Tuesday 13 October, 2020


Quote of the Day

”One man is as good as another until he has written a book.”

  • Benjamin Jowett

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Leo Kottke: Snorkel

Link


Boris Johnson’s latest Covid strategy: no hope and no end in sight

John Crace on Boris Johnson’s day in Parliament:

Johnson looked knackered before he even started. His complexion even more pallid than usual and his eyes mere pinpricks. For a moment it looked as if the narcissist had been confronted with his own sense of futility. A situation that he couldn’t bend to his will, no matter how delusional the thought process. He is cornered by hubris: a man hating every second of his life but condemned to experience its unforgiving horror. Not even the health secretary could be bothered to attend to watch this latest meltdown.

“We have taken a balanced approach,” Johnson began. As in he was too slow to react back in March with the result that the government has one of the world’s highest death tolls. As in he did next to nothing during the summer when we had a chance to prepare for autumn. As in he actively encouraged people to go back to work for weeks before switching to advise them against it. As in unlocking the north at the same time as the south, even though infection rates in the north remained higher. That kind of balanced.

What Boris had to offer now was a new three-tier approach. Bad, very bad and very, very bad. Bad would apply to most of the country and would involve people doing pretty much what they had been doing for the last couple of months. Rule of six and all that.

Very bad would mean that those areas that had already been under the more stringent lockdown restrictions would remain so, though if you wanted to meet a few friends outdoors in the garden for a beer to let each other know how depressed you were feeling you now could. And very, very bad meant that you could only see your mates if you happened to be in the pub at the same time and order five Cornish pasties to go with your bottle of scotch.


NYT ‘The Daily’ podcast’s view on the prospects for the vaccine

From the transcript of the Wednesday, October 7, edition.

Presenter: As update on the state of the coronavirus in the U.S. I check back in with Times science reporter, Donald G. McNeil, Jr.

Donald, you recently sent me an email that pretty much stopped me in my tracks. Because in it, you said that you were optimistic about the course of the pandemic. And that is not a word that I associate with either you or the pandemic. And it immediately made me think that we needed to talk.

McNeil: I am short term, right now — fall and winter — pessimistic. I think things are going to get worse.

But since I’ve been saying since April or so that this epidemic is not going to be over by Easter, this epidemic is not going to be over by fall, and that, you know, the record for making the vaccine is four years, I now have new optimism about how fast I expect vaccines and other interventions to get here, and how quickly that will bring the pandemic to an end in the United States…

Interesting. McNeil is very well informed. And he was ahead of the curve in the early days. Basically, he thinks there may be workable vaccines (plural) by the Spring on 2021 — and that people will be willing to take them.

Presenter: In our conversations with colleagues like Jan Hoffman, we have established that there is a considerable amount of skepticism around vaccines in general — and especially this coming set of vaccines — because of how much politics has surrounded them.

McNeil: Yeah. And I agree with that skepticism. I mean, if a vaccine is approved before Election Day, and it is approved by only one man — I’m Donald J. Trump and I approve this vaccine — then I’m a skeptic and I’m not going to take it. But when I see vaccines that are okayed by Tony Fauci and Paul Offit and Francis Collins and Peter Hotez and all the vaccine experts that you often see quoted on television, then I’m going to be one of the first in line to get it.

And what will probably happen, I think, is that a lot of people will be skeptical. And then they’ll look around at their friends and neighbors who take the vaccine. And assuming nothing goes wrong, and that’s an assumption, but assuming nothing goes wrong, they’ll go, huh. I can avoid this vaccine for me and my kids that I’m somewhat afraid of. And that means I have to homeschool my kids forever. Never go to a movie. Never get on an airplane. Never eat in a restaurant again. Or I can accept a vaccine. I think I’ll take the vaccine.

He’s probably right.


My new keyboard

I have arthritis in my hands, which is not good news for someone whose job involves writing. What it mostly means, though, is that I’m very sensitive to keyboards. A few weeks ago I decided that I’d had enough of Apple’s latest ‘Magic’ keyboard, and so looked for an alternative. Someone suggested I look at the Logitech MX Keys wireless keyboard, so I bought one. And it’s just terrific. More bulky and clunkier than its Apple predecessor, of course, but quite a joy to use. Highly recommended for writers with delicate fingers.


Facebook to ban content that denies or distorts the Holocaust

From a Guardian report:

Facebook says it is updating its hate speech policy to ban content that denies or distorts the Holocaust.

The decision comes two years after its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said in an interview with the tech website Recode said that while he found Holocaust denial deeply offensive, he did not believe Facebook should delete such content.

“I’ve struggled with the tension between standing for free expression and the harm caused by minimising or denying the horror of the Holocaust,” said Zuckerberg, who is Jewish, in a Facebook post on Monday.

My own thinking has evolved as I’ve seen data showing an increase in antisemitic violence, as have our wider policies on hate speech,” he said.

The social media company said that, starting later this year, it would also direct people searching for terms associated with the Holocaust or its denial to credible information away from the platform.

Nice to know that his ‘thinking’ has “evolved”. I often wonder what exactly is wrong with this guy.


Is science being set up to take the blame?

Ross Anderson, whom God preserve, was puzzled by the failure to protect residents in care homes, and so decided to read the minutes of the SAGE committee whose advice the Prime Minister was supposedly following.

Here’s an excerpt from his terrific blog post reporting what he found.

The big question, though, is why nobody thought of protecting people in care homes. The answer seems to be that SAGE dismissed the problem early on as “too hard” or “not our problem”. On March 5th they note that social distancing for over-65s could save a lot of lives and would be most effective for those living independently: but it would be “a challenge to implement this measure in communal settings such as care homes”. They appear more concerned that “Many of the proposed measures will be easier to implement for those on higher incomes” and the focus is on getting PHE to draft guidance. (This is the meeting at which Dominic Cummings makes his first appearance, so he cannot dump all the blame on the scientists.)

On March 10th, they decide to cocoon the over-70s and medically vulnerable, and advise 7/14 days isolation for people with symptoms / their families. They advise that “special policy consideration be given to care homes and various types of retirement communities” – but note the passive voice, and this doesn’t appear on the list of actions and trigger points on the following page. It’s still somebody else’s problem.

By March 13th, some care homes had already banned visitors without waiting for government advice to do so, and on the same day SAGE decided that the goal was to enable the NHS to meet demand. Two days later, the NHS started clearing 30,000 beds, sending hundreds of infected patients into care homes and causing thousands of deaths.

The next month is consumed with panic about whether the NHS will be swamped by the peak, and it’s only when this subsides that we read on April 14 that more and more cases are acquired in hospital, which have been masking the decline in the community, with a note “Care homes remain a concern. There are less data available from these” – but only as item 10 on the situation update. At last there’s a relevant action: to widen viral sampling in hospitals and care homes. However the committee’s effort is now tied up with the controversy about whether to advise public mask wearing. (It still resists expert advice on this as it doesn’t want to admit that its initial position was wrong.) The meetings on April 16 and 21 are also consumed by the mask debate (on which the early members of the committee, who blocked mask wearing to protect PPE supplies to the NHS, prevailed over the newer members, leaving the UK an outlier).

And Ross’s conclusion?

My experience of university committees makes this all just too painfully familiar. What’s failed here is not the science, but the process of government. The committee started out full of NHS medics and bureaucrats, and lots of theoreticians – modelers aplenty – but there’s still nobody from the care sector. The members focus on the NHS they know and stay in their comfort zone. And now, we might ask, is there anybody with operational experience relevant to running a large testing and tracing programme? Or would it be a waste of time to try to create such a competence in the SAGE environment?

Terrific post.


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Monday 12 October, 2020

From a lovely rural walk yesterday.


Quote of the Day

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and travelled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure”.

  • Oliver Sacks, writing about his forthcoming death

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Liam O’Flynn, Seán Keane, Paddy Glackin, Arty McGlynn & Paul Brady | Gradam Ceoil TG4 2007

Link

Liam O’Flynn was the greatest Irish piper of his generation. Here he is with a group of his peers — Seán Keane (Fiddle), Paddy Glackin (Fiddle), Arty McGlynn (Guitar), Paul Brady (Guitar) and Rod McVeigh (Keyboard) — playing three much-loved reels: The Humours of Carrigaholt, Mayor Harrison’s Fedora and Tommy Peoples’.


Matt Stoller on the House Judiciary Subcommittee’s report on tech monopolists

It’s a huge report (449 pages) and I’m only part-way through it. Matt Stoller, who has written an excellent history of American democracy’s century-long struggle against monopolistic corporate power, has a long piece on his blog about the Report. He agrees with my assessment of its epochal significance and provides a useful precis of some of its more important passages. But, for me, the most interesting part of his blog post comes when he turns to the question of whether it signals the beginning of serious measures to control the tech monopolies.

He thinks there is a real appetite for (and likelihood of) change. Here’s the relevant passage:

So now it’s time for action, and this report is the beginning of real action. While the subcommittee was led by Democrats, in particular Chair David Cicilline, there is Republican support for addressing monopolies. Republican Ken Buck, a conservative from Colorado, released his own additional views to the report, in which he and a bloc of fellow Republicans agreed with Cicilline’s diagnosis of the problem, though he suggested a milder set of remedies. Then there’s the leader of Republicans on the committee, Jim Jordan, who dissented from the report (with a document probably financed and written by antitrust lawyers working for Google, Amazon, and Facebook), but even he called for changes to telecommunications law.

Having multiple competing points of view on a complex problem isn’t unusual; in fact it’s the norm throughout American history. And working through these different points of view is actually how the legislative and political process works. Cicilline has laid out a clear marker, and his report represents the most likely path for legislation and action over the next four years.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. The Cowen Washington Research Group, which is a pretty orthodox investment analysis firm, has a similar view.

“Our take: Given bipartisan concerns with Big Tech, we believe passage of a new antitrust statute in 2021 is quite realistic. If Democrats sweep in November, the odds of passage would rise and the specifics become more anti-platform because Democrats could well eliminate the Senate filibuster, which would reduce Republican blocking power. But even in an all-Democratic Washington, legislation to actually break up or structurally separate these American champion companies is likely to be a tougher sell. Finally, regardless of whether any legislation passes, we think the depth of this report – Congress’ first in decades on antitrust – will become the Democrats’ center of gravity on tech platforms if Biden wins. It also could provide cover (or pressure) for DOJ/FTC/state AGs to file tech antitrust lawsuits this year and next even under existing laws.”

That’s why in my view, it’s hard to overstate the importance of what David Cicilline and the House Subcommittee just accomplished. This report, and the investigation upon which it sits, represent a radical shift in the American balance of power, moving back who governs from private monopolists to public institutions. It will be explosive abroad, because enforcers in other countries have been held back by American timidity. It’s also a reassertion of Congress as the central policymaking body in America, retrieving that from unaccountable judges and flaccid and bloated executive branch. I suspect that over the next four years, large technology platforms will be broken up, and policymakers in the U.S. are going to restructure our economy.

I hope he’s right. But it all depends on whether Biden wins on November 3.


A Theory of Voluntary Testing and Self-isolation in an Ongoing Pandemic

Really interesting NBER paper by Thomas Hellmann and Veikko Thiele arguing that easy home Covid testing will be a good idea even if the tests are somewhat less accurate than the professionally administered ones. Here’s the Abstract:

Thinking beyond Covid-19, there is a growing interest in what economic structures will be needed to face ongoing pandemics. In this paper we focus on the diagnostic problem and examine a new paradigm of voluntary self-testing by private individuals. People without symptoms face daily choices of either taking the risk of going out (to work and socialize), versus staying at home in self-isolation. Our theory shows that two types of people voluntary test themselves: those who otherwise would have self-isolated, and those who would have gone out indiscriminately. Our central insight is that the equilibrium infection risk falls when home-based testing becomes cheaper and easier to use, even if tests are not always accurate. Our results challenge the clinical mainstream view that diagnostic testing is a prerogative of the medical profession, and supports the notion that frequent self-testing is vital for an economy facing an ongoing pandemic.

Given that we will have to find a way of living with this virus, even after vaccines become available, more thinking like this is needed.


St Dolly

I’ve always admired Dolly Parton. Now the New Yorker has done her proud:

Parton’s politics, in the two-party sense, are a secret so well kept that her reticence on this score has become as integral to the living monument of her as her blond coiffure. In 1980, she had a starring role in the movie “9 to 5,” a hit comedy about mutinous women office workers which was further buoyed by her Oscar-nominated song of that title, but she carefully disavowed any “women’s lib”: “Not that I’m not for rights for everybody,” she told Rolling Stone. “I’m just sayin’ I didn’t want to get involved in a political thing. It’s just a funny, funny show.” In 2014, an interviewer brought up the famous girl-boss manual by the Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, and asked whether Parton had ever “leaned in.” Parton deflected the veiled test of feminist cred with a laugh: “I’ve leaned over. I’ve leaned forward. I don’t know what ‘leaned in’ is. Lean in to God.” In the summer of 2016, she caused a small stir among her fans when she expressed her willingness, in an interview with the Times, to throw in her lot with Hillary Clinton “if she gets it.” But those who were either pleased or incensed by this answer had assumed too much. Parton clarified that she hadn’t decided whom she was voting for, and she said that if she ever found an interest in politics she’d run herself: “I’ve got the hair for it, it’s huge, and they could always use more boobs in the race.”

Terry Wogan, the TV and radio star whom I always described during my time as the Observer‘s TV critic as the GLI or “Greatest Living Irishman” was once involved in a conversation about reincarnation. He was asked who or what would be like to be reincarnated as. “Dolly Parton’s accordion” was his wonderful answer.

Dolly is exactly the same age as me, I discover. She’s in rather better shape. But then she always was.


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Sunday 11 October, 2020

Walking by a clear running stream this afternoon, we came on this beautiful carpet of star-shaped plants. No idea what it is, but it was really striking.


Quote of the Day

I had a lovely email from a friend about last Friday’s “Quote of the Day” (cricket commentator Brian Johnson’s immortal remark: “The bowler’s Holding, the batsman’s Willey”) It reminded him, he wrote,

of the story about Harry Caray, a legendary American baseball announcer. Caray was calling a Chicago Cubs game on TV in the mid 1980’s. Baseball is a slow game so the cameramen were often looking for something interesting going on in the crowd. At several times during the game, the broadcast showed a particular couple in the stands making out. Finally, towards the end of the game, Caray says, “Folks, I think I figured it out. He kisses her on the strikes and she kisses him on the balls!”

Many thanks to Hap for that knockout quote.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Alfred Brendel – Schubert, Klavierstücke D. 946 No. 2 in E Flat

Link


Finally US politicians are taking the fight to the tech giants

This morning’s Observer column

On Tuesday evening, a large (449-page) pdf landed in my inbox. It’s the majority report of the US House of Representatives judiciary committee’s subcommittee on antitrust, commercial and administrative law and it makes ideal bedside reading material for only two classes of person: competition lawyers and newspaper columnists. But even if it’s unlikely to be a bestseller, its publication is still a landmark event because it marks the first concerted (and properly resourced) critical interrogation of a new group of unaccountable powers that is roaming loose in our democracies: tech companies. Its guiding spirit was something said by the great Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis many moons ago: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”

Only four tech companies were targeted – Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. How Microsoft escaped scrutiny is a mystery (to me anyway); perhaps it’s because that company had its day in court long ago and survived to become the handmaiden of governments and organisations everywhere and is therefore part of the ruling establishment.

The inquiry that led to the report started in 2019 as an investigation into the state of competition online. It had three aims: “1) to document competition problems in digital markets; 2) examine whether dominant firms are engaging in anticompetitive conduct; and 3) assess whether existing antitrust laws, competition policies and current enforcement levels are adequate to address these issues.” Crudely summarised, its conclusions are…

Read on


Good news for Glassholes

Wearable tech has never been so fashionable. Meet Spectacles 3 from Snap Inc. Capture your world in 3D with two HD Cameras and four built-in mics, which store up to 100 3D videos or 1,200 3D photos. Photos and videos wirelessly sync to your phone, where you can edit and transform then with a new suite of 3D effects on Snapchat. Recharge Spectacles 3 on the go with the included charging case.

Think of it as DIY sousveillance.

Source


The looming mental health crisis

This is a slide from one of the most alarming presentations I’ve been to in a long time. It’s worth reading carefully. In particular, note the bullet points for life expectancy, male suicide rates, the estimated cost to the economy and the fact that three-quarters of mental health problems start before the age of 18.

Cambridge University is setting up an Institute for Mental Wellbeing, and the presentation was giving some background information on the new institute and the justifications for it.

Of course, like most people, I’ve been aware of a degree of public concern about mental health — concern which has been greatly amplified by the Coronavirus and associated lockdowns, job losses, precarity and other sources of stress. But since it’s not my field I’m ashamed to say that I had relegated discussions about it to the status of depressing background noise. I had absolutely no idea of the scale of the crisis until the meeting last Monday when the presentation was given.

Over the years some of my friends and family members have suffered from depression, anxiety and other psychological conditions, and I supported one of them through three terrible bouts, but until now I’d always thought of these as relatively rare misfortunes rather than as conditions that afflict millions of people.

How wrong can you be?


How to film a conversation in a yellow Fiat Quinquecento

From Axios


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Saturday 10 October, 2020

What holiday cottages should be like

From my favourite village in North Norfolk


Quote of the Day

”Golf is a game that is played on a five-inch course — the distance between your ears”.

  • Bobby (Robert Trent) Jones, the great American golfer.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Wailin’ Jennys | Bird Song Link


Microsoft Thinks You’ve Been Missing Your Commute in Lockdown

A forthcoming feature — ‘Virtual commutes’ — on Teams aims to rebuild the boundaries between work and home life, and signify Microsoft’s move into corporate well-being.

At first I thought this was a spoof. After all, if there’s one area where remote working scores it is in eliminating the daily commute. But,…

The daily commute may have caused its share of headaches, but it at least helped workers define a start and end to their workday while offering a set time to think away from the demands and distractions of the home and office. That positive side of the commute is what Microsoft hopes to re-create.

The Teams update next year will let users schedule virtual commutes at the beginning and end of each shift. Instead of reliving 8 a.m. or 6 p.m. packed subway rides or highway traffic jams in virtual reality, users will be prompted by the platform to set goals in the morning and reflect on the day in the evening.

The virtual commute feature represents Teams’ move into employee wellness, said Kamal Janardhan, general manager for workplace analytics and MyAnalytics at Microsoft 365, the parent division of Teams. The company historically has focused on employee connectivity and productivity.

“Enterprises across the world right now are coming to us and saying, ‘I don’t think we will have organizational resilience if we don’t make well-being a priority,’” Ms. Janardhan said. “I think we at Microsoft have a role, almost a responsibility, to give enterprises the capabilities to create these better daily structures and help people be their best.”

Interesting that idea that the daily commute enables people to “set goals in the morning and reflect on the day in the evening”. I’ve occasionally had to do a daily commute to London when working on a particular consultancy gig, and the thing I hated most about it was the evening return in a train packed with exhausted workers staring dully at their phones. Somehow, I don’t think they were reflecting on their days in a calm meditative mood. They were simply knackered.


Political Economy After Neoliberalism

Long read of the day from the Boston Review. It’s a thoughtful essay by Neil Fligstein and Steven Vogel on “Political Economy after Neoliberalism”. Fligstein is a Professor of Sociology at Berkeley, and the author of The Architecture of Markets. Vogel is a Professor of Political Science at Berkeley and the author of Marketcraft: How Governments Make Markets Work, so they’re heavy-duty thinkers.

Starting from the fact that Western democracies have for forty or more years been governed by political elites who have drunk the Kool Aid of neoliberalist ideas about the primacy of markets and the inadequacy of the state, Fligstein and Vogel argue that if anything demonstrates the inadequacy of markets and the centrality of government it’s our experience since February. “The pandemic has exposed the fallacies of the neoliberal paradigm,” they write. “The market could not keep businesses running or people working.”

As if to highlight that fact, as economies have struggled desperately to contain the economic consequences of the plague, the stock market has been roaring ahead.

Flkigstein and Vogel propose three ‘core principles’ of an alternative political economy. They then illustrate these principles by discussing the dynamics of the American political economy, focusing particularly on the rise of “shareholder capitalism” in the 1980s. Finally, they apply the principles to the ongoing national policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, comparing the United States to Germany.

What are their ‘core principles’?

The first is that governments and markets are co-constituted. Government regulation is not an intrusion into the market but rather a prerequisite for a functioning market economy. Without government, the rule of law, the infrastructure of public order and so on, markets will run wild. Societies need markets; but markets also need society.

The second principle is that “real-world political economy hinges on power, both political and market power. Specific forms of market governance … do not arise naturally or innocently. They are the product of power struggles between firms, industries, workers, and governments within particular markets and in the political arena.”

The third principle is that there is more than one way to organize society to achieve economic growth, equity, and access to valued goods and services.

The balance of power between government, workers, and firms differs greatly across countries and time. And the different power balances in different countries shape distinctive national trajectories of policies. We can expect that the governing institutions will reinforce the status-quo balance of power, particularly in a crisis. It is rare for any one set of actors to have total control in a society, a condition that would lead to extreme rent-seeking behavior. Instead we see constant contestation between different sets of organized actors but a general balance of power that reflects the dominance of one side or another.

The essay goes on to argue that abandoning the neoliberal lens of government versus market and the “one best way” perspective opens up the possibility of a profound rethinking of economic policy that seeks to learn from the great variety of capitalisms that actually exist.

It’s a great essay — one of the only ones I’ve seen that tries to grapple realistically with the challenge of envisaging a more sustainable economic system as societies emerge from the pandemic.


Trump’s death wish

Watching Trump in recent weeks has been a weird experience. It’s like being a spectator at a live show in which the performer is losing his mind. And as I was thinking this I came on something that Judith Butler wrote in the London Review of Book a year ago:

When commentators speak of Trump’s ‘death wish’, they are on to something, though maybe not quite what they imagine. The death drive, in Freud, is manifested in actions characterised by compulsive repetition and destructiveness, and though it may be attached to pleasure and excitement, it is not governed by the logic of wish fulfilment. Repetitive action unguided by a wish for pleasure takes distinctive forms: the deterioration of the human organism in its effort to return to a time before individuated life; the nightmarish repetition of traumatic material without resolution; the externalisation of destructiveness through potentially murderous behaviour. Both suicide and murder are extreme consequences of a death drive left unchecked. The death drive works in fugitive ways, and is fundamentally opportunistic: it can be identified only through the phenomena on which it seizes and surfs. It may operate in the midst of moments of radical desire, pleasure, an intense sense of life. But it also operates in moments of triumphalism, the bold demonstration of power or strength, or in states of extreme conviction. Only later, if ever, comes the jolt of realisation that what was supposed to be empowering and exciting was in fact serving a more destructive purpose.

I do wonder what will happen to him when he loses the election and loses his frantic campaign then to discredit the results and is eventually — by whatever means the American Republic can muster to save its Constitution — physically ejected from office. Narcissists don’t take failure and humiliation well.


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Friday 9 October, 2020

Remember trains?

Once upon a time, people used to go places on trains. Now that I come to think of it, people used to go places even without trains.


Quote of the Day

”The bowler’s Holding, the batsman’s Willey”.

  • Brian Johnson, BBC Cricket commentator, during a Test Match between England and the West Indies, 1976

He actually said this, live on radio. If ever you needed an illustration of the importance of a comma, then this is it!


Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Glenn Gould – Beethoven, Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major op.73 “Emperor”

Link

It’s 18 minutes long, but worth it. Leave it playing while you make breakfast.


Dave Winer: how to break up tech companies

A radical idea

When they contemplate breaking up a tech company, this is how you should do it. Find the component of the company that really is open tech. Something that was open before they came along, that they foreclosed on, and used their monopoly to put everyone else out of business.

That’s where you draw the line of separation. The core should be spun off into a new company that’s well funded, with a charter to commercialize the tech while maintaining zero lock-in. Totally replaceable. Defined APIs that don’t break.

If the company is viable with these constraints, great. If not, they have enough money to plan their own demise. The key thing is they cannot use their dominance to launch new products. Just the open tech.

You would find people willing to staff such a company, there are lots of idealistic developers, still, who believe in the open internet.

In Microsoft’s case, in the 90s this would have meant spinning out the browser.

Today with Facebook it would mean spinning out the open graph.

With Google, it would have to be at least the core search engine. If Alphabet wanted to run ads on search, they’d have to get in line and compete with others who did. This is the price they pay for trying to use their dominance in search to control everything.

Google would also have to spin out Chrome, same way Microsoft would have spun out MSIE in the 90s.

That’s the basic idea. Look for the old open tech buried in the company, that is the source of their monopolistic control, and extract it. Hopefully it’s very painful, to keep successors from tying to do it in the future.

There’s a germ of an interesting idea here. The Internet — as originally designed, and indeed as it is still today — was a network designed to enable what later came to be called “permissionless innovation”. If you had an idea that could be realised using data-packets, and you were smart enough to write the code for the app, then the Internet would do it for you, no questions asked. So what Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn designed was essentially a global machine for springing surprises. And anybody who had access and knowledge could use the network to spring a surprise — like, for example, VoIP or file-sharing. There was no gatekeeper who could say “Hey! you can’t do that.” The result was a Cambrian explosion of creativity. That’s why we say that the Internet is a generative system: it enables people to build on it.

So along comes Tim Berners-Lee at the end of the 1980s and he has a great idea — the World Wide Web — and he’s certainly smart enough to write the code for it; and so he does and then he releases it on the Internet as a new platform for permissionless innovation. And millions of people build interesting things on top of that platform.

One of them is Mark Zuckerberg, who builds Facebook on top of Tim’s platform. But Zuck has no intention of allowing anyone else to build on top of his platform. So the chain of permissionless, generative affordances is broken. But without the Web, Facebook couldn’t function, and left to its own monopolistic devices, Facebook will ensure that nobody ever builds anything on it that hasn’t been licensed and controlled by Zuckerberg.

That’s why it might make sense to go after the public, open technologies that these monopolists have appropriated, and give them back to the world.


Faith in government declines when mobile internet arrives

Interesting note in the Economist.

A recent study by the economists Sergei Guriev, Nikita Melnikov and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, now undergoing peer review, uses the growth of mobile broadband to reveal a link between internet access and scepticism of government.

In general, people’s confidence in their leaders declined after getting 3G. However, the size of this effect varied. It was smaller in countries that allow a free press than in ones where traditional media are muzzled, and bigger in countries with unlimited web browsing than in ones that censor the internet. This implies that people are most likely to turn against their governments when they are exposed to online criticism that is not present offline. The decline was also larger in rural areas than in cities.

A similar pattern emerged at the ballot box. Among 102 elections in 33 European countries, incumbent parties’ vote-share fell by an average of 4.7 percentage points once 3G arrived. The biggest beneficiaries were parties classified as populist—though this may simply have been because they happened to be in opposition when voters turned against parties in power, rather than because of their ideology.

Of course this doesn’t mean that simply acquiring Internet access is enough to reduce trust in government. It may depend on what people read online. And that’s a whole different ball-game. The problem with studies like this is that they confuse the technology with what corporations like Facebook and YouTube/Google do with it.


Francis Fukuyama: Liberalism and Its Discontents

This really is the long read of the day — a terrific essay on the legacy of liberalism and how it explains where we’ve got to now.

Sample:

Liberalism has been a broadly successful ideology, and one that is responsible for much of the peace and prosperity of the modern world. But it also has a number of shortcomings, some of which were triggered by external circumstances, and others of which are intrinsic to the doctrine. The first lies in the realm of economics, the second in the realm of culture.

The economic shortcomings have to do with the tendency of economic liberalism to evolve into what has come to be called “neoliberalism.” Neoliberalism is today a pejorative term used to describe a form of economic thought, often associated with the University of Chicago or the Austrian school, and economists like Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, George Stigler, and Gary Becker. They sharply denigrated the role of the state in the economy, and emphasized free markets as spurs to growth and efficient allocators of resources. Many of the analyses and policies recommended by this school were in fact helpful and overdue: Economies were overregulated, state-owned companies inefficient, and governments responsible for the simultaneous high inflation and low growth experienced during the 1970s.

But valid insights about the efficiency of markets evolved into something of a religion, in which state intervention was opposed not based on empirical observation but as a matter of principle. Deregulation produced lower airline ticket prices and shipping costs for trucks, but also laid the ground for the great financial crisis of 2008 when it was applied to the financial sector. Privatization was pushed even in cases of natural monopolies like municipal water or telecom systems, leading to travesties like the privatization of Mexico’s TelMex, where a public monopoly was transformed into a private one. Perhaps most important, the fundamental insight of trade theory, that free trade leads to higher wealth for all parties concerned, neglected the further insight that this was true only in the aggregate, and that many individuals would be hurt by trade liberalization. The period from the 1980s onward saw the negotiation of both global and regional free trade agreements that shifted jobs and investment away from rich democracies to developing countries, increasing within-country inequalities. In the meantime, many countries starved their public sectors of resources and attention, leading to deficiencies in a host of public services from education to health to security.

The result was the world that emerged by the 2010s in which aggregate incomes were higher than ever but inequality within countries had also grown enormously. Many countries around the world saw the emergence of a small class of oligarchs, multibillionaires who could convert their economic resources into political power through lobbyists and purchases of media properties. Globalization enabled them to move their money to safe jurisdictions easily, starving states of tax revenue and making regulation very difficult. Globalization also entailed liberalization of rules concerning migration. Foreign-born populations began to increase in many Western countries, abetted by crises like the Syrian civil war that sent more than a million refugees into Europe. All of this paved the way for the populist reaction that became clearly evident in 2016 with Britain’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the United States.

The second discontent with liberalism as it evolved over the decades was rooted in its very premises. Liberalism deliberately lowered the horizon of politics: A liberal state will not tell you how to live your life, or what a good life entails; how you pursue happiness is up to you. This produces a vacuum at the core of liberal societies, one that often gets filled by consumerism or pop culture or other random activities that do not necessarily lead to human flourishing. This has been the critique of a group of (mostly) Catholic intellectuals including Patrick Deneen, Sohrab Ahmari, Adrian Vermeule, and others, who feel that liberalism offers “thin gruel” for anyone with deeper moral commitments.

People are often rude about Fukuyama nowadays, mostly because they misunderstand his famous 1989 ‘End of History’ essay. But I’ve always found him a delightfully clear and elegant writer, and this essay demonstrates this very well.


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Thursday 8 October, 2020

Closed!

And this was in the good ol’ (pre-pandemic) days!


Quote of the Day

”No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes, than a public library.”

  • Samuel Johnson

Musical alternative to the radio news of the day

Covita (the Covid adaption of Evita)

Link

I know it’s political. But it is at least musical! It’s a creation of the Lincoln Project


Everything you needed to know about aerosol transmission of the virus but were too busy to ask

“FAQs on Protecting Yourself from COVID-19 Aerosol Transmission”

Prepared by a group of real experts. You can find it here. Great resource.

Thanks to Seb Schmoller for spotting it.


The Five Cs of Subwoofer Setup

I was idly thinking about how nice it would be to have a subwoofer as part of the audio system in our study. Having read this helpful guide I’ve decided that life’s too short, especially if it involves me having crawl around listening at the same level as the cats.


Trump’s antibody treatment was tested using cells originally derived from an abortion

The Trump administration has been trying to curtail research with foetal cells. But when it was life or death for the president, no one objected. Including, it seems, all those anti-abortion campaigners who support him.

This from Tech Review

This week, President Donald Trump extolled the cutting-edge coronavirus treatments he received as “miracles coming down from God.” If that’s true, then God employs cell lines derived from human fetal tissue.

The emergency antibody that Trump received last week was developed with the use of a cell line originally derived from abortion tissue, according to Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, the company that developed the experimental drug.

The Trump administration has taken an increasingly firm line against medical research using fetal tissue from abortions. For example, when it moved in 2019 to curtail the ability of the National Institutes of Health to fund such research, supporters hailed a “major pro-life victory” and thanked Trump personally for taking decisive action against what they called the “outrageous and disgusting” practice of “experimentation using baby body parts.”


Four Myths about Tech

Interesting paper from the Data & Society research institute.

The tech companies that design and build so many of the devices, platforms, and software we use for hours each day have embraced myths that push a flawed under- standing of digital well-being. While we are encouraged that these companies are dedicating greater attention to social media’s effect on the mental and physical health of users, their current approaches to improving user well-being fundamentally misunderstand how people engage with technology. At its worst, this approach funnels time and resources to making technology more “enriching” for middle-class white users, while failing to address the systemic harms that minoritized communities face.

The authors see four particular kinds of myths:

  1. Social media is addictive, and we are powerless to resist it.
  2. Technology companies can fix the problems they create with better technology.
  3. Growth and engagement metrics are the best drivers of decision-making at tech companies.
  4. Our health and well-being depend on spending less time with screens and social media platforms.

These may sound counter-intuitive, so it’s worth reading the (short) paper to see their reasoning.

Basically, though, it’s really only relevant to the surveillance capitalism operators.

Recommended, nevertheless.


“Modelling anti-vaccine sentiment as a cultural pathogen”

This is the title of a really interesting paper which was published last May in the journal Evolutionary Human Sciences. It’s by two Stanford researchers, Rohan Mehta and Noah Rosenberg, who wanted to understand the dynamic interactions between a pandemic and human behaviours related to the disease. So they defined anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, for example, or aversion to wearing a mask, as cultural pathogens which, when they spread through a population, can promote the spread of diseases. The question is: how do these interactions play out? What are their dynamics?

There’s a useful summary of the research published by Stanford University. Here’s a clip:

To couple the transmission of disease with the transmission of a sentiment, the researchers used what’s called an S-I-R model, which divides populations into groups, or “compartments” – namely those who are susceptible, infected and recovered. “The S-I-R model with one dimension for behavior and one dimension for disease is among the simplest ways to understand how the behavioral dynamics affect the disease dynamics,” said Rosenberg.

In the case of modeling anti-vaccination sentiment as a transmissible preference, this would mean susceptible individuals are undecided about vaccines; infected individuals are those who have the anti-vaccination sentiment; and recovered individuals are pro-vaccine and not susceptible to anti-vaccination sentiment.

There could realistically be a broad spectrum of feelings associated with any particular sentiment, but simplifying the model provides a clearer connection to disease dynamics. For example, individuals who are pro-vaccine could change their minds in the real world, but the model assumes they cannot (as if they have already been vaccinated as a result of their sentiments and cannot undo the action).

“We want these kinds of models to have some realism, but the more complicated we make them, the harder it is to fully understand all the potential behaviors that could emerge,” said Rosenberg. “The goal is to understand how phenomena affect each other, rather than to make projections. We see clearly in the model how anti-vaccination sentiment can promote spread of the disease for which the vaccine is being applied.”

The point of a study like this is that it tries to take a holistic or system-wide view of a problem. At the moment, we tend mostly to build models of how an epidemic spreads so that we can predict likely outbreak scenarios. But which scenario turns out to be accurate depends not just on the characteristics of the pathogen, but also on how the human population responds to these strange circumstances. This is why governments across Europe and elsewhere have been taken aback by the new surges in infections. The problem will get worse when credible vaccines for Covid-19 start to appear, because what happens from then on depends on how people respond to the possibility of vaccination. The disease modelled in the research reported in the journal article was measles, but of course the scenario that everyone would like to study relates to Covid. It seems that Stanford has given them more resources to work on that.

The Abstract for the paper reads:

Culturally transmitted traits that have deleterious effects on health-related traits can be regarded as cultural pathogens. A cultural pathogen can produce coupled dynamics with its associated health-related traits, so that understanding the dynamics of a health-related trait benefits from consideration of the dynamics of the associated cultural pathogen. Here, we treat anti-vaccine sentiment as a cultural pathogen, modelling its ‘infection’ dynamics with the infection dynamics of the associated vaccine-preventable disease. In a coupled susceptible–infected–resistant (SIR) model, consisting of an SIR model for the anti-vaccine sentiment and an interacting SIR model for the infectious disease, we explore the effect of anti-vaccine sentiment on disease dynamics. We find that disease endemism is contingent on the presence of the sentiment, and that presence of sentiment can enable diseases to become endemic when they would otherwise have disappeared. Furthermore, the sentiment dynamics can create situations in which the disease suddenly returns after a long period of dormancy. We study the effect of assortative sentiment-based interactions on the dynamics of sentiment and disease, identifying a tradeoff whereby assortative meeting aids the spread of a disease but hinders the spread of sentiment. Our results can contribute to finding strategies that reduce the impact of a cultural pathogen on disease, illuminating the value of cultural evolutionary modelling in the analysis of disease dynamics.


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__________________________ 

Wednesday 7 October, 2020

Locked!

Venice, 2017.


Quote of the Day

”A science is said to be useful if its development tends to accentuate the existing inequities in the distribution of wealth, or more directly promotes the destruction of human life.”

  • G.H. Hardy, in A Mathematician’s Apology

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Leonard Cohen – Hallelujah (Live In London)

Link


Many Top AI Researchers Get Financial Backing From Big Tech

Surprise, surprise. Interesting story in Wired.

Mohamed and Moustafa Abdalla, two brothers who are graduate students at the university of Toronto, embarked on an interesting mini-project. They looked at how many AI researchers at Stanford, MIT, UC Berkeley, and the University of Toronto have received funding from Big Tech over their careers. They examined the CVs of 135 computer science faculty who work on AI at the four schools, looking for indications that the researcher had received funding from one or more tech companies.

For 52 of those, they couldn’t make a determination. Of the remaining 83 faculty, they found that 48, or 58 percent, had received funding such as a grant or a fellowship from one of 14 large technology companies: Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Nvidia, Intel, IBM, Huawei, Samsung, Uber, Alibaba, Element AI, or OpenAI. Among a smaller group of faculty that works on AI ethics, they also found that 58 percent of those had been funded by Big Tech. When any source of funding was included, including dual appointments, internships, and sabbaticals, 32 out of 33, or 97 percent, had financial ties to tech companies. “There are very few people that don’t have some sort of connection to Big Tech,” Abdalla says.

Adballa says industry funding is not necessarily compromising, but he worries that it might have some influence, perhaps discouraging researchers from pursuing certain projects or prompting them to agree with solutions proposed by tech companies. Provocatively, the Abdallas’ paper draws parallels between Big Tech funding for AI research and the way tobacco companies paid for research into the health effects of smoking in the 1950s.

Their paper, “The Grey Hoodie Project: Big Tobacco, Big Tech, and the threat on academic integrity” is on arXiv.

The Abstract reads:

As governmental bodies rely on academics’ expert advice to shape policy regarding Artificial Intelligence, it is important that these academics not have conflicts of interests that may cloud or bias their judgement. Our work explores how Big Tech is actively distorting the academic landscape to suit its needs. By comparing the well-studied actions of another industry, that of Big Tobacco, to the current actions of Big Tech we see similar strategies employed by both industries to sway and influence academic and public discourse. We examine the funding of academic research as a tool used by Big Tech to put forward a socially responsible public image, influence events hosted by and decisions made by funded universities, influence the research questions and plans of individual scientists, and discover receptive academics who can be leveraged. We demonstrate, in a rigorous manner, how Big Tech can affect academia from the institutional level down to individual researchers. Thus, we believe that it is vital, particularly for universities and other institutions of higher learning, to discuss the appropriateness and the tradeoffs of accepting funding from Big Tech, and what limitations or conditions should be put in place.

When one raises the question of relationships with big tech companies with some academics the general response is that there’s nothing to see here. Prominent medical researchers who have links to Big Pharma give the same responses. Nothing to see here, move along. Until, of course, there is something to see.


Face masks: what the data say

One of the strangest (and annoying) aspects of the pandemic as it evolved was the reluctance of the government’s scientific advisers to recommend the wearing of non-N95 face masks. People who decided to make their own and wear them were regarded in many places as cranks. And now masks are mandatory in shops and other buildings. So somewhere along the line crankiness became Holy Writ. And of course in the US, under the tutelage of Donald Trump, refusing to wear a mask became a test of masculinity or patriotism, or both. (Or a litmus test for idiocy.)

I always thought that the issue was a bit like Pascal’s Wager: it was unlikely to do one harm, and might do some good, so why not wear one?

Now I find a paper in Nature, no less, saying “The science supports that face coverings are saving lives during the coronavirus pandemic, and yet the debate trundles on. How much evidence is enough?”


Security flaw left ‘smart’ chastity sex toy users at risk of permanent lock-in

There’s a long list of things I don’t understand about this, but here goes:

Security researchers have discovered that a major security flaw in one popular sex toy could have been catastrophic for tens of thousands of users.

U.K.-based security firm Pen Test Partners said the flaw in the Qiui Cellmate internet-connected chastity lock, billed as the “world’s first app controlled chastity device,” could have allowed anyone to remotely and permanently lock in the user’s penis.

The Cellmate chastity lock works by allowing a trusted partner to remotely lock and unlock the chamber over Bluetooth using a mobile app. That app communicates with the lock using an API. But that API was left open and without a password, allowing anyone to take complete control of any user’s device.

Because the chamber was designed to lock with a metal ring underneath the user’s penis, the researchers said it may require the intervention of a heavy-duty bolt cutter or an angle grinder to free the user.

At first I assumed it was a spoof — “Middle Ages meets smartphone era”. But apparently not.

And this thing is, apparently, a toy.


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Tuesday 6 October, 2020

Venice, 2017.


Quote of the Day

“There’s so much denial going on about how aerosols are the principal cause of spread. It’s quite weird. Think of coronavirus as infectious smoke, with some heavy smokers and lots of very light smokers, and you’re there. The problem: you can’t tell who the heavy smokers are.”


Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Glenn Gould – J.S. Bach, Variazioni Goldberg – 1981

Link


Excel spreadsheet error blamed for UK’s 16,000 missing coronavirus cases

There’s been a huge hooh-hah (understandably) about the error that left large number of virus cases unreported. But, as this account by The Verge may suggest, many users of the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet may have the “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I) feeling. We’ve all screwed up on Excel at one time or another.

The 15,841 “missing” cases made public today were originally recorded between September 25th and October 2nd. All those who tested positive for COVID-19 were notified by the UK’s health authorities, but the failure to upload these cases to the national database meant anyone who came into contact with these individuals was not informed. It’s an error that may have helped spread the virus further through the country as individuals exposed to the virus continued to act as normal.

According to reports from The Guardian and Sky News, the mistake was caused when PHE tried to collate data from multiple sources in the form of CSV files by loading them into Excel. This popular spreadsheet software has limits in how many rows it can load — 65,536 rows in older versions and 1,048,576 rows in more recent versions. Based on these reports, it’s not clear which version of Excel PHE is using, but the row-limit was reached regardless. As PHE workers tried to load more cases into the national database, they were rejected.

The solution, at least, is as simple as the error, and the overly large files have reportedly now been split into smaller batches. PHE didn’t confirm this but says the problem is now resolved, and that it passed the details of the backlog of confirmed cases onto the UK’s contact tracers as of 1PM local time on Saturday.

It reminds of an adage that I used to cite in the early days in defining ‘Big Data’ — which was the amount of data that wouldn’t fit on an Excel sheet.

HT to Ian Clark.


More than tools: who is responsible for the social dilemma?

The Social Dilemma is Jeff Orlowski’s much-discussed film about the toxic impact of social media on society, and particularly on young people. I wrote about it in my Observer column a few weeks ago.

For those of us who have for years been trying – without notable success – to spark public concern about what’s going on in tech, it’s fascinating to watch how a talented movie director goes about the task. Orlowski adopts a two-track approach. In the first, he assembles a squad of engineers and executives – people who built the addiction-machines of social media but have now repented – to talk openly about their feelings of guilt about the harms they inadvertently inflicted on society, and explain some of the details of their algorithmic perversions.

They are, as you might expect, almost all males of a certain age and type. The writer Maria Farrell, in a memorable essay, describes them as examples of the prodigal techbro – tech executives who experience a sort of religious awakening and “suddenly see their former employers as toxic, and reinvent themselves as experts on taming the tech giants. They were lost and are now found.”

Biblical scholars will recognise the reference from Luke 15. The prodigal son returns having “devoured his living with harlots” and is welcomed with open arms by his old dad, much to the dismay of his more dutiful brother. Farrell is not so welcoming. “These ‘I was lost but now I’m found, please come to my Ted Talk’ accounts,” she writes, “typically miss most of the actual journey, yet claim the moral authority of one who’s ‘been there’ but came back. It’s a teleportation machine, but for ethics.”

It is, but Orlowski welcomes these techbros with open arms because they suit his purpose – which is to explain to viewers the terrible things that the surveillance capitalist companies such as Facebook and Google do to their users. And the problem with that is that when he gets to the point where we need ideas about how to undo that damage, the boys turn out to be a bit – how shall I put it – incoherent.

Now comes a really insightful commentary by Niall Docherty from the Social Media Collective, a network of social science and humanistic researchers who work in the Microsoft Research labs in New England and New York.

“While the film’s topic is timely, and explored with applaudable intentions,” he writes,

“its subject matter is mishandled. For all of its values, and all of its flaws, the film’s diagnosis of social media is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of technology. Its recommended path to recovery, as a result, leads to a dead-end. Until we think of technology not as a tool but as a set of relations, we will never truly grasp the problems with which The Social Dilemma is concerned.”

He takes issue with the core argument of the film, namely that social media are designed to manipulate their users for corporate gain. But, says Docherty,

To be “manipulated” suggests that users are being diverted from a course of action they would otherwise have taken. This implies a pre-existing individual, already happily furnished with their own desires, and with full capacity to enact them as they please. Social media, in this framework, is the diverting, deceiving technology that takes individuals away from their “true” interests. By falling prey to the nudges of social media, and giving in completely to what they are predicted to want, users are stopped from acting wilfully, as they otherwise would.

Yet when have human beings ever been fully and perfectly in control of the technologies around them? Is it not rather the case that technologies, far from being separate from human will, are intrinsically involved in its activation?

French philosopher Bruno Latour famously uses the example of the gun to advance this idea, which he calls mediation. We are all aware of the platitude, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. In its logic, the gun is simply a tool that allows the person, as the primary agent, to kill another. The gun exists only as an object, through which the person’s desire of killing flows. For Latour, this view is deeply misleading. Only when the human intention and the capacities of the gun are brought together can a shooting actually take place. So responsibility for the shooting, which can only occur through the combination of human and gun, and by proxy, those who produced and provided it, is thus shared.

With this in mind,

we must question how useful it is to think about social media in terms of manipulation and control. Social media, far from being a malicious yet inanimate object (like a weapon) is something more profound and complex: a generator of human will.

This is an interesting approach to the problem which addresses the thorny question of why — if social media is so bad for people — do they continue to use it. It will annoy some people, I guess, because they will see it as letting the tech companies off the hook. But it also forces one to re-evaluate one’s own preconceptions. Which of course is also what Bruno Latour does for a living!


GOP Elites Thought They Could Buy Exemption From a Pandemic

Twitter user Kate Bennett tweeted an extraordinary film clip of the White House Rose Garden party to celebrate Trump’s nomination of a reliable right-wing lawyer to the Supreme Court.

The video clip in the link is worth watching in the context of this piece in NYMag:

It is too early to know with certainty that the Barrett nomination party was a superspreader event. But we do know that at least eight of the event’s attendees have now tested positive for COVID-19. And we also know that the White House might as well have hired the novel coronavirus as its party planner, the proceedings were so well-tailored to the bug’s spread (a throng of people speaking indoors, in close proximity, without masks, for an extended period of time). So it seems safe to assume that the event played some role in the cluster of infection that has put Donald Trump and Chris Christie in the hospital, much of Mitch McConnell’s caucus in quarantine, and the broader population of Washington, D.C., at an increased risk of serious illness.

The White House told The Wall Street Journal Sunday that its officials and guests do not generally wear masks or practice social distancing “because they are tested daily.” This appears to confirm that all those serial huggers in the Rose Garden on September 26 did indeed believe their privileged access to rapid tests would exempt them from the hard facts of pandemic life.

All of which invites the question: Why didn’t they know better?

The answer, of course, is that — like elites everywhere — they think they can buy exemption from the virus. Mercifully, the virus knows better.


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Monday 5 October, 2020

Conversation piece

Arles, 2015


Quote of the Day

”A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.”

  • Samuel Johnson

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Hot House Flowers – “Don’t go”: Diamond Awards festival, 1988, Antwerp.

Link

Terrific Irish band. I first heard them sing this at a street concert in Kerry many years ago.


What do we do with Cruise ships now?

Why, dismantle them, of course, and recycle whatever we can.

Neat set of photographs from Reuters.

Well, well. What’s next? Universities?


What happens if there’s no Brexit trade deal?

You can guess the answer, but Politico has done a really useful deep dive into the matter.

(Number of stars indicates how bad things could be — for the UK.)

Tariffs: ★★★★★
Custom checks:
State aid: ★★
Dispute settlement: ★★★
Health: ★★★★★
Air travel: ★★★★
Road transport: ★★★
Security/intelligence: ★★
Environment/climate:
Energy:
Fishing: ★★★★
Digital: ★★★★
Finance: ★★
Citizens’ rights/immigration: ★★
Science and Education: ★★★
Pet travel:
Gibraltar: ★★★

It’s a long read, but worth it. If some of the assessments puzzle, dig into the text for an explanation.

Great piece of public-interest journalism.


The dangerous and inexorable rise of the instant expert

Interesting essay in the FT by Andrew Hill triggered by a new book by Roger Kneebone about the nature of expertise.

TL;DR summary: attaining expertise is hard and there are no short-cuts.

The real threat to becoming an expert, though, is an increasing yearning for quick fixes, pat answers, and instant gratification. “There’s a growing sense that anyone can learn to do anything — and quickly,” laments Prof Kneebone in his book. People applaud Tik Tok experts over those who have “done time”, or they assume that real skills displayed on social media can be picked up without effort or the acquisition of basic techniques.

Mr Trump is a case in point. He has sometimes been swift to claim “natural ability” in matters that his expert advisers took years to understand. But that is no surprise. After all, in the TV show that vaulted him towards the presidency, the apprenticeships he bestowed were a high-profile reward for a few weeks of showy salesmanship, not the first step in a hard but fulfilling journey towards mastery.

Yeah: just look at how Trump now regards himself as an expert on Covid-19.


What is the virus doing to us?

One answer, prompted by reading this thoughtful essay by historian Peter Frankopan, is that it’s softening us up for authoritarian rule. The crisis, he says, “has the capacity to be apocalyptic”.

More than eighty countries declared a state of emergency as a result of the virus, according to the Centre for Civil and Political Rights. In some cases this resulted in impassioned debate about the erosion of civil liberties, for example in Israel, where the government approved a controversial measure in March to digitally track those who had tested positive for coronavirus.

In Britain, meanwhile, the 329 page ‘Coronavirus Bill’ was passed in a single day – suspending the requirement for councils to meet the eligible needs of the disabled and vulnerable people, amongst others, as well as the right to cancel or re-arrange elections and to close ports and borders. Police releasing drone footage of walkers in the Peak District, officers reprimanding people for using their own front garden, or Thames Valley police issuing appeals for local residents to inform on each other if they suspect they are ‘gathering and then dispersing back into out communities’ during the lockdown show that the relationship between citizens and the authorities has changed dramatically in a matter of a few weeks. The new mantra of our pandemic and post-pandemic world is best expressed by Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha – a general who himself took power in a coup in 2014: ‘right now it’s health over liberty.’

There are, of course, pockets of resistance, such in the US, where armed militias gathered on the steps of some state assemblies to demand an end to lockdown. Ironically, they were encouraged by President Trump who issued a series of tweets effectively urging civil disobedience: ‘Liberate Michigan’, he tweeted; ‘Liberate Minnesota !’Liberate Virginia !’ But even in the complicated and contradictory United States of 2020, things have not been straightfoward, with Trump asserting that his powers are not so much presidential as dictatorial: ‘When somebody’s the President of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be,’ he said in a press briefing in mid-April – a few weeks after he had boasted that ‘I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about’, before a bilateral meeting with Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar.

The push away from democratic norms to autocratic measures is framed by the justification that the crisis is so severe as to require emergency measures that usually reflect a war footing. So it is no surprise that so many leaders around the world have referred to the coronavirus as a ‘war’, nor that wartime parallels are the ones we turn to in order to make sense of the situation: it is no coincidence either that the death toll from the Vietnam War contextualised mortality figures from the US, or that those of the height of the Blitz in the twenty eight days to 4 October 1940 were set against those to Covid-19 in the four weeks to mid-April.

Not a cheery read. But riveting nevertheless.


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Sunday 4 October, 2020

Quote of the Day

”Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post how it feels about dogs.

  • Christopher Hampton, playwright.

Jim and Helen’s Window

The window in their house, which they turned into the wonderful Kettle’s yard gallery in Cambridge.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel: As steals the morn (L’Allegro, HWV 55) Amanda Forsythe and Thomas Cooley, Voices of Music 4K

link


Home with a drone

This morning’s Observer column:

Here’s the scenario. It’s 3.30pm and you’re away from home. A burglar breaks in by forcing the french window in the living room. Shortly afterwards, two things happen. A small drone sitting unobtrusively in its housing-cum-charging-station whirs into life, and your smartphone beeps. The drone leaves its housing and begins a flight through the house on an inspection path that you have programmed into it, streaming live, high-definition video to your phone as it goes. The burglar sees and hears the drone, grasps what’s happening and flees.

Fiction? Not at all. It’s just Amazon’s latest gizmo – announced at its autumn hardware event on 24 September. It came with a nice video to illustrate the above scenario – though it featured an implausibly nervous burglar who, upon seeing the drone, fled as though he had seen a ghost. But other, less dramatic uses for the drone were suggested. It would be useful, for example, if you arrived at your non-remote workplace (remember them?) and wondered if you’d left the kitchen window open. This viewer wondered about equally mundane questions: how would the device deal with his cats, which regularly roam the house seeking surfaces that are forbidden to them when he’s physically present; how does the drone deal with closed internal doors – or indeed with the interior of any normal dwelling? Advertisements for so-called “smart” homes invariably feature the interiors of sterile, open-plan dwellings that no sane adult would wish to inhabit…

Read on


The Proper Function of Government

Link

I haven’t watched the Yes Minister series for years and years. And then stumbled accidentally on this and marvelled once more at the masterful, cynical insight of the script. Take a few minutes to watch it. It’s worth it.


Bedside manners

My irreverent WhatsApp feed continues to delight.


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