Saturday 26 September, 2020

A message from the cloud appreciation society

From our coastal walk on Thursday.

Quote of the Day

”An expert is someone who knows the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject and who manages to avoid them.”

  • Werner Heisenberg

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler & Chet Atkins playing I’ll see you in my dreams and Imagine live at the Secret Policeman’s Third Ball 1987.


Thinking about Lincoln

I’ve been thinking about Abraham Lincoln a good deal ever since I listened to David Runciman’s unmissable podcasted talk about Max Weber’s famous lecture “Politics as a Vocation”, delivered to students in Munich in 1919. Towards the end of his talk, David identifies Lincoln as the politician who comes closest to meeting Weber’s stringent requirements for a democratic leader, and so I’ve been driven to digging out Gore Vidal’s famous historical novel about him and other stuff.

Today, I came on Adam Gopnik’s roundup essay in the New Yorker on a raft of contemporary biographies of Lincoln, which of course I dived into and found myself transfixed by this wonderful photograph of him which I’d never seen before. It’s such a revealing portrait of its subject.

Lincoln was famously ungainly and physically awkward. Gopnik retells the story of when he was President and his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, compared him to a baboon. Asked how he could endure such an insult, Lincoln replied: “That is no insult; it is an expression of opinion; and what troubles me most about it is that Stanton said it, and Stanton is usually right.”

Gopnik’s argument is that historians’ visions of Lincoln have been shaped by their own political landscapes and cultural contexts. Which neatly explains why he has been much on our minds at the moment. And isn’t it weird — looking at the current GOP — that he was a Republican!

Ireland might yet be forced to accept that €13 billion in back tax from Apple

This is straight out of the you-couldn’t-make-it-up department.

Way back in 2016 the European Commission issued a ruling that Ireland had given Apple a “sweetheart deal” that let the company pay significantly lower taxes than other businesses. “Member States cannot give tax benefits to selected companies — this is illegal under EU state aid rules,” the EU’s antitrust Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said in 2016.

The commission ordered Apple to pay €13 billion ($14.9 billion) in back taxes to the Irish government. Needless to say, Apple disputed the decision, with CEO Tim Cook calling the judgment “total political crap.” But — here’s the startling bit — the Irish government also appealed the decision! This must be the first recorded case of a cash-strapped government facing Brexit campaigning not to receive enough dosh to run the country’s health service for a year or two.

In July this year In July, the General Court of the EU annulled the 2016 ruling on the grounds that that the commission had failed to make its case. “The commission did not succeed in showing to the requisite legal standard that there was an advantage” for Apple, they declared, and “the commission did not prove, in its alternative line of reasoning, that the contested tax rulings were the result of discretion exercised by the Irish tax authorities.”

On Friday the Commission announced that it will appeal the court’s July ruling, with Vestager saying in a statement that the court “has made a number of errors of law.”

“The General Court has repeatedly confirmed the principle that, while Member States have competence in determining their taxation laws taxation, they must do so in respect of EU law, including State aid rules,” Vestager said. “If Member States give certain multinational companies tax advantages not available to their rivals, this harms fair competition in the European Union in breach of State aid rules.”

Quite so.

A detached observer might ask why the Irish government took the line it did in this case. The short answer is that since 1958 the prime strategy of the Irish state has to carve out an economic future for a small island by being nice to giant foreign companies (especially US ones). So if it were obliged to take a more hands-off stance to these giants — even as some of them, especially Facebook and Google (both with their European HQs in Dublin) are turning toxic — then it would be changing the habits of several political lifetimes.

This one will run for a while yet.

Why we need satire

From the (consistently funny) current issue of Private Eye — sometimes the only publication that keeps UK residents sane and the moment.

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Friday 25 September, 2020

Mellow fruitfulness

Rose-hips and blackberries. Seen on our coastal walk yesterday.

Quote of the Day

”The best number for a dinner party is two — myself and a damn good head waiter.”

  • Nubar Gulbenkian

I have a good friend who used to say that the best conversations in his house always took place between himself and the TV set.

Musical alternative to the radio news of the day

Für Elise: Lang Lang


A year is such a long time in Brexit politics

Private Eye, 25 September, 2020

Tracking historical changes in trustworthiness using machine learning analyses of facial cues in paintings

It’s amazing what people do research on. This paper published in Nature Communications describes an interesting use of machine-learning technology to analyse portraits over the ages. The researchers built an algorithm to automatically generate trustworthiness evaluations for the facial action units (smile, eye brows, etc.) of European portraits in large historical databases. Their results show that “trustworthiness in portraits increased over the period 1500–2000 paralleling the decline of interpersonal violence and the rise of democratic values observed in Western Europe.

Portraits are particularly promising to document and quantify the level of trust over time. Experimental work have revealed that specific facial features, such as a smiling mouth or wider eyes, are consistently recognized as cues of trustworthiness across individuals and cultures. In this paper, we capitalize on this large empirical literature to build an algorithm that estimates trustworthiness based on a pre-identified set of facial characteristics. More precisely, we apply recent machine-learning methods to extract quantitative information about the evolution of social cues contained in portraits. The algorithm generates automatic human-like trustworthiness ratings on portraits based on the muscle contractions (facial action units) detected in facial displays using the open software OpenFace. This algorithm was trained on avatars controlled for trustworthiness and optimized using a random forest procedure (see Supplementary Methods for more details). To assess the generalizability of our model, we then tested its validity on four databases of natural faces rated by real participants. We first demonstrated that the algorithm produced trustworthiness ratings that were aligned with those produced by human participants in all four controlled databases.

Interestingly, the only painting illustrated in the paper — a portrait of Thomas Cranmer, who was Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and, for a short time, Mary I. He helped build the case for the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, which was one of the causes of the separation of the English Church from union with the Holy See. Along with Thomas Cromwell, he supported the principle of royal supremacy. So he was the polar opposite of a “troublesome priest”. Interestingly, the algorithm examined Gerlach Flicke’s famous portrait of Cranmer and pronounced him untrustworthy. Which I’d say was a pretty shrewd assessment.

