Saturday 15 February, 2020

Quote of the Day

“If there are three kinds of people—those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who never knew what hit them — neoliberals belong to the first category and most progressives to the latter two. The left remained complacent until, suddenly, it was too late.”

  • Susan George, “How to Win the War of Ideas: Lessons of the Gramscian Right”. #

Correlation vs causation and the sudden departure of the World Bank’s Chief Economist

Well, well. This from the Economist:

When autocratic, oil-rich nations enjoy a windfall from higher crude prices, where does the money go? One place to look is Swiss bank accounts. Sure enough, an increase in oil prices is followed by a spike in deposits held by these countries in financial havens, according to a 2017 paper by Jorgen Juel Andersen of bi Norwegian Business School, Niels Johannesen of the University of Copenhagen and their co-authors.

When Mr Johannesen presented this result at the World Bank in 2015, the audience included Bob Rijkers, a member of the bank’s research group. The two of them joined forces with Mr Andersen to investigate if something similar happened after another kind of windfall: infusions of aid from foreign donors. Their conclusion was dispiriting. World Bank payouts to 22 aid-dependent countries during 1990-2010 were followed by a jump in their deposits in foreign financial havens. The leaks averaged about 5% of the bank’s aid to these countries.

Rijkers reports to the Bank’s Chief Economist, Penny Goldberg. Normally these kinds of working papers are published. But this particular one hasn’t been — yet. And there are rumours that it has been held back because it is, well, embarrassing to find that 5% of the Bank’s aid might be going to the Swiss bank accounts of corrupt politicians. After all, correlation doesn’t mean causation. But now Ms Goldberg is leaving and going back to Yale. Correlation or causation?


Could the Coronavirus Help Make China More Free?

Intriguing paradoxes about China raised by Tyler Cowen in his Bloomberg column. On the one hand, being an authoritarian state means it can take decisive action — like quarantining 11m people. But what if public opinion as expressed on social media gets so torrential that it overpowers the capacity of the censors?


Northern Ireland’s future in a single chart

Source


Friday 14 February, 2020

Bloomberg is going after Trump on his home turf: Facebook

He spent more than $1 million a day on average during the past two weeks on Facebook, according to data compiled by NBC News. The thing is: with a net worth of $61B, he can easily afford to outspend Trump. At one level, this might be reassuring. At another, it’s deeply depressing: it means that only billionaires can play at democracy in the US now. We’re really in Larry Lessig’s Lesterland.


Are unsecured cafe wi-fi networks deliberately hostile to VPNs?

I’m in Bill’s cafe in Cambridge, which offers ‘free’ Wi-Fi — which of course I don’t trust. So I switch on my VPN to find that, mysteriously, it can’t connect to its server. And I’m wondering if this is just some kind of glitch, or a policy by the firm that provides the Wi-Fi. After all, they don’t want clients sending communications that are encrypted and therefore inscrutable for advertising and tracking purposes. In this stuff, only the paranoid survive.


Inside the mind of Dominic Cummings

Cummings is now the UK’s de facto project manager, but what does he actually believe? In a bid to find out, Stefan Collini read (almost) everything Cummings has written in the last decade. His report is fascinating, insightful and thought-provoking. I can say that because I too have been reading Cummings for years. When I say that to people in Cambridge, though, they start to back away — as if I had revealed that I was interested in UFOs. They view Cummings through a blinding haze of visceral dislike. So it’s nice to see a real heavyweight (Collini has written great stuff on CP Snow, the neoliberal ‘reform’ of UK universities and public intellectuals) taking Cummings seriously. Well worth reading in full.


I stumbled across a huge Airbnb scam that’s taking over London

Wonderful piece of investigative reporting by James Temperton in Wired. I don’t use Airbnb but I know lots of people — especially younger folk — who do. Wonder how many of them have bad experiences?


A taxonomy of privacy

Landmark 2006 article by Daniel Solove in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. I love the way it begins:

Privacy is a concept in disarray. Nobody can articulate what it means. As one commentator has observed, privacy suffers from “an embarrassment of meanings.”

Yep. And that’s still true — fourteen years later.

Tuesday 11 February, 2020

Quote of the Day

”I have the feeling that I’ve seen everything, but failed to notice the elephants”

  • Anton Chekhov

Another reason why people buy SUVs

Apropos my post the other day about why people buy SUVs, I received this interesting email from a reader:

The other reason people buy SUVs is because they have been involved in an accident.

