You’re never extreme enough for YouTube’s recommendation algorithm

This morning’s Observer column:

Early one Sunday morning a month ago, a German carpenter was fatally stabbed in a street fight in Chemnitz in eastern Germany. Little is known about how the brawl started, but rumours rapidly circulated online that the man was defending a woman from sexual assault. Within hours of his death, rumours that his killers were two refugees triggered a violent reaction. For two nights running, thousands of rightwing extremists and sympathisers took to the streets of the city. Shocking videos of demonstrators openly using the Nazi salute (a criminal offence in Germany) and chasing and attacking people of foreign appearance rapidly appeared online.

The reverberations of the riots continue to roil German politics and society. They appear to have given a massive boost to the right-wing AfD party, for example, which according to some opinion polls is now in second place in Germany. And last week, Angela Merkel removed the head of the domestic intelligence agency, Hans-Georg Maaßen, from his post after he faced criticism for his reaction to anti-immigrant protests in the city of Chemnitz. He had cast doubt on the authenticity of the videos showing dark-skinned people being chased and attacked.

What’s going on? How did many Germans become so worked up about a street brawl?

Read on

Fail again. Fail better

Roger Cohen, writing in the New York Times:

ATHENS — Gazing at the Acropolis the other day from an Athens rooftop, I was reminded of Samuel Beckett’s words: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Athenian democracy, a male preserve, far from universal, failed in due course. Still, to see that white citadel in the Athenian dawn is to be reminded of the millenniums of human striving for a political system permitting citizens to exercise power through the ballot box: government of the people, by the people, for the people, as Lincoln put it.

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

It’s important to put our current democratic travails in perspective. At its best, democracy is a culture that empowers free citizens to participate in shaping their fates. At its worst, it is a charade in which civic bonds erode, power accrues to the few, self-aggrandizement becomes the norm, and tolerance and restraint are consumed by the howling mob. Then the very word becomes a sham, a disguise deployed by autocrats like Vladimir Putin.

Computational photography

It’s hard to believe but Apple has 800 people working just on the iPhone camera. Every so often, we get a glimpse of what they are doing. Basically, they’re using computation to enhance what can be obtained from a pretty small sensor. One sees this in the way HDR (High Dynamic Range) seems to be built-in to every iPhone X photograph. And now we’re seeing it in the way the camera can produce the kind of convincing bokeh(the blur produced in the out-of-focus parts of an image produced by a lens) that could hitherto only be got from particular kinds of optical lenses at wide apertures.

Matthew Panzarino, who is a professional photographer, has a useful review of the new iPhone XS in which he comments on this:

Unwilling to settle for a templatized bokeh that felt good and leave it that, the camera team went the extra mile and created an algorithmic model that contains virtual ‘characteristics’ of the iPhone XS’s lens. Just as a photographer might pick one lens or another for a particular effect, the camera team built out the bokeh model after testing a multitude of lenses from all of the classic camera systems.

Really striking, though, is an example Panzarino uses of how a post-hoc adjustable depth of focus can be really useful. He shows a photograph of himself with his young son perched on his shoulders.

And an adjustable depth of focus isn’t just good for blurring, it’s also good for un-blurring. This portrait mode selfie placed my son in the blurry zone because it focused on my face. Sure, I could turn the portrait mode off on an iPhone X and get everything sharp, but now I can choose to “add” him to the in-focus area while still leaving the background blurry. Super cool feature I think is going to get a lot of use.

Yep. Once, photography was all about optics. From now on it’ll increasingly be about computation.

The significance of the new Apple watch

Jon Gruber nails it with a typically insightful piece:

All three products (counting XS and XS Max as a single product in two sizes, which, as I’ll explain later, is how to think about them) are interesting, but to me, the Series 4 watch was the standout of the show. The XS and XR iPhones are refinements to the landmark X that was announced last year. The Series 4 watch is a landmark redesign.

I would argue that the landmark iPhone models were the original, the iPhone 4, the iPhone 6, and the iPhone X. It’s kind of interesting to me how the Apple Watch’s evolution has paralleled the iPhone’s. A first-generation model like nothing seen before, good enough to change an entire industry but deeply flawed in certain obvious ways. Second and third generation models that simply address those obvious flaws. And then a fourth generation model that takes things to an altogether new level, particularly pertaining to the display and the physical case of the device.

In the presentation, Apple executives made a big deal of the ECG feature of the new watch, especially the fact that it has FDA clearance. It is a big deal — as anyone with heart trouble will confirm. But Apple is being disingenuous in not acknowledging that they are late to this particular party. A company called AliveCor has been marketing an ECG monitor for the iPhone — and (irony of ironies) a special watch-band for the Apple Watch for some years. I know about it because a friend of mine found it to be a life-enhancing piece of kit. In fact, in lectures over the last two years I’ve been citing it as an example of the unquestionable upsides of mobile technology.

I guess those billionaire executives can’t bring themselves to admit that they’re behind some curves. That’s not to say that their implementation of the ECG tech isn’t neat. It is. But it’s not the first.

Controlling digital giants: new ideas wanted

This morning’s Observer column:

The five biggest companies in the world are now all digital giants, each wielding monopolistic power in their markets. We are increasingly aware that some of their activities are socially damaging: they are deepening inequality, avoiding taxation, undermining democratic processes, creating addictive products, eroding privacy and so on. And yet, with the odd exception (mostly represented by the European commission), our societies seem transfixed by them, like rabbits paralysed in the tractor’s headlights. Politicians bleat about the need to do something about the digital giants, but so far it’s been all talk and no action.

This is strange because democracies have extensive legal toolkits for dealing with overweening corporate power. We have antitrust and competition laws, monopolies and merger commissions and federal trade commissions coming out of our ears. And yet – again with the single exception of the European commission – they seem unable to deal with the digital giants. Why?

The answer is partly historical and partly ideological…

Read on

Why Google wants to get back into China

From Kara Swisher:

Rather than obsessions about whether Google is ‘censoring’ right-wing politicians, Washington lawmakers

should take all their sanctimony and direct it at the China issue, which actually deserves some scrutiny. Perhaps that is the real reason Google avoided sending its current chief executive, Sundar Pichai, to the recent Senate hearings, so he could avoid explaining what it was thinking when it came China 2.0: Now With 100 Percent More Hypocrisy.

Google seems to have no problem climbing down off its high horse to grab the thing it needs in China.

Which is, simply put, more data.

In his new book, “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order,” Dr. Lee [Dr Jai-Fu Lee, head of Google China] argues that advances in artificial intelligence — the future of computing — will be enjoyed only by those with the ability to essentially shove increasing amounts of data into the maw of the machine.

Right now, he notes, with China’s aggressive use of sensors and you-say-facial-recognition-I-say-surveillance, a population hooked on mobile in a much more significant way than here and consumers more willing to trade away their privacy for digital convenience, China’s internet companies have access to 10 to 15 times more data than American ones. Dr. Lee and others have called it a “data gap” that Google has to bridge, and soon, if it wants to remain competitive.

As James Carville might have said: it’s the data, stoopid.

Quote of the Day

“Saint Petersburg in revolt gave us Vladimir Nabobov, Isaiah Berlin, and Ayn Rand. The first was a novelist, the second a philosopher. The third was neither but thought she was both.”

Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind.

Negative equilibrium

From The Economist:

The two major parties are incompetent as well as divided. Their leaders, a charisma-free robot and a superannuated Marxist, are two of the most unimpressive in recent history. The cabinet and shadow cabinet are stuffed with hangers-on. Chris Grayling made a thorough hash of things as justice secretary, only to be put in charge of transport, where he has made an even bigger mess. Leslie Rowse, a historian of Elizabethan England, argued that the basic rule of academic life was that second-raters would always appoint third-raters over first-raters. Rowse’s rule now applies to politics on both sides of the parliamentary aisle.

The result is a negative equilibrium. The government can get away with being useless because it faces a useless opposition, and vice versa. The political system is designed to hold regular tests of strength, as government ministers explain their policies to Parliament. But these tests of strength have turned into tests of weakness, as incompetent opposition spokesmen fail to hold incompetent ministers to account. It is notable that the only serious blow against a minister in recent months was struck by a backbencher, Yvette Cooper, who dispatched Amber Rudd, then home secretary, during a committee meeting.

If…

Michael Tomasky, writing in the New York Review of Books:

Arguably every single tweet the president writes about the investigation, attacking Mueller’s “13 Angry Democrats” and denouncing it as an invariably upper-cased Witch Hunt, is an attempt to obstruct justice; if you don’t think so, get yourself placed under federal investigation and try mimicking Trump’s Twitter habits and see what happens to you.

All of this doesn’t begin to detail what Mueller and his team have learned from interviews about what took place in private. It’s a reasonable bet, then, that Mueller will find that Trump and others around him—former press aide Hope Hicks, possibly his son Donald Jr., maybe Jared Kushner, other campaign associates and hangers-on—have lied or tried to quash or in some way compromise the investigation.

If that happens, what comes next? Three days before Trump’s inauguration, the neoconservative Bush administration official Eliot A. Cohen wrote that “this will be a slogging match until the end.” He felt confident, however, that “the institutions will contain him and the laws will restrain him if enough people care about both, and do not yield to fear of him and whatever leverage he tries to exert from his mighty office.”

Of those forty-five words of Cohen’s, the most important is “if.”

Spot on. And, given the current crop of Republicans in both the House and the Senate, I think we know the answer.