Jonathan Dancy’s British Academy memoir of Derek Parfit.

Whenever a Fellow of the British Academy dies, the Academy commissions another Fellow to write an extended memoir of him. (The Royal Society has a similar tradition.) Jonathan Dancy’s memoir of the Oxford Philosopher Derek Parfit is a gem. (And quite a long read.)

Parfit was a genius, but by the metric-driven standards of contemporary academia he would have had difficulty holding onto an academic post. I never knew him personally, but his wife, Janet Radcliffe Richards, was at one time a valued colleague of mine, and it was from her that I learned that in addition to being a distinguished philosopher he was also an interesting and fastidious photographer. Larissa MacFarquhar wrote a fabulous New Yorker profile of him in 2011. Here she is on his photographic habit:

Sometime after he gave up the idea of being a poet, Parfit developed a new aesthetic obsession: photography. He drifted into it—a rich uncle gave him an expensive camera—but later it occurred to him that his interest in committing to paper images of things he had seen might stem from his inability to hold those images in his mind. He also believed that most of the world looked better in reproduction than it did in life. There were only about ten things in the world he wanted to photograph, however, and they were all buildings: the best buildings in Venice—Palladio’s two churches, the Doge’s Palace, the buildings along the Grand Canal—and the best buildings in St. Petersburg, the Winter Palace and the General Staff Building.

His photographs are enigmatic and fascinating. Bryan Appleyard (himself a photographer) has a lovely New Statesman piece about an exhibition of them held in 2018.

His perfectionism in photography was as fierce as in his philosophy. Over about 25 years he shot thousands of rolls of film but he only believed he had made “about 120 good photographs”. There was method in this, an adaptation of his own sense of a shortcoming. “What he said about the whole project,” says Richards, “was that he wasn’t an artist but he was a good critic, so he took thousands and thousands of photographs and just selected the ones he thought were best.”

Sometimes his processing went wrong. Richards tells me that one St Petersburg picture was not displayed by the gallery because it was just too processed – “too CGI, too postcard”. And his favoured cities did not always co-operate. He eventually stopped going to St Petersburg because he said the snow had become the wrong colour and he abandoned photography altogether when he decided weather in general had changed.

From a distance Parfit struck me as an astonishing combination of formidable intellect and a kind of childlike innocence; and also as a thoroughly good person. Dancy’s memoir and MacFarquahar’s profile reinforce that impression.

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Tuesday 15 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Where there is much to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinions in good men is but knowledge in the making.”

  • Milton, Areopagatica

Yeah, but that was before social media :-(

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Here Comes The Sun – Gabriella Quevedo


How GitLab is transforming the future of online work

GitLab is a company which makes an application that enables developers to collaborate while writing and launching software. But it has no physical headquarters. Instead, it has more than 1,300 employees spread across 67 countries and nearly every time zone, all of them working either from home or (in nonpandemic times) in co-working spaces. So in contrast with most companies — which are trying to figure out how to manage remote working — it’s been doing so successfully for years.

FastCompany has an interesting piece on what the rest of us might learn from GitLab’s experience.

Research shows that talking about non-work-related things with colleagues facilitates trust, helps break down silos among departments, and makes employees more productive. At GitLab, all of this has always had to happen remotely.

The company takes these relaxed interactions so seriously that it has a specified protocol in its employee handbook, which is publicly available online in its entirety. If printed, it would span more than 7,100 pages.

The section on “Informal Communication in an All-Remote Environment” meticulously details more than three dozen ways coworkers can virtually connect beyond the basic Zoom call, from Donut Bot chats (where members of the #donut_be_strangers Slack channel are randomly paired) to Juice Box talks (for family members of employees to get to know one another). There are also international pizza parties, virtual scavenger hunts, and a shared “Team DJ Zoom Room.

But in addition to cultivating a vibrant culture of watercooler Zoom meetings over the past decade GitLab has also tackled a real problem in remote-working organisations: how to effectively induct new recruits into such a distributed organisational culture. It’s done this by setting rules for email and Slack to ensure that far-flung employees, working on different schedules around the globe, are looped in to essential messages.

To make this possible, the company has designed a workplace that makes other companies’ approach to transparency look positively opaque. At GitLab, meetings, memos, notes, and more are available to everyone within the company—and, for the most part, to everyone outside of it, too. Part of this embrace of transparency comes from the open-source ethos upon which GitLab was founded. (GitLab offers a free “community” version of its product, as well as a proprietary enterprise one.) But it’s also crucial to keeping employees in lockstep, in terms of product development and corporate culture.

GitLab raised $268 million last September at a $2.75 billion valuation and is rumored to be preparing for a direct public offering. (Its biggest competitor is GitHub, which Microsoft acquired for $7.5 billion in 2018.) As the company’s profile rises, its idiosyncratic workplace culture is attracting attention.

This is interesting. Lots of organisations could learn lessons from this. Maybe GitLab should spin out a consultancy business.

Life in the Wake of COVID-19

Lovely, moving photo essay

In April, José Collantes contracted the new coronavirus and quarantined himself in a hotel set up by the government in Santiago, Chile, away from his wife and young daughter. The 36-year-old Peruvian migrant showed only mild symptoms, and returned home in May, only to discover his wife, Silvia Cano, had also fallen ill. Silvia’s condition worsened quickly, and she was taken to a nearby hospital with pneumonia. Although they spoke on the phone, José and their 5-year-old daughter Kehity never saw Silvia again—she passed away in June, at the age of 37, due to complications from COVID-19. José found that he’d suddenly become a single parent, and felt haunted by questions about why Silvia had died and he survived.

