Thursday 3 September, 2020

A young visitor

I was rifling though old photographs today and found this. In May 2014 a group of Wagtail chicks in our garden fledged. After his first flight, this one landed outside our bedroom window and looked interestedly in for a few moments before eventually deciding to have another go at this flight business. It was an utterly charming moment.


Quote of the Day

“People only ask if you are enjoying yourself when you aren’t”

  • E. Nesbit

Musical alternative to this morning’s radio news

Green Day: I Fought The Law

Link

A fairly restrained performance compared with The Clash’s version

I always thought it was written by Buddy Holly but it turns out it was by Sonny Curtis, who tells the story of its composition here (17’30” into the interview). He wrote it in 20 minutes.


If you want to understand why Covid-19 is so complex and so dangerous, then this looks like the first attempt at a general theory of how it works inside the body

It’s basically an explanation for lay readers of the ‘Bradykinin hypothesis’.

In everyday terms:

Covid-19 is like a burglar who slips in your unlocked second-floor window and starts to ransack your house. Once inside, though, they don’t just take your stuff — they also throw open all your doors and windows so their accomplices can rush in and help pillage more efficiently.

Great piece of general explanation. Long read but worth it. Renewed my determination to try to avoid catching the disease.

Link


Edward Snowden was right: the mass surveillance program he exposed was illegal

From a Reuters report

Seven years after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the mass surveillance of Americans’ telephone records, an appeals court has found the program was unlawful – and that the U.S. intelligence leaders who publicly defended it were not telling the truth.

In a ruling handed down on Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said the warrantless telephone dragnet that secretly collected millions of Americans’ telephone records violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and may well have been unconstitutional.

Snowden, who fled to Russia in the aftermath of the 2013 disclosures and still faces U.S. espionage charges, said on Twitter that the ruling was a vindication of his decision to go public with evidence of the National Security Agency’s domestic eavesdropping operation.

“I never imagined that I would live to see our courts condemn the NSA’s activities as unlawful and in the same ruling credit me for exposing them,” Snowden said in a message posted to Twitter.

Evidence that the NSA was secretly building a vast database of U.S. telephone records – the who, the how, the when, and the where of millions of mobile calls – was the first and arguably the most explosive of the Snowden revelations published by the Guardian newspaper in 2013.

Up until that moment, top intelligence officials publicly insisted the NSA never knowingly collected information on Americans at all. After the program’s exposure, U.S. officials fell back on the argument that the spying had played a crucial role in fighting domestic extremism, citing in particular the case of four San Diego residents who were accused of providing aid to religious fanatics in Somalia.

It’s taken seven years. But this is a great day.


A tale of two stores

I just watched a terrific lecture by Younglin Yoo of Case Western Reserve University and afterwards went to his personal website, where I found this instructive story.

I went to Office Max to pick up chairs that I ordered earlier. The store was almost empty. I was happy to see my chairs stacked up in the cash register area. I thought it would a quick stop at the cash register to pay for the chairs and leave. Perhaps 5 minutes total.

There were two employees at the cash register. One was dealing with a customer who tried to get a refund. The other was trying to find a product that a customer wants to buy (if you buy a big item there, you bring a card from the floor to the cash register and they will bring to you). I was the first one behind these two customers. Lucky me, I thought! Well, not quite…

Read on.


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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.

Link

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.

Recommended.


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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Thursday 2 July, 2020

David Cameron and Xi Jinping go to the pub

It’s called appeasement — famously defined by (I think) Winston Churchill as “being nice to the crocodile in the hope that he will eat you last”.

Link


Citizens’ views about easing lockdowns

Suggests to me that expecting customers to flock back to stores etc. might be unduly optimistic. People are more cautious than their governments. And the UK’s subjects (they’re not citizens) are second in the list. Boris Johnson may be in for a surprise.


More naive illusions about Facebook

I don’t think the boycott will have anything other a marginal impact on the company.


Bossware: a real downside of working from home

Good investigation and an explainer from EFF — the Electronic Freedom Foundation.

Bossware typically lives on a computer or smartphone and has privileges to access data about everything that happens on that device. Most bossware collects, more or less, everything that the user does. The EFF looked at marketing materials, demos, and customer reviews to get a sense of how these tools work and produced a summary of the ways these products can surveil into general categories.

COVID-19 has pushed millions of people to work from home, and a flock of companies offering software for tracking workers has swooped in to pitch their products to employers across the country.

