Wednesday 23 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

”Give me a man with big hands and big feet and no brains and I’ll make a golfer out of him

  • Walter Hagen, the first great professional US golfer who won the US Open twice and the British Open four times.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Labi Siffre – Something Inside So Strong


Thanks to Ian Clark for the suggestion.

The TikTok farce

I was going to write about this, but then the weekly edition of Ben Evans’s (free) newsletter dropped into my inbox and I realised there is no way I could do any better than that. So here is his take on it, in its entirety:

As of right now (and this will probably change again), the plan is that there will be a new US company running Tiktok US, with a board of US citizens (who?), that will move its systems from (mostly) Google Cloud to Oracle’s (distant also-ran) cloud platform, and Oracle will manage the data and source code. Bytedance says it will IPO this company next year and that Oracle and Walmart will be able to buy a 20% stake before then (at what valuation?). In addition, there is a nebulous claim of ’25k new jobs’ in the USA (for what?) and of ‘$5bn’ going from Bytedance to either the US Treasury (the Oracle press release) or an ‘education fund’ (Trump), but Bytedance says it doesn’t know anything about that (!) and that actually this is just an estimate of future corporation taxes. Oracle also has a press release claiming Tiktok ‘chose’ their ‘tech’ because it’s better. Don’t embarrass yourself, Larry.

Setting aside the chaos – what does this solve? As a reminder, we worry about subtle manipulation of what videos are shown, and we worry about the app on your phone being used to steal other data, either deliberately or via ‘bugs’ left in accidentally-on-purpose. The actual user data on Tiktok’s servers comes a distant third: even if Oracle can look after that, who cares? What matters is who runs the app and the recommendation systems, but we have no visibility on what that would look like, and Oracle is not the company to play any kind of role here.

Finally: Trump demanded it be shut down or sold: instead the app continues in place, Bytedance still has a majority, a Trump donor now has an option to buy a minority stake and gets it as a (partial) customer, and we don’t have visibility on a solution to the (very real) actual issues. It does notionally get a US board, but we didn’t need all this chaos to get that. But, Trump has (he claims) a cheque to wave around. This is a shakedown, but it’s also a climbdown. Putin does this in Russia all the time, but manages it much better. Links: Tiktok statement, Oracle press release, Bytedance on that $5bn

Ben’s newsletter and blog are really good. You can sign up here.

The UK government’s communications strategy examined

POLITICO’s Andrew McDonald on how the government guidance has varied:

July 4: Go to the pub … July 8: Go to restaurants … July 17: Work wherever your employer wants you to … August 19: No excuse not to go back to the office … August 28: Go back to the office or risk losing your job … September 14: Report rule of six breakers … September 16: Don’t report rule of six breakers … September 22: Work from home, curfew on pubs and restaurants.

Read the full timeline here.

To put it another way: A senior Conservative tells the FT’s Seb Payne: “We told people to eat out, now we’re telling them to eat in. We told people to go back to the office, now we’re telling them to work from home. It’s a total shambles and I can’t see how people are going to understand it.”

Me neither.

Watching Boris Johnson’s plea to the nation to link together last night, the one question in my mind was: is Dominic Cummings also required to adhere to these ‘guidelines’?

From the (terrific and free) Politico daily newsletter.

btw: The full timeline is really instructive.

What If Trump Refuses to Concede?

If you want a tranquil day, then perhaps you should give this long read by Barton Gellman a miss. It covers questions that I never thought we have to ask in my lifetime. And I’m glad I read it. What we always forget is that democracy is a very fragile plant. And it’s historically an accident or a blip that we’ve sustained it this long. It was probably the trauma of WW2 that shocked us into trying to make it work. And then we got complacent. Between now and Christmas we will discover if America’s long experiment with democracy is over.

If we are lucky, this fraught and dysfunctional election cycle will reach a conventional stopping point in time to meet crucial deadlines in December and January. The contest will be decided with sufficient authority that the losing candidate will be forced to yield. Collectively we will have made our choice—a messy one, no doubt, but clear enough to arm the president-elect with a mandate to govern.

As a nation, we have never failed to clear that bar. But in this election year of plague and recession and catastrophized politics, the mechanisms of decision are at meaningful risk of breaking down. Close students of election law and procedure are warning that conditions are ripe for a constitutional crisis that would leave the nation without an authoritative result. We have no fail-safe against that calamity. Thus the blinking red lights…

Many thanks to Seb Schmoller, who pointed it out to me. I had missed it.

En passant: of all the publications I read, the Atlantic is the one that has come out of this crisis period with flying colours.

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