Sunday 22 March, 2020

This blog is now also available as a once-a-day email. If you think this might work better for you why not subscribe here? (It’s free and there’s a 1-click unsubscribe if you decide you need to prune your inbox!) One email a day, in your inbox at 07:00 every morning.

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.


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 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?


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?

Sunday 26 January, 2020

What the Clearview AI story means

This morning’s Observer column:

Ultimately, the lesson of Clearview is that when a digital technology is developed, it rapidly becomes commodified. Once upon a time, this stuff was the province of big corporations. Now it can be exploited by small fry. And on a shoestring budget. One of the co-founders paid for server costs and basic expenses. Mr Ton-That lived on credit-card debt. And everyone worked from home. “Democracy dies in darkness” goes the motto of the Washington Post. “Privacy dies in a hacker’s bedroom” might now be more appropriate.

Read on

UPDATE A lawsuit — seeking class-action status — was filed this week in Illinois against Clearview AI, a New York-based startup that has scraped social media networks for people’s photos and created one of the biggest facial recognition databases in the world.

Privacy is a public good

Shoshana Zuboff in full voice:

”The belief that privacy is private has left us careening toward a future that we did not choose, because it failed to reckon with the profound distinction between a society that insists upon sovereign individual rights and one that lives by the social relations of the one-way mirror. The lesson is that privacy is public — it is a collective good that is logically and morally inseparable from the values of human autonomy and self-determination upon which privacy depends and without which a democratic society is unimaginable.”

Great OpEd piece.

The winding path

Why the media shouldn’t underestimate Joe Biden

Simple: Trump’s crowd don’t. They think he’s the real threat. (Which explains the behaviour that’s led to Trump’s Impeachment.) David Brooks has some sharp insights into why the chattering classes are off target About this.

It’s the 947th consecutive sign that we in the coastal chattering classes have not cured our insularity problem. It’s the 947th case in which we see that every second you spend on Twitter detracts from your knowledge of American politics, and that the only cure to this insularity disease is constant travel and interviewing, close attention to state and local data and raw abject humility about the fact that the attitudes and academic degrees that you think make you clever are actually the attitudes and academic degrees that separate you from the real texture of American life.

Also, the long and wide-ranging [NYT interview)( with him is full of interesting stuff — like that he thinks that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (that’s the get-out-of-gaol card for the tech companies) should be revoked. I particularly enjoyed this observation by Brooks: “ Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders here are a doctoral student’s idea of a working-class candidate, not an actual working person’s idea of one.”



Serial Killers: Moore’s Law and the parallelisation bubble

Cory Doctorow had a thoughtful reaction to Sunday’s Observer column, where I cited Nathan Myhrvold’s Four Laws of Software. “Reading it”, he writes,

made me realize that we were living through a parallel computation bubble. The period in which Moore’s Law had declined also overlapped with the period in which computing came to be dominated by a handful of applications that are famously parallel — applications that have seemed overhyped even by the standards of the tech industry: VR, cryptocurrency mining, and machine learning.

Now, all of these have other reasons to be frothy: machine learning is the ideal tool for empiricism-washing, through which unfair policies are presented as “evidence-based”; cryptocurrencies are just the thing if you’re a grifty oligarch looking to launder your money; and VR is a new frontier for the moribund, hyper-concentrated entertainment industry to conquer.

“Parallelizable problems become hammers in search of nails,” Cory continued in an email:

“If your problem can be decomposed into steps that can be computed independent of one another, we’ve got JUST the thing for you — so, please, tell me about all the problems you have that fit the bill?”

This is arguably part of why we’re living through a cryptocurrency and ML bubble: even though these aren’t solving our most pressing problems, they are solving our most TRACTABLE ones. We’re looking for our keys under the readily computable lamppost, IOW.

Which leads Cory (@doctorow) to this “half-formed thought”: the bubbles in VR, machine learning and cryptocurrency are partly explained by the decline in returns to Moore’s Law, which means that parallelizable problems are cheaper/easier to solve than linear ones.

And wondering what the counterfactual would have been like: if we had found a way of extending Moore’s Law indefinitely.

As Moore’s Law runs out of steam, it’ll be back to the future

This morning’s Observer column:

In a lecture in 1997, Nathan Myhrvold, who was once Bill Gates’s chief technology officer, set out his Four Laws of Software. 1: software is like a gas – it expands to fill its container. 2: software grows until it is limited by Moore’s law. 3: software growth makes Moore’s law possible – people buy new hardware because the software requires it. And, finally, 4: software is only limited by human ambition and expectation.

As Moore’s law reaches the end of its dominion, Myhrvold’s laws suggest that we basically have only two options. Either we moderate our ambitions or we go back to writing leaner, more efficient code. In other words, back to the future.

Read on

Cummings: long on ideas, short on strategy

My Observer OpEd piece about the world’s most senior technocrat:

When Dominic Cummings arrived in Downing Street, some of his new colleagues were puzzled by one of his mantras: “Get Brexit done, then Arpa”. Now, perhaps, they have some idea of what that meant. On 2 January, Cummings published on his blog the wackiest job proposals to emerge from a government since the emperor Caligula made his horse a consul. Dominic Cummings warned over civil service shake-up plan Read more

The ad took the form of a long post under the heading “We’re hiring data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos…”, included a reading list of arcane academic papers that applicants were expected to read and digest and declared that applications from “super-talented weirdos” would be especially welcome. They should assemble a one-page letter, attach a CV and send it to (Yes, that’s

It was clear that nobody from HR was involved in composing this call for clever young things. Alerting applicants to the riskiness of employment by him, Cummings writes: “I’ll bin you within weeks if you don’t fit – don’t complain later because I made it clear now.”

The ad provoked predictable outrage and even the odd parody. The most interesting thing about it, though, is its revelations of what moves the man who is now the world’s most senior technocrat. The “Arpa” in his mantra, for example, is classic Cummings, because the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (now Darpa) is one of his inspirational models…

Read on