You’re never extreme enough for YouTube’s recommendation algorithm

This morning’s Observer column:

Early one Sunday morning a month ago, a German carpenter was fatally stabbed in a street fight in Chemnitz in eastern Germany. Little is known about how the brawl started, but rumours rapidly circulated online that the man was defending a woman from sexual assault. Within hours of his death, rumours that his killers were two refugees triggered a violent reaction. For two nights running, thousands of rightwing extremists and sympathisers took to the streets of the city. Shocking videos of demonstrators openly using the Nazi salute (a criminal offence in Germany) and chasing and attacking people of foreign appearance rapidly appeared online.

The reverberations of the riots continue to roil German politics and society. They appear to have given a massive boost to the right-wing AfD party, for example, which according to some opinion polls is now in second place in Germany. And last week, Angela Merkel removed the head of the domestic intelligence agency, Hans-Georg Maaßen, from his post after he faced criticism for his reaction to anti-immigrant protests in the city of Chemnitz. He had cast doubt on the authenticity of the videos showing dark-skinned people being chased and attacked.

What’s going on? How did many Germans become so worked up about a street brawl?

Read on

Fail again. Fail better

Roger Cohen, writing in the New York Times:

ATHENS — Gazing at the Acropolis the other day from an Athens rooftop, I was reminded of Samuel Beckett’s words: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Athenian democracy, a male preserve, far from universal, failed in due course. Still, to see that white citadel in the Athenian dawn is to be reminded of the millenniums of human striving for a political system permitting citizens to exercise power through the ballot box: government of the people, by the people, for the people, as Lincoln put it.

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

It’s important to put our current democratic travails in perspective. At its best, democracy is a culture that empowers free citizens to participate in shaping their fates. At its worst, it is a charade in which civic bonds erode, power accrues to the few, self-aggrandizement becomes the norm, and tolerance and restraint are consumed by the howling mob. Then the very word becomes a sham, a disguise deployed by autocrats like Vladimir Putin.

Why Google wants to get back into China

From Kara Swisher:

Rather than obsessions about whether Google is ‘censoring’ right-wing politicians, Washington lawmakers

should take all their sanctimony and direct it at the China issue, which actually deserves some scrutiny. Perhaps that is the real reason Google avoided sending its current chief executive, Sundar Pichai, to the recent Senate hearings, so he could avoid explaining what it was thinking when it came China 2.0: Now With 100 Percent More Hypocrisy.

Google seems to have no problem climbing down off its high horse to grab the thing it needs in China.

Which is, simply put, more data.

In his new book, “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order,” Dr. Lee [Dr Jai-Fu Lee, head of Google China] argues that advances in artificial intelligence — the future of computing — will be enjoyed only by those with the ability to essentially shove increasing amounts of data into the maw of the machine.

Right now, he notes, with China’s aggressive use of sensors and you-say-facial-recognition-I-say-surveillance, a population hooked on mobile in a much more significant way than here and consumers more willing to trade away their privacy for digital convenience, China’s internet companies have access to 10 to 15 times more data than American ones. Dr. Lee and others have called it a “data gap” that Google has to bridge, and soon, if it wants to remain competitive.

As James Carville might have said: it’s the data, stoopid.

Negative equilibrium

From The Economist:

The two major parties are incompetent as well as divided. Their leaders, a charisma-free robot and a superannuated Marxist, are two of the most unimpressive in recent history. The cabinet and shadow cabinet are stuffed with hangers-on. Chris Grayling made a thorough hash of things as justice secretary, only to be put in charge of transport, where he has made an even bigger mess. Leslie Rowse, a historian of Elizabethan England, argued that the basic rule of academic life was that second-raters would always appoint third-raters over first-raters. Rowse’s rule now applies to politics on both sides of the parliamentary aisle.

The result is a negative equilibrium. The government can get away with being useless because it faces a useless opposition, and vice versa. The political system is designed to hold regular tests of strength, as government ministers explain their policies to Parliament. But these tests of strength have turned into tests of weakness, as incompetent opposition spokesmen fail to hold incompetent ministers to account. It is notable that the only serious blow against a minister in recent months was struck by a backbencher, Yvette Cooper, who dispatched Amber Rudd, then home secretary, during a committee meeting.


Michael Tomasky, writing in the New York Review of Books:

Arguably every single tweet the president writes about the investigation, attacking Mueller’s “13 Angry Democrats” and denouncing it as an invariably upper-cased Witch Hunt, is an attempt to obstruct justice; if you don’t think so, get yourself placed under federal investigation and try mimicking Trump’s Twitter habits and see what happens to you.

All of this doesn’t begin to detail what Mueller and his team have learned from interviews about what took place in private. It’s a reasonable bet, then, that Mueller will find that Trump and others around him—former press aide Hope Hicks, possibly his son Donald Jr., maybe Jared Kushner, other campaign associates and hangers-on—have lied or tried to quash or in some way compromise the investigation.

If that happens, what comes next? Three days before Trump’s inauguration, the neoconservative Bush administration official Eliot A. Cohen wrote that “this will be a slogging match until the end.” He felt confident, however, that “the institutions will contain him and the laws will restrain him if enough people care about both, and do not yield to fear of him and whatever leverage he tries to exert from his mighty office.”

Of those forty-five words of Cohen’s, the most important is “if.”

Spot on. And, given the current crop of Republicans in both the House and the Senate, I think we know the answer.

