Friday 23 October, 2020

Gone Fishin’

Cley beach, Norfolk, 2018.


Quote of the Day

”There are two things which I am confident I can do well: one is an introduction to literary work, stating what it is to contain, and how it should be executed in the most perfect manner; the other is a conclusion, shewing from various causes why the execution has not been equal to what the author promised to himself and to the public.”

  • Samuel Johnson, 1755.

Rings any bells with you? Does with me.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Beethoven | Für Elise” | Lang Lang

Link

When I lived and worked in Holland in the late 1970s I often went to the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on Sunday mornings where there would be a recital in the Spiegelzaal. You paid a small fee, got a coffee and found a place to sit. I think these treats were actually branded as Für Elise, but it’s so long ago that I can’t be sure. Still, this wonderful performance by Lang Lang brings it all back.


The false promise of herd immunity for COVID-19

Why proposals to largely let the virus run its course — embraced by Donald Trump’s administration and others — could bring “untold death and suffering”.

Useful briefing from Nature which explains the concept and the difficulty of estimating what percentage of a population have it.

It’s complicated, as you might expect. The bottom line, though, is that “never before have we reached herd immunity via natural infection with a novel virus, and SARS-CoV-2 is unfortunately no different.”

Vaccination is the only ethical path to herd immunity. Letting it rip is neither ethical nor likely to be effective.

We kind-of knew that, didn’t we? Except for Trump, of course, who called it “herd mentality”.


Writing to Simone

Terrific review essay by Vivian Gornick in the Boston Review on Simone de Beauvoir and the letters readers wrote to her. The book she’s writing about is Judith Coffin’s Sex, Love, and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir — a work that came out of the author’s discovery of the enormous trove of letters to Beauvoir from her readers in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

It was not only, or even mainly, The Second Sex that bound readers to Beauvoir for decades. More than anything it was the memoirs, following one upon another, that accounted for the remarkable loyalty thousands of women, and some men too, showered upon the gradual unfolding of a life lived almost entirely in the public eye, at the same time that its inner existence was continually laid bare and minutely reported upon. Fearless was the word most commonly associated with these books as, in every one of them, Beauvoir, good Existentialist that she was, wrote with astonishing frankness about sex, politics, and relationships. She recorded in remarkable detail, and with remarkable authenticity, everything she had thought or felt at any given moment. Well, kind of. She recorded everything that she was not ashamed of. Years later, after she and Sartre were both dead, appalling behavior came to light that she had either omitted from the memoirs or put a positive spin on.

Sex, Love, and Letters is a richly researched study based on Judith Coffin’s encounter with a batch of these letters that a sympathetic curator put into her hands one day while she was working on The Second Sex in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. As she writes in her introduction, “Nothing prepared me for the drama I found the first time I opened a folder of readers’ letters to Simone de Beauvoir. . . . What I found was an outpouring of projection, identification, expectation, disappointment, and passion.” Correspondents “asked for advice on marriage, love, and birth control; they confessed secrets and sent sections of their diaries for her to read. The letter writers’ tone was unexpected as well, alternately deferential and defiant, seductive, and wry.”

I know a bit about this because I was once married to a woman whose life was changed by reading the Second Sex and the successive volumes of Beauvoir’s remarkable autobiography. Carol (who died in 2008) was deeply influenced by these texts and for her (and to some extent for me) this amazing French intellectual became a kind of heroine — so much so that Carol later did a Masters thesis on the autobiography. I’m looking at it now as I write. She even wrote to Beauvoir asking for an interview — and went to Paris to see her in her apartment. So I guess her letters are also in the BN’s trove.

As Gornick implies, the passage of time, and posthumous revelations, has taken the shine off the image of Beauvoir and her accomplice in literary celebrity, Jean-Paul Sartre. Subsequent biographies have revealed that they both sometimes behaved abominably towards other people. I guess it leaves those of us who, as impressionable students, were dazzled by them, looking naive. So what? Everybody was young and foolish once. And whatever one thinks about its author with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, The Second Sex was a genuinely pathbreaking book.


There’s a word for why we wear masks, and Liberals should say it

Michael Tomasky has a fine OpEd piece in the New York Times about the way the word “freedom” has been hijacked by the alt-right and their accomplices in the Republican party.

Donald Trump is now back on the road, holding rallies in battleground states. These events, with people behind the president wearing masks but most others not, look awfully irresponsible to most of us — some polls show that as many as 92 percent of Americans typically wear masks when they go out.

Trumpworld sees these things differently. Mike Pence articulated the view in the vice-presidential debate. “We’re about freedom and respecting the freedom of the American people,” Mr. Pence said. The topic at hand was the Sept. 26 super-spreader event in the Rose Garden to introduce Amy Coney Barrett as the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court and how the administration can expect Americans to follow safety guidelines that it has often ignored.

Tomasky goes back to John Stuart Mill (whom many right-wingers apparently revere). In On Liberty he wrote that liberty (or freedom) means “doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow, without impediment from our fellow creatures, as long as what we do does not harm them even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse or wrong.” This is a standard definition of freedom, more succinctly expressed in the adage: “Your freedom to do as you please with your fist ends where my jaw begins.”

Most of the nonsense about mask-wearing in the US is expressed in the language of “my freedom”. It’s ludicrously oxymoronic, though. I saw a fanatical anti-mask woman on TV recently saying “it’s my body and I’m not going to have anyone telling me what to wear on my face” while it was pretty clear that she doesn’t agree with pro-abortion campaigners who maintain “It’s my body and I’m going to decide what happens to it.” Par for the course: fanatics don’t do consistency.

“Freedom,” Tomasky observes,

emphatically does not include the freedom to get someone else sick. It does not include the freedom to refuse to wear a mask in the grocery store, sneeze on someone in the produce section and give him the virus. That’s not freedom for the person who is sneezed upon. For that person, the first person’s “freedom” means chains — potential illness and even perhaps a death sentence. No society can function on that definition of freedom. emphatically does not include the freedom to get someone else sick. It does not include the freedom to refuse to wear a mask in the grocery store, sneeze on someone in the produce section and give him the virus. That’s not freedom for the person who is sneezed upon. For that person, the first person’s “freedom” means chains — potential illness and even perhaps a death sentence. No society can function on that definition of freedom.

He’s right about how strange it is that “freedom” belongs almost wholly to the right. They talk about it incessantly and insist on a link between economic freedom and political freedom, positing that the latter is impossible without the former. (This is a legacy of Hayek and what Philip Mirowski calls the “Neoliberal Thought Collective”.) And yet, as Tomasky says,

the broad left in America has let all this go unchallenged for decades, to the point that today’s right wing can defend spreading disease, potentially killing other people, as freedom. It is madness.

It is.


Dutch Ethical Hacker Logs into Trump’s Twitter Account

From the Dutch newspaper, De Volkskrant.

Last week a Dutch security researcher succeeded in logging into the Twitter account of the American President Donald Trump. Trump, an active Twitterer with 87 million followers, had an extremely weak and easy to guess password and had according to the researcher, not applied two-step verification.

The researcher, Victor Gevers, had access to Trump’s personal messages, could post tweets in his name and change his profile. Gevers took screenshots when he had access to Trump’s account. These screenshots were shared with de Volkskrant by the monthly opinion magazine Vrij Nederland. Dutch security experts find Gevers’ claim credible.

The Dutchman alerted Trump and American government services to the security leak. After a few days, he was contacted by the American Secret Service in the Netherlands. This agency is also responsible for the security of the American President and took the report seriously, as evidenced by correspondence seen by de Volkskrant. Meanwhile Trump’s account has been made more secure.

So what was Trump’s password? Yes — you guessed it! — it was “maga2020!”


Other, perhaps interesting, links

  • Doomsday preppersLink
  • The new Hummer. Beyond parody, really but interesting technically. Link
  • The Criminal Case Against Donald Trump Is in the Works. Link. No wonder he doesn’t want to lose the Presidency.

Friday 9 October, 2020

Remember trains?

Once upon a time, people used to go places on trains. Now that I come to think of it, people used to go places even without trains.


Quote of the Day

”The bowler’s Holding, the batsman’s Willey”.

  • Brian Johnson, BBC Cricket commentator, during a Test Match between England and the West Indies, 1976

He actually said this, live on radio. If ever you needed an illustration of the importance of a comma, then this is it!


Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Glenn Gould – Beethoven, Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major op.73 “Emperor”

Link

It’s 18 minutes long, but worth it. Leave it playing while you make breakfast.


Dave Winer: how to break up tech companies

A radical idea

When they contemplate breaking up a tech company, this is how you should do it. Find the component of the company that really is open tech. Something that was open before they came along, that they foreclosed on, and used their monopoly to put everyone else out of business.

That’s where you draw the line of separation. The core should be spun off into a new company that’s well funded, with a charter to commercialize the tech while maintaining zero lock-in. Totally replaceable. Defined APIs that don’t break.

If the company is viable with these constraints, great. If not, they have enough money to plan their own demise. The key thing is they cannot use their dominance to launch new products. Just the open tech.

You would find people willing to staff such a company, there are lots of idealistic developers, still, who believe in the open internet.

In Microsoft’s case, in the 90s this would have meant spinning out the browser.

Today with Facebook it would mean spinning out the open graph.

With Google, it would have to be at least the core search engine. If Alphabet wanted to run ads on search, they’d have to get in line and compete with others who did. This is the price they pay for trying to use their dominance in search to control everything.

Google would also have to spin out Chrome, same way Microsoft would have spun out MSIE in the 90s.

That’s the basic idea. Look for the old open tech buried in the company, that is the source of their monopolistic control, and extract it. Hopefully it’s very painful, to keep successors from tying to do it in the future.

There’s a germ of an interesting idea here. The Internet — as originally designed, and indeed as it is still today — was a network designed to enable what later came to be called “permissionless innovation”. If you had an idea that could be realised using data-packets, and you were smart enough to write the code for the app, then the Internet would do it for you, no questions asked. So what Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn designed was essentially a global machine for springing surprises. And anybody who had access and knowledge could use the network to spring a surprise — like, for example, VoIP or file-sharing. There was no gatekeeper who could say “Hey! you can’t do that.” The result was a Cambrian explosion of creativity. That’s why we say that the Internet is a generative system: it enables people to build on it.

So along comes Tim Berners-Lee at the end of the 1980s and he has a great idea — the World Wide Web — and he’s certainly smart enough to write the code for it; and so he does and then he releases it on the Internet as a new platform for permissionless innovation. And millions of people build interesting things on top of that platform.

One of them is Mark Zuckerberg, who builds Facebook on top of Tim’s platform. But Zuck has no intention of allowing anyone else to build on top of his platform. So the chain of permissionless, generative affordances is broken. But without the Web, Facebook couldn’t function, and left to its own monopolistic devices, Facebook will ensure that nobody ever builds anything on it that hasn’t been licensed and controlled by Zuckerberg.

That’s why it might make sense to go after the public, open technologies that these monopolists have appropriated, and give them back to the world.


Faith in government declines when mobile internet arrives

Interesting note in the Economist.

A recent study by the economists Sergei Guriev, Nikita Melnikov and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, now undergoing peer review, uses the growth of mobile broadband to reveal a link between internet access and scepticism of government.

In general, people’s confidence in their leaders declined after getting 3G. However, the size of this effect varied. It was smaller in countries that allow a free press than in ones where traditional media are muzzled, and bigger in countries with unlimited web browsing than in ones that censor the internet. This implies that people are most likely to turn against their governments when they are exposed to online criticism that is not present offline. The decline was also larger in rural areas than in cities.

A similar pattern emerged at the ballot box. Among 102 elections in 33 European countries, incumbent parties’ vote-share fell by an average of 4.7 percentage points once 3G arrived. The biggest beneficiaries were parties classified as populist—though this may simply have been because they happened to be in opposition when voters turned against parties in power, rather than because of their ideology.

Of course this doesn’t mean that simply acquiring Internet access is enough to reduce trust in government. It may depend on what people read online. And that’s a whole different ball-game. The problem with studies like this is that they confuse the technology with what corporations like Facebook and YouTube/Google do with it.


Francis Fukuyama: Liberalism and Its Discontents

This really is the long read of the day — a terrific essay on the legacy of liberalism and how it explains where we’ve got to now.

Sample:

Liberalism has been a broadly successful ideology, and one that is responsible for much of the peace and prosperity of the modern world. But it also has a number of shortcomings, some of which were triggered by external circumstances, and others of which are intrinsic to the doctrine. The first lies in the realm of economics, the second in the realm of culture.

The economic shortcomings have to do with the tendency of economic liberalism to evolve into what has come to be called “neoliberalism.” Neoliberalism is today a pejorative term used to describe a form of economic thought, often associated with the University of Chicago or the Austrian school, and economists like Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, George Stigler, and Gary Becker. They sharply denigrated the role of the state in the economy, and emphasized free markets as spurs to growth and efficient allocators of resources. Many of the analyses and policies recommended by this school were in fact helpful and overdue: Economies were overregulated, state-owned companies inefficient, and governments responsible for the simultaneous high inflation and low growth experienced during the 1970s.

But valid insights about the efficiency of markets evolved into something of a religion, in which state intervention was opposed not based on empirical observation but as a matter of principle. Deregulation produced lower airline ticket prices and shipping costs for trucks, but also laid the ground for the great financial crisis of 2008 when it was applied to the financial sector. Privatization was pushed even in cases of natural monopolies like municipal water or telecom systems, leading to travesties like the privatization of Mexico’s TelMex, where a public monopoly was transformed into a private one. Perhaps most important, the fundamental insight of trade theory, that free trade leads to higher wealth for all parties concerned, neglected the further insight that this was true only in the aggregate, and that many individuals would be hurt by trade liberalization. The period from the 1980s onward saw the negotiation of both global and regional free trade agreements that shifted jobs and investment away from rich democracies to developing countries, increasing within-country inequalities. In the meantime, many countries starved their public sectors of resources and attention, leading to deficiencies in a host of public services from education to health to security.

The result was the world that emerged by the 2010s in which aggregate incomes were higher than ever but inequality within countries had also grown enormously. Many countries around the world saw the emergence of a small class of oligarchs, multibillionaires who could convert their economic resources into political power through lobbyists and purchases of media properties. Globalization enabled them to move their money to safe jurisdictions easily, starving states of tax revenue and making regulation very difficult. Globalization also entailed liberalization of rules concerning migration. Foreign-born populations began to increase in many Western countries, abetted by crises like the Syrian civil war that sent more than a million refugees into Europe. All of this paved the way for the populist reaction that became clearly evident in 2016 with Britain’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the United States.

The second discontent with liberalism as it evolved over the decades was rooted in its very premises. Liberalism deliberately lowered the horizon of politics: A liberal state will not tell you how to live your life, or what a good life entails; how you pursue happiness is up to you. This produces a vacuum at the core of liberal societies, one that often gets filled by consumerism or pop culture or other random activities that do not necessarily lead to human flourishing. This has been the critique of a group of (mostly) Catholic intellectuals including Patrick Deneen, Sohrab Ahmari, Adrian Vermeule, and others, who feel that liberalism offers “thin gruel” for anyone with deeper moral commitments.

People are often rude about Fukuyama nowadays, mostly because they misunderstand his famous 1989 ‘End of History’ essay. But I’ve always found him a delightfully clear and elegant writer, and this essay demonstrates this very well.


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Monday 5 October, 2020

Conversation piece

Arles, 2015


Quote of the Day

”A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.”

  • Samuel Johnson

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Hot House Flowers – “Don’t go”: Diamond Awards festival, 1988, Antwerp.

Link

Terrific Irish band. I first heard them sing this at a street concert in Kerry many years ago.


What do we do with Cruise ships now?

Why, dismantle them, of course, and recycle whatever we can.

Neat set of photographs from Reuters.

Well, well. What’s next? Universities?


What happens if there’s no Brexit trade deal?

You can guess the answer, but Politico has done a really useful deep dive into the matter.

(Number of stars indicates how bad things could be — for the UK.)

Tariffs: ★★★★★
Custom checks:
State aid: ★★
Dispute settlement: ★★★
Health: ★★★★★
Air travel: ★★★★
Road transport: ★★★
Security/intelligence: ★★
Environment/climate:
Energy:
Fishing: ★★★★
Digital: ★★★★
Finance: ★★
Citizens’ rights/immigration: ★★
Science and Education: ★★★
Pet travel:
Gibraltar: ★★★

It’s a long read, but worth it. If some of the assessments puzzle, dig into the text for an explanation.

Great piece of public-interest journalism.


The dangerous and inexorable rise of the instant expert

Interesting essay in the FT by Andrew Hill triggered by a new book by Roger Kneebone about the nature of expertise.

TL;DR summary: attaining expertise is hard and there are no short-cuts.

The real threat to becoming an expert, though, is an increasing yearning for quick fixes, pat answers, and instant gratification. “There’s a growing sense that anyone can learn to do anything — and quickly,” laments Prof Kneebone in his book. People applaud Tik Tok experts over those who have “done time”, or they assume that real skills displayed on social media can be picked up without effort or the acquisition of basic techniques.

Mr Trump is a case in point. He has sometimes been swift to claim “natural ability” in matters that his expert advisers took years to understand. But that is no surprise. After all, in the TV show that vaulted him towards the presidency, the apprenticeships he bestowed were a high-profile reward for a few weeks of showy salesmanship, not the first step in a hard but fulfilling journey towards mastery.

Yeah: just look at how Trump now regards himself as an expert on Covid-19.


What is the virus doing to us?

One answer, prompted by reading this thoughtful essay by historian Peter Frankopan, is that it’s softening us up for authoritarian rule. The crisis, he says, “has the capacity to be apocalyptic”.

More than eighty countries declared a state of emergency as a result of the virus, according to the Centre for Civil and Political Rights. In some cases this resulted in impassioned debate about the erosion of civil liberties, for example in Israel, where the government approved a controversial measure in March to digitally track those who had tested positive for coronavirus.

In Britain, meanwhile, the 329 page ‘Coronavirus Bill’ was passed in a single day – suspending the requirement for councils to meet the eligible needs of the disabled and vulnerable people, amongst others, as well as the right to cancel or re-arrange elections and to close ports and borders. Police releasing drone footage of walkers in the Peak District, officers reprimanding people for using their own front garden, or Thames Valley police issuing appeals for local residents to inform on each other if they suspect they are ‘gathering and then dispersing back into out communities’ during the lockdown show that the relationship between citizens and the authorities has changed dramatically in a matter of a few weeks. The new mantra of our pandemic and post-pandemic world is best expressed by Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha – a general who himself took power in a coup in 2014: ‘right now it’s health over liberty.’

There are, of course, pockets of resistance, such in the US, where armed militias gathered on the steps of some state assemblies to demand an end to lockdown. Ironically, they were encouraged by President Trump who issued a series of tweets effectively urging civil disobedience: ‘Liberate Michigan’, he tweeted; ‘Liberate Minnesota !’Liberate Virginia !’ But even in the complicated and contradictory United States of 2020, things have not been straightfoward, with Trump asserting that his powers are not so much presidential as dictatorial: ‘When somebody’s the President of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be,’ he said in a press briefing in mid-April – a few weeks after he had boasted that ‘I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about’, before a bilateral meeting with Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar.

The push away from democratic norms to autocratic measures is framed by the justification that the crisis is so severe as to require emergency measures that usually reflect a war footing. So it is no surprise that so many leaders around the world have referred to the coronavirus as a ‘war’, nor that wartime parallels are the ones we turn to in order to make sense of the situation: it is no coincidence either that the death toll from the Vietnam War contextualised mortality figures from the US, or that those of the height of the Blitz in the twenty eight days to 4 October 1940 were set against those to Covid-19 in the four weeks to mid-April.

Not a cheery read. But riveting nevertheless.


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Saturday 3 October, 2020

One of our cats. Interesting thing is that when I first looked at it I thought it must have been taken with one of my high-end cameras. But in fact it was taken with the little Sony RX100M4. It’s a pretty good advertisement for that device.


Quote of the day

“If you think technology can solve your problems, then you don’t understand technology and you don’t understand your problems”.

  • Mariana Mazzucato

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Deep River Blues – Tommy Emmanuel

Link

Just the song for a rainy morning. You may need to skip the ad at the beginning.


Thirty glorious years

Long read of the day.

TL;DR Postwar prosperity depended on a truce between capitalist growth and democratic fairness. Is it possible to get it back?

I love long-sweep essays, and this one by Jonathan Hopkin fits that bill. Here’s how it opens:

With the end of the Second World War, the economies of western Europe and North America began a period of spectacular growth. Between 1950 and 1973 GDP doubled or more. This prosperity was broadly shared, with consistent growth in living standards for rich and poor alike and the emergence of a broad middle class. The French call it les trente glorieuses – the 30 glorious years – while the Italians describe it as il miracolo economico. The story of how this golden age of shared economic growth came to be has almost been forgotten, despite it being less than a century ago. There has never been a more urgent time to remind ourselves.

How did western countries, in one quarter of the 20th century, manage to increase both equality and economic efficiency? Why did this virtuous combination ultimately fall apart by the end of the century? The answer lies in the awkward relationship between democracy and capitalism, the former founded on equal political rights, the latter tending to accentuate differences between citizens based on talent, luck or inherited advantage. Democracy has the potential to curb capitalism’s inherent tendency to generate inequality. This very inequality can undermine the ability of democratic institutions to ensure that the economy works for the majority.

The rise and fall of democratic capitalism in the postwar era is one of the most important events in modern history…

My hunch is that in the long view of history, the the kind of democracy that emerged from the wreckage of WW2 in the period 1946 to 1971, and then began its long decay from then to the present, may come to be seen as a kind of blip. It was a by-product of the global shock of a global war, and it lasted until the economic ideas that informed it and the impact of the war on successive generations began to run out of steam.

Hopkin’s argument is that the war “cut capitalism down to size” and gave a decisive push to establish a new form of economic system in which political demands took primacy. As a result, the postwar era established a new form of ‘managed’ or ‘democratic’ capitalism that delivered a more equal distribution of income and wealth.

