Tuesday 20 October, 2020

English pastoral

From our afternoon cycle ride today.


Quote of the day

”The making of a journalist: no ideas and the ability to express them.”

  • Karl Kraus

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Gillian Welch: Acony Bell

Link

New to me. Thanks to my friend Andrew Ingham (who plays in that splendid band, Acoustic Grandads, currently grappling with this streaming business) for the suggestion.


At last, Google gets taken to court by the US

Pardon me while I yawn. Suddenly the US Department of Justice (and the Attorneys-General of 11 states) have become shocked at what evil Google has been doing for decades in plain sight, while US regulators — under Obama as well as Trump — politely looked the other way. But now, all of a sudden, Attorney-General Barr has decided to strike.

Why?

Simple, there’s an election coming and Trump swore he would ‘do something’ about the tech companies who were suddenly annoying him rather than merely relaying and amplifying his propaganda. Barr is trying to show that he is delivering on the Boss’s threat.

And the rest of us are sitting around saying “What took you so long?”

What will be Google’s defence? Steve Lohr summarises it thus:

We’re not dominant and competition on the internet is just “one click away.”

That is the essence of recent testimony in Congress by Google executives. Google’s share of the search market in the United States is about 80 percent. But looking only at the market for “general” search, the company says, is myopic. Nearly half of online shopping searches, it notes, begin on Amazon.

Next, Google says the deals the Justice Department is citing are entirely legal. Such company-to-company deals violate antitrust law only if they can be shown to exclude competition. Users can freely switch to other search engines, like Microsoft’s Bing or Yahoo Search, anytime they want, Google insists. Its search service, Google says, is the runaway market leader because people prefer it.

The first of these defences — the one about competition being just “one click away” brings back memories.

Just over eight years ago I played host at Cambridge for four days to Eric Schmidt, who at that time was the Executive Chairman of Google. He was that year’s Humanitas Professor of Media in Cambridge, an appointment that required him to give three lectures and participate in a public symposium. The presence of such a powerful figure in the tech world gave rise to much interest among students and staff. And it was fascinating for me — like getting an intravenous injection of a certain kind of ideology.

When Schmidt was among us, we did naturally raise the power of the big digital monopolies like the one he headed. He had a reassuring bedside manner on that topic. His spiel went like this: if Google had a monopoly of search, then that was because it was providing the kinds of search facilities that people valued. After all, the service was free, and other search engines were merely a click away.

But what keeps us [i.e. Google] honest, he went on, is the fact that we know that somewhere in a garage two kids are planning to do to us what Larry page and Sergei Brin did to Alta Vista — the best search engine prior to Google’s arrival in 1998. The implication was that the barriers to entry to the marketplace were so low that a couple of smart kids with a better idea could triumph.

What he omitted to mention of course is that while that might have been true in the late 1990s, by 2012 — in addition to the fabled garage — those kids would have needed a global network of giant server farms, together with exabytes of user data on which to train and refine their algorithms. The barrier to entry had become as high as Everest, and Google and the other winners who took all were secure.

And one of the many ironies of the pandemic is that they will emerge from it even more secure, with their grip on the world even more consolidated. During the pandemic the tech companies have been on a mergers-and-acquisition spree not seen in a decade.

The DoJ case will drag on for quite a while, in the way that these things do. But the inquiry I’d like to see is into why the relevant Federal regulators did little or nothing about tech monopolists’ behaviour. That’s something that all the politicians on the House of Representatives investigation into monopoly power of the tech giants seemed to have agreed on.

As Shira Ovide says,

House members said that the F.T.C. and others too often left unchallenged Big Tech’s pattern of getting more powerful by acquiring competitors, and that the agencies did not crack down when these companies broke the law and their word. I couldn’t agree more.

For one small example, look at what happened in 2013. The F.T.C. said that it was getting harder for people to tell the difference between regular web search results and paid web links on Google’s search engine. This risked hurting both those trying to use the site, and companies that had no choice but to spend more money with Google to get noticed.

The F.T.C. urged Google and others to make it more clear when people were seeing web search results rather than paid links.

What happened since that warning in 2013? Not very much. If anything, it’s gotten even more difficult to tell Google’s ads from everything else.

Why US regulators were asleep at the wheel is a long story involving neoliberal ideology and judicial doctrine that saw nothing wrong with a monopoly so long as its services were ‘free’ (Google, Facebook) or undercutting competitors with higher operating costs, including paying taxes (Amazon). So for now let’s just sit back, secure in the knowledge that this anti-monopoly case will run and run.


Tips for journalists covering the US election

Here’s a summary of the advice from Media for Democracy:

1 Covering the Election Amid Attempts to Undermine It

  • Deny a platform to anyone making unfounded claims
  • Put voters and election administrators at the center of elections.
  • Strive for equity in news coverage.
  • Make quality coverage more widely accessible to expand publics for news.

2 What to do in the case of contested election results when the outcome is unclear or a candidate does not concede

  • Publicize your plans and do not make premature declarations.
  • Develop and use state- and local-level expertise to provide locally-relevant information.
  • Distinguish between legitimate, evidence-based challenges to vote counts and illegitimate ones that are intended to delay or call into question accepted procedures.
  • In the event of a contested or unclear outcome, don’t use social media to fill gaps in institutionally credible and reliable election information.
  • Cover an uncertain or contested election through a “democracy-worthy” frame.
  • Recognize that technology platforms have an important role to play.
  • Embrace existing democratic institutions

3 How to prepare for the possibility of post-election civil unrest?

  • Help Americans understand the roots of unrest.
  • Uphold democratic norms.
  • Use clear definitions for actions and actors and provide coverage appropriate to those definitions.
  • Do not give a platform to individuals or groups who call for violence, spread disinformation, or foment racist ideas.

For more detail on each heading, check the link.

Reading through the document I don’t know whether to cheer or weep. Mostly the latter, because of its revelation that this is stuff that every journalist should know but apparently doesn’t. I’d have thought that almost everything in the above lists is taught in Journalism 101.


Other possibly interesting links

  • ClockmakingLink Yes, you read that correctly. Part of a series by one of the most interesting thinkers on the Web. He’s been building a clock.

  • Arnold Kling: Social media are really “gossip at scale”. Link

  • Explaining Brexit to Americans. Astute blog post by Alina Utrata, an American graduate student who had been studying in Belfast.


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Correction:

In yesterday’s edition I incorrectly attributed the mantra “pessimism of the Intellect, optimism of the Will” to Nietzsche. Many thanks to the readers who emailed to point out that Gramsci should have got the credit. Confirms my belief that Rule One for bloggers is: always assume that somewhere out there is someone who knows more than you. Never fails.


Saturday 15 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

  • Bertrand Russell

Musical alternative to the morning’s news

Jessye Norman: Mozart – Le Nozze di Figaro, ‘Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro’

Link


The significance of the Twitter hack

Damn! This great piece by Bruce Schneier was published on July 18 and I missed it. Growl.

Still, better late than never…

Twitter was hacked this week. Not a few people’s Twitter accounts, but all of Twitter. Someone compromised the entire Twitter network, probably by stealing the log-in credentials of one of Twitter’s system administrators. Those are the people trusted to ensure that Twitter functions smoothly.

The hacker used that access to send tweets from a variety of popular and trusted accounts, including those of Joe Biden, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk, as part of a mundane scam—stealing bitcoin—but it’s easy to envision more nefarious scenarios. Imagine a government using this sort of attack against another government, coordinating a series of fake tweets from hundreds of politicians and other public figures the day before a major election, to affect the outcome. Or to escalate an international dispute. Done well, it would be devastating.

en passant, the US is heading for an election that will not be decided on the day, but after a period (of unknown duration) while postal votes are being counted (and maybe argued over). Another Twitter hack on the lines just suggested could be catastrophic.

So here’s the nub of it:

Internet communications platforms—such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—are crucial in today’s society. They’re how we communicate with one another. They’re how our elected leaders communicate with us. They are essential infrastructure. Yet they are run by for-profit companies with little government oversight. This is simply no longer sustainable. Twitter and companies like it are essential to our national dialogue, to our economy, and to our democracy. We need to start treating them that way, and that means both requiring them to do a better job on security and breaking them up.


Google’s Advertising Platform Is Blocking Articles About Racism

This is both shocking — and unsurprising:

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, the Atlantic decided to recirculate King’s famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” which the magazine had run in its August 1963 issue and republished, in print and online, in 2018. Several hours later, the publication’s staff noticed that Google’s Ad Exchange platform, which serves many of the ads on the Atlantic’s website, had “demonetized” the page containing the letter under its “dangerous or derogatory content” policy. In other words: As part of its efforts to protect advertisers from offensive internet content with which they would not want their products to be associated, Ad Exchange had locked out one of the most important texts of the civil rights movement.

Google controls more than 30 percent of the digital ads market. A big chunk of that business happens through Ad Exchange, a marketplace for buying and selling advertising space across the web. According to its publisher policies, Google does not monetize, or allow advertising on, “dangerous or derogatory content” that disparages people on the basis of a characteristic that is associated with systemic discrimination—race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. As the policy outlines, this might look like “promoting hate groups” or “encouraging others to believe that a person or group is inhuman.” Because of the scale of Google’s ad-serving business, however, it can’t enforce this policy on the front lines by hand, so instead the company uses an algorithm that, in part, scans for offensive keywords in articles. But the system doesn’t always take context into consideration. Several mainstream publishers, including Slate, have had articles demonetized under this policy when covering race and LGBTQ issues.

Automated ‘moderation’ is context-blind, in other words. It’s just another confirmation that these companies can’t fulfil their moral and ethical obligations at the scale on which they operate, given the business models on which they depend.


US Postal Service warns 46 states their voters could be disenfranchised by delayed mail-in ballots

This is paywalled on the Washington Post site, but here is the gist:

Anticipating an avalanche of absentee ballots, the U.S. Postal Service recently sent detailed letters to 46 states and D.C. warning that it cannot guarantee all ballots cast by mail for the November election will arrive in time to be counted — adding another layer of uncertainty ahead of the high-stakes presidential contest.

The letters sketch a grim possibility for the tens of millions of Americans eligible for a mail-in ballot this fall: Even if people follow all of their state’s election rules, the pace of Postal Service delivery may disqualify their votes.

The Postal Service’s warnings of potential disenfranchisement came as the agency undergoes a sweeping organizational and policy overhaul amid dire financial conditions. Cost-cutting moves have already delayed mail delivery by as much as a week in some places, and a new decision to decommission 10 percent of the Postal Service’s sorting machines sparked widespread concern the slowdowns will only worsen. Rank-and-file postal workers say the move is ill-timed and could sharply diminish the speedy processing of flat mail, including letters and ballots.

My immediate thought was that this is linked to the appointment of a Trump stooge as the Postmaster-General. But apparently it pre-dates his appointment:

The ballot warnings, issued at the end of July from Thomas J. Marshall, general counsel and executive vice president of the Postal Service, and obtained through a records request by The Washington Post, were planned before the appointment of Louis DeJoy, a former logistics executive and ally of President Trump, as postmaster general in early summer. They go beyond the traditional coordination between the Postal Service and election officials, drafted as fears surrounding the coronavirus pandemic triggered an unprecedented and sudden shift to mail-in voting.

Everywhere one looks, norms and conventions that we took for granted in liberal democracies are wilting or being undermined. The chances of the US having an uncontested election result diminish by the day.


Summer books #4

Analogia: The Entangled Destinies of Nature, Human Beings and Machines by George Dyson, Allen Lane, 2020.

I’m exactly half-way through this extraordinary book, and I still don’t know where it’s headed. But it’s an infuriatingly compelling read. George Dyson is an extraordinary member of an extraordinary family — the son of the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson and mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson, the brother of technology analyst Esther Dyson, and the grandson of the British composer Sir George Dyson. He has led an amazing life as a roving explorer, craftsman and public intellectual. Having being brought up in Princeton, where his father was an academic in the Institute for Advanced Study, he dropped out of a couple of universities before heading for the West Coast of Canada. From 1972 to 1975, he lived in a tree-house at a height of 30 metres that he built from salvaged materials on the shore of Burrard Inlet in British Columbia. He became a Canadian citizen and spent 20 years in that part of the world designing kayaks, researching historic voyages and native peoples, and exploring the Inside Passage.

In recent decades he’s become interested in the history of computing and the direction of travel of our increasingly digitized world. Everything he’s written on these subjects interweaves his own personal history with polymathic knowledge of all kinds of subjects and speculations on what it all means for the future. This, his latest book, follows the same pattern. Where he’s heading, I suspect, is towards the conclusion that, in the end, the digital will run out of steam, and we’ll discover that analog computing (which after all is what goes on in our brains) will have the last laugh. As someone who started on analog computers before moving to digital devices I’m intrigued to see if that hunch is correct. But there’s another 150 pages to go and anything may happen: you never can tell with the Dysons. After all, George’s father devoted a couple of years of his life to a US-funded project to build a huge spaceship powered by nuclear explosions and was mightily pissed off when the US instead opted for Werner von Braun and his primitive, chemical-fuelled, rockets.


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Friday 8 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

“The TV business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. For the most part, they are dirty little animals with huge brains and no pulse”

  • Hunter S Thompson

From blood clots to ‘Covid toe’: the medical mysteries of coronavirus

Terrific FT explainer — outside the paywall. If you think SARS-CoV-2 is just “another kind of flu,” think again.


Contact tracing (contd.)

It’s one of those areas where it’s genuinely difficult to know what’s the best approach. The problem that the UK has is that its government failed at the outset (for reasons we can debate endlessly) to adopt a classic track and trace approach. So it’s trying to play catch-up.

Struggling with the topic this morning I made some notes. Here they are:

  1. There’s a dangerous aura of tech-solutionism about the idea that an app is the thing that will solve our problems. That’s clearly baloney. But…

  2. It’s an inventive way to approach the problem in a society like the UK with a large population — provided that it’s complemented by more human resources than the UK currently possesses.

  3. There seem to be only two broad paradigms here for app design — roughly described as decentralised and centralised. The decentralised approach keepts the data on the phone; the other keeps it on a centralised database of some kind.

  4. Up to now, I’ve tended to side with the decentralised approach, on the grounds of (i) avoiding state surveillance and the dangers of ‘mission-creep’ that we’ve seen after other crises (like 9/11); (ii) concerns about the security of such a centralised database (surely a juicy target for state-level hackers); (iii) it gives individuals more agency; and (iv) a hunch that the Apple-Google API was likely to be better than other approaches, partly because of their intimate knowledge of their two smartphone platforms but also because they would know how to mitigate battery-draining properties of BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) apps.

  5. But since this was mainly half-informed guesswork on my part, I decided to read up on the NHSx approach.

(The FT has a really good explanation of the NHSx app, btw. And it’s outside the paper’s paywall.

Ian Levy from the National Cyber security Centre has provided a pretty thorough briefing on it which is worth reading in its entirety. The key difference between decentralised and centralised approaches, he says, is that in the first approach every user of the app gets some understanding of who is declared ill (and that list keeps being updated) but the public health authority – by design – knows pretty much nothing about who’s ill.

Crucially, while the health authority would know the anonymous identity of the app that’s reported symptoms (or sometimes just a Bluetooth broadcast value) it wouldn’t know any of the contacts (even anonymously), and so won’t know anything about how that user may have spread the disease.

In the centralised approach, on the other hand,

an ill user reports their symptoms, but also gives all their anonymous contacts to the public health authority, along with some details about the type of contact they’ve had (duration and proximity for example). The health authority can use risk modelling to decide which contacts are most at risk, and then notify them to take some action – again probably self isolation to start with. Importantly, the public health authority has anonymous data to help it understand how the disease appears to be spreading, and has the anonymous contact graphs to carry out some analysis. So the health authority could discover that a particular anonymous person seems to infect people really well. While the system wouldn’t know who they are, encounters with them could be scored as more risky, and adjust the risk of someone being infected by a particular encounter appropriately.

The fundamental argument underpinning the NHSx team’s decision to go for the centralised model is that they believe that it offers better public health benefits. To which sceptics will retort, pace Mandy Rice-Davies, well, they would, wouldn’t they?

There are lots of differences [between the decentralised approach and the NHSx one], but given the epidemiological model the NHS is using to manage the coronavirus spread in the UK, the fully decentralised model just doesn’t seem to work.

There’s an analogy with Typhoid Mary and the Broad Street water pumps examples. If all you knew was that there were some typhoid cases in New York (or some cholera cases in a bit of London) you’d never see the pattern. But if the fact that Mary (or the pump) were implicated in all of the cases, then it becomes obvious. Obviously, users are anonymous in the app (so you can’t identify the person) and it doesn’t have location, but it’s only an analogy! You need to look at the aggregate data (anonymously in our case) to be able to see these patterns.

In the end, the choice you have to make is a balance between individual, group and national privacy, and the public health authorities having the minimum information necessary to manage the spread of the virus. The NHS app is designed to balance those things, minimizing the data the health authorities get to that necessary to respond with protecting the privacy of our users. There are many ways of implementing these things, but the NHS app is a good balance in the team’s view.

That’s the bird’s eye view. On the ground, however, there’s a lot of mundane detail to be sorted out with either approach. For example:

  • Do the apps drain smartphone batteries? If they do then people won’t use them, or won’t keep using them for long enough. Ian Levy’s paper claims that the NHSx app won’t drain batteries. There seems to be some controversy about this
  • Will the app run on older smartphones that many people are likely to use? An investigation by Privacy International found a number of Android phones on which it wouldn’t run.
  • Both the decentralised and centralised approaches rely on Bluetooth LE. Since Bluetooth goes through, for example, plasterboard walls, there’s a likelihood (or at least a risk) of getting misleading results (false positives) in crowded environments.
  • Finally, there’s the fact that none of these apps will be mandatory. At least that’s the position for now, and it’s difficult to see how governments in democracies could change it. Moreover, the take-up needs to be substantial — maybe 60% — before the real benefits kick in.

