Schrödinger’s Brexit

I haven’t had much to say about the ongoing disaster that is Brexit, but a couple of articles caught my eye this week, so I thought it was worth making a brief return to the subject.

First of all, Vince Cable asks “Why have Remainers gone silent as the costs of Brexit pile up?” While I am less than convinced about Cable’s conclusions, he is right to point out that the country can’t start to deal with the consequences, or to find away forward, if everyone continues to pretend that Brexit isn’t a thing.

And Rafael Behr provides a reality check by pointing out that the Northern Ireland protocol isn’t the problem, Brexit is. Behr makes much the same point as Cable, that Labour (and, to a lesser extent, the Liberal Democrats) of being cast as unrepentant remainers that they continue to fall silent in the face of the Conservatives’ attempts to constantly refight the same Brexit battles.

It is a formula for perpetual crisis. The constitutional mess that Johnson has made of Northern Ireland is so far the gravest episode, but unlikely to be the last. The problem isn’t that the protocol cannot be made to work as written, but that it was written to enact a Brexit that doesn’t work.

The result is that we see Boris Johnson and his minions promising to get Brexit done. Again, and again, and again.

Brexit has happened. Britain has left the EU and the mandate embodied by the referendum has been discharged, and then some. It does need to be recognised, though, that this is not a trivial change and there will be many consequences from implementing such a change.

The country is not going to be able to deal with these consequences, however, until people start acknowledging that they exist.

Dopamine Coins

Cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin, as well as the underlying blockchain technology, are things about which I have long been cynical. As far as I can see, they have no value, no purpose and no point other than providing yet another economic bubble, profitable for those that get out fast enough but disastrous for the schmucks left holding the things when prices crash.

Then again, I’m quite cynical about most new things — I thought podcasts were a stupid idea when I first saw someone attach an audio file to a blog, and look at how popular podcasts are now. So I have largely ignored all of the cryptohype on the grounds that, if my cynicism turns out to be misplaced I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough.

However, as the reporting around these things increases, the more sure I am becoming that my cynicism was not misplaced. Indeed, if anything I probably haven’t been cynical enough.

Let’s start with the news that triggered this post, that One bitcoin transaction emits as much CO2 as a household in 3 weeks. I have long been aware that the cost of generating cryptoassets is eye-wateringly high, but it is useful to have some sense of just how much of an energy cost we are talking about. And it needs to kept in mind that this cost is in pursuit of generating something that has no use and no intrinsic value.

But you can trade them. In fact, the only thing you can do with these things is trade them. Which brings me to the second article I stumbled across recently: ‘Trading is gambling, no doubt about it’ – how cryptocurrency dealing fuels addiction.

I don’t have a very high opinion of financial trades or financial traders, but the exchanges that support this do have to comply with various regulations which — in theory, at least — provide some protection. Even casinos have to deal with a level of regulatory oversight, but not cryptoassets:

While some trading platforms that offer digital assets are regulated – because they also offer more traditional financial instruments – crypto coins and tokens are not.

Cryptoasset executives do not have to prove that they are fit and proper people to take people’s money. The companies they run are not required to hold enough cash to repay investors if they go bust. Nor must they worry about the FCA’s stipulation that financial promotions, such as those splashed across public transport in London, are fair, clear and not misleading.

If you get involved in cryptotrading, you are essentially handing large sums of money over to someone who, even if they aren’t actively trying to defraud you, will often prove to be unable to provide anything close to adequate protection. These exchanges are, all too often, being run by amateurs who lack necessary knowledge or skills and who wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near your money if real assets were involved.

Of course, the supporters of blockchain technologies will respond to these issues by claiming that these are just teething issues to be resolved, or some handwavy stuff about new or “disruptive” technologies needing time to prove themselves. But, as Molly White points out, It’s not still the early days.

Bitcoin has been around since 2009, other blockchain-based currencies and applications have similarly long pedigrees. This is plenty of time for any issues to have been worked out and plenty of time, if these things did have any value, for that value to become apparent.

The more you think about it, the more “it’s early days!” begins to sound like the desperate protestations of people with too much money sunk into a pyramid scheme, hoping they can bag a few more suckers and get out with their cash before the whole thing comes crashing down.

Blockchain is a solution in search of a problem. It’s had long enough, and it’s now safe to assume that there are no problems for which blockchain is solution. It’s a technology that needs to be abandoned, sooner rather than later.

Quote of the day: Boris being Boris

[A lot of senior government figures are] seemingly incapable of grasping that the entire executive taking on the character of this amoral and discipline-free man will end very badly indeed. It is precisely Johnson’s lack of discipline and moral courage that has resulted in this country having both the highest Covid death toll in Europe and the most unnecessarily long economic shutdown and loss of essential freedoms. Gloating that the voters don’t think they deserve better will not be the recipe for a great British future.