Democratic capitalism redressed the balance between the brutal inequalities of early industrial capitalism and the need for social consent to secure political stability. It rested on three broad pillars: a redistributive welfare state that provided economic security while narrowing income gaps between rich and poor, corporatist dialogue between employers and the labour force, and highly regulated capital markets. Aspects of this form of capitalism sometimes existed in nondemocratic societies too. But as a basic set of socioeconomic institutions it was most associated with the democratic form of government in which competitive elections and representative political parties incorporated citizen demands into policymaking.

All that began to change in the 1970s, when a combination of high inflation, faltering growth and industrial disputes over wages ushered in an era of social and political turbulence that brought a revival of liberal market ideology in the shape of the neoliberalism that seized the imagination of politicians and governing elites throughout the West. But, says Hopkin,

The promise of the neoliberal era to unleash the power of individual incentives to spread prosperity has not been fulfilled. Average growth rates across the advanced capitalist systems failed to match those of the postwar boom years. Since the 1970s, an increasingly unequal income distribution has meant that, for many, living standards failed to improve by much at all in subsequent decades. In the 1970s, strikes, demonstrations, riots and even terrorism expressed social tensions. By the 1990s, a resentful apathy, reflected in falling voter turnout and disengagement with formal party politics, signalled mass frustrations. The neoliberal revolution succeeded not only in shifting policy, but in fundamentally undermining the institutional preconditions of democratic capitalism. Governments progressively delegated important policy decisions to non-elected bodies, some of them supranational. Meanwhile, anti-union legislation and the declining bargaining power resulting from offshoring and heightened global competition took a heavy toll on worker rights.

Which is how we got to where we are now.

Long read, but worth it.


Trump and the virus

All of a sudden people are apparently rushing to pray for Trump as he battles with Covid. Pardon me if I sit this one out. My fear is that it will be a replay of the Boris Johnson story. You may recall that Johson damn nearly died from the virus, but was saved by the NHS and then wrapped himself in the NHS flag afterwards to ride a wave of feeble-minded public sympathy over his self-induced ordeal — brought about largely by his inability to take the virus seriously in the early days. Just like Trump.

In the meantime, it’s heartening to see how Photoshop remains the staple tool of satirists, as in this picture retrieved from my irreverent WhatsApp feed:

But there are some really interesting aspects of what has happened.

Michael Kruse has a fascinating article in Politico.com about it.

Here’s the bit that caught my eye:

“Weakness,” Tony Schwartz, co-author of The Art of the Deal, once told me, “is Trump’s greatest fear by far.”

Weakness, however, inhabits the absolute center of the most primal aspects of the long-arc engine of Trump. He knows, in the most deep-seated way, of the utter unavoidability of human vulnerability—anybody’s, everybody’s and, of course, his own. And yet Trump resolutely followed the mandate his father modeled to squelch any such concession. Fundamentally disparate but inextricably linked, these are two of the most essential and major motivators of Trump’s lifelong pattern of behavior. Now, with the news that Trump has tested positive for the virus that’s killed more than a million people worldwide, all of this has come to a perilous head.

The wee-hours shock wave of his diagnosis has exposed the fragility of his bravado. The man who’s trumpeted his genes and his blood and his virility while deriding his foes for low energy is now stricken and sequestered, cut off from the adoring supporters who stoke not just his political prospects but his needy psyche. He is 74 and obese, and already was facing a pending public reckoning—and the fear of being seen as anything other than strong in the end is precisely what has made him so weak.

His lengthy record of germophobia, encapsulated by his well-documented hatred of shaking hands, often has been considered merely a bullet point on his list of idiosyncrasies. But in fact it reflects his latent knowledge of the power of infection to wreak quick and terrible consequences. “Shaking hands, you catch colds, you catch the flu,” he said in 1999. “And who knows what else?” he said in 2004. “You don’t want to be a liability,” he said, getting perhaps unwittingly closer to the crux, in 2013. “You don’t want to become somebody’s patient.” Trump, according to Jack O’Donnell, a former Trump casino executive in Atlantic City, was “preoccupied by a fear of communicable disease.”

There’s a delicious sense of chickens coming home to roost about all this.


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Tuesday 29 September, 2020

“Which bit of ‘No’ don’t you understand?

From the Comedy Wildlife photography awards


Quote of the Day

”God give me the strength to ignore the news that won’t change anyone’s mind, the energy to engage with the news that might, and the wisdom to know the difference.” * Elizabeth Ayer in a tweet.

Thanks to Quentin for spotting it.


Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Regina Spektor – “Better”

Link

One of my favourite songs.


Every picture tells a story

Jason Kottke (whom God preserve) had this striking photograph on his blog. It shows Thomas Jefferson and his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson, Shannon LaNier. It comes from an article in the Smithsonian Magazine about an intriguing project of the photographer Drew Gardner, in which he takes takes photographs of people done up to look like their famous ancestors.

The description of Jefferson’s portrait on the White House website says that it

was completed in Philadelphia before mid-May 1800 when he left that capital for Monticello. The face has the glow of health, a warm complexion. The sitter here looks directly at us and does so with candor, as our equal. The splendid eyes and mouth convey reason and tolerance.

You can guess by now that there’s a ‘but’ coming…

At odds with that glowing description, writes Jason,

“is Shannon LaNier’s very existence; he’s here today because Thomas Jefferson raped his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Sally Hemings. Says LaNier of Jefferson: He was a brilliant man who preached equality, but he didn’t practice it. He owned people. And now I’m here because of it.”

There’s an interesting video on the Smithsonian site about how the portrait was made and LaNier’s thoughts about it.

Someone once told me a story about JFK’s White House dinner for all living American Nobel laureates. Standing on the balcony after the meal a member of the Cabinet observed that there was more collective IQ in the Executive Mansion that night than at any time in history. “Yes”, Kennedy is supposed to have said, “except when Thomas Jefferson dined alone”. I don’t know if the story is true: if it is, I guess it was intended to burnish JFK’s ‘Camelot’ image as a man of culture.

It might have succeeded then, but it certainly wouldn’t now.


Trump’s tax returns (contd.)

From Quartz this morning:

In the mid-2000s, Donald Trump was drowning financially. That’s when NBC and The Apprentice threw him a life raft. According to a New York Times report on the US president’s taxes, Trump made $427 million off his 50% stake in the show and its subsequent licensing deals. Here’s a brief timeline of how the highly-rated program saved his finances:

2004: The Apprentice debuts on NBC.

2004–2015: Trump dumps proceeds from the show into purchasing 13 golf courses.

June 2015: Trump is fired from The Apprentice over racist comments made while announcing his presidential run.

September 2015: Arnold Schwarzenneger is announced as Trump’s replacement on The New Celebrity Apprentice.

November 2016: Trump wins the electoral college vote and becomes president-elect.

January 2017: The New Celebrity Apprentice debuts on NBC with Trump as executive producer.

August 2017: The show is canceled after one season.

2018: Trump pays just $750 of federal income tax for the prior year.


In praise of uncommon readers

I admire people who read both widely and well. My colleague Diane Coyle is one. So is Tyler Cowen. And so is Venkatash Rao. Last week I came on his notes on reading Kenneth Brower’s The Starship and the Canoe, a compelling and unusual biography of a famous father (Freeman Dyson) and his son (George Dyson). This came as a shock because although I’ve read all of George’s books and lots of Freeman’s articles and essays, I hadn’t known about Brower’s book. You can guess the rest — it’s now on order!


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Saturday 15 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

  • Bertrand Russell

Musical alternative to the morning’s news

Jessye Norman: Mozart – Le Nozze di Figaro, ‘Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro’

Link


The significance of the Twitter hack

Damn! This great piece by Bruce Schneier was published on July 18 and I missed it. Growl.

Still, better late than never…

Twitter was hacked this week. Not a few people’s Twitter accounts, but all of Twitter. Someone compromised the entire Twitter network, probably by stealing the log-in credentials of one of Twitter’s system administrators. Those are the people trusted to ensure that Twitter functions smoothly.

The hacker used that access to send tweets from a variety of popular and trusted accounts, including those of Joe Biden, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk, as part of a mundane scam—stealing bitcoin—but it’s easy to envision more nefarious scenarios. Imagine a government using this sort of attack against another government, coordinating a series of fake tweets from hundreds of politicians and other public figures the day before a major election, to affect the outcome. Or to escalate an international dispute. Done well, it would be devastating.

en passant, the US is heading for an election that will not be decided on the day, but after a period (of unknown duration) while postal votes are being counted (and maybe argued over). Another Twitter hack on the lines just suggested could be catastrophic.

So here’s the nub of it:

Internet communications platforms—such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—are crucial in today’s society. They’re how we communicate with one another. They’re how our elected leaders communicate with us. They are essential infrastructure. Yet they are run by for-profit companies with little government oversight. This is simply no longer sustainable. Twitter and companies like it are essential to our national dialogue, to our economy, and to our democracy. We need to start treating them that way, and that means both requiring them to do a better job on security and breaking them up.


Google’s Advertising Platform Is Blocking Articles About Racism

This is both shocking — and unsurprising:

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, the Atlantic decided to recirculate King’s famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” which the magazine had run in its August 1963 issue and republished, in print and online, in 2018. Several hours later, the publication’s staff noticed that Google’s Ad Exchange platform, which serves many of the ads on the Atlantic’s website, had “demonetized” the page containing the letter under its “dangerous or derogatory content” policy. In other words: As part of its efforts to protect advertisers from offensive internet content with which they would not want their products to be associated, Ad Exchange had locked out one of the most important texts of the civil rights movement.

Google controls more than 30 percent of the digital ads market. A big chunk of that business happens through Ad Exchange, a marketplace for buying and selling advertising space across the web. According to its publisher policies, Google does not monetize, or allow advertising on, “dangerous or derogatory content” that disparages people on the basis of a characteristic that is associated with systemic discrimination—race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. As the policy outlines, this might look like “promoting hate groups” or “encouraging others to believe that a person or group is inhuman.” Because of the scale of Google’s ad-serving business, however, it can’t enforce this policy on the front lines by hand, so instead the company uses an algorithm that, in part, scans for offensive keywords in articles. But the system doesn’t always take context into consideration. Several mainstream publishers, including Slate, have had articles demonetized under this policy when covering race and LGBTQ issues.

Automated ‘moderation’ is context-blind, in other words. It’s just another confirmation that these companies can’t fulfil their moral and ethical obligations at the scale on which they operate, given the business models on which they depend.


US Postal Service warns 46 states their voters could be disenfranchised by delayed mail-in ballots

This is paywalled on the Washington Post site, but here is the gist:

Anticipating an avalanche of absentee ballots, the U.S. Postal Service recently sent detailed letters to 46 states and D.C. warning that it cannot guarantee all ballots cast by mail for the November election will arrive in time to be counted — adding another layer of uncertainty ahead of the high-stakes presidential contest.

The letters sketch a grim possibility for the tens of millions of Americans eligible for a mail-in ballot this fall: Even if people follow all of their state’s election rules, the pace of Postal Service delivery may disqualify their votes.

The Postal Service’s warnings of potential disenfranchisement came as the agency undergoes a sweeping organizational and policy overhaul amid dire financial conditions. Cost-cutting moves have already delayed mail delivery by as much as a week in some places, and a new decision to decommission 10 percent of the Postal Service’s sorting machines sparked widespread concern the slowdowns will only worsen. Rank-and-file postal workers say the move is ill-timed and could sharply diminish the speedy processing of flat mail, including letters and ballots.

My immediate thought was that this is linked to the appointment of a Trump stooge as the Postmaster-General. But apparently it pre-dates his appointment:

The ballot warnings, issued at the end of July from Thomas J. Marshall, general counsel and executive vice president of the Postal Service, and obtained through a records request by The Washington Post, were planned before the appointment of Louis DeJoy, a former logistics executive and ally of President Trump, as postmaster general in early summer. They go beyond the traditional coordination between the Postal Service and election officials, drafted as fears surrounding the coronavirus pandemic triggered an unprecedented and sudden shift to mail-in voting.

Everywhere one looks, norms and conventions that we took for granted in liberal democracies are wilting or being undermined. The chances of the US having an uncontested election result diminish by the day.


Summer books #4

Analogia: The Entangled Destinies of Nature, Human Beings and Machines by George Dyson, Allen Lane, 2020.

I’m exactly half-way through this extraordinary book, and I still don’t know where it’s headed. But it’s an infuriatingly compelling read. George Dyson is an extraordinary member of an extraordinary family — the son of the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson and mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson, the brother of technology analyst Esther Dyson, and the grandson of the British composer Sir George Dyson. He has led an amazing life as a roving explorer, craftsman and public intellectual. Having being brought up in Princeton, where his father was an academic in the Institute for Advanced Study, he dropped out of a couple of universities before heading for the West Coast of Canada. From 1972 to 1975, he lived in a tree-house at a height of 30 metres that he built from salvaged materials on the shore of Burrard Inlet in British Columbia. He became a Canadian citizen and spent 20 years in that part of the world designing kayaks, researching historic voyages and native peoples, and exploring the Inside Passage.

In recent decades he’s become interested in the history of computing and the direction of travel of our increasingly digitized world. Everything he’s written on these subjects interweaves his own personal history with polymathic knowledge of all kinds of subjects and speculations on what it all means for the future. This, his latest book, follows the same pattern. Where he’s heading, I suspect, is towards the conclusion that, in the end, the digital will run out of steam, and we’ll discover that analog computing (which after all is what goes on in our brains) will have the last laugh. As someone who started on analog computers before moving to digital devices I’m intrigued to see if that hunch is correct. But there’s another 150 pages to go and anything may happen: you never can tell with the Dysons. After all, George’s father devoted a couple of years of his life to a US-funded project to build a huge spaceship powered by nuclear explosions and was mightily pissed off when the US instead opted for Werner von Braun and his primitive, chemical-fuelled, rockets.


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Sunday 9 August, 2020

A musical alternative to the morning’s news

Since it’s Sunday, something a bit longer (28 minutes)

James Joyce’s playlist — from a lovely Radio 4 documentary by David Norris on the significance of the music in Ulysses, made to celebrate a particular Bloomsday.

Link

Professor Norris points out at the beginning of the recording that many people probably don’t realise that Joyce was a fine singer as a young man. On 16 May 1904 he participated in — and should have won (see later) — the national Feis Ceoil [Festival of Song] singing competition.

The James Joyce Centre takes up the story.

The Feis Ceoil is an annual celebration of Irish musical talent with competitions in various categories including singing. In 1903, the Feis Ceoil tenor singing competition was won by John McCormack. The prize was a year-long scholarship to study in Italy. Shortly after his return to Ireland in 1904, McCormack persuaded his friend Joyce to enter the Feis.

In preparation, Joyce started taking lessons from Benedetto Palmieri, the best singing teacher in Dublin, but he soon switched to Vincent O’Brien who was less expensive than Palmieri. Joyce had moved into rooms at 60 Shelbourne Road where he hired a piano to rehearse for the competition. Joyce sang in a concert given by the St Brigid’s Panoramic Choir on Saturday 14 May 1904, and two days later he sang at the Feis Ceoil.

The set pieces for the singing competition in 1904 were ‘No Chastening’ by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame), and ‘A Long Farewell,’ a traditional song arranged by Moffat. According to the review of the competition in the Irish Daily Independent on 17 May, “Mr. Joyce showed himself possessed of the finest quality voice of any of those competing…”

Part of the competition was to sing at sight from a previously unseen music score, and at that point Joyce simply walked off the stage. It seems that the judge, Professor Luigi Denza, had intended to give Joyce the gold medal but, when Joyce refused the sight-reading test, Denza could not place him among the medal-winners. However, at the end of the competition, the second-placed singer was disqualified and Denza awarded the third-place medal to Joyce. Joyce gave the medal to his Aunt Josephine and today it is owned by the dancer Michael Flatley.

There’s an interesting personal echo in this for me. The most influential teacher I ever had was a Jesuit priest called Father O’Brien, who taught us English in the fifth and sixth form and who was also — he told us once — the son of Joyce’s “less expensive” voice tutor. He was also the teacher who persuaded me that reading off the exam syllabus was one of the most sensible things an intelligent student could do. So I did. Best advice I ever had.


Amazon, books and misinformation

This morning’s Observer column:

It’s a truism that we live in a “digital age”. It would be more accurate to say that we live in an algorithmically curated era – that is, a period when many of our choices and perceptions are shaped by machine-learning algorithms that nudge us in directions favoured by those who employ the programmers who write the necessary code.

A good way of describing them would be as recommender engines. They monitor your digital trail and note what interests you – as evidenced by what you’ve browsed or purchased online. Amazon, for example, regularly offers me suggestions for items that are “based on your browsing history”. It also shows me a list of what people who purchased the item I’m considering also bought. YouTube’s engine notes what kinds of videos I have watched – and logs how much of each I have watched before clicking onwards – and then presents on the right-hand side of the screen an endlessly-scrolling list of videos that might interest me based on what I’ve just watched.

In the early days of the web, few, if any, of these engines existed. But from 2001 onwards they became increasingly common and are now almost ubiquitous…

Read on

Wendy Grossman, Whom God Preserve, sent me a link to her perceptive review of the film (Astro)Turf Wars. The main point of the movie is that what are perceived by mainstream media as “grassroots” movements are in fact often comprised of credulous folks who are skillfully manipulated by figures working for the usual crowd — Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Pharma, et al.

The link to my column comes from a passage where, in Wendy’s review,

One trainer explains that he spends 30 minutes a day going through Amazon’s book lists giving anything liberal one star and anything conservative five stars. “Eighty percent of the books I put a star on, I don’t read,” he says. “So that’s how it works”. The same goes at sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Flixster (“This is where your kids get information”), where he gives bad ratings to movies like Sicko (“I don’t want Michael Moore to come up”). “That’s how you control the online dialogue and give our ideals a fighting chance.”


What to Do When Covid Doesn’t Go Away

Ross Douhat on lessons for coronavirus long-haulers from his own experience with chronic illness.

Two months ago Ed Yong of The Atlantic reported on Covid’s “long-haulers” — people who are sick for months rather than the two or three weeks that’s supposed to be the norm. They don’t just have persistent coughs: Instead their disease is a systemic experience, with brain fog, internal organ pain, bowel problems, tremors, relapsing fevers, more.

One of Yong’s subjects, a New Yorker named Hannah Davis, was on Day 71 when his story appeared. When she passed the four-month mark, in late July, she tweeted a list of symptoms that included everything from “phantom smells (like someone BBQing bad meat)” to “sensitivity to noise and light” to “extreme back/kidney/rib pain” to “a feeling like my body has forgotten to breathe.”

That same week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a survey of Covid patients who were never sick enough to be hospitalized. One in three reported still feeling sick three weeks into the disease.

Douhat has some sensible and useful suggestions for staying sane when you’re suffering from symptoms for which conventional medicine currently seems to have no remedy. It’s a good piece, and I can imagine that some sufferers will find it helpful.


The private John Hume that few people knew

This morning the John Bowman show on RTE ran a wonderful programme compiled from the station’s archives which painted a compelling audio portrait of the man behind the towering public figure.

Many thanks to Kevin Cryan for alerting me to it.


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Thursday 6 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

”It’s Mussolini or a second chance for America. That’s what’s on the ballot in November.”


Musical alternative to today’s Radio 4’s Today programme

Handel: Semele, HWV 58 “Where’er you walk” sung by Andreas Scholl

Link


Today is the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima

This remarkable (public domain) photograph shows the Japanese delegation on the deck of the USS Missouri, waiting to sign the surrender document.

From the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Hiroshima was bombed on the morning of August 6, 1945. The city, flat and surrounded by hills, was in many ways an ideal target for the atomic bomb, at least from the perspective of its creators. Their goal was destruction and spectacle, to show the Japanese, the Soviets, and the whole world, what the potential of this new weapon was. The geography of Hiroshima meant that a bomb with the explosive yield of “Little Boy” (the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT), detonated at the ideal altitude, could destroy nearly the entirety of the city.

The historian Richard Rhodes has a sombre piece today in the Bulletin.

He starts with something that Neils Bohr said to Franklin Roosevelt in the Spring of 1944 about the significance of the weapon when war was still raging in Europe and in the Pacific: “We are in an entirely new situation, that cannot be resolved by war.”

National security”, says Rhodes,

is based on the belief that nations can only make themselves more secure by making their adversaries less secure. That’s a formula for mutual insecurity—for arms races and the continuing threat of war.

In a world armed with nuclear weapons, it’s a formula that holds potential for the deaths of billions of human beings and the destruction of the human and natural world.

National security so-called is the present policy of the nuclear powers, the United States and Russia at the head of the line. The two countries between them maintain a total arsenal of 13,000 nuclear weapons. The other seven nuclear powers combined maintain another 1,200. Should those weapons ever be exploded, they would darken and freeze the earth with a nuclear winter equivalent or nearly so to the asteroid impact 66 million years ago that shrouded the world in smoke and darkness long enough to starve out more than 90 percent of all living species, including the dinosaurs that had dominated the world for the previous 60 million years.

The only rational course is to continue on the course on which we thought Gorbachev and Reagan were about to embark when they met at their 1986 Reykjavik summit meeting and had a discussion that came within “a hair’s breadth” of an agreement between the two leaders to begin the process of abolishing all the nuclear weapons in the world.

Given what’s happening now, that looks like an impossible dream. The US and Russia have 13,000 nuclear warheads between them. Other nations have 1,200 (including the near-bankrupt UK). God knows how many China has. And the West has… Trump.


What if targeted advertising is actually a waste of time and money (for advertisers)?

Fascinating thought from Wired:

In May 2018, as the European Union’s landmark privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation, went into effect, the main Dutch public broadcaster set in motion a grand experiment. The leadership at Nederlandse Publieke Omroep—essentially the BBC of the Netherlands—interpreted the law strictly, deciding that visitors to any of its websites would now be prompted to opt in or out of cookies, the tracking technology that enables personalized ads based on someone’s browsing history. And, unlike with most companies, who assume that anyone who skips past a privacy notice is OK with tracking, any NPO visitor who clicked past the obtrusive consent screen without making a choice would be opted out by default.

Result: 90 per cent opted out.

Here is where the ad tech industry would have predicted calamity. A study performed by Google last year, for example, concluded that disabling cookies reduced publisher revenue by more than 50 percent. (Research by an independent team of economists, however, pegged the cookie premium at only 4 percent. Needless to say, there were methodological differences.) If the Google study was right, then NPO should have been heading for financial disaster. The opposite turned out to be true. Instead, the company found that ads served to users who opted out of cookies were bringing in as much or more money as ads served to users who opted in. The results were so strong that as of January 2020, NPO simply got rid of advertising cookies altogether. And rather than decline, its digital revenue is dramatically up, even after the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic.

Well, well. Interesting, ne c’est pas?


What the post-pandemic future looks like

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s best to be realistic. I don’t know of any expert who expects that we can go back to the way we were any time soon. Various pieces around the Net are picking up on this sombre assessment.

Here, for example, is “The Coronavirus Is Never Going Away” by Sarah Zhang in The Atlantic.

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has sickened more than 16.5 million people across six continents. It is raging in countries that never contained the virus. It is resurging in many of the ones that did. If there was ever a time when this coronavirus could be contained, it has probably passed. One outcome is now looking almost certain: This virus is never going away.

The coronavirus is simply too widespread and too transmissible. The most likely scenario, experts say, is that the pandemic ends at some point—because enough people have been either infected or vaccinated—but the virus continues to circulate in lower levels around the globe. Cases will wax and wane over time. Outbreaks will pop up here and there. Even when a much-anticipated vaccine arrives, it is likely to only suppress but never completely eradicate the virus. (For context, consider that vaccines exist for more than a dozen human viruses but only one, smallpox, has ever been eradicated from the planet, and that took 15 years of immense global coordination.) We will probably be living with this virus for the rest of our lives.

And here’s Megan Scudellari in Nature on “How the pandemic might play out in 2021 and beyond”:

June 2021. The world has been in pandemic mode for a year and a half. The virus continues to spread at a slow burn; intermittent lockdowns are the new normal. An approved vaccine offers six months of protection, but international deal-making has slowed its distribution. An estimated 250 million people have been infected worldwide, and 1.75 million are dead.

Scenarios such as this one imagine how the COVID-19 pandemic might play out1. Around the world, epidemiologists are constructing short- and long-term projections as a way to prepare for, and potentially mitigate, the spread and impact of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Although their forecasts and timelines vary, modellers agree on two things: COVID-19 is here to stay, and the future depends on a lot of unknowns, including whether people develop lasting immunity to the virus, whether seasonality affects its spread, and — perhaps most importantly — the choices made by governments and individuals.

In other words: this virus is here for the long haul. We may as well get used to it.


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Monday 3 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Ireland is not a romantic dream; it is not a flag; it is 4.5 million people divided into two powerful traditions. The solution will be found not on the basis of victory for either, but on the basis of agreement and a partnership between both. The real division of Ireland is not a line drawn on the map, but in the minds and hearts of its people.”

  • John Hume, RIP

Today’s musical alternative to the morning news

John Field – Nocturne No. 5 in B flat major, played by Stephen Leaney

Link


Why there won’t be an ‘election night’ on November 3rd

Worrying (and not implausible) scenario in “How the Media Could Get the Election Story Wrong”

We may not know the results for days, and maybe weeks. And a lot could go wrong in the interval. So it’s time to rethink “election night”.

This might be alarmist, but it isn’t fantasy. Even the Facebook boss has woken up to it.

Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, told me in a brief interview on Saturday that he’s planning to brace his audience for the postelection period. He said the site planned a round of education aimed at “getting people ready for the fact that there’s a high likelihood that it takes days or weeks to count this — and there’s nothing wrong or illegitimate about that.” And he said that Facebook is considering new rules regarding premature claims of victory or other statements about the results. He added that the company’s election center will rely on wire services for definitive results.

It’s possible, of course, that Joe Biden will win by a margin so large that Florida will be called for him early. Barring that, it’s tempting to say responsible voices should keep their mouths shut and switch over for a few days to Floor Is Lava, and give the nice local volunteers time to count the votes. That, however, would just cede the conversation to the least responsible, and conspiratorial, voices.

Yep. This won’t be over until January 20 2021, when Trump is finally ejected from the White House.

Interestingly, a group of former top government officials called the Transition Integrity Project have been gaming four possible scenarios, including one that doesn’t look that different from 2016: a big popular win for Mr. Biden, and a narrow electoral defeat, presumably reached after weeks of counting the votes in Pennsylvania.

For their war game, they cast John Podesta, who was Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, in the role of Mr. Biden. They expected him, when the votes came in, to concede, just as Mrs. Clinton had.

But Mr. Podesta, playing Mr. Biden, shocked the organizers by saying he felt his party wouldn’t let him concede. Alleging voter suppression, he persuaded the governors of Wisconsin and Michigan to send pro-Biden electors to the Electoral College.

In that scenario, California, Oregon, and Washington then threatened to secede from the United States if Mr. Trump took office as planned. The House named Mr. Biden president; the Senate and White House stuck with Mr. Trump. At that point in the scenario, the nation stopped looking to the media for cues, and waited to see what the military would do.

Which brings us — yet again — to Ben Franklin’s reply to the woman who asked him — as he emerged from the final deliberations of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 — “well, doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” “A republic”, said Franklin, “if you can keep it.”

We’ll see if they can.


Remembering John Hume

He was the greatest Irishman of our times. Tommie Gorman, RTE’s Northern Editor, knew Hume well and has written a lovely tribute to him.

Strasbourg was also the city where I saw him in his most sociable mode. He had a favourite restaurant, Maison Des Tanneurs, a family-run business at 42, Rue du Bain aux Plante. Religiously Hume would invite the quota of visiting journalists from Dublin, the Brussels-based Irish crew and any other waifs and stragglers to a meal.

He’d tell his party-piece joke about Mickey Doherty from Derry, he would insist on his visitors having Dame Blanche for desert, he would order more bottles of gewürztraminer and he would pay the bill. Before the fun broke up in the small hours, he would insist on singing ‘The Town I Love So Well’ in the nearby bar, The Aviator.

Hume had a real, steely courage to back his profound conviction that violence would never solve the Northern Ireland problem. And alongside that steel was an equally profound generosity of spirit. He gave the money from his Nobel Prize to charity.

Two inspired moves gave his cause momentum. One was to connect with the most powerful politicians of Irish extraction in the US — Senator Ted Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York State, and New York governor Hugh Carey. This enabled him to tap into the vast power of the Irish diaspora in the US, to erode the IRA’s fundraising grip on Irish-American sympathies and to challenge British influence in official Washington.

The second inspiration was to stand for the European Parliament where he was able to attract and harness the support of powerful European opponents of political violence — particularly Jacques Delors and Helmut Kohl.

Hume suffered from dementia at the end. But, as Gorman recalls, his memories

often came back when our paths crossed after his retirement in 2004. At close up range his eyes would clock some form of familiarity. “What’s your name” he would say. I’d tell him who I was and give an account of some of our past adventures. Sometimes the anecdotes would register and he’d break into a smile.

May he rest in peace.


Why it’s difficult to assess how badly the UK is doing

Good Guardian piece by David Spiegelhalter:

It is worth noting that the problems of counting Covid-19 deaths are vividly illustrated every day, when the Public Health England dashboard releases a count for the UK; for example, 119 and 83 additional coronavirus deaths were reported last Tuesday and Wednesday. NHS England is currently experiencing fewer than 15 Covid-19 deaths a day in hospitals, but the implausibly high PHE figures for England apparently also include any of the 250,000-plus people who have ever tested positive and have gone on to die of any cause, even if completely unrelated to coronavirus.

