Wednesday 14 April, 2021

One of our cats, who always looks at me as if whatever’s happening is my fault.

Quote of the Day

”The Swiss managed to build a lovely country round their hotels.”

  • George Mikes

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Overture | Marriage of Figaro


Prelude to glorious nonsense.

Long Read of the Day

 The geopolitical fight to come over green energy

Truly fabulous essay by Helen Thompson. Salutary read for those of us who tend to think that the tensions with China are about tech and data. Those are small beer compared with energy.

(And if you’re interested in this, there’s Adam Tooze’s post about what it would mean to face up realistically to arresting climate change.)

Is content moderation a dead end?

Really interesting essay by Ben Evans on the Sisyphean task of ‘moderating’ content on social media.

I wonder how far the answers to our problems with social media are not more moderators, just as the answer to PC security was not virus scanners, but to change the model – to remove whole layers of mechanics that enable abuse. So, for example, Instagram doesn’t have links, and Clubhouse doesn’t have replies, quotes or screenshots. Email newsletters don’t seem to have virality. Some people argue that the problem is ads, or algorithmic feeds (both of which ideas I disagree with pretty strongly – I wrote about newsfeeds here), but this gets at the same underlying point: instead of looking for bad stuff, perhaps we should change the paths that bad stuff can abuse. The wave of anonymous messaging apps that appeared a few years ago exemplify this – it turned out that bullying was such an inherent effect of the basic concept that they all had to shut down. Hogarth contrasted dystopian Gin Lane with utopian Beer Street – alcohol is good, so long as it’s the right kind.

Of course, if the underlying problem is human nature, then you can still only channel it.

Two thoughts about this. The first is that if a task really is Sisyphean — i.e. endless and impossible to complete, then isn’t it time to stop it and try something else?

The second is that Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety in cybernetics suggests that, to be viable, a system has to be able to cope with the complexity of its environment. There are only two ways of doing that: the traditional way we’ve used up to now — to reduce the complexity of the environment (mass production and standardisation was one way of doing that. The other is to find ‘variety amplifiers’ that will increase the system’s ability to manage the complexity that being thrown at it. If you listen to the discourse of Zuckerberg & Co about the ‘moderation’ challenge they face, it’s clear that they see ‘AI’ (by which they mean machine learning) as that variety amplifier.

I’m sceptical that it is. There’s no computational way of dealing with the infinite variety of human ingenuity.

So, in a nutshell, I think that the answer to Ben’s question is “Yes

The wider implication of Ashby’s Law in a networked world is that an increasing proportion of our organisations are no longer viable.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Who has your face? Interesting interactive quiz to determine if a US government database has your picture. Link
  • Watch BB King keep singing while simultaneously replacing a broken guitar string Link. Now that’s real multitasking.

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Tuesday 13 April, 2021

This photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson is my favourite picture. It was taken in 1954 on Rue Mouffetard in Paris, and shows a cheeky eight-year-old lad heading homeward with two bottles of wine that he’s been sent to collect. I love it because in 1954 I was eight too, (and wearing the same kind of clothes) and I often wonder where this boy is now — or indeed whether he’s still going.

The photograph hangs in our living room, and I looked up at one moment today to see that reflected in it was the top of the gazebo in the back garden that’s been our outdoor living room during lockdown.

And as I pressed the shutter I suddenly remembered that we’re clean out of red wine.

Quote of the Day

”To trust people is a luxury in which only the wealthy can indulge; the poor cannot afford it”

  • E. M. Forster

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Duke Ellington | Across the Track Blues


Long Read of the Day

The Great Protest Wave

What lessons can we draw from the global demonstrations that began in 2019?

Absorbing essay by Noah Smith.

In 2019, the world exploded in protest. There were massive, prolonged demonstrations in Hong Kong, in Chile and Venezuela and Bolivia and Colombia and Ecuador, in Russia and Spain and France, in Iraq and Iran and Lebanon and Algeria, in Indonesia and Haiti. We in the chattering classes spent much of the latter part of that year thinking about the protests, writing about them, theorizing about them, even visiting or joining them. We asked why this was happening. Was it a revolt against inequality? Or authoritarianism? Or was it just a fad enabled by new social media technologies? We felt like we were witnessing something historic, but we couldn’t tell what we were looking at.

Even the arrival of a once-in-a-century pandemic didn’t douse the flames of unrest for long. The U.S. saw the biggest eruption of protests in its history in the summer of 2020, and those demonstrations were echoed across much of the world. The people of Belarus and Myanmar have poured into the streets in existential struggles against their dictatorial governments. India has had two entirely separate massive waves of demonstrations — one by farmers over agricultural policy, another against a discriminatory citizenship law. Overall, 2020 has seen even more protests than 2019.

So what does this portend? Read on…

Put away the bleach: you can stop playing in the hygiene theatre

It’s official — even the CDC agrees. Nice piece by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic:

Last week, the CDC acknowledged what many of us have been saying for almost nine months about cleaning surfaces to prevent transmission by touch of the coronavirus: It’s pure hygiene theater.

“Based on available epidemiological data and studies of environmental transmission factors,” the CDC concluded, “surface transmission is not the main route by which SARS-CoV-2 spreads, and the risk is considered to be low.” In other words: You can put away the bleach, cancel your recurring Amazon subscription for disinfectant wipes, and stop punishing every square inch of classroom floor, restaurant table, and train seat with high-tech antimicrobial blasts. COVID-19 is airborne: It spreads through tiny aerosolized droplets that linger in the air in unventilated spaces. Touching stuff just doesn’t carry much risk, and more people should say so, very loudly. At last!

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Domino’s pizzas now delivered with autonomous cars in Houston This is progress? Link
  • Earthrise in 4k UHD Eerily beautiful. by Seán Doran. Based on JAXA / NHK Kaguya Orbiter archive. Source is denoised, repaired, graded, retimed & upscaled. We live on that lovely sphere. And we’re busy screwing it up. 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!