Monday 25 October, 2021

On the waterfront

Wells-next-the-Sea late on Friday afternoon. Beautifully still. Tide still out.


Quote of the Day

“Etiquette” used to be the second-most stolen book from the library after the Bible (which presumably is taken by people unfamiliar with the Ten Commandments).

  • Louis Menand, in his New Yorker review of Jess McHugh’s Americanon.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel | Gentle Morpheus | Alceste | Emma Kirkby

Link

An aria I didn’t know — until last week. Better late than never.


Long Read of the Day

 Climate optimism of the will

Noah Smith’s surprisingly passionate argument that climate fatalism is both misguided and disabling. His point is

that we don’t have to depend on any one magical deus ex machina technology to come and save us. There is no single such technology. Instead, everywhere you look, scientists and engineers are inventing new technologies to maintain our industrial society while eliminating greenhouse emissions. And everywhere you look, companies are eager to both develop and purchase these technologies, promising to bring them down in cost the way solar and batteries have fallen in cost.

And a new report from the Institute for New Economic thinking suggests that this flurry of technological innovation has already changed the game in a fundamental way. In “Empirically grounded technology forecasts and the energy transition”, INET’s team notes that we’ve consistently underestimated progress in renewable technology. They argue that realistic forecasts mean that green energy will be so cheap that even businesses that don’t care about climate at all will now find it worth their while to ditch fossil fuels.

As a pessimist about climate change who also realises that pessimism is disabling, I found this piece refreshing. Hope you do too.


Whistleblowing requires courage, but don’t expect Facebook to change its ways

Yesterday’s Observer column:

The bigger question is whether whistleblowing does any good even when it is accomplished as skilfully as she has managed it to date. Does it lead to meaningful change?

Take Edward Snowden’s case. His revelations were genuinely sensational, revealing the astonishing scale and comprehensiveness of the NSA’s (and its allies’) electronic surveillance. It was clear that the democratic oversight of this surveillance in a range of western countries had been woefully inadequate in the post-9/11 years. Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg

The revelations triggered inquiries in many of those countries, but what actually happened? In the US, very little. In the UK, after three separate inquiries, there was a new act of parliament – the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, which replaced inadequate oversight with slightly less inadequate oversight and gave the security services a set of useful new powers.

Will it be any different with the Haugen revelations? My hunch is no, because the political will to tackle Facebook’s astonishingly profitable abuse is still missing…

Do read the whole thing. _


Great news for Facebook: it’s no longer the most toxic social network!

Trump has a new social media operation. Marina Hyde celebrates its arrival in her inimitable style:

For now, Facebook is only convincingly troubled by “disinformation” if it’s about itself. We don’t know what will emerge next week, but we can be almost sure how the firm will react to it. The usual MO of Facebook’s chiefs has been to deny they even did the thing they’re being accused of, until the position becomes untenable. At that point, they concede they did whatever it was on a very limited scale, until that position becomes untenable. Next up is accepting the scale was more widespread than initially indicated, but with the caveat that the practice has now come to an end, until that position is the latest to become untenable.

Clear evidence that the practice never came to an end and, in fact, only became more widespread will come with aggressive reminders that it is not and never has been technically illegal. If and when whatever-it-is has been proved to be technically illegal after all, Facebook will accept the drop-in-their-ocean fine, with blanket immunity for all senior officers, and move back to step one in the cycle. We get rinsed; they repeat.

Such a wonderful columnist.


Amazon’s ambitions to build an air freight empire got a lift from the pandemic

From: Quartz:

Amazon went on a plane buying spree in the pandemic summer of 2020, fueling the fastest expansion yet of its air fleet. “They had plans for this, but the pandemic obviously pulled forward everyone’s demand for e-commerce and strained Amazon’s shipping capacity,” said John Blackledge, an analyst at the investment bank Cowen.

In 2020 alone, Cowen analysts estimate that Amazon invested $80 billion in logistics infrastructure—everything from warehouses to trucks to cargo planes—and they expect the company will wind up spending another $80 billion in 2021. That compares to the $56 billion Amazon spent on logistics infrastructure in the five years between Amazon Air’s launch in 2015 and the onset of the pandemic in late 2019, Cowen analysts estimate.

Amazon’s air freight investments aren’t just an urgent effort to move goods faster as the holiday shopping season approaches: Analysts who watch Amazon believe it will be one of the first steps toward competing directly with incumbent couriers like FedEx and UPS as a global delivery service.


My Commonplace booklet

Eh? (See here)

“Simulations reveal that ducklings swimming in a single-file formation behind the parent can achieve a wave-riding benefit whereby the wave drag turns positive. — from The Journal of Fluid Mechanics, no less.

Gives a new meaning to ‘getting your ducks in a row’!


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Whistleblowing requires courage, but don’t expect Facebook to change its ways

This morning’s Observer column

The bigger question is whether whistleblowing does any good even when it is accomplished as skilfully as she has managed it to date. Does it lead to meaningful change?

Take Edward Snowden’s case. His revelations were genuinely sensational, revealing the astonishing scale and comprehensiveness of the NSA’s (and its allies’) electronic surveillance. It was clear that the democratic oversight of this surveillance in a range of western countries had been woefully inadequate in the post-9/11 years. Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg

The revelations triggered inquiries in many of those countries, but what actually happened? In the US, very little. In the UK, after three separate inquiries, there was a new act of parliament – the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, which replaced inadequate oversight with slightly less inadequate oversight and gave the security services a set of useful new powers.

Will it be any different with the Haugen revelations? My hunch is no, because the political will to tackle Facebook’s astonishingly profitable abuse is still missing…

Read on

Great news for Facebook: it’s no longer the most toxic social network!

Trump has a new social media operation. Marina Hyde celebrates its arrival in her inimitable style:

For now, Facebook is only convincingly troubled by “disinformation” if it’s about itself. We don’t know what will emerge next week, but we can be almost sure how the firm will react to it. The usual MO of Facebook’s chiefs has been to deny they even did the thing they’re being accused of, until the position becomes untenable. At that point, they concede they did whatever it was on a very limited scale, until that position becomes untenable. Next up is accepting the scale was more widespread than initially indicated, but with the caveat that the practice has now come to an end, until that position is the latest to become untenable.

Clear evidence that the practice never came to an end and, in fact, only became more widespread will come with aggressive reminders that it is not and never has been technically illegal. If and when whatever-it-is has been proved to be technically illegal after all, Facebook will accept the drop-in-their-ocean fine, with blanket immunity for all senior officers, and move back to step one in the cycle. We get rinsed; they repeat.

So we’ll have to see how plucky minnow startup TRUTH Social will fare in the landscape Facebook created.

What a woman!

Friday 22 October, 2021

Quote of the Day

”Worth seeing, but not worth going to see.”

(I respectfully disagree with the great Doctor in this case.)


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jimmy Yancey | How Long Blues

Link

Beautiful, just beautiful. And so simple.


Long Read of the Day

False Positivism versus Real Life

Thoughtful essay by Peter Polack on the implications of retreating into data-driven arguments as a way of navigating round ideologically-fuelled disagreements. An appeal to the objectivity of models can seem like an escape from subjective politics.

This idea has its roots in a longstanding desire to streamline political thought through an appeal to technical principles. It can be traced back at least to Auguste Comte’s 19th century positivism and his idea of developing a “social physics” that could account for social behavior with a set of fixed, universal laws. Later in the 19th century the term was taken up by statisticians, covering their racist criminological and sociological theories with a veneer of data. Now the premise of social physics lives on in everything from MIT professor Alex Pentland’s work on modeling human crowd behavior to the dreams of technocrats like Mark Zuckerberg, whose quest for “a fundamental mathematical law underlying human social relationships” is in conspicuous alignment with Facebook’s pursuit and implementation of a “social graph.”

But a “social physics” approach that broadens the horizon of computational modeling can seem appealing to more than just tech-company zealots. In more disinterested hands, a compelling political case can be made that it is the only viable way forward in a world out of control, marked by demagoguery and mistrust. As the hopes for modeling gain momentum, it will become increasingly important to articulate clearly its shortcomings, inconsistencies, and dangers.

Which is what this perceptive piece tries to do.


Why doesn’t whistleblowing lead to more real change?