My wife was hit by a pick up truck head on doing 55 mph in a 25 mph zone, which totaled the car, shattered her wrist, but thankfully didn’t damage the 8-week-old in the back. She’s been nervous in cars ever since now.

So it’s not that she doesn’t trust her driving skills, it’s that she doesn’t trust the other drivers on the road (which in DC is probably a fair assessment. The driving test is a joke, you can pass it easily, and that’s assuming the person who hits you has a license. In the 8 times we’ve been hit, 3 times the driver swapped seats with the passenger, and the other one was uninsured).

Touché.


Tech Has Drained the Reality Out of Our Real Lives

Lovely essay by Jenny Judge on how, for most people, the deficiencies of their analogue photographs inadvertently reinforced the vitality of real life, whereas modern digital cameras now create a superior virtual world we don’t feel good enough for.

But the inescapable shoddiness of our amateur photographs served an important purpose, beyond the obvious one of discouraging narcissism, and it was this: Through its very mediocrity, each image told us that the real world was better than the one it depicted. We were made aware of the richness, the vividness, the sheer reality of our actual lives simply in being shown that our virtual lives were wan and insubstantial. Each of our badly framed, overexposed pictures served as an incentive to seek out the real world. Similarly, the fragmentary bootleg was a reason to go to the video store or, better still, to the cinema; the disappointing tape-recording likewise sent us in search of the CD and the live show.

Perceptive stuff. Worth reading in full.


Sunday 9 February, 2020

George Steiner: an appreciation

I knew and liked George Steiner, who died on Monday last at the age of 90. The *Observer asked me to wrote an appreciation of him. Here’s a sample:

I first met George in the 1980s, when I was a TV critic. At the time, Channel 4 was running a high-IQ chatshow called Voices, in which the host, the poet and critic Al Alvarez, batted around ideas with a panel of prominent public intellectuals. One evening, I watched, mesmerised, as George fluently extemporised for 10 whole minutes – without notes, hesitation or much repetition – on the question of whether an authoritarian political system can produce more artistic creativity than the “free” west.

My review included a riff on a literary phenomenon – the Steiner sentence – a formidable expressive work that came, perfectly formed, with an ancillary apparatus of footnotes, subordinate clauses and scholarly asides, and went on long after the programme had come to an end, the lights had been switched off and the entire production crew had gone home to bed. And having dispatched the review, I too switched off and went to bed.

A few days later, a postcard arrived from George inviting me to lunch at the Green Man in Grantchester, where we had an enjoyable, convivial conversation…

Do read the whole thing


Democrats should have seen their Iowa tech meltdown coming

Today’s Observer column:

Who needs the Russians when the Democratic party of Iowa is perfectly capable of screwing up the democratic process all by itself? The political world waited on Monday night with bated breath to see which of the Democratic candidates would emerge from the arcane “caucus” process in the state. But when the polls closed, no results were available.

There were, the party, stated, “inconsistencies” in the reported figures coming through from the precincts. No results would be issued until the results had been properly and accurately collated. The information was to have come from a recently developed smartphone app, with a back-up option that would enable precinct captains to phone in their results. Neither channel worked. CNN reported that one official who was trying to report his results was on hold for an hour and had apparently just got through to party headquarters when the party hung up on him – on live television. It was, to use a technical term, a shambles…

Read on


Events, dear Mr Xi, events

Harold Macmillan’s timeless reply to the journalist who asked him what kept him awake at night (“Events, dear boy, events.”), keeps coming to mind. I’m wondering now if the Corona virus, and in particular popular anger at the harassment and death of Li Wenliang — the young doctor who first raised the possibility that a new virus was loose might — in the end, lead to the downfall of the current Great Leader, Winnie the Pooh, as he is satirically known.

In that context, there’s an interesting piece in today’s Observer:

“The fallout from the spread of the potentially deadly coronavirus is already grim”, writes Richard McGregor,

most immediately in the form of a reeling Chinese economy that is having to temporarily sever supply lines to factories and retail outlets around the world. China has been responsible for about one-third of global growth in recent years, a greater share than the US, and any slowdown in its economy will be felt across the world.

But the greatest focus is on what Li alluded to when he complained about the country being ruled by “one voice”, which Chinese people would immediately recognise as a barb directed at Xi Jinping. Xi has swept all enemies, real and imagined, aside since taking over as Communist party chief in late 2012 and made many more along the way.

Powerful families and moneyed interests toppled by his relentless anti-corruption campaign will never forgive him and are lying in wait for revenge. Equally, many of the technocratic elite have been alienated by his illiberal economic policies and his assertiveness overseas, which they blame for triggering a concerted pushback in Washington.

Much of their anger was captured in a single moment that embodied their fears that Xi is taking the country backwards – his decision in early 2018 to do away with term limits and make himself leader in perpetuity.

I was talking to a China expert last night who believes that the thing that terrifies local Chinese Communist party bosses is that the people will one day become really pissed off with them.

Eventually Xi will discover that nothing lasts forever. In the end the real Winnie the Pooh’s grip on the popular imagination will outlast him.


Friday 7 February, 2020

The Digital Dictators: How technology strengthens autocracies

Sobering reading for recovering Utopians (like me). From Foreign Affairs:

Led by China, today’s digital autocracies are using technology—the Internet, social media, AI—to supercharge long-standing authoritarian survival tactics. They are harnessing a new arsenal of digital tools to counteract what has become the most significant threat to the typical authoritarian regime today: the physical, human force of mass antigovernment protests. As a result, digital autocracies have grown far more durable than their pre-tech predecessors and their less technologically savvy peers. In contrast to what technology optimists envisioned at the dawn of the millennium, autocracies are benefiting from the Internet and other new technologies, not falling victim to them.

Long essay. Worth reading in full.


Why do people buy SUVs?

I’ve often wondered about this, and concluded that SUV owners are either arrogant or frightened, or both. An interesting piece in Vice suggests that I was on the right track. It draws on Keith Bradsher’s examination of “how the auto industry convinced millions of Americans to buy vehicles that were more dangerous (for themselves and other people on the road), got worse gas mileage, were worse for the environment, and got them to pay a premium for the privilege of doing so.“ It succeeded because the industry mounted “quite possibly the most sophisticated marketing operations on the planet.” The image of prospective SUV purchasers that emerged from the research was deeply unattractive — and, reassuringly, correlated with my own hunches. That portrait is largely the result of one consultant who worked for Chrysler, Ford, and GM during the SUV boom: Clotaire Rapaille.

Rapaille, a French emigree, believed the SUV appealed—at the time to mostly upper-middle class suburbanites—to a fundamental subconscious animalistic state, our “reptilian desire for survival,” as relayed by Bradsher. (“We don’t believe what people say,” the website for Rapaille’s consulting firm declares. Instead, they use “a unique blend of biology, cultural anthropology and psychology to discover the hidden cultural forces that pre-organize the way people behave towards a product, service or concept”). Americans were afraid, Rapaille found through his exhaustive market research, and they were mostly afraid of crime even though crime was actually falling and at near-record lows. As Bradsher wrote, “People buy SUVs, he tells auto executives, because they are trying to look as menacing as possible to allay their fears of crime and other violence.” They, quite literally, bought SUVs to run over “gang members” with, Rapaille found.

And it turned out that the auto industry’s own studies agreed with this general portrait of SUV buyers. Bradsher described that portrait, comprised of marketing reports from the major automakers, as follows:

Who has been buying SUVs since automakers turned them into family vehicles? They tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors or communities.

I knew it! It’s always nice to have one’s prejudices confirmed.


Remembering George Steiner

George died last Monday at the ripe old age of 90. I knew and liked him and have written an appreciation which is coming out in next Sunday’s Observer. Adam Gopnik has a nice tribute to him on the New Yorker site:

It was part of the genuine, and not merely patrician, seriousness of his view to see the war years as a fundamental rupture not just in history but in our faith in culture: educated people did those things to other educated people. It was not ignorant armies clashing by night that shivered George Steiner’s soul; it was intelligent Germans who listened to Schubert murdering educated Jews who had trusted in Goethe, and by the train load. This recognition of the limits of culture to change the world was the limiting condition on his love of literature, and it was what gave that love a darker and more tragic cast than any mere proselytizing for “great books” could supply.

May he rest in peace.


How public intellectuals can extend their shelf lives

Useful rules from Tyler Cowen, who knows a thing or two about this.


Why I won’t be upgrading to Catalina any time soon

From Jon Gruber:

Then I think about software. And that means thinking about MacOS 10.15 Catalina. And those thoughts are not good. Off the top of my head I’m hard pressed to think of anything in Catalina that’s an improvement over 10.14 Mojave, and I can think of a lot of things that are worse. I get it that security and convenience are at odds, and it’s a difficult job for Apple to find the balanced sweet spot between the two. But Catalina clearly bends too far in the direction of security. By design, it’s just too inconvenient, with apps generating system-level alerts prompting for permission for things as rudimentary as being able to see the files on my desktop — sometimes when those apps are in the background, and I know that at the moment the alert appears those apps are not trying to read files on my desktop. But why in the world is the desktop treated as some sort of sensitive location?

Back in 2007 Apple ran a “Get a Mac” commercial mocking Windows Vista for this exact same sort of overzealous permission nagging. That’s exactly what Catalina feels like.

I think I’ll sit this upgrade out and wait for the next one.


Tuesday 4 February, 2020

Newton’s notebook

The young Isaac Newton was a painstaking recorder of his expenditure, probably because he was relatively poor. This is one of his early notebooks, where he records his expenditure on frivolous ‘sweetmeats’ — as sugary treats were then called.

This particular notebook is included in the Fitzwilliam Museum’s current (and fascinating) Feast and Fast: the Art of Food in Europe 1500-1800 exhibition.


Surprise, surprise! There are lots of scammers on Airbnb

Good Vice investigation reveals what a lot of people already know:

The stories quickly started to fall into easily discernible categories. Scammers all over the world, it seems, have figured how best to game the Airbnb platform: by engaging in bait and switches; charging guests for fake damages; persuading people to pay outside the Airbnb app; and, when all else fails, engaging in clumsy or threatening demands for five-star reviews to hide the evidence of what they’ve done. (Or, in some cases, a combination of several of these scams.)

The article has an interesting list of the ways people (hosts as well as guests) can be scammed. And, to be fair, Airbnb seems to be willing to accept some responsibility for the bad stuff that goes on on their platform. In that sense, it provides a welcome contrast to Facebook.


Talk, don’t fly

One predictable consequence of Corona. “Zoom Video Stock Soars as Coronavirus Travel Bans Boost Focus on Videoconferencing.”

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Towards another Facebook Presidential election

Four reasons that make Frederic Filloux believe that we are heading towards another American Presidential Election swayed by Facebook.

  1. Mark Zuckerberg’s stubbornness in exonerating political advertising from any fact-checking process. In short: any false statement showing up in a newsfeed can be debunked by either Facebook team or any TPFC (third-party fact-checking) it relies on and taken down. But if the same statement appears in a paid-political ad, it is allowed to stay (unless it points to previously debunked fake news).
  2. There is no change of Facebook’s core principle, which is to reward emotion, and incendiary statements — a principle that clearly favors right-wing rhetoric (starting with Donald Trump). Facebook never considers altering its algorithm to spotlight high qualityand more even-keeled content. The reason is that it brings less engagement, which is at the core of Facebook’s economics.
  3. Unlike 2016, this time, Facebook has a vested interest in seeing Democrats lose. Whoever the nominee be, he or she will go after Facebook, at least with severe regulation and at worse with an attempt to break the companies’ holdings up.
  4. Trump digital campaign is running on full throttle compared to Democrats’. In the exact same scenario as 2016, the Trump campaign is spending heavily on social media and runs 3x more ads than Pete Buttigieg and 7x more than Elizabeth Warren, who is following Hillary Clinton’s path: in 2016, while Trump was flooding voters with 6 million different ads, HRC ran only 66,000 different versions of its message. Toyda, the numbers are staggering: according to a detailed investigation published last week by the Guardian, the Trump campaign spent $19.4m on 218,100 different Facebook ads in 2019, which were seen between 633m and 1.3bn times.

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Climate models are running hot — and nobody knows why.

Fascinating Bloomberg report. It’s not just one model, but lots of the major ones. They’re starting to predict much higher temperatures. And at the moment, there’s no consensus in the climate-research community about why this is happening. Is it just a quirk of these very complex models? Or the result of interactions that nobody’s understood? It’s a bit like the problem of inexplicable machine-learning systems. Only more worrying.


Sunday 2 February, 2020

The iPad: ten years on and still a work in progress

This morning’s Observer column

while the iPad I use today is significantly better and more functional than its 2010 predecessor, it’s still not a replacement for a laptop. Anything that involves multitasking – combining content from a variety of applications, for example – is clumsy and nonintuitive on the iPad, whereas it’s a breeze on a Mac. Given that user-interface design has traditionally been one of Apple’s great strengths, this clumsiness is strange and disappointing. Somewhere along the line, as veteran Apple-watcher John Gruber puts it, the designers made “profound conceptual mistakes in the iPad user interface, mistakes that need to be scrapped and replaced, not polished and refined”. Steve Jobs’s tablet may have come a long way, but it’s still a work in progress.

Do read the entire piece


A Republic if they could keep it. Looks like they couldn’t

As the farcical Senate Impeachment ‘trial’ just concluded what kept running through my mind was the story of what Benjamin Franklin said as he was leaving the Constitutional Convention of 1787 on the final day of deliberation. A woman asked him “Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” To which Franklin famously replied, “A republic . . . if you can keep it.”

By acquitting Trump, the Senate seems to have confirmed the failure of that attempt. Trump is now effectively a monarch, floating above the law. So, one wonders, what happens next? As a habitual offender, he will undoubtedly commit more crimes. As a sitting President, it seems that he cannot be indicted by the normal processes of law enforcement. For him, Congress is the only constitutional authority that can punish him. But this Congress spectacularly refused to do so. So unless the Republicans lose control of the Senate in November, Trump will be entirely free of legal restraints. And supposing he loses (unlikely prospect at present), would he actually stand down? And in that eventuality, who would physically remove him from the White House?

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Presidential power and the Net

Further to the above thoughts about the untrammelled misuse of Presidential power, Jessica Rosenworcel, who is an FCC Commissioner, gave a sobering keynote address to the FCC’s ‘State of the Net’ conference in Washington on January 28.

She began by describing what’s currently going on in Kashmir, where the Indian government has cut off Internet connection for the 7 million people who live in that disputed territory. In one vivid passage, she described how Kashmiris are coping with this blackout:

Every morning like clockwork hundreds of passengers cram into a train out of the valley for a 70-mile journey to the nearest town with a connection. They are packed so tightly that they can barely move. If all goes well, they will be back before nightfall. Kashmiris have dubbed the train the “Internet Express.” It carries people hoping to renew driver’s licenses, apply for passports, fill out admission forms, check e-mail, and register for school exams. This is how they keep up with modern life, thanks to the shutdown.

Then Commissioner Rosenworcel turns to her audience:

Now if you are thinking this does not concern you because all of this is happening a world away, I understand. After all, the shutdown in the Kashmir Valley followed from the state invoking the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, a law that dates to the British colonial era. Moreover, a few weeks ago Indian courts ruled that an indefinite internet shutdown is an abuse of power—although that decision alone does not restore all service. So you might think this is at some distance from what could happen in the United States. But you might want to think again.

Specifically, they might need to take a look at Section 706 of the Communications Act. The Section allows the President to shut down or take control of “any facility or station for wire communication” if he proclaims “that there exists a state or threat of war involving the United States.” With respect to wireless communications, suspending service is permitted not only in a “war or threat of war” but merely if there is a presidential proclamation of a “state of public peril” or simply a “disaster or other national emergency.” There is no requirement in the law for the President to provide any advance notice to Congress.

“This language”, says Rosenworcel,

is undeniably broad. The power it describes is virtually unchecked. So maybe some context will help. The changes to this section of the law about wire communications were made within a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was passed at a time when Congress was laser focused on developing new ways to protect our safety and security.

Now of course Section 706 has not (yet) been applied to the Internet, and when the Act was amended after Pearl Harbor “wire communication” meant telephone calls or telegrams. But remember the bulk of US communications law dates back to 1934 and remains the framework for US communications infrastructure. And she points out that, in a 2010 report, the Senate concluded that Section 706 “gives the President the authority to take over wire communications in the United States and, if the President so chooses, shut a network down.”

So it remains true that if a sitting President wants to shut down the internet or selectively cut off a service, all it takes is an opinion from his Attorney General that Section 706 gives him the authority to do so.

That’s alarming. Because if you believe there are unspoken norms that would prevent us from using Section 706 this way, let me submit to you that past practice may no longer be the best guide for future behavior. Norms are being broken all the time in Washington and relying on them to cabin legal interpretation is not the best way to go.

Which rather puts the Impeachment case in a different light. Shutting down the US Internet would be unthinkable, wouldn’t it? Before nodding your head in vigorous agreement, ask yourself how many ‘unthinkable’ things have happened since Trump took office?


Friday 31 January, 2020

Brexit day!

In the long view of history, it may be that the UK’s membership of the EU was just a 46-year blip. The country has historically always meddled in Europe, but without being part of it. So — for good or ill — this is a reversion to normal.

Ironically, though, if the Referendum were held now, the result might be different. John Curtice, the UK’s pre-eminent pollster, writes:

Two questions inevitably arise. The first is where does the public stand on the merits or otherwise of the decision to leave? Did the Conservatives’ success in the general election affirm the result of the 2016 referendum in which a majority (52%) voted to Leave? The second is what kind of future relationship with the EU do voters – on both sides of the argument – hope will emerge from the talks on that relationship that will now be instigated between the UK and the EU?

Polling of how people say they would vote in another referendum still suggests – as it has done throughout the last two years – that the outcome of a referendum on Brexit held now would be different from the one that emerged from the ballot boxes in June 2016. Our poll of polls, based on the six most recent polls of how people would vote in another referendum, on average currently puts Remain on 53%, Leave on 47%.

This is not because polls suggest that there has been any significant change of mind among those who voted Leave. Rather, as shown by our table – which is based on the last six polls of EU referendum vote intention to be conducted before the general election on December 12 – it is primarily because those who did not vote three years ago (some of whom were too young to do so) are around twice as likely to say that they would vote Remain as to state that they would vote Leave. The pattern, whereby over 85% of both Remain and Leave voters say that they would vote the same way but those who did not vote are more inclined to prefer Remain, has repeatedly been in evidence throughout the last year.

In politics, as in in sport, timing is everything.


The authoritarian response to crisis: lockdown, no discussion

The NYT has a fascinating account by writer Ian Johnson of what it’s like to be there at the moment. He lives in a gated compound in Beijing and was trying to get into it when cycling home from a local bar. He found the usual entrances locked.

So I headed toward the north entrance. That one is for pedestrians and has two barriers set slightly apart, just wide enough to get through on foot. That’s O.K., I thought, I can squeeze by with my bike and be home in a few minutes.

I rode around the block, but when I got to the gate I had to slam on the brakes. Someone had taken a dozen ride-share bikes, lashed them together with wire and piled them in between the barriers. Then, for good measure, they’d fastened the heap to the posts with more wire, making it into some sort of postmodern commentary on our hyper-mobile society.

He went round to the entrance for cars, to find it blocked by guards who interrogated him but eventually let him through. Back at his apartment he was visited by two people from the apartment block management who gave him a helpful document from the local Communist Party district committee. “Do seek help”, it began

Do listen to the local government. Do keep warm. Do stay at home. Do avoid contact. Do wash your hands. Don’t spit. Don’t exert yourself too much. Don’t associate with people who’ve recently arrived from the infected area around the megacity of Wuhan. On the back was a list of all the Communist Party street committees and their phone numbers.

“The German language”, Mr Johnson reflects, “has a hyper-specific word for this phenomenon: ‘Aktionismus,’ literally Actionism, or action for action’s sake.”

What I was witnessing was Aktionismus in the face of a problem that required a sensitive response involving public trust. But since the Chinese government cannot elicit either of those things, I was seeing the compensatory flailing-around of a state with no other options.

Instead of having an adult conversation with the population about the virus and putting in place reasonable policies that have been used effectively elsewhere, the Chinese state has gone into full lockdown mode. This demonstrates one of those truisms from political science: Authoritarian governments are like people who don’t have any fingers but do possess two thumbs. They can take forceful actions but can’t fine-tune the levers of government.

So what is this about? Johnson thinks it’s about trust, or, rather, mistrust — which means that

it’s hard for the government to say what many epidemiologists are saying: This outbreak is serious but not catastrophic. Because if the state leveled with the people, it would also have to admit that there is no need for this degree of social control. Fewer than 200 people were reported to have died as of Thursday evening, in a country of nearly 1.4 billion, and there is no indication that we are at the start of a Hollywood disaster-style movie.

The government’s inability to formulate a measured response will turn this outbreak into a direct successor of the SARS epidemic. That hardly was a huge public health disaster — fewer than 800 deaths — yet it has taken on a legendary reputation as a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions, one that should never be allowed to recur.

Sounds plausible. We’ll just have to see if he’s right.


Web scraping is Now legal

In late 2019, the US Court of Appeals denied LinkedIn’s request to prevent HiQ, an analytics company, from scraping its data. If it stands, looks like an historic judgment, but LinkedIn can still appeal to the Supreme Court (which is under no obligation to take it). The judgment says that any data that is publicly available and not copyrighted is fair game for web crawlers. But there are still restrictions on use of scraped data for commercial purposes (see the Clearview problem)


Thursday 30 January, 2020

Warren Buffett gives up on the news business

He’s selling Berkshire Hathaway’s newspapers to Lee Enterprises. You can guess what he thinks about the prospects for journalism. NYT


Social media will impair society’s ability to control the Corona epidemic

“’It plays to our worst fears’: Coronavirus misinformation fuelled by social media” This is one of the under-appreciated threats posed by social media. And it can be weaponised by bad actors.

And, right on cue, here’s the first report

“Baseless stories claiming that the two scientists are Chinese spies and that they smuggled the coronavirus to China’s only Level 4 lab in Wuhan last year have been spreading on all major social media platforms and on conspiracy theorist blogs. One article from a conspiracy blog was shared more than 6,000 times on Facebook on Monday. “


Global (dis)Satisfaction with Democracy Report

My colleague David Runciman launched his new Centre for the Future of Democracy last night with the presentation of a pathbreaking survey of citizens’ confidence (or lack thereof) in their democracies. The report aims to provide a comprehensive answer to questions regarding one measure of democratic legitimacy – satisfaction with democracy – by combining data from almost all available survey sources.

It’s based on a huge dataset which combined more than 25 data sources, 3,500 country surveys, and 4 million respondents between 1973 and 2020 in which citizens were asked whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with democracy in their countries. Using this combined, pooled dataset, the researchers now have a time-series for almost 50 years in Western Europe, and 25 years for the rest of the world.

Among their findings are:

  • Dissatisfaction with democracy has risen over time, and is reaching an all-time global high, in particular in developed democracies.
  • The rise in democratic dissatisfaction has been especially sharp since 2005.
  • Many large democracies are at their highest-ever recorded level for democratic dissatisfaction. These include the United States, Brazil, Mexico, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Colombia, and Australia. Other countries that remain close to their all-time highs include Japan, Spain, and Greece.
  • Citizens’ levels of dissatisfaction with democracy are largely responsive to objective circumstances and events – economic shocks, corruption scandals, and policy crises. These have an immediately observable effect upon average levels of civic dissatisfaction.
  • The picture is not entirely negative. Many small, high-income democracies have moved in the direction of greater civic confidence in their institutions. In Ireland, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, for example, democratic satisfaction is reaching all-time highs. These countries form part of the “island of contentment” – a select group of nations, containing just 2% of the world’s democratic citizenry, in which less than a quarter of the public express discontent with their political system.

The results are sobering. Since the mid-1990s, the proportion of citizens who are “dissatisfied” with the performance of democracy in their countries has risen by almost 10 percentage points globally. The deterioration has been especially deep in high-income, “consolidated” democracies, where the proportion has risen from a third to half of all citizens.

From the Report’s Conclusions…

If satisfaction with democracy is now falling across many of the world’s largest mature and emerging democracies – including the United States, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and South Africa – it is not because citizens’ expectations are excessive or unrealistic, but because democratic institutions are falling short of the outcomes that matter most for their legitimacy, including probity in office, upholding the rule of law, responsiveness to public concerns, ensuring economic and financial security, and raising living standards for the larger majority of society. Our analysis suggests that citizens are rational in their view of political institutions, updating their assessment in response to what they observe. If confidence in democracy has been slipping, then the most likely explanation is that democratically elected governments have not been seen to succeed in addressing some of the major challenges of our era, including economic co-ordination in the eurozone, the management of refugee flows, and providing a credible response to the threat of global climate change. The best means of restoring democratic legitimacy would be for this to change.