Tuesday 29 June, 2020

Quote of the day

“Those who choose the lesser evil forget quickly that they chose evil”

  • Hannah Arendt

I love this cartoon.


Snap-Back and Gone-Forever Goods: Understanding the COVID Recession’s Economic Winners and Losers

Interesting post by Bruce Wydick:

My main contribution here is to categorize different types of goods and services in ways that will help us better understand the economic situation we are in. I will do it across two dimensions. First is the distinction between purchases of what I’ll call “Snap-Back” goods and services and those that are “Gone Forever.” In the Snap-Back category are things that we couldn’t buy during the heaviest COVID lock-down period, but these purchases were simply delayed. There is good reason to think that as the economy begins to open up, purchases of these items might even be higher than normal due to pent-up demand. Even during COVID, things like household appliances break or need fixing, and because over the long run purchases tend to even out, buying less now means buying more later.

“Gone Forever” goods and services, in contrast, are just like the term suggests: gone forever. Like me, you may have foregone several haircuts during shelter-in-place because you didn’t want to get (or give) coronavirus to your barber. But when it becomes safe to go back to the barber chair, you’ll still only get one haircut. The rest of your haircuts disappeared into the economic ether; they were (mutually beneficial) transactions that COVID—what we might call the “invisible anti-hand”—prevented from happening.


Coronavirus, the British State and Brexit

Guest post on the CSaP blog by Philip Rycroft, formerly Permanent Secretary of the Department for Exiting the EU:

Through the rest of 2020 and well into 2021, the British state will have to deal with the conjunction of two seismic shocks.

For one it ought to be well prepared. Officials and ministers have laboured hard since the 2016 referendum to get the country ready for Brexit. Once uncertain, the manner of our leaving the single market and custom union has narrowed to two options, both at the hard end of any previously imagined Brexit scenario; departure with a thin free trade agreement or departure with no trade deal at all. One would likely be more chaotic than the other, but both require immense adjustment to the apparatus of the state, not least the creation of a new trade border with our major trading partner and the re-homing of all of the appurtenances of the EU bureaucracy.

For the other, it transpires, the country was ill-prepared. The state has scrambled to piece together a response to the coronavirus crisis through a fog of confusing data and uncertain science. A formal judgement on how well, or otherwise, the state has coped, both in its own terms and in comparison to other countries, will have to wait for the inevitable enquiry. For now, what is evident is that the tail of consequences from the original outbreak will be with us into next year and well beyond.

On top of these shocks, Johnson and Cummings propose a third one — ‘fix Whitehall’.

Although there is no blueprint, there are clear indicators as to the way in which Whitehall will be fixed and it is possible to see how the current crisis is reinforcing existing prejudice. Private companies, business leaders and the army have been brought in at various points to shake up or bypass the existing bureaucracy, much as the apparent agility of the ARPA programme is touted as a model for sparking innovation and economic development. Power has been further concentrated in No 10. Metro-mayors, and increasingly the devolved governments, have been left on the sidelines. Will these responses be a guide to future action on fixing Whitehall?

You only have to ask the question to know the answer.


Pixar’s computer graphics pioneers have won the $1 million Turing Award

Two men who invented game-changing 3D computer graphics techniques now widely used in the film industry have won the highest distinction in computer science: the Turing Award. If you enjoyed Toy Story, The Lord of the Rings, Finding Nemo, Titanic, Avatar, or Jurassic Park, you have them to thank.

Who are they? Edwin Catmull and Patrick Hanrahan. Catmull cofounded Pixar and hired biophysics PhD Hanrahan as one of the first employees in 1986. Hanrahan spent much of his time modeling materials and lighting to help animations look closer to real life. “Physicists generally don’t study hair or skin, and why they look the way they do. I did, and spent years thinking about how to get things like lighting right,” he told MIT Technology Review.

The most interesting aspect of this (for me, anyway) is that way back in 1970, Catmull was part of the University of Utah’s ARPA program, where he came up with the first method to display curved surfaces on a computer. Up to that point, computer-generated images were all straight lines and polygons. While at Utah in 1972, Catmull created a short film called “A Computer Animated Hand,” which is one of the earliest examples of computer animation.

It took a long time for the industry to fully wake up to the potential of what he’d invented. The world’s first computer-animated feature film, Pixar’s Toy Story, didn’t come out until over two decades later, in 1995.

This is an instructive case study in how government-funded research can underpin great commercial developments. The Utah Lab where Catmull worked was funded by ARPA.


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Monday 29 June, 2020

The path not taken

From a walk yesterday.

Whenever I walk in a wood I find myself thinking of Robert Frost.


EasY does it: just don’t check the bank statements

I’ve always thought that the big consulting firms are basically frauds, but I thought they could probably do audits. Seems I was wrong.

According to the FT,

EY between 2016 and 2018 did not check directly with Singapore’s OCBC Bank to confirm that the lender held large amounts of cash on behalf of Wirecard. Instead, EY relied on documents and screenshots provided by a third-party trustee and Wirecard itself.

A senior auditor at another firm said that obtaining independent confirmation of bank balances was “equivalent to day-one training at audit school”.

Hopefully, investors in Wirecard will now sue EY into the ground.

Maybe I will be an auditor when I grow up, on the grounds that I could at least spot when 1.9 billion Euro was missing.


