Friday 12 June, 2020

Edward Hopper

Hopper’s Cape Cod Morning.

There’s a marvellous piece, “Edward Hopper and American Solitude”, by Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker , based on an exhibition of Edward Hopper’s landscape painting currently on show in the Beyeler Foundation, Switzerland’s premier museum of modern art, outside Basel. “Though termed a realist”, Schjeldahl writes,

Hopper is more properly a Symbolist, investing objective appearance with clenched, melancholy subjectivity. He was an able draftsman and masterly as a painter of light and shadow, but he ruthlessly subordinated aesthetic pleasure to the compacted description—as dense as uranium—of things that answered to his feelings without exposing them. Nearly every house that he painted strikes me as a self-portrait, with brooding windows and almost never a visible or, should one be indicated, inviting door. If his pictures sometimes seem awkwardly forced, that’s not a flaw; it’s a guarantee that he has pushed the communicative capacities of painting to their limits, then a little bit beyond. He leaves us alone with our own solitude, taking our breath away and not giving it back. Regarding his human subjects as “lonely” evades their truth. We might freak out if we had to be those people, but—look!—they’re doing O.K., however grim their lot. Think of Samuel Beckett’s famous tag “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Now delete the first sentence. With Hopper, the going-on is not a choice.

Lovely. I wish I could see the exhibition. The Gallery website has a few of the pictures online


Imagine hearing this in your living room

Link

Norah Jones has been giving concerts from her living room on YouTube. This is an excerpt from one of them. They’re absolutely entrancing, and I only learned about them by chance from a piece by Paul Elie in the New Yorker.

She has been writing new songs in response to the present. “My six-year-old has been waking up in the middle of the night for three months now, and I walk him back to his room and sit and wait for him to fall back asleep,” she told me. “I try not to look at my phone in the dead of night, but I was reading about all the things that are happening. A song will come to you, sometimes, and one came to me.” She played it right after the Ellington piece in last week’s show. It’s a cross between a street scene and a lullaby, focussed on the need to “love, listen, and learn.” Unidentified on YouTube, it sounded like a standard that Nina Simone might have sung — the sound of an artist trying to keep it together in a time of protest.

Unmissable. This is the kind of discovery that can makes one’s day.

Footnote for ageing hippies She is the daughter of Sue Jones and Ravi Shankar, who had a big influence on George Harrison and, through him, the other members of the Beatles.


The worst worst case

As some countries are beginning to ‘re-open’ their economies because they seem to have the pandemic under some kind of control, I can understand the ubiquitous longing to get back to normal. Sadly, I don’t think that’s realistic for the time being. In fact it may be that we are only the beginning of the crisis. That’s because we’re in a cascade of inter-related crises: one is a health, which is what has been grabbing most of the attention up to now; then there’s a looming economic crisis; and thirdly there’s political upheaval and culture warfare sparked by the murder of George Floyd. And, of course, for the UK there’s the added crisis attendant upon crashing out of the EU without a deal.

Now the economic impact of the pandemic is beginning to surface.

This is a picture of a particular economy falling off a cliff.

But actually, there’s a worse global scenario — that the banking system implodes again. This is the scenario outlined by Frank Portnoy from UC Berkeley in a long essay in The Atlantic. At the root of it is the addiction of the banks to a new kind of pernicious derivative product — collateralised loan obligations (CLOs).

“The financial crisis of 2008 was about home mortgages”, he writes.

Hundreds of billions of dollars in loans to home buyers were repackaged into securities called collateralized debt obligations, known as CDOs. In theory, CDOs were intended to shift risk away from banks, which lend money to home buyers. In practice, the same banks that issued home loans also bet heavily on CDOs, often using complex techniques hidden from investors and regulators. When the housing market took a hit, these banks were doubly affected. In late 2007, banks began disclosing tens of billions of dollars of subprime-CDO losses. The next year, Lehman Brothers went under, taking the economy with it.

The post-2008 reforms were well intentioned, says Portnoy, but…

They haven’t kept the banks from falling back into old, bad habits. After the housing crisis, subprime CDOs naturally fell out of favor. Demand shifted to a similar—and similarly risky—instrument, one that even has a similar name: the CLO, or collateralized loan obligation. A CLO walks and talks like a CDO, but in place of loans made to home buyers are loans made to businesses—specifically, troubled businesses. CLOs bundle together so-called leveraged loans, the subprime mortgages of the corporate world. These are loans made to companies that have maxed out their borrowing and can no longer sell bonds directly to investors or qualify for a traditional bank loan. There are more than $1 trillion worth of leveraged loans currently outstanding. The majority are held in CLOs.

