Monday 14 December, 2020

The public agent

John Brockman, one of the best literary agents I know, at lunch in the Groucho Club; looking suspicious but not in the least grouchy.

Quote of the Day

”A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world”

  • John Le Carré

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sharon Shannon | Blackbird


If you don’t know Sharon Shannon’s musicianship, then (respectfully suggests) maybe it’s time you did.

Long Read of the Day

“A damn stupid thing to do”—the origins of C

An abridged — but to geeks fascinating — history by Richard Jensen of the evolution of the C programming language. Not for everyone, but if you’re interested in the history of computing, it’s gold dust. And eminently readable. I guess it helps if you’re lucky enough know some of the people in the story (which I do). And I still have my copy of the beautiful Kernighan and Ritchie paperback introduction to the language


John le Carré RIP

Fabulous obit by Sarah Lyell. Sample:

Mr. le Carré’s own youthful experience as a British agent, along with his thorough field research as a writer, gave his novels the stamp of authority. But he used reality as a starting-off point to create an indelible fictional world.

In his books, the Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as M.I.6., was the “Circus,” agents were “joes,” operations involving seduction were “honeytraps” and agents deeply embedded inside the enemy were “moles,” a word he is credited with bringing into wide use if not inventing it. Such expressions were taken up by real British spies to describe their work, much as the Mafia absorbed the language of “The Godfather” into their mythology.

“As much as in Tolkien, Wodehouse, Chandler or even Jane Austen, this closed world is a whole world,” the critic Boyd Tonkin wrote in The Independent. “Via the British ‘Circus’ and its Soviet counterpart, Le Carré created a laboratory of human nature; a test-track where the innate fractures of the heart and mind could be driven to destruction.”

In a career spanning more than a half-century, Mr. le Carré wrote more than two-dozen books and set them as far afield as Rwanda, Chechnya, Turkey, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia…

Great stuff. Worth reading in full.

French fries, Coq au Vin, le weekend and other tricky questions

Further to A Song for Brexit (see last Saturday’s blog) I’ve been pondering the way language and ideology get intertwined. Remember when the French President, Jacques Chirac, refused to back the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq and enraged US legislators refused to allow Congressional caterers to serve “French fries”? From then on they had to be called “Freedom fries”. (Ironic that, given what happened to Iraq and the Middle East generally as a result of that particular adventure.)

The wicked point of the A Song for Brexit sketch was that if the UK left Europe then the French wanted their words back. No more ‘joie de vivre’, RSVP’ or ‘cul-de-sac’, among many others. The problem is that, as some wag once observed, “French is spoken in every language.” The only English word I would think of that the French had appropriated was “Weekend”. (I know: there are probably others, but I couldn’t think of them at the time.)

Yesterday, after a bout of nostalgia triggered by a nice email from an academic colleague who had decided to repair to his holiday house in France until the UK finally sorted out what it was going to do with the virus, I set to and cooked Coq au Vin for supper. But when my wife was putting some of the surplus into the freezer for subsequent consumption, she began to write Coq au… on the label and then paused. Should it henceforth be merely Chicken Stew?

Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it? And she can’t call it Chicken Casserole either. Hmmm…

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Listen to Barack Obama reading the Preface to his memoir. The audio version gives you a good sense of the man. Jason Kottke thinks it’s better than reading the book. I can believe it. Link.

  • Kazakhstan’s President is addicted to photoshopping his image. Nice piece on Motherboard.

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Sunday 13 December, 2020

Any port in a storm

The Law Faculty building in Cambridge (now the Sir David Williams Building after my late friend and mentor). It always reminds me of a beached cruise liner.

Quote of the day

“Boats against the current are the only kind I should choose to embark on; the going’s tough, but your fellow passengers are better company than you will ever find going with the flow.”

  • Frederic Raphael

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

“The Thrill Is Gone” | BB King, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray and Jimmi Vaughn


Finally, the British government has a good idea

This morning’s Observer column:

On Tuesday, in a rare break with recent practice, a branch of the UK government did something clever. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) outlined plans for an innovative way of regulating powerful tech firms in a way that overcomes the procedural treacle-wading implicit in competition law that had been designed for an analogue era.

The proposals emerged from an urgent investigation by the Digital Markets Taskforce, an ad hoc body set up in March and led by the CMA with input from the Information Commissioner’s Office and Ofcom, the telecommunications and media regulator. The taskforce was charged with providing advice to the government on the design and implementation of a pro-competition regime for digital markets. It was set up following the publication of the Treasury’s Furman review on unlocking digital competition, which reported in March 2019 and drew on evidence from the CMA’s previous market study into online platforms and digital advertising.

This is an intriguing development in many ways. First of all it seems genuinely innovative – unlike this week’s antitrust lawsuits brought against Facebook in the US…

If this survives the ‘consultation’ (i.e. lobbying) phase and makes it onto the statute book, then things could get interesting.

The Facebook Oversight Theatre Show goes live

In an entertaining Guardian report a member of Facebook’s ludicrous ‘Oversight’ Board says that it “won’t shy away” from tackling Trump-style disinformation.

This month, the 20-member board – made up of academics, lawyers, politicians and journalists from across the world – announced the first six cases it would review over the next 90 days.

One of the cases involves a two-year-old post of an alleged quote from Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister of Nazi Germany. The post, which spells out the need to appeal to emotions and instincts, instead of intellect, and on the unimportance of truth, was removed by Facebook for violating its policy on dangerous individuals and organisations. The user who reshared the post has appealed on the grounds that Trump was, in their view, following a similar fascist model.

The Board’s remit is limited to content that has been removed by Facebook. Its sole Australian member, Nic Suzor, admitted to the Guardian that this is likely to be “problematic” when it comes to addressing disinformation posted by politicians, such as US president Donald Trump posting false information about election fraud. Currently Facebook puts warning labels on this kind of post, rather than removing it. “The only way that we can handle cases where Facebook has decided not to remove something is if Facebook refers it to us,” he said.

Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review Tow Center Director Emily Bell was distinctly underwhelmed by this charade:

In today’s information ecosystem, technology platforms like Facebook are not just the arbiters of truth; they are also the setters of norms, the weather vanes of taste, and the guardrails of democracy. And, in an increasing number of places, they are the instruments of oppression. As such, perhaps the most striking feature of the board’s first set of cases is the lack of ambition in their subject matter.

If a panel of global experts really needs three months to decide if it is acceptable to show a naked boob in pursuit of cancer prevention, then the Oversight Board’s hope of creating lasting impact is doomed from the outset. Issues of contextual nuance might represent interesting cases, but they are not “hard” in the way that, say, the mass removal of posts in compliance with repressive speech laws is hard. Yet cases concerning the latter are unlikely ever to reach the Oversight Board. In fact, in the board’s charter, Article 2, on the “scope” of the board’s activities, states: “In limited circumstances where the board’s decision on a case could result in criminal liability or regulatory sanctions, the board will not take the case for review.” In other words, if a removal is in compliance with the law of a country, then it will not be reviewed.

On the same day the Facebook Oversight Board launched, Amnesty International published a damning report on how aggressive new censorship laws in Vietnam are stifling citizens, the free press, and activists—with the compliance of technology companies like Google and Facebook. Facebook reports a 983 percent increase in content restrictions in Vietnam since the tightening of laws in April, pushing the number of restricted and deleted posts up from 77 to 834 in the space of a year.

This Board is rather like the ‘ethics’ boards that companies are setting up in a desperate attempt to avoid legal regulation. What those boards do is Ethics Theatre. By setting up this ludicrous board, Facebook is now engaging in Oversight Theatre. Quelle Surprise!

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Saturday 12 December, 2020

A song for Brexit

By Amanda Palmer, Sarah-Louise Young & Maxim Melton.


Well, sometimes the only thing to do is laugh. And this is lovely.

Quote of the Day

“Worst damn fool mistake I ever made was letting myself be elected Vice President of the United States. Should have stuck as Speaker of the House. gave up the second most important job in Government for eight long years as Roosevelt’s spare tire.”

John Garner, VP under FDR 1933-41.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Schubert Ständchen | Camille Thomas and Beatrice Berrut


Long Read of the Day

Birds and Frogs in Physics

Delightful essay by Ashutosh Jogalekar in 3 Quarks Daily

I’ve always been captivated by Isiaih Berlin’s famous distinction (which he got from an Ancient Greek philosopher) about there being two kinds of thinker — hedgehogs (who know only one big thing) and foxes (who know many little things). On that scale, I’m a fox. But when I was thinking about this (and the relevant meditation is in my lockdown diary) it occurred to me that I know people who are sometimes hedgehogs and sometimes foxes.

This essay is an elegant disquisition on an analogous dichotomy proposed by Freeman Dyson, who argued that science thrives on the interplay between birds, who “look at the big picture and survey the landscape from a great height”, and frogs, who “love playing around in the mud of specific problems, delighting in finding gems”. Newton and Einstein were birds. Hubble and Fermi were frogs. But Planck was a frogbird.

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did

Norman Abramson, surfer (and pioneer of wireless networking) RIP

Norman Abramson, who built the world’s first packet-switched wireless network, has died at the age of 88. Steve Lohr has written a nice obit in the New York Times. I first came across him when I was doing the research for my history of the Internet. When the ARPAnet (the precursor of the modern Internet) was being designed in the late 1960s it used telephone landlines to connect its nodes. But Norman was a professor at the University of Hawaii and decided that the connection between his node and the network would have to be a wireless one. With Frank Kuo, a former Bell Labs scientist who came to the University of Hawaii the same year as him (1966) he built such a network.

The design challenge they faced was how to enable multiple devices to reliably to send and receive data packets over a shared radio channel. The key innovation Abramson and Kuo came up with was to divide the data into packets which could be re-sent if the data was lost during transmission, allowing for random access rather than sequential access to the channel. The resulting radio network technology they developed was deployed as ALOHAnet in 1971. The name derived from Aloha, a Hawaiian greeting.

It proved to be a fruitful idea. In 1972, Bob Metcalfe was working in the Computer Science Lab in Xerox’s PARC, trying to design a wired system for connecting the computers and other devices (for example, laser printers) that the PARC team were building at the time. He came on a 1970 paper by Abramson outlining the idea for sending and re-sending, got in touch with him and was invited to spend a month with at the University of Hawaii. From that came two things: one was Metcalfe’s PhD thesis, which was about ALOHAnet; the other was one of the key features of the Ethernet networking system that Metcalfe then co-invented at PARC with Dave Boggs, Chuck Thacker and Butler Lampson. A central idea in the technology was what the inventors called carrier sense multiple access with collision detection (CSMA/CD); this is what enabled devices to communicate on a shared wire without the earlier system (developed by IBM, I think) of a rotating ‘token’ that a device had to capture before it was allowed to send.)

The reason Abramson wound up at the University of Hawaii was wonderfully serendipitous: during a stop-over on a flight from Tokyo he rented a surf-board, learned to surf, was transfixed by the experience and decided he wanted to work somewhere where he could combine communications research with surfing. For many subsequent years, he surfed every single day.

The Computer History Museum had an event to mark the 50th anniversary of ALOHAnet . They recorded a lovely video in which Abramson and Kuo tell the story of how they built the network. It’s over an hour long, so probably only for those for whom the history of the Internet is their thing. Needless to say, I loved 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!


Thursday 10 December, 2020

Letting sleeping dogs lie

Quote of the Day

“It is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong.”

  • Warren Buffett

Musical alternative to the radio news of the Day

“Sweet Home Chicago” | Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter, Robert Cray, Hubert Sumlin…


Long Read of the Day

Matt Stoller: The End of the Facebook Crime Spree


Today, 48 state attorneys general, plus Trump’s Federal Trade Commission, filed antitrust suits against Facebook.

There are two complaints, one from the states and one from the FTC. The state AG complaint is stronger, but both tell the same story. Facebook bought Instagram and WhatsApp to stop nascent competitors from challenging its monopoly power in social networking. It also used a variety of other tactics to foreclose competitors it could not buy from entering the market and challenging its dominance. Then, after it became a monopoly, it increased prices or downgraded user experiences to profit from the conspiracy it had arranged.

