Friday 3 July, 2020

Quote of the Day

I started at the top and worked my way down

  • Orson Wells

A virtual May Week

In pre-pandemic times, when exams were over, Cambridge had a May Week (which of course was in June) full of events — boat races, College Balls, open air performances, madrigals on the river etc. — in which students let off steam and celebrated. Given that the virus has consigned all of that to the dustbin, at least for the moment, the question was what, if anything, could be done to mark the end of the academic year?. The answer was a mega-online event last Sunday evening, to which something like 10,000 alumni and staff logged in at one time or another. Here’s the finale to the evening. It’s wacky but nice.

Link


What’s wrong with WhatsApp

Will Davies has a characteristically thoughtful Long Read in the Guardian about the significance and dangers of WhatsApp. Sample:

The political threat of WhatsApp is the flipside of its psychological appeal. Unlike so many other social media platforms, WhatsApp is built to secure privacy. On the plus side, this means intimacy with those we care about and an ability to speak freely; on the negative side, it injects an ethos of secrecy and suspicion into the public sphere. As Facebook, Twitter and Instagram become increasingly theatrical – every gesture geared to impress an audience or deflect criticism – WhatsApp has become a sanctuary from a confusing and untrustworthy world, where users can speak more frankly. As trust in groups grows, so it is withdrawn from public institutions and officials. A new common sense develops, founded on instinctive suspicion towards the world beyond the group.

The ongoing rise of WhatsApp, and its challenge to both legacy institutions and open social media, poses a profound political question: how do public institutions and discussions retain legitimacy and trust once people are organised into closed and invisible communities? The risk is that a vicious circle ensues, in which private groups circulate ever more information and disinformation to discredit public officials and public information, and our alienation from democracy escalates.

This a great piece, well worth reading in full. It’s really about the ways belonging to a group changes behaviour. Will Davies is an amazingly insightful observer of our culture. And this is the best attempt I’ve seen to explore the wider significance of an encrypted app.


The warped calculus of Mark Zuckerberg and his bag-carrier Clegg

Great, impassioned piece by Julia Carrie Wong.

On Wednesday, in response to the growing advertiser boycott over Facebook’s failure to address hate speech, the executive Nick Clegg described a new kind of Facebook algorithm – one that calculates the social network’s moral worth. Writing for the advertising industry trade publication Ad Age, Clegg attempted to argue that the good on Facebook outweighs the bad.

“Focusing on hate speech and other types of harmful content on social media is necessary and understandable, but it is worth remembering that the vast majority of those billions of conversations are positive,” the former UK deputy prime minister wrote. “Look at what happened when the coronavirus pandemic took hold. Billions of people used Facebook to stay connected when they were physically apart.”

This is not the first time that a Facebook executive has hinted at such attempts to calculate the incalculable. (One imagines Clegg totting up the balance sheet at the end of the quarter: “I see that in the red we have this murder of a security officer allegedly carried out by extremists who met and coordinated their attack on Facebook but here’s one for the black: an adorable grandmother just liked a photo posted by her grandson who lives 500 miles away.”)

Yeah, well…

Take, for example, the campaign of genocide against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar. I don’t know exactly how Facebook accounts for its role in inciting the violence and ethnic cleansing that forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee the country as refugees, but I do know that no one at Facebook was fired over its deadly failures. No one resigned. No one staged a “virtual walkout”. No one put together a hastily arranged press appearance to quell outrage from advertisers.

It’s clear that according to Facebook’s moral calculus, the lives of people in the global south do not count for as much as the lives of people in its own country, but one need not struggle to find violence and harm from Facebook here, either. Let’s not forget that the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Heather Heyer was murdered, started as a Facebook event.

She’s absolutely right. And, as she says, while hate is an existential threat to those it targets, it’s no threat at all to Facebook. The only existential threat to a $650bn multinational corporation is a threat to its revenues. That’s where the real calculations are taking place right now at Facebook.

The only existential threat to Facebook is the one it will eventually face —antitrust action to (a) outlaw its business model in its current form, and (b) break it up. And if Joe Biden doesn’t do it (and based on an extended interview he gave to the New York Times ages ago, I think he gets it — see below), the the EU will do it. At the moment the head of the German antitrust agency is showing how it can be done.


Lockdown and summer reading – 1

From John Thornhill’s list in the Financial Times.

John Thornhill is a terrific journalist who is very knowledgeable about tech, and this is an interesting list. I’ve read Uncanny Valley and enjoyed it. Laura DeNardis’s book is important and I’ll have to read it for work. I’ve read parts of Toby Ord’s book, which is sobering in the extreme.


Joe Biden and Facebook: from the New York Times interview

Here’s the relevant passage from the long, long interview he did with the New York Times journalists way back in January.

Charlie Warzel: Sure. Mr. Vice President, in October, your campaign sent a letter to Facebook regarding an ad that falsely claimed that you blackmailed Ukrainian officials to not investigate your son. I’m curious, did that experience, dealing with Facebook and their power, did that change the way that you see the power of tech platforms right now?

No, I’ve never been a fan of Facebook, as you probably know. I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan. I think he’s a real problem. I think ——

CW: Can you elaborate?

No, I can. He knows better. And you know, from my perspective, I’ve been in the view that not only should we be worrying about the concentration of power, we should be worried about the lack of privacy and them being exempt, which you’re not exempt. The Times can’t write something you know to be false and be exempt from being sued. But he can. The idea that it’s a tech company is that Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For Zuckerberg and other platforms.

(Times footnote: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act says that online platforms aren’t held liable for things their users post on them, with some exceptions. In July, The Times’s Sarah Jeong weighed in on proposed updates to Section 230, arguing that “we should reopen the debate on C.D.A. 230 only because so much of the internet has changed,” but “the discourse will be improved if we all take a moment to actually read the text of C.D.A. 230.”)

CW: That’s a pretty foundational laws of the modern internet.

That’s right. Exactly right. And it should be revoked. It should be revoked because it is not merely an internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false, and we should be setting standards not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy. You guys still have editors. I’m sitting with them. Not a joke. There is no editorial impact at all on Facebook. None. None whatsoever. It’s irresponsible. It’s totally irresponsible.

CW: If there’s proven harm that Facebook has done, should someone like Mark Zuckerberg be submitted to criminal penalties, perhaps?

He should be submitted to civil liability and his company to civil liability, just like you would be here at The New York Times. Whether he engaged in something and amounted to collusion that in fact caused harm that would in fact be equal to a criminal offense, that’s a different issue. That’s possible. That’s possible it could happen. Zuckerberg finally took down those ads that Russia was running. All those bots about me. They’re no longer being run.

 (Times footnote: In October, a 30-second ad appeared on Facebook accusing Mr. Biden of blackmailing Ukrainian government officials. The ad, made by an independent political action committee, said: “Send Quid Pro Joe Biden into retirement.” Mr. Biden’s campaign wrote a letter calling on Facebook to take down the ad.)

He was getting paid a lot of money to put them up. I learned three things. Number one, Putin doesn’t want me to be president. Number two, Kim Jong-un thinks I should be beaten to death like a rabid dog and three, this president of the United States is spending millions of dollars to try to keep me from being the nominee. I wonder why.

It’s an amazing interview — really well worth reading if you want to know what the next President is like.


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Wednesday 1 July, 2020

How things change: George Osborne and David Cameron sucking up to Xi Jinping in 2015

From Politico’s wonderful daily briefing, commenting on the conundrum for Brexiteers by China’s brutal crackdown in Hong Kong.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away: “We have cemented Britain’s position as China’s best partner in the West,” a triumphant George Osborne beamed as he rolled out the red carpet for Chinese officials back in 2015. “We’ve got billions of pounds of Chinese investment creating thousands of jobs in Britain, and we’ve also now got a relationship where we can discuss the difficult issues.” Uh huh. And look — here’s David Cameron glugging a pint of warm ale with Xi Jinping on that same trip. You have to wonder how bad these clips will look another five years from now.

Actually, they looked pretty odious at the time too.


Coronavirus: What does Covid-19 do to the brain?

Paul Mylrea is a friend and valued colleague. In the early stages of the pandemic he was struck down with Covid and became desperately ill. But he survived and is now recovering from the two strokes he suffered as the virus rampaged through his body. The fact that Covid had laid him low shocked me because he’s one of the fittest people I know. Among other things, he was a senior diving instructor, swam every morning in the river Cam, and went everywhere on his Brompton bike. I remember thinking that “If the virus has got Paul, then nobody’s safe”.

This piece by Fergal Walsh, the BBC’s medical correspondent, about Paul’s struggle with the illness is a heartwarming story of medical skill and the body’s capacity for renewal. It is also confirmation of what a deadly and multifaceted pathogen Covid-19 is.


Imagine if the National Transportation Safety Board investigated America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Absolutely fascinating Atlantic essay by James Fallows.

Here’s the gist:

Consider a thought experiment: What if the NTSB were brought in to look at the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic? What would its investigation conclude? I’ll jump to the answer before laying out the background: This was a journey straight into a mountainside, with countless missed opportunities to turn away. A system was in place to save lives and contain disaster. The people in charge of the system could not be bothered to avoid the doomed course.

James Fallows is both a gifted writer and a keen pilot. This long essay is well worth reading in full.


The short-term decline in FB ad spending

Lots of big firms (Unilever, Coco-Cola, to name just two) have been making statements about how they will be not buying ads on Facebook in response to the BlackLivesMatter campaign. I’m afraid my instinctive reaction was to see this as empty virtue-signalling, and to privately predict that it would have little impact on Facebook’s bottom line in the longer run.

The New York Times has s story today which might appear to refute this. “Advertiser Exodus Snowballs as Facebook Struggles to Ease Concerns” is the headline.

Yet even as Facebook has labored to stanch the ad exodus, it is having little effect. Executives at ad agencies said that more of their clients were weighing whether to join the boycott, which now numbers more than 300 advertisers and is expected to grow. Pressure on top advertisers is coming from politicians, supermodels, actors and even Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, they said. Internally, some Facebook employees said they were also using the boycott to push for change.

“Other companies are seeing this moment, and are stepping up proactively,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, citing recent efforts from Reddit, YouTube and Twitch taking down posts and content that promote hate speech across their sites. “If they can do it, and all of Facebook’s advertisers are asking them to do it, it doesn’t seem that hard to do.”

The push from advertisers has led Facebook’s business to a precarious point. While the social network has struggled with issues such as election interference and privacy in recent years, its juggernaut digital ads business has always powered forward. The Silicon Valley company has never faced a public backlash of this magnitude from its advertisers, whose spending accounts for more than 98 percent of its annual $70.7 billion in revenue.

I don’t buy that stuff about a “precarious point”. And data from Socialbakers doesn’t confirm it, as this chart suggests:

Note the sharp fall around the time of the protests — and then the rapid recover.

Big corporations engaging in virtue-signalling will make little difference to Facebook’s bottom line. The company probably makes most of its ad revenues from small and medium firms, for whom its targeting advertising system is perfect. And they aren’t going to stop advertising for ethical reasons.

The Economist agrees:

The damage to Facebook is likely to be small. Its $70bn ad business is built on 8m advertisers, most of them tiny companies with marketing budgets in the hundreds or thousands of dollars and often reliant on Facebook as an essential digital storefront. The 100 largest advertisers on the site account for less than 20% of total revenue, compared with 71% for the 100 largest advertisers on American network television. And so far only three of Facebook’s top 50 ad-buyers have joined the boycott.


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Thursday 24 June, 2020

New customers fill seats at Barcelona opera house concert

To mark the re-opening of Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu opera house, the UceLi Quartet played a livestreamed performance of Puccini’s I Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums).

Who (or what) was in the audience?

Answer


Can you judge a book by its (back) cover?

Well, even if you can, it makes cover-art designers (justifiably) cross.

Waterstones, the (excellent) bookselling chain, has offered its apologies to book designers after some newly reopened branches began displaying books back to front so browsers could read the blurb without picking them up.

It was understandable but slightly “heartbreaking”, said designer Anna Morrison, who mainly designs covers for literary fiction, said she could see why it was happening, but it was still “a little sad”.

“There is a real art to a book cover. It can be a real labour of love and it is a bit disappointing to think our work is being turned round.”

She’s right. One of the joys of going into a bookshop is the blaze of colour and artwork on book covers that confronts you.

Link


Facebook faces trust crisis as ad boycott grows

It’s got the trust crisis, for sure. But so what?

This from Axios

After a handful of outdoor companies like North Face, REI and Patagonia said they would stop advertising on Facebook and Instagram last week, several other advertisers have joined the movement, including Ben & Jerry’s, Eileen Fisher, Eddie Bauer, Magnolia Pictures, Upwork, HigherRing, Dashlane, TalkSpace and Arc’teryx.

Heavyweights in the ad industry have also begun pressing marketers to pull their dollars.

On Tuesday, Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer at Procter & Gamble, one of the largest advertisers in the country, threatened to pull spending if platforms didn’t take “appropriate systemic action” to address hate speech.

In an email to clients obtained by the Wall Street Journal last Friday, 360i, a digital-ad agency owned by global ad holding group Dentsu Group Inc., urged its clients to support the ad boycott being advocated by civil rights groups.

I’m sorry to say this, but it looks to me just like virtue-signalling. Just like all the sudden corporate support for “our brilliant NHS” when the Coronavirus panic started in the UK. Facebook’s targeted advertising system is just too useful to companies to be dropped.


Wrongfully Accused by an Algorithm

This seems to be the first case of its kind, but it’s the canary in the mine as far as those of us who regard facial recognition technology as toxic.

On a Thursday afternoon in January, Robert Julian-Borchak Williams was in his office at an automotive supply company when he got a call from the Detroit Police Department telling him to come to the station to be arrested. He thought at first that it was a prank.

An hour later, when he pulled into his driveway in a quiet subdivision in Farmington Hills, Mich., a police car pulled up behind, blocking him in. Two officers got out and handcuffed Mr. Williams on his front lawn, in front of his wife and two young daughters, who were distraught. The police wouldn’t say why he was being arrested, only showing him a piece of paper with his photo and the words “felony warrant” and “larceny.”

His wife, Melissa, asked where he was being taken. “Google it,” she recalls an officer replying.

The police drove Mr. Williams to a detention center. He had his mug shot, fingerprints and DNA taken, and was held overnight. Around noon on Friday, two detectives took him to an interrogation room and placed three pieces of paper on the table, face down.

“When’s the last time you went to a Shinola store?” one of the detectives asked, in Mr. Williams’s recollection. Shinola is an upscale boutique that sells watches, bicycles and leather goods in the trendy Midtown neighborhood of Detroit. Mr. Williams said he and his wife had checked it out when the store first opened in 2014.

The detective turned over the first piece of paper. It was a still image from a surveillance video, showing a heavyset man, dressed in black and wearing a red St. Louis Cardinals cap, standing in front of a watch display. Five timepieces, worth $3,800, were shoplifted.

