Monday 15 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

I keep wondering about this too.

Termite capitalism: the menace of private equity

Terrific essay in open Democracy on one of the most pernicious manifestations of capitalism.

The problem is that the private equity model of takeover and ownership is akin to inviting termites into your house. The basic model is as follows: private equity acquires a company using loans, usually from banks but also increasingly from pension funds, insurance companies, sovereign wealth funds etc. The old management is replaced, the workforce cut, and assets such as land and buildings are sold, often to an entity registered in an offshore tax haven. The new company must pay interest on the debt, repay the debt over time, pay rent for the premises, management fees to the private equity owners.

Costs will also include payment to linked third-party suppliers, at prices which are not arm’s length. The taxable capacity of the new company is thereby reduced, and tax liabilities are shifted towards capital gains tax away from corporation tax. The company can only be financially viable in a booming market or where revenue streams continue to rise.

In general, private equity does not actually create anything – it engages instead in extracting resources from previously existing assets. Eventually, by excessive extraction of revenue flows, the companies are bound to fail. The termites eat away at the foundations until the house falls down.

If ever one wanted a demonstration of the extent to which neoliberal ideology is suffused through our ruling elites, then tolerance of private equity provides it. The argument that it’s really a way of ensuring the survival of the fittest in corporate life is specious — at least in its present manifestations.

The Long Shadow Of The Future

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the death of Max Weber, the patron saint of the administrative state. Wolfgang Drechsler has a nice essay to mark the occasion.

“Weberian public administration in the wider sense”, he writes,

has been, and is, much maligned; bureaucracy is an easy target, and whining about it is a steady feature of complex human societies which always need and automatically generate it. And Weberian public administration has its systemic faults — slowness, process-orientation, a slippery slope to authoritarian, mindless hierarchization and shirking. However, this bureaucracy is in its optimal form ethics-based, high-capacity, and motivation-driven. It is meant to be both responsible — to a state that is above and beyond particular interests — as well as responsive — to groups and citizens, but not at the cost of the commonweal.

However we decide to manage the transition to a CO2-neutral world — via Green Growth or Post-Growth — that process will have to be implemented by competent, motivated, and yes, Weberian civil servants.

Yep. And the problem was that neoliberal ideology never believed that this kind of civil service was valuable. (One of its more fanatical American devotees used to say that his ambition was “to shrink the state until it was small enough to be drowned in a bathtub”.) So its devotees (including Margaret Thatcher) imported economic principles and management theories into the administrative state without recognizing the crucial, fundamental differences between public and private, not least as regards value creation.

As a result, writes Drechsler, “We still stand in front of the smoldering ruins of a capable, responsible state … and we are still paying a high price for it.”

And how! The pandemic has vividly demonstrated this — especially in the cases of the US and the UK. We have discovered that these states lacked the capacity to deal with the crisis because, over preceding decades, that capacity had been eroded or (in the case of the US) actively destroyed, especially during the Trump presidency — as Michael Lewis described in his sobering book, The Fifth Risk.

Which brings us to a remarkable long essay by Nils Gilman and Steven Weber on how different kinds of states have responded to the challenge of the virus. They focus particularly on Taiwan (which did well) but draw some really interesting general conclusions from their survey.

Poor policy reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic aren’t the result of a failure of imagination; the pandemic was not a black swan event, and it was not unpredictable. It was entirely foreseeable — and foreseen — by a wide variety of government, business, medical and other foresight professionals. For years, the World Economic Forum hosted pandemic preparedness planning events. Even if we didn’t know when and precisely how, we knew something like COVID-19 was coming.

The real challenge is not foresight itself but how to turn foresight into action — specifically, into operational readiness supported by competent operators. The inability to contain the COVID-19 outbreak signals a failure to take seriously the outputs of our own foresight models by acting to create contingency arrangements, manage risks and secure back-up plans in advance, in a sustained manner and without a precise target date or endpoint.

This failure has taken place in Italy, Iran, Spain, England, Sweden, the U.S. and elsewhere; authoritarian, conservative and social democratic governments alike have been overwhelmed. And because we live in a time of rapid and intensive global flows of people and products, multiple national failures compound inexorably into a global failure. In the words of President Eisenhower: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

And why have a small number of countries, like Taiwan, been able to manage the crisis better than others?

