Saturday 6 June, 2020

The Complex Debate Over Silicon Valley’s Embrace of Content Moderation

Interesting NYT piece by Nellie Bowles.

One of the few things that Democrats and Republicans in Washington agree on is that changes to Section 230 are on the table. Mr. Trump issued an executive order calling for changes to it after Twitter added labels to some of his tweets. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has also called for changes to Section 230.

“You repeal this and then we’re in a different world,” said Josh Blackman, a constitutional law professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston. “Once you repeal Section 230, you’re now left with 51 imperfect solutions.”


Under pressure, UK government releases NHS COVID data deals with big tech

Hours before openDemocracy was due to sue, the government released massive data-sharing contracts with Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Faculty and Palantir.

Great journalism. Link

Reminds one that in addition to contact-tracing apps we also need contract-tracing ones.


The Story Behind Bill Barr’s Unmarked Federal Agents

Good piece of investigative and explanatory journalism by Politico. Turns out that the US Federal government has a largish hidden army of police-like officers and agents. Who knew?


History Will Judge the Complicit

Wonderful essay in The Atlantic by Anne Applebaum on the phenomenon of collaboration and, in particular, why (and how) prominent Republicans have become collaborators of a president who stands for everything they supposedly abhor. One of her case studies is Senator Lindsay Graham, a former military patriot who has become one of Trump’s most nauseating legislative groupies. (Graham is a living proof that power is the greatest aphrodisiac.) Also explores the various self-deluding strategies that collaborators use to justify their surrender of agency. What’s especially lovely about the essay is the way it explores the nature of collaboration by going back in modern European history to the Soviet and Nazi eras. It’s a long read, but worth it.


Contact tracing isn’t rocket science. As a small Welsh local authority has shown

This is an extraordinary story.

As Wales takes the first steps out of lockdown and starts trying to find a way to live with Covid-19, people living in one part of the nation could be forgiven for thinking they have almost entirely escaped the disease which reached crisis points in other parts of Wales.

With just 42 confirmed cases to date, and seven deaths, it seems that in the coastal council area of Ceredigion the virus never really took hold.

The initial flurry of cases in this rural part of Wales was comparable to the starts of the outbreak in the local authorities of Wales that ended up being worst hit by the virus. Yet here it just sort of petered out.

I don’t think “petered out” is quite right. The control of the virus in this small rural district was due to:

  • Early, pre-emptive and decisive action. The local University was one of the first to close, so the student population in Aberystwyth was effectively evacuated ahead of time. And because the district is a popular tourist area, long before the national lockdown was announced, the council had instructed all holiday and caravan parks to close too.

  • Effective deployment of contact-tracing from Day One. A simple system has enabled them to carry out contact tracing on every confirmed case in the county. The Council picked up all positive cases did been contact tracing on them all. A couple of environmental health officers were assigned to pick up on positive tests. And precautions were extended to Council staff.

One inescapable lesson from this is that if Whitehall had delegated responsibility and resources for contact-tracing to local authorities from Day One, the UK wouldn’t have the current omnishambles of a ‘world beating’ contract-tracing system that might just be operation by September.

We always used to think that the most pathologically-centralised state in Europe is France. My hunch is that the UK was actually more dominated by London than France was by Paris.

Thanks to Seb Schmoller for alerting me to this.

_____________________________________________________________________ 

Yale has made Frank Snowden’s celebrated course “Epidemics in Western Society Since 1600” freely available.

You can download the course materials from here. As far as I can see, you can only read the HTML version of the lectures. Audio and video require Flash, of which I don’t approve and don’t trust. But the text of the lectures was all I wanted. As you’d expect, the course also has an interesting Reading List.


Quarantine diary — Day 77

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Thursday 4 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

  • Current issue of Private Eye

The government has suddenly twigged that the no-deal Brexit it’s carefully arranging will mean drugs shortages.

Every day, I wake up thinking that the incompetence of the Johnson administration can’t get worse, and every day it does. Now the FT reports that the government is struggling to rebuild stockpiles of drugs eroded by Covid-19 amid fears that a “no-deal” Brexit will jeopardise medicine supplies just as a second coronavirus wave hits the country.

It seems that Matt Hancock, the health secretary, “has accepted the need” to finalise a formal plan to rebuild a six-week stockpile of drugs. Well, that’s a start, anyway. But…

The combination of stockpiles being depleted during the Covid-19 pandemic, the disruption to international production of generic drugs in India and China, and the risks of a second wave interrupting global supplies this year had raised “huge concern” in the top levels of the health department, the Whitehall official added.

With the pharmacy industry apparently indicating that it will be unable to replicate the stockpiles built last autumn, the government faces the prospect of trying to secure supplies through global procurement at a time when markets are already tight.

“Industry is saying that all last autumn’s stock has run down during Covid and the department now thinks it looks doubtful stockpiling can be industry-led, as per last time, so the government is looking at its own options too,” the official said.

Standby by for another Hancock triumph, along the lines of his inability to secure supplies of PPE because he started too late.

Interesting factoid: Hancock read PPE at Oxford, but apparently that degree programme doesn’t have anything in it about actual PPE.


Levels of public trust in government Covid information

From the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.


Trump’s ludicrous biblical photo-op, and its consequences.

I mentioned this in yesterday’s Quarantine Diary.

It was brilliantly covered on the New York Times‘s podcast The Daily. A must-listen IMHO (it’s about 28 minutes)

And then read former Defense Secretary General Mattis’s condemnation of the stunt in The Atlantic, in which he says, in part:

When I joined the military, some 50 years ago,” he writes, “I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”


How Facebook can fix itself

(Except of course that it won’t because its omnipotent boss thinks Facebook is doing just fine. And it needs to keep on the right side of Trump. This may be a good idea in terms of revenues between now and November 4. After that, perhaps less so. See my forthcoming Observer column on Sunday for more detail. )

In the meantime here’s a well-meaning piece from a former employee of the company.

If you think of Facebook as the place where people get their information, it’s like the one grocery store in a town. Everyone shops there and its shelves are mostly filled with food that is nutritious, fun, entertaining, engaging, and so on. However, sprinkled through the shelves are foods that look like regular stuff but are actually poison. I’m not talking about junk food with frivolous or empty calories. I’m talking about food that literally poisons one’s mind, turning him or her against science, facts, and other people. If you accept that there’s poison among the aisles, would you spare any resources to root it out? Are there any risks you would not take? At the very least, you would not hesitate to put warning labels on the poison.

Sweet, isn’t it. And his remedy for Facebook’s toxic behaviour? The company (by which he means Zuckerberg) needs “to build trust”.

You need to show the world that you are not putting profit over values. Therefore, I would suspend the stock buyback program. As I mentioned, you’ve committed ~$34 billion to stock buybacks. It looks like you’ve spent about $20 billion. That’s $14 billion left (please check my math). I’d devote the equivalent resources toward realizing the goal of better informing users. You’d be showing that you’re literally choosing users over profit.

What’s the metric? I don’t know, but I have confidence that you can figure it out. You have swung the pendulum all the way toward enabling expression. Let’s move it toward the quality of information, or an outcome of an accurately informed public. Success on this would be infinitely more valuable to your investors than artificially propping up the stock with buybacks.

He forgot to add the motherhood and apple pie.

__________________________________ 

The Dominic Cummings eyesight-test-game

From the FT:

“Dominic needs to get back to work,” the game instructs, “but his eyes have went all weird. Best drive to Barnard Castle with his kid just to make sure it’s safe to drive to London.” And so I find myself driving along an obstacle-strewn country road towards a distant castle. It’s difficult to concentrate because my character’s vision keeps fogging over and he won’t stop coughing. An imperious child screams at me from the back seat. I finally arrive, passing a double-decker bus displaying a banner that reads “Clap you plebs”. As I steer through the castle gate, a victory message pops on to the screen: “Your eyesight is fine.”