It’s a long story, but the analogy with CDOs ie helpful. At the bottom of every CDO were sub-prime mortgages which had a high probability of default. At the bottom of every CLO are loans to companies which are in dire straits — and which were always in danger of failing even before Covid struck. But now many of them are terminally affected by the lockdown and are unlikely to return. So the CLOs for which they represented a manageable risk might suddenly start to look dodgy. And you can guess what would happen then.

The difference from 2008 is that national economies and central banks will not have the financial muscle to do another bailout.

Not a cheery read, but I think it’s important to get a perspective on the crisis we’re in.


US ‘policing’ is indeed disgraceful, but the UK has its problems too

Remember the Stephen Lawrence case — the inquiry into which confirmed that there was systemic institutional racism in the Metropolitan police.

People in glasshouses…


Europe resurfaces to find an odd mix of the familiar and the alien

This is wonderful. The New York Times sent a writer (Patrick Kingsley) and a photographer (Laetitia Vancon) to drive through Europe recording what they found. The result is an unmissable photo-essay, a reminder of the heyday of Life and the other mid-century news-magazines.

It also reminds me of the trip that Walker Evans and James Agee made in 1936 to report on the lives of poor sharecroppers in the Deep South which resulted in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

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The peer-reviewing crisis widens and deepens

Long and thoughtful essay by Milton Packer on the looming crisis in scientific publication processes.

Packer has been vocal for a long time on the deficiencies of peer-review. Long before the pandemic he has been criticising its capriciousness (as Rodney Brooks did in his essay that I blogged about yesterday), its biases towards supporting accepted dogma, the lack of consistent quality in the review process, and perverse incentives in editorial decision making.

He thinks — rightly IMHO — that these weaknesses of the peer-review process have been amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic. To put it crudely, here’s been a kind of academic feeding frenzy. But Packer sees the recent scandal of the retraction of two papers published in leading journals as

a real opportunity for us to reinvent peer review. We needed to do so before the pandemic; we desperately need to do so now. We must implement changes that will provide confidence in the validity of published work, and we need to revamp and strengthen the peer-review and editorial decision-making processes. The FDA imposes severe penalties on site investigators who submit fabricated data; many journal editors follow a similar policy. Fear of a potentially career-ending ban on publications in leading journals will certainly motivate most corresponding authors to perform the exceptionally high level of due diligence that is needed to restore the trust that the review process desperately depends on.

If academic medicine does not make these changes, then we only have ourselves to blame when the credibility of medical research in the public’s view crumbles.

Yep.


Quarantine diary Day 83

Link


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Sunday 3 May, 2020

Data-protection laws are great. Shame they’re not being enforced.

This morning’s Observer column:

So we’re faced with a paradox: on the one hand, there’s massive abuse of personal data by a global data-broking industry; on the other, we have a powerful legal instrument that is not being brought to bear on the abusers. How come? Is it because national DPAs are corrupt? Or indolent? Or just plain incompetent? The answer, it seems, is none of the above. They’re simply overwhelmed by the scale of the task – and lamentably under-resourced for it.

Non-enforcement makes a mockery of the rule of law. Was the GDPR really just an aspiration?

Do read the whole thing


The centralisation of power on Zoom

Source


Is the ‘urge to splurge’ a thing of the past?

Nice FT column (possibly behind a paywall, alas) by Pilita Clark.

Last weekend I was lolling on the sofa reading the papers in the afternoon sun when I was struck by an awful thought.

I realised I am so dull that, even though I have spent more than a month in Covid captivity, I miss remarkably little of the life I led before.

It turns out I can live easily without Friday nights in a restaurant or Saturdays in a bar. I always thought I loved going out to the cinema but apparently I am just as happy at home with Netflix. The hundreds of pounds I spend each year on the gym also look increasingly pointless. I can get by with a bike ride involving hills and the odd lope around the block.

It was while I was on one of those lopes, down the local high street, that a more profound realisation dawned. Shop after shuttered shop existed to sell stuff for a rushed, commuting office life that I — and millions like me — may never lead again.

There must be a lot of people thinking like this at the moment.


Self-isolation is not penance

From Dave Winer’s blog:

The frustration [Don] McNeil feels, and I feel, having heard the same story at least four times, the questions assume that all we have to do is penance, stay home for a while, and we will be able to go back to normal, having done our time. This is what Trump seems to think too, and the other Repubs. Maybe some Dems. That’s not it.

Isolating is like plowing a fire line in the middle of a city being inundated by fire. It slows the spread. But you don’t get to resume life, a very altered life, until there are no new cases, until the fire is out. Until you’ve shut down transmission of the disease. This is not a punishment, it’s how we save ourselves.

