Sunday 10 May, 2020

RIP Little Richard

They don’t make them like that any more.

Link


Most extensive study to date of who’s most vulnerable to Covid-19 in the UK

A pre-print (i.e. non-peer-reviewed) version of “Factors associated with COVID-19-related hospital death in the linked electronic health records of 17 million adult NHS patients” has just been published. It’s a statistician’s delight (i.e. pretty complicated) but my reading of it is that it confirms two things — one expected, and one disturbing (thought not all that surprising). The first is that certain ill-health preconditions do indeed make people more vulnerable to Covid-19. The second is that people from non-white backgrounds and poor people are also more vulnerable, but for reasons that don’t include medical pre-conditions. Doesn’t take much imagination to suggest what lies behind that.

But that’s just my interpretation. Here’s what the authors say:

Policy Implications and Interpretation

The UK has a policy of recommending shielding (i.e. minimising face to face contact) for groups identified as being extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions. We were able to evaluate the association between most of these conditions and death from COVID-19, and confirm that people with these conditions do have substantially increased mortality risk, supporting the shielding strategy. We have demonstrated -for the first time – that only a small part of the substantially increased risks of death from COVID-19 among non-white groups and among people living in more deprived areas can be attributed to existing disease. Improved strategies to protect people in these groups from COVID-19 need urgent consideration.


If we want better conditions for Amazon staff we need to be patient…

This morning’s Observer column:

Tim Bray resigned as an Amazon vice-president last week. “Who he?” I hear you say. And why is this news significant? Answers: first, Bray is an ubergeek who’s an alumnus of many of the outfits in tech’s hall of fame (including DEC, Sun Microsystems, the OED project at the University of Waterloo, Google’s Android team and, eventually, Amazon Web Services); and second, he resigned on an issue of principle – something as rare as hen’s teeth in the tech industry.

In his blog, he wrote: “I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19.” It was an expensive decision. Bray said the decision to resign would probably cost him more than a million dollars in salary and shares, and that he regretted leaving a job he enjoyed, working with good colleagues. “So I’m pretty blue.”

Do read the whole thing


Rich people’s problems

James Max has a column in the weekend Financial Times under the heading “Rich People’s Problems”. I can never work out if it’s satire, but even if it’s not it’s amusing. This weekend he’s contemplating the problems nobs have under lockdown conditions.

Lockdown “haves” are those with gardens, a half-decent wine cellar and a dog or two for on-demand social contact. Trappings such as sports cars, watches, black cards [Eh?], bling, boats, private jets and club membership are somewhat superfluous to our existence now. Many avenues for spending money are also closed off (as someone whose social life revolved around going on for lunch and dinner, it’s been tough).

But worse than that? For now, I have no domestic help. This is “situation critical”.

The wealthy can no longer run a finger along the skirting board or windowsill, tut and make a mental note to have a word with their cleaner…

You get the point. I think it’s satire. Maybe.


Naomi Klein on the ‘Screen New Deal’

Splendid blast in The Intercept by the famous activist against the tech industry’s pivot to perceiving the pandemic as the opportunity of a lifetime to redefine our futures.

For a few fleeting moments during New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, the somber grimace that has filled our screens for weeks was briefly replaced by something resembling a smile.

“We are ready, we’re all-in,” the governor gushed. “We are New Yorkers, so we’re aggressive about it, we’re ambitious about it. … We realize that change is not only imminent, but it can actually be a friend if done the right way.”

The inspiration for these uncharacteristically good vibes was a video visit from former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who joined the governor’s briefing to announce that he will be heading up a blue-ribbon commission to reimagine New York state’s post-Covid reality, with an emphasis on permanently integrating technology into every aspect of civic life…

Thought-provoking and original. I mention it in today’s Diary (below).


Quarantine diary — Day 50

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Wednesday 6 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

“In the future it will be as rude to talk with someone publicly with your mask off as it would be with your pants down. Future porn will be people talking without masks in public places.”


XKCD on the virus’s view of us humans

Link

Well, you have to laugh, sometimes. But it’s still a reflection on the fact that a tiny microbe about a micron in diameter could turn our entire world upside down.


Governments won’t determine how the return to work happens: people will

That’s because people are really scared about the risk of infection and worried about whether workplaces will be safe.

Here’s why they’re right to be worried. Humanity has never faced a pathogen like this. And we don’t yet understand the half of it.


Tim Bray on blogging

He has a set of sensible rules, some of which I really like. This one for example:

Write For Yourself: Don’t try to guess what people want to read; you’re the only person whose interests you really understand. In particular, don’t thrash around trying to appeal to a larger audience; the only surefire way is pictures of celebrity breasts, and the world already has enough.

He’s been blogging since 2003. More than a million words, he says, and I believe him.

Tim has just resigned as VP and Distinguished Engineer at Amazon Web Services — on principle. Read his blog post explaining why he took this step.


How to screw up

Setting up the email version of this blog last night, I meticulously checked all the links and then hit ‘Publish’ without noticing that the title said “Tuwsday” instead of Tuesday!

Growl. And apologies.


What lay behind the ‘Yes, Minister’ TV series

Lovely set of reflections by Anthony Jay on how he and his co-author, Jonathan Lynn, came to write my second-favourite TV comedy series, Yes, Minister. (My all-time favourite is John Cleese’s and Connie Booth’s Fawlty Towers.)

Clearly this conflict of policies [between a Minister and his or her civil servants] comes into sharpest focus in the persons of the Cabinet Minister and his Permanent Secretary, and it suddenly came to me that this relationship, if taken to its extreme, had all the ingredients of a classic situation comedy: two people whose background, ambitions and motivations pull them in diametrically opposite directions, but who are held together because of their deep dependence on each other. It is the heart of every husband-and-wife sitcom, and of one of my favourite of all comedies, Steptoe and Son, which I always saw as a husband-and-wife comedy in disguise.

The relationship has two further features to commend it. In the first place, it lets the viewer into a private world, and one which he is highly unlikely to experience directly. There is a considerable bonus for a comedy if it has a documentary dimension, and the reason I enjoyed Porridge more than Going Straight was precisely and only because of the additional information and insights into the (literally) closed world of prisons that the first series provided. In the same way, Dad’s Army gave extra joy by the little documentary touches that recreated the minutiae of life during World War Two. And second, comedy also has an extra appeal – at least for Jonathan Lynn and me – when it is actually about something, in the sense that Butterflies and The Good Life are about something.

Worth reading in full.


A message from — of all people — George W. Bush

Link

By comparison with Trump he sounds like a combination of Pope Francis and Abe Lincoln. I never thought I’d feel nostalgia for Dubya. But then I cure myself by thinking of Dick Cheney.


The cancer in the camera lens

Utterly fabulous essay on Trump by David Roth. Here’s how it begins:

In close up, on television, at a glance, with the volume down, Donald Trump can from time to time look like a president. That effect becomes less convincing the more you pay attention, though. Even under professional lighting, Trump reliably looks like a photographic negative of himself; on his worse and wetter days, he has the tone and texture of those lacquered roast ducks that hang from hooks in Chinatown restaurant windows. The passing presidentiality of the man dissipates utterly in longer shots, where Trump can be seen standing tipped oddly forward like a jowly ski jumper in midair, or mincing forward to bum-rush an expert’s inconvenient answer with an incoherent one of his own, or just making faces intended to signal that he is listening very strongly to what someone else is saying. (These slapdash performances of executive seriousness tend to have the effect, as the comedian Stewart Lee once said of James Corden, of making Trump look like “a dog listening to classical music.”) Seen from this long-shot vantage, the man at the podium is unmistakably Donald Trump—uncanny, unknowing, upset about various things that he can’t quite understand or express.

It gets even better. Unmissable.


Human Capitalism

The film-maker Sheila Hayman has a lovely essay on Medium about the ways the Coronavirus lockdown reveals both human potential and the kinds of meaningful work that actually needs doing.

Before

So, right before Covid-19, what did we have? A world in which over a third of us were doing crappy jobs, which made us sick, and whose defining characteristics were overwhelmingly, lack of agency and lack of reward — in all its forms.

Jobs which, according to yet another YouGov poll, 37% of us said were ‘not making a meaningful contribution to the world’.

After

But what has the lockdown actually produced? A massive, spontaneous, bottom-up geyser of human ingenuity, creativity, enterprise, initiative, dedication and love, all lying unsuspected and untapped as its owners trekked day after day to those bullshit jobs — jobs which overwhelmingly involve a nasty commute to eight hours in front of a screen, or managing the dehumanisation of colleagues — or more often, both.

On the other hand, our isolated elderly need befriending, our streets need greening, our air needs cleaning, our diet needs improving and our children need company and attention. These are needs as great as the jobs we’re not doing, if not more so.

This is human capital: the capacity, imagination, love and organisational ability we all carry within us, just by being alive. Moreover, at least in my experience, it effortlessly obliterates the other great stranglehold of British society: I have literally no idea whether my colleagues in the local Covid-19 WhatsApp group are working class, upper middle class, or aliens with green antennae. Capability and common sense prevail, hierarchies are meaningless, and we all happily go along with whatever seems to work best.

Yep. Worth reading in full.


Quarantine diary — Day 46

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Sunday 29 March, 2020

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England’s green and pleasant land

As seen on our permitted ‘exercise walk’ yesterday.


Who needs a government when you’ve got Amazon to keep things running?

This morning’s Observer column:

This pandemic will radically transform the industrial and commercial landscape of western societies. Lots of companies – large and small – will go to the wall, no matter how fervent government promises of support are. But when the smoke clears and some kind of normality returns, a small number of corporations – ones that have played a central role in keeping things going – will emerge strengthened and more dominant. And chief among them will be Jeff Bezos’s everything store.

What we will then have to come to terms with is that Amazon is becoming part of the critical infrastructure of western states. So too perhaps are Google and Microsoft. (Apple is more like a luxury good – nice but not essential, and the only reason for keeping Facebook is WhatsApp.) In which case, one of the big questions to be answered as societies rebuild once the virus has finally been tamed will be a really difficult one: how should Amazon be regulated?


Why the US now has a health crisis, an economic crisis and a democratic crisis — simultaneously

From this weekend’s Financial Times.


How an actual virus should make one chary of celebrating ‘Going Viral’

Lovely essay by Lee Siegel on the irony that it seems only yesterday when “going viral” was a sign of contemporary online success.

Consider what is now surely the quaint abomination of going “viral.” It was never really clear what was so great about a viral phenomenon anyway, except for the uncertain benefits briefly bestowed on some of those who went viral. If you are swept along with a viral event, then you are robbed of your free will every bit as much as if you were sick.

But so smitten were we by the personal gratification and commercial rewards of going “viral” that we allowed the blithe use of the term to dull our alertness to its dire scientific origins, as well as to what turned out to be the political consequences.

For much of the populace, any proud possessor of viral status was king or queen for at least a day. The eerie images of the virus now stalking humanity, its spikes resembling a crown, are like a deliberate, malevolent mockery of our viral internet royalty.

Writing in “The Tipping Point,” published in 2000 and the bible of viral culture, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how what he calls “emotional contagion” can be a powerful tool for the world’s influencers. He then goes on to make an analogy between the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 — a nightmare long unspeakable, suddenly oft-cited — and his concept of “stickiness,” a precious quality of persuasion that fastens people’s attention on whatever you are trying to sell.

And now? The only way of avoiding ‘going viral’ is to hide away and cut yourself off from society. Suddenly, Siegel writes, “slow the spread” and “flatten the curve” has made “going viral” and “trending” sound like “telephone” and “typewriter.”

Great essay. Worth reading in full.


Quarantine diary — Day 8

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Why do people keep buying Amazon Ring?

I’ve got a good friend who has an Amazon doorbell and seems tickled pink by it. Normally, this would worry me, but he’s a sophisticated techie and I’m sure his security precautions are good.

But that’s definitely not true for most of the thousands of people who are buying the devices.

The New York Times has a helpful piece aimed at these neophytes. It opens with some cautionary notes, though:

The internet-connected doorbell gadget, which lets you watch live video of your front porch through a phone app or website, has gained a reputation as the webcam that spies on you and that has failed to protect your data. Yet people keep buying it in droves.

Ring, which is owned by Amazon and based in Santa Monica, Calif., has generated its share of headlines, including how the company fired four employees over the last four years for watching customers’ videos. Last month, security researchers also found that Ring’s apps contained hidden code, which had shared customer data with third-party marketers. And in December, hackers hijacked the Ring cameras of multiple families, using the devices’ speakers to verbally assault some of them.

How “Don’t Be Evil” panned out

My Observer review of Rana Foroohar’s new book about the tech giants and their implications for our world.

“Don’t be evil” was the mantra of the co-founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the graduate students who, in the late 1990s, had invented a groundbreaking way of searching the web. At the time, one of the things the duo believed to be evil was advertising. There’s no reason to doubt their initial sincerity on this matter, but when the slogan was included in the prospectus for their company’s flotation in 2004 one began to wonder what they were smoking. Were they really naive enough to believe that one could run a public company on a policy of ethical purity?

The problem was that purity requires a business model to support it and in 2000 the venture capitalists who had invested in Google pointed out to the boys that they didn’t have one. So they invented a model that involved harvesting users’ data to enable targeted advertising. And in the four years between that capitulation to reality and the flotation, Google’s revenues increased by nearly 3,590%. That kind of money talks.
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Rana Foroohar has adopted the Google mantra as the title for her masterful critique of the tech giants that now dominate our world…

Read on

Facebook: (yet) another scandalous revelation

If you’re a cynic about corporate power and (lack of) responsibility — as I am — then Facebook is the gift that keeps on giving. Consider this from the NYT this morning:

For years, Facebook gave some of the world’s largest technology companies more intrusive access to users’ personal data than it has disclosed, effectively exempting those business partners from its usual privacy rules, according to internal records and interviews.

The special arrangements are detailed in hundreds of pages of Facebook documents obtained by The New York Times. The records, generated in 2017 by the company’s internal system for tracking partnerships, provide the most complete picture yet of the social network’s data-sharing practices. They also underscore how personal data has become the most prized commodity of the digital age, traded on a vast scale by some of the most powerful companies in Silicon Valley and beyond.

The deals described in the documents benefited more than 150 companies — most of them tech businesses, including online retailers and entertainment sites, but also automakers and media organizations, and include Amazon, Microsoft and Yahoo. Their applications, according to the documents, sought the data of hundreds of millions of people a month, the records show. The deals, the oldest of which date to 2010, were all active in 2017. Some were still in effect this year.

Is there such a condition as scandal fatigue? If there is, then I’m beginning to suffer from it.

Tim Wu’s top ten antitrust targets

He writes:

If antitrust is due for a revival, just what should the antitrust law be doing? What are its most obvious targets? Compiled here (in alphabetical order) , and based on discussions with other antitrust experts, is a collection of the law’s most wanted — the firms or industries that are ripe for investigation.

Amazon
Investigation questions: Does Amazon have buying power in the employee markets in some areas of the country? Does it have market power? Is it improperly favoring its own products over marketplace competitors?

AT&T/WarnerMedia
Investigation question: In light of this, was the trial court’s approval of the AT&T and Time Warner merger clearly in error?

Big Agriculture
Over the last five years, the agricultural seed, fertilizer, and chemical industry has consolidated into four global giants: BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont, and ChemChina. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, seed prices have tripled since the 1990s, and since the mergers, fertilizer prices are up as well.
Investigation question: Were these mergers wrongly approved in the United States and Europe?

Big Pharma
The pharmaceutical industry has a long track record of anticompetitive and extortionary practices, including the abuse of patent rights for anticompetitive purposes and various forms of price gouging.
Investigation and legislative questions: Are there abuses of the patent system that are still ripe for investigation? Can something be done about pharmaceutical price gouging on drugs that are out of patent or, perhaps more broadly, the extortionate increases in the prices of prescription drugs?

Facebook
Having acquired competitors Instagram and WhatsApp in the 2010s in mergers that were arguably illegal, it has repeatedly increased its advertising load, incurred repeat violations of privacy laws, and failed to secure its networks against foreign manipulation while also dealing suspicious blows to competitor Snapchat. No obvious inefficiencies attend its dissolution.
Investigation questions: Should the Instagram and WhatsApp mergers be retroactively dissolved (effectively breaking up the company)? Did Facebook use its market power and control of Instagram and Instagram Stories to illegally diminish Snapchat from 2016–2018?

Google
Investigation question: Has Google anticompetitively excluded its rivals?

Ticketmaster/Live Nation
Investigation questions: Has Live Nation used its power as a promoter to protect Ticketmaster’s monopoly on sales? Was Songkick the victim of an illegal exclusion campaign? Should the Ticketmaster/Live Nation union be dissolved?

T-Mobile/Sprint
Investigation question: Would the merger between T-Mobile and Sprint likely yield higher prices and easier coordination among the three remaining firms?

U.S. Airline Industry
The U.S. airline industry is the exemplar of failed merger review.
Investigation and regulatory questions: Should one or more of the major mergers be reconsidered in light of new evidence? Alternatively, given the return to previous levels of concentration, should firmer regulation be imposed, including baggage and change-fee caps, minimum seat sizes, and other measures?

U.S. Hospitals
Legislative question: Should Congress or the states impose higher levels of scrutiny for health care and hospital mergers?
Investigation question: In light of this, was the trial court’s approval of the AT&T and Time Warner merger clearly in error?

Sic transit gloria

The New York Times today reports that Sears, which more than a century ago pioneered the strategy of selling everything to everyone, filed for bankruptcy protection early on Monday. In terms of ambition, its only rival is Amazon, but even Amazon hasn’t yet got round to selling houses in kit form, as Sears did as long ago as 1908. Here’s one from the catalogue: two bedrooms, two reception rooms, a kitchen and a splendid porch — yours for $1248.00. No mention of a bathroom, though.

Amazon’s minimum wage

Interesting commentary by Alex Tabarrok:

Amazon’s widely touted increase in its minimum wage was accompanied by an ending of their monthly bonus plan, which often added 8% to a worker’s salary (16% during holiday season), and its stock share program which recently gave workers shares worth $3,725 at two years of employment. I’m reasonably confident that most workers will still benefit on net, simply because the labor market is tight, but it’s clear that the increase in the minimum wage was not as generous as it first appeared…

Worth reading in full.