Taking global warming to heart

November 20th, 2014 [link]

For a first-time movie, this is quite something. It comes from a fascinating account of a session at NYU Journalism School on stills photographers using video to tell stories where stills don’t quite do the trick.

On this day…

November 19th, 2014 [link]

… in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. I often use Peter Norvig’s wonderful translation of it into PowerPoint to persuade students to think twice before resorting to ‘presentation’ software.

Facebook moves in on LinkedIn

November 17th, 2014 [link]

Well, well. According to this BBC story (which itself is based on a Financial Times story), Facebook is moving in on LinkedIn’s territory:

Facebook is building a network for professionals to connect and collaborate on work-related documents, the Financial Times reports.

Facebook at Work will look similar to its existing social network, but users will be able to keep their personal profiles separate, the paper says.

They also would be able to chat with colleagues, build professional networks and share documents, people said to be working on it told the Financial Times.

This is a difficult one for some of us. I mean to say, I loathe and detest LinkedIn, which I think is one of the most obnoxious ‘social’ networks I’ve seen. On the other hand, I’m not too enamoured of Facebook either. But I’m not surprised that LinkedIn’s shares were down today after the news broke.

In a more detached frame of mind, there might be something interesting here in terms of network theory. For example, are the ties that bind Facebook users stronger or weaker than those that link LinkedIn users?

Useful hypocrites

November 16th, 2014 [link]

This morning’s Observer column

Back in the heyday of the old Soviet Union, a phrase evolved to describe gullible western intellectuals who came to visit Russia and failed to notice the human and other costs of building a communist utopia. The phrase was “useful idiots” and it applied to a good many people who should have known better.

I now propose a new, analogous term more appropriate for the age in which we live: useful hypocrites. That’s you and me, folks, and it’s how the masters of the digital universe see us. And they have pretty good reasons for seeing us that way. They hear us whingeing about privacy, security, surveillance, etc, but notice that despite our complaints and suspicions, we appear to do nothing about it. In other words, we say one thing and do another, which is as good a working definition of hypocrisy as one could hope for.

This sounds harsh, I know, but the data support it…

Read on

Back to Hobbes?

November 15th, 2014 [link]

At dinner in St John’s this evening after Timothy Garton-Ash’s Hinsley Memorial Lecture, a friend sitting across from me offered this thought. Politicians in liberal democracies have traditionally made promises of better economic futures when seeking election. But given that we now appear to be moving into an era when the economic prospects of children are, on average, worse than those of their parents, then that campaigning option will be closed off. In which case, what can politicians offer their electorates?

The obvious answer is: security. More and more ‘national security’.

Which brings us neatly back to Hobbes.

So is Internet surveillance effective?

November 14th, 2014 [link]

I’d really like an informed, impartial answer to this question. To date, here’s is the best we can do:

“We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation. Moreover, we are aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack. And we believe that in only one instance over the past seven years has the program arguably contributed to the identification of an unknown terrorism suspect. Even in that case, the suspect was not involved in planning a terrorist attack and there is reason to believe that the FBI may have discovered him without the contribution of the NSA’s program”.

This comes from the January 2014 report of the US Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent bipartisan agency within the US government, which carried out an investigation into two NSA surveillance programmes in the wake of the Snowden revelations.

Big Data and intriguing correlations

November 13th, 2014 [link]

Yesterday I gave a talk about so-called ‘Big Data’ to a group of senior executives. At one stage I used the famous Walmart pop-tart discovery as an example of how organisations sometimes discover things they didn’t know by mining their data. But now comes an equally intriguing data-mined discovery — from Alibaba:

Earlier this summer, a group of data crunchers looking at underwear sales at Alibaba came across a curious trend: women who bought larger bra sizes also tended to spend more (link in Chinese). Dividing intimate-apparel shoppers into four categories of spending power, analysts at the e-commerce giant found that 65% of women of cup size B fell into the “low” spend category, while those of a size C or higher mostly fit into the “middle” or higher group.


The explanation might be fairly straightforward: it could be that the data merely demonstrate that younger women have less spending power, for instance. But Alibaba is deep into this data-mining stuff. The report claims that last year the company set up a Big Data unit with 800 employees. It also quotes a Gartner factoid that currently less than 5% of ecommerce companies are using data analytics.

Quote of the Day

November 13th, 2014 [link]

“It’s better to be wrong but interesting than right but dull.”

Chris Dillow quoted here

Obama gets some things right

November 12th, 2014 [link]

Obama’s stance on net neutrality is spot on. And if you doubt that, then this tweet from Steve Ballmer should settle the matter.


The text of Obama’s statement is here

Our National Security state

November 10th, 2014 [link]

From an extraordinary account of a walk around central London:

Suspicion is a global variable. Once triggered it bubbles upward through the entire system. Walking down Park Lane, I was accosted by a man in a suit who demanded to know what I was doing. He took out his mobile phone, pointed it at my face, told me he was going to “circulate my description”.
Shortly afterwards, a colleague of his physically restrained me and called the police. Both men worked at the Grosvenor House Hotel, whose cameras were among those which had been trained on me as I walked, and so are included in my documentation.

When they arrived, the police officers explained that carrying a camera in the vicinity of Central London was grounds for suspicion. I might be a terrorist who posed a threat to the good citizens of London – my own city. Equally I might be casing the joint for some future crime, studying its defences in order to circumvent them.

Carrying a camera thus justified the suspicion of the security guards who stopped me and performed a citizen’s arrest, detaining me until the arrival of the police. This suspicion in turn justified the actions of the police, who threatened me with arrest if I did not identify myself and explain my actions. For carrying a camera, I was told, I could be taken to the station and charged with “Going Equipped”, a provision of the 1968 Theft Act which determines the imprisonment for up to three years of anyone carrying equipment which may be used to commit a burglary.