Secrets of Silicon Valley

I have just watched the two episodes of an investigative series of documentaries on BBC called “Secrets of Silicon Valley“.

The two episodes are called “The Disruptors” and   “The Persuasion Machine”

It was another co-production between the BBC and The Open University (there have been many) and seemed to have quite a big budget that allowed the investigative reporter, Jamie Bartlett, to visit High Tech companies in Silicon Valley, California, go to a disused building in San Antonio, Texas that had been the headquarters of the “Social Media” campaign of Donald Trump during his campaign for the Presidency of the U.S. in 2016, ride a driverless (or near driverless) giant truck in Florida, and see protests and victims of Uber in India.

The theme of the mini-series was the young and powerful Silicon Valley innovators who were making huge amounts of money by preaching innovation and progress whilst bringing in or allowing sinister developments that may well change all our futures.

In the first episode, the case study of Uber was investigated. Uber has undermined traditional taxi companies in order to allow ordinary citizens to buy a car and join a network that creates a mass of available private “cabs” that can pick people up by the use of just a mobile app.

This seemingly simple and effective idea has created demonstrations by taxi drivers who have lost their employment and from the Uber drivers who were given loans to buy cars (in India) that were based on a rate of return that actually decreased as more and more people came into the market making it impossible for them to earn enough to pay back the loans on their cars. A young widow was interviewed after her Uber Driving husband had committed suicide because he went into huge debt.

Both episodes showed the dark and unacceptable face of capitalism (to coin a well-known phrase). The Tech Titans were also not averse to dodging taxes, as was shown by the huge new Apple Headquarters which has a circumference of about a mile, costs billions but which the company refuses to pay taxes of more than 1% of the estimated value!

There was a constant clash of the almost schizophrenic attitudes of the “Silicon Valley Titans” between utopian idealism and hard-nosed ultra-capitalist greed that Ayn Rand would have delighted in.

The second episode contained a really good investigation into the way that Facebook, which has Mark Zuckerberg as its founder, was founded with great ideals of connecting the world and yet has become a platform for  hatred, bullying and political manipulation, that was shown in the highly effective campaign of Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election.

It also showed the way that our privacy has all but disappeared because of the way that big data is being used to influence our shopping, our voting and indeed our lifestyles. I was particularly interested in one company Cambridge Analytica which specialises in so-called “data mining” and “data analysis”.

cambridgeanalytica

The above photograph is taken from the front-page of their website and I think the key words are “to change audience behavior”. This company uses data analytics based on the research of Michal Kosinski, who studied at Cambridge University and is now a Professor of Business Studies at Stanford University. Kosinski developed a way of analysing Facebook information in order to work out the political/commercial and social predispositions of people. But, as can be seen quite clearly in the Cambridge Analytica front page, they are not interested in understanding people’s attitudes they want to change them.

In the past few days, we have had the controversial results of the Kenyan Presidential Election. It turns out that Cambridge Analytica was working for the incumbent President, Uhuru Kenyatta.

To quote from a recent BBC report: “Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in Kenyan politics began in 2013 when the company worked for Kenyatta and The National Alliance – the forerunner of the Jubilee Party. During that year’s campaign, the company correlated online data with 47,000 on-the-ground surveys. According to the Cambridge Analytica website, this allowed the company to create a profile of the Kenyan electorate and come up with a campaign strategy “based on the electorate’s needs (jobs) and fears (tribal violence).” Kenyatta won the 2013 election.

Little known but powerful companies such as Cambridge Analytica are having a powerful influence in our lives, according to the programmes. They even managed to get an interview with Alexander Nix. The following will show you the career and background of Mr Nix, I think it explains a lot about the concerns shown by the reporter about today’s movers and shakers.

nix

I have to say that the strange (I felt somewhat mad) ex-Facebook executive that took himself off to the woods in northern Washington state with a high-powered rifle because he was afraid of the huge social unrest that modern technology was unleashing, was both amusing and horrifying.

My biggest concerns about these programmes were that they would be watched by people who are well aware of the dangers outlined. The millions who are being used as data fodder and are open to political and commercial manipulation are happily watching “Big Brother” or the “X Factor”.

 

 

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Cheats do prosper

Last night (Saturday) in London., the final of the 100 metres Sprint was held at the Olympic (London) Stadium.

An unfit Usain Bolt was the favourite to win, mostly because of the crowd’s appreciation of the wonderful efforts that he had put into winning his Olympic and World Gold Medals in the past few years.

