Friday 24 July, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Most of what we call civilisation depends on reciprocal vulnerability”

  • Thomas Schelling

(one of the many things demagogues don’t understand.)

Instead of listening to the news at breakfast today, why not listen to this?

Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major, K.622

This is a performance from 2015, in the days when people could still go to concerts in person!

A recording of the concerto was the first LP record I ever owned.

From today face-masks will be compulsory in UK shops and (some) other places

From today, it will be compulsory to wear a face covering when buying food and drink to take away. However, the public will be permitted to sit down in the same outlet and remove their mask to consume their purchase. Those who fail to cover their faces in shops, supermarkets, banks, post offices and transport hubs will face a fine of up to £100.

So the government has finally got the message on masks, then? Er, you forget that this is the UK, a country governed by amateurs who don’t know what they’re doing. Accordingly, it’s still not mandatory to wear a face covering in restaurants, pubs, hairdressers, gyms and leisure centres, or entertainment venues such as cinemas, concert halls and theatres.

The FT had this revealing snippet:

Speaking last week, the health secretary Matt Hancock said: “You do need to wear a face mask in Pret because Pret is a shop. If there’s table service, it is not necessary to have a mask. But in any shop, you do need a mask. So, if you’re going up to the counter in Pret to buy takeaway that is a shop.”

Hours later a Downing Street spokesman said it was his understanding that it would not be mandatory “if you went in, for example, to a sandwich shop in order to get a takeaway to wear a face covering”.

You really couldn’t make this stuff up.

“Waste imperialism”: The environmental consequences of single-use PPE

Great FT report.

Much of the PPE used around the world is single-use by design and can contain a range of different plastics, from polypropylene and polyethylene in face masks and gowns to nitrile, vinyl and latex in gloves.

Yet just a few decades ago, almost all PPE was reusable, said Jodi Sherman, professor of anaesthesiology and epidemiology at Yale University. That changed in the 1980s when the medical devices industry recognised the moneymaking potential of single-use disposable products, she explained.

“The more stuff you throw away, the more you have to buy, so it’s an advantageous business model for things not to be durable,” Prof Sherman said. Now the vast majority of protective equipment is disposable, manufactured far from the point-of-use and delivered just in time to limit the need for warehousing and to ensure supplies do not expire.

The World Health Organization projected that PPE supplies would need to increase by 40 per cent monthly to meet demand during the pandemic, including an estimated 89m masks, 76m pairs of gloves and 1.6m pairs of goggles. Frost & Sullivan, a consulting firm, has predicted that the US could generate an entire year’s worth of medical waste in just two months.

Guess where it’s beginning to show up. Much of Europe’s waste is shipped to countries such as Indonesia and Turkey, which an activist from A Plastic Planet described as the “worst of waste imperialism”.

No-touch touchscreens

One of the most disconcerting things about getting into a new Tesla is the fact that it seems to have none of the usual buttons and controls we are accustomed to in traditional automobiles. Instead there just an enormous touchscreen. This is evidence that Teslas are basically software with wheels. And it means that driving one means interacting with the touchscreen — which, to my naive eye — suggests a certain amount of risk. At any rate, my experience of interacting with the SatNav on the much smaller touchscreen on our Prius is that it’s best done while the vehicle is stationary!

The thought that touchscreens are likely to become much more central in the automobiles of the future sparked some interesting research in Cambridge, in collaboration with Jaguar Land Rover. One of the outcomes is the development of a ‘no-touch touchscreen’. It uses a combination of artificial intelligence and sensor technology to predict a user’s intended target on touchscreens and other interactive displays or control panels, selecting the correct item before the user’s hand reaches the display. It is claimed that “in lab-based tests, driving simulators and road-based trials, the predictive touch technology was able to reduce interaction effort and time by up to 50% due to its ability to predict the user’s intended target with high accuracy early in the pointing task”.

The interesting thing, though, is how this research suddenly acquires a new salience in the Covid era, where the virus can reside on a surface and be passed along by people who touch the surface and then touch their faces. (Think doorknobs, for example.) In that sense, it’s a good illustration of how research conducted for one application area (in this case automobiles) can also be useful in other, ostensibly unrelated, areas.

Over five years ago, my GP’s surgery installed a touch-screen on which patients were required to register their arrival. When I pointed out (politely) that this could represent an infection risk for the practice, the receptionist listened to me politely with that ‘what-kind-of-nutter-have-we-here?’ expression, and for a while nothing happened.

And then one day there was a hand-sanitiser next to the screen.

The good news is that this was long before the Coronavirus arrived.

Travel in a time of Covid

Sobering tale from Maeve Higgins, an Irish citizen who lives and works in the US.

The list of countries with borders open to Americans has never been shorter. But for now, Ireland, unlike many others in Europe, is still allowing Americans in. It’s the welcome part that’s missing. American tourists who don’t feel like quarantining and instead hope to drink and dine at recently and cautiously reopened restaurants and bars are being soundly turned away.

This is of interest to me, an Irish citizen who lives in the United States, because of my recent trip back. I went to Ireland when the pandemic started, figuring it would be safer. It was. In fact, Ireland has one of the lowest rates of Covid-19 in Europe. However, I missed my home and my life and mainly Shake Shack, so I decided to go back to New York. It wasn’t easy, because of the travel ban the United States has put in place on people coming from Europe. This obstacle was new to me. An Irish passport is a powerful one that usually admits me to most parts of the world, and an American visa like the one I have in my passport is an equally rare and precious thing.

Suddenly, though, doors were being slammed shut and gates locked tight. I decided to return through Canada. I applied for and got my visa waiver online within minutes. I flew to London but was not allowed on the connecting flight to Toronto. It turns out Canada has an extensive travel ban too; Canadians are just too polite to shout about it. Between the jigs and the reels, as we say in Brooklyn, I had to come through Mexico. Not just transit through — I had to stay there for 14 days, which I did last month. This itinerary was not my choice and certainly not logical, but that’s what the travel ban did; it forced me to take two extra long-haul flights, as well as holding me squarely in the beautiful and resilient Mexico City, which at that time was a hot spot experiencing record-high levels of infection.

As an added bonus she was in Mexico City during the recent earthquake. The most interesting part of her account, to me anyway, is the way visiting Americans who don’t self-quarantine when they arrive in Ireland are finding that they’re not welcome in pubs. It seems that our famous Céad Mile Fáilte” greeting (“A hundred thousand welcomes”) no longer applies to refugees from Trump’s America. Which is a pity, but understandable in the circumstances.

Dave Winer: How I’d teach computer science

Typically imaginative (and succinct) curriculum by a great developer.

My only quibble: it’s really a lesson on how to write software that works reliably. Computer science — in so far as it exists — is broader than that. (Though I often wonder where the border between CS and ‘technology’ lies. I’ve never accepted that technology is just applied science. It does involve the application of scientific knowledge, of course; but it also involves the application of other kinds of organised knowledge. Craft and tacit knowledge, for example; also project management and other kinds of managerial skills and knowledge. No working bridge was ever built just by applying scientific knowledge. If you doubt that, then David McCullough’s terrific book on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge might make you think again.)

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Friday 22 May, 2020

So what day is it, actually?

Seen in a tech company office the other day.

Nearly half of Twitter accounts tweeting about Coronavirus are probably bots

Interesting report from NPR.

Nearly half of the Twitter accounts spreading messages on the social media platform about the coronavirus pandemic are likely bots, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University said Wednesday.

Researchers culled through more than 200 million tweets discussing the virus since January and found that about 45% were sent by accounts that behave more like computerized robots than humans.

It is too early to say conclusively which individuals or groups are behind the bot accounts, but researchers said the tweets appeared aimed at sowing division in America.

This vividly reinforces the message in Phil Howard’s new bookLie machines: How to Save Democracy from Troll Armies, Deceitful Robots, Junk News Operations and Political Operatives, (Yale, 2020) — which I’m currently reading.

Also it hardly needs saying (does it?) but nobody should think that what happens on Twitter provides a guide to what is actually going on in the real world. It’d be good if more journalists realised that.

Main Street in America: 62 Photos That Show How COVID-19 Changed the Look of Everyday Life

Lovely set of pics from an Esquire magazine project. Still photography reaches parts of the psyche that video can’t touch.

Lots of interesting photographs. Worth a look. But give it time.

Everybody knows…

A reader (to whom much thanks) was struck by my (corrected) reference to Joni Mitchell the other day and sent me a clip from Leonard Cohen’s song, Everybody Knows. This bit in particular strikes home:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died

We need power-steering for the mind, not autonomous vehicles

Following on from yesterday’s discussion of humans being treated as ‘moral crumple zones’ for the errors of so-called autonomous systems, there’s an interesting article in today’s New York Times on Ben Schneiderman, a great computer scientist (and an expert on human-computer interaction), who has been campaigning for years to get the more fanatical wing of the AI industry to recognise that what humanity needs is not so much fully-autonomous systems as ones that augment human capabilities.