The narrative comes from legal scholar and former ad executive Dina Srinivasan’s remarkable 2019 paper on Facebook. In her analysis, Srinivasan showed that Facebook actually beat out MySpace by offering users a product differentiated with better privacy guarantees. But after monopolizing the market and killing its competitors, Facebook immediately started degrading the quality of the product with intrusive surveillance of its users, contra their wishes.

This could conceivably be a big moment in the move to bring big tech companies back under some kind of control. But Matt Stoller could be a tad over-optimistic about the likelihood of this suit succeeding any time soon.

Chris Nuttall on the Facebook antitrust suit

Writing in today’s FT, Chris observes that

Facebook looks exposed and unprepared in the face of a concerted attack launched on Wednesday by the Federal Trade Commission and 46 US states aimed at breaking up its empire.

Its problem is the lack of integration of the social network with the photo-sharing service Instagram and WhatsApp messaging platform it acquired. They are distinctive brands that can be used without recourse to Facebook itself and thus can be easily separated if the FTC gets its way and forces Facebook to divest the two services.

That would be deeply damaging. Facebook has failed to reinvent its core service to stay relevant to changing user habits. Its social network has been short on innovation, either copying or buying services tapping the latest trends. Its pivots towards photos and mobile messaging groups were well-timed. They are faster-growing businesses, but it may now be forced to cash out those strong bets on the future…

How Apple is organised

Fascinating article in the Harvard Business Review.

The secret is simple really: don’t have general managers.

Apple is not a company where general managers oversee managers; rather, it is a company where experts lead experts. The assumption is that it’s easier to train an expert to manage well than to train a manager to be an expert. At Apple, hardware experts manage hardware, software experts software, and so on. (Deviations from this principle are rare.) This approach cascades down all levels of the organization through areas of ever-increasing specialization. Apple’s leaders believe that world-class talent wants to work for and with other world-class talent in a specialty. It’s like joining a sports team where you get to learn from and play with the best.

Worth reading in full.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • 64 Reasons To Celebrate Paul McCartney. By Ian Leslie Link.

  • The Northern Lights Photographer of the Year for 2020. Amazing photographs. Link. (HT to Jason Kottke, who is always spotting beautiful things.)

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Wednesday 9 December, 2020

Danger: Blogger at Work

On his holidays, too.

Quote of the Day

“Exercise if bunk. If you are healthy you don’t need it: if you are sick, you shouldn’t take it.”

  • Henry Ford

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Eric Clapton & Bob Dylan | Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right | LIVE


It’s an unusual take on one of my favourite songs. I prefer the original version with the clawhammer pick.

Long Read of the Day

 How Americans Came To Distrust Science, by Andrew Jewett | Boston Review | 8th December 2020


A large part of the American public has distrusted “science” since the early 20th century, seeing it variously as a threat to religious beliefs, a disruptor of moral values, and a slippery slope towards a totalitarian state. “A tendency to trace social ills to the cultural sway of an ideologically infected science continues up to our own day, even as the details of the indictment have changed.”

There was only one Brexit deal — ever

It was always wealth vs sovereignty: how much loss of the former in return for how much gain in the latter. Fabulous Guardian column by Rafael Behr.
Short read, and well worth it.

Now we know what went on in Matt Hancock’s secret meeting with Mark Zuckerberg

Great reporting by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Mark Zuckerberg threatened to pull Facebook’s investment from the UK in a private meeting with Matt Hancock, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism can reveal.

The minutes, from May 2018, show that an obsequious Hancock was eager to please, offering “a new beginning” for the government’s relationship with social media platforms. He offered to change the government’s approach from “threatening regulation to encouraging collaborative working to ensure legislation is proportionate and innovation-friendly”.

Hancock sought “increased dialogue” with Zuckerberg, “so he can bring forward the message that he has support from Facebook at the highest level”.

Zuckerberg attended the meeting only days after Hancock – then the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) – had publicly criticised him for dodging a meeting with MPs. Civil servants had to give Zuckerberg explicit assurance that the meeting would be positive and Hancock would not simply demand he attend the Select Committee, and noted that the meeting began with an ambience of “guarded hostility”.

The government fought tooth and nail to prevent the Minutes of the meeting being released. In the end, the Information Commissioner ordered their release.

“In the Commissioner’s view the requirement for due transparency and openness is particularly acute in the present case given Mr Zuckerberg’s absence in the UK public domain… In view of the high level of personal control which the Facebook founder and CEO enjoys over some of the most influential and powerful social media platforms in the UK, the Commissioner considers that the demand for such transparency is correspondingly high.”

The Christchurch mass killer was radicalised by YouTube

The New Zealand mosque shooter was radicalised on YouTube: Among the findings of a New Zealand government investigation into the 2019 mass killing in Christchurch was that the shooter had been radicalized more on YouTube than he had in the darker corners of the internet. The Times technology columnist Kevin Roose also has a good Twitter thread on the missed opportunities to take YouTube’s dangers seriously.

But the NZ authorities also came in for criticism, as the New York Times reports:

Still, the Royal Commission — the highest-level inquiry that can be conducted in New Zealand — faulted the government on several counts. It found that lax gun regulations had allowed Mr. Tarrant to obtain a firearms license when he should not have qualified. And it said that the country’s “fragile” intelligence agencies had a limited understanding of right-wing threats and had not assigned sufficient resources to examine dangers other than Islamist terrorism.

A system mired in bureaucracy and unclear leadership was ineffective. But the two independent commissioners who conducted the inquiry stopped short of saying that the disproportionate focus on Muslims as a potential source of violence had allowed Mr. Tarrant’s attacks to happen.

A page from my Lockdown audio diary

Sunday 29 March — Day 8

There’s a cynical academic joke that you hear in every university. It goes like this: Q: Why are academic disputes so acrimonious? A: Because the stakes are so low.

The point of the joke, I suppose, is to emphasise that professors argue about issues which are of no interest to any normal person — and so in that sense, they’re just contemporary manifestations of those fabled medieval disputes about the number of angels who could dance on the head of a pin. That is to say, arguments about stuff that doesn’t really matter, where the stakes are very low.