Marina Hyde

Perspective

Research: Covid-19 more likely to cause blood clots than any vaccine

Infection by the virus that causes Covid-19 is about 100 times more likely to cause blood clots in the brain that any Covid vaccine on the market, according to a new study carried out by Oxford University.

With people all over the place panicking about the AstraZeneca and, more recently, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, it is worth keeping in mind that any risk associated with either of these vaccines is trivial compared to the risks associated with Covid.

Vaccination is an essential part of getting the coronavirus under control. Let’s not give the virus any help by over-emphasizing minor and unproven issues elsewhere.

The Grievance Machine

When it comes to Brexit, One of the more perceptive commentators around is Rafael Behr. So it is worth considering the following remark:

For the true believers, a good Brexit is one that keeps the grievance alive; that makes foreigners the scapegoat for bad government; that continues to indulge the twin national myths of victimhood and heroic defiance. Measured for that purpose, Johnson’s pointless Brexit is perfect.

The Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) is designed as an ongoing negotiation, with five-yearly reviews and I have tended towards the view that now Brexit is “done”, the whole issue can be toned down somewhat. The TCA framework can then be used to allow Britain to make the best of a bad deal by slowly and quietly re-aligning itself with the EU.

But what if I’m being overly optimistic here? What if the TCA turns out to be the start of a lengthy deterioration in relations. If the Brexiters continue to be unable to get over the fact that they have now achieved everything they demanded, we could all be looking towards endless and escalating confrontations.

That said, it’s only a month since the transition arrangements came to an end. I can still hope that people become bored enough of the whole mess that no-one wants to hear the Brexiters any more. And, once the process becomes as dull as it should be, things can start to improve again.

But it may be worth preparing for the worst.

Unfriended

So here’s a bit of news from Australia, where legislation has been published to make Google and Facebook pay news publishers. The main response to this has been from Facebook who decided to show their displeasure and, presumably convince everyone that they are too important for legislators, by blocking links to news websites in the country.

This didn’t go quite to plan:

But when Facebook implemented its ban, an online bookstore, charities, and even a domestic violence support service saw their Facebook presences erased. Australia’s national Basketball and Rugby bodies also saw their pages sent to the sin bin.

According to Facebook, this is because the law doesn’t spell out clearly enough, for them, what is news and what isn’t.

This leaves Facebook in the interesting position of telling advertisers it offers superior micro-targeting services, while telling the world it is unable to tell the difference between a newspaper and a bookshop.

When I saw this story, I was close to posting the above quote and leaving it at that. But then I read on and, while the reporter notes that:

Having woken up to a news-free Facebook, your Australia-based correspondent can report that that sky has not fallen in and it remains possible to be well-informed and entertained down under.

Which is as it should be. Facebook, ultimately, is just a website and one that I have been quite happy to ignore since I deleted my account in 2012.

But then there’s this:

I’ve seen other complaining that they liked Facebook as a news aggregator and miss that aspect of its service but will instead visit actual media websites even if that’s a bit fiddly.

Apologies in advance to anyone reading this who gets their news from Facebook, but this is madness.

Facebook uses an algorithm to determine what to show you. Obviously, I have no insight into how this algorithm works — which is a problem in itself — but we do know that it tends to simply deliver more of the same, dragging users of the Zuckerweb into ever more polarised echo chambers.

There is a better alternative. It’s called RSS.

This is a technology that saw it’s heyday in the first decade of the 21st century and allows you to aggregate all of the content, across the web, that you want to see. You would visit a website, add their RSS feed to your preferred reader and, from then on, all of their content is delivered straight to you. It really is that simple.

RSS has fallen out of favour somewhat with the rise of social media and its algorithmic timelines took hold, even though the technology itself still underpins much of the modern web. I still use it, however, and I honestly don’t know how I would manage without it. I can see what I want, when I want, and organised how I want.

So, rather than having to constantly keep up with the latest online drama, I can take twenty minutes, two or three times a day, to check up on issues and subjects that interest and concern me. And then I can go back to focussing on whatever else I’m supposed to be doing.

Although RSS has fallen out of favour, it hasn’t gone away. Many news sites, most blogs and many other sites continue to deliver RSS feeds. The Guardian, for example, offers a feed not only for the site as a whole, but also a separate feed for every individual writer and subject. And, of course, there are still plenty of aggregators out there.

I have been happily using NewsBlur since Google Reader was killed off, but many other options are available.

Quote of the Day: Will the Brexit government take responsibility?

The full effects of Brexit, now that the transition period has ended and the TCA has kicked in, are still only beginning to be felt. Every single one of them discredits the claims made by Brexiters, including the idea that there was no need to extend the transition so as to allow a genuine implementation period. There’s no point in them continuing to deny these effects, or continuing to try to justify the false claims they made. Now, it is their responsibility to work to mitigate, so far as it is possible, the worst of the damage they have created.

— Chris Grey looks at some of the many ways in which Brexit is coming apart at the seams .