Sunday 28 February, 2021

Happy Birthday, John Brockman!

Today is the 80th birthday of John Brockman (Whom God Preserve), pictured here at one of our extended lunches in London. He’s the literary agent who saw that there was a gap to be filled between C.P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ and encouraged some of the world’s leading scientists to think about writing books. He’s one of the most interesting people I know, and there was a nice virtual party for him online tonight with a number with speakers including Stewart Brand, George Dyson, Ian McEwen and a trio of Nobel laureates celebrating the role he has played in their writing careers.

Here’s an interesting photograph of the young Brockman with two friends.


Quote of the Day

“It is usual to speak of the Fascist objective as the ‘beehive state’, which does a grave injustice to bees. A world of rabbits ruled by stoats would be nearer the mark.”

  • George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Jarleth Henderson, Uilleann pipes, and Andy May, Northumbrian pipes.

Link

This is lovely — a friendly competition between two piping virtuosi who play different instruments. The music starts about 2 minutes in, but the banter beforehand is worth hearing.

Reminds me of the duelling banjo sequence in John Boorman’s great film Deliverance, but without the menace.


Long Read of the Day

Neuroprivacy as a Basic Human Right

If you think (as I do) that facial-recognition technology is toxic then this article suggests that even more toxic tech may be on its way. The whole point of what we now call ‘surveillance capitalism’ is to surveill people so intensively that their future behaviour can be accurately predicted and those predictions exploited for commercial or other gains. Initially, the surveillance was only of online behaviour (the digital ‘breadcrumbs’ that we leave behind), but then it moved to learning from what we do with our smartphones, and then into our homes with so-called ‘smart’ devices which monitor our indoor lives. The next frontier involves getting right inside our heads — monitoring brain activity for some as yet unspecified purposes.

Fanciful? I don’t think so. This essay suggests that we need to start thinking seriously about the implications of this emerging technology. Fortunately, some people are — in the Chilean parliament, no less. Late last year the country’s lawmakers voted unanimously to adopt a new bill that enshrined “neuro-rights” for the country’s citizens by giving neuronal data the same status as donated organs, which are illegal to traffic or manipulate under the country’s constitution.

Read on.

If the evolution of machine-learning and facial-recognition has taught us anything, it is that democracies need to get ahead of this game.

Thanks to Sheila Hayman for alerting me to this.


Uber’s UK supreme court defeat should mean big changes to the gig economy

My Observer column this morning:

Move fast and break things” was famously the mantra of Silicon Valley tech companies. It was passionately embraced by Uber, the ride-hailing company set up to put taxis out of business. Unfortunately for it, one of the things it broke was UK employment law – which led the UK supreme court to issue a judgment on 19 February confirming that this was indeed the case.

Uber (for those who, including this columnist, have never used it) is a technology platform that puts customers seeking a taxi in touch with drivers who own cars and are willing to provide rides. Everything that happens in that process, other than conversations between customers and drivers, is controlled by the platform. Uber’s case – and business model – depends on drivers being regarded as self-employed contractors, ie cheap. The case decided by the court hinged on the question of whether drivers were indeed merely contractors, or “workers” entitled to a minimum wage and holiday pay – protections they were unable to enjoy while Uber classified them as self-employed…

Do read the whole thing.


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Happy ‘farmily’: portraits of people and their animals. Lovely idea, nicely executed. Link
  • Quentin’s blog moves into its third decade. It’s always been a delight. Link
  • Museum Alive: 3D animations of extinct creatures. Fascinating app brings scientifically accurate 3D models and animation of now-extinct creatures to life in augmented reality, with a commentary by David Attenborough. It’s a sobering demonstration of the computing power of contemporary handheld devices. Sadly, for IOS (i.e. Apple) devices only. £2.99 in UK. Here’s a link to the trailer.

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Saturday 27 February, 2021

The underwater Barbican


Quote of the Day

”At a dinner party one should eat wisely but not too well, and talk well but not too wisely.”

  • Somerset Maugham

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Diana Krall| Under my skin | Live in Paris

Link


Long Read of the Day

 On the Digital Night Shift: Training a Bot Named Carey

An extraordinarily vivid essay by Lydia Parr.

Here’s how it begins…

During the day, four days a week, I go to my local community college and tutor human students in the mysteries of the English language. At night I train bots. Rather, I train a single bot, just one, working remotely to parse messages with it. To comply with our company NDA, I’ll call this bot “Carey.” I work the late shift because Carey never sleeps, and she needs supervision even after I sign her over to the next scheduled trainer. She doesn’t sleep, have a body, or get paid, but she has other human qualities: a veneer of gender, an affinity for exclamation points, and a memory far better than mine. She answers client questions by chat at a speed I’d be unable to mimic, which is why she was created. I can’t tell you what our products are: suffice it to say that they’re necessary.

Most people I mention this night job to tell me I’m training the bot to replace me. Humans, I’ve learned, can be obsessively fearful of entities that pose no real threat to us, like zombies and vampires—which don’t exist—or robots—which haven’t actually ever done anything we haven’t programmed them to do. I joke back that maybe bots should replace us, and not just at work. My husband and I live in one of the most violent cities in America, and we can see that it’s people ourselves—not bots—that cause harm: countless robberies, territorial drug disputes, police shootings. Thirteen children gunned down, drive-by-method, in north city early last month. Last week, another still-at-large suspect put a bullet through the neck of a random café patron where I sometimes sit to train Carey. Even just last night, in a hold-up at a nearby south city dive bar, the patron being robbed lit a cigarette in the middle of it, so unsurprised was he…


Stephen Sedley: The Compensation Culture Myth

(Sir) Stephen Sedley is a retired judge and a very sharp cookie. He’s on top form in the current issue of the London Review of Books reviewing  Fake Law: The Truth About Justice in an Age of Lies, a fine book by an accomplished legal blogger who goes by the pseudonym the Secret Barrister about the way British tabloid newspapers have systematically twisted the truth about law and legal cases over half a century.

The book, Sedley says, is

a synoptic survey of what the average tabloid reader has been led to believe is going on in our legal system: sick babies condemned to die by NHS death panels (an invention of the US insurance industry, used to denounce Obamacare), their decisions rubber-stamped by unelected, out-of-touch judges; illegal immigrants spared deportation because they have a pet cat, thanks to the EU’s (sic) human rights act (see Letters, 27 September and 11 October 2018); extravagant taxpayer-funded compensation for cleaners who trip over mops; ‘jackpot figures paid to litigious employees aboard the gravy train of the discrimination industry’; the most expensive legal-aid system in the world (this fiction a speciality of the arithmetically challenged former minister Chris Grayling), put at the disposal of jihadists and other public enemies, with early release from their comfortable accommodation for the few who do go to prison, while householders who have a go at a burglar face jail.

Each of these urban myths is documented by SB, who attempts chapter by chapter to explain how the law today deals with home, work, family, health, human rights, personal liberty, due process and democracy. It’s an advantage, in doing this, that she has previously demonstrated that she is no apologist for the present legal system. Her case is that the media repeatedly takes aim at false targets and by doing so ignores and perpetuates the law’s real iniquities.

Although there’s been a lot of attention to the supposed role of social media in the Brexit fiasco (and I have no doubt they played some role in it), focussing on them conveniently diverts attention from the fact that for decades the newspapers that most people in the UK read have been geysers of misinformation, lies and politically-motivated propaganda about the EU, the NHS, the criminal justice system, ethnic minorities, foreigners and others.

I remember being asked to give a talk on “fake news” to sociology students in 2017, and some of them were a bit surprised that I spent a good deal of time talking not about social media but about the British tabloids.

I started with the front page of the Sun newspaper in the days after the Hillsborough disaster in which 96 people died and 766 were injured. The paper claimed that Liverpool fans had picked the pockets of dying victims, had urinated on police officers and had beaten up a police officer giving the kiss of life to an injured victim. All of those claims were complete falsehoods.

My point: British tabloids were pushing fake news before Mark Zuckerberg was born.


Russian diplomats arrive from virus-hit North Korea on rail trolley

From Yahoo! News:

Eight Russian diplomats and family members — the youngest of them a three-year-old girl — have arrived home from North Korea on a hand-pushed rail trolley due to Pyongyang’s coronavirus restrictions.

Video posted on Russia’s foreign ministry’s verified Telegram account showed the trolley, laden with suitcases and women, being pushed across a border railway bridge by Third Secretary Vladislav Sorokin, the only man in the group. They waved and cheered as they approached their homeland, the culmination of an expedition that began with a 32-hour train trip from Pyongyang, followed by a two-hour bus ride to the border.

”It took a long and difficult journey to get home,” the ministry said in the post late Thursday, speaking of the final stretch. “To do this, you need to make a trolley in advance, put it on the rails, place things on it, seat the children — and go,” it said.

”Finally, the most important part of the route — walking on foot to the Russian side.”

Sorokin was “the main ‘engine’ of the non-self-propelled railcar”, it said, and had to push it for more than a kilometre.

Once on Russian territory, they were met by foreign ministry colleagues and were taken by bus to Vladivostok airport.

Remember those silent movies of the Buster Keaton era.


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • How to play classical music with a “passionate virtuosity, instrumental acrobatics, charm and a great sense of fun”. Just don’t bring companions of a nervous disposition. Link
  • Analog nostalgia grows and grows. Dispo, a new photo-sharing app that mimics the experience of using a disposable camera, is taking off. Yes — a disposable camera. Link
  • The Computer History Museum organised a party on Clubhouse of people who had known Steve Jobs to celebrate what would have been Jobs’s 66th birthday. The recording is on YouTube. Nice. Link

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Friday 26 February, 2021

The joys of (pre-pandemic) commuting


Quote of the Day

“Writing is turning one’s worst moments into money.”

  • J.P. Dunleavy, 1979

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bach | Prelude | Suite No 1 for Solo Cello | Yo-Yo Ma

Link


The Blogchain: Bernard Levin on the Luck of the Irish

In his day, Levin was one of the wittiest newspaper columnists in Britain. He was also an opera buff (and a Wagnerian of Olympic proportions). One of the things I loved about him was that he was a fan of the Wexford Opera Festival, a plucky venture that improbably prospered in my native land during my childhood. And he wrote a wonderful account of something that once happened there. Have a listen to how he told the story (as read by me) …

Link


Long Read of the Day

The Art of Philosophical Writing: An Interview with William Lycan

This is lovely IMO. Sample:

I don’t have any views on philosophical writing; I just do it. Also, I write philosophy the way I write anything else including e-mails to the pet-sitter. (Anyone can spot me as an academic the minute a sentence comes out of my mouth. When I was 7 or 8 years old, my neighborhood friends nicknamed me “Professor,” which stuck at least through middle school.) Of course, I can correct graduate students’ bad writing habits, but that’s reactive, and I do it only when the flaws are pretty bad.

Oh, actually, here’s a rule that has massive empirical support: To write well, start reading when you are 4 or 5 years old, read incessantly from then on, and read mostly things that are well written. Not much use as practical advice to graduate students!


Facebook redactions

Facebook is currently embroiled in a lawsuit in which it’s accused of overestimating the ‘reach’ of the advertisements that its real customers (i.e. advertisers) pay for. The nub of the case seems to be that the company knew about this over-estimating but decided not to reveal it, and that this decision was overseen by Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s Chief Operating Officer (check). Facebook is desperately trying to keep Sandberg from having to testify in the case, and accordingly many of the documents it’s had to provide to the court are heavily redacted. The judge in the case, however, is not impressed and so he’s unsealed some of them with redactions removed. Here’s an example of a heavily redacted page:

And here’s the un-redacted version.

You get the picture?

Link

HT to Jason Kint


The Death of a Retailer

Nice obit by Om Malik for Fry’s, Silicon Valley’s iconic electronic retailer.

In 1985, the personal computer was still young, but you could see the revolution was on the horizon. The center of gravity for this revolution was going to be Silicon Valley. It was the perfect place for an electronics megastore. The first Fry’s was opened in Sunnyvale and covered 20,000 square feet. At one time, Fry’s retailed over 50,000 electronics items within each store. They now call them big-box stores, and they dot the American landscape. But in 1985, it was a radical and bold idea. He also started selling shelf space to vendors, much as they did in supermarkets. It allowed Fry’s to make profits.

And then there’s this from Parker Hall in Wired:

Fry’s was one of our favorite places to go because we had free reign. It was just too big, and our interests too scattered, for us to not have a timer and a meeting place. And so, for an hour, we could mess with anything under the fluorescent sky.

All of the latest game consoles, computers, headphones, speakers, and even prebuilt gaming computers were just sitting there, waiting for our greasy fingers. Fry’s was one of the only places you could see the entire home technology revolution sprawled out before you. And you could experience most of it without spending a dime.

New technological breakthroughs would appear in my life for the first time under that domed ceiling. Fry’s was the first place I ever saw Wi-Fi, an HDTV, an Xbox. I remember seeing early VR headsets there and hearing earth-shaking surround sound for the first time. It was exciting to be able to see the future scrolling toward your feet like the next sequence on the Guitar Hero screen.

Fry’s was also where I learned firsthand that nascent technologies—in this case, a glove-based controller that my brother woefully wasted $100 on in 2002—are sometimes too good to be true.


Scott Alexander’s letter to Republicans

I hate you and you hate me. But maybe I would hate you less if you didn’t suck. Also, the more confused you are, the more you flail around sabotaging everything. All else being equal, I’d rather you have a coherent interesting message, and make Democrats shape up to compete with you.

So here’s my recommendation: use the word “class”. Pivot from mindless populist rage to a thoughtful campaign to fight classism.

Yeah, yeah, “class” sounds Marxist, class warfare and all that, you’re supposed to be against that kind of thing, right? Wrong. Economic class warfare is Marxist, but here in the US class isn’t a purely economic concept. Class is culture. You’re already doing class warfare, you’re just doing it blindly and confusedly. Instead, do it openly, while using the word “class”.

Trump didn’t win on a platform of capitalism and liberty. He won on a platform of being anti-establishment. But which establishment? Not rich people. Trump is rich, lots of his Cabinet picks were rich, practically the first thing he did was cut taxes on the rich. Some people thought that contradicted his anti-establishment message, but those people were wrong. Powerful people? Getting warmer, but Mike Pence is a powerful person and Trump wasn’t against Mike Pence. Smart people? Now you’re burning hot.

Trump stood against the upper class. You know the type of people I mean. They live in nice apartments in Manhattan or SF or DC and laugh under their breath if anybody comes from Akron or Tampa. They eat Thai food and Ethiopian food and anything fusion, think they would gain 200 lbs if they ever stepped in a McDonalds, and won’t even speak the name Chick-Fil-A. They usually go to Ivy League colleges, though Amherst or Berkeley is acceptable if absolutely necessary. They conspicuously love Broadway (especially Hamilton), LGBT, education, “expertise”, mass transit, and foreign anything. They conspicuously hate NASCAR, wrestling, football, “fast food”, SUVs, FOX, guns, the South, evangelicals, and reality TV. They would never get married before age 25 and have cutesy pins about how cats are better than children. They get jobs in journalism, academia, government, consulting, or anything else with no time-card where you never have to use your hands. They all have exactly the same political and aesthetic opinions on everything, and think the noblest and most important task imaginable is to gatekeep information in ways that force everyone else to share those opinions too.

From his (excellent) new blog


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Thursday 25 February, 2021

Where I’d like to be. Right Now.


Quote of the Day

”The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.”

  • Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”, 1944

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Thomas Hampson | Hard times come again no more

Link


Long Read of the Day

Shared (un)Realities

Lovely essay by Om Malik. Here’s how it begins…

You might have noticed that it has been awfully quiet here. I decided to take a “break” from reality and ended up staying as far away from the shackles of networked life as possible for as long as I could. I wanted to experience the kind of boredom that makes you come up with random and ludicrous ideas. The type that pushes you to jot down thoughts in a notebook, even if you can’t read your own scribbles.

My disconnection allowed me to start considering what constitutes reality in our hyper-connected world. It is apparent that we no longer live in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) kind of environment. Fact-based reality has become a figment of our imagination, or maybe we are beginning to realize that it was always so. “Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else,” George Orwell noted in 1984.

Much of today’s reality takes its cues from what we dubiously dubbed “reality” television. We all know that the Kardashians — like all reality show characters — are not really real, at least not as we know them. But they look and sound real enough, and they provide enough drama to provoke a real reaction. And this holds our attention, which can be sold to advertisers.

A few days back, I watched Vanity Fair writer Nick Bilton’s documentary, “Fake Famous”. . .


Likelihood of severe and ‘long’ COVID may be established very early on following infection  

Interesting new study by over 30 Cambridge scientists (including some from my college) on Covid and the human immune system which sheds light on some of the puzzling aspects of the virus.

The Abstract reads, in part,

In a study of 207 SARS-CoV2-infected individuals with a range of severities followed over 12 weeks from symptom onset, we demonstrate that an early robust immune response, without systemic inflammation, is characteristic of asymptomatic or mild disease. Those presenting to hospital had delayed adaptive responses and systemic inflammation already evident at around symptom onset. Such early evidence of inflammation suggests immunopathology may be inevitable in some individuals, or that preventative intervention might be needed before symptom onset. Viral load does not correlate with the development of this pathological response, but does with its subsequent severity. Immune recovery is complex, with profound persistent cellular abnormalities correlating with a change in the nature of the inflammatory response.

What it means, according to this commentary is that the likelihood of severe and ‘long’ COVID may be established very early on following infection. Some key findings are:

  • Individuals who have asymptomatic or mild disease show a robust immune response early on during infection.
  • Patients requiring admission to hospital have impaired immune responses and systemic inflammation (that is, chronic inflammation that may affect several organs) from the time of symptom onset.
  • Persistent abnormalities in immune cells and a change in the body’s inflammatory response may contribute to ‘long COVID’.

Covid-19 is such a weird disease. One of the researchers, Professor Ken Smith, was interviewed on the wonderful Naked Scientists podcast. The episode is well worth a listen. You can get it here.


The F-35 is, er, too heavy. Also too expensive.

If you want an insight into the madness of aerospace procurement, then this Forbes story provides it in style:

The U.S. Air Force’s top officer wants the service to develop an affordable, lightweight fighter to replace hundreds of Cold War-vintage F-16s and complement a small fleet of sophisticated—but costly and unreliable—stealth fighters.

The result would be a high-low mix of expensive “fifth-generation” F-22s and F-35s and inexpensive “fifth-generation-minus” jets, explained Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown Jr.

If that plan sounds familiar, it’s because the Air Force a generation ago launched development of an affordable, lightweight fighter to replace hundreds of Cold War-vintage F-16s and complement a small future fleet of sophisticated—but costly and unreliable—stealth fighters.

But over 20 years of R&D, that lightweight replacement fighter got heavier and more expensive as the Air Force and lead contractor Lockheed Martin LMT -1.1% packed it with more and more new technology.

Yes, we’re talking about the F-35. The 25-ton stealth warplane has become the very problem it was supposed to solve. And now America needs a new fighter to solve that F-35 problem, officials said.

You could buy an awful lot of drones for what a single F-35 would cost. But that wouldn’t keep a huge parasitic industry in employment.


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • GameStop jumped 104% yesterday. The sport continues. Link.
  • QAnon used to be a conspiracy theory. Now it’s a full-blown cult. Link
  • Famous Philosophers in Quarantine. by Jesse Schupack and Michael Rauschenbach. Lovely. Guess what Plato would do. Or St Augustine. Link

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Wednesday 24 February, 2021

From today’s FT.


Quote of the Day

”Playing polo is like trying to play golf during an earthquake.”

  • Sylvester Stallone, 1990

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Alison Krauss : Down to the River

Link


Long Read of the Day

Twenty-Six Words Created the Internet. What Will It Take to Save It?

Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act is the “kill switch” for organisations that host content on the Web. Two years ago Jeff Kosseff wrote a lovely book on it — The Twenty-Six Words that Created the Internet.

He’s now done a fascinating interview with ProPublica Editor-in-Chief Stephen Engelberg.

Worth a read.


David Vincent: ‘Sadly’

David writes regular posts on the Covid2020diary blog which are unfailingly thoughtful and thought-provoking. Here’s how his entry for today begins:

The Government is producing daily figures on the progress of the pandemic. It falls to the newsreaders on the main television channels to deliver these at the head of the bulletin. There are scores for infections, hospital admissions, deaths within 28 days of a Covid diagnosis, and recently, vaccinations.

When it gets to the deaths, always the same feeling is inserted. ‘Sadly’ XXX deaths were reported in the last twenty-four hours. The point of this extra descriptor is presumably to indicate that the broadcasters comprehend the tragedy that is unfolding day by day. They are not just reading from a teleprompter, but somehow engaging with their own emotions. When they can remember, politicians will also furrow their brows and put the word in front of the deaths they are discussing.

‘Sadly’, when repeated night after night, is an oddly featureless term. I might use it to describe the recent demise of several roses in the arctic winds that blew through my garden last week or the failure of an online order to arrive. I would not think it adequate to encompass the pain I might feel if I were being connected to a ventilator or if a close relative had died.

He goes on to write about an American study which recalculates the ‘bereavement multiplier,’ the number of individuals left suffering after a death. This research, he says, increases what has been the conventional ratio of five to just under nine. In the UK context, the current death toll of 121,000 would generate a little over a million bereaved people; globally the figure would be twenty-two million.

Great post. Worth reading in full.


SpaceX small print on Starlink insists no Earth government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities

From The Register (Which God Preserve)…

SpaceX has ambitions for its Starlink constellation beyond annoying stargazers if the pre-order agreement for its satellite-based internet service is anything to go by.

Spotted by Register reader Amarinder Brar during his UK application for the system, an intriguing section in the pre-order agreement warns that disputes related to “Services provided to, on, or in orbit around the planet Earth or the Moon” are governed by English law and “subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.”

Mars, on the other hand, is a completely different kettle of fish. SpaceX is asking that those wanting a Martian connection to Starlink “recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities.”

