Some good news — and it might even be true!

Six months ago, Breitbart was riding the wave of the election, plotting an international expansion to provide a platform to spread far-right, populist views in Europe. But today, Breitbart is facing traffic declines, advertiser blacklists, campaigns for marketers to steer clear and even a petition within Amazon for it to stop providing ad services.

There were just 26 brands appearing on Breitbart in May, down from a high of 242 in March, according to MediaRadar, which tracks ads on websites. Many conservative sites, including Townhall, The Blaze and National Review, have also had declines, although those declines are much less pronounced than Breitbart, according to MediaRadar.

Traffic numbers tell another part of the story. Breitbart had 10.8 million uniques in April, down 13 percent from a year ago, according to comScore. (However, many news sites peaked after Donald Trump’s inauguration and have seen audience decline since then; Breitbart was 67th among news/information sites in April, little unchanged from a year ago when it was 62nd.)


The problem with immigration quotas

From Tim Hartford:

Unexpected definitions can affect targets as well as trends. In the UK, the most notorious target is the one that keeps being missed: a promise to keep net migration under 100,000. In 2010 the then prime minister David Cameron challenged voters to kick him out if he missed the target. He did, and in a way, so did they. Encouraged by six years of failure to hit the target as home secretary, Theresa May has, now as prime minister, renewed the promise again.

How is this to be achieved? Leaving the EU won’t do the job alone: net immigration from outside the bloc has consistently exceeded 100,000. So attention has turned to a policy that many people regard as obvious: keep low-skilled immigrants out, and prioritise the highly skilled. For example, a recent policy paper published by the lobby group “Leave Means Leave” calls for a “moratorium on unskilled visas”. The paper proposes that working visas should be issued only to those who meet certain requirements, including a job offer on a salary of at least £35,000.

But this is an interesting slippage in the use of the word “unskilled”. About three quarters of UK employees earn less than £35,000, and as Jonathan Portes of King’s College London points out, the majority of nurses, primary schoolteachers, technicians, paralegals and chemists earn less than this figure.

Proposing an end to “unskilled migration” sounds reasonable to many voters; they might find it less reasonable if they realised that some definitions of “unskilled” would exclude a teacher or an intensive care nurse.

What happened? And how did we get here?

Very thoughtful post by Willard McCarty in the Digital Humanities newsletter:

In the wake of the latest terrorist attack in London, the Scottish novelist and editor Andrew O’Hagan spoke on Radio 4 this morning about the Internet.

He recalled the millenarian hopes for it during his youth and contrasted them with what has become of it in the hands of those with evil intentions. His conclusion (spoken in sorrow) was that “We are not good enough as people to have an unrestricted network”. We need “a battalion of mindful editors” to regulate it, he said.

Perhaps neither seems surprising now; once, as O’Hagan remarked, the Internet seemed to many a cure for the world’s problems, as indeed the telephone did in its early days. But the darkness visible of terrorism isn’t the only sign of the times. I think, for example, of that unmoderated online forum recently shouted down during a discussion of the word ‘motherboard’ and then shut down to figure out where from here. Yes, professionally we live in a sheltered world, but the problems at the root of seemingly minor annoyances are very real — and applicable out there, where people run mortal risks.

Consider that the “battalion of mindful editors” requires the recruitment and training our universities should be able to give, indeed should be giving. But they are crippled, as social anthropologist Marilyn Strathern wrote in 1992, by an Enterprise Culture which “like a slick that smothers everything in shine” gives us workplaces “where students are supposed to mean numbers, public accountability must be interpreted as resource management, and education has to appear as a service for customers”.1

  1. Marilyn Strathern, “Introduction: Artificial Life”, in Reproducing the Future: Anthropology, Kinship and the New Reproductive Technologies (Manchester University Press, 1992), p.8. 

Theresa May’s golden oldie

Cory Doctorow, commenting on May’s latest outburst:

Theresa May doesn’t understand technology very well, so she doesn’t actually know what she’s asking for.

For Theresa May’s proposal to work, she will need to stop Britons from installing software that comes from software creators who are out of her jurisdiction. The very best in secure communications are already free/open source projects, maintained by thousands of independent programmers around the world. They are widely available, and thanks to things like cryptographic signing, it is possible to download these packages from any server in the world (not just big ones like Github) and verify, with a very high degree of confidence, that the software you’ve downloaded hasn’t been tampered with…

So here, according to Cory, is what she would need to do to implement her policy:

  • All Britons’ communications must be easy for criminals, voyeurs and foreign spies to intercept

  • Any firms within reach of the UK government must be banned from producing secure software

  • All major code repositories, such as Github and Sourceforge, must be blocked

  • Search engines must not answer queries about web-pages that carry secure software

  • Virtually all academic security work in the UK must cease — security research must only take place in proprietary research environments where there is no onus to publish one’s findings

  • All data packets in and out of the country, and within the country, must be subject to Chinese-style deep-packet inspection and any packets that appear to originate from secure software must be dropped

  • Existing walled gardens (like Ios and games consoles) must be ordered to ban their users from installing secure software

  • Anyone visiting the country from abroad must have their smartphones held at the border until they leave

  • Proprietary operating system vendors (Microsoft and Apple) must be ordered to redesign their operating systems as walled gardens that only allow users to run software from an app store, which will not sell or give secure software to Britons

  • Free/open source operating systems — that power the energy, banking, ecommerce, and infrastructure sectors — must be banned outright.