Legal vetting

The Harvard Gazette has an intriguing interview with the great constitutional lawyer Lawrence Tribe, who’s about to retire. He started as a mathematician (going to Harvard at the edge of 16) and then switched to Law. Like many young legal high-flyers, after graduation he clerked for a Supreme Court judge Potter Stewart. There’s an hilarious excerpt in the interview about this:

Q: Were you able to get to know any of the other justices besides Stewart?

A: Yes. I got to know Marshall quite well and [Earl] Warren less well. I remember a hilarious experience with [John Marshall] Harlan, in particular. In those days, the Supreme Court had its own theory that explicit sexual material could be banned if it was sufficiently hardcore, whatever that meant. Stewart famously said, ‘I can’t define hardcore pornography, but I know it when I see it.’ And I asked him once, “Have you ever seen it?” And he said, “Yes, just once, off the coast of Algiers.” (Laughs) I could never find out more than that.

We used to go to the basement of the court to watch porno flicks because the court was in a phase where it would just have to judge — thumbs up or thumbs down — either this is hardcore pornography and can be banned, or it’s not. They had no criteria. They just basically looked at the movies. Harlan was going blind, and so he had Thurgood Marshall narrate the films. “Oh, he’s doing that? You’ve got to be kidding!” That was the screening process.

Much more interesting than I expected. I can see why his students (including Barack Obama) loved him.


Quarantine diary — Day 100

Final episode!

Link


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Sunday 28 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

In 1990, the top three carmakers in Detroit had a market capitalization of $36 billion and 1.2 million employees. In 2014, the top three firms in Silicon Valley, with a market capitalization of over $1 trillion, had only 137,000 employees.


A family outing

A scene from our walk yesterday evening. Think of it as my homage to John Constable! The Canada geese goslings have grown at an extraordinary rate. And it was very considerate of them and their parents to swim in such a straight line.

Click on the image to see a larger version.


Is it payback time for Apple as the EU goes after its licences to print money?

This morning’s Observer column:

On 16 June, the European commission opened two antitrust investigations into Apple’s App Store and Apple Pay practices. The first investigation will examine whether Apple has broken EU competition rules with its App Store policies. The second investigation is into whether restrictions imposed by Apple on the near field communication (NFC) capability of its iPhone and Apple Watch mean that banks and other financial institutions are prevented from offering NFC payment systems using Apple kit.

Let’s take the App Store first. When Apple unveiled the iPhone in 2007, it created an amazing new opportunity for software developers and, of course, for Apple itself. Because the new phone was basically a powerful handheld computer, that meant it could run smallish programs, which came to be called apps. And because it had an internet connection those programs could be efficiently distributed across the net. From this came the idea that Apple should set up an App Store to which developers could upload their programs. Apple, being a control-freak corporation, would vet those apps before they appeared on the store and would levy a 30% commission on sales. It seems like a great idea…

Read on


Thinking of moving to the US? Listen to this first

Stunning The Daily podcast on what’s been going on in Texas.

Made me realise I didn’t know the half of it.


Anne Case and Angus Deaton interviewed by Der Spiegel

Link. Interesting throughout. For example:

DER SPIEGEL: What has caused this mass-despair in white, middle-class life?

Deaton: Look at the labor market, at wages. Life-time jobs and the meaning that comes from a life like that is very important. Roles for men and women are defined by it, as is their place in the community. It’s almost like Marx: Social conditions depend on the means of production. And these means of production are being brought down by globalization, by automation, by the incredible force of health care. And that’s destroying communities.

DER SPIEGEL: Yet where there are losers, there should be winners as well. Who is to blame for this development?

Deaton: Many people have said that there are two ways of getting rich: One way is by making things, and the other is by taking things. And one of the ways of taking things is to make the government give you special favors. Those special favors don’t create anything, but they can make you rich, at the expense of everybody else.

Case: For instance, the pharma companies get a law passed that Medicare has to pay for drugs at whatever price the pharma companies choose. Or the doctors’ lobby doesn’t allow as many people to go to medical school, which helps to keep doctors salaries up. That’s one of the reasons why doctors are the largest single occupation in the top 1 percent.

DER SPIEGEL: Would you argue that those in the top 1 percent are peculiarly prone to rent seeking?

Deaton: No, but many people are in the 1 percent because of rent seeking. This mechanism is creating a lot of very wealthy people who would not be wealthy if the government hadn’t given them a license to rip off the rest. We’re not among the people who think of inequality as a causal force. It’s rent-seeking opportunities that create inequality.

DER SPIEGEL: How do the losers of this development react politically?

Deaton: Well, many of them like Donald Trump (laughs)!

I’ve just got their book.


If you thought that the Pizzagate conspiracy theory was dead and buried (I did), then think again.

Astonishing — and depressing — NYT story.

Sigh.


Quarantine diary — Day 99

Link


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Saturday 27 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

Other countries are used to loathing America, admiring America, and fearing America (sometimes all at once). But pitying America? That one is new.


The dead tree

On one of our cycle routes. Dead trees make for very dramatic photographs, sometimes. I’m always tempted to stop and photograph them.


Can this really be right?

From today’s Guardian:

The UK government’s plan to invest hundreds of millions of pounds in a satellite broadband company has been described as “nonsensical” by experts, who say the company doesn’t even make the right type of satellite the country needs after Brexit.

The investment in OneWeb, first reported on Thursday night, is intended to mitigate against the UK losing access to the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system.

But OneWeb – in which the UK will own a 20% stake following the investment – currently operates a completely different type of satellite network from that typically used to run such navigation systems.

“The fundamental starting point is, yes, we’ve bought the wrong satellites,” said Dr Bleddyn Bowen, a space policy expert at the University of Leicester. “OneWeb is working on basically the same idea as Elon Musk’s Starlink: a mega-constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, which are used to connect people on the ground to the internet.

“What’s happened is that the very talented lobbyists at OneWeb have convinced the government that we can completely redesign some of the satellites to piggyback a navigation payload on it. It’s bolting an unproven technology on to a mega-constellation that’s designed to do something else. It’s a tech and business gamble.”

If true, it looks like Trump-level imbecility.


Simon Kuper on why football matters

Lovely essay:

I’m British but I grew up mostly abroad, so when I went to university in England I discovered a new species of man: the Total Fan, the teenager whose main identity was the football club he supported. I witnessed conversations in the common room that went like this:

Student in plastic Manchester United shirt: “We’re brilliant this season.”

Student in Spurs shirt: “No, you’re shit.”

Student in Crystal Palace shirt: “He’s right, Steve. You’re shit.”

They weren’t exactly casting aspersions on Steve’s personality. They were talking about his football club. However, they saw the two things as essentially the same. Steve was Manchester United. The Spurs fan once told me that, when his team won the FA Cup, he walked into the common room to receive everybody’s congratulations as if he personally had lifted the trophy.

Even if you’re not a football fan (and I’m not) this is worth reading.


Share the wealth as we recover health (hopefully)

Noema magazine (a new publication from the Berggruen Institute) has an interesting conversation with Joe Stieglitz and Ray Dalio about how to ensure that the benefits of any recovery from the Covid crisis are shared with the population as a whole.

The basic idea: the massive taxpayer-financed cash infusion to save some of the largest companies that are otherwise viable may present a unique opportunity to more effectively tackle inequality by bolstering the assets of the less well-off. If the same taxpayers who are bearing the costs of the bailout also share an upside when we recover prosperity, wealth will be shared more fairly.

“This can be done”, says the magazine,

by establishing a sovereign wealth fund, or national endowment, that pools the taxpayer’s ownership shares from all the bailed-out companies and distributes regular dividends to all citizens. We call this “universal basic capital,” as distinct from the idea of a universal basic income. Instead of only once again relying on redistributing income to close the gap after wealth has been created, that wealth should be shared upfront in what we call “pre-distribution.”

There are many models out there that guide us on this path. Alaska has long had a social wealth fund that pays dividends to citizens from the revenues of the state’s oil leases. Norway has a similar fund, also from oil revenues, that pays into the general pension system. Australia has what is calls the superannuation fund, in essence a sovereign wealth fund financed by employees, employers and state contributions for its universal pension scheme. The wealth of that fund now stands at almost $2 trillion, a sum greater than Australia’s GDP. Singapore has a similar plan, called the Central Provident Fund, from which citizens can also draw for health and housing needs. It is so profitable from its global investments that it is even able to fund some government services and help keep taxes low.

What is important at this point is to recognize the opportunity for reducing social inequality that can be created by a fair and innovative approach to economic recovery. If everyone in this pandemic must share the downside, all must share in the upside as well.

Some promising ideas here. And the good thing is that none of the corporations in which governments might take a stake in return for support during the pandemic are tech companies, for the simple reason that those companies are the ones that will have benefited most from the crisis.

Noema‘s good, btw.


We can make you hurt if you don’t do what we want

Jonathan Zittrain is my idea of a perfect academic. Staggeringly bright, knows both digital tech and the law intimately (he has Chairs in both Harvard Law and Engineering), fizzes with original and often productive ways of viewing tricky problems, etc. So whenever he writes or lectures about anything I pay attention.

Now he has an article in The Atlantic about what social media outfits should do about Trump. At the beginning, his discussion of the possible options for regulating the speech of an authoritarian nutter takes a fairly standard detached, scholarly tone. His emerging conclusion seems to be that every plausible configuration of social media in 2020 is unpalatable.

But then, he briefly switches to a different register:

Those proposals can be analyzed and judged on their own terms as if they simply appeared on Congress’s docket out of nowhere, and I’d normally offer here some thoughts on their details. But I can’t stay in my academic lane. The executive order, and the push for more legislation, is part of a larger pattern in which the president appears to seek vengeance against those who even mildly criticize him, retaliating in any way he can, including by using the powers of his office. When, for instance, he didn’t like The Washington Post’s reporting about him, he made it clear—on Twitter, fittingly enough—that, because the paper is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, he would like to disadvantage Amazon however he can, including by demanding that the U.S. Postal Service raise its shipping rates. Here, the executive order is so scattershot, and the legislation so crudely sweeping, that it’s important to recognize that it conveys more than its text says. What it really says is: We can make you hurt unless you do what we want, and what we want is what helps the president personally. [Emphasis added.]

Yep: full marks. That’s the nub of Trump’s authoritarian threat. Same as Erdogan, Orban, Bolsonaro & Co.

So what does Zittrain think we should do?

“In the near term, the simplest solution is to vote Trump out of office.”

Well, yes: but you don’t have to be a bi-Chaired Harvard prof to come to that conclusion.

What if that option doesn’t work?

“In the longer term”, says Zittrain,

the most promising path for online content moderation lies in taking up unavoidable decisions by the largest companies in ways that respect the gravity of those decisions — likely involving outside parties in structured, visible roles — and, even more important, in decentralizing the flows of information online so that no one company can readily change the map.

So when Twitter tempers its deference and wades into a fraught zone by fact-checking in its own voice, still judged in the public sphere by its attention to the real facts, I respect its decision. One way to try to break what is raging behavior even—and especially—by a president is to create policies to deal with it, policies that would collect dust if the rule of law and the institutions designed to reinforce it were not under such extraordinary and explicit attack.

Yeah, sure. But this seems a bit feeble after the build-up. What might those policies look like? And how might we ‘decentralize’ those information flows?

Maybe there’s a sequel to this piece coming. If so I can’t wait.


Quarantine diary — Day 98

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Friday 26 June, 2020

Fuchsia

In our garden, this morning. One of my favourite plants, which has really thrived this year, for reasons unknown. Trouble is, it makes me nostalgic for County Kerry, which has more fuchsia hedges than anywhere else in the known world (IMHO).


Grandparents are critical workers too

Interesting long read (estimated reading time 15 minutes) in De Correspondent, a journalistic outfit to which I subscribe.

In a world where half of all Dutch families regularly ask grandparents to provide childcare, and those in other countries do so too; where care provided by grandparents in the UK saves over £7bn each year; and where a significant proportion of US, Filipino and Romanian children are raised by their grandparents, it’s safe to say that grandparents play a key role in shaping future generations.

The different generations are much more closely intertwined than we like to admit. Seen in this light, it’s a shame that many older adults are now being described, first and foremost, as “vulnerable”. If only because our collective strength is not defined by our ability to separate “the vulnerable” from “everybody else” but, as Amy Davidson Sorkin aptly wrote in a recent piece for the New Yorker, “by our willingness to stand together”.

“Covid-19 has caused generations to become increasingly separated from one another,” Gopnik says. “It was already happening in many places, but I think the pandemic makes us realise even more how much we depend on the fact that we have grandparents involved in caring for grandchildren. It makes it really vivid that we’ve sort of neglected those two ends of the life-span.” It also makes vivid the loss that ensues when grandparents and grandchildren are unable to interact.

I know it sounds like special pleading (I’m a grandfather) but I’ve been struck time and again — and not just in the pandemic — about this. I come from a rural culture where (just like parts of Italy, say) there’s always been extensive extended-family groups living in close proximity. But when socially-mobile or ambitious children leave that kind of environment — to live and work, say, in large urban conurbations far away — and then themselves start to have children, suddenly the conflicts between the demands of work and those of childcare become acute. My wife and I both brought up broods without any help whatsoever from our parents, and it made life much more demanding in all kinds of ways. State childcare provision in the UK is abysmal and inadequate by Continental European standards, and so families with young children have much less flexibility when both parents need to be out of the house. Way back in the Ireland I grew up in, that problem didn’t exist. The kids would simply wander round to Granny and Grandad’s place.

The figure of £7B is just an estimate of what parents in the Uk would have to fork out for childcare if their parents weren’t helping. I suspect it’s a huge under-estimate.

That’s not to say that there aren’t downsides to extended families living close together. Apart from the privacy aspects, there’s also the fact that initial impact of the Coronavirus seemed higher in cultures where multiple generations live together.


How to report the spread of a pandemic

The New York Times has produced a terrific animated-graphic-plus-succinct-narrative account. It’s a very good example of how to use digital tools to visualise and communicate a dynamic process.

Well worth a visit. Give it time.


The history of the humble (and not so humble) door handle

A doorknob is a key part of the user-interface of a building. Yet until Covid-19 I’d never given much thought to it — except sometimes in exasperation when realising that a handle is better than a knob for many people and many purposes. And it never occurred to me that it might have an interesting history. Which, of course it has. And it’s had some famous designers in its time. For example:

Arguably the most influential, although not necessarily familiar, door handle was designed not by an architect but by a philosopher – albeit one with an engineering degree. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s handle for the house he designed for his sister in Vienna in 1928 is a simple bent metal bar with one of the pair kinked to accommodate a portion of frame for the French doors it was designed for. It apparently took him a year to design (he spent two years on the radiators), but that simple bent bar morphed into the bent tube which is perhaps the most ubiquitous and generic of all modern designs.

And, needless to say, that reminds me Of an old schoolboy joke: “Was Handel a crank?”


Zoom Hell

Lovely New Yorker cartoon.


Is Digital Contact Tracing Over Before It Began?

Sobering post by Jonathan Zittrain. The momentum towards contact-tracing seems to be on the wane, he thinks.

The work on planning and standing up contact tracing is being overtaken by a public sensibility that the disease has been sufficiently managed for things to more or less return to normal. Where before, the question of voluntary participation in a tracing and isolation scheme was seen as how to get from, say, 50% participation up to 70% or more by the general public, the question now is whether nearly anyone would bother to install or use contact tracing tools at all — or, apps aside, change their behavior should they receive a call indicating that they’ve been exposed by someone who has tested positive. In New York, contract tracers are having a hard time completing interviews. And in Massachusetts, a mixed bag: on the one hand, so many contact tracers were admirably stood up so quickly that there isn’t enough work to go around. On the other hand, most of the cases being diagnosed haven’t been identified beforehand through contact tracing — which means that transmission chains can’t be pruned.

Contact-tracing requires testing. And testing capacity in parts of the US is currently being overwhelmed. On the tech front, Zittrain sees “a plateau in visible activity on the tech side of the ledger since the May 20, 2020, launch of the Apple/Google exposure notification framework”. And it doesn’t seem that any state has yet approved or launched an exposure notification app based upon the framework.

Efforts outside of the United States have made a little more progress. Switzerland has led the charge, piloting an app that implements the Apple/Google framework within hospitals, government agencies, and the military. Other nations — many of them among the 22 granted access to the Apple/Google framework in May — are developing and deploying apps of their own. We’ve also seen the emergence of a number of apps not based on the Apple-Google framework, including in Singapore and Australia.

So it’s all incredibly patchy. So much for tech ‘solutionism’ in this crisis.

So what now? Zittrain sets out two possibilities: the Swedish model and what he calls the ‘Company Town’ model.

The Swedish model is basically to

re-open all but the most high-spreading services and events; ask people to exercise social distancing where they can; have people wear cloth masks to minimize the spread of the moisture in their breath to others; and try to make available testing so that people who wish to know if they’re infected can find out and then self-isolate if they test positive or show worrisome symptoms.

The other option is interestingly different:

It’s one in which some big companies and institutions decide to implement their own test/trace/isolate regimes as employees return to workplaces. A company whose employees don’t physically interact much with the public during the day — an insurance company, or a tech firm like Facebook or Google — might require its employees to undergo regular testing, and then cease coming to work if they test positive. Such a company could stand up its own tracing program, and use data from company-issued devices, with notice to employees and no permitted opt-out, to assist in that tracing. Those who are deemed to have been exposed can also be required not to come to work. Universities might choose to require much the same for their faculty, staff, and students.

The overall regime may thus remain nominally a voluntary one, with respect to government coercion, but participation in private regimes like this will be by choice only in the sense that employees can quit their jobs, or students can choose to drop out of school, if they don’t want to participate in their institutions’ programs. And it of course leaves most people behind: if you don’t work for an institution that can pull off its own internal testing and tracing, you won’t directly benefit from such a program.

It looks as though this latter option is what Cambridge University will adopt — to name just one non-corporate example — because it now has the capacity to do all of that stuff.

But when you look at the bigger picture, this ‘company town’ approach would be a disaster for inequality, and maybe even for democracy. A bit like neoliberalism, in fact.

There’s no substitute for state capacity here, rigorously, competently and fairly administered. And the big questions for us is: can the UK actually do it?


Quarantine diary — Day 97

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Thursday 24 June, 2020

New customers fill seats at Barcelona opera house concert

To mark the re-opening of Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu opera house, the UceLi Quartet played a livestreamed performance of Puccini’s I Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums).

Who (or what) was in the audience?

Answer


Can you judge a book by its (back) cover?

Well, even if you can, it makes cover-art designers (justifiably) cross.

Waterstones, the (excellent) bookselling chain, has offered its apologies to book designers after some newly reopened branches began displaying books back to front so browsers could read the blurb without picking them up.

It was understandable but slightly “heartbreaking”, said designer Anna Morrison, who mainly designs covers for literary fiction, said she could see why it was happening, but it was still “a little sad”.

“There is a real art to a book cover. It can be a real labour of love and it is a bit disappointing to think our work is being turned round.”

She’s right. One of the joys of going into a bookshop is the blaze of colour and artwork on book covers that confronts you.

Link


Facebook faces trust crisis as ad boycott grows

It’s got the trust crisis, for sure. But so what?

This from Axios

After a handful of outdoor companies like North Face, REI and Patagonia said they would stop advertising on Facebook and Instagram last week, several other advertisers have joined the movement, including Ben & Jerry’s, Eileen Fisher, Eddie Bauer, Magnolia Pictures, Upwork, HigherRing, Dashlane, TalkSpace and Arc’teryx.

Heavyweights in the ad industry have also begun pressing marketers to pull their dollars.

On Tuesday, Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer at Procter & Gamble, one of the largest advertisers in the country, threatened to pull spending if platforms didn’t take “appropriate systemic action” to address hate speech.

In an email to clients obtained by the Wall Street Journal last Friday, 360i, a digital-ad agency owned by global ad holding group Dentsu Group Inc., urged its clients to support the ad boycott being advocated by civil rights groups.

I’m sorry to say this, but it looks to me just like virtue-signalling. Just like all the sudden corporate support for “our brilliant NHS” when the Coronavirus panic started in the UK. Facebook’s targeted advertising system is just too useful to companies to be dropped.


Wrongfully Accused by an Algorithm

This seems to be the first case of its kind, but it’s the canary in the mine as far as those of us who regard facial recognition technology as toxic.

On a Thursday afternoon in January, Robert Julian-Borchak Williams was in his office at an automotive supply company when he got a call from the Detroit Police Department telling him to come to the station to be arrested. He thought at first that it was a prank.

An hour later, when he pulled into his driveway in a quiet subdivision in Farmington Hills, Mich., a police car pulled up behind, blocking him in. Two officers got out and handcuffed Mr. Williams on his front lawn, in front of his wife and two young daughters, who were distraught. The police wouldn’t say why he was being arrested, only showing him a piece of paper with his photo and the words “felony warrant” and “larceny.”

His wife, Melissa, asked where he was being taken. “Google it,” she recalls an officer replying.

The police drove Mr. Williams to a detention center. He had his mug shot, fingerprints and DNA taken, and was held overnight. Around noon on Friday, two detectives took him to an interrogation room and placed three pieces of paper on the table, face down.

“When’s the last time you went to a Shinola store?” one of the detectives asked, in Mr. Williams’s recollection. Shinola is an upscale boutique that sells watches, bicycles and leather goods in the trendy Midtown neighborhood of Detroit. Mr. Williams said he and his wife had checked it out when the store first opened in 2014.

The detective turned over the first piece of paper. It was a still image from a surveillance video, showing a heavyset man, dressed in black and wearing a red St. Louis Cardinals cap, standing in front of a watch display. Five timepieces, worth $3,800, were shoplifted.

“Is this you?” asked the detective.

The second piece of paper was a close-up. The photo was blurry, but it was clearly not Mr. Williams. He picked up the image and held it next to his face.

“No, this is not me,” Mr. Williams said. “You think all black men look alike?”

Mr. Williams knew that he had not committed the crime in question. What he could not have known, as he sat in the interrogation room, is that his case may be the first known account of an American being wrongfully arrested based on a flawed match from a facial recognition algorithm, according to experts on technology and the law.

Mr Williams had a cast-iron alibi, but the Detroit police couldn’t be bothered to check

He has since figured out what he was doing the evening the shoplifting occurred. He was driving home from work, and had posted a video to his private Instagram because a song he loved came on — 1983’s “We Are One,” by Maze and Frankie Beverly. The lyrics go:

I can’t understand
Why we treat each other in this way
Taking up time
With the silly silly games we play

Imagine a world where this stuff is everywhere, where you’re always in a police line-up.


The history of inquiries into race riots

A sobering (and depressing) piece by the Harvard historian Jill Lepore in the New Yorker.

TL;DR? (In case you’re busy, here’s the gist.)

In a 1977 study, “Commission Politics: The Processing of Racial Crisis in America,” Michael Lipsky and David J. Olson reported that, between 1917 and 1943, at least twenty-one commissions were appointed to investigate race riots, and, however sincerely their members might have been interested in structural change, none of the commissions led to any. The point of a race-riot commission, Lipsky and Olson argue, is for the government that appoints it to appear to be doing something, while actually doing nothing.

It’s the old, old story. What’s the betting the same thing will happen with Boris Johnson’s “cross-government inquiry into all aspects of racial inequality in the UK”?

Lepore’s is a fine piece, well worth reading in full. Thanks to David Vincent for alerting me to it.


Segway, the most hyped invention since the Macintosh, ends production

Very good report on what once looked like a great idea, but one that never caught on. Segways were very useful for TV cameramen and camerawomen covering golf tournaments, though.

My main regret is that I never managed to try one.


Quarantine diary — Day 96

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Wednesday 24 June, 2020

Facebook runs into a German wall

From the FT — probably paywalled.

Facebook suffered a setback in Germany on Tuesday after the country’s highest civil court ruled that it must comply with an order from the German antitrust watchdog and fundamentally change the way it handles users’ data.

The ruling by the federal court of justice in Karlsruhe takes aim at the way Facebook merges data from the group’s own services, such as WhatsApp and Instagram, with other data collected on third-party internet sites via its business tools.

In 2019, Germany’s cartel office blocked Facebook from pooling such data without user consent. Facebook later won a suspension of that decision from a court in Düsseldorf and wanted the pause to continue until a ruling on its appeal.

But on Tuesday the Karlsruhe court set aside the Düsseldorf ruling and backed the antitrust authorities, saying Facebook in future had to offer its users a choice when it collects and merges data from websites outside of its own ecosystem.

Interesting. Andreas Mundt, head of the German cartel office, is a determined and imaginative official. In a statement, he welcomed the decision. He said data was a decisive factor for economic power and for judging market power on the internet. “Today’s ruling gives us important clues as to how we should deal with the issues of data and competition,” he said, in comments quoted by DPA agency.

Progress, at last.


Mark Zuckerberg Believes Only in Mark Zuckerberg

Why is he abetting Trump while civil rights leaders and his own employees rebuke him? It’s about dominance.

At last, people are beginning to suss what it is about Zuckerberg that’s so weird. I’ve thought for years — on the basis of reading his public posts and watching his occasional (rare) public appearances — that he is fundamentally an autocratic sociopath. But because he’s so rich, the usual aphrodisiac effect of great wealth kicks in and journalists (and others) who should know better succumb to the idea that if he is so rich then he must be so smart. Well, he is smart. But he ain’t interested in other people, or capable of emphathising with them..

The autocratic bit is easy to document btw. You only have to look at the relevant paragraph in Facebook’s SEC filings.

Here it is (on page 25 of the filing

Siva Viadhyanathan has also been thinking about Zuckerberg for a long time and has now written an interesting essay on what he has finally concluded. He used to think of Zuckerberg, he says, as an idealist brought up in a bubble and so was puzzled by some of the things he allowed to happen (because, remember, he has absolute power over that company of his.) A key factor in Siva’s change of mind seems to have been Steven Levy’s book, Facebook: The Inside Story.

I expected that Zuckerberg was experiencing cognitive dissonance while watching his dear company be exploited to empower genocidal forces in Myanmar, religious terrorists in Sri Lanka, or vaccine deniers around the world.

I was wrong. I misjudged Zuckerberg. Another thing I learned from Levy’s book is that along with an idealistic and naive account of human communication, Zuckerberg seems to love power more than he loves money or the potential to do good in the world.

Having studied just enough Latin in prep school to get him in trouble, Zuckerberg was known to quote Cato, shouting “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage must be destroyed) when referring to Google. Emperor Augustus was a particular inspiration, Levy reports, and Zuckerberg named his child after Augustus, the adopted son of the tyrant Julius Caesar who ruled over the greatest and most peaceful span of the Roman Empire as its first emperor.