He did not win and in fact came third. This in itself was not a problem. Bolt is not Superman and he entered the championships below his best. The winner though was the problem. He was Justin Gatlin ,

Gatlin is a cheat. Let me repeat that, cheat. He was twice banned for using illegal drugs which could enhance performances. The second time he was banned for eight years, which was reduced to four because he “co-operated” with the authorities!

There were many at the time who said that, as a second offence, he should have been banned for life, but, as an American who was likely to entice strong commercial sponsorship and support, he was slapped on the wrist, told not to be a bad boy for a third time and allowed to reenter major championships.

Huge choruses of boos were heard around the stadium as he entered the arena. There was a deathly silence as he beat Christian Coleman, a young and future star of the track into second place and the great Usain Bolt, into third. Then the boos rang out again.

I can do no better than the opening to a report on the race by the Sydney Morning Herald:

“It should never have come to this. The perfect athlete has left his imperfect sport, in the most imperfect of ways to the least perfect athlete.

The world’s greatest sprinter, Usain Bolt, was beaten in his last race by twice banned drug cheat Justin Gatlin, his pantomime rival”.

The problem though is that Gatlin is one of so many who are cheats who prosper greatly in sport. In the last few years alone there have been examples of Maria Sharapova in tennis, of the All-Blacks Rugby Union Team at the Tri-Nation Tournament and then there was the little matter of the famous (I would say infamous) football match where Luis Suarez palpably cheated his way to getting Barcelona into the next round of the Champion’s League Cup.

All of these and many other examples show that cheating is rife in sport and last night’s win proves what one of my old next door-neighbours said to me once “Cheats do Prosper and Crime almost always pays!”

As I write the time for the  Award Ceremony for the 100 Metre Sprint has been changed:

“Sunday night’s world championships 100m medal ceremony has been switched because athletics chiefs do not want to see a full stadium booing Justin Gatlin and the American national anthem.

The ceremony was originally due to be held at 8 pm but has now been moved to 6.50pm before the evening programme starts. The International Association of Athletics Federations has officially insisted that the switch has “nothing to do with the result”, however, their denials were met with scepticism by most observers inside the London Stadium.

I think that this just sums it all up. Sadly the 2017 London Athletics World Championship may well be remembered for this unpleasant and wholly unnecessary result.

Will cheating stop? I think not. Whilst there are medals and sponsorships to be gained by taking illegal substances, offering bribes to officials and fixing results of matches before they even begin, there are sportsmen and women who will cheat and know that their cheating will be worthwhile.

We cannot accept the weak excuses of the IAAF, Fifa, Uefa and the IRU. We must just harden ourselves to the fact that our heroes can very quickly be revealed as the villains that many of them are.

 

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The wrong referendum

It was the day after David Hake’s unexpected General Election victory. The Cabinet Secretary Sir Jason Bribe-Apple walks into his office.

JB-A: Morning Prime-Minister or should I say Mr Continuing Prime-Minister?

P.M.: Morning Jason. Yes, a wee bit unexpected but good to get the darned Democratic Centrists off our backs.

J B-A: I couldn’t possibly comment on that Prime-Minister

P.M.: Of course not Jason

J B-A: Thought we’d run through the main items in the lead up to the Queen’s Speech.

P.M: Of course

J B-A: A little birdie told me that you actually intend to have the referendum on membership of the European Union.

P.M.: Absolutely

(Jason has a sharp intake of breath)

J B-A: Not a good idea Prime-Minister

P.M.: Not a good idea?

J B-A: Not a good idea

P.M.: But it is a key part of our manifesto. It would lance the boil in my party of the Pro-Europeans versus the out mob… and of course, there’s the United Kingdom Get Us Out Party!

J B-A: But they won one seat in the election.

P.M.: I could face more defections if I’m not seen to be doing something. No, Jason, I feel we need to have that referendum.

J B-A: You are then sure that you will win?

P.M.: Well I hope we will of course, but there’s no guarantee.

J B-A: No guarantee means don’t bother Prime-Minister. You might lose and then think of the chaos. There’ll be a run on the pound, we could lose top companies to Europe and untying from forty years of European legislation would be an administrative and legislative nightmare. No, you should perhaps consider a different plan.

P.M.: A different plan?

