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

Link

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

Link


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.

The dark underbelly of social media

My Observer review of Behind the Screen, Sarah T. Roberts’s remarkable exploration of the exploitative world of content ‘moderation’.

The best metaphor for the net is to think of it as a mirror held up to human nature. All human life really is there. There’s no ideology, fetish, behaviour, obsession, perversion, eccentricity or fad that doesn’t find expression somewhere online. And while much of what we see reflected back to us is uplifting, banal, intriguing, harmless or fascinating, some of it is truly awful, for the simple reason that human nature is not only infinitely diverse but also sometimes unspeakably cruel.

In the early days of the internet and, later, the web, this didn’t matter so much. But once cyberspace was captured by a few giant platforms, particularly Google, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, then it became problematic. The business models of these platforms depended on encouraging people to upload content to them in digital torrents. “Broadcast yourself”, remember, was once the motto of YouTube.

And people did – as they slit the throats of hostages in the deserts of Arabia, raped three-year-old girls, shot an old man in the street, firebombed the villages of ethnic minorities or hanged themselves on camera…

All of which posed a problem for the social media brands, which liked to present themselves as facilitators of creativity, connectivity and good clean fun, an image threatened by the tide of crud that was coming at them. So they started employing people to filter and manage it. They were called “moderators” and for a long time they were kept firmly under wraps, so that nobody knew about them.

That cloak of invisibility began to fray as journalists and scholars started to probe this dark underbelly of social media…

Read on

Fines don’t work. To control tech companies we have to hit them where it really hurts

Today’s Observer comment piece

If you want a measure of the problem society will have in controlling the tech giants, then ponder this: as it has become clear that the US Federal Trade Commission is about to impose a fine of $5bn (£4bn) on Facebook for violating a decree governing privacy breaches, the company’s share price went up!

This is a landmark moment. It’s the biggest ever fine imposed by the FTC, the body set up to police American capitalism. And $5bn is a lot of money in anybody’s language. Anybody’s but Facebook’s. It represents just a month of revenues and the stock market knew it. Facebook’s capitalisation went up $6bn with the news. This was a fine that actually increased Mark Zuckerberg’s personal wealth…

Read on

How Silicon Valley lost its shine

This morning’s Observer column:

Remember the time when tech companies were cool? So do I. Once upon a time, Silicon Valley was the jewel in the American crown, a magnet for high IQ – and predominately male – talent from all over the world. Palo Alto was the centre of what its more delusional inhabitants regarded as the Florence of Renaissance 2.0. Parents swelled with pride when their offspring landed a job with the Googles, Facebooks and Apples of that world, where they stood a sporting chance of becoming as rich as they might have done if they had joined Goldman Sachs or Lehman Brothers, but without the moral odium attendant on investment backing. I mean to say, where else could you be employed by a company to which every president, prime minister and aspirant politician craved an invitation? Where else could you be part of inventing the future?

But that was then and this is now…

Read on

Getting things into perspective

From Zeynep Tufecki:

We don’t have to be resigned to the status quo. Facebook is only 13 years old, Twitter 11, and even Google is but 19. At this moment in the evolution of the auto industry, there were still no seat belts, airbags, emission controls, or mandatory crumple zones. The rules and incentive structures underlying how attention and surveillance work on the internet need to change. But in fairness to Facebook and Google and Twitter, while there’s a lot they could do better, the public outcry demanding that they fix all these problems is fundamentally mistaken. There are few solutions to the problems of digital discourse that don’t involve huge trade-offs—and those are not choices for Mark Zuckerberg alone to make. These are deeply political decisions. In the 20th century, the US passed laws that outlawed lead in paint and gasoline, that defined how much privacy a landlord needs to give his tenants, and that determined how much a phone company can surveil its customers. We can decide how we want to handle digital surveillance, attention-channeling, harassment, data collection, and algorithmic decision­making. We just need to start the discussion. Now.