Thursday 21 January, 2021

My favourite beach in Donegal this afternoon.

Many thanks to John Darch for the image.


Kübler-Ross, grief and dying from Covid.

My friend and colleague, David Vincent, picked up on my post the other day in which I used Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s ‘five stages of grief’ model as a metaphor for analysing how our societies have responded to the pandemic.

David never touches anything without adding value, and — true to form — he reached for his copy of Kübler-Ross’s famous book, On Death and Dying and began to re-read it.

Here’s an excerpt from his subsequent diary post:

“If a patient has had enough time”, Kübler-Ross writes, “(i.e., not a sudden, unexpected death) and has been given some help in working through the previously described stages, he will reach a stage during which he is neither depressed nor angry about his ‘fate.’” (p. 123).

The whole enterprise assumes the resources of a well-found (American) hospital, with teams of professionals including not only doctors and nurses but psychiatrists, social workers and chaplains, ready and able to spend long periods communicating with the patients as their disease takes its course over months or years.

The essence of dying with Covid-19 is that neither patients, nor their families, nor the staff of hospitals or hospices have remotely enough time to work through any sequence of emotional expression or support. The common experience of those who are infected is for little to happen for the first few days, and then for the unlucky minority there is a sudden descent into breathlessness and other symptoms which leads rapidly to an intensive care unit. Even if they ultimately survive the mechanical ventilators, they will have been unconscious throughout that part of their treatment. Hospital staff are overwhelmed by the sheer pressure of numbers, radically reducing staff/patient ratios whilst at the same time trying to stand in for the presence of next of kin excluded by quarantine regulations.

It is the absence time for death and dying which more than the pathogens and the remedies most connects the Covid-19 pandemic with the flu and plague outbreaks that preceded it down the centuries.

I was very struck by this because, as readers of my Lockdown Diary will know, my beloved mother-in-law, Elsie, died of Covid early in April 2020. She had dementia and was in a care home which was — like most others — left completely unprotected from the virus. Here’s the relevant part of the audio diary I kept for the first 100 days of lockdown.

Link


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison and the Chieftains | On Raglan Road

Link

A lovely version of a song based on Paddy Kavanagh’s poem


Undoing Trumpism

Cory Doctorow has a fabulous post about an obscure American statute called the Congressional review Act. You never heard of it? Me neither. But stay tuned.

Trump was a very specific kind of disaster: a chaos agent, who lacked the wit, patience and executive function to recruit the powerful institutions of the US military-industrial complex to fight his corner.

The kind of guy who demands the impossible and then fires and publicly humiliates any allies who fail to deliver – or dare to contradict him – is not the kind of guy who can build new, enduring, evil institutions.

The best he can hope for is to get some trumpalike goblins into positions of power (where they will replicate his chaos, but without the broad impunity of the presidential office, resulting in a series of resignations and prosecutions), back by executive orders.

The last months of the Trump admin were an orgy of executive branch rulemakings that dismantled public safety, health, labor, anticorruption and (especially) environmental protections.

Trump is a debt kingpin. His MO is running across a river on the backs of alligators, hoping to move so fast that none of them takes a leg: borrow, refinance, restructure, borrow, blow town, borrow, restructure, bribe, blow town.

He’s an improviser, a bullshitter, a pantser and not a planner. That’s why so many of his worst ideas got turned into regulations at the very end of his term, and that’s why they are vulnerable to being swiftly undone by the obscure, rarely used Congressional Review Act.

The CRA allows Congress to void administrative-branch regulations and to prohibit any substantively similar regulation from ever being enacted.

Just the tool a Biden administration might find useful.

Now there’s a cheery thought.


QAnon believers struggle with inauguration.

This NYT piece by Kevin Roose has made my day.

Followers of QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory, have spent weeks anticipating that Wednesday would be the “Great Awakening” — a day, long foretold in QAnon prophecy, when top Democrats would be arrested for running a global sex trafficking ring and President Trump would seize a second term in office.

But as President Biden took office and Mr. Trump landed in Florida, with no mass arrests in sight, some believers struggled to harmonize the falsehoods with the inauguration on their TVs.

Some QAnon believers tried to rejigger their theories to accommodate a transfer of power to Mr. Biden. Several large QAnon groups discussed on Wednesday the possibility that they had been wrong about Mr. Biden, and that the incoming president was actually part of Mr. Trump’s effort to take down the global cabal.

“The more I think about it, I do think it’s very possible that Biden will be the one who pulls the trigger,” one account wrote in a QAnon channel on the messaging app Telegram.

Now what does this remind me of? Yes — you guessed it! — the End of the World sketch in The Secret Policeman’s Ball in 1979.

Link


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Wednesday 20 January, 2021

A volcanic plug near Puy-en-Velay. I’ll never forget the first time I saw this. The idea that this is all that remains of an ancient volcano seemed mind-blowing to a chap who grew up in rural Ireland.


Quote of the Day

“He believed in sudden conversion, a belief which may be right, but which is peculiarly attractive to the half-baked mind.”

  • E.M. Forster in Howards End.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news Bob Dylan and Joan Baez | Blowing In The Wind

Link

I never heard them sing this together before.


Long Read of the Day

An Oral History of Wikipedia

Lovely — and done in an interesting way. Link


The near-death experience of the American republic

Martin Wolf in today’s Financial Times:

We have come to a hinge moment in history. The US is the world’s most powerful and influential democratic republic. For all its mistakes and flaws, it was the global model and protector of democratic values. Under Mr Trump, this vanished. He was a consistent opponent of the values and aspirations embodied in a republican ideal.

Mr Trump failed. Moreover, after his attempted coup, nobody can deny his threat was real. But this is not enough. If US politics unfolds as seems likely, there will be more Trumps. One of them, more competent and ruthless, may succeed. If that is to be prevented, US politics must now shift to respect for truth and an inclusive version of patriotism.

Rome was arguably the last republican superpower. But the rich and powerful destroyed that republic, bringing forth a military dictatorship, 1,800 years before the US was born. The US republic has survived the test of Trump. But it still needs to be saved from death.

Watching the Republican senators who, after the Capitol invasion had been cleared, still voted to reject the Electoral College returns, it’s clear that we were watching Trump Mk2 in the making.


Singapore on Thames?

Jonty Bloom has some useful advice for the Brexiteers who dream of turning the UK into Singapore on steroids.

