The SVB debacle has exposed the hypocrisy of Silicon Valley

This morning’s Observer column:

The first thing to understand is that “Silicon Valley” is actually a reality-distortion field inhabited by people who inhale their own fumes and believe they’re living through Renaissance 2.0, with Palo Alto as the new Florence. The prevailing religion is founder worship, and its elders live on Sand Hill Road in San Francisco and are called venture capitalists. These elders decide who is to be elevated to the privileged caste of “founders”.

To achieve this status it is necessary to a) be male; b) have a Big Idea for disrupting something; and c) never have knowingly worn a suit and tie. Once admitted to the priesthood, the elders arrange for a large tipper-truck loaded with $100 bills to arrive at the new member’s door and cover his driveway with cash.

But this presents the new founder with a problem: where to store the loot while he is getting on with the business of disruption? Enter stage left one Gregory Becker, CEO of SVB and famous in the valley for being worshipful of founders and slavishly attentive to their needs. His company would keep their cash safe, help them manage their personal wealth, borrow against their private stock holdings and occasionally even give them mortgages for those $15m dream houses on which they had set what might loosely be called their hearts.

So SVB was awash with money. But, as programmers say, that was a bug not a feature…

Read on

Users, advertisers – we are all trapped in the ‘enshittification’ of the internet

This morning’s Observer column:

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy,” says the adage, “they first make mad.” Actually, that’s overkill: the Gods just need to make people forget. Amnesia turns out to be a powerful narcotic and it’s been clouding our perceptions of what’s been happening on the internet for at least 25 years, namely the inexorable degradation of the online environment and our passive, sullen acceptance of that.

Thanks to Cory Doctorow, the great tech critic, we now have a term for this decay process in online platforms – enshittification. “First,” he writes, “they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves.” Enshittification results from the convergence of two things: the power of platform owners to change how their platforms extract value from users and the nature of the two-sided markets – where the platforms sit between buyers and sellers, holding each hostage to the other and then raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them…

Read on

Misplaced fears of an ‘evil’ ChatGPT obscure the real harm being done

Today’s Observer column:

Our tendency to humanise large language models and AI is daft – let’s worry about corporate grabs and environmental damage.

How can we make sense of all this craziness? A good place to start is to wean people off their incurable desire to interpret machines in anthropocentric ways. Ever since Joe Weizenbaum’s Eliza, humans interacting with chatbots seem to want to humanise the computer. This was absurd with Eliza – which was simply running a script written by its creator – so it’s perhaps understandable that humans now interacting with ChatGPT – which can apparently respond intelligently to human input – should fall into the same trap. But it’s still daft.

The persistent rebadging of LLMs as “AI” doesn’t help, either. These machines are certainly artificial, but to regard them as “intelligent” seems to me to require a pretty impoverished conception of intelligence…

Read on…

Crypto is intended to be hard to regulate, but at least the Treasury wants to have a go

This morning’s Observer column:

For my sins, I have been reading Future financial services regulatory regime for cryptoassets, 82 pages of prime Whitehall verbiage that was published recently, setting out HM Treasury’s plans to govern the clouds and hold back the tides.

It opens with the statutory ringing endorsement by Andrew Griffith, economic secretary to the Treasury. He reminds readers that the government’s “firm ambition is for the UK to be home to the most open, well-regulated and technologically advanced capital markets in the world” – which “means taking proactive steps to harness the opportunities of new financial technologies”. He further believes that “crypto technologies” can have a profound impact across financial services and that “by capitalising on the potential benefits offered by crypto we can strengthen our position as a world leader in fintech, unlock growth and boost innovation”. Cont’d p94, as they say in Private Eye.

Billed as a “consultation and call for evidence”, the document invites our views on these important matters. As a public-spirited columnist, it would be churlish to refuse the invitation. So here goes…

Read on.

Cold war 2.0 will be a race for semiconductors, not arms

This morning’s Observer column:

Computers need chips. But what that increasingly means is that nearly everything needs chips. How come? Because computers are embedded in almost every device we use. And not just in things that we regard as electronic. One of the things we learned during the pandemic was that cars and tractors need chips – simply because their engine-control units are basically small, purpose-built computers. Once Covid-19 hit car sales, semiconductor manufacturers switched their production lines to serve other – much bigger – customers. And then, as things started to return to normal in 2021, car manufacturers discovered that they had slipped to the back of the semiconductor queue – and their production lines ground to a halt. Similarly for microwave cookers, washing machines and refrigerators.

In the decades when the west was still high on the globalisation drug, the fact that things upon which we relied were manufactured elsewhere didn’t seem to bother us…

Read on

Alexa, how did Amazon’s voice assistant rack up a $10bn loss?

Sometimes, invasions don’t work out as well as you hoped.

This morning’s Observer column:

Intrigued by an Ars Technica post about Amazon’s Alexa that suggested all was not well in the tech company’s division that looks after its smart home devices, I went rooting in a drawer where the Echo Dot I bought years ago had been gathering dust. Having found it, and set it up to join the upgraded wifi network that hadn’t existed when I first got it, I asked it a question: “Alexa, why are you such a loss-maker?” To which she calmly replied: “This might answer your question: mustard gas, also known as Lost, is manufactured by the United States.” At which point, I solemnly thanked her, pulled the power cable and returned her to the drawer, where she will continue to gather dust until I can think of an ecologically responsible way of recycling her…

Read on

Elon Musk needs to learn that more debate does not mean more truth

Today’s Observer column:

Underpinning Musk’s views about free speech and the public sphere (AKA town square) is the fatuous metaphor of “the marketplace of ideas” that emerged from the deliberations of the US supreme court in 1953 (though something like it was mooted by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes way back in 1919). It suggests that ideas compete with each other in a conceptual marketplace where they can be critically evaluated by every individual. As law professor David Pozen and others have pointed out, there’s no empirical evidence that a larger volume of speech, or a more open “marketplace” of ideas, tends to lead people away from falsity and towards truth. Subscribing to the metaphor is thus either a matter of faith or of evidence-free credulity. And if Musk believes that it is the secret sauce for managing Twitter then he’s a bigger crackpot than even I thought.

Do read the whole thing.

Tuesday 15 November, 2022

Lee Miller: in her own pictures (and words)

I was in Copenhagen last week at an interesting conference in the remarkable ‘Black Diamond’ extension of the Royal Danish Library. When I went in I saw this poster for an exhibition in the Library’s lower-ground exhibition space. And of course at the first opportunity I bought a ticket and went down.

The curators of the show had the brilliant idea of telling the story of her life in 100 of her photographs. She was one of the most remarkable women of her time. If cats have nine lives, then she had at least twenty: just for starters she was a beautiful model, a muse, a photographer, a surrealist, a businesswoman, an author, a war correspondent, a gourmet chef, and a friend (and sometimes a lover) of a number of great artists.

Her last years were difficult. She drank too much, had a difficult relationship with her son and often felt mentally unstable and depressed. But after her death, her son found a vast collection of her photographs in the attic of the country house that she and Roger Penrose owned. It had 20,000 original prints and 60,000 negatives — an artistic goldmine.

Some finds from this goldmine are in the exhibition. Quite a few are familiar but many I hadn’t seen before. And her war photographs are raw, stark, savage and shocking. She and her colleague David Scherman arrived in Dachau the day after it had been liberated. As the exhibition catalogue puts it:

”Miller was deeply shocked by the vast amount of dead and dying, emaciated people and the evidence of atrocities found in the camp. The crematoria had run out of fuel, so the bodies lay in piles with men in separate stacks, women and children in others. Miller photographed what she saw, just as she would later do in Buchenwald. She found the strength to document the terrors in a fierce anger and a strong sense of moral obligation to show the truth of the war, no matter how horrifying.”

It took its toll on her, as it would on anyone. There’s a photograph of her taken at the time which shows an exhausted woman in a war correspondent’s uniform who is clearly at the end of her tether — but still working. One unforgettable photograph shows two concentration camp guards who had tried to escape by dressing in civilian clothes, but had been captured and clearly been beaten. She shows them kneeling staring at her with dead eyes. Men knowing that the clock had run out for them. Another photograph shows a Nazi bigwig in stained regalia flat on his back after committing suicide in his office. And she photographed the firing squad who executed the former Hungarian Prime Minister and anti-semite, László Bárdossy, as they carried out their orders.

Two things were particularly revelatory about the exhibition. One was that Miller was a very good writer. Her account — in Vogue, of all places — of what post-defeat Germany was like is vividly readable. After the liberation, she and Scherman drove to Munich and strolled straight into Hitler’s flat in 16 Prinzregentenplatz, where one of the most famous photographs of Miller — of her washing herself in the dictator’s bathtub — was taken. She also took one of Scherman doing the same, but of course it is the one of her in the bath that became famous.

The other nice discovery was what a gentle and considerate man her early photographic mentor and lover, Man Ray, was. His letter to her advising her against marrying the wealthy Egyptian businessman, Aziz Eloui Bey is a beautiful example of someone who really cared for her and didn’t want her to be taken for granted.

