Wednesday 8 April, 2020

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

Find it here

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


The economic consequences of the virus

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

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


New app collects the sounds of COVID-19

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

“Having spoken to doctors”, Cecilia said,

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


Quarantine diary — Day 18

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Saturday 4 April, 2020

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One of the Zoom memes circulating on social media.


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

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


Boredom? Nah

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


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

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

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

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


The Briefing Room

Terrific Radio 4 programme this morning on the Coronavirus.

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

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

A model of what public service broadcasting is for.


Quarantine diary – Day 14

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Thursday 2 April, 2020

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

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

But just look at the tabloids.

Interesting ne c’est pas?

Images from Peter Foster – @pmdfoster


Roots of the UK’s Covid-19 fiasco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earlier in the document, it says:

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

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

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

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


Some good news

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


Being together alone

This is just wonderful IMHO

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

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Thanks to GDV for the link


Quarantine diary — Day 12

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Wednesday 1 April, 2020

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On this day…

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

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

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

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


David Silver wins the ACM Computing prize

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

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


Peter Sinclair RIP

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

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

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

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


Why weren’t we ready?

Terrific investigation by Harry Lambert.

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

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

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


Quarantine diary — Day 11

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Tuesday 31 March, 2020

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The impending haircut crisis

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

Source

Next step: corner the market in pudding basins.

The blogging renaissance

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


How the pandemic will end

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Quarantine diary — Day 10

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Monday 30 March, 2020

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Can’t go to that concert? Try this instead.

It’s a wonderful example of what a family of imaginative musicians can do under lockdown conditions. Wish I could sing like that. (Even in the bath.)

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Unintended consequence of an earlier pandemic

Cambridge University (where I work) is currently closed because of the virus. Lots of wags have already pointed out that the last time it was closed was in 1665 and Isaac Newton, who was then a scholar at Trinity College, left the University on two occasions to escape the plague and went back to his family home in Woolsthorpe in Lincolnshire. “In those days”, he later wrote, “I was in the prime of my age for invention & minded Mathematics & Philosophy more than at any time since.” So the discovery of gravity was an unexpected byproduct of the plague, a bit like non-stick frying pans were an unintended benefit of the Moon program.

Woolsthorpe is now run by the National Trust and is well worth a visit once things return to some semblance of normality. In the garden is an ancient apple tree that is supposedly a descendant of the tree from which the apple famously dropped onto the boy’s head.

My favourite cartoon (I think it was in the New Yorker but can’t confirm that at the moment), showed Newton looking down at the apple on the ground and rubbing the bump on his head. “Now comes the hard part”, he’s saying. “Getting a research grant to write it up”. (This will appeal to many early-career researchers.)


The National Theatre is streaming some of its plays

The NT is currently closed to live audiences. But Time Out reports that it has come up with an imaginative idea for discharging its cultural obligations as the country’s national theatre — streaming a play every Thursday evening. The current schedule is:

  • April 2 ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ by Richard Bean, starring James Corden.
  • April 9 ‘Jane Eyre’, adapted by Sally Cookson.
  • April 16 ‘Treasure Island’, adapted by Bryony Lavery.
  • April 23 ‘Twelfth Night’ by William Shakespeare, starring Tamsin Greig.

In addition, the NT will be rolling out National Theatre Collection study-resources to pupils who are now learning at home.

Live performances won’t restart until at least July.


Learning by doing

Almost everything I know about blogging I’ve learned from Dave Winer who — as I’ve often pointed out is not only a pioneer of the medium but also a great practitioner. A while back, he decided to make his blog, Scripting News, available as a daily email, and I was immediately struck by how useful that was — even to a reader like me who tried to visit the URL every day. So I decided to do the same with Memex 1.1 as it became clear that I would have to self-isolate and would therefore be working from home all the time.

