Friday 24 July, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Most of what we call civilisation depends on reciprocal vulnerability”

  • Thomas Schelling

(one of the many things demagogues don’t understand.)


Instead of listening to the news at breakfast today, why not listen to this?

Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major, K.622

This is a performance from 2015, in the days when people could still go to concerts in person!

A recording of the concerto was the first LP record I ever owned.


From today face-masks will be compulsory in UK shops and (some) other places

From today, it will be compulsory to wear a face covering when buying food and drink to take away. However, the public will be permitted to sit down in the same outlet and remove their mask to consume their purchase. Those who fail to cover their faces in shops, supermarkets, banks, post offices and transport hubs will face a fine of up to £100.

So the government has finally got the message on masks, then? Er, you forget that this is the UK, a country governed by amateurs who don’t know what they’re doing. Accordingly, it’s still not mandatory to wear a face covering in restaurants, pubs, hairdressers, gyms and leisure centres, or entertainment venues such as cinemas, concert halls and theatres.

The FT had this revealing snippet:

Speaking last week, the health secretary Matt Hancock said: “You do need to wear a face mask in Pret because Pret is a shop. If there’s table service, it is not necessary to have a mask. But in any shop, you do need a mask. So, if you’re going up to the counter in Pret to buy takeaway that is a shop.”

Hours later a Downing Street spokesman said it was his understanding that it would not be mandatory “if you went in, for example, to a sandwich shop in order to get a takeaway to wear a face covering”.

You really couldn’t make this stuff up.


“Waste imperialism”: The environmental consequences of single-use PPE

Great FT report.

Much of the PPE used around the world is single-use by design and can contain a range of different plastics, from polypropylene and polyethylene in face masks and gowns to nitrile, vinyl and latex in gloves.

Yet just a few decades ago, almost all PPE was reusable, said Jodi Sherman, professor of anaesthesiology and epidemiology at Yale University. That changed in the 1980s when the medical devices industry recognised the moneymaking potential of single-use disposable products, she explained.

“The more stuff you throw away, the more you have to buy, so it’s an advantageous business model for things not to be durable,” Prof Sherman said. Now the vast majority of protective equipment is disposable, manufactured far from the point-of-use and delivered just in time to limit the need for warehousing and to ensure supplies do not expire.

The World Health Organization projected that PPE supplies would need to increase by 40 per cent monthly to meet demand during the pandemic, including an estimated 89m masks, 76m pairs of gloves and 1.6m pairs of goggles. Frost & Sullivan, a consulting firm, has predicted that the US could generate an entire year’s worth of medical waste in just two months.

Guess where it’s beginning to show up. Much of Europe’s waste is shipped to countries such as Indonesia and Turkey, which an activist from A Plastic Planet described as the “worst of waste imperialism”.


No-touch touchscreens

One of the most disconcerting things about getting into a new Tesla is the fact that it seems to have none of the usual buttons and controls we are accustomed to in traditional automobiles. Instead there just an enormous touchscreen. This is evidence that Teslas are basically software with wheels. And it means that driving one means interacting with the touchscreen — which, to my naive eye — suggests a certain amount of risk. At any rate, my experience of interacting with the SatNav on the much smaller touchscreen on our Prius is that it’s best done while the vehicle is stationary!

The thought that touchscreens are likely to become much more central in the automobiles of the future sparked some interesting research in Cambridge, in collaboration with Jaguar Land Rover. One of the outcomes is the development of a ‘no-touch touchscreen’. It uses a combination of artificial intelligence and sensor technology to predict a user’s intended target on touchscreens and other interactive displays or control panels, selecting the correct item before the user’s hand reaches the display. It is claimed that “in lab-based tests, driving simulators and road-based trials, the predictive touch technology was able to reduce interaction effort and time by up to 50% due to its ability to predict the user’s intended target with high accuracy early in the pointing task”.

The interesting thing, though, is how this research suddenly acquires a new salience in the Covid era, where the virus can reside on a surface and be passed along by people who touch the surface and then touch their faces. (Think doorknobs, for example.) In that sense, it’s a good illustration of how research conducted for one application area (in this case automobiles) can also be useful in other, ostensibly unrelated, areas.

Over five years ago, my GP’s surgery installed a touch-screen on which patients were required to register their arrival. When I pointed out (politely) that this could represent an infection risk for the practice, the receptionist listened to me politely with that ‘what-kind-of-nutter-have-we-here?’ expression, and for a while nothing happened.

And then one day there was a hand-sanitiser next to the screen.

The good news is that this was long before the Coronavirus arrived.


Travel in a time of Covid

Sobering tale from Maeve Higgins, an Irish citizen who lives and works in the US.

The list of countries with borders open to Americans has never been shorter. But for now, Ireland, unlike many others in Europe, is still allowing Americans in. It’s the welcome part that’s missing. American tourists who don’t feel like quarantining and instead hope to drink and dine at recently and cautiously reopened restaurants and bars are being soundly turned away.

This is of interest to me, an Irish citizen who lives in the United States, because of my recent trip back. I went to Ireland when the pandemic started, figuring it would be safer. It was. In fact, Ireland has one of the lowest rates of Covid-19 in Europe. However, I missed my home and my life and mainly Shake Shack, so I decided to go back to New York. It wasn’t easy, because of the travel ban the United States has put in place on people coming from Europe. This obstacle was new to me. An Irish passport is a powerful one that usually admits me to most parts of the world, and an American visa like the one I have in my passport is an equally rare and precious thing.

Suddenly, though, doors were being slammed shut and gates locked tight. I decided to return through Canada. I applied for and got my visa waiver online within minutes. I flew to London but was not allowed on the connecting flight to Toronto. It turns out Canada has an extensive travel ban too; Canadians are just too polite to shout about it. Between the jigs and the reels, as we say in Brooklyn, I had to come through Mexico. Not just transit through — I had to stay there for 14 days, which I did last month. This itinerary was not my choice and certainly not logical, but that’s what the travel ban did; it forced me to take two extra long-haul flights, as well as holding me squarely in the beautiful and resilient Mexico City, which at that time was a hot spot experiencing record-high levels of infection.

As an added bonus she was in Mexico City during the recent earthquake. The most interesting part of her account, to me anyway, is the way visiting Americans who don’t self-quarantine when they arrive in Ireland are finding that they’re not welcome in pubs. It seems that our famous Céad Mile Fáilte” greeting (“A hundred thousand welcomes”) no longer applies to refugees from Trump’s America. Which is a pity, but understandable in the circumstances.


Dave Winer: How I’d teach computer science

Typically imaginative (and succinct) curriculum by a great developer.

My only quibble: it’s really a lesson on how to write software that works reliably. Computer science — in so far as it exists — is broader than that. (Though I often wonder where the border between CS and ‘technology’ lies. I’ve never accepted that technology is just applied science. It does involve the application of scientific knowledge, of course; but it also involves the application of other kinds of organised knowledge. Craft and tacit knowledge, for example; also project management and other kinds of managerial skills and knowledge. No working bridge was ever built just by applying scientific knowledge. If you doubt that, then David McCullough’s terrific book on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge might make you think again.)


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Wednesday 22 July, 2020

Still life with lockdown accessories


The report into Russian meddling in UK democratic processes

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

A Financial Times Editorial commented…

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

The report’s conclusions, says Politico,

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

Politico’s four big takeaways from the report are…

1 The UK was slow to wake up to Russian threat

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

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

2 Intelligence agencies are too complex

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

3 Russian influence in politics ‘cannot be untangled’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Link.


The US is spiralling into madness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another aspect of this…

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


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Monday 20 July, 2020


Quote of the Day

“Biology enables, culture forbids.”

  • Yuval Noah Harari

Home working: be careful what you wish for

Interesting post by Ivana Isailović on “The ‘New Normal’ Privatization of the Workplace” in Law and Political Economy:

The changes we are seeing today seem more likely to reinforce inequalities, becoming another instance of how neoliberalism keeps reconfiguring our lives. Remote work has further eroded the weak labor protections at the heart of the industrial economy. More importantly, it risks intensifying the “economization” of our lives, by crowding out any non-work related activities and increasing the rat-race in the midst of the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

More data will be needed to understand the changes that are taking place today and their long-term effects, but what evidence there is suggests that workers are on the losing end. In 2017, a comparative study done by the International Labor Organization and Eurofund (EU agency for the improvement of living and working conditions) showed that overall remote work tends to have detrimental effects on workers. Instead of being protective of “work-life balance,” remote work is eroding it. This result was found in both countries with traditions of strong welfare states (e.g. France, Germany, Sweden) and in countries with weak social protections (e.g. the U.S.)

One problem seems to be that remote work blurs the lines between “work” and “private life.” Workers have reported that because of the lack of clear boundaries, the working day is spread out over longer periods of time, squeezing out “free time.” Moreover, this de facto overtime is rarely remunerated as such. Remote work also intensifies the pace of work, and therefore is associated with more employee stress and burnout (see also the recent Eurofund report from January 2020).

We’re already seeing lots of this.


Mask fascism on the rise

I don’t subscribe to the Washington Post (which may be a mistake — so will reconsider later) but Cory Doctorow does, and he relayed this from the paper:

In the Washington Post, this anonymous editorial from a 63 year old with asthma who makes $10/h in a dockside convenience store in a 900-person town in North Carolina where the sheriff refuses to enforce the state mask rule because he “doesn’t want to be the mask police.”

She describes how she is subjected to physical intimidation, verbal abuse — and risk of death from coronavirus — by customers, especially weekenders from Raleigh and Charlotte who ignore the increasingly desperate signs telling people that they can only shop with a mask on.

These bullies aren’t mollified by offers to bring their orders to them outside the store if they want to remain maskless, and certainly not by the offer of a free mask. Instead, they do things like open the door and scream “Fuck masks! Fuck you!” and storm off.

They tape handbills to the storefront with hoax information about the ADA entitling people to shop without masks, call her an agent of sharia law, or ask whether she’s preparing to turn “mind control” on her.

She describes a life of fear and trauma, where every day at work is a day of abuse and threats, where she and her co-worker sometimes have to lock themselves in the storage room to sob because burly men have screamed at them and threatened them.

What is wrong with these men?


The dark underbelly of the gig-economy

Lyft Is Selling — But Not Providing — Masks and Sanitiser to Drivers.

Why? Because it can’t give them away without conceding that its drivers are employees. And if they were employees well, they’d have rights and entitlements and health insurance and stuff.


KFC is working with a Russian 3D bioprinting firm to try to make lab-produced chicken nuggets

That’s according to The Verge.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a KFC outlet, but somehow I don’t think this would make me change the habits of a lifetime.


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Sunday 19 July, 2020

Don’t post on Facebook unless you are prepared to face the consequences

This morning’s Observer column:

Earlier this month Anne Borden King posted news on her Facebook page that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Since then, she reports, “my Facebook feed has featured ads for ‘alternative cancer care’. The ads, which were new to my timeline, promote everything from cumin seeds to colloidal silver as cancer treatments. Some ads promise luxury clinics – or even ‘nontoxic cancer therapies’ on a beach in Mexico.”

The irony is that King is the last person likely to fall for this crap. She’s a consultant for the watchdog group Bad Science Watch and a co-founder of the Campaign Against Phony Autism Cures. So she effortlessly recognised the telltale indicators of pseudoscience marketing – unproven and sometimes dangerous treatments, promising simplistic solutions and support. In that sense she is the polar opposite of, say, Donald Trump.

But one sentence in her thoughtful article brought me up short…

Read on


Please, Matt Hancock, let us see our loved ones with dementia

A justifiably angry piece by my friend Nicci Gerrard, who was the co-founder of John’s Campaign, which she launched after her beloved father’s dementia worsened dramatically when he was in hospital and his children were not allowed to visit him.

