Zuckerberg’s total control of Facebook is half of the problem.

This morning’s Observer column:

Facebook is one of the most toxic corporations on the planet. Its toxicity has two roots. The first is its business model: intrusive and comprehensive surveillance of its users in order to compile profiles that enable advertisers to target messages at them. This business model is powered by the machine-learning algorithms that construct those profiles and determine what appears in the news feeds of the company’s 2.85 billion users. In large measure, it is the output of these algorithms that constitutes the focus of congressional anger and inquiry.

The other source of the company’s toxicity is its governance. Essentially, Facebook is a dictatorship entirely controlled by its founder, Mark Zuckerberg.

Do read the whole piece.

Teenage loneliness and the Smartphone

A sombre essay by Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge, two psychologists who have spent years studying the effect of smartphones and social media on our daily lives and mental health.

It’s been obvious for years that smartphones — and particularly social media apps — are having a devastating impact on teenagers.

This synchronized global increase in teenage loneliness suggests a global cause, and the timing is right for smartphones and social media to be major contributors. But couldn’t the timing just be coincidental? To test our hypothesis, we sought data on many global trends that might have an impact on teenage loneliness, including declines in family size, changes in G.D.P., rising income inequality and increases in unemployment, as well as more smartphone access and more hours of internet use. The results were clear: Only smartphone access and internet use increased in lock step with teenage loneliness. The other factors were unrelated or inversely correlated.

These analyses don’t prove that smartphones and social media are major causes of the increase in teenage loneliness, but they do show that several other causes are less plausible. If anyone has another explanation for the global increase in loneliness at school, we’d love to hear it.

Me too. The companies continually avoid this awkward topic on the grounds that there isn’t real causal evidence for the connection. Rather like the tobacco companies in the early days of medical concerns about lung cancer, or oil companies and evidence of climate change. See Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes for the grisly detail.


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday to Friday, 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!


Judge Throws Out Two Antitrust Cases Against Facebook

There’s been much jubilation in the tech industry as a result of US District judge James Boasberg (an Obama nominee, incidentally) summarily dismissing antitrust lawsuits brought against the company by the Federal Trade Commission and more than 40 states.

The judge eviscerated one of the federal government’s core arguments, that Facebook holds a monopoly over social networking, saying prosecutors had failed to provide enough facts to back up that claim. And he said the states had waited too long to bring their case, which centers on deals made in 2012 and 2014.

The judge said the F.T.C. could try again within 30 days with more detail, but he suggested that the agency faced steep challenges.

As it happens, I agree with the judge but draw different conclusions about the significance of the case. I really liked his succinct critique of it.

Although the Court does not agree with all of Facebook’s contentions here, it ultimately concurs that the agency’s Complaint is legally insufficient and must therefore be dismissed. The FTC has failed to plead enough facts to plausibly establish a necessary element of all of its Section 2 claims — namely, that Facebook has monopoly power in the market for Personal Social Networking (PSN) Services. The Complaint contains nothing on that score save the naked allegation that the company has had and still has a “dominant share of that market (in excess of 60%).” Such an unsupported assertion might (barely) suffice in a Section 2 case involving a more traditional goods market, in which the Court could reasonably infer that market share was measured by revenue, units sold, or some other typical metric. But this case involves no ordinary or intuitive market. Rather, PSN services are free to use, and the exact metes and bounds of what even constitutes a PSN service — i.e., which features of a company’s mobile app or website are included in that definition and which are excluded — are hardly crystal clear. In this unusual context, the FTC’s inability to offer any indication of the metric(s) or method(s) it used to calculate Facebook’s market share renders its vague “60%-plus” assertion too speculative and conclusory to go forward. Because this defect could conceivably be overcome by re-pleading, however, the Court will dismiss only the Complaint, not the case, and will do so without prejudice to allow Plaintiff to file an amended Complaint.

What the failure of the FTC and the States’ complaint shows is that old conceptions of ‘monopoly’ don’t map accurately onto the monopolistic-like power of some tech giants — Facebook in this instance. So pursuing old-style antitrust actions on the basis of ‘monopoly’ is likely to come unstuck, especially with a judiciary that’s been conditioned by decades of Borkism. What’s needed, therefore, is lots of legislative creativity to develop conceptions of corporate power that are appropriate to the power that these corporations actually wield.

In the case of Facebook, for example, a more promising line of inquiry might be that suggested by my colleague Jennifer Cobbe — and also by Josh Simon and Dipayan Ghosh. This line of argument locates the real monopolistic power of social media companies in the algorithms that determine users’ newsfeeds, i.e. what kinds of information users are presented with. One can think of these algorithms as constituting the critical infrastructure of the public sphere. Or to put it another way: once upon a time, John D. Rockefeller & Co exerted (and abused) their monopoly control over the railroads that other oil-drillers needed to use to get their oil to market. Mark Zuckerberg plays an analogous role today — as the controller of the virtual railroad that conveys ideas and information to individual citizens. The implication is that regulation as infrastructure might be a more appropriate way of asserting democratic control.

The PR exercise that is Facebook’s ‘supreme court’

This morning’s Observer column

This board (originally talked about within Facebook as a “supreme court”) is both a manifestation of preposterous hubris on the part of what is, after all, merely a commercial company and a cunning stunt by said company to avoid taking corporate responsibility for difficult decisions. It consists of up to 40 bigwigs, allegedly carefully chosen (“six in-depth workshops and 22 round tables, attended by more than 650 people from 88 different countries”) but who look awfully like the kind of longlist that might be produced by a high-end corporate headhunter. It includes, for example, a former prime minister of Denmark, nine professors, one vice-chancellor and a former editor of the Guardian. Such eminent worthies, of course, cannot be expected to work for nothing, so, according to the New York Times, they receive at least $100,000 (£73,000) a year for a commitment of 15 hours a week.

Inspection of linguistic clues on the board’s website does not inspire confidence in its supposed collective IQ or independence…

Read on

The flight from WhatsApp

Not surprisingly, Signal has been staggering under the load of refugees from WhatsApp following Facebook’s ultimatum about sharing their data with other companies in its group. According to data from Sensor Tower Signal was downloaded 8.8m times worldwide in the week after the WhatsApp changes were first announced on January 4. Compare that with 246,000 downloads the week before and you get some idea of the step-change. I guess the tweet — “Use Signal” — from Elon Musk on January 7 probably also added a spike.

In contrast, WhatsApp downloads during the period showed the reverse pattern — 9.7m downloads in the week after the announcement, compared with 11.3m before, a 14 per cent decrease.

This isn’t a crisis for Facebook — yet. But it’s a more serious challenge than the June 2020 advertising boycott. Evidence that Zuckerberg & Co are taking it seriously comes from announcements that Facebook has cancelled the February 8 deadline in its ultimatum to users. It now says that it will instead “go to people gradually to review the policy at their own pace before new business options are available on May 15.” Ho, ho.

Signal is a very interesting outfit, incidentally, and not just because of its technology. It’s a not-for-profit organisation, for one thing. Its software is open source — which means it can be independently assessed. And it’s been created by interesting people. Brian Acton, for example, is one of the two co-founders of WhatsApp, which Facebook bought in 2014 for $19B. He pumped $50m of that into Signal, and no doubt there’s a lot more where that came from. And Moxie Marlinspike, the CEO, is not only a cryptographer but also a hacker, a shipwright, and a licensed mariner. The New Yorker had a nice profile of him a while back.

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!