The rule also applies when in transit to Mars “via Starship or other spacecraft.”

SpaceX boss Elon Musk is not messing about, and he’ll have the keys to the airlock after all. Still, “disputes will be settled through self-governing principles, established in good faith, at the time of Martian settlement.”

But (there’s always a but with Elon Musk)…

This goes against Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which declares that

”States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities.”


BoJo and the dog

Marina Hyde has a theory about what’s happening to the Acting Prime Minister of the so-called United Kingdom and his dog, Dilyn…

I read that Cummings reportedly holds a grudge against the Jack Russell cross, after it humped his leg at a No 10 away day. There is more – much more. The dog is said to have caused expensive damage to Chequers antiques, while according to the Mail “one visitor claims to have seen Dilyn ‘mount’ a stool made from the foot of an elephant shot by US president Teddy Roosevelt”. Take a moment – I know I did.

In the Downing Street garden, Dilyn is said to have cocked his leg on some spad’s handbag. “Dilyn is a much-put-upon animal who in a non-Covid world would have had his balls chopped off long ago,” a No 10 aide explained to the Sunday Times. “It’s not his fault that he is a bit exuberant.”

Right. Are we still talking about the dog?

And that was when it hit me. Maybe we’re NOT still talking about the dog at all. In a very literal, very metaphorical sense – stay with this – is it possible that Boris Johnson’s old larrikin spirit has transferred itself into Dilyn the dog?

Let’s look at the evidence. We have a prime minister who suddenly appears vaguely housebroken. Meanwhile, we have a sexually incontinent dog who will fuck anything – even a trophy pouffe, or Dominic Cummings – and who is being extensively briefed against by factions unhappy with his performance. It’s surely the classic bodyswap comedy: “When he ingests a plot device, a struggling UK prime minister ends up in the body of his own resourceful and appealing rescue dog – and vice versa!”

And no sooner had a finished reading this up popped an OpEd in the New York Times, no less, with the headline: “Humans Are Animals. Let’s Get Over It”.


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Need to generate some blobs? Here’s a useful tool. Well, you never know when a blob will come in handy. Dominic Cummings refers to the entire UK civil service as a ‘blob’. Link 
  • The Secret Message Encoded in the Parachute of the Mars Perseverance Rover. Link. HT to Jason Kottke, an endless source of wonderful things.

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


 

Tuesday 23 February, 2021

Spring cometh

Photographed on my cycle trip today.


Quote of the Day

”The opera is to music what a bawdy house is to a cathedral.”

  • H.L. Mencken, 1922

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paddy Keenan and Padraic Conroy | Uileann pipes and guitar

Link

Wonderful. Thanks to Ross Anderson, himself a piper, for the suggestion.


Long Read of the Day

Creativity and TikTok by Eugene Wei

I got this via Charles Arthur (Whom God Preserve) and found it fascinating, despite the fact that I don’t use TikTok. Eugene Wei has an interesting background. He’s part geek, part film-maker and has worked in a succession of interesting companies — from Amazon to Oculus via Hulu, Airtime and Clipboard. It’s a long, long read, but fascinating and full of insights. Including the observation that YouTube has never provided tools for its users so that they can creatively respond to what they’re viewing. In that sense, it’s actually a broadcast medium. TikTok, in contrast, is something else.

He also has some lovely footnotes, of which I am something of a connoisseur (though not on the Anthony Grafton scale). Here’s one:

I often lament when I refer to as fortune cookie Twitter, and to combat this, I think Twitter should set up a GPT-3 bot that constantly trains on each account, and the moment most of your followers can no longer distinguish between the GPT-3 spoof of your account and your actual account, you should be forced to vacate your account and allow the GPT-3 bot to replace you. You will have literally become a parody of yourself. Also, if for some reason I ever hacked my way into a famous person’s account, my goal would not to be to request BTC or post something offensive. Instead, my goal would be to post a tweet that so resembles their voice that no one, not even the person who owned that account, could tell. They’d just think, wow, that’s strange, I don’t remember posting that, but it is something I’d post, so ¯(ツ)


Facebook Announces Plan To Break Up U.S. Government Before It Becomes Too Powerful

Thank God for The Onion:

MENLO PARK, CA—In an effort to curtail the organization’s outsized influence, Facebook announced Monday that it would be implementing new steps to ensure the breakup of the U.S. government before it becomes too powerful. “It’s long past time for us to take concrete actions against this behemoth of governance that has gone essentially unchecked since its inception,” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, noting that while the governing body may have begun with good intentions, its history showed a culture of recklessness and a dangerous disregard for the consequences of its decisions. “Unfortunately, those at the top have been repeatedly contemptuous of the very idea of accountability or reform, and our only remaining course is to separate the government into smaller chunks to prevent it from forming an even stronger monopoly over the public.”


The UK Competition and Markets Authority gets serious

From today’s FT:

The UK competition watchdog has told Big Tech companies it is planning a series of antitrust investigations into their practices over the next year, signalling a tougher approach to reining in the sector in the wake of Brexit.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the Competition and Markets Authority, said the watchdog plans to mount a number of probes into internet giants including Google and Amazon in the coming months.

The moves come as the watchdog looks to assert its newfound independence after Britain left the EU’s regulatory orbit in January. The CMA is due to be granted additional powers to police Big Tech later this year with the creation of a new sector-specific unit.

It’s a bit like London buses in the old days: You wait twenty years for one and then three come along all at once. Same with antitrust and competition probes into tech companies. I’ll believe it’s serious when a tech executive goes to jail.


Huawei turns to pig farming as smartphone sales fall

You probably think this is a spoof, but you’re wrong. It’s a solemn BBC report.

Technology is helping to modernise pig farms with AI being introduced to detect diseases and track pigs. Facial recognition technology can identify individual pigs, while other technology monitors their weight, diet and exercise. Huawei has already been developing facial recognition tech and faced criticism last month for a system that identifies people who appear to be of Uighur origin among images of pedestrians. Other Chinese tech giants, including JD.com and Alibaba, are already working with pig farmers in China to bring new technologies. ”The pig farming is yet another example of how we try to revitalise some traditional industries with ICT (Information and Communications Technology) technologies to create more value for the industries in the 5G era,” the Huawei spokesman added.

Hmmm… Come to think of it, I seem to remember that Quentin was doing some work once on facial recognition of sheep. It seems that some vets and farmers can tell by looking at their sheep whether they’re suffering from certain diseases and the research was to see if machine-learning could acquire the same skills.

The funny thing is that I can never tell one sheep from another. They don’t think much of me either. Once, many years ago, I was walking in a remote glen in Donegal when I came on a flock who all stood staring impassively at me. I took a photograph of them and later printed it with the caption: “Yeah, we all use Microsoft Excel“.


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Monday 22 February, 2021

Agribusiness: hot stuff


Lockdown news

From the BBC’s Health Correspondent…

  • No longer is controlling infection and keeping R below 1 seen as the be-all and end-all.
  • That much is clear from the government’s four tests for its roadmap to lift lockdown in England.
  • Infection rates are only being seen as a problem if they risk a surge in hospital admissions.
  • The reasons for that change can be found from the early results published on the UK vaccination programme.
  • Scottish researchers have found a “spectacular” reduction in the risk of serious illness four weeks after the first dose of the vaccine is given.
  • The link between infections and serious illness is being broken.
  • That is not to say a surge in infections can or will be tolerated – the number of Covid patients in hospital is still only just below where it was in the first peak and not all vulnerable people have been vaccinated yet.
  • But it does give ministers some room for manoeuvre. That is important. Schools are not seen as a significant driver of infection, but reopening them for all could push infection levels up.

Easing the lockdown will be a multi-stage process, it seems, with the first two change-points March 8 and 29,

From 8 March each care home resident in England can have one regular visitor, with whom they can hold hands. This is a really welcome development.

From 29 March outdoor gatherings of either six people or two households will be allowed. It is understood this will include gatherings in private gardens. (Hooray!) Outdoor sports facilities such as tennis or basketball courts will reopen and organised adult and children’s sport, such as grassroots football, will also return. (Golf?) Also, people will once again be able to travel out of their areas – (although guidance will likely still recommend staying local, and overnight stays will not be permitted).

Hmmm… A day-trip to the coast, perhaps?


Quote of the Day

”But, good gracious, you’ve got to educate him first. You can’t expect a boy to be vicious until he’s been to a good school.”

  • Saki (Hector Hugh Munro), 1910.

Remind you of anyone?


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Schindler’s List | John Williams | Netherlands Orchestra

Link

There’s a story in the comments that the oboist suffered from a neurological disease and had thought that she would never play again. And the day she did was also her daughter’s 18th birthday. No idea if that’s true but, as the Italians day, if it’s not true it ought to be.

There’s also a story that when Steven Spielberg showed John Williams an early cut of the film Williams was so moved that he left the room to compose himself. When he returned he said to Spielberg that the film deserved a better composer. “I know”, replied the director, “but they’re all dead.”


Long Read of the Day

What Tesla is up to

Interesting long blog post by Robert Scoble which may shed some light on Tesla’s current (and apparently insane ) valuation. Robert has been a tech enthusiast for decades, so a portion of salt is a mandatory supplement. On the other hand, he’s very well-informed and often perceptive. He understood the significance of blogging, for example, way before many of the tech crowd.


Hey Alexa what did I just type? Decoding smartphone sounds with a voice assistant

Fascinating paper (with the above lovely title) by Ross Anderson and two of his colleagues. Here’s the nub of it:

Physical keyboards emit sound on key presses. It is well known that captured recording of keystrokes can be used to reconstruct the text typed on a keyboard. Recent research shows that acoustic side channels can also be exploited with virtual keyboards such as phone touchscreens, which despite not having moving parts still generate sound. The attack is based on the fact that microphones located close to the screen can hear screen vibrations and use them successfully reconstruct the tap location. Such attacks used to assume that the adversary could get access to the microphones in the device. We take the attack one step further and relax this assumption.

In this work we show that attacks on virtual keyboards do not necessarily need to assume access to the device, and can actually be performed with external microphones. For example, we show how keytaps performed on a smartphone can be reconstructed by nearby smart speakers.

Moral: whenever you read the word “smart” replace it with “unauthorised conduit for funnelling your data to some outfit in the cloud”. It makes the sentence sound clumsy, I know, but it’s closer to the truth.

Later Bang on cue, I find this: Why you’ll be hearing a lot less about ‘smart cities’

Growing backlash against big technology companies, combined with the pandemic, has led to diminishing enthusiasm for a term that once dominated the conversation around the future of cities.


What will happen to WhatsApp users who don’t accept its new terms?

Now we know — from a TechCrunch report.

According to an email seen by TechCrunch to one of its merchant partners, WhatsApp said it will “slowly ask” users who have not yet accepted the policy changes to comply with the new terms over the coming weeks, “in order to have full functionality of WhatsApp” starting May 15.

If they still don’t accept the terms, “for a short time, these users will be able to receive calls and notifications, but will not be able to read or send messages from the app,” the company added in the note.

