How the American dream ended

Bleak essay by Frank Rich on the national mood. Sample:

In the Digital Century, unlike the preceding American Century, the largest corporations are not admired as sources of jobs, can-do-ism, and tangible goods that might enrich and empower all. They’re seen instead as impenetrable black boxes where our most intimate personal secrets are bought and sold to further fatten a shadowy Über-class of obscene wealth and privilege trading behind velvet ropes in elite cryptocurrencies. Though only a tiny percentage of Americans are coal miners, many more Americans feel like coal miners in terms of their beleaguered financial status and future prospects. It’s a small imaginative leap to think of yourself as a serf in a society where Facebook owns and markets your face and Alphabet does the same with your language (the alphabet, literally) while paying bogus respects to the dying right to privacy.

It would be easy to blame the national mood all on Donald J. Trump, but that would be underrating its severity and overrating Trump’s role in creating it (as opposed to exacerbating it). Trump’s genius has been to exploit and weaponize the discontent that has been brewing over decades of globalization and technological upheaval. He did so in part by discarding the bedrock axiom of post–World War II American politics that anyone running for president must sparkle with the FDR-patented, chin-jutting optimism that helped propel John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan to the White House. Trump ran instead on the idea that America was, as his lingo would have it, a shithole country in desperate need of being made great again. “Sadly, the American Dream is dead,” he declared, glowering, on that fateful day in 2015 when he came down the Trump Tower escalator to announce his candidacy. He saw a market in merchandising pessimism as patriotism and cornered it. His diagnosis that the system was “rigged” was not wrong, but his ruse of “fixing” it has been to enrich himself, his family, and his coterie of grifters with the full collaboration of his party’s cynical and avaricious Establishment.

Great essay. Worth reading in full.

Does TV damage your sex life?

When I was a kid people used to say that television had ruined the art of conversation. Strangely, this assertion was often made by pompous people who were not exactly noted conversationalists. And I had a friend who used to say that the best conversations in his house were between him and the TV. But now some economists have tackled the much more important question of whether TV affects viewers’ sex lives. This NBER paper — “Does Television Kill Your Sex Life? Microeconometric Evidence from 80 Countries”, by Adrienne Lucas and Nicholas Wilson, argues that it does.

The Abstract reads, in part:

This paper examines the association between television ownership and coital frequency using data from nearly 4 million individuals in national household surveys in 80 countries from 5 continents. The results suggest that while television may not kill your sex life, it is associated with some sex life morbidity. Under our most conservative estimate, we find that television ownership is associated with approximately a 6% reduction in the likelihood of having had sex in the past week, consistent with a small degree of substitutability between television viewing and sexual activity. Household wealth and reproductive health knowledge do not appear to be driving this association.

So now we know!

Will Tesla just be the Apple of the electric-car market?

Ben Evans is one of the most perceptive observers of the tech industry.

When I bought my first Toyota Prius hybrid many years ago I marvelled at the engineering ingenuity that went into making hybrid tech so seamless. And then realised that (a) Toyota would license the drivetrain to other manufacturers and (b) the technology would eventually be commoditised. So now almost every car manufacturer offers hybrid models even though few of them actually developed the drivetrain themselves. It’s Brian Arthur’s model of technological innovation at work.

The iPhone — multitouch — analogy is useful. Most smartphones are not iPhones, but most of the profits from smartphones are currently captured by Apple. The big question for Tesla is whether — when electric cars become mundane — it can hold onto Apple-scale margins. In that context, you could say that Nissan — with its Leaf — might be the Samsung of the electric car business.

Quote of the Day

”When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion, and we are admonished not to call it fake news in order not to hurt the feelings of the faithful (or incur their wrath).”

Yuval Noah Harari, Observer, 5 August 2018.

The commodification of machine learning

From The Register this morning:

The latest version of TensorFlow can now be run on the Raspberry Pi.

“Thanks to a collaboration with the Raspberry Pi Foundation, we’re now happy to say that the latest 1.9 release of TensorFlow can be installed from pre-built binaries using Python’s pip package system,” according to a blog post written by Pete Warden, an engineer working on the TensorFlow team at Google.

It’s pretty easy to install if you’ve got a Raspberry Pi running Raspbian 9.0 and either Python 2.7 or anything newer than Python 3.4. After that it’s only a few simple lines of code, and you’re done.

Here’s a quick overview on how to install it, it also includes some troubleshooting advice just in case you run into some problems.

Quote of the Day

If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?

“I like the number eight. When you turn it through 180 degrees, it becomes infinity.”

Hans Ulrich Obrist, quoted in the Financial Times, 4/5 August 2018.

LATER Clive Page emails to point out that the trick only works if you rotate 8 through 90 degrees! Which is embarrassing for the esteemed FT sub-editors, not to mention this blogger!

Global Warning

I’m reading Nick Harkaway’s new novel, Gnomon which, like Dave Eggars’s The Circle, provides a gripping insight into our surveillance-driven future.

Before publication, Harkaway wrote an interesting blog post about why he embarked on the book. Here’s an excerpt from that post:

I remember the days.

I remember the halcyon days of 2014, when I started writing Gnomon and I thought I was going to produce a short book (ha ha ha) in a kind of Umberto Eco-Winterson-Borges mode, maybe with a dash of Bradbury and PKD, and it would be about realities and unreliable narrators and criminal angels in prisons made of time, and bankers and alchemists, and it would also be a warning about the dangers of creeping authoritarianism. (And no, you’re right: creatively speaking I had NO IDEA what I was getting myself into.)

I remember the luxury of saying “we must be precautionary about surveillance laws, about human rights violations, because one day the liberal democracies might start electing monsters and making bad pathways, and we’ll want solid protections from our governments’ over-reach.”


I remember the halcyon days of April 2016 when I thought I’d missed the boat and I hadn’t written a warning at all, but a sort of melancholic state of the nation, and I really did think things might get better from there. Then Brexit came – I was half expecting that – and then Trump – which I was really not – and now here we are, with the UK boiling as May’s government and Corbyn’s Labour sit on their hands and clock ticks down and the negotiating table is blank except for a few sheets of crumpled scrap paper, and the only global certainty seems to be that this US administration will try to wreck every decent thing the international community has attempted in my lifetime, with the occasional connivance of our own leaders when they aren’t busy tearing one another to bits.

And now I’m pretty sure I did write a warning after all.

He did.

Magical thinking and AI

This morning’s Observer column:

”Any sufficiently advanced technology,” wrote the sci-fi eminence grise Arthur C Clarke, “is indistinguishable from magic.” This quotation, endlessly recycled by tech boosters, is possibly the most pernicious utterance Clarke ever made because it encourages hypnotised wonderment and disables our critical faculties. For if something is “magic” then by definition it is inexplicable. There’s no point in asking questions about it; just accept it for what it is, lie back and suspend disbelief.

Currently, the technology that most attracts magical thinking is artificial intelligence (AI). Enthusiasts portray it as the most important thing since the invention of the wheel. Pessimists view it as an existential threat to humanity: the first “superintelligent” machine we build will be the beginning of the end for humankind; the only question thereafter will be whether smart machines will keep us as pets.

In both cases there seems to be an inverse correlation between the intensity of people’s convictions about AI and their actual knowledge of the technology…

Read on

Does media coverage drive populism? Or is it the other way round?

Very interesting piece of academic research. Title is: “Does Media Coverage Drive Public Support for UKIP or Does Public Support for UKIP Drive Media Coverage?”

Abstract reads:

Previous research suggests media attention may increase support for populist right-wing parties, but extant evidence is mostly limited to proportional representation systems in which such an effect would be most likely. At the same time, in the United Kingdom’s first-past-the-post system, an ongoing political and regulatory debate revolves around whether the media give disproportionate coverage to the populist right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP). This study uses a mixed-methods research design to investigate the causal dynamics of UKIP support and media coverage as an especially valuable case. Vector autoregression, using monthly, aggregate time-series data from January 2004 to April 2017, provides new evidence consistent with a model in which media coverage drives party support, but not vice versa. The article identifies key periods in which stagnating or declining support for UKIP is followed by increases in media coverage and subsequent increases in public support. The findings show that media coverage may drive public support for right-wing populist parties in a substantively non-trivial fashion that is irreducible to previous levels of public support, even in a national institutional environment least supportive of such an effect. The findings have implications for political debates in the UK and potentially other liberal democracies.