Thursday 2 April, 2020

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

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

But just look at the tabloids.

Interesting ne c’est pas?

Images from Peter Foster – @pmdfoster


Roots of the UK’s Covid-19 fiasco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earlier in the document, it says:

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

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

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

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


Some good news

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


Being together alone

This is just wonderful IMHO

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

Link

Thanks to GDV for the link


Quarantine diary — Day 12

Link


Monday 23 March, 2020

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Black humour

I watched Boris Johnson’s live press conference from Downing Street yesterday and found myself marvelling at the dark irony of a man who has behaved with grotesque irresponsibility throughout his entire adult life railing against citizens who were behaving irresponsibly by not obeying injunctions about social distancing.


CV takes on a new meaning

Dave Winer (whom God preserve) has decided to start calling the disease CV on his blog. Smart move, and saves typing. I’ve never maintained a proper CV, really, and hope that I don’t acquire this new type either.


Podcasting comes into its own

It’s the second draft of history, in a way. And it’s not radio, for all kinds of reasons — one of which is that it has higher cognitive bandwidth because mostly it’s coming through your headphones and getting more of your attention. The New York Times‘s The Daily is playing a blinder at the moment. The interview with Governor Cuomo, for example, is one of the best things I’ve heard in months. Or the episode in which they spoke to an Italian doctor who’s having to triage patient care at the heart of his country’s crisis.


Why we need Wikipedia more than ever

Great article in Slate’s Future Tense series on how Wikipedia is addressing the information and knowledge challenges posed by the pandemic. Sample:

In the midst of the fast-paced editing, some Wikipedians are thinking about the role that the project is playing during this crisis. Last week, William Beutler made a persuasive case on his blog, the Wikipedian, that there should be a dedicated space on Wikipedia’s front page for coronavirus news that would easily catch readers’ attention. “Like it or not, Wikipedia is in a unique position to point information-hungry citizens around the world to better information than they can find almost anywhere else,” Beutler wrote. On Monday Wikipedia updated its front page with the new coronavirus news feature in line with Beutler’s suggestion. But the debate between editors about the proposal was contentious. Highlighting news about the pandemic arguably goes against another of the site’s content policies: Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and “not a newspaper.” Then again, that distinction raises tricky questions, like, what’s the difference between a journalist and an encyclopedist who are both chronicling a pandemic in real time?

Rather than going down that particular rabbit hole, however, it’s probably better to highlight how the information about the coronavirus on Wikipedia is truly serving the reading public, or as some volunteer editors jokingly put it, “the customer.” Personally, I appreciate English Wikipedia’s category table, which neatly organizes English Wikipedia’s 200-plus articles about the subject. These pages are neatly grouped by subtopics, like the financial impact of the coronavirus or its effect on tourism. Overall, the way the Wikipedians have been organizing the information and summarizing it reminds me of a high school history textbook—except that this one is being written in real time, with thousands of authors making thousands of changes.

Wikipedia is one of the wonders of the world. Whenever I run into people who are sniffy about it because of a mistake they found on it, my response is: so why haven’t you corrected it? And to people who tell me how wonderful it is I say: so when did you last make a donation to help it keep going?


Quarantine Diary – Day 2


Sunday 22 March, 2020

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Smartphones could help us track the coronavirus – but at what cost?

This morning’s Observer column

A key principle of control engineering is that you have to be able to measure the variable you’re trying to control. In the case of Covid-19, we currently have no way of accurately measuring how we’re doing, because we’re not able to do enough testing of the population. Dammit, we’re still not even testing frontline medical staff.

I know, I know: this is hard; this thing came out of the blue; we can’t just magic up the resources needed to do extensive public testing out of thin air; etc. But at the same time, every sentient being in the government must know by now that we must find some way of measuring the thing we’re trying to control. How else will we know – other than by counting the number of desperate cases who show up needing intensive care – whether that curve is being flattened or not?

We need a magic bullet. And, miraculously, we seem to have one. It’s called a smartphone…

Yeah, but there’s a downside that we might be living with for the rest of our lives…

Read on

Interestingly, Yuval Noah Harari had an interesting essay on the same lines — “The world after coronavirus” — in the weekend edition of the Financial Times. “Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life”, he writes.

That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical processes. Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours. Immature and even dangerous technologies are pressed into service because the risks of doing nothing are bigger. Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments. What happens when everybody works from home and communicates only at a distance? What happens when entire schools and universities go online? In normal times, governments, businesses and educational boards would never agree to conduct such experiment. But these aren’t normal times.

In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.

Yep.


What the Coronavirus crisis is revealing

Extraordinary essay in the New York Times by Mark O’Connell.