This is a a debate that goes back at least to the 1960s when the pioneers of networked computing like JCR Licklider and Douglas Engelbart argued that the purpose of computers is to augment human capabilities (provide “power-steering for the mind” is how someone once put it) rather than taking humans out of the loop. What else, for example, is Google search than a memory prosthesis for humanity? In other words an augmentation.

This clash of worldviews comes to a head in many fields now — employment, for example. There’s not much argument, I guess, about building machines to do work that is really dangerous or psychologically damaging. Think of bomb disposal, on the one hand, or mindlessly repetitive tasks that in the end sap the humanity out of workers and are very badly paid. These are areas where, if possible, humans should be taken out of the loop.

But autonomous vehicles — aka self-driving cars — represent a moment where the two mindsets really collide. Lots of corporations (Uber, for instance) can’t wait for the moment when they can dispense with those tiresome human drivers. At the moment, they are frustrated by two categories of obstacle.

  1. The first is a lack (still) of technological competence: the kit still isn’t up to the job of managing the complexity of edge cases — where is where the usefulness of humans as crumple zones comes in, because they act as ‘responsibility sponges’ for corporations.

  2. The second is the colossal infrastructural changes that society would have to make if autonomous vehicles were to become a reality. AI evangelists will say that these changes are orders of magnitude less than the changes that were made in order to accommodate the traditional automobile. But nobody has yet made an estimate of the costs to society of changing the infrastructure of cities to accommodate the technology. And of course these costs will be borne more by taxpayers rather than the corporations who profit from the cost-reductions implicit in not employing drivers. It’ll be the usual scenario: the privatisation of profits, and the socialisation of costs.

Into this debate steps Ben Schneiderman., a University of Maryland computer scientist who has for decades warned against blindly automating tasks with computers. He thinks that the tech industry’s vision of fully-automated cars is misguided and dangerous. Robots should collaborate with humans, he believes, rather than replace them.

Late last year, Dr. Shneiderman embarked on a crusade to convince the artificial intelligence world that it is heading in the wrong direction. In February, he confronted organizers of an industry conference on “Assured Autonomy” in Phoenix, telling them that even the title of their conference was wrong. Instead of trying to create autonomous robots, he said, designers should focus on a new mantra, designing computerized machines that are “reliable, safe and trustworthy.”

There should be the equivalent of a flight data recorder for every robot, Dr. Shneiderman argued.

I can see why the tech industry would like to get rid of human drivers. On balance, roads would be a lot safer. But there is an intermediate stage that is achievable and would greatly improve safety without imposing a lot of the social costs of accommodating fully autonomous vehicles. It’s an evolutionary path involving the steady accumulation of the driver-assist technologies that already exist.

I happen to like driving — at least some kinds of driving, anyway. I’ve been driving since 1971 and have — mercifully — never had a serious accident. But on the other hand, I’ve had a few near-misses where lack of attention on my part, or on the part of another driver, could have had serious consequences.

So what I’d like is far more technology-driven assistance. I’ve found cruise-control very helpful — especially for ensuring that I obey speed-limits. And sensors that ensure that when parking I don’t back into other vehicles. But I’d also like forward-facing radar that, in slow-moving traffic, would detect when I’m too close to a car in front and apply the brakes if necessary — and spot a fox running across the road on a dark rainy night. I’d like lane-assist tech that would spot when I’m wandering on a motorway, and all-round video cameras that would overcome the blind-spots in mirrors and a self-parking system. And so on. All of this kit already exists, and if widely deployed would make driving much safer and more enjoyable. None of it requires the massive breakthroughs that current autonomous systems require. No rocket science required. Just common sense.

The important thing to remember is that this isn’t just about cars, but about AI-powered automation generally. As the NYT piece points out, the choice between elimination or augmentation is going to become even more important when the world’s economies eventually emerge from the devastation of the pandemic and millions who have lost their jobs try to return to work. A growing number of them will find they are competing with or working side by side with machines. And under the combination of neoliberal obsessions about eliminating as much labour as possible, and punch-drunk acceptance of tech visionary narratives, the danger is that societies will plump for elimination, with all the dangers for democracy that that could imply.

A note from your University about its plans for the next semester

Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff —

After careful deliberation, we are pleased to report we can finally announce that we plan to re-open campus this fall. But with limitations. Unless we do not. Depending on guidance, which we have not yet received.

