Sunday 5 July, 2020

Hollyhocks

In the garden, this evening.

Click on the image to see a larger version.


Quote of the Day

You may have lost interest in the pandemic. It has not lost interest in you.

  • The Economist

Boris Johnson’s ‘new deal’ is Roosevelt lite

This morning’s Observercolumn:

It’s back to the future time again. Boris Johnson is trying to wrap himself in the cape of Franklin Roosevelt and his famous New Deal, while his consigliere, Cummings, wants to go back to the 1950s and reboot Britain by building an imitation of the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa – later Darpa, with the D standing for defence).

Both projects have touching aspects of romanticism, ignorance and absurdity. In relation to Johnson’s FDR tribute band, his proposed £5bn splash on infrastructure comes to about 0.2% of GDP, whereas Roosevelt’s New Deal was estimated to be worth 40% of US national income in 1929. Roosevelt built dams, housing, roads and bridges across America. He restored the banking system, set up the Securities and Exchange Commission, encouraged trade unions. From 1933, his public works administration built the Lincoln Tunnel in New York, the Grand Coulee Dam and completed the Hoover Dam. Roosevelt instituted a minimum wage and maximum hours in certain businesses and asserted the right of workers to organise. For his part, Johnson will be refurbishing schools and repairing bridges – both good in their way, but on a minuscule scale. And he doesn’t seem to have any plans for reining in the City or for encouraging workers’ rights. So his Roosevelt rhetoric is basically back-of-the-envelope hogwash.

What, then, of Cummings, back from his victory tour of the north-east?

Read on


Here’s a salutary suggestion

Watch Trump’s Inaugural Address with the benefit of hindsight. Sensitive souls may need to keep a sickbag handy. But in the light of what we now know, it’s a really instructive way of spending 16 minutes. Interestingly, the speech is well delivered; Trump’s speaking style has noticeably deteriorated since then, so the comparison is striking. My hunch is that the speech was written by Steve Bannon, who at that stage was playing the role for Trump that Dominic Cummings now plays for Boris Johnson.


A rare bird: a tech CEO with moral courage

Patrick Collison, the co-founder of the online-payments company Stripe, is one of the most interesting people in the tech world. Also, he appears to have a functioning conscience.


Covid simulations by Japanese supercomputer have bad news for open-plan offices

Simulation video available here.

The bottom line: plexiglass screens don’t guarantee your safety.


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Saturday 4 July, 2020

Quote of the Day

Rich, fabulous people are the ideal billboards for luxury brands. Our nation’s best universities have adopted the same strategy. Universities are no longer nonprofits, but the highest-gross-margin luxury brands in the world. Another trait of a luxury brand is the illusion of scarcity. Over the last 30 years, the number of applicants to Stanford has tripled, while the size of the freshman class has remained static. Harvard and Stanford have become finishing school for the global wealthy.

  • Scott Galloway

Carl Reiner RIP

A giant of American comedy has died at the age of 98. He was still writing up to the day he passed away.

He was a great writer for TV — creator of the Dick Van Dyke Show which ran from 1961 to 1966 and earned him six Emmy awards. As a comedian, he was the consummate straight man. For a snatch of it, hear him with his pal Mel Brooks in a routine they developed which became The 2000 year old man.

Link

And if you have time, this is a wonderful TV interview they did in 2000:

Link


“Ghislaine, Is That You?”: Inside Ghislaine Maxwell’s Life on the Lam

This Vanity Fair report by Mark Seal on the hunt for Geoffrey Epstein’s (and Prince Andrew’s) friend — and alleged procurer — is a terrific long read.

Sample:

After Epstein’s death, Maxwell disappeared from view entirely, leaving the courts, the media, his victims, and a transfixed and horrified public focused on a single question: Where in the world was Ghislaine Maxwell? Everyone, it seemed, had a theory, each wilder than the last. She was said to be hiding deep beneath the sea in a submarine, which she was licensed to pilot. Or she was lying low in Israel, under the protection of the Mossad, the powerful intelligence agency with whom her late father supposedly tangled. Or she was in the FBI witness protection program, or ensconced in luxury in a villa in the South of France, or sunning herself naked on the coast of Spain, or holed up in a high-security doomsday bunker belonging to rich and powerful friends whose lives might implode should Maxwell ever reveal what she knows—all the dirty secrets of the dirty world that she and Epstein shared.

I expect Prince Andrew is not enjoying it, though — any more than he enjoyed Marina Hyde’s latest piece in the Guardian.


Lockdown and summer reading – 2

From Martin’s Wolf’s list

Martin Wolf is one of my favourite commentators. He’s very serious, knowledgeable and, in a word, wise. Several times a year he produces a long list of books he’s read and finds worth recommending. This is my distillation of his Summer Books list.

  • Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Princeton University Press. This is about why mortality rates of middle-aged White Americans stopped falling in the 21st century and — have been rising for non-college-educated men. Wolf calls this a “seminal” book, and he’s right. I’ve been reading it. The German magazine Der Spiegel did a long interview with the authors recently which is worth reading. Here’s a slightly critical review, and a more appreciative NYT review.

  • Radical Uncertainty: Decision-Making Beyond the Numbers by John Kay and Mervyn King. The future isn’t calculable, so why do we believe that it is (or might be)? The right approach, Kay and King argue, is to accept that we don’t live in a world of calculable risk, but of radical uncertainty. Brief NYT review here.

  • Capital and Ideology by Thomas Piketty, Belknap Press. This is other big book of the year, in both senses. It’s huge — over 1000 pages; and it has an amazing historical sweep. It is, says Wolf, “an immense work of scholarship on the history of inequality”. The Boston Review published a terrific, far-ranging review. I read Piketty’s previous best-seller and am contemplating embarking on this. But on the other hand there are only 24 hours in the day, even under lockdown.

  • Uncharted: How to Map the Future Together by Margaret Heffernan, Simon & Schuster. Argues that we should wean ourselves off attempting precise ‘prediction’ and focus instead on preparedness, adaptability and robustness. This is the book that Dominic Cummings, with his delusions about ‘superforecasting’ ought to read. But I doubt that he will.


Monty’s message

My wife’s late father was in the Normandy Landings in June 1944 and she’s been going through his archive where she came on this rousing exhortation from Field-Marshal Montgomery, who — as you can see from the general tone — was clearly one of Boris Johnson’s spiritual forebears.

Monty was also (like Johnson) a prime pain in the ass, and one of the most astute decisions the Allies made in planning Operation Overlord was to make Eisenhower Supreme Commander rather than him.


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Friday 3 July, 2020

Quote of the Day

I started at the top and worked my way down

  • Orson Wells

A virtual May Week

In pre-pandemic times, when exams were over, Cambridge had a May Week (which of course was in June) full of events — boat races, College Balls, open air performances, madrigals on the river etc. — in which students let off steam and celebrated. Given that the virus has consigned all of that to the dustbin, at least for the moment, the question was what, if anything, could be done to mark the end of the academic year?. The answer was a mega-online event last Sunday evening, to which something like 10,000 alumni and staff logged in at one time or another. Here’s the finale to the evening. It’s wacky but nice.

Link


What’s wrong with WhatsApp

Will Davies has a characteristically thoughtful Long Read in the Guardian about the significance and dangers of WhatsApp. Sample:

The political threat of WhatsApp is the flipside of its psychological appeal. Unlike so many other social media platforms, WhatsApp is built to secure privacy. On the plus side, this means intimacy with those we care about and an ability to speak freely; on the negative side, it injects an ethos of secrecy and suspicion into the public sphere. As Facebook, Twitter and Instagram become increasingly theatrical – every gesture geared to impress an audience or deflect criticism – WhatsApp has become a sanctuary from a confusing and untrustworthy world, where users can speak more frankly. As trust in groups grows, so it is withdrawn from public institutions and officials. A new common sense develops, founded on instinctive suspicion towards the world beyond the group.

The ongoing rise of WhatsApp, and its challenge to both legacy institutions and open social media, poses a profound political question: how do public institutions and discussions retain legitimacy and trust once people are organised into closed and invisible communities? The risk is that a vicious circle ensues, in which private groups circulate ever more information and disinformation to discredit public officials and public information, and our alienation from democracy escalates.

This a great piece, well worth reading in full. It’s really about the ways belonging to a group changes behaviour. Will Davies is an amazingly insightful observer of our culture. And this is the best attempt I’ve seen to explore the wider significance of an encrypted app.


The warped calculus of Mark Zuckerberg and his bag-carrier Clegg

Great, impassioned piece by Julia Carrie Wong.

On Wednesday, in response to the growing advertiser boycott over Facebook’s failure to address hate speech, the executive Nick Clegg described a new kind of Facebook algorithm – one that calculates the social network’s moral worth. Writing for the advertising industry trade publication Ad Age, Clegg attempted to argue that the good on Facebook outweighs the bad.

“Focusing on hate speech and other types of harmful content on social media is necessary and understandable, but it is worth remembering that the vast majority of those billions of conversations are positive,” the former UK deputy prime minister wrote. “Look at what happened when the coronavirus pandemic took hold. Billions of people used Facebook to stay connected when they were physically apart.”

This is not the first time that a Facebook executive has hinted at such attempts to calculate the incalculable. (One imagines Clegg totting up the balance sheet at the end of the quarter: “I see that in the red we have this murder of a security officer allegedly carried out by extremists who met and coordinated their attack on Facebook but here’s one for the black: an adorable grandmother just liked a photo posted by her grandson who lives 500 miles away.”)

Yeah, well…

Take, for example, the campaign of genocide against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar. I don’t know exactly how Facebook accounts for its role in inciting the violence and ethnic cleansing that forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee the country as refugees, but I do know that no one at Facebook was fired over its deadly failures. No one resigned. No one staged a “virtual walkout”. No one put together a hastily arranged press appearance to quell outrage from advertisers.

It’s clear that according to Facebook’s moral calculus, the lives of people in the global south do not count for as much as the lives of people in its own country, but one need not struggle to find violence and harm from Facebook here, either. Let’s not forget that the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Heather Heyer was murdered, started as a Facebook event.

She’s absolutely right. And, as she says, while hate is an existential threat to those it targets, it’s no threat at all to Facebook. The only existential threat to a $650bn multinational corporation is a threat to its revenues. That’s where the real calculations are taking place right now at Facebook.

The only existential threat to Facebook is the one it will eventually face —antitrust action to (a) outlaw its business model in its current form, and (b) break it up. And if Joe Biden doesn’t do it (and based on an extended interview he gave to the New York Times ages ago, I think he gets it — see below), the the EU will do it. At the moment the head of the German antitrust agency is showing how it can be done.


Lockdown and summer reading – 1

From John Thornhill’s list in the Financial Times.

John Thornhill is a terrific journalist who is very knowledgeable about tech, and this is an interesting list. I’ve read Uncanny Valley and enjoyed it. Laura DeNardis’s book is important and I’ll have to read it for work. I’ve read parts of Toby Ord’s book, which is sobering in the extreme.


Joe Biden and Facebook: from the New York Times interview

Here’s the relevant passage from the long, long interview he did with the New York Times journalists way back in January.

Charlie Warzel: Sure. Mr. Vice President, in October, your campaign sent a letter to Facebook regarding an ad that falsely claimed that you blackmailed Ukrainian officials to not investigate your son. I’m curious, did that experience, dealing with Facebook and their power, did that change the way that you see the power of tech platforms right now?

No, I’ve never been a fan of Facebook, as you probably know. I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan. I think he’s a real problem. I think ——

CW: Can you elaborate?

No, I can. He knows better. And you know, from my perspective, I’ve been in the view that not only should we be worrying about the concentration of power, we should be worried about the lack of privacy and them being exempt, which you’re not exempt. The Times can’t write something you know to be false and be exempt from being sued. But he can. The idea that it’s a tech company is that Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For Zuckerberg and other platforms.

(Times footnote: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act says that online platforms aren’t held liable for things their users post on them, with some exceptions. In July, The Times’s Sarah Jeong weighed in on proposed updates to Section 230, arguing that “we should reopen the debate on C.D.A. 230 only because so much of the internet has changed,” but “the discourse will be improved if we all take a moment to actually read the text of C.D.A. 230.”)

CW: That’s a pretty foundational laws of the modern internet.

That’s right. Exactly right. And it should be revoked. It should be revoked because it is not merely an internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false, and we should be setting standards not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy. You guys still have editors. I’m sitting with them. Not a joke. There is no editorial impact at all on Facebook. None. None whatsoever. It’s irresponsible. It’s totally irresponsible.

CW: If there’s proven harm that Facebook has done, should someone like Mark Zuckerberg be submitted to criminal penalties, perhaps?

He should be submitted to civil liability and his company to civil liability, just like you would be here at The New York Times. Whether he engaged in something and amounted to collusion that in fact caused harm that would in fact be equal to a criminal offense, that’s a different issue. That’s possible. That’s possible it could happen. Zuckerberg finally took down those ads that Russia was running. All those bots about me. They’re no longer being run.

 (Times footnote: In October, a 30-second ad appeared on Facebook accusing Mr. Biden of blackmailing Ukrainian government officials. The ad, made by an independent political action committee, said: “Send Quid Pro Joe Biden into retirement.” Mr. Biden’s campaign wrote a letter calling on Facebook to take down the ad.)

He was getting paid a lot of money to put them up. I learned three things. Number one, Putin doesn’t want me to be president. Number two, Kim Jong-un thinks I should be beaten to death like a rabid dog and three, this president of the United States is spending millions of dollars to try to keep me from being the nominee. I wonder why.

It’s an amazing interview — really well worth reading if you want to know what the next President is like.


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Thursday 2 July, 2020

David Cameron and Xi Jinping go to the pub

It’s called appeasement — famously defined by (I think) Winston Churchill as “being nice to the crocodile in the hope that he will eat you last”.

Link


Citizens’ views about easing lockdowns

Suggests to me that expecting customers to flock back to stores etc. might be unduly optimistic. People are more cautious than their governments. And the UK’s subjects (they’re not citizens) are second in the list. Boris Johnson may be in for a surprise.


More naive illusions about Facebook

I don’t think the boycott will have anything other a marginal impact on the company.


Bossware: a real downside of working from home

Good investigation and an explainer from EFF — the Electronic Freedom Foundation.

Bossware typically lives on a computer or smartphone and has privileges to access data about everything that happens on that device. Most bossware collects, more or less, everything that the user does. The EFF looked at marketing materials, demos, and customer reviews to get a sense of how these tools work and produced a summary of the ways these products can surveil into general categories.

COVID-19 has pushed millions of people to work from home, and a flock of companies offering software for tracking workers has swooped in to pitch their products to employers across the country.

The services often sound relatively innocuous. Some vendors bill their tools as “automatic time tracking” or “workplace analytics” software. Others market to companies concerned about data breaches or intellectual property theft. We’ll call these tools, collectively, “bossware.” While aimed at helping employers, bossware puts workers’ privacy and security at risk by logging every click and keystroke, covertly gathering information for lawsuits, and using other spying features that go far beyond what is necessary and proportionate to manage a workforce.

This is not OK. When a home becomes an office, it remains a home. Workers should not be subject to nonconsensual surveillance or feel pressured to be scrutinized in their own homes to keep their jobs.

Great piece of work.

__________________________________________________________________________________________ 

What’s with the reluctance to wear masks?

Given that universal mask-wearing when in proximity to other people is the only way of having a reasonably normal life when the lockdowns ease, I’m baffled by (a) why there seems to be so much reluctance to wear masks (at least in Western countries), and (b) why they are not legally mandated in the UK. Sure, they don’t provide cast-iron guarantees of non-infection but they definitely reduce the risk.

One think that’s noticeable from the US is that some males in that benighted country (led by their Child-President) think there’s something girly about wearing masks. I don’t mind them dying as a result of this neurotic macho delusion. But I do mind the fact that, by not wearing masks, they continue to endanger others.

______________________________________________________________________________________________ 

Back to the future on energy storage

One of the main objections to electricity generation by renewable sources is the hoary old question: what happens when the wind stops or there’s not enough light for solar panels to do the trick? After all, if an electricity grid can’t cope with demand, it has to shut down some parts of the grid until supply equals demand.

For years and years we’ve been listening to tech evangelists (no doubt led by Elon Musk) telling us that the only solution is massive battery-complexes. This is the usual tech-solutionist guff, and it conveniently overlooks the environmental and other costs of lithium-ion batteries, not to mention the fact that they’re no good for long-term storage.

So it was fascinating to hear Steven Chu, the Nobel laureate who was Obama’s Energy Secretary, explaining that there is a solution to the energy storage problem that’s been around for many decades. And no rocket science is required: just a familiarity with gravity. Here’s part of the Forbes report:

The most efficient energy storage technology may be as close as the nearest hill, according to former Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and almost as old.

“It turns out the most efficient energy storage is you take that electricity and you pump water up a hill,” Chu said Tuesday at the Stanford University Global Energy Forum.

When electricity is needed, you let the water flow down, spinning generators along the way. Pumped hydro can meet demand for seasonal storage instead of the four hours typical of lithium-ion batteries.

“There’s been a resurgence and a new look at pumped storage because it is the one thing we do have, and we know it works and lasts a long time,” Chu said, highlighting it first in a review of energy-storage technologies.

The way it works is that when demand on the grid is low, you use the surplus electricity to pump water uphill to a reservoir. Then if there’s a sudden surge in demand, you open the sluices and water rushes down and starts to spin generators. It’s just a variation on the hydro-power systems that some countries like Norway have relied upon for many decades.

What’s really quaint about this, for those with long memories, is that the UK was providing fast-response electric power since 1984 via the Donorwig pumped storage station in Wales. It was constructed in the abandoned Dinorwic slate quarry and to preserve the natural beauty of Snowdonia National Park, the power station itself is located deep inside the mountain Elidir Fawr, inside tunnels and caverns. The project – begun in 1974 and taking ten years to complete at a cost of £425 million – was the largest civil engineering contract ever awarded by the UK government at the time. And it paid for itself in two years.

En passant: in the Trump era doesn’t it seem weird that there was a time when the person in charge of the US Department of Energy who was not only a Nobel prize-winner, but understood that his job was to act in the public interest rather than as a shill for the coal industry.

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What it’s like trying to report on Facebook

Terrific piece in Columbia Journalism Review.. Here’s the gist, but it’s worth trading in full, especially if you work in media or tech journalism.

What Facebook has become is the press’s assignment editor, its distribution network, its great antagonist, devourer of its ad revenue, and, through corporate secrecy, a massive block to journalism’s core mission of democratic accountability. Whether journalists can survive these conditions to produce meaningful, critical work about Facebook depends as much on their own adaptability as it does on the backing of revenue-minded media owners who might not wish to antagonize one holder of the advertising duopoly during an unfolding economic calamity. Except for one or two premium-tier media properties, journalism needs Facebook more than Facebook needs journalism.

“I don’t think the adversarial relationship between Facebook and the press is going to change,” Biddle says. “It’s a question of whether Facebook is going to stop resenting it so obviously and realize that this is what comes with being an enormously powerful, enormously wealthy corporation.”

That’s why one of the themes of our our new research Centre in Cambridge is building journalistic capacity to interrogate the tech industry.


The blogchain: New potatoes

Link


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Wednesday 1 July, 2020

How things change: George Osborne and David Cameron sucking up to Xi Jinping in 2015

From Politico’s wonderful daily briefing, commenting on the conundrum for Brexiteers by China’s brutal crackdown in Hong Kong.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away: “We have cemented Britain’s position as China’s best partner in the West,” a triumphant George Osborne beamed as he rolled out the red carpet for Chinese officials back in 2015. “We’ve got billions of pounds of Chinese investment creating thousands of jobs in Britain, and we’ve also now got a relationship where we can discuss the difficult issues.” Uh huh. And look — here’s David Cameron glugging a pint of warm ale with Xi Jinping on that same trip. You have to wonder how bad these clips will look another five years from now.

Actually, they looked pretty odious at the time too.


Coronavirus: What does Covid-19 do to the brain?

Paul Mylrea is a friend and valued colleague. In the early stages of the pandemic he was struck down with Covid and became desperately ill. But he survived and is now recovering from the two strokes he suffered as the virus rampaged through his body. The fact that Covid had laid him low shocked me because he’s one of the fittest people I know. Among other things, he was a senior diving instructor, swam every morning in the river Cam, and went everywhere on his Brompton bike. I remember thinking that “If the virus has got Paul, then nobody’s safe”.

This piece by Fergal Walsh, the BBC’s medical correspondent, about Paul’s struggle with the illness is a heartwarming story of medical skill and the body’s capacity for renewal. It is also confirmation of what a deadly and multifaceted pathogen Covid-19 is.


Imagine if the National Transportation Safety Board investigated America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Absolutely fascinating Atlantic essay by James Fallows.

Here’s the gist:

Consider a thought experiment: What if the NTSB were brought in to look at the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic? What would its investigation conclude? I’ll jump to the answer before laying out the background: This was a journey straight into a mountainside, with countless missed opportunities to turn away. A system was in place to save lives and contain disaster. The people in charge of the system could not be bothered to avoid the doomed course.

James Fallows is both a gifted writer and a keen pilot. This long essay is well worth reading in full.


The short-term decline in FB ad spending

Lots of big firms (Unilever, Coco-Cola, to name just two) have been making statements about how they will be not buying ads on Facebook in response to the BlackLivesMatter campaign. I’m afraid my instinctive reaction was to see this as empty virtue-signalling, and to privately predict that it would have little impact on Facebook’s bottom line in the longer run.

The New York Times has s story today which might appear to refute this. “Advertiser Exodus Snowballs as Facebook Struggles to Ease Concerns” is the headline.

Yet even as Facebook has labored to stanch the ad exodus, it is having little effect. Executives at ad agencies said that more of their clients were weighing whether to join the boycott, which now numbers more than 300 advertisers and is expected to grow. Pressure on top advertisers is coming from politicians, supermodels, actors and even Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, they said. Internally, some Facebook employees said they were also using the boycott to push for change.

“Other companies are seeing this moment, and are stepping up proactively,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, citing recent efforts from Reddit, YouTube and Twitch taking down posts and content that promote hate speech across their sites. “If they can do it, and all of Facebook’s advertisers are asking them to do it, it doesn’t seem that hard to do.”

The push from advertisers has led Facebook’s business to a precarious point. While the social network has struggled with issues such as election interference and privacy in recent years, its juggernaut digital ads business has always powered forward. The Silicon Valley company has never faced a public backlash of this magnitude from its advertisers, whose spending accounts for more than 98 percent of its annual $70.7 billion in revenue.

I don’t buy that stuff about a “precarious point”. And data from Socialbakers doesn’t confirm it, as this chart suggests:

Note the sharp fall around the time of the protests — and then the rapid recover.

Big corporations engaging in virtue-signalling will make little difference to Facebook’s bottom line. The company probably makes most of its ad revenues from small and medium firms, for whom its targeting advertising system is perfect. And they aren’t going to stop advertising for ethical reasons.

The Economist agrees:

The damage to Facebook is likely to be small. Its $70bn ad business is built on 8m advertisers, most of them tiny companies with marketing budgets in the hundreds or thousands of dollars and often reliant on Facebook as an essential digital storefront. The 100 largest advertisers on the site account for less than 20% of total revenue, compared with 71% for the 100 largest advertisers on American network television. And so far only three of Facebook’s top 50 ad-buyers have joined the boycott.


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Tuesday 29 June, 2020

Quote of the day

“Those who choose the lesser evil forget quickly that they chose evil”

  • Hannah Arendt

I love this cartoon.


Snap-Back and Gone-Forever Goods: Understanding the COVID Recession’s Economic Winners and Losers

Interesting post by Bruce Wydick:

My main contribution here is to categorize different types of goods and services in ways that will help us better understand the economic situation we are in. I will do it across two dimensions. First is the distinction between purchases of what I’ll call “Snap-Back” goods and services and those that are “Gone Forever.” In the Snap-Back category are things that we couldn’t buy during the heaviest COVID lock-down period, but these purchases were simply delayed. There is good reason to think that as the economy begins to open up, purchases of these items might even be higher than normal due to pent-up demand. Even during COVID, things like household appliances break or need fixing, and because over the long run purchases tend to even out, buying less now means buying more later.

“Gone Forever” goods and services, in contrast, are just like the term suggests: gone forever. Like me, you may have foregone several haircuts during shelter-in-place because you didn’t want to get (or give) coronavirus to your barber. But when it becomes safe to go back to the barber chair, you’ll still only get one haircut. The rest of your haircuts disappeared into the economic ether; they were (mutually beneficial) transactions that COVID—what we might call the “invisible anti-hand”—prevented from happening.


Coronavirus, the British State and Brexit

Guest post on the CSaP blog by Philip Rycroft, formerly Permanent Secretary of the Department for Exiting the EU:

Through the rest of 2020 and well into 2021, the British state will have to deal with the conjunction of two seismic shocks.

For one it ought to be well prepared. Officials and ministers have laboured hard since the 2016 referendum to get the country ready for Brexit. Once uncertain, the manner of our leaving the single market and custom union has narrowed to two options, both at the hard end of any previously imagined Brexit scenario; departure with a thin free trade agreement or departure with no trade deal at all. One would likely be more chaotic than the other, but both require immense adjustment to the apparatus of the state, not least the creation of a new trade border with our major trading partner and the re-homing of all of the appurtenances of the EU bureaucracy.

For the other, it transpires, the country was ill-prepared. The state has scrambled to piece together a response to the coronavirus crisis through a fog of confusing data and uncertain science. A formal judgement on how well, or otherwise, the state has coped, both in its own terms and in comparison to other countries, will have to wait for the inevitable enquiry. For now, what is evident is that the tail of consequences from the original outbreak will be with us into next year and well beyond.

On top of these shocks, Johnson and Cummings propose a third one — ‘fix Whitehall’.

Although there is no blueprint, there are clear indicators as to the way in which Whitehall will be fixed and it is possible to see how the current crisis is reinforcing existing prejudice. Private companies, business leaders and the army have been brought in at various points to shake up or bypass the existing bureaucracy, much as the apparent agility of the ARPA programme is touted as a model for sparking innovation and economic development. Power has been further concentrated in No 10. Metro-mayors, and increasingly the devolved governments, have been left on the sidelines. Will these responses be a guide to future action on fixing Whitehall?

You only have to ask the question to know the answer.


Pixar’s computer graphics pioneers have won the $1 million Turing Award

Two men who invented game-changing 3D computer graphics techniques now widely used in the film industry have won the highest distinction in computer science: the Turing Award. If you enjoyed Toy Story, The Lord of the Rings, Finding Nemo, Titanic, Avatar, or Jurassic Park, you have them to thank.

Who are they? Edwin Catmull and Patrick Hanrahan. Catmull cofounded Pixar and hired biophysics PhD Hanrahan as one of the first employees in 1986. Hanrahan spent much of his time modeling materials and lighting to help animations look closer to real life. “Physicists generally don’t study hair or skin, and why they look the way they do. I did, and spent years thinking about how to get things like lighting right,” he told MIT Technology Review.

The most interesting aspect of this (for me, anyway) is that way back in 1970, Catmull was part of the University of Utah’s ARPA program, where he came up with the first method to display curved surfaces on a computer. Up to that point, computer-generated images were all straight lines and polygons. While at Utah in 1972, Catmull created a short film called “A Computer Animated Hand,” which is one of the earliest examples of computer animation.

It took a long time for the industry to fully wake up to the potential of what he’d invented. The world’s first computer-animated feature film, Pixar’s Toy Story, didn’t come out until over two decades later, in 1995.

This is an instructive case study in how government-funded research can underpin great commercial developments. The Utah Lab where Catmull worked was funded by ARPA.


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Monday 29 June, 2020

The path not taken

From a walk yesterday.

Whenever I walk in a wood I find myself thinking of Robert Frost.


EasY does it: just don’t check the bank statements

I’ve always thought that the big consulting firms are basically frauds, but I thought they could probably do audits. Seems I was wrong.

According to the FT,

EY between 2016 and 2018 did not check directly with Singapore’s OCBC Bank to confirm that the lender held large amounts of cash on behalf of Wirecard. Instead, EY relied on documents and screenshots provided by a third-party trustee and Wirecard itself.

A senior auditor at another firm said that obtaining independent confirmation of bank balances was “equivalent to day-one training at audit school”.

Hopefully, investors in Wirecard will now sue EY into the ground.

Maybe I will be an auditor when I grow up, on the grounds that I could at least spot when 1.9 billion Euro was missing.


Legal vetting

The Harvard Gazette has an intriguing interview with the great constitutional lawyer Lawrence Tribe, who’s about to retire. He started as a mathematician (going to Harvard at the edge of 16) and then switched to Law. Like many young legal high-flyers, after graduation he clerked for a Supreme Court judge Potter Stewart. There’s an hilarious excerpt in the interview about this:

Q: Were you able to get to know any of the other justices besides Stewart?

A: Yes. I got to know Marshall quite well and [Earl] Warren less well. I remember a hilarious experience with [John Marshall] Harlan, in particular. In those days, the Supreme Court had its own theory that explicit sexual material could be banned if it was sufficiently hardcore, whatever that meant. Stewart famously said, ‘I can’t define hardcore pornography, but I know it when I see it.’ And I asked him once, “Have you ever seen it?” And he said, “Yes, just once, off the coast of Algiers.” (Laughs) I could never find out more than that.

