When Twitter first appeared I thought it was wonderful. It enabled me to plug into the streams-of-consciousness of people I admired or valued. But over the years my feed has become cluttered and polluted by ads, nonsense and hysteria — to the point where I almost never use it.
I realise that the ads are inevitable — after all, Twitter is a surveillance capitalist operation (though I would happily pay to have it ad-free). But most of the other crap comes from people innocently, maliciously or lazily retweeting stuff. So, as Alexis Madrigal pointed out ages ago, retweeting is a large part of the problem.
Luca points out that this simple method doesn’t provide a comprehensive solution: there will be some ‘false positives’ that the tech solutions will catch. But as a first step I’m trying it. Stay tuned.
Luca is an accomplished network analyst btw. Lots of interesting stuff on his blog.
Damn! This great piece by Bruce Schneier was published on July 18 and I missed it. Growl.
Still, better late than never…
Twitter was hacked this week. Not a few people’s Twitter accounts, but all of Twitter. Someone compromised the entire Twitter network, probably by stealing the log-in credentials of one of Twitter’s system administrators. Those are the people trusted to ensure that Twitter functions smoothly.
The hacker used that access to send tweets from a variety of popular and trusted accounts, including those of Joe Biden, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk, as part of a mundane scam—stealing bitcoin—but it’s easy to envision more nefarious scenarios. Imagine a government using this sort of attack against another government, coordinating a series of fake tweets from hundreds of politicians and other public figures the day before a major election, to affect the outcome. Or to escalate an international dispute. Done well, it would be devastating.
en passant, the US is heading for an election that will not be decided on the day, but after a period (of unknown duration) while postal votes are being counted (and maybe argued over). Another Twitter hack on the lines just suggested could be catastrophic.
So here’s the nub of it:
Internet communications platforms—such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—are crucial in today’s society. They’re how we communicate with one another. They’re how our elected leaders communicate with us. They are essential infrastructure. Yet they are run by for-profit companies with little government oversight. This is simply no longer sustainable. Twitter and companies like it are essential to our national dialogue, to our economy, and to our democracy. We need to start treating them that way, and that means both requiring them to do a better job on security and breaking them up.
Google’s Advertising Platform Is Blocking Articles About Racism
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, the Atlantic decided to recirculate King’s famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” which the magazine had run in its August 1963 issue and republished, in print and online, in 2018. Several hours later, the publication’s staff noticed that Google’s Ad Exchange platform, which serves many of the ads on the Atlantic’s website, had “demonetized” the page containing the letter under its “dangerous or derogatory content” policy. In other words: As part of its efforts to protect advertisers from offensive internet content with which they would not want their products to be associated, Ad Exchange had locked out one of the most important texts of the civil rights movement.
Google controls more than 30 percent of the digital ads market. A big chunk of that business happens through Ad Exchange, a marketplace for buying and selling advertising space across the web. According to its publisher policies, Google does not monetize, or allow advertising on, “dangerous or derogatory content” that disparages people on the basis of a characteristic that is associated with systemic discrimination—race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. As the policy outlines, this might look like “promoting hate groups” or “encouraging others to believe that a person or group is inhuman.” Because of the scale of Google’s ad-serving business, however, it can’t enforce this policy on the front lines by hand, so instead the company uses an algorithm that, in part, scans for offensive keywords in articles. But the system doesn’t always take context into consideration. Several mainstream publishers, including Slate, have had articles demonetized under this policy when covering race and LGBTQ issues.
Automated ‘moderation’ is context-blind, in other words. It’s just another confirmation that these companies can’t fulfil their moral and ethical obligations at the scale on which they operate, given the business models on which they depend.
US Postal Service warns 46 states their voters could be disenfranchised by delayed mail-in ballots
Anticipating an avalanche of absentee ballots, the U.S. Postal Service recently sent detailed letters to 46 states and D.C. warning that it cannot guarantee all ballots cast by mail for the November election will arrive in time to be counted — adding another layer of uncertainty ahead of the high-stakes presidential contest.
The letters sketch a grim possibility for the tens of millions of Americans eligible for a mail-in ballot this fall: Even if people follow all of their state’s election rules, the pace of Postal Service delivery may disqualify their votes.
The Postal Service’s warnings of potential disenfranchisement came as the agency undergoes a sweeping organizational and policy overhaul amid dire financial conditions. Cost-cutting moves have already delayed mail delivery by as much as a week in some places, and a new decision to decommission 10 percent of the Postal Service’s sorting machines sparked widespread concern the slowdowns will only worsen. Rank-and-file postal workers say the move is ill-timed and could sharply diminish the speedy processing of flat mail, including letters and ballots.
My immediate thought was that this is linked to the appointment of a Trump stooge as the Postmaster-General. But apparently it pre-dates his appointment:
The ballot warnings, issued at the end of July from Thomas J. Marshall, general counsel and executive vice president of the Postal Service, and obtained through a records request by The Washington Post, were planned before the appointment of Louis DeJoy, a former logistics executive and ally of President Trump, as postmaster general in early summer. They go beyond the traditional coordination between the Postal Service and election officials, drafted as fears surrounding the coronavirus pandemic triggered an unprecedented and sudden shift to mail-in voting.
Everywhere one looks, norms and conventions that we took for granted in liberal democracies are wilting or being undermined. The chances of the US having an uncontested election result diminish by the day.
I’m exactly half-way through this extraordinary book, and I still don’t know where it’s headed. But it’s an infuriatingly compelling read. George Dyson is an extraordinary member of an extraordinary family — the son of the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson and mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson, the brother of technology analyst Esther Dyson, and the grandson of the British composer Sir George Dyson. He has led an amazing life as a roving explorer, craftsman and public intellectual. Having being brought up in Princeton, where his father was an academic in the Institute for Advanced Study, he dropped out of a couple of universities before heading for the West Coast of Canada. From 1972 to 1975, he lived in a tree-house at a height of 30 metres that he built from salvaged materials on the shore of Burrard Inlet in British Columbia. He became a Canadian citizen and spent 20 years in that part of the world designing kayaks, researching historic voyages and native peoples, and exploring the Inside Passage.
In recent decades he’s become interested in the history of computing and the direction of travel of our increasingly digitized world. Everything he’s written on these subjects interweaves his own personal history with polymathic knowledge of all kinds of subjects and speculations on what it all means for the future. This, his latest book, follows the same pattern. Where he’s heading, I suspect, is towards the conclusion that, in the end, the digital will run out of steam, and we’ll discover that analog computing (which after all is what goes on in our brains) will have the last laugh. As someone who started on analog computers before moving to digital devices I’m intrigued to see if that hunch is correct. But there’s another 150 pages to go and anything may happen: you never can tell with the Dysons. After all, George’s father devoted a couple of years of his life to a US-funded project to build a huge spaceship powered by nuclear explosions and was mightily pissed off when the US instead opted for Werner von Braun and his primitive, chemical-fuelled, rockets.
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“Ireland is not a romantic dream; it is not a flag; it is 4.5 million people divided into two powerful traditions. The solution will be found not on the basis of victory for either, but on the basis of agreement and a partnership between both. The real division of Ireland is not a line drawn on the map, but in the minds and hearts of its people.”
John Hume, RIP
Today’s musical alternative to the morning news
John Field – Nocturne No. 5 in B flat major, played by Stephen Leaney
We may not know the results for days, and maybe weeks. And a lot could go wrong in the interval. So it’s time to rethink “election night”.
This might be alarmist, but it isn’t fantasy. Even the Facebook boss has woken up to it.
Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, told me in a brief interview on Saturday that he’s planning to brace his audience for the postelection period. He said the site planned a round of education aimed at “getting people ready for the fact that there’s a high likelihood that it takes days or weeks to count this — and there’s nothing wrong or illegitimate about that.” And he said that Facebook is considering new rules regarding premature claims of victory or other statements about the results. He added that the company’s election center will rely on wire services for definitive results.
It’s possible, of course, that Joe Biden will win by a margin so large that Florida will be called for him early. Barring that, it’s tempting to say responsible voices should keep their mouths shut and switch over for a few days to Floor Is Lava, and give the nice local volunteers time to count the votes. That, however, would just cede the conversation to the least responsible, and conspiratorial, voices.
Yep. This won’t be over until January 20 2021, when Trump is finally ejected from the White House.
Interestingly, a group of former top government officials called the Transition Integrity Project have been gaming four possible scenarios, including one that doesn’t look that different from 2016: a big popular win for Mr. Biden, and a narrow electoral defeat, presumably reached after weeks of counting the votes in Pennsylvania.
For their war game, they cast John Podesta, who was Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, in the role of Mr. Biden. They expected him, when the votes came in, to concede, just as Mrs. Clinton had.
But Mr. Podesta, playing Mr. Biden, shocked the organizers by saying he felt his party wouldn’t let him concede. Alleging voter suppression, he persuaded the governors of Wisconsin and Michigan to send pro-Biden electors to the Electoral College.
In that scenario, California, Oregon, and Washington then threatened to secede from the United States if Mr. Trump took office as planned. The House named Mr. Biden president; the Senate and White House stuck with Mr. Trump. At that point in the scenario, the nation stopped looking to the media for cues, and waited to see what the military would do.
Which brings us — yet again — to Ben Franklin’s reply to the woman who asked him — as he emerged from the final deliberations of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 — “well, doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” “A republic”, said Franklin, “if you can keep it.”
We’ll see if they can.
Remembering John Hume
He was the greatest Irishman of our times. Tommie Gorman, RTE’s Northern Editor, knew Hume well and has written a lovely tribute to him.
Strasbourg was also the city where I saw him in his most sociable mode. He had a favourite restaurant, Maison Des Tanneurs, a family-run business at 42, Rue du Bain aux Plante. Religiously Hume would invite the quota of visiting journalists from Dublin, the Brussels-based Irish crew and any other waifs and stragglers to a meal.
He’d tell his party-piece joke about Mickey Doherty from Derry, he would insist on his visitors having Dame Blanche for desert, he would order more bottles of gewürztraminer and he would pay the bill. Before the fun broke up in the small hours, he would insist on singing ‘The Town I Love So Well’ in the nearby bar, The Aviator.
Hume had a real, steely courage to back his profound conviction that violence would never solve the Northern Ireland problem. And alongside that steel was an equally profound generosity of spirit. He gave the money from his Nobel Prize to charity.
Two inspired moves gave his cause momentum. One was to connect with the most powerful politicians of Irish extraction in the US — Senator Ted Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York State, and New York governor Hugh Carey. This enabled him to tap into the vast power of the Irish diaspora in the US, to erode the IRA’s fundraising grip on Irish-American sympathies and to challenge British influence in official Washington.
The second inspiration was to stand for the European Parliament where he was able to attract and harness the support of powerful European opponents of political violence — particularly Jacques Delors and Helmut Kohl.
Hume suffered from dementia at the end. But, as Gorman recalls, his memories
often came back when our paths crossed after his retirement in 2004. At close up range his eyes would clock some form of familiarity. “What’s your name” he would say. I’d tell him who I was and give an account of some of our past adventures. Sometimes the anecdotes would register and he’d break into a smile.
May he rest in peace.
Why it’s difficult to assess how badly the UK is doing
It is worth noting that the problems of counting Covid-19 deaths are vividly illustrated every day, when the Public Health England dashboard releases a count for the UK; for example, 119 and 83 additional coronavirus deaths were reported last Tuesday and Wednesday. NHS England is currently experiencing fewer than 15 Covid-19 deaths a day in hospitals, but the implausibly high PHE figures for England apparently also include any of the 250,000-plus people who have ever tested positive and have gone on to die of any cause, even if completely unrelated to coronavirus.
The Department of Health and Social Care has suspended these daily figures, but they are still going on all the international sites, and presumably are being used by others to judge how things are developing in the UK. They may be giving an inappropriately negative picture, as the ONS recently reported that the total number of deaths in the UK has shown no overall excess for the past five weeks.
But when we look at where the deaths are happening it is clear that we are not back to normal: people are still staying away from hospitals and dying at home. In England and Wales there were 766 excess deaths that occurred at home in the week ending 17 July, only 29 of which were with coronavirus, whereas in hospitals 862 fewer deaths than normal were registered. So more than 100 deaths a day were happening in people’s homes that would normally happen in hospital – although this is at least a reduction from the peak of the epidemic, when there were 2,000 additional home deaths a week.
This is his takeaway:
My original comments still hold: we will need years to properly assess the effect of the epidemic and the measures taken against it. We’ve now got a league table, but as to why the UK has done so badly, the arguments will go on.
The nostalgia boom
Interesting survey. The UK’s favourite decade was the 1960s, apparently. 21% of “top-tier earners” (whoever they are) are “willing to spend more money opt vintage record players than the latest tech”. Men are twice as likely as women to see nostalgia as “an avoidance of the present”.
Personally, I long for the days when the marmalade was thicker and newspapers were so big that you couldn’t read them comfortably in trains.
Basically, what this demonstrates is why features editors love surveys when there’s no real news to report.
Compared with a chronological newsfeed, Twitter’s algorithm tends to show tweets that are more emotive
The researchers wanted to find out if algorithmically-curated tweets are more emotive than chronologically-displayed ones. Answer: they are. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone — after all, the algorithm prioritises content that increases ‘user engagement’ — which is where the revenues come from. But it’s nice to see some evidence for it.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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A foreign perspective on the UK’s handling of the pandemic
Sometimes, when one is caught up in everyday events, it’s useful to find out how the UK looks to interested outsiders.
The New York Times‘s The Daily podcast had a really useful episode on this the other day. I liked it, of course, because it analysed Boris Johnson’s behaviour in the same way that I have, but still…
I’m still amazed (and infuriated) by the cunning he displayed having escaped with his life — to wrap himself in the NHS flag.
The podcast is really worth listening to.
And why is nobody talking about the European country — Greece — that has handled this crisis best?
Books really do furnish a Zoom
My riff in Quarantine Diary on Tuesday’s blog was partly inspired by an interesting new Twitter account which specialises in the semiotics of people’s bookcases in the background of their Zoom appearances. Its motto is “What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you.”
Here’s an example of one of the tweets — in this case featuring John Sweeney, the celebrated roughhousing investigative journalist.
Lovely idea: smart and witty. And perceptive, sometimes.
John Gray and the resumption of history
John Gray has a knack of making one see current events from novel perspectives. He’s been writing consistently interesting stuff about the significance and likely impact of the Coronovirus, and this new essay in Unherd is no exception. He doesn’t think much of the prevailing idea that life after the virus will be much as before, only a bit worse. “When you read diaries of people who lived through the revolution in Russia”, he writes,
you find them looking on in disbelief as the vast, centuries-old empire of the Romanovs melted into nothing in a matter of months. Few then accepted that the world they knew had gone forever. Even so, they were haunted by the suspicion that it would not return. Many had a similar experience in continental Europe when the Great War destroyed what Stefan Zweig, in his elegiac memoir The World of Yesterday (1941), called “the world of security”.
As for now,
Much in the way we lived before the virus is already irretrievable. Probably a vaccine will be developed along with treatments that reduce the virus’ lethality. But this will likely take years, and in the meantime our lives will have altered beyond recognition. Even when it arrives, a deus ex machina will not dispel popular dread of another wave of infections or a new virus. More than government-enforced policies, public attitudes will prevent any reversion to pre-Covid ways.
The relevant comparison, he thinks, is not with previous pandemics such as the Spanish Flu, but instead the more recent impact of terrorism.
The numbers killed in terrorist incidents may be small. But the threat is endemic, and the texture of everyday life has altered profoundly. Video cameras and security procedures in public places have become part of the way we live.
Covid-19 may not be an exceptionally lethal pathogen, but it is fearful enough. Soon temperature checks will be ubiquitous and surveillance via mobile phones omnipresent. Social distancing, in one form or another, will be entrenched everywhere beyond the home. The impact on the economy will be immeasurable. Enterprises that adapt quickly will thrive, but sectors that relied on pre-Covid lifestyles — pubs, restaurants, sporting events, discos and airline travel, for example — will shrink or disappear. The old life of carefree human intermingling will fast slip from memory.
That echoes what I used to think every time I flew after 9/11 — standing in long queues at airports, having to take out laptops and remove jackets, shoes and belts, put liquids into transparent plastic bags — the whole paraphenalia of what Bruce Schneier calls ‘security theatre’. And all because a smallish group of fanatics hijacked four planes and changed the world.
This time the relevant agent, though, is a spherical virus less than a micron in diameter.
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If you or I tweeted the kind of stuff that Donald Trump does, our accounts would be suspended and we’d most likely be banned for life from the platform. But it seems that Twitter doesn’t dare expel the president. Kara Swisher has a sensible view of this:
It so happens that in recent weeks, including at a fancy-pants Washington dinner party this past weekend, I have been testing my companions with a hypothetical scenario. My premise has been to ask what Twitter management should do if Mr. Trump loses the 2020 election and tweets inaccurately the next day that there had been widespread fraud and, moreover, that people should rise up in armed insurrection to keep him in office.
Most people I have posed this question to have had the same response: Throw Mr. Trump off Twitter for inciting violence. A few have said he should be only temporarily suspended to quell any unrest. Very few said he should be allowed to continue to use the service without repercussions if he was no longer the president. One high-level government official asked me what I would do. My answer: I would never have let it get this bad to begin with.
Now my hypothetical game has come much closer to reality. In using a quote to hide behind what he was actually trying to say, Mr. Trump was testing the system, using a tactic that is enormously dangerous.
She’s right. The interesting thing is that fanatical Brexiteers are beginning to use the same tactic in the UK — suggesting that if they are denied their dream, then the country will be drowned in gore. But at the moment, they use MPs and tabloid newspapers rather than Twitter to make the threat.