Sunday 11 October, 2020

Walking by a clear running stream this afternoon, we came on this beautiful carpet of star-shaped plants. No idea what it is, but it was really striking.


Quote of the Day

I had a lovely email from a friend about last Friday’s “Quote of the Day” (cricket commentator Brian Johnson’s immortal remark: “The bowler’s Holding, the batsman’s Willey”) It reminded him, he wrote,

of the story about Harry Caray, a legendary American baseball announcer. Caray was calling a Chicago Cubs game on TV in the mid 1980’s. Baseball is a slow game so the cameramen were often looking for something interesting going on in the crowd. At several times during the game, the broadcast showed a particular couple in the stands making out. Finally, towards the end of the game, Caray says, “Folks, I think I figured it out. He kisses her on the strikes and she kisses him on the balls!”

Many thanks to Hap for that knockout quote.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Alfred Brendel – Schubert, Klavierstücke D. 946 No. 2 in E Flat

Link


Finally US politicians are taking the fight to the tech giants

This morning’s Observer column

On Tuesday evening, a large (449-page) pdf landed in my inbox. It’s the majority report of the US House of Representatives judiciary committee’s subcommittee on antitrust, commercial and administrative law and it makes ideal bedside reading material for only two classes of person: competition lawyers and newspaper columnists. But even if it’s unlikely to be a bestseller, its publication is still a landmark event because it marks the first concerted (and properly resourced) critical interrogation of a new group of unaccountable powers that is roaming loose in our democracies: tech companies. Its guiding spirit was something said by the great Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis many moons ago: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”

Only four tech companies were targeted – Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. How Microsoft escaped scrutiny is a mystery (to me anyway); perhaps it’s because that company had its day in court long ago and survived to become the handmaiden of governments and organisations everywhere and is therefore part of the ruling establishment.

The inquiry that led to the report started in 2019 as an investigation into the state of competition online. It had three aims: “1) to document competition problems in digital markets; 2) examine whether dominant firms are engaging in anticompetitive conduct; and 3) assess whether existing antitrust laws, competition policies and current enforcement levels are adequate to address these issues.” Crudely summarised, its conclusions are…

Read on


Good news for Glassholes

Wearable tech has never been so fashionable. Meet Spectacles 3 from Snap Inc. Capture your world in 3D with two HD Cameras and four built-in mics, which store up to 100 3D videos or 1,200 3D photos. Photos and videos wirelessly sync to your phone, where you can edit and transform then with a new suite of 3D effects on Snapchat. Recharge Spectacles 3 on the go with the included charging case.

Think of it as DIY sousveillance.

Source


The looming mental health crisis

This is a slide from one of the most alarming presentations I’ve been to in a long time. It’s worth reading carefully. In particular, note the bullet points for life expectancy, male suicide rates, the estimated cost to the economy and the fact that three-quarters of mental health problems start before the age of 18.

Cambridge University is setting up an Institute for Mental Wellbeing, and the presentation was giving some background information on the new institute and the justifications for it.

Of course, like most people, I’ve been aware of a degree of public concern about mental health — concern which has been greatly amplified by the Coronavirus and associated lockdowns, job losses, precarity and other sources of stress. But since it’s not my field I’m ashamed to say that I had relegated discussions about it to the status of depressing background noise. I had absolutely no idea of the scale of the crisis until the meeting last Monday when the presentation was given.

Over the years some of my friends and family members have suffered from depression, anxiety and other psychological conditions, and I supported one of them through three terrible bouts, but until now I’d always thought of these as relatively rare misfortunes rather than as conditions that afflict millions of people.

How wrong can you be?


How to film a conversation in a yellow Fiat Quinquecento

From Axios


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Friday 2 October, 2020

If only…

Arles, July 2017.


Quote of the Day

”Writing a novel does not become easier with practice.”

  • Graham Greene

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

John Field: Nocturne No. 10 in E minor

Link


EU plans for controlling tech companies

Politico has obtained a leaked copy of measures that EU regulators are considering imposing on certain kinds of tech companies. Cory Doctorow has provided a neat annotated list on Pluralistic.net.

First of all, stuff that the EU is considering prohibiting:

  • Mining your customers’ data to compete with them or advertise to their customers (think: Facebook Like buttons on publisher pages, Amazon’s own-brand competitors)

  • Mixing third-party data with surveillance data you gather yourself (like Facebook buying credit bureaux data), without user permission (which is the same as never because no one in the world wants this)

  • Ranking your own offerings above your competitors (think: Google Shopping listings at the top of search results)

  • Pre-installing your own apps on devices (like Ios and Android do) or requiring third party device makers to install your apps (as Android does)

  • Using DRM [Digital Rights Management] or terms to service to prevent users from uninstalling preinstalled apps (no immortal shovelware)

  • Exclusivity deals – mobile OS/device companies can’t force an app vendor to sell only through the app, and not on the open web

  • Using DRM or terms of service to prevent sideloading

  • Nondisparagement/confidentiality clauses that would prevent your suppliers from complaining about your monopolistic behavior

  • Tying email to other services – you have to be able to activate an Android device without a Gmail account

  • Automatically logging users into one service on the basis that they’re logged into another one (eg using Gmail doesn’t automatically log you into Youtube)

Then there are projected new ‘requirements’ that companies will have to provide:

  • Annual transparency reports that make public the results of an EU-designed audit that assesses compliance

  • Annual algorithmic transparency reports that disclose a third-party audit of “customer profiling” and “cross-service tracking”

  • Compliance documents showing current practices, on demand by regulators

  • Advance notice of all mergers and acquisitions

  • An internal compliance officer who oversees the business

This is an interesting leak, not so much for the specific kinds of measures that they are contemplating, but as revealing the general conception of regulation that underpins EU thinking. In a way, it’s as if they are regarding tech companies much as we regard banks. That may work in some circs. But it may also reflect an inadequate conception of the power of tech companies.


The mystery of John Banville’s mysteries

Lovely essay in the NYT by Charles McGrath about John Banville and the background to his forthcoming novel Snow:

The Irish novelist John Banville is a famous perfectionist — the kind of writer who can spend a day on a single sentence. His books, most written in the first person, are lapidary, intricate, Nabokovian. Or just difficult, some readers have complained, more interested in style than in storytelling. They invariably come laden with words that seem meant to prove his vocabulary is bigger than yours: flocculent, crapulent, caducous, anaglypta, mephitic, velutinous.

A Banville novel typically takes four or five painful years to complete, after which the author is still dissatisfied. In a 2009 interview, he told The Paris Review that he hated his own books. “They’re an embarrassment and a deep source of shame,” he said, and then added: “They’re better than everybody else’s, of course, but not good enough for me.”

In March 2005, however, while staying at a friend’s house in Italy, Banville sat down one morning and for some reason began writing a mystery novel set in 1950s Dublin. By lunchtime he had 1,500 words — or a week’s worth at his usual pace. He thought to himself, “John Banville, you slut,” but kept going and finished in five or six months. “I was a little appalled at the speed with which I got the thing done,” he said in a recent email. He had been reading Simenon — though not the Inspector Maigret crime novels — and was inspired by him to see what could be accomplished with a narrow vocabulary and a spare, straightforward style.

Many years ago I wrote a few pieces for the Irish Times when Banville was the paper’s Literary Editor. The striking thing (to me) when dropping in copy was the way everybody referred to him as “Mr. Banville”. Even then he was just like his writing: fastidious, distant, intimidating. Looks like he hasn’t changed. But he’s a terrific writer, so he’s excused normality.

The NYT piece has a couple of terrific photographs of him, btw.


What Trump’s tax-returns tell us

Basically, that he’s incapable of running a business.

All of his casinos, property developments, etc. have been commercial disasters. The one thing that really worked for him was his spell on The Apprentice and the celebrity status that that gave him, which he then assiduously leveraged by endorsements and lending his name to various ventures. He earned a staggering amount from that alone. He then spent a lot of those earnings on buying hotels and 15 golf courses in various parts of the US and the world (including, as I now know, one in Ireland). But these are proper businesses and he can’t run such things, so some of them have been bleeding money over the years.

By 2016, his earnings from the celebrity glow of The Apprentice were declining rapidly (all celebrity has a half-life) and he had an urgent need to find a new way of rekindling it because of the losses on the golf and hotel businesses.

So here’s my idea for a comic novel based on these circumstances…

Trump’s big idea for reigniting his celebrity status was that running for president would be a way to do it. Think of all the free publicity. His name in lights every day on cable TV, etc. So he decided to run. The end-game would be that he could then start his own TV network — Trump TV — challenging Fox and Murdoch and becoming a new media mogul. The idea was not to be elected: even his narcissism didn’t make him think that he might succeed. The celebrity-enhancement flowing from the campaign was the goal. Trump didn’t actually want to be president: too much like hard work.

Far-fetched? Hey — this is a novel, remember. Pure fiction. No requirement to adhere to the facts.

But… Michael Lewis’s terrific book, The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy opens with the night of the election and the stunned astonishment in the Trump campaign team at what was unfolding. It was one long “Oh, shit!!!!!” Moment. The plan had backfired. They had actually won the election. Trump was going to have to be President!

Lewis points out that when Trump won the Republican nomination he was astonished and infuriated that he was now obliged, by law, to start forming a Transition Team to plan for forming an Administration. And he did everything in his power to hobble that process.

The New York Times’s exposé of his tax returns adds the final touch necessary for the plot of my comic novel. Their analysis suggests that Trump is now personally liable for something like $400m of debts for which he is the sole guarantor. The banks who are on the hook for that can’t touch him while he’s President. But if he loses…. Well, next stop the bankruptcy court, or worse. No wonder he’s desperate not to lost the election.


More on how to model (and explain) the spread of Covid-19

Further to my post yesterday about Zeynep Tufecki’s fascinating article on why focussing simply on R0, the reproduction rate for Covid-19 might be misleading because it misses the importance of ‘super-spreading’ events, Seb Schmoller pointed out a new research paper published by the Royal Society the other day which appears to support Tufecki’s line of argument.

Here’s the Abstract of the paper:

The basic reproduction number ℛ0 of the coronavirus disease 2019 has been estimated to range between 2 and 4. Here, we used an SEIR model that properly accounts for the distribution of the latent period and, based on empirical estimates of the doubling time in the near-exponential phases of epidemic progression in China, Italy, Spain, France, UK, Germany, Switzerland and New York State, we estimated that ℛ0 lies in the range 4.7–11.4. We explained this discrepancy by performing stochastic simulations of model dynamics in a population with a small proportion of super-spreaders. The simulations revealed two-phase dynamics, in which an initial phase of relatively slow epidemic progression diverts to a faster phase upon appearance of infectious super-spreaders. Early estimates obtained for this initial phase may suggest lower ℛ0.

The key sentence in the concluding section reads:

Spatial heterogeneity of the epidemic spread observed in many European countries, including Italy, Spain and Germany, can be associated with larger or smaller super-spreading events that initiated outbreaks in particular regions of these countries.

This is just the latest demonstration of how limited our understanding of this pandemic is — still. We’re learning as we go, but without a good understanding of the dynamics of infection and spread, we’re driving by looking in the rear-view mirror.


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Tuesday 18 August, 2020

Dusk

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.

Link


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.

Link


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 28 July, 2020

Quote of the Day

A handful of very large, very rich companies that need fewer and fewer workers doesn’t add up to an economy.

  • Rana Foroohar, Financial Times, 27.07.2020.

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

BB King and friends, live in the Albert Hall in 2011


So will Congress holds tech bosses to account tomorrow?

Er, don’t hold your breath. The New York Times set the scene this morning:

The captains of the New Gilded Age — Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sundar Pichai of Google — will appear together before Congress for the first time to justify their business practices. Members of the House judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee have investigated the internet giants for more than a year on accusations that they stifled rivals and harmed consumers.

The hearing is the government’s most aggressive show against tech power since the pursuit to break up Microsoft two decades ago. It is set to be a bizarre spectacle, with four men who run companies worth a total of around $4.85 trillion — and who include two of the world’s richest individuals — primed to argue that their businesses are not really that powerful after all.

Last Saturday I highlighted Scott Galloway’s wonderful list of searching questions that the law-makers should ask, but probably won’t. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Interestingly, this will be the first time that Jeff Bezos has appeared before Congress.

The fact that the House judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee has been thinking about antitrust questions in relation to the tech giants is interesting, though. My hope is that the researchers have moved beyond “break ’em up” sloganeering and have started to think about the kinds of policy measures that would stand a chance of having an impact on the companies.

In that context, Benedict Evans published a very thoughtful essay on the regulation issue this week.

Tech has gone from being just one of many industries to being systemically important to society. My old colleague Marc Andreessen liked to say that ‘software is eating the world’ – well, it did.

The trouble is, when tech becomes the world, all of tech’s problems matter much more, because they become so much bigger and touch so many more people; and in parallel all of the problems that society had already are expressed in this new thing, and are amplified and changed by it, and channeled in new ways. When you connect all of society, you connect all of society’s problems as well. You connect all the bad people, and more importantly you connect all of our own worst instincts. And then, of course, all of these combine and feed off each other, and generate new externalities. The internet had hate speech in 1990, but it didn’t affect elections, and it didn’t involve foreign intelligence agencies.

When something is systemically important to society and has systemically important problems, this brings attention from governments and regulators. At a very high level, one could say that all industries are subject to general legislation, and some also have industry-specific legislation. All companies have to follow employment law, and accounting law, and workplace safety law, and indeed criminal law. But some also have their own laws as well, because they have some very specific and important questions that need them. This chart is an attempt to capture some of this industry-specific law. Banks, airlines and oil refineries are regulated industries, and technology is going to become a regulated industry as well.

It’s a great, wise essay. Worth reading in full.


How not to win friends in Silicon Valley

I’ve just learned that my Observer piece about Trump and Zuckerberg on Sunday had over a million page-views.

That’s even more than the piece I wrote in the Summer of 2013 about Edward Snowden.


‘Hygiene Theatre’ is a huge waste of time

Really interesting piece by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic arguing that surface transmission is not such a big threat compared with airborne transmission. In other words, “people are power scrubbing their way to a false sense of security”.

To some American companies and Florida men, COVID-19 is apparently a war that will be won through antimicrobial blasting, to ensure that pathogens are banished from every square inch of America’s surface area.

But what if this is all just a huge waste of time?

In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines to clarify that while COVID-19 spreads easily among speakers and sneezers in close encounters, touching a surface “isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” Other scientists have reached a more forceful conclusion. “Surface transmission of COVID-19 is not justified at all by the science,” Emanuel Goldman, a microbiology professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told me. He also emphasized the primacy of airborne person-to-person transmission.

So “hygiene theatre” may be the Covid equivalent of the security theatre that goes on in airports.


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Tuesday 7 July, 2020

Meet the enemy

From Nature.


Monochromatic vision

Once upon a time every photograph I took was in black and white. Colour film was just too expensive. But as an experiment during lockdown, I decided to go back to monochrome — and was reminded that B&W photography is a completely different art form. Colour is easier — much easier.

Here’s one picture from yesterday’s foray.

Click on the image to see a larger size.


Trump, Twitter, Facebook and the future of online speech

Terrific, wide-ranging, historically-informed New Yorker essay by Anna Wiener on Section 230 and related matters.

Still, there’s a reason the order focussed on Section 230. The law is considered foundational to Silicon Valley. In “The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet,” a “biography” of the legislation, Jeff Kosseff, a professor of cybersecurity law at the U.S. Naval Academy, writes that “it is impossible to divorce the success of the U.S. technology sector from the significant benefits of Section 230.” Meanwhile, despite being an exceptionally short piece of text, the law has been a source of debate and confusion for nearly twenty-five years. Since the 2016 Presidential election, as awareness of Silicon Valley’s largely unregulated power has grown, it has come under intensified scrutiny and attack from both major political parties. “All the people in power have fallen out of love with Section 230,” Goldman told me, in a phone call. “I think Section 230 is doomed.” The law is a point of vulnerability for an industry that appears invulnerable. If it changes, the Internet does, too.

Great piece. Well worth reading in full if you’re interested in Internet regulation.


It’s mourning in America

The Lincoln Project is a political movement by Republicans who oppose Trump and are trying to persuade fellow-Republicans to drop him. They’re putting together some hard-hitting TV campaign ads. This is the one I like best, because it deliberately echoes Ronald Reagan’s famous “Morning in America” slogan.

Link


A future shaped by the coronavirus

Quartz asked dozens of experts for their best predictions on how the world will be different in five years.

Here’s Hany Farid’s answer. He’s a professor at the University of California, Berkeley with appointments in both Electrical Engineering & Computer Science and the School of Information. He specializes in the analysis of digital images, particularly deepfakes.

In five years, I expect us to have long since reached the boiling point that leads to reining in an almost entirely unregulated technology sector to contend with how technology has been weaponized against individuals, society, and democracy. Social media in particular has become the primary source of news for more than half of people around the world. At the same time, social media is littered with hate, divisiveness, misinformation, and illegal activity. The global Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the breadth and depth of these issues as people around the world are spending more time online alongside deadly misinformation, outrageous conspiracies, and small- to large-scale fraud. The reckoning that is sure to come will change the way we view and interact with the technology we have grown more and more reliant on in our lives.

Yep.

Tim Berners-Lee is optimistic, as ever. He chose to imagine looking back from 2025:

It’s 2025 and now the world is working again. You want me to compare my life now with 2020? Well, 2020 was ghastly in so many ways. The pandemic was awful, and the way the world worked was so dysfunctional.

Today it’s quite different. I feel that I am part of functional communities and societies at different levels, and I feel that within those groups, I am part of the solutions we are finding to the problems. I have sources of news and information that I trust, and I play a part in making them trustworthy. Importantly, I feel that most other people in the world, while they have different priorities and different ideas of how the economy should run, are working off the same facts, the same science.

Thinking about my life—be it day-to-day family life, my work, my music, my play, my volunteering with organizations—it’s all, in fact, data. It is data I control. It all connects together. What I love now is how everything is online as data: I feel powerful. I can see things from all of my life together. I can share anything with anyone. People share all kinds of things with me. When I decide what to do on Friday, I see in my calendar all the things happening in each of the segments of my life all brought together. How else would I function? When I wonder about doing something, I see its cost in dollars, in time, and in carbon, whether it is at home or at work, and I feel I can make decisions with a sort of integrity I didn’t have in 2020.

I’m proud of the world managing to make communal decisions after the crisis of 2020. I’m proud we stopped using paper. I’m proud of the oil we left in the ground. I’m proud of the privacy we have given back to people who opened up their health, medical, and genetic data in the pandemics of 2020 and 2022. I’m happy that people are in control of that data and were in a position to offer it up. I am proud of the people I know who worked to make all the apps I use talk the same language. We take it for granted now that you and I can use entirely different apps or tools for looking, sharing, and managing data—no matter whether that’s for photos, banking info, or other projects. It wasn’t always like that!

We call that interoperability or interop. I teach my kids about interop. The interop movement was born out of a project from MIT called Solid, a company called Inrupt, and an open-source community. Together, they set about updating the web of 2020 by flipping the rules of who gets value from data. It was a lot of hard work to get here.

My digital life is my world; it is my identity. I use all kinds of devices to live my digital life, of course. I think of them as different windows into the same world. But it’s not about the devices. It’s not about the apps. It’s the huge benefit of linking all the data—not just my data, but also the data shared with me, connected device data, and all the publicly available data—all in one world. That’s the essence of my life and the main change for me since 2020, I think. Since you asked.

Like I said, ever the optimist.


If you’re over 75, getting Covid is like playing Russian roulette

Interesting piece by Antonio Regalado,the Biomedicine Editor of MIT’s Tech Review:

By now you might be wondering what your own death risk is. Online, you can find apps that will calculate it, like one at covid19survivalcalculator.com, which employs odds ratios from the World Health Organization. I gave it my age, gender, body mass index, and underlying conditions and learned that my overall death risk was a bit higher than the average. But the site also wanted to account for my chance of getting infected in the first place. After I told it I was social distancing and mostly wearing a mask, and my rural zip code, the gadget thought I had only a 5% of getting infected.

I clicked, the page paused, and the final answer appeared: “Survival Probability: 99.975%”.

Those are odds I can live with. And that’s why I am not leaving the house.

Moral: Keep your distance, stay at home as much as you can and wear a mask. It’s not rocket science.


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Saturday 27 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

Other countries are used to loathing America, admiring America, and fearing America (sometimes all at once). But pitying America? That one is new.


The dead tree

On one of our cycle routes. Dead trees make for very dramatic photographs, sometimes. I’m always tempted to stop and photograph them.


Can this really be right?

From today’s Guardian:

The UK government’s plan to invest hundreds of millions of pounds in a satellite broadband company has been described as “nonsensical” by experts, who say the company doesn’t even make the right type of satellite the country needs after Brexit.

The investment in OneWeb, first reported on Thursday night, is intended to mitigate against the UK losing access to the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system.

But OneWeb – in which the UK will own a 20% stake following the investment – currently operates a completely different type of satellite network from that typically used to run such navigation systems.

“The fundamental starting point is, yes, we’ve bought the wrong satellites,” said Dr Bleddyn Bowen, a space policy expert at the University of Leicester. “OneWeb is working on basically the same idea as Elon Musk’s Starlink: a mega-constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, which are used to connect people on the ground to the internet.

“What’s happened is that the very talented lobbyists at OneWeb have convinced the government that we can completely redesign some of the satellites to piggyback a navigation payload on it. It’s bolting an unproven technology on to a mega-constellation that’s designed to do something else. It’s a tech and business gamble.”

If true, it looks like Trump-level imbecility.


Simon Kuper on why football matters

Lovely essay:

I’m British but I grew up mostly abroad, so when I went to university in England I discovered a new species of man: the Total Fan, the teenager whose main identity was the football club he supported. I witnessed conversations in the common room that went like this:

Student in plastic Manchester United shirt: “We’re brilliant this season.”

Student in Spurs shirt: “No, you’re shit.”

Student in Crystal Palace shirt: “He’s right, Steve. You’re shit.”

They weren’t exactly casting aspersions on Steve’s personality. They were talking about his football club. However, they saw the two things as essentially the same. Steve was Manchester United. The Spurs fan once told me that, when his team won the FA Cup, he walked into the common room to receive everybody’s congratulations as if he personally had lifted the trophy.

Even if you’re not a football fan (and I’m not) this is worth reading.


Share the wealth as we recover health (hopefully)

Noema magazine (a new publication from the Berggruen Institute) has an interesting conversation with Joe Stieglitz and Ray Dalio about how to ensure that the benefits of any recovery from the Covid crisis are shared with the population as a whole.

The basic idea: the massive taxpayer-financed cash infusion to save some of the largest companies that are otherwise viable may present a unique opportunity to more effectively tackle inequality by bolstering the assets of the less well-off. If the same taxpayers who are bearing the costs of the bailout also share an upside when we recover prosperity, wealth will be shared more fairly.

“This can be done”, says the magazine,

by establishing a sovereign wealth fund, or national endowment, that pools the taxpayer’s ownership shares from all the bailed-out companies and distributes regular dividends to all citizens. We call this “universal basic capital,” as distinct from the idea of a universal basic income. Instead of only once again relying on redistributing income to close the gap after wealth has been created, that wealth should be shared upfront in what we call “pre-distribution.”

There are many models out there that guide us on this path. Alaska has long had a social wealth fund that pays dividends to citizens from the revenues of the state’s oil leases. Norway has a similar fund, also from oil revenues, that pays into the general pension system. Australia has what is calls the superannuation fund, in essence a sovereign wealth fund financed by employees, employers and state contributions for its universal pension scheme. The wealth of that fund now stands at almost $2 trillion, a sum greater than Australia’s GDP. Singapore has a similar plan, called the Central Provident Fund, from which citizens can also draw for health and housing needs. It is so profitable from its global investments that it is even able to fund some government services and help keep taxes low.

What is important at this point is to recognize the opportunity for reducing social inequality that can be created by a fair and innovative approach to economic recovery. If everyone in this pandemic must share the downside, all must share in the upside as well.

Some promising ideas here. And the good thing is that none of the corporations in which governments might take a stake in return for support during the pandemic are tech companies, for the simple reason that those companies are the ones that will have benefited most from the crisis.

Noema‘s good, btw.


We can make you hurt if you don’t do what we want

Jonathan Zittrain is my idea of a perfect academic. Staggeringly bright, knows both digital tech and the law intimately (he has Chairs in both Harvard Law and Engineering), fizzes with original and often productive ways of viewing tricky problems, etc. So whenever he writes or lectures about anything I pay attention.

Now he has an article in The Atlantic about what social media outfits should do about Trump. At the beginning, his discussion of the possible options for regulating the speech of an authoritarian nutter takes a fairly standard detached, scholarly tone. His emerging conclusion seems to be that every plausible configuration of social media in 2020 is unpalatable.

But then, he briefly switches to a different register:

Those proposals can be analyzed and judged on their own terms as if they simply appeared on Congress’s docket out of nowhere, and I’d normally offer here some thoughts on their details. But I can’t stay in my academic lane. The executive order, and the push for more legislation, is part of a larger pattern in which the president appears to seek vengeance against those who even mildly criticize him, retaliating in any way he can, including by using the powers of his office. When, for instance, he didn’t like The Washington Post’s reporting about him, he made it clear—on Twitter, fittingly enough—that, because the paper is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, he would like to disadvantage Amazon however he can, including by demanding that the U.S. Postal Service raise its shipping rates. Here, the executive order is so scattershot, and the legislation so crudely sweeping, that it’s important to recognize that it conveys more than its text says. What it really says is: We can make you hurt unless you do what we want, and what we want is what helps the president personally. [Emphasis added.]

Yep: full marks. That’s the nub of Trump’s authoritarian threat. Same as Erdogan, Orban, Bolsonaro & Co.

So what does Zittrain think we should do?

“In the near term, the simplest solution is to vote Trump out of office.”

Well, yes: but you don’t have to be a bi-Chaired Harvard prof to come to that conclusion.

What if that option doesn’t work?

“In the longer term”, says Zittrain,

the most promising path for online content moderation lies in taking up unavoidable decisions by the largest companies in ways that respect the gravity of those decisions — likely involving outside parties in structured, visible roles — and, even more important, in decentralizing the flows of information online so that no one company can readily change the map.

So when Twitter tempers its deference and wades into a fraught zone by fact-checking in its own voice, still judged in the public sphere by its attention to the real facts, I respect its decision. One way to try to break what is raging behavior even—and especially—by a president is to create policies to deal with it, policies that would collect dust if the rule of law and the institutions designed to reinforce it were not under such extraordinary and explicit attack.

Yeah, sure. But this seems a bit feeble after the build-up. What might those policies look like? And how might we ‘decentralize’ those information flows?

Maybe there’s a sequel to this piece coming. If so I can’t wait.


Quarantine diary — Day 98

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Wednesday 24 June, 2020

Facebook runs into a German wall

From the FT — probably paywalled.

Facebook suffered a setback in Germany on Tuesday after the country’s highest civil court ruled that it must comply with an order from the German antitrust watchdog and fundamentally change the way it handles users’ data.

The ruling by the federal court of justice in Karlsruhe takes aim at the way Facebook merges data from the group’s own services, such as WhatsApp and Instagram, with other data collected on third-party internet sites via its business tools.

In 2019, Germany’s cartel office blocked Facebook from pooling such data without user consent. Facebook later won a suspension of that decision from a court in Düsseldorf and wanted the pause to continue until a ruling on its appeal.

But on Tuesday the Karlsruhe court set aside the Düsseldorf ruling and backed the antitrust authorities, saying Facebook in future had to offer its users a choice when it collects and merges data from websites outside of its own ecosystem.

Interesting. Andreas Mundt, head of the German cartel office, is a determined and imaginative official. In a statement, he welcomed the decision. He said data was a decisive factor for economic power and for judging market power on the internet. “Today’s ruling gives us important clues as to how we should deal with the issues of data and competition,” he said, in comments quoted by DPA agency.

Progress, at last.


Mark Zuckerberg Believes Only in Mark Zuckerberg

Why is he abetting Trump while civil rights leaders and his own employees rebuke him? It’s about dominance.

At last, people are beginning to suss what it is about Zuckerberg that’s so weird. I’ve thought for years — on the basis of reading his public posts and watching his occasional (rare) public appearances — that he is fundamentally an autocratic sociopath. But because he’s so rich, the usual aphrodisiac effect of great wealth kicks in and journalists (and others) who should know better succumb to the idea that if he is so rich then he must be so smart. Well, he is smart. But he ain’t interested in other people, or capable of emphathising with them..

The autocratic bit is easy to document btw. You only have to look at the relevant paragraph in Facebook’s SEC filings.

Here it is (on page 25 of the filing

Siva Viadhyanathan has also been thinking about Zuckerberg for a long time and has now written an interesting essay on what he has finally concluded. He used to think of Zuckerberg, he says, as an idealist brought up in a bubble and so was puzzled by some of the things he allowed to happen (because, remember, he has absolute power over that company of his.) A key factor in Siva’s change of mind seems to have been Steven Levy’s book, Facebook: The Inside Story.

I expected that Zuckerberg was experiencing cognitive dissonance while watching his dear company be exploited to empower genocidal forces in Myanmar, religious terrorists in Sri Lanka, or vaccine deniers around the world.

I was wrong. I misjudged Zuckerberg. Another thing I learned from Levy’s book is that along with an idealistic and naive account of human communication, Zuckerberg seems to love power more than he loves money or the potential to do good in the world.

Having studied just enough Latin in prep school to get him in trouble, Zuckerberg was known to quote Cato, shouting “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage must be destroyed) when referring to Google. Emperor Augustus was a particular inspiration, Levy reports, and Zuckerberg named his child after Augustus, the adopted son of the tyrant Julius Caesar who ruled over the greatest and most peaceful span of the Roman Empire as its first emperor.

It was not Zuckerberg suffering from cognitive dissonance. I was. As I watched him cooly face questions from congressional representatives about the Cambridge Analytica debacle, he never seemed thoughtful, just disciplined.

That Facebook could serve people well—and it does—and that it could be abused to contribute to massive harm, pain, and death, didn’t seem to generate that one troublesome phenomenon that challenges the thoughtful: Contradiction.

Zuckerberg continued and continues to believe in the positive power of Facebook, but that’s because he believes in the raw power of Facebook. “Domination!,” he used to yell at staff meetings, indicating that everything is a game. Games can be won. He must win. If a few million bones get broken along the way, his game plan would still serve the greatest good for the greatest number.

He believes in himself so completely, his vision of how the world works so completely, that he is immune to cognitive dissonance. He is immune to new evidence or argument. It turns out megalomaniacs don’t suffer from cognitive dissonance.

Like the notorious architect Philip Johnson, or Robert Moses, the tyrannical planner of New York, Zuckerberg, says Siva,

is a social engineer. He knows what’s best for us. And he believes that what’s best for Facebook is best for us. In the long run, he believes, Facebook’s domination will redeem him by making our lives better. We just have to surrender and let it all work out. Zuckerberg can entertain local magistrates like Trump because Zuckerberg remains emperor.

Nice, perceptive essay by a formidable scholar.


Are Universities Going the Way of CDs and Cable TV?

Although it probably seems inconceivable to those of us who work in universities, the shock of the pandemic will lead to radical changes in the way most of these institutions work. This essay is interesting because it’s by Michael Smith, who is Professor of Information Technology and Marketing at Carnegie Mellon and the co-author of Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of Entertainment.

He starts with a question the Wall Street Journal asked in April:

Do students think their pricey degrees are worth the cost when delivered remotely? “One student responded with this zinger, Smith writes,

“Would you pay $75,000 for front-row seats to a Beyoncé concert and be satisfied with a livestream instead?” Another compared higher education to premium cable—an annoyingly expensive bundle with more options than most people need. “Give me the basic package,” he said.

“As a parent of a college-age child”, Smith continues, “I’m sympathetic to these concerns. But as a college professor, I find them terrifying. And invigorating”.

Why terrifying?

Because I study how new technologies cause power shifts in industries, and I fear that the changes in store for higher education are going to look a lot like the painful changes we’ve seen in retail, travel, news, and entertainment.

Consider the entertainment industry.

Throughout the 20th century, the industry remained remarkably stable, despite technological innovations that regularly altered the ways movies, television, music, and books were created, distributed, and consumed. That stability, however, bred overconfidence, overpricing, and an overreliance on business models tailored to a physical world.

Trouble arrived early in the 21st century, when upstart companies powered by new digital technologies began to challenge the status quo. Entertainment executives reflexively dismissed the threat. Netflix was “a channel, not an alternative.” Amazon Studios was “in way over their heads.” YouTube? No self-respecting artist would ever use a DIY platform to start a career. In 1997, after one music executive heard songs compressed into the MP3 format, he refused to believe anybody would give up the sound quality of CDs for the portability of MP3s. “No one is going to listen to that shit,” he insisted. In 2013, the COO of Fox expressed similar skepticism about the impact of technological change on his business. “People will give up food and a roof over their head,” he told investors, “before they give up TV.”

We all know how that worked out: From 1999 to 2009, the music industry lost 50 percent of its sales. From 2014 to 2019, roughly 16 million American households canceled their cable subscriptions.

I remember this in the broadcasting business. In the mid- to late-1990s I was a consultant to a firm in the radio business. I spent many fruitless hours trying to explain to them the significance of streaming media, but they couldn’t get it. Where would all those servers come from? And what about the absence of broadband connections? And so on. The iPlayer and Video on Demand — and podcasting — were unimaginable then, even though they were emerging in embryonic form. (Anyone remember RealAudio?)

Similar dynamics are at play in higher education today, says Smith. Universities have long been remarkably stable institutions. But,

That stability has again bred overconfidence, overpricing, and an overreliance on business models tailored to a physical world. Like those entertainment executives, many of us in higher education dismiss the threats that digital technologies pose to the way we work. We diminish online-learning and credentialing platforms such as Khan Academy, Kaggle, and edX as poor substitutes for the “real thing.” We can’t imagine that “our” students would ever want to take a DIY approach to their education instead of paying us for the privilege of learning in our hallowed halls. We can’t imagine “our” employers hiring someone who doesn’t have one of our respected degrees.

But we’re going to have to start thinking differently…

Good essay. Worth reading in full if you work in Higher Ed. And the funniest thing of all is that Eli Noam published his amazingly far-sighted essay, “Electronics and the Dim Future of the University” in 1995! But it seems that no Vice-Chancellors or university Presidents read it! I did, though, because I was then teaching at the Open University, and of course we got it — but I guess that was probably because the OU was emphatically NOT a traditional university. We had no stake in the old system.

Oh, and if you haven’t been keeping up with how MOOCs have evolved, here’s a good example from Princeton.


Quarantine diary — Day 95

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Thursday 28 May, 2020

Deconstructing Cummings’s Downing Street statement

Wonderful analysis of the Cummings document by the FT’s David Allen Green. Takes the form of a 25-minute video going through the document line by line, but there’s also a transcript if you’re in a hurry. It’s a fascinating piece of work. Allen thinks that the entire document was drawn up by a (no doubt expensive) lawyer because it reads like a witness statement as used in trials. (But there’s no signature at the bottom attesting that it is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!).

The only thing he misses is the fact (mentioned in the Wired report discussed on this blog yesterday) that Cummings retrospectively added to his blog post of March 4, 2019 to make it look as thought he was exceedingly prescient about this kind of pandemic.

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Charlie Warzel on de-platforming Trump

Useful piece by Charlie sparked by the thought that Twitter might ban Trump.