30 Miles to Barnard Castle was released on the game-creation platform Dreams just hours after Dominic Cummings, the UK prime minister’s chief adviser, held a press conference where he addressed his controversial trip from London to Durham under lockdown. It’s a smart example of video game satire, addressing a topical subject by subverting familiar driving game tropes. In asking players to become Cummings behind the wheel, the game elegantly underlines the most farcical aspects of his story.

Lovely stuff. Video-game authors have a sense of humour too. Who knew?


Quarantine diary — Day 75

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Wednesday 3 June, 2020

Quote of the Day


Participle physics

Another wickedly sharp column from Marina Hyde.

I’ve no time for this theory that the government doesn’t care about having the worst death toll in Europe, based on the fact that they only robotically acknowledge it once a day by confirming how many people “have sadly died”. They do care, but just slightly shy of the amount required to tell a civil servant to visit thesaurus.com. The repeat formulation gives the impression of being governed by a Grammarly template, or perhaps an automated phone system. “You are currently number –” “SADLY” “– in the queue.”

On Sunday, it was Robert Jenrick’s turn on the sadface, with the housing and communities secretary released briefly for the press conference. He normally lives in a stock photo about online banking. Unfortunately, that environment seems not to have prepared Robert for questions about why the government is easing lockdown when they themselves said they would not do so until the official alert level was 3. “The alert level is changing,” Jenrick handwaved. “We are still at level 4 but we are transitioning to 3.” Is this like when I still haven’t done the ironing but I am transitioning to having done it? Have I, at that moment, done the ironing? No. Of course I haven’t. But I WILL have. Scientifically, it’s a hugely interesting space to be in. I call it participle physics – which is like particle physics, except Robert Jenrick can do it.


The case of bookcases

Lovely short essay by sociologist David Beer. Noting that the background of many people on Zoom involves book cases, he writes,

I’d probably aim for the same type of scenery, if I could. My video calls are backed by a blank wall. This is no proclamation and nor is it a choice. It is by no means an attempt to subvert or make a statement on the selfconsciously-situated bookcase. I have only a small number at home: my book collection is almost entirely housed in my work office. Locked in. Limited space at home and an attempt to demarcate home and work space have kept me in the habit of only bringing a book or two home at any one time. My book collection exists only at work – a space that I imagined would always be accessible. Those many images of crammed shelves remind me of my books.

I sometimes, in the moments of daydreaming, imagine my office. Empty and dark. The walls lined with my books. The tools of the trade, left unused. It’s a small and inconsequential problem, but it does make me think of how work has been transformed now and possibly in the future.

It’s limiting without them – and not just because I lack a visual representation of my cultural capital to adorn my moments of remote social contact. Planning a lecture, doing some writing, checking and cross-checking some idea. I wrote before about the difficulty of writing at the moment; as the focus starts to return, steadily, I’m now seeing the separation from my books will make things difficult (and that’s without even beginning to contemplate libraries staying shut).

Beer also has a thoughtful post about the difficulty of writing serious (i.e. scholarly) stuff at the moment which resonates with me.


Scott Galloway on the post-pandemic future of (US) universities

If you thought the Wired piece about UK universities that I blogged yesterday was scary, then this interview with Scott Galloway could make your flesh creep. He’s flamboyant but smart. And he knows the tech and Higher Education industries well. It’s a fascinating interview from start to finish, but if you’re busy here’s the summary:

In 2017, Scott Galloway anticipated Amazon’s $13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods a month before it was announced. Last year, he called WeWork on its “seriously loco” $47 billion valuation a month before the company’s IPO imploded. Now, Galloway, a Silicon Valley runaway who teaches marketing at NYU Stern School of Business, believes the pandemic has greased the wheels for big tech’s entrée into higher education. The post-pandemic future, he says, will entail partnerships between the largest tech companies in the world and elite universities. MIT@Google. iStanford. HarvardxFacebook. According to Galloway, these partnerships will allow universities to expand enrollment dramatically by offering hybrid online-offline degrees, the affordability and value of which will seismically alter the landscape of higher education. Galloway, who also founded his own virtual classroom start-up, predicts hundreds, if not thousands, of brick-and-mortar universities will go out of business and those that remain will have student bodies composed primarily of the children of the one percent.

