Monday 5 April, 2021

Blackthorn blossom, seen on our walk in the Fens this afternoon.

Quote of the Day

”I myself have accomplished nothing of excellence except a remarkable, and to my friends, unaccountable expertise in hitting empty ginger ale bottles with small rocks at a distance of thirty paces.”

  • James Thurber (who a remarkable English teacher at school encouraged me to read)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Van Morrison | No More Lockdown


Long Read of the Day

What Data Can’t Do

Lovely New Yorker essay by Hannah Fry in which she reviews two books on data-driven decision-making, Counting: How We Use Numbers to Decide What Matters by Deborah Stone, the other, The Data Detective, by Tim Harford. Here’s a sample:

The particular mistake that Tony Blair and his policy mavens made is common enough to warrant its own adage: once a useful number becomes a measure of success, it ceases to be a useful number. This is known as Goodhart’s law, and it reminds us that the human world can move once you start to measure it. Deborah Stone writes about Soviet factories and farms that were given production quotas, on which jobs and livelihoods depended. Textile factories were required to produce quantities of fabric that were specified by length, and so looms were adjusted to make long, narrow strips. Uzbek cotton pickers, judged on the weight of their harvest, would soak their cotton in water to make it heavier. Similarly, when America’s first transcontinental railroad was built, in the eighteen-sixties, companies were paid per mile of track. So a section outside Omaha, Nebraska, was laid down in a wide arc, rather than a straight line, adding several unnecessary (yet profitable) miles to the rails. The trouble arises whenever we use numerical proxies for the thing we care about. Stone quotes the environmental economist James Gustave Speth: “We tend to get what we measure, so we should measure what we want.”

The problem isn’t easily resolved, though. The issues around Goodhart’s law have come to haunt artificial-intelligence design: just how do you communicate an objective to your algorithm when the only language you have in common is numbers? The computer scientist Robert Feldt once created an algorithm charged with landing a plane on an aircraft carrier. The objective was to bring a simulated plane to a gentle stop, thus registering as little force as possible on the body of the aircraft. Unfortunately, during the training, the algorithm spotted a loophole. If, instead of bringing the simulated plane down smoothly, it deliberately slammed the aircraft to a halt, the force would overwhelm the system and register as a perfect zero. Feldt realized that, in his virtual trial, the algorithm was repeatedly destroying plane after plane after plane, but earning top marks every time.

Enjoyable and instructive, like the books themselves.

Corruption as a way of life

Catherine Bennett has a sharp Observer column about Boris Johnson’s sleazy, reckless and ethically vacuous behaviour over many decades. It was bad enough when he was just a journalist, but in office it seems to have got markedly worse. And it leads one to wonder if the current Tory government is actually the most corrupt British administration for at least a century.

In 1994, Bennett recalls, Lord Nolan was tasked by the then Tory Prime Minister, John Major, with rescuing politics from Tory sleaze.

“We seek to restore respect for the ethical values inherent in the idea of public service,” Nolan wrote of the resulting Seven Principles: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership. Enforcement was another question. “Formal procedures have a role to play,” Nolan said, “but in the end it is individuals’ consciences that matter.” By the time George Osborne and David Cameron hastened to enrich themselves, this idea was already comical. We are now left with, on the one hand, Nolan’s faded sampler; on the other, Johnson’s expensively wallpapered, ever-expanding development of luxury Augean stables. In a nice touch, Bennett takes Nolan’s ‘principles’ and recasts them as ‘Johnson’s Principles’ to match what the government has actually been doing.

1: Greed (Replaces Nolan’s selflessness.) Holders of public office should take decisions solely in their own interest or that of their friends/families.

2. Shamelessness (Replaces integrity.) Holders of public office should accept gifts from generous individuals and organisations likely to expect favours in return.

3. Self-interest(Previously objectivity.) When making appointments, awarding contracts, etc, holders of public office should not allow merit to affect choices made exclusively to benefit themselves, their supporters, family or friends.

4. Unaccountability (Replaces accountability.) Holders of public office must not submit to scrutiny of their actions.

5. Concealment (Formerly openness.) Holders of public office have a duty to be as opaque as possible about their actions.

6. Fabrication (Replaces honesty.) Holders of public office are expected to lie freely about any private interests relating to their public duties.

7. Entitlement (Previously leadership.) Holders of public office should demonstrate by example their support for these principles, which apply to all aspects of self-enrichment.

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!