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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Why is Google so alarmed by the prospect of a sentient machine?

This morning’s Observer column:

Some people regard GPT-3 as a genuine milestone in the evolution of artificial intelligence; it had passed the eponymous test proposed by Alan Turing in 1950 to assess the ability of a machine to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. Sceptics pointed out that training the machine had taken unconscionable amounts of computing power (with its attendant environmental footprint) to make a machine that had the communication capabilities of a youngish human. One group of critics memorably described these language machines as “stochastic parrots” (stochastic is a mathematical term for random processes).

All the tech giants have been building these parrots. Google has one called Bert – it stands for bidirectional encoder representations from transformers, since you ask. But it also has a conversational machine called LaMDA (from language model for dialog applications). And one of the company’s engineers, Blake Lemoine, has been having long conversations with it, from which he made some inferences that mightily pissed off his bosses…

Read on

As energy prices soar, the bitcoin miners may find they have struck fool’s gold

This morning’s Observer column:

In the bad old days, prospecting for gold was a grisly business involving hysterical crowds, pickaxes, digging, the wearing of appalling hats, standing in rivers panning for nuggets, “staking” claims and so on. The California gold rush of 1848-55, for example, brought 300,000 hopefuls to the Sierra Nevada and northern California and involved the massacre of thousands of Indigenous people.

In our day, the new gold is bitcoin, a cryptocurrency, and prospecting for it has become a genteel armchair activity, although it is called “mining”, for old times’ sake. What it actually involves is using computers to perform unfathomably complicated calculations to create cryptographic “hashes” – codes that are, in practical terms, uncrackable.

Sounds intimidating, doesn’t it? But in reality anyone can play the game. You just have to have the right kit…

Read on

Why your ability to repair a tractor could also be a matter of life and death

This morning’s Observer column:

It was one of the few pieces of cheery news to emerge from the war in Ukraine. Russian looters, no doubt with the assistance of Russian troops, stole 27 pieces of John Deere farm equipment, worth about $5m, from a dealership in Melitopol. The kit was shipped to Chechnya, where a nasty surprise awaited the crooks. Their shiny new vehicles had, overnight, become the world’s heaviest paperweights: the dealership from which they had been stolen had “bricked” them remotely, using an inbuilt “kill-switch”.

This news item no doubt warmed the cockles of many a western heart. But it would have raised only hollow laughs from farmers in US states who are customers of John Deere and are mightily pissed off, because although they have paid small fortunes (up to $800,000 apparently) for the firm’s machinery, they are unable to service or repair them when they go wrong…

Read on

Facial recognition firms should take a look in the mirror

This morning’s Observer column:

Last week, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) slapped a £7.5m fine on a smallish tech company called Clearview AI for “using images of people in the UK, and elsewhere, that were collected from the web and social media to create a global online database that could be used for facial recognition”. The ICO also issued an enforcement notice, ordering the company to stop obtaining and using the personal data of UK residents that is publicly available on the internet and to delete the data of UK residents from its systems.

Since Clearview AI is not exactly a household name some background might be helpful. It’s a US outfit that has “scraped” (ie digitally collected) more than 20bn images of people’s faces from publicly available information on the internet and social media platforms all over the world to create an online database. The company uses this database to provide a service…

Read on

What do Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have in common? An unhealthy Twitter habit

This morning’s Observer column:

Why do billionaires tweet? Is it because they no longer have to earn a living? Or because they’re bored? Or because they spend a lot of time in, er, the smallest room in the mansion? Elon Musk, for example, currently the world’s richest fruitcake, has said that “At least 50% of my tweets were made on a porcelain throne”, adding that “it gives me solace”. This revelation motivated the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to do some calculations, leading to the conclusion that more than 8,000 tweets over 12.5 years suggests that, on average, Musk “poops” twice a day. (I make it 1.75 a day, but that’s just quibbling.)

So why does Musk tweet so much? One explanation is that he just can’t help himself. He has, after all, revealed that he has Asperger’s. “Look, I know I sometimes say or post strange things,” he said on Saturday Night Live, “but that’s just how my brain works”. Understood. It may also be a partial explanation of his business success, because his mastery of SpaceX and Tesla suggests not only high intelligence but also an ability to focus intensely on exceedingly complex problems without being distracted by other considerations.

There are, however, darker interpretations…

Read on

The former Nazi rocket scientist who all too accurately saw the future

This morning’s Observer column:

… In June 1945, the [US] State department approved the transfer of Von Braun and his specialist team to the US. He worked on the US army’s ballistic missile programme and designed the rocket that launched the US’s first space satellite in 1958, four months after the USSR’s Sputnik sent the American political class into a panicky tailspin. In 1960, his group was assimilated into Nasa, where he became director of the new Marshall Space Flight Center and the lead architect of the Saturn V rocket that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the moon.

