What the Trump ascendancy means

Good summary by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books:

Is Donald J. Trump really what the whole long age was gradually making for and meaning? That a reality television star and businessman con artist devoid of public office experience and proudly ignorant of public policy, of braggadocious and offensive and unstable character, given to the most bald-faced race-baiting and misogyny and demagoguery, could nonetheless be elected by our fellow citizens president of the United States?

It should be observed that this is not a question that will be answered by the election itself. If Donald J. Trump is not elected president of the United States on November 8, we will owe this not to some triumph of the superior American system or to the eloquent presentation of a progressive alternative but to the fact that this singularly offensive man offended too many voters, especially white, college-educated women. It will not be because he was rendered unelectable by virtue of his lies and race-baiting and immigrant-bashing and demagoguery.

On the contrary. Trump embodies grisly aspects of our politics that are not new but that, on him, are starkly illuminated. What are these? That much of our politics in this increasingly diverse country pivots on the hateful fulcrum of race, of racial fear and xenophobia and antagonism toward the Other, and that this has only grown in power and ugliness since the rise of Barack Obama and his coalition. That in vital matters of gender and sexuality and marriage much of the politics of the presiding culture is furiously rejected by a significant minority of the country as a “politically correct” and immoral imposition. That in the aftermath of a severe economic crisis—and after decades of economic stagnation for most Americans—tens of millions of voters feel so abandoned by the system that they offer their full-throated cheers to a candidate pledging to wholly dismantle it and put “in jail” his opponent. That the electoral system as it has evolved over that time and especially in the wake of such decisions as Citizens United has become starkly, shabbily, and spectacularly corrupt. And finally that entertainment and money in the grossest sense play a far more important part in our politics than any attention to public policy, and that the commercial press, particularly the broadcast press, battens on that reality to an increasingly shameless degree.

Brought down by a toaster?

As readers of my stuff will know (see here and here, for example), I’ve been going on about the existential risk pose by the ‘internet of things’ for a while, so I’m loath to keep on about it. But this nice encapsulation of the problem by Ben Evans seems well worth quoting:

A chunk of the internet went down this week, effectively, because someone did a massive distributed denial-of-service attack using a botnet of millions of hacked IoT devices – mostly, it seems, IP webcams from one Chinese company that don’t have decent security. This is an interesting structural problem – the devices once sold are either impossible or unlikely to be patched, the users probably don’t even know that their device is hacked, and the manufacturer has no motivation and probably few of the necessary skills to do anything about it. A network designed to withstand nuclear attack, brought down by toasters. More interesting/worrying – who is doing this, why, and what will they do next?

How your shower could participate in a DDOS attack

This morning’s Observer column:

My eye was caught by a Kickstarter campaign for a gizmo called a SWON, described as “a connected conservation device for your shower”. You unscrew the shower head, screw on the SWON and then screw the head back on to it. From then on, water goes through the SWON before it reaches you. The Kickstarter campaign needs $50,000 to be pledged before the product can be made. Last time I checked, it had 75 backers and had raised pledges of $4,798.

Before consigning it to the “leading-edge uselessness” bin, I clicked on the link…

Read on

Come for a drive in a Tesla

Tesla says that the necessary kit for fully-autonomous driving will be installed on all its new cars from now on. But it won’t be activated until a lot more testing has been done. This video provides a glimpse of this brave new future. Ignore the music.

Quote of the Day

“People worry that computers will get too smart and take over the world, but the real problem is that they’re too stupid and they’ve already taken over the world.”

Pedro Domingos in his book The Master Algorithm.

So what if all the assumptions about ‘digital first’ have been wrong?

