Friday 23 October, 2020

Gone Fishin’

Cley beach, Norfolk, 2018.


Quote of the Day

”There are two things which I am confident I can do well: one is an introduction to literary work, stating what it is to contain, and how it should be executed in the most perfect manner; the other is a conclusion, shewing from various causes why the execution has not been equal to what the author promised to himself and to the public.”

  • Samuel Johnson, 1755.

Rings any bells with you? Does with me.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Beethoven | Für Elise” | Lang Lang

Link

When I lived and worked in Holland in the late 1970s I often went to the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on Sunday mornings where there would be a recital in the Spiegelzaal. You paid a small fee, got a coffee and found a place to sit. I think these treats were actually branded as Für Elise, but it’s so long ago that I can’t be sure. Still, this wonderful performance by Lang Lang brings it all back.


The false promise of herd immunity for COVID-19

Why proposals to largely let the virus run its course — embraced by Donald Trump’s administration and others — could bring “untold death and suffering”.

Useful briefing from Nature which explains the concept and the difficulty of estimating what percentage of a population have it.

It’s complicated, as you might expect. The bottom line, though, is that “never before have we reached herd immunity via natural infection with a novel virus, and SARS-CoV-2 is unfortunately no different.”

Vaccination is the only ethical path to herd immunity. Letting it rip is neither ethical nor likely to be effective.

We kind-of knew that, didn’t we? Except for Trump, of course, who called it “herd mentality”.


Writing to Simone

Terrific review essay by Vivian Gornick in the Boston Review on Simone de Beauvoir and the letters readers wrote to her. The book she’s writing about is Judith Coffin’s Sex, Love, and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir — a work that came out of the author’s discovery of the enormous trove of letters to Beauvoir from her readers in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

It was not only, or even mainly, The Second Sex that bound readers to Beauvoir for decades. More than anything it was the memoirs, following one upon another, that accounted for the remarkable loyalty thousands of women, and some men too, showered upon the gradual unfolding of a life lived almost entirely in the public eye, at the same time that its inner existence was continually laid bare and minutely reported upon. Fearless was the word most commonly associated with these books as, in every one of them, Beauvoir, good Existentialist that she was, wrote with astonishing frankness about sex, politics, and relationships. She recorded in remarkable detail, and with remarkable authenticity, everything she had thought or felt at any given moment. Well, kind of. She recorded everything that she was not ashamed of. Years later, after she and Sartre were both dead, appalling behavior came to light that she had either omitted from the memoirs or put a positive spin on.

Sex, Love, and Letters is a richly researched study based on Judith Coffin’s encounter with a batch of these letters that a sympathetic curator put into her hands one day while she was working on The Second Sex in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. As she writes in her introduction, “Nothing prepared me for the drama I found the first time I opened a folder of readers’ letters to Simone de Beauvoir. . . . What I found was an outpouring of projection, identification, expectation, disappointment, and passion.” Correspondents “asked for advice on marriage, love, and birth control; they confessed secrets and sent sections of their diaries for her to read. The letter writers’ tone was unexpected as well, alternately deferential and defiant, seductive, and wry.”

I know a bit about this because I was once married to a woman whose life was changed by reading the Second Sex and the successive volumes of Beauvoir’s remarkable autobiography. Carol (who died in 2008) was deeply influenced by these texts and for her (and to some extent for me) this amazing French intellectual became a kind of heroine — so much so that Carol later did a Masters thesis on the autobiography. I’m looking at it now as I write. She even wrote to Beauvoir asking for an interview — and went to Paris to see her in her apartment. So I guess her letters are also in the BN’s trove.

As Gornick implies, the passage of time, and posthumous revelations, has taken the shine off the image of Beauvoir and her accomplice in literary celebrity, Jean-Paul Sartre. Subsequent biographies have revealed that they both sometimes behaved abominably towards other people. I guess it leaves those of us who, as impressionable students, were dazzled by them, looking naive. So what? Everybody was young and foolish once. And whatever one thinks about its author with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, The Second Sex was a genuinely pathbreaking book.


There’s a word for why we wear masks, and Liberals should say it

Michael Tomasky has a fine OpEd piece in the New York Times about the way the word “freedom” has been hijacked by the alt-right and their accomplices in the Republican party.

Donald Trump is now back on the road, holding rallies in battleground states. These events, with people behind the president wearing masks but most others not, look awfully irresponsible to most of us — some polls show that as many as 92 percent of Americans typically wear masks when they go out.

Trumpworld sees these things differently. Mike Pence articulated the view in the vice-presidential debate. “We’re about freedom and respecting the freedom of the American people,” Mr. Pence said. The topic at hand was the Sept. 26 super-spreader event in the Rose Garden to introduce Amy Coney Barrett as the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court and how the administration can expect Americans to follow safety guidelines that it has often ignored.

Tomasky goes back to John Stuart Mill (whom many right-wingers apparently revere). In On Liberty he wrote that liberty (or freedom) means “doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow, without impediment from our fellow creatures, as long as what we do does not harm them even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse or wrong.” This is a standard definition of freedom, more succinctly expressed in the adage: “Your freedom to do as you please with your fist ends where my jaw begins.”

Most of the nonsense about mask-wearing in the US is expressed in the language of “my freedom”. It’s ludicrously oxymoronic, though. I saw a fanatical anti-mask woman on TV recently saying “it’s my body and I’m not going to have anyone telling me what to wear on my face” while it was pretty clear that she doesn’t agree with pro-abortion campaigners who maintain “It’s my body and I’m going to decide what happens to it.” Par for the course: fanatics don’t do consistency.

“Freedom,” Tomasky observes,

emphatically does not include the freedom to get someone else sick. It does not include the freedom to refuse to wear a mask in the grocery store, sneeze on someone in the produce section and give him the virus. That’s not freedom for the person who is sneezed upon. For that person, the first person’s “freedom” means chains — potential illness and even perhaps a death sentence. No society can function on that definition of freedom. emphatically does not include the freedom to get someone else sick. It does not include the freedom to refuse to wear a mask in the grocery store, sneeze on someone in the produce section and give him the virus. That’s not freedom for the person who is sneezed upon. For that person, the first person’s “freedom” means chains — potential illness and even perhaps a death sentence. No society can function on that definition of freedom.

He’s right about how strange it is that “freedom” belongs almost wholly to the right. They talk about it incessantly and insist on a link between economic freedom and political freedom, positing that the latter is impossible without the former. (This is a legacy of Hayek and what Philip Mirowski calls the “Neoliberal Thought Collective”.) And yet, as Tomasky says,

the broad left in America has let all this go unchallenged for decades, to the point that today’s right wing can defend spreading disease, potentially killing other people, as freedom. It is madness.

It is.


Dutch Ethical Hacker Logs into Trump’s Twitter Account

From the Dutch newspaper, De Volkskrant.

Last week a Dutch security researcher succeeded in logging into the Twitter account of the American President Donald Trump. Trump, an active Twitterer with 87 million followers, had an extremely weak and easy to guess password and had according to the researcher, not applied two-step verification.

The researcher, Victor Gevers, had access to Trump’s personal messages, could post tweets in his name and change his profile. Gevers took screenshots when he had access to Trump’s account. These screenshots were shared with de Volkskrant by the monthly opinion magazine Vrij Nederland. Dutch security experts find Gevers’ claim credible.

The Dutchman alerted Trump and American government services to the security leak. After a few days, he was contacted by the American Secret Service in the Netherlands. This agency is also responsible for the security of the American President and took the report seriously, as evidenced by correspondence seen by de Volkskrant. Meanwhile Trump’s account has been made more secure.

So what was Trump’s password? Yes — you guessed it! — it was “maga2020!”


Other, perhaps interesting, links

  • Doomsday preppersLink
  • The new Hummer. Beyond parody, really but interesting technically. Link
  • The Criminal Case Against Donald Trump Is in the Works. Link. No wonder he doesn’t want to lose the Presidency.

Thursday 22 October, 2020

Glenteenassig Lake, Co Kerry, on a November morning.


Quote of the Day

“What demons are at work here? You don’t know. But at least you know you don’t know. That’s a start. That’s where doctors begin when trying to diagnose patients with bizarre symptoms that may indicate a fatal disease. They distrust theories and try to see what they see. They go slow and keep their wits about them. That is your most precious possession right now: your wits. Try not to lose them.”


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paddy Keenan | Uileann pipes | Three tunes, including the Cork Hornpipe | 2011

Link

I love Uileann piping but hadn’t known of Keenan until Ross Anderson (also a piper), told me about him.

There’s a nice comment by Liz Moran under the video:

He is not playing that fast in the the first few minutes and you’ll notice he “swings” the tune, he plays slightly behind the beat like a good jazz musician. He takes his time and he does not rush the melody. The last, which I know as the “Cork Hornpipe,” is a pretty simple tune with lots of nice jumps where you can fly the notes, add fills and make it nice and showy. I had the good fortune of meeting his father and listening to his chanter playing, in the family caravan, Ballyfermot, 1975.


If you’re pinning your hopes on a Covid vaccine, here’s a dose of realism

David Salisbury writing in the Guardian.

TL;DR summary: A targeted immunisation programme may offer some protection, but it will not deliver ‘life as normal’.

Even if countries do decide to switch from a personal-protection policy to a transmission-interruption strategy, obstacles remain. Much will depend on the successful vaccination (probably with two doses) of people who have not previously seen themselves to be at elevated risk. The challenge will be persuading the young, for example, to be vaccinated, not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of others.

Adherence to recommendations for any Covid-19 interventions – social distancing, lockdowns, home working, cancelled holidays or vaccinations – depend on trust. If politicians are telling us that the present impositions on our lives are only going to last until we have vaccines, then the reality is that a false hope is being promulgated.

Vaccines are probably the most powerful public health intervention available to us. But unless their benefits are communicated with realism, confidence in all recommendations will be put at risk.

David Salisbury used to be Director of Immunisation at the Department of Health.

It’s going to take quite a while until the penny finally drops: Covid-19 represents a radical break with the past.


How long before UK prisons explode?

Sobering Covid-diary post by David Vincent:

As it dawns on the rest of us that this nightmare has no end-point in sight…

There seems little prospect of any of the Government’s semi-privatised schemes ever working, nor is it likely that a vaccine will get on top of the pandemic until well into the New Year. As Christmas is imperilled, prolonged anxiety and unending isolation are wearing away at the spirits.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the prisons, which, as I have argued in earlier posts, have been exposed to destructive solitude on a scale not seen anywhere in civilian life. Time has been the currency of the penal system in Britain since it began to move away from physical punishment in the early nineteenth century. The gravity of a crime is measured in the years that must be served.

It was apparent from the beginning that locking prisoners up for twenty-three hours a day to protect them from infection was likely to cause serious harm to inmates who were rarely in good psychological condition at the outset.

David has been reading the just-published Report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons, of Peter Clarke, who is about to retire. In it, Clarke draws attention to the consequences of the lockdown in prisons:

“Given the obvious linkage between excessive time locked in cells and mental health issues, self-harm and drug abuse, it was concerning to find that the amount of time for which prisoners were unlocked for time out of cell was often unacceptably poor. Nineteen per cent of adult male prisoners told us that they were out of their cells for less than two hours on weekdays, including 32% in men’s local prisons. Is it any surprise that self-harm in prisons has been running at historically high levels during the past year?”

Clarke was quoted in the Guardian as saying: “The question is: is it intended to keep people locked up for 23 hours a day ad infinitum? Or until the virus is eliminated? That simply can’t be right.”

It can’t. One obvious thing to do is to release categories of prisoner who pose little danger either to themselves or to the public to ease the pressure on the system. David Vincent says that at the onset of the pandemic, France released 10,000 prisoners precisely for this reason. It’s just common sense, really.

But Johnson & Co don’t do common sense. And even if they did decide to take radical steps like the French, the reflective howls from Britain’s tabloids would return them cringing to their bunker.


It Wasn’t Just Trump Who Got It Wrong

America’s coronavirus response failed because we didn’t understand the complexity of the problem.

Great piece by Zeynep Tufecki (who now has a Substack newsletter, btw).

On January 29, about a week after China’s government shifted from a deny-and-censor strategy to massive action and communication, Chinese scientists published a significant paper in The New England Journal of Medicine. The paper estimated the R0 (the basic reproduction number of an infectious disease) from the first known case of coronavirus in early December through January 4 to be little more than 2. That means that, left somewhat unchecked, each infected person infected two more people. Crucially, the paper pointed out evidence of mild and even asymptomatic cases, unlike SARS, which almost always came with a high fever. It also confirmed the reports that the disease was most dangerous for the elderly or people with underlying conditions. The paper came out just after China made the unprecedented move to shut down all of Wuhan, a metropolis of 10 million people, and also Hubei, a province of 50 million people.

For people stuck in asystemic thinking, all this may well have seemed like a small, faraway threat. If one merely looked at the R0, the virus wasn’t outrageously contagious. The number was similar to seasonal flu, but nothing explosive like measles, which has an R0 of 12 to 18—one ill person can infect another 12 to 18 people. For an asystemic thinker, it probably didn’t look that deadly, either. The mortal threat was disproportionately to the elderly, who already succumb to colds and influenza at much higher rates than younger, healthier people. The case-fatality rate (CFR), or the percent of infected people who die, for younger people seemed fairly low, perhaps comparable to seasonal influenza, which kills about 0.1 percent of its victims, exacting a toll in the tens of thousands in the United States alone. On January 29, the known global death total for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, was still under 200, less than a weekend’s worth of traffic accidents in the United States, let alone the flu. And to an asystemic thinker, the threat seemed remote, unfolding as it was in Wuhan, a place that many people outside China may not have heard of.

Thus from the end of January through most of February, a soothing message got widespread traction, not just with Donald Trump and his audience, but among traditional media in the United States, which exhorted us to worry about the flu instead, and warned us against overreaction…

This essay isn’t just the product of 20/20 vision btw. Tufecki has been ahead of this from the beginning. Her argument is an analytical one. Our difficulties with the virus, she says, stem from the fact that we don’t — as individuals or societies — think systemically.

Here’s my paraphrase of her analysis:

  • We’re used to thinking in linear terms, but we live in a complex system — and in such systems everything is nonlinear — tipping points, phase transitions (water boiling or freezing), and cascades and avalanches (when a few small changes end up triggering massive shifts) are all examples of nonlinear dynamics in which the event doesn’t follow simple addition in its impacts. Which is why the coronavirus was never just about its R0 or CFR.
  • In complex systems, efficiency, redundancy, and resiliency pull in different directions: Efficient systems, are cheaper because they eliminate redundancies, which provide resilience but cost more. Over the last 40 years capitalism has been building efficient but fragile systems — just think of medical supply chains, or those that stock our supermarkets.
  • Health systems are prone to nonlinear dynamics because hospitals don’t have resilience; they are resource-limited and necessarily strive for efficiency. They can treat only so many people at once, and they have particular bottlenecks with their most expensive parts, such as ventilators and ICUs. The flu season may be tragic for its victims; but an additional, unexpected viral illness in the same season isn’t merely twice as tragic as the flu, even if it has a similar R0 or CFR: It is potentially catastrophic.
  • Worse, COVID-19 isn’t even just another flu-like illness. By January 29, it was clear that it caused severe primary pneumonia in its victims. That’s like the difference between a disease that drops you in the dangerous part of town late at night and one that does the mugging itself. COVID-19’s characteristics made it clear that some patients would need a lot of intensive, expensive resources: ICU beds, ventilators, negative-pressure rooms, critical-care nurses, etc.
  • Nonlinear dynamics and complex-system failures can also happen because of tight coupling between the components. This means that every part of the system moves together so even small things can cause a crisis. For example, COVID-19 testing requires slender swabs that can reach the nasopharynx. We still have a shortage of swabs because we didn’t ramp up their production when we had time

Our survival as a species will require us to learn to think systemically. Which is worrying because we’ve never been good at that.


