Friday 18 December, 2020


Aldeburgh, Suffolk

My Quarantine Diary

Find it here.

Quote of the Day

“We have the power to do any damn fool thing we want to do, and we seem to do it every ten minutes.”

  • Senator William Fulbright, 1952.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Status Quo | Whatever You Want


The rock cognoscenti are sometimes dismissive about this, but I think its driving energy makes it a quintessential example of classic rock. And I see it’s racked up over 15m views on YouTube, so it must be doing something right. Anyway, if you want to annoy the neighbours, turn up the volume.

Long Read of the Day

 The Scars of Democracy: Theodor Adorno and the crises of liberalism.

Interesting essay by the Harvard historian Peter E. Gordon in The Nation on “Aspects of the new right-wing extremism”, a recently re-discovered lecture Theodor Adorno gave in Vienna on April 6, 1967.

The lecture, writes Gordon,

spoke to the general question of what fascism is and how we should think about challenges to liberal democracy that come from the extreme right. Liberal democracies, Adorno argued, are by their nature fragile; they are riven with contradictions and vulnerable to systemic abuse, and their stated ideals are so frequently violated in practice that they awaken resentment, opposition, and a yearning for extrasystemic solutions. Those who defend democracy must confront the persistent inequalities that breed this resentment and that prevent democracy from becoming what it claims to be.

Readers of Adorno’s lecture today,

cannot help but recognize in his warnings a reflection of the current global situation. In Germany a neofascist resurgence has once again taken root with Alternative für Deutschland, a far-right and anti-immigrant movement that in 2017 secured 94 seats in the Bundestag to become the body’s third-largest party. Across Europe and around the rest of the world, this trend in neofascist or authoritarian politics is now ascendant (in Turkey, Israel, India, Brazil, Russia, Hungary, Poland, and the United States). The extravagant notion that the past is utterly past—that its alterity inhibits us from drawing any analogies across differences of time and space—will hold us in its grip only if we see history as broken into islands, each one obeying laws entirely its own.

Augmented Reality and the Surveillance Society

Short, punchy and really insightful opinion piece by Mark Pesce in IEEE Spectrum about the potential — and dangers — of Augmented Reality

First articulated in a 1965 white paper by Ivan Sutherland, titled “The Ultimate Display,” augmented reality (AR) lay beyond our technical capacities for 50 years. That changed when smartphones began providing people with a combination of cheap sensors, powerful processors, and high-bandwidth networking—the trifecta needed for AR to generate its spatial illusions. Among today’s emerging technologies, AR stands out as particularly demanding—for computational power, for sensed data, and, I’d argue, for attention to the danger it poses.

Unlike virtual-reality (VR) gear, which creates for the user a completely synthetic experience, AR gear adds to the user’s perception of her environment. To do that effectively, AR systems need to know where in space the user is located.

And there’s where the dangers start. Facebook, for example, is working on AR spectacles. When these glasses come to market in a few years, Pesce thinks that they will

transform their users into data-gathering minions for Facebook. Tens, then hundreds of millions of these AR spectacles will be mapping the contours of the world, along with all of its people, pets, possessions, and peccadilloes. The prospect of such intensive surveillance at planetary scale poses some tough questions about who will be doing all this watching and why.

Yeah. And who exactly will be asking these ‘tough’ questions?

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Thursday 17 December, 2020

The road once travelled

Quote of the Day

“Most of the change we think we see in life

Is due to truths being in and out of favour.”

