Saturday 3 October, 2020

One of our cats. Interesting thing is that when I first looked at it I thought it must have been taken with one of my high-end cameras. But in fact it was taken with the little Sony RX100M4. It’s a pretty good advertisement for that device.


Quote of the day

“If you think technology can solve your problems, then you don’t understand technology and you don’t understand your problems”.

  • Mariana Mazzucato

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Deep River Blues – Tommy Emmanuel

Link

Just the song for a rainy morning. You may need to skip the ad at the beginning.


Thirty glorious years

Long read of the day.

TL;DR Postwar prosperity depended on a truce between capitalist growth and democratic fairness. Is it possible to get it back?

I love long-sweep essays, and this one by Jonathan Hopkin fits that bill. Here’s how it opens:

With the end of the Second World War, the economies of western Europe and North America began a period of spectacular growth. Between 1950 and 1973 GDP doubled or more. This prosperity was broadly shared, with consistent growth in living standards for rich and poor alike and the emergence of a broad middle class. The French call it les trente glorieuses – the 30 glorious years – while the Italians describe it as il miracolo economico. The story of how this golden age of shared economic growth came to be has almost been forgotten, despite it being less than a century ago. There has never been a more urgent time to remind ourselves.

How did western countries, in one quarter of the 20th century, manage to increase both equality and economic efficiency? Why did this virtuous combination ultimately fall apart by the end of the century? The answer lies in the awkward relationship between democracy and capitalism, the former founded on equal political rights, the latter tending to accentuate differences between citizens based on talent, luck or inherited advantage. Democracy has the potential to curb capitalism’s inherent tendency to generate inequality. This very inequality can undermine the ability of democratic institutions to ensure that the economy works for the majority.

The rise and fall of democratic capitalism in the postwar era is one of the most important events in modern history…

My hunch is that in the long view of history, the the kind of democracy that emerged from the wreckage of WW2 in the period 1946 to 1971, and then began its long decay from then to the present, may come to be seen as a kind of blip. It was a by-product of the global shock of a global war, and it lasted until the economic ideas that informed it and the impact of the war on successive generations began to run out of steam.

Hopkin’s argument is that the war “cut capitalism down to size” and gave a decisive push to establish a new form of economic system in which political demands took primacy. As a result, the postwar era established a new form of ‘managed’ or ‘democratic’ capitalism that delivered a more equal distribution of income and wealth.

Democratic capitalism redressed the balance between the brutal inequalities of early industrial capitalism and the need for social consent to secure political stability. It rested on three broad pillars: a redistributive welfare state that provided economic security while narrowing income gaps between rich and poor, corporatist dialogue between employers and the labour force, and highly regulated capital markets. Aspects of this form of capitalism sometimes existed in nondemocratic societies too. But as a basic set of socioeconomic institutions it was most associated with the democratic form of government in which competitive elections and representative political parties incorporated citizen demands into policymaking.

All that began to change in the 1970s, when a combination of high inflation, faltering growth and industrial disputes over wages ushered in an era of social and political turbulence that brought a revival of liberal market ideology in the shape of the neoliberalism that seized the imagination of politicians and governing elites throughout the West. But, says Hopkin,

The promise of the neoliberal era to unleash the power of individual incentives to spread prosperity has not been fulfilled. Average growth rates across the advanced capitalist systems failed to match those of the postwar boom years. Since the 1970s, an increasingly unequal income distribution has meant that, for many, living standards failed to improve by much at all in subsequent decades. In the 1970s, strikes, demonstrations, riots and even terrorism expressed social tensions. By the 1990s, a resentful apathy, reflected in falling voter turnout and disengagement with formal party politics, signalled mass frustrations. The neoliberal revolution succeeded not only in shifting policy, but in fundamentally undermining the institutional preconditions of democratic capitalism. Governments progressively delegated important policy decisions to non-elected bodies, some of them supranational. Meanwhile, anti-union legislation and the declining bargaining power resulting from offshoring and heightened global competition took a heavy toll on worker rights.

Which is how we got to where we are now.

Long read, but worth it.


Trump and the virus

All of a sudden people are apparently rushing to pray for Trump as he battles with Covid. Pardon me if I sit this one out. My fear is that it will be a replay of the Boris Johnson story. You may recall that Johson damn nearly died from the virus, but was saved by the NHS and then wrapped himself in the NHS flag afterwards to ride a wave of feeble-minded public sympathy over his self-induced ordeal — brought about largely by his inability to take the virus seriously in the early days. Just like Trump.

In the meantime, it’s heartening to see how Photoshop remains the staple tool of satirists, as in this picture retrieved from my irreverent WhatsApp feed:

But there are some really interesting aspects of what has happened.

Michael Kruse has a fascinating article in Politico.com about it.

Here’s the bit that caught my eye:

“Weakness,” Tony Schwartz, co-author of The Art of the Deal, once told me, “is Trump’s greatest fear by far.”

