Maintaining the social balance

I remember a discussion with a good friend of mine, a co-founder of some of my past companies. He was a bit of a perfectionist, and often pointed out to other employees when they didn’t live up to his exacting standards.

“That’s fine”, I said, “but people will remember the times when you criticise them ten times as clearly as when you praise them. So if you want to maintain even a basic equilibrium, make sure you go out of your way to find good things to say to people ten times as often as bad things.”

I was thinking about this as I switched off my Twitter app this evening. Actually, I didn’t close it down: my phone did. At the start of the pandemic, I was worried I might spend too much time on social media, so I used Apple’s rather good Screen Time system to set a limit for social networking apps. In my case, that means Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram, and my combined use of all of those networks, on all of my devices, shouldn’t exceed 15 mins per day.

This limit has worked very well. I often don’t hit it, and when I do, I almost always let the system do its thing and switch off the aforementioned apps for the rest of the day. The result is that I’ve got out of the habit of checking Twitter on a regular basis; I look at it perhaps every second day, when I happen to think about it.

And I think this is a good thing. Twitter and Facebook are the world’s biggest tabloids, and a big part of their business model involves convincing you that the world is more broken, angry, shocking and angst-ridden than it actually is in real life. And, as with my employee-relations example above, negative comments about anything are often more memorable: we all know how a media critic can come up with a short, clever, cutting remark about a dramatic work over his cup of coffee, and so devastate months of work of dozens of creative people. If you spend too much time with social networks, you can come away with a very negative view of life, and I think it’s important to keep a careful eye on that balance.

So what is the right balance? Well, for me, 15 mins of social networks for every 23 hours and 45 mins of ‘no social networks’ seems about right, to keep things in perspective. Recommended.

Ceci n’est pas un shark…

In a short but pleasing post called “What misinformation actually looks like“, Ryan Broderick talks about how the picture of this poor, mis-identified monkfish went viral, and why this illustrates that:

The current landscape of the internet is essentially a series of levers and automations because the largest companies responsible for how we use the web are operating at a scale that can no longer be properly moderated by human beings.

Do read it.

At least, as a result of the story, a lot more people probably now know what a monkfish looks like. And now I know, I’m glad that when they appear on my plate, they are usually in the form of morsels coated in breadcrumbs and lightly fried…

(Many thanks to Charles Arthur for the link.)

My favourite cashpoint (ATM) machine

We’ve spent the last few days in our favourite part of North Norfolk, and one of the places we visited was the old priory at Binham.

Just next door to it is a dairy farm.

We’ve been here before, but, since we last visited, the enterprising farmer has opened a wonderful shop.

And I call it wonderful, despite the fact that it has no staff and contains only a few vending machines. But these are refrigerated machines, that contain fresh produce from this and other nearby farms. One is full of cheeses, and I can confirm that all the ones we bought are very good.

Also there is a dispenser of fresh, unpasteurised milk: bring your reusable bottle and top up from the machine. (Pictures on the dairy’s site here.)

But amidst all of this wonderful stuff, there was also a glimpse of the past, or perhaps the future. Remember those things called coins, which we used to need for buying things, but which are now only used as tokens for remote car parks?

Well, here, you can pay £5 with your contactless card, phone or watch, and get £5-worth of them: a £2 and three £1 coins in a little bag. I thought that was great!

Oh, and the yoghurt is truly excellent too.

Gardening tip of the day!

This may also be my shortest YouTube video yet!

Now you’ll be able to explain if anybody says, “I think Quentin has finally cracked. I saw him jet-washing his lawn the other day!”

Twice, while I was clearing the driveway, as if by way of defiance, a leaf came down and landed on my head! It occurred to me that if I pointed the lance upwards, I could probably have blasted the last few leaves from the tree and swept them all up together, rather than having to wait for the next gale…

Economics and emotions

A couple of months ago, when those who still power their cars on dinosaur juice were experiencing shortages, I expressed surprise that the prices hadn’t shot up as a result.