In the original Greek, the word apocalypse means simply a revelation, an uncovering. And so there is one sense in which these days are truly, literally, apocalyptic. The world itself is being revealed with a startling and surreal clarity. Much of what is being revealed is ugly: the rot of inequality in the bones of our societies, the lethal inefficiency of free-market capitalism, the bewildering cruelty and stupidity of many of the people in positions of apparent leadership. But there are beautiful things, too, being revealed with great clarity and force. Of these, the one that gives me the most hope in this sad and frightening time is that despite the damage done by the presiding ideology of individualism, there remains a determination to act out of a sense of shared purpose.

On checking, this is probably drawn from his forthcoming book – Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back.


Quarantine Diary

Given that those of us confined to barracks should have more time on our hands, I’ve decided to keep an audio diary of thoughts and reflections on what we are about to go through. It starts today.


Saturday 22 March, 2020

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The American Cemetery, Madingley this morning. Click on the image for a larger size.


Solitude vs loneliness

As the world struggles to adjust to lockdown, quarantine and social-distancing there’s an interesting and timely book on the horizon. It’s A History of Solitude by my friend and colleague David Vincent, who is one of Britain’s most distinguished social historians. It comes out on April 24. The timing is fortuitous but accidental: David has been working on the book for several years, starting on it after he had finished his previous book, Privacy: A Short History. I haven’t seen it yet, but Terry Eagleton, the literary critic, has and he’s written an interesting review for the Guardian. Snippet:

Solitude is not the same as loneliness. Lonely people feel the need for company, while solitary types seek to escape it. The neatest definition of loneliness, David Vincent writes in his superb new study, is “failed solitude”. Another difference between the two groups is that hermits, anglers, Trappist monks and Romantic poets choose to be alone, whereas nobody chooses to feel abandoned and bereft. Calling yourself “self-partnering”, meaning that you sit in the cinema (should they be open) holding your own hand, may be either a genuine desire for solitude or a way of rationalising the stigma of isolation. The greatest difference of all, however, is that solitude has rarely killed anyone, whereas loneliness can drive you to the grave. As the coronavirus rampages, some of us might now face a choice between physical infection and mental breakdown…


Thank God for experts

Link


Producing vaccines under intense political pressure poses serious risks

How anti-vaxxers win — If any eventual vaccine harms even a tiny percentage of those who get it, “the anti-vaxxers can set back not only this vaccine but all vaccines,” said Barry Bloom, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. The anti-vaccine movement has been growing in the United States, and contributed to the country’s worst measles epidemic in 27 years in 2019. (From Politico’s nightly summary.)

This is yet one more reason why Trump is a menace. He keeps talking nonsense and stoking unrealistic expectations. This makes him the second biggest public health risk to the American public. And while we’re on that topic, here’s Larry Lessig:

If in January, Trump had “declared war” on this virus with the resolve of FDR, or Churchill, or even President Thomas J. Whitmore (Independence Day), he would have united the world against this common foe, and for once, the world could wage a war as one, without hesitation, and without regret.

Yet so tiny is the mind of our Idiot King that he could not even glimpse this extraordinary gift. His single focus was on the single indicator that seemed to say that he was, indeed, a genius — the stock market. And so he dissembled and obstructed to the end of faking the market out. Who knows if the man is really stupid enough to have believed that a virus that had brought China to its knees, once discovered to have infected 15 Americans, would “within a couple days go down to close to zero.” It doesn’t matter. The political system had taught Trump that he had the power to distort reality. The economic system has now taught Trump that he can’t distort economic reality. America’s economy — and the worlds’ economy— will now collapse. The election in November will be in midst of a great recession, compounded by unimaginable loss of human life. No President gets re-elected in times like that. Not the good ones. Not even the buffoons.


Remote conferencing with Zoom

Some of my research colleagues and I had a key meeting scheduled for this week and planned some weeks ago. As the University (Cambridge) went into lockdown we obviously couldn’t meet fate-to-face but were reluctant to cancel the discussion. Previously, we would have used conventional phone-conferencing, but I have become so pissed-off with the inadequacies of that medium that I suggested we used Zoom instead.

It was MUCH better. Two things in particular made all the difference: firstly one could see all the participants (as live images in small frames at the top of the screen); and secondly, whenever anyone started to speak, the software foregrounded them. This latter feature wasn’t perfect, but it was generally very effective. And the audio quality was sometimes a bit harsh, but still perfectly comprehensible.

My conclusion: the tech isn’t perfect, but I never want to go back to phone conferences again.


