Friday 23 April, 2021

Where I’d like to be today.

Vox and the higher bullshit

Here are the first two sentences of a lazy piece by Peter Kafka on Vox.

Apple more or less invented podcasting. Now it’s finally going to try to make money from it.

The first sentence is completely wrong. The second is possibly true. Dave Winer is rightly infuriated by this kind of journalistic laziness, and points to Walter Isaacson’s terrific podcast episode on the actual history of the technology. It’s baffling how media people continually get things like this wrong. Invincible ignorance is a necessary but not a sufficient explanation; it’s also because they don’t know that most things in tech have a history.

Quote of the Day

“Never interrupt your enemy when they are making a mistake.”

  • Napoleon Bonaparte

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Vivace from Bach’s double concerto — but sung!


Magical. Many thanks to Seb Schmoller for spotting it.

Long Read of the Day

Everyone On Facebook’s Oversight Board Should Resign

Lovely *Wired piece by Jessica Gonzalez and Carmen Scurato on Facebook’s ludicrous ‘Supreme Court’.

It’s beyond comprehension why all those supposedly eminent people agreed to serve as Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘useful idiots’ (to use Lenin’s phrase about Western intellectuals). Could it have been the money?

I liked Charles Arthur’s summing-up on his Overspill blog:

The board is, very evidently, a very expensive (viewed from outside Facebook; cheap, inside it) figleaf. I suspect if anyone does resign, there will be a certain dambreaking effect. But it also means giving up a fat paycheque for doing very occasionally what content moderators do, for far less money, all day long.

Why anonymisation of personal data is a pipe-dream

Wonderful post by Cory Doctorow.

“Wanting it badly is not enough” could be the title of a postmortem on the century’s tech-policy battles. Think of the crypto wars: yeah, it would be super cool if we had ciphers that worked perfectly except when “bad guys” used them, but that’s not ever going to happen.

Another area is anonymisation of large data-sets. There are undeniably cool implications for a system that allows us to gather and analyse lots of data on how people interact with each other and their environments without compromising their privacy.

But “cool” isn’t the same as “possible” because wanting it badly is not enough…

It’s a great piece. We continue to see the planned releases of large datasets with assurances that they have been anonymised. And it’s standard practice to demand your “consent” to have your data shared once it has been de-identified.

This is, as Cory points out, a meaningless proposition. The ‘anonymised’ dataset that cannot be re-identified has yet to be invented.

To show just how easy re-identification can be, why not visit The Observatory of Anonymity, a web-app that shows you how easily you can be identified in a data-set?

Try it.

Click on the link, give your country and region, birthdate, gender, employment and education status and it tells you how many people share those characteristics.

I’ve just tried it. Conclusion: “If a record were to be found in any anonymous dataset matching your attributes, there is a 25% chance that this record actually belongs to you”.

And the moral? In Cory’s inimitable style: “You are far less of a haystack-needle than you think.”

Lina Khan’s Senate confirmation appearance

If you haven’t heard of Lina Khan before, then can I suggest that you take note. She’s a remarkable young woman who has done more to reshape how we think about antitrust than anyone since Robert Bork did (to malevolent effect) in 1978. And Joe Biden has nominated her as one of the five members of the US Federal Trade Commission, a wilfully somnolent body in recent years but one with great powers if it chooses to use them.

Matt Stoller watched her confirmation hearing and has this to say.

The most important thing to know about Lina Khan is that she is at heart an investigative journalist. When she was 15, she did a story on Starbucks for her school newspaper, and it got picked up by the New York Times. Before she became a lawyer, she did investigations on everything from the rise of big chocolate to airlines to poultry to banks to Monsanto’s appetite for data.

Her law review piece on Amazon came out of research she did on the economy as a news gatherer, and the investigation of big tech for the Antitrust Subcommittee was basically just high-quality journalism. Khan has what is necessary in a great enforcer and regulator, which is a sense of curiosity about how the world works. She starts with empirical reality, asking what’s happening in business and how it is shaped by the law.

Khan will be just one of five votes, so she won’t be able to run the commission herself. But her nomination is a huge deal. The FTC used to be an afterthought agency, a place to stack cronies with a nice cushy job flying off to Europe to attend privacy conferences, with the need to occasionally vote to permit a massive mega-merger. If nothing else, Khan’s nomination shows that is no longer the case.