As it happens, though, we now find ourselves in the middle of an academic dispute where the stakes could not be higher. The question at issue is how best to combat the Coronavirus — and millions of lives may depend on getting the right answer.

The current contestants in this battle of ideas are teams of researchers from two of Britain’s best universities — Imperial College, London and Oxford. Both have constructed mathematical models of the pandemic which, they hope, enable them to understand the dynamics of its contagion, and also enable them to simulate the likely impact of various policies to manage the outbreak.

A few weeks ago, after the Johnson administration had its “Oh shit this could be really serious moment” you may recall that the Prime Minister started to give daily Press Conferences flanked by two eminent knights who embodied the “scientific advice” that he was determined assiduously to follow. This blogger — and thousands of observers overseas — watched incredulously as these eminences laid out a strategy based on the concept of herd immunity: the idea was that about 60 per cent of the population would need to get the virus first, after which this supposed immunity would kick in.

A quick session with a calculator confirmed the hunch that this idea looked bonkers. Just think about the numbers. The UK currently has nearly 70m inhabitants. 60% of 70m is 42m, most of whom, it was assumed, would only get a mild dose, recover and thereby acquire herd immunity. But if the mortality rate of the virus was one per cent (which was one of the guesses at the time) then that meant that the UK government policy was assuming that 420,000 people might die. At which point even those of us who know nothing about epidemiology but can do simple arithmetic began to wonder what these eminent scientific knights had been smoking.

Clearly, the modellers at Imperial College wondered the same thing, and they spent a frantic weekend running simulations to determine what a less crazy strategy would be — and concluded that ‘containment’ would be not only the best bet, but the only sensible thing to do. Their conclusions seemed to convince Johnson and his advisers, and so over a weekend the government pivoted on a sixpence to a new policy — containment and lockdown in order to prevent our beloved NHS with its 8,000 ventilators from being overcome. Which is how we came to be where we are now and why I am composing this from deepest quarantine.

At this point Oxford University enters the fray. According to a report in last Tuesday’s Financial Times, the Oxford model suggested that the virus may already have infected far more people in the UK than anyone had previously estimated — perhaps as much as half the population. If the results are confirmed, the FT report continued, they would imply that fewer than one in a thousand of those infected with Covid-19 become ill enough to need hospital treatment. The vast majority would develop very mild symptoms or none at all.

The research, observes the FT, presented a very different view of the epidemic to the Imperial College modeling which had such a dramatic influence on government policy. “I am surprised that there has been such unqualified acceptance of the Imperial model,” said Professor Sunetra Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology at Oxford, who led the study. Experts in the semiotics of academic warfare will be able to decode that genteel observation. The professor is, er, surprised. It’s a bit like when lawyers say “with the greatest possible respect…”

I have no idea which group of modellers is right. Perhaps neither is. But the interesting thing about the Oxford hypothesis is that it is testable in a way that would have appealed to Karl Popper.

If people have acquired immunity through having had a mild dose of the disease, then they will have antibodies in their blood. There are, I think, recognised tests for detecting these antibodies. So all that is needed is for a research team (it could be from a polling firm like YouGov) to administer this test to a random sample of the UK population. The results would tell us not only if the Oxford conjecture is accurate but also what proportion of the population has immunity. And when we know that maybe we’ll be getting somewhere.

(Oh, and by the way, if you heard the sound of someone clapping, it’ll be the ghost of Karl Popper.)

From 100 Not out! – a Lockdown Diary. If you liked this you can get the book on the Kindle store

And here’s the audio recording for that day:


Another, hopefully interesting, link

  •  Mount Everest is higher than we thought, say Nepal and China. 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 your decide that your inbox is full enough already!

Tuesday 8 December, 2020

Driving in France

Hopefully, again in due course.

Quote of the Day

“I would suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little further down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves.”

  • E.M. Forster in Two Cheers for Democracy, 1951.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

John Field- Nocturne no. 5 B Flat Major Andantino


Long Read of the Day

DeepMind’s protein-folding breakthrough 

Terrific account by Cade Metz of how researchers at DeepMind think they have solved “the protein folding problem,” a task that has bedeviled scientists for more than 50 years.

Some scientists spend their lives trying to pinpoint the shape of tiny proteins in the human body.

Proteins are the microscopic mechanisms that drive the behavior of viruses, bacteria, the human body and all living things. They begin as strings of chemical compounds, before twisting and folding into three-dimensional shapes that define what they can do — and what they cannot.

For biologists, identifying the precise shape of a protein often requires months, years or even decades of experimentation. It requires skill, intelligence and more than a little elbow grease. Sometimes they never succeed.

Now, an artificial intelligence lab in London has built a computer system that can do the job in a few hours — perhaps even a few minutes…

Great read. And a nice accompaniment to the astonishing achievement of the Covid vaccine development effort.

Peter Alliss RIP

The Guardian carried the obit that had been written by the late Frank Keating (who died in 2013). It concludes thus:

To the end, he could be outrageously and sharply pointed but also poetically, tellingly simple at the microphone, like this sotto running-commentary advice at Sandwich in 2011 as the young Irishman Rory McIlroy came into view down the fairway: “Just keep playing nicely, gently, m’boy … keep finding the fairways, keep finding the greens … You can’t force this game … some people think you can … some players think they can … but you can’t … Golf is all about patience … Good old-fashioned word ‘patience’ … ask kids today about ‘patience’ and they pull out their iPhones, whatever they are, and say it don’t say anything here about ‘patience’ but I can tell you the population of Madagascar … ”

Alliss was, by all accounts, a born raconteur (in the same genre as his predecessor Henry Longhurst). Mark Townsend in Golf Monthly included Alliss’s anecdote about Bobby Locke, who won the British Open four times:

One of his favourite memories was, again, something quirky rather than the norm. To set the scene the great Bobby Locke had joined him on a patch of rough ground to the right of the 1st fairway at the Old Course to hit a few balls ahead of his opening round in 1957.

“He had about eight balls and he sent his caddy, Bill Golder, who was about 65 then, down on to the beach. We spent the next five minutes chatting about this exhibition match and that exhibition match before I said ‘Well, I must be off’.

“He asked what the time was, I told him it was twenty to and he replied ‘Oh God, I must be off.’ He never hit a ball, he waved to his caddy and he was off. It is bizarre to think these days that there are rows of Titleists and there’s his caddie, who has clambered down across the beach, and he never hit a ball. He went to the 1st tee and went on to win the championship by three shots.”

As someone who was a keen golfer in my undergraduate days, Alliss is a figure from my past. I remember once walking round with him in a tournament — something you could do occasionally in those days, before golf became a TV-dominated sport. He struck me as a handsome, amiable, right-wing buffer who also happened to be a terrific golfer. And he was a terrific commentator on the game.

Uber dumps its ludicrous self-driving operation

Lovely blast by Cory Doctorow:

When they write the history of this era, one of the strangest chapters will be devoted to Uber, a company that was never, ever going to be profitable, which existed solely to launder billions for the Saudi royals.

From the start, Uber’s “blitzscaling” strategy involved breaking local taxi laws (incurring potentially unlimited civil liability) while losing (lots of) money on every ride. They flushed billions and billions and billions of dollars down the drain.

But they had billions to burn. Mohammed bin Salman, the murdering Crown Prince of the Saudi royal family, funded Softbank – a Japanese pump-and-dump investment scheme behind Wework and other grifts – with $80B as part of his “Vision 2030” plan.

Vision 2030 is a scheme to diversify Saudi wealth away from hydrocarbons by attempting to establish monopolies that will allow the family to control entire sectors of the global economy.

These schemes are longshots, and the fallback position is to unload failed monopolies – with staggering debt-overhangs – on investors who’ve been suckered with the promise that really big piles of shit surely have a pony buried underneath them somewhere.

I particularly like his payoff lines…

Every long con needs a “store” – a place where the con plays out, like a fake betting shop where the scammers rope in the mark and fleece them of every dime. But once the con is done, the store has to shut down amid a “blow-off” that lets the grifters escape.

Uber’s shutting down the AV part of its store: they “sold” the division to a startup called Aurora, but the “sale” involves Uber “investing” $400,000,000 in Aurora. That is, they’ve paid someone else to take this bit of set-dressing off their hands.

If you want to learn more about how Uber will never, never, ever, ever be a real business, be sure to tap into transport economist Hubert Horan’s series on the company, which he calls a “bezzle.”

Great stuff.

Another, hopefully interesting, link

  • The best of the ‘Best Books of 2020’ lists. Curated by Jason Kottke. 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 your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Monday 7 December, 2020


Quote of the Day

“You get all the French-fries the President can’t get to.”

  • Al Gore, on being Vice President, 1994.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paul Simon and Willie Nelson | Homeward Bound


Wonderful, truly wonderful.

Long Read of the Day

Peak Brain: The Metaphors of Neuroscience

Lovely disquisition on metaphor by Henry M. Cowles in the LA Review of Books. Sample:

The year I abandoned my Nikon, it popped up in a surprising place: cognitive science. That year, Joshua D. Greene published Moral Tribes, a work of philosophy that draws on neuroscience to explore why and how we make moral judgments. According to Greene, we make them using two different modes — not unlike a digital camera. “The human brain,” he writes, “is like a dual-mode camera with both automatic settings and a manual mode.” Sometimes, the analogy goes, you want to optimize your exposure time and shutter speed for specific light conditions — say, when faced with a big life decision. Other times, probably most of the time, tinkering with the settings is just too much of a hassle. You don’t want to build a pro-and-con list every time you order at a restaurant, just like you don’t want to adjust the aperture manually for each selfie you take.


Strange goings-on at Google

From this morning’s FT:

How did Google get itself into this mess? A company that is widely seen as having deeper capabilities in artificial intelligence than its main rivals, and which is under a microscope over how it wields its considerable economic and technological power, just had an acrimonious parting of the ways with its co-head of AI ethics.

Timnit Gebru left claiming she was fired over the suppression of an AI research paper. Jeff Dean, Google’s head of AI, said the paper wasn’t fit for publication and Dr Gebru resigned.

Except that she didn’t resign, it seems. She was fired — or, as they say in Silicon Valley without a hint or irony, “terminated”.

So let’s backtrack a bit. Dr Gebru was the joint-leader of Google’s ethical AI team, and is a prominent leader in AI ethics research. When she worked for Microsoft Research she was co-author of the groundbreaking paper that showed facial recognition to be less accurate at identifying women and people of colour — a flaw which implies that its use can end up discriminating against them. She also co-founded the ‘Black in AI’ affinity group, and is a champion of diversity in the tech industry. The team she helped build at Google is believed to be one of the most diverse in AI (not that that’s saying much) and has produced critical work that often challenges mainstream AI practices.

Technology Review reports that

A series of tweets, leaked emails, and media articles showed that Gebru’s exit was the culmination of a conflict over another paper she coauthored. Jeff Dean, the head of Google AI, told colleagues in an internal email (which he has since put online) that the paper “didn’t meet our bar for publication” and that Gebru had said she would resign unless Google met a number of conditions, which it was unwilling to meet. Gebru tweeted that she had asked to negotiate “a last date” for her employment after she got back from vacation. She was cut off from her corporate email account before her return.

More detail is provided by an open letter authored by her supporters within Google and elsewhere. “Instead of being embraced by Google as an exceptionally talented and prolific contributor”, it says,

Dr. Gebru has faced defensiveness, racism, gaslighting, research censorship, and now a retaliatory firing. In an email to Dr. Gebru’s team on the evening of December 2, 2020, Google executives claimed that she had chosen to resign. This is false. In their direct correspondence with Dr. Gebru, these executives informed her that her termination was immediate, and pointed to an email she sent to a Google Brain diversity and inclusion mailing list as pretext.

In that email, it seems that Gebru pushed back against Google’s censorship of her (and her colleagues’) research, which focused on examining the environmental and ethical implications of large-scale AI language models (LLMs), which are used in many Google products. Gebru and her team worked for months on a paper that was under review at an academic conference. In late November, five weeks after the article had been internally reviewed and approved for publication through standard processes, senior Google executives made the decision to censor it, without warning or cause.

Gebru asked them to explain this decision and to take accountability for it, and to that responsibility for their “lacklustre” stand on discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Her supporters see her ‘termination’ as “an act of retaliation against Dr. Gebru, and it heralds danger for people working for ethical and just AI — especially Black people and People of Color — across Google.”

As an outsider it’s difficult to know what to make of this. MIT’s Technology Review obtained a copy of the article at the root of the matter — it has the glorious title of “On the Dangers of Stochastic Parrots: Can Language Models Be Too Big?” — from one of its co-authors, Emily Bender, a professor of computational linguistics at the University of Washington. However, she asked the magazine not to publish it in full because it was an early draft.

Despite this pre-condition, Tech Review is able to provide a pretty informative overview of the paper. On the basis of this summary, it’s hard to figure out what would lead senior Google executives to pull the plug on its publication.

Its aim, says Bender, was to survey the current landscape of research in natural language processing (NLP).

First of all, it takes a critical look at the environmental and financial costs of this kind of machine-leading research. It finds that the carbon footprint of the research has been ‘exploding’ since 2017 as models are fed more and more data from which to learn. This is interesting and important (I’ve even written about it myself) but there’s nothing special about the paper’s conclusions, except perhaps the implication that the costs of doing this stuff can only be borne by huge corporations while climate change hits poorer communities disproportionately.

Secondly, the massive linguistic data sets required inevitably contain many varieties of bias. (We knew that.) But they also capture only past language usage and are unable to capture ways in which language is changing as society changes. So, “An AI model trained on vast swaths of the internet won’t be attuned to the nuances of this vocabulary and won’t produce or interpret language in line with these new cultural norms. It will also fail to capture the language and the norms of countries and peoples that have less access to the internet and thus a smaller linguistic footprint online. The result is that AI-generated language will be homogenized, reflecting the practices of the richest countries and communities.” Well, yes, but…

And then there are the opportunity costs of prioritising NLP research as against other things with potentially greater societal benefit. “Though most AI researchers acknowledge that large language models don’t actually understand language and are merely excellent at manipulating it, Big Tech can make money from models that manipulate language more accurately, so it keeps investing in them.

This research effort brings with it an opportunity cost, Gebru and her colleagues maintain. Not as much effort goes into working on AI models that might achieve understanding, or that achieve good results with smaller, more carefully-curated data sets (and thus also use less energy).

Finally, there’s the risk that that because these new NLP models are so good at mimicking real human language that it’s easy to use them to fool people. There have been a few high-profile cases of this, such as the college student who churned out AI-generated self-help and productivity advice on a blog — which then went viral.

”The dangers are obvious: AI models could be used to generate misinformation about an election or the covid-19 pandemic, for instance. They can also go wrong inadvertently when used for machine translation. The researchers bring up an example: In 2017, Facebook mistranslated a Palestinian man’s post, which said “good morning” in Arabic, as “attack them” in Hebrew, leading to his arrest.”

All of this is interesting but — as far as I can see — not exactly new. And yet it seems that, as Professor Bender puts it, “someone at Google decided this was harmful to their interests”.

And my question is: why? Is it just that the paper provides a lot of data which suggests that a core technology now used in many of Google’s products is, well, bad for the world? If that was indeed the motivation for the original dispute and decision, then it suggests that Google’s self-image as a technocratic force for societal good is now too important to be undermined by high-quality research which suggests otherwise. In which case, it suggests that there’s not that much difference between big tech companies and tobacco, oil and mining giants. They’re just corporations, doing what corporations always do.

Another, hopefully interesting, link

  • One in Six Cadillac Dealers Opt to Close Instead of Selling Electric Cars. When told to get with the times or get out of the way, 150 out of 800 dealers reportedly took a cash buyout and walked away. Link They’ve figured out that there’s much less money in selling EVs which require very little follow-up care and maintenance. Once you’ve sold someone an EV, you won’t see them that often. No more expensive oil-changes and spark-plug changes.


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Saturday 5 December, 2020

Squaring the Shakespearean Circle

In the garden of Anne Hathaway’s cottage, Stratford-on-Avon

100 Not Out! — my lockdown diary — is out as a Kindle book. Link

Quote of the Day

“The only reason so many people showed up at his funeral was because they wanted to make sure he was dead.”

  • Sam Goldwyn, of his rival Louis B. Meyer

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Padraig McGovern ; Peter Carberry | Two jigs | Connie the soldier & The frost is all over


Long Read of the Day

 The internet is not ready for the flood of AI-generated text

Christopher Brennan’s essay on the way that many of our systems currently focus on engagement makes them particularly vulnerable to the incoming wave of content from bots like GPT-3.

We don’t need hyper-intelligent machines to dramatically change the way that the internet works. In my recent conversations, we talked about the issue of what happens when AI text-generation capabilities are more widespread and can generate what Winston calls “10,000 Wikipedias” worth of text in a very short time. You might have already gotten weary of our current state of “too much content,” but it is about to get far, far worse.

Some of the closest possibilities are commercial. OthersideAI has just raised millions in seed money for a use of GPT-3 that will write automatic emails for salespeople in the style of their choice. Porr, after revealing his blog as automated, wrote about automated copywriting, which could generate several options and then automatically A/B test them to see which gets the most engagement.

My week by Dominic Cummings

Lovely spoof. Excerpt:


Boris says he wants to see me at the end of the day. I go into his office and he is sitting behind his desk with Carrie standing next to him.