As Tim Harford points out in this very nice essay, though, one of the things that stops the market from behaving like a ‘perfect market’ is the emotional response of customers. The damage to loyalty resulting from such a change in pricing in times of difficulty is greater than the loss in potential profit… provided, that is, that the anomaly is short-lived. After all, I suppose, the smooth and swift response of the market to the imbalance of supply and demand can be significantly impeded by emotional words like ‘profiteering’!

Tim’s post is enjoyable and very readable, and talks about how we deal with such imbalances if they turn out to be more than just temporary. Recommended.

Thanks to John for the link.

Face recognition: a less-bad option?

Here is a very nicely-constructed essay by Jane Bambauer, a Professor of Law at the University of Arizona.

“This essay”, she says, “does the unthinkable — it defends the police use of facial recognition technology to identify suspects in crime footage or to locate individuals with outstanding warrants.”

It’s a well-thought-out and very readable piece, and some of her key arguments are along the following lines:

  • We currently have very harsh punishments for relatively minor crimes (especially in the USA). This high level of incarceration is not the best way to deal with the problems, especially since the success rates for rehabilitation are so low.

  • We do this at present, though, because the crime detection rates are so low that it’s important that the penalties are very high if they’re to act as a disincentive.

  • A much better and more progressive route is to detect much more crime and punish it less severely. This has been shown to be a much better disincentive, too. But technology is key to achieving any significant improvement in detection rates.

  • Facial recognition technology is an important tool here and, though it has been shown to have problems with bias etc, it may actually be less biased than other forms of surveillance.

You may or may not agree with the above, but if you’re interested, it’s well worth reading the 9-page article before jumping to conclusions. (Many thanks to Charles Arthur for the link.)

So here’s a related question: would our roads be safer if everyone was fined a small amount every time they broke the speed limit, rather than receiving a severe penalty on the rare occasions when they were caught? I think the answer is clearly ‘yes’. Would you be willing to put up with having your speed monitored all the time in order for this to happen — as long as everybody else had to do the same, of course?

Towing with a Tesla?

Not many EVs currently have the option of a towbar, but I carefully purchased one that did… just in case I ever needed it.

Last month, I tried it out for the first time, with mixed success. If you’re interested, here I am rambling on about it!

How to fix social media

Nicholas Carr, writing in The New Atlantis, has a splendid overview of how past regulation of technologies has distinguished between personal communications, which should be private, and broadcast communications, which should be regulated because, as Hoover put it, “The ether is a public medium, and its use must be for public benefit.”

He talks about how regulation of radio was accelerated because of the interference of amateur broadcasters in the rescue efforts when the Titanic went down, and follows the trajectory from there.

With the even more expansive Communications Act of 1934, Congress replaced the FRC with a more permanent body, the Federal Communications Commission, and widened its purview to include the personal communication systems of telephony and telegraphy, and eventually the new broadcast medium of television. By combining the mandate that telephone and telegraph providers operate as common carriers with the mandate that broadcasters act in the public interest, the legislation formalized the two-pronged philosophy that would govern electronic communications for the rest of the century.

The public interest, as we all know, is not easy to define. But that is part of its strength, Carr argues.

As the fraught history of the fairness doctrine makes clear, the public interest standard is not a magic bullet. Its amorphousness means that its interpretation will always be messy, combative, and provisional — as political processes tend to be in a democracy. Some legal scholars and pundits, particularly those with a libertarian tilt, have argued that the standard’s imprecision gives government regulators too much leeway. The standard, writes one typical critic, is “vague to the point of vacuousness, providing neither guidance nor constraint.” But that’s a misinterpretation. The public interest standard is more than just a legal principle. It is an ethical principle. It assures the people’s right to have a say in the workings of the institutions and systems that shape their lives — a right fundamental to a true democracy and a just society. The vagueness of the standard is necessary for a simple reason: public opinion changes as circumstances change.

Exactly how this distinction might be applied to social networks is not clear, he admits.

On a social network like Facebook, conversations feel like broadcasts, and broadcasts feel like conversations.

In addition, some posts which were intended for a small audience go viral and become a large-scale broadcast, whether or not that was the author’s intention. But he makes the point that the networks themselves are very aware of all the statistics about the reach of each individual post, and that this might form the basis of some form of regulatory distinctions.

And…

It’s worth remembering that Congress’s decision to license radio operators after the Titanic disaster was about more than just allocating scarce spectrum. It was about bringing those who speak to the masses out of the shadows and into the daylight of the public square. It was about making broadcasters, whether individuals, businesses, or other organizations, visible and accountable.

A very nice piece and worth reading in full. Thanks to Charles Arthur for the link.

Two important questions

A couple of questions for you to ponder this morning. Totally unrelated, except for the fact that I’ve been thinking about them both overnight.

Q1: somewhat serious

Early yesterday evening, Rose and I went into a large, cheery, busy and welcoming riverside pub/restaurant. A great spot, and we’ll go back. I was conscious, though, that there must have been around 150 people there, and large numbers coming and going throughout our visit (they did takeaways too), yet in the whole evening I saw nobody — literally nobody — wearing a mask except the two of us.

This is, increasingly, my experience in other situations too, anywhere outside supermarkets and town-centre shops. At what point do we stop looking like sensible good citizens and start looking like tin-foil-hat wearers?

Q2: more frivolous

If a fairy appeared and offered to grant you a wish which, for the relief of humankind’s frustration, would eliminate just one of the following from the human experience, which would you choose?

  1. Sticky labels that don’t peel off cleanly, leaving adhesive behind.
  2. Packaging that requires a knife or scissors to open.
  3. Zips that get caught on things or jam at inconvenient times.
  4. Pens that run out halfway through the sentence.

Remember, you can only choose one. Answers in the comments, please, or on a postcard addressed to Santa Claus.

I thought about asking ‘If a venture capitalist is considering investing in research which could rid the world of one of the following, which would make him or her the most money?’ But, sadly, the route to direct return on investment is not too obvious for some of the above. So it would need to be a fairy. Or a great philanthropist.

If you want to ensure that people build statues in your honour and put blue plaques on your former residences, you know what to do…

My memory of Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking was a Fellow of my college, and a familiar sight when I was a student: my first-year accommodation was in a block just next to his flat, and as I walked or cycled into town I would often see him in his wheelchair heading in the same direction.

I never knew him, though, or ever really had any interaction with him, but he did address a few words to me on one occasion. A very few words, actually — “Thank you” — after a friend and I had carried him, in his chair, up the stairs to the dining hall. I guess the lift must not have been working!

I do, however, have a lasting memory of a talk about ‘baby universes’ that he gave in that same hall soon afterwards, around the time that ‘A Brief History’ was published. We were all conscious, even then, that this was a rare opportunity, and the place was absolutely packed. Whoever was responsible for fire regulations must have been kidnapped and locked in a cupboard somewhere, I think, because the rules must all have been broken by quite large margins.

Anyway, I don’t remember very much about the talk, I’m afraid. He had prepared it in advance and it was played back in his well-known synthesised voice. Half-way through, there was a short pause, and then, “Please wait while I load the second half of my speech.” Disks whirred — probably floppy ones at that time — and then he continued.

At the end, he asked if there were any questions. Somebody asked one, and there was a pause while he composed the response. A long pause. A pause which continued and continued for perhaps two minutes or more as he went through the slow process of selecting words. And then the answer came; just a very short sentence.

I don’t remember much about the questions, or the answers, either. But one image is imprinted very clearly in my memory. A hall packed with hundreds of boisterous and energetic young students, crammed into every corner, having been crammed there for some time, with a bar open and waiting on the floor below… and yet, in the long intervals between a question being asked, and the short answer a considerable period later, you could absolutely have heard a pin drop.

-–

My nephew Matt is a very talented artist who works for a company that does animations, infographics and other creative graphical things, and I do like his one on “Stephen Hawking’s Big Ideas”, published by the Guardian as part of their ‘Made simple’ series.

It’s certainly more entertaining than most other explanations of Hawking Radiation I’ve encountered!

The Hymn of Acxiom

This is haunting, beautiful, and spooky. And it’s from 2013, but I’ve only just discovered it.

It’s by Vienna Teng, and it’s most fun to watch her introduce it live:

But if you want the lyrics more clearly, someone’s done a nice transcription.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser