Monday 29 June, 2020

The path not taken

From a walk yesterday.

Whenever I walk in a wood I find myself thinking of Robert Frost.


EasY does it: just don’t check the bank statements

I’ve always thought that the big consulting firms are basically frauds, but I thought they could probably do audits. Seems I was wrong.

According to the FT,

EY between 2016 and 2018 did not check directly with Singapore’s OCBC Bank to confirm that the lender held large amounts of cash on behalf of Wirecard. Instead, EY relied on documents and screenshots provided by a third-party trustee and Wirecard itself.

A senior auditor at another firm said that obtaining independent confirmation of bank balances was “equivalent to day-one training at audit school”.

Hopefully, investors in Wirecard will now sue EY into the ground.

Maybe I will be an auditor when I grow up, on the grounds that I could at least spot when 1.9 billion Euro was missing.


Legal vetting

The Harvard Gazette has an intriguing interview with the great constitutional lawyer Lawrence Tribe, who’s about to retire. He started as a mathematician (going to Harvard at the edge of 16) and then switched to Law. Like many young legal high-flyers, after graduation he clerked for a Supreme Court judge Potter Stewart. There’s an hilarious excerpt in the interview about this:

Q: Were you able to get to know any of the other justices besides Stewart?

A: Yes. I got to know Marshall quite well and [Earl] Warren less well. I remember a hilarious experience with [John Marshall] Harlan, in particular. In those days, the Supreme Court had its own theory that explicit sexual material could be banned if it was sufficiently hardcore, whatever that meant. Stewart famously said, ‘I can’t define hardcore pornography, but I know it when I see it.’ And I asked him once, “Have you ever seen it?” And he said, “Yes, just once, off the coast of Algiers.” (Laughs) I could never find out more than that.

We used to go to the basement of the court to watch porno flicks because the court was in a phase where it would just have to judge — thumbs up or thumbs down — either this is hardcore pornography and can be banned, or it’s not. They had no criteria. They just basically looked at the movies. Harlan was going blind, and so he had Thurgood Marshall narrate the films. “Oh, he’s doing that? You’ve got to be kidding!” That was the screening process.

Much more interesting than I expected. I can see why his students (including Barack Obama) loved him.


Quarantine diary — Day 100

Final episode!

Link


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The fable of the prodigal TechBro

Maria Farrell (whom God Preserve) has written a fabulously sharp essay about the phenomenon of Founder’s Remorse — the way guys (and they’re always guys) who made a packet out of drinking the Zuckerberg/Tech Kool Aid eventually realised that what they were doing was not exactly good for humanity — and quit to spend more time with their money. Not content with stepping off the surveillance capitalism treadmill, however, they also want to be loved and admired for their signal moral and ethical courage. And swathes of the mainstream media are falling for these faux mea culpae. All of which is just a bit nauseating, especially to those activists and contrarians who have spent decades critiquing and challenging the tech giants.

Farrell’s essay is well worth reading in full, because that’s the only way of catching the Swiftian edge of her satirical disdain, but here’s a sample to whet your appetite:

The Prodigal Son is a New Testament parable about two sons. One stays home to work the farm. The other cashes in his inheritance and gambles it away. When the gambler comes home, his father slaughters the fattened calf to celebrate, leaving the virtuous, hard-working brother to complain that all these years he wasn’t even given a small goat to share with his friends. His father replies that the prodigal son ‘was dead, now he’s alive; lost, now he’s found’. Cue party streamers. It’s a touching story of redemption, with a massive payload of moral hazard. It’s about coming home, saying sorry, being joyfully forgiven and starting again. Most of us would love to star in it, but few of us will be given the chance.

The Prodigal Tech Bro is a similar story, about tech executives who experience a sort of religious awakening. They suddenly see their former employers as toxic, and reinvent themselves as experts on taming the tech giants. They were lost and are now found. They are warmly welcomed home to the center of our discourse with invitations to write opeds for major newspapers, for think tank funding, book deals and TED talks. These guys – and yes, they are all guys – are generally thoughtful and well-meaning, and I wish them well. But I question why they seize so much attention and are awarded scarce resources, and why they’re given not just a second chance, but also the mantle of moral and expert authority.

Great stuff.

Holy Cow! er, water

This is the kind of thing you really couldn’t make up.

A Roman Catholic church in rural Louisiana hoping to maximize its blessings has come up with a way to do it: filling up a crop-duster plane with holy water and letting the sanctified liquid mist an entire community.

“We can bless more area in a shorter amount of time,” Rev. Matthew Barzare of St. Anne Church in Cow Island, La., told NPR.

Following this past Saturday’s mass, parishioners from the church in southwestern Louisiana headed to an airstrip about five minutes away from the church.

Churchgoers brought with them 100 gallons of water, which was loaded into the crop duster.

“I blessed it there, and we waited for the pilot to take off,” Barzare said, noting that it was the largest amount of water he had ever turned holy.

“I’ve blessed some buckets for people and such, but never that much water,” he said.

The pilot had instructions to drizzle certain parts of the community, including churches, schools, grocery stores and other community gathering places.

Word of it raining blessings spread fast in Cow Island, which Barzare points out is not really an island. But when hurricanes strike, he said, the community is typically surrounded by water, hence the name.

Some distant members of my extended family live in Louisiana. I’m beginning to worry about them.

King Donald the First

Marvellous blast from Thomas Friedman: “Impeach Trump, save America”:

Folks, can you imagine what Russia’s President Putin is saying to himself today? “I can’t believe my luck! I not only got Trump to parrot my conspiracy theories, I got his whole party to do it! And for free! Who ever thought Americans would so easily sell out their own Constitution for one man? My God, I have Russian lawmakers in my own Parliament who’d quit before doing that. But it proves my point: America is no different from Russia, so spare me the lectures.”

If Congress were to do what Republicans demand — forgo impeaching this president for enlisting a foreign power to get him elected, after he refused to hand over any of the documents that Congress had requested and blocked all of his key aides who knew what happened from testifying — we would be saying that a president is henceforth above the law.

We would be saying that we no longer have three coequal branches of government. We would be saying that we no longer have a separation of powers.

We would be saying that our president is now a king.

Brings to mind the Benjamin Franklin’s reply to the question he was asked as he was leaving the Constitutional Convention in 1787: “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?” “A Republic”, said Franklin, “if you can keep it.”

Looks like they can’t.

What was Bill Gates smoking?

Bill Gates is smart (and — since he matured, married and had kids — a good global citizen) so this claim by him the other day is weird:

“There’s no doubt that the antitrust lawsuit was bad for Microsoft, and we would have been more focused on creating the phone operating system and so instead of using Android today you would be using Windows Mobile,” claimed Gates. “If it hadn’t been for the antitrust case… we were so close, I was just too distracted. I screwed that up because of the distraction.”

Ben Evans does a lovely demolition job on this in his newsletter.

I struggle to see how this is plausible.

  1. Microsoft, Nokia, Palm and Blackberry all arrived in 2007 with mobile platforms conceived in the late 90s and early 2000s that could not compete with the iPhone, needed to make something entirely new, and none managed to make the jump (even Nokia’s Maemo didn’t ship until 2010) – the others didn’t have anti-trust issues
  2. The Windows Phone that Microsoft did deliver in 2010 was fundamentally a modern-looking skin (‘Metro’) on top of a pre-iPhone architecture, without a solid developer path
  3. Android was open-source, and so unlike Microsoft didn’t appear to threaten control by one company (ironic, in hindsight), and free, which matters far more for a $200 phone than a $1000 PC.
  4. You can argue that Microsoft could have executed better, but imagine going to Bill in 2008 and saying ‘we need to make a free, open-source OS with no Windows compatibility’
  5. It may be easier to blame anti-trust (post hoc ergo propter hoc) than say that Microsoft had the wrong product and wrong strategy, and was a classic victim of disruption.

Spot on. Nailed it.

LATER Cory Doctorow has an interesting post arguing that, in a way, the ‘distraction’ was useful, even if the antitrust suit did not result in the eventually breakup of Microsoft.

Which reminds me of the remarkable video of Gates being interviewed during the case. Scary stuff, which among other things illustrates how far he has come from his early days.

Trump’s Cybersecurity czar bricks his iPhone

Another one of those stories you couldn’t make up.

The month after Rudy Giuliani was named the US president’s cybersecurity adviser, the former mayor of New York queued up outside an Apple Store in San Francisco to get staff to reset his iPhone because he couldn’t remember the passcode.

Giuliani had typed into the wrong code more than 10 times, seizing up the phone and an Apple staffer reset and restored the iPhone 6 using his iCloud backup, according to NBC News which today saw and posted a picture of the internal Apple memo concerning the visit.

The yarn – which has not been disputed – has left security experts stunned. As an adviser on cybersecurity to President Trump and more recently as his personal lawyer, Giuliani has direct access to the White House and, if reports are to be believed, is in charge of a parallel foreign policy effort involving a range of countries, most notably Ukraine.

Or, in other words, Giuliani’s phone is a prime target for surveillance efforts and he simply handed it over to a random Apple employee. Not only that but he couldn’t remember his own passcode, and has backed everything up to Apple’s iCloud. He is a walking security risk.

Not just a security risk.

Fakebook

Great NYT column by Kara Swisher:

So, Fakebook it is.

This week, unlike YouTube, Facebook decided to keep up a video deliberately and maliciously doctored to make it appear as if Speaker Nancy Pelosi was drunk or perhaps crazy. She was not. She was instead the victim of an obvious dirty trick by a dubious outfit with a Facebook page called Politics WatchDog.

The social media giant deemed the video a hoax and demoted its distribution, but the half-measure clearly didn’t work. The video ran wild across the system.

Facebook’s product policy and counterterrorism executive, Monika Bickert, drew the short straw and had to try to come up with a cogent justification for why Facebook was helping spew ugly political propaganda.

“We think it’s important for people to make their own informed choice for what to believe,” she said in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “Our job is to make sure we are getting them accurate information.”

So was this faked video “accurate information”, then? Of course not. Or, as Swisher continues,

Would a broadcast network air this? Never. Would a newspaper publish it? Not without serious repercussions. Would a marketing campaign like this ever pass muster? False advertising.

No other media could get away with spreading anything like this because they lack the immunity protection that Facebook and other tech companies enjoy under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 was intended to spur innovation and encourage start-ups. Now it’s a shield to protect behemoths from any sensible rules.

In the end, we will have to get back to the Section 230 exemption.

Shooting yourself in the behind

Now here is something you could not make up:

The Netherlands’ Defense Safety Inspection Agency (Inspectie Veiligheid Defensie) is investigating an incident during a January military exercise in which a Dutch Air Force F-16 was damaged by live fire from a 20-millimeter cannon—its own 20-millimeter cannon. At least one round fired from the aircraft’s M61A1 Vulcan Gatling gun struck the aircraft as it fired at targets on the Dutch military’s Vliehors range on the island of Vlieland, according to a report from the Netherlands’ NOS news service.

Two F-16s were conducting firing exercises on January 21. It appears that the damaged aircraft actually caught up with the 20mm rounds it fired as it pulled out of its firing run. At least one of them struck the side of the F-16’s fuselage, and parts of a round were ingested by the aircraft’s engine. The F-16’s pilot managed to land the aircraft safely at Leeuwarden Air Base.

The incident reflects why guns on a high-performance jet are perhaps a less than ideal weapon. The Vulcan is capable of firing over 6,000 shots per minute, but its magazine carries only 511 rounds—just enough for five seconds of fury. The rounds have a muzzle velocity of 3,450 feet per second (1050 meters per second). That is speed boosted initially by the aircraft itself, but atmospheric drag slows the shells down eventually. And if a pilot accelerates and maneuvers in the wrong way after firing the cannon, the aircraft could be unexpectedly reunited with its recently departed rounds.

Lovely, isn’t it?