Thursday 12 March, 2020

Quote of the Day

“The cliche about Trump’s presidency is that it is malevolence tempered by incompetence. His haplessness would undermine his corruption and authoritarianism. But now, finally, the country faces a crisis in which Trump’s incompetence will not save us from him. His wholesale unfitness was on bright display from the Oval Office. It may be the most unsettling moment yet of this bleak era.”

Things companies might learn from this crisis

  1. They will need to figure out how to reconfigure their operations so more employees can work productively at a distance. In other words, how to rethink the office. It’s been a mystery to me for years why so many organisations use such primitive telephone-conferencing kit, for example. So it’s no wonder that shares in Zoom) went up 24% in the first day that the immensity of the crisis began to dawn on people.
  2. Surely the penny about the fragility of complex supply-chains will now drop. Surely?

(Thoughts stimulated by an excellent Economist piece).

So the ‘administrative state’ has its uses after all

One of the most pernicious delusions fostered by the rise of tech within a neoliberal mindset was its contempt for the state. This predated the rise of Silicon Valley, of course — remember Ronald Reagan’s tropes about how the state was always the problem, not the solution? But it really took off once the Web 2.0 boom started.

Well, one of the most interesting aspects of our current predicament is the discovery that we really need the state after all. It’s the only thing that stands between us and a biological Armageddon, it seems. Looks like the hapless citizens of the US are about to discover this, given that they have a president who has for three years been trying to dismantle the administrative state or sell it off to his cronies.

Actually, the state has been essential in lots of fairly-recent crises too. It was that self-same administrative state that provided the heroic first-responders in 9/11, for example; the same state that organised TARP and the recapitalisation of banks in 2008; and the state that is now busily trying to protect populations from the havoc that COVID-19 will wreak.

And of course, most of the fortunes made in Silicon Valley are built on the Internet — an infrastructure that was paid for by US taxpayers.

People have such short memories. Sigh.

No computer required

Spotted in the ‘i’ newspaper. Don’t you just love the “No computer required” advice. And the price — £199.

Friday 14 February, 2020

Bloomberg is going after Trump on his home turf: Facebook

He spent more than $1 million a day on average during the past two weeks on Facebook, according to data compiled by NBC News. The thing is: with a net worth of $61B, he can easily afford to outspend Trump. At one level, this might be reassuring. At another, it’s deeply depressing: it means that only billionaires can play at democracy in the US now. We’re really in Larry Lessig’s Lesterland.

Are unsecured cafe wi-fi networks deliberately hostile to VPNs?

I’m in Bill’s cafe in Cambridge, which offers ‘free’ Wi-Fi — which of course I don’t trust. So I switch on my VPN to find that, mysteriously, it can’t connect to its server. And I’m wondering if this is just some kind of glitch, or a policy by the firm that provides the Wi-Fi. After all, they don’t want clients sending communications that are encrypted and therefore inscrutable for advertising and tracking purposes. In this stuff, only the paranoid survive.

Inside the mind of Dominic Cummings

Cummings is now the UK’s de facto project manager, but what does he actually believe? In a bid to find out, Stefan Collini read (almost) everything Cummings has written in the last decade. His report is fascinating, insightful and thought-provoking. I can say that because I too have been reading Cummings for years. When I say that to people in Cambridge, though, they start to back away — as if I had revealed that I was interested in UFOs. They view Cummings through a blinding haze of visceral dislike. So it’s nice to see a real heavyweight (Collini has written great stuff on CP Snow, the neoliberal ‘reform’ of UK universities and public intellectuals) taking Cummings seriously. Well worth reading in full.

I stumbled across a huge Airbnb scam that’s taking over London

Wonderful piece of investigative reporting by James Temperton in Wired. I don’t use Airbnb but I know lots of people — especially younger folk — who do. Wonder how many of them have bad experiences?

A taxonomy of privacy

Landmark 2006 article by Daniel Solove in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. I love the way it begins:

Privacy is a concept in disarray. Nobody can articulate what it means. As one commentator has observed, privacy suffers from “an embarrassment of meanings.”

Yep. And that’s still true — fourteen years later.

Cummings: long on ideas, short on strategy

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

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

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

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

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

Read on

Johnson’s semi-house-trained technocrat

My Observer Comment piece on Dominic Cummings:

Skulking in the background of TV news footage of Boris Johnson’s cabinet of C-list politicos, a strange figure in a T-shirt could be seen. His name: Dominic Cummings, now the prime minister’s senior adviser. He’s all forehead and no smile, clutching a pen and possibly a notebook, and doubtless making notes.

What a pity, one thought, that David Davis wasn’t round the cabinet table. In 2017 Cummings noted that Davis was as “thick as mince”, as “lazy as a toad” and as “vain as Narcissus”. As they passed him in the corridor on Thursday, many of Johnson’s new appointees must have wondered how they will be summarised in that notebook. We’ll have to wait a bit to find out.

