Saturday 30 May, 2020

Family life

Seen on a walk the other evening. Click on the image for a bigger version. And note how the Dad is standing on one leg.

Why Cory Doctorow isn’t writing about Trump and Twitter and Section 230

Basically, because life is too short.

People have asked me why I haven’t written about Trump’s executive order on social media and CDA 230. Here’s why.

As everyone who understands the law knows, this will not survive contact with the judiciary. It’s unconstitutional and incoherent and just stupid.

It’s as if Trump declared up to be down, and then threatened FAA sanctions against anyone caught standing on the ground. This will doubtless inflict pain and chaos, but the first judge that hears the case will tell him to knock it off and stop being an idiot.

The real purpose – tissue thin, totally obvious – is to get us to stop paying attention to white nationalism, pandemic genocide, 101,000 dead, and corruption and start talking about whether up is down.

And life is short.

I agree.

But in case you need the chapter and verse, the EFF has a good explainer

So is the central office and the daily commute really a thing of the past?

There’s a lot of confident clap-trap being talked at the moment about “the death of the office” and how the future is remote working from home. It’s the inevitable outbreak of first-order thinking. I’m sore some things will change, but the idea that a system that’s been entrenched for a century is going to change overnight is unrealistic.

The New Yorker has just published the most thoughtful piece on this that I’ve read to date. It’s by Cal Newport, a computer scientist.

At some point, the pandemic and its aftershocks will fade. It will once again be safe to ride commuter trains to office buildings. What then? Many companies seem amenable to the idea of lasting changes. In April, a survey of chief financial officers conducted by the research firm Gartner found that three-quarters planned to increase the number of employees working remotely on a permanent basis. From an economic perspective, companies have a lot to gain from remote work: office space is expensive, and talent is likely to be cheaper outside of the biggest cities. Many workers will welcome these changes: in a recent Gallup poll, nearly sixty per cent of respondents said that they would like to keep working remotely after restrictions on businesses and schools have been lifted. For them, the long-promised benefits of work-from-home—a flexible, commute-free life, with more family and leisure time—have finally arrived.

There are also social reasons to cheer a more remote future. It might help reverse the geographic stratification of American life. Workers, and their spending, could break out of the unaffordable metropolises and spark mini-revitalizations off the beaten path, from Bozeman to Santa Fe. Remote work could be good for the environment, since less commuting means fewer emissions. (Although the recent movement of Americans out of sprawling suburbs and back into dense cities was, in itself, an environmental good.)

And yet…

remote work is complex, and is no cure-all. Some of the issues that have plagued it for decades are unlikely to be resolved, no matter how many innovations we introduce: there’s probably no way for workplaces to Zoom themselves to the same levels of closeness and cohesion generated in a shared office; mentorship, decision-making, and leadership may simply be harder from a distance. There is also something dystopian about a future in which white-collar workers luxuriate in isolation while everyone else commutes to the crowded places. For others, meanwhile, isolation is the opposite of luxury. There may be many people who will always prefer to work from work.

Long read, but well worth it.

Dominic Cummings: the farce continues

Very nicely skewered by Henry Mance in the weekend edition of the FT entitled “The Nostradamus of North London has Done It Again”. Sample:

The most amazing part of the Cummings saga is not his attempt to bankrupt opticians and car insurers with a new system of on-road eye tests. No, it is his attempt to mislead us all about his handling of coronavirus.

At Monday’s press conference, Mr Cummings played the Nostradamus of north London: “Only last year I wrote explicitly about the danger of coronaviruses.” Turns out it was a bit more complicated than that. Instead, last month, on Mr Cummings’ first day back at work after his Durham trip, one of his blogs from March 2019 was edited to add an express reference to coronavirus. History will be kind to Mr Cummings, for he intends to rewrite it.

I don’t like calling politicians liars, because it’s hard to know what’s going on inside their heads. You’re only lying if you say something you know to be untrue. Yet Mr Cummings has a track record in calculated misleading statements, such as, “We send the EU £350m a week” and, “Turkey (population 76m) Is Joining the EU”. I don’t want to call him a liar. But I also can’t say that he isn’t a liar. Because then I would be a liar.

I suppose Mr Cummings sees the truth as a civilian casualty in his offensive against the establishment. A non-exhaustive list of his targets includes: teaching unions, the civil service, anti-Brexit MPs, pro-Brexit MPs, the UK Statistics Authority, the CBI, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, a number of print publications, except the one his wife works for. Perhaps everybody else in Britain has to change so that Mr Cummings can stay the same, but it does seem like changing a lightbulb by screwing the whole world. There may be an easier solution.

Lovely. There’s a lot of mileage still in the Cummings story, before it reaches its foregone conclusion.

Quarantine Diary — Day 70


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!

Sunday 3 May, 2020

Data-protection laws are great. Shame they’re not being enforced.

This morning’s Observer column:

So we’re faced with a paradox: on the one hand, there’s massive abuse of personal data by a global data-broking industry; on the other, we have a powerful legal instrument that is not being brought to bear on the abusers. How come? Is it because national DPAs are corrupt? Or indolent? Or just plain incompetent? The answer, it seems, is none of the above. They’re simply overwhelmed by the scale of the task – and lamentably under-resourced for it.

Non-enforcement makes a mockery of the rule of law. Was the GDPR really just an aspiration?

Do read the whole thing

The centralisation of power on Zoom


Is the ‘urge to splurge’ a thing of the past?

Nice FT column (possibly behind a paywall, alas) by Pilita Clark.

Last weekend I was lolling on the sofa reading the papers in the afternoon sun when I was struck by an awful thought.

I realised I am so dull that, even though I have spent more than a month in Covid captivity, I miss remarkably little of the life I led before.

It turns out I can live easily without Friday nights in a restaurant or Saturdays in a bar. I always thought I loved going out to the cinema but apparently I am just as happy at home with Netflix. The hundreds of pounds I spend each year on the gym also look increasingly pointless. I can get by with a bike ride involving hills and the odd lope around the block.

It was while I was on one of those lopes, down the local high street, that a more profound realisation dawned. Shop after shuttered shop existed to sell stuff for a rushed, commuting office life that I — and millions like me — may never lead again.

There must be a lot of people thinking like this at the moment.

Self-isolation is not penance

From Dave Winer’s blog:

The frustration [Don] McNeil feels, and I feel, having heard the same story at least four times, the questions assume that all we have to do is penance, stay home for a while, and we will be able to go back to normal, having done our time. This is what Trump seems to think too, and the other Repubs. Maybe some Dems. That’s not it.

Isolating is like plowing a fire line in the middle of a city being inundated by fire. It slows the spread. But you don’t get to resume life, a very altered life, until there are no new cases, until the fire is out. Until you’ve shut down transmission of the disease. This is not a punishment, it’s how we save ourselves.


Quarantine diary — Day 43


This blog is also available as a once-a-day email. If that would suit you better why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am. And there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide you already have enough email!)

Saturday 4 April, 2020

This blog is now also available as a once-a-day email. If you think this might work better for you why not subscribe here? (It’s free and there’s a 1-click unsubscribe if you subsequently decide you need to prune your inbox!) One email a day, in your inbox at 07:00 every morning.

One of the Zoom memes circulating on social media.

How is the Cloud standing up to the Coronavirus stress-test?

Reasonably well — at least according to this report. Headlines: Microsoft’s Azure has had some minor problems. On the assumption that no news is good news, Amazon’s AWS seems fine. Which is just as well, because an astonishing proportion of the services we are relying on now runs partly or exclusively on AWS. We tend to think of Amazon as a retail or e-commerce monopoly. But actually its cloud computing service is probably more important: it’s become critical infrastructure for the world. A point to be borne in mind when we eventually get round to thinking about regulation.

Boredom? Nah

For most people, the novelty of self-isolation has worn off, and many will doubtless be thinking about how long we — as people, and as a society — can sustain this. For some, isolation is really hard to bear, and there’s a real cost — in terms of loneliness, domestic violence, marital breakdown, depression. mental illness and boredom, to name just a few of the downsides — to be paid for this strategy to slow the spread of the virus. As far as the last of those downsides, however, some people (including me) are temperamentally lucky in that they’ve never been bored. My friend Quentin Stafford-Fraser is the same, and he has a lovely blog post today about “Boredom, Toothbrushes and Terminals”.

One day, the UK might have a proper Opposition party again. In which case it needs to start thinking about the future rather than the past

Keir Starmer QC has been elected Leader of the Labour party by a landslide. So maybe the country will eventually have an Opposition that’s functioning as an opposition should in this two-party system. It will also need to start thinking about life after Corona. And when it does it will have to do better than Dominic Cumming’s half-assed idea of rebooting Britain by having an ARPA 2.0 modelled on the famous Pentagon agency which funded the Internet and a host of other interesting stuff in the US. (ARPA is one of Cummings’s obsessions. Another one is the Manhattan Project which built the first atomic bomb.)

Don’t get me wrong I’ve got nothing against ARPA. (In fact it figures significantly in my book on the origins of the Internet. And I was lucky enough to know Bob Taylor, the guy who funded the ARPANET, the precursor of the Internet we use today.) It’s an interesting idea to see if the post-Brexit UK could get a creative and technological boost from trying to replicate the idea here. (For an extended discussion of the idea, see this think-tank report). The problem is that even if it had the kinds of upsides that Cummings desires, it would do little to address the country’s most pressing need — which is, to use a Johnsonian phrase, “levelling up” — i.e. addressing the challenge of reinvigorating the vast swathes of the country which have been “left behind” by neoliberal economic policy, globalisation and economic change. The truth is that a successful ARPA 2.0 would merely create another mini-Silicon Valley in Britain (to complement the Cambridge cluster and the Shoreditch crowd). It might generate great wealth for small elites, but it would not provide much in the way of employment (except as low-skilled service workers) for those who have lost out over the last two decades. Just see how much of the fabulous wealth of Google et al has trickled down to the ordinary folks of San Jose, Mountain View, Cupertino or San Francisco.

So if this or the next UK government (which could conceivably be led by Starmer, if the Coronacrisis turns out to be catastrophic) is serious about levelling up, then what Britain needs is a concerted, government-led effort on the Manhattan project scale. This initiative, however, will not be about handing out welfare to distressed areas but about decarbonising the UK, and it will create work for an awful lot of people who don’t know anything about data analytics. It will involve retrofitting every house in the country to make it as energy-efficient as possible, replacing oil and gas boilers with air-and ground-source heating systems, fitting solar panels everywhere, reforming the construction industry so that every new building is energy-efficient, and a thousand other things — plus creating the education and training infrastructure to enable this to happen. It’s about rebooting the whole country, providing the self-esteem in depressed areas that comes from being able to earn a good living doing work that is patently useful, and acquiring relevant new skills and knowledge in the process. As Alan Kay used to say, the best way to predict the future is to invent it. And that doesn’t just apply to computers.

The Briefing Room

Terrific Radio 4 programme this morning on the Coronavirus.

It tackled three specific questions: 1. What testing does 2. The search for a vaccine 3. Whether any existing drug might be useful in suppressing COVID-19 and lightening the health service burden

No nonsense. Interviewed real experts. Was illuminating, interesting and very well-informed.

A model of what public service broadcasting is for.

Quarantine diary – Day 14


Why digital tech might not be the key to development for poor countries

Interesting essay by Dani Rodrik:

Any optimism about the scale of GVCs’ contribution must be tempered by three sobering facts. First, the expansion of GVCs seems to have ground to a halt in recent years. Second, developing-country participation in GVCs – and indeed in world trade in general – has remained quite limited, with the notable exception of certain Asian countries. Third, and perhaps most worrisome, the domestic employment consequences of recent trade and technological trends have been disappointing.

Upon closer inspection, GVCs and new technologies exhibit features that limit the upside to – and may even undermine – developing countries’ economic performance. One such feature is an overall bias in favor of skills and other capabilities. This bias reduces developing countries’ comparative advantage in traditionally labor-intensive manufacturing (and other) activities, and decreases their gains from trade.

Second, GVCs make it harder for low-income countries to use their labor-cost advantage to offset their technological disadvantage, by reducing their ability to substitute unskilled labor for other production inputs. These two features reinforce and compound each other. The evidence to date, on the employment and trade fronts, is that the disadvantages may have more than offset the advantages.

The usual response to these concerns is to stress the importance of building up complementary skills and capabilities. Developing countries must upgrade their educational systems and technical training, improve their business environment, and enhance their logistics and transport networks in order to make fuller use of new technologies, goes the oft-heard refrain.

And here’s the punchline:

But pointing out that developing countries need to advance on all those dimensions is neither news nor helpful development advice. It is akin to saying that development requires development. Trade and technology present an opportunity when they are able to leverage existing capabilities, and thereby provide a more direct and reliable path to development. When they demand complementary and costly investments, they are no longer a shortcut around manufacturing-led development.

Great essay.

Quote of the Day

“Services like Uber and online freelance markets like TaskRabbit were created to take advantage of an already independent work force; they are not creating it. Their technology is solving the business and consumer problems of an already insecure work world. Uber is a symptom, not a cause.”

Louis Hyman, an economic historian, writing in the New York Times

He has a new book coming out soon – Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary.