Unnatural beauty


The genius of Capability Brown and the other great English landscape artists was to make the artificial seem utterly and timelessly natural — as here at Cockington Court in Devon. Their only modern counterparts are golf architects: think of the way Augusta National looks now, compared to what the terrain was like when Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie first got to grips with it.

The lessons of (computer) error

This morning’s Observer column:

A few years ago, I received a speeding ticket from the Metropolitan police claiming that a speed-camera in London had photographed my car – citing the correct registration number of the vehicle – doing 43mph in a 30mph zone. Most people would, I guess, be distressed by receiving such a communication. Your columnist, however, was perversely delighted – because it offered him the opportunity of not only irritating the cops but also of making an important point about the dangers of being overly dependent on technology.

The reason for my glee was that the car had definitely not been at the location specified on the speeding ticket at the time and I could prove that using the same technology that the Met had used in order to frame me. My family and I had been out of the UK in the week in question and the car was parked at Stansted airport, where its arrival and departure at the mid-stay car park were logged by the automated numberplate recognition technology that the airport authorities had recently installed.

Accordingly, I wrote to the commissioner of the Metropolitan police enclosing a copy of the speeding ticket and saying that I would be very interested to see what evidence he had in support of it, adding that I intended to contest it on the grounds that I could prove my car had been nowhere near the location at the time. But my hopes for a bloody good row were dashed within a fortnight: a computer-generated notice arrived, informing me that the speeding ticket had been cancelled. No explanation; no apology; nothing…

Read on.

Alphabetical order

Google’s decision to morph into Alphabet — i.e. a holding company which has one enormously profitable cash-cow (Google) plus a raft of unprofitable and speculative ventures, has prompted a search for models and analogies. In a thoughtful piece, Neil Irwin sees three possible models:

  • Berkshire Hathaway
  • General Electric
  • AT&T in its monopolistic heyday

Of the three, Irwin sees AT&T as the most likely model, basically because of Bell Labs, which AT&T owned until it was broken up for anti-trust reasons. The Labs were only viable because AT&T had monopoly profits from its phone business, which enabled the company to fund all kinds of fabulous long-term research, only some of which actually benefited AT&T. So long as Google search remains a money-pump, that model will work for Alphabet. If the Search well runs dry, though, one wonders what will happen.

French regulator vs. First Amendment

This morning’s Observer column:

Although Google is an American company, it had no option but to comply with the ECJ ruling because it trades with – and has assets in – all the countries in the European Union. But because it is based in the US, it also has to obey the laws of that particular land. And in the US, the first amendment to the constitution means that people take a very dim view of any interference with free speech. Sanitising Google search results to comply with the rulings of a foreign court would certainly be perceived as such an interference. So while RTBF links are removed from, say, google.fr, they remain visible on search results from Google.com, which is easily accessible from any European country.

It turns out that some of Europe’s data protection regulators are not amused by this…

Read on

The (political) power of search engines

This is interesting:

We present evidence from five experiments in two countries suggesting the power and robustness of the search engine manipulation effect (SEME). Specifically, we show that (i) biased search rankings can shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more, (ii) the shift can be much higher in some demographic groups, and (iii) such rankings can be masked so that people show no awareness of the manipulation. Knowing the proportion of undecided voters in a population who have Internet access, along with the proportion of those voters who can be influenced using SEME, allows one to calculate the win margin below which SEME might be able to determine an election outcome.

Writing as someone who is working on a piece about the new kinds of power wielded by Internet companies, this seems pretty significant.

The anti-innovation system

The patent system has become dysfunctional. Even The Economist thinks so. This from the current edition:

Patents are supposed to spread knowledge, by obliging holders to lay out their innovation for all to see; they often fail, because patent-lawyers are masters of obfuscation. Instead, the system has created a parasitic ecology of trolls and defensive patent-holders, who aim to block innovation, or at least to stand in its way unless they can grab a share of the spoils. An early study found that newcomers to the semiconductor business had to buy licences from incumbents for as much as $200m. Patents should spur bursts of innovation; instead, they are used to lock in incumbents’ advantages.


The puzzle at the heart of modern history

… well, as Isaiah Berlin saw it anyway (as summarised by Mark Lilla in his essay in The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin):

“The puzzle is this: how did the optimistic and progressive spirit of 18th-century Europe give way to the dark and terrifying world of the 19th and 20th centuries? How did the Europe that produced Goethe and Kant, Voltaire and Rousseau, Tolstoy and Chekhov, also produce the Lager and the Gulag?”

Ou est La Seine?


It’s been very dry in France this summer. But I hadn’t realised how dry until I came on this bridge in Châtillon-sur-seine, which is quite near the source of the river in Burgundy.

A better mousetrap



The three-pin plug has always been a bit of a pain for those of us who have to carry one around in our rucksacks. So this re-design was a welcome surprise. Guess who sells it? Er, Apple.