Saturday 12 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Marry me and I’ll never look again at another horse”.

  • Groucho Marx in A Day at the Races

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

“Don’t think Twice” as you’ve never heard it before: Bob Dylan with Eric Clapton

Link

Personally, I much prefer the classic version with that lovely clawhammer pick.


Is Trump Planning a Coup d’État?

Did I really write that? I did: I was just typing out the headline on a sobering cover story in The Nation about Rebublicans who are worried that Trump is indeed preparing for an illegal holding-on to power. And they are organizing now to stop him.

This summer, shortly after scores of camo-wearing, heavily armed federal agents descended on Portland, Ore., to attack protesters, Charles Fried, Ronald Reagan’s solicitor general, pondered the implications of what he was seeing on the streets. What he saw scared him; he remembered the use of paramilitaries by fascist leaders in 1930s Europe, where he was born, and he feared he was now witnessing a slide into paramilitarism in the United States. (His family fled the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia.) Fried felt that President Trump was using the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies in a way that was “very menacing. You might as well put brown shirts on them. It’s a very bad thing.”

A Harvard Law School professor who still counts himself as a Republican and a board member of groups such as the Campaign Legal Center, Checks and Balances, and Republicans for the Rule of Law, Fried has grown increasingly worried in recent months about Trump’s willingness to stir chaos and violence as an electoral strategy in the run-up to November’s vote and about the willingness of his attorney general, William Barr, to burn the country’s democratic institutions to the ground to preserve this administration’s hold on power. Like earlier authoritarians, Trump could, Fried fears, utilize “agents provocateurs, getting right-wing people to infiltrate left-oriented and by-and-large peaceful demonstrations to turn them violent to thereby justify intervention.”

Fried, a student of history who chooses his words carefully, has concluded that Trump and his team are “certainly racist, contemptuous of ordinary democratic and constitutional norms, and they believe their cause, their interests, are really the interests of the nation and therefore anything that keeps them in power is in the national interest. Does that make you a fascist? It kind of looks that way, doesn’t it?”

The next two months are going to be increasingly weird.


What happens when populists encounter reality?

Lovely Financial Times column by Simon Kuper today. Sample:

Mostly, the Conservatives and Five Star have found a different route out of policy populism: by dropping the novelties and returning to some semblance of a traditional party. The Tories are veteran shapeshifters. In just five years, they have been David Cameron’s austerity Remainer party, a get-Brexit-done movement, a Boris Johnson cult and now an economically almost Corbynista anti-austerity pro-state-aid party, usually while providing the main opposition to themselves.

In other words, populists can campaign but can’t govern. And their policies, such as they are, tend to disintegrate when confronted with reality. But this is no consolation if people continue to elect them.


Jake Sullivan on the coming world order

If Joe Biden becomes president, then Jake Sullivan will have a big role in determining US foreign policy. I’ve just been reading an account of an interesting session he did recently with the Asia Society, in which he put forward this intriguing metaphor:

The future of the global order, said Sullivan, was among the most profound questions facing the next president. Asked to name an idol, Sullivan chose Harry Truman, who he said had been “more responsible than anyone else for building a global architecture for the 20th century.” The tandem of President Truman and his Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Sullivan said, had represented “the best traditions of American statecraft.” The two leaders, he said, had “built a web of institutions, alliances, across the Atlantic of a depth and texture that doesn’t exist across the Pacific.”

That post-World-War II order, Sullivan argued, had been “like the Parthenon,” with columns that included the United Nations, NATO, and the various Bretton Woods institutions. Now? “We’re entering a phase of the Frank Gehry international order,” he said, referring to the architect known for his complicated designs. “It’s not clean lines. It’s surprising, it’s sometimes formal and sometimes informal, sometimes linear and sometimes ad hoc, sometimes shiny and sometimes not. That is hard for people who grew up with a certain view of how rules and institutions are supposed to operate.”

Just to cheer you up, here’s a pic of one of Gehry’s buildings.


Michael Cohen’s “twisted umbilical cord” to Trump

Interesting interview in Vanity Fair with Micheal Cohen’s daughter. Here’s the bit that initially caught my attention:

That summer day felt like all the others before it, standing alongside Trump outside the pool area, discussing what Cohen writes was “some pressing business matter, like the size of the breasts of a woman sunbathing on a lounge chair.” Somehow Trump’s attention was diverted to another skirt walking off a tennis court. “Look at that piece of ass,” Cohen recalls Trump saying, as he whistled and pointed. “I would love some of that.” It so happened that Trump was referring to Cohen’s then 15-year-old daughter, Samantha.

Cohen informed Trump of his mistake. “That’s your daughter?” Trump responded.“When did she get so hot?” When Samantha reached her dad, Trump asked her for a kiss on the cheek, before inquiring, “When did you get such a beautiful figure?” and warning her that in a few years, he would be dating one of her friends.

In the interview, a steely Samantha has an interesting and revealing perspective on this incident:

I would have given a different account of the interaction. My dad always tuned out everything negative Trump said about him, but what I remember was Trump saying, “Thank God she got those looks from her mother. She certainly didn’t get them from you.” That’s the part that stood out to me. I was not desensitized to someone putting down my dad and insulting him and degrading him. That was one of the reasons I hated Trump so much.


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Tuesday 11 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be”.

  • Mark Twain

(I’m editing the text of my Quarantine Diary at the moment, and am finding this principle damn very useful.)


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paul Simon singing ‘American Tune’ quietly by himself on The Late Show.

Link

Some of the lyrics seem to map directly onto the post below this.

And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
But it’s alright, it’s alright
For we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the
Road we’re traveling on
I wonder what’s gone wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what has gone wrong.

Many thanks to Ian Clark who suggested it, even thought he couldn’t have known what was coming next on the blog.


The unravelling of America

Anthropologist Wade Davis on how COVID-19 signals the end of the American era.

Best long read of the day. The 20th Century was the American one. The 21st will belong to… China?

Odious as he may be, Trump is less the cause of America’s decline than a product of its descent. As they stare into the mirror and perceive only the myth of their exceptionalism, Americans remain almost bizarrely incapable of seeing what has actually become of their country. The republic that defined the free flow of information as the life blood of democracy, today ranks 45th among nations when it comes to press freedom. In a land that once welcomed the huddled masses of the world, more people today favor building a wall along the southern border than supporting health care and protection for the undocumented mothers and children arriving in desperation at its doors. In a complete abandonment of the collective good, U.S. laws define freedom as an individual’s inalienable right to own a personal arsenal of weaponry, a natural entitlement that trumps even the safety of children; in the past decade alone 346 American students and teachers have been shot on school grounds.

The American cult of the individual denies not just community but the very idea of society. No one owes anything to anyone. All must be prepared to fight for everything: education, shelter, food, medical care. What every prosperous and successful democracy deems to be fundamental rights — universal health care, equal access to quality public education, a social safety net for the weak, elderly, and infirmed — America dismisses as socialist indulgences, as if so many signs of weakness.

How can the rest of the world expect America to lead on global threats — climate change, the extinction crisis, pandemics — when the country no longer has a sense of benign purpose, or collective well-being, even within its own national community? Flag-wrapped patriotism is no substitute for compassion; anger and hostility no match for love. Those who flock to beaches, bars, and political rallies, putting their fellow citizens at risk, are not exercising freedom; they are displaying, as one commentator has noted, the weakness of a people who lack both the stoicism to endure the pandemic and the fortitude to defeat it. Leading their charge is Donald Trump, a bone spur warrior, a liar and a fraud, a grotesque caricature of a strong man, with the backbone of a bully.

When I was a kid growing up in Ireland, I bought into the myth of American exceptionalism. Everyone did, then. The Vietnam war cured me of that. But what’s happened to the US as it morphed into a flailing giant is deeply depressing. Will a Biden presidency arrest the decline? I doubt it, so long as the Koch brothers et al continue to maintain a dysfunctional political system and systemic racism and an individualistic culture endure.

And just for the avoidance of doubt, the replacement of US hegemony with a Chinese version is nothing to celebrate either. We’re faced with the choice of lesser evils


Consistent and Widespread Belief in the Threat of COVID-19 to the UK Economy

From the ninth factsheet of the UK COVID-19 news and information project…

Most people still see COVID-19 as quite threatening or very threatening to the UK economy (94%), the health of the UK population as a whole (80%), and their personal health (54%). 41% say COVID-19 is a threat to their personal finances.

This is a really useful project by the RISJ.


Summer Reading #1

(Stuff I’ve been reading, or want to.)

Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics by Peter Geoghegan, Head of Zeus, 2020.

I’ve reviewed this (forthcoming in the Observer). It’s a compulsively readable, carefully researched account of how a malignant combination of right-wing ideology, secretive money (much of it from the US) and weaponisation of social media have shaped contemporary British (and to a limited extent, European) politics. And it has been able to do this in what has turned out to be a regulatory vacuum — with laws, penalties and regulators that are no longer fit for purpose.

And it’s not just (or even mostly) about Brexit.

Recommended.


QAnon groups have millions of members on Facebook

NBC News report that leaked contents of the preliminary results of an investigation by Facebook shed new light on the scope of activity and content from the QAnon community on the platform.

An internal investigation by Facebook has uncovered thousands of groups and pages, with millions of members and followers, that support the QAnon conspiracy theory, according to internal company documents reviewed by NBC News.

The investigation’s preliminary results, which were provided to NBC News by a Facebook employee, shed new light on the scope of activity and content from the QAnon community on Facebook, a scale previously undisclosed by Facebook and unreported by the news media, because most of the groups are private.

The top 10 groups identified in the investigation collectively contain more than 1 million members, with totals from more top groups and pages pushing the number of members and followers past 3 million. It is not clear how much overlap there is among the groups.

The investigation will likely inform what, if any, action Facebook decides to take against its QAnon community, according to the documents and two current Facebook employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Note the phrase “what, if any, action Facebook decides to take”…

This is so depressingly familiar. When will people wake up to the toxicity of this company?


How to find anything on the Web

Wonderful resource. Bookmark it. I knew only a few of the tricks; delighted to learn more.

HT to Charles Arthur


Outcome of Edward Bridge’s appeal on deployment of facial recognition technology by the South Wales police

Last year Edward Bridges, a civil rights campaigner in Wales, found himself in two locations at which he would have been scanned by automated facial-recognition (AFR) technology deployed by the local police force. He brought a claim for judicial review on the basis that AFR was not compatible with the right to respect for private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, data protection legislation, and the Public Sector Equality Duty (“PSED”) under section 149 of the Equality Act 2010. On 4 September 2019 the Divisional Court (“DC”) dismissed Mr Bridges’s claim for judicial review on all grounds. Bridges then appealed.

Today the Appeal Court published its judgment. Bridges’s appeal succeeded on three of the five grounds, but was not allowed on the other two.

I’m no lawyer, but it looks like only a Pyrrhic victory. The Appeal Court agreed that in order to use live AFR, some changes are needed to the framework which supposedly regulates it — e.g amendments to local policy documents and to the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice (which is issued by the Home Secretary), plus further work to ensure that the public sector equality duty is discharged. But the bad news is that the Appeal Court did not accept that lawful use of live AFR requires new primary legislation in order to regulate processing of images in the same way as fingerprints or DNA is processed by the police service. If you believe (as I do) that this technology is largely toxic, then this is depressing news.


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Friday 7 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

Immunology Is Where Intuition Goes to Die


Think ‘sanctions’ will trouble China? Think again.

Fascinating essay by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and activist.

The US cold war with the Soviet Union was over ideology, but today’s standoff with China is different. The Chinese state has no ideology, no religion, no moral agenda. It continues wearing socialist garb but only as a face-saving pretence. It has, in fact, become a state-capitalist dictatorship. What the world sees today is a contest between the US system of free-market capitalism and Chinese state capitalism. How should we read this chessboard?

With hindsight, it’s almost comical to reflect on the West’s naiveté and wishful delusions about China. The high point of it, I suppose, was the idea of Cameron and Osborne about a new “golden era” opening up for UK-China trade and other relations. I remember the University’s pathetic nervousness about demonstrations and other signs of hostility when Xi Jinping came to visit Cambridge. And then of course there were the fond illusions of many other UK universities who were so keen to open campuses in China.

Ai Weiwei was never impressed by our naiveté.

Washington bears much of the responsibility for what has happened. In the years after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, administrations of both parties touted the absurd theory that the best plan was to let China get rich and then watch as freedom and democracy evolved as byproducts of capitalist development.

But did capitalist competition, that ravenous machine that can chew up anything, change China? The regime’s politics did not change a whit. What did change was the US, whose business leaders now approached the Chinese dictatorship with obsequious smiles. Here, after all, was an exciting new business partner: master of a realm in which there were virtually no labour rights or health and safety regulations, no frustrating delays because of squabbles between political parties, no criticism from free media, and no danger of judgment by independent courts. For European and US companies doing manufacture for export, it was a dream come true.

In a way, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the hawks on China were right. We’re now back in a bi-polar world. China is a systemic challenge and has to be approached as such. What’s needed on the Western side is a new George Kennan. What we’ve got instead is a posturing imbecile in the White House.

So what would be a sensible approach for the West to adopt?

Tim Garton Ash suggested some answers in a Guardian piece last month.

We need to:

  • Think long term
  • Combine competition and cooperation
  • Focus on China’s internal dynamics
  • Don’t believe we can engineer their system
  • Always remember that we are addressing a society as well as a state
  • Remember that China is not the Soviet Union
  • Unity is strength something that Trump is incapable of understanding)
  • Remember that Cold Wars are won at home

I really like this last point. As Tim says:

By far the most important single thing that liberal democracies did to prevail in the first cold war was to make our own societies prosperous, free, open and attractive. The same will be true this time. A former Chinese student of mine has written a fascinating essay about the attitudes of Chinese students who return home after studying at western universities. His conclusion: the experience of living in the west does not make returning Chinese students, as we might once have hoped, perfect pro-western liberal democrats. Instead, they become “double dissidents”, highly critical of both systems. It’s not our foreign policy that will ultimately convince them. It’s what we do at home.

Yep.


The Workforce Is About to Change Dramatically

Three predictions for what the future might look like as a result of Covid-19. Mostly about the US, but might be relevant for us too.

1 The “Telepresence” Revolution Will Reshape the U.S. Workforce

Since 2000, as spending on travel, food, and entertainment has surged, employment in leisure and hospitality—a large category that covers restaurants, hotels, and amusement parks—has increased three times faster than the rest of the labor force.

But the boom times for this super-sector may be over, according to the economist David Autor, a co-chair of the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future. In a new paper co-authored with MIT’s Elisabeth Reynolds, he forecasts that the rise of remote work—or what they call “telepresence”—will lead to a more homebound life that creates less work for others.

2 Remote work will increase free-agent entrepreneurship and decrease collegiality

In the past few decades, the office has served, for many people, as a last community standing. In an age where various associative institutions are in retreat—such as religious congregations, bowling leagues, and unions—there is one place where the majority of adults ages 25 to 55 have kept showing up, almost every day, of almost every week. At work.

Now many companies, thrown headfirst into the remote-work experiment, have had to hurriedly retrofit their office practices for a new world.For many workers, their emotional relationships with colleagues have changed because their spatial relationships with those colleagues have changed. Many white-collar companies have become virtual group chats punctuated by Zooms. This is not business as usual.

3 A Superstar-City Exodus Will Reshape American Politics

Today’s Democratic Party is inefficiently distributed across the country. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Manhattan and Brooklyn by about 1 million votes—more than Donald Trump’s margins of victory in the states of Florida, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania combined. In election after election, liberals dominate in cities, running up huge margins in downtown areas while narrowly losing in sparser places. If Democrats abandoned liberal enclaves and spread into Red America, they could more easily win elections.

This could happen in the UK too. Tory shires beware.


The Impact of COVID-19 on the Nature of Work

Here’s the Abstract of an interesting NBER paper. It reads (in part):

We explore the impact of COVID-19 on employee’s digital communication patterns through an event study of lockdowns in 16 large metropolitan areas in North America, Europe and the Middle East. Using de- identified, aggregated meeting and email meta-data from 3,143,270 users, we find, compared to pre- pandemic levels, increases in the number of meetings per person (+12.9 percent) and the number of attendees per meeting (+13.5 percent), but decreases in the average length of meetings (-20.1 percent). Collectively, the net effect is that people spent less time in meetings per day (-11.5 percent) in the post- lockdown period. We also find significant and durable increases in length of the average workday (+8.2 percent, or +48.5 minutes), along with short-term increases in email activity.

Hmmmm…


Are humans intelligent?

This is nice: someone asked GPT-3 “are humans intelligent?”

Its answer is interestingly funny and subtle. Here’s an excerpt:

I will attempt to prove this new definition is superior to all previous attempts to define intelligence. First, consider humans’ history. It is a story of repeated failures. First humans thought the Earth was flat. Then they thought the Sun went around the Earth. Then they thought the Earth was the center of the universe. Then they thought the universe was static and unchanging. Then they thought the universe was infinite and expanding. Humans were wrong about alchemy, phrenology, bloodletting, creationism, astrology, numerology, and homeopathy. They were also wrong about the best way to harvest crops, the best way to govern, the best way to punish criminals, and the best way to cure the sick.

I will not go into the many ways humans have been wrong about morality. The list is long and depressing. If humans are so smart, how come they keep being wrong about everything?

So, what does it mean to be intelligent? Well, it’s clearly not the ability to form a correct hypothesis, because humans have failed at that thousands of times. Maybe intelligence is the ability to make the correct decision, but humans are also bad at that. They’re terrible at making decisions about politics, the economy, the environment, technology, education, medicine, and almost everything else. So, if intelligence isn’t the ability to make correct decisions or form correct hypotheses, then what is it?

Good question.


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Thursday 16 July, 2020

“Now we are all sons of bitches”

75 years ago today, the nuclear age began. July 16 1945 was the day the first atomic bomb was detonated in the New Mexico desert in the Trinity test. To mark the anniversary the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has compiled a memorable assembly of personal reflections by the scientists who worked on the bomb and who were there when it went off. It’s an unmissable, moving read. Here are two of the reflections.

Val Fitch:

It took about 30 millionths of a second for the flash of light from the explosion to reach us outside the bunker at south 10,000. It took the blast wave about 30 seconds. There was the initial loud report, the sharp gust of wind, and then the long period of reverberation as the sound waves echoed off the nearby mountains and came back to us.

I got up from the ground and watched the now famous mushroom cloud rise in the morning sky. Apparently no one had told the military policeman, stationed at the door of the bunker to control access, what to expect. He was absolutely pale and a look of incredible alarm was on his face as he came away from the bunker door to stand beside me and view the sight. I simply said what was on my mind, “The war will soon be over.”

Kenneth Bainbridge:

After the blast wave had passed, I got up from the ground to congratulate Oppenheimer and others on the success of the implosion method. I finished by saying to Robert, “Now we are all sons of bitches.” Years later he recalled my words and wrote me, “We do not have to explain them to anyone.” I think that I will always respect his statement, although there have been some imaginative people who somehow can’t or won’t put the statement in context and get the whole interpretation. Oppenheimer told my younger daughter in 1966 that it was the best thing anyone said after the test.

Ancient history? Yes. But if China, fresh from subjugating Hong Kong, were to move on Taiwan…


The costs of the next Cold War: $3.5 trillion

And while we’re on the subject of China, this from yesterday’s FT:

A larger tech cold war is taking place that could cost $3.5tn over the next five years, according to a report today by Apjit Walia, Deutsche Bank’s Global Head of Tech Strategy. This permeates to the consumer level, with DB surveys recording 41 per cent of Americans and 35 per cent of Chinese saying they will not buy each other’s products.

The $3.5tn figure comes from a $400bn reduction a year in domestic end demand from China and $100bn a year as a “Tech Wall” creates extra costs for companies dealing with rival internet platforms, operating systems, and communications and payment networks. A further $1tn in costs would come from rebuilding and reconfiguring the supply chain, mainly falling on “final goods manufacturers” who currently use China as a manufacturing base.

If there is any upside, it might come from similar dynamics to the US-USSR cold war, where a ramp in spending on defence and the space race could translate as a leap in tech investment this century. US government spending alone on R&D more than doubled as a percentage of GDP between 1957 and 1964 — to 2.2 per cent. Tech investment might not match that in this post-Covid era, but it could still provide a much needed blast of warmth for the sector in icy times.


Boris Johnson needs a therapist. Who knew?

John Crace on Boris Johnson’s latest shambles in PMQs:

At this point, it dawned on Starmer that Boris almost certainly hadn’t read the report [from the Academy of Medical Sciences on the dangers of an Autumn surge in Covid cases] to which he had referred – a little slow on the uptake from the Labour leader as the prime minister never reads any reports of more than two paragraphs – so he asked him outright if he had. “Um … er …,” Boris hesitated. He was aware of the report. In the same way he is aware that he has children, but is unable to say exactly how many. And in the same way as I am aware of the space-time continuum but would be unable to explain exactly what the science meant to anyone. Though if it turned out that Boris only really existed in another parallel dimension then I’d happily settle for that.


Apple, Ireland and the saga of €13 billion

This is stuff you couldn’t make up.

Four years ago, the European Commission said that Ireland had failed to collect €13 billion in taxes from Apple. According to the Commission this meant that Apple had received illegal state aid and should have paid more taxes. Apple duly handed over the €13B to the Irish government, which put it in an escrow account (where it’s been sitting ever since earning interest). Apple appealed the ruling to the EU General Court. Even more intriguingly, so did the Irish government.

Today, the Court handed down its judgment — that the European Commission’s case had no legal basis. So unless the Commission appeals, then the Irish government — which will be strapped for cash because of Covid-19 and the forthcoming financial crash caused by the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal — will cheerfully refund Apple.

According to the FT the EU has two months and 10 days to appeal against the decision, and it believes that the commission is likely to file an appeal and the case will be heard by the European Court of Justice, the EU’s highest court, which will issue a final ruling.

All of this may make sense to lawyers. But Sinn Féin, the main opposition party in the Irish parliament is not amused. Nor, I suspect, are many of my fellow-countrymen and women.


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Saturday 13 June, 2020

Saturday 13 June

Quote of the Day

Some on the left drew a strange consolation from Trump’s hostility to foreign wars, as if it meant he could be a tactical ally against American imperialism. They failed to see that he wanted to wage war at home: his furious inauguration speech with its talk of ‘American carnage’ was a declaration of war on urban racial liberalism, especially as represented by New York, the city that had rejected him.


 

The West’s ‘China problem’

I started the day reading Peter Oborne’s piece on whether China will replace Islam as the West’s new enemy — and then got sucked into the rabbit-hole of whether we are sliding into a new Cold War, with China playing the role that the Soviet Union played in the old days. This is all about geopolitics, of course, about which I know little. But if you write about digital technology, as I do, this emerging Cold War is a perennial puzzle that pops up everywhere. For example, in:

  • the discussions about whether Huawei kit should be allowed in Western 5G networks;
  • whether we should be concerned about becoming addicted to Zoom, a company with a sizeable chunk of its workforce and infrastructure based in China;
  • what to make of China’s increasing technological assertiveness at the ITU over changing the centrals protocols of the TCP/IP-based Internet we use today
  • anxieties in (mostly-US companies and the US government) about the inbuilt advantages an authoritarian regime has in fostering the development of ‘AI’ (aka machine-learning) technology, the essential feedstock for which is unlimited volumes of user data — as compared with the way our liberal reservations about privacy and civil rights hobbles our tech giants.
  • the strange and enduring legacy of old Cold War attitudes in the Western military-industrial complex which continually obsesses about Russia rather than China.

This last factor is particularly weird. In the immediate post-war period, we lived in a genuinely bi-polar world, with competition between two different economic and ideological systems — the Soviet, centrally-planned one, and the Western liberal capitalist one.

As it happens, we in the West greatly over-estimated the capacity of the Soviet system, perhaps because it seemed to be very good at some things — nuclear weapons development and space science in particular. In part we owe the Internet to the fright the US received when in 1957 the USSR launched Sputnik, the first earth-orbiting satellite. This, among other things, led to the establishment of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in the Pentagon, which was the organisation that conceived and funded Arpanet, the precursor of today’s Internet.

Nevertheless, it remained true that the bi-polar world into which I was born was based on an ongoing contest between two socio-economic systems which could be — and were often — seen as genuine alternatives.

This bi-polar world evaporated in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down and two years later the USSR imploded, leaving the Western model apparently triumphant. This was the moment that coincided with the publication of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ essay, which argued that the post-1917 ideological competition about the best way to organise society had been decisively resolved with liberal democracy as the winning candidate. This was an overly-simplistic reading of Fukuyama, but what was indisputable was that, post-1989, we moved into a uni-polar world, with the US as the reigning hyper power, able to do exactly as it pleased. Which it did, including launching a disastrous war in Iraq on a pretext, and further destabilising the Middle East as a consequence.

But even before 1989, things were beginning to change elsewhere in the world. In 1978, in particular, as Laurie Macfarlane points out,

Deng Xiaoping became China’s new paramount leader, after outmanoeuvring Mao’s chosen successor, Hua Guofeng. Deng oversaw the country’s historic ‘Reform and Opening-up’ process, which increased the role of market incentives and opened up the Chinese economy to global trade. In the decades since, China’s economic transformation has been nothing short of astonishing.

In 1981, 88% of the Chinese population lived in extreme poverty. In the four decades since, nearly a billion people have been lifted out of poverty, leaving the figure at less than 2%. Over the same time period, the size of China’s economy increased from $195 billion – around the same size as the Spanish economy – to nearly $14 trillion today. By some measures, China’s economy has overtaken the US and is now the largest in the world. China is also home to the second largest number of Fortune 500 companies in the world, and more billionaires than Europe.

So even as the old bi-polar world was dying, a new alternative system was being born. I don’t think that Deng had many geopolitical ambitions, but his successors certainly had. And have.

China’s astonishing economic transformation has been engineered by a distinctive economic model which they call “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, combining strategic state ownership and planning with market-oriented incentives and a one-party political system to create a unique economic model that while poorly understood in the West is found interesting and perhaps attractive by a significant number of non-aligned countries.

It doesn’t look much like ’socialism’ to anyone who studies the tech sector, because the private sector accounts for the overwhelming majority of output, employment and investment in China; and there is — as Macfarlane points out, little sign of democratic workers’ control. But it’s a powerful and effective system, and — to date — it appears to be working. Which is more than could ever be said for the Soviet system.

So here we are in a bi-polar world again. But it’s nothing like its predecessor. In the old Cold War, for example, European democracies were resolutely anti-Soviet (even if they didn’t always pay their mandatory 2% of GDP into the NATO budget). But now, with China as the opposite ‘pole’ to the US, they’re much more ambivalent. As are many global companies. China’s role as the workshop of the world, and also as the fastest growing and potentially most profitable market, means that outright hostility to the new superpower looks like a self-defeating policy.

This doesn’t bother Trump, whose most desperate need is to find an enemy he can blame for the unfolding disaster of the pandemic that has occurred on his watch. And it isn’t just Trump, as Peter Oborne says:

China is being presented as the new existential enemy, just as Islam was 20 years ago. And by the very same people. The same newspaper columnists, the same think tanks, the same political parties and the same intelligence agencies.

