Wednesday 5 August, 2020

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

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


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.


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


>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.


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.


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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Friday 5 June, 2020

Cory Booker’s speech to the US Senate

This is a truly extraordinary speech. I’ve never heard anything remotely like it from a politician. It’s long, but it’s well worth it. It captures, like nothing else I’ve heard, the experience of growing up black in America.

Senator Booker starts speaking just 35 seconds into the video.


Many thanks to the kind reader who alerted me to it.

Thinking the unthinkable: will the US get to vote in November?

I thought I was the only one who worried about this. But now here’s Sue Halpern, writing in the New Yorker:

Monday night, as a group of white men wielding baseball bats marched down the streets of Philadelphia, apparently with the blessing of local police, I reread [Timothy] Snyder’s warning to be wary of paramilitaries. “It is impossible to carry out democratic elections, try cases at court, design and enforce laws, or indeed manage any of the other quiet business of government when agencies beyond the state have access to violence,” he wrote. “For just this reason, people and parties who wish to undermine democracy and the rule of law create and fund violent organizations that involve themselves in politics.” In a leaked recording obtained by the Intercept in April, Republican operatives can be heard hatching a plan to send retired Navy SEALs to keep watch on polling places, now that a ban on recruiting soldiers and law-enforcement personnel to oversee voting was lifted by a judge in 2018. (The ban was in response to earlier efforts by the Republican National Committee to send uniformed poll watchers to intimidate African-American voters.)

Trump and his allies know that their best chance of winning is to suppress turnout, especially among African-Americans.

That is what the Attorney General, William Barr, believes based on his gross exaggeration of the risk of voter fraud. So, too, many Republican governors and state legislators who are making it increasingly difficult for Americans to vote. And—let’s not forget—Trump himself. In the 2016 election, one arm of the Trump campaign was dedicated to convincing people—black folks and young people particularly—not to bother voting. This was in tandem with the efforts of Republican secretaries of state and other elected officials to enact draconian voter-registration requirements and redraw electoral maps, making it more difficult for people to vote. Or, if they did manage to cast ballots, to insure that their voices would be drowned out. These efforts persist, and, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, they have escalated, as the Attorney General floats a phony argument that foreign governments might manipulate mailed ballots, and the Republican National Committee, following the lead of the President, is working to limit voting by mail because it believes mail ballots would extend the franchise to the “wrong” people. Add to this Trump’s attacks on the U.S. Postal Service, which recently saw the installation of one of his ideologues as its head; as the President knows, a working postal service is necessary to facilitate mailed ballots.

I hope this doesn’t work. I fear that it might.

Britain’s amateur government

From Politico analysis.

A time of crisis, former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown once said, is “no time for a novice.” If that’s the case, then coronavirus came at a bad moment for Boris Johnson’s Cabinet.

Despite the Conservative Party having been in power for 10 years, the average member of the ministerial team leading the U.K. through its worst public health crisis in a century has just 19 months of Cabinet-level experience. Fourteen out of the 22 have been in Cabinet less than a year, and only one — the influential Whitehall fixer Michael Gove — is a veteran of David Cameron’s first Cabinet a decade ago.

Such inexperience is unusual in a government led by the same party for so long. One of the main causes? Brexit. The Tory Party’s civil war over EU membership and the Brexit deal ended or derailed the political careers of a string of senior politicians who in less fractious times would — in all likelihood — still be in top jobs.

What do you expect from a Cabinet where the entry criterion was being wrong on the most important issue since the end of the war?

Just what you’ve always needed — a rotary-dial mobile phone

Earlier this year, Justine Haupt revealed a custom cellphone she built that eschewed unwanted battery-killing distractions like a touchscreen. In its place was an old-school rotary dial for placing calls, and while it looked antiquated, there were apparently enough people as fed up with the state of modern smartphones that Haupt has created a new version that she will actually build and sell.

Haupt is currently developing a “mark 2″ version of the design that will be available as a ready-built device for those who don’t know the first thing about soldering. In addition to an upgrade from 3G to 4G which ensures the right networks will be active for at least another 10 years, the new version will include a larger electronic paper display, newly manufactured rotary dial parts instead of old salvaged hardware, and an SD card slot allowing a contact list to be added by just uploading a text file full of names and numbers.

Sweet. Once upon a time, children, all phones were like this. And they were tethered to the wall — like goats.


Revolutionary microscopy technique sees individual atoms for first time


From Nature.

A game-changing technique for imaging molecules known as cryo-electron microscopy has produced its sharpest pictures yet — and, for the first time, discerned individual atoms in a protein.

By achieving atomic resolution using cryogenic-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), researchers will be able to understand, in unprecedented detail, the workings of proteins that cannot easily be examined by other imaging techniques, such as X-ray crystallography.

The breakthrough, reported by two laboratories late last month, cements cryo-EM’s position as the dominant tool for mapping the 3D shapes of proteins, say scientists. Ultimately, these structures will help researchers to understand how proteins work in health and disease, and lead to better drugs with fewer side effects.

“It’s really a milestone, that’s for sure. There’s really nothing to break anymore. This was the last resolution barrier,” says Holger Stark, a biochemist and electron microscopist at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany, who led one of the studies

Cryo-EM won Robert Richard Henderson of the Molecular Biology Lab in Cambridge a share in the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2017.

Correction: Thanks to Jon Barnard for spotting that I got Richard Henderson’s first name wrong.

Make sure your Twitter avatar is recognisable

Fascinating story from Quentin’s blog:

Yesterday, while on a video call, I fired up Twitter to check something, and amongst the stream of inconsequentialities, something jumped out at me: a tweet, just half an hour before, from my friend Lucy Jones saying that her father had died that morning, and how devastated she was.

I was shocked, not least because Lucy was actually on the call with me at that moment. I gasped, and was about to express my deepest sympathy and apologise that we were bothering her with trivia (while secretly wondering, a bit, why she still looked her normal cheery self in the little video window?)

And then I realised that there was something a bit strange about the tweet, and as I peered more closely at the avatar/icon, I realised it didn’t look at all like Lucy!

Well, it turned out that it was actually a retweet, by a friend of mine, of a post by a different Lucy Jones. He only knew one Lucy Jones, I only knew one, but it turned out we knew different ones, and Twitter had injected his Lucy’s news into my news stream. All of which would have been terribly confusing if it hadn’t been for the photos the Lucies had uploaded to their repective Twitter accounts.

So please, people, unless you are blessed with a particularly unusual name, do make sure your online accounts have a useful avatar associated with them. And no, a picture of you as a lovely bouncing baby doesn’t count: it’ll only be recognised by your parents and they’ll probably know whether or not it’s you. Especially if you’re announcing their sudden demise.

Quarantine diary — Day 76


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