It was not Zuckerberg suffering from cognitive dissonance. I was. As I watched him cooly face questions from congressional representatives about the Cambridge Analytica debacle, he never seemed thoughtful, just disciplined.

That Facebook could serve people well—and it does—and that it could be abused to contribute to massive harm, pain, and death, didn’t seem to generate that one troublesome phenomenon that challenges the thoughtful: Contradiction.

Zuckerberg continued and continues to believe in the positive power of Facebook, but that’s because he believes in the raw power of Facebook. “Domination!,” he used to yell at staff meetings, indicating that everything is a game. Games can be won. He must win. If a few million bones get broken along the way, his game plan would still serve the greatest good for the greatest number.

He believes in himself so completely, his vision of how the world works so completely, that he is immune to cognitive dissonance. He is immune to new evidence or argument. It turns out megalomaniacs don’t suffer from cognitive dissonance.

Like the notorious architect Philip Johnson, or Robert Moses, the tyrannical planner of New York, Zuckerberg, says Siva,

is a social engineer. He knows what’s best for us. And he believes that what’s best for Facebook is best for us. In the long run, he believes, Facebook’s domination will redeem him by making our lives better. We just have to surrender and let it all work out. Zuckerberg can entertain local magistrates like Trump because Zuckerberg remains emperor.

Nice, perceptive essay by a formidable scholar.


Are Universities Going the Way of CDs and Cable TV?

Although it probably seems inconceivable to those of us who work in universities, the shock of the pandemic will lead to radical changes in the way most of these institutions work. This essay is interesting because it’s by Michael Smith, who is Professor of Information Technology and Marketing at Carnegie Mellon and the co-author of Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of Entertainment.

He starts with a question the Wall Street Journal asked in April:

Do students think their pricey degrees are worth the cost when delivered remotely? “One student responded with this zinger, Smith writes,

“Would you pay $75,000 for front-row seats to a Beyoncé concert and be satisfied with a livestream instead?” Another compared higher education to premium cable—an annoyingly expensive bundle with more options than most people need. “Give me the basic package,” he said.

“As a parent of a college-age child”, Smith continues, “I’m sympathetic to these concerns. But as a college professor, I find them terrifying. And invigorating”.

Why terrifying?

Because I study how new technologies cause power shifts in industries, and I fear that the changes in store for higher education are going to look a lot like the painful changes we’ve seen in retail, travel, news, and entertainment.

Consider the entertainment industry.

Throughout the 20th century, the industry remained remarkably stable, despite technological innovations that regularly altered the ways movies, television, music, and books were created, distributed, and consumed. That stability, however, bred overconfidence, overpricing, and an overreliance on business models tailored to a physical world.

Trouble arrived early in the 21st century, when upstart companies powered by new digital technologies began to challenge the status quo. Entertainment executives reflexively dismissed the threat. Netflix was “a channel, not an alternative.” Amazon Studios was “in way over their heads.” YouTube? No self-respecting artist would ever use a DIY platform to start a career. In 1997, after one music executive heard songs compressed into the MP3 format, he refused to believe anybody would give up the sound quality of CDs for the portability of MP3s. “No one is going to listen to that shit,” he insisted. In 2013, the COO of Fox expressed similar skepticism about the impact of technological change on his business. “People will give up food and a roof over their head,” he told investors, “before they give up TV.”

We all know how that worked out: From 1999 to 2009, the music industry lost 50 percent of its sales. From 2014 to 2019, roughly 16 million American households canceled their cable subscriptions.

I remember this in the broadcasting business. In the mid- to late-1990s I was a consultant to a firm in the radio business. I spent many fruitless hours trying to explain to them the significance of streaming media, but they couldn’t get it. Where would all those servers come from? And what about the absence of broadband connections? And so on. The iPlayer and Video on Demand — and podcasting — were unimaginable then, even though they were emerging in embryonic form. (Anyone remember RealAudio?)

Similar dynamics are at play in higher education today, says Smith. Universities have long been remarkably stable institutions. But,

That stability has again bred overconfidence, overpricing, and an overreliance on business models tailored to a physical world. Like those entertainment executives, many of us in higher education dismiss the threats that digital technologies pose to the way we work. We diminish online-learning and credentialing platforms such as Khan Academy, Kaggle, and edX as poor substitutes for the “real thing.” We can’t imagine that “our” students would ever want to take a DIY approach to their education instead of paying us for the privilege of learning in our hallowed halls. We can’t imagine “our” employers hiring someone who doesn’t have one of our respected degrees.

But we’re going to have to start thinking differently…

Good essay. Worth reading in full if you work in Higher Ed. And the funniest thing of all is that Eli Noam published his amazingly far-sighted essay, “Electronics and the Dim Future of the University” in 1995! But it seems that no Vice-Chancellors or university Presidents read it! I did, though, because I was then teaching at the Open University, and of course we got it — but I guess that was probably because the OU was emphatically NOT a traditional university. We had no stake in the old system.

Oh, and if you haven’t been keeping up with how MOOCs have evolved, here’s a good example from Princeton.


Quarantine diary — Day 95

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Tuesday 23 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

It’s not just that the United States has the highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths of any country in the world. Republican political dysfunction has made a coherent campaign to fight the pandemic impossible.

At the federal level as well as in many states, we’re seeing a combination of the blustering contempt for science that marks the conservative approach to climate change and the high tolerance for carnage that makes American gun culture unique.


Opening up?

The incomparable Matt in the Daily Telegraph. It seems that the rules that will supposedly allow pubs to open on July 4 may require publicans to record the identities of their patrons.


