Monday 3 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Ireland is not a romantic dream; it is not a flag; it is 4.5 million people divided into two powerful traditions. The solution will be found not on the basis of victory for either, but on the basis of agreement and a partnership between both. The real division of Ireland is not a line drawn on the map, but in the minds and hearts of its people.”

  • John Hume, RIP

Today’s musical alternative to the morning news

John Field – Nocturne No. 5 in B flat major, played by Stephen Leaney

Link


Why there won’t be an ‘election night’ on November 3rd

Worrying (and not implausible) scenario in “How the Media Could Get the Election Story Wrong”

We may not know the results for days, and maybe weeks. And a lot could go wrong in the interval. So it’s time to rethink “election night”.

This might be alarmist, but it isn’t fantasy. Even the Facebook boss has woken up to it.

Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, told me in a brief interview on Saturday that he’s planning to brace his audience for the postelection period. He said the site planned a round of education aimed at “getting people ready for the fact that there’s a high likelihood that it takes days or weeks to count this — and there’s nothing wrong or illegitimate about that.” And he said that Facebook is considering new rules regarding premature claims of victory or other statements about the results. He added that the company’s election center will rely on wire services for definitive results.

It’s possible, of course, that Joe Biden will win by a margin so large that Florida will be called for him early. Barring that, it’s tempting to say responsible voices should keep their mouths shut and switch over for a few days to Floor Is Lava, and give the nice local volunteers time to count the votes. That, however, would just cede the conversation to the least responsible, and conspiratorial, voices.

Yep. This won’t be over until January 20 2021, when Trump is finally ejected from the White House.

Interestingly, a group of former top government officials called the Transition Integrity Project have been gaming four possible scenarios, including one that doesn’t look that different from 2016: a big popular win for Mr. Biden, and a narrow electoral defeat, presumably reached after weeks of counting the votes in Pennsylvania.

For their war game, they cast John Podesta, who was Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, in the role of Mr. Biden. They expected him, when the votes came in, to concede, just as Mrs. Clinton had.

But Mr. Podesta, playing Mr. Biden, shocked the organizers by saying he felt his party wouldn’t let him concede. Alleging voter suppression, he persuaded the governors of Wisconsin and Michigan to send pro-Biden electors to the Electoral College.

In that scenario, California, Oregon, and Washington then threatened to secede from the United States if Mr. Trump took office as planned. The House named Mr. Biden president; the Senate and White House stuck with Mr. Trump. At that point in the scenario, the nation stopped looking to the media for cues, and waited to see what the military would do.

Which brings us — yet again — to Ben Franklin’s reply to the woman who asked him — as he emerged from the final deliberations of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 — “well, doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” “A republic”, said Franklin, “if you can keep it.”

We’ll see if they can.


Remembering John Hume

He was the greatest Irishman of our times. Tommie Gorman, RTE’s Northern Editor, knew Hume well and has written a lovely tribute to him.

Strasbourg was also the city where I saw him in his most sociable mode. He had a favourite restaurant, Maison Des Tanneurs, a family-run business at 42, Rue du Bain aux Plante. Religiously Hume would invite the quota of visiting journalists from Dublin, the Brussels-based Irish crew and any other waifs and stragglers to a meal.

He’d tell his party-piece joke about Mickey Doherty from Derry, he would insist on his visitors having Dame Blanche for desert, he would order more bottles of gewürztraminer and he would pay the bill. Before the fun broke up in the small hours, he would insist on singing ‘The Town I Love So Well’ in the nearby bar, The Aviator.

Hume had a real, steely courage to back his profound conviction that violence would never solve the Northern Ireland problem. And alongside that steel was an equally profound generosity of spirit. He gave the money from his Nobel Prize to charity.

Two inspired moves gave his cause momentum. One was to connect with the most powerful politicians of Irish extraction in the US — Senator Ted Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York State, and New York governor Hugh Carey. This enabled him to tap into the vast power of the Irish diaspora in the US, to erode the IRA’s fundraising grip on Irish-American sympathies and to challenge British influence in official Washington.

The second inspiration was to stand for the European Parliament where he was able to attract and harness the support of powerful European opponents of political violence — particularly Jacques Delors and Helmut Kohl.

Hume suffered from dementia at the end. But, as Gorman recalls, his memories

often came back when our paths crossed after his retirement in 2004. At close up range his eyes would clock some form of familiarity. “What’s your name” he would say. I’d tell him who I was and give an account of some of our past adventures. Sometimes the anecdotes would register and he’d break into a smile.

May he rest in peace.


Why it’s difficult to assess how badly the UK is doing

Good Guardian piece by David Spiegelhalter:

It is worth noting that the problems of counting Covid-19 deaths are vividly illustrated every day, when the Public Health England dashboard releases a count for the UK; for example, 119 and 83 additional coronavirus deaths were reported last Tuesday and Wednesday. NHS England is currently experiencing fewer than 15 Covid-19 deaths a day in hospitals, but the implausibly high PHE figures for England apparently also include any of the 250,000-plus people who have ever tested positive and have gone on to die of any cause, even if completely unrelated to coronavirus.

The Department of Health and Social Care has suspended these daily figures, but they are still going on all the international sites, and presumably are being used by others to judge how things are developing in the UK. They may be giving an inappropriately negative picture, as the ONS recently reported that the total number of deaths in the UK has shown no overall excess for the past five weeks.

But when we look at where the deaths are happening it is clear that we are not back to normal: people are still staying away from hospitals and dying at home. In England and Wales there were 766 excess deaths that occurred at home in the week ending 17 July, only 29 of which were with coronavirus, whereas in hospitals 862 fewer deaths than normal were registered. So more than 100 deaths a day were happening in people’s homes that would normally happen in hospital – although this is at least a reduction from the peak of the epidemic, when there were 2,000 additional home deaths a week.

This is his takeaway:

My original comments still hold: we will need years to properly assess the effect of the epidemic and the measures taken against it. We’ve now got a league table, but as to why the UK has done so badly, the arguments will go on.


The nostalgia boom

Interesting survey. The UK’s favourite decade was the 1960s, apparently. 21% of “top-tier earners” (whoever they are) are “willing to spend more money opt vintage record players than the latest tech”. Men are twice as likely as women to see nostalgia as “an avoidance of the present”.

Personally, I long for the days when the marmalade was thicker and newspapers were so big that you couldn’t read them comfortably in trains.

Basically, what this demonstrates is why features editors love surveys when there’s no real news to report.


Compared with a chronological newsfeed, Twitter’s algorithm tends to show tweets that are more emotive

Fascinating piece of research by the Economist.

Source: Economist

The researchers wanted to find out if algorithmically-curated tweets are more emotive than chronologically-displayed ones. Answer: they are. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone — after all, the algorithm prioritises content that increases ‘user engagement’ — which is where the revenues come from. But it’s nice to see some evidence for it.


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Sunday 2 August, 2020

Quote of the Day


Can the planet afford more and more machine-learning?

This morning’s Observer column on GPT-3:

The apparent plausibility of GPT-3’s performance has led – again – to fevered speculation about whether this means we have taken a significant step towards the goal of artificial general intelligence (AGI) – ie, a machine that has the capacity to understand or learn any intellectual task that a human being can. Personally, I’m sceptical. The basic concept of the GPT approach goes back to 2017 and although it’s a really impressive achievement to be able to train a system this big and capable, it looks more an incremental improvement on its predecessors rather than a dramatic conceptual breakthrough. In other words: start with a good idea, then apply more and more computing power and watch how performance improves with each iteration.

Which raises another question: given that this kind of incremental improvement is made possible only by applying more and more computing power to the problem, what are the environmental costs of machine-learning technology?

Read on


Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be

The easing of the lockdown on July 4 has had its predictable effect — alarming rises in numbers of new infections in many parts of country. These have now reached more than 4,000 new cases a day, attributed by the head of the government’s track-and-trace operation to social-distancing rules being “routinely flouted“ in virus hotspots.

Nothing in this is surprising. People are desperate to get back to some kind of normal behaviour — hugging friends and family, meeting, drinking, dancing, going to clubs, all the things they used to do. What everybody finds hard to realise, still less to accept, is that that ‘normal’ to which we long to return is no longer available. That train has left the station. The pre-pandemic past is indeed a different country.

When the virus first reached these shores, I had a conversation with a member of my family who saw it as just another kind of flu — more dangerous, certainly, but something essentially familiar. I tried — and failed — to persuade her that it was much more significant and far-reaching than that. Reflecting on the conversation afterwards, I thought that the analogy I should have used was that of the First World War — in the sense that the world post-1918 was unrecognisably different from the world as it was in 1913. And, as the depth and reach of the Coronavirus became clearer with every passing day, that seemed to be quite a persuasive analogy.

But actually that still doesn’t get the measure of the change that we are now living though. The most fundamental change that we — humankind — will have to accept is in our conception of our relationship with nature. This thought was sparked by reading  “From The Anthropocene To The Microbiocene“, a long essay by Tobias Rees in Noema magazine, a publication of the Berggruen Institute.

The thrust of the essay is that from Aristotle to Thomas Hobbes we humans thought of ourselves as part of nature — as just animals with a capacity for reason. But with Hobbes, we started to think of ourselves as apart from the natural world (where lives were famously “nasty, brutish and short”). And this distinction was steadily reinforced by the rise of science, the Enlightenment , capitalism, democratic politics, and so on. Nature was something that we could master, control and exploit (and despoil). As it happened, this hubristic belief in our intrinsic superiority was ultimately going to be our downfall as the pursuit of economic growth led to the collapse of the biosphere on which human life depends.

The significance of the Coronavirus, on this view, is that it interrupts our inexorable rush to climate catastrophe by reminding us of the extent to which our post-Hobbesian hubris was a delusion. We find ourselves unable to overcome and control this manifestation of part of the natural world. And getting a vaccine will not solve it, though it may make living with it more manageable. But these viruses are part of the human future from now on. They’re here to stay.

All of which means that our view of nature as something separate from us, was delusional. What we have to learn to accept is that we’re part of nature too. Given that we’ve had 400+ years of believing something very different, it’s not surprising that people are finding it difficult to come to terms with what lies ahead. There might be many lockdowns ahead until that penny finally drops.

Since we can’t beat nature, shouldn’t we be thinking of (re)joining it?


At last, the tech titans’ nerd immunity shows signs of fading

My OpEd piece in today’s Observer on last Wednesday’s Congressional Hearings on Big Tech.

The most striking thing about Wednesday’s congressional interrogation of the leaders of Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon was the absence of deference to the four moguls. This was such a radical departure from previous practice – characterised by ignorance, grandstanding and fawning on these exemplars of the American Way – that it was initially breathtaking. “Our founders would not bow before a king,” said the House antitrust subcommittee chairman, David Cicilline, in his opening remarks. “Nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy.”

If we wanted a radical departure from the legislative slumber of previous decades, this looked like it. And indeed, to a large extent, it was. One saw it, for example, in the aggressiveness of the questioning by the Democrats. At times, one was reminded of the proceedings of the US supreme court, where the justices constantly interrupt the lawyers before them to cut off any attempt at lawyerly exposition. The implicit message is: “We’ve done our homework. Now get to the point – if you have one.” It was like that on Wednesday.

The Democrats had done their homework: they had read the torrents of private emails that the subcommittee had subpoenaed. And, like any good prosecutor, they never asked a question to which they didn’t already know the answer.

The tech titans were mostly flummoxed by this approach…

Read on


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Saturday 1 August, 2020

Waving, not drowning

Click on the image to see a larger size.


Today’s musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Jan Lisiecki: Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp Minor (1830) at his 2013 Proms debut.

Link


I Tried to Live Without the Tech Giants. It Was Impossible

One of the standard dismissive tropes of the tech companies is the airy claim that if you don’t like what a particular company is doing then you can always move to another service which is “just a click away”.

In January and February last year Kashmir Hill spent six weeks blocking Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple from getting her money, data, and attention, using a custom-built VPN. Her aim was to see if one could have a normal life without using their services. It was an amazing — and valuable — piece of work.

Following Wednesday’s House Subcommittee interrogation of four of the Big Tech bosses, Kashmir wrote a reprise of her experiment for readers of The New York Times. It’s a good read. And you can guess what she found out.

Critics of the big tech companies are often told, “If you don’t like the company, don’t use its products.” My takeaway from the experiment was that it’s not possible to do that. It’s not just the products and services branded with the big tech giant’s name. It’s that these companies control a thicket of more obscure products and services that are hard to untangle from tools we rely on for everything we do, from work to getting from point A to point B.

One of the things Kashmir discovered, for example, is that nearly everything on the Web uses Amazon’s cloud services. So even when you think you’re not interacting with Amazon, it turns out that you are.

She found two kinds of reaction to her findings.

Some people said that it proved just how essential these companies are to the American economy and how useful they are to consumers, meaning regulators shouldn’t interfere with them. Others, like Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York and ex officio member of the House’s antitrust committee, said at the time that the experiment was proof of their monopolistic power.

“By virtue of controlling essential infrastructure, these companies appear to have the ability to control access to markets,” Mr. Nadler said. “In some basic ways, the problem is not unlike what we faced 130 years ago, when railroads transformed American life — both enabling farmers and producers to access new markets, but also creating a key chokehold that the railroad monopolies could exploit.”

This is why in addition to old-style antitrust laws, we need news ones what are attuned to these new realities.


Jeff Bezos’s personal statement to the House Judiciary Subcommittee’s hearing last Wednesday

No matter what you think about Amazon or Bezos, this is a remarkable piece of storytelling. Here’s how it begins…

My mom, Jackie, had me when she was a 17-year-old high school student in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Being pregnant in high school was not popular in Albuquerque in 1964. It was difficult for her. When they tried to kick her out of school, my grandfather went to bat for her. After some negotiation, the principal said, “OK, she can stay and finish high school, but she can’t do any extracurricular activities, and she can’t have a locker.” My grandfather took the deal, and my mother finished high school, though she wasn’t allowed to walk across the stage with her classmates to get her diploma. Determined to keep up with her education, she enrolled in night school, picking classes led by professors who would let her bring an infant to class. She would show up with two duffel bags—one full of textbooks, and one packed with diapers, bottles, and anything that would keep me interested and quiet for a few minutes.

My dad’s name is Miguel. He adopted me when I was four years old. He was 16 when he came to the United States from Cuba as part of Operation Pedro Pan, shortly after Castro took over. My dad arrived in America alone. His parents felt he’d be safer here. His mom imagined America would be cold, so she made him a jacket sewn entirely out of cleaning cloths, the only material they had on hand. We still have that jacket; it hangs in my parents’ dining room. My dad spent two weeks at Camp Matecumbe, a refugee center in Florida, before being moved to a Catholic mission in Wilmington, Delaware. He was lucky to get to the mission, but even so, he didn’t speak English and didn’t have an easy path. What he did have was a lot of grit and determination. He received a scholarship to college in Albuquerque, which is where he met my mom. You get different gifts in life, and one of my great gifts is my mom and dad. They have been incredible role models for me and my siblings our entire lives.

You learn different things from your grandparents than you do from your parents, and I had the opportunity to spend my summers from ages four to 16 on my grandparents’ ranch in Texas. My grandfather was a civil servant and a rancher—he worked on space technology and missile-defense systems in the 1950s and ‘60s for the Atomic Energy Commission—and he was self-reliant and resourceful. When you’re in the middle of nowhere, you don’t pick up a phone and call somebody when something breaks. You fix it yourself. As a kid, I got to see him solve many seemingly unsolvable problems himself, whether he was restoring a broken-down Caterpillar bulldozer or doing his own veterinary work. He taught me that you can take on hard problems. When you have a setback, you get back up and try again. You can invent your way to a better place.

I took these lessons to heart as a teenager, and became a garage inventor. I invented an automatic gate closer out of cement-filled tires, a solar cooker out of an umbrella and tinfoil, and alarms made from baking pans to entrap my siblings…

Tugs your heart-strings, doesn’t it? Well, maybe not. But still: he came over as the most articulate of the four moguls.


Tom Loosemore’s ‘Internet-era ways of working’

Yesterday I blogged about something that I’d found on Tom Loosemore’s blog without giving a link to the blog. Which was a regrettable oversight — as a reader kindly pointed out to me — because Tom is always worth reading. So here’s the link.

This then set me thinking about other stuff he’s written, and I suddenly remembered a guide to intelligent ways of working that he’d written two years ago.

Here’s a early version of it that was seen pinned to a doorway, possibly somewhere in Whitehall.

The updated version is here


Don’t cower

Really good column by Josh Marshall.

I’ve been saying for months – along with so many others – that this Fall will be an ordeal of democracy. Perhaps one of the greatest threats our Republic has ever faced from internal enemies. But the truth is that the values and reflexes that make liberals and Democrats support things that will make society more just and humane lead them to react to moments like these with outrage and trembling more than mockery and power.

I can only suggest people not fall back into themselves.

All of this comes from Trump’s weakness rather than strength. A sinking ship. The answer in any trial of strength or right is to maintain the initiative rather than cower. Every reporter working a beat today should be asking Republican elected officials … asking isn’t even the right word – giving Republican elected officials their one chance to denounce and disassociate themselves from the President’s words. They have one chance. Tomorrow won’t cut it. If they want to go down with the President’s sinking ship, get their answer and lock them in.

Yep!


We need to talk about ventilation

Characteristically thorough coverage by Zeynep Tufecki of the question of aerosol transmission of the virus.

Long read, but worth it if you’re interested in the issue.


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Friday 31 July, 2020

Quote of the Day

Why is flying so bad? Because it takes a lot of energy to lift a metal bucket full of people and suitcases into the air. Go figure: a Boeing 747 burns more than 190 tons of kerosene for an average long-haul flight. With 410 people on board, that’s four bathtubs per passenger. Burning that fuel emits 530 tons of CO₂. That’s nearly 2.5 times the weight of the plane, all deposited in the atmosphere.


Today’s musical alternative to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme

The lark in the morning: Cillian Vallely (pipes) and Alan Murray (guitar). About 9 minutes.

Link

Uileann Pipes are my favourite musical instrument. Played well, they have a haunting beauty which can be sometimes exhilarating and sometimes elegiac. They are also ferociously difficult to play — the word ‘Uileann’ means ‘elbow’ in Irish, a reference to the way the musician inflates the bellows.

I love this comment below the video:

I can hardly guess what the guy who once invented the uilleann pipes was thinking… “Hmm let´s see: We have a chanter you have to use both hands to play it. We have that left elbow pumping the bellows, the right elbow to control the bag pressure to switch chanter octaves. The right knee to place the chanter on, where you have to (of course) occasionally lift it up from. So, how could I make this instrument any more difficult to play? Oh I know! Let´s invent some extra pipes you have to play with your right wrist and make them nearly impossible to keep in tune!” xD What a diabolic genius!


The Panopticon is already here

After George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” here comes the Axis of Autocracy. Ross Anderson has an interesting essay on how Xi Jinping is using artificial intelligence to enhance his government’s totalitarian control—and exporting this technology to regimes around the globe.

Despite China’s considerable strides, industry analysts expect America to retain its current AI lead for another decade at least. But this is cold comfort: China is already developing powerful new surveillance tools, and exporting them to dozens of the world’s actual and would-be autocracies. Over the next few years, those technologies will be refined and integrated into all-encompassing surveillance systems that dictators can plug and play.

The emergence of an AI-powered authoritarian bloc led by China could warp the geopolitics of this century. It could prevent billions of people, across large swaths of the globe, from ever securing any measure of political freedom. And whatever the pretensions of American policy makers, only China’s citizens can stop it. I’d come to Beijing to look for some sign that they might.

This is a long, long read (7,500 words). But worth it if you have the time. Some of it is horrifying — especially the section on the persecution of the Uighur people. But it also makes one think about the future. It’s too simplistic to write off Western hostility to and suspicion of China as just hegemonic anxiety about having the world dominated not by the US, but by a new superpower. In the US, the threat of being overtaken and outclassed in AI and related technologies is regularly used by tech companies as the rationale for keeping them unregulated at home.

And there’s the deep irony that both superpowers are in the process of building surveillance states of unimaginable intrusiveness. The difference is that in China this is all controlled by the state, whereas in the West it’s happening via a strange amalgam of loosely regulated (or unregulated) tech companies and the connivance of the state which needs them to complement its own surveillance capabilities. So in the end, it all comes down to whether one believes (as Ross Anderson does) that in China the chances of this being stopped are essentially zero, whereas in the West (and the US) there’s some chance of the technology being regulated and brough under some kind of public control. Talk about a choice between evils.


Tom Loosemore on crappy website design

Tom Loosemore is the nearest thing the UK has to a guru on digital transformation of government services. In 2010 he founded the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS), and served as its deputy director for five years. And he led the project to create GOV.UK, the single website for UK Government, which has now received over 3 billion visits, and won the UK’s top design award in 2013. His blog is a source of insightful commentary on design issues.

I’ve just come on an example:

One sign that your website isn’t meeting the needs of all your users is when Matthew Somerville gets sufficiently grumpy about it to do a proper version himself.

Today Matthew released his own version of the UK Government’s official coronavirus data dashboard, which last week received a shiny revamp.

A shiny revamp that only worked after a bloated pile of client side javascript had been dumped in your browser (nearly a Mb of React).

A shiny revamp that didn’t initially publish the raw data, and when it did, broke any automated links to the actual data by rendering them via javascript. I imagine the data journalists doing great coronavirus work at the likes of the FT were thrilled.

Just to make the point forcefully, Matthew posted a little video showing the performance of the ‘official’ version alongside the performance of his rewritten version.

Link

You get the message?

Lovely stuff.


Kathleen MacMahon on the Irish women writers who were ignored at home but feted abroad

Wonderful essay. Samples:

Mary Lavin, or Grandmother (never Granny or Nana or, God forbid, Gran), made her name as a world-class short story writer from the unlikely setting of the Abbey Farm, near Navan, County Meath. The mother of three small children, she was widowed as a young woman, becoming a single mother and lone farmer in one fell swoop. While the male writers of her generation worked out of sight in holy sanctity, Grandmother took up a table in Bewley’s cafe on Grafton Street and wrote there until my mother and aunts joined her from school. In the evenings, the men gathered in the pubs around Baggot Street, while Grandmother cooked spaghetti bolognese and held court at her mews in nearby Lad Lane. If she broke the mould, it was for the simple reason that there was no other way for her to write and meet her peers. She had young children at home. Needs must.

And

Female writers, no less today than in my grandmother’s day, must find a way of working amid all this noise, and they do. Anne Lamott famously said that, before she had a child, she couldn’t write if there were dishes in the sink – but afterwards she could write if there was a corpse in the sink.

Unmissable.


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Thursday 30 July, 2020

Thursday 30 July, 2020

Quote of the Day

Every time Trump opens his mouth, he convinces somebody out there to vote for Biden.


Musical alternative to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme

Link

Bach: Toccata and Fugue, BWV 565, played by Edson Lopes. (9 minutes)


Doc Searls is 65+

Doc is one of the Elder Statesmen of the Web. (He was one of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto). And he’s just turned 65, which means he’s now in the blanket category known to marketers as “the over 65s”.

Thus I have now fallen over the edge of a demographic cliff, at the bottom of which is little of major interest to marketers, unless they’re hawking the cushy human equivalent of parking lots. You know: cruises, golf, “lifestyle communities,” “erectile dsyfunction,” adult diapers, geriatric drugs, sensible cars, dementia onset warnings…

For individuals, demographics are absurd. None of us are an age, much less a range of them. We’re animals who live and work and have fun and do stuff. Eventually we croak, but if we stay healthy we acquire wisdom and experience, and find ourselves more valuable over time.

Yet we become less employable as we climb the high end of the demographic ladder, but not because we can’t do the work. It’s mostly because we look old and our tolerance for bullshit is low. Even our own, which is another bonus.

Nearly 100% of the people I work with are younger than me, usually by a generation or two. I almost never feel old among them. Sometimes I joke about it, but I really don’t care. It helps to have been around. It helps to know how fast and well the mighty rise, and then fall. It helps to see what comes and stays, and to know why those things matter more than what comes and goes. It helps to know there are sand dunes older than any company born on the Internet.

Happy birthday, Doc!

Link


Echo frames

Aww isn’t this sweet? Alexa sitting just above your ear.

Meet Echo Frames – All-day glasses with hands-free access to Alexa. Just ask Alexa – Make calls, set reminders, add to your to-do lists, listen to podcasts, or control your smart home from anywhere. Designed for all-day wear – Echo Frames are lightweight and compatible with most prescription lenses. VIP Filter – Customize which notifications to receive from the contacts and apps that matter most to you (Android only). Thoughtful design – Amazon open-ear technology directs sound to your ears and minimizes what others can hear. And with no camera or display, you stay in the moment.

Don’t you just love the idea of “staying in the moment”!


Cummings saga damaged UK lockdown unity, study suggests

The scandal over Dominic Cummings’ trips to and around Durham during lockdown damaged trust and was a key factor in the breakdown of a sense of national unity amid the coronavirus pandemic, research suggests.

Revelations that Cummings and his family travelled to his parents’ farm despite ministers repeatedly imploring the public to stay at home – as exposed by the Guardian and the Daily Mirror in May – also crystallised distrust in politicians over the crisis, according to a report from the thinktank British Future.

The findings emerged in a series of surveys, diaries and interviews carried out over the first months of the pandemic as the public got to grips with profound changes to their habits, relationships and lifestyles.

The only thing that’s surprising is that anybody would be surprised by these findings.

Link


What’s involved in stripping Huawei out of UK mobile networks

Well, up to £500m if you’re BT, according to evidence given to a Commons Select Committee by a senior BT executive quoted by the Register.


Nikon versus Canon: A Story Of Technology Change

If you’re a photography geek (which, I’m sorry to say, I am), then you could happily spend a good deal of the morning following Steven Sinofsky’s wonderfully detailed account of how Canon displaced Nikon as the standard camera system for professional photographers. It’s really an illustration of some of the points Clayton Christensen was making in The Innovator’s Dilemma all those years ago.


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Wednesday 29 July, 2020

Summer by the lake


Wednesday 29 July, 2020

Today’s musical alternative to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme

John Field’s Nocturne #5 in B flat major played by John O’Conor.

Someone once said that John Field invented the Nocturne and Chopin perfected it. I’m not sure about that: I prefer Field’s compositions. But then, I’m no musician.


John Crace on the UK transport minister’s truncated holiday

Lovely spoof

A fitful night’s sleep hadn’t eased the tension in the Shapps’ family compound in the south of Spain. Conversation was limited to a few terse exchanges as Grant started packing his bags for his return home.

“But you told the Today programme back in April that you wouldn’t be taking a family holiday abroad this summer,” his wife reminded him. “So how come we’ve ended up in this villa and will have to quarantine for 14 days on our return?”

“Um …” Shapps mumbled. “Well, everything seemed to be getting a bit better, we had introduced some air corridors and the flights were dirt cheap …”

“So it’s sod’s law that you, the transport secretary, chose to fly on the one air corridor that you knew was going to be closed before we had even taken off.”

“Look, I’ve said I’m sorry countless times. I just couldn’t be seen to be acting on inside knowledge. Not that I had any.”

“So instead you look like a complete twat by cutting short a holiday you said you weren’t going to take, in order to get your 14 days of quarantine over and done with as soon as possible, while leaving me and the kids behind.”

“That’s one way of looking at it …”

“Chill out, Mum,” said the kids. “We’ll probably have a better time without him. At least we won’t have the embarrassment of being photographed on the beach again.”


Zuckerberg in the dock

The bosses of Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook were hauled up (virtually) before the House Subcommittee on Antitrust this evening. It was occasionally interesting. Might write something about it tomorrow. But I couldn’t resist this image of Zuckerberg with a spinning rotor (an artefact of the relay, I guess) superimposed.

It was basically a theatrical event. But maybe it heralds something more serious.


Bats are social animals. Therefore they argue a lot. Just like humans.