So overall, probably the critical thing is whether users will trust an app enough to install and use it. After all, all smartphone-based approaches require people to confide to the app that they think they might be infected. Such a confession will have socially-differentiated consequences: for middle-class people, who can easily self-isolate and work from home, etc, no problem; but for those for whom confession might mean staying away from work, it’s tougher — unless the government moves firmly to support them while they’re under quarantine. My other conclusion from spending a day reading and thinking about this is that the surveillance/privacy aspects of this will not be a major consideration for most citizens, no matter how exercised Privacy International and civil liberties groups (and, for that matter, this blogger) might say or think. The virus is so terrifying that most people will do anything that might reduce its spread and the possibility that they themselves might catch it. So, in a way, Paul Romer (quoted in yesterday’s blog) is probably right when he said this:

I’m not worried about the privacy issues, because it’s kind of, like, “Compared to what?” I think we’ve got enormous problems with surveillance right now. This doesn’t seem to me to make it much worse. But I was participating in digital discussions about response to the crisis, and the meeting would go like this: “We need more testing.” Financial people said, “Yep, we got it.” “We need masks and protective equipment.” “Yep, fine.” “And then we need to have the digital contact tracing.” And then, all of a sudden, the whole meeting is taken up with hand-wringing and anxiety and all kinds of fears.


Google pulls out of Toronto ‘Sidewalk’ project

Amazingly good news. Looks that they jumped before they were pushed. Campaigning works.

_________________________________________________________________ 

The Ivy League will be ok. It’s public universities — and their students — who will suffer most from the pandemic and its aftermath

Great New Yorker piece .

______________________________________________________________________ 

Finding endless video calls exhausting? You’re not alone

I was musing about this in yesterday’s Quarantine Diary. This piece by Andre Spicer suggests that I was on the right track.

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And in case you’re depressed by what’s going on in the US

Why not try this — from McSweeney’s.

Good send-up of the Trump mindset. It’s witty and clever. But, sadly, it’s not a joke.

Thanks to Charles Arthur for the link.


Quarantine diary — Day 48

Link


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Monday 27 April, 2020

If you wanted evidence of the dramatic shift of power from governments to tech giants, then this is it

In my Observer column of 19 April I wrote about the decision of

the two huge tech companies that control mobile phone technology – Apple with its iOS operating system and Google with Android – to create application programming interfaces (APIs) that will enable governments to build and deploy proximity-tracking apps on every smartphone in the world. This is remarkable in two ways. One, it involves cooperation between the two members of a global duopoly that would normally trigger antitrust suits – yet there hasn’t been even a whimper from competition authorities. And two, the companies insist that if governments do not comply with the conditions that they – Apple and Google – are laying down, then they will withdraw the APIs. The specific condition is that apps using the APIs are not mandatory for citizens. They have to be opt-in. So here we have two powerful global corporations laying down the law to territorial sovereigns. Unthinkable a month ago. But now…

After the Apple/Google announcement there was widespread speculation that European and other governments which were contemplating centralised proximity-sensing apps would be moving towards decentralised systems and pressuring the companies to back off their ‘opt-in’ stipulation.

And now?

Reuters is reporting that Germany, which until last Friday was backing a centralised standard called Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT), which would have needed Apple in particular to change the settings on its iPhones. But,

When Apple refused to budge there was no alternative but to change course, said a senior government source.

In their joint statement, Braun and Spahn said Germany would now adopt a “strongly decentralised” approach.

“This app should be voluntary, meet data protection standards and guarantee a high level of IT security,” they said. “The main epidemiological goal is to recognise and break chains of infection as soon as possible.”

This is just the latest example of a major trend which has serious implications for democracy. It’s what Frank Pasquale identified long ago as the ceding of territorial sovereignty to functional sovereigns, i.e. tech giants.


Cummings and SAGE meetings

Further to my suspicions about the influence of Dominic Cummings following the revelations that he was attending meetings of the ‘independent’ SAGE scientific advisory group…

In the interesting interview that Professor Neil Ferguson (a member of SAGE) gave to Unherd he says that “Dominic Cummings observed, but did not get involved in decision-making at SAGE”. That doesn’t quite settle the matter. I don;t know what the dynamics of decision making are in No 10, but my understanding is that Cummings has ready access to Johnson and it’s conceivable that his summary of SAGE views might have made an impression on the Prime Minister; After all he’s made a good living all his life by telling stories that were simple, memorable and wrong. And Cummings likes vivid, dramatic propositions. Pukka scientists, on the other hand, tend to favour reservations, probabilities and doubt, none of which make for vivid stories.

It will be a long time before we learn what actually went on, but in the meantime Professor Chris Tyler of UCL, whose research area is how politicians use scientific advice has some interesting reflections on the current controversy about Cummings’s role in all this. “A key question for me”, he writes,

is what role Cummings was playing on SAGE. There is a potential spectrum of engagement with the group which at one end is perfectly acceptable and at the other is completely unacceptable.