I wrongly attributed the lovely Peatlands essay that was yesterday’s Long Read to Richard Gibbons rather than to Sami Emory. Richard was the photographer, but the words are Sami’s.

Apologies to both. And many thanks to Carrie Fitton for spotting it.

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Thursday 22 April, 2021

Tulip mania

Shot on Tuesday in the college garden. Sometimes, you can see why the Dutch went nuts about them.

Opening up — for whom?

Diane Coyle (Whom God Preserve) had a thoughtful essay in the FT at the weekend about economists’ hopes that consumer spending will bounce right back and drive a recovery. And maybe it will: the pile of household savings, she says, is estimated at about £180 billion (who estimates these things?) and a lot of this is just bursting to be spent.

Yeah, maybe. But…

We are two nations, and only one will have scope for a roaring 2020s. To point out the obvious, people who have been able to work from home, spending less, for months will for the most part welcome the chance to get out and enjoy themselves. But many others do not have the money to do so, and indeed have amassed debts instead.

For those freelancers who fell through the gaps in furlough and self-employment support schemes, or those on low incomes, the headache will be how to climb back out of a financial hole. The Resolution Foundation has reported recently on the surge in universal credit claims and evidence that many of these new claimants are further in debt than they were before the pandemic, or behind on essential bills.


I got my second AstraZeneca jab yesterday. (Plus a little badge to stick on my sweater.) As before, a beautifully organised operation. A well-oiled machine working like clockwork. And not a single corrupt, outsourced company in sight.

And nobody from Accenture, KPMG, PwC or McKinsey either.

Memoir of a Recovering Utopian

A short (5 minute) video I recorded for a Royal Society online event recently.


Quote of the Day

”TV is a medium, because it is neither rare nor well-done.”

  • Ernie Kovacs

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ry Cooder | My Girl Josephine


Long Read of the Day

Why do bogs get such a bad press?

Conserving peatlands is a cheap climate change win. So why’s it a hard sell?

Lovely essay by Sami Emory.

Peatlands often appear to the untrained eye as a bland swatch of greys, browns, oranges, and green. What we do not see is what they really are: robust ecosystems of flora and fauna—such as wetland birds, sphagnum moss, heather, and several species of quite crafty carnivorous plants. Furthermore, much of what makes these habitats so special exists beneath the surface. Peat stores, which can reach down into the earth for upwards of thirty-two feet, are dense with carbon, making the peatland a Goliath of sequestration. And with their regulatory effect on a region’s water table, peatlands also help improve water quality, reduce flooding and fires, and keep at bay rising sea levels.

What really matters to Boris Johnson

From Politico:

It took days for the prime minister to issue a tweet about violence in Northern Ireland and he missed the first five government coordination meetings about the emerging coronavirus pandemic. Yet Boris Johnson was super quick to jump on the crisis in European football. What gives? The explanation comes down to simple politics, writes my POLITICO colleague Emilio Casalicchio: “Politicians care about voters, and voters — including a large chunk of the core Red Wall group the two main parties are fighting over — care about football.”

Emilio’s great piece is here.

The Tech industry will eventually be a regulated one.

In the heat of the fray it’s always hard to take the long view. But when historians of tech come to look back at this period in the evolution of the digital world they will see that it was — in the long view — inevitable that the industry would be regulated. And we’re beginning to see the first beginnings of that phase-change.

Today’s FT ($) reports that antitrust regulators in the UK, Germany and Australia on Tuesday mounted a unified attack against the domination of internet giants on Tuesday, warning that the pandemic was not an excuse to approve deals.

The three regulators, which have been at the forefront of global attempts to rein in big tech companies such as Facebook and Google, said the pandemic had accelerated the concentration of power in the hands of a few, and warned they would take an increasingly sceptical view of tie-ups.

The head of the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority, Andrea Coscelli, said he expected “tremendous pressure” from companies citing the need to rebuild after the pandemic as a reason to justify mergers and investment.

“We’re clearly in a difficult economic situation, and it’s attractive, someone coming to you with plans for investment. But . . . this is really about the medium term, it’s about having market structures that are going to deliver day in, day out for consumers.”

The three regulators said the pandemic “should not be used to bring about a relaxation of the standards against which mergers are ultimately assessed”.

Amen to that. Now let’s see if they really mean business.

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