  • Robert Frost, ‘The Black Cottage’, 1914.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Joseph Haydn – Serenade


Long Read of the Day

Concentrate! How a chess grandmaster thinks Lovely essay by Jonathan Rowson. Sample:

Chess invites me to deepen my concentration a few centimetres away from another being who is also trying to concentrate; someone I can smell, sense moving, and hear breathing. I often know, even like, these people, but they loom within my psyche in a relatively impersonal sense – a familiar energy, not friends as such. I sometimes think of chess opponents as psychopathic flatmates with whom I have to share a living space. They look harmless, but I know we signed the same contract that says they need to try to get inside my room, steal my possessions and hunt me down, before killing me; naturally, I am obliged to do the same to them. Together we create a story, and narrative themes such as attack and defence are both reduced and reified into particular moves with particular pieces on particular squares, which we record like stenographers, into our own arcana of algebraic notation. The climax of a game’s story might be ‘Brutal counter-attack!’ but the record merely reflects the logical power of a short sequence of moves, for instance: ‘…34. Bf3 Nh3+ 35.Kh1 Qg4!! Resigns.’

And this:

In his Utopian novel Island (1962), Aldous Huxley depicts ‘reminder birds’ called Mynahs who fly around periodically saying: ‘Attention!’ and ‘Here and now!’ to help bring the inhabitants back to themselves and the present moment. However, if Mynahs were to be released into London, New York, Delhi or Beijing today, it’s not clear what we would be asked to pay attention to or for. Today’s Mynahs are smartphone notifications, which seduce us through our weakness for novelty and coerce us through our fear of missing out, as ubiquitous advertisers, in league with psychographic profilers, harvest our attention as a commodity. Our problem today is not that we don’t or can’t pay attention, but that the systems and structures of society oblige us to pay attention so frequently and fleetingly that we cannot in fact concentrate. Lacking an ability to concentrate, it’s a struggle to construct and maintain a coherent and autonomous sense of self, which leaves us at the mercy of digital, commercial and political puppeteers. Without concentration, we are not free.

Why a Biden landslide didn’t materialise

Probably there are lots of reasons. But I was struck by this NYT interview with Jon Tester, the Democratic Senator from Montana who is also a farmer. The interview is basically about why the Democrats seems to have lost rural America, but this passage in particular stood out:

NYT: Some Democrats believe they are never going to establish a durable Senate majority because of the nature of every state having two senators and the party’s difficulties with rural voters. When you hear that, does that tick you off?

Yeah, it does. Yeah, it does.


Because the problem isn’t that the country’s skewed against the Democrats; the problem is that the Democrats have not done a very good job talking about what we believe in.

If there’s one mistake that is made way, way, way too often by folks in public service, it’s that you walk into a room and who does most of the talking? The senator.

Now, some forums that’s what the people want. But for the most part if you’re in a town hall, and you let people tell you what they’re thinking, let them tell you what’s going on — and then search into your mental database to find out if there’s anything that we’ve done to help solve that problem — then maybe you can have a conversation. But to walk in and say, “You need to think this, and this is what I believe is the right thing to think,” that switch goes off.

And then I find that this point has been taken up by Dave Winer on his blog:

The key point that the Democrats keep missing is that we want to do more. We will give you money and we will vote, but that’s not all we can do. Each of has special talents, abilities. Some of us have more time to give than others. But almost to a person, we want to be part of this, not spectators. Trump kind of got that, with his rallies. He didn’t condescend. He included them in his speeches. Talked to them like humans. This stuff isn’t hard, you have have to try to see things differently. We’re not just dollars and votes. # I’d like to hear Biden say, when asked if the US can get rid of the virus, hell yeah we can. This is what we’re good at. It’s why we invested in the military and science, to protect our people from deadly threats. Here’s the plan, here’s the timetable, and here’s how you particpate. #

The Dems talk about Americans, but rarely talk to Americans.

Senator Tester is also good on the mysterious way that Trump seemed to connect with people in rural America.

There’s no doubt about it, he has an appeal in rural America. I can’t figure it out, but there’s no denying it.

But I will also tell you I think there’s a long-term structural issue. And by the way, I’ve had this conversation with Chuck Schumer (the Senate Democratic leader) several times — that we have to do a better job developing a message so that rural Americans can say, “Yeah, those guys, they think like I do.” Because that’s what Trump has right now.

I can go into the list of things that might be insane about this president, but the truth is that rural people connect more with a millionaire from New York City than they do with the Democrats that are in national positions.