Not bad for a former SS officer, eh? But, as I discovered as I burrowed down the agreeable rabbit hole on which [Robert] Harris had launched me, the story gets better. During his early years in the US, Von Braun became pally with Walt Disney, with whom he collaborated on a series of three educational films and to whom he probably confided his dream of a manned mission to Mars. More intriguingly, in 1949, when he was stationed at Fort Bliss in Texas, he wrote a science fiction novel (in German) entitled Marsprojekt but failed to find a publisher for it. He wrote it, he writes in the preface, “to stimulate interest in space travel”. Eventually, the novel was translated into English, cleared by the Pentagon (on the grounds that its author’s visions of space travel were “too futuristic to infringe on classified matters”) and published in 2006 as Project Mars: A Technical Tale…

Read on



  • And George Dyson sent a photograph of his father’s copy of the technical appendix to von Braun’s novel.

Twitter is not the town square – it’s just a private shop.

My take on the Musk-Twitter saga.

Musk now declares himself to be a “free speech absolutist”. He doesn’t, however, seem to have done much thinking about what would actually be involved in running a platform based on absolutist principles. As the FT’s John Thornhill put it: “He grandly declares that maximal free speech reduces civilisational risk. Cue widespread applause. But back in the day, Twitter also described itself as ‘the free speech wing of the free speech party’. Then it collided with porn bots, cyberbullies and terrorist extremists. ‘We have tried that. It did not work, Elon,’ says a former Twitter executive.”

Musk suffers from the delusion that “Twitter has become the de-facto town square”, which, frankly, is baloney. The internet, as Mike Masnick points out, is the metaphorical “town square”. Twitter is just one small private shop in that space – a shop in which hyperventilating elites, trolls, journalists and millions of bots hang out and fight with one another.

He also seems to have forgotten that Twitter operates outside the first-amendment-obsessed US – in Europe, for example. Last Tuesday, Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner for the internal market, warned that Twitter must follow European rules on moderating illegal and harmful content online, even after it goes private. “We welcome everyone,” said Breton. “We are open but on our conditions… ‘Elon, there are rules. You are welcome but these are our rules. It’s not your rules which will apply here.’” Since Musk seems temperamentally allergic to rules imposed by governmental agencies, Twitter under his command should have interesting challenges ahead in Europe…

Read on

Subscriber slump may be bad news for Netflix, but better for the planet

This morning’s Observer column

In the early 1930s, when Claud Cockburn worked on the Times, the subeditors had a competition to see who could compose the dullest headline. Cockburn claimed that he won with “Small earthquake in Chile. Not many dead”. Alas, subsequent factcheckers have failed to unearth such a headline in the archives, but it came to mind last week when Netflix announced, in a quarterly earnings report, that for the first time in a decade it had lost subscribers – 200,000 of them, to be exact. In North America, it had lost 640,000 and suffered additional losses in every other region except for Asia-Pacific area, where it added a million.

This didn’t seem very interesting to this columnist, especially as it included the period when Netflix had pulled out of Russia, where it had 700,000 subscribers, which to my mind meant that the reported loss would have been a gain of half a million had Putin not invaded Ukraine.

Still, the negative 200,000 figure seemed to spook Wall Street. Netflix’s stock price collapsed by nearly 40% in two days, taking more than $50bn off the company’s market value in the blink of an eye…

Read on

A self-driving revolution? We’re barely out of second gear

This morning’s Observer column:

“Britain moves closer to a self-driving revolution,” said a perky message from the Department for Transport that popped into my inbox on Wednesday morning. The purpose of the message was to let us know that the government is changing the Highway Code to “ensure the first self-driving vehicles are introduced safely on UK roads” and to “clarify drivers’ responsibilities in self-driving vehicles, including when a driver must be ready to take back control”.

The changes will specify that while travelling in self-driving mode, motorists must be ready to resume control in a timely way if they are prompted to, such as when they approach motorway exits. They also signal a puzzling change to current regulations, allowing drivers “to view content that is not related to driving on built-in display screens while the self-driving vehicle is in control”. So you could watch Gardeners’ World on iPlayer, but not YouTube videos of F1 races? Reassuringly, though, it will still be illegal to use mobile phones in self-driving mode, “given the greater risk they pose in distracting drivers as shown in research”.

As usual, the announcement comes coated in three layers of prime political cant. This “exciting technology” is “developing at pace right here in Great Britain” (but apparently not in Northern Ireland; could it be that the DUP doesn’t approve of such advanced technology?). The government is “ensuring we have strong foundations in place for drivers when the technology takes to our roads”, which will be great once it has attended to the crumbling physical foundations of the roads in my neighbourhood. And of course it’s all happening “while boosting economic growth across the nation and securing Britain’s place as a global science superpower”…

Read on