From the Economist:
Distractions clearly affect performance on the job. In a recent essay, Dan Nixon of the Bank of England pointed to a mass of compelling evidence that they could also be eating into productivity growth. Depending on the study you pick, smartphone-users touch their device somewhere between twice a minute to once every seven minutes. Conducting tasks while receiving e-mails and phone calls reduces a worker’s IQ by about ten points relative to working in uninterrupted quiet. That is equivalent to losing a night’s sleep, and twice as debilitating as using marijuana. By one estimate, it takes nearly half an hour to recover focus fully for the task at hand after an interruption. What’s more, Mr Nixon notes, constant interruptions accustom workers to distraction, teaching them, in effect, to lose focus and seek diversions.
Got that? Now back to Twitter.
One of my favourite books is a collection of Janet Flanner’s Letters from Paris to the New Yorker. Just found a lovely memoir by her of her early years in the city of light. It includes this lovely story:
In October, 1925, I started the biweekly “Letter from Paris” for this magazine. The only specific guidance I received from the editor, Harold Ross, was his statement that he wanted to know what the French thought was going on in France, not what I thought was going on. Since my assignment was to tell what the French thought was going on, my only obvious, complete, facile source of information was the French press. In one of my first letters, I reported on a completely new type of American theatrical entertainment that had just opened in Paris, at the Champs-Élysées Theatre. It was called “La Revue Nègre.” I wrote about it timidly and like a dullard.
As a matter of fact, it was so incomparably novel an element in French public pleasures that its star, the hitherto unknown Josephine Baker, remains to me a still fresh vision—sensual, exciting, and isolated in my memory today, almost fifty years later. She made her entry onstage entirely nude (except for a pink flamingo feather between her limbs), carried on the shoulder of a black giant. Midstage, he paused and swung her in a slow cartwheel to the stage floor, where she stood like his magnificent dark burden in an instant of complete silence. She was an unforgettable female ebony statue. A scream of salutation spread through the theatre. Within a half hour of the final curtain on opening night, the news and meaning of her arrival had spread by the grapevine through the cafés on the Champs-Élysées, where the witnesses of her triumph sat over their drinks excitedly repeating their report of what they had just seen. She had become the established new American star of Europe.
This morning’s Observer column:
When the internet first entered public consciousness in the early 1990s, a prominent media entrepreneur described it as a “sit up” rather than a “lean back” medium. What she meant was that it was quite different from TV, which encouraged passive consumption by a species of human known universally as the couch potato. The internet, some of us fondly imagined, would be different; it would encourage/enable people to become creative generators of their own content.
Spool forward a couple of decades and we are sadder and wiser. On any given weekday evening in many parts of the world, more than half of the data traffic on the internet is accounted for by video streaming to couch potatoes worldwide. (Except that many of them may not be sitting on couches, but watching on their smartphones in a variety of locations and postures.) The internet has turned into billion-channel TV.
That explains, for example, why Netflix came from nowhere to be such a dominant company. But although it’s a huge player in the video world, Netflix may not be the biggest. That role falls to something that is rarely mentioned in polite company, namely pornography…
Nice appreciative piece:
Henceforth, the senior ranks of government can be filled only by invertebrates and opportunists, schemers and careerists. If they had policy convictions, they will meekly accept their evisceration. If they know a choice is a disaster, they will swallow hard and go along. They may try to manipulate the president, or make some feeble efforts to subvert him, but in the end they will follow him. And although patriotism may motivate some of them, the truth is that it will be the title, the office, the car, and the chance to be in the policy game that will keep them there.
They may think wistfully of the unflinching Sir Thomas More of Robert Bolt’s magnificent play about integrity in politics, A Man for All Seasons. But they will be more like Richie Rich, More’s protégé who could have chosen a better path, but who succumbed to the lure of power. And the result will be policies that take this country, its allies, and international order to disasters small and large.
Jim Mattis’s life has been shaped by the Marine motto: semper fidelis, always faithful. Against the odds, he remained faithful to his beliefs, to his subordinates, to the mission, to the country. The president who appointed him to the office might have as the motto on his phony coat of arms numquam fidelis, never loyal. His career has been one of betrayal—of business partners, of customers, of subordinates, of his wives, and as we may very possibly learn from Robert Mueller, of his country. The two codes of conduct could never really coexist, and so they have not.
Yep. The surprising thing is that Mattis stuck it out as long as he did. But also worth pointing out that Thomas More was no angel.
My Talking Politics conversation with David Runciman.
Steven Strogatz in the New York Times:
All of that has changed with the rise of machine learning. By playing against itself and updating its neural network as it learned from experience, AlphaZero discovered the principles of chess on its own and quickly became the best player ever. Not only could it have easily defeated all the strongest human masters — it didn’t even bother to try — it crushed Stockfish, the reigning computer world champion of chess. In a hundred-game match against a truly formidable engine, AlphaZero scored twenty-eight wins and seventy-two draws. It didn’t lose a single game.
Most unnerving was that AlphaZero seemed to express insight. It played like no computer ever has, intuitively and beautifully, with a romantic, attacking style. It played gambits and took risks. In some games it paralyzed Stockfish and toyed with it. While conducting its attack in Game 10, AlphaZero retreated its queen back into the corner of the board on its own side, far from Stockfish’s king, not normally where an attacking queen should be placed.
Yet this peculiar retreat was venomous: No matter how Stockfish replied, it was doomed. It was almost as if AlphaZero was waiting for Stockfish to realize, after billions of brutish calculations, how hopeless its position truly was, so that the beast could relax and expire peacefully, like a vanquished bull before a matador. Grandmasters had never seen anything like it. AlphaZero had the finesse of a virtuoso and the power of a machine. It was humankind’s first glimpse of an awesome new kind of intelligence.
Hmmm… It’s important to remember that board games are a very narrow domain. In a way it’s not surprising that machines are good at playing them. But it’s undeniable that AlphaGoZero is remarkable.
Hard to say. But it’s an interesting question, explored here by Kara Swisher.
It also makes one wonder exactly what Mr. Trump would do without Twitter, which has become his best and only true way to communicate. He can certainly go on television and he does; he can make a live speech and he does; he can stand out on the White House lawn and he does. But it’s not the same. The lightning-fast, easy-hit addiction of Twitter has Mr. Trump hooked like none other.
And there are zero alternatives online. Facebook is too bloated and slow; Snapchat is too small and hard to use for the olds; Reddit is a hot mess. There is no other digital harbor for Mr. Trump’s carnival barker show, no place where both the left and right can react and where all the media gathers.
So what would happen to the president who governs by tweet if he finally did or said something that forced Twitter to throw him off the platform? Could he do his job at all?
“Capitalism requires outputs from government that include stable governance, effective bureaucracies, rule of law, and public accountability.”
Didi Kuo, “Democratic Capitalism’s Future”