Wednesday 5 August, 2020

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Alison Krauss: Down to the River to Pray. 3 minutes.


Papers leaked before UK election in suspected Russian operation were hacked from ex-trade minister

LONDON (Reuters) – Classified U.S.-UK trade documents leaked ahead of Britain’s 2019 election were stolen from the email account of former trade minister Liam Fox by suspected Russian hackers, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because a law enforcement investigation is underway, said the hackers accessed the account multiple times between July 12 and Oct. 21 last year.

They declined to name which Russian group or organisation they believed was responsible, but said the attack bore the hallmarks of a state-backed operation.

Reuters story

And Liam Fox, Britain’s very own Neocon and Brexiteer, was the target. Delicious.

Rodney Brooks: what big things might change?

Things will continue to change. Below I have put a few things that I think could change from now into the beginning of the next century. I am not saying that any particular one of these will be what changes. And I would be very surprised if more than half of these will be adopted. But I have selected the ideas that currently gnaw at me and do not feel as solid as some other ideas in science. Some will no doubt become more solid. But it will not surprise me so much if any individual one of these turns into accepted wisdom.


>There is no dark matter.
>The Universe is not expanding.
>The big bang was wrong.


>There is a big additional part of quantum mechanics to be understood.
>String theory is bogus.
>The many worlds interpretation is decided to be confused and discarded.


Why Gregory Bateson matters

There’s a lovely and thought-provoking essay by Ted Gioia in the LA Review of Books on “one of the smartest and most wide-ranging intellects of the counterculture”.

He has, for the most part, been scandalously forgotten, yet his concepts and principles are especially relevant to the concerns of the digital age. Bateson worked at the interfaces between technology, environment, and individual psychology, and he grasped the specific dangers faced by society when these three forces are in conflict with each other.

Facebook, Amazon, and Google didn’t exist back when Bateson lived, but he would have understood with acute insight what risks their dominance brings. If he were alive today, he would have perspicacious things to tell us about a host of other problems, whether in our environment at large, our neighborhoods and city streets, or in the deep recesses of our psyches. In fact, his specialty was understanding the ways these are all linked and how changes in one sphere often start with shifts in another. Perhaps more than anyone of his generation, Bateson grasped that the revolution won’t be televised — in fact, it can’t — if the conflict is taking place in our own heads.

Gioia’s essay made me realise (guiltily) that I’ve never read Bateson’s collection of essays, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, a deficiency that I took steps to remedy today. “Bateson”, Gioia writes,

believed that one of the greatest innovations in human history was the feedback loop. He frequently talked about the steam engine as an analogy for healthy human interactions, focusing on the controls in the engine that check the process and keep it running at a steady pace. When looking for similar feedback loops in human interactions, Bateson saw that they didn’t always exist, or operate in the way they should. As a result, he recognized that there were two kinds of systems: ones that relied on feedback to create stability, and others that tended to escalate and create runaway trends.

For him, the Cold War arms race was an example of the latter. Rivalries are human systems that tend to move to extreme limits before they are corrected — often by reaching some dangerous or even disastrous endpoint. In the case of the arms race, this endpoint took place soon after Bateson’s death with the collapse of the Soviet Union — which he would have said teaches us that the resolution of a runaway process often happens outside the process, because there are no obvious stopping points or checks within it. But under other scenarios, this runaway social dynamic could have achieved a truly catastrophic endpoint in a kind of nuclear Armageddon. Disruptions in the environment are other obvious examples of this.

Why is this especially relevant today? Just reflect for a moment. We’re living in a world that is being dismantled and reshaped by a communications environment that is essentially a maelstrom of runaway positive feedback loops.

There’s lots more to think about here.

Senator Ron Wyden helped create the Big Tech industry. Now he wants to hold it accountable.

Wyden was the co-author of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act which exempted Internet platforms from liability for what people posted on their platforms. It was the stay-out-of-gaol card that enabled the colossal growth of social media and other platforms. If he is really beginning to wonder about the wisdom of that exemption then it’s time for the tech platforms to get worried.


There’s No Such Thing As a Tech Expert Anymore

Members of Congress clearly don’t understand the tech companies they’re supposed to regulate, says Siva Viadhyanathan in Wired. But neither does anyone else.

Does anyone, even Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai, really understand these massive, complex, global information systems with their acres of infrastructure, billions in revenue, and billions of users almost as diverse as humanity itself?

I think not. That’s the thing about complex systems. Almost no one understands any of them. As technology writer Samuel Arbesman writes in his important book, Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension, the messiness of complex systems, in which teams of people understand one aspect yet no one gets the whole thing, invited such calamities as the May 2010 “flash crash” of global financial markets. A complex system like a computer-driven securities market has multiple points of failure: a tangle of computer code, human actions, laws and regulation, and massive amounts of financial data that no one understands. Ultimately, many people have theories of what went wrong that day. No one knows for sure—or how to avoid another such collapse…

Arbesman’s book is great, btw.


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