Ten days ago, in response to a letter from seven dementia charities and organisations, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced that the ban on visits to care homes was “coming to an end very soon”. That brought a huge sense of relief to the thousands of family carers who have been unable to see their relatives for almost four months. But since then: nothing. Was it an empty promise, a disgraceful piece of window dressing? Perhaps the health secretary could tell us what “very soon” means; how many days are there in “a few days”?

The letter was sent by John’s Campaign, the Alzheimer’s Society, Alzheimer’s Research UK, Dementia UK, Young Dementia UK, Innovations in Dementia and Tide and called for the government to grant family and friend carers the same status as a “key worker” care home member of staff, allowing them the same access to care homes with the same provision of testing so they can meet the essential needs of residents…

The neglect of care homes from the outset has been one of the greatest scandals in the Johnson regimes handling of the crisis. My mother-in-law, who also had dementia, died because she was in an unprotected care home.


Wacky reasoning and the virus

Tim Harford has a nice piece in the weekend FT about self-fulfilling prophecies.

A vocal minority argues that Covid-19 is not much worse than the influenza we ignore every winter, so both mandatory lockdowns and voluntary precautions have been unnecessary.

A glance at the data gives that argument a veneer of plausibility. The UK has suffered about 65,000 excess deaths during the first wave of the pandemic, and 25,000-30,000 excess deaths are attributed to flu in England alone during bad flu seasons.

Is the disparity so great that the country needed to grind to a halt?

The flaw in the argument is clear: Covid was “only” twice as bad as a bad flu season because we took extreme measures to contain it. The effectiveness of the lockdown is being used as an argument that lockdown was unnecessary. It is frustrating, but that is the nature of a self-defeating prophecy in a politicised environment.

Nice. And necessary.


Recovery from Covid-19 will be threatened if we don’t learn to control big tech

My OpEd piece in today’s Observer.

As societies try to recover from the pandemic, an alarming scenario begins to loom. It goes like this: a vaccine is invented and countries embark on massive vaccination programmes. However, conspiracy theorists use social media to oppose the programme and undermine public confidence in the vaccination drive. It will be like the anti-MMR campaign but on steroids.

What we have learned from the coronavirus crisis so far is that the only way to manage it is by coherent, concerted government action to slow the transmission rate. As societies move into a vaccination phase, then an analogous approach will be needed to slow the circulation of misinformation and destructive antisocial memes on social media. Twitter would be much improved by removing the retweet button, for example. Users would still be free to pass on ideas but the process would no longer be frictionless. Similarly, Facebook’s algorithms could be programmed to introduce a delay in the circulation of certain kinds of content. YouTube’s recommender algorithms could be modified to prioritise different factors from those they currently favour. And so on.

Measures such as these will be anathema to the platforms. Tough. In the end, they will have to make choices between their profits and the health of society. If they get it wrong then regulation is the only way forward. And governments will have to remember that to govern is to choose.


Freud and the pandemic

Striking essay by Alax Danco.

Three months ago, he wrote this:

Over the next few months, across America, a lot of people are going to die. And they’re going die because other Americans are – not just cluelessly, but gleefully – refusing to wear masks, and celebrating it, the way you’d celebrate winning a football game. Meanwhile, the urgent topic occupying all of the air time in elite circles isn’t the pandemic, or its generational economic devastation; it’s “how bad should other people be allowed to make you feel online?”

And now, he concluded,

So yeah, it did, indeed, get worse.

You know who would really have recognized and understood this moment? Sigmund Freud.

In retrospect, he thinks, “the critical mistake of the pandemic was telling Americans that masks protect other people”.

The minute that wearing masks became about protecting other people, it was game over for America. Masks became a symbol of the superego; and as far as symbolism goes, it’s laid on pretty thick. (It’s literally something that you put on your face into order to stop yourself from spraying germs onto other people, and therefore suppress your own guilt of being part of a pandemic!) The minute masks became about suppressing yourself to protect others, the narrative became: The Elites want you to feel guilty about not wearing a mask, just like they want you to feel guilty about driving a car, or eating a burger, or anything else you love. Don’t let them!

Our reaction to this narrative misses what’s really being said. If you’ve ever thought, “how stupid do you have to be to think the government wants to control with a mask”, pause for a minute and think about what’s really being communicated. The real message is “they want to control you with guilt.” Doesn’t sound so stupid anymore, does it? Freud would certainly argue that this message gets it exactly right.

Unfortunately, there is a right answer. Wear the stupid mask. This should be a conversation about public health, not yet another forum for symbolic battle between the ego and superego. And in most countries, that’s the case; people cooperate, wear masks, and their countries can cautiously reopen and get back to something like normal life. Not in America, though! In America, you see political talking heads saying things like “Mask-wearing has become a totem, a secular religious symbol. Christians wear crosses, Muslims wear a hijab, and members of the Church of Secular Science bow to the Gods of Data by wearing a mask as their symbol, demonstrating that they are the elite; smarter, more rational, and morally superior to everyone else.”

Actually, it’s not just in America that you hear people talking like that. A colleague of mine came back wearily from a meeting of his College’s Council the other day, after a two-hour argument about whether students and staff ought to be compelled to wear face masks in the Autumn.


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Friday 17 July, 2020

Atul Gawande on managing Covid

He’s the best writer on medical issues I know. Last May he wrote a really useful essay in the New Yorker. I’ve just re-read it in the light of what’s happened since. It still stands out.

Two samples:

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.

Start with hygiene. People have learned that cleaning your hands is essential to stopping the transfer of infectious droplets from surfaces to your nose, mouth, and eyes. But frequency makes a bigger difference than many realize…

and

A recent, extensive review of the research from an international consortium of scientists suggests that if at least sixty per cent of the population wore masks that were just sixty-per-cent effective in blocking viral transmission—which a well-fitting, two-layer cotton mask is—the epidemic could be stopped. The more effective the mask, the bigger the impact.


Coronavirus and the dim future of (many) American universities

Scott Galloway may not be to everyone’s taste, but I like the way he thinks — and, more importantly, the stark way in which he analyses things.

This week he’s been looking at this chart (from the Chronicle of Higher education) which summarises a survey of US colleges’ intentions for the next academic year.

The relevant statistic is the 56% which apparently plan to bring student back to campus in the Fall.

The graphic below neatly summarises what this means.

Think about this. Next month, as currently envisioned, 2,800+ cruise ships retrofitted with white boards and a younger cohort will set sail in the midst of a raging pandemic. The density and socialization on these cruise ships could render college towns across America the next virus hot spots.

So why are administrators putting the lives of faculty, staff, students, and our broader populace at risk?

The ugly truth is many college presidents believe they have no choice. College is an expensive operation with a relatively inflexible cost structure. Tenure and union contracts render the largest cost (faculty and administrator salaries) near immovable objects. The average salary of a professor with a PhD (before benefits and admin support costs) is $141,476, though some make much more, and roughly 50% of full-time faculty have tenure. While some universities enjoy revenue streams from technology transfer, hospitals, returns on multibillion dollar endowments, and public funding, the bulk of colleges have become tuition dependent. If students don’t return in the fall, many colleges will have to take drastic action that could have serious long-term impacts on their ability to fulfill their missions.

That gruesome calculus, Galloway says, has resulted in “a tsunami of denial”.

Universities owning up to the truth have one thing in common: they can afford to. Harvard, Yale, and the Cal State system have announced they will hold most or all classes online. The elite schools’ endowments and waiting lists make them largely bullet proof, and more resilient to economic shock than most countries — Harvard’s endowment is greater than the GDP of Latvia. At the other end of the prestige pole, Cal State’s reasonable $6,000 annual tuition and 85% off-campus population mean the value proposition, and underlying economic model, remain largely intact even if schooling moves online.

Galloway and his team have analysed the prospects of 436 universities and then plotted their prpspects on two axes:

Value: (Credential * Experience * Education) / Tuition. Vulnerability: (Endowment / Student and % International Students). Low endowment and dependence on full-tuition international students make a university vulnerable to Covid shock, as they may decide to sit this semester/year out.

Which produces this grid:

Now of course the US Higher Education system is very different from the UK’s. But it’d be interesting to see what an analogous analysis of UK universities would show.


EU court rejects data transfer tool in Max Schrems case

This is the big story of the week (at least in the bubbles I inhabit)…

From The Irish Times:

Europe’s top court has declared an arrangement under which companies transfer personal data from the European Union to the US invalid due to concerns about US surveillance powers.

The ruling in the long-running battle between Facebook, Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner and the Austrian privacy activist Max Schrems found that the so-called Privacy Shield agreement does not offer sufficient protection of EU citizens’ personal data.

“The limitations on the protection of personal data arising from the domestic law of the United States on the access and use by US public authorities . . . are not circumscribed in a way that satisfies requirements that are essentially equivalent to those required under EU law,” the court said in a statement.

The ruling is a blow to the thousands of companies, including Facebook that rely on the Privacy Shield to transfer data across the Atlantic, and to the European Commission, as it unpicks an arrangement it designed with US authorities to allow companies to comply with EU data protection law.

Great ruling. It’ll be fun seeing the companies trying to find a way round it.


More than just a Twitter hack

From Om Malik:

By now, we have all heard about the takeover of the celebrity accounts and those of companies such as Apple and Uber by scammers who wanted to trick people into sending them bitcoins. There are multiple threads to this theory — Vice says that it was it might be some kind of inside job. Twitter itself says that it was a victim of social engineering. FBI is also starting an investigation. However, it is clear; this hack isn’t a joke. It can have national and international implications, as Casey Newton points out in his article for The Verge. Twitter is a significant source of dissemination of information — from weather to earthquakes to forest fires — and any disruption can cost lives.

That is why Casey is right — and collectively, we need to think about this current episode much more deeply and deliberately. Big technology platforms are now singular points of failure as much as they are single points of protection against malicious intent.

Hmmm… I’m not convinced. This particular hack was just an ingenious variation on an old scam: someone posting a link to a Bitcoin wallet with an invitation to send it some Bitcoin and receive double the amount immediately in return. You’d have to have your head examined to fall for it. The variant this time is that the scammer got into some Twitter employee’s account and used those privileges to send out the scamming tweets as if they were coming from prominent people. The big question is whether the hacker collected the DMs (Direct Messages) that those account-holders had sent to other users. If he did, then there’s big trouble ahead — and not just for the account-holders, but also for Twitter. People have been arguing for years that the private DM channel should be end-to-end encrypted, but as far as I know it isn’t.


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Tuesday 14 July, 2020

Le Quatorze Juillet!

In pre-pandemic times, we’d be there today. Sigh.


Notes from the new battleground

Cyberspace viewed through a military lens.

1/ The Internet is now the dominant communications medium of our world. And we’re still only at the beginning of that transformation.

2/ The network is now a battlefield, indispensable to militaries and their governments.

3/ This changes how conflicts are being — and will be — fought.

  • It’s now impossible to keep secrets
  • Power becomes the ability to command people’s attention
  • Conflicts become “contests of psychological and algorithmic manipulation.”

4/ The nature of ‘war’ is changing. It used to be “the continuation of politics by other means”. But now war and politics have begun to fuse together. However the laws of this new battlefield are not formulated by democratic or military authorities but by a handful of American tech companies.

5/ And we’re all caught up in this new warfare, as combatants, spectators or collateral damage. Our attention has become a piece of contested territory “being fought over in conflicts that you may or may not realise are unfolding around you. Your online attention and actions are thus both targets and ammunition in an unending series of skirmishes. Whether you have an interest in the conflicts of ‘Likewar’ or not, they have an interest in you”.

Notes from reading Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking, Houghton Mifflin, 2018.


The dark underbelly of ‘efficiency’

Tim Bray, one of the most thoughtful geeks around, has an interesting essay on his blog about the downsides of the neoliberal obsession with ‘efficiency’.

On a Spring 2019 walk in Beijing I saw two street sweepers at a sunny corner. They were beat-up looking and grizzled but probably younger than me. They’d paused work to smoke and talk. One told a story; the other’s eyes widened and then he laughed so hard he had to bend over, leaning on his broom. I suspect their jobs and pay were lousy and their lives constrained in ways I can’t imagine. But they had time to smoke a cigarette and crack a joke. You know what that’s called? Waste, inefficiency, a suboptimal outcome. Some of the brightest minds in our economy are earnestly engaged in stamping it out. They’re winning, but everyone’s losing.

I’ve felt this for years, and there’s plenty of evidence:

Item: Every successful little store with a personality morphs into a chain because that’s more efficient. The personality becomes part of the brand and thus rote.

Item: I go to a deli fifteen minutes away to buy bacon, rashers cut from the slab while I wait, because they’re better. Except when I can’t, in which case I buy a waterlogged plastic-encased product at the supermarket; no standing or waiting! It’s obvious which is more efficient.

Item: I’ve learned, when I have a problem with a tech vendor, to seek out the online-chat help service; there’s annoying latency between question and answers as the service rep multiplexes me in with lots of other people’s problems, but at least the dialog starts without endless minutes on hold; a really super-efficient process. Item: Speaking of which, it seems that when you have a problem with a business, the process for solving it each year becomes more and more complex and opaque and irritating and (for the business) efficient.

Item, item, item; as the world grows more efficient it grows less flavorful and less human. Because the more efficient you are, the less humans you need.

To help develop his argument, Bray links to a terrific essay by Bruce Schneier, my favourite security guru:

For decades, we have prized efficiency in our economy. We strive for it. We reward it. In normal times, that’s a good thing. Running just at the margins is efficient. A single just-in-time global supply chain is efficient. Consolidation is efficient. And that’s all profitable. Inefficiency, on the other hand, is waste. Extra inventory is inefficient. Overcapacity is inefficient. Using many small suppliers is inefficient. Inefficiency is unprofitable.

But inefficiency is essential security, as the COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us. All of the overcapacity that has been squeezed out of our healthcare system; we now wish we had it. All of the redundancy in our food production that has been consolidated away; we want that, too. We need our old, local supply chains — not the single global ones that are so fragile in this crisis. And we want our local restaurants and businesses to survive, not just the national chains.

We have lost much inefficiency to the market in the past few decades. Investors have become very good at noticing any fat in every system and swooping down to monetize those redundant assets. The winner-take-all mentality that has permeated so many industries squeezes any inefficiencies out of the system.

This drive for efficiency leads to brittle systems that function properly when everything is normal but break under stress. And when they break, everyone suffers. The less fortunate suffer and die. The more fortunate are merely hurt, and perhaps lose their freedoms or their future. But even the extremely fortunate suffer — maybe not in the short term, but in the long term from the constriction of the rest of society.

Efficient systems have limited ability to deal with system-wide economic shocks. Those shocks are coming with increased frequency. They’re caused by global pandemics, yes, but also by climate change, by financial crises, by political crises. If we want to be secure against these crises and more, we need to add inefficiency back into our systems.

Yep.

Bray ends with a protest:

It’s hard to think of a position more radical than being “against efficiency”. And I’m not. Efficiency is a good, and like most good things, has to be bought somehow, and paid for. There is a point where the price is too high, and we’ve passed it.

Actually, there are times when efficiency is not good but positively bad. Take our criminal justice system. It’s woefully inefficient because we have this commitment to ‘due process’, the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven, legal representation and the rest. It would be much more ‘efficient’ to be able to lock people up on the say-so of the local chief of police. But we don’t do that because our liberal, democratic values abhor it. (Which is also why authoritarians love it.) Of course the criminal justice system should operate more efficiently — in the sense that courts should be run so that the dispensation of justice is quicker and with less pointless delay, lower legal costs, etc. But the central inefficiency of the system implied by the need for due process is the most precious thing about it.


Tim Bray’s essay led me to David Wooton’s book, Power, Pleasure, and Profit: Insatiable Appetites from Machiavelli to Madison, and thence to his 2017 Besterman Lecture at Oxford, which is based on Chapter 8 of the book.

Link


I Have Cancer. Now My Facebook Feed Is Full of ‘Alternative Care’ Ads

Here we go again. Most of the current hoo-hah about Facebook and moderation is about politics and extremism. But actually almost every area of life is affected by the Facebook targeting system. Here’s a great example of that from the personal experience of Anne Borden King — who, ironically, is an advocate working to prevent the spread of medical misinformation online. “Last week”, she writes,

I posted about my breast cancer diagnosis on Facebook. Since then, my Facebook feed has featured ads for “alternative cancer care.” The ads, which were new to my timeline, promote everything from cumin seeds to colloidal silver as cancer treatments. Some ads promise luxury clinics — or even “nontoxic cancer therapies” on a beach in Mexico.

When I saw the ads, I knew that Facebook had probably tagged me to receive them. Interestingly, I haven’t seen any legitimate cancer care ads in my newsfeed, just pseudoscience. This may be because pseudoscience companies rely on social media in a way that other forms of health care don’t. Pseudoscience companies leverage Facebook’s social and supportive environment to connect their products with identities and to build communities around their products. They use influencers and patient testimonials. Some companies also recruit members through Facebook “support groups” to sell their products in pyramid schemes.

Anyone who has experimented with using Facebook’s advertising system will not be surprised by her experience. What happened is that people flogging snake oil were using Facebook’s automated machine for helping them to build a “custom audience”, and one of the questions the system will have asked them is whether they would like to target people who have posted that they have had a cancer diagnosis. Click yes and it’s done.


Finally: the UK government is mandating the wearing of face masks

This is how Politico’s daily ‘London Playbook’ newsletter puts it.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock will give a statement in the House of Commons this afternoon confirming the news on every front page this morning: face coverings will be compulsory in shops and supermarkets in England from Friday July 24, with those refusing to wear them facing fines of up to £100.

What took you so long? The British Medical Association last night called the announcement — which brings England in line with Scotland Germany, Spain, Italy and Greece and many other countries — “long overdue,” and called for the regulation to be extended to all settings where social distancing is not possible. BMA council Chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul also questioned why the government was waiting 10 days to implement the policy. “Each day that goes by adds to the risk of spread and endangers lives,” he said. Officials say the delay will give businesses and the public time to prepare. Retailers won’t be expected to enforce the new regulations, which will be a matter for police. Only children under 11 and those with certain disabilities will be exempt.

We’ve come a long way since … the received wisdom in the U.K. was that mass wearing of face masks did little or nothing to help. It’s just over 100 days, for instance, since England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van-Tam said at the Downing Street lectern on April 3: “There is no evidence that general wearing of the face masks by the public who are well affects the spread of the disease.”

We’ve not come very far at all since … Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, when asked by the the BBC’s Andrew Marr whether face masks should be mandatory in shops in England, said: “I don’t think mandatory, no.” It’s not yet been 48 hours.

Nothing changes. The UK government couldn’t run a bath.

(The Politico newsletter is indispensable IMHO. And it’s free. First thing I read every morning.


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Monday 13 July, 2020

The Virus: we’re not even at the end of the beginning yet

How long will it take this penny to drop? This thing isn’t going away. We’re not even at the end of the beginning of this story. No return to anything resembling ‘normal’ is remotely possible for several years — at best. And although some countries currently have a fragile grip on the disease, they’re all going to be playing whack-a-mole until after a vaccine is available and distributed.

As for the countries where it’s raging out of control, then a 1918-type scenario seems inevitable for them.

Sigh.


An apology to non-UK readers

I’d forgotten that the link to the BBC iPlayer version of the BBC TV programme about the Kanneh-Mason family is only accessible to people located in the UK. (I guess because the BBC is funded by a tax paid by UK subjects.) It must have been annoying to have me describe something as “unmissable” (and I meant that) when you were unable to access it. I’m hoping that the BBC eventually releases it for a worldwide audience, but in the meantime I hope that the Corporation’s description of the programme will give you some idea of its content:

In its first remote-access film, imagine [a BBC cultural documentary series] offers a unique and intimate portrait of an exceptionally gifted musical family in lockdown – the Kanneh-Masons. In 2016, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason won BBC Young Musician award. In 2018, he released his debut album, and earlier this year his second album, Elgar, became a top ten hit. He achieved global fame when he performed solo at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in 2018 in front of a TV audience of two billion people worldwide.

But it doesn’t stop there. His six siblings are also phenomenally talented musicians: three are former BBC Young Musician category finalists, and the eldest sibling, pianist Isata, has also presented for the Proms. Ever since lockdown began, the seven young prodigies, all aged between 10 and 24, have been isolated in their family home in Nottingham along with their parents, Stuart and Kadiatu, and Sheku and Braimah’s flatmate, fellow Royal Academy of Music student Plinio Fernandes. Unable to perform publicly, the family decided to stage a vibrant and eclectic concert in the only place they can – their own home – and granted the BBC exclusive access using remotely operated fixed-rig cameras, with video messaging to capture interviews. Exploring both the family’s music making and their family life, the programme culminates in a moving concert that is a testament to the power of music to carry us through the most difficult of times.


Privacy isn’t property: it’s a human right

Fine post by Hayley Tsukayama on wrong-headed legislative moves to value the personal information that surveillance capitalists extract and monetise.

Proposals to place a concrete dollar value on data and, by extension, on our privacy, have popped up across the country this year. Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) last month introduced the “Designing Accounting Safeguards to Help Broaden Oversight and Regulations on Data,” or DASHBOARD Act. It would require larger companies to report the value of customer data. Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) recently proposed a bill to recognize consumer data as property. Companies pushed a bill with a similar concept in Oregon, which the ACLU of Oregon and EFF opposed, to directly pay people for the “value” of their health data as calculated by companies.

Assigning a value to your personal information might appear attractive, at first blush. Companies have grown rich off the insatiable collection of our personal information. It is tempting to demand a cut of the money they make from our clicks, our likes, and our networks of contacts.

But this is a mistake. If anything, assigning a dollar value may give the false impression that, at a value of $5, $30, or $200 for your personal information, the data collection companies’ conduct is no big deal. But a specific piece of information can be priceless in a particular context. Your location data may cost a company less than a penny to buy, yet cost you your physical safety if it falls into the wrong hands. Companies advertised lists of 1,000 people with different conditions such as anorexia, depression and erectile dysfunction for $79 per list. Such embarrassing information in the wrong hands could cost someone their job or their reputation.

Our information should not be thought of as our property this way, to be bought and sold like a widget. Privacy is a fundamental human right. It has no price tag. No person should be coerced or encouraged to barter it away. And it is definitely not a good deal for people to receive a handful of dollars in exchange for allowing companies’ invasive data collection to remain unchecked.

Yep.


How Tesla works

Absolutely fascinating article by Philippe Chain on how Tesla differs from traditional automobile manufacturers.

Sample:

At the time we launched the Model S, there were only two layers below Elon. Later when I joined Audi to build the e-tron, I was dealing with four hierarchical levels just for the engineering department, supplemented by two other echelons above. In short, we are talking of at least a 3 to 1 ratio. As a result, Tesla moves incomparably faster than Audi for instance. Where the Model 3 took 3 years in development, it would have been the customary 60 months time frame at Audi.

The intensity of the workload at Tesla leads to higher turnover among executives and engineers. With a 27 percent replacement rate, it is even higher than in prominent startups like, for instance, Lyft (23 percent). And for Elon Musk’s direct reports the turnover hit a record of 44 percent last year, according to Alliance Bernstein tech analyst Toni Sacconaghi. We used to say that a year at Tesla equals seven years elsewhere, just like “dog years”.

Moral: don’t work at Tesla if you want a quiet life.


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Saturday 11 July, 2020

Quote of the Day

”If you want home truths, you should stay at home”

  • Clifford Geertz

The Lark Ascending

Amazing performance in which Victoria Yeh plays all parts of a 13-piece string arrangement of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s masterpiece.

Link


Another Facebook metaphor

This time from Kara Swisher:

I keep trying to figure out a way to explain what is happening — actually, to explain why nothing is happening — with a fresh metaphor. Once, I compared Facebook to a city manager who treats the streets like The Purge. The Salesforce chief executive, Marc Benioff, likened Facebook to a cigarette company. And still others have likened it to a chemical company that carelessly spews noxious information into the river of society.

This week, I finally settled on a simpler comparison: Think about Facebook as a seller of meat products.

Most of the meat is produced by others, and some of the cuts are delicious and uncontaminated. But tainted meat — say, Trump steaks — also gets out the door in ever increasing amounts and without regulatory oversight.

The argument from the head butcher is this: People should be free to eat rotten hamburger, even if it wreaks havoc on their gastrointestinal tract, and the seller of the meat should not be the one to tell them which meat is good and which is bad (even though the butcher can tell in most cases).

Basically, the message is that you should find the truth through vomiting and — so sorry — maybe even death.

In this, Mr. Zuckerberg is serving up a rancid meal that he says he’s not comfortable cooking himself, even as his hands control every aspect of the operation.

Good stuff. I wonder where the next metaphor will come from.


Why is it that the two Western democracies that have mishandled the Coronavirus crisis worst are the US and the UK?

There’s something weird about the ‘Anglosphere’. Could it be that both countries have a lot in common? For example:

  • Their two main political parties are dysfunctional
  • Both states have been hollowed out by decades of neoliberal governance by remote elites
  • Both have chronically unrepresentative electoral systems (FPTP in UK; the crackpot Senate representation which gives rural states the same representation as massive urbanised regions; comprehensive Republican gerrymandering of House of Representative seats; and of course the Electoral College.
  • Dark money plays a major role in campaign funding, and electoral laws are no longer fit for purpose
  • Both have delusions of exceptionalism
  • Both have a history of Imperial and racist exploitation
  • Currently both are led by blustering moral cretins.

Thinking the unthinkable

From Roger Cohen:

Last month, Trump tweeted: “RIGGED 2020 ELECTION: MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!” Of course, that foreign country would be China.

Trump is preparing the ground to contest any loss to Joe Biden and remain president, aided, no doubt, by Attorney General William Barr’s Justice Department.

I know, it’s unthinkable. So was the Reichstag fire.


Larry Brilliant on Covid-19

He’s the guy responsible for eliminating smallpox. Steven Levy interviewed him for Wired magazine. Here’s the part of the interview that really caught my eye:

 Levy: It seems like the longer it goes, the less we know about it. Every week something new comes up that contradicts what we thought we already knew.

Brilliant: No, no—you know a lot more about it now than you did three months ago. Yes, there are absolutely more questions today than there were 100 days ago. But part of that is because we’re getting more sophisticated in our ability to ask questions. Three months ago, we had only had a couple hundred cases of this novel virus. We have now got over 11 million cases, and a half a million deaths globally. The virus has been speeding along at an exponential speed, but so has science. So now we can begin to understand that this virus attacks the circulatory system, it attacks the vascular and nervous systems, it attacks the respiratory system, it attacks our ability to bring in oxygen. That’s why people can go to the hospital and be on their phone, not in any respiratory distress, but have oxygen saturation in the 50s, which in the old days we’d think of as you’re near death. It also makes you understand why you can get these Covid toes, why you can lose your sense of taste or smell, why you can have a stroke. This virus attacks blood vessels, it creates blood clots. That is probably one of the reasons why it causes strokes. We have a very large number of deaths due to kidney failure, and we are having terrible results from the ventilators that we were so obsessed about early on, though lately it’s looking a little better, because we’ve learned more about how to use them for this disease. We have learned a tremendous amount about this virus, about how it infects people, how it kills, how it spreads, but the big surprise to me is the kind of pan-organ nature of its attack. It gives the lie to anybody who thought that a comparison with influenza was in the ballpark.

 You paint quite a picture.

Brilliant: This is a big fucking deal. If I would not be excommunicated from the world of science, I would call this an evil virus, but I can’t do that because I can’t impugn motives to it. But if I could, I would call it that. It’s certainly pernicious. This is the worst pandemic in our lifetime. And it is the first time we have had a pandemic in the United States in which we have had such a total, abysmal failure of our federal government.


Larry Summers on the significance of Covid-19

The Covid-19 crisis is the third major shock to the global system in the 21st century, following the 2001 terror attacks and the 2008 financial crisis. I suspect it is by far the most significant.

Although the earlier events will figure in history textbooks, both 9/11 and the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy will fade over time from popular memory.

By contrast, I believe, the coronavirus crisis will still be considered a seminal event generations from now. Students of the future will learn of its direct effects and of the questions it brings into sharp relief much as those of today learn about the 1914 assassination of the Archduke, the 1929 stock market crash, or the 1938 Munich Conference. These events were significant but their ultimate historical importance lies in what followed.

Yep. Most people don’t seem to have twigged this yet.

From the Financial Times


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Thursday 9 July, 2020

Metaphotography: through an iPhone, darkly

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


Quote of the Day

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

  • H.L. Mencken

Google, Amazon Funnel Money to Virus Conspiracy Sites

From Bloomberg

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

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

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

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

Funny that: half of the examined pages were infringers.


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

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

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

Link


Gary Larson’s gone digital!

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

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

Sometimes, there are good arguments for using an iPad.


Factors associated with COVID-19 death in 17 million patients

From a major study reported in Nature

Abstract reads:

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

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


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Tuesday 7 July, 2020

Meet the enemy

From Nature.


Monochromatic vision

Once upon a time every photograph I took was in black and white. Colour film was just too expensive. But as an experiment during lockdown, I decided to go back to monochrome — and was reminded that B&W photography is a completely different art form. Colour is easier — much easier.

Here’s one picture from yesterday’s foray.

Click on the image to see a larger size.


Trump, Twitter, Facebook and the future of online speech

Terrific, wide-ranging, historically-informed New Yorker essay by Anna Wiener on Section 230 and related matters.

Still, there’s a reason the order focussed on Section 230. The law is considered foundational to Silicon Valley. In “The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet,” a “biography” of the legislation, Jeff Kosseff, a professor of cybersecurity law at the U.S. Naval Academy, writes that “it is impossible to divorce the success of the U.S. technology sector from the significant benefits of Section 230.” Meanwhile, despite being an exceptionally short piece of text, the law has been a source of debate and confusion for nearly twenty-five years. Since the 2016 Presidential election, as awareness of Silicon Valley’s largely unregulated power has grown, it has come under intensified scrutiny and attack from both major political parties. “All the people in power have fallen out of love with Section 230,” Goldman told me, in a phone call. “I think Section 230 is doomed.” The law is a point of vulnerability for an industry that appears invulnerable. If it changes, the Internet does, too.

Great piece. Well worth reading in full if you’re interested in Internet regulation.


It’s mourning in America

The Lincoln Project is a political movement by Republicans who oppose Trump and are trying to persuade fellow-Republicans to drop him. They’re putting together some hard-hitting TV campaign ads. This is the one I like best, because it deliberately echoes Ronald Reagan’s famous “Morning in America” slogan.

Link


A future shaped by the coronavirus

Quartz asked dozens of experts for their best predictions on how the world will be different in five years.

Here’s Hany Farid’s answer. He’s a professor at the University of California, Berkeley with appointments in both Electrical Engineering & Computer Science and the School of Information. He specializes in the analysis of digital images, particularly deepfakes.

In five years, I expect us to have long since reached the boiling point that leads to reining in an almost entirely unregulated technology sector to contend with how technology has been weaponized against individuals, society, and democracy. Social media in particular has become the primary source of news for more than half of people around the world. At the same time, social media is littered with hate, divisiveness, misinformation, and illegal activity. The global Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the breadth and depth of these issues as people around the world are spending more time online alongside deadly misinformation, outrageous conspiracies, and small- to large-scale fraud. The reckoning that is sure to come will change the way we view and interact with the technology we have grown more and more reliant on in our lives.

Yep.

Tim Berners-Lee is optimistic, as ever. He chose to imagine looking back from 2025:

It’s 2025 and now the world is working again. You want me to compare my life now with 2020? Well, 2020 was ghastly in so many ways. The pandemic was awful, and the way the world worked was so dysfunctional.

Today it’s quite different. I feel that I am part of functional communities and societies at different levels, and I feel that within those groups, I am part of the solutions we are finding to the problems. I have sources of news and information that I trust, and I play a part in making them trustworthy. Importantly, I feel that most other people in the world, while they have different priorities and different ideas of how the economy should run, are working off the same facts, the same science.

Thinking about my life—be it day-to-day family life, my work, my music, my play, my volunteering with organizations—it’s all, in fact, data. It is data I control. It all connects together. What I love now is how everything is online as data: I feel powerful. I can see things from all of my life together. I can share anything with anyone. People share all kinds of things with me. When I decide what to do on Friday, I see in my calendar all the things happening in each of the segments of my life all brought together. How else would I function? When I wonder about doing something, I see its cost in dollars, in time, and in carbon, whether it is at home or at work, and I feel I can make decisions with a sort of integrity I didn’t have in 2020.

I’m proud of the world managing to make communal decisions after the crisis of 2020. I’m proud we stopped using paper. I’m proud of the oil we left in the ground. I’m proud of the privacy we have given back to people who opened up their health, medical, and genetic data in the pandemics of 2020 and 2022. I’m happy that people are in control of that data and were in a position to offer it up. I am proud of the people I know who worked to make all the apps I use talk the same language. We take it for granted now that you and I can use entirely different apps or tools for looking, sharing, and managing data—no matter whether that’s for photos, banking info, or other projects. It wasn’t always like that!

We call that interoperability or interop. I teach my kids about interop. The interop movement was born out of a project from MIT called Solid, a company called Inrupt, and an open-source community. Together, they set about updating the web of 2020 by flipping the rules of who gets value from data. It was a lot of hard work to get here.

My digital life is my world; it is my identity. I use all kinds of devices to live my digital life, of course. I think of them as different windows into the same world. But it’s not about the devices. It’s not about the apps. It’s the huge benefit of linking all the data—not just my data, but also the data shared with me, connected device data, and all the publicly available data—all in one world. That’s the essence of my life and the main change for me since 2020, I think. Since you asked.

Like I said, ever the optimist.


If you’re over 75, getting Covid is like playing Russian roulette

Interesting piece by Antonio Regalado,the Biomedicine Editor of MIT’s Tech Review:

By now you might be wondering what your own death risk is. Online, you can find apps that will calculate it, like one at covid19survivalcalculator.com, which employs odds ratios from the World Health Organization. I gave it my age, gender, body mass index, and underlying conditions and learned that my overall death risk was a bit higher than the average. But the site also wanted to account for my chance of getting infected in the first place. After I told it I was social distancing and mostly wearing a mask, and my rural zip code, the gadget thought I had only a 5% of getting infected.

I clicked, the page paused, and the final answer appeared: “Survival Probability: 99.975%”.

Those are odds I can live with. And that’s why I am not leaving the house.

Moral: Keep your distance, stay at home as much as you can and wear a mask. It’s not rocket science.


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