Monday 5 October, 2020

Conversation piece

Arles, 2015


Quote of the Day

”A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.”

  • Samuel Johnson

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Hot House Flowers – “Don’t go”: Diamond Awards festival, 1988, Antwerp.

Link

Terrific Irish band. I first heard them sing this at a street concert in Kerry many years ago.


What do we do with Cruise ships now?

Why, dismantle them, of course, and recycle whatever we can.

Neat set of photographs from Reuters.

Well, well. What’s next? Universities?


What happens if there’s no Brexit trade deal?

You can guess the answer, but Politico has done a really useful deep dive into the matter.

(Number of stars indicates how bad things could be — for the UK.)

Tariffs: ★★★★★
Custom checks:
State aid: ★★
Dispute settlement: ★★★
Health: ★★★★★
Air travel: ★★★★
Road transport: ★★★
Security/intelligence: ★★
Environment/climate:
Energy:
Fishing: ★★★★
Digital: ★★★★
Finance: ★★
Citizens’ rights/immigration: ★★
Science and Education: ★★★
Pet travel:
Gibraltar: ★★★

It’s a long read, but worth it. If some of the assessments puzzle, dig into the text for an explanation.

Great piece of public-interest journalism.


The dangerous and inexorable rise of the instant expert

Interesting essay in the FT by Andrew Hill triggered by a new book by Roger Kneebone about the nature of expertise.

TL;DR summary: attaining expertise is hard and there are no short-cuts.

The real threat to becoming an expert, though, is an increasing yearning for quick fixes, pat answers, and instant gratification. “There’s a growing sense that anyone can learn to do anything — and quickly,” laments Prof Kneebone in his book. People applaud Tik Tok experts over those who have “done time”, or they assume that real skills displayed on social media can be picked up without effort or the acquisition of basic techniques.

Mr Trump is a case in point. He has sometimes been swift to claim “natural ability” in matters that his expert advisers took years to understand. But that is no surprise. After all, in the TV show that vaulted him towards the presidency, the apprenticeships he bestowed were a high-profile reward for a few weeks of showy salesmanship, not the first step in a hard but fulfilling journey towards mastery.

Yeah: just look at how Trump now regards himself as an expert on Covid-19.


What is the virus doing to us?

One answer, prompted by reading this thoughtful essay by historian Peter Frankopan, is that it’s softening us up for authoritarian rule. The crisis, he says, “has the capacity to be apocalyptic”.

More than eighty countries declared a state of emergency as a result of the virus, according to the Centre for Civil and Political Rights. In some cases this resulted in impassioned debate about the erosion of civil liberties, for example in Israel, where the government approved a controversial measure in March to digitally track those who had tested positive for coronavirus.

In Britain, meanwhile, the 329 page ‘Coronavirus Bill’ was passed in a single day – suspending the requirement for councils to meet the eligible needs of the disabled and vulnerable people, amongst others, as well as the right to cancel or re-arrange elections and to close ports and borders. Police releasing drone footage of walkers in the Peak District, officers reprimanding people for using their own front garden, or Thames Valley police issuing appeals for local residents to inform on each other if they suspect they are ‘gathering and then dispersing back into out communities’ during the lockdown show that the relationship between citizens and the authorities has changed dramatically in a matter of a few weeks. The new mantra of our pandemic and post-pandemic world is best expressed by Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha – a general who himself took power in a coup in 2014: ‘right now it’s health over liberty.’

There are, of course, pockets of resistance, such in the US, where armed militias gathered on the steps of some state assemblies to demand an end to lockdown. Ironically, they were encouraged by President Trump who issued a series of tweets effectively urging civil disobedience: ‘Liberate Michigan’, he tweeted; ‘Liberate Minnesota !’Liberate Virginia !’ But even in the complicated and contradictory United States of 2020, things have not been straightfoward, with Trump asserting that his powers are not so much presidential as dictatorial: ‘When somebody’s the President of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be,’ he said in a press briefing in mid-April – a few weeks after he had boasted that ‘I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about’, before a bilateral meeting with Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar.

The push away from democratic norms to autocratic measures is framed by the justification that the crisis is so severe as to require emergency measures that usually reflect a war footing. So it is no surprise that so many leaders around the world have referred to the coronavirus as a ‘war’, nor that wartime parallels are the ones we turn to in order to make sense of the situation: it is no coincidence either that the death toll from the Vietnam War contextualised mortality figures from the US, or that those of the height of the Blitz in the twenty eight days to 4 October 1940 were set against those to Covid-19 in the four weeks to mid-April.

Not a cheery read. But riveting nevertheless.


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Friday 2 October, 2020

If only…

Arles, July 2017.


Quote of the Day

”Writing a novel does not become easier with practice.”

  • Graham Greene

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

John Field: Nocturne No. 10 in E minor

Link


EU plans for controlling tech companies

Politico has obtained a leaked copy of measures that EU regulators are considering imposing on certain kinds of tech companies. Cory Doctorow has provided a neat annotated list on Pluralistic.net.

First of all, stuff that the EU is considering prohibiting:

  • Mining your customers’ data to compete with them or advertise to their customers (think: Facebook Like buttons on publisher pages, Amazon’s own-brand competitors)

  • Mixing third-party data with surveillance data you gather yourself (like Facebook buying credit bureaux data), without user permission (which is the same as never because no one in the world wants this)

  • Ranking your own offerings above your competitors (think: Google Shopping listings at the top of search results)

  • Pre-installing your own apps on devices (like Ios and Android do) or requiring third party device makers to install your apps (as Android does)

  • Using DRM [Digital Rights Management] or terms to service to prevent users from uninstalling preinstalled apps (no immortal shovelware)

  • Exclusivity deals – mobile OS/device companies can’t force an app vendor to sell only through the app, and not on the open web

  • Using DRM or terms of service to prevent sideloading

  • Nondisparagement/confidentiality clauses that would prevent your suppliers from complaining about your monopolistic behavior

  • Tying email to other services – you have to be able to activate an Android device without a Gmail account

  • Automatically logging users into one service on the basis that they’re logged into another one (eg using Gmail doesn’t automatically log you into Youtube)

Then there are projected new ‘requirements’ that companies will have to provide:

  • Annual transparency reports that make public the results of an EU-designed audit that assesses compliance

  • Annual algorithmic transparency reports that disclose a third-party audit of “customer profiling” and “cross-service tracking”

  • Compliance documents showing current practices, on demand by regulators

  • Advance notice of all mergers and acquisitions

  • An internal compliance officer who oversees the business

This is an interesting leak, not so much for the specific kinds of measures that they are contemplating, but as revealing the general conception of regulation that underpins EU thinking. In a way, it’s as if they are regarding tech companies much as we regard banks. That may work in some circs. But it may also reflect an inadequate conception of the power of tech companies.


The mystery of John Banville’s mysteries

Lovely essay in the NYT by Charles McGrath about John Banville and the background to his forthcoming novel Snow:

The Irish novelist John Banville is a famous perfectionist — the kind of writer who can spend a day on a single sentence. His books, most written in the first person, are lapidary, intricate, Nabokovian. Or just difficult, some readers have complained, more interested in style than in storytelling. They invariably come laden with words that seem meant to prove his vocabulary is bigger than yours: flocculent, crapulent, caducous, anaglypta, mephitic, velutinous.

A Banville novel typically takes four or five painful years to complete, after which the author is still dissatisfied. In a 2009 interview, he told The Paris Review that he hated his own books. “They’re an embarrassment and a deep source of shame,” he said, and then added: “They’re better than everybody else’s, of course, but not good enough for me.”

In March 2005, however, while staying at a friend’s house in Italy, Banville sat down one morning and for some reason began writing a mystery novel set in 1950s Dublin. By lunchtime he had 1,500 words — or a week’s worth at his usual pace. He thought to himself, “John Banville, you slut,” but kept going and finished in five or six months. “I was a little appalled at the speed with which I got the thing done,” he said in a recent email. He had been reading Simenon — though not the Inspector Maigret crime novels — and was inspired by him to see what could be accomplished with a narrow vocabulary and a spare, straightforward style.

Many years ago I wrote a few pieces for the Irish Times when Banville was the paper’s Literary Editor. The striking thing (to me) when dropping in copy was the way everybody referred to him as “Mr. Banville”. Even then he was just like his writing: fastidious, distant, intimidating. Looks like he hasn’t changed. But he’s a terrific writer, so he’s excused normality.

The NYT piece has a couple of terrific photographs of him, btw.


What Trump’s tax-returns tell us

Basically, that he’s incapable of running a business.

All of his casinos, property developments, etc. have been commercial disasters. The one thing that really worked for him was his spell on The Apprentice and the celebrity status that that gave him, which he then assiduously leveraged by endorsements and lending his name to various ventures. He earned a staggering amount from that alone. He then spent a lot of those earnings on buying hotels and 15 golf courses in various parts of the US and the world (including, as I now know, one in Ireland). But these are proper businesses and he can’t run such things, so some of them have been bleeding money over the years.

By 2016, his earnings from the celebrity glow of The Apprentice were declining rapidly (all celebrity has a half-life) and he had an urgent need to find a new way of rekindling it because of the losses on the golf and hotel businesses.

So here’s my idea for a comic novel based on these circumstances…

Trump’s big idea for reigniting his celebrity status was that running for president would be a way to do it. Think of all the free publicity. His name in lights every day on cable TV, etc. So he decided to run. The end-game would be that he could then start his own TV network — Trump TV — challenging Fox and Murdoch and becoming a new media mogul. The idea was not to be elected: even his narcissism didn’t make him think that he might succeed. The celebrity-enhancement flowing from the campaign was the goal. Trump didn’t actually want to be president: too much like hard work.

Far-fetched? Hey — this is a novel, remember. Pure fiction. No requirement to adhere to the facts.

But… Michael Lewis’s terrific book, The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy opens with the night of the election and the stunned astonishment in the Trump campaign team at what was unfolding. It was one long “Oh, shit!!!!!” Moment. The plan had backfired. They had actually won the election. Trump was going to have to be President!

Lewis points out that when Trump won the Republican nomination he was astonished and infuriated that he was now obliged, by law, to start forming a Transition Team to plan for forming an Administration. And he did everything in his power to hobble that process.

The New York Times’s exposé of his tax returns adds the final touch necessary for the plot of my comic novel. Their analysis suggests that Trump is now personally liable for something like $400m of debts for which he is the sole guarantor. The banks who are on the hook for that can’t touch him while he’s President. But if he loses…. Well, next stop the bankruptcy court, or worse. No wonder he’s desperate not to lost the election.


More on how to model (and explain) the spread of Covid-19

Further to my post yesterday about Zeynep Tufecki’s fascinating article on why focussing simply on R0, the reproduction rate for Covid-19 might be misleading because it misses the importance of ‘super-spreading’ events, Seb Schmoller pointed out a new research paper published by the Royal Society the other day which appears to support Tufecki’s line of argument.

Here’s the Abstract of the paper:

The basic reproduction number ℛ0 of the coronavirus disease 2019 has been estimated to range between 2 and 4. Here, we used an SEIR model that properly accounts for the distribution of the latent period and, based on empirical estimates of the doubling time in the near-exponential phases of epidemic progression in China, Italy, Spain, France, UK, Germany, Switzerland and New York State, we estimated that ℛ0 lies in the range 4.7–11.4. We explained this discrepancy by performing stochastic simulations of model dynamics in a population with a small proportion of super-spreaders. The simulations revealed two-phase dynamics, in which an initial phase of relatively slow epidemic progression diverts to a faster phase upon appearance of infectious super-spreaders. Early estimates obtained for this initial phase may suggest lower ℛ0.

The key sentence in the concluding section reads:

Spatial heterogeneity of the epidemic spread observed in many European countries, including Italy, Spain and Germany, can be associated with larger or smaller super-spreading events that initiated outbreaks in particular regions of these countries.

This is just the latest demonstration of how limited our understanding of this pandemic is — still. We’re learning as we go, but without a good understanding of the dynamics of infection and spread, we’re driving by looking in the rear-view mirror.


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Thursday 1 October, 2020

Quote of the Day

“There ain’t no Sanity Claus”.

  • Groucho Marx, in A Night at the Opera

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Fleetwood Mac: Second Hand News

Link


US mainstream media: still living in the past

Wonderful blast from Dave Pell in his daily newsletter:

One of things we learned last night is that the media still hasn’t adjusted to the Trump era. The immediate headlines continued a never-ending streak of false equivalence and both sides-ism. One guy lies constantly. One guy is a bully. One guy has dragged America’s reputation into a bottomless pit. One guy turned last night’s debate into a debacle. And yet, just after the conclusion of the broadcast, these were some of the headlines I screen captured, all of which give the impression that both participants were equally responsible for the disaster. NYT: Sharp Personal Attacks and Name Calling in Chaotic First Debate. WaPo: Personal Attacks, Sharp Exchanges Mark Turbulent First Debate. CNN: Pure Chaos at First Debate. AP: Debate Anger: Biden Tells Interrupting Trump, “Shut Up, Man.” Boston Globe: First Debate Between Trump, Biden Marked By Chaos, Rancor as Candidates Made it Personal. LA Times: Trump and Biden Trade Bitter Personal Attacks in First Debate. Bloomberg: Trump-Biden Debate Descends into Bickering and Chaos. Time: Shouting Over Each Other. Yeah, it was just a couple of guys who were both losing their cool, and there are some very fine debaters on both sides. Give me a break. The debate did not “descend” into bickering and chaos. It was dragged there by the same monster who has dragged America to this maddeningly dangerous precipice. By morning, many of these headlines had been updated to more accurately depict what we all saw and heard. But the knee-jerk response was towards the false equivalence that has propped up Trump for years.

Spot on. I’m continually amazed by the small-c conservatism of mainstream US journalism.

James Fallows published a fine essay on this that I blogged recently.


Larry Tribe on watching “a coup d’Etat in progress”

Laurence Tribe is Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard and one of the most eminent Constitutional scholars in the US. He’s also a member of the ‘Real Facebook Oversight Board’ that my Observer colleague Carole Cadwalladr has assembled. Yesterday that Board held its first public meeting. Here’s what Larry Tribe said in his opening statement:

Link


Understanding how Covid spreads: it’s about averages and bursts

Here’s the long read of the day — a terrific piece by Zeynep Tufecki in The Atlantic.

The gist of it:

I’ve heard many explanations for these widely differing trajectories over the past nine months—weather, elderly populations, vitamin D, prior immunity, herd immunity—but none of them explains the timing or the scale of these drastic variations. But there is a potential, overlooked way of understanding this pandemic that would help answer these questions, reshuffle many of the current heated arguments, and, crucially, help us get the spread of COVID-19 under control.

By now many people have heard about R0—the basic reproductive number of a pathogen, a measure of its contagiousness on average. But unless you’ve been reading scientific journals, you’re less likely to have encountered k, the measure of its dispersion. The definition of k is a mouthful, but it’s simply a way of asking whether a virus spreads in a steady manner or in big bursts, whereby one person infects many, all at once. After nine months of collecting epidemiological data, we know that this is an overdispersed pathogen, meaning that it tends to spread in clusters, but this knowledge has not yet fully entered our way of thinking about the pandemic—or our preventive practices.

The now-famed R0 (pronounced as “r-naught”) is an average measure of a pathogen’s contagiousness, or the mean number of susceptible people expected to become infected after being exposed to a person with the disease. If one ill person infects three others on average, the R0 is three. This parameter has been widely touted as a key factor in understanding how the pandemic operates. News media have produced multiple explainers and visualizations for it. Movies praised for their scientific accuracy on pandemics are lauded for having characters explain the “all-important” R0. Dashboards track its real-time evolution, often referred to as R or Rt, in response to our interventions. (If people are masking and isolating or immunity is rising, a disease can’t spread the same way anymore, hence the difference between R0 and R.)

