Sunday 9 August, 2020

A musical alternative to the morning’s news

Since it’s Sunday, something a bit longer (28 minutes)

James Joyce’s playlist — from a lovely Radio 4 documentary by David Norris on the significance of the music in Ulysses, made to celebrate a particular Bloomsday.

Link

Professor Norris points out at the beginning of the recording that many people probably don’t realise that Joyce was a fine singer as a young man. On 16 May 1904 he participated in — and should have won (see later) — the national Feis Ceoil [Festival of Song] singing competition.

The James Joyce Centre takes up the story.

The Feis Ceoil is an annual celebration of Irish musical talent with competitions in various categories including singing. In 1903, the Feis Ceoil tenor singing competition was won by John McCormack. The prize was a year-long scholarship to study in Italy. Shortly after his return to Ireland in 1904, McCormack persuaded his friend Joyce to enter the Feis.

In preparation, Joyce started taking lessons from Benedetto Palmieri, the best singing teacher in Dublin, but he soon switched to Vincent O’Brien who was less expensive than Palmieri. Joyce had moved into rooms at 60 Shelbourne Road where he hired a piano to rehearse for the competition. Joyce sang in a concert given by the St Brigid’s Panoramic Choir on Saturday 14 May 1904, and two days later he sang at the Feis Ceoil.

The set pieces for the singing competition in 1904 were ‘No Chastening’ by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame), and ‘A Long Farewell,’ a traditional song arranged by Moffat. According to the review of the competition in the Irish Daily Independent on 17 May, “Mr. Joyce showed himself possessed of the finest quality voice of any of those competing…”

Part of the competition was to sing at sight from a previously unseen music score, and at that point Joyce simply walked off the stage. It seems that the judge, Professor Luigi Denza, had intended to give Joyce the gold medal but, when Joyce refused the sight-reading test, Denza could not place him among the medal-winners. However, at the end of the competition, the second-placed singer was disqualified and Denza awarded the third-place medal to Joyce. Joyce gave the medal to his Aunt Josephine and today it is owned by the dancer Michael Flatley.

There’s an interesting personal echo in this for me. The most influential teacher I ever had was a Jesuit priest called Father O’Brien, who taught us English in the fifth and sixth form and who was also — he told us once — the son of Joyce’s “less expensive” voice tutor. He was also the teacher who persuaded me that reading off the exam syllabus was one of the most sensible things an intelligent student could do. So I did. Best advice I ever had.


Amazon, books and misinformation

This morning’s Observer column:

It’s a truism that we live in a “digital age”. It would be more accurate to say that we live in an algorithmically curated era – that is, a period when many of our choices and perceptions are shaped by machine-learning algorithms that nudge us in directions favoured by those who employ the programmers who write the necessary code.

A good way of describing them would be as recommender engines. They monitor your digital trail and note what interests you – as evidenced by what you’ve browsed or purchased online. Amazon, for example, regularly offers me suggestions for items that are “based on your browsing history”. It also shows me a list of what people who purchased the item I’m considering also bought. YouTube’s engine notes what kinds of videos I have watched – and logs how much of each I have watched before clicking onwards – and then presents on the right-hand side of the screen an endlessly-scrolling list of videos that might interest me based on what I’ve just watched.

In the early days of the web, few, if any, of these engines existed. But from 2001 onwards they became increasingly common and are now almost ubiquitous…

Read on

Wendy Grossman, Whom God Preserve, sent me a link to her perceptive review of the film (Astro)Turf Wars. The main point of the movie is that what are perceived by mainstream media as “grassroots” movements are in fact often comprised of credulous folks who are skillfully manipulated by figures working for the usual crowd — Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Pharma, et al.

The link to my column comes from a passage where, in Wendy’s review,

One trainer explains that he spends 30 minutes a day going through Amazon’s book lists giving anything liberal one star and anything conservative five stars. “Eighty percent of the books I put a star on, I don’t read,” he says. “So that’s how it works”. The same goes at sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Flixster (“This is where your kids get information”), where he gives bad ratings to movies like Sicko (“I don’t want Michael Moore to come up”). “That’s how you control the online dialogue and give our ideals a fighting chance.”


What to Do When Covid Doesn’t Go Away

Ross Douhat on lessons for coronavirus long-haulers from his own experience with chronic illness.

Two months ago Ed Yong of The Atlantic reported on Covid’s “long-haulers” — people who are sick for months rather than the two or three weeks that’s supposed to be the norm. They don’t just have persistent coughs: Instead their disease is a systemic experience, with brain fog, internal organ pain, bowel problems, tremors, relapsing fevers, more.

One of Yong’s subjects, a New Yorker named Hannah Davis, was on Day 71 when his story appeared. When she passed the four-month mark, in late July, she tweeted a list of symptoms that included everything from “phantom smells (like someone BBQing bad meat)” to “sensitivity to noise and light” to “extreme back/kidney/rib pain” to “a feeling like my body has forgotten to breathe.”

That same week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a survey of Covid patients who were never sick enough to be hospitalized. One in three reported still feeling sick three weeks into the disease.

Douhat has some sensible and useful suggestions for staying sane when you’re suffering from symptoms for which conventional medicine currently seems to have no remedy. It’s a good piece, and I can imagine that some sufferers will find it helpful.


The private John Hume that few people knew

This morning the John Bowman show on RTE ran a wonderful programme compiled from the station’s archives which painted a compelling audio portrait of the man behind the towering public figure.

Many thanks to Kevin Cryan for alerting me to it.


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Saturday 8 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

”We retain the facts which are easiest to think about”.

  • B. F. Skinner

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paul Simon: Kodachrome (3min 33secs)

Link

I wonder if this is the only popular song ever written about a brand of photographic film. When I was an analog photographer, I always used Kodachrome for 35mm and Ektachrome for 6×6. But looking back on those old slides, it’s the fidelity of Kodachrome that still strikes one. It was a terrific film.

It’s funny also to think how dominant Kodak was in its heyday. It more or less defined photography. And look what happened to it — more or less overnight.

In recent times, the hulk of the old company has taken to making PPE equipment. And its share price jumped 1500% a few days ago on news that Trump wanted to give it a $765m loan to help pay for factory changes needed to make pharmaceutical ingredients in short supply in the U.S. The loan has now been ‘paused’ pending an inquiry into alleged insider trading.


The TikTok farce

Trump’s antics over TikTok — not to mention his administration’s sudden interest in the ‘national security’ aspects of the tech industry — defy parody. Among other things, he’s been leaning on Microsoft to buy TikTok, or at any rate the bit of it that operates in the US. And then, at one point, he started saying that the US should get a cut on the transaction. Among other things, just imagine what that does to the idea of impartial regulatory scrutiny of corporate mergers and acquisitions.

In the end, I gave up following the story, on the grounds that it’s just part of Trump’s desperate attempt to harness anti-Chinese sentiment to boost his electoral chances in November. But I did enjoy Ian Bogost’s summing-up:

TikTok might be pleasant, or joyful, or even subversive. But it is also an app on your phone, on the internet, connected to data centers and driving both corporate amalgamation and transnational entrenchment. It’s a bummer, but nothing is ever just an app anymore. Maybe Microsoft will save TikTok, or maybe not. Either way, there aren’t better and worse options here, so much as worse and even worse ones.


Trump’s Axios interview with Jonathan Swan

I watched it so that you don’t have to. It was like one of those discussions you used to hear in saloon bars, back in the day when we could go to pubs.

Here’s a snatch from the transcript:

Jonathan Swan: (06:58) But here’s the question. I’ve covered you for a long time. I’ve gone to your rallies. I’ve talked to your people. They love you. They listen to you. They listen to every word you say, they hang on your every word. They don’t listen to me or the media or Fauci. They think we’re fake news. They want to get their advice from you. And so, when they hear you say, everything’s under control, don’t worry about wearing masks. I mean, these are people, many of them are older people, Mr. President.

Trump: (07:19) Well, what’s your definition of control?

Swan: (07:20) It’s giving them a false sense of security.

Trump: (07:21) Yeah. Under the circumstances right now, I think it’s under control. I’ll tell you what-

Swan: (07:25) How? 1,000 Americans are dying a day.

Trump: (07:27) They are dying. That’s true. And it is what it is. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it. This is a horrible plague that beset us.

Swan: (07:39) You really think this is as much as we can control it? 1,000 deaths a day?

Trump: (07:43) Well, I’ll tell you, I’d like to know if somebody… First of all, we have done a great job. We’ve gotten the governors everything they needed, they didn’t do their job. Many of them didn’t and some of them did. Someday we’ll sit down. We’ll talk about the successful ones, the good ones. Look at that smile. The good ones and the bad. We had good and bad. And we had a lot in the middle, but we had some incredible governors. I could tell you right now who the great ones are and who the not so great ones are, but the governors do it. We gave them massive amounts of material.

Swan: (08:11) Mr. President, you changed your message this week, in terms of you canceled the Jacksonville convention, you said, “Wear a mask.” You’re saying that, “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.” It’s not something you’d like to say, I know. And you said that. The big question-

Trump: (08:23) By the way, not get worse like the original flow. You understand that.

Swan: (08:27) Well, I hope not. It’s a 1,000-

Trump: (08:29) But If you look, Arizona’s going down. Texas is going down, and Florida is going down.

Swan: (08:31) If I could just finish my question. The question is, even some of your own aides wonder whether you would stick to that message until Election Day, whether in a week or two, you won’t say, “Right, we’ve got to reopen again. We can’t do this stuff anymore.” That you’ll get bored of talking about the virus and go back to that sort of cheerleading.

Trump: (08:52) No, I’m not going to get bored. I never get bored of talking about this, it’s too big a thing.

Swan: (08:54) So will you stick to that message?

Trump: (08:54) And again, it should have been stopped by China, and it wasn’t.

Swan: (08:59) But now it’s here and you’re the President.

Trump: (09:00) We have it here.

And so it goes, on and on and on and on.


Covid: deaths and costs in context.

Two charts from Scott Galloway:

and…

And his observation:

Donald Trump was right, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were mistakes. Mistakes that cost us almost 7,000 American souls, 208,102 Iraqi and 111,000 Afghan civilian lives, and $1.9 trillion (inflation adjusted). But Covid-19 will register an even greater toll of American blood and treasure. The response to the novel coronavirus would have been swifter and more disciplined if the pathogen had brown skin and worshiped a different god. Americans can’t seem to wrap their head around an enemy 10,000 times smaller than the width of human hair.


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Wednesday 5 August, 2020

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Alison Krauss: Down to the River to Pray. 3 minutes.

Link


Papers leaked before UK election in suspected Russian operation were hacked from ex-trade minister

LONDON (Reuters) – Classified U.S.-UK trade documents leaked ahead of Britain’s 2019 election were stolen from the email account of former trade minister Liam Fox by suspected Russian hackers, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because a law enforcement investigation is underway, said the hackers accessed the account multiple times between July 12 and Oct. 21 last year.

They declined to name which Russian group or organisation they believed was responsible, but said the attack bore the hallmarks of a state-backed operation.

Reuters story

And Liam Fox, Britain’s very own Neocon and Brexiteer, was the target. Delicious.


Rodney Brooks: what big things might change?

Things will continue to change. Below I have put a few things that I think could change from now into the beginning of the next century. I am not saying that any particular one of these will be what changes. And I would be very surprised if more than half of these will be adopted. But I have selected the ideas that currently gnaw at me and do not feel as solid as some other ideas in science. Some will no doubt become more solid. But it will not surprise me so much if any individual one of these turns into accepted wisdom.

Cosmology:

>There is no dark matter.
>The Universe is not expanding.
>The big bang was wrong.

