Thursday 15 October, 2020

The Sociopath: 2010

What a difference a decade makes.


Quote of the Day

”I work for a government I despise for ends I think criminal.”

  • John Maynard Keynes, 1917, in a letter to Duncan Grant.

I wonder how many officials in the US and UK governments currently feel the same way.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Hothouse Flowers – I Can See Clearly Now

https://youtu.be/Y1HRcoHGmi4


Turns out, Boris Johnson doesn’t do detail. Who knew?

John Crace, writing about yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions:

Starmer started with some basic detail. On 11 May Johnson had promised the country he would be guided by the science at all times. On 21 September the Sage scientists had recommended a short circuit breaker. So at what point did the prime minister decide to abandon the science and cobble together a three-tier regional system with which almost no one was happy?

Despite having had the whole morning to prepare for such an obvious question, Boris looked genuinely bemused. As if he had quite forgotten it was Wednesday and had been hoping for a lie-in. So he did what he always did. He filled dead air with dead words. When he had said he was going to follow the science, he had never intended to imply he would do so faithfully. Rather he was going to pick and choose the bits he liked. He reminded me of a builder I once used who, when I observed the kitchen floor was not level, replied that I had never specified it should be “dead level”.

Amazing to think that this clown is the Prime Minister of a major country.


U.K. Plans New Law to Undo Foreign Deals on Security Grounds

This from Bloomberg is interesting:

Boris Johnson’s government is drawing up plans for a radical new law that would give ministers power to unravel foreign investments in U.K. companies — potentially casting doubt on deals that have already been concluded — to stop hostile states gaining control over key assets.

The National Security and Investment Bill is in the final stages of drafting and could be published later this month, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because the subject is sensitive.

It aims to cover deals in sectors such as defense and critical infrastructure, and will make provisions to protect sensitive intellectual property.

Among the most potentially controversial parts of the draft law is a proposal to allow the government to intervene retrospectively in circumstances where national security is an issue. That would mean allowing government officials to look at past takeovers and mergers where concerns have been raised.

It’s got Dominic Cummings’s fingerprints all over it. Especially the retrospective bit. I’m willing to bet that it’ll affect the proposed Nvidia takeover of ARM.


Kara Swisher on Zuckerberg, the slow learner about Holocaust denial

Good column, in which she reprises her famous interview with Zuckerberg and thinks about what questions she would like to ask him now.

Since that interview with me two years ago, Mr. Zuckerberg has talked to a lot of reporters, but has declined to do another interview with me, although I have asked time and again. That’s a shame, because I have a lot more questions for him. Such as:

Why tell everyone that you do not want to be an arbiter of truth after you purposefully built a platform that absolutely required an arbiter of truth to function properly?

Why did you never build firebreaks that could have dampened the dangerous fires of disinformation that you have let burn out of control?

Were you motivated by a need to expand the business without limit or by a real belief that human beings would behave if you let them do anything they wanted?

And most important, now that we agree that Holocaust deniers mean to lie, can we also agree that we need to remake the nation and also Facebook so that we can have a real dialogue built on community? You always said that was your goal, right?

Or, after all this time and pain, is that completely idiotic?

It’s idiotic to expect anything good from this guy.


Nihilistic password security questions

Lovely piece of satire by Soheil Rezayazdi on McSweeney’s. Here’s a sample:

What is the name of your least favorite child?

In what year did you abandon your dreams?

What is the maiden name of your father’s mistress?

At what age did your childhood pet run away?

What was the name of your favorite unpaid internship?

In what city did you first experience ennui?

What is your ex-wife’s newest last name?

What sports team do you fetishize to avoid meaningful discussion with others?

Lots more, but you get the point.


First documented death from a ransomware attack

From Bruce Schneier’s blog:

A Düsseldorf woman died when a ransomware attack against a hospital forced her to be taken to a different hospital in another city.

I think this is the first documented case of a cyberattack causing a fatality. UK hospitals had to redirect patients during the 2017 WannaCry ransomware attack, but there were no documented fatalities from that event.

The police are treating this as a homicide.


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 you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Tuesday 13 October, 2020


Quote of the Day

”One man is as good as another until he has written a book.”

  • Benjamin Jowett

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Leo Kottke: Snorkel

Link


Boris Johnson’s latest Covid strategy: no hope and no end in sight

John Crace on Boris Johnson’s day in Parliament:

Johnson looked knackered before he even started. His complexion even more pallid than usual and his eyes mere pinpricks. For a moment it looked as if the narcissist had been confronted with his own sense of futility. A situation that he couldn’t bend to his will, no matter how delusional the thought process. He is cornered by hubris: a man hating every second of his life but condemned to experience its unforgiving horror. Not even the health secretary could be bothered to attend to watch this latest meltdown.

“We have taken a balanced approach,” Johnson began. As in he was too slow to react back in March with the result that the government has one of the world’s highest death tolls. As in he did next to nothing during the summer when we had a chance to prepare for autumn. As in he actively encouraged people to go back to work for weeks before switching to advise them against it. As in unlocking the north at the same time as the south, even though infection rates in the north remained higher. That kind of balanced.

What Boris had to offer now was a new three-tier approach. Bad, very bad and very, very bad. Bad would apply to most of the country and would involve people doing pretty much what they had been doing for the last couple of months. Rule of six and all that.

Very bad would mean that those areas that had already been under the more stringent lockdown restrictions would remain so, though if you wanted to meet a few friends outdoors in the garden for a beer to let each other know how depressed you were feeling you now could. And very, very bad meant that you could only see your mates if you happened to be in the pub at the same time and order five Cornish pasties to go with your bottle of scotch.


NYT ‘The Daily’ podcast’s view on the prospects for the vaccine

From the transcript of the Wednesday, October 7, edition.

Presenter: As update on the state of the coronavirus in the U.S. I check back in with Times science reporter, Donald G. McNeil, Jr.

Donald, you recently sent me an email that pretty much stopped me in my tracks. Because in it, you said that you were optimistic about the course of the pandemic. And that is not a word that I associate with either you or the pandemic. And it immediately made me think that we needed to talk.

McNeil: I am short term, right now — fall and winter — pessimistic. I think things are going to get worse.

But since I’ve been saying since April or so that this epidemic is not going to be over by Easter, this epidemic is not going to be over by fall, and that, you know, the record for making the vaccine is four years, I now have new optimism about how fast I expect vaccines and other interventions to get here, and how quickly that will bring the pandemic to an end in the United States…

Interesting. McNeil is very well informed. And he was ahead of the curve in the early days. Basically, he thinks there may be workable vaccines (plural) by the Spring on 2021 — and that people will be willing to take them.

Presenter: In our conversations with colleagues like Jan Hoffman, we have established that there is a considerable amount of skepticism around vaccines in general — and especially this coming set of vaccines — because of how much politics has surrounded them.

McNeil: Yeah. And I agree with that skepticism. I mean, if a vaccine is approved before Election Day, and it is approved by only one man — I’m Donald J. Trump and I approve this vaccine — then I’m a skeptic and I’m not going to take it. But when I see vaccines that are okayed by Tony Fauci and Paul Offit and Francis Collins and Peter Hotez and all the vaccine experts that you often see quoted on television, then I’m going to be one of the first in line to get it.

And what will probably happen, I think, is that a lot of people will be skeptical. And then they’ll look around at their friends and neighbors who take the vaccine. And assuming nothing goes wrong, and that’s an assumption, but assuming nothing goes wrong, they’ll go, huh. I can avoid this vaccine for me and my kids that I’m somewhat afraid of. And that means I have to homeschool my kids forever. Never go to a movie. Never get on an airplane. Never eat in a restaurant again. Or I can accept a vaccine. I think I’ll take the vaccine.

He’s probably right.


My new keyboard

I have arthritis in my hands, which is not good news for someone whose job involves writing. What it mostly means, though, is that I’m very sensitive to keyboards. A few weeks ago I decided that I’d had enough of Apple’s latest ‘Magic’ keyboard, and so looked for an alternative. Someone suggested I look at the Logitech MX Keys wireless keyboard, so I bought one. And it’s just terrific. More bulky and clunkier than its Apple predecessor, of course, but quite a joy to use. Highly recommended for writers with delicate fingers.


Facebook to ban content that denies or distorts the Holocaust

From a Guardian report:

Facebook says it is updating its hate speech policy to ban content that denies or distorts the Holocaust.

The decision comes two years after its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said in an interview with the tech website Recode said that while he found Holocaust denial deeply offensive, he did not believe Facebook should delete such content.

“I’ve struggled with the tension between standing for free expression and the harm caused by minimising or denying the horror of the Holocaust,” said Zuckerberg, who is Jewish, in a Facebook post on Monday.

My own thinking has evolved as I’ve seen data showing an increase in antisemitic violence, as have our wider policies on hate speech,” he said.

The social media company said that, starting later this year, it would also direct people searching for terms associated with the Holocaust or its denial to credible information away from the platform.

Nice to know that his ‘thinking’ has “evolved”. I often wonder what exactly is wrong with this guy.


Is science being set up to take the blame?

Ross Anderson, whom God preserve, was puzzled by the failure to protect residents in care homes, and so decided to read the minutes of the SAGE committee whose advice the Prime Minister was supposedly following.

Here’s an excerpt from his terrific blog post reporting what he found.

The big question, though, is why nobody thought of protecting people in care homes. The answer seems to be that SAGE dismissed the problem early on as “too hard” or “not our problem”. On March 5th they note that social distancing for over-65s could save a lot of lives and would be most effective for those living independently: but it would be “a challenge to implement this measure in communal settings such as care homes”. They appear more concerned that “Many of the proposed measures will be easier to implement for those on higher incomes” and the focus is on getting PHE to draft guidance. (This is the meeting at which Dominic Cummings makes his first appearance, so he cannot dump all the blame on the scientists.)

On March 10th, they decide to cocoon the over-70s and medically vulnerable, and advise 7/14 days isolation for people with symptoms / their families. They advise that “special policy consideration be given to care homes and various types of retirement communities” – but note the passive voice, and this doesn’t appear on the list of actions and trigger points on the following page. It’s still somebody else’s problem.

By March 13th, some care homes had already banned visitors without waiting for government advice to do so, and on the same day SAGE decided that the goal was to enable the NHS to meet demand. Two days later, the NHS started clearing 30,000 beds, sending hundreds of infected patients into care homes and causing thousands of deaths.

The next month is consumed with panic about whether the NHS will be swamped by the peak, and it’s only when this subsides that we read on April 14 that more and more cases are acquired in hospital, which have been masking the decline in the community, with a note “Care homes remain a concern. There are less data available from these” – but only as item 10 on the situation update. At last there’s a relevant action: to widen viral sampling in hospitals and care homes. However the committee’s effort is now tied up with the controversy about whether to advise public mask wearing. (It still resists expert advice on this as it doesn’t want to admit that its initial position was wrong.) The meetings on April 16 and 21 are also consumed by the mask debate (on which the early members of the committee, who blocked mask wearing to protect PPE supplies to the NHS, prevailed over the newer members, leaving the UK an outlier).

And Ross’s conclusion?

My experience of university committees makes this all just too painfully familiar. What’s failed here is not the science, but the process of government. The committee started out full of NHS medics and bureaucrats, and lots of theoreticians – modelers aplenty – but there’s still nobody from the care sector. The members focus on the NHS they know and stay in their comfort zone. And now, we might ask, is there anybody with operational experience relevant to running a large testing and tracing programme? Or would it be a waste of time to try to create such a competence in the SAGE environment?

Terrific post.


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 you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Wednesday 30 September, 2020

New England in the Fall

Jason Kottke, the Über Blogger lives in Vermont. He posted this astonishing image on his blog the other day. It makes one realise that the English Autumn, though beautiful in its way, is pretty muted by comparison.


Quote of the Day

“It seems to people who are on lockdown that it’s going on interminably, but for scientists it’s just the beginning. We are still just scratching the surface of this.”

  • Dr. Martha Nelson, a scientist at the US National Institutes of Health who specializes in epidemics and viral genetics, quoted in today’s New York Times piece marking the sombre milestone of a million Covid deaths worldwide.

Yep: we’re in a marathon, not a sprint.


Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Schubert – Impromptu #3: Vladimir Horowitz, live performance in Vienna, in 1987 (I think)

Link

Audio quality is not great, but it’s a lovely performance. Amazing to see the way he seems almost to caress the keyboard with those long fingers of his.


How To Plan For The Post-Covid Future

Long read of the day

Tim O’Reilly is one of the smartest people I know. And this essay is worth your time IMHO:

The 20th century didn’t really begin in the year 1900, it began in 1914, when the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand triggered long-simmering international tensions and the world slid, seemingly inexorably, into a great world war, followed by a roaring return to seeming normality and then a crash into a decade-long worldwide depression and another catastrophic war. Empires were dissolved, an entire way of life swept away. A new, more prosperous world emerged only through the process of rebuilding a society that had been torn down to its foundations.

So too, when we look back, we will understand that the 21st century truly began this year, when the COVID19 pandemic took hold. We are entering the century of being blindsided by things that we have been warned about for decades but never took seriously enough to prepare for, the century of lurching from crisis to crisis until, at last, we shake ourselves from the illusion that our world will go back to the comfortable way it was and begin the process of rebuilding our society from the ground up.

Even when we develop a successful COVID19 vaccine or treatment, or when we achieve herd immunity, this will not be the last pandemic. Other long-predicted but “unexpected” crises lurk in the wings: flooding, drought, mass migrations, food shortages, and wars as a result of climate change; widespread antibiotic resistance due to overuse on factory farms; political instability driven by an unsustainable level of economic inequality; crumbling infrastructure and lack of investment in bettering the lives of ordinary citizens at the expense of a feverish Ponzi economy focused on growing asset values for the wealthy.

So, when you read stories—and there are many—speculating or predicting when and how we will return to “normal”, discount them heavily. The future will not be like the past. The comfortable Victorian and Georgian world complete with grand country houses, a globe-spanning British empire, and lords and commoners each knowing their place, was swept away by the events that began in the summer of 1914 (and that with Britain on the “winning” side of both world wars.) So too, our comfortable “American century” of conspicuous consumer consumption, global tourism, and ever-increasing stock and home prices may be gone forever.

[…]

Our failure to make deep, systemic changes after the financial collapse of 2009, and our choice instead to spend the last decade cutting taxes and spending profusely to prop up financial markets while ignoring deep, underlying problems has only made responding to the current crisis that much more difficult. Our failure to build back creatively and productively from the global financial crisis is necessary context for the challenge to do so now…

Thoughtful, far-reaching and not necessarily reassuring.


Former Facebook manager: “We took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook”

Well, well. For a long time I’ve been likening the surveillance capitalist companies to tobacco and oil companies. But I never thought I’d hear a former Facebook employee state that he once saw the analogy as a guide to policy. Yet here is Tim Kendall, who served as director of monetization for Facebook from 2006 through 2010, speaking to Congress on September 24 as part of a House Commerce subcommittee hearing examining how social media platforms contribute to the mainstreaming of extremist and radicalizing content.

He told legislators that the company “took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook, working to make our offering addictive at the outset” and arguing that his former employer has been hugely detrimental to society.

“The social media services that I and others have built over the past 15 years have served to tear people apart with alarming speed and intensity,” Kendall said in his opening testimony. “At the very least, we have eroded our collective understanding—at worst, I fear we are pushing ourselves to the brink of a civil war.”

“We sought to mine as much attention as humanly possible… We took a page form Big Tobacco’s playbook, working to make our offering addictive at the outset.”

Tobacco companies initially just sought to make nicotine more potent. But eventually that wasn’t enough to grow the business as fast as they wanted. And so they added sugar and menthol to cigarettes so you could hold the smoke in your lungs for longer periods. At Facebook, we added status updates, photo tagging, and likes, which made status and reputation primary and laid the groundwork for a teenage mental health crisis.

Allowing for misinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news to flourish were like Big Tobacco’s bronchodilators, which allowed the cigarette smoke to cover more surface area of the lungs. But that incendiary content alone wasn’t enough. To continue to grow the user base and in particular, the amount of time and attention users would surrender to Facebook, they needed more.

“We initially used engagement as sort of a proxy for user benefit. But we also started to realize that engagement could also mean [users] were sufficiently sucked in that they couldn’t work in their own best long-term interest to get off the platform… We started to see real-life consequences, but they weren’t given much weight. Engagement always won, it always trumped.”

“There’s no incentive to stop [toxic content] and there’s incredible incentive to keep going and get better. I just don’t believe that’s going to change unless there are financial, civil, or criminal penalties associated with the harm that they create. Without enforcement, they’re just going to continue to be embarrassed by the mistakes, and they’ll talk about empty platitudes… but I don’t believe anything systemic will change… the incentives to keep the status quo are just too lucrative at the moment.”

Wow!


Florida Police Just Released Video of Brad Parscale Getting Tackled by Cops

Well, well. How are the mighty fallen.

Some background:

You may remember that Brad Parscale was the supposed genius behind the 2016 Trump campaign’s weaponisation of Facebook. This made him a kind of global political celebrity — worth even a big profile in the New Yorker, no less as “The man behind Trump’s Facebook juggernaut”. Come 2020 and Parscale was now the Director of the Trump campaign and an even more swaggering giant. He was the driving spirit behind the ludicrous Tulsa rally — the one that supposedly had 800,000 pre-registrations. Except, of course, that it didn’t. The Trump operation had been cleverly hijacked by kids on TikTok who made fake pre-bookings. So the rally was a fiasco, at which point I predicted that Parscale’s days as Director were numbered. It was an accurate prediction — he was replaced in July by Bill Stepien.

Now spool forward to the present. Here’s a report by Vice News from Fort Lauderdale in Florida, where Parscale reportedly owns three houses:

Police in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, just released a video of President Trump’s former campaign manager getting tackled by cops.

The body camera footage shows a police officer hurling Parscale to the ground during an incident at his home, shortly after they responded to a call for help from Parscale’s wife. She told police that Parscale had threatened to kill himself and had racked the slide of a handgun in front of her face, “putting her in fear for her safety,” according to a police report.

The video shows Parscale, wearing white shorts and no shirt, speaking with a police officer, and then another officer rapidly approaches Parscale from his right side, telling him, “Get on the ground, man.”

Parscale doesn’t visibly react to that command at first. The police officer then hurls him to the ground, while Parscale objects, saying “I didn’t do anything.”

One doesn’t want to intrude on private grief, but it looks as though Parscale has had some kind of breakdown. CBS reports that he “was taken to a mental health facility in Florida on Sunday night after barricading himself in his home with weapons and threatening to harm himself, police said. Parscale was detained without injury and transported to a local hospital.”

Nobody works for Trump without in the end being damaged by the experience.


How Much Has Inequality Cost Workers?

From a sobering piece in the Journal of Democracy, especially for those who are nostalgic for a return to our current version of capitalism-friendly democracy.

Even if Donald Trump loses the election, the conditions that made his authoritarian regime possible won’t disappear with him. If we are to heal our country and ensure against a repeat of the past four years, we need to boldly and aggressively scale our solutions to the size of the problem. And when it comes to our crisis of rising income inequality, the problem is huge.

How big is it? A staggering $50 trillion.

That’s how much the upward redistribution of income has cost American workers over the past several decades.

This is not some back-of-the-napkin approximation. According to a groundbreaking new working paper by Carter C. Price and Kathryn Edwards of the RAND Corporation, from 1947 through 1974, real incomes grew at close to the rate of per capita economic growth across all income levels. That means that for three decades, those at the bottom and middle of the distribution saw their incomes grow at about the same rate as those at the top. Had these more equitable income distributions merely held steady, the aggregate annual income of Americans earning below the 90th percentile would have been $2.5 trillion higher in the year 2018 alone. That is an amount equal to nearly 12 percent of GDP—enough to more than double median income, and enough to pay every single working American in the bottom nine deciles an additional $1,144 a month. Every worker. Every month. Every. Single. Year.

But the ‘normal’ that our governments wish us to return to is not the normality of 1947-1974, but the post 1974 one.

The RAND paper is here. The Abstract reads:

The three decades following the Second World War saw a period of economic growth that was shared across the income distribution, but inequality in taxable income has increased substantially over the last four decades. This work seeks to quantify the scale of income gap created by rising inequality compared to a counterfactual in which growth was shared more broadly. We introduce a time-period agnostic and income-level agnostic measure of inequality that relates income growth to economic growth. This new metric can be applied over long stretches of time, applied to subgroups of interest, and easily calculated. We document the cumulative effect of four decades of income growth below the growth of per capita gross national income and estimate that aggregate income for the population below the 90th percentile over this time period would have been $2.5 trillion (67 percent) higher in 2018 had income growth since 1975 remained as equitable as it was in the first two post-War decades. From 1975 to 2018, the difference between the aggregate taxable income for those below the 90th percentile and the equitable growth counterfactual totals $47 trillion. We further explore trends in inequality by applying this metric within and across business cycles from 1975 to 2018 and also by demographic group.


The extent of my ignorance

One of the first rules of blogging is always to assume that out there are people who know far more than you do. I’ve adhered to this since Day One (in the mid-1990s) and have never been disappointed. So when the other day I confessed that I hadn’t known that Trump owned a golf-course in Ireland, in no time at all readers wrote in suggesting gently that I really ought to know better. For example, Charles Foster wrote:

You didn’t know that Trump had a golf course in Ireland? Good Lord! It’s at Doonbeg, and has been owned by him for about six years: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trump_International_Golf_Links_and_Hotel_Ireland

The Irish government laid down a red carpet for him when he came to visit in 2015 just after buying it. He’s been here a couple of times (I think) since becoming President, the last time in 2019 when he used it as an overnight stop when he was in France commemorating the 75th anniversary of the D Day landings — this was the time when he didn’t go to the US war cemetery near Paris to pay his respects because it was raining.

To which I can only protest that I did know about Doonbeg, partly because a friend of mine who is a terrific golfer is a member there. But I had no idea that it was owned by Trump and is now — of course — badged under his accursed name!


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 you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Friday 11 September, 2020

Autumn’s on its way

Seen on my walk home this morning.


Quote of the Day

“The trouble with epistemologists is that they think they know something”.

  • Guy Haworth

Musical alternative to the radio news of the day

My Back Pages (Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton & George Harrison)

Link


How Police Are Using ‘Super Recognizers’ to Track Criminals

Interesting piece in Vice.

The term “super recognizer” first appeared in 2009 and describes people who can remember more than 80 percent of the faces of people they meet (the average is 20 percent). The neural-mechanism behind super recognition is still largely unknown, but the skill seems to be genetic and possessed by only about one percent of the population.