Cummings’s appointment to the centre of Johnsonian power was the only real surprise of the week. After all, if you’re a prime minister who needs to get the government machine humming in top gear, ready for no deal, then the last person you need to lead the charge is a guy who has for years blogged his contempt for the civil service and the hapless politicians they serve.

His most recent efforts in this regard – an attack on the late, former cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood – is a case study of how to spit on a revered grave…

Read on

The intellectual benefits of bullet trains

From “The Role of Transportation Speed in Facilitating High Skilled Teamwork”

High skilled workers gain from face to face interactions. If the skilled can move at higher speeds, then knowledge diffusion and idea spillovers are likely to reach greater distances. This paper uses the construction of China’s high speed rail (HSR) network as a natural experiment to test this claim. HSR connects major cities, that feature the nation’s best universities, to secondary cities. Since bullet trains reduce cross-city commute times, they reduce the cost of face-to-face interactions between skilled workers who work in different cities. Using a data base listing research paper publication and citations, we document a complementarity effect between knowledge production and the transportation network. Co-authors’ productivity rises and more new co-author pairs emerge when secondary cities are connected by bullet train to China’s major cities.

Which attracted this comment from someone using the handle “Pedantic Blithering Idiot”:

In the famous paraphrasing of Max Planck- science advances funeral by funeral. To overturn old ideas it is often necessary for new ideas to have an incubation period among a relatively isolated group of highly talented people. If all the universities of the world were to relocate to Amsterdam the initial effect might be positive but it seems probable that a kind of group-think consensus would form up around old ideas and stagnate. (Is that finally happening in Silicon Valley?) The balance between concentration and dispersal of talent is complex involving many factors on a case by case basis. Many have tried to recreate the Silicon Valley success in some form or another, no one quite succeeds as well. In cultures where there is more conformity, where the nail that stands out gets hammered down, the tendencies toward group-think stagnation is likely to be greater which would suggest advising a balance favoring dispersal- small clumps of isolated groups, might work better for scientific advancement. In the short run I’d expect an increase in technical expertise as China finishes playing catch-up in technology (if it hasn’t already) and distributes technical knowledge more thoroughly throughout it’s regions, but it wouldn’t surprise me terribly if the long term effect of high-speed rail in China is negative for science production, and then for innovation and patents.

HT to Tyler Cowen

Why fake news will be hard to fix — it’s the users, stoopid

Here’s a telling excerpt from a fine piece about Facebook by Farhad Manjoo:

The people who work on News Feed aren’t making decisions that turn on fuzzy human ideas like ethics, judgment, intuition or seniority. They are concerned only with quantifiable outcomes about people’s actions on the site. That data, at Facebook, is the only real truth. And it is a particular kind of truth: The News Feed team’s ultimate mission is to figure out what users want — what they find “meaningful,” to use Cox and Zuckerberg’s preferred term — and to give them more of that.

This ideal runs so deep that the people who make News Feed often have to put aside their own notions of what’s best. “One of the things we’ve all learned over the years is that our intuition can be wrong a fair amount of the time,” John Hegeman, the vice president of product management and a News Feed team member, told me. “There are things you don’t expect will happen. And we learn a lot from that process: Why didn’t that happen, and what might that mean?” But it is precisely this ideal that conflicts with attempts to wrangle the feed in the way press critics have called for. The whole purpose of editorial guidelines and ethics is often to suppress individual instincts in favor of some larger social goal. Facebook finds it very hard to suppress anything that its users’ actions say they want. In some cases, it has been easier for the company to seek out evidence that, in fact, users don’t want these things at all.

Facebook’s two-year-long battle against “clickbait” is a telling example. Early this decade, the internet’s headline writers discovered the power of stories that trick you into clicking on them, like those that teasingly withhold information from their headlines: “Dustin Hoffman Breaks Down Crying Explaining Something That Every Woman Sadly Already Experienced.” By the fall of 2013, clickbait had overrun News Feed. Upworthy, a progressive activism site co-founded by Pariser, the author of “The Filter Bubble,” that relied heavily on teasing headlines, was attracting 90 million readers a month to its feel-good viral posts.

If a human editor ran News Feed, she would look at the clickbait scourge and make simple, intuitive fixes: Turn down the Upworthy knob. But Facebook approaches the feed as an engineering project rather than an editorial one. When it makes alterations in the code that powers News Feed, it’s often only because it has found some clear signal in its data that users are demanding the change. In this sense, clickbait was a riddle. In surveys, people kept telling Facebook that they hated teasing headlines. But if that was true, why were they clicking on them? Was there something Facebook’s algorithm was missing, some signal that would show that despite the clicks, clickbait was really sickening users?

If you want to understand why fake news will be a hard problem to crack, this is a good place to start.

The technocratic delusion

“This may upset some of my students at MIT, but one of my concerns is that it’s been a predominantly male gang of kids, mostly white, who are building the core computer science around AI, and they’re more comfortable talking to computers than to human beings. A lot of them feel that if they could just make that science-fiction, generalized AI, we wouldn’t have to worry about all the messy stuff like politics and society. They think machines will just figure it all out for us.”

Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab