Today marks the coronation of Charles III as king of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth.

As a political institution the British monarchy ceased having any purpose back in the 18th century. Because of its near total irrelevance, and the expense of its maintenance, there have been frequent calls for getting rid of it. These have become more pointed recently, as Charles is not well liked and is 74 years old, which seems very old to finally be elevated to the position of even nominal head of state. At least until you realize that both Joe Biden and Donald Trump are older. When will we be rid of this cursed generation?

How much longer will the monarchy go on for? Will cancel culture ever come for it? I doubt it, but if it does I imagine it will be for the reason any long-running show finally gets the (metaphorical) axe: a fall in ratings.

The thing is, few people care at all about the monarchy anymore. According to one recent poll, a whopping 78% of young people in Britain fell into this camp. The Crown is more popular than the Crown.

Things were different just forty years ago. The marriage of Charles and Diana was a big deal, and a popular show. But then the funeral of Diana was perhaps the last TV special that drew an audience. The media put a huge amount of effort into selling Harry and Meghan, and the funeral of Elizabeth II, but these weren’t even blips on my radar. The coronation will receive enormous coverage, even in markets like the U.S. that severed their ties to the monarchy a couple of hundred years ago, but I wonder if anyone will pay attention despite all the play on CNN. I know I won’t be watching. And this really is the key point in our attention economy. If royalty aren’t celebrities then they’re nothing at all.

Man and Trump and God

Holding a book he’d never read, standing before a building he’d never been in.

Over at Good Reports I’ve added an omnibus review of a bunch of a books on evangelical support for Donald Trump. Much of the Trump phenomenon is meant to generate outrage, but the support of the religious Right or Christian nationalist movement is probably the most outrageous thing about it of all.

It’s hard to imagine Trump coming back, but as of this writing he’s still the frontrunner to be the Republican standard bearer in 2024. The rot in the American body politic goes deep. What’s worse is that it’s hard to see how the conditions that gave rise to Trump are going to improve anytime soon. I may be reviewing more books like this again in another couple of years.

Grocery bills

Inflation has been a big story in the news recently, with its impact on the public being most directly felt and reported on in regard to grocery bills. I didn’t notice this as much just coming out of pandemic (I was more exercised by the fact that gym memberships doubled), but more recently it has been showing up on my radar.

The pizza place across the way, for example, always used to sell individual slices for 99 cents. The same now cost $1.67 (and they’re cut smaller). Quite a jump, percentage-wise! On average, grocery prices went up 10% last year, which was considered huge. That’s a number to keep in mind as we proceed.

Most of my grocery shopping is done at a No Frills store which usually has the lowest prices around. Indeed, they used to match any lower price advertised by a competitor, though they stopped doing that just before COVID. Today I think they’re still probably the best place to get groceries in town, but even so there have been some price hikes that have caught my attention.

A large bag of Doritos, for example, now regularly goes for $4.50. Before the pandemic it would be $3 tops and sometimes $2 or less when on sale. Now I realize there was a major conflict between Loblaws and the major chip suppliers a year or two back that was eventually settled, and that the store probably doesn’t have a lot of leeway to set these prices, but it still led me to dig in my heels. I haven’t bought Doritos in over a year, and I do like them.

A bag of water softener salt now goes for $7. Before the pandemic they would be $5 tops and usually $4. $2.50 when on sale. Ouch! That’s a big increase for something you have to buy. Literally money going down the drain.

A box of breakfast cereal used to go for something under $3 but now goes anywhere from $4 to $6 depending on the brand.

I often buy specialty ciabattas (sun-dried tomato, black olive, cheese and onion) either to eat with stew or make a sandwich out of. These used to go for $2.50 but now are priced at $3.50. So I only pick them up when they’re on the 50%-off “enjoy tonight!” shelf. Because I don’t believe in expiry dates.

One of the biggest jumps I’ve noticed is for cucumbers. $2.79 for a single cuke? These used to be $1.50, or 98 cents on sale. I like to slice up cucumbers to put them in a salad or make them part of a sandwich, but there’s no way I’m paying $2.79 for one of them. I don’t know what’s going on there. I know cucumbers aren’t in season, but neither are peppers and they don’t cost twice as much as they did a couple of years ago.

So yes, prices have increased — in some cases quite considerably — just in the last couple of years. And I think some of this inflation is more than the producers can attribute to higher costs. It is also the result of “greedflation,” which has been defined as taking advantage of high inflation to earn excessive profits at the expense of consumers.

In any event, one thing seems a safe bet: we’re not going back to 2020 prices again. It’s dieting time!