Physics:

>There is a big additional part of quantum mechanics to be understood.
>String theory is bogus.
>The many worlds interpretation is decided to be confused and discarded.

Link


Why Gregory Bateson matters

There’s a lovely and thought-provoking essay by Ted Gioia in the LA Review of Books on “one of the smartest and most wide-ranging intellects of the counterculture”.

He has, for the most part, been scandalously forgotten, yet his concepts and principles are especially relevant to the concerns of the digital age. Bateson worked at the interfaces between technology, environment, and individual psychology, and he grasped the specific dangers faced by society when these three forces are in conflict with each other.

Facebook, Amazon, and Google didn’t exist back when Bateson lived, but he would have understood with acute insight what risks their dominance brings. If he were alive today, he would have perspicacious things to tell us about a host of other problems, whether in our environment at large, our neighborhoods and city streets, or in the deep recesses of our psyches. In fact, his specialty was understanding the ways these are all linked and how changes in one sphere often start with shifts in another. Perhaps more than anyone of his generation, Bateson grasped that the revolution won’t be televised — in fact, it can’t — if the conflict is taking place in our own heads.

Gioia’s essay made me realise (guiltily) that I’ve never read Bateson’s collection of essays, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, a deficiency that I took steps to remedy today. “Bateson”, Gioia writes,

believed that one of the greatest innovations in human history was the feedback loop. He frequently talked about the steam engine as an analogy for healthy human interactions, focusing on the controls in the engine that check the process and keep it running at a steady pace. When looking for similar feedback loops in human interactions, Bateson saw that they didn’t always exist, or operate in the way they should. As a result, he recognized that there were two kinds of systems: ones that relied on feedback to create stability, and others that tended to escalate and create runaway trends.

For him, the Cold War arms race was an example of the latter. Rivalries are human systems that tend to move to extreme limits before they are corrected — often by reaching some dangerous or even disastrous endpoint. In the case of the arms race, this endpoint took place soon after Bateson’s death with the collapse of the Soviet Union — which he would have said teaches us that the resolution of a runaway process often happens outside the process, because there are no obvious stopping points or checks within it. But under other scenarios, this runaway social dynamic could have achieved a truly catastrophic endpoint in a kind of nuclear Armageddon. Disruptions in the environment are other obvious examples of this.

Why is this especially relevant today? Just reflect for a moment. We’re living in a world that is being dismantled and reshaped by a communications environment that is essentially a maelstrom of runaway positive feedback loops.

There’s lots more to think about here.


Senator Ron Wyden helped create the Big Tech industry. Now he wants to hold it accountable.

Wyden was the co-author of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act which exempted Internet platforms from liability for what people posted on their platforms. It was the stay-out-of-gaol card that enabled the colossal growth of social media and other platforms. If he is really beginning to wonder about the wisdom of that exemption then it’s time for the tech platforms to get worried.

Link


There’s No Such Thing As a Tech Expert Anymore

Members of Congress clearly don’t understand the tech companies they’re supposed to regulate, says Siva Viadhyanathan in Wired. But neither does anyone else.

Does anyone, even Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai, really understand these massive, complex, global information systems with their acres of infrastructure, billions in revenue, and billions of users almost as diverse as humanity itself?

I think not. That’s the thing about complex systems. Almost no one understands any of them. As technology writer Samuel Arbesman writes in his important book, Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension, the messiness of complex systems, in which teams of people understand one aspect yet no one gets the whole thing, invited such calamities as the May 2010 “flash crash” of global financial markets. A complex system like a computer-driven securities market has multiple points of failure: a tangle of computer code, human actions, laws and regulation, and massive amounts of financial data that no one understands. Ultimately, many people have theories of what went wrong that day. No one knows for sure—or how to avoid another such collapse…

Arbesman’s book is great, btw.

__________________________________________________________ 

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Monday 3 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Ireland is not a romantic dream; it is not a flag; it is 4.5 million people divided into two powerful traditions. The solution will be found not on the basis of victory for either, but on the basis of agreement and a partnership between both. The real division of Ireland is not a line drawn on the map, but in the minds and hearts of its people.”

  • John Hume, RIP

Today’s musical alternative to the morning news

John Field – Nocturne No. 5 in B flat major, played by Stephen Leaney

Link


Why there won’t be an ‘election night’ on November 3rd

Worrying (and not implausible) scenario in “How the Media Could Get the Election Story Wrong”

We may not know the results for days, and maybe weeks. And a lot could go wrong in the interval. So it’s time to rethink “election night”.

This might be alarmist, but it isn’t fantasy. Even the Facebook boss has woken up to it.

Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, told me in a brief interview on Saturday that he’s planning to brace his audience for the postelection period. He said the site planned a round of education aimed at “getting people ready for the fact that there’s a high likelihood that it takes days or weeks to count this — and there’s nothing wrong or illegitimate about that.” And he said that Facebook is considering new rules regarding premature claims of victory or other statements about the results. He added that the company’s election center will rely on wire services for definitive results.

It’s possible, of course, that Joe Biden will win by a margin so large that Florida will be called for him early. Barring that, it’s tempting to say responsible voices should keep their mouths shut and switch over for a few days to Floor Is Lava, and give the nice local volunteers time to count the votes. That, however, would just cede the conversation to the least responsible, and conspiratorial, voices.

Yep. This won’t be over until January 20 2021, when Trump is finally ejected from the White House.

Interestingly, a group of former top government officials called the Transition Integrity Project have been gaming four possible scenarios, including one that doesn’t look that different from 2016: a big popular win for Mr. Biden, and a narrow electoral defeat, presumably reached after weeks of counting the votes in Pennsylvania.

For their war game, they cast John Podesta, who was Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, in the role of Mr. Biden. They expected him, when the votes came in, to concede, just as Mrs. Clinton had.

But Mr. Podesta, playing Mr. Biden, shocked the organizers by saying he felt his party wouldn’t let him concede. Alleging voter suppression, he persuaded the governors of Wisconsin and Michigan to send pro-Biden electors to the Electoral College.

In that scenario, California, Oregon, and Washington then threatened to secede from the United States if Mr. Trump took office as planned. The House named Mr. Biden president; the Senate and White House stuck with Mr. Trump. At that point in the scenario, the nation stopped looking to the media for cues, and waited to see what the military would do.

Which brings us — yet again — to Ben Franklin’s reply to the woman who asked him — as he emerged from the final deliberations of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 — “well, doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” “A republic”, said Franklin, “if you can keep it.”

We’ll see if they can.


Remembering John Hume

He was the greatest Irishman of our times. Tommie Gorman, RTE’s Northern Editor, knew Hume well and has written a lovely tribute to him.

Strasbourg was also the city where I saw him in his most sociable mode. He had a favourite restaurant, Maison Des Tanneurs, a family-run business at 42, Rue du Bain aux Plante. Religiously Hume would invite the quota of visiting journalists from Dublin, the Brussels-based Irish crew and any other waifs and stragglers to a meal.

He’d tell his party-piece joke about Mickey Doherty from Derry, he would insist on his visitors having Dame Blanche for desert, he would order more bottles of gewürztraminer and he would pay the bill. Before the fun broke up in the small hours, he would insist on singing ‘The Town I Love So Well’ in the nearby bar, The Aviator.

Hume had a real, steely courage to back his profound conviction that violence would never solve the Northern Ireland problem. And alongside that steel was an equally profound generosity of spirit. He gave the money from his Nobel Prize to charity.

Two inspired moves gave his cause momentum. One was to connect with the most powerful politicians of Irish extraction in the US — Senator Ted Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York State, and New York governor Hugh Carey. This enabled him to tap into the vast power of the Irish diaspora in the US, to erode the IRA’s fundraising grip on Irish-American sympathies and to challenge British influence in official Washington.

The second inspiration was to stand for the European Parliament where he was able to attract and harness the support of powerful European opponents of political violence — particularly Jacques Delors and Helmut Kohl.

Hume suffered from dementia at the end. But, as Gorman recalls, his memories

often came back when our paths crossed after his retirement in 2004. At close up range his eyes would clock some form of familiarity. “What’s your name” he would say. I’d tell him who I was and give an account of some of our past adventures. Sometimes the anecdotes would register and he’d break into a smile.

May he rest in peace.


Why it’s difficult to assess how badly the UK is doing

Good Guardian piece by David Spiegelhalter:

It is worth noting that the problems of counting Covid-19 deaths are vividly illustrated every day, when the Public Health England dashboard releases a count for the UK; for example, 119 and 83 additional coronavirus deaths were reported last Tuesday and Wednesday. NHS England is currently experiencing fewer than 15 Covid-19 deaths a day in hospitals, but the implausibly high PHE figures for England apparently also include any of the 250,000-plus people who have ever tested positive and have gone on to die of any cause, even if completely unrelated to coronavirus.

The Department of Health and Social Care has suspended these daily figures, but they are still going on all the international sites, and presumably are being used by others to judge how things are developing in the UK. They may be giving an inappropriately negative picture, as the ONS recently reported that the total number of deaths in the UK has shown no overall excess for the past five weeks.

But when we look at where the deaths are happening it is clear that we are not back to normal: people are still staying away from hospitals and dying at home. In England and Wales there were 766 excess deaths that occurred at home in the week ending 17 July, only 29 of which were with coronavirus, whereas in hospitals 862 fewer deaths than normal were registered. So more than 100 deaths a day were happening in people’s homes that would normally happen in hospital – although this is at least a reduction from the peak of the epidemic, when there were 2,000 additional home deaths a week.

This is his takeaway:

My original comments still hold: we will need years to properly assess the effect of the epidemic and the measures taken against it. We’ve now got a league table, but as to why the UK has done so badly, the arguments will go on.


The nostalgia boom

Interesting survey. The UK’s favourite decade was the 1960s, apparently. 21% of “top-tier earners” (whoever they are) are “willing to spend more money opt vintage record players than the latest tech”. Men are twice as likely as women to see nostalgia as “an avoidance of the present”.

Personally, I long for the days when the marmalade was thicker and newspapers were so big that you couldn’t read them comfortably in trains.

Basically, what this demonstrates is why features editors love surveys when there’s no real news to report.


Compared with a chronological newsfeed, Twitter’s algorithm tends to show tweets that are more emotive

Fascinating piece of research by the Economist.

Source: Economist

The researchers wanted to find out if algorithmically-curated tweets are more emotive than chronologically-displayed ones. Answer: they are. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone — after all, the algorithm prioritises content that increases ‘user engagement’ — which is where the revenues come from. But it’s nice to see some evidence for it.


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Sunday 2 August, 2020

Quote of the Day


Can the planet afford more and more machine-learning?

This morning’s Observer column on GPT-3:

The apparent plausibility of GPT-3’s performance has led – again – to fevered speculation about whether this means we have taken a significant step towards the goal of artificial general intelligence (AGI) – ie, a machine that has the capacity to understand or learn any intellectual task that a human being can. Personally, I’m sceptical. The basic concept of the GPT approach goes back to 2017 and although it’s a really impressive achievement to be able to train a system this big and capable, it looks more an incremental improvement on its predecessors rather than a dramatic conceptual breakthrough. In other words: start with a good idea, then apply more and more computing power and watch how performance improves with each iteration.

Which raises another question: given that this kind of incremental improvement is made possible only by applying more and more computing power to the problem, what are the environmental costs of machine-learning technology?

Read on


Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be

The easing of the lockdown on July 4 has had its predictable effect — alarming rises in numbers of new infections in many parts of country. These have now reached more than 4,000 new cases a day, attributed by the head of the government’s track-and-trace operation to social-distancing rules being “routinely flouted“ in virus hotspots.

Nothing in this is surprising. People are desperate to get back to some kind of normal behaviour — hugging friends and family, meeting, drinking, dancing, going to clubs, all the things they used to do. What everybody finds hard to realise, still less to accept, is that that ‘normal’ to which we long to return is no longer available. That train has left the station. The pre-pandemic past is indeed a different country.

When the virus first reached these shores, I had a conversation with a member of my family who saw it as just another kind of flu — more dangerous, certainly, but something essentially familiar. I tried — and failed — to persuade her that it was much more significant and far-reaching than that. Reflecting on the conversation afterwards, I thought that the analogy I should have used was that of the First World War — in the sense that the world post-1918 was unrecognisably different from the world as it was in 1913. And, as the depth and reach of the Coronavirus became clearer with every passing day, that seemed to be quite a persuasive analogy.

But actually that still doesn’t get the measure of the change that we are now living though. The most fundamental change that we — humankind — will have to accept is in our conception of our relationship with nature. This thought was sparked by reading  “From The Anthropocene To The Microbiocene“, a long essay by Tobias Rees in Noema magazine, a publication of the Berggruen Institute.

The thrust of the essay is that from Aristotle to Thomas Hobbes we humans thought of ourselves as part of nature — as just animals with a capacity for reason. But with Hobbes, we started to think of ourselves as apart from the natural world (where lives were famously “nasty, brutish and short”). And this distinction was steadily reinforced by the rise of science, the Enlightenment , capitalism, democratic politics, and so on. Nature was something that we could master, control and exploit (and despoil). As it happened, this hubristic belief in our intrinsic superiority was ultimately going to be our downfall as the pursuit of economic growth led to the collapse of the biosphere on which human life depends.

The significance of the Coronavirus, on this view, is that it interrupts our inexorable rush to climate catastrophe by reminding us of the extent to which our post-Hobbesian hubris was a delusion. We find ourselves unable to overcome and control this manifestation of part of the natural world. And getting a vaccine will not solve it, though it may make living with it more manageable. But these viruses are part of the human future from now on. They’re here to stay.

All of which means that our view of nature as something separate from us, was delusional. What we have to learn to accept is that we’re part of nature too. Given that we’ve had 400+ years of believing something very different, it’s not surprising that people are finding it difficult to come to terms with what lies ahead. There might be many lockdowns ahead until that penny finally drops.

Since we can’t beat nature, shouldn’t we be thinking of (re)joining it?


At last, the tech titans’ nerd immunity shows signs of fading

My OpEd piece in today’s Observer on last Wednesday’s Congressional Hearings on Big Tech.

The most striking thing about Wednesday’s congressional interrogation of the leaders of Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon was the absence of deference to the four moguls. This was such a radical departure from previous practice – characterised by ignorance, grandstanding and fawning on these exemplars of the American Way – that it was initially breathtaking. “Our founders would not bow before a king,” said the House antitrust subcommittee chairman, David Cicilline, in his opening remarks. “Nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy.”

If we wanted a radical departure from the legislative slumber of previous decades, this looked like it. And indeed, to a large extent, it was. One saw it, for example, in the aggressiveness of the questioning by the Democrats. At times, one was reminded of the proceedings of the US supreme court, where the justices constantly interrupt the lawyers before them to cut off any attempt at lawyerly exposition. The implicit message is: “We’ve done our homework. Now get to the point – if you have one.” It was like that on Wednesday.

The Democrats had done their homework: they had read the torrents of private emails that the subcommittee had subpoenaed. And, like any good prosecutor, they never asked a question to which they didn’t already know the answer.

The tech titans were mostly flummoxed by this approach…

Read on


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Saturday 1 August, 2020

Waving, not drowning

Click on the image to see a larger size.


Today’s musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Jan Lisiecki: Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp Minor (1830) at his 2013 Proms debut.

Link


I Tried to Live Without the Tech Giants. It Was Impossible

One of the standard dismissive tropes of the tech companies is the airy claim that if you don’t like what a particular company is doing then you can always move to another service which is “just a click away”.

In January and February last year Kashmir Hill spent six weeks blocking Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple from getting her money, data, and attention, using a custom-built VPN. Her aim was to see if one could have a normal life without using their services. It was an amazing — and valuable — piece of work.

Following Wednesday’s House Subcommittee interrogation of four of the Big Tech bosses, Kashmir wrote a reprise of her experiment for readers of The New York Times. It’s a good read. And you can guess what she found out.

Critics of the big tech companies are often told, “If you don’t like the company, don’t use its products.” My takeaway from the experiment was that it’s not possible to do that. It’s not just the products and services branded with the big tech giant’s name. It’s that these companies control a thicket of more obscure products and services that are hard to untangle from tools we rely on for everything we do, from work to getting from point A to point B.

One of the things Kashmir discovered, for example, is that nearly everything on the Web uses Amazon’s cloud services. So even when you think you’re not interacting with Amazon, it turns out that you are.

She found two kinds of reaction to her findings.

Some people said that it proved just how essential these companies are to the American economy and how useful they are to consumers, meaning regulators shouldn’t interfere with them. Others, like Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York and ex officio member of the House’s antitrust committee, said at the time that the experiment was proof of their monopolistic power.

“By virtue of controlling essential infrastructure, these companies appear to have the ability to control access to markets,” Mr. Nadler said. “In some basic ways, the problem is not unlike what we faced 130 years ago, when railroads transformed American life — both enabling farmers and producers to access new markets, but also creating a key chokehold that the railroad monopolies could exploit.”

This is why in addition to old-style antitrust laws, we need news ones what are attuned to these new realities.