The company confirmed to TechCrunch that the note accurately characterizes its plan, and that the “short time” will span a few weeks. WhatsApp’s policy for inactive users states that accounts are “generally deleted after 120 days of inactivity.”

Now you know why you should be on Signal.


What the Supreme Court ruling on Uber means

From the FT

Lord George Legatt, who wrote the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling, said “the question . . . is not whether the system of control operated by Uber is in its commercial interests, but whether it places drivers in a position of subordination to Uber. It plainly does.”

The judgment, however, rests on specific facts about the relationship between Uber and its employees. The court asserted that Uber set maximum fares, drivers had no say in their contracts and the application imposed penalties if drivers cancelled too many requests. This level of control meant drivers could not increase their income using “professional or entrepreneurial skill”, the court concluded, meaning they worked for Uber and not themselves.

It remains to be seen how Uber will react and whether it can tweak the platform so that it reduces this control, allowing drivers to be genuinely self-employed. If it does so, however, it will mean the taxi booking app will be less able to guarantee a uniform service. The alternative would mean raising prices to cover the additional costs associated with conforming to the law. Either way, the company’s business model in the UK — London is one of its few profitable markets worldwide — will have to change.

Yep.


Other links

  • Draw an iceberg and see how it will float. Really sweet — try it. Link
  • Chromebooks are more powerful than people give them credit for. This matters because millions of schoolchildren are now dependent on them. Link
  • This is what happens when bitcoin miners take over your town. Thar’s gold in them there mining farms. Hint: they’re only after your cheap electricity. Link

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Sunday 21 February, 2021

Signs of life

Spring is on the way.


Quote of the Day

”Sceptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.”

  • Carl Sagan, 1980* 

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paul Simon and Miriam Makeba | Under African Skies | Live from The African Concert, 1987.

Link Wonderful song and a lovely combination of two great musicians.


Long Read of the Day

Paul Graham: What I Worked on

Lovely autobiographical essay by one of the few good essayists the tech industry has produced. Sample:

I knew that online essays would be a marginal medium at first. Socially they’d seem more like rants posted by nutjobs on their GeoCities sites than the genteel and beautifully typeset compositions published in The New Yorker. But by this point I knew enough to find that encouraging instead of discouraging.

One of the most conspicuous patterns I’ve noticed in my life is how well it has worked, for me at least, to work on things that weren’t prestigious. Still life has always been the least prestigious form of painting. Viaweb and Y Combinator both seemed lame when we started them. I still get the glassy eye from strangers when they ask what I’m writing, and I explain that it’s an essay I’m going to publish on my web site. Even Lisp, though prestigious intellectually in something like the way Latin is, also seems about as hip.

It’s not that unprestigious types of work are good per se. But when you find yourself drawn to some kind of work despite its current lack of prestige, it’s a sign both that there’s something real to be discovered there, and that you have the right kind of motives. Impure motives are a big danger for the ambitious. If anything is going to lead you astray, it will be the desire to impress people. So while working on things that aren’t prestigious doesn’t guarantee you’re on the right track, it at least guarantees you’re not on the most common type of wrong one.


Why Clubhouse looks like Facebook 2.0

My column in this morning’s Observer

So, are you on Clubhouse, the social-media sensation du jour? No? Me neither. But – I hasten to add, lest there should be any doubt about my social status – that’s not because I wasn’t invited to join. A generous friend had a few invitations to extend, and she offered me one. After that, she had an attack of what one can only describe as donor’s remorse, because in order to be able to extend the invitation to me she had to grant Clubhouse access to all her contacts!

When I opened the app it asked me if I would like to grant it access to my contacts, an invitation I declined – as I always do. At which point it was made clear to me that I would not be able to invite anyone else to join. As Vox’s Sara Morrison succinctly put it: I had been invited to join Clubhouse, but my privacy wasn’t welcome. At which point I deleted the app – on the Groucho Marx principle that I wouldn’t join a club that would have such a schmuck as a member. (There was also the thought that Clubhouse’s behaviour, rules and operation seem to make it illegal under the GDPR – not that a small matter like that will trouble a US-based data-hoovering startup.)

Do read the whole thing.


Australia shows that it’s the job of governments not big tech to run democracies

My OpEd in this morning’s Observer

The tragedy is that the passage of Morrison’s law is actually a pyrrhic victory. One of the principles of warfare 101 is never to fight on territory chosen by your opponent. Democratic governments have been ignoring this, allowing discourse about technology and society to be captured by a deterministic narrative which says that tech drives history and society’s only role is to mop up after it has wreaked its “creative destruction” (to use Joseph Schumpeter’s famous phrase). In the process, governments everywhere bought into the myth that to challenge the arrogant intrusiveness of tech companies carried with it the risk of being portrayed as opposed to “progress”.

Since 2016, there has been a growing realisation that this narrative has to be challenged. The question now is not how can democracies mitigate the harms inflicted by tech companies on society, but what will democracies permit – and, more importantly, prohibit – tech companies to do? Which business models will we deem acceptable, and which will we outlaw? What, in other words, does democracy want from tech, not the other way round?

Applying that to the Australian case, the argument that the government should have been making was not about payments for linking to news outlets but that a vibrant, functioning democracy needs independent journalism capable of providing reliable information to citizens. Given that the social media giants have polluted the public sphere with disinformation, hatred and lies, and destroyed a business model that once funded good journalism, the companies should be subjected to a tax used to support that same good journalism. A bit like the BBC licence fee, in other words. It is the price they have to pay for the consequences of their ultra-profitable business models and insane profit margins. And for the privilege of being allowed to exist in a democracy.

