Tuesday January 21, 2020

Mark Knopfler musing about guitars

This is one of my favourite YouTube videos. Shows you what real mastery is like. Unshowy but unforgettable.


Clearview: the astonishing (but predictable) story

The New York Times had a great story the other day about a tiny firm called Clearview AI which had crafted a program to scrape images of people’s faces from across the Web — employment sites, news sites, educational sites, and social networks including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, etc. — and built a facial recognition algorithm that derived from academic papers. When a user uploads a photo of a face into Clearview’s system, it converts the face into a vector and then shows all the scraped photos stored in that vector’s neighborhood — along with the links to the sites from which those images came. Basically, you upload a photo and in many cases you get a name — often from a social-media posting.

Not surprisingly, police forces seem to like Clearview. One possible reason for that is that its service seems to be unique. Would-be imitators May have been deterred by the fact that the main social-media sites prohibit image-scraping, something that doesn’t seem to have bothered Clearview. Either that or they had a lawyer who knew about the LinkedIn case in which LinkedIn tried and failed to block and sue scrapers. The company lost the case and the judge said that not only could they not sue, but also that they’re not even allowed to try to block scraping by any technical means. As Ben Evans, observed, “Some people celebrated this as a triumph for free competition and the open web – welcome to the unintended consequences”. This case also confirms that facial-recognition technology is becoming a commodity.

Interestingly, Peter Thiel is an investor in, and a board member of, Clearview.


There’s a subreddit Reading Group for Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1920 edition)

Marks the centenary of the edition. Find the Reading Grouo here


UK government policy on electric vehicles is based on magical thinking

Take, for example, the UK pledge to move entirely to electric vehicles by 2050. I’ve been puzzled for a while about the electricity-generation capacity that would be needed to charge all those vehicles. And then I stumbled on a remarkable letter from a group of relevant scientific experts about the resource implications of such a commitment which was sent to the IPCC in June last year. And I realised that generation is only a smallish part of the story.

It’s well worth reading in full, but here are some of the highlights. To meet UK electric car targets for 2050 the UK would need to produce or acquire just under two times the current total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production. Oh – and 20% increase in UK-generated electricity would be required to charge the current 252.5 billion miles to be driven by UK cars.

Like I said, magical thinking. Wishing doesn’t make something happen.


Could Mike Bloomberg beat Donald Trump?

Maybe. At least he’s rich enough. But be careful what you wish for. As Jack Shafer neatly points out, Bloomberg is a surveillance addict. A guy who amassed a $54 billion fortune by collecting petabyte upon petabyte of sortable data, would be very keen on enhancing a high-tech surveillance state that would collect personal data as aggressively and as expansively as he and his company do financial data.


Linkblog

Monday 20 January, 2020

Dennis Hopper was a great photographer. Who knew?

Not me, anyway. But last month Mark Rozzo had a fabulous piece in the New Yorker about a new collection of Hopper’s photographs edited by the photographer Michael Schmelling, to whom Marin Hopper (Dennis’s daughter) granted unlimited access to the archive. Hopper received a Nikon F as a gift on his twenty-fifth birthday, in May, 1961, from the actress Brooke Hayward, who would become his first wife. Her father, the agent and producer Leland Hayward, was “a camera nut”, and Brooke paid $351 for it. (Don’t you just love the fact-checked precision of the New Yorker — right down to that last buck!) “Dennis had the greatest eye of anyone I’ve ever known,” Hayward told Rozzo for a story he wrote last year about her marriage to Hopper. “He wore the camera around his neck all day long.” Some of the shots that illustrate the piece are really terrific. Result: one book sold to this blogger. It also reminded me that I have a Nikon F2 that badly needs servicing. Now where did I put it…?

Joe Biden really doesn’t like Silicon Valley

I’m beginning to warm to him. The NYT team did a really extensive on-the-record interview with him (transcript here). Here’s an excerpt from a passage where he’s been asked about his experience of dealing with Facebook about some stuff published on the platform containing false claims that he had blackmailed Ukrainian officials not to investigate his son.

Biden: I’ve never been a fan of Facebook, as you probably know. I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan. I think he’s a real problem. I think ——

Charlie Warzel (NYT guy): Can you elaborate?

JB:I can. He knows better. And you know, from my perspective, I’ve been in the view that not only should we be worrying about the concentration of power, we should be worried about the lack of privacy and them being exempt, which you’re not exempt. [The Times] can’t write something you know to be false and be exempt from being sued. But he can. The idea that it’s a tech company is that Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For Zuckerberg and other platforms.

CW: That’s a pretty foundational law of the modern internet.

JB: That’s right. Exactly right. And it should be revoked. It should be revoked because it is not merely an internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false, and we should be setting standards not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy. You guys still have editors. I’m sitting with them. Not a joke. There is no editorial impact at all on Facebook. None. None whatsoever. It’s irresponsible. It’s totally irresponsible.