Yep.


Quarantine diary — Day 43

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Saturday 2 May, 2020

Contact-tracing: tech ‘solutionism’ without providing a solution?

The security expert Brice Schneier was interviewed by Buzzfeed about the current rush to deploy proximity-sensing apps. In the interview he said this:

“My problem with contact tracing apps is that they have absolutely no value. I’m not even talking about the privacy concerns, I mean the efficacy. Does anybody think this will do something useful? … This is just something governments want to do for the hell of it. To me, it’s just techies doing techie things because they don’t know what else to do.”

Bruce is the Real Deal in this stuff, so when he says something as critical as this I sit up and take notice.

He subsequently expanded on it in his blog:

This is a classic identification problem, and efficacy depends on two things: false positives and false negatives.

False positives: Any app will have a precise definition of a contact: let’s say it’s less than six feet for more than ten minutes. The false positive rate is the percentage of contacts that don’t result in transmissions. This will be because of several reasons. One, the app’s location and proximity systems — based on GPS and Bluetooth — just aren’t accurate enough to capture every contact. Two, the app won’t be aware of any extenuating circumstances, like walls or partitions. And three, not every contact results in transmission; the disease has some transmission rate that’s less than 100% (and I don’t know what that is).

False negatives: This is the rate the app fails to register a contact when an infection occurs. This also will be because of several reasons. One, errors in the app’s location and proximity systems. Two, transmissions that occur from people who don’t have the app (even Singapore didn’t get above a 20% adoption rate for the app). And three, not every transmission is a result of that precisely defined contact — the virus sometimes travels further.

The end result, Schneider thinks is an app that doesn’t work. People will post their bad experiences on social media; other people will read those posts and realise that the app is not to be trusted. That loss of trust is even worse than having no app at all.

“It has”, says Schneier, “nothing to do with privacy concerns. The idea that contact tracing can be done with an app, and not human health professionals, is just plain dumb”.

The key point I take from all this is that proximity-sensing apps might be useful in conjunction with a massive follow-up capacity involving healthcare staff, because it would target those Human Resources more efficiently. I see no sign that the UK government is contemplating marshalling resources on that scale, so this is likely to wind up as pure solutionism.

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Capital in the 21st Century: the movie

Link

Not even John Maynard Keynes got this kind of treatment. A film which reportedly serves not so much as a distillation of Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus as a gateway to it.


Why isn’t the Johnson government on the rack for the way it has botched the handling of the pandemic?

Good question. Here’s a partial charge-sheet from Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian:

This government should be on the rack. The evidence that it botched crucial decisions at crucial moments is piling up. The litany is now so familiar it barely needs repeating, from the failure to secure personal protective equipment for frontline workers in health and social care to the 11 lost days of delay before imposing a lockdown that has proved essential for saving lives.

You can focus on specific judgments: why did ministers allow mass gatherings, from racing at Cheltenham to a Stereophonics gig in Cardiff, ignoring the warnings that such events would be a virus-fest? Why did it initially tell people to stay away from pubs and restaurants, but simultaneously allow those places to stay open? Why did the government call a halt in March to testing and tracing? If the answer is a lack of capacity, then why did it not immediately set about recruiting the “army of contact tracers” that will be required if we are ever to emerge from our homes? Why the focus on mega-labs, rather than seizing on the offer of small laboratories to do testing for their local hospitals, which, as Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, has argued, could have made those hospitals “safe places”? Why the rules initially limiting tests to those NHS employees with symptoms, which, as Nurse puts it, allowed staff to be on wards “infecting people”?

Or you can look at decisions going back a decade, pointing a finger at Tory austerity that starved public services to the bone, leaving them underequipped and eroding our resilience. Either way, the country now faces a death toll approaching 30,000.

But you know the answer to Freedland’s question. Trump’s administration is even worse. _____________________________________________________________________________ 

Spending all your days in Zoom meetings? Try this for an antidote

Link


Quarantine diary — Day 42

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Wednesday 8 April, 2020

First, something old — and new. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as you’ve never heard it before

Find it here

I found it in a nice piece in the Washington Post, Donald Trump’s second-favourite newspaper.


The economic consequences of the virus

The inhabitant of New York could order by computer, sipping his morning coffee in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend. He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate with passport or other formality and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing just a credit card upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved by the TSA but otherwise much surprised at the least interference. But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, exclusion and of pandemics which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily twitter feed, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice.

This is Alex Tabbarok’s slight adaptation of a famous passage in John Maynard Keynes’s pamphlet, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, in which he evokes the world that was destroyed by the First World War. To see how clever this is, just compare it with the original.


