Tuesday 16 June, 2020 – Bloomsday

Happy Bloomsday!

June 16, 1904 is the day in which all the action in Joyce’s great modernist novel, Ulysses, takes place. Since the 1950s the day has been celebrated by Joyce enthusiasts all over the world, usually by meetings, readings, lunches, talks, performances — all events that involve people meeting in groups, and therefore difficult or impossible in many locations today.

Hopefully, next year will be different. And 2022 will mark the centenary of the publication of the novel, so that should be fun.

But that doesn’t mean one can’t read from it today. There’s a good annotated version of the text on Wikisource if you don’t possess a copy or if the novel is new to you.


Permanent secretaries ‘not aware of any economic planning for a pandemic’

From today’s Guardian:

Two of the government’s most powerful civil servants have said they were not aware of any attempt to make economic preparations for a possible global pandemic in the years leading up to the coronavirus outbreak.

Sir Tom Scholar and Alex Chisholm, the permanent secretaries in the Treasury and the Cabinet Office respectively, confirmed that although the government simulated an international flu outbreak in 2016, Whitehall did not devise a plan for dealing with the consequences for the economy.

Instead, Scholar told MPs, civil servants devised schemes to help businesses “as they went along”. The disclosure, made before the public accounts committee, prompted its chair, Labour’s Meg Hillier, to say she was “dumbstruck”.

Scholar and Chisholm appeared before the committee on Monday to answer questions about the government’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak. The Conservative MP James Wild asked them whether they were aware of an economic plan equivalent to Exercise Cygnus, the 2016 simulation that involved 950 emergency planning officials.

Scholar, who joined the Treasury in 1992, replied: “We developed our economic response in the weeks leading up to the budget. I don’t know to what extent the Treasury was involved in that exercise.”

Referring to the schemes devised to help businesses during the pandemic, Scholar added: “We didn’t have these schemes ready and designed and ready to go. We have been designing them as we have gone along.”

Why are we not surprised? In one way, the whole Coronavirus shambles is a story of the loss of state capacity.


America’s democratic unravelling

From an essay by Daron Acemomoglu of MIT in Foreign Affairs:

Institutional collapse often resembles bankruptcy, at least the way Mike Campbell experienced it in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “gradually and then suddenly.” As James Robinson and I argue in our recent book, The Narrow Corridor, democratic institutions restrain elected leaders by enabling a delicate balance of oversight by different branches of government (legislature and the judiciary) and political action by regular people, whether in the form of voting in elections or exerting pressure via protest. But democratic institutions rest on norms—compromise, cooperation, respect for the truth—and are bolstered by an active, self-confident citizenry and a free press. When democratic values come under attack and the press and civil society are neutralized, the institutional safeguards lose their power. Under such conditions, the transgressions of those in power go unpunished or become normalized. The gradual erosion of checks and balances thus gives way to sudden institutional collapse.

By refusing to disclose his tax returns, openly pursuing policies that serve his family’s financial interests, vilifying Hispanic and Muslim Americans, propagating conspiracy theories, and relentlessly lying to the press, the president has left practically no norm of democratic governance unviolated.

The United States is currently working through the later chapters of this same authoritarian playbook, which Trump adopted early in his presidency. By dismissing concerns about Russian interference in the U.S. election, refusing to disclose his tax returns, openly pursuing policies that serve his family’s financial interests, vilifying Hispanic and Muslim Americans, propagating conspiracy theories, and relentlessly lying to the press, the president has left practically no norm of democratic governance unviolated. These actions not only weakened the institutions that are supposed to restrain the president but also further polarized the U.S. electorate, creating a constituency that unconditionally supports Trump out of fear that the Democrats will take power. Having destroyed many Americans’ trust in their country’s democratic institutions, Trump has set about destroying the institutions themselves, one oversight mechanism at a time.

That’s why the November election is so important. If Trump is defeated, then there’s a chance that American institutions will recover. If he wins then I think the game’s over.


Quarantine diary — Day 87

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Saturday 6 June, 2020

The Complex Debate Over Silicon Valley’s Embrace of Content Moderation

Interesting NYT piece by Nellie Bowles.