O.J. then and now

Over the past month I’ve been rewatching Ezra Edelman’s outstanding 2016 ESPN documentary series O.J.: Made in America. If you’ve never seen it, take this as a recommendation. It’s 7.5 hours but never flags for a minute.

For anyone old enough to remember it, the O.J. Simpson trial (which ran for nearly a year, ending in October 1995) really was the trial of the century. You can’t overstate how big it was. In 1996 I was actually in Los Angeles during the subsequent civil trial and even that was a media circus, though nowhere near as big a deal. I went to the courthouse one day and drew a ticket to get in to watch it, but wasn’t selected.

Revisiting all of this today, I was surprised at how the racial divide foreshadowed what was coming own the pipe in terms of American politics. What I’m referring to is the polarization and rejection of a shared reality. As Jeffrey Toobin puts it in the documentary when describing Johnnie Cochran’s address to the jury, “the heart of the summation was ‘whose side are you on?'” The point being that the jurors, who were mostly Black, were angry at the police and wanted payback not just for Rodney King but a whole history of racial injustice.

This felt very similar to the “jury nullification” of the Trump impeachments. The question wasn’t Trump’s guilt or innocence. The reporting I’ve heard is that there were no Republicans in the Senate who didn’t believe Trump had done everything he’d been accused of. The question was “whose side are you on?” Once you’d chosen your side, the verdict could be taken for granted. There was no need to build a case or present any evidence. The votes were already locked in.

There are other connections too. Like the celebrity angle and the way the media transformed the trial into spectacle and entertainment. It’s become fashionable among political historians to cite Newt Gingrich and the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, the same year Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered, as signaling the beginning of a slide into increased anger and polarization in American politics. Looking back, I think the Simpson trial was representative of the fracturing to come.


The gang’s all here.

There’s been a lot of interest lately in the rise of open online AI programs like ChatGPT that can create art in any style, compose music from any period, and write in imitation of the voice of any celebrity or famous author you can think of. Broadening out, advice columnists have been imitated as well, with people being given relationship and other sorts of personal pro tips by an algorithm.

In each of these cases the question became how to tell the difference between something created by a real person (not just a generic real human, but an actual living, breathing personality) and what a computer was coming up with. Even in the case of the advice columns it was difficult if not impossible to figure out what was real and what the product of artificial intelligence. Or, even more damningly, which was better.

The next step is pretty clear. Now in fact there have been AI Jesus programs for years now. One of these, developed by an engineer named George Davila Durendal and designed to speak in the language of the King James Bible, got a lot of headlines back in 2020 for spouting some ersatz prophecies. But those were early days and the results weren’t all that impressive.

More recently, there was an interesting image posted on Twitter responding to the prompt “Jesus takes a selfie during the last supper.” Again, this was just a widely-shared novelty, good for some headlines and a few chuckles. But given how rapidly things have been developing I had to wonder if an AI Jesus couldn’t soon write sermons on pretty much any occasion, directed at any audience. And if AI advice columnists can give perfectly workable if not downright helpful solutions to daily problems, and AI doctors give medical advice, why not have an AI religious leader ministering to spiritual needs? From a virtual Jesus, how big a step is it to an AI God? Would it be indistinguishable from the real thing? If you’re an atheist, wouldn’t it be the real thing? Or even better? The Singularity or Rapture of the Nerds is getting closer.

Laying down the law

It’s OK when he says it.

I was just following a news report about some of the more ridiculous messages that went out on Twitter at the time of the January 6 riots when I saw one by a Republican congressman from South Carolina named Ralph Norman hysterically calling for Donald Trump to invoke “Marshall Law.”

I don’t want to play gotcha! with someone’s spelling on Twitter, but I was a little surprised that the commentator I was listening to admitted that they had to check to make sure “Marshall Law” was, in fact, wrong. Though I suppose it is an easy enough mistake to make. Just last month I reviewed Caroline Moorehead’s Mussolini’s Daughter, where the Badoglio government that came in after ousting Mussolini is said to have proclaimed “marshal law.” Even I had to wonder if this was a slip or intentional. Technically, Badoglio had held the rank of marshal in the Italian army before becoming prime minister. So did Moorehead make a mistake, or was saying marshal law a joke? I’m still not sure, but I think it was a slip that the editors didn’t catch.

There was also a comic book character named Marshal Law, created in the 1980s by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill. I don’t know if it’s still going. And in 1996 there was a TV movie called Marshal Law about a tough U.S. Marshal played by Jimmy Smits. This kind of thing probably confuses people.

Just to be clear though: it’s martial law.

Stupid rich people

Would you buy crypto from this guy?

