Saturday 3 October, 2020

One of our cats. Interesting thing is that when I first looked at it I thought it must have been taken with one of my high-end cameras. But in fact it was taken with the little Sony RX100M4. It’s a pretty good advertisement for that device.


Quote of the day

“If you think technology can solve your problems, then you don’t understand technology and you don’t understand your problems”.

  • Mariana Mazzucato

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Deep River Blues – Tommy Emmanuel

Link

Just the song for a rainy morning. You may need to skip the ad at the beginning.


Thirty glorious years

Long read of the day.

TL;DR Postwar prosperity depended on a truce between capitalist growth and democratic fairness. Is it possible to get it back?

I love long-sweep essays, and this one by Jonathan Hopkin fits that bill. Here’s how it opens:

With the end of the Second World War, the economies of western Europe and North America began a period of spectacular growth. Between 1950 and 1973 GDP doubled or more. This prosperity was broadly shared, with consistent growth in living standards for rich and poor alike and the emergence of a broad middle class. The French call it les trente glorieuses – the 30 glorious years – while the Italians describe it as il miracolo economico. The story of how this golden age of shared economic growth came to be has almost been forgotten, despite it being less than a century ago. There has never been a more urgent time to remind ourselves.

How did western countries, in one quarter of the 20th century, manage to increase both equality and economic efficiency? Why did this virtuous combination ultimately fall apart by the end of the century? The answer lies in the awkward relationship between democracy and capitalism, the former founded on equal political rights, the latter tending to accentuate differences between citizens based on talent, luck or inherited advantage. Democracy has the potential to curb capitalism’s inherent tendency to generate inequality. This very inequality can undermine the ability of democratic institutions to ensure that the economy works for the majority.

The rise and fall of democratic capitalism in the postwar era is one of the most important events in modern history…

My hunch is that in the long view of history, the the kind of democracy that emerged from the wreckage of WW2 in the period 1946 to 1971, and then began its long decay from then to the present, may come to be seen as a kind of blip. It was a by-product of the global shock of a global war, and it lasted until the economic ideas that informed it and the impact of the war on successive generations began to run out of steam.

Hopkin’s argument is that the war “cut capitalism down to size” and gave a decisive push to establish a new form of economic system in which political demands took primacy. As a result, the postwar era established a new form of ‘managed’ or ‘democratic’ capitalism that delivered a more equal distribution of income and wealth.

Democratic capitalism redressed the balance between the brutal inequalities of early industrial capitalism and the need for social consent to secure political stability. It rested on three broad pillars: a redistributive welfare state that provided economic security while narrowing income gaps between rich and poor, corporatist dialogue between employers and the labour force, and highly regulated capital markets. Aspects of this form of capitalism sometimes existed in nondemocratic societies too. But as a basic set of socioeconomic institutions it was most associated with the democratic form of government in which competitive elections and representative political parties incorporated citizen demands into policymaking.

All that began to change in the 1970s, when a combination of high inflation, faltering growth and industrial disputes over wages ushered in an era of social and political turbulence that brought a revival of liberal market ideology in the shape of the neoliberalism that seized the imagination of politicians and governing elites throughout the West. But, says Hopkin,

The promise of the neoliberal era to unleash the power of individual incentives to spread prosperity has not been fulfilled. Average growth rates across the advanced capitalist systems failed to match those of the postwar boom years. Since the 1970s, an increasingly unequal income distribution has meant that, for many, living standards failed to improve by much at all in subsequent decades. In the 1970s, strikes, demonstrations, riots and even terrorism expressed social tensions. By the 1990s, a resentful apathy, reflected in falling voter turnout and disengagement with formal party politics, signalled mass frustrations. The neoliberal revolution succeeded not only in shifting policy, but in fundamentally undermining the institutional preconditions of democratic capitalism. Governments progressively delegated important policy decisions to non-elected bodies, some of them supranational. Meanwhile, anti-union legislation and the declining bargaining power resulting from offshoring and heightened global competition took a heavy toll on worker rights.

Which is how we got to where we are now.

Long read, but worth it.


Trump and the virus

All of a sudden people are apparently rushing to pray for Trump as he battles with Covid. Pardon me if I sit this one out. My fear is that it will be a replay of the Boris Johnson story. You may recall that Johson damn nearly died from the virus, but was saved by the NHS and then wrapped himself in the NHS flag afterwards to ride a wave of feeble-minded public sympathy over his self-induced ordeal — brought about largely by his inability to take the virus seriously in the early days. Just like Trump.

In the meantime, it’s heartening to see how Photoshop remains the staple tool of satirists, as in this picture retrieved from my irreverent WhatsApp feed:

But there are some really interesting aspects of what has happened.

Michael Kruse has a fascinating article in Politico.com about it.

Here’s the bit that caught my eye:

“Weakness,” Tony Schwartz, co-author of The Art of the Deal, once told me, “is Trump’s greatest fear by far.”

Weakness, however, inhabits the absolute center of the most primal aspects of the long-arc engine of Trump. He knows, in the most deep-seated way, of the utter unavoidability of human vulnerability—anybody’s, everybody’s and, of course, his own. And yet Trump resolutely followed the mandate his father modeled to squelch any such concession. Fundamentally disparate but inextricably linked, these are two of the most essential and major motivators of Trump’s lifelong pattern of behavior. Now, with the news that Trump has tested positive for the virus that’s killed more than a million people worldwide, all of this has come to a perilous head.

The wee-hours shock wave of his diagnosis has exposed the fragility of his bravado. The man who’s trumpeted his genes and his blood and his virility while deriding his foes for low energy is now stricken and sequestered, cut off from the adoring supporters who stoke not just his political prospects but his needy psyche. He is 74 and obese, and already was facing a pending public reckoning—and the fear of being seen as anything other than strong in the end is precisely what has made him so weak.

His lengthy record of germophobia, encapsulated by his well-documented hatred of shaking hands, often has been considered merely a bullet point on his list of idiosyncrasies. But in fact it reflects his latent knowledge of the power of infection to wreak quick and terrible consequences. “Shaking hands, you catch colds, you catch the flu,” he said in 1999. “And who knows what else?” he said in 2004. “You don’t want to be a liability,” he said, getting perhaps unwittingly closer to the crux, in 2013. “You don’t want to become somebody’s patient.” Trump, according to Jack O’Donnell, a former Trump casino executive in Atlantic City, was “preoccupied by a fear of communicable disease.”

There’s a delicious sense of chickens coming home to roost about all this.


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Friday 2 October, 2020

If only…

Arles, July 2017.


Quote of the Day

”Writing a novel does not become easier with practice.”

  • Graham Greene

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

John Field: Nocturne No. 10 in E minor

Link


EU plans for controlling tech companies

Politico has obtained a leaked copy of measures that EU regulators are considering imposing on certain kinds of tech companies. Cory Doctorow has provided a neat annotated list on Pluralistic.net.

First of all, stuff that the EU is considering prohibiting:

  • Mining your customers’ data to compete with them or advertise to their customers (think: Facebook Like buttons on publisher pages, Amazon’s own-brand competitors)

  • Mixing third-party data with surveillance data you gather yourself (like Facebook buying credit bureaux data), without user permission (which is the same as never because no one in the world wants this)

  • Ranking your own offerings above your competitors (think: Google Shopping listings at the top of search results)

  • Pre-installing your own apps on devices (like Ios and Android do) or requiring third party device makers to install your apps (as Android does)

  • Using DRM [Digital Rights Management] or terms to service to prevent users from uninstalling preinstalled apps (no immortal shovelware)

  • Exclusivity deals – mobile OS/device companies can’t force an app vendor to sell only through the app, and not on the open web

  • Using DRM or terms of service to prevent sideloading

  • Nondisparagement/confidentiality clauses that would prevent your suppliers from complaining about your monopolistic behavior

  • Tying email to other services – you have to be able to activate an Android device without a Gmail account

  • Automatically logging users into one service on the basis that they’re logged into another one (eg using Gmail doesn’t automatically log you into Youtube)

Then there are projected new ‘requirements’ that companies will have to provide:

  • Annual transparency reports that make public the results of an EU-designed audit that assesses compliance

  • Annual algorithmic transparency reports that disclose a third-party audit of “customer profiling” and “cross-service tracking”

  • Compliance documents showing current practices, on demand by regulators

  • Advance notice of all mergers and acquisitions

  • An internal compliance officer who oversees the business

This is an interesting leak, not so much for the specific kinds of measures that they are contemplating, but as revealing the general conception of regulation that underpins EU thinking. In a way, it’s as if they are regarding tech companies much as we regard banks. That may work in some circs. But it may also reflect an inadequate conception of the power of tech companies.


The mystery of John Banville’s mysteries

Lovely essay in the NYT by Charles McGrath about John Banville and the background to his forthcoming novel Snow:

The Irish novelist John Banville is a famous perfectionist — the kind of writer who can spend a day on a single sentence. His books, most written in the first person, are lapidary, intricate, Nabokovian. Or just difficult, some readers have complained, more interested in style than in storytelling. They invariably come laden with words that seem meant to prove his vocabulary is bigger than yours: flocculent, crapulent, caducous, anaglypta, mephitic, velutinous.