AI ethics groups are repeating one of society’s classic mistakes

It’s funny to see how the tech industry suddenly discovered ethics, a subject about which the industry’s companies were almost as ignorant as tobacco companies or soft-drinks manufacturers. Now, ‘ethics’ and ‘oversight’ boards are springing up everywhere, most of which are patently pre-emptive attempts to ward off legal regulation, and are largely engaged in ‘ethics theatre’ — much like the security-theatre that goes on in airports worldwide.

This Tech Review essay by Abhishek Gupta and Victoria Heath argues that even serious-minded ethics initiatives suffer from critical geographical blind-spots.

AI systems have repeatedly been shown to cause problems that disproportionately affect marginalized groups while benefiting a privileged few. The global AI ethics efforts under way today—of which there are dozens—aim to help everyone benefit from this technology, and to prevent it from causing harm. Generally speaking, they do this by creating guidelines and principles for developers, funders, and regulators to follow. They might, for example, recommend routine internal audits or require protections for users’ personally identifiable information.

We believe these groups are well-intentioned and are doing worthwhile work. The AI community should, indeed, agree on a set of international definitions and concepts for ethical AI. But without more geographic representation, they’ll produce a global vision for AI ethics that reflects the perspectives of people in only a few regions of the world, particularly North America and northwestern Europe.

“Those of us working in AI ethics will do more harm than good,”, Gupta and Heath argue,

if we allow the field’s lack of geographic diversity to define our own efforts. If we’re not careful, we could wind up codifying AI’s historic biases into guidelines that warp the technology for generations to come. We must start to prioritize voices from low- and middle-income countries (especially those in the “Global South”) and those from historically marginalized communities.

Advances in technology have often benefited the West while exacerbating economic inequality, political oppression, and environmental destruction elsewhere. Including non-Western countries in AI ethics is the best way to avoid repeating this pattern.

So: fewer ethics advisory jobs for Western philosophers, and more from experts from the poorer parts of the world. This will be news to the guys in Silicon Valley.

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Monday 14 September, 2020

Cambridge: morning rush-hour

Trumpington Street, 09:10 this morning.

Quote of the Day

McJob: A low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice for people who have never held one”.

  • Douglas Coupland, Generation X.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Last Thing On My Mind, sung by Tom Paxton and Liam Clancy


That must have been some evening.

Computers for Cynics 0 – The Myth of Technology


If, like me, you’re interested in the history of computing, then Ted Nelson is almost a mythical figure. He’s an American pioneer of information technology, philosopher and sociologist. He coined the terms hypertext (the idea that text doesn’t have to be linear) and hypermedia (ditto for other media) and devoted much of his life to a utopian project called Xanadu — a global hypertext system that would store and display documents, together with giving users the ability to perform edits. On top of this basic idea, Nelson wanted to facilitate nonsequential writing, in which readers could choose their own paths through an electronic document. He outlined some of these ideas in a famous paper to the 1965 ACM national conference, calling the new idea “zippered lists” which would allow compound documents to be formed from pieces of other documents, a concept named Nelson called transclusion.

I first came on Nelson when writing my history of the Internet in the mid 1990s, and saw his work as a continuation of Vannevar Bush’s 1939 idea of ‘associative linking’ (which he published in a 1945 edition of The Atlantic) and as a precursor of Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web. Nelson was always very critical of the Web (and of its inventor) because Tim hadn’t built into it the possibility that a web page could be annotated or rewritten by a user. In other words, it was a one-way hypertext system rather than the multi-way concept of Xanadu. (We had to wait until Ward Cunningham invented the wiki for that to become possible.)

But although Nelson was firmly lodged in the collective unconscious of the Web I’d never actually seen him in action. Which is why coming on this video today was such a delight. He’s just as I imagined him — irrepressible and original to the core.

Some universities are doing admissions right

Universities that brought students back to campus have already seen a rough start to the fall, with more than 50,000 infections across the country. But some have seemingly cracked the code.

The big picture: A number of schools have managed to open up while quelling or even preventing outbreaks, either because they’re effectively testing and tracing or because they’ve got smaller student bodies and more rural locations.


But, on the other hand, see this rant by Scott Galloway, an NYU professor who has been right on a lot of other issues (including tech power). He thinks it’s not only unwise but immoral for American colleges to be re-opening at the present time.

Fasten your seat-belts. Scott doesn’t do nuance.

America’s Plastic Hour Is Upon Us

This is the strange headline over the long read of the day — George Packer’s essay on whether American democracy is capable of revival. The country is at a low point, he says, “but we may be on the cusp of an era of radical reform that repairs our broken democracy”. He’s good on how American politics has degenerated into its current crisis, and very informative on how radical and far-reaching Biden’s policy platform is (much of it was — shamefully — new to me), but at the end I remained as pessimistic about the future of American democracy as I had been when I started reading.

Here’s how he concludes the essay, though:

I began writing this essay in a mood of despair. The mood had grown so familiar, really almost comfortable, that it made me sick of myself and my country. But because I can’t give up on either—suicide is too final, and expatriation is no longer possible—I tried to think about the future and the past. And this is what I’ve come to believe: We have one more chance—in Lincoln’s words, a “last best hope”—to bring our democracy back from the dead. It will be like a complex medical rescue that requires just the right interventions, in just the right sequence, at just the right speed: amputation, transfusion, multiple-organ transplant, stabilization, rehabilitation. Each step will be very hard, and we can’t afford to get any wrong or wait another hour. Yet I’ve written myself into a state of mind that I recognize as hope. We’ve made America before. Self-government still gives us the chance. Everything is in our hands.

Cambridge sans tourists

I lived in the centre of Cambridge from 1968 to 1989 (I now live three miles outside), and one of the things I most liked about the city was how it was in the month of September. The town was always crammed with tourists between Easter and the end of August, but once September arrived the tourists disappeared and the local inhabitants used to emerge from their hideouts and reclaim their town. So suddenly you’d run into people you hadn’t seen since before the Summer, rediscover cafes and delicatessens that were no-go-areas during the tourist season, and so on.

