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Bits and Bobs
That's "bits and pieces" for the Americans among you
Let’s do this in order, with important stuff on top and the rest further down.
If you only have 14 minutes to think about AI
On Friday, the recent TED talk of the indefatigable Gary Marcus was posted. Marcus is a psychologist, neuroscientist, and founder of AI companies who is a thoughtful critic of AI as it is rapidly unfolding.
Marcus isn’t a doomster. His worries are restrained compared to some others, and he isn’t blind to the enormous potential value of AI. He’s also not a vacuous hand-waver. His recommendations for mitigating risks are ambitious — they have to be given that this is a global phenomenon moving at incredible speed — but also pragmatic and politically realistic.
In this talk, he manages to condense a great deal of information and insight, along with proposals for how to tackle regulation, into a mere 14 minutes.
You really should watch. And subscribe to his Substack.
Incidentally, you might also want to read Marcus’s fun book Kluge. A “kluge,” if you don’t know, is an engineer’s term for a quick-and-dirty solution that is far from perfect but fixes a problem well enough. The human brain is a whole tangle of kluges, Marcus argues, as millions of years of evolution selected for solutions that were not elegant, or best, but good enough. Hence, the brain is a mess. A dazzling, fascinating, and complex mess. But a mess. (If you reject evolutionary theory, please note, you must conclude that God is comically incompetent — a sort of Basil Fawlty in the sky. If you find that unpalatable, it might be easier to follow the lead of Pope Francis and finally accept that evolution is true.)
Hey, remember Covid?
The worst global pandemic in a century. The whole globe shut downs. Unprecedented restrictions on civil liberties. A years-long international effort to develop vaccines and return to normal. Millions dead. Countless more struggling with lingering effects.
Covid is unlikely to ever vanish but now, at last, the global emergency is officially over. So what should a competent government do now? How about this: Strike a high-profile, lavishly financed, legally empowered committee to investigate the Covid pandemic with extreme rigour and thoroughness. Look at regional and national responses. But also include detection and international responses, as that is the first line of defence.
Learn from the commission’s report. Implement policies. Ensure we have strong defences to reduce the damage of future pandemics, or, better, to prevent them altogether.
Seems obvious, doesn’t it?
After 9/11, the US created a bipartisan committee, empowered by the president, that conducted sweeping investigations and issued a landmark report. Three-thousand people died on 9/11. Currently, the CDC says 1.1 million Americans were killed by Covid. A 9/11-style committee and report seems the least the government can do.
A couple of years ago, some major foundations and their backers — movers-and-shakers all — thought so. In fact, they thought this was a no-brainer. So they contacted Philip Zelikow, who had been the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, and they created “the Covid Crisis Group.” The group’s goal was to consult with scientists and other relevant experts to lay out a road map for the future presidential commission.
The Covid Crisis Group just published its own report. This is its first line: “We were supposed to lay the groundwork for a National Covid Commission.”
There is no National Covid Commission and the many smart, powerful, public-spirited people behind the Covid Crisis Group have given up hope that there ever will be. That’s why they published their own report.
This is the most damning failure of American governance in my lifetime, outstripping even the appalling failures in the response to the pandemic itself.
Even worse? Hardly anyone has even noticed.
There are days when I think it wouldn’t be a bad thing if humanity hands over its affairs to AI — like old folks with diminished mental capacity giving power of attorney to the kids.
How blind can blindspots be?
I recently came across a fascinating footnote. In 1921, when Henry Ford was a colossus in American life, his increasingly strident anti-Semitism stirred controversy even in an American that was comfortable with more polite and refined varieties of that particular form of bigotry.
An open letter was published in the January 17, 1921 edition of The New York Times.
The undersigned, citizens of Gentile birth and Christian faith, view with profound regret and disapproval the appearance in this country of what is apparently an organized campaign of anti-Semitism, conducted in close conformity to and in co-operation with similar campaigns in Europe. We regret exceedingly the publication of a number of book pamphlets and newspaper articles designed to foster distrust and suspicion of our fellow citizens of Jewish ancestry of faith — distrust and suspicion of their loyalty and patriotism.
These publications, to which wide circulation is being given, are thus introducing into our national political life a new and dangerous spirit, one that is wholly at variance with our traditions and ideals and subversive of our system of government. American citizenship and American democracy are thus challenged and menaced. We protest against this organized campaign of prejudice and hatred, not only because of its manifest injustice to those against whom it is directed, but also and especially, because we are convinced that it is wholly incompatible with loyal and intelligent American citizenship. The logical outcome of the success of such a campaign must necessarily be the division of our citizens along racial and religious lines, and ultimately, the introduction of religious tests and qualifications to determine citizenship.
Remember, this was 1921. It was a little more than half a century after the end of slavery and forty years before the civil rights movement. Jim Crow ruled the South. To insist at that time that it is contrary to the traditions of American democracy to divide citizens along “racial and religious lines” took a heap of chutzpah.