A Banville novel typically takes four or five painful years to complete, after which the author is still dissatisfied. In a 2009 interview, he told The Paris Review that he hated his own books. “They’re an embarrassment and a deep source of shame,” he said, and then added: “They’re better than everybody else’s, of course, but not good enough for me.”

In March 2005, however, while staying at a friend’s house in Italy, Banville sat down one morning and for some reason began writing a mystery novel set in 1950s Dublin. By lunchtime he had 1,500 words — or a week’s worth at his usual pace. He thought to himself, “John Banville, you slut,” but kept going and finished in five or six months. “I was a little appalled at the speed with which I got the thing done,” he said in a recent email. He had been reading Simenon — though not the Inspector Maigret crime novels — and was inspired by him to see what could be accomplished with a narrow vocabulary and a spare, straightforward style.

Many years ago I wrote a few pieces for the Irish Times when Banville was the paper’s Literary Editor. The striking thing (to me) when dropping in copy was the way everybody referred to him as “Mr. Banville”. Even then he was just like his writing: fastidious, distant, intimidating. Looks like he hasn’t changed. But he’s a terrific writer, so he’s excused normality.

The NYT piece has a couple of terrific photographs of him, btw.


What Trump’s tax-returns tell us

Basically, that he’s incapable of running a business.

All of his casinos, property developments, etc. have been commercial disasters. The one thing that really worked for him was his spell on The Apprentice and the celebrity status that that gave him, which he then assiduously leveraged by endorsements and lending his name to various ventures. He earned a staggering amount from that alone. He then spent a lot of those earnings on buying hotels and 15 golf courses in various parts of the US and the world (including, as I now know, one in Ireland). But these are proper businesses and he can’t run such things, so some of them have been bleeding money over the years.

By 2016, his earnings from the celebrity glow of The Apprentice were declining rapidly (all celebrity has a half-life) and he had an urgent need to find a new way of rekindling it because of the losses on the golf and hotel businesses.

So here’s my idea for a comic novel based on these circumstances…

Trump’s big idea for reigniting his celebrity status was that running for president would be a way to do it. Think of all the free publicity. His name in lights every day on cable TV, etc. So he decided to run. The end-game would be that he could then start his own TV network — Trump TV — challenging Fox and Murdoch and becoming a new media mogul. The idea was not to be elected: even his narcissism didn’t make him think that he might succeed. The celebrity-enhancement flowing from the campaign was the goal. Trump didn’t actually want to be president: too much like hard work.

Far-fetched? Hey — this is a novel, remember. Pure fiction. No requirement to adhere to the facts.

But… Michael Lewis’s terrific book, The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy opens with the night of the election and the stunned astonishment in the Trump campaign team at what was unfolding. It was one long “Oh, shit!!!!!” Moment. The plan had backfired. They had actually won the election. Trump was going to have to be President!

Lewis points out that when Trump won the Republican nomination he was astonished and infuriated that he was now obliged, by law, to start forming a Transition Team to plan for forming an Administration. And he did everything in his power to hobble that process.

The New York Times’s exposé of his tax returns adds the final touch necessary for the plot of my comic novel. Their analysis suggests that Trump is now personally liable for something like $400m of debts for which he is the sole guarantor. The banks who are on the hook for that can’t touch him while he’s President. But if he loses…. Well, next stop the bankruptcy court, or worse. No wonder he’s desperate not to lost the election.


More on how to model (and explain) the spread of Covid-19

Further to my post yesterday about Zeynep Tufecki’s fascinating article on why focussing simply on R0, the reproduction rate for Covid-19 might be misleading because it misses the importance of ‘super-spreading’ events, Seb Schmoller pointed out a new research paper published by the Royal Society the other day which appears to support Tufecki’s line of argument.

Here’s the Abstract of the paper:

The basic reproduction number ℛ0 of the coronavirus disease 2019 has been estimated to range between 2 and 4. Here, we used an SEIR model that properly accounts for the distribution of the latent period and, based on empirical estimates of the doubling time in the near-exponential phases of epidemic progression in China, Italy, Spain, France, UK, Germany, Switzerland and New York State, we estimated that ℛ0 lies in the range 4.7–11.4. We explained this discrepancy by performing stochastic simulations of model dynamics in a population with a small proportion of super-spreaders. The simulations revealed two-phase dynamics, in which an initial phase of relatively slow epidemic progression diverts to a faster phase upon appearance of infectious super-spreaders. Early estimates obtained for this initial phase may suggest lower ℛ0.

The key sentence in the concluding section reads:

Spatial heterogeneity of the epidemic spread observed in many European countries, including Italy, Spain and Germany, can be associated with larger or smaller super-spreading events that initiated outbreaks in particular regions of these countries.

This is just the latest demonstration of how limited our understanding of this pandemic is — still. We’re learning as we go, but without a good understanding of the dynamics of infection and spread, we’re driving by looking in the rear-view mirror.


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Sunday 20 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

“The nature of things is a sturdy adversary”

  • Edmund Burke

Reminds me of the famous reply Harold Macmillan gave to a reporter who asked him what kept him awake at nights: “Events, dear boy, events”.


Musical alternative to this morning’s radio news

Eric Clapton: Cocaine — at the Albert Hall

Link

Slow and enigmatic start. Worth waiting for, though.


The Social Dilemma: a wake-up call for a world drunk on dopamine?

This morning’s Observer column.

TL;DR version: the new Netflix docudrama is a valiant if flawed attempt to address our complacency about surveillance capitalism.

Spool forward a couple of centuries. A small group of social historians drawn from the survivors of climate catastrophe are picking through the documentary records of what we are currently pleased to call our civilisation, and they come across a couple of old movies. When they’ve managed to find a device on which they can view them, it dawns on them that these two films might provide an insight into a great puzzle: how and why did the prosperous, apparently peaceful societies of the early 21st century implode?

The two movies are The Social Network, which tells the story of how a po-faced Harvard dropout named Mark Zuckerberg created a powerful and highly profitable company; and The Social Dilemma, which is about how the business model of this company – as ruthlessly deployed by its po-faced founder – turned out to be an existential threat to the democracy that 21st-century humans once enjoyed.

Both movies are instructive and entertaining, but the second one (which has just been released on Netflix) leaves one wanting more. Its goal is admirably ambitious: to provide a compelling, graphic account of what the business model of a handful of companies is doing to us and to our societies. The intention of the director, Jeff Orlowski, is clear from the outset: to reuse the strategy deployed in his two previous documentaries on climate change – nicely summarised by one critic as “bring compelling new insight to a familiar topic while also scaring the absolute shit out of you”.

For those of us who have for years been trying – without notable success – to spark public concern about what’s going on in tech, it’s fascinating to watch how a talented movie director goes about the task…

Read on


What to do if Trump and the Republicans in the Senate ram through a new Supreme Court nominee.

Interesting. I hadn’t known that the number of Supreme Court justices is not stipulated by the Constitution. That means an Act of Congress could change it.


Johnson’s not up to the job. Who knew?

It’s funny how many people seem still to be astonished by the incompetence of the Johnson administration. Given his record as a lazy, irresponsible toff who has all his life left behind him a wake of chaos, unhappiness and offspring, what else could one expect? Andrew Rawnsley has a nice column about this in today’s Observer. Here’s its conclusion:

Funnily enough, the book Superforecasting [which Dominic Cummings reviewed enthusiastically put on his reading list for ministers] identifies one of the core reasons why this government is failing. “The worst forecasters were those with great self-confidence who stuck to their big ideas,” wrote Mr Cummings himself. They are lousy at understanding the world and coming to good judgments about it. “The more successful were those who were cautious, humble, numerate, actively open-minded, looked at many points of view.” Now, which is a better description of the Johnson-Cummings method of government? “Cautious, humble, numerate, actively open-minded, looked at many points of view”? That doesn’t sound like them at all. “Great self-confidence”, which leaves them stubbornly wedded to their “big ideas”? That’s much more like it.

Their biggest idea of the moment is that leaving the EU’s single market without a deal would be fine even in a double-whammy combination with a re-escalation of the coronavirus crisis. Bear in mind his previous record as a soothsayer when the prime minister confidently predicts that a crash-out Brexit would be a “good outcome”. I hazard a guess that this is his most calamitously wrong forecast of all.


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Saturday 22 August, 2020

Vanishing point

On our cycle today.


Quote of the Day

”Do not do unto others as you would they should do to you. Their tastes may not be the same.”

  • George Bernard Shaw.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler: Romeo And Juliet (9 minutes)

Link


Content moderation, AI, and the question of scale

Really thoughtful academic article by Tarleton Gillespie — who a while book wrote a very good book — Custodians of the Internet: Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions That Shape Social Media — on content moderation.

Abstract

AI seems like the perfect response to the growing challenges of content moderation on social media platforms: the immense scale of the data, the relentlessness of the violations, and the need for human judgments without wanting humans to have to make them. The push toward automated content moderation is often justified as a necessary response to the scale: the enormity of social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube stands as the reason why AI approaches are desirable, even inevitable. But even if we could effectively automate content moderation, it is not clear that we should.

Note that last sentence.

Worth reading in full.


Looting, American-style

Yves Smith has a withering post on the Naked Capitalism blog triggered by a report in the *Financial Times describing how CEOs who ran their (US) companies into the ground are nevertheless eing brewarded with “retention bonus” payouts shortly before the business declare bankruptcy, often mere days ahead. “The absurd rationale”, says Smith

is that it is necessary to keep a failed CEO on in order to reduce disruption. It appears instead that boards would rather pay a rich and unwarranted premium to keep a bad known quantity around, perhaps due to personal allegiances to the incumbent or because they might actually have to rouse themselves to oust the dud leader and select a replacement.

Some of these payments he goes on to say, “are flat out looting”. For example:

Brad Holly, Whiting’s chief executive who joined the company in November 2017, received $6.4m at the end of March under a new compensation plan approved by the board of directors, which he also chairs, less than a week before the company filed for bankruptcy. Whiting, which expects to emerge from Chapter 11 next month, said last week that Mr Holly would step down as chief executive when that happens and would receive an additional $2.53m in severance.

In total, Whiting paid out more than $14m to executives just a few days before declaring itself bust. In a regulatory filing on April 1 the company said its pay plan was designed “to align the interests of the Company and its employees”. Whiting did not respond to a request for comment.

$6.4 million for Holly for at most five months of babysitting bankruptcy lawyers? Seriously? Another example:

Meanwhile, at another insolvent company, Briggs & Stratton, its board

approved more than $5m in retention payments on June 11, including more than $1m to chief executive Todd Teske, who has led the company for a decade. Four days later the company failed to make a $6.7m interest payment on a bond due later this year, and on July 20 it filed for bankruptcy. On July 19, the company’s board voted to terminate the health and life insurance benefits of the company’s retirees…

It’s outrageous — like share buy-backs and the antics of private equity — but it’s all allowed under the warped kind of capitalism we’ve been building (and tolerating) since the 1970s.


Facebook Braces Itself for Trump to Cast Doubt on Election Results

Zuckerberg & Co are — according to the New York Times — working out what steps to take should Trump use its platform to dispute the vote.

Well, well. Could this be the moment that reality dawns on these genuises?

Employees at the Silicon Valley company are laying out contingency plans and walking through postelection scenarios that include attempts by Mr. Trump or his campaign to use the platform to delegitimize the results, people with knowledge of Facebook’s plans said.

Facebook is preparing steps to take should Mr. Trump wrongly claim on the site that he won another four-year term, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Facebook is also working through how it might act if Mr. Trump tries to invalidate the results by declaring that the Postal Service lost mail-in ballots or that other groups meddled with the vote, the people said.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and some of his lieutenants have started holding daily meetings about minimizing how the platform can be used to dispute the election, the people said. They have discussed a “kill switch” to shut off political advertising after Election Day since the ads, which Facebook does not police for truthfulness, could be used to spread misinformation, the people said.

The preparations underscore how rising concerns over the integrity of the November election have reached social media companies, whose sites can be used to amplify lies, conspiracy theories and inflammatory messages. YouTube and Twitter have also discussed plans for action if the postelection period becomes complicated, according to disinformation and political researchers who have advised the firms.

No point in staying up on the evening of November 3rd. This one might run and run.


Extraterrestrial?

There’s a strange entry in the Amazon.co.uk catalogue for a forthcoming book by a distinguished Harvard astronomer, Avi Loeb. Here’s the blurb:

Harvard’s top astronomer lays out his controversial theory that our solar system was recently visited by advanced alien technology from a distant star. In late 2017, scientists at a Hawaiian observatory glimpsed an object soaring through our inner solar system, moving so quickly that it could only have come from another star. Avi Loeb, Harvard’s top astronomer, showed it was not an asteroid; it was moving too fast along a strange orbit, and left no trail of gas or debris in its wake. There was only one conceivable explanation: the object was a piece of advanced technology created by a distant alien civilization. In Extraterrestrial, Loeb takes readers inside the thrilling story of the first interstellar visitor to be spotted in our solar system. He outlines his controversial theory and its profound implications: for science, for religion, and for the future of our species and our planet. A mind-bending journey through the furthest reaches of science, space-time, and the human imagination, Extraterrestrial challenges readers to aim for the stars—and to think critically about what’s out there, no matter how strange it seems.

It might just have been a rogue Tesla roadster.


Summer books #11

The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media by Nathan Jurgenson, Verso, 2019.

A slim and interesting book (at least if, like me, you are a photographer). Its core argument is that to understand the world of the selfie, Instagram and today’s “pics or it didn’t happen” mindset the place to start is the way way photography was regarded after it first emerged in the 19th century. After all, Emile Zola wrote in 1901, “In my view, you cannot claim to have really claim to have seen something until you have photographed it”. Jurgensen has been described as “the Susan Sontag of the selfie generation”. I think that was meant as a compliment.


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Saturday 20 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

Another sign of Mr Trump’s interest in books came during the Black Lives Matter protests, when he appeared outside a Washington DC church holding a Bible. It was a deeply sinister move. And also a reminder to rewatch the interview where he claims the Bible is his favourite book but can’t seem to recall any verses. Asked whether he’s an “Old Testament guy or a News Testament guy”, he hesitates before replying “probably equal”. Evangelical Christians, you don’t have to vote for him.

  • Henry Mance, Financial Times, 20/21 June, 2020

A Coronavirus Quiz

Below is a statement made by Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health, the House of Commons.

We have a clear four-part plan to respond to the outbreak of this disease: contain, delay, research and mitigate. We are taking all necessary measures to minimise the risk to the public. We have put in place enhanced monitoring measures at UK airports, and health information is available at all international airports, ports and international train stations. We have established a supported isolation facility at Heathrow to cater for international passengers who are tested, and to maximise infection control and free up NHS resources.

We are working closely with the World Health Organisation, the G7 and the wider international community to ensure that we are ready for all eventualities. We are co-ordinating research efforts with international partners. Our approach has at all times been guided by ​the chief medical officer, working on the basis of the best possible scientific evidence. The public can be assured that we have a clear plan to contain, delay, research and mitigate, and that we are working methodically through each step to keep the public safe.

Question: On what date was this statement made?

Answer: At the end of this day’s post.


The Covid-19 pandemic has offered advance sight of post-Brexit Britain.

Lovely FT column by Philip Stephens the other day.

“The mantra of Boris Johnson’s government”, he writes, “is that”,

unshackled from the EU, the nation will be “world-beating”. Free to make national choices and set its own scenery on the international stage, it will champion free trade from its own seat at the World Trade Organization and decide its own policies for global challenges such as climate change.

For Mr Johnson the pandemic was a chance for the UK to show its strengths and demonstrate what it could do in its new guise as a truly “sovereign” nation reborn as “Global Britain”. This explains perhaps his confidence when the outbreak began to take hold in early March. Back then, remember, Mr Johnson boasted of shaking hands with doctors during a hospital visit.

The bullish message from Downing Street recalled that Britain is home to some of the very best epidemiological scientists and research institutes: Johnson called them “world-leading”, in a variation on the his usual “world-beating” theme.

No government was better prepared. Britain had rehearsed for such an emergency in 2016 and stockpiled supplies. Exercise Cygnus, it was called. Of course, there also was the “fantastic” NHS. Britain would show the world how it was done.

Unhappily, Covid-19 does not pay attention to theoretical notions of sovereignty or to national borders. Far from the best, Britain’s performance fighting the virus has been dismal, leaving it at the bottom of the league of comparable European states.

The problem is, says Stephens,

the yawning gap between assumed superiority and actual performance. Mr Johnson and his colleagues promote an image of Britain’s capabilities that is steeped in nostalgia for past greatness rather than shaped by contemporary appraisal. As one British diplomat puts it: “There is just an assumption that we do these things so much better than our European neighbours.”

The other lesson has been that sovereignty may provide the notional freedom to act, but that is not the same as the capacity to achieve national goals. Working outside the EU did not take Britain to the front of the queue in the scramble to secure medical supplies from China and India. So it will prove with post-Brexit trade deals.

Yep. The lack of UK state capacity revealed by the crisis is one of its most salutary lessons.


Deaths of despair

Atul Gawande has a long and absorbing essay in the New Yorker about Anne Case’s and Angus Deaton’s Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, a landmark investigation into why working-age white men and women without college degrees were dying from suicide, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related liver disease at such rates that, for three consecutive years, life expectancy for the U.S. population as a whole had fallen.

The surprise (for me anyway) is that this isn’t all about opioid addiction, though that plays a role. A key part of the answer, they maintain, is education — or, more accurately, the absence of it. Case and Deaton argue that the rise in deaths of despair is the consequence of the cumulative effect of a long economic stagnation and the way the US as a nation has dealt with it.

In the past four decades, Americans without bachelor’s degrees—the majority of the working-age population—have seen themselves become ever less valued in our economy. Their effort and experience provide smaller rewards than before, and they encounter longer periods between employment. It should come as no surprise that fewer continue to seek employment, and that more succumb to despair.

The problem isn’t that people are not the way they used to be. It’s that the economy and the structure of work are not the way they used to be. This has had devastating effects on the family and on community life. In 1980, rates of marriage by middle age were about eighty per cent for white people with and without bachelor’s degrees alike. As the economic prospects of those two groups have diverged, however, so have their marriage prospects. Today, about seventy-five per cent of college graduates are married by age forty-five, but only sixty per cent of non-college graduates are. Nonmarital childbearing has reached forty per cent among less educated white women. Parents without bachelor’s degrees are also now dramatically less likely to have a stable partner for rearing and financially supporting their children.

Unsurprisingly, one of the big factors they identify is the American healthcare system. The focus of their indictment is on the way that America’s health-care system is peculiarly reliant on employer-provided insurance. “As they show”, writes Gawande,

the premiums that employers pay amount to a perverse tax on hiring lower-skilled workers. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, in 2019 the average family policy cost twenty-one thousand dollars, of which employers typically paid seventy per cent. “For a well-paid employee earning a salary of $150,000, the average family policy adds less than 10 percent to the cost of employing the worker,” Case and Deaton write. “For a low-wage worker on half the median wage, it is 60 percent.” Even as workers’ wages have stagnated or declined, then, the cost to their employers has risen sharply. One recent study shows that, between 1970 and 2016, the earnings that laborers received fell twenty-one per cent. But their total compensation, taken to include the cost of their benefits (in particular, health care), rose sixty-eight per cent. Increases in health-care costs have devoured take-home pay for those below the median income. At the same time, the system practically begs employers to reduce the number of less skilled workers they hire, by outsourcing or automating their positions. In Case and Deaton’s analysis, this makes American health care itself a prime cause of our rising death rates.

Their overall conclusion is that

capitalism, having failed America’s less educated workers for decades, must change, as it has in the past. “There have been previous periods when capitalism failed most people, as the Industrial Revolution got under way at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and again after the Great Depression,” they write. “But the beast was tamed, not slain.”

So the question from their work turns out to be the same question that is now everywhere: are we capable of again taming the beast?


Quarantine diary — Day 91

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Quiz Answer: Tuesday February 26, 2020 Hansard link


Saturday 2 May, 2020

Contact-tracing: tech ‘solutionism’ without providing a solution?

The security expert Brice Schneier was interviewed by Buzzfeed about the current rush to deploy proximity-sensing apps. In the interview he said this:

“My problem with contact tracing apps is that they have absolutely no value. I’m not even talking about the privacy concerns, I mean the efficacy. Does anybody think this will do something useful? … This is just something governments want to do for the hell of it. To me, it’s just techies doing techie things because they don’t know what else to do.”

Bruce is the Real Deal in this stuff, so when he says something as critical as this I sit up and take notice.

He subsequently expanded on it in his blog:

This is a classic identification problem, and efficacy depends on two things: false positives and false negatives.

False positives: Any app will have a precise definition of a contact: let’s say it’s less than six feet for more than ten minutes. The false positive rate is the percentage of contacts that don’t result in transmissions. This will be because of several reasons. One, the app’s location and proximity systems — based on GPS and Bluetooth — just aren’t accurate enough to capture every contact. Two, the app won’t be aware of any extenuating circumstances, like walls or partitions. And three, not every contact results in transmission; the disease has some transmission rate that’s less than 100% (and I don’t know what that is).

False negatives: This is the rate the app fails to register a contact when an infection occurs. This also will be because of several reasons. One, errors in the app’s location and proximity systems. Two, transmissions that occur from people who don’t have the app (even Singapore didn’t get above a 20% adoption rate for the app). And three, not every transmission is a result of that precisely defined contact — the virus sometimes travels further.

The end result, Schneider thinks is an app that doesn’t work. People will post their bad experiences on social media; other people will read those posts and realise that the app is not to be trusted. That loss of trust is even worse than having no app at all.

“It has”, says Schneier, “nothing to do with privacy concerns. The idea that contact tracing can be done with an app, and not human health professionals, is just plain dumb”.

The key point I take from all this is that proximity-sensing apps might be useful in conjunction with a massive follow-up capacity involving healthcare staff, because it would target those Human Resources more efficiently. I see no sign that the UK government is contemplating marshalling resources on that scale, so this is likely to wind up as pure solutionism.

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Capital in the 21st Century: the movie

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Not even John Maynard Keynes got this kind of treatment. A film which reportedly serves not so much as a distillation of Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus as a gateway to it.


Why isn’t the Johnson government on the rack for the way it has botched the handling of the pandemic?

Good question. Here’s a partial charge-sheet from Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian:

This government should be on the rack. The evidence that it botched crucial decisions at crucial moments is piling up. The litany is now so familiar it barely needs repeating, from the failure to secure personal protective equipment for frontline workers in health and social care to the 11 lost days of delay before imposing a lockdown that has proved essential for saving lives.

You can focus on specific judgments: why did ministers allow mass gatherings, from racing at Cheltenham to a Stereophonics gig in Cardiff, ignoring the warnings that such events would be a virus-fest? Why did it initially tell people to stay away from pubs and restaurants, but simultaneously allow those places to stay open? Why did the government call a halt in March to testing and tracing? If the answer is a lack of capacity, then why did it not immediately set about recruiting the “army of contact tracers” that will be required if we are ever to emerge from our homes? Why the focus on mega-labs, rather than seizing on the offer of small laboratories to do testing for their local hospitals, which, as Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, has argued, could have made those hospitals “safe places”? Why the rules initially limiting tests to those NHS employees with symptoms, which, as Nurse puts it, allowed staff to be on wards “infecting people”?

Or you can look at decisions going back a decade, pointing a finger at Tory austerity that starved public services to the bone, leaving them underequipped and eroding our resilience. Either way, the country now faces a death toll approaching 30,000.

But you know the answer to Freedland’s question. Trump’s administration is even worse. _____________________________________________________________________________ 

Spending all your days in Zoom meetings? Try this for an antidote

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Quarantine diary — Day 42

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Sleepwalking into dystopia

This morning’s Observer column:

When the history of our time comes to be written, one of the things that will puzzle historians (assuming any have survived the climate cataclysm) is why we allowed ourselves to sleepwalk into dystopia. Ever since 9/11, it’s been clear that western democracies had embarked on a programme of comprehensive monitoring of their citizenry, usually with erratic and inadequate democratic oversight. But we only began to get a fuller picture of the extent of this surveillance when Edward Snowden broke cover in the summer of 2013.

For a time, the dramatic nature of the Snowden revelations focused public attention on the surveillance activities of the state. In consequence, we stopped thinking about what was going on in the private sector. The various scandals of 2016, and the role that network technology played in the political upheavals of that year, constituted a faint alarm call about what was happening, but in general our peaceful slumbers resumed: we went back to our smartphones and the tech giants continued their appropriation, exploitation and abuse of our personal data without hindrance. And this continued even though a host of academic studies and a powerful book by Shoshana Zuboff showed that, as the cybersecurity guru Bruce Schneier put it, “the business model of the internet is surveillance”.

The mystery is why so many of us are still apparently relaxed about what’s going on…

Read on

What comes after Spotify?

Shortly after I wrote Building vs. Streaming in popped an email from Drew Austin, who was musing about what happens when a new product/service fills a void and thereby leads to the decline of whatever filled it beforehand.

Here’s the money quote:

The increasingly-maligned model of VC-funded, loss-leading hypergrowth in the pursuit of market dominance, understood another way, is a quest to create voids that matter, voids that will hurt if we let them emerge by rejecting the product currently filling them (the fissures of a post-WeWork world are at least perceptible now). In the early ‘00s, when Blockbuster died out, it was clear that something better was replacing it (there’s a nostalgic counterargument that I’m tempted to indulge, but let’s just accept this). Today, it’s more common to watch something decline without a replacement that’s clearly better. It’s easy to understand why physical media led to file-sharing and then streaming, but what comes after Netflix and Spotify? Does anyone think it’s likely to be another improvement? I don’t, and the companies’ Facebook-like pursuit of absolute ubiquity is why. Unlike the immediately-filled Blockbuster void, I fear the Spotify void. I already got rid of all my CDs. The residue of buildings and cities determines what gets built on top of them, and if we’re conscientious, we’ll build with a more distant future in mind.

The myth of American competitiveness

Most of the complacent guff about how American capitalism is better than its counterparts in other parts of the world is just that — guff.

The economist Thomas Philippon has done a terrific, data-intensive demolition job on the myth. In The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up on Free Markets he shows that America is no longer the spiritual home of the free-market economy (any more than Westminster is now “the mother of Parliaments”). Competition there is not fiercer than it is in ‘old’ Europe. Its regulators have been asleep at the wheel for decades and its latest crop of giant companies are not all that different from their predecessors.

Or, as he puts it:

”First, US markets have become less competitive: concentration is high in many industries, leaders are entrenched, and their profit rates are excessive. Second, this lack of competition has hurt consumers and workers: it has led to higher prices, lower investment and lower productivity growth. Third, and contrary to popular wisdom, the main explanation is political, not technological: I have traced the decrease in competition to increasing barriers to entry and weak antitrust enforcement, sustained by heavy lobbying and campaign contributions.”

So next time some tech evangelist starts to rant on about how backward Europe is, the appropriate reply is: give me a break.