Friday 31 July, 2020

Quote of the Day

Why is flying so bad? Because it takes a lot of energy to lift a metal bucket full of people and suitcases into the air. Go figure: a Boeing 747 burns more than 190 tons of kerosene for an average long-haul flight. With 410 people on board, that’s four bathtubs per passenger. Burning that fuel emits 530 tons of CO₂. That’s nearly 2.5 times the weight of the plane, all deposited in the atmosphere.

Today’s musical alternative to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme

The lark in the morning: Cillian Vallely (pipes) and Alan Murray (guitar). About 9 minutes.


Uileann Pipes are my favourite musical instrument. Played well, they have a haunting beauty which can be sometimes exhilarating and sometimes elegiac. They are also ferociously difficult to play — the word ‘Uileann’ means ‘elbow’ in Irish, a reference to the way the musician inflates the bellows.

I love this comment below the video:

I can hardly guess what the guy who once invented the uilleann pipes was thinking… “Hmm let´s see: We have a chanter you have to use both hands to play it. We have that left elbow pumping the bellows, the right elbow to control the bag pressure to switch chanter octaves. The right knee to place the chanter on, where you have to (of course) occasionally lift it up from. So, how could I make this instrument any more difficult to play? Oh I know! Let´s invent some extra pipes you have to play with your right wrist and make them nearly impossible to keep in tune!” xD What a diabolic genius!

The Panopticon is already here

After George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” here comes the Axis of Autocracy. Ross Anderson has an interesting essay on how Xi Jinping is using artificial intelligence to enhance his government’s totalitarian control—and exporting this technology to regimes around the globe.

Despite China’s considerable strides, industry analysts expect America to retain its current AI lead for another decade at least. But this is cold comfort: China is already developing powerful new surveillance tools, and exporting them to dozens of the world’s actual and would-be autocracies. Over the next few years, those technologies will be refined and integrated into all-encompassing surveillance systems that dictators can plug and play.

The emergence of an AI-powered authoritarian bloc led by China could warp the geopolitics of this century. It could prevent billions of people, across large swaths of the globe, from ever securing any measure of political freedom. And whatever the pretensions of American policy makers, only China’s citizens can stop it. I’d come to Beijing to look for some sign that they might.

This is a long, long read (7,500 words). But worth it if you have the time. Some of it is horrifying — especially the section on the persecution of the Uighur people. But it also makes one think about the future. It’s too simplistic to write off Western hostility to and suspicion of China as just hegemonic anxiety about having the world dominated not by the US, but by a new superpower. In the US, the threat of being overtaken and outclassed in AI and related technologies is regularly used by tech companies as the rationale for keeping them unregulated at home.

And there’s the deep irony that both superpowers are in the process of building surveillance states of unimaginable intrusiveness. The difference is that in China this is all controlled by the state, whereas in the West it’s happening via a strange amalgam of loosely regulated (or unregulated) tech companies and the connivance of the state which needs them to complement its own surveillance capabilities. So in the end, it all comes down to whether one believes (as Ross Anderson does) that in China the chances of this being stopped are essentially zero, whereas in the West (and the US) there’s some chance of the technology being regulated and brough under some kind of public control. Talk about a choice between evils.

Tom Loosemore on crappy website design

Tom Loosemore is the nearest thing the UK has to a guru on digital transformation of government services. In 2010 he founded the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS), and served as its deputy director for five years. And he led the project to create GOV.UK, the single website for UK Government, which has now received over 3 billion visits, and won the UK’s top design award in 2013. His blog is a source of insightful commentary on design issues.

I’ve just come on an example:

One sign that your website isn’t meeting the needs of all your users is when Matthew Somerville gets sufficiently grumpy about it to do a proper version himself.

Today Matthew released his own version of the UK Government’s official coronavirus data dashboard, which last week received a shiny revamp.

A shiny revamp that only worked after a bloated pile of client side javascript had been dumped in your browser (nearly a Mb of React).

A shiny revamp that didn’t initially publish the raw data, and when it did, broke any automated links to the actual data by rendering them via javascript. I imagine the data journalists doing great coronavirus work at the likes of the FT were thrilled.

Just to make the point forcefully, Matthew posted a little video showing the performance of the ‘official’ version alongside the performance of his rewritten version.


You get the message?

Lovely stuff.

