Friday 29 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

The bells which toll for mankind are … like the bells on Alpine cattle; they are attached to our own necks, and it must be our fault if they do not make a cheerful and melodious sound.


It’s a strange world out there

I had an interesting conversation with Quentin yesterday about using infra-red beacons as a way of setting up a contact-tracing system that would enable University laboratories to re-open safely. But where would one find such beacons?

Well, one place is eBay, where someone sells stuff that will interest the hunting fraternity in the US. After all, if you’re out hunting at night and your fellow shooters are using night-vision goggles, you don’t want them to shoot you by mistake. So you wear an infrared beacon on your head, because infrared shows up brightly on night-vision screens.

Having alighted on the page after Quentin sent me the link, I then started to scroll down to see what other stuff the vendor sold. It includes a “GENUINE US ARMY RS1A RPG-7 40MM ROCKET MISSILE LAUNCHER OPTICAL SIGHT & CASE”. And a “Personal Guardian Angel Crystal Key Ring”. It’s the belt and braces approach.

__________________________________________ 

The things we don’t know (and therefore don’t care about)

Extraordinary email from Bill Pascoe, an Australian DH scholar, which appears on today’s Digital Humanities newsletter…

Juukan Gorge, a sacred site occupied for 46,000 years, has just been blown up. An archaeological find of a 4000 year old braided hair shows direct connection to Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people of today, for whom it is sacred and who carry on some of the longest living traditions of the world. Such a significant site is important to all of us, and to any human for as long as there are people. Juukan Gorge was blown up by mining company Rio Tinto, with the full consent of the government.

To try to translate what this means, we wouldn’t blow up Notre-Dame, the Forbidden City, or the Taj Mahal just to get some iron ore. To think of these sacred places as no more than a cave or a mountain is like saying St Peters in Rome, Al-Haram Mosque at Mecca or the Golden Temple are just piles of bricks. We are quick to condemn the Taliban blowing up the Bamyan Buddhas or ISIS defacing reliefs and statues in Iraq but this is no better.

This is only one among many such incidents. In the town I live, a few years ago a building excavation uncovered thousands of artifacts but archaeologists had only two weeks to excavate before a Kentucky Fried Chicken was built over it. This travesty did lead to some improvements in legislation but clearly not nearly enough.

I mention this here not only because this sort of thing cannot be allowed to pass unnoticed but because it is a palpable reminder of why I am working on the DH project I’m on at the moment, TLCMap (Time Layered Cultural Map). It’s a reminder of why digital humanities projects matter and how they can work across personal and public levels. I grew up not knowing there was a ceremonial bora ring at the end of my street. I didn’t hear about Cherbourg, QLD and Palm Island until I went to Uni. I didn’t know what ‘dog licences’ were until only last year, yet I’m in the same room as people who had to live with them. These are things I’m ashamed and embarrassed to admit. These things should be common knowledge, but when I ask around, like me, most people remain unaware of our own history and the meaning of the places we live. Many Australians have Aboriginal ancestors without knowing it. Some are let in on this secret ‘when we are old enough’. Nobody explained we are here with this DNA because of government eugenics policies. Such things are hard to believe and some remain in denial.

Let’s dig up Stonehenge. You never know, there might be some shale gas somewhere down there.

As Gandhi famously observed, when asked by a British journalist upon his arrival at Tilbury Docks, what he thought of Western civilisation: “Ah, Western civilisation! Now that would be a good idea.”

_____________________________________________ 

Why governments are furious about Apple & Google’s approach to proximity-sensing

Will Oremus has a terrific explanation on Medium of the differences between the centralised system that governments would ideally like, and the decentralised system enabled by Apple’s and Google’s new APIs for iOS and Android.

Here’s a shortish summary if you haven’t time to read the whole thing.

What governments and health authorities would like

In an ideal world, companies like Google and Apple would give them broad access to customers’ cellphone location data, ideally tied to their phone numbers and other identifiers. This data would live in a central repository, giving authorities complete visibility into the movements of an entire populace.

If a person became infected with Covid-19, authorities could immediately query the database, pulling up every location they traveled to in the prior weeks or days. They could also see the location traces of every other person who shared those spaces with the infected person. They could then reach out, informing each of these contacts about their exposure and offering (or ordering) testing or treatment.

Such a database (which The Economist reports that several European governments have already begun to build, and the U.K. has apparently explored in small tests) would massively simplify the process of contact tracing. It would also be a potential privacy violation of epic proportions, allowing governments to immediately track and contact anyone within their borders.

What the Apple and Google APIs offer

Apple and Google take an entirely different approach, leveraging their ability to work directly on phones’ operating systems and to alter popular standards like the Bluetooth protocol to optimize power consumption. It’s also decentralized, providing much of the value of contact tracing without centralizing sensitive location data.

The system works like this: You download an app provided by the government of your country, state, or region (22 nations reportedly signed on at launch, and Switzerland released the first app built on the system less than a week later). The app enables a special setting in your phone’s Bluetooth radio that allows it to send out a beacon via a short-range radio signal and to listen for beacons from other nearby phones also using the tech.

When your phone detects a beacon, it stores a special coded number representing the beacon in its local memory. When you walk around, your phone is constantly collecting a record of these beacons (which are not tied to personal data) and storing them, providing a local, anonymous record of all the people you’ve been exposed to. It can also collect other metadata, like the approximate distance between you and the other user, and how long you spend near them.

Each day, your phone then checks in with a cloud-based service. The service lists the beacons of people who have become infected with the Covid-19 coronavirus. If any of those beacons show up in your phone’s internal list of people you’ve encountered in the last several days, the app notifies you of a potential exposure. The app could even potentially tell you how close you were to the infected person, and how long you spent near them.

If you yourself test positive, you can flag your positive result in your app (or a doctor or lab can do this for you). Your own beacon would be added to the infected list, and anyone who spent time near you would be automatically notified the next time their own app checked in.

This system is attractive (except to health authorities) because it preserves agency: it allows users to monitor their own exposures but avoid handing their data over to a central authority. Because your beacon list is stored (and at least partially encrypted) on your phone’s local memory, authorities can send a ping saying that a specific beacon has become infected—so your app can check it against your local list—but they can’t actually see your list of beacons. “This allows them”, says Will, “to play an important role in the system, but doesn’t give them access to users’ sensitive location data, or provide a privacy-annihilating big-picture view of users’ movements”.

______________________________________________________ 

Quarantine Diary — Day 69

Link


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Thursday 28 May, 2020

Deconstructing Cummings’s Downing Street statement

Wonderful analysis of the Cummings document by the FT’s David Allen Green. Takes the form of a 25-minute video going through the document line by line, but there’s also a transcript if you’re in a hurry. It’s a fascinating piece of work. Allen thinks that the entire document was drawn up by a (no doubt expensive) lawyer because it reads like a witness statement as used in trials. (But there’s no signature at the bottom attesting that it is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!).

The only thing he misses is the fact (mentioned in the Wired report discussed on this blog yesterday) that Cummings retrospectively added to his blog post of March 4, 2019 to make it look as thought he was exceedingly prescient about this kind of pandemic.

______________________________________________________ 

Charlie Warzel on de-platforming Trump

Useful piece by Charlie sparked by the thought that Twitter might ban Trump.

“The strategy of power now is not to dominate the whole narrative,” Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at the London School of Economics and the author of “This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality” told me recently. “It’s to polarize citizens and construct a very potent worldview and to alienate them from the truth. When journalists speak truth to power they’re by nature giving the powerful the opposition they want.”

Naturally, media outlets and reporters, not wanting to be bullied or discredited, adopt an adversarial approach. This leads to some great, important journalism but also a fair amount of grandstanding, which then become ammunition for the president and his supporters.

This situation is hard for journalists to get their heads around, Mr. Pomerantsev says. “We’re trained to stand up to the powerful,” he Pomerantsev said. “But now the powerful are comfortable with us doing the punching — just look at how they’re attacking.”

It’s basically a cycle that requires participation from all parties: the president (who initiates it), Twitter (which tolerates it) and the media (which amplifies, frequently to the president’s advantage). Removing one participant gums up the cycle, but does not stop it outright.


How Trump proposes to go after Twitter for labelling his tweets

He’s gone for the ‘nuclear strike’ — to try to modify Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, (which is Title V of the sprawling 1996 Telecommunications Act). The Section is the one that exempts platform providers from legal liability for stuff that users post on their platforms. It’s essentially the bedrock of their impunity.

The key part of the Section reads as follows:

(c) Protection for “Good Samaritan” blocking and screening of offensive material

(1) Treatment of publisher or speaker No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

(2) Civil liability No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of—

(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or

(B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1).

This is what Trump’s draft Executive Order targets.

The thrust of the Order is that Twitter’s labelling of Trump’s tweets as inaccurate is not protected under Subparagraph C(2).

“The provision does not extend to deceptive or pretextual actions restricting online content or actions inconsistent with an online platform’s terms of service. When an interactive computer service provider removes or restricts access to content and its actions do not meet the requirements of Subparagraph C (2) (A), it is engaged in editorial conduct.”

So the Order directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to conduct an inquiry to “clarify”

This is going to be interesting. If nothing else, it guarantees that all the tech companies will be pouring money into Joe Biden’s campaign, because Section 230 has always been their get-out-of-gaol card. Indeed, for social-media companies it’s what underpins their business model.

And… Right on cue, up pops Mark Zuckerberg (who has had a couple of dinners recently with Trump, I believe) on Fox News yesterday criticising Twitter for fact-checking Trump’s tweets, saying private technology companies “shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online”. Zuckerberg is keeping his political options open. Creep.


Every stock is a vaccine stock

What’s the value of a Covid vaccine — and to whom? General Electric stock was rocketing up on Tuesday, but not because of anything the company did or announced. What’s going on is that any positive news about a Covid vaccine Recent Covid-19 vaccine serves as a catalyst, making every stock feel like a vaccine stock.

Fascinating post by Tyler Cowen:

It’s not surprising that when Moderna reports good vaccine results, Moderna does well. It’s more surprising that Boeing and GE not only do well they increase in value far more than Moderna. On May 18, for example, when Moderna announced very preliminary positive results on its vaccine it’s market capitalization rose by $5b. But GE’s market capitalization rose by $6.82 billion and Boeing increased in value by $8.73 billion.

A cure for COVID-19 would be worth trillions to the world but only billions to the creator. The stock market is illustrating the massive externalities created by innovation. Nordhaus estimated that only 2.2% of the value of innovation was captured by innovators. For vaccine manufacturers it’s probably closer to .2%.

The disconnect between stock markets and the real world is truly mysterious.


Quarantine diary — Day 68

Link


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Wednesday 27 May, 2020

Marina Hyde on Dominic Cummings

Marina is always good value, but this piece on Cummings is positively Swiftian in its targeted contempt. Here’s how it begins:

Perhaps on Sunday you watched the entire nation being lectured on what constitutes fatherly responsibility by Boris Johnson, a man who won’t even say how many children he has, and leaves women to bring up an unspecified number of them. Perhaps on Monday you watched the Guardian’s Rowena Mason being lectured in journalism by Johnson, a man sacked from a newspaper for fabricating quotes from his own godfather, and who blithely discussed helping a friend to have another journalist beaten up. Perhaps today, you heard Michael Gove tell LBC he has “on occasion” driven a car to check his eyesight.

If you did see these things, I can only direct you to the slogan flyposted all over Paris during the 1968 civil unrest. “DO NOT ADJUST YOUR MIND – THERE IS A FAULT WITH REALITY.” The term “gaslighting” is much overused, but let’s break the glass on it for the events of the past few days. As for “indefensible”… well, I don’t think that word means what you thought it meant.

Anyway. I see the latest science Dominic Cummings knows more about than you is optometry. Half an hour late on Monday afternoon – like he’s Mariah Carey and not some spad in inside-out pants – the Islington-dwelling humanities graduate took to Downing Street’s rose garden. There, he delivered the most preposterous address to a nation since Tiger Woods stood in front of an audience, including his mother, and apologised to his wife and sponsors. The difference is that Woods had a problem with cocktail waitresses, while Cummings fucks entire public health messages in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Also, he’s not remotely sorry.