Facebook is developing a tool to summarise articles so you don’t have to read them

From Buzzfeed

Facebook told employees on Tuesday that it’s developing a tool to summarize news articles so users won’t have to read them. It also laid out early plans for a neural sensor to detect people’s thoughts and translate them into action.

Those announcements and product demos were part of an end-of-year, companywide meeting at the social networking giant, whose year has been pockmarked by controversy, employee discontent, and multiple state and federal antitrust lawsuits. BuzzFeed News obtained audio of the meeting, which was not public but was broadcast virtually to thousands of employees.

Led by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the meeting featured a slew of prerecorded company executives, some of whom called 2020 a trying year as the company weathered a global pandemic and the backlash of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans.

Despite the turmoil, the company’s leaders said the social networking company has moved forward, adding some 20,000 new workers this year. With more people around the world at home, the company has experienced record usage, said Facebook Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer. Traffic throughout March was akin to New Year’s Day, typically Facebook’s busiest period of the year, he added.

“Our investments in technology aren’t just about keeping our services running,” he said, comparing the speed of Facebook’s improvements in messaging to the advancement of the COVID-19 vaccine. “We are paving the way for breakthrough new experiences that, without hyperbole, will improve the lives of billions.”

Oh yeah? This is another twist in the evolution of what Frank Pasquale calls the automated public sphere

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • The Fake News Immunity Chatbot. Linkl
  • Kangaroos can ‘communicate’ with humans, study finds. This is sweet. Link
  • Build your own earthquake detector — using a Raspberry Pi. Link The ingenious uses people find for this wonderful little computer never cease to amaze me. (And makes me ashamed that I only use it for mundane things like email, writing and browsing the Web.)

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Wednesday 16 December, 2020

Tim Berners-Lee

The inventor of the Web at a Royal Society symposium some years ago.

Quote of the Day

“We savaged them, though they had never hurt us, and we cannot find it in our hearts, our honour, to give them help — because the government of Vietnam is Communist. And perhaps because they won.”

  • Martha Gellhorn in The Face of War, 1986.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Randy Newman: You’ve Got a Friend in Me



Long read of the Day

The Big Thaw: How Russia Could Dominate a Warming World

This is an extraordinary report on a question I’d never thought about: who will be the beneficiaries of global warming? One of the winners is likely to be Russia and the essay explains why. It’s very long (20 minutes, minimum), but I found it fascinating and thought-provoking. It might also explain why Putin is looking so up-beat recently. Sample:

A great transformation is underway in the eastern half of Russia. For centuries the vast majority of the land has been impossible to farm; only the southernmost stretches along the Chinese and Mongolian borders, including around Dimitrovo, have been temperate enough to offer workable soil. But as the climate has begun to warm, the land — and the prospect for cultivating it — has begun to improve. Twenty years ago, Dima says, the spring thaw came in May, but now the ground is bare by April; rainstorms now come stronger and wetter. Across Eastern Russia, wild forests, swamps and grasslands are slowly being transformed into orderly grids of soybeans, corn and wheat. It’s a process that is likely to accelerate: Russia hopes to seize on the warming temperatures and longer growing seasons brought by climate change to refashion itself as one of the planet’s largest producers of food.

As I say: long read but worth it. Lovely photography too.

iPhone 12 Pro now has more dynamic range than the Canon EOS R5!

UPDATE: Apple has released iOS 14.3, outfitting iPhone 12 Pro and Max cameras with its new ProRAW format – enabling them to capture 12-bit DNG (RAW) files that possess 14 stops of dynamic range.

This means that the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max will possess even more dynamic range than the Canon EOS R5 – which is a remarkable achievement, even for two of the best camera phones on the market.


For years, Apple has devoted astonishing amounts of R&D talent and resources into the iPhone camera. I often wonder if the strategic vision implicit in this was Steve Jobs’s. The decision was clearly made on his watch. And it was made at a time when other phone manufacturers viewed the camera as an add-on rather than an integral component — and a reason why many people would buy it.

I have an iPhone 11 Pro phone, which has a terrific camera and even better computational resources behind it. It’s the camera I always have on me. But when I’m going somewhere interesting I generally also bring along a Leica. When I get back to base, however, often the pics I choose come from the iPhone rather than the Leica — especially if high dynamic range scenes are involved.

The new software in iOS 14.3 will simply widen this disparity. But it only works on iPhone 12 models, so that rules me out.

The geopolitics of the pandemic

As we head into the most unusual Christmas of my lifetime, it’s a bit eerie watching the inability of Western societies to get a grip on it. Sure, there’s a vaccine (a few, actually) and that’s amazing, but it’ll be a while before we begin to see the impact of those. In the meantime, there’s confusion, contradiction, uncertainty, ineptitude everywhere. And the virus is proving to be a pretty formidable opponent.

But in China things look markedly different at the moment. Which prompts the question of whether its ability apparently to suppress the virus and resume normality is simply an affordance of a quasi-totalitarian state? By the same token, is our chaos a reflection of the fact that we’re still living in some kind of democracy in which governments are reluctant to take long-term authoritarian measures either because of liberal misgivings or because they fear that they might not be able to enforce such measures if things came to a crunch?

If I were Xi Jinping, I would be using this comparison to push the idea that the Western system is intrinsically unviable and that the Chinese approach is the right way to manage a modern society. I don’t believe it is, actually. But I can see how one could spin it that way.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • John O. Brennan on UFOs. Who he? Answer: Director of the CIA for four years under Obama. This is a chunk of his fascinating conversation with Tyler Cowen. Link

  • How to save yourself if you fall through a hole in thin ice. Don’t try this at home. Link

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Wednesday 15 December, 2020

Zero-emission vehicles this way

Well, it’s a start for us electricheads.

Quote of the Day

“Irish Americans are about as Irish as African Americans are Africans.”

  • Bob Geldof

I couldn’t possibly comment.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Notturno in F Major, MH 185: III. Adagio


Long Read of the Day

China’s Radical New Vision Of Globalization

James Crabtree’s essay in Noema magazine.

Many experts have noted a changing Western consensus on China, as leaders in Washington abandoned the idea that economic modernization would inevitably lead to political liberalization in Beijing. But there has been a comparable shift in China’s internal conversation on the West too. Beginning with semiconductors but potentially expanding to all manner of other areas, China now expects it will have to develop technologically on its own. Xi’s new theory now sits at the heart of the country’s 14th five-year plan, which covers development from 2021 to 2025, and was unveiled in draft form in October. The result will accelerate China’s decoupling from the West, while also increasing the importance of trading links forged with other parts of the world — for instance, via Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative. Put more bluntly, while the world was distracted by the drama of the U.S. presidential election, Xi quietly unveiled an economic strategy fit for a new Cold War. Both for China and for globalization itself, the results are likely to be profound.

Note the Cold War reference.

Tech lobbyists ramping up in Brussels

Today in Brussels, alongside its Digital Markets Act designed to tackle unfair competition, the EU published its draft of a Digital Services Act that will force tech companies to take more responsibility for illegal behaviour on their platforms. According to the Financial Times, a draft of the new Digital Markets Act warns that tech companies which break competition rules will face fines of up to 10 per cent of their global revenues — and that the EU would move to break up any technology company that is fined three times within five years. Margrethe Vestager, the commissioner in charge of competition and digital policy, said the EU would not hesitate to “impose structural remedies, divestitures, that sort of thing”.

All of which helps to explain why, according to a NYT report,

As the European Union has become the global leader in tech regulation, these companies have increasingly focused on Brussels in hopes of choking off even stiffer rules before they spread. American lawmakers and regulators have already become much more aggressive. Last week, federal and state officials accused Facebook of illegally crushing competition. In October, the Justice Department accused Google of illegally protecting its monopoly over search.

In Europe, the companies are spending more than ever, hiring former government officials, well-connected law firms and consulting firms. They funded dozens of think tanks and trade associations, endowed academic positions at top universities across the continent and helped publish industry-friendly research by other firms.