“What is this, the Pride of Britain awards?” I ask.
“Very good, Dom, very drole,” says Boris, looking shifty.
“Tell him, Boris,” Carrie says.
“Tell him what, Boris?” I say.
“Look Dom, it’s like this. The thing is, if I can speak freely, reductio ad absurdum, and get to the point, ergo propter hoc, as it were. Just to be perfectly clear…” he says.
“Stultus est sicut stultus facit,” I tell him.
“Eh?” he asks.
“Have you not seen Forest Gump, prime minister?” I ask.
“We haven’t got time for that now, let me get straight to the point…” he trails off.
“Tell him, Boris,” says Carrie.
“I will, stop interfering,” he says.
“Me?” I say, surprised.
“No, it’s your job to interfere,” he says.
“Not anymore,” says Carrie.
“Look, I’m dealing with this,” says Boris.
“What? Brexit? Coronavirus? The economy? Levelling-up? China? Barnier? Biden? You aren’t dealing with any of it,” I tell him.
“That’s your job,” he says.
“So, you want me to stop interfering?” I say confused.
“No, I want you to keep on interfering,” he says, now confused himself.
“Tell him Boris,” says Carrie.
“Tell him what, Boris?” I say.
“Look Dom, it’s like this…” stutters Boris.
“You’re fired,” says Carrie.
“I wanted to say that,” says Boris.
“Fired?” I say, incredulously.
“Not fired exactly, it’s more that we are going to have to let you go, Dom,” says Boris, looking at his shoes.

The Light of the Charge Brigade…

…is the lovely heading of a fascinating post on Quentin’s blog.

The British county of Essex is often the butt of jokes here, since it has a few notably unappealing areas, but this is unfair. In general it’s a lovely county with some particularly pretty spots. Just at the moment, though, it has a different kind of jewel in its crown, at least from my point of view, because it’s also home to what looks like one of the coolest car-charging areas on the planet. If you want to see what the future of car travel might be, the place to go is probably the Gridserve Electric Forecourt near Braintree, which opens formally next week.

This is what it looks like:

The really clever thing about this is how familiar it looks. Just like an ordinary service station. Except it isn’t ordinary: all those pump-like devices are electric charging points. There isn’t a litre of petrol anywhere. Making new things look ordinary is the way to get beyond the early adopters of any new technology to reach the mainstream, small-c conservative masses. That was the brilliance of the Toyota Prius hybrid. It looked normal — even boring and safe. Not in the least daring. But in its time it was revolutionary. Now the time has come for fully-electric EVs. And the same applies.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • An Open Letter to Santa Claus Regarding His Travel Plans. “While I understand that your home is melting and you do not have many Christmases left, it is most imperative that you stay in the North Pole this year. Until the COVID-19 vaccine is released to the public, unnecessary travel for anyone is gravely irresponsible… Link.

  • Rusty but intact: Nazi Enigma cipher machine found in Baltic Sea. Link.

  • NSF releases footage from the moment Arecibo’s cables failed. Video from two different cameras, with one capturing a close-up of the cables snapping. Link.

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Thursday 3 December, 2020

For hire

Quote of the Day

“I do not believe in Belief… Lord, I disbelieve — help thou my unbelief.”

  • E.M. Forster in Two Cheers for Democracy, 1951.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paul Simon & George Harrison | Here Comes The Sun


Long Read of the Day

Tyler Cowen’s conversation with Zach Carter

This will not be to everyone’s taste. But if you’re interested in Keynes (as I am) and if you’ve read Zachary Carter’s splendid new biography then you’ll love it. What’s particularly good is the fact that Cowen is pretty critical of Keynes, so it’s very much an anti-hagiographical conversation.

Here’s a little sample:

COWEN: I have at least 20 different friends who studied The General Theory, Keynes’s book from 1936, the big famous one. I ask them, “What’s the central message of The General Theory?” They all give me different answers, so I’d like to know, what’s your answer? There’s so much in the book, right? Incredibly rich and multifaceted, but what’s the bottom-line core of The General Theory?

CARTER: You love the hard questions. I wrote in the book that the bottom-line core message of The General Theory is that prosperity is not hardwired into human beings, that it has to be guided through political leadership. I think that traces back, to some extent, to what you were just talking about about India. He views the state and the government, from a very early age, as this sort of guiding hand. In the case of India, it’s a bit paternalistic, but also, domestically, he believes that government is a necessary force to organizing human affairs.

The General Theory — it’s a complicated book. In certain respects, it’s not always consistent with itself, but I think that there’s a political message, which is that political guidance is needed for prosperity to exist, for markets to function. There’s also a reevaluation of what economics is doing and how economics functions. Keynes is not focused on scarcity at this point, and I think Michał Kalecki has written about this.

I think this idea that Keynes is refocusing the nature of economics and economic humanity, from competition for scarce resources towards the idea that uncertainty about the future is the most important psychological condition for economics. If you believe in scarcity as the overriding issue, you’re going to come to different conclusions about how the world works than if you believe uncertainty is the overriding issue. I’m not sure which one of those is the most important, but those are the two that I think are key.

Great stuff.

Digital health passports should not be rolled out on a mass basis until COVID-19 vaccines are available to all, report warns

Digital health passports, sometimes also referred to as ‘immunity passports’, are digital credentials that, combined with identity verification, allow individuals to prove their health status (such as the results of COVID-19 tests, and eventually, digital vaccination records).

As the move to ‘return to normal’ strengthens immunity passports will become valuable and sought after for obvious reasons — like enabling you to travel, get a job, go to the theatre or a film perhaps. So you can write the script for what will happen next — and who will get the lion’s share of the certificates. (Hint: it won’t be the deserving poor.) Which is why an interesting new report from Exeter University is timely. It warns that digital health passports should not be introduced on a mass basis until coronavirus tests are available and affordable to everyone in the country. The same considerations apply to vaccines once these are approved and ready for widespread use.

The Report’s central findings are:

Digital health passports may contribute to the long-term management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

• However, digital health passports pose essential questions for the protection of data privacy and human rights, given that they:

• use sensitive personal health information;

• create a new distinction between individuals based on their health status;

• can be used to determine the degree of freedoms and rights one may enjoy.

• Measures supporting the deployment of such digital health passports may interfere with the respect and protection of data and human rights, in particular the rights to privacy, equality and non-discrimination, and the freedoms of movement, assembly, and to manifest one’s religion or beliefs.

• While public health interests may justify such interferences, policymakers must strike an adequate balance between protecting the rights and freedoms of all individuals and safeguarding public interests when managing the effects of the pandemic.

The research was carried out by Dr Ana Beduschi, from the University of Exeter Law School and is funded by the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC), as part of UK Research & Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19.