One of the few things that Democrats and Republicans in Washington agree on is that changes to Section 230 are on the table. Mr. Trump issued an executive order calling for changes to it after Twitter added labels to some of his tweets. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has also called for changes to Section 230.

“You repeal this and then we’re in a different world,” said Josh Blackman, a constitutional law professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston. “Once you repeal Section 230, you’re now left with 51 imperfect solutions.”


Under pressure, UK government releases NHS COVID data deals with big tech

Hours before openDemocracy was due to sue, the government released massive data-sharing contracts with Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Faculty and Palantir.

Great journalism. Link

Reminds one that in addition to contact-tracing apps we also need contract-tracing ones.


The Story Behind Bill Barr’s Unmarked Federal Agents

Good piece of investigative and explanatory journalism by Politico. Turns out that the US Federal government has a largish hidden army of police-like officers and agents. Who knew?


History Will Judge the Complicit

Wonderful essay in The Atlantic by Anne Applebaum on the phenomenon of collaboration and, in particular, why (and how) prominent Republicans have become collaborators of a president who stands for everything they supposedly abhor. One of her case studies is Senator Lindsay Graham, a former military patriot who has become one of Trump’s most nauseating legislative groupies. (Graham is a living proof that power is the greatest aphrodisiac.) Also explores the various self-deluding strategies that collaborators use to justify their surrender of agency. What’s especially lovely about the essay is the way it explores the nature of collaboration by going back in modern European history to the Soviet and Nazi eras. It’s a long read, but worth it.


Contact tracing isn’t rocket science. As a small Welsh local authority has shown

This is an extraordinary story.

As Wales takes the first steps out of lockdown and starts trying to find a way to live with Covid-19, people living in one part of the nation could be forgiven for thinking they have almost entirely escaped the disease which reached crisis points in other parts of Wales.

With just 42 confirmed cases to date, and seven deaths, it seems that in the coastal council area of Ceredigion the virus never really took hold.

The initial flurry of cases in this rural part of Wales was comparable to the starts of the outbreak in the local authorities of Wales that ended up being worst hit by the virus. Yet here it just sort of petered out.

I don’t think “petered out” is quite right. The control of the virus in this small rural district was due to:

  • Early, pre-emptive and decisive action. The local University was one of the first to close, so the student population in Aberystwyth was effectively evacuated ahead of time. And because the district is a popular tourist area, long before the national lockdown was announced, the council had instructed all holiday and caravan parks to close too.

  • Effective deployment of contact-tracing from Day One. A simple system has enabled them to carry out contact tracing on every confirmed case in the county. The Council picked up all positive cases did been contact tracing on them all. A couple of environmental health officers were assigned to pick up on positive tests. And precautions were extended to Council staff.

One inescapable lesson from this is that if Whitehall had delegated responsibility and resources for contact-tracing to local authorities from Day One, the UK wouldn’t have the current omnishambles of a ‘world beating’ contract-tracing system that might just be operation by September.

We always used to think that the most pathologically-centralised state in Europe is France. My hunch is that the UK was actually more dominated by London than France was by Paris.

Thanks to Seb Schmoller for alerting me to this.

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Yale has made Frank Snowden’s celebrated course “Epidemics in Western Society Since 1600” freely available.

You can download the course materials from here. As far as I can see, you can only read the HTML version of the lectures. Audio and video require Flash, of which I don’t approve and don’t trust. But the text of the lectures was all I wanted. As you’d expect, the course also has an interesting Reading List.


Quarantine diary — Day 77

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Friday 22 May, 2020

So what day is it, actually?

Seen in a tech company office the other day.


Nearly half of Twitter accounts tweeting about Coronavirus are probably bots

Interesting report from NPR.

Nearly half of the Twitter accounts spreading messages on the social media platform about the coronavirus pandemic are likely bots, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University said Wednesday.

Researchers culled through more than 200 million tweets discussing the virus since January and found that about 45% were sent by accounts that behave more like computerized robots than humans.

It is too early to say conclusively which individuals or groups are behind the bot accounts, but researchers said the tweets appeared aimed at sowing division in America.

This vividly reinforces the message in Phil Howard’s new bookLie machines: How to Save Democracy from Troll Armies, Deceitful Robots, Junk News Operations and Political Operatives, (Yale, 2020) — which I’m currently reading.

Also it hardly needs saying (does it?) but nobody should think that what happens on Twitter provides a guide to what is actually going on in the real world. It’d be good if more journalists realised that.


Main Street in America: 62 Photos That Show How COVID-19 Changed the Look of Everyday Life

Lovely set of pics from an Esquire magazine project. Still photography reaches parts of the psyche that video can’t touch.

Lots of interesting photographs. Worth a look. But give it time.


Everybody knows…

A reader (to whom much thanks) was struck by my (corrected) reference to Joni Mitchell the other day and sent me a clip from Leonard Cohen’s song, Everybody Knows. This bit in particular strikes home:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died


We need power-steering for the mind, not autonomous vehicles

Following on from yesterday’s discussion of humans being treated as ‘moral crumple zones’ for the errors of so-called autonomous systems, there’s an interesting article in today’s New York Times on Ben Schneiderman, a great computer scientist (and an expert on human-computer interaction), who has been campaigning for years to get the more fanatical wing of the AI industry to recognise that what humanity needs is not so much fully-autonomous systems as ones that augment human capabilities.

This is a a debate that goes back at least to the 1960s when the pioneers of networked computing like JCR Licklider and Douglas Engelbart argued that the purpose of computers is to augment human capabilities (provide “power-steering for the mind” is how someone once put it) rather than taking humans out of the loop. What else, for example, is Google search than a memory prosthesis for humanity? In other words an augmentation.

This clash of worldviews comes to a head in many fields now — employment, for example. There’s not much argument, I guess, about building machines to do work that is really dangerous or psychologically damaging. Think of bomb disposal, on the one hand, or mindlessly repetitive tasks that in the end sap the humanity out of workers and are very badly paid. These are areas where, if possible, humans should be taken out of the loop.

But autonomous vehicles — aka self-driving cars — represent a moment where the two mindsets really collide. Lots of corporations (Uber, for instance) can’t wait for the moment when they can dispense with those tiresome human drivers. At the moment, they are frustrated by two categories of obstacle.

  1. The first is a lack (still) of technological competence: the kit still isn’t up to the job of managing the complexity of edge cases — where is where the usefulness of humans as crumple zones comes in, because they act as ‘responsibility sponges’ for corporations.

  2. The second is the colossal infrastructural changes that society would have to make if autonomous vehicles were to become a reality. AI evangelists will say that these changes are orders of magnitude less than the changes that were made in order to accommodate the traditional automobile. But nobody has yet made an estimate of the costs to society of changing the infrastructure of cities to accommodate the technology. And of course these costs will be borne more by taxpayers rather than the corporations who profit from the cost-reductions implicit in not employing drivers. It’ll be the usual scenario: the privatisation of profits, and the socialisation of costs.

Into this debate steps Ben Schneiderman., a University of Maryland computer scientist who has for decades warned against blindly automating tasks with computers. He thinks that the tech industry’s vision of fully-automated cars is misguided and dangerous. Robots should collaborate with humans, he believes, rather than replace them.

Late last year, Dr. Shneiderman embarked on a crusade to convince the artificial intelligence world that it is heading in the wrong direction. In February, he confronted organizers of an industry conference on “Assured Autonomy” in Phoenix, telling them that even the title of their conference was wrong. Instead of trying to create autonomous robots, he said, designers should focus on a new mantra, designing computerized machines that are “reliable, safe and trustworthy.”

There should be the equivalent of a flight data recorder for every robot, Dr. Shneiderman argued.

I can see why the tech industry would like to get rid of human drivers. On balance, roads would be a lot safer. But there is an intermediate stage that is achievable and would greatly improve safety without imposing a lot of the social costs of accommodating fully autonomous vehicles. It’s an evolutionary path involving the steady accumulation of the driver-assist technologies that already exist.