The experiment has had a similar effect. Readership is significantly up, which is gratifying. But also so is engagement. I’m getting emails from readers — some of them very moving — about the impact something I’ve written or pointed to has had on them, as they endure the privations imposed by the pandemic. And — a really nice surprise — many people seem to like the audio Quarantine Diary. It’s all very well talking about the ‘authorial voice’ as embodied in print/type, but it seems that audio reaches parts that print doesn’t. Again, this may be an artefact of the strange times we’re currently living in. But it’s still striking…

I had a lovely email today from a reader in Germany who had been listening to Friday’s diary entry on David Brook’s NYT column and was struck by the idea of fighting fear with conversation. It reminded my correspondent of a passage in Hannah Arendt’s Men in Dark Times:

“However much we are affected by the things of the world, however deeply they may stir and stimulate us, they become human for us only when we can discuss them with our fellows. Whatever cannot become the object of discourse – the truly sublime, the truly horrible or the uncanny – may find human voice through which to sound into the world, but it is not exactly human. We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.”

And while I’m on the topic, I should say that the audio diary idea was also sparked by the natural way in which Dave Winer often incorporates speech into his daily blog posts.


Quarantine Diary – Day 9

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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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Thursday 26 March, 2020

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Quote of the Day

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither.”

  • Benjamin Franklin

Should we cross the privacy Rubicon? Will we?

Maciej Ceglowski, a great privacy campaigner and one of the best online essayists around, (and also proprietor of Pinboard.in the best bookmarking site on the Internet) uses the Franklin quote above in a sobering reflection on the Coronavirus pandemic. His essay is prompted by the ongoing (and intensifying) debate about whether the current ‘lockdown+isolation’ strategy for ‘flattening the curve’ of infections) is economically, psychologically and politically sustainable.

Everybody knows that even when we’re through the initial crisis the disease will not have been eliminated. It’ll be back in waves, hopefully of lesser intensity and reach, and each wave may necessitate a briefer return to another lockdown regime. So the economic and other consequences could continue, perhaps for 18 months or more.

What should we do, therefore, after the initial outbreak is contained — or at least rendered manageable in terms of health-service capacity? Ideally, we should have a managed return to work with people who have had the virus and recovered from it (and thereby acquired immunity) able to work normally. But we can’t do that safely unless we have a vaccine (months away at best, a year at worst) or a way of identifying who is infectious and capable of infecting others.

There’s already a strategy for doing the latter task: test extensively and track contacts of those who are infections. That’s what South Korea, Taiwan and China seem to have been able to do. But in the UK we’re still ages away from being able to roll out a large-scale testing programme. (Getting testing up and running at scale is pretty challenging.) We will get there eventually, though, and when we do the next task will be to track the contacts of every infected person.

Trouble is: that kind of tracking is incredibly labour-intensive. But, says Ceglowski,

we could automate large parts of it with the technical infrastructure of the surveillance economy. It would not take a great deal to turn the ubiquitous tracking tools that follow us around online into a sophisticated public health alert system.

Every one of us now carries a mobile tracking device that leaves a permanent trail of location data. This data is individually identifiable, precise to within a few meters, and is harvested by a remarkable variety of devices and corporations, including the large tech companies, internet service providers, handset manufacturers, mobile companies, retail stores.

Anyone who has this data can retroactively reconstruct the movements of a person of interest, and track who they have been in proximity to over the past several days. Such a data set, combined with aggressive testing, offers the potential to trace entire chains of transmission in real time, and give early warning to those at highest risk.

So it’s possible to do it. Doing so will probably enable a return to some kind of economic normality. But if we use the technology for this purpose we will have crossed the Rubicon into nightmare territory. And if we do cross, there’s unlikely to be a way back — because once states have acquired access to this technology, they rarely give it up. So will we do it?

Ceglowski thinks that we should. After all, he says,

This proposal doesn’t require us to give up any liberty that we didn’t already sacrifice long ago, on the altar of convenience. The terrifying surveillance infrastructure this project requires exists and is maintained in good working order in the hands of private industry, where it is entirely unregulated and is currently being used to try to sell people skin cream. Why not use it to save lives?