At the same time, more people than ever will have access to a solid education, albeit one that is delivered mostly over the internet. The partnerships he envisions will make life easier for hundreds of millions of people while sapping humanity of a face-to face system of learning that has evolved over centuries. Of course, it will also make a handful of people very, very rich. It may not be long before Galloway’s predictions are put to the test.


So Greece is opening up again? Er, up to a point, and cautiously

Here’s the official story

In summary (via Tyler Cowen):

Phase 1 – Until 15 June International flights are allowed only into Athens airport. All visitors are tested upon arrival and are required to stay overnight at a designated hotel. If the test is negative, then the passenger self-quarantines for 7 days. If the test is positive, the passenger is quarantined under supervision for 14 days.

Phase 2 – Bridge phase- 15 June to 30 June International flights are allowed into Athens and Thessaloniki airports. If your travel originated from an airport not in the EASA affected area list (https://www.easa.europa.eu/SD-2020-01/Airports#group-easa-downloads), then you are only subject to random tests upon arrival. If you originate from an airport on the EASA affected area list, then you will be tested upon arrival. An overnight stay at a designated hotel is required. If the test is negative then the passenger self-quarantines for 7 days. If the test is positive, the passenger is quarantined under supervision for 14 days.

Hmmm… I wasn’t planning to go, anyway. But if I were…


The French contact-tracing app

Just got this from a French reader (to whom merci bon):

The French Stop-Covid app went live yesterday and from this users perspective its most serious flaw may not be privacy but battery life. In less than five hours it has depleted the fairly new battery on my iPhone 6s from near 100% to it’s current 10%. Even the French government website admits that users may find the need for a supplementary charge during the day. Many give too little thought to data privacy but all of us dislike badly-engineered apps that rapidly deplete battery life.

Agreed. I’d be mightily pissed-off by an app that did that. Presumably it’s not using the Apple API.


Quarantine Diary — Day 74

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Tuesday 2 June, 2020

Guinea rose

In the garden, this afternoon. Click on the image to see a larger one.


Lunch with Rutger Bregman — outspoken historian and scourge of Davos

Fascinating conversation (which I’m hoping is not behind the paywall) with the ever-interesting Simon Kuper. If you haven’t read Bergman, this this is the time to start. His Utopia for Realists is terrific. I’ve just ordered his Humankind: A Hopeful History.


Bregman at Davos

Link

This is the YouTube recording that went viral (excuse the pun) a while back.


The enduring romance of the night train

Truly lovely New Yorker essay by Anthony Lane.

The departure of a night train—by definition, a humdrum event for the station staff—exudes, for all but the most jaded travellers, the thrill of an unfamiliar ritual. By day, if late, you run for a train; if early, you tut and sigh at having to tarry so long. At night, on the other hand, you saunter, and deliberately show up in good time. Why? Not because of security, passport control, or the other chores that affront the airline passenger, shortening tempers and sapping every soul, but because you want to settle in and enjoy the show. Patiently, the train awaits you, with a theatrical air of suspense, and the moment of its leaving is akin to the curtain’s rise. T. S. Eliot, for one, knew the moment well:

There’s a whisper down the line at 11:39
When the Night Mail’s ready to depart

If, like me, you’re dreaming about being able to travel again, one day, then this is for you.


Tech nations

A perceptive project by Tortoise, an interesting new slow-journalism outfit. Funded by a membership scheme. Their idea: to look at the tech giants as if they were nation-states. First study was of Apple. Second-up The United States of Amazon.


Keep your distance: 2m is much better than 1m; and face masks are also useful

Keeping people 2m apart from each other is far more effective than just one at reducing the risk of spreading coronavirus, according to a new review in The Lancet. The risk of infection when people stand one metre away is 3%, compared with 13% if standing within a metre. The risk of transmission halves for every extra metre of distancing up to three metres, the modelling suggested. The researchers also found that both face coverings and eye protection significantly reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

Well, we kind-of guessed that already (especially about face-masks) but it’s nice to have empirical confirmation.


This is online learning’s moment. For universities, it’s a total mess

The next year is going to be a torrid year for universities everywhere. This Wired story spells it out in gory detail.

With no end to the pandemic in sight, virtual classes are here to stay. They solve the problem of packed lecture halls and hallways that aren’t designed for social distancing – and are also far cheaper to run. But not many people want to pay almost £10,000 a year for the privilege of attending Zoom calls. Many UK universities are bracing for a gaping hole in their budgets as they expect fewer students to turn up in the autumn. A survey found that one in five people were willing to delay their undergraduate degrees if universities were not operating as normal due to the coronavirus pandemic. With 120,000 fewer students starting in September, UK universities could face a £760 million loss of income in tuition fees.

The University of Manchester, which has announced plans to keep lectures online-only in the autumn term, is already preparing for the worst. On April 23, vice-chancellor Dame Nancy Rothwell told staff that redundancies and pay cuts may be necessary if 80 per cent of students from outside the EU and 20 per cent of UK and EU students decided to stay defer or drop out. In the worst-case scenario, the university could lose up to £270m in a single year – a 15 to 25 per cent deficit.

The University of Cambridge (where I work) has decided that the 2020-21 academic year will be entirely online. It’s hard to say how this will work out, but it could be a shrewd decision because it offers an opportunity for teaching staff to really prepare for an online year — rather than having frantically to cobble something together, as they have been doing this year.

For undergraduate teaching in some subjects, Cambridge (and Oxford) may be in a good position to make this work. This is partly because lectures are only one of the teaching media offered in those two universities. Undergraduates also get tutored in small-group teaching organised by their colleges. I’m pretty sure that some humanities students in the past have obtained good degrees without ever attending a university lecture in Cambridge. (Stephen Fry may be one of them, if I’ve read his memoir correctly.) So Cambridge can have online lectures that are better designed than being just re-purposed face-to-face ones; and the college tutorial system can work online, because, for example, Zoom is pretty good for small-group seminar-type teaching which can mimic the current system.

But that only applies to the Humanities and Social Sciences. For engineering, materials science, chemistry, biology and similar disciplines laboratory experience is pretty crucial. Maybe that can be reorganised with social distancing. But it’ll be harder to do.

And of course, looming over this, is the question of whether students will be willing to incur substantial debt accruing from £10,000 fees for a purely online experience? Maybe they will for some universities, because of the value of the “positional goods” provided by elite institutions. But for other, perfectly respectable but non-elite schools…? I wonder.


But while we’re on the subject of universities in peril…

The University of Texas at Arlington has a free edX course for teachers who need to switch to teaching online. It “explores research-informed, effective practices for online teaching and learning, providing guidance on how to pivot existing courses online while enhancing student success and engagement”. I know the research of some of the people involved and think it might be worth considering… And while target audience is obviously people working in post-secondary institutions, the course could conceivably be of use to anyone moving into online teaching and learning.


Quarantine diary — Day 73

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Monday 1 June, 2020

Lighting-up time

Click on the image for a larger version.


Let’s get rid of peer-review

Radical proposal  by Alex Danco.

Several months ago I wrote a post called Can Twitter save science? which tackled what I see is the heart of the problem: the interconnected relationship between scientific publishing and academic career advancement. If you never read that post, read it first – it’s important context for how I feel about this issue generally, and what I see are the big issues we need to fix.

Since then, something really big happened! Covid happened. And it matters to this issue for two reasons. First, universities everywhere are going to face an enormous budget crunch, all at the same time, and that could provide the coordinated crisis that prompts university libraries to all capitulate on paying expensive journal subscription fees that they can no longer afford. Capitulation like this works best when everyone stops paying all at once, but prior to Covid, it was hard to imagine what single event could possibly coordinate everyone together like this. Well, we found one.

This is a long piece about a complex topic, but it’s important. The academic journal publishing racket is just that — a racket. And peer-reviewing, is an overly-worshipped quality-control mechanism. The extraordinary torrent of Coronavirus-related research now being published and pre-published has overwhelmed the system. Maybe this crisis will lead to structural change.


The Coronavirus War Economy Will Change the World

Nick Mulder’s Foreign Policy article.

When societies shift their economies to a war footing, it doesn’t just help them survive a crisis—it alters them forever.

The resourcefulness of wartime economies offers a useful template for thinking about the broader context of the coronavirus crisis. Mounting a serious campaign to mitigate climate change demands a response so large that many of the virus response measures are just a start. Despite calls for a return to normality, it is difficult to imagine the post-pandemic world economy, whatever it looks like, as a restoration of any sort. Even if the virus subsides in several months or years from now, the larger state of exception in policymaking and collective action to which it already belongs is unlikely to end.

Twentieth-century war economies played an important role in allowing the peacetime economies that followed them to flourish. The key now will be to draw on their lessons of solidarity and inventiveness as the coronavirus confronts the 21st-century world economy with a new kind of warlike hazard.


Maureen Dowd: Think Outside the Box, Jack

Advice to the Twitter boss: throw Ttump off the platform.

You could answer the existential question of whether @realDonaldTrump even exists if he doesn’t exist on Twitter. I tweet, therefore I am. Dorsey meets Descartes.

All it would take is one sweet click to force the greatest troll in the history of the internet to meet his maker. Maybe he just disappears in an orange cloud of smoke, screaming, “I’m melllllllting.”

Do Trump — and the world — a favor and send him back into the void whence he came. And then go have some fun: Meditate and fast for days on end!

But first hire some ex-Navy Seals. And buy a bullet-proof limo. There are a lot of armed Trump-supporting nutters out there.


Sars, Ebola and Mers were near misses that led us to believe Covid-19 would pass us by too

Terrific New Statesman piece by Ian Leslie. Points out the difference between industries like airlines and nuclear power that have to take near-misses seriously.

In industries that have to be vigilant for risks of disaster, such as aviation or nuclear energy, “near misses” are treated as flashing red lights. When a plane almost misses its landing or a factory explosion is narrowly averted, investigations are made, processes revised: just because the disaster did not occur it does not mean it won’t next time.

But near misses can also breed complacency.

To learn from a near miss, Leslie says, you first have to recognise it as one. In the past 20 years,

there have been a series of viral outbreaks: Sars in 2002-03, H5N1 (bird flu) in 2006, H1N1 (swine flu) in 2009, Ebola in 2013, Mers in 2015. Each briefly threatened to become a pandemic, before subsiding. Western governments took this to mean that Covid-19 would go the same way. If Singapore, China and Taiwan were better prepared for this virus than the UK, it’s because officials there knew, in their bones, that those outbreaks might have wreaked far greater damage.

The mistake was that Western governments thought that these near-misses were because the epidemics died out. They didn’t: they were stopped by rapid and effective action.

Reading his piece, I fell to wondering if the early ‘herd immunity’ fantasies of Whitehall were based on this radical misunderstanding of these near-misses in the Far East.


Quarantine diary — Day 72

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Sunday 31 May, 2020

Fuchsia

In the garden this afternoon.


Quote of the Day

A delight for crossword fiends and conspiracy theorists on subliminal messaging: “Stay alert, control the virus, save lives” is an anagram of “Easily survives travel north to castle”.

  • John Deval

Thoughts of the thoughtless

Eliot Weinberger’s list of the slogans on the protestors wanting end to the lockdown:

Signs at the many protests at state capitols against the lockdown, where crowds wave Confederate and ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flags and (legally) carry assault rifles:

FAKE CRISIS
COVID-19 IS A LIE
MY RIGHTS DON’T END WHERE YOUR FEAR BEGINS
FAUCI IS NOT OUR PRESIDENT
MY BODY MY CHOICE
JESUS IS MY VACCINE
KEEP TEXAS FREE FROM TYRANNY
GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME COVID-19
SOCIALISM SUCKS
SACRIFICE THE WEAK: REOPEN
ARBEIT MACHT FREI
I WANT A HAIRCUT

In the ten days after the Republican governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, reopens gyms, spas, hair salons, tattoo parlours and other essential services, confirmed coronavirus cases in the state rise by 42 per cent.


Twitter taking on Trump’s lies? About time too

My Observer column, out today:

In addition to washing your hands while singing the first two verses of The Internationale, it might be a good time also to clean out your Twitter feed. According to a recent report of a research study by Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Computational Analysis of Social and Organizational Systems, about 45% of the false narratives about Covid-19 on Twitter are sent by bots.

The study examined more than 100 false Covid narratives (including the 5G conspiracy theories) pushed in over 200m tweets since January. If you’re a reader of this newspaper, the likelihood is that you never saw any of these. But that’s because you are – like me – cheerfully encased in your own filter bubble. I write with feeling on this matter, because on the morning after the Brexit referendum I went through the list of about 800 people whom I follow on Twitter, and I could not locate a single one who seemed to have been in favour of Brexit in the run-up to the vote. The shock felt by them after the vote was palpable. But it was also a salutary reminder that anyone who uses social media lives in a digital echo chamber. … But bots are not the only problem facing Twitter…

Read on


War Economics and the Crisis: a Conversation between Adam Tooze and Nicholas Mulder.

Link

It’s long (80 minutes) but worth it if you want to get an historically-informed helicopter-view of what’s going on.


A report from inside the track-and-trace fiasco

Wonderful piece in the Observer by a member of Johnson’s “world-beating” track-and-trace team. Here’s a sample:

The self-led courses were very basic – with some generic dos and don’ts about customer data, security and so on. I completed it all in less than one and a half hours, with a score of 95%+.

The next morning I was worried, and feeling very unprepared. I felt the job was an important thing to do. But it was essential to get this right, and I didn’t really understand the role and how to use the systems. I logged in and saw a message saying I would be invited to a chatroom and to please wait.

I waited seven and a half hours (my entire shift). I called the HR helpline after about one hour and was told to relax – everyone is waiting.

The next day I was scheduled to work again. This time, I was invited to a chatroom. I recognised many of the names in the group from my training, so knew the other people were also new. Many people were writing, “Did anyone do anything yesterday?” “Do we just wait?” “What are we waiting for?”

The questions quickly turned to complaint, and we were left unsupervised for hours. A message then appeared asking us to complete our online training – which was met with a chorus of “I did the training”. The day passed as we waited, re-attempted training, and wrote messages to supervisors and got no response. You get the drift. Don’t fret. This operations will be running like clockwork by Christmas. If there is a Christmas, that is.

_____________________________________________________________ 

Quarantine diary — Day 72

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Friday 29 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

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


It’s a strange world out there

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What governments and health authorities would like

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

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

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

What the Apple and Google APIs offer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quarantine Diary — Day 69

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Thursday 28 May, 2020

Deconstructing Cummings’s Downing Street statement

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

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

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Charlie Warzel on de-platforming Trump

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

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

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

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

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


How Trump proposes to go after Twitter for labelling his tweets

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

The key part of the Section reads as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

This is what Trump’s draft Executive Order targets.

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

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

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

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

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


Every stock is a vaccine stock

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

Fascinating post by Tyler Cowen:

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

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

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


Quarantine diary — Day 68

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Wednesday 27 May, 2020

Marina Hyde on Dominic Cummings

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

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

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

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

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

We need writers like this.


MOOCs: the greatest comeback since Lazarus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Turns out Cummings believes in retrospective forecasting only

Wonderful Wired report.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s only one word for this: pathetic.

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


Quarantine diary — Day 67

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Monday 25 May, 2020

Fledging Day!

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

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

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


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

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

Link

Thanks to Gerard de Vries for spotting it.


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

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

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

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


The benefits of taciturnity

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

Lovely LRB piece by Julian Barnes from 1987.

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

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

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

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

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


New life and an awareness of mortality

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

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

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

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

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


Covid is messing with machine-learning systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Quarantine diary — Day 65

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