It gets better. And it’s both funny and serious.

We need writers like this.


MOOCs: the greatest comeback since Lazarus

Remember MOOCs (Massive Online Courses) — the new thing that was going to change Higher Education and make it affordable for all. They were the coming thing for a while, and then reality intervened. It turned out that learning remotely on your own was hard. Although many of the courses were good — some even world-beating — the dropout rates were high, especially on the ‘free’ ones. (Paid-for ones did better in that respect). So it looked as though the fizz had gone out of the industry. Students (or their parents) continued to pay absurd fees for the privilege of being with lots of other peers on campuses.

And then came the Coronavirus, and all those kids were sent home and told that they would have to study and be taught online. (No mention was made about reducing fees, though.)

So, suddenly, the idea of MOOCs doesn’t look so daft. Most universities are struggling with going online, which is hardly surprising, since they weren’t set up to do this kind of thing. According to a Guardian report, in the UK

Only around 20 universities are in a good position to provide a range of high-quality online courses by the start of the new academic year in September, according to Prof Sir Tim O’Shea, the former vice-chancellor of Edinburgh University. Some of the country’s top-ranked Russell Group institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge, were not in that category, he added.

The warning comes as the sector seeks to expand online education in a bid to offset huge losses from tens of thousands of international students cancelling their studies due to Covid-19. Prolonged social distancing also mean freshers could face a radically different university experience, with no lectures on campus and bars closed.

Most universities would face costs of at least £10m to create five or six new online degrees in different faculties, said O’Shea, a leading expert on computer-based learning. This would total well over £1bn across the sector.

The costs will add to the financial pressures facing universities, with a report from the University and College Union (UCU) forecasting that the sector could lose around £2.5bn next year in tuition fees alone if the pandemic continues.

But now the MOOC-providers like Coursera, Udacity and edX have a new spring in their step, according to the New York Times. Partly that’s due to the shock of the virus and the fear that people returning to work may need to acquire a new skillset to be employable in a post-pandemic world. And it’s partly due to the fact that the companies have pivoted towards skills-focused courses that match student demand and recruitment trends. “Our main goal is to solve learning, not the skills problem,” said the CEO of edX. “Though frankly, that’s where the money is.”

So they’re following the money. And learning as they go. The MOOC is dead, long live the MOOC.


Turns out Cummings believes in retrospective forecasting only

Wonderful Wired report.

At the press conference he was forced to give in order to try and defuse the public controversy over his violations of lockdown regulations, Cummings said: “Last year I wrote — i.e. blogged — about the possible threat of coronaviruses and the urgent need for planning.”

For a supposedly intelligent guy, this was a very stupid thing to claim. It was quickly disproven by evidence showing he added sections on this to his blog just last month, straight after leaving his illegal Durham retreat. What he omitted to notice was that the Internet never forgets. Probably he’d never heard of the Wayback Machine, a wonderful Internet utility that happens to archive his blog.

The Wayback Machine shows that Cummings added two paragraphs about Ebola and SARS to a post on his blog between April 9 and May 3.

However, another open source intelligence (OSINT) tool – and a tantalising trail of digital breadcrumbs – narrows down the data even further. XML data, generated when a page is changed, indicates that the change was made on 14 April, the day Cummings returned to London from Durham. Presented with the evidence, Downing Street sources have been forced to partially backtrack on Cummings’ claims about the blog posts, saying that, while the post did not directly mention coronaviruses, it linked to an article that did.

What’s particularly delicious about this revelation is that Cummings is forever going on about his admiration for so-called “superforecasters” like Philip Tetlock. It’s now clear that the only way Cummings can join this elite band is by adjusting the record to make himself look smarter than he is.

(Interestingly, the new edit was made at 20:55 on the 14th.)

There’s only one word for this: pathetic.

And that’s enough Cummings for one day — except perhaps in the Diary.


Quarantine diary — Day 67

Link


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already! 


Monday 25 May, 2020

Fledging Day!

The Blue Tits in the nesting box outside the kitchen window fledged today.

Some of the kids were decidedly dubious about heading out into such a dangerous world, with paparazzi lurking everywhere. Quite right, too.

One was decidedly not amused to find me awaiting his maiden flight.


Pushing the Zoom envelope: the Amsterdam Cello Octet does it again

This is lovely — and inventive. Especially the way the home life of the musicians is subtly woven into the piece.

Link

Thanks to Gerard de Vries for spotting it.


Infuriated by the impunity with which Dominic Cummings was able to flout the lockdown rules?

If you are a UK voter and have a Tory MP, why not write to him or her letting know how you feel about Cummings’s impunity and Boris Johnson’s support for it?

It’s simple to do: just go to the MySociety Write to Them and the site will check your MP’s identity by your postcode and set up a form for composing and dispatching a suitable message to him or her.

I’ve just done it. It’s called giving feedback.


The benefits of taciturnity

Portrait of Forster by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920.

Lovely LRB piece by Julian Barnes from 1987.

In Madrid the other week a literary journalist told me the following joke. A man goes into a pet shop and sees three parrots side by side, priced at $1000, $2000 and $3000. ‘Why does that parrot cost $1000?’ he asks the owner. ‘Because it can recite the whole of the Bible in Spanish,’ comes the reply. ‘And why does that one cost $2000?’ ‘Because it can recite the whole of the Bible in English and in Spanish.’ ‘And the one that costs $3000, what does he recite?’ ‘Oh, he doesn’t say a word,’ explains the pet shop owner: ‘but the other two call him Maestro.’

This made me think, naturally enough, of E.M. Forster; and then of the fact that we were about to undergo the annual garrulity of the Booker Prize for Fiction.

Reminds me of that old adage of Abraham Lincoln’s: it’s better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all room for doubt.

btw: When I was a student I went to E.M. Forster’s 90th birthday party in King’s College, Cambridge in January 1969. When I tell people that, they check for the nearest exit, and when I tell them that the party was hosted by Francis Crick of DNA fame, they really run for cover. But it’s true: I was a member of the Cambridge Humanists and they held the party for him. Crick was at the time the Chairman of the Humanist society.