Other, possibly interesting, links

  • Donald Trump is getting desperate — and his mental pathology is getting worse every day. Not really news, but this piece in Salon (Link) is written by two mental health professionals.

  • On Tuesday, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft touched down on an asteroid called Bennu for about six seconds to collect a mineral sample to bring back to Earth. Watch it land on the asteroid Link

  • Trailer for the documentary about the former White House photographer Pete Souza. Link


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Friday 16 October, 2020

Breakfasting in style

The view from my window one morning in a posh German schloss outside Frankfurt where I was doing a gig.


Quote of the Day

”I saw his play under bad conditions. The curtain was up.”

George Kaufman, playwright and critic, writing of Alexander Woollcott.


Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Sleepwalk – Chet Atkins & Leo Kottke

Link


The Consolation of Nature

This is the title of a delightful new book that arrived in the post yesterday (the day of its publication in the UK). It’s a joint work by three friends who are distinguished writers on natural history and the environment — Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren. They live in different parts of the country and decided to record and exchange their reflections on the most extraordinary Spring that any of us have ever experienced. The result is an entrancing book, IMHO.

Here’s a fragment of the Introduction, read by me…

Link

As someone who has also written a lockdown diary (coming soon) I’m deeply impressed by how insightful (and observant) the members of this trio have been as they lived through the same experience.


We’re in a syndemic, not a pandemic

I’ve been watching the latest UK government ‘briefing’ on the pandemic and brooding on how most Western states’ responses to Covid remain as predictable as they are inadequate. It’s eerie to watch whole societies unable to grasp the systemic nature of what’s happening.

Essentially the response is reductionist — tackle the virus, tackle the virus, tackle the virus. (Oh, and protect the economy.) But in fact we’re in a perfect storm in which the virus is just one actor. The legacies of 40 years of ideologically-driven government have generated huge inequalities which have exacerbated poverty, grotesque housing shortages and fostered massive increases in chronic diseases — obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety, heart disease — all of which create the susceptibilities to the virus that are now becoming apparent.

We need a systems approach to this, because it’s a systemic problem that just happens to have become truly catastrophic because of the virus. What we have — as The Lancet has been arguing — is a ‘syndemic’, not a pandemic. The hallmark of a syndemic, it says,

is the presence of two or more disease states that adversely interact with each other, negatively affecting the mutual course of each disease trajectory, enhancing vulnerability, and which are made more deleterious by experienced inequities.

Focussing on the virus alone is understandable (i.e. obsessing only about treatments and vaccines) is a mistake . The FT had a quote from Richard Horton, Editor of The Lancet, making the point:

”The deadly impact of the pandemic is not caused by the virus acting alone but interacting with chronic disease like diabetes, obesity, heart disease and high blood pressure — all against a background of inequality of poverty. We can’t fully control the infection without addressing those factors”.

The trouble is that we no longer have a politics that can do systemic thinking. As an academic I’m beginning to think that we need a ‘theory of incompetent systems’, i.e. systems that can’t fix themselves. Climate change provides another demonstration of that need. And the US Constitution is yet another.


A student reference in the age of Zoom

Matt Cheung in McSweeney’s

I am writing regarding Sara Tan’s application for the Covid Undergraduate Research Scholars Educational Development scholarship, which seeks to reward students exhibiting extraordinary academic skills, creativity, and leadership abilities during this time of uncertainty. I met Sara this fall semester as she was enrolled in my first-year composition class. In the time I have known her, she has proven to be a hard-working student worthy of your consideration.

You may wonder how I have come to know Sara so well when our college has been virtually shut down save for essential staff, such as our finance department, the volunteers that feed the feral cats on campus, and the occasional faculty member who wanders onto the grounds looking for a sense of a connection to the past he once had in order to fight feeling completely untethered during this pandemic. I’m not saying that person is me, but I digress. This is about Sara. Sara has been very active in our Zoom classes. She never turns her camera on, but it is always a delight to see her black box log in with its three dancing dots struggling to establish audio and find a connection, any connection – physical, spiritual, emotional – in the dark void that is the new college classroom. I’ve come to expect Sara’s disembodied voice, floating through my speakers, to offer pithy observations about the day’s text. Her contributions in the chat are equally insightful, always complete sentences or at least a clause with a subject and a verb, far more than her classmates’ single-word utterings.

It’s hard to establish relationships with students you only see virtually, but I have gotten to know Sara’s personality and creative side through her use of GIFs…

Wonderful. Wish I could write references like that!


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Thursday 15 October, 2020

The Sociopath: 2010

What a difference a decade makes.


Quote of the Day

”I work for a government I despise for ends I think criminal.”

  • John Maynard Keynes, 1917, in a letter to Duncan Grant.

I wonder how many officials in the US and UK governments currently feel the same way.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Hothouse Flowers – I Can See Clearly Now

https://youtu.be/Y1HRcoHGmi4


Turns out, Boris Johnson doesn’t do detail. Who knew?

John Crace, writing about yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions:

Starmer started with some basic detail. On 11 May Johnson had promised the country he would be guided by the science at all times. On 21 September the Sage scientists had recommended a short circuit breaker. So at what point did the prime minister decide to abandon the science and cobble together a three-tier regional system with which almost no one was happy?

Despite having had the whole morning to prepare for such an obvious question, Boris looked genuinely bemused. As if he had quite forgotten it was Wednesday and had been hoping for a lie-in. So he did what he always did. He filled dead air with dead words. When he had said he was going to follow the science, he had never intended to imply he would do so faithfully. Rather he was going to pick and choose the bits he liked. He reminded me of a builder I once used who, when I observed the kitchen floor was not level, replied that I had never specified it should be “dead level”.

Amazing to think that this clown is the Prime Minister of a major country.


U.K. Plans New Law to Undo Foreign Deals on Security Grounds

This from Bloomberg is interesting:

Boris Johnson’s government is drawing up plans for a radical new law that would give ministers power to unravel foreign investments in U.K. companies — potentially casting doubt on deals that have already been concluded — to stop hostile states gaining control over key assets.

The National Security and Investment Bill is in the final stages of drafting and could be published later this month, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because the subject is sensitive.

It aims to cover deals in sectors such as defense and critical infrastructure, and will make provisions to protect sensitive intellectual property.

Among the most potentially controversial parts of the draft law is a proposal to allow the government to intervene retrospectively in circumstances where national security is an issue. That would mean allowing government officials to look at past takeovers and mergers where concerns have been raised.

It’s got Dominic Cummings’s fingerprints all over it. Especially the retrospective bit. I’m willing to bet that it’ll affect the proposed Nvidia takeover of ARM.


Kara Swisher on Zuckerberg, the slow learner about Holocaust denial

Good column, in which she reprises her famous interview with Zuckerberg and thinks about what questions she would like to ask him now.

Since that interview with me two years ago, Mr. Zuckerberg has talked to a lot of reporters, but has declined to do another interview with me, although I have asked time and again. That’s a shame, because I have a lot more questions for him. Such as:

Why tell everyone that you do not want to be an arbiter of truth after you purposefully built a platform that absolutely required an arbiter of truth to function properly?

Why did you never build firebreaks that could have dampened the dangerous fires of disinformation that you have let burn out of control?

Were you motivated by a need to expand the business without limit or by a real belief that human beings would behave if you let them do anything they wanted?