It could well be that Cummings wanted to listen to SAGE discussions so that he could gain an understanding of how the debate within SAGE led to its summaries and recommendations. This to my mind would be fine. After all, in conditions of extreme uncertainty, like with COVID-19, the debate is at least as important as the conclusions of deliberation.

One might argue that his very presence could impede on the independence of the advice. But I would contend that the members of SAGE are all grown-ups and can act independently even when being observed.

But what if the Guardian report that “Downing Street advisers were not merely observing the advisory meetings, but actively participating in discussions about the formation of advice” is accurate?

Interestingly, the notion of SAGE being independent appears nowhere in its 64 pages of guidelines. Even though everyone “knows” that SAGE should be independent, the government’s official guidelines do not recognise this “fact”. As a first step, the 2012 SAGE guidelines should now be updated to outline the role of SAGE – which should include “independence” – and instructions as to when and if it is appropriate for political advisers to be present and, if so, what role they should play.

In order for us to ascertain the role played by Cummings or any other future political adviser, the minutes of SAGE meetings must be made public. The government clearly believes that the advice provided to it by SAGE should be private, but that runs counter to its own guidance on how science advisory committees should work, which calls for “openness and transparency”.

The problem with not being open and transparent is that it is impossible for parliament, the media and researchers to scrutinise what is going on. What is the advice the government is being given? Is government really following that advice? Who is giving it?

Which brings up back to Cummings. As Charles Arthur observed this morning,

When Cummings was ill with Covid-19, for about two weeks, the government’s response to the media had a much calmer tone. Now he’s back it’s angrier, more Trump-ish in its out-of-hand dismissals of well-sourced stories when then turn out to be correct, and important.


YouGov: Only 9% of Britons want life to return to “normal” after the coronavirus outbreak is over

Hmmm… I wonder if this is the case. Or is it just fond hopes that will not survive the new reality?

According to this summary

  • People have noticed significant changes during the lockdown, including cleaner air, more wildlife and stronger communities.
  • More than half (54%) of 4,343 people who took part in the poll hope they will make some changes in their own lives and for the country as a whole to learn from the crisis.
  • >42% of participants said they value food and other essentials more since the pandemic, with 38% cooking from scratch more.
  • 61% of people are spending less money and 51% noticed cleaner air outdoors, while 27% think there is more wildlife.
  • Two-fifths said there is a stronger sense of community in their area since the outbreak began and 39% say they are catching up with friends and family more.

Quarantine diary — Day 37

Link


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Friday 21 March, 2020

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It’s the Spring Equinox!


Boris Johnson’s fianceé is pregnant and they’re living in the same house. So shouldn’t Johnson be in quarantine too?

After all, the government’s advice is that pregnant women should self-quarantine (even though there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that they are more at risk). Concealing him from public view would at least stop us being subjected to the Bertie Wooster nonsense he talked yesterday about getting this virus blighter beaten in 12 weeks. He sometimes seems incapable of engaging his brain before opening his mouth.


The Net is now vital infrastructure. So it must be protected during this crisis

As more and more people have to stay — or work from — home, the Internet is is now really part of society’s critical infrastructure. So we need to make sure that it can continue to carry the increased load that’s heading its way. That means that, in the end, some uses will have to take priority over others. I’ve been ranting for weeks that HD streaming of entertainment content should be de-prioritised, and was relieved to see that the EU has come round to that view. So it’s good to see that Netflix and YouTube announce that they will reduce streaming quality in Europe for at least the next month to prevent the internet collapsing under the strain of unprecedented usage due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sky News reports both companies saying that the measures will affect all video streams for 30 days. “We estimate that this will reduce Netflix traffic on European networks by around 25% while also ensuring a good quality service for our members,” a Netflix spokesperson said in a statement. A spokesperson for Google, which owns YouTube, said: “We will continue working with member state governments and network operators to minimize stress on the system, while also delivering a good user experience.”

The Financial Times reports that in Italy, the first country to enact a full lockdown, there has been a three-fold increase in the use of video conferencing, which, alongside streaming and gaming, drove a 75 per cent rise in residential data traffic across broadband and mobile networks during the weekend, according to Telecom Italia. And the Spanish telecoms industry issued a warning at the start of the week to urge consumers to ration their internet usage by streaming and downloading more in off-peak hours.

This is going to get worse. What’s happening — predictably — is that whereas Internet use tended to spike in the evenings, now it’s higher (sometimes much higher) throughout the day. So we now have another curve that we need to “flatten”. And it’s possible, therefore, that the EU will have to revisit its Net Neutrality rules as a consequence.