I happen to like driving — at least some kinds of driving, anyway. I’ve been driving since 1971 and have — mercifully — never had a serious accident. But on the other hand, I’ve had a few near-misses where lack of attention on my part, or on the part of another driver, could have had serious consequences.

So what I’d like is far more technology-driven assistance. I’ve found cruise-control very helpful — especially for ensuring that I obey speed-limits. And sensors that ensure that when parking I don’t back into other vehicles. But I’d also like forward-facing radar that, in slow-moving traffic, would detect when I’m too close to a car in front and apply the brakes if necessary — and spot a fox running across the road on a dark rainy night. I’d like lane-assist tech that would spot when I’m wandering on a motorway, and all-round video cameras that would overcome the blind-spots in mirrors and a self-parking system. And so on. All of this kit already exists, and if widely deployed would make driving much safer and more enjoyable. None of it requires the massive breakthroughs that current autonomous systems require. No rocket science required. Just common sense.

The important thing to remember is that this isn’t just about cars, but about AI-powered automation generally. As the NYT piece points out, the choice between elimination or augmentation is going to become even more important when the world’s economies eventually emerge from the devastation of the pandemic and millions who have lost their jobs try to return to work. A growing number of them will find they are competing with or working side by side with machines. And under the combination of neoliberal obsessions about eliminating as much labour as possible, and punch-drunk acceptance of tech visionary narratives, the danger is that societies will plump for elimination, with all the dangers for democracy that that could imply.


A note from your University about its plans for the next semester

Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff —

After careful deliberation, we are pleased to report we can finally announce that we plan to re-open campus this fall. But with limitations. Unless we do not. Depending on guidance, which we have not yet received.

Please know that we eventually will all come together as a school community again. Possibly virtually. Probably on land. Maybe some students will be here? Perhaps the RAs can be let in to feed the lab rats?

We plan to follow the strictest recommended guidance from public health officials, except in any case where it might possibly limit our major athletic programs, which will proceed as usual…

From McSweeney’s


Quarantine diary — Day 62

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Brooks on Sanders

Unsurprising but still interesting. The headline on David Brooks’s column is “No, Not Sanders, Not Ever”.

Traditional liberalism traces its intellectual roots to John Stuart Mill, John Locke, the Social Gospel movement and the New Deal. This liberalism believes in gaining power the traditional way: building coalitions, working within the constitutional system and crafting the sort of compromises you need in a complex, pluralistic society.

This is why liberals like Hubert Humphrey, Ted Kennedy and Elizabeth Warren were and are such effective senators. They worked within the system, negotiated and practiced the art of politics.

Populists like Sanders speak as if the whole system is irredeemably corrupt. Sanders was a useless House member and has been a marginal senator because he doesn’t operate within this system or believe in this theory of change.

He believes in revolutionary mass mobilization and, once an election has been won, rule by majoritarian domination. This is how populists of left and right are ruling all over the world, and it is exactly what our founders feared most and tried hard to prevent.

Liberalism celebrates certain values: reasonableness, conversation, compassion, tolerance, intellectual humility and optimism. Liberalism is horrified by cruelty. Sanders’s leadership style embodies the populist values, which are different: rage, bitter and relentless polarization, a demand for ideological purity among your friends and incessant hatred for your supposed foes.

Looks like he feels about Bernie the same way I felt about Jeremy Corbyn.

Monday 17 February, 2020

Quote of the Day

In this election there are two sides. One side believes in the rule of law, the other doesn’t. Everything else, to be settled later, once the rule-of-law is re-established.

  • Dave Winer

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My review of Andrew Marantz’s new book — Antisocial

On today’s Guardian. It’s a sobering read.

There has always been a dark undercurrent of white supremacism in some sectors of American culture. It was kept from public view for decades by the editorial gatekeepers of the old media ecosystem. But once the internet arrived, a sophisticated online culture of conspiracy theorists, racists and other malign discontents thrived in cyberspace. But it stayed below the radar until a fully paid-up conspiracy theorist won the Republican nomination. Trump’s candidacy and campaign had the effect of “mainstreaming” that which had previously been largely hidden from view. At which point, the innocent public began to see and experience what Marantz has closely observed, namely the remarkable capabilities of extremist “edgelords” to weaponise YouTube, Twitter and Facebook for destructive purposes.

One of the most depressing things about 2016 was the apparent inability of American journalism to deal with this pollution of the public sphere. In part, this was because they were crippled by their professional standards. It’s not always possible to be even-handed and honest. “The plain fact,” writes Marantz at one point, “was that the alt-right was a racist movement full of creeps and liars. If a newspaper’s house style didn’t allow its reporters to say so, then the house style was preventing its reporters from telling the truth.” Trump’s mastery of Twitter led the news agenda every day, faithfully followed by mainstream media, like beagles following a live trail. And his use of the “fake news” metaphor was masterly: a reminder of why, as Marantz points out, Lügenpresse – “lying press” – was also a favourite epithet of Joseph Goebbels.


Frank Ramsey

Frank Ramsey was a legend in Cambridge as one of the brightest young men of his time. He died tragically young (he was 26) in 1930, from an infection acquired from swimming in the river Cam. Now there’s a new biography of him by Cheryl Misak. Here’s part of her blurb about him:

The economist John Maynard Keynes identified Ramsey as a major talent when he was a mathematics student at Cambridge in the early 1920s. During his undergraduate days, Ramsey demolished Keynes’ theory of probability and C.H. Douglas’s social credit theory; made a valiant attempt at repairing Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica; and translated Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and wrote a critique of the latter alongside a critical notice of it that still stands as one of the most challenging commentaries of that difficult and influential book.

Keynes, in an impressive show of administrative skill and sleight of hand, made the 21-year-old Ramsey a fellow of King’s College at a time when only someone who had studied there could be a fellow. (Ramsey had done his degree at Trinity).

Ramsey validated Keynes’ judgment. In 1926 he was the first to figure out how to define probability subjectively and invented the expected utility that underpins much of contemporary economics.

I’d never heard of Ramsey until I came on Keynes’s essay on him in his wonderful collection, Essays in Biography, published in 1933. (One of my favourite books, btw.) Given that Keynes himself was ferociously bright, the fact that he had such a high opinion of Ramsey was what made me sit up. Here’s an extract that conveys that:

Seeing all of Frank Ramsey’s logical essays published together, we can perceive quite clearly the direction which is mind was taking. It is a remarkable example of how the young can take up the story at the point to which the previous generation had brought it a little out of breath, and then proceed forward without taking more than about a week thoroughly to digest everything which had been done up to date, and to understand with apparent ease stuff which to anyone even 10 years older seemed hopelessly difficult. One almost has to believe that Ramsay in his nursery year near Magdalene1 was unconsciously absorbing from 1903 to 1914 everything which anyone may have been saying or writing from Trinity.

(Among the people in Trinity College at the time were Bertrand Russell, A.N. Whitehead and Ludwig Wittgenstein.)


The hacking of Jeff Bezos’s phone

Interesting (but — according to other forensic experts — incomplete) technical report into his the Amazon boss’s smartphone was hacked, presumably by someone working for the Saudi Crown Prince.

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Where people have faith in their elections

The U.S. public’s confidence in elections is one of the worst of any wealthy democracy, according to a recently published Gallup poll. It found that a mere 40 percent of Americans have confidence in the honesty of their elections. As low as that figure is, distrust of elections is nothing new for the U.S. public.

The research found that a majority of Americans have had no confidence in the honesty of elections every year since 2012 with the share trusting the process at the ballot box sinking as low as 30 percent during the 2016 presidential campaign. Gallup stated that its 2019 data came at a time when eight U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed allegations of foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election and identified attempts to engage in similar activities during the midterms in 2018.

This chart shows how the U.S. compares to other developed OECD nations with the highest confidence scores recorded across Northern Europe and Finland, Norway and Sweden best-ranked.

Source

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David Spiegelhalter: Should We Trust Algorithms?

As the philosopher Onora O’Neill has said (O’Neill, 2013), organizations should not try to be trusted; rather they should aim to demonstrate trustworthiness, which requires honesty, competence, and reliability. This simple but powerful idea has been very influential: the revised Code of Practice for official statistics in the United Kingdom puts Trustworthiness as its first “pillar” (UK Statistics Authority, 2018).

It seems reasonable that, when confronted by an algorithm, we should expect trustworthy claims both:

  • about the system — what the developers say it can do, and how it has been evaluated, and

  • by the system — what it says about a specific case.

Terrific article


  1. Ramsey’s father was Master of Magdalene. 

Friday 7 February, 2020

The Digital Dictators: How technology strengthens autocracies

Sobering reading for recovering Utopians (like me). From Foreign Affairs:

Led by China, today’s digital autocracies are using technology—the Internet, social media, AI—to supercharge long-standing authoritarian survival tactics. They are harnessing a new arsenal of digital tools to counteract what has become the most significant threat to the typical authoritarian regime today: the physical, human force of mass antigovernment protests. As a result, digital autocracies have grown far more durable than their pre-tech predecessors and their less technologically savvy peers. In contrast to what technology optimists envisioned at the dawn of the millennium, autocracies are benefiting from the Internet and other new technologies, not falling victim to them.

Long essay. Worth reading in full.


Why do people buy SUVs?

I’ve often wondered about this, and concluded that SUV owners are either arrogant or frightened, or both. An interesting piece in Vice suggests that I was on the right track. It draws on Keith Bradsher’s examination of “how the auto industry convinced millions of Americans to buy vehicles that were more dangerous (for themselves and other people on the road), got worse gas mileage, were worse for the environment, and got them to pay a premium for the privilege of doing so.“ It succeeded because the industry mounted “quite possibly the most sophisticated marketing operations on the planet.” The image of prospective SUV purchasers that emerged from the research was deeply unattractive — and, reassuringly, correlated with my own hunches. That portrait is largely the result of one consultant who worked for Chrysler, Ford, and GM during the SUV boom: Clotaire Rapaille.

Rapaille, a French emigree, believed the SUV appealed—at the time to mostly upper-middle class suburbanites—to a fundamental subconscious animalistic state, our “reptilian desire for survival,” as relayed by Bradsher. (“We don’t believe what people say,” the website for Rapaille’s consulting firm declares. Instead, they use “a unique blend of biology, cultural anthropology and psychology to discover the hidden cultural forces that pre-organize the way people behave towards a product, service or concept”). Americans were afraid, Rapaille found through his exhaustive market research, and they were mostly afraid of crime even though crime was actually falling and at near-record lows. As Bradsher wrote, “People buy SUVs, he tells auto executives, because they are trying to look as menacing as possible to allay their fears of crime and other violence.” They, quite literally, bought SUVs to run over “gang members” with, Rapaille found.

And it turned out that the auto industry’s own studies agreed with this general portrait of SUV buyers. Bradsher described that portrait, comprised of marketing reports from the major automakers, as follows:

Who has been buying SUVs since automakers turned them into family vehicles? They tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors or communities.

I knew it! It’s always nice to have one’s prejudices confirmed.


Remembering George Steiner

George died last Monday at the ripe old age of 90. I knew and liked him and have written an appreciation which is coming out in next Sunday’s Observer. Adam Gopnik has a nice tribute to him on the New Yorker site:

It was part of the genuine, and not merely patrician, seriousness of his view to see the war years as a fundamental rupture not just in history but in our faith in culture: educated people did those things to other educated people. It was not ignorant armies clashing by night that shivered George Steiner’s soul; it was intelligent Germans who listened to Schubert murdering educated Jews who had trusted in Goethe, and by the train load. This recognition of the limits of culture to change the world was the limiting condition on his love of literature, and it was what gave that love a darker and more tragic cast than any mere proselytizing for “great books” could supply.

May he rest in peace.


How public intellectuals can extend their shelf lives

Useful rules from Tyler Cowen, who knows a thing or two about this.


Why I won’t be upgrading to Catalina any time soon

From Jon Gruber:

Then I think about software. And that means thinking about MacOS 10.15 Catalina. And those thoughts are not good. Off the top of my head I’m hard pressed to think of anything in Catalina that’s an improvement over 10.14 Mojave, and I can think of a lot of things that are worse. I get it that security and convenience are at odds, and it’s a difficult job for Apple to find the balanced sweet spot between the two. But Catalina clearly bends too far in the direction of security. By design, it’s just too inconvenient, with apps generating system-level alerts prompting for permission for things as rudimentary as being able to see the files on my desktop — sometimes when those apps are in the background, and I know that at the moment the alert appears those apps are not trying to read files on my desktop. But why in the world is the desktop treated as some sort of sensitive location?

Back in 2007 Apple ran a “Get a Mac” commercial mocking Windows Vista for this exact same sort of overzealous permission nagging. That’s exactly what Catalina feels like.

I think I’ll sit this upgrade out and wait for the next one.


Thursday 30 January, 2020

Warren Buffett gives up on the news business

He’s selling Berkshire Hathaway’s newspapers to Lee Enterprises. You can guess what he thinks about the prospects for journalism. NYT


Social media will impair society’s ability to control the Corona epidemic

“’It plays to our worst fears’: Coronavirus misinformation fuelled by social media” This is one of the under-appreciated threats posed by social media. And it can be weaponised by bad actors.

And, right on cue, here’s the first report

“Baseless stories claiming that the two scientists are Chinese spies and that they smuggled the coronavirus to China’s only Level 4 lab in Wuhan last year have been spreading on all major social media platforms and on conspiracy theorist blogs. One article from a conspiracy blog was shared more than 6,000 times on Facebook on Monday. “


Global (dis)Satisfaction with Democracy Report

My colleague David Runciman launched his new Centre for the Future of Democracy last night with the presentation of a pathbreaking survey of citizens’ confidence (or lack thereof) in their democracies. The report aims to provide a comprehensive answer to questions regarding one measure of democratic legitimacy – satisfaction with democracy – by combining data from almost all available survey sources.

It’s based on a huge dataset which combined more than 25 data sources, 3,500 country surveys, and 4 million respondents between 1973 and 2020 in which citizens were asked whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with democracy in their countries. Using this combined, pooled dataset, the researchers now have a time-series for almost 50 years in Western Europe, and 25 years for the rest of the world.

Among their findings are:

  • Dissatisfaction with democracy has risen over time, and is reaching an all-time global high, in particular in developed democracies.
  • The rise in democratic dissatisfaction has been especially sharp since 2005.
  • Many large democracies are at their highest-ever recorded level for democratic dissatisfaction. These include the United States, Brazil, Mexico, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Colombia, and Australia. Other countries that remain close to their all-time highs include Japan, Spain, and Greece.
  • Citizens’ levels of dissatisfaction with democracy are largely responsive to objective circumstances and events – economic shocks, corruption scandals, and policy crises. These have an immediately observable effect upon average levels of civic dissatisfaction.
  • The picture is not entirely negative. Many small, high-income democracies have moved in the direction of greater civic confidence in their institutions. In Ireland, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, for example, democratic satisfaction is reaching all-time highs. These countries form part of the “island of contentment” – a select group of nations, containing just 2% of the world’s democratic citizenry, in which less than a quarter of the public express discontent with their political system.

The results are sobering. Since the mid-1990s, the proportion of citizens who are “dissatisfied” with the performance of democracy in their countries has risen by almost 10 percentage points globally. The deterioration has been especially deep in high-income, “consolidated” democracies, where the proportion has risen from a third to half of all citizens.

