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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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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Saturday 23 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

“In establishing the rule of law, the first five centuries are always the hardest.”


The Immoral Equivalent of War

Bracing essay by Deirdre McCloskey. It’s a long read, so make some coffee, mute your phone and tell everybody that you will Zoom them later.

Sample:

And so, if the government has failed to do the epidemiologically and economically rational coercion early in a plague with a high R-naught—which is to jump on it early, as Korea and Singapore and even Hong Kong and Iceland and Vietnam did, and to test, test, test, and trace, trace, trace—then all that can be done even approximately rationally is mass quarantine. It’s the medieval technique. It works, with the horrible result of further impoverishing the poor. For it to work, if you are in the Middle Ages or if the testing has been mismanaged for two months running as it was under Skeptical Trump and his incompetent Centers for Disease Control, quarantine has to be imposed on everyone. In the absence of quick and cheap testing (let us again pray), everyone is suspect. The reasoning implies that the belated state apply the coercion as quickly as it can muster the political will, a reasoning which in April 2020 escaped the governors “opening the economies” of Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, and South Carolina (South Carolina “too small to be a nation, too large to be an insane asylum”). Even rationalist France was not quick enough.

It’s like a goalie handling a tough shot. The coaching advice is, “Cut off the angle. Don’t let the attacker play you.” That is, step towards the attacker, to limit him to a narrower angle for the shot. Don’t hang back on your line. The US and France hung back. Some fellow democracies such as South Korea did not, and therefore have not had to adopt the medieval coercion of mass quarantine. Tyrannies like China and the Russian Federation tried early on to get away with suppressing the truth, as is their nature, and so did their friend Trump. (Vietnam, also a tyranny, did not.)

It would be like the goalie claiming that the ball never came close to him. Hey, as Trump said, I don’t take any responsibility. Or that the shot is fake news, or a conspiracy by CNN or other enemies of the people. In 1954 on returning from the Soviet Union Jean-Paul Sartre declared, “Liberty of criticism in the USSR is total.” Ha, ha. Eventually China, as will Russia next month, reverted to comprehensive coercion, as tyrannies do, forever. But now even reasonably liberal democracies like the US and France have to coerce, “for the time being,” they say.

I was particularly struck by this sentence later in the essay:

“The war criminal, Nobel peace laureate, and wit Henry Kissinger used to say that France was ‘the only successful communist country.'”

And was then reminded of Tom Lehrer saying that “Satire died the day that Kissinger got the Nobel Peace Prize” after bombing the shit out of Cambodia.

The essay is forthcoming (I think) in Le Grand Continent.


A no-deal Brexit amid the pandemic would be a disaster

I regularly talk to middle-rank to senior civil servants and therefore have known for three years that the government has effectively been drained of cognitive and policy bandwidth by the fumbling of negotiations and preparations for Brexit by the May and later the Johnson cabinets . There were times when it seemed that the entire Whitehall system was occupied by the complications surrounding departure from the EU. When one asked civil servants about, say, regulation of Internet companies, the most one got was a regretful shrug.

But if the Administration had little capacity for thinking about anything other than Brexit before Covid struck, imagine what it’s like now. It seems absolutely clear that they are not going to be capable of negotiating a sensible exit before the effective deadline — which is around July. The implication is that the UK will leave the EU without any kind of deal.

“This would seem inconceivable”, writes Martin Wolf in the Financial Times “if the government were not led by Boris Johnson. The idea seems to be that, in the midst of the pandemic, nobody would notice the additional disruption imposed by an overnight break in economic relations with the country’s most important partners and eternal neighbours”.

Wolf then sets out seven reasons why this is disgraceful.

In summary, they are:

  1. It’s not what the Leave campaign actually promised. The country was repeatedly told it would be easy to secure an excellent free trade agreement, because it held “all the cards”.
  2. The notion of some economists that Brexit would lead to unilateral free trade has also proved a fantasy. The UK has published a tariff schedule that is far from free trade.
  3. The UK is breaking its word. In order to reach his exit deal last October, Johnson agreed that Northern Ireland would remain in the EU’s customs area and single market. But standard customs and regulatory checks must be imposed in the Irish Sea if the EU’s customs area and single market is not to be vulnerable to transshipment via the UK. Either Johnson does not understand this, which would be stupid, or he does, which means he has wittingly lied.
  4. The political declaration accompanying October’s exit agreement accepted the EU’s condition that the future relationship must ensure open and fair competition  — including appropriate mechanisms to ensure effective implementation domestically, enforcement and dispute settlement — on regulatory and trading standards.
  5. The globalising world economy assumed by Leave in the referendum campaign no longer exists.
  6. We are in the grip of a pandemic-induced depression of vast magnitude and unknown duration. It is a good bet that, at the end of 2020, the UK economy will still be very depressed, with damaged businesses and frighteningly high unemployment. That would hardly be a good time to add to the shocks already crippling the economy.
  7. The longer-run outcomes of the pandemic will probably include permanently lower output, as happened after the financial crisis of 2007-08. Over and above that will now come a huge trade shock from an ultra-hard Brexit.

If we want evidence that Johnson really has grown up, then seeking an extension of the negotiations would be the proof of it. But I’m not holding my breath. We are governed by a combination of fanatics, amateurs and the odd imbecile.


Clapping for the NHS is fine but…

I’ve been uneasy from the outset about the ‘clapping for the NHS’ ritual. Although many people who participated were undoubtedly sincere — it looked suspiciously like virtue-signalling or gesture politics — the moral equivalent of ‘liking’ a moving Facebook post on human rights abuses without being willing to take some personal action to help contest the abuse.

The questions I want to ask people clapping are, for example, whether they will stop purchasing the Daily Mail, the Express, the Sun and the Daily Telegraph — newspapers which for generations have pumped out unfounded, opportunistic and mischievous stories designed to undermine the NHS while still pretending to admire it as ‘a great national treasure. Or whether they will stop voting for right-wing Tory MPs whose dearest wish is to privatise the NHS under cover of ‘modernising’ it. Or will they now support higher taxes to ensure that lowly NHS staff who are as important to making the service work (junior doctors, nurses, lab technicians, porters) as well-remunerated consultants (many with extensive private practices) get paid properly.

And the same goes for all those other ‘critical’ workers we have recently discovered — many of whom live one pay check away from financial crisis.

What NHS staff and all those other critical workers deserve is less sentiment and more political action.

See also “Let’s stop clapping for the NHS, says woman who started the ritual”.


Do you know enough to get a job as a contact tracer?

After all, it’s not rocket science. And it’s got nothing to do with apps, really.

ProPublica has an online quiz to see how well you know the fundamentals of contact tracing.

My answer: Not very well :-(

But then I’m under lockdown, so I couldn’t offer my services, anyway!


Quarantine diary — Day 63

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Wednesday 20 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

So, the way we’re dealing with the new coronavirus is the way computer newbies deal with computer viruses. I know because I have supported a virus neophyte, my mom. The current US govt is behaving pretty much the way she would. She didn’t want to learn the rules, and she wanted to pretend it was okay, get back to business as usual (checking her email, writing a blog post). All the while she’s got something watching and recording her every move and looking for a chance to infect some other computer.


