How network effects amplify lies

This morning’s Observer column:

In the 1930s, a maverick young journalist named Claud Cockburn resigned from the Times and, with £40 borrowed from an Oxford friend, bought a mimeograph machine (a low-cost duplicating machine that worked by forcing ink though a stencil on to paper). With it he set up the Week, a weekly newsletter available by subscription in which Cockburn printed news and gossip that came to him from his diverse group of contacts in both the British and German establishments.

From the beginning the Week printed stuff that the mainstream newspapers wouldn’t touch because of fears of running foul of the Official Secrets Act, the libel laws or the political establishment. Cockburn, having few assets and a rackety lifestyle, proceeded as if none of this applied to him. But people in the know – the third secretaries of foreign embassies, for example, or City bankers – quickly recognised the value of the Week (for the same reasons as they now read Private Eye). Nevertheless the circulation of Cockburn’s scandal sheet remained confined to this small elite circle – and its finances were correspondingly dodgy.

And then one day everything changed…

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The really significant thing about cryptocurrencies: the blockchain

The Bitcoin boom is leading many people to lose their marbles. It’s also distracting public attention from what really important about cryptocurrencies — the blockchain or public ledger that underpins them. This is the really significant innovation IMHO, but it’s hard to convince people who know little about the technology and see just the Bitcoin hype in mainstream media.

Tyler Cowen has a thoughtful Bloomberg column about this, in which he comes up with a really useful suggestion:

If you think of these assets as “cryptocurrencies,” central bank involvement will seem natural, because of course central banks do manage currencies. Instead, this new class of assets is better conceptualized as ledger systems, designed to create agreement about some states of the world without the final judgment of a centralized authority, which use a crypto asset to pay participants for maintaining the flow and accuracy of information. Arguably these innovations come closer to being substitutes for corporations and legal systems than for currencies.

I like that: a blockchain is a public ledger which creates agreement about some state(s) of the world without the need for a centralised authority.

The biggest problem with the technology at the moment is that it doesn’t scale because of the computing (and associated environmental costs. But maybe we will find a way of overcoming this.

Empire 2.0

Now that it’s becoming clear to the Brexiteers that unless they come up with a solution to the Irish border question then everything could fall apart when the UK next meets the EU in December. Fintan O’Toole neatly decodes the xenophobic rants now emerging from the UK tabloids:

The “political process” is the Brexit negotiations, in which Britain was supposed to table “specific solutions” on Ireland by October. That deadline had to be extended to mid-December. Yet here, a month before a decision has to be made, we have the most senior British officials stating openly that they still don’t understand the problem, let alone envisage a concrete solution.

So what is the Irish government supposed to do? What happens with the border is a vital national interest. Ireland is desperate to hear what Britain has in mind. Instead, it has been told not to worry its pretty little head about it, but trust in the reassurances of its betters. It is being placed in the position of a 1950s wife, whose husband is betting the house on a horse race while he tells her, with increasingly irritation, to stop worrying because the nag is sure to romp home.

Behind this reckless arrogance, there is an assumption that Ireland is an eccentric little offshoot of Britain that must shut its gob and stop asking awkward questions. It is, in fact, a sovereign country with the full backing of 26 other EU member states – and how strange it is that we have reached a point where this comes as an unpleasant surprise to so many people in London.

The real cost of a Bitcoin

This morning’s Observer column:

Once upon a time, a very long time ago – 2009 in fact – there was a brief but interesting controversy about the carbon footprint of a Google search. It was kicked off by a newspaper story reporting a “calculation” of mysterious origin that suggested a single Google search generated 7 grams of CO2, which is about half of the carbon footprint of boiling a kettle. Irked by this, Google responded with a blogpost saying that this estimate was much too high. “In terms of greenhouse gases,” the company said, “one Google search is equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO2. The current EU standard for tailpipe [exhaust] emissions calls for 140 grams of CO2 per kilometre driven, but most cars don’t reach that level yet. Thus, the average car driven for one kilometre (0.6 miles for those in the US) produces as many greenhouse gases as a thousand Google searches.”

Every service that Google provides is provided via its huge data centres, which consume vast amounts of electricity to power and cool the servers, and are therefore responsible for the emission of significant amounts of CO2. Since the advent of the modern smartphone in about 2007 our reliance on distant data centres has become total, because everything we do on our phones involves an interaction with the “cloud” and therefore has a carbon footprint.

The size of this footprint has been growing…

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The end of The End of History

Sombre column in Spiegel Online occasioned by the political infighting in Berlin:

The idea that democracy was somehow the endpoint of development was megalomaniac. As long as there is something to redistribute, every system has it easy. But in the past 11 years, freedom around the world has receded. Of 195 states only 87 are still free, 59 are partially free and 49 are not free at all according to the NGO Freedom House. Turkey and Russia have turned their backs on the group of democracies while Poland and Hungary look to be not far behind. Meanwhile, the United States is foundering. One would hope that should be enough to focus minds in Berlin. There is, after all, a lot at stake.

