Links for today

Four remarkable articles.

  • Ron Deibert: “Three Painful Truths About Social Media”, Journal of Democracy, Volume 30, Number 1, January 2019. link – lovely, synoptic summary of our current reality, by a scholar who seem more of the dark underbelly of our networked world than most of us.

  • Paul Nemitz, “Constitutional democracy and technology in the age of artificial intelligence”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 15 October 2018, p376. link. Magnificent essay by the Principal Adviser to the European Commission on why judgements about ethical AI cannot be left to the tech companies.

  • David Silver et al, “A general reinforcement learning algorithm that masters chess, shogi, and Go through self-play”, Science, Vol. 362, Issue 6419, pp. 1140-1144, 07 Dec 2018 link. The full scientific report by DeepMind researchers on their ALphaZero machine, which taught itself to acquire superhuman capabilities in playing certain games.

  • Gary Kasparov, “Chess, a Drosophila of reasoning”, Science, Vol. 362, Issue 6419, pp. 1087, 07 Dec 2018. Lovely commentary by a former Grandmaster on AlphaZero’s accomplishments.

The feeding frenzy about the drop in Apple’s share price

I find the media obsession with Apple’s valuation really tiresome. That’s not just because I don’t own any shares but also because it suggests that mainstream journalists haven’t been paying attention. Way back in August, for example, Bloomberg’s Tim Culpin published a very perceptive piece under the headline “Dark Clouds Gather as Tech Stockpiles Hit Pre-Crisis Levels” which made it crystal clear that there was a slowdown coming.

But even if journalists don’t pay much attention to supply chains you’d have thought that common sense and everyday experience would have taught them that the iPhone picture was changing. I’ve lost count of the number of friends, colleagues and acquaintances who are happily still using their four- or five-year-old iPhones. The devices still work perfectly for their purposes. Sure, the camera isn’t as good as the one on the iPhone XS, but it’s still good enough for everyday use. My trusty old iPhone 6 is still more than adequate for my purposes. In fact, since the last couple of IOS updates and a replacement battery, it’s as good as it ever was. And one of the things that would stop me upgrading is that I find its fingerprint recognition much more convenient for secure online activities than the much-touted face recognition in the newer iPhones would be. I’ve been an early adopter and a gadget freak for as long as I can remember. So if I’m not upgrading, then must be lots more like me.

Could it be that most mainstream tech journalists always have the latest iPhones because their employers pay for them? And so they have fallen into the delusion of thinking that they’re normal consumers?

Fathers and sons

I’ve just finished Colm Tóibín’s book about the fathers of Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats and James Joyce. Very interesting but uneven work. Main conclusion is that all three were very strange men. William Wilde was an erratic (but formidable) polymath, John B. Yeats a talented but improvident painter who never finished a painting and never made a living, and John Stanislaus Joyce was a pompous wastrel and a drunk with a fine singing voice. And all three seem to have been terrible husbands. For their part, their talented sons all treated them ambivalently. It’s well known that having a famous father makes it difficult for sons. But being a famous son of an erratic or improvident father clearly has its problems too. Of the three, it was James Joyce who made serious artistic use of his father — there are recognisable aspects of John Stanislaus in Stephen Hero, Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake and Tóibín has been good at spotting and excavating them.

Put down your smartphone and read this

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.

The news from Paris

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.

Trump on democracy

From the New Yorker:

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Calling for an “immediate end” to the recount in Florida, Donald J. Trump warned on Monday that it could set a dangerous precedent of the person with the most votes winning.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump said that those in favor of the recount had a “sick obsession with finding out which candidate got the most votes.”

“Democrats are going on and on about counting every last vote until they find out who got the most,” Trump said. “Since when does getting the most votes mean you win?”

Trump said that, if the recounts are allowed to proceed, “We could be looking at a very bad, very sad situation where to be considered legitimately elected you have to get more votes than the other candidate.”

Just for the avoidance of doubt, this is a satirical piece.

Cognitive Dissonance in Silicon Valley? Or maybe they know something we don’t?

Very interesting NYT piece by Nellie Bowles:

The futurist philosopher Yuval Noah Harari worries about a lot.

He worries that Silicon Valley is undermining democracy and ushering in a dystopian hellscape in which voting is obsolete.

He worries that by creating powerful influence machines to control billions of minds, the big tech companies are destroying the idea of a sovereign individual with free will.

He worries that because the technological revolution’s work requires so few laborers, Silicon Valley is creating a tiny ruling class and a teeming, furious “useless class.”

But lately, Mr. Harari is anxious about something much more personal. If this is his harrowing warning, then why do Silicon Valley C.E.O.s love him so?

He has a hunch:

“One possibility is that my message is not threatening to them, and so they embrace it?” a puzzled Mr. Harari said one afternoon in October. “For me, that’s more worrying. Maybe I’m missing something?”

Could it be that they’re not that concerned about his warnings that digital tech is dangerous for democracy because, basically, they’ve given up on it?