But missing the obvious was something of a speciality of America in the first half of the 20th century. No, what makes this open letter truly amazing — what made me almost fall of my chair when I read it — is the name of the very first signatory.
The then-former president was not merely a garden-variety racist. Most people were in those days. Woodrow Wilson was aggressively, proudly, stridently racist. He was so racist he was criticized by racists for being too racist.
And he turned that racism into federal policy.
Here is a brief sample:
Easily the worst part of Wilson's record as president was his overseeing of the resegregation of multiple agencies of the federal government, which had been surprisingly integrated as a result of Reconstruction decades earlier. At an April 11, 1913, Cabinet meeting, Postmaster General Albert Burleson argued for segregating the Railway Mail Service. He took exception to the fact that workers shared glasses, towels, and washrooms. Wilson offered no objection to Burleson's plan for segregation, saying that he "wished the matter adjusted in a way to make the least friction."
Both Burleson and Treasury Secretary William McAdoo took Wilson's comments as authorization to segregate. The Department of Treasury and Post Office Department both introduced screened-off workspaces, separate lunchrooms, and separate bathrooms. In a 1913 open letter to Wilson, W.E.B. DuBois — who had supported Wilson in the 1912 election before being disenchanted by his segregation policies — wrote of "one colored clerk who could not actually be segregated on account of the nature of his work [and who] consequently had a cage built around him to separate him from his white companions of many years." That's right: Black people who couldn't, logistically, be segregated were put in literal cages.
Outright dismissals were also common. Upon taking office, Wilson himself fired 15 out of 17 black supervisors in the federal service and replaced them with white people. After the Treasury and Post Office began segregating, many black workers were let go. The head of the Internal Revenue division in Georgia fired all his black employees, saying, "There are no government positions for Negroes in the South. A Negro's place in the corn field." To enable hiring discrimination going forward, in 1914 the federal government began requiring photographs on job applications.
In 1914, a group of black professionals led by newspaper editor and Harvard alumnus Monroe Trotter met with Wilson to protest the segregation. Wilson informed Trotter, "Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen." When Trotter insisted that "it is untenable, in view of the established facts, to maintain that the segregation is simply to avoid race friction, for the simple reason that for fifty years white and colored clerks have been working together in peace and harmony and friendliness," Wilson admonished him for his tone: "If this organization is ever to have another hearing before me it must have another spokesman. Your manner offends me … Your tone, with its background of passion."
This was the man who righteously denounced anti-Semites like Henry Ford for “introducing into our national political life a new and dangerous spirit” that would divide “our citizens along racial and religious lines.”
How blind can human blindspots be? Very.
Farewell, Twitter. Hello, Notes.
I joined Twitter in 2010. I spent far too much time there over the years and saw firsthand all the ills of social media I won’t recount here. But I also learned so much, met so many interesting people, and vented the steam coming out of my ears on countless occasions. To paraphrase Winston Churchill on alcohol, I’ve take more out of Twitter than Twitter has taken out of me.
But increasingly I feel the precarious balance between the good and the bad on Twitter has tipped in the wrong direction. And by coincidence, Substack recently created a Twitter-like platform called “Notes.”
So far, Notes is driven mostly by Substack writers and their posts. As a result, the minutiae of the day’s news is less important and there is more focus is on weightier matters. That’s a big plus. People are far more civil and substantive, preferring actual conversation to smears and jeers. That’s a huge plus. Partisanship is minimal, trolls are scarce, and while I assume bots are there I haven’t spotted any. Win, win, win.
This may not last. The sad record of social media is that what starts in sunshine, reason, and fellowship ends with CriticalThinker173 — IRL a 43-year-old Baptist insurance broker named Francis Johnson who often says “goodness gracious” without irony — telling you to go bang a sheep. Let’s hope we can do better this time.
I’ll still use my Twitter account to promote my writing and appearances, but, increasingly, I hope to otherwise ignore it. Please join me on Notes.
And if you find me hanging around Twitter — I’m an addict, relapse is inevitable — tell me to go home.
What you are paying for
See this photo?
I estimate that I bought ninety percent of the books in that photo as part of my on-going research into the social history of now-commonplace technologies.
Books are expensive, even from used book stores. So is access to archives. I don’t yet have a contract for this new book I’m researching, so I’m a long way from having an advance in hand. I have no regular job, no think-tank sinecure, no wealthy benefactor. If I have a rich relation who, unknown to me, expresses fond hopes for my writing in his or her will, that relation remains stubbornly alive. Or the lawyer can’t find me.
So how am I paying for this research? With the paid subscriptions to this newsletter that some of you have taken out.
You are paying for the books, and the access to archives, and all the other expenses I will have to incur on this long, long road.
Now, if you have an unpaid subscription, thank you, too. Time may not buy books but it is still more valuable than money, and if you spend some of yours reading what I write, you have my gratitude. That said, if you would also like to contribute to my research — and the well-being of used bookstores everywhere — please hit the upgrade button below.
Oh, and if you know any wealthy benefactors who want to underwrite an important new — and enormously entertaining — social history of technology, please do pass along my name.
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