Thursday 17 June, 2021

A photographer at Dartington Hall, overlooked by Henry Moore’s reclining nude.

Quote of the Day

”Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.”

  • Robert Frost

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sharon Shannon and Alan Connor | Lament for Limerick


First time I’ve heard them play together.

Short Read of the Day

Coding is not ‘fun’, it’s technically and ethically complex

Nice Aeon essay by Walter Vannini which rather punters the feel-good nonsense spouted by Education ministers everywhere.


Insisting on the glamour and fun of coding is the wrong way to acquaint kids with computer science. It insults their intelligence and plants the pernicious notion in their heads that you don’t need discipline in order to progress. As anyone with even minimal exposure to making software knows, behind a minute of typing lies an hour of study.

It’s better to admit that coding is complicated, technically and ethically. Computers, at the moment, can only execute orders, to varying degrees of sophistication. So it’s up to the developer to be clear: the machine does what you say, not what you mean. More and more ‘decisions’ are being entrusted to software, including life-or-death ones: think self-driving cars; think semi-autonomous weapons; think Facebook and Google making inferences about your marital, psychological or physical status, before selling it to the highest bidder. Yet it’s rarely in the interests of companies and governments to encourage us to probe what’s going on beneath these processes.

Victory for Tech’s Critics?

I’ve added a question-mark to that Bloomberg headline:

President Joe Biden named Lina Khan chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission, an unexpected move that puts one of the most prominent advocates of aggressive antitrust enforcement against U.S. technology giants in charge of the agency.

Khan’s elevation to chairwoman marks her rapid rise to the top of U.S. antitrust enforcement. Currently a professor at Columbia Law School, just a few years ago she was a law student at Yale University. Now the 32-year-old is in charge of one of two agencies responsible for policing competition in the U.S. The other is the Justice Department’s antitrust division.

This isn’t something I expected. I had fervently hoped that she would become a Commissioner. Making her the Chair is a brilliant move and suggests that Biden is more serious about controlling the companies than doubters believed.

Ms Khan is a remarkable woman. I’ve been following her since reading her pathbreaking article — “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” in the Yale Law Journal in January 2017. In a way, she’s the benign inverse of Robert Bork, whose 1978 book, The Antitrust Paradox shaped the way that American thinking and jurisprudence about antitrust evolved over 40 years. Bork’s view was that we should only be concerned about corporate power if there was evidence that consumer harm — for which price-gouging was a proxy — could be shown. But if companies weren’t inflicting that kind of consumer harm then we should be less concerned about their power. And since many of the products and services provided by the tech giants were both free and immensely popular with users, arraigning them simply because they were powerful amounted to punishing them for being excellent. (This was the ‘paradox’ implied by his book’s title.) My (optimistic) hunch is that Khan’s thinking will shape the next few decades of corporate regulation and jurisprudence in a different direction, at least in the tech industry.

My Observer column next Sunday is about this and the legislative blitzkrieg launched the other day by David Cicillene, the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Law and Administrative Law.

Andreessen Horowitz’s new blog

It looks like a multi-author blog on the Crooked Timber model. One of the initial posts is by Marc Andreessen, an individual who (a bit like Elon Musk) manages to be interesting, infuriating and insanely rich. And he’s often an entertaining writer.

His opening sally on this new venture is — predictably perhaps — a hymn of praise to the technology that enabled us to keep working under lockdown conditions. Sample:

Finally, possibly the most profound technology-driven change of all — geography, and its bearing on how we live and work. For thousands of years, until the time of COVID, the dominant fact of every productive economy has been that people need to live where we work. The best jobs have always been in the bigger cities, where quality of life is inevitably impaired by the practical constraints of colocation and density. This has also meant that governance of bigger cities can be truly terrible, since people have no choice but to live there if they want the good jobs.

What we have learned — what we were forced to learn — during the COVID lockdowns has permanently shattered these assumptions. It turns out many of the best jobs really can be performed from anywhere, through screens and the internet. It turns out people really can live in a smaller city or a small town or in rural nowhere and still be just as productive as if they lived in a tiny one-room walk-up in a big city. It turns out companies really are capable of organizing and sustaining remote work even — perhaps especially — in the most sophisticated and complex fields.

This is, I believe, a permanent civilizational shift. It is perhaps the most important thing that’s happened in my lifetime, a consequence of the internet that’s maybe even more important than the internet.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Magic Tricks May Fool You, but These Birds Can See Through Them Well, some of them anyway. Link
  •  Shutter sounds of 18 cameras from 135 full frame to 810 large format. You have to be a real photo-nerd to enjoy this. Also, it doesn’t mention the quietest cameras of all — the early screw and M-series Leicas. I always liked the solid ‘ker-thunk’ of my Hasselblad, which is featured in the video. Not a camera for discreet photography, though. It was an unobtrusive as an AK-47. Link

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