Amazing study, reported in the Smithsonian magazine.

Egyptian fruit bats, it turns out, aren’t just making high pitched squeals when they gather together in their roosts. They’re communicating specific problems, reports Bob Yirka at Phys.org.

According to Ramin Skibba at Nature, neuroecologist Yossi Yovel and his colleagues recorded a group of 22 Egyptian fruit bats, Rousettus aegyptiacus, for 75 days. Using a modified machine learning algorithm originally designed for recognizing human voices, they fed 15,000 calls into the software. They then analyzed the corresponding video to see if they could match the calls to certain activities.

They found that the bat noises are not just random, as previously thought, reports Skibba. They were able to classify 60 percent of the calls into four categories. One of the call types indicates the bats are arguing about food. Another indicates a dispute about their positions within the sleeping cluster. A third call is reserved for males making unwanted mating advances and the fourth happens when a bat argues with another bat sitting too close. In fact, the bats make slightly different versions of the calls when speaking to different individuals within the group, similar to a human using a different tone of voice when talking to different people.

Skibba points out that besides humans, only dolphins and a handful of other species are known to address individuals rather than making broad communication sounds.

Clearly, this researcher hasn’t met our cats.


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


 

Tuesday 28 July, 2020

Quote of the Day

A handful of very large, very rich companies that need fewer and fewer workers doesn’t add up to an economy.

  • Rana Foroohar, Financial Times, 27.07.2020.

Today’s musical alternative to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme

BB King and friends, live in the Albert Hall in 2011


So will Congress holds tech bosses to account tomorrow?

Er, don’t hold your breath. The New York Times set the scene this morning:

The captains of the New Gilded Age — Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sundar Pichai of Google — will appear together before Congress for the first time to justify their business practices. Members of the House judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee have investigated the internet giants for more than a year on accusations that they stifled rivals and harmed consumers.

The hearing is the government’s most aggressive show against tech power since the pursuit to break up Microsoft two decades ago. It is set to be a bizarre spectacle, with four men who run companies worth a total of around $4.85 trillion — and who include two of the world’s richest individuals — primed to argue that their businesses are not really that powerful after all.

Last Saturday I highlighted Scott Galloway’s wonderful list of searching questions that the law-makers should ask, but probably won’t. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Interestingly, this will be the first time that Jeff Bezos has appeared before Congress.

The fact that the House judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee has been thinking about antitrust questions in relation to the tech giants is interesting, though. My hope is that the researchers have moved beyond “break ’em up” sloganeering and have started to think about the kinds of policy measures that would stand a chance of having an impact on the companies.

In that context, Benedict Evans published a very thoughtful essay on the regulation issue this week.

Tech has gone from being just one of many industries to being systemically important to society. My old colleague Marc Andreessen liked to say that ‘software is eating the world’ – well, it did.

The trouble is, when tech becomes the world, all of tech’s problems matter much more, because they become so much bigger and touch so many more people; and in parallel all of the problems that society had already are expressed in this new thing, and are amplified and changed by it, and channeled in new ways. When you connect all of society, you connect all of society’s problems as well. You connect all the bad people, and more importantly you connect all of our own worst instincts. And then, of course, all of these combine and feed off each other, and generate new externalities. The internet had hate speech in 1990, but it didn’t affect elections, and it didn’t involve foreign intelligence agencies.

When something is systemically important to society and has systemically important problems, this brings attention from governments and regulators. At a very high level, one could say that all industries are subject to general legislation, and some also have industry-specific legislation. All companies have to follow employment law, and accounting law, and workplace safety law, and indeed criminal law. But some also have their own laws as well, because they have some very specific and important questions that need them. This chart is an attempt to capture some of this industry-specific law. Banks, airlines and oil refineries are regulated industries, and technology is going to become a regulated industry as well.

It’s a great, wise essay. Worth reading in full.


How not to win friends in Silicon Valley

I’ve just learned that my Observer piece about Trump and Zuckerberg on Sunday had over a million page-views.

That’s even more than the piece I wrote in the Summer of 2013 about Edward Snowden.


‘Hygiene Theatre’ is a huge waste of time

Really interesting piece by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic arguing that surface transmission is not such a big threat compared with airborne transmission. In other words, “people are power scrubbing their way to a false sense of security”.

To some American companies and Florida men, COVID-19 is apparently a war that will be won through antimicrobial blasting, to ensure that pathogens are banished from every square inch of America’s surface area.

But what if this is all just a huge waste of time?

In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines to clarify that while COVID-19 spreads easily among speakers and sneezers in close encounters, touching a surface “isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” Other scientists have reached a more forceful conclusion. “Surface transmission of COVID-19 is not justified at all by the science,” Emanuel Goldman, a microbiology professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told me. He also emphasized the primacy of airborne person-to-person transmission.

So “hygiene theatre” may be the Covid equivalent of the security theatre that goes on in airports.


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Monday 27 July, 2020

Windows into the past

My wife is currently going through her family archive, and keeps coming up with astonishing photographs. This is a shot of a Mothers’ Union sewing (or perhaps embroidery) group in a Yorkshire village in the early years of the 20th century. (Her great-grandmother was a member.)

Everyone is wearing a hat — which suddenly reminds me that my grandmother never left the house without one. But then her husband never went out without his Homburg either.

En passant: this fabulous hoard of family photographs reminds one that most people living today will leave nothing like this because their digital photographs will be on computer disks or hosted on online servers. Which means that when they die, most of those accounts will be closed or inaccessible to relatives, and the images will therefore be lost to posterity. Which is why, when people ask me about digital preservation, I tell them to print anything they wish to preserve and store them in shoeboxes in their attics. That’s the only way their grandchildren and great-grandchildren will ever be able to see them.


Today’s musical alternative to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme

Alessandro Marcello’s Concerto in D minor, arranged for two guitars

Ten minutes of peaceful bliss.


Our remote work future is going to suck

Or: Why are we always assuming a distributed workforce is a good thing for the worker?

A very thoughtful essay by Sean Blanda in the be careful what you wish for genre.

It’s quite a long read, but worth it.

My TL;DR summary is:

Remote work “democratises talent” for everyone. Even you.

The work you’re doing from your home in a nice rural village can also be done much more cheaply by someone in the Phillippines.

Remote enables you to be forgotten

You do gain a bit of freedom from your boss (which doubles as a loss of a mentor, but we’ll get to that). You also gain “freedom” from your colleagues and collaborators. Which means you’re effectively on your own.

This is empowering to some, but the isolation can mean your contributions are easily overlooked or misunderstood. As a result, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend at (especially larger) remote companies: Some managers often have no clue what their direct reports are doing and how they are doing it.

Remote work breaks large companies

Remote work evangelists often portray it as liberation from the “interruption culture” at a traditional office. But, says Blanda,

First, clearly people that believe remote work creates an interruption-free zone have never used Slack or email. Second, those interruptions often exist for a reason: They often communicate information that ensures everyone is working on the right thing.

Remote work can stifle your career growth

When you work remotely, mentorship is stifled because there is no learning via osmosis. You can’t model your behavior on your successful teammates because you only see them on Zoom and in Slack. Whatever process they are using to achieve their results is opaque to you.

Evangelists for remote working have revealing blind spots

For example, they assume that:

  • Remote workers prefer to tightly wrap their identity in their work.

  • Everyone has a dedicated working space.

  • Parents have reliable child care outside of the home.

Real-world experience of remote working during the pandemic suggests that often none of these is the case.

The key takeaway (for me, anwway) from this great piece:

We derive more from our careers than simply a paycheck. We find meaning, community, and connection to others. We gain a needed context for seeing the world. We cannot completely decouple the working experience from being in the physical presence of others without causing a slow-simmering existential crisis in its participants.

That’s right IMO: and it means that anything other than a blended future (some remote plus some face-to-face working) is the only way of avoiding another neoliberal nightmare.


So who’s doing well in the pandemic?

This chart tells it all.


Last Responders: couriers of the dead

Memorable reporting by the Texas Tribune.

Juan Lopez is in the ambulance bay of a McAllen hospital, zipping a gauzy blue jumpsuit over a Polo button-down and work slacks. Two well-worn stretchers are in the back of his Cadillac Escalade, a pack of Marlboros near the gear shift.

It’s Saturday morning in South Texas, and the corpse of a 60-something-year-old needs to get to a funeral home — specifically, a refrigerated truck behind a funeral home that’s run out of storage space. The deceased coronavirus patient goes in the back of the Escalade, and Lopez heads to retrieve a body from another hospital’s morgue.

These are the first jobs of the day — and far from the last. Lopez will pick up 16 bodies Saturday, wake up at 2 a.m. Sunday and transport 22 more, including a husband and wife both infected with the virus.

Lopez, 45, is a courier of the dead, contracting with funeral homes and the county to pick up and deliver bodies. In normal times, he handled around 10 jobs a week. But this isn’t a normal time.

Wonderful reporting.


Frequent, Fast, and Cheap is Better than Sensitive

From Alex Tabarrok on Marginal Revolution:

A number of firms have developed cheap, paper-strip tests for coronavirus that report results at-home in about 15 minutes but they have yet to be approved for use by the FDA because the FDA appears to be demanding that all tests reach accuracy levels similar to the PCR test. This is another deadly FDA mistake.

The PCR tests can discover virus at significantly lower concentration levels than the cheap tests but that extra sensitivity doesn’t matter much in practice. Why not? First, at the lowest levels that the PCR test can detect, the person tested probably isn’t infectious. The cheap test is better at telling whether you are infectious than whether you are infected but the former is what we need to know to open schools and workplaces. Second, the virus grows so quickly that the time period in which the PCR tests outperforms the cheap test is as little as a day or two. Third, the PCR tests are taking days or even a week or more to report which means the results are significantly outdated and less actionable by the time they are reported.

The fundamental issue is this: if a test is cheap and fast we shouldn’t compare it head to head against the PCR test. Instead, we should compare test regimes. A strip test could cost $5 which means you can do one per day for the same price as a PCR test (say $35). Thus, the right comparison is seven cheap tests with one PCR test.

Spot on. This is the same as with the ridiculous reluctance to use face-masks: the best (peer-reviewed) being the enemy of the good. Cheap, rapid strip-tests could be really useful at this stage of the pandemic. Not perfect. But useful. So why don’t we have them — now?


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Sunday 26 July, 2020

A note to subscribers

If you elected to receive this blog as a daily email and are finding that it’s not arriving regularly (as some people have been), please check your spam filter. It seems that some filters automatically suspect stuff that comes from services like Substack.


The UK’s contact-tracing app difficulties

This morning’s Observer column:

Some day, we will have a reckoning for how the Johnson administration screwed up so comprehensively. But that will have to wait, because it is still screwing up. The current focus of interest is why it took it so long to realise that the only way to deal with the threat was lockdown, contact tracing and quarantining, a methodology familiar to Europeans since at least the time of the Black Death. And when the history of this time comes to be written, one interesting case study in official ineptitude will focus on the British search for its very own “world-beating” smartphone contact-tracing app.

The best interim report we have on this quest has been compiled by Rowland Manthorpe of Sky News…

Read on


“Hurting people at scale”: at last, Facebook employees are beginning to wonder whether they want to be part of the Zuckerberg project

Very interesting Buzzfeed report:

On July 1, Max Wang, a Boston-based software engineer who was leaving Facebook after more than seven years, shared a video on the company’s internal discussion board that was meant to serve as a warning.