The services often sound relatively innocuous. Some vendors bill their tools as “automatic time tracking” or “workplace analytics” software. Others market to companies concerned about data breaches or intellectual property theft. We’ll call these tools, collectively, “bossware.” While aimed at helping employers, bossware puts workers’ privacy and security at risk by logging every click and keystroke, covertly gathering information for lawsuits, and using other spying features that go far beyond what is necessary and proportionate to manage a workforce.

This is not OK. When a home becomes an office, it remains a home. Workers should not be subject to nonconsensual surveillance or feel pressured to be scrutinized in their own homes to keep their jobs.

Great piece of work.

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What’s with the reluctance to wear masks?

Given that universal mask-wearing when in proximity to other people is the only way of having a reasonably normal life when the lockdowns ease, I’m baffled by (a) why there seems to be so much reluctance to wear masks (at least in Western countries), and (b) why they are not legally mandated in the UK. Sure, they don’t provide cast-iron guarantees of non-infection but they definitely reduce the risk.

One think that’s noticeable from the US is that some males in that benighted country (led by their Child-President) think there’s something girly about wearing masks. I don’t mind them dying as a result of this neurotic macho delusion. But I do mind the fact that, by not wearing masks, they continue to endanger others.

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Back to the future on energy storage

One of the main objections to electricity generation by renewable sources is the hoary old question: what happens when the wind stops or there’s not enough light for solar panels to do the trick? After all, if an electricity grid can’t cope with demand, it has to shut down some parts of the grid until supply equals demand.

For years and years we’ve been listening to tech evangelists (no doubt led by Elon Musk) telling us that the only solution is massive battery-complexes. This is the usual tech-solutionist guff, and it conveniently overlooks the environmental and other costs of lithium-ion batteries, not to mention the fact that they’re no good for long-term storage.

So it was fascinating to hear Steven Chu, the Nobel laureate who was Obama’s Energy Secretary, explaining that there is a solution to the energy storage problem that’s been around for many decades. And no rocket science is required: just a familiarity with gravity. Here’s part of the Forbes report:

The most efficient energy storage technology may be as close as the nearest hill, according to former Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and almost as old.

“It turns out the most efficient energy storage is you take that electricity and you pump water up a hill,” Chu said Tuesday at the Stanford University Global Energy Forum.

When electricity is needed, you let the water flow down, spinning generators along the way. Pumped hydro can meet demand for seasonal storage instead of the four hours typical of lithium-ion batteries.

“There’s been a resurgence and a new look at pumped storage because it is the one thing we do have, and we know it works and lasts a long time,” Chu said, highlighting it first in a review of energy-storage technologies.

The way it works is that when demand on the grid is low, you use the surplus electricity to pump water uphill to a reservoir. Then if there’s a sudden surge in demand, you open the sluices and water rushes down and starts to spin generators. It’s just a variation on the hydro-power systems that some countries like Norway have relied upon for many decades.

What’s really quaint about this, for those with long memories, is that the UK was providing fast-response electric power since 1984 via the Donorwig pumped storage station in Wales. It was constructed in the abandoned Dinorwic slate quarry and to preserve the natural beauty of Snowdonia National Park, the power station itself is located deep inside the mountain Elidir Fawr, inside tunnels and caverns. The project – begun in 1974 and taking ten years to complete at a cost of £425 million – was the largest civil engineering contract ever awarded by the UK government at the time. And it paid for itself in two years.

En passant: in the Trump era doesn’t it seem weird that there was a time when the person in charge of the US Department of Energy who was not only a Nobel prize-winner, but understood that his job was to act in the public interest rather than as a shill for the coal industry.

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What it’s like trying to report on Facebook

Terrific piece in Columbia Journalism Review.. Here’s the gist, but it’s worth trading in full, especially if you work in media or tech journalism.

What Facebook has become is the press’s assignment editor, its distribution network, its great antagonist, devourer of its ad revenue, and, through corporate secrecy, a massive block to journalism’s core mission of democratic accountability. Whether journalists can survive these conditions to produce meaningful, critical work about Facebook depends as much on their own adaptability as it does on the backing of revenue-minded media owners who might not wish to antagonize one holder of the advertising duopoly during an unfolding economic calamity. Except for one or two premium-tier media properties, journalism needs Facebook more than Facebook needs journalism.

“I don’t think the adversarial relationship between Facebook and the press is going to change,” Biddle says. “It’s a question of whether Facebook is going to stop resenting it so obviously and realize that this is what comes with being an enormously powerful, enormously wealthy corporation.”

That’s why one of the themes of our our new research Centre in Cambridge is building journalistic capacity to interrogate the tech industry.


The blogchain: New potatoes

Link


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