Quote of the Day

”Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”

  • Mark Twain

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jackson Browne and Billy Strings | Running On Empty (live) | San Francisco, Sept. 29, 2022


Long Read of the Day

The Age of Social Media Is Ending

Interesting retrospective essay by Ian Bogost in The Atlantic on the way an era is ending.

It’s over. Facebook is in decline, Twitter in chaos. Mark Zuckerberg’s empire has lost hundreds of billions of dollars in value and laid off 11,000 people, with its ad business in peril and its metaverse fantasy in irons. Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has caused advertisers to pull spending and power users to shun the platform (or at least to tweet a lot about doing so). It’s never felt more plausible that the age of social media might end—and soon.

Now that we’ve washed up on this unexpected shore, we can look back at the shipwreck that left us here with fresh eyes. Perhaps we can find some relief: Social media was never a natural way to work, play, and socialize, though it did become second nature. The practice evolved via a weird mutation, one so subtle that it was difficult to spot happening in the moment. The critical moment was when social networking changed into being social media.

Perceptive and worth a read.

The aphrodisiac effect of crypto ‘wealth’

Well, isn’t this nice.

Sam Bankman-Fried and two friends.

Puzzled? I don’t blame you. But this blog post by Michael W. Green might help. The headline kind-of gives it away: “The $32 Billion Crypto Scammer”.

“The Next Warren Buffett.” That’s how Fortune magazine dubbed Sam Bankman-Fried, the crypto wunderkind who wore shorts, schlubby socks, and sneakers on stage with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. But Bankman-Fried, worth an estimated $32 billion at his height, wouldn’t just be a financial oracle like Buffett. He would also be the second-coming of George Soros: By the end of this midterm election cycle, he’d become the second largest donor to the Democratic Party.

Over the past few days, all of that has come spectacularly undone.

Now, Bankman-Fried looks, at best, like the original storyline for Michael Saylor of Microstrategy during the Dotcom bust. Or, more likely, like Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos infamy. Or, with increasing plausibility, like a less civic-minded Bernie Madoff.

Tens of thousands of people who invested their savings on various FTX exchanges have likely been wiped out. FTX employees have quit en masse. And SBF? According to reports, he’s been taken into custody by Bahamian authorities after holing up at FTX HQ with his father.

Do read on. And marvel at the gullibility, not just of the crypto crowd, but also of ex-Prime Ministers and former Presidents.

My commonplace booklet

  • From PetaPixel: A Russian Missile Crew Was Geolocated From Just This Photo.

  • From Bill Janeway (Whom God Preserve): “I always heard your “McKee’s Law” as stated by Nelson Algren, one of three in A Walk on the Wild Side. “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.” Wikipedia attributes it to “Murphy.” At least it is not attributed either to Yogi Berra or Maynard Keynes….

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Elon Musk running Twitter? It’s like giving a delicate clock to a monkey

My OpEd piece from yesterday’s Observer

When the news broke that Elon Musk had finally been obliged to buy Twitter, the company he had tried – for months – to get out of purchasing, it reminded many observers of the 1979 commercial for Remington shavers in which the corporation’s president, Victor Kiam, proclaimed that he liked the electric razor so much “I bought the company.”

This was a mistake: Kiam merely liked the business he bought, whereas Musk is addicted to his company, in the sense that he cannot live without it. In acquiring Twitter, he has therefore forgotten the advice given to Tony Montana in Scarface: “Don’t get high on your own supply.”

In the immediate aftermath of the $44bn acquisition, though, he was as high as a kite. He showed up at the company’s San Francisco office carrying a kitchen sink. “Entering Twitter HQ – let that sink in!” he tweeted with a video of him in the lobby of the building…

Do read the whole thing.

Thursday 15 September, 2022

Free speech in a time of mourning

Interesting column by Marina Hyde on the difficulties PC Plod has in drawing the distinction between bad manners and illegality.

Yesterday, police arrested a 22-year-old man in Edinburgh after Prince Andrew was heckled as he walked behind the Queen’s coffin. “Andrew,” the shout was heard, “you’re a sick old man.” Hand on heart, I’ve heard worse. And if Prince Andrew hasn’t, he certainly will. Money and position and expensive lawyers can insulate you from a huge number of consequences in our imperfect world, but if some boy in the streets wants to go full Emperor’s New Clothes on you, you might just have to suck it up, even if it is bad manners in the circs.