We used to go to the basement of the court to watch porno flicks because the court was in a phase where it would just have to judge — thumbs up or thumbs down — either this is hardcore pornography and can be banned, or it’s not. They had no criteria. They just basically looked at the movies. Harlan was going blind, and so he had Thurgood Marshall narrate the films. “Oh, he’s doing that? You’ve got to be kidding!” That was the screening process.

Much more interesting than I expected. I can see why his students (including Barack Obama) loved him.


Quarantine diary — Day 100

Final episode!

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Sunday 28 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

In 1990, the top three carmakers in Detroit had a market capitalization of $36 billion and 1.2 million employees. In 2014, the top three firms in Silicon Valley, with a market capitalization of over $1 trillion, had only 137,000 employees.


A family outing

A scene from our walk yesterday evening. Think of it as my homage to John Constable! The Canada geese goslings have grown at an extraordinary rate. And it was very considerate of them and their parents to swim in such a straight line.

Click on the image to see a larger version.


Is it payback time for Apple as the EU goes after its licences to print money?

This morning’s Observer column:

On 16 June, the European commission opened two antitrust investigations into Apple’s App Store and Apple Pay practices. The first investigation will examine whether Apple has broken EU competition rules with its App Store policies. The second investigation is into whether restrictions imposed by Apple on the near field communication (NFC) capability of its iPhone and Apple Watch mean that banks and other financial institutions are prevented from offering NFC payment systems using Apple kit.

Let’s take the App Store first. When Apple unveiled the iPhone in 2007, it created an amazing new opportunity for software developers and, of course, for Apple itself. Because the new phone was basically a powerful handheld computer, that meant it could run smallish programs, which came to be called apps. And because it had an internet connection those programs could be efficiently distributed across the net. From this came the idea that Apple should set up an App Store to which developers could upload their programs. Apple, being a control-freak corporation, would vet those apps before they appeared on the store and would levy a 30% commission on sales. It seems like a great idea…

Read on


Thinking of moving to the US? Listen to this first

Stunning The Daily podcast on what’s been going on in Texas.

Made me realise I didn’t know the half of it.


Anne Case and Angus Deaton interviewed by Der Spiegel

Link. Interesting throughout. For example:

DER SPIEGEL: What has caused this mass-despair in white, middle-class life?

Deaton: Look at the labor market, at wages. Life-time jobs and the meaning that comes from a life like that is very important. Roles for men and women are defined by it, as is their place in the community. It’s almost like Marx: Social conditions depend on the means of production. And these means of production are being brought down by globalization, by automation, by the incredible force of health care. And that’s destroying communities.

DER SPIEGEL: Yet where there are losers, there should be winners as well. Who is to blame for this development?

Deaton: Many people have said that there are two ways of getting rich: One way is by making things, and the other is by taking things. And one of the ways of taking things is to make the government give you special favors. Those special favors don’t create anything, but they can make you rich, at the expense of everybody else.

Case: For instance, the pharma companies get a law passed that Medicare has to pay for drugs at whatever price the pharma companies choose. Or the doctors’ lobby doesn’t allow as many people to go to medical school, which helps to keep doctors salaries up. That’s one of the reasons why doctors are the largest single occupation in the top 1 percent.

DER SPIEGEL: Would you argue that those in the top 1 percent are peculiarly prone to rent seeking?

Deaton: No, but many people are in the 1 percent because of rent seeking. This mechanism is creating a lot of very wealthy people who would not be wealthy if the government hadn’t given them a license to rip off the rest. We’re not among the people who think of inequality as a causal force. It’s rent-seeking opportunities that create inequality.

DER SPIEGEL: How do the losers of this development react politically?

Deaton: Well, many of them like Donald Trump (laughs)!

I’ve just got their book.


If you thought that the Pizzagate conspiracy theory was dead and buried (I did), then think again.

Astonishing — and depressing — NYT story.

Sigh.


Quarantine diary — Day 99

Link


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Saturday 27 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

Other countries are used to loathing America, admiring America, and fearing America (sometimes all at once). But pitying America? That one is new.


The dead tree

On one of our cycle routes. Dead trees make for very dramatic photographs, sometimes. I’m always tempted to stop and photograph them.


Can this really be right?

From today’s Guardian:

The UK government’s plan to invest hundreds of millions of pounds in a satellite broadband company has been described as “nonsensical” by experts, who say the company doesn’t even make the right type of satellite the country needs after Brexit.

The investment in OneWeb, first reported on Thursday night, is intended to mitigate against the UK losing access to the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system.

But OneWeb – in which the UK will own a 20% stake following the investment – currently operates a completely different type of satellite network from that typically used to run such navigation systems.

“The fundamental starting point is, yes, we’ve bought the wrong satellites,” said Dr Bleddyn Bowen, a space policy expert at the University of Leicester. “OneWeb is working on basically the same idea as Elon Musk’s Starlink: a mega-constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, which are used to connect people on the ground to the internet.

“What’s happened is that the very talented lobbyists at OneWeb have convinced the government that we can completely redesign some of the satellites to piggyback a navigation payload on it. It’s bolting an unproven technology on to a mega-constellation that’s designed to do something else. It’s a tech and business gamble.”

If true, it looks like Trump-level imbecility.


Simon Kuper on why football matters

Lovely essay:

I’m British but I grew up mostly abroad, so when I went to university in England I discovered a new species of man: the Total Fan, the teenager whose main identity was the football club he supported. I witnessed conversations in the common room that went like this:

Student in plastic Manchester United shirt: “We’re brilliant this season.”

Student in Spurs shirt: “No, you’re shit.”

Student in Crystal Palace shirt: “He’s right, Steve. You’re shit.”

They weren’t exactly casting aspersions on Steve’s personality. They were talking about his football club. However, they saw the two things as essentially the same. Steve was Manchester United. The Spurs fan once told me that, when his team won the FA Cup, he walked into the common room to receive everybody’s congratulations as if he personally had lifted the trophy.

Even if you’re not a football fan (and I’m not) this is worth reading.


Share the wealth as we recover health (hopefully)

Noema magazine (a new publication from the Berggruen Institute) has an interesting conversation with Joe Stieglitz and Ray Dalio about how to ensure that the benefits of any recovery from the Covid crisis are shared with the population as a whole.

The basic idea: the massive taxpayer-financed cash infusion to save some of the largest companies that are otherwise viable may present a unique opportunity to more effectively tackle inequality by bolstering the assets of the less well-off. If the same taxpayers who are bearing the costs of the bailout also share an upside when we recover prosperity, wealth will be shared more fairly.

“This can be done”, says the magazine,

by establishing a sovereign wealth fund, or national endowment, that pools the taxpayer’s ownership shares from all the bailed-out companies and distributes regular dividends to all citizens. We call this “universal basic capital,” as distinct from the idea of a universal basic income. Instead of only once again relying on redistributing income to close the gap after wealth has been created, that wealth should be shared upfront in what we call “pre-distribution.”

There are many models out there that guide us on this path. Alaska has long had a social wealth fund that pays dividends to citizens from the revenues of the state’s oil leases. Norway has a similar fund, also from oil revenues, that pays into the general pension system. Australia has what is calls the superannuation fund, in essence a sovereign wealth fund financed by employees, employers and state contributions for its universal pension scheme. The wealth of that fund now stands at almost $2 trillion, a sum greater than Australia’s GDP. Singapore has a similar plan, called the Central Provident Fund, from which citizens can also draw for health and housing needs. It is so profitable from its global investments that it is even able to fund some government services and help keep taxes low.

What is important at this point is to recognize the opportunity for reducing social inequality that can be created by a fair and innovative approach to economic recovery. If everyone in this pandemic must share the downside, all must share in the upside as well.

Some promising ideas here. And the good thing is that none of the corporations in which governments might take a stake in return for support during the pandemic are tech companies, for the simple reason that those companies are the ones that will have benefited most from the crisis.

Noema‘s good, btw.


We can make you hurt if you don’t do what we want

Jonathan Zittrain is my idea of a perfect academic. Staggeringly bright, knows both digital tech and the law intimately (he has Chairs in both Harvard Law and Engineering), fizzes with original and often productive ways of viewing tricky problems, etc. So whenever he writes or lectures about anything I pay attention.

Now he has an article in The Atlantic about what social media outfits should do about Trump. At the beginning, his discussion of the possible options for regulating the speech of an authoritarian nutter takes a fairly standard detached, scholarly tone. His emerging conclusion seems to be that every plausible configuration of social media in 2020 is unpalatable.

But then, he briefly switches to a different register:

Those proposals can be analyzed and judged on their own terms as if they simply appeared on Congress’s docket out of nowhere, and I’d normally offer here some thoughts on their details. But I can’t stay in my academic lane. The executive order, and the push for more legislation, is part of a larger pattern in which the president appears to seek vengeance against those who even mildly criticize him, retaliating in any way he can, including by using the powers of his office. When, for instance, he didn’t like The Washington Post’s reporting about him, he made it clear—on Twitter, fittingly enough—that, because the paper is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, he would like to disadvantage Amazon however he can, including by demanding that the U.S. Postal Service raise its shipping rates. Here, the executive order is so scattershot, and the legislation so crudely sweeping, that it’s important to recognize that it conveys more than its text says. What it really says is: We can make you hurt unless you do what we want, and what we want is what helps the president personally. [Emphasis added.]

Yep: full marks. That’s the nub of Trump’s authoritarian threat. Same as Erdogan, Orban, Bolsonaro & Co.

So what does Zittrain think we should do?

“In the near term, the simplest solution is to vote Trump out of office.”

Well, yes: but you don’t have to be a bi-Chaired Harvard prof to come to that conclusion.

What if that option doesn’t work?

“In the longer term”, says Zittrain,

the most promising path for online content moderation lies in taking up unavoidable decisions by the largest companies in ways that respect the gravity of those decisions — likely involving outside parties in structured, visible roles — and, even more important, in decentralizing the flows of information online so that no one company can readily change the map.

So when Twitter tempers its deference and wades into a fraught zone by fact-checking in its own voice, still judged in the public sphere by its attention to the real facts, I respect its decision. One way to try to break what is raging behavior even—and especially—by a president is to create policies to deal with it, policies that would collect dust if the rule of law and the institutions designed to reinforce it were not under such extraordinary and explicit attack.

Yeah, sure. But this seems a bit feeble after the build-up. What might those policies look like? And how might we ‘decentralize’ those information flows?

Maybe there’s a sequel to this piece coming. If so I can’t wait.


Quarantine diary — Day 98

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Friday 26 June, 2020

Fuchsia

In our garden, this morning. One of my favourite plants, which has really thrived this year, for reasons unknown. Trouble is, it makes me nostalgic for County Kerry, which has more fuchsia hedges than anywhere else in the known world (IMHO).


Grandparents are critical workers too

Interesting long read (estimated reading time 15 minutes) in De Correspondent, a journalistic outfit to which I subscribe.

In a world where half of all Dutch families regularly ask grandparents to provide childcare, and those in other countries do so too; where care provided by grandparents in the UK saves over £7bn each year; and where a significant proportion of US, Filipino and Romanian children are raised by their grandparents, it’s safe to say that grandparents play a key role in shaping future generations.

The different generations are much more closely intertwined than we like to admit. Seen in this light, it’s a shame that many older adults are now being described, first and foremost, as “vulnerable”. If only because our collective strength is not defined by our ability to separate “the vulnerable” from “everybody else” but, as Amy Davidson Sorkin aptly wrote in a recent piece for the New Yorker, “by our willingness to stand together”.

