Saturday 26 September, 2020

A message from the cloud appreciation society

From our coastal walk on Thursday.


Quote of the Day

”An expert is someone who knows the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject and who manages to avoid them.”

  • Werner Heisenberg

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler & Chet Atkins playing I’ll see you in my dreams and Imagine live at the Secret Policeman’s Third Ball 1987.

Link


Thinking about Lincoln

I’ve been thinking about Abraham Lincoln a good deal ever since I listened to David Runciman’s unmissable podcasted talk about Max Weber’s famous lecture “Politics as a Vocation”, delivered to students in Munich in 1919. Towards the end of his talk, David identifies Lincoln as the politician who comes closest to meeting Weber’s stringent requirements for a democratic leader, and so I’ve been driven to digging out Gore Vidal’s famous historical novel about him and other stuff.

Today, I came on Adam Gopnik’s roundup essay in the New Yorker on a raft of contemporary biographies of Lincoln, which of course I dived into and found myself transfixed by this wonderful photograph of him which I’d never seen before. It’s such a revealing portrait of its subject.

Lincoln was famously ungainly and physically awkward. Gopnik retells the story of when he was President and his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, compared him to a baboon. Asked how he could endure such an insult, Lincoln replied: “That is no insult; it is an expression of opinion; and what troubles me most about it is that Stanton said it, and Stanton is usually right.”

Gopnik’s argument is that historians’ visions of Lincoln have been shaped by their own political landscapes and cultural contexts. Which neatly explains why he has been much on our minds at the moment. And isn’t it weird — looking at the current GOP — that he was a Republican!


Ireland might yet be forced to accept that €13 billion in back tax from Apple

This is straight out of the you-couldn’t-make-it-up department.

Way back in 2016 the European Commission issued a ruling that Ireland had given Apple a “sweetheart deal” that let the company pay significantly lower taxes than other businesses. “Member States cannot give tax benefits to selected companies — this is illegal under EU state aid rules,” the EU’s antitrust Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said in 2016.

The commission ordered Apple to pay €13 billion ($14.9 billion) in back taxes to the Irish government. Needless to say, Apple disputed the decision, with CEO Tim Cook calling the judgment “total political crap.” But — here’s the startling bit — the Irish government also appealed the decision! This must be the first recorded case of a cash-strapped government facing Brexit campaigning not to receive enough dosh to run the country’s health service for a year or two.

In July this year In July, the General Court of the EU annulled the 2016 ruling on the grounds that that the commission had failed to make its case. “The commission did not succeed in showing to the requisite legal standard that there was an advantage” for Apple, they declared, and “the commission did not prove, in its alternative line of reasoning, that the contested tax rulings were the result of discretion exercised by the Irish tax authorities.”

On Friday the Commission announced that it will appeal the court’s July ruling, with Vestager saying in a statement that the court “has made a number of errors of law.”

“The General Court has repeatedly confirmed the principle that, while Member States have competence in determining their taxation laws taxation, they must do so in respect of EU law, including State aid rules,” Vestager said. “If Member States give certain multinational companies tax advantages not available to their rivals, this harms fair competition in the European Union in breach of State aid rules.”

Quite so.

A detached observer might ask why the Irish government took the line it did in this case. The short answer is that since 1958 the prime strategy of the Irish state has to carve out an economic future for a small island by being nice to giant foreign companies (especially US ones). So if it were obliged to take a more hands-off stance to these giants — even as some of them, especially Facebook and Google (both with their European HQs in Dublin) are turning toxic — then it would be changing the habits of several political lifetimes.

This one will run for a while yet.


Why we need satire

From the (consistently funny) current issue of Private Eye — sometimes the only publication that keeps UK residents sane and the moment.


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Thursday 20 August, 2020

Clean break?


Quote of the Day

“Hypocrisy is the most difficult and nerve-wracking vice that any man can pursue; it needs an unceasing vigilance and a rare detachment of spirit. It cannot, unlike adultery or gluttony, be practised at rare moments; it is a whole-time job.”

  • Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale, chapter 1.

Now why does this remind me of Boris Johnson?


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Andres Segovia Plays Minuet and Trio by Joseph Haydn

Link


Apple is now a $2 trillion company

Which only goes to show the disconnect between the stock market and the real world. More evidence is provided by the Tesla market cap.


Text and video of Barack Obama’s speech to the 2020 Democratic Convention

Text can be found here

Link to video


Truth decay: when uncertainty is weaponized

Terrific review in Nature by Felicity Lawrence of David Michaels’s new book, The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception. Sample:

These are indeed upside-down times, as epidemiologist and former safety regulator David Michaels demonstrates in his excoriating account of the corporate denial industry, The Triumph of Doubt. Unwelcome news is automatically rebranded fake news. Inconvenient evidence from independent sources — say, about climate breakdown and fossil fuels, or air pollution and diesel emissions — is labelled junk science and countered with rigged studies claiming to be sound.

But it would be wrong to see truth decay solely as the preserve of today’s populist politicians. Normalizing the production of alternative facts is a project long in the making. Consultancy firms that specialize in defending products from tobacco to industrial chemicals that harm the public and the environment have made a profession of undermining truth for decades. They hire mercenary scientists to fulfil a crucial role as accessories to their misrepresentations.

Michaels was among the first scientists to identify this denial machine, in his 2008 book Doubt is Their Product. His latest work combines an authoritative synthesis of research on the denial machine published since then with his own new insights gleaned from battles to control the toxic effects of a range of substances. He takes on per- and polyfluoroalkyls, widely used in non-stick coatings, textiles and firefighting foams; the harmful effects of alcohol and sugar; the disputed role of the ubiquitous glyphosate-based pesticides in cancer; and the deadly epidemic of addiction to prescribed opioid painkillers. In each case, Michaels records how the relevant industry has used a toolbox of methods to downplay the risks of its products, spreading disinformation here, hiding evidence of harm there, undermining authorities — all tactics from the tobacco industry’s playbook…


How to fix a lethal aircraft

Step 1: Get advice from the President

Step 2: Implement it

Boeing Press Release issued today:

WARSAW, Poland, Aug. 19, 2020 – Boeing [NYSE: BA] and Enter Air today announced the Polish airline is expanding its commitment to the 737 family with a new order for two 737-8 airplanes plus options for two more jets.

No mention of the 737 MAX. Yet that’s what Enter Air is actually buying.

HT to Cory Doctorow for spotting it.

Remind me never to fly Enter Air.


Summer books #9

The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson, Norton, 2018.

A truly extraordinary and beautiful book: Homer’s epic translated in vigorous, pellucid prose. It has exactly the same number of lines as the original. And the pages are rough-cut to encourage the suspension of disbelief. Here’s how it begins:

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered on the sea, and how he worked
to save his life and bring his men back home.
He failed, and for their own mistakes, they died.
They ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.

Wonderful.


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Wednesday 8 July, 2020

Quote of the Day

“What was crystal clear is that drunk people can’t/won’t socially distance.”

  • John Apter, chairman of the UK’s police union, on what he’s learned from the decision to reopen pubs.

And of course they won’t wear masks either.


Publishing news!

New softback edition of Little Brother and Homeland is out, with an introduction by Edward Snowden. I’ve just ordered a copy.


Warehousing has become the new manufacturing.

From a terrific Financial Times piece on whether ‘critical workers’ will be properly paid after the pandemic crisis has eased.

Driven by ecommerce and the consumer economy, it has become an industry that employs many of the school leavers who 50 years ago might have taken jobs at Caterpillar or Ford factories.

While US manufacturing employment shrank 26 per cent to 12.7m people over the two decades to 2019, warehousing employment grew 141 per cent to 1.2m, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some of that growth has been fuelled by the use of low-paid, non-union staff with little job security.

Amazon instituted a $15 minimum hourly wage across the US in 2018 — double the $7.25 federal minimum. But warehouse workers make less in real terms than their factory predecessors: in 2018, the average transportation and warehousing employee in Will County, a former manufacturing hub in the Chicago suburbs, earned $43,000, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. That matches the average annual wage for a manufacturing employee — in 1998.

The mass industries of the Fordist economy evaporated, and with them the trade unions and class solidarity that characterised the era. What’s replaced them is atomising, alienating, individualising management-by-algorithms with no worker benefits, no stability and no security net.


Apple has a choice to make

From John Thornhill…

Apple has an interesting choice to make. It can simply tough out this regulatory scrutiny while it continues to generate an estimated $1bn of revenue a month from the App Store. It can count on the EU taking years to reach a ruling while the US Congress may never legislate. For some big tech companies, fines have become no more than the cost of doing business.

Yet Apple may also see virtue in defanging the most critical of its 23m developers by modifying the way the App Store operates to benefit all parties. The history of Microsoft in the 1990s is instructive. While Bill Gates was running the company, Microsoft was contemptuous of complainants and regulators, and ended up entangled in distracting legal fights for 16 years before finally rebooting its own culture. Led by the more consensual Satya Nadella, it has vaulted back to rival Apple as the top US companies by market capitalisation.

It is pretty certain that Jobs would have adopted Mr Gates’s combative approach. But that does not make it right for Apple today. It may make more sense, and may ultimately make Apple more money, for it to repay its cultural debt and negotiate more flexible terms with disgruntled developers.

The analogy with Bill Gates is spot-on.


Here’s what worries me about Mary Trump’s memoir

I’ve just been reading about it in the New York Times. It seems to be a tell-all account of a massively dysfunctional family headed by a psychopathic patriarch — Donald Trump’s father, Fred.

My concern is that if too many get to read the story they may begin to feel sorry for Trump, who will then be able to portray himself as a victim.


Tom Friedman on what Joe Biden must insist on before he agrees to a TV debate with Trump

From Friedman’s column

First, Biden should declare that he will take part in a debate only if Trump releases his tax returns for 2016 through 2018. Biden has already done so, and they are on his website. Trump must, too. No more gifting Trump something he can attack while hiding his own questionable finances.

And second, Biden should insist that a real-time fact-checking team approved by both candidates be hired by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates — and that 10 minutes before the scheduled conclusion of the debate this team report on any misleading statements, phony numbers or outright lies either candidate had uttered. That way no one in that massive television audience can go away easily misled.

Debates always have ground rules. Why can’t telling the truth and equal transparency on taxes be conditions for this one?

I don’t often agree with Friedman, and I think Trump should be allowed to continue to destroy his chances without any help from the Democratic candidate. But Friedman is right about these conditions if Biden does go ahead.


Birdbrain rules ok

This I loved.

Link


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Sunday 28 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

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


A family outing

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

Click on the image to see a larger version.


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

This morning’s Observer column:

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

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

Read on


Thinking of moving to the US? Listen to this first

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

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


Anne Case and Angus Deaton interviewed by Der Spiegel

Link. Interesting throughout. For example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve just got their book.


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

Astonishing — and depressing — NYT story.

Sigh.


Quarantine diary — Day 99

Link


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Friday 8 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

“The TV business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. For the most part, they are dirty little animals with huge brains and no pulse”

  • Hunter S Thompson

From blood clots to ‘Covid toe’: the medical mysteries of coronavirus

Terrific FT explainer — outside the paywall. If you think SARS-CoV-2 is just “another kind of flu,” think again.


Contact tracing (contd.)

It’s one of those areas where it’s genuinely difficult to know what’s the best approach. The problem that the UK has is that its government failed at the outset (for reasons we can debate endlessly) to adopt a classic track and trace approach. So it’s trying to play catch-up.

Struggling with the topic this morning I made some notes. Here they are:

  1. There’s a dangerous aura of tech-solutionism about the idea that an app is the thing that will solve our problems. That’s clearly baloney. But…

  2. It’s an inventive way to approach the problem in a society like the UK with a large population — provided that it’s complemented by more human resources than the UK currently possesses.

  3. There seem to be only two broad paradigms here for app design — roughly described as decentralised and centralised. The decentralised approach keepts the data on the phone; the other keeps it on a centralised database of some kind.

  4. Up to now, I’ve tended to side with the decentralised approach, on the grounds of (i) avoiding state surveillance and the dangers of ‘mission-creep’ that we’ve seen after other crises (like 9/11); (ii) concerns about the security of such a centralised database (surely a juicy target for state-level hackers); (iii) it gives individuals more agency; and (iv) a hunch that the Apple-Google API was likely to be better than other approaches, partly because of their intimate knowledge of their two smartphone platforms but also because they would know how to mitigate battery-draining properties of BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) apps.

  5. But since this was mainly half-informed guesswork on my part, I decided to read up on the NHSx approach.

(The FT has a really good explanation of the NHSx app, btw. And it’s outside the paper’s paywall.

Ian Levy from the National Cyber security Centre has provided a pretty thorough briefing on it which is worth reading in its entirety. The key difference between decentralised and centralised approaches, he says, is that in the first approach every user of the app gets some understanding of who is declared ill (and that list keeps being updated) but the public health authority – by design – knows pretty much nothing about who’s ill.

Crucially, while the health authority would know the anonymous identity of the app that’s reported symptoms (or sometimes just a Bluetooth broadcast value) it wouldn’t know any of the contacts (even anonymously), and so won’t know anything about how that user may have spread the disease.

In the centralised approach, on the other hand,

an ill user reports their symptoms, but also gives all their anonymous contacts to the public health authority, along with some details about the type of contact they’ve had (duration and proximity for example). The health authority can use risk modelling to decide which contacts are most at risk, and then notify them to take some action – again probably self isolation to start with. Importantly, the public health authority has anonymous data to help it understand how the disease appears to be spreading, and has the anonymous contact graphs to carry out some analysis. So the health authority could discover that a particular anonymous person seems to infect people really well. While the system wouldn’t know who they are, encounters with them could be scored as more risky, and adjust the risk of someone being infected by a particular encounter appropriately.

The fundamental argument underpinning the NHSx team’s decision to go for the centralised model is that they believe that it offers better public health benefits. To which sceptics will retort, pace Mandy Rice-Davies, well, they would, wouldn’t they?

There are lots of differences [between the decentralised approach and the NHSx one], but given the epidemiological model the NHS is using to manage the coronavirus spread in the UK, the fully decentralised model just doesn’t seem to work.

There’s an analogy with Typhoid Mary and the Broad Street water pumps examples. If all you knew was that there were some typhoid cases in New York (or some cholera cases in a bit of London) you’d never see the pattern. But if the fact that Mary (or the pump) were implicated in all of the cases, then it becomes obvious. Obviously, users are anonymous in the app (so you can’t identify the person) and it doesn’t have location, but it’s only an analogy! You need to look at the aggregate data (anonymously in our case) to be able to see these patterns.

In the end, the choice you have to make is a balance between individual, group and national privacy, and the public health authorities having the minimum information necessary to manage the spread of the virus. The NHS app is designed to balance those things, minimizing the data the health authorities get to that necessary to respond with protecting the privacy of our users. There are many ways of implementing these things, but the NHS app is a good balance in the team’s view.

That’s the bird’s eye view. On the ground, however, there’s a lot of mundane detail to be sorted out with either approach. For example:

  • Do the apps drain smartphone batteries? If they do then people won’t use them, or won’t keep using them for long enough. Ian Levy’s paper claims that the NHSx app won’t drain batteries. There seems to be some controversy about this
  • Will the app run on older smartphones that many people are likely to use? An investigation by Privacy International found a number of Android phones on which it wouldn’t run.
  • Both the decentralised and centralised approaches rely on Bluetooth LE. Since Bluetooth goes through, for example, plasterboard walls, there’s a likelihood (or at least a risk) of getting misleading results (false positives) in crowded environments.
  • Finally, there’s the fact that none of these apps will be mandatory. At least that’s the position for now, and it’s difficult to see how governments in democracies could change it. Moreover, the take-up needs to be substantial — maybe 60% — before the real benefits kick in.

So overall, probably the critical thing is whether users will trust an app enough to install and use it. After all, all smartphone-based approaches require people to confide to the app that they think they might be infected. Such a confession will have socially-differentiated consequences: for middle-class people, who can easily self-isolate and work from home, etc, no problem; but for those for whom confession might mean staying away from work, it’s tougher — unless the government moves firmly to support them while they’re under quarantine. My other conclusion from spending a day reading and thinking about this is that the surveillance/privacy aspects of this will not be a major consideration for most citizens, no matter how exercised Privacy International and civil liberties groups (and, for that matter, this blogger) might say or think. The virus is so terrifying that most people will do anything that might reduce its spread and the possibility that they themselves might catch it. So, in a way, Paul Romer (quoted in yesterday’s blog) is probably right when he said this:

I’m not worried about the privacy issues, because it’s kind of, like, “Compared to what?” I think we’ve got enormous problems with surveillance right now. This doesn’t seem to me to make it much worse. But I was participating in digital discussions about response to the crisis, and the meeting would go like this: “We need more testing.” Financial people said, “Yep, we got it.” “We need masks and protective equipment.” “Yep, fine.” “And then we need to have the digital contact tracing.” And then, all of a sudden, the whole meeting is taken up with hand-wringing and anxiety and all kinds of fears.


Google pulls out of Toronto ‘Sidewalk’ project

Amazingly good news. Looks that they jumped before they were pushed. Campaigning works.

_________________________________________________________________ 

The Ivy League will be ok. It’s public universities — and their students — who will suffer most from the pandemic and its aftermath

Great New Yorker piece .

______________________________________________________________________ 

Finding endless video calls exhausting? You’re not alone

I was musing about this in yesterday’s Quarantine Diary. This piece by Andre Spicer suggests that I was on the right track.

_____________________________________________________________________ 

And in case you’re depressed by what’s going on in the US

Why not try this — from McSweeney’s.

Good send-up of the Trump mindset. It’s witty and clever. But, sadly, it’s not a joke.

Thanks to Charles Arthur for the link.


Quarantine diary — Day 48

Link


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Monday 27 April, 2020

If you wanted evidence of the dramatic shift of power from governments to tech giants, then this is it

In my Observer column of 19 April I wrote about the decision of

the two huge tech companies that control mobile phone technology – Apple with its iOS operating system and Google with Android – to create application programming interfaces (APIs) that will enable governments to build and deploy proximity-tracking apps on every smartphone in the world. This is remarkable in two ways. One, it involves cooperation between the two members of a global duopoly that would normally trigger antitrust suits – yet there hasn’t been even a whimper from competition authorities. And two, the companies insist that if governments do not comply with the conditions that they – Apple and Google – are laying down, then they will withdraw the APIs. The specific condition is that apps using the APIs are not mandatory for citizens. They have to be opt-in. So here we have two powerful global corporations laying down the law to territorial sovereigns. Unthinkable a month ago. But now…

After the Apple/Google announcement there was widespread speculation that European and other governments which were contemplating centralised proximity-sensing apps would be moving towards decentralised systems and pressuring the companies to back off their ‘opt-in’ stipulation.

And now?

Reuters is reporting that Germany, which until last Friday was backing a centralised standard called Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT), which would have needed Apple in particular to change the settings on its iPhones. But,

When Apple refused to budge there was no alternative but to change course, said a senior government source.

In their joint statement, Braun and Spahn said Germany would now adopt a “strongly decentralised” approach.

“This app should be voluntary, meet data protection standards and guarantee a high level of IT security,” they said. “The main epidemiological goal is to recognise and break chains of infection as soon as possible.”

This is just the latest example of a major trend which has serious implications for democracy. It’s what Frank Pasquale identified long ago as the ceding of territorial sovereignty to functional sovereigns, i.e. tech giants.


Cummings and SAGE meetings

Further to my suspicions about the influence of Dominic Cummings following the revelations that he was attending meetings of the ‘independent’ SAGE scientific advisory group…

In the interesting interview that Professor Neil Ferguson (a member of SAGE) gave to Unherd he says that “Dominic Cummings observed, but did not get involved in decision-making at SAGE”. That doesn’t quite settle the matter. I don;t know what the dynamics of decision making are in No 10, but my understanding is that Cummings has ready access to Johnson and it’s conceivable that his summary of SAGE views might have made an impression on the Prime Minister; After all he’s made a good living all his life by telling stories that were simple, memorable and wrong. And Cummings likes vivid, dramatic propositions. Pukka scientists, on the other hand, tend to favour reservations, probabilities and doubt, none of which make for vivid stories.

It will be a long time before we learn what actually went on, but in the meantime Professor Chris Tyler of UCL, whose research area is how politicians use scientific advice has some interesting reflections on the current controversy about Cummings’s role in all this. “A key question for me”, he writes,

is what role Cummings was playing on SAGE. There is a potential spectrum of engagement with the group which at one end is perfectly acceptable and at the other is completely unacceptable.

It could well be that Cummings wanted to listen to SAGE discussions so that he could gain an understanding of how the debate within SAGE led to its summaries and recommendations. This to my mind would be fine. After all, in conditions of extreme uncertainty, like with COVID-19, the debate is at least as important as the conclusions of deliberation.

One might argue that his very presence could impede on the independence of the advice. But I would contend that the members of SAGE are all grown-ups and can act independently even when being observed.

But what if the Guardian report that “Downing Street advisers were not merely observing the advisory meetings, but actively participating in discussions about the formation of advice” is accurate?

Interestingly, the notion of SAGE being independent appears nowhere in its 64 pages of guidelines. Even though everyone “knows” that SAGE should be independent, the government’s official guidelines do not recognise this “fact”. As a first step, the 2012 SAGE guidelines should now be updated to outline the role of SAGE – which should include “independence” – and instructions as to when and if it is appropriate for political advisers to be present and, if so, what role they should play.

In order for us to ascertain the role played by Cummings or any other future political adviser, the minutes of SAGE meetings must be made public. The government clearly believes that the advice provided to it by SAGE should be private, but that runs counter to its own guidance on how science advisory committees should work, which calls for “openness and transparency”.

The problem with not being open and transparent is that it is impossible for parliament, the media and researchers to scrutinise what is going on. What is the advice the government is being given? Is government really following that advice? Who is giving it?

Which brings up back to Cummings. As Charles Arthur observed this morning,

When Cummings was ill with Covid-19, for about two weeks, the government’s response to the media had a much calmer tone. Now he’s back it’s angrier, more Trump-ish in its out-of-hand dismissals of well-sourced stories when then turn out to be correct, and important.


YouGov: Only 9% of Britons want life to return to “normal” after the coronavirus outbreak is over

Hmmm… I wonder if this is the case. Or is it just fond hopes that will not survive the new reality?

According to this summary

  • People have noticed significant changes during the lockdown, including cleaner air, more wildlife and stronger communities.
  • More than half (54%) of 4,343 people who took part in the poll hope they will make some changes in their own lives and for the country as a whole to learn from the crisis.
  • >42% of participants said they value food and other essentials more since the pandemic, with 38% cooking from scratch more.
  • 61% of people are spending less money and 51% noticed cleaner air outdoors, while 27% think there is more wildlife.
  • Two-fifths said there is a stronger sense of community in their area since the outbreak began and 39% say they are catching up with friends and family more.