For a start if you want to be like Singapore you’d better start nationalising things quickly, Singapore’s government and its sovereign wealth funds hold shares in huge swathes of the economy, among which are telecommunications, media, public transportation, defence, ports, banking, shipping, airlines, infrastructure and real estate. Many of those shares are held by its two sovereign wealth funds which are independent from Government, in the sense that the Prime Minister and his wife sit on their boards.

The Government owns 90% of Singapore’s land and 80% of all housing and although income taxes are low, a maximum of 22%; there is also a compulsory savings rate of 20% (invested with the Government) that pays for your pension and health insurance. Singapore also has a high level of income inequality, is a tax haven and imports 99% of its food.

More work for Johnson and Carrie.


Trump’s pro-tem exit

Nice comment from Dave Pell: Donald Trump went out like he came in. An unAmerican, narcissistic, childish loser. He served up one more helping of international shame as he skipped the inauguration on the way to Mar a Lago, where he’s promised to find the real killers of democracy. It would have been more fitting if he and Melania had left in a White Ford Bronco. Before boarding the aircraft, Trump said, “So just a goodbye. We love you. We will be back in some form.” (Hopefully in an orange jumpsuit.) As a last pathetic attempt to garner attention, the WSJ reports that Trump Has Discussed Starting a New Political Party. (It should be called the Defendants.)


The other time private US media companies stepped in to silence the falsehoods and incitements of a major public figure

As the commentariat struggled with the problem and implications of social-media companies de-platforming Trump it was nice to see someone looking at this with an historical perspective. He’s Bill Kovarik, a Professor of Communication, and he tells a good story. This is how it begins…

In speeches filled with hatred and falsehoods, a public figure attacks his enemies and calls for marches on Washington. Then, after one particularly virulent address, private media companies close down his channels of communication, prompting consternation from his supporters and calls for a code of conduct to filter out violent rhetoric.

Sound familiar? Well, this was 1938, and the individual in question was Father Charles E. Coughlin, a Nazi-sympathizing Catholic priest with unfettered access to America’s vast radio audiences. The firms silencing him were the broadcasters of the day.

As a media historian, I find more than a little similarity between the stand those stations took back then and the way Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have silenced false claims of election fraud and incitements to violence in the aftermath of the siege on the U.S. Capitol – noticeably by silencing the claims of Donald Trump and his supporters.

Worth reading in full.


Other, hopefully interesting or useful, links

  • Guy Kawasaki: The Art of Web Conferencing. What you need if you want to project your Zoom image well. Link
  • Animals interrupting wildlife photographers. It’s hard to earn a living, sometimes. Link
  • Eszter Hargittai on Amazing Marvin. Link. It’s not often you find academics writing about tech tools. Amazing Marvin is one such tool.

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Tuesday 19 January, 2021

Democracy

Seems appropriate for today.


DC on my mind

I woke in the middle of the night thinking fretfully about Biden’s inauguration. In a half-dreamlike state there were two things on my mind. One was an almost superstitious worry that the security would not be tight enough and that some of the far-right nutters would get within shooting distance. Given that the cops have already picked up one guy with a handgun and 500 rounds of ammo, and that the Pentagon has had to screen all of the 20,000+ troops who will be on duty in DC on Wednesday, that’s not en entirely hysterical concern.

The other thought was a reminder — posted yesterday by someone — that Trump had received 75m votes in the election. That’s damn nearly half the electorate who, knowing everything that we — and they — know about Trump, still voted for him. And then there are the poll results which show that an astonishing proportion of Republicans apparently believe that the election was stolen and that Biden is an illegitimate President.

And then I embarked on a thought experiment: if the UK referendum result had been a narrow win for ‘remain’ rather than Leave, would the losers have calmly accepted the result? Of course they wouldn’t. But at least — unlike the US — most of them aren’t armed.

I went back to sleep eventually and all this faded from my mind. But it occurred to me this morning that before going to bed I had watched — and posted on this blog — the videos that Trump supporters had uploaded to Parler during the January 6 Trump rally and the assault on the Capitol. Maybe they lay at the root of my nocturnal worries.

Still, I’ll be relieved when Biden, having been sworn in, arrives safely at the White House.


Quote of the Day

“When I meet a historian who cannot think that there have been great men, great men moreover in politics, I feel myself in the presence of a bad historian; and there are times when I incline to judge all historians by their opinion of Winston Churchill — whether they can see that, no matter how much better the details, often damaging, of man and career become known, he still remains, quite simply, a great man.”

  • Geoffrey Elton

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Händel | Hallelujah | Gert van Hoef in de Nieuwe Kerk Katwijk

Link


Long Read of the Day

Not for everyone, but this long report by Jeff Dean (Senior VP of Google SVP of Google Research and Health) on what his researchers have been doing is fascinating. One thing that caught my eye is the work they’re doing on what you might call meta machine-learning — AutoML — which is…

Using learning algorithms to develop new machine learning techniques and solutions, or meta-learning, is a very active and exciting area of research. In much of our previous work in this area, we’ve created search spaces that look at how to find ways to combine sophisticated hand-designed components together in interesting ways. In AutoML-Zero: Evolving Code that Learns, we took a different approach, by giving an evolutionary algorithm a search space consisting of very primitive operations (like addition, subtraction, variable assignment, and matrix multiplication) in order to see if it was possible to evolve modern ML algorithms from scratch. The presence of useful learning algorithms in this space is incredibly sparse, so it is remarkable that the system was able to progressively evolve more and more sophisticated ML algorithms.


Ireland and the virus

Sobering Economist piece

At one time, Ireland was doing really well in managing the virus. Now it’s in crisis.

Ireland’s woes can be blamed in part on too much holiday cheer. In December the Irish government eased covid-19 restrictions to allow for a “meaningful Christmas”. Rules around household mixing were eased, and limits on travel between counties temporarily lifted for three weeks. This would prove a grave misstep, making it easier for a new, more infectious strain of the virus, first detected in Britain, to spread. By January 11th Ireland’s infection rate had reached more than 130 new daily cases per 100,000 people, the highest in the world, as measured by a seven-day moving average (see chart). The new variant accounted for roughly a tenth of infections in mid-December; today it is responsible for nearly half.


Who’s moving from WhatsApp to Telegram?

Interesting list. Given some of them, I’m not sure you’d like to be on Telegram.

