Sunday 5 April, 2020

Zoom needs to up its game — it’s playing in the big league now

This morning’s Observer column:

Then there’s the issue of security, and of encryption in particular.

“We take security seriously and we are proud to exceed industry standards when it comes to your organisation’s communications,” says the Zoom website. Any host of a meeting can “secure a meeting with end-to-end encryption”. Well, that’s not quite right, at least if by “end to end” you mean encryption where the service provider has no way of decrypting the content (as, say, with WhatsApp or Signal). The encryption on Zoom communications at the moment is the kind that protects your communications with any website with ‘https’ in its URL. But the content is unencrypted while it is passing through Zoom’s cloud servers.

There may be good reasons for this, but at the very least the company’s website shouldn’t be making exaggerated claims about encryption. It should privilege facts over marketing puffery.

And the moral of all this? Zoom is providing a service of real value in these desperate times, but it needs to grow up. It’s playing in the big league now.

Read on


It’s Zoom, Zoom, Zoom all day long

Rumours, facts, misunderstandings and hearsay about the supposed (in)security of Zoom conferencing has been rife for the last week. Lots of my friends and acquaintances have been asking me about it, in the (mistaken) belief that I know lots about it. I don’t. I only know what I read from trusted and knowledgeable sources.

The Citizen Lab report

Top of my list in this regard is the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of the University of Toronto. It was founded by Ron Deibert, who is a hero of mine, and has for years done sterling work on detecting and unearthing the tools that unscrupulous regimes and companies have developed for snooping on human rights activists, journalists and other good folks. They have now completed a pretty thorough investigation of the cryptographic protocols at the heart of Zoom’s service and published an illuminating report. It makes for fascinating reading if you’re a geek, but the gist is that their research shows that (contrary to the company’s public claims to the contrary) Zoom uses non-industry-standard cryptographic techniques with identifiable weaknesses and is thus not suitable for sensitive communications. But’s it seems ok for non-sensitive uses.

There are also potential security issues with where Zoom generates and stores cryptographic information. While based in Silicon Valley, Zoom owns three companies in China where its engineers develop the Zoom software. Its AES-128 keys, which we verified are sufficient to decrypt Zoom packets intercepted in Internet traffic, are transmitted by Zoom servers to all meeting participants. In some of our tests, our researchers observed these keys being distributed through Zoom servers in China, even when all meeting participants were outside of China. A company primarily catering to North American clients that distributes encryption keys through servers in China is very concerning, given that Zoom may be legally obligated to disclose these keys to authorities in China.

Given the sudden embrace of Zoom by a wide range of sectors across society, it is reasonable to assume that many government’s signals intelligence agencies, as well as criminals, will be subjecting Zoom to the type of analysis we did. Some of them may choose to privately exploit those weaknesses for nefarious purposes and with harmful consequences.

As a result of these troubling security issues, we discourage the use of Zoom at this time for use cases that require strong privacy and confidentiality, including:

Government communications Proprietary or confidential business activities Healthcare providers handling sensitive / confidential patient information Human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, and others working on sensitive topics

But the good news is that

For those using Zoom to keep in touch with friends, hold social events, or organize courses or lectures that they might otherwise hold in a public or semi-public venue, our findings should not necessarily be concerning.

This is a relief because it’s more or less what I’ve been saying to friends and family. It was based on a hunch that the vulnerabilities in the Zoom system would be mainly of interest to state-level actors.

On the other hand, I hadn’t known of the extent to which Zoom’s development work is being done in China, or that data packets and encryption keys seem to pass through servers that are based there. If I were running Zoom, I’d rethink that soonest.

Good advice from Mozilla

Many of the problems that have arisen with Zoom stem from the fact that it has had massive take-up of its free offer — which means that it is now being used by millions of non-technical users who probably know relatively little about online security. So it’s good to see that the Mozilla Foundation (which provides the Firefox browsers) has published some useful tips “to make your Zoom gatherings more private”.

They are:

1. Use your account with the latest version of Zoom. Sign-in and update to the latest version of the Zoom client or app. This will give you access to the meetings that are available to invited participants and ensure that your system has up-to-date security patches.

2. Use password protection. You can make your meetings password protected to prevent people from guessing your room ID and joining.

3. Keep your Personal Meeting ID private. Don’t use your Personal Meeting ID – especially for events you’re broadly publicizing. That will stop people from trying to enter your personal room at other times. Instead, generate a unique meeting ID by scheduling the meeting.

4. “Lock out” uninvited participants. Don’t share Zoom meeting invites or Meeting IDs with anyone you don’t want to join.

5. Utilize the “mute all” feature. Using the “manage participants” function, you can mute all participants. You should not unmute them again without telling them that’s what you’re doing.

6. Stop unwanted content from being shared. You can stop participants from sharing their screen, or if necessary, stop their video. This is helpful if you’re inviting lots of people you don’t necessarily know so that someone can’t maliciously share content – a practice now known as “zoombombing.”

7. Respect chat privacy. Decide ahead of time if you will save the chat or record the video of the meeting and make sure all participants have agreed and know how you plan to use that information. Recording and saving chats may have legal implications so make sure you’ve checked into that before enabling these options.

All good advice.