Re-reading this piece by Os Keys in Wired made me wonder whether the astute campaign currently being run by Francis Haugen is likely to be any more effective at inducing real change than earlier whistleblowers.

“In this environment, whistleblowing can’t save us, because the issue isn’t an absence of information but an absence of will. And what builds will, and shifts norms, doesn’t look like a single, isolated figure speaking truth, but mass movements of people setting new standards and making clear there are costs to regulators and companies for not attending to them.”

Yep. Take the case of Edward Snowden. His revelations were genuinely sensational, revealing the astonishing scale and comprehensiveness of the NSA’s (and its allies’) electronic surveillance. It was clear that the democratic oversight of this surveillance in a range of Western countries had woefully inadequate in the post-9/11 years.

The revelations triggered inquiries in many of those countries. But what actually happened? In the US, very little. In the UK, after three separate inquiries, there was a new Act of Parliament — the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, which replaced inadequate oversight with slightly less inadequate oversight and gave the security services a raft of useful new powers.

Will it be any different with the Haugen revelations? Regretfully, my hunch is no because the political will to tackle Facebook’s astonishingly profitable abusiveness is still missing. Ms Haugen’s ‘testimony tour’ (she comes to Parliament here soon) will make for great copy and legislative grandstanding. But her revelations will “have zero impact on regulation. No new laws, no new regulations, no new challenges worth a damn” says Os Keys. The idea that when the truth gets out, good things happen — that regulators and corporate executives and legislators are ultimately just dependent on the right information to ensure justice is done — is a myth. Which is why the only regimes capable of taming companies like Facebook are autocracies. And we’re not there — yet.


Surprise: the Big Bang isn’t the beginning of the universe anymore

Damn! Is nothing sacred? We (well, cosmologists) used to think the Big Bang meant the universe began from a singularity. Nearly 100 years later, we’re not so sure. This long piece by Ethan Siegel, a theoretical astrophysicist, says that the Big Bang theory teaches us that our expanding, cooling universe used to be younger, denser, and hotter in the past. But apparently extrapolating all the way back to that cosmic ‘singularity’ leads to predictions that disagree with what we observe. Instead, “cosmic inflation preceded and set up the Big Bang, changing our cosmic origin story forever”.

This should probably be put in the “important if true but not directly relevant to the climate crisis” drawer. Fun to see how cosmologists think, though.


Chart of the Day

The moral: the stock market is a parallel universe to the one we inhabit.


My Commonplace booklet

Eh? (See here)

From Axios:

Companies that have returned more than 10,000% over 30 years — “superstocks,” as christened by fund manager William Bernstein of Efficient Frontier Advisors — all tend to crash at least once along the way.

Buying Apple stock 30 years ago would have been a fantastic investment, for instance: A $100 investment in October 1991 would be worth some $40,000 today.

But it was a bumpy ride: The same $100 would have been worth just $26.75 at the end of 1997.


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Thursday 21 October, 2021

This was my favourite image in the first phase of the pandemic lockdown — in March 2020


Quote of the Day

”I much prefer Sartre’s plays to his philosophy. Existentialism works much better in the theatre than in theory.”

  • A.J. Ayer

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Galway Girl | Sharon Shannon, Mundy and the citizens of Galway

Link

The biggest ever street performance of Steve Earle’s song “Galway Girl” took place on June 11th, 2016.


Long Read of the Day

The prospects for democracy surviving in the US

Transcript of an interview with Steven Levitsky, co-author (with Daniel Zitblatt) of How Democracies Die:

It opens thus:

Q:In 2018, when your book “How Democracies Die” came out, on a scale from zero to 10 — with 10 being the most dire concerns about our democracy and zero being, no, everything’s fine — where were we then in terms of your concern about our democracy?

A: I would say if 10 is most concerned, we were at five or six. We wrote the book because we were concerned. We wrote the book because we saw warning signs. But where I’m going is that I think we were too optimistic because we blamed the Republican Party for dropping the ball and allowing Donald Trump, a demagogue, an authoritarian demagogue, to be nominated. We thought they should have broken with Trump in defense of democracy. They obviously didn’t. But we believed at the time — not long ago, three years ago — that the bulk of the Republican Party was minimally committed to small-D democracy.

We believed there was a faction in the Republican Party, particularly in the Senate, that would be able and willing to draw a line that they wouldn’t let Trump cross. And we were wrong about that. The speed and the extent to which the Republican Party has been Trumpified is way beyond anything that we expected…

It’s a good interview.


Chart of the Day


When WhatsApp went down, Brazilian workers’ jobs went with it

The Facebook ‘outage’ shut down an entire economy of informal work

The day before a job, Luiza Ferreira always messages her client on WhatsApp to confirm they need her services. Ferreira is a cleaner in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and she cleans different households every day. If the job is confirmed, she knows she won’t be wasting money on her commute and guarantees income for that day. If the job is not confirmed, she tries to fit another client in her schedule so she doesn’t lose money for the day.

But on October 4th, that system fell apart. A configuration change in Facebook’s internal network wiped the company’s services off the internet for six hours — including WhatsApp. Cut off from Brazil’s primary mode of communication, Ferreira’s business ground to a halt.

“By the time I started using SMS instead of WhatsApp, it was too late and I couldn’t book another client for the next day instead,” Ferreira told The Verge in an interview through WhatsApp audio notes. “My client didn’t see the text message I sent her. When WhatsApp was down, it really disrupted my life.”

The outage lasted for six hours, but it cost Ferriera two whole days’ worth of earnings, since she also couldn’t schedule work for the following day. “That’s income I can’t really get back,” she says.

This is an interesting illustration of the power of network effects and why social media companies are difficult to regulate — people have come to depend on the services they provide.


My Commonplace booklet

Eh? (See here)

 Bus lane camera mistakes woman’s sweater for number plate

From a BBC report

A couple were sent a fine for driving in a bus lane when a camera mistook a word on a woman’s clothing for their number plate.

Dave and Paula Knight, from Surrey, received the fine for driving in a bus lane in Bath despite not being in the city at the time.

A camera had registered the word ‘knitter’ on a pedestrian’s clothing as Mr Knight’s number plate KN19 TER.

”We thought one of our friends was stitching us up,” said Mrs Knight.


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Wednesday, 20 October, 2021

Quote of the Day

“I used to believe that anything was better than nothing. Now I know that sometimes nothing is better”

  • Glenda Jackson

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

JS Bach | And At The Hour Of Death (Arr. Badzura) | Víkingur Ólafsson

Link


Long Read of the Day

The Field Guide to Understanding ‘Human Error’

Great review by Rob Miller of Sidney Dekker’s The Field Guide to Understanding ‘Human Error’.

Last week Facebook, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger went down, for everyone in the world, for six hours. The services were unavailable not just to their ordinary users, but to those inside Facebook; there were stories of technicians sent to repair the damage being unable to access Facebook’s data centres, because the service that checked their badges and unlocked the doors was one of those that was offline.

After the collective global meltdown, the accounts of what happened began to emerge and coverage switched to how the problems had occurred.1 Predictably, virtually all of them contained the phrase “human error”. “It was simply human error,” said The Times. “The outage was caused by human error that occurred while an engineer was doing routine maintenance work,” offered USA Today’s fact-checking department.

If there’s anyone whose gears are ground by this invocation of “human error” to explain incidents, it’s Sidney Dekker…

Really illuminating and worth a read. Also led me to get Dekker’s book.


Tom Morey, inventor of the Boogie Board, dies at 86

Nice NPR obit:

Using his degree, Morey went to work for Douglas Aircraft as an engineer but left to start his own surf shop in 1964, according to the Post. By this time Morey had already begun experimenting with surfboard designs.

But it wasn’t until Morey left Southern California that he created the first Boogie board. In 1971, Morey was living in Hawaii when he cut a large piece of polyethylene foam in half. He then worked to shape the foam with an iron after putting pages of the Honolulu Advertiser on top. By the time he was done Morey had a short board with a mostly rectangular body and a rounded nose. It weighed around three pounds — a fraction of what traditional surfboards weighed at the time.

With his new creation in hand, Morey went to the beach to test it out.

”I could actually feel the wave through the board. On a surfboard, you’re not feeling the nuance of the wave, but with my creation, I could feel everything,” Morey said as he recounted his first ride to SurferToday.com.

I never used a Boogie board, but my kids did and got a lot out of it.


’Performative’: How the meaning of a word became corrupted

Lovely little disquisition by Wilfred M. McClay in The Hedgehog Review on misuse of the term ‘performative’ (a crime to which this blogger pleads guilty).

In defense of performative, it is a technical academic word that was invented to serve a particular purpose. The British philosopher J.L. Austin (1911–60) was an influential exponent of the view that our use of language must in some instances be understood as a form of action, and not merely as a system of signifiers that record and order the structure of reality. His most famous work, How to Do Things with Words (1955), is the locus classicus for the understanding of what he called a “performative utterance,” and he would go on to label such utterances “speech acts,” uses of language that are not describing something—indeed, are not even susceptible of being judged true or false, real or artificial—but doing something.


Chart of the Day

I know this is US only, but just look at the cost of university tuition.

Chart comes from a typically thoughtful post by Noah Smith.


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Tuesday 19 October, 2021

The Quince tree

Quinces are fascinating fruits, always looking battered like sailors after a night on the town.


Quote of the Day

”That’s not exercise, it’s flagellation.”

  • Noël Coward on Squash

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

EELS | That Look You Give That Guy

Link


Long Read of the Day

The climate disaster is here – this is what the future looks like

Stunning series of interactive visualisations by the Guardian. Not so much a long read as a long and sobering browse. Don’t know what it looks like in print, but it really works online.


Paddy Moloney and Frank Zappa

Stories about Paddy keep coming. Here’s a nice snatch of dialogue from the BBC Radio show Midweek presented by Libby Purves (Whom God Preserve) on which Frank and Paddy appeared.

Libby: I think we should break it to you that Frank has been known to sing ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’.

Paddy: Really? I’m very sorry for your troubles, Frank.

Libby: We were going to invite him to do it with the Chieftains backing.

Paddy: Well, we’ll have a go. It’s early in the morning.

Frank: What we did with that particular song was that on St Patrick’s Day in 1988, we were working in a town in the US and we had an Irish population and an Italian population, so during the soundcheck in the afternoon, we put together an arrangement that combined ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ and the theme from ‘The Godfather’. (laughter)

Libby: The perfect combination…

Many thanks to Nibor for the tip.


Game-theory and diplomacy

Really interesting piece on how diplomats are beginning to appreciate how applied mathematics might be useful in international negotiations. It’s based on a conversation with Michael Ambühl, a professor of negotiation and conflict management at ETH Zurich and was the chief Swiss negotiator when Switzerland was negotiating the deal that it now has with the EU.

The Lab for Science in Diplomacy, a collaboration between ETH Zürich where Ambühl is based and the University of Geneva, will also focus on “negotiation engineering”, where existing mathematical techniques such as game theory are used either to help frame a discussion, or to play out different scenarios before engaging in talks.

I particularly enjoyed this bit:

Ambühl said that, as Switzerland’s chief EU negotiator, he ran a game theory simulation ahead of talks that led to Switzerland joining the Shengen area and a raft of agreements with the EU on tax, trade and security. The analysis indicated that it was in Switzerland’s interest for the negotiations to take place as a package rather than sequentially, and so the Swiss government insisted on this as a basis for talks.

Did the EU do their own analysis? “I don’t think so,” said Ambühl. “We didn’t tell them that we did game theory.”

Which of course makes one wonder if Michel Barnier had some backroom boffins working for him when he was ‘negotiating’ with the Brexiteering clowns.

On second thoughts, he didn’t need game theory, just re-runs of Laurel and Hardy.


My Commonplace booklet (Eh? See here)

We’ve had a cheeky little mouse in our utility room for about a week, and our elegant cat (who sleeps in the adjacent kitchen) was supremely indifferent to the presence of the little blighter, regarding him (or her) with the disdain of a Dowager Duchess contemplating a boot-boy.

But then the other night the mouse Went Too Far — climbing onto a worktop and nibbling away at the tiny, deliciously sweet, tomatoes that are still emerging from our green house. This was deemed by me to Too Much. Something Had To Be Done. (In capital letters.)