After Huntington’s famous essay that led the charge against Muslims – or what they often call radical Islam – now they have turned their attention to the Far East.

US President Donald Trump, the world’s Muslim-basher-in-chief, has now started to attack China, rather as Bush, his Republican predecessor, attacked Iraq in 2003 and the “axis of evil” 20 years ago. During his campaign in 2016 he accused China of “raping” the US economy.

However, since the outbreak of Covid-19, Trump’s attacks have gained speed and traction. He has accused China of covering up the virus and lying about its death toll.

Leaving aside Trump, who thinks only in transactional terms and doesn’t seem to have any strategic sense, the impression one gets from the US foreign policy establishment is of hegemonic unease. The feeling that it would be disastrous if the US lost its position as the global leader in digital technology is palpable. And it’s ruthlessly exploited by the tech companies — as we saw when the Facebook boss ‘testified’ to Congress and hinted that not hampering (i.e. regulating) the tech giants is a way of ensuring the continuance of US technological hegemony.

So is American hegemony really in doubt? Writing in 2018, Adam Tooze was sceptical:

As of today, two years into the Trump presidency, it is a gross exaggeration to talk of an end to the American world order. The two pillars of its global power – military and financial – are still firmly in place. What has ended is any claim on the part of American democracy to provide a political model. This is certainly a historic break. Trump closes the chapter begun by Woodrow Wilson in the First World War, with his claim that American democracy articulated the deepest feelings of liberal humanity. A hundred years later, Trump has for ever personified the sleaziness, cynicism and sheer stupidity that dominates much of American political life. What we are facing is a radical disjunction between the continuity of basic structures of power and their political legitimation.

If America’s president mounted on a golf buggy is a suitably ludicrous emblem of our current moment, the danger is that it suggests far too pastoral a scenario: American power trundling to retirement across manicured lawns. That is not our reality. Imagine instead the president and his buggy careening around the five-acre flight deck of a $13 billion, Ford-class, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier engaged in ‘dynamic force deployment’ to the South China Sea. That better captures the surreal revival of great-power politics that hangs over the present. Whether this turns out to be a violent and futile rearguard action, or a new chapter in the age of American world power, remains to be seen.

And if you felt that this post was TL;DR. (Too long, don’t read) I perfectly understand. E.M. Forster once observed that there are two kinds of writer: those who know what they think and write it; and those who find out what they think by trying to write it. I belong mostly in the latter category.


Quarantine diary — Day 84

Link


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Wednesday 25 March, 2020

This blog is now also available as a once-a-day email. If you think this might work better for you why not subscribe here? (It’s free and there’s a 1-click unsubscribe if you subsequently decide you need to prune your inbox!) One email a day, in your inbox at 07:00 every morning.


Why America is so bad at Covid-19.

It’s our attitude, there are never consequences for Americans. That’s for other people. We have wars and tax cuts at the same time. We don’t see the coffins of our returning dead. Nothing happens to us. We can’t imagine things not being normal. The generation that grew up during World War II, who experienced the Holocaust, the advent of nuclear weapons, that generation is gone now. Everyone alive today, not just boomers, have been spoiled. We’re all coming awake now from a life-long trance. For the first time in our lives, we have to deal with the mortality of our country. Don’t cry for America. It’s time to grow up, again. Couldn’t have a more perfect person as president. It’s easy to see he is our past. Now how do we move beyond that?

Dave Winer


The Real Pandemic Danger Is Social Collapse

Branko Milanovic: “As the Global Economy Comes Apart, Societies May, Too”.

Sobering essay in Foreign Affairs. Sample:

The world faces the prospect of a profound shift: a return to natural—which is to say, self-sufficient—economy. That shift is the very opposite of globalization. While globalization entails a division of labor among disparate economies, a return to natural economy means that nations would move toward self-sufficiency. That movement is not inevitable. If national governments can control or overcome the current crisis within the next six months or a year, the world would likely return to the path of globalization, even if some of the assumptions that undergirded it (for example, very taut production chains with just-in-time deliveries) might have to be revised.

But if the crisis continues, globalization could unravel. The longer the crisis lasts, and the longer obstacles to the free flow of people, goods, and capital are in place, the more that state of affairs will come to seem normal. Special interests will form to sustain it, and the continuing fear of another epidemic may motivate calls for national self-sufficiency. In this sense, economic interests and legitimate health worries could dovetail. Even a seemingly small requirement—for instance, that everyone who enters a country needs to present, in addition to a passport and a visa, a health certificate—would constitute an obstacle to the return to the old globalized way, given how many millions of people would normally travel.

If de-globalisation does indeed start to happen, then that will produce — in Arnold Kling’s terms — “losers and bigger losers (it won’t produce many winners)”. What matters in a de-globalised world is how self-sufficient you are. Kling cites Peter Zeihan’s view that the U.S. is one of the few countries that produces enough food and energy for itself. China, on the other hand, needs to import both. That would lead one to predict that China will be in the “bigger loser” category.

Hmmmm…


Quarantine FM

My son Pete is a talented podcast producer. He’s currently hunkered down on his narrow boat in London and had the idea of creating something that would provide pleasure to people stuck in the self-isolation zone. This is the first episode. Subscribe using whatever you use to catch podcasts.


The last global crisis didn’t change the world. But this one could

Typically insightful essay by the incomparable Will Davies. He addresses a question that has always puzzled me, namely why the 2008 banking crisis didn’t provoke a radical rethink of how we run our societies. It did, of course, eventually produce a populist backlash against the ‘austerity’ imposed on ordinary citizens in order to ensure that banks would be rescued while no bankers went to gaol. But in most ways, the system continued as it had before, except with slightly better financed banks (outside of Italy, perhaps). So in that sense the 2008 cataclysm wasn’t a real crisis — i.e. an event that leads to structural and ideological change.