Ironic also that one of the refugees is Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, who probably owes his election to WhatsApp!


Facebook bans ‘stop the steal’ content, 69 days after the election

From CNN Business on January 12:

Facebook will begin removing all content that mentions the phrase “stop the steal,” a full 69 days after Election Day.

The social media giant said in a blog post that it will ramp up enforcement against the phrase because it was used by those who participated in last week’s riots at the US Capitol.

”With continued attempts to organize events against the outcome of the US presidential election that can lead to violence, and use of the term by those involved in Wednesday’s violence in DC, we’re taking this additional step in the lead up to the inauguration,” Guy Rosen, Facebook’s VP of integrity, wrote in a post about the company’s preparation for Inauguration Day.

Why is this interesting? Simple: it takes Facebook 69 days to decide that the time had come to stop profiting from the levels of ‘user engagement’ associated with Stop the Steal.

But when its ultimatum to WhatsApp users about using their data led to a stampede to Signal and Facebook (and a significant reduction in WhatsApp downloads), the company turns on a dime, cancels the February 8 cut-off date and pushes it back to May.

Tells you everything you need to know about this toxic outfit. And how oxymoronic that Facebook has a “Vice President of Integrity”. Truly, you couldn’t make this stuff up.


Other, hopefully interesting, links


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Monday 18 January, 2021

Crooked Timber

This particular tree is from a pine copse on the Norfolk coast that had been ravaged by recent storms.

I’m often drawn to photograph misshapen trees because of their dramatic appearance. And I never see them without thinking of Kant’s famous aphorism and then of Isiaih Berlin, who straightened out the tortuous translation of it and made it the title of a famous collection of essays. It’s also the name of a terrific collective blog.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Telemann | Trio Sonata for flute, oboe and basso continuo.

Link


Mary Catherine Bateson RIP

I’ve just picked up that Mary Catherine Bateson, one of the 20th century’s great polymaths, died peacefully on January 2. She was the daughter of another pair of polymaths, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, and a formative influence on those of us who try to think systemically. One of her great adages — “We are not what we know, but what we are willing to learn” — should be engraved on every academic’s forehead. John Brockman, the curator of Edge.org has published a lovely tribute to her which also includes some of her interviews and writings.

I particularly like her reply to the question John posed in 2014 — “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?”

Her answer: “The Illusion of Certainty”.

Scientists sometimes resist new ideas and hang on to old ones longer than they should, but the real problem is the failure of the public to understand that the possibility of correction or disproof is a strength and not a weakness. We live in an era when it is increasingly important that the voting public be able to evaluate scientific claims and be able to make analogies between different kinds of phenomena, but this can be a major source of error. The process by which scientific knowledge is refined is largely invisible to the public. The truth-value of scientific knowledge is dependent upon its openness to correction, yet we all carry around ideas that science has long since revised—and are disconcerted when asked to abandon them. Surprise: you will not necessarily drown if you go swimming after lunch.

Here she is giving a TED talk in 2011…

Link

May she rest in peace.


January 6: the Parler videos

Riveting and immersive. Link.

Three video compilations: in the city; at the rally; and inside the Capitol.

Ponder them and remember Juan Peron.


The Axios ‘Bill of Rights’

Here are the promises we are making to our readers, viewers and listeners.

Every item will be written or produced by a real person with a real identity.
There will be NO AI-written stories. NO bots. NO fake accounts.
We take responsibility for all content that appears on our public platforms.
Every item will be written or produced to inform, analyze and explain.
We will never have an opinion section.
We will sacrifice scale for quality, and always aim to save you time by delivering content in the most efficient and healthy way.
We will be transparent about how we make money, and provide clear ways for you to tell us how we can better serve you. (Email us at info@axios.com) We will play no games with your data or privacy.
We will be careful and transparent, and will provide clear, intuitive ways for you to know how your data is handled. (Our policy is here)
We are committed to helping revive local journalism — and invite local readers to help us best serve their community. (Email us at news@axios.com)
All employees are asked to refrain from taking/advocating for public positions on political topics.
We will always cover the topics of greatest consequence with clinical, critical and balanced eyes. (For more on the fact-based framework guiding our coverage, read our editorial manifesto)
We believe high-quality journalism should not be an exclusive privilege. We will provide free access to the majority of our content.

Makes a nice change from many online news operations.

Thanks to Sheila Hayman for spotting it.


Lionel Barber: Trump and the Financial Times

From his account of years spent trying to be detached about the Trump presidency…

My test came one drizzly afternoon in March 2017 when I was escorted into the Oval Office. Seated behind the Resolute Desk, President Donald J. Trump declined to rise or extend a handshake to me and my two senior colleagues from the Financial Times. I thanked him for making time—and for subscribing to the newspaper that I edited.

“That’s OK,” the president replied. “You lost. I won.”

At a stroke, Trump had reframed our meeting as a contest: the FT as representative of the liberal global elite, himself as triumphant populist-nationalist. He boasted about his more than 100 million followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and declared no need to go to “fake news” media like us. My goal had been to employ a basic practice of journalism: the interview as means of eliciting information. But he wanted a fight, with himself as the preordained winner…


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Sunday 17 January, 2021

Kubler-Ross, grief and the virus

Watching people’s responses to, and thinking about, the pandemic what often comes to mind is Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s model of the ‘five stages of grief’ which postulates that those experiencing grief go through a series of five emotions: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Over the years there’s been much debate about the model with critics lining up to point out that there’s little empirical evidence for it etc. My feeling, as someone who has lived through a bereavement, is that it’s useful not as a model but as a metaphor.

In that sense, I’ve seen something of each stage in people’s responses to the Covid virus in the last year.

(a) Denial This was much in evidence in Boris Johnson’s ludicrous Greenwich speech of February 3, 2020. Here’s the passage I had particularly in mind, verbatim:

We are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.

And here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.

We are ready for the great multi-dimensional game of chess in which we engage in more than one negotiation at once and we are limbering up to use nerves and muscles and instincts that this country has not had to use for half a century.

(b) Anger All you have to look for is the rage that ran through right-wing regimes on both sides of the Atlantic against the ‘China virus’ and the defeatism of governments who were afraid to let it rip until the magical properties of ‘herd immunity’ wold manifest themselves, enabling Supermen Johnson and Trump to emerge from their phone booths to vanquish the Oriental plague. (En passant one wonders how many people under the age of 20 know what a phone booth is — except perhaps as the Tardis in Dr Who.) Remember Trump’s rage when it dawned on him that the virus might adversely affect his chances of re-election.

