Tuesday 11 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be”.

  • Mark Twain

(I’m editing the text of my Quarantine Diary at the moment, and am finding this principle damn very useful.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paul Simon singing ‘American Tune’ quietly by himself on The Late Show.


Some of the lyrics seem to map directly onto the post below this.

And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
But it’s alright, it’s alright
For we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the
Road we’re traveling on
I wonder what’s gone wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what has gone wrong.

Many thanks to Ian Clark who suggested it, even thought he couldn’t have known what was coming next on the blog.

The unravelling of America

Anthropologist Wade Davis on how COVID-19 signals the end of the American era.

Best long read of the day. The 20th Century was the American one. The 21st will belong to… China?

Odious as he may be, Trump is less the cause of America’s decline than a product of its descent. As they stare into the mirror and perceive only the myth of their exceptionalism, Americans remain almost bizarrely incapable of seeing what has actually become of their country. The republic that defined the free flow of information as the life blood of democracy, today ranks 45th among nations when it comes to press freedom. In a land that once welcomed the huddled masses of the world, more people today favor building a wall along the southern border than supporting health care and protection for the undocumented mothers and children arriving in desperation at its doors. In a complete abandonment of the collective good, U.S. laws define freedom as an individual’s inalienable right to own a personal arsenal of weaponry, a natural entitlement that trumps even the safety of children; in the past decade alone 346 American students and teachers have been shot on school grounds.

The American cult of the individual denies not just community but the very idea of society. No one owes anything to anyone. All must be prepared to fight for everything: education, shelter, food, medical care. What every prosperous and successful democracy deems to be fundamental rights — universal health care, equal access to quality public education, a social safety net for the weak, elderly, and infirmed — America dismisses as socialist indulgences, as if so many signs of weakness.

How can the rest of the world expect America to lead on global threats — climate change, the extinction crisis, pandemics — when the country no longer has a sense of benign purpose, or collective well-being, even within its own national community? Flag-wrapped patriotism is no substitute for compassion; anger and hostility no match for love. Those who flock to beaches, bars, and political rallies, putting their fellow citizens at risk, are not exercising freedom; they are displaying, as one commentator has noted, the weakness of a people who lack both the stoicism to endure the pandemic and the fortitude to defeat it. Leading their charge is Donald Trump, a bone spur warrior, a liar and a fraud, a grotesque caricature of a strong man, with the backbone of a bully.

When I was a kid growing up in Ireland, I bought into the myth of American exceptionalism. Everyone did, then. The Vietnam war cured me of that. But what’s happened to the US as it morphed into a flailing giant is deeply depressing. Will a Biden presidency arrest the decline? I doubt it, so long as the Koch brothers et al continue to maintain a dysfunctional political system and systemic racism and an individualistic culture endure.

And just for the avoidance of doubt, the replacement of US hegemony with a Chinese version is nothing to celebrate either. We’re faced with the choice of lesser evils

Consistent and Widespread Belief in the Threat of COVID-19 to the UK Economy

From the ninth factsheet of the UK COVID-19 news and information project…

Most people still see COVID-19 as quite threatening or very threatening to the UK economy (94%), the health of the UK population as a whole (80%), and their personal health (54%). 41% say COVID-19 is a threat to their personal finances.

This is a really useful project by the RISJ.

Summer Reading #1

(Stuff I’ve been reading, or want to.)

Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics by Peter Geoghegan, Head of Zeus, 2020.

I’ve reviewed this (forthcoming in the Observer). It’s a compulsively readable, carefully researched account of how a malignant combination of right-wing ideology, secretive money (much of it from the US) and weaponisation of social media have shaped contemporary British (and to a limited extent, European) politics. And it has been able to do this in what has turned out to be a regulatory vacuum — with laws, penalties and regulators that are no longer fit for purpose.

And it’s not just (or even mostly) about Brexit.


QAnon groups have millions of members on Facebook

NBC News report that leaked contents of the preliminary results of an investigation by Facebook shed new light on the scope of activity and content from the QAnon community on the platform.

An internal investigation by Facebook has uncovered thousands of groups and pages, with millions of members and followers, that support the QAnon conspiracy theory, according to internal company documents reviewed by NBC News.

The investigation’s preliminary results, which were provided to NBC News by a Facebook employee, shed new light on the scope of activity and content from the QAnon community on Facebook, a scale previously undisclosed by Facebook and unreported by the news media, because most of the groups are private.

The top 10 groups identified in the investigation collectively contain more than 1 million members, with totals from more top groups and pages pushing the number of members and followers past 3 million. It is not clear how much overlap there is among the groups.

The investigation will likely inform what, if any, action Facebook decides to take against its QAnon community, according to the documents and two current Facebook employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Note the phrase “what, if any, action Facebook decides to take”…

This is so depressingly familiar. When will people wake up to the toxicity of this company?

How to find anything on the Web

Wonderful resource. Bookmark it. I knew only a few of the tricks; delighted to learn more.

HT to Charles Arthur

Outcome of Edward Bridge’s appeal on deployment of facial recognition technology by the South Wales police

Last year Edward Bridges, a civil rights campaigner in Wales, found himself in two locations at which he would have been scanned by automated facial-recognition (AFR) technology deployed by the local police force. He brought a claim for judicial review on the basis that AFR was not compatible with the right to respect for private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, data protection legislation, and the Public Sector Equality Duty (“PSED”) under section 149 of the Equality Act 2010. On 4 September 2019 the Divisional Court (“DC”) dismissed Mr Bridges’s claim for judicial review on all grounds. Bridges then appealed.

Today the Appeal Court published its judgment. Bridges’s appeal succeeded on three of the five grounds, but was not allowed on the other two.

I’m no lawyer, but it looks like only a Pyrrhic victory. The Appeal Court agreed that in order to use live AFR, some changes are needed to the framework which supposedly regulates it — e.g amendments to local policy documents and to the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice (which is issued by the Home Secretary), plus further work to ensure that the public sector equality duty is discharged. But the bad news is that the Appeal Court did not accept that lawful use of live AFR requires new primary legislation in order to regulate processing of images in the same way as fingerprints or DNA is processed by the police service. If you believe (as I do) that this technology is largely toxic, then this is depressing news.

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What Google thinks

A chance visit to Web Seer led me to look again at the suggestions that Google comes up with as you type. Here, for example, is what I got when I typed “How can I get?”

Wonder what — if anything — this tells one about the Zeitgeist? Knowing Google, these suggestions are all algorithm-driven, so presumeably they reflect the kinds of searches that users conduct. Should one might infer that how to find a boyfriend, and how to get one’s ex-spouse/partner back are among the biggest preoccupations of Google users?

Google adds real-time search to its results page

From VentureBeat.

Google’s results are about to speed up, with what the company says is “the first time ever any search engine has integrated the real-time web into the results page.”

Basically, when users search for something, the most recent news articles and posts on sites like Twitter will be immediately into your results, and those results will be updated immediately as new articles and tweets appear. Google executives are on-stage in Mountain View, Calif. describing the product right now, and while they haven’t offered a comprehensive description of everything that’s included in these results, they did offer a few examples and details:

* If you do a search for “Obama,” you can see the latest news articles and tweets, and as you look at the page, more updates are added as they are published.

* Google has already added time filters to its different search options, so you can just see results from the past day or hour. Now it’s adding an option called “latest,” highlighting these real-time results, as well as an “update” view showing each addition to the search results as it’s published.

* Google will include public updates from Facebook and MySpace users as well, through just-announced partnerships with both companies. [Update: The Facebook deal is limited to Facebook Pages and does not include user profiles.]

* These real-time results will be available on Android phones and iPhones as well.

Google says that to make this happen, it developed “dozens of new technologies” …, such as a language model that can recognize which updates contain new information, and which are just “weather buoys” automatically repeating information posted by others.

Inside the mind of the Digger?

Unless you’ve been vacationing on Mars you will know that Rupert Murdoch has been threatening to ban Google from indexing News Corporation websites. This proposition seems so bizarre that it’s had people wondering whether the Digger might be losing his marbles. There are (as I’ve observed before) two schools of thought:

1. He is losing his marbles.

2. He knows something that the rest of us don’t. Support for this view comes from people’s respect for his track record of making bold, risky decisions which have paid off handsomely. On the other hand, his record isn’t entirely unblemished when it comes to Cyberspace. This will be his third foray into Cyberspace, and his first two were not exactly unqualified successes. And even his purchase of MySpace, once hailed as an act of genius, is beginning to look tarnished in the light of Facebook’s rise. So let’s not get carried away by delusions of the Digger’s omniscience.

Kara Swisher is the latest commentator to attempt to fathom the Digger’s mind. In this post, she offers no fewer than five possible interpretations. Here’s a summary:

1. Murdoch really means it.

the increasing money being made by Google, even as their revenue has suffered, has developed into a growing problem.

Which is simply this: There is a lot more money to be made in searching for content than in making content.

This realization has to shake content czars like Murdoch to the core, but it is indeed the situation they find themselves in.

Murdoch makes a fair point in that journalism costs money to make and it used to have a solid economic system under it until Google and others on the Web disaggregated it wholly.

Thus, online aggregators become “tapeworms,” as The Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Robert Thomson quipped.

2. Murdoch really means to create a lot of confusion, in order to shake down Google.

Well, it would not be the first time Murdoch and many others of his ilk have used public sharp elbows and saber-rattling to get what they want.

Except in this case, the algorithm experts over at Google know precisely–down to the tenth decimal–how much linking to News Corp. makes for them.

And it is not much, especially when looking at the vast sea of data Google serves up.

Its money-making is widely dissipated, from searches for vacation information to mapping to car-buying to health. While news-finding definitely is part of the mix, it is not at the center of the Borg.

3. Murdoch really means to create a lot of confusion, in order to shake down Microsoft.

4. A deal will be made.

My not-too-surprising prediction is that in the end, News Corp. and others will probably strike some kind of lesser deal with Microsoft – although it will tout the heck out of it – while taking some of its content behind a pay wall and thereby de-indexing it from Google.

5. The truth is out there.

In perhaps his most strident television interview, with his Sky News Australia service (which you can see below–oh, the irony–on Google’s YouTube), Murdoch said about those who use Google to find News Corp. content:

“They don’t suddenly become loyal readers of our content. We’d rather have fewer people coming to our Web site but paying.”

That really is the honest truth in all this hubbub: Murdoch and other publishers have to find a way to get a some pool of dedicated online readers to pay enough to be able to then provide them with content that will keep them coming back for more.

That’s a business that Google truly cannot help or hinder, really.

In a nutshell: something will happen but we don’t know what.

Microsoft’s next Big Thing: visual search

From VentureBeat.

Microsoft continues its attempt to unseat Google as the king of search. Today, someone from the team behind its Bing search engine took the stage at the TechCrunch50 conference in San Francisco to announce the latest feature: Visual search.

The most obvious way to use visual search is when you’re shopping for products. So if you want to buy a new handbag, you could look at images of thousands of handbags in Bing, scroll through them quickly, and narrow down your search based on brand, price, and other attributes. Unusually for Microsoft, the user experience is actually quite impressive, with the image results and the transition between search pages providing some nice eye-candy. It’s certainly a much flashier experience than Google Image Search. Bing Visual Search is supposed to be live any second now, so you can see it for yourself.

Now you see it, now you don’t.

This morning’s Observer column about the power that Google now wields.

Most of the time we don’t think about this because the company provides such a useful service to the average web user. But if you look at it from the point of view of someone who runs an online business then you get a very different perspective. In The Search, an excellent book about Google, John Battell tells a story that illustrates this perfectly.

It concerns a small entrepreneur called Neil Montcrief, who in 2000 founded a small e-commerce business (2bigfeet.com) selling outsize shoes on the net. For a time, the business was modestly prosperous because of the traffic Google drove to Montcrief’s site. By the middle of 2003 he was shifting $40,000 of big shoes a month.

“And then, one day in November of that year, everything changed. Traffic to his site shrivelled, cash flow plummeted and Montcrief fell late on his loan payments. He began avoiding the UPS man, because he couldn’t pay the bill. His family life deteriorated. And, as far as Montcrief could tell, it was all Google’s fault.”

In a sense, it was. But Google had not targeted him: the vaporisation of his little business turned out to be just collateral damage in the ceaseless war between Google and the armies of people who try to ‘game’ its search results…

Facebook, Friendfeed and, er, Google (of course)

This morning’s Observer column.

Google’s page-rank search technology is good, but it’s still pretty primitive – try looking for a hotel in rural France or a plumber in any UK town. You could say that search is about 5% solved, with 3% of that down to Google. With 95% still to do, many people think the next advances will come from adding social or collaborative dimensions to pure computational algorithms.

Which is where social networking comes in…

Round Three

From Jason Calcanis:

And so ends the second chapter of search and begins the third.

Chapter one was inception up until the launch of Google.

Chapter two was Google’s rise and Yahoo’s death.

Chapter three will be the two-horse race of Microsoft and Google, with
the inevitable emergence of a third and fourth player.

That’s the silver lining for startups in all of this. As Google and
Microsoft lock into a dog fight for revenue and market share, leaving
the Yahoo carcass on the side of the road, the bevy of crafty startups
will get their chance to take the third, fourth and fifth positions in
this very important race.

The lesson for all startups–and BDC’s (big dumb companies)–is that
innovation is all you have. Once you stop innovating you lose your
talent and you lose the race. Never. Stop. Innovating. Never. Never.

Yup. Yahoo blew it.

Bing making headway?

The NYT thinks that it might be making an impact.

SAN FRANCISCO — In late May, Microsoft unveiled Bing, its new Internet search engine, in front of an audience of skeptics: technology executives and other digerati who had gathered near San Diego for an industry conference.

To that crowd, Microsoft’s efforts to take on Google and Yahoo in the search business had become something of a laughingstock, and for good reason. Microsoft’s repeated efforts to build a credible search engine had fallen flat, and the company’s market share was near its low.

Six weeks later, Bing has earned Microsoft something the company’s search efforts have lacked: respect.

As a result, analysts say, the once-dubious prospect that Microsoft could shake up the dynamics of the search business, which is worth $12 billion in the United States alone, has become just a bit more likely…

I hope this hunch is correct. The world needs some serious competition for Google.