“The decade that shapes our contemporary imagination of crises”, he writes,

is the 1970s, which exemplified the way a historic rupture can set an economy and a society on a new path. This period marked the collapse of the postwar system of fixed exchange rates, capital controls and wage policies, which were perceived to have led to uncontrollable inflation. It also created the conditions in which the new right of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan could ride to the rescue, offering a novel medicine of tax cuts, interest rate hikes and attacks on organised labour.

Oddly, the 1970s inspired a vision of crisis as a wide-ranging shift in ideology, which has retained its hold over much of the left ever since.

For over 40 years after Thatcher first took office, many people on the left have waited impatiently for a successor to the 1970s, in the hope that a similar ideological transition might occur in reverse. But despite considerable upheaval and social pain, the global financial crisis of 2008 failed to provoke a fundamental shift in policy orthodoxy. In fact, after the initial burst of public spending that rescued the banks, the free-market Thatcherite worldview became even more dominant in Britain and the eurozone. The political upheavals of 2016 took aim at the status quo, but with little sense of a coherent alternative to it. But both these crises now appear as mere forerunners to the big one that emerged in Wuhan at the close of last year.

So the question now is whether COVID-19 is really a pivotal moment? Davies thinks that it might be.

Great essay. Worth reading in full.


Herd immunity redux

Remember the ‘herd immunity’ strategy for dealing with Coronavirus? That’s the strategy that was kyboshed by the Imperial College model. Well now a modelling team at Oxford is suggesting that the virus may already have infected far more people in the UK than scientists had previously estimated — perhaps as much as half the population — according to a report in yesterday’s Financial Times.

If the results are confirmed, they imply that fewer than one in a thousand of those infected with Covid-19 become ill enough to need hospital treatment, said Sunetra Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology, who led the study. The vast majority develop very mild symptoms or none at all.

The research, observes the FT,

presents a very different view of the epidemic to the modelling at Imperial College London, which has strongly influenced government policy. “I am surprised that there has been such unqualified acceptance of the Imperial model,” said Prof Gupta.

(Experts in the conventions of academic warfare will be able to decode that genteel observation.)

But Prof Gupta was reluctant to criticise the government for shutting down the country to suppress viral spread, because the accuracy of the Oxford model has not yet been confirmed and, even if it is correct, social distancing will still reduce the number of people becoming seriously ill and relieve severe pressure on the NHS during the peak of the epidemic.

Let the war of the models begin. We will only know the truth when the UK has a large-scale programme for testing in the population at large. At the moment we’re still flying blind.


Quarantine diary — Day 4

Link

Monday 27 January, 2020

Does it make sense to confine Huawei to the ‘non-core’ part of a 5G network?

This seems to be the UK’s fallback position to avoid antagonising the Chinese state (though it won’t mollify the Americans). Bruce Schneier has some interesting things to say about this. Sample:

The 5G security problems are threefold. First, the standards are simply too complex to implement securely. This is true for all software, but the 5G protocols offer particular difficulties. Because of how it is designed, the system blurs the wireless portion of the network connecting phones with base stations and the core portion that routes data around the world. Additionally, much of the network is virtualized, meaning that it will rely on software running on dynamically configurable hardware. This design dramatically increases the points vulnerable to attack, as does the expected massive increase in both things connected to the network and the data flying about it.

Second, there’s so much backward compatibility built into the 5G network that older vulnerabilities remain. 5G is an evolution of the decade-old 4G network, and most networks will mix generations. Without the ability to do a clean break from 4G to 5G, it will simply be impossible to improve security in some areas. Attackers may be able to force 5G systems to use more vulnerable 4G protocols, for example, and 5G networks will inherit many existing problems.

Third, the 5G standards committees missed many opportunities to improve security. Many of the new security features in 5G are optional, and network operators can choose not to implement them. The same happened with 4G; operators even ignored security features defined as mandatory in the standard because implementing them was expensive. But even worse, for 5G, development, performance, cost, and time to market were all prioritized over security, which was treated as an afterthought.

Schneier’s view is that “It’s really too late to secure 5G networks”. 5G security, he says,

is just one of the many areas in which near-term corporate profits prevailed against broader social good. In a capitalist free market economy, the only solution is to regulate companies, and the United States has not shown any serious appetite for that.

What’s more, U.S. intelligence agencies like the NSA rely on inadvertent insecurities for their worldwide data collection efforts, and law enforcement agencies like the FBI have even tried to introduce new ones to make their own data collection efforts easier. Again, near-term self-interest has so far triumphed over society’s long-term best interests.

And of course there’s also the fact that there have probably always been US-friendly backdoors in Cisco kit, as this report from the FT the other day suggests.


Sajit Javid and the ‘quiet hegemon‘ he’s clearly never heard about

Javid, who is currently Chancellor of the Exchequer, was grandstanding the other week about how the liberated UK would break free of EU red tape. In an interview with the Financial Times he warned UK manufacturers that “there will not be alignment” with the EU after Brexit and insisted that firms must “adjust” to new regulations.

Not surprisingly, this caused alarm in many business sectors whose prosperity depends on adhering to EU regulations. And so Javid — possibly under instruction from Number 10 — started to row back, saying that the government will only use the freedom to diverge if it thinks the change is worthwhile, and after the pros and cons have weighed up.