Stripe: the most important company you’ve never heard of

From Bloomberg:

Private financial technology business Stripe Inc. is in talks to raise a new funding round valuing it higher than its last private valuation of $36 billion, according to people familiar with the matter.

The valuation being discussed could be more than $70 billion or significantly higher, at as much as $100 billion, said one of the people, who asked not be identified because the matter is private. That would make it currently the most valuable venture-backed startup in the U.S., according to CB Insights.

Stripe was co-founded in 2010 by two Irish lads — brothers John and Patrick Collison. The pair sold their first company for $5 million when they were teenagers and are now worth about $4.3 billion each, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Their company currently has more than 2,500 employees and 14 global offices. An ad on its website suggests that it is poised to become much bigger and more important.

Stripe’s software, which competes with Square Inc. and Paypal Holdings Inc., is used by businesses to accept payments (including payments to Substack authors who charge subscriptions for their blogs). But that turned out to be just the boys’ first act.

Basically, Stripe now aims to become the central platform for financial transactions on the Internet. This is how the shrewd analyst Ben Thompson graphically summarises it on his daily subscription newsletter.

Watch this space. And, no, you can’t buy shares in it. It isn’t a public company.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Think really big bridges don’t vibrate in high winds? Think again. Link
  • Boom and Bust wins Enlightened Economist Book of the Year. Link

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Wednesday 2 December, 2020

Street scene, Arles, 2017

A relic from the days when people could travel freely!

Quote of the Day

“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”

  • TS Eliot

(Except for the poetry of Seamus Heaney, where you get it the instant you read it.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Yusuf Cat Stevens | Father and Son | Another Saturday Night | Festival de Viña 2015


Long Read of the Day

The Substackerati

Terrific Columbia Journalism Review essay by Clio Chang about the company that runs the platform on which this (email) edition of my blog, Memex.1.1, is published. It’s a well-informed, nicely critical and beautifully-written piece, well worth your time if you’re interested in media ecology and what is happening to journalism.


Substack, established in 2017 by three tech-and-media guys—Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie, and Jairaj Sethi—is a newsletter platform that allows writers and other creative types to distribute their work at tiered subscription rates. Newsletters go back at least as far as the Middle Ages, but these days, with full-time jobs at stable media companies evaporating—between the 2008 recession and 2019, newsroom employment dropped by 23 percent—Substack offers an appealing alternative. And, for many, it’s a viable source of income. In three years, Substack’s newsletters—covering almost every conceivable topic, from Australian Aboriginal rights to bread recipes to local Tennessee politics—have drawn more than two hundred fifty thousand paid subscribers. The top newsletter authors can earn six figures, an unheard-of amount for freelance journalists. Emily Atkin, who runs Heated, on the climate crisis, told me that her gross annual income surpassed $200,000—and among paid-readership Substacks, she’s ranked fifteenth. “I literally opened my first savings account,” she said.


Rising seas predicted to flood thousands of affordable housing units by 2050

Researchers mapped where coastal homes could flood in the US

From the Verge:

Coastal cities in the US could find themselves grappling with a new housing crisis in the coming decades. The number of affordable housing units vulnerable to flooding could triple by 2050 as the planet heats up, according to a new study. That amounts to more than 24,000 homes that could flood at least once a year by 2050, compared to about 8,000 in 2000.

The study, published today in the journal Environmental Research Letters, ranks the states and cities at greatest risk. Its authors also unveiled a new interactive map that people can use to see how their hometown might be affected.

I tried to use the interactive map to see if Mar-a-Lago might be inundated, but I’d have needed to get my VPN to switch to a server in the US first and it was early in a busy morning and I concluded that life was too short. S

Still, it’s a nice thought…

Deal, no-deal, maybe-deal…

Fascinating thought from Jonty Bloom…

Ever since the referendum I have said the UK will leave without a deal, the fantasies of the ultras trumping any sensible negotiations in the public interest. But for the first time I see the possibility of a deal because of the Daily Mail and Telegraph, no less.

It will be a bad deal and ignores the pleas, lobbying, research and interests of almost every industry in the UK. But for almost the first time the papers have started noticing that no deal also means; holiday homes can only be used for 3 months at a time, car insurance will soar in price and pet passports will be an expensive pain in the derriere. Those are just three consequences of Brexit, there are many others and although these are similar issues to those hitting business, this time they hit people with votes.

The EU negotiating strategy, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” has led to this, far cleverer than “give us a deal or we break the law.” But all still depends on whether the PM will realise what is happening and stand up to the ultras. Will he notice in time that people don’t seem to care about other people’s jobs but care deeply about fido’s holidays? Ignoring that would as they say in Yes Minister, be a “brave decision”.

I wonder.

Facebook is still stumped by WhatsApp

How can it monetise it without destroying what makes it work?

Nice piece by Shira Ovide in the New York Times

Perhaps never before has an online property been so popular and made such little money. More than two billion people worldwide use WhatsApp regularly to text or make phone calls, but it scarcely generates any money for Facebook, which has owned WhatsApp since 2014.

That’s because WhatsApp is mostly a personal communications app, and Facebook doesn’t make money from that group chat with your cousins. This looks set to change. Haltingly, including by agreeing to buy a customer service start-up on Monday, Facebook is trying to use its trademark playbook to remake WhatsApp into an inescapable way for businesses to interact with us.

If Facebook figures it out, WhatsApp could change how we shop and use the internet forever — as the company’s main social network and Instagram did. If not, Facebook will own a spectacularly popular failure. The outcome will set trends for our digital lives and determine which businesses thrive or don’t.

To understand WhatsApp, you need to know about Facebook’s three-step playbook and why it’s breaking down…

What I love about WhatsApp is that it costs Facebook a tone of money to keep it going and yet it can’t wring a cent out of it. My hunch is that if they try to ‘monetise’ it, then a sizeable proportion the masses of people who love and use it will become disenchanted and drift to something else.

Nothing lasts forever.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Google Reveals Major Hidden Weakness In Machine Learning. It’s called underspecification, but it’s just the latest of the fundamental problems that the current feeding-frenzy with the technology conveniently ignores. Link.

  • Ed Yong’s Must-Read Stories of the Pandemic. 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 your decide that your inbox is full enough already!