Why modelling is the rational way to make policy in a complex system

The Economist has an excellent explanation of the Imperial College epidemiological model That persuaded the UK government to change tack (though not quickly enough). The modellers

assigned covid-19 a “basic reproduction number” of 2.4. This means that in a population not taking any precautions, and where no one is immune, each case leads, on average, to 2.4 secondary cases.

Under those conditions the model showed the disease infecting 80% of the British population in three to four months. If 4.4% of the people infected became ill enough to be hospitalised and 30% of those deteriorated to the point of needing intensive care, then by mid-April demand for beds in intensive-care units (icus) would outstrip the health service’s “surge” capacity. In May the number of critical patients would be more than 30 times the number of icu beds available. Estimates of the fatality rate in China range from 0.5% to 1.5% of infections. Using a conservative 0.9% for Britain, the model put the death toll by the end of the summer at over half a million.


The Italian tragedy

One of the tragedies of this pandemic is the way it shows how social structures that we generally think of as embodying sociality and stability — extended families with several generations living closely together, for example — can be especially vulnerable. It turns out that Italy has a higher percentage of elderly people than most European countries, and about two-thirds of adults aged 18-35 live with their parents, with many houses containing three generations — which meant they were sitting ducks for Covid-19.


Friday 21 March, 2020

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It’s the Spring Equinox!


Boris Johnson’s fianceé is pregnant and they’re living in the same house. So shouldn’t Johnson be in quarantine too?

After all, the government’s advice is that pregnant women should self-quarantine (even though there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that they are more at risk). Concealing him from public view would at least stop us being subjected to the Bertie Wooster nonsense he talked yesterday about getting this virus blighter beaten in 12 weeks. He sometimes seems incapable of engaging his brain before opening his mouth.


The Net is now vital infrastructure. So it must be protected during this crisis

As more and more people have to stay — or work from — home, the Internet is is now really part of society’s critical infrastructure. So we need to make sure that it can continue to carry the increased load that’s heading its way. That means that, in the end, some uses will have to take priority over others. I’ve been ranting for weeks that HD streaming of entertainment content should be de-prioritised, and was relieved to see that the EU has come round to that view. So it’s good to see that Netflix and YouTube announce that they will reduce streaming quality in Europe for at least the next month to prevent the internet collapsing under the strain of unprecedented usage due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sky News reports both companies saying that the measures will affect all video streams for 30 days. “We estimate that this will reduce Netflix traffic on European networks by around 25% while also ensuring a good quality service for our members,” a Netflix spokesperson said in a statement. A spokesperson for Google, which owns YouTube, said: “We will continue working with member state governments and network operators to minimize stress on the system, while also delivering a good user experience.”

The Financial Times reports that in Italy, the first country to enact a full lockdown, there has been a three-fold increase in the use of video conferencing, which, alongside streaming and gaming, drove a 75 per cent rise in residential data traffic across broadband and mobile networks during the weekend, according to Telecom Italia. And the Spanish telecoms industry issued a warning at the start of the week to urge consumers to ration their internet usage by streaming and downloading more in off-peak hours.

This is going to get worse. What’s happening — predictably — is that whereas Internet use tended to spike in the evenings, now it’s higher (sometimes much higher) throughout the day. So we now have another curve that we need to “flatten”. And it’s possible, therefore, that the EU will have to revisit its Net Neutrality rules as a consequence.


How to Make Your Own Hand Sanitizer

Recipes from Wired magazine. I think I’ll stick to soap and water.


How will we know when we’re through this?

A question that Steven Levy asked during his interview of Larry Brilliant. (That’s the Larry Brilliant of eradicating smallpox and the famous TED talk about how to deal with pandemics.) His mantra: detect early, and respond early.

Here’s his answer to Levy’s question:

The world is not going to begin to look normal until three things have happened. One, we figure out whether the distribution of this virus looks like an iceberg, which is one-seventh above the water, or a pyramid, where we see everything. If we’re only seeing right now one-seventh of the actual disease because we’re not testing enough, and we’re just blind to it, then we’re in a world of hurt. Two, we have a treatment that works, a vaccine or antiviral. And three, maybe most important, we begin to see large numbers of people—in particular nurses, home health care providers, doctors, policemen, firemen, and teachers who have had the disease—are immune, and we have tested them to know that they are not infectious any longer. And we have a system that identifies them, either a concert wristband or a card with their photograph and some kind of a stamp on it. Then we can be comfortable sending our children back to school, because we know the teacher is not infectious.

The interview is well worth reading in full.

And when you’ve done that, watch his 2006 TED talk. You won’t regret it.


Thursday 19 March, 2020

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England’s green and pleasant land

One part of the country that’s not currently under lockdown: the river Cam at Grantchester, photographed on Tuesday morning.

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Apocalypse now

The Wall Street Journal reports from the Papa Giovanni XXIII Hospital, a large, modern medical facility in Bergamo, a prosperous Italian city that has been overwhelmed by the coronavirus disease:

Bergamo shows what happens when things go wrong. In normal times, the ambulance service at the Papa Giovanni hospital runs like a Swiss clock. Calls to 112, Europe’s equivalent of 911, are answered within 15 to 20 seconds. Ambulances from the hospital’s fleet of more than 200 are dispatched within 60 to 90 seconds. Two helicopters stand by at all times. Patients usually reach an operating room within 30 minutes, said Angelo Giupponi, who runs the emergency response operation: “We are fast, in peacetime.”

Now, people wait an hour on the phone to report heart attacks, Dr. Giupponi said, because all the lines are busy. Each day, his team fields 2,500 calls and brings 1,500 people to the hospital. “That’s not counting those the first responders visit but tell to stay home and call again if their condition worsens,” he said.

Ambulance staff weren’t trained for such a contagious virus. Many have become infected and their ambulances contaminated. A dispatcher died of the disease Saturday. Diego Bianco was in his mid-40s and had no prior illnesses.

“He never met patients. He only answered the phone. That shows you the contamination is everywhere,” a colleague said. Mr. Bianco’s co-workers sat Sunday at the operations center with masks on their faces and fear in their eyes…

This is why social-distancing has to be made to work.


MEOW

Our local supermarket announced that the first hour after opening this morning would be reserved for people who would have to ‘self-isolate’ from next weekend. I fall into that category because of my age, but people with particular medical conditions also fall into it. Think of it as voluntary house arrest! The supermarket was fairly busy with customers of retirement age. The atmosphere was cheery and civilised, with a vague feeling of wartime solidarity. In a way, I reflected, on discovering that all the milk had gone and further stocks were not expected until midday, that in a sense this is the moral equivalent of war.

And then I remembered that during the 1979 energy crisis in the US, the then president Jimmy Carter had used that phrase — I think in the context of making the US independent of oil imports from the Middle East. For Carter, the phrase was a way of signalling how important his campaign was. But of course his Republican opponents resisted it — and found a way of effectively ridiculing it by making an acronynm from the initial letters of each word: MEOW. And it worked.


AI is an ideology, not a technology

Nice essay in Wired by Jaron Lanier, arguing that, at its core, “artificial intelligence” is a perilous belief that fails to recognize the agency of humans. “The usual narrative goes like this”, he writes.

Without the constraints on data collection that liberal democracies impose and with the capacity to centrally direct greater resource allocation, the Chinese will outstrip the West. AI is hungry for more and more data, but the West insists on privacy. This is a luxury we cannot afford, it is said, as whichever world power achieves superhuman intelligence via AI first is likely to become dominant.

If you accept this narrative, the logic of the Chinese advantage is powerful. What if it’s wrong? Perhaps the West’s vulnerability stems not from our ideas about privacy, but from the idea of AI itself.

The central point of the essay is that “AI” is best understood as a political and social ideology rather than as a basket of algorithms. And at its core is the belief

that a suite of technologies, designed by a small technical elite, can and should become autonomous from and eventually replace, rather than complement, not just individual humans but much of humanity. Given that any such replacement is a mirage, this ideology has strong resonances with other historical ideologies, such as technocracy and central-planning-based forms of socialism, which viewed as desirable or inevitable the replacement of most human judgement/agency with systems created by a small technical elite. It is thus not all that surprising that the Chinese Communist Party would find AI to be a welcome technological formulation of its own ideology.

Thoughtful piece. Worth reading in full.


Will the virus enable us to rediscover what the Internet is for?

The wonderful thing about the Net — so we naive techno-utopians used to think — was that it would liberate human creativity because it lowered the barriers to publication and self-expression. The most erudite articulation of this was probably Yochai Benkler’s wonderful The Wealth of Networks, a celebration of the potential of ‘peer production’ and user-generated content. We saw the technology was an enabling, democratising force — a ‘sit-up’ rather than a ‘lie-back’ medium. And we saw in its apparently inexorable rise the end of the era of the couch potato.

What we never expected was that a combination of capitalism and human nature would instead turn the network into million-channel TV, with billions of people passively consuming content created by media corporations: the ultimate lie-back medium. And indeed, if you look at the data traffic on the Net these days, you see the effects of that. According to Sandvine, a network equipment company, in 2019, for example, video accounted for 60.6 percent of total downstream volume worldwide, up 2.9 percentage points from 2018. Web traffic was the next biggest category, with a 13.1 percent share (down 3.8 points year over year), followed by gaming at 8.0 percent, social media at 6.1 percent and file sharing at 4.2 percent. The same report found that Google and its various apps (including YouTube and Android) accounted for 12 percent of overall internet traffic and that Facebook apps took 17 percent of downstream internet traffic in the Asia-Pacific region, as compared with 3 percent worldwide.

One interesting question raised by the COVID-19 crisis is whether people who find themselves isolated in their homes will discover affordances of the network of which they were hitherto unaware. Kevin Roose of the NYT explores this in “The Coronavirus Crisis Is Showing Us How to Live Online”. We’ve always hoped that our digital tools would create connections, not conflict, he says. We now have a chance to make it happen. After a week in self-isolation, he finds himself agreeably surprised:

Last weekend, in between trips to the grocery store, I checked up on some friends using Twitter D.M.s, traded home-cooking recipes on Instagram, and used WhatsApp to join a blockwide support group with my neighbors. I even put on my Oculus virtual reality headset, and spent a few hours playing poker in a V.R. casino with friendly strangers.

I expected my first week of social distancing to feel, well, distant. But I’ve been more connected than ever. My inboxes are full of invitations to digital events — Zoom art classes, Skype book clubs, Periscope jam sessions. Strangers and subject-matter experts are sharing relevant and timely information about the virus on social media, and organizing ways to help struggling people and small businesses. On my feeds, trolls are few and far between, and misinformation is quickly being fact-checked.

Well, well. Reporters should get out more — onto the free and open Internet rather than the walled gardens of social media.


Wednesday 18 March, 2020

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What we’re dealing with

It’s as if we had the Spanish flu and the Great Depression simultaneously. There’s no good outcome from this.


Why aren’t share buybacks outlawed?

Allowing companies to buy their own shares is one of the most outrageous abuses of corporate power. Yesterday, Tim Wu revealed the extent to which American Airlines had abused the loophole as it minted money over recent years. It wasn’t just American, though. Other airlines were doing it too: according to Bloomberg they spent 96% of free cash flow on it. Buybacks were illegal throughout most of the 20th century because they were considered a form of stock market manipulation. But in 1982, the Securities and Exchange Commission passed rule 10b-18, which created a legal process for buybacks and opened the floodgates for companies to start repurchasing their stock en masse.

And guess who was president at the time? Why, Ronald Reagan — the “sunshine in America guy”. The guy who led the bonfire of the regulations.


The scientist who saw COVID-19 coming

Interesting profile of Dennis Carroll.

For decades, Carroll has been a leading voice about the threat of zoonotic spillover, the transmission of pathogens from nonhuman animals to us. Scientists are confident the current outbreak, which began in Wuhan, China, stemmed from a virus inherent in bats. In 2009, after years of studying infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Carroll formed a USAID program called PREDICT, where he guided trailblazing research into viruses hiding, and waiting to emerge, in animals around the world.

Federal funding for his PREDICT project was withdrawn in 2019. Guess who was president then?

There’s an emerging theme here…


Why liberals shouldn’t count their chickens

“The initial mishandling of the coronavirus by the government doesn’t mean voters will penalize Trump in November,” said Michael Ceraso, who worked for Sanders in 2016 and was Pete Buttigieg’s New Hampshire director before leaving his campaign last year. “We know we have two candidates who can pivot this generation’s largest health crisis to their policy strengths. But history tells us that an incumbent who steers us through a challenging time, a la Bush and 9/11 and Obama and the Great Recession, are rewarded with a second term.”

(from Politico’s nightly newsletter)


What professional journalists should be doing in this crisis

Terrific piece by Jeff Jarvis from NYU. The main takeaway IMHO is: if you’re not adding value to the viewer’s/listener’s/reader’s understanding then what the hell are you doing?

Some snippets:

we should, for starters, get rid of the meaningless TV location shot. I saw a poor sod standing in Times Square for 11 hours yesterday, reporting for MSNBC, telling us that, well, there were still people there, just not as many as usual. Why? How did that improve my chances of surviving the pandemic? What information did that add to my decision-making? What did the reporter gather that a static webcam could not have? Nothing. And how much did it endanger him and his crew? We can’t know.

Yep. If I see another BBC reporter standing in front of 10 Downing Street I will scream.

I see print reporters going out to ask people how they feel standing in line for toilet paper. And photographers are sent out to get pictures that tell us there are lines of people waiting for that toilet paper. Same question: Why? What does that tell me that affects my decisions? So stop. The world is not a stage and journalists are not set designers. Stop treating the public as a background. Do only those things that inform. (And if you want those images to tell me what I already know about toilet paper being gone, you can ask nicely of many people on Instagram and use their pictures, perhaps paying them.)