This isolated incident, in police parlance, is not an isolated incident. In Oxford, a man was arrested then de-arrested for shouting “Who elected him?” at the local proclamation of the new king. In Westminster, a police officer was filmed demanding the details of a man who had held up a blank sheet of paper. The man (a barrister) asked what would have happened if he’d written “Not My King” on it, at which point the officer requested his details, “because you said you were going to write stuff on it that may offend people around the King … it may offend someone.” Hmmm. Thank you, PC Brains. The idea that the UK is a cradle of free speech is one of those comforting stories the country likes to tell itself, when all manner of things from the libel laws to teachers being hounded to the Daily Mail devoting its entire front page to outrage that a comedian mocked Liz Truss says differently.

I really like the bit about the barrister and his blank sheet. Quite a smart experiment, that.

Interesting also that when the Queen’s children walked behind the gun carriage yesterday, they were all in military uniforms except for Andrew. As I recall, after he settled the Epstein case (with the aid of shedloads of family money, no doubt), his late mother insisted that he give up his military roles — actual and honorary. So his appearance in civvies was a nice confirmation of her enduring influence.

Quote of the Day

“The psychological mid-Atlanticism of the UK is so often a drag. The nation wants American taxes and a European state. And so it has neither. It is more influenced by laws made in Brussels but more engrossed with elections in Iowa. And so its politics are dire.”

  • Janan Ganesh, FT, 10/11 October, 2011.

Just about sums it up.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Beethoven | Sonata for Horn and Piano in F Major, Op. 17 | MinJee Lee (piano) & Sergey Akimov (horn)


New to me. Just stumbled on and enjoyed it. Hope you do too.

Long Read of the Day

 How Social Media Influences Our Behaviour, and Vice Versa

Useful review by Tamsin Shaw of Max Fisher’s new book,  The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World.

Fisher, a New York Times journalist who has reported on horrific violence in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, offers firsthand accounts from each side of a global conflict, focusing on the role Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube play in fomenting genocidal hate. Alongside descriptions of stomach-churning brutality, he details the viral disinformation that feeds it, the invented accusations, often against minorities, of espionage, murder, rape and pedophilia. But he’s careful not to assume causality where there may be mere correlation. The book explores deeply the question of whether specific features of social media are truly responsible for conjuring mass fear and anger.

I’ve just bought the book.

Apple’s latest contributions to ‘computational photography’

Spoiler alert: probably of interest only to camera nerds

Apple had a somewhat low-key event a few days in which they introduced the latest iPhones and changes to the Apple Watch. Many commentators greeted the event with a yawn, but, being a photographer I wanted to know what exactly they had done with the camera.

Clearly Andrew Williams of TechRadar heard my plea and produced a pretty good account. As you might guess from the intro, it’s really only for those of us who like this kind of thing, but still…

The iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max feature a 48-megapixel sensor with an f/1.78 lens. This is the first time an iPhone has used a pixel-binning sensor, meaning as standard it will shoot 12MP images, just like other iPhones.

Combine four pixels and they effectively act as a larger 2.44 micron pixel. It works this way because the color filter above the sensor groups four pixels in red, green and blue clusters.

Pixel binning sensors have been around in Android phones for years. The first we used was not an Android, though. It was the Nokia 808 PureView, from 2012.

The quad pixel arrangement of the iPhone 14 Pro means this is not a “true” 48MP sensor in one sense, but you can use it as such. Apple’s ProRAW mode can capture 48MP images, using machine learning to reconstruct an image and compensate for the fact we’re still dealing with 4×4 blocks of green blue and red pixels.

A similar method is used for the iPhone 14 Pro’s 2x zoom mode, for “lossless” 12MP images. This complements the separate 3x optical zoom sensor, which shares its hardware with last year’s models…

You get the idea. But this is news because the iPhone has probably become the most important camera on the market. At any rate Apple claimed  the other day that 3 trillion photos were taken on iPhones last year. Benedict Evans said that this compared with the 89 billion photographs taken in 1999, which was apparently the year when film use peaked.

My Commonplace Booklet

  • From Jonty Bloom’s blog:

    I was reminded yesterday of a story I had heard about the aerospace industry which is suffering from much higher raw material prices, as is everyone else. Apparently titanium is not available for love nor money at the moment and the industry uses a lot of titanium. So they looked at what other industries were competing in the market for the precious stuff and discovered it was golf club manufacturers. An industry that has to have a raw material out bid by an industry that doesn’t. Oh well that is the free market for you…

  • Geoff Huntley has a fabulously ingenious interactive illustration of what social media use would be like on ‘Web3’ as imagined by the crypto crowd. Basically you get charged for everything you do.

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