Thursday 22 July, 2021

Blue Yonder

Interestingly, this is a lab that’s supposed to be doing blue-sky research!

That Cummings interview…

Mainstream media commentary on the hour-long interview that Dominic Cummings gave to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg seems unanimous about C’s foolishness in doing it. Robert Shrimsley of the FT summed up the consensus when he tweeted that “This may be the most self-destructive interview since Prince Andrew” (the one where he denied knowing anything about his friend Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual proclivities).

I found the interview really useful, though, in one respect: Cummings confirmed everything about Boris Johnson that most of us suspected — that he is terminally clueless, self-centred, careless and basically incapable of even running a bath without flooding the bathroom. If only for establishing this (with evidence) on the public record, Cummings ought to be given a gong: Order of the Bath, perhaps?

Intriguingly, most of the UK media didn’t seem to be interested in the damning assessment of Johnson that emerged from the programme. What it shows is that the UK, like the US in 2016, elected a clown as its leader. The only difference is that Trump turned out to be more dangerous.

Also, the impression one gets of the the Cummings-Johnson regime as recounted in the interview is oddly reminiscent of what went on in the White House during Trump’s tenure. Then — as Bob Woodward records, for example — there were lots of cases where serious public servants were trying to devise ways of getting round their boss’s ignorance, arrogance, infinitesimal attention span, narcissism and temper. It sounds as though Cummings and his team were operating in a similar mode with Johnson.

Quote of the Day

”The English never draw a line without blurring it.”

  • Winston Churchill

Currently applies to a line drawn down the Irish Sea

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Piano Concerto No 21 in C major KV 467 | Andante | Daniel Barenboim


Pure schmaltz, but lovely for a Summer morning.

Long Read of the Day

Can Silicon Valley find God?

What a cod headline, I thought. But it turned out to be more interesting than I had expected.

I was one of 32 people from six faith backgrounds — Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and nonreligious “nones”— who had agreed to participate in Mr. Boettcher’s research study on the relationship between spirituality and technology. He had programmed a series of A.I. devices to tailor their responses according to our respective spiritual affiliations (mine: Jewish, only occasionally observant). The questions, though, stayed the same: “How am I of value?” “How did all of this come about?” “Why is there evil and suffering in the world?” “Is there a ‘god’ or something bigger than all of us?”

By analyzing our responses, Mr. Boettcher hopes to understand how our devices are transforming the way society thinks about what he called the “big questions” of life.

Read on.

The Ugly Truth

My Observer review of an interesting book — An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang:

I approached An Ugly Truth with a degree of scepticism on account of its subtitle: “Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination”. But this book is different. For one thing, its co-authors are not “insiders”, but a pair of experienced New York Times journalists who were members of a team nominated in 2019 for a Pulitzer prize. Much more importantly, though, they claim to have conducted over 1,000 hours of interviews with 400-odd people, including Facebook executives, former and current employees and their families, friends and classmates, plus investors and advisers to Facebook, and lawyers and activists who have been fighting the company for a long time. So if this is an “insider” account, it’s better sourced than all of its predecessors in the genre.

We’ll get to what this account reveals in a moment, but first let’s clear up the title. It comes from the header on an internal memo sent by Andrew Bosworth (AKA “Boz”), a senior Facebook executive and one of Mark Zuckerberg’s closest confidants. “So we connect more people,” it says. “That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs someone a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people. The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is de facto good.”

In a way, this tells you everything you need to know about Facebook…

Do read the whole thing

European regulation of Big Tech is primarily political — efficiency is secondary

From Frederic Filloux in Monday Note:

Since 2010, Europe has launched no less than 36 probes against Big Tech, including 10 from the EU Commission, and 25 from individual European countries. Altogether, more than 70 probes have been launched. But these probes have a puzzling distribution.

The distribution of the probes has nothing to do with the toxicity of these companies toward the competitive field or society as a whole. Ask any expert, they will tell you that Facebook is the most dangerous player in the digital world. The social network’s business model is based on fracturing society, spreading false information ranging from the “stolen” election of 2020 to antivax propaganda. As for Amazon, its behavior is a textbook model of leveling the competitive field of e-commerce, such as imposing its will on the merchants who joined its marketplace by forcing them to buy ads if they want to be visible. Add to that the ever-present risk of the dreaded “Amazon Basics” copycat those merchants face if their product is too successful, etc. Amazon might not be a monopoly in the traditional sense (none of the Four are, actually), but the company is a rare collection of near-perfect predatory practices.

Apparently, the EU and its members are tallying things up differently: each of these two companies are getting globally half of the scrutiny of the global regulators that Google does!

This chimes with my own feeling that the current regulatory feeding-frenzy looks chaotic, disjointed and sometimes incoherent.

Good critical piece by Filloux.

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