J B-A: Yes. You want a referendum, it ticks all the democratic credentials and makes you look as if you are not ignoring the people’s ability to have their say on an important matter.

P.M.: What important matter?

J B-A: Fox hunting!

P.M.: Fox hunting?

J B-A: Absolutely Prime-Minister. A thing to make the blood boil. It is either preservation of our cherished values or let’s stop those toffs from persecuting poor little defenceless animals. You can allow a free vote.

P.M.: But what about the European question?

J B-A: We won’t have time for that Prime-Minister, we’ll be running our Fox Hunting referendum. It’ll keep them all amused for weeks. I can imagine the television debates now. After it’s all over it won’t make a jot of difference whose side wins. No run on the pound, just a few sulky toffs having a champagne defeat party at the Ritz or the usual hunt saboteurs reorganising.

P.M.: Can we get away with it?

J B-A: We most certainly can Prime-Minister. It’ll be a fun diversion. Afterwards, of course, we will have to play down any idea of a European Referendum. By which time the UKGUO Party may be a spent political force and we can get back to European disruption again. The Foreign Office will be really happy with that!

 

 

 

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Reflections on the Grenfell Fire Disaster

grenfell1

I have been meaning to write about my feelings and thoughts following the horrific fire in Kensington that cost the lives of at least 80 people (the final figure hasn’t been worked out yet and may never be fully known).

I was away on holiday in North Wales when the fire happened. We turned on the television in the morning to catch up on the news and were transfixed, like so many others must have been, by the horrific pictures of a huge tower block going swiftly up in flames.

The witness stories were almost too much to listen to. Of people desperately trying to escape the flames, of jumping out of windows, of trying to get their children rescued first.

It was the aftermath though, of complete chaos and inactivity by the Government and the local council, Kensington and Chelsea. Then something remarkable happened. People from within the locality and others from far and wide came to help. They brought food and clothing to volunteers who informally created an organisation that coped remarkably in contrast to the inactivity of the local and national government.

This seemed to be a triumph for the community and showed a human spirit of cooperation that defied Mrs Thatcher’s assertion that “there is no such thing as society”.

The spotlight of blame though was not going to go away easily. More and more it became apparent that it was the refurbishment of the block by the council using cladding that would look ornate but may well have made the block into a giant fire trap. Indeed the local action group had sent a warning to the council months before warning of a terrible accident waiting to happen, it was, of course, ignored.

In the aftermath of the General Election, there was a new found confidence in those of us who have been railing against constant austerity cuts that saw the poorest of our nation get poorer whilst the richest got richer and richer.

Kensington was a perfect example, often seen in London, of how you could go from extreme poverty and deprivation to fabulous riches (some might say obscene) in the space of just a mile!

Here is an example of the geography of the area:

grenfell2

Note just how near Kensington Palace (the home for many years of The Prince of Wales and his wife Diana) is to the Tower. The dark areas are areas of deprivation, the white areas are areas of plenty (indeed riches). This summed up to many the huge chasm that existed in the lives of our citizens in modern Britain.

That there was misgovernment and mismanagement in respect of the refurbishment and lack of safety in Grenfell Towers is beyond dispute. Today (27th July), the Metropolitan Police stated that there was a case of Manslaughter that could (note the bold print) be brought against the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the Builders they employed to do the refurbishment of the block.

Whatever happens, it will not bring the dead back to life. My abiding memory of the fire was a distraught volunteer a few days after it happened saying “This was murder! These people were killed by people saving money.. for what? For an accounting figure that showed the Government just how much they were towing the line of never-ending austerity.”

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The rediscovery of John Clare

I have recently become interested in the life and work of a poet who was born just down the road from where I now live.

The poet is John Clare and he was born into a poor agricultural labouring family in Helpston (then called Helpstone) in what was then part of the county of Northamptonshire and is now the county of Cambridgeshire, just a few miles from the towns of Stamford in  Lincolnshire, the small market town of Market Deeping in Lincolnshire (where I live) and the city of Peterborough.

John-Clare-300x300

I have recently researched Clare’s life and works and am presently reading an excellent biography about him by Jonathan Bate.in chapter 2 of the book “Childhood” Bate makes a powerful assertion: “John Clare is England’s greatest poet of childhood”.

He states that Clare was not childlike in his writing, but he recalled the joys of childhood in an agrarian society that had changed so much with the introduction, in  his lifetime, of the dreaded enclosures, that changed the face of the land and created a movement of workers from agriculture towards the cities and towns that were part of the burgeoning industrial revolution in the country.