And

Many years ago, my children, I helped pioneer cable news use of the remote webcam when a blizzard prevented me from making it into MSNBC’s studios for a blog report. I set up a cam at home. The video was jumpy, but then-network-head Rick Kaplan thought it looked edgy and so webcams were all the vogue for a few months, until they weren’t. Such is TV.

Well, technology has advanced much since then. Skype is good. There are countless experts who can be brought on the air from their homes and offices anywhere in the world to expand the perspectives offered to the public without endangering them. That should be the standard — not the exception. It will substantively improve TV. There is no reason for radio and print reporters to have to be face-to-face with every source to get useful information. For that, we always had the phone. Now we have the net.

It’s great stuff. Well reading in full.


Monday 16 March, 2020

Quarantine reading

If (as seems possible) some of us are going to be confined to barracks for a substantial period, it would make sense to lay in a stock of useful reading material. There’s always the final volume of Hillary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, of course. But for non-fiction addicts here’s a list of some books that, in one way or another, shed light on our current crisis. It’s worth remembering that (a) we’ve been here before, and (b) that pandemics hold up a mirror to human nature — and to society.

Albert Camus, The Plague
Published in 1947, this modern classic tells the story of a plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran. It asks a number of questions relating to the nature of destiny and the human condition. The characters in the book, ranging from doctors to holidaymakers to fugitives, all show the effects the plague has on a populace. Though set in the 1940s, the book is believed to be based on the cholera epidemic that killed a large percentage of Oran’s population in 1849 following French colonisation.

I was struck by a Guardian essay about the book by my Observer colleague, Ed Vulliamy, in 2015 during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. “Most of us read The Plague as teenagers”, he wrote,

and we should all read it again. And again: for not only are all humankind’s responses to death represented in it, but now – with the advent of Ebola – the book works on the literal as well as metaphorical level.

Camus’s story is that of a group of men, defined by their gathering around and against the plague. In it we encounter the courage, fear and calculation that we read or hear in every story about West Africa’s efforts to curtail and confront Ebola; through its narrator, Dr Rieux, we can identify with the hundreds of Cuban doctors who went immediately to the plague’s Ground Zero, and those such as the Scottish nurse currently fighting for her life at the Royal Free Hospital in London.

Adam Kucharski, The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread and Why They Stop. Published earlier this year. The author is a mathematician who works at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where he works on the mathematical analysis of infectious disease outbreaks. The book uncovers the underlying principles that drive contagion, from infectious diseases and online misinformation to gun violence and financial crises. It explains what makes things spread, why outbreaks look like they do, and how we can change what happens in future. It’s beautifully — and clearly — written (I’m reading it at the moment and can testify to that.) Funnily enough, I ordered it before COVID-19 hit the news, because I’m interested in the way that memes and conspiracy theories spread virally online. Serendipity rules OK.

Frank Snowden: Epidemics and Society: from the Black Death to the present, Yale, 2016. A real big-picture, long-view work of historical scholarship. examines the ways in which disease outbreaks have altered the societies through which they have spread — shaping politics, crushing revolutions, and entrenching racial and economic discrimination, affecting personal relationships, the work of artists and intellectuals, and the man-made and natural environments. Gigantic in scope, stretching across centuries and continents, Snowden’s account also seeks to explain the ways in which social structures have allowed diseases to flourish. “Epidemic diseases are not random events that afflict societies capriciously and without warning,” he writes. “On the contrary, every society produces its own specific vulnerabilities”. The New Yorker recently published an interview with Snowden which explores these questions. One passage in the conversation particularly stood out for me:

Epidemics are a category of disease that seem to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are. That is to say, they obviously have everything to do with our relationship to our mortality, to death, to our lives. They also reflect our relationships with the environment—the built environment that we create and the natural environment that responds. They show the moral relationships that we have toward each other as people, and we’re seeing that today.

If you’re settling down for a long quarantine, this book will keep you absorbed for quite a while.

Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, Souvenir Press, 2011. A masterpiece of investigative reporting. Shilts covered the AIDS epidemic from 1982 for The San Francisco Chronicle, the only US newspaper willing to give its full attention to the epidemic. He traced the roots of AIDS beginning in 1976 to two events and focussing on the mysterious illness of a Danish physician working in Africa. Before the virus even had a name, it had leapt across continents and destroyed communities, while the world stood idly by. It was, after all, a disease that affected ‘only’ gay men. There are lots of echoes of the Trump Administration in Stilts’s account. Like the present President, Ronald Reagan’s budget cuts affected the programs that needed funding for the necessary research. His Administration also dismissed scientists, thereby delaying the discovery of pharmacological defences. Remind you of anyone? Other culprits include: the businesses whose decisions to keep blood banks unaccountable and bathhouses liberated helped to spread the disease; mainstream media, for its reluctance to report AIDS; and the blasé attitudes of political officials, public health authorities, and community leaders. There are heroes in this story too, of course. But somehow it’s the villains we remember. Will it be any different this time?

Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year. Although a novel published in 1722, it’s really an early example of imaginative journalistic reportage. It’s an account of one man’s experiences of the year 1665, in which the bubonic plague struck the city of London. It’s presented as an eyewitness account of the events at the time, but Defoe was only five years old in 1665, and the book itself was published under the initials H. F. and is probably based on the journals of Defoe’s uncle, Henry Foe, who lived in London and survived the plague. It’s still a vivid read.

Dorothy Crawford, The Invisible Enemy: A Natural History of Viruses Published in 2000, this is an overview of the viruses that have wreaked havoc in the past. She looks at the havoc viruses have caused in the past, where they have come from, and the detective work involved in uncovering them. Finally, she considers whether a new virus could potentially wipe out the human race. It’s informative and readable. James Meek wrote an informative review of it for the London Review of Books in 2001.

Richard J. Evans, Death in Hamburg – Society and Politics in the Cholera Years 1830-1910 A terrific study by a formidable historian of the way Hamburg reacted when it was hit in 1892 by cholera.

Allan M. Brandt, No Magic Bullet – a social history of venereal disease in the United States since 1880 In a way, this book has echoes of the story told in Randy Shilts’s book on AIDS. Brandt demonstrates that Americans’ concerns about venereal disease have centered around a set of social and cultural values related to sexuality, gender, ethnicity, and class. At the heart of our efforts to combat these infections, he argues, has been the tendency to view venereal disease as both a punishment for sexual misconduct and an index of social decay. This tension between medical and moral approaches has significantly impeded efforts to develop “magic bullets”–drugs that would rid us of the disease–as well as effective policies for controlling the infections’ spread.

_____________________ 

Sunday 15 March 2020

Online memes are viruses too

This morning’s Observer column:

One of the things that makes this epidemic different from predecessors is the dominance of social media in today’s world. One of the most perceptive analyses of what’s going on has come from Kate Starbird of Washington State University, who’s a leading expert on “crisis informatics” – the study of how information flows in crisis situations, especially over social media. Crises always generate levels of high uncertainty, she argues, which in turn breeds anxiety. This leads people to seek ways of resolving uncertainty and reducing anxiety by seeking information about the threat. They’re doing what humans always do – trying to make sense of a confusing situation.

In the pre-internet era, information was curated by editorial gatekeepers and official government sources. But now anything goes, and sense-making involves trying to find out stuff on the internet, through search engines and social media. Some of the information gathered may be reliable, but a lot of it won’t be. There are bad actors manipulating those platforms for economic gain (need a few face-masks, guv?) or ideological purposes. People retweet links without having looked at the site. And even innocently conceived jokes (a photograph of empty shelves in a local supermarket, for example) can trigger panic-buying…

Read on


Profiting from the crisis

The other day, partly out of curiosity — having noticed that our local Aldi store had apparently been cleaned out of hand-sanitisers, I went on to Amazon.co.uk to see what was happening there. Lots of sanitizers on offer, though only a small percentage seemed to have the 60%+ alcohol content needed to see off the Coronavirus. So I chose one — priced at £6.99 (which seemed steep for a tiny bottle) but it advertised free delivery so I pushed it into the basket and continued. Turned out that the free delivery means delivery between March 30 and April 7. But if I wanted it sooner than that I could have it by paying for delivery. How much? £48. Having thus confirmed my low opinion of human nature, I deleted the item and logged off. (I have plenty of soap and have never hitherto used a hand-sanitiser.)

I guess this always happens when there’s a panic and people over-react. And of course there are smart people who know how to exploit that. The NYT has an interesting story today about two brothers who set about buying every hand-sanitizer and wipe they could find — in the process clearing the shelves of every story they visited on March 1 with the intention of selling them at a heavy markup on Amazon. Initially, it went swimmingly — until Amazon decided to take action against merchants the company judged to be engaged in price-gouging. Now, as the headline puts it over a photograph of one of the brothers in his lock-up garage, “He has 17,700 bottles of Hand Sanizer and Nowhere to Sell Them”.

Cue violins.


Andrew Sullivan on the Plague

“Reality Arrives to the Trump Era”. Spot on, as usual.


Dressing for the age of Surveillance

“If the government were to demand pictures of citizens in a variety of poses, against different backdrops, indoors and outdoors, how many Americans would readily comply? But we are already building databases of ourselves, one selfie at a time. Online images of us, our children, and our friends, often helpfully labelled with first names, which we’ve posted to photo-sharing sites like Flickr, have ended up in data sets used to train face-recognition systems.”

Yeah, but if you’re an AI geek, you can make a T-shirt with a pattern that renders you invisible to facial-recognition systems. This from a fascinating New Yorker essay by John Seabrook.


The economic impact of the pandemic (and related thoughts)

Greg Mankiw is the Robert M. Beren Professor of Economics at Harvard. People keep ringing him up asking for his views on the impact of the virus. Here’s his blogged reply:

  • A recession is likely and perhaps optimal (not in the sense of desirable but in the sense of the best we can do under the circumstances).

  • Mitigating the health crisis is the first priority. Give Dr. Fauci anything he asks for.

  • Fiscal policymakers should focus not on aggregate demand but on social insurance. Financial planners tell people to have six months of living expenses in an emergency fund. Sadly, many people do not.

  • Considering the difficulty of identifying the truly needy and the problems inherent in trying to do so, sending every American a $1000 check asap would be a good start. A payroll tax cut makes little sense in this circumstance, because it does nothing for those who can’t work.

  • There are times to worry about the growing government debt. This is not one of them.

  • Externalities abound. Helping people over their current economic difficulties may keep more people at home, reducing the spread of the virus. In other words, there are efficiency as well as equity arguments for social insurance.

  • Monetary policy should focus on maintaining liquidity. The Fed’s role in setting interest rates is less important than its role as the lender of last resort. If the Fed thinks that its hands are excessively tied in this regard by Dodd-Frank rules, Congress should untie them quickly.

  • President Trump should shut-the-hell-up. He should defer to those who know what they are talking about. Sadly, this is unlikely to occur.


Ian Donald’s tweetstream about UK government policy on COVID-19

Wonderfully succinct and helpful. Link


Saturday 14 March, 2020

Quote of the Day

”Everything is relative; and only that is absolute”

  • Auguste Comte

The Trump presidency is over

Really? The pessimist in me (plus the ghost of HL Mencken sitting on my shoulder) says that nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. But maybe this time is different. At any rate, that’s what one Republican — Peter Wehner — says in a blast in The Atlantic. Here’s how it ends:

The coronavirus is quite likely to be the Trump presidency’s inflection point, when everything changed, when the bluster and ignorance and shallowness of America’s 45th president became undeniable, an empirical reality, as indisputable as the laws of science or a mathematical equation.

It has taken a good deal longer than it should have, but Americans have now seen the con man behind the curtain. The president, enraged for having been unmasked, will become more desperate, more embittered, more unhinged. He knows nothing will be the same. His administration may stagger on, but it will be only a hollow shell. The Trump presidency is over.

Here’s hoping.


The remarkable Dr Fauci

Jame Fallows has a fascinating piece about Dr Anthony Fauci, who has been head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at the National Institutes of Health, since Ronald Reagan’s first term, in 1984. Although nothing in his look or bearing would suggest it, Fauci is older than either Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden. He recently turned 79. And what’s really interesting about him is that he has been the only official to contradict Trump in public and keep his job. (Remember Jim Mattis, for example?).

“There is no precedent”, writes Fallows,

from Mattis or anyone else, for what we have seen these past few weeks from Fauci at the podium. Is the coronavirus problem just going to go away (as Trump had claimed)? No, from Fauci. It is serious, and it is going to get worse. Is the testing system “perfect” (as Trump had claimed)? No, it is not working as it should. Is the U.S. once again the greatest of all nations in its response to the threat? No, it is behind in crucial aspects, and has much to learn from others.

Fauci is saying all these things politely and respectfully. As an experienced Washington operator he knows that there is no reason to begin an answer with, “The president is wrong.” You just skip to the next sentence, “The reality is…” But his meaning—“the president is wrong”—is unmistakable.

Anthony Fauci has earned the presumption-of-credibility for his comments. Donald Trump has earned the presumption that he is lying or confused. A year ago that standoff—the realities, versus Trump-world obeisance—worked out against James Mattis. Will the balance of forces be different for Fauci? As of this writing, no one can know.

Fascinating: someone whom Trump can’t sack because he needs Fauci now more than Fauci needs him. And if he did sack him, imagine what would happen to the markets.