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Something for the Weekend, Sir? Twas the night after Christmas, but I felt all alone.

I’d opted for on-call rather than spend it at home.

Paid double to sit idle, my colleagues did say:

No one will work late on this Christmas Day.

The office is empty, pretty much – it’s a laugh!

(It’s a Boxing Day news feed with a skeleton staff.)

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

Then the night support phone started bleeping.

“Ah fucking shite-house.”

It’s Christmas 2031 and things have changed a lot in the world of newspapers. For a start, it has been almost a decade since we ditched the paper element. No matter that paper by then had become the cheapest and – thanks to Scandinavian forestry regulations (when you fell a tree, you must plant two new ones) – most environmentally impactless medium for publishing.

The real problem had been the rising electricity bills for running the printing presses and the sheer expense of delivering physical copies up and down the country, not to mention dumping heaps of them on aeroplanes.

It was much cheaper for us to shunt the costs onto readers, who not only paid us for their digital news subscription but also had to buy their own devices required to read it and settled their own electricity bills, charging up their tablets and smartphones nightly via the environmentally friendly wonders of nuclear power stations.

One thing has not changed: Britons generally do not want to read newspapers on Christmas Day. That’s why we don’t publish on 25 December. It has nothing to do with it being a Bank Holiday or a religious thing; it certainly has nothing to do with giving staff time off.

Think about it: the bulk of morning newspaper content is produced the night before. In order not to publish on Christmas Day, we take Christmas Eve off work. But since British readers like to read newspapers on Boxing Day, it means it’s all hands on deck the night before, ie, on Christmas Day itself.

That said, it’s now almost midnight on 25 December 2031 and tomorrow morning’s edition has already been done. All that’s left are a handful of staff to trickle stories from international news agencies into our live feed through the night. Easy pickings for a production support bod such as myself for a double-time and overtime boost to his modest income! There’s little chance of anyone needing support as there are so few staff around tonight.

Of course, when I say “staff”, I mean the AIs.

Even back in 2021, you could see the way things were going. Sports stories were already being written by robot: any randomiser fed from a database of sporting clichés can write a pretty effective report on a football match. It’s not a big ask.

Come to think of it, looking back, it was Christmas 2021 that might have set the ball rolling. I’d joined a Zoom call with the night production team and as we awaited the others to arrive, the production director started absent-mindedly humming a popular Christmas ditty:

“He knows when you are sleepiiiing,” she chundered, good-naturedly. “He know when you’re awaaaake…”

“Really?” I interjected. “My Fitbit does that too.”

She fell silent for a few moments, frowning slightly. With less gusto, she continued this musical murmur:

“He knows when you are bad or good…”

“So Santa Claus is an artificial intelligence too?” I snapped back.

Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. It’s a medical condition known as Tourette Anum Captiosus. But rather than show irritation, the production director just went quiet again and remained lost in her own thoughts for the rest of the meeting.

Over the following years, the production director replaced 90 per cent of her staff with robots, and the newspaper’s editor did the same with the reporters.

You’d think I would be kicking myself for putting the idea in their heads those 10 Christmases ago. Not at all. What riles me is that I never got paid a finder’s fee.

My colleagues on customer support are happy with how things have turned out. There is still plenty of work for them – more so, in fact, as the complexity of the AI systems and interfaces between them require constant attention. Gone are the days when you would just glance at the load balancing status every now and again while waiting for the next user to log a call. In fact, that’s what they enjoy the best: not getting those tiresome calls to help users discover that they haven’t plugged their mouse back in after recharging their phone.

Which brings me back to the present. I am alone on customer support tonight as the systems, when not taking care of themselves, can be monitored and doctored remotely by colleagues snug in their beds. Me, I’ve only been hauled out of retirement because I am the only minion left alive prepared to volunteer for the in-person customer-facing role for the handful of humans still working alongside the robots.

Woe betide any human who rings the support line tonight: they get me.

My crotch glows in the gloom. In 2031, incoming messages don’t ring or vibrate your smartphone; they illuminate your clothing. (Another of my great ideas turned into a runaway success without remuneration. Curses.)

Double-tapping on my bollocks, I read that the user asking for assistance is not one of the humans. It is one of the robots.

Obviously these are not walking, talking, RUR-style, “Robbie-the” contraptions, but AIs existing in software somewhere in cloud data centres. I think. Not sure. Anyway, if they can write news stories, they can certainly interact with me via the medium of conventional wordage. One such AI writing the newspaper has alerted me to a problem with one of its interfaces. Could I come down and check it out?

Fearing that this call might be somewhat over my head since I’m about as likely to rewrite a Perl script for interfacing two systems as I am to sex goldfish using Microsoft Office, I head downstairs. In the newsroom, there are plenty of humming cabinets and blinking LEDs, plus a few desks. One of them has a man slumped over it. He is tonight’s designated human operator.

To one side of the slumped reporter is a mostly empty bottle of Haig. Phew, I thought, thank goodness he hadn’t drunk all of it!

To his other side is the empty bottle of Haig he had already finished off. Ah.

On the display in front of him, a window pops up with a message for me from the AI: “Thank you for coming downstairs. My interface has broken down. Can you see what the problem is? We’re on deadline.”

His interface is the highly experienced but currently snoring journalist, fast asleep and not responding to shoulder-shaking, ear-flicking or shouting “Wake up you dozy bastard.”

He is smiling in his sleep, too, which I suppose means he’ll live through it. At least he’ll have keycap impressions on his right cheek for days after this, so there.

The thing is, he’s supposed to be supervising the text copy served up by the AIs and choosing where they might go in the next edition, or determining the order in which they should be added to the overnight live feed. The AIs can’t do this without him because that’s the way we set up the workflow.

A sharp kick to the larger of his two already vast buttocks does the trick. He awakes dozily and stands up. I proceed to prod his mighty arse with the tip of my Docs to coax him towards the WC, where he pukes most of the whisky into the waste bin, pees in the sink and has a sip of water from the latrine.

Refreshed, he returns to his desk of power: one man to control the mindless machines. And he’s shredding through the stories again.

By the time I have returned to my own desk upstairs, the AI has updated the log to say it was solved satisfactorily and can be closed. All that’s required is for me to complete the report with a summary of the incident.

Computer called me to say that user had broken down. Booted up, cleaned out and refreshed settings. User now working OK but recommend replacement.

Merry Christmas. I predict a long winter ahead.

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Alistair Dabbs

Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. When he is not predicting the near future, he is working hard to bring about his own eventual obsolescence by continuing to work in this thankless industry. Pass me that whisky, would you? More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

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Best podcasts of the week: what does the bloodsucking saga Twilight tell us about society? | Podcasts

Voice Of EU



Picks of the week

The Big Hit Show
“Twilight is stupid; if you like it, you’re also stupid.” Why is there so much vitriol towards female Twihards? (Spoiler: misogyny.) In the first run of a series unpicking pop culture’s biggest moments – from the Obamas’ media company – Alex Pappademas starts by dissecting the wildly popular tale of teenage vampire love – and what the reactions to it say about us. Even if you’re not a fan, he raises some great questions. Hollie Richardson

Fake Psychic
Journalist Vicky Baker captivated listeners with Fake Heiress and now she investigates the fascinating story of Lamar Keene, the go-to spiritualist of 1960s America. When he hung up his questionable crystal ball he decided to reveal the tricks of supposed psychics, and Baker asks if that too was a con while pondering the authenticity of the psychics who followed. Hannah Verdier

Deep Cover: Mob Land
Animal lover, lawyer and switcher of identities Bob Cooley is the subject of Jake Halpern’s new season of the reliably mysterious podcast. Cooley was a top Chicago mob lawyer in the 70s and 80s, but what was the price when he offered to switch to the FBI’s side? This dive into corruption quizzes the key figures around him. HV

This lively, engaging podcast attempts to “apply a Jewish lens to life’s toughest questions”. Hosts Rabbi Shira Stutman and one-time West Wing actor Joshua Malina cover topics ranging from reality TV shows to the Jewish “New Year of the Trees”, via the recent hostage stand-off at a synagogue in the Dallas suburb of Colleyville. Alexi Duggins

Backstage Pass with Eric Vetro
Eric Vestro is a vocal coach who’s worked with the likes of John Legend, Shawn Mendes, Camila Cabello and Ariana Grande. Here, he entertainingly lifts the curtain on their craft, talking to them about their journey in a manner that feels genuinely intimate given their pre-existing relationships. Expect some enjoyably daft voice exercises too. AD

Royally Flush investigates the monarchy’s relationship with the British slave trade.
Royally Flush investigates the monarchy’s relationship with the British slave trade. Photograph: Chris Radburn/Reuters

Chosen by Danielle Stephens

It’s fair to say that in the last couple of years the British monarchy has been put under a microscope for the way they handle their own family members, whether that be an heir to the throne and his American wife, or a prince embroiled in a civil sex abuse case. In a two parter titled Royally Flush, however, the Broccoli Productions’ Human Resources podcast goes back in time to investigate the royal family’s role in the slave trade in Britain, questioning how influential they were in trying to prevent abolition.

This is clearly a pandemic production as audio quality can sometimes be shaky, but the content is an important listen. As the country gears up to celebrate the Queen’s platinum jubilee, writer and host, Moya Lothian-McLean takes us on an unexplored trip down memory lane, presenting fascinating insights into why – despite ample evidence that the monarchy was historically instrumental in propping up the slave trade in Britain – we haven’t heard so much as a sorry coming from Buckingham Palace, according to the program maker.

Talking points

  • Never underestimate the skill that goes into making a good podcast. Over a year since Meghan and Harry’s audio production company Archewell signed a podcast deal with Spotify, they’ve only managed to release a single podcast. Hence, presumably the job ads Spotify posted this week, looking for full-time staff to help Archewell.

  • Why not try: Smartless | Screenshot

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California’s net neutrality law dodges Big Telecom bullet • The Register

Voice Of EU



The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday upheld a lower court’s refusal to block California’s net neutrality law (SB 822), affirming that state laws can regulate internet connectivity where federal law has gone silent.

The decision is a blow to the large internet service providers that challenged California’s regulations, which prohibit network practices that discriminate against lawful applications and online activities. SB 822, for example, forbids “zero-rating” programs that exempt favored services from customer data allotments, paid prioritization, and blocking or degrading service.

In 2017, under the leadership of then-chairman Ajit Pai, the US Federal Communications Commission tossed out America’s net neutrality rules, to the delight of the internet service providers that had to comply. Then in 2018, the FCC issued an order that redefined broadband internet services, treating them as “information services” under Title I of the Communications Act instead of more regulated “telecommunications services” under Title II of the Communications Act.

California lawmaker Scott Wiener (D) crafted SB 822 to implement the nixed 2015 Open Internet Order on a state level, in an effort to fill the vacuum left by the FCC’s abdication. SB 822, the “California Internet Consumer Protection and Net Neutrality Act of 2018,” was signed into law in September 2018 and promptly challenged.

In October 2018, a group of cable and telecom trade associations sued California to prevent SB 822 from being enforced. In February, 2021, Judge John Mendez of the United States District Court for Eastern California declined to grant the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction to block the law. 

So the trade groups took their case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has now rejected their arguments. While federal laws can preempt state laws, the FCC’s decision to reclassify broadband services has moved those services outside its authority and opened a gap that state regulators are now free to fill.

“We conclude the district court correctly denied the preliminary injunction,” the appellate ruling [PDF] says. “This is because only the invocation of federal regulatory authority can preempt state regulatory authority.

The FCC no longer has the authority to regulate in the same manner that it had when these services were classified as telecommunications services

“As the D.C. Circuit held in Mozilla, by classifying broadband internet services as information services, the FCC no longer has the authority to regulate in the same manner that it had when these services were classified as telecommunications services. The agency, therefore, cannot preempt state action, like SB 822, that protects net neutrality.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which supported California in an amicus brief, celebrated the decision in a statement emailed to The Register.

“EFF is pleased that the Ninth Circuit has refused to bar enforcement of California’s pioneering net neutrality rules, recognizing a very simple principle: the federal government can’t simultaneously refuse to protect net neutrality and prevent anyone else from filling the gap,” a spokesperson said.

“Californians can breathe a sigh of relief that their state will be able to do its part to ensure fair access to the internet for all, at a time when we most need it.”

There’s still the possibility that the plaintiffs – ACA Connects, CTIA, NCTA and USTelecom – could appeal to the US Supreme Court.

In an emailed statement, the organizations told us, “We’re disappointed and will review our options. Once again, a piecemeal approach to this issue is untenable and Congress should codify national rules for an open Internet once and for all.” ®

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RCSI scientists find potential treatment for secondary breast cancer

Voice Of EU



An existing drug called PARP inhibitor can be used to exploit a vulnerability in the way breast cancer cells repair their DNA, preventing spread to the brain.

For a long time, there have been limited treatment options for patients with breast cancer that has spread to the brain, sometimes leaving them with just months to live. But scientists at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI) have found a potential treatment using existing drugs.

By tracking the development of tumours from diagnosis to their spread to the brain, a team of researchers at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences and the Beaumont RCSI Cancer Centre found a previously unknown vulnerability in the way the tumours repair their DNA.

An existing kind of drug known as a PARP inhibitor, often used to treat heritable cancers, can prevent cancer cells from repairing their DNA because of this vulnerability, culminating in the cells dying and the patient being rid of the cancer.

Prof Leonie Young, principal investigator of the RCSI study, said that breast cancer research focused on expanding treatment options for patients whose disease has spread to the brain is urgently needed to save the lives of those living with the disease.

“Our study represents an important development in getting one step closer to a potential treatment for patients with this devastating complication of breast cancer,” she said of the study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Deaths caused by breast cancer are often a result of treatment relapses which lead to tumours spreading to other parts of the body, a condition known as secondary or metastatic breast cancer. This kind of cancer is particularly aggressive and lethal when it spreads to the brain.

The study was funded by Breast Cancer Ireland with support from Breast Cancer Now and Science Foundation Ireland.

It was carried out as an international collaboration with the Mayo Clinic and the University of Pittsburgh in the US. Apart from Prof Young, the other RCSI researchers were Dr Nicola Cosgrove, Dr Damir Varešlija and Prof Arnold Hill.

“By uncovering these new vulnerabilities in DNA pathways in brain metastasis, our research opens up the possibility of novel treatment strategies for patients who previously had limited targeted therapy options”, said Dr Varešlija.

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