Those denials about the anonymous NYT OpEd: remember Watergate

From the New Yorker:

Everybody and his dog in the White House has been denying that they are the author of the anonymous OpEd published by the New York Times. Susan Glasser is not impressed:

The denials seemed like some of those pointless, if required, Washington rituals. After all, Mark Felt, the deputy director of the F.B.I. during the Nixon Administration, who had been Woodward’s original secret source about the Watergate scandal, denied publicly for years that he was “Deep Throat,” a fact pointed out on Twitter on Wednesday, as journalists circulated a copy of an old Wall Street Journal story with Felt’s denial as the lede. Felt revealed himself as Woodward’s source before he died, and Woodward later published a book all about their dealings, “The Secret Man,” another book that Sarah Huckabee Sanders presumably did not read but should have: at the center of the tale is the story of how the F.B.I., outraged by the flagrant lawlessness of the President, decided to use its powers to take Nixon on.

Ten years on

If, like me, you see the events of 2016 as the long-delayed democratic response to the banking crisis of 2008, then you’ll like this essay by George Packer, which says, in part:

At first, American institutions responded with signs of health: the Federal Reserve stopped the free fall of the biggest banks; the press uncovered corruption and fraud; and a bipartisan Congress passed legislation to get credit flowing and rescue the financial sector. Then the electorate turned out the party in power. The financial crisis decided the election of 2008. Americans who might never have imagined themselves choosing a black President voted for Barack Obama because he understood the scope of the disaster and offered hope for a remedy.

But our democracy turned out to be unwell. The first symptom of sickness came within three weeks of Obama’s inauguration. In February, 2009, with the economy losing seven hundred thousand jobs a month, Congress passed a stimulus bill—a nearly trillion-dollar package of tax cuts, aid to states, and infrastructure spending, considered essential by economists of every persuasion—with the support of just three Republican senators and not a single Republican member of the House. Rather than help save the economy that their party had done so much to wreck, Republicans, led by Senator Mitch McConnell, chose to oppose every Democratic measure, including Wall Street reform. In doing so, they would impede the recovery and let the other party take the fall. It was a brilliantly immoral strategy, and it pretty much worked.

The President didn’t always aid his own cause. He had campaigned as a visionary, but he governed as a technocrat. His policies helped to end the recession within months, but the recovery was excruciatingly slow. The stimulus package could have been much larger, with added money for job creation; more indebted homeowners could have been kept in their houses. Perhaps Obama made too many compromises in the hope of appealing to a bipartisanship that was already dead. But his biggest mistake was to save the bankers along with the banks. After a financial crisis caused in part by fraud, not a single top Wall Street executive was brought to trial. The public wanted to punish the malefactors, but justice was never done.

In the years after the crash, you could feel the fabric of the country fraying…

What’s significant about Wikipedia

This morning’s Observer column:

Since its inception, it’s been the butt of jokes, a focus for academic ire and a victim of epistemological snobbery. I remember one moment when the vice-chancellor of a top university made a dismissive remark about Wikipedia, only to have a world-leading chemist in the audience icily retort that the pages on his particular arcane speciality were the most up-to-date summary currently available anywhere – because he wrote them. And this has been my experience; in specialist areas, Wikipedia pages are often curated by experts and are usually the best places to gain an informed and up-to-date overview.

Because Wikipedia is so vast and varied (in both range and quality), the controversies it engenders have traditionally been about its content and rarely about its modus operandi and its governance. Which is a pity, because in some ways these are the most significant aspects of the project. The political events of the last two years should have alerted us to the fact that Wikipedia had to invent a way of tackling the problem that now confronts us at a global level: how to get at some approximation to the truth…

Read on

Facebook can’t control its users. And it has no incentive to do so

This morning’s Observer column:

Most people I know who use Facebook seem normal. And the uses to which they put the service also seem normal – harmless to the point of banality. So when they see reports of how social media is being used to fuel extremism, violence, racism, intolerance, hatred – even ethnic cleansing – they are puzzled. Who are the people who do things like that? And why doesn’t Facebook stop them?

To answer the first question, let us visit Altena, a town of about 18,000 souls in North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany. After Angela Merkel opened Germany’s doors to refugees, Altena took its quota, like any good German town. When refugees first arrived, so many locals volunteered to help that Anette Wesemann, who runs Altena’s refugee integration centre, couldn’t keep up. She’d find Syrian or Afghan families attended by groups of volunteer German tutors. “It was really moving,” she told a New York Times reporter.

But when Wesemann set up a Facebook page to organise food banks and volunteer activities, things changed…

Read on

Dominic Raab: Theresa May’s flight attendant

Lovely report by Ian Dunt of the press conference in which the minister responsible for Brexit unveiled the government’s “planning’ for a no-deal exit from the EU:

He kept trying to sound upbeat about it, but his nerves gave him away. As the press conference wore on, Dominic Raab started to come across like some kind of deranged flight steward, insisting that in the “unlikely scenario” of no-deal, everything would be fine. The plane would hit the water smoothly, just like in those cartoons they put on the safety leaflets, and then happy families would slide down into the inflatable rafts.

The Brexit secretary had been sent out to release the first batch of the government’s summer holiday airport thrillers, in the form of about 70 technical papers on what the UK would do in the event of no-deal. He attempted to maintain a smile and confident manner throughout, but his brow glimmered with sweat and his voice kept wavering mid-sentence. It was not a convincing performance.

His task was, to be fair, unenviable. He needed to make no-deal look terrible and also fine, because it is only by the simultaneous maintenance of both of these contradictory propositions that the Tory party can be held together.

Theresa May needs no-deal to look awful, because a comparison with it is the only thing to recommend her own rubbish Chequers plan. The ERG hardliners on the backbenches need it to look completely normal, because it is the only form of Brexit which does not demand that they face the existence of objective reality.

This must be the worst government in Britain’s history.