How Trump plays the US media

Jack Shafer sees through it:

While the admission makes Trump look as scientifically minded as an unsegmented worm—hydroxychloroquine has not been shown to be safe or effective in the treatment or prevention of Covid-19—the attention generated was worth it, like swapping a pawn for a bishop. The hydroxychloroquine confession didn’t displace the IG story from the news, but it wasn’t expected to. Both the New York Times and Washington Post made Trump’s dreams come true by putting the story on Page One of their Tuesday editions (Times: “President Says He Takes Drug Deemed a Risk”; Post: “Trump Says He’s Taking Unproven Medication”) and after being featured on Monday cable news the talking heads were still gabbing about it on Tuesday afternoon as he hyped the drug anew during a press spray. Monday evening, the White House added some frosting to the hydroxychloroquine cake by releasing a note from the president’s physician that went on and on about the drug but didn’t actually claim that he had prescribed it to Trump or that Trump was even taking it. There would be fewer questions about Trump and hydroxychloroquine if the White House had released no note at all.

Trump’s disclosure on Monday about taking hydroxychloroquine was a decoy move, designed to deflect public—and press—attention from his firing of the State Department inspector general, which broke over the weekend. And it worked.

In manipulating US media, Trump is a genius — an evil one, sure, but very good at what he does.


Botch on the Rhine

Wonderful NYRB review by Max Hastings of Anthony Beevor’s history of the Arnhem fiasco in 1944. Some parts of Beevor’s account bring Colonel Johnson (Lt Brigade, rtd.) to mind.

The operation to capture the Rhine bridge was a fiasco. So, asks Hastings, how did it come about?

It was chiefly a consequence of hubris—a belief that, after the Allies’ dramatic August breakout from Normandy, Hitler’s armies were on the ropes. Britain’s commander-in-chief, the newly promoted field marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, stood by a dusty French roadside urging an armored column roaring past: “On to the kill!” This was not merely theater for the benefit of such listening war correspondents as my father: Monty really believed it. Thus he made one of the most grievous strategic errors of the northwest Europe campaign, declining to hasten troops to clear the approaches to the Scheldt River, without which the newly captured port of Antwerp was useless, as Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay warned him. Instead, he launched the most reckless thrust of his career, seeking to seize the bridge over the lower Rhine at Arnhem.

The principal objective of that thrust, known as Operation Market Garden, was to force the hand not of Hitler, but of Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower. If the British secured a corridor beyond the Rhine, Ike would be obliged to support a drive from the north led by Montgomery into Germany: the cocky little bishop’s son saw before him the prospect of passing into history as the composer and conductor of Western Allied victory.

Outside the paywall and worth a read. And Anthony Beevor is clearly a great historian.


The Trouble with comparisons

Fabulous essay by Samuel Moyn on the way historical analogies and comparisons may blind us to actuality. Case study: our analyses of Trump.

For those doubtful about the fascism analogy for Trumpism—and I count myself as one of them—the point is to appreciate both continuity and novelty better than the comparison allows. Abnormalizing Trump disguises that he is quintessentially American, the expression of enduring and indigenous syndromes. A response to what he represents hardly requires a restoration of “normalcy” but a questioning of the status quo ante Trump that produced him. Comparison to Nazism and fascism imminently threatening to topple democracy distracts us from how we made Trump over decades, and implies that the coexistence of our democracy with long histories of killing, subjugation, and terror—including its most recent, if somewhat sanitized, forms of mass incarceration and rising inequality at home, and its tenuous empire and regular war-making abroad—was somehow less worth the alarm and opprobrium. Selective outrage after 2016 says more about the outraged than the outrageous.

It is no contradiction to add to this qualm that comparing our current situation in America to fascism also spares ourselves the trouble of analyzing what is really new about it. For all its other virtues, comparison in general does not do well with the novelty that Trump certainly represents, for all of his preconditions and sources. It is true that in the face of novelty, analogy with possible historical avatars is indispensable, to abate confusion and to seek orientation. But there is no doubt that it often compounds the confusion as the ghosts of the past are allowed to walk again in a landscape that has changed profoundly. Comparison is always a risky tool; it leads to blindness, not just insight.

Terrific essay.