Unfortunately, averages aren’t always useful for understanding the distribution of a phenomenon, especially if it has widely varying behavior. If Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, walks into a bar with 100 regular people in it, the average wealth in that bar suddenly exceeds $1 billion. If I also walk into that bar, not much will change. Clearly, the average is not that useful a number to understand the distribution of wealth in that bar, or how to change it. Sometimes, the mean is not the message. Meanwhile, if the bar has a person infected with COVID-19, and if it is also poorly ventilated and loud, causing people to speak loudly at close range, almost everyone in the room could potentially be infected—a pattern that’s been observed many times since the pandemic begin, and that is similarly not captured by R. That’s where the dispersion comes in.

There are COVID-19 incidents in which a single person likely infected 80 percent or more of the people in the room in just a few hours. But, at other times, COVID-19 can be surprisingly much less contagious. Overdispersion and super-spreading of this virus are found in research across the globe. A growing number of studies estimate that a majority of infected people may not infect a single other person. A recent paper found that in Hong Kong, which had extensive testing and contact tracing, about 19 percent of cases were responsible for 80 percent of transmission, while 69 percent of cases did not infect another person. This finding is not rare: Multiple studies from the beginning have suggested that as few as 10 to 20 percent of infected people may be responsible for as much as 80 to 90 percent of transmission, and that many people barely transmit it.

This highly skewed, imbalanced distribution means that an early run of bad luck with a few super-spreading events, or clusters, can produce dramatically different outcomes even for otherwise similar countries…

One of the implications of this is that we’re doing testing and tracing the wrong way round. Once we’ve found an infected individual, we should be looking backwards to find who infected them rather than focussing on whom they might have infected.

Like I say, a long read. But worth it.


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Wednesday 30 September, 2020

New England in the Fall

Jason Kottke, the Über Blogger lives in Vermont. He posted this astonishing image on his blog the other day. It makes one realise that the English Autumn, though beautiful in its way, is pretty muted by comparison.


Quote of the Day

“It seems to people who are on lockdown that it’s going on interminably, but for scientists it’s just the beginning. We are still just scratching the surface of this.”

  • Dr. Martha Nelson, a scientist at the US National Institutes of Health who specializes in epidemics and viral genetics, quoted in today’s New York Times piece marking the sombre milestone of a million Covid deaths worldwide.

Yep: we’re in a marathon, not a sprint.


Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Schubert – Impromptu #3: Vladimir Horowitz, live performance in Vienna, in 1987 (I think)

Link

Audio quality is not great, but it’s a lovely performance. Amazing to see the way he seems almost to caress the keyboard with those long fingers of his.


How To Plan For The Post-Covid Future

Long read of the day

Tim O’Reilly is one of the smartest people I know. And this essay is worth your time IMHO:

The 20th century didn’t really begin in the year 1900, it began in 1914, when the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand triggered long-simmering international tensions and the world slid, seemingly inexorably, into a great world war, followed by a roaring return to seeming normality and then a crash into a decade-long worldwide depression and another catastrophic war. Empires were dissolved, an entire way of life swept away. A new, more prosperous world emerged only through the process of rebuilding a society that had been torn down to its foundations.

So too, when we look back, we will understand that the 21st century truly began this year, when the COVID19 pandemic took hold. We are entering the century of being blindsided by things that we have been warned about for decades but never took seriously enough to prepare for, the century of lurching from crisis to crisis until, at last, we shake ourselves from the illusion that our world will go back to the comfortable way it was and begin the process of rebuilding our society from the ground up.

Even when we develop a successful COVID19 vaccine or treatment, or when we achieve herd immunity, this will not be the last pandemic. Other long-predicted but “unexpected” crises lurk in the wings: flooding, drought, mass migrations, food shortages, and wars as a result of climate change; widespread antibiotic resistance due to overuse on factory farms; political instability driven by an unsustainable level of economic inequality; crumbling infrastructure and lack of investment in bettering the lives of ordinary citizens at the expense of a feverish Ponzi economy focused on growing asset values for the wealthy.

So, when you read stories—and there are many—speculating or predicting when and how we will return to “normal”, discount them heavily. The future will not be like the past. The comfortable Victorian and Georgian world complete with grand country houses, a globe-spanning British empire, and lords and commoners each knowing their place, was swept away by the events that began in the summer of 1914 (and that with Britain on the “winning” side of both world wars.) So too, our comfortable “American century” of conspicuous consumer consumption, global tourism, and ever-increasing stock and home prices may be gone forever.

[…]

Our failure to make deep, systemic changes after the financial collapse of 2009, and our choice instead to spend the last decade cutting taxes and spending profusely to prop up financial markets while ignoring deep, underlying problems has only made responding to the current crisis that much more difficult. Our failure to build back creatively and productively from the global financial crisis is necessary context for the challenge to do so now…

Thoughtful, far-reaching and not necessarily reassuring.


Former Facebook manager: “We took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook”

Well, well. For a long time I’ve been likening the surveillance capitalist companies to tobacco and oil companies. But I never thought I’d hear a former Facebook employee state that he once saw the analogy as a guide to policy. Yet here is Tim Kendall, who served as director of monetization for Facebook from 2006 through 2010, speaking to Congress on September 24 as part of a House Commerce subcommittee hearing examining how social media platforms contribute to the mainstreaming of extremist and radicalizing content.

He told legislators that the company “took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook, working to make our offering addictive at the outset” and arguing that his former employer has been hugely detrimental to society.

“The social media services that I and others have built over the past 15 years have served to tear people apart with alarming speed and intensity,” Kendall said in his opening testimony. “At the very least, we have eroded our collective understanding—at worst, I fear we are pushing ourselves to the brink of a civil war.”

“We sought to mine as much attention as humanly possible… We took a page form Big Tobacco’s playbook, working to make our offering addictive at the outset.”

Tobacco companies initially just sought to make nicotine more potent. But eventually that wasn’t enough to grow the business as fast as they wanted. And so they added sugar and menthol to cigarettes so you could hold the smoke in your lungs for longer periods. At Facebook, we added status updates, photo tagging, and likes, which made status and reputation primary and laid the groundwork for a teenage mental health crisis.

Allowing for misinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news to flourish were like Big Tobacco’s bronchodilators, which allowed the cigarette smoke to cover more surface area of the lungs. But that incendiary content alone wasn’t enough. To continue to grow the user base and in particular, the amount of time and attention users would surrender to Facebook, they needed more.

“We initially used engagement as sort of a proxy for user benefit. But we also started to realize that engagement could also mean [users] were sufficiently sucked in that they couldn’t work in their own best long-term interest to get off the platform… We started to see real-life consequences, but they weren’t given much weight. Engagement always won, it always trumped.”

“There’s no incentive to stop [toxic content] and there’s incredible incentive to keep going and get better. I just don’t believe that’s going to change unless there are financial, civil, or criminal penalties associated with the harm that they create. Without enforcement, they’re just going to continue to be embarrassed by the mistakes, and they’ll talk about empty platitudes… but I don’t believe anything systemic will change… the incentives to keep the status quo are just too lucrative at the moment.”

Wow!


Florida Police Just Released Video of Brad Parscale Getting Tackled by Cops

Well, well. How are the mighty fallen.

Some background:

You may remember that Brad Parscale was the supposed genius behind the 2016 Trump campaign’s weaponisation of Facebook. This made him a kind of global political celebrity — worth even a big profile in the New Yorker, no less as “The man behind Trump’s Facebook juggernaut”. Come 2020 and Parscale was now the Director of the Trump campaign and an even more swaggering giant. He was the driving spirit behind the ludicrous Tulsa rally — the one that supposedly had 800,000 pre-registrations. Except, of course, that it didn’t. The Trump operation had been cleverly hijacked by kids on TikTok who made fake pre-bookings. So the rally was a fiasco, at which point I predicted that Parscale’s days as Director were numbered. It was an accurate prediction — he was replaced in July by Bill Stepien.

Now spool forward to the present. Here’s a report by Vice News from Fort Lauderdale in Florida, where Parscale reportedly owns three houses:

Police in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, just released a video of President Trump’s former campaign manager getting tackled by cops.

The body camera footage shows a police officer hurling Parscale to the ground during an incident at his home, shortly after they responded to a call for help from Parscale’s wife. She told police that Parscale had threatened to kill himself and had racked the slide of a handgun in front of her face, “putting her in fear for her safety,” according to a police report.

The video shows Parscale, wearing white shorts and no shirt, speaking with a police officer, and then another officer rapidly approaches Parscale from his right side, telling him, “Get on the ground, man.”

Parscale doesn’t visibly react to that command at first. The police officer then hurls him to the ground, while Parscale objects, saying “I didn’t do anything.”

One doesn’t want to intrude on private grief, but it looks as though Parscale has had some kind of breakdown. CBS reports that he “was taken to a mental health facility in Florida on Sunday night after barricading himself in his home with weapons and threatening to harm himself, police said. Parscale was detained without injury and transported to a local hospital.”

Nobody works for Trump without in the end being damaged by the experience.


How Much Has Inequality Cost Workers?

From a sobering piece in the Journal of Democracy, especially for those who are nostalgic for a return to our current version of capitalism-friendly democracy.

Even if Donald Trump loses the election, the conditions that made his authoritarian regime possible won’t disappear with him. If we are to heal our country and ensure against a repeat of the past four years, we need to boldly and aggressively scale our solutions to the size of the problem. And when it comes to our crisis of rising income inequality, the problem is huge.

How big is it? A staggering $50 trillion.

That’s how much the upward redistribution of income has cost American workers over the past several decades.

This is not some back-of-the-napkin approximation. According to a groundbreaking new working paper by Carter C. Price and Kathryn Edwards of the RAND Corporation, from 1947 through 1974, real incomes grew at close to the rate of per capita economic growth across all income levels. That means that for three decades, those at the bottom and middle of the distribution saw their incomes grow at about the same rate as those at the top. Had these more equitable income distributions merely held steady, the aggregate annual income of Americans earning below the 90th percentile would have been $2.5 trillion higher in the year 2018 alone. That is an amount equal to nearly 12 percent of GDP—enough to more than double median income, and enough to pay every single working American in the bottom nine deciles an additional $1,144 a month. Every worker. Every month. Every. Single. Year.

But the ‘normal’ that our governments wish us to return to is not the normality of 1947-1974, but the post 1974 one.

The RAND paper is here. The Abstract reads:

The three decades following the Second World War saw a period of economic growth that was shared across the income distribution, but inequality in taxable income has increased substantially over the last four decades. This work seeks to quantify the scale of income gap created by rising inequality compared to a counterfactual in which growth was shared more broadly. We introduce a time-period agnostic and income-level agnostic measure of inequality that relates income growth to economic growth. This new metric can be applied over long stretches of time, applied to subgroups of interest, and easily calculated. We document the cumulative effect of four decades of income growth below the growth of per capita gross national income and estimate that aggregate income for the population below the 90th percentile over this time period would have been $2.5 trillion (67 percent) higher in 2018 had income growth since 1975 remained as equitable as it was in the first two post-War decades. From 1975 to 2018, the difference between the aggregate taxable income for those below the 90th percentile and the equitable growth counterfactual totals $47 trillion. We further explore trends in inequality by applying this metric within and across business cycles from 1975 to 2018 and also by demographic group.


The extent of my ignorance

One of the first rules of blogging is always to assume that out there are people who know far more than you do. I’ve adhered to this since Day One (in the mid-1990s) and have never been disappointed. So when the other day I confessed that I hadn’t known that Trump owned a golf-course in Ireland, in no time at all readers wrote in suggesting gently that I really ought to know better. For example, Charles Foster wrote:

You didn’t know that Trump had a golf course in Ireland? Good Lord! It’s at Doonbeg, and has been owned by him for about six years: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trump_International_Golf_Links_and_Hotel_Ireland

The Irish government laid down a red carpet for him when he came to visit in 2015 just after buying it. He’s been here a couple of times (I think) since becoming President, the last time in 2019 when he used it as an overnight stop when he was in France commemorating the 75th anniversary of the D Day landings — this was the time when he didn’t go to the US war cemetery near Paris to pay his respects because it was raining.

To which I can only protest that I did know about Doonbeg, partly because a friend of mine who is a terrific golfer is a member there. But I had no idea that it was owned by Trump and is now — of course — badged under his accursed name!


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Thursday 23 September, 2020

On our way to North Norfolk today, we came on a flower we’d never seen before on a roadside verge.

This is one of the (tiny) flowers, shot with a Summilux 28mm on macro setting.


Quote of the Day

”Pray, good people, be civil; I am the Protestant whore.”

  • Nell Gwyn, the actress who became Charles II’s mistress. She is supposed to have said it when her carriage was besieged by an angry mob who thought she was the King’s unpopular Catholic mistress, Louise de Kérouaille.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Dougie Maclean & Guests – Caledonia

Link


So why is this front-page news now?

It would be news if a normal politician — or indeed a normal person — said it. But Trump isn’t normal — and surely we all knew that by now. If a mafia boss were elected president and began behaving like a mafia boss, then nobody would be surprised. They might be outraged or alarmed, but surprised? Not in the least. Trump is a like a low-grade mafia boss with a short attention span. Of course he will dispute the results if he loses the election. Goddam it, he disputed the results in the election that he won!


The unrelenting horizonlessness of the Covid world

Eerie and possibly insightful essay by Nick Couldry and Bruce Schneier, who needs no introduction.

Six months into the pandemic with no end in sight, many of us have been feeling a sense of unease that goes beyond anxiety or distress. It’s a nameless feeling that somehow makes it hard to go on with even the nice things we regularly do.

What’s blocking our everyday routines is not the anxiety of lockdown adjustments, or the worries about ourselves and our loved ones — real though those worries are. It isn’t even the sense that, if we’re really honest with ourselves, much of what we do is pretty self-indulgent when held up against the urgency of a global pandemic. It is something more troubling and harder to name: an uncertainty about why we would go on doing much of what for years we’d taken for granted as inherently valuable.

They think we’re suffering from Acedia. Eh? Apparently it was a malady that plagued many medieval monks. It’s a sense of no longer caring about caring, not because one had become apathetic, but because somehow the whole structure of care had become jammed up.

It’s here, moving back to the particular features of the global pandemic, that we see more clearly what drives the restlessness and dislocation so many have been feeling. The source of our current acedia is not the literal loss of a future; even the most pessimistic scenarios surrounding Covid-19 have our species surviving. The dislocation is more subtle: a disruption in pretty much every future frame of reference on which just going on in the present relies.

Moving around is what we do as creatures, and for that we need horizons. Covid has erased many of the spatial and temporal horizons we rely on, even if we don’t notice them very often. We don’t know how the economy will look, how social life will go on, how our home routines will be changed, how work will be organized, how universities or the arts or local commerce will survive.

What unsettles us is not only fear of change. It’s that, if we can no longer trust in the future, many things become irrelevant, retrospectively pointless. And by that we mean from the perspective of a future whose basic shape we can no longer take for granted. This fundamentally disrupts how we weigh the value of what we are doing right now. It becomes especially hard under these conditions to hold on to the value in activities that, by their very nature, are future-directed, such as education or institution-building. That’s what many of us are feeling. That’s today’s acedia.

That rings a bell. When a loved one becomes terminally ill, for example, you discover that day-to-day living becomes harder because the future has become both certain and uncertain. It’s very disabling.

Thanks to Charles Arthur for spotting it.


The NHS Test and Trace app has two flaws: QR codes and people

As a conscientious citizen (note: not ‘subject’ — I’m an Irish citizen rather than a British subject) I downloaded the app and it’s now running on my iPhone.

Nicole Kobie has an interesting piece in Wired about it, based on the experiences of people in Newham, which was one of the two areas in the country where it’s already been trialled.

The trials were clearly necessary and useful because they’ve highlighted some important areas of potential difficulty

Conflicting QR codes are one of several problems raised by the contact tracing app, alongside residents having phones too old to use the app, language challenges in this diverse area, and distrust of the government.

A key feature of the app is that it is supposed to let you check in to a venue by scanning an official NHS QR code displayed in the premises you are trying to enter. But Newham residents told WIRED that they’ve barely seen any of the official NHS QR codes in shops or restaurants. [This could be because the residents were effectively Beta-testers for the app and the QR codes would not have been widely distributed.]

Others say they’re confused as to whether a QR code on the door is the right one to scan or not, as existing contact-tracing systems also use the codes – just wait until these codes are ubiquitous and scammers start putting up false ones. And some residents reported that the QR code throws up an error message in the app or simply takes too long to scan, causing queues to enter a shop — hardly ideal in these times of social distancing. “Although the app looks good, if I can’t use the QR scanner, it defeats the object of the app’s purpose,” wrote one app reviewer on Google Play.

Another challenge was downloading the app.

Residents were sent out a detailed, four-page letter with instructions on how to install the app and use one-time codes to activate it for the trial, which residents said was off-putting – especially so for those who don’t speak English as a first language. The council has pushed for the app and online advice for it to be available in several languages, including Polish, Gujarati, Urdu and more, but as Fiaz notes, Newham has more than 100 languages and dialects spoken locally.

And then there’s the age of your smartphone…

It only works on recent smartphones, running Android 6.0 or iOS 13.5 later; that’s iPhone 6S and newer. However, that risks leaving out people with older phones, in particular those without the money to buy a newer one. …

Apparently Age UK is warning that this could leave those most at risk of Covid being treated as “second-class citizens.” Another way of putting it is that it’s just another illustration of how the pandemic is revealing the extent of inequality in UK society.


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Saturday 19 September, 2020

The Joy of Six

Nice tribute to Alex Comfort’s great 1972 bestseller


Quote of the Day

“A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 11 per cent of people in the US had contemplated suicide during the June spent in lockdown (up from 4.3 per cent in 2018). Among those aged 18-24 it was 26 per cent.”

  • Gillian Tett, writing in today’s Financial Times.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel: Silent Worship – Somervell’s arrangement of Handel’s aria Non lo dirò col labbro from his opera Tolomeo, performed by Mark Stone (baritone) and Stephen Barlow (piano).

Link


This is how Jonathan Swift would be writing about Johnson & Co

Wonderful column by Marina Hyde. Sample:

Do you remember Ye Olde Operation Moonshotte, an ancient promise by the elders of this government to test 10 million people a day? My apologies for the leading question. There are absent-minded goldfish who remember that figure, given it was announced by Boris Johnson’s government barely three seconds ago. The only representative of the animal, vegetable and possibly mineral kingdoms who doesn’t remember it is the prime minister himself, who on Wednesday told a committee asking him about it: “I don’t recognise the figure you have just given.” Like me, you probably feel grateful to be governed by a guy whose approach to unwanted questions is basically, “New phone, who dis?”

Like me, you will be reassured by Matt Hancock’s plan to throw another “protective ring” around care homes. What’s not to fear about a Matt Hancock ring, easily the most dangerous ring in history, including Sauron’s Ring of Power. Guardian Today: the headlines, the analysis, the debate – sent direct to you Read more

Like me, you are probably impressed that the government is ordering you to snitch on your neighbours for having seven people in their garden, while whichever Serco genius is running testing as a Dadaist performance piece about human futility gets to live in the witness protection programme. Shitness protection programme, whatever.

Speaking of which, like me, you probably feel relaxed to learn that Chris Grayling, who notably awarded a ferry contract to a firm with no ferries, is now to be paid £100,000 a year for seven hours work a week advising a ports company. When I read this story I imagined his aides pulling a hammer-wielding Grayling off the pulped corpse of Satire, going: “Jesus, Chris! Leave it – it’s already dead! We need to get out of here!”

Terrific stuff. Made my day. And I hope yours, after you’ve read it.


American colleges are the new Sweden

From Politico’s newsletter…

Now there’s a new Sweden to study: American college campuses. Watching thousands of students gather in classes, in dorms, and in social settings is providing another laboratory for epidemiologists.

Here’s what they’re learning:

Herd immunity won’t save us anytime soon. More than 88,000 people have been infected across about 1,200 college campuses. That’s a fraction of the country’s total student population of 20 million. About 60 people have died, mostly college employees.

Experts believe that herd immunity will kick in when about 70 percent of the population is infected — assuming an initial infection provides lasting immunity, which scientists still aren’t sure about.

“It is almost impossible to imagine a college campus will get to herd immunity,” said Howard Forman, a health policy professor at the Yale School of Management, who is leading a team that rates college Covid dashboards.

Asymptomatic exposure is a real problem. College students are carrying Covid without symptoms and then spreading it to the general population, who are then getting sick at much higher rates than the students are.

“When I talk to a lot of colleges and universities, the biggest concern is fear of downstream health in the general population,” said Ramesh Raskar, an associate professor at MIT Media Lab, which has been developing contact tracing apps and other technology to contain Covid. “We always suspected asymptomatic transfers but now see they are real. It is frightening.”

Social distancing has been more clearly defined. There’s still been a lack of clarity about what counts as close physical contact. Colleges are showing how the calculation is more involved than just remaining six feet apart and staying outdoors.

“Before colleges opened, close contact meant going to a barber or people in a meat factory together or going to a senior care center,” Raskar said. “Now it’s more complex.” Cases are spreading at outdoor events if people spend prolonged periods in proximity, without masks. NYU suspended 20 students for throwing a party in Washington Square Park.

Telling people what to do isn’t enough. Trying to force students to follow rules by issuing strict guidelines and handing out punishments isn’t keeping them from spreading Covid. Education, awareness and clear public health messaging about the importance of wearing masks, downstream risks to vulnerable populations and the contagiousness of the disease has proven to be far more effective at containing Covid, Raskar said.

The campuses that are doing well are in areas without much community spread, Forman said. They also have the money to conduct widespread testing and have students who are highly compliant with guidelines. Just a handful of non-compliant students threaten an entire college reopening plan. The University of Illinois had a comprehensive Covid plan and even accounted for parties, but a dozen students who failed to isolate after testing positive for Covid sparked an outbreak.

The UK is about to discover if these lessons also apply here.


“It turns out that human nature is awful and the algorithms have figured this out, and that’s what drives engagement.”

This is a quote from a Berkeley computer scientist who, with a machine-learning expert, Guillaume Chaslot, in 2016-17 ran a web-scraper on YouTube for 15 months looking for how often the site recommended conspiracy videos. They found the frequency rose throughout the year; at the peak, nearly one in 10 videos recommended were conspiracist fare.

In comes in “YouTube’s Plot to Silence Conspiracy Theories”, an interesting Wired piece by Clive Cookson who — as far as I know — in the first journalist allowed inside YouTube’s growing effort to curtail or counteract the radicalising impact of its recommender algorithms.

It’s a long read, but worth it. And it starts with — what else? — a flat earth conspiracy theorist who business was ruined by tweaks in YouTube’s recommender algorithm!


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Friday 18 September, 2020

State of the nation

Captures the mood nicely — of both the US and the UK.


Quote of the Day

“As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents”.

  • George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Muddy Waters & The Rolling Stones – Baby Please Don’t Go (Live At Checkerboard Lounge)

Link

Amazing recording. Includes Keith Richards multitasking with cigarette and guitar.


When I previously mentioned this wonderful campaign, I appended the wrong link for anyone wanting to donate.

Here’s the correct link.

Many thanks to readers who pointed out the error.


What Julian Assange has in common with mainstream American media

Interesting Columbia Journalism Review essay by Harry Stopes, who worked with the novelist Andrew O’Hagan on the abortive project to ghost-write Assange’s autobiography.

TL;DR version: Assange and the media both believe that information changes the world.

Longer version:

In attempting to battle Trump with “the Truth” the American media has evinced the same simplistic faith as Assange in the capacity of information itself to be a driver of political change. This was most visible around the Mueller report and impeachment efforts but is mostly everywhere, all the time: the blind conviction that in the American public sphere there exists a common frame of reference against which the best ideas can be measured and will win out, if only all the right information is available. Trump’s tax returns and telephone transcripts, we hope, will finally bring him down.

The truth is vital, but it’s not reducible to a set of discrete facts, numbers, or documents. The rise of fact-checking features and Twitter accounts serves to highlight this, as journalists choose to focus only on those parts of political discourse that can be easily measured.

The facts themselves are not what is at issue. There is no shared basis upon which to identify them. What is really at issue are conflicts between political tribes, ideologies, and material interests. Many journalists know this, but on an institutional level some of their employers seem determined not to admit it.

That seems, to me, to be a response to an idea these institutions hold deep down: that politics and society cannot fundamentally change. If the structure of society is not up for debate, there is no place for structural critiques. All that matters is assembling chunks of information that might change the surface appearance, debunk a health plan here, reveal an air strike there. Far too little attention has been paid to what happens next when the discussion is done.


Looking back and looking forward

Long read of the day, especially if you work in a university.

Malcolm Gaskill took early retirement from his UEA Professorship before the pandemic struck. Now he’s written a lovely, reflective essay in the LRB on British academia and his experience of it.

Of course, none of us is lost in space, rounding the lip of a black hole. Higher education will always be worthwhile, if only because for students it provides three unique years removed from family, school and a career. In spite of uncertainty and austerity, versatile and resourceful young people will create their own networks and forums conducive to study and sociability. Academics will carry on doing research that informs their teaching. Learning for its own sake may suffer as courses are honed to a fine utilitarian edge and students evolve into accomplished grade accountants, expert in the work required for a 2.1 – playing the system they themselves finance. But degrees will retain value, and, for those who find graduate entry-level jobs, they will remain value for money. Above all, even allowing for a likely contraction of the HE sector, our universities will still promote social mobility, having already transformed the profile of the typical student, in terms of gender as well as class. There will be no return to sixty years ago when only 4 per cent of 18-year-olds went on to higher education, most of them men. The change is permanent. I’m glad to have played my part in this revolution.

Perhaps this is why I feel uneasy, and why my future feels more suspenseful than exciting. I’ve had dreams in which I’ve strolled across a platonically perfect ivy-clad campus, been enthralled by a perfect seminar, and had engaging discussions with old colleagues, including my Cambridge supervisor and the people I knew when I was doing my PhD, back in the halcyon days when everything had a point and a purpose. There’s guilt there: a sense of loss, of potential squandered and maybe even betrayed. UEA has made me an emeritus professor, which is an honourable discharge and something to cling to, and my wife insists we can live on her salary. But I still can’t decide whether I’ve retired or just resigned, or am in fact redundant and unemployed. I’m undeniably jobless at 53, able-bodied (I hesitate to say ‘fit’), with a full head of hair and most of my teeth, and haunted by St Teresa of Avila’s dictum that more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.

I keep thinking about a short story we read at school, Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Lotus Eater’. It is the cautionary tale of a bank manager who drives off the toads of work, gives up his comfy pension and goes to live like a peasant on a paradisal Mediterranean island. Needless to say it doesn’t end well: his annuity expires, his mind atrophies, he botches suicide. He sees out his days in a state of bestial wretchedness, demoted in the great chain of being as a punishment for rebelling against nature. I don’t see the story as a prediction, and would always choose industry over idleness, but Maugham’s contempt for someone who dodges life’s challenges – the story satirised an effete acquaintance from Heidelberg – resonates. Still, I couldn’t go back. Goodbye to all that.


The US makes a fuss about TikTok, but what’s happening to the Uyghurs in China is genocide. Why don’t we call it that? And why isn’t it the top story about China?

Great piece in the National Review by Jimmy Quinn.

Chinese Communist Party officials say that the Uyghurs, a Turkic minority in the Xinjiang region, are the “happiest Muslims in the world.” The evidence trickling out of western China tells a different story. In July, U.S. customs officials intercepted a 13-ton shipment of beauty products made out of human hair from the region and a video of blindfolded prisoners being led onto train cars went viral. Over the past couple of years, some have compared the human tragedy unfolding there to North Korean totalitarianism and South African apartheid. More recent evidence has inspired comparisons to the Holocaust. “Genocide” is a word that packs a punch, spurring action by connecting “the solemn commitments of the past and a new atrocity unfolding before the world’s eyes,” as a report by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center put it last year. This word, sadly, is now an apt descriptor for the situation in Xinjiang.

Thanks to the fearless work of researchers, journalists, and victims, it’s now widely known that the CCP in 2017 stepped up its repression of the Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities by means of a mass-internment drive and a new, Orwellian surveillance state. When the Uyghurs “graduated” from these “reeducation” and “vocational training” facilities, to borrow the euphemistic terminology of CCP officials, many were forced into slave labor. All told, over a million Uyghurs and other members of Turkic minorities are estimated to have been detained, and a total of 3 million people to have been swept up in various reeducation efforts. Others were charged with bogus crimes and remain imprisoned. Beijing, citing a few terrorist incidents that took place in 2014, claims that it’s stamping out extremism, but its true aim is to solidify Han Chinese dominance over Xinjiang.

For years, experts and activists have called the situation a “cultural genocide.” That label carries a blistering significance and refers to the CCP’s attempts to wipe out Uyghur culture and traditions. The CCP has razed burial sites, closed mosques, and effectively criminalized most expressions of faith. Still, cultural genocide is not recognized as a crime under the U.N.’s 1948 convention on genocide. Invoking cultural genocide rather than simply genocide has been a cautious way to speak out about the situation in Xinjiang without discrediting one’s argument through exaggeration. In light of recent developments, that’s no longer required.

In late June, Adrian Zenz, the German anthropologist who has provided most of the groundbreaking revelations on the Xinjiang mass-detention drive, published a new report detailing a systematic forced-sterilization and birth-control program to lower Uyghur birth rates. Among his findings were that birth rates plummeted 84 percent from 2015 to 2018 in Xinjiang’s two major Uyghur prefectures; that a mass campaign to sterilize 14 to 34 percent of Uyghur women in rural parts of the region was underway; and that the CCP planned to sterilize or implant intrauterine contraceptive devices in 80 percent of childbearing-age women in Xinjiang’s rural southern areas. During the same period, Zenz noted, the state worked successfully to increase the Han Chinese population in Xinjiang. He likens these population-control techniques, which are based on ethnicity, to “opening or closing a faucet.” They are reminiscent of the CCP’s rule over Tibet, where Chen Quanguo, the party official who has presided over the Xinjiang genocide, gained a reputation for ruthless competence.

And so it goes on…

This is much, much more important than Chinese tech or surveillance in China or the Belt & Road Initiative or all the other stuff that appears in Western media about China. And yet it’s always on the bottom of page 26, as it were.


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Tuesday 15 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Where there is much to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinions in good men is but knowledge in the making.”

  • Milton, Areopagatica

Yeah, but that was before social media :-(


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Here Comes The Sun – Gabriella Quevedo

Link


How GitLab is transforming the future of online work

GitLab is a company which makes an application that enables developers to collaborate while writing and launching software. But it has no physical headquarters. Instead, it has more than 1,300 employees spread across 67 countries and nearly every time zone, all of them working either from home or (in nonpandemic times) in co-working spaces. So in contrast with most companies — which are trying to figure out how to manage remote working — it’s been doing so successfully for years.

FastCompany has an interesting piece on what the rest of us might learn from GitLab’s experience.

Research shows that talking about non-work-related things with colleagues facilitates trust, helps break down silos among departments, and makes employees more productive. At GitLab, all of this has always had to happen remotely.

The company takes these relaxed interactions so seriously that it has a specified protocol in its employee handbook, which is publicly available online in its entirety. If printed, it would span more than 7,100 pages.

The section on “Informal Communication in an All-Remote Environment” meticulously details more than three dozen ways coworkers can virtually connect beyond the basic Zoom call, from Donut Bot chats (where members of the #donut_be_strangers Slack channel are randomly paired) to Juice Box talks (for family members of employees to get to know one another). There are also international pizza parties, virtual scavenger hunts, and a shared “Team DJ Zoom Room.

But in addition to cultivating a vibrant culture of watercooler Zoom meetings over the past decade GitLab has also tackled a real problem in remote-working organisations: how to effectively induct new recruits into such a distributed organisational culture. It’s done this by setting rules for email and Slack to ensure that far-flung employees, working on different schedules around the globe, are looped in to essential messages.

To make this possible, the company has designed a workplace that makes other companies’ approach to transparency look positively opaque. At GitLab, meetings, memos, notes, and more are available to everyone within the company—and, for the most part, to everyone outside of it, too. Part of this embrace of transparency comes from the open-source ethos upon which GitLab was founded. (GitLab offers a free “community” version of its product, as well as a proprietary enterprise one.) But it’s also crucial to keeping employees in lockstep, in terms of product development and corporate culture.

GitLab raised $268 million last September at a $2.75 billion valuation and is rumored to be preparing for a direct public offering. (Its biggest competitor is GitHub, which Microsoft acquired for $7.5 billion in 2018.) As the company’s profile rises, its idiosyncratic workplace culture is attracting attention.

This is interesting. Lots of organisations could learn lessons from this. Maybe GitLab should spin out a consultancy business.


Life in the Wake of COVID-19

Lovely, moving photo essay

In April, José Collantes contracted the new coronavirus and quarantined himself in a hotel set up by the government in Santiago, Chile, away from his wife and young daughter. The 36-year-old Peruvian migrant showed only mild symptoms, and returned home in May, only to discover his wife, Silvia Cano, had also fallen ill. Silvia’s condition worsened quickly, and she was taken to a nearby hospital with pneumonia. Although they spoke on the phone, José and their 5-year-old daughter Kehity never saw Silvia again—she passed away in June, at the age of 37, due to complications from COVID-19. José found that he’d suddenly become a single parent, and felt haunted by questions about why Silvia had died and he survived.


AI ethics groups are repeating one of society’s classic mistakes

It’s funny to see how the tech industry suddenly discovered ethics, a subject about which the industry’s companies were almost as ignorant as tobacco companies or soft-drinks manufacturers. Now, ‘ethics’ and ‘oversight’ boards are springing up everywhere, most of which are patently pre-emptive attempts to ward off legal regulation, and are largely engaged in ‘ethics theatre’ — much like the security-theatre that goes on in airports worldwide.

This Tech Review essay by Abhishek Gupta and Victoria Heath argues that even serious-minded ethics initiatives suffer from critical geographical blind-spots.

AI systems have repeatedly been shown to cause problems that disproportionately affect marginalized groups while benefiting a privileged few. The global AI ethics efforts under way today—of which there are dozens—aim to help everyone benefit from this technology, and to prevent it from causing harm. Generally speaking, they do this by creating guidelines and principles for developers, funders, and regulators to follow. They might, for example, recommend routine internal audits or require protections for users’ personally identifiable information.

We believe these groups are well-intentioned and are doing worthwhile work. The AI community should, indeed, agree on a set of international definitions and concepts for ethical AI. But without more geographic representation, they’ll produce a global vision for AI ethics that reflects the perspectives of people in only a few regions of the world, particularly North America and northwestern Europe.

“Those of us working in AI ethics will do more harm than good,”, Gupta and Heath argue,

if we allow the field’s lack of geographic diversity to define our own efforts. If we’re not careful, we could wind up codifying AI’s historic biases into guidelines that warp the technology for generations to come. We must start to prioritize voices from low- and middle-income countries (especially those in the “Global South”) and those from historically marginalized communities.

Advances in technology have often benefited the West while exacerbating economic inequality, political oppression, and environmental destruction elsewhere. Including non-Western countries in AI ethics is the best way to avoid repeating this pattern.

So: fewer ethics advisory jobs for Western philosophers, and more from experts from the poorer parts of the world. This will be news to the guys in Silicon Valley.


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Friday 11 September, 2020

Autumn’s on its way

Seen on my walk home this morning.


Quote of the Day

“The trouble with epistemologists is that they think they know something”.

  • Guy Haworth

Musical alternative to the radio news of the day

My Back Pages (Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton & George Harrison)

Link


How Police Are Using ‘Super Recognizers’ to Track Criminals

Interesting piece in Vice.

The term “super recognizer” first appeared in 2009 and describes people who can remember more than 80 percent of the faces of people they meet (the average is 20 percent). The neural-mechanism behind super recognition is still largely unknown, but the skill seems to be genetic and possessed by only about one percent of the population.

Today, police in many countries employ super recognizers (possibly including Hong Kong) but police in the United Kingdom have recruited more than most.

Kelly Hearsey is one such super recognizer…

Well, at least they’re not just using automated facial-recognition systems.

It’s amazing the abilities that some people have. Reminds me of the folks who can accurately multiply two 20-digit numbers in their heads.


Facebook doesn’t just mirror the world. It filters it for its own benefit.

Really good OpEd by Shira Ovide:

In an interview that aired on Tuesday, Zuckerberg was asked big and thorny questions about his company: Why are people sometimes cruel to one another on Facebook, and why do inflammatory, partisan posts get so much attention?

Zuckerberg told “Axios on HBO” that Americans are angry and divided right now, and that’s why they act that way on Facebook, too.

Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives consistently say that Facebook is a mirror on society. An online gathering that gives a personal printing press to billions of people will inevitably have all the good and the bad of those people. (My colleague Mike Isaac has talked about this view before.)

It’s true but also comically incomplete to say that Facebook reflects reality. Instead, Facebook presents reality filtered through its own prism, and this affects what people think and do. [Emphasis added]

That last sentence is the key to understanding the problem. The prism is driven by a particular business model. And it’s designed to achieve corporate objectives, not users’.


America Is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral

Long read of the day — Ed Yong’s latest piece in The Atlantic.

Here’s how it begins…

Army ants will sometimes walk in circles until they die. The workers navigate by smelling the pheromone trails of workers in front of them, while laying down pheromones for others to follow. If these trails accidentally loop back on themselves, the ants are trapped. They become a thick, swirling vortex of bodies that resembles a hurricane as viewed from space. They march endlessly until they’re felled by exhaustion or dehydration. The ants can sense no picture bigger than what’s immediately ahead. They have no coordinating force to guide them to safety. They are imprisoned by a wall of their own instincts. This phenomenon is called the death spiral. I can think of no better metaphor for the United States of America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. enters the ninth month of the pandemic with more than 6.3 million confirmed cases and more than 189,000 confirmed deaths. The toll has been enormous because the country presented the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus with a smorgasbord of vulnerabilities to exploit. But the toll continues to be enormous—every day, the case count rises by around 40,000 and the death toll by around 800—because the country has consistently thought about the pandemic in the same unproductive ways…

He goes on to list the nine big mistakes the US has made so far. The most horrifying one is #9: The Habituation of Horror:

The U.S. might stop treating the pandemic as the emergency that it is. Daily tragedy might become ambient noise. The desire for normality might render the unthinkable normal. Like poverty and racism, school shootings and police brutality, mass incarceration and sexual harassment, widespread extinctions and changing climate, COVID-19 might become yet another unacceptable thing that America comes to accept.

Ed Yong is the best journalist writing about this stuff at the moment.


Of Course Trump Couldn’t Resist Bob Woodward

Timothy O’Brien once wrote a book about Donald Trump — Trumpnation: The Art of Being The Donald. Now he’s written an interesting Bloomberg column reflecting on Trump’s experience with Bob Woodward.

My book turned out to portray a negative Trump. He then sued me for libel and lost. During the litigation, he had to produce his tax returns and other financial records, and he also had to sit for two damning days of depositions. The depositions, in which Trump, under oath, was forced to admit 30 times that he had lied over the years about all sorts of stuff are now a permanent part of the public record and his legacy. Trump would have been wise not to sue.

Trump would have been wiser not to cooperate with my book in the first place, and he would have been wise not to have cooperated with Woodward’s book, either. He didn’t cooperate with “Fear,” Woodward’s previous book, and that probably saved him some additional grief. But here’s the rub: Trump isn’t wise.

It seems that Trump regretted not cooperating with Woodward on his earlier book about him, and was convinced that it would have come out glowingly if he had engaged more directly with the reporter who brought down Richard Nixon. So, says O’Brien,

he ambled into the ring for round two, certain that he could steer the effort toward a positive outcome. Graham and others might have laced up his gloves and escorted him to his corner, but it was Trump’s choice. At age 74, he’s been battling and courting the media for the better part of 50 years. He knows the game.

Trump courts the media 24/7 because he is addicted to it, and addicts can’t help themselves.


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Thursday 10 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

“The battle for the mind of Ronald Reagan was like the trench warfare of World War I. Never have so many fought so hard for such barren terrain.”

  • Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for Reagan 1984-9

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel: Handel – Let The Bright Seraphim – Rowan Pierce and David Blackadder (5 minutes)

Link

Nobody sleeps at the back when this is on.


The power of a photograph to tell a story

Photograph by Fergus McGinn

Nice NYT article on the Coronavirus lockdown in Ireland.

A pint of Guinness. A half-eaten meal. And an alarm clock.

All are laid out on a table in front of an older man as he gazes out the window of a pub in Galway, Ireland, in a photo that has come to capture the nation’s coming to terms with coronavirus regulations.

The image has come to symbolize different things for different people: Some have used it to criticize the government’s restrictions on pubs, while others have applauded the man’s commitment to regulations on dining out.

Pubs that serve food have been allowed to open since the end of June. But new restrictions require that customers have a “substantial meal” costing at least 9 euros (about $10.60) if they also purchase alcohol. The rules also require patrons to leave within an hour and 45 minutes — hence the timer.

Like many countries across Europe, Ireland has seen a spike in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, with daily cases moving from the single digits during a lull in new infections in June and July to 307 new cases announced on Tuesday.

The photograph was taken by Fergus McGinn, the owner of the pub. His intention, he said, was to show a man enjoying the simple pleasure of a meal and a drink but he also hopes the picture will make people aware of the role the local pub plays for isolated members of the community in Ireland.

“Taking that away from people, that social outlet for that generation, it could be detrimental and savage on their mental health,” Mr. McGinn said.

Particularly in Ireland’s rural communities, pubs serve as a central place to connect socially, even for those who aren’t big drinkers. Yet pubs that don’t serve food have been closed since the lockdown began in March, though this week the government agreed to reopen them on September 21st.

And the significance of the timer? The government rules also require pub customers to leave within an hour and 45 minutes.


Diana Rigg RIP

A wonderful actress has passed away. There’s a nice BBC obituary up today, but there will be lots more. As the BBC obit put it, “She excelled at playing sharp-witted female characters who carried steel fists in velvet gloves.” Spot on.

As a former TV critic, though, this book is what I will remember her for.

It’s a compendium of the most wicked things theatrical folk can say about one another. I found it an indispensable fountain of ideas when I was writing about a programme or a performer that I particularly disliked.

But the interesting thing is that Rigg also included in it some of the rude things critics said about her!

For example, she reprints John Simon’s crack in New York Magazine about her nude scene in Abelard and Heloise in May 1970: “Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses”.

“I remember”, Rigg wrote,

“making my way to the theatre the following day, darting from doorway to doorway and praying I wouldn’t meet anyone I knew. The cast behaved with supreme tact and pretended they hadn’t read the review.”

btw: I think Simon needed to have an eye-test. Rigg was a truly beautiful woman. But she disliked doing nude scenes. “I come from Yorkshire”, she said once, “and no-one from Yorkshire takes their clothes off except on a Friday night”.

May she rest in peace.


What Bob Woodward knew (but didn’t tell — until now)

The veteran Washington reporter Bob Woodward (he of Watergate fame) has made a small industry out of conducting long interviews of US presidents and their courts when he then turns into what are (IMHO) surprisingly dull books. He’s just published the latest tombstone in this series — on the first Trump presidency.

For a less jaundiced perspective, the Columbia Journalism Review has a more detached view of the volume by Pete Vernon.

In books about presidents from Nixon to Obama, Woodward has employed a similar approach, conducting exhaustive interviews on background and using the information he gathers to write from an omniscient perspective. Woodward and Carl Bernstein, his colleague at The Washington Post, used the most famous anonymous source in American history—FBI Associate Director Mark Felt a.k.a. “Deep Throat”—to expose the cover-up behind the Watergate burglary that unraveled Nixon’s presidency. This week, Woodward told Michael Schmidt of The New York Times that “you won’t get the straight story from someone if you do it on the record. You will get a press release version of events.” But as Axios’s Jonathan Swan, one of the current masters of Washington intrigue, noted, sources “also lie on background. A lot.”

And no group of officials in recent memory has proved as willing to bend the truth as those in the Trump administration. The recent controversy over Steve Bannon’s invitation (later rescinded) to appear at The New Yorker Festival led The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan to declare, “Enough, already, with anything Steve Bannon has to say.” When Kellyanne Conway appears on CNN, critics question why the network gives a platform to the official who coined “alternative facts.” Yet for Woodward, reliance on the same sources is received differently: If it’s not OK for David Remnick to talk to Bannon in front of an audience, why is it OK for Woodward to use him, quite obviously, as a key source in the book?

Woodward’s approach hasn’t changed; the climate in which his sources are viewed has. Every administration is filled with people who have an agenda, who want to spin events in their favor, but the lines of credibility have shifted. In taking on the Trump presidency as his topic, Woodward is left to assemble a reliable book from unreliable sources….

Already, there are lots of controversies blowing up from specific parts of Woodward’s account. But one in particular has caught my eye. Here’s how Politico puts it:

President Donald Trump acknowledged the “deadly” nature of the coronavirus earlier this year in a series of recorded interviews with The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, even as Trump publicly sought to dismiss the disease’s threat to Americans.

Recounting a conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump told Woodward on Feb. 7 that the coronavirus is “more deadly than your, you know, your — even your strenuous flus.”

“This is more deadly,” he said. “This is five per — you know, this is 5 percent versus 1 percent and less than 1 percent, you know. So, this is deadly stuff.”

A few days later Trump was out in public basically claiming that this ‘Chinese flu’ was not such a big deal and he had it under control, or words to that effect.

There has been a huge hoo-hah about this, particularly the fact that Woodward knew that Trump had been lying through his teeth about the virus, but had decided not to tell anyone, let along the American people. Here’s a sample of the resulting indignation — Bess Levin in Vanity Fair:

When news broke on Wednesday that venerated reporter Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book had Donald Trump on record saying that he purposely downplayed the threat of COVID-19, despite knowing that it was “deadly stuff,” the outrage was deafening. The fury and disgust initially centered around the president’s decision to lie to the public about the fatal virus, proclaiming that it was nothing to worry about while knowing full well that it was. Later the conversation turned to Woodward’s decision to withhold crucial information, with some arguing that it was a dereliction of his duty as a journalist not to come forward and tell people, in real time, that the president was lying to their faces, as he instead saved it for his book. “There is no ethical or moral defense of Woodward’s decision to not publish these tapes as soon as they were made,” former BuzzFeed News Washington bureau chief John Stanton tweeted. “If there was any chance it could save a single life, he was obligated to do so. Bob Woodward put making money over his moral and professional duty.”

I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I was struck by Woodward’s reported response to this charge:

Speaking to the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, Woodward said he waited it out because (1) Trump is a habitual liar, and he hadn’t yet done the reporting necessary to know if the president was actually telling the truth in this instance, and (2) He wanted to put the statements into context and publish them closer to the election so that people didn’t forget about them on their way to the polls:

Who knows? That might have been a shrewd judgement.


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