Oh, and of course, at the same time the UK must remain “the best place in the world to do business”

Kasparov: now racing with — rather than against — the machine

My Observer review of Garry Kasparov’s new book — Deep Thinking:

Garry Kasparov is arguably the greatest chess player of all time. From 1986 until his retirement in 2005, he was ranked world No 1. He is also a leading human rights activist and is probably close to the top of Vladimir Putin’s hitlist, not least because he tried to run against him for the Russian presidency in 2007. But for people who are interested only in technology, Kasparov is probably best known as the first world champion to be beaten by a machine. In 1997, in a famous six-game match with the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue, he lost 3½-2½.

In the grand scheme of things, losing by one game in a six-game match might not seem much, but at the time it was seen as a major milestone in the long march towards “artificial” intelligence (AI). With the 20/20 vision of hindsight we can view it in a less apocalyptic light: the triumph of Deep Blue was really a victory of brute computing power, clever programming and the ruthless determination of a huge but struggling corporation to exploit the PR advantages of having one of its products do something that would impress the world’s media. But if you believe that AI has something to do with cognition, then Kasparov’s epochal defeat looks like a sideshow.

That it retains its fascination owes more to the popular view of proficiency at chess as a proxy for superintelligence rather than as possession of a very specialised skill…

Read on

And see also Kasparov’s long conversation with Tyler Cowen.

Deaths from terrorism in the UK: some context

From The Economist.

I guess most people in the UK have forgotten the IRA campaign in the 1970s and 1980s. Or the Lockerbie bombing in 1988. The difference between then and now (apart from the numbers killed and injured) is that the IRA had a set of ‘political’ objectives, and in the end it was possible to negotiate with them — which is how the Good Friday Agreement came about. But Islamic terrorism doesn’t have any negotiable objectives — unless you count the extermination of ‘infidels’ as one.

Celebrating Walt

This morning’s Observer column:

Walt Mossberg has written his final column. Some people in the tech industry will probably have heaved a sigh of relief, because the one guy in mainstream journalism who never drank their Kool-Aid is going dark. But for those of us who value common sense and a cussedly independent temperament, his retirement is a moment for reflection…

Read on

Theresa May’s foolish gamble

One of the hallmarks of a mature democracy is that the rights of minorities are respected. At the moment, the UK is not a mature democracy in that sense. The Brexit referendum vote was 52% for, 48% against: in raw numbers that’s 17,410,742 for and 16,141,241 against. But somehow the 48% became — like the Supreme Court judges who concluded that Article 50 could not be triggered without a vote in the (sovereign) parliament — “enemies of the people”. But what’s even more extraordinary is the way the 48% of us who voted for Remain have gone quiet.

Turnout on June 23, 2016 was 72.2% of a total electorate of 46,500,001, which is pretty good by British standards. But if you look at the raw numbers, what happened is that 37% of all the people eligible to vote favoured leaving the EU, while 34% opted to remain. Yet if one were to judge from the hysteria of the Brexiteers, it was as if 99.9% of the entire population were in favour of leaving the EU, and those who dissented were just a tiny band of ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies of the people’.

The numbers suggest that anyone who takes parliamentary sovereignty seriously — and after all that is what “taking back control” is supposed to be about — should be in favour of having a parliamentary vote on the exit terms when they are finally agreed. The outcome of that vote may well be to accept the terms and depart. But there has to be a vote.

Back to the strange passivity of the remainders, though. One of them was Theresa May. She was known to be a Remainer, even if a half-hearted one. But she seemed to be transfixed by the result after she became Prime Minister, and was perhaps frightened by the hysterical abuse visited upon the Supreme Court by the Daily Mail and the tabloid press. She may also have been oppressed — as her predecessor was — by the xenophobic, anti-EU cohort in her own party. (After all, the only reason Cameron called the Referendum in the first place was that he thought he would win it and that that would get the xenophobes off his back. This has to be the greatest miscalculation in recent British history.)

So May immediately went into her hard-faced “Brexit means Brexit” mode at the September Tory party conference and adopted the hectoring, threatening tone that alienated the central players in the remaining countries of the EU. Interestingly, though, in her big TV interview with Jeremy Paxman — who consistently taunted her with the accusation that she — still — doesn’t think Brexit is a good idea, she continually dodged the issue. Instead she repeated again and again that her concern was now to ensure “a good deal” for the UK.