Jeff Bezos’s personal statement to the House Judiciary Subcommittee’s hearing last Wednesday

No matter what you think about Amazon or Bezos, this is a remarkable piece of storytelling. Here’s how it begins…

My mom, Jackie, had me when she was a 17-year-old high school student in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Being pregnant in high school was not popular in Albuquerque in 1964. It was difficult for her. When they tried to kick her out of school, my grandfather went to bat for her. After some negotiation, the principal said, “OK, she can stay and finish high school, but she can’t do any extracurricular activities, and she can’t have a locker.” My grandfather took the deal, and my mother finished high school, though she wasn’t allowed to walk across the stage with her classmates to get her diploma. Determined to keep up with her education, she enrolled in night school, picking classes led by professors who would let her bring an infant to class. She would show up with two duffel bags—one full of textbooks, and one packed with diapers, bottles, and anything that would keep me interested and quiet for a few minutes.

My dad’s name is Miguel. He adopted me when I was four years old. He was 16 when he came to the United States from Cuba as part of Operation Pedro Pan, shortly after Castro took over. My dad arrived in America alone. His parents felt he’d be safer here. His mom imagined America would be cold, so she made him a jacket sewn entirely out of cleaning cloths, the only material they had on hand. We still have that jacket; it hangs in my parents’ dining room. My dad spent two weeks at Camp Matecumbe, a refugee center in Florida, before being moved to a Catholic mission in Wilmington, Delaware. He was lucky to get to the mission, but even so, he didn’t speak English and didn’t have an easy path. What he did have was a lot of grit and determination. He received a scholarship to college in Albuquerque, which is where he met my mom. You get different gifts in life, and one of my great gifts is my mom and dad. They have been incredible role models for me and my siblings our entire lives.

You learn different things from your grandparents than you do from your parents, and I had the opportunity to spend my summers from ages four to 16 on my grandparents’ ranch in Texas. My grandfather was a civil servant and a rancher—he worked on space technology and missile-defense systems in the 1950s and ‘60s for the Atomic Energy Commission—and he was self-reliant and resourceful. When you’re in the middle of nowhere, you don’t pick up a phone and call somebody when something breaks. You fix it yourself. As a kid, I got to see him solve many seemingly unsolvable problems himself, whether he was restoring a broken-down Caterpillar bulldozer or doing his own veterinary work. He taught me that you can take on hard problems. When you have a setback, you get back up and try again. You can invent your way to a better place.

I took these lessons to heart as a teenager, and became a garage inventor. I invented an automatic gate closer out of cement-filled tires, a solar cooker out of an umbrella and tinfoil, and alarms made from baking pans to entrap my siblings…

Tugs your heart-strings, doesn’t it? Well, maybe not. But still: he came over as the most articulate of the four moguls.


Tom Loosemore’s ‘Internet-era ways of working’

Yesterday I blogged about something that I’d found on Tom Loosemore’s blog without giving a link to the blog. Which was a regrettable oversight — as a reader kindly pointed out to me — because Tom is always worth reading. So here’s the link.

This then set me thinking about other stuff he’s written, and I suddenly remembered a guide to intelligent ways of working that he’d written two years ago.

Here’s a early version of it that was seen pinned to a doorway, possibly somewhere in Whitehall.

The updated version is here


Don’t cower

Really good column by Josh Marshall.

I’ve been saying for months – along with so many others – that this Fall will be an ordeal of democracy. Perhaps one of the greatest threats our Republic has ever faced from internal enemies. But the truth is that the values and reflexes that make liberals and Democrats support things that will make society more just and humane lead them to react to moments like these with outrage and trembling more than mockery and power.

I can only suggest people not fall back into themselves.

All of this comes from Trump’s weakness rather than strength. A sinking ship. The answer in any trial of strength or right is to maintain the initiative rather than cower. Every reporter working a beat today should be asking Republican elected officials … asking isn’t even the right word – giving Republican elected officials their one chance to denounce and disassociate themselves from the President’s words. They have one chance. Tomorrow won’t cut it. If they want to go down with the President’s sinking ship, get their answer and lock them in.

Yep!


We need to talk about ventilation

Characteristically thorough coverage by Zeynep Tufecki of the question of aerosol transmission of the virus.

Long read, but worth it if you’re interested in the issue.


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Thursday 30 July, 2020

Thursday 30 July, 2020

Quote of the Day

Every time Trump opens his mouth, he convinces somebody out there to vote for Biden.


Musical alternative to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme

Link

Bach: Toccata and Fugue, BWV 565, played by Edson Lopes. (9 minutes)


Doc Searls is 65+

Doc is one of the Elder Statesmen of the Web. (He was one of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto). And he’s just turned 65, which means he’s now in the blanket category known to marketers as “the over 65s”.

Thus I have now fallen over the edge of a demographic cliff, at the bottom of which is little of major interest to marketers, unless they’re hawking the cushy human equivalent of parking lots. You know: cruises, golf, “lifestyle communities,” “erectile dsyfunction,” adult diapers, geriatric drugs, sensible cars, dementia onset warnings…

For individuals, demographics are absurd. None of us are an age, much less a range of them. We’re animals who live and work and have fun and do stuff. Eventually we croak, but if we stay healthy we acquire wisdom and experience, and find ourselves more valuable over time.

Yet we become less employable as we climb the high end of the demographic ladder, but not because we can’t do the work. It’s mostly because we look old and our tolerance for bullshit is low. Even our own, which is another bonus.

Nearly 100% of the people I work with are younger than me, usually by a generation or two. I almost never feel old among them. Sometimes I joke about it, but I really don’t care. It helps to have been around. It helps to know how fast and well the mighty rise, and then fall. It helps to see what comes and stays, and to know why those things matter more than what comes and goes. It helps to know there are sand dunes older than any company born on the Internet.

Happy birthday, Doc!

Link


Echo frames

Aww isn’t this sweet? Alexa sitting just above your ear.

Meet Echo Frames – All-day glasses with hands-free access to Alexa. Just ask Alexa – Make calls, set reminders, add to your to-do lists, listen to podcasts, or control your smart home from anywhere. Designed for all-day wear – Echo Frames are lightweight and compatible with most prescription lenses. VIP Filter – Customize which notifications to receive from the contacts and apps that matter most to you (Android only). Thoughtful design – Amazon open-ear technology directs sound to your ears and minimizes what others can hear. And with no camera or display, you stay in the moment.

Don’t you just love the idea of “staying in the moment”!


Cummings saga damaged UK lockdown unity, study suggests

The scandal over Dominic Cummings’ trips to and around Durham during lockdown damaged trust and was a key factor in the breakdown of a sense of national unity amid the coronavirus pandemic, research suggests.

Revelations that Cummings and his family travelled to his parents’ farm despite ministers repeatedly imploring the public to stay at home – as exposed by the Guardian and the Daily Mirror in May – also crystallised distrust in politicians over the crisis, according to a report from the thinktank British Future.

The findings emerged in a series of surveys, diaries and interviews carried out over the first months of the pandemic as the public got to grips with profound changes to their habits, relationships and lifestyles.

The only thing that’s surprising is that anybody would be surprised by these findings.

Link


What’s involved in stripping Huawei out of UK mobile networks

Well, up to £500m if you’re BT, according to evidence given to a Commons Select Committee by a senior BT executive quoted by the Register.


Nikon versus Canon: A Story Of Technology Change

If you’re a photography geek (which, I’m sorry to say, I am), then you could happily spend a good deal of the morning following Steven Sinofsky’s wonderfully detailed account of how Canon displaced Nikon as the standard camera system for professional photographers. It’s really an illustration of some of the points Clayton Christensen was making in The Innovator’s Dilemma all those years ago.


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Wednesday 29 July, 2020

Summer by the lake


Wednesday 29 July, 2020

Today’s musical alternative to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme

John Field’s Nocturne #5 in B flat major played by John O’Conor.

Someone once said that John Field invented the Nocturne and Chopin perfected it. I’m not sure about that: I prefer Field’s compositions. But then, I’m no musician.


John Crace on the UK transport minister’s truncated holiday

Lovely spoof

A fitful night’s sleep hadn’t eased the tension in the Shapps’ family compound in the south of Spain. Conversation was limited to a few terse exchanges as Grant started packing his bags for his return home.

“But you told the Today programme back in April that you wouldn’t be taking a family holiday abroad this summer,” his wife reminded him. “So how come we’ve ended up in this villa and will have to quarantine for 14 days on our return?”

“Um …” Shapps mumbled. “Well, everything seemed to be getting a bit better, we had introduced some air corridors and the flights were dirt cheap …”

“So it’s sod’s law that you, the transport secretary, chose to fly on the one air corridor that you knew was going to be closed before we had even taken off.”

“Look, I’ve said I’m sorry countless times. I just couldn’t be seen to be acting on inside knowledge. Not that I had any.”

“So instead you look like a complete twat by cutting short a holiday you said you weren’t going to take, in order to get your 14 days of quarantine over and done with as soon as possible, while leaving me and the kids behind.”

“That’s one way of looking at it …”

“Chill out, Mum,” said the kids. “We’ll probably have a better time without him. At least we won’t have the embarrassment of being photographed on the beach again.”


Zuckerberg in the dock

The bosses of Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook were hauled up (virtually) before the House Subcommittee on Antitrust this evening. It was occasionally interesting. Might write something about it tomorrow. But I couldn’t resist this image of Zuckerberg with a spinning rotor (an artefact of the relay, I guess) superimposed.

It was basically a theatrical event. But maybe it heralds something more serious.


Bats are social animals. Therefore they argue a lot. Just like humans.

Amazing study, reported in the Smithsonian magazine.

Egyptian fruit bats, it turns out, aren’t just making high pitched squeals when they gather together in their roosts. They’re communicating specific problems, reports Bob Yirka at Phys.org.

According to Ramin Skibba at Nature, neuroecologist Yossi Yovel and his colleagues recorded a group of 22 Egyptian fruit bats, Rousettus aegyptiacus, for 75 days. Using a modified machine learning algorithm originally designed for recognizing human voices, they fed 15,000 calls into the software. They then analyzed the corresponding video to see if they could match the calls to certain activities.

They found that the bat noises are not just random, as previously thought, reports Skibba. They were able to classify 60 percent of the calls into four categories. One of the call types indicates the bats are arguing about food. Another indicates a dispute about their positions within the sleeping cluster. A third call is reserved for males making unwanted mating advances and the fourth happens when a bat argues with another bat sitting too close. In fact, the bats make slightly different versions of the calls when speaking to different individuals within the group, similar to a human using a different tone of voice when talking to different people.

Skibba points out that besides humans, only dolphins and a handful of other species are known to address individuals rather than making broad communication sounds.

Clearly, this researcher hasn’t met our cats.


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Saturday 25 July, 2020

Crooked timber

I never see trees like this without thinking of Kant’s sardonic observation: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

(The Crooked Timber blog btw is unfailingly interesting.)


Quote of the Day

“I thought HIV was a complicated disease. It’s really simple compared to what’s going on with COVID-19.”

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci, during a presentation at the BIO International Convention.

Today’s musical alternative to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme

Chaconne in D minor by J.S.Bach, arranged and played by John Feeley

13 blissful minutes.

Thanks to Seb Schmoller for the suggestion.


A crib-sheet for Congress as it prepares for Tuesday’s antitrust hearings

Scott Galloway’s utterly brilliant list of questions for the tech moguls who are due to be quizzed next week. I doubt the legislators will have the bottle to ask them, though.


Does Elon Musk really want to go here? Really?

Link


Famous mask wearers

On an Instagram account called Plague History, artist Genevieve Blais has been modifying the subjects of artworks to give them face masks.

Lovely idea.

(HT to Jason Kottke)


Long read of the Day: YouTube’s Psychic Wounds by Nicholson Baker

Unmissable. Especially if you’ve never spent any time in the deepest recesses of YouTube’s weirdness.

