Thursday 28 May, 2020

Deconstructing Cummings’s Downing Street statement

Wonderful analysis of the Cummings document by the FT’s David Allen Green. Takes the form of a 25-minute video going through the document line by line, but there’s also a transcript if you’re in a hurry. It’s a fascinating piece of work. Allen thinks that the entire document was drawn up by a (no doubt expensive) lawyer because it reads like a witness statement as used in trials. (But there’s no signature at the bottom attesting that it is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!).

The only thing he misses is the fact (mentioned in the Wired report discussed on this blog yesterday) that Cummings retrospectively added to his blog post of March 4, 2019 to make it look as thought he was exceedingly prescient about this kind of pandemic.

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Charlie Warzel on de-platforming Trump

Useful piece by Charlie sparked by the thought that Twitter might ban Trump.

“The strategy of power now is not to dominate the whole narrative,” Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at the London School of Economics and the author of “This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality” told me recently. “It’s to polarize citizens and construct a very potent worldview and to alienate them from the truth. When journalists speak truth to power they’re by nature giving the powerful the opposition they want.”

Naturally, media outlets and reporters, not wanting to be bullied or discredited, adopt an adversarial approach. This leads to some great, important journalism but also a fair amount of grandstanding, which then become ammunition for the president and his supporters.

This situation is hard for journalists to get their heads around, Mr. Pomerantsev says. “We’re trained to stand up to the powerful,” he Pomerantsev said. “But now the powerful are comfortable with us doing the punching — just look at how they’re attacking.”

It’s basically a cycle that requires participation from all parties: the president (who initiates it), Twitter (which tolerates it) and the media (which amplifies, frequently to the president’s advantage). Removing one participant gums up the cycle, but does not stop it outright.


How Trump proposes to go after Twitter for labelling his tweets

He’s gone for the ‘nuclear strike’ — to try to modify Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, (which is Title V of the sprawling 1996 Telecommunications Act). The Section is the one that exempts platform providers from legal liability for stuff that users post on their platforms. It’s essentially the bedrock of their impunity.

The key part of the Section reads as follows:

(c) Protection for “Good Samaritan” blocking and screening of offensive material

(1) Treatment of publisher or speaker No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

(2) Civil liability No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of—

(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or

(B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1).

This is what Trump’s draft Executive Order targets.

The thrust of the Order is that Twitter’s labelling of Trump’s tweets as inaccurate is not protected under Subparagraph C(2).

“The provision does not extend to deceptive or pretextual actions restricting online content or actions inconsistent with an online platform’s terms of service. When an interactive computer service provider removes or restricts access to content and its actions do not meet the requirements of Subparagraph C (2) (A), it is engaged in editorial conduct.”

So the Order directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to conduct an inquiry to “clarify”

This is going to be interesting. If nothing else, it guarantees that all the tech companies will be pouring money into Joe Biden’s campaign, because Section 230 has always been their get-out-of-gaol card. Indeed, for social-media companies it’s what underpins their business model.

And… Right on cue, up pops Mark Zuckerberg (who has had a couple of dinners recently with Trump, I believe) on Fox News yesterday criticising Twitter for fact-checking Trump’s tweets, saying private technology companies “shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online”. Zuckerberg is keeping his political options open. Creep.


Every stock is a vaccine stock

What’s the value of a Covid vaccine — and to whom? General Electric stock was rocketing up on Tuesday, but not because of anything the company did or announced. What’s going on is that any positive news about a Covid vaccine Recent Covid-19 vaccine serves as a catalyst, making every stock feel like a vaccine stock.

Fascinating post by Tyler Cowen:

It’s not surprising that when Moderna reports good vaccine results, Moderna does well. It’s more surprising that Boeing and GE not only do well they increase in value far more than Moderna. On May 18, for example, when Moderna announced very preliminary positive results on its vaccine it’s market capitalization rose by $5b. But GE’s market capitalization rose by $6.82 billion and Boeing increased in value by $8.73 billion.

A cure for COVID-19 would be worth trillions to the world but only billions to the creator. The stock market is illustrating the massive externalities created by innovation. Nordhaus estimated that only 2.2% of the value of innovation was captured by innovators. For vaccine manufacturers it’s probably closer to .2%.

The disconnect between stock markets and the real world is truly mysterious.


Quarantine diary — Day 68

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Monday 25 May, 2020

Fledging Day!

The Blue Tits in the nesting box outside the kitchen window fledged today.

Some of the kids were decidedly dubious about heading out into such a dangerous world, with paparazzi lurking everywhere. Quite right, too.

One was decidedly not amused to find me awaiting his maiden flight.


Pushing the Zoom envelope: the Amsterdam Cello Octet does it again

This is lovely — and inventive. Especially the way the home life of the musicians is subtly woven into the piece.

Link

Thanks to Gerard de Vries for spotting it.


Infuriated by the impunity with which Dominic Cummings was able to flout the lockdown rules?

If you are a UK voter and have a Tory MP, why not write to him or her letting know how you feel about Cummings’s impunity and Boris Johnson’s support for it?

It’s simple to do: just go to the MySociety Write to Them and the site will check your MP’s identity by your postcode and set up a form for composing and dispatching a suitable message to him or her.

I’ve just done it. It’s called giving feedback.


The benefits of taciturnity

Portrait of Forster by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920.

Lovely LRB piece by Julian Barnes from 1987.

In Madrid the other week a literary journalist told me the following joke. A man goes into a pet shop and sees three parrots side by side, priced at $1000, $2000 and $3000. ‘Why does that parrot cost $1000?’ he asks the owner. ‘Because it can recite the whole of the Bible in Spanish,’ comes the reply. ‘And why does that one cost $2000?’ ‘Because it can recite the whole of the Bible in English and in Spanish.’ ‘And the one that costs $3000, what does he recite?’ ‘Oh, he doesn’t say a word,’ explains the pet shop owner: ‘but the other two call him Maestro.’

This made me think, naturally enough, of E.M. Forster; and then of the fact that we were about to undergo the annual garrulity of the Booker Prize for Fiction.

Reminds me of that old adage of Abraham Lincoln’s: it’s better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all room for doubt.

btw: When I was a student I went to E.M. Forster’s 90th birthday party in King’s College, Cambridge in January 1969. When I tell people that, they check for the nearest exit, and when I tell them that the party was hosted by Francis Crick of DNA fame, they really run for cover. But it’s true: I was a member of the Cambridge Humanists and they held the party for him. Crick was at the time the Chairman of the Humanist society.

Remind me to tell you about the Boer War, sometime …


New life and an awareness of mortality

Kara Swisher has a baby daughter — at the age of 57. Don’t know how that happened, but she’s written about the differences it has made to her life under lockdown:

I am at the highest risk of our little quarantine group, as my 15-year-old has pointed out to me more than once. I assume it is his way of whistling past the grave in hopes that the grave does not whistle back.

But whistle it does, sometimes softly, like when I had a life-threatening stroke on a long-haul trip to China five years back, or more loudly, like when my father died unexpectedly more than 50 years ago from an aneurysm at 34 years old, at the start of what should have been a brilliant long life with his three children.

That is why I am thinking more often of math. Each of us has an exact number — whether it is of years, days, minutes or seconds. We don’t know our number, but it helps to keep in mind that this number exists.

I’m now more aware that our time here is finite. So I take an extra minute I might not have before watching my sons play with their new sister at the dinner table. It is a love that I did not expect to jell so quickly and so perfectly. My sons, with their phones down, are clapping their hands, making faces and doing anything they can to delight my daughter into yet another magnificent smile. Luckily for us, she is an endless font of those.


Covid is messing with machine-learning systems

You know those ‘recommender’ systems that tell you what you might be interested in based on your browsing or purchase history? Well, it turns out that the poor dears are mightily confused by our ‘weird’ behaviour during the pandemic. For example, once upon a time the top 100 searches on Amazon, say, would be mostly for gadgets — iPhone cases, battery packs, SSDs, etc. etc. And machine-learning systems trained on these searches have traditionally been good at extracting the trends from those patterns.

And then all of a sudden everybody is interested in quite different things. “In the week of April 12-18”, says an interesting Tech Review article by Will Douglas Heaven,

the top 10 search terms on Amazon.com were: toilet paper, face mask, hand sanitizer, paper towels, Lysol spray, Clorox wipes, mask, Lysol, masks for germ protection, and N95 mask. People weren’t just searching, they were buying too—and in bulk. The majority of people looking for masks ended up buying the new Amazon #1 Best Seller, “Face Mask, Pack of 50”.

What’s happening is that machine-learning systems trained on normal (i.e.pre-pandemic) human behavior are now finding that ‘normal’ has changed, and some are no longer working as they should.

But machine-learning isn’t just used for recommendations. Mr Heaven found a company in London, Phrasee ( Motto: “Empower your Brand with AI-Powered Copywriting”), which uses natural-language processing and machine learning to generate email marketing copy or Facebook ads on behalf of its clients.

Making sure that it gets the tone right is part of its job. Its AI works by generating lots of possible phrases and then running them through a neural network that picks the best ones. But because natural-language generation can go very wrong, Phrasee always has humans check what goes into and comes out of its AI.

When covid-19 hit, Phrasee realized that more sensitivity than usual might be required and started filtering out additional language. The company has banned specific phrases, such as “going viral,” and doesn’t allow language that refers to discouraged activities, such as “party wear.” It has even culled emojis that may be read as too happy or too alarming. And it has also dropped terms that may stoke anxiety, such as “OMG,” “be prepared,” “stock up,” and “brace yourself.” “People don’t want marketing to make them feel anxious and fearful—you know, like, this deal is about to run out, pressure pressure pressure,” says Parry Malm, the firm’s CEO.

If, like me, you are sceptical about the claims made for machine-learning technology, this kind of thing will be music to your ears. Though I doubt if the Spotify system that thinks it knows my musical tastes has made the necessary adjustment yet.


Quarantine diary — Day 65

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Monday 20 January, 2020

Dennis Hopper was a great photographer. Who knew?

Not me, anyway. But last month Mark Rozzo had a fabulous piece in the New Yorker about a new collection of Hopper’s photographs edited by the photographer Michael Schmelling, to whom Marin Hopper (Dennis’s daughter) granted unlimited access to the archive. Hopper received a Nikon F as a gift on his twenty-fifth birthday, in May, 1961, from the actress Brooke Hayward, who would become his first wife. Her father, the agent and producer Leland Hayward, was “a camera nut”, and Brooke paid $351 for it. (Don’t you just love the fact-checked precision of the New Yorker — right down to that last buck!) “Dennis had the greatest eye of anyone I’ve ever known,” Hayward told Rozzo for a story he wrote last year about her marriage to Hopper. “He wore the camera around his neck all day long.” Some of the shots that illustrate the piece are really terrific. Result: one book sold to this blogger. It also reminded me that I have a Nikon F2 that badly needs servicing. Now where did I put it…?

Joe Biden really doesn’t like Silicon Valley

I’m beginning to warm to him. The NYT team did a really extensive on-the-record interview with him (transcript here). Here’s an excerpt from a passage where he’s been asked about his experience of dealing with Facebook about some stuff published on the platform containing false claims that he had blackmailed Ukrainian officials not to investigate his son.

Biden: 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 ——

Charlie Warzel (NYT guy): Can you elaborate?

JB: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.

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

JB: 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?

JB: 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.

That’s interesting. Revoking Section 230 is the nuclear option in terms of regulation. It would reduce Facebook & Co to gibbering shadows of their former selves. And of course provoke hysteria about the First Amendment, even though Facebook has nothing to do with the Amendment, which is about government — not corporate — regulation of speech.

The EU is considering banning use of facial recognition technology in public spaces

According to Reuters, a White Paper by the European Commission says that new tough rules may have to be introduced to bolster existing regulations protecting Europeans’ privacy and data rights. During that ban, of between three to five years, “a sound methodology for assessing the impacts of this technology and possible risk management measures could be identified and developed.” Exceptions to the ban could be made for security projects as well as research and development.

Why are Apple & Google wanting you to use your phone less?

Nir Eyal (the guy who wrote the book on how to create addictive apps and subsequently seems to have had an attack of developer’s remorse) argues that it’s because they are trying to get ahead of users’ concern about addiction. He sees it as analogous to what happened with seat belts in cars.

In 1968, the Federal Government mandated that seat belts come equipped in all cars. However, nineteen years before any such regulation, American car makers started offering seat belts as a feature. The laws came well after car makers started offering seat belts because that’s what consumers wanted. Car makers who sold safer cars sold more.

The 26 words that created the Internet we have today

This morning’s Observer column:

Stratton Oakmont sued Prodigy and the unidentified poster for defamation – and won. Prodigy argued that it couldn’t be held responsible for what anonymous users posted on its platform. The judge disagreed, arguing that the company was liable as the publisher of the content created by its users because it exercised editorial control over the messages on its bulletin boards in several ways and was thereby potentially liable for any and all defamatory material posted on its websites.

The case alarmed an Oregon congressman (now a US senator), Ronald Wyden, who accurately perceived it as a mortal threat to the growth of the internet. It would mean that every online hosting service would need to have lawyers crawling over its site, thereby slowing exploitation of the technology to a crawl. So with another congressman, Chris Cox, he inserted a short clause – Section 230 – into the Communications Decency Act, which was then incorporated in the sprawling 1996 Telecommunications Act. The section itself is short (about a thousand words) but the core of it is a single sentence: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

That sentence laid the basis for everything that has followed. It constitutes, as the title of a recent book puts it, The Twenty-Six Words that Created the Internet. What it does is create a “liability shield” for online platforms…

Read on