This chimes with my colleague David Runciman’s hunch about her character. He concluded, in reviewing a new biography of her, that she is essentially a dutiful, unimaginative character who takes her marching orders from others and gets on with it. “Now that May is prime minister, he wrote, two things

“two things are starkly apparent. First, her approach to Brexit is simply a continuation of the same pattern. She inherited Brexit. She will deliver it, unlike the supposed big thinkers – including Gove – who conjured it up in the first place. Unnervingly, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that her embrace of a hard Brexit, prioritising the control of immigration over membership of the single market, is her way of finally completing the task. As [her biographer] Prince puts it, ‘The challenge of controlling immigration [as home secretary] would become her most intractable problem and, by her own standard, the one she failed to overcome. In hindsight, the target she was set was probably always unachievable. Long after others had given up, she continued to strive to meet it. As prime minister, she still does.’ ‘I don’t know whose idea the original promise was,’ Michael Howard says of the ‘tens of thousands’ pledge, ‘but I rather doubt it was hers. Obviously we couldn’t get down to that level without leaving the EU. She did get the non-EU numbers down, not nearly far enough, but … she got them moving in the right direction. But we could never get them down to the tens of thousands while we stayed in the EU’.”

May’s lacklustre, frightened performance in the election campaign suggests that she continues in the same rut. The imaginative thing to have done would be to have wooed the 48% who voted for Remain; but this she resolutely declined to do. So she has backed a large chunk of the electorate into a corner. She has reminded them that the Tories are still “the nasty party” (her phrase from the post-1997 era. Remainers are therefore faced with two alternatives. They can vote for the Lib Dems, who look like they are heading for electoral disaster; or — holding their noses — they can vote for Labour, on the grounds that a Brexit negotiated by Corbyn & Co might be a bit softer.

What will probably happen then is that May will win with a majority not much bigger than the 17 seats she currently has. In which case she will be at the mercy of the Europhobic nutters in her own party, and be as tormented by them as John Major was during the Maastricht negotiations in 1992. It couldn’t happen to a nastier woman.

But back to the strange passivity of the 48%. In an interesting blog post, Anatole Kaletsky contrasts it with the atmosphere in the post-Trump US. Over there, he writes,

“the immediate response to policies that were logically incoherent, economically dishonest, and diplomatically impossible to implement was an upsurge of opposition and debate. The Democrats showed unprecedented unity in Congress, television comedians provided even more effective opposition, millions of progressive voters took to the streets, media outlets launched relentless investigations, and the American Civil Liberties Union received $24 million within 24 hours of the administration’s attempt to bar Muslims from entering the country.

Most important, US businesses started lobbying immediately to block any Trump policies that threatened their economic interests. As a top Senate staffer told the Milken conference, Walmart and other retailers “were extremely effective at educating our members” about the political costs of any new taxes on US imports. This removed Trump’s main protectionist threat and killed his hopes of financing big tax cuts with revenues from a “border adjustment” tax.

But, over here…

“Leaving the EU represents a much greater political and economic upheaval than anything proposed by the Trump administration, yet Brexit has become an immovable dogma, immune to challenge or questioning of any kind. In contrast to the aggressive business lobbying against Trump’s election promises, no major British companies have tried to protect their interests by campaigning to reverse the Brexit decision. None has even publicly pointed out that the referendum gave Prime Minister Theresa May no mandate to rule out membership of the European single market and customs union after Britain leaves the EU. Worse still, the taboo against questioning Brexit has not been justified by appeals to reason, economics, or national interest. Instead the “will of the people” has been invoked. This chilling phrase, along with its even more sinister counterpart, “enemies of the people,” has become a rhetorical staple in the US as well as Britain. But there is a crucial difference: In the US, such proto-fascist language is heard on the extremist fringes; in Britain, even mainstream media and parliamentary debates routinely refer to opponents of Brexit as anti-democratic schemers and unpatriotic saboteurs.”

It may have been, of course, that May’s strategy in calling the election that she swore initially was unnecessary and possibly destabilising, was to seek a landslide victory that would give her a big enough majority to see off the crazies in the Tory party. If that indeed was what she was up to, it’s beginning to look like a losing bet. We’ll know for sure next Friday.

Hard work and compound interest

Apropos nothing in particular, I was struck by an extract from Richard Hamming’s book, The Art of Doing Science and Engineering that Tyler Cowen highlighted:

“Now to the matter of drive. Looking around you can easily observe great people have a great deal of drive to do things. I had worked with John Tukey for some years before I found he was essentially my age, so I went to our mutual boss and asked him, “How can anyone my age know as much as John Tukey does?”

He leaned back, grinned, and said, “You would be surprised how much you would know if you had worked as hard as he has for as many years”. There was nothing for me to do but slink out of his office, which I did.

I thought about the remark for some weeks and decided, while I could never work as hard as John did, I could do a lot better than I had been doing. In a sense my boss was saying intellectual investment is like compound interest, the more you do the more you learn how to do, so the more you can do, etc. I do not know what compound interest rate to assign, but it must be well over 6%—one extra hour per day over a lifetime will much more than double the total output. The steady application of a bit more effort has a great total accumulation.”