“Covid-19 has caused generations to become increasingly separated from one another,” Gopnik says. “It was already happening in many places, but I think the pandemic makes us realise even more how much we depend on the fact that we have grandparents involved in caring for grandchildren. It makes it really vivid that we’ve sort of neglected those two ends of the life-span.” It also makes vivid the loss that ensues when grandparents and grandchildren are unable to interact.

I know it sounds like special pleading (I’m a grandfather) but I’ve been struck time and again — and not just in the pandemic — about this. I come from a rural culture where (just like parts of Italy, say) there’s always been extensive extended-family groups living in close proximity. But when socially-mobile or ambitious children leave that kind of environment — to live and work, say, in large urban conurbations far away — and then themselves start to have children, suddenly the conflicts between the demands of work and those of childcare become acute. My wife and I both brought up broods without any help whatsoever from our parents, and it made life much more demanding in all kinds of ways. State childcare provision in the UK is abysmal and inadequate by Continental European standards, and so families with young children have much less flexibility when both parents need to be out of the house. Way back in the Ireland I grew up in, that problem didn’t exist. The kids would simply wander round to Granny and Grandad’s place.

The figure of £7B is just an estimate of what parents in the Uk would have to fork out for childcare if their parents weren’t helping. I suspect it’s a huge under-estimate.

That’s not to say that there aren’t downsides to extended families living close together. Apart from the privacy aspects, there’s also the fact that initial impact of the Coronavirus seemed higher in cultures where multiple generations live together.


How to report the spread of a pandemic

The New York Times has produced a terrific animated-graphic-plus-succinct-narrative account. It’s a very good example of how to use digital tools to visualise and communicate a dynamic process.

Well worth a visit. Give it time.


The history of the humble (and not so humble) door handle

A doorknob is a key part of the user-interface of a building. Yet until Covid-19 I’d never given much thought to it — except sometimes in exasperation when realising that a handle is better than a knob for many people and many purposes. And it never occurred to me that it might have an interesting history. Which, of course it has. And it’s had some famous designers in its time. For example:

Arguably the most influential, although not necessarily familiar, door handle was designed not by an architect but by a philosopher – albeit one with an engineering degree. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s handle for the house he designed for his sister in Vienna in 1928 is a simple bent metal bar with one of the pair kinked to accommodate a portion of frame for the French doors it was designed for. It apparently took him a year to design (he spent two years on the radiators), but that simple bent bar morphed into the bent tube which is perhaps the most ubiquitous and generic of all modern designs.

And, needless to say, that reminds me Of an old schoolboy joke: “Was Handel a crank?”


Zoom Hell

Lovely New Yorker cartoon.


Is Digital Contact Tracing Over Before It Began?

Sobering post by Jonathan Zittrain. The momentum towards contact-tracing seems to be on the wane, he thinks.

The work on planning and standing up contact tracing is being overtaken by a public sensibility that the disease has been sufficiently managed for things to more or less return to normal. Where before, the question of voluntary participation in a tracing and isolation scheme was seen as how to get from, say, 50% participation up to 70% or more by the general public, the question now is whether nearly anyone would bother to install or use contact tracing tools at all — or, apps aside, change their behavior should they receive a call indicating that they’ve been exposed by someone who has tested positive. In New York, contract tracers are having a hard time completing interviews. And in Massachusetts, a mixed bag: on the one hand, so many contact tracers were admirably stood up so quickly that there isn’t enough work to go around. On the other hand, most of the cases being diagnosed haven’t been identified beforehand through contact tracing — which means that transmission chains can’t be pruned.

Contact-tracing requires testing. And testing capacity in parts of the US is currently being overwhelmed. On the tech front, Zittrain sees “a plateau in visible activity on the tech side of the ledger since the May 20, 2020, launch of the Apple/Google exposure notification framework”. And it doesn’t seem that any state has yet approved or launched an exposure notification app based upon the framework.

Efforts outside of the United States have made a little more progress. Switzerland has led the charge, piloting an app that implements the Apple/Google framework within hospitals, government agencies, and the military. Other nations — many of them among the 22 granted access to the Apple/Google framework in May — are developing and deploying apps of their own. We’ve also seen the emergence of a number of apps not based on the Apple-Google framework, including in Singapore and Australia.

So it’s all incredibly patchy. So much for tech ‘solutionism’ in this crisis.

So what now? Zittrain sets out two possibilities: the Swedish model and what he calls the ‘Company Town’ model.

The Swedish model is basically to

re-open all but the most high-spreading services and events; ask people to exercise social distancing where they can; have people wear cloth masks to minimize the spread of the moisture in their breath to others; and try to make available testing so that people who wish to know if they’re infected can find out and then self-isolate if they test positive or show worrisome symptoms.

The other option is interestingly different:

It’s one in which some big companies and institutions decide to implement their own test/trace/isolate regimes as employees return to workplaces. A company whose employees don’t physically interact much with the public during the day — an insurance company, or a tech firm like Facebook or Google — might require its employees to undergo regular testing, and then cease coming to work if they test positive. Such a company could stand up its own tracing program, and use data from company-issued devices, with notice to employees and no permitted opt-out, to assist in that tracing. Those who are deemed to have been exposed can also be required not to come to work. Universities might choose to require much the same for their faculty, staff, and students.

The overall regime may thus remain nominally a voluntary one, with respect to government coercion, but participation in private regimes like this will be by choice only in the sense that employees can quit their jobs, or students can choose to drop out of school, if they don’t want to participate in their institutions’ programs. And it of course leaves most people behind: if you don’t work for an institution that can pull off its own internal testing and tracing, you won’t directly benefit from such a program.

It looks as though this latter option is what Cambridge University will adopt — to name just one non-corporate example — because it now has the capacity to do all of that stuff.

But when you look at the bigger picture, this ‘company town’ approach would be a disaster for inequality, and maybe even for democracy. A bit like neoliberalism, in fact.

There’s no substitute for state capacity here, rigorously, competently and fairly administered. And the big questions for us is: can the UK actually do it?


Quarantine diary — Day 97

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