His Helpston was a place where villagers worked on common lands and effectively were peasants in the classical idea of what that term meant. The village then, as now, had a fine church that was at the centre of family life. Education was a haphazard affair, with Clare learning from a lady teacher in the village before he went (when he could afford it) to the one-room village school in the nearby village of Glinton.

Clare’s mother was illiterate all her life but his father was the illegitimate son of a fiddle playing, literate, roving Scotsman by the name of Parker, who for a brief time became the village teacher before his affair with a young village girl and her subsequent being “with child” led him to seek pastures new!

Clare’s father had some literacy and enjoyed singing and performing folk songs in the local pub, the other centre of the community’s life.

exeter arms

Clare grew up with a passionate desire to learn and also a passionate interest in books. Indeed he walked from Helpston to the nearby town of Stamford to buy his first books with money he had saved from his labouring work.

Almost as soon as he developed his reading, he also became interested in the two things that would dominate his adult life, writing and the world of nature. His family’s constant fights with poverty meant that he did not receive a full education and throughout his life, he struggled with accepted grammar and spelling. He wrote in the local dialect and in this respect was influenced by the great Scottish poet Robbie Burns.

He found fleeting fame with the publication of his first book of poems Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820). He was brought up to London as the newly discovered “labouring poet” and mixed in high-powered literary and social circles for a while.

The next book of poems was far less successful and he never received the adulation and attention of this brief period of fame for the rest of his life. His life became one of constant fights against poverty and a struggle to bring up his nine children. He wrote huge amounts of poetry, observations of nature and even songs.

The latter part of his life saw him descend into madness. He was first taken to a private mental asylum in Epping Forest, Essex, which he famously left and walked eighty miles back to his home in Northborough (a village near his birthplace of Helpston, where he had moved after he married). His prose essay on this walk, written in a feverish passion in the hours after he finally got home, has been described as one of the darkest pieces of writing in English literature.

He stayed in Northborough for a few months but was later committed to a public asylum in Northampton and died there on May 20th, 1864. He was 70 years of age and by then, largely forgotten as a writer.

That I am writing about him now is due to the fact that in very recent times his poetry has been rediscovered and he has become accepted as a major poet of rural life. The cottage he was born and lived in Helpston has now become a tourist attraction and is a museum showing where and how he worked.

As I stated above Bate calls Clare the “greatest English poet of childhood” and to get an idea of this he quotes from his poem “Evening Schoolboys”:

Harken that  happy shout- the schoolhouse door

Is open thrown and out the younkers teem

Some rush to leapfrog on the rushy moor

And others dabble in the shallow stream

Catching young fish and turning pebbles o’er

For mussel-clams – look in that mellow gleam

Where the retiring sun that rests the while

Streams through the broken hedge-how happy seem

Those schoolboy friendships leaning o’er the stile,

Both reading in one book- anon a dream

Rich with new joys doth their young hearts beguile

And the book’s pocketed most hastily.

And happy boys, well may ye turn and smile

When joys are yours that never cost a sigh.

At the end of his life, one of his final poems shows his hope for a return (in death) to a simpler world, pre-enclosure, where he had run free as a child:

I AM

I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.
John Clare, a poet who is lauded now as he was forgotten in his lifetime. Our local hero.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why I am a proud European

I am a panel member of NatCen, an independent social surveys organisation. Over the last year, I have taken part in a number of surveys on subjects as diverse as the election result, immigration, Brexit, the Health service and government spending priorities.

In a recent survey, we were given the usual 10 point scale for a question (with 10 as strongly supporting and 0 as totally against, with the ability to place your score anywhere along the scale according to your strength of feeling about a subject).

The question was “How European do you feel?”. I answered 10. I did not have any doubts about my answer and did not feel the need to put in a fudged 6 or 7. I did indeed feel European and would put that ahead of being British, English or a London (in origin) who now resides in Brexit voting Lincolnshire.

I have been a convinced European for many years. I remember attending a meeting in Nottingham of the European Association on a cool autumn weekend in 1974. I found myself going to the bar to get a drink on the first evening there (it was a two-day conference ending the following day).

There was only one other person at the small bar and we got talking about our interest in Europe. He said that he was a Conservative and had been an MP in London (Lewisham) until he lost his seat in the February election of that year.

His name was John Selwyn Gummer and he was interested to know about my perspective on Europe. I explained that I was (at that time) a Labour Party supporter but had always found the idea of a Europe that cooperated with each other preferable to a Europe that was divided and was able to create the two massively destructive wars that had taken place in that century.

He said that he had similar views to my own in regards to Europe and that he was fascinated by the cross-party representation at that conference. He was proud that it had been a Conservative Prime-Minister, Edward Heath, that had led Britain’s membership into the European Economic Community on 1st January 1973 (just 22 months from the date of our conference).

EEC

Above is a front page from the Guardian which perhaps heralded the coming difficulties as well as opportunities that awaited us all on that fateful date. Here is a more readable version of the report:

eec1

I think the most interesting thing in the report is the section about the latest opinion poll which can be seen as the bottom paragraph on the left-hand side.

It states that “yesterday the latest opinion poll on the market by Opinion Research Centre for the B.B.C. suggested that 38% were happy about embarking on what Mr Heath depicted as an exciting adventure, 39% would prefer to get off. Twenty-three percent had no opinion at all.”

We had entered Europe therefore as a nation divided. It continued very much that way throughout the years that followed. The Thatcher years were marked by concerns about the growing powers of Europe and as we entered the 21st Century the realities of an open market, not just of goods but of people began to have an impact on negative and nationalist attitudes which saw the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

Throughout this period both John Gummer (now Lord Deben) and I remained convinced Europeans. Not because we thought everything that happened in Brussels was wonderful but just because it was there. We had both become convinced by the arguments put forward by the pioneers of European Cooperation, in particular, Robert Schuman the architect of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950.

In the so-called Schuman Declaration setting up the ECSC, the opening three paragraphs are pertinent.

World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it.

The contribution which an organized and living Europe can bring to civilization is indispensable to the maintenance of peaceful relations. In taking upon herself for more than 20 years the role of champion of a united Europe, France has always had as her essential aim the service of peace. A united Europe was not achieved and we had war.

Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity. The coming together of the nations of Europe requires the elimination of the age-old opposition of France and Germany. Any action taken must in the first place concern these two countries.

The Economic Community was thus about Europe not heading back into a devastating war. It was about France and Germany learning to live and cooperate with each other after years of bloody conflict. It was about a dream of a united European identity that overcame past nationalistic obsessions so that the nation-state, as an idea, would be about cultural identity and not race, religion and the subjugation of others.

I was born in 1953 into a world still recovering from the horrors of a conflict that had seen over 60 million people killed in a period of just over 5 years.  I grew up in the period of the cold war between the west and the U.S.S.R. My father had fought in the army in World War 2. I am now approaching 65 years old. I have never picked up a gun, been conscripted into an army and mercifully been involved in a war where I see death and destruction around me.

I am a convinced European because I feel that I cannot be anything else. I was really shocked and concerned about the Referendum result in 2016. I still believe that we are better off inside of a cooperative community than outside of it. There are many people from all political parties who agree with me and what pleases me the most is that in the younger generation there are many, who like me, are willing to say that yes, it is a 10, we are European first and British second.

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The information overload

Screenshot (4)

The above picture is a screenshot taken this morning. It is my Google Chrome page. Nowadays I run most of my programs through Chrome.

In the “Apps toolbar” I have a number of frequently visited sites such as Facebook, Twitter, my favourite MOOC providers, Coursera, BBC News, BBC Sport, Amazon Kindle, my bank login, Scribd and the admin page of this blog.

From the same page, I have preset favourite pages that Chrome has provided based on my usage which adds to the above YouTube, Lincolnshire Libraries Catalogue, Gmail and my Google Drive page.

These sites are just a few of the many sites that I could have added if I had more room in the toolbar.

My saved pages is a huge list, as follows:

Screenshot (5)

I am not exceptional in having this many sites available to use at any one time. The problem is I could spend every minute of every day just accessing information! This is notwithstanding the fact that every day new sites appear.

We are living in an age of information overload. We are swamped with the stuff. Some of it is very useful and adds to my life, a lot of it though detracts from my life in terms of misinformation, comment masquerading as fact and the fact that would need to live about a thousand years just to stabilise from where I’m at now!

The key issue is that we need to learn how to cope with the ocean and not be drowned by its incoming flow. I often worry for our sanity in a world which is so awash in information. I know I enjoy the times when I deliberately shut it all down and find time to smell the roses!

 

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