Weakness, however, inhabits the absolute center of the most primal aspects of the long-arc engine of Trump. He knows, in the most deep-seated way, of the utter unavoidability of human vulnerability—anybody’s, everybody’s and, of course, his own. And yet Trump resolutely followed the mandate his father modeled to squelch any such concession. Fundamentally disparate but inextricably linked, these are two of the most essential and major motivators of Trump’s lifelong pattern of behavior. Now, with the news that Trump has tested positive for the virus that’s killed more than a million people worldwide, all of this has come to a perilous head.

The wee-hours shock wave of his diagnosis has exposed the fragility of his bravado. The man who’s trumpeted his genes and his blood and his virility while deriding his foes for low energy is now stricken and sequestered, cut off from the adoring supporters who stoke not just his political prospects but his needy psyche. He is 74 and obese, and already was facing a pending public reckoning—and the fear of being seen as anything other than strong in the end is precisely what has made him so weak.

His lengthy record of germophobia, encapsulated by his well-documented hatred of shaking hands, often has been considered merely a bullet point on his list of idiosyncrasies. But in fact it reflects his latent knowledge of the power of infection to wreak quick and terrible consequences. “Shaking hands, you catch colds, you catch the flu,” he said in 1999. “And who knows what else?” he said in 2004. “You don’t want to be a liability,” he said, getting perhaps unwittingly closer to the crux, in 2013. “You don’t want to become somebody’s patient.” Trump, according to Jack O’Donnell, a former Trump casino executive in Atlantic City, was “preoccupied by a fear of communicable disease.”

There’s a delicious sense of chickens coming home to roost about all this.


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Monday 7 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

“The world is not black and white. More like black and grey.”

  • Graham Greene

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Teach Your Children

Link

I’ve always loved this song.


Michael Sandel on the dark sides of meritocracy

On Sunday, the Observer carried a remarkable interview by Julian Coman with the Harvard political philosopher Micheal Sandel based on The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, his forthcoming critique of the doctrine of meritocracy that has been a cornerstone of both right and centre-left politics for several generations.

The Tyranny of Merit, says Coman,

is Sandel’s response to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. For figures such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, it will make challenging reading. By championing an “age of merit” as the solution to the challenges of globalisation, inequality and deindustrialisation, the Democratic party and its European equivalents, Sandel argues, hung the western working-class and its values out to dry – with disastrous consequences for the common good.

Sandel says that ‘the rhetoric of rising’ touted by centre-left figures became

an article of faith, a seemingly uncontroversial trope. We will make a truly level playing field, it was said by the centre-left, so that everyone has an equal chance. And if we do, and so far as we do, then those who rise by dint of effort, talent, hard work will deserve their place, will have earned it.”

The whole idea of a meritocracy, in that sense, was pernicious, first of all because there never was a level playing field (as anyone who has sat on a Harvard or Oxbridge admission panel can testify), but also because only one kind of ‘merit’ was valued and valorised: academic success and the credentials that came with it. The message to every occupant of this non-level playing field, however, was: “better yourself or bear the responsibility for your own failure”.

In the end, is it any surprise that the ‘deplorables’ (to use Hilary Clinton’s vicious term) took their votes elsewhere. “The populist backlash of recent years”, says Sandel, “has been a revolt against the tyranny of merit, as it has been experienced by those who feel humiliated by meritocracy and by this entire political project.”

Great interview. I’ve ordered the book. It’s out on Thursday, I think.


How to fool an “AI” tutor: keyword mashing

Lovely story from The Verge*:

On Monday, Dana Simmons came downstairs to find her 12-year-old son, Lazare, in tears. He’d completed the first assignment for his seventh-grade history class on Edgenuity, an online platform for virtual learning. He’d received a 50 out of 100. That wasn’t on a practice test — it was his real grade.

“He was like, I’m gonna have to get a 100 on all the rest of this to make up for this,” said Simmons in a phone interview with The Verge. “He was totally dejected.”

At first, Simmons tried to console her son. “I was like well, you know, some teachers grade really harshly at the beginning,” said Simmons, who is a history professor herself. Then, Lazare clarified that he’d received his grade less than a second after submitting his answers. A teacher couldn’t have read his response in that time, Simmons knew — her son was being graded by an algorithm.

Simmons watched Lazare complete more assignments. She looked at the correct answers, which Edgenuity revealed at the end. She surmised that Edgenuity’s AI was scanning for specific keywords that it expected to see in students’ answers. And she decided to game it.

Now, for every short-answer question, Lazare writes two long sentences followed by a disjointed list of keywords — anything that seems relevant to the question. “The questions are things like… ‘What was the advantage of Constantinople’s location for the power of the Byzantine empire,’” Simmons says. “So you go through, okay, what are the possible keywords that are associated with this? Wealth, caravan, ship, India, China, Middle East, he just threw all of those words in.”

Before we know it, people will be using this trick to compose blogs. HT to Charles Arthur for spotting it.


The end of democracy as we’ve known it

Like many people, I’ve been brooding on what’s happening. Some thoughts, in no particular order;

  1. It’s very disconcerting and disturbing to have to confront the possibility that the system which has shaped our collective lives for so long may be running out of steam. What has hitherto been unthinkable suddenly seems thinkable, or even possible.

  2. As my colleague David Runciman pointed out in his terrific book, How Democracy Ends, democracy (or at any rate the versions of it that we have experienced) will eventually come to an end, if only for the reason that nothing lasts forever. (Just ask the Romans, or the Ottomans, or indeed the British.) In other writings, David has pointed out that American democracy is now middle-aged and he used the metaphor of the daft or dangerous things that middle-aged men do when they start to realise the fact of their own mortality — like buying a powerful motorbike. In that sense, Trump could be seen as American democracy’s motorbike.

  3. But men buy motorbikes in the knowledge that if they do come off there will be an ambulance service and an A&E Unit in a local hospital to rescue them from their fate. And there’s an insurance company that will pay for the damage to the bike or to other people’s lives or property.

  4. So the US electorate may have felt safe in taking a punt on Trump, on the grounds that if it turned out badly, well, then, the system would take care of them. In a way, that was also the thinking of my many liberal American friends who told me that, while Trump would be terrible, “we are a Republic of Laws” and the Constitution, the separation of powers and the court system would keep him under control and limit the damage, pending restoration of normalcy.

  5. What American electors didn’t know (although they might have guessed) is that this particular metaphorical motorbike had the intention — and the capacity — to eliminate ambulances, A&E units and insurance services. Trump’s evisceration of the capacity of the federal government is a thing to behold — as Michael Lewis memorably chronicled in his book The Fifth Risk. Likewise his capture of the Senate (and, initially, the House), his stacking of the Supreme Court and his raft of lesser judicial appointments.

  6. In his book, Runciman also made the point that democracy won’t fail backwards, but forwards. Looking back to Weimar Germany, for example, is a waste of time. The failure, when it comes, will take unexpected forms. One of the things we learned early from Trump (and, later, from Boris Johnson) is how norms and conventions play a key role in maintaining the democracy we have become used to.

  7. For example: the idea that it’s unacceptable for a holder of high office to use the office as a way of enriching himself and his family and associates; the convention that if you lose an election you accept the verdict of the electorate rather than declaring it rigged; the norm that you don’t use the machinery of the Deep State as a way of settling personal or political scores; the convention that you do not ally with foreign adversaries in order to buttress your domestic position; and so on. (Analogous norms in the UK are ideas like: that you don’t prorogue Parliament simply to curtail debate; that ministers take responsibility for mistakes and incompetence or corrupt behaviour and resign; that you provide government spokespersons to responsible media organisations to enable them to provide ‘balanced’ coverage of public issues; that you do not give large contracts to favoured companies run by cronies; and so on.) What we are seeing, in these two supposedly mature democracies, is their versions of democracy being hollowed out by the flouting of hitherto respected conventions and norms. And there seem to be no legal ways of preventing this.

  8. Adherents of the notion that democracy will fail backwards often identify the failure to hold free elections as the mechanism by which the collapse into authoritarianism (or worse) happens. The opposite seems to be becoming the case. Free, or relatively free, elections will continue to be the norm. But political polarisation, extremism, control of mainstream media and exploitation of social media will ensure that authoritarian candidates come out on top or — if they do not — that the legitimacy of the elections will be questioned. Orban in Hungary and Erdogan in Turkey are the paradigmatic examples of autocrats who have been freely elected by ‘the people’. And even if their majorities are relatively small, they rule as though they had received 99.9 per cent of the vote.

  9. Consequently, a better litmus test for the existence of democracy in the future will not be whether free elections are routinely held, but whether peaceful transfers of power happen. Interestingly, this is one of the questions now beginning to trouble those American friends of mine who were so sanguine about the restraining power of democratic institutions in the pre-Trump era.

  10. And none of this thinking involves exploring an equally important question, namely what’s so great about the kind of democracy under which we have apparently being living so contentedly. (See the earlier post about Michael Sandel’s new book.)


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Wednesday 26 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

“In the short-run, the stock market is a voting machine; in the long-run, it’s a weighing machine.”

  • Warren Buffett, whose 250 million Apple shares currently weigh about $118B.

(A single Apple share purchased at the 1980 IPO price – $22 – would be worth $27,859 today.)


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bach: Cello Suite No 1 in D played on the guitar by John Feeley (19 minutes)

Link


What is it about Uber and Chinese students?

A friend who lives in Cambridge and uses Uber reports a common theme in his current conversations with drivers. When he asks them the standard “how’s business?” question the common refrain is “terrible”. And the reason? There are no Chinese students around at the moment. It seems that they are the biggest users of the service when they’re in residence. They even use Uber to take them to lectures (this in a town where everything is within easy walking distance.)

Why is this, I wonder? Could it be that they have more money than sense? Or that they don’t like walking or cycling? Or that they feel vulnerable on the street? Weird.


Fixing capitalism

Quartz has a series of articles on this general theme. It’s a mixed bag, but some of them — for example the one about regulating Amazon like a railroad — is interesting.


e-Scooters: drowning not waving

Sifted story

Hundreds of e-scooters are picked up from waters around European cities every year. In Stockholm, the lake cleaning organisation Rena Mälaren has picked up 355 in total in the last couple of years. In Paris another organisation, Guppy, has picked up 235 over seven excursions.

Each e-scooter is worth a few hundred euros and the newer models have a predicted lifespan of three to five years. Apart from lost earnings, every time one is lobbed into a canal or river it also damages the scooter operator’s relationship with the local authorities.

But one scooter startup has come up with a new plan to tackle the problem: a drowning button.

Voi, the Stockholm-based scooter operator, is in the process of unveiling a new scooter with features such as indicators. It is also likely to have a feature which is the scooter equivalent of an SOS signal.

“That is the plan. We just have to work out the functionality,” says Kristina Hunter Nilsson, communication manager at Voi. She hopes the feature could also be retrofitted to Voi’s older scooters too. “Some of these things are software-driven which means that we can add it to the older models as well. And it is in everyone’s interest that we have that.

When an electric scooter ends up in the water it loses its connectivity and is therefore difficult to find. The drowning feature will alert Voi when a scooter ends up underwater and the hope is that, in many cases, it can then be rescued before too much damage has been done.

But exactly how long a scooter survives underwater is something that Hunter Nilsson cannot say for sure. “That really depends on a lot of things and I wouldn’t want to give you an exact number of days,” she says.

What have these people been smoking?


The US is facing the possibility of an illegitimate election

David Litt (author of Democracy In One Book Or Less) writing in The Atlantic:

“A sitting president trying to undermine the postal service so he might win an election is not something that happens in rich, developed democracies,” says University College London’s Brian Klaas, the co-author of How to Rig an Election. “It’s the kind of thing that happens in post-Soviet countries, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East.” In the language of political science, President Donald Trump is hoping to take America from “self-enforcing democracy”—a system of government in which leaders allow fair elections and accept the results—to “competitive authoritarianism,” in which rulers allow elections, but those elections are neither fair nor free.

The good news, or at least the 2020 version of good news, is that Americans can protect the integrity of their elections without appealing to the better angels of Trump’s nature. Would-be autocrats are unlikely to be persuaded, but they can be deterred. By making it far less likely that stealing an election would work—and far more likely that those who try to would face consequences for their actions—the United States can preserve democracy this year and beyond.

Defending American democracy starts with taking advantage of one of its greatest existing strengths: its decentralized nature. Each state, territory, and district administers its own local contests with near-total independence. The federal government sets certain rules for federal elections; that authority falls to Congress, not the White House. This makes it hard for the president to undermine an election’s integrity, and easier for local officials to uphold it. Already, some states are adding secure drop boxes for ballots, recruiting additional election staff, and finding room in their budgets to ensure that the casting and collection of ballots runs as smoothly as possible during the pandemic. The less chaos that takes place on November 3, the fewer excuses the president will have to interfere with vote counting.

Even in places—including some swing states—where officials are all too happy to help the president undermine the democratic process, individual Americans can do a great deal to protect the integrity of the election…

The most astonishing thing is that such a piece doesn’t seem outrageous in a serious magazine nowadays. It’s a measure of how serious the risks to democracy even in mature states are becoming.


Stefan Collini on the enigma of Frank Kermode

Lovely essay by Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books on a critic we were both fortunate enough to have known. Sample:

So when and how, I wondered, not for the first time, did the ‘Frank Kermode’ we admired come into being, il capo di tutti capi in the world of reviewing and criticism for more than half a century? During another of my trudges along the forgotten caravan routes of criticism (now undertaken electronically, thanks to lockdown), I chanced upon, in the online archive of the Listener, a review by John Gross of Frank’s Puzzles and Epiphanies: Essays and Reviews 1958-61, published in 1962. The very existence of such a collection of reviews – and the brazen proclamation of its origin in such a brief period – itself suggested the dramatic transformation which must have overtaken Frank’s career by this point. Gross, then a 27-year-old up-and-coming reviewer-academic who was later to write The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters and to become editor of the Times Literary Supplement, had evidently been attending to Frank’s presence on the literary scene for some time. He noted that the contents of the book were all products of a three-year period, and then went on: ‘Reading them as they appeared, one became aware of Professor Kermode as the most interesting reviewer to emerge for a long time.’ The reviews had been published in a variety of periodicals, including the Listener, Partisan Review and the London Magazine, but the majority were from either the Spectator or Encounter. So when had all that started to happen, when did the smart London weeklies and monthlies begin to commission reviews from the little-known young lecturer who, recruited by Gordon, had moved to the University of Reading in 1949?


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Saturday 15 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

  • Bertrand Russell

Musical alternative to the morning’s news

Jessye Norman: Mozart – Le Nozze di Figaro, ‘Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro’

Link


The significance of the Twitter hack

Damn! This great piece by Bruce Schneier was published on July 18 and I missed it. Growl.

Still, better late than never…

Twitter was hacked this week. Not a few people’s Twitter accounts, but all of Twitter. Someone compromised the entire Twitter network, probably by stealing the log-in credentials of one of Twitter’s system administrators. Those are the people trusted to ensure that Twitter functions smoothly.

The hacker used that access to send tweets from a variety of popular and trusted accounts, including those of Joe Biden, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk, as part of a mundane scam—stealing bitcoin—but it’s easy to envision more nefarious scenarios. Imagine a government using this sort of attack against another government, coordinating a series of fake tweets from hundreds of politicians and other public figures the day before a major election, to affect the outcome. Or to escalate an international dispute. Done well, it would be devastating.

en passant, the US is heading for an election that will not be decided on the day, but after a period (of unknown duration) while postal votes are being counted (and maybe argued over). Another Twitter hack on the lines just suggested could be catastrophic.

So here’s the nub of it:

Internet communications platforms—such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—are crucial in today’s society. They’re how we communicate with one another. They’re how our elected leaders communicate with us. They are essential infrastructure. Yet they are run by for-profit companies with little government oversight. This is simply no longer sustainable. Twitter and companies like it are essential to our national dialogue, to our economy, and to our democracy. We need to start treating them that way, and that means both requiring them to do a better job on security and breaking them up.


Google’s Advertising Platform Is Blocking Articles About Racism

This is both shocking — and unsurprising:

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, the Atlantic decided to recirculate King’s famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” which the magazine had run in its August 1963 issue and republished, in print and online, in 2018. Several hours later, the publication’s staff noticed that Google’s Ad Exchange platform, which serves many of the ads on the Atlantic’s website, had “demonetized” the page containing the letter under its “dangerous or derogatory content” policy. In other words: As part of its efforts to protect advertisers from offensive internet content with which they would not want their products to be associated, Ad Exchange had locked out one of the most important texts of the civil rights movement.

Google controls more than 30 percent of the digital ads market. A big chunk of that business happens through Ad Exchange, a marketplace for buying and selling advertising space across the web. According to its publisher policies, Google does not monetize, or allow advertising on, “dangerous or derogatory content” that disparages people on the basis of a characteristic that is associated with systemic discrimination—race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. As the policy outlines, this might look like “promoting hate groups” or “encouraging others to believe that a person or group is inhuman.” Because of the scale of Google’s ad-serving business, however, it can’t enforce this policy on the front lines by hand, so instead the company uses an algorithm that, in part, scans for offensive keywords in articles. But the system doesn’t always take context into consideration. Several mainstream publishers, including Slate, have had articles demonetized under this policy when covering race and LGBTQ issues.

Automated ‘moderation’ is context-blind, in other words. It’s just another confirmation that these companies can’t fulfil their moral and ethical obligations at the scale on which they operate, given the business models on which they depend.


US Postal Service warns 46 states their voters could be disenfranchised by delayed mail-in ballots

This is paywalled on the Washington Post site, but here is the gist:

Anticipating an avalanche of absentee ballots, the U.S. Postal Service recently sent detailed letters to 46 states and D.C. warning that it cannot guarantee all ballots cast by mail for the November election will arrive in time to be counted — adding another layer of uncertainty ahead of the high-stakes presidential contest.

The letters sketch a grim possibility for the tens of millions of Americans eligible for a mail-in ballot this fall: Even if people follow all of their state’s election rules, the pace of Postal Service delivery may disqualify their votes.

The Postal Service’s warnings of potential disenfranchisement came as the agency undergoes a sweeping organizational and policy overhaul amid dire financial conditions. Cost-cutting moves have already delayed mail delivery by as much as a week in some places, and a new decision to decommission 10 percent of the Postal Service’s sorting machines sparked widespread concern the slowdowns will only worsen. Rank-and-file postal workers say the move is ill-timed and could sharply diminish the speedy processing of flat mail, including letters and ballots.

My immediate thought was that this is linked to the appointment of a Trump stooge as the Postmaster-General. But apparently it pre-dates his appointment:

The ballot warnings, issued at the end of July from Thomas J. Marshall, general counsel and executive vice president of the Postal Service, and obtained through a records request by The Washington Post, were planned before the appointment of Louis DeJoy, a former logistics executive and ally of President Trump, as postmaster general in early summer. They go beyond the traditional coordination between the Postal Service and election officials, drafted as fears surrounding the coronavirus pandemic triggered an unprecedented and sudden shift to mail-in voting.

Everywhere one looks, norms and conventions that we took for granted in liberal democracies are wilting or being undermined. The chances of the US having an uncontested election result diminish by the day.


Summer books #4

Analogia: The Entangled Destinies of Nature, Human Beings and Machines by George Dyson, Allen Lane, 2020.

I’m exactly half-way through this extraordinary book, and I still don’t know where it’s headed. But it’s an infuriatingly compelling read. George Dyson is an extraordinary member of an extraordinary family — the son of the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson and mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson, the brother of technology analyst Esther Dyson, and the grandson of the British composer Sir George Dyson. He has led an amazing life as a roving explorer, craftsman and public intellectual. Having being brought up in Princeton, where his father was an academic in the Institute for Advanced Study, he dropped out of a couple of universities before heading for the West Coast of Canada. From 1972 to 1975, he lived in a tree-house at a height of 30 metres that he built from salvaged materials on the shore of Burrard Inlet in British Columbia. He became a Canadian citizen and spent 20 years in that part of the world designing kayaks, researching historic voyages and native peoples, and exploring the Inside Passage.

In recent decades he’s become interested in the history of computing and the direction of travel of our increasingly digitized world. Everything he’s written on these subjects interweaves his own personal history with polymathic knowledge of all kinds of subjects and speculations on what it all means for the future. This, his latest book, follows the same pattern. Where he’s heading, I suspect, is towards the conclusion that, in the end, the digital will run out of steam, and we’ll discover that analog computing (which after all is what goes on in our brains) will have the last laugh. As someone who started on analog computers before moving to digital devices I’m intrigued to see if that hunch is correct. But there’s another 150 pages to go and anything may happen: you never can tell with the Dysons. After all, George’s father devoted a couple of years of his life to a US-funded project to build a huge spaceship powered by nuclear explosions and was mightily pissed off when the US instead opted for Werner von Braun and his primitive, chemical-fuelled, rockets.


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Wednesday 12 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

”It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.”

  • Abraham Maslow (he of the famous ‘hierarchy of needs’)

Reminds me of Geoffrey Vickers, the wisest man I ever knew. In a conversation towards the end of his long life he said to me, “The hardest thing in life is to know what to want; most people never figure it out, so they wind up pretending that they wanted what they could get”.


Musical alternative to this morning’s news

Ringo Starr, Robbie Robertson and a host of other musicians in a terrific Internet-wide performance of ‘The Weight’

If this isn’t an alternative to the news, then I don’t know what is. Fans of the movie Easy Rider will doubtless remember the tune.

Link


Sharpies, Covid and re-opening schools

Astonishing post in McSweeney’s by a teacher in the US.

I’m thinking about one Sharpie pen in particular. It’s black, medium thickness. And it stays in the blue emergency bag that I keep on the filing cabinet closest to my classroom door. Our school’s emergency bags are remarkably sparse. No band-aids, no first aid materials. We have one flashlight, one sign with my name to help my students find our class if they get separated during a mass exodus, one copy of my class rosters, and one Sharpie marker. Why a marker? Someone asked that very question at a staff meeting. The nurse explained, in a completely emotionless tone, that the Sharpie was so we could identify students and write their names on their bodies in the event of an incident.

She was vague, but we all knew exactly what she was saying. You have a marker in case someone armed with a military-style assault rifle strolls onto campus and starts murdering your co-workers and students. When the shooting stops, we need you to walk through the carnage of your classroom, checking for signs of life. And where there is none, take out that marker and write the name of that precious child, that beautiful life snuffed out too early. She didn’t tell us where we were supposed to write the name — on an arm? A leg? But nobody asked any more questions. We shuffled out of the library silently.

That Sharpie tells me everything I need to know about teaching through COVID. We could have poured resources into prevention. We could’ve spent all summer enforcing mask use and social distancing. We could’ve sacrificed small pleasures for the greater good. We could’ve kept this from happening. But instead, we’re blindly barreling toward reopening even though we know teachers and students will die. We’re going to treat COVID the same way we treat school shootings. An unfortunate but unavoidable cost to doing business. There will be some new morbid addition to the emergency bag. Some simple tool made macabre by the expectation for its use. And like we always do, we will ask our teachers to stand in the doorways and use our bodies as human shields. And if we make it out alive, we’ll be the ones tasked with walking through the wreckage and counting the bodies.


How Covid is hollowing out ‘unsustainable’ Manhattan

Interesting (but not surprising) NYT piece.

[Image credit: New York Times]

For four months, the Victoria’s Secret flagship store at Herald Square in Manhattan has been closed and not paying its $937,000 monthly rent. “It will be years before retail has even a chance of returning to New York City in its pre-Covid form,” the retailer’s parent company recently told its landlord in a legal document.

Wow! A million bucks a month in rent! How much lingerie do you have to sell to justify that?

(Full disclosure: I’ve never been in a Victoria’s Secret store, so I don’t know what her secret was/is. Clearly I should have got out more when I still could.)


Democracy for losers

Long read of the Day.

Remarkable essay by Jan-Werner Müller which puts Trump’s pre-emptive strikes against the legitimacy of the forthcoming election in context.

The TL;DR summary is: since populist politians represent “the people” they cannot, by definition, be the losers in an election. So if, in fact, they lose, then the election must be rigged.

The most interesting part of the essay is his exploration of the fact that democracy only works if the losers accept that they’ve lost. And of course this is also its great weakness, if there are parties around who refuse the accept the possibility that the people might have chosen others than them.

Worth reading in full. Müller’s book on populism is very good, btw.


Summer reading #2

Zachary Carter’s life of Keynes is the best biography I’ve read in years. Admittedly, this may be a reflection of the fact that I’ve been fascinated by Keynes for a very long time. I learned a lot about the man that I should have known but didn’t, and it gave me the context I lacked when I first embarked, many years ago, on Keynes’s General Theory.

In fact — as a wise and scholarly friend of mine observed — it’s really two biographies, because Keynes dies about half way through: the first is a biography of the man; the second is a biography of Keynesianism, the economic (and democratic) philosophy that he inspired. Both ‘books’ matter, and the second really helps one to understand how the world we inhabit today was shaped.

One of the things I was grateful to the lockdown for was that it gave me the time — and the excuse — to read this terrific work.


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Wednesday 22 July, 2020

Still life with lockdown accessories


The report into Russian meddling in UK democratic processes

The House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee on Tuesday released its long-awaited report into Russian meddling in the U.K. democratic process.

A Financial Times Editorial commented…

The starkest accusation was that the government simply did not know whether Britain’s democratic processes had been compromised because — as one committee member put it — “they did not want to know”.

The report’s conclusions, says Politico,

are damning for the British government and there are elements that remain unknown because numerous parts are redacted. It was completed more than a year ago but its release was delayed after Downing Street refused to publish it before the December election then took months setting up the committee again after Boris Johnson won his 80-seat majority.

Politico’s four big takeaways from the report are…

1 The UK was slow to wake up to Russian threat

The crucial thrust of the report is that ministers and the U.K. intelligence agencies left Britain at risk of Russian meddling in the 2016 EU referendum.

But the committee stopped short of concluding that the referendum result was influenced by Russian actors, noting that such a verdict would be impossible to prove. Labour MP and ISC committee member Kevan Jones said the committee saw no evidence of Russian meddling because “nobody in government asked.”

2 Intelligence agencies are too complex

One issue the committee identified was the complicated network of intelligence agencies and who oversees them in government, meaning no single person or office took responsibility for democratic meddling.

3 Russian influence in politics ‘cannot be untangled’

The report notes that links between the Russian elite and the U.K allow access to business and politics that can be used for influence. “To a certain extent, this cannot be untangled and the priority now must be to mitigate the risk and ensure that, where hostile activity is uncovered, the tools exist to tackle it at source,” it added.

“Several members of the Russian elite who are closely linked to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin are identified as being involved with charitable and/or political organizations in the U.K., having donated to political parties, with a public profile which positions them to assist Russian influence operations.”

The report also lashed out at successive governments for allowing the U.K to become an attractive destination for Russian investment. “Russian influence in the U.K. is the new normal,” the committee said in a statement. “Successive governments have welcomed the oligarchs and their money with open arms, providing them with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London ‘laundromat,’ and connections at the highest levels with access to U.K. companies and political figures.”

It added, “This has led to a growth industry of ‘enablers’ including lawyers, accountants, and estate agents who are — wittingly or unwittingly — de facto agents of the Russian state.” The MPs refused to answer questions about whether Alex Salmond, the former Scottish first minister who had a show on Russia Today, was one of those enablers.

4 Relations between the ISC and the government are still not good

The press conference highlighted the frayed relations between the committee and the government. Downing Street refused to publish the report before the 2019 general election, and Johnson took months to reform the committee following his win, meaning it was unable to reveal the document until this week.

No. 10 also sought to meddle in the process for electing the chair. It tried to ensure former Cabinet minister Chris Grayling would get the top post, but he was defeated in an ambush by his fellow Conservative Julian Lewis, who was subsequently stripped of the whip.

This report, and the successful efforts of the Johnson administration to postpone and postpone its publication, confirms the slow-motion implosion of democracy in Britain. Just as in the US, foreign powers — both state and private billionaires — have found ways of undermining and influencing elections and avoiding antiquated electoral laws; and domestic political parties (mainly the Republicans in the US and the Tories in the UK — both of which which stood to gain from this manipulation — have no incentive to do anything about it.

In his terrific book, How Democracy Ends, David Runciman makes the point that most people who worry about the future of liberal democracy make the mistake of looking to the past (e.g. to Weimar Germany) for clues as to where we are headed. But democracies never fail backwards: they fail forwards in ways so novel that they are not initially detected. That’s what’s now happening in the ‘Anglosphere.’ And I fear the rot is now unstoppable, because nobody in the political mainstream has incentives to stop it.


What the CARES Act tells us about low pay in the US

From “US Unemployment Insurance Replacement Rates During the Pandemic” by Peter Ganong, Pascal Noel and Joseph S. Vavra. BFI Working Paper, May 14, 2020

As designed, we find that the ratio of mean benefits to mean earnings in the data under CARES is roughly 100%. However, this masks substantial heterogeneity. We find that 68% of unemployed workers who are eligible for UI will receive benefits which exceed lost earnings. The median replacement rate is 134%, and one out of five eligible unemployed workers will receive benefits at least twice as large as their lost earnings. Thus, the CARES Act actually provides income expansion rather than replacement for most unemployed workers. We also show that there is sizable variation in the effects of the CARES Act across occupations and across states, with important distributional consequences. For example, the median retail worker who is laid-off can collect 142% of their prior wage in UI, while grocery workers are not receiving any automatic pay increases. Janitors working at businesses that remain open do not necessarily receive any hazard pay, while unemployed janitors who worked at businesses that shut down can collect 158% of their prior wage.

These conclusions arise because the CARES Act sends a fixed $600 payment to unemployed workers who have very different prior earnings: $600 is a larger percentage of prior earnings for low than for high earners. Since the $600 UI payment was targeted to generate 100% earnings replacement based on mean earnings, this $600 payment tends to imply greater than 100% earnings replacement for those with less than mean earnings. Furthermore, these high replacement rates for below-mean workers are amplified by the fact that the distribution of earnings is skewed: median prior earnings are below mean prior earnings. This means that the typical unemployed worker has below-mean prior earnings and thus above-mean replacement rates. This implies that most workers have replacement rates above 100%.

Translation (by Sarah O’Connor in the FT): “Roughly two-thirds of Americans who became unemployed in the pandemic are receiving more in benefits than they were paid in their jobs, according to economists at the University of Chicago. For one in five, their income has doubled. The poverty rate actually seems to have fallen since the crisis hit.”

Link.


The US is spiralling into madness

One of the podcasts I try to find time for is the New York Times ‘The Daily’ which sometimes seems to fulfil the promise of podcasting to be ‘the second draft of history’. The other day there was an episode on ‘The Vaccine Trust Problem’ which was absolutely riveting, and which caused me to rethink some of my preconceptions about the vaccine question.

Basically, I had been thinking (and writing) about what I regard as the most alarming scenario of all: that we would eventually get an effective vaccine for Covid-19 but that it would make little difference because of the mobilisation of social media by conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers. It would, I wrote, be “like the anti-MMR campaign, but on steroids”.

‘The Daily’ podcast edition startled me because it suggested that my belief that the main sources of vaccine scepticism and anti-vaccine campaigning were conspiracy-theorists and political malcontents was wrong. It turns out that vaccine scepticism is much more wideapread in the US, and not just confined to Trump supporters. Many people who abhor Trump and would like to see him gone are sceptical because they feel that anything that is rushed through on his watch is not to be trusted.

At the moment, opinion polls are suggesting that 50% of Americans, from all walks of life and political opinions, are sceptical about a vaccine. So while billions are being poured into developing one, the rapid timetable and Trump’s cheerleading are creating a whole new group of vaccine-hesitant patients.

This was the general message of a NYT report last Saturday.

The fastidious process to develop a safe, effective vaccine typically takes a decade; some have taken far longer. But the administration of Mr. Trump, himself once an outspoken vaccine skeptic, has been saying recently that a coronavirus vaccine could be ready this fall. While it has removed certain conventional barriers, such as funding, many experts still believe that the proposed timeline could be unduly optimistic.

But whenever a coronavirus vaccine is approved, the assumption has been that initial demand would far outstrip supply. The need to establish a bedrock of confidence in it has largely gone overlooked and unaddressed.

Earlier this month, a nationwide task force of 23 epidemiologists and vaccine behavior specialists released a detailed report — which itself got little attention — saying that such work was urgent. Operation Warp Speed, the $10 billion public-private partnership that is driving much of the vaccine research, they wrote, “rests upon the compelling yet unfounded presupposition that ‘if we build it, they will come.’”

My hunch is that this could indeed by the case in the US. Somehow I can’t see it panning out like that in Europe. But who knows? These are strange times.

Another aspect of this…

It also turns out that skepticism about coronavirus statistics is highly correlated with media consumption habits, according to a recent Avios-Ipsos opinion poll. 62% of Fox News watchers said the statistics of Covid deaths and infections are overblown, while only 7% of CNN and MSNBC watchers thought so.


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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.

_____________________________________________________________________ 

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.