Quarantine diary — Day 15

[coming later]


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Friday 3 April, 2020

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London under lockdown

Piccadilly Circus, London, 5pm today


There’s no going back to ‘normal’

My day started by listening to the New York Times’s ‘The Daily’ podcast, which today consisted of an interview with Dr Anthony Fauci, a leading medical scientist who has been head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health since 1984. Yes, that’s right: since 1984: that means he’s served under six presidents — Ronald Reagan, George Bush Snr, Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Barack Obama and the current clown.

He also seems to be the only real grown-up in the White House as the Trump crowd try to come to terms with the Coronavirus pandemic. Fauci often stands behind Trump as he conducts his political rallies that are masquerading as press conferences. Once, when Trump said something unusually stupid, the doctor was seen to put his hand to his forehead. He may have been brushing away a fly or wiping a bead of perspiration, but the Fox News fanatics interpreted it as a gesture of contempt for their beloved leader, since when Fauci has been since subjected to such a torrent of online threats and abuse that the Secret Service has had to increase his security cover.

His conversation with the podcast host, Michael Barbarro, was fascinating from beginning to end, but one bit in particular stood out.

The point of this is that when the current crisis is over we’ll be returning to a changed world — not just because the virus will still be hanging around, but there there are others like it waiting in the wings.

This crisis, says the political philosopher John Gray in a in a New Statesman essay published this week, “is a turning point in history”. The era of peak globalisation is over, he continues.

“An economic system that relied on worldwide production and long supply chains is morphing into one that will be less interconnected. A way of life driven by unceasing mobility is shuddering to a stop. Our lives are going to be more physically constrained and more virtual than they were. A more fragmented world is coming into being that in some ways may be more resilient. “

Human beings are a resilient species. We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t. But the post-war era has conditioned us to think that we know what normality should look like. It’s what Gray describes as “an embellished version of the recent past”. The problem with our recent past is that it was ecologically unsustainable, riven by inequality and dependent on complex systems of unbelievable fragility — as the Coronavirus has brutally revealed. And if we go back to that then we won’t deserve to survive.

A situation in which so many of the world’s essential medical supplies originate in China – or any other single country – will not be tolerated, says Gray.

Production in these and other sensitive areas will be re-shored as a matter of national security. The notion that a country such as Britain could phase out farming and depend on imports for food will be dismissed as the nonsense it always has been. The airline industry will shrink as people travel less. Harder borders are going to be an enduring feature of the global landscape.

Next time we go to France, I was thinking as I read that, we may have to produce a certificate testifying either that we have acquired immunity to COVID-19 or have been vaccinated. In other words, it will be like what travelling with a dog used to be like — all that stuff about rabies and so on. And so on.

To a virus, the world may be borderless. But for humans borders will become even more formidable. Worst-case scenarios for the United States include individual states barring intra-state traffic. Likewise within the European Union’s Schengen area, where frontiers were once a thing of the past but could conceivably become a thing of the future.

In “The World after Coronavirus”, a long essay recently published in the Financial Times, the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari says that we now face two epochal choices: the first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity. As far as the second of these is concerned, I think that the die is already cast. Globalisation as we have known it will go into reverse. The post-war international order created under American hegemony is coming apart. It was creaking at the seams anyway, but the election of Donald Trump really put the skids under it. Under the pressure of the virus, it’s not just America First. It’s also becoming Britain First, Italy First. France First. And of course Hungary First.

As for the first epochal choice that Harari thinks we face — between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment, well we’re part-way down the first track already. Controlling the pandemic depends on identifying who has it, tracking their movements and contacts, and isolating or treating them — if need be forcibly. This is immensely labour-intensive. But digital technology and the smartphone has provided the perfect tool for the job, and the Oriental countries which have done best in controlling COVID-19 have made good use of it.

The lesson has not been lost on the West. And although the privacy and other risks implicit in the tech are terrifying, the pressure to deploy the tools may become irresistible. As Harari says, it is in the nature of emergencies that they “fast-forward historical processes.

“Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours. Immature and even dangerous technologies are pressed into service because the risks of doing nothing are bigger. Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments.”

The risk and dangers of a massive increase in surveillance justified by this emergency are real. But many of them stem from the fact that, under current models, all of the hoovered data is held centrally. But it doesn’t have to be done that way.

There’s an interesting experiment called Private Kit: Safe Paths under way at MIT, for example. Participants install an app which enables them accurately to log their own location on their own phones. (So it never gets uploaded to the cloud). Those who have been diagnosed as infected can, if they wish, share an accurate location trail with health officials once they are diagnosed positive, replacing a process that has historically been conducted only through memory. The app uses proximity-detection technology to tell a phone’s owner whether they have crossed paths with a diagnosed carrier. The researchers describe it as “a free, open-source and privacy-first contact-tracing technology that provides individual users with information on their interaction with diagnosed COVID-19 carriers, while also empowering governments’ efforts to contain an epidemic outbreak”.

It could be an interesting way of avoiding the choice that Harari says we will have to make as a result of this crisis– balancing necessary surveillance with human empowerment — by having both. Stay tuned.


Jack Schofield RIP

Photo by Sarah Lee/ The Guardian

This really marks the end of an era. Jack Schofield was taken to hospital following a heart attack on Friday night and died on Tuesday afternoon. He was the Guardian’s former computer editor and author of its technology advice column, Ask Jack, for almost 20 years. He was 72 and had written for the paper since 1983, initially as a columnist for the new computing pages, called Futures Micro Guardian. His first column, on how to buy a home “micro”, walked the reader through the difficult process of picking one of the many microcomputers available in Britain at the time, ultimately recommending the £400 Acorn BBC Model B or, for the budget conscious, the £100 Sinclair Spectrum. It’s still online and if you go to it you will be transported back to a different world.

My abiding memories of him are of a warm, generous spirit with masses of common sense — a rare quality at the dawn of the personal computer age. And he never succumbed to the Silicon Valley Reality Distortion Field. May he rest in peace.


Quarantine diary – Day 13

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Thursday 2 April, 2020

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The end of Boris Johnson’s media honeymoon: today’s front pages

The ‘serious’ papers are bad enough (though whether the Telegraph deserves that description is questionable, given that it has hitherto just been a Johnson fanzine).

But just look at the tabloids.

Interesting ne c’est pas?

Images from Peter Foster – @pmdfoster


Roots of the UK’s Covid-19 fiasco

I’ve been reading the most recent (2017) edition of the UK’s National Risk Register to try and understand why we’ve wound up as possibly the worst-prepared major country (outside of the US) for the calamity that is upon us.

The first thing to note is that the government classified this kind of pandemic as the most serious potential risk to the country. It was designated a Level 5 risk in the “Hazards,diseases, accidents and societal risks” category. Just for comparison, on the “Malicious attacks” register, terrorist attacks were only ranked as Level 3. Here’s the relevant chart from the document:

And here’s the summary of “What’s being done about the risk?”

Note the text in the paragraphs on Planning, Coordination, International Collaboration, Detection and Personal Protective Equipment and ask yourself if you know of any evidence that anyone in government had read any of them in the three years since this document was last updated.

Having done so, can I suggest that you then turn to “Why Weren’t We Ready?” a splendid piece of reporting by Harry Lambert in the current issue of the New Statesman? Here’s a relevant excerpt:

That it is a novel virus and the government’s plans were for influenza is “immaterial”, says David Alexander, professor of disaster risk reduction at University College London. The coronavirus closely resembles the threat anticipated in government planning documents, of a highly infectious respiratory disease that critically hospitalises between one and four per cent of those it infects. And yet the government appears to have been unprepared. The UK lacks ventilators, personal protective equipment and testing kits, while emergency procedures for manufacturers and hospitals are being improvised on the fly.

But the government’s planning documents – which date from 2005 to 2018 but are mainly based on the 2011 “Influenza Preparedness Strategy” – suggest that Britain may in fact have been prepared, just for the wrong outcome. The UK’s plans appear to have rested on a false assumption: if a pandemic such as Covid-19 struck, the UK intended only to mitigate rather than suppress the impact.

Mitigation accepts that the virus will spread. Suppression does not. Boris Johnson did not come up with the concept of taking the virus “on the chin”, as he put in an interview on 5 March. Nor did Dominic Cummings, his most senior adviser, who is reported to have at first welcomed the idea. The strategy predates them both.

In that context, the 2011 “Influenza Preparedness Strategy” makes interesting reading.

“The combination of particularly high attack rates and a severe disease”, it says,

“is also relatively (but unquantifiably) improbable. Taking account of this, and the practicality of different levels of response, when planning for excess deaths, local planners should prepare to extend capacity on a precautionary but reasonably practicable basis, and aim to cope with a population mortality rate of up to 210,000 – 315,000 additional deaths, possibly over as little as a 15 week period and perhaps half of these over three weeks at the height of the outbreak.”

It’s clear that, in the early phases of the government response, Johnson and his advisers were basically reading from this 2011 playbook. For example:

So they had a plan. It was just a plan for a different kind of virus.

Earlier in the document, it says:

In the early stages of the influenza pandemic, it is unlikely to be possible to assess with any accuracy the severity and impact of the illness caused by the virus. There will be some information available from other countries but the uncertainty about the quality of information that is available and its applicability to the UK will mean that the initial response will need to reflect the levels of risk based on this limited evidence. Good quality data from early cases arising in the UK is essential in further informing and tailoring the response.

As far as I can see, none of this actually applied to the Coronavirus. There was plenty of good-quality evidence coming from China relatively early in the outbreak. The virus was sequenced early and the data made widely available worldwide. The UK government’s advisers must have known from the Chinese experience that this was a really big deal. In which case those early blustery assurances from Johnson, Hancock & Co (“taking it on the chin” and so on) now, in hindsight, take on a grimly ironic tone. They sound like a pack of amateurs auditioning for the school play. But some of their advisers don’t come out of it too well either. Here, for example, is David Halpern, a psychologist who heads the government’s Behavioural Insights Team, raving on BBC News:

“There’s going to be a point, assuming the epidemic flows and grows, as we think it probably will do, where you’ll want to cocoon, you’ll want to protect those at-risk groups so that they basically don’t catch the disease and by the time they come out of their cocooning, herd immunity’s been achieved in the rest of the population.”

None of this is any consolation at the moment. But it at least helps to explain why the government’s response to the crisis has been such a shambles. Johnson always wanted to be Churchill. Well, now he’s got his Dunkirk moment.


Some good news

A new rapid diagnostic test for COVID-19, developed by a University of Cambridge spinout company and capable of diagnosing the infection in under 90 minutes, is being deployed at Cambridge hospitals, ahead of being launched in hospitals nationwide.