Today, police in many countries employ super recognizers (possibly including Hong Kong) but police in the United Kingdom have recruited more than most.

Kelly Hearsey is one such super recognizer…

Well, at least they’re not just using automated facial-recognition systems.

It’s amazing the abilities that some people have. Reminds me of the folks who can accurately multiply two 20-digit numbers in their heads.


Facebook doesn’t just mirror the world. It filters it for its own benefit.

Really good OpEd by Shira Ovide:

In an interview that aired on Tuesday, Zuckerberg was asked big and thorny questions about his company: Why are people sometimes cruel to one another on Facebook, and why do inflammatory, partisan posts get so much attention?

Zuckerberg told “Axios on HBO” that Americans are angry and divided right now, and that’s why they act that way on Facebook, too.

Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives consistently say that Facebook is a mirror on society. An online gathering that gives a personal printing press to billions of people will inevitably have all the good and the bad of those people. (My colleague Mike Isaac has talked about this view before.)

It’s true but also comically incomplete to say that Facebook reflects reality. Instead, Facebook presents reality filtered through its own prism, and this affects what people think and do. [Emphasis added]

That last sentence is the key to understanding the problem. The prism is driven by a particular business model. And it’s designed to achieve corporate objectives, not users’.


America Is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral

Long read of the day — Ed Yong’s latest piece in The Atlantic.

Here’s how it begins…

Army ants will sometimes walk in circles until they die. The workers navigate by smelling the pheromone trails of workers in front of them, while laying down pheromones for others to follow. If these trails accidentally loop back on themselves, the ants are trapped. They become a thick, swirling vortex of bodies that resembles a hurricane as viewed from space. They march endlessly until they’re felled by exhaustion or dehydration. The ants can sense no picture bigger than what’s immediately ahead. They have no coordinating force to guide them to safety. They are imprisoned by a wall of their own instincts. This phenomenon is called the death spiral. I can think of no better metaphor for the United States of America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. enters the ninth month of the pandemic with more than 6.3 million confirmed cases and more than 189,000 confirmed deaths. The toll has been enormous because the country presented the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus with a smorgasbord of vulnerabilities to exploit. But the toll continues to be enormous—every day, the case count rises by around 40,000 and the death toll by around 800—because the country has consistently thought about the pandemic in the same unproductive ways…

He goes on to list the nine big mistakes the US has made so far. The most horrifying one is #9: The Habituation of Horror:

The U.S. might stop treating the pandemic as the emergency that it is. Daily tragedy might become ambient noise. The desire for normality might render the unthinkable normal. Like poverty and racism, school shootings and police brutality, mass incarceration and sexual harassment, widespread extinctions and changing climate, COVID-19 might become yet another unacceptable thing that America comes to accept.

Ed Yong is the best journalist writing about this stuff at the moment.


Of Course Trump Couldn’t Resist Bob Woodward

Timothy O’Brien once wrote a book about Donald Trump — Trumpnation: The Art of Being The Donald. Now he’s written an interesting Bloomberg column reflecting on Trump’s experience with Bob Woodward.

My book turned out to portray a negative Trump. He then sued me for libel and lost. During the litigation, he had to produce his tax returns and other financial records, and he also had to sit for two damning days of depositions. The depositions, in which Trump, under oath, was forced to admit 30 times that he had lied over the years about all sorts of stuff are now a permanent part of the public record and his legacy. Trump would have been wise not to sue.

Trump would have been wiser not to cooperate with my book in the first place, and he would have been wise not to have cooperated with Woodward’s book, either. He didn’t cooperate with “Fear,” Woodward’s previous book, and that probably saved him some additional grief. But here’s the rub: Trump isn’t wise.

It seems that Trump regretted not cooperating with Woodward on his earlier book about him, and was convinced that it would have come out glowingly if he had engaged more directly with the reporter who brought down Richard Nixon. So, says O’Brien,

he ambled into the ring for round two, certain that he could steer the effort toward a positive outcome. Graham and others might have laced up his gloves and escorted him to his corner, but it was Trump’s choice. At age 74, he’s been battling and courting the media for the better part of 50 years. He knows the game.

Trump courts the media 24/7 because he is addicted to it, and addicts can’t help themselves.


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!


Monday 17 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”

  • Jonathan Swift

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Randy Newman: Political Science

Link

I always think of George W. Bush when I hear this.


Inside the chaotic, desperate, last-minute Trump 2020 reboot.

My long read of the day — wonderful account in New York Magazine of what’s going on inside the Trump campaign. Small sample:

It was July before he “saw for the first time” that he could be defeated, according to the official. And he didn’t blame himself. He blamed a cruel world, a crueler media, and the Death Star’s failure to defend him from both. “They thought they were running one campaign: We’re on cruise control for the president who gave us the greatest economy of all time, and all the messaging would flow from there. Which socialist are we running against? Bop, bop, bop. And everything changed, and they didn’t change,” the senior White House official said. “The president started to hate the ads. He hated ‘Beijing Biden’ — he didn’t come up with that name.”

In the West Wing, officials filed away gossip and unflattering data points about the campaign manager as if drafting a dossier. When it was reported that Parscale’s web of companies took in $38 million between Inauguration Day and the spring of the pandemic, according to the Federal Election Commission, the story circulated widely. Though Parscale has declined to make clear what portion of his bills to the campaign amount to his personal salary, the New York Times reported in March that Trump had imposed a salary cap on Parscale of somewhere between $700,000 and $800,000 — enough for him to become in midlife a collector of luxury cars and seaside real estate, or at least a media caricature of one. But it wasn’t only Parscale’s spending on Parscale that worried — or “worried” — some of his colleagues; it was his spending on everything else, too, like the $15,000-a-month payments to Kimberly Guilfoyle, Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend, and to Lara Trump, Eric Trump’s wife, both of whom crisscross the country as campaign surrogates.

“The campaign was spending all this money on silly things. Brad’s businesses kept making money,” the first senior White House official told me. “Everyone was like, What does he even do? He’s just milking the family, basically.

In the end, it seems to be all about Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. Or a cut-price Mafia family.


Facebook still enabling Holocaust denial

The Guardian reports that an investigation by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a UK-based counter-extremist organisation, found that typing “holocaust” in the Facebook search function brought up suggestions for denial pages, which in turn recommended links to publishers which sell revisionist and denial literature, as well as pages dedicated to the notorious British Holocaust denier David Irving.

The findings coincide with mounting international demands from Holocaust survivors to Facebook’s boss, Mark Zuckerberg, to remove such material from the site.

Last Wednesday Facebook announced it was banning conspiracy theories about Jewish people “controlling the world”. However, it has been unwilling to categorise Holocaust denial as a form of hate speech, a stance that ISD describe as a “conceptual blind spot”.

The ISD also discovered at least 36 Facebook groups with a combined 366,068 followers which are specifically dedicated to Holocaust denial or which host such content. Researchers found that when they followed public Facebook pages containing Holocaust denial content, Facebook recommended further similar content.

Jacob Davey, ISD’s senior research manager, said: “Facebook’s decision to allow Holocaust denial content to remain on its platform is framed under the guise of protecting legitimate historical debate, but this misses the reason why people engage in Holocaust denial in the first place.

I like that idea of “protecting legitimate historical debate”, but how does it square with Holocaust denial? You only have to ask the question to know the answer.


The testing plan that could give us our lives back

Another long read of the day: think of it as “everything you wanted to know about Covid testing but were afraid to ask”. Great piece of public interest reporting by Robinson Meyer and Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic, triggered by frustration that the US testing record is getting worse, not better.


Summer books #6

After Ireland: Writing the Nation from Beckett to the Present, Head of Zeus, 2018.

A sobering, unsentimental analysis of what has happened to modern Ireland since it became independent, told through studies of the writers who understood what was happening to Irish culture and had the wit (and sometimes the courage) to tell it like it was. I received this as a birthday present last month and have been happily dipping into it ever since, marvelling at Kibbert’s range and intellectual stamina. The cover is a reproduction of a ravishing painting by Jack Butler Yeats.


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


Tuesday 11 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be”.

  • Mark Twain

(I’m editing the text of my Quarantine Diary at the moment, and am finding this principle damn very useful.)


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paul Simon singing ‘American Tune’ quietly by himself on The Late Show.

Link

Some of the lyrics seem to map directly onto the post below this.

And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
But it’s alright, it’s alright
For we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the
Road we’re traveling on
I wonder what’s gone wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what has gone wrong.

Many thanks to Ian Clark who suggested it, even thought he couldn’t have known what was coming next on the blog.


The unravelling of America

Anthropologist Wade Davis on how COVID-19 signals the end of the American era.

Best long read of the day. The 20th Century was the American one. The 21st will belong to… China?

Odious as he may be, Trump is less the cause of America’s decline than a product of its descent. As they stare into the mirror and perceive only the myth of their exceptionalism, Americans remain almost bizarrely incapable of seeing what has actually become of their country. The republic that defined the free flow of information as the life blood of democracy, today ranks 45th among nations when it comes to press freedom. In a land that once welcomed the huddled masses of the world, more people today favor building a wall along the southern border than supporting health care and protection for the undocumented mothers and children arriving in desperation at its doors. In a complete abandonment of the collective good, U.S. laws define freedom as an individual’s inalienable right to own a personal arsenal of weaponry, a natural entitlement that trumps even the safety of children; in the past decade alone 346 American students and teachers have been shot on school grounds.

The American cult of the individual denies not just community but the very idea of society. No one owes anything to anyone. All must be prepared to fight for everything: education, shelter, food, medical care. What every prosperous and successful democracy deems to be fundamental rights — universal health care, equal access to quality public education, a social safety net for the weak, elderly, and infirmed — America dismisses as socialist indulgences, as if so many signs of weakness.

How can the rest of the world expect America to lead on global threats — climate change, the extinction crisis, pandemics — when the country no longer has a sense of benign purpose, or collective well-being, even within its own national community? Flag-wrapped patriotism is no substitute for compassion; anger and hostility no match for love. Those who flock to beaches, bars, and political rallies, putting their fellow citizens at risk, are not exercising freedom; they are displaying, as one commentator has noted, the weakness of a people who lack both the stoicism to endure the pandemic and the fortitude to defeat it. Leading their charge is Donald Trump, a bone spur warrior, a liar and a fraud, a grotesque caricature of a strong man, with the backbone of a bully.

When I was a kid growing up in Ireland, I bought into the myth of American exceptionalism. Everyone did, then. The Vietnam war cured me of that. But what’s happened to the US as it morphed into a flailing giant is deeply depressing. Will a Biden presidency arrest the decline? I doubt it, so long as the Koch brothers et al continue to maintain a dysfunctional political system and systemic racism and an individualistic culture endure.

And just for the avoidance of doubt, the replacement of US hegemony with a Chinese version is nothing to celebrate either. We’re faced with the choice of lesser evils


Consistent and Widespread Belief in the Threat of COVID-19 to the UK Economy

From the ninth factsheet of the UK COVID-19 news and information project…

Most people still see COVID-19 as quite threatening or very threatening to the UK economy (94%), the health of the UK population as a whole (80%), and their personal health (54%). 41% say COVID-19 is a threat to their personal finances.

This is a really useful project by the RISJ.


Summer Reading #1

(Stuff I’ve been reading, or want to.)

Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics by Peter Geoghegan, Head of Zeus, 2020.

I’ve reviewed this (forthcoming in the Observer). It’s a compulsively readable, carefully researched account of how a malignant combination of right-wing ideology, secretive money (much of it from the US) and weaponisation of social media have shaped contemporary British (and to a limited extent, European) politics. And it has been able to do this in what has turned out to be a regulatory vacuum — with laws, penalties and regulators that are no longer fit for purpose.

And it’s not just (or even mostly) about Brexit.

Recommended.


QAnon groups have millions of members on Facebook

NBC News report that leaked contents of the preliminary results of an investigation by Facebook shed new light on the scope of activity and content from the QAnon community on the platform.

An internal investigation by Facebook has uncovered thousands of groups and pages, with millions of members and followers, that support the QAnon conspiracy theory, according to internal company documents reviewed by NBC News.

The investigation’s preliminary results, which were provided to NBC News by a Facebook employee, shed new light on the scope of activity and content from the QAnon community on Facebook, a scale previously undisclosed by Facebook and unreported by the news media, because most of the groups are private.

The top 10 groups identified in the investigation collectively contain more than 1 million members, with totals from more top groups and pages pushing the number of members and followers past 3 million. It is not clear how much overlap there is among the groups.

The investigation will likely inform what, if any, action Facebook decides to take against its QAnon community, according to the documents and two current Facebook employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Note the phrase “what, if any, action Facebook decides to take”…

This is so depressingly familiar. When will people wake up to the toxicity of this company?


How to find anything on the Web

Wonderful resource. Bookmark it. I knew only a few of the tricks; delighted to learn more.

HT to Charles Arthur


Outcome of Edward Bridge’s appeal on deployment of facial recognition technology by the South Wales police

Last year Edward Bridges, a civil rights campaigner in Wales, found himself in two locations at which he would have been scanned by automated facial-recognition (AFR) technology deployed by the local police force. He brought a claim for judicial review on the basis that AFR was not compatible with the right to respect for private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, data protection legislation, and the Public Sector Equality Duty (“PSED”) under section 149 of the Equality Act 2010. On 4 September 2019 the Divisional Court (“DC”) dismissed Mr Bridges’s claim for judicial review on all grounds. Bridges then appealed.

Today the Appeal Court published its judgment. Bridges’s appeal succeeded on three of the five grounds, but was not allowed on the other two.

I’m no lawyer, but it looks like only a Pyrrhic victory. The Appeal Court agreed that in order to use live AFR, some changes are needed to the framework which supposedly regulates it — e.g amendments to local policy documents and to the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice (which is issued by the Home Secretary), plus further work to ensure that the public sector equality duty is discharged. But the bad news is that the Appeal Court did not accept that lawful use of live AFR requires new primary legislation in order to regulate processing of images in the same way as fingerprints or DNA is processed by the police service. If you believe (as I do) that this technology is largely toxic, then this is depressing news.


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 26 July, 2020

A note to subscribers

If you elected to receive this blog as a daily email and are finding that it’s not arriving regularly (as some people have been), please check your spam filter. It seems that some filters automatically suspect stuff that comes from services like Substack.


The UK’s contact-tracing app difficulties

This morning’s Observer column:

Some day, we will have a reckoning for how the Johnson administration screwed up so comprehensively. But that will have to wait, because it is still screwing up. The current focus of interest is why it took it so long to realise that the only way to deal with the threat was lockdown, contact tracing and quarantining, a methodology familiar to Europeans since at least the time of the Black Death. And when the history of this time comes to be written, one interesting case study in official ineptitude will focus on the British search for its very own “world-beating” smartphone contact-tracing app.

The best interim report we have on this quest has been compiled by Rowland Manthorpe of Sky News…

Read on


“Hurting people at scale”: at last, Facebook employees are beginning to wonder whether they want to be part of the Zuckerberg project

Very interesting Buzzfeed report:

On July 1, Max Wang, a Boston-based software engineer who was leaving Facebook after more than seven years, shared a video on the company’s internal discussion board that was meant to serve as a warning.

“I think Facebook is hurting people at scale,” he wrote in a note accompanying the video. “If you think so too, maybe give this a watch.”

Most employees on their way out of the “Mark Zuckerberg production” typically post photos of their company badges along with farewell notes thanking their colleagues. Wang opted for a clip of himself speaking directly to the camera. What followed was a 24-minute clear-eyed hammering of Facebook’s leadership and decision-making over the previous year…

Here’s the recording of his farewell message obtained by Buzzfeed. The audio quality is poor (too much treble), but the content is fascinating.

What the Buzzfeed (longish) report suggests is that there is growing employee unease within Facebook about the direction the company is taking. Personally I’m sceptical about this having a major impact in the short- to medium-term. After all, the pay is good, the work (for geeks at least) may be technically interesting, and many smart and apparently decent people work for, say, arms manufacturers or tobacco companies.

Longer term, though, the shine has gone from Facebook and so I can imagine that some of the smarter computer science graduates might now have reservations about working there. For them, it’ll have become more like Palantir — something you might not want to tell your friends about.


Zuckerberg, Trump and November’s Election

The Observer has a big feature-spread today about Trump, Zuckerberg and the presidential election, with contributions from me, Carole Cadwalladr, Yaël Eisenstat and Roger McNamee.

My essay focusses mainly on Zuckerberg’s total control of the company and his possible motives for the decisions he’s been making.

So here we are in 2020, 100 days from the presidential election. Trump is still trailing Biden. But his base support has remained solid. So the point I made in June still stands: if he is to win a second term, Facebook will be his only hope – which is why his campaign is betting the ranch on it. And if Facebook were suddenly to decide that it would not allow its platform to be used by either campaign in the period from now until 3 November, Trump would be a one-term president, free to spend even more time with his golf buggy – and perhaps his lawyers.

For Facebook read Zuckerberg, for Facebook is not just a corporate extension of its founder’s personality, but his personal plaything. I can’t think of any other tech founder who has retained such an iron grip on his creation through his ownership of a special class of shares, which give him total control. The passage in the company’s SEC filing detailing this makes for surreal reading. It says that Zuckerberg “has the ability to control the outcome of matters submitted to our stockholders for approval, including the election of directors and any merger, consolidation, or sale of all or substantially all of our assets. This concentrated control could delay, defer, or prevent a change of control, merger, consolidation, or sale of all or substantially all of our assets that our other stockholders support, or conversely this concentrated control could result in the consummation of such a transaction that our other stockholders do not support.”

Such a concentration of power in the hands of a single individual would be a concern in any enterprise, but in a global company that effectively controls and mediates much of the world’s public sphere it is distinctly creepy…

Carole’s piece is here.

Ian Tucker’s interview with Roger McNamee (an early investor in Facebook is here.

Ian’s interview with Yaël Eisenstat (a whistleblower) is here.


Friend Monitors?

Dave Winer has a good idea:

I have an app called Server Monitor that does something simple but important. It pings each of the apps I have running once a minute to see if they’re still alive. If not, SM sends me an email. I bet everyone who writes server apps has this kind of utility.

I’d like something like this for my friends. A ping goes out to each, if someone doesn’t respond, I get an email.

In the age of The Trump Plague, I worry about my friends.

Me too. I’ve been thinking for a while that I should do something like this. Maybe a small email group to which I send a message a week asking just for a one word reply: OK (or, if not, No) maybe.


Central London Rents Decline as Vacation Homes Flood Market

Well, well. Bloomberg reports

Rents for homes in central London had a record decline last month as landlords flooded the market with properties previously rented out through companies such as Airbnb Inc.

Houses in the city center rented for 7.4% less than a year earlier in June, according to data compiled by broker Hamptons International. The number of homes available to rent shot up by 26% in inner London, driven by houses previously occupied for short periods by visitors to the capital moving to the long-term market.

What Brexit started, the virus has continued. Long overdue IMO.


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 you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Sunday 19 July, 2020

Don’t post on Facebook unless you are prepared to face the consequences

This morning’s Observer column:

Earlier this month Anne Borden King posted news on her Facebook page that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Since then, she reports, “my Facebook feed has featured ads for ‘alternative cancer care’. The ads, which were new to my timeline, promote everything from cumin seeds to colloidal silver as cancer treatments. Some ads promise luxury clinics – or even ‘nontoxic cancer therapies’ on a beach in Mexico.”

The irony is that King is the last person likely to fall for this crap. She’s a consultant for the watchdog group Bad Science Watch and a co-founder of the Campaign Against Phony Autism Cures. So she effortlessly recognised the telltale indicators of pseudoscience marketing – unproven and sometimes dangerous treatments, promising simplistic solutions and support. In that sense she is the polar opposite of, say, Donald Trump.

But one sentence in her thoughtful article brought me up short…

Read on


Please, Matt Hancock, let us see our loved ones with dementia

A justifiably angry piece by my friend Nicci Gerrard, who was the co-founder of John’s Campaign, which she launched after her beloved father’s dementia worsened dramatically when he was in hospital and his children were not allowed to visit him.

Ten days ago, in response to a letter from seven dementia charities and organisations, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced that the ban on visits to care homes was “coming to an end very soon”. That brought a huge sense of relief to the thousands of family carers who have been unable to see their relatives for almost four months. But since then: nothing. Was it an empty promise, a disgraceful piece of window dressing? Perhaps the health secretary could tell us what “very soon” means; how many days are there in “a few days”?

The letter was sent by John’s Campaign, the Alzheimer’s Society, Alzheimer’s Research UK, Dementia UK, Young Dementia UK, Innovations in Dementia and Tide and called for the government to grant family and friend carers the same status as a “key worker” care home member of staff, allowing them the same access to care homes with the same provision of testing so they can meet the essential needs of residents…

The neglect of care homes from the outset has been one of the greatest scandals in the Johnson regimes handling of the crisis. My mother-in-law, who also had dementia, died because she was in an unprotected care home.


Wacky reasoning and the virus

Tim Harford has a nice piece in the weekend FT about self-fulfilling prophecies.

A vocal minority argues that Covid-19 is not much worse than the influenza we ignore every winter, so both mandatory lockdowns and voluntary precautions have been unnecessary.

A glance at the data gives that argument a veneer of plausibility. The UK has suffered about 65,000 excess deaths during the first wave of the pandemic, and 25,000-30,000 excess deaths are attributed to flu in England alone during bad flu seasons.

Is the disparity so great that the country needed to grind to a halt?

The flaw in the argument is clear: Covid was “only” twice as bad as a bad flu season because we took extreme measures to contain it. The effectiveness of the lockdown is being used as an argument that lockdown was unnecessary. It is frustrating, but that is the nature of a self-defeating prophecy in a politicised environment.

Nice. And necessary.


Recovery from Covid-19 will be threatened if we don’t learn to control big tech

My OpEd piece in today’s Observer.

As societies try to recover from the pandemic, an alarming scenario begins to loom. It goes like this: a vaccine is invented and countries embark on massive vaccination programmes. However, conspiracy theorists use social media to oppose the programme and undermine public confidence in the vaccination drive. It will be like the anti-MMR campaign but on steroids.

What we have learned from the coronavirus crisis so far is that the only way to manage it is by coherent, concerted government action to slow the transmission rate. As societies move into a vaccination phase, then an analogous approach will be needed to slow the circulation of misinformation and destructive antisocial memes on social media. Twitter would be much improved by removing the retweet button, for example. Users would still be free to pass on ideas but the process would no longer be frictionless. Similarly, Facebook’s algorithms could be programmed to introduce a delay in the circulation of certain kinds of content. YouTube’s recommender algorithms could be modified to prioritise different factors from those they currently favour. And so on.

Measures such as these will be anathema to the platforms. Tough. In the end, they will have to make choices between their profits and the health of society. If they get it wrong then regulation is the only way forward. And governments will have to remember that to govern is to choose.


Freud and the pandemic

Striking essay by Alax Danco.

Three months ago, he wrote this:

Over the next few months, across America, a lot of people are going to die. And they’re going die because other Americans are – not just cluelessly, but gleefully – refusing to wear masks, and celebrating it, the way you’d celebrate winning a football game. Meanwhile, the urgent topic occupying all of the air time in elite circles isn’t the pandemic, or its generational economic devastation; it’s “how bad should other people be allowed to make you feel online?”

And now, he concluded,

So yeah, it did, indeed, get worse.

You know who would really have recognized and understood this moment? Sigmund Freud.

In retrospect, he thinks, “the critical mistake of the pandemic was telling Americans that masks protect other people”.

The minute that wearing masks became about protecting other people, it was game over for America. Masks became a symbol of the superego; and as far as symbolism goes, it’s laid on pretty thick. (It’s literally something that you put on your face into order to stop yourself from spraying germs onto other people, and therefore suppress your own guilt of being part of a pandemic!) The minute masks became about suppressing yourself to protect others, the narrative became: The Elites want you to feel guilty about not wearing a mask, just like they want you to feel guilty about driving a car, or eating a burger, or anything else you love. Don’t let them!

Our reaction to this narrative misses what’s really being said. If you’ve ever thought, “how stupid do you have to be to think the government wants to control with a mask”, pause for a minute and think about what’s really being communicated. The real message is “they want to control you with guilt.” Doesn’t sound so stupid anymore, does it? Freud would certainly argue that this message gets it exactly right.

Unfortunately, there is a right answer. Wear the stupid mask. This should be a conversation about public health, not yet another forum for symbolic battle between the ego and superego. And in most countries, that’s the case; people cooperate, wear masks, and their countries can cautiously reopen and get back to something like normal life. Not in America, though! In America, you see political talking heads saying things like “Mask-wearing has become a totem, a secular religious symbol. Christians wear crosses, Muslims wear a hijab, and members of the Church of Secular Science bow to the Gods of Data by wearing a mask as their symbol, demonstrating that they are the elite; smarter, more rational, and morally superior to everyone else.”

Actually, it’s not just in America that you hear people talking like that. A colleague of mine came back wearily from a meeting of his College’s Council the other day, after a two-hour argument about whether students and staff ought to be compelled to wear face masks in the Autumn.


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 you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Tuesday 14 July, 2020

Le Quatorze Juillet!

In pre-pandemic times, we’d be there today. Sigh.


Notes from the new battleground

Cyberspace viewed through a military lens.

1/ The Internet is now the dominant communications medium of our world. And we’re still only at the beginning of that transformation.

2/ The network is now a battlefield, indispensable to militaries and their governments.

3/ This changes how conflicts are being — and will be — fought.

  • It’s now impossible to keep secrets
  • Power becomes the ability to command people’s attention
  • Conflicts become “contests of psychological and algorithmic manipulation.”

4/ The nature of ‘war’ is changing. It used to be “the continuation of politics by other means”. But now war and politics have begun to fuse together. However the laws of this new battlefield are not formulated by democratic or military authorities but by a handful of American tech companies.

5/ And we’re all caught up in this new warfare, as combatants, spectators or collateral damage. Our attention has become a piece of contested territory “being fought over in conflicts that you may or may not realise are unfolding around you. Your online attention and actions are thus both targets and ammunition in an unending series of skirmishes. Whether you have an interest in the conflicts of ‘Likewar’ or not, they have an interest in you”.

Notes from reading Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking, Houghton Mifflin, 2018.


The dark underbelly of ‘efficiency’

Tim Bray, one of the most thoughtful geeks around, has an interesting essay on his blog about the downsides of the neoliberal obsession with ‘efficiency’.

On a Spring 2019 walk in Beijing I saw two street sweepers at a sunny corner. They were beat-up looking and grizzled but probably younger than me. They’d paused work to smoke and talk. One told a story; the other’s eyes widened and then he laughed so hard he had to bend over, leaning on his broom. I suspect their jobs and pay were lousy and their lives constrained in ways I can’t imagine. But they had time to smoke a cigarette and crack a joke. You know what that’s called? Waste, inefficiency, a suboptimal outcome. Some of the brightest minds in our economy are earnestly engaged in stamping it out. They’re winning, but everyone’s losing.

I’ve felt this for years, and there’s plenty of evidence:

Item: Every successful little store with a personality morphs into a chain because that’s more efficient. The personality becomes part of the brand and thus rote.

Item: I go to a deli fifteen minutes away to buy bacon, rashers cut from the slab while I wait, because they’re better. Except when I can’t, in which case I buy a waterlogged plastic-encased product at the supermarket; no standing or waiting! It’s obvious which is more efficient.

Item: I’ve learned, when I have a problem with a tech vendor, to seek out the online-chat help service; there’s annoying latency between question and answers as the service rep multiplexes me in with lots of other people’s problems, but at least the dialog starts without endless minutes on hold; a really super-efficient process. Item: Speaking of which, it seems that when you have a problem with a business, the process for solving it each year becomes more and more complex and opaque and irritating and (for the business) efficient.

Item, item, item; as the world grows more efficient it grows less flavorful and less human. Because the more efficient you are, the less humans you need.

To help develop his argument, Bray links to a terrific essay by Bruce Schneier, my favourite security guru:

For decades, we have prized efficiency in our economy. We strive for it. We reward it. In normal times, that’s a good thing. Running just at the margins is efficient. A single just-in-time global supply chain is efficient. Consolidation is efficient. And that’s all profitable. Inefficiency, on the other hand, is waste. Extra inventory is inefficient. Overcapacity is inefficient. Using many small suppliers is inefficient. Inefficiency is unprofitable.

But inefficiency is essential security, as the COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us. All of the overcapacity that has been squeezed out of our healthcare system; we now wish we had it. All of the redundancy in our food production that has been consolidated away; we want that, too. We need our old, local supply chains — not the single global ones that are so fragile in this crisis. And we want our local restaurants and businesses to survive, not just the national chains.

We have lost much inefficiency to the market in the past few decades. Investors have become very good at noticing any fat in every system and swooping down to monetize those redundant assets. The winner-take-all mentality that has permeated so many industries squeezes any inefficiencies out of the system.

This drive for efficiency leads to brittle systems that function properly when everything is normal but break under stress. And when they break, everyone suffers. The less fortunate suffer and die. The more fortunate are merely hurt, and perhaps lose their freedoms or their future. But even the extremely fortunate suffer — maybe not in the short term, but in the long term from the constriction of the rest of society.

Efficient systems have limited ability to deal with system-wide economic shocks. Those shocks are coming with increased frequency. They’re caused by global pandemics, yes, but also by climate change, by financial crises, by political crises. If we want to be secure against these crises and more, we need to add inefficiency back into our systems.

Yep.

Bray ends with a protest:

It’s hard to think of a position more radical than being “against efficiency”. And I’m not. Efficiency is a good, and like most good things, has to be bought somehow, and paid for. There is a point where the price is too high, and we’ve passed it.

Actually, there are times when efficiency is not good but positively bad. Take our criminal justice system. It’s woefully inefficient because we have this commitment to ‘due process’, the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven, legal representation and the rest. It would be much more ‘efficient’ to be able to lock people up on the say-so of the local chief of police. But we don’t do that because our liberal, democratic values abhor it. (Which is also why authoritarians love it.) Of course the criminal justice system should operate more efficiently — in the sense that courts should be run so that the dispensation of justice is quicker and with less pointless delay, lower legal costs, etc. But the central inefficiency of the system implied by the need for due process is the most precious thing about it.


