How do you throw the book at an algorithm?

This morning’s Observer column:

When, in the mid-1990s, the world wide web transformed the internet from a geek playground into a global marketplace, I once had an image of seeing two elderly gentlemen dancing delightedly in that part of heaven reserved for political philosophers. Their names: Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek.

Why were they celebrating? Because they saw in the internet a technology that would validate their most treasured beliefs. Smith saw vigorous competition as the benevolent “invisible hand” that ensured individuals’ efforts to pursue their own interests could benefit society more than if they were actually trying to achieve that end. Hayek foresaw the potential of the internet to turn almost any set of transactions into a marketplace as a way of corroborating his belief that price signals communicated via open markets were the optimum way for individuals to co-ordinate their activities.

In the 1990s, those rosy views of the online world made sense…

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What’s in a year? How about 2007?

This morning’s Observer column:

It’s interesting how particular years acquire historical significance: 1789 (the French Revolution); 1914 (outbreak of the first world war); 1917 (the Russian revolution); 1929 (the Wall Street crash); 1983 (switching on of the internet); 1993 (the Mosaic Web browser, which started the metamorphosis of the internet from geek sandpit to the nervous system of the planet). And of course 2016, the year of Brexit and Trump, the implications of which are, as yet, unknown.

But what about 2007? That was the year when Slovenia adopted the euro, Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, Kurt Vonnegut died, smoking in enclosed public places was banned in the UK, a student shot 32 people dead and wounded 17 others at Virginia Tech, Luciano Pavarotti died and Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. Oh – and it was also the year that Steve Jobs launched the Apple iPhone.

And that, I suspect, is the main – perhaps the only – reason that 2007 will be counted as a pivotal year, because it was the moment that determined how the internet would evolve…

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Donald in computerland

Leave aside for the moment the mysterious role (and behaviour) of the FBI Director in the last week of the election campaign and focus for a moment on one aspect of the supporters of the two candidates — different levels of education. A few weeks ago my colleague David Runciman wrote this in the Guardian:

The possibility that education has become a fundamental divide in democracy – with the educated on one side and the less educated on another – is an alarming prospect. It points to a deep alienation that cuts both ways. The less educated fear they are being governed by intellectual snobs who know nothing of their lives and experiences. The educated fear their fate may be decided by know-nothings who are ignorant of how the world really works. Bringing the two sides together is going to be very hard. The current election season appears to be doing the opposite.

The headline on the essay was “How the education gap is tearing politics apart.”

Yesterday the FBI Director wrote to Congress saying that his staff had reviewed the relevant emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop and found nothing that would cause the Agency to review its earlier judgment that there was no justification for taking action against Hillary Clinton.

Needless to say, this was meat and drink for Trump. “You can’t review 650,000 emails in eight days,” he said yesterday in an appearance at the Freedom Hill Amphitheater in Michigan.

“You can’t do it folks. Hillary Clinton is guilty. The investigations into her crimes will go on for a long, long time. The rank-and-file special agents at the FBI won’t let her get away with her terrible crimes, including the deletion of her 33,000 emails after receiving a congressional subpoena.”

Needless to say, Trump’s supporters were delighted. Here’s a sample tweet:

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There are only two conclusions to be drawn from this: (a) Trump knows nothing about computer technology; or (b) he does, but is reckoning that his supporter base knows nothing about it.

My hunch is (b), but it doesn’t really matter either way. The task of getting software to trawl through any number of electronic documents looking either for metadata (like “From:”. “To:” or “cc:”) or keywords is computationally trivial. Ask Edward Snowden:

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In fact, as one expert pointed out the real question that the FBI Director should have to answer is: what took you so long?

Apple’s iWatch in iDecline?

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From Statista:

According to IDC’s most recent data, Apple Watch shipments declined by 71.6 percent in the past quarter compared to the same period last year. It’s the second consecutive quarter of high double-digit sales declines for Apple’s smartwatch, indicating that demand is quickly fading after a decent start. As our chart illustrates, the Apple Watch’s early sales figures were as good as the iPad’s and much better than the iPhone’s were in 2007. However, it took the iPhone nine years and the iPad three years to see their first year-over-year sales decline. Apple Watch sales started going downhill after just one year on the market.

Frankly, I’m not surprised. Although I continue to wear my Apple watch most days (especially on busy days when I’m expecting urgent emails or messages), I find it more or less useless for everything else. I’ve given up bringing it with me on overnight trips — can’t be bothered lugging a charger and cable. And of course at home it sits in its charging dock every night. Leading-edge uselessness, methinks.

Come for a drive in a Tesla

Tesla says that the necessary kit for fully-autonomous driving will be installed on all its new cars from now on. But it won’t be activated until a lot more testing has been done. This video provides a glimpse of this brave new future. Ignore the music.

The real word-processor

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Matthew Kirschenbaum has written a fascinating bookTrack Changes: a Literary History of Word Processing — and in following a link to interviews with him I came on this lovely image, which made me laugh out loud.

Also: word processor seemed such a strange term for a tool designed (presumably) to aid composition. I always thought of it alongside the food processor that became a staple in so many modern kitchens (though never in ours), the whole point of which was to reduce everything to an undifferentiated pulp. (Or so I thought, anyway, never having used one.)

Kirschenbaum clears up the mystery: it seems that the ‘processor’ term came from IBM, who were marketing an office document-processing system which envisaged a process which took the document from initial outline to finished printed version to filed-away copy.

Subduing wishes to possibilities

An excerpt from Francis Spufford’s Backroom Boys, a memorable history of the early British personal computer industry. He’s writing about how two Cambridge students, David Braben and Ian Bell, used ingenious mathematical tricks to get round the limited memory available on the BBC Model B when they were creating their trailblazing computer game, Elite:

Whether the components are atoms or bits, ideas or steel girders, building something is a process of subduing wishes to possibilities … A real, constructed thing (however dented) beats a wish (however shiny) hands down; so working through the inevitable compromises, losing some of what you first thought of, is still a process of gain … But sometimes the process goes further. Some of the best bridges, programs, novels – not all the best, but some – come about because their makers have immersed themselves in the task with such concentration, such intent openness to what the task may bring, that the effort of making wishes real itself breeds new wishes. From the thick of the task, in the midst of the practical hammering, the makers see further possibilities that wouldn’t have been visible except from there, from that spot, from that degree of engagement with the task … This is what happened when Bell and Braben wrote their game … It became great because they saw the possibility of it being great while they were just trying to make it good.

This is wonderful, insightful writing about the creative process.

Q: What do we want? A: mobility, not cars.

This morning’s Observer column:

I’m looking at two photographs of the main street of the small town in which I was born. Both are taken from the same vantage point – looking up the hill to the T-junction at the top. The two photographs are separated by nearly a century: the first was taken in the 1930s, the second sometime in the last few years.

Topographically, the street remains largely unchanged: it’s a straight road with two- or three-storey shops and houses on either side. But the two photographs show completely different streets. The 1930s one shows a spacious thoroughfare, with people walking on the pavements on both sides of the street: here and there, two or three individuals stand in the road, possibly engaged in conversation. The contemporary photograph shows a narrow, congested gorge. The pavements are crowded with pedestrians, but there are no people on the road. In fact, in some places, one cannot even see its surface.

Why the difference between the two photographs? You know the answer: cars, vans and traffic. Both sides of the contemporary street have got lines of parked vehicles, effectively reducing the width of the road by 12ft. And there’s a traffic jam, which means that even the vehicles that aren’t parked are stationary.

This picture is repeated in millions of towns and cities worldwide…

Read on

Phones, photography and the Snapchat factor

This morning’s Observer column:

Living and working, as I do, in a historic city that is swamped by tourists in the summer, I regularly get the opportunity to do some photo-ethnography. You can tell someone’s age by the kind of camera they are using. Elderly folks are still using point-and-shoot compacts. Middle-aged folks are sporting “prosumer” digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) from Canon, Nikon, Fuji and Panasonic. But as far as I can see, everyone under the age of 25 is using a smartphone, possibly with the assistance of a selfie stick.

This is partly because the main reason young people take photographs is to post them on social media, and smartphones make that easy to do. But that’s not the whole story. Those who are more serious about photography tend to upload their pictures to photo-hosting services such as Flickr. Guess what the most popular camera for Flickr members is? Apple’s iPhone – by a mile… Read on