Sunday 28 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

In 1990, the top three carmakers in Detroit had a market capitalization of $36 billion and 1.2 million employees. In 2014, the top three firms in Silicon Valley, with a market capitalization of over $1 trillion, had only 137,000 employees.


A family outing

A scene from our walk yesterday evening. Think of it as my homage to John Constable! The Canada geese goslings have grown at an extraordinary rate. And it was very considerate of them and their parents to swim in such a straight line.

Click on the image to see a larger version.


Is it payback time for Apple as the EU goes after its licences to print money?

This morning’s Observer column:

On 16 June, the European commission opened two antitrust investigations into Apple’s App Store and Apple Pay practices. The first investigation will examine whether Apple has broken EU competition rules with its App Store policies. The second investigation is into whether restrictions imposed by Apple on the near field communication (NFC) capability of its iPhone and Apple Watch mean that banks and other financial institutions are prevented from offering NFC payment systems using Apple kit.

Let’s take the App Store first. When Apple unveiled the iPhone in 2007, it created an amazing new opportunity for software developers and, of course, for Apple itself. Because the new phone was basically a powerful handheld computer, that meant it could run smallish programs, which came to be called apps. And because it had an internet connection those programs could be efficiently distributed across the net. From this came the idea that Apple should set up an App Store to which developers could upload their programs. Apple, being a control-freak corporation, would vet those apps before they appeared on the store and would levy a 30% commission on sales. It seems like a great idea…

Read on


Thinking of moving to the US? Listen to this first

Stunning The Daily podcast on what’s been going on in Texas.

Made me realise I didn’t know the half of it.


Anne Case and Angus Deaton interviewed by Der Spiegel

Link. Interesting throughout. For example:

DER SPIEGEL: What has caused this mass-despair in white, middle-class life?

Deaton: Look at the labor market, at wages. Life-time jobs and the meaning that comes from a life like that is very important. Roles for men and women are defined by it, as is their place in the community. It’s almost like Marx: Social conditions depend on the means of production. And these means of production are being brought down by globalization, by automation, by the incredible force of health care. And that’s destroying communities.

DER SPIEGEL: Yet where there are losers, there should be winners as well. Who is to blame for this development?

Deaton: Many people have said that there are two ways of getting rich: One way is by making things, and the other is by taking things. And one of the ways of taking things is to make the government give you special favors. Those special favors don’t create anything, but they can make you rich, at the expense of everybody else.

Case: For instance, the pharma companies get a law passed that Medicare has to pay for drugs at whatever price the pharma companies choose. Or the doctors’ lobby doesn’t allow as many people to go to medical school, which helps to keep doctors salaries up. That’s one of the reasons why doctors are the largest single occupation in the top 1 percent.

DER SPIEGEL: Would you argue that those in the top 1 percent are peculiarly prone to rent seeking?

Deaton: No, but many people are in the 1 percent because of rent seeking. This mechanism is creating a lot of very wealthy people who would not be wealthy if the government hadn’t given them a license to rip off the rest. We’re not among the people who think of inequality as a causal force. It’s rent-seeking opportunities that create inequality.

DER SPIEGEL: How do the losers of this development react politically?

Deaton: Well, many of them like Donald Trump (laughs)!

I’ve just got their book.


If you thought that the Pizzagate conspiracy theory was dead and buried (I did), then think again.

Astonishing — and depressing — NYT story.

Sigh.


Quarantine diary — Day 99

Link


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Sunday 21 June, 2020

Nick Clegg is on the wrong side of history at Facebook

Today’s Observer column:

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

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

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

Read on


Quarantine diary — Day 92

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Sunday 14 June, 2020

Silicon Valley has admitted facial recognition technology is toxic – about time

This morning’s Observer column.

In his letter, Mr Krishna said that “IBM no longer offers general-purpose IBM facial recognition or analysis software” and “firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and principles of trust and transparency. We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies.”

Amen to that. No sooner had the letter been released than cynics and sceptics were poring over it for the get-out clause. IBM was never a big player in the facial recognition game, said some, and so it’s no sacrifice to exit it: to them, Krishna’s letter was just “virtue- signalling”. Yet two days later Amazon heard the signal and announced a one-year suspension of police force use of its Rekognition facial recognition software – they say they’d like Congress to pass stronger regulation around it.

The IBM announcement and now Amazon’s are a big deal. Just ponder their significance for a moment…

Read on

And now Microsoft has joined the rush to paint a line between the company and the toxic tech. To be fair, their lawyer Brad Smith has been calling for regulation of the technology for quite a while.

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My soundtrack

I’m working in the garden today (writing and reading, not gardening!)

Here’s the soundtrack

Link


With time on his hands, the Observer‘s restaurant critic turns chef

Hilarious, beautifully-written piece. I loved this bit in particular…

I decided I needed something more challenging, because I am stupid, and don’t know when to quit. The soufflé suissesse has been on the menu at Le Gavroche since about 1968. According to Michel Roux Jr, who took over from his father Albert in 1993, it’s been lightened over the years. This is shocking, because, to make four servings, the current recipe (in Le Gavroche Cookbook) calls for six eggs, 600ml of double cream, 500ml of milk, 200g of gruyère, a slab of butter, a defibrillator and a priest standing by to administer last rites.

My devout mother would have held that the last was the essential ingredient.

Worth reading in full.


Signal Downloads Are Way Up Since the Protests Began

I’m not surprised. This NYT story explains:

The week before George Floyd died on May 25, about 51,000 first-time users downloaded Signal, according to data from the analytics firm Sensor Tower. The following week, as protests grew nationwide, there were 78,000 new downloads. In the first week of June, there were 183,000. (Rani Molla at Recode noted that downloads of Citizen, the community safety app, are also way up.)

Organizers have relied on Signal to devise action plans and develop strategies for handling possible arrests for several years. But as awareness of police monitoring continues to grow, protest attendees are using Signal to communicate with friends while out on the streets. The app uses end-to-end encryption, which means each message is scrambled so that it can only be deciphered by the sender and the intended recipient.

Signal has also already been tested. In 2016, the chat service withstood a subpoena request for its data. The only information it could provide was the date the accounts in question were created and when they had last used Signal. Signal does not store messages or contacts on its servers, so it cannot be forced to give copies of that information to the government.

It’s a terrific app, which has got a lot better over time. Think of it as WhatsApp for serious people who don’t trust Facebook.


Quarantine diary — Day 85

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Sunday 26 April, 2020

Quote of the Day

We need a president who is a cross between F.D.R., Justice Brandeis and Jonas Salk. We got a president who is a cross between Dr. Phil, Dr. Strangelove and Dr. Seuss.


The New Yorker has had some wonderful cover illustrations during the crisis. This is one of them.


Contact apps won’t end lockdown. But they might kill off democracy

This morning’s Observer column

I could go on but you get the point. The problem with magic bullets is that they sometimes miss their target. The biggest issue of all with smartphone contact-tracing, though, is that it would mark a step-change in state surveillance capabilities. Such a momentous decision cannot be left to Matt Hancock and his colleagues in their Downing Street bunker. This is a central point in a landmark review of the issue conducted by UK research group the Ada Lovelace Institute. A decision to deploy mandatory proximity-sensing technology, says the institute, is too important to be left to technocrats. There has to be proper parliamentary scrutiny and primary legislation with real sunset clauses. No fudging with orders in council by frightened ministers. I agree. If we get this wrong, not only will we not succeed in easing the lockdown, but we might also be kissing goodbye to the shrivelled democracy we still possess. There’s no lockdown exit through the App Store.

Do read the whole piece


Contact-tracing, Singapore-style

It was one of those calls on a sunny Saturday afternoon during a barbecue that led to Singapore-based British yoga teacher Melissa (not her real name) learning she was at risk of contracting the virus.

“It was surreal,” she says, describing the moment an unknown number flashed up on her phone.

“They asked ‘were you in a taxi at 18:47 on Wednesday?’ It was very precise. I guess I panicked a bit, I couldn’t think straight.”

Melissa eventually remembered that she was in that taxi – and later when she looked at her taxi app realised it was a trip that took just six minutes.

To date, she doesn’t know whether it was the driver or another passenger who was infected.

All she knows is that it was an officer at Singapore’s health ministry that made the phone call, and told her that she needed to stay at home and be quarantined.

The next day Melissa found out just how serious the officials were. Three people turned up at her door, wearing jackets and surgical masks.

“It was a bit like out of a film,” she says. “They gave me a contract – the quarantine order – it says you cannot go outside your home otherwise it’s a fine and jail time. It is a legal document.

“They make it very clear that you cannot leave the house. And I knew I wouldn’t break it. I know that I live in a place where you do what you’re told.”

Two weeks later, Melissa had shown no symptoms of Covid-19 and could leave her house.

Source


“Beware of over-hyping contact tracing apps in coronavirus fight”

Very good OpEd piece in Nikkei Asian Review by James Crabtree, who is based in Singapore.


Quarantine diary — Day 36

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Sunday 22 March, 2020

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Smartphones could help us track the coronavirus – but at what cost?

This morning’s Observer column

A key principle of control engineering is that you have to be able to measure the variable you’re trying to control. In the case of Covid-19, we currently have no way of accurately measuring how we’re doing, because we’re not able to do enough testing of the population. Dammit, we’re still not even testing frontline medical staff.

I know, I know: this is hard; this thing came out of the blue; we can’t just magic up the resources needed to do extensive public testing out of thin air; etc. But at the same time, every sentient being in the government must know by now that we must find some way of measuring the thing we’re trying to control. How else will we know – other than by counting the number of desperate cases who show up needing intensive care – whether that curve is being flattened or not?

We need a magic bullet. And, miraculously, we seem to have one. It’s called a smartphone…

Yeah, but there’s a downside that we might be living with for the rest of our lives…

Read on

Interestingly, Yuval Noah Harari had an interesting essay on the same lines — “The world after coronavirus” — in the weekend edition of the Financial Times. “Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life”, he writes.

That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical processes. Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours. Immature and even dangerous technologies are pressed into service because the risks of doing nothing are bigger. Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments. What happens when everybody works from home and communicates only at a distance? What happens when entire schools and universities go online? In normal times, governments, businesses and educational boards would never agree to conduct such experiment. But these aren’t normal times.

In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.

Yep.


What the Coronavirus crisis is revealing

Extraordinary essay in the New York Times by Mark O’Connell.

In the original Greek, the word apocalypse means simply a revelation, an uncovering. And so there is one sense in which these days are truly, literally, apocalyptic. The world itself is being revealed with a startling and surreal clarity. Much of what is being revealed is ugly: the rot of inequality in the bones of our societies, the lethal inefficiency of free-market capitalism, the bewildering cruelty and stupidity of many of the people in positions of apparent leadership. But there are beautiful things, too, being revealed with great clarity and force. Of these, the one that gives me the most hope in this sad and frightening time is that despite the damage done by the presiding ideology of individualism, there remains a determination to act out of a sense of shared purpose.

On checking, this is probably drawn from his forthcoming book – Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back.


Quarantine Diary

Given that those of us confined to barracks should have more time on our hands, I’ve decided to keep an audio diary of thoughts and reflections on what we are about to go through. It starts today.


Sunday 15 March 2020

Online memes are viruses too

This morning’s Observer column:

One of the things that makes this epidemic different from predecessors is the dominance of social media in today’s world. One of the most perceptive analyses of what’s going on has come from Kate Starbird of Washington State University, who’s a leading expert on “crisis informatics” – the study of how information flows in crisis situations, especially over social media. Crises always generate levels of high uncertainty, she argues, which in turn breeds anxiety. This leads people to seek ways of resolving uncertainty and reducing anxiety by seeking information about the threat. They’re doing what humans always do – trying to make sense of a confusing situation.

In the pre-internet era, information was curated by editorial gatekeepers and official government sources. But now anything goes, and sense-making involves trying to find out stuff on the internet, through search engines and social media. Some of the information gathered may be reliable, but a lot of it won’t be. There are bad actors manipulating those platforms for economic gain (need a few face-masks, guv?) or ideological purposes. People retweet links without having looked at the site. And even innocently conceived jokes (a photograph of empty shelves in a local supermarket, for example) can trigger panic-buying…

Read on


Profiting from the crisis

The other day, partly out of curiosity — having noticed that our local Aldi store had apparently been cleaned out of hand-sanitisers, I went on to Amazon.co.uk to see what was happening there. Lots of sanitizers on offer, though only a small percentage seemed to have the 60%+ alcohol content needed to see off the Coronavirus. So I chose one — priced at £6.99 (which seemed steep for a tiny bottle) but it advertised free delivery so I pushed it into the basket and continued. Turned out that the free delivery means delivery between March 30 and April 7. But if I wanted it sooner than that I could have it by paying for delivery. How much? £48. Having thus confirmed my low opinion of human nature, I deleted the item and logged off. (I have plenty of soap and have never hitherto used a hand-sanitiser.)

I guess this always happens when there’s a panic and people over-react. And of course there are smart people who know how to exploit that. The NYT has an interesting story today about two brothers who set about buying every hand-sanitizer and wipe they could find — in the process clearing the shelves of every story they visited on March 1 with the intention of selling them at a heavy markup on Amazon. Initially, it went swimmingly — until Amazon decided to take action against merchants the company judged to be engaged in price-gouging. Now, as the headline puts it over a photograph of one of the brothers in his lock-up garage, “He has 17,700 bottles of Hand Sanizer and Nowhere to Sell Them”.

Cue violins.


Andrew Sullivan on the Plague

“Reality Arrives to the Trump Era”. Spot on, as usual.


Dressing for the age of Surveillance

“If the government were to demand pictures of citizens in a variety of poses, against different backdrops, indoors and outdoors, how many Americans would readily comply? But we are already building databases of ourselves, one selfie at a time. Online images of us, our children, and our friends, often helpfully labelled with first names, which we’ve posted to photo-sharing sites like Flickr, have ended up in data sets used to train face-recognition systems.”

Yeah, but if you’re an AI geek, you can make a T-shirt with a pattern that renders you invisible to facial-recognition systems. This from a fascinating New Yorker essay by John Seabrook.


The economic impact of the pandemic (and related thoughts)

Greg Mankiw is the Robert M. Beren Professor of Economics at Harvard. People keep ringing him up asking for his views on the impact of the virus. Here’s his blogged reply:

  • A recession is likely and perhaps optimal (not in the sense of desirable but in the sense of the best we can do under the circumstances).

  • Mitigating the health crisis is the first priority. Give Dr. Fauci anything he asks for.

  • Fiscal policymakers should focus not on aggregate demand but on social insurance. Financial planners tell people to have six months of living expenses in an emergency fund. Sadly, many people do not.

  • Considering the difficulty of identifying the truly needy and the problems inherent in trying to do so, sending every American a $1000 check asap would be a good start. A payroll tax cut makes little sense in this circumstance, because it does nothing for those who can’t work.

  • There are times to worry about the growing government debt. This is not one of them.

  • Externalities abound. Helping people over their current economic difficulties may keep more people at home, reducing the spread of the virus. In other words, there are efficiency as well as equity arguments for social insurance.

  • Monetary policy should focus on maintaining liquidity. The Fed’s role in setting interest rates is less important than its role as the lender of last resort. If the Fed thinks that its hands are excessively tied in this regard by Dodd-Frank rules, Congress should untie them quickly.

  • President Trump should shut-the-hell-up. He should defer to those who know what they are talking about. Sadly, this is unlikely to occur.


Ian Donald’s tweetstream about UK government policy on COVID-19

Wonderfully succinct and helpful. Link


How a global health crisis turns into a state-run surveillance opportunity

This morning’s Observer column:

When Barack Obama was US president, his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, had a useful motto: “Never let a serious crisis go to waste: it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” The Chinese authorities have clearly taken this to heart – as evidenced by the unprecedented scale of their geographical lockdowns and quarantining, restrictions on movement, industrial slowdowns and heightened surveillance.

At this distance, it’s impossible to judge how effective these measures really are. But all the experienced China-watchers of my acquaintance tell me that one should never underestimate the gap between realities on the ground and the story as told from Beijing…

Read on

AI for good is possible

This morning’s Observer column:

…As a consequence, a powerful technology with great potential for good is at the moment deployed mainly for privatised gain. In the process, it has been characterised by unregulated premature deployment, algorithmic bias, reinforcing inequality, undermining democratic processes and boosting covert surveillance to toxic levels. That it doesn’t have to be like this was vividly demonstrated last week with a report in the leading biological journal Cell of an extraordinary project, which harnessed machine learning in the public (as compared to the private) interest. The researchers used the technology to tackle the problem of bacterial resistance to conventional antibiotics – a problem that is rising dramatically worldwide, with predictions that, without a solution, resistant infections could kill 10 million people a year by 2050.

Read on

The real test of an AI machine? When it can admit to not knowing something

This morning’s Observer column on the EU’s plans for regulating AI and data:

Once you get beyond the mandatory euro-boosting rhetoric about how the EU’s “technological and industrial strengths”, “high-quality digital infrastructure” and “regulatory framework based on its fundamental values” will enable Europe to become “a global leader in innovation in the data economy and its applications”, the white paper seems quite sensible. But as for all documents dealing with how actually to deal with AI, it falls back on the conventional bromides about human agency and oversight, privacy and governance, diversity, non-discrimination and fairness, societal wellbeing, accountability and that old favourite “transparency”. The only discernible omissions are motherhood and apple pie.

But this is par for the course with AI at the moment: the discourse is invariably three parts generalities, two parts virtue-signalling leavened with a smattering of pious hopes. It’s got to the point where one longs for some plain speaking and common sense.

And, as luck would have it, along it comes in the shape of Sir David Spiegelhalter, an eminent Cambridge statistician and former president of the Royal Statistical Society. He has spent his life trying to teach people how to understand statistical reasoning, and last month published a really helpful article in the Harvard Data Science Review on the question “Should we trust algorithms?”

Read on

Sunday 2 February, 2020

The iPad: ten years on and still a work in progress

This morning’s Observer column

while the iPad I use today is significantly better and more functional than its 2010 predecessor, it’s still not a replacement for a laptop. Anything that involves multitasking – combining content from a variety of applications, for example – is clumsy and nonintuitive on the iPad, whereas it’s a breeze on a Mac. Given that user-interface design has traditionally been one of Apple’s great strengths, this clumsiness is strange and disappointing. Somewhere along the line, as veteran Apple-watcher John Gruber puts it, the designers made “profound conceptual mistakes in the iPad user interface, mistakes that need to be scrapped and replaced, not polished and refined”. Steve Jobs’s tablet may have come a long way, but it’s still a work in progress.

Do read the entire piece


A Republic if they could keep it. Looks like they couldn’t

As the farcical Senate Impeachment ‘trial’ just concluded what kept running through my mind was the story of what Benjamin Franklin said as he was leaving the Constitutional Convention of 1787 on the final day of deliberation. A woman asked him “Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” To which Franklin famously replied, “A republic . . . if you can keep it.”

By acquitting Trump, the Senate seems to have confirmed the failure of that attempt. Trump is now effectively a monarch, floating above the law. So, one wonders, what happens next? As a habitual offender, he will undoubtedly commit more crimes. As a sitting President, it seems that he cannot be indicted by the normal processes of law enforcement. For him, Congress is the only constitutional authority that can punish him. But this Congress spectacularly refused to do so. So unless the Republicans lose control of the Senate in November, Trump will be entirely free of legal restraints. And supposing he loses (unlikely prospect at present), would he actually stand down? And in that eventuality, who would physically remove him from the White House?

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Presidential power and the Net

Further to the above thoughts about the untrammelled misuse of Presidential power, Jessica Rosenworcel, who is an FCC Commissioner, gave a sobering keynote address to the FCC’s ‘State of the Net’ conference in Washington on January 28.

She began by describing what’s currently going on in Kashmir, where the Indian government has cut off Internet connection for the 7 million people who live in that disputed territory. In one vivid passage, she described how Kashmiris are coping with this blackout:

Every morning like clockwork hundreds of passengers cram into a train out of the valley for a 70-mile journey to the nearest town with a connection. They are packed so tightly that they can barely move. If all goes well, they will be back before nightfall. Kashmiris have dubbed the train the “Internet Express.” It carries people hoping to renew driver’s licenses, apply for passports, fill out admission forms, check e-mail, and register for school exams. This is how they keep up with modern life, thanks to the shutdown.

Then Commissioner Rosenworcel turns to her audience:

Now if you are thinking this does not concern you because all of this is happening a world away, I understand. After all, the shutdown in the Kashmir Valley followed from the state invoking the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, a law that dates to the British colonial era. Moreover, a few weeks ago Indian courts ruled that an indefinite internet shutdown is an abuse of power—although that decision alone does not restore all service. So you might think this is at some distance from what could happen in the United States. But you might want to think again.

Specifically, they might need to take a look at Section 706 of the Communications Act. The Section allows the President to shut down or take control of “any facility or station for wire communication” if he proclaims “that there exists a state or threat of war involving the United States.” With respect to wireless communications, suspending service is permitted not only in a “war or threat of war” but merely if there is a presidential proclamation of a “state of public peril” or simply a “disaster or other national emergency.” There is no requirement in the law for the President to provide any advance notice to Congress.

“This language”, says Rosenworcel,

is undeniably broad. The power it describes is virtually unchecked. So maybe some context will help. The changes to this section of the law about wire communications were made within a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was passed at a time when Congress was laser focused on developing new ways to protect our safety and security.

Now of course Section 706 has not (yet) been applied to the Internet, and when the Act was amended after Pearl Harbor “wire communication” meant telephone calls or telegrams. But remember the bulk of US communications law dates back to 1934 and remains the framework for US communications infrastructure. And she points out that, in a 2010 report, the Senate concluded that Section 706 “gives the President the authority to take over wire communications in the United States and, if the President so chooses, shut a network down.”

So it remains true that if a sitting President wants to shut down the internet or selectively cut off a service, all it takes is an opinion from his Attorney General that Section 706 gives him the authority to do so.

That’s alarming. Because if you believe there are unspoken norms that would prevent us from using Section 706 this way, let me submit to you that past practice may no longer be the best guide for future behavior. Norms are being broken all the time in Washington and relying on them to cabin legal interpretation is not the best way to go.

Which rather puts the Impeachment case in a different light. Shutting down the US Internet would be unthinkable, wouldn’t it? Before nodding your head in vigorous agreement, ask yourself how many ‘unthinkable’ things have happened since Trump took office?