutouts here and there to times longer ago - we are all a product of our past to some extent, even, or perhaps especially, the royals - and perhaps as recently as 2022 in the slightly strange finale.

1997 is of course the year that Princess Diana died, an event that the series focuses on plenty, before and after. These are also the Blair years, her rivalry in terms of public opinion depicted as giving the Queen some very strange dreams.

Focus then moves to teen drama as Prince William tries to win the heart of Kate Middleton, which her mother is pretty enthusiastic about.

Prince Harry is in the midst of his initial Bad Boy phase, dressing up as a Nazi, drugs, partying, all that kind of classic Prince Gone Wild stuff. Although it has to be said that the very idea that he, his brother, and a load of other posh people routinely go to fancy dress “colonials and natives” parties in the first place isn’t wildly reassuring.

The Queen Mother dies, and the final episode then dwells on the preparation of of Operation London Bridge - the planning for the death of the monarch, an operation that had actually existed since the 1960s in one way or another.

Not everyone loved this season. The reviews were bad enough that it made Dominic West, the actor who played Prince Charles in it, stay in bed for two days. TV critic Nick Hilton sees it as a symbol of the Netflix’s ‘decline in popularity and quality’. Even its creator, Peter Morgan, is relieved to see it end. But when you’ve watched the first five series and actually remember some of the events of the sixth actually taking place, it’s hard not to give it a go.


📺 Watched season 2 of The Traitors (UK version).

Exactly the same setup as in the first season, but with a new bunch of people for me to worry about their future sanity.

Doing tasks by day and trying to figure out who’s leading a double life by night, it remains extremely compulsive even if it’s something I’m not sure is overly healthy. The last episode is quite something. I got far too invested in that emotional rollercoaster.


Cory Doctorow reminds us that AI doesn’t actually have to be better than us at our jobs in order to threaten our current livelihoods. It’s only necessary that our managers come to believe that an AI can do a just-about-adequate version of something akin to our work whilst costing less.

That’s the true cost of all the automation-driven unemployment criti-hype: while we’re nowhere near a place where bots can steal your job, we’re certainly at the point where your boss can be suckered into firing you and replacing you with a bot that fails at doing your job.


143 companies want to know that I visited the Teen Vogue website

This very explicit cookie consent / surveillance message jarred me a little today. All I wanted to do was read a single article on Teen Vogue of all places. Doing so by default would entail my personal data being sent to 143 different companies, including active scans of my devices and my precise geographic location at the time. Whilst “caring about my privacy”.

Cookie permission message shown when visiting Teen Vogue

I’m sure Teen Vogue is no worse than its peers. I actually applaud the explicitness of the message. We should know exactly what we’re agreeing to when we mindlessly hit the “yes ok sure if you must” button whilst surfing.

If you hit “Show Purposes” you get a list of the types of information being shared. Some, but not all, of them you can disable. But just for fun, here’s the list. The numbers in brackets after each one shows the number of partners that are allowed to use whatever they can scrape about me from my web visit for the given purpose.

  • Functional Cookies
  • Performance Cookies
  • Targeting Cookies
  • Strictly Necessary Cookies
  • Audience Measurement
  • Store and/or access information on a device (“131 partners can use this purpose”)
  • Personalised advertising and content, advertising and content measurement, audience research and services development. (140)
  • Use precise geolocation data (50)
  • Actively scan devices characteristics for identification (15)
  • Ensure security, prevent and detect fraud, and fix errors (106)
  • Delivery and present advertising and content (92)
  • Match and combine data from other sources (89)
  • Link different devices (87)
  • Identify devices based on on information transmitted automatically (94)

A friend shares the UK National Careers Service’s job description of an astronaut with me. I’m slightly underwhelmed with the salary to be honest.

Job description of an astronaut, salary £40-86k

“You could work away from home” seems something of an understatement. No WFH for a spaceperson :(


🎶 Listening to Sweet Justice by Tkay Maidza.

Tkay is a Zimbabwean-Australian rapper who recently(ish) released her second full album, 7 years after the first.

This was the first album for a long while that I learned about by virtue of hearing it on the radio, just like it’s the 1990s. Sweet Justice itself is a multi-genre extravaganza, apparently themed on the idea of breaking up with one’s own past, leaving the negative influences behind.


Cartoon of the Davos 2024 meeting suggesting that we could save the world if the rich attendees would spend their money to do so

This (taken from some random Discord if I remember correctly) might be a little simplistic in some cases. And perhaps it even plays into the more ludicrous conspiracy theories around the WEF. Nonetheless it remains a constant source of astonishment to me how many big and important problems humanity at least has a good idea of how to solve but seemingly chooses not to.

For the most part I suspect that comes more from us having inadvertently created structures such that we are disincentivised from doing so - especially at the individual level. Rather than, for instance, pure malice.