CW: If there’s proven harm that Facebook has done, should someone like Mark Zuckerberg be submitted to criminal penalties, perhaps?

JB: He should be submitted to civil liability and his company to civil liability, just like you would be here at The New York Times. Whether he engaged in something and amounted to collusion that in fact caused harm that would in fact be equal to a criminal offense, that’s a different issue. That’s possible. That’s possible it could happen. Zuckerberg finally took down those ads that Russia was running. All those bots about me. They’re no longer being run.

That’s interesting. Revoking Section 230 is the nuclear option in terms of regulation. It would reduce Facebook & Co to gibbering shadows of their former selves. And of course provoke hysteria about the First Amendment, even though Facebook has nothing to do with the Amendment, which is about government — not corporate — regulation of speech.

The EU is considering banning use of facial recognition technology in public spaces

According to Reuters, a White Paper by the European Commission says that new tough rules may have to be introduced to bolster existing regulations protecting Europeans’ privacy and data rights. During that ban, of between three to five years, “a sound methodology for assessing the impacts of this technology and possible risk management measures could be identified and developed.” Exceptions to the ban could be made for security projects as well as research and development.

Why are Apple & Google wanting you to use your phone less?

Nir Eyal (the guy who wrote the book on how to create addictive apps and subsequently seems to have had an attack of developer’s remorse) argues that it’s because they are trying to get ahead of users’ concern about addiction. He sees it as analogous to what happened with seat belts in cars.

In 1968, the Federal Government mandated that seat belts come equipped in all cars. However, nineteen years before any such regulation, American car makers started offering seat belts as a feature. The laws came well after car makers started offering seat belts because that’s what consumers wanted. Car makers who sold safer cars sold more.

Sunday 19 January 2020

How to choose

I’m a subscriber to The Browser, a daily email reading list. It’s curated by Robert Cottrell, who reads about a thousand Web pages a day, from which he selects five things that he thinks are worth reading. He was asked on a podcast recently how he goes about this. Here’s his reply:

Orwell, Trump and the English language

Simon Kuper, the Financial Times columnist, describes himself as “an Orwell nut”. Like me, his favourite essay is “Politics and the English language”, one basic premise of which is that clear speech enables clear thinking and prevents lies. Trouble is, he says in this weekend’s edition of the FT, Trump and Dominic Cummings have proved Orwell wrong. Clear speech (“BUILD THE WALL”, “GET BREXIT DONE”) can enable lies. What Trump demonstrates, Kuper has concluded, is that “simple language can encourage simple thought”. Agreed, except that I’d have said ‘simplistic’.

Hypocrisy is at the heart of Facebook’s refusal to ban false political advertising

This morning’s Observer column. Based on a sceptical reading of Andrew Bosworth’s faux-agonising internal memo about whether Facebook should modify its policies to stop politicians lying on the platform.

Why you can’t believe anything you read about the royal family in British tabloids

Good piece by Alan Rusbridger. There’s a reason why the royals are demonised, he says. But you won’t read all about it because they won’t admit why they’re hostile. Among other things, Harry is suing some of them. I hold no brief for the royals, but I can understand what Harry is doing in stepping back from his role: he doesn’t want the British tabloids to do to his wife what they did to his mother. And I don’t blame him.

Dave Winer’s sci-fi plot

An alien race from a faraway galaxy visits earth. We know they’re coming and where they’ll land. When they show up, they walk by the humans and greet the dogs. Turns out dogs are the master species of earth. And of course the aliens are canines as well.

Neat idea. Only one thing wrong with it. The story should be about cats, who have such supercilious bearings because — as P.G. Wodehouse revealed many years ago — they know that the ancient Egyptians worshipped them as gods. If you doubt that, ask our cats. This one, for example.

Quote of the Day

” When Donald Trump was running for president, he told voters he would run the country like he ran his business. Two years later, it’s one of the few promises he’s actually kept.”

Tech monopoly: the long view

Just been listening to a terrific conversation on the ‘Talking Politics’ podcast between the host, David Runciman, and Gary Gerstle (who is the Mellon Professor of American history at Cambridge1) about the great campaigner and journalist Ida Tarbell — the woman who brought down John D Rockefeller and his company, Standard Oil.

The conversation left me musing about why (and how) Tarbell (and her fellow ‘muckrakers’) managed to get so much traction with the American public?

One reason was outrage at the way ordinary smallholders were driven out of business by Rockefeller & Co. (Remember, as David Runciman pointed out in the podcast, that in the early days drilling for oil was what small farmers did in Pennsylvalia.) You could drill for your own oil, but if you needed to get it to market you’d have to pay freight rates determined by the railway monopolist — and beat the prices that Rockefeller could set. So even small folks felt the heat.

Another was that the idea of ‘monopoly’ had unique historical resonance for American citizens: it was linked in the public mind with the American revolution — seen in part as a revolt against the charter-granting proclivities of the English Crown.

Also, the rise of new industrial Titans was seen as a challenge to the American dream — of how lowly immigrants seeking a better life in the New World could flourish by their own efforts with no monarch or grandee to stop them. The big trusts could therefore be portrayed as an attack on the very idea of what the US was supposed to be — and thus as a threat to its democracy.

As a result, Tarbell and her peers may have been preaching to people who were ripe for conversion. At any rate, public hostility to the monopolists of the first Gilded Age seems to have flourished and spread. This was manifested in the 1912 presidential election, for example, where the three main candidates were extremely hostile to the monopolists, though in different ways.

Turning to the present…

The contemporary tech giants are also a threat to democracy but in rather different ways. This means that they might be more difficult to bring under democratic control. Apart from anything else, there is much less public outrage about them than there was in 1912 United States. Among the reasons for this public lassitude are:

  • the nature of the threat is more indirect and requires a relatively sophisticated mental model of democratic essentials to be properly appreciated
    • Unlike in late 19th-century America, the contemporary public benefits from — and enjoys using — many of the services provided by the modern monopolists (think WhatsApp, Skype, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook); in the late 19th century the benefits to the public of the great wealth and power being accumulated by the Robber Barons were less obvious or perceived as non-existent; the new tech titans may not look like middle-aged bastards in Homburg hats, but they are just as ruthless and acquisitive
    • there’s little public understanding of the implications of the implicit Faustian data-bargain that users have struck with the surveillance capitalists
    • official reactions to digital monopoly have been neutered by a combination of neoliberal ideology, Chicago Law School judicial thinking and tech lobbying.
    • Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Morgan & Co had operations mostly concentrated in a single jurisdiction. Their Trusts were not global operations in the way that modern transnational corporations are.

Since the shocks of 2016 we have seen the growth of a degree of public unease about the dangers of our current generation of Robber Barons (the so-called ‘techlash’). We see this, for example, in the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren at the moment. And there is also some evidence of tech-disaffection on the Right in the US. But the diagnoses and remedial policies that are being discussed seem inchoate, incoherent and unlikely to be fit for contemporary purpose. And — most importantly — there is, as yet, no sign of the kind of public outrage that would motivate serious political action.

One final historically-inspired thought. It took about 35 years for the public outrage that was manifested in the 2012 election to find its full expression in legislation in FDR’s first term as President. Gary Gerstle attributed much of the delay to the length of time it took the US Supreme Court to change its collective mind on some of the key issues involved. That problem remains— maybe in more acute form if Trump gets re-elected. So if anyone is hoping to see rapid and effective control of our current monopolists, they will need the patience of Job.


  1. Ironically in the present context, Gary’s Chair is endowed by the foundation established by the last of the great monopolists, Andrew Mellon! 

Cummings: long on ideas, short on strategy

My Observer OpEd piece about the world’s most senior technocrat:

When Dominic Cummings arrived in Downing Street, some of his new colleagues were puzzled by one of his mantras: “Get Brexit done, then Arpa”. Now, perhaps, they have some idea of what that meant. On 2 January, Cummings published on his blog the wackiest job proposals to emerge from a government since the emperor Caligula made his horse a consul. Dominic Cummings warned over civil service shake-up plan Read more

The ad took the form of a long post under the heading “We’re hiring data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos…”, included a reading list of arcane academic papers that applicants were expected to read and digest and declared that applications from “super-talented weirdos” would be especially welcome. They should assemble a one-page letter, attach a CV and send it to ideasfornumber10@gmail.com. (Yes, that’s @gmail.com.)

It was clear that nobody from HR was involved in composing this call for clever young things. Alerting applicants to the riskiness of employment by him, Cummings writes: “I’ll bin you within weeks if you don’t fit – don’t complain later because I made it clear now.”

The ad provoked predictable outrage and even the odd parody. The most interesting thing about it, though, is its revelations of what moves the man who is now the world’s most senior technocrat. The “Arpa” in his mantra, for example, is classic Cummings, because the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (now Darpa) is one of his inspirational models…

Read on

The designated mourner

Pitiless summing up in an NYRB review article by Fintan O’Toole on Joe Biden’s quest to be the bearer of the Kennedy flame in US politics:

The Master Clock has moved too far forward. The Kennedys are too long dead. “Irish Catholic” no longer carries that old underdog voltage of resistance to oppression. The center of gravity of Irish-American politics now gathers around Trump: Mick Mulvaney, Kellyanne Conway, Brett Kavanaugh. A politics of white resentment has drowned out the plaintive wail of common sorrow. The valley of tears has been annexed as a bastion of privileged white, male suffering. Biden, who once promised to turn back time, is an increasingly poignant embodiment of its pitilessness.

20 Questions for 2020

The Financial Times (behind paywall) at least gives clear answers.

  1. Will Boris Johnson agree a trade deal with the EU? Yes.
  2. Will Britain’s Labour Party return to electability? No.
  3. Will Angela Merkel’s grand coalition collapse? Yes.
  4. Will Mattel Salvini come back to power in Italy? Yes.
  5. Will Donald Trump win the popular vote in November’s election? No (but he will still be re-elected because of the Electoral College).
  6. Will the US go into recession? No.
  7. Will China become world leader in 5G telecoms? Yes.
  8. Will India regain its status as the fastest-growing large economy? No.
  9. Will there be war with Iran? No.
  10. Will South African debt hit junk levels? Yes.
  11. Will the protest that have shaken Latin America continue? Yes.
  12. Will France’s Macron engineer a “reset” with Putin’s Russia? No.
  13. Will we see meaningful regulation of Big Tech? No.
  14. Will Disney+ change the game in streaming? Yes.
  15. Will Uber become profitable in 2020? No.
  16. Will vaping be banned? No.
  17. Will global carbon emissions fall? No.
  18. Will Brent crude prices end the year above $65 a Barrel? No.
  19. WIll the three-decade bond rally finally come to an end? No.
  20. Will Europe’s banks keep slashing jobs? Yes.

So now we know where we stand. Happy New Year!

70 is NOT “the new 50”

What’s weird about a relentlessly ageing society is its equally relentless determination to avoid talking about the realities of ageing and death. Suddenly it’s ‘ageist’ to refer to somebody as “old”. They’re just “older” — which is idiotic, when you think about it: everybody is, by definition, older than somebody else. And as for the slogan that “70 is the new 50″… (Which, as an interesting NYT piece puts it, is “a rosy falsehood contradicted by any serious study of the age curve for major diseases”. For people older than 85, for example, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s is 14 times higher than for those ages 65 to 69.)

And, as the piece points out, the current decline in birth rates in countries like the US means that

there will be many fewer young and middle-aged people to care for the frailest of the old, whose death rate has not increased in recent years. The population of the prime caregiving age group, from 45 to 64, is expected to increase by only 1 percent before 2030, while the population over 80 will increase by 79 percent.

Our inability to think about — let alone plan for — the future is obviously a cultural thing (and is different in non-Western societies). But I wonder how much of it is also a by-product of the way Western democracies are now driven by five-year electoral cycles. No politician nowadays seems capable of long-term thinking.

And then there is the strange fact that five of the candidates for President — Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren — are septuagenarians.

[Full disclosure: this blogger is over 70 and can testify that it is not the new 50! Nor is he running for president of anything.]

A (rare) defence of David Cameron

From Tyler Cowen of all people:

I remain a supporter of Remain, for reasons I will not recap here, but I am also a realist and I recognize that a commitment to the European Union requires a substantial commitment from the population, more than a mere fifty percent and in the United Kingdom we do not see that close to that. You probably know that the Tories seem to have won a smashing victory in today’s election, and by campaigning on Brexit as their main issue. And you can’t just blame Corbyn — his ascendancy and leadership were endogenous to the broader process, and getting rid of him to reverse Brexit it turned out was not the priority.

So do you know who looks much better in retrospect? Yes, David Cameron. After the initial referendum I heard from the usual elites the notion that Cameron committed some kind of inexplicable, aberrant error by allowing the referendum in the first place. That notion is much harder to entertain after today. Even if you are pro-Remain, we should now see that either the referendum, or something like it, was indeed a necessary step in British politics. Cameron himself saw this, and thought that a later referendum, run by an EU-hostile Tory government, could in fact go much worse than what he chanced. So it seems with hindsight that Cameron was pretty prescient, even if he did not get what he wanted.

The only flaw in that argument is its assumption that Cameron was thinking of the population as a whole, rather than of the Europhobes in his own party.

Impeachment and the democracy business

Dave Winer has come up with an nice metaphor for the impeachment process:

If you think of the United States as a company, we’ve had a strategic partnership with Russia for the last three years, kind of like the one Microsoft had with IBM. Russia is analogous to Microsoft. They’re about to roll over us in the 2020 election. Our last gasp is the impeachment.

[…]

Impeachment is like IBM shipping OS/2 and the Micro Channel Architecture. Both were designed to rid IBM of Microsoft once and for all. But it didn’t work. It was too little too late. Microsoft came out with Windows 3.0, and IBM became a global consulting company. The company that dominated the computer business left the computer business. With the US and Russia analogy substitute “computer business” with “democracy business.”

Ouch! Full disclosure: I was foolish enough to fall for IBM’s ploy. On a research budget I bought an IBM PS2 computer running OS2. It was a turkey with only one good point: a really nice keyboard!