“The strategy of power now is not to dominate the whole narrative,” Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at the London School of Economics and the author of “This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality” told me recently. “It’s to polarize citizens and construct a very potent worldview and to alienate them from the truth. When journalists speak truth to power they’re by nature giving the powerful the opposition they want.”

Naturally, media outlets and reporters, not wanting to be bullied or discredited, adopt an adversarial approach. This leads to some great, important journalism but also a fair amount of grandstanding, which then become ammunition for the president and his supporters.

This situation is hard for journalists to get their heads around, Mr. Pomerantsev says. “We’re trained to stand up to the powerful,” he Pomerantsev said. “But now the powerful are comfortable with us doing the punching — just look at how they’re attacking.”

It’s basically a cycle that requires participation from all parties: the president (who initiates it), Twitter (which tolerates it) and the media (which amplifies, frequently to the president’s advantage). Removing one participant gums up the cycle, but does not stop it outright.


How Trump proposes to go after Twitter for labelling his tweets

He’s gone for the ‘nuclear strike’ — to try to modify Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, (which is Title V of the sprawling 1996 Telecommunications Act). The Section is the one that exempts platform providers from legal liability for stuff that users post on their platforms. It’s essentially the bedrock of their impunity.

The key part of the Section reads as follows:

(c) Protection for “Good Samaritan” blocking and screening of offensive material

(1) Treatment of publisher or speaker No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

(2) Civil liability No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of—

(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or

(B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1).

This is what Trump’s draft Executive Order targets.

The thrust of the Order is that Twitter’s labelling of Trump’s tweets as inaccurate is not protected under Subparagraph C(2).

“The provision does not extend to deceptive or pretextual actions restricting online content or actions inconsistent with an online platform’s terms of service. When an interactive computer service provider removes or restricts access to content and its actions do not meet the requirements of Subparagraph C (2) (A), it is engaged in editorial conduct.”

So the Order directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to conduct an inquiry to “clarify”

This is going to be interesting. If nothing else, it guarantees that all the tech companies will be pouring money into Joe Biden’s campaign, because Section 230 has always been their get-out-of-gaol card. Indeed, for social-media companies it’s what underpins their business model.

And… Right on cue, up pops Mark Zuckerberg (who has had a couple of dinners recently with Trump, I believe) on Fox News yesterday criticising Twitter for fact-checking Trump’s tweets, saying private technology companies “shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online”. Zuckerberg is keeping his political options open. Creep.


Every stock is a vaccine stock

What’s the value of a Covid vaccine — and to whom? General Electric stock was rocketing up on Tuesday, but not because of anything the company did or announced. What’s going on is that any positive news about a Covid vaccine Recent Covid-19 vaccine serves as a catalyst, making every stock feel like a vaccine stock.

Fascinating post by Tyler Cowen:

It’s not surprising that when Moderna reports good vaccine results, Moderna does well. It’s more surprising that Boeing and GE not only do well they increase in value far more than Moderna. On May 18, for example, when Moderna announced very preliminary positive results on its vaccine it’s market capitalization rose by $5b. But GE’s market capitalization rose by $6.82 billion and Boeing increased in value by $8.73 billion.

A cure for COVID-19 would be worth trillions to the world but only billions to the creator. The stock market is illustrating the massive externalities created by innovation. Nordhaus estimated that only 2.2% of the value of innovation was captured by innovators. For vaccine manufacturers it’s probably closer to .2%.

The disconnect between stock markets and the real world is truly mysterious.


Quarantine diary — Day 68

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The real test of an AI machine? When it can admit to not knowing something

This morning’s Observer column on the EU’s plans for regulating AI and data:

Once you get beyond the mandatory euro-boosting rhetoric about how the EU’s “technological and industrial strengths”, “high-quality digital infrastructure” and “regulatory framework based on its fundamental values” will enable Europe to become “a global leader in innovation in the data economy and its applications”, the white paper seems quite sensible. But as for all documents dealing with how actually to deal with AI, it falls back on the conventional bromides about human agency and oversight, privacy and governance, diversity, non-discrimination and fairness, societal wellbeing, accountability and that old favourite “transparency”. The only discernible omissions are motherhood and apple pie.

But this is par for the course with AI at the moment: the discourse is invariably three parts generalities, two parts virtue-signalling leavened with a smattering of pious hopes. It’s got to the point where one longs for some plain speaking and common sense.

And, as luck would have it, along it comes in the shape of Sir David Spiegelhalter, an eminent Cambridge statistician and former president of the Royal Statistical Society. He has spent his life trying to teach people how to understand statistical reasoning, and last month published a really helpful article in the Harvard Data Science Review on the question “Should we trust algorithms?”

Read on

Some historical perspective on the dominance of current tech giants

From this week’s Economist:

As big tech’s scope expands, more non-tech firms will find their profits dented and more workers will see their livelihoods disrupted, creating angry constituencies. One crude measure of scale is to look at global profits relative to American GDP. By this yardstick, Apple, which is expanding into services, is already roughly as big as Standard Oil and US Steel were in 1910, at the height of their powers. Alphabet, Amazon and Microsoft are set to reach the threshold within the next ten years.

Remember what happened to Standard Oil and US Steel?