In the first half of 2020, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft declared spending a combined 19 million euros, or about $23 million, equal to what they had declared for all of 2019 and up from €6.8 million in 2014, according to Transparency International, a group that monitors E.U. lobbying. The spending is helping to deliver access; the companies and their allies reported hundreds of meetings with officials at the European Commission and the European Parliament.

All very predictable. To date, though, the American approach seems to have cut little ice with the Commission. Long may that be the case.

Trump Strutted Like a Player, but also got played

Lovely Bloomberg column by Timothy O’Brien.

It took me a while to twig that Trump was actually a useful idiot for Mitch McConnell, who was at least as unscrupulous as the President but also effective at organising what he wanted to achieve. Here’s the key passage from O’Brien’s piece:

“At the risk of tooting my own horn, look at the majority leaders since L.B.J. and find another one who was able to do something as consequential as this,” McConnell, a history buff, told the New York Times after he rammed Justice Amy Coney Barrett onto the Supreme Court in October.

McConnell regards his conservative reshaping of the federal judiciary as his signature accomplishment, and his legacy goes well beyond the Supreme Court. He has pressed the Senate to confirm at least 229 federal court appointments during Trump’s presidency, and, for the first time in 40 years, hasn’t left a left a single vacancy on district and circuit courts — even if that has meant repopulating the judiciary with young, white men bearing threadbare resumes.

Trump didn’t have a sophisticated, informed view of the judiciary before becoming president. But he let McConnell transform such traditionally liberal venues as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals because the senator sustained him in other ways. McConnell ran interference when Trump was impeached. He helped court Trump’s incendiary political base. He kept to the shadows when Trump attacked the Black Lives Matter movement. He remained silent when Trump savaged the integrity of the presidential election.

McConnell, according to those close to him, held Trump in low regard but protected him anyway to feed his own political ambitions, further fuel his fundraising apparatus and go about dismantling the federal government. McConnell’s fealty and machinations came home to roost this year when Trump failed to effectively respond to the Covid-19 pandemic and the Senate was left so broken it appears unable to pass a second coronavirus relief package even though it has bipartisan support.

It’s not clear yet whether McConnell, content to wield power for power’s sake alone, will pay any penalties for cuddling with Trump. But there’s no question that he has spun the president like a top the last several years whenever one of his own goals was in play.

The historians among you will no doubt point out that ‘useful idiot’ was a coinage of Lenin’s, not to describe subordinates whom he could suborn but the Western intellectuals who were taken in by Soviet propaganda and their show-tours of the Communist Utopia in its early days. But it’s still a useful concept. It currently applies, for example, to the eminent members of the Facebook ‘oversight ‘Board, with Mark Zuckerberg playing Lenin.

Why Johnson might prefer no deal

Sobering assessment from Jonty Bloom.

The FT has by far the best British coverage of Brexit, with Irish media giving it a run for its money. Today there is another excellent article by Gideon Rachman on how finally the UK is realising that in negotiations between a market of 450 million and one of 65 million, it is the weaker party.

I am sure he is right but that doesn’t necessarily mean the UK will sign a deal, even though it is obviously in its interests to do so. That is because the deal on the table is actually quite a bad one, so there will be damage to the UK anyway. A politician might therefore ask himself first, who will benefit and who will be blamed?

The Brexit ultras will see any deal as betrayal and treason, if one French fishing boat is allowed to fish in UK waters or if one regulation can’t be cut because of EU objections, they will scream blue murder. When the deal doesn’t lead to the sunlit uplands (and it won’t) they will come for the person who signed it and having seen off the two previous Conservative Prime Ministers, I wouldn’t bet against them.

With no deal, any failures are all the EU’s fault and/or a price worth paying to be free. It might make for a simpler and longer political life.

The key unknown here is whether the Europhobic wing of the Tory party is as powerful as Jonty assumes.

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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.

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!

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.

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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.)

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!

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!