A few years ago I did a post that asked the question Why do we think rich people must be smart? It was in response to a couple of embarrassing scandals then in the news involving billionaires: Robert Kraft getting caught in a massage parlour and Jeff Bezos sending dick pics to a girlfriend. Sure these guys were rich (Bezos was the richest person in the world at the time), but they obviously had more money than common sense. Still, I think most people tend to excuse bad behaviour of this sort, seeing it as just boys being boys and basically unrelated to the more serious business of acquiring ever more wealth.

But what then should we think of more recent headlines?

Item One: Elon Musk, who supplanted Bezos as the richest man in the world (at least for a time), bought Twitter. It’s not clear if he really wanted to buy Twitter, or if he sort of stumbled, in a very stupid way, into having to buy it. In any event, most expert opinion I’ve read says that he paid at least twice what the company was worth, and maybe as much as four times as much. That’s not smart. But what’s an extra $20 billion to Elon? And, as he said, he was just doing it for the LOLZ anyway.

The immense wealth of Musk, as has been widely reported, was built out of a lot of hot air and government money, which should have given Twitter boosters pause. And to be fair, a lot of business and tech types were pretty sure Musk didn’t know what he was getting into by buying Twitter. I don’t think any of them were forecasting the disaster that’s been unfolding thus far though. Musk doesn’t know what he’s doing, a fact that even he might slowly be becoming aware of. Meanwhile, was there nobody in his court to tell him just how stupid he was being? Evidence suggests not. Indeed, his courtiers were egging him on. As Charlie Warzel observed in The Atlantic: “the seed of Musk’s Twitter purchase was planted by sycophants deferential to the billionaire who will never give him hard, truthful advice, because they wish to stay close to him.” Yes, it’s our old friend the bubble of privilege again.

Item Two:

Samuel Bankman-Fried, the CEO of the cryptocurrency exchange platform FTX experienced a rapid fall from grace when the company went bust. Indeed, the collapse of his personal fortune is thought to have set some kind of record. Reading his Wikipedia entry is good for a laugh:

Bankman-Fried’s net worth peaked at $26 billion. In October 2022, he had an estimated net worth of $10.5 billion. However, on November 8, 2022, amid FTX’s solvency crisis, his net worth was estimated to have dropped 94% in a day to $991.5 million, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, the largest one-day drop in the index’s history. By November 11, 2022, the Bloomberg Billionaires Index considered Bankman-Fried to have no material wealth.

In fact, some reports say that his personal assets may now be below zero. Like I say, funny stuff. Unless, of course, you invested in FTX (which I’d previously warned against). But sticking with the point of this post, doesn’t this reveal that SBF was a Crypto Emperor (as the New York Times dubbed him) with no clothes? That he wasn’t some rebel financial genius, but in fact a moron?

John J. Ray III, the person appointed as CEO of FTX to guide it through bankruptcy, had some choice words for describing the corporate culture he found when he opened the books: “Never in my career have I seen such a complete failure of corporate controls and such a complete absence of trustworthy financial information as occurred here.” This from the guy who wound up Enron.

In both these cases we have billionaires not behaving badly in their downtime but demonstrating that they’re practically clueless when it comes to running a company (that is, doing their job). But both Musk and Bankman-Fried were beneficiaries of the deep-set myth of meritocracy in America. For more on this you can read my reviews of Twilight of the Elites by Christopher Hayes and The Tyranny of Merit by Michael Sandel. Suffice it to say here that great wealth has to justify itself somehow, and most often this is by using wealth as a proxy for intelligence, talent, a hard work ethic, etc. Because if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?

More often, however, great wealth is the result of luck, primarily through the accident of birth but also through happening to be in the right place doing the right thing at the right time.

The poster boy, idol even, of the collapse of such notions as money = brains is Donald Trump. But by now other examples are ubiquitous. Jeffrey Epstein was another supposed billionaire (actually he fell quite a bit short, but he was still very rich) whose wealth no one could explain. One longtime friend even dismissed Epstein’s intelligence by simply saying “He never knew nothing about anything.”

Now one thing that does stand out about a lot of these people is that they tend to be good at math. And being good at math, or being the product of a STEM education, is often seen as being a proxy for intelligence these days. But, again just looking at examples like Musk, Bankman-Fried, and Epstein, one has to wonder. Intelligence takes many different forms, and being good with numbers, while it may be a lucrative skill, is no sure sign of super-intelligence. If just means you’re good with numbers.

As Stephen Jay Gould once remarked, “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” I think everyone understands this on some level, so why do we keep equating vast wealth with genius-level intelligence, especially given the weight of evidence to the contrary? I’m sure Elon Musk and Samuel Bankman-Fried are both reasonably bright guys, but that’s about it. They are also idiots. And, weirdly, I think that it’s by being idiots that they got so rich.


Sunflowers and soup. (

Recent demonstrations, or protests, or acts of vandalism, have been getting lots of media attention, particularly in the U.K. Activists have been throwing soup on famous paintings (which are behind glass and so remain undamaged) and gluing themselves to highways, shutting down traffic.

There have been various groups doing this in recent year, with names like Extinction Rebellion and Last Generation. The latest round has come courtesy of Just Stop Oil. As you’d guess, the broader cause has to do with saving the environment and fighting climate change.

I agree with the point being made. The environment is an important issue for me, and I try to live in such a way that reflects my concern for what’s happening. But I wonder about the value of these stunts.

I’m not questioning the point that’s most often made: that acting out like this only alienates the people one is hoping to persuade. Instead, I question whether the basic premise behind such activism is valid.

That premise is that what’s needed is more attention and publicity given to environmental issues. This is the whole point behind throwing soup at a painting or blocking traffic: getting the media to notice. We live in an attention economy, and it’s felt that the environment is being ignored. If people only knew the nature of the crisis we face they’d act differently.

I don’t think any of that is true. In the first place, there’s a certain segment of the population — not a majority, but a significant number — who have made up their minds and will never believe the lying fake media or the consensus of a scientific elite no matter how loud the warning. Demonstrations will have no effect on them whatsoever.

A much larger cohort are already aware of the problem but don’t think there’s much they can do about it, or care enough to bother trying. George Monbiot starts off his column defending the protestors like this: “What does it take? How far must we go to alert other people to the scale of the crisis we face?” Again: I don’t see being alert to the scale of the crisis as the problem. We know there’s a problem. The media does report on it. It’s not an issue of attention and publicity, attracting eyeballs and getting clicks, but of persuading people to make changes to the way they live.

As I said twelve years ago in a review of Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff:

To say that Leonard is right in pointing out the dangers of not doing anything, of just continuing to live the way we live now, is almost beside the point. We know smoking is bad for you – a major cause of cancer and heart disease – but people still smoke. We know fast food will kill you, but that hasn’t stopped billions of people from eating it.

And these are examples where the ill effects of our behaviour are personally and (relatively speaking) immediately felt! The fact of the matter is that we are not a rational species, and we’re even worse when it comes to planning for the future.

Look: Unless they’re hiding their heads in the sand, everyone knows about climate change and global warming. They know the basics of how it works and they have a general idea of the steps that have to be taken to stop it. They just don’t want to take those steps and make the sacrifices that will be necessary.

Apathy in the U.K.

Meet the new boss.

The two signal political events of 2016, at least in the English-speaking world, were the often-paired British vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. With six years’ worth of hindsight, I think it’s pretty clear that both votes were disasters. Ever since, much ink has been spilled trying to understand why and how they happened.

I’ve read more books on Trump than I can count, and I think I can say I have a general understanding of the Trump phenomenon. A bunch of different factors, including some long-term and others more immediate, played into his election, and continue to keep his name in the news. America is in a bad place, with political polarization leading to a dangerous level of extremism, including violence and the more-or-less open disavowal of democracy and the rule of law by one of the country’s two main parties.

I haven’t read as much about what’s been going on in the U.K., which is probably why I’m having trouble understanding what’s happening over there. In many if not most ways Britain is in even worse shape than the U.S. Economically I think this is certainly the case, and it may be politically as well. In a recent piece in The Atlantic, “Britain’s Guilty Men and Women,” Tom McTague points a finger at the country’s leadership and its ruling party: “For the past 12 years, Britain has been led by a succession of Conservative prime ministers — each, like Russian dolls, somehow smaller than the last — who have contrived to leave the country in a worse state than it was when they took over.”

To this list has now been added one Rishi Sunak, a very rich guy who used to work for Goldman Sachs and who voters apparently trust to be able to manage the economy. Because that’s something rich people just understand.

Given how bad things have gone in the U.K. over the course of the last six years, what I can’t figure out is why the Tories haven’t sunk to basement-level polling numbers. On some level I “get” the Trump voter, but the Tory voter is a beast I know nothing about. In my review of The Lost Decade 2010-2020 by Polly Toynbee and David Walker (one of the few books I’ve read on the subject) what stood out for me was the level of voter apathy and the effect of a generational split. And I suppose the forces that are driving anger in America — social inequality and the rage machine of social media — are also at play. I’ve heard the British news ecosystem is bad, but as bad as it is in the U.S.? This I don’t know.

I just find it remarkable that after over a decade of misgovernance, incompetence, and outright failure the Conservative Party has any defenders left at all. The shock of 2016 was one thing, but at least in 2020 the U.S. tried to correct course (for how long we still don’t know). Why are the Brits still digging?