Friday 15 May, 2020

Food deliveries continue during the pandemic

From our kitchen window, this morning.


Contrary to what you might think from watching Fox News, most Americans are sane

Link

HT to Ed Murphy for the link.


A foreign perspective on the UK’s handling of the pandemic

Sometimes, when one is caught up in everyday events, it’s useful to find out how the UK looks to interested outsiders.

The New York Times‘s The Daily podcast had a really useful episode on this the other day. I liked it, of course, because it analysed Boris Johnson’s behaviour in the same way that I have, but still…

I’m still amazed (and infuriated) by the cunning he displayed having escaped with his life — to wrap himself in the NHS flag.

The podcast is really worth listening to.


And why is nobody talking about the European country — Greece — that has handled this crisis best?


Books really do furnish a Zoom

My riff in Quarantine Diary on Tuesday’s blog was partly inspired by an interesting new Twitter account which specialises in the semiotics of people’s bookcases in the background of their Zoom appearances. Its motto is “What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you.”

Here’s an example of one of the tweets — in this case featuring John Sweeney, the celebrated roughhousing investigative journalist.

Lovely idea: smart and witty. And perceptive, sometimes.


John Gray and the resumption of history

John Gray has a knack of making one see current events from novel perspectives. He’s been writing consistently interesting stuff about the significance and likely impact of the Coronovirus, and this new essay in Unherd is no exception. He doesn’t think much of the prevailing idea that life after the virus will be much as before, only a bit worse. “When you read diaries of people who lived through the revolution in Russia”, he writes,

you find them looking on in disbelief as the vast, centuries-old empire of the Romanovs melted into nothing in a matter of months. Few then accepted that the world they knew had gone forever. Even so, they were haunted by the suspicion that it would not return. Many had a similar experience in continental Europe when the Great War destroyed what Stefan Zweig, in his elegiac memoir The World of Yesterday (1941), called “the world of security”.

As for now,

Much in the way we lived before the virus is already irretrievable. Probably a vaccine will be developed along with treatments that reduce the virus’ lethality. But this will likely take years, and in the meantime our lives will have altered beyond recognition. Even when it arrives, a deus ex machina will not dispel popular dread of another wave of infections or a new virus. More than government-enforced policies, public attitudes will prevent any reversion to pre-Covid ways.

The relevant comparison, he thinks, is not with previous pandemics such as the Spanish Flu, but instead the more recent impact of terrorism.

The numbers killed in terrorist incidents may be small. But the threat is endemic, and the texture of everyday life has altered profoundly. Video cameras and security procedures in public places have become part of the way we live.

Covid-19 may not be an exceptionally lethal pathogen, but it is fearful enough. Soon temperature checks will be ubiquitous and surveillance via mobile phones omnipresent. Social distancing, in one form or another, will be entrenched everywhere beyond the home. The impact on the economy will be immeasurable. Enterprises that adapt quickly will thrive, but sectors that relied on pre-Covid lifestyles — pubs, restaurants, sporting events, discos and airline travel, for example — will shrink or disappear. The old life of carefree human intermingling will fast slip from memory.

That echoes what I used to think every time I flew after 9/11 — standing in long queues at airports, having to take out laptops and remove jackets, shoes and belts, put liquids into transparent plastic bags — the whole paraphenalia of what Bruce Schneier calls ‘security theatre’. And all because a smallish group of fanatics hijacked four planes and changed the world.

This time the relevant agent, though, is a spherical virus less than a micron in diameter.

Great essay; worth reading in full.


Quarantine diary — Day 55

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Thursday 14 May, 2020

The Turing Test in reverse

Funny reversal. The Turing test was supposed to enable humans to decide whether what they were interacting with was a human or a machine. Now we have machines setting us a test to prove that we are human.


Being messy when everything is clean

Extraordinary (and long) blog post by Rachel Coldicutt, which she herself describes as “a scrapbook of links and questions that explore how civil society might be in a digital world. The first part defines civil society, the middle sections set out some context for how communities are changing, and the last part asks how non-technical experts can get messy with technology.”

It’s long but worth the time, because it’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking reflection on the state we (and the pandemic) have got us into. Here’s a sample from her reflections on the way our public sphere may change:

The intangible benefit of the public sphere is similar to what Richard Sennett calls the cité in his book Building and Dwelling. He describes the cité as the feeling of a place, a consciousness— not the built environment but the character and mood of a neighbourhood that has until now been played out in playgrounds and cafes and pubs.

Some parts of this “place consciousness” might be moving to WhatsApp and NextDoor, where the voices are different, the words are typed and no one can see your face. It’s a different feeling, and there will no doubt be different organisers and actors; some of those will be people who were too shy to put up their hand in a community centre, others will be natural organisers, some will be put off by writing things down. But whoever is doing the typing, the community that is built will be and feel different to the ones we knew before, when we could speak quietly and see one another’s face. Serendipity happens differently online — often driven by data, and frequently unconnected to place.

Thanks to Sheila Hayman for the link.


Time to rethink the face mask – Erin Bromage

Erin Bromage is the new kid on the Coronavirus blogging block. She He seems to have a thoughtful and informed take on every aspect of the phenomenon — including what has now become an obsession du jour in the UK: face masks.

Once you have the mask, here’s an activity that is should be done for safety, and its a lot of fun.

If you are wearing a mask, and an infected person breaths, coughs, or sneezes on you. Can you take the mask off without contaminating yourself or your environment? Here’s the fun part. Make your mask. Wear your mask. Then get one of your kids to cover the entire mask in shaving cream. Can you get the mask off and into a safe space without getting shaving cream on anything? Practice this!

Note: Masks, once on, should not be touched until you are ready to remove it and not wear it again until it’s washed. When they are taken off, you should be putting the mask into a bucket of soapy water, or a plastic bag, and then washed. Masks highly concentrate both your respiratory particles and air particles in a very small area (the mask surface). The masks must be treated as contaminated and they must be washed regularly!

Hmmm… looks like you might need a few of the things. And of course a sewing machine.

Correction: I got Professor Bromage’s gender wrong. Should have checked him on the University site. Apologies to him and thanks to Ed Murphy, who put me right.

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Rethinking Digital Platforms for the Post-COVID-19 Era

As long as COVID-19 is a global concern, many aspects of daily life will be mediated by platform companies that see human interactions as content to be moderated, and as sources of data to be monetized. Although we currently view everything through the pandemic lens, academics in particular have a responsibility to think through where our current panic-driven responses are taking us. One of those directions is towards massive consolidation of tech-company power. This terrific article is a good contribution to that essential discussion.

At a time when social ties need to be rebuilt, the coronavirus is accelerating this digitization of society. With social distancing, school shutdowns and countries around the world in lockdown, much of the social and economic activity that was still taking place “offline” is now being forced into the virtual sphere. People are increasingly reliant on internet services for work, community and social interaction.

Although digital platforms promise interpersonal connection and form the technical backbone of our online society, they are, first and foremost, spaces driven by capitalist logics of enclosure, control and profit-making. They are owned and operated by private corporations accountable to shareholders with voracious appetites for revenue. They have aggressive strategies for growth and global dominance. Their business models — variations on “surveillance capitalism” — involve appropriating and commodifying human relationships, manipulating people for profit and reconstituting collective social goods like privacy as things that can be individually bartered in exchange for access to friends and family.

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RIP Robert May

Robert May, the theoretical physicist who creatively upended a number of fields, has died at the age of 84. The New York Times has a nice obit which nicely captures the breadth of his interests and contributions. He worked in three continents at one time or another and, as one scientist quoted in the Times piece, “had many careers, one piled on top of the other, and was absolutely extraordinary in all of them.” His excuse for his proclivity was that he had a short attention span.

I first came across his work when, as a graduate student trying to build mathematical models of social systems, I discovered his note in Nature on the question of “Will a Large Complex System be Stable?” — the answer to which was “no, except under certain conditions”. This was news to ecologists in the 1960s and 1970s who generally believed that the more complex an ecosystem was, the more likely it was to be stable. May’s mathematical modelling gave them pause for thought.

The paper of his that I remember best (and liked most, partly because it was crystal clear and I could understand it) was his 1976 Nature article “Simple mathematical models with very complicated dynamics”. It showed that even a very simple, first-order difference-equation, model could produce very complex, and sometimes, chaotic behaviours. If that was true for simple models, imagine what it was like for complex systems — like, for example, pandemics.

May was a gentle revolutionary, who wound up as a slightly mischievous grandee. He was Tony Blair’s Chief Scientific Adviser, President of the Royal Society, a Knight, and, later, a peer.

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British exceptionalism has reached the end of the road

Philip Stephens has a nice column in the FT arguing that illustrious history is insufficient shield against a virus and grim reality of Brexit. It’s a point I’ve been labouring for years, by Stephens does it better.

Here are his payoff lines:

Britain’s strategy so far has been to convince the EU that it is ready to step over the no-deal cliff-edge. Some ministers say this will force Brussels to make a better offer. Others do not care: the shock of no deal, they say, will be lost in the wreckage of Covid-19.

Either way, there will be nothing heroic about the outcome. British exceptionalism has run its course. The coming years will demand nothing so much as a long, unremitting slog to rebuild the economy after the ravages of the pandemic and the collateral damage promised by Brexit. Part of me wonders whether Mr Johnson will decide that someone else would be better suited to so banal an endeavour.

Hmmm.. I think Johnson likes being centre stage too much even if he’s screwing up. A bit like Trump, really.

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Quarantine diary — Day 54

Link

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Tuesday 12 May, 2020

Well, at least one outfit is doing well in this crisis

Source: Axios


Tuesday 12 May

What do you do when you have a government like the UK’s?

Boris Johnson has spent his entire life behaving irresponsibly — and getting away with it. When the threat of the Coronavirus was already obvious to his advisers, he continued to behave irresponsibly — not just in maintaining the virus-spreading environment of government meetings in the claustrophobic atmosphere of 10 Downing Street, but also — as the Sunday Times has revealed — in effectively going AWOL to Chequers in order to sort out the chaos of his personal life and negotiate a divorce from his cancer-struck former wife at a time when the virus was spreading and his scientific advisers were trying to sound an alarm.

Then he gets the virus and nearly dies. Whereupon he emerges from the ordeal and sings a paen of praise to the NHS staff who saved his life. At which point he is valorised as a hero by the tabloid newspapers. But even a detached observer might be entitled to hope that the PM’s near-death experience might have changed his spots and transformed an Etonian joker into a grown-up human being.

Sadly, that looks like a vain hope. The ‘strategy’ Johnson and his government have now outlined for easing the lockdown is a masterpiece of pious, internally-contradictory fatuity.

This isn’t just my opinion, btw. “If we follow Boris Johnson’s advice, coronavirus will spread” says David Hunter, who is professor of epidemiology and medicine at the University of Oxford.

The key words in Boris Johnson’s speech on Sunday were “you should go to work if you can’t work from home”. He made no mention of preparations for tracing and testing contacts of people who test positive for Covid-19. In the plan published today, a newly appointed test and trace taskforce will begin to develop such a system.

The countries that have succeeded in taming their coronavirus epidemics – such as South Korea, Taiwan, China, Australia and New Zealand – differ from the UK in many ways. But they all have in common “test, trace, isolate” as the centrepiece of their strategy.

The UK government claims to be “following the science”, but it seems the science now needs to catch up with a government that is prioritising concerns about economic damage over epidemic control. The economic damage is clear, and the lockdown will also have knock-on health effects due to unemployment, domestic abuse, and postponed diagnoses and treatments. But if science is the rationale, why not level with the public and show the data that suggests the return to work is now the lesser evil? If there is evidence from modelling that social distancing while at work or commuting – rather than sheltering at home – is sufficient for virus control, let us see it.

And here’s the Oxford economist Simon Wren-Lewis on “why we can’t restart Britain’s economy until we get coronavirus under control” While deaths continue, he argues (rightly), most people will stay at home out of choice, whatever the government does.

Once people have confidence that the number of cases are very low and well controlled, they will leave their homes, they will happily send their children to school and they will travel to work. The economy can almost fully recover, although it may still be necessary to ban large social gatherings. South Korea’s TTI regime is so good that it decreased the number of cases without the need for the first-stage lockdown, but countries such as the UK, with less experience of TTI, should not be so ambitious.

A well functioning TTI regime, together with restrictions on overseas travel, is therefore the solution to how we get from here to when a vaccine is developed with as few deaths as possible, and with as little damage to the economy as possible. This is why there is no conflict between opening up the economy and saving lives.

What about those demanding a quicker end to the lockdown to “save the economy”? They seem to be making a simple error, says Wren-Lewis.

Without a government-imposed lockdown the economy would not return to normal. With minimal measures to contain the pandemic and therefore many new cases each day, most people will stay at home and keep their children at home out of choice. Nearly all academic economists understand that you cannot restart the economy without getting the virus under control.

What’s astonishing is that the UK government still doesn’t seem to get this. There’s no way out of this crisis without a working TTI (test, trace and isolate) system. And it’s only now that it’s assembling a ‘Taskforce’ to design it while apparently putting its faith in a smartphone contact-tracker app to get it through the next few weeks. And yet, as John Thornhill pointed out in the FT the other day,

The experience of some Asian countries, struck by the pandemic earlier than Europe, is that contact-tracing apps are only useful when they form part of an integrated public health response with rigorous testing regimes. Effective contact tracing depends on a small army of human interviewers who can contextualise electronic encounters.

Contact tracing, in other words, is a human activity. And the UK is apparently just getting started on it.


The government’s new ‘guidance’ document

Some bits of it are truly weird. For example:

Now imagine you’re a head-teacher reading this. June 1 is 15 working days away from today. You are having to reconfigure your school for social distancing etc. So what advice does the government offer on that? Ah, here it is.

This is typical of the entire document. “We will publish”…”We will publish”… “We will publish…”


Mass immunity is a fantasy; ditto mass testing — at least for the time being

As noted above, efficient, large-scale mass testing is a key requirement for a safe re-booting of the economy. But that kind of testing facility doesn’t exist yet, as this story from today’s FT suggests:

The mass testing that is central to lockdown exit plans in many countries is unrealistic because of high costs and lack of production capacity, according to the boss of an Italian biotech company that supplies tests around the world.

Carlo Rosa, chief executive of DiaSorin, which sells Covid-19 diagnostic and antibody tests, said demand far exceeded supply and the percentage of people who had contracted the virus globally was too low to hope for mass immunity as another way out of restrictive lockdown measures.

“Catching the virus in its early stage is the only solution but it works to the extent unlimited tests are available and you can immediately isolate and trace the positives; antibody tests help track asymptomatic patients and provide some information about protection,” Mr Rosa told the Financial Times. “But tests today are linked to complicated and expensive molecular technologies . . . and the demand is much higher than the offer.”

DiaSorin is working to develop a faster and cheaper salivary swab test.

“It would be easier to use and produce in hundreds of millions of samples,” said Mr Rosa. “The challenge is making it as accurate as existing tests but based on a simple technology.”

Yeah, one day…


Quarantine diary — Day 52

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Monday 11 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

The seeds of things
Are necessary to support our lives.
By the same token, it is obvious
That all around us noxious particles
Are flying, motes of sickness and of death.

  • Lucretius (50 BCE) — in Rolfe Humphries’s translation.

Who wants to be a Lert?

From the New Yorker


Solitude

Nice essay by the poet Donald Hall from a 2016 issue of the New Yorker.

At eighty-seven, I am solitary. I live by myself on one floor of the 1803 farmhouse where my family has lived since the Civil War. After my grandfather died, my grandmother Kate lived here alone. Her three daughters visited her. In 1975, Kate died at ninety-seven, and I took over. Forty-odd years later, I spend my days alone in one of two chairs. From an overstuffed blue chair in my living room I look out the window at the unpainted old barn, golden and empty of its cows and of Riley the horse. I look at a tulip; I look at snow. In the parlor’s mechanical chair, I write these paragraphs and dictate letters. I also watch television news, often without listening, and lie back in the enormous comfort of solitude. People want to come visit, but mostly I refuse them, preserving my continuous silence. Linda comes two nights a week. My two best male friends from New Hampshire, who live in Maine and Manhattan, seldom drop by. A few hours a week, Carole does my laundry and counts my pills and picks up after me. I look forward to her presence and feel relief when she leaves. Now and then, especially at night, solitude loses its soft power and loneliness takes over. I am grateful when solitude returns…

I’m currently reading A History of Solitude by my friend and former colleague David Vincent. It’s beautifully written, thoughtful and thought-provoking. But I’ve been struggling to find a way to give it the attention it deserves in the midst of the torrent of emails, Zoom conferences and other paraphernalia of the lockdown life. But I’ve now found a solution. A book on solitude needs solitude, so I’m setting aside some time each day, to sit with the book in the garden or somewhere in the house, and without any electronic device within reaching distance.

btw some of the stuff Donald Hall has written for the New Yorker over the years is wonderful. For example, this essay on the poetry of death. And, like me, he loves Peter Porter’s great poem, An Exequy, written after his wife’s death, which was the only poem that consoled me when my beloved Sue died in 2002. Just listen to Ian McEwan reading it at the National Theatre and perhaps you can see why.

Link


Contact-tracing and the NHSx app

Here’s a neat way of conveying a complex idea.


Designing a social-distancing picnic-basket for life after lockdown

Link


Robert Caro writes, and waits, during the Covid-19 outbreak

Lovely AP story about the great biographer of Lyndon Johnson, now 84 and hard at work on the fifth and final volume of the five-volume biography.

When asked, inevitably, how soon he will be done with Vol. 5, Caro declines to say directly and give what he calls his standard answer: “It doesn’t matter how long a book takes, what matters is how long a book lasts.” He has received virtually every literary prize, but he savors more private and unexpected tributes, like seeing a young person carrying a copy of one of his books. He then speaks of a recent letter, sent to his literary agent by the fiancee of a judge dying of cancer, that compelled him to respond.

“The fiancee wrote this beautiful letter, saying that my books meant a great deal to him, and that a letter would mean a lot to him,” Caro says. “So I spent a couple of hours composing a letter. I try to answer handwritten letters and I’ve been getting more of them since the pandemic. I used to get mostly emails. Handwritten letters had almost stopped.”


Quarantine diary — Day 51

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Sunday 10 May, 2020

RIP Little Richard

They don’t make them like that any more.

Link


Most extensive study to date of who’s most vulnerable to Covid-19 in the UK

A pre-print (i.e. non-peer-reviewed) version of “Factors associated with COVID-19-related hospital death in the linked electronic health records of 17 million adult NHS patients” has just been published. It’s a statistician’s delight (i.e. pretty complicated) but my reading of it is that it confirms two things — one expected, and one disturbing (thought not all that surprising). The first is that certain ill-health preconditions do indeed make people more vulnerable to Covid-19. The second is that people from non-white backgrounds and poor people are also more vulnerable, but for reasons that don’t include medical pre-conditions. Doesn’t take much imagination to suggest what lies behind that.

But that’s just my interpretation. Here’s what the authors say:

Policy Implications and Interpretation

The UK has a policy of recommending shielding (i.e. minimising face to face contact) for groups identified as being extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions. We were able to evaluate the association between most of these conditions and death from COVID-19, and confirm that people with these conditions do have substantially increased mortality risk, supporting the shielding strategy. We have demonstrated -for the first time – that only a small part of the substantially increased risks of death from COVID-19 among non-white groups and among people living in more deprived areas can be attributed to existing disease. Improved strategies to protect people in these groups from COVID-19 need urgent consideration.


If we want better conditions for Amazon staff we need to be patient…

This morning’s Observer column:

Tim Bray resigned as an Amazon vice-president last week. “Who he?” I hear you say. And why is this news significant? Answers: first, Bray is an ubergeek who’s an alumnus of many of the outfits in tech’s hall of fame (including DEC, Sun Microsystems, the OED project at the University of Waterloo, Google’s Android team and, eventually, Amazon Web Services); and second, he resigned on an issue of principle – something as rare as hen’s teeth in the tech industry.

In his blog, he wrote: “I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19.” It was an expensive decision. Bray said the decision to resign would probably cost him more than a million dollars in salary and shares, and that he regretted leaving a job he enjoyed, working with good colleagues. “So I’m pretty blue.”

Do read the whole thing


Rich people’s problems

James Max has a column in the weekend Financial Times under the heading “Rich People’s Problems”. I can never work out if it’s satire, but even if it’s not it’s amusing. This weekend he’s contemplating the problems nobs have under lockdown conditions.

Lockdown “haves” are those with gardens, a half-decent wine cellar and a dog or two for on-demand social contact. Trappings such as sports cars, watches, black cards [Eh?], bling, boats, private jets and club membership are somewhat superfluous to our existence now. Many avenues for spending money are also closed off (as someone whose social life revolved around going on for lunch and dinner, it’s been tough).

But worse than that? For now, I have no domestic help. This is “situation critical”.

The wealthy can no longer run a finger along the skirting board or windowsill, tut and make a mental note to have a word with their cleaner…

You get the point. I think it’s satire. Maybe.


Naomi Klein on the ‘Screen New Deal’

Splendid blast in The Intercept by the famous activist against the tech industry’s pivot to perceiving the pandemic as the opportunity of a lifetime to redefine our futures.

For a few fleeting moments during New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, the somber grimace that has filled our screens for weeks was briefly replaced by something resembling a smile.

“We are ready, we’re all-in,” the governor gushed. “We are New Yorkers, so we’re aggressive about it, we’re ambitious about it. … We realize that change is not only imminent, but it can actually be a friend if done the right way.”

The inspiration for these uncharacteristically good vibes was a video visit from former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who joined the governor’s briefing to announce that he will be heading up a blue-ribbon commission to reimagine New York state’s post-Covid reality, with an emphasis on permanently integrating technology into every aspect of civic life…

Thought-provoking and original. I mention it in today’s Diary (below).


Quarantine diary — Day 50

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Friday 8 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

“The TV business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. For the most part, they are dirty little animals with huge brains and no pulse”

  • Hunter S Thompson

From blood clots to ‘Covid toe’: the medical mysteries of coronavirus

Terrific FT explainer — outside the paywall. If you think SARS-CoV-2 is just “another kind of flu,” think again.


Contact tracing (contd.)

It’s one of those areas where it’s genuinely difficult to know what’s the best approach. The problem that the UK has is that its government failed at the outset (for reasons we can debate endlessly) to adopt a classic track and trace approach. So it’s trying to play catch-up.

Struggling with the topic this morning I made some notes. Here they are:

  1. There’s a dangerous aura of tech-solutionism about the idea that an app is the thing that will solve our problems. That’s clearly baloney. But…

  2. It’s an inventive way to approach the problem in a society like the UK with a large population — provided that it’s complemented by more human resources than the UK currently possesses.

  3. There seem to be only two broad paradigms here for app design — roughly described as decentralised and centralised. The decentralised approach keepts the data on the phone; the other keeps it on a centralised database of some kind.

  4. Up to now, I’ve tended to side with the decentralised approach, on the grounds of (i) avoiding state surveillance and the dangers of ‘mission-creep’ that we’ve seen after other crises (like 9/11); (ii) concerns about the security of such a centralised database (surely a juicy target for state-level hackers); (iii) it gives individuals more agency; and (iv) a hunch that the Apple-Google API was likely to be better than other approaches, partly because of their intimate knowledge of their two smartphone platforms but also because they would know how to mitigate battery-draining properties of BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) apps.

  5. But since this was mainly half-informed guesswork on my part, I decided to read up on the NHSx approach.

(The FT has a really good explanation of the NHSx app, btw. And it’s outside the paper’s paywall.

Ian Levy from the National Cyber security Centre has provided a pretty thorough briefing on it which is worth reading in its entirety. The key difference between decentralised and centralised approaches, he says, is that in the first approach every user of the app gets some understanding of who is declared ill (and that list keeps being updated) but the public health authority – by design – knows pretty much nothing about who’s ill.

Crucially, while the health authority would know the anonymous identity of the app that’s reported symptoms (or sometimes just a Bluetooth broadcast value) it wouldn’t know any of the contacts (even anonymously), and so won’t know anything about how that user may have spread the disease.

In the centralised approach, on the other hand,

an ill user reports their symptoms, but also gives all their anonymous contacts to the public health authority, along with some details about the type of contact they’ve had (duration and proximity for example). The health authority can use risk modelling to decide which contacts are most at risk, and then notify them to take some action – again probably self isolation to start with. Importantly, the public health authority has anonymous data to help it understand how the disease appears to be spreading, and has the anonymous contact graphs to carry out some analysis. So the health authority could discover that a particular anonymous person seems to infect people really well. While the system wouldn’t know who they are, encounters with them could be scored as more risky, and adjust the risk of someone being infected by a particular encounter appropriately.

The fundamental argument underpinning the NHSx team’s decision to go for the centralised model is that they believe that it offers better public health benefits. To which sceptics will retort, pace Mandy Rice-Davies, well, they would, wouldn’t they?

There are lots of differences [between the decentralised approach and the NHSx one], but given the epidemiological model the NHS is using to manage the coronavirus spread in the UK, the fully decentralised model just doesn’t seem to work.

There’s an analogy with Typhoid Mary and the Broad Street water pumps examples. If all you knew was that there were some typhoid cases in New York (or some cholera cases in a bit of London) you’d never see the pattern. But if the fact that Mary (or the pump) were implicated in all of the cases, then it becomes obvious. Obviously, users are anonymous in the app (so you can’t identify the person) and it doesn’t have location, but it’s only an analogy! You need to look at the aggregate data (anonymously in our case) to be able to see these patterns.

In the end, the choice you have to make is a balance between individual, group and national privacy, and the public health authorities having the minimum information necessary to manage the spread of the virus. The NHS app is designed to balance those things, minimizing the data the health authorities get to that necessary to respond with protecting the privacy of our users. There are many ways of implementing these things, but the NHS app is a good balance in the team’s view.

That’s the bird’s eye view. On the ground, however, there’s a lot of mundane detail to be sorted out with either approach. For example:

  • Do the apps drain smartphone batteries? If they do then people won’t use them, or won’t keep using them for long enough. Ian Levy’s paper claims that the NHSx app won’t drain batteries. There seems to be some controversy about this
  • Will the app run on older smartphones that many people are likely to use? An investigation by Privacy International found a number of Android phones on which it wouldn’t run.
  • Both the decentralised and centralised approaches rely on Bluetooth LE. Since Bluetooth goes through, for example, plasterboard walls, there’s a likelihood (or at least a risk) of getting misleading results (false positives) in crowded environments.
  • Finally, there’s the fact that none of these apps will be mandatory. At least that’s the position for now, and it’s difficult to see how governments in democracies could change it. Moreover, the take-up needs to be substantial — maybe 60% — before the real benefits kick in.

So overall, probably the critical thing is whether users will trust an app enough to install and use it. After all, all smartphone-based approaches require people to confide to the app that they think they might be infected. Such a confession will have socially-differentiated consequences: for middle-class people, who can easily self-isolate and work from home, etc, no problem; but for those for whom confession might mean staying away from work, it’s tougher — unless the government moves firmly to support them while they’re under quarantine. My other conclusion from spending a day reading and thinking about this is that the surveillance/privacy aspects of this will not be a major consideration for most citizens, no matter how exercised Privacy International and civil liberties groups (and, for that matter, this blogger) might say or think. The virus is so terrifying that most people will do anything that might reduce its spread and the possibility that they themselves might catch it. So, in a way, Paul Romer (quoted in yesterday’s blog) is probably right when he said this:

I’m not worried about the privacy issues, because it’s kind of, like, “Compared to what?” I think we’ve got enormous problems with surveillance right now. This doesn’t seem to me to make it much worse. But I was participating in digital discussions about response to the crisis, and the meeting would go like this: “We need more testing.” Financial people said, “Yep, we got it.” “We need masks and protective equipment.” “Yep, fine.” “And then we need to have the digital contact tracing.” And then, all of a sudden, the whole meeting is taken up with hand-wringing and anxiety and all kinds of fears.


Google pulls out of Toronto ‘Sidewalk’ project

Amazingly good news. Looks that they jumped before they were pushed. Campaigning works.

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The Ivy League will be ok. It’s public universities — and their students — who will suffer most from the pandemic and its aftermath

Great New Yorker piece .

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Finding endless video calls exhausting? You’re not alone

I was musing about this in yesterday’s Quarantine Diary. This piece by Andre Spicer suggests that I was on the right track.

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And in case you’re depressed by what’s going on in the US

Why not try this — from McSweeney’s.

Good send-up of the Trump mindset. It’s witty and clever. But, sadly, it’s not a joke.

Thanks to Charles Arthur for the link.


Quarantine diary — Day 48

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Thursday 7 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

”Trump is the last station on the Reagan express.”

  • Michael Lewis

British exceptionalism vs Greek pragmatism

Statistics from Johns Hopkins today.

It’s worth doing the maths to calculate the death rate per 1,000 citizens. Interesting, ne c’est pas?


Paul Romer’s New Yorker interview

From the beginning, Romer has been one of the clearest thinkers around about the pandemic. In this interview with Isaac Chotiner he lays out what he sees as the only way through the Coronavirus catastrophe. The piece is worth reading in full, but this excerpt stood out for me:

What is your biggest fear about the economy right now?

There was some analysis that was done at the St. Louis Fed, going through job categories and just thinking about the employment consequences of physical lockdown and social distancing. Their conclusion was that we were going to be at an unemployment rate above thirty per cent, so that was the early-warning sign that we’re headed for an economic catastrophe that’s worse than the Great Depression.

Different people have talked about different ways to get through this. Your plan focusses on testing more than almost anything else, and more than some of the other plans. Everyone acknowledges that testing is important, but why is it so central to every idea that you’ve put forward?

The key to solving the economic crisis is to reduce the fear that someone will get sick if they go to work or go shop. So it’s really about building confidence. The thing about testing is that it’s easy to explain and it doesn’t frighten people the way digital contact tracing does. It’s not subject to technological and social, political uncertainty the way digital contact tracing is. It doesn’t require the organizational capacity that doing human contact tracing does. It’s really just a very simple, easy-to-explain idea—that to control the pandemic, we need to get a reasonable majority of the people who are infectious into a quarantine, and then we’re good. That’s really all it’s about. So I wanted to try and articulate a very simple approach for managing this crisis, because I think that’s central to restoring confidence.

For example, think about me going back to my dentist. It doesn’t really matter what the law says or the governor says I can do. I don’t want to go back to the dentist’s office in New York City until I know that he can show me a recent negative test, and he doesn’t want me to come into his office until I can show him that I’ve got a recent negative test. So I think it’s easy to explain this idea to people, and I think it’s also easy to convince people that this is something we could do for as long as it takes to manage this pandemic. Suppose it takes more than twenty-four months to get to a vaccine. If it takes more than twenty-four months, I could see going and getting tested before I go to the dentist and the dentist could get tested. Neither of us has a problem with that.

I really think that confidence is so central to investment decisions, to planning, to anticipating the future, that we need something so simple that nobody worries if it’s going to work, nobody worries if we’re going to abandon it because it’s too painful. Everybody just says, “O.K., yep, that’s the plan. We’re going to stick to it.” And then we go.

Interesting throughout. He’s also not much impressed by those of us who worry about the surveillance dangers of contact-tracing apps.

I’m not worried about the privacy issues, because it’s kind of, like, “Compared to what?” I think we’ve got enormous problems with surveillance right now. This doesn’t seem to me to make it much worse. But I was participating in digital discussions about response to the crisis, and the meeting would go like this: “We need more testing.” Financial people said, “Yep, we got it.” “We need masks and protective equipment.” “Yep, fine.” “And then we need to have the digital contact tracing.” And then, all of a sudden, the whole meeting is taken up with hand-wringing and anxiety and all kinds of fears.


Are tech realities beginning to dawn on NHSx?

NHSx, the tech arm of the NHS, has begun trials of a contact-tracing app on the Isle of Wight. The initial version of the app, though, takes a unique approach to Bluetooth-based tracking that gathers data in a central NHS database, which the government claims will allow researchers to better understand the spread of Covid-19. Well, it might or might not help the government, but it raises the hackles of many of us who fear the surveillance-creep implicit in that approach. Besides, for the app to be really useful it has to be (a) done in conjunction with a massively-upgraded national contact-tracing team — real people making telephone calls and perhaps visiting people in their homes, and (b) trusted by enough people who are willing to install it on their phones.

The interesting thing about the NHSx app (which was developed by a Swiss tech firm) is that it explicitly avoids using the API (application programming interface) developed by Apple and Google to enable programmers to build apps for contact-tracing. A big question (for me, anyway) was whether that was due to

(a) the UK government objecting to the stipulation made by the two companies that data gathered by any app using their API must keep the data on the phone rather than uploading it to a central database (in other words a sovereignty issue), or

(b) to a belief in UK exceptionalism (i.e. that our boffins can do things better than anybody else — so yah-booh-sucks to Apple and Google)?

Given that this ‘exceptionalist’ ideology runs through the Johnson administration like the slogan in a stick of Blackpool rock, I had suspected the latter.

In that context, a scoop in today’s Financial Times is very interesting.

Contract documents obtained by Tussell, a data provider on UK government contracts and expenditure, and shared with the Financial Times, show that the London office of Zuhlke Engineering, a Switzerland-based IT development firm, has been awarded a new multimillion pound contract by NHSX, the state-funded health service’s digital innovation arm. The six-month contract to develop and support the Covid-19 contact-tracing app is worth £3.8m and was due to begin on Wednesday, the documents show.

The contract includes a requirement to “investigate the complexity, performance and feasibility of implementing native Apple and Google contact tracing APIs [application programming interfaces] within the existing proximity mobile application and platform”. The work is described as a “two week timeboxed technical spike”, suggesting it is still at a preliminary phase, but with a deadline of mid-May.

Interesting, isn’t it. I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that the non Apple-Google-API contact-tracing app rolled out by the Australian government appears to be having, er, technical difficulties. Or that the German government recently (and abruptly) abandoned its own approach and decided to use the Apple-Google API — and therefore the conditions laid down by the companies.


In praise of newsletters

I’ve always liked email newsletters. They were one of the earliest indications that the Internet might be a technology for rejuvenating the public sphere. Among other things, they long pre-dated the Web. And one of my favourites — Humanist — the newsletter of the Humanist Discussion Group — has just started on its 34th year. (It was founded on May 7, 1987.) It pops into my inbox every day, and is full of arcane, cerebral, intelligent and diverting discussions on an impossibly wide range of topics. What I particularly like about it is when Humanities scholars turn their attention to something that I actually know something about — programming languages, hyperlinks or Unix pipes, say — and I start to see things in a different light.

One of the reasons the newsletter works is that it has been adroitly edited for 33 years by Professor Willard McCarty of KCL, one of the most erudite — and certainly the best-read – scholar I am lucky enough to know. You could think of him as a curator of what Jaron Lanier used to call a “hive mind” — but in this case a hive full of clever and reflective bees. So more power to his elbow, as we say in Ireland.

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Bill Dutton on the Gadarene Rush by traditional universities to get online

Bill Dutton was the founding Director of the Oxford Internet Institute and the man who shepherded the fledgling institute through the shark-infested waters of Oxford academia until it was safely established as a leading research institute. He’s now back at the University of Southern California and has been watching quizzically as conventional universities desperately try to get online as a result of the pandemic. Here are some of his observations.

  • The rapid transition in response to the pandemic is pushing many educators and students into the use of tools and techniques that they did not choose and have not been trained to use. For instance, you can already see some of the teething problems with the problem of zoom-bombing.
  • The tools and platforms do indeed exist but they are not up to speed with the platforms used by most Internet users. They are relatively slow and clunky and more limited, such as with the use of video, or accessing the wider Internet, depending on the particular platform.
  • We don’t really know how to do online education in a way that is successful in motivating and holding students. The dropout rate of students in many online courses is unacceptably high. This is not to say that individual faculty think they know how to teach online – many sincerely believe they do. But the track-record of online courses has not seen the successful patterns of many other online innovations, such as shopping. To the contrary, many who have taught online have realized that it is far more difficult to teach online and even then the outcomes are not as satisfying to teachers or students.
  • So much of education is not simply the transfer of information. We can transfer information very well online, and online materials are being substituted for books and articles, but there are other processes that might be even more significant. These include social comparison with other students, learning from peers, and the social presence of the teacher, who can recognise an exceptional or a failing student and help them earlier and more effectively.
  • We really don’t have a business model or let’s say the business model of traditional educational institutions does not accommodate online education. Online courses need teams to deliver them well, when traditional teaching can be handled well by individuals. Already you are seeing students asking for reductions in their tuition payments. There will be some students who will pay whatever it costs to get a degree from a prestigious institution, but then we are moving into the territory of selling credentials, rather than teaching.

Quarantine diary – Day 47

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Wednesday 6 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

“In the future it will be as rude to talk with someone publicly with your mask off as it would be with your pants down. Future porn will be people talking without masks in public places.”


XKCD on the virus’s view of us humans

Link

Well, you have to laugh, sometimes. But it’s still a reflection on the fact that a tiny microbe about a micron in diameter could turn our entire world upside down.


Governments won’t determine how the return to work happens: people will

That’s because people are really scared about the risk of infection and worried about whether workplaces will be safe.

Here’s why they’re right to be worried. Humanity has never faced a pathogen like this. And we don’t yet understand the half of it.


Tim Bray on blogging

He has a set of sensible rules, some of which I really like. This one for example:

Write For Yourself: Don’t try to guess what people want to read; you’re the only person whose interests you really understand. In particular, don’t thrash around trying to appeal to a larger audience; the only surefire way is pictures of celebrity breasts, and the world already has enough.

He’s been blogging since 2003. More than a million words, he says, and I believe him.

Tim has just resigned as VP and Distinguished Engineer at Amazon Web Services — on principle. Read his blog post explaining why he took this step.


How to screw up

Setting up the email version of this blog last night, I meticulously checked all the links and then hit ‘Publish’ without noticing that the title said “Tuwsday” instead of Tuesday!

Growl. And apologies.


What lay behind the ‘Yes, Minister’ TV series

Lovely set of reflections by Anthony Jay on how he and his co-author, Jonathan Lynn, came to write my second-favourite TV comedy series, Yes, Minister. (My all-time favourite is John Cleese’s and Connie Booth’s Fawlty Towers.)

Clearly this conflict of policies [between a Minister and his or her civil servants] comes into sharpest focus in the persons of the Cabinet Minister and his Permanent Secretary, and it suddenly came to me that this relationship, if taken to its extreme, had all the ingredients of a classic situation comedy: two people whose background, ambitions and motivations pull them in diametrically opposite directions, but who are held together because of their deep dependence on each other. It is the heart of every husband-and-wife sitcom, and of one of my favourite of all comedies, Steptoe and Son, which I always saw as a husband-and-wife comedy in disguise.

The relationship has two further features to commend it. In the first place, it lets the viewer into a private world, and one which he is highly unlikely to experience directly. There is a considerable bonus for a comedy if it has a documentary dimension, and the reason I enjoyed Porridge more than Going Straight was precisely and only because of the additional information and insights into the (literally) closed world of prisons that the first series provided. In the same way, Dad’s Army gave extra joy by the little documentary touches that recreated the minutiae of life during World War Two. And second, comedy also has an extra appeal – at least for Jonathan Lynn and me – when it is actually about something, in the sense that Butterflies and The Good Life are about something.

Worth reading in full.


A message from — of all people — George W. Bush

Link

By comparison with Trump he sounds like a combination of Pope Francis and Abe Lincoln. I never thought I’d feel nostalgia for Dubya. But then I cure myself by thinking of Dick Cheney.


The cancer in the camera lens

Utterly fabulous essay on Trump by David Roth. Here’s how it begins:

In close up, on television, at a glance, with the volume down, Donald Trump can from time to time look like a president. That effect becomes less convincing the more you pay attention, though. Even under professional lighting, Trump reliably looks like a photographic negative of himself; on his worse and wetter days, he has the tone and texture of those lacquered roast ducks that hang from hooks in Chinatown restaurant windows. The passing presidentiality of the man dissipates utterly in longer shots, where Trump can be seen standing tipped oddly forward like a jowly ski jumper in midair, or mincing forward to bum-rush an expert’s inconvenient answer with an incoherent one of his own, or just making faces intended to signal that he is listening very strongly to what someone else is saying. (These slapdash performances of executive seriousness tend to have the effect, as the comedian Stewart Lee once said of James Corden, of making Trump look like “a dog listening to classical music.”) Seen from this long-shot vantage, the man at the podium is unmistakably Donald Trump—uncanny, unknowing, upset about various things that he can’t quite understand or express.

It gets even better. Unmissable.


Human Capitalism

The film-maker Sheila Hayman has a lovely essay on Medium about the ways the Coronavirus lockdown reveals both human potential and the kinds of meaningful work that actually needs doing.

Before

So, right before Covid-19, what did we have? A world in which over a third of us were doing crappy jobs, which made us sick, and whose defining characteristics were overwhelmingly, lack of agency and lack of reward — in all its forms.

Jobs which, according to yet another YouGov poll, 37% of us said were ‘not making a meaningful contribution to the world’.

After

But what has the lockdown actually produced? A massive, spontaneous, bottom-up geyser of human ingenuity, creativity, enterprise, initiative, dedication and love, all lying unsuspected and untapped as its owners trekked day after day to those bullshit jobs — jobs which overwhelmingly involve a nasty commute to eight hours in front of a screen, or managing the dehumanisation of colleagues — or more often, both.

On the other hand, our isolated elderly need befriending, our streets need greening, our air needs cleaning, our diet needs improving and our children need company and attention. These are needs as great as the jobs we’re not doing, if not more so.

This is human capital: the capacity, imagination, love and organisational ability we all carry within us, just by being alive. Moreover, at least in my experience, it effortlessly obliterates the other great stranglehold of British society: I have literally no idea whether my colleagues in the local Covid-19 WhatsApp group are working class, upper middle class, or aliens with green antennae. Capability and common sense prevail, hierarchies are meaningless, and we all happily go along with whatever seems to work best.

Yep. Worth reading in full.


Quarantine diary — Day 46

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Tuesday 5 May, 2020

The office of the future?


The skillset needed to run online meetings

Effective chairing of a meeting is one of the most valuable (and rarest) arts in organisational life. One of the things I’ve learned from the Zoom and WebEx meetings I’ve been participating in since lockdown is that, if anything, the skills of effective chairing are even more important now.

But in addition to the skillset necessary for the effective running of face-to-face meetings, one now also needs:

  • a really good internet (fast and stable) connection
  • up to date kit with (ideally) a big screen
  • familiarity with the technical details and interface of the conferencing tool you’re using
  • making sure that the conventions for speaking and intervening are understood by all participants before the meeting proper commences
  • ensuring that you and the speaker at any moment are the only ones with un-muted microphones
  • ensuring that every participant understands how to share (and un-share) their screens

Experience so far indicates that not every chairperson has these skills.

On the other hand, chairing an online meeting does give you one power that would be very useful in face-to-face meetings: you have the power to mute other people’s microphones!


Cory’s epiphany

Cory Doctorow is one of the most gifted and productive writers I know. I still remember an essay he wrote many years on how to write which contained a simple rule: Write for 20 minutes every day, rain or shine. I often cite this when students ask me for advice on writing — particularly about how to overcome writer’s block. In fact, it’s a rule that many great writers have always obeyed. Graham Greene, for example, wrote every morning — often no more than 250 words. But in his prime he was producing a novel a year. (Just do the maths and you’ll see how.)

Cory’s just published some new reflections (in Locus magazine) on ‘rules for writing’, and on what he’s learned from running classes for aspiring writers. Here’s the money quote from that essay:

Take exposition, which is something I love to read and love to write – when it’s done well. From Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon to Westerfeld’s Peeps, to Moby-Dick, I will happily read intensely technical, intensely interesting exposition all day long. The injunction against exposition isn’t a rule, but a warning: as delightful as good exposition is to read, most exposition isn’t good, and bad exposition is terrible.

It took me an admittedly very long time to reach this conclusion, and I think it’s because the standard wisdom goes something like, “In order to break the rules, you must first master them.” That threw me off. If, instead, the writers and books I’d learned from had said, “These things are much harder to get right, so if your story goes wrong, try replacing them with something easier,” I’d have come to my epiphany far earlier.

Spot on.


Why did Boris Johnson & Co screw up the UK’s response to the Coronavirus?

I’ve just been reading the extraordinary Guardian account of the shambolic attempt by the administration to overcome the country’s desperate shortage of ventilators to equip the NHS for the coming pandemic.

Nearly seven weeks later, things look very different. The NHS has neither needed 30,000 ventilators, nor has it come close to calling on the 18,000 that health secretary Matt Hancock set as a revised target in early April.

The inside story of what happened in this period is one of early panic and confusion, of companies with expertise clashing with those seizing the limelight with ambitions to innovate, of questionable designs, and the desperation of a government setting targets and then deciding it didn’t need to meet them after all.

At the root of it all was a government in a state of blind panic (understandable) issuing a ‘challenge’ to British engineering firms which had never made sophisticated medical equipment to switch overnight to designing and making them. Among other things, this suggests an administration which knew bugger-all about how complex machines are made, but was nevertheless confident that native British ingenuity would be able to rise to the challenge.

Aside from the panic, though, there was an air of gung-ho lunacy about the idea that a vacuum-cleaner manufacturer or a manufacturer of mechanical diggers would be able to magic-up some of the desperately-needed ventilators. So where, I wondered, did this mindset originate?

Here’s a clue.

On February 3 Boris Johnson, fresh from minting a new coin to celebrate Brexit, made a speech in Greenwich on making clear his views on Wuhan-style lockdowns.

“We are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric,” he said,

“when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage.”

“Then, at that moment”, he goes on, “humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of the populations of the Earth to buy and sell freely among each other.”

Like I said, gung-ho lunacy, coming from the very top.

At the time, I thought that this was just another example of Johnson’s pathological frivolity. But a remarkable blog post by David Edgerton, one of Britain’s leading historians, who has published a number of works over 20 years which challenge conventional analyses of science and technology, puts it in a more illuminating context.

Edgerton’s thesis is that the government’s response to Covid-19 and Brexit are intimately connected. “Recognising this”, he says, “is vital to understanding the politics of both. Indeed as the trade expert David Henig has noted, we will know that the UK is really serious about Covid 19 at the moment in which is prepared to say that a Brexit extension is needed. That moment has not yet come, indeed it has been ruled out”.

At the beginning Boris Johnson stood behind ‘the science’ to justify a UK-only policy of ‘delay’ of the Covid-19 virus. This involved minimal intervention in what Johnson took to reminding us are the ‘freedom-loving’ proclivities of those ‘born in England’. Too late, what looked like a cunning plan to exemplify the virtues of the British way collapsed utterly. The UK is now broadly speaking following Europe and much of the rest of the world. ‘Following the science’ now sounds like a way of not answering legitimate questions.

But when it comes to ventilators, Edgerton says, “a Brexiter innovation-fixated logic applies”.

The current crisis has been an opportunity to illustrate the argument that the UK was a powerful innovation nation that could do very well without the EU. The government launched a programme, the details of which are still murky, to create new emergency ventilators. First off the stocks in the PR blitz was the Brexiter Sir James Dyson, who was teaming up with another Brexiter capitalist, Lord Bamford of JCB, to make many thousands. This, it turned out was just one of many projects to design new ventilators, and to modify others for mass production. There were lots of allusions to the second world war as if Spitfires had been conjured out of thin air in the heat generated by patriotic enthusiasm. It is telling too that the government decided not to take part in the EU ventilator procurement programme. This had to be a British programme for PR purposes, even though many of the companies making the components in the UK are European, like Siemens, Airbus, Thales ….

Edgerton points out an inconvenient truth about the wartime analogy, by the way: it’s baloney. The UK was a world leader in aircraft before the Battle of Britain. It had been making Spitfires since the late 1930s, and had huge long-planned specialist factories making them. “What is clear is that we are not in 1940. The UK is not a world leader in ventilator manufacture, far from it.”

It’s a great piece, worth reading in full. And it compellingly suggests that when Johnson & Co were claiming to be ‘following the science’, in fact they were simply expounding the ideology of British exceptionalism that underpinned the entire Brexit campaign.


Quarantine diary — Day 45

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Monday 4 May, 2020

Paul Romer on fizzy drinks and Covid-19 testing

Lovely thought-experiment by a Nobel laureate: “Imagine a world”, he writes, “in which the only way to get a soda is to get your doctor to write a prescription”.

It costs $20 per can. Your insurance company pays. The economy produces about 100,000 sodas each day. If you lived in this world, do you think you could get people to scale up the production of soda to a level of millions of cans per day? It would be a challenge, but not because it is hard to produce and distribute soda. This is the point of the thought-experiment.

Because they have to keep total costs from running out of control, insurance companies, health care providers, and government regulators have cobbled together a system that limits access to soda. One part of this system is an expensive regulatory process that has to approve: the ingredients in each particular brand of soda; the paper insert that comes with the soda informing patients about its risks and benefits; and the delivery system used by the soda supplier, be it a glass bottle, an aluminum can, a paper cup, etc.

Then, suddenly, everyone decides that they want more soda. Why, they ask, can’t the nation produce enough soda for everyone to have some each day? Here’s what happens:

  1. The only people who can get sodas are those already under the care of the health care system. They are not thirsty, but the insurance company covers the cost, so whatever.

  2. People who are thirsty start going to the hospital just to get soda. Doctors comply with their requests for a prescription. Soda producers try to increase output, but soon run into “bottlenecks.” One vendor with an approved soda delivery system that packages a straw with a can finds that its supplier of straws can not keep up with the increased demand. This soda company explains to its unhappy customers that it has FDA approval only for a product that includes a straw from its traditional supplier. The soda company says that it is applying to the FDA for an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) that gives it permission to bundle a can with a straw from a different vendor. As it waits, it keeps repeating its excuse: “There is a straw bottleneck!”

  3. Meanwhile, researchers on university campuses discover that you do not need a straw. But these researchers have no reason to go through the laborious process of filing for an Emergency Use Authorization that allows drinking from the can. The “straw bottleneck” persists.

  4. In their experiments with drinking from the can, these same university researchers realize soda is just flavored sugar water and that they could produce millions of sodas per day at a price well under $1 per can. The researchers publicize their findings. Policy wonks urge them to get going: “Produce the sodas that a thirsty nation needs.” But these do not say anything about who will pay for all these additional sodas. The researchers are good sports, but they are not idiots. They produce some token batches of soda and go back to writing papers.

  5. The wonks are surprised to discover that their meetings and documents do not yield the soda supply surge they anticipate.

  6. Everyone gets discouraged. The wonks conclude that even an economic system as big, as powerful, and as innovative as the one we have established in the United States cannot rise to the challenge of producing millions of sodas per day. They settle for a stretch goal of offering one soda per month to each family.

For sodas read Covid-19 tests and you get the point.

This is a nice example of making complex processes comprehensible by translating them into everyday scenarios. I used a similar approach in my Slouching towards Dystopia essay to try and get readers to appreciate the absurdity of surveillance methods that would be regarded as abominable in real life and yet are passively accepted in the online world.


COVID-19 and the future of ‘techlash’

Before the pandemic, the world was slowly but surely converging on the conclusion that the tech giants needed to be regulated. One of the most depressing consequences of the pandemic is that any enthusiasm for meaningful regulation will now evaporate, if only because states have discovered the extent to which life can’t go on without some of the services that these companies provide.

Chris Meserole, A Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, has a sombre essay on this theme. “The tech industry”, he writes,

is likely to end the pandemic even more entrenched and powerful than when the crisis started. Prior concerns about the industry’s market power, privacy practices, and content moderation policies—all of which posed a major challenge just months ago—no longer enjoy the same political salience.

Of course, that is not to say the problems that drove the backlash have disappeared altogether. Indeed, in a country whose unemployment rolls have grown by over 25 million in four weeks, the concentration of so much wealth and power in so few companies remains a profound policy challenge. Likewise, with even more of our work and lives now taking place online, the security and integrity of our data is more vital than ever.

Yet the pandemic has reset the relative importance of those issues. Managing the COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath are now the biggest policy challenges we face—and so long as that remains the case, the techlash will remain on hold.

He’s right. And that’s worrying.

And while we’re on that topic, the Verge has an interesting interview with Stacey Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-reliance, in which there’s this interesting passage:

I think in the midst of the pandemic, the kind of power that these companies have is more exposed than ever. I mean, obviously, our whole lives, how we interact with one another, how we engage in commerce, has now sort of all collapsed onto the web. And you have a handful of gatekeepers in that context, including Amazon. So I do think it’s really underscored some of the arguments that I’ve been making, that others have been making, about how Amazon serves as a kind of essential infrastructure and what the dangers are of allowing that infrastructure to be entirely privately controlled without regulation.

I mean, if we don’t have any oversight over Amazon, we’re effectively allowing it to regulate our economy as a private entity — to decide which products succeed and fail, which companies succeed and fail, which communities succeed and fail. Is that really the kind of future that we want to have? I think the other thing that the pandemic is really exposing quite profoundly is how vulnerable our society is because of inequality. I mean, we see this in the numbers of people who have very little cushion or slack in their lives to fall back on during the economic stresses.


At last, some independent, informed scientific opinion that’s all in the open and not tainted by political considerations

Sir David King, who was Chief Scientific Advisor to the Blair government, has become so pissed off by the secretiveness of SAGE, the body of scientific advisers whose advice the government has supposedly been following, that he decided to launch a truly independent equivalent project, all of whose deliberations would be in the open –i.e. broadcast live on YouTube. It’s called Independent SAGE and you can find it here — the livestream is recorded and available to those who weren’t able to catch it live. I watched the first session live today and found it interesting, informative and valuable. There were occasional tech glitches of the kind that will be familiar to anyone condemned to use Zoom (or indeed any of the current video-conferencing tools), but overall it was pretty good. I learned quite a lot from it. Which is more than can be said for the daily government ‘briefings’.


Quarantine diary — Day 44

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