Kathleen MacMahon on the Irish women writers who were ignored at home but feted abroad

Wonderful essay. Samples:

Mary Lavin, or Grandmother (never Granny or Nana or, God forbid, Gran), made her name as a world-class short story writer from the unlikely setting of the Abbey Farm, near Navan, County Meath. The mother of three small children, she was widowed as a young woman, becoming a single mother and lone farmer in one fell swoop. While the male writers of her generation worked out of sight in holy sanctity, Grandmother took up a table in Bewley’s cafe on Grafton Street and wrote there until my mother and aunts joined her from school. In the evenings, the men gathered in the pubs around Baggot Street, while Grandmother cooked spaghetti bolognese and held court at her mews in nearby Lad Lane. If she broke the mould, it was for the simple reason that there was no other way for her to write and meet her peers. She had young children at home. Needs must.


Female writers, no less today than in my grandmother’s day, must find a way of working amid all this noise, and they do. Anne Lamott famously said that, before she had a child, she couldn’t write if there were dishes in the sink – but afterwards she could write if there was a corpse in the sink.


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Saturday 4 July, 2020

Quote of the Day

Rich, fabulous people are the ideal billboards for luxury brands. Our nation’s best universities have adopted the same strategy. Universities are no longer nonprofits, but the highest-gross-margin luxury brands in the world. Another trait of a luxury brand is the illusion of scarcity. Over the last 30 years, the number of applicants to Stanford has tripled, while the size of the freshman class has remained static. Harvard and Stanford have become finishing school for the global wealthy.

  • Scott Galloway

Carl Reiner RIP

A giant of American comedy has died at the age of 98. He was still writing up to the day he passed away.

He was a great writer for TV — creator of the Dick Van Dyke Show which ran from 1961 to 1966 and earned him six Emmy awards. As a comedian, he was the consummate straight man. For a snatch of it, hear him with his pal Mel Brooks in a routine they developed which became The 2000 year old man.


And if you have time, this is a wonderful TV interview they did in 2000:


“Ghislaine, Is That You?”: Inside Ghislaine Maxwell’s Life on the Lam

This Vanity Fair report by Mark Seal on the hunt for Geoffrey Epstein’s (and Prince Andrew’s) friend — and alleged procurer — is a terrific long read.


After Epstein’s death, Maxwell disappeared from view entirely, leaving the courts, the media, his victims, and a transfixed and horrified public focused on a single question: Where in the world was Ghislaine Maxwell? Everyone, it seemed, had a theory, each wilder than the last. She was said to be hiding deep beneath the sea in a submarine, which she was licensed to pilot. Or she was lying low in Israel, under the protection of the Mossad, the powerful intelligence agency with whom her late father supposedly tangled. Or she was in the FBI witness protection program, or ensconced in luxury in a villa in the South of France, or sunning herself naked on the coast of Spain, or holed up in a high-security doomsday bunker belonging to rich and powerful friends whose lives might implode should Maxwell ever reveal what she knows—all the dirty secrets of the dirty world that she and Epstein shared.

I expect Prince Andrew is not enjoying it, though — any more than he enjoyed Marina Hyde’s latest piece in the Guardian.

Lockdown and summer reading – 2

From Martin’s Wolf’s list

Martin Wolf is one of my favourite commentators. He’s very serious, knowledgeable and, in a word, wise. Several times a year he produces a long list of books he’s read and finds worth recommending. This is my distillation of his Summer Books list.

  • Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Princeton University Press. This is about why mortality rates of middle-aged White Americans stopped falling in the 21st century and — have been rising for non-college-educated men. Wolf calls this a “seminal” book, and he’s right. I’ve been reading it. The German magazine Der Spiegel did a long interview with the authors recently which is worth reading. Here’s a slightly critical review, and a more appreciative NYT review.

  • Radical Uncertainty: Decision-Making Beyond the Numbers by John Kay and Mervyn King. The future isn’t calculable, so why do we believe that it is (or might be)? The right approach, Kay and King argue, is to accept that we don’t live in a world of calculable risk, but of radical uncertainty. Brief NYT review here.

  • Capital and Ideology by Thomas Piketty, Belknap Press. This is other big book of the year, in both senses. It’s huge — over 1000 pages; and it has an amazing historical sweep. It is, says Wolf, “an immense work of scholarship on the history of inequality”. The Boston Review published a terrific, far-ranging review. I read Piketty’s previous best-seller and am contemplating embarking on this. But on the other hand there are only 24 hours in the day, even under lockdown.

  • Uncharted: How to Map the Future Together by Margaret Heffernan, Simon & Schuster. Argues that we should wean ourselves off attempting precise ‘prediction’ and focus instead on preparedness, adaptability and robustness. This is the book that Dominic Cummings, with his delusions about ‘superforecasting’ ought to read. But I doubt that he will.

Monty’s message

My wife’s late father was in the Normandy Landings in June 1944 and she’s been going through his archive where she came on this rousing exhortation from Field-Marshal Montgomery, who — as you can see from the general tone — was clearly one of Boris Johnson’s spiritual forebears.

Monty was also (like Johnson) a prime pain in the ass, and one of the most astute decisions the Allies made in planning Operation Overlord was to make Eisenhower Supreme Commander rather than him.

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Tuesday 19 May, 2020

How to read

Yesterday I mentioned Keith Thomas’s lovely LRB essay on his working methods. I’ve just re-read it again, and this para stood out:

Scholars have always made notes. The most primitive way of absorbing a text is to write on the book itself. It was common for Renaissance readers to mark key passages by underlining them or drawing lines and pointing fingers in the margin – the early modern equivalent of the yellow highlighter. According to the Jacobean educational writer John Brinsley, ‘the choycest books of most great learned men, and the notablest students’ were marked through, ‘with little lines under or above’ or ‘by some prickes, or whatsoever letter or mark may best help to call the knowledge of the thing to remembrance’. Newton used to turn down the corners of the pages of his books so that they pointed to the exact passage he wished to recall. J.H. Plumb once showed me a set of Swift’s works given him by G.M. Trevelyan; it had originally belonged to Macaulay, who had drawn a line all the way down the margin of every page as he read it, no doubt committing the whole to memory. The pencilled dots in the margin of many books in the Codrington Library at All Souls are certain evidence that A.L. Rowse was there before you. My old tutor, Christopher Hill, used to pencil on the back endpaper of his books a list of the pages and topics which had caught his attention. He rubbed out his notes if he sold the book, but not always very thoroughly, so one can usually recognise a volume which belonged to him.

I’ve seen some of Newton’s bookmarks: smart idea, that — angling the page-corner to point at the relevant passage. Not all that precise, though. And Macaulay’s vertically-lined pages indicated his astonishing ability to remember everything he read. The rest of us have to rely on cameras — but even then we have to remember the passages that we have photographed.

Interestingly, I’ve found that Kindle is useful in this respect. I buy Kindle versions of books that I need for work, and highlight passages and bookmark pages as I go. And when I’ve finished the software obligingly has a collection of all the passages I’ve highlighted.

I’m preparing a guide to an important and complex work at the moment, and although I have the physical volume, I’m mostly working with the Kindle version, because it assembles my highlights as I go.

Good things happen quickly, sometimes

One of the wonders of the online world is the Johns Hopkins dashboard providing up-to-date official statistics about the Coronavirus worldwide. The most striking thing about it — for me, anyway — is the speed with which it was put together. Here’s the story:

In December when the disease that now is known as COVID-19 emerged in China, Ensheng Dong was studying the worrying spread of measles. A first-year graduate student in civil and systems engineering with a focus on disease epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, Dong began tracking the new disease.

On 22 January, he and his thesis advisor in civil and systems engineering Lauren Gardner, who is co-director of the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Hopkins, released an online ‘dashboard’ documenting its spread.

That dashboard, like its subject, quickly went viral. It has become a familiar feature on news sites and on TV the world over, tracking the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, deaths, and recoveries globally. The site which Dong built in just a few hours receives more than a billion hits per day.

[Emphasis added]

Platforms Adapted Quickly during the Pandemic — Can They Keep It Up?

Interesting article by Heidi Tworek, an academic at the University of British Columbia, arguing that digital platforms have shared data, taken responsibility for content and moved quickly to work with trusted sources of information. She thinks this should be the norm post-pandemic. I agree with her about the ‘should’, but doubt that it will happen. The power of the business model is too great.

The list of dramatic, unexpected shifts in our online behaviour seems endless. Within five days, from February 20 to 25, the top ten search terms on Amazon switched from the usual suspects like “phone cases” to coronavirus-related items in countries such as Italy, the United Kingdom, United States and Germany. Bricks-and-mortar shops have pivoted to online sales, Canadian provinces have legalized the sale of alcohol online, and in early May, the e-commerce platform Shopify became the most valuable publicly-traded company in Canada.

Social media platforms have been sources of surprise as well. In recent weeks, digital platforms have shared more data for research, taken extensive responsibility for content and moved quickly to adopt official institutions such as the World Health Organization as the trusted sources for information. These swift developments remind us to be skeptical of company rhetoric and ambitious in our visions of what a positive internet could be. This pandemic is revealing what is feasible.

These companies have long been known for their strenuous defence of freedom of expression. Although they employ content moderators and have extensive policies, they have typically reacted rather slowly to combatting forms of false information, even those with demonstrable harms, such as anti-vaccination content.

Their reactions were far faster with COVID-19. Companies rapidly updated their content moderation policies and seemed to understand that they bore some responsibility for content. “Even in the most free expression friendly traditions, like the United States, there’s a precedent that you don’t allow people to yell fire in a crowded room,” said Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, in mid-March. Instagram started to delete false content that used the COVID-19 hashtag and substituted information from the World Health Organization (WHO) or US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Various types of advertisements were curtailed to prevent price gouging and scamming. In late March, Twitter even decided that prominent politicians’ tweets could be removed, and deleted two tweets by Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president, for praising false cures and spreading incorrect information.

Personally, I think this is way too Panglossian. But interesting nonetheless.

Quarantine diary — Day 59


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Saturday 9 May, 2020

A flood of coronavirus apps are tracking us. Now it’s time to keep track of them.

Given that the pandemic is global you’d expect that the world and his dog is writing contact-tracing apps. And you’d be right.

MIT’s Tech Review had the good idea of creating a database of those currently in existence. Find it here.

When we began comparing apps around the world, we realized there was no central repository of information; just incomplete, constantly changing data spread across a wide range of sources. Nor was there a single, standard approach being taken by developers and policymakers: citizens of different countries were seeing radically different levels of surveillance and transparency.

So to help monitor this fast-evolving situation, we’re gathering the information into a single place for the first time with our Covid Tracing Tracker—a database to capture details of every significant automated contact tracing effort around the world.

We’ve been working with a range of experts to understand what we need to look at, pulling sources including government documents, announcements, and media reports, as well as talking directly to those who are making these apps to understand the technologies and policies involved.

It’s work in progress. But work that’s well worth doing.

Facebook’s ‘supreme court’

Here we go again. Facebook, a toxic tech company that suffers from the delusion that it’s a nation-state, has had another go at pretending that it is. Originally, you will recall, it was going to create a global currency called Libra and in effect become banker to the world. Strangely, a world that normally seems hypnotised by Facebook didn’t think much of that idea (after all, who would trust Facebook with money?) and my guess is that the project is effectively evaporating until it becomes just another variant of PayPal, which is not quite what Facebook’s Supreme Leader, Mark Zuckerberg, had in mind.

Nothing daunted, though, Zuck has had another hubristic idea. On the grounds that Facebook is the world’s largest information-exchange Autocracy (population 2.4B) he thinks that it should have its own Supreme Court. (Yes, that’s the expression he originally used: later and wiser councils persuaded him that that might be just a tad too hubristic). So it’s now just an ‘Oversight Board for Content Decisions’, complete with its own Charter and a 40-strong Board of Big Shots who will, apparently, have the power “to reverse Facebook’s decisions about whether to allow or remove certain posts on the platform.” Sounds impressive, doesn’t it. But it looks rather less so when you realise what it will actually be doing. It’s actually a Board for Locking the Stable Door After the Horses Have Bolted.

The names of twenty of the 40 aforementioned Big Shots have just been announced. The big puzzle at the moment is why some apparently sane people with reputations to lose would have chained themselves to this particular Catherine Wheel. Apart from anything else, they have committed themselves to endorsing Zuckerberg’s hubristic delusions about the central importance of Facebook to the world.

One big surprise (for me, anyway) was that Alan Rusbridger, the sainted former Editor of the Guardian and a genuine, 24-carat journalistic hero, should have lent his name and reputation to this circus. In an essay on Medium he’s offered a less-than-convincing justification. “In the eyes of some”, he writes, the Oversight Board

is one of the most significant projects of the digital age, “a pivotal moment” in the words of Evelyn Douek, a young scholar at Harvard, “when new constitutional forms can emerge that will shape the future of online discourse.”

Others are unconvinced. Some, inevitably, will see it as a fig leaf.

Another Harvard academic, Dipayan Ghosh, believes the Oversight Board’s powers are too narrowly drawn. He thinks the Board’s authority should be expanded from content takedowns to the more critical concerns at the heart of the company itself. “We need oversight of the company’s data practices to promote consumer and citizen privacy,” he has written, adding: “oversight of the company’s strategic acquisitions and data governance to protect against anticompetitive practice; and oversight of the company’s algorithmic decision — making to protect against bias.”

I’m in the fig leaf camp. As Charles Arthur, a grizzled veteran of tech commentary observed on his website,

“I’d be wary of quite how overruled Zuckerberg can be. And how long he’ll tolerate it. What if the board says that any physical abuse video should be taken down? That factchecked-as-wrong content should be removed, not just downranked?”

Yep. Meanwhile the best antidote to being seduced by this preposterous charade is a simple mantra: Facebook is just a commercial company — like Exxon. And all it needs is to be cut down to size.

Why the porn industry has a lot to teach us about safety in the Covid-19 era

Well, well… Who’d have thought it?

As states and employers furiously develop plans to safely reopen workplaces in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, they’re grappling with what seems like an endless list of questions: where to test, who to test, and how often to test for the virus? Further complicating matters are issues of workers’ privacy, geography, politics, science, and cost. It’s a difficult mandate. But there is one place to look for guidance — the adult film industry.

Since the late 1990s, when an outbreak of HIV infections threatened to shutter the multibillion-dollar industry, the mainstream porn community has implemented procedures that require all performers to be tested for HIV and a host of other sexually transmitted infections every 14 days before they can be cleared to work. Any HIV-positive test leads to an immediate shutdown of all U.S. sets, followed by detailed contact tracing before sets can reopen. While not perfect, those in the industry say the nationwide PASS program works to protect thousands of performers, ensures safer workplaces, and curtails the spread of disease.

Wonder what SAGE makes of that?

Quarantine diary — Day 49


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Friday 17 April, 2020

Emmanuel Macron says it is time to think the unthinkable

Today’s Financial Times has a very interesting, wide-ranging interview with the French President. One segment in particular stood out for me:

There is a realisation, Mr Macron says, that if people could do the unthinkable to their economies to slow a pandemic, they could do the same to arrest catastrophic climate change. People have come to understand “that no one hesitates to make very profound, brutal choices when it’s a matter of saving lives. It’s the same for climate risk,” he says. “Great pandemics of respiratory distress syndromes like those we are living through now used to seem very far away, because they always stopped in Asia. Well, climate risk seems very far away because it affects Africa and the Pacific. But when it reaches you, it’s wake-up time.”

“Mr Macron likened the fear of suffocating that comes with Covid-19 to the effects of air pollution. “When we get out of this crisis people will no longer accept breathing dirty air,” he says. “People will say . . . ‘I do not agree with the choices of societies where I’ll breathe such air, where my baby will have bronchitis because of it. And remember you stopped everything for this Covid thing but now you want to make me breathe bad air!’”

This is the top story today IMHO. One way of looking at the Coronavirus crisis is as a dry run for the really existential crisis that’s on its way further down the line — catastrophic climate change. And the question is: will the trauma of the pandemic persuade publics worldwide that we can’t go on as before?

Just now, though, the yearning is for the current crisis to be over. Alas, that moment might be some way off. So it’s worth thinking trying to figure out what a realistic scenario might look like, and what needs to be prioritised as we make the transition into that new future.

In that context, a recent YouGov survey of British public opinion is interesting. According to one report, the survey found that:

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

  • 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.

A global poll conducted by Ipsos/Mori found wide divergences of views when people were asked if they believed that things would get back to normal soon.

Personally, I don’t take this poll seriously simply because the question it was asking (“do you expect things to return to normal by June?”) is daft. But it does suggest wide cultural divergence in expectations on how long this crisis will last.

The YouGov poll was commissioned by a number of organisations, one of which was the Royal Society of Arts. Matthew Taylor, its Chief Executive, has an interesting essay on what comes next. “It is natural to think about the next few months of the pandemic as ‘the crisis’ and ‘the world afterwards’”, he writes. “But it may be more useful to think of three stages:”

  • the immediate crisis
  • the transitional period
  • the emergence of a new normal.

The transition period may last some time and it is important to start exploring the principles that could and should govern it. Emergency powers and measures aren’t right for an extended period of time.

Democracy, transparency, devolution, protecting health, and protecting the most vulnerable should be some of our priority principles for transition.

Taylor’s essay spells some of this out in more detail.

The WHO shouldn’t be a plaything for great powers

Just because Trump is scapegoating it doesn’t mean the WHO hasn’t made mistakes. Trump’s ploy to de-fund the WHO is a transparent effort to distract from his administration’s failure to prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic. It would also be disastrous because many countries, especially poor ones, currently depend on the WHO for medical help and supplies. However, writes Zeyney Tufecki, it is also true that in the run-up to this pandemic, the WHO failed the world in significant ways.

It failed, she argues, because it’s unduly attentive to the whims of the nations that fund it and choose its leader. In July 2017, China moved aggressively to elect its current leadership, for example. Instead of fixing any of the problems with the way the WHO operates, though, Trump seems to merely want the United States to be the bigger bully than China.

Tufecki’s argument is that one can see the desire not to offend China in the WHO’s initial response to the outbreak in Wuhan. The organisation, she continues, should

not have brazenly tweeted, as late as January 14, that “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China.” That claim was false, and known by the authorities in Wuhan to be false.. Taiwan had already told the WHO of the truth too. On top of that, the day before that tweet was sent, there had been a case in Thailand: a woman from Wuhan who had traveled to Thailand, but who had never been to the seafood market associated with the outbreak—which strongly suggested that the virus was already spreading within Wuhan.

The trouble with the WHO is the problem that every major UN organisation has — it’s dominated by the countries that fund it. And ever since China has begun to become more involved in international organisations — and stumping up funding for them — they have become more attentive. Much the same seems to be happening to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) which is being pushed by China and a number of other authoritarian states to change Internet protocols to make the network more susceptible to central control — using as a rationale the need to update the network to be able to serve the Internet of Things.

Still, Facebook hasn’t yet caught up with Trump’s disapproval of the WHO. It will will steer users who interact with coronavirus misinformation to the WHO!

Libra turns out to be a feeble duck, but, sadly, one that is not yet dead.

When Facebook unveiled its Libra cryptocurrency project last June, the company described it as a futuristic global money that could serve as the foundation for a new kind of financial system. But on Thursday it rolled out a feebler design for Libra after the effort encountered numerous hurdles and heavy regulatory scrutiny. It’ll basically be just another PayPal. Couldn’t happen to nastier people.

Twitter, masks and expertise.

So, it turns out that the medical establishment is no longer quite so sure that wearing masks in public is not necessary. That, at any rate, is my reading of this editorial in the British Medical Journal, a pukka source if ever there was one.

“Covid-19: should the public wear face masks?”, it asks. And the answer: “Yes — population benefits are plausible and harms unlikely”. This is really interesting because the “expert” advice relied upon by the government was dismissive of the importance of masks except in clinical settings, and the only places where the case for wearing masks was consistently argued were social media, and especially Twitter.

This makes uncomfortable reading for those of us — including me — who are deeply suspicious of much of the stuff that circulates on those media. What it highlights — as Ben Thompson has been pointing out in his (paywalled) newsletter — is that the abundance of information on social media has both a good and a bad side: there’s a lot of crap but there’s a lot of good stuff too. And in a situation like the current pandemic, where so much is unknown (for example the mortality rate and the proportion of the population that is asymptomatically infected) then mainstream media has been too dependent on ‘expert’ opinion — that has been shown to be faulty.

The tech giants are here to stay

One of the few certainties about the post-pandemic world is that the dominance of the big five tech giants we be further enhanced. See Farhad Manjoo’s piece in the NYT for a fuller exposition. This will change the regulatory landscape; and the debate about what to do about this kind of corporate power.

“It’ll be all over by Christmas”

No it won’t. But if you want a real dystopian take on the next phase of this, then Charlie Stross’s blog post should see you right.

Quarantine diary — Day 27


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Wednesday 15 April, 2020

Using AI to find candidates for trying against COVID —

Er, for “AI” read machine learning. Usual mistake, but interesting nevertheless.

A team at BenevolentAI, a UK company that uses machine learning to aid drug discovery, had been searching through their database of all existing, approved drugs, searching for one that could be repurposed to treat the novel coronavirus. And according to this report they found one in just three days.

“Most drug companies had been looking at antiviral drugs, but we approached it from the other end and looked at what processes used by the virus could be disrupted,” said Peter Richardson, vice president of pharmacology at the company.

Protein kinases — enzymes that speed up chemical reactions in the body — seemed a promising area to look into. Some of these regulate the way substances can enter human cells — disrupt them, and the virus might be unable to get into the lung, heart and kidney cells it has been so prone to invading.

Baricitinib, a drug developed by Eli Lilley and approved in 2018, stood out because it not only inhibited kinases but also prevented the cytokine storms — the body’s own extreme autoimmune reactions that have led to so many fatalities with Covid-19. It was also likely to be compatible with other drugs being used to treat the disease, such as remdesivir. Richardson and a team of three part-time researchers identified an initial 370 kinase inhibitors, and then narrowed it down to six that looked most likely to work.

