Monthly Archives: October, 2021

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.


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!

Wind Power 2

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.

Android: How the other half live

I have had an epiphany. Living on a small boat with four strangers for five days is a great way to discover many things (including, in my case, what good company they were). One of the less aquatic things I learned, though, was probably very obvious and I should have realised it years ago.

One day, we were sharing photos of our adventures, and I sent a few of mine to a fellow shipmate. “Oh!”, she said. “You’ve sent them by text! You can use WhatsApp if that’s easier.” To which I responded that I had recently deleted my WhatsApp account.

This casual announcement, to my surprise, was met with blank astonishment.

Deleted WhatsApp?! Why on earth would you do that? I explained that I wanted to distance myself a bit more from Facebook (for reasons I would have hoped were reasonably obvious by now) and, having not missed my FB account since binning it a few years ago, I had decided to do the same with WhatsApp. They were kind and considerate, but I was clearly regarded as something of an oddity; much more so, say, than if I had announced I was a vegan. And it wasn’t until just after the trip, that I realised why.

You see, I, and almost everybody I communicate with regularly, are Apple users, and so for the last decade or so we’ve had access to iMessage, the chat service behind the ‘Messages’ app (formerly known as iChat).

For those not in this world, Messages basically provides a chat interface which sends and receives SMS text messages if your recipient isn’t an Apple user, but seamlessly switches to using internet-based messaging if they are. You use the same app, but SMS texts are shown in green whereas internet-based iMessages are shown in blue. As well as being completely free, of course, the latter allows Messages to provide group messaging, to work seamlessly across all my Apple devices, to provide delivery confirmation, and so forth.

So when WhatsApp arrived, I didn’t really see the point of it. I installed it, yes, because I had a few friends and family who used it, but it always seemed an inferior solution; in particular, it didn’t really work well on my desktop machine, laptop or iPad. You could do it, but this was clearly a botched afterthought and involved regular re-confirmation using your phone. Why, I wondered, would you want to type text-based messages on a little phone keyboard if you were sitting at a desk with a better one? Why would you want to make a Faustian pact with Mark Zuckerberg simply to send chat messages? And so on.

Here’s the thing, you see: never having used Android, I had just assumed there was some equivalent service built in to that system. After all, ICQ and AOL Instant Messenger were long gone, so I just assumed that Android had always included an iMessage-like system of its own that everybody else was using. It probably had a Windows interface too, but I hadn’t really used Windows this millennium either, so didn’t know what people did there. I just assumed the the Microsoft/Google fans had some Android Chat system of their own, and only used WhatsApp because it picked up their Facebook contacts or something. In contrast, if I want to start a group discussion with, say, my mother, wife, and niece, I just use the same app as if I were sending them an individual text. It’s built-in, it’s the default, and they all have it on all of their machines and could answer anywhere.

So enlightenment only struck when I found myself on this boat and in the unusual situation, for me, of being in the minority as an iPhone user. I may even have been in a minority of one. So when I sent them all a message full of photos as a group, they all got it as SMS texts, and had no way of replying to the group, or even of knowing that they hadn’t each been the only recipient. (SMS messages have a Bcc-like facility, but not a Cc-like facility.) So it’s no wonder they all used and relied on WhatsApp: the poor things didn’t really have anything else! And it’s no wonder they were all astonished at my giving it up. As far as I can gather, it has done for Android users what iMessage started doing for Apple users all those years before (though still, it seems to me, in a markedly inferior way).

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m ignorant of other messaging systems. I used AIM, ICQ, and then Skype chat for years, Slack for a while, and I currently use Zulip and Signal every day to communicate with other groups of friends and work colleagues. Even Teams, when I have to. I love chat systems. I just hadn’t realised that Android didn’t have a default group-messaging solution built in, or that you had to choose between sending texts and doing something radically different on a third-party app for free messaging or for groups. Now I know, and I understand better why WhatsApp is so much more compelling for others than it ever was for me.

I could, of course, have just emailed them, and that would probably have been the best solution, but I think email has one key disadvantage: it’s still slightly less convenient to share your email address with someone than it is your phone number. If all email addresses were 11-digit numbers, it would be easy to call them out to somebody on the other side of the deck in a stiff breeze, and for the recipient to type them in on a simple numeric keypad while hanging onto a halyard with the other hand. Perhaps the solution, these days, is just to have my email address in a QR code stuck to the back of my phone, which anybody could scan quickly if they wanted to communicate with me…

In the meantime, if you do want to use an end-to-end-encrypted messaging system which supports groups, is based on phone numbers but works nicely on machines with keyboards, works on Android, iOS, Mac, Windows and Linux, and doesn’t involve selling your soul, I’ve been finding Signal to work very well.

Sailing By

A few more peaceful images for your Sunday morning… (click for larger versions)

Boats on the swinging moorings at the Royal Harwich Yacht Club wait for the day to begin, and the tide to come in.

A cormorant dries his wings as the sun makes its appearance. But the fields are still shrouded in mist.

We head out in our little boat to see what the day will hold.

At Harwich, a row of lightships is moored in a line across the estuary. I wonder why they’re there; they aren’t even lit at night. It turns out they are brought here, from all over the country, for servicing. This is the MOT bay. Men go across from the white ship and change the lightbulbs.

Radio Caroline. No longer rocking. But still gently rolling.

That evening, the sun goes down over Harwich church.

A view from the gents’ loo at Shotley Marina.

All night, a gentle whirring and clunking reaches across the water, as the port of Felixstowe does its best to keep supplies coming into the country. (And exports going out.)

At dawn the following morning, the work is still going on.

Wind Power

Passers-by, just off the Essex coast.

I’ve just spent five days living on a small boat, in order to gain a certificate from the Royal Yachting Association that describes me as ‘Competent Crew’. I guess this is the modern equivalent of ‘Able Seaman’.

It was a splendid experience, which I’ll write about soon, when life is less hectic. In the meantime, I offer a couple of soothing pictures.

The Road Home: This the channel out of Bradwell Marina, just after dawn. A very East-Anglian sight at low tide. About 20 minutes later we had enough depth to creep out.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser