Thursday 9 April, 2020

Pic of the Day

Madingley Hall, photographed recently.


Automated wisdom

A colleague received this automated response from a Brazilian academic he had emailed about edits to a journal article.

Let’s slow down and stay home. We cannot continue to live in the way we have been living. We have been working extra-hours and not doing the essential work. It’s time to say farewell to the productivist nightmare.

Amen.


E pluribus unum — the New York Phil’s tribute to healthcare workers

This time, it’s Ravel’s Bolero.

Link

This stuff is a wonderful by-product of the crisis. Also, a dazzling bit of video editing.

Thanks to Quentin for the link.


I’m not the only one doing a Quarantine Diary

But this one comes from a grimmer place.


The near-term future

A one-para summary from Tyler Cowen:

I don’t view “optimal length of shutdown” arguments compelling, rather it is about how much pain the political process can stand. I expect partial reopenings by mid-May, sometimes driven by governors in the healthier states, even if that is sub-optimal for the nation as a whole. Besides you can’t have all the banks insolvent because of missed mortgage payments. But R0 won’t stay below 1 for long, even if it gets there at all. We will then have to shut down again within two months, but will then reopen again a bit after that. At each step along the way, we will self-deceive rather than confront the level of pain involved with our choices. We may lose a coherent national policy on the shutdown issue altogether, not that we have one now. The pandemic yo-yo will hold. At some point antivirals or antibodies will kick in (read Scott Gottlieb), or here: “There are perhaps 4-6 drugs that could be available by Fall and have robust enough treatment effect to impact risk of another epidemic or large outbreaks after current wave passes. We should be placing policy bets on these likeliest opportunities.” We will then continue the rinse and repeat of the yo-yo, but with the new drugs and treatments on-line with a death rate at maybe half current levels and typical hospital stays at three days rather than ten. It will seem more manageable, but how eager will consumers be to resume their old habits? Eventually a vaccine will be found, but getting it to everyone will be slower than expected. The lingering uncertainty and “value of waiting,” due to the risk of second and third waves, will badly damage economies along the way.

Written with the US mainly in mind, but sounds relevant for the UK too.

Given that there’s no conclusive end in sight, the challenge will be how to live with the virus longer-term at lower intensities until a vaccine appears.


Shockwave: Adam Tooze on the pandemic’s consequences for the world economy

Terrific analysis by a great contemporary historian of the impact of COVID-19. Long read, but well worth it. Not reassuring. Ends like this:

And once the crisis is over? What then? How do we imagine the restart? Before he was forced to retreat, Trump evoked the image of churches filling at Easter. Will the world economy rise from the dead? Are we going to rely once more on the genius of modern logistics and the techniques of dollar-finance to stitch the world economy back together again? It will be harder than before. Any fantasy of convergence that we might have entertained after the ‘fall of communism’ has surely by now been dispelled. We will somehow have to patch together China’s one-party authoritarianism, Europe’s national welfarism and whatever it is the United States will be in the wake of this disaster. But in any case, for those of us in Europe and America these questions are premature. The worst is just beginning.


Quarantine diary — Day 19

[coming soon]


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Wednesday 8 April, 2020

First, something old — and new. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as you’ve never heard it before

Find it here

I found it in a nice piece in the Washington Post, Donald Trump’s second-favourite newspaper.


The economic consequences of the virus

The inhabitant of New York could order by computer, sipping his morning coffee in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend. He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate with passport or other formality and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing just a credit card upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved by the TSA but otherwise much surprised at the least interference. But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, exclusion and of pandemics which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily twitter feed, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice.

This is Alex Tabbarok’s slight adaptation of a famous passage in John Maynard Keynes’s pamphlet, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, in which he evokes the world that was destroyed by the First World War. To see how clever this is, just compare it with the original.


New app collects the sounds of COVID-19

Amazing piece of research by Celicia Mascolo and her Cambridge colleagues. They’ve created an app which will be used to collect data to develop machine learning algorithms that may be able automatically to detect whether a person is suffering from COVID-19 based on the sound of their voice, their breathing and coughing.

“Having spoken to doctors”, Cecilia said,

“one of the most common things they have noticed about patients with the virus is the way they catch their breath when they’re speaking, as well as a dry cough, and the intervals of their breathing patterns. There are very few large datasets of respiratory sounds, so to make better algorithms that could be used for early detection, we need as many samples from as many participants as we can get. Even if we don’t get many positive cases of coronavirus, we could find links with other health conditions.”


Quarantine diary — Day 18

Link


Tuesday 7 April, 2020

Where those Florida beach celebrants went after partying

You know the story: lots and lots of people congregated on a beach in Fort Lauderdale, Florida during the Spring break weekend. A couple of geo-tracking companies, one of which was Tectonix (Slogan: “Reshape Your Data Experience) posted an fascinating video showing where those celebrants went afterwards.

Donie O’Sullivan of CNN has a good report on this. Apparently there are at least two companies — Tectonix and X-mode — doing this.

The map generated from X-Mode’s data by Tectonix, a data visualization firm, is indeed powerful and underlines why the US government might be considering using location data from Americans’ cell phones to try to track and possibly curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

It also may point to a potential sea change in how some in the tech industry talk about the data they possess. Silicon Valley has endured years of high-profile data privacy scandals. But now smaller companies like X-Mode, unheard of unknown by the majority of Americans, are publicly touting demonstrations of their technology — suggesting businesses like theirs see the potential of helping track the spread of the coronavirus as an opportunity to show how their often maligned data can be used for good. Cuebiq, another location tracking company, has been similarly public about its abilities.

For people who don’t understand the tracking capabilities of smartphones this will probably be startling info. For those who follow the industry it is, sadly, old hat.