How to Make Your Own Hand Sanitizer

Recipes from Wired magazine. I think I’ll stick to soap and water.


How will we know when we’re through this?

A question that Steven Levy asked during his interview of Larry Brilliant. (That’s the Larry Brilliant of eradicating smallpox and the famous TED talk about how to deal with pandemics.) His mantra: detect early, and respond early.

Here’s his answer to Levy’s question:

The world is not going to begin to look normal until three things have happened. One, we figure out whether the distribution of this virus looks like an iceberg, which is one-seventh above the water, or a pyramid, where we see everything. If we’re only seeing right now one-seventh of the actual disease because we’re not testing enough, and we’re just blind to it, then we’re in a world of hurt. Two, we have a treatment that works, a vaccine or antiviral. And three, maybe most important, we begin to see large numbers of people—in particular nurses, home health care providers, doctors, policemen, firemen, and teachers who have had the disease—are immune, and we have tested them to know that they are not infectious any longer. And we have a system that identifies them, either a concert wristband or a card with their photograph and some kind of a stamp on it. Then we can be comfortable sending our children back to school, because we know the teacher is not infectious.

The interview is well worth reading in full.

And when you’ve done that, watch his 2006 TED talk. You won’t regret it.


Could Google users in UK lose EU data protection?

This Reuters report suggests that we could.

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Google is planning to move its British users’ accounts out of the control of European Union privacy regulators, placing them under U.S. jurisdiction instead, sources said.

The shift, prompted by Britain’s exit from the EU, will leave the sensitive personal information of tens of millions with less protection and within easier reach of British law enforcement.

The change was described to Reuters by three people familiar with its plans. Google intends to require its British users to acknowledge new terms of service including the new jurisdiction.

Ireland, where Google and other U.S. tech companies have their European headquarters, is staying in the EU, which has one of the world’s most aggressive data protection rules, the General Data Protection Regulation.

Google has decided to move its British users out of Irish jurisdiction because it is unclear whether Britain will follow GDPR or adopt other rules that could affect the handling of user data, the people said.

If British Google users have their data kept in Ireland, it would be more difficult for British authorities to recover it in criminal investigations.

The recent Cloud Act in the United States, however, is expected to make it easier for British authorities to obtain data from U.S. companies. Britain and the United States are also on track to negotiate a broader trade agreement.

Beyond that, the United States has among the weakest privacy protections of any major economy, with no broad law despite years of advocacy by consumer protection groups.

Google, needless to say, declined to comment.

If this turns out to be true, it will mark my departure from all the Google services that I currently use. Better start organising now, just in case…

Of you’re interested here’s a how-to link.

Patronising BS from the Google boys

Announcing their decision to step down from directly managing the company they created, the Google co-founders wrote:

With Alphabet now well-established, and Google and the Other Bets operating effectively as independent companies, it’s the natural time to simplify our management structure. We’ve never been ones to hold on to management roles when we think there’s a better way to run the company. And Alphabet and Google no longer need two CEOs and a President. Going forward, Sundar will be the CEO of both Google and Alphabet. He will be the executive responsible and accountable for leading Google, and managing Alphabet’s investment in our portfolio of Other Bets. We are deeply committed to Google and Alphabet for the long term, and will remain actively involved as Board members, shareholders and co-founders. In addition, we plan to continue talking with Sundar regularly, especially on topics we’re passionate about!

John Gruber is having none of it:

This whole “Alphabet” thing is a joke. I still don’t get what they’re even trying for with it. The company is Google and we all know it. The subsidiary owns the parent and everyone knows it. No one is fooled by this. Nothing has changed regarding the goofy super-class shares that Page and Brin hold that give them complete control of the company. Google is a privately-held company that trades as a publicly-held one.

Here’s the thing that’s always rubbed me the wrong way about Google. They’re insulting. Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates — I completely believe they’re all geniuses. But they never seem(ed) condescending. Tim Cook and Satya Nadella aren’t founders but they’re both great examples of what a CEO should be: smart, honest, respectful.

Brin and Page are almost certainly smarter than you and me. But they’re not as much smarter as they think they are. Read this whole announcement through the filter of “they think we’re dumb” and it makes a lot more sense. And if they were as smart as they think they are, they’d therefore be smart enough to recognize how tone-deaf this plays.

Yep.

