Quote of the Day
The bells which toll for mankind are … like the bells on Alpine cattle; they are attached to our own necks, and it must be our fault if they do not make a cheerful and melodious sound.
It’s a strange world out there
I had an interesting conversation with Quentin yesterday about using infra-red beacons as a way of setting up a contact-tracing system that would enable University laboratories to re-open safely. But where would one find such beacons?
Well, one place is eBay, where someone sells stuff that will interest the hunting fraternity in the US. After all, if you’re out hunting at night and your fellow shooters are using night-vision goggles, you don’t want them to shoot you by mistake. So you wear an infrared beacon on your head, because infrared shows up brightly on night-vision screens.
Having alighted on the page after Quentin sent me the link, I then started to scroll down to see what other stuff the vendor sold. It includes a “GENUINE US ARMY RS1A RPG-7 40MM ROCKET MISSILE LAUNCHER OPTICAL SIGHT & CASE”. And a “Personal Guardian Angel Crystal Key Ring”. It’s the belt and braces approach.
The things we don’t know (and therefore don’t care about)
Extraordinary email from Bill Pascoe, an Australian DH scholar, which appears on today’s Digital Humanities newsletter…
Juukan Gorge, a sacred site occupied for 46,000 years, has just been blown up. An archaeological find of a 4000 year old braided hair shows direct connection to Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people of today, for whom it is sacred and who carry on some of the longest living traditions of the world. Such a significant site is important to all of us, and to any human for as long as there are people. Juukan Gorge was blown up by mining company Rio Tinto, with the full consent of the government.
To try to translate what this means, we wouldn’t blow up Notre-Dame, the Forbidden City, or the Taj Mahal just to get some iron ore. To think of these sacred places as no more than a cave or a mountain is like saying St Peters in Rome, Al-Haram Mosque at Mecca or the Golden Temple are just piles of bricks. We are quick to condemn the Taliban blowing up the Bamyan Buddhas or ISIS defacing reliefs and statues in Iraq but this is no better.
This is only one among many such incidents. In the town I live, a few years ago a building excavation uncovered thousands of artifacts but archaeologists had only two weeks to excavate before a Kentucky Fried Chicken was built over it. This travesty did lead to some improvements in legislation but clearly not nearly enough.
I mention this here not only because this sort of thing cannot be allowed to pass unnoticed but because it is a palpable reminder of why I am working on the DH project I’m on at the moment, TLCMap (Time Layered Cultural Map). It’s a reminder of why digital humanities projects matter and how they can work across personal and public levels. I grew up not knowing there was a ceremonial bora ring at the end of my street. I didn’t hear about Cherbourg, QLD and Palm Island until I went to Uni. I didn’t know what ‘dog licences’ were until only last year, yet I’m in the same room as people who had to live with them. These are things I’m ashamed and embarrassed to admit. These things should be common knowledge, but when I ask around, like me, most people remain unaware of our own history and the meaning of the places we live. Many Australians have Aboriginal ancestors without knowing it. Some are let in on this secret ‘when we are old enough’. Nobody explained we are here with this DNA because of government eugenics policies. Such things are hard to believe and some remain in denial.
Let’s dig up Stonehenge. You never know, there might be some shale gas somewhere down there.
As Gandhi famously observed, when asked by a British journalist upon his arrival at Tilbury Docks, what he thought of Western civilisation: “Ah, Western civilisation! Now that would be a good idea.”
Why governments are furious about Apple & Google’s approach to proximity-sensing
Will Oremus has a terrific explanation on Medium of the differences between the centralised system that governments would ideally like, and the decentralised system enabled by Apple’s and Google’s new APIs for iOS and Android.
Here’s a shortish summary if you haven’t time to read the whole thing.
What governments and health authorities would like
In an ideal world, companies like Google and Apple would give them broad access to customers’ cellphone location data, ideally tied to their phone numbers and other identifiers. This data would live in a central repository, giving authorities complete visibility into the movements of an entire populace.
If a person became infected with Covid-19, authorities could immediately query the database, pulling up every location they traveled to in the prior weeks or days. They could also see the location traces of every other person who shared those spaces with the infected person. They could then reach out, informing each of these contacts about their exposure and offering (or ordering) testing or treatment.
Such a database (which The Economist reports that several European governments have already begun to build, and the U.K. has apparently explored in small tests) would massively simplify the process of contact tracing. It would also be a potential privacy violation of epic proportions, allowing governments to immediately track and contact anyone within their borders.
What the Apple and Google APIs offer
Apple and Google take an entirely different approach, leveraging their ability to work directly on phones’ operating systems and to alter popular standards like the Bluetooth protocol to optimize power consumption. It’s also decentralized, providing much of the value of contact tracing without centralizing sensitive location data.
The system works like this: You download an app provided by the government of your country, state, or region (22 nations reportedly signed on at launch, and Switzerland released the first app built on the system less than a week later). The app enables a special setting in your phone’s Bluetooth radio that allows it to send out a beacon via a short-range radio signal and to listen for beacons from other nearby phones also using the tech.
When your phone detects a beacon, it stores a special coded number representing the beacon in its local memory. When you walk around, your phone is constantly collecting a record of these beacons (which are not tied to personal data) and storing them, providing a local, anonymous record of all the people you’ve been exposed to. It can also collect other metadata, like the approximate distance between you and the other user, and how long you spend near them.
Each day, your phone then checks in with a cloud-based service. The service lists the beacons of people who have become infected with the Covid-19 coronavirus. If any of those beacons show up in your phone’s internal list of people you’ve encountered in the last several days, the app notifies you of a potential exposure. The app could even potentially tell you how close you were to the infected person, and how long you spent near them.
If you yourself test positive, you can flag your positive result in your app (or a doctor or lab can do this for you). Your own beacon would be added to the infected list, and anyone who spent time near you would be automatically notified the next time their own app checked in.
This system is attractive (except to health authorities) because it preserves agency: it allows users to monitor their own exposures but avoid handing their data over to a central authority. Because your beacon list is stored (and at least partially encrypted) on your phone’s local memory, authorities can send a ping saying that a specific beacon has become infected—so your app can check it against your local list—but they can’t actually see your list of beacons. “This allows them”, says Will, “to play an important role in the system, but doesn’t give them access to users’ sensitive location data, or provide a privacy-annihilating big-picture view of users’ movements”.
Quarantine Diary — Day 69
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