Tuesday 12 January, 2021

An evening in Provence

One evening, on our way down to the village for dinner, I suddenly saw this.

Quote of the Day

“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”

  • TS Eliot, The Waste Land

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel | The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba


For some reason I always think of Margaret Thatcher when I hear this.

And say what you like about Handel, he was no crank.

Long Read of the Day

 How COVID unlocked the power of RNA vaccines

One of the unintended but almost magical consequences of the Covid emergency is how it has demonstrated the utility of basing vaccine development on RNA. This fascinating Nature article explains why this is potentially so powerful, and how we came to realise its potential.

RNA vaccines seem built for speed. From the genetic sequence of a pathogen, researchers can quickly pull out a potential antigen-encoding segment, insert that sequence in a DNA template and then synthesize the corresponding RNA before packaging the vaccine for delivery into the body.

Moderna, for example, managed this within 4 days of receiving the SARS-CoV-2 genome sequence. It focused on the virus’s spike protein, a surface protein used to enter cells. Collaborating with the US National Institutes of Health, the company then ran proof-of-concept experiments in mice before kicking off first-in-human testing in a span of just two months.

Any vaccine, in theory, could be created in the same way. “It truly is a platform in that sense,” says John Shiver, head of vaccine research and development at Sanofi Pasteur. With RNA, “you don’t have to recreate the entire process”.

Platforms Must Pay for Their Role in the Insurrection

Roger McNamee treading familiar (for him) ground:

The platforms hide behind the First Amendment to justify their policies, claiming that they do not want to be arbiters of truth. There are two flaws in this argument. First, no thoughtful critic wants any platform to act as a censor. Second, the algorithmic amplification of extreme content is a business choice made in pursuit of profit; eliminating it would reduce the harm from hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories without any limitation on free speech. Renee DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory made this point in a WIRED essay titled “Free Speech Is Not the Same As Free Reach.”

Until this insurrection, many policymakers and pundits have dismissed the rising tide of online extremism, believing it to be safely contained and therefore harmless. Their lack of concern allowed extremism’s audience and intensity to multiply…

The TL;DR version is that “Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have spent years fomenting and enabling yesterday’s violence at the Capitol. Policymakers need to do something about it.”

Yeah, Mr McNamee, we kinda knew that. But what do we do about it?

Thierry Breton: Capitol Hill — the 9/11 moment of social media

M. Breton is the European Commissioner for the internal market — and so a big cheese sur le Continent. Here he is, on Politico sounding off:

Just as 9/11 marked a paradigm shift for global security, 20 years later we are witnessing a before-and-after in the role of digital platforms in our democracy.

Social media companies have blocked U.S. President Donald Trump’s accounts on the grounds that his messages threatened democracy and incited hatred and violence. In doing so, they have recognized their responsibility, duty and means to prevent the spread of illegal viral content. They can no longer hide their responsibility toward society by arguing that they merely provide hosting services.

The dogma anchored in section 230 — the U.S. legislation that provides social media companies with immunity from civil liability for content posted by their users — has collapsed.

Maybe, maybe not. But amending Section 230 so that the changes, overall, do more good than harm looks really difficult. Vox has an entire piece headlined “Capitol riot revives calls to reform Section 230 and regulate Twitter and Facebook” which nicely illustrates how difficult it would be — and how confused legislative thinking about it is at the moment.

Last week’s insurrection marked the culminating point of years of hate speech, incitement to violence, disinformation and destabilization strategies that were allowed to spread without restraint over well-known social networks. The unrest in Washington is proof that a powerful yet unregulated digital space — reminiscent of the Wild West — has a profound impact on the very foundations of our modern democracies…

All this before he gets to the one serious point in the whole diatribe:

The fact that a CEO can pull the plug on POTUS’s loudspeaker without any checks and balances is perplexing. It is not only confirmation of the power of these platforms, but it also displays deep weaknesses in the way our society is organized in the digital space.

The main point of his piece, though, seems to be to flag up the EU’s two new proposed laws to do something about all this — the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • An updated daily front page of The New York Times as artwork on your wall. Nice idea, but the necessary hardware is a bit pricey. Link
  • The Great Gatsby is now in the public domain. Get your free copy from here.
  • 100 Tips for a Better Life. Lovely. For example, No. 18: “Keep your desk and workspace bare. Treat every object as an imposition upon your attention, because it is. A workspace is not a place for storing things. It is a place for accomplishing things.” I really need to tidy my desk. Link.

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