“Is this you?” asked the detective.

The second piece of paper was a close-up. The photo was blurry, but it was clearly not Mr. Williams. He picked up the image and held it next to his face.

“No, this is not me,” Mr. Williams said. “You think all black men look alike?”

Mr. Williams knew that he had not committed the crime in question. What he could not have known, as he sat in the interrogation room, is that his case may be the first known account of an American being wrongfully arrested based on a flawed match from a facial recognition algorithm, according to experts on technology and the law.

Mr Williams had a cast-iron alibi, but the Detroit police couldn’t be bothered to check

He has since figured out what he was doing the evening the shoplifting occurred. He was driving home from work, and had posted a video to his private Instagram because a song he loved came on — 1983’s “We Are One,” by Maze and Frankie Beverly. The lyrics go:

I can’t understand
Why we treat each other in this way
Taking up time
With the silly silly games we play

Imagine a world where this stuff is everywhere, where you’re always in a police line-up.


The history of inquiries into race riots

A sobering (and depressing) piece by the Harvard historian Jill Lepore in the New Yorker.

TL;DR? (In case you’re busy, here’s the gist.)

In a 1977 study, “Commission Politics: The Processing of Racial Crisis in America,” Michael Lipsky and David J. Olson reported that, between 1917 and 1943, at least twenty-one commissions were appointed to investigate race riots, and, however sincerely their members might have been interested in structural change, none of the commissions led to any. The point of a race-riot commission, Lipsky and Olson argue, is for the government that appoints it to appear to be doing something, while actually doing nothing.

It’s the old, old story. What’s the betting the same thing will happen with Boris Johnson’s “cross-government inquiry into all aspects of racial inequality in the UK”?

Lepore’s is a fine piece, well worth reading in full. Thanks to David Vincent for alerting me to it.


Segway, the most hyped invention since the Macintosh, ends production

Very good report on what once looked like a great idea, but one that never caught on. Segways were very useful for TV cameramen and camerawomen covering golf tournaments, though.

My main regret is that I never managed to try one.


Quarantine diary — Day 96

Link


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Wednesday 24 June, 2020

Facebook runs into a German wall

From the FT — probably paywalled.

Facebook suffered a setback in Germany on Tuesday after the country’s highest civil court ruled that it must comply with an order from the German antitrust watchdog and fundamentally change the way it handles users’ data.

The ruling by the federal court of justice in Karlsruhe takes aim at the way Facebook merges data from the group’s own services, such as WhatsApp and Instagram, with other data collected on third-party internet sites via its business tools.

In 2019, Germany’s cartel office blocked Facebook from pooling such data without user consent. Facebook later won a suspension of that decision from a court in Düsseldorf and wanted the pause to continue until a ruling on its appeal.

But on Tuesday the Karlsruhe court set aside the Düsseldorf ruling and backed the antitrust authorities, saying Facebook in future had to offer its users a choice when it collects and merges data from websites outside of its own ecosystem.

Interesting. Andreas Mundt, head of the German cartel office, is a determined and imaginative official. In a statement, he welcomed the decision. He said data was a decisive factor for economic power and for judging market power on the internet. “Today’s ruling gives us important clues as to how we should deal with the issues of data and competition,” he said, in comments quoted by DPA agency.

Progress, at last.


Mark Zuckerberg Believes Only in Mark Zuckerberg

Why is he abetting Trump while civil rights leaders and his own employees rebuke him? It’s about dominance.

At last, people are beginning to suss what it is about Zuckerberg that’s so weird. I’ve thought for years — on the basis of reading his public posts and watching his occasional (rare) public appearances — that he is fundamentally an autocratic sociopath. But because he’s so rich, the usual aphrodisiac effect of great wealth kicks in and journalists (and others) who should know better succumb to the idea that if he is so rich then he must be so smart. Well, he is smart. But he ain’t interested in other people, or capable of emphathising with them..

The autocratic bit is easy to document btw. You only have to look at the relevant paragraph in Facebook’s SEC filings.

Here it is (on page 25 of the filing

Siva Viadhyanathan has also been thinking about Zuckerberg for a long time and has now written an interesting essay on what he has finally concluded. He used to think of Zuckerberg, he says, as an idealist brought up in a bubble and so was puzzled by some of the things he allowed to happen (because, remember, he has absolute power over that company of his.) A key factor in Siva’s change of mind seems to have been Steven Levy’s book, Facebook: The Inside Story.

I expected that Zuckerberg was experiencing cognitive dissonance while watching his dear company be exploited to empower genocidal forces in Myanmar, religious terrorists in Sri Lanka, or vaccine deniers around the world.

I was wrong. I misjudged Zuckerberg. Another thing I learned from Levy’s book is that along with an idealistic and naive account of human communication, Zuckerberg seems to love power more than he loves money or the potential to do good in the world.

Having studied just enough Latin in prep school to get him in trouble, Zuckerberg was known to quote Cato, shouting “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage must be destroyed) when referring to Google. Emperor Augustus was a particular inspiration, Levy reports, and Zuckerberg named his child after Augustus, the adopted son of the tyrant Julius Caesar who ruled over the greatest and most peaceful span of the Roman Empire as its first emperor.

It was not Zuckerberg suffering from cognitive dissonance. I was. As I watched him cooly face questions from congressional representatives about the Cambridge Analytica debacle, he never seemed thoughtful, just disciplined.

That Facebook could serve people well—and it does—and that it could be abused to contribute to massive harm, pain, and death, didn’t seem to generate that one troublesome phenomenon that challenges the thoughtful: Contradiction.

Zuckerberg continued and continues to believe in the positive power of Facebook, but that’s because he believes in the raw power of Facebook. “Domination!,” he used to yell at staff meetings, indicating that everything is a game. Games can be won. He must win. If a few million bones get broken along the way, his game plan would still serve the greatest good for the greatest number.

He believes in himself so completely, his vision of how the world works so completely, that he is immune to cognitive dissonance. He is immune to new evidence or argument. It turns out megalomaniacs don’t suffer from cognitive dissonance.

Like the notorious architect Philip Johnson, or Robert Moses, the tyrannical planner of New York, Zuckerberg, says Siva,

is a social engineer. He knows what’s best for us. And he believes that what’s best for Facebook is best for us. In the long run, he believes, Facebook’s domination will redeem him by making our lives better. We just have to surrender and let it all work out. Zuckerberg can entertain local magistrates like Trump because Zuckerberg remains emperor.

Nice, perceptive essay by a formidable scholar.


Are Universities Going the Way of CDs and Cable TV?

Although it probably seems inconceivable to those of us who work in universities, the shock of the pandemic will lead to radical changes in the way most of these institutions work. This essay is interesting because it’s by Michael Smith, who is Professor of Information Technology and Marketing at Carnegie Mellon and the co-author of Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of Entertainment.

He starts with a question the Wall Street Journal asked in April:

Do students think their pricey degrees are worth the cost when delivered remotely? “One student responded with this zinger, Smith writes,

“Would you pay $75,000 for front-row seats to a Beyoncé concert and be satisfied with a livestream instead?” Another compared higher education to premium cable—an annoyingly expensive bundle with more options than most people need. “Give me the basic package,” he said.

“As a parent of a college-age child”, Smith continues, “I’m sympathetic to these concerns. But as a college professor, I find them terrifying. And invigorating”.

Why terrifying?

Because I study how new technologies cause power shifts in industries, and I fear that the changes in store for higher education are going to look a lot like the painful changes we’ve seen in retail, travel, news, and entertainment.

Consider the entertainment industry.

Throughout the 20th century, the industry remained remarkably stable, despite technological innovations that regularly altered the ways movies, television, music, and books were created, distributed, and consumed. That stability, however, bred overconfidence, overpricing, and an overreliance on business models tailored to a physical world.

Trouble arrived early in the 21st century, when upstart companies powered by new digital technologies began to challenge the status quo. Entertainment executives reflexively dismissed the threat. Netflix was “a channel, not an alternative.” Amazon Studios was “in way over their heads.” YouTube? No self-respecting artist would ever use a DIY platform to start a career. In 1997, after one music executive heard songs compressed into the MP3 format, he refused to believe anybody would give up the sound quality of CDs for the portability of MP3s. “No one is going to listen to that shit,” he insisted. In 2013, the COO of Fox expressed similar skepticism about the impact of technological change on his business. “People will give up food and a roof over their head,” he told investors, “before they give up TV.”

We all know how that worked out: From 1999 to 2009, the music industry lost 50 percent of its sales. From 2014 to 2019, roughly 16 million American households canceled their cable subscriptions.

I remember this in the broadcasting business. In the mid- to late-1990s I was a consultant to a firm in the radio business. I spent many fruitless hours trying to explain to them the significance of streaming media, but they couldn’t get it. Where would all those servers come from? And what about the absence of broadband connections? And so on. The iPlayer and Video on Demand — and podcasting — were unimaginable then, even though they were emerging in embryonic form. (Anyone remember RealAudio?)

Similar dynamics are at play in higher education today, says Smith. Universities have long been remarkably stable institutions. But,

That stability has again bred overconfidence, overpricing, and an overreliance on business models tailored to a physical world. Like those entertainment executives, many of us in higher education dismiss the threats that digital technologies pose to the way we work. We diminish online-learning and credentialing platforms such as Khan Academy, Kaggle, and edX as poor substitutes for the “real thing.” We can’t imagine that “our” students would ever want to take a DIY approach to their education instead of paying us for the privilege of learning in our hallowed halls. We can’t imagine “our” employers hiring someone who doesn’t have one of our respected degrees.

But we’re going to have to start thinking differently…

Good essay. Worth reading in full if you work in Higher Ed. And the funniest thing of all is that Eli Noam published his amazingly far-sighted essay, “Electronics and the Dim Future of the University” in 1995! But it seems that no Vice-Chancellors or university Presidents read it! I did, though, because I was then teaching at the Open University, and of course we got it — but I guess that was probably because the OU was emphatically NOT a traditional university. We had no stake in the old system.

Oh, and if you haven’t been keeping up with how MOOCs have evolved, here’s a good example from Princeton.


Quarantine diary — Day 95

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Sunday 21 June, 2020

Nick Clegg is on the wrong side of history at Facebook

Today’s Observer column:

For me, the most interesting thing about Wednesday’s farrago was the prominent role assigned in it to Nick Clegg, formerly deputy prime minister of the UK and now a bagman for the Facebook supreme leader. Listening to him on the Today programme, one wondered how he could come to countenance giving Trump a clearer run at a second term.

One answer, suggested by Anne Applebaum in her study of the rationales offered by senior Republican politicians who have found ways of accommodating themselves to Trump, is the claim that they can do more good by being “on the inside”. Funnily enough, this was the rationale also used by Clegg when he went over to the dark side. “I’m joining Facebook,” he declared, “to build bridges between politics and tech. It’s time that we harnessed big tech to the cause of progress and optimism. I believe that Facebook can lead the way.”

To hear a former liberal talk like this about a company whose carelessness and ignorance enabled ethnic cleansing and genocide in Myanmar – to take just one example from a long list of Facebook outrages – really takes the biscuit…

Read on


Quarantine diary — Day 92

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Monday 8 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

“I think we have to recognize that for most of our history, our institutions were explicitly racist.”

  • US Attorney General William Barr in an interview on CNBC.

Well, well.


Policing reform can work in the US: Camden N.J is an encouraging case-study

From Alex Tabarrok:

One of the few bright spots over the past week was Camden, NJ where instead of beating protesters the police joined them. Protests in Camden were peaceful and orderly and there was little to no looting. As I wrote last year, Camden disbanded its police force in 2013, nullifying the old union contract, and rebuilt.

Canden was sometimes reckoned to be the third most dangerous city in the US. Ever since the reforms, all of its key law-enforcement metrics have improved. The key to it seems to be breaking the police union’s control over the municipality. Which is interesting. Often unions are key to protecting workers. But sometimes they become toxic — as anyone who (like me) who remembers the print unions in London’s Fleet Street can remember.


Facebook is an autocracy, so it has a natural affinity with autocrats

My Observer column yesterday made the point that Mark Zuckerberg holds the key to whether Trump gets re-elected or not and predicted that he won’t do anything to prevent re-election.

This conjecture seemed a bit extreme to some readers. But here is a very respectable columnist, Rana Foroohar, writing in today’s FT

That brings us to what Facebook’s stance is really about — power. Like most large, ubiquitous and systemically important companies that operate globally, Facebook aligns itself with the powers that be. If it wants to stay this big and unregulated, Facebook cannot afford to upset the rulers of countries where it operates, no matter how abhorrent their actions. We saw that in Myanmar, where military personnel used Facebook to help incite the Rohingya massacres. Now we see it in the US, where Facebook refuses to run afoul of a president who just called in troops to tear gas citizens.

It is a kind of oligarchic symbiosis that we haven’t really seen in the US since 1877. That was when then-president Rutherford B. Hayes, who had been helped into office by the railway barons, ordered 1,200 federal troops to Baltimore to put down what he called a labour “insurrection”. It was the first time that federal troops had been turned against American workers, and it transformed what might have remained a local conflict into the Great Railway Strike of 1877.


And, for the avoidance of doubt, Zuckerberg is an authentic autocrat

Here’s the relevant section of the company’s SEC filing:

Our CEO has control over key decision making as a result of his control of a majority of the voting power of our outstanding capital stock.

Mark Zuckerberg, our founder, Chairman, and CEO, is able to exercise voting rights with respect to a majority of the voting power of our outstanding capital stock and therefore 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. This concentrated control could also discourage a potential investor from acquiring our Class A common stock, which has limited voting power relative to the Class B common stock, and might harm the trading price of our Class A common stock.In addition, Mr. Zuckerberg has the ability to control the management and major strategic investments of our company as a result of his position as our CEO andhis ability to control the election or replacement of our directors. In the event of his death, the shares of our capital stock that Mr. Zuckerberg owns will be transferred to the persons or entities that he has designated. As a board member and officer, Mr. Zuckerberg owes a fiduciary duty to our stockholders and must actin good faith in a manner he reasonably believes to be in the best interests of our stockholders. As a stockholder, even a controlling stockholder, Mr. Zuckerberg isentitled to vote his shares, and shares over which he has voting control as governed by a voting agreement, in his own interests, which may not always be in the interests of our stockholders generally.

In other words, absolute control.


Solving online events

Very perceptive essay by Benedict Evans on why it’s so difficult to replace large face-to-face conferences with online events.

Online events remind me a lot of ecommerce in about 1996. The software is raw and rough around the edges, and often doesn’t work very well, though that can get fixed. But more importantly, no-one quite knows what they should be building.

A conference, or an ‘event’, is a bundle. There is content from a stage, with people talking or presenting or doing panels and maybe taking questions. Then, everyone talks to each other in the hallways and over coffee and lunch and drinks. Separately, there may be a trade fair of dozens or thousands of booths and stands, where you go to see all of the products in the industry at once, and talk to the engineers and salespeople. And then, there are all of the meetings that you schedule because everyone is there. At a really big ‘conference’ many people don’t even go to the actual event itself. At CES or MWC, a lot of the people who go never actually make it to the conference or the show floor – they spend their days in hotel suites in Las Vegas or Barcelona meeting clients and partners. Everyone goes because everyone goes.

The only part of that bundle that obviously works online today is the content. It’s really straightforward to turn a conference presentation or a panel into a video stream, but none of the rest is straightforward at all.

First, we haven’t worked out good online tools for many of the reasons people go to these events…

Insightful essay, worth reading in full.


Quarantine diary — Day 79

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Thursday 4 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

  • Current issue of Private Eye

The government has suddenly twigged that the no-deal Brexit it’s carefully arranging will mean drugs shortages.

Every day, I wake up thinking that the incompetence of the Johnson administration can’t get worse, and every day it does. Now the FT reports that the government is struggling to rebuild stockpiles of drugs eroded by Covid-19 amid fears that a “no-deal” Brexit will jeopardise medicine supplies just as a second coronavirus wave hits the country.

It seems that Matt Hancock, the health secretary, “has accepted the need” to finalise a formal plan to rebuild a six-week stockpile of drugs. Well, that’s a start, anyway. But…

The combination of stockpiles being depleted during the Covid-19 pandemic, the disruption to international production of generic drugs in India and China, and the risks of a second wave interrupting global supplies this year had raised “huge concern” in the top levels of the health department, the Whitehall official added.

With the pharmacy industry apparently indicating that it will be unable to replicate the stockpiles built last autumn, the government faces the prospect of trying to secure supplies through global procurement at a time when markets are already tight.

“Industry is saying that all last autumn’s stock has run down during Covid and the department now thinks it looks doubtful stockpiling can be industry-led, as per last time, so the government is looking at its own options too,” the official said.

Standby by for another Hancock triumph, along the lines of his inability to secure supplies of PPE because he started too late.

Interesting factoid: Hancock read PPE at Oxford, but apparently that degree programme doesn’t have anything in it about actual PPE.


Levels of public trust in government Covid information

From the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.


Trump’s ludicrous biblical photo-op, and its consequences.

I mentioned this in yesterday’s Quarantine Diary.

It was brilliantly covered on the New York Times‘s podcast The Daily. A must-listen IMHO (it’s about 28 minutes)

And then read former Defense Secretary General Mattis’s condemnation of the stunt in The Atlantic, in which he says, in part:

When I joined the military, some 50 years ago,” he writes, “I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”


How Facebook can fix itself

(Except of course that it won’t because its omnipotent boss thinks Facebook is doing just fine. And it needs to keep on the right side of Trump. This may be a good idea in terms of revenues between now and November 4. After that, perhaps less so. See my forthcoming Observer column on Sunday for more detail. )

In the meantime here’s a well-meaning piece from a former employee of the company.

If you think of Facebook as the place where people get their information, it’s like the one grocery store in a town. Everyone shops there and its shelves are mostly filled with food that is nutritious, fun, entertaining, engaging, and so on. However, sprinkled through the shelves are foods that look like regular stuff but are actually poison. I’m not talking about junk food with frivolous or empty calories. I’m talking about food that literally poisons one’s mind, turning him or her against science, facts, and other people. If you accept that there’s poison among the aisles, would you spare any resources to root it out? Are there any risks you would not take? At the very least, you would not hesitate to put warning labels on the poison.

Sweet, isn’t it. And his remedy for Facebook’s toxic behaviour? The company (by which he means Zuckerberg) needs “to build trust”.

You need to show the world that you are not putting profit over values. Therefore, I would suspend the stock buyback program. As I mentioned, you’ve committed ~$34 billion to stock buybacks. It looks like you’ve spent about $20 billion. That’s $14 billion left (please check my math). I’d devote the equivalent resources toward realizing the goal of better informing users. You’d be showing that you’re literally choosing users over profit.

What’s the metric? I don’t know, but I have confidence that you can figure it out. You have swung the pendulum all the way toward enabling expression. Let’s move it toward the quality of information, or an outcome of an accurately informed public. Success on this would be infinitely more valuable to your investors than artificially propping up the stock with buybacks.

He forgot to add the motherhood and apple pie.

__________________________________ 

The Dominic Cummings eyesight-test-game

From the FT:

“Dominic needs to get back to work,” the game instructs, “but his eyes have went all weird. Best drive to Barnard Castle with his kid just to make sure it’s safe to drive to London.” And so I find myself driving along an obstacle-strewn country road towards a distant castle. It’s difficult to concentrate because my character’s vision keeps fogging over and he won’t stop coughing. An imperious child screams at me from the back seat. I finally arrive, passing a double-decker bus displaying a banner that reads “Clap you plebs”. As I steer through the castle gate, a victory message pops on to the screen: “Your eyesight is fine.”

30 Miles to Barnard Castle was released on the game-creation platform Dreams just hours after Dominic Cummings, the UK prime minister’s chief adviser, held a press conference where he addressed his controversial trip from London to Durham under lockdown. It’s a smart example of video game satire, addressing a topical subject by subverting familiar driving game tropes. In asking players to become Cummings behind the wheel, the game elegantly underlines the most farcical aspects of his story.

Lovely stuff. Video-game authors have a sense of humour too. Who knew?


Quarantine diary — Day 75

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Sunday 17 May, 2020

Parenting is a full-time job in a pandemic

Outside our kitchen window, this evening.


Facebook’s ‘oversight board’ is proof that it wants to be regulated – by itself

This morning’s Observer column:

Here we go again. Facebook, a tech company that suffers from the delusion that it’s a nation state, has had another go at pretending that it is one. Originally, you will recall, it was going to create a global currency called Libra and in effect become shadow banker to the world. Strangely, a world that normally seems hypnotised by Facebook turned out to be distinctly unimpressed by that idea; after all, who would trust Facebook with money? So the project is effectively evaporating into something that looks a bit like PayPal, which is not quite what Facebook’s supreme leader, Mark Zuckerberg, had in mind.

Nothing daunted, though, Zuck has had another hubristic idea. On the grounds that Facebook is the world’s largest information-exchange autocracy (population 2.6 billion) he thinks that it should have its own supreme court. (Yes, that’s the expression he originally used: later, wiser councils – possibly a guy called Nick Clegg – persuaded him that that might be just a tad presumptuous.) So it’s now just an “oversight board for content decisions”, complete with its own charter and a 40-strong board of big shots who will, it seems, have the power “to reverse Facebook’s decisions about whether to allow or remove certain posts on the platform”. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? But it looks rather less so when you realise what it will actually be doing. It’s actually a board for locking the stable door after the horses have bolted. Let us call the Facebook oversight board by its initials: FOB…

Read on


Introducing Colonel Johnson (late of the Light Brigade), and his batman, Cummings

There’s a new comedy duo on the British political scene.

Unfortunately, they don’t make people laugh.

See today’s Quarantine Diary for details.


The rise and rise of conspiracist thinking

The Atlantic has a fascinating new series on a topic that until 2016 most people (though not me and my academic colleagues) thought was only of fringe interest.

Five substantial essays.


Quarantine diary — Day 57

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There’s ‘Facebook’; and then there’s Facebook

Dave Winer has been ruminating on the idea of ‘Facebook’ viewed not so much as “Zuckerberg’s monster” or a toxic global corporation (the way most of its critics and the media portray it) but as an astonishing global collection of human users. He’s been thinking along these lines for a while, but the way he puts it now is particularly striking. “When I was 14”, he writes,

I went to high school in the Bronx and lived in Queens. It was a 1.5 hour trip each way. I had a few choices but they all magically took the same amount of time. One of the routes was to take the Q16 bus to Main Street, then the 7 train to Grand Central, and switch to the 4 train uptown. The Bedford Park Blvd station is two blocks from the school. One day on the train, I remember this really clearly, I was watching all the houses and apartment buildings we passed, first in Queens, then in the Bronx. Inside every window, I guessed, was a family, like my own, possibly. With their dramas and struggles, stories, victories, history, abuse, happiness, fear. I tried to imagine how each of them might live and realized in an overwhelming way that I could never begin to understand who they were. NYC, even then, was an ethnically and economically diverse place. Of course as we traveled through the city, the people on the train changed too. Very few of them were Bronx Science students. There were all kinds of people. Who knew what any of them were thinking. The point is this. The world is huge. To keep our sanity we have to simplify it, and to do that we have to ignore differences. The stories we tell ourselves little connection to reality. And so any general statement about a community as huge and diverse as Facebook is certain to miss the mark, widely. And most of what we read only focuses on the company, not the users. To have that appear as journalism is just wrong because journalism has a higher calling, to find out what’s real, what’s true, and then say that.

Watching the way my own extended family uses Facebook, that strikes a chord.

Zuckerberg’s politics: Facebook Über Alles

Robust commentary from Siva Vaidhyanathan after the news that Zuckerberg has had two secret dinners with Trump in the White House:

At the very moment when the US House of Representatives reveals overwhelming evidence that Trump used his power as president to support his re-election campaign and bolster his friend Vladimir Putin by withholding support from Ukraine, Zuckerberg continues to treat the Trump White House as just another potential regulator who must be charmed.

Zuckerberg’s politics favor two things: the interests of Facebook and people like him. So it’s no wonder Zuckerberg got close to the two American presidents who have served over his company’s history. Since the world abandoned its mindless worship of Facebook and Silicon Valley in recent years, Zuckerberg has been on a constant if unsuccessful campaign to save face and stem efforts to regulate or fracture his company.

So the problem with Zuckerberg’s politics is not just that they seem to have turned to the right. His politics have not changed at all. The world has. The problem is that by choosing an amoral set of principles and positions he has become deeply immoral.