IT support staff are critical workers too

One overlooked group of critical workers is the folks who are doing IT support to enable thousands and thousands of people who have never worked out of an office to do it at home. I see it in my college and in the wider university. But a colleague who works for a large corporation tells me that their IT staff are stretched to breaking point — having to prep 300-500 new laptops a day with the security and other specialised software needed for secure home working. IT Support is one of the most stressful occupations there are (partly because their clients are often angry and/or frustrated when they call them in). And getting beginners onto Zoom, Teams, VPNs etc. isn’t often easy.


How the telephone failed to make the Spanish flu bearable

This isn’t the first time technology was supposed to make isolation easier.

This is from the St Louis Post-Despatch of November 17, 1910, years before the Spanish flu outbreak. Harry McCracken, the Tech Editor of Fast Company, has a lovely of the role the Bell system played in that crisis.

Cities and entire states imposed emergency measures similar to those in place today, aiming to flatten the flu’s curve by keeping people apart from each other. Places of business, education, and worship were temporarily closed, and masks were required in some areas.

For a time, it looked like the telephone might help people carry on their lives with minimal disruption. In Holton, Kansas, the local Red Cross distributed placards that local merchants could place in their windows, encouraging customers—especially those who might be ill—to call rather than enter the premises. (Even before the epidemic, telephone ordering was becoming a popular form of commerce—grocery stores, for instance, offered Instacart-like delivery services.)

But then…

Guess what? There was a category of ‘critical’ workers that nobody had thought of. Switchboard operators. Overwhelmingly female. And they were as vulnerable to the flu as our critical workers. SO you can guess the rest of the story — encapsulated in these ads:

It’s a lovely essay — worth reading in full.


YouTube and 5G coronavirus conspiracy theories.

You may not have noticed but seriously crackpot conspiracy theories about 5G mobile telephony causing COVID-19 have been circulating on social media, including YouTube. And nutters have apparently been so moved by them that they ahve started to set fire to mobile phone masts. This has led to demands to YouTube to shape up and stop this nonsense circulating.

According to a Guardian report by Alex Hern, YouTube has

“reduced the amount of content spreading conspiracy theories about links between 5G technology and coronavirus that it recommends to users, it has said, as four more attacks were recorded on phone masts within 24 hours.

The online video company will actively remove videos that breach its policies, it said. But content that is simply conspiratorial about 5G mobile communications networks, without mentioning coronavirus, is still allowed on the site.”

This is standard-issue First Amendment cant. YouTube (like Facebook and Twitter) believes it has a responsibility to let nutters broadcast so long as they do not violate those sacred Terms and Conditions. But the First Amendment applies only to the government. YouTube is a private platform, owned and controlled by Google (well, Alphabet, Google’s parent company). It can do what it likes. It has no obligation to give a platform to anyone.

“There are lots of things wrong about 5G, says Cory Doctorow

But 5G doesn’t give you cancer. It won’t make you sick. And…god, I am getting stupider just thinking about typing this, coronavirus is not a false-flag op to disguise the illnesses that 5G is secretly creating.

The reason I have to mention that is that the conspiracyverse is full of that specific theory, and it’s inspiring people to COMMIT ARSON and torch 5G towers.

No, seriously.

In the wake of multiple attacks on 5G towers, Youtube has announced changes to its moderation guidelines. It will allow 5G conspiracy theories, just not ones that (oh god my fingers are seizing up from the stupid) link 5G with coronavirus.

Corona conspiracy theories are new, but conspiracy theories have have been around for ever. “Even a cursory perusal of the arguments for these conspiracies”, says Cory, ” reveals that they have not gotten better, even as they’ve gained traction”. If the same arguments are attracting more adherents, he argues, then one of two things is going on. Either: YouTube is a mind-control ray that can turn rational people into believers in absurd ideas; or the number of people to whom these ideas seem plausible has grown and/or Youtube has made it more efficient to reach those people.

Cory thinks it’s the latter, and I agree. YouTube is not a powerful hypnotising machine so much as a machine for finding people who are susceptible to nonsense.


Quarantine diary — Day 17

Link


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Monday 6 April, 2020

Is it any wonder that the UK currently has such a mediocre government?

After all, the main criterion for appointment to the Cabinet was to have been wrong about the most important question that faced the UK since 1946. As a result we have a squad of econd-raters.


How long can we continue to live like this?

Abhijit Banerjee (AB) and Esther Duflo (ED), a married couple, shared this year’s Nobel Prize for economics with Michael Kremer. Here’s part of a transcript of a conversation in which the couple discussed one of the issues — how long can we live like this?

AB: So, what do you propose to do about it?

ED: At this moment, we can listen to what the doctor says or try to make sense of what the doctor says. We know it is bad and we know we do not have a cure, and anybody who says he has a cure is lying. People are working for a cure but it will take time. All we can do is to isolate ourselves. Another thing we can do is to practice good hygiene in particular washing of hands. So if we get in contact with affected people we can prevent a transmission.

AB: It is extremely hard for people to practise such an unnatural lifestyle in the foreseeable future. For how long? People are not working, they are not earning, they are not going out, they are not meeting their loved ones. Is this a realistic enterprise for six months? Do you think that causes some challenges?

ED: It would be unsustainable for two weeks. Almost sure it would be unsustainable for six months. On the top of the uncertainties caused by the virus itself, there are uncertainties caused by the uncertainties. I am now turning the question to you. If you were in charge, of US to begin with, when would you have started this curfew and so many restrictions… you can do this, you cannot do this?

AB: It is a tough call. The model says five months and the model is based on the numbers which people plucked out from the air. Five months for full shutdown strategy. It is frightening to contemplate. A realistic (option) is to pick a shorter window and work around the peak and to make sure the peak is not as bad. Keeping the window significantly short and more focussed. I do not know which way I would have gone if I was in the hot seat because that involves making a choice that I will let some people die. More people will die in the scenario we shut it down later unless we believe that the whole thing is not sustainable. Then of course… That must be the case in many countries, because five months shutting down means people will stop believing there is a centre of policy. There is a trade-off between saving real lives and possibly at an enormous enforcement cost and enormous cost to the economy… Possibly it is easier to save the economy… I do not know.

He doesn’t know. Neither do we.


Bruce Schneier and Ben Evans on Zoom and its weaknesses/problems

Everybody’s piling in on Zoom. Bruce Schneier, one of my favourite security gurus, is particularly fierce. He sees three kinds of problems with the service: (1) bad privacy practices, (2) bad security practices, and (3) bad user configurations.

Privacy first: Zoom spies on its users for personal profit. It seems to have cleaned this up somewhat since everyone started paying attention, but it still does it.

The company collects a laundry list of data about you, including user name, physical address, email address, phone number, job information, Facebook profile information, computer or phone specs, IP address, and any other information you create or upload. And it uses all of this surveillance data for profit, against your interests.

On security, Schneier says that “Zoom’s security is at best sloppy, and malicious at worst”. And its encryption is “awful. First, the company claims that it offers end-to-end encryption, but it doesn’t. It only provides link encryption, which means everything is unencrypted on the company’s servers.” (I wrote about this in my Observer column yesterday.)

And then there’s Zoom’s “bad user configuration. Zoom has a lot of options. The defaults aren’t great, and if you don’t configure your meetings right you’re leaving yourself open to all sort of mischief.”

Even without screen sharing, people are logging in to random Zoom meetings and disrupting them. Turns out that Zoom didn’t make the meeting ID long enough to prevent someone from randomly trying them, looking for meetings. This isn’t new; Checkpoint Research reported this last summer. Instead of making the meeting IDs longer or more complicated — which it should have done — it enabled meeting passwords by default. Of course most of us don’t use passwords, and there are now automatic tools for finding Zoom meetings.

In short: Schneier really doesn’t like Zoom.

Benedict Evans has an interesting and more sympathetic take on it in his (invaluable) weekly newsletter.

Zoom has gone from 10m to 200m daily users in the past few weeks (!), and that comes with pain. On one hand, since it was designed for the enterprise it wasn’t hardened against abuse, so ‘Zoom-bombing’ (eg crashing random open group calls and putting obscene things onto everyone’s screen) is now a thing. On the other hand, it’s now getting a lot more privacy and security scrutiny, and some… issues have come up. These are two sides of the same coin: you have to ask ‘what would malicious people do with our software?’ and the answer might be both human engineering and software engineering. A lot of the flaws people found look like simple product decisions to make installing and using easier – for example, it used the Facebook SDK so you could log-in with Facebook, but that sends some device data to Facebook. But it also claimed it was end-to-end encrypted and isn’t, and some of the traffic goes through Chinese servers, and so one has to assume that the Chinese state could listen in to anything if it wanted to. To its credit, Zoom has responded pretty well to most of these concerns, and some of this can be over-played (it seems pretty silly for a school system to ban it in case the Chinese intelligence agencies are listening to drama class), but I’m not sure the UK cabinet should carry on using this.

Agreed. But then Evans has this interesting thought.

Stepping back, it’s striking that Zoom has made such a big impact despite every tech giant having a big mature product in this space (or even several – how many of these apps does Google have? That would be a good interview question). It’s really not as hard to displace these companies as some would think, if you can find the right wedge. This also reminds me of the founding legend of Dropbox: everyone told Drew Houston ‘there are dozens of these’ and he said ‘yes, but do you use any of them?’ Links: Zoom goes to 200m users, Zoom response to issues


Superyachts: depreciating quarantine machines

This was the headline on a lovely FT piece about the problems of the mega rich in their floating gin-palaces.


Google searches for “I can’t smell” seem to be good predictors of where the virus is

As this pandemic rages, it becomes ever clearer that the UK government is flying blind. This is because we’re not testing enough people for the simple reason that we don’t have the capacity to do it. So we’re in a radically different position to Germany — another large country which seems to be doing much better. And because the UK started so late in the pandemic, it’s now run up against the global shortage of reagents which is reducing capacity to create huge numbers of test kits. Is there anything we could do at the moment to improve our knowledge of where the virus is striking hardest?

An intriguing OpEd in today’s New York Times suggests that there might be. The article is by Seth Stevens-Davidowitz, who some years published an insightful book with the intriguing title Everybody Lies: what the Internet can tell us about who we really are. The point of the book is that people’s Google searches are amazingly revealing, because they will confide anxieties to Google they would not dare express to even their nearest and dearest.

In his NYT article, Seth suggests that analysis of the location of Internet users searching Google for “I can’t smell” could provide valuable information about outbreaks of COVID-19.

To see the potential information lying in plain sight in Google data, consider searches for “I can’t smell.” There is now strong evidence that anosmia, or loss of smell, is a symptom of Covid-19, with some estimates suggesting that 30-60 percent of people with the disease experience this symptom. In the United States, in the week ending this past Saturday, searches for “I can’t smell” were highest in New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, and Michigan — four of the states with the highest prevalence of Covid-19. In fact, searches related to loss of smell during this period almost perfectly matched state-level disease prevalence rates, as the accompanying chart shows.

Other researchers have found that a bevy of symptom-related searches — loss of smell as well as fever and shortness of breath — have tracked outbreaks around the world.

Because these searches correlate so strongly with disease prevalence rates in parts of the world with reasonably good testing, says Stephens-Davidowitz, we can use these searches to try to find places where many positive cases are likely to have been missed.

It’s possible that this correlation won’t be stable over a long time. (There was a surge of excitement a few years ago when it was discovered that Google searches provided earlier advance warning of ordinary flu outbreaks in the US than the CDC could produce; but that turned out to be a fluke.) This particular correlation, though, seems to hold across some parts of the world.

There is already some evidence that clues to this symptom were evident earlier in search data. Joshua Gans, a professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, found that searches for “non sento odori” (“I can’t smell”) were elevated in Italy days before the symptom was reported in the news. Iran also saw an enormous rise in searches related to loss of smell weeks before media reports of the symptom became common.

Anyway, worth trying for the testing-challenged UK.


Quarantine diary — Day 16

Link


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Sunday 5 April, 2020

Zoom needs to up its game — it’s playing in the big league now

This morning’s Observer column:

Then there’s the issue of security, and of encryption in particular.

“We take security seriously and we are proud to exceed industry standards when it comes to your organisation’s communications,” says the Zoom website. Any host of a meeting can “secure a meeting with end-to-end encryption”. Well, that’s not quite right, at least if by “end to end” you mean encryption where the service provider has no way of decrypting the content (as, say, with WhatsApp or Signal). The encryption on Zoom communications at the moment is the kind that protects your communications with any website with ‘https’ in its URL. But the content is unencrypted while it is passing through Zoom’s cloud servers.

There may be good reasons for this, but at the very least the company’s website shouldn’t be making exaggerated claims about encryption. It should privilege facts over marketing puffery.

And the moral of all this? Zoom is providing a service of real value in these desperate times, but it needs to grow up. It’s playing in the big league now.

Read on


It’s Zoom, Zoom, Zoom all day long

Rumours, facts, misunderstandings and hearsay about the supposed (in)security of Zoom conferencing has been rife for the last week. Lots of my friends and acquaintances have been asking me about it, in the (mistaken) belief that I know lots about it. I don’t. I only know what I read from trusted and knowledgeable sources.

The Citizen Lab report

Top of my list in this regard is the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of the University of Toronto. It was founded by Ron Deibert, who is a hero of mine, and has for years done sterling work on detecting and unearthing the tools that unscrupulous regimes and companies have developed for snooping on human rights activists, journalists and other good folks. They have now completed a pretty thorough investigation of the cryptographic protocols at the heart of Zoom’s service and published an illuminating report. It makes for fascinating reading if you’re a geek, but the gist is that their research shows that (contrary to the company’s public claims to the contrary) Zoom uses non-industry-standard cryptographic techniques with identifiable weaknesses and is thus not suitable for sensitive communications. But’s it seems ok for non-sensitive uses.

There are also potential security issues with where Zoom generates and stores cryptographic information. While based in Silicon Valley, Zoom owns three companies in China where its engineers develop the Zoom software. Its AES-128 keys, which we verified are sufficient to decrypt Zoom packets intercepted in Internet traffic, are transmitted by Zoom servers to all meeting participants. In some of our tests, our researchers observed these keys being distributed through Zoom servers in China, even when all meeting participants were outside of China. A company primarily catering to North American clients that distributes encryption keys through servers in China is very concerning, given that Zoom may be legally obligated to disclose these keys to authorities in China.

Given the sudden embrace of Zoom by a wide range of sectors across society, it is reasonable to assume that many government’s signals intelligence agencies, as well as criminals, will be subjecting Zoom to the type of analysis we did. Some of them may choose to privately exploit those weaknesses for nefarious purposes and with harmful consequences.

As a result of these troubling security issues, we discourage the use of Zoom at this time for use cases that require strong privacy and confidentiality, including:

Government communications Proprietary or confidential business activities Healthcare providers handling sensitive / confidential patient information Human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, and others working on sensitive topics

But the good news is that

For those using Zoom to keep in touch with friends, hold social events, or organize courses or lectures that they might otherwise hold in a public or semi-public venue, our findings should not necessarily be concerning.

This is a relief because it’s more or less what I’ve been saying to friends and family. It was based on a hunch that the vulnerabilities in the Zoom system would be mainly of interest to state-level actors.

On the other hand, I hadn’t known of the extent to which Zoom’s development work is being done in China, or that data packets and encryption keys seem to pass through servers that are based there. If I were running Zoom, I’d rethink that soonest.

Good advice from Mozilla

Many of the problems that have arisen with Zoom stem from the fact that it has had massive take-up of its free offer — which means that it is now being used by millions of non-technical users who probably know relatively little about online security. So it’s good to see that the Mozilla Foundation (which provides the Firefox browsers) has published some useful tips “to make your Zoom gatherings more private”.

They are:

1. Use your account with the latest version of Zoom. Sign-in and update to the latest version of the Zoom client or app. This will give you access to the meetings that are available to invited participants and ensure that your system has up-to-date security patches.

2. Use password protection. You can make your meetings password protected to prevent people from guessing your room ID and joining.

3. Keep your Personal Meeting ID private. Don’t use your Personal Meeting ID – especially for events you’re broadly publicizing. That will stop people from trying to enter your personal room at other times. Instead, generate a unique meeting ID by scheduling the meeting.

4. “Lock out” uninvited participants. Don’t share Zoom meeting invites or Meeting IDs with anyone you don’t want to join.

5. Utilize the “mute all” feature. Using the “manage participants” function, you can mute all participants. You should not unmute them again without telling them that’s what you’re doing.

6. Stop unwanted content from being shared. You can stop participants from sharing their screen, or if necessary, stop their video. This is helpful if you’re inviting lots of people you don’t necessarily know so that someone can’t maliciously share content – a practice now known as “zoombombing.”

7. Respect chat privacy. Decide ahead of time if you will save the chat or record the video of the meeting and make sure all participants have agreed and know how you plan to use that information. Recording and saving chats may have legal implications so make sure you’ve checked into that before enabling these options.

All good advice.


Quarantine diary — Day 15

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Saturday 4 April, 2020

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One of the Zoom memes circulating on social media.


How is the Cloud standing up to the Coronavirus stress-test?

Reasonably well — at least according to this report. Headlines: Microsoft’s Azure has had some minor problems. On the assumption that no news is good news, Amazon’s AWS seems fine. Which is just as well, because an astonishing proportion of the services we are relying on now runs partly or exclusively on AWS. We tend to think of Amazon as a retail or e-commerce monopoly. But actually its cloud computing service is probably more important: it’s become critical infrastructure for the world. A point to be borne in mind when we eventually get round to thinking about regulation.


Boredom? Nah

For most people, the novelty of self-isolation has worn off, and many will doubtless be thinking about how long we — as people, and as a society — can sustain this. For some, isolation is really hard to bear, and there’s a real cost — in terms of loneliness, domestic violence, marital breakdown, depression. mental illness and boredom, to name just a few of the downsides — to be paid for this strategy to slow the spread of the virus. As far as the last of those downsides, however, some people (including me) are temperamentally lucky in that they’ve never been bored. My friend Quentin Stafford-Fraser is the same, and he has a lovely blog post today about “Boredom, Toothbrushes and Terminals”.


One day, the UK might have a proper Opposition party again. In which case it needs to start thinking about the future rather than the past

Keir Starmer QC has been elected Leader of the Labour party by a landslide. So maybe the country will eventually have an Opposition that’s functioning as an opposition should in this two-party system. It will also need to start thinking about life after Corona. And when it does it will have to do better than Dominic Cumming’s half-assed idea of rebooting Britain by having an ARPA 2.0 modelled on the famous Pentagon agency which funded the Internet and a host of other interesting stuff in the US. (ARPA is one of Cummings’s obsessions. Another one is the Manhattan Project which built the first atomic bomb.)

Don’t get me wrong I’ve got nothing against ARPA. (In fact it figures significantly in my book on the origins of the Internet. And I was lucky enough to know Bob Taylor, the guy who funded the ARPANET, the precursor of the Internet we use today.) It’s an interesting idea to see if the post-Brexit UK could get a creative and technological boost from trying to replicate the idea here. (For an extended discussion of the idea, see this think-tank report). The problem is that even if it had the kinds of upsides that Cummings desires, it would do little to address the country’s most pressing need — which is, to use a Johnsonian phrase, “levelling up” — i.e. addressing the challenge of reinvigorating the vast swathes of the country which have been “left behind” by neoliberal economic policy, globalisation and economic change. The truth is that a successful ARPA 2.0 would merely create another mini-Silicon Valley in Britain (to complement the Cambridge cluster and the Shoreditch crowd). It might generate great wealth for small elites, but it would not provide much in the way of employment (except as low-skilled service workers) for those who have lost out over the last two decades. Just see how much of the fabulous wealth of Google et al has trickled down to the ordinary folks of San Jose, Mountain View, Cupertino or San Francisco.

So if this or the next UK government (which could conceivably be led by Starmer, if the Coronacrisis turns out to be catastrophic) is serious about levelling up, then what Britain needs is a concerted, government-led effort on the Manhattan project scale. This initiative, however, will not be about handing out welfare to distressed areas but about decarbonising the UK, and it will create work for an awful lot of people who don’t know anything about data analytics. It will involve retrofitting every house in the country to make it as energy-efficient as possible, replacing oil and gas boilers with air-and ground-source heating systems, fitting solar panels everywhere, reforming the construction industry so that every new building is energy-efficient, and a thousand other things — plus creating the education and training infrastructure to enable this to happen. It’s about rebooting the whole country, providing the self-esteem in depressed areas that comes from being able to earn a good living doing work that is patently useful, and acquiring relevant new skills and knowledge in the process. As Alan Kay used to say, the best way to predict the future is to invent it. And that doesn’t just apply to computers.


The Briefing Room

Terrific Radio 4 programme this morning on the Coronavirus.

It tackled three specific questions: 1. What testing does 2. The search for a vaccine 3. Whether any existing drug might be useful in suppressing COVID-19 and lightening the health service burden

No nonsense. Interviewed real experts. Was illuminating, interesting and very well-informed.

A model of what public service broadcasting is for.


Quarantine diary – Day 14

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Friday 3 April, 2020

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London under lockdown

Piccadilly Circus, London, 5pm today


There’s no going back to ‘normal’

My day started by listening to the New York Times’s ‘The Daily’ podcast, which today consisted of an interview with Dr Anthony Fauci, a leading medical scientist who has been head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health since 1984. Yes, that’s right: since 1984: that means he’s served under six presidents — Ronald Reagan, George Bush Snr, Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Barack Obama and the current clown.

He also seems to be the only real grown-up in the White House as the Trump crowd try to come to terms with the Coronavirus pandemic. Fauci often stands behind Trump as he conducts his political rallies that are masquerading as press conferences. Once, when Trump said something unusually stupid, the doctor was seen to put his hand to his forehead. He may have been brushing away a fly or wiping a bead of perspiration, but the Fox News fanatics interpreted it as a gesture of contempt for their beloved leader, since when Fauci has been since subjected to such a torrent of online threats and abuse that the Secret Service has had to increase his security cover.

His conversation with the podcast host, Michael Barbarro, was fascinating from beginning to end, but one bit in particular stood out.

The point of this is that when the current crisis is over we’ll be returning to a changed world — not just because the virus will still be hanging around, but there there are others like it waiting in the wings.

This crisis, says the political philosopher John Gray in a in a New Statesman essay published this week, “is a turning point in history”. The era of peak globalisation is over, he continues.

“An economic system that relied on worldwide production and long supply chains is morphing into one that will be less interconnected. A way of life driven by unceasing mobility is shuddering to a stop. Our lives are going to be more physically constrained and more virtual than they were. A more fragmented world is coming into being that in some ways may be more resilient. “

Human beings are a resilient species. We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t. But the post-war era has conditioned us to think that we know what normality should look like. It’s what Gray describes as “an embellished version of the recent past”. The problem with our recent past is that it was ecologically unsustainable, riven by inequality and dependent on complex systems of unbelievable fragility — as the Coronavirus has brutally revealed. And if we go back to that then we won’t deserve to survive.

A situation in which so many of the world’s essential medical supplies originate in China – or any other single country – will not be tolerated, says Gray.

Production in these and other sensitive areas will be re-shored as a matter of national security. The notion that a country such as Britain could phase out farming and depend on imports for food will be dismissed as the nonsense it always has been. The airline industry will shrink as people travel less. Harder borders are going to be an enduring feature of the global landscape.

Next time we go to France, I was thinking as I read that, we may have to produce a certificate testifying either that we have acquired immunity to COVID-19 or have been vaccinated. In other words, it will be like what travelling with a dog used to be like — all that stuff about rabies and so on. And so on.

To a virus, the world may be borderless. But for humans borders will become even more formidable. Worst-case scenarios for the United States include individual states barring intra-state traffic. Likewise within the European Union’s Schengen area, where frontiers were once a thing of the past but could conceivably become a thing of the future.

In “The World after Coronavirus”, a long essay recently published in the Financial Times, the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari says that we now face two epochal choices: the first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity. As far as the second of these is concerned, I think that the die is already cast. Globalisation as we have known it will go into reverse. The post-war international order created under American hegemony is coming apart. It was creaking at the seams anyway, but the election of Donald Trump really put the skids under it. Under the pressure of the virus, it’s not just America First. It’s also becoming Britain First, Italy First. France First. And of course Hungary First.

As for the first epochal choice that Harari thinks we face — between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment, well we’re part-way down the first track already. Controlling the pandemic depends on identifying who has it, tracking their movements and contacts, and isolating or treating them — if need be forcibly. This is immensely labour-intensive. But digital technology and the smartphone has provided the perfect tool for the job, and the Oriental countries which have done best in controlling COVID-19 have made good use of it.

The lesson has not been lost on the West. And although the privacy and other risks implicit in the tech are terrifying, the pressure to deploy the tools may become irresistible. As Harari says, it is in the nature of emergencies that they “fast-forward historical processes.

“Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours. Immature and even dangerous technologies are pressed into service because the risks of doing nothing are bigger. Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments.”

The risk and dangers of a massive increase in surveillance justified by this emergency are real. But many of them stem from the fact that, under current models, all of the hoovered data is held centrally. But it doesn’t have to be done that way.

There’s an interesting experiment called Private Kit: Safe Paths under way at MIT, for example. Participants install an app which enables them accurately to log their own location on their own phones. (So it never gets uploaded to the cloud). Those who have been diagnosed as infected can, if they wish, share an accurate location trail with health officials once they are diagnosed positive, replacing a process that has historically been conducted only through memory. The app uses proximity-detection technology to tell a phone’s owner whether they have crossed paths with a diagnosed carrier. The researchers describe it as “a free, open-source and privacy-first contact-tracing technology that provides individual users with information on their interaction with diagnosed COVID-19 carriers, while also empowering governments’ efforts to contain an epidemic outbreak”.

It could be an interesting way of avoiding the choice that Harari says we will have to make as a result of this crisis– balancing necessary surveillance with human empowerment — by having both. Stay tuned.


Jack Schofield RIP

Photo by Sarah Lee/ The Guardian

This really marks the end of an era. Jack Schofield was taken to hospital following a heart attack on Friday night and died on Tuesday afternoon. He was the Guardian’s former computer editor and author of its technology advice column, Ask Jack, for almost 20 years. He was 72 and had written for the paper since 1983, initially as a columnist for the new computing pages, called Futures Micro Guardian. His first column, on how to buy a home “micro”, walked the reader through the difficult process of picking one of the many microcomputers available in Britain at the time, ultimately recommending the £400 Acorn BBC Model B or, for the budget conscious, the £100 Sinclair Spectrum. It’s still online and if you go to it you will be transported back to a different world.

My abiding memories of him are of a warm, generous spirit with masses of common sense — a rare quality at the dawn of the personal computer age. And he never succumbed to the Silicon Valley Reality Distortion Field. May he rest in peace.


Quarantine diary – Day 13

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Thursday 2 April, 2020

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The end of Boris Johnson’s media honeymoon: today’s front pages

The ‘serious’ papers are bad enough (though whether the Telegraph deserves that description is questionable, given that it has hitherto just been a Johnson fanzine).

But just look at the tabloids.

Interesting ne c’est pas?

Images from Peter Foster – @pmdfoster


Roots of the UK’s Covid-19 fiasco

I’ve been reading the most recent (2017) edition of the UK’s National Risk Register to try and understand why we’ve wound up as possibly the worst-prepared major country (outside of the US) for the calamity that is upon us.

The first thing to note is that the government classified this kind of pandemic as the most serious potential risk to the country. It was designated a Level 5 risk in the “Hazards,diseases, accidents and societal risks” category. Just for comparison, on the “Malicious attacks” register, terrorist attacks were only ranked as Level 3. Here’s the relevant chart from the document:

And here’s the summary of “What’s being done about the risk?”

Note the text in the paragraphs on Planning, Coordination, International Collaboration, Detection and Personal Protective Equipment and ask yourself if you know of any evidence that anyone in government had read any of them in the three years since this document was last updated.

Having done so, can I suggest that you then turn to “Why Weren’t We Ready?” a splendid piece of reporting by Harry Lambert in the current issue of the New Statesman? Here’s a relevant excerpt:

That it is a novel virus and the government’s plans were for influenza is “immaterial”, says David Alexander, professor of disaster risk reduction at University College London. The coronavirus closely resembles the threat anticipated in government planning documents, of a highly infectious respiratory disease that critically hospitalises between one and four per cent of those it infects. And yet the government appears to have been unprepared. The UK lacks ventilators, personal protective equipment and testing kits, while emergency procedures for manufacturers and hospitals are being improvised on the fly.

But the government’s planning documents – which date from 2005 to 2018 but are mainly based on the 2011 “Influenza Preparedness Strategy” – suggest that Britain may in fact have been prepared, just for the wrong outcome. The UK’s plans appear to have rested on a false assumption: if a pandemic such as Covid-19 struck, the UK intended only to mitigate rather than suppress the impact.

Mitigation accepts that the virus will spread. Suppression does not. Boris Johnson did not come up with the concept of taking the virus “on the chin”, as he put in an interview on 5 March. Nor did Dominic Cummings, his most senior adviser, who is reported to have at first welcomed the idea. The strategy predates them both.

In that context, the 2011 “Influenza Preparedness Strategy” makes interesting reading.

“The combination of particularly high attack rates and a severe disease”, it says,

“is also relatively (but unquantifiably) improbable. Taking account of this, and the practicality of different levels of response, when planning for excess deaths, local planners should prepare to extend capacity on a precautionary but reasonably practicable basis, and aim to cope with a population mortality rate of up to 210,000 – 315,000 additional deaths, possibly over as little as a 15 week period and perhaps half of these over three weeks at the height of the outbreak.”

It’s clear that, in the early phases of the government response, Johnson and his advisers were basically reading from this 2011 playbook. For example:

So they had a plan. It was just a plan for a different kind of virus.

Earlier in the document, it says:

In the early stages of the influenza pandemic, it is unlikely to be possible to assess with any accuracy the severity and impact of the illness caused by the virus. There will be some information available from other countries but the uncertainty about the quality of information that is available and its applicability to the UK will mean that the initial response will need to reflect the levels of risk based on this limited evidence. Good quality data from early cases arising in the UK is essential in further informing and tailoring the response.

As far as I can see, none of this actually applied to the Coronavirus. There was plenty of good-quality evidence coming from China relatively early in the outbreak. The virus was sequenced early and the data made widely available worldwide. The UK government’s advisers must have known from the Chinese experience that this was a really big deal. In which case those early blustery assurances from Johnson, Hancock & Co (“taking it on the chin” and so on) now, in hindsight, take on a grimly ironic tone. They sound like a pack of amateurs auditioning for the school play. But some of their advisers don’t come out of it too well either. Here, for example, is David Halpern, a psychologist who heads the government’s Behavioural Insights Team, raving on BBC News:

“There’s going to be a point, assuming the epidemic flows and grows, as we think it probably will do, where you’ll want to cocoon, you’ll want to protect those at-risk groups so that they basically don’t catch the disease and by the time they come out of their cocooning, herd immunity’s been achieved in the rest of the population.”

None of this is any consolation at the moment. But it at least helps to explain why the government’s response to the crisis has been such a shambles. Johnson always wanted to be Churchill. Well, now he’s got his Dunkirk moment.


Some good news

A new rapid diagnostic test for COVID-19, developed by a University of Cambridge spinout company and capable of diagnosing the infection in under 90 minutes, is being deployed at Cambridge hospitals, ahead of being launched in hospitals nationwide.


Being together alone

This is just wonderful IMHO

Musicians: Cello Octet Amsterdam featuring Maki Namekawa Music: Part III from the Hours Suite by Philip Glass Arranged by Michael Riesman

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Thanks to GDV for the link


Quarantine diary — Day 12

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Wednesday 1 April, 2020

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On this day…

… in 1976, Apple was founded by these three guys.

Left to right: Steve Wozniak (‘Woz’), Steve Jobs, Ron Wayne

Ron who? Ronald Wayne co-founded Apple Computer Company (now Apple Inc.) as a partnership with Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, providing administrative oversight and documentation for the new venture. Twelve days later, he sold his 10% share of the new company back to Jobs and Wozniak for US$800, and one year later accepted a final US$1,500 to forfeit any potential future claims against the newly legally incorporated Apple, totaling $2,300.

Apple’s Market Cap (total valuation) today is $1.113 trillion. Looks like Ron (who’s now 85) sold his 10% at a heavy discount.


David Silver wins the ACM Computing prize

He’s a Professor at University College London and a Principal Research Scientist at DeepMind and a central figure in the area of deep reinforcement learning. His most highly publicized achievement was leading the team that developed AlphaGo, the computer program that defeated Lee Sedol, the world champion of the game Go. Silver developed the AlphaGo algorithm by combining ideas from deep-learning, reinforcement-learning, traditional tree-search and large-scale computing. (And also Google-scale cloud computing, I guess.)

The Prize is awarded for an early to mid-career fundamental innovative contribution in computing that, through its depth, impact and broad implications, exemplifies the greatest achievements in the discipline. It comes with $250,000.


Peter Sinclair RIP

The economist Peter Sinclair has died of Covid-19. My colleague Diane Coyle has a lovely tribute to him on her blog.

My memories are typical of those people are emailing. I pitched up at Brasenose College, Oxford to read PPE at the age of 17, completely out of my depth socially and intellectually, although pretty sure I was going to become a philosopher and sit in a Parisian cafe all day reading and writing. Peter’s absolute vocation for teaching, his brilliance, his kindness, soon turned me into an economist. He’d sent pre-reading before we turned up – Roy Harrod’s biography of Keynes for instance (this pre-dated the publication of the Skidelsky books). In the first term all his students were driven in batches of four for afternoon tea at the Feathers Hotel in Woodstock. One of our group came from Kenya and Peter tried a bit of conversation in Swahili – my first experience with his knowledge of at least one phrase in every language he’d ever encountered.

