Those were the days

If people ask me to recommend a good book about journalism (well, British journalism anyway), I always point them at Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning and Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Of the two, I prefer Scoop, and I was reminded of it by Roy Greenslade’s Guardian piece occasioned by the provisional death certificate recently issued for Lord Lucan. Greenslade reminds us of Garth Gibbs, the archetypal Fleet Street hack who diligently pursued the ‘missing’ Earl for many years:

Gibbs, who died in 2011, was renowned for his tenacious belief that he was only ever one step behind the missing peer. Not that he minded, however, because he spent a great deal of his employer’s money travelling the world while failing to get his man.

Reflecting on the matter after 30 years of fruitless journalistic endeavour, he explained that he had adopted as his motto an observation made by the canny Sunday Express editor John Junor: “Laddie, you don’t ever want to shoot the fox. Once the fox is dead there is nothing left to chase.”

Gibbs wrote: “With that in mind I regard not finding Lord Lucan as my most spectacular success in journalism. Of course, many of my colleagues have also been fairly successful in not finding Lord Lucan. But I have successfully not found him in more exotic spots than anybody else.”

Indeed, he had. He failed to locate him after three weeks in Cape Town, which was handy because Gibbs, a South African, was able to visit friends and relatives. Nor did he find him in Macau or Hong Kong or the Bahamas.

Colleagues who liked to toast Gibbs’s heroic failures were particularly surprised when he announced that he was off to check on a Lucan sighting in Wales. They couldn’t see the point: no sunshine and no expenses.

And thus was born one of Fleet Street’s enduring myths: the plotting by reporters and photographers of sightings of Lucan in remote hotspots across the globe that ensured first class travel to spend sun-kissed days in five-star hotels.

Sigh. Those were the days.

While I’m on the subject, the latest theory about Lucan’s fate is that he shot himself at John Aspinall’s zoo, after which his body was fed to a tiger. The really shocking thing about that is that nobody saw fit to call the NSPCA.

The real impact of falling oil prices

Interesting take on it by Harold James from Princeton.

Oil seems to be going the way of timber and steel, losing its strategic importance. Large amounts of energy will still be needed for the basics of modern life, including data processing and storage, but it will increasingly come from other sources.

This is likely to have epochal consequences, as weakening oil prices undermine the authoritarian regimes that control the main producers. There is a large amount of scholarly evidence linking dependence on natural resources with poor governance – the “resource curse.” Whatever the many differences among Nigeria, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, and Iraq, all have one thing in common: Oil revenues have corrupted the political system, turning it into a deadly struggle for the spoils. As prices fall, the bandits in charge will quarrel more among themselves – and with their neighbors.

The leaders of oil-producing countries are already busy concocting narratives explaining their country’s misfortunes. Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro has taken up the Latin American left’s old, populist slogans and pointed his finger at the US. Similarly, Russian officials are drawing parallels between today’s events and the falling oil prices that undermined the Soviet Union. In both cases, the US is to blame; hydraulic fracturing in Oklahoma or Pennsylvania, according to this narrative, is the latest example of America’s projection of power abroad.

In other words, the security challenges implied by dropping oil prices are likely to be more significant than the economic risks…

The other industry that is getting ‘too big to fail’

Apropos danah boyd’s essay, Dave Winer pitches in with an equally relevant thought:

In last night’s debate, when HRC said there’s more than one street, referring to Wall St, she was challenged. She had rattled off a list other industries that had misbehaved. But she left one out, and when we look back at this election in the future, the omission, imho, will be glaring.

Neither of them mentioned the excesses of tech. They’ve enjoyed and taken advantage of an undeserved halo, and they use that to do things other industries, including the financial industry, only dream of.

The unchallenged power of tech. The press is oblivious. Politicians are mystified. The priesthood is firmly in control. That’s going to get us in trouble in the future, probably in a much bigger way than the banks got us in trouble in 2008.

We should worry about our next President being in the pocket of tech just as much if not more than we worry about them being in the pocket of banks.


No matter what you get up to in bed, there’s an app for it. Apparently.

This morning’s Observer column about the obsession with ‘datifying’ our bodies.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are obsessed with the datafication of their bodies and those who are not. I belong to the latter category: the only thing that interests me about my heart is that it is still beating. And when it isn’t I shall be past caring. But if the current craze for wearable devices such as fitness trackers is anything to go by, I may soon find myself a member of a despised minority, rather like cigarette smokers, whisky drinkers and followers of David Icke…

Read on

We’re not just in a tech bubble. Silicon Valley is a Reality Distortion Field

For my money, danah boyd is one of the smartest and most perceptive people around. This year she went to Davos, and wrote a stunning essay about what she saw there, and the implications thereof. Well worth reading in full, but here’s a sample:

Walking down the promenade through the center of Davos, it was hard not to notice the role of Silicon Valley in shaping the conversation of the powerful and elite. Not only was everyone attached to their iPhones and Androids, but companies like Salesforce and Palantir and Facebook took over storefronts and invited attendees in for coffee and discussions about Syrian migrants, while camouflaged snipers protected the scene from the roofs of nearby hotels. As new tech held fabulous parties in the newest venues, financial institutions, long the stalwarts of Davos, took over the same staid venues that they always have.

Yet, what I struggled with the most wasn’t the sheer excess of Silicon Valley in showcasing its value but the narrative that underpinned it all. I’m quite used to entrepreneurs talking hype in tech venues, but what happened at Davos was beyond the typical hype, in part because most of the non-tech people couldn’t do a reality check. They could only respond with fear. As a result, unrealistic conversations about artificial intelligence led many non-technical attendees to believe that the biggest threat to national security is humanoid killer robots, or that AI that can do everything humans can is just around the corner, threatening all but the most elite technical jobs. In other words, as I talked to attendees, I kept bumping into a 1970s science fiction narrative.

Yep. The problem is not just that we’re in a tech bubble. It’s that we’re in a Reality Distortion Field which leads those who dominate the tech industry to think that they are the centre of the universe, that Silicon Valley is the Florence of Renaissance 2.0. And — worse still — it’s a RDF that leads powerful and influential non-tech people to believe that maybe they’re right.

Like I said, danah’s piece is unmissable — and wise. Make space for it in your day.

Marvin Minsky RIP

Nice informative obituary by Martin Campbell-Kelly which includes stuff I hadn’t known. This,for example:

Minsky was an exceptional pianist, and in 1981 wrote a remarkable paper, Music, Mind and Meaning, that explored the cognitive processes in musical appreciation. In 1985 he became a founding member of the MIT Media Lab, an interdisciplinary research laboratory devoted to projects at the convergence of technology, multimedia, sciences, art and design.

His last book, The Emotion Machine (2006), which was written for the lay reader as much as the specialist, sought to understand and explain how “thinking” works, and to explain such phenomena as consciousness and common sense. He was the recipient of many academic awards and scientific honours, including, in 1969, the AM Turing award of the Association for Computing Machinery.

So where do we ‘Go’ from here?

Last Sunday’s Observer column:

Last week, researchers at the artificial intelligence company DeepMind, which is now owned by Google, announced an extraordinary breakthrough: in October last, a DeepMind computing system called AlphaGo had defeated the reigning European champion player of the ancient Chinese game go by five games to nil. The victory was announced last week in a paper published in the scientific journal Nature.

So what? Computers have been getting better and better at board games for yonks. Way back in the dark ages of 1997, for example, IBM’s Deep Blue machine beat the then world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, at chess. So surely go, which is played not with six different pieces but black and white tokens – would be a pushover? Not so: the number of possible positions in go outnumber the number of atoms in the universe and far exceed the number of possibilities in chess…

Read on

Economics in an age of abundance

Brad de Long is one of my favourite bloggers — and economists. Here he is brooding on a problem that once preoccupied Keynes and is likely to surface again, if we do crack the problem of increasing productivity with robotics — and displacing employment. Sample:

There is no shortage of problems to worry about: the destructive power of our nuclear weapons, the pig-headed nature of our politics, the potentially enormous social disruptions that will be caused by climate change. But the number one priority for economists – indeed, for humankind – is finding ways to spur equitable economic growth.
But job number two– developing economic theories to guide societies in an age of abundance – is no less complicated. Some of the problems that are likely to emerge are already becoming obvious. Today, many people derive their self-esteem from their jobs. As labor becomes a less important part of the economy, and working-age men, in particular, become a smaller proportion of the workforce, problems related to social inclusion are bound to become both more chronic and more acute.

Such a trend could have consequences extending far beyond the personal or the emotional, creating a population that is, to borrow a phrase from the Nobel-laureate economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, easily phished for phools. In other words, they will be targeted by those who do not have their wellbeing as their primary goal – scammers like Bernie Madoff, corporate interests like McDonalds or tobacco companies, the guru of the month, or cash-strapped governments running exploitative lotteries.
Problems like these will require a very different type of economics from the one championed by Adam Smith. Instead of working to protect natural liberty where possible, and building institutions to approximate its effects elsewhere, the central challenge will be to help people protect themselves from manipulation.