The Coronavirus diaries of Samuel Pepys

Nice spoof, if the few fragmentary entries are anything to go by. Here’s the entry for March 9th:

Up betimes and by tube to Westminster, and there busy with several business all morning, for our firm intends a splendid show at the conference in the middle of this month. Then comes the intern to my office like a doting fool, and proves himself an ass talking excitedly of this plague come late out of China, which, he says, is now in Italy. Of which, my wife and I having had no Wi-Fi this last month, I know nothing, only to see how vexed this blockhead intern was did almost make me fearful myself. Yet I remembered talking with my Lord and Lady touching this matter, and him very skeptical, and my lady said to me, ‘What, Mr Pepys – shall’t die of a hiccough at the last?’ And at this jest we were all very merry. Thence home to sing with my wife in the garden, but with much trouble, for it was bitterly cold. And so to bed, our iPhones left downstairs as is now our custom.


Scientists (epidemiologists) and spooks are not all that different: they all just want to know everything

Interesting post from 2006 by the sociologist Kieran Healey, which sheds light on the current debates about contact-tracing apps, health data and privacy.

Scientists and spies are not so different. The intelligence community’s drive to find the truth, to uncover the real structure of things, is similar to what motivates natural or social scientists. For that reason, I can easily understand why the people at the NSA would have been drawn to build a database like the one they have assembled. The little megalomaniac that lives inside any data-collecting scientist (“More detail! More variables! More coverage!”) thrills at the thought of what you could do with a database like that. Think of the possibilities! What’s frightening is that the NSA is much less constrained than the rest of us by money, or resources, or—it seems—the law. To them, Borges’ map must seem less like a daydream and more like a design challenge. In Kossinets and Watts’ study, the population of just one university generated more than 14 million emails. That gives you a sense of how enormous the NSA’s database of call records must be. In the social sciences, Institutional Review Boards set rules about what you can do to people when you’re researching them. Social scientists often grumble about IRBs and their stupid regulations, but they exist for a good reason. To be blunt, scientists are happy to do just about anything in the pursuit of better knowledge, unless there are rules that say otherwise. The same is true of the government, and the people it employs to spy on our behalf. They only want to find things out, too. But just as in science, that’s not the only value that matters.


Quarantine diary — Day 60

Link


ERRATA Thanks to the many readers who wrote tactfully to point out that my attribution of the lyrics “Don’t it always seem to go and you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.” to Kate Bush was wrong. The credit should go to Joni MItchell.

The one thing that always amazes me is the depth of my ignorance. Which is why I love the response Dr Johnson made to the lady who asked him to explain how he had come wrongly to define “pastern” as “the knee of a horse” in his Dictionary. “Ignorance, Madam”, he replied. “Pure ignorance”.


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Monday 18 May, 2020

Food deliveries continue

This morning, outside our kitchen window.

The poor chap needs a haircut — like every other male at the moment.


Keith Thomas: Working methods

The London Review of Books has a nice idea for the pandemic: publishing an article or a review from its amazing archives and putting it outside the paywall for a day. The criterion for choosing pieces that there should be nothing in them about pandemics.

It’s like a breath of fresh air. Here is one of them: a lovely essay by Keith Thomas on how a great historian does his work. Riveting, revealing, inspiring and utterly charming. Thomas is the most unpretentious of scholars.


Zoom: The Seven Commandments

  1. Thou shalt not forget about the agenda or deviate from it.
  2. Thou shalt not cancel meetings shortly before they start.
  3. Thou shalt not all speak at the same time.
  4. Thou shalt not keep your mic on when you are typing.
  5. Thou shalt not abandon the chat.
  6. Thou shalt not assume people can see your presentation clearly – or at all.
  7. Thou shalt not scribble on whiteboards and assume people can follow.

I would add one more, which I consider a cardinal sin: checking and replying to email while on a call and leaving the sound on. Yes, we can hear your Outlook or Apple Mail sounds when the email is sent.

Om Malik


Samuel Pepys: the very first pandemic blogger

Lovely column by Andrew Sullivan, who’s been reading Pepys’s diary for the plague year of 1665. 