Nils and Weber identify a “distinctive mix of governance attributes” —

at once vigorously participatory, highly trustworthy, competent and with careful plans. In 2004, the year after the SARS epidemic, which was widely seen to have been mishandled, the Taiwanese government established the National Health Command Center as “a disaster management center that focuses on large-outbreak response and acts as the operational command point for direct communications among central, regional and local authorities.” Five years later, Taiwanese health officials staged simulated drills as a capability exercise. Simulations revealed the tensions and miscommunications between different levels of government and agencies during a crisis, allowing officials to develop heuristics for overcoming such problems in advance.

One of the most intriguing ideas in this marvellous essay is the way it highlights the difference between ideas and delivery. “One of the less-positive effects of digital social media over the last decade”, they write,

has been to contribute to a set of mythologies about the special value of ideas. Ideas are of course powerful and ultimately the source of innovation and social change, but the pandemic is revealing a sharp difference between power and value. In a landscape where there are plenty of ideas — good and bad and mixed in terms of quality, and often hard to distinguish — value tends to migrate toward what is relatively scarce. And what’s been shown to be relatively scarce right now is competent operational expertise.

Put simply, ideas are cheap and easy to create and distribute — never more so than on social media platforms. But really knowing how to get things done effectively requires a set of capabilities that are difficult to create, expensive to maintain and improve, and not something you describe in 280 characters. Pandemics and other mass emergencies and mobilizations like wars demonstrate the difference in sharp relief. The ability to execute becomes visibly more important than the ability to ideate. What’s more, the best ideas are rarely discovered in isolation from practical implementation. Improvement depends on concrete feedback from what happens when ideas are put into practice in the world. What works and what doesn’t reveals itself to operators before (and often more clearly than) it reveals itself to idea generators.

Wow! This summary has just scratched the surface of an extraordinary essay. Which is why it’s worth reading in full.

29-hour reading of Ulysses to air on RTÉ radio tomorrow!

If you’re an admirer of James Joyce (like me), tomorrow — June 16 (Bloomsday) — is the most important day of the year.

For over 20 years I’ve hosted a lunch to celebrate the writer and his wonderful novel. We gather, drink burgundy and eat gorgonzola sandwiches — just as Leopold Bloom did in Davy Byrne’s pub — at lunchtime in the novel. And read from the book.

Sadly, this year the virus has put paid to that event. I had pondered trying to do a virtual Bloomsday lunch over Zoom, but decided it was too ridiculous and depressing to contemplate.

But — here’s some good news. RTE, the Irish national broadcasting station, is going to broadcast a marathon reading of the novel, starting at 8am tomorrow, the moment when the novel opens in the Martello Tower in Sandycove, south of Dublin.

Here’s the link. Use it wisely. Hope you enjoy the day.

Quarantine diary — Day 86


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Saturday 6 June, 2020

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

Interesting NYT piece by Nellie Bowles.

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

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

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

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

Great journalism. Link

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

The Story Behind Bill Barr’s Unmarked Federal Agents

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

History Will Judge the Complicit

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

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

This is an extraordinary story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Seb Schmoller for alerting me to this.


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

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

Quarantine diary — Day 77


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Monday 25 May, 2020

Fledging Day!

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

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

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

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

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


Thanks to Gerard de Vries for spotting it.

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

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

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

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

The benefits of taciturnity

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

Lovely LRB piece by Julian Barnes from 1987.

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

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

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

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

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

New life and an awareness of mortality

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

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

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

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

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

Covid is messing with machine-learning systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quarantine diary — Day 65


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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


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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Wednesday 29 April, 2020

Quote of the Day

”The best test of a person’s intelligence is their capacity for making a summary”

  • Lytton Strachey

Understanding the virus

It’s a very complicated and (still) poorly-understood organism. The Atlantic has published this really helpful explainer. Sample:

Since the pandemic began, scientists have published more than 7,500 papers on COVID-19. But despite this deluge, “we haven’t seen a lot of huge plot twists,” says Carl Bergstrom, an epidemiologist and a sociologist of science at the University of Washington. The most important, he says, was the realization that people can spread the virus before showing symptoms. But even that insight was slow to dawn. A flawed German study hinted at it in early February, but scientific opinion shifted only after many lines of evidence emerged, including case reports, models showing that most infections are undocumented, and studies indicating that viral levels peak as symptoms appear.

This is how science actually works. It’s less the parade of decisive blockbuster discoveries that the press often portrays, and more a slow, erratic stumble toward ever less uncertainty. “Our understanding oscillates at first, but converges on an answer,” says Natalie Dean, a statistician at the University of Florida. “That’s the normal scientific process, but it looks jarring to people who aren’t used to it.”

For example, Stanford University researchers recently made headlines after testing 3,330 volunteers from Santa Clara County for antibodies against the new coronavirus. The team concluded that 2.5 to 4.2 percent of people have already been infected—a proportion much higher than the official count suggests. This, the authors claimed, means that the virus is less deadly than suspected, and that severe lockdowns may be overreactions—views they had previously espoused in opinion pieces. But other scientists, including statisticians, virologists, and disease ecologists, have criticized the study’s methods and the team’s conclusions.

One could write a long piece assessing the Santa Clara study alone, but that would defeat the point: that individual pieces of research are extremely unlikely to single-handedly upend what we know about COVID-19. About 30 similar “serosurveys” have now been released. These and others to come could collectively reveal how many Americans have been infected. Even then, they would have to be weighed against other evidence, including accounts from doctors and nurses in New York or Lombardy, Italy, which clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 can crush health-care systems. The precise magnitude of the virus’s fatality rate is a matter of academic debate. The reality of what it can do to hospitals is not.

It’s a long read, but worth it.

Thanks to Seb Schmoller for spotting it.

En passant. There’s been a torrent of research papers on the virus since the crisis broke. Some of this is making it way through the peer-review vetting process of traditional scientific journals. But an awful lot of it is winding up on so-called ‘preprint’ servers, where (more or less) anyone can publish anything that bears a superficial resemblance to ‘scientific’ or scholarly work. These preprint archives have their uses, and peer-reviewing isn’t perfect. But when mainstream media sees an unreviewed preprint and then draws sensational conclusions from it, then that only makes things worse.

Julie Pfeiffer of UT Southwestern, who is an editor at the Journal of Virology, says that she and her colleagues have been flooded with submitted papers, most of which are so obviously poor that they haven’t even been sent out for review. “They shouldn’t be published anywhere,” she says, “and then they end up [on a preprint site].” Some come from nonscientists who have cobbled together a poor mathematical model; others come from actual virologists who have suddenly pivoted to studying coronaviruses and “are submitting work they never normally would in a rush to be first,” Pfeiffer says. “Some people are genuinely trying to help, but there’s also a huge amount of opportunism.”

From Private Lives to Public Memory

Absorbing conversation on Lapham’s Quarterly about the 1918 flu pandemic with the historian Nancy Bristow, author of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds Of The 1918 Influenza Epidemic.

It’s fascinating for all kinds of reasons, of which the first is that 1918 was the last time that the US and Europe went through something akin to our current crisis. Lots of differences, of course, but also similarities. For example:

In general, the common pattern was a lot of community commitment, and folks nationwide stepped up to do the right thing. You hear stories of schoolteachers whose school districts were closed down and were asked to serve as volunteer nurses instead. In an email from a colleague this week, I learned the story of schoolteacher who spent the pandemic holding the hands of the dying in an emergency ward. And that kind of story is not unusual. People formed soup kitchens, they helped in the emergency hospitals, they delivered food, they ran temporary orphanages to take care of children whose parents were ill. So again and again you see people doing really heroic things to help one another. And this is an era in which, because they can’t identify the virus, and they don’t really have the same kind of understanding of personal protective equipment we do now, those who offered that kind of help were often putting their own lives at risk. Across the country you see examples of communities really stepping up and of individuals stepping up to be their best selves, of being what Rebecca Solnit describes as part of “a paradise built in hell”: this idea that we can be our best selves in the midst of a catastrophe and that that’s actually a common reaction for human beings. You see that a great deal in 1918.

The private and public lives of Albert Einstein

Lovely review article in the TLS by P.D. Smith of five books about Einstein’s life, relationships and experiences. Includes lots I hadn’t known. Including this:

On September 9, 1933, something spooked Einstein, who was by then living in exile in Belgium. Apparently fearing for his life, he travelled alone to England at short notice. Einstein turned to Oliver Locker-Lampson, whom he had met on an earlier visit, for protection. A Conservative Member of Parliament and decorated former soldier, Locker-Lampson was “an impulsive romantic” and, according to Robinson, Einstein clearly liked the “commander’s can-do, gung-ho personality”.

Locker-Lampson took Einstein to his thatched holiday hut in Norfolk. In what sounds like an episode of Dad’s Army, he armed locals with shotguns to protect Einstein from Nazi assassins. Einstein used the “admirable solitude” of the countryside to continue working on his unified field theory, a project which would occupy him for the rest of his life. The sculptor Jacob Epstein came to model him and recalled his “wild hair floating in the wind”, like “the ageing Rembrandt”. His wonderful bronze bust of the scientist is in the Tate Gallery.

Dominic Cummings: the plot thickens

From this morning’s Politico London newsletter:

Lockdown story of the morning: Irresistible scoop from Bloomberg News’ Alex Morales, who reports that Dominic Cummings did indeed heavily influence the government’s SAGE committee of scientific advisers at a crucial meeting last month. Morales speaks to two sources who say Cummings “played far more than a bystander’s role at a crucial SAGE meeting on March 18,” five days before Britain went into lockdown. Yikes. Guardian readers will be frothing at the mouth to learn that Cummings checks notes “asked why a lockdown was not being imposed sooner, swayed the discussion toward faster action, and made clear he thought pubs and restaurants should be closed within two days.” Oh.

OK, OK: It will of course concern an awful lot of people if an unelected history graduate with zero science expertise is swaying our most eminent scientists on their crucial advice to the government. Downing Street has repeatedly denied Cummings in any way influenced the committee, and this was backed up on the record at the weekend by one of its members, Professor Neil Ferguson. We may never know for sure, but certainly Cummings’ position as described should not come as a surprise — the Sunday Times’ Tim Shipman reported last month that Cummings swung heavily and forcefully behind a strict lockdown once scientists modeled the vast loss of life associated with the initial ‘herd immunity’ plan.

Quarantine diary — Day 39


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Thursday 16 April, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Neoliberalism shrinks public budgets; solutionism shrinks public imagination. The solutionist mandate is to convince the public that the only legitimate use of digital technologies is to disrupt and revolutionise everything but the central institution of modern life – the market.”

Tools for blogging

Someone asked me the other day how I plan the content of this blog. Answer: I use the wonderful Little Outliner created by Dave Winer. It’s everything a tool should be — lightweight, always-on (it runs in the browser) and agile. Here’s a screenshot of yesterday’s plan.

Dave was the author of the first great outliner — ThinkTank for the Apple Macintosh. I still remember the first day I saw it. And I used it — and its successors — ever since.

An outliner is really a tool for thinking with. One of the great ideas Microsoft had when creating PowerPoint was to build into it an ‘outliner’ mode which allowed one to focus on the flow of the argument rather than fiddling with the slides.

When the world stopped

When The World Stopped from Michael S Cohen on Vimeo.

Nice idea: a photographer grabbed images from webcams all over the world, digitally enhanced them and made an eerily compulsive film.


The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level

Sobering and perceptive essay by Evgeny Morozov. He’s long been a critic of a particular Silicon Valley ideology — “solutionism” — the belief that for every problem, social or otherwise, there is a tech solution. But solutionism has transcended

its origins in Silicon Valley and now shapes the thinking of our ruling elites. In its simplest form, it holds that because there is no alternative (or time or funding), the best we can do is to apply digital plasters to the damage. Solutionists deploy technology to avoid politics; they advocate “post-ideological” measures that keep the wheels of global capitalism turning.

Morozov sees solutionism and neoliberalism as a sinister pair of ideological twins.

If neoliberalism is a proactive ideology, solutionism is a reactive one: it disarms, disables and discards any political alternatives. Neoliberalism shrinks public budgets; solutionism shrinks public imagination. The solutionist mandate is to convince the public that the only legitimate use of digital technologies is to disrupt and revolutionise everything but the central institution of modern life – the market.

Great essay. Worth reading in full.

Why does it suddenly feel like 1999 on the Internet again?

From Tech Review:

You see it in the rekindling of old relationships. Before sentimentality was replaced by an annual Facebook friends spring cleaning, it was a treat to keep in touch with middle school classmates and rediscover primary school teachers. Now we’re back to cherishing faraway old friends; after all, there’s no longer much difference between hanging out with them and those closer to home. People are going analog, too: sending postcards, leaving voicemail messages for family, putting together care packages.

The internet also used to be a place where you could learn about anything—that is, until the information overload became overwhelming. Now cabin fever and boredom have led people back to the internet to learn again, crowdsourcing the best sourdough recipe, mastering new languages, or picking up any number of other useless or handy skills.

Even Millennial-dominated apps have become more fun, less filtered, like the days before Photoshop and AI-powered touch-ups made us more vain about our digital appearance. The glossiness that pervaded Instagram the past few years has crumbled. Now there’s a delightful rawness to virtual yoga sessions done in cluttered living rooms, Martha Stewart and Ina Garten sharing their culinary tips from unflattering angles, even celebrities chiding their mother-in-law for being too loud.

Nice piece, but it will only make sense to those of us who were early users of the Net. 1999 was the year before the first Internet bubble burst. Google and Blogging were still new. And Facebook wasn’t even a glint in an eye.

And, as Andrew Sullivan of the Internet Society points out, in 1999 the Internet was much smaller. Also, many people still accessed it via dial-up lines, which meant that it could be expensive scrolling through endless messages etc.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

Quarantine diary — Day 26


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Saturday 22 March, 2020

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

Solitude vs loneliness

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

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

Thank God for experts


Producing vaccines under intense political pressure poses serious risks

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

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

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

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

Remote conferencing with Zoom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Italian tragedy

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

Wednesday 11 March, 2020

Wash your hands.

Rupert Beale, who works at the Francis Crick Institute, has a really good blog post about COVID-19 on the London Review of Books site. Towards the end, he reports a message he received from a colleague about the epidemic. It made three points.

  1. This is NOT business as usual. This will be different from what anyone living has ever experienced. The closest comparator is 1918 influenza.

  2. EARLY social distancing is the best weapon we have to combat Covid-19.

  3. Humanity will get through this fine, but be prepared for major changes in how we function and behave as a society until either we’re through the pandemic or we have mass immunisation available.

Lunch with Freeman Dyson

A New York Times piece by Siobhan Roberts to celebrate the late Freeman Dyson. It’s a lovely piece, which captures something of the man himself. For example:

Lunch with Dr. Dyson was never short of fascinating, fun or lengthy. He was a slow eater, and he did nearly all the talking. Listening, while trying to capture the last few peas of my salad, I’d realize that my lunch mate had made little progress with his meal; it was work, cutting and chewing the meat.

I’d try to fill airtime — and trigger his silent but shoulder-bobbing laugh — with trivial bits, like recounting a tale relayed by his son, George Dyson, an author and historian of technology, regarding an email the elder Dyson once received from a woman with a cleaning business. Subject line: “vacuum — unsatisfied.” Cindy had spent $500 on the DC14 model and had come to hate it with a passion, she explained in great detail. The suction on the rug was so strong that it threw “my shoulder out (NO LIE) having to push so hard.” She signed off, defeated: “I know that I will not hear from Dyson.”

Dr. Dyson, ever the reliable correspondent, hit Reply: “Thank you for the hate mail which I enjoy reading. I get quite a lot of it because my name is Dyson. But I am sorry to tell you that I am the wrong Dyson. My name is Freeman and not James. I suggest that you take the trouble to find James’s address and send the message to him. I wish you good luck and good health.”

Worth reading in full.

Paul Krugman on Thomas Piketty’s vast new book

Readable review of *Capital and Ideology — friendly by not uncritical. I’m an admirer of Piketty and got a lot from his earlier Capital in the 21st Century. But this 1000-page doorstop will have to stay on the nice-but-not-for-now list. So Krugman’s review is helpful.

Krugman starts by referring to that earlier tome. For the book-buying public, he observes, its big revelation was simply the fact of soaring inequality.

This perceived revelation made it a book that people who wanted to be well informed felt they had to have.

To have, but maybe not to read. Like Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time,” “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” seems to have been an “event” book that many buyers didn’t stick with; an analysis of Kindle highlights suggested that the typical reader got through only around 26 of its 700 pages. Still, Piketty was undaunted.