Remind me to tell you about the Boer War, sometime …


New life and an awareness of mortality

Kara Swisher has a baby daughter — at the age of 57. Don’t know how that happened, but she’s written about the differences it has made to her life under lockdown:

I am at the highest risk of our little quarantine group, as my 15-year-old has pointed out to me more than once. I assume it is his way of whistling past the grave in hopes that the grave does not whistle back.

But whistle it does, sometimes softly, like when I had a life-threatening stroke on a long-haul trip to China five years back, or more loudly, like when my father died unexpectedly more than 50 years ago from an aneurysm at 34 years old, at the start of what should have been a brilliant long life with his three children.

That is why I am thinking more often of math. Each of us has an exact number — whether it is of years, days, minutes or seconds. We don’t know our number, but it helps to keep in mind that this number exists.

I’m now more aware that our time here is finite. So I take an extra minute I might not have before watching my sons play with their new sister at the dinner table. It is a love that I did not expect to jell so quickly and so perfectly. My sons, with their phones down, are clapping their hands, making faces and doing anything they can to delight my daughter into yet another magnificent smile. Luckily for us, she is an endless font of those.


Covid is messing with machine-learning systems

You know those ‘recommender’ systems that tell you what you might be interested in based on your browsing or purchase history? Well, it turns out that the poor dears are mightily confused by our ‘weird’ behaviour during the pandemic. For example, once upon a time the top 100 searches on Amazon, say, would be mostly for gadgets — iPhone cases, battery packs, SSDs, etc. etc. And machine-learning systems trained on these searches have traditionally been good at extracting the trends from those patterns.

And then all of a sudden everybody is interested in quite different things. “In the week of April 12-18”, says an interesting Tech Review article by Will Douglas Heaven,

the top 10 search terms on Amazon.com were: toilet paper, face mask, hand sanitizer, paper towels, Lysol spray, Clorox wipes, mask, Lysol, masks for germ protection, and N95 mask. People weren’t just searching, they were buying too—and in bulk. The majority of people looking for masks ended up buying the new Amazon #1 Best Seller, “Face Mask, Pack of 50”.

What’s happening is that machine-learning systems trained on normal (i.e.pre-pandemic) human behavior are now finding that ‘normal’ has changed, and some are no longer working as they should.

But machine-learning isn’t just used for recommendations. Mr Heaven found a company in London, Phrasee ( Motto: “Empower your Brand with AI-Powered Copywriting”), which uses natural-language processing and machine learning to generate email marketing copy or Facebook ads on behalf of its clients.

Making sure that it gets the tone right is part of its job. Its AI works by generating lots of possible phrases and then running them through a neural network that picks the best ones. But because natural-language generation can go very wrong, Phrasee always has humans check what goes into and comes out of its AI.

When covid-19 hit, Phrasee realized that more sensitivity than usual might be required and started filtering out additional language. The company has banned specific phrases, such as “going viral,” and doesn’t allow language that refers to discouraged activities, such as “party wear.” It has even culled emojis that may be read as too happy or too alarming. And it has also dropped terms that may stoke anxiety, such as “OMG,” “be prepared,” “stock up,” and “brace yourself.” “People don’t want marketing to make them feel anxious and fearful—you know, like, this deal is about to run out, pressure pressure pressure,” says Parry Malm, the firm’s CEO.

If, like me, you are sceptical about the claims made for machine-learning technology, this kind of thing will be music to your ears. Though I doubt if the Spotify system that thinks it knows my musical tastes has made the necessary adjustment yet.


Quarantine diary — Day 65

Link


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


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

Link

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.


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Saturday 23 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

“In establishing the rule of law, the first five centuries are always the hardest.”


The Immoral Equivalent of War

Bracing essay by Deirdre McCloskey. It’s a long read, so make some coffee, mute your phone and tell everybody that you will Zoom them later.

Sample:

And so, if the government has failed to do the epidemiologically and economically rational coercion early in a plague with a high R-naught—which is to jump on it early, as Korea and Singapore and even Hong Kong and Iceland and Vietnam did, and to test, test, test, and trace, trace, trace—then all that can be done even approximately rationally is mass quarantine. It’s the medieval technique. It works, with the horrible result of further impoverishing the poor. For it to work, if you are in the Middle Ages or if the testing has been mismanaged for two months running as it was under Skeptical Trump and his incompetent Centers for Disease Control, quarantine has to be imposed on everyone. In the absence of quick and cheap testing (let us again pray), everyone is suspect. The reasoning implies that the belated state apply the coercion as quickly as it can muster the political will, a reasoning which in April 2020 escaped the governors “opening the economies” of Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, and South Carolina (South Carolina “too small to be a nation, too large to be an insane asylum”). Even rationalist France was not quick enough.

It’s like a goalie handling a tough shot. The coaching advice is, “Cut off the angle. Don’t let the attacker play you.” That is, step towards the attacker, to limit him to a narrower angle for the shot. Don’t hang back on your line. The US and France hung back. Some fellow democracies such as South Korea did not, and therefore have not had to adopt the medieval coercion of mass quarantine. Tyrannies like China and the Russian Federation tried early on to get away with suppressing the truth, as is their nature, and so did their friend Trump. (Vietnam, also a tyranny, did not.)

It would be like the goalie claiming that the ball never came close to him. Hey, as Trump said, I don’t take any responsibility. Or that the shot is fake news, or a conspiracy by CNN or other enemies of the people. In 1954 on returning from the Soviet Union Jean-Paul Sartre declared, “Liberty of criticism in the USSR is total.” Ha, ha. Eventually China, as will Russia next month, reverted to comprehensive coercion, as tyrannies do, forever. But now even reasonably liberal democracies like the US and France have to coerce, “for the time being,” they say.

I was particularly struck by this sentence later in the essay:

“The war criminal, Nobel peace laureate, and wit Henry Kissinger used to say that France was ‘the only successful communist country.'”

And was then reminded of Tom Lehrer saying that “Satire died the day that Kissinger got the Nobel Peace Prize” after bombing the shit out of Cambodia.

The essay is forthcoming (I think) in Le Grand Continent.


A no-deal Brexit amid the pandemic would be a disaster

I regularly talk to middle-rank to senior civil servants and therefore have known for three years that the government has effectively been drained of cognitive and policy bandwidth by the fumbling of negotiations and preparations for Brexit by the May and later the Johnson cabinets . There were times when it seemed that the entire Whitehall system was occupied by the complications surrounding departure from the EU. When one asked civil servants about, say, regulation of Internet companies, the most one got was a regretful shrug.

But if the Administration had little capacity for thinking about anything other than Brexit before Covid struck, imagine what it’s like now. It seems absolutely clear that they are not going to be capable of negotiating a sensible exit before the effective deadline — which is around July. The implication is that the UK will leave the EU without any kind of deal.

“This would seem inconceivable”, writes Martin Wolf in the Financial Times “if the government were not led by Boris Johnson. The idea seems to be that, in the midst of the pandemic, nobody would notice the additional disruption imposed by an overnight break in economic relations with the country’s most important partners and eternal neighbours”.

Wolf then sets out seven reasons why this is disgraceful.

In summary, they are:

  1. It’s not what the Leave campaign actually promised. The country was repeatedly told it would be easy to secure an excellent free trade agreement, because it held “all the cards”.
  2. The notion of some economists that Brexit would lead to unilateral free trade has also proved a fantasy. The UK has published a tariff schedule that is far from free trade.
  3. The UK is breaking its word. In order to reach his exit deal last October, Johnson agreed that Northern Ireland would remain in the EU’s customs area and single market. But standard customs and regulatory checks must be imposed in the Irish Sea if the EU’s customs area and single market is not to be vulnerable to transshipment via the UK. Either Johnson does not understand this, which would be stupid, or he does, which means he has wittingly lied.
  4. The political declaration accompanying October’s exit agreement accepted the EU’s condition that the future relationship must ensure open and fair competition  — including appropriate mechanisms to ensure effective implementation domestically, enforcement and dispute settlement — on regulatory and trading standards.
  5. The globalising world economy assumed by Leave in the referendum campaign no longer exists.
  6. We are in the grip of a pandemic-induced depression of vast magnitude and unknown duration. It is a good bet that, at the end of 2020, the UK economy will still be very depressed, with damaged businesses and frighteningly high unemployment. That would hardly be a good time to add to the shocks already crippling the economy.
  7. The longer-run outcomes of the pandemic will probably include permanently lower output, as happened after the financial crisis of 2007-08. Over and above that will now come a huge trade shock from an ultra-hard Brexit.

If we want evidence that Johnson really has grown up, then seeking an extension of the negotiations would be the proof of it. But I’m not holding my breath. We are governed by a combination of fanatics, amateurs and the odd imbecile.


Clapping for the NHS is fine but…

I’ve been uneasy from the outset about the ‘clapping for the NHS’ ritual. Although many people who participated were undoubtedly sincere — it looked suspiciously like virtue-signalling or gesture politics — the moral equivalent of ‘liking’ a moving Facebook post on human rights abuses without being willing to take some personal action to help contest the abuse.

The questions I want to ask people clapping are, for example, whether they will stop purchasing the Daily Mail, the Express, the Sun and the Daily Telegraph — newspapers which for generations have pumped out unfounded, opportunistic and mischievous stories designed to undermine the NHS while still pretending to admire it as ‘a great national treasure. Or whether they will stop voting for right-wing Tory MPs whose dearest wish is to privatise the NHS under cover of ‘modernising’ it. Or will they now support higher taxes to ensure that lowly NHS staff who are as important to making the service work (junior doctors, nurses, lab technicians, porters) as well-remunerated consultants (many with extensive private practices) get paid properly.

And the same goes for all those other ‘critical’ workers we have recently discovered — many of whom live one pay check away from financial crisis.

What NHS staff and all those other critical workers deserve is less sentiment and more political action.

See also “Let’s stop clapping for the NHS, says woman who started the ritual”.


Do you know enough to get a job as a contact tracer?

After all, it’s not rocket science. And it’s got nothing to do with apps, really.

ProPublica has an online quiz to see how well you know the fundamentals of contact tracing.

My answer: Not very well :-(

But then I’m under lockdown, so I couldn’t offer my services, anyway!


Quarantine diary — Day 63

Link


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Wednesday 20 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

So, the way we’re dealing with the new coronavirus is the way computer newbies deal with computer viruses. I know because I have supported a virus neophyte, my mom. The current US govt is behaving pretty much the way she would. She didn’t want to learn the rules, and she wanted to pretend it was okay, get back to business as usual (checking her email, writing a blog post). All the while she’s got something watching and recording her every move and looking for a chance to infect some other computer.


How Trump plays the US media

Jack Shafer sees through it:

While the admission makes Trump look as scientifically minded as an unsegmented worm—hydroxychloroquine has not been shown to be safe or effective in the treatment or prevention of Covid-19—the attention generated was worth it, like swapping a pawn for a bishop. The hydroxychloroquine confession didn’t displace the IG story from the news, but it wasn’t expected to. Both the New York Times and Washington Post made Trump’s dreams come true by putting the story on Page One of their Tuesday editions (Times: “President Says He Takes Drug Deemed a Risk”; Post: “Trump Says He’s Taking Unproven Medication”) and after being featured on Monday cable news the talking heads were still gabbing about it on Tuesday afternoon as he hyped the drug anew during a press spray. Monday evening, the White House added some frosting to the hydroxychloroquine cake by releasing a note from the president’s physician that went on and on about the drug but didn’t actually claim that he had prescribed it to Trump or that Trump was even taking it. There would be fewer questions about Trump and hydroxychloroquine if the White House had released no note at all.

Trump’s disclosure on Monday about taking hydroxychloroquine was a decoy move, designed to deflect public—and press—attention from his firing of the State Department inspector general, which broke over the weekend. And it worked.

In manipulating US media, Trump is a genius — an evil one, sure, but very good at what he does.


Botch on the Rhine

Wonderful NYRB review by Max Hastings of Anthony Beevor’s history of the Arnhem fiasco in 1944. Some parts of Beevor’s account bring Colonel Johnson (Lt Brigade, rtd.) to mind.

The operation to capture the Rhine bridge was a fiasco. So, asks Hastings, how did it come about?

It was chiefly a consequence of hubris—a belief that, after the Allies’ dramatic August breakout from Normandy, Hitler’s armies were on the ropes. Britain’s commander-in-chief, the newly promoted field marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, stood by a dusty French roadside urging an armored column roaring past: “On to the kill!” This was not merely theater for the benefit of such listening war correspondents as my father: Monty really believed it. Thus he made one of the most grievous strategic errors of the northwest Europe campaign, declining to hasten troops to clear the approaches to the Scheldt River, without which the newly captured port of Antwerp was useless, as Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay warned him. Instead, he launched the most reckless thrust of his career, seeking to seize the bridge over the lower Rhine at Arnhem.

The principal objective of that thrust, known as Operation Market Garden, was to force the hand not of Hitler, but of Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower. If the British secured a corridor beyond the Rhine, Ike would be obliged to support a drive from the north led by Montgomery into Germany: the cocky little bishop’s son saw before him the prospect of passing into history as the composer and conductor of Western Allied victory.

Outside the paywall and worth a read. And Anthony Beevor is clearly a great historian.


The Trouble with comparisons

Fabulous essay by Samuel Moyn on the way historical analogies and comparisons may blind us to actuality. Case study: our analyses of Trump.

For those doubtful about the fascism analogy for Trumpism—and I count myself as one of them—the point is to appreciate both continuity and novelty better than the comparison allows. Abnormalizing Trump disguises that he is quintessentially American, the expression of enduring and indigenous syndromes. A response to what he represents hardly requires a restoration of “normalcy” but a questioning of the status quo ante Trump that produced him. Comparison to Nazism and fascism imminently threatening to topple democracy distracts us from how we made Trump over decades, and implies that the coexistence of our democracy with long histories of killing, subjugation, and terror—including its most recent, if somewhat sanitized, forms of mass incarceration and rising inequality at home, and its tenuous empire and regular war-making abroad—was somehow less worth the alarm and opprobrium. Selective outrage after 2016 says more about the outraged than the outrageous.

It is no contradiction to add to this qualm that comparing our current situation in America to fascism also spares ourselves the trouble of analyzing what is really new about it. For all its other virtues, comparison in general does not do well with the novelty that Trump certainly represents, for all of his preconditions and sources. It is true that in the face of novelty, analogy with possible historical avatars is indispensable, to abate confusion and to seek orientation. But there is no doubt that it often compounds the confusion as the ghosts of the past are allowed to walk again in a landscape that has changed profoundly. Comparison is always a risky tool; it leads to blindness, not just insight.

Terrific essay.


The Coronavirus diaries of Samuel Pepys

Nice spoof, if the few fragmentary entries are anything to go by. Here’s the entry for March 9th:

Up betimes and by tube to Westminster, and there busy with several business all morning, for our firm intends a splendid show at the conference in the middle of this month. Then comes the intern to my office like a doting fool, and proves himself an ass talking excitedly of this plague come late out of China, which, he says, is now in Italy. Of which, my wife and I having had no Wi-Fi this last month, I know nothing, only to see how vexed this blockhead intern was did almost make me fearful myself. Yet I remembered talking with my Lord and Lady touching this matter, and him very skeptical, and my lady said to me, ‘What, Mr Pepys – shall’t die of a hiccough at the last?’ And at this jest we were all very merry. Thence home to sing with my wife in the garden, but with much trouble, for it was bitterly cold. And so to bed, our iPhones left downstairs as is now our custom.


Scientists (epidemiologists) and spooks are not all that different: they all just want to know everything

Interesting post from 2006 by the sociologist Kieran Healey, which sheds light on the current debates about contact-tracing apps, health data and privacy.

Scientists and spies are not so different. The intelligence community’s drive to find the truth, to uncover the real structure of things, is similar to what motivates natural or social scientists. For that reason, I can easily understand why the people at the NSA would have been drawn to build a database like the one they have assembled. The little megalomaniac that lives inside any data-collecting scientist (“More detail! More variables! More coverage!”) thrills at the thought of what you could do with a database like that. Think of the possibilities! What’s frightening is that the NSA is much less constrained than the rest of us by money, or resources, or—it seems—the law. To them, Borges’ map must seem less like a daydream and more like a design challenge. In Kossinets and Watts’ study, the population of just one university generated more than 14 million emails. That gives you a sense of how enormous the NSA’s database of call records must be. In the social sciences, Institutional Review Boards set rules about what you can do to people when you’re researching them. Social scientists often grumble about IRBs and their stupid regulations, but they exist for a good reason. To be blunt, scientists are happy to do just about anything in the pursuit of better knowledge, unless there are rules that say otherwise. The same is true of the government, and the people it employs to spy on our behalf. They only want to find things out, too. But just as in science, that’s not the only value that matters.


Quarantine diary — Day 60

Link


ERRATA Thanks to the many readers who wrote tactfully to point out that my attribution of the lyrics “Don’t it always seem to go and you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.” to Kate Bush was wrong. The credit should go to Joni MItchell.

The one thing that always amazes me is the depth of my ignorance. Which is why I love the response Dr Johnson made to the lady who asked him to explain how he had come wrongly to define “pastern” as “the knee of a horse” in his Dictionary. “Ignorance, Madam”, he replied. “Pure ignorance”.


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Tuesday 19 May, 2020

How to read

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

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

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

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

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


Good things happen quickly, sometimes

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

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

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

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

[Emphasis added]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Quarantine diary — Day 59

Link


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Monday 18 May, 2020

Food deliveries continue

This morning, outside our kitchen window.

The poor chap needs a haircut — like every other male at the moment.


Keith Thomas: Working methods

The London Review of Books has a nice idea for the pandemic: publishing an article or a review from its amazing archives and putting it outside the paywall for a day. The criterion for choosing pieces that there should be nothing in them about pandemics.

It’s like a breath of fresh air. Here is one of them: a lovely essay by Keith Thomas on how a great historian does his work. Riveting, revealing, inspiring and utterly charming. Thomas is the most unpretentious of scholars.


Zoom: The Seven Commandments

  1. Thou shalt not forget about the agenda or deviate from it.
  2. Thou shalt not cancel meetings shortly before they start.
  3. Thou shalt not all speak at the same time.
  4. Thou shalt not keep your mic on when you are typing.
  5. Thou shalt not abandon the chat.
  6. Thou shalt not assume people can see your presentation clearly – or at all.
  7. Thou shalt not scribble on whiteboards and assume people can follow.

I would add one more, which I consider a cardinal sin: checking and replying to email while on a call and leaving the sound on. Yes, we can hear your Outlook or Apple Mail sounds when the email is sent.

Om Malik


Samuel Pepys: the very first pandemic blogger

Lovely column by Andrew Sullivan, who’s been reading Pepys’s diary for the plague year of 1665. 

There’s a certain Monty Python Black Knight vibe to Pepys’s equanimity. Does he think he’s immune? Even when the plague reaches his own parish, with 40 suddenly dead, Pepys stays up and about, with “a pleasant going and a good discourse … But Lord! to see in what fear all the people here do live. How they are afraid of us that come to them, insomuch that I am troubled at it, and wish myself away.” Even in his bedroom, as he works “undressed all day long,” the plague cannot be avoided: “It was a sad noise to hear our bell to toll and ring so often today, either for deaths or burials; I think five or six times.” Nonetheless, he attends a wedding — getting there late — and has a blast in the middle of it all: “Thus I ended this month with the greatest joy that ever I did any in my life, because I have spent the greatest part of it with abundance of joy, and honor, and pleasant journeys, and brave entertainments.”

I’m a little dumbstruck at the stoicism of it all. In the middle of a nightmare, he’s having the best month of his life! He’s not in denial. He’s somehow capable of finding an equilibrium so that even in the face of mass death, he can let himself go and enjoy a massive party. Here in the 21st century, we’re finding that not so easy. And Pepys faced horrors far worse than ours. His friends endure terror: “And poor Will, that used to sell us ale at the Hall-door, his wife and three children died, all, I think, in a day.” The press of corpses gets so great, there’s a citywide decision to carry them to burial at night, “the town growing so unhealthy, that a man cannot depend upon living two days.”

And then just a little moment that gives us a sense of how lucky, in comparison, we are: “It was dark before I could get home, and so land at church-yard stairs, where, to my great trouble, I met a dead corpse of the plague, in the narrow ally … But I thank God I was not much disturbed by it. However, I shall beware of being late abroad again.” Maybe it’s just the English stiff upper lip as far back as 1665, but the tenacity and composure of the man are impressive, even as he passes by mounds of corpses lying out in the open, piled up against the walls of houses in the streets, dumped into mass graves, and all the doctors dead in Westminster, leaving the dying to fend for themselves.

Typical Sullivan: original fresh, perceptive. When, at the beginning if all this, I was looking for books on previous pandemics, it never occurred to me to reach for Pepys. Growl.


162 benefits of Coronavirus

Yeah, I know this might look like tasteless trolling, but it isn’t. The virus is terrible, sure; but it also forces us to do things we ought to have done decades ago. So it’s an interesting and thought-provoking list that includes stuff that I at least hadn’t thought about.

Call it creative contrarianism.


Atul Gawande on how to keep the virus at bay

Fascinating and sobering New Yorker piece on what you have to do to keep a hospital safe.

The Boston area has been a COVID-19 hotspot. Yet the staff members of my hospital system here, Mass General Brigham, have been at work throughout the pandemic. We have seventy-five thousand employees—more people than in seventy-five per cent of U.S. counties. In April, two-thirds of us were working on site. Yet we’ve had few workplace transmissions. Not zero: we’ve been on a learning curve, to be sure, and we have no way to stop our health-care workers from getting infected in the community. But, in the face of enormous risks, American hospitals have learned how to avoid becoming sites of spread. When the time is right to lighten up on the lockdown and bring people back to work, there are wider lessons to be learned from places that never locked down in the first place.

These lessons point toward an approach that we might think of as a combination therapy—like a drug cocktail. Its elements are all familiar: hygiene measures, screening, distancing, and masks. Each has flaws. Skip one, and the treatment won’t work. But, when taken together, and taken seriously, they shut down the virus. We need to understand these elements properly—what their strengths and limitations are—if we’re going to make them work outside health care.

Four basic ‘pillars’ of the strategy: hygiene, distancing, screening and masks. They won’t return us to normal life, he says,

but, when signs indicate that the virus is under control, they could get people out of their homes and moving again. As I think about how my workplace’s regimen could be transferred to life outside the hospital, however, I have come to realize that there is a fifth element to success: culture. It’s one thing to know what we should be doing; it’s another to do it, rigorously and thoroughly.

Great piece. He’s the best writer on medicine that I know.


What comes after Zoom?

Answer: conversations and spontaneity. Zoom is fine in its way, but really it’s just reinforcing one of the most pernicious aspects of organisational life — an addiction to group meetings. But because we’re all working for home, there’s no place for the random conversations that are often the key to productive working and creative endeavour.There’s no such thing as planned creativity. So the search is on — predictably — for a technology that might make that kind of serendipitous conversation possible in a remote-working context. There’s currently a lot of noise about this idea — and of course venture-capital involvement.

Here’s a good survey of emerging apps.


Quarantine diary — Day 58

Link


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Saturday 16 May, 2020

The Brexit app

Why should proximity-sensing apps be restricted to detecting people who might be infected with a mere virus? Robert Shrimsley of the FT thinks we should also have an app “tailored to your political persuasion so that you never have to meet anyone with the opposite view on leaving the EU. This way you can create the perfect real world filter bubble. If you are a Remainer, the effect will be rather like living in Richmond.”


John Gray’s version of the future is the most realistic one

Yesterday I mentioned John Gray’s insight that the best guide to a post-Covid future is not provided by past pandemics but by 9/11. Our world was dramatically changed by that terrorist attack and the subsequent reactions of Western societies to the danger of Islamic terrorism. What made it especially difficult was, as one very senior British government official once put it to me, “there’s nobody one can negotiate with; and nothing one can negotiate about”. (This was in 2007; he was talking about the difference between Islamic terrorism and the IRA.) 9/11 added new layers of friction and difficulty to our lives. We felt it most directly in relation to air travel, but it manifested itself in countless other areas too — for example in onerous checks on any large bank transfer, records of travel to certain parts of the world, YouTube videos that were risky to watch, and so on. But we got used to it and put up with it, patiently putting our liquids into transparent plastic bags, taking off belts and shoes, leaving pen-knives at home whenever we went through an airport, etc.

Covid-19 will have similar long-term effects, introducing another layer of friction into our lives. Social distancing will be a norm for a long time — maybe 4 years until a reliable vaccine arrives and is distributed effectively. Everyone being expected to wear a mask in public. Travellers to other countries will have to produce a certificate of immunity, like the Rabies certificates currently required when transporting dogs. Many of the most basic acts of human solidarity — hugging or kissing someone, even shaking hands will continue to be verboten. And every stranger is potentially a risk.

We’ll adapt to this. Humans always do. But our lives will be marginally or even greatly impoverished for a long time to come. That’s why this pandemic is a crisis: crises really change things.

There is, however, one difference from 9/11’s impact: whereas Islamic terrorists wanted to destroy Western ‘infidel’ society, the virus has no interest in doing anything other than surviving and reproducing. There’s no ‘enemy’ to fear or hate or negotiate with. (Which of course is the aspect of the virus that so discombobulates Trump, and why he’s trying to pin it on China.)


The Richest Neighborhoods Emptied Out Most as Coronavirus Hit New York City

Headline on an interesting New York Times story. Data from a variety of sources suggest that the affluent areas of the city emptied out quickly and most comprehensively. In his Journal of a Plague Year Daniel Defoe described the same phenomenon in London in 1655.

Plus ca change.

It’s never the case that “we’re all in it together”.


Why those who can ‘work from home’ remain paid and valued — even if they’re doing very little — while others simply have to go out to work if they want to be valued

Lovely essay by Will Davies on the liberal and neoliberal concepts of people as economic agents. In the (classic) liberal view, workers are essentially ‘hired hands’, and the neoliberal idea that people are ‘social capital’

Within the American neoliberal imaginary described by Foucault, all human beings can be understood as ‘human capital’. A construction worker, a taxi driver or a factory worker could all acquire skills, change their ‘brand’ or seek a new niche, where ‘profits’ can be made. But sociological reality falls short of this. Austrian neoliberals always believed that entrepreneurship was a rare quality, and that most people were unable to endure such a solitary and burdensome existence (the mental health trajectory of neoliberal America suggests they may have had a point). Meanwhile, Feher argues that actually existing neoliberalism tends to rely on all-encompassing surveillance infrastructures with which to ‘rate’ us, as an alternative to relying on personal flexibility and disruption.

The inequalities that have become visible due to Covid-19 suggest a different way of thinking about this. It’s not simply that some work can happen at home, while other forms of work can’t; it’s that some people retain the liberal status of ‘labour’, and others have the neoliberal status of ‘human capital’, even if they are not in risky or entrepreneurial positions. To be a labourer, one gets paid in exchange for units of time (hours, weeks, months). To be human capital, one can continue to draw income by virtue of those who continue to believe in you and wish to sustain a relationship with you. This includes banks … but it is also clients and other partners. The former is a cruder market relation, whereas the latter is a more moral and financial logic, that potentially produces more enduring bonds of obligation and duty.

The furlough scheme disguises the difference, but one of the divisions at work here is between those whose market value is measurable as orthodox productivity (cleaning, driving, cooking etc), and those whose market value is a more complex form of socio-economic reputation, that they can retain even while doing very little. The likely truth is that there are all manner of people in the latter category, who are unfurloughed, ‘working from home’ but doing very little work because of caring responsibilities, anxiety or because there simply isn’t work to do. And yet their employers continue to pay them, because their relation is not one of supply and demand, but of mutual belief between capitals.

The issue of childcare becomes relevant here. As Melinda Cooper and Feher have both argued, neoliberalism dissolves the distinction between market and family life. Responsible personhood is both enterprising and caring, both financially creditable and morally dutiful. Entrepreneurship and parenthood are synthesised into a single ethos of flexibility and optimism. While this is undoubtedly very stressful, it is more practically compatible with the current Covid-created situation, in which a balance must be struck between paid and unpaid work, that is responsive to demands. For the white collar ‘human capital’ parent, it is reasonable to explain that they will be working at less than the usual rate due to childcare, and expect full pay. For the parent who is paid to labour, there is no justification (or no currently dominant justification) for continuing to pay them for more hours than they put in.

Davies thinks that this explains how the politics of the Coronavirus is now playing out.

If a person has the status of an asset, they are embedded in a much longer-term flow of investment and return, that is knitted together via a combination of balance sheets, mutual trust and duty. As Cooper stresses, the neoliberal subject is never simply a calculator, but also the maker and recipient of promises and pledges over the long-term. It’s not simply that such a person ‘works from home’ (it’s possible that they don’t), while others ‘go to work’; it’s that human capital is valued via an element of faith which can endure, and not a simple transaction.

The reason the Prime Minister wants others to be ‘encouraged’ back to work is because they are only valued and valuable while they are working. They don’t exist within a logic of investment and return, but one of exchange. Even if these people could do their work from home (imagine, say, a telesales assistant), they would not enjoy the same ability to integrate their work with childcare; there wouldn’t be the same levels of sympathy and humour when children disrupt their work; they are not being employed as an integrated moral-financial asset with a private life, but for the labour that they can expend in an alienating fashion.

Great stuff from one of the sharpest minds around.


Quarantine diary — Day 56

Link


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe button if your think your inbox is already too full!