But then that all began to change in the 1990s — largely, I think, because of the increasing prosperity of China. So Chinese and other oriental tourists seemed to come almost the whole year round and there were times when the town reminded one of Venice. It got so bad, for example, that I stopped cycling up King’s Parade because of the risk of hitting oblivious, selfie-stick-wielding tourists trying to get a portrait with King’s chapel as a backdrop.

And now? There are no tourists. And precious few locals either: they’re mostly still cowering in their Covid-resistant bunkers. But this morning was beautifully sunny so we cycled in early and I parked my bike in the centre and went walkabout with a Leica, taking pictures and drinking in the place. I had breakfast in the open air from a stall in the half-deserted market (looks as though many stallholders have had to give up during the tourist-famine), and sat listening to the conversation of the chaps from local building sites as they gathered for their elevenses. It was absolutely heavenly. Just like it used to be in the 1970s and 1980s.

Here are a few of the pictures (as well as the ‘rush-hour’ one at the top. (A click on each should give you a larger image.)

The Fitzwilliam Museum is defiantly open!

At least one stallholder is hoping that someone will want ‘souvenirs’ of their visit to Cambridge.

Great St Mary’s still looms over the largely deserted market.

And on the pavement outside the door of the apartment that Maynard Keynes used after his marriage the council has stencilled “Keep Left” in white paint!

Cognitive dissonance rules OK?

Given the slogan, I wonder how many of the mask-refusniks also believe that it’s a woman’s right to choose?

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Friday 11 September, 2020

Autumn’s on its way

Seen on my walk home this morning.

Quote of the Day

“The trouble with epistemologists is that they think they know something”.

  • Guy Haworth

Musical alternative to the radio news of the day

My Back Pages (Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton & George Harrison)


How Police Are Using ‘Super Recognizers’ to Track Criminals

Interesting piece in Vice.

The term “super recognizer” first appeared in 2009 and describes people who can remember more than 80 percent of the faces of people they meet (the average is 20 percent). The neural-mechanism behind super recognition is still largely unknown, but the skill seems to be genetic and possessed by only about one percent of the population.

Today, police in many countries employ super recognizers (possibly including Hong Kong) but police in the United Kingdom have recruited more than most.

Kelly Hearsey is one such super recognizer…

Well, at least they’re not just using automated facial-recognition systems.

It’s amazing the abilities that some people have. Reminds me of the folks who can accurately multiply two 20-digit numbers in their heads.

Facebook doesn’t just mirror the world. It filters it for its own benefit.

Really good OpEd by Shira Ovide:

In an interview that aired on Tuesday, Zuckerberg was asked big and thorny questions about his company: Why are people sometimes cruel to one another on Facebook, and why do inflammatory, partisan posts get so much attention?

Zuckerberg told “Axios on HBO” that Americans are angry and divided right now, and that’s why they act that way on Facebook, too.

Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives consistently say that Facebook is a mirror on society. An online gathering that gives a personal printing press to billions of people will inevitably have all the good and the bad of those people. (My colleague Mike Isaac has talked about this view before.)

It’s true but also comically incomplete to say that Facebook reflects reality. Instead, Facebook presents reality filtered through its own prism, and this affects what people think and do. [Emphasis added]

That last sentence is the key to understanding the problem. The prism is driven by a particular business model. And it’s designed to achieve corporate objectives, not users’.

America Is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral

Long read of the day — Ed Yong’s latest piece in The Atlantic.

Here’s how it begins…

Army ants will sometimes walk in circles until they die. The workers navigate by smelling the pheromone trails of workers in front of them, while laying down pheromones for others to follow. If these trails accidentally loop back on themselves, the ants are trapped. They become a thick, swirling vortex of bodies that resembles a hurricane as viewed from space. They march endlessly until they’re felled by exhaustion or dehydration. The ants can sense no picture bigger than what’s immediately ahead. They have no coordinating force to guide them to safety. They are imprisoned by a wall of their own instincts. This phenomenon is called the death spiral. I can think of no better metaphor for the United States of America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. enters the ninth month of the pandemic with more than 6.3 million confirmed cases and more than 189,000 confirmed deaths. The toll has been enormous because the country presented the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus with a smorgasbord of vulnerabilities to exploit. But the toll continues to be enormous—every day, the case count rises by around 40,000 and the death toll by around 800—because the country has consistently thought about the pandemic in the same unproductive ways…

He goes on to list the nine big mistakes the US has made so far. The most horrifying one is #9: The Habituation of Horror:

The U.S. might stop treating the pandemic as the emergency that it is. Daily tragedy might become ambient noise. The desire for normality might render the unthinkable normal. Like poverty and racism, school shootings and police brutality, mass incarceration and sexual harassment, widespread extinctions and changing climate, COVID-19 might become yet another unacceptable thing that America comes to accept.

Ed Yong is the best journalist writing about this stuff at the moment.

Of Course Trump Couldn’t Resist Bob Woodward

Timothy O’Brien once wrote a book about Donald Trump — Trumpnation: The Art of Being The Donald. Now he’s written an interesting Bloomberg column reflecting on Trump’s experience with Bob Woodward.

My book turned out to portray a negative Trump. He then sued me for libel and lost. During the litigation, he had to produce his tax returns and other financial records, and he also had to sit for two damning days of depositions. The depositions, in which Trump, under oath, was forced to admit 30 times that he had lied over the years about all sorts of stuff are now a permanent part of the public record and his legacy. Trump would have been wise not to sue.

Trump would have been wiser not to cooperate with my book in the first place, and he would have been wise not to have cooperated with Woodward’s book, either. He didn’t cooperate with “Fear,” Woodward’s previous book, and that probably saved him some additional grief. But here’s the rub: Trump isn’t wise.

It seems that Trump regretted not cooperating with Woodward on his earlier book about him, and was convinced that it would have come out glowingly if he had engaged more directly with the reporter who brought down Richard Nixon. So, says O’Brien,

he ambled into the ring for round two, certain that he could steer the effort toward a positive outcome. Graham and others might have laced up his gloves and escorted him to his corner, but it was Trump’s choice. At age 74, he’s been battling and courting the media for the better part of 50 years. He knows the game.

Trump courts the media 24/7 because he is addicted to it, and addicts can’t help themselves.

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Friday 4 September, 2020

The Wall

A wall in Arles, July 2019, during the annual Festival of Photography

Quote of the Day

“I have never found, in a long experience of politics, that criticism is ever inhibited by ignorance.”

  • Harold Macmillan, Wall Street Journal, 1963

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Norah Jones – Mini Concert Live in the Home (15’36”)


One of the nicest discoveries of the lockdown.

Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of the American experiment with democracy?

Alarmist? Maybe. But even a normally level-headed outfit like the Economist is beginning to sound alarmed. Here’s a clip from its lead story:

If the election is close and there are delays in counting ballots on election night, it could well appear that Mr Trump is winning in some key states. He might then claim victory before the results were in, as he did in Florida’s 2018 mid-terms. As more postal votes are counted, the result could then shift in Mr Biden’s favour. America would have two candidates claiming victory. Electoral cases in multiple states might have to be heard in the courts. Protests would surely erupt, some of them armed. The president might call out the national guard, as he threatened to do this summer, or send federal agents into Democratic cities to police restive crowds, as happened in Portland. At this distance, it is easy to forget quite how wrenching a disputed presidential election was in 2000. And that dispute took place at a time of maximum American self-confidence, before 9/11, before the rise of China, before elections were fought on social media, and when the choice was between two men who would be considered moderate centrists by current standards.

Now imagine something like the Florida recount taking place in several states, after an epidemic has killed 200,000 Americans, and at a moment when the incumbent is viewed as both illegitimate and odious by a very large number of voters, while on the other side millions are convinced, regardless of the evidence, that their man would have won clearly but for widespread electoral fraud…

And here’s Farhad Manjoo with a piece in the NYT headed “I’m Doomsday Prepping for the End of Democracy”:

My wife, Helen, and I got into a quarrel the other day about how to plan for America’s bleak future. Our family needs to replace an aging car, but I’ve been hesitant, wary of making any new financial commitments as the nation accelerates into the teeth of political chaos or cataclysm. What if, after the election, we need to make a run for it? Why squander spare cash on a new car?

Helen thinks I’m being alarmist — that I’m LARPing “The Handmaid’s Tale,” nursing some revolutionary fantasy of escape from Gilead. But I think she — like a lot of other white, Gen X native-born Americans who’ve known mostly domestic peace and stability — is being entirely too blasé about the approaching storm.

As an immigrant who escaped to America from apartheid-era South Africa, I feel that I’ve cultivated a sharper appreciation for political trouble. To me, the signs on the American horizon are flashing blood red.

Armed political skirmishes are erupting on the streets, and scholars are tracking a rise in violence and instability as the election draws near. Gun sales keep shattering records. Mercifully, I suppose, there’s a nationwide shortage of ammo. Then there is the pandemic, mass unemployment, natural disasters on every coast, intense racial and partisan polarization, and not a little bit of lockdown-induced collective stir craziness.

There’s also this: Helen skipped the Republican convention. I watched it wall-to-wall, and it drove me to despair. In that four-night celebration of Trumpism, I caught a frightening glimpse of the ugly end of America, an authoritarian cult in full flower, and I am not keen to stick around much longer to see if my terrifying premonition pans out…

And here’s David Brooks, a conservative, in the same newspaper with a column headed “What Will You Do if Trump Doesn’t Leave?”.

On the evening of Nov. 3, Americans settle nervously in front of their screens to await elections results. In the early hours Donald Trump seems to be having an excellent night. Counting the votes cast at polling places, Trump is winning Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Those states don’t even begin processing mail-in ballots until Election Day, yet Trump quickly declares victory. So do many other Republican candidates. The media complains that it’s premature, but Trumpworld is ecstatic.

Democrats know that as many as 40 percent of the ballots are mail-in and still being counted, and those votes are likely to be overwhelmingly for Joe Biden, but they can’t control the emotions of that night. It’s a gut punch.

As the mail-in ballots are tallied, the Trump leads erode. But the situation is genuinely unclear. Trump is on the warpath, raging about fraud.

Within weeks there are lawsuits and challenges everywhere. It’s like Florida in 2000, but the chaos is happening in many states at once. Ballots are getting tossed because of problems with signatures, or not getting tossed, amid national frenzy.

Trump says he won’t let Democrats steal the election and declares himself re-elected. It’s an outrage, but as when he used the White House for a campaign prop during his convention, who’s going to stop him?

David Graeber RIP

This is really sad news. Britain’s best and most articulate polemicist has died at the age of 59. Drake Bennett has a generous tribute to him in Bloomberg News.

I profiled Graeber for Bloomberg Businessweek during Occupy Wall Street, and he was already starting to think about other things: Why were the fruits of technological innovation so lame? Why are so many jobs so unfulfilling? Why do we still work so much? He’d tackle these topics in future essays, books, and “work rants.” Were the arguments sometimes simplistic? Yes. Were straw men avoided and opposing points of view soberly weighed? They were not. Graeber was a polemicist, and a delightful one. To read his writing was to find oneself suddenly ping-ponging through thousands of years of history, so that the Hindu Vedas are in conversation with the stand-up comedian Steve Wright, the divorce proceedings of George W. Bush’s brother Neil open a window into the African Lele people’s concept of blood debt, and where corporations, emerging from Medieval canon law, “are the most peculiarly European addition to that endless proliferation of metaphysical entities so characteristic of the Middle Ages—as well as the most enduring.”

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Monday 24 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

The mystery which surrounds a thinking machine already surrounds a thinking man.”

  • B. F. Skinner

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Claudio Abaddo conducting the Berlin Phil. And I mean conducting.


“Years of photos” permanently wiped from iPhones, iPads by bad Lightroom app update

From The Register:

Adobe is offering its condolences to customers after an update to its Lightroom photo manager permanently deleted troves of snaps on people’s iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches.

First reported by PetaPixel, the data annihilation was triggered after punters this week fetched version 5.4 of the iOS software. Netizens complained that, following the release and installation of that build, their stored photos and paid-for presets vanished. Adobe acknowledged the issue though it didn’t have much to offer punters besides saying sorry.

Of course this is really just a (relatively rare) glitch in cloud storage. But I stick by my conviction that if you want your grandchildren to see your photos, print them off now on photographic paper (using a company like Photobox) and put them in shoeboxes (or, better still, Tupperware-type boxes) in the attic!

If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich? Turns out it’s just chance.

The most successful people are not the most talented, just the luckiest, a new computer model of wealth creation confirms. Taking that into account can maximize return on many kinds of investment.

MIT Tech Review has a good summary of a fascinating piece of agent-based simulation modelling.

The Abstract for the research report reads:

The largely dominant meritocratic paradigm of highly competitive Western cultures is rooted on the belief that success is due mainly, if not exclusively, to personal qualities such as talent, intelligence, skills, efforts or risk taking. Sometimes, we are willing to admit that a certain degree of luck could also play a role in achieving significant material success. But, as a matter of fact, it is rather common to underestimate the importance of external forces in individual successful stories. It is very well known that intelligence or talent exhibit a Gaussian distribution among the population, whereas the distribution of wealth – considered a proxy of success – follows typically a power law (Pareto law). Such a discrepancy between a Normal distribution of inputs, with a typical scale, and the scale invariant distribution of outputs, suggests that some hidden ingredient is at work behind the scenes. In this paper, with the help of a very simple agent-based model, we suggest that such an ingredient is just randomness. In particular, we show that, if it is true that some degree of talent is necessary to be successful in life, almost never the most talented people reach the highest peaks of success, being overtaken by mediocre but sensibly luckier individuals. As to our knowledge, this counterintuitive result – although implicitly suggested between the lines in a vast literature – is quantified here for the first time. It sheds new light on the effectiveness of assessing merit on the basis of the reached level of success and underlines the risks of distributing excessive honors or resources to people who, at the end of the day, could have been simply luckier than others. With the help of this model, several policy hypotheses are also addressed and compared to show the most efficient strategies for public funding of research in order to improve meritocracy, diversity and innovation.

New Yorker profile of Joe Biden

Long read of the day.

Marvellous piece by Evan Osnos, one of the best writers on the magazine. It’s realistic, serious, unsentimental. But also sympathetic. Here’s a sample:

Every day, Biden’s aides try to get him on the phone with a regular person. One afternoon in April, he was patched through to Mohammad Qazzaz, in Dearborn, Michigan. Three weeks earlier, Qazzaz, who runs a coffee-roasting business, had tested positive for covid-19. When Biden called, he was quarantined in his house, trying to protect his wife and two children.

Qazzaz, who recorded the call and played it for me, told Biden that his daughter, who is two, did not understand why he would not come out of his bedroom: “She keeps telling me, ‘Baba, open the door. Open the door.’ ” As he described his situation, his voice broke, and he tried to steady himself. “I’m sorry, Mr. Vice-President,” he said.

“Don’t be sorry,” Biden said. “I think your emotional state is totally justified. And, as my mom would say, you have to get it out.”

Biden told Qazzaz that he, too, once had children too small to understand a crisis unfolding around them. “Nothing is the same, but I have some sense of what you’re going through,” Biden said. He suggested that Qazzaz play a simple game with his daughter through the door, asking her to guess a number or a color. “Tell her stories about what it’s going to be like when Daddy gets better,” he said. They talked for a while about Qazzaz’s father, who emigrated from Jerusalem. “Look, you’re going to get through this,” Biden said. “We are the nation we are because we’re a nation of immigrants.” The call was supposed to last five minutes; they talked for twenty-two.

Listening to Qazzaz’s call was reminiscent of Roosevelt’s famous line: “The Presidency is not merely an administrative office. . . . It is preëminently a place of moral leadership.” Joe Biden’s life is replete with mistakes and regrets. And, if he comes to the Presidency, he is unlikely to supply much of the exalted rhetoric that reaches into a nation’s soul. But, for a people in mourning, he might offer something like solace, a language of healing.

This is the kind of piece that reminds me why I subscribe to the New Yorker.

How Zeynep Tufekci Keeps Getting the Big Things Right

Zeynep Tufecki has for years been one of the sharpest and most perceptive academic commentators on the tech industry. This NYT piece explains why.

In 2011, she went against the current to say the case for Twitter as a driver of broad social movements had been oversimplified. In 2012, she warned news media outlets that their coverage of school shootings could inspire more. In 2013, she argued that Facebook could fuel ethnic cleansing. In 2017, she warned that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm could be used as a tool of radicalization.

And when it came to the pandemic, she sounded the alarm early while also fighting to keep parks and beaches open.

“I’ve just been struck by how right she has been,” said Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School.

I was curious to know how Dr. Tufekci had gotten so many things right in a confusing time, so we spoke last week over FaceTime. She told me she chalks up her habits of mind in part to a childhood she wouldn’t wish on anyone…

Her book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest is terrific btw.

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Saturday 22 August, 2020

Vanishing point

On our cycle today.

Quote of the Day

”Do not do unto others as you would they should do to you. Their tastes may not be the same.”

  • George Bernard Shaw.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler: Romeo And Juliet (9 minutes)


Content moderation, AI, and the question of scale

Really thoughtful academic article by Tarleton Gillespie — who a while book wrote a very good book — Custodians of the Internet: Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions That Shape Social Media — on content moderation.


AI seems like the perfect response to the growing challenges of content moderation on social media platforms: the immense scale of the data, the relentlessness of the violations, and the need for human judgments without wanting humans to have to make them. The push toward automated content moderation is often justified as a necessary response to the scale: the enormity of social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube stands as the reason why AI approaches are desirable, even inevitable. But even if we could effectively automate content moderation, it is not clear that we should.

Note that last sentence.

Worth reading in full.

Looting, American-style

Yves Smith has a withering post on the Naked Capitalism blog triggered by a report in the *Financial Times describing how CEOs who ran their (US) companies into the ground are nevertheless eing brewarded with “retention bonus” payouts shortly before the business declare bankruptcy, often mere days ahead. “The absurd rationale”, says Smith

is that it is necessary to keep a failed CEO on in order to reduce disruption. It appears instead that boards would rather pay a rich and unwarranted premium to keep a bad known quantity around, perhaps due to personal allegiances to the incumbent or because they might actually have to rouse themselves to oust the dud leader and select a replacement.

Some of these payments he goes on to say, “are flat out looting”. For example:

Brad Holly, Whiting’s chief executive who joined the company in November 2017, received $6.4m at the end of March under a new compensation plan approved by the board of directors, which he also chairs, less than a week before the company filed for bankruptcy. Whiting, which expects to emerge from Chapter 11 next month, said last week that Mr Holly would step down as chief executive when that happens and would receive an additional $2.53m in severance.

In total, Whiting paid out more than $14m to executives just a few days before declaring itself bust. In a regulatory filing on April 1 the company said its pay plan was designed “to align the interests of the Company and its employees”. Whiting did not respond to a request for comment.

$6.4 million for Holly for at most five months of babysitting bankruptcy lawyers? Seriously? Another example:

Meanwhile, at another insolvent company, Briggs & Stratton, its board

approved more than $5m in retention payments on June 11, including more than $1m to chief executive Todd Teske, who has led the company for a decade. Four days later the company failed to make a $6.7m interest payment on a bond due later this year, and on July 20 it filed for bankruptcy. On July 19, the company’s board voted to terminate the health and life insurance benefits of the company’s retirees…

It’s outrageous — like share buy-backs and the antics of private equity — but it’s all allowed under the warped kind of capitalism we’ve been building (and tolerating) since the 1970s.

Facebook Braces Itself for Trump to Cast Doubt on Election Results

Zuckerberg & Co are — according to the New York Times — working out what steps to take should Trump use its platform to dispute the vote.

Well, well. Could this be the moment that reality dawns on these genuises?

Employees at the Silicon Valley company are laying out contingency plans and walking through postelection scenarios that include attempts by Mr. Trump or his campaign to use the platform to delegitimize the results, people with knowledge of Facebook’s plans said.

Facebook is preparing steps to take should Mr. Trump wrongly claim on the site that he won another four-year term, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Facebook is also working through how it might act if Mr. Trump tries to invalidate the results by declaring that the Postal Service lost mail-in ballots or that other groups meddled with the vote, the people said.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and some of his lieutenants have started holding daily meetings about minimizing how the platform can be used to dispute the election, the people said. They have discussed a “kill switch” to shut off political advertising after Election Day since the ads, which Facebook does not police for truthfulness, could be used to spread misinformation, the people said.

The preparations underscore how rising concerns over the integrity of the November election have reached social media companies, whose sites can be used to amplify lies, conspiracy theories and inflammatory messages. YouTube and Twitter have also discussed plans for action if the postelection period becomes complicated, according to disinformation and political researchers who have advised the firms.

No point in staying up on the evening of November 3rd. This one might run and run.


There’s a strange entry in the catalogue for a forthcoming book by a distinguished Harvard astronomer, Avi Loeb. Here’s the blurb:

Harvard’s top astronomer lays out his controversial theory that our solar system was recently visited by advanced alien technology from a distant star. In late 2017, scientists at a Hawaiian observatory glimpsed an object soaring through our inner solar system, moving so quickly that it could only have come from another star. Avi Loeb, Harvard’s top astronomer, showed it was not an asteroid; it was moving too fast along a strange orbit, and left no trail of gas or debris in its wake. There was only one conceivable explanation: the object was a piece of advanced technology created by a distant alien civilization. In Extraterrestrial, Loeb takes readers inside the thrilling story of the first interstellar visitor to be spotted in our solar system. He outlines his controversial theory and its profound implications: for science, for religion, and for the future of our species and our planet. A mind-bending journey through the furthest reaches of science, space-time, and the human imagination, Extraterrestrial challenges readers to aim for the stars—and to think critically about what’s out there, no matter how strange it seems.

It might just have been a rogue Tesla roadster.

Summer books #11

The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media by Nathan Jurgenson, Verso, 2019.

A slim and interesting book (at least if, like me, you are a photographer). Its core argument is that to understand the world of the selfie, Instagram and today’s “pics or it didn’t happen” mindset the place to start is the way way photography was regarded after it first emerged in the 19th century. After all, Emile Zola wrote in 1901, “In my view, you cannot claim to have really claim to have seen something until you have photographed it”. Jurgensen has been described as “the Susan Sontag of the selfie generation”. I think that was meant as a compliment.

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Tuesday 18 August, 2020


That magical moment between daylight and darkness.

Click on the image for a bigger version.

Quote of the Day

“The convent taught me only that if you spit on a pencil eraser it will erase ink.”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paul Brady sings ‘Arthur McBride’, an Irish folk song variously categorised as an “anti-recruiting” song, a specific form of anti-war song, or more broadly as a protest song. Planxty also has a lovely version of it.


Thinking about tech regulation

This diagram comes from an interesting article, “Law and Technology Realism” by Thibault Schrepel.

While it is commonly accepted that technology is deterministic, I am under the impression that a majority of “Law and Technology” scholars also believe that technology is non-neutral. It follows that, according to this dominant view, (1) technology drives society in good or bad directions (determinism), and that (2) certain uses of technology may lead to the reduction or enhancement of the common good (non-neutrality). Consequently, this leads to top-down tech policies where the regulator has the impossible burden of helping society control and orient technology to the best possible extent.