In tutorials with Peter, even poor essays were kindly treated – one learned to interpret comments such as, “That’s very, very – very – interesting,” as signalling a terrible error. He was a brilliant teacher. His explanation of different social welfare functions is still vivid in my mind. He eviscerated the inefficiencies of the CAP by pointing out that at the time the EEC butter mountain weighed more than the population of Austria. He responded to any sign of mild student interest in anything by sending one off with additional readings, perfectly pitched, and embracing everything from classics to the latest books and papers. He scheduled one-to-one tutorials over breakfast in the cafe in Oxford market if one was very interested. He knew everything: whenever I’ve discussed any subject with him over the years, he was able to cite the entire literature and send me scurrying off to catch up on all the references. In meetings, he would listen carefully to the discussion then chip in with some deep and important point.

He was clearly a wonderful teacher and a very nice man.


Why weren’t we ready?

Terrific investigation by Harry Lambert.

On its website, MI5, the home security service, states that terrorism is “the biggest national security threat that the UK currently faces” but that conclusion is not supported by the National Risk Register. This is a document “given no publicity at all”, according to David Spiegelhalter, professor of risk at Cambridge University. While it is true that terror attacks are considered to be more probable than a pandemic, they are classified as only having a Level 3 impact. Other key threats – cyber attacks on infrastructure, widespread flooding, a nationwide blackout – are all rated as both less likely and less impactful than a severe pandemic.

Covid-19 is that pandemic. That it is a novel virus and the government’s plans were for influenza is “immaterial”, says David Alexander, professor of disaster risk reduction at University College London. The coronavirus closely resembles the threat anticipated in government planning documents, of a highly infectious respiratory disease that critically hospitalises between one and four per cent of those it infects. And yet the government appears to have been unprepared. The UK lacks ventilators, personal protective equipment and testing kits, while emergency procedures for manufacturers and hospitals are being improvised on the fly.

The longer this goes on, and the more we begin to learn, the worse this looks for the government machine. No wonder some of my friends on the Continent are incredulous and aghast. They thought the UK was a well-governed state. Or maybe what we’re finding — e.g. about the UK struggling to do 7,000 tests a day while Germany does half a million a day — is that the British state simply lacks the capacity to do what it needs to do. And that has to be at least partly due to the attempts by various Tory administrations (I’m looking at you, George Osborne) to “shrink the state”.


Quarantine diary — Day 11

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Tuesday 31 March, 2020

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The impending haircut crisis

Infographic: UK lockdown causes surge in DIY haircuts? | Statista

Source

Next step: corner the market in pudding basins.

The blogging renaissance

As I suspected, good things are stirring in the blogosphere as the world contemplates the unthinkable present. Two recent additions to my personal list. Om Malik is now a partner at a Silicon Valley-based early-stage venture capital group. But before that he was the founder of Gigaom, an early technology blog. He’s now started a new curatorial blog, “Coronavirus Pandemic: Notable & Smart Reads”. And Cory Doctorow (whom God preserve), having left Boing Boing after 19 years has started *pluralistic, which is, among other things — including a newsletter and a more conventional tumblr blog— an imaginative and illuminating daily link-blog. Cory has never done anything in his life that hasn’t made me stop and think. And he’s still doing it — see this post in which he contrasts the simplicity of the form you have to fill in to get a $32B bailout for your duff airline with the complexity of the form you have to complete to get food stamps.


How the pandemic will end

It looks as though the U.S. may end up with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the industrialized world. This long essay by Ed Yong in the Atlantic is one of the best pieces I’ve read so far.

With little room to surge during a crisis, America’s health-care system operates on the assumption that unaffected states can help beleaguered ones in an emergency. That ethic works for localized disasters such as hurricanes or wildfires, but not for a pandemic that is now in all 50 states. Cooperation has given way to competition; some worried hospitals have bought out large quantities of supplies, in the way that panicked consumers have bought out toilet paper.

Partly, that’s because the White House is a ghost town of scientific expertise. A pandemic-preparedness office that was part of the National Security Council was dissolved in 2018. On January 28, Luciana Borio, who was part of that team, urged the government to “act now to prevent an American epidemic,” and specifically to work with the private sector to develop fast, easy diagnostic tests. But with the office shuttered, those warnings were published in The Wall Street Journal, rather than spoken into the president’s ear. Instead of springing into action, America sat idle…

Ed also looks at one of things that everybody seems to placing bets on — the ‘immunity’ that people who have mild versions of the disease will have after they’ve recovered. But it may not be as simple as we (or, at any rate, I) had supposed.

When people are infected by the milder human coronaviruses that cause cold-like symptoms, they remain immune for less than a year. By contrast, the few who were infected by the original SARS virus, which was far more severe, stayed immune for much longer. Assuming that SARS-CoV-2 lies somewhere in the middle, people who recover from their encounters might be protected for a couple of years. To confirm that, scientists will need to develop accurate serological tests, which look for the antibodies that confer immunity. They’ll also need to confirm that such antibodies actually stop people from catching or spreading the virus. If so, immune citizens can return to work, care for the vulnerable, and anchor the economy during bouts of social distancing.

This piece tells a depressing, scary story. It seems inconceivable that such a powerful and rich country could fail to overcome this challenge. And there is one important thing that makes the US different from almost every other country in the world — the 270m guns held by its citizens. So if things really get bad and public order breaks down, then who knows…?


And this virus might be just the first in a longer line

Scientific American has a fascinating article on Wuhan-based virologist Shi Zhengli, a distinguished researcher who has identified dozens of deadly SARS-like viruses in bat caves, and who warns there are more out there.


Quarantine diary — Day 10

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