Tuesday 1 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

Trump has found a formula for success. 1. Wait for cop violence against black man. 2. Protests follow. 3. Trump shooters show up at protests. 4. People die. 5. Repubs say: Cities on fire! 6. Repeat. Not sure what the antidote is, or if there is one.

Me neither, other than if you’re an American citizen be sure to vote on November 3.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

J. S.Bach: Sheep May Safely Graze – The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra


I love the comment below the video: “Hmm, at this tempo the sheep aren’t grazing, they’re mowing.”

If you think it’s too fast, there’s a lovely, more leisurely, piano version played by Alessio Bax here.

China Just Called Trump’s Bluff on TikTok

Interesting Bloomberg report.

I love this.

Imagine a bidder wanting to buy KFC, but being told the deal might not include the Colonel’s 11 secret herbs and spices. That’s effectively what Beijing has told the list of U.S. companies keen to purchase short-video app TikTok: The key ingredients may be out of reach.

China’s Commerce Ministry added new items to its list of export controls late Friday. Now, artificial intelligence interface technologies such as speech and text recognition, as well as methods to analyze data and make personalized content recommendations, are matters of national security.

That means ByteDance [TikTok’s owner] will need Chinese government approval to sell TikTok’s U.S. operations, Bloomberg News reported Sunday; a person familiar with the matter said the new rule is aimed at delaying the sale, not an outright ban. But with AI and its content recommendation engine among the key ingredients of the company’s success, Beijing becomes the arbiter of TikTok’s fate. Not the U.S. administration.

Two can play at the National Security game!

Elon Musk’s Neuralink neuroscience theatre

From an excellent Tech Review report.

In a “product update” streamed over YouTube on Friday, Musk, also the founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, joined staffers wearing black masks to discuss the company’s work toward an affordable, reliable brain implant that Musk believes billions of consumers will clamor for in the future.

“In a lot of ways,” Musk said, “It’s kind of like a Fitbit in your skull, with tiny wires.”

Although the online event was described as a product demonstration, there is as yet nothing that anyone can buy or use from Neuralink. (This is for the best, since most of the company’s medical claims remain highly speculative.) It is, however, engineering a super-dense electrode technology that is being tested on animals.

Musk’s presentation is surprisingly hesitant.

Personally, I am very interested in this stuff because I am not the world’s greatest multi-tasker. My way of accounting for this is to say that I’ve got the wrong multi-tasking algorithm. To which my friend Quentin once reassuringly replied: “Don’t worry, you can always be re-flashed.” And I thought he was joking.

How tech companies behave when they’re threatened

Anyone who thinks that tech companies are different from any other ruthless corporation hasn’t been paying attention. Here’s a revealing account of the lengths they will go to silence or derail critics.

That night, Dubal says she slept on the floor of her two eldest children’s shared room with a baby monitor close by. As she closed her eyes, she couldn’t stop thinking about the messages and tweets she’d been barraged with. “Vile Veena.” “Veena Dubal is insane! Let’s give her our piece of mind!” “She is a very annoying pest. Bring out some spray #veenadubal.”

Dubal says she had inadvertently been pulled into a bizarre world where people on Twitter and Facebook seemed to think she was behind a California law, Assembly Bill 5 (AB5), that addressed labor protections for gig workers. One of the main goals of AB5 was to get companies like Uber and Lyft — two of the world’s largest ride-hailing services that rely on the work of independent contractors — to reclassify their drivers as employees, so workers can get basic benefits like health care, sick leave and a minimum wage. The law was actually authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat from San Diego, someone Dubal had met only a couple of times, in group settings.

Dubal is an outspoken supporter of AB5. She’s often quoted in the media, has written articles and op-eds, and has sent letters to unions, the California legislature and Congress to advocate in support of gig workers. But she says she had no hand in creating the law.

“So, where did the idea come from that I wrote the law?” Dubal says.

This idea might not have gone viral by accident, but rather by design.

Dubal seems to have become a target in a complex campaign involving social media harassment, take-down articles on conservative websites and actions by at least two public relations firms hired by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates. One of those PR firms, Sacramento-based MB Public Affairs, submitted a lengthy public records request on July 28 for Dubal’s email correspondence with 130 other labor activists, academics and union leaders.

Public records obtained by CNET from the California Secretary of State show the five gig economy companies hired the PR firms to work on a ballot measure campaign that’s up for a vote in California’s November election. The ballot measure, Proposition 22, was jointly sponsored by the five companies and aims to specifically exempt them from AB5. The proposition suggests creating an alternative to the law that keeps workers as independent contractors, but adds a few more benefits, such as expense reimbursement and a health care subsidy.

My view of tech firms is that they are indistinguishable from tobacco, oil and mining companies, i.e. intrinsically sociopathic and ruthless. And there isn’t a barrel they won’t scrape when threatened. We saw this on the Observer when we broke the Cambridge Analytica story. Facebook’s legal and other actions that Friday night provided a master-class in corporate viciousness.

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So, basically, we’re screwed

Really sobering article in the FT by Martin Wolf. Here’s the gist:

We live in a fossil-fuel civilisation. There have been two energy revolutions in human history: the agricultural revolution, which exploited far more incident sunlight; and the industrial revolution, which exploited fossilised sunlight. Now we must return to incident sunlight — solar energy and wind — along with nuclear power.

Discussions last week at the Oslo Energy Forum clarified things for me. My principal conclusion was that a transformation from our current energy system to a different one is the only option. Some suggest we should halt growth as well. But this would not only be impossible, it would also not be nearly enough.

Over the past three decades CO2 emissions per unit of global output have been falling at a little below 2 per cent a year. If this were to continue and world output were to stagnate, global emissions would fall by 40 per cent by 2050 — far too little. Relying on actual reductions in output, in order to cut emissions by, say, 95 per cent, by 2050, would require a fall in world output of roughly 90 per cent, bringing global output per head back to 1870 levels.

Since we’re not going deliberately to go back to 1870 (all those stovepipe hats), we have to stop burning fossil fuels, period — and make a transition to a non-carbon economy. Wolf thinks that, in principle, this might be possible. But,

A zero-carbon economy would require about four to five times as much electricity as our present one, all from non-carbon-emitting sources. In running such an economy, hydrogen (much of it produced by electrolysis) would play an essential role. Hydrogen consumption might jump 11-fold by 2050.

In many sectors, the costs of decarbonisation are (or soon will be) competitive. Yet in some, they will not be. There will need to be incentives and regulations to force the shift. In order to avoid merely moving production, in its most emissions-intensive forms, elsewhere, it will be essential to impose offsetting taxes on imports from jurisdictions that refuse to support the needed changes.

Note the last sentence and ask yourself what are the chances of this happening in the world as we know it?

Summing up: we could do it, but we won’t. I’ve argued for a long time that we need a theory of incompetent systems — i.e. systems that can’t fix themselves.

Decline and Fall?

I liked this para in an otherwise fairly predictable rant:

It’s the public outrage that should be most worrying to Facebook. Other tech giants have managed to escape the opprobrium directed at Facebook because they have obviously useful services. Amazon delivers things to your house. Google helps you find things online. Apple sells actual objects. Facebook … helps you get into fights? Delivers your old classmates’ political opinions to your brain?

“Decline”, certainly. “Fall”? Doubtful. 2.24B users don’t just melt away.

How about an Angry Founders Club?

Lovely rant by Dave Winer:

We should start an “Angry Founders of the Internet” social club to discuss what the fuck happened and how can we tell people about the magic that underlies the crapware that the bigco’s are shoveling at us. It really is beautiful and amazing in there. Think of it this way. It’s easier to take the Interstate highway everywhere, but if you do that, you miss the charming B&Bs, the dramatic beaches, restaurants, jazz clubs. The thrill of riding a bike, hiking the Appalachian Trail, skiing. All that intellectually unperpins this.

I’m not a ‘founder’ — though I count some of them among my friends. But I sympathise with Dave. The technology remains as magical as ever. It’s the corporate capture of it that rankles — plus the passivity and gullibility of so many of our fellow-humans.

The truth about Facebook

My take on the Facebook IPO. From this morning’s Observer

There are two classes of share – A and B. Each class B share carries 10 times the voting rights of its class A counterpart. Zuck owns 27.1% of the class B shares outright and the company’s pre-IPO filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission revealed agreements with other owners of class B shares to assign their voting rights to him. The net result is that he has voting control over at least 57.1% of the class B shares. In other words, he’s omnipotent.

This would be a problem even if Zuck had the brains of Einstein and the wisdom of Solomon. But, alas, he doesn’t. He is undoubtedly a smart and talented guy, but he also happens to have a megalomaniacal obsession – that everything has to be social, ie public. And if you’re a Facebook user and don’t like that – well, tough.

So we now have another powerful media company with a shareholding structure that renders its charismatic, single-minded founder immune from shareholder pressure. Remind you of anyone? Hint: it begins with “News”.

So what exactly did Facebook buy for a billion dollars?

This morning’s Observer column.

So Facebook has bought Instagram, a company with a single product – a photosharing app – for $1bn in cash and (FB) shares. Just to put that in context, Instagram has been in existence for 18 months, employs 13 people, has 30 million users and has had a grand total of $7m in investment funding. Oh, and it has precisely zero dollars in revenue.

Sound familiar?

There’s been lots of really interesting commentary about the Instagram deal. Writing in the FT, John Gapper made two interesting points:

  • The deal looks much more like the kind of thing companies do after they go public and start to run out of steam. The fact that Instagram was snapped up (if that is the right way to describe paying a billion dollars for something) is a measure of how scared Mark Zuckerberg has become of what might happen to facebook.
  • What’s he scared of? Well, says Gapper, scared of repeating the fate of many earlier Internet poster-children (like Bebo, for which AOL paid $850m in 2008 and flogged off in 2011 for $10m).
  • And Frederic Filloux, one of my favourite commentators, is also sceptical about the deal — and about facebook generally. “When I read the news of the Instagram acquisition”, he writes, “I wondered: Imagine Facebook already trading on the Nasdaq; how would the market react? Would analysts and pundits send the stock upward, praising Zuckerberg’s swiftness at securing FB’s position? Or, to the contrary, would someone loudly complain: What? Did Facebook just burn the entire 2011 free cash-flow to buy an app with no revenue in sight, and manned by a dozen of geeks? Is this a red-flag symptom of Zuckerberg’s mental state?”

    Other points Filloux makes:

  • Zuckerberg controls 57% of facebook shares, and therefore can do what he likes. This can be a mixed blessing.
  • Zuck is beginning to look like Bill Gates in the early years of Microsoft’s dominance — the years when he decided that Netscape had to be eliminated. Every challenge is seen as a potential threst. Only the paranoid survive, etc. etc. Facebook’s photo-sharing dominance was beginning to leak, and Instagram was one factor in that. So it had to be acquired or destroyed. “With this transaction”, writes Filloux, “the ultra-dominant social network acted like an elephant scared of a mice. Instagram has 35 million users? Fine. But how many are using the service more than occasionally? Half of it? How many are likely to switch overnight to a better app? Most likely many will. Especially since Instagram is not a community per se, but a gateway to larger ones such as Twitter and Facebook.”
  • LATER: Andy Baio has made an interesting attempt to work out an empirical rationale for the price Zuckerberg paid for his new toy.

    The case against the Digger — by the Digger

    Craig Murray nails it.

    By their own admission, the Murdochs’ media empire is too large for effective corporate governance. The fact that Rupert, James and Rebekah claim they had no idea who authorised thousands of illegal phone hacks, and had no idea who authorised tens of thousands of pounds of bribes to policemen, and still say they have no idea even after all the hullabaloo, is positive proof that such concentrations of media ownership become unaccountable and should be banned by law.

    They are condemned from their own mouths, by the line of defence they have chosen. Whether it is true or not doesn’t matter in terms of the policy that must be adopted – the prevention of multiple media ownerships.


    So will the Digger have to swear on the Bible on Tuesday?

    The Telegraph thinks that he might.

    According to Erskine May, which sets out rules governing Parliament, The Parliamentary Witnesses Oaths Act 1871 “empowers the House of Commons and its committees to administer oaths to witnesses, and attaches to false evidence the penalties of perjury”.

    It says: “Where evidence is not given upon oath, the giving of false evidence is punishable as a contempt. It is not usual, however, for select committees to examine witnesses upon oath, except upon inquiries of a judicial or other special character.”

    Paul Farrelly MP,a Labour member of the committee, told The Daily Telegraph: “We will take advice on Tuesday morning from clerks whether we will require them on this occasion to take testimony under oath.

    “That power is available to the committee but it is rarely used and what is appropriate on this occasion given the misleading evidence to this inquiry from News International.”