The most troubling change this project entails is giving access to sensitive location data across the entire population to a government agency. Of course that is scary, especially given the track record of the Trump administration. The data collection would also need to be coercive (that is, no one should be able to opt out of it, short of refusing to carry a cell phone). As with any government surveillance program, there would be the danger of a ratchet effect, where what is intended as an emergency measure becomes the permanent state of affairs, like happened in the United States in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“I am a privacy activist”, Ceglowski writes, “typing this through gritted teeth”.

But I am also a human being like you, watching a global calamity unfold around us. What is the point of building this surveillance architecture if we can’t use it to save lives in a scary emergency like this one?

Great essay. Worth reading in full.


Quarantine diary — Day 5

Link


Monday 23 March, 2020

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Black humour

I watched Boris Johnson’s live press conference from Downing Street yesterday and found myself marvelling at the dark irony of a man who has behaved with grotesque irresponsibility throughout his entire adult life railing against citizens who were behaving irresponsibly by not obeying injunctions about social distancing.


CV takes on a new meaning

Dave Winer (whom God preserve) has decided to start calling the disease CV on his blog. Smart move, and saves typing. I’ve never maintained a proper CV, really, and hope that I don’t acquire this new type either.


Podcasting comes into its own

It’s the second draft of history, in a way. And it’s not radio, for all kinds of reasons — one of which is that it has higher cognitive bandwidth because mostly it’s coming through your headphones and getting more of your attention. The New York Times‘s The Daily is playing a blinder at the moment. The interview with Governor Cuomo, for example, is one of the best things I’ve heard in months. Or the episode in which they spoke to an Italian doctor who’s having to triage patient care at the heart of his country’s crisis.


Why we need Wikipedia more than ever

Great article in Slate’s Future Tense series on how Wikipedia is addressing the information and knowledge challenges posed by the pandemic. Sample:

In the midst of the fast-paced editing, some Wikipedians are thinking about the role that the project is playing during this crisis. Last week, William Beutler made a persuasive case on his blog, the Wikipedian, that there should be a dedicated space on Wikipedia’s front page for coronavirus news that would easily catch readers’ attention. “Like it or not, Wikipedia is in a unique position to point information-hungry citizens around the world to better information than they can find almost anywhere else,” Beutler wrote. On Monday Wikipedia updated its front page with the new coronavirus news feature in line with Beutler’s suggestion. But the debate between editors about the proposal was contentious. Highlighting news about the pandemic arguably goes against another of the site’s content policies: Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and “not a newspaper.” Then again, that distinction raises tricky questions, like, what’s the difference between a journalist and an encyclopedist who are both chronicling a pandemic in real time?

Rather than going down that particular rabbit hole, however, it’s probably better to highlight how the information about the coronavirus on Wikipedia is truly serving the reading public, or as some volunteer editors jokingly put it, “the customer.” Personally, I appreciate English Wikipedia’s category table, which neatly organizes English Wikipedia’s 200-plus articles about the subject. These pages are neatly grouped by subtopics, like the financial impact of the coronavirus or its effect on tourism. Overall, the way the Wikipedians have been organizing the information and summarizing it reminds me of a high school history textbook—except that this one is being written in real time, with thousands of authors making thousands of changes.

Wikipedia is one of the wonders of the world. Whenever I run into people who are sniffy about it because of a mistake they found on it, my response is: so why haven’t you corrected it? And to people who tell me how wonderful it is I say: so when did you last make a donation to help it keep going?


Quarantine Diary – Day 2


Tuesday 17 March, 2020

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Quote of the Day

“Hope is itself a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords”.

