Tuesday 21 July, 2020

A bridge to the Folly

From our walk this afternoon.

Click on the image for a larger version.

Quote of the Day

“Who was that transistor salesman?”

  • President de Gaulle, after meeting Hayato Ikeda, Prime Minister of Japan in 1962.

(HT to Benedict Evans)

Joe Biden on foreign interference in US elections

From his statement:

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has concluded that the Kremlin’s interference in past elections represented “only the latest installment in an increasingly brazen interference by the Kremlin on the citizens and democratic institutions of the United States.” Despite the exposure of Russia’s malign activities by the U.S. Intelligence Community, law enforcement agencies, and bipartisan Congressional committees, the Kremlin has not halted its efforts to interfere in our democracy. In Senate testimony on July 23 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that Russia was “absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections.” And on March 27, 2020, the State Department held a briefing describing how Russia was recklessly spreading disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic. Russia is not the only foreign actor seeking to interfere in our democracy. Increasingly, other states have shown an interest in copying Russia’s tactics.


In spite of President Trump’s failure to act, America’s adversaries must not misjudge the resolve of the American people to counter every effort by a foreign power to interfere in our democracy, whether by hacking voting systems and databases, laundering money into our political system, systematically spreading disinformation, or trying to sow doubt about the integrity of our elections.

That is why, today, I am putting the Kremlin and other foreign governments on notice. If elected president, I will treat foreign interference in our election as an adversarial act that significantly affects the relationship between the United States and the interfering nation’s government. I will direct the U.S. Intelligence Community to report publicly and in a timely manner on any efforts by foreign governments that have interfered, or attempted to interfere, with U.S. elections. I will direct my administration to leverage all appropriate instruments of national power and make full use of my executive authority to impose substantial and lasting costs on state perpetrators. These costs could include financial-sector sanctions, asset freezes, cyber responses, and the exposure of corruption. A range of other actions could also be taken, depending on the nature of the attack. I will direct our response at a time and in a manner of our choosing.

Isn’t it strange that any American politician has to even say this? It’s a measure of the Republic’s decay.

Mary Trump’s book sold 950,000 copies on its first day

So CNN is reporting anyway. Good luck to her.

Andrew O’Sullivan leaves New York magazine

Andrew Sullivan officially left New York Magazine on Friday, claiming that the culture of the magazine and its new parent company, Vox Media, had become increasingly hostile to conservative voices like his.

It’s not entirely clear whether he was fired or has simply quit. Here he is in his own words:

I’m just no longer going to be writing for a magazine that has every right to hire and fire anyone it wants when it comes to the content of what it wants to publish.

The quality of my work does not appear to be the problem. I have a long essay in the coming print magazine on how plagues change societies, after all. I have written some of the most widely read essays in the history of the magazine, and my column has been popular with readers. And I have no complaints about my interaction with the wonderful editors and fact-checkers here — and, in fact, am deeply grateful for their extraordinary talent, skill, and compassion. I’ve been in the office maybe a handful of times over four years, and so there’s no question of anyone mistreating me or vice versa. In fact, I’ve been proud and happy to be a part of this venture.

What has happened, I think, is relatively simple: A critical mass of the staff and management at New York Magazine and Vox Media no longer want to associate with me, and, in a time of ever tightening budgets, I’m a luxury item they don’t want to afford. And that’s entirely their prerogative. They seem to believe, and this is increasingly the orthodoxy in mainstream media, that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space. Actually attacking, and even mocking, critical theory’s ideas and methods, as I have done continually in this space, is therefore out of sync with the values of Vox Media. That, to the best of my understanding, is why I’m out of here.

I’m baffled by this, or at any rate by the attitudes he describes — and attributes to his former colleagues. I’m no conservative, but I’ve always enjoyed and admired Sullivan’s writing. In fact I’ve never really thought of him as a conservative. Nor, in a way, does he.

And maybe it’s worth pointing out that “conservative” in my case means that I have passionately opposed Donald J. Trump and pioneered marriage equality, that I support legalized drugs, criminal-justice reform, more redistribution of wealth, aggressive action against climate change, police reform, a realist foreign policy, and laws to protect transgender people from discrimination. I was one of the first journalists in established media to come out. I was a major and early supporter of Barack Obama. I intend to vote for Biden in November.

The good news is that he’s not going silent. In fact he’s reviving his old blog — The Dish. And he’ll be running it on Substack, on which the daily version of this blog is published. I look forward to continuing to read him.

Look what came though my letter-box today

George Dyson’s new book. It’s out in the UK in less than a month. He’s one of the most interesting and original writers I know. I found his Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence one of the most stimulating resources to draw on when I was writing my history of the Internet many moons ago. In his new book he asks how we ended up with a world in which humans co-exist with technologies that we can no longer fully control or understand. Good question. I look forward to his answer.

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Monday 20 July, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Biology enables, culture forbids.”

  • Yuval Noah Harari

Home working: be careful what you wish for

Interesting post by Ivana Isailović on “The ‘New Normal’ Privatization of the Workplace” in Law and Political Economy:

The changes we are seeing today seem more likely to reinforce inequalities, becoming another instance of how neoliberalism keeps reconfiguring our lives. Remote work has further eroded the weak labor protections at the heart of the industrial economy. More importantly, it risks intensifying the “economization” of our lives, by crowding out any non-work related activities and increasing the rat-race in the midst of the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

More data will be needed to understand the changes that are taking place today and their long-term effects, but what evidence there is suggests that workers are on the losing end. In 2017, a comparative study done by the International Labor Organization and Eurofund (EU agency for the improvement of living and working conditions) showed that overall remote work tends to have detrimental effects on workers. Instead of being protective of “work-life balance,” remote work is eroding it. This result was found in both countries with traditions of strong welfare states (e.g. France, Germany, Sweden) and in countries with weak social protections (e.g. the U.S.)

One problem seems to be that remote work blurs the lines between “work” and “private life.” Workers have reported that because of the lack of clear boundaries, the working day is spread out over longer periods of time, squeezing out “free time.” Moreover, this de facto overtime is rarely remunerated as such. Remote work also intensifies the pace of work, and therefore is associated with more employee stress and burnout (see also the recent Eurofund report from January 2020).

We’re already seeing lots of this.