From the Report’s Conclusions…

If satisfaction with democracy is now falling across many of the world’s largest mature and emerging democracies – including the United States, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and South Africa – it is not because citizens’ expectations are excessive or unrealistic, but because democratic institutions are falling short of the outcomes that matter most for their legitimacy, including probity in office, upholding the rule of law, responsiveness to public concerns, ensuring economic and financial security, and raising living standards for the larger majority of society. Our analysis suggests that citizens are rational in their view of political institutions, updating their assessment in response to what they observe. If confidence in democracy has been slipping, then the most likely explanation is that democratically elected governments have not been seen to succeed in addressing some of the major challenges of our era, including economic co-ordination in the eurozone, the management of refugee flows, and providing a credible response to the threat of global climate change. The best means of restoring democratic legitimacy would be for this to change.

The 26 words that created the Internet we have today

This morning’s Observer column:

Stratton Oakmont sued Prodigy and the unidentified poster for defamation – and won. Prodigy argued that it couldn’t be held responsible for what anonymous users posted on its platform. The judge disagreed, arguing that the company was liable as the publisher of the content created by its users because it exercised editorial control over the messages on its bulletin boards in several ways and was thereby potentially liable for any and all defamatory material posted on its websites.

The case alarmed an Oregon congressman (now a US senator), Ronald Wyden, who accurately perceived it as a mortal threat to the growth of the internet. It would mean that every online hosting service would need to have lawyers crawling over its site, thereby slowing exploitation of the technology to a crawl. So with another congressman, Chris Cox, he inserted a short clause – Section 230 – into the Communications Decency Act, which was then incorporated in the sprawling 1996 Telecommunications Act. The section itself is short (about a thousand words) but the core of it is a single sentence: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

That sentence laid the basis for everything that has followed. It constitutes, as the title of a recent book puts it, The Twenty-Six Words that Created the Internet. What it does is create a “liability shield” for online platforms…

Read on

Some institutions still work

Conor Gearty (an eminent human rights lawyer) wrote an interesting blog post about the Supreme Court’s decision that Johnson’s advice to the Queen on proroguing Parliament was unlawful. Excerpt:

Why did the Court do it? The constitutional reason – an entirely good one – is that the Court has deduced from the fundamental principles of representative democracy and accountable government a set of constraints on power that flow from these principles and which must, as a result, adhere to all exercises of public power, including those of the most senior political figures in the land (paras 41 and 46).

The deeper truth lying behind how these principles were deployed in this case leads us to something that was once a commonplace but these days is a glory rarely to be found in the shrill word of Brexit politics. In law, reason still matters. Facts are relevant. Nonsense doesn’t work. How can you justify the Prime Minister’s power by saying he is accountable to Parliament when you have just dispensed with Parliament? Why on earth do you need to cancel Parliament for weeks to do a Queen’s speech? Deceitful or deliberately obtuse replies to these basic questions might get you through a three-minute media interview or a noisy prime minister’s question time, but they can’t survive the forensic attentions of independently-minded lawyers with time to draw the non sequiturs, the contradictions and the lies to the surface.

This case is not about the judges seizing the policy agenda whatever the critics of the outcome might say. It is concerned with process not substance, with how things get done rather than what is done. Strongly hostile to democracy in days gone by, the judiciary have now embraced its fundamental tenets, taking to heart what we all say matters to us. In this decision, the judges are oiling the democratic machine, not telling it what to produce.

Great stuff. Worth reading in full.

What is law?

Lovely post by Conor Gearty on the British Academy’s blog:

Law is a technical subject, without doubt, but it courses through with large questions about the kind of world we live in and how best to protect the values that we as a society hold dear. The biggest, most extraordinary thing about law is something that we wouldn’t even have remarked upon just a few years ago, but at this time of ‘fake news’ and feelings about stuff driving policy is worth saying – and celebrating. Law is about reason – argument, logic, facts and evidence are its daily bread and butter. Now of course, behind that reason will often be the power of conservative reaction, willing and able to deploy the force of authority to crush dissent. Law will always be, and almost by definition is, wedded to preservation of the status quo. That said, it is surely a wonderful thing that, for all its faults, there is at least one remaining space in our political culture where words still matter and where promises made in the form of written undertakings (‘laws’) have consequences. A society that stops being governed by the authority of law and reverts to that of the ‘populist’, the priest or ‘the people’ is not a place where freedom will long survive.