His new book, “Capital and Ideology,” weighs in at more than 1,000 pages. There is, of course, nothing necessarily wrong with writing a large book to propound important ideas: Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was a pretty big book too (although only half as long as Piketty’s latest). The problem is that the length of “Capital and Ideology” seems, at least to me, to reflect in part a lack of focus.

To be fair, the book does advance at least the outline of a grand theory of inequality, which might be described as Marx on his head. In Marxian dogma, a society’s class structure is determined by underlying, impersonal forces, technology and the modes of production that technology dictates. Piketty, however, sees inequality as a social phenomenon, driven by human institutions. Institutional change, in turn, reflects the ideology that dominates society: “Inequality is neither economic nor technological; it is ideological and political.”

But where does ideology come from? At any given moment a society’s ideology may seem immutable, but Piketty argues that history is full of “ruptures” that create “switch points,” when the actions of a few people can cause a lasting change in a society’s trajectory.

Krugman admires Piketty’s intellectual ambitions in trying to tell such a vast story, but he also implies that sometimes Piketty’s reach exceeds his grasp. For example:

For me, at least, the vast amount of ground it covers raises a couple of awkward questions.

The first is whether Piketty is a reliable guide to such a large territory. His book combines history, sociology, political analysis and economic data for dozens of societies. Is he really enough of a polymath to pull that off?

I was struck, for example, by his extensive discussion of the evolution of slavery and serfdom, which made no mention of the classic work of Evsey Domar of M.I.T., who argued that the more or less simultaneous rise of serfdom in Russia and slavery in the New World were driven by the opening of new land, which made labor scarce and would have led to rising wages in the absence of coercion. This happens to be a topic about which I thought I knew something; how many other topics are missing crucial pieces of the literature?

The second question is whether the accumulation of cases actually strengthens Piketty’s core analysis. It wasn’t clear to me that it does. To be honest, at a certain point I felt a sense of dread each time another society entered the picture; the proliferation of stories began to seem like an endless series of digressions rather than the cumulative construction of an argument.

Piketty sees rising inequality as being at root a political phenomenon. The social-democratic framework that made Western societies relatively equal for a couple of generations after World War II, he argues, was dismantled, not out of necessity, but because of the rise of a “neo-proprietarian” ideology. But, asked Krugman,

why did policy take a hard-right turn? Piketty places much of the blame on center-left parties, which, as he notes, increasingly represent highly educated voters. These more and more elitist parties, he argues, lost interest in policies that helped the disadvantaged, and hence forfeited their support. And his clear implication is that social democracy can be revived by refocusing on populist economic policies, and winning back the working class.

And his summing up?

The bottom line: I really wanted to like “Capital and Ideology,” but have to acknowledge that it’s something of a letdown. There are interesting ideas and analyses scattered through the book, but they get lost in the sheer volume of dubiously related material. In the end, I’m not even sure what the book’s message is. That can’t be a good thing.

Phew! I don’t think I have to read it.

Slouching towards Dystopia

My longish (3000-word) essay in this week’s New Statesman. It’s basically a account of how we got into our current impasse with digital technology. Sample:

The important point is that surveillance and our passive acceptance of it lies at the heart of the dystopia we are busily constructing. It doesn’t matter which technology is used to identify people: what matters is that we can be identified, and then correlated and tracked across everything we do. Mass surveillance is increasingly the norm. In countries such as China, a surveillance infrastructure is being built by the government for social control. In Western countries, led by the US, it’s being built by corporations in order to influence our buying behaviour, and is then used incidentally by governments.

What’s happened in the West, largely unnoticed by the citizenry, is a sea-change in the social contract between individuals and the state. Whereas once the deal was that we accepted some limitations on our freedom in exchange for security, now the state requires us to surrender most of our privacy in order to protect us. The (implicit and explicit) argument is that if we have nothing to hide there is nothing to fear. And people seem to accept that ludicrous trope. We have been slouching towards dystopia.

Some historical perspective on the dominance of current tech giants

From this week’s Economist:

As big tech’s scope expands, more non-tech firms will find their profits dented and more workers will see their livelihoods disrupted, creating angry constituencies. One crude measure of scale is to look at global profits relative to American GDP. By this yardstick, Apple, which is expanding into services, is already roughly as big as Standard Oil and US Steel were in 1910, at the height of their powers. Alphabet, Amazon and Microsoft are set to reach the threshold within the next ten years.

Remember what happened to Standard Oil and US Steel?