Please know that we eventually will all come together as a school community again. Possibly virtually. Probably on land. Maybe some students will be here? Perhaps the RAs can be let in to feed the lab rats?

We plan to follow the strictest recommended guidance from public health officials, except in any case where it might possibly limit our major athletic programs, which will proceed as usual…

From McSweeney’s

Quarantine diary — Day 62


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Sunday 22 March, 2020

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Smartphones could help us track the coronavirus – but at what cost?

This morning’s Observer column

A key principle of control engineering is that you have to be able to measure the variable you’re trying to control. In the case of Covid-19, we currently have no way of accurately measuring how we’re doing, because we’re not able to do enough testing of the population. Dammit, we’re still not even testing frontline medical staff.

I know, I know: this is hard; this thing came out of the blue; we can’t just magic up the resources needed to do extensive public testing out of thin air; etc. But at the same time, every sentient being in the government must know by now that we must find some way of measuring the thing we’re trying to control. How else will we know – other than by counting the number of desperate cases who show up needing intensive care – whether that curve is being flattened or not?

We need a magic bullet. And, miraculously, we seem to have one. It’s called a smartphone…

Yeah, but there’s a downside that we might be living with for the rest of our lives…

Read on

Interestingly, Yuval Noah Harari had an interesting essay on the same lines — “The world after coronavirus” — in the weekend edition of the Financial Times. “Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life”, he writes.

That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical processes. Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours. Immature and even dangerous technologies are pressed into service because the risks of doing nothing are bigger. Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments. What happens when everybody works from home and communicates only at a distance? What happens when entire schools and universities go online? In normal times, governments, businesses and educational boards would never agree to conduct such experiment. But these aren’t normal times.

In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.


What the Coronavirus crisis is revealing

Extraordinary essay in the New York Times by Mark O’Connell.

In the original Greek, the word apocalypse means simply a revelation, an uncovering. And so there is one sense in which these days are truly, literally, apocalyptic. The world itself is being revealed with a startling and surreal clarity. Much of what is being revealed is ugly: the rot of inequality in the bones of our societies, the lethal inefficiency of free-market capitalism, the bewildering cruelty and stupidity of many of the people in positions of apparent leadership. But there are beautiful things, too, being revealed with great clarity and force. Of these, the one that gives me the most hope in this sad and frightening time is that despite the damage done by the presiding ideology of individualism, there remains a determination to act out of a sense of shared purpose.

On checking, this is probably drawn from his forthcoming book – Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back.

Quarantine Diary

Given that those of us confined to barracks should have more time on our hands, I’ve decided to keep an audio diary of thoughts and reflections on what we are about to go through. It starts today.

Saturday 22 March, 2020

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The American Cemetery, Madingley this morning. Click on the image for a larger size.

Solitude vs loneliness

As the world struggles to adjust to lockdown, quarantine and social-distancing there’s an interesting and timely book on the horizon. It’s A History of Solitude by my friend and colleague David Vincent, who is one of Britain’s most distinguished social historians. It comes out on April 24. The timing is fortuitous but accidental: David has been working on the book for several years, starting on it after he had finished his previous book, Privacy: A Short History. I haven’t seen it yet, but Terry Eagleton, the literary critic, has and he’s written an interesting review for the Guardian. Snippet:

Solitude is not the same as loneliness. Lonely people feel the need for company, while solitary types seek to escape it. The neatest definition of loneliness, David Vincent writes in his superb new study, is “failed solitude”. Another difference between the two groups is that hermits, anglers, Trappist monks and Romantic poets choose to be alone, whereas nobody chooses to feel abandoned and bereft. Calling yourself “self-partnering”, meaning that you sit in the cinema (should they be open) holding your own hand, may be either a genuine desire for solitude or a way of rationalising the stigma of isolation. The greatest difference of all, however, is that solitude has rarely killed anyone, whereas loneliness can drive you to the grave. As the coronavirus rampages, some of us might now face a choice between physical infection and mental breakdown…

Thank God for experts


Producing vaccines under intense political pressure poses serious risks

How anti-vaxxers win — If any eventual vaccine harms even a tiny percentage of those who get it, “the anti-vaxxers can set back not only this vaccine but all vaccines,” said Barry Bloom, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. The anti-vaccine movement has been growing in the United States, and contributed to the country’s worst measles epidemic in 27 years in 2019. (From Politico’s nightly summary.)

