”I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon
constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; be-
lieve me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and
women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save
it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.”
Sobering assessment in Prospect by Richard Evans:
But if Hitler’s rise teaches us anything, it’s that the establishment trivialises demagogues at its peril. One disturbing aspect of the present crisis is the extent to which mainstream parties, including US Republicans and British Conservatives, tolerate leaders with tawdry rhetoric and simplistic ideas, just as Papen, Hindenburg, Schleicher and the rest of the later Weimar establishment tolerated first Hitler and then his dismantling of the German constitution. He could not have done it in the way he did without their acquiescence. Republicans know Trump is a charlatan, just as Conservatives know Johnson is lazy, chaotic and superficial, but if these men can get them votes, they’ll lend them support.
Weimar’s democracy did not exactly commit suicide. Most voters never voted for a dicatorship: the most the Nazis ever won in a free election was 37.4 per cent of the vote. But too many conservative politicians lacked the will to defend democracy, either because they didn’t really believe in it or because other matters seemed more pressing. As for rule by emergency decree, few people thought Hitler was doing anything different from Ebert or Brüning when he used Hindenburg’s powers to suspend civil liberties after the Reichstag Fire on 28th February 1933. That decree was then renewed all the way up to 1945. In this sense, democracy was destroyed constitutionally.
Which is exactly what’s going on in the UK at the moment.
The lesson, says Evans,
seems to be that to prevent the collapse of representative democracy, the legislature must jealously guard its powers. Can we rely on that happening today? It doesn’t help that the British parliament, as was its counterpart in Weimar, has become more or less paralysed on the most important issue of the day. As in Weimar, the only majorities are negative ones—against, for example, Theresa May’s Brexit deal as well as, so far at least, every available alternative.
Answer: our streets become much more congested. This thought-provoking post comes from Quartz:
Researchers at the University of California, Davis and UC-Berkeley gave a test group free private drivers to see what would happen when people get self-driving cars. Vehicle usage soared by 83%. That’s a potential nightmare in traffic-choked metropolitan areas, where increased travel could erase the efficiency gains of the last fifty years.
The outlines of this future are coming into focus in San Francisco. Between 2010 and 2016, congestion in the city rose by about 60%, city officials estimate. Half of this was attributed to Lyft and Uber as more people took ride-hailing services instead of transit and other non-car forms of transportation. Cars driving around waiting for passengers to hail them added to the problem, especially in congested areas of the city.
City planners say that to ease congestion, it’s key to keep private AVs on the periphery of dense urban centers, and focus on public transit and last-mile solutions at the center. If “personally-owned automated vehicles are superimposed on today’s patterns of usage… that will lead to the hell scenario,” says Daniel Sperling, founder of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC-Davis. What, then, would heaven look like? “UberPool without the driver.”
This is interesting because AV-evangelists are always saying that self-driving cars will make our cities more pleasant.
The staff (and proprietor) of the New York Times have their knickers in a twist because some right-wingers have been excavating embarrassing or foolish tweets that NYT journalists have emitted in the past. Jack Shafer is having none of it:
Deep scrutiny of the press—even when performed by bad faith actors like Arthur Schwartz and his ilk—is a boon, not a bane. The embarrassments unearthed by Schwartz and company will bruise the tender egos who run the Times, the Post and CNN. But in the long run, these minirevelations will help them maintain the professional standards they’re always crowing about. Instead of damning its critics for going through its staffs’ social media history with tweezers, the Times and A.G. Sulzberger should send them a thank you card.
Yep. American journalism can be very pompous at times.
”If intelligence is a cake, the bulk of the cake is unsupervised learning, the icing on the cake is supervised learning, and the cherry on the cake is reinforcement learning.”
This morning’s Observer column:
Fans of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy treasure the bit where a group of hyper-dimensional beings demand that a supercomputer tells them the secret to life, the universe and everything. The machine, which has been constructed specifically for this purpose, takes 7.5m years to compute the answer, which famously comes out as 42. The computer helpfully points out that the answer seems meaningless because the beings who instructed it never knew what the question was. And the name of the supercomputer? Why, Deep Thought, of course.
It’s years since I read Adams’s wonderful novel, but an article published in Nature last month brought it vividly to mind. The article was about the contemporary search for the secret to life and the role of a supercomputer in helping to answer it. The question is how to predict the three-dimensional structures of proteins from their amino-acid sequences. The computer is a machine called AlphaFold. And the company that created it? You guessed it – DeepMind…
”History is the sum total of things that could have been avoided”
The best metaphor for the net is to think of it as a mirror held up to human nature. All human life really is there. There’s no ideology, fetish, behaviour, obsession, perversion, eccentricity or fad that doesn’t find expression somewhere online. And while much of what we see reflected back to us is uplifting, banal, intriguing, harmless or fascinating, some of it is truly awful, for the simple reason that human nature is not only infinitely diverse but also sometimes unspeakably cruel.
In the early days of the internet and, later, the web, this didn’t matter so much. But once cyberspace was captured by a few giant platforms, particularly Google, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, then it became problematic. The business models of these platforms depended on encouraging people to upload content to them in digital torrents. “Broadcast yourself”, remember, was once the motto of YouTube.
And people did – as they slit the throats of hostages in the deserts of Arabia, raped three-year-old girls, shot an old man in the street, firebombed the villages of ethnic minorities or hanged themselves on camera…
All of which posed a problem for the social media brands, which liked to present themselves as facilitators of creativity, connectivity and good clean fun, an image threatened by the tide of crud that was coming at them. So they started employing people to filter and manage it. They were called “moderators” and for a long time they were kept firmly under wraps, so that nobody knew about them.
That cloak of invisibility began to fray as journalists and scholars started to probe this dark underbelly of social media…
This morning’s Observer column:
For many years, Silicon Valley companies didn’t even bother to have lobbyists in Washington. As late as 2015, Eric Schmidt, then the executive chairman of Google, was predicting that authoritarian governments would wither away in a comprehensively networked world, which made some of us wonder what exactly Dr Schmidt was smoking.
During that period, governments generally played along with this myth of their irrelevance. Presidents and prime ministers queued up for invitations to the campuses of the Silicon Valley giants. And insofar as the tech moguls paid any attention to presidential politics, it was to support the Democrats. Schmidt, for example, played a big role in Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency.
Unsurprisingly, the valley was thunderstruck by the election of Donald Trump…