YouTube, this endless, crowd-curated theater of ourselves, serves up the raw, the cooked, the failing, the heartrending, the shocking, the helpful, and the WTF? any time you want it. So a few months ago, when the Columbia Journalism Review asked me to watch YouTube videos for a little while, as an experiment, to see what news of the world was served up by its freshly tuned algorithm, I of course said yes.

And then I made a mistake. Using YouTube’s own search bar, I looked up some terms that I thought I should know more about before beginning: “deep state,” for instance…

link


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Thursday 23 July, 2020

Portrait of one of the latest arrivals in our garden. Shot — appropriately enough — using the ‘portrait’ setting on the iPhone 11, which kept telling me to “move further away”! As Umberto Eco wisely observed all those years ago, the Mac is a Catholic machine: only one true way to salvation.

Click on the image to see a larger version.


Quote of the Day

“I don’t want to be a hero. I want to teach.”

  • Claudia, a music teacher at a school in Massachusetts, who doesn’t want teachers to be put at risk then be lionized, as has been the case for healthcare workers.

Fawkes News: Image “Cloaking” for Personal Privacy

This is lovely. And it’s a student project too.

How do we protect ourselves against unauthorized third parties building facial recognition models to recognize us wherever we may go? Regulations can and will help restrict usage of machine learning by public companies, but will have negligible impact on private organizations, individuals, or even other nation states with similar goals.

The SAND Lab at University of Chicago has developed Fawkes1, an algorithm and software tool (running locally on your computer) that gives individuals the ability to limit how their own images can be used to track them. At a high level, Fawkes takes your personal images, and makes tiny, pixel-level changes to them that are invisible to the human eye, in a process we call image cloaking. You can then use these “cloaked” photos as you normally would, sharing them on social media, sending them to friends, printing them or displaying them on digital devices, the same way you would any other photo. The difference, however, is that if and when someone tries to use these photos to build a facial recognition model, “cloaked” images will teach the model an highly distorted version of what makes you look like you. The cloak effect is not easily detectable, and will not cause errors in model training. However, when someone tries to identify you using an unaltered image of you (e.g. a photo taken in public), and tries to identify you, they will fail.

Fawkes has been tested extensively and proven effective in a variety of environments, and shows 100% effectiveness against state of the art facial recognition models (Microsoft Azure Face API, Amazon Rekognition, and Face++).

They’ve put together a terrific 12-minute video which explains the system. Well worth watching.

Link

Given that facial-recognition is such a toxic technology, it’s great to see its weaknesses being turned against it.

Thanks to Cory Doctorow for alerting me to it.


Where will everyone go?

I hate to say this, but compared with the upcoming climate crisis, the Coronavirus disruption is small beer. Nearly a decade ago the UK Cabinet office did a simulation study to try and figure out the effects of climate change on migration. The results, from my hazy memory, ran something like this. The model divided the global population into three groups: those who live in regions that will be relatively unaffected; those who were too poor to move, no matter how hot or inhospitable their locations became; and those who are able to move when things start to become intolerable where they are. The thing that most struck me about the scenarios was that most migrants will head for cities; and most of their target destinations are coastal cities which are at risk from sea-level rise.

But that was a crude modelling exercise. Now ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine, with support from the Pulitzer Center, have for the first time modeled how climate refugees might move across international borders. Today they publish their findings.

It’s a long, riveting and in some ways alarming read. And a story that’s beautifully told, making great use of the Web and photography as well as supercomputer modelling.

The modellers simulate five scenarios for climate-driven population movement in Southern and Central America.

1 An optimistic/reference scenario, in which climate impacts are rapidly reduced on a global scale and there is regional convergence toward higher levels of development across Central America and Mexico.

2 A pessimistic scenario, in which climate change impacts are on the high end of current plausible scenarios and significant challenges to socioeconomic development exist throughout the region, exacerbating the gap between Central America and the United States.

3 A more climate-friendly scenario, which pairs a less-extreme climate outcome with the same challenging socioeconomic future as the pessimistic scenario.

4 A more development-friendly scenario, which follows the pessimistic climate future but assumes a more inclusive development pathway in which regional economic growth occurs quickly.

5 A moderate scenario, in which socioeconomic development occurs rapidly throughout the region accompanied by a moderate level of climate change.

It’s an extraordinary piece of reporting and investigation. Read it if you can.


Escalation by Tweet

The department of War Studies at King’s College London has just produced an interesting report on the risks of conducting international diplomacy via Twitter, especially during crises.

The Executive Summary reads:

Social media has quickly become part of the geopolitical landscape, and international leaders and officials are increasingly taking to Twitter during crises. For US decision-makers, however, Twitter presents a bit of a paradox: on the one hand, tweets from government officials may help shape the American public narrative and provide greater insights into US decision-making to reduce misperception by foreign actors. On the other hand, tweets may increase misperception and sow confusion during crises, creating escalation incentives for an adversary.

To reconcile this paradox, we examine the useof Twitter by international leaders during crises in recent years, some of which involved nuclear-armed states. In so doing, we explore the changing nature of escalation, which now resembles a complex web more than a ladder, and examine specific escalation pathways involving social media.

Based on this analysis, we find that social media has the potential to be a disruptive technology and exacerbate tensions during crises. To reduce the risk of tweets contributing to escalation in a crisis, we recommend the US Department of Defense:

• lead an interagency effort to develop best practices on the use of social media during crises;

• encourage leaders and officials to refrain from tweeting during crises and instead rely on more traditional means of communication, such as press releases and official statements;

• explore how to build public resilience to disinformation campaigns and provocations via social media during crises, as the American public is asymmetrically vulnerable to these attacks; and

• improve understanding of how various international actors use social media.

Twitter, as a company, and alliances such as NATO, also have a role to play in limiting the negative impact of Twitter during crises. If these findings could be summarised in 280 characters or less, it would be: ‘To manage escalation during crises, stop tweeting.’

One of my favourite accounts on Twitter is @RealPressSecBot — a bot that takes every one of Trump’s tweets and immediately reformats them as an official White House press statement. Which, in effect, is what they are.


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