(c) Bargaining Here we come to the discussions about the trade-off between the economic and other costs of lockdowns. How much lockdown would people stand, and stand for? How could it be enforced if people revolted? Would the hypocrisy displayed by Dominic Cummings’s testing his eyesight in Northumberland be widely replicated? And so on. The talk was all about costs and benefits.

(d) Depression Now widespread, despite the availability of vaccines, because of the dawning realisation that this virus, like all viruses, understands neither borders nor economics.

(e) Acceptance We’re nowhere near that yet. People still haven’t grasped that there’s no going back to the way we were. That past is indeed a different country. It’s also a country that was heading straight for climate catastrophe. So every time someone talks about a “return to growth” you know that the reality of what lies ahead hasn’t yet been appreciated. The only kind of growth worth having post-pandemic is a greener, carbon-neutral one. And the only question worth asking is: could we create such a future?


Quote of the Day

“When’s the game itself going to begin?”

  • Groucho Marx, while watching cricket at Lord’s

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Martin Hayes and the Gloaming | The Sailor’s Bonnet | Live

Link

The Gloaming is IMHO the most interesting group to emerge in Ireland in recent years. The Sailor’s Bonnet is the third tune of a famous medley by Sligo fiddler Michael Coleman (1891-1945).


The silencing of Trump has highlighted the authoritarian power of tech giants

My Observer column this morning. The US president’s ban has sparked a furious debate about online opinion, but it’s part of a bigger conversation.

What was missing from the discourse was any consideration of whether the problem exposed by the sudden deplatforming of Trump and his associates and camp followers is actually soluble – at least in the way it has been framed until now. The paradox that the internet is a global system but law is territorial (and culture-specific) has traditionally been a way of stopping conversations about how to get the technology under democratic control. And it was running through the discussion all week like a length of barbed wire that snagged anyone trying to make progress through the morass.

All of which suggests that it’d be worth trying to reframe the problem in more productive ways…

Do read the whole thing


Trump, sellotape and the documentary record

The Guardian has a story about the documentary record of Trump’s presidency which won’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention for the last four years.

The public will not see Donald Trump’s White House records for years, but there is growing concern the collection will never be complete – leaving a hole in the history of one of America’s most tumultuous presidencies.

Trump has been cavalier about the law requiring that records be preserved. He has a habit of ripping up documents before tossing them out, forcing White House workers to spend hours taping them back together.

White House staff quickly learned about Trump’s disregard for documents as they witnessed him tearing them up and discarding them. “My director came up to me and said, ‘You have to tape these together,’” said Solomon Lartey, a former White House records analyst.

The first document he taped back together was a letter from Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, about a government shutdown. “They told Trump to stop doing it. He didn’t want to stop.”

Lartey said the White House chief of staff’s office told the president that the documents were considered presidential records and needed to be preserved by law. About 10 records staff ended up on Scotch tape duty, starting with Trump’s first days in the White House through at least mid-2018.

Truly, you couldn’t make it up. Trump didn’t read much, but whenever he did he then tore up the document. But because the toothless Presidential Records Act stipulates that every document touched by the President must be preserved, the waste-paper bins were searched every night for fragments and shipped over the sellotape squad.

Fortunately, the Donald J Trump Presidential Library is now available on the Web. It’s well worth a visit. In fact it’s unmissable. For admission, click here. And don’t forget to sign the Visitor’s Book — if you can find one.


Revealed: Tory MPs and commentators who joined banned app Parler

Lovely piece of reporting by Mark Townsend.

At least 14 Conservative MPs, including several ministers, cabinet minister Michael Gove and a number of prominent Tory commentators joined Parler, the social media platform favoured by the far right that was forced offline last week for hosting threats of violence and racist slurs.

Parler was taken offline after Amazon Web Services pulled the plug last Sunday, saying violent posts and racist threats connected to the recent attack on the US Capitol violated its terms.

Analysts from the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) said that Parler had become a platform where the ideas of mainstream Conservative MPs coalesced with those of extremists.

Amazing! Who knew? Tory MPs’ views coalescing with those of extremists. Surely it’s the other way round?


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • We fail to understand exponential growth at our peril. Or why new variants could change everything — and sooner than we think. Link
  • Lost passwords lock millionaires out of their Bitcoin fortunes. Fascinating NYT report. Stefan Thomas, a programmer living in San Francisco, has two guesses left to figure out a password that is worth, as of this week, about $220 million. The password will let him unlock a small hard drive, known as an IronKey, which contains the private keys to a digital wallet that holds 7,002 Bitcoin. Link
  • Pro Golf Finally Cancels Donald Trump. The PGA of America, announced that it was cancelling its plans to hold the 2022 PGA Championship at Trump’s New Jersey golf course. Not to be outdone, the Royal & Ancient, the fusty custodian of the British Open and of golf outside of the US, announced that it will avoid using Trump’s Scottish golf course, Turnberry, for the “forseeable future” for any of its championships. Couldn’t happen to a nastier guy. Link.

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Saturday 16 January, 2021

Tulip mania

This was an experiment. Shot with an iPhone6 using the DxO add-on camera, which has the same sensor as my Sony RX100 IV.


Quote of the Day

“The principal task of civilisation, its actual raison d’etre, is to defend us against nature.”

  • Sigmund Freud in his Introductory Lectures.

Yeah. And the virus shows that we’re making a pig’s ear of it.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Eric Clapton & Mark Knopfler | Same old blues

Link


The flight from WhatsApp

Not surprisingly, Signal has been staggering under the load of refugees from WhatsApp following Facebook’s ultimatum about sharing their data with other companies in its group. According to data from Sensor Tower Signal was downloaded 8.8m times worldwide in the week after the WhatsApp changes were first announced on January 4. Compare that with 246,000 downloads the week before and you get some idea of the step-change. I guess the tweet — “Use Signal” — from Elon Musk on January 7 probably also added a spike.

In contrast, WhatsApp downloads during the period showed the reverse pattern — 9.7m downloads in the week after the announcement, compared with 11.3m before, a 14 per cent decrease.

This isn’t a crisis for Facebook — yet. But it’s a more serious challenge than the June 2020 advertising boycott. Evidence that Zuckerberg & Co are taking it seriously comes from announcements that Facebook has cancelled the February 8 deadline in its ultimatum to users. It now says that it will instead “go to people gradually to review the policy at their own pace before new business options are available on May 15.” Ho, ho.

Signal is a very interesting outfit, incidentally, and not just because of its technology. It’s a not-for-profit organisation, for one thing. Its software is open source — which means it can be independently assessed. And it’s been created by interesting people. Brian Acton, for example, is one of the two co-founders of WhatsApp, which Facebook bought in 2014 for $19B. He pumped $50m of that into Signal, and no doubt there’s a lot more where that came from. And Moxie Marlinspike, the CEO, is not only a cryptographer but also a hacker, a shipwright, and a licensed mariner. The New Yorker had a nice profile of him a while back.


Long Read of the Day

The American Abyss by Tim Snyder Link.

An historian of fascism and political atrocity on Trump, the mob and what comes next. Illustrated by some pretty impressive photography too..


Taming the beast

From Democracy: A Journal of Ideas… How do we return authoritarian true believers to civil society? There are, it says, short-term and long-term answers.

Confronting white domestic terrorism (for that’s what a lot of this is) is the obvious short-term step. We’ll see how the good the US is at that. Normally iot’s only good at tackling external terrorists. Home-grown ones are a bit trickier.

The longer-term challenge is at least as difficult:

Desperate faith in Trump’s demagoguery is only the most dramatic part of the problem. There are also America’s perennial racism and tribalism, and, more recently, their expansion owing to widespread ressentiment — the curdled rage of individuals whose market-driven losses of security and social belonging and status I sketched here recently.

Trump’s base may morph into something even uglier until we take their grievances seriously… They need jobs that pay enough to have a nice house and car, good health care and education, as they had for three decades after World War II. Today’s unregulated capitalism isn’t giving it to them. We need public-private partnerships that create jobs. People will stop calling that ‘socialism’ as soon as they get one of those jobs.

Not a good outlook IMHO.


Office Meeting 2.0

Lovely post on Quentin’s blog this morning. Like me, he’s not a fan of Microsoft Teams. But as Teams is what’s used by his lab for its weekly all-hands meeting, he has to use it. Since almost everyone at the meeting stays muted unless it’s their turn to speak, he decided to ‘attend’ on his phone while out walking his dog in the rain. Which seemed to work out fine. At the end of the meeting, though,

as people were saying goodbye, I turned on my camera to reveal that I was in fact wrapped up and squelching through the mud in pursuit of my spaniel, something nobody had been aware of up to that point. And for me, it had been a thoroughly enjoyable meeting. Just imagine what it would be like in sunshine!

Anyway, strongly recommended, if you have the option. Combine your meetings with your daily exercise. Go and watch the rabbits. I promise you it’ll be a more pleasant experience than sitting in your average office meeting room.

And remember, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.


Internet giants should be treated as public utilities

From Quartz :

Whether you are, like Facebook and Twitter, creating the social media tools for people to publish hateful messages, or, like Google and Apple, allowing an app that contains those tools to exist on your company’s devices, or, like Amazon, Microsoft Azure, or Google Cloud Platform, supplying the invisible backbone for the companies behind the tools, you cannot claim neutrality.

These firms have demonstrated that they can and will draw lines around who is allowed to be one of their clients, something that’s completely within their rights to do as private firms.

Yeah. But if they’re infrastructure shouldn’t they be regulated as such?


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Friday 15 January, 2021

Getting the picture


Quote of the Day

”Free speech does not mean free reach. There is no right to algorithmic amplification. In fact, that’s the very problem that needs fixing.”


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Randy Newman | My Old Kentucky Home

Link


Long Read of the Day

 Richard J. Evans: Why Trump isn’t a fascist

Richard and I are colleagues: I was Vice President of Wolfson College when he was the President and between 2012 and 2017 we were (with David Runciman) co-directors of a big research project on Conspiracy and Democracy. He is a leading expert on the history of Nazi Germany, so it’s fascinating to see him take on the much-repeated current trope about Trump as a fascist. Trump is a lot of evil things, he argues, but fascist he ain’t.


Cory Doctorow and the FBI

The other day, Cory celebrated his two decades as a blogger. The occasion brought him an unexpected bonus: a call from the FBI.

I’ll let him tell the story in his own inimitable style.

As it happens, an anonymous reader gave me a hell of a blogiversary gift: my first-ever FBI investigation! I’ve spoken to FBI agents before (Agent: Does your Tor exit node keep logs by any chance? Me: Nope. Agent: Dang), but I’ve never actually been investigated.

phone rang with an unfamiliar local number. A calm voice on the other end introduced itself as an FBI special agent with the LA office. I pointed out that this was an unlikely claim and asked for a switchboard number I could call back on.

The agent said this was an entirely reasonable thing to do. A few minutes later, I was back on the phone with him.

Me: What can I do for you?

Him: I’m calling about a blog post you published. I’m sure you know which.

Me: Uh, no.

Him: The one about toppling statues.

He meant this post.

tldr: it’s a link to a Popular Mechanics article on the science of toppling monuments, with a brief intro and summary.

There’s nothing illegal in that post, but also you should never talk to cops without a lawyer, so I asked him if he minded my setting up a time to make that happen. He said that was fine with him.

My EFF colleague Mark Rumold was kind enough to volunteer to call the special agent. He reported back shortly thereafter to say that the agent was responding to a complaint, and that he agreed my post was not unlawful in any way.

Mark confirmed for the agent that I was not planning any unlawful activity, and the agent asked him to remind me that people can misinterpret the things we publish on the internet.

That was it.

It was an anticlimax, sure. I confess that I was a little freaked out. It was just the anniversary of Aaron Swartz’s death, and my mind kept going back to his account of the time the FBI showed up to ask him about PACER, and the horrors that followed.

But it’s over. The agent, to his credit, was pleasant and reasonable. But I’m mystified by the complaint – my guess is some troll has figured out that you can sic the FBI on people you disagree with on the internet – and even more by the fact that the FBI acted on it.


Wikipedia is 20 today!

Now that’s something really worth celebrating. And while we’re on the subject, why not give it a donation? It’s one of the wonders of the digital world. Link

I have a strategy for dealing with representatives of the two main views about Wikipedia.

The first is the person who speaks disdainfully about Wikipedia because “it’s full of errors”.

Me: So you’ve found something in Wikipedia that you know to be wrong?

Him: (it’s usually a male, btw) Certainly! Absolute rubbish it was.

Me: Well then, why haven’t you corrected it, since you know it’s wrong?

Usual outcome: Blustering about being too busy, what’s the point? etc.

The second is the person (male or female) who gushes enthusiastically about how wonderful Wikipedia is.

Me: So when was the last time you made a donation? It is a charity, you know, and your donation can be gift-aided.

Usual outcome: embarrassed silence


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Thursday 14 January, 2021

Quote of the day

”Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children. Life is the other way round.”

  • David Lodge, 1965

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Grieg | Piano Concerto II, Adagio | Arthur Rubinstein

Link

I included this a while back, but last night listened to it again and found it utterly riveting. Often video of musicians at work is annoying and distracting. But this particular one is hypnotic, especially as one watches Rubenstein (who always reminds me of Bertrand Russell) in what looks like a trance as he awaits his turn to play.


The WhatsApp Exodus

This clever satirical image comes from a post on Quentin’s blog about the stampede from WhatsApp after its owner, Facebook, published an ultimatum to users which basically said: share data with Facebook or stop using the app.

Quentin was a trifle surprised by the fact that

lots of people are shocked to discover that it now says they will share your details — location, phone number, etc — with the rest of the Facebook group.

I actually read, or at least skimmed, the Terms when they came out, and didn’t blink an eye, because I’ve always assumed that’s what they did anyway! I deleted my Facebook account many years ago, but I was aware that they still knew a lot about me because I do still use WhatsApp and Instagram (though only about once a month).

WhatsApp is the only Facebook service that I actually use. I joined it long before it was owned by Facebook and was charmed by it because of its neat design, the declared philosophy of its founders that it would never accept advertising and the fact that it had an honest business model: free use for the first year, and a modest annual fee after that.

Not surprisingly, I was mightily pissed off then when Facebook acquired WhatsApp for a staggering $19B in 2014. It was an outrageous sum so I guessed that the founders just caved. Who wouldn’t? But after that my use of it declined.

Two things changed that. One was the fact that two family members moved to Australia; the other was the lockdown imposed by the pandemic. After that, WhatsApp became part of the central emotional infrastructure of our extended family. And it has been, frankly, wonderful. But when the Facebook ultimatum arrived I thought: ok; enough’s enough. And I announced to the group that I would — with regret — be deleting my account and moving over to Signal, citing the ultimatum as the reason. I also tried to indicate that I would not feel judgemental about anyone who chose to remain.

Frankly, I expected nobody else to depart. My feeling was that the network effect of WhatsApp, with its 2B+ users would be too great. And besides, most members of my family are not techies. Somehow I couldn’t see them bothering with Signal.

How wrong can you be? To my astonishment, I suddenly discovered that one of them (who is a serious geek) had set up a Signal group, and family members were rapidly joining. Now my phone is buzzing with messages from my family just it did when we were all on WhatsApp. And it turned out we were not unusual: everywhere people were flocking to Signal (and to Telegram, another encrypted app).

Here, for example, is the FT on the scale of the stampede:

Signal was downloaded 8.8m times worldwide in the week after the WhatsApp changes were first announced on January 4, versus 246,000 times the week before, according to data from Sensor Tower. The app also got a boost when Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla, tweeted “Use Signal” on January 7.

By contrast, WhatsApp recorded 9.7m downloads in the week after the announcement, compared with 11.3m before, a 14 per cent decrease, Sensor Tower said.

Telegram, a popular messaging app among cryptocurrency traders, also benefited from the WhatsApp concerns. It reached 11.9m downloads the week after the January 4 change from 6.5m the week before, Sensor Tower said. In a message sent to all its users on Tuesday, Telegram said that it had now surpassed 500m active users.

A few thoughts prompted by these developments.

  1. Network effects create great power for incumbents — until they don’t. Investors regarded WhatsApp’s 2B happy users as constituting a defensive ‘moat’ round Facebook. But if a single event (a poorly-timed, badly phrased and preemptory pop-up notification) can trigger a stampede, it’s a reminder that moats can quickly run dry if they spring a leak.

  2. The biggest irony perhaps is that for many WhatsApp users there would actually be no change. If you had taken the opportunity offered in 2016 to not have your data shared with Facebook then you would not be affected by the draconian new policy on February 8. But the Facebook messaging on this was poor and it seems that a lot of people didn’t realise that they would be exempt.

  3. The kerfuffle led some analysts — notably Ben Thompson (he of the Stratchery newsletter) — to begin looking at the whole encrypted messaging marketplace and assessing the security of the five competitors — Signal, WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook Messenger and iMessage. On message security, Signal came out top (and surprisingly, Apple’s iMessage bottom.

  4. On the amount of data that can be harvested from an app, Signal also came out on top. Thompson’s rankings were:

1/ Signal, which only collects your phone number.

2/ iMessage, which collects your phone number and email address.

3/ Telegram, which collects your phone number and contact list.

4/ WhatsApp: Unless you opted out in 2016, Facebook does collect pretty much everything else it can get its hands on, including information about your device, your contacts, your IP-derived location, etc.

5/ Messenger is like WhatsApp, but with ads!

So, on balance, this looks like a good outcome for those who switched.


Long Read of the Day

 We Mock the Rioters as Ignorant Buffoons at Our Peril

Jack Shafer on the dangers of disdainful myopia about the insurgency in the Capitol. Here’s how he winds up:

Yes, there was plenty of class resentment at play at the Capitol and lots of overt racism, but we can’t assume that this was just a revolution by the powerless, the pathetic and the rural. The most shocking thing about the attack on the Capitol was that so many of the rioters were people who better resemble our kin and neighbors than they do the so-called barbarians from the boondocks.

The point here isn’t to sympathize with the rioters, or even seek to “understand” them, but to see them as they are and to prepare ourselves for future confrontations. How are we to deal with them as a country? I want to believe the intruders who now say they regret their actions of January 6. That’s exactly the sort of response you would hope to hear from an otherwise lawful American. But for every such apology we can be certain at least one person—and likely more—has been radicalized, maybe irreversibly, by the events. There are no easy ways to quell this national rebellion, a rebellion that appears to be gaining velocity, but the first step has got to be organizing a political taxonomy that doesn’t marginalize them as aliens. Instead of thinking of the rioters as “them,” try thinking of them as “us.” It’s bound to make you uncomfortable, but at least it’s a start.


Lockdown viewing

Lovely excerpt from David Vincent’s latest Covid diary post:

We also have some information about what we chose to watch on our television sets during 2020. The most popular video, boxed or downloaded, was Frozen II, with sales of 973,000. This suggests a market driven by children, or by parents driven to distraction finding them something to do. I have yet to encounter this film, so have no explanation for its success. Instead I ask my oldest granddaughter, now eight years old, to compare the sequel to the original. She writes:

“yes I have watched it and I do think that it is a little bit better than the first one because it has quite a lot more to it and so it is a bit more exciting. There is also a little bit of a mystery in it because they have to find out what happened to their parents and how they met. There are also lots of different elements to the story, more people and more adventures and more mysteries!”

David’s response? “Better get a copy.” My response: smart grandaughter!


Why those of us who are baffled by Trump’s supporters are the Weird ones.

Gillian Tett, the Financial Times’s US Editor had a fascinating column on Saturday which is, sadly, probably behind a paywall. In it she addresses the bafflement that many of us felt after discovering the extent of Republican support for the ‘insurrection’ on January 6.

A snap YouGov survey released last week suggested that only a quarter of Republicans viewed the attack on the Capitol as a threat to democracy — and almost half approved the storming of the halls of Congress.

A separate poll last December by Quinnipiac University showed that three-quarters of Republicans thought that there was widespread voter fraud during the November presidential election (while 97 per cent of Democrats did not believe this).

She also cites an Edelman survey which suggests that

many Americans today only have faith in people and institutions that are familiar to them, be it in their neighbourhood, company, line of sight or social group, meaning that “trust is local”. Tribalism is rife, in other words, in both ideological and epistemological terms.

The standard reaction is to blame Trump, Fox News, social media, whatever. But Tett suggests that an alternative explanation might come from a recent book by the Harvard evolutionary biologist and anthropologist Joseph Henrich —  The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar . In it Henrich outlines the mentality of Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic (“WEIRD”) people, versus other non-WEIRD groups. WEIRD modes of thought are, he says, based around the ideals of individualism, moral consistency and, above all, the type of sequential logic used in alphabet-based writing systems. Western elites tend to assume that it is the only valid mode of thought. In other words, inheritances of the Enlightenment.

Henrich’s view is that WEIRD thinking is culturally and historically an outlier. And the key thing to understand about non-WIERD modes of thought, says Tett, “is that gut reactions to the patterns in an ecosystem matter more than focused, one-directional reasoning, and that performative symbols count more than words”.

So what Trump has done is masterfully to play to this mentality on an epic scale. But for us WIERDos it’s so hard to comprehend that we have basically ignored it. Which is one of the consequences of being neither historians nor anthropologists.

Useful to remember, then, that Gillian Tett studied anthropology before she took up journalism. Which maybe was one of the reasons she was among the first journalists to suspect that the sub-prime mortgage business was a gigantic scam.


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Wednesday 13 January, 2021

Our Research Centre has an interesting Zoom Webinar tomorrow (Thursday 14th):

Ron Deibert and David Runciman on Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society

It’s free and open to all who are interested. Time: 17:00-18:30

To register, click here.


Quote of the Day

“The most interesting things are always happening behind one”

  • Iris Murdoch

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Joe Brown | Here Comes The Sun (Live)

Link

Nice rendition of a lovely Beatles number.


Long Read of the Day

 Where Journalism Fails

Wonderful essay by Doc Searls on why and how journalism was suckered by Trump. It’s the most insightful piece on this puzzle that I’ve come across. Doc spotted Trump’s significance before he was elected in 2016. This piece was published in 2019 and I missed it. Ouch!


America’s middle-class yobs

Interesting piece in The Atlantic by Adam Serwar on The business owners, real-estate brokers and service members who rioted acted not out of economic desperation, but out of their belief in their inviolable right to rule.

The mob that breached the Capitol last week at President Donald Trump’s exhortation, hoping to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, was full of what you might call “respectable people.” They left dozens of Capitol Police officers injured, screamed “Hang Mike Pence!,” threatened to murder House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and set up a gallows outside the building. Some were extremists using the crowd as cover, but as federal authorities issue indictments, a striking number of those they name appear to be regular Americans.

And there’s nothing surprising about that. Although any crowd that size is bound to include people who are struggling financially, no one should be shocked to see the middle classes so well represented among the mob.

The notion that political violence simply emerges out of economic desperation, rather than ideology, is comforting. But it’s false. Throughout American history, political violence has often been guided, initiated, and perpetrated by respectable people from educated middle- and upper-class backgrounds. The belief that only impoverished people engage in political violence—particularly right-wing political violence—is a misconception often cultivated by the very elites who benefit from that violence.

The members of the mob that attacked the Capitol and beat a police officer to death last week were not desperate. They were there because they believed they had been unjustly stripped of their inviolable right to rule. They believed that not only because of the third-generation real-estate tycoon who incited them, but also because of the wealthy Ivy Leaguers who encouraged them to think that the election had been stolen.

Well, well. Remember the “Brooks Brothers mob” rustled up by the Republicans in 2000 to stop the count in Florida and enable the Supreme Court to hand the presidency to George W. Bush — as The Inquirer usefully  reminds us?

M@any of the 74 million citizens who voted for the guy who then incited an attempted coup do fit the stereotype of struggling or laid-off blue-collar worker in a rusted-out rural community. But those folks aren’t the ones who can take a Wednesday off and fly hundreds of miles, let alone plunk down hundreds of dollars, to get to the nation’s hub. While the Capitol mob was bulked up with other Trumpists — including an alarming number of off-duty police officers, as well as some neo-Nazi or KKK types who’ve been around forever — it was the 401(k) crowd that formed the front line of America’s first real putsch.

If that surprises you, then you weren’t really paying attention. For the last four years, political scientists have been trying to wrap their brains around Trump’s shocking 2016 victory in the Electoral College while trying to tell us that the 45th president’s true base is a lot of things — but it’s not poor. In fact, polling guru Nate Silver noted during 2016′s primaries that the average Trump voter had a median household income of $72,000, which was both higher than the national average and also higher than the numbers that year for supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Footnote: One of the few entertaining outcomes of the pandemic was that Brooks Brothers went bust. Wonder where Preppies now go for their suits.