Go download, Moses

My friend (and fellow gadget-warrior) Quentin received a nice gift from his in-laws.


Something I hadn’t thought of…

… when I was writing last Sunday’s Observer column about Nick Clegg and his role in Facebook.

From Charles Arthur in The Overspill.

And the irony is that his head of PR is Nick Clegg, who was undone in 2015 by microtargeted adverts in the southwest of England run by the Conservative Party against the Lib Dems, which Clegg had led in coalition for the previous five years with the Conservatives. Facebook’s PR guy who stands up for its political advertising lost his last job because he was screwed over by Facebook’s political advertising.


After Zoom, what?

Typically insightful blog post by Benedict Evans.

Now, suddenly, we’re all locked down, and we’re all on video calls all the time, doing team stand-ups, play dates and family birthday parties, and suddenly Zoom is a big deal. At some point many of those meetings will turn back into coffees, we hope, but video will remain.

Will it still be Zoom, though?

As a breakthrough product, I think it’s useful to compare Zoom with two previous products – Dropbox and Skype.

Part of the founding legend of Dropbox is that Drew Houston told people what he wanted to do, and everyone said ‘there are hundreds of these already’ and he replied ‘yes, but which one do you use?’ That’s what Zoom did – video calls are nothing new, but Zoom solved a lot of the small pieces of friction that made it fiddly to get into a call.

His other point of comparison is Skype. Just as for video, VOIP had been around for a long time, but Skype made using it less geeky and more frictionless in both engineering and user experience, and by doing so made VOIP a consumer product.

But…

Two things happened to Skype after that, though. The first is that the product drifted for a long time, and the quality of the user experience declined. But the second is that everything has voice now. Imagine trying to do a market map today of which apps on a smartphone, Mac or PC might have voice – it would be absurd. Everything can have voice.

Evans thinks that this is what will happen to video conferencing.

There will continue to be hard engineering, but video itself will be a commodity and the question will be how you wrap it. There will be video in everything, just as there is voice in everything, and there will be a great deal of proliferation into industry verticals on one hand and into unbundling pieces of the tech stack on the other. On one hand video in healthcare, education or insurance is about the workflow, the data model and the route to market, and lots more interesting companies will be created, and on the other hand Slack is deploying video on top of Amazon’s building blocks, and lots of interesting companies will be created here as well. There’s lots of bundling and unbundling coming, as always. Everything will be ‘video’ and then it will disappear inside.

Zoom was a shrewd investment for the present time. Whether it is longer-term depends on the agility and imaginativeness of its founders.


Quarantine diary — Day 94

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Monday 22 June, 2020

Coronavirus Management: EU vs. USA

Says it all, really.


Coleridge’s childhood home is for sale

Wow! What a glorious pile. 10-bedrooms, 11-bathrooms. The Coleridge family moved to Ottery St Mary in 1760, when John Coleridge became the headmaster of The Kings School. Samuel Taylor was John’s youngest son.

Just check out the library:

From Country Life


Steven Sinofsky on the historical background to wearing masks

Lovely Twitter thread by Steven Sinovsky, liasting cases from the past where there was fierce opposition to taking sensible precautions which eventually became common sense. Examples include:

  • childhood vaccination
  • Helmets for skateboarding
  • Cycle helmets
  • Condoms
  • Smoking in planes and public transport everywhere

One he missed out: seat-belts in cars.

This story is currently being re-enacted with people refusing to wear face-masks in public. There will come a time (hopefully in the not too distant future) when this will seem as absurd as refusal to wear a seat-belt.

Interestingly, my first father-in-law always refused to wear a seat belt. In order to avoid being stopped by the cops, he would drape it diagonally across his chest, but never anchored it.


The UK’s contact tracing app fiasco is a master class in mismanagement

Well, so says the headline on James Ball’s piece in MIT’s Tech Review. But actually the article is more nuanced than that. It also has a useful explanation of two key issues that lay at the root of the problems: Bluetooth power management in smartphones; and the trade-off between the need to preserve user privacy on the one hand and Public Health England’s (understandable) desire to detect outbreaks quickly. Johnson’s bluster about ‘world-beating’ didn’t help either. The eagerness of this Cabinet of half-assed Brexiteers to boast of British exceptionalism is pathetic.

James’s piece is worth reading in full, for those who are interested in these matters.


Quarantine diary — Day 93

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Sunday 21 June, 2020

Nick Clegg is on the wrong side of history at Facebook

Today’s Observer column:

For me, the most interesting thing about Wednesday’s farrago was the prominent role assigned in it to Nick Clegg, formerly deputy prime minister of the UK and now a bagman for the Facebook supreme leader. Listening to him on the Today programme, one wondered how he could come to countenance giving Trump a clearer run at a second term.

One answer, suggested by Anne Applebaum in her study of the rationales offered by senior Republican politicians who have found ways of accommodating themselves to Trump, is the claim that they can do more good by being “on the inside”. Funnily enough, this was the rationale also used by Clegg when he went over to the dark side. “I’m joining Facebook,” he declared, “to build bridges between politics and tech. It’s time that we harnessed big tech to the cause of progress and optimism. I believe that Facebook can lead the way.”

To hear a former liberal talk like this about a company whose carelessness and ignorance enabled ethnic cleansing and genocide in Myanmar – to take just one example from a long list of Facebook outrages – really takes the biscuit…

Read on


Quarantine diary — Day 92

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