Quarantine diary — Day 37

Link


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Friday 7 February, 2020

The Digital Dictators: How technology strengthens autocracies

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

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

Long essay. Worth reading in full.


Why do people buy SUVs?

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

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

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

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

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


Remembering George Steiner

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

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

May he rest in peace.


How public intellectuals can extend their shelf lives

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


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

From Jon Gruber:

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

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

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


Sunday 2 February, 2020

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

This morning’s Observer column

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

Do read the entire piece


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

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

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

_________________________ 

Presidential power and the Net

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

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

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

Then Commissioner Rosenworcel turns to her audience:

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

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

“This language”, says Rosenworcel,

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday 25 January 2020

The ecosystem matters more than the device

I’ve been an Apple user ever since 1978. But for many years, I also used PCs, particularly during the period of Apple’s decline (the absence of Steve Jobs, I guess). I stopped using Windows entirely in 1999 and have since used only Apple stuff (and, occasionally, Linux boxes). People sometimes ask me why am I content continually to pay the Apple ‘premium’: after all, Lenovo, HP et al make pretty good stuff too. The answer is that over the years I’ve built an app ecosystem around my workflow, and any device I buy has to fit seamlessly into that.

Which is why I found “ The MacPro is more than what’s in the box” interesting. It’s written by the owner of a small video production and post-production company which for almost 20 years has been through several generations of Mac desktops (and even had a “painful period” with Windows kit). Like me, they are

entrenched in an Apple ecosystem. We have iPhones and iPads and AppleTVs and MacPros and MacBooks and Watches and peripherals and accessories and so on and so on. This harmony between all the devices adds to the overall efficiency and synergy in the office and in our personal lives. This alone is a huge cost savings to us. All the equipment works the same way with the same or similar interfaces and the same communication pipeline. We don’t spend extra time trying to figure out or adapt to new software ecosystems.

Yep. So the kit is more expensive, but when you factor in the ecosystem it’s probably worth paying the premium.


Quote of the Day

“Don’t find customers for your products, find products for your customers”

  • Seth Godin

Wednesday 22 January, 2020

What happens after the Senate acquits Trump?

I’ve just been listening to The Daily podcast about the Impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton. Am struck by the fact that there are a few similarities, but also some radical differences. The biggest differences are that (a) in the Clinton case there was cross-party consensus to avoid the hysterically partisan circus that had been staged in the House when drawing up the charges; and (b) that the two party leaders in the Senate worked together to get the job done. Clinton was acquitted because on neither count was there any prospect of a two-thirds majority. Then everything went back to normal: Clinton served to the end of his term, even though he was clearly guilty of perjury, but otherwise was regarded as a functional president.

With the Trump trial, there is zero consensus in the Senate, and the leader of the Republican majority seems to be liaising with the defendant on how the trial should be conducted. There is zero chance of conviction. And while Clinton was clearly a scumbag in certain respects, the crimes and misdemeanours of which he was accused did not involve conspiring with agents of a foreign country to act in his domestic political interests. He just couldn’t keep his trousers on.

So when Trump walks free from this charade, what next? The whole thing has been a blatant demonstration that the Constitution doesn’t protect the republic from a president who seeks to use the power of the office entirely for his own benefit. It will show that he can behave with Complete impunity. Maybe he could indeed shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still escape justice (as he once said). So what’s the difference now between the USA and a monarchy?


As Capability Brown Envisaged it

He designed this landscape.


The new MacBook Pro: thicker, heavier, better — and pricier

Starts at £2399 and goes to £5769 fully loaded. Useful review here. Can’t see any reason for upgrading from my trusty MacBook Pro.