‘Don’t be Evil’ changes to ‘Don’t ask me anything’

From Steven Levy, who knows as much about Google as any outsider:

Last week, Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent an email blast to his 100,000 or so employees, cutting back the company’s defining all-hands meeting known as TGIF. The famous free-for-alls had epitomized the company’s egalitarian ethos, a place where employees and leaders could talk freely about nearly anything. More recently, however, the biweekly meeting had become fraught as it increasingly reflected Google’s tensions as opposed to its aspirations. “It’s not working in its current form,” Pichai said of what was once the hallmark of Google culture. In 2020, he declared, the meetings would be limited to once a month, and they would be more constrained affairs, sticking to “product and business strategy.” Don’t Be Evil has changed to Don’t Ask Me Anything.

It was inevitable, really. You can’t run a giant company as if it were a small startup.

Foresight, ignored

I’ve been reading “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine”, the original academic paper in which the co-founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, outlined their search engine and its properties. It’s a fascinating read for various reasons, not least the evidence it presents of the pair’s originality. And at the end there are two Appendices, the first of which suggests an eerie prescience about the extent to which advertising would be a malignant business model for any enterprise aiming at objective search. Here it is:

Appendix A: Advertising and Mixed Motives

Currently, the predominant business model for commercial search engines is advertising. The goals of the advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search to users. For example, in our prototype search engine one of the top results for cellular phone is “The Effect of Cellular Phone Use Upon Driver Attention”, a study which explains in great detail the distractions and risk associated with conversing on a cell phone while driving. This search result came up first because of its high importance as judged by the PageRank algorithm, an approximation of citation importance on the web [Page, 98]. It is clear that a search engine which was taking money for showing cellular phone ads would have difficulty justifying the page that our system returned to its paying advertisers. For this type of reason and historical experience with other media [Bagdikian 83], we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.

Since it is very difficult even for experts to evaluate search engines, search engine bias is particularly insidious. A good example was OpenText, which was reported to be selling companies the right to be listed at the top of the search results for particular queries [Marchiori 97]. This type of bias is much more insidious than advertising, because it is not clear who “deserves” to be there, and who is willing to pay money to be listed. This business model resulted in an uproar, and OpenText has ceased to be a viable search engine. But less blatant bias are likely to be tolerated by the market. For example, a search engine could add a small factor to search results from “friendly” companies, and subtract a factor from results from competitors. This type of bias is very difficult to detect but could still have a significant effect on the market. Furthermore, advertising income often provides an incentive to provide poor quality search results. For example, we noticed a major search engine would not return a large airline’s homepage when the airline’s name was given as a query. It so happened that the airline had placed an expensive ad, linked to the query that was its name. A better search engine would not have required this ad, and possibly resulted in the loss of the revenue from the airline to the search engine. In general, it could be argued from the consumer point of view that the better the search engine is, the fewer advertisements will be needed for the consumer to find what they want. This of course erodes the advertising supported business model of the existing search engines. However, there will always be money from advertisers who want a customer to switch products, or have something that is genuinely new. But we believe the issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm.

In today’s edition of his regular newsletter ‘Big’, Matt Stoeller reports something Rana Foroohar, author of Don’t Be Evil: the case against Big Tech (my review of which is here), said when he asked her what was the most surprising or weird thing she learned when working on her book. “I don’t know if it’s weird”, she replied,

but the most surprising thing I leaned while researching the book was that the founders of Google, Sergei and Larry, had basically predicted the key problems with surveillance capitalism and where they would lead us back in their original paper on search, written while they were Stanford grad students. At the very end, in the appendix, there’s a paragraph where they admit that the targeted advertising business model could be misused by companies or other entities in ways that would hurt users. This is kind of a bombshell revelation given that search engines say everything they do is for users. The fact that this paper hasn’t gotten more attention makes me think people aren’t reading….which is itself part of the problem of attention capture I describe in the book.

Matt’s book Goliath: The 100-year war between monopoly power and democracy is well worth a read, btw.

How “Don’t Be Evil” panned out

My Observer review of Rana Foroohar’s new book about the tech giants and their implications for our world.

“Don’t be evil” was the mantra of the co-founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the graduate students who, in the late 1990s, had invented a groundbreaking way of searching the web. At the time, one of the things the duo believed to be evil was advertising. There’s no reason to doubt their initial sincerity on this matter, but when the slogan was included in the prospectus for their company’s flotation in 2004 one began to wonder what they were smoking. Were they really naive enough to believe that one could run a public company on a policy of ethical purity?

The problem was that purity requires a business model to support it and in 2000 the venture capitalists who had invested in Google pointed out to the boys that they didn’t have one. So they invented a model that involved harvesting users’ data to enable targeted advertising. And in the four years between that capitulation to reality and the flotation, Google’s revenues increased by nearly 3,590%. That kind of money talks.
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Rana Foroohar has adopted the Google mantra as the title for her masterful critique of the tech giants that now dominate our world…

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