Friday 31 September, 2021

Quote of the Day

“Strange thought this morning: I bought an electric car and everyone else in the UK has range anxiety!”

  • Quentin Stafford-Fraser on his (terrific) blog.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Louis Armstrong | We Have All The Time In The World


Long Read of the Day

Bitcoin miners align with fossil fuel firms, alarming environmentalists

Useful NBC Report which should be mandatory reading for anyone who thinks that digital tech is environmentally ‘weightless’. Of course Bitcoin mining is a specially egregious case, but the large machine-learning systems that big tech company use may also have the same kind of carbon footprint.

Four years ago, the Scrubgrass power plant in Venango County, Pennsylvania, was on the brink of financial ruin as energy customers preferred to buy cheap natural gas or renewables. Then Scrubgrass pivoted to Bitcoin.

Today, through a holding company based in Kennerdell, Pennsylvania, called Stronghold Digital Mining that bought the plant, Scrubgrass burns enough coal waste to power about 1,800 cryptocurrency mining computers. These computers, known as miners, are packed into shipping containers next to the power plant, the company stated in documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission ahead of its initial public offering. Coal waste is a byproduct from decades of mining in the region, left behind in enormous black piles. Stronghold estimated that it’s currently burning about 600,000 tons of it per year at Scrubgrass.

Facebook thrives on criticism of “disinformation”

Really intriguing essay by Cory Doctorow pointing out the intriguing symbiosis between (a) Facebook critics’ belief in the corrupting power of the disinformation it facilitates, and (b) the company’s pitch to advertisers that it is uniquely good at enabling them to target people with tailored ads.

FB critics say that the company’s machine learning and data-gathering slides disinformation past users’ critical faculties, poisoning their minds.

Meanwhile, Facebook itself tells advertisers that it can use data and machine learning to slide past users’ critical faculties, convincing them to buy stuff.

In other words, the mainline of Facebook critics start from the presumption that FB is a really good product and that advertisers are definitely getting their money’s worth when they shower billions on the company.

Which is weird, because these same critics (rightfully) point out that Facebook lies all the time, about everything. It would be bizarre if the only time FB was telling the truth was when it was boasting about how valuable its ad-tech is.

Great essay. Worth reading in full. It picks up, in part on a fine piece in Harpers by Joseph Bernstein on the same contradiction who went back to Mark Zuckerberg in 2016 saying that it was a “pretty crazy idea” that bad content on his website had persuaded enough voters to swing the 2016 election to Donald Trump.

Denial was always untenable, for Zuckerberg in particular. The so-called techlash, a season of belatedly brutal media coverage and political pressure in the aftermath of Brexit and Trump’s win, made it difficult. But Facebook’s basic business pitch made denial impossible. Zuckerberg’s company profits by convincing advertisers that it can standardize its audience for commercial persuasion. How could it simultaneously claim that people aren’t persuaded by its content?

The Bullwhip effect

For those puzzled by the increasingly ragged shortages on our supermarkets shelves Quartz had a terrific ‘explainer’ on how small changes in demand for certain goods can create disruptions that ripple through a supply chain, causing bigger and bigger headaches. The bullwhip effect has made those wild demand swings all but impossible for manufacturers to keep up with.

It happens because demand signals get exaggerated as they travel through a supply chain. Different people control different parts of the chain. They often don’t communicate with one another well (so they’re short of accurate information about other parts of the chain), and each tries to manage his or her own bit of it. The combination of information shortages and time lags can lead to wild fluctuations if there are even modest surges in demand.

The concept was first developed by Jay Forrester, an interesting (and pioneering) MIT professor who founded a simulation technique called system dynamics to model the dynamics of feedback systems, and it was initially known as the ‘Forrester Effect’. (It seems that business school academics came up with the more colourful ‘Bullwhip’ metaphor.) In 1961 Forrester developed an interactive game — the Beer Game — as a way to teach students how the effect manifests itself. As Quartz puts it:

In the game, each player controls a different piece of the supply chain for beer: the retailer, the wholesaler, the regional distributor, and the manufacturer. Every turn, customers buy a certain amount of beer from the retailer, and every player puts in an order for more beer from their supplier. The trouble is, orders take several turns to arrive, and no one knows what’s happening in any other piece of the supply chain. Inevitably, small changes in beer consumption lead to panic ordering, shortages of beer, and massive spikes and crashes in beer production.

Anyone can sign up to play a version of the game online. Or if you’re just curious, there’s an online demo which gives you the idea.

So next time you’re enraged by the fact that you can’t get Geeta’s Premium Mango Chutney anywhere, spare a thought for ol’ Jay Forrester.

General Willey’s second thoughts

Several readers have written to suggest that I was a bit unfair to General Mark Willey in yesterday’s edition. That the top US military officer felt obliged to assure his Chinese counterpart that his President was not going to launch a nuclear attack seemed to me a graphic illustration of the depths to which American democracy had descended. And my sarky pay-off line about General Willey was a reflection of my outrage at seeing him walking in Trump’s entourage on June 1. “Would this be the same General Willey”, I asked rhetorically, “who accompanied Trump on his Bible-thumping stunt at Lafayette Square on June 1st? Surely not.”

My correspondents directed me to Willey’s subsequent apology for the error of judgement implicit in his presence at Lafayette Square that day.

“I should not have been there,” he said in a prerecorded video commencement address to National Defense University. “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”

It did. Which is why I was irritated by it on the day. But it was good that he apologised.

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