There is. The thing that struck me about the column, though, was the reference to our complacency about the inevitability of liberal democracy. I love Francis Fukuyama’s two books about political order (‘origins’ and ‘decay’), but the first volume, in particular, is a bit like Darwin’s Origin of Species — with liberal democracy coming to serve as the political version of Homo Sapiens. (That’s what “getting to Denmark” was all about.)

The problem is that evolution is an ongoing process. Even Homo Sapiens continues to evolve, but at a relatively leisurely pace. Political evolution, on the other hand, runs at a much faster pace. Liberal democracy might, in the longer view of history, just turn out to be a blip.

High IQ + childlike naiveté = Silicon Valley

Today’s Observer column:

Put simply, what Google and Facebook have built is a pair of amazingly sophisticated, computer-driven engines for extracting users’ personal information and data trails, refining them for sale to advertisers in high-speed data-trading auctions that are entirely unregulated and opaque to everyone except the companies themselves.

The purpose of this infrastructure was to enable companies to target people with carefully customised commercial messages and, as far as we know, they are pretty good at that. (Though some advertisers are beginning to wonder if these systems are quite as good as Google and Facebook claim.) And in doing this, Zuckerberg, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and co wrote themselves licences to print money and build insanely profitable companies.

It never seems to have occurred to them that their advertising engines could also be used to deliver precisely targeted ideological and political messages to voters. Hence the obvious question: how could such smart people be so stupid?

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Sexual predation and power

Sobering editorial by Gideon Lichfield of Quartz:

Nobody can deny the ground has shifted in America. Formerly invincible men are tumbling one by one as victims come out with their stories of sexual assault. Some, like Harvey Weinstein, were already fading from power, but others, like Louis CK, were still at the height of it.

Yet one man continues to defy America’s new moral norm: its president. Seventeen women have accused Donald Trump of sexual harassment. Their claims are more numerous and no less credible than those against Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for senator in Alabama. Senate leader Mitch McConnell said this week, “I believe the women” who accused Moore, and that he “should step aside.” But asked if he believes the women who accused Trump, McConnell refused to answer. (Trump’s position: Every one of those 17 women is lying.)

So yes, the ground has shifted, but some still stand high enough on it to escape the cold, swirling waters of justice. In other words, it’s still, in the end, about power. Trump’s power is that the party still needs him (or believes it does). That means it will blatantly ignore accusations that would put any other man on the street, if not in jail.

Still, if you have to be president to achieve that sort of immunity, things aren’t so bad, right? Wrong. What Trump proves is not that you have to be president, just that you have to have leverage…

Yep. And, right on cue, comes this from the New York Times:

A year later, after a wave of harassment claims against powerful men in entertainment, politics, the arts and the news media, the discussion has come full circle with President Trump criticizing the latest politician exposed for sexual misconduct even as he continues to deny any of the accusations against him.

In this case, Mr. Trump focused his Twitter-fueled mockery on a Democratic senator while largely avoiding a similar condemnation of a Republican Senate candidate facing far more allegations. The turn in the political dialogue threatened to transform a moment of cleansing debate about sexual harassment into another weapon in the war between the political parties, led by the president himself.

Lifetime achievement

My friend Quentin has — deservedly — been given a Lifetime Achievement Award (called a Lovie after Ada Lovelace) for inventing the webcam. Here’s the presentation speech by Sophie Wilson (who designed the instruction set for the ARM processor and so also helped to shape our networked world):

And here is Quentin’s acceptance speech. He must have been moved by the award, because he briefly blanks as he’s getting into his stride. Normally, he’s the most fluent speaker I know. But note his graceful and witty recovery, once he’s found his notes.

This is IMHO long-overdue recognition for a technology pioneer.

Brexit: Fawlty Towers redux

Nice Observer piece by Fintan O’Toole:

We have been witnessing a very English farce, but one with a wholly new twist. In this version of Fawlty Towers, it is not Manuel the stereotypical foreigner who goes around saying: “Qué?” and: “I know nawthing!” It is the all-too-English Basil, acting out a pantomime of feigned perplexity.

Yeah, but Fawlty Towers was funny. This farce is anything but.

On not being evil

This morning’s Observer column:

The motto “don’t be evil” has always seemed to me to be a daft mantra for a public company, but for years that was the flag under which Google sailed. It was a heading in the letter that the two founders wrote to the US Securities and Exchange Commission prior to the company’s flotation on the Nasdaq stock market in 2004. “We believe strongly,” Sergey Brin and Larry Page declared, “that in the long term, we will be better served – as shareholders and in all other ways – by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains. This is an important aspect of our culture and is broadly shared within the company.” Two years ago, when Google morphed into Alphabet – its new parent company – the motto changed. Instead of “don’t be evil” it became “do the right thing”.

Heartwarming, eh? But still a strange motto for a public corporation. I mean to say, what’s “right” in this context? And who decides? Since Google/Alphabet does not get into specifics, let me help them out. The “right thing” is “whatever maximises shareholder value”, because in our crazy neoliberal world that’s what public corporations do. In fact, I suspect that if Google decided that doing the right thing might have an adverse impact on the aforementioned value, then its directors would be sued by activist shareholders for dereliction of their fiduciary duty.

Which brings me to YouTube Kids…

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