Tim Bray’s essay led me to David Wooton’s book, Power, Pleasure, and Profit: Insatiable Appetites from Machiavelli to Madison, and thence to his 2017 Besterman Lecture at Oxford, which is based on Chapter 8 of the book.

Link


I Have Cancer. Now My Facebook Feed Is Full of ‘Alternative Care’ Ads

Here we go again. Most of the current hoo-hah about Facebook and moderation is about politics and extremism. But actually almost every area of life is affected by the Facebook targeting system. Here’s a great example of that from the personal experience of Anne Borden King — who, ironically, is an advocate working to prevent the spread of medical misinformation online. “Last week”, she writes,

I posted about my breast cancer diagnosis on Facebook. Since then, my Facebook feed has featured ads for “alternative cancer care.” The ads, which were new to my timeline, promote everything from cumin seeds to colloidal silver as cancer treatments. Some ads promise luxury clinics — or even “nontoxic cancer therapies” on a beach in Mexico.

When I saw the ads, I knew that Facebook had probably tagged me to receive them. Interestingly, I haven’t seen any legitimate cancer care ads in my newsfeed, just pseudoscience. This may be because pseudoscience companies rely on social media in a way that other forms of health care don’t. Pseudoscience companies leverage Facebook’s social and supportive environment to connect their products with identities and to build communities around their products. They use influencers and patient testimonials. Some companies also recruit members through Facebook “support groups” to sell their products in pyramid schemes.

Anyone who has experimented with using Facebook’s advertising system will not be surprised by her experience. What happened is that people flogging snake oil were using Facebook’s automated machine for helping them to build a “custom audience”, and one of the questions the system will have asked them is whether they would like to target people who have posted that they have had a cancer diagnosis. Click yes and it’s done.


Finally: the UK government is mandating the wearing of face masks

This is how Politico’s daily ‘London Playbook’ newsletter puts it.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock will give a statement in the House of Commons this afternoon confirming the news on every front page this morning: face coverings will be compulsory in shops and supermarkets in England from Friday July 24, with those refusing to wear them facing fines of up to £100.

What took you so long? The British Medical Association last night called the announcement — which brings England in line with Scotland Germany, Spain, Italy and Greece and many other countries — “long overdue,” and called for the regulation to be extended to all settings where social distancing is not possible. BMA council Chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul also questioned why the government was waiting 10 days to implement the policy. “Each day that goes by adds to the risk of spread and endangers lives,” he said. Officials say the delay will give businesses and the public time to prepare. Retailers won’t be expected to enforce the new regulations, which will be a matter for police. Only children under 11 and those with certain disabilities will be exempt.

We’ve come a long way since … the received wisdom in the U.K. was that mass wearing of face masks did little or nothing to help. It’s just over 100 days, for instance, since England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van-Tam said at the Downing Street lectern on April 3: “There is no evidence that general wearing of the face masks by the public who are well affects the spread of the disease.”

We’ve not come very far at all since … Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, when asked by the the BBC’s Andrew Marr whether face masks should be mandatory in shops in England, said: “I don’t think mandatory, no.” It’s not yet been 48 hours.

Nothing changes. The UK government couldn’t run a bath.

(The Politico newsletter is indispensable IMHO. And it’s free. First thing I read every morning.


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 you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Sunday 12 July, 2020

A house full of music

This astonishing programme was broadcast on BBC1 this evening. It’s on the iPlayer for a month and is unmissable IMHO. Take an hour off and watch it.


Could juries be a solution to the free-speech moderation problem on social media?

This morning’s Observer column on Jonathan Zittrain’s big idea.

One of the most instructive experiences of my life was serving as a juror in a criminal trial. When the summons to report for jury service arrived, though, I was anything but enthusiastic. I was bringing up two young children on my own at the time and the last thing I needed was to be locked down for an unknown number of days. So I headed into the crown court feeling pretty glum.

The trial was a serious one: the charge was of causing grievous bodily harm with intent. It went on for two weeks. A number of witnesses gave evidence, much of which seemed (to me) unconvincing, sometimes contradictory, occasionally horrifying. We learned more about what goes on at night in an economically depressed East Anglian town than is good for anyone. And then, when the lawyers and the judge had summed up, we retired to reach a verdict.

What happened next was remarkable…

Read on


History of (tech) ideas?

One of the biggest treats of the lockdown has been David Runciman’s ‘History of Ideas’ podcast — a set of absorbing, enlightening and thought-provoking lectures on some of the intellects who have shaped the way we think about politics. In this first set of talks he covered:

  • Thomas Hobbes on power
  • Mary Wollstonecraft On Sexual Politics
  • Benjamin Constant on Liberty
  • Alexis de Tocqueville on Democracy
  • Marx and Engels on Revolution
  • Mahatma Gandhi on Self-Rule
  • Max Weber on Leadership
  • Friedrich Hayek on the market
  • Hannah Arendt on Action
  • Frantz Fanon on Empire
  • Catharine MacKinnon on Patriarchy
  • Francis Fukuyama on History

(The only one I would have added is John Maynard Keynes.)

If there had been a season of talks like this on the radio when I was a teenager I might have decided to study politics rather than engineering. I can imagine these podcasts having a similar impact on serious teenagers wondering what A-Levels to study now. What made the talks so good was the way they provided the context needed if one is embarking on reading, say, Hobbes or Weber for the first time.

Having really enjoyed the series, I then fell to wondering who would be the thinkers for an analogous series on computing and computation.

Here’s a first stab at such a list:

  • George Boole on logic
  • Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace on automated calculation
  • Alan Turing on computability
  • John von Neumann on computer architecture
  • Norbert Weiner on automation
  • Claude Shannon on information theory
  • Donald Knuth on algorithms
  • Vannevar Bush on associative linking
  • JCR Licklider on computers as communication devices
  • Douglas Engelbart on augmentation
  • Paul Baran and Donald Davies on packet-switching
  • Ted Nelson and Tim Bernard-Lee on hypertext
  • Hal Varian on the economics of information goods
  • Stuart Russell on AI
  • Shoshana Zuboff on surveillance capitalism

Who am I missing? Nick Bostrom on superintelligence?


With India’s TikTok Ban, the World’s Digital Walls Grow Higher

As this NYT story illustrates, censorship and politics are fracturing the global internet, isolating users and industries accustomed to ignoring national borders.

TikTok, the first Chinese internet service to have a truly global fan base, is rapidly falling victim to China’s worsening diplomatic relations around the globe. It is yet another sign that the digital world, once thought of as a unifying space that transcended old divisions, is being carved up along the same national lines that split the physical one.

Tensions between India and China have run hot ever since a border clash in the Himalayas two weeks ago left 20 Indian soldiers dead. The government in New Delhi announced a ban on 59 Chinese apps late Monday, saying they were secretly transmitting users’ data to servers outside India.

India’s decision strikes at a number of China’s leading technology companies, including Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu. But perhaps none will be more affected than TikTok and its Beijing-based parent, ByteDance, which has built a huge audience in India as part of an aggressive and well-funded expansion around the world. TikTok has been installed more than 610 million times in India, according to estimates by the data firm Sensor Tower. In the United States, the app has been installed 165 million times.

‘Balkanisation’ of the Internet picks up speed.


Imagining New York without cars

Farhad Manjoo’s imaginative essay is worth some of your time. It’s a nice example of how to tell a complex story using Web technology imaginatively.

That whirring sound you will hear is that of Robert Moses rotating at 5,000rpm in his grave.


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 you decide that your inbox is full enough already!