Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘technology’

The ultimate Brexit machine

Marvin Minsky famously proposed (and Claude Shannon built) what Shannon called the “ultimate machine”, a machine reduced down to its simplest logic, so that its only function, when turned on is to turn itself off. One version is portrayed here:

Brexit is like that machine, except with the variation that the switch is, by design, stuck in the on position. So that it has no purpose at all.

If you recall, Brexit was supposed to solve the problem of unemployment in Middle England: all those East Europeans swarming over the land, devouring jobs. Now we have this:

Home Office officials have privately admitted the department is having problems increasing its immigration staffing levels as part of its Brexit preparations and may have to recruit Polish and other eastern Europeans to help register the 3 million EU nationals in Britain.

So Brexit itself is already making more work than the British can handle without bringing in Eastern Europeans. So once we have Brexit we don’t need Brexit anymore. In fact, once we have Brexit we can’t afford Brexit.

Why can’t they get enough British workers for these excellent jobs registering Europeans?

The Home Office’s difficulties in “enticing staff to move to Sheffield” affect the hub that handles visa applications for work permits, student visas, premium services and family cases.

So they need to look farther afield, to find potential employees who have never heard of Sheffield.

But it’s not just about regional antipathies. It’s also about qualifications. It’s all those migrant farm workers taking jobs that local untrained British people could take. It’s like a Tory version of that Communist-agitator joke:

– After we drive out the East Europeans you will have jobs picking strawberries.

– But I don’t want to pick strawberries.

– ?????

Brexit has manifestly achieved parodic escape velocity.

The mystic electric cords of memory

I’ve just been reading Eric Foner’s masterful treatise The Fiery Trial, on the evolution of Abraham Lincoln’s views on slavery and race. I was struck by this passage from Lincoln’s speech in Chicago, during the 1858 senate election campaign. Referring to the suggestion that citizenship was inherited by blood from the patriots of the Revolutionary era he said that half the current population had no blood tie to those English, but

when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, (loud and long continued applause) and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.

So I wondered, why is he referring to an “electric cord”? This is long before any household electricity. I’m guessing he is thinking of a telegraph wire. I find it surprising that he could expect his audience to have a meaningful association with this specific element of what was then a brand new technology, and I wonder what feelings went with it.

(In case you don’t know the reference in the title, it’s in the last paragraph.)

Government intervention

It seems Theresa May has found her strategy for rescuing the British economy from the political damage the Tories are planning to inflict:

The prime minister will publish the strategy at a cabinet meeting in the north-west of England, setting out five sectors that could receive special government support: life sciences, low-carbon-emission vehicles, industrial digitalisation, creative industries and nuclear.

She will say the government would be prepared to deregulate, help with trade deals or create new institutions to boost skills or research if any sector can show this would address specific problems.

Great idea! As one of the people working on developing “skills and research”, I’d like to suggest that it might be a good idea to arrange an agreement to share students, workers, and researchers with our neighbours, who are similarly technologically-developed and share common scientific and educational traditions. We could call it the Anglo-European Union, or something like that.

But no, that would help “old institutions” like my own. The Westminster Pharaoh is only interested in boosting skills or research if it can create “new institutions” as a monument to her greatness.


My 8-year-old was telling me about a recent school lesson. The teacher was telling them (for some reason) about the use of the term P.S. Her explanation began “In the old times people didn’t have computers, so they had to write letters on paper…”

Of course, I know that my children have lived entirely in the age of personal computing, but it was still striking to hear it presented in such stark terms. I actually experienced the transformation exactly during my university studies. When I arrived at Yale in the fall of 1983 I had my Apple IIe, my roommate had a Compaq, and otherwise pretty much no one had a personal computer. Everyone else seemed to be writing their papers on a typewriter. (It was kind of unreasonable of me, actually, to expect the professors to read the low-resolution dot-matrix output that I turned in, but I wasn’t very considerate at the time.) The Macintosh appeared the next year, and by 1986-7 everyone was writing their senior essays on the Macintoshes in the college’s computer room.

Predicting the future of communication

I just had the thought: Who would have predicted, thirty years ago, that in 2016 bookstores would still be thriving, but video stores would have all but disappeared?

I am reminded of this essay by Isaac Asimov, “The Ancient and the Ultimate”, that I read about 1980, but was written in the early 1970s, about the future of video technology. He was at a conference on communications and society, where a speaker was praising the new technology of videocassettes, and suggesting that authors such as him would soon be tossed on the scrapheap of history. The essay speculates about possible future improvements to video technology, inferring tongue-in-cheek that the pinnacle of the technology would be attained when it had turned into books.

How to do it: Medical testing edition

I was commenting just recently on the cult of big ideas, where people whose life experiences have given them hierarchical power are suckers for “ideas” that are mostly blather, lots of words about the irrelevant bits of the problem, distracting attention from the real difficulties. And now Theranos is in the news. I read about this company, started by the obviously charismatic Elizabeth Holmes, in The New Yorker about a year ago. My immediate reaction was, this must be a joke. It was very much in the spirit of Monty Python’s How to do it.

Theranos, a Silicon Valley company[…], is working to upend the lucrative business of blood testing. Blood analysis is integral to medicine. When your physician wants to check some aspect of your health, such as your cholesterol or glucose levels, or look for indications of kidney or liver problems, a blood test is often required. This typically involves a long needle and several blood-filled vials, which are sent to a lab for analysis… [Theranos] has developed blood tests that can help detect dozens of medical conditions, from high cholesterol to cancer, based on a drop or two of blood drawn with a pinprick from your finger. Holmes told the audience that blood testing can be done more quickly, conveniently, and inexpensively, and that lives can be saved as a consequence.

