Take Me to Your Algorithm

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My former editor and current friend Alan Rusbridger spoke to the House of Lords communications and digital committee last Tuesday (2 March) in his capacity as a member of Facebook’s Oversight Board

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/mar/02/alan-rusbridger-says-oversight-board-will-ask-to-see-facebooks-algorithm

The board has been the subject of furious debate since it was announced, and subject to a lot of analysis.

The best read I’ve found is Kate Klonick’s piece in the New Yorker, though I don’t agree with the characterisation of the board as a ‘Supreme Court’ given how limited its remit currently is and the fact that Mark Zuckerberg could unilaterally abolish it tomorrow.  We may have the principle that a Parliament cannot bind it successor: Zuckerberg can change his mind twice before breakfast if he pleases.

https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/inside-the-making-of-facebooks-supreme-court

One of the points that came out of Alan Rusbridger’s committee appearance was that the board is, according to The Guardian report, ‘trying to gain access to the social network’s curation algorithm to understand how it works’. Indeed, Alan is quoted as saying:

At some point we’re going to ask to see the algorithm, I feel sure, whatever that means. Whether we’ll understand when we see it is a different matter.

This is such an unhelpful thing to say that I was prompted to tweet.

The reification of the algorithm really has to stop. It’s not an altarpiece. Ask the people who designed it what their intentions were and whether it has met them. You don’t need a code review.

I’d like to expand on this point.

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Launching Top Marques online in 1996

Ray Street, London. home of the New Media Lab
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A random post on LinkedIn that tagged me has reminded me that twenty-five years ago today, on February 27 1996, I launched one of the more significant websites of my career – the online presence of the car sales magazine Top Marques.

The post was from Lee Williams who worked with me on the site, and brought a whole raft of memories flooding back of good times in The Guardian’s Ray Street office in Clerkenwell, across the road from the main building on Farringdon Road.

I don’t know much about cars, and I don’t really care much about cars, but at the time I was the (founding) head of the paper’s New Media Lab, where we were experimenting with new formats for online publishing, and I was interested in two things: the future of online advertising, and ways of publishing lots of structured data online.


The Guardian was part of the Guardian Media Group, and at the time GMG also owned half of Auto Trader, the massively popular car listing magazine launched by John Madjeski in 1977 as “Thames Valley Trader”. Auto Trader published a niche magazine for classic and more expensive cars, called Top Marques.

The team at the New Media Lab talked to the Auto Trader digital team regularly about strategy and opportunities, and Lee and I came up with a plan to put Top Marques online to see how it might work. It was a fortnightly publication (I think) and had far fewer listings than the main magazine, so it seemed manageable.

The rest is 25 year recall, so please let me know if you know better…

We had the online infrastructure at The Guardian- a working web server and an internet connection, so we agreed to host and manage the web side. The Top Marques team would generate the appropriate data from their newly installed digital publishing system and send us the files so that we could publish online on the day the printed magazine came out.

I’d worked with a range of database management systems including Oracle, Sybase, Ingres and Informix, and had even worked for a software house in Cambridge that had written its own in-house system, SPIRES (the company was Bensasson and Chalmers but the only reference I can find to is in an column I wrote for BBC News in 2009: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/8211355.stm ).

At the time MySQL was about a year old and not very stable. The others would require licenses and we had no real budget, so we decided to do the whole thing as a flat-file structure and not use a database management system, since the number of records was small and we didn’t need to do updates or inserts or anything other than filter and display some static data.

The idea was that the Top Marques team would export all of the car listings as a delimited text file, which we would read into a collection of records, one per file, in a directory on our server. They would also send us all of the images that they had, each named the same as the relevant text file.

The website had a very simple tables-based layout – TABLE had been introduced late in 1994 and was considered stable enough – which showed the basic information about Top Marques and then listed all the relevant adverts in some order. The HTML for these was generated on the fly by (I presume) a PHP script but it could have been something more complicated like a C programme.

There was a search feature – or rather a filter -that let you select type of car and, I recall, search the advert text.

Each fortnight we’d get the files, unpack them into the right directory, and point the home page at it on publication day. Sometimes it took some wrangling because of oddities in file formats, but it worked reliably enough and became part of the routine on the 4th floor at Ray Street. And it worked.. as Lee wrote ‘within weeks we had dealers contacting us about buyers coming in with mysterious printouts’.

The site taught us a lot, and later that year we launched a proper database-driven ad site for The Guardian, RecruitNet. RecruitNet only lasted a year or two after I left, but I do think that if they had invested seriously in their own online ads service then Google and the other platforms would not have developed in the same way.

So, Lee, thanks for the memories and the fun times. I’ll see what I can remember about EuroSoccer.com in time for its anniversary…

And if you’re interested in cars, you can find Lee here https://www.linkedin.com/in/mrleewilliams/

A history of The Guardian
https://www.theguardian.com/gnm-archive/2002/jun/11/1

Auto Trader history https://plc.autotrader.co.uk/who-we-are/our-history/

Losing my registration

Screenshot from UK government website re .eu domains
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At some point tomorrow one of my email addresses will stop working, and at the start of 2022 the domain it uses will be offered for sale to any EU citizen who would like it.

This will happen because I’m no longer entitled to hold  a .eu domain, and so billt.eu, which has been mine since  April 2005, will be taken away from me as  consequence of the UK leaving the EU. 

I registered it as a vanity domain, and as a concrete expression of my European identity, and I used it mostly to register for non-critical services or email lists. I never bothered putting a website up, just redirected it to whichever blog I was using at the time. It just gave me a warm feeling, like the Euros in my wallet, the gold embossed EUROPEAN UNION on my passport, and the way being in Venice felt just like being in London.

But these symbols have all been undone by  political reality, and the debate is over. It is no longer a matter of public policy or political controversy: the UK has left the EU; I am no longer an EU citizen; and the transitional arrangements which allowed me to retain the domain come to an end tonight.

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First you assimilate..

Test and Trace QR Code
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I’ve been reading a lot recently about how we have adapted to the various types of lockdown or other restrictions that we have faced around the world as we respond to SARS-COV-2 and the Covid-19 pandemic in our various ways.

Of course the adaptations have been greatly influenced by personal circumstances, regional and national responses and the wider geopolitical situation. My life here in Stonesdale in North Yorkshire among a farming community is very different to that of someone in Delhi or Sao Paolo or Melbourne, or even London.  It’s something we’ve tried hard to respect each week on Digital Planet, where our experience as a production team is shaped by local circumstances so can’t be generalised. When we talk lockdown we do so in our context, and acknowledge the different ways other people’s lives have been changed.

But just as the internet has changed the lives of everybody on the planet. even if they have never used a computer or phone or sent an email, so Covid-19 has changed something for everyone.  The systems that surround us have had to adapt. There are fewer travellers,  more checks and restrictions, increased constraints on many sorts of interaction, and a changed set of assumptions about what is safe or risky or must be endured. This is as true for someone in Kibera, Nairobi as it is in Silicon Valley, California or here in Stonesdale, North Yorkshire.

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Augmented Reality and Omniscient Capitalism: Reviewing Mark Pesce’s ‘Augmented Reality’

Copy of Augmented Reality on a laptop
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If you thought surveillance capitalism was troubling, then Mark Pesce’s new book on augmented reality will give you a lot more to worry about.

In his usual easy, accessible style he shows just how data-hungry effective augmented reality will be and explores the implications of handing  both data and technologies over to corporations and governments.  He also points out that the freedom to to add a digital overlay to a scene is largely unconstrained, so that we have no effective way to stop anyone ‘writing’ on public or private spaces

What emerges is a vision of a world in which spaces, locations and even our gaze are  fully monitored by businesses and governments in order to give us access to digital overlays that will largely be created by those same corporations and governments,  as  late stage capitalism moves  from mere surveillance to omniscience

It’s a long way from the excitement of the early experiments in interactive computing, virtual reality and augmented reality that, coupled with the pervasive internet, have enabled this radical shift in how we engage with the both the world of data and the physical world.

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Party time. Not.

Bill at Newspeak House in a mask, September 2020
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There is a splinter of the metaverse in which a few hundred of you are thinking about what you’ll wear this evening as you head over to Newspeak House in Shoreditch to help me celebrate my sixtieth birthday (next Tue, October 6, according to Wikpedia).
It will be similar to the night we enjoyed two years ago, but bigger, taking over the whole building apart from the Fellows’ rooms with music and film and dancing and conversation and cuddles and shared spaces and a sense of being connected to the world.
It will resemble the party we had in June 1982 after graduation when we left 15 Brookside, organised by Daryl, with Chris and Mark and Judith and Julia and Katherine and about 200 other people, a disco in the basement, a barbecue in the garden and the house alive with the promise of our youthful enthusiasm. What little I recall indicates it was a night to remember…
That would have been tonight at Newspeak as my wonderful friends came together and I fell into their arms like a diva diving off a stage, hoping to be caught, that the fall will be broken.
Newspeak is a special place – I’m lucky to have visited a few times recently thanks to Ed’s consideration and care and Covid precautions – and I look forward to seeing it flourish again after these hard times like a tardigrade finding atmosphere after time in vacuum.
But here in what we laughingly call reality there’s no party.
A glass of wine with Katie on our narrowboat on the Cam.
A time to reflect as the earth heads inexorably towards the place in its orbit that marks the anniversary of my being untimely ripped from my mother’s womb at 11am on Thursday October 6 1960 in a maternity hospital in Newcastle. And while I’m at least 440bn km from where I was born, as the solar system moves 7.26 billion km a year around the galactic centre, and of course the whole galaxy is moving too, I acknowledge sidereal year as a unit of measurement and will henceforth tick the ’60 or over’ box on those forms I feel need a truthful answer.
So yes, I’m sixty. Make of it what you will because if I close my eyes then it’s this boy I see in the mirror

1981. First day of Part II Psychology

1981. First day of Part II Psychology

or maybe this one…

At a first year party.

At a first year party.

Juvet and me

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Three years ago I woke up in a hotel in the beautiful Norwegian city of Ålesund, gathered my stuff and set off to meet my old friend Andy Budd and a disparate group of thinkers to drive across Norway to Valldal and the  Juvet Landscape Hotel, https://juvet.com/ well known as one of the locations for Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina
It  was to be our home for the next three days to as we tried to figure out some of the  ethical issues raised by AI in an amazing setting, with the best food I’ve ever eaten. It was, as they say, transformative.
I was there with old friends like Dan Hon and Matt Webb, and met a whole group of fascinating people whose thoughts and insights have stayed with me.
Looking back, it’s clear that the three days in Juvet shifted my life. I was about to join BBC Research & Development having spent seven years working to build a model of a  digital public space in the archive development team and as part of the Make it Digital initiative. As a result of the conversations at Juvet I carved out a big chunk of my time to shape the BBC’s approach to AI and ML, and have been running our internal Machine Learning Ethical Design Working Group since.
I want to acknowledge that time, that place, and those people, in these complicated and dangerous days.  I  don’t know when such times will happen again, or how we will decide to live our lives after SARS-COV-2 and wildfires and extremism have burned through the our world. I re-read the Dark Mountain writings https://dark-mountain.net/, I contemplate Dan Hill’s Slowdown papers https://medium.com/@cityofsound, I try to reconcile my concerns about AI/ML with an understanding that the entire edifice that supports these advanced technologies  is fragile beyond our comprehension.
And I live in these two worlds simultaneously, caught between the grim meathook future and a techno-optimist world in which we shape the network for public good.
Hey ho. We persist.

Sitting on the troll bridge

Sitting on the troll bridge (pic James Gilyead)

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It was my sixtieth year to heaven

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I’ll be sixty in a couple of weeks. And I always think of this poem as my birthday approaches.

Dylan Thomas started this poem in 1941 for his 27th birthday but it was published in 1944, so the opening line became ‘it was my thirtieth year to heaven’. Some things take a while. Thomas’ birthday is October 27. Mine is October 6 and this year I’ll be sixty

The poem is still in copyright so if the estate asks I’ll take it down, though had copyright terms not been extended from 50 to 70 years in 1996 – despite the fact that dead people can’t be encouraged to write new stuff by giving them more control over their work – it would have been out of copyright in 2003.   So here it is:

 

 

POEM IN OCTOBER

 

Dylan Thomas

 


        It was my thirtieth year to heaven
     Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
        And the mussel pooled and the heron
                Priested shore
           The morning beckon
     With water praying and call of seagull and rook
     And the knock of sailing boats on the webbed wall
           Myself to set foot
                That second
        In the still sleeping town and set forth.

        My birthday began with the water-
     Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
        Above the farms and the white horses
                And I rose
            In a rainy autumn
     And walked abroad in shower of all my days
     High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
            Over the border
                And the gates
        Of the town closed as the town awoke.

        A springful of larks in a rolling
     Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
        Blackbirds and the sun of October
                Summery
            On the hill's shoulder,
     Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
     Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
            To the rain wringing
                Wind blow cold
        In the wood faraway under me.

        Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
     And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
        With its horns through mist and the castle
                Brown as owls
             But all the gardens
     Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
     Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
             There could I marvel
                My birthday
        Away but the weather turned around.

        It turned away from the blithe country
     And down the other air and the blue altered sky
        Streamed again a wonder of summer
                With apples
             Pears and red currants
     And I saw in the turning so clearly a child's
     Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
             Through the parables
                Of sunlight
        And the legends of the green chapels

        And the twice told fields of infancy
     That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
        These were the woods the river and the sea
                Where a boy
             In the listening
     Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
     To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
             And the mystery
                Sang alive
        Still in the water and singing birds.

        And there could I marvel my birthday
     Away but the weather turned around. And the true
        Joy of the long dead child sang burning
                In the sun.
             It was my thirtieth
        Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
        Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
             O may my heart's truth
                Still be sung
        On this high hill in a year's turning.

And I too hope my heart’s truth will still be sung in a year’s turning.

And here’s something as old as me…

June 29 – #AudioMo – The Ways We Talk

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For the penulimate day of #AudioMo, June 29, I’m thinking about how language shapes thought, and how the words we use and the metaphors we choose can affect the ways we engage with others, especially when it comes to military metaphors.