Sunday 26 July, 2020

A note to subscribers

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


The UK’s contact-tracing app difficulties

This morning’s Observer column:

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

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

Read on


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

Very interesting Buzzfeed report:

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

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

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

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

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

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


Zuckerberg, Trump and November’s Election

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

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

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

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

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

Carole’s piece is here.

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

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


Friend Monitors?

Dave Winer has a good idea:

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

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

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

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


Central London Rents Decline as Vacation Homes Flood Market

Well, well. Bloomberg reports

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

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

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


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


Sunday 19 July, 2020

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

This morning’s Observer column:

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

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

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

Read on


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

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

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

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

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


Wacky reasoning and the virus

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

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

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

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

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

Nice. And necessary.


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

My OpEd piece in today’s Observer.

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

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

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


Freud and the pandemic

Striking essay by Alax Danco.

Three months ago, he wrote this:

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

And now, he concluded,

So yeah, it did, indeed, get worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Tuesday 14 July, 2020

Le Quatorze Juillet!

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


Notes from the new battleground

Cyberspace viewed through a military lens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The dark underbelly of ‘efficiency’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yep.

Bray ends with a protest:

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

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


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

Link


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Sunday 12 July, 2020

A house full of music

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


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

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

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

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

What happened next was remarkable…

Read on


History of (tech) ideas?

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a first stab at such a list:

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

Who am I missing? Nick Bostrom on superintelligence?


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

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

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

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

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

‘Balkanisation’ of the Internet picks up speed.


Imagining New York without cars

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

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


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


Saturday 11 July, 2020

Quote of the Day

”If you want home truths, you should stay at home”

  • Clifford Geertz

The Lark Ascending

Amazing performance in which Victoria Yeh plays all parts of a 13-piece string arrangement of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s masterpiece.

Link


Another Facebook metaphor

This time from Kara Swisher:

I keep trying to figure out a way to explain what is happening — actually, to explain why nothing is happening — with a fresh metaphor. Once, I compared Facebook to a city manager who treats the streets like The Purge. The Salesforce chief executive, Marc Benioff, likened Facebook to a cigarette company. And still others have likened it to a chemical company that carelessly spews noxious information into the river of society.

This week, I finally settled on a simpler comparison: Think about Facebook as a seller of meat products.

Most of the meat is produced by others, and some of the cuts are delicious and uncontaminated. But tainted meat — say, Trump steaks — also gets out the door in ever increasing amounts and without regulatory oversight.

The argument from the head butcher is this: People should be free to eat rotten hamburger, even if it wreaks havoc on their gastrointestinal tract, and the seller of the meat should not be the one to tell them which meat is good and which is bad (even though the butcher can tell in most cases).

Basically, the message is that you should find the truth through vomiting and — so sorry — maybe even death.

In this, Mr. Zuckerberg is serving up a rancid meal that he says he’s not comfortable cooking himself, even as his hands control every aspect of the operation.

Good stuff. I wonder where the next metaphor will come from.


Why is it that the two Western democracies that have mishandled the Coronavirus crisis worst are the US and the UK?

There’s something weird about the ‘Anglosphere’. Could it be that both countries have a lot in common? For example:

  • Their two main political parties are dysfunctional
  • Both states have been hollowed out by decades of neoliberal governance by remote elites
  • Both have chronically unrepresentative electoral systems (FPTP in UK; the crackpot Senate representation which gives rural states the same representation as massive urbanised regions; comprehensive Republican gerrymandering of House of Representative seats; and of course the Electoral College.
  • Dark money plays a major role in campaign funding, and electoral laws are no longer fit for purpose
  • Both have delusions of exceptionalism
  • Both have a history of Imperial and racist exploitation
  • Currently both are led by blustering moral cretins.

Thinking the unthinkable

From Roger Cohen:

Last month, Trump tweeted: “RIGGED 2020 ELECTION: MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!” Of course, that foreign country would be China.

Trump is preparing the ground to contest any loss to Joe Biden and remain president, aided, no doubt, by Attorney General William Barr’s Justice Department.

I know, it’s unthinkable. So was the Reichstag fire.


Larry Brilliant on Covid-19

He’s the guy responsible for eliminating smallpox. Steven Levy interviewed him for Wired magazine. Here’s the part of the interview that really caught my eye:

 Levy: It seems like the longer it goes, the less we know about it. Every week something new comes up that contradicts what we thought we already knew.

Brilliant: No, no—you know a lot more about it now than you did three months ago. Yes, there are absolutely more questions today than there were 100 days ago. But part of that is because we’re getting more sophisticated in our ability to ask questions. Three months ago, we had only had a couple hundred cases of this novel virus. We have now got over 11 million cases, and a half a million deaths globally. The virus has been speeding along at an exponential speed, but so has science. So now we can begin to understand that this virus attacks the circulatory system, it attacks the vascular and nervous systems, it attacks the respiratory system, it attacks our ability to bring in oxygen. That’s why people can go to the hospital and be on their phone, not in any respiratory distress, but have oxygen saturation in the 50s, which in the old days we’d think of as you’re near death. It also makes you understand why you can get these Covid toes, why you can lose your sense of taste or smell, why you can have a stroke. This virus attacks blood vessels, it creates blood clots. That is probably one of the reasons why it causes strokes. We have a very large number of deaths due to kidney failure, and we are having terrible results from the ventilators that we were so obsessed about early on, though lately it’s looking a little better, because we’ve learned more about how to use them for this disease. We have learned a tremendous amount about this virus, about how it infects people, how it kills, how it spreads, but the big surprise to me is the kind of pan-organ nature of its attack. It gives the lie to anybody who thought that a comparison with influenza was in the ballpark.

 You paint quite a picture.

Brilliant: This is a big fucking deal. If I would not be excommunicated from the world of science, I would call this an evil virus, but I can’t do that because I can’t impugn motives to it. But if I could, I would call it that. It’s certainly pernicious. This is the worst pandemic in our lifetime. And it is the first time we have had a pandemic in the United States in which we have had such a total, abysmal failure of our federal government.


Larry Summers on the significance of Covid-19

The Covid-19 crisis is the third major shock to the global system in the 21st century, following the 2001 terror attacks and the 2008 financial crisis. I suspect it is by far the most significant.

Although the earlier events will figure in history textbooks, both 9/11 and the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy will fade over time from popular memory.

By contrast, I believe, the coronavirus crisis will still be considered a seminal event generations from now. Students of the future will learn of its direct effects and of the questions it brings into sharp relief much as those of today learn about the 1914 assassination of the Archduke, the 1929 stock market crash, or the 1938 Munich Conference. These events were significant but their ultimate historical importance lies in what followed.

Yep. Most people don’t seem to have twigged this yet.

From the Financial Times


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!


Friday 10 July, 2020

The flailing state

Long, angry LRB essay by Pankaj Mishra.

Sample:

The pandemic, which has killed 130,000 people in the US, including a disproportionate number of African Americans, has now shown, far more explicitly than Katrina did in 2005 or the financial crisis in 2008, that the Reagan-Thatcher model, which privatised risk and shifted the state’s responsibility onto the individual, condemns an unconscionable number of people to premature death or to a desperate struggle for existence.

An even deeper and more devastating realisation is that democracy, Anglo-America’s main ideological export and the mainstay of its moral prestige, has never been what it was cracked up to be.

Democracy does not guarantee good government, even in its original heartlands. Neither does the individual choice that citizens of democracies periodically exercise – whether in referendums or elections – confer political wisdom on the chosen. It might even delude them, as Johnson and Trump confirm, into deranged notions of omnipotence. The ideal of democracy, according to which all adults are equal and possess equal power to choose and control political and economic outcomes, is realised nowhere. The fact of economic inequality, not to mention the compromised character of political representatives, makes it unrealisable.

More disturbing still, voters have been steadily deprived, not least by a mendacious or click-baiting fourth estate, of the capacity either to identify or to seek the public interest. Modern democracy, in other words, bears little resemblance to the form of government that went under its name in ancient Greece. And in no place does democracy look more like a zombie than in India, Anglo-America’s most diligent apprentice, where a tremendously popular Hindu supremacist movement diverts attention from grotesque levels of inequality and its own criminal maladroitness by stoking murderous hatred against Muslims.


Microsoft plays catch-up with Teams

One of the funnier aspects of the pandemic is how the tech giants were caught napping with their sub-optimal video-conferencing systems, leaving the field open for Zoom to boom. Ever since then they’ve been racing to catch up.

Now it’s Microsoft’s turn to announce a major upgrade to its product — Teams.

Today we’re announcing a set of new features in Microsoft Teams that make virtual interactions more natural, more engaging, and ultimately, more human. These features offer three key benefits for people at work and in education. First, they help you feel more connected with your team and reduce meeting fatigue. Second, they make meetings more inclusive and engaging. And third, they help streamline your work and save time.

They are:

  • ’Together mode’: “uses AI segmentation technology to digitally place participants in a shared background, making it feel like you’re sitting in the same room with everyone else in the meeting or class”.

  • ‘Dynamic view’: “A set of enhancements we call dynamic view gives you more control over how you see shared content and other participants in a meeting. Using AI, meetings dynamically optimize shared content and video participants. New controls—including the ability to show shared content and specific participants side-by-side—let you personalize the view to suit your preferences and needs”. Includes “include large gallery view (rolling out in August), where you can see video of up to 49 people in a meeting simultaneously, and virtual breakout rooms, which allow meeting organizers to split meeting participants into smaller groups for things like brainstorming sessions or workgroup discussions”.

  • ‘Video filters’: “Before joining a meeting, you can use the filters to subtly adjust lighting levels and soften the focus of the camera to customize your appearance.

It remains to be seen if this really makes Teams more usable than the competition.


Here’s a way to think about Facebook

Imagine a factory that allowed anyone to bring toxic waste there, any time of day or night, and promised to store it. Imagine that in addition to storing the waste, the factory would exponentially increase the amount of toxic waste and enlist wide swaths of the population into adding their own pollution to the mix. Imagine that as part of its service, the factory would continually spew those toxins into our air, water, and soil, poisoning millions of people. Imagine then that the factory devoted some small degree of their services to cleaning up some of those toxins, well after much of the toxic waste had been distributed, and then asked to be congratulated for cleaning up 90% of the spills (according to its own unverifiable metrics). Lastly, at every opportunity, the factory would proudly proclaim that it doesn’t profit from distributing toxic waste.

From Chris Gilliard, writing in OneZero.

This is an example of a rhetorical tactic that might help break the “learned helplessness” of populations dazzled or intimidated by tech platforms. It’s a tactic I’ve used often — most recently in a long essay — Slouching towards Dystopia that appeared in the New Statesman in late February. What gives it its power is the fact that many of the things that we accept unquestioningly when online would be instantly regarded as totally unacceptable if anyone tried to impose them in real world. Nobody, for example, would sign a contract as skewed and one-sided as the average End User Licence Agreement (EULA) that people casually click to accept on the Web. If you want to alert people to what is happening, you have to translate it first into a real-world context.


Slate Star Codex, Silicon Valley and an arcane storm in a tea cup

I’ve been an interested reader of a blog called Slate Star Codex for a while, but one day last month when I visited it I found just a headline — “NYT Is Threatening My Safety By Revealing My Real Name, So I Am Deleting The Blog” — followed by this:

So, I kind of deleted the blog. Sorry. Here’s my explanation.

Last week I talked to a New York Times technology reporter who was planning to write a story on Slate Star Codex. He told me it would be a mostly positive piece about how we were an interesting gathering place for people in tech, and how we were ahead of the curve on some aspects of the coronavirus situation. It probably would have been a very nice article.

Unfortunately, he told me he had discovered my real name and would reveal it in the article, ie doxx me. “Scott Alexander” is my real first and middle name, but I’ve tried to keep my last name secret. I haven’t always done great at this, but I’ve done better than “have it get printed in the New York Times“.

I have a lot of reasons for staying pseudonymous…

I was puzzled by this and wondered what lay behind it. But life is short and I was doing a daily Quarantine diary and had other work to do, so I left it as just another of those unsolved mysteries.

But in true New Yorker style, the New Yorker couldn’t let it go and now there’s a long essay by Gideon Lewis-Kraus which takes a deep dive into the background.

Turns out it’s mostly about an arcane field of battle in the culture wars. As Miss Brodie says of chemistry in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, “For those that like that kind of thing, that is the kind of thing they like.” It is interesting, though, and revealing about a particular cast of mind in Silicon Valley.


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


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.


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 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.


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!


Thursday 25 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


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 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

Link


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!