Mask fascism on the rise

I don’t subscribe to the Washington Post (which may be a mistake — so will reconsider later) but Cory Doctorow does, and he relayed this from the paper:

In the Washington Post, this anonymous editorial from a 63 year old with asthma who makes $10/h in a dockside convenience store in a 900-person town in North Carolina where the sheriff refuses to enforce the state mask rule because he “doesn’t want to be the mask police.”

She describes how she is subjected to physical intimidation, verbal abuse — and risk of death from coronavirus — by customers, especially weekenders from Raleigh and Charlotte who ignore the increasingly desperate signs telling people that they can only shop with a mask on.

These bullies aren’t mollified by offers to bring their orders to them outside the store if they want to remain maskless, and certainly not by the offer of a free mask. Instead, they do things like open the door and scream “Fuck masks! Fuck you!” and storm off.

They tape handbills to the storefront with hoax information about the ADA entitling people to shop without masks, call her an agent of sharia law, or ask whether she’s preparing to turn “mind control” on her.

She describes a life of fear and trauma, where every day at work is a day of abuse and threats, where she and her co-worker sometimes have to lock themselves in the storage room to sob because burly men have screamed at them and threatened them.

What is wrong with these men?

The dark underbelly of the gig-economy

Lyft Is Selling — But Not Providing — Masks and Sanitiser to Drivers.

Why? Because it can’t give them away without conceding that its drivers are employees. And if they were employees well, they’d have rights and entitlements and health insurance and stuff.

KFC is working with a Russian 3D bioprinting firm to try to make lab-produced chicken nuggets

That’s according to The Verge.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a KFC outlet, but somehow I don’t think this would make me change the habits of a lifetime.

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Sunday 19 July, 2020

Don’t post on Facebook unless you are prepared to face the consequences

This morning’s Observer column:

Earlier this month Anne Borden King posted news on her Facebook page that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Since then, she reports, “my Facebook feed has featured ads for ‘alternative cancer care’. The ads, which were new to my timeline, promote everything from cumin seeds to colloidal silver as cancer treatments. Some ads promise luxury clinics – or even ‘nontoxic cancer therapies’ on a beach in Mexico.”

The irony is that King is the last person likely to fall for this crap. She’s a consultant for the watchdog group Bad Science Watch and a co-founder of the Campaign Against Phony Autism Cures. So she effortlessly recognised the telltale indicators of pseudoscience marketing – unproven and sometimes dangerous treatments, promising simplistic solutions and support. In that sense she is the polar opposite of, say, Donald Trump.

But one sentence in her thoughtful article brought me up short…

Read on

Please, Matt Hancock, let us see our loved ones with dementia

A justifiably angry piece by my friend Nicci Gerrard, who was the co-founder of John’s Campaign, which she launched after her beloved father’s dementia worsened dramatically when he was in hospital and his children were not allowed to visit him.

Ten days ago, in response to a letter from seven dementia charities and organisations, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced that the ban on visits to care homes was “coming to an end very soon”. That brought a huge sense of relief to the thousands of family carers who have been unable to see their relatives for almost four months. But since then: nothing. Was it an empty promise, a disgraceful piece of window dressing? Perhaps the health secretary could tell us what “very soon” means; how many days are there in “a few days”?

The letter was sent by John’s Campaign, the Alzheimer’s Society, Alzheimer’s Research UK, Dementia UK, Young Dementia UK, Innovations in Dementia and Tide and called for the government to grant family and friend carers the same status as a “key worker” care home member of staff, allowing them the same access to care homes with the same provision of testing so they can meet the essential needs of residents…

The neglect of care homes from the outset has been one of the greatest scandals in the Johnson regimes handling of the crisis. My mother-in-law, who also had dementia, died because she was in an unprotected care home.

Wacky reasoning and the virus

Tim Harford has a nice piece in the weekend FT about self-fulfilling prophecies.

A vocal minority argues that Covid-19 is not much worse than the influenza we ignore every winter, so both mandatory lockdowns and voluntary precautions have been unnecessary.

A glance at the data gives that argument a veneer of plausibility. The UK has suffered about 65,000 excess deaths during the first wave of the pandemic, and 25,000-30,000 excess deaths are attributed to flu in England alone during bad flu seasons.

Is the disparity so great that the country needed to grind to a halt?

The flaw in the argument is clear: Covid was “only” twice as bad as a bad flu season because we took extreme measures to contain it. The effectiveness of the lockdown is being used as an argument that lockdown was unnecessary. It is frustrating, but that is the nature of a self-defeating prophecy in a politicised environment.

Nice. And necessary.

Recovery from Covid-19 will be threatened if we don’t learn to control big tech

My OpEd piece in today’s Observer.

As societies try to recover from the pandemic, an alarming scenario begins to loom. It goes like this: a vaccine is invented and countries embark on massive vaccination programmes. However, conspiracy theorists use social media to oppose the programme and undermine public confidence in the vaccination drive. It will be like the anti-MMR campaign but on steroids.

What we have learned from the coronavirus crisis so far is that the only way to manage it is by coherent, concerted government action to slow the transmission rate. As societies move into a vaccination phase, then an analogous approach will be needed to slow the circulation of misinformation and destructive antisocial memes on social media. Twitter would be much improved by removing the retweet button, for example. Users would still be free to pass on ideas but the process would no longer be frictionless. Similarly, Facebook’s algorithms could be programmed to introduce a delay in the circulation of certain kinds of content. YouTube’s recommender algorithms could be modified to prioritise different factors from those they currently favour. And so on.

Measures such as these will be anathema to the platforms. Tough. In the end, they will have to make choices between their profits and the health of society. If they get it wrong then regulation is the only way forward. And governments will have to remember that to govern is to choose.

Freud and the pandemic

Striking essay by Alax Danco.

Three months ago, he wrote this:

Over the next few months, across America, a lot of people are going to die. And they’re going die because other Americans are – not just cluelessly, but gleefully – refusing to wear masks, and celebrating it, the way you’d celebrate winning a football game. Meanwhile, the urgent topic occupying all of the air time in elite circles isn’t the pandemic, or its generational economic devastation; it’s “how bad should other people be allowed to make you feel online?”

And now, he concluded,

So yeah, it did, indeed, get worse.

You know who would really have recognized and understood this moment? Sigmund Freud.

In retrospect, he thinks, “the critical mistake of the pandemic was telling Americans that masks protect other people”.

The minute that wearing masks became about protecting other people, it was game over for America. Masks became a symbol of the superego; and as far as symbolism goes, it’s laid on pretty thick. (It’s literally something that you put on your face into order to stop yourself from spraying germs onto other people, and therefore suppress your own guilt of being part of a pandemic!) The minute masks became about suppressing yourself to protect others, the narrative became: The Elites want you to feel guilty about not wearing a mask, just like they want you to feel guilty about driving a car, or eating a burger, or anything else you love. Don’t let them!

Our reaction to this narrative misses what’s really being said. If you’ve ever thought, “how stupid do you have to be to think the government wants to control with a mask”, pause for a minute and think about what’s really being communicated. The real message is “they want to control you with guilt.” Doesn’t sound so stupid anymore, does it? Freud would certainly argue that this message gets it exactly right.

Unfortunately, there is a right answer. Wear the stupid mask. This should be a conversation about public health, not yet another forum for symbolic battle between the ego and superego. And in most countries, that’s the case; people cooperate, wear masks, and their countries can cautiously reopen and get back to something like normal life. Not in America, though! In America, you see political talking heads saying things like “Mask-wearing has become a totem, a secular religious symbol. Christians wear crosses, Muslims wear a hijab, and members of the Church of Secular Science bow to the Gods of Data by wearing a mask as their symbol, demonstrating that they are the elite; smarter, more rational, and morally superior to everyone else.”

Actually, it’s not just in America that you hear people talking like that. A colleague of mine came back wearily from a meeting of his College’s Council the other day, after a two-hour argument about whether students and staff ought to be compelled to wear face masks in the Autumn.

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Saturday 18 July, 2020

What if the Trinity test had failed?

Fascinating counter-factual essay by Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science and nuclear weapons.

After getting the successful results from Trinity, Truman took a very hard line with Stalin. He believed that the bomb gave him leverage for both the end of World War II and the peace that would follow. Though he did not try to argue that the Soviets should not declare war on Japan or stop their invasion plans, he was less convinced he would need the Soviet entry into the war, and did not encourage them. Without the confidence from Trinity, would he have pushed so hard? I’m not sure he would have; he might have felt the Soviet invasion too necessary for the end of the war to risk alienation. And if he had taken a more compromising approach, what would the impact of that had been on the later Cold War to follow? The Cold War was a complex thing, not the result of a single interaction, but there are scholars who have attributed some of its formation and angst to Truman’s post-Trinity bravado, so it’s not outside the realm of contemplation.

A Covid lexicon

From the New Yorker.

Maskhole: an individual who wears a mask in a way that makes it completely ineffective — e.g. below the nose, under the chin, on the back of the head.

Face naked: The state of facial exposure that occurs when an individual declines to wear a mask in public.

Someday, Noneday, Whoseday?, Whensday?, Blursday, Whyday?, Doesn’tmatter day: Days of the week.

Pan-demic: A potentially dangerous increase in the baking of bread in a quarantined home.

What comes after Zoom fatigue?

Long essay which basically comes to the conclusion that we’ll just get used to it — just like we got used to the telephone.

What comes after Zoom fatigue is what I’d call Zoom acquiescence. It’s an inevitability.

During the pandemic, we’ve all started relying on video chat technology for health care, religion, entertainment, and simply keeping up with friends. It will remain relevant in our lives going forward, especially for work. Much like those who were gobsmacked by telephones a century ago, we’re likely witnessing a transformation in communication — a leap forward with no return. The new thing is scary, imperfect, and often off-putting. We might as well make the best of it.

“We’ve been forced to use these tools for things that we otherwise never would have dreamed of, like buying and selling houses,” said Nicole Ellison, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information. “We’ll essentially come out of this with a better, more calibrated sense of what we really need to do face to face.”

We might not, for instance, need to go to the doctor’s office as often. While telemedicine has existed for years, the pandemic forced all kinds of doctor’s appointments to happen online. Some experts think there’s no reason to go back, arguing that over half of doctor’s visits don’t require an in-person meeting. Research has also shown that telemedicine is significantly more efficient than traditional in-person visits for mental health care, and these benefits could mean more people seek help.

In other words, the pandemic has fundamentally changed our relationship with these tools and with digital spaces generally.

Pressure from Trump led to 5G ban, Britain tells Huawei

Surprise, surprise.

Guardian story:

In the days leading up to the controversial announcement on Tuesday last week, intensive discussions were held and confidential communications exchanged between the government and Whitehall officials on one side and Huawei executives on the other.

As part of the high-level behind-the-scenes contacts, Huawei was told that geopolitics had played a part, and was given the impression that it was possible the decision could be revisited in future, perhaps if Trump failed to win a second term and the anti-China stance in Washington eased.

Senior Huawei executives have gone public since Tuesday’s decision saying that they hope the British government will rethink, apparently encouraged by the results of back-channel contacts.

Basically, the Brexiteers are trying to have it both ways. And they really don;t want to annoy the Chinese. Trouble is, they need to play nice with both the US and China, since they need trade deals with both. Sooner or later they are going to discover that having cake and eating it is a fantasy.

Friday 17 July, 2020

Atul Gawande on managing Covid

He’s the best writer on medical issues I know. Last May he wrote a really useful essay in the New Yorker. I’ve just re-read it in the light of what’s happened since. It still stands out.

Two samples:

American hospitals have learned how to avoid becoming sites of spread. When the time is right to lighten up on the lockdown and bring people back to work, there are wider lessons to be learned from places that never locked down in the first place.

These lessons point toward an approach that we might think of as a combination therapy—like a drug cocktail. Its elements are all familiar: hygiene measures, screening, distancing, and masks. Each has flaws. Skip one, and the treatment won’t work. But, when taken together, and taken seriously, they shut down the virus. We need to understand these elements properly—what their strengths and limitations are—if we’re going to make them work outside health care.

Start with hygiene. People have learned that cleaning your hands is essential to stopping the transfer of infectious droplets from surfaces to your nose, mouth, and eyes. But frequency makes a bigger difference than many realize…


A recent, extensive review of the research from an international consortium of scientists suggests that if at least sixty per cent of the population wore masks that were just sixty-per-cent effective in blocking viral transmission—which a well-fitting, two-layer cotton mask is—the epidemic could be stopped. The more effective the mask, the bigger the impact.

Coronavirus and the dim future of (many) American universities

Scott Galloway may not be to everyone’s taste, but I like the way he thinks — and, more importantly, the stark way in which he analyses things.

This week he’s been looking at this chart (from the Chronicle of Higher education) which summarises a survey of US colleges’ intentions for the next academic year.

The relevant statistic is the 56% which apparently plan to bring student back to campus in the Fall.

The graphic below neatly summarises what this means.

Think about this. Next month, as currently envisioned, 2,800+ cruise ships retrofitted with white boards and a younger cohort will set sail in the midst of a raging pandemic. The density and socialization on these cruise ships could render college towns across America the next virus hot spots.

So why are administrators putting the lives of faculty, staff, students, and our broader populace at risk?

The ugly truth is many college presidents believe they have no choice. College is an expensive operation with a relatively inflexible cost structure. Tenure and union contracts render the largest cost (faculty and administrator salaries) near immovable objects. The average salary of a professor with a PhD (before benefits and admin support costs) is $141,476, though some make much more, and roughly 50% of full-time faculty have tenure. While some universities enjoy revenue streams from technology transfer, hospitals, returns on multibillion dollar endowments, and public funding, the bulk of colleges have become tuition dependent. If students don’t return in the fall, many colleges will have to take drastic action that could have serious long-term impacts on their ability to fulfill their missions.

That gruesome calculus, Galloway says, has resulted in “a tsunami of denial”.

Universities owning up to the truth have one thing in common: they can afford to. Harvard, Yale, and the Cal State system have announced they will hold most or all classes online. The elite schools’ endowments and waiting lists make them largely bullet proof, and more resilient to economic shock than most countries — Harvard’s endowment is greater than the GDP of Latvia. At the other end of the prestige pole, Cal State’s reasonable $6,000 annual tuition and 85% off-campus population mean the value proposition, and underlying economic model, remain largely intact even if schooling moves online.

Galloway and his team have analysed the prospects of 436 universities and then plotted their prpspects on two axes:

Value: (Credential * Experience * Education) / Tuition. Vulnerability: (Endowment / Student and % International Students). Low endowment and dependence on full-tuition international students make a university vulnerable to Covid shock, as they may decide to sit this semester/year out.

Which produces this grid:

Now of course the US Higher Education system is very different from the UK’s. But it’d be interesting to see what an analogous analysis of UK universities would show.

EU court rejects data transfer tool in Max Schrems case

This is the big story of the week (at least in the bubbles I inhabit)…

From The Irish Times:

Europe’s top court has declared an arrangement under which companies transfer personal data from the European Union to the US invalid due to concerns about US surveillance powers.

The ruling in the long-running battle between Facebook, Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner and the Austrian privacy activist Max Schrems found that the so-called Privacy Shield agreement does not offer sufficient protection of EU citizens’ personal data.

“The limitations on the protection of personal data arising from the domestic law of the United States on the access and use by US public authorities . . . are not circumscribed in a way that satisfies requirements that are essentially equivalent to those required under EU law,” the court said in a statement.

The ruling is a blow to the thousands of companies, including Facebook that rely on the Privacy Shield to transfer data across the Atlantic, and to the European Commission, as it unpicks an arrangement it designed with US authorities to allow companies to comply with EU data protection law.

Great ruling. It’ll be fun seeing the companies trying to find a way round it.

More than just a Twitter hack

From Om Malik:

By now, we have all heard about the takeover of the celebrity accounts and those of companies such as Apple and Uber by scammers who wanted to trick people into sending them bitcoins. There are multiple threads to this theory — Vice says that it was it might be some kind of inside job. Twitter itself says that it was a victim of social engineering. FBI is also starting an investigation. However, it is clear; this hack isn’t a joke. It can have national and international implications, as Casey Newton points out in his article for The Verge. Twitter is a significant source of dissemination of information — from weather to earthquakes to forest fires — and any disruption can cost lives.

That is why Casey is right — and collectively, we need to think about this current episode much more deeply and deliberately. Big technology platforms are now singular points of failure as much as they are single points of protection against malicious intent.

Hmmm… I’m not convinced. This particular hack was just an ingenious variation on an old scam: someone posting a link to a Bitcoin wallet with an invitation to send it some Bitcoin and receive double the amount immediately in return. You’d have to have your head examined to fall for it. The variant this time is that the scammer got into some Twitter employee’s account and used those privileges to send out the scamming tweets as if they were coming from prominent people. The big question is whether the hacker collected the DMs (Direct Messages) that those account-holders had sent to other users. If he did, then there’s big trouble ahead — and not just for the account-holders, but also for Twitter. People have been arguing for years that the private DM channel should be end-to-end encrypted, but as far as I know it isn’t.

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Thursday 16 July, 2020

“Now we are all sons of bitches”

75 years ago today, the nuclear age began. July 16 1945 was the day the first atomic bomb was detonated in the New Mexico desert in the Trinity test. To mark the anniversary the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has compiled a memorable assembly of personal reflections by the scientists who worked on the bomb and who were there when it went off. It’s an unmissable, moving read. Here are two of the reflections.

Val Fitch:

It took about 30 millionths of a second for the flash of light from the explosion to reach us outside the bunker at south 10,000. It took the blast wave about 30 seconds. There was the initial loud report, the sharp gust of wind, and then the long period of reverberation as the sound waves echoed off the nearby mountains and came back to us.

I got up from the ground and watched the now famous mushroom cloud rise in the morning sky. Apparently no one had told the military policeman, stationed at the door of the bunker to control access, what to expect. He was absolutely pale and a look of incredible alarm was on his face as he came away from the bunker door to stand beside me and view the sight. I simply said what was on my mind, “The war will soon be over.”

Kenneth Bainbridge:

After the blast wave had passed, I got up from the ground to congratulate Oppenheimer and others on the success of the implosion method. I finished by saying to Robert, “Now we are all sons of bitches.” Years later he recalled my words and wrote me, “We do not have to explain them to anyone.” I think that I will always respect his statement, although there have been some imaginative people who somehow can’t or won’t put the statement in context and get the whole interpretation. Oppenheimer told my younger daughter in 1966 that it was the best thing anyone said after the test.

Ancient history? Yes. But if China, fresh from subjugating Hong Kong, were to move on Taiwan…

The costs of the next Cold War: $3.5 trillion

And while we’re on the subject of China, this from yesterday’s FT:

A larger tech cold war is taking place that could cost $3.5tn over the next five years, according to a report today by Apjit Walia, Deutsche Bank’s Global Head of Tech Strategy. This permeates to the consumer level, with DB surveys recording 41 per cent of Americans and 35 per cent of Chinese saying they will not buy each other’s products.

The $3.5tn figure comes from a $400bn reduction a year in domestic end demand from China and $100bn a year as a “Tech Wall” creates extra costs for companies dealing with rival internet platforms, operating systems, and communications and payment networks. A further $1tn in costs would come from rebuilding and reconfiguring the supply chain, mainly falling on “final goods manufacturers” who currently use China as a manufacturing base.

If there is any upside, it might come from similar dynamics to the US-USSR cold war, where a ramp in spending on defence and the space race could translate as a leap in tech investment this century. US government spending alone on R&D more than doubled as a percentage of GDP between 1957 and 1964 — to 2.2 per cent. Tech investment might not match that in this post-Covid era, but it could still provide a much needed blast of warmth for the sector in icy times.

Boris Johnson needs a therapist. Who knew?

John Crace on Boris Johnson’s latest shambles in PMQs:

At this point, it dawned on Starmer that Boris almost certainly hadn’t read the report [from the Academy of Medical Sciences on the dangers of an Autumn surge in Covid cases] to which he had referred – a little slow on the uptake from the Labour leader as the prime minister never reads any reports of more than two paragraphs – so he asked him outright if he had. “Um … er …,” Boris hesitated. He was aware of the report. In the same way he is aware that he has children, but is unable to say exactly how many. And in the same way as I am aware of the space-time continuum but would be unable to explain exactly what the science meant to anyone. Though if it turned out that Boris only really existed in another parallel dimension then I’d happily settle for that.

Apple, Ireland and the saga of €13 billion

This is stuff you couldn’t make up.

Four years ago, the European Commission said that Ireland had failed to collect €13 billion in taxes from Apple. According to the Commission this meant that Apple had received illegal state aid and should have paid more taxes. Apple duly handed over the €13B to the Irish government, which put it in an escrow account (where it’s been sitting ever since earning interest). Apple appealed the ruling to the EU General Court. Even more intriguingly, so did the Irish government.

Today, the Court handed down its judgment — that the European Commission’s case had no legal basis. So unless the Commission appeals, then the Irish government — which will be strapped for cash because of Covid-19 and the forthcoming financial crash caused by the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal — will cheerfully refund Apple.

According to the FT the EU has two months and 10 days to appeal against the decision, and it believes that the commission is likely to file an appeal and the case will be heard by the European Court of Justice, the EU’s highest court, which will issue a final ruling.

All of this may make sense to lawyers. But Sinn Féin, the main opposition party in the Irish parliament is not amused. Nor, I suspect, are many of my fellow-countrymen and women.

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Wednesday 15 July, 2020

Quote of the Day

“If we could get everybody to wear a mask right now, I really think in the next four, six, eight weeks, we could bring this epidemic under control”.

  • Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Enlightenment, eh? How long have you got?

Here’s an interesting wormhole. Yesterday, intrigued by a comment on Tim Gray’s post about the dark sides of ‘efficiency’, I looked up David Wooton’s Power, Pleasure and Profit: Insatiable Appetites from Machiavelli to Madison. Not having access to the book at the moment, I watched his 2017 Besterman Lecture which was based on Chapter 8 and then read the blurb on Amazon, which reads:

A provocative history of the changing values that have given rise to our present discontents. We pursue power, pleasure, and profit. We want as much as we can get, and we deploy instrumental reasoning-cost-benefit analysis-to get it. We judge ourselves and others by how well we succeed. It is a way of life and thought that seems natural, inevitable, and inescapable. As David Wootton shows, it is anything but. In Power, Pleasure, and Profit, he traces an intellectual and cultural revolution that replaced the older systems of Aristotelian ethics and Christian morality with the iron cage of instrumental reasoning that now gives shape and purpose to our lives. Wootton guides us through four centuries of Western thought-from Machiavelli to Madison-to show how new ideas about politics, ethics, and economics stepped into a gap opened up by religious conflict and the Scientific Revolution. As ideas about godliness and Aristotelian virtue faded, theories about the rational pursuit of power, pleasure, and profit moved to the fore in the work of writers both obscure and as famous as Hobbes, Locke, and Adam Smith. The new instrumental reasoning cut through old codes of status and rank, enabling the emergence of movements for liberty and equality. But it also helped to create a world in which virtue, honor, shame, and guilt count for almost nothing, and what matters is success. Is our world better for the rise of instrumental reasoning? To answer that question, Wootton writes, we must first recognize that we live in its grip.

Since Wooton is a fine historian (see his 2015 The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution), I guessed that Power, Pleasure and Profit might not be the standard-issue conservative rant about the decline of religious values, world going to the dogs, etc., and was maybe worth reading sometime. So I looked for reviews, and found this long and thoughtful one one by John Gray. It’s a respectful, but not uncritical review, the gist of which is that Wooton’s concept of the Enlightenment is rather too narrow to bear the weight be seeks to load upon it.

Wootton presents the conceptual shift that gave birth to our life today in a book that is ambitious and impressive in its sweep. Nearly a third of Power, Pleasure and Profit’s 400 pages consist of scholarly notes and appendices. Yet Wootton’s vividly written narrative never loses momentum. Few academic books tell such a gripping story of how ideas can change the world. Yet it is a story that leaves out an enormous amount, and the view of “the Enlightenment paradigm” that Wootton presents is both parochial and anachronistic. He does not suggest that Enlightenment thinkers promoted a homogeneous set of ideas. “‘The Enlightenment’ is a problematic term,” he writes, “because it is easy and fruitful to multiply enlightenments.” Enlightenment thinking was riddled with “bitter disputes”, with radicals and conservatives adopting diverging views of the limits of human sociability. For all these caveats, Wootton’s Enlightenment paradigm is extraordinarily narrow.

At which point I realised that I’m heading down a wormhole and I have a newspaper column to write. Life is too short sometimes to follow one’s nose. Sigh.

American teenagers are masking up as grannies to buy liquor

This report is from the New York Post, which doesn’t exactly guarantee its accuracy. But if it’s true, then it restores my faith in human nature.

And of course it also reminds me of Monty Python’s wonderful Hell’s Grannies sketch.


Why venture capital doesn’t build the things we really need

Unnecessarily long Tech Review essay which takes ages to come up with the obvious answer. Venture Capital goes to stuff that stands a chance of rapid returns. It doesn’t do the long-term stuff that lays the groundwork for major industrial change. No VC firm would fund something like the Internet, or — for that matter — the Web. Only the state can do that. In the United States, for example, 75% of venture capital goes to software. Some 5 to 10% goes to biotech: only a tiny handful of venture capitalists have mastered the longer art of building a biotech company. The other sliver goes to everything else transportation, sanitation, health care.

What we need, as Mariana Mazzucato has been saying for years, is an Entrepreneurial State.

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Tuesday 14 July, 2020

Le Quatorze Juillet!

In pre-pandemic times, we’d be there today. Sigh.

Notes from the new battleground

Cyberspace viewed through a military lens.

1/ The Internet is now the dominant communications medium of our world. And we’re still only at the beginning of that transformation.

2/ The network is now a battlefield, indispensable to militaries and their governments.

3/ This changes how conflicts are being — and will be — fought.

  • It’s now impossible to keep secrets
  • Power becomes the ability to command people’s attention
  • Conflicts become “contests of psychological and algorithmic manipulation.”

4/ The nature of ‘war’ is changing. It used to be “the continuation of politics by other means”. But now war and politics have begun to fuse together. However the laws of this new battlefield are not formulated by democratic or military authorities but by a handful of American tech companies.

5/ And we’re all caught up in this new warfare, as combatants, spectators or collateral damage. Our attention has become a piece of contested territory “being fought over in conflicts that you may or may not realise are unfolding around you. Your online attention and actions are thus both targets and ammunition in an unending series of skirmishes. Whether you have an interest in the conflicts of ‘Likewar’ or not, they have an interest in you”.

Notes from reading Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking, Houghton Mifflin, 2018.

The dark underbelly of ‘efficiency’

Tim Bray, one of the most thoughtful geeks around, has an interesting essay on his blog about the downsides of the neoliberal obsession with ‘efficiency’.

On a Spring 2019 walk in Beijing I saw two street sweepers at a sunny corner. They were beat-up looking and grizzled but probably younger than me. They’d paused work to smoke and talk. One told a story; the other’s eyes widened and then he laughed so hard he had to bend over, leaning on his broom. I suspect their jobs and pay were lousy and their lives constrained in ways I can’t imagine. But they had time to smoke a cigarette and crack a joke. You know what that’s called? Waste, inefficiency, a suboptimal outcome. Some of the brightest minds in our economy are earnestly engaged in stamping it out. They’re winning, but everyone’s losing.

I’ve felt this for years, and there’s plenty of evidence:

Item: Every successful little store with a personality morphs into a chain because that’s more efficient. The personality becomes part of the brand and thus rote.

Item: I go to a deli fifteen minutes away to buy bacon, rashers cut from the slab while I wait, because they’re better. Except when I can’t, in which case I buy a waterlogged plastic-encased product at the supermarket; no standing or waiting! It’s obvious which is more efficient.

Item: I’ve learned, when I have a problem with a tech vendor, to seek out the online-chat help service; there’s annoying latency between question and answers as the service rep multiplexes me in with lots of other people’s problems, but at least the dialog starts without endless minutes on hold; a really super-efficient process. Item: Speaking of which, it seems that when you have a problem with a business, the process for solving it each year becomes more and more complex and opaque and irritating and (for the business) efficient.

Item, item, item; as the world grows more efficient it grows less flavorful and less human. Because the more efficient you are, the less humans you need.

To help develop his argument, Bray links to a terrific essay by Bruce Schneier, my favourite security guru:

For decades, we have prized efficiency in our economy. We strive for it. We reward it. In normal times, that’s a good thing. Running just at the margins is efficient. A single just-in-time global supply chain is efficient. Consolidation is efficient. And that’s all profitable. Inefficiency, on the other hand, is waste. Extra inventory is inefficient. Overcapacity is inefficient. Using many small suppliers is inefficient. Inefficiency is unprofitable.

But inefficiency is essential security, as the COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us. All of the overcapacity that has been squeezed out of our healthcare system; we now wish we had it. All of the redundancy in our food production that has been consolidated away; we want that, too. We need our old, local supply chains — not the single global ones that are so fragile in this crisis. And we want our local restaurants and businesses to survive, not just the national chains.

We have lost much inefficiency to the market in the past few decades. Investors have become very good at noticing any fat in every system and swooping down to monetize those redundant assets. The winner-take-all mentality that has permeated so many industries squeezes any inefficiencies out of the system.

This drive for efficiency leads to brittle systems that function properly when everything is normal but break under stress. And when they break, everyone suffers. The less fortunate suffer and die. The more fortunate are merely hurt, and perhaps lose their freedoms or their future. But even the extremely fortunate suffer — maybe not in the short term, but in the long term from the constriction of the rest of society.

Efficient systems have limited ability to deal with system-wide economic shocks. Those shocks are coming with increased frequency. They’re caused by global pandemics, yes, but also by climate change, by financial crises, by political crises. If we want to be secure against these crises and more, we need to add inefficiency back into our systems.


Bray ends with a protest:

It’s hard to think of a position more radical than being “against efficiency”. And I’m not. Efficiency is a good, and like most good things, has to be bought somehow, and paid for. There is a point where the price is too high, and we’ve passed it.

Actually, there are times when efficiency is not good but positively bad. Take our criminal justice system. It’s woefully inefficient because we have this commitment to ‘due process’, the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven, legal representation and the rest. It would be much more ‘efficient’ to be able to lock people up on the say-so of the local chief of police. But we don’t do that because our liberal, democratic values abhor it. (Which is also why authoritarians love it.) Of course the criminal justice system should operate more efficiently — in the sense that courts should be run so that the dispensation of justice is quicker and with less pointless delay, lower legal costs, etc. But the central inefficiency of the system implied by the need for due process is the most precious thing about it.

Tim Bray’s essay led me to David Wooton’s book, Power, Pleasure, and Profit: Insatiable Appetites from Machiavelli to Madison, and thence to his 2017 Besterman Lecture at Oxford, which is based on Chapter 8 of the book.


I Have Cancer. Now My Facebook Feed Is Full of ‘Alternative Care’ Ads

Here we go again. Most of the current hoo-hah about Facebook and moderation is about politics and extremism. But actually almost every area of life is affected by the Facebook targeting system. Here’s a great example of that from the personal experience of Anne Borden King — who, ironically, is an advocate working to prevent the spread of medical misinformation online. “Last week”, she writes,

I posted about my breast cancer diagnosis on Facebook. Since then, my Facebook feed has featured ads for “alternative cancer care.” The ads, which were new to my timeline, promote everything from cumin seeds to colloidal silver as cancer treatments. Some ads promise luxury clinics — or even “nontoxic cancer therapies” on a beach in Mexico.

When I saw the ads, I knew that Facebook had probably tagged me to receive them. Interestingly, I haven’t seen any legitimate cancer care ads in my newsfeed, just pseudoscience. This may be because pseudoscience companies rely on social media in a way that other forms of health care don’t. Pseudoscience companies leverage Facebook’s social and supportive environment to connect their products with identities and to build communities around their products. They use influencers and patient testimonials. Some companies also recruit members through Facebook “support groups” to sell their products in pyramid schemes.

Anyone who has experimented with using Facebook’s advertising system will not be surprised by her experience. What happened is that people flogging snake oil were using Facebook’s automated machine for helping them to build a “custom audience”, and one of the questions the system will have asked them is whether they would like to target people who have posted that they have had a cancer diagnosis. Click yes and it’s done.

Finally: the UK government is mandating the wearing of face masks

This is how Politico’s daily ‘London Playbook’ newsletter puts it.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock will give a statement in the House of Commons this afternoon confirming the news on every front page this morning: face coverings will be compulsory in shops and supermarkets in England from Friday July 24, with those refusing to wear them facing fines of up to £100.

What took you so long? The British Medical Association last night called the announcement — which brings England in line with Scotland Germany, Spain, Italy and Greece and many other countries — “long overdue,” and called for the regulation to be extended to all settings where social distancing is not possible. BMA council Chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul also questioned why the government was waiting 10 days to implement the policy. “Each day that goes by adds to the risk of spread and endangers lives,” he said. Officials say the delay will give businesses and the public time to prepare. Retailers won’t be expected to enforce the new regulations, which will be a matter for police. Only children under 11 and those with certain disabilities will be exempt.

We’ve come a long way since … the received wisdom in the U.K. was that mass wearing of face masks did little or nothing to help. It’s just over 100 days, for instance, since England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van-Tam said at the Downing Street lectern on April 3: “There is no evidence that general wearing of the face masks by the public who are well affects the spread of the disease.”

We’ve not come very far at all since … Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, when asked by the the BBC’s Andrew Marr whether face masks should be mandatory in shops in England, said: “I don’t think mandatory, no.” It’s not yet been 48 hours.

Nothing changes. The UK government couldn’t run a bath.

(The Politico newsletter is indispensable IMHO. And it’s free. First thing I read every morning.

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Monday 13 July, 2020

The Virus: we’re not even at the end of the beginning yet

How long will it take this penny to drop? This thing isn’t going away. We’re not even at the end of the beginning of this story. No return to anything resembling ‘normal’ is remotely possible for several years — at best. And although some countries currently have a fragile grip on the disease, they’re all going to be playing whack-a-mole until after a vaccine is available and distributed.

As for the countries where it’s raging out of control, then a 1918-type scenario seems inevitable for them.


An apology to non-UK readers

I’d forgotten that the link to the BBC iPlayer version of the BBC TV programme about the Kanneh-Mason family is only accessible to people located in the UK. (I guess because the BBC is funded by a tax paid by UK subjects.) It must have been annoying to have me describe something as “unmissable” (and I meant that) when you were unable to access it. I’m hoping that the BBC eventually releases it for a worldwide audience, but in the meantime I hope that the Corporation’s description of the programme will give you some idea of its content:

In its first remote-access film, imagine [a BBC cultural documentary series] offers a unique and intimate portrait of an exceptionally gifted musical family in lockdown – the Kanneh-Masons. In 2016, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason won BBC Young Musician award. In 2018, he released his debut album, and earlier this year his second album, Elgar, became a top ten hit. He achieved global fame when he performed solo at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in 2018 in front of a TV audience of two billion people worldwide.

But it doesn’t stop there. His six siblings are also phenomenally talented musicians: three are former BBC Young Musician category finalists, and the eldest sibling, pianist Isata, has also presented for the Proms. Ever since lockdown began, the seven young prodigies, all aged between 10 and 24, have been isolated in their family home in Nottingham along with their parents, Stuart and Kadiatu, and Sheku and Braimah’s flatmate, fellow Royal Academy of Music student Plinio Fernandes. Unable to perform publicly, the family decided to stage a vibrant and eclectic concert in the only place they can – their own home – and granted the BBC exclusive access using remotely operated fixed-rig cameras, with video messaging to capture interviews. Exploring both the family’s music making and their family life, the programme culminates in a moving concert that is a testament to the power of music to carry us through the most difficult of times.

Privacy isn’t property: it’s a human right

Fine post by Hayley Tsukayama on wrong-headed legislative moves to value the personal information that surveillance capitalists extract and monetise.

Proposals to place a concrete dollar value on data and, by extension, on our privacy, have popped up across the country this year. Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) last month introduced the “Designing Accounting Safeguards to Help Broaden Oversight and Regulations on Data,” or DASHBOARD Act. It would require larger companies to report the value of customer data. Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) recently proposed a bill to recognize consumer data as property. Companies pushed a bill with a similar concept in Oregon, which the ACLU of Oregon and EFF opposed, to directly pay people for the “value” of their health data as calculated by companies.

Assigning a value to your personal information might appear attractive, at first blush. Companies have grown rich off the insatiable collection of our personal information. It is tempting to demand a cut of the money they make from our clicks, our likes, and our networks of contacts.

But this is a mistake. If anything, assigning a dollar value may give the false impression that, at a value of $5, $30, or $200 for your personal information, the data collection companies’ conduct is no big deal. But a specific piece of information can be priceless in a particular context. Your location data may cost a company less than a penny to buy, yet cost you your physical safety if it falls into the wrong hands. Companies advertised lists of 1,000 people with different conditions such as anorexia, depression and erectile dysfunction for $79 per list. Such embarrassing information in the wrong hands could cost someone their job or their reputation.

Our information should not be thought of as our property this way, to be bought and sold like a widget. Privacy is a fundamental human right. It has no price tag. No person should be coerced or encouraged to barter it away. And it is definitely not a good deal for people to receive a handful of dollars in exchange for allowing companies’ invasive data collection to remain unchecked.


How Tesla works

Absolutely fascinating article by Philippe Chain on how Tesla differs from traditional automobile manufacturers.


At the time we launched the Model S, there were only two layers below Elon. Later when I joined Audi to build the e-tron, I was dealing with four hierarchical levels just for the engineering department, supplemented by two other echelons above. In short, we are talking of at least a 3 to 1 ratio. As a result, Tesla moves incomparably faster than Audi for instance. Where the Model 3 took 3 years in development, it would have been the customary 60 months time frame at Audi.

The intensity of the workload at Tesla leads to higher turnover among executives and engineers. With a 27 percent replacement rate, it is even higher than in prominent startups like, for instance, Lyft (23 percent). And for Elon Musk’s direct reports the turnover hit a record of 44 percent last year, according to Alliance Bernstein tech analyst Toni Sacconaghi. We used to say that a year at Tesla equals seven years elsewhere, just like “dog years”.

Moral: don’t work at Tesla if you want a quiet life.

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Sunday 12 July, 2020

A house full of music

This astonishing programme was broadcast on BBC1 this evening. It’s on the iPlayer for a month and is unmissable IMHO. Take an hour off and watch it.

Could juries be a solution to the free-speech moderation problem on social media?

This morning’s Observer column on Jonathan Zittrain’s big idea.

One of the most instructive experiences of my life was serving as a juror in a criminal trial. When the summons to report for jury service arrived, though, I was anything but enthusiastic. I was bringing up two young children on my own at the time and the last thing I needed was to be locked down for an unknown number of days. So I headed into the crown court feeling pretty glum.

The trial was a serious one: the charge was of causing grievous bodily harm with intent. It went on for two weeks. A number of witnesses gave evidence, much of which seemed (to me) unconvincing, sometimes contradictory, occasionally horrifying. We learned more about what goes on at night in an economically depressed East Anglian town than is good for anyone. And then, when the lawyers and the judge had summed up, we retired to reach a verdict.

What happened next was remarkable…

Read on

History of (tech) ideas?

One of the biggest treats of the lockdown has been David Runciman’s ‘History of Ideas’ podcast — a set of absorbing, enlightening and thought-provoking lectures on some of the intellects who have shaped the way we think about politics. In this first set of talks he covered:

  • Thomas Hobbes on power
  • Mary Wollstonecraft On Sexual Politics
  • Benjamin Constant on Liberty
  • Alexis de Tocqueville on Democracy
  • Marx and Engels on Revolution
  • Mahatma Gandhi on Self-Rule
  • Max Weber on Leadership
  • Friedrich Hayek on the market
  • Hannah Arendt on Action
  • Frantz Fanon on Empire
  • Catharine MacKinnon on Patriarchy
  • Francis Fukuyama on History

(The only one I would have added is John Maynard Keynes.)

If there had been a season of talks like this on the radio when I was a teenager I might have decided to study politics rather than engineering. I can imagine these podcasts having a similar impact on serious teenagers wondering what A-Levels to study now. What made the talks so good was the way they provided the context needed if one is embarking on reading, say, Hobbes or Weber for the first time.

Having really enjoyed the series, I then fell to wondering who would be the thinkers for an analogous series on computing and computation.

Here’s a first stab at such a list:

  • George Boole on logic
  • Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace on automated calculation
  • Alan Turing on computability
  • John von Neumann on computer architecture
  • Norbert Weiner on automation
  • Claude Shannon on information theory
  • Donald Knuth on algorithms
  • Vannevar Bush on associative linking
  • JCR Licklider on computers as communication devices
  • Douglas Engelbart on augmentation
  • Paul Baran and Donald Davies on packet-switching
  • Ted Nelson and Tim Bernard-Lee on hypertext
  • Hal Varian on the economics of information goods
  • Stuart Russell on AI
  • Shoshana Zuboff on surveillance capitalism

Who am I missing? Nick Bostrom on superintelligence?

With India’s TikTok Ban, the World’s Digital Walls Grow Higher

As this NYT story illustrates, censorship and politics are fracturing the global internet, isolating users and industries accustomed to ignoring national borders.

TikTok, the first Chinese internet service to have a truly global fan base, is rapidly falling victim to China’s worsening diplomatic relations around the globe. It is yet another sign that the digital world, once thought of as a unifying space that transcended old divisions, is being carved up along the same national lines that split the physical one.

Tensions between India and China have run hot ever since a border clash in the Himalayas two weeks ago left 20 Indian soldiers dead. The government in New Delhi announced a ban on 59 Chinese apps late Monday, saying they were secretly transmitting users’ data to servers outside India.

India’s decision strikes at a number of China’s leading technology companies, including Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu. But perhaps none will be more affected than TikTok and its Beijing-based parent, ByteDance, which has built a huge audience in India as part of an aggressive and well-funded expansion around the world. TikTok has been installed more than 610 million times in India, according to estimates by the data firm Sensor Tower. In the United States, the app has been installed 165 million times.

‘Balkanisation’ of the Internet picks up speed.

Imagining New York without cars

Farhad Manjoo’s imaginative essay is worth some of your time. It’s a nice example of how to tell a complex story using Web technology imaginatively.

That whirring sound you will hear is that of Robert Moses rotating at 5,000rpm in his grave.

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