New app collects the sounds of COVID-19

Amazing piece of research by Celicia Mascolo and her Cambridge colleagues. They’ve created an app which will be used to collect data to develop machine learning algorithms that may be able automatically to detect whether a person is suffering from COVID-19 based on the sound of their voice, their breathing and coughing.

“Having spoken to doctors”, Cecilia said,

“one of the most common things they have noticed about patients with the virus is the way they catch their breath when they’re speaking, as well as a dry cough, and the intervals of their breathing patterns. There are very few large datasets of respiratory sounds, so to make better algorithms that could be used for early detection, we need as many samples from as many participants as we can get. Even if we don’t get many positive cases of coronavirus, we could find links with other health conditions.”


Quarantine diary — Day 18

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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


Why what happens in China matters more now than it did during SARS

From the Economist:

China now accounts for 16% of global gdp, up from 4% back then. Its share of all exports in textiles and apparel is now 40% of the global total. It generates 26% of the world’s furniture exports. It is also a voracious consumer of things such as metals, needed in manufacturing. In 2003 China sucked in 7% of global mining imports. Today it claims closer to a fifth.

The myth of American competitiveness

Most of the complacent guff about how American capitalism is better than its counterparts in other parts of the world is just that — guff.

The economist Thomas Philippon has done a terrific, data-intensive demolition job on the myth. In The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up on Free Markets he shows that America is no longer the spiritual home of the free-market economy (any more than Westminster is now “the mother of Parliaments”). Competition there is not fiercer than it is in ‘old’ Europe. Its regulators have been asleep at the wheel for decades and its latest crop of giant companies are not all that different from their predecessors.

Or, as he puts it:

”First, US markets have become less competitive: concentration is high in many industries, leaders are entrenched, and their profit rates are excessive. Second, this lack of competition has hurt consumers and workers: it has led to higher prices, lower investment and lower productivity growth. Third, and contrary to popular wisdom, the main explanation is political, not technological: I have traced the decrease in competition to increasing barriers to entry and weak antitrust enforcement, sustained by heavy lobbying and campaign contributions.”

So next time some tech evangelist starts to rant on about how backward Europe is, the appropriate reply is: give me a break.

‘Homo economicus’ is dead. Not before time.

Paul Collier writes a thoughtful obituary in the TLS:

Thankfully, we now know that Economic Man is a travesty. Blueprint: The evolutionary origins of a good society by Nicholas Christakis is the latest study to affirm this. It shows why, through the forces of evolution, Homo sapiens emerged as a uniquely social species. Far from being evolutionarily inevitable, Economic Man was culled almost to extinction, surviving only as the highly deviant behaviour we call psychopathic. In hunter-gatherer societies, hunters do not “eat what they kill”: such behaviour would bring social ostracism, so the hunters share their catch. The theorems derived from Economic Man explain the conditions under which a society of psychopaths would be able to function. In most contexts, those conditions turn out to be fanciful: the efficient paradise depicted in economics textbooks has never existed, and never will. Instead, in well-functioning societies, humans construct and abide by a vast web of kindness and mutual obligations of which Economic Man would be incapable.

Esther Duflo

Esther Duflo is only the second woman to win the Nobel Prize in economics (she shared this year’s prize with Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kremer). She’s also the youngest recipient of the prize. This is the TED talk she gave in 2010 explaining some of the work which won the prize.

Our recent history, in a nutshell

From John Lanchester, opening a thoughtful and informative LRB essay on the idea of Universal Basic Income. “The broad outline of 21st-century history, its first couple of decades anyway”, he writes,

is starting to become clear. A period of credit-fuelled expansion and runaway financialisation ended with an abrupt crash and an unprecedented bank bailout. The public’s reward for assuming the bankers’ losses was austerity, which crippled the recovery and led to an interminable Great Recession. At the same time, increasing automation and globalisation, and the rise of the internet, kept first-world wages stagnant and led to an increase in precarity. Elites did fine, and in the developing world, especially Asia, economies grew, but the global middle class, mainly located in the developed world, felt increasingly anxious, ignored, resentful and angry. The decades-long decline in union power made these trends worse. The UK had its longest ever peacetime squeeze on earnings.​1 In response to this the political right played one of its historically most effective cards – Blame the Immigrants – and achieved a string of successes from Brexit to Trump to Orbán to Bolsonaro to Salvini and the AfD, succeeding in normalising its new prominence to such an extent that a quasi-fascist party scored 34 per cent in the French presidential elections, which were nonetheless hailed as a triumph for the ‘centrist’ winner.

That’s a pretty good summary, IMHO. Characteristically good piece by a terrific explainer. Worth reading in full.