And most important, now that we agree that Holocaust deniers mean to lie, can we also agree that we need to remake the nation and also Facebook so that we can have a real dialogue built on community? You always said that was your goal, right?

Or, after all this time and pain, is that completely idiotic?

It’s idiotic to expect anything good from this guy.


Nihilistic password security questions

Lovely piece of satire by Soheil Rezayazdi on McSweeney’s. Here’s a sample:

What is the name of your least favorite child?

In what year did you abandon your dreams?

What is the maiden name of your father’s mistress?

At what age did your childhood pet run away?

What was the name of your favorite unpaid internship?

In what city did you first experience ennui?

What is your ex-wife’s newest last name?

What sports team do you fetishize to avoid meaningful discussion with others?

Lots more, but you get the point.


First documented death from a ransomware attack

From Bruce Schneier’s blog:

A Düsseldorf woman died when a ransomware attack against a hospital forced her to be taken to a different hospital in another city.

I think this is the first documented case of a cyberattack causing a fatality. UK hospitals had to redirect patients during the 2017 WannaCry ransomware attack, but there were no documented fatalities from that event.

The police are treating this as a homicide.


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Tuesday 13 October, 2020


Quote of the Day

”One man is as good as another until he has written a book.”

  • Benjamin Jowett

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Leo Kottke: Snorkel

Link


Boris Johnson’s latest Covid strategy: no hope and no end in sight

John Crace on Boris Johnson’s day in Parliament:

Johnson looked knackered before he even started. His complexion even more pallid than usual and his eyes mere pinpricks. For a moment it looked as if the narcissist had been confronted with his own sense of futility. A situation that he couldn’t bend to his will, no matter how delusional the thought process. He is cornered by hubris: a man hating every second of his life but condemned to experience its unforgiving horror. Not even the health secretary could be bothered to attend to watch this latest meltdown.

“We have taken a balanced approach,” Johnson began. As in he was too slow to react back in March with the result that the government has one of the world’s highest death tolls. As in he did next to nothing during the summer when we had a chance to prepare for autumn. As in he actively encouraged people to go back to work for weeks before switching to advise them against it. As in unlocking the north at the same time as the south, even though infection rates in the north remained higher. That kind of balanced.

What Boris had to offer now was a new three-tier approach. Bad, very bad and very, very bad. Bad would apply to most of the country and would involve people doing pretty much what they had been doing for the last couple of months. Rule of six and all that.

Very bad would mean that those areas that had already been under the more stringent lockdown restrictions would remain so, though if you wanted to meet a few friends outdoors in the garden for a beer to let each other know how depressed you were feeling you now could. And very, very bad meant that you could only see your mates if you happened to be in the pub at the same time and order five Cornish pasties to go with your bottle of scotch.


NYT ‘The Daily’ podcast’s view on the prospects for the vaccine

From the transcript of the Wednesday, October 7, edition.

Presenter: As update on the state of the coronavirus in the U.S. I check back in with Times science reporter, Donald G. McNeil, Jr.

Donald, you recently sent me an email that pretty much stopped me in my tracks. Because in it, you said that you were optimistic about the course of the pandemic. And that is not a word that I associate with either you or the pandemic. And it immediately made me think that we needed to talk.

McNeil: I am short term, right now — fall and winter — pessimistic. I think things are going to get worse.

But since I’ve been saying since April or so that this epidemic is not going to be over by Easter, this epidemic is not going to be over by fall, and that, you know, the record for making the vaccine is four years, I now have new optimism about how fast I expect vaccines and other interventions to get here, and how quickly that will bring the pandemic to an end in the United States…

Interesting. McNeil is very well informed. And he was ahead of the curve in the early days. Basically, he thinks there may be workable vaccines (plural) by the Spring on 2021 — and that people will be willing to take them.

Presenter: In our conversations with colleagues like Jan Hoffman, we have established that there is a considerable amount of skepticism around vaccines in general — and especially this coming set of vaccines — because of how much politics has surrounded them.

McNeil: Yeah. And I agree with that skepticism. I mean, if a vaccine is approved before Election Day, and it is approved by only one man — I’m Donald J. Trump and I approve this vaccine — then I’m a skeptic and I’m not going to take it. But when I see vaccines that are okayed by Tony Fauci and Paul Offit and Francis Collins and Peter Hotez and all the vaccine experts that you often see quoted on television, then I’m going to be one of the first in line to get it.

And what will probably happen, I think, is that a lot of people will be skeptical. And then they’ll look around at their friends and neighbors who take the vaccine. And assuming nothing goes wrong, and that’s an assumption, but assuming nothing goes wrong, they’ll go, huh. I can avoid this vaccine for me and my kids that I’m somewhat afraid of. And that means I have to homeschool my kids forever. Never go to a movie. Never get on an airplane. Never eat in a restaurant again. Or I can accept a vaccine. I think I’ll take the vaccine.

He’s probably right.


My new keyboard

I have arthritis in my hands, which is not good news for someone whose job involves writing. What it mostly means, though, is that I’m very sensitive to keyboards. A few weeks ago I decided that I’d had enough of Apple’s latest ‘Magic’ keyboard, and so looked for an alternative. Someone suggested I look at the Logitech MX Keys wireless keyboard, so I bought one. And it’s just terrific. More bulky and clunkier than its Apple predecessor, of course, but quite a joy to use. Highly recommended for writers with delicate fingers.


Facebook to ban content that denies or distorts the Holocaust

From a Guardian report:

Facebook says it is updating its hate speech policy to ban content that denies or distorts the Holocaust.

The decision comes two years after its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said in an interview with the tech website Recode said that while he found Holocaust denial deeply offensive, he did not believe Facebook should delete such content.

“I’ve struggled with the tension between standing for free expression and the harm caused by minimising or denying the horror of the Holocaust,” said Zuckerberg, who is Jewish, in a Facebook post on Monday.

My own thinking has evolved as I’ve seen data showing an increase in antisemitic violence, as have our wider policies on hate speech,” he said.

The social media company said that, starting later this year, it would also direct people searching for terms associated with the Holocaust or its denial to credible information away from the platform.

Nice to know that his ‘thinking’ has “evolved”. I often wonder what exactly is wrong with this guy.


Is science being set up to take the blame?

Ross Anderson, whom God preserve, was puzzled by the failure to protect residents in care homes, and so decided to read the minutes of the SAGE committee whose advice the Prime Minister was supposedly following.

Here’s an excerpt from his terrific blog post reporting what he found.

The big question, though, is why nobody thought of protecting people in care homes. The answer seems to be that SAGE dismissed the problem early on as “too hard” or “not our problem”. On March 5th they note that social distancing for over-65s could save a lot of lives and would be most effective for those living independently: but it would be “a challenge to implement this measure in communal settings such as care homes”. They appear more concerned that “Many of the proposed measures will be easier to implement for those on higher incomes” and the focus is on getting PHE to draft guidance. (This is the meeting at which Dominic Cummings makes his first appearance, so he cannot dump all the blame on the scientists.)

On March 10th, they decide to cocoon the over-70s and medically vulnerable, and advise 7/14 days isolation for people with symptoms / their families. They advise that “special policy consideration be given to care homes and various types of retirement communities” – but note the passive voice, and this doesn’t appear on the list of actions and trigger points on the following page. It’s still somebody else’s problem.

By March 13th, some care homes had already banned visitors without waiting for government advice to do so, and on the same day SAGE decided that the goal was to enable the NHS to meet demand. Two days later, the NHS started clearing 30,000 beds, sending hundreds of infected patients into care homes and causing thousands of deaths.

The next month is consumed with panic about whether the NHS will be swamped by the peak, and it’s only when this subsides that we read on April 14 that more and more cases are acquired in hospital, which have been masking the decline in the community, with a note “Care homes remain a concern. There are less data available from these” – but only as item 10 on the situation update. At last there’s a relevant action: to widen viral sampling in hospitals and care homes. However the committee’s effort is now tied up with the controversy about whether to advise public mask wearing. (It still resists expert advice on this as it doesn’t want to admit that its initial position was wrong.) The meetings on April 16 and 21 are also consumed by the mask debate (on which the early members of the committee, who blocked mask wearing to protect PPE supplies to the NHS, prevailed over the newer members, leaving the UK an outlier).

And Ross’s conclusion?

My experience of university committees makes this all just too painfully familiar. What’s failed here is not the science, but the process of government. The committee started out full of NHS medics and bureaucrats, and lots of theoreticians – modelers aplenty – but there’s still nobody from the care sector. The members focus on the NHS they know and stay in their comfort zone. And now, we might ask, is there anybody with operational experience relevant to running a large testing and tracing programme? Or would it be a waste of time to try to create such a competence in the SAGE environment?

Terrific post.


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Monday 12 October, 2020

From a lovely rural walk yesterday.


Quote of the Day

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and travelled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure”.

  • Oliver Sacks, writing about his forthcoming death

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Liam O’Flynn, Seán Keane, Paddy Glackin, Arty McGlynn & Paul Brady | Gradam Ceoil TG4 2007

Link

Liam O’Flynn was the greatest Irish piper of his generation. Here he is with a group of his peers — Seán Keane (Fiddle), Paddy Glackin (Fiddle), Arty McGlynn (Guitar), Paul Brady (Guitar) and Rod McVeigh (Keyboard) — playing three much-loved reels: The Humours of Carrigaholt, Mayor Harrison’s Fedora and Tommy Peoples’.


Matt Stoller on the House Judiciary Subcommittee’s report on tech monopolists

It’s a huge report (449 pages) and I’m only part-way through it. Matt Stoller, who has written an excellent history of American democracy’s century-long struggle against monopolistic corporate power, has a long piece on his blog about the Report. He agrees with my assessment of its epochal significance and provides a useful precis of some of its more important passages. But, for me, the most interesting part of his blog post comes when he turns to the question of whether it signals the beginning of serious measures to control the tech monopolies.

He thinks there is a real appetite for (and likelihood of) change. Here’s the relevant passage:

So now it’s time for action, and this report is the beginning of real action. While the subcommittee was led by Democrats, in particular Chair David Cicilline, there is Republican support for addressing monopolies. Republican Ken Buck, a conservative from Colorado, released his own additional views to the report, in which he and a bloc of fellow Republicans agreed with Cicilline’s diagnosis of the problem, though he suggested a milder set of remedies. Then there’s the leader of Republicans on the committee, Jim Jordan, who dissented from the report (with a document probably financed and written by antitrust lawyers working for Google, Amazon, and Facebook), but even he called for changes to telecommunications law.

Having multiple competing points of view on a complex problem isn’t unusual; in fact it’s the norm throughout American history. And working through these different points of view is actually how the legislative and political process works. Cicilline has laid out a clear marker, and his report represents the most likely path for legislation and action over the next four years.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. The Cowen Washington Research Group, which is a pretty orthodox investment analysis firm, has a similar view.

“Our take: Given bipartisan concerns with Big Tech, we believe passage of a new antitrust statute in 2021 is quite realistic. If Democrats sweep in November, the odds of passage would rise and the specifics become more anti-platform because Democrats could well eliminate the Senate filibuster, which would reduce Republican blocking power. But even in an all-Democratic Washington, legislation to actually break up or structurally separate these American champion companies is likely to be a tougher sell. Finally, regardless of whether any legislation passes, we think the depth of this report – Congress’ first in decades on antitrust – will become the Democrats’ center of gravity on tech platforms if Biden wins. It also could provide cover (or pressure) for DOJ/FTC/state AGs to file tech antitrust lawsuits this year and next even under existing laws.”

That’s why in my view, it’s hard to overstate the importance of what David Cicilline and the House Subcommittee just accomplished. This report, and the investigation upon which it sits, represent a radical shift in the American balance of power, moving back who governs from private monopolists to public institutions. It will be explosive abroad, because enforcers in other countries have been held back by American timidity. It’s also a reassertion of Congress as the central policymaking body in America, retrieving that from unaccountable judges and flaccid and bloated executive branch. I suspect that over the next four years, large technology platforms will be broken up, and policymakers in the U.S. are going to restructure our economy.

I hope he’s right. But it all depends on whether Biden wins on November 3.


A Theory of Voluntary Testing and Self-isolation in an Ongoing Pandemic

Really interesting NBER paper by Thomas Hellmann and Veikko Thiele arguing that easy home Covid testing will be a good idea even if the tests are somewhat less accurate than the professionally administered ones. Here’s the Abstract:

Thinking beyond Covid-19, there is a growing interest in what economic structures will be needed to face ongoing pandemics. In this paper we focus on the diagnostic problem and examine a new paradigm of voluntary self-testing by private individuals. People without symptoms face daily choices of either taking the risk of going out (to work and socialize), versus staying at home in self-isolation. Our theory shows that two types of people voluntary test themselves: those who otherwise would have self-isolated, and those who would have gone out indiscriminately. Our central insight is that the equilibrium infection risk falls when home-based testing becomes cheaper and easier to use, even if tests are not always accurate. Our results challenge the clinical mainstream view that diagnostic testing is a prerogative of the medical profession, and supports the notion that frequent self-testing is vital for an economy facing an ongoing pandemic.

Given that we will have to find a way of living with this virus, even after vaccines become available, more thinking like this is needed.


St Dolly

I’ve always admired Dolly Parton. Now the New Yorker has done her proud:

Parton’s politics, in the two-party sense, are a secret so well kept that her reticence on this score has become as integral to the living monument of her as her blond coiffure. In 1980, she had a starring role in the movie “9 to 5,” a hit comedy about mutinous women office workers which was further buoyed by her Oscar-nominated song of that title, but she carefully disavowed any “women’s lib”: “Not that I’m not for rights for everybody,” she told Rolling Stone. “I’m just sayin’ I didn’t want to get involved in a political thing. It’s just a funny, funny show.” In 2014, an interviewer brought up the famous girl-boss manual by the Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, and asked whether Parton had ever “leaned in.” Parton deflected the veiled test of feminist cred with a laugh: “I’ve leaned over. I’ve leaned forward. I don’t know what ‘leaned in’ is. Lean in to God.” In the summer of 2016, she caused a small stir among her fans when she expressed her willingness, in an interview with the Times, to throw in her lot with Hillary Clinton “if she gets it.” But those who were either pleased or incensed by this answer had assumed too much. Parton clarified that she hadn’t decided whom she was voting for, and she said that if she ever found an interest in politics she’d run herself: “I’ve got the hair for it, it’s huge, and they could always use more boobs in the race.”

Terry Wogan, the TV and radio star whom I always described during my time as the Observer‘s TV critic as the GLI or “Greatest Living Irishman” was once involved in a conversation about reincarnation. He was asked who or what would be like to be reincarnated as. “Dolly Parton’s accordion” was his wonderful answer.

Dolly is exactly the same age as me, I discover. She’s in rather better shape. But then she always was.


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Saturday 10 October, 2020

What holiday cottages should be like

From my favourite village in North Norfolk


Quote of the Day

”Golf is a game that is played on a five-inch course — the distance between your ears”.

  • Bobby (Robert Trent) Jones, the great American golfer.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Wailin’ Jennys | Bird Song Link


Microsoft Thinks You’ve Been Missing Your Commute in Lockdown

A forthcoming feature — ‘Virtual commutes’ — on Teams aims to rebuild the boundaries between work and home life, and signify Microsoft’s move into corporate well-being.

At first I thought this was a spoof. After all, if there’s one area where remote working scores it is in eliminating the daily commute. But,…

The daily commute may have caused its share of headaches, but it at least helped workers define a start and end to their workday while offering a set time to think away from the demands and distractions of the home and office. That positive side of the commute is what Microsoft hopes to re-create.

The Teams update next year will let users schedule virtual commutes at the beginning and end of each shift. Instead of reliving 8 a.m. or 6 p.m. packed subway rides or highway traffic jams in virtual reality, users will be prompted by the platform to set goals in the morning and reflect on the day in the evening.

The virtual commute feature represents Teams’ move into employee wellness, said Kamal Janardhan, general manager for workplace analytics and MyAnalytics at Microsoft 365, the parent division of Teams. The company historically has focused on employee connectivity and productivity.

“Enterprises across the world right now are coming to us and saying, ‘I don’t think we will have organizational resilience if we don’t make well-being a priority,’” Ms. Janardhan said. “I think we at Microsoft have a role, almost a responsibility, to give enterprises the capabilities to create these better daily structures and help people be their best.”

Interesting that idea that the daily commute enables people to “set goals in the morning and reflect on the day in the evening”. I’ve occasionally had to do a daily commute to London when working on a particular consultancy gig, and the thing I hated most about it was the evening return in a train packed with exhausted workers staring dully at their phones. Somehow, I don’t think they were reflecting on their days in a calm meditative mood. They were simply knackered.


Political Economy After Neoliberalism

Long read of the day from the Boston Review. It’s a thoughtful essay by Neil Fligstein and Steven Vogel on “Political Economy after Neoliberalism”. Fligstein is a Professor of Sociology at Berkeley, and the author of The Architecture of Markets. Vogel is a Professor of Political Science at Berkeley and the author of Marketcraft: How Governments Make Markets Work, so they’re heavy-duty thinkers.

Starting from the fact that Western democracies have for forty or more years been governed by political elites who have drunk the Kool Aid of neoliberalist ideas about the primacy of markets and the inadequacy of the state, Fligstein and Vogel argue that if anything demonstrates the inadequacy of markets and the centrality of government it’s our experience since February. “The pandemic has exposed the fallacies of the neoliberal paradigm,” they write. “The market could not keep businesses running or people working.”

As if to highlight that fact, as economies have struggled desperately to contain the economic consequences of the plague, the stock market has been roaring ahead.

Flkigstein and Vogel propose three ‘core principles’ of an alternative political economy. They then illustrate these principles by discussing the dynamics of the American political economy, focusing particularly on the rise of “shareholder capitalism” in the 1980s. Finally, they apply the principles to the ongoing national policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, comparing the United States to Germany.

What are their ‘core principles’?

The first is that governments and markets are co-constituted. Government regulation is not an intrusion into the market but rather a prerequisite for a functioning market economy. Without government, the rule of law, the infrastructure of public order and so on, markets will run wild. Societies need markets; but markets also need society.

The second principle is that “real-world political economy hinges on power, both political and market power. Specific forms of market governance … do not arise naturally or innocently. They are the product of power struggles between firms, industries, workers, and governments within particular markets and in the political arena.”

The third principle is that there is more than one way to organize society to achieve economic growth, equity, and access to valued goods and services.

The balance of power between government, workers, and firms differs greatly across countries and time. And the different power balances in different countries shape distinctive national trajectories of policies. We can expect that the governing institutions will reinforce the status-quo balance of power, particularly in a crisis. It is rare for any one set of actors to have total control in a society, a condition that would lead to extreme rent-seeking behavior. Instead we see constant contestation between different sets of organized actors but a general balance of power that reflects the dominance of one side or another.

The essay goes on to argue that abandoning the neoliberal lens of government versus market and the “one best way” perspective opens up the possibility of a profound rethinking of economic policy that seeks to learn from the great variety of capitalisms that actually exist.

It’s a great essay — one of the only ones I’ve seen that tries to grapple realistically with the challenge of envisaging a more sustainable economic system as societies emerge from the pandemic.


Trump’s death wish

Watching Trump in recent weeks has been a weird experience. It’s like being a spectator at a live show in which the performer is losing his mind. And as I was thinking this I came on something that Judith Butler wrote in the London Review of Book a year ago:

When commentators speak of Trump’s ‘death wish’, they are on to something, though maybe not quite what they imagine. The death drive, in Freud, is manifested in actions characterised by compulsive repetition and destructiveness, and though it may be attached to pleasure and excitement, it is not governed by the logic of wish fulfilment. Repetitive action unguided by a wish for pleasure takes distinctive forms: the deterioration of the human organism in its effort to return to a time before individuated life; the nightmarish repetition of traumatic material without resolution; the externalisation of destructiveness through potentially murderous behaviour. Both suicide and murder are extreme consequences of a death drive left unchecked. The death drive works in fugitive ways, and is fundamentally opportunistic: it can be identified only through the phenomena on which it seizes and surfs. It may operate in the midst of moments of radical desire, pleasure, an intense sense of life. But it also operates in moments of triumphalism, the bold demonstration of power or strength, or in states of extreme conviction. Only later, if ever, comes the jolt of realisation that what was supposed to be empowering and exciting was in fact serving a more destructive purpose.

I do wonder what will happen to him when he loses the election and loses his frantic campaign then to discredit the results and is eventually — by whatever means the American Republic can muster to save its Constitution — physically ejected from office. Narcissists don’t take failure and humiliation well.


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Thursday 8 October, 2020

Closed!

And this was in the good ol’ (pre-pandemic) days!


Quote of the Day

”No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes, than a public library.”

  • Samuel Johnson

Musical alternative to the radio news of the day

Covita (the Covid adaption of Evita)

Link

I know it’s political. But it is at least musical! It’s a creation of the Lincoln Project


Everything you needed to know about aerosol transmission of the virus but were too busy to ask

“FAQs on Protecting Yourself from COVID-19 Aerosol Transmission”

Prepared by a group of real experts. You can find it here. Great resource.

Thanks to Seb Schmoller for spotting it.


The Five Cs of Subwoofer Setup

I was idly thinking about how nice it would be to have a subwoofer as part of the audio system in our study. Having read this helpful guide I’ve decided that life’s too short, especially if it involves me having crawl around listening at the same level as the cats.


Trump’s antibody treatment was tested using cells originally derived from an abortion

The Trump administration has been trying to curtail research with foetal cells. But when it was life or death for the president, no one objected. Including, it seems, all those anti-abortion campaigners who support him.

This from Tech Review

This week, President Donald Trump extolled the cutting-edge coronavirus treatments he received as “miracles coming down from God.” If that’s true, then God employs cell lines derived from human fetal tissue.

The emergency antibody that Trump received last week was developed with the use of a cell line originally derived from abortion tissue, according to Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, the company that developed the experimental drug.

The Trump administration has taken an increasingly firm line against medical research using fetal tissue from abortions. For example, when it moved in 2019 to curtail the ability of the National Institutes of Health to fund such research, supporters hailed a “major pro-life victory” and thanked Trump personally for taking decisive action against what they called the “outrageous and disgusting” practice of “experimentation using baby body parts.”


Four Myths about Tech

Interesting paper from the Data & Society research institute.

The tech companies that design and build so many of the devices, platforms, and software we use for hours each day have embraced myths that push a flawed under- standing of digital well-being. While we are encouraged that these companies are dedicating greater attention to social media’s effect on the mental and physical health of users, their current approaches to improving user well-being fundamentally misunderstand how people engage with technology. At its worst, this approach funnels time and resources to making technology more “enriching” for middle-class white users, while failing to address the systemic harms that minoritized communities face.

The authors see four particular kinds of myths:

  1. Social media is addictive, and we are powerless to resist it.
  2. Technology companies can fix the problems they create with better technology.
  3. Growth and engagement metrics are the best drivers of decision-making at tech companies.
  4. Our health and well-being depend on spending less time with screens and social media platforms.

These may sound counter-intuitive, so it’s worth reading the (short) paper to see their reasoning.

Basically, though, it’s really only relevant to the surveillance capitalism operators.

Recommended, nevertheless.


“Modelling anti-vaccine sentiment as a cultural pathogen”

This is the title of a really interesting paper which was published last May in the journal Evolutionary Human Sciences. It’s by two Stanford researchers, Rohan Mehta and Noah Rosenberg, who wanted to understand the dynamic interactions between a pandemic and human behaviours related to the disease. So they defined anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, for example, or aversion to wearing a mask, as cultural pathogens which, when they spread through a population, can promote the spread of diseases. The question is: how do these interactions play out? What are their dynamics?

There’s a useful summary of the research published by Stanford University. Here’s a clip:

To couple the transmission of disease with the transmission of a sentiment, the researchers used what’s called an S-I-R model, which divides populations into groups, or “compartments” – namely those who are susceptible, infected and recovered. “The S-I-R model with one dimension for behavior and one dimension for disease is among the simplest ways to understand how the behavioral dynamics affect the disease dynamics,” said Rosenberg.

In the case of modeling anti-vaccination sentiment as a transmissible preference, this would mean susceptible individuals are undecided about vaccines; infected individuals are those who have the anti-vaccination sentiment; and recovered individuals are pro-vaccine and not susceptible to anti-vaccination sentiment.

There could realistically be a broad spectrum of feelings associated with any particular sentiment, but simplifying the model provides a clearer connection to disease dynamics. For example, individuals who are pro-vaccine could change their minds in the real world, but the model assumes they cannot (as if they have already been vaccinated as a result of their sentiments and cannot undo the action).

“We want these kinds of models to have some realism, but the more complicated we make them, the harder it is to fully understand all the potential behaviors that could emerge,” said Rosenberg. “The goal is to understand how phenomena affect each other, rather than to make projections. We see clearly in the model how anti-vaccination sentiment can promote spread of the disease for which the vaccine is being applied.”

The point of a study like this is that it tries to take a holistic or system-wide view of a problem. At the moment, we tend mostly to build models of how an epidemic spreads so that we can predict likely outbreak scenarios. But which scenario turns out to be accurate depends not just on the characteristics of the pathogen, but also on how the human population responds to these strange circumstances. This is why governments across Europe and elsewhere have been taken aback by the new surges in infections. The problem will get worse when credible vaccines for Covid-19 start to appear, because what happens from then on depends on how people respond to the possibility of vaccination. The disease modelled in the research reported in the journal article was measles, but of course the scenario that everyone would like to study relates to Covid. It seems that Stanford has given them more resources to work on that.

The Abstract for the paper reads:

Culturally transmitted traits that have deleterious effects on health-related traits can be regarded as cultural pathogens. A cultural pathogen can produce coupled dynamics with its associated health-related traits, so that understanding the dynamics of a health-related trait benefits from consideration of the dynamics of the associated cultural pathogen. Here, we treat anti-vaccine sentiment as a cultural pathogen, modelling its ‘infection’ dynamics with the infection dynamics of the associated vaccine-preventable disease. In a coupled susceptible–infected–resistant (SIR) model, consisting of an SIR model for the anti-vaccine sentiment and an interacting SIR model for the infectious disease, we explore the effect of anti-vaccine sentiment on disease dynamics. We find that disease endemism is contingent on the presence of the sentiment, and that presence of sentiment can enable diseases to become endemic when they would otherwise have disappeared. Furthermore, the sentiment dynamics can create situations in which the disease suddenly returns after a long period of dormancy. We study the effect of assortative sentiment-based interactions on the dynamics of sentiment and disease, identifying a tradeoff whereby assortative meeting aids the spread of a disease but hinders the spread of sentiment. Our results can contribute to finding strategies that reduce the impact of a cultural pathogen on disease, illuminating the value of cultural evolutionary modelling in the analysis of disease dynamics.


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__________________________ 

Wednesday 7 October, 2020

Locked!

Venice, 2017.


Quote of the Day

”A science is said to be useful if its development tends to accentuate the existing inequities in the distribution of wealth, or more directly promotes the destruction of human life.”

  • G.H. Hardy, in A Mathematician’s Apology

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Leonard Cohen – Hallelujah (Live In London)

Link


Many Top AI Researchers Get Financial Backing From Big Tech

Surprise, surprise. Interesting story in Wired.

Mohamed and Moustafa Abdalla, two brothers who are graduate students at the university of Toronto, embarked on an interesting mini-project. They looked at how many AI researchers at Stanford, MIT, UC Berkeley, and the University of Toronto have received funding from Big Tech over their careers. They examined the CVs of 135 computer science faculty who work on AI at the four schools, looking for indications that the researcher had received funding from one or more tech companies.

For 52 of those, they couldn’t make a determination. Of the remaining 83 faculty, they found that 48, or 58 percent, had received funding such as a grant or a fellowship from one of 14 large technology companies: Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Nvidia, Intel, IBM, Huawei, Samsung, Uber, Alibaba, Element AI, or OpenAI. Among a smaller group of faculty that works on AI ethics, they also found that 58 percent of those had been funded by Big Tech. When any source of funding was included, including dual appointments, internships, and sabbaticals, 32 out of 33, or 97 percent, had financial ties to tech companies. “There are very few people that don’t have some sort of connection to Big Tech,” Abdalla says.

Adballa says industry funding is not necessarily compromising, but he worries that it might have some influence, perhaps discouraging researchers from pursuing certain projects or prompting them to agree with solutions proposed by tech companies. Provocatively, the Abdallas’ paper draws parallels between Big Tech funding for AI research and the way tobacco companies paid for research into the health effects of smoking in the 1950s.

Their paper, “The Grey Hoodie Project: Big Tobacco, Big Tech, and the threat on academic integrity” is on arXiv.

The Abstract reads:

As governmental bodies rely on academics’ expert advice to shape policy regarding Artificial Intelligence, it is important that these academics not have conflicts of interests that may cloud or bias their judgement. Our work explores how Big Tech is actively distorting the academic landscape to suit its needs. By comparing the well-studied actions of another industry, that of Big Tobacco, to the current actions of Big Tech we see similar strategies employed by both industries to sway and influence academic and public discourse. We examine the funding of academic research as a tool used by Big Tech to put forward a socially responsible public image, influence events hosted by and decisions made by funded universities, influence the research questions and plans of individual scientists, and discover receptive academics who can be leveraged. We demonstrate, in a rigorous manner, how Big Tech can affect academia from the institutional level down to individual researchers. Thus, we believe that it is vital, particularly for universities and other institutions of higher learning, to discuss the appropriateness and the tradeoffs of accepting funding from Big Tech, and what limitations or conditions should be put in place.

When one raises the question of relationships with big tech companies with some academics the general response is that there’s nothing to see here. Prominent medical researchers who have links to Big Pharma give the same responses. Nothing to see here, move along. Until, of course, there is something to see.


Face masks: what the data say

One of the strangest (and annoying) aspects of the pandemic as it evolved was the reluctance of the government’s scientific advisers to recommend the wearing of non-N95 face masks. People who decided to make their own and wear them were regarded in many places as cranks. And now masks are mandatory in shops and other buildings. So somewhere along the line crankiness became Holy Writ. And of course in the US, under the tutelage of Donald Trump, refusing to wear a mask became a test of masculinity or patriotism, or both. (Or a litmus test for idiocy.)

I always thought that the issue was a bit like Pascal’s Wager: it was unlikely to do one harm, and might do some good, so why not wear one?

Now I find a paper in Nature, no less, saying “The science supports that face coverings are saving lives during the coronavirus pandemic, and yet the debate trundles on. How much evidence is enough?”


Security flaw left ‘smart’ chastity sex toy users at risk of permanent lock-in

There’s a long list of things I don’t understand about this, but here goes:

Security researchers have discovered that a major security flaw in one popular sex toy could have been catastrophic for tens of thousands of users.

U.K.-based security firm Pen Test Partners said the flaw in the Qiui Cellmate internet-connected chastity lock, billed as the “world’s first app controlled chastity device,” could have allowed anyone to remotely and permanently lock in the user’s penis.

The Cellmate chastity lock works by allowing a trusted partner to remotely lock and unlock the chamber over Bluetooth using a mobile app. That app communicates with the lock using an API. But that API was left open and without a password, allowing anyone to take complete control of any user’s device.

Because the chamber was designed to lock with a metal ring underneath the user’s penis, the researchers said it may require the intervention of a heavy-duty bolt cutter or an angle grinder to free the user.

At first I assumed it was a spoof — “Middle Ages meets smartphone era”. But apparently not.

And this thing is, apparently, a toy.


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Tuesday 6 October, 2020

Venice, 2017.


Quote of the Day

“There’s so much denial going on about how aerosols are the principal cause of spread. It’s quite weird. Think of coronavirus as infectious smoke, with some heavy smokers and lots of very light smokers, and you’re there. The problem: you can’t tell who the heavy smokers are.”


Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Glenn Gould – J.S. Bach, Variazioni Goldberg – 1981

Link


Excel spreadsheet error blamed for UK’s 16,000 missing coronavirus cases

There’s been a huge hooh-hah (understandably) about the error that left large number of virus cases unreported. But, as this account by The Verge may suggest, many users of the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet may have the “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I) feeling. We’ve all screwed up on Excel at one time or another.

The 15,841 “missing” cases made public today were originally recorded between September 25th and October 2nd. All those who tested positive for COVID-19 were notified by the UK’s health authorities, but the failure to upload these cases to the national database meant anyone who came into contact with these individuals was not informed. It’s an error that may have helped spread the virus further through the country as individuals exposed to the virus continued to act as normal.

According to reports from The Guardian and Sky News, the mistake was caused when PHE tried to collate data from multiple sources in the form of CSV files by loading them into Excel. This popular spreadsheet software has limits in how many rows it can load — 65,536 rows in older versions and 1,048,576 rows in more recent versions. Based on these reports, it’s not clear which version of Excel PHE is using, but the row-limit was reached regardless. As PHE workers tried to load more cases into the national database, they were rejected.

The solution, at least, is as simple as the error, and the overly large files have reportedly now been split into smaller batches. PHE didn’t confirm this but says the problem is now resolved, and that it passed the details of the backlog of confirmed cases onto the UK’s contact tracers as of 1PM local time on Saturday.

It reminds of an adage that I used to cite in the early days in defining ‘Big Data’ — which was the amount of data that wouldn’t fit on an Excel sheet.

HT to Ian Clark.


More than tools: who is responsible for the social dilemma?

The Social Dilemma is Jeff Orlowski’s much-discussed film about the toxic impact of social media on society, and particularly on young people. I wrote about it in my Observer column a few weeks ago.

For those of us who have for years been trying – without notable success – to spark public concern about what’s going on in tech, it’s fascinating to watch how a talented movie director goes about the task. Orlowski adopts a two-track approach. In the first, he assembles a squad of engineers and executives – people who built the addiction-machines of social media but have now repented – to talk openly about their feelings of guilt about the harms they inadvertently inflicted on society, and explain some of the details of their algorithmic perversions.

They are, as you might expect, almost all males of a certain age and type. The writer Maria Farrell, in a memorable essay, describes them as examples of the prodigal techbro – tech executives who experience a sort of religious awakening and “suddenly see their former employers as toxic, and reinvent themselves as experts on taming the tech giants. They were lost and are now found.”

Biblical scholars will recognise the reference from Luke 15. The prodigal son returns having “devoured his living with harlots” and is welcomed with open arms by his old dad, much to the dismay of his more dutiful brother. Farrell is not so welcoming. “These ‘I was lost but now I’m found, please come to my Ted Talk’ accounts,” she writes, “typically miss most of the actual journey, yet claim the moral authority of one who’s ‘been there’ but came back. It’s a teleportation machine, but for ethics.”

It is, but Orlowski welcomes these techbros with open arms because they suit his purpose – which is to explain to viewers the terrible things that the surveillance capitalist companies such as Facebook and Google do to their users. And the problem with that is that when he gets to the point where we need ideas about how to undo that damage, the boys turn out to be a bit – how shall I put it – incoherent.

Now comes a really insightful commentary by Niall Docherty from the Social Media Collective, a network of social science and humanistic researchers who work in the Microsoft Research labs in New England and New York.

“While the film’s topic is timely, and explored with applaudable intentions,” he writes,

“its subject matter is mishandled. For all of its values, and all of its flaws, the film’s diagnosis of social media is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of technology. Its recommended path to recovery, as a result, leads to a dead-end. Until we think of technology not as a tool but as a set of relations, we will never truly grasp the problems with which The Social Dilemma is concerned.”

He takes issue with the core argument of the film, namely that social media are designed to manipulate their users for corporate gain. But, says Docherty,

To be “manipulated” suggests that users are being diverted from a course of action they would otherwise have taken. This implies a pre-existing individual, already happily furnished with their own desires, and with full capacity to enact them as they please. Social media, in this framework, is the diverting, deceiving technology that takes individuals away from their “true” interests. By falling prey to the nudges of social media, and giving in completely to what they are predicted to want, users are stopped from acting wilfully, as they otherwise would.

Yet when have human beings ever been fully and perfectly in control of the technologies around them? Is it not rather the case that technologies, far from being separate from human will, are intrinsically involved in its activation?

French philosopher Bruno Latour famously uses the example of the gun to advance this idea, which he calls mediation. We are all aware of the platitude, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. In its logic, the gun is simply a tool that allows the person, as the primary agent, to kill another. The gun exists only as an object, through which the person’s desire of killing flows. For Latour, this view is deeply misleading. Only when the human intention and the capacities of the gun are brought together can a shooting actually take place. So responsibility for the shooting, which can only occur through the combination of human and gun, and by proxy, those who produced and provided it, is thus shared.

With this in mind,

we must question how useful it is to think about social media in terms of manipulation and control. Social media, far from being a malicious yet inanimate object (like a weapon) is something more profound and complex: a generator of human will.

This is an interesting approach to the problem which addresses the thorny question of why — if social media is so bad for people — do they continue to use it. It will annoy some people, I guess, because they will see it as letting the tech companies off the hook. But it also forces one to re-evaluate one’s own preconceptions. Which of course is also what Bruno Latour does for a living!


GOP Elites Thought They Could Buy Exemption From a Pandemic

Twitter user Kate Bennett tweeted an extraordinary film clip of the White House Rose Garden party to celebrate Trump’s nomination of a reliable right-wing lawyer to the Supreme Court.

The video clip in the link is worth watching in the context of this piece in NYMag:

It is too early to know with certainty that the Barrett nomination party was a superspreader event. But we do know that at least eight of the event’s attendees have now tested positive for COVID-19. And we also know that the White House might as well have hired the novel coronavirus as its party planner, the proceedings were so well-tailored to the bug’s spread (a throng of people speaking indoors, in close proximity, without masks, for an extended period of time). So it seems safe to assume that the event played some role in the cluster of infection that has put Donald Trump and Chris Christie in the hospital, much of Mitch McConnell’s caucus in quarantine, and the broader population of Washington, D.C., at an increased risk of serious illness.

The White House told The Wall Street Journal Sunday that its officials and guests do not generally wear masks or practice social distancing “because they are tested daily.” This appears to confirm that all those serial huggers in the Rose Garden on September 26 did indeed believe their privileged access to rapid tests would exempt them from the hard facts of pandemic life.

All of which invites the question: Why didn’t they know better?

The answer, of course, is that — like elites everywhere — they think they can buy exemption from the virus. Mercifully, the virus knows better.


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