Being together alone

This is just wonderful IMHO

Musicians: Cello Octet Amsterdam featuring Maki Namekawa Music: Part III from the Hours Suite by Philip Glass Arranged by Michael Riesman

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Thanks to GDV for the link


Quarantine diary — Day 12

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Wednesday 1 April, 2020

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On this day…

… in 1976, Apple was founded by these three guys.

Left to right: Steve Wozniak (‘Woz’), Steve Jobs, Ron Wayne

Ron who? Ronald Wayne co-founded Apple Computer Company (now Apple Inc.) as a partnership with Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, providing administrative oversight and documentation for the new venture. Twelve days later, he sold his 10% share of the new company back to Jobs and Wozniak for US$800, and one year later accepted a final US$1,500 to forfeit any potential future claims against the newly legally incorporated Apple, totaling $2,300.

Apple’s Market Cap (total valuation) today is $1.113 trillion. Looks like Ron (who’s now 85) sold his 10% at a heavy discount.


David Silver wins the ACM Computing prize

He’s a Professor at University College London and a Principal Research Scientist at DeepMind and a central figure in the area of deep reinforcement learning. His most highly publicized achievement was leading the team that developed AlphaGo, the computer program that defeated Lee Sedol, the world champion of the game Go. Silver developed the AlphaGo algorithm by combining ideas from deep-learning, reinforcement-learning, traditional tree-search and large-scale computing. (And also Google-scale cloud computing, I guess.)

The Prize is awarded for an early to mid-career fundamental innovative contribution in computing that, through its depth, impact and broad implications, exemplifies the greatest achievements in the discipline. It comes with $250,000.


Peter Sinclair RIP

The economist Peter Sinclair has died of Covid-19. My colleague Diane Coyle has a lovely tribute to him on her blog.

My memories are typical of those people are emailing. I pitched up at Brasenose College, Oxford to read PPE at the age of 17, completely out of my depth socially and intellectually, although pretty sure I was going to become a philosopher and sit in a Parisian cafe all day reading and writing. Peter’s absolute vocation for teaching, his brilliance, his kindness, soon turned me into an economist. He’d sent pre-reading before we turned up – Roy Harrod’s biography of Keynes for instance (this pre-dated the publication of the Skidelsky books). In the first term all his students were driven in batches of four for afternoon tea at the Feathers Hotel in Woodstock. One of our group came from Kenya and Peter tried a bit of conversation in Swahili – my first experience with his knowledge of at least one phrase in every language he’d ever encountered.

In tutorials with Peter, even poor essays were kindly treated – one learned to interpret comments such as, “That’s very, very – very – interesting,” as signalling a terrible error. He was a brilliant teacher. His explanation of different social welfare functions is still vivid in my mind. He eviscerated the inefficiencies of the CAP by pointing out that at the time the EEC butter mountain weighed more than the population of Austria. He responded to any sign of mild student interest in anything by sending one off with additional readings, perfectly pitched, and embracing everything from classics to the latest books and papers. He scheduled one-to-one tutorials over breakfast in the cafe in Oxford market if one was very interested. He knew everything: whenever I’ve discussed any subject with him over the years, he was able to cite the entire literature and send me scurrying off to catch up on all the references. In meetings, he would listen carefully to the discussion then chip in with some deep and important point.

He was clearly a wonderful teacher and a very nice man.


Why weren’t we ready?

Terrific investigation by Harry Lambert.

On its website, MI5, the home security service, states that terrorism is “the biggest national security threat that the UK currently faces” but that conclusion is not supported by the National Risk Register. This is a document “given no publicity at all”, according to David Spiegelhalter, professor of risk at Cambridge University. While it is true that terror attacks are considered to be more probable than a pandemic, they are classified as only having a Level 3 impact. Other key threats – cyber attacks on infrastructure, widespread flooding, a nationwide blackout – are all rated as both less likely and less impactful than a severe pandemic.

Covid-19 is that pandemic. That it is a novel virus and the government’s plans were for influenza is “immaterial”, says David Alexander, professor of disaster risk reduction at University College London. The coronavirus closely resembles the threat anticipated in government planning documents, of a highly infectious respiratory disease that critically hospitalises between one and four per cent of those it infects. And yet the government appears to have been unprepared. The UK lacks ventilators, personal protective equipment and testing kits, while emergency procedures for manufacturers and hospitals are being improvised on the fly.

The longer this goes on, and the more we begin to learn, the worse this looks for the government machine. No wonder some of my friends on the Continent are incredulous and aghast. They thought the UK was a well-governed state. Or maybe what we’re finding — e.g. about the UK struggling to do 7,000 tests a day while Germany does half a million a day — is that the British state simply lacks the capacity to do what it needs to do. And that has to be at least partly due to the attempts by various Tory administrations (I’m looking at you, George Osborne) to “shrink the state”.


Quarantine diary — Day 11

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Tuesday 31 March, 2020

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The impending haircut crisis

Infographic: UK lockdown causes surge in DIY haircuts? | Statista

Source

Next step: corner the market in pudding basins.

The blogging renaissance

As I suspected, good things are stirring in the blogosphere as the world contemplates the unthinkable present. Two recent additions to my personal list. Om Malik is now a partner at a Silicon Valley-based early-stage venture capital group. But before that he was the founder of Gigaom, an early technology blog. He’s now started a new curatorial blog, “Coronavirus Pandemic: Notable & Smart Reads”. And Cory Doctorow (whom God preserve), having left Boing Boing after 19 years has started *pluralistic, which is, among other things — including a newsletter and a more conventional tumblr blog— an imaginative and illuminating daily link-blog. Cory has never done anything in his life that hasn’t made me stop and think. And he’s still doing it — see this post in which he contrasts the simplicity of the form you have to fill in to get a $32B bailout for your duff airline with the complexity of the form you have to complete to get food stamps.