“I think Facebook is hurting people at scale,” he wrote in a note accompanying the video. “If you think so too, maybe give this a watch.”

Most employees on their way out of the “Mark Zuckerberg production” typically post photos of their company badges along with farewell notes thanking their colleagues. Wang opted for a clip of himself speaking directly to the camera. What followed was a 24-minute clear-eyed hammering of Facebook’s leadership and decision-making over the previous year…

Here’s the recording of his farewell message obtained by Buzzfeed. The audio quality is poor (too much treble), but the content is fascinating.

What the Buzzfeed (longish) report suggests is that there is growing employee unease within Facebook about the direction the company is taking. Personally I’m sceptical about this having a major impact in the short- to medium-term. After all, the pay is good, the work (for geeks at least) may be technically interesting, and many smart and apparently decent people work for, say, arms manufacturers or tobacco companies.

Longer term, though, the shine has gone from Facebook and so I can imagine that some of the smarter computer science graduates might now have reservations about working there. For them, it’ll have become more like Palantir — something you might not want to tell your friends about.


Zuckerberg, Trump and November’s Election

The Observer has a big feature-spread today about Trump, Zuckerberg and the presidential election, with contributions from me, Carole Cadwalladr, Yaël Eisenstat and Roger McNamee.

My essay focusses mainly on Zuckerberg’s total control of the company and his possible motives for the decisions he’s been making.

So here we are in 2020, 100 days from the presidential election. Trump is still trailing Biden. But his base support has remained solid. So the point I made in June still stands: if he is to win a second term, Facebook will be his only hope – which is why his campaign is betting the ranch on it. And if Facebook were suddenly to decide that it would not allow its platform to be used by either campaign in the period from now until 3 November, Trump would be a one-term president, free to spend even more time with his golf buggy – and perhaps his lawyers.

For Facebook read Zuckerberg, for Facebook is not just a corporate extension of its founder’s personality, but his personal plaything. I can’t think of any other tech founder who has retained such an iron grip on his creation through his ownership of a special class of shares, which give him total control. The passage in the company’s SEC filing detailing this makes for surreal reading. It says that Zuckerberg “has the ability to control the outcome of matters submitted to our stockholders for approval, including the election of directors and any merger, consolidation, or sale of all or substantially all of our assets. This concentrated control could delay, defer, or prevent a change of control, merger, consolidation, or sale of all or substantially all of our assets that our other stockholders support, or conversely this concentrated control could result in the consummation of such a transaction that our other stockholders do not support.”

Such a concentration of power in the hands of a single individual would be a concern in any enterprise, but in a global company that effectively controls and mediates much of the world’s public sphere it is distinctly creepy…

Carole’s piece is here.

Ian Tucker’s interview with Roger McNamee (an early investor in Facebook is here.

Ian’s interview with Yaël Eisenstat (a whistleblower) is here.


Friend Monitors?

Dave Winer has a good idea:

I have an app called Server Monitor that does something simple but important. It pings each of the apps I have running once a minute to see if they’re still alive. If not, SM sends me an email. I bet everyone who writes server apps has this kind of utility.

I’d like something like this for my friends. A ping goes out to each, if someone doesn’t respond, I get an email.

In the age of The Trump Plague, I worry about my friends.

Me too. I’ve been thinking for a while that I should do something like this. Maybe a small email group to which I send a message a week asking just for a one word reply: OK (or, if not, No) maybe.


Central London Rents Decline as Vacation Homes Flood Market

Well, well. Bloomberg reports

Rents for homes in central London had a record decline last month as landlords flooded the market with properties previously rented out through companies such as Airbnb Inc.

Houses in the city center rented for 7.4% less than a year earlier in June, according to data compiled by broker Hamptons International. The number of homes available to rent shot up by 26% in inner London, driven by houses previously occupied for short periods by visitors to the capital moving to the long-term market.

What Brexit started, the virus has continued. Long overdue IMO.


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Saturday 25 July, 2020

Crooked timber

I never see trees like this without thinking of Kant’s sardonic observation: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

(The Crooked Timber blog btw is unfailingly interesting.)


Quote of the Day

“I thought HIV was a complicated disease. It’s really simple compared to what’s going on with COVID-19.”

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci, during a presentation at the BIO International Convention.

Today’s musical alternative to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme

Chaconne in D minor by J.S.Bach, arranged and played by John Feeley

13 blissful minutes.

Thanks to Seb Schmoller for the suggestion.


A crib-sheet for Congress as it prepares for Tuesday’s antitrust hearings

Scott Galloway’s utterly brilliant list of questions for the tech moguls who are due to be quizzed next week. I doubt the legislators will have the bottle to ask them, though.


Does Elon Musk really want to go here? Really?

Link


Famous mask wearers

On an Instagram account called Plague History, artist Genevieve Blais has been modifying the subjects of artworks to give them face masks.

Lovely idea.

(HT to Jason Kottke)


Long read of the Day: YouTube’s Psychic Wounds by Nicholson Baker

Unmissable. Especially if you’ve never spent any time in the deepest recesses of YouTube’s weirdness.

YouTube, this endless, crowd-curated theater of ourselves, serves up the raw, the cooked, the failing, the heartrending, the shocking, the helpful, and the WTF? any time you want it. So a few months ago, when the Columbia Journalism Review asked me to watch YouTube videos for a little while, as an experiment, to see what news of the world was served up by its freshly tuned algorithm, I of course said yes.

And then I made a mistake. Using YouTube’s own search bar, I looked up some terms that I thought I should know more about before beginning: “deep state,” for instance…

link


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!