There’s a certain Monty Python Black Knight vibe to Pepys’s equanimity. Does he think he’s immune? Even when the plague reaches his own parish, with 40 suddenly dead, Pepys stays up and about, with “a pleasant going and a good discourse … But Lord! to see in what fear all the people here do live. How they are afraid of us that come to them, insomuch that I am troubled at it, and wish myself away.” Even in his bedroom, as he works “undressed all day long,” the plague cannot be avoided: “It was a sad noise to hear our bell to toll and ring so often today, either for deaths or burials; I think five or six times.” Nonetheless, he attends a wedding — getting there late — and has a blast in the middle of it all: “Thus I ended this month with the greatest joy that ever I did any in my life, because I have spent the greatest part of it with abundance of joy, and honor, and pleasant journeys, and brave entertainments.”

I’m a little dumbstruck at the stoicism of it all. In the middle of a nightmare, he’s having the best month of his life! He’s not in denial. He’s somehow capable of finding an equilibrium so that even in the face of mass death, he can let himself go and enjoy a massive party. Here in the 21st century, we’re finding that not so easy. And Pepys faced horrors far worse than ours. His friends endure terror: “And poor Will, that used to sell us ale at the Hall-door, his wife and three children died, all, I think, in a day.” The press of corpses gets so great, there’s a citywide decision to carry them to burial at night, “the town growing so unhealthy, that a man cannot depend upon living two days.”

And then just a little moment that gives us a sense of how lucky, in comparison, we are: “It was dark before I could get home, and so land at church-yard stairs, where, to my great trouble, I met a dead corpse of the plague, in the narrow ally … But I thank God I was not much disturbed by it. However, I shall beware of being late abroad again.” Maybe it’s just the English stiff upper lip as far back as 1665, but the tenacity and composure of the man are impressive, even as he passes by mounds of corpses lying out in the open, piled up against the walls of houses in the streets, dumped into mass graves, and all the doctors dead in Westminster, leaving the dying to fend for themselves.

Typical Sullivan: original fresh, perceptive. When, at the beginning if all this, I was looking for books on previous pandemics, it never occurred to me to reach for Pepys. Growl.


162 benefits of Coronavirus

Yeah, I know this might look like tasteless trolling, but it isn’t. The virus is terrible, sure; but it also forces us to do things we ought to have done decades ago. So it’s an interesting and thought-provoking list that includes stuff that I at least hadn’t thought about.

Call it creative contrarianism.


Atul Gawande on how to keep the virus at bay

Fascinating and sobering New Yorker piece on what you have to do to keep a hospital safe.

The Boston area has been a COVID-19 hotspot. Yet the staff members of my hospital system here, Mass General Brigham, have been at work throughout the pandemic. We have seventy-five thousand employees—more people than in seventy-five per cent of U.S. counties. In April, two-thirds of us were working on site. Yet we’ve had few workplace transmissions. Not zero: we’ve been on a learning curve, to be sure, and we have no way to stop our health-care workers from getting infected in the community. But, in the face of enormous risks, American hospitals have learned how to avoid becoming sites of spread. When the time is right to lighten up on the lockdown and bring people back to work, there are wider lessons to be learned from places that never locked down in the first place.

These lessons point toward an approach that we might think of as a combination therapy—like a drug cocktail. Its elements are all familiar: hygiene measures, screening, distancing, and masks. Each has flaws. Skip one, and the treatment won’t work. But, when taken together, and taken seriously, they shut down the virus. We need to understand these elements properly—what their strengths and limitations are—if we’re going to make them work outside health care.

Four basic ‘pillars’ of the strategy: hygiene, distancing, screening and masks. They won’t return us to normal life, he says,

but, when signs indicate that the virus is under control, they could get people out of their homes and moving again. As I think about how my workplace’s regimen could be transferred to life outside the hospital, however, I have come to realize that there is a fifth element to success: culture. It’s one thing to know what we should be doing; it’s another to do it, rigorously and thoroughly.