How the pandemic will end

It looks as though the U.S. may end up with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the industrialized world. This long essay by Ed Yong in the Atlantic is one of the best pieces I’ve read so far.

With little room to surge during a crisis, America’s health-care system operates on the assumption that unaffected states can help beleaguered ones in an emergency. That ethic works for localized disasters such as hurricanes or wildfires, but not for a pandemic that is now in all 50 states. Cooperation has given way to competition; some worried hospitals have bought out large quantities of supplies, in the way that panicked consumers have bought out toilet paper.

Partly, that’s because the White House is a ghost town of scientific expertise. A pandemic-preparedness office that was part of the National Security Council was dissolved in 2018. On January 28, Luciana Borio, who was part of that team, urged the government to “act now to prevent an American epidemic,” and specifically to work with the private sector to develop fast, easy diagnostic tests. But with the office shuttered, those warnings were published in The Wall Street Journal, rather than spoken into the president’s ear. Instead of springing into action, America sat idle…

Ed also looks at one of things that everybody seems to placing bets on — the ‘immunity’ that people who have mild versions of the disease will have after they’ve recovered. But it may not be as simple as we (or, at any rate, I) had supposed.

When people are infected by the milder human coronaviruses that cause cold-like symptoms, they remain immune for less than a year. By contrast, the few who were infected by the original SARS virus, which was far more severe, stayed immune for much longer. Assuming that SARS-CoV-2 lies somewhere in the middle, people who recover from their encounters might be protected for a couple of years. To confirm that, scientists will need to develop accurate serological tests, which look for the antibodies that confer immunity. They’ll also need to confirm that such antibodies actually stop people from catching or spreading the virus. If so, immune citizens can return to work, care for the vulnerable, and anchor the economy during bouts of social distancing.

This piece tells a depressing, scary story. It seems inconceivable that such a powerful and rich country could fail to overcome this challenge. And there is one important thing that makes the US different from almost every other country in the world — the 270m guns held by its citizens. So if things really get bad and public order breaks down, then who knows…?


And this virus might be just the first in a longer line

Scientific American has a fascinating article on Wuhan-based virologist Shi Zhengli, a distinguished researcher who has identified dozens of deadly SARS-like viruses in bat caves, and who warns there are more out there.


Quarantine diary — Day 10

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Monday 30 March, 2020

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Can’t go to that concert? Try this instead.

It’s a wonderful example of what a family of imaginative musicians can do under lockdown conditions. Wish I could sing like that. (Even in the bath.)

Link


Unintended consequence of an earlier pandemic

Cambridge University (where I work) is currently closed because of the virus. Lots of wags have already pointed out that the last time it was closed was in 1665 and Isaac Newton, who was then a scholar at Trinity College, left the University on two occasions to escape the plague and went back to his family home in Woolsthorpe in Lincolnshire. “In those days”, he later wrote, “I was in the prime of my age for invention & minded Mathematics & Philosophy more than at any time since.” So the discovery of gravity was an unexpected byproduct of the plague, a bit like non-stick frying pans were an unintended benefit of the Moon program.

Woolsthorpe is now run by the National Trust and is well worth a visit once things return to some semblance of normality. In the garden is an ancient apple tree that is supposedly a descendant of the tree from which the apple famously dropped onto the boy’s head.

My favourite cartoon (I think it was in the New Yorker but can’t confirm that at the moment), showed Newton looking down at the apple on the ground and rubbing the bump on his head. “Now comes the hard part”, he’s saying. “Getting a research grant to write it up”. (This will appeal to many early-career researchers.)


The National Theatre is streaming some of its plays

The NT is currently closed to live audiences. But Time Out reports that it has come up with an imaginative idea for discharging its cultural obligations as the country’s national theatre — streaming a play every Thursday evening. The current schedule is:

  • April 2 ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ by Richard Bean, starring James Corden.
  • April 9 ‘Jane Eyre’, adapted by Sally Cookson.
  • April 16 ‘Treasure Island’, adapted by Bryony Lavery.
  • April 23 ‘Twelfth Night’ by William Shakespeare, starring Tamsin Greig.

In addition, the NT will be rolling out National Theatre Collection study-resources to pupils who are now learning at home.

Live performances won’t restart until at least July.


Learning by doing

Almost everything I know about blogging I’ve learned from Dave Winer who — as I’ve often pointed out is not only a pioneer of the medium but also a great practitioner. A while back, he decided to make his blog, Scripting News, available as a daily email, and I was immediately struck by how useful that was — even to a reader like me who tried to visit the URL every day. So I decided to do the same with Memex 1.1 as it became clear that I would have to self-isolate and would therefore be working from home all the time.

The experiment has had a similar effect. Readership is significantly up, which is gratifying. But also so is engagement. I’m getting emails from readers — some of them very moving — about the impact something I’ve written or pointed to has had on them, as they endure the privations imposed by the pandemic. And — a really nice surprise — many people seem to like the audio Quarantine Diary. It’s all very well talking about the ‘authorial voice’ as embodied in print/type, but it seems that audio reaches parts that print doesn’t. Again, this may be an artefact of the strange times we’re currently living in. But it’s still striking…

I had a lovely email today from a reader in Germany who had been listening to Friday’s diary entry on David Brook’s NYT column and was struck by the idea of fighting fear with conversation. It reminded my correspondent of a passage in Hannah Arendt’s Men in Dark Times:

“However much we are affected by the things of the world, however deeply they may stir and stimulate us, they become human for us only when we can discuss them with our fellows. Whatever cannot become the object of discourse – the truly sublime, the truly horrible or the uncanny – may find human voice through which to sound into the world, but it is not exactly human. We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.”

And while I’m on the topic, I should say that the audio diary idea was also sparked by the natural way in which Dave Winer often incorporates speech into his daily blog posts.


Quarantine Diary – Day 9

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Sunday 29 March, 2020

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England’s green and pleasant land

As seen on our permitted ‘exercise walk’ yesterday.


Who needs a government when you’ve got Amazon to keep things running?

This morning’s Observer column:

This pandemic will radically transform the industrial and commercial landscape of western societies. Lots of companies – large and small – will go to the wall, no matter how fervent government promises of support are. But when the smoke clears and some kind of normality returns, a small number of corporations – ones that have played a central role in keeping things going – will emerge strengthened and more dominant. And chief among them will be Jeff Bezos’s everything store.

What we will then have to come to terms with is that Amazon is becoming part of the critical infrastructure of western states. So too perhaps are Google and Microsoft. (Apple is more like a luxury good – nice but not essential, and the only reason for keeping Facebook is WhatsApp.) In which case, one of the big questions to be answered as societies rebuild once the virus has finally been tamed will be a really difficult one: how should Amazon be regulated?


Why the US now has a health crisis, an economic crisis and a democratic crisis — simultaneously

From this weekend’s Financial Times.


How an actual virus should make one chary of celebrating ‘Going Viral’

Lovely essay by Lee Siegel on the irony that it seems only yesterday when “going viral” was a sign of contemporary online success.

Consider what is now surely the quaint abomination of going “viral.” It was never really clear what was so great about a viral phenomenon anyway, except for the uncertain benefits briefly bestowed on some of those who went viral. If you are swept along with a viral event, then you are robbed of your free will every bit as much as if you were sick.

But so smitten were we by the personal gratification and commercial rewards of going “viral” that we allowed the blithe use of the term to dull our alertness to its dire scientific origins, as well as to what turned out to be the political consequences.

For much of the populace, any proud possessor of viral status was king or queen for at least a day. The eerie images of the virus now stalking humanity, its spikes resembling a crown, are like a deliberate, malevolent mockery of our viral internet royalty.

Writing in “The Tipping Point,” published in 2000 and the bible of viral culture, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how what he calls “emotional contagion” can be a powerful tool for the world’s influencers. He then goes on to make an analogy between the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 — a nightmare long unspeakable, suddenly oft-cited — and his concept of “stickiness,” a precious quality of persuasion that fastens people’s attention on whatever you are trying to sell.

And now? The only way of avoiding ‘going viral’ is to hide away and cut yourself off from society. Suddenly, Siegel writes, “slow the spread” and “flatten the curve” has made “going viral” and “trending” sound like “telephone” and “typewriter.”

Great essay. Worth reading in full.


Quarantine diary — Day 8

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Saturday 28 March, 2020

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Quote of the day

Facts are stubborn things. Statistics are pliable.

  • Mark Twain

Spring in a time of contagion

In our garden this afternoon.


What our contagion fables are really about

Like me, the historian Jill Lepore has also been reading the literature of pandemics. Unlike me, she is genuinely erudite. “The literature of contagion is vile”, she writes in the New Yorker.

A plague is like a lobotomy. It cuts away the higher realms, the loftiest capacities of humanity, and leaves only the animal. “Farewell to the giant powers of man,” Mary Shelley wrote in “The Last Man,” in 1826, after a disease has ravaged the world. “Farewell to the arts,—to eloquence.” Every story of epidemic is a story of illiteracy, language made powerless, man made brute.

Lepore is one of those annoying academics who seems to have read everything. The list of plague-centred works she surveys is striking (and most of it was new to me). It includes: Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death (1842); Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912); Albert Camus’s the Plague (1947); José Saramago’s Blindness (1995); and Stephen King’s Stand (2011).

But the big thing I learned is that Mary Shelley wrote an astonishingly prescient novel, The Last Man which was published in 1826 (not 1862, as I originally wrote). The story is set in the twenty-first century, and

is the first major novel to imagine the extinction of the human race by way of a global pandemic. Shelley published it at the age of twenty-nine, after nearly everyone she loved had died, leaving her, as she put it, “the last relic of a beloved race, my companions, extinct before me.” The book’s narrator begins as a poor and uneducated English shepherd: primitive man, violent and lawless, even monstrous. Cultivated by a nobleman and awakened to learning—“An earnest love of knowledge . . . caused me to pass days and nights in reading and study”—he is elevated by the Enlightenment and becomes a scholar, a defender of liberty, a republican, and a citizen of the world.

Then, in the year 2092, the plague arrives, ravaging first Constantinople. Year after year, the pestilence dies away every winter (“a general and never-failing physician”), and returns every spring, more virulent, more widespread. It reaches across mountains, it spreads over oceans. The sun rises, black: a sign of doom. “Through Asia, from the banks of the Nile to the shores of the Caspian, from the Hellespont even to the sea of Oman, a sudden panic was driven,” Shelley wrote. “The men filled the mosques; the women, veiled, hastened to the tombs, and carried offerings to the dead, thus to preserve the living.” The nature of the pestilence remains mysterious. “It was called an epidemic. But the grand question was still unsettled of how this epidemic was generated and increased.” Not understanding its operation and full of false confidence, legislators hesitate to act. “England was still secure. France, Germany, Italy and Spain, were interposed, walls yet without a breach, between us and the plague.” Then come reports of entire nations, destroyed and depopulated. “The vast cities of America, the fertile plains of Hindostan, the crowded abodes of the Chinese, are menaced with utter ruin.” The fearful turn to history too late, and find in its pages, even in the pages of the Decameron, the wrong lesson: “We called to mind the plague of 1348, when it was calculated that a third of mankind had been destroyed. As yet western Europe was uninfected; would it always be so?” It would not always be so. Inevitably, the plague comes, at last, to England, but by then the healthy have nowhere left to go, because, in the final terror of pandemic, there is “no refuge on earth”: “All the world has the plague!”

Just like Coronavirus, in a way. The great thing about being an historian is that you know that there’s nothing new under the sun.


Parliamentary sovereignty = parliamentary dictatorship

The LRB has a thoughtful review by Neal Ascherson of Richard Norton-Taylor’s The State of Secrecy: Spies and the Media in Britain, which opens with a succinct summary of the UK’s ramshackle ‘constitution’:

The structure of the ‘British’ state is still essentially monarchical. Constitutionally, the rest of the democratic world has moved on, adopting variants of the Enlightenment notion of popular sovereignty. Power resides in theory with the people, whose communities lease upwards only those functions they cannot exercise themselves. But in Britain, its archaisms only lightly reformed, power still flows downwards. The absurd doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty – that weird English scrap of parchment – in effect means parliamentary absolutism, a hasty 1689 transfer from the divine right of kings. We don’t have ‘inalienable rights’, but are allowed to vote and speak freely only because the government, through Parliament, generously lends some of its power to its subjects.

Richard Norton-Taylor has spent a lifetime (much of it as the Guardian‘s National-Security editor) poking holes in the obsessive secrecy that characterizes the British state, and Ascherson does a good job of surveying the battles of the mid-20th century and the early 21st. The story, he says,

is all part of a momentous contest over constitutional liberty, a battle only now reaching full intensity. It’s a generation since judicial review began to pierce moth holes in government decisions. But the worn tweed blanket of parliamentary sovereignty – better described as Cabinet absolutism – developed a large rent last year when the Supreme Court struck down Johnson’s attempt to prorogue Parliament. Panic broke out on the authoritarian right. The law had forgotten its place, they cried, and was advancing uninvited into politics. It must at all costs be pushed back. Suella Braverman, the new Brexiteer attorney general previously known for her hatred of the Human Rights Act, now proclaims that ‘we must take back control not only from the EU but from the judiciary … the political has been captured by the legal.’

This is the language of a pre-Enlightenment government intolerant of opposition, refusing to acknowledge that power can reside and be legitimate outside the executive. It is, in short, monarchy-speak. And as the war begins between divine-right concepts of authority and the notion – now increasingly implied by English jurists – of the supremacy of the law to which prime ministers and parliaments must answer, the control of information will become a decisive battlefield. As Norton-Taylor warns, this government will fight hard to protect the secrecy of its members, spy agencies and special forces, and it will fight dirty.

Yep. And a Johnson government will have few scruples about cracking down as a newly-‘liberated’ UK goes broke.


Quarantine Diary — Day 7

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Friday 27 March, 2020

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Quote of the day

The sole function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.

  • John Kenneth Galbraith

Why Coronavirus testing is taking so long and is not widespread enough

Turns out that making the test kits is more complicated than most commentators appreciate. Good [explainer] by Robert Baird in the New Yorker. Sample:

The current trouble is a critical shortage of the physical components needed to carry out tests of any variety. Among these components are so-called viral transport media, which are used to stabilize a specimen as it travels from patient to lab; extraction kits, which isolate viral RNA from specimens once they reach the lab; and the reagents that do the actual work of determining whether the coronavirus that causes COVID19 is present in the sample. Perhaps the most prosaic shortage, but also the most crucial, is a lack of test swabs, which look like glorified Q-tips. Specially designed to preserve viral specimens, they’re what a doctor sticks up your nose or down your throat to collect the necessary biological material.

The swab shortage is happening for the same reason that all the other test components are limited—namely, a global pandemic has created a global demand for them—but it is subject to a further complication. Copan, one of the major manufacturers of the sort of swabs needed for COVID-19 tests, has its headquarters and manufacturing facilities in Lombardy, Italy, which has been hit particularly hard by the disease. A spokesperson for the company says that the national lockdown in Italy has not affected production at its factories, but last week the U.S. Air National Guard had to use one of its C-17 cargo planes to bring an order of eight hundred thousand swabs back to the U.S. According to Defense One, the plane flew on Monday from the Aviano Air Base, in Italy, not far from the headquarters of Copan, to Memphis, where a FedEx distribution center is situated; the Times later reported that the airlift had been arranged by Peter Navarro, a Presidential trade adviser, and that the Administration hoped similar efforts would bring 1.5 million swabs into the country every week. On Saturday, a company spokesperson told me that Copan did not make “special deals” with governments but was “shipping to the U.S.A. the maximum amount that we are capable of, on a best effort basis” through its usual distributors.

Among other things, it’s a lesson in the complexity of global supply chains.


That mask problem — solved!

Funniest bit of photoshopping I’ve seen all week.


Premium mediocre: or why you should hide that fake Hermes bag

Another primer in contemporary culture.

It was 2017, and Venkatesh Rao, a writer and management consultant, was having lunch at a fast-casual vegan chain restaurant in Seattle when the phrase premium mediocre popped into his head. It described the sensation he was having as he tucked into his meal—one of a not-unpleasant artificial gloss (airline seating with extra legroom; “healthy” chickpea chips that taste like Doritos; $40 scented candles) on an otherwise thoroughly unspecial experience. I had a similar eureka moment in early 2018, when the portmanteau premiocre came to me while I was trying to parse the discriminating features among mid-priced bed linens from several start-up brands. I found Rao’s observation while checking to see whether, against all odds, I had come up with an original idea. Instead, I’d noticed something that many others also saw wherever they looked, once they had heard the idea articulated.

When Rao mentioned “premium mediocre” to his wife, who was eating with him that day, she immediately got it. So did his Facebook friends and Twitter followers. “People had started noticing a pervasive pattern in everything from groceries to clothing, and entire styles of architecture in gentrifying neighborhoods,” he told me. Premium mediocrity, by his definition, is a fancy tile backsplash in an apartment’s tiny, nearly nonfunctional kitchen, or french fries doused in truffle oil, which contains no actual truffles. It’s Uber Pool, which makes the luxury of being chauffeured around town financially accessible, yet requires that you brush thighs with strangers sharing the back seat.


Quarantine diary — Day 6

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Thursday 26 March, 2020

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Quote of the Day

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither.”

  • Benjamin Franklin

Should we cross the privacy Rubicon? Will we?

Maciej Ceglowski, a great privacy campaigner and one of the best online essayists around, (and also proprietor of Pinboard.in the best bookmarking site on the Internet) uses the Franklin quote above in a sobering reflection on the Coronavirus pandemic. His essay is prompted by the ongoing (and intensifying) debate about whether the current ‘lockdown+isolation’ strategy for ‘flattening the curve’ of infections) is economically, psychologically and politically sustainable.

Everybody knows that even when we’re through the initial crisis the disease will not have been eliminated. It’ll be back in waves, hopefully of lesser intensity and reach, and each wave may necessitate a briefer return to another lockdown regime. So the economic and other consequences could continue, perhaps for 18 months or more.

What should we do, therefore, after the initial outbreak is contained — or at least rendered manageable in terms of health-service capacity? Ideally, we should have a managed return to work with people who have had the virus and recovered from it (and thereby acquired immunity) able to work normally. But we can’t do that safely unless we have a vaccine (months away at best, a year at worst) or a way of identifying who is infectious and capable of infecting others.

There’s already a strategy for doing the latter task: test extensively and track contacts of those who are infections. That’s what South Korea, Taiwan and China seem to have been able to do. But in the UK we’re still ages away from being able to roll out a large-scale testing programme. (Getting testing up and running at scale is pretty challenging.) We will get there eventually, though, and when we do the next task will be to track the contacts of every infected person.

Trouble is: that kind of tracking is incredibly labour-intensive. But, says Ceglowski,

we could automate large parts of it with the technical infrastructure of the surveillance economy. It would not take a great deal to turn the ubiquitous tracking tools that follow us around online into a sophisticated public health alert system.

Every one of us now carries a mobile tracking device that leaves a permanent trail of location data. This data is individually identifiable, precise to within a few meters, and is harvested by a remarkable variety of devices and corporations, including the large tech companies, internet service providers, handset manufacturers, mobile companies, retail stores.

Anyone who has this data can retroactively reconstruct the movements of a person of interest, and track who they have been in proximity to over the past several days. Such a data set, combined with aggressive testing, offers the potential to trace entire chains of transmission in real time, and give early warning to those at highest risk.

So it’s possible to do it. Doing so will probably enable a return to some kind of economic normality. But if we use the technology for this purpose we will have crossed the Rubicon into nightmare territory. And if we do cross, there’s unlikely to be a way back — because once states have acquired access to this technology, they rarely give it up. So will we do it?

Ceglowski thinks that we should. After all, he says,

This proposal doesn’t require us to give up any liberty that we didn’t already sacrifice long ago, on the altar of convenience. The terrifying surveillance infrastructure this project requires exists and is maintained in good working order in the hands of private industry, where it is entirely unregulated and is currently being used to try to sell people skin cream. Why not use it to save lives?

The most troubling change this project entails is giving access to sensitive location data across the entire population to a government agency. Of course that is scary, especially given the track record of the Trump administration. The data collection would also need to be coercive (that is, no one should be able to opt out of it, short of refusing to carry a cell phone). As with any government surveillance program, there would be the danger of a ratchet effect, where what is intended as an emergency measure becomes the permanent state of affairs, like happened in the United States in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“I am a privacy activist”, Ceglowski writes, “typing this through gritted teeth”.

But I am also a human being like you, watching a global calamity unfold around us. What is the point of building this surveillance architecture if we can’t use it to save lives in a scary emergency like this one?

Great essay. Worth reading in full.


Quarantine diary — Day 5

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