Why we should worry about facial-recognition technology

Michal Kosinski’s latest paper has just been published by Nature. He used to work in Cambridge, and with David Stillwell did the pathbreaking research on what kinds of intimate personal information could be gleaned from a collection of an individual’s Facebook ‘Likes’. (This was the psychometric work that was eventually appropriated and figured in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.) Michal is now at Stanford, and this astonishing piece of research suggests that facial-recognition technology is even more of a threat to privacy than most of us had supposed.

Here’s the Abstract:

Ubiquitous facial recognition technology can expose individuals’ political orientation, as faces of liberals and conservatives consistently differ. A facial recognition algorithm was applied to naturalistic images of 1,085,795 individuals to predict their political orientation by comparing their similarity to faces of liberal and conservative others. Political orientation was correctly classified in 72% of liberal–conservative face pairs, remarkably better than chance (50%), human accuracy (55%), or one afforded by a 100-item personality questionnaire (66%). Accuracy was similar across countries (the U.S., Canada, and the UK), environments (Facebook and dating websites), and when comparing faces across samples. Accuracy remained high (69%) even when controlling for age, gender, and ethnicity. Given the widespread use of facial recognition, our findings have critical implications for the protection of privacy and civil liberties.

One of the pieces of research we’re doing in the new Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy in Cambridge is on the vetting processes that could be used to authorise public procurement of this kind of technology. This paper gives an idea of why this work is important. (If you have any doubts on that score, then a visit to mainland China might be instructive.)


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Husband on leash breached Quebec’s Covid curfew. BBC News story, via Dave Pell. Link
  • San Diego Zoo Safari Park gorillas test positive for COVID-19. Link
  • Oriol Ferrer Mesià’s retro computer terminals. It’s amazing what you can do with a 3D printer and a Raspberry Pi. Link

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Tuesday 12 January, 2021

An evening in Provence

One evening, on our way down to the village for dinner, I suddenly saw this.


Quote of the Day

“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”

  • TS Eliot, The Waste Land

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel | The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba

Link

For some reason I always think of Margaret Thatcher when I hear this.

And say what you like about Handel, he was no crank.


Long Read of the Day

 How COVID unlocked the power of RNA vaccines

One of the unintended but almost magical consequences of the Covid emergency is how it has demonstrated the utility of basing vaccine development on RNA. This fascinating Nature article explains why this is potentially so powerful, and how we came to realise its potential.

RNA vaccines seem built for speed. From the genetic sequence of a pathogen, researchers can quickly pull out a potential antigen-encoding segment, insert that sequence in a DNA template and then synthesize the corresponding RNA before packaging the vaccine for delivery into the body.

Moderna, for example, managed this within 4 days of receiving the SARS-CoV-2 genome sequence. It focused on the virus’s spike protein, a surface protein used to enter cells. Collaborating with the US National Institutes of Health, the company then ran proof-of-concept experiments in mice before kicking off first-in-human testing in a span of just two months.

Any vaccine, in theory, could be created in the same way. “It truly is a platform in that sense,” says John Shiver, head of vaccine research and development at Sanofi Pasteur. With RNA, “you don’t have to recreate the entire process”.


Platforms Must Pay for Their Role in the Insurrection

Roger McNamee treading familiar (for him) ground:

The platforms hide behind the First Amendment to justify their policies, claiming that they do not want to be arbiters of truth. There are two flaws in this argument. First, no thoughtful critic wants any platform to act as a censor. Second, the algorithmic amplification of extreme content is a business choice made in pursuit of profit; eliminating it would reduce the harm from hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories without any limitation on free speech. Renee DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory made this point in a WIRED essay titled “Free Speech Is Not the Same As Free Reach.”

Until this insurrection, many policymakers and pundits have dismissed the rising tide of online extremism, believing it to be safely contained and therefore harmless. Their lack of concern allowed extremism’s audience and intensity to multiply…

The TL;DR version is that “Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have spent years fomenting and enabling yesterday’s violence at the Capitol. Policymakers need to do something about it.”

Yeah, Mr McNamee, we kinda knew that. But what do we do about it?


Thierry Breton: Capitol Hill — the 9/11 moment of social media

M. Breton is the European Commissioner for the internal market — and so a big cheese sur le Continent. Here he is, on Politico sounding off:

Just as 9/11 marked a paradigm shift for global security, 20 years later we are witnessing a before-and-after in the role of digital platforms in our democracy.

Social media companies have blocked U.S. President Donald Trump’s accounts on the grounds that his messages threatened democracy and incited hatred and violence. In doing so, they have recognized their responsibility, duty and means to prevent the spread of illegal viral content. They can no longer hide their responsibility toward society by arguing that they merely provide hosting services.

The dogma anchored in section 230 — the U.S. legislation that provides social media companies with immunity from civil liability for content posted by their users — has collapsed.

Maybe, maybe not. But amending Section 230 so that the changes, overall, do more good than harm looks really difficult. Vox has an entire piece headlined “Capitol riot revives calls to reform Section 230 and regulate Twitter and Facebook” which nicely illustrates how difficult it would be — and how confused legislative thinking about it is at the moment.

Last week’s insurrection marked the culminating point of years of hate speech, incitement to violence, disinformation and destabilization strategies that were allowed to spread without restraint over well-known social networks. The unrest in Washington is proof that a powerful yet unregulated digital space — reminiscent of the Wild West — has a profound impact on the very foundations of our modern democracies…

All this before he gets to the one serious point in the whole diatribe:

The fact that a CEO can pull the plug on POTUS’s loudspeaker without any checks and balances is perplexing. It is not only confirmation of the power of these platforms, but it also displays deep weaknesses in the way our society is organized in the digital space.

The main point of his piece, though, seems to be to flag up the EU’s two new proposed laws to do something about all this — the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act.


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • An updated daily front page of The New York Times as artwork on your wall. Nice idea, but the necessary hardware is a bit pricey. Link
  • The Great Gatsby is now in the public domain. Get your free copy from here.
  • 100 Tips for a Better Life. Lovely. For example, No. 18: “Keep your desk and workspace bare. Treat every object as an imposition upon your attention, because it is. A workspace is not a place for storing things. It is a place for accomplishing things.” I really need to tidy my desk. Link.

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