The Department of Health and Social Care has suspended these daily figures, but they are still going on all the international sites, and presumably are being used by others to judge how things are developing in the UK. They may be giving an inappropriately negative picture, as the ONS recently reported that the total number of deaths in the UK has shown no overall excess for the past five weeks.

But when we look at where the deaths are happening it is clear that we are not back to normal: people are still staying away from hospitals and dying at home. In England and Wales there were 766 excess deaths that occurred at home in the week ending 17 July, only 29 of which were with coronavirus, whereas in hospitals 862 fewer deaths than normal were registered. So more than 100 deaths a day were happening in people’s homes that would normally happen in hospital – although this is at least a reduction from the peak of the epidemic, when there were 2,000 additional home deaths a week.

This is his takeaway:

My original comments still hold: we will need years to properly assess the effect of the epidemic and the measures taken against it. We’ve now got a league table, but as to why the UK has done so badly, the arguments will go on.


The nostalgia boom

Interesting survey. The UK’s favourite decade was the 1960s, apparently. 21% of “top-tier earners” (whoever they are) are “willing to spend more money opt vintage record players than the latest tech”. Men are twice as likely as women to see nostalgia as “an avoidance of the present”.

Personally, I long for the days when the marmalade was thicker and newspapers were so big that you couldn’t read them comfortably in trains.

Basically, what this demonstrates is why features editors love surveys when there’s no real news to report.


Compared with a chronological newsfeed, Twitter’s algorithm tends to show tweets that are more emotive

Fascinating piece of research by the Economist.

Source: Economist

The researchers wanted to find out if algorithmically-curated tweets are more emotive than chronologically-displayed ones. Answer: they are. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone — after all, the algorithm prioritises content that increases ‘user engagement’ — which is where the revenues come from. But it’s nice to see some evidence for it.


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Monday 27 July, 2020

Windows into the past

My wife is currently going through her family archive, and keeps coming up with astonishing photographs. This is a shot of a Mothers’ Union sewing (or perhaps embroidery) group in a Yorkshire village in the early years of the 20th century. (Her great-grandmother was a member.)

Everyone is wearing a hat — which suddenly reminds me that my grandmother never left the house without one. But then her husband never went out without his Homburg either.

En passant: this fabulous hoard of family photographs reminds one that most people living today will leave nothing like this because their digital photographs will be on computer disks or hosted on online servers. Which means that when they die, most of those accounts will be closed or inaccessible to relatives, and the images will therefore be lost to posterity. Which is why, when people ask me about digital preservation, I tell them to print anything they wish to preserve and store them in shoeboxes in their attics. That’s the only way their grandchildren and great-grandchildren will ever be able to see them.


Today’s musical alternative to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme

Alessandro Marcello’s Concerto in D minor, arranged for two guitars

Ten minutes of peaceful bliss.


Our remote work future is going to suck

Or: Why are we always assuming a distributed workforce is a good thing for the worker?

A very thoughtful essay by Sean Blanda in the be careful what you wish for genre.

It’s quite a long read, but worth it.

My TL;DR summary is:

Remote work “democratises talent” for everyone. Even you.

The work you’re doing from your home in a nice rural village can also be done much more cheaply by someone in the Phillippines.

Remote enables you to be forgotten

You do gain a bit of freedom from your boss (which doubles as a loss of a mentor, but we’ll get to that). You also gain “freedom” from your colleagues and collaborators. Which means you’re effectively on your own.

This is empowering to some, but the isolation can mean your contributions are easily overlooked or misunderstood. As a result, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend at (especially larger) remote companies: Some managers often have no clue what their direct reports are doing and how they are doing it.

Remote work breaks large companies

Remote work evangelists often portray it as liberation from the “interruption culture” at a traditional office. But, says Blanda,

First, clearly people that believe remote work creates an interruption-free zone have never used Slack or email. Second, those interruptions often exist for a reason: They often communicate information that ensures everyone is working on the right thing.

Remote work can stifle your career growth

When you work remotely, mentorship is stifled because there is no learning via osmosis. You can’t model your behavior on your successful teammates because you only see them on Zoom and in Slack. Whatever process they are using to achieve their results is opaque to you.

Evangelists for remote working have revealing blind spots

For example, they assume that:

  • Remote workers prefer to tightly wrap their identity in their work.

  • Everyone has a dedicated working space.

  • Parents have reliable child care outside of the home.

Real-world experience of remote working during the pandemic suggests that often none of these is the case.

The key takeaway (for me, anwway) from this great piece:

We derive more from our careers than simply a paycheck. We find meaning, community, and connection to others. We gain a needed context for seeing the world. We cannot completely decouple the working experience from being in the physical presence of others without causing a slow-simmering existential crisis in its participants.

That’s right IMO: and it means that anything other than a blended future (some remote plus some face-to-face working) is the only way of avoiding another neoliberal nightmare.


So who’s doing well in the pandemic?

This chart tells it all.


Last Responders: couriers of the dead

Memorable reporting by the Texas Tribune.

Juan Lopez is in the ambulance bay of a McAllen hospital, zipping a gauzy blue jumpsuit over a Polo button-down and work slacks. Two well-worn stretchers are in the back of his Cadillac Escalade, a pack of Marlboros near the gear shift.

It’s Saturday morning in South Texas, and the corpse of a 60-something-year-old needs to get to a funeral home — specifically, a refrigerated truck behind a funeral home that’s run out of storage space. The deceased coronavirus patient goes in the back of the Escalade, and Lopez heads to retrieve a body from another hospital’s morgue.

These are the first jobs of the day — and far from the last. Lopez will pick up 16 bodies Saturday, wake up at 2 a.m. Sunday and transport 22 more, including a husband and wife both infected with the virus.

Lopez, 45, is a courier of the dead, contracting with funeral homes and the county to pick up and deliver bodies. In normal times, he handled around 10 jobs a week. But this isn’t a normal time.

Wonderful reporting.


Frequent, Fast, and Cheap is Better than Sensitive

From Alex Tabarrok on Marginal Revolution:

A number of firms have developed cheap, paper-strip tests for coronavirus that report results at-home in about 15 minutes but they have yet to be approved for use by the FDA because the FDA appears to be demanding that all tests reach accuracy levels similar to the PCR test. This is another deadly FDA mistake.

The PCR tests can discover virus at significantly lower concentration levels than the cheap tests but that extra sensitivity doesn’t matter much in practice. Why not? First, at the lowest levels that the PCR test can detect, the person tested probably isn’t infectious. The cheap test is better at telling whether you are infectious than whether you are infected but the former is what we need to know to open schools and workplaces. Second, the virus grows so quickly that the time period in which the PCR tests outperforms the cheap test is as little as a day or two. Third, the PCR tests are taking days or even a week or more to report which means the results are significantly outdated and less actionable by the time they are reported.

The fundamental issue is this: if a test is cheap and fast we shouldn’t compare it head to head against the PCR test. Instead, we should compare test regimes. A strip test could cost $5 which means you can do one per day for the same price as a PCR test (say $35). Thus, the right comparison is seven cheap tests with one PCR test.

Spot on. This is the same as with the ridiculous reluctance to use face-masks: the best (peer-reviewed) being the enemy of the good. Cheap, rapid strip-tests could be really useful at this stage of the pandemic. Not perfect. But useful. So why don’t we have them — now?


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