The Chancellor has form in shooting his mouth off. I remember that he spoke at the launch of the previous government’s White Paper on online harms. He was then Home Secretary (aka Minister of the Interior) and his speech was less about online harms and more about how he was the tough guy who would stamp out this kind of harm. In effect, it was part of his campaign to replace Theresa May, then on her last legs as Premier.

I viewed his Financial Times interview through the same lens. He’s like Boris Johnson during May’s tenure, perpetually in campaigning mode. There are however, some harsh realities about regulatory divergence that suggest he could be riding for a fall. Today, for example, the CEO of Volvo is reported (by the FT) as saying that certifying his company’s cars for the UK market would not be worth the cost if UK rules diverged significantly from the EU’s. The result, UK consumers would have a smaller range of Volvos to choose from. And there’s an interesting new book out — The Brussels Effect: How the European Union Rules the World by Ann Bradford, an academic study detailing how, in a world increasingly driven by standards, EU standards have quietly become global standards. (Think GDPR.)

In that way, the EU has become a “quiet hegemon” of which it seems the Westminster bubble is blissfully unaware.

Hong Kong: only two possible end-games

Roger Cohen, in today’s NYT:

The most significant, perhaps the only, foreign policy achievement of the Trump administration has been to get behind the Hong Kong protesters while pressuring Xi on trade and keeping channels open to the Chinese leader. This American pressure, which has made Trump popular in Hong Kong, must not relent.

Mike Bloomberg, who has said Xi “is not a dictator,” and Joe Biden, who has said China “is not competition for us,” should take another look. Universal suffrage for Hong Kong is the only endgame I can see to the “one country, two systems” impasse, short of the People’s Liberation Army marching into the city and all hell breaking loose.

China’s abuse of human rights is possibly the only thing that the fractured US Congress agrees about. And Trump reluctantly signed the Bill.

Back to the future

The FTC is suing Qualcomm, the chip maker, in the first major monopoly case since the Microsoft one all those years ago. In his weekly newsletter, Matt Stoller provides a useful historical comparison to put the case in its context:

Qualcomm is a very important corporation, but one you may not have heard of because it doesn’t do consumer oriented work. The company makes critical components for cell phones, the stuff you don’t see but that goes into the guts of telecom systems. Its technology connects phones to cell networks, and it makes its money by selling chips and by licensing its patents to device makers.

The story of how Qualcomm monopolizes is pretty simple. The corporation does what Bill Gates did to computer manufacturers and what John D. Rockefeller did to railroads, as I wrote a few weeks ago. Rockefeller’s oil was critical to railroads, and Gates’s operating system software was critical to computer makers. Both of them thus forced their dependents to give them a fee not just for every Rockefeller barrel of oil or Microsoft OS license, but a fee for every one of their competitors’ as well. They taxed their competition and made it impossible to compete.

Qualcomm does this as well. As its competitor Intel explained, Qualcomm “refuses to sell [phone makers] any chipsets unless those manufacturers also purchase separate patent licenses that require them to pay exorbitant royalties for every handset they sell, regardless of whether the handset contains a Qualcomm chipset.” In other words, it’s the Gates/Rockefeller playbook. Find an essential chokehold, and use it to control the industry.

Qualcomm uses a few other anti-competitive tactics. It refused to license its patents – essentially standard and necessary for the industry – to competitors. And it cut exclusive deal arrangements with customers to box anyone else out of the market. (You can read the rest of Intel’s amicus brief if you want to hear expensive lawyers accurately whine about being treated unfairly.)

The strange thing is, though, that important sectors of the US government are trying to intervene in the case, effectively opposing the FTC. Their argument is that the suit undermines national security.

The DOJ argument is basically saying, yeah, Qualcomm does all that stuff, but Judge Gorsuch said it’s all legal and efficient, and we don’t want to dissuade the liberty to abuse patents and market power. Two other officials, one at the Department of Defense and another at the Department of Energy, also weighed in. Ellen Lord, a former defense contractor and the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment for the DOD, argued that Qualcomm’s position as a monopolist enables it to support national security and help China. A Department of Energy official Max Everett basically said the same thing.

The national security argument is BS, says Stoller, but not for the reason you’d think. He quotes an excerpt from a WSJ OpEd by Michael Chertoff, a former senior Cabinet officer in previous US administrations.

In the technology race against China, the U.S. should prefer to let competition drive innovation rather than support exclusive national champions. Apart from the economic inefficiency, a single-source national champion creates an unacceptable risk to American security—artificially concentrating vulnerability in a single point. The government’s argument in support of Qualcomm isn’t prudent, and if courts accept it, the result would be a self-inflicted wound to U.S. national interests. We need competition and multiple providers, not a potentially vulnerable technological monoculture.

Underpinning this argument is a prevailing denialism about China in the American Deep State. What happens, Stoller says, is that China either hacks US corporations to steal their intellectual property, or acquires it legally when they try to do business in China. So: China innovates at speed by topping up its own (substantial) native ingenuity with the ideas and wisdom of its US competitors, while those same competitors are locked out by monopolisation and patent restrictions from exploiting that same, locally-developed intellectual property in their own country.

End result: China races ahead. Madness on stilts.

Global risks 2035 update

From the Atlantic Council. Headlines are:

  • The unipolar world of the 1990s, when the United States was the world’s sole superpower, is definitively over and will no longer be a realistic option for any president.
  • An absolute United States’ decline is not inevitable, but an open conflict with China increases those risks considerably.
  • A deep economic reversal in China could trigger a widespread economic meltdown that leads to a worst-case scenario of slower growth and a return to protectionism and political destabilization.

No real surprises, really.

Full report (pdf) here