The dominance of the five tech giants represents the same existential threat to liberal democracy that Louis Brandeis saw in the huge industrial trusts of early 19th-century America. The Silicon Valley narrative that sees democracies in the role of the guy who followed processional elephants during the Indian Raj, sweeping up their dung, is as ridiculous as it is pernicious. It is high time we called the industry’s bluff.


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Programming in Turbo Pascal in your browser. Not for everyone but if, like me, you enjoyed programming in Turbo Pascal, then this is a lovely emulator. Link
  • Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework. Douglas Engelbart’s original, seminal, 1962 paper. Link. Given that there have always been two ways of thinking about computers and humanity — one which sees them as replacing humans, and one that sees them as augmenting our capabilities (Doug’s vision) it’s lovely to be reminded of it. I haven’t read it since 1995 when I was working on my history of the Internet.

 This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Clubhouse: Facebook 2.0? And just as toxic for privacy?

This morning’s Observer column:

So, are you on Clubhouse, the social-media sensation du jour? No? Me neither. But – I hasten to add, lest there should be any doubt about my social status – that’s not because I wasn’t invited to join. A generous friend had a few invitations to extend, and she offered me one. After that, she had an attack of what one can only describe as donor’s remorse, because in order to be able to extend the invitation to me she had to grant Clubhouse access to all her contacts!

When I opened the app it asked me if I would like to grant it access to my contacts, an invitation I declined – as I always do. At which point it was made clear to me that I would not be able to invite anyone else to join. As Vox’s Sara Morrison succinctly put it: I had been invited to join Clubhouse, but my privacy wasn’t welcome. At which point I deleted the app – on the Groucho Marx principle that I wouldn’t join a club that would have such a schmuck as a member. (There was also the thought that Clubhouse’s behaviour, rules and operation seem to make it illegal under the GDPR – not that a small matter like that will trouble a US-based data-hoovering startup.)

Read on

Saturday 20 February, 2021

The open gates of the Van Gogh Foundation in Arles


Quote of the Day

”Well, it’s about everything in particular, isn’t it?

  • Muriel Spark, on Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions | The Peasant

Link

She was new to me. Thanks to John Darch for the suggestion.


Cory Doctorow with Edward Snowden and William Gibson

Earlier this month, Cory Doctorow hosted two interesting book launches — one for the young readers’ edition of Edward Snowden’s memoir, Permanent Record, the other for the paperback edition of William Gibson’s novel, Agency.

The videos of both events are now online — Snowden’s here and Gibson’s here.

They’re about an hour long each, but I enjoyed both, not only because Snowden and Gibson are both fascinating individuals but also because Cory is a great interlocutor.


Uber: drivers are workers!

From The Guardian: This is big news. The UK supreme court yesterday dismissed Uber’s appeal against an employment tribunal ruling that its drivers should be classed as workers with access to the minimum wage and paid holidays.

Six justices handed down an unanimous decision backing the October 2016 employment tribunal ruling that could land Uber with a big compensation pay out and lead to better terms for millions of workers in the gig economy.

Uber, like many delivery and courier companies, has argued that its drivers are independent self-employed “partners” not entitled to basic rights enjoyed by workers, which include the legally enforceable minimum hourly wage and a workplace pension.

But the supreme court said any attempt by organisations to draft artificial contracts intended to side-step basic employment protections were void and unenforceable.

The judges criticised the controversial contracts Uber asked their drivers to sign, saying they “can be seen to have as their object precluding a driver from claiming rights conferred on workers by the applicable legislation”.

The court concluded that the drivers were workers because of Uber’s level of control over them, including setting fares and not informing them of a passenger’s destination until they were picked up.

The judgment says that Uber must consider drivers as workers from the time they log on to the app until they log off. It’s important to remember that workers have more rights than ‘independent ‘contractors but fewer than employees, who are entitled to maternity pay and can challenge unfair dismissal, for example. But still, this is great news.


Inside Timnit Gebru’s last days at Google | MIT Technology Review

Amazing and sobering interview with the black researcher who was co-leader of Google’s Ethical AI team and was forced out because of a critique of the technology that she co-authored with an external researcher.

If you want to know what working inside one of these Silicon Valley firms is really like if you’re not a young, white techbro then this is an eye-opener.

There was so much talk about diversity and inclusion, but so much hypocrisy. I’m one of 1.6% Black women at Google. In Google Research, it’s not 1.6%—it’s way lower. I was definitely the first Black woman to be a research scientist at Google. After me, we got two more Black women. That’s, like, out of so many research scientists. Hundreds and hundreds. Three out of God knows how many.

So at some point I was just like, you know what? I don’t even want to talk about diversity. It’s just exhausting. They want to have meetings with you, they don’t listen to you, and then they want to have meetings with you again. I’ve written a million documents about a million diversity-related things—about racial literacy and machine learning (ML), ML fairness initiatives, about retention of women, and the issues. So many documents and so many emails.

So it’s just been one thing after another. There’s not been a single vacation I took inside Google where I wasn’t in the middle of some issue or another. It’s just never been peace of mind. Imagine somebody’s shooting at you with a gun and you’re screaming. And instead of trying to stop the person who’s shooting at you with a gun, they’re trying to stop you from screaming. That’s how it felt. It was just so painful to be in that position over and over and over again.

Very revealing. I can’t understand why people still valorise these outfits.

There’s an audio version of the interview here.


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • A map of every building in the Netherlands showing its age. Astonishing. Link
  • Bookfeed.io — a simple tool that allows you to specify a list of authors, and generates an RSS feed with each author’s most recently released book. Neat. And you don’t have to be a schmuck advised by recommender algorithms. Link

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!