Wow! Here’s the abstract of a fascinating paper by two academics at the University of Texas at Austin:

Twenty years into US newspapers’ online ventures, many are stuck between a shrinking market for their print product and an unsuccessful experiment with digital offerings. Since readership is the foundation for subscription and advertising revenue, this study, through a longitudinal analysis of readership data (2007, 2011, and 2015) of 51 US newspapers, provides an up-to-date review on these newspapers’ online and print readership. Results indicated that the (supposedly dying) print product still reaches far more readers than the (supposedly promising) digital product in these newspapers’ home markets, and this holds true across all age groups. In addition, these major newspapers’ online readership has shown little or no growth since 2007, and more than a half of them have seen a decline since 2011. The online edition contributes a relatively small number of online-only users to the combined readership in these newspapers’ home markets. These findings raise questions about US newspapers’ technology-driven strategy and call for a critical re-examination of unchecked assumptions about the future of newspapers.

Deep-fat data frying

This morning’s Observer column:

The tech craze du jour is machine learning (ML). Billions of dollars of venture capital are being poured into it. All the big tech companies are deep into it. Every computer science student doing a PhD on it is assured of lucrative employment after graduation at his or her pick of technology companies. One of the most popular courses at Stanford is CS229: Machine Learning. Newspapers and magazines extol the wonders of the technology. ML is the magic sauce that enables Amazon to know what you might want to buy next, and Netflix to guess which films might interest you, given your recent viewing history.

To non-geeks, ML is impenetrable, and therefore intimidating…

Read on

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

Naturally, I’m delighted to see him honoured. Not everybody is, though. Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting (and many other memorable works) is enraged. “This is”, he fumes,

“an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies”.

You always know where you stand with Welsh.

The real word-processor


Matthew Kirschenbaum has written a fascinating bookTrack Changes: a Literary History of Word Processing — and in following a link to interviews with him I came on this lovely image, which made me laugh out loud.

Also: word processor seemed such a strange term for a tool designed (presumably) to aid composition. I always thought of it alongside the food processor that became a staple in so many modern kitchens (though never in ours), the whole point of which was to reduce everything to an undifferentiated pulp. (Or so I thought, anyway, never having used one.)

Kirschenbaum clears up the mystery: it seems that the ‘processor’ term came from IBM, who were marketing an office document-processing system which envisaged a process which took the document from initial outline to finished printed version to filed-away copy.

Could Theresa May be smarter (and more devious) than we think?

Martin Wolf has a typically insightful column in today’s FT (paywall) in which he argues that the only possible interpretation of Theresa May’s speeches to the Tory conference last week is that the country is on “a timetable to exit not just from the EU, but from the preferential terms of access to Eu markets on which investors, both foreign and domestic, rely. This would be a hard Brexit”.

Furthermore, he continues,

“UK trade negotiators simply could not negotiate offsetting agreements with the rest of the world. This is partly because no such possibility plausibly exists , since the EU takes almost half of the UK’s exports. It is also because the UK will not be deemed a credible negotiating partner until its EU deal is finalised. By March 2019, then, the UK is likely to find itself without preferential access to any markets.”

If you think that this is a prospect too horrendous to contemplate, then join the club. It seems incredible that a rational government could contemplate it either.

So what’s going on?

Discussing this with a colleague over lunch, he suggested an alternative explanation. It’s based on the premise that Theresa May is a rational actor who understands the logical consequences of current government policy. But she also knows that in the current febrile atmosphere, rational argument and policy-making is impossible. The failure of the sky to fall in after the Brexit vote has led to euphoria among Brexiteers and fuelled their hallucinations about the possibilities for a newly-liberated UK. (They remain unmoved by the precipitous fall in the value of the pound, arguing that it gives the UK a trading/export advantage and will eventually be seen as a good thing.)

So (my colleague continues), the thinking behind May’s conference speeches is that she needed to talk up the probability of a ‘hard’ Brexit in order to accelerate the arrival of bad news from all quarters and not just the currency markets. This will accelerate as the months go on, until it will be obvious to a majority of the population that a hard Brexit is not such a good idea after all. (The fanatical Brexiteers, nutters like Liam Fox, are — like Trump supporters — beyond the reach of logic or evidence, but they’re a minority). So, in a year or so, when the full awfulness of Brexit becomes manifestly clear, the way will be open for a cautious, pragmatic PM to say that, regretfully, the government will have to modify its position to safeguard the interests of the United Kingdom.

Howzat for a conspiracy theory, eh?