My wife (a compassionate and generous soul) fearing that I would do something drastic (like setting a violent mousetrap) then took preemptive action. She retrieved a non-lethal trap that we had once used successfully in the attic and on Sunday night set it up in the Utility Room, baited with a piece of cheese. Yesterday morning she came down early to find the little creature wandering round the (spacious) trap clearly wondering if there was more cheese where that from. Her captor then gently walked with the trap to the nearby wood and released him (or her) into the wild before returning to a cat — and a husband — demanding to know where was the bloody mouse.

All of which is a long-winded way of explaining that her humane approach to the matter reminded me of Robbie Burns’s lovely poem To a Mouse , addressed to a wee beastie whose nest had been disturbed by a plough in November 1785.

This is how it begins:

Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickerin brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow-mortal!

Read it from the link in its entirely and relish the immortal phrase that Burns gave to the English language (via his native Scots dialect)

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!


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Monday 18 October, 2021

Wine of the Day

I don’t know what those French vineyards are complaining about this year. Our vine is doing just fine.


Quote of the Day

In 2013, Lou Reed died. It was late October. The last thing he asked for was to be taken outside, into the light. Laurie Anderson, his wife, was by his side.

Afterwards, she wrote:

“I have never seen an expression as full of wonder as Lou’s as he died. His hands were doing the water-flowing 21-form of tai chi. His eyes were wide open. I was holding in my arms the person I loved the most in the world, and talking to him as he died. His heart stopped. He wasn’t afraid. I had gotten to walk with him to the end of the world. Life — so beautiful, painful and dazzling — does not get better than that. And death? I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love.”

  • From a lovely profile of Anderson by Sam Anderson

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

James Galway & The Chieftains | Over the Sea to Skye

Link

Nice demonstration of how Paddy Moloney could attract classical musicians to work with the Chieftains.


Long Read of the Day

A Post-Neoliberal Regulatory Analysis for a Post-Neoliberal World

Terrific blog post from the Law and Political Economy Project.

It’s an insightful critique of cost-benefit’s roots in neoliberalism’s obsession with wealth maximisation.

Contemporary cost-benefit analysis is profoundly undemocratic. The complex technocratic techniques that define the methodology render it inaccessible to all but a rarified elite of highly trained economists (or those with the resources to hire them). Moreover, the anti-democratic nature of this process results in policies that do not align with the preferences of most citizens. While treating economic growth as the summum bonum of public policy may reflect value preferences within the field of economics, recent polling confirms that large majorities of voters across the political spectrum oppose using the goal of wealth maximization to guide regulatory decision-making. Instead, they are willing to forgo some economic growth to advance public interest policies like safer drinking water and effective action on climate change. Thus, contrary to defenders claims of moral neutrality, cost-benefit analysis simply substitutes the value judgments of economists for those of ordinary citizens.

Worth reading in full, and a useful antidote to the cringing acceptance of CBA as an ideologically neutral of assessing costs and benefits of public action.


Client-Side Scanning is not a silver bullet

Yesterday’s Observer column:

In August, Apple opened a chink in the industry’s armour, announcing that it would be adding new features to its iOS operating system that were designed to combat child sexual exploitation and the distribution of abuse imagery. The most controversial measure scans photos on an iPhone, compares them with a database of known child sexual abuse material (CSAM) and notifies Apple if a match is found. The technology is known as client-side scanning or CSS.

Powerful forces in government and the tech industry are now lobbying hard for CSS to become mandatory on all smartphones. Their argument is that instead of weakening encryption or providing law enforcement with backdoor keys, CSS would enable on-device analysis of data in the clear (ie before it becomes encrypted by an app such as WhatsApp or iMessage). If targeted information were detected, its existence and, potentially, its source would be revealed to the agencies; otherwise, little or no information would leave the client device.

CSS evangelists claim that it’s a win-win proposition: providing a solution to the encryption v public safety debate by offering privacy (unimpeded end-to-end encryption) and the ability to successfully investigate serious crime. What’s not to like?

Plenty, says an academic paper by some of the world’s leading computer security experts published last week…

Read on


Facebook’s fall from grace looks a lot like Ford’s

Good essay in Wired by Mar Hicks making the case that sometimes the history of regulating older industries has lessons for the present.

Haugen, who revealed internal documents showing that the company was aware of its products’ harms, said that she wishes to fix rather than destroy Facebook, but these are not the only two options. The third, regulation, is at its heart not about patching up broken, dangerous companies and their products but is about changing the social, political, and business landscape that allowed them to grow unchecked, operating as rapacious, destructive entities. It ensures not only that the present companies’ harms are stopped but also that new companies cannot take their place and continue the same destructive business models. As we approach peak Facebook news fatigue, it’s worth remembering that regulation of new technologies in this way has a strong historical precedent in the US. And this long lead up has almost always been part of it.

To understand how Facebook will likely land after its fall from grace we need to look at the striking similarities between earlier regulatory battles and what is going on now. Before there was Big Tech, there were the Big Three: Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors—and an infamous memo that cemented in the collective consciousness of the American public that strong regulation was a necessity, not a nicety. Though it may be difficult to see through the haze of history, there are important parallels between Big Tech today and the US auto industry in the mid-20th century, which also once seemed to be an unstoppable juggernaut.

The auto industry is indeed an instructive parallel. After campaigner Ralph Nader published Unsafe and Any Speed,

auto executives lined up before Congress. They told the American public and those who represented them that they were doing their best to make cars safer and less polluting and that there was little they could do to immediately undo the harms produced by their product. Executives downplayed the scale of the public safety crisis and often claimed to be unaware of the extent of their products’ harms to consumers. Their answers were, of course, largely a charade aimed at saving profits and staving off regulation for as long as possible.

Sound familiar?

But for years after that, Ford instead cut corners on safety, producing cars like the Ford Pinto that removed key safety features in order to get to market quickly and hold down manufacturing costs to reap maximum profit. In 1977, the infamous Ford Pinto “memo,” which was uncovered by Mother Jones investigative reporters, detailed the company’s horrifying cost analysis of past and future accidents. According to the memo, the gruesome deaths and full-body burns suffered by Pinto occupants in rear-end collisions amounted to an acceptable loss because, once lawsuits or other settlements were paid out, they would amount to less than the cost of fixing the Pinto design to prevent the gas tank from exploding. The cost of fixing the design was $11 per car.

For Facebook, paying Nick Clegg’s $2,7m salary, employing 40,000 moderators, being fined by the FTC, enduring horrendous publicity and having executives dragged before Congress are all just the costs of running such such an insanely profitable business model. And the company will continue to run it until it’s stopped by hard-nosed and realistic government action — as the automobile industry in the US was, eventually.


My Commonplace booklet

Eh? (See here)

From Private Eye:

The Billionaire boss of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, today launched a new venture that promises to revolutionise the way people shop.

“This is very exciting,” he told a roomful of sycophantic reporters. “I have come up with an idea for a new experimental retail space, where people conduct transactions, spending money on items in real time. I call it a Sales hub of Profits or a S.H.O.P.”

Mr Bezos is confident that hi so-called “shop” will catch on and soon there will be “shops’ everywhere, possibly in a row, in a design that he has called “the high street”.

“It may take a lot of getting used to by customers for customers, as it involves walking and some possible eye-contact with strangers, rather than staring at a computer screen and clicking a mouse.

“But I truly believe this disruptive revolution in retail technology may one day replace online shopping. My only worry is that some greedy online techno-nerd will come up with a way of putting my ‘shops’ out of business, leaving my ‘high streets’ empty and boarded up.”


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Client-Side Scanning is not a silver bullet

This morning’s Observer column:

In August, Apple opened a chink in the industry’s armour, announcing that it would be adding new features to its iOS operating system that were designed to combat child sexual exploitation and the distribution of abuse imagery. The most controversial measure scans photos on an iPhone, compares them with a database of known child sexual abuse material (CSAM) and notifies Apple if a match is found. The technology is known as client-side scanning or CSS.

Powerful forces in government and the tech industry are now lobbying hard for CSS to become mandatory on all smartphones. Their argument is that instead of weakening encryption or providing law enforcement with backdoor keys, CSS would enable on-device analysis of data in the clear (ie before it becomes encrypted by an app such as WhatsApp or iMessage). If targeted information were detected, its existence and, potentially, its source would be revealed to the agencies; otherwise, little or no information would leave the client device.