“It validated using AI for this kind of problem,” says Richardson. “It would have been impossible for the four of us to do it at that speed otherwise. If you took 250 people you still couldn’t do it at that pace because there would be too many competing ideas. You really can’t do it without an organised knowledge graph and the ability to query it.”

Interesting. I suppose they had to describe it as AI, given that the letters appear in the firm’s name. Benevolent Machine Learning doesn’t have the same ring to it.

How coronavirus almost brought down the global financial system

Another amazing long read from Adam Tooze, this time about how close the world came to a financial meltdown because of the Coronavirus. Most of it stuff I hadn’t known or understood. Tooze is a really phenomenal historian, with an astonishing grasp of how the finance industry works. * Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World*, his history of the 2008 banking crisis, is terrific. And now he seems to be really on top of the Coronavirus crisis. I’ve been thinking that what we’re facing at the moment is what the world would have been like if the Spanish flu and the Great Depression had come together.

This essay, which is worth reading in full (requires a cup of coffee and some peace and quiet) is mainly about how the central bankers of the West succeeded — just — in avoiding a global meltdown. But it ain’t over yet. And most poor countries don’t have the resources — financial or professional — to deal with the virus.

Security for home workers

From Bruce Schneier’s blog.

When I think about how COVID-19’s security measures are affecting organizational networks, I see several interrelated problems:

One, employees are working from their home networks and sometimes from their home computers. These systems are more likely to be out of date, unpatched, and unprotected. They are more vulnerable to attack simply because they are less secure.

Two, sensitive organizational data will likely migrate outside of the network. Employees working from home are going to save data on their own computers, where they aren’t protected by the organization’s security systems. This makes the data more likely to be hacked and stolen.

Three, employees are more likely to access their organizational networks insecurely. If the organization is lucky, they will have already set up a VPN for remote access. If not, they’re either trying to get one quickly or not bothering at all. Handing people VPN software to install and use with zero training is a recipe for security mistakes, but not using a VPN is even worse.

Four, employees are being asked to use new and unfamiliar tools like Zoom to replace face-to-face meetings. Again, these hastily set-up systems are likely to be insecure.

Five, the general chaos of “doing things differently” is an opening for attack. Tricks like business email compromise, where an employee gets a fake email from a senior executive asking him to transfer money to some account, will be more successful when the employee can’t walk down the hall to confirm the email’s validity — and when everyone is distracted and so many other things are being done differently.

Worrying about network security seems almost quaint in the face of the massive health risks from COVID-19, but attacks on infrastructure can have effects far greater than the infrastructure itself.

After the analogue hammer, comes the data-driven dance.

From Sifted

“Coronavirus has reminded even the most conservative among us that there is a role for the state after all. No government can outsource their way through this test. Suddenly, the absence of data skills at the centre of government is a life and death issue. The hammer blows will decrease. As the dance begins, states must respond with agility, using public and private data. An era of central data units may emerge. Regulation for data registries and more powerful registrars seems certain as public trust in government data and a new locus for privacy and surveillance are all being tried and tested on a daily basis. This is one big A/B test for governments, whether democratic or autocratic. This may not be the internet founders’ much longed-for government 2.0 moment, but we are all in beta now.

The “hammer and the dance” metaphor is becoming a meme.

Why content moderators should be designated as key workers

Important paper from the Turing Institute arguing that, just now, the people who try to keep mis- and disinformation off social media should be regarded as part of the world’s critical infrastructure.

The current crisis surrounding COVID-19 has scaled up the challenge of content moderation, severely reducing supply and massively increasing demand. On the “supply side”, content moderators have, like other workers around the world, been told not to come into work. YouTube has already warned that, as a result, it will conduct fewer human reviews and openly admits it may make poor content takedown decisions.

On the “demand side”, the growth of the pandemic has seen an upsurge in the amount of time spent online. BT recently noted an increase in UK daytime traffic of 35-60%, and social networks report similar increases, particularly in their use for education, entertainment and even exercise. Sadly, harmful activity has increased too: Europol reports “increased online activity by those seeking child abuse material” and the World Health Organisation has warned of an emerging “infodemic” of pernicious health-related disinformation. Recently, concerns have been raised that false claims are circulating online about the role of 5G.

At a time when social media is desperately needed for social interaction, a widening gap is emerging between how much content moderation we need and how much can be delivered. As a result, AI is being asked do tasks for which it is not ready, with profound consequences for the health of online spaces. How should platforms, governments, and civil society respond to this challenge? Following Rahm Emmanuel’s exhortation to “never let a crisis go to waste,” we argue that, now that the challenges in content moderation have been exposed by the pandemic, it is time for a reset.


Quarantine diary — Day 25


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Thursday 9 April, 2020

Pic of the Day

Madingley Hall, photographed recently.

Automated wisdom

A colleague received this automated response from a Brazilian academic he had emailed about edits to a journal article.

Let’s slow down and stay home. We cannot continue to live in the way we have been living. We have been working extra-hours and not doing the essential work. It’s time to say farewell to the productivist nightmare.


E pluribus unum — the New York Phil’s tribute to healthcare workers

This time, it’s Ravel’s Bolero.


This stuff is a wonderful by-product of the crisis. Also, a dazzling bit of video editing.

Thanks to Quentin for the link.

I’m not the only one doing a Quarantine Diary

But this one comes from a grimmer place.

The near-term future

A one-para summary from Tyler Cowen:

I don’t view “optimal length of shutdown” arguments compelling, rather it is about how much pain the political process can stand. I expect partial reopenings by mid-May, sometimes driven by governors in the healthier states, even if that is sub-optimal for the nation as a whole. Besides you can’t have all the banks insolvent because of missed mortgage payments. But R0 won’t stay below 1 for long, even if it gets there at all. We will then have to shut down again within two months, but will then reopen again a bit after that. At each step along the way, we will self-deceive rather than confront the level of pain involved with our choices. We may lose a coherent national policy on the shutdown issue altogether, not that we have one now. The pandemic yo-yo will hold. At some point antivirals or antibodies will kick in (read Scott Gottlieb), or here: “There are perhaps 4-6 drugs that could be available by Fall and have robust enough treatment effect to impact risk of another epidemic or large outbreaks after current wave passes. We should be placing policy bets on these likeliest opportunities.” We will then continue the rinse and repeat of the yo-yo, but with the new drugs and treatments on-line with a death rate at maybe half current levels and typical hospital stays at three days rather than ten. It will seem more manageable, but how eager will consumers be to resume their old habits? Eventually a vaccine will be found, but getting it to everyone will be slower than expected. The lingering uncertainty and “value of waiting,” due to the risk of second and third waves, will badly damage economies along the way.

Written with the US mainly in mind, but sounds relevant for the UK too.

Given that there’s no conclusive end in sight, the challenge will be how to live with the virus longer-term at lower intensities until a vaccine appears.

Shockwave: Adam Tooze on the pandemic’s consequences for the world economy

Terrific analysis of the impact of COVID-19 by a distinguished contemporary historian. Long read, but well worth it. Not reassuring. Ends like this:

And once the crisis is over? What then? How do we imagine the restart? Before he was forced to retreat, Trump evoked the image of churches filling at Easter. Will the world economy rise from the dead? Are we going to rely once more on the genius of modern logistics and the techniques of dollar-finance to stitch the world economy back together again? It will be harder than before. Any fantasy of convergence that we might have entertained after the ‘fall of communism’ has surely by now been dispelled. We will somehow have to patch together China’s one-party authoritarianism, Europe’s national welfarism and whatever it is the United States will be in the wake of this disaster. But in any case, for those of us in Europe and America these questions are premature. The worst is just beginning.

What Joe Biden should do now

Intriguing idea from Dave Winer.

Biden can assemble a panel of scientists and medical doctors to keep the public informed. An hour a day, press conference style. What the CDC would be doing if Trump weren’t president.

And he (Biden) would step back, an example for what Trump should do. Let the doctors and the military manage it. Stop campaigning while thousands of Americans are dying. Biden wouldn’t even have to say it. It would make Trump look immediately tone deaf which he most certainly is.

What makes this idea so appealing right now is that the governors are linking up and sharing resources. Someone should be providing the science for them. The government is failing. But there’s plenty of unused talent out there, it just needs to be managed.

This would be a smart idea, given that Bernie Sanders has quit the race, leaving Biden the Democratic candidate. Essentially, it would mean that Biden was showing the country what a real US President should be doing — leading by example. And it would drive Trump nuts. He’s always thought that Biden would be the guy he’d have to beat. That’s what drove all the skullduggery in the Ukraine.

Quarantine diary — Day 19


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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


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


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


Thanks to GDV for the link

Quarantine diary — Day 12