Tuesday 11 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be”.

  • Mark Twain

(I’m editing the text of my Quarantine Diary at the moment, and am finding this principle damn very useful.)


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paul Simon singing ‘American Tune’ quietly by himself on The Late Show.

Link

Some of the lyrics seem to map directly onto the post below this.

And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
But it’s alright, it’s alright
For we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the
Road we’re traveling on
I wonder what’s gone wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what has gone wrong.

Many thanks to Ian Clark who suggested it, even thought he couldn’t have known what was coming next on the blog.


The unravelling of America

Anthropologist Wade Davis on how COVID-19 signals the end of the American era.

Best long read of the day. The 20th Century was the American one. The 21st will belong to… China?

Odious as he may be, Trump is less the cause of America’s decline than a product of its descent. As they stare into the mirror and perceive only the myth of their exceptionalism, Americans remain almost bizarrely incapable of seeing what has actually become of their country. The republic that defined the free flow of information as the life blood of democracy, today ranks 45th among nations when it comes to press freedom. In a land that once welcomed the huddled masses of the world, more people today favor building a wall along the southern border than supporting health care and protection for the undocumented mothers and children arriving in desperation at its doors. In a complete abandonment of the collective good, U.S. laws define freedom as an individual’s inalienable right to own a personal arsenal of weaponry, a natural entitlement that trumps even the safety of children; in the past decade alone 346 American students and teachers have been shot on school grounds.

The American cult of the individual denies not just community but the very idea of society. No one owes anything to anyone. All must be prepared to fight for everything: education, shelter, food, medical care. What every prosperous and successful democracy deems to be fundamental rights — universal health care, equal access to quality public education, a social safety net for the weak, elderly, and infirmed — America dismisses as socialist indulgences, as if so many signs of weakness.

How can the rest of the world expect America to lead on global threats — climate change, the extinction crisis, pandemics — when the country no longer has a sense of benign purpose, or collective well-being, even within its own national community? Flag-wrapped patriotism is no substitute for compassion; anger and hostility no match for love. Those who flock to beaches, bars, and political rallies, putting their fellow citizens at risk, are not exercising freedom; they are displaying, as one commentator has noted, the weakness of a people who lack both the stoicism to endure the pandemic and the fortitude to defeat it. Leading their charge is Donald Trump, a bone spur warrior, a liar and a fraud, a grotesque caricature of a strong man, with the backbone of a bully.

When I was a kid growing up in Ireland, I bought into the myth of American exceptionalism. Everyone did, then. The Vietnam war cured me of that. But what’s happened to the US as it morphed into a flailing giant is deeply depressing. Will a Biden presidency arrest the decline? I doubt it, so long as the Koch brothers et al continue to maintain a dysfunctional political system and systemic racism and an individualistic culture endure.

And just for the avoidance of doubt, the replacement of US hegemony with a Chinese version is nothing to celebrate either. We’re faced with the choice of lesser evils


Consistent and Widespread Belief in the Threat of COVID-19 to the UK Economy

From the ninth factsheet of the UK COVID-19 news and information project…

Most people still see COVID-19 as quite threatening or very threatening to the UK economy (94%), the health of the UK population as a whole (80%), and their personal health (54%). 41% say COVID-19 is a threat to their personal finances.

This is a really useful project by the RISJ.


Summer Reading #1

(Stuff I’ve been reading, or want to.)

Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics by Peter Geoghegan, Head of Zeus, 2020.

I’ve reviewed this (forthcoming in the Observer). It’s a compulsively readable, carefully researched account of how a malignant combination of right-wing ideology, secretive money (much of it from the US) and weaponisation of social media have shaped contemporary British (and to a limited extent, European) politics. And it has been able to do this in what has turned out to be a regulatory vacuum — with laws, penalties and regulators that are no longer fit for purpose.

And it’s not just (or even mostly) about Brexit.

Recommended.


QAnon groups have millions of members on Facebook

NBC News report that leaked contents of the preliminary results of an investigation by Facebook shed new light on the scope of activity and content from the QAnon community on the platform.

An internal investigation by Facebook has uncovered thousands of groups and pages, with millions of members and followers, that support the QAnon conspiracy theory, according to internal company documents reviewed by NBC News.

The investigation’s preliminary results, which were provided to NBC News by a Facebook employee, shed new light on the scope of activity and content from the QAnon community on Facebook, a scale previously undisclosed by Facebook and unreported by the news media, because most of the groups are private.

The top 10 groups identified in the investigation collectively contain more than 1 million members, with totals from more top groups and pages pushing the number of members and followers past 3 million. It is not clear how much overlap there is among the groups.

The investigation will likely inform what, if any, action Facebook decides to take against its QAnon community, according to the documents and two current Facebook employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Note the phrase “what, if any, action Facebook decides to take”…

This is so depressingly familiar. When will people wake up to the toxicity of this company?


How to find anything on the Web

Wonderful resource. Bookmark it. I knew only a few of the tricks; delighted to learn more.

HT to Charles Arthur


Outcome of Edward Bridge’s appeal on deployment of facial recognition technology by the South Wales police

Last year Edward Bridges, a civil rights campaigner in Wales, found himself in two locations at which he would have been scanned by automated facial-recognition (AFR) technology deployed by the local police force. He brought a claim for judicial review on the basis that AFR was not compatible with the right to respect for private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, data protection legislation, and the Public Sector Equality Duty (“PSED”) under section 149 of the Equality Act 2010. On 4 September 2019 the Divisional Court (“DC”) dismissed Mr Bridges’s claim for judicial review on all grounds. Bridges then appealed.

Today the Appeal Court published its judgment. Bridges’s appeal succeeded on three of the five grounds, but was not allowed on the other two.

I’m no lawyer, but it looks like only a Pyrrhic victory. The Appeal Court agreed that in order to use live AFR, some changes are needed to the framework which supposedly regulates it — e.g amendments to local policy documents and to the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice (which is issued by the Home Secretary), plus further work to ensure that the public sector equality duty is discharged. But the bad news is that the Appeal Court did not accept that lawful use of live AFR requires new primary legislation in order to regulate processing of images in the same way as fingerprints or DNA is processed by the police service. If you believe (as I do) that this technology is largely toxic, then this is depressing news.


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Wednesday 22 July, 2020

Still life with lockdown accessories


The report into Russian meddling in UK democratic processes

The House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee on Tuesday released its long-awaited report into Russian meddling in the U.K. democratic process.

A Financial Times Editorial commented…

The starkest accusation was that the government simply did not know whether Britain’s democratic processes had been compromised because — as one committee member put it — “they did not want to know”.

The report’s conclusions, says Politico,

are damning for the British government and there are elements that remain unknown because numerous parts are redacted. It was completed more than a year ago but its release was delayed after Downing Street refused to publish it before the December election then took months setting up the committee again after Boris Johnson won his 80-seat majority.

Politico’s four big takeaways from the report are…

1 The UK was slow to wake up to Russian threat

The crucial thrust of the report is that ministers and the U.K. intelligence agencies left Britain at risk of Russian meddling in the 2016 EU referendum.

But the committee stopped short of concluding that the referendum result was influenced by Russian actors, noting that such a verdict would be impossible to prove. Labour MP and ISC committee member Kevan Jones said the committee saw no evidence of Russian meddling because “nobody in government asked.”

2 Intelligence agencies are too complex

One issue the committee identified was the complicated network of intelligence agencies and who oversees them in government, meaning no single person or office took responsibility for democratic meddling.

3 Russian influence in politics ‘cannot be untangled’

The report notes that links between the Russian elite and the U.K allow access to business and politics that can be used for influence. “To a certain extent, this cannot be untangled and the priority now must be to mitigate the risk and ensure that, where hostile activity is uncovered, the tools exist to tackle it at source,” it added.

“Several members of the Russian elite who are closely linked to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin are identified as being involved with charitable and/or political organizations in the U.K., having donated to political parties, with a public profile which positions them to assist Russian influence operations.”

The report also lashed out at successive governments for allowing the U.K to become an attractive destination for Russian investment. “Russian influence in the U.K. is the new normal,” the committee said in a statement. “Successive governments have welcomed the oligarchs and their money with open arms, providing them with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London ‘laundromat,’ and connections at the highest levels with access to U.K. companies and political figures.”

It added, “This has led to a growth industry of ‘enablers’ including lawyers, accountants, and estate agents who are — wittingly or unwittingly — de facto agents of the Russian state.” The MPs refused to answer questions about whether Alex Salmond, the former Scottish first minister who had a show on Russia Today, was one of those enablers.

4 Relations between the ISC and the government are still not good

The press conference highlighted the frayed relations between the committee and the government. Downing Street refused to publish the report before the 2019 general election, and Johnson took months to reform the committee following his win, meaning it was unable to reveal the document until this week.

No. 10 also sought to meddle in the process for electing the chair. It tried to ensure former Cabinet minister Chris Grayling would get the top post, but he was defeated in an ambush by his fellow Conservative Julian Lewis, who was subsequently stripped of the whip.

This report, and the successful efforts of the Johnson administration to postpone and postpone its publication, confirms the slow-motion implosion of democracy in Britain. Just as in the US, foreign powers — both state and private billionaires — have found ways of undermining and influencing elections and avoiding antiquated electoral laws; and domestic political parties (mainly the Republicans in the US and the Tories in the UK — both of which which stood to gain from this manipulation — have no incentive to do anything about it.

In his terrific book, How Democracy Ends, David Runciman makes the point that most people who worry about the future of liberal democracy make the mistake of looking to the past (e.g. to Weimar Germany) for clues as to where we are headed. But democracies never fail backwards: they fail forwards in ways so novel that they are not initially detected. That’s what’s now happening in the ‘Anglosphere.’ And I fear the rot is now unstoppable, because nobody in the political mainstream has incentives to stop it.


What the CARES Act tells us about low pay in the US

From “US Unemployment Insurance Replacement Rates During the Pandemic” by Peter Ganong, Pascal Noel and Joseph S. Vavra. BFI Working Paper, May 14, 2020

As designed, we find that the ratio of mean benefits to mean earnings in the data under CARES is roughly 100%. However, this masks substantial heterogeneity. We find that 68% of unemployed workers who are eligible for UI will receive benefits which exceed lost earnings. The median replacement rate is 134%, and one out of five eligible unemployed workers will receive benefits at least twice as large as their lost earnings. Thus, the CARES Act actually provides income expansion rather than replacement for most unemployed workers. We also show that there is sizable variation in the effects of the CARES Act across occupations and across states, with important distributional consequences. For example, the median retail worker who is laid-off can collect 142% of their prior wage in UI, while grocery workers are not receiving any automatic pay increases. Janitors working at businesses that remain open do not necessarily receive any hazard pay, while unemployed janitors who worked at businesses that shut down can collect 158% of their prior wage.

These conclusions arise because the CARES Act sends a fixed $600 payment to unemployed workers who have very different prior earnings: $600 is a larger percentage of prior earnings for low than for high earners. Since the $600 UI payment was targeted to generate 100% earnings replacement based on mean earnings, this $600 payment tends to imply greater than 100% earnings replacement for those with less than mean earnings. Furthermore, these high replacement rates for below-mean workers are amplified by the fact that the distribution of earnings is skewed: median prior earnings are below mean prior earnings. This means that the typical unemployed worker has below-mean prior earnings and thus above-mean replacement rates. This implies that most workers have replacement rates above 100%.

Translation (by Sarah O’Connor in the FT): “Roughly two-thirds of Americans who became unemployed in the pandemic are receiving more in benefits than they were paid in their jobs, according to economists at the University of Chicago. For one in five, their income has doubled. The poverty rate actually seems to have fallen since the crisis hit.”

Link.


The US is spiralling into madness

One of the podcasts I try to find time for is the New York Times ‘The Daily’ which sometimes seems to fulfil the promise of podcasting to be ‘the second draft of history’. The other day there was an episode on ‘The Vaccine Trust Problem’ which was absolutely riveting, and which caused me to rethink some of my preconceptions about the vaccine question.

Basically, I had been thinking (and writing) about what I regard as the most alarming scenario of all: that we would eventually get an effective vaccine for Covid-19 but that it would make little difference because of the mobilisation of social media by conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers. It would, I wrote, be “like the anti-MMR campaign, but on steroids”.

‘The Daily’ podcast edition startled me because it suggested that my belief that the main sources of vaccine scepticism and anti-vaccine campaigning were conspiracy-theorists and political malcontents was wrong. It turns out that vaccine scepticism is much more wideapread in the US, and not just confined to Trump supporters. Many people who abhor Trump and would like to see him gone are sceptical because they feel that anything that is rushed through on his watch is not to be trusted.

At the moment, opinion polls are suggesting that 50% of Americans, from all walks of life and political opinions, are sceptical about a vaccine. So while billions are being poured into developing one, the rapid timetable and Trump’s cheerleading are creating a whole new group of vaccine-hesitant patients.

This was the general message of a NYT report last Saturday.

The fastidious process to develop a safe, effective vaccine typically takes a decade; some have taken far longer. But the administration of Mr. Trump, himself once an outspoken vaccine skeptic, has been saying recently that a coronavirus vaccine could be ready this fall. While it has removed certain conventional barriers, such as funding, many experts still believe that the proposed timeline could be unduly optimistic.

But whenever a coronavirus vaccine is approved, the assumption has been that initial demand would far outstrip supply. The need to establish a bedrock of confidence in it has largely gone overlooked and unaddressed.

Earlier this month, a nationwide task force of 23 epidemiologists and vaccine behavior specialists released a detailed report — which itself got little attention — saying that such work was urgent. Operation Warp Speed, the $10 billion public-private partnership that is driving much of the vaccine research, they wrote, “rests upon the compelling yet unfounded presupposition that ‘if we build it, they will come.’”

My hunch is that this could indeed by the case in the US. Somehow I can’t see it panning out like that in Europe. But who knows? These are strange times.

Another aspect of this…

It also turns out that skepticism about coronavirus statistics is highly correlated with media consumption habits, according to a recent Avios-Ipsos opinion poll. 62% of Fox News watchers said the statistics of Covid deaths and infections are overblown, while only 7% of CNN and MSNBC watchers thought so.


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Thursday 9 July, 2020

Metaphotography: through an iPhone, darkly

I don’t think I’d make an Instagrammer, somehow.


Quote of the Day

As democracy is perfected, the office of the president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

  • H.L. Mencken

Google, Amazon Funnel Money to Virus Conspiracy Sites

From Bloomberg

Digital advertising platforms run by Google, Amazon.com Inc. and other tech companies will funnel at least $25 million to websites spreading misinformation about Covid-19 this year, according to a study released Wednesday.

Google’s platforms will provide $19 million, or $3 out of every $4 that the misinformation sites get in ad revenue. OpenX, a smaller digital ad distributor, handles about 10% of the money, while Amazon’s technology delivers roughly $1.7 million, or 7%, of the digital marketing spending these sites will receive, according to a research group called the Global Disinformation Index.

GDI made the estimates in a study that analyzed ads running between January and June on 480 English language websites identified as publishers of virus misinformation. Some of the ads were for brands including cosmetics giant L’Oreal SA, furniture website Wayfair Inc. and imaging technology company Canon Inc. The data exclude social-media and online-video services, so the true total is likely much higher.

Google thinks that the research is “flawed”. But, having reviewed 10 articles highlighted by the study where Google ads ran. It demonetized five of the web pages, meaning it removed the ability to make money from ads.

Funny that: half of the examined pages were infringers.


Brooks Brothers, outfitters to the US elite, goes belly-up

Brooks Brothers, the 200-year-old company that dressed at least 40 American presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, who was wearing a Brooks Brothers coat when he was assassinated in 1865, is filing for bankruptcy protection. The company’s two-button suits were also a favourite of Jack Kennedy. Seems as though even Ivy League graduates nowadays don’t dress up for Zoom.

The letter is from Pierre Salinger, JFK’s Press Secretary, replying to someone who wanted the president to wear a double-breasted suit like a proper gent.

Link


Gary Larson’s gone digital!

So a few years ago—finally fed up with my once-loyal but now reliably traitorous pen—I decided to try a digital tablet. I knew nothing about these devices but hoped it would just get me through my annual Christmas card ordeal. I got one, fired it up, and lo and behold, something totally unexpected happened: within moments, I was having fun drawing again. I was stunned at all the tools the thing offered, all the creative potential it contained. I simply had no idea how far these things had evolved. Perhaps fittingly, the first thing I drew was a caveman.

The “New Stuff” that you’ll see here is the result of my journey into the world of digital art.

Sometimes, there are good arguments for using an iPad.


Factors associated with COVID-19 death in 17 million patients

From a major study reported in Nature

Abstract reads:

COVID-19 has rapidly affected mortality worldwide. There is unprecedented urgency to understand who is most at risk of severe outcomes, requiring new approaches for timely analysis of large datasets. Working on behalf of NHS England, here we created OpenSAFELY: a secure health analytics platform covering 40% of all patients in England, holding patient data within the existing data centre of a major primary care electronic health records vendor. Primary care records of 17,278,392 adults were pseudonymously linked to 10,926 COVID-19-related deaths. COVID-19-related death was associated with: being male (hazard ratio (HR) 1.59, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.53–1.65); older age and deprivation (both with a strong gradient); diabetes; severe asthma; and various other medical conditions. Compared with people with white ethnicity, Black and South Asian people were at higher risk even after adjustment for other factors (HR 1.48, 1.30–1.69 and 1.44, 1.32–1.58, respectively). We have quantified a range of clinical risk factors for COVID-19-related death in the largest cohort study conducted by any country to date. OpenSAFELY is rapidly adding further patients’ records; we will update and extend results regularly.

Confirms what we thought we knew. Also explains why so many people are (rightly) cautious about going out unless it’s absolutely necessary. Which is why any economic recovery will be slower than anticipated.


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Friday 18 June, 2020

Good news?


Road rage lunacy: do not try this on the M25

Link

Finish your muesli before watching. The good news is that nobody gets killed. Which is a miracle. I’ve never seen anything like this.

Wonder what happened to the culprit. At first I wondered if he might have been a conspiracy theorist. (See below for an explanation.)


What conspiracy-theories can do to people

Astonishing story from the New Hampshire Union Leader:

A Massachusetts man arrested after leading police on a chase with his five children in the vehicle live-streamed some of the incident on Facebook before allegedly ramming a cruiser and crashing into a tree in North Hampton.

“We don’t want to die,” one of his daughters screamed at one point as she pleaded with him to stop during Thursday’s frightening ordeal.

Alpalus Slyman, 29, of Dorchester, faces three counts of felony reckless conduct, conduct after an accident, and disobeying an officer.

The arrest followed a pursuit that began when police in Haverhill, Mass., notified New Hampshire authorities to be on the lookout for a blue Honda Odyssey minivan.

Police had received a report that a woman was thrown from the vehicle in Massachusetts, which prompted the chase, but Rockingham County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Al Brackett said they later learned that the woman was Slyman’s wife and that it appeared she jumped out while it was moving because she was concerned about the way he was acting.

Slyman posted several videos from inside the minivan on his Facebook page, some of which were taken before his wife fled and he continued on into New Hampshire with the children — ages 13, 5, 2, 1 and 8 months.

Brackett said the 13-year-old child also posted about the incident on social media.

Screams could be heard several times during Slyman’s livestream as he refused to pull over while listening to WROR, a classic hits radio station.

“Don’t you understand? The cops aren’t your friend,” he tells the children before claiming that he’s trying to protect them.

At one point he turned the camera toward his speedometer, which showed him traveling at 110 mph.

He also asked for help from the president: “Donald Trump, I need a miracle,” he said.

Slyman later told the children, “All they’re going to do is drug me and then say I’m crazy.”

In earlier videos before his wife got out and the chase began, she could be heard begging him to stop.

“Slow down, honey, before you kill us!” she says after telling him that he’s “not right.”

Slyman is being held without bail at the Rockingham County jail after he was found to be a danger to himself and his family. Brackett said a mental health evaluation was requested.

On his blog, Alex Hern did some digging, drawing on excavations by Marc-André Argentino, that revealed that Slyman was a conspiracy theorist, with a line in anti-vaxx, 9/11 trutherism and illuminati theories.

But…

things really went off the rails on June 6th – less than a week before he got in his car and nearly killed his family. That’s when, according to Argentino’s analysis, Slyman was first introduced to QAnon.

(A brief précis for those not versed in this particular branch of internet insanity: QAnon is, narrowly construed, a conspiracy theory, holding that there is a great conspiracy to keep Donald Trump from ridding the world of the illuminati-esque cabal of paedophiles and murders who currently pull the strings as part of the Deep State).

Argentino believes that Slyman first watched a video from the QAnon community on June 6th. Then, “very likely he was red-pilled into QAnon in the early hours of June 8 when he binge watched ‘Fall of the Cabal’ until 4am,” Argentino writes. From there, he descends further, latching on to one particularly niche theory that Hilary Clinton skinned and ate a child on camera for the illicit high gained from consuming a young person’s adrenaline.

Five days after he watches his first Q video, he is live-streaming his belief that the local radio station is sending him coded messages from Q. Later that day, the song You Spin Me Round by Dead Or Alive convinces him the Deep State is coming to kill him, and he gets in the car with his wife and kids and begins his drive.

The old belief that conspiracy theories were mostly harmless, or even socially useful in keeping nutters off the street may or may not have been accurate. But it’s clear that for at least a minority of Internet users, they are definitely toxic. (Just think of PizzaGate, for example.) Sounds to me as though Slyman may have had mental health issues before he got sucked down the Qanon wormhole.

Sobering stuff, Ne c’est pas? I suppose the only good news from this incident is that the kids survived their terrifying ordeal.


Between-centre differences for COVID-19 ICU mortality from early data in England

This is the title of a startling piece of research conducted by four researchers, three from Cambridge and one from UCLA, who looked at the data for outcomes for Covid-19 patients admitted to ICU departments in NHS hospitals over the period from 8th February to 22nd May.

The Abstract reads:

The high numbers of COVID-19 patients developing severe respiratory failure has placed exceptional demands on ICU capacity around the world. Understanding the determinants of ICU mortality is important for surge planning and shared decision making. We used early data from the COVID-19 Hospitalisation in England Surveillance System (from the start of data collection 8th February -22nd May 2020) to look for factors associated with ICU outcome in the hope that information from such timely analysis may be actionable before the outbreak peak. Immunosuppressive disease, chronic cardiorespiratory/renal disease and age were key determinants of ICU mortality in a proportional hazards mixed effects model. However variation in site-stratified random effects were comparable in magnitude suggesting substantial between-centre variability in mortality. Notwithstanding possible ascertainment and lead-time effects, these early results motivate comparative effectiveness research to understand the origin of such differences and optimise surge ICU provision.

The bottom line, summarised in a University bulletin is that:

the NHS trust in which a COVID-19 patient ended up in intensive care is as important, in terms of the risk of death, as the strongest patient-specific risk factors such as older age, immunosuppression or chronic heart/kidney disease. In the worst case, COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit (ICU) of a particular NHS trust were over four times as likely to die in a given time period than COVID-19 patients in an average trust’s ICU.

[Emphasis added] As with many other aspects of this pandemic, postcode lotteries apply.


Quarantine diary — Day 90

Link


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Sunday 24 May, 2020

Get your t-shirt now!

From some genius on Twitter.


Quote of the Day

Social media has given new meaning to “the last post”. Many victims of Covid-19 live on through their final public words, the the Detroit bus driver Jason Hargrove, who died 11 days after recording a Facebook video scolding a woman for coughing on his bus without covering her mouth.”

  • Simon Kuper, Financial Times, May 23/24, 2020.

How the ‘Plandemic’ conspiracy theory took hold

This morning’s Observer column:

To have one viral sensation, Oscar Wilde might have said, is unfortunate. But to have two smacks of carelessness. And that’s what we have. The first is Covid-19, about which much printer’s ink has already been spilled. The second is Plandemic, a 26-minute “documentary” video featuring Dr Judy Mikovits, a former research scientist and inveterate conspiracy theorist who blames the coronavirus outbreak on big pharma, Bill Gates and the World Health Organization. She also claims that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (which is headed by Dr Anthony Fauci) buried her research showing vaccines weaken people’s immune systems and made them more vulnerable to Covid-19. Just to round off the accusations, Mikovits claims that wearing masks is dangerous because it “literally activates your own virus”. And, if proof were needed that the pharma-Gates-scientific-elite cabal were out to get her, the leading journal Science in 2011 retracted a paper by her on a supposed link between a retrovirus and chronic fatigue syndrome that it had accepted in 2009.

The video went online on 4 May when its maker, Mikki Willis, a hitherto little-known film producer, posted it to Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo and a separate website set up to share the video…

Read on


A song for Dominic Cummings

This is so clever and witty. As accomplished in its way as anything Noel Coward ever wrote.

Link


Dr Doom explains

Nouriel Roubini is not everybody’s cup of tea, but he saw the 2008 banking crisis coming and he doesn’t see many good outcomes for the aftermath of Covid-19.

New York magazine has an interesting interview with him. Here’s the bit that really interested me:

Q: Some Trumpian nationalists and labor-aligned progressives might see an upside in your prediction that America is going to bring manufacturing back “onshore.” But you insist that ordinary Americans will suffer from the downsides of reshoring (higher consumer prices) without enjoying the ostensible benefits (more job opportunities and higher wages). In your telling, onshoring won’t actually bring back jobs, only accelerate automation. And then, again with automation, you insist that Americans will suffer from the downside (unemployment, lower wages from competition with robots) but enjoy none of the upside from the productivity gains that robotization will ostensibly produce. So, what do you say to someone who looks at your forecast and decides that you are indeed “Dr. Doom” — not a realist, as you claim to be, but a pessimist, who ignores the bright side of every subject?

Roubini: When you reshore, you are moving production from regions of the world like China, and other parts of Asia, that have low labor costs, to parts of the world like the U.S. and Europe that have higher labor costs. That is a fact. How is the corporate sector going respond to that? It’s going to respond by replacing labor with robots, automation, and AI.

I was recently in South Korea. I met the head of Hyundai, the third-largest automaker in the world. He told me that tomorrow, they could convert their factories to run with all robots and no workers. Why don’t they do it? Because they have unions that are powerful. In Korea, you cannot fire these workers, they have lifetime employment.

But suppose you take production from a labor-intensive factory in China — in any industry — and move it into a brand-new factory in the United States. You don’t have any legacy workers, any entrenched union. You are States. You don’t have any legacy workers, any entrenched union. You are going to design that factory to use as few workers as you can. Any new factory in the U.S. is going to be capital-intensive and labor-saving. It’s been happening for the last ten years and it’s going to happen more when we reshore. So reshoring means increasing production in the United States but not increasing employment. Yes, there will be productivity increases. And the profits of those firms that relocate production may be slightly higher than they were in China (though that isn’t certain since automation requires a lot of expensive capital investment).

But you’re not going to get many jobs. The factory of the future is going to be one person manning 1,000 robots and a second person cleaning the floor. And eventually the guy cleaning the floor is going to be replaced by a Roomba because a Roomba doesn’t ask for benefits or bathroom breaks or get sick and can work 24-7.

The fundamental problem today is that people think there is a correlation between what’s good for Wall Street and what’s good for Main Street. That wasn’t even true during the global financial crisis when we were saying, “We’ve got to bail out Wall Street because if we don’t, Main Street is going to collapse.” How did Wall Street react to the crisis? They fired workers. And when they rehired them, they were all gig workers, contractors, freelancers, and so on. That’s what happened last time. This time is going to be more of the same. Thirty-five to 40 million people have already been fired. When they start slowly rehiring some of them (not all of them), those workers are going to get part-time jobs, without benefits, without high wages. That’s the only way for the corporates to survive. Because they’re so highly leveraged today, they’re going to need to cut costs, and the first cost you cut is labor. But of course, your labor cost is my consumption. So in an equilibrium where everyone’s slashing labor costs, households are going to have less income. And they’re going to save more to protect themselves from another coronavirus crisis. And so consumption is going to be weak. That’s why you get the U-shaped recovery.

There’s a conflict between workers and capital. For a decade, workers have been screwed. Now, they’re going to be screwed more. There’s a conflict between small business and large business.


And I thought I was enraged by the current UK government…

Well, AL Kennedy is even more infuriated — see her piece in today’s Observer For example:

For a few weeks I had red eyes, a strangled cough, an invisible shovel repeatedly hitting my head and something I visualised as a tiny rabbit kicking about in my chest. But I’m not dead, thanks to austerity and all those thought experiments, that’s now a wonderful luxury, an unlooked-for plus in British life. I locked myself away, just to be sure I didn’t share the plague (sorry, Dom) and I’m OK now. I function. Or maybe I was never ill, because any prolonged reflection upon our national circumstances produces identical symptoms. I suffer from fury. I beg your pardon, The Fury. Or, indeed, THE FURY.

I mean, it’s not just anger any more, is it? It’s not any kind of emotion on a familiar human scale, not after all this. Not after the tens of thousands of avoidable deaths. Not after the nurses, teachers, doctors, bus drivers, carers, checkout staff, warehouse staff – the whole army of the useful now declared expendable. Not after people who know their jobs may kill them, may send them home infected, but they go to work anyway to keep everything running, to save us, and still they don’t get adequate pay, or equipment, or even respect. Not after our leaders always have time for racism and PR, but never for even the level of planning you’d put into a sandwich. Not after millions of us have lain awake, just hoping the people we love won’t die. Not after the drowning on dry land alone, after the mourning. Not after the Brexit cult’s insistence that no-deal Brexit must still be imposed, so hop into the wood-chipper, everyone still standing. Not after Stay Alert.

We’re quiet now – we’re trying to save each other, staying home, not forming crowds, thinking, planning. But un-isolated life will eventually recommence. We’ll remember our wounds. We’ll remember who helped and who harmed. And, pardon my language, but our government is fucking terrified of what happens then.

Yep.


That Larry Summers interview

Terrific interview with the former US Treasury Secretary and Harvard President. Long read, but mostly worth it.

Some highlights

On US-China relations…

we need to craft a relationship with China from the principles of mutual respect and strategic reassurance, with rather less of the feigned affection that there has been in the past. We are not partners. We are not really friends. We are entities that find ourselves on the same small lifeboat in turbulent waters a long way from shore. We need to be pulling in unison if things are to work for either of us. If we can respect each other’s roles, respect our very substantial differences, confine our spheres of negotiation to those areas that are most important for cooperation, and represent the most fundamental interests of our societies, we can have a more successful co-evolution that we have had in recent years.

On globalisation…

We have done too much management of globalization for the benefit of those in Davos, and too little for the benefit of those in Detroit or Dusseldorf. Over the last two decades, better intellectual property protection for Mickey Mouse and Hollywood movies has been an A level economic issue. Better global tax cooperation, so that tech companies’ profits do not locate themselves in cyberspace and entirely escape taxation, has been a B-level issue. Achieving better market access for derivatives dealers has been an A-level global economic issue, while assuring that bank secrecy does not permit large-scale money laundering has been a B-level economic cooperation issue. The protection of foreign investors’ property rights has been an A-level issue, and the maintenance of worker standards, or the avoidance of unfair competition through exchange rate depreciation, has been a B-level issue. And ultimately, that has all estranged the elite from those they aspire to lead.

Someone put it to me this way: First, we said that you are going to lose your job, but it was okay because when you got your new one, you were going to have higher wages thanks to lower prices because of international trade. Then we said that your company was going to move your job overseas, but it was really necessary because if we didn’t do that, then your company was going to be less competitive. Now we’re saying that we have to cut the taxes on those companies and cut the calculus class from your kid’s high school, because otherwise we won’t be able to attract companies to the United States, and you have to pay higher taxes and live with fewer services. At a certain point, people say, “This whole global thing doesn’t work for me,” and they have a point.

On regulation…

So the case for regulation is not to be anti-business. Regulation needs to be supported because it enables the vast majority of businesses who want to do right by society to do so and still be able to compete. That’s how the case for regulation needs to be framed. We should not be waging jihad against business. We should be waging jihad against those who put profit ahead of every other value in the society.We should not be waging jihad against business. We should be waging jihad against those who put profit ahead of every other value in the society. And that’s where in the emphasis on profit, we have gone a bit awry.

On tax and taxation policy…

The single easiest answer is that we could raise well over a trillion dollars over the next decade by simply enforcing the tax law that we have against people with high incomes. Natasha Sarin and I made this case and generated a revenue estimate some time ago. If we just restored the IRS to its previous size, judged relatively to the economy; if we moved past the massive injustice represented by the fact that you’re more likely to get audited if you receive the earned income tax credit (EITC) than if you earn $300,000 a year or more; if we made plausible use of information technology and the IRS got to where the credit card companies were 20 years ago, in terms of information technology-matching; and if we required of those who make shelter investments the kind of regular reporting that we require of cleaning women, we would raise, by my estimate, over a trillion dollars. Former IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti, who knows more about it than I do, thinks the figure is closer to $2 trillion. That’s where we should start.

Over time I think we are going to need a larger public sector in the United States to deal with the challenges of a more complex world: an aging society, more inequality that requires mitigation, and a huge change in the relative price of the things the public sector buys, like healthcare and education. We’re going to need more revenue, beyond the unsustainable borrowing that we’re engaged in now. But the first way to get it is enforcing the law we have, which will raise substantial revenue progressively and in ways that will actually promote economic efficiency.

On raising the minimum wage and Universal Basic Income (UBI)…

I do support raising the minimum wage. It’s a matter of balance. I don’t think the minimum wage was doing any significant damage in terms of causing unemployment when Ronald Reagan was president, and the federal minimum wage is now substantially lower, after adjusting for inflation, than it was at that time. I believe raising the minimum wage would help a lot of people who are in substantial need.

I’m not enthusiastic about a universal basic income because the fact that it is so poorly targeted, precisely because of its universality, mean that it will either be prohibitively expensively or will not provide adequate benefits to the poor. Imagine a universal basic income could pay $10,000 per person—that would require nearly a doubling in the federal budget, or more than a doubling in federal tax collection, in order to finance it. That doesn’t seem to me to be remotely tenable. If you make it inexpensive, then you’re not going to be doing very much to help poor people.

On where he disagrees with Keynes’s 1930 essay on “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”…

There’s a lot of empirical evidence since Keynes wrote, and for every non-employed middle-aged man who’s learning to play the harp or to appreciate the Impressionists, there are a hundred who are drinking beer, playing video games, and watching 10 hours of TV a day.

Great stuff. The only thing the US now needs is a President who isn’t a toddler.


Quarantine diary — Day 64

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Errata The author of Universal Man: the seven lives of John Maynard Keynes mentioned in yesterday’s Diary is Richard (not Rupert) Davenport-Hines. Many thanks to Gordon Johnson for alerting me to the error.


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Thursday 21 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

“They would like to have the people come off. I’d rather have the people stay [on the ship]. … I would rather because I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that was not our fault.”

  • Donald J. Trump, Acting President of the United States, March 4, while on a visit to the Centers for Disease Control, answering a question about whether passengers on the Grand Princess cruise ship should be allowed to disembark.

5G ‘protection’ in Glastonbury

Glastonbury is possibly the wackiest town in the UK. Maybe it’s something in the water supply. There’s a lovely post on the Quackometer blog about it.

The council published a report that called for an ending of 5G rollout. Several members of the working group that looked into the safety of 5G complained that the group had been taken over “by anti-5G activists and “spiritual healers”.

This is not surprising to anyone who has ever visited the town of Glastonbury. There is not a shop, pub, business or chip shop that has not been taken over by “spiritual healers” of one sort or another. You cannot walk down the High Street without being smothered in a fog of incense and patchouli. It is far easier to buy a dozen black candles and a pewter dragon than it is a pint of milk.

Science has no sanctuary in Glastonbury. Homeopaths, healers, hedge-witches and hippies all descend on the town to be at one with the Goddess.

There may be no science there, but there’s a lot of ‘technology’ — as the BBC Technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones discovered on a visit — after which he tweeted this:

Further down, there’s a delicious analysis of an electronic device to ‘neutralise radiation’. Taking it apart reveals its innards:

This sophisticated device consists of a switch, a 9-volt battery, a length of standard copper pipe with two endpieces, and an LED bulb.

Not clear how much it sells for, but my guess is £50.

I’m in the wrong business.


Farewell to Beyond the Beyond

This is the title of what is, IMHO, the best essay on blogging ever written. If that seems an extravagant claim, stay tuned. But first, some context.

Bruce Sterling is one of the founders of the cyberpunk movement in science fiction, along with William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, John Shirley, Lewis Shiner, and Pat Cadigan. In addition, he is one of the subgenre’s chief ideological promulgators. But for me he’s always been the consummate blogger. His Beyond the Beyond blog has been running on Wired since 2003, but now — after 17 glorious years — he’s just written a final post.

So, the blog is formally ending this month, May MMXX.

My weblog is a collateral victim of Covid19, which has become a great worldwide excuse to stop whatever you were doing.

You see, this is a WIRED blog — in fact, it is the first ever WIRED blog — and WIRED and other Conde’ Nast publications are facing a planetary crisis. Basically, they’ve got no revenue stream, since the business model for glossy mags is advertisements for events and consumer goods.

If there are no big events due to pandemic, and nobody’s shopping much, either, then it’s mighty hard to keep a magazine empire afloat in midair. Instead, you’ve gotta fire staffers, shut down software, hunt new business models, re-organize and remove loose ends. There is probably no looser-end in the entire WIRED domain than this weblog.

So, in this extensive and self-indulgent conclusion, I’d like to summarize what I think I’ve learned by messing with this weblog for seventeen years.

I’ve been a passionate blogger since the late-1990s. It seemed to me that blogs were the first sign that the Internet was a technology that could finally enable the realisation of Jurgen Habermas’s concept of the ‘public sphere’. It met the three criteria for such a sphere:

  • universal access — anybody could have access to the space;
  • rational discussion on any subject; and
  • disregard of rank or social status.

Initially, my blog was private. It was basically a simple website that I had created, with a very primitive layout. I regarded it as a kind of lab notebook — a place for jotting down ideas where I wouldn’t lose them. As it grew, I discovered that it became even more useful if I put a search engine on it. And then when Dave Winer came up with a blogging platform — Frontier — I switched to that and Memex 1.1 went public. It was named after Vannevar Bush’s concept of the ‘Memex’– a system for associative linking — which he first articulated in a paper in 1939 and eventually published in 1945, and which eventually led, via an indirect route, to Tim Berners-Lee’s concept of the World Wide Web. If you’re interested, the full story is told in my history of the Net.

And since then Memex 1.1 has been up and running.

I suppose one of the reasons why I like Bruce’s swansong is that his views on blogging resonate with mine — except that he articulates them much more clearly that I ever have. Over the years I’ve encountered puzzlement, suspicion, scepticism and occasionally ridicule for the dogged way I’ve persisted in an activity that many of my friends and colleagues consistently regarded as weird. My journalistic colleagues, in particular, were always bemused by Memex: but that was possibly because (at least until recently) journalists regarded anybody who wrote for no pay as clinically insane. In that, they were at one with Dr Johnson, who famously observed that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money”.

Still, there we are.

Bruce’s post is worth reading in its entirety, but here are a few gems:

…on its origins…

When I first started the “Beyond the Beyond” blog, I was a monthly WIRED columnist and a contributing editor. Wired magazine wanted to explore the newfangled medium of weblogs, and asked me to give that a try. I was doing plenty of Internet research to support my monthly Wired column, so I was nothing loath. I figured I would simply stick my research notes online. How hard could that be?

That wouldn’t cost me much more effort than the duty of writing my column — or so I imagined. Maybe readers would derive some benefit from seeing some odd, tangential stuff that couldn’t fit within a magazine’s paper limits. The stuff that was — you know — less mainstream acceptable, more sci-fi-ish, more far-out and beyond-ish — more Sterlingian.

… on its general remit …

Unlike most WIRED blogs, my blog never had any “beat” — it didn’t cover any subject matter in particular. It wasn’t even “journalism,” but more of a novelist’s “commonplace book,” sometimes almost a designer mood board.

… on its lack of a business model…

It was extremely Sterlingesque in sensibility, but it wasn’t a “Bruce Sterling” celebrity blog, because there was scarcely any Bruce Sterling material in it. I didn’t sell my books on the blog, cultivate the fan-base, plug my literary cronies; no, none of that standard authorly stuff

… on why he blogged…

I keep a lot of paper notebooks in my writerly practice. I’m not a diarist, but I’ve been known to write long screeds for an audience of one, meaning myself. That unpaid, unseen writing work has been some critically important writing for me — although I commonly destroy it. You don’t have creative power over words unless you can delete them.

It’s the writerly act of organizing and assembling inchoate thought that seems to helps me. That’s what I did with this blog; if I blogged something for “Beyond the Beyond,” then I had tightened it, I had brightened it. I had summarized it in some medium outside my own head. Posting on the blog was a form of psychic relief, a stream of consciousness that had moved from my eyes to my fingertips; by blogging, I removed things from the fog of vague interest and I oriented them toward possible creative use.

… on not having an ideal reader…

Also, the ideal “Beyond the Beyond” reader was never any fan of mine, or even a steady reader of the blog itself. I envisioned him or her as some nameless, unlikely character who darted in orthogonally, saw a link to some odd phenomenon unheard-of to him or her, and then careened off at a new angle, having made that novelty part of his life. They didn’t have to read the byline, or admire the writer’s literary skill, or pony up any money for enlightenment or entertainment. Maybe they would discover some small yet glimmering birthday-candle to set their life alight.

Blogging is akin to stand-up comedy — it’s not coherent drama, it’s a stream of wisecracks. It’s also like street art — just sort of there, stuck in the by-way, begging attention, then crumbling rapidly.

Lovely stuff. Worth celebrating.


Moral Crumple Zones

Pathbreaking academic paper by Madeleine Clare Elish which addresses the problem of how to assign culpability and responsibility when AI systems cause harm. Example: when a ‘self-driving’ car hits and hills a pedestrian, is the ‘safety driver’ (the human supervisor sitting in the car but not at the controls at the time of the accident) the agent who gets prosecuted for manslaughter? (This is a real case, btw.).

Although published ages ago (2016) this is still a pathbreaking paper. In it Elish comes up with a striking new concept.

I articulate the concept of a moral crumple zone to describe how responsibility for an action may be misattributed to a human actor who had limited control over the behavior of an automated or autonomous system.1Just as the crumple zone in a car is designed to absorb the force of impact in a crash, the human in a highly complex and automated system may become simply a component—accidentally or intentionally—that bears the brunt of the moral and legal responsibilities when the overall system malfunctions.

While the crumple zone in a car is meant to protect the human driver, the moral crumple zone protects the integrity of the technological system, at the expense of the nearest human operator. What is unique about the concept of a moral crumple zone is that it highlights how structural features of a system and the media’s portrayal of accidents may inadvertently take advantage of human operators (and their tendency to become “liability sponges”) to fill the gaps in accountability that may arise in the context of new and complex systems.

It’s interesting how the invention of a pithy phrase can help to focus attention, attention and understanding.

Writing the other day in Wired, Tom Simonite picked up on Elish’s insight:

People may find it even harder to clearly see the functions and failings of more sophisticated AI systems that continually adapt to their surroundings and experiences. “What does it mean to understand what a system does if it is dynamic and learning and we can’t count on our previous knowledge?” Elish asks. As we interact with more AI systems, perhaps our own remarkable capacity for learning will help us develop a theory of machine mind, to intuit their motivations and behavior. Or perhaps the solution lies in the machines, not us. Engineers of future AI systems might need to spend as much time testing how well they play with humans as on adding to their electronic IQs.


Robotic Process Automation

Sounds boring, right? Actually for the average web user or business, it’s way more important than machine learning. RPA refers basically to software tools for automating the “long tail” of mundane tasks that are boring, repetitive, and prone to human error. Every office — indeed everyone who uses a computer for work — has tasks like this.

Mac users have lots of these tools available. I use Textexpander, for example, to create a small three-character code which, when activated, can type a signature at the foot of an email, or the top of a letterhead or, for that matter, an entire page of stored boilerplate text. For other tasks there are tools like IFTTT, Apple’s Shortcuts and other automation tools that are built into the OS X operating system.

Windows users, however, were not so lucky, which I guess is why the WinAutomation tools provided by a British company Softmotive were so popular. And guess what? Softmotive has just been bought by Microsoft. Smart move by Redmond.


Quarantine diary — Day 61

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Sunday 17 May, 2020

Parenting is a full-time job in a pandemic

Outside our kitchen window, this evening.


Facebook’s ‘oversight board’ is proof that it wants to be regulated – by itself

This morning’s Observer column:

Here we go again. Facebook, a tech company that suffers from the delusion that it’s a nation state, has had another go at pretending that it is one. Originally, you will recall, it was going to create a global currency called Libra and in effect become shadow banker to the world. Strangely, a world that normally seems hypnotised by Facebook turned out to be distinctly unimpressed by that idea; after all, who would trust Facebook with money? So the project is effectively evaporating into something that looks a bit like 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 2.6 billion) he thinks that it should have its own supreme court. (Yes, that’s the expression he originally used: later, wiser councils – possibly a guy called Nick Clegg – persuaded him that that might be just a tad presumptuous.) 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, it seems, 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. Let us call the Facebook oversight board by its initials: FOB…

Read on


Introducing Colonel Johnson (late of the Light Brigade), and his batman, Cummings

There’s a new comedy duo on the British political scene.

Unfortunately, they don’t make people laugh.

See today’s Quarantine Diary for details.


The rise and rise of conspiracist thinking

The Atlantic has a fascinating new series on a topic that until 2016 most people (though not me and my academic colleagues) thought was only of fringe interest.

Five substantial essays.


Quarantine diary — Day 57

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Tuesday 7 April, 2020

Where those Florida beach celebrants went after partying

You know the story: lots and lots of people congregated on a beach in Fort Lauderdale, Florida during the Spring break weekend. A couple of geo-tracking companies, one of which was Tectonix (Slogan: “Reshape Your Data Experience) posted an fascinating video showing where those celebrants went afterwards.

Donie O’Sullivan of CNN has a good report on this. Apparently there are at least two companies — Tectonix and X-mode — doing this.

The map generated from X-Mode’s data by Tectonix, a data visualization firm, is indeed powerful and underlines why the US government might be considering using location data from Americans’ cell phones to try to track and possibly curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

It also may point to a potential sea change in how some in the tech industry talk about the data they possess. Silicon Valley has endured years of high-profile data privacy scandals. But now smaller companies like X-Mode, unheard of unknown by the majority of Americans, are publicly touting demonstrations of their technology — suggesting businesses like theirs see the potential of helping track the spread of the coronavirus as an opportunity to show how their often maligned data can be used for good. Cuebiq, another location tracking company, has been similarly public about its abilities.

For people who don’t understand the tracking capabilities of smartphones this will probably be startling info. For those who follow the industry it is, sadly, old hat.


IT support staff are critical workers too

One overlooked group of critical workers is the folks who are doing IT support to enable thousands and thousands of people who have never worked out of an office to do it at home. I see it in my college and in the wider university. But a colleague who works for a large corporation tells me that their IT staff are stretched to breaking point — having to prep 300-500 new laptops a day with the security and other specialised software needed for secure home working. IT Support is one of the most stressful occupations there are (partly because their clients are often angry and/or frustrated when they call them in). And getting beginners onto Zoom, Teams, VPNs etc. isn’t often easy.


How the telephone failed to make the Spanish flu bearable

This isn’t the first time technology was supposed to make isolation easier.

This is from the St Louis Post-Despatch of November 17, 1910, years before the Spanish flu outbreak. Harry McCracken, the Tech Editor of Fast Company, has a lovely of the role the Bell system played in that crisis.

Cities and entire states imposed emergency measures similar to those in place today, aiming to flatten the flu’s curve by keeping people apart from each other. Places of business, education, and worship were temporarily closed, and masks were required in some areas.

For a time, it looked like the telephone might help people carry on their lives with minimal disruption. In Holton, Kansas, the local Red Cross distributed placards that local merchants could place in their windows, encouraging customers—especially those who might be ill—to call rather than enter the premises. (Even before the epidemic, telephone ordering was becoming a popular form of commerce—grocery stores, for instance, offered Instacart-like delivery services.)

But then…

Guess what? There was a category of ‘critical’ workers that nobody had thought of. Switchboard operators. Overwhelmingly female. And they were as vulnerable to the flu as our critical workers. SO you can guess the rest of the story — encapsulated in these ads:

It’s a lovely essay — worth reading in full.


YouTube and 5G coronavirus conspiracy theories.

You may not have noticed but seriously crackpot conspiracy theories about 5G mobile telephony causing COVID-19 have been circulating on social media, including YouTube. And nutters have apparently been so moved by them that they ahve started to set fire to mobile phone masts. This has led to demands to YouTube to shape up and stop this nonsense circulating.

According to a Guardian report by Alex Hern, YouTube has

“reduced the amount of content spreading conspiracy theories about links between 5G technology and coronavirus that it recommends to users, it has said, as four more attacks were recorded on phone masts within 24 hours.

The online video company will actively remove videos that breach its policies, it said. But content that is simply conspiratorial about 5G mobile communications networks, without mentioning coronavirus, is still allowed on the site.”

This is standard-issue First Amendment cant. YouTube (like Facebook and Twitter) believes it has a responsibility to let nutters broadcast so long as they do not violate those sacred Terms and Conditions. But the First Amendment applies only to the government. YouTube is a private platform, owned and controlled by Google (well, Alphabet, Google’s parent company). It can do what it likes. It has no obligation to give a platform to anyone.

“There are lots of things wrong about 5G, says Cory Doctorow

But 5G doesn’t give you cancer. It won’t make you sick. And…god, I am getting stupider just thinking about typing this, coronavirus is not a false-flag op to disguise the illnesses that 5G is secretly creating.

The reason I have to mention that is that the conspiracyverse is full of that specific theory, and it’s inspiring people to COMMIT ARSON and torch 5G towers.

No, seriously.

In the wake of multiple attacks on 5G towers, Youtube has announced changes to its moderation guidelines. It will allow 5G conspiracy theories, just not ones that (oh god my fingers are seizing up from the stupid) link 5G with coronavirus.

Corona conspiracy theories are new, but conspiracy theories have have been around for ever. “Even a cursory perusal of the arguments for these conspiracies”, says Cory, ” reveals that they have not gotten better, even as they’ve gained traction”. If the same arguments are attracting more adherents, he argues, then one of two things is going on. Either: YouTube is a mind-control ray that can turn rational people into believers in absurd ideas; or the number of people to whom these ideas seem plausible has grown and/or Youtube has made it more efficient to reach those people.

Cory thinks it’s the latter, and I agree. YouTube is not a powerful hypnotising machine so much as a machine for finding people who are susceptible to nonsense.


Quarantine diary — Day 17

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Thursday 30 January, 2020

Warren Buffett gives up on the news business

He’s selling Berkshire Hathaway’s newspapers to Lee Enterprises. You can guess what he thinks about the prospects for journalism. NYT


Social media will impair society’s ability to control the Corona epidemic

“’It plays to our worst fears’: Coronavirus misinformation fuelled by social media” This is one of the under-appreciated threats posed by social media. And it can be weaponised by bad actors.

And, right on cue, here’s the first report

“Baseless stories claiming that the two scientists are Chinese spies and that they smuggled the coronavirus to China’s only Level 4 lab in Wuhan last year have been spreading on all major social media platforms and on conspiracy theorist blogs. One article from a conspiracy blog was shared more than 6,000 times on Facebook on Monday. “


Global (dis)Satisfaction with Democracy Report

My colleague David Runciman launched his new Centre for the Future of Democracy last night with the presentation of a pathbreaking survey of citizens’ confidence (or lack thereof) in their democracies. The report aims to provide a comprehensive answer to questions regarding one measure of democratic legitimacy – satisfaction with democracy – by combining data from almost all available survey sources.

It’s based on a huge dataset which combined more than 25 data sources, 3,500 country surveys, and 4 million respondents between 1973 and 2020 in which citizens were asked whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with democracy in their countries. Using this combined, pooled dataset, the researchers now have a time-series for almost 50 years in Western Europe, and 25 years for the rest of the world.

Among their findings are:

  • Dissatisfaction with democracy has risen over time, and is reaching an all-time global high, in particular in developed democracies.
  • The rise in democratic dissatisfaction has been especially sharp since 2005.
  • Many large democracies are at their highest-ever recorded level for democratic dissatisfaction. These include the United States, Brazil, Mexico, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Colombia, and Australia. Other countries that remain close to their all-time highs include Japan, Spain, and Greece.
  • Citizens’ levels of dissatisfaction with democracy are largely responsive to objective circumstances and events – economic shocks, corruption scandals, and policy crises. These have an immediately observable effect upon average levels of civic dissatisfaction.
  • The picture is not entirely negative. Many small, high-income democracies have moved in the direction of greater civic confidence in their institutions. In Ireland, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, for example, democratic satisfaction is reaching all-time highs. These countries form part of the “island of contentment” – a select group of nations, containing just 2% of the world’s democratic citizenry, in which less than a quarter of the public express discontent with their political system.

The results are sobering. Since the mid-1990s, the proportion of citizens who are “dissatisfied” with the performance of democracy in their countries has risen by almost 10 percentage points globally. The deterioration has been especially deep in high-income, “consolidated” democracies, where the proportion has risen from a third to half of all citizens.

From the Report’s Conclusions…

If satisfaction with democracy is now falling across many of the world’s largest mature and emerging democracies – including the United States, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and South Africa – it is not because citizens’ expectations are excessive or unrealistic, but because democratic institutions are falling short of the outcomes that matter most for their legitimacy, including probity in office, upholding the rule of law, responsiveness to public concerns, ensuring economic and financial security, and raising living standards for the larger majority of society. Our analysis suggests that citizens are rational in their view of political institutions, updating their assessment in response to what they observe. If confidence in democracy has been slipping, then the most likely explanation is that democratically elected governments have not been seen to succeed in addressing some of the major challenges of our era, including economic co-ordination in the eurozone, the management of refugee flows, and providing a credible response to the threat of global climate change. The best means of restoring democratic legitimacy would be for this to change.

Boris Johnson, hedge-funds, conspiracy theories and Brexit

Last Saturday the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, claimed that Boris Johnson was pursuing the interests of financial backers who are set to gain from a no-deal Brexit. Hammond said he was only repeating a comment made by Rachel Johnson, the Prime Minister’s sister. Since some of Johnson’s financial backers run hedge-funds, this sounded like a good conspiracy theory. Indeed Robert Harris, the best-selling thriller writer, tweeted that the claim that Johnson wanted a hard Brexit so that his backers in the City wouldn’t lose billions alleged “corruption on a scale I wouldn’t dare put in fiction”.

Frances Coppola, writing for Forbes, isn’t impressed by this particular conspiracy theory. “To be sure”, she writes,

some hedge fund managers make no secret of their desire for no-deal Brexit. Crispin Odey, for example, not only backed Johnson for Prime Minister but – according to a recent Channel 4 documentary – also advised him to suspend (“prorogue”) Parliament to force through no-deal Brexit. Johnson’s attempt to follow Odey’s advice ended ignominiously when the U.K.’s highest court ruled it unlawful.

Coppola’s point seems to be that most of the journalists covering this particular story doen’t seem to know much about how hedge-funds work. It is possible to profit from no-deal Brexit even if you don’t support it. “Shorting the pound”, she writes, “would be a no-brainer for anyone in the hedge fund fraternity, however pristine their Remain credentials.”

The conspiracy theory suggests that as October 31 approaches with no sign of a deal, hedge-funds might short the pound whether or not they backed Johnson’s campaign.

But that’s not what is being alleged by those who claim that speculators are placing billions of pounds of bets on no-deal Brexit. No, the focus is on equities. According to The Sunday Times, hedge funds like Odey are shorting British companies in expectation of a stock market crash if the U.K. leaves the EU without a deal. Allegedly, Odey has placed £300m ($370m) of bets against a variety of U.K. companies.

Investigating the list of his 14 currently active shorts, Coppola thinks that they are standard hedge-fund operations — betting against companies that are in trouble for reasons that have little or nothing to do with Brexit. “In short”, she concludes,

In short, despite his vocal support for no-deal Brexit, I don’t see any evidence that Odey’s funds are shorting U.K. companies in anticipation of no-deal Brexit. If I were to criticize Odey for anything, it would be for high fees and an uninspiring performance.

Nice piece of debunking. And of good journalism. And I wouldn’t put it past Robert to use the plot in one of his next books!