Great piece. He’s the best writer on medicine that I know.


What comes after Zoom?

Answer: conversations and spontaneity. Zoom is fine in its way, but really it’s just reinforcing one of the most pernicious aspects of organisational life — an addiction to group meetings. But because we’re all working for home, there’s no place for the random conversations that are often the key to productive working and creative endeavour.There’s no such thing as planned creativity. So the search is on — predictably — for a technology that might make that kind of serendipitous conversation possible in a remote-working context. There’s currently a lot of noise about this idea — and of course venture-capital involvement.

Here’s a good survey of emerging apps.


Quarantine diary — Day 58

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Sunday 17 May, 2020

Parenting is a full-time job in a pandemic

Outside our kitchen window, this evening.


Facebook’s ‘oversight board’ is proof that it wants to be regulated – by itself

This morning’s Observer column:

Here we go again. Facebook, a tech company that suffers from the delusion that it’s a nation state, has had another go at pretending that it is one. Originally, you will recall, it was going to create a global currency called Libra and in effect become shadow banker to the world. Strangely, a world that normally seems hypnotised by Facebook turned out to be distinctly unimpressed by that idea; after all, who would trust Facebook with money? So the project is effectively evaporating into something that looks a bit like PayPal, which is not quite what Facebook’s supreme leader, Mark Zuckerberg, had in mind.

Nothing daunted, though, Zuck has had another hubristic idea. On the grounds that Facebook is the world’s largest information-exchange autocracy (population 2.6 billion) he thinks that it should have its own supreme court. (Yes, that’s the expression he originally used: later, wiser councils – possibly a guy called Nick Clegg – persuaded him that that might be just a tad presumptuous.) So it’s now just an “oversight board for content decisions”, complete with its own charter and a 40-strong board of big shots who will, it seems, have the power “to reverse Facebook’s decisions about whether to allow or remove certain posts on the platform”. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? But it looks rather less so when you realise what it will actually be doing. It’s actually a board for locking the stable door after the horses have bolted. Let us call the Facebook oversight board by its initials: FOB…

Read on


Introducing Colonel Johnson (late of the Light Brigade), and his batman, Cummings

There’s a new comedy duo on the British political scene.

Unfortunately, they don’t make people laugh.

See today’s Quarantine Diary for details.


The rise and rise of conspiracist thinking

The Atlantic has a fascinating new series on a topic that until 2016 most people (though not me and my academic colleagues) thought was only of fringe interest.

Five substantial essays.


Quarantine diary — Day 57

Link


Friday 15 May, 2020

Food deliveries continue during the pandemic

From our kitchen window, this morning.


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

Link

HT to Ed Murphy for the link.


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

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

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

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

The podcast is really worth listening to.


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


Books really do furnish a Zoom

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

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

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


John Gray and the resumption of history

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

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

As for now,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great essay; worth reading in full.


Quarantine diary — Day 55

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Tuesday 12 May, 2020

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

Source: Axios


Tuesday 12 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The government’s new ‘guidance’ document

Some bits of it are truly weird. For example:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, one day…


Quarantine diary — Day 52

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Monday 11 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

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

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

Who wants to be a Lert?

From the New Yorker


Solitude

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

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

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

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

Link


Contact-tracing and the NHSx app

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


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

Link


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

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

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

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


Quarantine diary — Day 51

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Friday 8 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

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

  • Hunter S Thompson

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

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


Contact tracing (contd.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the centralised approach, on the other hand,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Google pulls out of Toronto ‘Sidewalk’ project

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

_________________________________________________________________ 

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

Great New Yorker piece .

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Finding endless video calls exhausting? You’re not alone

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

_____________________________________________________________________ 

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

Why not try this — from McSweeney’s.

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

Thanks to Charles Arthur for the link.


Quarantine diary — Day 48

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