This is yet one more reason why Trump is a menace. He keeps talking nonsense and stoking unrealistic expectations. This makes him the second biggest public health risk to the American public. And while we’re on that topic, here’s Larry Lessig:

If in January, Trump had “declared war” on this virus with the resolve of FDR, or Churchill, or even President Thomas J. Whitmore (Independence Day), he would have united the world against this common foe, and for once, the world could wage a war as one, without hesitation, and without regret.

Yet so tiny is the mind of our Idiot King that he could not even glimpse this extraordinary gift. His single focus was on the single indicator that seemed to say that he was, indeed, a genius — the stock market. And so he dissembled and obstructed to the end of faking the market out. Who knows if the man is really stupid enough to have believed that a virus that had brought China to its knees, once discovered to have infected 15 Americans, would “within a couple days go down to close to zero.” It doesn’t matter. The political system had taught Trump that he had the power to distort reality. The economic system has now taught Trump that he can’t distort economic reality. America’s economy — and the worlds’ economy— will now collapse. The election in November will be in midst of a great recession, compounded by unimaginable loss of human life. No President gets re-elected in times like that. Not the good ones. Not even the buffoons.

Remote conferencing with Zoom

Some of my research colleagues and I had a key meeting scheduled for this week and planned some weeks ago. As the University (Cambridge) went into lockdown we obviously couldn’t meet fate-to-face but were reluctant to cancel the discussion. Previously, we would have used conventional phone-conferencing, but I have become so pissed-off with the inadequacies of that medium that I suggested we used Zoom instead.

It was MUCH better. Two things in particular made all the difference: firstly one could see all the participants (as live images in small frames at the top of the screen); and secondly, whenever anyone started to speak, the software foregrounded them. This latter feature wasn’t perfect, but it was generally very effective. And the audio quality was sometimes a bit harsh, but still perfectly comprehensible.

My conclusion: the tech isn’t perfect, but I never want to go back to phone conferences again.

Why modelling is the rational way to make policy in a complex system

The Economist has an excellent explanation of the Imperial College epidemiological model That persuaded the UK government to change tack (though not quickly enough). The modellers

assigned covid-19 a “basic reproduction number” of 2.4. This means that in a population not taking any precautions, and where no one is immune, each case leads, on average, to 2.4 secondary cases.

Under those conditions the model showed the disease infecting 80% of the British population in three to four months. If 4.4% of the people infected became ill enough to be hospitalised and 30% of those deteriorated to the point of needing intensive care, then by mid-April demand for beds in intensive-care units (icus) would outstrip the health service’s “surge” capacity. In May the number of critical patients would be more than 30 times the number of icu beds available. Estimates of the fatality rate in China range from 0.5% to 1.5% of infections. Using a conservative 0.9% for Britain, the model put the death toll by the end of the summer at over half a million.

The Italian tragedy

One of the tragedies of this pandemic is the way it shows how social structures that we generally think of as embodying sociality and stability — extended families with several generations living closely together, for example — can be especially vulnerable. It turns out that Italy has a higher percentage of elderly people than most European countries, and about two-thirds of adults aged 18-35 live with their parents, with many houses containing three generations — which meant they were sitting ducks for Covid-19.

Sunday 26 January, 2020

What the Clearview AI story means

This morning’s Observer column:

Ultimately, the lesson of Clearview is that when a digital technology is developed, it rapidly becomes commodified. Once upon a time, this stuff was the province of big corporations. Now it can be exploited by small fry. And on a shoestring budget. One of the co-founders paid for server costs and basic expenses. Mr Ton-That lived on credit-card debt. And everyone worked from home. “Democracy dies in darkness” goes the motto of the Washington Post. “Privacy dies in a hacker’s bedroom” might now be more appropriate.

Read on

UPDATE A lawsuit — seeking class-action status — was filed this week in Illinois against Clearview AI, a New York-based startup that has scraped social media networks for people’s photos and created one of the biggest facial recognition databases in the world.

Privacy is a public good

Shoshana Zuboff in full voice:

”The belief that privacy is private has left us careening toward a future that we did not choose, because it failed to reckon with the profound distinction between a society that insists upon sovereign individual rights and one that lives by the social relations of the one-way mirror. The lesson is that privacy is public — it is a collective good that is logically and morally inseparable from the values of human autonomy and self-determination upon which privacy depends and without which a democratic society is unimaginable.”

Great OpEd piece.

The winding path

Why the media shouldn’t underestimate Joe Biden

Simple: Trump’s crowd don’t. They think he’s the real threat. (Which explains the behaviour that’s led to Trump’s Impeachment.) David Brooks has some sharp insights into why the chattering classes are off target About this.

It’s the 947th consecutive sign that we in the coastal chattering classes have not cured our insularity problem. It’s the 947th case in which we see that every second you spend on Twitter detracts from your knowledge of American politics, and that the only cure to this insularity disease is constant travel and interviewing, close attention to state and local data and raw abject humility about the fact that the attitudes and academic degrees that you think make you clever are actually the attitudes and academic degrees that separate you from the real texture of American life.

Also, the long and wide-ranging [NYT interview)( with him is full of interesting stuff — like that he thinks that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (that’s the get-out-of-gaol card for the tech companies) should be revoked. I particularly enjoyed this observation by Brooks: “ Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders here are a doctoral student’s idea of a working-class candidate, not an actual working person’s idea of one.”



Serial Killers: Moore’s Law and the parallelisation bubble

Cory Doctorow had a thoughtful reaction to Sunday’s Observer column, where I cited Nathan Myhrvold’s Four Laws of Software. “Reading it”, he writes,

made me realize that we were living through a parallel computation bubble. The period in which Moore’s Law had declined also overlapped with the period in which computing came to be dominated by a handful of applications that are famously parallel — applications that have seemed overhyped even by the standards of the tech industry: VR, cryptocurrency mining, and machine learning.

Now, all of these have other reasons to be frothy: machine learning is the ideal tool for empiricism-washing, through which unfair policies are presented as “evidence-based”; cryptocurrencies are just the thing if you’re a grifty oligarch looking to launder your money; and VR is a new frontier for the moribund, hyper-concentrated entertainment industry to conquer.

“Parallelizable problems become hammers in search of nails,” Cory continued in an email:

“If your problem can be decomposed into steps that can be computed independent of one another, we’ve got JUST the thing for you — so, please, tell me about all the problems you have that fit the bill?”

This is arguably part of why we’re living through a cryptocurrency and ML bubble: even though these aren’t solving our most pressing problems, they are solving our most TRACTABLE ones. We’re looking for our keys under the readily computable lamppost, IOW.

Which leads Cory (@doctorow) to this “half-formed thought”: the bubbles in VR, machine learning and cryptocurrency are partly explained by the decline in returns to Moore’s Law, which means that parallelizable problems are cheaper/easier to solve than linear ones.

And wondering what the counterfactual would have been like: if we had found a way of extending Moore’s Law indefinitely.

As Moore’s Law runs out of steam, it’ll be back to the future

This morning’s Observer column:

In a lecture in 1997, Nathan Myhrvold, who was once Bill Gates’s chief technology officer, set out his Four Laws of Software. 1: software is like a gas – it expands to fill its container. 2: software grows until it is limited by Moore’s law. 3: software growth makes Moore’s law possible – people buy new hardware because the software requires it. And, finally, 4: software is only limited by human ambition and expectation.

As Moore’s law reaches the end of its dominion, Myhrvold’s laws suggest that we basically have only two options. Either we moderate our ambitions or we go back to writing leaner, more efficient code. In other words, back to the future.

Read on

Raspberry Pi: a great British success story

This morning’s Observer column:

I bought my Pi from the Raspberry Pi store in Cambridge. Across the street (and one floor below) is the Apple store where I had earlier gone to buy a new keyboard for one of my Macs. The cost: £99. So for £15 more, I had a desktop computer perfectly adequate for most of the things I need to do for my work.

The Pi is one of the (few) great British technology success stories of the last decade: sales recently passed the 30m mark. But if you got your news from mainstream media you’d never know…

Read on

Podcasting: will it succumb to the Wu cycle?

This morning’s Observer column:

I’ve just been listening to what I think of as the first real podcast. The speaker is Dave Winer, the software genius whom I wrote about in October. He pioneered blogging and played a key role in the evolution of the RSS site-syndication technology that enabled users and applications to access updates to websites in a standardised, computer-readable format.

And the date of this podcast? 11 June, 2004 – 15 years ago; which rather puts into context the contemporary excitement about this supposedly new medium that is now – if you believe the hype – taking the world by storm. With digital technology it always pays to remember that it’s older than you think.

When he started doing it, Winer called it “audioblogging” and if you listen to his early experiments you can see why. They’re relaxed, friendly, digressive, unpretentious and insightful – in other words an accurate reflection of the man himself and of his blog. He thought of them as “morning coffee notes” – audio meditations about what was on his mind first thing in the morning…

Read on