  • Dr. Johnson

The Luck of the Irish

Since this is St Patrick’s Day and my fellow countrymen and women are in semi-lockdown because of the virus, I thought it’d be nice to cheer them up with a reading of one one of the funniest essays I’ve ever encountered. It was written by the late Bernard Levin, who was a theatre critic, a newspaper columnist, an author and a broadcaster and, when he was on song, one of the funniest writers alive. He was a Wagner fanatic and an opera-goer extraordinaire. One of his favourite festivals was the one held every year in the small Irish town of Wexford; Levin was a devoted attendee every year — and much loved by the town’s residents on that account. This is his account of the memorable closing night of Spontini’s opera, La Vestale.

I hope you enjoy it. When reading it I had great difficulty keeping a straight face.


The virus doesn’t care whether you’re rich or poor, but epidemics have always revealed the fissures in the societies they’ve infected

As the Chinese are already finding out (and we will soon).


Boris Johnson’s Dunkirk moment

Boris Johnson has always suffered from a Churchillian complex (even writing a ludicrous biography of the great man). Well, now he holds the same office and he’s just had his Dunkirk moment, as the epidemic modelling team at Imperial College showed that the ‘herd immunity’ strategy that lay at the heart of the government’s approach to COVID-19 was a one-way ticket to disaster. The good news is that unlike some politicians one could mention, he was able to change course.

One puzzling thing, though. When the herd-immunity policy was being advocated, it struck me as a strange way of combatting a pandemic for which there is no vaccine because it relied on at least 60% of a population of 68m getting the disease and acquiring immunity as a result. It’s only when you started looking at the numbers that the scale of this gamble became clear. It’s based on about 40.8 million people getting infected, 99% of whom would hopefully recover and become immune. But assuming a mortality rate of 1%, that would still mean over 400,000 deaths, which is not far from the 451,000 UK deaths in WW2. So when people describe the struggle against COVID-19 as the moral equivalent of war, they may be closer to the truth than they realise.

Then comes the Imperial College bombshell which suggests that the herd-immunity strategy could cause 250,000 deaths and would overwhelm the NHS. And a shocked government turns on a sixpence and changes tack.

So here’s my question: did it not occur to anyone that the 400,000 deaths that would be the likely consequence of acquiring herd immunity would have even more comprehensively overwhelmed the NHS?

Also: isn’t herd immunity about vaccination, not infection?


Which companies should not be bailed out in this crisis?

Tim Wu proposes a useful rule: any company that has been highly profitable before the COVID crisis but has used its profits to engage in share buybacks rather than building up cash reserves or doing R&D should be left go to the wall. The case study he uses is American Airlines:

In 2015, it posted a $7.6 billion profit — compared, for example, to profits of about $500 million in 2007 and less than $250 million in 2006. It would continue to earn billions in profit annually for the rest of the decade. “I don’t think we’re ever going to lose money again,” the company’s chief executive, Doug Parker, said in 2017.

There are plenty of things American could have done with all that money. It could have stored up its cash reserves for a future crisis, knowing that airlines regularly cycle through booms and busts. It might have tried to decisively settle its continuing contract disputes with pilots, flight attendants and mechanics. It might have invested heavily in better service quality to try to repair its longstanding reputation as the worst of the major carriers.

Instead, American blew most of its cash on a stock buyback spree. From 2014 to 2020, in an attempt to increase its earnings per share, American spent more than $15 billion buying back its own stock. It managed, despite the risk of the proverbial rainy day, to shrink its cash reserves. At the same time it was blowing cash on buybacks, American also began to borrow heavily to finance the purchase of new planes and the retrofitting of old planes to pack in more seats. As early as 2017 analysts warned of a risk of default should the economy deteriorate, but American kept borrowing. It has now accumulated a debt of nearly $30 billion, nearly five times the company’s current market value.

And now, suddenly, the company is in crisis because of the virus. It hasn’t yet asked for a bailout but after a recent meeting with airline leaders the director of the National Economic Council said that “certain sectors of the economy, airlines coming to mind” might require assistance. US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Wednesday last that the airlines, including American, would be “on the top of the list” for federal loan relief.

Isn’t it funny how corporations are firmly capitalist while things are good, but firm believers in socialism when disaster looms? Profits are always privatised but losses are socialised.