CSS evangelists claim that it’s a win-win proposition: providing a solution to the encryption v public safety debate by offering privacy (unimpeded end-to-end encryption) and the ability to successfully investigate serious crime. What’s not to like?

Plenty, says an academic paper by some of the world’s leading computer security experts published last week…

Read on

Friday 15 October, 2021

Cambridge’s Answer to the Sydney Opera House

The University’s Sports Centre in West Cambridge.


Quote of the Day

”The advantage of a classical education is that it enables you to despise the wealth which it prevents you from achieving.”

*  Russell Green


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Canadian set | Bjarte Eike | Barokksolistene

Link

What a way to start a day!


Long Read of the Day

On the Internet, We’re Always Famous

Nice New Yorker essay by Chris Hayes on the futility of over-use of the Internet.

This how it opens:

Imagine, for a moment, you find yourself equipped with fennec-fox-level hearing at a work function or a cocktail party. It’s hard to focus amid the cacophony, but with some effort you can eavesdrop on each and every conversation. At first you are thrilled, because it is thrilling to peer into the private world of another person. Anyone who has ever snuck a peek at a diary or spent a day in the archives sifting through personal papers knows that. Humans, as a rule, crave getting up in people’s business.

But something starts to happen. First, you hear something slightly titillating, a bit of gossip you didn’t know. A couple has separated, someone says. “They’ve been keeping it secret. But now Angie’s dating Charles’s ex!” Then you hear something wildly wrong. “The F.D.A. hasn’t approved it, but also there’s a whole thing with fertility. I read about a woman who had a miscarriage the day after the shot.” And then something offensive, and you feel a desire to speak up and offer a correction or objection before remembering that they have no idea you’re listening. They’re not talking to you.

Then, inevitably, you hear someone say something about you. Someone thinks it’s weird that you’re always five minutes late for the staff meeting, or wonders if you’re working on that new project that Brian started doing on the side, or what the deal is with that half-dollar-sized spot of gray hair on the back of your head. Injury? Some kind of condition?

Suddenly—and I speak from a certain kind of experience on this, so stay with me—the thrill curdles…

Great stuff.


Video of the Day

Director Peter Jackson has made a three-part documentary about the Beatles using lots of previously unseen film footage. It launches (on Disney, I think) soon.

This is the official trailer.


Paddy Moloney RIP

Fine, well-informed, obit in The New York Times which gets the measure of the man:

For nearly 60 years the Chieftains toured extensively and released more than two dozen albums, six of which won Grammy Awards. They were particularly known for their collaborations with artists from other genres, including Van Morrison, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Nanci Griffith and Luciano Pavarotti.

“Over the Sea to Skye,” the Chieftains’ collaboration with the flutist James Galway, peaked at No. 20 on the Billboard classical album chart in 1996. “San Patricio,” a 2010 collaboration with the guitarist Ry Cooder that fused Celtic and Mexican influences, reached No. 37 on the Billboard 200 and topped the Latin album chart. “Irish Heartbeat,” the group’s collaboration with Mr. Morrison, charted in 1988.

“Our music is centuries old, but it is very much a living thing,” Mr. Moloney told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1989. “We don’t use any flashing lights or smoke bombs or acrobats falling off the stage.” He added, “We try to communicate a party feeling, and that’s something that everybody understands.”

In 2012, when he was vice president, President Biden told People magazine that his desire was to sing “Shenandoah” with the Chieftains “if I had any musical talent.” He invited them to perform at his inauguration this year, but Covid-related restrictions kept them from traveling.


My Commonplace booklet

Eh? (See here)

According to his onetime rival for the Conservative leadership, Rory Stewart, Johnson is “the most accomplished liar in public life—perhaps the best liar ever to serve as prime minister.” Johnson, Stewart wrote last year, has “mastered the use of error, omission, exaggeration, diminution, equivocation and flat denial. He has perfected casuistry, circumlocution, false equivalence and false analogy. He is equally adept at the ironic jest, the fib and the grand lie; the weasel word and the half-truth; the hyperbolic lie, the obvious lie, and the bullshit lie—which may inadvertently be true.” — Tom McTague, “Is Boris Johnson a Liar?”, The Atlantic.


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