Maternal scepticism

Dave Winer writes:

A family story. My mother was a pure capitalist. She believed in hard work, being productive. She felt threatened by evidence of idleness. I drove her crazy. Even as a kid I would sometimes just sit in a chair in the living room of our apartment in Jackson Heights and think. Once she saw me sitting, lights off, no TV, no book, appearing to be doing nothing, and she lost her shit right there. Anyway, many years later, when I sold my company and then it went public, after years of begging me to get a job, her stock in the company was all of a sudden worth a lot of money. It was the only time I remember getting her unqualified approval. She boasted, even when I could hear, that I was profitable. In other words, the money and time she put into raising me made her money.

That rings a bell. I’ve been a journalist and an academic all my working life. (My Observer Editor-in-Chief, Conor Cruise O’Brien, who straddled the same two occupations with great distinction, once said to me that he and I “had a foot in both graves”.) My mother, who hoped I would become an engineer with the national Electricity Supply Board, went to her grave believing that I never had held a proper job.

As Moore’s Law runs out of steam, it’ll be back to the future

This morning’s Observer column:

In a lecture in 1997, Nathan Myhrvold, who was once Bill Gates’s chief technology officer, set out his Four Laws of Software. 1: software is like a gas – it expands to fill its container. 2: software grows until it is limited by Moore’s law. 3: software growth makes Moore’s law possible – people buy new hardware because the software requires it. And, finally, 4: software is only limited by human ambition and expectation.

As Moore’s law reaches the end of its dominion, Myhrvold’s laws suggest that we basically have only two options. Either we moderate our ambitions or we go back to writing leaner, more efficient code. In other words, back to the future.

Read on

The White House’s ten principles for AI

Must be a spoof, surely? Something apparently serious emerging from the Trump administration. Ten principles for government agencies to adhere to when proposing new AI regulations for the private sector. The move is the latest development of the American AI Initiative, launched via executive order by President Trump early last year to create a national strategy for AI. It is also part of an ongoing effort to maintain US leadership in the field.

Here are the ten principles, for what they’re worth:

Public trust in AI. The government must promote reliable, robust, and trustworthy AI applications.

Public participation. The public should have a chance to provide feedback in all stages of the rule-making process.

Scientific integrity and information quality. Policy decisions should be based on science.

Risk assessment and management. Agencies should decide which risks are and aren’t acceptable.

Benefits and costs. Agencies should weigh the societal impacts of all proposed regulations.

Flexibility. Any approach should be able to adapt to rapid changes and updates to AI applications.

Fairness and nondiscrimination. Agencies should make sure AI systems don’t discriminate illegally.

Disclosure and transparency. The public will trust AI only if it knows when and how it is being used.

Safety and security. Agencies should keep all data used by AI systems safe and secure.

Interagency coordination. Agencies should talk to one another to be consistent and predictable in AI-related policies.

We shape our tools, and afterwards…

In his provocative LARB piece on the intrinsic conservatism of machine learning, Cory Doctorow pointed me to “Instant Recall”, Molly Sauter’s lovely essay, about how the Web has given us “a suite of products and services to programmatically induce reminiscence.”

Apps like Timehop, which presents time-traveled posts from across your social media profiles, or Facebook’s “On This Day” Memories, are attempts to automate and algorithmically define reminiscence, turning the act of remembering into a salable, scalable, consumable, trackable product suite. As the work of memory keeping is offshored, Instagram by Instagram, to social media companies and cloud storage, we are giving up the work of remembering ourselves for the convenience of being reminded.

What’s going on, Sauter says, is that we are being algorithmically fed virtual ‘madelaines’ (those buttery cakes that when when dipped in hot tea were the catalyst for the memories that make up Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.) She contrasts this with psychologist Dan McAdams’s contention that remembering is a generative, creative process that is essential for a happy life. What’s important, McAdams argues, is

the creation and maintenance of life narratives, dynamically evolving situated performances that integrate lives in time, providing “an understandable frame for disparate ideas, character, happenings, and other events that were previously set apart.” These stories are subject to constant additive revision, as through living we continually add more material and revise the material available to us, rethinking and rewriting memories as we age. The process of remembering memories rewrites them, revises them, and this ability to re-envision ourselves is a central part of the creation of seemingly stable life narratives that allow for growth and change.

Sauter argues that if we were, somehow, to lose this ability “to both serendipitously and intentionally encounter and creatively engage with our memories, perhaps we would then also lose that re-visionary ability, leaving us narratively stranded amidst our unchanging, unconnected memories”.

It’s a great essay, well worth reading in full. What I like most about it is the way it reminds one of the deeper ways in which digital technology is changing us. “We shape our tools”, as one of Marshall McLuhan’s buddies put it, “and afterwards they shape us“.

In a way, Mark Twain was right when he said that “the older I get, the more clearly I remember things that never happened”.

There’s ‘Facebook’; and then there’s Facebook

Dave Winer has been ruminating on the idea of ‘Facebook’ viewed not so much as “Zuckerberg’s monster” or a toxic global corporation (the way most of its critics and the media portray it) but as an astonishing global collection of human users. He’s been thinking along these lines for a while, but the way he puts it now is particularly striking. “When I was 14”, he writes,

I went to high school in the Bronx and lived in Queens. It was a 1.5 hour trip each way. I had a few choices but they all magically took the same amount of time. One of the routes was to take the Q16 bus to Main Street, then the 7 train to Grand Central, and switch to the 4 train uptown. The Bedford Park Blvd station is two blocks from the school. One day on the train, I remember this really clearly, I was watching all the houses and apartment buildings we passed, first in Queens, then in the Bronx. Inside every window, I guessed, was a family, like my own, possibly. With their dramas and struggles, stories, victories, history, abuse, happiness, fear. I tried to imagine how each of them might live and realized in an overwhelming way that I could never begin to understand who they were. NYC, even then, was an ethnically and economically diverse place. Of course as we traveled through the city, the people on the train changed too. Very few of them were Bronx Science students. There were all kinds of people. Who knew what any of them were thinking. The point is this. The world is huge. To keep our sanity we have to simplify it, and to do that we have to ignore differences. The stories we tell ourselves little connection to reality. And so any general statement about a community as huge and diverse as Facebook is certain to miss the mark, widely. And most of what we read only focuses on the company, not the users. To have that appear as journalism is just wrong because journalism has a higher calling, to find out what’s real, what’s true, and then say that.

Watching the way my own extended family uses Facebook, that strikes a chord.

House of Windsor Inc.

So Harry and Meghan are spinning themselves off from The Family Firm. The Economist provides the stock market analysis

Harry and Meghan’s move was announced without consultation with the group’s management, but may have been encouraged by developments within it. The stock price has tumbled recently, as a result of missteps by Prince Andrew, who has now been fired. Prince Charles—who will take over the top job in the not-too-distant future—has hinted that he plans to cut costs and slim down its operations as part of a broader restructuring. Rather than wait for that shake-up, Harry, who knew he was unlikely ever to get the top job, has now decided to cut loose.

This separation has the advantage of strategic clarity, and is likely to unlock value, given that the Harry and Meghan brand was widely perceived to be undervalued. The new entity will now have more freedom to diverge from the positioning of the parent group and to tap overseas markets. The couple say they plan to divide their time between Britain and North America.

How is Twitter disrupting academia?

Tyler Cowen has ten conjectures. I particularly like these:

  • Hypotheses blaming people or institutions for failures and misdeeds will be more popular on Twitter than in academia, but over time they are spreading in academia too, in part because of their popularity on Twitter. Blame makes for a more popular tweet.

  • Often the number of Twitter followers resembles a Power law, and thus Twitter raises the influence of very well known contributors. Twitter also raises the influence of the relatively busy, compared to say the 2009 world where blogs held more of that influence. Writing blog posts required more time than does issuing tweets.

  • I believe Twitter raises the relative influence of women. For one thing, women can coordinate with each other on Twitter more easily than they can in academic life across different universities.

  • Twitter can damage the career prospects of some of the more impulsive tweeting white males.
    not even in their areas of specialization.

  • Academic fields related to current events will rise in status and attention, and those topics will garner the Power law retweets. Right now that means political science most of all but of course this will vary over time.

  • Twitter lowers the power of institutions more broadly, as institutions typically are bad at Twitter.

Cummings: long on ideas, short on strategy

My Observer OpEd piece about the world’s most senior technocrat:

When Dominic Cummings arrived in Downing Street, some of his new colleagues were puzzled by one of his mantras: “Get Brexit done, then Arpa”. Now, perhaps, they have some idea of what that meant. On 2 January, Cummings published on his blog the wackiest job proposals to emerge from a government since the emperor Caligula made his horse a consul. Dominic Cummings warned over civil service shake-up plan Read more

The ad took the form of a long post under the heading “We’re hiring data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos…”, included a reading list of arcane academic papers that applicants were expected to read and digest and declared that applications from “super-talented weirdos” would be especially welcome. They should assemble a one-page letter, attach a CV and send it to ideasfornumber10@gmail.com. (Yes, that’s @gmail.com.)

It was clear that nobody from HR was involved in composing this call for clever young things. Alerting applicants to the riskiness of employment by him, Cummings writes: “I’ll bin you within weeks if you don’t fit – don’t complain later because I made it clear now.”

The ad provoked predictable outrage and even the odd parody. The most interesting thing about it, though, is its revelations of what moves the man who is now the world’s most senior technocrat. The “Arpa” in his mantra, for example, is classic Cummings, because the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (now Darpa) is one of his inspirational models…

Read on