Sounds wonderful. Quick. Convenient. Inexpensive. Saving lives. How is she going to do all that? Well, she wears “a black suit and a black cotton turtleneck, reminiscent of Steve Jobs”. She dropped out of Stanford. She has a board of directors full of highly influential aged former politicians, but no scientists, so far as I can tell. She “is in advanced discussions with the Cleveland Clinic. It has also opened centers in forty-one Walgreens pharmacies, with plans to open thousands more. If you show the pharmacist your I.D., your insurance card, and a doctor’s note, you can have your blood drawn right there…. A typical lab test for cholesterol can cost fifty dollars or more; the Theranos test at Walgreens costs two dollars and ninety-nine cents.” (more…)

Leaker irony

The Guardian comments, with just a trace of snark

A senior Obama administration official who would not provide his or her name told reporters late on Sunday that Snowden’s presumed travel plan undermined the whistleblower’s stated intent to tell the American people about broad government surveillance.

“Mr Snowden’s claim that he is focused on supporting transparency, freedom of the press and protection of individual rights and democracy is belied by the protectors he has potentially chosen: China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador,” said the official, who did not note that the US was simultaneously attempting to secure the cooperation of China and Russia.

In this new brave new world of cooperation among the US, China, and Russia on criminalising dissidents who reveal government secrets, I look forward with schadenfreude to the next time a Chinese intellectual flees to the US embassy, or seeks refuge in the US from supposed persecution. Now that the US state department has pronounced the sanctity of arrest warrants, I expect to see the US respond favourably to those issued by the Chinese Communist Party or the Kremlin.

PRISM and leaks

Plenty of people commenting on the revelations of secret US government acquisition of vast quantities of personal data on telephone calls and other communications (my comments here and here) suggest that this is all overblown, even paranoid. William Saletan wrote about the telephone surveillance

Chill. You can quarrel with this program, but it isn’t Orwellian. It’s limited, and it’s controlled by checks and balances.

David Simon compares it to wiretapping payphones and calls The Guardian’s reporting “the heights of self-congratulatory hyperbole”.

So here’s just one example of how far-reaching the negative impact of this sort of surveillance could be — even if it is never misused. There has been much discussion of the Obama administration’s stepped up attacks on leakers, and on the journalists who publish leaks. Imagine you are a government employee in possession of significant evidence of official crimes or corruption. You would like to turn it over to a journalist, but you also know that once you do, the government will be able to trawl through all of the journalist’s email and telephone calls — not just prospectively, but going back years into the past, and find all contacts and contacts of his contacts. They will have plenty of private and embarrassing information that they can use to pressure you or the journalist, or his boss.

Now that the leaker has revealed himself, Farhad Manjoo put the case against the NSA’s power-grab succinctly: The very fact that such an unexceptional 29-year-old was able to gain access to so much information by itself disproves their claim that “you can trust us to do the right thing with your data”. The question you need to ask yourself is not, do I trust the president with this surveillance capacity? The question is, do I trust the most frustrated (or bored) FBI agent or NSA contractor with a top security clearance with this capacity.

Julian Assange’s password

One of the weirdest facts in the fascinating book on underground cryptography and the anti-secrecy movement represented by Wikileaks — beyond the general fundamental link, which I’d never quite put together before, between cryptography (keeping secrets) and whistleblowing (revealing secrets) — was the comment that Guardian journalist David Leigh had published Julian Assange’s password — ACollectionOfDiplomaticHistorySince_1966_ToThe_PresentDay# — to the unredacted US State Department cables. Master of Secrets Assange gives out his own password to a journalist — rather than giving the Guardian a version encoded with a throwaway password — and then expresses shock and dismay when it ends up in print. Did he also give Leigh the PIN code for his bank card, but ask him only to use it to check the balance?


Is there anyone who feels reassured by Diane Feinstein’s comments that we shouldn’t be worrying our pretty little heads over NSA storing records of ALL telephone calls (only by Verizon Business, but presumably that just happens to be the one that’s come out) over a three month period (and one might surmise that this is just three months of a rolling renewed program), both within the US and between the US and foreign addresses. She said

It is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress. This is just meta data. There is no content involved. In other words, no content of a communication. … The records can only be accessed under heightened standards.

Through her Newspeak interpreter she added, “It’s called protecting America.”

In this case, I’m hopeful that the average person’s inability to understand technical language will lead to positive conclusions. Feinstein (who, I am proud to say, I have voted against every time she’s been on the ballot since I’ve been a California voter). Anyone who understands what “meta data” are, and how data-mining works, will be chilled by this: The FBI has a complete map of who was talking to whom when and for how long, and presumably where they were when they made the call. This is now going to be run through an algorithm sniffing out patterns similar to an already suspicious person’s phone calls or travel. And then they’ll use this as a basis for putting people on no-fly lists and other non-judicial punishments. Won’t they? Certainly the Obama administration has shown no compunction about misusing the machinery of the War on Terror (TM) — in particular the No-Fly List — including  for political ends.

But here, ignorance may help. Will the average American feel reassured at being told these are “only meda data”? What the fuck are meta data? It sure sounds like they’re tapping our phones…

I thought the IRS scandal was ridiculous — I still do — but getting the right-wing riled up about civil liberties may be the last chance to save some remaining shreds of constitutional rights in the US.

Tag Cloud