Facebook’s new gateway drug for kids

This morning’s Observer column:

In one of those coincidences that give irony a bad name, Facebook launched a new service for children at the same time that a moral panic was sweeping the UK about the dangers of children using live-streaming apps that enable anyone to broadcast video directly from a smartphone or a tablet. The BBC showed a scary example of what can happen. A young woman who works as an internet safety campaigner posed as a 14-year-old girl to find out what occurs when a young female goes online using one of these streaming services…

Read on

Thinking ten years ahead

Ben Evans is one of the tech commentators I follow. This para from one of his blog posts struck me:

First, ecommerce, having grown more or less in a straight line for the past twenty years, is starting to reach the point that broad classes of retailer have real trouble. It’s useful to compare physical retail with newspapers, which face many of the same problems: a fixed cost base with falling revenues, the near-disappearance of a physical distribution advantage, and above all, unbundling and disaggregation. Everything bad that the internet did to media is probably going to happen to retailers. The tipping point might now be approaching, particularly in the US, where the situation is worsened by the fact that there is far more retail square footage per capita than in any other developed market. And when the store closes and you turn to shopping online (or are simply forced to, if enough physical retail goes away), you don’t buy all the same things, any more than you read all the same things when you took your media consumption online. When we went from a corner store to a department store, and then from a department store to big box retail, we didn’t all buy exactly the same things but in different places – we bought different things. If you go from buying soap powder in Wal-Mart based on brand and eye-level placement to telling Alexa ‘I need more soap’, some of your buying will look different.

Quote of the Day

“Data is neither a good or service. It’s intangible, like a service, but can easily be stored and delivered far from its original production point, like a good.” Michael Mandel

He goes on to make a useful observation about how our national statistics surveys may be missing something important:

Paradoxically, economic and regulatory policymakers around the world are not getting the data they need to understand the importance of data for the economy. Consider this: The Bureau of Economic Analysis, the U.S. agency which estimates economic growth, will tell you how much Americans increased their consumption of jewelry and watches in 2011, but offers no information about the growing use of mobile apps or online tax preparation programs. Eurostat, the European statistical agency, reports how much European businesses invested in buildings and equipment in 2010, but not how much those same businesses spent on consumer or business databases. And the World Trade Organization publishes figures on the flow of clothing from Asia to the United States, but no official agency tracks the very valuable flow of data back and forth across the Pacific.

The problem is that data-driven economic activities do not fit naturally into the traditional economic categories. Since the modern concept of economic growth was developed in the 1930s, economists have been systematically trained to think of the economy is being divided into two big categories: ‘Goods’ and ‘services’.

Goods are physical commodities, like clothes and steel beams, while services include everything else from healthcare to accounting to haircuts to restaurants. Goods are tangible and can be easily stored for future use, while services are intangible, and cannot be stockpiled for future use. In theory, a statistician could estimate the output of a country by counting the number of cars and the bushels of corns coming out of the country’s factories and farms, and by watching workers in the service sector and counting the number of haircuts performed and the number of meals served.

But data is neither a good or service…

The Winklevii rise again!

Well, well. This from Fortune, no less:

Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss—the brothers who tried and failed to gain control of Facebook after alleging that it had been appropriated from them—have rebounded big-time.

The Winklevoss twins own one of the largest portfolios of Bitcoin in the world—and recent surges in the digital currency’s value have put the value of that portfolio at over $1 billion. That’s an impressive return on an $11 million investment just four years ago.

The brothers have reportedly not sold a single one of their Bitcoins, sitting on them and watching them accrue value. And it’s been a stunning thing to witness: when the Winklevoss’s invested in Bitcoins, the currency was trading at just $120. As of Monday morning, a single Bitcoin’s value was $11,247, according to Coindesk.

My favourite clip from The Social Network is their encounter with Larry Summers (then President of Harvard).

Larry Summers thought it was broadly accurate too:

Why China’s development is interesting

Interesting essay by Thomas Meaney on the writings of Francis Fukuyama and John Dunn. The bit that caught my eye (given that I’ve been going on for ages about Chinese astuteness in managing the Internet) is:

If the Chinese example poses a challenge to Western politicians and political theorists, the reason is not because it offers states around the world an attractive authoritarian alternative to liberal democracy—at least not yet—nor because it has, more impressively, done more for its people in the past thirty years, in relative terms, than any Western government has done for its own. More simply, it is because China shows that in the twenty-first century a functioning state can rule over and claim the allegiance of more than a billion people without any pretense of liberal-democratic governance. Among some Anglo-American observers today, one detects the sort of admiration for China that in the nineteenth century was directed toward the bureaucratic efficiency of the Prussian state. It seems at least possible that in the near future the world will have something concrete to learn about the possibilities of the modern state from the Chinese experience. Already, China presents us with the unsettling fact that democratic rule does not automatically entail favorable economic or political outcomes—a lesson we apparently still haven’t learned from the last century. The point is not that China has become a model for governance, but that the pretense of any model, including a Western one, being stable and exportable is getting harder to uphold. Under democracy, we may be fortunate enough to experience good government, but good government is far from something that democracy guarantees—in theory, much less in practice.

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…

Read on

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.