This article is deterministic and non-neutral.

But, here’s the catch. Most of today’s doctrine focuses almost exclusively on the negativity brought by technology (read Nick Bostrom, Frank Pasquale, Evgeny Morozov). Sure, these authors mention a few positive aspects, but still end up focusing on the negative ones. They’re asking to constrain technology on that sole basis. With this article, I want to raise another point: technology determinism can also drive society by providing solutions to centuries-old problems. In and of itself. This is not technological solutionism, as I am not arguing that technology can solve all of mankind’s problems, but it is not anti-solutionism either. I fear the extremes, anyway.

Not sure I agree with his methodological recommendations at the end, but this is an interesting way of thinking about the regulation problem.

Challenging the epistemological imperialism of ‘Computer Science’

Randy Connolly has written an extraordinary article in the August issue of Communications of the ACM on “Why Computing Belongs Within the Social Sciences”. It’s a really interesting and important essay, about which I will be writing more. But for now, here’s the trailer.


Jack Shafer: stop fretting about Trump’s bluffing on postal voting and get your vote in early

Typically robust Shafer column:

If you’re still worried about the disenfranchisement of the 76 percent of eligible voters who have the right to cast their ballot by mail, there are practical things you can do as an individual besides tweeting anxiously about Trump. The progressives at Democracy Docket recommend that in addition to using special drop boxes, you avoid the Election Day crowds by taking part in the early, in-person voting offered in 41 states. Some states even offer weekend voting. They also suggest you participate in the organized collection of ballots, which some states allow. (Trump assails organized collection as “ballot harvesting.”)

Other things you can do to increase the tabulated vote: Request your absentee ballot at the earliest date possible and return it in person, by mail or secure dropoff as soon as you can. If you live in a state that sends ballots to all registered voters, complete yours and return it promptly. Also, use the USPS sparingly in the three weeks before the election to liberate capacity. Pay your bills via the web. Don’t send postcards. Place phone calls instead of sending birthday cards. Send packages through FedEx or UPS.

Do what you can—if only to call Trump’s postal bluff.

I like Shafer’s brusque, no-nonsense style. Which is why I always read him.

Summer books #7

Magic Mobile by Michael Frayn.

This is lovely. I bought it at the beginning of lockdown. It’s a “no-fuss, non-digital entertainment system”, complete with 35 “pre-loaded new text files” by one of Britain’s greatest playwrights and humourists. No batteries required. Makes a lovely gift for non-techies, I’ve discovered.

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Tuesday 4 August, 2020

Sheep safely grazing

Seen on our walk this evening as we passed a large meadow containing lots of contented sheep.

Click on the image to see a larger version.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bach: Sheep may safely graze. Piano adaptation. Played by Alessio Bax. 6 minutes.


One of my favourite Bach arias. Triggered by the photograph above.

A photographic gift

After breakfast this morning, I found that someone had left a gift outside our front door.

It was a beautiful book of photographs by a friend and former colleague, Michael Dales: a record of a trip he and his wife made in the US four years ago. Micheal is an Über-geek who was the CTO of one of the companies that my friend Quentin and I co-founded many years ago.

The story behind the book is that Michael and his wife, Laura James (also a very talented geek), discovered that they both had to visit California for work in 2016. And so they decided to make a holiday out of it. They flew to Dallas, rented a car and drove 1800 miles across Texas, through New Mexico, Arizona and into Utah. At Salt Lake City they swopped the car for a berth on the California Zephyr, a sleeper train with diner and observation lounge that took them 700 miles across Nevada, through the Sierra mountains of California to Oakland, from where they both disappeared into the Bay Area for their respective work-engagements.

The book is a photographic record of the journey. It opens with a street scene from downtown Dallas…

… and ends with a photograph of Michael reflected in the door of a laundromat in Mountain View.

It closes with this lovely Epilogue on “the one picture I wish was in this book, but isn’t”.

At Goulding’s Lodge, where we stayed overnight next to Monument Valley, there was a Safeway. It was your normal, small, worn supermarket where tourists and workers could get their dinner or toiletries or whatever you go to a small supermarket for. We were there to get some things for our onward journey and for breakfast the next day, as we had an early start.

In this Safeway, as you walked through the aisles, you could have been anywhere. It was the same as the small supermarket around the corner from where you live, that you go to and don’t notice, as it’s not a place to be noticed. But then in this particular Safeway you head to the checkouts, and there you’ll find one of the most surreal views: in the foreground, the dull grey humdrum everyday checkouts you find in in any supermarket; through the large storefront window behind them, the giant, vivid red buttes of Monument Valley jutting up from the land with the blue skies behind them, radiating a geological magnificence.

The juxtaposition of the mundane and the spectacular was almost overwhelming. Here I was thinking about whether I should have got milk or yoghurt, and there was nature putting on one of its best shows. Perhaps we were just lucky with how the setting sun caught it, but it’s an image that I’ll not readily forget, a near perfect visual metaphor capturing how in life we get caught up in the necessary mundanities of life but out there is the spectacular waiting to be discovered.

Unfortunately, we were in the supermarket to get some shopping, and so I hadn’t lugged my camera to the store to capture this. Perhaps I’ll have to nip back to the shops at some point.

In the note accompanying the book Michael had written a note. “Thanks for the part you played in getting me to pick up a camera”, it read. And then I remembered that when he started to work with us I had noticed that he was beginning to take photographs, and that he had what photographers call “a good eye”. And so I encouraged him to continue. And he really started to blossom after he bought a digital SLR — from memory I think it was a Canon EOSD which was marketed in the US as the Digital Rebel. For many photographers it was the gateway camera that persuaded them that digital photography could be almost as good as analogue photography. (The equivalent for me was the Nikon D70.)

The book was a lovely gift from a lovely colleague. And it made my day. But next time I see him I’ll suggest he also carries an iPhone 11 Pro because — as the saying goes — the best camera is always the one you have with you!

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